1. Junip, Fields (Mute)
In a year that demanded serious chilling-out, Jose Gonzales made a gorgeous chill-out record, all gentle melodies and hypnotizing grooves. Yet — as with most things — below the pretty surfaces were cracks, doubt, turmoil.
2. Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid (Atlantic)
Everyone was trying to out-freak each other in 2010, from rappers to singer-songwriters — even Sufjan Stevens put on a tin foil helmet for a school play version of P-Funk’s ’76 Mothership tour. But this mix of R&B, Afrobeat, Afro-futurism, and post-war retro songcraft felt like the most purposeful weirdness around: mutability as style and survival tactic.
3. Jonsi, Go (XL)
Sigur Rós dude gets together with composer Nico Muhly and a laptop to make 21st-century art songs. Not quite dance music, but better beats than Schubert.
4. Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song (Mercury/Nashville)
A two-disc dissertation on the art of country music songwriting.
5. Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me (Drag City)
Sure, the best triple-LP since Sandinista! also had some filler, if you measured it out with a teaspoon. But the pleasure is in the bounty and the invention in the songwriting, arranging, lyrics and harp-playing (harp-playing!) never flags.
6. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (Merge)
Hardly the first band to locate a battle for the human soul amidst manicured lawns, but all the more remarkable for making the struggle to overcome numbness feel utterly immediate, like the sting of a cutter’s pen-knife.
7. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Def Jam)
What will the king of TMI rhyme about when he resolves his women issues? Here’s hoping he still flips tracks this hot when he does.
8. Various, Ayobaness! The Sound of South African House (Out Here)
Like electro-funk’s rooting in Brazilian favelas, Chicago house seeded an entire scene in South Africa. Deep 4/4 beats with Zulu party chants, Setswana come-ons, English dress-downs and universal heartache.
9. Deerhunter, Halcyon Dreams (4AD)
Of all the indie acts mining pre-rock pop songcraft (see also Girls, Best Coast), Deerhunter did the most with it, smearing tunes into psychedelic lo-fi murals without losing those sweet melodies.
10. Sleigh Bells, Treats (Mom & Pop)
Turns out what we really needed this year was a punk-rock Beyoncé.
1. Cee Lo, “Fuck You”
A romantic comedy produced by LA pop mechanics The Smeezingtons (Flo Rida, B.O.B.) starring Cee Lo Green as a jilted, broke-ass soul man telling off both his ex and her new dude with a time-honored refrain. The groove is Gnarls Barkley cyber-Motown, the wordplay befitting a veteran MC. “Oh shit, she’s a goldigga!” croon the back-up singers, a potty-mouthed Greek chorus, “Just thought you should know, nigga!” And just when it can’t get funnier, Cee Lo throws a bawling tantrum on the bridge like a six-year-old Prince. Money woes + sexual frustration = rock & roll for this exact moment.
2. Kanye West, “Power”
“I’m livin’ in the 21st century.” Yes he is, so are we, and this is what hip-hop’s state-of-the-art sounds like: massive and thrillingly delusional. Plus, guitarist Robert Fripp’s best pop-song cameo since that solo on Blondie’s live U.K. 12″ b-side cover of Bowie’s “Heroes” back in 1980 — even if he only gets a nano-second.
3. Joanna Newsom, “Good Intentions Paving Company”
A perfect Seventies Laurel Canyon-style singer-songwriter piano ballad manqué, except that it’s seven minutes long and gets capped with a trombone solo. Yet the narrative never slacks, starting as a highway meditation on an awesome and troubled country — “Waving the flag/Feelin’ it drag” — and ending up as a lover’s pledge of allegiance. Maybe she should lay down the harp more often.
4. James Blake, “I Only Know (What I Know Now)”
The most addictively abstract piece of music I heard all year, a slowly unspooling digital haze of piano notes, plush beats, pitched-up vocal fragments, static and — most radically — silence, which here telegraphs emotion like your beloved biting their tongue in the middle of a midnight heart-to-heart. Recommended to fans of U.K. dubstep recluse Burial, John Cage and hypotheses on music from other galaxies.
5. Robyn, “Hang With Me” (single version)
It’s a golden age for disco divas. And if Robyn seems to have a couple kilowatts less shine than Gaga or Ke$ha, she’s got better songs. But of course, she’s been at this game for 15 years. Madonna, your move.
6. Janelle Monáe, “Tightrope”
That bass line. Those jazzy horn charts. And Big Boi rhyming “NASDAQ” with “ass-crack.” Like she says: You either follow or you lead.
7. Seu Jorge and Almaz, “Everybody Loves The Sunshine”
The shoulda-been summer jam of 2010 was a cover of a 1976 kinda-was summer jam by Roy Ayers Ubiquity. But with all due respect, the Brazilian dude with the Barry White baritone sings it better.
8. Antony & The Johnsons (feat. Bjork), “Flétta”
Two of the most awesomely strange voices in pop, singing a duet about… Who the hell knows? Is this even a language? It’s gorgeous either way, and Bjork’s trill at around 03:37 is one of the year’s greatest instrumental flourishes.
9. Arcade Fire, “Ready To Start”
“All the kids have always known, that the emperor wears no clothes,” croons Win Butler. So what do you do? Man up (ladies included) and accept that making a winning move, or a smart vote, doesn’t mean you can then sit on your ass.
10. Erykah Badu, “Window Seat”
Over a Seventies keyboard sparkle and a slinky-deep ?uestlove drum groove, the godmother of neo-soul confesses that she needs to be needed. And then she needs her space, okay? What’s so hard to understand about that?