My personal favorite moment of 2010 music-related esoterica was while watching the Olivier Assayas movie 'Carlos,' when "Sonic Reducer" by the Dead Boys blared over Red Army terrorist Gabriele Kröcher-Tiedemann's (aka Nadia) car radio as she tried to outrun the Swiss border police. Anyway, here are my ten favorite albums of 2010, with apologies to worthy candidates like Gorillaz, Sleigh Bells, Liars, Neil Young, etc. I also still haven't heard 'Apollo Kids' amongst thousands of others so this list is as always subject to post-publication grafting.
1. Gil Scott-Heron, I'm New Here
A decade in and out of Rikers on cocaine charges has evidently failed to hinder the great poet's capacity for adventurous, cutting lyrical commentary, even as I'm New Here seems immediately and evidently a less political, more personal beast than many of his 70s funk classics. Everybody these days seems to be combining blues, jazz, rap and electronica, but Gil jumbles these elements as a means of evoking a specific locale--New York--exploring what the city used to be, what it is now, and what it could be, in dreams. As a recent NYC transplant, I find it sings with the expectations of an exhilarating, enlightened materialist take on urbanity. I'm New Here is brave in its sequencing: it ranges from acoustic Smog covers to tracks of brief recited verse to torch songs, all of which add up to a virtuoso deconstruction of popular American music, hip-hop, and basically everything else on the remainder of this list.
2. Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III)
I've spent a lot of 2010 belaboring the point that The Archandroid is meant to contain the second two suites out of a total of four, so I don't know if it's exactly fair now to bestow such accolades on an ostensibly uncompleted work. But everyone must know by now how good The ArchAndroid is, and the level of energy and creativity that goes into potent genre-crosses like "Cold War," "Locked Inside," "Wondaland," and 15 others would be staggering enough even if Ms. Monáe wasn't already perhaps the greatest live performer in the world.
3. Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty
Confession: Were it not for the lugubrious Jamie Foxx-assisted slow jamz business "Hustle Blood," this would be #1 on my list. Having scrutinized every errant Big Boi mp3 for years as Jive and Def Jam battled for this album's soul, it's wondrous to discover how deep and how virulent a strain of ear-crack this still is, no matter how old some of the tracks are. Song-for-song and verse-for-verse, Antwan Patton has improved his delivery and increased the breadth of his subject matter, and he demonstrates heretofore unnoticed insane skills as a producer. Andre 3000 may be our Prince, but Big Boi is our George Clinton, with the longevity and next-level rhyming skills (peep "The Train Pt. II") to match.
4. Caribou, Swim
Dan Snaith, aka the best Math PhD in the biz, has never done anything as awash in different forms of tension (something that dramatically sets him apart from his dance-y peers) as Swim. A track like "Leave House" starts off in DFA Land but veers into something scarier, more minimal; a track like "Kaili" messes with the parameters of balladry and atmosphere in a way that seems...well, mathematical. And, as my colleague intimated, "Odessa" has the opening firepower of a "Born Under Punches," which is to say this is a finely-tuned audio experiment, every note and motif carefully applied, that also happens to be enjoyable to listen to.
5. Nü Sensae, TV, Death and the Devil
Vancouver is one of many hubs in Canada for some of the best hardcore punk being produced in the world today, but what separates Nü Sensae from heavyweights like Fucked Up is that they bring a simplicity that outstretches even the earliest conceptions of the form--no epic guitar overdubs here, just distorted bass and drums and some searing lady vocals on top. Almost every track on TVDATD provides a different kind of amphetamine rush despite/because of this simplicity. This album isn't diverse, it's obverse--every idea the band has, they throw it in your face.
6. Freddie Gibbs, Str8 Killa EP
Gibbs, as far as I know, is the first rapper of note to come out of Gary, Indiana (apparently the Hoosier State has traditionally been short on lyrical talent), and the perspective he lends, coming out of a city with the highest percentage of African-Americans in the country (to say nothing of a significant pop dynasty), is unique--but that alone doesn't sum up why the 35-minute Str8 Killa sounded so much better than most longer players (in both senses). Gangsta Gibbs has the flow and deep register of a young Tupac, and songs like "Str8 Killa No Filla" and "National Anthem (Fuck the World)" are direct and high-energy examples of no-bullshit hardcore hip-hop. At EP length, this is a chaff-less debut from a unique, perhaps needed new voice.
7. Grinderman, Grinderman 2
Grinderman and Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, respectively my favorite albums of 2007 and 2008, still hold up better as collections of discrete middle-aged ramblings, but neither hit as hard as Grinderman 2, which takes the Nick Cave persona down unpaved paths of absurdity and self-flagellation as the band truly masters the idea of fuzz-as-feeling ("Worm Tamer") and makes occasional lapses into California stoner rock (see: the last half of "When My Baby Comes").
8. Marnie Stern, Marnie Stern
Up to now, one could enjoy Marnie Stern's music without really understanding what she was trying to do. Is this experimental mathcore, just intense rock tunes with insane drumming, or what? Her new self-titled release helps simplify what we should have known all along: Marnie Stern makes guitar records, and Marnie Stern is a great guitar record, and (on an unrelated note) Marnie Stern is the best guitar player in America. Quote me on that if you want, or just listen to the first twenty seconds of "Nothing Left," and see if it doesn't give you goosebumps like the end of "Cinnamon Girl."
9. OFF!, The First Four EPs
I found it hard to listen to The First Four EPs at once without unconsciously comparing the furious hardcore within to Black Flag's collection The First Four Years, which featured all of the early material recorded when Keith Morris was the singer. Now Morris, who formed OFF! with former members of Redd Kross and Rocket From The Crypt, is doing basically the same thing he did with Black Flag and Circle Jerks, and yet OFF! never sounds like a throwback. But that's the beauty of early 80s hardcore, in a way--elements can be appropriated and diluted by all the pop punks in the world, but the original core sound is always conjurable, and always compelling.
10. Cee-Lo Green, The Lady Killer
If the tunes weren't this good, I would complain that Cee-Lo needs to rap more. And he does, but The Lady Killer proves his cartoon soul croon to be just as mighty and flexible an instrument. "Fuck You" was deservedly a big hit, impassioned and thoughtful enough to bypass some (but not all) of the music industry's censorious forces, but the other soul homages, stretching from the North Philly sex-beat of "Fool For You" to the aggressively hooky Motown "It's Okay," are just as criminally relistenable, one after the other. Even the Band of Horses cover at the end has the air of a slow jam classic, and I still listen to it all the time.