This year, something seismic occurred in musicians’ collective imagination. What exactly I’m not sure. Perhaps it was related to the oncoming new dark ages. Or to a miserable political landscape where sheepish Americans gladly allow their bodies to be invaded by airport security. Or to the hopeless grind of a still-bad economy. Indeed, there was palpable desperation in much of 2010’s best music, as well as a re-commitment to basic joy, an emotion no longer treated superficially by the wretched trends of disco, techno and everything else. This year, exceptional music was released at such a furious rate that I—a 15-year music critic veteran—am in awe of what I heard.
Crystal Castles Crystal Castles II (Fiction)
Yes, I realize that the album version of “Not in Love” lacks The Cure’s Robert Smith. Still, this sophomore effort maps a truly frightening landscape of spiritual despair. Plasticine vocalist Alice Glass reaches new levels of sonic mutilation (“I Am Made of Chalk”) and dance-punk transcendence (“Celestica”). Majestically skewed, and always compelling.
Dylan LeBlanc Paupers Field (Rough Trade)
Lots of incredible releases in the genre this year (the Secret Sisters, especially), but 20-year-old LeBlanc earns this nod with a set of original tunes that Ryan Adams would’ve killed to have penned. From the melancholy cowboy gallop of “Low” to the stark, fingerpicked ballad of “Emma Hartley,” this is country for lonesome nighthawks.
Erykah Badu New Amerykah Part 2: Return of the Ankh (Universal Motown)
Forget the “controversial” and revealing “Window Seat” video; this album’s a pure pleasure spin, with a kicking cameo from Lil Wayne (“Jump Up in the Air (Stay There)”) and awesome, organic samples (like in “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long,” which cribs from Paul McCartney’s “Arrow Through Me”). Badu is every bit as powerful as Marvin Gaye in terms of performance and songwriting.
The Walkmen Lisbon (Fat Possum)
I used to be a hater, but this, easily the band’s best release to date, is a masterpiece. In “Angela Surf City,” Paul Maroon’s guitars ring out like steel drums on the white sands of St. Martin, while singer Hamilton Leithauser croons like a lounge performer trapped onstage as someone ominously waits behind red-velvet curtains. Lovely and visceral.
Agalloch Marrow of the Spirit (Profound Lore)
Black metal so appealing in its cold aggression and avant intent even NPR had to submit to its unusual charms with a glowing review. Not to say this is metal for people who don’t like metal, but the whispering brook and cellos that comprise “They Escaped the Weight of Darkness” are as much for fans of classical composer Bartók as for any headbanger.
Grinderman Grinderman II (Anti)
Hilarious, ferocious and having a helluva lot more fun than on any of his Bad Seeds discs, Nick Cave comes alive with an improved sequel to the idea of letting the id roam free. If the lyrics of “Worm Tamer” don’t crack you up (“Well, my baby calls me the Loch Ness Monster/Two great humps then I’m gone”), the guitar riff will draw blood from your eardrums.
A Crowd of Small Adventures A Decade in X-Rays (National SouthWestern Electronic Recordings)
My top Vegas bands remain Minor Suns and Imagine Dragons, but this release is what iTunes insists I play the most, and for good reason. The huge, literate sound Crowd conjures for its post-apocalyptic rocker “Bang Bang” always stops me in my tracks, which is awkward when doing laundry. But that’s what great music does—makes you forget everyday bullshit. I’m grateful.