The Top 20 Albums of 2014

2014 was a year. A year in which there were records. A year in which some of those records were downright pleasant. A year in which 20 of those downright pleasant records made me particularly happy in my ears and brain:

Dead Congregation 20. Dead Congregation – Promulgation of the Fall

When I discovered metal, I was 12, and would share a Walkman with my similarly inclined Catholic school pal. We couldn’t get enough of Cannibal Corpse’s debut album Eaten Back To Life, specifically one moment when the cacophony abruptly ceased, and singer Chris Barnes intoned in his throaty roar, “Fuuuccccckkkk yooouuuuuuu!!!!!” It made us laugh, but it was also a form of nourishment, a blast of roughly hewn vulgarity to remind us that the world was a ridiculous place, and that if we were born with original sin, well then so be it. Promulgation Of The Fall brings me back to that feeling. Because this underground Greek ensemble is uncompromisingly brutal in a subsuming, freeing way. The riffs are simple and undeniable, layered and deepened to appropriately pulverizing levels. Solos are short and never showy. And singer Anastasis Valtsanis belts his demonic screeds in a steady, guttural growl, on songs that embrace chaos with open arms, jettisoning millennia of human guilt in the process. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus,6/9/14)

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19. Kylie Minogue – Kiss Me Once

Kiss Me Once, Kylie Minogue’s 12th album, continues an impressive streak of ruthlessly addictive dance music that dates at least as far back as 2001’s aptly titled career rejuvenator, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” Smartly, Minogue and her deep bench of producers and songwriters stick with the winning formula of caffeinated synth-pop and disco, with a touch of dubstep tossed in for the kids. When it works best, it results in the kinds of choruses that make platitudes sound like rallying cries. The killer, clavinet-laden groove of “Sexy Love” does something to the human brain that makes us forget we’re listening to a song called “Sexy Love,” with a chorus that goes “Gimme that sexy love.” Kind of like how John Lennon’s harmonica tricked us into thinking “Love me do” was a sentence. (excerpt from my review in Slant Magazine, 3/16/14)

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18. Coldplay – Ghost Stories

There are times when a truly great movie is precisely what you do not want to see. You want to watch Reversal of Fortune instead, because it’s Sunday and you’re hung over and there’s something gently entrancing about Ron Silver’s hyperactive yin meshing with Jeremy Irons’ laconic sleazeball yang. Coldplay’s sixth LP was this year’s Reversal of Fortune of rock albums, a well-crafted, well-executed drama that wields clichés like hot water bottles – after a long day grappling with intense, ambitious works of art, Chris Martin is here to soothe those aching joints by singing “I love you so / So much that it hurts.” Ghost Stories is possibly the calmest, unfussiest breakup album ever; it’s far more concerned with sounding beautiful than sounding hurt. By weaving elements of James Blake’s bedroom dubstep into the band’s usual earnest-verse/bear-hug-chorus formula, these nine songs possess a touch of winter that does wonders to Martin’s lyric sheet, which would seem pretty hoary on its own. He sounds like a man who is capable of poetry, but has been made indifferent to it by loss. So he makes simple observations about birds and stars and the ocean, leaving the deeper metaphors to those who feel strong enough to plunder them.

Archibald-Slim-Hes-Drunk17. Archibald Slim – He’s Drunk!

On his debut mixtape, Archibald Slim weeds America’s uneven playing fields until all that’s left are the ugly truths in the soil, proving himself as the most accomplished artist of Atlanta’s ever-expanding Awful Records crew. Producer KeithCharles Spacebar gives the tracks a midnight jazz solemnity that would bend the ear of a young Nas, squashing any expectations that the title of this tape is an entrée to wackiness. In this context, “he’s drunk” is a quote, attributed to anyone who responds to the marginalization and oppression of an entire people by blaming the victims. People who would scoff with a hitch in their voices when they hear “Stay Black and Die,” a song delivered by Slim with something more harrowing than mere fury in his voice: “They tell me, ‘No don’t do it, go and get a job’ / They don’t understand that a fella play the game with different odds / So I know task one is stack dough for your bail / Cause you won’t pass go / Just go straight to jail.” (excerpt from my review in Paste Magazine, 11/25/14)

cibo_matto_hotel_valentine_1391874927_crop_480x48016. Cibo Matto – Hotel Valentine

“I wonder how many people know their life is like this / Staying at the hotel, renting times, renting a body,” muses Miho Hatori on Cibo Matto’s first effort in 15 years. The sentiment works to chilling effect as the preview to the one-two punch that closes this satisfyingly strange meta-comeback album – the ominous storm of “Housekeeping” and the fragile rise to the heavens that is “Check Out.” I leap toward the close of this brief record because it’s so compellingly open-ended. Hatori and Yuka C. Honda have great fun setting the stage – the catchiest track, “Déjà vu,” combines their trademark rubbery bass lines with a triumphant stroll of a chorus. But it’s those last two songs that make this more than a ’90s nostalgia trip. We’re lured in by the lulling groove of “Housekeeping,” the playful vocalizing of guest Reggie Watts keeping the disquiet at bay for a little bit. But then that maid keeps saying she’s going to “set us free.” And then, before we know it, we’re floating. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 2/14/14)

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15. Jungle – Jungle

By writing simple, irresistible pentatonic melodies, singing them almost exclusively in falsetto, and pairing them with the kind of moody, heavily synthesized soul grooves that suggest an unhealthy obsession with Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love album, this camera-shy British duo has created something unpretentious enough to energize a dance floor at 2 a.m., yet curious enough to suggest there’s something just a tad thornier under the surface. Jungle is at its best when its clear goal is to get heads bobbing, like when it argues for the cathartic benefits of endless partying on “Time” – “Don’t let it in / Just let it out / Time and time again.” Or when it leverages the swagger of hardcore capitalists on “Busy Earnin’,” explaining how we “can’t get enough” over hooks so insidious that they’d make any bleeding heart understand. It’s no coincidence that both of these songs possess lively bass lines. The duo is stingy with the low end on much of Jungle, preferring to keep its heads and equalizers in the clouds. (excerpt from my review in PopMatters, 7/15/14)

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14. Ty Segall – Manipulator

Ty Segall must be haunted by riffs. How else can you explain the absurdly prolific number of sickening garage rock hooks he’s already churned out (five LPs’ worth since 2012)? They must come to him in dreams, demanding to be released. Last year’s autumnal folk album Sleeper was still mighty catchy, but it also sounded like the kind of palate cleanser that could precede a more significant tonal shift. It wasn’t. Manipulator is an embarrassment of classically Segall-ian riches, 15 tracks that boogie you ragged like a forgotten disc from the Nuggets box set. That his Kinks and Stooges jones hasn’t gotten old is a testament to the songwriting – “Ask your bossman for a raise / Tell your mama she better keep her change” nails that classic rock sweet spot between nonsense and bad-assery – and Segall’s evolving gifts as a singer. The hushed instrumentation of Sleeper pays dividends here, with the artist paying close attention to his vocal melodies and intonations even though they’re back in the fuzzbox fray.

Rich Gang

13. Rich Gang – Tha Tour: Part I

Even though he’s only 22, Young Thug’s major label misadventures are already legion. But if there was any doubt that he couldn’t mold his inimitable quirks into universal entertainment, Tha Tour: Part I laid them to rest. Rich Gang consists of Thug, fellow Atlanta mixtape veteran Rich Homie Quan and Dirty South Svengali/Cash Money Records founder Birdman. The latter lays down the recipe for the tape’s luxurious syrup with a spoken word intro about the group’s affinity for “gold turlets,” his pronunciation crucial to his swagger—this is provincial materialism, thousands of miles away from Magna Carta Holy Grail. Thug and Quan sing as much as they spit, over the lush, organ-fueled R&B soundscapes of producers like London On The Track. It’s the lava cake after Black Portland’s backyard barbecue, a satiated dream state triggered by the kind of artistic chemistry you can’t fake. (excerpt from my review in Paste Magazine, 11/25/14)

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12. The Roots – And Then You Shoot Your Cousin

When The Roots became the house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in 2009, it was such a good thing – for black artists; for hip hop; for television in general. But for Roots fans, it was also a little scary. A year earlier, the band had inflamed our brains with Rising Downa raw, sickening ride on the American merry-go-ground of poverty and violence. Now that they were the next Doc Severinsen, would albums like this be a thing of the past? With And Then You Shoot Your Cousin – the third high-quality Roots album of the Fallon era – those fears have been put to bed. Like 2011’s Undun before it, Cousin is supposedly a concept album, but it’s best if you ignore the “story” and let the poverty-stricken poetry and mournfully gorgeous production wash over you. “Never” is an epic achievement, complete with a scratchy choral introduction, pizzicato-sprinkled breakdown, echoing canyon of an opening verse, and that exhilarating moment when all the elements come together. Keyboardist Kamal Gray remains the perpetual unsung hero, grabbing all the best hooks – the solemn backbone of “When the People Cheer”; the dusty saloon groove of “Black Rock”; the triumphant, cathartic chords at the heart of “Tomorrow.” “Some say that happiness will never find you / Until you find yourself,” sings guest Raheem DeVaughn on the latter. As a band that’s as self-aware as any, yet keeps piling on the challenges, The Roots must be happy as hell.

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11. Lykke Li – I Never Learn

Is it better to have loved and been shot in the head, or to have never loved at all? This is the grim scenario we’re confronted with on “Gunshot,” one of several over-the-top relationship eulogies that haunt Lykke Li’s third album. Those who had their hearts set on another batch of coy, cloudy electro-pop from the Swedish singer/songwriter might consider the song a bummer, but for the rest of us, it and the other eight tracks that comprise I Never Learn make for a stirring, pristinely rendered expression of heartache. The artist isn’t interested in poetry here. She fills her songs with theatrical 1980s adult contemporary visions – rainy days on lonely roads; hearts that shatter and crack; other hearts that are made of steel; the one that got away. Every lyric lands, however, because they’re not the result of laziness – their author is just too wracked with guilt to bullshit us. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 5/12/14)

Mastodon_-_once_more_'round_the_sun10. Mastodon – Once More ‘Round The Sun 

It’s probably unfair to compare Mastodon to Metallica. They’re from different eras, command different-sized spotlights, and play by different music industry rules. But humor me. Mastodon has been challenging its die-hard fans with a less-thrashy, more-accessible approach, at the same point in its career that Metallica did – on its fifth and sixth records. The good news is, they’re doing it in a different way. Once More ‘Round the Sun is the catchiest, most sludge-free metal LP in its catalog, but what it forsakes in lyrical weirdness (no Cysquatch this time around, folks) it makes up for with a clutch of instant-classic riffs, some of the most powerful singing in the genre, and yet another amazing album cover. Its counterpart in Metallica’s catalog is 1996’s Load, that glossy, “bluesy” turd of betrayal that played to all of the band’s weaknesses (e.g. lyrics that aren’t about war/injustice, singing that does not involve growling). Some cries of dismay have cropped up here and there, but Mastodon has avoided Metallica’s fate by embracing cleaner, richly layered prog instead of melodramatic classic rock. And by being talented enough to help us forget about subgenres while we sing along at full tilt. The thrash is gone, but by no means is the thrill.

nikkinack9. Tune-Yards – Nikki Nack

After 2011’s w h o k i l l topped the Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll, Merrill Garbus found herself touring arenas with Arcade Fire while trying to maintain her brash, avant-garde sensibilities. Nikki Nack is the result of these warring priorities, with the Oakland-based vocal acrobat railing against social stagnation while simultaneously celebrating the world’s fluorescent beauty. It all works because Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner stick to what they do best: chopped, clattering percussion; sophisticated, bluesy vocal melodies; walls of harmonies that jar and swirl; and spare funk basslines that make thrilling sense of it all. Perhaps nothing possesses the dualities of Garbus’s state of mind more than the album’s first single, “Water Fountain,” an irresistible, manic playground chant of a song, its beat shaped from a Waits-ian junk heap of claps and clangs and Brenner’s punchy bass, with the gusto in Garbus’s voice doing the rest. When the chorus rolls in, it sounds like a nursery rhyme, but then the first verse begins: “Nothing feels like dying like the drying of my skin and bones.” There’s no water in the water fountain, and that’s not just a catchy turn of phrase. This is a song about a failed public works system and a gleeful sing-along. Shades of gray aren’t usually this neon. (excerpt from my review in Slant Magazine, 5/3/14)

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8. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2

The chemistry between Killer Mike and El-P was apparent on last year’s Run The Jewels, which didn’t try to be much more than a document of two talented, wise-ass artists having fun. This second volume represents Run The Jewels as a primary career focus for both. The beats are richer and rangier; more attention is paid to sequencing, and all of that boasting comes from pride and momentum rather than just the desire to blow off steam. That said, part of their secret still has to be catharsis. Killer Mike is a legend of the Atlanta underground, whose most famous moments remain guest verses on Outkast tracks, even though his solo work rivals that of his hometown peers. El-P is a candidate for indie-rap Mount Rushmore, thanks to his work as a member of Company Flow and as the founder/house producer of Definitive Jux records, but he’s never sniffed the mainstream. Run The Jewels 2 is a great listen because of the artistry on display, but it’s the pent-up frustration that makes you want to hug your loved ones and thank god for each breath while you set fire to the neighborhood. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 11/5/14)

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7. Young Thug & Bloody Jay – Black Portland

If the tidal wave of creativity in Atlanta hip hop has a center, it’s probably Young Thug, whose humdrum moniker is belied by a mesmerizing energy on the mic. Here is the next level of Outkast and Lil Wayne’s alien self-identification—a man who is bilingual in the sense that he’s speaking English and Venusian at the same time. Thugga was on three tapes in 2014, and while Black Portland is begging to be remastered, it’s still the best. At the point where rubber bands break, Young Thug is just starting to stretch out, littering his natural, lackadaisical syncopation with quizzical squawks like a chipmunk Busta Rhymes. He finds an ideal foil in Bloody Jay, who sounds gruffly amused throughout, his DJ Holiday basso tipping the scales of tracks like “Movin’” and “No Fucks” from gritty street theater to one deliriously unique party. (excerpt from my review in Paste Magazine, 11/25/14)

Swans_To_Be_Kind6. Swans – To Be Kind

If you were creeped out by the snarling wolf that adorned Swans’ 2012 album The Seer, it’s probably best to avoid the cover of To Be Kind—a screaming, Rockwellian baby that David Lynch would hang above the fireplace. The album within delivers on this unsettling entrée, boiling the meaning of life down to basic human needs while it methodically destroys the world. Yet this appeal to our animal selves is belied by the band’s exquisitely crafted annihilations, like when the angular funk groove of “A Little God In My Hands” gets pancaked by a dump truck of drunken horns, making Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” seem like “I Want Candy”. When bandleader Michael Gira screams “I’m just a little boy,” it’s not a performance. It’s an expulsion. It falls somewhere between the sneer of a playground bully and the sickening croak of a bloated raven. Maybe we all are just infants alone in our cribs, pretending that there are things we need other than love and warmth and bread. If so, this record makes for one hell of a blankie. (excerpt from my review in PopMatters12/8/14)

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5. St. Vincent – St. Vincent

“Here’s my report from the edge.” If you’re looking for a premise statement for Annie Clark’s stunning fourth album, well there you have it. On St. Vincent, the diminutive axe-slinger sits on all kinds of edges – between pop and avant garde, satire and confession, guitar solos and blood spatter patterns. In her effortless ability to make her singular personality feel universal, Clark summons the spirit of another diminutive axe-slinger; you know, the one who could claim to approximate the sound of doves crying without sounding like a flake. And while there was plenty to like about the two Prince albums we got this year (especially the sci-fi funk opus Art Official Age), it’s St. Vincent that gives us a closer approximation of the Purple One in his ruffled, enigmatic prime. Its guitar riffs consist of hyperactive clusters of notes. Its synthesizers coat everything with a thin layer of late-November ice. Yet it’s pop bliss through and through, delivered with poetic urgency. Clark makes you feel what it’s like to be chased by a rattlesnake, or hallucinate a conversation with Huey Newton, or understand that somebody out there loves you more than Jesus ever could. If you’re looking for a one-way ticket to the edge, she’s comped one for you.

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4. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There

Some voices were meant to convey ache. Like Roy Orbison. Or Hank Williams. Or Sharon Van Etten. The Brooklyn transplant warrants comparisons to such hallowed figures on her fourth album, a hypnotic collection of songs about need, and all the stupid and callous ways that others fail at fulfilling it. “I need you to be afraid of nothing,” she sings on the record’s first song, her voice leaping into a yodel on that second word like an eagle peeking above the cloud line. On a record with a three-word title that contains multitudes (Do we exist? Have we reached those goals that we set? Is this the end?, etc.) the production is appropriately reserved-yet-bottomless, a mix of chiming Americana and muffled electronics that sounds like Raising Sand getting lost on a foggy night. It’s the perfect milieu for Van Etten to sing like she’s holding nothing back. Like Roy, she can sing with the kind of quaver that reveals whatever beauty there is to see in the rawest grief. It’s a voice that can bemoan “your love is killing me,” and at the same time be absolute proof that life is good.

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3. Cakes da Killa – Hunger Pangs

The line separating hip hop mixtapes from studio albums gets thinner every time another gorgeously produced triumph shows up on DatPiff (see #13 on this list, for example). But one listen to Hunger Pangs and you know you’re hearing a tape. The beats are jagged and guttural and loud. The songs are short, muscular, and barely interested in choruses. Whitney Houston’s between-song banter is fearlessly utilized as a coda. And goddamn is the emcee going off, tearing apart every verse like a gymnast with buzz saws for arms. Cakes da Killa is no stranger to tape brilliance, but Hunger Pangs is on another level. Run The Jewels deservedly got a lot of praise for spiking our adrenaline levels this year. They simply can’t touch Cakes on tracks like “Just Desserts” or “It’s Not Ovah” – just listening to one of his verses should qualify as an hour of cardio. “Coming at n***as like an avalanche,” he spews, not even coming close to hyperbole.

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2. Pallbearer – Foundations Of Burden

The greatest poetry tends to spring from the simplest subject matter. Fire and ice. The west wind. Lightness and dark. It’s the latter dichotomy that’s woven through the ravishing gloom of Pallbearer’s second album. If you’ve ever wished that Black Sabbath had a more nuanced lyricist than Geezer Butler, Foundations Of Burden is probably gonna be your jam. “Darkened heart / Enlightened mind / Whole world apart / Remain entwined,” goes the chorus to the 10-minute opening salvo “Worlds Apart,” exploring the human struggle between instinct and intellect with an astonishing economy of words. A feeling of immensity begins here and never wavers, the result of producer Billy Anderson’s shamelessly decadent approach. Every sound is given to us in its richest, warmest tone. Guitar chords fall like velvet curtains. Brett Campbell sings in a gravel-free tenor that would make him a prime candidate for the Church of Satan’s choir director. I know this is technically doom metal, but it sounds more like bloom metal to me.

Azealia_Banks_-_Broke_With_Expensive_Taste_album_cover_20141. Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste

Broke With Expensive Taste deserves to be the next Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – the careening masterpiece that gets dropped by its shortsighted label and ends up selling like crazy once it hits the light of day. Azealia Banks’s long-shelved debut dares to enter a churning sea of genres and attitudes, and then calibrates our voyage so skillfully, it feels like we’re standing upright on a speedboat with no need for the rails. It cares not for the cycle of intense hype and curdling frustration that preceded it. It doesn’t even remember what an “Interscope Records” is. Banks is always in complete control, even when she needs to sing in perfectly inflected Spanish or summon the spirit of Annette Funicello. If you’ve been following her since “212” shook the earth three years ago, you’ll already know five of these tunes. Yet this particular familiarity does not breed contempt. Yes, we had only been given little pieces for so long, and we were tired of it. But here is the whole puzzle in all its glory. Here are those songs we love, reenergized by the context we were dreaming they’d get. This shit is better than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s better than anything that came out this year. Now let’s finally stop talking about it, and listen.

Honorable Mentions: Agalloch – The Serpent & The Sphere; Behemoth – The Satanist; Bloody Jay – #NAWFR; Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems; Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata; Future – Honest; Future Islands – Singles; Gangsta Boo & La Chat – Witch; Migos – Rich N**a Timeline; Dolly Parton – Blue Smoke; PeeWee Longway – The Blue M&M; Prince – Art Official AgeSylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso; TV On The Radio – Seeds; Wu-Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow; YG – My Krazy Life

Top 10 Albums of 2010

I done liked these here albums. I make list to share. Then I eat sandwich.

10. Phosphorescent – Here’s To Taking It Easy
Last year, Phosphorescent released To Willie, a straightforward set of Willie Nelson covers. It stands to reason that fans who’d gotten hooked on the band’s cryptic dream-folk stylings might’ve had trouble connecting the dots. Which could very well be the inspiration for Here’s To Taking It Easy, an artful distillation of the two approaches that’s equal parts sweet, lazy country and deep, introspective indie rock. Bandleader Matthew Houck gives his ambitions a rain check here, opting for words and arrangements that sum up where he’s been – touring like crazy, destroying his relationships, then touring some more. The saloon-ready pedal steel and driving horns of “It’s Hard to be Humble” shows he’s not over his Willie obsession, while the haunting mantra “Hej, Me I’m Light” could be a Pride outtake. And “Los Angeles” closes things with a clear-headed swipe at our fame-obsessed culture – “Are they covering you up with affection now?/Are they giving you a lot of attention now?”

9. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
On This Is Happening, LCD Soundsystem’s third straight slab of epic, confessional dance-pop, there’s much of what you’d expect – immersive walls of synths, cold-light-of-morning musings, and a thunderous beat or two. But there’s something new lurking in the impeccably produced weeds, a sense of tension that finds James Murphy writing some of his catchiest material, while simultaneously rebelling against the concept of pop. “You wanted a hit/But maybe we don’t do hits,” Murphy posits on one especially hook-filled tune, which he stretches to a 9-minute running time, stacking ironies and keyboard sounds with equal fervor.

8. Erykah Badu – New Amerykah, Pt. Two: Return of the Ankh
On her fifth album, and second installment of the awkwardly named “New Amerykah” series, Erykah Badu gives us her most commercially viable music of the last decade or so. That’s not to say it’s the kind of glossy, over-emoted sludge that passes for R&B these days – Return of the Ankh goes down easy, but it’s because Badu and her band make these breezy soul grooves look easy. A significant shift from the challenging sprawl of New Amerykah, Pt. One: 4th World War, Ankh begs to be pulled out during the summer months. With the airy funk of “Turn Me Away (Get Munny)” and the slow-burning ode to solo travel “Window Seat” drifting from your speakers, you’ll almost be able to smell the barbecue.

7. Robert Plant – Band of Joy
After the initial shock of Raising Sand, on which Robert Plant sang with a tenderness and clarity he’d only hinted at in the past, it made complete sense that this artist would spend the twilight of his career as a sublime interpreter of classic Americana. Nobody ripped off American blues masters quite as brazenly as Led Zeppelin, and some of Plant’s best work with that band was on its occasional forays into folk and country. With Band of Joy, the legend puts an exclamation point on this revelation, as Plant assembled a Grand Ole Opry-worthy band to help him take on traditional folk tunes and modern numbers by artists like Los Lobos, Richard Thompson and Townes Van Zandt. The result is earthier than Raising Sand, with less focus on harmony and more of a live in the studio feel. Which isn’t to say it’s not beautiful – whether it’s among the echo chamber guitars of “Silver Rider” or the ominous acoustics of “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” Plant’s voice enchants.

6. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
Ever since Damon Albarn’s band of animated hipsters released its self-titled debut in 2001, Gorillaz has felt like a lark, a fun side project that let the artist scratch his hip hop itch. But listening to the wildly eclectic sounds, indelible melodies and post-apocalyptic concepts of Plastic Beach, it’s clear that Albarn has realized that his “other” band is the one he was meant to lead. On paper, the formula is pretty much the same as the first two Gorillaz discs – get a crackerjack group of guest artists and let them run wild over chilled-out electronic grooves. But for the first time, the songs are as adventurous as the guests, full of moody Britpop atmospheres, burbling funk jams, aching bursts of R&B and full-on orchestral bombast. “White Flag” acts as a microcosm of it all, combining the hypnotic Eastern melodies of The Lebanese National Orchestra with bursts of playful electro-rap. And when Albarn follows it up with the post-punk ballad “Rhinestone Eyes,” singing about how his love’s peepers glitter “like factories far away,” it becomes clear that there’s nothing at all cartoonish about these Gorillaz anymore.

5. Vampire Weekend – Contra
Oh, it could be so easy to blow off Vampire Weekend, what with their songs about aristocrats, diplomat’s sons and girlfriends’ trust funds. But perhaps because of its unabashed approach to upper crust tropes, Contra possesses a freshness that only a hater wouldn’t acknowledge. Of course, ambitious, effervescent pop hooks make any hyper-educated rich kid lament go down easier, and Contra is stuffed to the gills with ’em, from the falsetto-laden Afro-pop of “White Sky” to the M.I.A.-sampling electro-ska of “Diplomat’s Son.” And tell me one band that’s doing anything like “California English,” where singer Ezra Koenig ponders the deeper implications of using Tom’s of Maine toothpaste in an AutoTune-corrected voice. These kids might be spoiled, but their art is built to last.

4. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song
A double album from the guy who co-wrote “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”? Sounds like something whipped up by the Satan of my own personal hell. But there ain’t nothing trendy or empty-headed about The Guitar Song, a robust collection of songs with roots in traditional country and production values that gleam like an oil soap-polished bar. Don’t be fooled by the record’s “Black” and “White” subtitles, because Johnson’s interested in grey areas. Whether he’s singing about heartbreak, the plight of the modern farmer or breezy afternoons on porch swings, there’s either a resiliency behind the sadness, or the sense that real happiness is earned. Through it all, the pedal steel licks soar and mourn, the pianos dance in dark corners, and every word is soaked in Johnson’s elegant, commanding baritone.

3. Janelle Monaé – The ArchAndroid
An over-the-top cinematic intro segues into an Outkast-meets-Gloria Estefan barnburner, which segues into an equally propulsive dance floor cut on which the vocalist confesses she’s “shaking like a schizo” over sped-up jazz guitar licks. These are the first three tracks of
The ArchAndroid, Janelle Monaé’s concept album about cyborg clones, time travel and futuristic psycho wards. It was the most exciting beginning to an album in 2010, setting a standard that would be tough for Aretha to match for 18 tracks. But Monaé almost does it, thanks to an unflagging creative spirit – from the Willy Wonka strings of “Neon Valley Street” to the English folk melodies of “57821” and the light-as-air romantic pop of “Oh, Maker,” The ArchAndroid is a Baskin Robbins of sonic imagination. If it wasn’t for the out-of-place Of Montreal collaboration “Make the Bus,” we’d be talking perfection here. Still, this is a dizzying accomplishment, one that puts Monaé on a short list of artists who can push the envelope and cross over in the same supercharged breath.

2. The Roots  – How I Got Over
We’ve always been able to count on The Roots to deliver top-notch, head-bobbing grooves and smart, fiery verses – they’re probably the most consistent outfit in hip-hop. But with How I Got Over, these guys haven’t just kept things fresh; they’ve upped the ante. A powerful, nuanced concept album about overcoming all that life can hurl your way, it thrills on first listen, and only becomes more rewarding the more you hit repeat. By masterfully blending their two main stylistic approaches – warm, Native Tongues beats and chilling, confrontational synth-funk – the band is able to paint a thoroughly convincing picture of self-doubt evolving into self-confidence. Black Thought rattles off a laundry list of natural disasters over the gloomy piano chords of “Walk Alone,” but by “The Day,” guest vocalist Blu is looking in the mirror and realizing, “I should start living today.” Moving stuff, in both senses of the word.

1. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The American Dream ain’t what it used to be. It’s more about power than picket fences. But I’ll stop trying to define it, because Kanye West has created the ultimate tutorial – his fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In lesser hands, this treatise on the glories and pitfalls of being crazy successful could sound like a Republican Party platform speech. But West’s combination of honesty, outrage, ego and phenomenal wordplay transforms the concept into an irresistible Jekyll and Hyde tale. He describes himself as a superhero and a monster, preaching that “no one man should have all that power” on his first single, while boasting “my presence is a present, kiss my ass” on his second. He’s never been this emotional on record, but he doesn’t let it stop him from writing battle-ready rhymes – for all of the wild psychoanalysis going on, one of the biggest highlights is a Family Matters reference (“Too many Urkels on your team/that’s why you’re wins low”). Musically, MBDTF is just as compellingly schizo. “Dark Fantasy’s” gospel chorus asks “can we get much higher?” Rocky soundtrack-ready synth horns propel “All of the Lights.” The slinky, Smokey Robinson-sampling “Devil in a New Dress” hearkens back to the College Dropout formula. “Monster” is an old-school rap feast, packed with top-notch guests (including a world-beating verse from Nicki Minaj). The result? The most brilliantly produced, fully realized musical vision of 2010. For hip-hop fanatics, casual pop listeners and party animals alike, it’s a garden of earthly delights – lush, intoxicating, and laced with nightmares.

Honorable Mentions: She & Him – Volume Two; Das Racist – Sit Down, Man; Sleigh Bells – Treats; M.I.A. –Maya; Drake – Thank Me Later; Elvis Costello – National Ransom; Of Montreal – False Priest