(t5!) My Year In Lists 2010: Albums!

Albums I love, 2010.

#30: Pantha Du Prince — Black Noise

I’ll pick summer over winter any day, but I’ll never disregard the tangible beauty of our coldest season: the twinkle of fresh powder covering boughs of evergreen, the sublime contrast between the falling snow and dark skies, the muffled footsteps on quiet nights.Black Noise has a similar aesthetic. When you’re totally immersed in the album’s wintry heart, you’ll wonder how something so cold can conjure such warm emotions. The hallmark of Black Noise’s concept is the layers upon layers of percussions as the foundation of the melody: the metallic clang of chimes, dulcimers, and glassy bells unite with the flourish of electronic clicks, hissing hi-hats, and subdued kicks to create a blizzard over the long cascades of disheartening strings, grooving basslines, and the psychedlic chants of Animal Collective’s Panda Bear. Moreover, the album moves along alluringly, maintining its darkened mood throughout, with the tracks rising, then intensifying, then melting away effortlessly. You’ll appreciate the exquisiteness of this, but just make sure you’re wearing a warm enough jacket.

#29: Rick Ross — Teflon Don

It’s easy to make fat comments about Rick Ross; he seems to embrace his obesity to the point of even using it as a marketing strategem. You know, something like “the guy has impressive breath control for someone who couldn’t walk a block without panting”. Or something like “the beats in here — produced by Lex Luger, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, et al. — are as bulky as him”. Or something like “he put Miami rap on the map not only because of his triumphant verses but also because he’s so large that you can see him using Google Earth”. Or something like “he and Notorious B.I.G. has the same vocal timbre and the same waist size”. Or something like “looking at the number of famous guest appearances here, it appears that his Rolodex is as enormous as his man boobs”. Or something like “what does Rick Ross and Santa Claus have in common? They both brought joy to the faces of children everywhere, with their bushy beard and their belly full of jelly”. But I’m sure all these jokes about his weight wouldn’t faze him. He’s Teflon Don; jokes like these just slide off of him.

#28: Avi Buffalo — Avi Buffalo

To be nineteen again, amirite? To be naïve, awkward, horny, miserable, yet still optimistic about everything. As a man in his late 20s (wow, that’s difficult to type), even one that has a massive Peter Pan complex, it’s regrettable that I will never feel that way again. Unfortunately, all I can do is reminisce. However, one listen to Long Beach’s Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg and his Avi Buffalo, and I can strongly imagine being nineteen all over again through him as he evaluates his experiences as a young adult in this self-titled debut. The tracks here are honest almost without remorse, tackling subject matter that would make me blush if I was the inspiration for it. Especially about the sore subject of teen sex; it confirms that trying to get laid at that time of your life can be both sublime and disheartening. One way we differ though is that when I was his age, I surely wasn’t capable of writing blissful indie pop melodies that revives the spirit of The Shins. But I can’t beat myself up too much, the majority of songwriters twice his age aren’t even near his talent.

#27: Four Tet — There Is Love In You

Four Tet was immensely innovative when he first started over a decade ago, so much so that the tag “folktronica” was invented professedly to describe his minimal sound. I’m such a fan of his imagination that I’m considering naming my unborn child after his everyday name, Kieran. So it’s not as if he has to prove that he’s avant-garde now, especially after releasing five very inventive albums, but there are several bedroom laptop artists nowadays mimicking his style that There Is Love In You doesn’t seem to be breaking ground as much. But it doesn’t matter; Four Tet, even at his most conventional, can still outdo all the biters. There Is Love In You is dancier than his previous efforts, showcasing that he’s been influenced by his recent DJ sets and his collaboration with Burial. Delicate beats, mellow tones, acoustic appregios, and skittering samples twinkle gently like they emanate from a music box hosting a party. What we see here is not the work of a trailblazer, but a genius musician who has mastered his craft and focused his vision.

#26: The Black Keys — Brothers

When you commit yourself to one genre, especially one that is as limited as “blues-rock”, you get bored of making it eventually. It felt like The Black Keys have taken their gritty old-school style as far as it could go, and that’s why they tried to change things up on their last album, 2008’s Attack And Release, by giving their very distinct style to the helm of electronic producer Danger Mouse. It also revealed at the time that maybe that particular blend wasn’t them. But they persisted, and in Brothers, they’ve accomplished the evolution they were looking for. They have never been this eclectic before, demonstrating that their attempts at composing glam-rock, ‘60’s soul, vintage R&B, and psychedelia can be equally impressive as their antiquarian blues-rock. More importantly, Dan Auerbach seems to be rejuvenated by the transformation since he’s flexing his vocal chops more than usual. His howl is on full display here, but he also flaunts a falsetto and a tenor that could’ve recorded a few Motown records back then. Maybe that’s something to look forward to, a full-on R&B album from The Black Keys.

#26: Robyn — Body Talk

If I had to rank Robyn’s 2010 output, it would go Body Talk Pt. 2, Body Talk Pt. 1, then the leftover stuff from the complete series ofBody Talk. Although the consistency of the Body Talk trilogy is definite, I don’t really understand what the point was of splitting it into separate EP’s before amalgamating into one full album. I guess it’s sort of like The Beta Band releasing The Three E.P.’s, but the three building blocks for that 1998 hit was released in a span of two years. By seeing the components before hand, Body Talkresembled a greatest hits compilation, and Robyn’s greatest hits (at least circa 2010) make you wonder why she’s not dominating the charts every week. While other pop stars are incapable of fabricating melodrama in a consistent basis, Robyn shows she can intensely convey a boundless arrangement of emotions and states of being, such as heartache, martyrdom, poise, tenacity, and confidence. It’s a difficult achievement for someone who calls herself an emotionless fembot.

#24: Best Coast — Crazy For You

Best Coast’s most important accomplishment is that they confirm the extensive influence of girl-group 60’s pop in music history.Crazy For You never veers from that classic style, but it also captures the feel of an eclectic collection of genre, such as lo-fi indie pop, alternative-country, California surf-rock, DIY punk, and grunge. Of course, it also proves that Bethany Cosentino’s voice is beautiful no matter how you dress it, which is a terrific advantage to have when you are singing the most candid and straightforward lyrics you’ll hear out of records that came out of 2010. It should’ve been clear from the album’s title, but Crazy For You is an engaging boy-crazy confessional, an honest lowdown of Cosentino’s incapacitating obsession and exhilarative infatuation, which is strenghtened more by the lyrics’ lack of pretense. Anyone that has been lovestruck can accurately relate to these tales of how someone from the opposite sex can make you feel inadequate, needy, covetous, and insanely blissful.

#23: Girl Talk — All Day

Pittsburgh-based computer maestro, meticulous micro-historian, sample king of kings, Girl Talk, doesn’t exactly bring anything new to the table at this point of his career. He has found a trademark, but predictable formula. If you have formed an initial opinion and you do not like his fervently creative, ape-shit insane, deliriously schizophrenic, audio version of the Sgt. Pepper album cover, there isn’t really much to say to switch your snobbery off. But if you’re massively enamored with Gregg Gillis’ work already, his fifth albumAll Day, is the ultimate musical expression of vague and widespread fandom, capturing the essence of over 370 songs to create his most epic, densely layered and meticulously composed musical statement to date. While All Day’s similarity to previous Girl Talk albums is discernible, Gillis polishes these bite-sized samples into great musical moments. Whatever the case, what we see here isGillis at his loosest and most confident, seamlessly blending together five generations of music. You can at least download it withoutthe crippling guilt because he gave away the album for free on his label’s website.

#22: Yelawolf — Trunk Muzik 0–60

He’s not Eminem, even though the similarities, which I admit are without depth, are very apparent. They’re both white, they’re both under Interscope, they both represent their respective neck of the woods (Eminem is to 8 mile as Yelawolf is to Alabama), they both take pride in their lyricism, they both write verses while wearing their trailer trash upbringing on their sleeve, and they both relish the opportunity to sing their own chorus hooks without the help of an auto-tune (well, when Eminem is at his best, he was like that). With that said, it would be unfair to pigeonhole him because of these resemblances. Besides, the creeping production? That’s straight up Gucci Mane. The distinct southern drawl to his flow? UGK. The method where he smoothly switches from a beat’s original pace to double-time? A little Busta Rhymes. The way he synchronizes his flow with the intricacies of the beat? That reminds you of Anticon rappers. And if Trunk Muzik 0–60 is any indication, Yelawolf may soon be one of the standards that everyone else compares himself to.

#21: Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti — Before Today

Artists usually have to frustratingly walk on the slender line that separates their ideal style from a sound that attracts a fruitful fanbase. Most end up swallowing their pride in favor of commercial and critical success. That’s not how Ariel Pink rolls, though. Even when the very authoritative appraisers of Pitchfork gave his earlier releases unfriendly reviews for being too eccentric — and most likely affected his record sales as well — he didn’t compromise his artistry for anything. But a strange thing happened in 2010: his chillwave genre became in season, and Before Today suddenly became more attractive to critics and consumers. He has cleaned up a little bit of the tape hiss that cluttered the AM soft-rock and blue-eyed soul he deconstructed and rebuilt in his bedroom, making this ninth album his more approachable record to date. But other than that, this is not that much different from his older stuff. It confirms that you don’t have to change what you believe in in order to get what you want. Be persistent and everyone will eventually come around.

#20 Jónsi — Go

Take out the constantly amplifying strings and extemporized Hopelandic verses from your Sigur Rós records and replace them with glitchy pop synths and heavily accented English lyrics; if that idea repulses you, then you won’t find satisfaction in Jónsi’s Go. But if you’re going to dismiss this without a proper deduction, then I’m afraid you’ll miss out on some heart-palpitating beauty. Go is light and vibrant, and Jónsi has gathered up Sigur Rós’ best features — like their lively arrangements and fluctuating levels of sounds — and he’s pointed them towards new trajectories. And of course you’re getting Jónsi’s extraterrestrial vocals, Sigur Rós’ most prominent instrument. Although he’s not holding notes while cathedral sounds ebb and flow around him; he is more sprightly here as his vocals frolick around with Nico Muhly’s vivacious sounds. I won’t ever wish for a band like Sigur Rós to break up, but if this new beginning from one of its members is what we get as consolation, then no one should be too bitter if the Icelandic duo calls it quits.

#19: Radio Dept — Clinging To A Scheme

I’ll forever promote that The Radio Dept is the most underrated indie band of the previous decade, and their debut, Lesser Mattersis a neglected classic (no. 78 in (t5!) Heroes Of The Zeroes Album List, actually). It’s a shame that half of their already small fanbase has never heard of them until they were featured in the Marie Antoinette soundtrack in 2006, three years after they entered the scene. Clinging To A Scheme may not be as arresting as Lesser Matters, but it does showcase the same strengths. Radio Dept’s most appealing feature is definitely the haze that is akin to the sensation of just waking up from a dream, elegantly clouding the lo-fi guitars and the finger picked notes and major 7th chords they produce. Johan Duncanson’s opaque vocals is sensational because it seems like he’s not even trying, but his apathy is ideal for the Sunday morning bedroom mood they are attempting to pull off. Hopefully Clinging To A Scheme is the album that brings the Swedish band the fanfare they are entitled to, and they wouldn’t be as underrated in this decade.

#18: Kelis — Flesh Tone

The mark of a terrific female pop star is her malleability. The world of popular music is in constant flux, and if you don’t keep up with its instability, you’ll be forgotten by everyone. Why do you think Madonna is still (sorta) relevant on her third decade of pop existence? She was able to adapt. Kelis has also demonstrated that she’s a chameleon: she evolved from rainbow-haired R&B riot grrrl screaming “I hate you so much right now!”, to bossy, hyper-sexualized, cherry on top who brought all the boys in the yard, to what you see in Flesh Tone, a vibrant neo-Donna Summer for everyone’s current obsession with electrostomp. There’s a massive sentiment of exaltation in these tracks; it’s as if Kelis has figured out that conventional songwriting doesn’t work in this type of music so she focused on singing surging, anthemic hooks instead. And in spite of the fact that she doesn’t exactly have premium Eurodance producers working for her, she enlivens the life out of these boilerplate accompaniments, certifying that her vocals can imbue any beat or trend thrown at her.

#17: LCD Soundsystem — This Is Happening

Everyone probably assumed after listening to the introductory single “Drunk Girls” that This Is Happening is full of silly energetic numbers designed to serve as background music for frat parties, and he is making bratty dance-funk records again like the songs in his eponymous album. But this third James Murphy album is a continuation of 2007’s very excellent Sound Of Silver, a couple more steps towards introspective songs propelled by emotional excesses and personal admittance that are strongly relatable to his generation. LCD Soundsystem has always been labeled as dance music, but recently it’s much richer than that, both in message and style. Blending unyielding post-punk, stutter-stepping funk, and electrifying Bowie-inspired Kraut-rock — genres Murphy, I’m sure, enjoyed as an offspring of the seventies — This Is Happening is an album that all your friends and their conflicting tastes could agree on. If the rumors are true that this is the last LCD Soundsystem album, it’s a exemplary ride into the sunset.

#16: Crystal Castles — Crystal Castles (2010)

Crystal Castles of 2008 was an acceptable debut, but it did suffer from multiple personality disorder. Crystal Castles weren’t sure which identity they wanted to showcase — their scintillating synth-pop or their blitzkrieg of 8-bit NES noise — and that indecision resulted into an innovative but a confused record. Crystal Castles of 2010 improved simply by achieving balance between the two styles, changing without compromising themselves. In fact, the Toronto duo of Ethan Kath and Alice Glass are at their best when they find a marriage between the gleam and the glitch in the same song, making their songs sound like The Cure soundtracking Capcom games. But instead of distant post-punk croons, Crystal Castles has Glass’ damaged and extremely blurry vocals, demonstrating that she’s more than an abrasive brat on the mic. The two also got a bad reputation for being difficult off-stage and reckless on-stage, causing a lot of people to write them off as immature punks. Let’s hope that this second self-titled album puts them into a better light, because it takes maturity to grow like this.

#15: Joanna Newsom — Have One On Me

Joanna Newsom, a gifted harpist who has abandoned her classical training to compose ten-minute folk songs about her life experiences, is understandably alienating. But those who are tolerant enough to commit to her ambitions have been rewarded with an enthralling recess from the daily grind. Have One On Me is, as usual, driven by the caressing spirit of a harp that plunges like a waterfall of celestial notes. There are also her spine-tingling vocals, which is vastly less childlike and more agreeable here than what was heard in her past two albums. If you’re really paying attention, you’ll adore Newsom’s uncompromising poetry about romantic, familial, and platonic love. My advice is that you make sure you have two hours to spare before you venture into this triple album, because if you listen to Have One On Me in the wrong setting or mood or activeness, then it’s very likely that you will think that this is an arduous undertaking, and you’ll miss out on one of the most riveting albums of the year.

#14: Arcade Fire — The Suburbs

It’s unfortunate that all of my favorite Canadian indie rock bands from the last decade have sort of lost their luster recently. Broken Social Scene, Wolf Parade, etc. have all recorded a momentous album once, causing people to ordain Canada as the main breeding ground for exciting music, and yet they’ve all struggled to impress with their most recent work. Arcade Fire is a completely different story though; they just keep on truckin’. Right after Funeral in 2004, the citizens were ridiculously claiming that they would be the U2 of the 21st century; after listening to The Suburbs, it seems as if that prophecy already came true. They carefully cultivated a substantial album that shed light on the uniformity and other sociological perplexities that are polluting North America’s suburbs. Sonically, The Suburbs show that the Montreal collective hasn’t lost a step, using the grandiosity of their instruments to communicate their entire emotions, motivating their sound with ardor and intense devotion. The rest of Canada’s indie rock has a lot of catching up to do.

#13: Deerhunter — Halcyon Digest

When people discuss today’s musical geniuses, Bradford Cox’s name doesn’t get mentioned as often as it should. As a singer for Deerhunter, his solo side-project Atlas Sound, and the short-lived The Wet Dreams, he has released five studio albums and five EP’s since 2007, and pretty much all of his work are highly recommended by every important tastemaker. There’s no concrete reason for his obscurity, but the cause is most likely the lack of accessibility that plagued his earlier albums, a weak spot he tried to amend in Deerhunter’s last album, Microcastle, and have completely fixed in Halcyon Digest. He made this a lot less discordant than Cox’s past compositions by peeling away layers of dim atmosphere and revealing the simplicity and catchiness of early-Beatles melodies and Phil Spector wall of sound. And I’m not saying that Halcyon Digest is as easy to get as a Coldplay record; it took me a few spins before I completely appreciated its majesty. However, without the noise murkying up the brilliant melody, it’s way easier to recognize the genius in Cox.

#12: The Roots — How I Got Over

Right now, The Roots are benefitting from being Jimmy Fallon’s in-house band. First of all, I can only imagine that the extra comfort and stability is providing them with buckets-full of epiphanies, because How I Got Over is like magic recaptured. They were always at their best when they’re intermingling their gritty hip-hop with funk, jazz, and neo-soul, a connection that the four albums they released in the zeroes never achieved. It’s been a long time coming but the equable ambience of 1999’s Things Fall Apart is back, and I for one welcome it with open arms. Also, working late night has both widened their artistic limit and their address book because the boys from Illadelph are collaborating with musicians that were formerly unfamiliar to them. They’ve conquered the alternative hip-hop scene already, so working with Diplo, Monsters of Folk, Joanna Newsom, and Dirty Projectors allows them to attain a whole new demographic, propagating their message of struggles and temptations to the broadest audience.

#11: The National — High violet

Everyone has their preferred “sad bastard” music, a go-to band or artist when you want to wallow in your own depression and self-pity. Some have sappy R&B, some have emo, some have bands like Coldplay or Snow Patrol to accompany them on their lowest days. However, no one knows your pain more than The National, the best band to listen to on those car drives without a particular destination, those damp walks in the rain, those trips that you take to be alone. They’re definitely perfecting their craft in their fifth album, High Violet. I don’t want to discount the efforts of their instrumentalists, especially the work of the rhythm section, Scott and Bryan Devendorf, whom give the tracks that sense of propulsion that’s helpful when down and out. But vocalist/lyricist Matt Berninger deserves all the acknowledgement here. The lyrics he wrote, which brilliantly convey the true anguish of loss or the true adversity of growing old, is expressed in a deep, solacing baritone. It certainly exceeds the whininess of pop punk, the effeminacy of Britpop, and the histrionics of R&B.

#10: Owen Pallett — Heartland

I always thought “Final Fantasy” was one of the best monikers in music. It gave out a vibe of defiance even if it’s all kind of silly and juvenile, like “I don’t give a fuck about the laws of trademark infringement :p”. That’s why it’s unfortunate to finally see Owen Pallett give in to the legal stuff, deciding to just go by his real name. The only great thing about it is that the name change does symbolize his maturation, in more ways than one. Heartland still has the same unique sensibility as the songs he was putting out while he was still named after a Nintendo role-playing game, and he’s still showing that he’s an expert at making melodic chamber pop out of a violin and a loop pedal. But, he made exactly the perfect adjustments to open his music up to a much wider audience — energetic percussion tracks, sprightly synthetic bass, a wider array of mood, a special kinship between the orchestral and electronic instruments. It’s as if Pallett made a conscious choice to become less alienating without compromising his trademark sound.

#09: Sleigh Bells — Treats

Putting disparate ingredients together is an overdone experiment in music, and it usually results into a fusion that’s way too ambitious. But when it works, like Treats, it’s like eating Oreos with milk. Sleigh Bells gathered up the loud fuzzy guitars of power rock, the straightforward beats of Southern rap, and the sugary melodies of pop, and merged them together into an ear-popping cacophony. It’s not necessarily My Bloody Valentine if they wrote songs for teens like what everyone is saying; it’s more like The Ting Tings if they wrote songs for grunge fans. It’s something I didn’t think I wanted in my life, but I’m embracing it nonetheless. And the fact that they ended the album pretty quickly — a 32-minute LP is an anomaly in today’s world — before it overstays its welcome helps matters too, leaving listeners craving for more. I don’t think I want to see Sleigh Bells setting trends though, because I assume imitators of Treats would sound like stale copycats. But if it’s inevitable, let’s just enjoy this blessed union of sounds before the uninspired degrade it.

#08: Sade — Soldier Of Love

Soldier Of Love is the reason why I keep sifting through new releases, why I still listen to everything even if all of my instincts are telling me that a particular album will bore me at best and abhor me at worst. The only information I have about Sade before 2010 is the very sultry single “Smooth Operator” and the trip-hop hit “No Ordinary Love” (the latter only because the Filipino bandUrbandub covered it). I knew Sade’s smoldering alto is outstanding, but I had no clue it could sustain this restrained sexuality, this erotic voice with a hint of lachrymose she painfully tries to suppress, for an entire album. Soldier Of Love is an album of alluring mystique, of whispered emotions, feeling like a long, passionate make out session over wine and candlelight. It does sound dated but that’s a positive thing, because they don’t make R&B records quite like this anymore. The tracks contain lyrics dripping with sensuality rather than overly dramatic or autotune embellishments. Needless to say, I sought out Sade’s entire discography after listening to this, hoping to find something as equally awe-inspiring.

#07: Beach House — Teen Dream

I never really got the allure of Beach House prior to the release of Teen Dream. They were so boring that the CDs might as well came with a cup of coffee. The tracks in their first two albums are more about mood than song structure, lethargic dream-pop songs urged along by hazy guitar, shiftless organ, and lead vocal Victoria Legrand’s Nico-inspired rough alto. But something remarkable happened in Teen Dream, and it takes a keen ear to notice the change. Ironically, the songs in Teen Dream are less dream-like, and the duo from Baltimore obtained that by simply decorating them with haunting melodies to make them easier to listen to. It kept me awake long enough to notice the slight endowments that make Beach House noteworthy: how the vocals are layered to make it sound like Legnard is accompanied by a choir of ghosts; or how graceful and emotive Alex Scally’s guitar is; or how they have an extraordinary ability to place choruses in the end of their songs that seem like they can last forever. If they discovered melody four years ago, their career would’ve been very different.

#06: Vampire Weekend — Contra

Nothing represents counter-culture and overall hoity-toity-ness in music more than Vampire Weekend. Just listen to Contra, their sophomore album: right off the bat, they rhymed “horchata” with “balaclava”; they used an autotune, but only ironically; they’re probably enjoying the fact that people would idiotically think that this is named after a classic NES video game. However, Vampire Weekend’s pretentiousness and Ivy League preppiness would justifiably be oft-putting if the ten tracks in Contra weren’t loaded with colorful hooks and sweet melodies that agreeably linger in heads for a very long time. The second album also reveals that Vampire Weekend is capable of growth, broadening their influences while still maintaining what made their debut a consensus choice. They expanded from 80’s-era afro-pop to reggae, calypso, synth-pop, ska, and punk, and the new mélange of genres are crisp, summery, flamboyant, and yet still succinct, airy, and not at all pansified. Plus, having this in your playlist is like owning a token that says you’re better than everyone else.

#05: Surfer Blood — Astrocoast

It seems like every year, there’s an indie guitar pop band highly lauded by hipster blogs that proclaim their love before the evil majority gets a hold of them. An endless stream of bands with clever names and distinguishable references called on to play in that year’s trendiest music festivals. But their flavor-of-the-month status is only sustained until a song of theirs is used in a Gossip Girlepisode or a Google commercial. And then the renouncement happens, “oh, that band? Their first album was better.” This is why I can already extrapolate Surfer Blood’s career from the moment Pitchfork gave Astro Coast a favorable rating. If they decided to stop trying to outdo this debut album, I wouldn’t blame them. It’s not that it doesn’t deserve the buzz — appropriate Beach Boys similarities, sunshiny vibes, hazy atmosphere, addictive guitar lines, surprising melodic turns that purchase timeshares in your mind — the album is admittedly brilliant. It’s just that I’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well. Enjoy it while it lasts, hipster cats.

#04: Janelle Monáe — The Archandroid (Suites II and III)

Let’s talk about musical crushes for a minute. Usually, when I have admiration for a female artist in the R&B universe, it’s usually based on looks (eg. Christina Milian before she faded into insignificance, Cassie before she shaved the side of her head, Beyoncé before Jay-z turned her bootylicious into chunk). Janelle Monáe is not unattractive by any means but I’m only crushing on her because of her work on The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III). Her vivaciousness in every track and the eclectic collection of styles she works with is very attractive. Whether she’s shrieking her lyrics out or she’s heavenly cooing it in our ears, it’s obvious that she’s skilled when it comes to vocal ability, showing off that she can easily handle these retro-progressive productions and invigorating live instrumentation. However, she doesn’t let her ego cloud her aspirations to make an “emotion picture” about her futuristic society — a world apparently colored by traditional R&B, classical compositions, swing-style big band, and indie glam. It’s as if I have a man-crush on a woman with tantalizing doe-eyes and whimsical fashion sense.

#03: Caribou — Swim

Electronic producer Dan Snaith switches genre so effortlessly — from light-headed psychedelia to neo-Krautrock to ambient breakbeat to 60’s sunshine pop — that it’s such a shock when he releases an album in a style that electronic producers are accustomed to making: dance music. And I’m not talking about the intelligent dance music his work is usually labeled as; Swim is unabashedly more dancefloor-ready than anything Snaith has ever designed on a laptop. But while Snaith abandoned his habitual experimentation in favor of immediate rewards, you can still feel the usual Caribou signifiers in this fifth album: mutant percussions, subtle stereo panning, textural effects, introverted vocals. Snaith has mentioned in an interview that he wants Swim to “sound like it’s made out of water rather than made out of metallic stuff like most dance music does”, and it achieved that by making his instruments resemble the fluidity and rippling effect of water. He gets away with the transformation because he never compromises his own identity and ambition, and Swim is no exception.

#02: Big Boi — Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty

As one-half of OutKast, Big Boi was unfairly ignored. Andre 3000 is the imaginative prodigy, and Big Boi is the grind-it-out worker bee. Andre 3000 was sanctioned to experiment and venture towards different genres while Big Boi held down the fort. Since Andre 3000 is doing his own thing for now, Big Boi finally has the freedom to grow, distancing himself from the OutKast name momentarily. That liberation may be the reason why he sounds so ebullient and vibrant in his solo debut Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty. It’s like he recorded every couplet in this record with a smile on his face, and I’m guessing it’s due to the weight of the world off his shoulders. He has recaptured the vitality he hasn’t had since Stankonia, and he combined it with his agile flow and epic filthy synth-funk beats to school today’s rappers who believe that lethargic rapping wins the race. As far as the age-old question of who’s better between Big Boi and Andre 3000? Well, I love them both but Big Boi has a new album — and it happens to be the second best of the year — and Dre doesn’t. Big Boi wins, for now.

#01: Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Here’s my theory. I believe Kanye is actually a performance artist, like our generation’s Andy Kaufman, and none of us are in on the joke. Think about all the shit that happened before the release of Kanye’s fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: the VMA trolling, the hiatus, the surreal Twitter messages, the vulgar album cover, the name change from Good Ass Job (I always read that as “good ASS JOB”) to something a vampire novel would be titled as, the ridiculous 35-minute short film for “Runaway”, the Matt Lauer interview, even Pitchfork’s exaggerated 10.0 score. They were all tools to nauseate us, so that when we finally listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in its entirety, we would be flabbergasted when we discover how sensational it truly is. Really, it’s like an anti-buzz. It’s like Kaufman’s Mighty Mouse performance: Kanye’s loud personal life/off-stage hoopla is like Kaufman’s quiet moments, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the moment when he sang, “Here I come to save the day!”, pleasantly surprising his audience.

I’ve always been a Kanye apologist, but even I was preparing myself for the worst before the official release in November. But after just one listen, I was bewildered by the impressive self-awareness in his lyrics and the unparalleled pop architecture of his production — characteristics I’ve always known he had — and it only got better after I voyaged into this polychromatic world of his multiple times. I guess my theory is a tad farfetched; but even if the commotion Kanye caused in 2010 is not an act, and it turns out that he is plainly music’s biggest fool and the biggest egomaniac today, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy proved that he’s also the biggest pop genius we’ve seen in a while. I would put up with all the shit if I can listen to a Kanye album as monumental as this every year.

I’m not sure if I would consider My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy the “best” Kanye West record to date (I still think Late Registration is a little bit more consistent, but ask me again in ten years). But what is special about it is that it’s a terrific reminder of why I loved Kanye all these years. It contains every type of Kanye we’ve seen since he debuted in 2004: the lyrical punchlines Kanye, the chipmunk soul Kanye, the preachy Kanye, the lush production Kanye, the introspective Kanye, the rare sample source Kanye, the cold and autotuned Kanye. He could’ve easily just released a greatest hits compilation — that’s what everyone else would do — but his gigantic self-pride will never let himself rest on his laurels like that. He strives to become the best, so he continually raises the bar and pushes every limit forward, while taking on and defeating all of his contenders. I doubt that anyone will be betting against him after hearing this.