I know: I have a problem. It’s serious, and it’s not getting better. I’m obsessed with “Best of” lists. I love them! I collect them, compare them, fold them up into little squares and rub them against my cheeks. Not that last one. But I do read a lot of them, and yes, now mine does look pretty familiar: my Top 3, at least, is a lot like everyone else’s. But I swear it: these are the albums that I enjoyed the most, and felt were the most significant, of the year, and just because I kind of agree with Pitchfork, does that make me a bad person? …Don’t answer that.
10. Gui Boratto – Chromophobia (Kompakt)
How to make sense of a Brazilian producing music that fits right in with Cologne, Germany’s minimal-house juggernaut Kompakt Records? Don’t ask, just relax and let these deceptively simple songs wash over you. This label releases some great stuff, and what unites it (and is most in evidence here) is a realization that “minimal” doesn’t have to mean “boring.” Track seven, “The Blessing,” is based on a rolling, echoey staccato melody, but strange clatters and atmospheric effects flow around the beat, giving you a sensation of both stillness and great speed, like flying through clouds, which by the way is a great place to listen to this album on your iPod, especially if you use your frequent-flier miles to upgrade to business class.
9. Caribou – Andorra (Merge)
Canadian Dan Smith has assembled an unassuming (and at times shambolic) psychedelic masterpiece, which, despite his electronic history, is more Dungen than it is Aphex Twin. Opener “Melody Day,” with its flute trills and ecstatic chord changes, sounds both as familiar as The Beach Boys and as left-field as the Beta Band and it gets both stranger and more inspirational as it goes on, even if its tales of archetypal girls (“Irene,” “Desiree,”) are inspired by the past. Closer “Niobe” seems to take its euphoric uplift directly from trance music, but the drums never kick in: this is a record that’s all about melody… whoever she is.
8. Jay-Z – American Gangster (Roc-A-Fella)
Guess who’s back? Jay-Z’s back! And there’s nobody who’s better positioned to take full advantage of what seems like the current trend towards hip-hop’s rediscovering soul classics like Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. On top of the affecting samples, Jay-Z is still a master poet, and his lyrics here combine dexterity with a wise maturity. Check out “Fallin’,” a dramatic string-led track, with complicated tongue-twisting internal rhymes and a final denouement that’s both acquiescence and release: “Fightin’, you’ll never survive/Runnin’, you’ll never escape/So just fall from grace.”
7. Blonde Redhead – 23 (4AD)
Some reviews called this album “high-gloss,” but just because its cover doesn’t look like it was laying in a vault for 30 years doesn’t mean it’s a pop sellout. In fact, the band’s reorientation towards, let’s say it out loud, “shoegaze,” isn’t monolithic and seems like a far-from-assured move commercially. The title track, sure, it’s hypnotic and mid-tempo, with swirling guitars and Kazu Makino’s delicate vocals. But “Spring and By Summer Fall,” with its driving rhythms and awe-inspiring central guitar line, combines the swirl factor with something very new.
6. Kanye West – Graduation (Def Jam)
As Technicolor musically as its Murakami cover, and as much of a musical “event” as anything else this year, Graduation is a leap forward, even for the already-running-pretty-fast Kanye. Dude didn’t have to look to J Dilla, Daft Punk, Justice, or Japan’s freakiest artist for inspiration, but he did. He still mouthed off all year, but somehow, the sheer joy of tracks like “Stronger” and “The Good Life” seemed to reorient the world towards Kanye’s viewpoint, and his braggodocio suddenly seemed almost like humility.
5. Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (Polyvinyl)
More than anyone since Franz Ferdinand, these Georgians seem to understand the manic energy of the best new wave, and moreover, that sunny chords and synth lines are best paired with dark, troubled lyrics. With what sounds like a really rough breakup providing the album’s force, the lyrics somehow avoid cliché, always surprising with their takes on the emotional roller coaster. For instance, the “chemicals” of “Heimsdalgate” aren’t drugs, they’re far more dangerous: natural brain chemistry, of which bandleader Kevin Barnes demands, “come on mood shift, shift back to good again!”
4. Lil Wayne –Da Drought 3 / The Carter III (Interwebs)
It’s kind of odd, when you think about it: Radiohead get all the attention for releasing a pay-what-you-want album on the internet, but Lil Wayne put out like 27 free mix tapes this year and is anybody lauding him for “changing the music industry?” Well, who cares, because the guy can’t seem to make a bad song. I’ve got another tie here, which I know is a cop-out, but both of these are towering achievements: the former a mix-tape using (and one-upping) current instrumental tracks from MIMS to Gnarls Barkley, the latter a studio album that leaked in an early, Beatles-sampling version all over the internet. Wayne’s laid-back style belies what’s clearly workaholism.
3. M.I.A. – Kala (XL/Interscope)
I already said lots and lots of stuff about this album, so I’ll keep this kind of brief. Four months after its release, these tracks, mashups of familiar samples and avant-garde sensibility, still seem fresh; her lyrics, a devil-may-care collection of agit-prop sloganeering and quick-witted flirtation, still seem urgent. Rolling Stone, calling this their album of the year, says she’s a “criminal-minded art freak with a true rock & roller’s love of flash and sensation and irresponsible shit-talking;” yes, but you forgot to mention “cute.”
2. Radiohead – In Rainbows (Intertubes)
So, Mr. Dumb DJ Name Guy, how can an album that didn’t manage to generate any singles good enough for your Top 20 somehow land at #2 on your albums list, huh? Well, helpful internal voice of criticism, you unwittingly point out one of this album’s main strengths: it’s an album, all of whose songs seem to reference and lift up each other, and while “House of Cards” sounded pretty good on the radio, it just made me flip off the station and start the whole album up, because then I have to hear the Boards of Canada space-hop of “All I Need,” the rock ecstasy of “Bodysnatchers,” the abject despair of “Reckoner.” And I paid like $10.63 for it cause I forgot the pound is worth a million dollars, and I still don’t mind.
1. LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver (DFA)
This shouldn’t surprise anybody: hey, a dancey album from an aging hipster who really seems to like weird old disco and the Talking Heads, why don’t you just put yourself at #1, nerd. Well, that’s part of it, since this album feels like a victory for the, ahem, “mature”: you don’t have to stop breaking ground and being awesome, even if your lyrics reflect the trouble you’ve seen. From the massive build-to-ecstasy of “Get Innocuous!” to the cheeky “North American Scum” and the majestic, mournful “Someone Great,” this is an album that runs the emotional gamut, and all of us, with all of our baggage, are invited to the shindig: “so throw a party til the cops come in and bust it up/oh you were planning it, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
The next ten:
11. The Good, The Bad and The Queen – S/T (Virgin)
Surprise: it’s not mashups, disco, or hip-hop: just melancholy, dub-inflected ballads.
12. Klaxons – Myths of the Near Future (Geffen)
Nu-Rave? Nah, just forward-looking rock with super sci-fi references.
13. Justice – † (Vice)
French duo turns up the techno until it turns into metal.
14. Feist – The Reminder (Interscope)
A wildly diverse record of home-grown, straightforward tunes, insistently memorable but never cliché.
15. Simian Mobile Disco – Attack Decay Sustain Release (Wichita)
Former rockers turn to dance music, and they don’t want to break your eardrums like Justice, they just want you to shake it.
16. Burial – Untrue (Hyperdub)
The dubbed-out sound of South London through a soulful (and despairing) prism.
17. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible (Merge)
Canadian collective works themselves into a religious frenzy until the church falls down.
18. The Field – From Here We Go Sublime (Kompakt)
Chilly sample-based dance music with sources that will freak you out—was that Lionel Richie?
19. Jose Gonzalez – In Our Nature (Mute)
Swedish singer-songwriter laments the state of humanity accompanied by rhythmic, hypnotic acoustic guitar.
20. The National – Boxer (Beggars Banguet)
This album’s dark tales are like Raymond Carver short stories: brutal, too familiar.