So many artists aimed big this year. They made grand thematic albums about 21st century detachment. They made sprawling concept albums about the Civil War. And they made ego-fueled albums about their out-of-control egos. That sound you hear is 2010 busting out of its tiny shell, exploding redneck badasses, ragtag punks, and Kanye juice all over your ears.
1. Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
West has made huge, ambitious albums before. But this one pulls in so many sounds, sources, and guests, it’s like he shuffled through dozens of different iPods for inspiration. Indie folkie Bon Iver, hip-hop legend Jay-Z, prog icons King Crimson – they all play a major part in West’s beautiful, dark, and twisted fantasy. The album’s scope is large, taking in everything from fame to blame to West’s oversized ego.
2. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
Like Kanye, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy shuffles in a lot of different sounds to power his latest opus. There’s a New Wave homage, an indie-pop twirl, and plenty of dance-floor burners that are way deeper than your average Deadmau5 song. Murphy is a lot like a know-it-all music critic – but one who can actually write songs and play an instrument. Smart, sassy, and filled with huge hooks, this is one groovy happening.
3. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
These New Jersey punks sound like a drunken mash of the Clash, Pogues, and Bright Eyes. Their second album is about the Civil War, with an Abraham Lincoln speech, epic-length songs, and a concept revolving around one of the Navy’s first warships. But The Monitor is also about some of the year’s smartest songwriting and getting shit-faced drunk on the weekend. The album’s catchiest song is called “Theme From ‘Cheers’.” Everybody should know their name.
4. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Indie rock’s favorite Canadian collective went big this year, debuting at No. 1 with their most sprawling album. The theme has to do with family, community, and keeping it all together under crappy circumstances. Frontman Win Butler takes his band to the arenas with The Suburbs – literally and figuratively. There are monster-sized songs here, from “Half Light” to “Ready to Start.” And of course there has to be a song called “Sprawl.”
5. Drake – Thank Me Later
Drake’s dilemma in 2010: recording songs about how much fame sucks before his debut album even came out. In all fairness, the 24-year-old rapper did star in the TV show Degrassi: The Next Generation. But how many people watched that? Not nearly as many who bought his hit record. Drake rapped a lot about the hassles of celebrity on Thank Me Later: the strange faces sharing his bar tab, the headaches the following day – generally just being Drake.
6. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song
Johnson is a former Marine who looks like he’d kick your ass for referring to him as a former Marine (once a Marine, always a Marine, right?). This two-disc concept album is divided into “black” and “white” parts, telling the story of a country-music star on his way down. Johnson is at once the most traditional and unconventional guy in country music these days, combining classic honky-tonk stomp with Lynyrd Skynyrd swagger.
7. M.I.A. — Maya
There was major backlash against the one-time It Girl this year, but her third album is loaded with the bold, skittering beats that made her other records huge hipster favorites. As she gets older, 35-year-old Mathangi Arulpragasam is becoming even more outspoken … if that’s possible. Her extreme political views nearly capsize Maya at times. But it all bounces back on the beats – some of the most striking and audacious of her career.
8. Robyn – Body Talk
Swedish dance dynamo Robyn prepped us for her album earlier in the year with a pair of EPs that include some of the songs that ended up on the full-length. But when the songs are as terrific as “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do,” “Dancing on My Own,” and “Hang With Me,” who’s complaining? Robyn is all about robot love – the circuits and wires becoming entangled in an orgy of sparks. Body Talk sounds something like that.
9. The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang
Frontman Brian Fallon is probably sick of all the Bruce Springsteen comparisons by now. But that’s what he gets for making an album that shares the Boss’ affinity for classic-rock hooks and lyrics about busted-up folks looking for one last shot of redemption. The best songs on the Gaslight Anthem’s third album take a right turn at the light and end up somewhere near the darkness on the edge of town.
10. Cee Lo Green – The Lady Killer
The anchor here is the insanely catchy kiss-off single “Fuck You” – quite possibly the cheeriest song to ever have an expletive in its title. But the rest of the Gnarls Barkley singer’s third solo album is just as good. There’s a lot going on here, most of it wrapped in old-school R&B sounds and Green’s sweet, vulnerable voice. Plus, his cover of Band of Horses’ “One One’s Gonna Love You” kills.