Listen: Something like 50,000 albums came out this year, and there are more ways than ever to hear all that music. You can’t make a top 10 and have it mean anything anymore—a top 50 might actually include almost everything you listened to and loved. So this top 10 represents a fraction of my year in music—a cross section of what music sounded like to me in 2010. So, listen:
10. Mark McGuire: Living With Yourself (Editions Mego)—Ambient guitarist Mark McGuire released something like a dozen records this year. It wasn’t easy to keep up, but it was worth it. The hazy, shimmering Living With Yourself was McGuire’s most song-based 2010 solo work, and it’s a great starting point if you’re just digging into his terrific (and quickly expanding) catalog.
9. Women: Public Strain (Jagjaguwar)—Offering, as it does, such bleak portraits of urban decay, the sophomore album from Calgary, Alberta’s Women may be depressive, but its blissful streaks of melody keep it from being a drag, and its auburn hues raise it to levels of almost divine beauty.
8. Big Boi: Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Return of Chico Dusty (Def Jam)—Yes, it’s a consensus pick, but who says the consensus is always wrong? It’s impossible to not recognize the greatness of Outkast member Big Boi’s solo debut. Sir Lucious Left Foot abounds with the playfulness, verve and innovation of vintage Outkast—vintage Prince, even.
7. Los Campesinos: Romance Is Boring (Wichita)—Prior to this year, Wales’ Los Campesinos were known mostly for their exuberance, but Romance Is Boring matched that youthful energy with an adult cynicism, and offered a mature, thrilling work bursting with new ideas, new textures, and some of the most exciting choruses of 2010.
6. Grinderman: Grinderman 2 (Anti-)—Nick Cave has had a hell of a career, but Grinderman 2 stands among his finest work. Violent, vile and very, very catchy, Grinderman 2 offers some of the most quotable lyrics of Cave’s catalog, and certainly some of his most propulsive songs.
5. Alcest: Écailles de Lune (Prophecy)—France’s Alcest are often called a black metal band, though their catalog is much more My Bloody Valentine than Mayhem, and better than both. The band’s mastermind, Neige, is one of music’s most exciting innovators, and everything he releases commands a stop-whatever-you’re-doing-and-listen response. And Écailles de Lune rewards it. Lush, haunting, wondrous—like a dream or a memory or some gorgeous hallucinatory fantasy.
4. Kylesa: Spiral Shadow (Season of Mist)—Last year, Kylesa released the pugilistic, kinetic, massively thrilling Static Tensions, one of the best albums of 2009. They topped it this year. Spiral Shadow is a bold step forward into new aural worlds heretofore not even suggested in Kylesa’s catalog, much less explored. Spiral Shadow feels like a big album—it builds on oceanic riffs and tribal drums, adding spaced-out, spidery guitars, pummeling breakdowns and full-bodied, textured vocals. The band’s speed and power combine to form one of contemporary popular music’s more intoxicating sensations, but as the record bucks dogma and ventures forcefully into unexpected new straits, it sounds like Kylesa have taken an important step forward, one that should come to be remembered as a breakthrough.
3. Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (Merge)—The Suburbs is not a perfect album—moments here try too hard, are a bit too cute—but the large majority of this thing is ferocious and haunting and great, finding a spot at the center of a Venn diagram featuring The Cure, Springsteen, Big Country and My Bloody Valentine. I don’t know if it’s the simplicity of these songs or merely the fact that the band are now just better songwriters than they used to be, but this thing is 16 songs long and I’d say at least 12 of those songs are totally emotionally and aurally arresting. That is an insane, almost unfair ratio. Undeniable.
2. Kvelertak: Kvelertak (Indie Recordings)— A raucous, violent album of massive chant-along choruses, dirty blues guitar licks, gargantuan riffs as sticky as resin, and wild instrumental unpredictability, the debut LP from Norwegian deathpunkers Kvelertak sounds like five decades of rock ’n’ roll’s most dangerous music—the Stones, the Stooges, the Pistols, Motorhead, Mayhem—distilled into 11 individual 3-to-5-minute blasts of 90-proof sonic vodka.
1. Agalloch: Marrow of the Spirit (Profound Lore)—It was a great year for heavy metal—both as a genre and a zillion different sub-subgenres—but no band succeeded more mightily than Agalloch, whose Marrow of the Spirit would have been tough to beat in any year, not just this one. Marrow combines black metal, prog-rock, shoegaze and folk to create a seamless and signature sound, a perfect canvas for the band’s nature-themed lyrics. The performances are ferocious yet precise, delicate at points; the sonic scope is truly boundless—just listen to “Black Lake Nidstång,” the album’s towering 17-minute-plus centerpiece, which seems to encompass an entire universe of sound: It’s built around a simple Sabbath-y riff, but its carefully arranged complexity brings the piece to dizzying heights. It’s an album I keep coming back to—it makes every other option seem less interesting—and every listen reveals not just new details, but entirely new highlights. We have overused to the point of meaninglessness words like “epic,” “awesome” and “masterpiece.” But think about, really, think about the true definition of those words: Marrow of the Spirit can be considered nothing less.