(The asterisk is to acknowledge that this year I only listened to a small fraction of the hundreds of albums heard annually during the many years I was pop music critic at the Los Angeles Times. So, think of the 10 albums as simply my favorite new releases for the year—recommendations from me to you. That said, the top choices—by Arcade Fire and Kanye West—both live up to my top album choices over the years.)
AT THE TOP
1 Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” (Merge)
At a time when thousands of young rock bands seem to have given up on trying to dominate the cultural landscape the way groups from the Beatles to U2 once did, the Fire burns with ambition and purpose, making music that is both thrilling sonically and insightful lyrically. Suburban life is a topic that invites cliché and ham-fisted declarations, but Win Butler (and cohorts) speaks eloquently about both times wasted and lessons learned from the past. A brilliant, inspiring work.
2 Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Roc-A-Fella/Island Def Jam)
Along with expanding rap’s thematic zone, West’s early goal was to expand rap’s sonic range to include anything that entered his imagination, be it a string section or prog-rock. “Fantasy” is his boldest step forward since “Late Registration” in 2005. The album is smart, provocative, funny and revealing—touching on matters as diverse as West’s own celebrity and compulsiveness to the nation’s cultural values. An album filled with both sweeping grandeur and deep-rooted intimacy. A modern classic.
The Runners-up (alphabetical)
The Black Keys’ “Brothers’ (Nonesuch)
After years of being spoken about chiefly as White Stripes-ian because the Keys, too, is an intense, roots-minded blues-rock duo from the Midwest, Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach do much here to assert their own identity, thanks chiefly to improved songwriting. The music here is taut and tenacious, bristling with the sensual urgency of the blues.
Dead Weather’s “Sea of Cowards” (Third Man/Warner Bros.)
White and his mates in Dead Weather are reminding us that rock at its most powerful is neither conventional nor safe. It is the voice of extremism, fueled with an optimism and faith that music can still touch the heart and stir the imagination—and that albums, not just individual tracks, do matter.
Elton John and Leon Russell’s “The Union” (Decca/Rocket)
Leon Russell once stood at the very center of rock ‘n’ roll, both on the “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour and his own albums. This album not only puts the spotlight back on him, but it also reminds us that Elton is more than a flashy superstar. He and lyricist Bernie Taupin are superb pop-rock forces. Produced by T Bone Burnett.
The National’s “High Violet” (4AD)
These Brooklyn-based Ohioans’ musical vision combines the rock tension and spectacle of Jesus & Mary Chain (“Terrible Love”), quiet evocativeness of R.E.M. (“Afraid of Everyone”) and grand declarations of early David Bowie (“Bloodbuzz Ohio”) in imaginative reflections about trying to find and maintain emotional balance.
The rest of the Top 10 (alphabetical)
Elvis Costello’s “National Ransom” (Hear Music)
There’s such fury in the opening track that you could picture Costello listening to his old, high-energy gem “Pump It Up” before recording it. Besides a thoughtful body of songs, some of which speak to the national psyche, the album employs several of the musical styles that have interested the Englishman over the years, including music hall.
Cee Lo Green’s “The Lady Killer” (Elektra)
“F—k You” is one of the most irresistible singles since “Crazy,” but it’s far from all that this Georgia mix of hip-hop, neo soul and dance fever has going for it. The tone is playful, but some moments are tender and surprisingly humble for a man who calls himself a lady killer. Winning in a lively, mainstream way.
Janelle Monae’s “ The ArchAndroid” (Bad Boy/Atlantic)
This remarkably ambitious musical brew toasts some of the most alluring pop/hip-hop/soul/disco/rock sounds of the last 50 years. The singer playfully cites such as influences as James Brown’s cape, Stevie Wonder’s mirrored glasses and Jack White’s mustache. Add Walt Disney, Judy Garland and Grace Jones. Full of life and heart.
Munford & Sons’ “Sigh No More” (Glassnote)
There’s a rustic, country, folk, even bluegrass spirit flowing through this English quartet’s debut album, along with a winning youthful optimism underscored in the title track, “Love, it will not betray, dismay or enslave you / It will set you free.” But the band touches on enough melancholy moments to keep the music rooted in reality.