1. Portishead - Third (Island)
It's impossible to separate this album from its triumphant context—a band rising from, if not the dead, at least the comatose, and tossing out all their old instruments in pursuit of something new. What they created still sounds both shocking and inspiring, seven months after its release: an experiment in sometimes brutal, sometimes delicate sonics, held together by the perfectly-executed vocals of Beth Gibbons. While the lyrics explore the depths of despair, Gibbons sings with soaring confidence, sometimes hitting what sounds at first like a wrong note until the careening music shifts to resolve it. While it was clearly the musical achievement of the year, Third is such a challenging listen it's hard to recommend to the uninitiated. But like a dive into icy water, it may sting at first, but you'll emerge exhilarated, and feeling joyfully, utterly alive.
2. TV on the Radio - Dear Science (4AD/Interscope)
Our country's greatest band has managed to capture the hidden zeitgeist underlying the Obama party: confused, anxious dread, with progress in sight but far from certain. The beats shuffle along in syncopated grooves while the guitars add funky riffs, but vocalists Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone can't help but acknowledge their doubt, both in society and themselves: "I'm living a life not worth dying for," go the lyrics to "Red Dress," and you know they mean both us and our war, both a hope for change and a cry for help.
3. Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III (Cash Money)
Sure, I wasn't quite ready for this album when it finally came out; accustomed to Wayne's eclectic mixtapes, the familiar hip-hop tropes at work here at first felt like a throwback. But what I've realized is that the 26-year-old Dwayne Carter has devoured the lyrical and musical themes of hip-hop and spit out a strange, sometimes menacing and sometimes hilarious subversion of the genre. Fuck the police? Wayne takes that literally, turning the siren of "Mrs. Officer" into a come-on. Bragging about your gunshot wounds? A 12-year-old Dwayne shoots himself on "Shoot Me Down." By nature a scattershot collection of the wildly prolific Wayne's material, a little focus could have made Tha Carter III transcendent. But its abounding strangeness makes it great.
4. M83 - Saturdays = Youth (Mute)
Frenchman Anthony Gonzalez' tribute to the most guilelessly dramatic music of the '80s hasn't appeared on a lot of year-end best-ofs, so I wonder if maybe you had to be there. But to those of us raised on the Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush, and, well, The Breakfast Club, S = Y is like a long-overdue vindication—our love and angst was real! More so even than a mash-up, this is deeply referential music, its sounds inextricably linked to memory: "Kim & Jessie" pounds with Phil Collinsy drums, "We Own the Sky" swirls with New Ordery guitars. The album's philosophy is encapsulated by the final line of "Dark Moves of Love": "I will fight the time and bring you back."
"We Own the Sky"
5. Hercules & Love Affair - S/T (DFA)
With the ascendance of neo-disco hipsters like LCD Soundsystem, it's easy to forget that funky 4/4 beats weren't always cool. But this album, produced by New York DJ Andy Butler and a shifting lineup of cohorts, reminds us where disco came from: the gays! Or is that now "teh gheys?" Either way, it was a profoundly queer mix of celebratory beats and outsider passions that gave anthems like Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" their power, something H&LA understands intuitively. Bringing gifted vocalist Antony Hegarty into the mix was inspired, and his voice, both melancholy and strident, lifts up these reimaginings of classic sounds like a mythical hero.
6. The Very Best - Esau Mwamwaya & Radioclit Are the Very Best (self-released)
The most last-minute entry into my Top 10, The Very Best have made a head-spinning mixtape that puts the ground-breaking promise of M.I.A.'s world-conscious beats into exhilarating practice. UK combo Radioclit represent edgy electro, and vocalist Mwamwaya represents kwaito, a syncopated South African dance style, but this mix goes everywhere: a melodic version of M.I.A's own "Paper Planes," a stomping remix of Vampire Weekend, a newly vital sample of the Beatles. But as Pitchfork said, while this is joyfully global music, it's neither "condescending nor touristic," since it aims not to capture a tradition, but to express a personal vision.
Download the whole thing for free here!
7. Santogold vs. Diplo - Top Ranking (Mad Decent) / Santogold - S/T (Downtown)
A tie is a cheat, I know, but Diplo's wildly eclectic rework of the young singer's already-diverse debut serves as a companion album that both subverts and enhances the original. Santogold's array of styles touched on dub, new wave, and indie rock, channeling the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Sleater-Kinney only to turn and dive into bassy electronic weirdness; Diplo's 35-track (!) mix delves even deeper, expanding the palette into reggaeton, classic rock and, er, Gerri and the Holograms. Like TV on the Radio, Santi White doesn't so much trample genre as surf its waves, staying upright on the turbulence with an acute sense of balance and conviction.
8. Flying Lotus - Los Angeles (Stones Throw)
It's unfair, but understandable, to compare SoCal producer Steven Ellison to the late, great J Dilla: both are quirky solo producers making boundary-pushing, often instrumental hip-hop. But while Dilla's woozy, soulful tracks were products of isolation and melancholy, Ellison's sound crackles with energy, like the swirling, chaotic maelstrom of its namesake city. Samples range from sitar to harp, and even what sounds like a bleepy transmission from space, but this heir to the Coltranes arranges the cacophony into a jazzy, atmospheric whole.
9. Beach House - Devotion (Carpark)
This Baltimore duo's lilting ballads have the gentle appeal of Mazzy Star or Low, but you can tell they've had classical training, since each note and syllable is placed with seemingly effortless precision. Moreover, they use just about every instrument around—organs, pedal guitars, harpshichords. On top of it all floats Victoria Legrand's voice, pure and nearly vibrato-free. Her lyrics all focus on "you," whether it's offering that "your wish is my command" on "Wedding Bell" or begging "please do not go" on "You Came to Me." Whoever she's devoted to haunts the album like a ghost.
"You Came to Me"
10. Kanye West - 808s and Heartbreak (Island Def Jam)
Honestly, it was watching Kanye this weekend on Saturday Night Live that sealed the deal for me: his rendition of "Love Lockdown" was sloppy and often out of tune, but it was delivered with such raw emotional force that it left a lump in my throat. The LA Times quoted 19th century German philosopher Heinrich von Kleist in their review, saying that "grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness." On 808s, Kanye tries to strip himself of his aching consciousness, burying his voice in fuzzy auto-tune and robotic beats, but what emerges is indeed graceful, and in fact, more human, not less. The fact that hip-hop's most radical experimenter was able to once again crash through the genre's boundaries is a shock in and of itself, but that he focused his agonized despair into art is all the more courageous.
"Welcome to Heartbreak"
11. Vampire Weekend - S/T (XL)
Too-smart white boys ape Afropop with such joy and wit that you put aside your Paul Simon memories and dance.
12. Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours (Modular)
The Australian combo separate themselves from the pack of '80s revivalists with a surprising stragegy—sincerity.
13. Deerhunter - Microcastle / Weird Era Cont. (kranky)
This Georgia combo inherits the blistering guitar work and pensive edginess of Sonic Youth.
14. Amadou & Mariam - Welcome to Mali (Because)
The duo brings their melancholy take on Malian music to the world, taking on electro, reggae and the Smiths like the coolest 50-year-olds around.
15. Friendly Fires - S/T (XL)
The UK combo takes dance rock to euphoric heights, evoking both shoegaze and Hot Chip.
16. The Raveonettes - Lust Lust Lust (Vice)
The garage revivalists push their fuzzy retro-rock into gritty, modern territory.
17. Fleet Foxes - S/T (Sub Pop)
Hymnal, reverb-drenched odes avoid folk-rock clichés with Beach Boys harmonies.
18. Quiet Village - Silent Movie (!K7)
Dance dudes make strange and wonderful lounge-exotica.
19. No Age - Nouns (Sub Pop)
LA kids deconstruct punk rock.
20. Dungen - 4 (Kemado)
Swedish psychedelia comes down to earth.
Coming soon: my top singles of the year, and no, "Single Ladies" will not be on top.