Katy Perry is nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. Not that the Grammys carry a hell of a lot of clout for anyone who isn't already a member of NARAS, but that's still an important talking point. A professional organization that ostensibly has an investment in both the commercial and the artistic viability of popular music came right out and said, “In the two thousand and tenth year of our Lord, we stand firm behind Katy Perry and her Teenage Dream as the embodiment of the highest achievements of our industry and of our art, with the hope that other artists will look to all that she has accomplished and will strive to be more like Katy Perry. Amen.”
Now, it's easy to pick on the geriatric membership of NARAS, just as it's easy to throw shade on Perry, but her nomination flies in the face of the notion that year-in-review listmaking and awards-giving should be all about the consensus picks. It's a bold, editorial choice that recognizes the value in a group having a distinct point of view, however WTF? that point of view might seem.
The flipside to that argument, though, is that there can be just as much value to consensus, at least in a year like 2010, when it has become easier than ever before to get trapped in one's own little special-interest bubble. It's the cream-rises argument, and, while that inevitably means that more obscure titles get swept away in the deluge of year-end lists, that consensus ensures that some of the year's strongest work from across the full musical spectrum ends up getting highlighted. And this year, it seems like most everyone can agree on the notion that Kanye West managed to channel his public persona, which he has constructed from being an absolutely insufferable douchebag and a motherfucking monster of absolutely epic proportions, into a challenging, divisive hip-hop record that demands a strong reaction. It's an album that our staff has reacted to quite favorably, and the same can be said of Robyn's series of progressive, emotionally devastating dance-pop EPs and of Janelle Monáe's weird-ass Robot Messiah song cycle.
Sometimes, when everyone agrees that something is pretty great, it's because it's actually pretty great. That's not a preemptive mea culpa for the fact that our best-of albums list includes some albums that a host of publications have also cited as among the best of 2010, so much as a statement of principle that a consensus can only emerge from individual voices. And, with acts like Lizz Wright, Jenny Wilson, and How to Dress Well also included here, the voices of our staff's individual writers are reflected just as strongly as the consensus picks. And no, we still can't stand Katy Perry. Jonathan Keefe
Editor's Note: Check out our Best of 2010: Singles.
Hot Chip, One Life Stand
When Joe Goddard couldn't attend Hot Chip's SummerStage performance earlier this year because he was having a baby, he still managed to send himself there via a video containing his oversized, lip-syncing head. Whatever you think of the band, do not doubt their generosity and commitment—as musicians or lovers. One Life Stand may not be as ready for the floor as The Warning or Made in the Dark, but it's the album that most boldly attests to the group's melancholic romanticism (it's even in the kinda-euphemistic title), the love these heirs to the Pet Shop Boys want but can't have or don't want anything to do with, but also to their endearing sense of male camaraderie. Their beats are practically a diagram of the heart: they stutter, they soar, they often break. Ed Gonzalez
Mahjongg, The Long Shadow of the Paper Tiger
Mahjongg's third effort is an album without a core, a 36-minute spiel for which even the divisions between songs feel like arbitrary markers. This could easily devolve into sonic mush, but the group manages to tie their myriad influences together into a sprightly, effusive bundle, one that feels to be distractedly excited to be contained. Take opener “Gooble,” which ditches any pretext of standard structure for a roving free-association pattern, attaching new sections which flow into others, spinning out bizarre vocal passages that lead nowhere. The album continues on in this pattern, capturing and rebranding familiar sounds, transforming guest vocalists into unrecognizably processed drones, never repeating itself in its pursuit of untrammeled musical bliss. Jesse Cataldo
LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
Music tailormade for my Eno-loving heart. Not unlike the woefully undervalued Another Day on Earth, This Is Happening is a frantic elegy to a man's crippling ennui. This is not as emotionally uplifting a record as Sound of Silver, but it doesn't want to be. It is, though, unquestionably affecting, eerily, bombastically, and resonating with loss, self-doubt, and regret. James Murphy is more of an analogue man than the boys of Hot Chip, but like them, he insists on linking upbeat sounds with downbeat emotions, knotting his aspirations and fears to create a sound that disconcertingly and beautifully hurts. Gonzalez
Vampire Weekend, Contra
You can take the band out of Cape Cod, but you can't take Cape Cod out of the band, even when they move to Nicaragua and don balaclavas. Post-grad indie band Vampire Weekend leaves behind much of their debut's piss and vinegar in infusing their worldbeat aura with the sights and sounds of Latin America, but the scholastic wink and high-society bon mots remain. As a result, sophomore effort Contra ends up being equally acute and sardonically sweet—a colorful, vista-spanning travelogue of lost romance, warm afternoons, and coming-of-age realizations. In the process, the band manages to carve a few more subtle details onto their yuppie-rock personas. That goes double for leadman Ezra Koenig, who finally ditches the Paul Simon impression for the scratchy sentimentality of a world-weary troubadour. And so from the pleasant machine gun rumble of “Giving Up the Gun” to the breezy chorale of “Horchata” and the crackling, crunchy beat of “White Sky,” Contra is both a passport to an older, more exotic world and the maturation of a promising young band. Kevin Liedel
Ray Wylie Hubbard, A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C)
He may have spent the majority of his career as one of the leading candidates for the title of country music's Poet Laureate, but crotchety sumbitch Ray Wylie Hubbard summarily dismissed such distinctions on “Down Home Country Blues,” declaring Muddy Waters to be every bit as deep as William Blake. It's a loaded statement, for sure, and one that serves as a stark reminder that the best country music has always been able to boast intelligence as one of its virtues. Hubbard's twisted, gothic exploration of the grimiest forms of country and blues plays out as a powerful collection of Songs of Experience that would do both Waters and Blake proud. Keefe