It's that time of the year and best-of lists are cropping up all over the web. I think a lot of people out there agree that 2010 has been a spectacular year for a lot of varieties of music. To my ears, hip-hop has been particularly strong, and I can't wait to see how it continues to develop in the new year. As I want to mention quite a few albums, I won't be able to say more than a few words about each one. The order I list these albums in should really be taken with a grain of salt - I'm only going to mention things that made a solid positive impression on me, and in many cases albums will be so close in quality that I'm just going to have to make an arbitrary decision in ranking them. Also, my current stylistic predilections are obviously going to bias this list in favor of hip-hop, jazz, and ambient music. Without further ado...
50. Kanye West - My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy
I'm basically getting this one out of the way as soon as possible. I do indeed think it's good enough to warrant a mention, and leagues above Kanye's last effort 808s & Heartbreak, but there has been a lot more exciting music this year. As usual, Kanye's beats are on point, his lyrics by and large unmemorable. That some people regard this as the essential album of the year is beyond me. It's possible I'm being unnecessarily harsh here - this album is well worth a listen, but I feel the need to counteract the hype slightly if at all possible.
49. Hidden Orchestra - Night Walks
A relatively recent discovery for me, and one I plan to revisit many more times. Darkly orchestrated noir beats that remind me a bit of the Scandinavian neckbreakers Xploding Plastix. Groovy, jazzy, and easy to enjoy.
48. Caribou - Swim
I want to love this album, as it's by a beatmaker with a penchant for psychedelics who also happens to hold a PhD in mathematics. Despite these qualities in its favor, this hasn't yet transcended beyond just solid dance music for me. I can definitely see it growing on me, though - its lush arrangements and catchy melodies are admirable.
47. Paul Motian - Lost In A Dream
This is one of three albums on my list featuring pianist Jason Moran, who I believe to be one of the most significant young players on the scene today. Moran has a lot of styles under his belt, being a student of the peerless virtuoso chameleon Jaki Byard, and like his teacher he switches between them with arresting grace. Compared to his album as a leader Ten and his work with Charles Lloyd Mirror, however, this album suffers a little bit from "typical ECM syndrome" - the tunes mostly plod along, exploring dark modalities and using a lot of open space. Part of this is on account of Paul Motian leading; for decades now the drummer has been developing an unorthodox approach that provides pure color but little in the way of regular or driving rhythms. Still, this is really beautiful work.
46. Black Milk - Album of the Year
Album of the Year isn't the album of the year. But it is a vital example of contemporary hip-hop true to the roots of the genre while exploring fresh territory. Black Milk raps and makes his own beats, and is better at both activities than most musicians who do only one or the other. Funky fresh.
45. Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises
Here's one of several albums on my list I could easily be underrating simply because I haven't been so into this type of music in the past year. If melancholy acoustic folk is up your alley, consider this one of the best releases of the year. All of Sun Kil Moon's albums are great and this is no exception.
44. Baths - Cerulean
This is the first and so far only release on Anticon that has really caught and held my interest. That's because it doesn't sound like an Anticon record at all. Baths is a frustratingly young (as in I'm jealous) beatmaker who actually went to my high school in the San Fernando Valley and is now more than holding his own in LA's Low End Theory scene. Unlike most future-beat crafters, Baths makes his own (processed) vocals a major part of his sound, which is bright, childlike and pastoral while also distinctly weird. The vocals are odd, but this is ultimately too tight and catchy to resist.
43. Extra Life - Made Flesh
This is one of those albums I've listened to a couple times and decided I love, yet rarely find myself wanting to put on. Most of that has to do with that avant-Medieval-metal hasn't been my cup of tea this year, but this is still amazing, forward-looking music that sounds like no other band I'm aware of. Charlie Looker works in a style that has the potential to be utterly cheesy, but executes it with total sophistication. There are more than a few "holy crap"-inducing flourishes on this remarkable album.
42. Vijay Iyer - Solo
Like with Caribou, I have automatic admiration for Vijay Iyer for his holding a PhD in math. Then there's the fact that he's an excellent improviser on the piano. On this album, his first playing by himself, he opens with a beautiful, shimmering cover of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature". Like, how much cooler could this guy be? That said, the album isn't higher on my list because even I with my love of formalized and mathematical music can understand the criticism against Vijay Iyer that his playing is at times a little too rigid and structured, a little bit lacking in sensitive dynamics. The album also feels a little more like a collection of different songs than a unified statement. Regardless, there's a lot of fascinating and moving content here.
41. Dimlite - Prismic Tops
One of the most tricky to unlock mostly-instrumental hip hop albums on my list. There's plenty here that's immediately accessible, but beat-alchemist Dimlite layers in so many unexpected left turns and proggy conceits that I still don't have a clear understanding of how the album unfolds, after several listens. This is a compliment; few beat-based albums are slow to reveal their secrets and able improve with time. Richly complex yet always able to make your head nod.
To be continued!