The past twelve months brought mixed tidings in music. Eminem and Lady Gaga showed that staggering album sales is not entirely a thing of the past, but it became painfully clear for folks like Christina Aguilera that perhaps it’s time to call it a day. Usher got his mojo back, talented newcomers like Bruno Mars and B.o.B sizzled but, unfortunately, countless seasoned vets (who shall remain nameless) failed to rediscover the magic that made them stars. All in all, after wading through this year’s overwhelmingly mediocre crop of albums, I managed to settle on these seven (a weird number, I know) as my top picks of 2010.
Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
No one man should have all that talent. A spectacular, hypnotic 13-track record that is nothing if not an instant classic, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Def Jam) delivered indisputable proof of his genius as a hip hop revolutionary. What’s more, this is rap music like it was meant to be: menacing, dramatic beats, intricate rhymes and rhythms, lush and flawless instrumentation. As with each of the rapper-producer’s previous four albums, the music consistently pushes the status quo into a new realm and challenges the mind, all the while entertaining and charming your socks off. Epic and mind-blowing, West’s Fantasy is a sonically pleasant peek into the rapper’s spectral visions, dreams and desires. By far the best rap/hip-hop album of the year, it’s a powerful artistic statement that takes listeners adrift in time and experience. You can’t help but surrender to the raw passion and luminous intensity of the priestly protagonist.
Katie Melua: The House
Listeners appreciated The House (Dramatico Entertainment) perhaps mainly for representing a mild departure for Melua into more energetic territory, yet not completely abandoning the soulful, melancholy delight that made her a beloved indie star. That Melua can transform simple poetry into transcendent, profound music, as she does beautifully on The House, is testament to her astounding skill as a lyricist and her finely tuned ear for melody. The album is a warm, melodic collection of tuneful folk-pop and acoustic tracks, with traces of jazz, blues, bluegrass, naked music and art-house goodness. The highlights are numerous, most notably the wonderfully jazzy “Plague of Love,” about longing and intimate human relationships, two subjects Melua consistently explores with mastery on her albums. She conjures up stunning imagery on the sublimely poetic “Red Balloons,” a complete study in heartbreak and desolation, and goes for Broadway-esque sensibility on “A Moment of Madness.”
Nas and Damian Marley: Distant Relatives
Very few pairs of musicians worth their salt can craft a collaborative album that excels on the merit of powerful lyrics, A-class instrumentation and amazing chemistry. Only a select handful. Reggae’s golden boy Damian Marley and hip hop stalwart Nas, who joined forces for the brilliant Distant Relatives (Republic Records), a potent, 13-track elixir marked by poignant storytelling, lush beats and a seamless, nearly-perfect blend of reggae, dancehall, and hip hop, with Afro-Caribbean concerns and universal themes. Both artistes are distinguished, Grammy-winning entertainers, with knacks for thought-provoking lyrics and forceful rhymes and rhythms that exalt the essence and soul of the Motherland and her Diaspora. Excellent examples: Marley’s Welcome to Jamrock (2005) and Nas’ Illmatic (1994), which are considered archetypal creations. Together, they crafted a groundbreaking release full of revolutionary African rhetoric and proverbs, and conscious, thought-provoking messages sure to resonate with listeners.
Sade: Soldier of Love
With Soldier of Love (Sony Records), Sade treated the music world to another potent and intoxicating elixir, ten soothing tracks that speak to the largely rewarding journey she’s been making since the mid-1980s. With its pulsating rhythm and beautiful lyrics, the lead single (and title track) is a clear winner from the get-go. “I’ve lost the use of my heart, but I’m still alive,” she sings in the opening line, perfectly summing up how many of us really feel about our existence in these times. Simmering with positive reinforcements about love and sweet ambiguities about life, Soldier of Love offers a reminder that Sade is able to gather elements of jazz, R&B, samba, reggae and pop to craft a powerful statement record that not only showcases the singer’s coy, caressing voice, but serves as a perfect vessel for her exploration of trust, commitment and transition.
Drake: Thank Me Later
In short, Thank Me Later (Cash Money) is a delightfully entertaining and emotionally transparent release, a welcome debut from one of music’s reigning young luminaries. When was the last time in recent history that an album from a music debutante generated this sort of heightened interest among both male and female listeners from such a wide demographic? Can hardly recall. Drake’s music is ridiculously enjoyable, all the while highlighting his skills with the pen and the brain power he consistently pours into his craft. As a hip-hop artiste, the rapper-singer delivers a curious amalgam of Jay Z’s uncanny attention to detail, Kanye West’s affinity for beautiful, unexpected melodies and mentor Lil Wayne’s fluid flow and clever, effortless rhyming.
She was a Good Girl Gone Bad for the greater part of the last two years, but a more risqué, teasing Rihanna emerged in time for the 2010 release of her sunny, sexy new album, Loud (Def Jam), arguably her most coherent effort to date. As Loud proves, very few in pop can blend fun and sexiness for a successful album quite like ‘Little Miss Sunshine’. It’s indisputably another winning disc worth your attention. You had fair warning on Rated R’s rubbery hit “Hard”: That Rihanna reign just won’t let up. Highlights include “Cheers (Drink to that),” a bona-fide, feel-good jam, and the chart-topping nugget “What’s My Name?” (featuring Drake).
Taylor Swift: Speak Now
At 20, with successive platinum releases and an Album of the Year Grammy to her name, Taylor Swift is leading an undeniably charmed life in a youth-obsessed music industry, and that ascendancy – and nascent maturity – is fully reflected on Speak Now (Big Machine Records), Swift’s third studio album, a refreshing and appealing collection, completely imbued with lyrical grace, transparency and the anticipated confessional songwriting. Even so, Swift’s music remains youthful and vividly expressive and retains the appeal that consistently enraptures her broad, loyal audience. Though full of creamy, effervescent songs that charm the listener into a state of entertainment, more commonly we are reminded of Swift’s capacity for lush and sensitive lyrics steeped in matters of the heart.