After spending the last several years grousing about the domination of indie-rock bands on year-end lists — a product of the Internet-driven proliferation of indie-rock-specialist critics at the expense of generalists with more open ears and a better sense of history — I'm surprised and somewhat disappointed to report that this is my most indie-rock heavy year-end list ever. Five of my Top 10 albums this year are indie-rock records, and it would be six if I included Harlan T. Bobo's Sucker, which I voted for in The Village Voice's "Pazz and Jop" critics poll but which I'm leaving off here to avoid duplication with last week's local year-end lists.
But what can you do? Kanye West and Taylor Swift aside, Titus Andronicus' Patrick Stickles, Allo Darlin's Elizabeth Morris, and Love Is All's Josephine Olausson are the three most compelling personalities I encountered in one year and hundreds of records worth of listening. And the other two indie selections — from the music-first Vampire Weekend and No Age — were, discounting some decades-old Afropop, simply the prettiest records of the year.
Instead, where I think the crit consensus erred this year (aside from a good but not great Arcade Fire album) is on a couple of very much alt-oriented R&B records: Janelle Monae's The ArchAndroid and Cee-Lo Green's The Lady Killer. I understand why, because I want to like those albums too. But Monae's reach exceeds her grasp on an album that's too ornate and too draggy, while Cee-Lo's rejection of his Rev. Ike rap flow has been good for his pocketbook but bad for his art. Monae and Cee-Lo were both singles artists for me this year, as the following lists attest.
Top 30 Albums:
1. The Monitor — Titus Andronicus (XL): Patrick Stickles and his crew of unruly punk-Springsteen Jerseyites mix up their mythologies on this bravura second album, named after the Union Navy ironclad and launched with a pre-presidential quotation from Abraham Lincoln. For Stickles, the recurrent Civil War imagery ties into his own personal advance into and retreat from Southern territory, but he gets off on the era's union of elegant language and righteous anger, and the band evokes the enormity of that historical moment as something of a rebuke to their own generational torpor. Like abolitionist hero William Lloyd Garrison, also quoted, they do not wish to think, speak, or write with moderation. And they will be heard. Loudly. For this scalawag, in a year when "Confederate heritage" came roaring back, nothing else matched it.
2. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — Kanye West (Roc-a-Fella): Insecurity, awkwardness, and self-flagellation would seem to be fatal flaws in the Darwinian world of mainstream hip-hop, but West has long made these traits the source of his artistic strength. And they are everything on this relentlessly self-focused, dark-comic, and belligerent opus, which earns every adjective in its cumbersome title. Even on the rare occasion when words fail West, the music never does. This third classic in five tries is a tour de force that combines unnerving distortion, stormy orchestral passages, icy piano loops, thundering beats, and sharp samples (most pointedly: King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man") into a musical maelstrom meant to reflect West's rattled psyche.
3. Contra — Vampire Weekend (XL): The songs here — travelogue observations, generous snapshots of a doomed relationship — are harder to pin down now that Vampire Weekend is off campus and out into the world, but they are very much into the world: There's an admirable lack of navel-gazing on this sophomore album, which expends no energy reacting to either the band's own success or its inevitable backlash. Musically, Contra is gorgeous, as refined as The Monitor is raw. The band's brisk union of Afropop and new wave (along with other secondary components) lacks the bracing novelty of the debut, but the sonics prove more expansive and confident over time. And frontman Ezra Koenig has put as much work into his unabashedly pretty vocals as the band has into its heroically syncretic yet simple sound.
4. Allo Darlin' — Allo Darlin' (Fortuna Pop!): On this London indie-pop band's jaunty debut, bandleader Elizabeth Morris starts with three consecutive nightlife evocations of charming modesty ("Will you go out with me tonight?/Lose it on a disco floor/Take the night bus with me tonight?/Frost on the window"), then opens up into a vision of the good life that I can get with: making dinner with your sweetie, taking a vacation swim, arguing over movies, referencing-without-naming Johnny Cash and the Chiffons on back-to-back songs. Morris worries that she should have stayed in school and isn't sure where this band thing is headed, but for now she's all-in. Her heartbeat is her backbeat: "Though I've got no money to burn/I'm gonna burn what I've got/And though this band is awful/I like them an awful lot."
5. Two Thousand and Ten Injuries — Love Is All (Polyvinyl): With tiny Josephine Olausson chirping mightily over springy, skronky guitar-bass-drum-sax art-punk accompaniment, this Swedish band evokes such spirited femme-fronted first-generation punks as X-Ray Spex and Kleenex. This passionate, spirited third album is their most melodic, a collection of bigger, bolder mostly love songs that run the gamut from exuberant ("Bigger Bolder") to spiteful/regretful ("Less Than Thrilled") to yearning ("Side in a Bed": "I want my hands to be held/I want someone to put under my spell").
6. Everything in Between — No Age (Sub Pop): Like Hüsker Dü and Pavement before them, this California guitar/drum duo with skate-punk roots tweaks hardcore into something more personal, artier, and more affable. But the way they locate hazy beauty in dissonance and propulsion on this, their third and most tuneful album, evokes pastoral, post-revolutionary Sonic Youth. (No Age plays the Hi-Tone Café on Tuesday, January 25th.)
7. I Am What I Am — Merle Haggard (Vanguard): Maybe if Haggard had worked with a producer like Jack White, Rick Rubin, or T-Bone Burnett, covered songs by critically overestimated alt-rock vets like Elvis Costello or Tom Waits, or released it on some hip rock-oriented label, this autumnal gem might have gotten a little more attention. Instead, the 73-year-old Haggard penned a batch of new songs, recorded them with his road band at his home studio, and quietly released them via the rootsy indie Vanguard. The result is a beaut of a record — quite possibly his best studio album — with the Western swing and straight jazz influences that have always underpinned Haggard's music pushed out front. I Am What I Am doesn't sound like a final testament. It sounds like a late-life renewal with the potential for encores plenty. Here's hoping he gets the chance to top it.
8. Speak Now — Taylor Swift (Big Machine): A preternaturally gifted songwriter who represents something rare if not unique in the annals of pop music and speaks to a big, interesting audience in big, interesting ways, Swift graduates from teendom with her best album yet, featuring premonitions of adult love, intimations of sex, feisty daydreams, anthemic ammunition for the beaten and bullied, a farewell to fairy tales, and a heartbreaker in which she reminds her 14-year-old fans of their parents' mortality on the way to introducing them to their own. Not bad for 21.
9. Once Upon a Time in Senegal: The Birth of Mbalax — Etoile de Dakar (Stern's Africa): Most of this year's "old music newly released" attention went to Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones for handsome, packed-with-extras editions of really good (Darkness on the Edge of Town) and really great (Exile on Main Street) '70s albums. But my favorite archival title of the year was this lilting, lovely, but still invigorating two-disc selection of 1979 to 1981 recordings of Youssou N'Dour's first band.
10. Welder — Elizabeth Cook (31 Tigers): This indie-not-alt country singer-songwriter splits the difference, stylistically, between folk-rock icon Lucinda Williams and mainstream stalwart Miranda Lambert. And though Cook's not quite the same magnitude an artist as either, she gets there on this good album's two great songs: the richly detailed autobiographical showcases "Mama's Funeral" and "Heroin Addict Sister."
Honorable Mentions: Sir Luscious Leftfoot ... The Son of Chico Dusty — Big Boi (Def Jam); Body Talk — Robyn (Konichiwa); How I Got Over — The Roots (Def Jam); Treats — Sleigh Bells (Mom + Pop); Rush To Relax — Eddy Current Suppression Ring (Goner); The Big To-Do — The Drive-By Truckers (ATO); This Is Happening — LCD Soundsystem (DFA/Virgin); To All My Friends: Blood Makes the Blade Holy — Atmosphere (Rhymesayers); Blue-Eyed Black Boy — Balkan Beat Box (Nat Geo Music); Astro Coast — Surfer Blood (Kanine); The Suburbs — Arcade Fire (Merge); Sea of Cowards — The Dead Weather (Third Man/Warner Bros.); All Day — Girl Talk (self-released); Fixin' the Charts — Everybody Was in the French Resistance ... Now (Cooking Vinyl); Maya — M.I.A. (Interscope); A Badly Broken Code – Dessa (Doomtree); Next Stop ... Soweto: Township Sounds From the Golden Age of Mbaqanga — Various Artists (Strut); Distant Relatives — Nas & Damian "JR. Gong" Marley (Def Jam); Heaven Is Whenever — The Hold Steady (Vagrant); Trunk Muzik 0-60 — Yelawolf (Interscope)
Top 20 Singles: "Rill Rill" — Sleigh Bells (Mom + Pop); "Bigger Bolder" — Love Is All (Polyvinyl); "Only Prettier" — Miranda Lambert (Sony); "Mine" — Taylor Swift (Big Machine); "Wut" — Girl Unit (Night Slugs); "From a Table Away" — Sunny Sweeney (Republic Nashville); "Holding You Down (Going in Circles)" — Jazmine Sullivan featuring Missy Elliott (J Records); "Shine Blockas" — Big Boi featuring Gucci Mane (Def Jam); "Dancing on My Own" — Robyn (Konichiwa); "As We Enter" — Nas & Damien Marley (Def Jam); "Cold War" — Janelle Monae (Bad Boy); "Rude Boy" — Rihanna (Def Jam); "Draggin' the River" — Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert (Warner Bros.); "Only an Expert" — Laurie Anderson (Nonesuch); "Tightrope" — Janelle Monae featuring Big Boi (Bad Boy); "Lightweight Jammin'" — E-40 featuring Clyde Carson and Husalah (Heavy on the Grind); "Fuck You" — Cee-Lo Green (Elektra); "Bloodbuzz Ohio" — The National (4AD); "Airplanes" — B.O.B. featuring Hayley Williams (Atlantic); "Little White Church" — Little Big Town (Capitol)