Now hear these

Who rocked the music world this year? Globe critics choose their favorite 10 albums — and highlight some noteworthy surprises

December 19, 2010

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BEACH HOUSE “Teen Dream’’ “Fever Dream’’ might have been a more fitting title for this hypnotic album by the Baltimore duo of singer-pianist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally. On Beach House’s third release, all their early promise blossomed into one of the year’s most luminous listens, at once terrestrial and transcendent.

JANELLE MONÁE “The ArchAndroid’’ After a few false starts, a star was born this year when Monáe released her fearless debut that thumbed its nose at everything from intergalactic funk and 1960s soul to Tin Pan Alley pop and classical chamber music. The ears hardly knew what was hitting them, but it was always intoxicating.

ARCADE FIRE “The Suburbs’’ Never ones to shy away from making a grand statement, these Montreal rockers shed their indie status with a bold album that commented on our notion of home. Even the Grammys took notice, nominating “The Suburbs’’ for best album of the year at the forthcoming ceremony.

KANYE WEST “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’’ Love him or leave him, West rebounded from a year of personal strife (don’t mess with Taylor Swift, y’all) to make an album so unflinching, it utterly rewrote the rules for modern hip-hop records. His secret? Nothing — not genre, not outsize ambition, not heart-on-sleeve emotion — is off limits.

MR. SISTER “O, Sinister Force’’ It’s a shame few people, outside a small circle of family and friends, heard this bewitching debut from local singer-songwriter Amelia Emmet. With a voice you’d expect to hear on a front porch in Appalachia, Emmet couched her dark night of the soul in the analog vestiges of American folk music.

THE BLACK KEYS “Brothers’’ No matter how cranked the guitars were, “Brothers’’ wasn’t so much a rock record as a modern blues lament. With singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach channeling Howlin’ Wolf, this Ohio duo finally cracked wide open into the mainstream with an album that felt like both a throwback and a contemporary classic.

FRAZEY FORD “Obadiah’’ With songs as slippery as mercury and a voice to match, this former member of the Be Good Tanyas struck out with a solo debut that suggested an unlikely hybrid: an acoustic R&B folk and country album. A glimmer of Lucinda Williams here, a touch of Al Green there.

PHOSPHORESCENT “Here’s to Taking It Easy’’ Making a tribute album to Willie Nelson last year obviously rubbed off on this Brooklyn band of heartbreakers led by Matthew Houck. “Here’s to Taking It Easy’’ sounded like one of Nelson’s seminal ’70s country records, right down to the bourbon-and-barbiturates haze.

BEST COAST “Crazy for You’’ Hey, remember that summer in California when you were 17 and broke up with your boyfriend and took refuge at the beach listening to Connie Francis and the Ronettes on your iPod all day? Yeah, well, Best Coast made a soundtrack for you.

TWIN SHADOW “Forget’’ As Twin Shadow, onetime Boston resident George Lewis Jr. found his calling as an otherworldly troubadour. The spirit of Arthur Russell hovered over these cinematic songs, which didn’t know if they wanted to break your heart or drag you onto the dance floor.

BIGGEST SURPRISE DIDDY-DIRTY MONEY “Last Train to Paris’’ In a year where Eminem and Kanye West were hip-hop’s heavy hitters, Sean “Puffy’’ Combs took a U-turn and released a sly and slinky R&B album inspired by European dance pop.


JAMEY JOHNSON “The Guitar Song’’ Here is that rare gem: a double album where every cut is vital, from the blackly morose ballads to the firewater-breathing honky-tonk blasts. A towering achievement from a country singer-songwriter whose talent for penning vivid narratives and choosing the right ones to cover appears to be growing exponentially,

TRACEY THORN “Love and Its Opposite’’ The beguiling voice of Everything But the Girl tackles life’s biggest mystery on her quietly spectacular third solo album and gets to the bloody heart of what is so enchanting and disillusioning about love and, by extension, great pop songs on the topic.

ROBERT PLANT “Band of Joy’’ Haunted and haunting, Plant continues to indulge his fascination with darkly-hued roots music with the help of a simpatico backing band — including Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin — to shiver-inducing results.

BIG BOI “Sir Lucious Left Foot: the Son of Chico Dusty’’ Well worth the wait, this sometimes silly, sometimes solemn missive from the less flashy, but no less dynamic half of OutKast has more bounce than a trampoline factory, thanks to Big Boi’s snappy rhymes, samples, and grooves.

LAURA MARLING “I Speak Because I Can’’ On her sophomore release the British songbird makes good on the promise of her acclaimed debut offering up mostly acoustic songs filled with warmth, depth, and pathos.

DIERKS BENTLEY “Up on the Ridge’’ Stepping off the Nashville conveyor belt to pursue something a little more personal paid off in spades for Bentley on this expansive, precisely picked, and gorgeously sung set which deftly combines bluegrass, country, folk, rock, and pop.

KIM RICHEY “Wreck Your Wheels’’ A songwriter of delicate beauty and wry humor and a singer of truly angelic voice, Richey’s latest round of observations from the merry-go-round of life are tender, tough, and, as always, tuneful.

BLACK DUB “Black Dub’’ Veteran producer Daniel Lanois’s foray into group dynamics yields dreamy sonic adventures from hypnotic reggae to fierce blues and unleashes the force of nature that is Trixie Whitley.

DAVID BYRNE & FATBOY SLIM “Here Lies Love’’ With a stunning cast of nearly two dozen, mostly female, singers — including Sharon Jones, Cyndi Lauper, Nellie McKay, Tori Amos, and Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine — the head Talking Head and the superstar producer/DJ combine disco heat, Latin rhythms, and pop melodies to bring to enchantingly hummable life a pop opera about Imelda Marcos. Seriously.

ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO “Street Songs of Love’’ If the Austin rocker has made a bad record, we haven’t heard it. Ian Hunter and Bruce Springsteen show up to pay their respects on this scrappy, sweet, and sexy ode to the joys and frustrations of romance and reality.

BIGGEST SURPRISE EL DEBARGE “Second Chance’’ Sneaking back onto the contemporary R&B scene after a 16-year absence in which he served time and struggled with substance abuse issues, the silken vocalist proved to be in top form with a set of seductively smooth slow jams and emotionally honest redemption songs.



“Heartland’’ Sweeping in scope, generous in quirks, and stunningly beautiful, “Heartland’’ finds the Canadian composer, violinist, and erstwhile solo artist once known as Final Fantasy recruiting the Czech Symphony Strings and the St. Kitts’ Winds for his most ambitious work to date.


“Forget’’ A few years ago, when George Lewis Jr. was filling Boston clubs with the avant-indie complexities of his band Mad Man Films, you’d never have imagined this album of shimmering throwback pop coming from him. Now it’s just as hard to imagine taking “Forget’’ off repeat.


“Teen Dream’’ This Baltimore duo made their name on two albums’ worth of sleepy dream-pop led by Victoria Legrand’s lowing vocals and played on dirgey organs and ticking drum machines. On “Teen Dream,’’ it’s as though the sun finally poured into the dark chambers of their sound.


“Before Today’’ It doesn’t get more lo-fi than Ariel Pink’s massive back catalog — a sprawling tangle of 4-track cassettes overstuffed with druggy pop experiments. “Before Today’’ finds his vision and sound achieving new levels of clarity without losing any of its trippy vitality.


“Crazy for You’’ On Best Coast’s blog-detonating debut, singer/guitarist Bethany Cosentino sticks to what she knows: loving boys, missing boys, feeling crazy, and (possibly related) smoking weed. What may sound like the makings of a tortured LiveJournal is actually one of the year’s finest doses of fuzzy garage-pop.


“The Waves’’ One of the quieter carriers of the ’90s resurgence, San Francisco’s Tamaryn combine smoky melodies (think Mazzy Star or Cowboy Junkies) through a sweet, shoegazey haze. “The Waves’’ might be the softest ride in a time machine you’re likely to get.


“Causers of This’’ In the same way that “Nevermind’’ serves as a cherished reminder of grunge’s glory days, let Chazwick Bundick’s debut as Toro y Moi serve as the prime souvenir of chillwave. His bleary-eyed beats mesh gorgeously with coy melodies on songs that sound like they’ve melted in your tape deck.


“Halcyon Digest’’ Four albums in, Atlanta’s Deerhunter just keeps finding ways to refine the powerful mix of Bradford Cox’s bedroom-pop pathos and Lockett Pundt’s chunky indie-rock gusto. “Halcyon’’ takes their sound to the very edge, and the view is spectacular.


“This Is Happening’’ Part ferocious house party, part ode to the bros of yesteryear, this purportedly final effort from James Murphy’s club-packing juggernaut lands like a big exclamation point at the end of dance-punk’s rambling sentence.


“Swim’’ For Dan Snaith’s most recent outing as Caribou, he sought to make “dance music that sounds like it’s made of water,’’ and the result is a deluge of woozy textures, plodding beats, and gurgling synths. You may never want to come up for air.


“First Four EPs’’ Though this all-star crew of Los Angeles vets (with pedigrees including the Circle Jerks, Redd Kross, and Burning Brides) busts through 16 songs in 17 minutes, it feels more like traveling 30 years back to Redondo Beach for a righteous hardcore punch in the face.


KANYE WEST “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’’ He took a year off to gather up all the ingredients (the boom-bap of “College Dropout,’’ the instrumentation of “Late Registration,’’ the polish of “Graduation,’’ the Auto-tuned emotion of “808s & Heartbreak,’’ the pain of family tragedy, a shattered engagement, a VMA implosion, a dash of the RZA, some Mobb Deep, some Michael Jackson, some Bon Iver) and voila! Pop culture’s public enemy No. 1 makes rap’s “Thriller.’’ (Thirty-five-minute movie and all!)


“Teflon Don’’ Easily the biggest Grammy snub, Ross’s alliterative delivery booms with the bravado of a Baptist preacher, and the lush soundscapes (crafted by West, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, and newcomer Lex Luger) make each song sound like its own mini-mansion.

WIZ KHALIFA “Kush & Orange Juice’’ By all modern measures (hashtags, trending topics, and Google hot searches) an indie artist couldn’t have gotten much more mainstream buzz. It was worth it. He sampled everything from Loose Ends (“Hangin’ on a String’’) to long-lost Super Nintendo loops and somehow turned it into his own smooth yet distant brand of modern-day G-Funk.

TIRON “MSTRD’’ The Chicago MC hooked up with Boston-based Society Original Products to craft “MSTRD,’’ the bright and breezy summertime follow-up to 2009’s “Ketchup’’ that bottles up boy-meets-girl raps with beats by Oddisee (“60901’’) and a ridiculously unforgettable melody from MF Doom (“Ms. Right’’).

EMINEM “Recovery’’ It’s unbearably poppy, he tries to pack syllables where there isn’t space, and the pitch-corrected high note on “Not Afraid’’ was a disaster, but the album was successful because of the symbolism more than the music.

DRAKE “Thank Me Later’’ The hype from 2009’s “So Far Gone’’ grew to the point that it was impossible to live up to, and even though the introspection (“The Resistance,’’ “Unforgettable’’) gives way to obligatory radio records (“Over,’’ “Find Your Love,’’ et al), “TML’’ turned into a nice extension of his bar-setting mixtape, rather than a carbon-copy.

CURREN$Y “Pilot Talk I & II’’ His work habits are simple: smoke, rap, repeat. The New Orleans rapper put out this pair of smooth Ski Beatz-laced albums within five months of each other.

BIG BOI “Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty’’ Always the half of OutKast more rooted in rap, Big Boi stepped out on his own and, after a minefield of label issues, let loose a funk-infused solo debut with the frantically infectious “Shutterbug’’ as the lead single, proving that less eccentric doesn’t mean less creative.

NAS AND DAMIAN MARLEY “Distant Relatives’’ The chemistry oozed out of them. Growing more and more politically charged, Nas uses Marley almost as a sounding board to explore slavery, history, truth, fiction, and conspiracy theories, and the two of them could go back and forth forever.

SKI BEATZ “24 Hour Karate School’’ With respect to the appearances by Jay Electronica, Jean Grae, Curren$y, and Wiz Khalifa, the album is a showcase for Ski’s production. He was one of the architects of Jay-Z’s canonized 1996 debut, “Reasonable Doubt,’’ and 14 years later his ear for the perfect sample couldn’t be sharper.

BIGGEST SURPRISE VON PEA “So Motivational: The Most Skullduggery of Mixtapes’’ Admittedly intended to simply promote his more conceptual debut, “Pea’s Gotta Have It,’’ “So Motivational’’ is equal parts thoughtful (“Fancy Nancy’’), witty (“Food Stamps’’) and fun (“And Rollerskates!’’).


TIKEN JAH FAKOLY “African Revolution’’ A master of African reggae, enriched here with Malian instruments, Fakoly mixes his democratic, liberationist politics with the haunting melancholy of disappointment.

NATACHA ATLAS “Mounqaliba’’ An eerie, bizarre, and completely mesmerizing electro-Arabic set from the Egyptian-Belgian-English singer, sounding like some kind of Tori Amos gone post-colonial.

AFROCUBISM “AfroCubism’’ An idea hatched 14 years ago comes to fruition: This spectacular collaboration of top musicians from Mali and Cuba is the year’s major entry in the world music canon.

LUISA MAITA “Lero-Lero’’ São Paulo’s Maita validates all your stereotypes of Brazil with this enchanting set of perfectly poised pop songs delivered with just the right hint of sultriness.

KING SUNNY ADE “Baba Mo Tunde’’ The great “KSA’’ as they know him in Lagos: extra-long, shimmering praise and party songs, the kind his band might play at your function if you could afford them.

KHAIRA ARBY “Timbuktu Tarab’’ By rights the charismatic queen singer of Timbuktu should have had an album in international release many years ago. This one was worth the wait.

BASSEKOU KOUYATE & NGONI BA “I Speak Fula’’ Kouyate’s work to foreground the Malian lute called ngoni, and his deft and soulful multiple-ngoni band, prove there’s no contradiction between roots and innovation.

SPEED CARAVAN “Kalashnik Love’’ Paris-based oud player Mehdi Haddab’s post-everything project is jarring in the right ways: loud, sample-rich, and with a cover of “Killing an Arab,’’ a fine provocation.

RED BARAAT “Chaal Baby’’ Jazz and Indian folk drummer Sunny Jain and crew make a new-breed marching-band music that’s part Punjabi wedding, part New Orleans second line, and all New York.

PEDRO MORAES “Claroescuro’’ Rio de Janeiro’s Moraes loves samba like a traditionalist but pushes it toward other rhythms in modern pop songs that radiate playfulness and whimsy.

BIGGEST SURPRISE FELA KUTI REISSUES It’s never too late to discover Fela. As much as the musical devoted to the late Afrobeat prophet broke new ground on Broadway, it’s the mother lode of reissues from Fela’s back catalog now underway that drives home the man’s funky, funky genius.


WILLIAM PARKER “I Plan to Stay a Believer: The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield’’ It took the prolific bassist nine years to assemble this rich set, but it’s a superb example of how a pop songbook can be turned into meaningful jazz.

NELS CLINE SINGERS “Initiate’’ Guitarist Cline has performed and recorded in many contexts, some thoughtful and quiet, others loud and abrasive. On “Initiate,’’ he and his trio (which does not include any singers) lay it all on the line.

MIKE MAINIERI “Crescent’’ The vibraphonist, joined by alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano and bassist Dieter Ilg, craft a beautiful two-disc tribute to John Coltrane that is the year’s most beautiful jazz album.

CHARLES LLOYD QUARTET “Mirror’’ In pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Eric Harland, the great saxophonist has found comrades to help further his philosophy that restraint can be more powerful than flexed muscles.

RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA AND BUNKY GREEN “Apex’’ Two exceptional saxophonists — one an up-and-comer, the other an unheralded master — collaborate on an inspired, often fiery set.

SHERMAN IRBY QUARTET “Live at the Otto Club’’ On his first live album, the largely unknown saxophonist makes music that is both intimate and immediate. This record just feels like a jazz club.

OLIVIER MANCHON “Orchestre de Chambre Miniature, Volume 1’’ This must be what Gunther Schuller had in mind 53 years ago when he coined the term “third stream,’’ referring to a hybrid of classical and jazz.

KURT ROSENWINKEL STANDARDS TRIO “Reflections’’ The technical dazzle that the guitarist usually displays is reined in, the menu consists entirely of ballads, and the band is stripped back to a trio. An essential disc in the jazz-guitar-trio subgenre.

MATTHEW SHIPP “4D’’ A solo work that feels like the avant-garde pianist’s major statement. Every aspect of his style is collected here: his angular compositions; his deep, lower-register rumblings; his spiky staccato attacks.

ERIK TELFORD “Kinetic’’ A stunning debut from a young trumpeter that represents everything that is right with contemporary jazz.

BIGGEST SURPRISE BRYAN AND THE HAGGARDS “Pretend It’s the End of the World’’ Who knew that Merle Haggard wrote jazz tunes? Not even Merle Haggard. But tenor saxophonist Bryan Murray and his motley crew of collaborators knew it, because they seamlessly transformed the country legend’s music into post-bop and free jazz.


SHOSTAKOVICH: THE PRELUDES AND FUGUES Alexander Melnikov, piano This Bach-haunted solo piano cycle has somehow never earned its rightful place among the composer’s chamber music, but Melnikov makes a dazzling case for these brief yet monumental keyboard gems. If you get hooked, track down Mark Mazullo’s fine new book on them, too.

WAGNER: “PARSIFAL’’ Gary Lehman, René Pape, with Valery Gergiev conducting the Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater Gergiev can be a formidable Wagnerian and here he leads a dramatically paced, luminous account of “Parsifal.’’ Gary Lehman is unremarkable in the title role, but René Pape’s Gurnemanz is tremendous.

IVES: PIANO SONATAS Jeremy Denk, piano Denk conveys both the teeming surface details as well as the quiet inner beauty within this dense, craggy, majestically sprawling music.

ELGAR: VIOLIN CONCERTO Nikolaj Znaider, violin, with Sir Colin Davis conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle A supremely eloquent recording made using the violin with which Fritz Kreisler premiered the work in 1910. Znaider and Davis enjoy a rare chemistry.

SCHUBERT: QUARTETS & QUINTET Belcea Quartet with Valentin Erben, cello The Belcea’s set of timeless late-Schubert (including “Death and the Maiden’’ and the towering G-Major Quartet alongside the Cello Quintet) bursts with playing by turns searingly expressive and exquisitely subtle.

BRAHMS: PIANO MUSIC Murray Perahia, piano Deeply satisfying, winningly proportioned Brahms from a keyboard master. Includes those treasurable Piano Pieces (Opp. 118 and 119) as well as the Rhapsodies (Op. 79) and the Handel Variations.

“TWO ROADS TO EXILE’’: MUSIC OF BRAUNFELS AND BUSCH Artists of the Royal Conservatory This superb chamber troupe continues sifting through the musical rubble of the last century, this time unearthing a fascinating String Quintet by Braunfels written in 1945 during his internal exile in Germany. Remarkably, given its quality, this is the piece’s first recording.

BIELAWA: “IN MEDIA RES’’ Soloists with Gil Rose conducting Boston Modern Orchestra Project The artistic fruits of Lisa Bielawa’s recent tenure as BMOP’s composer-in-residence are beautifully presented on this two-disc set, including her Double Violin Concerto and her Concerto for Orchestra, both of which place her hauntingly lyrical yet restlessly inventive compositional voice on full display.

SHEPPARD: “MEDIA VITA’’ Stile Antico A gorgeous album devoted to the music of Tudor composer John Sheppard, delivered here with uncommon skill by this young British vocal ensemble on the rise.

SZYMANOWSKI: ORCHESTRAL WORKS Christian Tetzlaff, violin, with Pierre Boulez conducting the Vienna Philharmonic The Polish composer’s impressionistic Symphony No. 3, “Song of the Night,’’ receives a duly clear yet bewitching account, prefaced by the Violin Concerto No. 1, played with great lyric sensitivity.

BIGGEST SURPRISE SCHOENBERG: “GURRELIEDER’’ Gunther Schuller conducting New England Conservatory Orchestra. In 1977, Gunther Schuller somehow inspired the students of NEC to transcend the expected limits of a school orchestra and deliver an astonishingly good performance of Schoenberg’s grand late-Romantic masterpiece in Jordan Hall. This year he released a live recording on his own label.