More and more, an “album” means less. Downloads reign supreme, of course, and the single won. Which makes it easier for us all to lead filler-free listening lives. Which is also my criteria for what makes a full album worth considering here: no filler. My favorite albums have me hitting the “back” button repeatedly and almost never skipping ahead. Let’s hear it for the jam-packed.
10. Drake, Thank Me Later
Hip-hop for hypochondriacs and anyone turned on by self-analysis. For his debut studio album, Drake goes introspective, proving he’s more than comfortable talking about his discomfort with talking about himself. Still, you have to love a Drake song—without fail, it pulls you into its come-from-behind, against-all-odds monologue. And the lesson is that sometimes, all those haters? Sometimes they’re on the inside, you know? Word to your therapist.
9. Vampire Weekend, Contra
How is this album not awful? VW’s first outing was a welcome reload of Soweto-style pop (by way of Graceland), but it sounded like a gimmick. Within months, “Oxford Comma” was a fixture on the Ambercrombie & Fitch playlist, pogo-ing from Jeeps at every stoplight. But no, Contra defied all those expectations, and changed a flash in the pan to a slow, satisfying burn. They’ve added layers of depth (“Taxi Cab”), honed up some big-rhythm crowd pleasers (“Run”), and now there’s even something a little seething (“I Think Ur a Contra”).
8. The-Dream, Love King
The Kid A of fornication, Love King is epic, wildly experimental, and as singularly concerned with getting it on as Thom Yorke is with the disenfranchisement of modern humanity. More good news: If Atlanta needs repopulating should The Walking Dead come to pass, The-Dream is up for the job. This album may just be recruitment propaganda.
7. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Like Will and Win Butler, I was raised in the piney, conservative woods of the Houston suburbs, so I can’t listen to The Suburbs without applying some heavy, angsty layers on my own to every song. Still, I’m going to imagine this album speaks as loudly to anyone ever quarantined to similar forests thick with orthodontists.
6. Wavves, King of the Beach
Long-time listener, first-time caller. I’d caught the hype of Nathan Williams’s previous Wavves recordings, and I wanted to believe, but what I heard was too self-consciously abrasive. So I shut down, I admit it. And I was wrong. Maybe it’s that Williams is going in a new direction here with new band members, and of all the albums here, it’s the least afraid to take chance. Maybe I haven’t yet convinced anyone else to hear what I hear in it, but maybe you’ll be different.
5. Twin Shadow, Forget
Yes, there’s a synthesizer in the house, there’s some Morrissey crooning, but George Lewis Jr. gets what few ‘80s revivals manage: song content. Lewis’s evocative songs are voyeuristic, more than dance-worthy, and rich with detail and unexpected choices.
4. Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
For three days in 2010, I binged on “Back Up Plan.” For 72 hours, if I were in the mood to listen to a combination of melody, rhythm, and lyrics, I only would have assumed you were referring to “Back Up Plan.” Yes, play it again!
3. Best Coast, Crazy for You
That intro to “When I’m With You”—it shatters me every time. Like the rest of this album, it’s perfectly measured tension and release. And so much less reverb than I’d put on it—thankfully, because that stuff is like candy and you just can’t turn it down that easily.
2. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
If hip-hop is now advertising, here’s the creative director. This album is an achievement on so many levels, not least of which is when you compare the creative quantity to its striking lack of any real meaning. Through and through, MBDTF is the sound of Kanye indulging himself, though rarely us—I often believe we’re just projections of his subconscious. As good as this album is—and it’s amazing, the second-best of the year—it is quieting to think how much better it could have been, had he recorded this album like it was a cornerstone of his legacy, rather than an hour-long response to TMZ.
Album of the Year: Beach House, Teen Dream
This album is indescribably beautiful, so I won’t try. But I will add that I never predicted this for my favorite of the year. Listening to it, though, I couldn’t ignore it. Teen Dream digs deep, and may set off unexpected catharsis.