Everybody knows that rock critics are absolutely goofy about lists. This is, in part, because we all are super geeks. But there's a practical element to it, as well: The most common question that anyone who regularly writes about music is asked is, "What are you listening to and really loving?" When any critic worth his or her salt is spinning at least part of a four or five dozen new recordings every week, it's impossible to keep your favorites straight without some sort of running tally that starts on Jan. 1 and ends on New Year's Eve.
That having been said, I do think my "Sound Opinions" cohort Greg Kot is even crazier than most about this list business, in that he always seems eager to tick off the year's best albums two or three weeks into the new calendar year. (No kidding: I've heard him declare a disc "the best record of the year" on the second or third week of January before!) By the time we get to June, he's dying to count down the "mid-year best-of" on the radio show, and because I'm tired of arguing with him that we should wait until year's end -- and because we generally need to come up with a quick show in early June because somebody or other on the team is going on vacation -- I usually acquiesce, as I did once again this weekend.
So, with the heavily underscored provisos that the following is simply my list of the best recordings of 2010 up to now; that's it a work in progress, with albums constantly moving up or down the list as they grow or diminish with repeated listening, and with the knowledge that there could well be 20 or 30 better releases in the months to come (we should be so lucky!), here are my Top 6 Albums of 2010 So Far (six because, well, we're six months in).
1. Janelle Monae, "ArchAndroid" (Bad Boy/Atlantic)
Though 24-year-old, Kansas City-born, Atlanta-based singer Janelle Monae Robinson had created some buzz for her appearances with Outkast on the otherwise awful "Idlewild"; for a 2007 EP entitled "Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase)," and for signing with Diddy's Bad Boy Records, nobody was expecting the mind-blowing, genre-destroying tour de force of her first full-length album. "ArchAndroid" continues the futuristic space opera sketched out on the earlier EP, spinning it into a full-length concept album about a robot that comes back from the future to warn humanity about its errant ways while encouraging all of us to value our freedom and fly our freak flags high. But you don't have to buy into any of that to enjoy this wildly psychedelic but consistently funky suite of killer pop songs, which I love even despite my knee-jerk aversion to anything that sounds like the soundtrack of "Fantasia." (There's a bit of that overwrought orchestral hoo-ha at the beginning and end of the disc, but just skip over those tracks and enjoy the rest of the ride.)
2. Besnard Lakes, "Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night" (Jagjaguwar)
The husband-and-wife team of guitarist-vocalist Jace Lasek and bassist-vocalist Olga Goreas exceed the promise of their earlier releases and instantly rise to the top of the current "beard rock" crowd of nature-loving, psychedelic folk-rockers with this collection of sprawling, epic, multi-part tunes that invite you to lose yourself in those great, enveloping washes of guitar and gorgeous harmony vocals. All that plus the best enigmatic Chicago anthem since the Handsome Family's "The Giant of Illinois," via the hypnotic "Chicago Train."
3. Yeasayer, "Odd Blood" (Secretly Canadian)
On their second album, these Baltimore-to-Brooklyn transplants partly veer away from the electronic and worldbeat rhythms of their debut in order to focus on their pop songcraft, producing extremes such as the rousing sing-along "Madder Red" and the intimate, '80s-flavored electronic ballad "I Remember." And it's all very, very good indeed.
4. Broken Bells, "Broken Bells" (Columbia)
The new collaboration between producer Brian "Danger Mouse Burton and James Mercer of the Shins finds both artists working outside their comfort zones, but it boasts some of the most striking songwriting that either has given us. Over an array of old-school analog keyboards and ambient synths that evoke Brian Eno's "Another Green World, " Mercer stretches as a vocalist, sounding positively jaunty at some points (the gleeful waltz, "Sailing to Nowhere") and downright funky at others ("The Ghost Inside"). And the melodies throughout are undeniable.
5. LCD Soundsystem, "This Is Happening" (DFA/Virgin)
If album number three from Brooklyn production wizard and DFA label chief James Murphy is the least of LCD Soundsystem's three long-players, it also is better than 99 percent of the rest of what I've heard so far this year. Yes, it's another addictive collection of punk-disco grooves and sardonic hipster spoofs of underground culture, but there is a new twist with the addition of a Bryan Ferry/David Bowie glam-rock flair to Murphy's admittedly limited vocal range. And, since its release a month or so back, it's hard to imagine that there's been a party worth attending where this wasn't spinning.
6. Gorillaz, "Plastic Beach" (Virgin)
The latest from the world's best "virtual hip-hop group" was impressive enough upon its release earlier this year, with the long roster of first-rate cameos (from Snoop Dogg to De La Soul, soul legend Bobby Womack to punk godfather Lou Reed, and Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of the Clash to the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music) somehow never overshadowing the distinctive vocals and endearing melodies of main man Damon Albarn. But in the wake of the tragic and still unfolding accident in the Gulf, this dark, dense, and often unsettling concept album about a floating island of trash alienating humanity from the natural world has grown much more poignant, resonant, immediate, and necessary.
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And, because I'm in a generous mood and I've got the list going anyway, here are my next seven picks for an even baker's dozen.
7. Charlotte Gainsbourg, "IRM" (Elektra/Asylum)
8. The Dead Weather, "Sea of Cowards" (Warner Bros.)
9. High on Fire, "Snakes for the Divine" (Koch) Buy It
10. Erykah Badu, "New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh" (Motown)
11. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, "I Learned the Hard Way" (Daptone)
12. Peter Gabriel, "Scratch My Back" (EMI)
13. Sade, "Soldier of Love" (Sony)
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Now it's your turn: What are your choices for the best albums of 2010 so far? What have I overlooked or over-rated. Let's hear it!