You’ve probably heard or read, many times over, that the world of music is a fragmented one—all of us paying attention to our own personal scenes, streams, and cubbyholes, barely aware of what’s happening in the next one over. So when December rolls around, we have this annual problem: It’s harder and harder to say what defined the year. It depends on what music you follow, which magazines or websites you look at, whom you talk to, and how your ears work.
So 2010’s big occasions tended to involve the artists who cut through that. For a while, the world couldn’t stop talking about Lady Gaga; now it’s Kanye West. And a big chunk of that buzz is just the shock of their managing to command such attention in the first place—to dominate conversation the way old monoculture pop stars like Michael Jackson and Madonna used to. Some of us had begun to suspect it wasn’t possible anymore.
Meanwhile, Taylor Swift is selling albums at what now counts as lightning speed. Yet the bulk of people I encounter day to day are only marginally familiar with who she is. They are no doubt engrossed in one of the other kinds of pop that isn’t selling in the millions—say, rap mix tapes, dance EPs, or mall-rat rock. The choices are endless, and much of the music is far more worthwhile than what ends up on the charts, but there aren’t enough hours in the year to listen to it all, and even a full-time critic can’t pretend to know even a little about a lot of it.
I spent most of the year listening to music more like a normal person than a critic, which means my favorites are odd ones—as particular as yours—and based on just one of countless paths you might pick through the sludge of data out there. Maybe that makes this list haphazard: I was certainly surprised to notice how many of the choices come from either New York or Atlanta. (Others come from Chicago, London, and Stockholm, with one of the most interesting—Quadron’s sweatless, minimalist R&B—hailing from Denmark.) But here’s what I can say about the year, or at least my year:
Vampire Weekend’s second LP, Contra, turned out to be my favorite album to listen to and to argue about. (The band’s been picked on for its preppy look, Ivy League education, and middle-class privilege—often by people who hadn’t noticed Contra had richer things to say about those issues than they did.) The record’s New Wave–y pop is so easy to like that you can miss how inventive it is. The same goes for Sleigh Bells, also from New York, who mix shiny, crushing guitars and cheerleader chants into an amped-up, blown-out digital dream. As for Atlanta, well: For me, The-Dream’s down-to-earth R&B narrowly edged out Ne-Yo’s upscale, Champagne version of the same. Janelle Monáe’s retro-futuristic sound had me hooked by “Oh, Maker,” a song that skips from sixties folk to tender neo-soul in three neat steps. And Big Boi, half of the rap duo OutKast, delivered a solo effort as forward-thinking as it was charming.
I can tell you I planned on resisting Kanye West’s latest opus—so exhausting, so self-involved!—but couldn’t help loving it. Or that a much scrappier record from Male Bonding, who hark back to the slack, speedy fuzz of early-nineties indie rock, just kept growing on me. I can say that while the Swedish singer Robyn didn’t exactly conquer the U.S. this year, her status as the pet pop star of Americans who don’t often like pop stars is, in my professional opinion, not such a bad thing. And I got plenty of laughs from Das Racist; the stoner raps on their first mix tape are often about food, television, and more famous rappers, but they’re also clever and needling about race in a way that makes other people look blinkered and scared.
That said, every December, when it comes time to make these kinds of lists, it feels steadily harder to say anything authoritative about which records were the “most important.” The best any one person can say is “This was my year.”