1. Kanye West, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Roc-A-Fella). Kanye West raps on the scabrous breakup song, “Blame Game,” “Stick around, some real feelings might surface,” and on West’s finest album to date, the surface is rife with laid-bare emotions set to the most uncompromising and adventurous hip-hop of 2010. Every element of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” hits with a maximalist fire as West invokes King Crimson on “Power” and closes the nine-minute opus “Runaway” with an elegant, extended Vocoder solo, essentially inventing prog-rap.
In 2009 and 2010, countless culture mavens insisted that West crawl into a hole and stay there until he could play nice with others. But on “Hell of a Life,” which makes ominous use of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” he dives into the lake of fire and comes to the surface strangling his demons. Expression without fear of ramifications supplies the stuff of all transcendent art, and “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” amplified.
2. Janelle Monae, “The ArchAndroid” (Wondaland Arts Society/Bad Boy). Monae had been kicking around the OutKast camp since she was a teen, recording an unreleased album titled “The Audition” in 2003 and beginning the long odyssey of Cindi Mayweather, the time-traveling android sent to reshuffle history and keep Metropolis from falling into dystopia. But beyond the Fritz Lang/Philip K. Dick-style concept, “The ArchAndroid” displays Monae’s supernatural range as she volleys from jump-blues to soul-jazz to madrigals and beyond. “The ArchAndroid” ranks with Prince’s “Sign O’ The Times” as a genre-thwarting master statement, and it’s technically Monae’s full-length debut.
3. Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs” (Merge). Win Butler grew up in The Woodlands, an affluent suburb on the northern reaches of Houston’s endless sprawl. So in Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs,” when Butler describes a place “so strange they built it to change, and while we are sleeping the streets they rearrange,” a place where “dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains,” it feels documented by life experience. Accessible and powered by heavenly, artful stadium rock, “The Suburbs” is an old-fashioned concept album for the future.
4. LCD Soundsystem, “This Is Happening” (DFA/Virgin). James Murphy started LCD Soundsystem as a danceable reflection of arguments he had with fellow music obsessives. With LCD’s third disc, “This is Happening,” Murphy delivers a masterful synthesis of his own multiple neuroses and the artful dance music that informed his musical maturation: David Bowie, Talking Heads, Roxy Music and British electro bands such as Heaven 17. At first listen, “This Is Happening” seemed like a lesser sibling to 2007′s “Sound of Silver,” but the glories of “Dance Yrself Clean” and “I Can Change,” among others, make a solid case that this is Murphy’s ultimate statement.
5. Gorillaz, “Plastic Beach” (Virgin). The third and best Gorillaz disc beat its predecessors by balancing its pollution-apocalypse concept with some of Damon Albarn’s finest pop compositions. Sure, having Lou Reed, the Fall’s Mark E. Smith, Mos Def, Bobby Womack and half of the Clash on board doesn’t hurt, but it’s the quality of songs such as “Stylo,” “Rhinestone Eyes” and “On Melancholy Hill” that convince long-suffering Blur fans that they don’t need a reunion to hear Albarn at his best.
6. Big Boi, “Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty” (Purple Ribbon/Def Jam). Delayed for years amid record label squabbles, “Sir Lucious Left Foot” still managed to sound about a half-decade ahead of everyone else in hip-hop thanks to its towering sci-fi funk sound and Big Boi’s mellifluous flow. “Tangerine,” “Shutterbugg” and “Shine Blockas” were all first-rate bangers, but so was everything else on this OutKast holiday.
7. The Walkmen, “Lisbon” (Fat Possum). Beautiful, mournful and absolutely rousing all at once, The Walkmen consolidated all their strengths with album number six and threw new factors into the mix, including the crashing wave-rider rock of “Angela Surf City” and the miraculous doo-wop ballad “Torch Song.” Long suspected but now proved, Hamilton Leithauser can take nearly everyone in indie rock with his incandescent howl.
8. Robyn “Body Talk” (Konichiwa). Sweden’s Robyn Carlsson allowed listeners to hear the creation of “Body Talk” by releasing three mini-albums, and the final result is a genius collection of modern pop — smart, uncompromising and full of instantly memorable songs such as “Dancing On My Own,” “Fembot” and “Hang With Me.” Robyn is Kraftwerk with a heart.
9. Vampire Weekend, “Contra” (XL). Not just beating the sophomore slump but beating it senseless, Vampire Weekend ably fleshed out its dizzying melodic skills with “Contra,” delivering bright pop anthems with “Holiday,” “Cousins” and “Diplomat’s Son” and closing with the haunting title song, which managed to simultaneously evoke Brian Eno and the Flamingos. “Contra” was the first great album of 2010, and it had staying power.
10. Girl Talk, “All Day” (Illegal Art). Greg Gillis’ brain works differently — he knows how to put the chocolate together with the peanut butter in his ingeniously baroque mixes. The best passages of “All Day” feel like shotgun marriages made in hip-hop heaven, such as when Lil Jon’s “Get Low” throws some crunk into Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” or when Pitbull’s idiotic sexual boasting on “Hotel Room Service” is both undermined and bolstered by Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.” It is collage work, but no one does it better.