Earlier today, esteemed MTV News senior writer James Montgomery laid out his picks for the 20 best albums of the year. It’s a solid list, full of envelope-pushing rock, head-spinning hip-hop, staggering melody and weird sonic experiments (and that’s just the number one choice, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). But after West (who would be my pick for the best album of the year as well), our tastes seem to deviate wildly. In fact, after West, my top 10 is completely different than his.
So here’s my counterpoint to Montgomery’s list. There are 10 albums here, but you should really think of the top album as “1A,” because let’s face it: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is absolutely the best album of the year, even if you think Kanye West sucks (in fact, that’s true especially if you think Kanye West sucks).
10. Black Mountain, Wilderness Heart
The third album by Canadian psyche-stoner-metallers Black Mountain is a classically heavy album, full of big, thick riffs and druggy blasts of melody. (Whereas the number nine entry on this list is absolutely hard.) Wilderness Heart works best as a full-length freak out, but the big peaks on “Let Spirits Ride” and “Old Fangs” remind you that there is a lot of sharp songwriting that goes into these fuzzy, buzzy nightmares.
9. Black Breath, Heavy Breathing
After an especially impressive and active 2009, metal had a more casual 2010, with only a handful of truly head-turning releases. The best of them all was the second full-length LP from Seattle’s Black Breath, who augment their speed-metal sound with the thornier elements of hardcore punk, black metal, prog and metalcore. It’s a brutal stew that delivers just the right amount of brutality and grace. Heavy Breathing is pretty relentless, but it’s hard not to bang your head to spastic workouts like “Black Sin (Spit on the Cross)” mixed with grinders like “I Am Beyond.” Or skip right to “Wewhocannotbenamed” and get all of that at once.
8. Black Milk, Album of the Year
A lot of people went crazy for the new Roots album, but it was a snooze compared to the vitality of Detroit rapper and producer Curtis Cross, who is known to the universe as Black Milk. His beats are full of organic instruments and split the difference between street-sweeping hardcore and organic prog-funk, and his flow is as feisty, smart and hungry as any MC in the game. “Keep Going” and “Round of Applause” are so funky, fresh and powerful that it’s hard to believe Black Milk isn’t a household name (or at least a more in-demand producer). Also, I apparently only like artists with the word “Black” in their name.
7. Girl Talk, All Day
It’s difficult to listen to All Day as an album, as I think most people are inclined to play a game of “Spot the Sample” and try to deconstruct it like some anthropology major’s twisted senior thesis. Usually that would be code for an album that is interesting without actually being any good, but in this case, it’s almost better that the songs on All Day are beside the point, as Greg Gillis’ finest work also acts as delightfully stimulating brain food. All Day is the sound of half a century of pop culture colliding, melting, fighting and bleeding, all in an effort to try to establish dominance and win attention. What does that mean? It means that All Day is the Internet in sonic form. Welcome to the future.
6. Warpaint, The Fool
Full of hazy, down-tuned guitars and foreboding goth gestures, Warpaint’s The Fool sounds like it was birthed by a bunch of artsy dudes in a basement in Manchester, England in 1984. But it was actually crafted by four women from Los Angeles with a knack for dragging dead-eyed beauty out of low-fi atmospheric sludge, and it was done with a remarkable amount of grace and skill. There aren’t any singles on The Fool, but there are plenty of rewards, like the playful bass lines drifting through the third section of “Warpaint” and the rhythmic pulse of “Shadows.” They draw a lot from the post-Joy Division school of goth, but The Fool is actually the best Blonde Redhead album ever made.
5. Katy Perry, Teenage Dream
The Warpaint album features women exploring the outer reaches of their dark psyches, but Katy Perry has no time for darkness — not when you’ve got a hot wardrobe, a fun husband and a bushel full of Dr. Luke productions to keep you bubbly and afloat. Teenage Dream may seem like nothing more than an overlong sugar rush, but once you get past the singles, there is a shockingly sharp amount of acid (“Circle the Drain,” “Peacock”) and sentiment (“E.T.,” “Not Like the Movies”) to balance out the teeth-rotting goodness of the title track.
4. R. Kelly, Love Letter
R. Kelly is probably my favorite artist right now, mostly because his albums are full of hook-heavy songs that succeed in spite of (or in some respects because of) his unchecked id. But for whatever reason, Kels left the crazy sauce on the shelf for the construction of Love Letter, which taps deep into his love for old-school soul crooners like Sam Cooke. The result is a fantastic vehicle for his voice, which is one of the sweetest, most dynamic instruments in modern R&B. Even his version of Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” (which Kelly wrote) works, simply because the melody is so strong and Kels’ voice is so full of ache.
3. Conan O’Brien, Live at Third Man
When Conan O’Brien took his act on the road over the summer, it was as much a rock revue as a comedy show, full of extended jams of some of O’Brien’s favorite tunes (which was a fitting extension to his rock-heavy final episode of “The Tonight Show”). Live at Third Man captures a sweaty afternoon at friend Jack White’s studio in Nashville in front of only a few hundred people, and it captures the sort of heat and hunger that fueled him during the late night wars (probably my favorite pop culture fiasco of 2010). There are a few pleasant goofs (O’Brien does a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” in a wacky chimney sweep accent), but it’s mostly a testament to O’Brien’s love for music. His cover of Elvis Presley’s “King Creole” is especially impressive, full of ragged energy and unbridled enthusiasm.
2. Cee Lo Green, The Lady Killer
When Cee Lo Green dropped “F— You” a few months ago, everybody secretly assumed it would be little more than a novelty hit that everybody would forget about by the time The Lady Killer actually hit the streets. But it turned out that “F— You” had much greater legs than that, and The Lady Killer was too full of fantastically frothy sonic trickery to be denied. “Bright Lights Bigger City” rules and “Satisfied” is brilliant, but the real juice is the album-closing “No One’s Gonna Love You,” a brutally brilliant, honest jam that immediately makes you want to start the album over again.
1. OK Go, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky
Perhaps I just have a thing for producer David Fridmann, as the Flaming Lips’ Embryonic (also produced by Fridmann) was my favorite album of 2009. OK Go don’t have the same kind of impulses that the Lips do, but what they do have is a deft sense of melody and a willingness to play around with garage-level psychedelia and ragged basement funk. Of the Blue Colour of the Sky tends to get overlooked because the videos are so distractingly great, but the songs are explosive pieces of power pop slathered in fuzzy keyboards and ambient noise. They clearly found a core sound and then played around with it until it morphed into vintage Prince jams (“White Knuckles”), orchestral froth (“All Is Not Lost”), druggy jams (“WTF?”) and “I Want You So Bad I Can’t Breathe,” one of the best songs on any album all year. Kanye West may have made the best rock album of the year, but this was a close second.
What’s your pick for album of the year? Let us know in the comments!