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PopMatters Picks: The Best Music of 2010

Get ready for two weeks of musical greatness. This Monday it was the best singles, next Monday brings the best albums, and in between leading up to the holidays will be more than 15 lists of genre bests. You should have more fun than usual finding out who goes where on what list, since 2010 was all about curveballs and crossovers.

Edited and Produced by Arnold Pan, Patrick Schabe and Sarah Zupko

2010 ended a lot like 2009, with Kanye West and Taylor Swift the talk of the music world. But the chatter has been on very different terms this time around, since it’s—mostly—about the music. Whether brought together again by fate or coincidence, this odd couple is not only topping the charts, but also prompting interested listeners to think about the state of pop music, circa 2010, through their canny self-promotion and, more importantly, their ambitious imaginations. Moving a million units in the initial week of Speak Now‘s release and being hailed as the industry’s savior is one thing for Swift, but gradually earning the respect of critics across the musical spectrum is something else. So, while the consensus seems to be that the 20-year-old’s grasp and reach still have some room to grow, it says something that the conventional wisdom is that it’s only a matter of time before she’ll come into her own artistically. As for Kanye, many thought he had already peaked a few times before, but My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy keeps upping the ante, a literal realization of its excessive title. While indulging George W. Bush’s revisionist history fantasy might be overcompensation for last year’s flip-out, music fans of all stripes seem to be willing to put up with West’s too-absurd-not-to-be-true shenanigans because they are part-and-parcel of a creative temperament like no other.

While West and Swift might be peerless in their ability to convert musical achievement into true megastar sales—unless you want to count Lady Gaga, 2009’s breakout artist who was the most talked-about personality for most of 2010, in a pop triumvirate—they represent, in the bigger picture, how bold artistic statements and genre-bending efforts were the “in” thing over the past year. Nowhere was this more evident than in what you’d classify, for lack of a better word, as pop, where thoughtful experimentation often trumped career-making and getting by on personality alone: For those who weren’t swept up by the cult of Bieber, pop music was challenging, exciting, and perhaps even more innovative than the artsier subgenres. This was a year with many standout releases that came in idiosyncratic forms, including the symphonic retro-futuristic R&B of Janelle Monae, Big Boi’s boisterous but exquisitely crafted hip-hop, and the blonde ambition of Robyn’s club hits. Each created releases that moved fluidly and fluently between styles, while messing around with conventions in their tours-de-force. They made pop music—whatever that exactly means these days—you have to pay attention to.

Trying to define pop as “popular music” makes things all the more confusing, because, in a lot of cases, the underdogs and outsiders garnered more interest and even outsold many of those associated with that category. Debuting at number one on the Billboard charts, selling out arenas worldwide, and earning a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, Arcade Fire was arguably the biggest rock band—indie or otherwise—of the year, both in terms of its unyielding conceptual vision as well as its commercial appeal. That’s not to mention how underground stalwarts Spoon, the National, and LCD Soundsystem peaked in popularity without cutting any artistic corners. Same goes for country neo-outlaw Jamey Johnson, whose lauded double album was not only challenging and socially engaged, but also happened to crack Billboard’s top five and has already gone gold in a few short months. Who knows if this is a long-term trend or a welcome anomaly, but it can’t be a bad thing when there’s a lot of overlap between the top of the charts and critics’ lists this year.

It wasn’t only the biggest names and bestsellers mentioned above who boasted the grandest imaginations, but also true artists ahead of the curve, entering their prime, or tempered by age. Indeed, you’ll notice that many of the genre best-ofs compiled by PopMatters contributors focus on prodigious experimentation and “where’d-that-come-from?” combinations that crossed up and transcended genres. We could be talking about Flying Lotus’ everything-and-the-kitchen-sink hip-hop aesthetic or living legend Mavis Staples collaborating with Jeff Tweedy. Then again, we might be referring to Kylesa’s hybridizing of metal with classic ‘90s indie or the long-running Jazz Passengers’ rendering of Radiohead at its funkiest or Four Tet’s jazz-inspired indie-electronica. There’s also stage star Laura Bell Bundy going Grand Ole Opry via Broadway, Konono No. 1 bringing the sounds of Kinshasa to rapt rockers and punks worldwide, and guitarist extraordinaire Nels Cline’s avant-grade mixed-media interpretations of paintings by acclaimed Los Angeles Pop artist Ed Ruscha. In some of these cases, you might be hard-pressed to figure out what fits into which category—or categories.

In the end, maybe genre distinctions matter more to fans—and even more to record-label marketing departments trying to hold onto whatever traditional audiences they can in the era of iTunes playlists—than to the cutting-edge musicians who find their way on to these end-of-the-year lists. When you realize Kanye’s cribbing from neo-folkie Justin Vernon of Bon Iver or that the Roots seem to wanna hook-up with any hot indie act guesting on Jimmy Fallon, whatever imaginary lines there are between categories are being traversed, transgressed, and redrawn all the time. If one of the best things about year-in-review best-ofs is the guessing game, you should have more fun than usual finding out who goes where on what list, since 2010 was all about curveballs and crossovers.

Arnold Pan

Thursday, December 23 2010

The 70 Best Albums of 2010

The year's best albums are highlighted by the emergence of a future superstar, two veteran and virtuoso rappers, and a Dream Team of indie bands releasing career peaks.

The 60 Best Songs of 2010

Sixty slices of musical greatness highlighted by one of the most delightful expletive-ridden hits in pop music history.

The Best Indie Pop of 2010

It’s not that young music fans are completely forsaking cool and disaffected guitar-rock bands for sensitive and fanciful pop bands, but there does seem some movement in that direction.

The Best Electronic Music of 2010

As per usual, electronic music in 2010 was rhizomatic, but it was curiously unnamed. We're getting no help from the artists themselves, who seem gleefully unconcerned with staying in one spot very long.

The Best 20 Re-Issues of 2010

The year's best re-issues are highlighted by a trio of rock gods in the Stones, Lennon and Bowie as well as a bona fide American jazz genius and a bevy seminal '70s and '80s British bands.

The Best Metal Albums of 2010

In the end, the metal world honored the memory of Ronnie James Dio in the coolest possible way: by making this the best year for new music the genre has seen in a very long time.

Thursday, December 16 2010

The Best Experimental Music of 2010

It's not that more experimental-type music was made in 2010. It's just that more of it was getting heard.

The Best Live Albums of 2010

Successful live albums are challenging things, judged by their ability to adequately portray the power of a performance. 2010 proved that even a strong crop of carefully staged and recorded recent shows could still be overshadowed by legendary sets of the past.

Wednesday, December 15 2010

The Best World Music of 2010

As in past years, Africa continues to dominate the world music scene in 2010 -- or at least, it seems to dominate Western perceptions of what "world music" might be. That said, the new vinyl archeology could be seen at work in all areas and all eras of recorded music.

The Best Americana Music of 2010

2010 was a splendid year for Americana releases; then again, that’s something you can say about any year given the sprawling range of sub-genres under Americana's vast umbrella, a point reinforced again by this year’s Top Ten.

The Best Fantastical Music of 2010

The more you look, the more examples of the fantastic you find in music this year.

Tuesday, December 14 2010

The Best Country Music of 2010

The synthesis of the past, present and future is so much of what country music is about these days. The traditions haven’t disappeared, but the music is changing all of the time.

The Best Punk of 2010

Since punk is a wide-ranging umbrella genre saturated with numerous subcultures, styles, aesthetics, and attitudes, making a list is more like trying to super-glue together a ripped and torn fanzine.

The Best Bluegrass of 2010

All in all, it was a banner year for bluegrass. With so many of the genre's most exciting bands in action in 2010, bluegrass fans were offered quite a smorgasboard.

Monday, December 13 2010

The 10 Most Disappointing Albums of 2010

Considering the caliber of artistry here, some of them are major disappointments, while others were simply predictable, but failed to deliver on the off-chance hope that it could have been better.

Thursday, December 9 2010

The Best R&B of 2010

It is fashionable to say R&B is dead because it's not the commercial force it was in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Wednesday, December 8 2010

The Best Free Albums of 2010

Though it's a tough environment for musicians to try and make a living, some artists have built and broadened their audience because of their free tunes.

The Best Female Artists of 2010

While the men were showing us their dark and beautiful fantasies, or pulling us into their high brooding violet, the women were absolutely taking over 2010.

Tuesday, December 7 2010

The Best Hip-Hop of 2010

Epic, sleek, weed rap, emo, sociopolitical, gangsta, or house party? In which direction will hip-hop go? This was a year for all of the above.

The Best Jazz of 2010

Jazz is working all the angles these days. Is there any other genre that has as much range -- from solo instruments to big bands, from instrumental to vocal, from European musicians to both North and South Americans, from truly pretty music to raucously avant-garde "noise"?

Monday, December 6 2010

The Best Indie Rock of 2010

"Indie rock" has become a term as amorphous and hard-to-pin-down as some of its associated lingo. But for our purposes here, we'll go with a line of demarcation strangely omitted from the discussion much of the time: the rock portion of the equation.

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