PopMatters Picks: The Best Music of 2010

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