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10 out of '10: the year's best CDs

Posted 2:33pm on Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010

Anywhere you turned in 2010, youth dominated. Whether it was Taylor Swift and her syrupy sob stories, Justin Bieber's flop-topped pop or the impenetrable slang littering the Top 40, the prevalence of thoughtful, substantive pop music was slight. And yet, there were artists making serious and seriously engaging music, mostly away from the spotlight's glare. Their work makes up the lion's share of the 10 best albums of the last 12 months.

1. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

This Canadian collective's third album is a thrilling, exquisite work of art, one which deftly captures the boredom of suburban life, the desire to break free and accomplish something. But ultimately, The Suburbs, riddled with moments of piercing beauty and singular power, is the sound of triumph, viscerally rendered in all its emotional complexity.

2. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Only someone as monomaniacal (and talented) as West could deliver a record which manages to humanize a complicated man, all while celebrating his rampaging ego. Fantasy scorns convention, conquers banality and forsakes easy hooks and endless airplay for a forceful statement of self that is as mesmerizing as it is off-putting.

3. Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid

Although the 25-year-old polymath owes a hefty debt to her forebears (Prince and Outkast, among others), Monae nevertheless delivers the year's most assured debut. The ArchAndroid often feels like riding an out-of-control Tilt-a-Whirl through a precocious music fiend's iTunes library.

4. Ray LaMontagne & the Pariah Dogs, God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise

Ray LaMontagne was no slouch on his own, but being in a band has pushed him further into the pastures of American roots and folk music (and bagged him a Grammy nomination in the process). God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise, from its opening notes, evokes the freewheeling ethos of '70s singer-songwriters who were unbound by genre and propelled forward by skill.

5. Titus Andronicus, The Monitor

The components are so disparate -- snot-nosed, Jersey lo-fi punk band; spoken-word interludes; a penchant for Irish reels and epic, seven-minute-plus tunes -- that the whole should not work as well as it does. Ostensibly a sort-of concept album rooted in the Civil War, The Monitor is one massively ambitious work that strikes a nerve, sticks with you and wears its grandiosity lightly.

6. Patty Griffin, Downtown Church

Honestly, Griffin could sit around singing the classifieds and it would be better than 90 percent of what's out there. It's surprising that it's taken the flame-haired songbird so long to get around to focusing on gospel tracks, but consider this heavenly stunner her riff on the Cowboy Junkies' The Trinity Session.

7. Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song

Sorry, Sugarland: This is what country music sounds like. Johnson offered up a double-disc, 25-song collection that traverses the rocky terrain of the soul, celebrating the good times with the bad, with scarcely a second thought. Bracing, uncompromising and built to last for centuries, The Guitar Song reclaims Nashville's honor.

8. Gorillaz, Plastic Beach

Wonderfully weird and bursting at the seams with hip guest stars (it's not every day you find Snoop Dogg rubbing elbows with Mark E. Smith), this Technicolor odyssey through mastermind Damon Albarn's worldly, 23rd century cranium spawned one of the year's most joyous tours (see below).

9. The Black Keys, Brothers

A long-time underground favorite, the Black Keys broke through in 2010, thanks to this weirdly anachronistic effort. Overseen in part by producer Danger Mouse, Brothers is rife with blistered blues and sinuous guitar rock. It's a grimy come-on disguised as an Urban Outfitters soundtrack.

10. MGMT, Congratulations

Few things are more satisfying than a band seizing the opportunity to prove itself. MGMT does that with gusto here, with a record whose scope and an ambition feel revelatory.

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