Of the more than 1,000 new rock CDs that landed on my desk this past year, the hottest album came from an alternative band in frozen Canada.
Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” easily defeated challenges from the Gorillaz, Robert Plant and Cee Lo Green.
Record companies are always trying to hype no-hopers, has-beens and copycats. It’s worth waiting for the heart-skipping moment of finding something as fresh and exciting as the title track of the third Arcade Fire collection (Merge Records), with its bittersweet optimism and washes of frenetic sound.
“Plastic Beach” by Gorillaz (Parlophone) is also shot through with inventiveness. Damon Albarn’s band, with guest stars Lou Reed and Snoop Dogg, showcased the CD magnificently at Glastonbury. Some other critics at the festival unfavorably compared Gorillaz with U2, which it replaced when Bono fell ill, though for my money Albarn staged the gig of the year.
“Contra” by Vampire Weekend (XL) started 2010 on a high note. It’s a good way to end the year too, especially for anyone who saw the band perfecting jangly pop during its world tour. “In December drinking horchata, I’d look psychotic in a balaclava” indeed.
“The Runaway” by the Magic Numbers (Heavenly) didn’t get the acclaim it deserved. It’s still one of the best CDs of 2010.
MALE STARS: Plant’s “Band of Joy” (Universal) is an object of beauty, from its elaborate artwork of a clown holding a ring through to the folk, blues and rock celebrated inside.
Green’s “The Lady Killer” (Elektra) has the standout track of the year in the uncensored version of “Forget You.”
Kanye West is an acquired taste, though “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Def Jam) is his best yet. The record easily bests rap rival Eminem, for all his 10 Grammy nominations and 3 million sales for “Recovery” (Interscope). Canadian actor Drake’s “Thank Me Later” (Cash Money) is a wonderfully downbeat riposte to rap, with some self-critical soul-searching about the perils of fame and overinflated egos.
FEMALE STARS: “The ArchAndroid” (Atlantic) by Janelle Monae, 25, is so dizzily ambitious that it simply shouldn’t work. It does. Comparisons with the young Prince are not farfetched.
“I Speak Because I Can” (Virgin) by Laura Marling, 20, has echoes of Joni Mitchell.
“Have One on Me” (Drag City) by harpist Joanna Newsom is a triple CD with 10-minute tracks. It’s as demanding as the late Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica.”
Laurie Anderson’s highly original “Homeland” (Elektra) includes the biting song “Only an Expert.”
Sade’s comeback “Soldier of Love” (Sony) predictably sold millions, though it was too smooth for its own good. The silky tone of Corinne Bailey Rae, telling of the death of her husband, was truly moving. Marnie Stern’s incandescent guitar work on “For Ash,” a song for a former boyfriend who committed suicide, is even more spectacular.
REISSUES: 2010 has been a vintage year for reissues, with pick of the bunch being “Exile on Main Street” (Universal) by the Rolling Stones. Not far behind come “Raw Power” (Sony Legacy) by Iggy & The Stooges and “Station to Station” (EMI) by David Bowie. “The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964” (Columbia) by Bob Dylan, “The Promise” (Columbia) by Bruce Springsteen and “Valleys of Neptune” by Jimi Hendrix (Sony) consist of newly released archive material.
VETERAN ROCK: “Le Noise” (Warner) is Neil Young’s punning title of a CD featuring producer Daniel Lanois and a lot of feedback on periodically excellent songs. Eric Clapton’s “Clapton” (Warner) is likeably laid back, while Tom Jones blows them both away with impassioned singing on “Praise & Blame.” Even more powerful voices came from beyond the grave: Elvis Presley with the remix album “Viva Elvis” (RCA) and Johnny Cash with “American VI: Ain’t No Grave” (Lost Highway).
Elton John’s album with Leon Russell and comebacks for Gil Scott Heron, John Mellencamp and Elvis Costello were welcome. Britain’s Paul Weller continued his purple patch with “Wake Up The Nation.”
Also recommended: Steve Miller’s entertaining “Bingo” (Roadrunner); he slammed music companies for his 17-year break from recording when I interviewed him. Sting’s “Symphonicities” (Deutsche Grammophon) has the singer playing with an orchestra “like a kid with a train set,” as he told me at the time.
SO HIP IT HURTS: The year ends with Taylor Swift’s sweet “Speak Now” topping the charts, followed by the less impressive Susan Boyle album “The Gift” and Michael Jackson’s “Michael.” Yet again, some of the best albums are by alternative rock bands that trouble Billboard less: The National, Hot Chip, Massive Attack, Dead Weather, Deerhunter, Beach House, Women, Midlake, LCD Soundsystem and the Black Keys.
Download fees vary across services. The CDs are priced from $12.98 in the U.S. and 8.99 pounds in the U.K.
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)