This list is what happens when you allow a critic who doesn’t vibe to MGMT, Vampire Weekend, Beach House and Salem near a keyboard and dusty headphones. Admittedly, I am behind on (or completely opposed to) some trends like the proliference of opium den electro and twinkly indie, but what I did enjoy this year amounts to some of the most vital music in a quarter century across any genre.

 

ALBUMS

Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

It’s hard to believe that just a little over a year ago, London’s banjo-totin’ and hyper-literate Mumford & Sons were but a twinkle in mainstream radio and VH1’s collective eyeballs and still playing small-ish gigs to industry-heavy crowds. Anonymity was a norm for them then, on this side of the pond anyway, allowing frontman Marcus Mumford to linger ever so humbly on the sidewalk in front of the Music Hall of Williamsburg with his fellow bandmates near their gear truck during CMJ in October 2009. They blew the roof off the place that night (opening for the Temper Trap!), and now they’re tops from Tallahassee to Tacoma and everywhere in between. “Tender and brawny,” Sigh No More made the men of Mumford heirs to the Kings of Leon throne, and God bless ‘em — these “graceful, indelible songs of joy and pain, longing and battle scars,” are built to last.

The Dead Weather – Sea of Cowards

 

Can lightning in a bottle strike twice? If you’re Jack White it can. For their second album in as many years, the super quartet known as The Dead Weather (White, QOTSA’s Dean Fertita, The Kills’ Alison Mosshart and The Raconteurs/Greenhornes’ Jack Lawrence) brought the thunder on the “trippy and masculine” Sea of Cowards with nasty licks and a lethally potent carnal tumult of psychedelic blues. Lead single “Die By the Drop” was arguably the song of the year next to Cee-Lo’s inescapable “F—K You,” if only for being so brutally tidal my initial reaction to its debut was an embarrassing mixture of hyperbolic agape (because that’s what I’m good at) and a Cheshire grin. The album was slept on more than its predecessor Horehound, but maybe by then the beautifully noisy novelty had worn off for the impatient and fanatical fans of Mosshart and White’s other dormant bands. (At least we know Mosshart has been in the studio working on the new Kills. Wither the Stripes?) In case you’re still wondering what the big deal is, peep “Blue Blood Blues,” “Gasoline” and “I Can’t Hear You” – they hurt so good.

Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

 

I’m not going to attempt to reach the grandiose heights of everyone else’s bottom lines on Kanye West’s scorched-earth blockbuster, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. There’s no point. There’s nothing further to be said here (I won’t even get into the ultra-offensive sexist overtones), so this is really just about marking the occasion. Yes, it is that great. Yes, the samples are ludicrous, and perhaps the most genius aspect of the record. No other man in hip-hop would be insane (and arguably resourceful) enough to sample King Crimson (“Power”), The Turtles (“Gorgeous”), and Lyn Collins and Bon Iver on the same damn song (“Lost in the World”). There’s also no point in writing anything about “Monster,” because nothing will do that next-level banger (or Nicki Minaj’s thoroughly bonkers cameo)  justice. “99 Problems” has some company, and it’s a brain-eating, unstoppable, world-conquering battle axe. Hands in the hair, check. Kanye at the controls? Checkmate.

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

 

Like Kanye West’s album, Arcade Fire’s third studio release broke the Internet. Hard to forget watching everyone walk through a leak of The Suburbs together on Twitter, quoting (hello “Sprawl II”! “Rococo!”), bitching, kvetching, crying, imitating OMG Cat. I was one of those sad, nostalgic pandas who violently loved 80% of the record, and ignored the filler. I wish I could say the same about growing up in a planned neighborhood in South Florida, but I guess that’s the point – we couldn’t escape the filler, we couldn’t even escape mom’s freak-ass Fluffernutters and garage sales. The football games, the first loves, the boredom of watching Ralph the neighbor once again scream at his wife as he washed his rusted Pontiac Grand Prix. The soapy water would run down the street, down, down, some into the gutter, some into your dog Skippy’s mouth, and some giving fungal infections to your best friend Monica as she kicked up the water and pebbles. I hated American Beauty. If not for Annette Bening’s grating teeth-acting, and that damn kid with his floating bag, but for highlighting the banality and utter pointlessness that I had fought so hard to escape. I didn’t want to go back there with The Suburbs, but I had no choice, and this is why the album is unforgettable in so many ways.

Jonsi – Go

The debut solo release from Sigur Rós frontman Jonsi was the space-age daydream of the year, without question. “Go‘s starry-eyed splendor is, at its most prosaic, the sound and vision of Major Tom composing Disney’s Fantasia: a thoroughly modern space boy reaching for the galaxy of his dreams, and dreaming out loud as his spaceship knows which way to go.”

The Black Keys – Brothers

The cantankerous duo from Akron bolstered their overdue ascension with this beauty of a deeply funky garage-blues masterstroke. If you don’t feel something serious to “Tighten Up,” “Too Afraid to Love You,” “Sinister Kid” and “These Days,” I’m not sure you actually enjoy rock and roll music.

The National – High Violet

 

A startlingly gorgeous, morose day dream on a cloudy day during one of the worst weeks of your life. What’s not to love?

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Beat the Devil’s Tattoo

This perennial underdog San Francisco trio mixed it up with their sixth release which found them a new drummer in Leah Shapiro, who brought a heightened sexual energy and tension to a band that was already overflowing with sweat, inspiring some of the group’s most vital work in years. “Wyatt Earp and Cormac McCarthy would find plenty to subsist on with Beat, as a reinvigorated BRMC takes the scenic route home through the wetlands and deserts of America during an Indian Summer, and onward to the snowed-in and dying one-horse railroad towns that dot the country from sea to shining sea. Blistering psycho-fuzz instant classics ‘Conscience Killer’ and ‘Mama Taught Me Better’ give way to the raw sexuality of ‘River Styx’ (and a never better Robert Been) with its swampy, serpentine groove, and ‘Aya’ with its implicit carnality care of unassuming loose canon Peter Hayes, all the while undulating and teasing like a tantric master before a big cathartic release.”

Best Coast – Crazy for You

 

“Relentlessly delicious, the debut effort from California’s Best Coast is the ultimate elixir for what ails your warm-weather soul. Breezy, gritty and alive with endless sunkissed charm, Crazy for You is a perfectly distilled lo-fi nugget of heartsick boredom and Los Angeles in the late afternoon. Singer and songwriter Bethany Cosentino is a beguiling, lackadaisical charmer in the vein of Jenny Lewis (one of her idols) and Liz Phair with an enviable knack for coy and cutesy relationship melodrama.”

Kate Nash – My Best Friend is You

Katy Perry is fun if you are 10 years old, and Ke$ha is probably appealing if you are a freshman girl in high school with certain social priorities and pressures, but if you like scrappy chanteuses who actually write their own songs and have something of substance to say, Kate Nash is the girl you want on your side and speed dial.

 

TOP GIGS

Lady Gaga at Madison Square Garden – July 7, 2010

 

As I stood outside Borders watching her Little Monsters parade by in their finest Haus of Gaga re-creations, I could feel my inner Madonna take over. I longed for a world of glitter and yes and disco sticks in ways that had slept like dogs inside of me since True Blue.  It was a no-brainer to see Lady Gaga during the sold-out run for her globe-conquering Monster Ball tour, even more to see her do “Bad Romance” so that 20,000 people could exorcise the ghosts of bad relationships and emotional supplication. What transpired was so much more important than it ought to be, but that’s the genius of Gaga: even as she claims her music is her religion, and that what she is doing is art, she has convinced millions around the world of the same, and alienated just as many. I flailed so hard during “Paparazzi” I was screamed at by little kids around me, but who cares; Gaga is for everyone, and welcomes the adoration. Beginning as a journey down the Glitter Way through the mean, scary streets of New York City (replete with a subway car onstage for “LoveGame”), and closing with the ultimate dance party, the Monster Ball, where all is free and beautiful, it was a night of supreme pageantry (the state-of-the-art Living Dress), theatricality (a mechanical monster tries to eat our Gaga, art films showing her vomitting glitter or eating a bloody heart) and impressive vocals (“Speechless,” and new song “You & I”) the Monster Ball was scary good for a 24-year-old spitfire who was Born This Way and just getting started.

Arcade Fire at Madison Square Garden – August 4, 2010

 

“…Wednesday was not about exploring the melancholy of a childhood spent languishing in a fenced-in beige Babylon and the darkness at the edge of town for Arcade Fire; this was a full-on revival of such elegance and artistry, it’s a wonder the nine-piece didn’t levitate off the arena stage and into the section of Heaven reserved for Bono and his ego.” (Photo by Jeffre Dene)

Mumford & Sons at Bowery Ballroom – February 8, 2010

 

“I’ve watched plenty of bands achieve ‘full flight’ before. That’s what following U2 around the country for years and admiring Fanfarlo during CMJ will earn you. But the fiery, banjo-wielding Mumford & Sons showed the capacity crowd truly something special last night, and the crowd – a foot-stomping, hands-in-the-air, doin’ a jig, hugging your neighbor mass of winter coat-wearing strangers – sang back every word. ‘Awake My Soul’ became less an album track, and more a pathos as the night wore on.”

The Dead Weather at Prospect Park – August 3, 2010

It was to be their last major show in support of Sea of Cowards (the private show at Don Hill’s the next night doesn’t count because only the fashionably elite got in) and it was suitably an unruly bluesy bloodbath plagued by an unfortunately wonky and unpredictable sound mix. But here, let this attendee’s video of “I Can’t Hear You” show why it was the rock show of the year.

Spiritualized at Radio City Music Hall – July 30, 2010

 

Sitting in row BB, watching the last-ever presentation of 1997′s heart-wrenchingly visceral Ladies and Gentlemen We’re Floating in Space in North America, I flashed back to the Leonard Cohen shows I had the pleasure of seeing in 2009. To pay witness to the quietly, uncomfortably intense shades-clad Jason Pierce as he manned a simple chair and brought to mesmerizing life his chronicle of heartbreak and descent into self destruction and drug abuse, it was nearly impossible to avoid cotton mouth or random silent tears. The full orchestra and gospel choir made an already perfect album even more mammoth, sublime, claustrophobic and haunting.

Hole at Terminal 5 – April 27, 2010

Not for any other reason than it was my first time seeing Courtney Love in the flesh singing “Violet” in front of an audience. Teenage me kvelled – so did everyone else in attendance. Say what you will about her TwitPic link dumps, near-nude fashion shows, increasingly skeletal appearance and worrisome disheveled demeanor (I am not naive), to have seen the unsinkable Love doing her thing, owning up to being Nobody’s Daughter, it was a pleasure to be there for her. And I’d do it all again.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club at Webster Hall – April 9, 2010

 

“Drawing from the richest material in their dense, seductively fuzz-laden catalog, the California band played to their strengths, highlighting their adroit ability to switch from trademark reverb-heavy tracks to stunning Americana/folk-esque jams they introduced with 2005’s Howl, without getting lost in the inertia of the ever-present split personality the band is no longer hiding. This is no United States of Tara, but for BRMC, as they hit the open roads yet again for what will surely be another long stint, Beat the Devil’s Tattoo and its stunning (and satisfying) scope and vision is worth the journey.” (Photo by Tear-n Tan)

Hooray for Earth at Pianos – October 19, 2010

“Local boys, the fast-rising Hooray for Earth, thankfully commanded a larger audience for what surely was one of Tuesday’s best sets. Formed in 2006 and currently based in NYC, the self-professed purveyors of “doom pop” delivered a kicky, utterly mesmerizing set of psych-rock jawbusters, even though lead singer Noel Heroux bashfully admitted he was ‘out of tune.’ Frequent collaborators and friends Cristi Jo and Jessica Zambri were in the house, cheerleading and dancing on the front lines. They would later be brought up for the last song of the performance, the ever rousing ‘Rolling/Nectarine’ off of this summer’s Momo.”

 

ARTISTS TO WATCH IN 2011

Tamar Kaprelian

She is a gorgeous, Billy Joel-obsessed piano-playing pop star on the rise, now kicking it “like a G6” on tour with Far East Movement all over the world. Watch for her name in lights in 2011.

The Jezabels

“Indie and (gag) alternative rock has been waiting for the next dark and romantic four-piece that can lay claim and waste to the Cranberries crown. Hit the download button now, because this beguiling band of Aussies won’t stay a secret for long.”

Zambri

A personal favorite since I laid eyes on their wonderfully weird video for “W/ Somebody” off of February’s Bang for Changes EP, it’s been love at first fuzz for me with New York’s dark synth-loving sisters Cristi Jo and Jessica Zambri. New song, the addictive, cinematic and tribal ”Carry” from their upcoming full-length has been on constant rotation since its debut in September. They are currently making plenty of noise on the local scene with partners in crime Hooray for Earth.

Hooray for Earth

The Black Belles:

A supremely witchy and mysterious quartet signed to Third Man Records that released a single on iTunes back in January but has been eerily quiet since. Think a sinister, garagey April March. Here’s hoping they get back in the chick habit.

Reeve Carney

Currently toplining the most expensive Broadway production ever attempted, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Reeve Carney is all angles, elbow grease and Golden God lungs. Given the thumbs-up by Bono and Edge, Carney will go far with or without the Spidey suit.