Aloe Blacc, Good Things
This Detroit songster is the most talented of the current yield of neo-soul crooners — and not just because he sings like a young Bill Withers. Aloe Blacc has a fine grasp of tradition, but also pushes the R&B genre into heady, psychedelic spaces with songs like Miss Fortune and If I. For lovers of meaningful vocals, balmy grooves and punchy horn charts, Good Things is definitely your thing.
Best track: I Need a Dollar
Broken Bells, Broken Bells
Upon first encounter, this sunny collaboration between Shins frontman James Mercer and super-producer Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley) can seem merely pleasant. But spend some time with this record and you will inevitably surrender to its sly and sturdy songcraft — tunes like The Ghost Inside, The High Road and October are earworms of the highest calibre.
Best track: The Ghost Inside
Dan Snaith doesn’t so much reinvent himself with every album as reveal another swath of his staggering imagination. Swim is nominally a dance record, but the rhythmic thrust is only part of the allure. In addition to highly processed club beats, the album contains flutes, electric pianos, strings, even trumpets. Swim is a truly uncanny thing — at once vintage and futuristic.
Best track: Leave House
James Young, Aiden Whalley and James Buttery — the young Brits behind Darkstar — specialize in subtly menacing lullabies. The songs on their debut full-length feature eerie synths, skittering beats and serrated vocals. The cumulative effect is quite spooky and unlike anything in the electronic realm.
Best track: Gold
Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest
This Atlanta troupe is one of the most consistently interesting indie acts of the last decade, concocting a heady racket that leans heavily on psychedelia without sacrificing proper tunes. The gorgeous Halcyon Digest is an entrancing trip that demonstrates a deep love of ‘60s rock bands like the Byrds and the Hollies.
Best track: Helicopter
Brian Eno, Small Craft on a Milk Sea
Never count Eno out. That was the lesson of Small Craft on a Milk Sea, a collection of evocative, sculpted instrumentals he recorded with Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams. Being the godfather of ambient music, Eno is known for placid tones, but this marvellous album features some truly glorious noise — and a few cathartic moments that you might even consider punk.
Best track: 2 Forms of Anger
Gorillaz, Plastic Beach
Is there any question of Damon Albarn’s genius? The one-time Blur frontman has a flair for melody and an ear for weird and wonderful collaborations, as the third Gorillaz album duly attests. Built around a (loose) theme of environmental degradation, Plastic Beach features De La Soul, Bobby Womack, Mos Def, Lou Reed, Snoop Dogg, Swedish darlings Little Dragon — and some of the most visionary pop to be released in 2010.
Best track: Empire Ants
Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
Narrated from the perspective of a messiah-like robot and inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (among a great many other things), Janelle Monae's wildly ambitious album is astronomically good. The 25-year-old Monae, a musical theatre-trained artist, brings a drama geek’s flair for storytelling to rich, layered tunes that range from Disney-worthy orchestral fantasias to slinky New Power Generation funk to supernaturally great soul-pop. Simply out of this world.
Best track: Tightrope
Robyn, Body Talk
Although she's moved on from her years as a teen sensation, this Swedish star still believes in the transcendent power of song — 15 examples of which are showcased on this disc, which collects the highlights of all three Body Talk albums on one LP. Snoop Dogg drops by with some laconic rhymes and erstwhile M.I.A. collaborator Diplo helps Robyn execute a dancehall track, but this is still pop music at its most sublime, with crystalline hooks, soaring melodies and lyrics that map out a landscape of human emotion.
Best track: Dancing On My Own
Souljazz Orchestra, Rising Sun
This Ottawa collective is surely one of the most underrated acts in Canada. A notoriously ferocious live act, Souljazz Orchestra blends jazz, Afrobeat and Latin influences, and the results are never less than breathtaking. Rising Sun is the collective's most sizzling effort yet.
Best track: Agbara