1. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” by Kanye West
How often is it that an album is brilliant right down to its title? As its name perfectly illustrates, West’s fifth has equal parts beauty, insanity, and untamed imagination — and also like the title, it’s stuffed with conflicting moods. It’s enough of a great compliment to West that this is only his second-most adventurous sounding release — close as this album comes, the all-embracing sprawl of “Late Registration” might never be topped. The reason “Twisted Fantasy” really excels is that it’s the most gutsy, soul-laid-bare artistic statement ever made by West — or almost any pop star, for that matter.
“Power” is his boldest declaration of hubris, but that’s just the beginning of this album’s amazing emotional spectrum. After wallowing in heartbreak for the entirety of his previous album, he finally perfects the wrenching, scary details of dead romance in “Devil in a New Dress” and “Blame Game.” He channels Bon Iver’s existential angst into his own in “Lost in the World” and gives his most vicious attacks on the good life in “So Appalled” and “All of the Lights.”
And the nine-minute “Runaway” is one of hip-hop’s most heartbreaking self-examinations. It’s sad enough when West proposes a toast to the “douche bags,” “assholes” and “scumbags” he’s learned to associate himself with, but six minutes in, the song takes a bizarre turn: he closes with three minutes of heavily distorted, incomprehensible moaning over the sparse, chilling beat. It’s out-of-place and disconcerting, and all the more perfect for it — West sounds like he’s crying inconsolably, unable to articulate or restrain his emotions, as everything else keeps droning around him. No other rapper would ever have the nerve to pull something like that. Take that, and everything else on “Twisted Fantasy,” as a perfect demonstration of West’s greatest talent: He can do whatever the fuck he wants, better than most other artists could ever hope to.
2. “Tapestry of Webs” by Past Lives
The Blood Brothers made the most exciting music of the last decade — their brilliantly structured commotion is impossible for anyone, even the band’s former members, to duplicate. So, on the first LP from these four ex-Brothers, the band opts for a very different kind of excitement. “Tapestry of Webs” doesn’t dabble in Blood Brothers levels of extreme. Instead, it works with a tense, tightly constructed restraint. Songs like “K Hole” and “Aerosol Bouquet” nervously twist and turn through meandering build-ups and brief, explosive peaks — the songs bypass outright chaos for slow-building drama. For guys that have made such brutal and unforgiving music, “Tapestry of Webs” is a captivating display of tact.
3. “All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu” by Rufus Wainwright
Wainwright’s first new album in five years actually sounds like a song suite that spontaneously erupted from him in one take. Wallowing in boring ol’ heartbreak but also in the grief from his mother’s cancer-related death – and backed only by his stormy piano playing all the way through — Wainwright turns his personal and familial drama into a one-man opera. He works his way through his own emotional outpour as if he doesn’t care what anyone else will think of it. Some might not care, some might be uncomfortable at parts, but few broken heart albums come so directly from the heart as this one.
4. “In the Court of the Wrestling Let’s” by Let’s Wrestle
This British band delivers great songs as simple and authentic as they come — three guys knocking out rudimentary rock, playing together like old friends, as frontman Wesley Patrick Gonzalez sings about social timidity, inevitable rejection and his eventless daily routine with a wry humor that takes a long, hard time to harness so well. He has a hilarious retort for every one of his shortcomings, but one of the best quotes in a tossed-off opening line: “No matter how many records I buy, I can’t fill this void.” If you’re the kind of person who relates to that statement all too well, this album is a friendly, make-you-feel-better manifesto.
5. “The Age of Adz” by Sufjan Stevens
The folk boy scout, who specialized in baroque, historically researched songs in 2005, reemerges in 2010 with an album of intensely personal epics built around electronic loops and sound effect. But really, that’s just summary — what’s truly impressive is that Stevens doesn’t seem to be trying for a new sound, but seamlessly transitions his masterful, large-scale composing talents to a different style. Songs like “The Age of Adz” and “I Want to be Well” prove how fluently Stevens can transfer his grandiose composing gift to an all new style — and the album itself might just be the beginning of his freewheeling destruction of boundaries.
6. “The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire
The power of the first two Arcade Fire albums came from the sweeping, anthemic energy they injected into song after song. This time around, the strength is in the delicate details, musically and thematically. Revisiting the idyllic serenity of a suburban upbringing, the band populates these 16 songs with subtle, lived-in remembrances of wasted hours, crushing daily routines and nostalgia for things as simple as waiting for phones calls and letters. They also balance the grand statement tracks with lazy, wistful songs like “We Used to Wait” and “Modern Man,” which ache with longing — further proof that Arcade Fire knows the territory well.
7. “Swanlights” by Antony and the Johnsons
Antony again works within the same baroque, sad-sack niche he’s harvested on his last three albums with the Johnwsons, but his raw talent and very subtle progression keep him sounding nothing less than vital. He can still rely on his freakishly emotive voice and chamber pop arrangements to almost effortlessly create a great song, but the truly great moments of “Swanlights” show him broadening his horizons. The song “Swanlights” is a droning, echoing centerpiece, while the more whimsical “I’m in Love” and “Thank You for Your Love” prove that he can finally lighten things up and still retain the stark, stunning beauty he specializes in.
8. “Down There” by Avey Tare
After Animal Collective delivered their most accessible album with last year’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” its sort-of frontman Avey Tare veers in the opposite direction with his first solo album. “Down There” is a dense mood piece of cavernous dubstep beats and shadowy, whispered vocals — its seemingly simplistic effects give way to enduring mystery on each listen. Tare has said that the subject matter of “Down There” is too depressing to even perform these songs live, and reading the usually unintelligible lyrics for songs like the heart-wrenching “Heather in the Hospital” validates that decision. Thankfully, though, he’s given an album that simply doesn’t go away — brooding snippets of “Down There” burrow into your head and linger there for hours.
9. “Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty” by Big Boi
On his first official release without André 3000, his more attention-grabbing cohort, Big Boi has finally done one thing Outkast never managed to: create an album that’s consistently adventurous, but also, you know, consistent. Turns out the man behind “The Way You Move” actually has it in him to create a whole album of songs just as sleek and sexy — and guest spots from the likes of Jamie Foxx and Janelle Monae only make things sweeter. It would have been 2010’s most exciting rap release, if it weren’t for that meddling Kanye fantasy.
10. “This Is Happening” by LCD Soundsystem
James Murphy claimed this will be the last LCD Soundsystem album, which may or may not be bullshit. Judging by “This is Happening,” it most likely is. His ability to ride a two-bar electronic melody for a hypnotic, six, seven or eight minute anthem seems better than ever, and on “I Can Change” and “Dance Yrself Clean,” his witty self-deprication cuts deeper than ever. I can respect wanting to go out on top, but perhaps he could hold off on just a little longer, please.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Personal taste isn’t even an issue with She & Him’s “Volume Two” — if you can’t find anything to enjoy in Zooey Deschanel’s adorable ‘50s-style pop, the problem is you. Other essential releases: “Contra” by Vampire Weekend; “Clinging to a Scheme” by The Radio Dept.; “King of the Beach” by Wavves; “Daughters” by Daughters; “Thank Me Later” by Drake.
Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.