5. Wu Massacre - Raekwon, Ghostface Killah & Method Man
This cracks my top five for the album artwork alone. I got to see the Wu Tang Clan live this year, and they were actually fairly underwhelming - all shouting over each other and sich. But Method Man is a beast and Ghostface Killah has an inimitable style, both of which made this album quite enjoyable. The three standout tracks are "It's That Wu Shit" along with "Our Dreams" and "Gunshowers" but the whole album has a brisk energetic tone to it which I dig. There's a big gap between this and the rest on my list, except for the album art where it matches or exceeds some of the other awesome album covers of this year.
4. Down There - Avey Tare
Avey Tare of Animal Collective deploys some pretty groovyspooky beats and bleats on this record. I especially like "Ghost of Books" which has a fairly mesmerizing end refrain that I was repeating a lot with variations on a recent mountainside trip. As with some of my favorite Animal Collective and related solo act materials, I love the feeling he establishes of being up in outer space and also right beside a homey campfire simultaneously. I love the madhouse avant gardeish take on 1966/67 Beach Boys and Beatles harmonies and song textures. I love the seductive dream of musical entheogenic insanity which combines a sense of isolation with a staunch belief in total collectivity. The album also features some amusing interstitial snatches of dialogue. These bits are both funnier and less forced than the comedy sketches that pop up on albums like the aforementioned Wu Massacre (though Tracy Morgan is pretty amusing on "How to Pay Rent Skit" come to think of it). Purely for the goofy mantras it has planted in my head, this album makes my top five.
3. New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh - Erykah Badu
There's also a big gap between Down There and this record, which might have a fair claim of tying with number one and two on this list. Erykah Badu takes neosoul into new dimensions with this album, particularly with the first and final tracks. The opener, "20 Feet Tall," is an ethereal declaration of unsettled confidence while the closer "Out of My Mind, Just in Time" is a chameonlike opus dedicated to exploring the psychology of longing and coping. In between, one can get lost in the smooth and sensual diversity but "Can't Turn Me Away (Get Munny)" is undoubtedly the most fun song on offer. It combines two other versions of the same song into one feisty, lusty cover. It's too soon for me to say whether it matches the masterful New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) but it most definitely comes close which is quite a feat for any self-conscious follow up. Erykah Badu is a musical visionary with majestic horizons on the brain and I really can't get enough of her.
2. Highway Rider - Brad Mehldau
Speaking of visionaries, Brad Mehldau is this generation's Bill Evans. Like jazz innovators of the past, he is not content with following the old formulas and conventions of his (hopefully) ever evolving genre. The previous record he made with producer Jon Brion (who movie fans will note has scored Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche NY, and I Heart Huckabee's among others) was the sonically ambitious Largo which was also easily one of the coolest achievements of contemporary jazz. Highway Rider takes the next logical step and brings in a full orchestra to go all out for the gold and the grandeur. It works out superbly, with Mehldau's compositions working beautifully not just with his fabulous trio but also with guest saxophonist Joshua Redman and the rest of the orchestra. This a double album that actually has very good reason to be a double album, as it is filled with a diverse array of fascinating musical ideas. "John Boy," "Don't Be Sad," "The Falcon Will Fly Again," "We'll Cross The River Together," and "Capriccio," are all worth mentioning as standouts which gives an idea of how well this album soars and sparks throughout its considerable runtime. Of course, it would be irresponsible to omit the epic double song endings to each disc -- "Now You Must Climb Alone" flows gorgeously into "Walking the Peak" while "Always Departing" / "Always Returning" provides a suitably splendorous close to one of the most transcendent fusions of jazz and classical music since George Gershwin. I was lucky enough to catch the Brad Mehldau Trio playing a live show around when this album came out in the spring of this year (and I got a pretty good recording of it with my cheap digital tape recorder). Mehldau only played a frenetic, rollicking version of "Into the City" from among all the tracks on Rider during both concerts I saw that night (early and late show) but this is understandable since most of the album requires the presence of a saxophonist or an orchestra or both.
1. Cosmogramma - Flying Lotus
The easiest way to explain why this is my favorite album of 2010 is to say that I listened to it a good 20-25 times all the way through without stopping before I felt comfortable listening to any of the tracks individually. Cosmogramma is really an album, that is a set of songs that is meant to be listened to together as one full work just like a movie is a set of scenes meant to be watched together as one whole. It is an electronica album that glories in the magic of computers while bursting from their considerable constraints with lots of live instrumentation. It is a hip hop album but not a rap album, unless you count goofily sexed riffs on the word 'satellite' as rap. It is a jazz album in that it explores rhythm and melody without a sense of arbitrary boundaries. It is a pop album that eschews vocals as anything other than another set of sounds to dance with - well, it's not really a pop album but I think it's fun in the same way that great pop music is. The songs echo and quote each other, and often songs transform without much warning which is one my favorite musical tricks. Flying Lotus might be the most promising young musical artist working today. I also got to see him work his unique voodoo live earlier this year, opening for Atoms for Peace no less. It might be the best show I've ever heard. I will not single out any particular tracks in keeping with my belief that the album should be subdivided as little as possible but as you might be able to tell, I highly recommend obtaining a copy so that you may have your mind blown all over yo ass. It's truly a resonant revelation.
PS - Albums not on this list because I have not fully explored them, but are likely to bump off Wu Massacre at least when all is said and done: Carry Me To Home - The Deadly Gentleman ; Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty - Big Boi; Antifogmatic - Punch Brothers ; Shame, Shame - Dr. Dog