Made some noise: The year in popular music


As always with my top 10s, this one includes only studio albums of new recorded music. That means no compilations, no live albums, no archival records, no reissues, and so on. This year, those rules meant the exclusion of some great recordings: reissues of What's Goin On by Marvin Gaye and Nevermind by Nirvana, archival recordings from the Beach Boys and Neil Young, live albums by Miles Davis and the Cure, and many more. Still, my rules are my rules, and I try to make sure that new works are highlighted in my yearly top 10. So here's the list, along with my picks for the two songs you must download if you can't or won't get the whole album.

10. How the Thing Sings by Bill Orcutt. The former guitarist of the 1990s Miami-based, noise-rock outfit Harry Pussy reissued A New Way To Pay Old Debts, his eye-opening, blues-by-way-of-noise, improvisational, acoustic masterpiece from 2009. He tacked on a couple of unreleased tracks, and no sooner had the album reached a (slightly) broader audience than its initial release than Orcutt produced the follow-up, How the Thing Sings. Admittedly, this is the sort of album that critics love and mainstream audiences loathe — an utterly uncompromising, left-field freakout of improvisational work. But if you have the ear for it, it's well worth a listen. (Download: “How the Thing Sings,” “Heaven Is Closed to Me Now”)

9. House of Balloons by The Weeknd. It was a hell of a year for Abel Tesfaye, also known as the Weeknd, who issued his debut mixtape, House of Balloons, and followed it with the almost-as-good Thursday, with plans to release a third, Echoes of Silence, in the near future. House of Balloons mixed an MIA-patented fuzzy bass line, thrumming drums, sexy lyrics and brilliant production into the debut album of the year. (Download: “High for This,” “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls”)

8. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes. The avoidance of the sophomore slump is always a great thing, and Fleet Foxes not only accomplished that but even eclipsed the group's excellent debut. (Download: “Montezuma,” “Helplessness Blues”)

7. Stone Rollin' by Raphael Saadiq. This is the soul album of the year, and, as I've tried to keep this list as diverse as possible, it's also the reason the always-great Sharon Jones didn't make it past the honorable mentions. It's as if an early-1970s, funk-soul wizard stepped fully formed into our own age. (Download: “Go to Hell,” “Heart Attack”)

6. So Beautiful or So What by Paul Simon. Now that Bob Dylan's renaissance is a decade old (Love and Theft came out on Sept. 11, 2001, of all dates), it's time for the next '60s folk-rock icon to have his resurgence. And sure, this is Simon's best work since Rhythm of the Saints, but the comparison isn't truly apt. Dylan spent the 1980s and 1990s releasing forgettable record after forgettable record. Simon released Hearts and Bones, Graceland and Saints in those years. I'm not saying Simon's a better songwriter than Dylan, mind you, just less guilty of verbal diarrhea. (Download: “Rewrite,” “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light”)

5. Hell on Heels by Pistol Annies. Miranda Lambert had a productive year, releasing the excellent solo album Four the Record before joining forces with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley to form the supergroup Pistol Annies. The trio put together 10 tracks filled with witty references to booze, trailers and ass-kickings, and produced the country album of the year. (Download: “Takin' Pills,” “Lemon Drop”)

4. The Harrow and the Harvest by Gillian Welch. Then again, maybe Pistol Annies didn't create the country album of the year. It all depends how you define The Harrow and the Harvest, which by my reckoning is more of a folk album than a country one. And by that definition, it's the folk album of the year. If you're very familiar with the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, it's almost impossible not to hear it coming through. Welch figured largely on that album, and her vocals here, combined with the old-timey music, mean that anyone who loved that record will love this one, as well. (Download: “The Way It Goes,” “Hard Times”)

3. Let England Shake by PJ Harvey. Admittedly, this album will not change any minds. If you love PJ Harvey, as I do, you'll be convinced this is a stroke of genius. If you find her warbling voice and deeply British lyrics a little too precious, tunes such as the title song and the first single, “The Words That Maketh Murder,” aren't going to change things. But for those people who don't casually dismiss singer-songwriters who insist on the Olde Englishe spelling of make, there's a ton to love here. (Download: “The Last Living Rose,” “Let England Shake”)

2. Undun by The Roots. This live hip-hop group lands on my top 10 once again, as it has with just about every release since 1999's Things Fall Apart. Music critics are fond of saying that an album is the best work a band has done since … whatever the last masterpiece the group turned in. (The Stones' best work since Exile! Dylan's best since Blood on the Tracks! Etc.) That's impossible to do with the Roots. Each album is simply the best since the group's previous album. This is the group's 11th studio album, and it has yet to turn in a turkey. (Download: Screw that. Get the whole album.)

1. Hot Sauce Committee Part Two by Beastie Boys. The Boys are back! At the risk of falling into the same cliché I just preached against in the write-up for Undun, this is the Beasties' best work since Ill Communication. It has all the swagger of their early stuff coupled with the skill of the older gentlemen they have become. The literal pissing contest featured in the video to “Make Some Noise” was an apt way of describing the new sound. (Download: As with the Roots, just get the album. That said, “Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win,” “Lee Majors Come Again” and “Make Some Noise” are brilliant.)


Honorable mentions
What Were You Hoping For? by Van Hunt
Soul Time! by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
Bad as Me by Tom Waits
Bon Iver by Bon Iver
The Whole Love by Wilco
Ashes and Fire by Ryan Adams