1. Animal -Ke$ha. She might be the most-successful, yet wildly under-estimated new pop star of the moment. With Animal, Ke$ha has not only put her deft songwriting skills to fine use, she has also been outing a nation of double-standard-spewing bullshitters. How? Well, if we can embrace the hard-partying, sexually-charged fodder of dudes like Flo Rida, Usher, T.I., et al, why are so many folks freaked by a chick getting her swirl on? With each proclamation that Ke$ha is nothing but a drunken skank, naysayers reveal that they probably haven't actually listened to more than the handful of "get-your-freak-on" singles that she's released. Songs like "Blind," "Hungover," "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes," and the heartbreaking "Harold Song" (from the deluxe Cannibal edition) display sensitivity hinting a career that will endure beyond "Tik-Tok." Dear Critics, Bloggers, and Hyper-Opinionated Punters: You don't have to love Ke$ha, even though she makes irresistable pop music. But you should actually listen to her entire album before you publicly denounce her as little more than a fleeting hot-mess. You'll look smarter. Oh... and didn't they say similar things about Madonna when she wore her bra outside her t-shirts, made out with Latino boys in her videos, and rolled around the floor of the MTV Awards about 100 years ago?
2. Progress - Take That. I think I might have been the only Take That fan on the planet who didn't rejoice when my beloved Robbie Williams rejointed the group's line-up. Unlike many, I enjoyed the mature, far-less-fucked-up Robbie displayed on 2009's Reality Killed The Video Star, and listening to the newly four-man Take That felt like putting on a comfortable favorite sweater. With trepidation, I dove into Progress, only to discover one of the most inventive, yet accessible pop music recordings in recent years. The heightened stakes of the world waiting for Robbie to wreak havoc on the band might have initially put everyone on their best behavior, but it also seemed to have inspired Take That to bravely reinvent the concept of a boy-band. With the invaluable aid of skilled producer Stuart Price, the lads swapped the predictability of power-ballads for majestic brotherhood anthems ("The Flood") and sinewy dancefloor fodder ("Kidz," "S.O.S."). If only Americans were smart enough to care. Meanwhile, someone please get a copy of this album to the Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block... STAT!
3. Aphrodite - Kylie Minogue. This album gives us Kylie exactly as we want her: Smooth, sweet, and awash in colorful dance rhythms. The intention is clearly not to challenge, but to comfort the listener with warmth and familiarity. In a sea of murky pop darkness, often for the sake of it and little more, tunes like All The Lovers and Looking For An Angel feel like a desperately needed life-preserver. Kylie and executive producer Stuart Price wisely dressed the songs in arrangements that manage to be simultaneously timely and timeless. After countless albums, you leave Aphrodite sated, yet happily anticipating the fact that La Minogue still has more than a few tasty treats up her creative sleeve.
4. Lights - Ellie Goulding. Goulding was HEAVILY hyped in the world music press as one of the most promising new artists of 2010, a designation that is often more an albratross than boon. Seemingly deaf to the noise, Ellie simply went about the business of offering a sterling hybrid of electro-pop and singer/songwriter folk. With a voice warmly reminiscent of Alanis Morissette, Goulding proved adept at darting from playing the sultry couquette ("Under The Sheets") to plaintive storyteller ("Guns And Horses," "The Writer"). The recently issued Bright Lights deluxe edition indicates that Ellie has a good shot at dodgy sophmore slump.
5. Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook - Bettye LaVette. Rock elitists have already written volumes heralding the bluesy lustre of LaVette's voice, as well as her brazenly confident readings of classic compositions by Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, among others. But let's break this down into words that an average listener can embrace. This is the album that legions of Tina Turner fans have wanted for decades... and may never get. To that end, show Miss LaVette some love!
6. The Reason Why - Little Big Town. On one level, LBT has long served a purpose similar to Bettye LaVette to Tina Turner fans; they are making the country-flavored soft-rock records that Fleetwood Mac would/should record if they could just pull their heads out of their asses. But The Reason Why shows the vocal quartet finally digging deeper and honing a sound that continues to be reverent to the Mac, but is also notably more soulful and spiritual. Particularly noteworthy is Jimi Westbrook, who manages to break out as a star lead-singer without hurting the band's delicate harmony equation.
7. Happiness - Hurts. If Tears For Fears were to form today, they'd be called Hurts. They deal in the kind of moody poetry and slate-grey tale-weaving that must have Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith gnashing their teeth with envy. There are plenty of unique distinguishing characteristics to Hurts, thank goodness. Most notable is the fact that they wisely do not get too comfortable with '80s posturing, and they know exactly when to pick up the tempo... often right before the temptation to drown the listener in minor-chord sadness has reached the proverbial perilous edge of a cliff. A promising debut that leaves the ear curious for more.
8. American Slang - The Gaslight Anthem. Have old-fashioned, barroom bands become obsolete? Gratefully, NO! American Slang is rife with the blue-collar romance of a classic Bruce Springsteen album, but with none of the workers-unite politics that have marred his later efforts. Quite frankly, this is not music to burn too many brain cells over. It's all about three or four chords, loud guitars, a big backbeat, and a hunky frontman. In other words, it's about rock-and-roll, dude!
9. Recovery - Eminem. Sometimes, you have to live through hell in order to create great art. Recovery is brutal, yet beautiful. It's a vivid snapshot of a platinum star who is fearlessly willing to show his most ugly scars and flaws. In fact, he flaunts them with a bedraggled, yet defiant pride that might make this previously hateful brute charming... in a prickly way, of course.
10. Night Work - Scissor Sisters. It must totally suck to be in this band. You make a beloved, wildly cool first album, and (despite the undeniable charms of subsequent efforts) you then spend the rest of your career living it down. Night Work shows Jake Shears and Baby Daddy throwing up their hands and abandoning the '70s-centricity of their first two albums. In its place is a darkly sweet '80s dance flavor that fulfills the promise never achieved by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Jake is, by turns, a preening sex-god and late-in-life/Freddie Mercury-esque philosopher. They've yet to match the fan ardor of that first album, but it's good to see that Scissor Sisters haven't stopped following their musical bliss.