Being a pop music fan these days is more about songs than albums. By now, that's a certainty, if not a cliche: iPods and MP3s broke the CD into little pieces, and now we're all free to assemble our personal playlist puzzles.
But that's not the half of it. In 2010, it's not just about songs.
It's about memes and tweets and YouTube videos, links and posts and status updates. It's about the Internet, and how the Web that made music free now makes music fans - and music-makers - free to overshare and obsess, all the time.
That's part of what makes Kanye West the indisputable artist of the year. It helps that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the best album anyone put out in 2010. But what seals the deal is West's unfiltered, impulsive way of gracing us with his every thought - meshed perfectly with the promotional imperatives of the remade music business.
In other words, with Kanye you don't just get an album's worth of genre-defying glimpses into the mind of a madly ambitious pop star.
You get self-promoting and self-deprecating 140-characters-or-less observations on Twitter that Internet readers then turn into New Yorker-style cartoon captions. You get an apology to George W. Bush (who, Kanye said post-Katrina, didn't "care about black people"), and a YouTube clip of Kanye rapping in flight from the cockpit of a commercial airliner, and a 35-minute movie about a supermodel phoenix who crashes to the ground in a fiery explosion.
Not everybody can provide this much content in the Twitterverse, but Kanye can.
A word about the death of the album: People may download, buy, or stream individual songs much more frequently than entire albums, but that hasn't stopped artists from expressing themselves in long-playing form. Three of the picks below - Arcade Fire's The Suburbs, Titus Andronicus' The Monitor, Janelle Monáe's The ArchAndroid - are concept albums, songs linked by some highfalutin idea.
While that's not strictly true of the others, all are marked by a musical and thematic cohesion that aims to sustain itself over the long haul. Attention spans may be relentlessly shrinking, but artists convinced they have something substantial to say are pushing back, and demanding to be heard, at length.
Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (Merge). Arcade Fire, the Canadian rock band fronted by Win Butler and his wife, Régine Chassagne, often suffers from a sense of its own significance. On The Suburbs, however, that flaw (which marred 2008's Neon Bible) has been transcended - or perhaps bulldozed, like a virgin forest clear-cut to make way for a cookie-cutter housing development. Extra credit goes to Butler for mocking hipsters who "seem wild but . . . are so tame," and to Chassagne for using strip-mall overdevelopment as grist for the catchiest thing the band has ever recorded. Download: "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)."
Beach House, Teen Dream (Sub Pop). The prettiest record of the year. Beats out worthy competition from Deerhunter's gauzy Halcyon Digest and Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti's poptastic Before Today for the indie earworm slot on this list. Baltimoreans Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally's third album was recorded in a church, and its dream-pop soundscapes soar to the flying buttresses, as Legrand's androgynous voice casts a bewitching spell. Download: "Walk in the Park."
Grinderman, Grinderman 2 (Anti-). Stand back, and behold the power of Nick Cave's raging id! I used to think the Australian rocker and littérateur was prone to pretension and pomposity. It's not that I was wrong. But these days the 53-year-old Aussie has developed a flamboyant sense of humor and a winning tendency toward self-mockery, while acting out a midlife crisis with ferocious force. "My baby calls me the Loch Ness monster," he bellows. "Two big humps and then I'm gone." Cave crashed his Jaguar into a speed camera last week, but he and his twin sons emerged unscathed. Easy there, Nick, don't hurt yourself. Download: "Worm Tamer."
LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening (DFA). Besides doing the world a service by producing Philadelphia pop-rock band Free Energy's gleaming debut, Stuck on Nothing, LCD Soundsystem auteur James Murphy spun his midlife angst into musical gold. "From now on, I'm someone different," the 40-year-old club-music king sings on the soaring "All I Want." He's hoping to locate a little self-transformation, and get past his own cynicism, in his kinetic dance excursions. More often than not, he finds the stylishly intelligent, ecstatic release he's looking for, if only for a little while. Download: "I Can Change."
Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid (Atlantic). A concept album about an android messiah that encompasses rock, rap, R&B, swing, funk, and pastoral folk, for starters, The ArchAndroid is quite possibly incomprehensible to anyone but Monáe. A sui generis sci-fi aficionado, Monáe, at her best, appears poised to remake any preconceived notions of what "black" music is. It can all get a bit dizzying, but it's also dazzling. Download: "Tightrope."
The Roots, How I Got Over (Def Jam). The Roots had a whole lot going on in 2010. The Philadelphia outfit was the house band for a Haiti telethon and a Comedy Central rally, threw a Penn's Landing picnic, and held down its late-night TV gig on Jimmy Fallon. And, oh yeah, there was a quality album of old-school R&B and soul covers with John Legend, too. All that plus How I Got Over, a tightly focused set about making your uncertain way in the Age of Obama America. They're rugged, nuanced, and open-minded enough to invite indie rock harpists and angelic vocalists to come and play under their hip-hop big tent. Download: "Dear God 2.0."
Sleigh Bells, Treats (N.E.E.T.). Air-raid guitars, pummeling drum-machine beats, and charismatic singer Alexis Krauss' theatrical vocals: Sleigh Bells guitarist and producer Derek Miller is a fool for a high-impact, studio-concocted sonic explosion. But it's not just about the electronic crackle and pop. Over repeated listenings, the songs on this New York duo's debut keep grabbing you back. Proof positive: The weakest thing Miller produced this year was "Meds and Feds," a song written not by him but by his label boss M.I.A., on her disappointing album Maya. Download: "Rill Rill."
Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone (Anti-). I could complain that Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy's production of gospel great Mavis Staples is a tad tamped down, less raw than it could be, a move that seems to ensure its palatability for the adult-alternative audience. But what it lacks in fervor, You Are Not Alone makes up in intimacy. From Randy Newman's "Losing You" to Tweedy's title cut to the gospel standard "Creep Along, Moses," the song selection is well suited to the powerful-voiced septuagenarian, and her warm, openhearted spirit is irresistible. Download: "You Don't Knock."
Titus Andronicus, The Monitor (XL). "I don't want to change the world, but I'm looking for a new New Jersey / 'Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to die," Patrick Stickles sings, tipping his hat to both Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen before The Monitor is one verse old. A cockeyed concept album about the Civil War, Stickles' broken heart, and a politically polarized America, The Monitor is a punk-rock record that pulls stylistically from rawboned '80s acts like Minor Threat and the Pogues, and teems with the yowling wildcat energy of a hungry young songwriter with an overabundance of impassioned ideas. Download: "A More Perfect Union."
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Def Jam). Don't worry, Kanye. We've saved the best for last. "No one man should have all that power," West raps on "Power," the song that samples King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man." He might be musing on absolute power's tendency to corrupt absolutely, but more likely is boasting of his own ability to bring together luminaries as varied as Elton John, Jay-Z, and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver for a ride on his wildly entertaining, soul-searching, occasionally profane, emotional roller-coaster. Download: "Power."
Honorable mentions: Sam Amidon, I See the Sign; Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh; Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot . . . The Son of Chico Dusty; Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest; Justin Townes Earle, Harlem River Blues; Gil Scott-Heron, I'm New Here; Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song; Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Before Today; Sade, Soldier of Love; Sharon Van Etten, Epic.