As 2010 draws to an close, Altered Zones brings you its collective year-end recap. Today, we list our favorite albums of the year. Check our list of tracks here, our list of videos there, and don't forget to stay tuned through the holiday break for daily year-end mixtapes from our favorite artists.


Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti: Before Today [4AD]

MP3: Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti: "Fright Night (Nevermore)"

When attempting to blurb Ariel Pink's ambitious masterpiece Before Today for my own year-end list, it occurred to me that literally every dialogue about this record and its brilliant, transcendent pop songs had been exhausted elsewhere: Ariel emerges from his bedroom, abandons lo-fi, records in a real studio with real musicians for a real label, drops his breakout record, some irrelevant shit about chillwave, etc. So I enlisted the opinion of chillwave inventor Carles of popular weblog Hipster Runoff fame, a longtime Ariel Pink fan himself, who summed it up like this: “It seems as if perhaps the world has finally caught up with Ariel Rosenberg, and our ears are finally ready for his textures. Before Today is history, while the future is a mystery but today is a gift which belongs to Ariel Pink." --Chris Cantalini


Autre Ne Veut: Autre Ne Veut [Olde English Spelling Bee/Upstairs CDR]

MP3: Autre Ne Veut: "Two Days Of Rain"

Of the many R&B-nodding white guys making conceptual pop music this year, Autre Ne Veut's debut on Olde English Spelling Bee/Upstairs was one of few that had a completely unique spin. While HTDW had a darker, more pained take, ANV was minimal, clubby, filled with strange effects and unusual instrumentation. And, unlike HTDW, his live show was amazing, with him squirming on the floor and flailing his limbs like a wounded lamb. What that lamb proved was that Toni Braxton-loving white guys can have their cake and eat it too, and not in some W'burg 2006-era ironic way. This is the pop music everyone makes in their shower or in front of the mirror, only it's real. --Michael P. McGregor


Big Troubles: Worry [Olde English Spelling Bee]

MP3: Big Troubles: "Georgia"

Big Troubles' LP dreams finally came to fruition in the third quarter of 2010, when Olde English Spelling Bee released their debut full-length, Worry. The 14-track record bristles with buzzing grit and downright catchy vocal parts, penned by Big Troubles co-masterminds/songwriters Alex Craig and Ian Drennan. Their sound is often touted as a perfect marriage of searing shoe-gaze distortion and early '90s radio rock, but the sum of the descriptors proves greater than its parts. Big Troubles truly champion an exciting and relentlessly loud form of rock and roll. --Ian Nelson


Clive Tanaka y su orquesta: Jet Set Siempre 1° [Tall Corn]


MP3: Clive Tanaka y su orquesta: "All Night, All Right"

Clive Tanaka is a mysterious figure. Signs point to him being from Japan, Chicago, Brazil, and other far-flung locales, but no one's been able to pin him down yet. It's almost as if he's attemping to throw you off his path by giving false clues. But the international hook works: His Jet Set Siempre 1° tape melts down sounds from all over the globe into vintage synth bangers. How many people can make a robotic voice sound so damn passionate? In futuristic utopias, Clive Tanaka definitely owns the night. --Jheri Evans


Cloudland Canyon: Fin Eaves [Holy Mountain]

MP3: Cloudland Canyon: "Mothlight Pt.2"

Kip Ulhorn's euphoric plunge into synth-driven psych hides an underlying swell of sadness beneath its gauzy pop structures. With the addition of his wife Kelly to the fray, Ulhorn steers Cloudland Canyon away from its Krautrock roots and into a gloriously lush shoegaze present. The result is some of Cloudland Canyon’s catchiest songwriting yet, ensconced in shimmery pop foam and radiant noise, spiraling ever closer to bliss. --Andy French


Earl Sweatshirt: EARL [OFWFKTA]

MP3: Earl Sweatshirt: "EARL"

OFWGKTA: soon to become a household acronym striking fear into the hearts of parents nationwide. These adolescent Los Angeles natives don't just produce their own warped beats; they spit rhymes that even Ted Bundy would find kinda fucked up. Their now missing member, Earl Sweatshirt, isn't any less twisted than the rest of his crew; he's just able to make some of the most vile verses sound eloquent. On "Assmilk", a track from OFWG founder Tyler's Bastard LP, Earl calls himself the "reincarnation of '98 Eminem", a pronouncement that rings true in both content and delivery. His eponymous LP was self-released earlier this year, and the kid leaves no rock unturned. With themes ranging to threesomes with Pam Anderson and Miley Cyrus to stabbing cops and cannibalism, he's definitely not tackling your everyday high school problems. Unfortunately, his parents failed to see anything creative about this and shipped him off to boot camp (or so we think). Hopefully, he'll take this as a learning experience and come back even more ferocious than before. #freeEARL --Nathan Smith


Games: That We Can Play [Hippos In Tanks]

MP3: Games: "Planet Party"

It's interesting to watch our perception of the '80s evolve from a kitschy, "what was I thinking?" decade into an endearing, "those were the days" one. Once upon a time, the era was the butt of as many jokes as Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Chuck Norris combined. Despite flashbacks of gaudy clothing, nowadays the '80s would seem to have some lasting value after all. With their That We Can Play EP, the Brooklyn electronic duo of Joel Ford and OPN's Daniel Lopatin sums it up in a phantasmagoria of lithe synths, robotic melodies, and stiff drum-machine beats. Their songs bring back childhood memories of lying on the living room floor watching Airwolf and MacGyver, or wishing you had more Atari games to play. It's precisely this sort of nostalgia that makes for GAMES' best instrument. That We Can Play soundtracks our memories with sounds as familiar as they are fresh. --Will Abramson


Gatekeeper: Giza [Merok]

MP3: Gatekeeper: "Serpent"

Gatekeeper’s Giza EP is an immaculate sound wave designed to paralyse unexplored areas of the human psyche with fear and delight. "Look in the mirror", say Gatekeeper three times. The only valid boarding pass for this voyage is your soul, so please have it open and ready. Upon launch, "Serpent" burrows its way down to the spinal column, where it takes control of your body with an injection of Front 242 serum straight to the nervous system. The rest is a feverish hallucination of wild contortions and glimpses from horror films that were never made. This EP is literally a killer. --J


How To Dress Well: Love Remains [Lefse/Tri Angle]

MP3: How To Dress Well: "Walking This Dumb (Live)"

How To Dress Well has had an amazing year, and much of that centers around Love Remains. The songs are inspired by R&B from the late '80s and '90s , but they have a distinct bedroom sound that elevates their emotional resonance. The entire album holds together seamlessly, but each track stands just as strong on its own. Love Remains grabs you by the heartstrings and allows you to experience How To Dress Well's most impassioned emotions, and that's no small feat. --Jheri Evans


James Blake: CMYK [R&S]


MP3: James Blake: "Footnotes"

On this his third EP, released through legendary label R&S, London's unspeakably prolific James Blake came into the collective consciousness and established himself as one of the most forward-thinking, genre-defying, and exciting producer/songwriters of the year. Whilst all four songs on the release continue to hold their own, its status as landmark of the last 12 months is won by the title track's chopped, haunting R&B sample, and its seamless transition from a sparse and subtle, atmospheric arrangement to a heart exploding, sub-bass tour de force.  --Sahil Varma


Julian Lynch: Mare [Olde English Spelling Bee]

MP3: Julian Lynch: "Just Enough"

Sound-shaper Julian Lynch composed the low-key, non-traditional psychedelia of Mare in his home states of New Jersey and Wisconsin. With its eclectic instrumental palette, ranging from Eastern to Western and Native American spiritual, the LP boasts more influences than the ear can absorb in one sitting. Like lots of '60s and '70s psych-folk songs, Lynch's have a carefree and endearing yogic leisure about them. --Ryan Ellis


Mark McGuire: Living With Yourself [Editions Mego]

MP3: Mark McGuire: "Brain Storm (For Erin)"

Guitarist Mark McGuire is perhaps best known as one-third of Cleveland Kosmiche revivalists Emeralds, but he has released no less than 30 solo albums in his 23 years on Earth. His Living With Yourself LP on Editions Mego is not only one his most accessible works to date (read: physically available), but also his most technically accomplished. Across eight loop-based sound collages, McGuire whisks through a psychic landscape as vast and minutely textured as America seen from 10,000 feet above. But Living With Yourself is less an exploration of space than an excavation of time, setting McGuire’s processed guitar reveries alongside sound-fragments from the musician’s own childhood. Hard not to feel a little bit like a voyeur when we hear a five-year-old McGuire introducing himself as “Mark”, but who are we to say that pop music hasn’t always been the highest form of autobiography? --Emilie Friedlander


oOoOO: oOoOO EP [Tri Angle]

MP3: oOoOO: "Burnout Eyess"

"NoSummer4u", the track that put San Francisco-based bedroom recorder oOoOO on the map, is an enchanting, gothic-tinged synth-pop ballad, underpinned by foreboding atmospherics and a clinical, hip-hop-inflected beat. His debut self-titled EP presents a darker, more confused vision; oOoOO's skewed take on commercial electro-pop celebrates its decadent glamour while going out if its way to expose its rotten core. From the stuttering, fractured R&B wasteland of "Mumbai" to the barren faux-funk of "Hearts", oOoOO is a beautiful still of urban yearning and mindlessness captured through the stained glasses of a romantic outsider, a guttural fairy tale orchestrated by delayed vamps and diseased synth tones. --Noam Klar


Oneohtrix Point Never: Returnal [Editions Mego]

MP3: Oneohtrix Point Never: "Returnal"

Returnal sees psychedelic-drone linchpin Daniel Lopatin's amorphous, ambient landscapes mapped with more definition than ever before. Attached to OPN's ever-so-slightly rigid structures, the sad, far-out sprawl and bottomless celestial drip of "Drifts" render a consistently beautiful, frequently devastating effect. OPN draws sadness and redemption out of distinctly alien textures with the deftest of touches. --Jack Shankly


Rangers: Suburban Tours [Olde English Spelling Bee]

MP3: Rangers: "Deerfield Village"

Every time I put on the debut full-length from fellow former-DFW-suburb-dweller Rangers, I find myself moved by all the woozy, warped filmstrip vibes, inextricably tied to murky memories of a time and place in my youth. I think this is the kind of (possibly manufactured) nostalgia Nick Sylvester was talking about in his piece about Ariel Pink and hypnagogic pop, where he jokingly describes "half-sung melodies refracted through the quarter-remembered chopper blades of the opening sequence of Airwolf as I fell asleep in my basement." Okay, good point; but Suburban Tours emanates an affectingly real, often melancholic warmth that transcends any of these increasingly derogatory, of-the-moment genre tags.--Chris Cantalini


The Samps: The Samps [Mexican Summer]

MP3: The Samps: "Peppergood"

On their self-titled debut EP, Haunted Graffiti member/new Nite Jewel full-timer Cole MGN and his side-project the Samps take deconstructed, sample-based pop to a whole new level. Their chopped-and-flipped retro-futuristic electro-funk is never anything less than exhilarating, elevated as much by the crew's obvious affinity for pioneers like the Bomb Squad and Dilla as their desire to create "glorious compressed FM gold." The whole thing's a blast; more than anything else, this shit gets us psyched to see where the Samps and like-minded dudes like Games are going to take this steez next. --Chris Cantalini


Sun Araw: On Patrol [Not Not Fun]

MP3: Sun Araw: "BEAT COP"

On his fourth LP, Sun Araw, aka Cameron Stallones, delves deeper into the heavy-psych he's been maneuvering in for a few years. On Patrol was not only a manifesto, but a coming out party for this deepest of zoners. His work with Magic Lantern and releases on Not Not Fun and Woodsist have been extremely influential on kids tempering in mystic psych explosions. On Patrol, a 2xLP featuring some of the most vibe-encompassing album art I've seen in a long while (also by Stallones), is the culmination of the exotic psych-dub sound he has been chipping away at for ages-- one that is uniquely Sun Araw, while harking where the diesel rumblings are headed. --Michael P. McGregor


Ty Segall: Melted [Goner]

MP3: Ty Segall: "Girlfriend"

Whether you pump Dead Moon full of steroids or blast The Stooges through a megaphone, you'll probably get something equally as robust as Ty Segall's third album Melted. It's a throwback album, treading retro ground as far back as The Sonics, and taking a flame to the oil stains that dripped on the floors of garage rock for so many years. Simultaneously, Ty manages to ignite the same fire in the current, gaseous cloud of seemingly omnipotent, hazy, nostalgic rock. Melted is a step forward from the snarky days of his debut Lemons, with Ty letting go of the defiant angst he once harbored. He still keeps that punk rock sword in hand, but rather than flail around wildly, he dishes out calculated thrusts and slices. --Will Abramson


Yellow Swans: Going Places [Type]

MP3: Yellow Swans: "Limited Space"

The Portland drone duo of Peter Swanson and Gabriel Saloman recorded the majority of Going Places after deciding to part ways in 2008. With a backstory like that, it’s hard not to feel touched by these six wooly excursions into the void. Relying more on tape loops and field recordings than their previous efforts, Going Places piles fuzz, hiss, bells, and aborted melodic lines into mile-long vistas of undulating, overtone-speckled squall. It's as dense as a brillo-pad, as tender as a beating heart, and as devastating as the sound of a distant werewolf howling past the point of exhaustion. --Emilie Friedlander


Zola Jesus: Stridulum [Sacred Bones]

MP3: Zola Jesus: "Night"

Between Stridulum and Valusia and collaborations with LA Vampires and Former Ghosts, 2010 has been a busy year for Zola Jesus. She cast her biggest stride early in the year with Stridulum, a departure from '09's considerably lower-fidelity, "diamond in the rough" album, The Spoils. Stridulum paved the way for a clearer, more sonically refined and diverse Zola, exchanging 15 crunchy, overly saturated noise pop tracks for 6 fully developed, silky smooth synth pad and drum-machine driven songs. Zola's voice is undeniably among the most unique and arresting around. But it would fall flat if the atmosphere that fostered it weren't as lush and subtly nuanced as its counterpart. Swelling crescendos, doom, and gloom in all the right places. --Ric Leichtung

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