It'd be pretty bratty of me to kvetch about my life as a pop music critic; after all, your leisure activities (making playlists, hitting concerts, wondering who would win in a three-round, last-diva-standing Jell-O tussle between Christina Aguilera and Lady Gaga) are how I earn my weekly paycheck. It's a good gig. • And yet, like any job, I need to be inspired. I need to be goosed 'n' juiced by the subjects and songs I'm covering. These days, a lot of whitebread suburbo-rock bores the heck out of me; same goes for the hip-hop on the iTunes charts. I don't mind that we're in a teen-based pop cycle again; heck, the 1950s were all about cool hair and twisting at the hop, too. I just wish more of today's fluff was actually good (coughJustinBiebercough). • Grumping aside, it didn't take long for me to come up with the following feel-good list, 10 current artists and bands whose work generates synaptic fireworks in my music-loving melon. In fact, I came up with 15 or so heroes fairly fast, but doinked a few at the end to make an even 10 (sorry, Katy Perry, Beach House and Rihanna). Herewith, the list of folks who make my job, and your weekends, a lot of f-u-n:
A.k.a. Brian Burton, the enigmatic DJ took a sabbatical from his Gnarls Barkley chicanery to spiral down darker, psychotropic rabbit holes with Broken Bells and Sparklehorse. His burbling, '60s-inspired trippery disturbs and enlightens — often within the same three minutes. BB's Vaporize might be song of the year. Buy it now.
The crossbow-totin' wild child finally seduced conservative country fans this year with the hit The House That Built Me. But rest assured, firebrand 'Ran is always one bad boyfriend away from burning down the house.
Best known for his work on the Crazy Heart soundtrack, New Mexico's Bingham is a hard-livin' grunt in crusty outlaw mode, unafraid to let his demons take a stroll on the crackly vinyl of his heart. Upcoming album Junky Star is produced by T-Bone Burnett, whom you'll find on this list, too.
I admit it: I'm totally man-crushing on Loudon's prodigal son. With his poperatic range and Judy Garland fetish, Rufus surfs the fine line between camp and pathos. Want another great download? Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk.
Whether he's riffing with the White Stripes, the Raconteurs or the Dead Weather — or even producing Loretta Lynn's finest hour — the guitar neo-god is Reason No. 1 to go out to Best Buy, buy a record player and spin loud music the way God and Led Zeppelin intended.
The Killers frontman is a Vegas kid with a chaste lifestyle, all parts new wave glam and curious morality. Solo song Crossfire, from upcoming album Flamingo, is both sexy and responsible, a self-help spiel in a drag queen's makeup.
The Montreal band, led by Win Butler and his wife, Régine Chassagne, is riding the hipster euphoria surrounding new concept stunner The Suburbs, and with good reason: The most unsettling album of the year is also the most beautiful.
Whether he's twiddling kudzu-covered producer knobs for John Mellencamp, Jakob Dylan or the Grammy-winning combo of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, T-Bone conjures a creepy-beautiful analog voodoo.
Fashion plate, agit-propper, wild-haired beat-mistress: The Sri Lankan hip-hopper wants to take down Big Brother all while dancing in the rubble. New album Maya is a hellzapoppin' kitchen-sink spectacle that you'll either despise or never take out of your car stereo.
'Ye-'Ye is a yo-yo, but he's an original in a sea of prefab. New song Power paints the trouble-randy Chicago MC perfectly: arrogance and self-deprecation wrapped in a club-banging package. You can shake your head — but you might as well shake your rump, too.