NEW YORK — Compiling a lift of the year's 10 best albums may be the most personal task a pop critic faces. As the end of the year approaches, one listens more and more critically, weeding out albums that were initially engaging but don't seem to wear well. Some albums that are incontestably fine pieces of work get dropped from the list at this stage because, for one reason or another, they amply don't make the right esthetic or emotional connections. The records that are left are both objectively excellent and personally satisfying. Why settle for less? Craftsmanship is important, but the essence of rock and roll and related forms of contemporary popular music is the one-to-one exchange; the best albums are those that become an intimate, integral part of one's life.
1. Steely Dan: Gaucho (MCA). Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the songwriters and reluctant instrumentalists of Steely Dan, aren't fast workers. Almost three years elapsed between Aja the Dan's previous album, and Gaucho. But Steely Dan albums are built to last; Aja still sounds fresh, and Gaucho is both richer and more accessible. It firmly establishes Becker and Fagen as two of pop's supreme melodists, and the music and lyrics work together to present a series of vivid, film-like images of our time -- the 3-year-old suburban terrorist crawling out of his playpen armed to the teeth, the corporate shindig in the rarefied heights of the Custer-dome, the basketball star with his nose in the cocaine, the sinister guru preaching transcendence and offering death.
2. Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire). Most of the new Talking Heads songs were built on top of layers of cross-rhythms, and the results sound something like black American funk or its African equivalent, Afro-Beat. But the Heads and their producer, Brian Eno, are more concerned with the philosophical ramifications of the holes left by displaced rhythms than they are with duplicating conventional dance grooves, and their orchestrated electronics and provocative verbal gambits are hardly standard funk fare. This is brave, original music from a band that isn't afraid to keep growing.
3. Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island). This was John Lydon's return, after the demise of the Sex Pistols and of his alter-ego Johnny Rotten, and this time he had a band with a vision as radical and corrosive as his own. Guitarist Keith Levene, bassist Jah Wobble, drummer Martin Atkins and Lydon worked together to make Second Edition the definitive album of post-punk rock and the year's most compelling slice of metal machine music.
4. Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures (Factory/Rough Trade). This exceptional debut album by a quartet from Manchester, England, had already attracted considerable attention by last May, when Ian Curtis, Joy Division's lead vocalist, hanged himself. Subsequent Joy Division releases have included a second album, Closer, and several singles, all recorded before Curtis's death. But Unknown Pleasures remains the group's masterpiece. Curtis confronted hard questions and refused to settle for easy answers, and on Unknown Pleasures the band's three instrumentalists backed him to the hilt with some of the most driven, desperate rock 'n' roll ever recorded.
5. Arthur Blytbe: Illusions (Columbia). On this album, the formidable alto saxophonist sparkled in two contexts, one a more-or-less conventional jazz quartet, the other a polytonal funk band with tuba taking the place of electric bass and with amplified cellos as a second lead instrument. The funk tunes proved that substantial yet danceable jazz isn't an impossible dream.
6. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia). The stylistic range (pop-rock to soul to country ballads to waltzes), emotional depth, melodic richness, and verbal invention displayed on Get Happy!! make it Costello's most satisfying album.
7. Jon Hassell and Brian Eno: Fourth World Vol. Possible Musics (Editions EG). Jon Hassell, who plays the trumpet unconventionally and modifies the sound electronically, and Brian Eno, who composes, produces and makes subtle contributions to records by a variety of artists, were at their most engaging on this eerie essay in primitive futurism.
8. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin). The more experimental new wave rock bands are just beginning to absorb the music Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) recorded during the late 60s and early 70s; the avant-gardists of the 90s will probably be grappling with this music, which springs rhythms loose from their moorings and at times suggests an orchestra of drill presses playing scores by Stravinsky. Van Vliet's world view doesn't exactly exude warmth, but he may be the only composer working in a rock idiom who can legitimately be accused of brilliance.
9. Professor Longhair: Crawfish Fiesta (Alligator). The chief architect of New Orleans rhythm and blues and an important influence in rock from Dr. John to the Specials made this delightful album with his tight touring band and then died peacefully in his bed the day it was released.
10. Rockpile: Seconds of Pleasure (Columbia). Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner, Nick Lowe and Terry Williams ransack rock 'n' roll history for their music, borrowing a riff here, a harmony there.