70. Massive Attack – Heligoland [Virgin]
Back when it was known as Weather Underground in the mid-2000s, it almost seemed as though Massive Attack‘s embattled fifth LP was in danger of becoming delayed into “lost album” territory. But after nearly five years of false starts, near misses and almost nevers, Ninja and Daddy G gave the project a new title (named after an archipelago in Germany), a more organic, guitar-heavy vibe and a wild array of guests ranging from Massive regular Horace Andy, TV on the Radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe, and Damon Albarn to Hope Sandoval, Elbow’s Guy Garvey, fellow trip-hop architects Martina Topley-Bird and Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley. Massive Attack wind up with their best pound-for-pound album since Protection. – Ron Hart
69. Robyn – Body Talk, Pt. 1 [Cherry Tree]
Album covers for 2010 releases from Christina Aguilera, Kelis, and Erykah Badu featured depictions of each artist as part woman, part machine. These Gaga-esque explorations of femininity are by no means new to the pop landscape. However, digital culture and technology have added a sense of robot-like fluidity to gender and sexual identity, including that of our pop stars. Frequently left out of this conversation in the American musical landscape is Swedish singer-songwriter Robyn, who happened to release three stunning records this year. The first, titled Body Talk Pt. 1 is the standout — a flawless, compact pop record that deals with topics Lady Gaga only attempts to discuss. Robyn is as adept a songwriter as anyone charting the Top 40, yet her disinterest in American sex symbolism likely puts her out of the American market. Songs like “Dancing on My Own” and “Fembot” are not only brilliant pop songs; they’re examples of Robyn’s enormously compelling 21st-century version of the female pop iconic. – Stefan Nickum
68. Vijay Iyer – Solo [ACT Music & Vision]
Vijay Iyer has made his career by turning jazz inside out. His quartet albums of the last six years have been aggressive, angry, and hilarious, three adjectives that are rarely used to describe new jazz music. It comes as a surprise, then, that his first solo piano album is so sparse, lyrical and traditional. Of course, the things that make Iyer Iyer are still here: the jerky rhythms, the idiosyncratic lines, and the sense of humor. Iyer has most recently poised himself as a jazz revisionist, rewriting songs to fit his worldview. His take on “Epistrophy”, an old Thelonious Monk standard, sits between Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and the even older Jimmy Van Heusen tune “Darn That Dream”. His tinkering would be unwelcome if not successful, but I am happy to say that he is capable of making even the most seasoned listener hear jazz in a new light. – Callum MacKenzine
67. Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal [Editions Mego]
One of the major stories in experimental circles this year was the rejuvenation of the Editions Mego label, an imprint which (as simply, Mego) helped popularize laptop-based electronic and drone in the early part of the ’00s. It was their recent influx of synth-devouring progressives, however, who helped make inroads to curious ears less accustomed to the extremes of the underground. Emerging as the de-facto leader of the movement was Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, a Brooklyn-bred vintage synth enthusiast whose steadily growing discography culminated in this year’s expansive Returnal.
Extending far beyond the magnetic, arpeggiated pinwheels of his more recent output, Returnal instead finds Lopatin looking to the extremes of both the ambient and noise spectrums to build an LP of drifting plateaus and shrill, galvanized peaks. Rare is the artist brave enough to try their hand at such diverse, beloved forms. Rarer still is the mind capable of stitching the results into one seamless, staggering whole. – Jordan Cronk
66. Cee-Lo Green – The Lady Killer [Elektra/Asylum]
Cee-Lo Green is arguably the most expressive contemporary male singer across all genres of popular music. His sensitivity is not expressed through whispery navel-gazing. He goes straight to the mountain top and bellows his emotions — unhinged, unashamed. Irrespective of the album title and the cool, bespectacled album cover pose, The Lady Killer contains hardly an ounce of macho posturing. Instead, Green vacillates between theatricality (“Love Gun”) and sincerity (“No One’s Gonna Love You”). The musicality here is truly exceptional, from the go-go beat of “Satisfied” to the synth-punctuated strut of “Bright Lights Bigger City” to the angelic backing vocals of Philip Bailey on “Fool For You”. Even if the arrangements occasionally veer towards overblown, Green never gets overwhelmed by his surroundings. Of course, the year’s most notorious single can be found here too (“Fuck You”). If that’s the bait you need, it pays in dividends. – Christian John Wikane
65. The Radio Dept. – Clinging to a Scheme – Labrador
What the Swedish indie-pop group the Radio Dept achieves on their third LP isn’t just refining the romantic, bittersweet sweep of their music, keeping it fresh by both streamlining their sound and filling it with new tricks that emphasize the flexibility of pop music. They also wed a personal sense of disappointment with a global one. These songs reflect a progressive wish for a world where freedom and equality are valued, while emphasizing the way that dream is continually crushed. They’re moving “against the tide” (a phrase from their first LP that returns here), amidst the increasing waves of charlatans, hypocrites and corporate control. At the same time these are mainly sad songs about the ways people fail to connect with each other. The broken promises, “Memory Loss” and inability to “make sense” that they sing about represent self-criticism and disappointment in friends and lovers. It’s also pointed social commentary. – Dave Heaton
64. The Nels Cline Singers – Initiate [Cryptogramophone]
Initiate shouldn’t be a classic. It’s scattered and manic and — with one studio disc, one live disc, and over two hours of music — probably too large. Both discs overflow with genres, ideas, and idea-less pandemonium. What should be a messy surfeit actually turns out to be rollicking fun. By this point, the virtuosity of the trio (guitarist Nels Cline, percussionist Scott Amendola, and bassist Devin Hoff) isn’t in question, and by now they’ve merged that skill with great imagination. The albums have moments ranging from traditional jazz (maybe not quite Charlie Christian) to spacey electronics to noise-rock. The challenge with this sort of record should be to make it cohere, but the Singers forego that approach, choosing a wildness in their explorations. It hangs together because each piece is enjoyable, the sequencing works within the chaos, and the group has energy and creativity to spare. Anything more proper just wouldn’t have been proper. – Justin Cober-Lake
63. Agalloch – Marrow of the Spirits [Profound Lore]
Every Agalloch album over the past 11 years has been a noteworthy achievement, whether 1999’s Pale Folklore, 2002’s The Mantle, or 2006’s Ashes Against the Grain, but the Portland, Oregon foursome’s fourth full-length is another story entirely. The sumptuous blend of folk, post-rock, and black metal they’re known for is still present, but Marrow of the Spirit is far more challenging, as it subtly expands their sound further.
Striking cello melodies reminiscent of Kronos Quartet bookend the album in cinematic fashion, the intense yet beautiful “Into the Painted Grey” takes listeners into far darker territory than ever before, and the gorgeous “Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires” incorporates the Cure’s melancholy tones into metal as well as anyone has. Best of all is the 17-minute centerpiece “Black Lake Nidstång”, a progressive metal epic that is almost Krautrock-like in its form and willingness to experiment. When it comes to forward-thinking, poetic, life-affirming metal music in 2010, it doesn’t get any better than this. – Adrien Begrand
62. Roky Erickson with Okkervil River – True Love Cast Out All Evil [Anti-]
It was a tough year to be a music fan. We lost talents like Vic Chesnutt (in December 2009), Mark Linkous, and Jay Reatard all too soon, and said goodbye to Solomon Burke, Lena Horn and countless others over the course of the last 12 months. But here’s an album to find solace in, because isn’t Roky Erickson‘s story the best one of 2010? For all he’s been through — trouble with the law, mental institutions, living with mental illness, custody fights within his family — shouldn’t he be resigned to bitterness? Should he even be able to give us
True Love Cast Out All Evil?
For anyone, really, the generosity of spirit on this record is staggering. Erickson isn’t casting out the past — the tracks recorded during his hospitalization are grainy and harrowing — but his weathered voice mines the spare, dusty churn of these songs for glimmers of hope in the wake of all his trials. And, on heartbreakingly sweet songs like “Two Birds’d Crashed” or “Be and Bring Me Home”, he finds them. As his band, Okkervil River tones down its rock-show grandiosity and plays humble, sturdy second fiddle to Erickson. Because this is his show, and his story — its major loss and ultimate redemption — is one worth hearing, over and over again. Especially when it’s being told with this much heart. – Matt Fiander
61. Bilal – Airtight’s Revenge [Plug Research]
This was actually a very good year for unconventional black artists. But Bilal Oliver — making a welcome return to the scene after nearly a decade — outdid all the competition with his wildly inventive, wildly enjoyable album,
Airtight’s Revenge. It’s the work of an artist in full control of his skills, redefining his relationship to his audience because the music has simply taken him somewhere we didn’t expect. When you hear “Robots” or “Cake and Eat It Too”, you are listening to Bilal articulate the familiar in unfamiliar ways that invigorate. And ultimately, if loved the latest work by Janelle Monáe and Kanye West, you’ll love Airtight’s Revenge more. – Tyler Lewis
60. The Walkmen – Lisbon [Fat Possum]
This is a remarkable record, and the best so far from New York’s Walkmen. For a band that can sometimes come across a bit samey — for between lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s raspy vocals, Matt Barrick’s perfectly lazy drums, and Paul Maroon’s trebley guitars, theirs is a deeply distinctive sound — on Lisbon they use their considerable strengths to their advantage. By turns sad, anxious, and passionate, Leithauser’s plaintive songs lie on a bed of flat-out gorgeous melodies and soundcapes. For the first time, they have made a complete, unified, and damn near perfect record. On a standout tune such as “Angela Surf City”, as the guitars swell and ebb like the Iberian sea, and the pounding drums carry us along, on top of it all, though Leithauser croons about loneliness, dejection, anxiety, and disappointment, you can’t keep from smiling. – Stuart Henderson
59. Underworld – Barking [Om]
When DJ Darren Emerson left Underworld after three albums of turning a synthpop band into a techno band, there was most certainly an adjustment period, though not in the most obvious way. Rather than returning to their synthpop roots, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith decided to keep dancing, but they never quite got the hang of it like they did when Emerson was around. While moments of brilliance punctuated the studio albums since then, it’s not until Barking that they put together an album that could be listened to and enjoyed from start to finish.
What they didn’t do is come to this brilliance on their own — it seems that Underworld works best when there is a third member augmenting the songwriting process of Hyde and Smith. What the duo did was recruit a whole bunch of “third members”, putting together what is essentially an album full of singles, collaborations that each carry their own unique identities but still sound unmistakably like Underworld. The variety of collaborations grants Barking the sort of replay value an Underworld album hasn’t had in what seems like ages. It’ll never be their most commercially successful venture, but Barking may well be their most lasting work. – Mike Schiller
58. Emeralds – Does It Look Like I’m Here? [Editions Mego]
At one point, Emeralds threw so many cassettes against the wall that they figured something had to stick. Now they make kosmische nuggets as intimately rendered as the gems of their namesake, so crystalline and gorgeous that it’d be worth getting trapped down a Chilean mine to spring forth its beauty. From the diabetically sweet opener “Candy Shoppe” onward, Emeralds’s labyrinthine synth patterns prove hypnotic and narcotic, leaving the listener with only the slightest amount of consciousness to wipe the drool from his or her chin, appreciate the parial blend of Mark McGuire‘s prodigious swirling guitar work, and restart the experience to bliss out or dive in again. Too alive and invigorated to be hypnagogic, too anxious for its waveforms to be categorized as “chill”, Emeralds departed from their dear peers for the arty luxury of Editions Mego (famous for distortion-laden ambient symphonies like Fennesz’s major works) and wound up giving those folks one of their definitive releases. – Timothy Gabriele
57. Los Campesinos! – Romance Is Boring [Arts & Crafts]
In just a couple of years, the young English band Los Campesinos! has released about three dozen songs, mostly terrific. The most recent batch are clustered together on Romance Is Boring, and the first half of the record sounds typically exuberant, with the rollicking “Those Are Listed Buildings” and the pogoing title track. But the punk energy is moodier this time and, especially in the back half (think of it as side two), the songs turn more reflective, as in the lovely “A Heat Rash in the Shape of the Show Me State”, or downright anguished, as in the majestic tension of “The Sea Is a Good Place to Think of the Future”. By this point, the band seems to be on a mission to redeem confessional oversharing from years of emo whines. “Let’s talk about you for a minute,” singer and lyricist Gareth Campesinos suggests at the outset, probably aware of how fleeting those 60 seconds or so will be. It’s not narcissism; it’s just that with these restless tales of fumbling and/or spastic courtship, there’s always a troubled “me” to match that elusive “you”. – Jesse Hassenger
56. Women – Public Strain [Flemish Eye]
Though the onstage fight that prompted Women to cancel their fall tour may spell the band’s end, at least it came after they released Public Strain. Women play counterintuitive noise pop that mixes the best of rock over the last few decades: the sunny singalong melodies of ’60s pop set to the driving minimalism of ’70s Krautrock with the sharp angling guitars of ’80s post punk all buried under the ambient feedback squall of ’90s indie music. It’s like listening to the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle or the Beach Boys’ Smile while in a coma. The pop perfection drowns in echo, reverb, darkness, but tries to pull you into the light.
From the strangely singalong opener “Can’t You See”, which sounds like the Mamas & the Papas playing in the snowstorm of the album’s cover photo, to the climactic multi-part closer of “Eyesore”, like a fight between Sonic Youth and the Hollies that no one wins. Women travel the tricky strait between the monolithic Scylla of pop and the swirling Charybdis of noise. – Scott Branson
55. Jónsi – Go [XL Recordings]
When Sigur Rós released Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust back in 2008, few — if any — were prepared for the out-and-out curveball that was just hurled their way: Iceland’s all-time soundscape kings had just made their pop album, full of fat basslines, catchy looped melodies, perky acoustic guitars, and a sense of out-and-out joy that was absent from their first few albums and only hinted at on 2005’s Takk. With Go however, angelic mouthpiece Jónsi hasn’t merely jumped head-on into the pop landscape: he’s done it on his own terms.
By replacing drummers with tribal percussionists, watching only two of its nine tracks toe over the five-minute mark, and painting his songs with vivid Technicolor flourishes (multi-tracked vocal harmonies, cut-up mandolins, enough woodwinds to kill a horse), Jónsi has crafted a record that doesn’t merely entertain: it demands attention. The pace is remarkably brisk (even the ballads aren’t weighed down by drawn-out tempos), and his voice still sounds as sweet and naïve as ever in discussing young love (like on the thundering highlight “Animal Arithmetic”) and fractured camaraderie (the fluid “Sinking Friendships”), slowly drawing the listener into his own world of childlike wonder.
It’s doubtful that anyone could have imagined Jónsi having an album as joyous and replay-ready as Go in him (especially after his decisively mixed Riceboy Sleeps project), but months after its release, it’s obvious that this is an album we’ll still be talking about for years to come. – Evan Sawdey
54. MGMT – Congratulations [Sony]
It is easy to see why bandwagoneers just hanging around for another “Kids” leapt away from MGMT as soon as their 2010 album Congratulations started streaming. The Brooklyn ensemble’s first album as MGMT, Oracular Spectacular, was packed with psych-pop and new-new wave hits, all under the guide of Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann. Uncomfortable sitting on that formula, they pushed their fan base to its limits with Congratulations, taking a turn for the esoteric side of psychedelia inhabited by the likes of Electric Prunes and Moby Grape, this time with Pete Kember of Spaceman 3 behind the board.
The sound became grittier, more authentically retro as they ran through a pastiche of styles ranging from late ’60s British Invasion to early ’80s neo-psychedelia. Their lyrics dove into the deep end, rife with flower child musings and enough obscure music reference to make Ugly Things readers cream. There is simply no denying the fact that whatever promise these daytrippers showed on Oracular Spectacular, they fulfilled with Congratulations. – Alan Ranta
53. Belle and Sebastian – Belle and Sebastian Write About Love [Matador/Rough Trade]
In the contemporary pop music landscape, the spoils of critical acclaim and commercial success often go to those who have left love behind. Love is passé, replaced by hits about telephones, odes to video phones, and absurdly explicit oversharing of beautiful dark twisted fantasies. For listeners seeking something a bit more fulfilling than lust and technology, Belle & Sebastian arrive to write about love. Fueled by the momentum of energetic 2006 album The Life Pursuit and the girl-group styling of Stuart Murdoch’s God Help the Girl, Belle & Sebastian Write About Love hits the sweet spot early and often. Though nothing on the album tops Sarah Martin’s lead track “I Didn’t See it Coming”, the album offers a series of romantic musings not unfamiliar with doubt, but overall hopeful. Guest singers Norah Jones and Carey Mulligan deliver fresh inspiration atop the band’s appealingly orchestrated arrangements. For one more album, for one more year, Belle & Sebastian have kept love alive. – Thomas Britt
52. Robert Plant – Band of Joy [Rounder]
When plans for a sequel to Raising Sand, Robert Plant‘s Grammy-winning album with Alison Krauss fell through, Plant turned to Raising Sand guitarist Buddy Miller to produce a separate set of roots songs, this time with harmonies from Patty Griffin and a band of ace players alongside Miller, including multi-instrumental ringer Darrell Scott. With Miller’s impeccable taste and his encyclopedic knowledge of roots music, Band of Joy oozes with almighty musicality. Plant sounds loose and inspired, ranging from romantic croons (“Falling in Love Again”) to goth-roots murmurs (“Silver Rider”) to bluesy strummers (“Central Two-O-Nine”). Chalk it up to a genuine revival for Plant, one rock legend who has found a way to negotiate the burdens of his glorious past by embracing the sublime sounds of another. – Steve Leftridge
51. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles II [Fiction]
One of my greatest fears is that I will lose my passion, my hunger, my fever for new music. That I will no longer feel the burning desire for the alchemy of holy noise as I did in my youth. That I will “lose my religion”. These days, like some accurs’d Vampire clinging to immortality, I gotta drink deep or die. But each time I threaten to fall into dust something brings me back. Crystal Castles give me that fire again. Daylight in the dark. The possibilities, the glamour, the romance, the danger, the underdog ambition, the lifeblood. So much depended on this second record being everything I needed it to be. I needed it to keep me alive. It is all this and more. From frenzied feral ferociousness (“Doe Deer”) to fragile poetry (“Celestica”) to contorted freakshow oddities (“I Am Made of Chalk”) it rages triumphantly against the dying of the light. I still believe in magic, I still believe in Crystal Castles. – Matt James
50. School of Seven Bells – Disconnect from Desire [Vagrant/Ghostly International]
If Disconnect From Desire‘s fluid vocal harmonizing calls on an ancient musical form, the rest of the album matches driving guitar pop with the jittery pace of any interesting modern electronic dance records. Wielding consistently pitch-bent, contorted guitar phrases and a sturdier song structure on Disconnect, School of Seven Bells fleshes out the winning blend of techno and the bleary dream state explored on 2008’s Alpinisms. “Camarilla” references stuttering new wave-era synths, and the glitch and fuzz of “Babelonia” will have most fondly recalling Stereolab’s Switched On, but there is more than nostalgia at work. Luminous vocal pairups from sibling members Alejandra and Claudia Deheza brighten dense and mysterious textures on Disconnect. It’s far more accessible than the lot baked into the devious rhythms on their debut, but it’s weird and beautiful, transmitting from some pleasant, grassy stretch between Manchester and Manhattan. – Dominic Umile
49. Owen Pallett – Heartland [Domino]
From Joanna Newsom to Janelle Monáe to Sufjan Stevens, 2010 saw no shortage of pop eccentrics, but even they would have had to work hard to out-weird a multi-layered concept album in which the central character rages against his creator, a wrathful, God-like author who un-coincidentally shares his name with the album’s creator. It is a work of meta-fictional gymnastics worthy of Flann O’Brien or Charlie Kaufman, but Owen Pallett, a favored collaborator of (among others) 2010 MVP’s the Arcade Fire, is wise enough to keep the album as tuneful and good-humored as it is brainy, a worthy listen even for those who don’t wish to untangle his convoluted lyrical knots. That’s because Pallett, who has already recorded two outstanding albums under the name Final Fantasy, has graced Heartland with his most sonically ornate yet lushly beautiful compositions yet, remembering, as far too few of his oddball peers seem to, that the best route from the ears to the mind is still the one that goes through the heart. – Jer Fairall
48. Superchunk – Majesty Shredding [Merge]
If history holds 2010 as the “The Year Indie Broke”, (through, not down) then it is fitting that the elder statesmen (and -woman) in Superchunk got to deliver two terrific State of the Indie Union addresses on the opening salvos of Majesty Shredding, their first album in nine years: “Digging For Something” and “My Gap Feels Weird”. Mac McCaughan and the gang don’t always know what that weird something, but throughout, they float their theories: the push-pull rhythms of the aforementioned “My Gap Feels Weird” (the title of which was supplied by McCaughan’s daughter, post-tooth loss, but it more than covers the space and time since 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up); the graceful strings of “Fractures in Plastic”; the rumble of “Learned to Surf”; the fever pitch of “Crossed Wires” and “Rope Light”. Truly, the album is nothing less than a celebration of the last quarter-century of big-hearted, big-guitared indie rock… and a blueprint for the next. Here’s to Superchunk aging gracefully… and not heeding their last album’s title. – Stephen Haag
47. Yeasayer – Odd Blood [Secretly Canadian]
Releasing a synth-happy indie album in 2010 doesn’t set you up to set yourself apart, but when said synth-happy indie album is Odd Blood, well, that’s a different story. Yeasayer’s second album is a revelation, a masterwork that digests and distills its influences — ’80s British pop, ’90s dance club beats, maybe even some experimental Yeasayer contemporaries — before applying them, and the resulting listening experience is one of both head-nodding familiarity and surprise. Selections like “Ambling Alp” find singer Chris Keating in control of what could be chaos — pounding tom-toms, crescendos of effects — leading the group through focused anthems and comedowns alike, songs equally suited to the dance floor or hip college radio.
Odd Blood‘s sonic perfection, aided by former Peter Gabriel drummer Jerry Marotta, does nothing to whitewash the unbridled energy that crackles between the melodies and bubbles among shifting rhythms; no, it enhances it, instead polishing the sounds to a reflective sheen, revealing deep facets of the music that might otherwise be lost if a lo-fi approach was deployed. – Michael Lello
46. Josh Ritter – So Runs the World Away [Pytheas]
A shimmering aural and lyrical paean to humanity’s essential questing impulse, the fifth LP from the Idahoan indie-folk master craftsman is stunningly well-attuned to the senses of yearning and existential absence that motivate that impulse. Josh Ritter‘s exquisite collection of songs features wandering mariners (the epic waves of “Change of Time”), lovesick Egyptian mummies (“The Curse”, the album’s bittersweet high point), philosophical chemists and mountaintop seers (“Lark”), grim polar adventurers (“Another New World”), and recurring black holes.
But balance is everything; just when the soft bitterness of empiricism threatens to overwhelm (as it does on the cacophonous “Rattling Locks”), a stubborn sense of hopefulness beckons us back from the brink (“Lantern”). So Runs the World Away has a celestial scope that transcends its chosen contexts. Ritter suggests that the gleaming horizons aimed for by the boldest among us can never quite be reached, and even the effort to approach them comes at a great cost. And yet, he quests on, and so do we. – Ross Langager
45. Swans – My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky [Young God]
It’s truly great to have Swans back (this is a Swans record, and not just because Norman Westberg is here), but not for nostalgic reasons. Michael Gira hasn’t lost an ounce of the towering rage and disgust that characterize his most harrowing work, as “Jim”, “My Birth”, and “Eden Prison” ably demonstrate, but My Father… also tips its hat to Gira’s sonically gentler work with the Angels of Light on the self-excoriating “Reeling the Liars In” and finds some horrifically deadened midpoint between Neu! and the Stooges for the monolithic opening dirge “No Words/No Thoughts”. And if you think Gira’s take on religion or emotional range isn’t nuanced enough, you’re not paying enough attention; skip to the ending “Little Mouth” again, and try and really grapple with what Gira’s saying there. Is he undercutting the bold heresy of the rest of the record, or is something else entirely going on? Whatever you decide, it’s a striking, troubling, compelling moment on a record full of them. – Ian Mathers
44. Erykah Badu – New Amerykah, Part Two: Return of the Ankh [Motown]
The ankh is the Egyptian symbol of life, but what makes life so grand? Erykah Badu‘s New Amerykah, Part Two: Return of the Ankh suggests the answer is love, even when it pushes us around. Finding one’s optimal “freak-quency” is a subtle theme throughout, while the grooves knock sublimely with equal nods to Eddie Kendricks, Notorious B.I.G., and Paul McCartney & Wings. Part Two smoothes the edginess of Part One‘s quirky political brilliance, recalling the warm, bottom-heavy records and lithe extended jams in Ms. Badu’s catalog. Still, it’s her devastatingly emotive vocals driving the point home that there are two basic emotions: fear and love. Ms. Badu shows us how the two intertwine in songs like the magnificent three-movement finale “Out My Mind, Just in Time”, the J. Dilla produced “Love”, and lead single “Window Seat” (along with its controversial commando video). “You don’t want to fall in love with me,” she declares. But we already have. – Quentin Huff
43. Autechre – Oversteps [Warp]
The burden of being Autechre may finally have lifted for Sean Booth and Rob Brown. For a solid ten years, it has seemed that the duo had been unable to remove itself from a spirited session of “Can You Top This?”, pushing identifiable melody and rhythm away in favor of bending the concept of whether their art can be classified as “sound” or “music”. Oversteps sounds like the first album since perhaps their self-titled “black” LP (a.k.a. LP5) that Autechre created with an audience in mind.
Oversteps will most reward the audience that has stuck with them through (and perhaps even enjoyed) the albums since Confield, as it uses many of the frequency-bending and static-manipulating tricks they learned throughout that stretch in a way that can more readily fall on the “music” side of the spectrum. Watching Booth and Brown achieve this balance of styles results in the sort of experimentation that’s difficult to find even in music typically classified as experimental. As it turned out, Autechre didn’t need to sacrifice its academic side for the sake of rediscovering its populist side. – Mike Schiller
42. Midlake – The Courage of Others [Bella Union]
Midlake‘s last release, 2006’s The Trials of Van Occupanther, should have served as the Denton, Texas, quintet’s breakthrough effort. The album featured one of the year’s best rock songs (“Roscoe”) and revealed a group with tremendous talent and potential. Unfortunately, Van Occupanther — with its emphasis on staggeringly beautiful vocal harmonies, elegant string arrangements, and complex lyrics — flew largely under the radar in a year when the album charts were ruled by electronics-heavy bands and garage rock groups like Arctic Monkeys, the Hold Steady, and TV on the Radio.
Now, with their first release in nearly four years, Midlake are again on the verge of something great. The Courage of Others is the band’s best album to date and somehow manages to top Van Occupanther in nearly every way — a formidable accomplishment in itself. The album expands on the ensemble’s somber, subtlely-layered, folk-infused album rock sound, which continues to show Midlake’s love affair with Fleetwood Mac.
The songwriting is tighter and more hook-laden. The lyrics, filled with vivid medieval imagery, are as cerebral as ever. And the production is exquisitely warm and inviting, with each layer of acoustic guitar, vocal harmony, violin, and woodwind coming through with crystalline clarity. The Courage of Others should be a signal to the music world that a great band has arrived. – Michael Kabran
41. Christian Scott – Yesterday You Said Tomorrow [Concord]
In the press materials accompanying Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, Christian Scott describes the album as an homage to the music of the 1960s — from John Coltrane and Charles Mingus to Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. And as an ode to that great era, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow wholly succeeds, from Scott’s Miles Davis-esque trumpet tone to the progressive political messages behind the songs and their titles (e.g., “American’t”, “Angola, LA & the 13th Amendment”, “Jenacide (The Inevitable Rise and Fall of the Bloodless Revolution)”) to the album’s be-pop-infused cool jazz compositions to its warm production courtesy of Rudy Van Gelder, the legendary producer who recorded countless landmark jazz albums in the 1960s.
However, what ultimately makes Yesterday You Said Tomorrow a masterpiece isn’t its evocation of the sound of a lost time but rather its complete encapsulation of the sound of today. Scott, perhaps better than any other jazz musican around, creates music that is representative of the present day musical landscape, with its musical influences as diverse as ever. Yesterday You Said Tomorrow touches on hip-hop, rock, folk, electronica, and, of course, jazz all the while maintaining strong pop sensibilities. The melodies are blue and achingly beautiful, soaring above deceptively simple, head-nodding, swinging beats. The arrangements are sparse, leaving room for big vibrating chords and playful, mildly atonal improvisations. Yesterday You Said Tomorrow is truly a cross-generational triumph. – Michael Kabran
My introduction to Christian Scott was admittedly naive. I didn’t approach him from the understanding of a jazz head who’d seen him rise through the ranks of trumpeters in New Orleans’ 9th Ward. I simply heard he’d cover Thom Yorke’s “The Eraser” and wanted to give it a listen. But it took all of a half a spin before I realized the man’s discography was an essential document of modern jazz, with Yesterday You Said Tomorrow arriving as the pinnacle of his career to this point. His trumpet tone is instantly recognizable, blending the muted tones of Jon Hassell and Miles Davis’ more reserved works with a breeziness that often recalls the vocals of soft jazz. It’s not surprising he cites his main inspiration as his mother’s singing voice of all things.
Yesterday You Said Tomorrow is also notable in Scott’s discography for taking a bit of a Marsalis approach to jazz, interpreting arrangements as political talking points, using both titles and audio cues to attempt to spark conversation among the album’s listeners. Through his music, he addresses the parallel natures of Angolan and Los Angeles racism through the eyes of the 13th Amendment, compares local police to the Ku Klux Klan, addresses the Jena 6 and much more. Yesterday You Said Tomorrow is certainly a sad album buoyed by the early, transcendental rendition of Yorke’s “Eraser”. But because of that one bright moment, and the amazing tone of Scott’s trumpet throughout, one never steps away from Yesterday You Said Tomorrow feeling defeated.
The endgame of this album is undoubtedly a renewed spirit, a renewed sense of hope for the overlooked throughout the world. Jazz may be a relic of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s to many, but Christian Scott is certainly one of the artists fighting that notion expertly. – David Amidon
40. Vampire Weekend – Contra [XL Recordings]
As with its self-titled debut, Vampire Weekend‘s sophomore effort almost hides all of its innovation — its ability to blend global sounds, straight-up indie rock, and electronic music — by making such an easy, simple pleasure to listen to. Much is made of bands’ tendencies to put up a “difficult” second record, but Contra seems engineered to encourage maximum repeat listens — there’s nothing abrasive about it, so you can throw it on at any time. Listenable, however, shouldn’t be confused with simple: band member Rostam Batmanglij’s production is easy to take in, but it’s also lush, bright, and full of twinkling elements: a marimba here, a keyboard flourish there.
The full sounds still supports lyrics in that preppy upper-class milieu that brought them scorn with the last album, with references to Richard Serra, Wolford’s, and “living at the French Connection”. But it just goes to show that the band isn’t apologizing for what it is: a band that’s created in the same mold as Paul Simon and Talking Heads, isn’t ashamed to sing about frippery like organic toothpaste and San Pelligrino, and one that is thoroughly enjoyable to hear. – Marisa Lascala
39. Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues [Bloodshot]
Is this the best hillbilly record ever to emerge from New York’s East Village? Probably not, but it’s tough to think of a more worthy contender to that throne than this. Justin Townes Earle — son of Steve, namesake of Van Zandt — comes from the right background, and it shows. He’s smart as hell (despite an addiction problem that keeps knocking his career off track) and he demonstrates a wisdom and clarity of purpose that belies his age. At just 28 years old, and on his fourth record in four years, he has got record-making down to a science.
Keep it simple, tell the truth, and don’t let them mess with your arrangements. This ain’t commercial country by any means — there are buzzing guitar strings and other evidence of homespun realism all over the record. But while a lot of that hit parade stuff will fade away in a few months, this is a record that will stand up for years and decades. It’s old school music from one of the leading lights of the new school, reminding us it all comes ’round again. – Stuart Henderson
38. Patty Griffin – Downtown Church [EMI/Credential]
There is no guarantee that simply going to a place of worship will inspire devotion. Musicians regularly “turn” gospel or enter holy places to record songs that ultimately fail to take the listener to church. But the most successful of these recordings seem to carry consecration through the speakers, and Patty Griffin‘s Downtown Church is a stunning example of such an album. Recorded at Nashville’s Downtown Presbyterian Church, featuring esteemed guests (Emmylou Harris, Jim Lauderdale, Shawn Colvin) and produced by Buddy Miller, the album consists mostly of traditional numbers and songs by writers other than Griffin.
Her skill in interpreting others’ words and music is of a piece with her attempt to reconcile her own complex opinions of religious devotion with the pure expressions found within the sacred songs. Though there’s nary a misfire in the collection, the highlights (“House of Gold”, “Never Grow Old”, and “All Creatures of Our God and King”) express a spiritual yearning that moves the listener beyond present concerns and into the life of the world to come. – Thomas Britt
37. Twin Shadow – Forget [Terrible]
Some impressive new bands have closed the decade by turning back the clock to the dreamy period bookended by new wave and shoegaze. On his debut album Forget, George Lewis, Jr. casts his own line into this slice of ’80s pop and comes out with an astonishing collection of songs. The Brooklyn native separates himself from his fellow ’80s pop devotees by scaling back on the layered guitars (Wild Nothing) and side-stepping the twee (Pains of Being Pure at Heart). Forget is mostly dark, richly-textured songs created by an artist who cares about precision (and who benefited from the production assistance of Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor).
Perfectly-placed instruments (twinkling synths, spare strumming on the Telecaster) give the album’s best moments (the cloud-parting chorus of “At My Heels”, the disco-beat opening to “Shooting Holes”) all the space they need to breathe. Together with Lewis’ rich voice, which he overdubs to great effect on tracks like “Castles in the Snow” and “Tether Beat”, and gut-wrenching lyrics, the result is an album that sounds like it was years in the making. People will adore Forget for just as long.” – Freeden Oeur
36. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt [Dead Oceans]
Considering that “Dylanesque” was already a dusty cliché before Kristian Matsson was even born, saddling the Swedish singer/songwriter who calls himself the Tallest Man on Earth with that tag in 2010 amounts to the laziest sort of critical shorthand. With his bleating vocals, rustic acoustic guitar playing and effortless lyrical phrasing, though, Matsson is practically asking for it, inviting the most imposing and irrelevant of comparisons before brazenly shrugging them off and heedlessly pressing forward.
Think of The Wild Hunt in terms of homage and find not, as you would with many a wannabe, a young upstart’s attempt to adopt the elusive Dylan mystique into their own personal mythology or a revivalist’s shot at picking up on one of the many threads that Bob left dangling throughout the last five decades of popular music, but rather a bold hit of the “reset” button that re-imagines the young, circa 1963 Dylan in an alternate universe incarnation in which he suddenly has the entire history folk rock that he inspired at his fingertips. Or, if that is a thought experiment too brain-scrambling to pursue, just think of The Wild Hunt purely as music, and find that it is one of the year’s freshest and most melodically rewarding releases, regardless of any genre, history or influence at all. – Jer Fairall
35. Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses – Junky Star [Lost Highway]
Ryan Bingham was thrust into the spotlight when his song “The Weary Kind” (co-written with T-Bone Burnett) from Crazy Heart won the Oscar for best song. He then teamed with Burnett as producer for his third album and it offers a blend of blues, country and rock that show Bingham as arguably the premiere crossover artist in those genres. The world-weary yet soothing cathartic quality in Bingham’s gritty voice oozes from every track on Junky Star. “The Wandering”, “Depression”, “Strange Feeling in the Air”, “Hallelujah” and “Change in Direction” all highlight the band’s bluesy rock side with great effect. “Depression” and “Change in Direction” also feature socially-conscious lyrics that infuse a great Dylan-esque vibe that’s all too lacking in the 21st century music scene. The rest of the album focuses on an atmospheric Western sound, one the Dead Horses are quite skilled at. The blend makes for a unique mix that offers a memorably fitting soundtrack for the economic strife of 2010. – Greg Schwartz
34. Drive-By Truckers – The Big To-Do [ATO]
Character studies are fine and all, but they’re much more interesting if they rock. Case in point: “The Fourth Night of My Drinking”, funny and pretty when played on the piano, also sounds like an immense cloud of longing and dread when subjected to the Drive-By Truckers‘ triple-guitar attack. Their song subjects are ripped from the headlines, sure — a working stiff is worse off than his daddy, a preacher’s wife goes on trial for murdering her depraved husband, the local music scene dies. But you keep listening because the rhythm section’s a powerhouse, their chord progressions are unique, and the guitarists have a penchant for noisy squall like nobody this side of Sonic Youth. Though the second half of The Big To-Do has some filler, it’s in the grand tradition of filler that sounds pretty good whenever you put it on. And put it on you should, because for sheer beautiful guitar tones, nobody can touch this band. – Josh Langhoff
33. The New Pornographers – Together [Matador]
In a banner year for Canadian indie bands, Together stands out for the sheer magnitude of its grin-inducing creativity. You can’t fault a record for living up to its title: the songs on the New Pornographers‘ latest take on many shapes and sentiments, yet end up coming together to create one of the year’s most uplifting pop albums. Whether amid the hooky rush of songs like “Crash Years” and “Moves” or the intricate and eccentric mode of “If You Can’t See My Mirrors” or “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco”, Together deftly matches romping, full-band noise with equal parts clarity and tenderness. No matter which of its many members find themselves at the helm of a given track, the sum total feels more integrated and powerful than any of the band’s previous work. The result is a sustained feeling of dauntless motion and optimism: much as its cover art suggests, Together strives to blur the lines that separate a joyful leap from a plunge into the starry void. – Chris Matei
32. The Roots – How I Got Over [Def Jam]
Complacency can be one of the biggest creative killers to musicians. And there’s nothing more complacent than a stable, full-time job. That’s what was facing the Roots during the recording of How I Got Over. No doubt some fans may have been concerned about how the band could maintain quality control on the album front while carrying on their gig as the best late night house band in the industry. Worry not. How I Got Over is every bit as urgent, assured and flat out solid as its fiery predecessors Game Theory and Rising Down. As the lead off track states, Black Thought and company get their Charlie Parker on throughout the album, blending gospel, hard-hitting hip-hop and folk into a filler-free 40 minute testament of their staying power. Much has been made of the more optimistic tone of the album, but the real coup of How I Got Over is the band’s ability to manage a guest list worthy of Conan O’Brien’s last week at NBC (John Legend, Joanna Newsom, Monsters of Folk, P.O.R.N.) and make it sound like a unified work only the Roots could pull off. – Sean McCarthy
31. Neil Young – Le Noise [Reprise]
Le Noise sounds like everything that audiophiles would have breathlessly anticipated a Daniel Lanois-produced Neil Young record sounding like, but it’s also an impatiently weary and beautifully harsh soundtrack to the unravelling of America. Armed with a guitar, that timeless warble of a voice, and all of the warped feedback effects that he and Lanois can dream up, Young conjures his most darkly-hued vision of existential malaise since Tonight’s the Night. Even on the acoustic ballads “Love and War” and “Peaceful Valley Boulevard”, Young expresses doubts that the old appeals to reason and justice hold sway any longer.
That his lyrics tend towards the familiar expressions of bruised hope and open-road salvation that he’s relied upon since the late ’60s doesn’t render the mystic rumbling that underlies them any less frank and immediate. The dopplering waves of grinding distortion that haunt Le Noise may well be the year’s sharpest metaphor for the crumbling empire, and Young and Lanois deserve credit for amplifying them rather than turning them down. – Ross Langager
30. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – I Learned the Hard Way [Daptone]
The world can never have enough classic soul music, even when it’s created in 2010 in Brooklyn. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings make the music up to date by struttin’ their stuff with tough vocals, brawny instrumentals, and tight horns so that one can shout along to the lyrics and dance to the music at the same time. The songs allow Jones to show she knows the importance of not only standing up for her love rights, but also for standing up for oneself against all types of cruelty. She understands money is not a luxury, but essential for living, and that having compassion for others only makes one stronger. Jones defiantly sings about troubles, but celebrates triumphs instead of weeping at the world. The backing musicians crown her achievements through their regal fanfares, infectious rhythms, and solid beats. Together, they sock it to the present-day universe. – Steve Horowitz
29. John Grant – Queen of Denmark [Bella Union]
One of the ways that great pop music asserts itself is by establishing its own world, by staking out a space that a listener can identify with, inhabit, and return to. It doesn’t have to be a new world, for there is always fascination in exploring the hazy spaces of the half-forgotten. Such was the case with Midlake’s The Courage of Others, which brilliantly recreated the murky, weird soundscapes of 1970s British folk rock. Even better was the group’s other recording of 2010 when they acted as backing band for former Czars frontman John Grant. Grant’s album was all the more brilliant for allying Midlake’s ’70s soft rock fuzz to a set of startlingly direct and intimate songs that tackled the perennial themes of love, loss, hate and hope.
There was a dramatic backstory to Grant’s album for those who wanted to follow up the intriguing imagery of the songs (and, for those unfamiliar with the Czars, a wonderful back catalogue to catch up with). But even without any extra knowledge, it was clear that Queen of Denmark represented a process of sustained memory work: the references were quirky, personal, and unique. Like a sonic equivalent of Joe Brainard’s classic book I Remember, the highly personal recollections that Grant imparts are recognizable not because we share his memories but because we recognize that we too have remembered in this way.
I heard more sonically daring albums this year, more innovative work informed by cutting edge sonics and experimental narrative techniques. But I didn’t hear anything more devastatingly moving than John Grant’s little songs of wonder and fate, nor anything that resolved quite as brilliantly as the last line of the last song, the line that gave the album its title and that, in retrospect, the whole beautifully sequenced work seemed designed to lead up to. – Richard Elliott
28. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast [Kanine]
None of the guys in Surfer Blood actually surf, but their music is overwhelmingly informed by lives lived oceanside. Every song on their debut LP, Astro Coast, is sun-bleached and reeking of the sea. It is a definitive summer album that was released in January and unfuckwithable enough to stay in our collective heavy rotation until summer finally showed up. Casual references to David Lynch and President Obama drift through knotty surf riffs and saltwater taffy melodies. It’s all remarkably easy to love, yet the album’s longevity is still a bit shocking: a mainstay of 2010 from the very beginning to the very end. It’s fitting that their year was capped off with the news that they had signed to Warner Bros. Records — home to R.E.M., Built to Spill, and the Flaming Lips. It’s not hard to imagine Surfer Blood truly belonging next to those names in five to ten years time. – Ben Schumer
27. Caribou – Swim [Merge]
No one has ever claimed that Dan Snaith doesn’t know what he’s doing. As far as I’m concerned, every album that has come out with either the Manitoba or Caribou moniker has been a critical and popular hit. However, while albums like Up in Flames and Andorra have garnered critical acclaim, there was always the chance for them to lose appeal after around 30 listens. Previous albums have leaned on a more pastoral aesthetic than Swim. In fact, Swim tends to finally realize what Snaith has been building to this whole time; an album chock full of songs that call to mind Kraftwerk, dance punk, and psychedelia mixed equally with no genre hogging center stage.
The album pumps along with urban beats, electronica-inspired engineering, and ’80s-styled programming. The heart of this album is meant to display Snaith’s craft as never before. There are more layers, more synths, more found sounds… in essence, there’s just more going on here. That’s not to say that this album is overkill. Snaith knows when to pull back and give the listener a break, but I find it difficult to believe that they would want one. – Matthew Werner
26. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song [UMG/Mercury Nashville]
During shows a few weeks before The Guitar Song was released, Jamey Johnson had taken to covering the George Jones standard “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?”, a song that wonders if anyone can ever provide the classic country magic of the Opry legends. With his excellent 24-song double album, Johnson lays all doubt to rest regarding the honky tonk hero heir (and hair) apparent. Johnson’s band of road-burnished hippies keeps things loose with the steel guitars and Telecasters and organs and tight harmonies, showcasing a staggeringly rich fluency in country’s golden era and giving way to redolent open-air grooves.
As a result, The Guitar Song is the coolest-sounding country album in ages. On one keeper after another, Johnson gets his Waylon wail on, with an authentic, distinctive moan on the kind of beard-in-the-whiskey twangers and ballads that everyone can agree on. However, the real feat of The Guitar Song is that Johnson completely steers clear of hokey retro on the strength of pure, convincing songwriting (and a handful of ace covers). It might be audacious for Johnson to drop a double-platter, yet on his fourth time out, he’s provided enough indispensable hard-hurting and redemptive tales to get you from Austin to Fort Worth. Didn’t Hank do it this way? – Steve Leftridge
25. Spoon – Transference [Merge]
“Buying records in record stores is cool”, says the liner notes of 2010’s most aloof pleasure. Mirroring the stereotype of cliquey analog loyalists, Spoon‘s Transference feels exclusive and cold, no matter what format you chose. It was even released in a promotional dead zone (January), purposely ducking the radar. Producer/drummer Jim Eno clips Britt Daniel’s screams like treated samples, as if deciding his thoughts are better kept a secret anyway. Lyrically, less is more here, which only enhances the band’s cool factor while its peers Tweet every bologna sandwich.
On an album so rooted in the cerebral — and what isn’t said — why shouldn’t the music do the talking? The taut rhythm section swears under its breath, especially on the groove-loaded first half where serrated love notes like “Is Love Forever?” slice deep. There’s a hypnotic, numb aura that stems from (what else?) a breakup, but it could just as easily be from esteem-crushing unemployment and delayed political promises. The Austin boys keep theirs. – Alex Bahler
24. Grinderman – Grinderman 2 [Anti-]
The greatest trick that Grinderman ever pulled was convincing you it was out of control. The sweat-stained, creepy cousin of the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave‘s unruly rock band may deal in jagged chunks and fiendish, salivating id, but these guys deliver every sneering burst as a definitive, calculated strike. The songs on Grinderman 2 came from improvised jam sessions, but here they are given shape and made to howl. From the predatory thump of “Mickey Mouse and Goodbye Man” to the gauzy heft of closer “Bellringer Blues”, these are expansive, gut-rumbling rock songs. And Cave fronts this underbelly rock band by crooning with a devilish bravado.
Cave has never had trouble making us squirm, but Grinderman has afforded Cave the opportunity to delve into some of his darkest characters, and the results are abrasive but stunning. Grinderman 2 is sex-crazed and seedy, self-obsessed and unapologetic. But it is not, not even a little, uncontrolled. What’s most brilliant about this dark record is that, despite its sprawl, it still finds Cave and company holding something back. Something I’m pretty sure we couldn’t handle. – Matt Fiander
23. Konono No. 1 – Assume Crash Position [Crammed Discs]
While Konono No. 1‘s latest album may not have had quite the shock of the new that marked their Crammed Discs debut in 2004, there was no denying that that this was a mighty set of tunes from the Congolese group. Assume Crash Position was abrasive, brilliant proof that the group were not to be classed as a temporary hip trend, as that year’s differential, but that theirs was a sustained and grounded aesthetic that predated and superseded comparisons with experimental rock, trance, and electronica artists.
It made sense. Papa Mingiedi’s group has been honing its unique take on bazombo trance music for around four decades, after all. On this album, Mingiedi explored the extent of that history, delving into numbers performed by the first incarnation of the band and also slyly employing the talents of a young Konono tribute band from Kinshasha who mimic the distinctive distorted likembé sound with electric guitars. Highlights abounded, from the epic likembé-and-drum workouts “Wumbanzanga” and “Konono Wa Wa Wa” to the praise song “Makembe” and the closing track “Nakobala Lisusu Te”, a meditative solo performance by Mingiedi.
2010 also saw the appearance of some excellent media features on the band, with the elderly Mingiedi becoming a something of a cover star. Crammed released a lavish box set of Congotronics material that catered for fetishists of vinyl and hip African music alike and, toward the end of the year, compiled a double CD of hip acts such as Animal Collective, Juana Molina, and Deerhoof paying tribute to the same material. – Richard Elliott
22. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach [Virgin]
When Damon Albarn puts together a mixtape, he really goes the extra mile. Three albums in to his Gorillaz career, the Blur frontman isn’t treating his cartoon cavalcade like a side project anymore. While its predecessor, Demon Days certainly sharpened the concept, Plastic Beach perfected it, bringing on a host of all-star associates to create one of the year’s best albums. The percentage of albums featuring cameos from Snoop Dogg over the past decade must be as staggeringly high as Snoop by his own admission often is, but his choice as the host of Plastic Beach is as inspired as the segue into the hip-hop/Arabic mash-up of “White Flag”. And therein lies the beauty of Plastic Beach, an album made by many hands, yet with enough of a common thread to not only keep the whole together, but also allow it to work fully in a live setting with a band that boasts half of the Clash among its ranks.
Reading more like an idle flip through the record collection of someone you wouldn’t mind taking a road trip with, Plastic Beach features collaborations with Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, Lou Reed, Mos Def, De La Soul, Mark E. Smith, Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, Little Dragon and Bobby Womack. The latter sounds a million miles away from his halcyon days in the soulful ’70s, but his voice has matured into something both rougher and more beautiful. Indeed, Womack’s work on the album’s first single, “Stylo”, and on its emotional denouement, “Cloud of Unknowing”, are possibly the best performances on an album hardly lacking in them.
It’s possible Albarn sleeps maybe two hours a night, as he’s apparently recorded a Gorillaz follow-up on an iPad while on the road with the band, has plans early in the year for new Blur material and is nearly finished with an Afrobeat album with Flea and Tony Allen. In the meantime, there’s Plastic Beach, a journey that still sounds as fresh and vibrant as the moment it dropped. – Crispin Kott
21. Four Tet – There Is Love in You [Domino]
The biggest compliment I can give to Four Tet‘s There Is Love in You, besides pointing out that it’s lush and intelligently melodic, is to say that this is the sort of record that can play as the loud soundtrack to a heavily inebriated evening just as well as it can play on headphones during a long train ride through deep woods. Or, to put it another way, this is the sort of record that bangs successfully at high volume but still delivers satisfaction for anyone willing to dedicate time to a close listen.
Kieran Hebden as Four Tet has been bending and blending jazz, electronica, and dance-flavored beats for more than a decade and this might be his most polished and approachable effort yet. His great achievement with this record is that he continuously moves his songs forward—all his edits and transitions push the sound, never letting it rest—and the end effect is an album of layered vocals, snares, and dozens of samples and loops that will move you, even if you’re sitting still. – Sean Cooper
20. Das Racist – Sit Down, Man [Mishka/Made Decent/Greedhead]
This year, world finally tuned into Das Racist when the hip-hop duo dropped Sit Down, Man in September. Last year, the Brooklyn rappers were considered nothing more than a cute meme thanks to the hilarious and catchy “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”. This year, they’re seen as vanguards because of the 37 songs the group released in the form of two free mixtapes. Not everyone knew how to react to their first release, Shut Up, Dude, but music critics and fans greeted Sit Down, Man with celebratory flair. Though the album is packed with guest drops and collaborations from the likes of Jay-Z, Diplo, El-P and a host of other eye-grabbing pop names, it’s Das Racist’s Himanshu Suri and Victor Vazquez who really shine. The duo hit their stride with Sit Down, Man, and their flair for mind-bending wordplay and their lyrical chemistry have hit their peak. – Leor Galil
19. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz [Asthmatic Kitty]
Over the last five years, the way we consume music has changed, so should we not expect the artists who make it to have done the same?
Illinoise was always going to be tough act to follow and with the official quashing of his much hinted 50 states project, the anticipation for indie poster boy Sufjan Stevens‘ follow-up was high. With that in mind, it’s possible The Age of Adz could have collapsed under the weight of our collective expectation. Still, ever the wolf in folk’s clothing, Steven’s has created something defiantly his own, yet refreshingly different from what many may have expected.
Sonically overwhelming on first listen, skittering electronica collides with sweeping orchestral arrangements, while enchanting choral vocals intertwine with Auto-tune. It is these grand and often unusual soundscapes which form the backbone for a series of deeply personal meditations on love, sex and death. Brimming with ideas both musically and lyrically, Stevens is no longer reducing the grand to the intimate. Instead he is exploring his own emotions with a new rawness, making the personal seem epic and in turn, challenging what we expect from him as an artist. – Tom Fenwick
18. Best Coast – Crazy for You [Mexican Summer]
Reverb-hazy, sing-song lo-fi pop certainly isn’t underrepresented in the American indie rock scene these days, so it’s understandable if you are inclined to dismiss the California-based trio Best Coast as yet another group of dewy-eyed, underachieving C86 revivalists. Despite its admittedly limited nature, what makes the band’s debut album so indelible is the feeling that permeates it—that wide-eyed, sun-kissed yearning exemplified by cuts like “Boyfriend”, “Crazy for You”, and “Our Deal”.
Every word frontwoman Bethany Cosentino sings conjures up sensations that evoke some fondly-remembered endless summer, aching for fleeting love and good days long gone. The musical template the record is based on may be easy for others to replicate, but it’s the emotional center of Crazy for You that really demands Best Coast converts. – AJ Ramirez
17. The Black Keys – Brothers [Nonesuch]
Full of distressed and fuzzed-out racket, the Black Keys delivered their highest charting album in 2010, sparing themselves much pomp and circumstance, as one can tell from the cover alone, and grinding through 15 tracks of Rubber City falsettos, blues, and rusted love song. They made great use of their barricaded studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, retaining greater use yet of part-producer Danger Mouse.
Brothers is a tinged album, one spattered with cold, fervor, and down-home substance. Had the brothers gone in a different direction, individually, they may have faltered with their now trailer-worthy garage formula. But this release was a consistent, and its single, “Tighten Up”, is such a song. Encapsulate of the album, Auerbach and Carney defy the new-classic sound of artists like Jack White and Mark Ronson, sounding ever old, ever scorched with whisky and heart. – Jason Cook
16. Mavis Staples – You Are Not Alone [Anti-]
You Are Not Alone is a testament to the power of veteran musical minds joyfully collaborating. Chicagoans Mavis Staples, undisputed soul and gospel legend, and Jeff Tweedy, frontman for Wilco, consistently deliver the goods on this musically diverse record. The tunes range from the inspiring, Wilco-tinged title track, a Tweedy original, to a cover of John Fogarty (“Wrote a Song for Everyone”) to traditional gospel tunes from the Civil Rights era (“In Christ There Is No East or West”). On “Downward Road”, Staples’ band finds a gospel groove so miraculously loose that it feels like it could fall apart at any moment.
Staples is backed not only by Tweedy, but also by many of her regular touring musicians. The result is an effort that sounds simultaneously comfortable and innovative. Despite the refreshingly varied song choices and creative arrangements, it is Mavis’ vocal delivery that makes this record a thing of beauty. Her low voice carries the sound of experience and profound spirituality. No matter what your faith may be, You Are Not Alone is sure to remind you that music is almost better with two. – Jacob Adams
15. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today [4AD]
Before Today is a breakthrough for Ariel Pink in more ways than one. It marks what may be the definitive turn in a story of frustrated ambition that includes over a decade’s worth of bedroom recordings, self-promotion and auspicious but always inadequate recognition. The album is his first for established alternative label 4AD, his first with a full-time backing band and — most importantly — his first to bear openly the marks of an up-to-now capricious talent.
With Before Today, Pink made his music more professional and more accessible without sacrificing any of its radical, confrontational charm. It was the soulful, irresistible lead single “Round and Round” that won Pink and his band, the Haunted Graffiti, widespread attention and indie accolades, but the album plays from start to finish like the impossible, bastard brainchild of practiced inspiration and off-the-wall eclecticism. – Dylan Nelson
14. Galactic – Ya-Ka-May [Anti-]
The kings of modern New Orleans funk and acid jazz have always been a stellar live band, but they’ve been searching to find their way in the studio. Galactic went in a more instrumental direction after “The Houseman” left in 2004, then experimented with hip-hop flavors on 2007’s From the Corner to the Block. The band continues with a variety of guest vocalists here, but without limiting themselves to any one genre. The result is a classic disc that exudes instrumental prowess but also contains a slew of well-crafted and memorable vocal songs.
The diverse sound shows off everything that makes the New Orleans music scene so unique and special. Tunes like “Bacchus”, “Dark Water” and “Speaks His Mind” create specific moods that gives the album a compelling ebb and flow, while “Heart of Steel”, “You Don’t Know” and “Cineramascope” all became staples in the band’s repertoire. This hopefully leads to a full album with frequent 2010 band member Cyril Neville, absent from Ya-Ka-May but the perfect singer for Galactic. – Greg Schwartz
13. Joanna Newsom – Have One on Me [Drag City]
A quick note first, since it comes up in the comments every year: yes, PopMatters’ review awarded Have One on Me a 4/10 rating; yes, this same magazine is now heralding it among the year’s best; no, this is not an irreconcilable inconsistency. That review reflects one critic’s opinion; this feature, an aggregate of PM staff consensus. Let it be a credit to Ms. Newsom: hardly anyone‘s on the fence. I’m certainly not. Nine months later, and I’m still humbled by the startling richness, emotional depth, and beauty of this record.
Gone — for good, I’ll assume — are the screeching vocalisms of Milk-Eyed Mender (Newsom’s voice has grown wonderfully) and exhausting orchestral gymnastics of Ys. In their place are, well, songs — two hours worth of the most earnest, personal songwriting of Newsom’s career, smartly split into three easily digestible 40-minute discs, and running the gamut from sparse, harp-driven balladry (the haunting “Baby Birch” and “Jackrabbits”) to fiercely confident excursions into jazz- and piano-pop territory (“Easy”, “Good Intentions Paving Company”).
The result feels to me like her own Blood on the Tracks of sorts: like Dylan in ’75, she has scaled back the most polarizing features of past works without sacrificing artistic integrity and come up with her most complete, emotionally direct work yet — a densely woven song cycle loosely linked by themes of love, loss, and moving on. I’m just not ready to move on from Have One on Me quite yet. – Zach Schonfeld
12. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest [4AD]
At the outset, Bradford Cox’s two bands, Deerhunter and Atlas Sound, pulled in separate, nearly opposite directions. However, as Cox has narrowed his focus, the two projects have begun to converge on a single point, an atmospheric indie-pop aesthetic that employs ambient noise and tunefulness in equal measure. On Halcyon Digest, Deerhunter’s fourth full-length in just five years, Cox and his bandmates continue to refine this sound, with often stunning results. “Revival” offers a kaleidoscopic take on ’60s psych-pop, while “Desire Lines” closes with a groove-heavy outro that’s already become a live favorite.
“Helicopter”, meanwhile, pairs crystalline guitars with aqueous electronics, as Cox revisits a few long-running obsessions (death, faith, loneliness) with surprising candor. And “He Would Have Laughed” caps off the album with a restless tribute to the late Jay Reatard that, fittingly enough, cuts off abruptly, just shy of the eight-minute mark. Few songwriters are lucky enough to enjoy the kind of hot streak that Cox is currently on and if Halcyon Digest offers any indication, he’s just getting warmed up. – Mehan Jayasuriya
11. Sleigh Bells – Treats [Mom & Pop / N.E.E.T.]
Sure, Sleigh Bells hit like a ton of bricks when Treats came out in May, but we were left wondering if their first full-length was only a summertime fling. We now have our answer: Treats has staying power, packing as much of a wallop even after the novelty factor has worn off and you know what’s coming. Neither the hype nor the backlash could dull the visceral impact that Sleigh Bells conjure up on Treats. The towering riffs, red-alert keyboards, and rapid-fire beats on the opener “Tell ‘Em” are as alarming and thrilling as ever, while “Crown on the Ground” and “A/B Machines” have yet to lose any force or intensity more than a year after they were first leaked. And when you hear where they’re headed, literally putting the power in power pop on “Rill Rill” and “Riot Rhythm” (the last track recorded for Treats), the question to ask isn’t whether Sleigh Bells will find a place in indie’s current pantheon, but what they have in store for an encore to their one-of-a-kind debut. – Arnold Pan
10. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty [Def Jam]
Dear Jive Records: you screwed up big time. Sure, it’s perfectly reasonable to sit on an album for two years if you feel that album has limited commercial potential. It’s rather unreasonable, however, in the case of Big Boi‘s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, which features 14 surefire hit singles by my count. The label hassles would prove to be blessings in disguise. With OutKast partner Andre 3000 legally barred from appearing on the album, Big Boi is finally forced to stand on his own.
And stand tall he does. With his bonkers, tongue-twisting MC skills in top form, Big Boi scores key assists from an impressive roster of top rappers and producers, none of whom try to detract our attention from the man of the hour. From the trunk-rattling thump of “Shutterbug” to the breezy, Janelle Monáe sung “Be Still”, there’s more musical ideas and styles at work here than you’re likely to see on a dozen lesser hip hop albums. We’ll be picking at this overstuffed funhouse of an album for years to come. – Daniel Tebo
9. Gogol Bordello – Trans-Continental Hustle [Columbia/American]
Wherever Gogol Bordello goes, they drag the world around with them, violent and gorgeous thing that it is; a reflection, if you will, of the peoples who are pushed, pulled, forced to make new lives in strange lands. The core message of Trans-Continental Hustle is perfectly captured in “Uma Menina”: “And so I took a knife and then I carved out… New life line on my palm.” The (currently) nine-member band of immigrants that comprises Gogol Bordello is truly the heir to the Clash in terms of punk energy mixed with a smart political message and world beats.
Frontman Eugene Hütz growls in his coarse, masculine voice about the gypsy/immigrant curse – forever marginalized, forever demonized. “You love our music / but you hate our guts” he howls in “Break the Spell”. At once joyful and attractively angry, poignant and playful, this is pure poetry with a punch. I haven’t yet figured out what “My Companjera” is about, but the line “Your baby claw stuck in my chest” perfectly illustrates the passionate imagery that leaps from these lyrics.
Perhaps the best song, composition-wise, is “When Universes Collide” which, with its stark lyrics, drags the listener down into the slums with it, then gives her heart a hard, hard squeeze. Joy abounds, too, particularly in “Pala Tute” (#9 on PopMatters Best 60 Singles of 2010), an unabashed ode to the joy of sex combined with a critique of the religious strictures that would have us all remain uptight, unhappy virgins. This is smart, infectious music that feeds one’s head and heart, as all good music should. I can see Joe Strummer up in Heaven now, shaking his head and smiling. – Karen Zarker
8. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor [XL Recordings]
Titus Andronicus‘ The Monitor is a record of delirious, towering ambition. It’s a concept album that uses the Civil War as a metaphor for personal turmoil, complete with eight-to-14-minute songs and excerpts from period-appropriate speeches. At the same time, though, it’s also the best punk rock record in years, with beery, raised-fist singalongs presented with frantic, joyous abandon. This type of combination — high-art complexity mixed with good, old-fashioned volume and passion — is everything that rock ‘n’ roll can and should be, and it’s incredibly refreshing to see bands like Titus Andronicus finding new and compelling ways to fuse these elements. The Monitor is smart, loud, tuneful, exciting, and damn near perfect. Not only is it one of the best records of 2010, but it has set the bar pretty high for the coming decade. – David Gassmann
7. Beach House – Teen Dream [Sub Pop]
One could argue that what pop music needed most in 2010 was a healthy dose of mystery. As this decade closes and a new one begins, it’s fair to say there’s never been a smaller divide between artists and fans. As Twitter and Facebook have exploded, music listeners have been able to shrink the mystical shadow that surrounds the creators of popular art. At first, it was cool being provided a wider glimpse into the worlds of our favorite bands. But the more we find out about what Kanye ate for lunch at some posh hotel, the less revelatory our discourse becomes.
Beach House‘s Teen Dream exists refreshingly outside of this media-soaked mess. And it’s not because of their social networking habits (they have Twitter, too, after all). It’s because of their jaw-droppingly beautiful music, which feels indebted to no particular time, place, or social movement. These ten tracks simply speak for themselves, each a patient, irresistibly catchy exercise in economical grace.
The sonic ingredients are familiar, Victoria Legrand’s husky alto floating over minimal organs, synths, and modest beats, often bathed in an ocean of reverb. But Legrand and instrumentalist Alex Scally manage to fashion these glowing, ambient pop lullabies into towering, emotional landmarks. With Teen Dream, Beach House have made the most mysterious album of 2010, and likely the most resilient. – Ryan Reed
6. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening [DFA]
LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy has built his band’s reputation over the past decade as a great singles act. Even the Soundsystem’s critically-acclaimed second album Sound of Silver, solid as it was, got by mostly on the strength of its two incredible standout singles, “Someone Great” and “All My Friends”. This Is Happening goes a long way towards proving that Murphy and company can keep up that level of quality over an entire album. It’s a good thing, too, as Murphy seems intent on keeping his promise that this will be the final LCD Soundsystem release.
The spectacular opening track, “Dance Yrself Clean”, is like a microcosm of everything the band does well. Murphy sings with wit and humor while the music softly rolls along on a bed of percussion, then adds a simple synth line. After over three minutes of this, the song explodes into a full-on dance song, then continues for almost six more minutes. From there the album is one highlight after another, from goofy single “Drunk Girls”, to the warm, cathartic “Home”, with its perfect wordless chorus of “Ah”s.
In between there’s the twin self-pitying love songs “All I Want” and “I Can Change”, the sarcastic “You Wanted a Hit”, and the hilarious critics vs. artists rant of “Pow Pow”. This Is Happening may not break new ground for LCD Soundsystem, but it hones their sound to a finely sharpened musical point. If this is indeed the way Murphy intends to retire his brand name, he’s going out on one hell of a high. – Chris Conaton
5. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs [Merge]
If Funeral was in part about the urban neighbourhoods that united friends, Arcade Fire‘s third album The Suburbs focuses on life in the fringes of the city — which essentially makes it an entire record around a loose concept previously explored in Rush’s “Subdivisions”. One half a love letter to the ‘burbs, and one half a nuking of the idea of the nuclear family, Arcade Fire have delivered a disc that can be endlessly parsed for all sorts of meaning. No doubt a Ph.D. thesis could be written about this dense, multi-layered album that offers a great deal of rewards, especially upon repeated listening.
The front half, in particular, is loaded with catchy, hook-laden tunes that should become a part of the indie rock canon for decades to come. If Neil Young ever had a love child with New Order and Depeche Mode, what you’d get is the result here. And what a glorious, yes, sprawling mediation of growing up on the outskirts looking in is what is offered in The Suburbs. Ultimately, what Arcade Fire has delivered is yet another masterpiece, proving once again that these Montrealers can apparently do no wrong. – Zachary Houle
4. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy [Def Jam]
The operative word in
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is “my”, the signpost for the intersection between Kanye West‘s personal issues and his possessiveness. Small wonder the first word he utters is “I”. Previously, 808s & Heartbreak purged his personal ills through an icy, though not soulless, Auto-Tune filter. Eclectic and ostentatious, West’s Fantasy offers a warmer, brighter palette. The language glows. The choruses soar. Verses are delivered by monsters, and populated with porn stars, abusers, devils, and centaurs (or “fat booty Celine Dion”s).
The songs are longer, roomier, with venturesome flourishes: guitar riffs, vocal effects, a vocoder solo. Fantasy‘s epic sound speaks to West’s uneasiness with his stature. He is a mass of contradictions, the illumination of which forms the core of his appeal as an artist. As both star and collaborator, his statements are grandiose, grasping, a hip-hop King Midas who’s done with being undone by his detractors. Fantasy is Kanye West’s self-portrait, in Cubism: complex, petulant, somewhat paranoid, but bursting with ideas and never boring. – Quentin B. Huff
While the album has it’s notable flaws, so do all great, canonized works. That is what confirms their humanity, their unconcealable nature as beasts of the Earth, doomed to leave some fault, somewhere. So while “All of the Lights” can rightly be nitpicked for a myriad of factors, all that really matters is the visceral reaction the song receives when Kanye first lets the chorus erupt from the belly of the track. All too often, musicians seems to fall short of its potential by avoiding the visceral nature of their art, folding to social trends and corporate pressures.
This album, to me, avoids all of that, standing out as a remarkably singular and zeitgeist-capturing event. It may not be the pinnacle of musicianship in this decade, but it is something like outsider art crafted through the monolith of corporate greed. A truly fascinating thing to experience, every time the record starts to spin. – David Amidon
3. Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma [Brainfeeder/Warp]
From progressive free jazz to spaced-out psychedelic soul to surrealist hip-hop, Flying Lotus‘ Cosmogramma clashes together some of the most left-of-center black music of the past half century with otherworldly electronic beats to create a still undefined sound that is uniquely his own. But as forward thinking as Cosmogramma is, the LP defies the current iTunes epoch of cherry-picking albums for a few select cuts and ditching the rest of the release. Broken apart, Cosmogramma leaves an unfocused impression. Taken together, it coalesces into a dazzling illumination. As demanding as it is rewarding, Cosmogramma is a brilliant splattering of ideas that interlock to form its own Afro-futurist universe. At bottom, it is the soothsayer and the thrown-down gauntlet for all other electronic music albums in the upcoming decade. – Eric Allen Been
2. The National – High Violet [4AD]
In 2009, Animal Collective found their next-level breakout by buffing and shining their eccentricities into an expansive yet palatable sheen. The National found a similar new level in 2010, but they went a different route to get there. High Violet is dark and disjointed, huge and unsettling, but it manages to avoid the back-handed “grower” tag. Deep under the troubling guitar tones, the overcast strings and keys and horns, the intricate thunder of the drums, are deeply infectious hooks. The songs hit immediately, but then leech into your skin and stay there.
Of course, it helps to have singer Matt Berninger, the closest thing to an American Morrissey we’ve got. He may play it less arch than Mozz, but he takes similar chances, he’s darkly funny, and he risks the melodramatic image to brilliant effect. Voices swallow souls here. Brains are nearly eaten. But as Crooner for the Underground, Berninger delivers it all with a sly yet weary charm. High Violet is a tough record for tough times, but it’s no shelter from the storm. This isn’t a way to put your head down and wait for the looming darkness to pass.
On High Violet, Berninger and company stand up, spines straight, pulling sharp grins into the teeth of that dark, asking with a shrug, “Is that all you got?” – Matt Fiander
1. Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid [Bad Boy]
Janelle Monáe‘s The ArchAndroid proves she’s the whole package. Fashion? She wears tuxedoes and rocks the sculpted pompadour of a 1950s crooner. Dancing? Her moves must’ve been inherited from James Brown. Musically? Her diverse sound incorporates soul, funk, rock, new wave, and folk, along with rap, jazz, and classical, yet she wields a singular vision. That’s no easy feat considering her album’s epic storyline about an android in the year 2719 falling in love with a human and aiming to stop the time-traveling tyranny of a secret society.
Vocally? Monáe fully inhabits each musical style, from the straightforward funk of “Tight Rope” to the shimmering effects in the Monáe-doing-Prince-doing-Hendrix “Mushrooms & Roses” and the Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson leanings of “Locked Inside”. A dynamo, Janelle Monáe glides over Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” as deftly as she issues the primal screams of a fembot coming alive and experiencing self awareness. – Quentin B. Huff
* * *
This article was originally published on 23 December 2010.