I'm always hesitant to label any year as a "good" or "bad" year for music, but if you couldn’t find anything to love in 2010, you simply weren’t paying attention. From mainstream pop to alternative rock to traditional gospel, it seemed as if every possible genre was represented this year by more than a few excellent albums. Personal preferences and limited space exclude many notable releases from any top 10 list, so it would be difficult to argue that these albums are the absolute best 2010 had to offer. However, even this small selection should help provide an idea of the wealth of great music released over the past 12 months.
Josh Ritter is one of the best storytellers releasing music today, and lately he’s grown much more daring in his stylistic exploration. Whether unfolding the story of a mummy and his archeologist lover in “The Curse” or pounding out a rock ‘n’ roll guitar riff in “The Remnant,” Ritter has never sounded more inspired or confident. So Runs the World Away is certainly a career highlight for this already accomplished musician.
Last Day of Summer was recorded while alt-rockers White Denim took a break from making another album, then it was given away for free online as a gift to fans. But though they didn’t intend the record to be a proper release, Last Day of Summer contains the finest music of the band’s career. With 12 amazing songs combining jazz, folk and soul influences, you have to think maybe White Denim just has impossibly high standards.
It’s been three studio albums since her return to music in 2005 and Mavis Staples isn’t just going strong, she’s getting better. The 71 year old soul singer’s latest, You Are Not Alone, is a dynamic, beautiful and surprisingly relevant musical statement. Between Staples’ lively vocals and Wilco singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s exquisite production, You Are Not Alone is one of the most truly uplifting records I’ve heard in some time, and that’s something to be cherished.
With their sixth album, Brothers, blues-rock duo The Black Keys appear to have finally harnessed their boundless creative energy to make one of the most exciting album of their career. From Dan Aurbach’s soulful falsetto croon on “Everlasting Light” to Patrick Carney’s oddly funky beat on “Sinister Kid,” The Black Keys show more inspiration on Brothers than they have since 2004’s Rubber Factory. If there was a better rock ‘n’ roll record released this year, I didn’t hear it.
After several years of recording under his Final Fantasy moniker (and perhaps due to legal pressure from the makers of the “Final Fantasy” video game series), Owen Pallet switched to his own name for his third album, Heartland. And that's not all he changed; Pallett moves well beyond his established sound on Heartland, combining ornate string arrangements with beautiful vocal harmonies and an array of digital sounds to produce music as unusual as it is captivating.
One of this year’s quiet but noteworthy gems, Will Stratton’s New Vanguard Blues may be the best 2010 album you’ve heard nothing about. Recorded over a weekend this past summer and self-released online a couple weeks later, Stratton’s third effort wasn’t so much overlooked as it was hard to come across. With exceptional songwriting and stunning guitar playing, Stratton continues to prove he’s more than deserving of the attention he’s been denied thus far.
The Suburbs is the most accessible, radio-friendly record Arcade Fire has released, and it may be their most accomplished as well. Songs like the triumphant “Sprawl II,” the reflective “Modern Man,” and the heartbreaking “Suburban War” are among the most stirring and emotionally effective tunes in the band’s catalog. If The Suburbs isn’t better than the band’s acclaimed debut, Funeral, it’s very close—and in my mind that’s quite an achievement.
Janelle Monáe’s thrilling full-length debut, The Archandroid, is genre-melding pop music at its best, a 70 minute opus with songs spanning a range from the vigorously funky “Tightrope” to the smooth and sultry "Neon Valley Street." Monáe’s talent and energy are undeniable and it’s clear she’s not operating with any limits in mind. Here’s to hoping she attacks her next project with the same mix of intelligence and unrestricted ambition as she did this one.
Primarily utilizing only his acoustic guitar and ragged, Dylan-esque voice, Swedish folk artist Kristian Matsson’s sophomore album as The Tallest Man on Earth is refreshing in both its simplicity and brevity in a year almost defined by excess. The superb musicianship and emotive songwriting on The Wild Hunt proves there can be considerable value in an album that so masterfully captures the qualities of a given genre, even at the expense of branching out into unexplored territory.
Joanna Newsom’s three-disc, two-hour epic will certainly be a test for some attention spans, but the unique beauty and obvious ambition which define the songs of Have One One Me easily make it the most inspired album yet from the precocious harpist and singer. For those willing to dig into the complex arrangements and unusual lyricism, this sprawling masterpiece contains more treasures to discover than any other album released this year.