If 2009 was the year for brilliant young rookies to make unique, interesting albums, 2010 is the year for the veteran sluggers. We saw releases from Sufjan Stevens, The Arcade Fire, Kanye West, The National, Broken Social Scene, The New Pornographers, Belle & Sebastian, Wolf Parade, The Black Keys, Spoon, Robert Plant, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Gorillaz, Girl Talk, Big Boi and even Brian Eno. All this in addition to a host of young talented bands on their second or third albums and fresh new artists making their debut. So how do you choose?
Well, although it might be popular to eschew big names for small ones, one can’t critically ignore the heavy-hitting releases. As with any list, we’ll be ignoring a few of your favorites from 2010 but that’s just how it works. You can’t make a cake without cracking a few eggs, or something like that. What it comes down to is the fact that 2010 was a REALLY good year for music. With dozens and dozens of amazing albums to choose from, Lee and I break down which 25 are (in our very humble opinions) the absolute best.
Jónsi – “Go”
Jónsi’s debut solo album was highly anticipated and he did not disappoint with his renowned cinematic aura and falsetto vocals. But this time, Jónsi’s vocals are, well, real, and it makes a world of difference. We’re treated to his emotional swells in a much more condensed format than Sigur Rós.
Toro Y Moi – “Causers of This”
This tranquilizer of an album that can somehow also be played at parties and not sound out of place stood out above other like-minded acts in a year full of synth-laden lo-fi music. Chaz Bundick is a rising talent and Causers of This cements his place in the bedroom-turned-legit indie scene for years to come.
Roky Erickson with Okkervil River – “True Love Cast Out All Evil”
Psychedelic garage rock legend Roky Erickson is best known for co-founding the 13th Floor Elevators in 1965, but his new release with Austin folk rock band Okkervil River is his greatest accomplishment in decades. The earnest, simple album is haunting and beautiful at a time when the music industry suffers from rampant overproduction.
Fredrik – “Trilogi”
Trilogi is one of the more meticulously arranged albums of the year, which plays to the Swedes’ advantage. It’s dark, brooding, and supremely fulfilling all at once. As we wrote in our initial review, it heavily lures you into its world of phantoms, spells, and mystery bells.
The Black Keys – “Brothers”
The Black Keys have evolved a lot over the last decade, but Brothers is a welcome return (and maybe even an improvement) to the stomping blues-rock that put their name on the map. From “Howlin’ For You” to “These Days,” the duo shows they know how to kick hard and croon like nobody else.
Angus & Julia Stone – “Down The Way”
Angus & Julia Stone are ideal guy-girl complements, which shouldn’t be surprising considering they’re of the same kin. They perfect their downtempo folk on Down The Way, which weaves its way in out of spirited harmonies and gorgeous orchestration. Julia is spotlighted on this album in a nice change of pace for the duo, as Angus is more than willing to take a backseat and round out the charming sound.
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – “I Learned The Hard Way”
The opening seconds of I Learned The Hard Way solidify Sharon Jones’ title as the new queen of soul. The band is known for eschewing modern recording technology in an effort to recapture old school Soul, and here they do it beautifully. No other album in 2010 was so boldly confident.
Balmorhea – “Constellations”
An instrumental album on our year end list? Yep, you read correctly. The Austin sextet finally put it all together on Constellations, a sublime effort that slowly builds with cathartic anthems that alter our state of mind. Achingly beautiful in its own subtle way, the album caught our attention immediately with the first single, “Bowsprit”, and never let go.
Avi Buffalo – “Avi Buffalo”
There’s something sweet and enchanting about Avi Buffalo’s debut album, a kind of youthful innocence that comes genuinely from the band members who are all barely out of high school. The catchy pop songs are so familiar you might swear you heard them decades ago, which makes this record somehow all the more refreshing.
Sleigh Bells – “Treats”
Sleigh Bells was one of the most talked about acts of 2010, and for good reason. The duo’s debut album is raucous, catchy and nothing like you’ve ever heard. Not good enough for you? Maybe the bizzaro album art will pull you in.
Laura Veirs – “July Flame”
One of the earliest contenders to be considered for Album of the Year, and still having as strong an impact as when it came out in January. Elegance defines July Flame, as Veirs keeps things mostly subdued and a little less “weird” than her typical style. The album does wonders for our wandering imaginations.
Electric President – “The Violent Blue”
As we’ve so often discussed before, Ben Cooper and Electric President have an uncanny and unique ability to remind us of the golden days of being a kid, with a slight edge of darkness. The Violent Blue inspires hope and desire through its mesmerizing and mystifying electronic pop.
Deerhunter – “Halcyon Digest”
If there’s one thing the members of Deerhunter don’t know how to do, it’s make bad music. It’s just not in their blood. Their follow-up to 2008′s fantastic Microcastle is superbly written and masterfully executed. These guys do no wrong.
Yeasayer – “Odd Blood”
Yeasayer’s sophomore release received mixed reviews from critics who were disappointed in the departure from their original sound and others who marveled at the catchy, well-written effort by the boys from Brooklyn. But bad reviews be damned! There are few albums this year as consistent and with such great hooks.
Tame Impala – “Innerspeaker”
These Australian stars burst onto the U.S. scene with Innerspeaker, a much-needed album that hearkens back to a classic psychedelic style with its own modern pop twist. Insanely catchy guitar riffs illustrate the staying power of the album, certifying that these young Aussies won’t be going away any time soon.
MGMT – “Congratulations”
MGMT’s second release was maybe 2010′s “Coolest Album To Hate.” But it was brilliantly written, inescapably infectious and completely original. It’s like no other record ever released and the work of two mad geniuses. How can you really ignore it??
The National – “High Violet”
In a year full of highly-anticipated albums, this may have taken the cake. So we used a cautious ear when listening to the final product, trying not to get overly excited or entirely let down. High Violet sees a less forceful National, but still has moments (“Terrible Love”, “Little Faith”, to name a couple) of stunning instrumentation and overwrought emotion that keeps the band at the top of the game.
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – “Before Today”
Part old school pop, part 80s synth, part lounge crooner and part 90s alternative band, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti knows how to reel you in. By the time the album is half over, you wonder how you got there in the first place. The hypnotizing effort set a high bar for 2010′s latecomers.
The Morning Benders – “Big Echo”
When you open an album with a song like “Excuses,” you just know it’s going to be good. The Morning Benders wooed us like catholic school girls with their sweet, melodic, Spector-esque pop songs. Can you find a more genuine-sounding album of this caliber? It’s hard.
The Arcade Fire – “The Suburbs”
The Arcade Fire practically bleed dramatic, powerful concept albums. After 2004′s Funeral (which topped our Top Albums of the 2000s list) and 2007′s Neon Bible, people looked at the Canadians to deliver big, and they BROUGHT it. The Suburbs is tragic, haunting and beautiful.
Kanye West – “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”
Let’s be honest here: Kanye West is an asshole. But does that mean he can’t also make fantastic music? No. And after stumbling a bit creatively on his last couple albums, Yeezy came back in full force making a superb album that challenges the stereotypes of hip-hop and takes a deep (albeit egocentric) look into his own soul.
The Radio Dept. – “Clinging To A Scheme”
If you know Knox Road you know we love Swedish music, and The Radio Dept. is no exception. However, they rose several ranks on our “Swede Lead(erboard)” with Clinging To A Scheme, a fuzzy, experimental, shoegaze gem. The saccharine vocals mesh with the dream theme on this lovely, trance-inducing album.
Beach House – “Teen Dream”
From beginning to end, Teen Dream astonishes and awes, and it may indeed be the most consistent album of 2010. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally provide a warmth that so much other music seems to lack. We want to feel at one with our music, and this album brilliantly and methodically accomplishes that through its soul-piercing sound.
Sufjan Stevens – “The Age Of Adz”
Where to start? Sufjan shocked just about everyone with The Age Of Adz, which seemed to be entirely foreign to the most devoted of fans. But as we listened to the encapsulating electronic noise more and more, we recognized the familiar intricacies of the instrumentation and Sufjan’s attention-demanding voice. We grew to not only respect the ever-evolving sound, but to love it nearly as much as his previous material. It’s an angelic, dazzling effort that finds its way into our hearts.
Janelle Monáe – “The ArchAndroid”
When looking at what makes a great album you look at things like good writing, musical talent, creativity and originality. Janelle Monáe hits every one of these out of the park. Yes, The ArchAndroid is a concept album about about a time-traveling android, and in terms of genre one can only call Monáe’s funk/pop/indie/art house/hip-hop sound “unique.” But what really makes this album shine is her ability to write sharp hooks and killer grooves. It’s not strange to see an artist get unusually creative, but it’s rare to see one pull off an album that’s both accessible and out-of-this world brilliant. And this is just her first full-length record.