First, I don't buy or listen much to albums that I don't think I'll like. I like 98% of the albums I've purchased in 2010 because I test drive a lot of music first and hold back if it doesn't "hit me."
Second, I'm not a music critic. I don't have a point scale by which to judge music, lyrics, etc.
Third, I've never experienced a crop of albums like 2010. I feel bad leaving many I really like off this list. It's a good crop.
But I've decided that ranking them does a few things worthwhile for both you and me. (1) I do have a way of deciding what I like and don't like, what I like better and what I like less. It's less concrete, but it exists. (2) Reading ranked lists is one of my favorite ways to find music, and so it should be a helpful way to share music. The higher the album, I assume the higher chance of you checking it out. There are certainly albums I want you to check out more than others. (3) It forces me to rethink albums at the end of the year and so saves me from being merely a music consumer. I reflect on these albums as art and substance, rather than merely a sugary snack. By the way, I'm not against albums as a sugary snack just as I'm not against the art of a well-made Snickers bar. But it needs to be occasional, not my diet.
So on to the best albums of 2010. I'll give more explanation for albums higher on the list. Tell me what I've missed. Make your argument for a certain album to be higher, or even lower. Just don't be a hater. At least have an argument. Also check out my previous "best albums" lists (2009|2008|2007|2006) and the many year end lists compiled at MetaCritic.
BEYOND CATEGORY - Can't rank because they belong in their own category
Bruce Springsteen: The Promise - Songs stuck in a legal battle long ago have now been released. It's great stuff. Not that long ago I was averse to Springsteen because of a few overplayed radio hits that wrecked understanding him better (no, I don't have a "Hungry Heart"). Now I'm really appreciating his music.
Bob Dylan: The Witmark Demos 1962-1964 (The Bootleg Series Vol. 9) - I've only listened to this a bit, and it's remarkable. I've just started to read on Dylan a bit, and this is a nice companion to a few really important years in his catalog.
Beach House: Teen Dream | Shocked by the end-year buzz for this album, so I've been revisiting it. Liked this dream pop album a lot before and I like it now. I don't think in the top 35 of the year, but do check it out.
Villagers: Becoming A Jackal | A very creative album. Unexpected sounds and good songwriting. Bright Eyes-ish.
TOP ALBUMS OF 2010
35. The Roots: How I Got Over | Do. Do. Uh. Uh. Do do-do-do. Uh. Uh. Yeah!
34. Justin Townes Earle: Harlem River Blues | It's what he does, and he does it better than most. I'm chewing on a weed stem but sitting on a city curb.
32. Avi Buffalo: Avi Buffalo | This is the sound Danielson should be embracing.
31. Joe Pug: Messenger | Folksy, acousticy, & just really good music.
30. Flying Lotus: Cosmogramma | Lot's of fun. Dances with and teases your eardrums.
29. LCD Soundsystem: This Is Happening | I wanted to like it more (some rank it #1). Solid album. Sometimes bitingly funny.
28. Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest | Always, always good. You can read to it even when there's vocals.
27. Jonsi: Go | His music never lets me do anything but soar. He wears feathers in concert for a reason.
26. These New Puritans: Hidden | Marching music for dancing soldiers with laser guns who take the dancing soldiers from Janet Jackson videos and stomp on them.
25. Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross: The Social Network Soundtrack | Better than I could have ever expected. Good study music.
24. Sarah Jaffe: Suburban Nature | A fine album with an interesting kind of emotion, and at times spit. Vulnerable yet not defeated. Mopey. Lots of pain musicified. That could be overdone easily, but this is pretty genius, like Sia: Colour the Small One dealing-with-pain kind of genius.
23. Caribou: Swim | Boop, boop, beep, boop. Dance! Dance! - It's a foot tapper! So cool.
22. Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz (Also see in 2010 All Delighted People EP) | Hard to find too many critical words for someone I see as of the greatest living indie artists. This isn't Illinois, but that's not bad. It's a work of art and probably more creative than many albums on my list. But it makes me uneasy in a way that I'm not sure it's the masterpiece some think it is. I wonder if Suf tried too hard to be different than the last few. Nonetheless, I wouldn't want to be without it.
21. Vampire Weekend: Contra | (debut was my #12 of 2008) These guys make some of the most upbeat, fun, hoppy music around. The music is clever and interesting. I don't have much to say but you should listen to all their stuff.
20. Damien Jurado: Saint Bartlett | Such an interesting voice. Folksy Americana. Flavorful. Melancholy. Tender. Injured. Despairingly hopeful. If the song has a depressing bassline and his voice, it's gotta be great. Sings from the dusty streets of a ghost town near a dead cowboy.
19. Lost In The Trees: All Alone In An Empty House | Swelling sounds with indie pop, emotive vocals and music, plus some classical instrumentation. Ranges from simpler ditties to complex harmonies. There are roaring yet almost front-porchish anthems as well. One of the great discoveries of the year.
18. Pearly Gate Music: Pearly Gate Music | Minimal singer-songwriter. More minimal than you think. And probably more minimal than you think after I tell you more minimal than you think. Quiet. Contemplative. Hushed angelic. Twisty, bendy ends to sung notes. Rarely unhooked or let loose.
17. Melanie Penn: Wake Up Love (my review) | Lyrical. Playful but serious. Airy but substantial. Hopeful. Anticipatory. Theatrical. Few albums will make you feel this happy. legitimately happy, even when it's touching on sadness and pain.
16. The Tallest Man On Earth: The Wild Hunt | I'd be happy if he sung the alphabet song over and over. Got some Dylan style, sound, and substance. A seriously interesting voice. The music rarely surprises, but it's consistently great.
15. Menomena: Mines | I hear some Black Keys in this. And I hear a whole bunch else. I'm not sure what to call it but great. It has some of the most interesting twists and turns and silences of the list. All I know is I dig it. A lot.
14. Drew Grow & The Pastors' Wives: Drew Grow & The Pastors' Wives | Hope this album gets some recognition soon. Few have even reviewed it. Harmonies, melodies, curious arrangements, and several moments in songs that catch me off guard. A fine album.
13. Broken Bells: Broken Bells | Some of the best indie pop I've ever heard. Masterfully constructed songs that are way "bigger" than I expected. Groovy. Hook heavy. Hip but completely accessible.
12. Sleigh Bells: Treats | May destroy your speakers, and your ears. You aren't man enough for this, and the singer is a chick with a sweetheart of a voice. It's thick. "Fuzz" isn't adequate. It's the most interesting mix of sounds on any album I've heard this year.
11. The Besnard Lakes: Are The Roaring Night | Slow haze with an soothing epic hum. Fuller than full. Textured air. But not without melody. These are songs that blend and then gather in themselves, only to reblend again. Serious rock-cred as well. Meant to be loud.
10. The Black Keys: Brothers | These brothers can do little wrong. Love, love their bluesy music. This is more rock & roll than some previous albums, and it's just a bunch of fun. Worth playing loud. One of the best bands out there, and one I really need to see live.
9. Free Energy: Stuck On Nothing | Poppiest album on my list. Not syrupy, but it's "sweet!" Theme music for a night of go carts, cruising Hardee's, and sticking your head out the passenger-side window at 55mph. Order some fries and crank it up.
8. Her Name Is Calla: The Quiet Lamb | Epic. Dark. Moody. Wonderfully timid. A slo-mo walk through the dark forest where the big, bad wolf is no cartoon. Executed with remarkable patience. Haunted & haunting. From single layers to smothering blankets of sound.
7. Mumford & Sons: Sigh No More | Easy to love. Demands your involvement because it's about you. Heart-on-sleeve. Rollicking. Passionate. Banjo-loving. Look at me! I'm dancing along and singing along and feeling the music! Let's feel this way forever!
6. Doug Burr: O Ye Devastator | Well-harnessed simplicity and storytelling. It's hesitant but not lacking in confidence. Darkness & redemption throughout, though it hangs at the edge of darkness. It's redemption in the distance but struggle now. There's a harsh gentleness here that's almost magical.
5. Titus Andronicus: Monitor | I'm happier with them when they sound angrier at the world. Edgy, rough, aggressive, ripping vocals while still making great music & melody. What Mumford does with feathers & hearts these guys do with guts & grit. Angsty when softer. Anthemic, divey bar awesomeness.
4. Delta Spirit: History From Below | From songwriting to rock-your-face-off concerts to stylistic flex, these guys may have the most potential for true greatness among the lesser known bands on my list. This album moves from cranking it up songs to where-are-my-liner-notes moments, often both at the same time.
3. Arcade Fire: The Suburbs | I want to put it lower because it's so beloved (my inner indie snob), but it's really, really, super-really this good. Soaring, full, heady, heart-y, timely, anthemic goodness. Everyone does or should love this album. Arcade Fire is not just legit, they define legit for others. Easily could have been #1.
2. The National: High Violet (Expanded Edition) | Some just can't get into the vocal style, but this album is hard to ignore. It makes the vocals, more than on previous albums, the perfect instrument. It's remarkable, moodiest of moody, darkly soaring, and massively emotive. And it's a rock album. Never get sick of it. Easily could have been #1. It was hard for me to give #1 to anything else. But I did.
1. Four Tet: There Is Love In You | Beats, in cool arrayed. Smooth. Hip. Clubbing &/or walking through a club in super slo-mo, while carefully sharing that twinkle in your eye with curious dancers. Walking in rhythm. Never panicked. You are confident, and you look good, and you dance especially well while being confident and looking good and having an incredible sense of rhythm. It's not heavy-handed. It's subtle and thoughtful, which was unexpected. It feels smart. I love to read to it and tap my foot. And while I LOVE High Violet & The Suburbs, There Is Love In You gets the edge. Outstanding.