The best year for music in recent memory was 2010. Some artists proved music could still sell despite worries of piracy (Taylor Swift, Eminem), a few proved music videos still mattered (Lady Gaga, Katy Perry), and there were plenty of ubiquitous singles of varying quality (“F*** You”, “California Gurls”, “Billionaire”). So much great music came out in 2010 that I have expanded my best of lists to 10 best albums and 10 honorable mentions. The separation between some of the honorable mentions and best of was razor-thin as well. So, here is the list alphabetical by artist.
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Their first album was about teenage rebellion and death. There second album was about young adult rebellion and religion. This album is about trying to rebel from “the suburbs”, both literal and figurative. They both celebrate and hate the suburbs and their ever-increasing adult responsibilities. It is something everyone growing up can relate to. Their music is still anthemic, driving indie rock, but it has a gotten a little less raucous. The Arcade Fire is maturing and their sound is as well.
Caribou – Swim
Caribou mixes ’80s new-wave pop with electronica and indie rock. This makes the songs much lighter than the majority of electronica. Repetition and layers is still a huge part of Caribou’s sound but songs do not meander. Half-spoken half-sung vocals stand out not as melodies but as another layer of sound. Swim may not be revolutionary but it does enough different to stand out from other records in the genre. And oh yeah, every song is impeccable.
Cee-Lo Green – The Lady Killer
Okay, so “F*** You” is quite possibly the greatest kiss-off song of all time. But even without that song this would be a great album. Cee-Lo is distinctive from his R&B contemporaries in that he did not learn all the wrong lessons from Michael Jackson. Instead of a super-slick, overproduced sound with his voice auto-pitched Cee-Lo presents a more genuine sound. Influences of Motown and ’70s Soul can easily be heard. Cee-Lo does not have the greatest singing voice of all time. But presenting it with its warts sounds more honest and conveys more emotion than a computer correction version of it would. Another thing that may make this album so effective is that every song has a singular purpose. One song is romantic, one song is sexual, one song is an apology, one is a kiss-off, etc. He does not cram different ideas and emotions into the songs, letting each one be effective for what it is.
Eminem – Recovery
This is not a sprawling, autobiographic masterpiece like the Marshall Mathers LP or Relapse. But it is Eminem’s most focused and consistent album he has ever made. His sound is mostly the same but he layers more strings, pianos, and actual vocals over his usual spare, stuttering beats. The whole theme of the album is Eminem’s continued comeback. It is not his most interesting album, but Em is more serious about perfecting his craft than ever and that shines through.
Girls – Broken Dreams Club
Girls returns with another hauntingly beautiful album. With their whispered vocals, gorgeous melodies, and heartbreaking lyrics it seems impossible to talk about Girls without mentioning the Beach Boys. Girls vocals are more singer-songwriter than doo-wop and their tempo is slower. In fact Girls could almost be considered a slo-core band in the vein of Bedhead. On Broken Dreams Club Girls continue to deal with growing up. They perfectly capture the dreams, drama, and heartache of being a teenager.
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
This is the culmination of Kanye’s career so far. The ego, the jokey wordplay, the sampling, the gunfire percussion, the distorted vocals, the electronic flourishes, the horns, and every rapper who every owed Kanye a favor all appear on this album. The fact that the album does not get crushed under the weight of everything he throws at it is remarkable. In fact, not only is it Kanye’s most ambitious album, it is also his most consistent and varied. Relying on a number of other MCs was a good choice as Kanye has always been better at writing rhymes than spitting them. Jay-Z may still hold the title of World’s Greatest Rapper, but Kanye just stole the World’s Greatest Producer title from Dr. Dre with this release.
Lady Gaga – the Fame Monster
Lady Gaga is such a visual artist; it’s easy to forget that her music is equally crafted. Each song on the Fame Monster would be great pounding in a club or just singing along in the car. Like Madonna, Lady Gaga has successfully merged dance and pop music. The difference being Madonna has not done it well and felt current since the early ’90s. Lady Gaga has taken everything that came before in dance, electronica, pop, and even ’90s alternative rock and crafted a sound that is unique to her.
The New Pornographers – Together
Carl Newman is a songwriter at a creative peak. After the 2009’s wonderful Get Guilty (under his A.C. Newman moniker) he releases twelve more amazing power-pop songs. The guitars are both crunchy and jangly, the rhythms are relatively simply (including actual handclaps at times), and piano or keyboard occasionally complements the rest of the band. The difference between his A.C. Newman work and the New Pornographers is negligible. Together is more story-oriented lyrically, there is more emphasis on the full band sound, and all in all it’s a bit a rockier.
She & Him – Volume Two
To be honest there is not much difference between this album and Volume One. But that is not a bad thing. She & Him sound like Patsy Cline, a lounge band, and blue-eyed soul all rolled into one. Zooey Deschanel’s voice is perfect for this sound. It’s deep and sultry but also delicate. In the mix with M. Ward’s instrumentation it sounds almost otherworldly. This is another great album by She & Him and I would be perfectly happy if Volume Three sounded exactly the same.
Sufjan Stevens – the Age of Adz
After a few years without an official LP Sufjan is back. Age of Adz is instantly recognizable as Sufjan Stevens work with the whispery low-key vocals and singer-songwriter songs that slowly build to nearly operatic heights. His knack for lyrics with multiple meanings and his songcraft remain as strong as ever. However, Sufjan has placed a much greater emphasis on electronic instruments here. Drum machines are used for percussion and synthesizers are mixed to the forefront of the songs. Sufjan has expanded his sound and it is refreshing.
Honorable Mention: Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: the Son of Chico Dusty, Broken Bells – Broken Bells, Jimmy Eat World – Invented, Johnny Cash – American VI: Ain’t No Grave, LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening, Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More, Sleigh Bells – Treats, Spoon – Transference, Vampire Weekend – Contra, Weezer – Death to False Metal