Our 55 favorite musical releases of 2010

At the end of each year, after everyone's weighed in on their favorite releases, the overall critical consensus is always interesting. Invariably, a number of titles consistently crop up on countless lists (ahem, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). But while you'll find many of those acclaimed albums represented in our year-end wrap-up, they're interspersed with a slew of others we found compelling. And those picks are often the most intriguing, the very reason that lists such as this are ultimately worth perusing. For better or worse, here's what we loved in 2010.

Agalloch, Marrow of the Spirit (Profound Lore). In the mythical hinterland where black metal, post-rock and experimental prog intersect, Agalloch's Marrow of the Spirit employs everything from searing blastbeats to ghostlike strings in its quest to harness nature's own inner rhythm. Sylvan, symphonic, and simply epic. — Jason Heller

Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (Merge). This band had it all this year: number-one album, sold-out Madison Square Garden, the love of bloggers and soccer moms. Once the shining prodigy of indie rock, the Arcade Fire did arenas better than the Boss or U2 in 2010. No excuses. And what did the group choose to write this coronation album about? Ambivalence, of course. — Kiernan Maletsky

The Bad Plus, Never Stop (E1 Entertainment). After playing together for a decade, the Bad Plus has clearly mastered its craft. Never Stop — the trio's first album of all original compositions — finds the players in exceptional shape, with brilliant performances throughout. Here's hoping that the Bad Plus never stops making music like this. — Jon Solomon

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two — Return of the Ankh (Motown). Erykah Badu, she of the head-wrap constituency, is surprisingly subtle on the second installment of her New Amerykah series. With inward glances and evaluation of life and society, Badu offers up a poignant account of her evolution as a woman. "Umm Humm" is the low-key hidden gem on the joint. — Ru Johnson

The Besnard Lakes, The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night (Jagjaguwar). A brilliant synthesis of classic rock, dream pop and psychedelia, Roaring Night captures a confident sense of hope in the face of danger. With perhaps the most descriptively appropriate album title of the year, the Besnard Lakes take a creative leap forward by writing songs that are stirring, moving and electrifying. — Tom Murphy

Best Coast, Crazy for You (Mexican Summer). Part Nirvana, part Lesley Gore, Bethany Cosentino's Best Coast came out on the top of the lo-fi pop heap. While Crazy for You's diary lessons merely danced around the trenches dug by Liz Phair seventeen years ago, Cosentino's stoner self-deprecation filled a need. Plus, she can sing: The record is light on reverb, bereft of vocoder and, most important, empty of bullshit. — Bree Davies

Pat Bianchi, Back Home (Doodlin Records). After sharpening his chops in Denver for years, jazz organist Pat Bianchi is back in his home state of New York and playing with jazz heavies like Lou Donaldson and George Coleman. On Back Home, Bianchi more than proves that he's got the skills to play with legends, especially on the fiercely burning take on Ornette Coleman's "Blues Connotation." — Solomon

Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (Def Jam). With features from Too $hort, Cee-Lo and George Clinton, this album is excellent, and best played in its entirety. Chock-full of great lyrics, catchy hooks and bass-heavy production — Andre 3000 makes a producing cameo on "You Ain't No DJ" — Sir Lucious proves that Big Boi is one of the greatest. — Johnson

Brian Jonestown Massacre, Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? (A. Records). Not content to repeat their past musical glories, Anton Newcombe and company made the kind of record that alienated many of their died-in-the-wool fans and confirmed the worst suspicions of their critics. Fortunately, this playful hodgepodge of drone, hypnotic Eastern rhythms, post-punk and stark synth rock is as strong as any previous Jonestown effort. — Murphy

Cee-Lo Green, The Lady Killer (Radiculture/Elektra). On The Lady Killer, which features the most captivating single of the year ("Fuck You"), Cee-Lo Green sings the paint off the very walls over a decidedly retro backdrop. The ATLien has turned in one of the most soulful albums of the year. Letting his mellifluous tones lead the way, Cee-Lo gives his best performance on "I Want You." — Johnson

J. Cole, Friday Night Lights. For a rapper without a full-length album, J. Cole sure knows how to churn out the hits. The Roc Nation signee uses his raspy voice to rock over progressive and futuristic beats with thoughtful lyrics, such as those heard on tracks like "See World," and he keeps the party going with the Drake-assisted "In the Morning." — Johnson

Coliseum, House With a Curse (Temporary Residence). After helping inspire a new wave of raw, jagged hardcore/metal crossover, Coliseum veers left on its latest full-length. Enlisting members of Jawbox and Rachel's — not to mention old friend and fellow Kentucky native Will Oldham — the band infuses House With a Curse with a haunted mansion full of noise. — Heller

Crystal Castles, Crystal Castles (Fiction). Like a bleak, blown-out continuation of the first record, this album is even more excellently fucked up. Alice Glass's shriek has been refined, but it's still as feral and terrifying as ever, especially through the digital rainstorm of Ethan Kath on songs like "Baptism," in which Glass sounds like a victim of Stockholm syndrome, fully aligned with her captors. — Davies

Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest (4AD). Favoring delicate, dreamy dynamics this time out, Deerhunter hasn't mellowed so much as entered an even more introspective mode than on previous releases. The result is an album with impressive emotional and sonic range and depth. Lyrically, Bradford Cox evokes the melancholy hopefulness of a generation. — Murphy

Depreciation Guild, Spirit Youth (Kanine Records). Kurt Feldman managed to craft the perfect amalgam of synth pop and experimental guitar rock on the Depreciation Guild's second album. Recalling more ambitious '80s pop bands like Talk Talk and Cocteau Twins, Feldman's songwriting and guitar work on this record display a similar regard for strong musicianship. — Murphy

Drake, Thank Me Later (Cash Money Records/Young Money Ent./Universal Rec.). Drake is the love child of the marriage of rap and R&B. This effort is made up of songs for and about girls. Thankfully, he manages to continue his hilarious rap pattern, which changes even if the subject matter doesn't. "Find Your Love" is the serious party track here. — Johnson

Efterklang, Magic Chairs (4AD). Aside from being insanely great live, these Danish indie rockers have released some wonderfully adventurous music over the last decade. While it might be more accessible and not quite as audacious as previous efforts, Magic Chairs has enough captivating moments — some of which are magnificent — to say that it borders on greatness. — Solomon

Brian Eno, Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Warp). Ambient progenitor Brian Eno teams up with Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins on this purely instrumental effort, which might be Eno's best of the last decade. Roughly half of the album is made up of serene atmospheric cuts, while the other half pulses with beat-heavy electronica. A stunning disc throughout. — Solomon

Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamers (Savoy). Guitarist Bill Frisell has played in a multitude of formats over the past three decades, but he seems especially comfortable in the trio setting. Here he's teamed up with violist Eyvind Kang and drummer Rudy Royston, and the three players wonderfully interpret a batch of new Frisell compositions while brilliantly reworking a few old ballads, some of which date back to the Civil War. — Solomon

Future Islands, In Evening Air (Thrill Jockey). Using music's rhythmic elements in the same way that many bands use melody and harmony, Future Islands has made electronic pop that sounds more like futuristic soul music. That's partly due to Sam Herring's commandingly husky croon and the sheer conviction that lies behind each performance. — Murphy

Gorillaz, Plastic Beach (Parlophone/Virgin). Funny it took a pop star who started in the '80s to perfect the bleeps and bloops of the 21st century. Damon Albarn reached his creative peak this year with the cartoon band he co-created; collaborators include everyone from Snoop Dogg to Mark E. Smith. Who wouldn't want a piece of this stuff? — Maletsky

Grinderman, Grinderman 2 (Anti-). Nick Cave only learned how to play guitar a few years ago, but once he learned, he started to rock out, and Grinderman became his primal, piano-less alter ego. He and three members of the Bad Seeds ratchet up the grit and raunchiness on their second release, which represents some of the heaviest shit Cave has ever released. — Solomon

HEALTH, Disco2 (Lovepump United). Much like R. Kelly, HEALTH loves the remix. On this year's album of outsider second looks, reworkings by beat-finding labelmates Crystal Castles and Pictureplane ride nicely alongside the slow clap of Disco2's only original, the poppy "USA Boys." Stripped of its elemental Big Black harshness, the focus shifted to the beauty in Jake Duszik's reverberating whispers and HEALTH's pure tribal tom thrusts. — Davies

High on Fire, Snakes for the Divine (Koch). High on Fire leader Matt Pike toured with his old band, the stoner-rock legend Sleep, earlier this year. As if to counterbalance all that slow-motion sludge, he used Snakes for the Divine to introduce some of the most cutthroat, breakneck songs in High on Fire's long tenure as contemporary metal's purest, truest voice. — Heller

High Places, High Places Vs. Mankind (Thrill Jockey). Expanding its sonic palette to include guitars, High Places builds upon the tropical pop it helped pioneer a few years back. Decidedly darker than those offered on previous releases, these entrancing dance songs nonetheless retain the band's ability to conjure images of a better reality. — Murphy

Indian Jewelry, Totaled (We Are Free). While many bands have cultivated a kind of psychedelia based in '60s rock, Indian Jewelry has forged its own. Melding bits of dub, non-Western pop, dark electronica and edgy post-punk, Totaled is both seductively entrancing and mysteriously forbidding, the sonic equivalent of an Alejandro Jodorowsky film. — Murphy

Integrity, The Blackest Curse (Deathwish Inc.). The most satanic band ever loved by straight-edge kids, Integrity has always gone its own way. More than twenty years into its existence, though, Dwid Hellion and his eternally misunderstood outfit dumped an unexpected gift at the door: a maniacally brutal, Slayer-esque new album, The Blackest Curse, that more than lives up to its name. — Heller

Intronaut, Valley of Smoke (Century Media). In this modern era of tech-metal and mathcore, it takes both balls and brains to make an album like Intronaut's Valley of Smoke. Mixing ultra-precision and virtuosic prowess with fat riffs and bloodcurdling harmony, the disc does it all — at the same time using technical flash to augment the songs' surplus of muscle tissue. — Heller

Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song (Mercury Nashville). Jamey Johnson took his sudden widespread media attention with a gratifying wary apathy this year. He owes nothing to the many country novelty-seekers who found The Guitar Song, and not by accident: This is everything country should be. Proud, downtrodden, personal and twangy. — Maletsky

Katy Perry, Teenage Dream (Capitol). Simply put, this album's title track is the best pop song of this year, if not of the last decade. Void of the faux shiny club sheen haphazardly sprayed all over Perry's contemporaries, "Teenage Dream" is exactly that: part wet dream, part anthemic pep-squad album, a pubescent, pre-coital head trip that is rad without being totally raunchy. Perry made inappropriate lyrics fun to sing along to again. — Davies

Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon 2: The Legend of Mr. Rager (Universal Motown). Emo rap's president and leader of the new school, Kid Cudi returned in the fourth quarter to further define his master plan of abstract and pop-infused beats with Man on the Moon 2. Showcasing admirable vocal chops as he reflects on obviously bizarre experiences, Cudi is no joke on tracks like the Kanye-assisted "Erase Me." — Johnson

Kneebody, You Can Have Your Moment (Winter & Winter). While the five guys in Kneebody use jazz and grooves as a backbone, their music still defies classification — and over the past five years, they've truly created their own language. This disc is not only proof of that, but it also shows how much their scope has widened and just how insanely skilled they each are. — Solomon

Kylesa, Spiral Shadow (Season of Mist). Prone to being overlooked or just taken for granted, veteran band Kylesa is finally ready to be bumped to the forefront, thanks to Spiral Shadow. Paradoxically a distillation and a dirtying-up of everything the band has done previously, the album squeezes Southern sludge through a doomy, atmospheric sphincter. — Heller

The Legendary Pink Dots, Seconds Late for the Brighton Line (ROIR). A meditation on eternity and hope in a time of confusion, the latest from the Pink Dots is among the band's most cohesive and consistently rewarding. Operating on an almost subconscious level, the intense emotionalism amid hypnotic, overlapping atmospherics transports you outside a mundane frame of reference.

— Murphy

Lil Wayne, I Am Not a Human Being (Young Money). Even if I Am Not a Human Being was just made as a pacifier until Tha Carter IV, no one in the radio-rap game stepped near Wayne's lyrical universe. (Who else could reign supreme with a song called "Gonorrhea"?) Plenty of Young Money reps make appearances, but as usual, all ears are on Weezy's captivating growl. — Davies

Maxwell, BLACKsummers'night (Columbia). Ah, Maxwell — with his caramel-sweet voice and charisma for days — single-handedly saved R&B this year with this release. Maxwell proves himself at the top of his game with songs like "Bad Habits" and "Pretty Wings," which goes well beyond the typical story of love while blending the perfect mix of rhythm and blues. — Johnson

Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid (Wondaland Arts Society/Bad Boy Records). What happens when you start with a bright-eyed Broadway hopeful and have her decide music has the power to change the world? You get this, a firework of an album you can't contain with any umbrella smaller than "music." It's a bit of an enigma at times, but you don't get easy with boundary-pushers. — Maletsky

Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More (Island/Glassnote). A little fey, maybe, but just a little: If this came out two years ago, we'd have laughed Fleet Foxes back to the woods. It sounded like the mountains of West Virginia to the Brits and like the misty rolling Scottish countryside to us, but either way, it was an encouraging entrant in the shit-your-mom-digs category. — Maletsky

Nels Cline Singers, Initiate (Cryptogramophone). Easily the finest and most adventurous album the Nels Cline Singers have released, the two-disc Initiate also shows just how wide Cline's scope is in the variety of styles he tackles, be it '70s-era Miles Davis jazz rock, Afrobeat, ballads, guitar freakouts or pretty much everything in between. Seriously, this is a guitar tour de force of the highest order. — Solomon

No Age, Everything in Between (Sub Pop). Often lyrically melancholy, this album is filled with an invigorating and inspiring musical exuberance. No Age has never been short on enthusiastic performances on any of its releases, but there is such a palpable headlong feel to this album, you can't help but get swept up in its frenetic twists and turns. — Murphy

No Joy, Ghost Blonde (Mexican Summer). If you mixed minimalist garage rock with dream pop, you might get something like No Joy's Ghost Blonde. This is expansive, ethereal music with an incandescent grittiness that could have come out two decades ago or yesterday. Its timeless, sunny melodies evoke images of an endless string of late-spring mornings. — Murphy

The Ocean, Anthropocentric (Metal Blade). Heavy on anti-Christian philosophy — not to mention sheer sound — the Ocean's latest opus, Anthropocentric, is the German collective's most stunning work yet. Deep ambience, prog sprawl and galloping metal: It's all there, and it's all arranged to evoke maximum, jaw-dropping awe. Atheism never sounded so godlike. — Heller

OFF!, First Four EPs (Vice). Keith Morris made his mark as the leader of the Circle Jerks and original mouthpiece of Black Flag. That was thirty-odd years ago. Through sheer spit and grit, though — not to mention help from members of Redd Kross, Burning Brides and Hot Snakes — Morris turned his new project OFF! into a snarling ball of fury that falls almost exactly between his two better-known bands. — Heller

Rhymefest, El Che (dN|Be Entertainment). Rhymefest, who is known for his politically driven rhymes, does not disappoint with El Che. From offering a searing account of conspiracy to taking on airport security to tackling rape and deep-rooted issues of race, Rhymefest is consistently compelling and diverse in his delivery and lyrically versatile and confident. The track to check for here is "Prosperity." — Johnson

Rick Ross, Teflon Don (Def Jam). Amid controversy, Miami-bred rapper Rick Ross put out Teflon Don, a work that shows growth in both his flow and his ability to choose beats. "Aston Martin Music" is the best show of mainstream ability, while "Tears of Joy," featuring Cee-Lo, is a soul-stirring account of success. — Johnson

Robyn, Body Talk (Konichiwa/Interscope). For all the clinical synthesizer and chilly delivery, Robyn sure expressed a lot of emotion this year. Sweden has always been a good place for pop music, and Robyn is a particularly kick-ass ambassador. This was by far 2010's best album for simultaneously dancing and not feeling like an idiot. — Maletsky

The Roots, How I Got Over (Def Jam). The Roots' eleventh studio album makes a compelling case for a few notions: Black Thought is one of the greatest rappers of all time, and How I Got Over is one of the best albums of the year. From the reworked "Dear God" to the title track, each song captured a piece of society with awesome description. — Johnson

The Saddest Landscape, You Will Not Survive (Panic). The '00s gutted the genres of emo and screamo by mainstreaming them into self-parody. But for the past few years, the Saddest Landscape has kept the fires burning by releasing raw, dynamic, emotive post-hardcore albums — the latest and best to date being You Will Not Survive — that prove there's still plenty of life left in the scene. — Heller

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, I Learned the Hard Way (Daptone). Sure, Sharon Jones is essentially taking cues from '60s soul and R&B, but the woman is so damn good at it, it doesn't matter. And I Learned the Hard Way is the band's best effort in the past decade. While listening to Jones's superb pipes over horns, strings and backup vocals, it seems that her vintage revival might even be better than the real thing. — Solomon

Marnie Stern, Marnie Stern (Kill Rock Stars). There is a jaw-dropping amount of technical work here, but that was always true of Marnie Stern's music. What makes this album so great is its overflowing emotional core. This is honest stuff, made all the more powerful by Stern's ability to convey the juicy parts with her guitar. "I'm not enough," she sings, and it's heartbreaking. — Maletsky

Superchunk, Majesty Shredding (Merge). While everyone was bringing back '90s indie rock, Superchunk was just doing what it had always done. It's not the band's best album, and it might not have been a standout in another year, but context works, and this sounded perfect. Which is not to say the album isn't good by itself: It's a joyful 41 minutes of guitar rock. — Maletsky

Titus Andronicus, The Monitor (XL). We may be going down, but we're going down screaming and kicking. There's plenty of fire for the fight on this album, plenty of chances to shout along in your speeding car, to run until your lungs ache. The Civil War has come to suburban New Jersey in a concept record. — Maletsky

Vampire Weekend, Contra (XL). Don't you hate it when the smirking smartass with the big-name degree is right? But, man, there was no denying this album. And amazingly, it's not because these guys backed out on the boat shoe and Graceland-aping; it's because they doubled down. They rhyme "horchata" with "balaclava" in the first line on the album, for Pete's sake! — Maletsky

The Walkmen, Lisbon (Fat Possum/Bella Union). Once again, we find ourselves on the street corner after a long day working and a long night drinking with the Walkmen. They have always been good company, and they're better now: wise and tough and willing to laugh. May we all age with such vitality. — Maletsky

Weapon, From the Devil's Tomb (Ajna). Canada's Weapon is not your typical black-metal band. Boasting immaculately crude production, a haunting musicality and even a strong undertow of meditative Eastern drone, From the Devil's Tomb is the apotheosis of leader Vetis Monarch's mastery of metal menace and spiritual mysticism. — Heller

Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam). His beautiful dark twisted fantasy, and it's tough to decide which one of those words is the most important. It is all that and, well — appalling, breathtaking, exhilarating. Plenty of people did their best work on the album. How could you give this music anything less? Forget the tabloid stories; they'll all fade years before the music does. — Maletsky

Yoda's House, Then Eats Them (Solid Melts). Infused with an air of menace, Then Eats Them is a musically dense, playful, often direct critique of capitalism. To wit: that it has worked to bolster the good life for the few at the expense of the many. Musically falling somewhere between ambient, experimental jazz and non-Western folk, this album is hauntingly thought-provoking. — Murphy


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