Since I’ve already made my feelings about rankings, best-ofs and lists in general clear, here are a few things you need to know about 2010: For those of us nerdy and foolhardy enough to keep up with Internet indie culture, there were more “relevant” albums to listen to than ever before. Thanks to a blogosphere in which any band with an MP3 can find someone to like them (and in which I caught a lot of shit for saying a few bands sucked without paragraphs of justification ), I spent nearly as much time investigating bullshit trends as I did attempting to listen to albums that were actually good. Making matters worse was the embarrassing coincidence of indie heroes from the Arcade Fire to James Mercer’s Broken Bells to Broken Social Scene to the Hold Steady — the Hold Steady! — making the most average, unexciting albums possible. And finally, while release dates have been a joke since Kid A leaked a decade ago, in 2010, a number of bands decided to start dropping albums on Bandcamp or Topspin or whatever whenever they damn well felt like it — which is great and progressive but also means I was stumbling into really good new records (Mighty Clouds! Summer Fiction!) days before putting this thing together. (it is also presumably the reason why the Dirty Projectors/Bjork mini-album did not blow everyone’s minds.)
All that said: If you like music, every year is a good year for music, and I’m happy to have sorted through a considerable amount of witch house, garage fuzz and indie R&B (pro tip: coming from Minneapolis does not make you Prince) to arrive at this very worthy top 50. One more word on rankings: this list is basically tallied by “How much do I want to listen to this album again when it is not actually on?,” a measure that skews toward three-minute pop songs and away from Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom ‘s occasionally brilliant self-indulgence marathons. Sorry, folks. O.K., enough preamble: here we go.
50. The Morning Benders – Big Echo | PHOTOS
49. Tame Impala – Innerspeaker | REVIEW
48. Local Natives – Gorilla Manor | PHOTOS
47, Gigi – Maintenant | REVIEW
46. Lucky Soul – A Coming Of Age
45. Jim O’Rourke – All Kinds of People ~ Love Burt Bacharach | REVIEW
44. Ben Folds/Nick Hornby – Lonely Avenue
43. The Soft Pack – The Soft Pack | REVIEW
42. Kisses – The Heart of the Nightlife | VIDEO | PHOTOS
41. Carl Hauck – Windjammer
40. Sky Larkin – Kaleide | VIDEO
39. Crushed Stars – Convalescing in Braille | REVIEW
38. Summer Fiction – Summer Fiction | REVIEW
37. LA Font – The American Leagues | REVIEW
36. Women – Public Strain | REVIEW
35. The School – Loveless Unbeliever | VIDEO
34. Sleigh Bells – Treats | REVIEW
33. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – Let It Sway | REVIEW | PHOTOS
32. Belle & Sebastian – Write About Love | PHOTOS
31. Laura Veirs – July Flame | REVIEW
30. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz / All Delighted People EP
Adz is one I felt particularly torn about — Stevens’ songs are as good as ever and his emotional assault here is hard to ignore, but an insultingly long run-time and a cynical, half-hearted transition into beat-making make it hard to give the energy it requires. Same for the All Delighted People EP, which stretches its Simon & Garfunkel-biting credibility with a second, eight-minute version of the title track in the middle of its 60 minutes. Come on, dude.
29. No Age – Everything In Between
As bands from the Velvet Underground to Sonic Youth to No Age have proven, marrying the edge of avant-garde noise and the accessibility of pop can be some Romeo and Juliet shit. But Everything in Between, if not quite the perfect match, offers molten bombast and capable melodies with equal ambition.
28. Toro Y Moi – Causers Of This
The funny thing about chillwave: If you didn’t read Forkcast this year (hi, Larry!), you’d probably have no idea the “genre” even existed. Toro Y Moi’s Causers of This, an album mostly influenced by hip-hop and house, was the only full-length of note to drop in the wake of the genre’s supposed coming-out party at SXSW and, by not actually sounding like chillwave, managed to be pretty great.
27. Mighty Clouds – Mighty Clouds
It bears remembering in this era of half-assed retro garage-pop that Saturday Looks Good To Me’s Fred Thomas and Betty Marie Barnes remain the king and queen of the genre. (Not the half-assed part, obviously.) Mighty Clouds is what the world’s most effortless pop songs sound like played, heroically, on a budget.
26. Pepper Rabbit – Beauregard
A combo platter of the band’s two EPs as well as a pair of new songs, Beauregard, a complex, involving set of Grizzly Bear folk mysticism and Mercury Rev day-dreaming, makes for a surprisingly fine album. “Red Wine” would’ve been on my best songs list, had it not appeared on 2009’s.
PHOTOS | MORE PHOTOS
25. Best Coast – Crazy For You
Despite being an Elliott Smith fan, lyrics aren’t the first thing I listen for in music — unless they’re particularly bad or bad, they actually tend to be the last. Best Coast makes kindergartners look like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but Crazy For You is carried by the inviting gloss of grunge-era guitar tones and pop hooks big enough to cut off Katy Perry’s head.
24. Rufus Wainwright – All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu
Wainwright’s ode to his late mother loses its balance when he starts setting Shakespeare sonnets to music, but oh, what music! Wainwright remains one of the finest singers we’ve got; this album finds him at his most wounded and sympathetic.
23. Summer Darling – Summer Darling
Reviving a profoundly unhip genre (EMO) may not be the easiest way to enter L.A.’s Echo Park scene, but Summer Darling’s debut exudes enough heavy beauty to trump synth-soaked trends.
VIDEO | REVIEW
21. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today
I could do without the half of this album that sounds like half-awake versions of “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” But the other half — the profoundly weird, wonderful set that includes “Can’t Hear My Eyes” and “Round and Round” — is probably the year’s best album.
REVIEW | PHOTOS
20. Baths – Cerulean
It’s rare that a mostly instrumental, beat-driven album holds my attention for long enough to add it to iTunes, but Cerulean, with hefty, hip-hop influence drums and a post-Postal Service sense of melody, is the exception — and an exceptional effort. Listen to this and Toro Y Moi back to back for the most emotional dance party of your life.
19. Allo Darlin’ – Allo Darlin’
Adorable cuts both ways — remember the nightmarish teddy-bear twee of I’m From Barcelona? — but Allo Darlin’ and its lovely debut offer sweet, goofy songs that will win your heart even as they make snide remarks about your ugly sweater party.
REVIEW | PHOTOS
18. Wild Nothing – Gemini
Like a C86 melody maker wound up and ready to play forever, Wild Nothing’s debut (and subsequent EP) embraces a beloved sound with songs worthy of its influences.
17. Sally Seltmann – Heart That’s Pounding
In a perfect world, Sally would be touring with Bacharach (or at least her pal Feist) and selling Taylor Swift numbers. Maybe it’s better that she’s not — we get to have all this perfect songwriter pop to ourselves a little longer.
PHOTOS | REVIEW | INTERVIEW | “Harmony to My Heartbeat”: mp3
16. The National – High Violet
Make no mistake, this is not a great National album: it’s missing Alligator‘s wry lyricism and angsty, album of the decade energy, as well as the diverse musicianship of Boxer. But, especially on vinyl, the craftsmanship is faultless and the band’s gloom remains as compelling as most bands’ joyful highs.
REVIEW | “Afraid of Everyone”: mp3
15. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid
There are few albums more purposefully ambitious this year than this one. (I can think of one, actually: Kanye West’s.) Monae switches from genre to genre with Bo Jackson athleticism and the through-line of a singularly astounding voice. That Monae is this young and this great already — and that the major label system is letting her be these things — may be the most inspiring thing to come from 2010.
14. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
Speaking of ambition: Newsom’s three-disc kiss-off to Bill Callahan does ultimately suffer from its length, but despite a number of uninvolving stretches that make me wish for the return of Van Dyke Parks, the highs are in the clouds and the singer’s narratives are unparalleled.
13. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
Like No Age, Deerhunter see both experimentation and melody as means to a single end. Halcyon Digest is their most fully formed offering, a record without a bad moment and with more than a few transcendent ones. They may be our next Radiohead yet.
12. Rose Elinor Dougall – Without Why
The former Pipette’s debut didn’t get much U.S. attention, but Britpop fans would do well to look across the pond for this one. Dougall’s new band draws on “Let Down”-era Radiohead as the singer herself echoes vintage Morrissey with a voice both wounded and elegant — revealing that Rosay may have been the Pipettes’ secret weapon all along.
REVIEW | PHOTOS
11. Dirty Projectors and Bjork – Mount Wittenberg Orca
As most of our favorite bands put out maybe the most anticipated collection ever of 3.5 star albums, Dirty Projectors followed up Bitte Orca — the 2009 album of the year — with a fearless mini-album that does for harmony what Inception did for dream sequences.
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