After taking almost the entire year to carefully consider the music that would appear on this list, I'm now ready to reveal my favorite records of the year—and not a day too soon. 2010 was another corker as far as music goes, but I feel as if I've been saying that every year for a while now. The truth is, I listened to more things this year than ever before, and while I loved quite a bit of it, the records on this list are the standouts that truly stuck with me. So here they are, my favorite albums of 2010 listed alphabetically by artist.
Write About Love - Belle and Sebastian
It's probably bad form to call Write About Love Belle and Sebastian's comeback record—they never really left or went on hiatus, it just took four years between releases. However, even for a group who practically wrote the book on twee indie-pop, the musical landscape of 2010 is a far cry from that of 2006. This makes the fact that Belle and Sebastian haven't really changed one bit all the more delightful. They're still complaining about their day-jobs ("Write About Love") and making grandiose demands ("I Want the World to Stop") atop the bouncing strains of catchy, upbeat arrangements. "Make me dance/I want to surrender," croons Stuart Murdoch on the record's opening track—it's hard to come up with a better summation than that.
Brothers - The Black Keys
I've always been a strong proponent of the Black Keys—much like myself, they're Ohio boys with a penchant for the blues. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that I think that Brothers is their strongest effort since Rubber Factory. This record finds the duo melding the raw sound of their earlier recordings with the production values of their latter-day output—a near-perfect balance of old and new with a cohesive direction. Whether it's the swirling organ and earnest falsetto present on "The Only One" or the bellowing low-end of "Howlin' For You," Brothers proves that the Akron twosome still have a few tricks up their collective sleeve.
Black Sands - Bonobo
There's at least one album I put on my list each year that I feel I really have no right talking about. I'd never heard of Bonobo (British producer Simon Green) until this record fell into my lap earlier this year, but his orchestral trip-hop arrangements instantly made me a fan. Black Sands is an electronic album planted firmly in the analog world, buoyed by a seemingly classically trained ear for melody that transcends the hook-obsessed state of modern electronic music. The danceable beats of "Kiara" and "1009" stand shoulder to shoulder with the meticulously composed instrumentals of "El Toro" and the record's title track. It's a juxtaposition that requires delicate control, but one that Green pulls off successfully and to great effect.
Forgiveness Rock Record - Broken Social Scene
For the sprawling Canadian collective's fourth act, the group traveled to Chicago to record with John McEntire at Soma studios. The result is another art-rock opus featuring an ample cast of players and guests. For a band that has split off in so many different directions in the years since their last record-proper, it's refreshing to hear all these people bringing their influences into the fold and playing off each other in the same place. The variety is key, bouncing from anthemic Kevin Drew-fronted numbers like "World Sick" and "Forced to Love" to the soft trills of Lisa Lobsinger on "All to All" to Emily Haines' decidedly subdued "Sentimental X's." McEntire's production work negates any sonic disparity, making for an album bound together by an intense love of music in all its permutations.
Halcyon Digest - Deerhunter
For a person such as myself who has always been intrigued with bits and pieces of each subsequent Deerhunter and Atlas Sound release, Halcyon Digest is the perfect blend of both projects' at-times disparate sensibilities. Under the direction of maestro Bradford Cox, the group takes their usual shoegaze-y sound and injects it with a bit more of the pop spirit of Cox's solo work. The result is a record that doesn't sound drastically different from the band's previous efforts, but one with many more memorable moments—be it the sax solo on "Coronado" or the synth-heavy repose of "Helicopter". Under the watchful eye of producer Ben Allen, it all comes together in a way that injects new life into the weird and wonderful melodies this group is capable of.
Tommy - Dosh
What is there left to say about an album and artist that I've gushed about for the better part of this past year? Dosh's latest loop-filled release keeps the creative wheels turning, resulting in a record that holds new surprises at every turn. There's the fast-paced collage of an opener "Subtractions," which seems to throw in just about every trick in the book. Just down the line is the atmospheric "Airlift," which I suppose you could peg as Dosh's contribution to the 'chillwave' fad. Closing out the record is "Gare de Lyon," an expansive and fitting tribute to the album's namesake—the late soundman Tom Cesario. Tommy is a portrait of an artist putting familiar tools to new tasks, all the while finding new ways to excite and amaze.
Skit I Allt - Dungen
I like to think that Dungen's latest record was conceived in a haze of pot smoke, amid stacks of Camel and King Crimson records. From the sound of it, my assessment can't be far from the truth, as the Sweden-based outfit's record is another slightly stoned take on the '70s prog-rock sound. Ringleader Gustav Ejstes populates each track with a sense of nostalgic wonder, drawing from a palette of fuzzed-out guitars, percussive organs and trilling flute. As should be the case, there is no lack of distinct and memorable melodies, evident on tracks like "Skit I Allt" and "Marken Lag Stilla". As indebted to their forbearers as this collection of songs may be, on this record Dungen lovingly crafts the sound into something that nearly transcends that association.
Cosmogramma - Flying Lotus
On his sprawling sci-fi, jazz-tinged, hip-hop exploration, LA best scene producer and musician Steven Ellison creates one of the most alluring pieces of art to come out this generation's liberal cut-and-paste mentality. Flirting with everything from oriental melodies to sweeping orchestral overtures, FlyLo layers entirely disparate sounds between ample helpings of glitchy synths and sporadic beats resulting in a unique blend of classical and modern sensibilities. It's an interstellar voyage from start to finish, never dwelling on one musical thought for too long and packing in appearances from folks like Thom Yorke and Ravi Coltrane. That it succeeds is a credit to Ellison's off-beat musical mind, but its unlikely cohesion is something akin to magic.
What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood - The Mynabirds
Laura Burhenn set out to make a modern Motown masterpiece, and with the help of producer Richard Swift, she succeeded. What We Lose in the Fire is the kind of record that oozes with soul, bouyed forward by Burhenn's awe-inspiring voice and pitch-perfect instrumentation. The slow-burning opening track sets the mood, augmenting a fairly simple arrangement with accents like a swirling organ and glistening horn section. "Numbers Don't Lie" sounds like some long lost Motown 45, preserved in all its dusty, jangly glory. It's a hodge-podge of influences and call-backs but a record that manages to pay its dues while still offering something all its own.
High Violet - The National
Maturation is a natural part of life—even bands do it, and on the Nationals latest release you can hear them doing just that. High Violet is a record bereft of the sonic energy found on Alligator and portions of Boxer, replaced instead with an earnest serenity befitting of Matt Berninger's calm baritone delivery. That's not to say that the group's penchant for big musical moments has dissipated entirely, as tracks like "Terrible Love" and "Afraid of Everyone" deliver those in spades. However, more subdued cuts such as "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and "Runaway" come away as being the most memorable—perfect showcases for the kind of refined instrumentation the band has become known for. Growing up—hard as it may be—has never sounded this good.
One Of Us - Pomegranates
A couple of minutes into the opening title-track of this record, it becomes abundantly clear that Pomegranates have struck upon a sound that is uniquely their own. It's a moment they've been building towards ever since the reverb-drenched strains of their 2008 debut, but on One of Us, it all solidifies into something undeniably magnificent. Shifting from the psychedelic stomp of songs like "50's" and "Prouncer" to the subdued ambiance of "White Fawn" and "Venus," the group strikes a balance between energetic release and calculated poise. In between the space-y atmospherics are songs that transcend their trappings and a band reveling in a strain of pop-rock that sounds like no one else.
White Noise Bed - Santah
I forget exactly how I felt when I discovered the awful truth about Santa, but I'll never forget how I felt upon first hearing the excellent debut release from a band called Santah. The young group of players turn in a record that sounds wise beyond their years—a brilliantly cohesive folk-rock statement rife with moments of sheer musical bliss. It would be tempting to say that it's all the brainchild of frontman Stanton McConnell, but the growling organ care of Tommy Trafton and firmly anchored bass lines of Otto Giovanni betray this as an intensely collaborative undertaking. It's a record that ebbs and flows but never dips in quality, making for some of the year's most enthralling listening.
Happy New Year!