The Albums of 2010: Fifteen Favorites (From an Outstanding Year)

I imagine we’ve done this enough that a disclaimer is no longer necessary, but I offer one anyway: Lest there be any confusion, I claim no authority on which to pronounce the Best, or the Most Significant, albums of 2010. All I can offer are my selections for the ones I’ve kept coming back to– the records that have moved both heart and imagination, and in several cases the hind quarters as well. What a year of abundance it’s been– a year that convinced me of hip-hop as a genre towering higher and higher with creative vigor, of gospel and old spirituals as links to a shared history as strange and mysterious as the present, of legacy artists as those with the most left to tell us. Among my fifteen favorites I count a “folk opera,” a concept record about the environment, and a hip-hop album about hitting middle age. Of course, I’ve also got a Genesis frontman visiting the orchestra, Zeppelin’s golden god recasting indie rock as country/blues, and, naturally, Yeezy noodling around with the Autotune. These albums have blessed me tremendously already– and I suspect I’m only beginning to understand the extent of what they have to offer.

15. The Bad Plus
Never Stop

Another year, another Bad Plus album—and with each new record, the argument over what it means for jazz music—is it the music in its purest form? Or is it something else altogether?—seems exponentially less interesting. Oh, I suppose their first album of all originals muddies the waters more than ever—with nary a single left-field cover song in sight, it’s still the Bad Plus album with the most nods to jazz convention, and the one most prone to unorthodox flights of creative whimsy—but the men themselves seem far less concerned about this than they do knocking out a record of roaring, visceral thrills. And that’s why I love them. P.S.—Jazz record or not, the title song is one of the year’s hookiest pop songs.  Discuss.

14. Peter Gabriel
Scratch My Back

There were a few barbs traded over the entire Scratch My Back endeavor, but none of them came out of my living room. I love everything about this one: How it gracefully showcases the diverse colors of the orchestra, how it plays like a masters’ class in the malleability of great pop songwriting, how it makes a case for Gabriel as one of rock’s most souful interpretive singers. I love it too for what an unforeseen delight it turned out to be, the loosest and most un-Peter Gabriel-like album to ever be made by Peter Gabriel. He’s still restless, still an explorer, and the level of integrity he’s invested into this project suggests that he doesn’t particularly care to conduct his adventures on anyone’s terms but his own.

13. The Black Keys

Could’ve/should’ve been their White Blood Cells—and even if the indie kids didn’t quite catch on like they might have, I’d still call it their breakthrough. When last we heard from them the Keys had turned to Danger Mouse for a minor makeover, but here they turn within themselves—and when you’re as resourceful a band as this, why not? There’s a Howlin’ Wolf reference in the cover art and psychedelic shadings throughout, more than enough vintage references to cement their cred as a duo of considerable smarts and a record collection gilded in classic rock chic, but  what I really care about is that they’ve still got it where it counts: They play the hell out of this thing, stirring up a ruckus like they’re two kids banging around in a basement at the end of the block.

12. Grinderman
Grinderman 2

This one’s subversive, and no less profound because of it. These are high-minded concerns, spoken in dick jokes and crude come-ons; Cave and Co. seem at first to be laughing their way through a mid-life crisis, but the jokes is on anyone who thinks the crisis is anything less than a global pandemic, a scourge on manhood and marriage alike, or that Cave isn’t taking all of this stuff very seriously indeed. They’ve also gone a bit psychedelic on us, but here again, all these new textures only affect the telling, not the story itself—for all the colors they’ve added to their palette, they haven’t forgotten that noise is still the one they wear best.

11. Robert Plant
Band of Joy

I reckon this shouldn’t register as much of a surprise: Robert Plant—obsessive myth-seeker, and frequent myth-maker—plays fast and loose with the tropes of classic Americana, turning a couple of Low songs into backwoods incantations, a Richard Thompson song into weepy C&W, and some 60s pop nuggets into soulful gems that could have been written by the Beatles—or, written yesterday. Still: Just listen to this thing, especially after the lovely but relatively conservative Raising Sand, and try not to raise an eyebrow. Everything here—from the rolling thunder of the drums to Patty Griffin’s presence as spectral siren—is just a touch removed from the expected, and the album is all the more sublime because of it.

10. John Legend and the Roots
Wake Up!

I’ve heard this one called a “throwback,” but there’s nothing throwback about it. Legend and the Roots crew salvage politically-charged obscurities from the soul/R&B vaults and champion them as living, vital documents of concerns that are very much those of our present situation. That is both the point and the ultimate triumph of this record. Yeah, Brother ?uesto nails the sonics on all of the vintage-sounding stuff, but hip-hop adrenaline is never far removed from the equation; as far as covers albums go, this one’s remarkably streetwise. It’s also remarkably on balance: There are moments of pure, hippie-dippie idealism, and moments of abject, hopeless rage; there are protest songs and love songs, there’s grit and blues and the sweet, smooth strains of gospel. All of it’s necessary for pulling off a project so precarious, and all of it’s here, exerting its own right to our attention with just as much suavity and grace as it might have in 1969.

09. Mavis Staples
You Are Not Alone

Top to bottom, Mavis sets every one of these songs on fire—a holy fire, occasionally mixed with brimstone. Alongside the songs of sin and sadness, though, there are songs about hope and faith and community; it might have been “inspirational” music in the blandest sense of the term, but there’s nothing bland about an album mixed so perfectly with shades of humor and heartache, message music and personal testimony. I still can’t believe the thing moves so naturally from its opening Pop Staples reverb to the Sunday School sing-along of “Creep Along Moses,” only to end things on a sublimely bluesy tip. But I am increasingly credulous as to Jeff Tweedy’s stature as a producer of gospel-soul- or is it soul-gospel? Doesn’t matter; the way it all comes together here is a match made in heaven, and that’s doubly true for Tweedy and Mavis.

08. Gorillaz
Plastic Beach

How is it that an album so high on concept—a thematic record about environmental woes and consumerism gone mad, performed by Damon Albarn’s cartoon rock and roll troupe—works so splendidly as a collection of pristine pop pleasures? Maybe it’s all the deep references to pirate radio and The Who Sell Out: Like that record, this one hangs together on the strength of its narrative thread but the real joy is in the simple, ragged joy of the songwriting and the performances. I love that this one takes so many views on its central conceits, swinging so gracefully between sadness and humor both cheerful and black, each guest performer so perfectly chosen to breath his or her character to life, everything united by Albarn’s whipsmart pop instincts, hooky as ever even in a hip-hop and club-oriented context. In a way, it’s a nice mirror image to some of those great Blur albums; where Parklife sought to reclaim lad culture from a sea of faceless nationalism, this one’s about rescuing shared humanity from the corrosive effects of modernism. It’s a more ambitious project, and, to my ears, an even greater achievement.

07. Anais Mitchell

“Ambition” has been the watchword for so many of the albums on this list, and in many ways I’m inclined to say that Mitchell’s is the most ambitious of them all—a “folk opera” that recasts the myth of Orpheus as a sort of sociopolitical allegory for the America of the Great Depression and the America of today, it’s literally an album unlike any other. But that is neither its greatest achievement nor the source of its pleasure; I, for one, keep coming back to it because the songs are so good, kicking up just the right amount of dust and finding weathered authenticity in the period details. And I love that it isn’t primarily a screed, but a tale of love and morality: I’ve read any number of interpretations of “Why We Build the Wall,” as a metaphor of everything from economic division to conflict in the Middle East, but no matter how you slice it the record cuts deep as an unflinching meditation on trying to do the right thing, even when the chips are down.

06. Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

At first I felt like Kanye wasn’t doing enough to bridge the gap between Hip-Hop and Art, but whenever I get to “Lost in the World,” the concern is immediately dropped. Who else would splice together a Bon Iver tune with a Gil Scott-Heron recital and underpin it with a jungle beat that’s totally bangin’? In terms of sheer audacity, there’s none like him. This album is many things—an event, a blockbuster, an already-legendary 10.0—but mostly I think it’s a triumph of self-expression. I’ve never heard any artist, in any idiom, so skillfully reinterpret his past as something so rooted in the present, or so heroically convert every one of his weaknesses into a feat of incredible creative strength.

05. Elvis Costello
National Ransom

You can say what you will about Elvis Costello—that he’s lost some of his edge thanks to a decade or more of writing operas and singing with jazz orchestras—but National Ransom gives us a Costello who’s as sharp as ever. What’s more, the album’s razor edge is not in spite of, but precisely because of its sophistication, its literary scope, its historical awareness and its integration of everything Costello’s done since he was first playing the pubs. So yes, the title song could almost have fit on an early Attractions date. But he also pens parlor tunes and nightclub jaunts, country shuffles and string band jams. In the last song, he even does a little bit of the ol’ soft shoe—but if the apocalyptic omens and prophetic overtones are any indication, he’s still pushing as hard as ever.

04. Aaron Neville
I Know I’ve Been Changed

Simplicity speaks powerfully to Truth. As a producer, Joe Henry understands that better than anybody; his approach is to throw a bunch of studio pros into a room together and stay out of the way while they make something really special, something spirited and spontaneous and alive. When it’s all done, the man looks like a genius just for leaving well enough alone. He brings Allen Toussaint on board for this record, which essentially does for gospel music what his Solomon Burke album did for soul: It strips away the inessential and reminds us of the power this music has always held. I don’t know that much needs to be said about the singer or the songs. It’s Aaron Neville—voice as sweet and soulful as ever—and a bunch of spirituals that have weathered the ages. And they’re presented just as they should be: Without distraction.

03. Elizabeth Cook

The first three songs almost play out as the album in microcosm. “All the Time” is an ass-whoopin’, barroom anthem, a sure-thing country radio hit if only there were any justice in Nashville. It symbolizes everything that makes country music great. “El Camino,” on the other hand, strips away the country conventions and turns our preconceptions of roots music on their head. And then there’s “Not California”—a folksy power ballad that swells with emotion and doesn’t seem to give a shit whether we want to call it “country music” or not. But things only get more daring from there: Cook proves her love of country tradition over and over, but songs like “Heroin Addict Sister” prove that she isn’t beholden to it, because no one else is writing songs like that these days. This is a hilarious and heartbreaking album that flaunts and then shatters roots music standards, and as such it is, quite frankly, the most idiosyncratic and wonderfully personal country album I’ve heard in a decade or more.

02. Big Boi
Sir Lucious Leftfoot: The Son of Chico Dusty

It took me a while to figure it out, stacked as this album is with killer singles, but I’ve come to think of “The Back-Up Plan” as a break-up song, of sorts—only, the object of General Patton’s jilting is the rap game itself. He still loves her, to be sure, and probably always will… but these days, she just can’t keep up. Sir Lucious is an album made by a man who isn’t interested in running the rap game so much as he knows that he’s outpaced it; ironically, it’s also something of a throwback to the genre’s most foundational virtues, not to cult-of-personality rapping but to the sheer, giddy joy of the sound of words and their innate sense of rhythm. As a words man, I confess that I find that to be pretty irresistible. By the way, I do have a slight preference for this record over Kanye’s, and I think it’s largely because Yeezy seems to be working so very hard, both to entertain us and to prove his mettle, while Big Boi knows that he doesn’t really need to. He’s a master of his craft, and this is an album-length display of mesmerizing vocal dexterity and incredible showmanship. Those are things that speak for themselves.

01. The Roots
How I Got Over

Early in the new Roots album, Black Thought laments a sad possibility– that perhaps “the light shines once in a lifetime.” As in, only once. A couple songs later, though, he gets his fight back: “The light comes in different types/ Be more specific!” It’s a powerful moment, and the emotion is earned. To boot, it’s earned the old-fashioned way: Through an exquisitely-crafted, nine-song set of luxuriously soulful, groove-oriented hip-hop numbers, through perfectly-sequenced record-making and economical songcraft. In many ways, this is a very different rap album than the others that hit so big this year, arguably not even a straight rap record at all– where Big Boi and Kanye employed the sheen of modernity, The Roots crew opts for vintage warmth; instead of club-ready rap, they spike their hip-hop with flavors of indie rock, but the whole thing sounds more than anything like a soul record; and instead of sprawling ambition, this is an album of deliberate succinctness. And yet, I think it’s an album that matches anything else released this year in terms of its ambition– and not just because it’s so doggedly out-of-step with current trends. This stuff is artful and profound, the product of what has historically been a youth-dominated idiom that here turns its attention to the crises of middle age, to growing up and coping with changes that aren’t always good. They’ve called it an album for a “post-hope” era, but it’s hardly hopeless; on the contrary, this is a soul-stirring, moral wake-up call, an album-length argument for perseverance as a good and noble thing, worth striving for in and of itself.


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3 responses to “The Albums of 2010: Fifteen Favorites (From an Outstanding Year)”

  1. Matt Conner says :

    beautiful list man. love it. mine would look different in several ways, but I love your descriptions and effort here. nice work. i agree, it’s a great year for music.

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