50 Favorites: From Alexander Melnikov To Kermit Ruffins

These are the 50 albums we enjoyed the most in 2010 — the ones that inspired us, surprised us and stayed with us more than any others. The list of our 50 favorite records of the year continues with Jason Moran, Janelle Monae, The National and more artists from M to R.

NPR Music's 50 Favorite Albums Of 2010: M-R

album art for Alexander Melnikov

Alexander Melnikov, 'Shostakovich'

  • Song: Preludes & Fugues (24), for piano, Op. 87 [Fugue No. 1 in C major. Moderato (4-voice)]

Inspired by J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his own set of Preludes and Fugues in 1950. The Soviet composer wrote the music for his compatriot pianist Tatiana Nikolaeva, whose recordings were considered the benchmark for decades. But now, with Alexander Melnikov's recording, we have a new contender for the crown of this marvelous but misunderstood music. Melnikov unlocks the poetry, violence and virtuosity of this gigantic 150-minute set, which in many places sounds nothing like the prickly, sarcastic music we often associate with Shostakovich. This Prelude and Fugue is a perfect example, with its playful, rippling figures. (Tom Huizenga)

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Song
Preludes & Fugues (24), for piano, Op. 87 [Fugue No. 1 in C major. Moderato (4-voice)]
Album
Shostakovich: The Preludes and Fugues
Artist
Alexander Melnikov
Label
Harmonia Mundi

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album art for Janelle Monae

Janelle Monae, 'The ArchAndroid'

  • Song: Tightrope

A fresh face with instant star quality and a boundless capacity to surprise, Janelle Monae seems destined for greatness. Armed with quiet confidence and a gift for calculated unpredictability, Monae built The ArchAndroid -- the second and third "suites" of a larger work -- around an alter ego named Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling messiah figure to a community of androids. Inspired by Fritz Lang's 1927 silent film Metropolis, Monae seems to operate in another universe altogether: Assembling a spellbinding mixture of hip-hop, neo-soul, R&B, psychedelic rock, dance and electronic music, she's part musical genius, part mad scientist. (Melanie Walker, The Current)

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Song
Tightrope
Album
ArchAndroid
Artist
Janelle Monáe
Label
Bad Boy
Released
2010

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album art for 'Ten'

Jason Moran, 'Ten'

  • Song: Crepuscule with Nellie

As a composer, jazz pianist Jason Moran is known as a conceptualist, drawing from contemporary visual art and assorted clippings from the entirety of recorded sound. It's a big reason why the MacArthur Foundation named him a Fellow earlier this year. But as with, say, Kanye West, Moran's amassed cultural capital transforms to magic on a visceral, head-nodding level. That's what makes Ten, recorded with his decade-old trio The Bandwagon, possibly his best recording yet. It simply documents items the band has been honing on stage in recent years, making abstract slashes sound down-home bluesy, disassembly sound constructive and jazz history sound funky. This band takes a surfeit of heady ideas and hits you in the gut with them. (Patrick Jarenwattananon)

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Song
Crepuscule with Nellie
Album
Ten
Artist
Jason Moran
Released
2010

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Cover for Mientras Tú Dormías

Carla Morrison, 'Mientras Tú Dormías'

  • Song: Compartir

I first heard a track from Mientras Tu Dormias five months before its release, and it was light, ethereal and passionate -- it haunted me until the full album was released. It's full of material that lives up to my initial impressions and then some. English is Carla Morrison's first language, but she's chosen to sing in Spanish, while musically she reflects the bicultural life of many Latinos living in this country: acoustic guitars, electronica soundscapes, hints of Mexican and other Latin cultures. Morrison reflects the promise of Latin Alternative players to bend genres and create new approaches to music. (Felix Contreras)

album art for 'High Violet'

The National, 'High Violet'

  • Song: Bloodbuzz Ohio

For an album reflecting the darkness and simmering anger in American life, The National's High Violet skirts full-on doom and gloom thanks to shimmering melodies and Matt Berninger's gift for infusing his words with humor and even the occasional ray of hope. As impeccable as High Violet's music is, and as emotionally devastating as these songs can be -- "I never thought about love when I thought about home," Berninger sings in "Bloodbuzz Ohio" -- The National never loses its grip on fragile beauty. (John Richards, KEXP)

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Song
Bloodbuzz Ohio
Album
High Violet
Artist
National
Label
4AD
Released
2010

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album art for 'Heartland'

Owen Pallett, 'Heartland'

  • Song: Lewis Takes Off His Shirt

After four years of looking the other way, the videogame company Square Enix finally confronted Toronto composer and violinist Owen Pallett last December about his use of the moniker Final Fantasy. It was a blessing in disguise: It forced Pallett to stick his own name on (what I think is) 2010's greatest album, the fantastical song cycle Heartland. In the works since 2006, the record is a seamless hybrid of classical and electronic orchestration unlike anything I've heard. Pallett composed and arranged the pieces, then enlisted the Czech Philharmonic to bring them to life. Combined with Pallett's surprising tenor, the production is so transportive that Heartland's narrative -- a metaphysical adventure starring a farmer named Lewis -- feels almost incidental. (Otis Hart)

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Song
Lewis Takes Off His Shirt
Album
Heartland
Artist
Owen Pallett
Label
Domino
Released
2010

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album art for 'Verdi Arias'

Sondra Radvanovsky, 'Verdi Arias'

  • Song: Il trovatore : Act I: Tace la notte!

It's no stretch to say that the American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky is one of the great Verdi singers of this generation. Her voice is instantly recognizable -- bright and full at the same time, and perfect for bel canto singing. She soars through her upper registers in full voice with no discernible effort. This debut record of all Verdi material has earned her gushing reviews. The aria "Tacea la notte placida" shows Radvanovsky in one of her signature roles, Leonora from Il Trovatore. This is a recording I'll still want to hear in 50 years, though the audio format remains to be seen. (Ashalen Sims)

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Song
Il trovatore : Act I: Tace la notte!
Album
Verdi Arias
Artist
Sondra Radvanovsky
Label
Delos
Released
2010

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album art for Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter, 'So Runs The World Away'

  • Song: Rattling Locks

Josh Ritter's songwriting adventures on So Runs the World Away surprised even this avid fan. You can hear what I love about Ritter in "Rattling Locks," in which he doesn't just take one idea and milk it for all it's worth. Instead, his ideas take on a life of their own: Just follow the percussion line or the bursting guitars until, later on, he hits those blistering words, "All along, I thought I was giving you my love, but you were just stealin' it / and now I want it back." Ritter doesn't make music that sticks close to fashion; he makes music that sticks in the gut and doesn't let go. (Bob Boilen)

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Song
Rattling Locks
Album
So Runs the World Away
Artist
Josh Ritter
Label
Pytheas
Released
2010

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album art for Body Talk

Robyn, 'Body Talk'

  • Song: Dancing on My Own

Dance-pop dominated 2010, and some of the smartest, danciest and most heartfelt songs came from Swedish pop artist Robyn. By releasing three albums on her Konichiwa record label (Body Talk combines the best tracks from Body Talk Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 with new material), she successfully fed a singles-hungry industry and kept her music relevant throughout most of the year. She also kept listeners dancing with cathartic, touch-the-sky anthems and darkly sexy experimentation. Robyn expertly subverts an over-the-top commercial genre, infusing it with bittersweet intimacy and hopeless romanticism. Her irresistible choruses and unabashed commitment make her the ideal bearer of a grand pop tradition carried by self-assured, singularly named blondes. Let's hope she matches their massive success in 2011. (Amy Schriefer)

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album art for Kermit Ruffins

Kermit Ruffins, 'Happy Talk'

  • Song: I Got A Treme Woman

If you're a fan of the HBO series Tremé, you're already familiar with trumpeter and singer Kermit Ruffins. In the New Orleans-based show, he's a passionate, talented musician, entertainer and barbecue master who lives, breathes and eats all things New Orleans. He's the same character in real life, so a bit of acting is hardly a stretch. Ruffins' latest album celebrates traditional New Orleans jazz with his own style -- uplifting and fun, yet relaxed at the same time. He always aims to make listeners smile, get up and dance, and Happy Talk is sure to have you doing just that. (Shaunna Morrison Machosky, WDUQ)

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Song
I Got A Treme Woman
Album
Happy Talk
Artist
Kermit Ruffins
Label
Basin Street

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