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 Sufjan Stevens, Sleigh Bells, Mavis Staples and more artists from S to Z.
NPR Music's 50 Favorite Albums Of 2010: S-W
An Unending Repentance
Christian Scott, 'Yesterday You Said Tomorrow'
Song: An Unending Repentance
Christian Scott may be one of the world's most gifted young trumpeters, but what first stands out about Yesterday You Said Tomorrow is Matthew Stevens' distinctive approach on the guitar. Stevens' work exemplifies the boundary-pushing nature of Scott's work, which extends to covers that stretch well beyond jazz. (Check out his take on "The Eraser," from Radiohead's Thom Yorke, for further evidence.) It takes a bright and perceptive young artist to give ballads the proper amount of time, space and freedom, and in "Isadora," the results are as thoughtful as they are artful. (Rob Crocker, WBGO)
Gil Scott-Heron has been away from music for some time, during a long stretch spent tending to personal demons and legal issues. I'm New Here marks a hugely compelling return. The songs radiate reflection and acceptance, backed by a wide range of electronic and trip-hop beats. Along the way, the record recognizes Scott-Heron's long-standing influence on hip-hop, while serving as a fine introduction to his genius for new fans. (Russ Borris, WFUV)
The genre-defying debut album from Sleigh Bells incorporates a cappella choruses ("Run the Heart"), heavy-handed drum-machine beats ("Tell 'Em") and screaming rap verses ("Infinity Guitars"). The duo of Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller attracted snowballing buzz last year -- before they'd even released any music together -- and Treats is the impressive product of their unlikely pairing. Krauss' voice remains rooted in her pop past, while Miller's guitars rehash riffs from his days with the Florida hardcore band Poison the Well. Appropriately titled, Treats is instantly gratifying, with the pair taking what they like from pop and hardcore and leaving the rest behind. (David Safar, The Current)
While 2008's Esperanza was a commercial success, Chamber Music Society pulls off an impressive feat: It finds Esperanza Spalding progressing artistically and expanding on her own style. Vocals, be it from Spalding or one of her guests, have become a participating instrument rather than the focal point of her songs. Each composition and musician seems painstakingly crafted and handpicked, allowing each piece here to play like a chapter from an expertly plotted book rather than individual tracks with little to no common bond. (Kevin Kniestedt, KPLU)
The female baritone is a rare species, scarcer even than the good-looking drummer, but a voice does not make an icon. That requires a place in history, a rich recorded legacy and influence that reaches for generations. Mavis Staples has earned the importance she exudes in You Are Not Alone. Guided by the brilliant production of Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, she mixes triumphant gospel and evocative blues, infusing each with hard-won wisdom. Easy answers aren't offered here; only honest optimism, an invaluable resource in crises personal and national. (Erik Myers)
When Sufjan Stevens released Illinois in 2005, it was easy to believe that the prolific singer-songwriter might actually get around to writing a record for every state. It was a lofty if unlikely project, but it was fun to imagine what places Stevens might tackle next. Instead, for the most part, he fell silent. But Stevens returned in a big way in 2010, releasing an album-length EP (All Delighted People) and following it with The Age of Adz, on which he eschews many of his musical signatures -- the crisp banjo melodies, the sweeping instrumental arrangements, the wispy vocals -- for glitchy beats, bit-crunched synths and filtered vocals. Still, as much as the palette has been deconstructed and changed, it's a sound that's as dense and ornately orchestrated as ever. As always, at the center of Stevens' sonic experimentation is his way with melodies and themes that reveal themselves slowly. With so much to process, The Age of Adz works as a bold statement from an artist unafraid to push himself beyond his musical comfort zone. (Mike Katzif)
Though The Tallest Man on Earth is but a solitary guy -- and not a very tall one at that -- Kristian Matsson creates a deep, full, stirring sound that's powerful enough to leave the listener feeling like the only person on earth. Matsson is often blessed/cursed with comparisons to Bob Dylan, but his gifts are his own: The Wild Hunt gets straight to the heart of powerful emotions with remarkable concision. Matsson's gorgeous but unpolished voice and keen understanding of the human condition make The Wild Hunt an alternately soothing and bracing companion through life's changing seasons. (Sarah Ventre)
Want a challenge? Try to listen to the second album from Glen Rock, N.J.-based Titus Andronicus without counting references. Forget the loosely set Civil War framing device. Ignore tweaked quotes from Billy Bragg, Bruce Springsteen and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." What's left? Nine-minute songs, strangled vocals and guitar solos that make you wish you could plug a distortion pedal into your jaw so you could do them justice when you hum along. The Monitor is a noisy, ambitious album about the frenzy of youth teetering on the edge of adulthood, made by a group of kids with as much knowledge as learning, who care equally about craft and feeling, and who are ready to lead anyone willing to get behind them, if only in a drunken sing-along. With lyrics stuffed full of tragic jokes, wry asides and hyper-literate historical references, that other noise you hear is followers getting in line. (Jacob Ganz)
While many singer-songwriters dole out painfully obvious details about their own heartache, Sharon Van Etten writes and sings about the world she inhabits with beautiful and uncertain curiosity. Her songs are heartfelt without seeming overly earnest, her poetry is plainspoken but not overt, and her voice is elegant but wrapped in enough rasp and sorrow to keep from sounding too pure or confident. I'll be reaching for Epic to give my cold black heart a jolt for years to come. (Robin Hilton)
A sweepingly ambitious album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy features a star-studded cast of guests -- Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Raekwon, Alicia Keys, Drake, RZA, Nicki Minaj, Bon Iver, John Legend -- each of whom only heightens the songs' power. For all his attention-grabbing public exploits, West maintains his impeccable attention to detail throughout, from his slightly off-key singing in "Dark Fantasy" to the dazzling rhythms in "Hell of a Life." Functioning as both an egomaniac and a contrite confessor -- often in the same breath -- West makes it hard to keep the art and the artist separate. But My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is too powerful, messy and triumphant for anything else to get in the way. (Bruce Warren, WXPN)