In many ways, 2010 was the year of the bold mission statement; of musicians who emerged from seclusion and long absences to make grandiose statements about everything from the suburbs (Arcade Fire's The Suburbs) to one man's complex relationship with himself and the world around him (Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). The year's biggest albums were, well, big: Even Sufjan Stevens obscured his winsome laments in a crazy quilt of electronic clatter.
For me, that created a tricky challenge when it came time to compile my annual list of the 10 albums I loved most — never to be confused with "best," which has more to do with consensus than catharsis. Because, while my two favorite albums of 2010 weren't exactly strangers to bigness, I still tend to gravitate toward records that roll around in relatable emotions. Grandiosity is generally easier for me to admire than to fully embrace, so I found myself poking around the margins for favorites a little more than usual.
As always, I dearly hope you find a discovery nestled in these 10 selections. And, of course, please feel free to leave your thoughts, recommendations and angry screeds in the comments section below.
1. Jonsi, Go
Though its name has become synonymous with atmospherically eccentric beauty, Sigur Ros has taken steps to find its quirky, joyful side in recent years. But it took a side project called Jonsi — technically a band led by singer Jon Thor Birgisson, who prefers not to be addressed as "Jonsi" — to dump out Birgisson's endlessly surprising toy-box of exhilarating ideas. Go showcases plenty of swirling ballads to balance out relentlessly ingratiating thrillers like "Go Do" and "Boy Lilikoi," but the net result is the year's most life-affirmingly sweet, unexpectedly sunny gem. (Hear "Go Do" here.)
2. The National, High Violet
Judged against its breathtaking predecessor, 2007's Boxer, The National's High Violet couldn't help but suffer, however slightly. Judged against everything else that came out this year — and given the benefit of months to sink in and reveal its genius — High Violet feels an awful lot closer to an outright masterpiece. The National is often lauded for its ability to capture the tension and ennui of modern life, while still crafting a sound bold enough to fill stadiums. But what really stands out about the band, besides the beauty of its arrangements, is singer Matt Berninger's ability to evoke real-world feelings in a way that feels genuinely cathartic. When he sings, "I don't have the drugs to sort it out," the sentiment feels both personal and emblematic of a larger world where problems can't be solved with pills alone. (Hear "Bloodbuzz Ohio" here.)
3. Horse Feathers, Thistled Spring
The first minute of Thistled Spring is as exquisitely lovely as any 60 seconds of music this year, and that's before Justin Ringle has begun lending his simultaneously comforting and disconcerted voice to the mix. If Horse Feathers' ingredients were listed in order of their prominence, strings and portent would be right at the top, but Ringle's soft croon keeps Thistled Spring grounded in genuine grace. He may sing of "a blossom that's bloomed / a house that's a tomb," but he's also peddling comfort food, to be washed down with an ice-cold glass of sweet tea. (Hear "Thistled Spring" here.)
4. Jeremy Messersmith, The Reluctant Graveyard
The phrase "worthy heir to the power-pop throne long held by Fountains of Wayne" and the phrase "concept album about death" don't usually appear in the same sentence, but here we are. Minneapolis singer-songwriter Jeremy Messersmith closes out his self-released "life-cycle trilogy" with an absolute corker of a record, full of songs that sparkle and shine while Messersmith examines the personae of dead gangsters, casket salesmen and others who traffic in life after life. But for goodness' sake, don't be put off by the concept: The Reluctant Graveyard is an immensely sweet string of infectious pop ringers. As colorfully as they shine, these songs could just as easily be about rainbows or suncatchers. (Hear "Violet!" here.)
5. Sharon Van Etten, Epic
She may be a shy, unassuming singer-songwriter, but don't let Sharon Van Etten lull you into low expectations: She can take tiny moments and seemingly insignificant details and absolutely level you with them. On Epic, Van Etten fleshes out the intimate arrangements of last year's devastating Because I Was in Love, roughing up her voice for pop-rock gems and otherwise asserting herself as a formidable frontwoman. But then she closes the seven-song album by unfurling an absolute stunner, in which she turns her darkest moments and blackest memories into a tiny mantra: "Love More." (Hear "Don't Do It" here.)
6. Eau Claire Memorial Jazz I Featuring Justin Vernon, A Decade With Duke
For a band that didn't put out an album this year, Bon Iver was everywhere in 2010. Drummer S. Carey made a fine solo album. Singer Justin Vernon appeared in a supergroup called Gayngs, played a prominent role on Anais Mitchell's ambitious Hadestown, swapped covers with Peter Gabriel and even appeared on Kanye West's new record. But the pinnacle is this soul-nourishing live album Vernon recorded with the Eau Claire Memorial High School jazz ensemble in Wisconsin. Not content to promote his musician pals in Gayngs and Volcano Choir, Vernon also wanted to help his old school raise money for a field trip, so he returned to his hometown to record a wonderful assortment of Bon Iver songs and standards, frequently ceding the spotlight to his talented successors at Memorial. Before performing the mesmerizing standard "Satisfied Mind," during which he channels Jeff Buckley as both a singer and a guitarist, Vernon sums up his humbly winning worldview, letting the song explain "what it's like to be human, to be humble to be where we're from." His benefactors are lucky to have him, but he seems grateful himself. The sentiment is infectious. (Hear "Satisfied Mind" here.)
7. Titus Andronicus, The Monitor
It's been a great year for New Jersey rock 'n' roll, all suitable for blaring through car stereos on turnpikes. The Gaslight Anthem's American Slang is a terrific slab of Springsteenian odes to fading youth, but even better is The Monitor, Titus Andronicus' messy, monster sprawl of a concept album. Name-checking not only its favorite musicians — including Bruce Springsteen, naturally — but also the history of the Civil War, The Monitor finds room for back-to-back nine-minute anthems, a 14-minute album-closer and several historical speeches. All, of course, while rocking spectacularly. (Hear "A More Perfect Union" here.)
8. Stars, The Five Ghosts
The string-infused opening moments of The Five Ghosts send Stars down an unfamiliar path: The band's obsessions revolve around interpersonal conflict, not lost souls rattling around mysteriously in the afterlife. But, of course, the latter is merely a metaphor for the former, and the group spends the remainder of The Five Ghosts crafting charmingly fizzy dance-pop songs about the way our mistakes and missteps linger long after they're forgotten. For all the supernatural drama — sample song title: "I Died So I Could Haunt You" — Stars' music remains as earthbound, emotionally weighty and unmistakably beautiful as ever. (Hear "Dead Hearts" here.)
9. Regina Carter, Reverse Thread
Jazz violinists don't often surface on the pop-cultural radar, particularly for indie-rock-loving mopes like myself, but Regina Carter put out a wonderfully evocative record in Reverse Thread. Recorded with the help of accordionist Will Holshouser and kora player Yacouba Sissoko, among others, these songs fuse jazz with African melodies, resulting in a sound that's invariably breezy, fresh and worldly. Reverse Thread evokes all sorts of places I've ever been, but it never fails to take me there anyway. (Hear "N'Teri" here.)
10. The Heligoats, Goodness Gracious
The Heligoats' Chris Otepka doesn't write songs so much as he stuffs them with ideas until they brim over with imagination. Take "Fish Sticks," from the sublime Goodness Gracious: It's about a guy who escapes the day-to-day grind by building a biosphere in a swamp, only to learn that the swamp-dwellers view him as an outsider, too. As Otepka's intellectually curious observations whiz by, it takes a while to sink in that the singer has an awful lot to say about the way escape routes often lead back to where they began. Like his friend and frequent tour-mate Eef Barzelay — whose band Clem Snide also released a fine album in 2010 — Otepka has a way of writing sideways, so that the poignancy hits harder when it inevitably arrives. (Hear "Fish Sticks" here.)