LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This week, we're taking a look at the music of 2010, and some of the trends.The year saw CD sales continue to plummet. Online music store sales leveled off after years of growth.

Nevertheless, NPR's Otis Hart will remember the year for musicians who dared to think big.

OTIS HART: The music of 2010 boils down to one word: ambitious. Several critically acclaimed artists went all in and released albums of staggering scope this year, as if to counter the nonstop hand-wringing of an industry in decline. These works, from all over the pop spectrum, served as an artistic stimulus package, pumping blood into an industry that coincidentally or not, greeted the downturn in the economy by retreating to the bedroom and tightening its belt in 2009.

(Soundbite of song, "Skinny Love")

Mr. BON IVER (Band): (Singing) Come on skinny love just last the year. Pour a little salt we were never here. My, my, my...

HART: Bon Iver's Justin Vernon was the poster boy for musical austerity the last few years. But look where Vernon ended up this year.

(Soundbite of song, "Monster)

Mr. KANYE WEST (Singer-Songwriter) Featuring BOND IVER: (Singing) I-I-I crossed the line-line and I'll-I'll let God decide-cide...

HART: In Hawaii, recording with Kanye West for the rapper's larger-than-life "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," a skyscraping Jenga tower of an album, an album with one clear message: Come hard, or don't come at all.

(Soundbite of song, "Monster)

Mr. WEST: (Rapping) Everybody want to know what my Achilles heel is - love I don't get enough of it...

HART: Others took a less maximalist, but no less ambitious, approach.

Ms. JOANNA NEWSOM (Singer-Musician): (Singing) May God save your soul...

HART: Joanna Newsom put aside her harp and picked up the gauntlet, writing a three-disc opus of quiet folk songs that felt louder than most rock 'n' roll this year.

Ms. NEWSOM: (Singing) ...how you made me fast...

HART: Nothing challenged our expectations in 2010, however, quite like Sufjan Stevens' "The Age of Adz."

(Soundbite of song, "Too Much)

Mr. SUFJAN STEVENS (Musician): (Singing) If I was a different man, if I had blood in my eyes, I could have read of your heart, I could have read of your eyes...

HART: Stevens has never suffered from a lack of ambition. His "Illinois" album was an apex of opulent pop. But no one could have seen this coming: bleeps, bloops, drum machines - even the occasional orchestra.

(Soundbite of music)

HART: "The Age of Adz" is the kind of album that forces listeners to acclimate to it. Stevens, like a number of other artists this year, seems to be resisting the trend toward music as a lifestyle accessory, and forcing us to appreciate it in and of itself. A risky move, for sure. But at this point, what's there to lose?

Mr. STEVENS: (Singing) There's too much riding on that. There's too much, too much, too much...

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Otis Hart, looking back on a year when pop music went big. Tomorrow, we'll look at jazz.

Mr. STEVENS: (Singing) There's too much riding on that. There's too much, too much, too much. There's too much riding on that, anyway. Yeah, yeah.

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