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 Hilary Hahn, Jonsi, LCD Soundsystem and more artists from H to L.
The Pulitzer Prize hasn't always been the most reliable guide to the important musical works created in a given year, but in 2010, the jury hit the mark. The winning composition, Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto, is a work of deft craftsmanship, vivid orchestration and kinetic energy, not to mention an ideal calling card for its dedicatee, Hilary Hahn. Credit also goes to Hahn's label, Deutsche Grammophon, which rushed out a premiere recording in September, even if it did hedge slightly by pairing it with the Tchaikovsky Concerto. At 47, Higdon is one of today's most in-demand composers, and this concerto places her firmly in a broader continuum of American music, with its mid-century echoes of Copland and Barber. And yet it isn't merely a nostalgic throwback, but rather a demonstration of the composer's imagination -- not to mention a soloist's skill and expertise. (Brian Wise, WNYC)
Up until now, Mary Halvorson has largely focused on her guitar. Not that I'm complaining -- Halvorson is the most forward-thinking guitarist working right now. Saturn Sings is her first foray into jazz quintet composition, and when she digs into that horn section amidst fret nosedives and unexpectedly funky basslines, I happily take the dizzying leap. (Lars Gotrich)
Rita Indiana, 'El Juidero'
Song: El Juidero
Merengue music isn't everyone's thing, and electronic merengue-on-speed is much less so. But don't let the frantic synthesizers fool you: Rita Indiana is one of the most creative artists to hit Latin Alternative music in years. Before delving into music, she was already an award-winning writer with a cult following in her native Dominican Republic; appropriately, her songs unfold like short stories. She first caught my ear with "La Hora de Volve" (Time to Go Back), which tells the story of an immigrant who, after working in New York for years to the point of exhaustion, has a vision: of a nightclub and two beautiful women sipping beer under the trees. And that's when he realizes it's time to go home. Indiana is a master of describing fleeting moments of everyday life which are actually deeply symbolic. For those who don't understand the lyrics, fear not: Her fast beats and Afro-Caribbean percussion will have you dancing in your seat. (Jasmine Garsd)
Jamey Johnson doesn't have much patience for the moaning of the rich and famous: The Alabama-bred singer makes country music with an eye on the everyday struggles of bill-payers and bottom-dwellers, and with clear-eyed disdain for vanity. In contemporary country music, that actually makes Johnson a bit of an outlier, but it also makes him one of country's most formidable voices. (It helps that he can be self-deprecating: In "Lonely at the Top," he laments his woes as a wealthy musician, only to have a nearby barfly remind him, "It might be lonely at the top, but it's a bitch at the bottom.") At 25 songs spread out over two discs, The Guitar Song is formidable in just about every way: a gripping and unsanitized sprawl of messy, heartbroken populist realism. (Stephen Thompson)
Though its name has become synonymous with portentously 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 an endlessly surprising toy-box of exhilarating ideas. Go showcases plenty of atmospheric grace 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. (Stephen Thompson)
Brazilian singer-songwriter Seu Jorge first crept into America's consciousness through a performance in the film City of God, in which he plays a handsome ladies' man who becomes a broken, drifting soul after a psychopathic gangster destroys his life in a random act of violence. Jorge then cemented his cult following in Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, in which he plays a similar character: a melancholy, mysterious, raspy-voiced drifter who sings stunning David Bowie covers. At first, Seu Jorge and Almaz had me excited that I'd finally get to know the singer beyond the lens of film directors. But we're still seeing him through someone else's work: The album is a collection of cover songs, both rock 'n' roll and classic Brazilian music. What's often mistaken for a laid-back vibe in Jorge's voice is actually a dense, heavy quality -- it's like a calm lake that hides secrets in its depths. (Jasmine Garsd)
It's been almost a decade since King Sunny Ade's last studio recording, and he delivers here. Ade remains the leading figure in Nigerian juju music: His intoxicating mix of Yoruba talking drums and traditional proverbs are matched with electric guitars, bass and keyboards, creating truly modern African music. Ade and his longtime producer decide here to present the same music heard in concert, with no compromises for Western media. The title song stretches over 31 minutes, and three others over 15; they include long percussion sections, guitar and keyboard solos and ever-changing vocal harmonies. With its complete liner notes and lyric translations, this double-disc set makes for both a fine introduction to Ade's music and a worthy addition for his fans. (Jon Kertzer, KEXP)
Ray LaMontagne, 'God Willin' And The Creek Don't Rise'
Song: Like Rock & Roll Radio
The notoriously introverted Ray LaMontagne takes an impressive step outward with God Willin' and the Creek Don't Rise, recorded at his 300-year-old home in western Massachusetts. He's leading a band here, as well as serving as producer for the first time. There's both strength and ease in his voice, and his house takes on the role of an additional instrument, lending a visceral sense of place and space to the recordings. This is a great-sounding record, especially on vinyl; LaMontagne worked hard to give God Willin' a classic feel. He's an old soul who still believes in great radio, too, as "Like Rock and Roll and the Radio" indicates. (Rita Houston, WFUV)
One of this year's most energetic party records, LCD Soundsystem's This Is Happening is a sleek amalgamation of sneering punk, funky analog dance grooves and synth-pop romanticism. It's also leader James Murphy's most personal work yet. Behind his self-deprecating wit and sharp-tongued digs, Murphy's nostalgic croon reveals lyrical maturity as he comes to terms with aging, identity and the search for happiness amidst life's uncertainties: "From now on, I'm someone different, 'cause it's no fun to be predictably lame," he sings in "All I Want." Here, he excels at finding that balance between serious art-rock and joyful dance-floor fun. If This Is Happening proves to be LCD Soundsystem's final statement (as Murphy has suggested), then it's one hell of a victory lap. If not, it's a musical high water mark for the distinctly imaginative musician. (Mike Katzif)
Lower Dens' debut, Twin Hand Movement, overflows with foggy, blissed-out moods and seething harmonic tension. With their transfixing array of guitar melodies, bursts of feedback and echoing vocals, the band's songs can be as soothing as they are sinister. At the heart of that sound is Texas-born, Baltimore-based songwriter Jana Hunter, whose beguiling delivery draws you in close, welcomes you in its warm embrace and then smashes you into pieces. Her anxious and inward-looking songs prove the perfect foil for her band in cathartic, droney setpieces like "Rosie" and "Blue and Silver." Twin Hand Movement is a promising reinvention for Hunter, as well as a gorgeous reintroduction to her enchanting musical world. (Mike Katzif)