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 starts with Aloe Blacc, Arcade Fire and more artists from A to B.
Thomas Adès, 'Tevot'
- Song: Tevot, For Orchestra (excerpt)
With yet another stunning, massive orchestral score under his belt, it's not hard to argue that London-born Thomas Ades is the finest composer today under 40. Championed by no less than conductor Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, Ades keeps turning out pieces like Tevot -- which, like the best art, make you return again and again, finding new ways into and around it. Ades likens Tevot to some kind of rocket-ship ride into outer space. It begins with mere threads of tone, and over 20 minutes builds strength, veering off into crushing percussion, twisted dances and, finally, a Richard Straussian repose. (Tom Huizenga)
Agalloch, 'Marrow Of The Spirit'
- Song: Into The Painted Grey
The forest is a common inspiration for black metal, particularly for the Norwegians who defined the genre in the early '90s. That makes sense: It's a cold, mystical place marked by unknown darkness. For Agalloch, the forests of the Pacific Northwest represent all of those things, but they're also a force of healing. Still, Marrow of the Spirit is honest as it ends: After our spirits are renewed, we can return easily to misery. But, oh, the journey is worth the battle. The album's exhilarating and epic turns shred and pound as much they shriek and coo. It's the year's most stunning statement in metal. (Lars Gotrich)
Aloe Blacc, 'Good Things'
All summer long, I put on this album almost every time I got in the car, especially when I got to leave work with the sun still up. "Green Lights" would hit, and I'd be cruising through traffic signals, windows down, at peace. Aloe Blacc's killer Velvet Underground cover -- with The Expressions backing him -- runs right up next to "Loving You Is Killing Me" perfectly. I'm not saying that the car I drove all summer (a rickety '83 Mercedes 300D with broken windshield wipers) made this album of soul songs sound better. I'm just saying that everybody who rode in the backseat totally fell in love with it. (Frannie Kelley)
Khaira Arby, 'Timbuktu Tarab'
A powerful singer from Timbuktu, Khaira Arby has been a famous diva in Mali for many years, but 2010 has been her year to break out. This recording was released to coincide with her first U.S. tour, and it shows off her jaw-dropping vocal style and impressive backing group. Arby's music is an intriguing mix of Northern Malian styles, very much like that of her cousin and mentor, Ali Farka Toure. She is part Sonrhai and part Berber, and she sings her songs in several different languages, including Tamasheck, Arabic, French, Bambara and Sonrhai. Arby's band plays traditional instruments such as fiddle, calabash and ngoni (lute), and combines them with electric guitars and a drum kit. Her teenage lead guitarist nearly stole the show in her live concerts. (Jon Kertzer, KEXP)
Arcade Fire, 'The Suburbs'
Dissecting North America's love/hate relationship with the suburbs is far from fresh lyrical territory in 2010. But like Arcade Fire's previous loosely conceptual albums ruminating on life, death and cold (Funeral) and celebrity culture, religious zealots and war (Neon Bible), the band crafts an album bursting with anthems and observations both societal and private. Unlike most indie rock, The Suburbs isn't afraid to be anthemic and big (sans irony), while also sounding intimate and personal. As part of a generation growing up between Vietnam and Iraq, singer Win Butler reflects on the transitory nature of suburbia, and finds a way to celebrate and bemoan it simultaneously, mastering a perfectly crafted mix of sun-drenched nostalgia and cynical disdain. (Jim McGuinn, The Current)
Erykah Badu, 'New Amerykah, Pt. 2: Return Of The Ankh'
It was a complicated year for genres based on bass. Kanye West and electronic music's Flying Lotus valued ambition over all else. Rapper Lil B released too many songs to keep track of. Even Big Boi seemed like he was moving in seven directions at once. No record on this list proved a better panacea for the sensory overload than Erykah Badu's New Amerykah, Pt. 2: Return of the Ankh. The album floats by in a glorious haze on grooves that never exceed the speed limit (no chopping or screwing necessary). Given that Badu served up her kitchen-sink statement, New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War, a full two years before #wtf trended, maybe Return of the Ankh is a sign of things to come. (Otis Hart)
Big Boi, 'Sir Lucious Left Foot... The Son Of Chico Dusty'
This album was kind of a problem for me this year. Tracks rumored to be on it (official leaks, things my little brother found on the Internet) started landing in my inboxes about a year ago -- first "Royal Flush" and then "Shine Blockas." The latter is still in my phone's Top 25 Most Played, 11 months after I found it. And then Big Boi started just giving songs away on Twitter: "Shutterbug," "Looking 4 Ya," "Follow Us." They all sounded so big and lush: Big Boi's chops were out of control, and his collaborators (Too $hort, Yelawolf, Jamie Foxx, Janelle Monae) were putting in work. In an interview, Big Boi told me he makes "freaky music," like Rick James. I have no rejoinder; just a rewind button. (Frannie Kelley)
The Black Keys, 'Brothers'
There's no denying a Black Keys record. It's pungent, weathered and bewitching all the same -- true to its blues-rock roots. Brothers proves that, as much as the band may evolve over time, its two members never lose sight of this undeniable, alluring foundation. The album takes a more mellifluous approach to The Black Keys' dark and rugged sound, but the gritty twang and conviction of Dan Auerbach's voice and distorted guitar remain intact. While Brothers marks a turning point for The Black Keys, it also reaffirms the duo as an important fixture in contemporary blues-rock. (Andre Barnes)
Brooklyn Rider, 'Dominant Curve'
I love it when an album like this comes along and you can tell immediately -- from the playing, from the repertoire, from the engineering -- that absolutely nothing was taken for granted. Brooklyn Rider rips through one of the trickiest classical quartets (Debussy's G minor from 1893) and makes it sound easy, but the group has surrounded it with pieces written in the last couple years. My favorite is "Lydia's Reflection," by one of the quartet's violinists, Colin Jacobsen -- music that's as still and clean as a northern lake at sunrise. (Brian Newhouse, APM)
Buke And Gass, 'Riposte'
The wannabe tech-geek in me was initially attracted to Buke and Gass for the band's two handmade instruments, which modify a baritone-ukulele and a guitar/bass hybrid run through heavy-duty amps (also handmade, mind you). But after spending time with Riposte, it's clear that the duo's huge-sounding prog-punk anthems were written with an effusive sense of joy normally reserved for the twee-est of twee. Riposte is not twee; it will stomp you with glee. (Lars Gotrich)