During the month of December, we’ll be compiling a new list every day celebrating the best of the year in pop culture. We begin with the 50 Best Albums of 2010.
Every day, the PasteMagazine.com office gets about 15-20 new CDs in the mail. Add to that the dozens of albums that digitally arrive in our inboxes, and you have more new music than a small group of people can possibly give adequate consideration. But we listened to a ton of it in 2010, and we’ve done our best to narrow it down to the 50 we think are most worth your time. Of course, our tastes aren’t exactly yours, so if you think there are albums that deserve the attention of your fellow readers, please add them to the comments section below. Not matter how overwhelmed we get, we could always use more good music.
Here are our picks for The 50 Best Albums of 2010:
Stern may be the best guitarist on this list, but her third album isn’t about technical wizardry as much as attention to detail. Aided by drummer Zach Hill, the music is both intricate and expansive—a spazz-pop symphony with each three-minute song broken into carefully orchestrated movements rushing past in succession. The result might be a terrible bore if the melodies weren’t also so darned catchy. And with song titles like “Female Guitarists are the New Black,” there’s plenty of attitude to bolster themes of loss and hurt.—Josh Jackson
The third album from Los Angeles-based producer Flying Lotus (née Steven Ellison) is an engrossing exploration of sonic possibility. Featuring contributions from Thom Yorke, vocalist Laura Darlington, bass producer Thundercat and jazz instrumentalist Ravi Coltrane, it’s a study in contrasts: provoking but reassuring, kinetic but focused, clean but clattering. Flying Lotus has truly mastered the silicon machine: His byte-and-bass combo screams, buzzes and pounds through ever-shifting beats, which clink with mantra-like repetition until they suddenly give way to a universe of unforeseen noise. On Cosmogramma, this never-ending stream of aural textures sounds effortless, and the enthralling swirl of jazz, drum ’n’ bass, dubstep and hip-hop beckons you toward the edge of something damn near cosmic.—Katelyn Hackett
In recent years, West Coast rock has become hazier (No Age), noisier (HEALTH) and woodsier (Fleet Foxes) compared to the East Coast’s more melodic (Grizzly Bear), cosmopolitan (Dirty Projectors) and experimental (Animal Collective) style. And with their much-anticipated full-length debut, former SXSW darlings Local Natives unify the camps, bridging Brooklyn’s tumbling tribal rhythms, rousing choruses and sophisticated pop arrangements with the CSNY harmonies, guitar eruptions and straightforward hooks of their Left Coast neighbors. The band’s clear vocals and well-cultured namedropping of European cities and NPR make Vampire Weekend an easy comparison, though the Natives’ anthemic arrangements are more self-consciously grandiose.—Matt Fink
Having delivered its 2007 debut right on the cusp of indie rock’s imminent turn toward world music and day-glo psychedelics, Yeasayer’s All Hour Cymbals was more experiment than proper pop album, a disorienting maze of harmonized yelps and frantic handclaps. More than two years later, the Brooklyn trio’s uneven edges are polished by layers of finely calibrated melodies on a backdrop of perky polyrhythms and analog abstractions. The same manic energy remains, bubbling through the skittering beats and farting synthesizers of “Ambling Alp” and the slippery white-boy funk of “Love Me Girl.” But here the focus never shifts from Chris Keating’s surprisingly soulful lead vocals, which seem pulled from some alternate ’80s, strangely familiar yet startling in their immediacy. With only the cascading harmonies of “Grizelda” offering evidence of the band’s tangled roots, this version of Yeasayer has as much in common with New Order as it does Animal Collective, its many moving parts rebuilt upon a synth-pop engine.—Matt Fink
Yes, Danger Mouse produced a track (“Tighten Up”) for this blues-rock duo on its sixth album. But the name to note in the credits is mixer Tchad Blake, who gives the songs a swampy texture that nevertheless carves out individual space for each instrument. Guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney swing more loosely than usual, too, particularly on the Bo Diddley-gone-glam stomp “Howlin’ For You.” “The Only One” incorporates droning organ chords to nice effect. And Auerbach’s vocals on Jerry Butler’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” are reminiscent of vintage Todd Rundgren.—Michaelangelo Matos
Deerhunter has graduated, by degrees, from conjuring moods to writing proper songs, and fourth album Halcyon Digest finds Bradford Cox and company strip-mining new aural territory and toeing the line between structure and abstraction. Opener “Earthquake” lowers a looping trio of sounds—a snare trill, a struck match, a tape noise swipe—into a deep sonic chasm where legions of guitars and dissolving vocals dominate. The synthesizer early in “He Would Have Laughed” soars into kaleidoscopic infinity, and the feather-light “Sailing” has just enough melody to stick in your head. “Coronado” injects jaunty jangle-pop with saxophone honks—a first for this Atlanta band that’s as surprising as it is satisfying.—Raymond Cummings
As founder of Young God Records, Michael Gira has introduced the world to acts like Akron/Family and Devendra Banhart. As frontman of noisy post-punk band Swans, Gira is alternately a malevolent singer and maker of beautiful sound. For the band’s first album in close to 15 years, he plays a little bit of both those roles. The result is a pummeling record that Liars no doubt wish they had made. —Austin L. Ray
With bouncy bass lines and bright vocals, British chamber-pop quartet Stornoway is the first band in a while to recall all the best qualities of ‘90s 120 Minutes darlings The Ocean Blue. The 11 tracks, while not always overflowing with joy, convey a sort of contentment that you’d expect from four friends enjoying this new chapter of life that involves playing music for a living. Employing cello, horns, organ and banjo, songs like “Zorbing” and “I Saw You Blink” have been in regular rotation in the Paste office since July. —Josh Jackson
After their disaffected debut Wavvves, the San Diego trio fronted by Nathan Williams had a rough 2009, riddled with low-grade rock beefs and a widely publicized onstage meltdown. No one would have blamed Williams for retreating deeper into his quivering fortress of 4-track distortion. But for Wavves’ follow up, he’s come out swinging. King of the Beach finds him communing with his inner songwriter, forgoing nihilistic static for hi-def clarity; the album is saturated with high poly-harmonies, finger-snaps and hand claps, but the Charles Atlas-invoking title communicates Wavves’ real agenda—“nyah-nyah” pop sucker-punches, sunny smiles so forced they come off as sneers, intense self-deprecation as psychic body armor. Shiny packaging aside, Williams hasn’t really changed. He’s still letting his demons run wild—this time, in Technicolor.—Raymond Cummings
A musical for way, way off Broadway, Anais Mitchell’s stunning folk opera succeeds on many levels. It’s a brilliant recasting of the Orpheus and Euridice myth. It’s a pointed political commentary on what may be the downtrodden, cash-strapped America of 1933, or the downtrodden, cash-strapped America of 2010. And it features some wondrous ensemble singing, from Mitchell as Euridice, from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon as a seductive Orpheus, from Ani DiFranco as Persephone, and, most notably, from gruff-voiced folkie Greg Brown, who imbues the lord of the underworld with both maniacal glee and Dick Cheney’s calculus of pragmatic deathdealing.—Andy Whitman