The 50 Best Albums of 2010

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40. Free Energy: Stuck on Nothing [Astralwerks]

Free Energy’s debut LP boasts all the youthful zeal of the first day of summer break: kids tumbling down the front steps of school, making a beeline for swim trunks, trampolines and sunburns while flinging homework papers high into the air. Stuck on Nothing‘s gargantuan hooks and snappy “nah-nah-nah-nah’s” guarantee the album’s place in convertible stereos and poolside boom-boxes well into August. The band’s sheer tenacity gives the tracks a dizzying exuberance, but they don’t quite have the chops to deliver their generation’s “Summer in the City.” Like a scoop of orange sherbet dropped on a searing sidewalk, the album’s energy and novelty will melt long before the tan-lines and mosquito bites fade away.—Gray Chapman

39. Sarah Jaffe: Suburban Nature [Kirtland]

Sarah Jaffe is a lot like her home state of Texas. Wide-open, humble and matter-of-fact, she crafts beautiful, raw songs that “are what they are” in the very best way. Playing like wise, witty diary entries marked with teardrops, growing pains and effusive honesty, her debut album, Suburban Nature, ebbs and flows on a sea of candid relationship narratives. “Love is interesting, because when two people come together that way, it can be really hostile and beautiful at the same time,” she says of the inspiration for the album’s 13 songs, some of which were written before Jaffe graduated from high school.—Melanie Gomez

38. Josh Ritter: So Runs the World Away [Pytheas]

Idaho native and Brooklyn transplant Josh Ritter hits a beautiful stride on his sixth album, a soulful combination of conversational folk ballads and powerful gut punches. Ritter’s the kind of artist that will always draw comparisons to legends like Bob Dylan and contemporaries like Ryan Adams—and while So Runs the World Away contains a handful of songs that make those comparisons easy, he also never sways from his unmistakable cadence. He whispers on “The Curse,” stomps on “The Remnant” and, yes, matter-of-factly evokes Dylan on “Folk Bloodbath” when he explains with scratchy sincerity, “That’s the sad thing with life / There’s people always leavin’ just as other folks arrive.” He’s not the only one channeling the greats, but he does it better than almost anyone else today.—Jenna Woginrich

37. Big Boi: Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty [Def Jam]

Big Boi’s long-awaited post-Speakerboxxx solo album was poised to become the Chinese Democracy of hip-hop—numerous delays, a label change and a protracted production cycle left fans wondering if they weren’t witnessing Dr. Dre’s Detox play out all over again. But after four years, Big Boi has finally dropped Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, a massive, ambitious album shot through with knee-knocking beats and deft lyrical touches from Outkast’s swagger champion. Lead single “Shutterbug” is a representative sample of Sir Lucious Left Foot’s charm and aesthetic—thick, infectious electronic hooks and an barrage of Antwan Patton’s trademark wordplay, grafted to a southern hip-hop sensibility lurking deep in the beats. It was long assumed that André 3000 was the primary creative drive behind Outkast. Sir Lucious Left Foot puts the lie to that notion. It’s no mean feat for him to drop a solo album that’s both a trove of pop jams and a profound piece of artistic experimentation, and he’s done just that—a remarkable achievement by any measurement.—Michael Saba

36. Spoon: Transference [Merge]

Spoon continues an impressive run of albums with its seventh album, Transference—more austere than its predecessors but just as scrappy. Jettisoning the horns and pervasive studio-as-instrument approach, the band hasn’t sounded this raw in more than a decade. An impassioned and unpredictable singer, Britt Daniel changes his approach on every song, shredding his vocal chords on the rough-textured “Written in Reverse” and peppering “Trouble Comes Running” with woos and oohs. He favors repetition as a means to reinforce and undermine his lyrics, slyly dropping out consonants from words and words from phrases. Singing in an R&B-ish falsetto on “Who Makes Your Money?” he puts so many different spins on the title phrase that by song’s end, it could mean anything or nothing at all. And while the bandmates sound like the veterans they are on Transference, Spoon brings to this new level the same prickliness and elusiveness that has informed all of its previous albums, and that has attracted devoted fans intent on parsing every word and note. Despite the success (or maybe because of it), Spoon is still making music deep in the mystery zone.—Stephen M. Deusner

35. Grinderman: Grinderman 2 [Mute Records/ANTI-]

In which Nick Cave’s excellent and unrelenting side project returns and makes two things quickly apparent: 1) Following The Birthday Party and an ongoing solo journey, the third successful phase of Cave’s multifaceted career is well on its way, and 2) Not many rockers are still this dark, relevant and rewarding into their fifties. Good on him.—Austin L. Ray

34. Girl Talk: All Day [Illegal Art]

The beauty of Girl Talk’s All Day is its perfect blend of post-modern absurdity and pure entertainment. Mixing and morphing among a deep vein of ‘80s pop classics, ’90s alternative, and ’00s hip-hop tracks, Gregg Gillis’ musical Frankenstein project recycles many of the hooks and samples he used on his first LP—Jackson 5, Bananarama, Ludacris and the Beastie Boys (or at least the Pringles commercial-perverted version of the Beastie Boys)—and his formula of mixing current hip-hop with ‘80s and ’90s nostalgia trips hasn’t changed in the least. But neither has his ability to churn out infectious mash-ups capable of turning even the stiffest blokes into dancing machines. At his best, Gillis’ combinations are better than even the sum of their classic parts. Even the strictest punk-rock purists have to smile hearing the Ramones up against Missy Elliott or Iggy Pop duking it out with The Beastie Boys. His use of bite-sized samples—squeezing as much pop culture as possible into the shortest amount of time—makes him an apt hero for the iPod Shuffle Generation. Still, All Day provides the soundtrack to the ultimate dance party, urging us to scream out the songs we know and to just have fun. It’s nothing new for Girl Talk, really, but then again, what is?—Beca Grimm, Bonnie Stiernberg & Kelly Makepeace

33. Blitzen Trapper: Destroyer of the Void [Sub Pop]

Oregonian sextet Blitzen Trapper isn’t afraid to dream big. They made a name for themselves with their last two albums by throwing a mess of elements into the mix with wild abandon: Americana lyrics, spaced-out synths, snarly riffs. With this follow-up to 2008’s Furr, they’re at it again with pristine harmonies set to late-’60s psychedelic scuzz. The result is another opus-de-Americana washed in experimental folk-rock—a zealous, if unfocused, tale of back-road pain and otherworldly redemption. The six-minute title track (an epic that frontman Eric Earley has described as “three or four different songs melded together”) slithers between tempos, harmonies and chord progressions as though the group had just lifted the needle on “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “The Man Who Would Speak True,” meanwhile, relies on acoustic vibrations, Cash-like storytelling simplicity and rusty harmonica. Blitzen Trapper’s world is certainly chaotic; thankfully, the cacophony of heavenly choruses and gorgeous melodies finds its own voice amidst their experimentations.—Dan Hyman

32. Carolina Chocolate Drops: Genuine Negro Jig [Nonesuch]

There’s a long tradition of African-Americans playing old-time music, from blues legends Blind Blake, the Reverend Gary Davis and Josh White to artists such as the Mississippi Mud Steppers and Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, whose early ragtime outfit, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, has provided a lasting influence—and this modern-day act with its name. The Carolina Chocolate Drops formed in 2005 at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C., and since then the young trio has been determined to prove that “black folk were a huge part of the stringband tradition.” What they’ve also done is dust off a musical form seen today as either a novelty or the exclusive provenance of ethnomusicologists. To paraphrase Rakim’s immortal words, these Drops ain’t no joke: Their enthusiasm for the tradition is obvious even as the trio spans from traditional arrangements (the rollicking fiddle rave-ups “Trouble in Your Mind” and “Cindy Gal”) to self-penned works (the particularly terrific “Kissin’ and Cussin’”) and stringband makeovers of modern-day works (a hip-hop influenced cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ’em Up Style (Oops!)” and Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose”). Several generations removed from the origins of their chosen idiom, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are nonetheless the genuine article.—Corey DuBrowa

31. The Roots: How I Got Over

For their ninth studio album (and the best of two they put out this year), The Group That is Also Now Known as Jimmy Fallon’s House Band features or samples Joanna Newsom, Monsters of Folk and Dirty Projectors. Hip-hop for people who don’t like hip-hop? Maybe, but How I Got Over is also simply an excellent, well-executed album that doesn’t wear out its 42-minute welcome. It’s a win for good guys everywhere that a group like this can strongly enter into its third decade of making music. —Austin L. Ray