The 50 Best Albums of 2010

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30. She & Him: Volume Two [Merge]

She & Him’s debut was a simple affair. Zooey Deschanel’s homespun grace and M. Ward’s unobtrusive production made for a winning combination—which means they risked a lot by making a followup album as complex and ambitious as this one. On Volume Two, swirling strings and lush backing vocals underscore Deschanel’s increasingly sophisticated songwriting. She plays the dewy-eyed ingénue a bit too faithfully at times, but there is no denying her legitimacy as a tunesmith, divvying her set between bouncy piano-pop, folk-flavored sing-alongs and orchestral anthems. In lesser hands, the American Graffiti-styled themes of star-crossed lovers and summer nights would drown in their own sincerity. Here, they provide a pleasant escape to a mythical America of endless horizons and youthful resilience—not such a bad place to be in 2010.—Matt Fink

29. Freelance Whales: Weathervanes [Frenchkiss/Mom + Pop Records]

When Freelance Whales frontman Judah Dadone was growing up on 20 acres of woods outside Wilmington, Del., his part-Cherokee nanny told him that horses and dogs—and sometimes kids—could see spirits. By age six, he began to make room for the ghost of a young girl he sensed living in his house. These memories, along with bits of dream journaling, weave their way loosely through Weathervanes, Freelance Whales’ debut LP. A few years ago, Brooklyn-based Dadone began gathering Weathervanes’ odd collection of instruments—a banjo from his stepfather, a harmonium from India, a water phone from the Lower East Side—and then used Craigslist to find bandmates from across the city to play them all. The album captures that same whimsy with enough layers of peculiar instrumentation to make Sufjan Stevens jealous.—Josh Jackson

28. Laura Marling: I Speak Because I Can [Astralwerks]

Laura Marling had just turned 18 when she released her 2008 debut, Alas, I Cannot Swim, but it seemed like she’d already lived four or five lifetimes. By then, she had somehow digested the entire canon of British folk music along with her guitar lessons, in the process becoming world-weary enough to write lines like “The gods that he believes never fail to disappoint me” and “Don’t cry child, you’ve got so much more to live for / Don’t cry child, you’ve got something I would die for.” After touring the globe and being touted as the young queen of a new-folk revival, she made yet another gorgeous, melancholy, old-souled record. Despite its uncanny emotional weight, Alas has its moments of glittering girlishness and sounds at times like it was recorded in an upstairs bedroom at her parents’ house. I Speak Because I Can trades in references to broken dolls for tales of real live babies found in the forest and the yearning for a “Tap at my Window,” for the love of a “Rambling Man.” Fellow new-folk vanguards Mumford & Sons reprise their occasional role as Marling’s backup band, providing urgent, dirty-fingernailed accompaniment—banjos, shuddering organ and occasional brotherly backing vocals—to her lovely, blustery voice and pace-setting guitar.—Rachael Maddux

27. Vampire Weekend: Contra [XL]

Vampire Weekend’s debut cartwheeled gleefully from one infectious musical idea to the next, seducing listeners with a syrupy-sweet cocktail of Afro-pop, squeaky-clean ’60s surf rock and harpsichord passages that nodded at Mark Mothersbaugh’s playful compositions on Wes Anderson soundtracks. It was hard to listen to that first batch of tunes without sensing vast stores of glittering pop left to mine in the endlessly forking creative arteries beneath the band’s goofy, cardigan-wrapped exterior. On their second LP, the youngsters didn’t disappoint. Contra opener “Horchata” displays a caliber of pop songcraft and melodic intuition that gives The Shins’ James Mercer a run for his harmony, and the feathery lightness of lead singer Ezra Koenig’s voice allows him to indulge fluttering melodies that would sink under the weight of more overbearing pipes. “White Sky” dances along with skittering keyboard arpeggios and a refrain of sweeping falsetto “oohs” that beg for spontaneous crowd karaoke. And Contra’s most indelible cut, the sublimely arranged and lyrically evocative “Taxi Cab,” adopts an emotional vulnerability and depth that Vampire Weekend’s darker musical cousins The Strokes always seemed too fashionable to plumb.—Jason Killingsworth

26. Lissie: Catching a Tiger [Fat Possum]

Lissie Maurus, the singer/songwriter who performs under her first name, owes much of her recent notoriety to her live covers of songs like Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness,” which are as notable for their unexpectedly sublime execution as they are for being so removed from the folky milieu she seems to inhabit. Though Lissie has amply proven her interest in music beyond the scope of whatever is considered “folk” these days, Catching a Tiger, her full-length debut, might startle any fans hoping she’d further deliver on the presumed promises of last year’s breakout, “Why You Runnin’.” Three tracks carry over untouched from the EP, joining nine new songs she’s been playing live in recent months. On stage, they’re backed by a basic three-piece rock outfit, but here they’ve been spun into dazzling gems that break and cut the light. Guitars—mostly electric—fume and skitter all over a rag-bag of synthetic textures King seems to have emptied out on his studio floor. Lissie’s voice has quite often been described as “whiskeyed,” but on Tiger there’s more than a whiff of tequila in the air—yellowy-green shots knocked back fast followed by hazy mornings filled with nagging regrets. This could perhaps be considered “folk” in some generous sense of the word, but let’s not be afraid to call it what it really is: unbridled, unselfconscious, swirling, head-pounding pop.—Rachael Maddux

25. Various Artists: Preservation: An Album to Benefit Preservation Hall [Megaforce]

This album of surprising collaborations with Preservation Hall—New Orleans’ bastion of traditional jazz—began with a chance encounter with Tom Waits. In the early fall of 2005, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band shared a bill with Waits, among others, at a Hurricane Katrina benefit at Radio City Music Hall. During a lull backstage, Preservation Hall creative director Ben Jaffe and vocalist/reed man Clint Maedgen—both huge fans—noticed Waits alone, leaning against a wall. They chatted with Waits. They played him a song. They got a phone number. Years later Jaffe dug out an old song called “Tootie Ma Is A Big Fine Thing,” and mailed the rare copy to Waits along with a 78 player and a note asking him if he’d like to record it at the Hall. Months passed before he finally got an email back: When were they available to record? “Tootie Ma” is the standout on Preservation, which also includes collaborations between the Hall band and a diverse assortment of artists including Andrew Bird, Brandi Carlile, Richie Havens, Pete Seeger, Del McCoury and Jim James of My Morning Jacket. Every track was recorded live at the Hall, and almost all the songs are traditional and public domain, done in the classic Hall style—acoustic hot jazz with banjo, clarinet and brass—that has remained New Orleans’ hallmark sound since the late 19th century.—Alison Fensterstock

24. Beach House: Teen Dream [Sub Pop]

Teen Dream sounds just like Beach House and not at all like Beach House. On their first two albums, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally created warm, lo-fi pop songs that favored subdued ambience over pronounced hooks, as if each song was designed to dissipate in the air between the speakers and your ears. By contrast, the duo’s new songs are less hazy and more forceful—they actually project. Singing in a bold style that suggests a huskier-voiced Kate Bush, Legrand sounds androgynous on “Walk in the Park” and breathy on “Norway.” Scally, meanwhile, creates prickly arrangements full of narcotic guitars, reverbed piano and woozy synths that shimmer over spare, steady percussion. Dream is a go-for-broke collection that not only creates and sustains a hi-fi drowse-pop drama throughout its 10 beguiling songs, but comes across like a logical and gorgeous extension of all the band’s previous dreams.—Stephen M. Deusner

23. Laura Veirs: July Flame [Raven Marching Band]

Laura Veirs’ seventh album, released in the blustery throes of January, takes its name from a kind of peach that finds its way into farmer’s-market bins in the hottest weeks of the year—a peach, the story goes, that cured her of a nasty bout with writer’s block one steamy Portland afternoon a few summers back. Still, it’s hard to imagine a better soundtrack to the chilly months of wood smoke, crackling leaves, deep Vs of geese honking overhead and squash simmering on kitchen stovetops than this collection of heady, steady, pensive songs. It’s a feel-good record of the oddest sort, a melancholy meditation on happiness and its delicate transience—warmer and rootsier than her earlier work, which boasted a kind of cautious experimentalism. July Flame is carefully composed, ever-deepening, glinting and glowing in new ways each time it’s played; there’s an inkling of something greater coming just around the bend, but for now it’s Veirs’ finest work. And so let us curl up in our burrows with these songs and our own flickering July flames ’til the green shoots return and the rivers run full again. “It’s gonna take a long, long time,” Veirs sings on her resolute final track. “But we’re gonna make something so fine.”—Rachael Maddux

22. The Tallest Man on Earth: The Wild Hunt [Dead Oceans]

Kristian Matsson plays to his strengths on The Wild Hunt, his second album. It’s a smart move. He keeps it simple, finger-picking strings to propel his gristly vocal melodies, which feel simultaneously cavalier and carefully wrought. Though his acoustic guitar often thwacks like a snare, his songs are uncluttered by percussion, harmonized vocals or the kinds of orchestral ornaments that are so prevalent in current alt-folk. The clean, galloping banjos and guitars spotlight his pristine snarl, which slips down into powerful bass notes and then reaches up and yelps on key, accentuating his ambitious, second-language lyrics: “I wasn’t born, I just walked in one frosty morn / Into the vision of some vacant mind,” he sings on “Burden of Tomorrow.” If Sondre Lerche were a bluegrass-loving goblin, he might sound a little like this. Among the dead weights of the modern new-Dylans, Matsson is a real live wire.—Brian Howe

21. Jamey Johnson: The Guitar Song [Mercury Nashville]

Jamey Johnson looks like an escapee from The Hell’s Angels, so you’d be forgiven if you expected some sort of death-metal caterwaul to erupt from your stereo speakers. Instead, Johnson sounds like a good ol’ boy from Montgomery, Ala., which is exactly what he is, and his second album, That Lonesome Song, recaptures everything that was great about those classic Merle Haggard and George Jones honky-tonk singles from the mid-to-late ‘60s. The pedal steel weeps, the lead guitar rumbles deep in the bass range, and Johnson unleashes one of those voices that is equal parts heavenly soul and red clay dirt. Chronicling the sordid and sad events of the past three years, That Guitar Song is both a traditional country music tour de force and a harrowing singer/songwriter confessional album. This is wild, untamed music sung in a wild, untamed voice, and it’s brilliant. There’s repentance here, and some clear-eyed acknowledgement of being a fuck up, but there’s plenty of righteous and not-so-righteous indignation as well. What else would you expect from somebody who signs off with a song called “Between Jennings and Jones,” which is right where you’ll find Johnson’s music at the record store? Like Waylon he carefully cultivates that outlaw image, and like George he has the voice of a slumming angel. He’s made a superb album. And I’m not just saying that because he looks and sounds like the kind of guy you don’t want to piss off.—Andy Whitman