The 50 Best Albums of 2010

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20. Suckers: Wild Smile [Frenchkiss]

Wild Smile cherrypicks from New York rock history, evoking Talking Heads here, TV on the Radio there, but slowly reveals itself more and more on each listen. In the space of less than a month, Suckers’ reverb-rock masterpiece went from virtual unknown (a nondescript CD sitting on my desk) to blowing up my headphones, car stereo, and anywhere else my friends tolerate my being DJ. I defy you to listen to “It Gets Your Body Movin’” and not do just that.—Michael Saba

19. Elizabeth Cook: Welder [31 Tigers]

Elizabeth Cook’s last album, the Rodney Crowell-produced Balls, was straight up Dolly-worshippin’ country, full of stretchy peddle steel and yodel-peppered sass. But if Balls was chilled-in-the-box strawberry wine, Welder is mulberry-flavored moonshine: homemade, delicious and completely unsanitary. First of all, there’s Cook’s twangy alto, which used to slip-slide melodically through her lyrics to warm, sweet-as-peach-cobbler effect; on this release, though, her voice is less massaged—shriller, harsher and even more heavily accented—and she doesn’t sing too much. Instead, she chortles and spits and coos and chants. Previous releases were sprinkled with her characteristic wit, which has gone to seed and run wild on Welder. In “El Camino” she recalls delirious sex in a 1972 refurb: “If we get married, gonna have to annul it / Right now my hands are in his mullet.” Hill-top funerals, soup kitchens and backcountry hoe-downs become the stuff of legend in Welder’s emotionally expansive tales, and though it features production by Don Was and guest appearances by Crowell and Buddy Miller, this album is all about Cook finally finding her voice—irreverent, hilarious and gritty as Appalachian soil.—Rachel Dovey

18. Cee Lo Green: The Lady Killer [Elektra]

As a solo artist, songwriter, former Goodie Mob rapper, and frontman of chart-topping duo Gnarls Barkley, Green is responsible, at least in part, for some of the most memorable pop songs in recent radio memory, particularly the ubiquitous Gnarls Barkley smash “Crazy,” which is arguably the best pop song of the decade. With “Fuck You,” he’s managed to craft a stellar runner-up. Lyrically, it’s simultaneously foul-mouthed and sweetly naive—one minute, he’s apologizing to his old crush for being broke; the next, he’s casually assaulting her with a cluster of f-bombs, his smooth falsetto and whiney croon stroking soulful pleasure zones untapped since Marvin Gaye’s prime. Despite Green’s trademark quirkiness, he’s never sounded so old-school, reveling in Motown nuance, big Hammond organ trills, and crackling drums. No longer hiding behind the kooky musical frameworks of Gnarls Barkley (or hiding in the shadow of collaborator/producer Danger Mouse), Green progresses as an artist by looking back. Fuck cordiality. With The Lady Killer, Cee Lo Green is out for blood. Track after track, he triumphs.—Ryan Reed

17. Jónsi: Go [XL]

There’s this thing Jónsi Birgisson does with his voice. You can hear it nearly three-and-a-half minutes into the track “Grow Till Tall” on Go, his first solo record after more than a decade fronting Icelandic ambient-rock outfit Sigur Rós. Jónsi’s fragile, luminescent tenor begins a subtle dance, climbing a few notes up the scale to a moderate plateau and then sliding back down, ascending once more to a comparable altitude, then gliding all the way back down to Earth like a well-built paper airplane. He patiently follows this trance-inducing pattern for a minute or more, creating the illusion of a low vocal ceiling. And then, just as Nico Muhly’s orchestral score begins to swell and fidget restively, Jónsi’s voice suddenly lifts off into the exosphere—effortlessly, like a column of steam rising. By the time his voice reaches its zenith, it’s morphed into a glistening, siren-song falsetto. It would take a philosopher or a theologian, not a music critic, to explain why this voice ties the human throat in knots. Jónsi and collaborators Alex Somers and Peter Katis deserve a Grammy for not only keeping track of the record’s dizzying volume of sonic layers, but for grooming everything to coexist with such confounding rightness. It’s easy to forgive the album’s occasional misfires because it doesn’t tiptoe about, eyes glued to the floor, apologizing for its gargantuan ambition. It does cartwheels when it bloody well feels like it, cries when it wants to, and raises the bar for songwriters like Sufjan Stevens who share similarly heady classical predilections.—Jason Killingsworth

16. Mavis Staples: You Are Not Alone [Anti-]

Though now on the far side of 70, Mavis Staples remains one of American music’s national treasures, with a smoldering voice that’s as compelling today as it was 40 years ago on Staple Singers’ hits like “Respect Yourself.” This time around, Jeff Tweedy is the lucky guy at the helm, and he’s done Staples justice, giving the album throwback flourishes and a modern aesthetic. Throughout You Are Not Alone, shimmering, bluesy electric guitar echoes the brilliant playing of the late “Pops” Staples, and Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor (of Neko Case’s band) contribute fervent backing vocals, but Tweedy has made no attempt to mimic traditional gospel. The production is bright and clear, and the arrangements showcase the star. Mixing sacred material with a few secular songs, Staples emphasizes the kinder, more humanistic version of her faith on toe-tapping cuts like “You Don’t Knock” and “In Christ There Is No East or West,” but stokes the fire-and-brimstone of her father’s beliefs on the stomping “Downward Road.” Two Tweedy originals, including the hushed title track, are beautiful and uplifting. Whatever your beliefs, it’ll lift your soul.—Jon Young

15. Justin Townes Earle: Harlem River Blues [Bloodshot]

The fourth album from 28-eight-year-old Justin Townes Earle—son of the legendary Steve, namesake of the legendary Van Zandt—blows through its half-hour runtime, and new listeners will be unsurprised to hear that Earle is influenced by both The Replacements (he covered “Can’t Hardly Wait” on 2009’s Midnight at the Movies...) and Bruce Springsteen (...and “Atlantic City” for The A.V. Club). The self-deprecating smirk of the former and the everyman spirit of the latter have imbued Earle’s songwriting since his earliest recordings, but here they see their finest representation to date—sans pretension and with a pile of hooks to boot. If he can keep his demons at bay, we’ll one day see his his three names cozied up against those of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, George Jones and the other denizens of country music’s pantheon. —Austin L. Ray

14. Band of Horses: Infinite Arms [Brown Records/Fat Possum/Columbia]

More muscular than The Avett Brothers or Iron & Wine, less concerned with experimentation than Wilco, and free of the folk prison occupied by Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses might be the best traditional rock band in America not named My Morning Jacket. On Infinite Arms, Frontman Ben Bridwell leads the Horses a little further out of Neil Young’s backyard. After lead track “Factory” enters the world amid a fanfare of faux strings, “Compliments” harkens back to the band’s wheelhouse with Bridwell shaking his tattooed forearms at the sky, questioning the existence of God in the air, righteous power chords at his side. But the crew relies less on guitar bombast this time out. Seemingly able to kick out a chug-a-lug stomper with absolute ease at this point, the best moments on Infinite Arms center around Bridwell’s growing confidence in the his deadliest weapon: his voice. After three albums, Band of Horses finally sound comfortable being what they are: A rock band.—Bart Blasingame

13. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: I Learned the Hard Way [Daptone]

I’ve often heard the argument made—especially by wizened rock critics and music-industry vets—that all the young ’uns mesmerized by Jones and the Dap-Kings have been duped into believing that what would’ve been a dime-a-dozen soul revue back in the day is in the league of the all-time greats, thanks to the near-complete absence of authentic soul music in our digital age. And while Jones’ first three records were solid, the songs were mostly nondescript. They lacked hooks and choruses strong enough to put the leading lady into the company of the legends she and the Dap-Kings imitated. With Hard Way, though, this is no longer the case. The album’s majestic Philly-soul/Thom-Bell-indebted opener “The Game Gets Old” plays like a reality-check epilogue to The Delfonics’ 1970 I’m-really-leaving-you breakup anthem “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time).” It’s an instant classic, and Jones’ finest moment yet—an unusually successful attempt at capturing the perennially bruised heart of a struggling single. From there, I Learned the Hard Way doesn’t let up. There are half a dozen potential soul standards. This time around, Jones and the Dap-Kings convincingly channel their many musical ancestors—Tina Turner, Otis Redding, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, Charles Wright, James Brown, The Temptations, The Delfonics, Marvin Gaye—like no one has in decades.—Steve LaBate

12. Bruce Springsteen: The Promise: The Lost Sessions of Darkness on the Edge of Town [Columbia]

The joy of The Promise for any serious Boss employee is the notable twinkle of notions that would later grow into classic rock staples. This is Bruce Springsteen exploring his musical ideas immediately following the monstrous success of Born to Run. He’d just become a star and wasn’t so sure he liked it—you can hear the struggle to solidify himself as more than a one-hit wonder in each bellow. Springsteeen reclaims his song that became Patti Smith’s most commercially successful number, “Because the Night,” with grace and brooding sensuality. And the brass and tropicalia-tinged keys of “The Brokenhearted” make it one of the most the light-hearted of the album. The titular song, “The Promise,” arrives near the end. It’s Springsteen’s never-ending project which he’s countlessly chopped, rearranged and resurrected live. In its studio form, it plays like a trickle but explains everything. From the three years he spent in the studio determining the precise ingredients and execution, The Boss wanted his message to be clear: He wasn’t in it for the hits and he wasn’t going anywhere. And lucky for us, he hasn’t.—Beca Grimm

11. The National: High Violet [4AD]

If MGMT colors its musical canvas with fluorescent candy-scented magic markers, and Coldplay favors the niceness of pastel watercolors, The National’s output resembles a painstaking charcoal sketch with dramatic interplay between light and shadow. The five-piece’s cerebral rock ’n’ roll makes no apologies for its bleak emotional tenor, and I still can’t listen to their 2007 masterpiece Boxer without imagining myself slouching down the midwinter streets of Manhattan alone at 3 a.m., watching my icy breath spill into the dark like cigarette smoke. The band’s new album, High Violet—which took roughly a year of intense recording at both their newly built studio space and producer Peter Katis’ Tarquin Studios in Bridgeport, Conn.—revels in the same dark hues. The National’s unique brand of torture-chamber pop and fascination with 21st-century paranoia and psychological unrest provide an evocative thematic template.—Jason Killingsworth