It's that special time of the year when all the music critics, publications and bloggers (like me) unleash their lists of the best of 2010. As usual, I'll be doing albums, movies and TV and, if I get around to it, books. I reviewed about 60 albums this year, a new record, and enough to make a top 40 list of the best (links below will take you to my original reviews). Despite that, there were albums I wanted to review but never got around to do it, like the latest from the New Pornographers and Spoon, electronic albums like Caribou, Gold Panda and How to Dress Well and the solo debut from Glee's Mark Salling. So many albums, so little time it seems. Without further adieu, I present you...
The 40 Best Albums of 2010
1. The National - High Violet No album stirred me as much with its beauty and breadth as this fifth album from the Brooklyn-based indie band, The National. A new discovery for me, it led me into their catalog, which is riddled with other worthy albums. I'm always on the hunt for the perfect rock album, and this comes quite close, melding the best of what I've liked in albums from band like The Editors and Interpol Best: Sorrow.
2. Take That - Progress Take That took an impressive step forward on their sixth album, the first to reunite Robbie Williams with the other four in 15 years. Much credit goes to producer Stuart Price, who had a hand in no less than five of my favorite albums this year, including three in the top 10. This bold, upbeat, brooding set was his best output yet. Best: The Flood.
3. Scissor Sisters - Night Work Also a Stuart Price production, Night Work sent one of the most eccentric pop groups back to the dance floor, with a no-ballads disco and '80s romp that pulled no punches when it came to being dirty, sexy, and cool. After a slight step down with their second album, Ta-Dah, in 2006, this was as good if not better than their landmark 2004 debut. Best: Any Which Way.
4. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs The Canadian collective produced their best work yet, a lengthy, sprawling concept album that provided a sort of perfect musical excess to mirror its suburban theme. I was a reluctant convert to Arcade Fire's charm, but by the time The Suburbs came out, there was no question of my loyalty. Best: Ready to Start.
5. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy After the dark electronica of 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye West's fifth album returned to more familiar hip-hop territory, but did so with confidence, style and guest stars as varied from Nicki Minaj to Bon Iver. The results were his most ambitious and accomplished album yet. Best: Lost in the World.
6. Broken Bells DJ/producer Danger Mouse has previously teamed up successfully with Cee Lo Green (Gnarls Barkley) and Damon Albarn (producing for Gorillaz and The Good, the Bad and the Queen), but his best collaboration yet was this team-up with The Shins' lead singer James Mercer. Together, they made this surprising and atmospheric record that balances their respective strengths while also being something new. Best: The Ghost Inside.
7. Janelle Monáe - The ArchAndroid Janelle Monáe was the year's most surprising newcomer, giving us the most bizarre concept album I've ever heard of--a sprawling science fiction opus of Afro-futurism about a woman from the future who gets sent back in time as an android to liberate a civilization (something like that, anyway). The music itself is just as ambitious, combining nearly every genre of sound from the last 40 years from pop to hip-hop to prog rock. Best: Tightrope.
8. Linkin Park - A Thousand Suns This is the most surprising album in my top 10. I've never been a Linkin Park fan, although I've enjoyed many of their songs. But I found their fourth album to be a rather enjoyable rock epic of sonic grandeur and political underpinnings. Best: When They Come for Me.
9. Robyn - Body Talk After revitalizing her career in 2007 with the single "With Every Heartbeat," Swedish pop singer Robyn took a few years before returning with this remarkable set of dance pop, revealing as many hooks as it does vulnerabilities. In a smart marketing twist, Robyn unfurled the album over the course of the year, releasing first an EP in the spring and a second EP in the summer before the album came out in the fall. Best: Indestructible. See also Body Talk Part 1 and Body Talk Part 2.
10. Kylie Minogue - Aphrodite Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue's fifth album for Parlophone was a step up from her slightly disappointing last couple of releases. It's still no Fever or Light Years, but its glittery electro/dance pop sound delivers quite a few great moments. Best: All the Lovers.
11. Rumer - Seasons of My Soul. Mining the late '60s pop sound has become somewhat of a sport in British pop music, but Paksitani-British newcomer Rumer gets credit for doing it with such effortless style, drawing quick comparisons to Karen Carpenter and Dusty Springfield with her evocative, hushed vocals. Best: Slow.
12. John Grant - Queen of Denmark John Grant's first solo outing holds back little when it comes to baring his soul through his music, touching on his troubled childhood, addiction, suicide and unrequited love. Yet he also finds time to sing about outer space and Sigourney Weaver, making it one of few albums that can deliver both laughter and tears. Best: Marz.
13. Vampire Weekend - Contra The quintessential hipster band edged a bit closer to the mainstream with their successful second album, continuing to mine their worldly rock sound for upbeat tunes. Best: Run.
14. The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang Although a punk band at heart, The Gaslight Anthem took a full-blown Bruce Springsteen approach to this album, giving us a confident blast of everyman Americana. Best: The Queen of Lower Chelsea.
15. Nicki Minaj - Pink Friday One of the year's most anticipated debuts was that of hip-hop artist Nicki Minaj, whose first album is a winning combination of hip-hop, R&B and pop, drawing on '80s samples, sleek production and Minaj's creative spirit, often in the form of engaging alter egos. Best: Roman's Revenge.
16. Corinne Bailey Rae - The Sea Corinne Bailey Rae's 2006 debut gave us the big hit "Put Your Records On," but was largely dismissed as MOR easy listening. This second album, although similar, is more robust musically, owing in part to the singer's recent heartbreak over the death of her husband. Best: I'd Do It All Again.
17. Plan B - The Defamation of Strickland Banks British hip-hop artist Plan B turned soul singer on this retro-sounding concept album that tells the tale of a manly wrongly convicted of a crime. Best: She Said.
18. Bruno Mars - Doo Wops & Hooligans Bruno Mars was one of the year's biggest breakouts. As a producer and performer he's got plenty of talent on both sides of the recording studio's glass. I have a feeling this solid pop debut will continue generating hit singles well into 2011. Best: Just the Way You Are.
19. Taylor Swift - Speak Now Twenty-year-old Taylor Swift has had an amazing run the last two years, becoming the biggest thing in country music with her second album, Fearless, which early this year won the Album of the Year Grammy Award. Her hit streak continues with her third album, exploring more mature themes and leaving audiences guessing as she tackles the emotions behind the tabloid stories of her love life. Best: Back to December.
20. Black Keys - Brothers With The White Stripes on an apparent hiatus, the spot for alternative blues-rock band of choice was winningly filled by Black Keys this year with their sixth album, Brothers, which takes a more conventional yet not less engaging approach to the genre. Best: Tighten Up.
21. Sade - Soldier of Love It seems that Sade has decided to take 9-year breaks between albums, which is rather long, but probably worth it, if they continue to produce soulful, sensuous music of such caliber. Best: Babyfather.
22. Carole King & James Taylor - Live at the Troubadour I listened to this album because I expected it would be nominated by the Grammy folks for Album of the Year, but instead, the album received no nominations in any category. It's their loss though, for I found this nostalgic throwback of King and Taylor singing many of their best-loved songs live to be a nostalgic time warp of an album, even better if you were a fan of them in their heyday. Best: You've Got a Friend.
23. Duffy - Endlessly So far, this album is failing to take root, which is a shame. Yes, it's no Rockferry, but that doesn't mean it isn't quite good, with quite a few strong pop tracks like blustery "Well, Well, Well," which features a brassy backing from The Roots and the "Papa Don't Preach" ode, "Keeping MyBaby." Best: Keeping My Baby.
24. Kings of Leon - Come Around Sundown Their 2008 album, Only By the Night, vaulted the American alternative rock group from being a little-known band with a modest British following to one of the world's best-selling musical acts. Big shoes to fill then for this follow-up album, which mostly adheres to the sound established by that previous landmark album. Best: Pyro.
25. Two Door Cinema Club - Tourist History By 2010, the music industry had become saturated by bands plunging themselves whole-heartedly into the mid-'80s new wave sound, many with antique synthesizers in tow. Despite the glut, I had hopes that Two Door Cinema Club would manage to break out big with this debut, a tight set of melodic pop songs. Best: I Can Talk.
26. Goldfrapp - Head First Speaking of the '80s, Goldfrapp have always drawn on that decade's electronic sounds for their music, but on Head First, they made their first true '80s record. Its uptempo sound made up for the slight misstep of their folksy fourth album. Best: Believer.
27. Rihanna - Loud Rihanna's last album, Rated R, was a surprisingly artistic album, full of darkness and rage, as well as pop hooks. Loud is more familiar--mostly just uptempo dance pop, although it does see the singer return to her Caribbean roots moreso than her last few records. Best: Only Girl (in the World).
28. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest On Halcyon Digest, the Altanta-based indie rockers known as Deerhunter make dreamy, layered music that's like sifting through distant memories. An engaging listen that connected well music critics, putting them on many of the year's "best of" lists. Best: Desire Lines.
29. Hurts - Happiness. Hurts, which placed fourth on the BBC Sounds of 2010 poll, is another welcome synth pop duo, although not as clearly '80s-sounding as many of their peers. Their debut, excelled at delivering dreamy, moody pop with richly layered melodies of strings, drums, percussion, and of course, synthesizers. Best: Sunday.
30. Foals - Total Life Forever This Oxford-based group's debut was mostly pretty mellow rock, although at times quirky and playful. It's centerpiece was the brilliant "Spanish Sahara," a moody, 7-minute epic that built to a frenetic musical climax. Best: Spanish Sahara.
31. Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can British folk music isn't normally my thing, but I rather liked this second album from Laura Marling, which alternates effectively between mellower, reflective songs and more muscular, uptempo ones. She garnered quite a few accolades along the way. Best: Devil's Spoke.
32. Chromeo - Business Casual Chromeo is another group that exists solely because of the '80s bandwagon. Business Casual doesn't sound like it's sampling '80s sounds, it just is '80s sounds. A pretty decent imitation at that. Best: Don't Turn the Lights On.
33. The Roots - How I Got Over Whether they are backing up Jimmy Fallon, playing to the National Mall in front of John Stewart, collaborating with John Legend or just making music by themselves, hip-hop act The Roots demonstrated this year that when it comes to grounded, soulful, political hip-hop, they are the kings. Best: Walk Alone.
34. The Wanted Boybands are hot again in Britain as Take That (although really a "man" band now) is as hot as ever, while a new generation, led by JLS, continues to send up top 10 hits. This band emerged in the summer with #1 single "All Time Low." Their album followed, and like that single, was surprisingly good. Best: Let's Get Ugly
35. Keane - Night Train There was a time I was really in love with this band, but sadly their star has faded the last few years. I'm hopeful they will make another great album though, as this EP showed they are still willing to experiment with new sounds while continuing to craft great pop music. Best: Stop for a Minute.
36. Robert Plant - Band of Joy. Led Zeppelin's frontman follows up his amazing 2007 collaboration with Alison Krauss with this collaboration with a group fo musicians named after Plant's pre-Zep band, Band of Joy. The results are surprisingly folksy, but quite rocking. Best: House of Cards
37. Sleigh Bells - Treats This spring debut generated quite a bit of buzz for the New York-based duo. Listening to the album's rapid-fire beats and heavily distorted guitars was like being assaulted sonically, although masochistically so, since the music it fronted was pretty great. Best: Tell 'Em.
38. I Am Kloot - Sky at Night The British folk scene was dominated this year by Laura Marling (above) and her friends Mumford & Sons, but other bands were there too, like than Mancunian group whose sound straddles folk and rock with this warm, acoustic set. Best: Proof.
39. Brandon Flowers - Flamingo Brandon Flowers' solo outing isn't quite as good as his work with his band The Killers, but when it works, it is glorious pop music, and I admire his efforts to produce a Vegas-themed concept album. Best: Only the Young.
40. Glee Cast - Glee: The Music. Rather than list just one album, I consider Glee to be a body of work that continues to send up creative twists on Broadway and popular songs. Best: Teenage Dream (feat. Darren Criss). See also Vol. 3-Showstoppers, Journey to Regionals, The Power of Madonna, A Very Glee Christmas (not reviewed, Vol. 4).
Also Reviewed, but Not Recommended
Alphabeat - The Beat Is...
Danger Mouse & Sparkle Horse - Dark Night of the Soul
Delphic - Acolyte
Eminem - Recovery
Gorillaz - Plastic Beach
Ellie Goulding - Lights
Cee Lo Green - The Lady Killer
Michael Jackson - Michael (will be done within the next week)
Lady Antebellum - Need You Now
LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening
Joe McElderry - Wide Awake
Midlake - The Courage of Others
MGMT - Congratulations
Ne-Yo - Libra Scale
Scouting for Girls - Everybody Wants to Be on TV
Villagers - Becoming a Jackal
Yeasayer - Odd Blood
Worst of the Year
1. Christina Aguilera - Bionic. I listened to this album on MySpace and decided it wasn't worth my effort to review and write up, let alone purchase. It represents what I like least about some pop albums. At 18 tracks, it's wayyy too long and proves my point that more isn't better, as I'm hard pressed to find any songs here that are really great. With too many producers, Aguilera just gets lost in the mix. After the decent Stripped and the intriguingly experimental Back to Basics, this was a serious disappointment.
2. Katy Perry - Teenage Dream. I was shocked, shocked, shocked to learn this was nominated for the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. It's probably the least deserving album to nab the honor that I can think of. Yes, "California Gurls" and "Teenage Dream" are awesome pop songs, but two great songs do not an album make. Much of the rest is banal, trite and dull.
3. Interpol. This bleak fourth album from Interpol lacks the interesting melodies from their first album that wooed me last year.