The Best Music of 2010 

From Arcade Fire to E-40 to The Walkmen, our critics recommend the best albums of the past year.

Arcade Fire
The Suburbs

After seven years and three studio albums, the members of Arcade Fire have made it clear that they simply don't do small. In fact, the Canadian indie-rockers appear to be constitutionally opposed to subtlety, and it works for them: After all, why have one person singing when you could have five? Why allude to the themes of your album when you could just call it The Suburbs and be done with it? Why make small songs when you could make really, really big ones? True to form, The Suburbs is huge and ambitious and hugely ambitious, daring to tackle Big Topics — this time around, it's familial relationships, growing up, and suburban ennui — with equally oversize arrangements. At this point, they've mastered it: the push-pull of frontman Win Butler's pleading vocals, buttressed by a chorus of voices and backed by yearning strings until the whole thing explodes into crescendo with the force of its own velocity. It's no longer surprising, but that doesn't make it any less powerful. (Merge)

Big Boi
Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty

It took Big Boi — also known as Antwan Patton, Outkast's better half — four years to come out with his solo debut and first album since 2006's Idlewild. In the time he's been laying low, hip-hop has spawned a seemingly endless army of young rappers who were undoubtedly raised on Stankonia. It's impossible not to draw comparisons, but Big Boi wins on every count, every time: His references are sharper, his rhymes more imaginative, and his influences more unexpected than any mainstream rapper out there right now. Lyrically, he still does, and probably always will, traffic in classic hip-hop bombast — UrbanDictionary "David Blaine" to get a sense of the kind of inspired sexual imagery Boi's working with here — but he's also willing to discuss matters more pressing than girls and parties without getting conscious rapper-preachy. Sir Lucious was well worth the wait. (Def Jam)

Joanna Newsom
Have One on Me

A lot can go wrong on a triple album, and especially for an artist like Joanna Newsom, who can be self-indulgent in her weirdness: 2006's Ys reveled in ten-minute songs, polyrhythms so dense and complex they were almost impenetrable, and oblique lit-major lyrics that required an Old English dictionary to decipher. It's one thing to be comfortable in your quirkiness; it's quite another to be so self-consciously, aggressively avant-garde you alienate your listener. Lucky for all of us, Newsom dodged the bullet and then some with Have One On Me. Her voice — once childlike and chalkboard-squeaky — has mellowed with time, and her arrangements, while still honoring that layered aesthetic, are now more accessible. "Jackrabbits" is straightforward and startlingly beautiful, and the piano-driven "Good Intentions Paving Company" is downright poppy, or at least as close to it as Newsom will ever get. For anyone else, that might be selling out, but for Newsom, it means she's growing up. (Drag City)

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
I Learned the Hard Way

Any group as committed to a specific genre and point in time as Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings risks becoming novelty: This is, after all, a band so firmly rooted in its early-Seventies aesthetic that the musicians almost never appear out of costume. Moreover, they have been known to eschew modern production technology in favor of analog equipment. It could all become one big shtick, but there's a reason this kind of music has survived so long, and nowhere is that more apparent than on I Learned the Hard Way. Jones takes unmistakable, infectious joy in classic soul, and you can't help but feel the same way. (Dap-Town)

Sleigh Bells
Treats

Treats begins with guns blazing: Opening track "Tell 'Em" starts with fifty full seconds of incendiary bass and guitar, punctuated by syncopated snaps, claps, and what sounds like some kind of semiautomatic weapon. It's pure, perfect noise pop, and it's about as auspicious a beginning as an album this explosive — in every sense of the word — should have. The female vocals, stabbing guitar, and undying allegiance to all things loud are reminiscent of Fever To Tell-era Yeah Yeah Yeahs and early Sleater-Kinney. But make no mistake: Sleigh Bells' soul is pure R&B. (Look no further than "Rill Rill," which samples Funkadelic's "Can You Get to That" and turns it into something completely addictive, an indie-rock earworm if there ever was one.) By cloaking neat, catchy melodies in fuzzed-out effects and chunky guitars, Sleigh Bells have managed to achieve something that's accessible, edgy, and altogether new. It's easily the best and most inventive record of the year. (Mom + Pop)

Taylor Swift
Speak Now

Fuck the haters. By virtue of a couple very public feuds and a world that's apparently happy to pigeonhole someone scarcely out of her teens, Taylor Swift has, criminally, been written off as nothing more than a boyfriend-bashing teeny-bopper who's left behind a string of slandered guys and unremarkable pop songs in her rise to the top. Which is offensive for many reasons, not least of which being that Swift is an incredibly talented singer and songwriter. Speak Now is a solid record with a few truly standout tracks, most notably "Mine" and "Mean." And though Swift does indulge in a few scattered moments of gratuitous anger — and, much more unfortunately, panders to mainstream pop on a few tracks — let's not forget that this is what country music is, and always has been, about: real emotion. In a couple decades, Swift will probably be considered one of the genre's greats; she's already well on her way. (Big Machine)

The Walkmen
Lisbon

If Hamilton Leithauser ever gets happy, we're all in trouble. Over the course of ten years, six substantial albums and a handful of arresting singles, he and The Walkmen have proved themselves the undisputed masters of misanthropic rock. Lisbon is The Walkmen doing exactly what The Walkmen do best: propulsively minimalist music with half-sung, half-yelled lyrics that are, almost exclusively, about loneliness in various forms. There's an admirable earnestness and consistency here — after all, it takes a certain kind of artist to, without irony or apology, title a track "Woe Is Me." If they're happy being sad, so are we. (Fat Possum)

E-40
Revenue Retrievin' Day/Night Shift

It's a shame that hyphy's dead, because E-40 just perfected the genre. With his eleventh and twelfth studio releases — not a double album, technically, but clearly meant to compose two halves of a whole — the leader of the movement returns, faithfully, to the sound that made him famous (at least for a little while): that throbbing bass, those clattering beats, and of course, 40's trademark burble. But if the template's well-trod, the execution's clearly been racheted up on Retrievin': Here, we have tighter production and more inventive beats. Moreover, and most importantly, we finally see 40 moving — if ever so slowly — away from the lyrical tropes he's so fond of repeating. If Revenue Retrievin' had come three or four years earlier, it would have been praised as a solid and, at turns, surprising, record and propelled hyphy to a few more months of radio play. Instead, it'll probably be largely ignored, written off as an embarrassing relic of a fad that ran its course long ago. But hyphy was, and E-40 is, much more than that, and so is Reveneue Retrievin'. (Heavy on the Grind Ent.)

Julian Waterfall Pollack
Infinite Playground

If it weren't for the baby face and blond hair, it'd be hard to believe that Julian Waterfall Pollack is just 22. The pianist — a product of Berkeley High School's venerable jazz program but now living in New York — plays with a preternatural self-assuredness, whether it's on standards like "My Funny Valentine" or new compositions like the gorgeous "Lily." While Pollack's technical and compositional skills are obviously formidable, what really sets him apart from his peers is tenderness. This kid has been loving his instrument for far too long to be freshly out of his teens. (Junebeat)

The Morning Benders
Big Echo

It's a thrill watching the Morning Benders find themselves. In the two short years since Talking Through Tin Cans — an admirable, though ultimately middling debut — the Berkeley-bred quartet has made some exceptionally mature creative decisions. Most notably, the band brought on Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear as a co-producer and abandoned the standard-issue, Shins-inflected indie pop of Tin Cans in favor of something weirder and much more interesting. Big Echo sounds like a group finally finding out what it's good at — in this case, spacey, sun-drenched surf-pop — and gleefully exploring that for all it's worth. Like any young band, it's still figuring out who it is, and who knows whether this'll be where it lands in the end. Either way, growing pains have never sounded so good. (Rough Trade)

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