The Best Music of 2010 

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

Magnetic Fields
Realism

Realism is a bit of a misnomer. Call it irony, if you will. Magnetic Fields fans love irony. So does Stephen Merritt, the geekily charismatic auteur/mastermind behind (and in front of) this increasingly baroque pop band. This time around, Realism — a follow-up to 2008's Distortion, which bore a name that said more about its tone than its style — celebrates fantasy in all its forms. Try, for example, "We Are Having a Hootenanny" (a rootin' tootin' hoedown), "The Dolls' Tea Party" (with harpsichord), or "Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree" (gutteral German vocals). Oh yes, and there's Merritt's flugelhorn. Nevermind, just call it escapism. (Nonesuch)

Arcade Fire
The Suburbs

The trouble with Arcade Fire is every time you think it's about the peak — every time that urge to knock the world's marquee indie-rock band down a peg or two kicks in — it answers with something even better. Neon Bible was no sophomore slump, and The Suburbs outdoes its king-making debut, Funeral, at least in scope. The sixteen-song album is, on the coarsest level, a kiss-off to anyone who ever suggested it was short on ideas. Yet it's the way those 64 minutes harness suburban ennui to align Arcade Fire's trademark romp with touchstones like New Order and Bruce Springsteen that suggests this band may still be more capable than we give it credit for. (Merge)

Besnard Lakes
Are the Roaring Night

Like Arcade Fire, Besnard Lakes is an indie rock band led by a married couple from Montreal. Unlike Arcade Fire, the latter outfit is prone to psychedelic squalls, fits of pretension, and two-part songs with names like "Land of Living Skies." If Arcade Fire is function before form, a workingman's indie band, all songcraft and spirit, then Besnard Lakes is form before function, a palette of certain colors and shades, more artwork than workbench. Both have their place, and while Arcade Fire is the better band, Besnard Lakes hits its mark with this ten-song, 45-minute prog-rock primer that recalls nothing so much as the painterly inferno of reds and oranges on its cover. (Jagjaguwar)

Budos Band
The Budos Band III

The kids know you're not cool if you have to announce it. But Budos Band is so cool, so unassailably hip, that even if it did say it was cool, even if it proclaimed it on its next album cover, it would still be cool. Chalk it up to our obsession with retro. Budos Band's music is groovy, swinging, soulful, rhythmic, bluesy, Afro-beat jazz-funk. It's Quentin-Tarantino-soundtrack-standout good, with the same vibe, driven by gritty horns and wicked bass riffs. The nine-piece New York band's third album since 2005 is solidly its best, incorporating fresh influences from the Middle East to Latin America without sacrificing integrity or diminishing that essential swagger. (Daptone)

Monadnoc
Olive Oil and Indian Blood

It's music, or it's spoken word; it's poetry, or it's verse. Or it may be all of the above. Monadnoc's Olive Oil and Indian Blood is, in the allegorical sense, everything — even if it doesn't aim to be. Monadnoc's aspirations may well have never been so lofty, but the musician's namesake, a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson about a prominent New England mountain, suggests maybe so. His works, three to five minutes in length, tell solemn stories, never sung, always spoken, about music and drink and friends and enemies and open spaces at midnight, over musical backdrops that skitter between jazz and folk and blues: guitar, piano, percussion, bass, cello, violin. (Mission Freak)

Roky Erickson with Okkervil River
True Love Cast Out All Evil

Viewing this album, widely regarded as the finest of Roky Erickson's solo output and among the best of his career, as a fable of his life's struggles, isn't much of a stretch. Stamping a name like True Love Cast Out All Evil on a troubled singer's comeback album defines the narrative from the start. But within the songs, where the story is actually told, a deeper sort of magic happens; gradually, as it moves along, the album becomes less a symbol and more the thing itself. Bookended by a pair of amateur recordings Erickson made at Rusk Maximum Security Prison for the Criminally Insane, True Love does exactly what it promises. (Anti-)

La Plebe
Brazo en Brazo

Remember Rancid? That is, the one from about seventeen years ago? In 1993, the East Bay punk band released its debut album, full of short and fast songs that were as fun as they were angry.Things aren't the same anymore, but the feeling's alive and well on Brazo en Brazo, the fourth release from this well-honed Spanish-language punk band out of San Francisco's Mission District. Like Rancid, the members of La Plebe cite The Clash as their primary influence, but they combine the driving guitars and boisterous drums with half of a mariachi band — namely, a killer horn section and multi-part vocals. La Plebe means "the common people," so naturally the group's setlist includes songs called "Campesino" and "Opresión." But finale "Been Drinkin'" brings it home. (Koolarrow)

Hammock
Chasing After Shadows ... Living with the Ghosts

Nowadays, the best music is often the most easily dismissed. Songs that don't offer instant payback are tolerated only as far as they remain on the margins. That's the way it is for bands like Hammock: no lyrics, no verses, not even any rousing crescendos à la Explosions in the Sky, perhaps the decade's most (only?) popular instrumental rock band. Hammock's mellow ambient compositions, crafted with guitars, drums, strings, and keys, could hardly be deemed rock, but they're also far from challenging. Imagine an American Sigur Rós and you're close: pretty, mood-altering, and as easy to love as it is to overlook. (self)

Baths
Cerulean

It makes no difference that you've likely never heard of Will Wiesenfeld or his pre-Baths handle Post-Foetus, or the fact that he spent the six years before Cerulean exploring the intersections between electronic and acoustic music. He may as well have fallen from the sky with nothing but a keyboard and a drum machine — not even a name. Other than his voice, he didn't need much more to create this ethereal collection of tinker-toy beats and rainbow-colored orchestrations amid melodies that ride your brainstem like a wave or a drug. Wisenfeld, or Baths, or whoever he is, is just that good. (Anticon)

Howard Wiley and the Angola Project
12 Gates to the City

East Bay saxophonist Howard Wiley has explored themes of African-American prison life since his 2007 debut, The Angola Project. That summer, he visited Louisiana's Angola State Prison for inspiration. The gospel songs, spirituals, and chants he encountered were "some of the most beautiful and inspiring music I've ever heard," he writes in the liner notes for "Three Days," a three-part suite on the new album composed during his visit. Grounded in decades of jazz history, 12 Gates to the City nevertheless pulls from a broader, post-modern tradition. Multi-layered vocals (scat, opera, and spoken word) give way to unorthodox instrumental interludes, then Wiley's searing, insightful sax solos. (HNIC)

Lisa Mezzacappa's Bait & Switch
What Is Known

There's a point in some artists' careers when their understanding of a form becomes so keen that the old rules seem not just boring and constrictive, but totally dispensable. Bassist Lisa Mezzacappa is one such person. The opener on her new album is sort of a blues, yes, but it's really Mezzacappa's idea of what a blues should sound like, if she weren't confined to the standard chord progression. "Ponzi" is based on one isolated snippet from an Ed Blackwell drum solo. Bait & Switch is a remarkable quartet whose members came up in the noise and free-jazz scenes. They bring those influences to this album, but keep the music relatively accessible, even for laymen. John Finkbeiner's electric guitar sounds croaky and pixellated against Mezzacappa's stand-up bass. The contrast is fantastic. (Clean Feed Records)

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