Top 10 Albums of 2010

Written by Hunter Schwarz on . Posted in Music

The album is a dying art form in the age of iTunes. Still, even as millions of consumers chose to cherry pick songs over buying or downloading (or cough cough pirating cough shame on you) albums, some artists refused to give up on the good old fashioned long play. Katy Perry made hers smell like cotton candy, Taylor Swift sold over a million in a week, and Kanye created a record that wouldn’t be complete without listening to it as a whole. In 2010, indie went pop (Bon Iver) and pop went indie (Robyn). Bands went on hiatus but their lead singers refused to stop making music (Kele, Brandon Flowers). Some big name releases flopped (Christina Aguilera) while others revitalized slagging careers (Eminem). There were so many good choices, but here are the top albums of 2010.

Honorable Mentions: M.I.A. “Maya,” Kylie Minogue “Aphrodite,” The Arcade Fire “The Suburbs,” Tinie Tempah “Disc-Overy,” and Brandon Flowers “Flamingo”

10. Recovery – Eminem

Eminem was the biggest selling artist of the 2000s, but by the decade’s end, he sure wasn’t acting like it. Slim Shady opened the new decade being more relevant than ever before. Recovery is an Eminem record for people who don’t buy Eminem records. It has a lot more estrogen than usual (Rihanna on “Love the Way You Lie” and Pink on “Can’t Back Down”)  and is more self-aware (“Let’s be honest, that last Relapse CD was ehh,” he raps on “Not Afraid”), but its greatest strength was shedding the gimmicky, violent, and crude persona he’s cultivated for over ten years without alienating the millions of fans that made him the last decade’s top seller. – HS

9. Teen Dream – Beach House

If there were an award for Best Teen(age) Dream of the Year, the recipient would not even be up for debate. While Beach House’s new album’s title might initially make you think of a certain California Gurl [sic], a quick listen to Alex Scally’s guitars and Victoria Legrand’s dream-like vocals and keyboards will immediately revive any lost confidence in this Baltimore dream pop duo. Teen Dream is the twosome’s third album and draws collectively from their previous two to create a sound that is more diverse and more listenable than any of their previously released music. This new album is a significant milestone for Beach House as a band — it symbolizes the discovery of their own voice and identity, and confirms the refreshing truth that good things can sometimes happen when musicians step out of their comfort zones and seek to create. – JP

8. Invented – Jimmy Eat World

Considering the great pop Jimmy Eat World has made thus far, the epic Clarity, the airtight and flawless Bleed American, the brooding and yearning Futures, you know the band is onto something special when Jim Adkins says Invented is, “our best work so far.” Inspired by the photography of Cindy Sherman, Invented takes a woman’s perspective. “I’m tired of all the war you bring home, I demand a higher devotion…Show me you can read my mind,” Adkins sings on “Higher Devotion.” “My Best Theory” is a defiant refusal to fit in with the crowd that rocks harder than “The Middle,” and “Stop” tackles female feelings of insecurity. While being a progression from their previous work, the record still succeeds in capturing what makes J.E.W. great. The melodies are both catchy and ambitious, taking the arena-filling expanse of U2 and bringing it out of global politics and into your room and your life. – HS

7. Sigh No More – Mumford & Sons

Few new bands in recent years have been as successful as Mumford & Sons at creating identity and simultaneously maintaining diversity on their debut album. Sigh No More, released in the U.S. in February of this year, is teeming with honesty, warmth, excitement and disappointment. Already finding themselves at the top of London’s nu-folk scene and rubbing shoulders with Laura Marling and Noah & The Whale, Mumford & Sons quickly gained popularity in the U.S., selling out nearly every show on their North American tour. Banjo-led stomps, flourishing acoustic instruments, and clean vocal harmonies are delicately coalesced in a way that makes this an albums that you can listen to from start to finish without skipping a track. – JP

6. The Boxer – Kele

With Bloc Party on hiatus, Kele Okereke became the year’s most unlikely pop star. His solo debut The Boxer played like the perfect follow up to 2008′s dark and aggressive Intimacy. It is an album about being strong as evident on songs like “Walk Tall” and “Tenderoni” where he upped the electronics and testosterone while unintentionally providing “It-Gets-Better” pop that was more authentic than anyone else managed to make. The pulsing beat while Kele sings, “So don’t you know, you are more than this. You were built for greatness,” packs way more of a punch than a straight woman shooting fireworks from her breasts. But Kele has never wanted to be known as a gay black man making music in a stereotypically straight white genre, and it shows. His music certainly appeals to bullied gay youth, but it reaches out to anyone who feels alienated. The Boxer isn’t an album that says “it gets better” one day, it’s an album that tells you that it can be better now because, as Kele sings in “Rise,” ”you are stronger than you think.” – HS

5. Speak Now – Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift walked a fine line creating her third album. She had to follow-up the success of her best-selling, Grammy-winning Fearless without rehashing the same tired fairytales and high school romances. It’s safe to say that after selling more records in a single week than anyone this side of 50 Cent’s 2005 The Massacre, she succeeded. Knock her live performances and sugary sweet persona all you want, but her music crosses genre and generational boundaries in a way that few artists can replicate. Swift is a master songwriter and Speak Now is a showcase for her remarkable handle of the technical construction of a flawless pop song, filled with clever lyrics and million dollar hooks. She’s always written about her life, but since the past two years of that have been very public, it’s not surprising that songs about John Mayer, Kanye West, and the werewolf from Twilight show up. Still, the themes on songs like “Back to December,” “Dear John,” and “Innocent” still resonate with the brokenhearted and hopeless romantic in all of us. – HS

4. The Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens

Whatever taste of stylistic evolution 2010′s All Delighted People EP may have offered Sufjan Stevens’ throng of aural consumers, few could have anticipated the way in which The Age of Adz would satiate the cavernous appetites induced by the five-year musical famine. With 12 tracks, and the longest over 25 minutes in length, I would submit that it was well worth the wait. With an inimitable sound and more intimate lyrics than anything in his existing repertoire, The Age of Adz resolutely informs listeners that Sufjan is a long way from Illinois. In spite of the newly introduced electronic patina, the familiar melodic vocals and brassy orchestral accompaniment remind us that, though far from home, the Sufjan we fell in love with listening to Seven Swans and Michigan will never stop making music impossible not to love. – JP

3. Lights – Ellie Goulding

Ellie Goulding had high expectations after winning the Critic’s Choice award at this year’s Brits even before she released her debut album. Luckily, Lights lives up to the hype. Standing somewhere in between Florence + the Machine and Girls Aloud, Goulding crafted a lighter-than-air folk pop gem. Mixing cold electronic blips and beats with warm melodic vocals and acoustic guitar is a hard combination to get right, but with the help of producer Starsmith, 23-year-old Goulding did. She leans towards dance pop on songs like “Starry Eyed,” while she reveals her inner singer-songwriter on the more organic “Guns & Horses.” Lights charmed British critics and consumers this year, and rumor has it that Goulding will bring her debut stateside sometime next year. – HS

2. Body Talk – Robyn

Robyn is more of an indie band stuck in a Swedish woman’s body than your run-of-the-mill pop star, and she’s got her universally acclaimed Body Talk trilogy to prove it. While her music rubs shoulders with the likes of pop trash like Miley Cyrus and Ke$ha on some iPods, her three-part series was also the only pop album given space in usually snobby independent record stores across the country. Robyn bridged that impossible gap by refusing to be confined by limits of her typically cold and mindless genre. From the heartbreaking tearjerker that is “Dancing On My Own” to the thoughtful “Stars 4-Ever,” she proved that dance music can emote. The full length Body Talk album is stellar, but what’s just as amazing is the quality of songs from previous EPs that didn’t make the final cut like the dark and danceable “Criminal Intent” and “Love Kills,” first cousins to some of Britney’s Blackout material, or the memorable “Cry When You Get Older” (“Back in suburbia, kids get high and make out on the train”). Robyn is without a doubt one of pop’s most forward-thinking ladies, but let’s just hope it doesn’t take another five years for her next release. – HS

1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy -Kanye West

Kanye’s fifth LP hadn’t even hit stores yet and the campaign to canonize it among hip-hop’s greatest records was already well under way. The perfect scores across the board didn’t hurt, but it could easily have been nothing more than a rock critic version of the Emperor’s new clothes. It’s not.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the most ambitious, sweeping and important release from the artist who already brought you 17 Track’s album of the decade. It shatters preconceived notions about what is expected of hip-hop, something West has already done on several occasions. “All of the Lights” is the Olympic pop anthem that manages to cram in more collaborators than previously thought possible. “Runaway” takes up where 808s & Heartbreak left off, a perfect pop art piece calling for a “toast for the douchebags.” “Hell of a Life” brings poetry to a sleazy night out and “Blame Game” deals with the fallout. And auto-tune never sounded as beautiful as it does in the Bon Iver-sampling “Lost in the World,” which builds into a dizzying and triumphant crescendo.

There’s nothing disrespectful about calling Fantasy the Sgt. Pepper’s of hip-hop. It has expanded the genre’s vision and made a strong case for its value as an art form the way no other release has. Like Sgt. Pepper’s, Fantasy features a crowd of familiar faces, but rather than being splashed across its cover, they are found in the music. Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, John Legend, La Roux’s Elly Jackson, and Bon Iver, a diverse cast, all make appearances. In some cases, Kanye’s collaborators even overshadow him, like Nicki Minaj does on “Monster.” Few rappers could get away with that, but Kanye does because there is never a question of whose fantasy you’re listening to. The record isn’t just a manifesto for hip-hop, it raises the bar for everyone making music today. Hate ‘Ye all you want for his ego, but with music this good, he earned it. – HS

Graphic by Nick Smith

Text by James Porter and Hunter Schwarz

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