WiAC’s Top 21 Albums of 2010

Top 21? But weren’t there 25 last year? Well yes. And it was only 15 the year before that. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re not that rigid around here – all we really care about is letting you know what we’re loving right now and that’s about it. If we only fall for one record next year then you can probably expect “WiAC’s Top 1 Album of 2011”. It’ll be a good one, though. We promise.

That said, this year was a great year for music. But it was great in a different way than the last couple years. In 2008 and 2009 we fell hard for debut records by new bands (Grand Archives and Harlem Shakes, respectively), but this year our top 5 went to nearly all familiar faces. In fact, I think when we look back on 2010 what we’ll remember most was how artist after artist that released an anticipated album just seemed to deliver – and not just by making good records, but often by making the record of their career. In a year where we listened to more music than ever, we just couldn’t deny that these were the albums we enjoyed the most. Period.

Finally, remember that this list represents our favorite albums of the year, and not necessarily the best albums of the year. If we had to pick what we thought were the very best albums critically, this list would probably look a little different. But we’re not critics, so we’re going to skip all the posturing and taste-making mumbo-jumbo. These are simply our very favorite albums of the year – the ones that made us laugh, cry, dance, smile, press repeat, wet our pants, etc. Basically, this is what we’ll remember when we look back on 2010…

UPDATE: Due to some glitch, we had to re-post this thing. Hopefully it all works now! Sorry Alvaro, alison and Ty but I couldn’t figure out how to keep your kind comments! Feel free to comment again!

The Head and the Heart

by The Head and the Heart [unsigned]

(buy it here)

mp3: The Head and the Heart – Lost In My Mind

We may not have stumbled on these guys (and girl!) until late in the year, but there’s no doubt in my mind they belong on here. In fact, if we’d been listening to this record since June (when it came out) I’m fairly certain you’d see it much higher on this list – because I don’t foresee tiring of their folksy charms anytime soon. Tight harmonies and jubilant instrumentals color these impeccably written songs, leaving the only weakness on their 9-song debut the fact that it’s over way too soon. -Chris

The Promise

by Bruce Springsteen [Columbia]

(buy it here)

mp3: Bruce Springsteen – Racing in the Street (’78)

There’s a lot of background that goes along with The Promise, but for the sake of brevity I won’t go into it other than to say that the songs on this album originated after Bruce completed Born to Run, but before he recorded Darkness on the Edge of Town. If you’re anything like me, then you would have just said, Oh, well of course this should be one of the greatest albums of the year, maybe of all time.” You’re right. It would be no exaggeration to say I’ve listened to Born to Run and Darkness each over two dozen times in the last few months. Those two are just about perfect and The Promise, almost acting as a bridge between the two, really is Bruce at his best. Logan

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

by Kanye West [Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella]

(buy it here)

mp3: Kanye West – Power

If there’s one record that dramatically influenced my listening habits more than anything else this year, it was this one. Over the last couple months Kanye has rekindled a long dormant love of hip hop in me, and somehow he did it with a sordid set of songs about how big a douche he is. Go figure. But while there’s plenty of bravado here, there’s at least as much honest soul-searching, and at times he’s more candid about himself than any other songwriter I can think of, rapper or not. Listen to the brilliant few lines in “Power” about fighting for custody of his inner child and you’ll know what I’m talking about – it gets me every time. Of course, that spine-melting beat doesn’t hurt either. –Chris

Destroyer of the Void

by Blitzen Trapper [Sub Pop]

(buy it here)

mp3: Blitzen Trapper – Destroyer of the Void

No, we haven’t picked a heavy metal album for our year end list. Don’t let the title or the disembodied head of a demonic multi-eyed bull on the cover fool you, there’s nothing metal about this album. Blitzen Trapper starts off Destroyer of the Void with the title track, a six-minute epic with Queen-style a cappella harmonies, guitar solos, and a strangely wonderful interlude. And while that happens to be one of its strongest songs, the album doesn’t stop there. It springboards into a fantastic set of the familiar and unique brand of folk-rock Blitzen Trapper seems to have perfected. –Logan

No Ghost

by The Acorn [Bella Union]

(buy it here)

mp3: The Acorn – Cobbled from Dust

No Ghost is an album that when you listen to its lyrics you can be a little haunted by the sadness of it all. When it comes right down to it, this is a sad album, but there are still some fantastically upbeat tracks, which mean you can listen to it over and over again without slipping into a horrible depression. (There’s also some fantastic banjo pickin’ on “Slippery When Wet”, and a banjo will always bring me back from the brink of depression.) On top of that, I think the strength of No Ghost is the ability of The Acorn as musicians to create a musical atmosphere that perfectly complements the mood of the lyrics, making a beautiful and beautifully-balanced album. –Logan

The Reluctant Graveyard

by Jeremy Messersmith [unsigned]

(buy it here)

mp3: Jeremy Messersmith – Toussaint, Grey, First in Life and Death

Logan and I consciously try to dissociate this list from the many live experiences we’ve had during the year, but I feel I need to mention that Jeremy Messersmith puts on a great show – because in a year of fantastic concerts, Jeremy somehow managed to become one of the most fantastic-est of my year, using only his guitar and a loop pedal. It definitely didn’t hurt though that his newest batch of songs are arguably the best he’s ever penned. They round out his three-album “life cycle trilogy”, finishing the story the way all our stories end – in the casket. But despite its somber subject matter, the record is anything but – made up of songs that are buoyant and beautiful, heartfelt and charming, adding a bit of life to the idea of giving up the ghost. -Chris

Go

by Jonsi [XL Recordings]

(buy it here)

mp3: Jonsi – Go Do

So it was probably a good two months into listening to Go that I found out Jonsi, who typically sings in Icelandic, was actually singing in English. In my defense though, Jonsi has always seemed much more of a vocal stylist than a traditional singer, and that’s true no matter what language he’s singing in. The album is laced with strings, horns, flutes, and percussion all beautifully arranged together with Jonsi’s velvety smooth voice – at times it’s so dense that it seems like it’s going to carry Jonsi’s vocals away with it, but then everything hushes and his voice becomes the primary focus once again, as all the orchestrations compliment its strength and beauty. Jonsi’s Go is like a miniature orchestra and symphony, and one of the most arrestingly beautiful records to be released in a long time. –Logan

make gifThe Flood/Live at First Ave.

by Mason Jennings [Stats and Brackets]

(buy it here/and here)

mp3: Mason Jennings – City of Ghosts (live)

Mason’s two records in 2010 were both revelatory, each in their own way. The Flood, which collected some of Mason’s earliest compositions into a stripped-down and intimate record, revealed the young songwriter the way he had been as a new transplant to Minneapolis. Live at First Ave., on the other hand, leaned heavily on songs from last year’s distortion-heavy Blood of Man – and while that record hadn’t resonated with me for some reason, hearing its songs fleshed out by a live rock band revealed them in a whole new way for me, letting them stretch out and breathe in a way they just hadn’t before. Both of these albums have become quick favorites for me, and Mason continues to be one of the best songwriters making music today, quietly putting out record after record of solid and soulful folk/rock tunes. -Chris

Odd Blood

by Yeasayer [Secretly Canadian]

(buy it here)

mp3: Yeasayer – O.N.E.

I think every year I have at least one album that could be called my “move” album. It’s the album that makes me, a confirmed non-dancer, want to dance, but since I can’t dance, I just “move”. Odd Blood, in all its strange freaky pop glory has been my “move” album of the year. And it’s been a fun year, ‘cus I’ve had this since January and I’m still listening to it now, and there are few albums that can hold me like this. Odd Blood has managed to stay fresh and fun from the first listen right up until now, but it also manages to dive deeper than most of my other “move” albums. It plays like the best soap opera: love, loss, betrayal, and even a touch of inspiration. –Logan

Transference

by Spoon [Merge]

(buy it here)

mp3: Spoon – Nobody Gets Me But You

Like all of Spoon’s albums, this one sort of snuck up on me. I liked it fine when it was released back in January, but it honestly wasn’t until sometime in July that I realized “Who Makes Your Money”, “Written in Reverse” and “Nobody Gets Me But You” were slowly becoming some of my most-played songs, and Transference was becoming one of my most-played albums. It was just one of those things I guess, like when you’ve been hanging out with that same friend for a really long time, and then one day you wake up and realize “Whoa. I think we’re more than just friends” – you know? And you can’t really pinpoint when that transition happened, but it definitely happened, and now you’re an item. That’s like me and Transference. We’re going steady you guys. Just thought you should know. -Chris

Brothers

by The Black Keys [Nonesuch]

(buy it here)

mp3: The Black Keys – Next Girl

To me The Black Keys have always been about the music more than anything else. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are just incredible musicians and their raw style of soulful blues and gritty rock shine bright on Brothers. There’s a lot of beautiful music out there (see: Jonsi’s Go) but for every sweeping string arrangement and velvety smooth vocal delivery, you need some distorted guitars and vocals with a bit of growl to them. Brothers is just that, and it’s one fantastic rock album. Logan

Contra

by Vampire Weekend [XL Recordings]

(buy it here)

mp3: Vampire Weekend – I Think Ur A Contra

This record was practically guaranteed a spot on this list clear back in January when in the cold dark recesses of my test-addled winter it was my beacon of sunny hope throughout many long hours of studying. In my opinion that was probably the best way to experience it, because these boys somehow managed to capture how it feels to remember summer in the dead of winter, and they did it masterfully. It’s a strong record start to finish, from the slightly absurd opening lines (“In December/drinking horchata/I’d look psychotic in a balaclava”) to the dreamlike outro refrains of “Ur A Contra” (which, if I’m being totally honest, is one of the finest album closers ever). In June I pulled Contra out as I was driving around Los Angeles alone late one night – just me, this record, and that strange city’s hazy pink midnight. It felt as good then as it had in the middle of an Indiana winter, and I’m sure it’ll feel good again and again and again long into the future. -Chris

Shame, Shame

by Dr. Dog [Anti-]

(buy it here)

mp3: Dr. Dog – Someday

For some reason I’ve had a hard time putting down my feelings about this album. I’m not sure what it is, but I just haven’t been able to articulate (even to myself) what it is I love so much about it. All I know is this: when I put it on and those first couple bars of the first song hit, I just smile. And that smile usually doesn’t fade until I’ve listened to the whole record. There are so many great moments littered throughout, but one of my favorites comes during the outro breakdown on “Someday” as the guitar line/whistling melody over the hammered organ chords breaks into a pretty close rendition of this fantastic tune from my childhood. If you smile when you hear that, you’ll get an idea of how I feel about this record. -Chris

True Love Cast Out All Evil

by Roky Erickson with Okkervil River [Anti-]

(buy it here)

mp3: Roky Erickson with Okkervil River – Goodbye Sweet Dreams

With or without the back-story, True Love Cast Out All Evil would still be one of my favorite albums of the year. Each track from the album is a look into the tumultuous and heartbreaking, but ultimately redemptive history of Roky Erickson’s life, and his voice just sparkles throughout each and every track as Okkervil River (acting as his backing band) creates music that perfectly complements the emotions in his lyrics. It’s a triumph really and you’re right there alongside him the whole time. –Logan

The ArchAndroid: Suites II and III

by Janelle Monae [Bad Boy/Wondaland Arts Society]

(buy it here)

mp3: Janelle Monae – Oh, Maker

In a year of exceptional hip hop releases there’s just no doubt in our minds that this was the absolute best – a ridiculously ambitious record that somehow managed to be as fun to listen to as it was to pick apart. Of course, to limit what Ms. Monae is doing to just hip hop would be a huge mistake – over the course of her fantastic full-length debut she hits everything from R&B to swing to rap to bossa nova to folk to indie pop to rock n’ roll to straight-up ORCHESTRAL SCORES, and does it all with a style and finesse that sounds like she’s been doing it forever. I can’t even think of another album where you’d hear touches of David Bowie and Stevie Wonder, Outkast and Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson and Claude Debussy – sometimes all in the same song! Add to those references names like Orwell and Asimov (the record is a concept album about a messianic android in a dystopian future), and you have yourself one of the coolest records ever made. No hyperbole. -Chris

The Winter of Mixed Drinks

by Frightened Rabbit [FatCat]

(buy it here)

mp3: Frightened Rabbit – The Loneliness and the Scream

Early last spring just as winter was starting to wane and the trees were beginning to thaw and fill out again, Kristin and I took a drive on some of the county roads just south of where we live. It was towards the end of the day and the hazy golden rays of dusk were dripping through the trees as we wound our way through little towns we’d never been to before, basking in the feeling that winter was finally over. We listened to The Winter of Mixed Drinks throughout that drive, and I couldn’t think of a better soundtrack for that shaking off of the season than Scott Hutchison’s brilliant third record. If 2008’s The Midnight Organ Fight documented the grizzly details of a relationship falling apart, then The Winter of Mixed Drinks is the aftermath – the dealing with it and moving forward. It’s still full of heartbreak, but this time it’s not quite as raw – it’s a little more calloused, a little more guarded, a little less willing to bring you into the bedroom. But just like winter gives way to spring, there’s a faint optimism on its songs that belie a sense of hope – the kind that only comes with moving on. It may have been a tough winter, but it’s over now, and darn it, spring is going to be better. -Chris

The Age of Adz

by Sufjan Stevens [Asthmatic Kitty]

(buy it here)

mp3: Sufjan Stevens – I Walked

I already wrote a freakishly long post on this record, so I won’t bore you with any more of my deconstruction. Let me just say this: there is nobody in the world making music like Sufjan Stevens. This album is flawless, but in a beautifully flawed way – taking Sufjan’s sound and blowing it up and out and into the far reaches of who-knows-what, creating a sonic mushroom cloud of every idea he’s ever had in the studio. It’s strange, and even a little self-indulgent, but it’s also pretty dang brilliant. There’s been a lot of talk about Sufjan’s “new sound”, but for all its spacey imagery and sonic expansion, Adz is remarkably grounded in what always made Sufjan’s music so appealing – his honest concern for what it means to be a human being. -Chris

Dear Companion

by Ben Sollee & Daniel Martin Moore [Sub Pop]

(buy it here)

mp3: Ben Sollee & Daniel Martin Moore – Only a Song

It really should come as no surprise to anyone who follows this blog that Dear Companion ranks so high on this list. Kentucky natives Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore constructed an absolutely perfect folk/bluegrass album dedicated to a world and a life that is disappearing. Although created in response to the destructive practice of mountain-top removal mining, the album is not some heavy-handed politicized tirade that is so common in music today. Instead, Dear Companion deals almost exclusively with how this crisis is affecting the artists themselves, making the album intensely personal (and in my opinion, making the message infinitely more meaningful.) Even the more overtly ‘protest’ tracks, like “Only a Song” and “Flyrock Blues”, match the genuine sincerity of the rest of the album. –Logan

High Violet

by The National [4AD]

(buy it here)

mp3: The National – Afraid of Everyone

Sometimes it’s the albums I like most that are the most difficult to write about. High Violet is truly unstoppable and saying there isn’t a weak track on the album is a tremendous understatement, since each and every song aches with an earnestness that’s almost devastating. It was hard to choose which track to include on this list, because every song on the album at some point during the year had the title of “my favorite.” And not just my favorite on the album, but my favorite song in general. Seriously though, if I were forced to narrow it down to just two tracks, I would say the pairing of “Afraid of Everyone” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” at the apex of the album just perfectly encapsulates what makes this album so amazing. –Logan

So Runs The World Away

by Josh Ritter [Pytheas]

(buy it here)

mp3: Josh Ritter – Change of Time

My first listen to So Runs the World Away was one of the most meaningful experiences I had had with music in a long time. Music is often a very passive activity for me; more often than not it’s playing in the background while I work on “more important things.” However, everything about this album was an active musical experience. Being my most anticipated release of the year, it felt wrong to just rip the CD and then relegate it to background noise, so instead I just sat and listened and just kept listening. Everything about So Runs the World Away is enchanting. Josh continues to be one of the finest songsmiths currently recording, and there are times during this album where his talent just seems untouchable. Chris has already written a masterful review of the album, and I thought it would be foolish to attempt anything like it; so instead you got all this, the explanation why I haven’t listened to any music quite the same way since. –Logan

The Suburbs

by Arcade Fire [Merge]

(buy it here)

mp3: Arcade Fire – Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

On any given day we could make a strong case for just about any of our top 5 records being the year’s best. To simply say I “enjoyed” So Runs The World Away more than Dear Companion, or that High Violet is a “better” record than The Age of Adz, would both be silly statements – our experiences with these records have been rich and varied throughout the past year, and the very act of quantifying them into a list-form is naturally problematic. However, if you take everything that I love about music into account – its ability to lift spirits and fill hearts, to awaken self-awareness and develop real empathy, to send spines tingling and fists pumping against steering wheels, to reward quiet reflection as well as triumphant singing along – if you take all of those things into account then only The Suburbs delivered all of them the most passionately and consistently for me all year. Packed with the same heart and bombast that made Funeral and Neon Bible so compelling, The Suburbs is a water-tight song cycle that’s not just about tract houses, but about the shared human experience of growing up and leaving – leaving our childhood homes and relationships, leaving our childish understanding and expectations for the world, and reflecting on what that all means. Heady stuff for sure – the kind that would have sunk lesser records, but not this one. For all of Arcade Fire’s ambition, there is no trace of arrogance here – only a sincere sense of longing and a search for meaning. Toward the albums end a police officer asks a pair of young suburban refugees, “Well, where do you kids live?” to which one replies “Well sir, if you only knew/what the answer is worth/been searching every corner of the earth.” The Suburbs is a record of that search – and it’s a gorgeous one, a testament to what it means to be a human being looking out from within the sprawl. -Chris

Runners’ Up:

Here are some other really great records. Our hearts broke a little bit when we had to cut them out, so you should probably listen to every one of them, just in case.

  1. Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can
  2. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
  3. The Tallest Man On Earth – The Wild Hunt
  4. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
  5. Cotton Jones – Tall Hours In The Glowstream
  6. Belle and Sebastian – Write About Love
  7. Broken Bells – s/t
  8. Lissie – Catching A Tiger

A.A. Bondy

When The Devil’s Loose

A.A. Bondy [Fat Possum]

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  1. Tobler’s avatar

    Here’s the comments that got lost in the re-up. They were just too nice to be lost forever…

    1. Alvaro on December 14, 2010 at 12:32 pm:

    “Hi! This is the first time I read your blog, but you’ve made a massive selection! Congrat’s!! You’re now officially in my Google Reader “Music” section! thank you…”

    2. alison on December 14, 2010 at 4:19 pm:

    “awesome summation of the year! i am a little shocked joanna didn’t make it onto this list, but at least she got an honorable mention”

    3. Ty on December 17, 2010 at 1:57 am:

    “Good”

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