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Top 30 Albums of 2010


Ahhhh, album of the year lists. Our eternal salvation. Who doesn't love a good meticulous ranking, taking a wild and unwieldy tangle of history and whipping it into numerated order? It's an act akin to playing God: making order out of chaos. And, in an era utterly overrun by an astonishing, neverending influx of new music, these lists have become a true necessity: sounding out those whose amazing audio may've gotten lost in the new-release din. 2010 proved, once again, to be a boon for blessed releases; the year —and the decade— mere weeks old when Joanna Newsom unveiled her 3LP landmark Have One On Me...

30. The Walkmen 'Lisbon'

The Walkmen 'Lisbon'
Fat Possum
The Walkmen are aging well. Now on their fifth LP, the New Yorker outfit have a sound world-weary; the vintage instruments, golden tone, and yearning quality of Hamilton Leithauser's voice making every song sound like a lament for the way things once were. It's no surprise, then, that The Walkmen were inspired by Lisbon, whose tiny, tangle-of-alleys downtown finds the past eternally manifest before your eyes. With brass fanfares, brushed drums, slapback guitar, and a golden glow of echo, the set sounds hand-crafted, almost old-fashioned. After being roped into the New York rock-revival crowd in the '00s, now The Walkmen stand alone, out of time and out of fashion. Lisbon sounded great in 2010, but it could easily get better over the years.
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29. The Morning Benders 'Big Echo'

The Morning Benders 'Big Echo'
Rough Trade
Just as the title of the Morning Benders' debut album, Talking Through Tin Cans, symbolized its home-recorded vibe, so, too, does Big Echo tell the story of this second LP. Produced by Morning Benders main-man Christopher Chu and Grizzly Bear's in-house sound-stylist Christopher Taylor, Big Echo is, well, big. And, whilst there's choice reverb, it's less about waves of echo, more about the clarity of the instruments. Chu's voice resounds, guitars charm, pianos sing, and parts dance between each channel. Headphone listeners get the sense that hand-percussion is gently rapping on your very ear drums. It's a pristine piece of production, and, in a 2010 that found most hype acts sounding deliberately crappy, that had its own kind of charm.

28. Magic Kids 'Memphis'

Magic Kids 'Memphis'
True Panther Sounds
Beach Boys-influenced indie-pop acts are a dime a dozen, but Magic Kids are a cut above. The Tennessean troupe riff on Wilsonic sunshine not with tired genuflection, but with youthful exuberance and fresh ears. Memphis, their debut LP, comes dutifully loaded with multi-part harmonies, major chords, and lyrics about summer, but it's beyond homage. Frontman Bennett Foster has an ear for a sticky hook, a flair for insistent melody, and an already-integrated approach to orchestration; the jaunty strings, woodwinds, and horns Magic Kids employ never sounding like tacked-on adornments. Sure, the songs all sound like "I'm Into Something Good," but it's impossible to fault the enthusiasm. For these kids, old is the new new.

27. The Radio Dept. 'Clinging to a Scheme'

The Radio Dept. 'Clinging to a Scheme'
The Radio Dept. were at the shoegaze-revival frontlines in the early '00s: 2003's Lesser Matters blasting white-hot walls of whitewashed guitar back before '90s nostalgia existed. Now that The Big Pink and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are bilking that ripe market, The Radio Dept. have moved on to more interesting, individual realms. These days, they're more twee Swedes with a scathing edge. Though there's less noise-guitar and big-beat, more cheesy synth-piano and reggae rhythm, Clinging to a Scheme is lyrically vicious; "Heaven's on Fire" a call-to-arms (to, as Thurston Moore intones, "destroy the bogus capitalist process that is destroying youth culture") that includes the charming line "When I look at you, I reach for a piano wire."
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26. Club 8 'The People's Record'

Club 8 'The People's Record'

Club 8's seventh album —titled, winningly, The People's Record— serves as a reinvention. Where the Swedish indie-pop pair's past LPs tended towards twee meekness, lilting melancholy, and barely-there bossa nova, their latest is a blaring blow-out of Afro-Cuban percussion, highlife guitar, and balearic sway. Any cynics who'd dare suggest that Club 8 are trend-chasing will be silenced once they cop an earful of cuts like "Isn't That Great?" and "Back to A" and "Shape Up!"; utterly joyous pop-songs delivered with irrepressible energy. The People's Record is no better symbolized than by the giddy "We're All Going to Die," where Karolina Komstedt carols the refrain with unrestrained joy; Club 8 dancing in the face of their imminent demise.

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25. Wildbirds and Peacedrums 'Rivers'

Wildbirds and Peacedrums 'Rivers'
The Control Group

Wildbirds and Peacedrums employ those most ancient of instruments —just percussion and voice— but their music normally doesn't sound ancient. That changes on Rivers, a twin-disc set whose first half, Retina, marshals military drums, a grim sense of crusade, and the Schola Cantorum Reykjavík Chamber Choir's heavenly voices into near-medieval reverie. The second stanza, Iris, is just as stripped down and solemn, but, here, Andreas Werliin dabbles solely with dappled steel-pan drums and shakers, sending soft showers of polyrhythm down on Mariam Wallentin's bruised crooning. Taken together, Rivers may lack the emotional peaks of 2009's The Snake, but it hardly dents Wildbirds and Peacedrums' reputation as one of indie's most individual duos.

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24. Dirty Projectors and Björk 'Mount Wittenberg Orca'

Dirty Projectors and Björk 'Mount Wittenberg Orca'
Dirty Projectors and Björk

Initially written for a one-off live performance, this collision between two of modern music's unstoppable forces-of-nature —Dave Longstreth and Björk— plays just as well as a play-at-home 21-minute suite as it did as a singular operetta. Here, Longstreth takes the titular mammal of his 2009 opus Bitte Orca and makes it a veritable totem. This song-cycle finds Björk 'playing' the matriarch of a pod of whales, with the cascading harmonies of the Dirty Projectors' dames her children. It's very much a composition for voices; a simple, unobtrusive rhythm-section sitting behind the host of caroling singers. Sure, it doesn't quite measure up to the respective regular-works of its star-cross'd collaborateurs, but, then again, what does?

23. Ólöf Arnalds 'Innundir Skinni'

Ólöf Arnalds 'Innundir Skinni'
One Little Indian

Ólöf Arnalds' debut, Við og Við, kept things pared to bare bones: her ancient-sounding folksongs delivered, in a sharp Icelandic tongue, over brittle pluckings of guitar and violin. Whilst it's not surprising that the follow-up, Innundir Skinni, would build bigger arrangements, the way they totally change the tenor of Arnalds' songs is unexpected. Here, the cold, flinty, icy sounds of yore melt into a glowing warmth. Not just in the big gestures, either (like the caroling campfire chorus of "Vinur Minn," or the Celtic embrace of "Jonathan"), but in smaller ways; like the quiet breath of woodwinds that fog up "Madrid." Innundir Skinni even wears a wailing Björk co-vocal, on the slow-building "Surrender," with a sense of simple grace.

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22. Sam Amidon 'I See the Sign'

Sam Amidon 'I See the Sign'
Bedroom Community

Sam Amidon's voice is best described as 'strangely effecting.' A strapping, banjo-plucking Vermont folkie, Amidon has a casual, unadorned, slightly froggy croak that never seems entirely in tune. And, yet, it's that quality that makes it hugely moving. There's something amazing —something utterly human— about hearing Amidon's vocal chords stretch, creakily, to match up to the swirling orchestral grandeur plotted by his pal Nico Muhly. On the biggest moments of his third album —like his astonishing R. Kelly re-write, "Relief," all Beth Orton harmonies, celesta sparkles, piano filigrees, and string swells— Amidon pitted against his orchestra sounds like a man genuflecting in the face of the awe-inspiring beauty of nature.

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21. Sharon Van Etten 'Epic'

Sharon Van Etten 'Epic'

Where Sharon Van Etten's impressive debut album, Because I Was in Love, was a suite unbroken in its sorrow, her follow-up, the half-jokingly titled Epic, presents a more varied mood. The songs are still, uniformly, about navigating a destructive relationship —from the girlfriend-as-captive catharsis of "Love More," to the barbed conflicts of "Save Yourself," to the breezy ultimatum of "One Day"— but Van Etten dresses them in different threads; from Nico-esque harmonium gasps, to Nashville-ish dollops of sinuous pedal steel and saloon piano, to Laurel Canyon-like languour, respectively. The result is a record that finds Van Etten stepping into her own artistry; the bowed, bashful songstress of yore now steeled with conviction and confidence.

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