The music industry is a juggernaut, the Rock Band video game franchise is thriving, TV singing competitions like The Sing Off are scoring in the ratings, and—despite the near total disappearance of retail record stores—recorded albums continue to be released in droves.
By some estimates, upwards of 100,000 albums were released in the United State this year alone. With nearly all of them available for download with the click of a mouse, it can be difficult to know where to start when it comes to new music. Stephen Thompson, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, and Steve Almond, author of Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, help out by sharing their favorite albums of the year.
Stephen Thompson's Picks
Though its name has become synonymous with atmospherically eccentric beauty, Sigur Ros has taken steps to find its quirky, joyful side in recent years. But it took a side project called Jonsi — technically a band led by singer Jon Thor Birgisson, who prefers not to be addressed as "Jonsi" — to dump out Birgisson's endlessly surprising toy-box of exhilarating ideas. Go showcases plenty of swirling ballads to balance out relentlessly ingratiating thrillers like "Go Do" and "Boy Lilikoi," but the net result is the year's most life-affirmingly sweet, unexpectedly sunny gem.
Horse Feathers, Thistled Spring
The first minute of Thistled Spring is as exquisitely lovely as any 60 seconds of music this year, and that's before Justin Ringle has begun lending his simultaneously comforting and disconcerted voice to the mix. If Horse Feathers' ingredients were listed in order of their prominence, strings and portent would be right at the top, but Ringle's soft croon keeps Thistled Spring grounded in genuine grace. He may sing of "a blossom that's bloomed / a house that's a tomb," but he's also peddling comfort food, to be washed down with an ice-cold glass of sweet tea.
Jeremy Messersmith, The Reluctant Graveyard
The phrase "worthy heir to the power-pop throne long held by Fountains of Wayne" and the phrase "concept album about death" don't usually appear in the same sentence, but here we are. Minneapolis singer-songwriter Jeremy Messersmith closes out his self-released "life-cycle trilogy" with an absolute corker of a record, full of songs that sparkle and shine while Messersmith examines the personae of dead gangsters, casket salesmen and others who traffic in life after life. But for goodness' sake, don't be put off by the concept: The Reluctant Graveyard is an immensely sweet string of infectious pop ringers. As colorfully as they shine, these songs could just as easily be about rainbows or suncatchers.
Titus Andronicus, The Monitor
It's been a great year for New Jersey rock 'n' roll, all suitable for blaring through car stereos on turnpikes. The Gaslight Anthem's American Slang is a terrific slab of Springsteenian odes to fading youth, but even better is The Monitor, Titus Andronicus' messy, monster sprawl of a concept album. Name-checking not only its favorite musicians — including Bruce Springsteen, naturally — but also the history of the Civil War, The Monitor finds room for back-to-back nine-minute anthems, a 14-minute album-closer and several historical speeches. All, of course, while rocking spectacularly.
The Heligoats, Goodness Gracious
The Heligoats' Chris Otepka doesn't write songs so much as he stuffs them with ideas until they brim over with imagination. Take "Fish Sticks," from the sublime Goodness Gracious: It's about a guy who escapes the day-to-day grind by building a biosphere in a swamp, only to learn that the swamp-dwellers view him as an outsider, too. As Otepka's intellectually curious observations whiz by, it takes a while to sink in that the singer has an awful lot to say about the way escape routes often lead back to where they began. Like his friend and frequent tour-mate Eef Barzelay — whose band Clem Snide also released a fine album in 2010 — Otepka has a way of writing sideways, so that the poignancy hits harder when it inevitably arrives.
See more of Stephen Thompson's favorite albums of 2010 on NPR Music
Steve Almond's Picks
Kim Taylor, Little Miracle (Don't Darling Me Records, 2010)
A record so good it reminded me of Patty Griffin's epic Living With Ghosts. It’s got the same haunted beauty—a woman with a guitar speaking straight to her demons. "Anchor Down" is to going to stay with you through the beautiful doom of autumn.
Gil Scott Heron, I'm New Here (XL Recordings, 2010)
The great unsung prophet of American music returns in triumph.
Drew Smith, Drew Smith's Lonely Choir (Fat Caddy Records, 2010)
A pop record so pure-hearted and lush you'll swear Van Morrison has taken an apprentice. Smith filters his soul music through the stringed instruments of Americana. His obvious pleasure in the obvious pleasure of hooks feels both old-fashioned and completely revolutionary.
Robbie Fulks, Happy (Boondoggle Records, 2010)
Fulks has been a world-class wisenheimer for years, a welcome antidote to the soggy cornpone of the Country Music Industrial Complex. Happy brings his shenanigans to its logical conclusion. It is composed entirely of ... Michael Jackson covers. They range from gorgeous traditional country ("Going Back to Indiana") to wiry swamp rock ("The Way You Make Me Feel"). Fulks is entirely reverential to the source material and, at the same time, able to find new magic inside the mishegas.
Boris McCutcheon, Wheel of Life (Cactusman, 2010)
Brother Boris keeps producing albums that make me and missus long for the days of our cross country drives. There's an endless quality to these songs, as if they've been around forever, waiting for you to find them. Meg Whitman should listen to "I Remember California" until she grows a legitimate soul.
MORE BEST OF 2010