The 100 Best Albums of 2010
Since it was impossible to whittle this down to the original 50 we were shooting for, we went for 100 – so much for the canard that the album is dead. As with last year’s list, everything here is in pretty random order. Is Paula Carino’s wounded, lyrical janglerock (#1) any “better” than Bobby Avey’s intense piano jazz (#100)? Who cares? It’s all good. If you want single tracks, here’s our 100 Best Songs of 2010 list.
1. Paula Carino – Open on Sunday
This one tops the list this year because every single song on this moody, pensive, wickedly lyrical janglerock album is good – not a single miss here. It’s been a long time coming. As a lyricist and tunesmith, Carino ranks with Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson, a great wit, fearless nonconformist and unaffectedly compelling singer.
2. Ran Blake and Sara Serpa - Camera Obscura
Serpa, a sometimes chillingly intense third-stream composer and singer, is a protegee of Blake, the preeminent noir jazz pianist of the last fifty years. Their collaboration is fascinatingly unpredictable: when it comes to longing and angst, they don’t disappoint.
3. Norden Bombsight - Pinto
Intense and often unhinged, the Brooklyn band’s darkly psychedelic art-rock blends 70s orchestrated rock influences with macabre goth tinges and the occasional Americana theme. Frontwoman/keyboardist/electric mandolinist Rachael Bell’s savage wail brings the intensity to redline.
4. Sarah Manning - Dandelion Clock
Haunting, intensely lyrical, sometimes anguished jazz concept album – about the fleeting nature of time – from this brilliant alto saxophonist/composer and her quartet with Art Hirahara, Linda Oh and Kyle Struve.
5. The NYFA Collection
A massive five-cd box set that aims to be a definitive history of edgy avant garde music and jazz in New York that succeeds amazingly well: it’s the new music equivalent of the Harry Smith albums. Too many artists here to list: see our review from November.
6. Redhooker – Vespers
Hypnotic, ambient soundscapes and pensive avant-chamber instrumentals from Stephen Griesgraber’s marvelously shapeshifting new music ensemble.
7. The Roots of Chicha 2 anthology
It’s the Rosetta Stone of classic psychedelic Peruvian cumbia-rock from the 70s and 80s, a wildly entertaining blend of instrumentals, dance songs, twangy guitar and rhythms from just about everywhere south of the border.
8. The Tivoli Trio’s first album
Jazz pianist Frank Carlberg’s phantasmagorical, carnivalesque, often macabre trio project.
9. Las Rubias del Norte - Ziguala
Surreal, otherworldly and mysterious with gorgeous harmonies and a global mix of songs with latin, Bollywood and Mexican influences, it’s the Brooklyn band’s best album – in a lot of ways, it’s the great album Chicha Libre didn’t put out this year, plus vocals.
10. The Snow – I Die Every Night
Intense, smartly lyrical, alternately lush and sensuous art-rock and chamber pop from Pierre de Gaillande and Hilary Downes’ eclectic New York band.
11. The New Collisions - The Optimist
The Boston new wavers’ dark, brilliantly lyrical shift into straight-ahead powerpop.
13. Botanica – Who You Are
This era’s foremost art-rock band’s most diverse and ultimately most optimistic album, but where frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch went further toward psychedelia and soul, guitarist John Andrews picked up with an ominous, reverb-drenched, Beatlesque roar.
14. Bad Reputation: Pierre de Gaillande Sings Georges Brassens
The first full-length English-language album of songs by legendary French songwriter Brassens is as potent and obscenely hilarious as his own work.
15. Thomas Simon – Moncao
Another album of swirling cinematic soundscapes, these with more of a guitar-driven, apocalyptic goth menace.
16. The Larch - Larix Americana
Finally, the classic album these Brooklyn new wave throwbacks always hinted they had in them: an especially tuneful, gleefully sung, ferociously lyrical and funny one.
17. The Jack Grace Band – Drinking Songs for Lovers
A country concept album that needed to be written, and it’s a good thing this wry honkytonk baritone crooner and his oldschool 60s-style band were the ones to do it. Drinks for breakfast; birthday drinking; drinking at the racetrack, and drunk parents are just some of the topics covered on this crazed, hilarious album. There should be a Jack Grace Band drinking game.
18. Bassam Saba – Wonderful Land
A tribute to the multi-instrumentalist composer’s native Lebanon, it’s a characteristically lush, diverse album with influences that range from classic Egyptian anthems to western baroque composition.
19. Elvis Costello - National Ransom
This is the one album on this list that we didn’t review, because we figured you already knew about it. No? It’s a double album with his most recent band, Americana rockers The Sugarcanes, and it’s one of the best things he’s ever done.
20. The Marc Cary Focus Trio - Live 2009
Dark, magisterial, hypnotic and haunting, it captures one of the most powerfully melodic, interesting jazz pianists of this era at the top of his game.
22. Cousin Silas - Canaveral Dreams
Yorkshire’s most evocative soundscape composer offers an often terrifyingly allusive collection of electroacoustic tableaux here; his latest one Adrift Off the Isles of Langerhans promises to be just as good.
23. Tris McCall - Let the Night Fall
Richly lyrical, uneasy New Jersey-themed concept album by the Overlord keyboardist: a vivid, understatedly angst-driven portrayal of stripmall hell by someone who’s lived it.
24. Ben Syversen’s Cracked Vessel’s first album
The highly sought-after Balkan trumpeter also leads this scorching, assaultive, aggressive trumpet-and-guitar noiserock/avant jazz band – it’s a wild ride.
25. Katzenjammer – Le Pop
Edgy, biting, satirical noir cabaret and new wave-inflected accordion rock from this wildly popular all-female Norwegian quartet.
26. Natacha Atlas - Mounqaliba
A biting, haunting, richly melodic look at the state of the world, another classic-style Levantine art-song masterpiece by one of this era’s most socially aware artists.
27. Under Byen – Alt Er Tabt
Stark, intense, moody chamber-rock from this ethereal Danish band.
28. Ted Hearne - Katrina Ballads
Sort of like the Dead Kennedys for chamber orchestra. It’s a cerebral, brutally honest, often brutally funny depiction of the early days of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, with songs incorporating art-rock, avant-garde chamber music and jazz.
30. Patricia Vonne – Worth It
The Texas Americana rock chanteuse’s most diverse album blends anthemic, characteristically lyrical janglerock with a brooding southwestern gothic vibe.
31. My Education - Sunrise
Bracingly ambient, reverb-drenched guitar soundscapes in a Mogwai vein from this excellent Texas post-rock crew.
32. Gaida – Levantine Indulgence
Slinky ballads and instrumentals drawing on Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian influences by the New York-based chanteuse and her excellent group.
33. Liz Tormes – Limelight
Smoldering, venomous, lyrical Nashville gothic songwriting by the New York noir songwriter with a great band behind her. If revenge songs are your thing, nobody writes them better than Liz Tormes.
34. Little Annie and Paul Wallfisch - Genderful
The noir cabaret legend and her reliable cohort, Botanica frontman Wallfisch team up for a characteristically haunting yet often very funny album, their best together.
35. Fernando Otero - Vital
Intense, dark solo piano compositions from the eclectic Argentinian composer.
36. Brooklyn Rider - Dominant Curve
The adventurous string quartet’s tribute to Debussy, including his string quartet along with pieces by Colin Jacobsen, Kojiro Umezaki, Dmitry Yanov-Yanovsky and Justin Messina.
37. Avi Fox-Rosen - Welcome to the Show
Smart, sardonically timely concept album for the new depression by the eclectic Brooklyn guitarist/songwriter and his funky, artsy, Steely Dan-ish band.
38. Either/Orchestra – Mood Music for Time Travellers
Witty, virtuosically cinematic Ethiopian-flavored big band jazz, the playful large ensemble’s first album in close to a decade.
39. The Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge compilation
An eclectic mix of cutting-edge pop, classical and cabaret from around the Middle East…but no lounge music.
40. Bobtown’s first album
With their lush, beautiful four-part harmonies, stark, clever melodies that blend old time chain gang songs, bluegrass and blues and macabre sensibility, Bobtown established themselves as one of the most original bands in Americana.
41. The Mingus Big Band – Live at Jazz Standard
Allowing this album on this list is just plain unfair. It’s an ecstatic New Year’s Eve show by some of New York’s best jazz players, a wall-to-wall collection of Mingus classics, mostly from the late 50s Mingus Mingus Mingus era.
42. Newspeak - Sweet Light Crude
Potent and politically aware third-stream music that matches Lynchian ambience to depressed Michigan autoland and covers Missy Mazzoli with a vivid, hypnotic swirl.
43. The Universal Thump – First Spout
Art-rock composer/pianist Greta Gertler’s irrepressible, unpredictable sensibility has never been more potent or tunefully in effect than she is here – and the album isn’t even done yet.
44. Annabouboula - Immortal Water
Slinky, psychedelic Greek rock with Greek, Turkish, reggae and trip-hop music.
45. Krista Detor - Chocolate Paper Suites
Some lists consider this a 2009 release (to be fair, we’ve snuck a few others from late in that year onto this list – hey, a good album is a good album). Either way, it’s a torrent of pensive lyrics delivered with Detor’s eerie calm and eclectic sense of melody.
46. Ninth House - 11 Cemetery & Western Classics
Eleven years after they began, who would have thought that New York-based Nashville gothic rockers’ best album would come out in 2010, after a flurry of lineup changes and stylistic shifts? It may be their loudest and most intense one yet.
47. Klezwoods’ first album
Ostensibly this is klezmer, but violinist Joe Kessler’s big band plays music from every corner of the former Ottoman Empire, with wit and intensity.
48. Khaira Arby - Timbuktu Tarab
An innovative, fearlessly feminist mix of desert blues, art-rock, afrobeat and psychedelia by the pioneering Malian desert blues diva.
49. Vieux Farka Toure - Live
About time the Malian guitar god (Ali Farka Toure’s oldest kid) made a live album – it’s sort of like an African Albert Collins record, all chilly sonics and lightning riffage but no wasted notes, just raw adrenaline.
50. Robin Aigner - Bandito
Aigner gets props for her sultry, soaring vocals, but she’s also a tremendously witty songwriter with a smart sense of history, a love for sly innuendo and purist taste in Americana and oldtimey songwriting.
51. John Sheppard: Media Vita – Stile Antico
A mammoth collection of otherworldly, death-obsessed Renaissance vocal works by the hardworking, wildly popular self-directed UK choral group.
52. Tarbaby - An End to Fear
One of the most unbelievably tuneful jazz albums of the year – and a powerfully socially aware one too. Pianist Orrin Evans is on the hook for a lot of this, along with
bassist Eric Revis, drummer Nasheet Waits plus the estimable JD Allen on tenor. They cover the Bad Brains and give a shout-out to the Jena Six.
53. Brass Menazeri – Vranjski San
Fiery Balkan brass dance tunes and anthems from this Bay Area crew.
54. Changing Modes - Here
Artsy, smartly lyrical somewhat retro 80s rock that ranges from snarling punk to creepy, goth-tinged songs: if this album came out 25 years ago, it would be regarded as a cult classic today.
55. Kasey Anderson – Nowhere Nights
Snarling, Steve Earle-style lyrical Americana rock. Anderson’s forthcoming 2011 album Heart of a Dog goes in an even harder-rocking direction.
56. Abaji - Origine Orients
The multi-instrumentalist and instrument inventor’s latest eclectic collection draws on Middle Eastern, Greek, and gypsy music as well as Americana.
57. Marianne Dissard – Paris One Takes
A brilliant way to build a fan base: edgy,world-weary, amusingly lyrical French rocker Dissard offers this one as a free download. It’s one of the funnest albums of the year – even if you don’t speak French.
58. Copal – Into the Shadow Garden
Slinky, hypnotic, original Middle Eastern and gypsy-tinged violin-and-cello world music dancefloor vamps from the most original groove band on the planet.
59. The Spy from Cairo – Secretly Famous
Hypnotic, psychedelic dub-flavored Middle Eastern instrumentals, many with a trip-hop feel.
60. El Pueblo - Isla
Warmly hypnotic and psychedelic, this has to be the most diverse roots reggae album released in awhile – the Brooklyn band have more dubwise styles than you can count.
61. The One and Nines’ first album
Sultry oldschool Memphis style soul from these New Jersey revivalists: what Sharon Jones did for Harlem, these guys (and their fearless frontwoman Vera Sousa) are doing for a more southern soul sound.
62. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba - I Speak Fula
Hypnotic, diverse anthems and ballads from the Malian lute virtuoso and his desert blues-style band.
63. Fishtank Ensemble – Woman in Sin
Raucous original gypsy music taken to the next level with jazz and Middle Eastern influences, with a frontwoman whose vocal wail and theremin are hard to tell apart.
64. Benjamin Herman – Hypochristmastreefuzz (More Mengelberg)
Don’t let the silly title scare you away – this wild, psychedelic, surfy jazz album covers some of famous Dutch jazz composer Misha Mengelberg’s most memorable tracks.
65. The Rough Guide to Desert Blues anthology
At the risk of giving you too many of these, it was a good year for the Rough Guides: this has all the usual suspects (Etran Finatawa, Ali Farka Toure and Tinariwen) but also a ton of obscure brilliant cuts by Marien Hassan, Tartit, Malouma and Tamikrest.
66. The Sometime Boys – Any Day Now
The debut of the acoustic Americana side project by the brain trust from artsy, powerful rockers System Noise is funky, virtuosic and tuneful with some of frontwoman Sarah Mucho’s most compelling vocals ever.
67. Mostly Other People Do the Killing – Forty Fort
A clever, often hilarious whirlwind of postbop quotes and japes from these self-styled “bebop terrorists,” with some of the funniest liner notes ever courtesy of nonagenarian jazz know-it-all “Leonardo Featherweight.”
68. The Dither Guitar Quartet’s first album
Swirling psychedelic avant garde dreampop instrumentals by five cutting-edge composers: layers and layers and layers of screaming, atmospheric, reverb-toned menace and whisper.
69. The Cookers - Warriors
Deliciously tuneful, inspired 1960s style postbop jazz from a bunch of vets: Billy Harper, Craig Handy, Cecil McBee, George Cables, Billy Hart, Eddie Henderson and David Weiss.
70. The Debutante Hour – The Birth and Death of Meaning
Quirky, fun, harmonically beautiful oldtimey sounds with cleverly amusing lyrics from this sultry all-female Brooklyn trio.
71. Mark Sinnis – The Night’s Last Tomorrow
Arguably the finest and most diverse effort to date from the ominous baritone frontman of Nashville gothic rockers Ninth House, ranging from noir cabaret to dark blues to country. He’s the guy that Voltaire ripped off.
72. Bryan and the Haggards – Pretend It’s the End of the World
Outsider or mostly outside jazz guys (Bryan Murray, Jon Irabagon, Jon Lundbom, Moppa Elliott, Danny Fischer) cover Merle Haggard. As absurd and cruelly funny as you would expect.
73. The City Champs - The Set-Up
Like a more diverse, cinematic, noir Booker T & the MGs, the Memphis organ instrumental trio offer a psychedelic yet danceable collection of grooves.
75. Black 47 - Bankers and Gangsters
Larry Kirwan never runs out of ideas, never gets stale. We ranked these Irish-American legends’ 2008 album Iraq as that year’s best; this depression-themed one is just as tuneful, wittily perceptive and anthemic.
76. Ken Fowser & Behn Gillece - Little Echo
Torchy, period-perfect late 50s style vibraphone jazz. It ought to be the soundtrack for Mad Men’s next few seasons, if the show lasts that long. Unselfconsciously sexy stuff.
77. The Pre-War Ponies – Introducing the Pre-War Ponies
Daria Grace, their frontwoman and baritone uke player, is one of the most casually compelling, sultry voices in oldtimey and Americana music. This is her charming, unselfconsciously romantic 20s/30s project where she covers all kinds of great obscure period pieces.
78. Gato Libre - Shiro
Quietly tuneful Japanese gypsy jazz-flavored tunes from pianist Satoko Fujii’s obscure accordion project – like one of those great bands that only plays Barbes once every couple of months.
79. Thunderball - 12 Mile High
Spinning with layers of dub-inspired keys, guitars and effects, their cinematic instrumentals are trippy beyond belief, and funny too.
80. Comic Wow – Music for Mysteries of Mind Space and Time
We’re sticking all the psychedelic stuff here for lack of a better place to put it. Some of this you might call dubstep, some is cinematic, some is funky, some is disco. Either way it’s insanely layered, insanely good stoner music.
81. The Smiles and Frowns’ first album
Period-perfect: these guys sound like they stepped out of a Top of the Pops performance alongside the Pretty Things and Electric Prunes, 1968. Whatever they’re smoking out in Arizona where this band is from seems to be working just fine.
82. Jeremy Messersmith - The Reluctant Graveyard
File this under psychedelic pop, with a goth touch – it’s nothing if not original. Clever lyricist, solid powerpop tunes, a 60s fascination that’s not cheesy – he saved that for his Star Wars song.
83. Flugente - Flugente 2
A guy after our own heart: the once-and-future Blam frontman hates gentrification, despises yuppies and trendoids and has the lyrical chops to give his somewhat Leonard Cohen-esque acoustic rants an original, witheringly funny edge.
84. Jim Guttmann - Bessarabian Breakdown
Joyously and often darkly eclectic klezmer themes and dances from the Klezmer Conservatory Band’s bassist.
85. Very Be Careful - Escape Room
We don’t usually pay attention to bloggers who can’t write, but one of them actually complained about how loud the accordion on these wild LA cumbia punks’ album is. Reason enough for us to put it on the list.
86. The Ellen Rowe Quartet – Wishing Well
Lush, plaintive, beautifully lyrical jazz from the pianist/composer and her inspired band including several memorable Ingrid Jensen cameos.
87. The Whispering Tree – Go Call the Captain
These folks really love 6/8 time, and it works for them, through an uncommonly smart mix of uneasy acoustic Nashville gothic and Appalachian-tinged ballads.
88. Razia - Zebu Nation
Eclectic rock, Afrobeat, jazz-tinged ballads and Mediterranean-style songwriting from the Malagasy chanteuse and her band.
89. Phil Sargent – A New Day
We love albums like this, that transcend boundaries and push the envelope. Guitarist Sargent, backed by a rhythm section and Aubrey Johnson supplying vocalese, runs from motorway ambience to roaring metal/art-rock and pensive jazz instrumentals.
90. Bern & the Brights – Swing Shift Maisies
Lush yet austere: art-rock with indie production values, but which actually enhance the violin-fueled bite of the surprisingly complex, counterintuitive songs.
91. Jacam Manricks – Trigonometry
Bad title, great album. The alto saxophonist’s previous album was all about lush, gorgeous charts and tunes; this one’s about great playing – with more of those tunes, albeit somewhat more stripped down.
92. Alma Afrobeat Ensemble - Toubab Soul
This is one of the most amazingly melodic, memorable albums of the year even though most of these instrumentals are basically one-chord jams! Lush, hypnotic, often fiery Ethiopian-influenced grooves from this smart Barcelona-based group.
93. Jay Banerjee - “Ban-er-jee,” Just Like It’s Spelled
Like a lo-fi Byrds, the impresario behind NYC’s best rock event, Hipster Demolition Night airs out his bag of catchy, retro 60s Rickenbacker 12-string janglerock licks and savagely satirical lyrics.
94. Debo Band – Flamingoh (Pink Bird Dawn)
The Boston-based Ethiopian dance band’s debut ep – a deliriously fun live recording made on tour in Africa – would be further up this list if it was longer. Which it will be soon – watch this space.
95. Spanglish Fly - Latin Soul y Bugalú
Their debut ep is a throwback to Spanish Harlem circa 1965 or 1966, a blend of oldschool retro soul and oldschool retro salsa – think Joe Cuba but with better production values. Plus you can dance to this like crazy.
96. Jason Robinson and Anthony Davis - Cerulean Landscape
This is about as bluesy as Shostakovich, but it’s gorgeously melodic, with all kinds of interplay between the adventurous, eclectic saxophonist (who stays within himself pretty much here) and the glimmering third-stream piano titan.
97. Denis Matsuev/Valery Gergiev/Mariinsky Orchestra – Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.3./Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
How do you resist putting a recording this robust of two of the iconic late Romantic masterpieces on a Best Albums list? Answer: you don’t.
98. Magnifico – Magnification
Stagy, wry, tongue-in-cheek, sometimes over-the-top Balkan dancefloor madness. He satirizes dumb American culture, and fascist Balkan dictator types, and gets away with it because everybody loves it and it’s so psychedelically tuneful.
99. The Joel Yennior Trio – Big City Circus
Either/Orchestra’s trombone guy’s alternately retro and rather chillingly noir small-combo debut – check out the righteously wrathful suite Justice Lost.
100. The Bobby Avey Trio - A New Face
On one level, it kills us to put such a great album – magisterial, frequently murky modal jazz piano from one of the best up-and-coming players out there – at #100. Then again, a lot of people scroll all the way to the bottom. And he doesn’t need the press from us anyway.