In middle school, my performing arts teacher would often go off, as most middle school teachers will, on long tangents. And so it was, on one day in 2001, that he embarked on a verbal field trip about how much music has changed during his lifetime.
When he was young, according to this tangent, music was a special event. Everyone could sing along to the newest Beatles song; there was perhaps a single record player and radio in each house; and some students passed entire days without hearing a single song.
Not anymore. Some of us set our morning alarms to music. Others have waterproof music-players to keep the rhythm going in the shower. Then, we step into our cars and before putting it into reverse, we choose the soundtrack for the trip to school, or we choose the iPod playlist that will meter our steps from apartment to classroom.
Music is hard to escape–commercials have background music, stores have sound systems, movies have soundtracks, and the elevator, too, will play music as you ride.
And so, my teacher concluded, it is hard to find commonality through music today, and it is even harder to sort through all the music we hear and find the best.
Well, I have tried. So here are my ten favorite albums of 2010, with links to my favorite songs from each album. I am no music expert, so I can’t promise that this is all objectively ‘good’ music, but take a listen and you can decide for yourself.
And, let me know if you found a great song that will stand out from the rest during the last twelve months:
Honorable Mention: The Head and the Heart
I will openly confess that I give a handicap to any band from Seattle. Seattle is the city I never knew I loved until I left. Growing up, 90% of my Seattle experiences consisted of driving up the freeway for 50 minutes, parking in the industrial Gensco parking lot by permission of a family friend, and walking eight blocks to Safeco Field. I loved watching the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field when I was 13, and I love watching them there now. But after living in Seattle during the summer of 2009, I now know that I love the rest of the city as well, and not least because great music comes from Seattle. Here is Seattle 2010, a far cry from the grunge of the 90s: The Head and the Heart are a little-known band from Seattle that creates folksy music that is hard not to like.
Listen First: Lost in My Mind (click to listen)
Runner-up: Sounds Like Hallelujah
Listening to some of the tracks off Arcade Fire’s new album, “The Suburbs,” I was sure that I had already heard them before. They have found their own distinct sound, and they didn’t wander far from it on this album. But sometimes, it makes sense to not mess with a great sound.
Listen First: Half Light (No Celebration) [click to listen]
This is the fourth BSS album released, but the first I ever listened to, and it stuck in my head. It builds slowly, but then hits its stride, and the voice of lead singer Kevin Drew begins to fade into the clangs of drums and the strum of guitar as just another instrument.
Listen First: WorldSick [click to listen]
I’ve always thought that it will be strange to listen to the “Oldies” radio station in thirty years, as a middle-aged adult, and hear a rap song about making love in the club or licking it like a lollipop. But Kanye elevates rap to a new level. I can’t pretend to know much about rap, but I know that each track on the new Kanye CD, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” released in November, could be released as a single. He seems to collaborate with just-about-half of the artists on the Billboard charts, but the record could not exist without Kanye. As he says himself, he may not be able to actually sing or dance, but that hasn’t seemed to stop him from becoming one of the most successful artists of our generation. And when I turn to the hypothetical Oldies station for my hypothetical kids to listen to in the backseat of my hypothetical car, I’ll be proud when Kanye West–not Taylor Swift–is playing on the radio.
Listen First: Lost in the World, feat. Bon Iver [click to listen]
Runner-ups: Power, Runaway
I officially offer my U.S. citizenship to the Tallest Man on Earth–otherwise known as Swede Kristian Matsson–in case your quest to become the King of Spain does not pan out. With my citizenship, there would be one condition: you, Mr. Tallest Man on Earth, would have to tour in the United States more often. My roommate saw him perform at the 9:30 club in Washington DC in fall 2010, a performance NPR Music host Bob Boilen called one of the best acts he saw this year. But I missed it, and my consolation has been to listen to his new music at addict-esque levels throughout the past two months. Matsson’s voice is crumbly and vulnerable; it sounds like it was ripped out of the ground and is still covered in a layer of dirt. He’s the perfect antidote to the unnaturally even and smoothly edited voices on the radio.
Listen First: King of Spain [click to listen]
Runner-ups: The Wild Hunt, Kids on the Run
I am late on the National bandwagon. But I’d rather jump on late than miss it altogether. Something about the bass-heavy sound and punchy, dark lyrics of the National resonates easily. The Song “Sorrow” song starts off as an ode to depression: “Sorrow found me when I was young / Sorrow waited, sorrow won.” It doesn’t get much happier after that. So you might think that I have some type of syndrome that I am excited to hear the first few chords of this song and that I instinctively turn the volume higher. I guess that is the power of the National.
Listen First: Sorrow [click to listen]
Runner-up: Bloodbuzz Ohio
A warning: looking too long at a picture of Deerhunter’s lead singer may disturb you. I’m not sure what his lifestyle shtick is, but he manages to create great music with the rest of his band. And if someone put a gun to my head and said that I could only keep ten songs from my iTunes library for the rest of my life, two of the first words out of my mouth would be Desire and Lines.
First Listen: Desire Lines [click to listen]
The debut album from Local Natives, Gorilla Manor, is built around music, not a few catchy choruses. It is the type of album that grows on you and then does not stop growing. Like most of the albums on this list, but unlike most albums released today, this is not an album of a few great singles and a bunch of mediocre filler-tracks. You should buy this entire album and listen to it from the first track to the last.
Listen First: World News [click to listen]
Runner-ups: Airplanes, Wide Eyes
So once you get done listening to the sorrowful songs of Deerhunter and the National, Mumford and Sons will sound like the Promised Land. It’s true–some of their songs seem to be laced with spiritual overtones: In “Awake My Soul,” they sing that we are made to meet our makers. And seeing Mumford and Sons live in Philadelphia at the Electric Factory was a near-religious experience. I have never been to a concert where the entire audience is completely rapt and smiling for the entire performance. You could tell just by watching the concert that the four band members of Mumford & Sons are good people and are having a great time making folksy, feel-good music.
Listen First: Sigh No More [click to listen]
Runner-ups: Little Lion Man, The Cave
I can usually study while listening to music. That helps when Georgetown’s library is filled with stressed-out students during midterms or finals: I can put my headphones in, pretend that I am not at the library, and focus. But I now know that, the most important rule of this mind-game is to not let the Black Keys pop up on Random Shuffle. The reason is simple: I cannot focus on anything other than listening when the Black Keys are playing. OK, now you try:
Listen First: Everlasting Light [click to listen]
Runner-ups: Tighten Up
Most times, when I hear new music, my brain functions like the Internet radio station Pandora and arranges the music in my head based on similar sounds of bands and singers. So, roughly, the Cave Singers will croak and croon near the Tallest Man on Earth, Blue Scholars can jam near the Roots, and so on. Some bands, though, stand alone like the awkward kid in the corner of a high school dance. But in this case, the awkward kid –Icelandic singer Jonsi of Sigur Ros fame– is not on the corner. He is up on the stage performing, and he’s doing a great job. He’s creating a sound that either I just don’t recognize, or one that is genuinely out of left field. And yet, it is easy to love. If other artists catch on, then he will not be alone up on stage for long. But for now, sit back and enjoy:
Listen First: Boy Lilikoi [click to listen]
Runner-up: Go Do