10. The Wild Hunt by the Tallest Man on Earth
Because Bob Dylan is so unique in his own right, being seen as a watered down version of the great R.A. Zimmerman is the plight of hundreds of singer-songwriters. But despite garnering comparisons to early Dylan from just about anyone who has heard any of Kristian Matsson’s songs, the Swede is no sound-alike. Though the two voices have a similar grain, the feeling in Matsson’s voice is of a different flavor of wisdom. As opposed to Dylan's cagey hillside blues, Matsson's songs sound as if he’s singing to past lovers from a mountain top. Though he’ll never be as important as Bobby D. (not sure if any songwriter ever will), Matsson holds his own as a master craftsman with a bright future.
9. Death Is Silent by Kno
This was a great year for dark hip hop concept albums (obligatory Kanye West reference? Check) and CunninLynguists maestro Kno added another chapter to his impressive body of work. Stepping out on his own for the first time, albeit with a healthy handful of guests, gifted producer/MC Kno took a profound look at all things related to death in these thirteen cuts. It’s a rare thing when a rap album presents a philosophically wise, totally cohesive album but even rarer when it does it with top-notch production and rhyming as clever as can be. Somewhere along the path from love to death to reflection to enlightenment, Death Is Silent proves itself worthy of the emotional demand it puts on the listener.
8. Englishman by Englishman
Englishman is a trio from Lexington, Kentucky that almost no one has heard of. I only found about this album after being asked to promote a free MP3 on SSG. But once I started listening to the album, I couldn’t stop, no matter how hard I tried. Sounding like a combination of established troubadors Colin Meloy and John Darnielle, Andrew English is a gifted songwriter in his own right, with words that match his melodies in their remarkable depth. The album is clearly a home recording with a thin layer of white noise on the top, but still sounds carefully put together and totally void of filler. Rookie of the year.
7. Epic by Sharon Van Etten
Sharon Van Etten. Say it ten times. It’s a name to remember. Just listen to Epic. It’s only seven tracks and the album title is a bit on the bold side, but as soon as Van Etten starts singing, one can’t help but hang on to every word she says. The allure of her voice is as mysterious as it is intriguing as she brings these brutally honest songs about love, loss and apathy to life. The songs vary between huge dream pop production, folksy tenderness and droning minimalism but Van Etten’s surreal narration unifies it all into an outstanding story.
6. Beachcomber’s Windowsill by Stornoway
As should be clear by my album review, concert preview and concert review, Stornoway is one of the best new bands of the 2010 class. Like Belle and Sebastian, their songs are pleasant and singable but after a few listens, they grip you and don’t let go. Beachcomber’s Windowsill is eleven tracks but goes by in a blink, so to speak. Each one is jam-packed with infectious hooks and melodies, adding up to a beautiful arc made even more impressive by a band recording its first album.
5. Big Echo by The Morning Benders
All year, I kept waiting to grow tired of the Morning Benders but it didn’t happen. In fact, there wasn’t a single song on this album that faded in any way from that glorious first listen in March. Frontman Christopher Chu is a California wunderkind backed by a stellar band and handled by an adept co-producer in Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor. Though heavy on reverb as the title may suggest, this album is coated in the innocent youthful shimmer that radiates from the best, most genuine rock and roll.
4. Field Music (Measure) by Field Music
For those of us hoping that a band would fill the void left by great sophisti-pop bands like Steely Dan and XTC, we need look no further than Field Music. On Measure, British brothers Peter and David Brewis are virtuosos of several instruments but most of all, the recording studio. Every guitar riff, vocal harmony and drum hit is so perfectly placed on this huge album that it’s easy to forget that these are human beings. And while sometimes this sort of perfection feels stuffy, the Brewis brothers are more like perfectionist classical composers than autotune wielding studio wizards. They have specific things to say and they know how to get them said precisely as intended, without cheating.
3. All Delighted People by Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan, you may call this an EP, but because it’s an hour long, it’s going to have to qualify among my favorite albums of the year. Released out of nowhere this summer, Mr. Stevens released his first new songs in five years and they instantly reminded us of why the man’s name is almost holy in indie pop land. Consisting of two amazing versions of the “Sounds of Silence” inspired title song, five new doses of precious Sufjan acoustica, and the epic, tear-jerking “Djohariah” (juh-HA-ree-uh, named for Stevens’ sister) the EP is ultimately more satisfying than the also excellent Age of Adz LP. No one seems to agree with this statement but I’m sticking with it.
2. Have One on Me by Joanna Newsom
When Joanna Newsom releases two hours of original music, it’s a good year for original music. After a debut album of bizarrely gorgeous elf-like sing-alongs and a sophomore effort of mammoth scope, the third record is a perfect combination of the two. With a voice sounding closer to that of a woman’s than the small child of her earlier work, Newsom proves yet again that there probably are harps in heaven. Each of the eighteen songs has a unique personality ranging from simple melodies of the wilderness like “On a Bad Day” to the jaw-dropping musical roller coasters like “Baby Birch.” Let’s face it; Joanna Newsom is one of the few prodigies in pop music today.
1. Teen Dream by Beach House
Released in January, Teen Dream stood as the album to beat all year long. Simply put, the Baltimore duo managed to capture a sort of magic in their third LP. The dreamy keyboard arrangements are a wonder to behold but what really makes this album special is the singing of Victoria Legrand. Her voice takes the listener on a sweeping journey within every song, making the album and exhausting but satisfying odyssey through a new musical terrain, where multi-colored zebras run free.