Far from an objective declaration of the best music out there, the following is a list that we have compiled of our favorite albums of the past year. We like them because they make us feel good, because we relate to them in some strong personal way, or because, yes, we can’t ignore their pure objective beauty. In some cases, as with our number one album, it may be all of the above. In any case, we like these albums, and we present them to you as humble examples of God’s common grace in the form of musical creativity.
Arcade Fire is a secular band, but their songs never cease to dissect the culture around them in ways that Christians ought to take note of. The Suburbs is far tamer musically than Funeral and less preachy than Neon Bible but I think I actually like it more than those two albums. This is one of those albums that you will listen to all the way through several times when you first pick it up and once the charm of the music has subsided a little, you will enjoy dissecting the lyrics. Whereas Neon Bible feels like a pretty strong indictment on Western consumerism, Suburbs finds Butler, Chassagne, and company realizing just how much the surrounding culture has affected them and how much they have bowed to it (“City with No Children,” “Sprawl II”). There is still the occasional scathing social commentary (“Rococo”) but this is primarily an album that promotes self-reflection and community (“Half Light II”) and reflects on failed idealism (“The Suburbs”) and the music beautifully accentuates these themes throughout. – Drew Dixon
2. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
Recommended reading: “We Can Do Much More Together”
The announcement of Sufjan’s latest album (and the E.P. that preceded it only be a couple months) was shocking after Stevens had spoken cryptically about losing faith in the album and the traditional pop song. It’s not surprising that one of the most prolific living songwriters would hit a wall at this point in his career, but it is amazing that Stevens was able to release All Delighted People and Age of Adz in such a short period of time and that both are quite good. Age of Adz is more personal, more self-reflective, and less historically aware than his previous offerings (except maybe Seven Swans). Stevens is continually lamenting his failures in life and relationships but there is a very hopeful element to many of the songs in which Sufjan seems to be getting comfortable in his own shoes. And what about Sufjan’s faith? Yeah that is there too only more self aware this time (“Get Real Get Right,” “Vesuvius,” and “Impossible Soul”).
If Sufjan was setting out to revolutionize the album and the pop song, I am not sure he succeeded, but what he has done is produce another very impressive album. Many long-time fans don’t like the new wild electronic direction of Age of Adz. After all this album feels very schizophrenic at times even if it is a calculated schizophrenia. Age of Adz is after all a very ambitious album and I for one hope Stevens continues to make such ambitious music. -Drew Dixon
3. The Roots – How I Got Over
I’m a little ashamed to say that, over the years, I haven’t paid nearly as much attention to the legendary Roots crew as I should have. I’m glad that I was able to at least partially rectify that oversight with How I Got Over. It’s a stellar album, full of amazing production and solid beats (courtesy of drummer Questlove), funky grooves, and some soulful, thought-provoking lyrics that touch on spiritual and social issues. In other words, this album gets you thinking even as it gets you moving. And the icing on the cake is its eclecticism. On paper, the combination of one of America’s premier hip-hop crews with everyone’s favorite indie harpstress — that’d be Joanna Newsom — sounds like a recipe for disaster. But the result is magical, especially on “Right On”, which was easily my favorite jam of 2010. -Jason Morehead
4. Shearwater – The Golden Archipelago
The Golden Archipelago came out earlier in 2010 and, though it initially held me enthralled, it fell off my radar a bit as the year went on. A bit, but not entirely. What else would you expect from music this haunting and well-crafted? The music does become a tad pretentious and overly melodramatic in places, but even then, it achieves an epic-yet-intimate scope that I find irresistible. Perhaps the highest compliment that I can pay the album is that it feels like a spiritual successor to Talk Talk’s seminal Spirit of Eden and Laughingstock albums. Like Mark Hollis, Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg has an amazing range, moving from soft, emotive moments to really belting it out. And then there’s the band’s arrangements, which are full of nuance and detail, as well as the cryptic-yet-resonant lyrics. All in all, an indie-rock album that feels like a timeless, weather-worn artifact that stands the test of time, an impression added to by the gorgeous liner notes, which look and read like some long-lost scientist’s field journals. -Jason Morehead
5. Beach House – Teen Dream
In a recent interview, Alex Scally said that when he and Victoria Legrand record songs they always “make an album that isn’t just a bunch of songs, but have it be a real family.” This is certainly true of their latest album Teen Dream—each song feels like it belongs to the others. When I first purchased Teen Dream I listened all the way through three times without pressing the skip button once. Beach House isn’t the most innovative album of the year, but in my opinion it is the best. In a world where everyone seems to be trying to push the envelope of what is new, different, and genre-defying, Beach House keeps the arrangements simple (keyboard, guitar, and drums) and elegant and the vocals pitch perfect. Legrand and Scally take their music very seriously, the songs on this album are intimate sounding—sad but never hopeless. It really is difficult to pick the best song, because Teen Dream truly is a work of art best experienced as a whole. However, if I had to choose a song, I would go with the album’s closing track, “Take Care.” The song ends with Legrand promising someone, “I’ll take care of you, if you ask me to, it’s true,” it is such a beautiful song, its hard not to believe her. -Drew Dixon
2010 was the year I seriously started listening to music again, thanks to the increasing popularity of iTunes and the increasingly low-priced mp3 downloads at Amazon. Still, I like to think that it was also because of Vampire Weekend’s Contra. It was the first album I’d heard in years that I related to in any real way: an honest, personal and deeply heartfelt account of growing up within a culture while also remaining completely mindful of that culture. It’s a mindset I’m convinced is more and more common, evidenced by how many albums exhibit it within this very list.
For me, Contra was the first in a series of musical discoveries, probably because of my previous apathy and ignorance toward music in general. Still, there’s something special about Contra’s insistence on cultural awareness and the idea that life can be both analyzed and deeply felt. It’s a mantra I live by, and now I can sing along with it as well. -Richard Clark
7. Swartz – Nighttide
I’m always on the lookout for good ambient/post-rock music that can work as aural wallpaper (i.e., background music) but that can also stand up to more active listening — and Nighttide is one such album. Emerging out of some “sessions” originally played to help his young daughter fall asleep, Steve Swartz has crafted an album of hushed, evocative pieces composed of soft guitar drones, field recordings, and sparse electronics. At times recalling the mighty Labradford’s desolate soundscapes, at other times the otherworldly electronica of Marconi Union, Nighttide is an album that is consistently enthralling regardless of whether I let it fade into the background or I choose ot plunge headlong into its particular soundscapes. -Jason Morehead
8. Suckers – Wild Smile
I must admit that I am a big fan of quirky pop music, and Suckers certainly are quirky but in an incredibly refreshing way. They cover a ton of ground on Wild Smile, from rollicking Modest Mouse-like rock tracks (“Black Sheep,” “2 Eyes 2 C”) to subdued love songs (“Save Your Love for Me”) to playful indie pop (“Roman Candles,” “You Can Keep Me Runnin’ Around,” and “Loose Change”). It’s becoming more and more common for indie bands to incorporate multiple singers—Suckers do this uniquely in that the various band mates that sing have such different sounding voices—sometimes these voices compete entertainingly for the spotlight (“Black Sheep” and “Martha”) and yet they often come together beautifully (It Get’s Your Body Movin’ and A Mind I Knew). One thing is clear, Suckers have produced the most memorable debut album of the year and this is quite a feat for a band from Brooklyn where unique is hard to come by. -Drew Dixon
9. Jóhann Jóhannsson – And In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound Of Bees
If you saw a recent trailer for the upcoming alien invasion flick Battle: Los Angeles and found yourself wondering who composed its beautiful-yet-tragic music, then wonder no further: it was Iceland’s Jóhann Jóhannsson, one of modern classical’s brightest “stars”. And if you want to hear more, then a good place to start is this, Jóhannsson’s soundtrack for the animated short Varmints (which I haven’t seen). Jóhannsson’s blend of “traditional” orchestral arrangements, sparse piano melodies, choral vocals, and avant-garde/electronica elements (e.g., field recordings, drones, industrial noises) is evocative and deeply melancholy — the opening number, “Theme”, is one of the most moving songs I heard in 2010 — without ever becoming maudlin or depressing, quite a mean feat considering the ominous areas that the soundtrack explores at times. -Jason Morehead
10. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More
Recommended Reading: $#*! My Favorite Christian Band Says
I recently read a blog post by someone who had seen M&S play in a bar in which the author reflected that it was one of the most worshipful concerts he had ever attended. That seemed appropriate because although M&S have not publicly claimed to be Christians, this is a very worshipful album. These are honest songs about spiritual awakening (“Sigh No More”) and patiently longing for Christ to return (“Awake My Soul”). While Sigh No More is a very spiritual album it never feels self-righteous and M&S’s folksy sound is hard to describe as anything other than epic. I should mention that Little Lion Man contains a pretty harsh expletive in the chorus. Who knows, perhaps they are trying to fool us, because this is an otherwise incredibly encouraging album worthy of the Christian ear. -Drew Dixon