Our Critics Pick the Best Music of 2010

Beach House

Teen Dream (Sub Pop)

The expansive arrangements and increased production value give Victoria Legrand's breathy croon the foil it deserves, but it's the sheer consistency that makes Teen Dream the year's strongest indie-rock record; there are a few clear highlights ("10 Mile Stereo" still slays me every time) but there's not one song out of 10 I wouldn't offer as one of 2010's best. (Nick Huinker)

Best Coast

Crazy for You (Mexican Summer/Wichita)

A pair of disappointing live sets tempered my enthusiasm for beach-bum pop trio Best Coast as the year went on, but that can't change the fact that Crazy for You spent an unseemly portion of the summer on repeat in my car. The conspicuous sameness of Bethany Cosentino's brattily charming songs is harder to hear when you're helplessly singing along, and once the warm weather rolls back around it's going to be once again hard to resist. (N.H.)

Big Boi

Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (Purple Ribbon/Def Jam)

Antwan Patton, one-half of Atlanta duo Outkast, released his first official solo album after multiple delays, and the wait was worth it. Sir Lucious Left Foot is a sprawling expanse of head-twisting soul grooves, crammed full of songs that should have been hits ("Shine Blockas," "General Patton," "Turns Me On"). Even the interludes are good. (Matthew Everett)

Coolrunnings

Buffalo/Babes Forever (Self-released)

These 21st-century Knoxville DIYers have spent a momentous first year fighting off the lazy "chillwave" accusations that come with Web hype, despite recording and releasing two EPs that reach immediately beyond 2010's sub-genre du jour. There are synths and bedroom-studio sensibilities, but they accompany rhythmic adventurousness, surfy guitar jangle, and furious hooks that distinguish Coolrunnings as leaders rather than followers. (Both EPs are available for free on the band's website.) (N.H.)

Dawnbringer

Nucleus (Profound Lore)

The terrific third album from this mostly unknown Chicago band won't introduce them to a much larger audience than they already had, but it's still a tour de force of traditional heavy metal—fleet-fingered guitar solos, buffalo-stampede rhythms, and songs about demons and wizards. Ronnie James Dio may be gone, but his spirit lives on in Dawnbringer. (M.E.)

The Dead C

Patience (Ba Da Bing)

The legendary New Zealand noise-rock/rock-noise trio returns with another missive from the frontier of protean gray sound. The recipe this time includes rock drums, bits of riffing that could conceivably be described as "anthemic," and the usual brain-rewiring psychedelic skree. The soundtrack for a lonely musical place that's lonely largely because no one else knows how to get there. (Lee Gardner)

Gayngs

Relayted (Jagjaguwar)

A sort of indie-rock supergroup, featuring Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, performing soft rock inspired by soppy yacht-rock group 10cc's "I'm Not In Love" sounds like a terrible, terrible idea. But what could have been another belabored exercise in hipster irony resulted in one of the most beguiling records of the year. Sounding something like late '80s R&B as performed by Talk Talk and engineered by 4AD house producers, the smart composition and meticulous recording allowed the album to transcend the current glut of pastiche. (Eric Dawson)

Killing Joke

Absolute Dissent (Universal)

Bombastic, earnest, politically engaged post-punk from the band's original lineup, their first recording together in 30 years. Absolute Dissent's mix of punk, metal, synth-pop, and industrial music sounds ferocious, but emotionally it's generous and wide open. (M.E.)

Chris Lightcap's Bigmouth

Deluxe (Clean Feed)

Perhaps it isn't the second coming of jazz as popular music, but bassist/composer Chris Lightcap's new album with his steady band features the sort of muscular grooves and stuck-in-your-head melodies and ear-seducing harmonies that could make believers out of skeptics. Not that the tr00 jazz verities are ever in doubt, thanks to the leader and drummer Gerald Cleaver's adroit swing and the three-reed frontline. (L.G.)

Los Lobos

Tin Can Trust (Shout! Factory)

L.A.'s Mex-rock O.G.s quietly released yet another album, and it turns out to be one of the best of the band's nearly 40-year career. The bare-bones production reveals a band in total control of its material and sound, gliding over a trad/rock hybrid they all but invented. (M.E.)

Lower Dens

Twin-Hand Movement (Gnomonsong)

In some ways, Twin-Hand Movement is nothing special. This sort of echo-y, spartan indie rock has any number of antecedents, from old-school Flying Nun pop on up to the xx. But something about the interplay of singer/songwriter/guitarist Jana Hunter's plangent croon, her sparring with guitarist Will Adams, the steady support of the rhythm section, the deceptively unshowy production, and these songs—growers, all—adds up to the single most addictive pop pleasure we've encountered these last 12 months. Simple as that. (L.G.)

M.I.A.

Maya (N.E.E.T./XL/Interscope)

The supposedly disappointing third album from the spiky singer-rapper is a lot better than its rep, even if its stylistic schizophrenia leaves it seeming scattered. Split between jackhammer dance tracks and lite synth-pop, it lurches here and there without ever finding its footing. But that seems like an honest expression of M.I.A.'s odd position as a self-appointed Third World ambassador who married a millionaire. Her taste for brassy, day-glo sonics is what still matters most, fashioning a kind of junkyard post-punk out of scraps of rock, hip-hop, techno, and whatever else was on her iPod that day. It is not always an easy listen, but it is mostly a bracing one. (Jesse Fox Mayshark)

Nina Nastasia

Outlaster (Fatcat Records)

Nina Nastasia has been making good records for 10 years now, and if she's still underappreciated—which she is—it's partly her own fault. Her music is melodic but terse, her lyrics detailed but enigmatic, and everything about her (including her long-running musical partnership with producer Steve Albini) suggests a fierce reserve. She is not expansive or outgoing. On this, her sixth album, she opens up vocally and musically more than before, with songs that are almost theatrical in their swooping cries and chamber-music arrangements. Still, the key to her art is in the quieter moments, her voice cooing over her moody finger-picked guitar lines as she wrestles with disappointment and doubt. "No, it's not fair, why should it be fair?" she murmurs on "A Kind of Courage." "No one is holding us, we are always alone." No wonder she's not the most popular girl at the art-folk party. But she's worth making an effort to get to know. (J.F.M.)

Joanna Newsom

Have One on Me (Drag City)

Using your third record to literally double your discography's running time seems an unreasonably bold move, especially for an artist as polarizing as Joanna Newsom. Still, few who gave Have One on Me's three discs the time they deserve can deny that it's her finest and most affecting album, nudging her compositional chutzpah into pop maturity and officially revealing one of contemporary music's most distinctive vocalists as one of its two or three very best. (N.H.)

Robyn

Body Talk (Konichiwa)

Swedish pop CEO Robyn turned heads with her strategy of releasing Body Talk in three quarterly installments, but the final compilation (excising six of the 21 tracks, with no arguments from me) vindicates its brilliance. Taken all at once its unprecedented strength as a bubblegum electro record might have been overwhelming, but the prefab context for its best tracks—and at least half the songs here are blockbusters in a perfect world—drives home the idea of Body Talk as its own greatest-hits record. (N.H.)

Sun City Girls

Funeral Mariachi (Abduction)

For their final album, the incorrigible smart-ass dadaist pranksters made their most unexpected move yet, creating a work of subdued beauty and elegance. Drawing heavily on Arabic and African music, as well as Spaghetti Western soundtracks, guitarists Alan and Richard Bishop's virtuosic musicianship has rarely been used to greater effect than on these emotive, lyrical tunes. Funeral Mariachi serves as a perfect, if surprising, capstone to a 27-year career, and a fitting tribute to drummer Charles Gocher, who died soon after his contributions to the album. (E.D.)

Supersilent

10 (Rune Grammofon)

On their 10th album, the Norwegian improv group foregoes the noisier, assaultive textures of their earlier work to strip down for a more acoustic, jazz-informed mode. Though Helge Sten's (aka ambient-doom artist Deathprod) electronic textures are still very much present, they largely serve to underscore Arve Henriksen's mournful, Miles Davis-esque trumpet and Stale Storlokken's crisp piano playing. The most approachable and least fussy album they've yet made, its stark splendor manages to be more warm than icy, more life-affirming than gloomy. (E.D.)

Taylor Swift

Speak Now (Big Machine)

Approaching 21, she had to show she could write about something other than high school. So she did, with a record that sounds exactly how she feels: confident, conflicted, confused, and sometimes even contemplative. Like a young adult, basically. A rich and famous one, granted—the friends, enemies and exes addressed in the songs are mostly boldface names—but you don't have to know that "Back to December" is about that Twilight kid to understand its complicated sense of regret. (Really, it's better not to.) Of course, what sells it is her unerring instinct for hooks and bridges. And those are better, bigger, and deeper, too. (J.F.M.)