1. Beach House: ‘Teen Dream’ (BELLA UNION)
In recent times, Baltimore has been mainly renowned for its gritty streets in TV masterpiece The Wire, and as the birthplace of psychedelic alchemists Animal Collective. However, in 2010 the city gained enormous amounts of dream pop cache with the release of Beach House’s third album, Teen Dream, a spellbinding and stupefyingly good record.
In a year in which blogs were abuzz with the sounds of countless young men making wistful hazy homages to some sepia-tinged golden age, Beach House trumped them all, combining this woozy beauty with supremely moving songwriting. In Victoria Legrand, they have a frontwoman on top of her game, coming on like a left-field Edith Piaf, delivering one powerful and haunting vocal after another.
This astonishing delivery is accompanied by sparse but hypnotic instrumentation to conjure the kind of timeless immersive quality that all great records possess. On hearing the record pre-release, an acquaintance commented, “November 2009 and I’ve already heard the album of the year for 2010.” How right he was. —PH
2. Janelle Monáe: ‘The ArchAndroid’ (BAD BOY)
Janelle Monáe has taken the music undercurrent by storm with her second album, ArchAndroid. Covering everything from pop to soul to avant-garde, the only pigeonhole this album can be forced into is the pigeonhole of eclectic awesomeness.
Every song on ArchAndroid is meticulously crafted and excellent in its own right, while the album as a whole is a woven narrative that owes much to sci-fi classic Metropolis. The eliding amalgamation of styles is reminiscent of prog rock or early Queen. The upbeat songs are impossible not to groove to, and the melancholy numbers are genuinely touching. If you don’t own this one, put it on your gift list immediately! —LH
3. Courtney Dowe: ‘Accomplice’ (COUNTERPOINT)
It is rare these days to discover such a complete album, perfectly weighted, with different tracks rising gently to prominence on repeated listening. It is even rarer to find an artist with such authenticity that comparisons to Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading form a useful pointer rather than gratuitous media hype.
Carrying lightly the mantle of “protest singer,” Dowe breezes effortlessly through profound contemporary issues, with a universal touch accessible to all tiers of society. Although based in the States, she signed this year to an English label and received BBC radio airplay from Gilles Peterson. Her sound is warm, earthy, rich, and most importantly of all, honest. A mainstream breakthrough beckons. —JP
4. Arcade Fire: ‘The Suburbs’ (MERGE)
The third album by the Canadian seven-piece band finds them almost inadvertently hitting the right notes to create a chart-topping classic. Like the suburban landscapes they are about, these songs are strange yet familiar and accessible. Haunted memories are woven into 16 grand, almost theatrical sonic structures that float wave after wave over the listener.
Though lacking some of the edge of debut Funeral, this is lighter than the at times oppressive second album, Neon Bible. Apart from the rockabilly misfit “Month of May,” The Suburbs is a well-realized extension of the band’s rousing and epic sound that draws toward a cinematic close with the sublime “Sprawl.” —SM
5. Glasser: ‘Ring’ (TRUE PANTHER SOUNDS)
A remarkable album that announced a fascinating new talent, Cameron Mesirow’s debut is a stunning mix of thoughtful, layered vocals and lo-fi electronics. Apparently the idea behind Ring is that it has no beginning or end; it is literally cyclical. Whatever the case, tracks bleed into each other organically, slowly easing their way into your consciousness.
Tribal rhythms, soaring strings, and quirky synths underpin Mesirow’s ethereal vocals. Her genius is in tying disparate and eclectic instrumentation into a cohesive and utterly compelling whole. As far as this trip meanders, it’s never very far from a beautiful and unexpected hook. Mesmerizing. —JS
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