Owl and Bear’s Best Albums of 2010

Owl and Bear writers’ favorite albums of 2010.

1. The National – High Violet
I always lump The National and The Hold Steady together. Think about it: charismatic frontmen with voices that take some getting used to, who write cryptic, thematic lyrics about desperate Midwestern lives. Both join up with incredibly talented bands, call New York their new home, and put out breakout albums in 2005. This year, though, might mark diverging trajectories for the two bands, as The National released a lush, expansive album in High Violet, highlighted by intricate layering, complicated rhythms, tear-jerking lyrics, and not a single low point. On the other hand, The Hold Steady’s keyboardist Franz Nicolay left the band, and their new release, Heaven Is Whenever, dwindled rather than grew on me after repeated listens. Even so, I have a feeling reports of The Hold Steady’s death have been greatly exaggerated — hopefully Craig Finn’s consistent theme of resurrection was prophetic. For now, though, The National are getting the spins on my iPod. (Jake Feala)
O&B Live Review: The National – May 23, 2010
MP3: The National – “Bloodbuzz: Ohio”

2. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The enigmatic rapper‘s album topped nearly every critic’s “best of” list this year, and with good reason. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an epic masterpiece that permanently raises the bar for hip hop. Every track is terrific, from the Bill Conti-esque horns of “All of the Lights” to the spine-tingling obscenities of “Monster.” West’s love-it-or-hate-it grandstanding is on full display on “Power,” but the self-loathing “Runaway” and the Bon Iver-retooled “Lost in the World” prove that there’s much more to the showman than ego. (Chris Maroulakos)
Video: Kanye West – “Runaway” (30-Minute Film)

3. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Arcade Fire‘s debut album, Funeral, etched the band into the hearts and minds of a generation of burgeoning indie rock fans. Their lukewarm follow-up, Neon Bible, felt like a step back, but this year’s The Suburbs was an undeniable leap forward. Thanks to the new album, Arcade Fire became bona fide rock stars in 2010, selling out Madison Square Garden and stepping on Eminem’s face on their climb to #1 on the Billboard charts (a first for Merge Records). The recognition was well-deserved — The Suburbs is a captivating album every bit as sprawling as the suburbia it dissects. (J. Walkos)
Video: Arcade Fire – “Ready to Start”

4. Beach House – Teen Dream
In 2008, Victoria LaGrande and Alex Scally won us over with Devotion, their basically perfect sophomore LP, leading many to wonder if they’d even left room for improvement. Yet with Teen Dream, Beach House refined their minimalist sound and exceeded expectations, crafting stunning songs that enter your head and never leave. (T. Loper)
O&B Interview: Alex Scally of Beach House
MP3: Beach House – “Zebra (UK Edit)”
MP3: Beach House – “Norway”

5. Sleigh Bells – Treats
Of all the bands that received critical acclaim this year, none were as polarizing as Sleigh Bells. Their debut full-length is a full-on assault on the senses, thanks to Derek Miller’s distorted, everything-louder-than-everything-else production. The sound may be abrasive, but it’s always tempered by Alexis Krauss’s seductive vocals, and the dichotomy has helped make Treats the year’s most unforgettable surprise. (Chris Maroulakos)
O&B Interview: Sleigh Bells
O&B Live Review: Sleigh Bells – July 3, 2010
MP3: Sleigh Bells – “Ring Ring”
MP3: Sleigh Bells – “Infinity Guitars”

6. Josh Ritter – So Runs the World Away
The folk troubadour’s solid discography has earned him a passionate following, but even his most ardent fans must have been impressed by So Runs the World Away. The album is Josh Ritter‘s most fully realized release to date, abounding with gorgeous compositions and heartbreaking narratives. Instant classics like “Change of Time” and “The Curse” draw the listener into Ritter’s unique imagination, and it’s a world no one would run away from. (Chris Maroulakos)
O&B Live Review: Josh Ritter – June 22, 2010
MP3: Josh Ritter – “Change of Time”

7. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt
Kristian Matsson, a.k.a. The Tallest Man on Earth, may be a Swede, but he sings in the flawless accent of a true American troubadour. In the grand folk tradition, Matsson doesn’t have the most beautiful voice — but he sings loudly, a necessity if you want to hear his lyrics, and you definitely do. Sublime songs like the title track and “Troubles Will Be Gone” remind us in the best way possible that our time here is fleeting. (T. Loper)
MP3: The Tallest Man on Earth – “Like the Wheel”
MP3: The Tallest Man on Earth – “Burden of Tomorrow”
MP3: The Tallest Man on Earth – “King of Spain”

8. Yeasayer – Odd Blood
The Brooklyn band’s sophomore album is a bizarre and fascinating work that cashes in on a potential only hinted at on their debut. Yeasayer aren’t afraid to follow their muse down twisted alleyways and eccentric avenues, and on Odd Blood, that fearlessness pays off in spades. The larger-than-life production made “Ambling Alp” one of the year’s most invigorating songs, and cuts like “I Remember” and “Grizelda” prove that the band can make music that’s as deep as it is danceable. (Chris Maroulakos)
MP3: Yeasayer – “Ambling Alp”
MP3: Yeasayer – “O.N.E.”

9. Harlan T. Bobo – Sucker
What can be said about Harlan T. Bobo that hasn’t been said before? He writes some of the best rock and roll coming out of Memphis right now, and nobody’s ever heard of him. Bobo has made my year-end list every time he’s put out an album, and Sucker is no exception. While a little too short for comfort, Sucker does not lack in standout tracks, and songs like “Selfish Life” are worth the album price alone. Go buy all three of his albums, and you’ll have something to keep you occupied for the next year. (T. Loper)
MP3: Harlan T. Bobo – “Selfish Life” (Live)

10. Phantogram – Eyelid Movies
Yet another guy/girl duo who make wildly original music. In the vein of Portishead and Massive Attack, Eyelid Movies is a trip-hop record full of atmospheric beats that make you feel cool just for listening. Sarah Barthel’s breathy vocals draw you in and never let go. Phantogram songs like “Mouthful of Diamonds” make you want to put on a pair of dark sunglasses, don a leather jacket, and walk in slow-mo. (J. Walkos)
O&B Interview: Phantogram
O&B Watchlist: Phantogram
MP3: Phantogram – “When I’m Small”

11. Woods – At Echo Lake
At Echo Lake pays successful homage to 60’s hippie rock, but it’s frontman Jeremy Earl’s falsetto and existentialist lyrics that make for something altogether unique. And even though most of the songs on At Echo Lake are recorded in a minor key, Woods allow just enough sun to shine through to create one of the year’s most multi-layered and interesting releases. (J. Walkos)
MP3: Woods – “Blood Dries Darker”

12. The Black Keys – Brothers
If you had told me five years ago that The Black Keys would be featured in Cadillac and Verizon Wireless commercials, I would have inquired as to what you were smoking. But, alas, in ads they were, and it looks like this is only the beginning. Brothers is the breakthrough album Black Keys’ fans knew they had in them — it’s wonderfully produced, full of catchy, blues-inspired hooks, and, oh yeah, it fucking rocks. (J. Walkos)
Video: The Black Keys – “Tighten Up”

13. Twin Shadow – Forget
The debut by George Lewis Jr. — A.K.A. Twin Shadow — initially sounds like an 80’s pop revival record with lots of heavy synth and electronic noise, but as it unfolds, the surprising scope of the music becomes apparent. Throughout the album, Twin Shadow showcases his musical tastes and talents with odes to everyone from Scott Walker to Neu! Most of the lyrical content is personal and nostalgic, but Lewis keeps it endearing and relatable. For a debut album, Forget is remarkably mature. (J. Walkos)
Video: Twin Shadow – “Castles in the Snow”
MP3: Twin Shadow – “Slow”

14. April Smith and the Great Picture Show – Songs for a Sinking Ship
April Smith is a small woman with a big guitar and an even bigger voice. Songs like “Terrible Things” and “Colors” take turns showing her sinul and sweet sides, respectively, but there’s no two ways about it: she has one of the best voices in indie rock today. This Brooklyn babe is bound for glory. (T. Loper)
Poetic Memory (List): April Smith’s Influences
O&B Live Review: Langhorne Slim & April Smith – February 8, 2010
Video: April Smith and the Great Picture Show – “Terrible Things”
MP3: April Smith and the Great Picture Show – “Colors”

15. Strand of Oaks – Pope Killdragon
Tim Showalter, A.K.A. Strand of Oaks, got a boost this year when his second album, Pope Killdragon, got hearted by Pitchfork. And there’s a lot to love in these absurdly weird lyrics and choruses louder and more powerful than should reasonably be expected from a bearded, solo acoustic act. For weird, listen to “Alex Kona” and “Daniel’s Blues”; for powerful, check out “Last to Swim.” And if you want weird and powerful, you can’t get better than “Sterling.” (Jake Feala)
MP3: Strand of Oaks – “Bonfire”

16. Sonny and the Sunsets – Tomorrow is Alright
At first listen, it might be tempting to brush off this musically nostalgic effort as just another throwback novelty, but when it comes to Sonny Smith, things just aren’t that easy. Even as wistful tracks like “Too Young To Burn” start with “When I was just a kid” and decry the holding in of emotions, songs like “Planet of Women” (about stoned spacemen) and “Death Cream” (about baleful balms) make it obvious that Smith has no ulterior motives in creating music; he just follows his sense of childlike wonderment, and it’s really quite refreshing. (T. Loper)
Poetic Memory (List): Sonny Smith’s Influences
Photos: Sonny and the Sunsets – November 10, 2010
MP3: Sonny and the Sunsets – “Too Young to Burn”
MP3: Sonny and the Sandwitches – “Throw My Ashes From This Pier When I Die”

17. Juniper Tar – The Howl Street EP
Juniper Tar is a relatively unknown Milwaukee band whose rootsy, jamsy Howl Street EP has two of my favorite songs of the year on it. Since the EP has only four songs, I guess a 50/50 ratio puts them over the edge for favorite album. Check out “Innerstates” and “Birds in Trees,” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. (Jake Feala)
MP3: Juniper Tar – “Birds In Trees”

18. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
This is far from my favorite LCD Soundsystem album, but it’s still on my list because nobody else can make angst-ridden, nostalgic old man electronic party jams like James Murphy. This Is Happening is propelled by the Bowie reprise/ripoff “All I Want,” which I love even more after learning that my friend misheard the lyrics “All I want/are your bitter tears” as “All I want/are your big tits.” (Jake Feala)
Video: LCD Soundsystem – “Drunk Girls”

19. Breathe Owl Breathe – Magic Central
Breathe Owl Breathe is one of those rare bands that doesn’t need to be serious to resonate. An album of beautiful music paired with absurdist lyrics, Magic Central was a unique addition to 2010. After listening to the album, check out the band’s live show — and you’ll see that Breathe Owl Breathe have a promising future. (T. Loper)
O&B Watchlist: Breathe Owl Breathe
Photos: Breathe Owl Breathe – August 3, 2010
MP3: Breathe Owl Breathe – “Swimming”
MP3: Breathe Owl Breathe – “Own Stunts”

20. Caribou – Swim
Dan Snaith, A.K.A. Caribou, has become a prolific artist, evolving from ambient electronic musician to true-blue visionary. His music conjures up 60’s psychedelia, but it’s layered with enough samples, synth, and atmosphere to make the past sound like the future. Swim adds to Snaith’s already impressive resume, and its trance/dance/funk beats surprise at every turn. (J. Walkos)
O&B Live Review: Caribou – May 20, 2010
Video: Caribou – “Sun”
MP3: Caribou – “Odessa”
MP3: Caribou – “Every Time She Turns Round”

5 thoughts on “Owl and Bear’s Best Albums of 2010”

  1. Strand of Oaks needs to be much higher, but still a very good list. Nice to see someone else put Josh Ritter high up, I feel he hasn't gotten enough love on the lists this year after such a brilliant album. Perhaps its because no one's surprised at how great it is, it's just what he does.

  2. Sleigh Bells' album was described by one blog as the future of music. If this is the music that is yet to come, I wish it could have waited until after my lifetime. This is not only the worst album of 2010, but the weakest effort in the last 25 years. Why it has garnered so much attention and inclusion on many year end best of lists remains one of life's mysteries.

    1. "the weakest effort in the last 25 years?!" "one of LIFE's mysteries?!" Somebody needs to find an exaggeration support group.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.