10. Owen Pallett – Heartland
By no means the only concept album in the top 10, Pallett’s first release since dropping the Final Fantasy name is a series of monologues by Lewis, an ultra-violent farmer subservient to a creator: Pallett himself. The Arcade Fire string arranger’s virtuosic violin playing is often enshrouded in spiralling chamber arrangements – his most detailed yet – but his neoclassical songwriting remains as succinct (and strange) as ever.
9. Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid
Monáe’s first full-length album – parts 2 and 3 of her four-suite concept piece Metropolis – is more stylistically diverse than any other mainstream release this year. Telling the story of her alter ego android Cindi Mayweather, the songs infuse her flat-out amazing RnB vocals with styles as diverse as hip hop, folk and big band swing. With the blogosphere (and Big Boi, Diddy and Prince) behind her, Monáe became something of a pop icon this year.
8. These New Puritans – Hidden
Too weird for the indie kids and too hip for the experimentalists, some would have you believe about These New Puritans’ tribal second album. At its heart, taiko drums, prepared piano and original percussion root densely rhythmic compositions. Singer Jack Barnett learned musical notation to orchestrate the prominent woodwind parts, which, with a children’s choir, proved a perfect melodic foil to the relentless beats of the album at large.
7. Beach House – Teen Dream
One of many recent bands known for their shimmering dream pop, Beach House stand out from the rest, thanks largely to their third album. Their most immediate, refined piece of work sees Victoria Legrand’s trademark husky voice backed – as ever – by droning organs and chiming guitars. Once her personal lyrics have drawn the listener in, the soaring effect of hazy guitars makes for some stunning insular fireworks.
6. Liars – Sisterworld
Were it to achieve nothing else, Sisterworld would bag off-key singer Angus Andrew the Most Deranged Frontman of 2010 award, even ahead of fellow Australian Nick Cave. It accomplishes much more, though: its invariably tense quieter moments seem all the more atmospheric when their part-classical instrumentation is complemented by punky explosions of vicious guitar, which, although sudden, always seem to be lurking around the corner.
5. The National – High Violet
For all the predictions made, it’s not obvious that The National will ever explode onto the mainstream as such, but their latest album nudges them a little closer that way. The oblique melancholy of Matt Berninger’s lyrics is still atmospherically accompanied by two pairs of brothers – guitarists the Dessners and rhythm section the Devendorfs – but this time, their contributions are richer and more anthemic than ever before.
4. Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
Steven Ellison’s stylistic freedom of movement – between IDM, ambient and free jazz elements, among others – is the listener’s fixed direction on the LA based producer’s most spectacular offering to date. With more listens, the record’s intricate corners become more familiar – and with that, joyful – as a guest vocal offering from Thom Yorke adds the only human element beyond the sense of humour which powers FlyLo’s wilder leaps.
3. Rufus Wainwright – All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu
The death of Wainwright’s mother in January coincided with a huge step away from the pomp of his best records. Suddenly free of bells and whistles, he sandwiches three settings of Shakespearean sonnets and an aria from his recent opera with a smattering of songs directed at his family. All Days Are Nights is sparsely arranged, indulgent and often difficult to listen to, but at its best – that is, most of the time – it’s intensely moving.
2. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
Indie musicians often talk about their composition in terms of “creating a world”. Though it can sound utterly pretentious, in Stevens’ case it makes perfect sense. On Adz, his world is a melange of electronics, live instruments and demanding forms – often showing glimmers of his previous work, these arrangements are much denser than before. Once his radical musical code’s been cracked, it’s as joyous a listen as the beloved Illinois.
1. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
In an indie world where few acts entirely shake off lazy pigeonholing, Joanna Newsom has managed to rise from the freak folk set to occupy a niche all of her own. If 2006’s Ys was an ornate masterpiece in album form, this year’s work is an equivalent artistic achievement, albeit in a less standard form.
Across three discs and over two hours in length, Have One On Me is more an anthology than an album in the traditional sense, and despite its broad thematic progression – it loosely charts the progression of a relationship, from its easy beginnings to its eventual collapse – to treat it in the same way as most albums would be unrealistic. Better is to dip into individual tracks or discs at regular intervals, in order to realise its rich variation.
This album is her most diverse, dealing not only with Ys’ cerebral complexity (see the understated orchestral development of ‘In California’, or the complex structure of ‘Kingfisher’), but also in the earthier Americana of ‘Soft as Chalk’, the classicist ‘Ribbon Bows’ and the catchy folk-pop of ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’. Nearly a year after its release, Have One On Me still rewards every listen with new delights. More than with any other album released in 2010, its revelations seem likely to continue.
Albums selected from this longlist.