Saturday, December 18, 2010

2010: The Year in Culture

Overall, 2010 was a rather successful artistic year in terms of the movies, music and television that was released. Lots of strong albums and enjoyable films, and a genuine bounty of good programs on the small screen. As I have for the last decade, I once again felt compelled to share my unsolicited opinions about my favorite cultural works of the year. Below, please find my lists:

Top Ten Movies of 2010

I thought 2010 proved to be a very strong year for American films, as I was surprised to find that the only foreign film I had on my list this year was a documentary from England and that I didn't have a single foreign language film listed. Admittedly, I missed Olivier Assayas' acclaimed six-hour opus Carlos, not to mention a few other notable pictures, but the general point stands: 2010 was a very good year for American moviemaking.

Below, my top ten films of the year:

10) Inception
Truth be told, I think Christopher Nolan added a few too many layers of complexity to this summer blockbuster, both in terms of the number of dream levels he created (was that gun fight in the snow really necessary?) and the number of rules he used to define his universe (I'm still not clear on what happens in limbo). But you've got to give him credit for creating an utterly original piece of art that attracted a mass audience and had them talking all summer. The bravura climax, particularly the gravity-less scene in the elevator, was the most exciting moment in any big-budget film that came out this year.

9) True Grit
True GritTrue Grit doesn't quite live up to some of the Coen Brothers' fantastic recent work, but it's a delightful film in its own right. Remaking the 1969 film based on Charles Portis' novel, the Coens apply their unique, deadpan sensibility to the tale of a young girl (Hailee Steinfeld) trying to avenge her father's death by teaming up with a drunken US Marshal (Jeff Bridges) and an uptight Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) to catch the killer. Steinfeld is a real discovery -- she delivers the Coens' typically clever dialogue with incredible self-assurance and ably holds her own against Bridges, who hams it up but never overdoes it as the ornery "Rooster" Cogburn. The story falters a bit in the last act, but until then True Grit is the kind of old-fashioned, nimble Western that Hollywood rarely makes any more.

8) The Ghost Writer
The Ghost WriterRoman Polanski's political thriller about an imperiled former British Prime Minister has a fairly dim political view -- without giving too much away, let's just say it finds a convenient way to explain for the strength of the Anglo-American political relationship -- but that doesn't stop it from being a cracker-jack conspiracy movie. With an excellent cast led by Ewan MacGregor as the newly hired ghost writer who soon discovers a few secrets about his subject (Pierce Brosnan, perfectly cast in the role), The Ghost Writer is a straightforward movie with simple pleasures expertly delivered.

7) Greenberg
Noah Baumbach understands insufferable characters better than anyone -- and he also understands that no one ever changes overnight, but the smallest bits of personal progress can be worth examining. In Baumbach's Greenberg, Ben Stiller plays the titular, middle-aged layabout as a total jerk, but a weirdly sympathetic one nonetheless who falls into an improbable romance with his brother's assistant played by the lovely Greta Gerwig. In a different movie, they'd be two lost souls who easily fall into one another, but Greenberg is all about those people who stridently resist doing anything easily. It's a far more interesting film that way.

6) Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3
The third chapter in the saga of Woody, Buzz and the rest of Andy's toys has a much more melancholic feel to it than the earlier films did, as 15 years have now passed since we first met these toys and their owner is now headed to college. His departure opens up surprisingly deep questions about the role material objects play in our development and the importance of remembering our childhood. Pixar's films have always been expert at finding emotional resonance in seemingly straightforward tales, but even by their high standards Toy Story 3 is a deeply thoughtful, existential adventure.

5) The Social Network
The Social NetworkDavid Fincher's telling of the creation of Facebook is superbly directed, well written, and expertly acted, an impressive piece of film-making that has some (but not much) added resonance as a document of our technology-obsessed, disconnected culture. But I fail to see The Social Network as the masterpiece it's been called, in part because Aaron Sorkin's script is too glib and the ultimate portrait of Mark Zuckerberg too reductive to be worthy of the pantheon. Nonetheless, Sorkin and Fincher deserve awards for the story's ingenious structure and for finding fascinating characters in the Winkelvoss twins (brilliantly portrayed by Armie Hammer) and even in Zuckerberg, who as perfectly played by Jesse Eisenberg is neither hero nor villain but someone who desperately wants to belong, even if he probably wouldn't want to join the clubs that would have him as a member.

4) Exit Through the Gift Shop
Exit Through The Gift ShopMuch of the discussion of Banksy's documentary has been about its authenticity, as its story of amateur videographer-turned-acclaimed artist Thierry Guetta seems too unbelievable, too ludicrous to be real. Surely Banksy, the famed British street artist with a penchant for practical jokes, is putting us on, sending a message about the commercialization and faddishness of the high art world. I'm with the folks who think it's all a joke, though a splendidly told one unlike any told before. Personally, I think that makes the film all the better, but even if we discount the basic narrative we're still left with a fascinating document about the rise of street graffiti as art and the figures who helped to transform and elevate the medium.

3) The Kids Are All Right
The Kids Are All Right
A domestic comedy about an untraditional family, Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right is an honest portrayal of the messiness that accompanies couplehood and parenthood regardless of sexuality. As the lesbian couple whose relationship is thrown into crisis following the arrival of the sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) who fathered their children, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are perfect at playing two women struggling to maintain their ideals while giving in to their more destructive impulses. Cholodenko's eye is balanced and equally sympathetic -- she loves and understands these characters, warts and all.

2) Inside Job
Inside JobCharles Ferguson's insightful documentary about the financial crisis builds its case like any good social scientist would (Ferguson has a PhD in polisci) -- by accumulating the staggering evidence and clearly outlining the damning findings. In this case, Ferguson shows how we ended up in our economic mess because unregulated institutions were encouraged to take on greater amounts of risk, fully aware of the potentially dire consequences. Ferguson doesn't limit his ire to the banks and governments either -- he goes after the whole practice of academic economics, where the continual merger of the private and public sectors has created a rats' nest of conflicts of interest. Inside Job is the most important movie of the year and the one most likely to get your blood-boiling, particularly because this time the bad guys are free to continue their reign of terror.

1) Winter's Bone
Winter's BoneDebra Granik's country noir about a young woman surviving in the Ozarks who must find her father so her family doesn't get evicted is the most evocative and original film of 2010. As the main character Rhee Dolly, Jennifer Lawrence gives the best female performance of the year, keenly showcasing Rhee's strength while giving hints to her vulnerability. Granik is unsentimental in her depiction of the backwoods lives of her characters, but she never lets her story fall into melodrama, choosing instead to depict Rhee's challenges with a naturalistic eye. Winter's Bone is a tour-de-force of storytelling and direction, an impressive sophomore outing from a mature filmmaker with a very unique voice.

Best Television Shows of 2010

There was an abundance of good programs on the tube this year, particularly on cable which has now set the standard for most original and engaging programming on TV, in both comedy and drama. Of particularly note is the success of the channel FX, which launched three superb shows this year (though not all were lucky enough to get renewed).

There were so many good programs, in fact, that I couldn't quite keep my list to 10 and instead decided to expand it to 15. Seven of those are shows that premiered either at the end of 2009 or in 2010, which gives you a sense of how strong the new crop of shows were this year.
Now without further ado, my 15 favorite TV programs of 2010:

15) Cougar Town (ABC)
Cougar Town abandoned its initial premise somewhere midway through season 1, when Courtney Cox's character Jules became less concerned with dating younger guys and more with being the ringleader of one of the funniest cast of characters on TV, the neighborhood cul-de-sac crew -- comprised of her son, her ex-husband, her age-appropriate boyfriend, her next door neighbors, and her younger colleague -- who are always finding new and unusual ways to appreciate, ridicule, and embarrass one another. The show shares many of the same stylistic traits as creator Bill Lawrence's previous show, Scrubs, with lots of insular jokes and absurd sight gags. But the whole enterprise is done with a great deal of heart and if you dig the show's particular vibe (and can forgive the title), it can be very funny, even more so than its more popular channel-mate Modern Family.

14) Archer (FX)
Raunchy, vulgar, and hilarious, FX's adult animated comedy Archer is about a narcissistic spy with callous disregard for everyone he works with, including his overbearing mother (brilliantly voiced by Arrested Development's Jessica Walter) and spy ex-girlfriend (Aisha Tyler). Featuring a fantastic cast of animated voices like Chris Parnell, Judy Greer, and, as the title character, a delightfully belligerent H. Jon Benjamin, Archer is the edgiest comedy on TV, using the animated format to break taboos in much more intelligent ways than any of Seth MacFarlane's Fox cartoons.

13) 30 Rock (NBC)
After a middling 4th season that saw the show overdoing it with guest stars and poorly constructed plotlines, 30 Rock rebounded in a big way this fall, finding new and inventive stories for its over-the-top characters, from Tracy's inability to recite a simple line for a commercial to Jenna's romantic relationship with a transvestite celeb impersonator to Jack's desire to go a single day without making a bad decision (a streak called "Reaganing"). Tina Fey's satire works best when the rapid-fire jokes are in the service of the story and the characters, and after a down period it appears the show is back in fine form.

12) The Good Wife (CBS)
When it first premiered, I initially dismissed The Good Wife as being too much of a legal procedural despite its serialized elements. But in its second season, the show has found what is probably the perfect balance for a broadcast program, coming up with compelling case of the week stories while developing regular characters with deep back-stories and constantly changing motivations. Moreover, the show wisely uses its Chicago-politics backdrop to continually examine our technology-driven lives, peppering its storytelling with social media, cable news, and viral videos cast as both invaders of privacy and essential tools for discovering and manipulating the truth. Not to damn it with faint praise, but The Good Wife is the best drama on broadcast television.

11) Men of a Certain Age (TNT)
Ray Romano says he created this show (with former Everybody Loves Raymond writer Mike Royce) because his wife wanted him out of the house, but he clearly needed to express some of the more serious, contemplative ideas he couldn't share on his old sitcom. Focused on a trio of high school buddies in their late 40s, Men of a Certain age is essentially a show about dealing with life's small challenges and the aspirations we either hold on to or give up as we grow older. It has an appropriately laid-back tone and its stories are never very large in scope, but the characters are more relatable and the show more effective as a result. It's a small scale drama with strong performances and good writing that hopefully will start drawing the bigger audience it deserves.

10) Justified (FX)
Based on an Elmore Leonard short story, Justified features a magnetic Timothy Olyphant playing a modern variation of his Seth Bullock character on Deadwood, a US Marshal named Raylan Givens who is forced to return to his native Kentucky after being a little too quick on the draw in his prior assignments. Givens is a terrific character, but what makes Justified work so well are the people he's surrounded by, such as his straight-talking boss, his wary ex-wife, and, most notably, a slippery born-again adversary played with impressive gusto by Walter Goggins.

9) Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Boardwalk Empire has such an impressive pedigree -- created by former Sopranos writer Terrence Winter, produced and directed by Martin Scorsese, with a star-studded cast led by Steve Buscemi -- that I couldn't help being slightly let-down initially as the first few episodes suggested a show with a great deal of surface detail but not much depth. I think that criticism still holds a bit -- the show can sometimes rely too heavily on plot and production at the expense of character development -- but by the end of the season, Winter and company had told a multi-layered story about Prohibition-era Atlantic City with so many compelling elements that it could easily be forgiven for falling a little short of expectations. Impressively tying together early mafia stories stretching from New York to Chicago to New Jersey, Boardwalk Empire was nearly as ambitious and captivating as its main characters.

8) Treme (HBO)
Viewers who came to David Simon's new HBO series about post-Katrina New Orleans expecting a Big Easy version of The Wire were likely sorely disappointed with Treme, which was less The Wire 2.0 and more a distinct work of art with a different set of intentions. The first half of the season was less concerned with complicated stories and more interested in recreating the atmosphere of New Orleans, featuring everything from the city's talented, work-a-day jazz musicians to its colorful Mardi Gras Indians. Treme's unusual pace -- it feels more like a documentary than a scripted program -- and difficult characters took some getting used to, but towards the tail-end of the series it became apparent that Simon was once again creating a multi-layered, thematic piece of work, demonstrating yet again his singular ability to capture a city's unique virtues and its frustrating challenges.

7) Community (NBC)
Community has made a name for itself with its expert pop-culture parodies, such as its fantastic action-movie homage set in a school-wide paintball tournament or its touching Christmas episode filmed in Rankin/Bass-style stop-motion. But all the parodies would fall flat if creator Dan Harmon and his writers had not so expertly crafted a setting and characters that come off as authentic. Set in a Los Angeles community college, Community uses its familiar setting to play with its character archetypes -- the self-centered jerk with a sensitive side (a charming Joel McHale) the nerdy, pop-culture obsessed social outcast (standout Danny Pudi), the insecure overachiever (winsome Alison Brie) -- and push them into situations that are sometimes ridiculous but usually revealing. It's telling that the best episode of Community this year wasn't one of the parodies, but rather the one episode that locked the characters in a room and forced them to interact only with each other. Hilarious as always, it demonstrated yet again that behind the jokes Community has a surprising amount of depth.

6) Party Down (Starz)
The second and sadly final season of Party Down continued the first season's model of having each episode take place at a different party being catered by the Party Down crew, a group of aspiring actors and writers forced to rely on catering as a day job as they try to make it in Hollywood. The loss of Jane Lynch to Glee -- she was a regular on the first season -- was felt at first as Megan Mullaly's new stage-mom character didn't quite fit in at the beginning, but it didn't take long for the show to revert to being one of the funniest things on television, with the party catered at Steve Guttenberg's house a particular highlight. Like most good things on television, Party Down was canceled this year due to poor ratings, but Netflix has all of season 2 available on instant streaming. It's well worth your time.

5) Terriers (FX)
Canceled after one season, this FX show about two down on their luck, goodhearted detectives never got the audience it deserved, but I hope people catch it on DVD because it is rare to find a show debut with such a strong handle on the story it's telling. As the two damaged detectives trying to help their clients while often sabotaging their personal lives, Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James gave two of the best performances of the year in the service of scripts that demonstrated incredible range, oscillating between dark humor and heartbreaking emotion. Don't let its cancellation prevent you from checking out Terriers -- even in one season, the show managed to tell the kind of complete, satisfying story it takes most shows years to pull off.

4) Parks and Recreation (NBC)
The geniuses at NBC decided to put their best comedy on the shelf for the fall season, so it's been awhile since Parks and Recreation has been on the air. The show's return cannot come soon enough (it comes back in January!) because by the time it ended its second season it had become the best comedy on broadcast television, a wonderful demonstration of how the funniest shows are not only hilarious but imbued with heart (much like its sister-sitcom, The Office, used to be). Set in a parks department in small-town Indiana, Parks and Recreation features the best comedic ensemble on television, led by Amy Poehler as the ambitious but caring deputy Leslie Knope. Nick Offerman as her boss Ron Swanson and Chris Pratt as lovable lunkhead who works in the building are two standout performers, though the whole cast is fantastic. Here's hoping NBC gives the show the promotion and support it deserves.

3) Mad Men (AMC)
Mad Men began its fourth season with the ominous question "Who is Don Draper?" In past seasons the answer would have been complicated but ultimately flattering, but this season seemed intent on un-romanticizing Don (the always brilliant Jon Hamm, in his best season yet), as he became an alcoholic mess who struggled to deal with his post-divorce life and the effect it was having on his start-up ad agency and his troubled young daughter. Meanwhile, the dramatic 60s roared on, as Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) became further swept up in the counterculture and even seemingly stodgy Lane (Jared Harris) displayed a rebellious side. Don, however, proved himself a traditionalist, ending the season by clinging strongly to a romantic ideal that may never truly exist for him. It was an unusual season, with some incredible high points, such as the Peggy-Don pas de deux in "The Suitcase", and though it didn't quite live up to some of the previous seasons for me, it demonstrated yet again that few shows are as courageous or as eminently watchable as Mad Men.

2) Louie (FX)
The best new show on television this year, Louis CK's very funny comedy was a deeply personal examination of the themes that make his stand-up act so memorable -- mortality, privilege, entitlement, responsibility. The deal CK made with FX, which gave him total creative control in exchange for a modest budget and the promise of a season's worth of episodes, is now the envy of every working comic today, but it only works because CK's vision is clear and his execution pitch-perfect. Louie is essentially a series of vignettes, strung together by interspersed bits of CK's stand-up act, each varying in tone and theme but unified by his interest in finding the humor in the strangest or most common of situations. The show veers from dark to hilarious to sweet to strange, but it's always interesting and always original. Louis CK's comedy is grounded in self-loathing, so there's probably no point in praising it too much -- hopefully he'll just find a way to turn all the critical acclaim he's getting into new material.

1) Breaking Bad (AMC)
I was late to Breaking Bad, catching up on its three seasons only this summer after the latest had completed. Watching all the episodes continuously without any seasonal breaks helps you appreciate what an incredible accomplishment creator Vince Gilligan and his writers have managed to pull off with their series about Walter White
(the inimitable Bryan Cranston), a cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher who starts cooking crystal meth as a way to take care of his family and take control of his life. In its third season, the show made White's transformation into ruthless criminal complete, as he went into business with a drug lord and put his DEA agent brother-in-law's (Dean Norris) life in danger. But the most compelling storyline belonged to Jesse (Aaron Paul), Walt's original partner-in-crime, newly sober and clear-eyed about his role in the game. Paul gave the performance of the year as he breathtakingly showed how Jesse was the ultimate victim of all of Walt's selfish actions, an innocent spirit drafted into a world he never had the stomach for. The show ended with a nerve-wracking cliffhanger, the apotheosis of all of Walt and Jesse's wrong decisions and the culmination of the best season of television this year.

Honorable Mention: ABC's Lost ended this year with a season I ultimately found disappointing, primarily because the creators chose to go out on a treacly note rather than offering any real resolution to the numerous plotlines, characters, and mythology the show had laid out from the beginning. Still, Lost was an impressive achievement that, despite the best efforts of TV producers everywhere, has yet to be reproduced and I will miss its presence on the tube.

HBO's In Treatment is a similarly challenging program, but for entirely different reasons. This is the first year I really watched a session in full and found myself entirely enraptured by the storyline focused on Irfan Khan's Sunil, an Indian immigrant forced to live with a son he doesn't understand anymore and a daughter-in-law he both covets and resents. Khan and Gabriel Byrne's therapy sessions were an actor's showcase, a riveting demonstration of how captivating something as simple as a conversation between two people can be.

Finally, HBO's Bored to Death didn't do anything new in its second season, but it always makes me laugh and smile for its bold embrace of its characters' self-awareness and grandiosity and its distinctly New York sensibility.

Best Albums of 2010

In the years I've been writing lists of my favorite albums, I can't remember a year as musically satisfying as this past one has been. Most notably, hip hop was resurgent in 2010, with fantastic albums from stalwarts like Kanye and Big Boi and a couple great new artists as well. Lots of returning acts, combined with a few electrifying debuts, have produced a bountiful year for music -- I had no trouble coming up with a list of albums I wanted to share.

Fortunately, the website Grooveshark has actually made it easy for me to share those albums with my readers -- you'll find that I've embedded the entirety of every album listed on this page. I'm not exactly sure how Grooveshark works -- I get the impression it's in some kind of legal limbo -- but I recommend signing up. It's the best free online music service I've discovered so far. Now on to my favorite albums of the year:

25) Kid Cudi - Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager
If the path to hip hop success lies in trumpeting excess and never betraying weakness, Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi) sure is taking a strange route to becoming a rap star. His sophomore album is all about the dangers of fame, with fascinating examinations of addiction and self-doubt. Kid Cudi sounds like a man struggling with personal demons, but it's to our benefit that he chooses to excise them in musical form.
Best tracks: "These Worries", "Erase Me"

24) Josh Ritter - So Runs the World Away
Josh Ritter's last album was one of my favorite albums of 2007, with his particular brand of rocking folk music a refreshing reminder that folk needn't be mired in earnestness or self-seriousness. His follow-up to that album isn't quite as consistent or as enlightening as his earlier work, but it does further confirm that Ritter is one of the best folk musicians working today.
Best tracks: "Change of Time", "Folk Bloodbath"

23) Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz
Sufjan Stevens appears to have abandoned his 50 state project -- at one point he had promised to follow-up his excellent Michigan and Illinois albums with new ones for each state in the union. His third disc shows him experimenting with more technology -- electronic beats abound and on one song he even uses auto-tune -- but the beautiful melodies and lush orchestration he's known for are still omnipresent.
Best tracks: "I Walked", "Vesuvius"

22) Cee-Lo Green - The Lady Killer
From his days with the Goodie Mob to his work as the lead singer in Gnarls Barkley, Cee-Lo has always been associated with music that is insanely catchy and compelling. This year he struck gold with his fantastic single, "Fuck You", which has been dominating the radio waves since it was released at the end of the summer. Hopefully that song attracts people to the rest of the album, which is chock full of retro, Motown-like tunes. The overall affect can sometimes feel too much like impersonation than inspiration, but there's no denying Cee-Lo's talent as a singer and musician.
Best tracks: "Fuck You", "Wildflower"

21) Rihanna - Loud
After last year's personal and introspective Rated R, Rihanna returned to her more fun-loving ways with Loud, demonstrating once again that few hip hop performers can make a hook more seductive than she can. It's a solid outing from a reliable party hitmaker.
Best tracks: "Love the Way You Lie", "What's My Name"

20) She & Him - Volume Two; Jenny & Johnny - I'm Having Fun Now
It's probably unfair to count these two acts as one, but the similarities are too strong not to mention. Both feature charismatic leading ladies with sweet signing voices (Zooey Deschanel in S&H, Jenny Lewis in J&J) who are provided with strong musical support from their male bandmates. And they both produced albums filled with very pleasant, often gorgeous melodies. Both acts can be too twee, but most of the time they stay on the right side of the line between adorable and precious.
Best tracks: S&H - "Don't Look Back", "In the Sun"; J&J - "Switchblade", "Scissor Runner"

19) Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can
20 year old Laura Marling has a knack for writing well beyond her years -- this excellent sophomore album sounds like the work of a mature artist, not a recent teenager. Her music feels intensely intimate, with Marling often whispering her beautiful, literary lyrics over spare, delicate melodies.
Best tracks: "Goodbye England", "Hope In The Air"

18) Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
No one can deny the technical virtuosity of Bradford Cox and his bandmates in Deerhunter -- they're broad genre experiments result in lush soundscapes and very unique sounds. The technical brilliance can sometimes leave me cold -- I find myself more impressed with Deerhunter than enamored with them -- but everything Cox does is worth listening to, particularly when it results in such an eclectic product as Halcyon Digest.
Best tracks: "Helicopter", "Coronado"

17) Yeasayer - Odd Blood
Brooklyn-based Yeasayer has been embraced by the hipster-set, which is kind of funny given their latest album strikes me as decidedly un-hip, teeming as it is with woolly synth-pop that could be straight from the 80s. Hip or not, Odd Blood remains a great deal of fun, packed with rollicking, dense melodies.
Best tracks: "Ambling Alp", "O.N.E."

16) The Black Keys - Brothers
One of the best rock records of the year, The Black Keys' sixth album is further proof that the duo from Akron knows how to take raw blues rock sounds and turn them into something vibrant and relevant. Their songwriting has continued to get stronger, with Brothers showcasing both their expanded range and sophisticated production values.
Best tracks: "Everlasting Light", "Tighten Up"

15) Eli "Paperboy" Reed - Come and Get It
The New York Times recently featured a lengthy article on the new wave of neo-soul music, highlighting in particular how the rise of the genre has been spearheaded by a few nerdy white dudes. The best of that bunch is Boston's Eli "Paperboy" Reed, an artist who is clearly well-versed in soul's origins but able to add his own distinctive flavor to the sound. His debut album is a welcome throwback to an earlier soul era of wall-of-sound hooks and impassioned vocals.
Best tracks: "Come and Get It", "Explosion"

14) The New Pornographers - Together
The New Pornographers have been making beautiful power pop music for a decade now, so it's pretty amazing that they can still produce an album as consistent and effervescent as Together even after many of its members have achieved some acclaim outside the group. But when group leaders AC Newman, Dan Bejar, and Neko Case come together, they always find a way to meld their very idiosyncratic talents into something truly exceptional and Together is a perfect example of that.
Best tracks: "A Bite Out of My Bed", "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk"

13) Frightened Rabbit - Winter of Mixed Drinks
Scottish band Frightened Rabbit followed up their impressive sophomore album with this equally strong third outing, keeping the basic recipe of powerful melodies and impassioned vocals in tact. This time out the songs are a bit more polished and less raw, but the overall effect remains mesmerizing.
Best Tracks: "Nothing Like You", "Swim Until You Can't See Land"

12) Wolf Parade - Expo 86
To my mind, Montreal's Wolf Parade remain the most underrated act in indie rock. That is probably partly due to the lack of enthusiasm its two frontmen have in the project (evidenced by the fact they recently announced they would be taking a break). It's too bad, since Expo 86 once again demonstrates that coupling the propulsive rock of Dan Boeckner with the wild experimentation of Spencer Krug produces an exhilarating musical experience.
Best Tracks: "Ghost Pressure", "What Did My Lover Say"

11) Beach House - Teenage Dream
I liked but didn't love Beach House's debut album, which featured the kind of pleasant shoe-gaze music it was tough to get passionate about. But with their sophomore album, the Baltimore-based band has upped their game, taking their ambient, hazy sounds in new, more compelling directions. Its background music that soon finds a way to the front of the mind.
Best tracks: "Zebra", "Norway"

10) LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening
James Murphy has suggested that This is Happening will be LCD Soundsystem's last album, which is a pity since the three albums they've put out have all been outstanding. On the latest, Murphy continues to add dazzling beats and off-kilter hooks to his introspective, melancholic lyrics. I hope Murphy is bluffing, because LCD Soundystem is too good to be gone for too long.
Best tracks: "All I Want", "I Can Change"

9) Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid
Few artists choose to enter the stage with a 70-minute, 18 track debut album, but Janelle Monae is nothing if not ambitious. Covering a broad range of genres while all the while maintaining her own distinctive voice, Monae's audacious songwriting and performing on The ArchAndroid suggest an artist who will be making waves for years to come.
Best tracks: "Tightrope", "Cold War"

8) Jonsi - Go
Jonsi Birgisson, the frontman of Iceland's renowned Sigur Ros, has a talent for creating densely-packed, vast soundscapes that are overflowing with vibrant arrangements and novel instrumentation. His debut solo album is some of his most accessible, beautiful work to date, the kind of music that immediately grabs your attention and then never lets go.
Best tracks: "Go Do", "Animal Arithmetic"

7) Vampire Weekend - Contra
One of the first albums that came out in 2010 turned out to be one of the best, as Vampire Weekend produced a sophomore effort filled with cheery, clever, and infectious pop music. It's telling that following their smashing debut album, the band didn't get distracted with addressing the haters -- Contra is the work of a band confident in their abilities and eager to demonstrate they're one of the most reliable pop acts on the scene today.
Best tracks: "White Sky", "Giving Up the Gun"

6) Robyn - Body Talk
Swedish pop star Robyn decided to spend 2010 releasing a handful of delightful EPs, each one showcasing her unique ability to create vital dance-pop songs that often sound too sophisticated for the genre. Robyn, like most Swedish pop stars, knows her way with a melody, but distinguishes her music with heartfelt vocals and insightful lyrics.
Best tracks: "Dancing On My Own", "Call Your Girlfriend"

5) Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
Arcade Fire, in addition to producing another excellent, anthemic rock record, put on the best live show I saw this year. It helps that their catalog is filled with the kind of rousing, majestic rock music that no able-bodied person can avoid moving to, but it's notable that for all the energy the band can generate, the themes of their music tend to veer toward the dark and melancholic. On The Suburbs, the band examines life in the exurban sprawl and manages to generate excitement from the alienation and longing they find there.
Best tracks: "We Used to Wait", "Modern Man"

4) Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot...The Son of Chico Dusty
It has been 4 years since the last Outkast album came out and that album, the underwhelming Idlewild, didn't leave much to savor. Fortunately, one half of the Outkast duo, Big Boi, returned in a big way in 2010, producing a raucous, magnetic solo album chock-a-block with radio-ready jams. Big Boi was never as wildly inventive as his former partner Andre 3000, but his underrated, straightforward hip hop was always more consistent and often more enjoyable. Left to his own devices, he takes his solo effort in a multitude of directions, producing the most fun hip hop album of the year.
Best tracks: "Shine Blockas", "Shutterbug"

3) Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Sometimes, the only people who can create truly great art have to be insufferable, ego maniacal assholes. How else to explain the brilliance of Kanye West, a man clearly troubled with intense self-doubt, unabashed earnestness, and unqualified aspirations for grandeur? But all those mixed up emotions find their most productive release in the recording studio, where West has now produced five fascinating, exceptional albums. His latest is his best yet, a masterwork of music that teeters between raunchy and sophisticated, ridiculous and insightful. There are many labels that Kanye deserves, but the most important one continues to be music genius.
Best tracks: "Runaway", "Monster"

2) Sleigh Bells - Treats
The best debut of the year, Sleigh Bells makes a lot of noise for a band composed of only two people. But Derek Miller's sonic inventions and Alexis Krauss' sweet vocals pack a wallop every time you hear one of their songs -- it's like a musical bomb exploding, and the aftershock remains long after impact. Talk about making one hell of an entrance -- Sleigh Bells made music unlike anything else I heard this year.
Best tracks: "Tell 'Em", "Rill Rill"

1) The National - High Violet
I'll readily admit that Kanye's music was more adventurous, that Sleigh Bells' was more original, and Arcade Fire's was more epic than the morose, contemplative rock music produced by The National this year. But in going back to the well this time, the Brooklyn-via-Cincinnati band found a sound that was a little more haunting and a little more dramatic than in their superb previous albums. Propelled by lead singer Matt Beringer's smoky baritone, the songs on High Violet are essentially about maturing, tackling the new-found responsibilities and challenges that come with middle age. The band sounds worried, but they shouldn't be -- the evidence suggests they only get better with age.
Best tracks: "Bloodbuzz Ohio", "England"

Top Ten Songs of 2010

As usual, most of the best songs of the year came from artists on my best albums list, and I tend to exclude those songs on this list so I can highlight a few other discoveries.

At the bottom of this post, though, I've included a playlist of all the songs noted here as well as a few of my other favorites -- hopefully it captures most of what I think are the best songs of the year. Now on to my top ten:

10) Stornoway - "Zorbing"
I don't know much about this Oxford-based band, but their debut single is a nice slice of folk-pop featuring an irresistible refrain.

9) The Mynabirds - "Let the Record Go"
The Mynabirds is the name for singer-songwriter Laura Burhenn's new act. She released an excellent debut record this year, with this song a good representation of the her upbeat, retro-pop sound.

8) Basia Bulat - "The Shore"
Canadian folk singer-songwriter Basia Bulat writes songs of exquisite beauty, helped by a lilting alto voice that makes everything sound just that much more delicate and intimate. "The Shore", featuring just Bulat on her autoharp, is the kind of spare melody that is all the more powerful because of its simplicity.

7) Surfer Blood - "Swim"
Floridians Surfer Blood sound like they should be from California -- "Swim" is a pure shot of sunny beach power pop, with a catchy chorus and anthemic vocals.

6) School of Seven Bells - "Windstorm"
New York's School of Seven Bells is comprised of three sisters and one male bandmate who write ethereal, hazy pop songs. This single off their latest album is their best work yet, combining air falsetto vocals with intricate instrumentation.

5) Broken Social Scene - "Texico Bitches"
Broken Social's Scene's newest album, Forgiveness Rock Record, just missed making my albums list so I wanted to highlight one of the better, more up-tempo songs on that disc. "Texico Bitches" is a pretty simple melody, but it has an infectious beat and makes good use of the band's many members.

4) The Morning Benders - "Excuses"
Another charming California-style pop number on this list, "Excuses" shift perfectly between doo-wop ballad and aggressive wall-of-sound instrumentation. A nice, sunny number to warm your heart in the depths of winter.

3) Metric - "Black Sheep"
Canadian indie rockers Metric left this track off last year's excellent Fantasies because they couldn't find a place to put it on the album. It's just as well, since the song fit very well in indie music ethos of the film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. I have no idea what the lyrics mean but the song sounds great.

2) Caribou - "Odessa"
One of the most original tracks of the year, "Odessa" is a dancehall number with earworm beats, tender vocals, and awesome hooks. It's an enchanting song that borrows heavily from disco and techno but emerges as something entirely unique.

1) Aloe Blacc - "I Need a Dollar"
Given the continually poor state of the economy, I suppose it's not surprising that the song that resonated most with me this year was Aloe Blacc's neo-soul number "I Need a Dollar." Blacc recorded the song 4 years ago, but it's only been released this year on his debut album and received attention as the theme song to HBO's How To Make It In America. It's a fantastic number, enhanced by Blacc's soulful vocals and the urgency of the background beat.

I've compiled all the songs above along with a few of my favorites from my album list into one playlist here: