What a Wonderful World: My Favorite Records of 2010

Every now and then, I hear people complaining about the lack of good, new music. I figure these people just aren’t paying attention, or they’re looking in the wrong places, because I have the opposite problem: I am overwhelmed by all the good music there is to explore. I’m so blinded by good music that “bad” music doesn’t even show up on my radar. Just about everything I hear is at least interesting, if not a potential “Record to Die For.” My simple advice on this matter: Identify the thing that makes you happy, and then go deeper into it. And when you think you’ve explored it all, look again.

(You can do this with music. It’s safe. Music won’t feel smothered by your love. It won’t ask for its own space.)

The really funny part about this is that as I discover more great art, the world only becomes bigger and crazier and more beautiful. Discoveries only lead to more questions, more to learn, more to enjoy. There’s always more to discover. The world keeps expanding.

When asked about this year in music, Stereophile readers seem divided. In a recent Vote, we asked, “How has new music been shaping up for 2010?” Twenty-three percent of those who responded said 2010’s music was a little bit better than last year’s, while 19% felt this year’s music was worse than last year’s, and 27% said it was about the same.

This year, I was fortunate to make two musical discoveries that radically altered the landscape of my music-loving life (John Prine and Robert Wyatt), and a third (Delbert McClinton) which merely brought a ton of joy to it. Happily, all three have shared a large number of songs with the world, and recordings are readily available. For work by Prine and McClinton, you don’t really have to dig deeper than the bargain bins at any used record store, or, if you’re really lazy, just search for them on eBay. Spend anywhere from $1 to $15 on any one of their albums, and you’re guaranteed a very good experience.

Robert Wyatt, though, has been the really big one for me. For awhile, I wondered how it could be possible that I had lived for 32 years without this voice in my life. Why hadn’t anyone told me? Now my view has changed. The more important thing is that I will have his voice with me for the rest of my life.

From left: Robert Wyatt, Gilad Atzmon, Ros Stephen. Photo: Tali Atzmon

Fortunately, in addition to the latest album, For the Ghosts Within, a wonderful collaboration with Gilad Atzmon and Ros Stephen, Domino Recording Co. is also reissuing a slew of Wyatt solo releases. The limited edition reissues are available on 180gm vinyl, in lovely packaging, and each includes a companion compact disc version. The sound, for the most part—and I suppose this depends, at least somewhat, on the quality of the original recording—is very good. So far, I have collected Rock Bottom (1974), Ruth is Stranger than Richard (1975; Actually, I think Richard is stranger than Ruth, but whatever. Wyatt was probably just messing with us.), Old Rottenhat (1985), Dondestan (Revisited) (1998), and Cuckooland (2003). Crazily, they are all great. And they all sound as though they could have been released this year. The stuff is, in so many ways, timeless.

Even more: Wyatt played in a few bands before going solo, and we can also explore those earlier endeavors. I’ve started with The Soft Machine, and their thick and winding branches will lead me in so many other directions, I’m sure.

Jazz Messenger, Fred Kaplan, has offered his list of “Best Jazz Albums of 2010.” I’m not comfortable with selecting “bests.” I haven’t heard all of 2010’s records and, even if I did, I couldn’t say that one is more universally worthwhile than any other. But I can tell you which of this year’s records brought me the most pleasure. In addition to For the Ghosts Within, which, if pressed to choose, would be my very favorite record of the year, here is a list of others that I really enjoyed—and continue to enjoy—a lot. I’ve split them up into groups of ten to make it easier to look at and read, but the order is completely random.

My Favorite Albums of 2010

Lesser/Matmos/Wobbly: Simultaneous Quodlibet (Important)
Gil Scot-Heron: I’m New Here (XL)
Kawabata Makoto: White Summer of Love Dreamer (Blackest Rainbow)
Oval: O (Thrill Jockey)
Best Coast: Crazy For You (Mexican Summer)
Outer Limits Recordings: Foxy Baby (Not Not Fun)
Hamper McBee: The Good Old-Fashioned Way (Drag City/2s & Fews)
We Like Cats: Proper Eats (Marriage Records)
Beach House: Teen Dream (Sub Pop)
Julianna Barwick: Florine (Florid)

Julian Lynch: Mare (Olde English Spelling Bee)
Grinderman: Grinderman 2 (Anti-)
Four Tet: There Is Love in You (Domino)
Gonjasufi: A Sufi and a Killer (Warp)
Bushman’s Revenge: Jitterbug (Rune Grammofon)
Noveller: Desert Fires (Saffron Recordings)
LA Vampies/Zola Jesus: LA Vampires Meets Zola Jesus (Not Not Fun)
Pontiak: Living (Thrill Jockey)
Oneohtrix Point Never: Returnal (Editions Mego)
Sophie Hutchings: Becalmed (Touch)

Daniel Higgs: Say God (Thrill Jockey)
Indian Jewelry: Totaled (We Are Free)
Pocahaunted: Make It Real (Not Not Fun)
Effi Briest: Rhizomes (Sacred Bones)
Wild Nothing: Gemini (Captured Tracks)
Joanna Newsom: Have One On Me (Drag City)
The Tallest Man On Earth: The Wild Hunt (Dead Oceans)
Roky Erickson: True Love Cast Out All Evil (Anti-)
Damien Jurado: Saint Bartlett (Secretly Canadian)
Philip Selway: Familial (Nonesuch)

ANBB: Mimikry (Raster-Noton)
Flying Lotus: Cosmogramma (Warp)
Stian Westerhus: Pitch Black Star Spangled (Rune Grammofon)
Mark McGuire: Living With Yourself (Editions Mego)
King Midas Sound: Waiting for You (Hyperdub)
Belle and Sebastian: Write About Love (Matador)
Guano Padano: s/t (Important)
Sun City Girls: Funeral Mariachi (Abduction)
Hauschka: Foreign Landscapes (Fat Cat)
Jack Rose: Luck in the Valley (Thrill Jockey)
Jefre Cantu-Ledesma: Love is a Stream (Type)

I could probably come up with a second list, one just as long, of all the releases I wanted to hear. I hope to get to them, and so much more, in 2011.

tzed's picture

I will definitely be checking out the albums I don't have from your list.
Here's three I really liked this year:
Dean & Brita - 13 Most Beautiful, Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests
Kristin Hersh- Crooked
The Seven Fields of Aphelion- Periphery

Kristin's autobiography Rat Girl is an amazing read, even if you weren't partly formed by growing up with the Throwing Muses...

R Browne's picture

Here are a few personal favorites from 2010:

Nest - Retold
Laura Veirs - July Flame
Balmorhea - Constellations
Dustin O'Halloran - Vorleben
Sophie Hutchings - Becalmed
Black Swan - In 8 Movements
Marconi Union - A Lost Connection
Hummingbird - Our Fearful Symmetry
Hammock - Chasing After Shadows...Living With The Ghosts
Jóhann Jóhannsson - And In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound Of Bees

RobertSlavin's picture

Well Stephen,

I checked out every album you recommended on your list on iTunes that I could (three seemed to not be there). I also listened to John Prine, Robert Wyatt and Delbert McClinton.

I didn't like most of it. There were two albums that I thought OK and one I think I might consider buying (Florine by Julianna Barwick). Obviously, taste is a personal thing.

You clearly have a taste for slow-moving ambient music. I wonder why not just listen to classics from Renaissance Europe? To me it sounds better and certainly more natural.

One album I've come across from this year that I like is the self-title album from Marnie Stern (another New Yorker). New York Times critic Nate Chinen named it one of the top 10 albums of the year in today's newspaper.

Two others I like:
The Joy Formidable, "A Balloon Called Moaning"
Laura Marling, "I Speak Because I Can" (much softer music than the other two)

My prime recommendation to those who want music recommendations is this: if you have a decent set of speakers on your computer and a decent Internet connection -- listen to Pandora radio.


Stephen Mejias's picture
You clearly have a taste for slow-moving ambient music.

Did iTunes tell you that? I do enjoy slow-moving ambient music, sometimes. But is that all you got from my post? Your analysis is correct, kinda, but also very incomplete.

I could say you clearly have a taste for female vocals.

I think Pandora is cool, but I prefer the excitement of the accidental discovery -- flipping through racks of records and taking a chance -- or sharing recommendations with friends. Those sorts of discoveries -- the kind made through human interaction -- are far more valuable, to me, than anything a computer algorithm can possibly offer. Thanks for reading.

300Binary's picture

Merry Christmas, Stephen

I am too old to remember which year it is, mostly, but, it is wonderful fun asking an online music server to play Wipeout by the Surfaris. Whenever they tried to play a song with lyrix, I just said "No". It took a few hours to get to the keyword song, but all the tunes brought back the early sixties, where I now live, as it were. OK, nearly mid sixties. Some people like to complain, but, like FZ sang, "Broken Hearts are for as Wholes". PS, my wife sez some of the surf guitarists needed to practice their scales... The Straightjackets were decent, and decades later, but still decades back, sigh.

krell100's picture

Hey Steven,

Thanks for the article with which I agree wholeheartedly. There's a ton of new stuff out there and those that moan are usually fixated on genre's that were new several centuries ago... Anyway, here's a couple of things I've been spinning in 2010:

Autechre - Oversteps (Warp)
Peter Bjargo - A wave of bitterness (Kalinkaland)
Solemn Novena - Kiss the girls (Independent)
Pure Reason Revolution - Hammer and Anvil (Superball Music)

Happy listening!

spiffwhiffle's picture

Don't have a problem with Atzmon as long as he's got the reed in his mouth. But when it takes it out, he says such stupid and racist things that David Duke thinks he's a genius.

I'm not kidding. David Duke, the guy who used to run the KKK, has posted at least four of Atmon's "this is what Jews are *really* like" essays on his website, and he calls them "brilliant" and "insightful." Google it and see. So with all due deference to Robert Wyatt, I'm not buying any album with Atzmon, and anybody who cares about racism should think twice.

Stephen Mejias's picture
Hi spiffwhiffle.
I know very little about Gilad Atzmon, other than what I’ve heard on the record—his playing is marvelous. Our editorial assistant, Ariel Bitan, was the first to bring to my attention his controversial political and religious beliefs. When I found out, I was confused because, from everything I’ve read and heard, Robert Wyatt seems to be an incredibly warm and loving person.

But my knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and all it encompasses is poor, so I tried not to jump to any conclusions.

Stereophile contributor Markus Sauer has directed my attention to a forum thread he started, inquiring into Atzmon's beliefs. Besides being thoughtful and civil, the thread goes into some more detail and brings me some comfort.

As I mentioned to Markus, the album really is lovely. Listening to the record makes me feel good about life, ready to embrace the world. I’ve been giving it out as a Christmas gift to friends and family.

Finally, all things considered, I don't think it's fair to hold Gilad Atzmon responsible for David Duke's comments. I'm going to choose to enjoy the record, and Atzmon's remarkable contributions to it, and attempt to spread the joy it contains.

MatthewSTL's picture

Hey Stephen,

Thanks for such a wide-ranging list. I'm sure that the first month or so of 2011 will be spent learning more about the records on this list that I've missed hearing.

Since people are adding their own favorites to this thread, the only record that I would add here would be

Sam Amidon - I See The Sign

I love the combination of old folk ballads with Nico Muhly's Glass-esque arrangements; it seems like no one else is making music quite like this.

Here's to more great music in the new year.