1. Over the Rhine – The Long Surrender

They’ve been my favorite band for several years, and I love all of the albums they’ve released in a 21-year career. But they get better every year, and this is, in my opinion, the finest album they’ve recorded. I’m told that the “official release” doesn’t happen until February 2011; but come on, The Long Surrender has been available for purchase online for months, and almost all of their fans have it already. So as far as I’m concerned, this was the music most worth discovering and savoring in 2010. It made a difference for me, and will go on inspiring and moving me for many years to come.

For a few years now I’ve been convinced that Joe Henry would be the perfect producer for Over the Rhine, and I even expressed that opinion to the band. With The Long Surrender, that dream came true. And there were some big surprises born from the collaboration, including songs that the band and the producer wrote together, and a guest appearance by Lucinda Williams, whose duet with Karin Bergquist – “Undamned” – is one of the band’s greatest moments.

In fact, there are several tracks here I would find mandatory for any “best-of” compilation: “Only God Can Save Us Now,” “Rave On,” “Infamous Love Song,” “Oh Yeah By the Way,” “All of My Favorite People.”

But for me, the album’s highlight is not Lucinda’s appearance, but the beautiful harmonizing between Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist on “Oh Yeah By The Way.” They sound so good together, it seems a shame that they haven’t sung together more often.

I’m purposefully keeping this summary simple. That’s because I intend to write a full review of the album before it’s “official” release… one that will properly express my gratitude. Once in a while, you hear an album that you know will remain important to you for the rest of your life. This is one of those that feels like it is a part of the soundtrack to my own life… like Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy, or U2’s The Joshua Tree, or Peter Gabriel’s Passion, or Sam Phillips’s The Turning. So I’m saving the rest of my thoughts for that article. It deserves something more than just a capsule review and a big “Hooray!”

2. Anaïs Mitchell – Hadestown

A folk-rock opera, retelling the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, with inspired casting, beautiful melodies, raucous underworld jam sessions. Greg Brown is so perfectly cast as the voice of malevolent Hades that his songs send chills down my spine… including the song I played most often in 2010: “Why We Build the Wall.” (Listen to Mitchell perform it herself here.) When I introduced friends to this album, they went right out and bought it.

3. Sam Phillips – The Long Play EPs: Cold Dark Night, Magic for Everybody, Hypnotists in Paris, Old Tin Pan, Days of the One Night Stands

My favorite singer/songwriter enjoyed the most creative, surprising, and inspiring year of her career. She released five EPs — five! — in 2010. They were all available to those who subscribed to The Long Play, her groundbreaking music subscription program. The collection of songs that spanned these five albums were like a box of 64 crayons, a whole world of moods and hues, from heartbreak to hilarity to divine inspiration. And the Christmas album was the highlight of the lot, featuring an appearance by Joe Henry. Her frequent collaborators Eric Gorfain and Jay Bellerose were by her side all the way through.

4. Mavis Staples – You’re Not Alone

Pure joy all the way through. God bless Jeff Tweedy for giving the great Mavis such a beautiful stage and such pristine sound, so that we can’t help but feel that she’s in the room, singing directly to us… even throwing her arms around us.

5. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

My favorite rock album of 2010 was also the most complex and cohesive work yet from the world’s youngest Great Rock Band. While it didn’t have any single track to match the highlights of Funeral and Neon Bible, when taken as a whole The Suburbs is a searing work of personal reflection, heartbreak, rage, and grief. It was also the most creatively marketed record of the year, with an interactive video project that was surprisingly affecting.

6. Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can

By altering her approach to performing, singing in her lower register, Marling suddenly seemed like a masterful chanteuse from the early 70s. Weaving mythological narratives together with contemporary stories of broken, misguided, self-destructive women, she created a compelling tapestry of stories and characters. And the music on this album is so powerfully produced that when Marling’s voice turns angry, the band rages around her as if she is summoning a storm, and the result is truly terrifying.

7. Johnny Cash – American VI: Ain’t No Grave

Thom Jurek says it well at AllMusic.com:

Released for the occasion of Johnny Cash’s 78th birthday, American VI: Ain’t No Grave is the final installment in the collaboration between Cash and Rick Rubin that began with 1994’s American Recordings. These ten songs were cut during the same sessions for American V: A Hundred Highways. … June Carter Cash died during routine surgery during these sessions. Cash, though grief stricken and with full knowledge that he too was dying due to complications from Parkinson’s disease, worked as often as his health would allow. He died three months after these songs were recorded. Ain’t No Grave is an elegiac and deeply spiritual album, a formal goodbye without regret from a man and an artist of almost mythic stature. The song selection is rooted in the Americana, folk, country, and gospel traditions. … If there were any justice, Ain’t No Grave would be the last album released under Cash’s name. It is not only a compelling contribution to his legacy, but an offering that closes the historic American Recordings series with the same stamp of quality that began it.

8. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz

As bewildering as it is boisterous, as cryptic as it is compelling, Stevens’ abrasive elctro-shock symphony took me about ten listens before I finally surrendered to its mysteries. The melodies do eventually take hold of you. I’m not going to claim to understand all of the lyrics, but I enjoy this album the way I enjoy driving through storms of lightening, wind, and torrential rain at midnight. Some of you will know what I mean. I didn’t hear a more courageous album all year.

9. Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul

Delayed for several months by a legal dispute, this album written and produced by Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse is a very dark record about violence, rage, disillusionment, and loss. But it is so richly layered, so intricately textured, and so brilliantly cast (with singers as different as Black Francis, Iggy Pop, Julian Casablancas, Suzanne Vega, and David Lynch), that it is consistently compelling… sometimes funny and sometimes fearsome. It’s difficult to listen to without reflecting on the horrible events that followed it; two inspiring and beloved musicians who contributed their voices and talents to the project, Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) and Vic Chestnut, committed suicide. This album becomes, in retrospect, like a parting cry from broken hearts.

10. Brian Eno – Small Craft on a Milk Sea

Eno’s instrumentals here are a wild, creative array of sounds and textures, recalling and yet surpassing his Passengers collaboration with U2. A great soundtrack to movies yet to be made, and a welcome return to form for a pioneer of new sounds. Now, if only he would bring David Bowie out of the silence and produce the sequel to their last major collaboration and my favorite Bowie album: 1. Outside.

Runners-up (in alphabetical order):
Black Dub – Black Dub
The Black Keys – Brothers
Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig
The Dead Weather – Sea of Cowards
The Innocence Mission – My Room in the Trees
LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
Local Natives – Gorilla Nation
The National – High Violet
Robert Plant – Band of Joy
Sufjan Stevens – All Delighted People
These New Puritans – Hidden

Other albums that impressed me:
Drive-By Truckers – The Big To-Do
Cowboy Junkies – Remnin Park
John Legend and the Roots – Wake Up
Elvis Costello – National Ransom
The Besnard Lakes – The Besnard Lakes are the Roaring Night
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings – I Learned the Hard Way
Clogs – The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Beat the Devil’s Tattoo
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
She and Him – She and Him, Volume 2
Shearwater – The Golden Archipelago
Elizabeth Cook – Welder
Damien Jurado – Saint Bartlett
Lizz Wright – Fellowship

2010 Records I Still Need to Hear
Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song
Cee-lo Green – The Lady Killer
Mary Gauthier – The Foundling