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The Best Music of 2010

From Arcade Fire to E-40 to The Walkmen, our critics recommend the best albums of the past year.



Gogol Bordello
Trans-Continental Hustle

Known for its wild stage show, Gogol Bordello is one of the best live bands around right now. Led by Eugene Hütz, an erudite punk refugee from the Ukraine, the band cranks out a sound that combines flamenco, punk, rap, roots reggae, and salsa with a stomping gypsy two-step rhythm that sounds like an Eastern European cousin of ska. Its odd time signatures recall Balkan wedding music. Superstar producer Rick Rubin signed the band last year and adds a bit of polish to Trans-Continental Hustle without taking anything away from the band's confrontational stance. Band members recently added some samba and Brazilian gypsy music to the mix, making Gogol more international than ever. (Columbia/American)

Jamey Johnson
The Guitar Song

Johnson's combination of hard-core, hard-luck honky-tonk tunes and wrenching ballads have made him an unlikely star. He continues to walk on the dark side of the street on The Guitar Song, a 25-song two-CD set with no power ballads or concessions to pop music. The discs are called "Black" and "White," but the difference in tone is minimal. They're mostly bleak portraits of losers on the edge of the abyss, played in funereal time signatures. "Good Times Ain't What They Used To Be" is the only up-tempo track, but it's as much a lament about the excess of youth as it is a celebration of life's transient pleasures. (Mercury)

Le Pop

In most countries outside of the United States, categories like pop, folk, and world music are meaningless. Global pop would be a better and more accurate category for much of what was once called world music. Case in point: Katzenjammer, an all-woman quartet from Norway. The band blends gypsy jazz, Balkan wedding music, rock, and Norwegian folk into a frothy confection that's global in its outlook, yet instantly accessible. The four women play about a dozen instruments between them, while guests provide sitar, banjo, and cello accents to a collection that'll have you dancing all night long wearing a giddy smile. (Nettwerk)

Joan Soriano
El Duque de la Bachata

Batchata is a folky style from the Dominican Republic that blends rhythms from Africa and Cuba with local folkloric styles. It's a syncopated music usually played on acoustic instruments, considered déclassé by most Dominicans until it started gaining commercial clout in the 1980s. Joan Soriano is a bachatero with a royal touch. He plays guitar with a passion and finesse that will leave you speechless. His amazing solos often have a Congolese flavor, full of rippling single-note runs. His combo also ramps up the energy with a few sizzling bachata-merengue hybrids. (IASO)

April Smith and the Great Picture Show
Songs for a Sinking Ship

Smith and her band can seriously rock out in person, but for their debut album they've created expansive arrangements that span the entire history of pop music. Smith's expressive vocals echo singers as diverse as the Andrews Sisters, Darlene Love, and Karen O, but she has her own way of sounding playful one moment and deadly the next. The band moves easily between ragtime, vaudeville, swing, girl group R&B, doo-wop, torch songs, and rock. The combination of Smith's lively vocals, expert songwriting, and the band's rhythmic and musical prowess allows Songs for a Sinking Ship to live up to its title, but Smith's world view has enough ironic humor to keep things from getting too grim. (April Smith)

The Two Man Gentlemen Band
Dos Amigos Una Fiesta!

This duo – Andy Bean on vocals and tenor guitar, Fuller Condon on vocals and stand-up bass – plays folky, old-time American swing that also includes elements of gypsy jazz, R&B, and pop. Dos Amigos has a mighty big sound for a duo, with Bean's tenor guitar adding to the rhythmic drive between short, well-constructed solos. Imagine Django Reinhardt sitting in with Cab Calloway and you'll come close to the feel of this bright, trippy album. Its effervescent vibe makes this disc my favorite album of the year. (Serious Business)

Very Be Careful
Escape Room

This LA-based quintet has been thrilling crowds for more than a decade with its take on vallenato, a style originated by the Afro-Colombian people of Colombia's Northeast coast. The music blends African, Spanish, and indigenous beats, bringing to mind a laid-back take on cumbia, with a lot of minor-key melodies and a darker, more primal feel. These Colombian-American musicians play in the traditional acoustic style with three-button accordion and percussion dominating the mix. Their original tunes use the rhythms of son, paseo, merengue, and puya, but their background in punk bands gives the music plenty of modern sizzle. (Barbes)

Brass Menazeri
Vranjski San

Clarinet player and Brass Menazeri group leader Peter Jaques discovered Balkan music after dabbling in funk, metal, and klezmer. He was looking for ways to break out of 4/4 time, and Balkan and Gypsy showed him how to do it. Brass Menazeri plays music influenced by the traditions of Serbia, Bosnia, Greece, and Eastern European gypsies, but Jaques and his cohorts bring jazz, punk, Bollywood, and funk to the party as well. They may play in odd meters — tunes in 11, 17, and 15 are not uncommon — but they have a distinctly American take on Balkan styles. The energy of their music is so infectious, you can't help but dance to it. (Porto Franco)

Mark Growden
Saint Judas

Local songwriter Mark Growden moved to LA this year in search of a higher profile. His penchant for unlikely musical juxtapositions will probably keep him from becoming a mainstream star, but those who like dark, introspective music will be glad to discover his sinister, downhearted tunes. His music is rooted in blues and folk idioms, but his use of jazz, gypsy music, and the sounds of German cabaret make his material hard to classify. Wielding his accordion like a machine gun, and using found percussion to add a feeling of quiet desperation, he creates dense, murky soundscapes for the disenchanted. (Porto Franco)

Another Dawn

Despite its name, Oakland's Tempest is not a heavy metal band. Lief Sorbye, the group's frontman, mandolin player, and main songwriter, is a Norwegian who fell in love with Celtic folk music in his youth. With his jolly band of rogues he has been delivering high-energy shows since 1988. His sets blend Celtic jigs and reels, British and American folk tunes, and Norwegian folk music spiced by the Latin and Arab rhythms of drummer Adolfo Lazo. Tempest plays its first cover version of a pop tune here, a Celtodelic reinvention of The Grass Roots hit "Let's Live for Today" with a modified soca rhythm. Otherwise, the album stays rooted in Tempest's usual hard-rocking take on traditional folk. (Magna Carta)