Given the way I musically insulated myself this year within the bubble that is the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s a wonder I got around to listening to anything other than my local favorites. And even within my local scene, those who see me day to day probably think the only music I listen to at this point is Ash Reiter – hey, when your favorites play out as often as Ash does, you go out and support them every chance you get. But the fact is, there was quite a lot of new music this year that I experienced, enjoyed, and occasionally didn’t enjoy – much of it from beyond my bubble. My style tends to be one of focusing on the positive though, so I’m not going to waste any time on stuff that I couldn’t stand.

I will say that, even with 20 records represented here, this list is hardly complete. Usually I can pull a top ten out of my ass without thinking too hard about it. This time, I figured I’d turn to my profile and find the most-listened-to albums (through the Thanksgiving weekend) in my charts to make matters even easier. So here they are – the 20 (plus) records I listened to and enjoyed, on my home and work computers and my iPhone – the most this year.

Top 20 Albums of 2010

1. Ash Reiter: Paper Diamonds

It would be impossible for me to overstate the importance of Ash Reiter’s music to my life in the last 12 months. Suffice to say, Paper Diamonds is not just a collection of some of the most infectious folk-inflected pop songs I’ve heard in who knows when, it’s also the soundtrack to many of the moments I spent drinking up my beloved Bay Area music scene (figuratively and literally, as some will attest). It was also the primary soundtrack to the moments I spent holed up in the office or barricaded inside my apartment. Granted, those latter moments were far fewer than you might think, but they were enough to not only place Paper Diamonds easily atop my most listened to albums list of 2010, but also for the album and many of its songs to place atop my all-time most listened to music since I first started scrobbling on in 2006. (Read the Popdose review by Michael Fortes)

Ash Reiter – Stumble and Fall

2. The Brother Kite: Isolation

Hearing rough mixes of Providence band The Brother Kite‘s Isolation last year, I knew this record was going to be something special. What I wasn’t quite prepared for was just how crazy addictive it would be. Recorded in the band’s home built studio in southern New Hampshire and mixed in L.A. by respected producer Thom Monahan (Vetiver, Devendra Banhart), Islolation represents The Brother Kite at their Pet Sounds meets 4AD best. The dynamics are more expansive, the textures are more varied, and Patrick Boutwell’s songs cut to the heart – when he sings “one thing that you will never understand is how loneliness can chip away the heart of a solitary man,” in “Keep Moving,” you believe him. Better still is “The Scene Is Changing,” the best pop song in the TBK oeuvre to date. (Read the Popdose review by Michael Fortes)

The Brother Kite – The Scene Is Changing

3. Juliana Hatfield: Peace + Love

Peace + Love represents minimalism at its best – a girl and a guitar, often little more than that, and a set of deeply stirring songs that stand so solidly that they need nothing else. I can’t really add any more to what I’ve said about this album already, so I’ll take the liberty of quoting myself: ”it’s been a long time since Hatfield put out a record so warm and affecting, so hopeful in its examination of loneliness and pain, and just plain comforting … this is the best, most mature album of Juliana Hatfield’s career to date.” (Read the Popdose review by Michael Fortes)

Juliana Hatfield – Peace and Love

4. Steve Poltz: Dreamhouse

Brimming with feel-good California vibes, the warmth of acoustic folk rock and nylon string classical guitar, and incredibly well-crafted songs, Steve Poltz’s Dreamhouse is a marvel of skillful songcraft. Best of all, Steve’s positive and witty personality shines through all the craftsmanship, forever imprinting his work with the beauty of humanity. Or to boil it down to three words, ”easy to love.” (Read the Popdose review by Michael Fortes)

Steve Poltz – Dreamhouse

5. Brian Wilson: Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin

It’s everything you’d expect — classic Gershwin tunes created in Brian Wilson’s unique musical image. The two new ”collaborations,” where Brian and his lyrical co-writer Scott Bennett completed two unfinished Gershwin compositions, end up with more of Wilson’s stamp than Gershwin’s, but that’s hardly a bad thing. Both ”The Like in I Love You” and ”Nothing But Love” soar with brilliance, and the miracle of Brian Wilson’s creative rebirth, starting with Smile in 2004, continues with style and grace. (Read the Popdose review by Ken Shane)

Brian Wilson – Nothing But Love

6. The Blank Tapes: Home Away From Home

This Bay Area band should be far more well-known in their home country than they are, though at least Brazil seems to love em lots, which is nothing to complain about. Furthermore, we can celebrate the fact that Home Away From Home is the most concise, well-honed album statement to date from Matt Adams and his analog-centric band, displaying a wide range of sounds and styles in just 10 songs (as opposed to the two dozen apiece on their last two records). Dig the groove on “We Can Do What We Want To,” perhaps the band’s strongest single track to date.

The Blank Tapes – We Can Do What We Want To

7. Erykah Badu: New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh

Where Part One was easier to admire than enjoy, Part Two is easily as much of a breeze to both enjoy and admire as Erykah’s first two classic studio albums. Badu, you are gem of American music, you keep us on our toes, and it should never be a crime for you to run naked anywhere in this great land.

Erykah Badu – Love

8. Elvis Costello: National Ransom

Elvis nearly returned to the majesty of his 1986 masterpiece King of America on last year’s Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, though he didn’t quite match that artistic peak. Here, he not only matched it, he created something entirely new out of both his Americana leanings and his rock roots. The result is his best album since (insert preferred ”best album” reference here). (Read the Popdose review by Pete Chianca)

Elvis Costello – Jimmie Standing In The Rain

9. Sade: Soldier of Love

Sade lost me in the ’90s, but with Soldier of Love, I found myself just as enamored as I was back when I first got my hands on Stronger Than Pride. The angsty title track is a welcome new addition to the Sade palette, and the soothing breeziness of songs like “Be That Easy” can’t be overstated. Welcome back, Ms. Adu. We missed you, and we’re so glad that you’re as perfectly sultry as ever. (Read the Popdose review by Rob Smith)

Sade – Be That Easy

10. Dr. Dog: Shame, Shame

This record doesn’t have the instantaneously gratifying feel of their last album, Fate, but once the songs do take hold, watch out. These guys just keep getting better, and we should all be doing our part to keep up with em. (Read the Popdose review by Ken Shane)

Dr. Dog – Where’d All The Time Go

11. Prince: 20Ten

When the Purple Yoda tried revisiting his 80s synth-driven sound on last year’s MPLSound, the results sounded forced and quite frankly embarrassing (at least I thought so – some folks ’round these parts disagree with me on that point). This time around, he got it right. (Read the Popdose review by Michael Parr)

Prince – Sticky Like Glue

12. Plants and Animals: La La Land

An old coworker dude turned me onto this album, and a hot young chick confirmed its excellence for me months later. Turns out all three of us have pretty reliable taste.

Plants and Animals – American Idol

13. Dirty Projectors + Bjork: Mount Wittenberg Orca

In which the most beautiful voices in indie rock join forces with the eccentric swan-dress-wearing alt rock chanteuse for an online-only charity EP that effectively induces both male and female swooning, whether or not you’re sitting in a circle around a laptop while passing a spliff between friends. Best listened to at night, outdoors, with a clear sky above.

Dirty Projectors + Bjork – On and Ever Onward

14. Eric Clapton: ClaptonEric Clapton, "Clapton"

Slowhand is hardly slowing down, and more power to him. OK, so some of these tunes are kind of slow – the old standards “How Deep Is The Ocean” and “Autumn Leaves” immediately come to mind – but the point is, the guy has proven he’s capable of far more than just blues, pop and rock, all of which are here along with the jazz and New Orleans swing that makes this record so endearing. It all looked ho-hum on a mere press release, but listening is a whole other story. Clapton is quite simply the best record the man has released in at least 20 years, and more win for us. (Read the Popdose review by Michael Fortes)

Eric Clapton – Rocking Chair

15. Shelby Lynne: Tears, Lies & Alibis

On lonely rainy days, this album was a warm, comfortable blanket that understood. As a country record, modern day or any day, one could hardly do better. Though it would be a disservice to describe Shelby as purely a country artist. She’s got shades of Dusty Springfield in her delivery, and perhaps that’s part of what makes this record so charming – that and the fact that there isn’t a wasted note on it. (Read the Popdose review by Ken Shane)

Shelby Lynne – Alibi

16. Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings: I Learned The Hard Way

This girl can work it, this band can shake it, and this album is way flattering to all involved. Everything that was so great about R&B is here, and we’d all do well to keep looking to Sharon and the Dap Kings to remind us of why we fell in love with music so much in the first place. (Read the Popdose review by Ken Shane)

Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings – Money

17. Arcade Fire: The Suburbs

The Suburbs has a lot of elements that work in its favor — a disparate yet unifying set of confidently executed sounds, a theme we can understand if not relate to entirely (having grown up in the suburbs, I completely relate to this record), songs that stand well on their own when plucked out of the album, and two vocalists to keep a sense of balance. Win Butler and RÁ©gine Chassagne actually don’t split the vocal duties evenly, but that’s just fine — ”Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is such a powerfully addictive showcase for RÁ©gine that she needs nothing more beyond that to hold her own. (Read the Popdose review by Pete Chianca)

Arcade Fire – Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

18. Vampire Weekend: Contra

It’s not that much different from the first album, and it’s all the better for it. Vampire Weekend’s 21st century bourgeois art punk spin on Graceland-era Paul Simon still sounds as inviting as ever, so why bother changing now? I am curious to hear how a sluggish, depressed Vampire Weekend would sound though. A new direction for 2011, perhaps? (Read the Popdose review by Michael Parr)

Vampire Weekend – I Think Ur A Contra

19. The Parson Red Heads: Early BirdsThe Parson Red Heads 2010

The Parsons’ trademark sunny harmonies on this limited edition EP – sold only during their most recent West Coast tour – effectively bid a fond farewell to the band’s home of five years, Los Angeles, as they make their way up the coast to Portland. Guitarist Sam Fowles’ ”Never Ending Road” marks a touching high point, while ”I Miss Your Smile” perfectly merges the band’s jammy tendencies with their more overt pop sensibilities for one of the most sublime entries in the band’s catalog to date. (Read the Popdose review by Michael Fortes)

The Parson Red Heads – I Miss Your Smile

20. Bear Hands: Burning Bush Supper Club

A rock n’ roll mood enhancer of the modern day hyper-love-excited variety, complete with groovy guitars, danceable rhythms, and endearingly direct lyrics about purchasing one’s first 45 and how much you love that girl with the goddamn long nails. I’m actually more of a hips and boobs guy myself, but analogously, sure, it fits.

Honorable Mentions

Neil Young: Le Noise

It’s just Neil, aided by some nifty effects on his guitars from producer Daniel Lanois. At eight songs, Le Noise is one of Neil’s most concise and direct records in recent memory. It’s also the only record of its kind in his entire catalog – it really can’t be compared to anything he’s done before. Oh, and “Walk With Me” might be one of my favorite songs he’s written, ever.

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Elton John & Leon Russell: The Union

We all know Elton is a legend and a tremendous talent, but how many of us knew that Leon was even around? Even more to the point, how many of us believed either of these two had it in them to make a record together that can stand alongside their respective classics? Seriously, I haven’t cared to keep much of Elton’s music post-Caribou (that’s 1974 for those of you keeping score) in my collection, but this one is definitely staying.

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Sean Hayes: Run Wolves Run

It would be remiss of me if I failed to mention San Francisco’s folk hero Sean Hayes. I arrived at the Sean Hayes party awfully late, having discovered his many devotees before ever hearing the man himself. I still don’t have Run Wolves Run yet, but having heard a bunch of it performed live, and knowing that Sean hasn’t deviated very far from the record’s arrangements on stage, I know it’s deserving of a mention here. You may have heard “Powerful Stuff” in a Subaru commercial this year, and if you’ve seen him live in San Francisco, you surely got caught up in an audience singalong to “When We Fall In” at the beginning of his set. He’s always been known as a folkie, but these days, he’s a folky blue-eyed soul singer with a cool magnetism that can’t be shaken.

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Anna Ash and the Family Tree: My Oh My

I’m cheating here, since My Oh My actually came out in 2009. But 2010 was Anna Ash’s first full year in Oakland, and as a result, her music is picking up more fans at a quicker pace than if she had stayed in her native Michigan. Anna’s voice is a marvel of an instrument, something you have to hear to believe. Coupled with her coquettish charm and old-timey yet modern songs, that voice can do no wrong. “My Oh My” was my most played track from Anna this year, and with a little luck and some dough, we’ll have a fresh batch of tunes to play and replay in 2011. Like this one:

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About the Author

Michael Fortes

Michael Fortes began writing for Popdose upon its launch in January of 2008, following a music writing journey that began with his high school newspaper and eventually led to print and web publications such as Performer Magazine and Born and raised in The Biggest Little State in the Union (otherwise known as Rhode Island), Michael relocated in 2004 to San Francisco, where he works as an office professional during the day, sings harmonies in Sugar Candy Mountain at night, and religiously supports the local San Francisco Bay Area music scene nearly every chance he gets.

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