12:01am

Mon December 27, 2010
The Record

The Year In Music: Ambition All Over The Pop Spectrum

This week Morning Edition is taking a look back at the music of 2010 and some of the trends.

The music of 2010 boils down to one word: ambitious. We witnessed several critically acclaimed artists go all in and release albums of staggering scope this year, as if to counter the nonstop hand-wringing of an industry in decline. These works -- from all over the pop spectrum -- served as an artistic stimulus package, pumping blood into an industry that, coincidentally or not, greeted the downturn in the economy by retreating to the bedroom and tightening its belt in 2009.

Bon Iver's Justin Vernon was the posterboy for musical austerity the last few years. But this year Vernon ended up in Hawaii, recording with Kanye West for the rapper's larger-than-life My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a skyscraping Jenga tower of an album -- an album with one clear message: come hard or don't come at all.

Others took a less maximalist but no less ambitious approach. Joanna Newsom put aside her harp and picked up the gauntlet, writing a three-disc opus of quiet folk songs that felt louder than most rock 'n' roll this year.

Nothing challenged our expectations in 2010, however, quite like Sufjan Stevens' The Age of Adz. Stevens has never suffered from a lack of ambition -- his album Illinois was an apex of opulent pop. But no one could have seen this coming: bleeps, bloops, drum machines and the occasional orchestra.

It's the kind of album that forces listeners to acclimate to it. Stevens -- like a number of other artists this year -- seems to be resisting the trend toward music as a lifestyle accessory and forcing us to appreciate it in and of itself. A risky move, for sure, but at this point, what's there to lose?

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