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The best-sounding music of 2010

Last minute shoppers can still gift the best-sounding records of the year, for less than $20 a pop.

I complain about bad recordings all the time, but there's lots of great-sounding music coming out. Here's a short list of the highlights from the past 12 months.

"Treme: Music From the HBO Original Series, Season 1"

Most soundtrack music is either old tunes or recorded in studios, but "Treme," HBO's series about New Orleans just a few months after Katrina, uses lots of live music recorded on the streets and in the city's clubs. The brass bands swing like crazy, and the funk grooves aren't too shabby. The sound feels real, and has a lot of heart and soul. Even if you've never seen the HBO series, the "Treme" album stands on its own.

The Black Keys, "Brothers"

The Black Keys fuzzed-out blues rock takes a different turn on "Brothers," but don't worry, they dug even deeper on this one. "Brothers"' sledgehammer bass rumblings will test the stamina of your subwoofer or headphones. Every beat of the bass drum is viscerally transmitted to the very core of your being, and if it isn't, you're missing something. Think about getting new speakers or headphones.

Brian Eno, "Small Craft on a Milk Sea"

Brian Eno may be best known for his work as a producer (U2, Talking Heads, Coldplay), but he's made lots of great records under his own name. Eno is also credited with creating "ambient" music, and his latest CD, "Small Craft on a Milk Sea" more or less fits in that category. The new record is a "soundtrack" of sorts, populated with atmospheric scenarios and beat-infested forays. The layering of musical textures and moving spatial elements are a feast for the ears.

Cowboy Junkies "Renmin Park"

In late 2008 Cowboy Junkie Michael Timmins and his family spent three months in China, and "Renmin Park" is a reflection of that time. The album was built around samples Timmins recorded on the streets and he used them as "beds" for some tunes. The music's soundstage is deep and wide, and the bass is huge. The descending bass line on "(You've Got to Get) A Good Heart" is a great test of speakers' or headphones' low-end definition.

Tom Jones, "Praise & Blame"

Jones recorded "Praise & Blame" live in the studio to analog tape, and most of the tunes are single takes (with no edits or overdubs). That's hard-core old-school recording style, and the performances are all the better for it. "Praise & Blame" sounds like you're hearing a band play, not a slick, tweaked-to-death piece of plastic. Musically, it's a perfect mix of gospel, blues, traditional and country. Jones' voice still has the power to get your juices flowing.

Paul Weller "Wake Up The Nation"

Twenty-eight years on from The Jam's split, Paul Weller is still making strong albums. "Wake Up The Nation" packs a lot in, and the sheer variety of sounds and music can feel overdone, until you realize that's the point. This is take-no-prisoners music that'll definitely get a rise out of its intended audience. Who says old guys can't rock out?

Owen Pallett, "Heartland"

Owen Pallett, aka Final Fantasy, isn't exactly your average rock musician. For starters he plays violin, and if you're a fan of Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, or Beirut, you've heard his sound. "Heartland" is an expansive work, with densely orchestrated tunes, but don't get nervous; it still appeals to an indie rock crowd. Sound quality, on CD and 45 RPM LP, is spectacularly good.

Spoon, "Transference"

I'm a sucker for Spoon's grooves. What can I say? The rhythm section has a knack for pounding out unexpected shifts in tempo. "Transference" sounds like a weird blend of gritty low-fi and polished hi-fi. Immediacy is a strong suit, and I love the way the mix layers reverberation over the sounds of the instruments. Guitarist Britt Daniel's jagged edge is more front and center this time out, and I like it that way. "Transference" is the sort of record you keep coming back to.

Midnite, "Ras Mek Peace"

This is the best, most natural-sounding reggae recording I have ever heard. Sounds especially great turned up nice and loud. "Ras Mek Peace" was recorded live to two-track analog tape, with absolutely no compression, equalization, reverberation, or noise reduction. It was done in 1999, but it's so special I had to include it on this list. The rhythms are deep, and the vocals are emotionally powerful.