As we count down the hours to the end of 2010, here’s one last look back at the albums that kept me smiling throughout the year. By their very nature, such lists are subjective and I’m sure there will be readers that hated some of the albums on this list as much as I loved them. But such lists are also often about the thrill of discovery and the thought of shining the light on a perhaps overlooked gem.

My colleague Katie Hasty posted her excellent Top 10 here. Check that out as well.

1) “Broken Bells,” Broken Bells:  Danger Mouse and The Shins’ James Mercer create a beautiful, melancholy blend of synthesizers and acoustic instrumentation and sorrow all woven together in a beautiful effort. We almost hope it remains a one-off as the journey feels complete with this one, at times transcendent, effort.

2) “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,”  Kanye West: Take one of music’s most controversial and talented figures and see what happens when he rips his psyche open for all to see. West can’t hide his demons and they all join him here in living color and sheer brilliance. He’s one of the few artists whose self-indulgence is as compelling as it is narcissistic.

3) “Sigh No More,”   Mumford and Sons:
British folk rock acolytes brought the beauty and the bite with their debut. The acoustic quartet ties its disparate influences together through inspired thumping on all manner of stringed instruments, including guitars, mandolins, banjos and dobros. Hit single, “Little Lion Man,” is just the tip of the iceberg here.

4) “Archandroid,” Janelle Monae:
  She’s a chameleon who shifts shapes and musical styles with tremendous, seemingly effortless ease. On “Archandroid,” she’s retro and futuristic, pop, funk and punk all at once. Fascinating.

5) “Up on the Ridge,” Dierks Bentley: Pretty country boy veers away from the mainstream to make a bluegrass flavored album that has as much heart as it does talent. He smartly surrounds himself by real deals like  Alison Krauss, Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson and Del McCoury, whose haunting high-lonesome singing on Bentley’s cover of U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” is the album’s centerpiece.

6) “Need You Now,” Lady Antebellum:  This co-ed country trio avoided the sophomore slump and how with its second album that built on the flawless harmonies and strong melodies from its debut. The title track was one of the best songs of the year of any genre. To be sure, calling Lady A the country equivalent of Fleetwood Mac is a bit much, but they sure do make loving (music) fun.

7) “Contra,”  Vampire Weekend: Smart, literate rock that doesn’t overreach its ambitions, but never panders to the lowest common denominator.  Plus, Vampire Weekend’s music is often infused with a joy missing in so much smart rock. Having said that, after its usage in the ubiquitous Honda commercial,  I’m not sure I ever need to hear “Contra” track “Holiday” again.

8) “The Union,” Elton John and Leon Russell:
An album made for all the right reasons: John’s desire to lift up his mentor and musical hero to past heights, bolstered by no pretense of pandering to radio. Worth the price of admission for the keyboard shoot-outs and Neil Young’s appearance on the beautiful “Gone to Shiloh” alone.

9) “Count Yard Hounds,”  Court Yard Hounds:
This album, from Dixie Chicks’ sibs Martie Maguire and Emily Robison disappeared without making much of a sound (to paraphrase one of the album’s stronger tracks), which is a shame given its understated loveliness. From the Southern California loveliness of “The Coast” to the heartbreaking stomp of “Ain’t No Son” and Robison’s confessional divorce tunes, the album was a subtle joy.

10) “I Learned the Hard Way,” Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings:
These funk/soul lovers just keep getting better. They pay homage to their R&B forefathers and much of their sound can be directly traced back to acts like James Brown or Mavie Staples, but Jones and the Dap Kings still create their own shimmering, irresistible blend. And, as they say, imitation is the sincerely form of flattery.

Runners Up:  Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs,” Black Keys’ “Brothers,” Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promise,” Sade’s “Soldier of Love,” Jamey Johnson’s “The Guitar Song,” and The National’s “High Violet.”