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The Best Albums of 2010
Courtesy of Shore Fire Media / Chris Strong

Hymns, gospel, and a touch of history make up the music featured in our critics' picks for the top three albums of 2010, with one artist having seen the power of songs to change the world, another having seen them change her own soul, and another still trying to understand the divine impulse behind it all.

Country-folk songstress Patty Griffin fits the third description and comes up first in our reviewers' voting. Her sublime Downtown Church was selected as album of the year and offers a gospel smorgasbord, covering country, bluegrass, African American spirituals, a Hispanic hymn, two original folk tunes, and a piece credited to Francis of Assisi. Griffin, who wouldn't call herself an evangelical, says, "The times when I'm most aware of God, however you define God, are when I'm making music—when I'm singing or when I'm writing songs. Something happens during that process. It makes me a little more aware that it's not just about me. There's something much bigger happening. For now, I'm content to leave it at that."

Gospel legend Mavis Staples, the 71-year-old singer behind our number-two album, You Are Not Alone, has been around long enough to see her family's music (remember the Staple Singers?) play an instrumental role in the civil rights movement. (Her father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, was good friends with Martin Luther King Jr.) Of her new record, Staples simply says, "I wanted to make an album where every song had meaning, where every song told a story and would lift you up and give you a reason to get up in the morning." Mission accomplished.

Folk singer Sandra McCracken has focused on hymns both old and new in recent years; her ...

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