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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 latest, In Feast or Fallow, includes ancient texts and some originals and finished third in our voting. McCracken says her mom taught her hymns as a young girl, and her love for the form has never waned: "Hymns have always been like nourishment for my soul, in whatever capacity I've been able to absorb them. They seem to have expanded in proportion to my life and need, strengthening and supporting my faith along the way."

Here are our top 12 albums of 2010, with links to our original reviews.

  1. Patty Griffin, Downtown Church (Credential)
  2. Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone (Anti-)
  3. Sandra McCracken, In Feast or Fallow (independent)
  4. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (Merge)
  5. Andrew Peterson, Counting Stars (Centricity)
  6. Anais Mitchell, Hadestown (Righteous Babe)
  7. Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz (Asthmatic Kitty)
  8. Robert Plant, Band of Joy (Rounder)
  9. Aaron Neville, I Know I've Been Changed (EMI Gospel)
  10. The Mynabirds, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood (Saddle Creek)
  11. Various Artists, Good God! Born Again Funk (Numero)
  12. Robert Randolph and the Family Band, We Walk This Road (Warner Bros.)

Honorable mention (in alphabetical order)

Blitzen Trapper, Destroyer of the Void; Cadillac Sky, Letters in the Deep; Caedmon's Call, Raising Up the Dead; Johnny Cash, American VI: Ain't No Grave; Roky Erikson, True Love Cast Out All Evil; Hark the Herons, Under Skies; Jars of Clay, The Shelter; Tom Jones, Praise & Blame; John Cougar Mellencamp, No Better Than This; Josh Ritter, So Runs the World Away; Starflyer 59, Changing of the Guard.

Note: We also picked 12 of the most notable sacred music projects of the year.

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