Here is my annual list of favorite albums. 2010 was a great year for new music, as it feels like anything goes. That is proven by the variety of music on this list. It's a little longer list than last year, and hopefully it's not too overwhelming that I put it all into one post.
30. Jason Boland & The Stragglers - High In The Rockies: This is the sound of one of the best bands in country music today doing what they do best. Boland always sounds better live to me, and he's never sounded better than he does right here. "Comal County Blue" is one of the best country songs ever recorded, and the version here doesn't disappoint.
29. Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz: This album was a strong departure from Steven's previous work, as it's more electronica than banjo-featuring folk songs. It's still an intriguing album, and I have a feeling I'll enjoy it more as I have more time to take it in.
28. The Roots - How I Got Over: This album has the vibe of a classic jazz album. As a matter of fact, I could imagine Miles Davis or (especially) John Coltrane stepping in and taking over on many of these songs. It's a hip-hop record, but it's also the sound of a group of talented musicians getting together in a room and making brilliant music. It's also one of the best hip-hop albums lyrically that I've heard in recent years. "Walk Alone" is outstanding as is "Dear God 2.0" featuring the original song's writer Jim James.
27. Mavis Staples – You Are Not Alone: Soul/gospel legend and national treasure Mavis Staples teamed up with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy to create the best album of the latter stage of her career. Tweedy’s production here is perfect for the song selection. It’s worth hearing this album if just for the bluesy guitar flourishes that weave in and out of the songs. With a perfect mix of gospel and secular material, the real showcase here is Staple’s voice. Given the right backdrop, she can still wring more emotion from a song than 95% of the artists out there. “Losing You” is a perfect example of her power, but the Tweedy-penned “You Are Not Alone” is the real highlight for me.
26. Widespread Panic – Dirty Side Down: It’s easy to be critical of Widespread and lump them into the jam-band category as one of the bands you should enjoy only if you are an avid noodle dancer. However, like the Dead before them, these guys know how to write and record quality studio albums. As a matter of fact, I actually prefer the studio albums to their live work. This is definitely their best album since Houser left the band, and it feels like a return to form for the guys. “Visiting Day” and “Clinic Cynic” won’t sound out of place among any of their older work.
25. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – I Learned The Hard Way: This album doesn’t sound retro. It literally sounds like an album that was released during the 60’s. If retro refers to a throwback style released today, this is like a vintage store find. It’s the real deal. These songs could have easily been released in Motown’s heyday, and the band and production flawlessly capture that sound. It doesn’t hurt that Jones is such a powerhouse vocalist who was born for this style.
24. The Black Crowes – Croweology: There’s nothing new here, but almost all the songs sound better here than they do in their original form. Recorded live and acoustic, the real star here is Chris Robinson. He shows why he will go down as one of the top vocalists of all time and sings his heart out. Songs like “Soul Singing” that were pretty mediocre in their original form are even fantastic here and classics like “Sister Luck” will hit you like never before.
23. Shooter Jennings – Black Ribbons: Sounding like a cross between Waylon, Nine Inch Nails and Pink Floyd, this album sometimes feels forced, but you have to respect Shooter for taking a shot at something this ambitious. It’s a good album that at times flirts with greatness. The title track is the best song he’s ever recorded, and “Wake Up!” “God Bless Alabama,” Summer of Rage,” and “California Via Tennessee” don’t disappoint either. Just don’t expect Electric Rodeo part two and you’ll deeply enjoy this. I suspect this album may have more of an impact on his career as the years go by, as he finally turned his back on a Nashville scene that didn’t want him.
22. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach: Blur front man Damon Albarn somehow manages to create a cohesive album with one of the most diverse arrays of contributors this year, including Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack, and De La Soul. Although the album gets kicked off with a song featuring Snoop Dogg, this is not a hip-hop record, and there’s no “Feel Good Inc.” here. Albarn has created an album that focuses more on atmospheric landscapes than beat-heavy tracks. The humor is still there on tracks like “Superfast Jellyfish”, but my favorite track on the album is “Melancholy Hill,” a beautifully strummed acoustic number.
21. New Pornographers – Together: While disguised as an indie-rock record, this is the best pop album in years. Why this isn’t the stuff on top 40 radio, I’ll never know. As always, A. C. Newman knows how to craft a hook with the best of them, and Neko Case has one of the most powerful voices out there. Try to listen to “Crash Years” and not hum and whistle along.
20. Tom Petty & the Heatbreakers – Mojo: Petty’s new album is more of a Heartbreakers showcase than his past albums. Though, I tend to prefer his solo albums over his work with the Heatbreakers, this is easily his best album with the band in over a decade. As with everything he releases, it’s an excellent album and “Running Man’s Bible” ranks among the best songs in his catalog.
19. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: The latest album from the controversial Kanye West may be his masterpiece. There isn’t a bad song on the album, and it touches on the best styles from all of his previous works (especially in combining the stylistic departure of 808s & Heartbreak with the power of his earlier work). The title is fitting as this one is all over the map, but it somehow avoids being a jarring listen. For an example of the array of styles this one covers, check out “Monster” and “Blame Game.” I really don’t want to like Kanye’s music (as he seems to compete for the biggest douche in music award on a daily basis), but when an artist releases work this good it’s hard not to take notice.
18. Ryan Adams & the Cardinals –III/IV: III/IV is made up of leftover tracks recorded during the Easy Tiger sessions. The double disc set contains one disc that sounds like a fully formed album, and another that sounds much like a rarities compilation. Disc one plays out like a combination of Rock & Roll and Love Is Hell, and the second disc is such a genre exercise that I find it hard to really judge it as an album. The album only seems to have a few of throwaway tracks (mostly from disc two). Current favorites are “Happy Birthday” (disc one) and “Gracie” (disc 2.)
17. John Legend & The Roots – Wake Up!: When the best band in hip-hop/soul (and late night TV) teams up with one of the only members of the current crop of R&B/Soul musicians that could comfortably sit on stage with the forefathers like Gaye, Green and Redding, the results are bound to be good. Here, John Legend and The Roots take on (mostly) a set of classic protest songs from the 60s and 70s and the results are stellar. Surprisingly, the normally mellow John Legend tackles these powerful songs in stride and shows a different side of his talents. These songs are about love and making the world a better place. The most powerful song for me is the Bill Withers classic “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.”
16. Old 97’s – The Grand Theatre Volume 1: Front-man Rhett Miller continues to prove that he should be considered among the premier songwriters of our generation. They start off the album sounding like The Clash on the title track and reconnect with their old sound a bit on “Every Night is Friday Night Without You” and “The Magician.” I particularly like the slight departure of “Let The Whiskey Take The Reins,” with the lines: I had a terrible vision/Of a world outside of this bar/But she keeps talkin' about walkin'/Away from where we are/And it's so easy/To be a man in pain/Turn off your heart/And let the whiskey take the reins.
15. Jakob Dylan – Women & Country: Like most everybody in the roots music world this year, Jakob Dylan teamed up with producer T-Bone Burnett (producer of classic albums like the Counting Crows debut and the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack as well as Dylan’s band The Wallflowers’ second album). With guest vocals by some of the most powerful female artists in the “Alt-Country” community in Neko Case and Kelly Hogan, and Burnett’s “quietly bombastic” production, Dylan feels right at home here. He’ll never have the credibility of his famous pops Bob, and rightfully so, but over the course of his last two albums he has perfected this style and found his groove. The younger Dylan has always been best when his music falls in the Americana genre (see the Wallflowers’ Bringing Down The Horse and his excellent 2008 solo album Seeing Things) so it comes as no surprise that Women & Country would be this good. I recommend starting out with “We Don’t Live Here Anymore.”
14. Bob Dylan – The Whitmark Demos: 1962-1964 (The Bootleg Series Volume 9.): While not technically a new release (see the title), this is still one of the best releases of the year. The opportunity to hear Dylan accompanied only by his own guitar and harmonica when he was still a kid is incredible. These songs were recorded as demos for other artists to hear and hopefully record. Many of these songs would go on to become classics. A few of these songs have never been released before, and it’s incredible to think he did all this before the age of 25.
13. Mumford and Sons – Sigh No More: It’s a London folk-rock hoe-down…or something like that. This album will definitely grow on you. Acoustic guitars and banjo are the prevailing instruments here, and these guys know how to craft a perfect song. It’s easy to imagine these guys in an English pub tearing it up on a Saturday night. They’ve mastered the art of the slow building epic, as these songs tend to start out mellow and before you know it, you’re stomping along. It’s weird that music this traditionally oriented can sound so modern. “White Blank Page” could join the ranks of classic folk songs.
12. Band of Horses – Infinite Arms: The third album by Band of Horses is more of the same…moody atmospheric rock music. These songs seem tailor made for movies as they generally seem to be more about mood than anything. Ben Bridwell and his band have perfected a style, and as long as the songs are this good, I see no reason to change. “Dilly,” “Laredo,” and “NW Apt” are among the best songs they’ve released.
11. The Black Keys – Brothers: Ohio blues-rock duo The Black Keys released their most accessible album to date, and commercial success has followed. This album is made up of what they do best, but with better, catchier songs. Highly influenced by the stomp of Mississippi Hill Country Blues, it’s strange that it took a couple of guys from Ohio to figure out how to successfully modernize this style.
10. She & Him – Volume 2: This album came out in the spring, just as we got our new windows installed in our house. With the near perfect weather we had this spring, we spent many weekend mornings at home with the windows open listening to this album. Actress Zooey Deschanel and musician extraordinaire M. Ward team up again and improve on their first collection. There’s something so sweet and unpretentious about her songs that his old school arrangements bring to life. I’m sure this is the only album on this list that my wife likes more than I do.
9. Eminem – Recovery: They say a good wide receiver can appear much faster by running at less than full speed and then using a burst to fly past defenders. Maybe that’s what makes this album seem so good. By all accounts, Marshall was at less than half speed on his last two albums while he battled prescription drug addiction (and an addiction to an Insult the Comic Dog accent). After the dud that was Relapse, this return to form seems like his best album to date. Regardless of perceptions, it’s a fantastic album by one of the best rappers of all time. Nobody can detail an unhealthy relationship like Eminem, and “Love the Way You Lie” proves that. If you think his skills or penchant for controversy have diminished, listen to “On Fire.”
8. Drive-By Truckers – The Big To-Do: I thought their last album; Brighter than Creations Dark was one of their best, due in large part to the wide range of styles included. The Big To-Do turns that on its head and becomes their most cohesive and straightforward set to date. Patterson shines as usual and Shonna has her best batch of songs as well (though she’s no replacement for ex-hubby Jason Isbell). Cooley was a little below par on this album and the last few songs don’t generally hold my attention, but those are minor complaints when the rest of the album is this good. Their time spent last year with Booker T has improved them musically and it shows (they served as his band on his instrumental album Potato Hole and toured with him in support of the album). “After The Scene Dies” is probably the highlight for me.
7. Vampire Weekend – Contra: Eccentric, catchy, smart and sunny. Contra picks up where their debut ended, but does everything better. Most people either love them or hate them, but I can’t think of a better summertime album released all year (for some reason, their music sounds like a vacation to me). Single sting guitar runs pop out of nowhere, just when you thought a song might just consist of drums and bass and space is used as an asset. These guys know what they are doing, and they know not everyone is going to like it. What makes them so good is that they don’t care.
6. Dierks Bentley – Up On The Ridge: After the disappointment of Feel That Fire, I was excited when I heard that Bentley would be releasing a bluegrass influenced album. This is the music he was born to make and his passion for bluegrass shines through. He got together with some of his friends (coincidentally some of the most talented musicians in modern bluegrass) and recorded some of his favorite songs, threw in with a few originals and the results are spectacular. “Draw Me a Map” is the best love song of the year and Miranda Lambert turns in her best vocal performance to date on “Bad Angel” (also featuring Jamey Johnson). Kristofferson’s “Bottle to the Bottom” is probably my favorite song on the album. When Crystel and I saw Bentley in The Grove in 2003 (the same week his first single when #1), we knew we were seeing someone that had the potential to be more than just the standard country radio artist. He’s proving it now.
5. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot…The Son of Chico Dusty: It’s not much of a shock that a member of Outkast would release an album to remind us they can still be relevant. What is a shock, is that it was Big Boi and not Andre 3000 that would be the one to do it. This is an 80’s funk inspired album by a man who realizes all the themes from the 90’s (the golden age of hip-hop) are still relevant today. Just like the best hip-hop albums from the 90’s, Sir Lucious Left Foot touches on Southern staples like Cadillacs, sub-woofers, strip clubs, crack-heads, “sticky green,” police, and women, and it’s a party from start to finish. This album is a reminder of how progressive southern hip-hop was and still can be, and is instantly one of the best hip-hop albums of all time.
4. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song: At 25 songs, Johnson’s latest album is probably a little bit too long. However, I can’t think of more than a couple of songs I’d have left off. Once again, he retreats into his head and comes up with a batch of songs that are both classic and current, both simple and complex. He continues to be commercially successful without bowing to the standard radio template, and we’re all lucky he’s still here to remind us what good country music should sound like. For a couple of perfect examples of what Nashville should be striving for, listen to "Front Porch Swing Afternoon" and "That's Why I Write Songs."
3. Broken Bells – Broken Bells: This side project from The Shins’ James Mercer and producer Danger Mouse is essentially just a Shins album. Danger Mouse’s production takes a back seat to Mercer’s songs, and at its core, Broken Bells isn’t that different from The Shins 2007 album Wincing the Night Away (though not quite as good, and with a bit more ear candy). Like all of The Shins’ previous work, I seem to never get tired of this album, and “The Mall and Misery” is probably better than anything Mercer has done before.
2. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs: In all honesty, I’ve never been a huge fan of Arcade Fire’s previous albums. I guess part of the reason I like this album so much more that their previous work is relatability. What’s more relatable to a modern American that suburbs and sprawl? However, I think the biggest reason I’m so fond of this album is that it’s just better than their previous work. Many times albums with a central “theme” have songs that suffer for the greater good of sticking to that theme (see Arcade Fire’s previous two albums). That’s not the case here, as almost every song could stand on its own. “Modern Man” is a heavy contender for my favorite tune of the year.
1. Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues: I can’t fathom how Earle can continue to make albums this good and go largely unnoticed by most music fans. This is his third home run in a row, and it’s as good as anything his dad ever released. Like his previous two releases, this one finds strength in being concise, clocking in at around 30 minutes. The title track is probably the happiest suicide song you’ll ever hear, and “Christchurch Woman” might be my favorite song he’s recorded. He even manages to outdo Ryan Adams at his own game with the Adams co-write “Rogers Park.” Every song on here deserves to be a classic, and Harlem River Blues is good enough that it might just remain my favorite album of 2011 as well.
So there it is, my favorite albums of 2010. What were your favorites?
My wife suggested the title for my first blog. I knew "Songs Left Unsung" sounded familiar to me, and after much thought, I realized it is a variation on a line from a Grateful Dead song. The line in the song "Ripple" is "Perhaps they're better left unsung." Realizing that her suggestion comes from one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands, I decided to use the title.
My blog focuses on things that make me happy: music, books, family, simplicity and everything else that makjes me tick. If you see something you like (or don't like), please feel free to comment.