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My Top Albums of 2010

January 17, 2011

This is a fun list to put together, I have to thank Jon Abelack for telling me he was doing one and encouraging me to do the same. He also provided the rough format that I’m going to follow. And, though I’m sure this was not entirely his intention, I suppose he’s returned me to blogging. At least for the moment.

It was an interesting year in music for me. Last year, it seemed a given from month one that Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion was the album to beat. This year there was no such album. Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs was likely the most anticipated album of the year. The Black Keys’ Brothers was the most ubiquitous. And LCD Soundsystem’s This is Happening seemed to most consistently find its place at or near the top of the list on various blogger/magazine rankings. But for me, I think one song rose to the top in just the right way that it could carry it’s album with it. I’ll explain in a moment, so without further ado, here’s my personal list of the top ten albums I acquired in 2010.

(Note, if I never got it, it doesn’t get ranked. Them’s the breaks.)

1. The National – High Violet

Rock & Roll is for the young. It rewards unbridled emotion and untempered passion. In fact, it’s nearly a rule that rock stars get boring when they grow up. We want to hear them scream about busting out and making it big. If their life doesn’t seem freer and more exciting than mine, how can they possibly capture my imagination with their music and lyrics? Or, at least, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Probably the first “adult” album to grab me was Tunnel of Love, back in 1988. Bruce Springsteen turned his writing inward and autobiographical, offering a view into his world. It wasn’t the world of a 25 year-old driving all night, hoping to find the promised land somewhere past the Jersey state line. It was the world of an adult, struggling in a relationship on the rocks. He’d grown up and he was taking his audience with him, even an eight year-old from his home state.

This year, The National put out an adult album. “Afraid of Everyone” deals with fatherhood, and the paranoia associated with protecting a young life in the world. But the one song that grabbed me, as I mentioned earlier, is “Bloodbuzz Ohio”. I loved it at first listen and it still calls me to attention every time it pops on the iPod or rings through the din of a bar. The driving snare and rhythm guitar keeps me on edge throughout while Matt Berninger deep baritone conveys the mixed emotions of reluctantly returning home to find himself forgotten, just as he realizes that though he never remembered it fondly, he remains deeply in its debt. If that home in Ohio is actually University of Cincinnati, where he went to college, that debt may be quite literal. An adult problem very many of us can relate to.

2. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

It became much harder to rank albums after #1, because there are several very good choices competing. In fairness, my bias here is in part because I love this band. I have for a long time and they’ve yet to disappoint me. The Suburbs is an ambitious album, itself sprawling metaphorically like its subject matter, yet packing the punch of a well-written concept-driven entity. Some of the songs work better than others, but there are several real standouts.  “We Used to Wait” is probably Win Butler’s best written song to date, using the decline of the postal service as a metaphor for the over-caffeinated immediacy of our world. But my personal favorite is “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).”

With a disco beat and a sound that owes plenty to Blondie, this sound captures the essence of the album. Regine Chassagne sings about the suburbs and a young girl’s desire to make it in the city, despite nay-saying from the buttoned-down masses around her. In this song she never puts down the suburbs. In parts, she romanticizes them, of biking to the park and kissing on the swings. Likewise, she calls out the city for its closed-mindedness towards suburban folks.

Now, you may be asking, how can a song discussing the relative merits of the suburbs be remotely enjoyable? My answer: if you can make the suburbs danceable, you win.

Note: Some people hate Regine’s voice. Some people love her voice. I’m in the latter camp. It’s a matter of personal taste and nothing more.

3. The Black Keys – Brothers

This is a funny album for me to write about. I just got it. I don’t really even have strong feelings about a particular song or the lyrics. I can’t wax all that poetically about The Black Keys’ Brothers. I’m ranking this high, however, because it’s just really good. From a pure musical perspective, this is the album of the year. These two guys (and producer) create a type of timeless, bluesy soul unlike anyone out there. Sometimes I feel like they’re playing the music Jack White is supposed to be producing. And look at them. Those two dude are not suppose to make sounds like they do.

Favorite song: “Next Girl.” Key lyric: “Oh, my next girl will be nothing like my ex girl. It was a painful dance, now I got a second chance.”

We’ve all been there. Of course we have, it’s the blues.

4. Ryan Bingham – Junky Star

I still don’t know why I waited so long to buy this album. Deep down, I think I might have feared it wasn’t going to live up to expectations. Crazy Heart, for which Bingham wrote and performed many of the songs, is a favorite. An album full of his music, therefore, came with a particularly high expectation.  I think it delivered.

Bingham’s music is straight out of West Texas: picked guitars, sparse instrumentation, a harmonica somewhere between a passing train and “The River,” and a slight slow drawl that nearly betrays his youth. This album won’t necessarily lift your spirit, but it will help you locate it.

Favorite Song: “The Wandering,” his best piece of second-person poetry since “The Weary Kind,” also featured on the album, but disqualified from favoritism for having already appeared on the Crazy Heart soundtrack.

5. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

For a man of my particular taste in music, there’s something really exciting about a band like Mumford & Sons getting mainstream airplay. I mean, they’re a British folk/bluegrass act with a  taste for chamber pop. Who the hell makes that first decision to put one of their songs on the radio? That’s a ballsy call!

But frankly, Sigh No More, and especially “Little Lion Man,” are just that good. The lyrics, the passion, the driving banjos and the internal rhymes just create this feeling of perpetual motion that grabs you and doesn’t let go. And every time he hits the chorus in “Little Lion Man,” it shakes you and makes you feel the pain and embarrassment of hurting someone he’d loved. Music, like comedy, is at its best when it puts words to your emotions. Love and pain are common emotions to be expressed in song. Culpability, however, is unique.

6. Bruce Springsteen – The Promise

I debated whether to include this, but I think it is valid. This is previously unreleased music, packaged and sequenced like an album, albeit comprised from the outtakes of a separate album recorded in 1977 and 1978. Frankly, the better question is: How can a collection of songs not good enough to make the original album can possibly stand up on its own as one of the top albums of the year? Well, the answer is twofold. One, Darkness on the Edge of Town is phenomenal. Two, Bruce is crazy. It’s true.

But this collection of songs explore different areas for the E Street Band. These are the pop songs that don’t fit on an album called Darkness. These songs are Southside Johnny. They’re Brill Building. Even his alternate take on “Racing in the Street” rocks in a way that more closely draws the parallel to its distant cousin, Marvin Gaye’s (by way of Martha and the Vandellas) “Dancing in the Street.”

Best song: “The Promise.” How this song took 32 years for a proper release is beyond me. One of his most autobiographical songs, it deals with difficulty he faced in the years between Born to Run and Darkness. He was now a rock star. He couldn’t pretend not to be. This song discusses the burdens of actually living your dreams and finding out that dreams alone aren’t enough.

7. Tom Petty – Mojo

Whereas it’s always a little surprising that The Black Keys can be so soulful, it seems like a natural for Tom Petty. The joke, however, is that he’s never done such a bluesy album before Mojo. It’d been a long time since I’d bought a Petty album. I loved him back in middle school, but never really got into the older stuff or anything since Into the Great Wide Open. I know his greatest hits, but that’s about it.

Mojo, however, was a bit of a revelation. Petty’s band rocks and his voice perfectly lends itself to the genre. In fact, his upper register whine is particularly effective, as it stands out from deep-voiced bluesmen that more typically think of.

I can’t say I spent a lot of time listening to this album front to back, but it’s been a welcome rotation player when I listen to songs on shuffle. (I hate that Apple has trained me to say shuffle instead of random.)

Favorite song: “Lover’s Touch.” Just perfect blues. Should be a Clapton concert staple.

8. Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks

Ok, so I might be cheating here. I didn’t even know about this album until I read someone else’s list of the top 10 albums of the year. That said, it lived up to its billing and sports the best album title of the year. So here it is.

This Scottish quintet plays music that is decidedly of the moment. It is pure indie rock. The lyrics tumble over each other and the production is loose, but textural. Singer Scott Hutchinson’s voice cracks and strains appropriately for his lyrics. Frightened Rabbit has touch of The National to them, an affliction that obviously carries some positive weight in this space.

Frightened Rabbit is one of those bands that you can’t believe you haven’t heard before. But once you do, they’ll stay with you.

Best song: “Not Miserable.” One of the best songs I’ve heard about the troubles of drinking too much this side of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Life By the Drop.”

9. Ray LaMontagne & the Pariah Dogs – God Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise

Just a good album. LaMontagne stripped back some of the sheen from his last disc and offers some good country folk. And of course, he still has his voice, a quality instrument in its own right. I love his last album, but he feels more at home here. So much of his career has been a climb, fighting his way up from the station wagon he used to sleep in. Here, he finally sounds like he’s at peace with himself. And the Pariah Dogs provide him a sonic home from which to sing.

Best song: Tie between “Beg Steal or Borrow” and “New York City’s Killing Me.” The former is superbly written and is appropriately nominated for the song of the year Grammy. The latter just eats at me for beautifully assaulting the city I love. I don’t agree with him, but it’s just a good song.

That said, am I the only one who thinks he’s slowly turning into Jim Croce?

10.  Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song

Way too hard to pick #10. There were a few that competed here. I love Jamey Johnson more than I love The Guitar Song. Like all double albums, it’s got more than an album’s worth of great material and a nice concept. Still, 25 songs is a lot and it probably prevented me from truly connecting with this collection like I should have.

All of that said, on this album Johnson continues his neo-outlaw tales of defeat and redemption. He’s a shot of take-no-prisoners country at a time when you’re more likely to see slinky dresses on teenagers than dusty leather and grizzly beards. Frankly, he’s everything I love about country at a time when very little of that is around.

Best song: “Poor Man Blues.” “He uses folks like me just to keep his sorry ass amused. Well son you’d better watch your back when a poor man gets the blues” ‘Nough said.

Top Compilations/Box Sets/Soundtracks

1. Various Artists – Dear New Orleans

My Morning Jacket, Tom Morello and Steve Earle highlight this tribute album.

2. Various Artists – Crazy Heart (Soundtrack)

Jeff Bridges, Colin Farrell and Ryan Bingham perform from the movie, surrounded by a wonderful collection of older country songs.

3. Various Artists – Doctors, Professors, Kings and Queens

A four-disc history lesson of New Orleans music. Thorough and tremendous.

Top Live Release

Various Artists – The Benefit Concert, Vol. 3

Warren Haynes and friends jam at Christmas time for Habitat for Humanity.

Other albums I acquired (some of which I loved):

Adam Klein – Wounded Electric Youth

Avett Brothers – The Avett Brothers Live, Vol. 3

Belle & Sebastian – Write About Love

The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang

The Hold Steady – Heaven is Whenever

Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening

Owen Pallett – Lewis Takes Off His Shirt (EP)

The Roots – How I Got Over

She & Him – Volume Two

Titus Andronicus – The Monitor

Vampire Weekend – Contra

Various Artists – Best of Bonnaroo

Various Artists – Hope for Haiti Now

Wu Tang vs. The Beatles – Enter the Magical Mystery Chambers

ThinkIndie.com – The Future Supporting the Past

May 18, 2009

I know it’s automatically less convenient to buy music online from anywhere other than iTunes (yay anticompetition), but I really think this is an effort worth supporting. Local record shops are getting pushed out of business. Hell, even the Tower Records and Virgin Megastores of the world are struggling. But now the independent mom and pop shops are going online, thanks to their industry consortium group. So while I don’t have any particular animus towards Apple (which provides me with wonderful products), I do believe that local record stores are the backbone for spreading the good small bands that sometimes turn into good big bands.

So, check out thinkindie.com. The prices are the same, the quality is better and the money is going to the local stores. It’s our way of fighting back against the Wal-Mart-sized companies that are rapidly taking over our music.

(Many thanks and hat tips to the incomparable Pitchfork.com for cluing me in to this wonderful development.)

GSW’s Lo and Aaron to Reunite!

May 14, 2009

The concert gods can be cruel, to say the least. For more than 10 years, I’ve been waiting for God Street Wine to get back together. In the meantime, I’ve seen nearly all of its members play shows of their own with the various post-GSW bands they formed. Now, as a major component of my wish is set to come true, I find myself inextricably married to another show!

GSWs front three: (from L) Lo Faber, Dan Pifer and Aaron Maxwell.

GSW's front three: (from L) Lo Faber, Dan Pifer and Aaron Maxwell.

To clarify, Lo Faber and Aaron Maxwell, the dual lead singer/guitarists for God Street Wine, are sitting in together with Echofission at Mexicali Blues in Teaneck, NJ. Dream come true, right? Well, not when they’re playing on May 23rd, the same day I’m seeing Bruce Springsteen play the Izod Centre in East Rutherford (about 20 minutes away.)

How frustrating is that? Arguably the two bands that I’ve loved the most over nearly 30 years, playing the same night so close to each other. What can ya do?

(Unless Lo and Aaron play a midnight set…)

Please, someone tape this show and get it up somewhere. Please?

Animal Collective – Terminal 5

May 14, 2009

As the crowd settled down, the noise rose up. Cycles and phasers and feedback filled the room, creating a sound Waters, Gilmour, Yorke and Greenwood would enjoy. As the sound grew, the band appeared fearless, willing to bend and twist sound and rhythms right off the bat. Tension grew and the crowd needed a release. Thus began “My Girls.”

Animal Collective on stage at Terminal 5.

Animal Collective on stage at Terminal 5.

This was how my night at Terminal 5 went with Animal Collective. Three guys, lots of electronics and a sea of talent flowed off the stage. I know how that sounds, but honestly, these guys were good. I only wish I were up to the task as a listener.

The night felt like a journey through some sort of electronic wilderness. The trippy would-be rave kings stood above us as our guides, taking us from song to song, melody to melody. In between, more wilderness, which was fine if you were in the right frame of mind to wander. Sadly, I was limited in that regard.

Among the highlights was “Summertime Clothes,” which might have been the first song to really bring the house down. People sang along and the crowd moved in unison.

After a brief encore break, Animal Collective came back for two more. They opened with a particularly spacey jam that led into “Lion in a Coma.” As the final song on their album, I expect the show to end there. Instead, they upped the ante and followed it up with “Brother Sport.” It’s always fun when a song that doesn’t particularly grab you on the album takes on a new life when performed live. With “Brother Sport,” the result was positively blissful.

A few other thoughts: I definitely zoned out for part of this show. They were great, but when I didn’t know the song, I wasn’t always able to stay focused. I don’t put that on them, but I think it is worth noting. Also, I’ve never been elbowed, shoved or stepped on quite so much at a single show. It was tight in there, but that’s no excuse to drunkenly shove through people without any regard. Jus’ sayin’…

DaveTV – Live from the Beacon

May 13, 2009

I don’t like the idea of promoting something, especially after I’ve been asked to promote something. It makes me feel like a shill. Worse yet, an unpaid shill. Still, I do happen to think this is kind of cool. I read about this show for the first time this morning and even considered writing about it. I see no reason to not write about it, now that I’ve been asked to. Right?

Dave Matthews Band is playing the Beacon Theatre on June 1st and the whole thing is being broadcast live on Fuse. (Conveniently, the Beacon and Fuse are both owned by MSG.) Anyway, if you love Dave and live outside of New York, or you like Dave and don’t want to spend the money, or if you barely tolerate Dave but are curious about why everyone fusses over him: here’s your chance to see a full show on TV.

Oh, and despite what the press release says below, I’m much more of an appreciator than a lover…

DMB

Dave Matthews Band on Fuse

Just wanted to reach out to let you and fellow Dave Matthews lovers know that on June 1st, every fan across the US can experience a DMB concert together, LIVE on tv!

Fuse TV (http://fuse.tv), an all music network, just announced a very special, LIVE BROADCAST of Dave Matthews Band’s upcoming, sold-out show at the legendary Beacon Theatre in Manhattan.

This commercial-free, 2 1/2 hour broadcast will be a once in a lifetime experience for all DMB fans, as it will capture the band performing their upcoming studio album, Big Whiskey and the Groogux King, in its entirety for the first time ever, in a live setting.

Think about it: fans will get a sneak peek of new material from the band, the night before the official album release!

Additionally, the band will be performing some of their older fan favorites from their nearly two decade-spanning career!

So be sure to tune into Fuse TV on June 1st at 9P/8C to witness this legendary band’s very first LIVE televised concert in over a decade!

For more information about DMB Live from the Beacon Theatre, click here: http://fuse.tv/tours/dmb/

*Fuse TV national carriers: DirecTV channel 339 and DISH Network channel 158
Or to find Fuse TV in your area, click here: http://fuse.tv/channelfinder.html

Learning to Make My Own Myusic

May 11, 2009

I’ve spent my entire life staring in awe at guitarists. I’ve seen Clapton, Trucks, Haynes and Betts, Garcia, Springsteen, Malkmus, King and Guy. I’ve stood and danced and studied as my favorites picked and bent and pulled their way to new dimensions of song and sound, all on the surface of these six-strings.

Well, watching is no longer enough. I’m finally learning how to play guitar.

Now, those of you who know me probably know that I’ve been writing songs all my life. In fact, I sang my first song to my art class in the second grade. It was called “A Man’s Gotta Do What a Man’s Gotta Do.” I’d venture that many of the kids that were in that class would me might still remember it. Now, I probably have several albums worth of songs sitting on my computer, mostly laments about women. Few of them are good, but that’s besides the point.

The problem is, despite my provenience for writing singable, melodic lyrics, I’ve never been able to accompany myself. Now, I’m finally learning how.

Now, at this point, I’m still not good. In fact, I’m not even mediocre. I’m a beginner who will get as far as he’s willing to work hard, but nowhere without effort. I’m not a natural, but I’m actually not awful either. (I find this fact the most surprising.)

So now, while I watch the Mets butcher the game of baseball, I can sit on my couch and butcher my way through classics from the Allmans, the Dead and the Boss. I’m a work in progress, but hey, I’d like to have one discernible talent by the time I’m 30! The clock’s ticking… but now it sounds more like a metronome.

Lo Faber in PA

May 8, 2009

I won’t be there, sadly, but it appears a newly constructed Lo Faber Band will be playing some God Street Wine tunes, among other stuff, at the Awesometown Festival in Morrisville, PA this weekend. If you make it down, please give us a review in the comments section. For more details and an interview, check out Glide Magazine’s God Street Wednesday post.

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