Years from now, when music historians gain some perspective, I suspect that 2010 will go down as one of the legendary years. Like 1956, 1965, or 1978, pop music took a decided turn for the better, and there were great albums being made on every front, in every genre. Consider the fact that two albums that got bumped from my Top 10 list – Janelle Monae’s The Archandroid and Allo Darlin’s self-titled debut album – will deservedly go down as classics.
Meanwhile, nobody bought any music. A crippling economic recession coupled with the free (albeit illegal) availability of music on the Internet meant that even the best and/or most successful musicians were scrambling to make ends meet. Christina Aguilera noted that she was available to sing at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.
Yes, it was that kind of year. So perhaps it shoudn’t be surprising that my favorite album of 2010 was released in 1998. I can’t help it. I didn’t hear it (or even hear of the artist) until this year.
The Top 10
10. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song
The Guitar Song doesn’t have the startling immediacy and autobiographical grit of its predecessor, 2008’s That Lonesome Song. But it’s a country music tour de force just the same; a sprawling double album that lays serious claim to the notion that Jamey Johnson is his generation’s greatest country singer, a worthy successor to fellow outlaws Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, and that he fronts one of the most raggedly righteous bands in the world.
9. Bruce Springsteen – The Promise
Three years in the making, 32 years in musical Limbo, and here it is: Bruce Springsteen’s lost masterpiece. And if the resulting album is just a tad shy of the “masterpiece” label, it needs to be said that this is still Broooooce in his prime, that the E Street Band has seldom rocked more majestically, and that the title track is the second-best song Bruce Springsteen ever wrote. The best? “Thunder Road,” of course, and that second-best tune adds some mournful commentary on what happens when that glorious road out of town ends at a brick wall.
8. Elizabeth Cook – Welder
With a sweet little girl voice and a worldly-wizened attitude, Elizabeth Cook isn’t a typical country singer, and here she sounds like Dolly Parton at CBGBs, a sort of punk/Appalachian mashup that is alternately withering and heartbreaking in its approach. The writing is spectacular. She skewers her drunk boyfriend’s impotence (“When you say Yes to beer you say No to booty”), laments her heroin-addicted sister , and delivers an account of a loving but dysfunctional family on “Mama’s Funeral” that is worthy of Eudora Welty. Stereotypical country fare this is not. And then she caps it off with a shitkicking honky-tonk duet with Buddy Miller. Burn on, Elizabeth.
7. The Bad Plus – Never Stop
The gonzo jazz covers of indie rock anthems have been fun, but this is even more impressive: ten original tunes that roil and churn and shimmer with beauty. The Bad Plus are, as usual, a piano trio on steroids, and Ethan Iverson’s Rachmaninov sturm und drang is matched only by Dave King’s strident punk drumming. But don’t let the aggression fool you. This is a jazz/rock/punk band that is fully committed to improvisational interplay, and the results are frequently breathtaking, from the Bill Evans-like pensive introspection of “People Like You” to the joyous, explosive detonation of “Beryl Loves to Dance.”
6. Mavis Staples – You Are Not Alone
Mavis Staples continues her late-career comeback. The formula on You’re Not Alone isn’t radically different from what she has employed throughout her previous solo albums: mix some traditional gospel numbers with some rock and pop mainstays, douse liberally with soul, then simmer over a medium-tempo flame. The difference between good and great this time comes from Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, whose production allows Mavis’s regular backing band more room to burn behind her, and whose previously unimagined ability to write a first-rate gospel tune is the musical highlight of the set. The title track, written by Tweedy, is achingly lovely, and makes me think that future Wilco efforts may not turn out to be tiresome dad rock after all.
5. Anais Mitchell – Hadestown
On paper it sounds like a horrible idea: a Folk Opera that recasts the Orpheus and Euridice myth. It calls to mind the path that Spinal Tap might have taken in their dotage, after the failure of the big Stonehenge number. But in reality it works spectacularly well. Newcomer Mitchell, who wrote all the music, brings a charming naivete to the role of Euridice, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon plays Orpheus as a romantic dreamboat with just a hint of menace. But it is gravel-voiced folkie Greg Brown who steals the show as Hades, the lord of the underworld. Brown half sings, half cackles like a crazed Tom Waits, and in “Why We Build the Wall” he delivers a chillingly pragmatic exposition on oppression that just might be my favorite song of the year. This is something of a miracle: a musical I genuinely love.
4. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
A holy mess of a Rawk album that mixes ragged vocals, loud, distorted guitars, bagpipes, Texas saloon piano, Salvation Army horns, and literary pretensions in equal measure. It’s one hell of a concoction; a conceptual saga about the Civil War that also manages to work in allusions to Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, New Jersey freeways, and dissolute drunkenness. Oh yeah, and the darkest, most desperate expressions of self-loathing and cutural malaise I’ve heard in years. No, it doesn’t hang together. No, it doesn’t make complete sense. But it’s enough to revel in the audacity of the cockeyed concept, the bitterness of the bile, the raging rock ‘n roll, and the poetry that pours forth in spite of the bleakness of the vision.
3. The Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
I keep waiting for the drop in quality, but it hasn’t happened yet. This is arguably better than Neon Bible, the sophomore slump album that didn’t slump. It’s unarguably a more tightly constructed album, with recurring lyrical motifs and a unifying concept that gets poked and prodded in all kinds of different ways. Musically, Arcade Fire still do Sweeping and Epic, aiming for the back row of the arena every time. And lyrically, there is as much poignancy here as finger pointing. Yes, the suburbs are soul deadening. But they were home, even for Win Butler. It’s not surprising that he’s left this world behind. What is surprising is that he convincingly expresses a sense of loss.
2. These New Puritans – Hidden
Let’s get the inevitable Kid A comparisons out of the way up front. Yes, this is an album that borrows heavily from Radiohead’s clattering electronic dystopia. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, too, in the way it uses a children’s choir to comment ironically on the horrors of war. And Joy Division’s monotone chants. And your community’s Salvation Army Band in its ragged use of horns. In other words, this sounds like nothing ever previously recorded, and it’s a staggering achievement, one of the most startlingly original and chilling albums I’ve head in many years.
1. Bill Fox – Shelter From the Smoke
Bill Fox led a modestly successful Cleveland punk band in the mid-‘80s called The Mice. Then he dropped out of sight. He emerged in 1998 (or 2010 when you live in my world) with this album, which is as far removed from punk as can be imagined. Taking The Beatles and Dylan as his touchstones, as thousands of musicians have done before him, he simply delivers a superb folk/pop album drenched in memorable melodies, indelible singalong choruses, and surrealistic poetry. Almost everybody tries this at one time or another. Few do it well. Bill Fox did it as well as anyone I’ve ever heard. Why he wasn’t recognized as the Sixth Beatle, or The Next Next Next Dylan, is beyond me. Maybe it’s Cleveland.
The Acorn – No Ghost
Alasdair Roberts – Too Long in This Condition
Allo Darlin’ – Allo Darlin’
Anders Osborne – American Patchwork
The Autumn Defense – Once Around
Beach House – Teen Dream
Belle & Sebastian – Write About Love
The Black Keys – Brothers
Blitzen Trapper – Destroyer of the Void
Brad Mehldau – Highway Rider
Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig
Chip Robinson – Mylow
The Claudia Quintet – Royal Toast
Deer Tick – The Black Dirt Sessions
Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
Doug Burr – O Ye Devastator
Dr. John and the Lower 911 – Tribal
Elvis Costello – National Ransom
Esperanza Spalding – Chamber Music Society
Free Energy – Stuck on Nothing
The Fresh & Onlys – Play It Strange
The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang
Gov’t Mule – By a Thread
Harlem – Hippies
Jack Rose – Luck in the Valley
Jaga Jazzist – One-Armed Bandit
James Blackshaw – All Is Falling
Janelle Monae – The Archandroid
John Mellencamp – No Better Than This
Johnny Flynn – Been Listening
Josh Ritter – So Runs the World Away
Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues
Konono No. 1 – Assume Crash Position
Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can
Laura Veirs – July Flame
LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
Lizz Wright – Fellowship
Local Natives – Gorilla Manor
Magic Kids – Memphis
Male Bonding – Nothing Hurts
Manic Street Preachers – Postcards From a Young Man
Mary Gauthier – The Foundling
MGMT – Congratulations
Mogwai – Special Moves
Mono – Holy Ground: NYC Live With The Worldless Music Orchestra
Mountain Man – Made the Harbor
Mystery Jets – Serotonin
Nada Surf – If I Had a Hi-Fi
The National – High Violet
Nick Curran and the Lowlifes – Reform School Girl
No Age – Everything In Between
The Old 97’s – The Grand Theatre Volume 1
Owen Pallett – Heartland
Paul Thorn – Pimps & Preachers
The Pernice Brothers – Goodbye, Killer
Peter Case – Wig!
Peter Wolf – Midnight Souvenirs
Prefab Sprout – Let’s Change the World With Music
Railroad Earth – Railroad Earth
Ray Wylie Hubbard – A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C.)
Real Estate – Real Estate
Richard Thompson – Dream Attic
Robert Plant – Band of Joy
The Roots – How I Got Over
Ryan Bingham – Junky Star
Sam Amidon – I See the Sign
Sarah Jaffe – Suburban Nature
Scout Niblett – The Calcination of Scout Niblett
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings – I Learned the Hard Way
Spoon – Transference
Strand of Oaks – Pope Killdragon
Sun Kil Moon – Admiral Fell Promises
Superchunk – Majesty Shredding
Surfer Blood – Astrocoast
Swans – My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky
The Tallest Man On Earth – The Wild Hunt
Teenage Fanclub - Shadows
The Thermals – Personal Life
Two Cow Garage – Sweet Saint Me
The Unthanks – Here’s the Tender Coming
Vijay Iyer – Solo
The Walkmen – Lisbon
Wartime Blues – Doves and Drums
Watermelon Slim – Ringers
The White Stripes – Under Great White Northern Lights
Wildrums & Peacebirds – Rivers
Woven Hand – Threshing Floor
!!! – Strange Weather, Isn’t It?
Not that many, in all honesty, and even the disappointments were decent enough. Disappointment, in this case, simply means that I had exceedingly high expectations that weren’t fulfilled by the resulting albums. And yes, there were far worse albums released in 2010. But when you expect nothing in the first place, it’s hard to be disappointed.
Best Coast – Crazy For You
The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever
Jonsi - Go
Sleigh Bells - Treats
Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks
Vampire Weekend – Contra