Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mid-year pop music report

Friends who know me well, know my affinity for all kinds of popular music. I freely admit to being a music junky and that I spend far more money on this hobby than almost anything else. They also know I send out a list of my favorites at the end of the year with my Christmas cards.

My music geekdom extends to discussing my favorite CDs of the year with several close friends and the friends of my son, Luke, and engaging them in entertaining, if esoteric, conversations about which are the best CDs and songs of the year.

I have never gone quite to this length.... putting out a mid-year CD report of the top CDs of the year so far. But I figured: surely there must be other music fans in the tri-state area who are curious about the state of popular music in 2010 and who might actually enjoy some tips on what to buy this summer. My year end lists tend to undergo many changes (after intense debates) before I am finished with them. But it's a good bet at least a few of these CDs will make my 2010 year-end round up.

For the first half of 2010, these are ten discs I can say stood up to repeated listenings. I have listed them alphabetically.

"Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate". (Nonsuch). The incredible Mali guitarist, Ali Farka Toure, passed away in 2006. But he left some real treasures in the can, including this wonderful collaboration with fellow African, Toumani Diabate, the master of the kora, an African stringed instrument. They cut this album in London, in 2005, as Toure was dying. Cuban bass player, Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, backs them. They previously worked together on a world music classic, In the Heart of the Moon, released in 2005. This one may be even better. Steeped in the blues this disc is full of deeply felt and very moving music, played by two giants of the continent. This is Toure's swan song.

Apples in Stereo, Travelers in Space and Time (Yep Roc Records)
Apples in Stereo specialize in piano based rock. Their sound features lush harmonies and retro hooks that cop the song styles of classic '70s bands. This year's model follows the Jeff Lynne playbook. If you were a fan of the gorgeous vocal harmonies of Electric Light Orchestra back in the day, you'll be primed for this suckerpunch of sweet ear candy.

Beach House, "Teen Dream" (Subpop). Dreamy, blissed out folk pop by two of the most innovative musicians working in America today, Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand. Chiming guitars fit hand in hand with rippling keyboard riffs as their drum machine adds tasteful taps and tics that serve as an understated backdrop for their songs. Lyrically, the CD contains Scally's most clear-eyed look at the fragile nature of relationships between men and women. "Wry and wise enough to know better about idealizing love, and romantic enough to still believe in it" as the All Music Guide review eloquently puts it.

San Patricio, the Chieftains featuring Ry Cooder (Blackrock Records). Another Ry Cooder mashup of musical styles. This time he's joined Ireland's revered Cheiftains with a wide variety of Mexican musicians to give tribute to a small battalion of Irish soldiers who, abhorrant of America's declaration of Manifest Destiny, deserted the American Army in 1846 during the Mexican War and followed their conscience to fight for Santa Ana and the Mexicans. Buoyant in some places, reverantly reflective in others, the songs give poignant testimony to this band of brothers who were labeled as traitors here but are still warmly regarded as freedom fighters by our neighbors south of the border.

Freelance Whales, "Weathervanes" (Frenchkiss). Won't likely be everyone's cup of tea, (Judah Dadone's vocals tend to sound a little too precious for fans who like their rock hard -- think Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie with a backing sound borrowed from Sufjan Stevens and you have some idea) but the music is mesmorizing, quirky and fun. Few bands would have the sheer gumption to include a banjo so high in the mix but it makes for a distinctive listening experience. WXPN listeners have been onto this one for most of the year already. A band to watch.

The Gaslight Anthem, "American Slang," (SideOneDummy). The local city paper gave this one a rave, 4-star review recently and claimed it was the "soundtrack of the summer of 2010." Hyperbole aside, more than a few of my Springsteen friends have glommed onto the Gaslight Anthem and love how the band has appropriated the Boss's signature sound to revisit the cityscapes and crippling blue collar angst of Springsteen's best early songs. "American Slang" might pale in comparison to Springsteen's classic "Born to Run" album, but what doesn't? If you love Bruce, take this one out for a spin. You won't be disappointed.

The Hold Steady, "Heaven Is Whenever" (Vagrant). Comparisons to Springsteen are an albratross the Hold Steady have had around their collective necks for several albums now. Craig Finn's acerbic descriptions of deals gone wrong and the drug-induced escapades of dead-end hood rats bear most of the responsibility. But the band rocks as hard as any American band working the bars these days and their live performances are worth seeing. I miss Franz Nicolay's keyboard playing on this disc, but Finn sounds fine and the band is as tight as ever.

Mumford & Sons, "Sigh No More" (Glassnote). Britain's answer to the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons plough the same fertile territory of acoustic hillbilly folk/rock. Their vocal harmonies are equal to the Avett's plaintive yearnings and they play their instruments (an appealing assortment of banjos, acoustic guitars, horns and fiddles) with the same kind of abandon. My favorite new band of the year.

The National. High Violet (4AD). Hardly any pop bands feature baritone singers these days, so Matt Berninger's vocals give the National a distinct, unique sound. This is their most mature effort and my favorite disc of the first half of the year. May not jump right out of your speakers, but give it time. This one mellows like a fine cabernet and will grow on you more and more as time goes on.

Roky Erickson with Okkervil River. "True Love Cast Out All Evil". (Anti). Roky Erickson was the songwriter and lead singer for the '60s garage band, The 13th Floor Elevators. He fell on hard times for the past decade with a variety of mental problems, but this collaboration with Austin's Okkervil River is surprisingly vibrant and emotionally effective. This is haunting folk music.

Five others that are worth hearing and may grow in me yet as the year progresses:

Spoon, "Transference" (Merge)

The Len Price 3, "Pictures" (Wicked Cool)

Ike Reilly, "Hard Luck Stories" (Rock Ridge)

Radio Department, "Clinging to a Scheme" (Labrador)

LCD Soundsystem, "This Is Happening" (Virgin)

Many thanks to Bill Hartnett and Dominic Umile for their suggestions and input on this mid-year list.


  1. Great list, Chuck -- glad to see Radio Dept., Beach House, and The National made the cut!

  2. Great list, so far. I would include many of these on my own list. Have you heard "Good Old War?" I have been enjoying them recently. I'm surprised you didn't include Ike Reily on your list.

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