2010 has been a vibrant year for pop music......reissues from classic rockers like The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen got most of the hype, for understandable reasons. The re-mixed release of the Stones' classic Exile on Main Street contained 10 songs culled from those recording sessions in France that were better than anything the band has released in two subsequent decades. And Springsteen's The Promise package contains a remastered version of his classic Darkness at the Edge of Town and 21 "new" songs that the Boss recorded during that fertile period of his life which didn't make the album.
Lady Gaga made headlines wearing a "meat dress" to a music awards show and sold millions of units, but got out-smarted and out-performed as the Queen of pop by Swedish star Robyn Carlsson, who is a far more interesting artist and took dance pop to glorious and frequently hilarious heights in her 2010 CD Body Works.
Since it's present-buying season and since music is "the gift that keeps on giving" all year long, consider this list of my favorite CDs of the year as recommendations for your holiday shopping. Such end-of-the-year lists have become de rigueur among music buffs in recent years and I like to indulge in the habit too with several good friends. Like all such lists, mine is subjective. But I have I hope it might reveal some pleasant surprises if you are a music fan like me.
1) Arcade Fire -- The Suburbs. When it came out this summer one friend told me the Arcade Fire had "become rock stars" with the release of this record. It was a savvy assessment of the band's new ascendance. Songwriter Win Butler shows a deft take on the American zeitgeist in these 15 songs, not one of which is a clunker. They skate delicately over issues both personal and political. They capture the ennui and soullessness of modern American life in a way that few other Americans artists would dare attempt. The Suburbs careens effortlessly from thoughtful, yearning folk to anthemic rock in all its glorious bombast. The rough edges that made their initial effort (Funeral) so enthralling have been chiseled off. What remains is a band working at its creative peak, a gleaming, burning machine. It reminds me of the Clash's London Calling in its reach for greatness. Its release was an instant classic that puts Arcade Fire in a class by itself. "Month of May" rocked harder than any song I heard all year.
2) Jamey Johnson -- The Guitar Song -- This double CD of classic country tunes was one of the most ambitious albums of the year. When was the last time a country artist released two CDs at once? It's unheard of. Yet the 25 songs here are strong enough to stand the test of releasing this much material all at once. Years from now The Guitar Song may be seen as a classic of traditional country music and Johnson's grasp for the brass ring. I would not classify myself as a fan of the genre, but I couldn't stop listening to it and I never stopped enjoying it. If you have country fans in your family, you'll make them happy if this one is in their Christmas stockings. Here's a small excerpt from the All Music Guide review of this terrific collection: "The Guitar Song is uncompromising. Johnson's own accomplished road band -- consisting of players symbiotically sympathetic to the material -- provides the backing, and he gives his musicians room to really play, whether it's honky tonk Southern rock or bedroom or back porch ballads. The sound is rougher edged than contemporary country; it comes from the Waylon Jennings/Hank Jr./David Allan Coe era. It rocks but it also rolls."
3) Band of Horses -- Infinite Arms. Few bands wear their influences on their sleeves as proudly or proficiently as Band of Horses from Seattle. Their shimmering, chiming guitars and lilting harmonies are not just throwbacks to the Roger McGuinn/Gene Clark era of the Byrds, they take that template for folk-rock to new heights and turn it into a signature sound of their own. Ben Bridwell is the primary singer/songwriter of the band, but his plaintive singing is exquisitely supported by new band members Tyler Ramsey and Ryan Monroe. Echoes of another California band, The Beach Boys, are all over this CD, too. Here's All Music Guide's assessment: "the album's willingness to sample from so many different genres -- roots, soft rock, alt.country, power pop, indie folk -- makes it sound like nothing else in 2010, and Band of Horses connect the dots by layering everything with canyon worthy reverb and cinematic guitars. For those who let it sink in, Infinite Arms could be a contender for the year's best album." Highlights include two plaintive, effortless love songs, the title track and "On My Way Back Home" and one amazing rocker, "N.W. Apt."
4) Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate -- Ali & Toumani. Regrettably, this is going to be the last time one of Ali Farka Toure's CDs makes my year-end list. The masterful guitarist from Mali passed away in 2006. His first collaboration with Diabate (In the Heart of the Moon) was released back in 2005, and was justifiably praised by critics and world music fans. This one was recorded in London in four days, just months before Toure died of cancer. It's his last release and a fitting tribute to the friendship and incredible musical bond he formed with Diabate. Toure's understated but gorgeous guitar picking is beautifully and attentively accentuated by Diabate's playing on kora, an African stringed instrument. They are joined on half of the album's songs by Cuban bassist Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez. The intricate, rhythmic interplay of the three instruments is mesmerizing and seductive in its simplicity and beauty.
5) The National -- High Violet. Back in June, when I gave my "mid-year report" on the year's best CDs, this is what I said about High Violet, then my favorite record of 2010: "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.... it may not jump right out of your speakers, but give it time. This one mellows like a fine cabernet and will grow on you as time goes on." I stand by that statement. The record sounded great in May and it still sounds great. "Bloodbuzz, Ohio" shows the band has an aptitude for crafting great singles, too, a skill it needs to refine and develop if it wants to break out of the alternative box many critics have put it in and climb into the mainstream.
6) Mumford & Sons -- Sigh No More. Mumford & Sons was my favorite new band of the year. They are Great Britain's answer to the Avett Brothers and they plough the same fertile territory of hillbilly folk-rock played with a punk aesthetic. I caught a mid-summer show at the TLA on South Street in Philly that was packed to the rafters. Their soaring harmonies were even more impressive in live performance than on this album. The songs seemed designed to be performed live because they're structured around a simple idea: they start out slowly and build to a rousing crescendo that is supported by thumping, stringed instruments and blaring, brass. Songs to download: "I Gave You My All", "Thistle and Weeds" and "White Blank Page." If you like the Avetts, you'll love their British cousins, the Mumfords.
7) School of Seven Bells -- Disconnect From Desire. My son says LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy has a harder edge than School of Seven Bells. And Murphy's "Drunk Girls" was a hilarious rave-up that was one of my favorite songs of the year. But for my money, this electronic-beat CD was the better album. Ben Curtis (formerly of Secret Machines) has teamed up with twin sister vocalists Claudia and Alejandra Deheza to create a stunning pastiche of dance pop songs. Great beats, soaring vocals and swirling synth riffs makes this one fairly irresistible. The disc starts out with three barn burners, "Windstorm", "Heart is Strange" and "Dust Devil" and then it's off to the races for one glorious, relentless ride. If you were a fan of Annie Haslem during her stint with Renaissance, you'll dig this one.
8) Beach House -- Teen Dream. Dreamy, blissed out folk pop by two of the most innovative musicians working in America today, Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand (the niece of French composer Michel Legrand). Chiming guitars fit hand in hand with rippling keyboard riffs while a drum machine adds tasteful taps and tics that unscore Legrand's penchant for writing musical reveries. Scally supports Legrand's dreamy vocals with deft, delicate soundscapes. Lyrically, this CD contains some of Legrand's most clear-eyed glances at the fragility of human relationships. "Wry and enough to know better than idealizing love, and romantic enough to still believe in it" is how one critic eloquently put it. This one may seem slight to people who like their music to rock, but its haunting beauty will linger for days if you gravitate to atmospheric pop. Some songs to hear first are: "Zebra," "Norway" and "Real Love."
9) Ike Reilly -- Hard Luck Stories. Like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits, the main appeal of Ike Reilly's songs are the vivid images they paint in your mind and the sense of humor they display. He sings his songs with a world-weary rasp and the same kind of untapped urgency that the young Springsteen brought to life with songs like "Rosalita" and "Blinded by the Light." Reilly's songs can barely contain the ideas they are expressing without overloading the whole works. They are backed by a roaring, road-hardened rock band, highlighted by a Farfisa organ and Ike's wailing harmonica playing. "Good Work" was my favorite song of the year, a hilarious romp that winks at high school graduation "after after party parties" and the party animals who attend them. Despite his acerbic theatrics, Reilly made the most raucous blues-based album of the year.
10) Janelle Monae -- The ArchAndroid. If this album represents the future of urban contemporary R&B, and I suspect it does, count on it to be both challenging and danceable. It's hard to put Monae's debut into any one catagory. It careens all over the musical map, from classical suites to soul rave-ups to prog rock heavyweights that would make fans of Emerson, Lake and Palmer take note. "Cold War" and "Tightrope" will rock the house down. Meanwhile, a futuristic saga of epic proportions (which takes more than a few listens to comprehend and unravel) turns the record into a soul opera worthy of George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic records. Monae makes a strong case as an artist to watch carefully.
Other 2010 releases that nearly made the cut, in alphabetical order: Belle and Sebastian, Write About Love; Bill Charlap & Renee Rosnes, Double Portrait; The Chieftains, San Patrico; Freelance Whales, Weathervanes; The Gaslight Anthem, American Slang; Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, I Learned the Hard Way; LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening; Robyn, Body Works; Spoon, Transference; Richard Thompson, Dream Attic.
Three terrific albums I can unequivocally recommend that were released with sonic extras: The Blue Shadows, On the Floor of Heaven; The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street; Bruce Springsteen, Darkness at the Edge of Town/The Promise.