I’ve been pondering this list for awhile now (it’s almost the end of January 2011) and how to put it together. I can’t really say these are the best recordings of 2010 because, although I listened to lots of music, I certainly haven’t heard all the new releases from the past year. A big consideration was how to format my choices (e.g. top 10? genres?). As it’s an entirely subjective list (and I can’t/won’t rank my choices) I’m going to go with a list that goes from mellow to rock to out there somewhere (my categorization of music is only to roughly define and not to pigeon-hole). In the end it’s just all about music I love and want to share. Here goes:
Folk: Eliza Carthy teams up with her mother, Norma Waterson, for their first album together and it is indeed a gift of fine renderings of traditional tunes. Supporting the duo are a collection of the UK’s finest folk musicians, including Eliza’s father (Norma’s husband and recording partner of many many years) Martin Carthy. Nothing groundbreaking here but impeccable versions sung by two of the finest voices you’ll ever hear.
Folk-Rock: Swede Kristian Matsson’s latest full length album is a stripped-down beauty. A voice and a guitar (except for the last tune, Kids on the Run, he plays piano) seldom sound so full. Although comparisons of his voice to Dylan’s are inevitable, upon repeated listenings I found the comparison disappeared as Matsson has his own unique sound .
Mystical Minimalism: Yes, this album is hard to classify. I could file it under Electronic Folk Pop maybe. Richard Youngs has made many different types of music in his career. Beyond the Valley of the Ultrahits is, supposably, his ‘pop’ record. Whatever it is it is mesmerizing. His voice is pure Scots folk. His instrumentation is minimalist electronica. Low-key, but infectious and reflective at the same time.
Country Rock: I hear a life of experiences in Ryan Bingham’s voice and lyrics. You may have heard some of music in the film Crazy Heart. Here, as in Crazy Heart, he’s produced by T-Bone Burnett (which is excellent). However, this doesn’t mean the sound is polished. It’s rugged and raw. His captivating stories have the sound of authenticity. Listen to this album, close your eyes and you’ll think you’re in a Texas roadhouse.
Folk-Rock: Richard Thompson is one of my all-time favourite musicians. A great guitarist and writer he’s released many albums, both his own, his early days with Fairport Convention and with his former wife Linda Thompson. Some are classics. But anyone who’s seen him live knows that that can be a stunning experience. I’ve seen him solo (on the grass at Bumbershoot – some of the most rockin’ music I’ve ever seen), as a duo with bassist Danny Thompson and with a full band. Dream Attic’s tunes are selected from a series of seven West Coast concerts and features a fine line-up of musicians and some classic Thompson music.
Reggae: This may well be my favourite album of the year. Not a challenging album, but a perfect upbeat one with it’s feel good music and positive vibration lyrics. This is not vacuous pop; listen to Franti’s lyrics and he’s writing intelligently as ever but his focus is on celebrating life, not (as in earlier albums) pointing out the failures of corporate systems, modern politics and consumerist culture. Maybe we’re growing old together. This album makes me feel happy and grateful for what I have in this life. I don’t know if I’ve heard music that made me feel this way since Bob Marley.
Pop Rock: Call ’em “twee” if you must but Allo Darlin’ make me feel just fine. They have that classic Brit sound of the ’60s: crisp poppy guitars, vocalist Elizabeth Morris’s lovely accent (Aussie Brit) but updated and with an interesting mix of instruments including lap steel and ukulele. This is music to groove to, to get up and dance to, to feel sparkly with.
Rock: Yep, that’s Chrissie Hynde, and she’s not with the Pretenders. On this upbeat rockin’ album she’s teamed up with Welsh singer JP Jones and their voices are a good match. The musicians play with a looseness well suited to the singers, making for a jaunty listening experience. Nice to hear you again Chrissie Hynde!
Robert Plant: Band of Joy
Folk-Rock: Robert Plant continues his evolution, post-Led Zeppelin. This time round he’s teamed up with some of Nashville’s finest, including singer Patty Griffin. Band of Joy was the name of a 60s psychedelic band Plant was in but this album doesn’t relive the 60s, except for the broad strokes of melding folk and rock, American and UK tunes. It’s a fine rousing album filled with trad and modern tunes, all performed with verve and, yes, joy.
Alternative: Her voice may be familiar from her work with Tricky, especially the classic trip-hop album Maxinquaye. She has released a couple of her own albums but for this venture Damon Albarn, of Blur and Gorillaz, suggested Ms. Topley-Bird re-record some of her tunes stripped down to the basics. It really works. Her voice is gorgeous and her instrumentation eclectic, exploring interesting musical genres.
Alternative Rock: This album topped many people’s Top 10 of 2010 lists. And with good reason. Although it takes a few listens to appreciate The Suburbs fully it’s a very rewarding listening experience. Unlike previous Arcade Fire albums no tracks leap out as hit singles. Perhaps that’s because The Suburbs is a complete, whole work. All the pieces address the concept of the suburbs, a place where many of us have spent time. Like most good art this album reflects something familiar, making us see it anew.
Alternative Rock: This is one of the last albums of 2010 I discovered. It’s brilliant. George Lewis Jr. has an amazing voice. The music is funky and keeps me hooked with its intricacies and variety. I’m sure that the more I listen to it the more I’ll hear. And that it’ll be a keeper.
R&B: Calling this album R&B, which is a pretty all encompassing term, may be too limiting. It’s orchestral, it’s funky, it’s prog-rock, it all hangs together and is a listening experience. Janelle Monae can sing and her interest in musical theatre is very evident here. This actually parts II & III from an sci-fi epic she’s created called Metropolis. The album notes detail the plot but you don’t really need to follow it all to enjoy the adventure in music.
Electronica: Jón Jósep Snæbjörnsson is best known as the lead singer of Iceland’s brilliant Sigur Rós. The voice is the same but the music is different, less fuzzy, noisy, distorted, operatic and more danceable, bouncy, popish and in English. It’s not so different from Sigur Rós to leave that band’s fans behind; it’s more like a divergent path in the fairy tale woods. A sonic dazzler.
Alternative Rock: From Montreal the husband/wife team The Besnard Lakes make noisy rock, some even call it neo prog-rock. It’s a sonic adventure and I love all that noise, distortion and soaring vocals. This is a big sound… grand, crunchy, moving. Nice cover art too!
Alternative Rock: A big band with a big sound. Although the core band is a somewhat reasonable size (9 members?) this album features 31 musicians. It’s kind of a Canadian supergroup with musicians like Lesley Feist and Emily Haines joining in. You’d think that with that many people it could be messy or reduced to pablum (e.g. We are the World). Not so here. My toe taps to the rockin’ rhythm, I like all the guitars, the lyrics are intelligent and I enjoy hearing what the guests bring to the table.
Electronica: Speaking of rhythm…. Holy Fuck really kicks. Mixing grooving rhythms, noise and melody Latin captivates and won’t let go. Although the Canadian Conservative government doesn’t approve of their name their music has a legion of big name admirers (e.g. Radiohead). Crank it up, get up and get moving!
Electronica: Another great musician from Canada, Daniel Snaith, records as Caribou (formerly: Manitoba). His latest album has layers of sound with an underlying groove. This is music best appreciated through headphones or turned up loud. There’s a lot happening here. But you can still dance to it too. (if you’re feeling too old to dance watch the video and be inspired)
Electronica: Minimalist, textural, beautiful, warm, lovely. One of my favourites to put on and bliss out to.
Electronica: but with a difference… Flying Lotus (aka Steven Ellison) is a great-nephew of Alice Coltrane and the jazz influence is noticeable. The instrumentation is diverse and this album really should be played start to finish as a whole. It has been called Neo-Fusion, or Left Field Hip Hop, or Experimental Techno. Give it a listen; you’ll find it’s a grand experience.
Electronica: Once again categorization limits the understanding of the music. The Octopus Project create dense textures, soundscapes that carry me away to somewhere alien and exotic. The musical equivalent of a kaleidoscopic film.
And that’s just a sampling. I found it hard to make choices. There are many others I considered but enough’s enough, or maybe I just need to listen to some albums again, or maybe it wasn’t what I thought was the best from a particular artist…
I also enjoyed listening to Ray LaMontagne, Sharon Van Etten, Deerhunter, Eric Clapton, The Apples in Stereo, Barn Owl, Belle & Sebastian, The Black Keys, School of Seven Bells, The New Pornographers, Eels, Faun Fables, Die Antwoord, Glasser, Fuzzy Lights, Darkstar, Goldfrapp, John Grant, Growing, Grum, LCD Soundsystem, Le Futur Pompiste, Lower Dens, Maximum Balloon, Mumford and Sons, The National, Joanna Newsom, Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed, Josh Ritter, Mark Ronson, Rumer, Sufjan Stevens, Paul Weller, Mavis Staples, Yann Tiersen… all great musicians with great albums in 2010. And maybe I should make some changes, but that takes time and I want to go listen to some music now….