Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The List - Music in 2010

Well, we can ask the same question as 2009: What just happened? This was the third year of a brutal recession, and the musical creativity displayed by many artists could have given 2010 the tag of outright renaissance. What is more, the structural trending was a slap in the face to iTunes and digital files, as musicians scrambled to release “concept albums” that resisted being placed into 99-cent single-song MP3 bins for easy consumption. There was no stylistic trend or cultural signposts indicating a reason for this boomlet, but it sure was interesting to behold. Literally dozens of albums released in 2010 could have made “desert island disc” lists, and a rating of below a B equivalent would not show up until you got close to 100 in numerical order. (Lest you think this is grade inflation, Pitchfork awarded an unprecedented number of grades of 7 and above 2010 – from total points of 10. There was just that much good music out there.)

The one exception was the avant-garde underground, which was strangely silent save for a Vibracathedral triple-header in January, some Barn Owl releases, and a few other goodies listed herein. Normally prolific artists like Sunburned Hand of the Man, Starving Weirdos, and Marcia Bassett’s multiple projects, were all strangely silent. Maybe they didn’t want to compete with all the great commercial releases.

Folk-singer-songwriter genres were pretty silent as well, with only a handful of Sarah Harmer, Elephant Micah, Darrell Scott, Richard Thompson types present in 2010. Oddly enough, they were supplemented by new folkie-psych-prog sampling among R&B artists, a trend which made for some downright strange listening from the likes of Gil Scott-Heron, Kanye West, Janelle Monae, Kid Cudi, and Cee-Lo Green.

It’s also interesting to watch what the culture-snobs paid attention to – last year, it was artsy bands like Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear, which I thought were interesting but not leaders. This year it was minimalist surf-music of the Best Coast and Dum Dum Girls variety. Intriguing, but not nearly as good as other works. In the Specials section, the only re-releases that warranted ranking were ones with a good chunk of value-add, such as Rolling Stones’ “Exile” or Springsteen’s “Promise.” It was nice to see Pavement’s greatest hits and the early works by Carissa’s Wierd [stet] get re-mastered, but it didn’t count as something new. And as for re-releasing all mono Dylan and Beatles recordings on vinyl, really, WTF? If you’ve got that much disposable income, donate something to charity.

Here’s what I said a year ago about 2009: “But this year, you could reach down past 100 and still find some really great albums. 2009 was better than it had any right to be.” I repeat myself when under stress, only with more emphasis for 2010. Are recessions good for creativity?

Special Awards

Not only does the compilation Honest Strings win best of the Specials category for its 6 ½-hour tribute to Jack Rose, but the curators involved in this project deserve special mention for bringing together a wealth of experimental and traditionalist artists to jam in Jack’s honor. Well done.

Oh, and let’s give a special citation to Dan Coffey for the Papers for the Border podcast. Coffey’s one of far too few curators trying to make sure the world hears enough weirdness.

And of course, this one is for Don Van Vliet. As well as for Mark Linkous, Alex Chilton, Abbey Lincoln, Jay Reatard, Kate McGarrigle, and Teena Marie.

Anticipation: January brings new Bardo Pond, Decemberists, Wire, and reconstituted Gang of Four. Looks like we can expect new Death Cab and REM soon, too, though it seems as though the release torrent may start slowing down just a little bit in 2011. Or maybe not.

Regular Studio Albums, 2010

  1. New Pornographers, Together – An easy win and a grand slam that went out of the park and into the next county. A.C. and Neko and company always had the potential to release an A+ album, but ended up just shy of perfect in four previous trips to the studio. Together is running on all cylinders. Each song is glorious and meant to be sung any hour of the day, though that doesn’t mean it’s all four-part harmonic sunshine. But even the darkness is shiny on this album, which is quite a feat. Bonus Edition Handicap: Early copies included a seven-inch record of NPs covering Outrageous Cherry. Of course it’s essential.
  2. Laurie Anderson, Homeland – She tried really hard for perfection – hubby Lou said there were 150-odd cuts for this album originally – and it shows in its mix of stories and soundscapes. Laurie’s most powerful work since the late 1980s. I am mystified she did not include the stunning song ‘Pictures and Things’, available only in a 12-inch single, and it seems maybe things were a little too perfect. But that doesn’t discount the magnitude of the masterpiece. Bonus Edition Handicap: All editions came with the DVD, which some might find a little self-indulgent. But when you see her explain how her homemade instruments are played, and husband Lou Reed talks about the creative process and trying to be an editor of Laurie’s, well, it’s worth the steep price of the CD/DVD combo.
  3. Bettie Serveert, Pharmacy of Love – Thank you, Second Motion Records of East Lansing, for making sure that The Netherlands’ finest band is not neglected in the U.S. Carol and Peter and company have come out with their best work since the mid-1990s, achingly beautiful songs like ‘Souls Travel’ and ‘Love Lee’. I was disheartened there were only a dozen people at their Denver show. What if the proverbial tree falls in the forest….
  4. Sun City Girls, Funeral Mariachi – Finally, the last studio work predating the death of Charles Gocher emerges, and it is stunning enough in its cross-cultural awareness (and mainstream enough in melody and rhythm) to be appropriate for playing on a World Music-style radio show. The hardcore fan will want to get the vinyl re-release of the indispensable 300,303 Cross-Dressers from Beyond the Rig Veda, but the Sun City Girls novice will find this to be perfect intro to the band – and a fine eulogy for the departed, as well.
  5. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twsted Fantasy – Ambitious? How could it not be, with sampling of ‘21st Century Schizoid Man,’ cover of ‘Iron Man’, guest appearances by Bon Iver, Chris Rock, Jay-Z. A sprawling 70-minute phantasmagoria, with memorable riffs in ‘Monster’ and ‘So Appalled.’ My only gripe is the usual Kanye complaint, the folks at the top of this list reach for something bigger, while Kanye still is concerned primarily with the screw-ups and successes of Kanye. Maybe the sampling of Gil Scott-Heron’s political manifestos at the end of the album suggest a breakthrough is about to take place. Bonus Edition Handicap: The bonus tunes on iTunes are worth more than the Runaway DVD, though the extravagant might get the best mileage by getting the three-LP-plus-artwork vinyl edition.
  6. Brian Eno, Small Craft on a Milk Sea – Eno’s pop albums of late have been sort of OK but not great, but this collaboration with instrumentalists Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams takes us back to the days of Another Green World, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, or maybe even After the Heat. And that is a very good thing. Bonus Edition Handicap: I suppose there are plenty of people who would shell out $120 for an expansive art-print and vinyl edition with a few extra songs, but it has needless extravagance written all over it for me.
  7. Tobin Sprout, The Bluebird of Happiness Tried to Land on My Shoulder – Did I place this higher than any of the Pollard projects because I missed Sprout during his self-imposed Traverse City exile as a visual artist? Perhaps, but also because, when these songs were on shuffle on the ol’ iPhone, they were always the ones that made me stop and say “Damn, that’s good.”
  8. Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me – Part of me says that anyone that could create such complex songs in a 2 ½-hour rock opera for a 19th-century courtesan deserves high ranking, while another part of me says that Joanna can be pretty self-indulgent at times. Maybe Anais Mitchell’s multi-voice re-telling of the Orpheus tale (below) is more concise and listenable, but at the end of the day, Joanna’s arrangements are nothing but astonishing.
  9. The National, High Violet – I take it for granted that some people find Matt Berninger’s baritone tedious, and I’m not going to convince them otherwise. Sometimes, the morose sound of The National just melts into a sameness, but the quality of the lyrics – small moments of droll poetry -- are what makes this band work for me, and what makes this their best album. Bonus Edition Handicap: We can rant on The National no end for waiting until November to release a double-disc version of High Violet, but they sold the extended version for $7.99 on Black Friday, and the second disc isn’t just a pleasant complement, it’s absolutely essential, with some of the album’s best songs.
  10. Susan Cowsill, Lighthouse – So this is the ode to New Orleans and her deceased brothers she had hidden away, complete with a reworked version of ‘Crescent City Snow’. Sure, there are moments where she gets a little bit choked up and maudlin, but she lived through Katrina and its aftermath, remember? Her takes on Barry Cowsill’s ‘River of Love’ and Jimmy Webb’s ‘Galveston’ are first rate.
  11. Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz – I was in a grumpy mood this fall, being slightly off-put by Stevens’ EP, All Delighted People, after being bored to tears by last year’s instrumental BQE. But this album combines the instrumentation of the states’ albums with the fun-loving nature of Seven Swans. If the six-minute ‘I Want to be Well’ doesn’t convince you that Sufjan is back, maybe the 25-minute ‘Impossible Soul’, in which Sufjan sounds like Akon meets Todd Rundgren, will convince you.
  12. Frightened Rabbit, The Winter of Mixed Drinks – A beautiful and rollicking follow-up to their acoustic live set. Songs like ‘Nothing Like You’ and ‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’ are sullen and joyous at the same time, which only Scottish drunks can pull off with aplomb.
  13. Shearwater, The Golden Archipelago – Meiburg goes for an ambitious look at ornithology in the South Pacific, right around the time of the evacuation of the Bikini Atoll. Maybe not as diverse as the previous album, Rook, but a brooding and magical work. Bonus Edition Handicap: It seems that only the early vinyl copies with extended downloads had all 14 songs, including ‘Anak Rekata’, which is a shame, given how the 14 should be heard in their entirety. The band also was selling small-press hand-collated collections of notes and detritus from The Golden Archipelago, but at $25 a pop, the portfolios were only for the obsessive.
  14. Tired Pony, The Place We Ran From – The first time we heard this, my daughter said, “Gary Lightbody should stick with more faux-country, because it sounds better than his Snow Patrol or Reindeer Section work.” I’d be inclined to agree with that, particularly when Zooey Deschanel joins in on songs like ‘Get On the Road.’ Bonus Edition Handicap: The two extra downloads provided with early editions are very good, particularly ‘Your Bible.’ Wonder why they missed the album cut?
  15. Gil Scott-Heron, I’m New Here – The album may only be 30 minutes, the voice ragged, but given the trials Gil has been through, we should all be amazed that this album is as adventurous and unusual as it is. Hip-hop, folk music, one-minute spoken-word poetry fragments, and a focus on the role of women in keeping African-American families together. If this was but a lame remake of his 1970s/80s-style work, it would have been tragic. But Gil reinvented himself, and came up with something very unusual.
  16. Xiu Xiu, Dear God I Hate Myself – Yeah, Jamie gets ever more outrageous, as he bluntly admits in the fantastic song, ‘Gray Death’, but his albums keep getting more melodic and more accessible, albeit in a very weird way. There’s even a straight-ahead bluegrass song on this album, for cryin’ out loud! I’ll admit, I miss Caralee McElroy, who I considered a necessary part of Xiu Xiu, but Angela Seo is pretty cool as a foil for Jamie. Bonus Edition Handicap: If you buy vinyl from the source, you get two extra download songs, including ‘Cute Pee Pee’, as well as dirty postcards – the kind pervs like.
  17. Quasi, American Gong – Quasi came back from a brief hiatus deciding to be much more of a straightahead rock outfit. Sam Coomes is at a new height in songwriting, and Janet Weiss has become one of the most dynamic drummers alive. There’s really not much more you need to know. Bonus Edition Handicap: If you didn’t get a copy with the DVD of Quasi playing Who covers in a New Years Eve show in Portland, scrounge anywhere you can to get this DVD. If the idea of Janet out-drumming Keith Moon doesn’t thrill you, how about Corin Tucker making a cameo appearance in a leisure suit and fedora to sing ‘Young Man Blues’? OK, I’ve got your interest…
  18. Broken Social Scene, Forgiveness Rock Record – Many expanded rock ensembles came out with concept albums with elaborate lyrics and production values this year. The Arcade Fire’s Suburbs got the most attention, but their Canadian compatriots BSS really offered the best-in-class. Some of these concept albums might seem a little too Broadway for the 21st century, but none of them are as overblown as the pwog-rock concept albums of the 1970s.
  19. Deer Tick, The Black Dirt Sessions – People used to consider Deer Tick as an expanded vehicle for John Joseph McCauley to flex his Dylanesque folk tunes. Deer Tick has become a legitimate country-rock band in its own right, and the third studio album proves it, capped off with the excellent piano version of ‘Christ Jesus.’
  20. Liars, Sisterworld – Liars have bounced so continuously between experimentalism and melodic post-punk, it’s often confusing to figure out where they intend to go. Angus goes Iggy-wild at times, but Sisterworld is a modern-primitive production oddity that features found sounds, strange electronic arrangements, and other orthogonal toss-arounds to confuse listeners. Bonus Edition Handicap: One would think that the two-disc set with the remix disc of famous musicians interpreting Sisterworld would be critical, but most of the remix tracks are pretty lackluster. Only Liars can do justice to Liars.
  21. Sleigh Bells, Treats – The one new band that everyone is supposed to love this year, is innovative from the perspective of having “massively overdriven beats,” as my friend Vini says – but it doesn’t make them harbingers of a startling new style, just interesting – and for damned sure, more interesting than the Best Coast/Dum Dum beach style.
  22. The Arcade Fire, The Suburbs – Because Arcade Fire is complex, well-produced, and highly loved, it was about time that a lot of folks started hating them, and they sure took it on the chin for writing a concept album on the hackneyed subject of ennui in suburbia. But you know what? The album’s good, so haters can bite it. Sure, Win Butler can be full of himself at times, and the band can appear to be doing less with their instruments than might be possible, but when Win’s wife Regine Chassagne belts out a song like ‘Sprawl II’, we can forgive them for anything.
  23. Belle & Sebastian, Write About Love – Some reviewers and marketing material claim this is the best B&S since the late 1990s, but I don’t think it can top 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress. The cameo appearances by Nora Jones and Carey Mulligan are very good, and Stuart makes sure to keep this album more of a band effort than his own gig, but a few songs fall a bit flat. The closer, ‘Sunday’s Pretty Icons,’ though, is one of B&S’s best. Bonus Edition Handicap: The 7-inch single that comes with the vinyl, with two non-album tracks, is definitely worth hunting down – reviewed in EPs.
  24. Neil Young, Le Noise – The early promotional material about Young’s work with Daniel Lanois was enough to convince many critics this was his best work of the 21st century. Good stuff, but beyond Greendale or Living With War? The real problem I have is not that the noise manipulations are too weird, but that they’re too normal. Young has given us Trans and Arc/Weld, remember, so these sound treatments sound no more out of place than the pop side of Eno’s music. Still, this spotlights Neil’s constant reinvention of sound.
  25. The Extra Lens, Undercard – This is John Darnielle’s second outing with Franklin Bruno, the first called “Extra Glenns” instead of Extra Lens. Some very good songs about guilt and praise here, and the closest we’ll come to a Mountain Goats album this year. Still, these songs often come across better live (see the Specials section).
  26. Flobots, Survival Story – The fact that the debut album was #1 and this was 26 might make you think this is a case of sophomore slump, but you’d be only half-right. Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit have consciously chosen to tone down invective and crank up the personal storytelling, to good effect. What’s more, they’re placing Mackenzie’s viola and voice in a more central role, which is turning Flobots into a more of a true, multifaceted band.
  27. Sarah Harmer, Oh Little Fire – While there’s nothing remarkably genre-shattering about this album, Sarah sounds more confident in her voice, even while showing more self-doubt in the lyrics to songs like ‘Careless.’ She’s always a remarkable lyricist and arranger. Oh, and Neko Case sings backup – there’s an extra ten points.
  28. Jenny & Johnny, I’m Having Fun Now – Since Jenny Lewis’s S.O. Johnathan Rice was playing a larger role with each of her solo albums, it seemed only a matter of time before he’d get equal billing, yet the surprising thing about this album is that he really offers up a lot of his own arranging, and it’s quite good. Some of the songs are like Rilo-Kiley-lite, but the best, like ‘Straight Edge of the Blade’ and ‘New Yorker Cartoon’, rank with Jenny’s best work.
  29. Anais Mitchell, Hadestown – Now, why would Joanna Newsom’s two-hour ode to a courtesan make the Top Ten, while Anais’s marvelously executed re-spin of the Orpheus myth get pushed down several notches? After all, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver plays a great Orpheus, Ani DiFranco is stunning, and Anais gets more mileage out of Greg Brown than I’ve heard in any of his solo albums. The only difference is that Anais worked so hard at making this a theatrical production, she minimized her own voice. And the arrangements, while tight and beautifully executed, don’t have the same complexity as a Newsom or Shearwater concept album. Nevertheless, this is an absolute must.
  30. Elephant Micah, Songs of Bible Birds -- Many thanks go out to Nemo Bidstrup of Time-Lag for releasing this vinyl version of Joe’s earlier 2010 CDR release, much of it recorded almost four years ago, spotlighting what a stark and beautiful naturalist this man is.
  31. Speak, s/t -- Truly innovative free-form jazz is a rarity these days, which is why it’s so striking to hear Cuong Vu of Pat Metheny’s band get so much wild mileage out of this ensemble. With song titles like ‘Polypockets’ and ‘Amalgam in the Middle’, you can tell how much fun they’re having.
  32. Robert Plant, Band of Joy – My first inclination was to snub the old man for leaving the incomparable Alison Kraus figuratively standing at the altar, but the substitution of Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, et al. meant that all was forgiven. Two Low covers to cap off a fine selection of songs? What else could one ask for?
  33. Yellow Swans, Going Places/Being There – Apparently the last YS work we will ever hear, the duo went out with a bang, giving us drone that is almost melodic enough to compare to King Crimson or Mogwai. Bonus Edition Handicap: A little bit confusing, but the vinyl apparently provides you with a CD that is completely different than the digital version of the album. A surfeit of Swans, for sure.
  34. Circus Devils, Mother Skinny – No surprise that something bearing the Circus Devils name is the highest-ranking PRP (Pollard-Related Project) this year, though in this case, only squeezing out the Pollard solo Army album by a few points. Concise, weird, and deadly, though not as much of a leap as the Devils’ Gringo or Sgt. Disco.
  35. Trumans Water, O Zeta Zunis – Trumans Water remains my top house skronk band, and I am more than glad to see the Branstetter brothers back, with new support from Asthmatic Kitty, but this did not make my top ten because it did not break the kind of new ground that say, Action Ornaments or Fragments of a Lucky Break did. Still, a world in which Trumans Water exists is infinitely superior to a world without one.
  36. Swans, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky – And speaking of bands getting back together, Michael Gira has finally pulled his beloved Swans into place again, without Jarboe, mind you, but with the addition of Shearwater multi-percussionist Thor Harris. Maybe because audiences expect certain things from Swans, the work was less risk-taking than some of Gira’s Angels of Light compositions, but the addition of Disc 2, as explained below, makes a lot of difference. Bonus Edition Handicap: It is simply imperative to find the two-disc version of My Father, with the extra disc that features a 42-minute improvisational piece called ‘Look At Me Go.’ It reminds you of what is possible with Swans-related product, as Gira himself might say.
  37. Spoon, Transference – It certainly has become popular to express boredom or annoyance with Britt Daniels these days, and frankly, I see little reason for it. This may not be Spoon’s best work, but it’s filled with unforgettable three-minute gems like ‘Mystery Zone’ and ‘Written In Reverse’. Haters be damned.
  38. !!!, Strange Weather, Isn’t It? – Maybe there isn’t a single song within that has the sheer power of a couple of the Myth Takes tunes, like ‘Heart of Hearts’, but !!! is probably the most innovative and powerful dance band in existence. A fine, fine album.
  39. Barn Owl, Ancestral Star (see below)
  40. Barn Owl, The Conjurer (see below)
  41. Barn Owl & Infinite String Ensemble, s/t – An important exception to the lack of new avant-garde this year comes in these three releases by a duo that has worked with the likes of Tom Carter and GHQ, and provides mystical drone that can either take an Eno route, like the Ancestral Star release, go extended like Conjurer, or veer more toward chamber orchestra, as the work with ISE demonstrates. Fine stuff.
  42. Robert Pollard, We All Got Out of the Army – A significantly better solo release than the mid-year Moses, though I’m bound to hear some gripes about that ranking. Seems like both lyrics and arrangements were clicking more with this one.
  43. Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon 2: Legend of Mr. Rager – The appealing thing about this album is its diversity of styles, with influences ranging from sitar and psychedelia to downtown St. Louis. Occasionally, this makes the album sound like an R&B version of Blitzen Trapper’s latest, but usually, it holds together admirably.
  44. Salem, King Night – I’m a little bit frightened of this new ‘witch house’ genre – a Chicago reviewer calls it “Music to sacrifice goats by,” but this Traverse City band certainly knows how to do it well.
  45. Astral Social Club, Happy Horse – Who would have guessed that Neil Campbell could release a dance album? Of course it keeps that ASC experimental edge, but make no mistake, this could be played at a club and get the joint jumping.
  46. Best Coast, Crazy for You – Yes, it’s fun, and yes, it ranks higher than Dum Dum Girls, but for me, a surf-sound lo-fi duo or trio has only so many places to go, and I wasn’t nearly as charmed as most critics seemed to be. Cute, though.
  47. Titus Andronicus, The Monitor – This is a brilliant concept album in theory, a running narrative of the Civil War, with faux wire recordings of Lincoln, Sherman, et al. for local color. Nevertheless, Titus Andronicus can meander from being wildly interesting to being a bit dull. It might be a Top Ten if I ranked just on idea, but implementation and arrangement has to count as well.
  48. Boston Spaceships, Our Cubehouse Still Rocks – Some places like Magnet had this album in the Top 20, but I didn’t find it as compelling as the new Circus Devils or Pollard’s Army album. Good rockin’ material, mind you, but BS’s earlier albums were better.
  49. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Before Today – Ariel’s spent so much time in the underground, it’s nice to see the band surface on 4AD and get awarded best single track of 2010 by Pitchfork. I won’t grant them that much, because the conversion to quasi-normal has meant slightly less interesting, but it is a good and just world that can give Ariel Pink a fair listen.
  50. Vampire Weekend, Contra – As I mentioned with the Flobots rankings, this should not indicate that VW is suffering from sophomore slump. 2010 is a tough year, with dozens of excellent releases, and this simply didn’t outshine others. But the band has found a way to poke fun at its own preppy roots, making songs like the title cut at once odes to aristocracy and insanely subversive. That’s quite a talent.
  51. Tindersticks, Falling Down a Mountain – I feel a bit sorry for Stuart Staples, in that Matt Berninger of The National has taken a clear lead in defining the morose baritone poet. Nevertheless, Tindersticks is not simply trying to remake the band’s symphonic mood-jazz of the late 1990s, but is identifying a strange new style of funk. Check out the song ‘Black Smoke’ and see what I mean.
  52. Vibracathedral Orchestra, Smoke Song (see below)
  53. Vibracathedral Orchestra, The Secret Base (see below)
  54. Vibracathedral Orchestra, Joka Baya – VCO certainly is famous for releasing massive double albums, or even triple-CD live sets, that stun the listener with layers of music, but here the band opts to release three albums at once, all featuring friendlier, shorter instrumental pieces designed to win VCO some new fans in a more traditional jazz-raga-orchestral vein. A triple-header to convince the skeptic that even after the departure of Neil Campbell and Bridget Hayden, VCO remains a defining force in the world of experimental music.
  55. Azure Ray, Drawing Down the Moon – The return of Azure Ray is a big deal in my book, though the songs herein still sound like they’re plumbing the depths of the Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink solo work. Since I sort of favor Maria, I have to admit the most compelling song on this album, ‘Larraine’, comes from Orenda. Anyway, I expect many more good efforts from these two. And yes, Eric Bachmann still plays the role of svengali, as the slightly creepy photo on the back, with Eric as either revered saint or weird grandpa, will attest.
  56. Taylor Swift, Speak Now – Yes, of course she’s a manufactured product and still needs to learn the value of dropping fashions and going scruffy, but damn it, after three albums she’s still outwriting just about anyone in Nashville and most singer-songwriters everywhere. This set is dominated by songs of betrayal and revenge. You want to be sure to keep Taylor on your side.
  57. Teenage Fanclub, Shadows – Simple chords at times, sure, but this is one of the better TF outings, and it’s nice to see these guys survive.
  58. Kings of Leon, Come Around Sundown – Many critics do not like this album because of the absence of the type of power hooks gracing the last two KoL albums. But that’s sort of the point. To avoid repeating themselves, KoL made this their Exile on Main Street, in a strange sense. Swaying, almost country-tinged songs with a more laid back production give it a completely different feel from the brassy swagger the band has offered recently. Not as high-ranked as others, but I’ll give them credit for trying to be different. Bonus Edition Handicap: The best deal on paper is the two-disc version with a free seven-inch record thrown in, but do you need the extras? Not really, since their choice of a single for remixing, ‘Radioactive,’ is not one of the album’s better cuts.
  59. Edith Makes a Paper Chain, Beau and Arrow – I am utterly convinced of the songwriting genius of Sarah Hope and Hilary Studebaker. The first full-length from EMPC has excellent production assistance from The Changing Colors, but somehow, the sense of immediacy is not as out front as on their EP. Still, this is an impressive debut.
  60. Jimmy Eat World, Invented – It’s popular to poke fun of Jimmy as a band that’s half-indy, half-emo and far too syrupy and calculated to be good. More’s the pity if you buy into that. This is a concept album of sorts about the invented self, almost a tribute to The Spectacle as realized in teen fashion, and the album is full of songs with memorable hooks and big ideas. Impressive for a Jimmy album. Bonus Edition Handicap: The Best Buy version of the album has extra tracks that really are worth the effort to seek out.
  61. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, The Brutalist Bricks – Now before you get mad, let me remind you we are below 50 yet still within the “outstanding” part of the list. Ted’s been making noises that he’s done with music, which would be a big loss for us all. Seeing him sing duo with Liz Phair at Matador@21 should convince anyone how much the world needs Ted Leo. Still, this album seemed to pull some punches, and some of the outstanding songs played live, like ‘One Polaroid a Day’, suffered from strange production decisions. Still a worthy album.
  62. Girl Talk, All Day – I was supposed to maintain a self-imposed hatred for all things Girl Talk, until Jimmy Ether convinced me I might want to hear this album. There is sampling of the Diddy variety, and then there is mega-sampling with comedic composition in mind. In some ways, this may be one of the funniest albums ever made, but in any event, it’s one hell of a DJ mix.
  63. The Besnard Lakes, Are the Roaring Night – Some critics, like the Sound Opinions duo, have this in their Top Ten. The slow compositions and symphonic treatments are nice, but I still see BL as primarily a band plying the Low space, and the similarities to Low are still too obvious to give them an A for originality.
  64. Surf City, Kudos – In the pantheon of lo-fi echo chamber surf music, this certainly mixes in more Velvet Underground elements, making it more textured than Dum Dum Girls, but I’m still not sold on this genre. In general, have you noticed that bands from New Zealand tend to be overrated by U.S. critics? (Oops, did I say that out loud?)
  65. LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening -- Because I appreciate what James Murphy has done with his DFA Records, I’m really trying to develop a feel for LCD Soundsystem, and it’s certainly made easier with as thoroughly danceable an album as this one. Still, I get more funk with full-band efforts like !!! than I get with LCD, but I can understand why some folks would have this album in their top ten.
  66. Janelle Monae, ArchAndroid – Many critics have this album on their top slot this year, and I wonder if it’s a matter of stylistic fetishism. Janelle is a fantastic new talent, this album is well produced, but can it match the efforts of my Top Ten choices? Mmmm, not so sure. Then again, I have a confession to make – when Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust first came out, I thought it was stupid (so you’re a starman, you think you’ll blow our minds) – I preferred the dystopia of Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs. Similarly, maybe all this futurama stuff of Janelle’s is something that just smacks of Robbie the Robot to me.
  67. The Dead Weather, Sea of Cowards – OK, an argument could be made that the pairing of Jack White and Alison Mosshart of The Kills is at least as good, possibly better than, White Stripes. And this second album is at least the equal of the first. But something has seemed so calculated with Jack White lately, it’s as though I can appreciate Sea of Cowards from afar, but when I actually get down to choosing something to play…. Maybe just a little distance is necessary.
  68. Tobacco, Maniac Meat – And another friend has this album as her number 1. This is a side project of Black Moth Super Rainbow, bearing the same relation to BMSR that Circus Devils has to GbV/Robert Pollard. It’s a chance to do strange and wonderful musings that are outside BMSR psycho-hippiedom, but I’m not finding profound revelations herein. Cute, though.
  69. Caribou, Swim – When people talk about dreamscape dance-pop, that’s when I reach for my revolver, but when it comes down to it, I can at least give Caribou credit for being more interesting than Beach House. There, I said it, so kill me.
  70. Tom Carter, Numinous – The only true release from the Charalambides gang this year, and this one is solely on cassette (with MP3 download card). A surprisingly mainstream instrumental guitar album for Tom, and one you could play for friends whose tolerance for improvisational music was slight. Nice.
  71. Vaselines, Sex with an X – Yes, it’s wonderful to have Vaselines back, and this is an important and vital album, but for me, it’s like listening to a Superchunk album, good to put on at parties, but not for remembering several months later.
  72. CocoRosie, Grey Oceans – It’s become almost a necessity of hip credentials to hate the Casady sisters these days, and I’m not buying it. Sure, they can be insufferably cute, but they try to do some difficult and occasionally scary things on Grey Oceans, and even their failures are intriguing. Songs like ‘Lemonade’ and ‘Hopscotch Teardrop’ are of the genre that sound like Betty Boop for children until they scare the living daylights out of you. Nice job, ladies, ignore the hecklers in the crowd.
  73. Charlie Parr, When the Devil Goes Blind – Despite the fact that Charlie is a bit of an old-timey, ragtime acquired taste, this album has enough straightahead howlers and rambling songs where he almost sounds like Eddie Vedder, to make this album a crowd pleaser.
  74. Roky Erickson, True Love Cast Out All Evil – First off, thanks to Will from Okkervil River and Jonathan from Shearwater for making sure Roky’s recent work saw the light of day. The former 13th Floor Elevators lead singer proves that, despite the long history of behavioral disorders and drug excess, he can write simple and effective country songs with the best of them. The production is understated and fine, and Sheff doesn’t try to push his own agenda on Erikson. My only gripe is, if this was not Roky, would he have a contract with this music?
  75. Pete Swanson, Where I Was – Not certain whether to put this in Studio or Specials list, as Pete released some of this on cassette, but he seems to treat this as a conceptual whole, of compositions post-Yellow Swans. Stunning work, though the hole left by the absence of Gabe makes us realize what a powerful duo YS really was.
  76. Mynabirds, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood – There are many critics who echo the folks at Saddle Creek Records in saying Laura Burhenn is the Great Singer-Songwriter Hope of 2010. These are cool songs, placing her somewhere between Laura Marling, Dusty Springfield, and Tift Merritt, but there’s nothing that says to me “Wow, best new writer to emerge in years.” Someone to watch, though.
  77. Les Savy Fav, Root for Ruin – In some ways, LSF is in that genre of “keep the punky flame burning” that is traversed by a number of people like Polvo and Pissed Jeans. Note, though, that Polvo got the #2 slot last year, because there was something mathematical, magic, and emotionally wrenching about their reunion. LSF is fun and brash, and has more crunchiness than the new Die Die Die!, for example, though I couldn’t honestly put it in the top 10 or 20.
  78. The Foolish, Cold Pillows – In which Bunk of Murray the Cop fame observes the world of false prophets and annoying preachers with a jaded eye, while trying to preserve the pop-happy romantic notions of other eras. If people listened to five things Bunk had to say before breakfast, the world would be a better place. Arrangements are well crafted here, though it would be neat to hear The Foolish expanded live with additional band members.
  79. Jack Rose, Luck in the Valley -- Not as compelling as his last live performance, listed in Specials section, but a beautiful final studio outing for a guitarist who will be missed.
  80. Menomena, Mines – Notice that some genres, like Menomena, LCD, several R&B works, I rank lower because I’m not as big a fan of the explored genre as I am of others. Doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a job well done. If you see something like MGMT or Deerhunter even lower than Menomena, know that at least it’s considered worthy in the overall scheme of things.
  81. Jakob Dylan, Women + Country – Full disclosure, I saw Dylan reunited with Wallflowers in late 2009, and am still a little mad he elected to go solo again. Still, he worked with Neko Case on this album with some interesting material, and anything Neko touches is gold. The problem here is over-production at times. Traditionalist instruments are fine, but if you’re going to use them, keep it minimalist.
  82. She & Him, Volume Two – People that know I swoon over Zooey Deschanel and have been stalking Ben Gibbard since he married Zooey, might wonder why this is ranked relatively lower than some. I completely agree with critics that her songwriting talents have improved since the first S&H album, and that her vocal styles, in a tradition sort of like Patsy Cline, are interesting. The problem is that her range and song stylings don’t have the breadth of many women songwriters, leaving S&H with not as far to go as others – the duo thing is exercised far more effectively by Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice, sorry for saying that, M. Ward fans.
  83. Sun Kil Moon, Admiral Fell Promises – Several critics have pointed out that it’s getting hard to tell the difference between a SKM album and a solo Mark Kozelek album, since SKM now is primarily nylon-string Spanish guitar as played by Mark. But given that, these songs of worldwide travel and longing are bound to make you weep like a baby at some point in the album. SKM may equal Kozelek these days, but that’s not so bad (though nothing has the full-band heartache feeling of ‘Carry Me Ohio’ from the first SKM album). Bonus Edition Handicap: The I’ll Be There EP is absolutely imperative, not just for the Berry Gordy cover, but for the dazzling Stereolab and Casiotones covers, too.
  84. Conspiracy of Owls, s/t – If everyone is trying to emulate early lo-fi surf music in 2010, this Detroit band is skirting around the edges of Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, though with more of a psychedelic feel you might find in Brian Wilson’s Smile. At the same time, though, CofO has that retro-amateur feel of a local band just learning to stretch its wings. Amazingly fun, and on cool vinyl too.
  85. The Fall, Your Future Our Clutter – Mark E. Smith has come up with the best mix of songs in a while, giving us a fun Fall album. This ranking isn’t to suggest The Fall are too wasted to be interesting, only that Mark burns so many bridges, it’s hard to just take The Fall for what it is and be fair. But thumbs up on this puppy.
  86. Superchunk, Majesty Shredding – Big fans of Mac and Laura may kill me for this, though I will reiterate that there are more than 100 “essential” albums in 2010, and this is one of them. A fine return to form, though I will admit I’ve always considered Superchunk a party band extraordinaire, great to see live but not profound, whatever that means.
  87. Pirate Radio, Fires in the Woods – Americana rock is alive and well in the Bay Area, and Oren W.’s addition gives the band more depth than their previous work, though I need to hear more striking emphasis in the songwriting.
  88. The Roots, How I Got Over – Why did I like this album more than the Roots/Legend collab (which is listed in Specials because it is primarily covers)? Maybe it’s because they aimed for the unexpected with this album, bringing in artists from way outside their comfort zone, like Joanna Newsom and Monsters of Folk. The only downside to this is that it makes the new album sound like a remix effort, as compared to the cohesiveness of Roots-As-Roots works.
  89. Darrell Scott, A Crooked Road – The down side of being a critical member of Robert Plant’s touring band is that people tend to forget how great you are as a standalone artist. Scott has tried to remedy this with a double-CD release that tells a bit of a story with a mix of folk, blues, and almost-blue-eyed-soul.
  90. Grace Potter & The Nocturnals – There are some 1970s “big sound” throwbacks on the list this year, and I might have expected to see Tom Petty rank highest in that category, but Grace is so compelling with her “tough woman” bluesy-rock, it’s even more listenable than the new Petty. Bonus Edition Handicap: The live DVD of earlier Grace songs is very compelling and jump-up-and-down fun.
  91. Blitzen Trapper, Destroyer of the Void – At first listen, this album seemed to be going all over the place, particularly with the opening title cut. Then, the songs started falling into a nice mid-period Dylanesque pattern. But the clash between those two styles – sweet harmonic Americana and mash-up Wizard-period Todd Rundgren sounds – is both the strength and weakness of the new Blitzen Trapper. This album will not bore you. It may puzzle you in trying to determine its native trajectory.
  92. Kathryn Calder, Are You My Mother? – Kathryn of New Porns has shown us her solo pop talents (more or less) with her own band, Immaculate Machine, but for the first album bearing her name, she opts for living-room minimalism in a tribute to her recently-departed mom. Neko Case joins in to help out, and the result is beautiful in an understated sense, but more a quiet bit of reverence than a blockbuster. And that’s OK.
  93. Devo, Something for Everybody – With this kind of ranking, you’d think Devo made the kind of shilling album everyone feared they would make when they returned to the studio, but no, this album is actually much better than we might have hoped. Some outstanding bits of snarkiness and unusual production here, yelps of “Don’t tase me, bro” etc. A surprising keeper for the Devo fan, and for casual listeners too.
  94. AFCGT – s/t (Subpop version, as this is apparently the second self-titled AFCGT album) – When A-Frames and Climax Golden Twins get together, everyone has good noisy fun. The proof came in last year’s first s/t outing, but 2010 had an LP with built-in 7-inch record (not counting as a bonus edition, as all seemed to have this).
  95. The Dead C, Patience – Very happy to see Dead C back together, though this album is more droney soundscapes than strident noise. And that’s OK, we got some 1990s re-releases from Dead C in 2010 as well (see Specials).
  96. Local Natives, Gorilla Manor – Oh, snap, I actually like these guys quite a bit, with their clever four-part harmonies and odd-as-hell arrangements. That’s why none of this list should be neglected. This album has an amazing cover of Talking Heads’ ‘Warning Sign,’ btw.
  97. Cee-Lo Green, The Lady Killer – Well, it goes without saying that not much could eclipse the fame of the ‘Fuck You!’ single, but the surprising thing is how well Green adopts some very interesting and bizarre styles, giving the album almost an otherworldly quality. Interesting.
  98. Laura Marling, I Speak Because I Can – I have to say something about LM and about Tift Merritt, below. Both these women are part of an amazing crop of new singer-songwriters, often unheard, and a live show by either one is an experience not to miss. I found Laura’s first album a little more droll and unpredictable than this one, but her second outing really is worth a listen.
  99. Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest – OK, I have tried through three studio albums and some live sets to find out why some people would call this the best album of the year. Deerhunter is a clever, competent, sometimes inspired and sometimes mystical band who just isn’t as great as all the hype would suggest. Still, this album is interesting. And critics can just be dumb, sometimes – heck, some call Beach House or Band of Horses the band of the year. No way.
  100. Bad Religion, Dissent of Man – Greg Graffin got a lot of mileage this year out of the fact that he’s a punker, scientist, anthropologist, etc. at the same time, and BR’s newest album had songs that were topical and timeless at the same time. Definitely a keeper.
  101. Antony & the Johnsons, Swanlights – Based on the recording dates and stylistic issues, you could call this a set of outtakes from The Crying Light, but it’s more than that. These songs are earthier with more gut-level connections to the planet than the ethereal album that preceded it, and it makes a good bookend to Antony’s last work.
  102. The Hold Steady, Heaven is Whenever – Here’s the frustrating thing about this album’s lower ranking: Craig & Co. have made a business of carving good songs and lyrics from “party party party,” so as soon as they get serious and profound and shit, all of a sudden people don’t listen. Let’s be clear, this is not like Insane Clown Posse pondering the mysteries of magnetism, this is a subtle and fine album, but 2010 was a year where you had to shout and scream to be heard.
  103. Jonsi, Go – Yes, you can leverage a lot of goodwill and creative juices from being a founder of Sigur Ros, and this album has innovation dripping from it, but SR could be annoying at times, and Jonsi at times can be like distilling and crystallizing the annoyance.
  104. Tift Merritt, See You On the Moon – Make no mistake about it, I became totally sold on this woman after seeing her live this summer, and this album starts strong with ‘Mixtape’, and has definite keepers. She’s only down further on the list because the songs can blow hot and cold, but Merritt is wonderful.
  105. Ghost to Falco, Exotic Believer – Eric Crespo is innovative as hell, but falls into this same realm as Ariel Pink, in a way. He’s done avant-garde-as-hell work with Inca Ore et al., so when he opts for being slightly more normal in a GtF release, it doesn’t sound as interesting. But pay attention anyway.
  106. Dum Dum Girls, I Will Be – Honestly, I like these women enough to have picked up their two 7-inch singles along with this album. Fun enough in the limited genre of minimalist lo-fi surf music, but I think the realm of Best Coast/DDG, even the New Zealand buzzier spin of Surf City, has just about been tapped out.
  107. Matt & Kim, Sidewalks – The songwriting here is better than ever, our favorite couple tries to move beyond where the first two albums took them, but sometimes you’re self-limited by being keyboards and drums.
  108. Stone Temple Pilots (s/t) – Honestly, in years past, my annoyance with Scott Weiland’s excess would have kept STP off the list entirely, but I’m happy to report that this is an utterly listenable album – he’s kept ego as well as addictions in check, and the songs are layered and rich. Bonus Edition Handicap: Yes, get the expanded version with the live cuts and the pretty gold-and-red packaging.
  109. The Walkmen, Lisbon – Many critics had this high because of the unusual, subtle, Iberian-peninsula type of sound Walkmen got out of these sessions. I give them kudos for trying something different, but it didn’t hold my interest all that long.
  110. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Mojo – A very interesting and far bluesier outing than we’re used to from Petty. Outside his dedicated fan base, Petty may not get as much attention as he once did, but his music continues to be compelling and interesting, which is more than can be said of many 70s artists.
  111. Robert Pollard, Moses On A Snail – As a regular rule, Pollard’s most mediocre stuff is better than most musicians’ best. Nevertheless, this was his most average release this year, definitely had a few songs that grabbed you by the throat, but not up to his usual caliber.
  112. The Black Keys, Brothers – And speaking of blues with a 70s bent from the Petty reference, this album shows how it is done from a once-removed standpoint, but I feel about BK sort of the way I feel about Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – if you have someone from the 70s like Petty, still around and making legit music of a 70s style, why do you need a derivative product that doesn’t insert more value-add? Not a bad album, by any means, but I’m still pondering the overall purpose of Black Keys.
  113. ChocQuib Town, Oro – In the wake of breakthrough artist Bomba Estereo, bands on the north coast of Colombia are trying to achieve breakthrough status, and these folks do it with a more straightforward mix of hip-hop and cumbia than Bomba Estereo’s psychedelic brew. Definitely a fun album.
  114. Mini Mansions, s/t – This Beatles-esque band that broke away from Queens of the Stone Age actually sound a bit more like Elliott Smith than the Fab Four, and even though the studio recordings sound a little bit too Smith-derivative, the live shows, with stand-up drumming and crisp exactitude, show that MM will be around for a while. Good stuff.
  115. Beach House, Teen Dream – Admittedly, it took me a while to grasp Low’s slowcore style, and I never fully got Galaxie 500, so maybe I’m just taking my time with Beach House. But the number of critics who can place this dream-pop at the top of their lists surprises me. Definitely an acquired taste.
  116. Heavy-Winged, Sunspotted
  117. Heavy-Winged, Fields Within Fields
  118. Heavy-Winged, Infinite In Every Direction – This trio , often lumped with Robedoor, hang with the type of creative weirdos you’d find in the Ashtray Navigations/Inca Ore neighborhood. Their solo work is repetitive drone, very dense at first listen but I’m starting to like it more.
  119. Die Die Die!, Form – ANZUS fans love the DDD gang, since they infuse lively punk with an intellectual sensibility. I had high hopes for the album, but the vocals seem thinner and the ideas seem vaguer than DDD’s previous works. I’ll continue to follow them, but can’t list this as my favorite.
  120. Fursaxa, Microrrhizae Realm – I hadn’t meant to push Tara Jane’s work this far down, since it’s been a while since she’s been in the studio, and her work is important in its quiet, odd way. This is actually one of her better and more accessible albums. But she’s got a strange sensibility, not for everyone.
  121. Graham Lambkin & Jason Lascalleet, Air Supply – Yeah, speaking of too low, this duo may be a bit weirder than Eno, but not that much. Graham (ex-Shadow Ring) and Jason (?) almost sound like Fripp & Eno at times, some tracks are a little too drone-spacey, but others are brilliant.
  122. Hot Chip, One Life Stand – Another case where I may not appreciate the dance style, but I sure can recognize the effort expended. Cool dance compositions throughout. Bonus Edition Handicap: The expanded version with DVD is worth the price – the DVD may have its ups and downs, but it’s better than many of those “How I made the album” DVDs.
  123. Duffy, Everlasting – OK, let’s be clear, many critics are raking Duffy over the coals for a decided sophomore slump, but it’s not as if this was a warmed-over and inferior version of Rockferry. I give Duffy credit for trying different and unusual arrangements that divert from the first album. On some songs, like ‘Keeping My Baby’ and ‘Well Well Well,’ the band is tight and the arrangements work. On other songs like ‘Too Hurt to Dance’, she simply picks material that isn’t appropriate for her Betty Boop voice. But give her credit for trying something new.
  124. Sheryl Crow, 100 Miles from Memphis – This album might have ranked higher if these were all R&B covers and I put it in Specials. I like what Sheryl has done here with the band, though mostly she’s doing a Dusty in Memphis-style take on her own material. And that’s OK. She’s fooling around with new ideas and new styles. And her version of The Jackson 5’s ‘I Want You Back’ is surprisingly good.
  125. Broken Bells, s/t – Yes, I know, everyone is supposed to love this album – I mean, it is Danger Mouse with James Mercer from The Shins. Indeed it is, but I don’t find the result to be all that interesting, though I might put it on an iPod shuffle mix from time to time.
  126. Elvis Costello, National Ransom – Strange, Elvis and T-Bone got together a bluegrass band last year and played a fine series of songs about the antebellum and postwar South. The same band returns this year with more ragtimey songs about 1920s excess and 1930s depression. Should have been quite the pair. But Sugarcane sounded smooth and brilliant, and this new one sounds forced, somehow. A couple of nice numbers, but it’s odd how the magic is not replicated.
  127. Ellis, Right On Time – A sincere lesbian folkie singing about her first baby sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Ellis live has a certain Zen goofball aura that infuses her work with hilarious magic. Unfortunately, only flashes of goof come through in the studio.
  128. Interpol, (s/t) – I admired this band’s early history enough that I really, really wanted to like this album despite the advance panning. There are a couple returns to the old Interpol form, but for the most part, the critics are right, this was not too inspired. I’m still holding out hope that the band is not on a permanent crash mode.
  129. Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More – If this was a fair world, M&S would get an unfiltered assessment as an acoustic harmony-driven act of decent talent, but their unexpected popularity and the Fleet Foxes-style calculation leaves me a trifle cold. Some people would leave this album entirely off their lists because Mark E. Smith of The Fall ragged on them so ruthlessly, but frankly, I’m so sick of Mark E. Smith’s rants, I kept M&S on this list precisely because Marky hated them.
  130. Nellie McKay, Home Sweet Mobile Home – Oh how I hate to ever put Nellie in the hundreds, and the clever hooks of the opening song, ‘Bruise in the Sky’, suggested this held a lot of promise. Unfortunately, there’s too much predictable reggae, bossa nova, etc. on this album to make it sound fresh. It is worthy of a spin, but maybe the most uninspired of Nellie’s releases.
  131. Retribution Gospel Choir, 2 – Two factors help make the second go-round of Alan Sparhawk’s side project worthy: RGC has survived its Mark Kozelek roots to become a Sparhawk inspiration, and the band has more strident, up-tempo tunes this time out. Still, Mimi is ready to take Low back on the road, with an album due in 2011, which makes RGC just a sideshow to Low’s main event.
  132. MGMT, Congratulations – I give MGMT credit for putting out a deliberately non-hit-friendly follow-on to Oracular Spectacular, one that actually has some decent composition and arrangements. My problem lies in trying to treat the band as serious psychedelia when so much of what they do is drowning in cuteness. Bonus Edition Handicap: The only thing that distinguishes the bonus edition is a scratch-off cover and a commemorative coin, which would be silly were it not for the fact that by year’s end, weak sales of the bonus edition had pulled prices down to near-par with the standard release. With no premium for tchotchke, what the heck?
  133. Jucifer, Throned in Blood – This one hurts, but the things which hurt, instruct. I was very glad that Amber wanted to probe the post-Rome barbarian kings for her next subject matter, but one of the things that made L’Autrichienne so powerful was the occasional bow to subtlety, almost folky sounds. We get a tiny hint of this at the end of Throned in Blood, but for the most part, this sounds like sludge-metal. Jucifer is a very talented noise band, and I want them to push themselves. Straightahead metal is not the way to do it. Bonus Edition Handicap: If you’re going to demand double-pink vinyl for L’Autrichienne, then of course clear red vinyl for Throned in Blood is a necessity.
  134. Elephant Revival, Break In the Clouds – Elephant Revival is the hippie hope of Nederland, Colorado, and the band that makes best use of washboard in the 21st century. The live shows are always a pleasure, but ER tends to combine traditionalist structure and hippie jam in a way that ekes out too much patchouli. This is worthy as a testament to their live shows, but as a studio work, it is the first step to a bigger career.
  135. Bryan Ferry, Olympia – Many people are suspicious of this album because it was originally slated to be a Roxy Music reunion, complete with the unexpected Brian Eno. When it became a Ferry album, everyone expected Bryan’s quasi-fascist manipulations behind the scenes, and complained that the album sounded just like Roxy Music’s Avalon. I actually think the arrangements are fairly original and interesting, but I’m downgrading it for a reason few critics mention: Ferry’s voice, always a thin tenor in the good days, has been reduced to a near-whisper. He just can’t get a lot of variety from damaged pipes. A Roxy Music fan will be sure to pick this up anyway, but…. Bonus Edition Handicap: Since the two bonus songs include ‘Whatever Gets You Through the Night’, you know it’s a worthwhile pursuit, but in this case, the DVD on the recording of the album is fairly interesting, as well.
  136. Juliana Hatfield, Peace and Love – Billed as a limited acoustic release, I expected a lot out of it, given Hatfield’ damned-perfect previous studio album. Unfortunately, these are just straightforward, not that imaginative songs of the singer-songwriter genre.
  137. Magnetic Fields, Realism – It’s odd and sad that the band that produced the best studio album of the last century, 69 Love Songs, also can produce such clunkers. I had specific reasons to not like their previous album, Distortion, since Stephin Merritt was trying an electronic distortion method that simply didn’t work well with MF music. But this one was billed as an acoustic album, and it was only marginally more interesting. Were it not for a few songs like ‘You Must Be Out of Your Mind,’ this would be throwaway. Yet the band live on stage is still as crisp and interesting as the 69LS days of 1999-2000. C’mon, Stephin, you can do it!
  138. Pernice Brothers, Goodbye, Killer -- The matchless tenor harmonies are there, strong as ever, but I have to admit I'm getting a little tired of Joe Pernice, though I haven't read his book. His accompanying CD was sort of so-so, and for the return of the full Pernice band, we get a short album about wistful times on the road that at times sound as dirty-old-man as Steely Dan's Gaucho. C'mon, Joe, take it up a notch.
  139. Tim Kasher, The Game of Monogamy – Cursive fans will hate me for saying this, but Cursive was always a band with a lot of emo sensibility but pedestrian outlooks on life, like a slightly more mature and varied Dashboard Confessional. Kasher’s first solo work fits the same mold. These songs are fine to see live, with cello and an assortment of instruments recalling early Crooked Fingers, but Kasher’s observations on the straitjacket of married life are all pretty standard-issue songwriter-approaches-middle-age stuff.
  140. Court Yard Hounds, s/t – I expected some pretty innovative writing from a Natalie-less Dixie Chicks, but the songs resembled the more Nashville-centric music of DCs. Decent enough, but could have been more.
  141. Natural Snow Buildings, Centauri Agent – Although this seems low, NSB is an interesting melodic-drone-psych band, and this is one of their more ambitious projects. Still, at times it can be a sleep-inducer.
  142. Linkin Park, A Thousand Suns – Quite honestly, I feel a little bit sorry for LP – no longer on the cutting edge of anything, alienated the fan base and reinvented themselves several times, yet they try to structure a few experimental songs and try to follow the Flobots/Spearhead lead of a certain amount of political sincerity. Still, can’t rank them all that high because the material is simply weak, despite the best of intentions.
  143. Elf Power, s/t – When looking at alumni of Elephant 6 Collective, is ‘tedious’ or ‘annoying’ worse? Some might argue that it’s better to be maddening than to be easily-forgotten, but you’ll notice I pushed Apples In Stereo down further for being actively alienating to their former base, while EP just lurks down here for being more uninteresting than in years past. Circulatory System seems to be the only E6 group with some life left.
  144. MIA, Maya – Well, well, our political diva of past years decides to join in on the tmz.com celebrity trash trend by making a relatively-forgettable dance album? Why? There are actually some half-cool tunes within, but it’s impossible to figure out why MIA chooses to play dumb. Bonus Edition Handicap: The 3D cover is kind of lame, but the extra songs on the expanded edition are among the better ones on the whole album.
  145. Corin Tucker Band, 1000 Years – I have loved Corin Tucker throughout her career with Sleater-Kinney and in solo efforts, including her raucous appearance with Quasi covering ‘Young Man Blues’. But I hold her to high standards, and wanted this solo album to be more than a simple singer-songwriter excursion. Unfortunately, it’s only mildly interesting.
  146. Eminem, Recovery – A lot of cheerleaders, including those not normally in Eminem’s camp, are rooting for the new one, perhaps in a wish for personal victories. I’m not hearing a whole lot I like.
  147. Sarah McLachlan, Laws of Illusion – This could rank at this level merely for being just the type of mid-career effort you’d expect, mellow, tedious – but I could rank it even lower in assuming that she is calculating, through Lilith revivals and Olympics appearances, to be just the sort of teen-waif-to-middle-class faux-liberal she appears to be on TV. Because I have no smoking gun to prove that she is a cold calculator in every step, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and keep her raised a couple notches.
  148. Weepies, Be My Thrill – There’s nothing wrong with cheerful harmonies if you bring something to the party, which Deb Talan and Steve Tannen originally did. Unfortunately, the 2008 Hideaway album started the slow decline to terminal cuteness, something that has negatively affected married musical couples who don’t deserve it, like the wonderful but too-cloying Pete and Maura Kennedy. This couple/band has gained in popularity with each release, and there are a couple interesting songs here, but they are hovering on the edge of being too cute and mainstream for their own good.
  149. Eels, End Times
  150. Eels, Tomorrow Morning – And speaking of calculating, what exactly is Mark E. thinking here? When he wants to give us a stunning album, he’s perfectly capable of doing so, and the idea inherent in this project had merit – a suicidal album at the start of 2010, and an album of redemption and hope near the end of the year. Only one problem – not enough interesting material on either album to sustain the concept Mark E. addressed. A major misfire, which is too bad.
  151. Blonde Redhead, Penny Sparkle – When BR was in its Sonic Youth phase, its music was always interesting. Even as the band became more mainstream, albums like 23 kept a sense of mystery, romance, and strangeness. So what has happened to Kazu Makino (I blame her more than the Pace brothers for this change in consciousness)? This album is aiming for a cuteness quotient that just sucks the life out of a great band. Give us weirdness again, Kazu! Bonus Edition Handicap: A purse-style package with art and toys? Hell, they might as well be shilling for Hello Kitty.
  152. Los Lobos, Tin Can Trust – When Los Lobos wants to push out of the Tex-Mex envelope, it can make some wild, Captain Beefheart-like albums. This is not one of them. Pleasant at times, but pretty predictable.
  153. Watson Twins, Talking to You, Talking to Me -- How mad should I be at producers J. Soda and Russ Pollard, and how mad at the sisters themselves? They're always best with traditional folk, particularly with Jenny Lewis, but I could have forgiven them slick over-production - if the songs were interesting. Unfortunately, this production just sucked the life out of the Watson Twins.
  154. OK Go, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky – Yes, they sure make great videos, but the studio CDs just can’t hold up. Stick with YouTube and Goldberg machines.
  155. Apples In Stereo, Travelers in Space and Time – And now we get to my anger with Rob Schneider, and my former love for E6 and early Apples music. Sure, adding bubblegum and sparkly effects to your music is fine, but this album could have been written by and for eight-year-olds. An Apples fan may want it anyway, but it can become annoyingly stupid at times.
  156. Band of Horses, Infinite Arms – Remember what I said about the first album? Same idea, but less interesting. Who are the people who claim to like BoH? I might call this second album the band’s sophomore slump, except that I never thought the first album was all that phenomenal. The band’s members did far more interesting work in Carissa’s Wierd [stet], whose out-of-print albums were re-released in 2010. Because of that legacy, they remain on the list, at the end, but one more flop kicks them off for good.

Special Albums (Live, Compilations, Splits, CD-Rs, MP3, etc.)

  1. Various Artists, Honest Strings: A Tribute to the Life and Work of Jack Rose – More than just the best special album of 2010, this six-hour compilation is a miracle of rare device. Cory Rayborn and other friends assembled works from dozens of Jack’s collaborators, only months after Jack’s untimely death in December 2009. Only a guitarist whose work spanned avant-garde to old-timey ragtime could have brought together an ensemble that spanned Pelt to Charlie Parr, Danny Paul Grody to No-Neck Blues Band to Elisa Ambrogio. Joseph Mattson even reads from last year’s book project Empty the Sun. Online only, at fina.com.
  2. Jonny 5, Rhyme A Day Project – Jonny 5 of Flobots set the ambitious goal of recording a video poem for every day of 2010, and as of this writing, had just about reached his goal. Poems for January were remixed as audio and released online, hopefully the other 11 months will follow. The quality of these poems and music soundtracks are far greater than one could anticipate from a poem-a-day project.
  3. Bill Callahan, Rough Travel for a Rare Thing – A striking, haunting, double live album of Bill in concert in Australia. Given his solo output and his songs as part of (Smog), this kind of live performance was long overdue.
  4. The Plastic Billionaires, Bankrupting Tiger Mountain by Credit Default Swap – These oddball situationists tackled an entire remake cover of Brian Eno’s seminal 1974 album, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. Some songs are familiar covers, while others like ‘Back in Judy’s Jungle’ and ‘Put a Straw Under Baby’ veer far from the originals. Not to be missed by Eno fans.
  5. Various Artists, Don’t Mind Control – Well, here’s a double slice of pure eclecticism. Tim Kinsella of Joan of Arc pulled together all the musicians who had contributed to Joan of Arc over the years, and asked them to contribute a song or movement representing work they’re doing now. Out there and familiar at the same time, a sheer joy to listen to.
  6. Borbetomagus, The Rape of Atlanta—This is one in the series of bootlegs from the company that prints LPs in plain white or gray, with a square image in the center, usually foil-embossed (Charalambides, Pelt, Jackie-O, Sun City Girls). This is a live performance from 2004, but in the overall chronology of Borbetomagus, that is recent. These people take the phrase “free jazz” to extremes it rarely goes.
  7. Guided by Voices, Live in Dayton, 19-something-and-6 – Obsessive fans of GbV might wonder why a 2010 recording of the classic lineup would rank lower than this sprawling three-LP recording of the Verde-era band, but none of the 2010 shows got this kind of recording treatment, and the sheer scope and scale of this live recording boggles the mind.
  8. The Diodes, Time Damage: Live in Toronto 1978 – At last, Canada’s troublemakers, The Diodes, get the live recording they deserve, and it’s of exquisite quality. Who knew that a raucous show at El Mocambo club would yield such classic versions of ‘Time Damage’, ‘Tennis Again’, ‘Death in the Suburbs’, etc.
  9. The White Stripes, Under Great White Northern Lights – With Jack all wrapped in Dead Weather and Meg living in connubial bliss with Patti Smith’s son, Jackson, it’s perfectly possible to believe this might be the last White Stripes recording. Incredible versions of classic WS songs delivered in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Alberta, etc. Bonus Edition Handicap: The best combination to experience this is the Best Buy deal of a bundled CD and DVD at once price, rather than choosing one over the other. Watching the black and white renditions of the songs on public squares, watching Meg cry as she sits at the piano with Jack, is an experience you don’t want to miss.
  10. Bruce Springsteen, The Promise – Of course, if you can afford the monster box, the ideal mix is the missing album, the remixed Darkness at the Edge of Town, and the live performances in 2009. But the core of this release is the suite of songs that make up the missing 1976-77 album of Springsteen’s. Its sheer scope puts it in the Top Ten, but there’s a reason I didn’t place it in the top two or three: Bruce himself scrapped the songs in favor of a dark, sparse Darkness album that fit the 1978 punk aesthetic better. I respect him for that. These songs continue the romantic big sound of Born to Run, with a nod to Elvis’s death, at a time no one gave a shit about Elvis (Presley, though they did about Costello) any more. Still, they are all songs you need to hear, and the album contains the original versions of ‘Because the Night’ and ‘Fire’.
  11. Regina Spektor, Live In London – Fickle Spektor fans would say that you could find downloadable live sets online with more songs from 11:11 or Songs, but the point is that this package provides a definitive CD and DVD of Spektor live, with beautiful camera shots of her overwhelming stage presence. The DVD also includes a memorial for Dan Cho, cellist and ensemble-manager for her band, who drowned in a tragic accident in July at the Montreaux Jazz Festival.
  12. The Flaming Lips, Dark Side of the Moon—Wayne’s remake of the Floyd classic missed the Top Ten cut? Yeah, though I think the addition of Henry Rollins and Peaches was a stroke of genius. When you get down to it, Flaming Lips hewed a little too close to the Pink Floyd original, without putting enough of the classic FL stamp on the recording. Bonus Edition Handicap: Of course you want the gatefold LP with clear vinyl, along with the color-stamped CDR, you silly fool.
  13. Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue – The concept for this album is great, and the short stories Hornby contributes are wonderful, but Hornby and Folds collaborating do not live up to the quality of Folds’ best work – though sometimes I wonder if it’s Folds giving us a less-than-optimal vocal performance, rather than the songs themselves. Bonus Edition Handicap: The only way to get the full effect of what the authors intended is to get the bound-book version, with Hornby’s short stories. Definitely the highlight of the work.
  14. 4AD Artists, Fragments – This is a rather cool concept from our pals at 4AD, spotlighting longer works from the likes of Gang Gang Dance and Ariel Pink. The mere fact that this is the only Gang Gang Dance we got in 2010 makes this album essential.
  15. Richard Lloyd, Lodestones – the legendary guitarist with Television returns with a compilation of work he’s done behind the scenes in the last decade. Beautiful gems with that sassy Television flavor.
  16. Bob Dylan, The Witmark Demos – I haven’t followed that ‘Official Bootleg’ series too closely, since I don’t need a dozen versions of each live Dylan tune, but this one is different. There are strikingly different versions of early Dylan songs herein, along with many songs never officially released, like ‘Talking John Birch Society.’ A gem, even for a casual Dylan listener.
  17. Jack Rose, 12-11-2009 – I haven’t been able to confirm that this is the last Jack Rose live performance, or even the last one that was recorded, but it is a good cross-section of the musical styles he was sampling just before his death, and the album is quite engaging, beginning to end.
  18. Smoke Fairies, Ghosts -- The London duo of Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire opened for Laura Marling on her US tour, and assembled this special LP of singles for their US audience. Jack White and people in the know care about their ethereal, bluesey murder-ballad style, and so should you.
  19. Sunburned Hand of the Man, Unmuzzled Ox – Wow, an entire year goes by, and this is the only Sunburned release, which is an LP reprint of a hopelessly limited cassette from a live show. But what a monster. Sunburned regulars are joined by saxophones for a skronk spectacular that sounds more like Ornette Coleman than any Sunburned release to date.
  20. Deral Fenderson – Tough Love/Unfazed – I don’t know if Deral really intended these studio numbers and a drunken bar appearance to be part of a unified whole, but I’d say it’s the only proper instantiation of the 2010 edition of Deral Fenderson, and will leave you demanding more.
  21. Deerhoof and Xiu Xiu – Play Joy Division at Williamsburg Waterfront, July 2010 – Joy Division fans are appalled, but they can get royally fucked, as Ian Curtis would have loved this – maybe even more than Peter Hook playing the music of Joy Division. Two of America’s weirdest bands joined forces to tour four or five cities with a dozen Joy Division covers. Of course it’s essential, how could it be otherwise?
  22. The Dead C, Clyma Est Mort – It’s not just that this is finally re-released on double vinyl, or that it includes a bonus CDR, but it also includes bonus cuts from early 1990s Dead C. We should rejoice that Dead C is putting out new material, but we should also hope that these expanded re-releases of 1990s albums continue. I want sprawling expanded versions of Trapdoor Fucking Exit or Harsh ‘70s Reality, please.
  23. Roots and John Legend, Wake Up! – I’m including this one in the Specials section, since Roots and Legend decided to cover socially-conscious songs by the likes of Bill Withers and other 70s artists. It did not excite me as much as Roots’ newest studio album, and it’s not because Legend and Roots sound bad together. In fact, they do some great numbers, and deserve brownie points for covering ‘Compared to What’ by Les McCann and Eddie Harris. The problem is that the project sounds a little too smooth, made for late-night TV, and even the aforementioned cover song doesn’t have nearly as much life and bounce as the McCann/Harris original.
  24. Richard Thompson, Dream Attic – This album and the next one from Forest Swords are hard to characterize. Thompson’s might be considered new studio, except the deluxe edition gives us songs as demos and songs as fully-realized live performances, not unlike Neil Young’s Time Fades Away. When Thompson played familiar works live back in August, he seemed tired and bored, but with these new songs, his live shows display energy. Bonus Edition Handicap: For a fair comparison of live and studio versions, it’s imperative to get the two-disc version.
  25. Forest Swords, Dagger Paths – The single disc of this haunting, tape-loopy piece is called an EP, but is almost as full-length as Sufjan Stevens’ All Delighted People. But the double-disc throws in an older EP and some mixtape material, making this work not-quite studio full-length, not-quite EP, so we’ll call it a special, and the music within is ethereal and special too. Bonus Edition Handicap: Do not settle for single disc, period.
  26. Bardo Pond, Live at Bell House, Nov. 20, 2010 – In which the freakout family give us a taste of the new album, due out January 11. Isobel actually talks to the audience at length during this memorable show, and she explains how one of the songs took its inspiration from a Sam Shepard poem. Way cool.
  27. Tim Fite, Under the Table Tennis – Tim Fite is one weird-ass performance-artist, hip-hop and country music social commentator, who occasionally gives us fully-formed pop tunes. But in this special downloadable for a down economy, Fite concentrates on foreclosures, layoffs, and why no one wants to pay artists. The best way to laugh your way through a bloody recession like this one.
  28. Buffalo Springfield, Live at the Bridge Concert, Nov. 2010 – Yep, just what it sounds like, BS members come back and play all their favorites, and sound pretty durned good, particularly with Neil on board. Every now and then, though, you get a reminder that the members are now old geezers.
  29. Mason Jennings, Flood – This is Mason’s Basement Tapes, songs from early in his career reinterpreted as simple acoustic numbers. Would it have been better to have the original four-tracks? Maybe so, but this is an interesting “must” for the Jennings fan.
  30. Dar Williams, Many Great Companions – And speaking of reinterpretations, this two-disc set would have been considered a best-of collection, except that the second disc is filled with reinterpretations of Dar songs, sung by Dar and former Jayhawks member Gary Louris. A very worthy experiment.
  31. Jimi Hendrix, Valleys of Neptune – The non-Hendrix-obsessed might have gotten a little upset by the advance hype about “new Hendrix material”, when most of these tracks are alternative versions of familiar songs. But I’ll call this quasi-new, because some of the different interpretations of existing songs are different enough to give the whole album a fresh feel.
  32. Joanna Newsom, Live at 6th and I Synagogue, DC, March 29, 2010 – There is something to be said about hearing a slice of Newsom’s Have One On Me album with slightly fewer instruments and more informal delivery. Newsom has become more lively and silly in a live show than she was a few years’ back, giving this live set a down-home feel.
  33. Mogwai, Special Moves – Live in Brooklyn – The more Mogwai develops, the more its largely-instrumental music morphs into a King Crimson/Godspeed You Black Emperor! sound. For the most part, that’s good, though this live set may not have the diversity of, say, Mogwai Fear Satan. Bonus Edition Handicap: Early editions offered downloads for four additional songs that are worth adding to the set list.
  34. Hototogisu, Floating Japanese Oof Gardens of the 21st Century – Technically, this should not qualify since it is a re-release, but the original version of this double-CD-length composition was unobtainable in the known universe, so here’s to Important Records for making it available to the unwashed masses. And besides, it’s the only Marcia Bassett-related material we got in 2010.
  35. Stereolab, Not Music – A companion piece to Chemical Chords, all part of some 2007-08 experiments in tape music and piano chords. Glad to see Stereolab experimenting with something different in sound, not always enamored by their ambient.
  36. Belle & Sebastian, Holiday Spectacular, Live in Glasgow, Dec. 20, 2010 – Well of course it’s over the top and Vegas-y, with greatest hits and A Charlie Brown Christmas opener. But at least the band doesn’t take itself too seriously, and if their stint at the Matador@21 Lost Weekend show in Vegas wanted to make them go a little bit Wayne Newton, who am I to complain?
  37. David Bowie, Station to Station – Another one of those gift boxes, like the Who and Rolling Stones releases below, where the new content deserves its consideration as an independent release, not just a re-release. This box set includes the ‘Live at Nassau Coliseum 1976’ show, making it a necessity for the Bowie fan.
  38. The Who, Live at Leeds, Super Deluxe – OK, do you really want to spend $70-80 on four CDs plus vinyl in order to get the full 1970 Leeds show, and another show at Hull, both featuring an entire performance of Tommy? For Who fans, the answer is obvious.
  39. The New Pornographers, Live at 9:30 Club, June 23, 2010 – Given NPR’s and NYCtaper’s love for the New Porns, do we need another live show? If the band had stuck primarily to the new songs from Together, this still could have been answered in the affirmative. But the band did more than that, they reached back for very odd songs from early albums, including ‘Testament to Youth in Verse.’ A very special set.
  40. Natalie Merchant, Leave Your Sleep – A two-disc set of children’s story interpretations by the now thoroughly-middle-class-and-middle-age former lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs, sounds like something to avoid. But with mysterious arrangements, lots of guest artists, and an occasionally dark and scary tenor, this collection is actually pretty cool.
  41. Guided by Voices, Live at Matador’s Lost Weekend, Oct. 3, 2010 – The only really decent audio archive of the “classic lineup” GbV tour of 2010 was part of the show that started it all, in Las Vegas. A few hiccups, but in general outstanding.
  42. The Extra Lens, Live at Mercury Lounge, Oct. 21, 2010 – In some ways, John Darnielle and Franklin Bruno sound even better in this chatty live set than they do on this year’s studio album, plus we get a rare version of The Extra Glenns’ beautiful song ‘Baltimore’, a treat not to be missed.
  43. Jackson Browne and David Lindley, Love Is Strange – It would be easy to assume that a double-live set of Browne & Lindley in Spain would be dripping with political correctness and over-sincerity, and at times, it does fall victim to the twin perils. What is surprising is how often it sounds really good, particularly on back-catalog songs like ‘Late for the Sky.’ Not bad at all.
  44. Mark Kozelek, Find Me Ruben Olivares, Live in Spain – There’s a lot of Kozelek and Sun Kil Moon material out there, both from Caldo Verde and from bootleggers, but if Lost Versus Live seems too pricey for your taste, this bonus-priced acoustic live set is a fine cross-section of Mark’s work.
  45. Magik Markers, Blind Bear Dissolves – While not as impressive as some of the Shame Mask outtakes from last year, the band in general has been getting less noisy and more King Crimson-style improv, so virtually anything Elisa puts her hands on is worth a listen.
  46. Black Crowes, Croweology – The idea was an acoustic rework of many Crowes tunes as the band takes a hiatus, though in this case, “acoustic” means “more Americana than hard rock.” Nevertheless, not bad, and a good price for two discs, as well.
  47. Matador @ 21 Box Set – Matador has put out a lot of cool compilations over the past two decades, but this box to celebrate their 21st birthday probably has the least unique content of any such release. For Matador fans or for those who don’t know the artists represented.
  48. Green Pajamas, The Complete Book of Hours – Yes, there is a reason to get a comprehensive version of the album that started this band, as all the various versions do not have the full tracklist of this comprehensive puppy.
  49. Mountain Goats, Life of the World to Come DVD – The reason that this booklet-and-DVD, released on Record Store Day in April, deserved independent mention from the studio release of last year, is because seeing John Darnielle at the piano in an abandoned college auditorium, is an experience quite unlike any other.
  50. Jeff Tweedy, Solo Live Acoustic at Bowery Ballroom, NYC, Dec. 4, 2010 – An intimate and very funny opportunity for Tweedy to run through a mix of Wilco and solo material, though there is not any new material given a run in this set.
  51. The Pixies, Live at Coachella, 2004 – I’m always picking on Frank Black for trying to monetize everything, so it’s important to acknowledge that The Pixies elected to release this download for free on their website, and it may be the definitive live set of the reformed Pixies. All is forgiven, Frank, this is a wonderful present.
  52. Deerhunter, Live at the 9:30 Club, Oct, 12, 2010 – I’ll repeat what I said before, with the studio release – Deerhunter is a competent and interesting band, but this NPR recording convinces me that there is nothing astonishingly creative about this band that justifies their insane level of hype.
  53. David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, Here Lies Love – As one reviewer said, this rock-opera or ode or whatever to Imelda Marcos would have been worth it even if it was silly or amazingly bad, but instead it’s just boring and forgettable. And that’s just sad. Such potential, such non-results.
  54. Ben Harper & the Relentless 7, Live at Montreal Jazz Festival – Notice how Harper unexpectedly made the top ten last year with the studio recordings of Relentless 7? Normally, he hews too much to the hard-rock mainstream to put out such tight and crisp material. And that’s what went wrong here. The same songs, with older selections from the Harper catalog, are rendered in big arena-rock fashion, and become less interesting as a result.
  55. Rolling Stones, Exile On Main Street Deluxe Edition – This ended up on the bottom of the Specials list, not because everyone shouldn’t want this remaster of a Stones classic, but because the extra material was less than what was offered with David Bowie or The Who above, consisting of ten interesting but lesser songs recorded during the Exile period. For the same reason, the mono reissues of Beatles and Bob Dylan did not make this list, nor did the Pavement greatest hits collection, nor did the “official” release of Dark Night of the Soul, the Danger Mouse/Sparklehorse/David Lynch collab released unofficially last year. If there wasn’t something truly new, it’s off the list.

Singles and EPs

  1. Mary Lasseigne, Mary Jane and the Brain Surgeon – What the hell? The former bassist for Cowboy Mouth, now playing with Susan Cowsill’s band, goes into the studio and concocts a wild brew with elements of XTC, Fiery Furnaces, Casper & The Cookies, and lord knows what else. Some of the most startling songs you’ll hear this year. Wow wow wow and more, please.
  2. Lifeguards, Producthead – A preview of Robert Pollard’s second Lifeguards outing with Doug Gillard, and maybe the most important Pollard release this year. A striking and essential single.
  3. Laurie Anderson, ‘Only an Expert’/ ‘Pictures and Things’ – As mentioned above, the flip side of this special 12” record has a non-album story-song with Antony & the Johnsons, featuring Laurie’s electronic male character Fenway Bergamot, that is one of the most beautiful works she has ever done.
  4. Crooked Fingers, Reservoir Songs 2 – While some may not find the song choices as compelling as the first volume, when Eric Bachmann covers any other artist, the results are special, and this outing has ‘Gentle on My Mind’ and ‘Black Rose.’ ‘Nuff said.
  5. Lord Huron, Mighty – At first listen, the tenor might seem to be too mellow to win the huge hype this band garnered in the fall of 2010, but as the combo of Graceland-style rhythms and vocals that recall Grandaddy or Bon Iver take hold, you’ll find yourself playing Lord Huron more and more often.
  6. Florence and the Machine, Live at KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic – You might find better live renditions of the six Florence songs here, though her voice is particularly rich and husky, and the arrangements in a minimalist echo. But this is issued on a 10-inch slab of clear vinyl, rendering it essential by default.
  7. Tennis, ‘South Carolina’/ ‘Sea Farer’
  8. Tennis, ‘Matador’/ ‘Baltimore’ – This Denver couple is right in line with the new Best Coast/Surf City lo-fi surf craze, albeit with a sea-shanty theme, since they’re chronicling their sailing trip around the North American continent. Good stuff, but it’s fair to ask if they’ve already given us too many samples of their full-length album, Cape Dory, due out Jan. 18. Is there enough left for dessert?
  9. Bill Orcutt, Live at WFMU
  10. Bill Orcutt, Way Down South – I’m counting both of these as EPs, since one is a short radio set, and the other a single-sided 12” record. Last year, former Harry Pussy guitarist Bill Orcutt invented a new style of acoustic-guitar playing, featuring an oddly-tuned Kay. This year, he gives us two 20-minute samples of how this work has evolved. No one else makes music like this, period.
  11. Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball – The A side of this 10” record may be cool, but Side B is better, ‘Tom Joad’ featuring a guest appearance of Tom Morello of RATM. Good stuff, boss.
  12. Bjork and The Dirty Projectors, Mt. Wittenburg Orca – A benefit downloadable EP, arguably cooler than the most recent work by either artist separately.
  13. Barn Owl, Transfiguration – Busy year for these guys – three full-length albums, and this extended composition, eerie and fascinating.
  14. Elephant Micah, Live on Spinning on Air, WNYC, May 16, 2010 – This has been a breakthrough year for Joe McConnell, with a short set on NPR, and this longer and better one on WNYC. The production, clearer than on many of his studio albums, brings out the simple naturalist base for Joe’s Midwestern musings. Very nice.
  15. Cee-Lo Green, ‘Fuck You!’ – The four-letter novelty that turned this song into a huge Internet hit is actually kind of pedestrian, but the cool thing is the way Green has brought back that smooth 70s Motown sound and morphed it into a harsh 21st-century reality.
  16. Iron and Wine, Walking Far From Home – A preview of the mostly-guitarless turn Sam Beam and friends plan to make when the new album lands in February, this gives a good sense of the a capella and keyboard mix we can expect. Plus, there are non-album tracks herein.
  17. Destroyer, Archer on the Beach – Another preview of sorts, this one for the February 2011 Kaputt album, this EP is a Dan Bejar project in name only, it’s mostly Tim Hecker and Loscil doing ambient weirdness. But good weirdness. What will the album be like?
  18. Girls, Broken Dreams Club -- Sort of captivating with its high vocals and horns, I'll admit, but not nearly as earth-shattering as some might suggest.
  19. Sweet Tea, ‘If I Were A Carpenter’/ ‘Crazy Arms’ – In which Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards and Alex Maas of Black Anges get together for some down-home goodness. And I don’t even like sweet tea.
  20. The Fray w/Emmylou Harris, ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ – Where did this come from? A one-sided single in which The Fray with Emmylou backing perform her signature song. Surprisingly fresh, is there more collaboration in store?
  21. Wye Oak, My Neighbor/My Creator – I only found about the Jenn Wasner/Andy Stack duo when they opened for Shearwater, and I’m sold. This five-song EP is a great introduction to a growing and creative band.
  22. Flaherty-Corsano-Yeh Trio/ Oren Ambarchi & Matt Skitz Sanders, 'Revolving Door Assault'/'Double Helix' - Leave it to the great oddballs at Krayon Recordings in the U.K. to give us a nice slab of 7-inch free-jazz-noise in a year where there's not too much difficult music around.
  23. Belle & Sebastian, ‘Last Trip’/ ‘Suicide Girl’ – While not strictly essential, these two tunes follow the Belle & Sebastian tradition of keeping some decent songs off the main album, for limited-release singles only. Nice work by Stevie Jackson on these.
  24. Great Lake Swimmers, The Legion Sessions – Since GLS is largely acoustic anyway, the stripped-down nature of this EP is a little odd, but that doesn’t mean the songs aren’t great. ‘Pulling on a Line’ and ‘She Comes to Me in Dreams’ benefit the most from this treatment.
  25. Liars, Live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire – An iTunes special EP that finds Liars far more melodic than on Sisterworld. Angus sounds more like Iggy Pop than he ever has, singing songs from the new one and Drum’s Not Dead.
  26. Champagne Champagne, ‘Magnetic Blackness’/ ‘Bird Lives’ – Any comical hip-hop duo that name checks Gil Scott-Heron and Charlie Parker simultaneously, and loves 7-inch records, has got to be destined for greatness. A fantastic single, better in its own way than the album.
  27. New Pornograpers, Sing Outrageous Cherry – I won’t go so far as to say A.C. and Neko sound better than the original band, but covers of Outrageous Cherry songs certainly fit the band’s consciousness. Fun.
  28. Low, Live in Eindhoven – The real benefit of this EP is not just in hearing nice versions of ‘Monkey’ and ‘Silver Rider’, but in hearing the addition of choir and string ensemble backing Low up, from a 2009 concert.
  29. Sufjan Stevens, All Delighted People – The only reason I’m listing a 60-minute recording here is because Stevens himself wants to call it an EP, and because it feels like an outtake-addition to The Age of Adz. At first listen, I didn’t like it, as it seemed to riff off Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence’ in meandering ways. But after hearing The Age of Adz, this side work grew on me.
  30. El Toro de la Muerte, s/t – This band is chaotic and beautiful, like a rough and tumble version of Modest Mouse, playing the soundtrack for Deliverance.
  31. Cupcake Club, Breakdance the Dawn
  32. Cupcake Club and Fantastic Doug – Why go for lo-fi, pseudo-amateur beach music of the type popular in 2010, when you can hear a trio of Oz lunatics play truly raucous, uncompromising noise rock? The type of guttural pop for which the name “skronk” was invented.
  33. Jordan Bullard, Border Songs – Oh, good, straightahead, minimalist topical folk music for a cause, this one being protection of undocumented workers from the wrath of a stupid society. Go Jordan.
  34. Spoon, Bonus Tracks 2008-2009 – A CD compilation of free downloads from the Spoon site, this has some really interesting outtakes from the new album and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, mostly acoustic and some mind-altered.
  35. Christina Carter, ‘Will of the People’ – This is a split with some other band, I don’t even remember the other side, but this is not only the sole apparent Christina release this year, but also features Christina singing an actual political, topical song – but doing it in the incomparable Christina Carter fashion. A must for fans.
  36. Boston Spaceships, ‘Camera Found the Ray Gun’ – the essential four-song companion to Our Cubehouse Still Rocks.
  37. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, ‘North Coast’/ ‘Oldest House’ – Two outtakes from Brutalist Bricks, spun onto a 7-inch for Record Store Day, and we are thankful these didn’t get locked away in an archive somewhere.
  38. Manchester Orchestra, Live at Park Avenue – An interesting live set from an Orlando record store, with unusual takes on some of the big MO songs – worth hearing even if you’re lukewarm about the band.
  39. Jack Rose and D. Charles Speer, Ragged and Right – A short and raucous old-timey set, made more essential by the fact that this was one of Jack’s last live recordings.
  40. Robert Pollard, ‘Silk Rotor’ – Early single from We All Got Out of the Army, featuring two great non-album B-sides, ‘Fear of Heat’ and ‘Rare Hazel Japan.’ Some people might say Pollard outtakes are too commonplace to be essential – the same people who now lament not having the song ‘Finks’ in any format.
  41. Mini Mansions, ‘Heart of Glass’ – Since the other side (‘Monk’) is on the s/t first album, the only reason to get this is for the Blondie cover – but it’s different enough from Debbie Harry’s version to get it for that reason alone.
  42. Bill Callahan, ‘Wind and the Dove’ – A one-sided, hand-painted accompaniment to his fine double-album live set, but worth more as an art object than as an essential song.
  43. Frightened Rabbit, ‘Nothing Like You’/ ‘Learned Your Name’ – The B-side is an odd, acoustic number by Scott, but the real reason to get this is to have one of FR’s best songs on a good old 45-rpm format.
  44. Coco Rosie, ‘Lemonade’/ ‘Surfer Girl’ – The A-side is one of the best songs from the new album, but the B-side is better, a weird-ass interpretation of the Beach Boys classic.
  45. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, ‘Skeletons’ – Two takes on an interesting song, making this single perhaps more interesting than the last full-length YYY album.
  46. The Dead Weather, ‘Die by the Drop’
  47. The Dead Weather, ‘Blue Blood Blues’ – I’m always happy to see that Jack White likes to release interesting vinyl oddities, but this ‘Triple Decker Vinyl’ gimmick for the latter single (7”-inside-12”) spotlights why White can be clever and annoying at the same time. Maybe clever and annoying are one and the same.
  48. Electronic Anthology Project, s/t – Doug Martsch’s effort to re-record Built to Spill songs as techno-electronica projects. Interesting enough as a musical stretch-out, but not really revolutionary.
  49. Trumans Water, Schists and Schisms – Almost like a greatest-hits EP, but an interesting project in trying to bring Trumans to a wider audience.
  50. She & Him, ‘In the Sun’/ ‘I Can Hear Music’ – A very summery single, the real reason to get it is to hear Zooey cover Brian Wilson.
  51. Tobin Sprout, ‘Antietam” – A non-album song (one side) of Civil War remembrance, nice for the fan, not essential.
  52. Dum Dum Girls, ‘Bhang Bhang You’re a Burnout’/ ‘Last Caress’
  53. Dum Dum Girls, ‘Jail La La’/ ‘Play with Fire’ – Again, two fun slices of vinyl, not essential unless you simply have to hear DDG cover the Rolling Stones.
  54. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Horse Power EP – Sort of interesting in places, but a lot of people have been calling this band the saving grace for new indy rock efforts, and I can’t say it thrills me quite that much.