Several of North America’s most extraordinary musical artists — including Joanna Newsom, Dr. Dog, Broken Social Scene and Midlake — followed landmark releases by serving up uneven, stilted or simply unremarkable dis appointments.
Several of the notable new releases I ended up listening to most often were retrospectives, such as Neu!’s big and fabulous boxed set and Phil Manzanera’s guitar clinic The Music. And one of the most entertaining new albums was a guilty-pleasure mash-up masterpiece, the seamless All Day from Pittsburgh’s Girl Talk.
Perhaps most telling, near the top of my list of 2010 favorites was our very own Devotchka’s beautiful new gypsy-romance album 100 Lovers, which isn’t even out yet.
Mark my words, it’s their best release to date.
Despite those caveats, out of the 1,000-or-so albums sent my way in the past year there were more than enough diversely interesting and exciting releases to fill 10 spots. Have fun reading and listening — and please do write us with your own favorites, too.
10. Cee-Lo Green — Lady Killer
Right up until my deadline, I was deciding between Ben Sollee & Daniel Martin Moore’s touching bluegrass/folk project, Dear Companion, and folk-popper Doug Paisely’s Constant Companion (featuring Feist) for the 10th and final spot on this list. Then suddenly I heard the irreverent, giant-voiced Gnarls Barkley singer Cee-Lo Green’s cover of Band of Horses’ “No One’s Gonna Love You More Than I Do” and found myself addicted to the head-bobbing, lustcrazed, belly-laughing world of Cee-Lo’s heroically carnal album, Lady Killer. If the Reverend Al Green ever chooses to ameliorate his relationship with Satan by collaborating with Ween, it’ll probably sound something like “Fuck You,” which was Cee-Lo’s generous early Christmas gift to us all.
9. Los Lobos — Tin Can Trust
One of the most remarkable strengths of Los Lobos over the past 30-plus years has been their progressive penchant for successfully experimenting with different genres, instruments and production techniques in the studio. Tin Can Trust — a pleasing jaunt through slow, dark psychedelic blues-rock; upbeat cumbia and norteņo numbers; and even a rambling instrumental fuzz-guitar rave-up — features wildly different drum sounds on nearly every track, and a profound intensity that’s fluid through even the most drastic changes in tempo and instrumentation. David Hidalgo’s lyrics kick dirt on the past during “Burn It Down,” while a simple, driving acoustic guitar and stand-up bass exercise builds into a Sonic Youth-style distorted-guitar explosion. It’s hard not to be moved by that kind of musical brashness, especially from a bunch of guys in their 50s
8. Deer Tick — Black Dirt Sessions
Scruffy young Deer Tick frontman John McCauley told me back in October that he has no goals other than wanting to “make albums we can all be happy with and see the world.” The “we” McCauley spoke of was himself and his band, but in another decade — say, the ’70s — an impressive collection of deep, honest and countrified rock ’n’ roll such as The Black Dirt Sessions (Deer Tick’s third LP) would’ve been played on major radio stations and appealed to the larger “we” in a big way. For now, Deer Tick is our secret, but that’s changing quickly.
7. Foals — Total Life Forever
“Blue Blood,” which kicks off Foals’ second album, Total Life Forever, like an ode to My Morning Jacket, initially sounds like a startling departure from the undeniably danceable postpunk of the English group’s previous work. Truth is, Foals has just grown up. It only takes a while for the Nintendo-meets-Paul Simon guitar duels and pounding Gang of Four drums to kick in, and suddenly singer-guitarist Yannis Philippakis — who most memorably sang about tennis on 2008’s Antidotes — is utilizing Dave Sitek’s (TV On the Radio) more spacious and lush production to get lyrically inventive and emotional. Combined with Foals’ addictive Remain in Light beats, thick bass lines and aforementioned Graceland guitars, Philippakis’ dense poetry about mankind eventually succumbing to the will of machines makes Total Life Forever a must-listen.
6. Cotton Jones — Tall Hours in the Glowstream
After falling in love with the lo-fi Maryland group’s debut LP, Paranoid Cocoon, and then witnessing Cotton Jones perform their positively devotional Southern soul music for 200 lucky souls in the bowels of Red Rocks last fall, I was initially frustrated with Tall Hours in the Glowstream. Its most passionate moments — such as the hymnal refrain of “Come on, baby / let the river roll on” during “Somehow Keep it Going” — aren’t as immediately inviting as Cotton Jones’ more invigorating earlier work. But a closer listen reveals a band now able to wield its soulful powers with a slow and effectual Southern ease that comes on like a gradual flood of sweet sounds one wouldn’t mind dying to. What’s a glowstream? Who cares?
5. Bruce Springsteen — The Promise
As a kid, all I knew of Bruce Springsteen was that my yuppie aunt and uncle loved the Boss and Jimmy Buffett equally, so naturally I equated “Born to Run” with utter bullshit like “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” But now, with big-time indie bands such as Arcade Fire and Dr. Dog unabashedly wearing their substantial Springsteen influence like a badge of honor, it’s well past time to admit that Jersey’s arena-rocker laureate has written and recorded many, many amazing songs. The stripped-down Dylan-meets-Kerouac LP Darkness On the Edge of Town (1978) is one of Springsteen’s best, and The Promise boasts two discs of previously unreleased material from the Darkness sessions, including an improved “Racing in the Street” and Springsteen’s own take on “Because the Night.”
4. Avi Buffalo — Avi Buffalo
Believe it or not, young indie guitar-rockers Avi Buffalo, led by still-under-age singer-guitarist-songwriter Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg, may eventually transcend everything the legendary Sub Pop label has ever released. Sweetly juxtaposing late-’90s Sonic Youth trippiness and guitar flourishes equally Marquee Moon and Live/Dead, euphoric tracks like “Remember Last Time” quickly go from “pretty good for a 20-year-old” to “holy shit, this kid is amazing” in minutes.
3. Here We Go Magic — Pigeons
I came across Here We Go Magic’s Myspace page back in May, and I instantly decided the Brooklyn art-rockers’ pleasant, fastpaced, Feelies-esque “Collector” would be the song of 2010, and then certainly didn’t hear anything more thoroughly enjoyable in the following months. In short, this stylistically diverse LP, at its best, sounds like Graham Nash fronting Neu! During tracks like “Vegetable or Native,” Pigeons gets Mothers of Invention-style incoherent — and generally not in a good way — but overall this album effectively presents an eccentric buzz band that’s more than worth the hype.
2. Arcade Fire — The Suburbs
At this point the release of a new Arcade Fire album is practically a cultural event, and on The Suburbs the sprawling Montreal collective does not disappoint. Texasbred 30-year-old singer-guitarist Win Butler continues to illustrate America’s sociological and developmental sins with startling clarity, pouring out his own demons in the process; this time, however, Arcade Fire mostly take a more tempered approach, with the help of Final Fantasy’s mesmerizing string arrangements and the unrepentant Springsteen influence I previously hinted at. Beyond existential rock, there are also flashes of New Order, SST hardcore and even ABBA here — all perfect weapons for “shouting through the suburbs.” Infallible they’re not, but Butler and Co. arguably represent the most powerful rock band of our time.
1. Mountain Man — Made the Harbor
Out of nowhere — and I mean no disrespect to their home state of Vermont — the three young ladies of Mountain Man stole the hearts of many a music geek in 2010. Made the Harbor is mostly just their heavenly voices and one humble acoustic guitar, and a cappella tracks such as “Mouthwings” — with its stunning lyric “I will grow a baby / oh, he will move so swiftly / to hold me completely” — “Honeybee,” “Babylon” and “How’m I Doin’” invite listeners into a dusty, long-forgotten world of pastoral vocal bliss. Equally haunting and harmonious, Mountain Man nurtures old-style musical integrity like Fleet Foxes collaborating with the Carter Family. And they play the Boulder Theater in February.