Friday, January 07, 2011

"Best" of 2010

I haven't done a "best albums of the year" list in a couple years. I thought about doing one again this year. Trouble is, I am no good at making lists, especially if it involves ranking things. And as I've noted in the past, lists like this inevitably tell you more about the person who made the list than about the quality of the music involved.

That said, I'm going to give it a go. But rather than a traditional list (in honor of the NFL's weekly injury reports) I have broken things down into three categories: probable, questionable and doubtful.

Probable: By "probable" I mean that these are the albums from 2010 that I think I will probably still be listening to in ten years or so. Or maybe not. Get back to me in ten years and I'll let you know.

Afrocubism - Afrocubism
This is what the Buena Vista Social Club project was originally supposed to sound like before the Malian musicians failed to obtain visas and were unable to participate. There have been many strong links between Malian and Cuban music over the years, with the influence traveling both ways. This is really a wonderful album and I highly recommend it.

Beach House - Teen Dream
As a kid one of my favorite times to visit the beach was during the winter. There was something spooky and lonely about a walk on an empty beach, and seeing the boardwalk with all the shops closed. But there were new things to be discovered too, like how the wind made patterns on the sand that you could never see in the summer because it had been trod upon by so many feet. And sometimes I'd even find a lonely shop open on the boardwalk in the middle of the winter, and that just felt kind of weird and special. That's the kind of beach feeling I get from Beach House. It doesn't hurt that they also remind me of one of my all-time favorite bands, Opal. Released on Sub-Pop, the third album by this Baltimore duo has received a fair amount of hype (eMusic made it their #1 album of the year) and justifiably so.

Bruce Springsteen - The Promise
Is it old music? Is it new music? Which parts are old and which parts are new? Who cares? It's great music and if it wasn't released when it should have been, I'm very glad to have these songs in finished form in 2010.

Edwyn Collins - Losing Sleep
Back in 2005 the former leader of Orange Juice suffered two cerebral hemorrhages resulting in aphasia (loss of speech ability). It was unknown whether Collins would ever speak again let alone record. For a time he could only repeat four things over and over again: "yes," "no," "Grace Maxwell" [the name of his wife] and the phrase "the possibilities are endless." So the fact that Collins released a new album in 2010 (his first to be recorded since his illness) is a minor miracle. The fact that it is one of the best of his career is a triumph of the human spirit. The possibilities are endless indeed.

Elizabeth Mitchell - Sunny Day
Some would say Elizabeth Mitchell (who with her husband Daniel Littleton are also members of Ida) makes "children's music." I prefer to think of it as "family music." Here is what I had to say about the album in a review I posted on Amazon:

Before we had a professional "recording industry"--and before it became "normal" for music to take the form of a shrink wrapped package, or a formless succession of digits downloaded to a computer--people would gather around in their homes or community spaces and play music amongst family, friends and neighbors. Some musicians were better than others, but the music helped bind them all together into a coherent community. Then came Edison cylinders, Victrolas, LPs, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, iPods, and other technologies that made pre-recorded music ever more easily accessible to consumers. Much beautiful music was created during this time, but as music making evolved (devolved?) into a monopolistic industry, something awful happened as became the exclusive domain of "professionals" and people stopped creating and sharing music in their own private lives (not entirely perhaps, but you get my point). While music was (and is) everywhere, it became less and less meaningful within the context of our daily lives and more like sonic wallpaper; something to distract us as we drive to work or multi-task on the computer.

Sunny Day is an album that in its beautiful simplicity harkens back to the feeling of that time before there was a music industry, and making music with family and friends seemed as natural (and necessary) as family meal time. It's a lovely album that creates a more deeply meaningful space for music in the lives of parents and their children than perhaps many of us are used to (or ready for). This is music made to be shared with the whole family, and I think it's really beautiful that it was made by a family. There is just such a special vibe to the whole album that simply would not be possible without the musical contributions and artistic input of Elizabeth's husband Daniel Littleton and their beautiful daughter Storey (not to mention friends like Levon Helm, Dan Zanes and Jon Langford). This is not just music for parents or children to sit and "listen" to, it's meant to be shared, and you and your kids should sing along and join in the fun. I have trouble understanding those here [referring to other Amazon reviewers] who have criticized Storey's contributions to this lovely album. Perhaps they don't understand, as Elizabeth and family do, that music is at its best when it is born of love and shared among family and friends.

While the music on this album looks back to the past in many ways, it is also perfect for our current moment in history (one that finds the recorded music industry of the 20th Century collapsing), and looks forward to a (hopefully better) future in which music is once again central to our daily lives, deeply meaningful, and shared and created within loving, supportive family and community environments. Thank you to Elizabeth, Daniel, Storey, and friends for showing us the way forward.

Laura Veirs - July Flame
I have to thank my friend Pete for turning me on to this album.

Pernice Brothers - Goodbye, Killer
When the last Pernice Brothers album, Live A Little, came out I think I was starting to feel a little burned out on Joe Pernice. It's not that I thought the album was bad, it's just that nothing about it particularly grabbed me. It happens. Goodbye, Killer on the other hand sunk into my consciousness right away and never let go. Maybe it was Ric Menck's drumming that made the difference. Oh, and the guys at Pitchfork hated it. What better reason could there be to love this album?

Robyn Hitchcock - Propellor Time
After more than three decades it would be easy to start taking Robyn Hitchcock for granted and leaving him off lists like this. That would be a mistake. Unlike many of his contemporaries Hitchcock is not releasing pale imitations of past glories. Propellor Time can stand proudly next to any album in his discography. Hitchcock has described this album as his "Basement Tapes" album. I don't really hear that, although his vocals on "The Afterlight" do have a certain "Yeah, Heavy and a Bottle of Bread" quality to them. Perhaps he had a nose full of puss when he recorded it? If I was ranking albums numerically, this would be a strong contender for #1.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - I Learned The Hard Way
Sharon just keeps on releasing great, classic soul albums that sound like they could have been recorded in 1973, but somehow manage to sound totally fresh and relevant in 2010. Sharon backs off the funk just a bit on The Hard Way, and some of the arrangements remind me a bit of classic Dionne Warwick. But Sharon's tough, soulful voice prevents even the possibility of things becoming too precious.

Sharon Van Etten -
I had not heard of Sharon Van Etten until I saw this album popping up on some year-end best-of lists. What a discovery. The first track "A Crime" might fool you into thinking you are in fairly conventional singer-songwriter territory. Van Etten strums a repeated guitar figure over confessional lyrics ("To say the things i want to say to you would be a crime/To admit I'm still in love with you, after all this time"). What kept me listening through the opening track was Van Etten's voice. She has a remarkable control over her vocals that makes me believe she must have some formal music training in her background, although her voice always sounds raw and honest, and never too "pretty." Things get much more interesting after the first track as the album builds in intensity, culminating with the penultimate track "One Day." The songs are without exception personal in nature and often deal with the more painful aspects of relationships, but Van Etten never sounds self-pitying (just honest). If you are only going to check out one new artist from 2010, make it Sharon Van Etten. Highly, highly recommended.

Stereolab - Not Music
I will admit that I got bored with Stereolab for a while. But 2008's Chemical Chords caught my ear, and though it was hard to say they were doing anything different than before, I really enjoyed it. Maybe it was a case of absence making the heart grown fonder. Not Music was mostly recorded at the same time as Chemical Chords, but mixed and edited later. Apparently Stereolab has taken a hiatus from touring and recording. If this is the last album the band releases, it is a fitting capstone to an extraordinary career. By turns accessible and experimental, it's everything you could want in a Stereolab album. Lætitia Sadier also released a solo album in 2010, but I have yet to hear it.

Teenage Fanclub - Shadows
Teenage Fanclub is another band that it would be too easy to take for granted. Years after being a somewhat over-hyped "next big thing" the band is releasing some of the best music of their career. Shadows has a softer quality to it than much of their past work, at times recalling the gentler moments on Love's Forever Changes, and it suits the wonderful songs on this album perfectly.

Tom Zé - Estudando A Bossa - Nordeste Plaza
I believe this album was originally released in Brazil in 2008 as part of the celebration of 50 years of Bossa Nova, but it wasn't released in the U.S. until 2010. Zé is not a Brazilian musician one typically associates with the Bossa Nova style, having earned fame as part of the more experimental and politically engaged Tropicália movement that began in the 1960s. The first part of the title translates as "Studying the bossa" (or perhaps "Studying the thing"), and Zé does show a surprising facility with the style which leads him to create some of the most easily accessible music of his career. Of course because this is Zé there are plenty of strange, almost psychedelic, flourishes and bits of dissonance one would not expect to hear on a João Gilberto album. I do not understand much Portuguese, but I get the sense that some of the lyrics are pretty weird (especially if the brief English lyrics sung by David Byrne are any indication). All of the songs are Zé originals, but each refers to a famous bossa nova song. If you have even a passing familiarity with Bossa Nova you will recognize the fragments of "How Insensitive" or "O Pato" that appear in songs like "Outra Insensatez, Poe!" and "Filho Do Pato." With Estudando A Bossa Zé has created a tribute to the Bossa Nova that is filled with love, but is totally devoid of reverence. In doing so, he has produced a work that makes a better case for the ongoing relevance of the style than a more traditional tribute possibly could have.

Questionable: "Questionable" doesn't mean I think these albums or bad, or even necessarily of any lesser quality than the ones I listed as "probable." Some of them I just haven't listened to enough times to make a real judgment. Others might take more time to fully sink in.

Belle & Sebastian - Write About Love
Grinderman - Grinderman 2
Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan -
Johnny Cash -
American VI: Ain't No Grave
Justin Townes Earle - Harlem River Blues
The New Pornographers -
The Posies -
Blood Candy
Sun Kil Moon -
Admiral Fell Promises
Tame Impala -
Ted Leo & The Pharmacists - The Brutalist Bricks
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers - Mojo
Vampire Weekend-
The Vaselines -
Sex With An Ex

Doubtful: Again, "doubtful" doesn't mean I think something is bad. It's just that right now, from my vantage point in early 2011, I think it's doubtful that these are albums I'll be listening to ten years from now. Some of them are by favorite artists of mine. But when I'm in the mood for Elvis Costello in his rustic, Americana mode am I going to pull out National Ransom or King Of America? But any one of these albums is still worth hearing in my opinion.

Broken Bells - Broken Bells
Devo -
Something For Everybody
Dum Dum Girls -
I Will Be
Elvis Costello -
National Ransom
Mumford & Sons -
Sigh No More
Neil Young -
Le Noise
Richard Thompson -
Dream Attic
She & Him -
Volume Two
Sinking Ships -
Museum Quality Capture


Doug said...

Of your entire set of lists, I got a total of three of these albums this past year (and one more I'll definitely get eventually).

It's been a long time since I have got enough new albums to make a list of my own. There's too much good old stuff that I find myself needing to reacquaint myself.

But bravo for taking the time for this. Part of me is envious, I assure you.

Pete Bilderback said...

I feel like I have no business putting together a year-end "best of" list based on my fairly limited engagement with new music. I decided to do it anyway only because I think some of these albums deserve a little more attention than they've gotten.