Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Best of 2010 List

Charlie T and I talked many times about how 2010 was not a year for the faint of quality. Some have said that the year was lesser, but that's bunk. The quality releases of 2010 were such that it made making a Top 10 list almost impossible. Here's where I landed. Unlike most lists, I'm saying "screw anticipation" and sticking #1 at the top. No reveal, nothing.

1) The National- High Violet

This album’s spot at #1 is meaningful beyond just it being the best record and the one I listened to and wanted to listen to the most in 2010. It’s meaningful because it sets the precedent for this reckoning and judgment, the critical philosophy that governs how I picked my favorite records of 2010. There are some albums on this list (and off it) that suffered because of the expectation (mine, the public’s, the band's) that follows releasing a great record. That can mean that we expect albums to build on (to quote the Miami Heat about themselves) greatness. It can mean we have our own arbitrary expectation of what a band should do next (the most unfair of our expectations). And it can also mean that we simply expect the album to be at least as good as the previous one, which is fair but also pretty subjective and even a little arbitrary.

The National met expectations at the crossroads and ran over them– with furious frenetic drums, shoutalong choruses, catharsis, mumbles, blood, buzz, and more. This album is NOT Boxer Pt II. But nothing that I loved about Boxer prevented me from loving this record. It took parts of that record, evolved them, and mixed them with new elements and angles and approaches. The results are great, an album that I had no problem listening to back-to-back-to-back, a feat unheard of in my ADD-riddled impatient 21st Century mp3-single mind.

Charlie T and I talked about the challenge of not being able to pick THE one standout favorite track (initially, at least, “Fake Empire” on Boxer). At different times, different songs leapt out, pushing the others aside. But just temporarily. The song I like least (“Runaway”) is a favorite of most of my friends, which says something for the well-roundedness of the record.

2) Justin Townes Earle- Harlem River Blues (+ his contribution to the John Prine tribute record)

Steve’s kid. It has to be said. Especially with a middle name like Townes, which I’ve heard he opted to include later in his career. Might as well embrace it all, I guess. He fares better than most famous musicians’ kids (Julian Lennon, Wilson Phillips, etc) and jumps to the adults’ table with Teddy Thompson and Rufus Wainwright.

From the first line of the first song, I was sold. And, mind you, I was bracing myself to hate it. Hype filter set to UNBELIEVABLY HIGH. And the first song just rolled over me. “Lord, I’m going uptown to the Harlem River to drown. Dirty water gonna cover me over and I’m not gonna make a sound.” It’s the first song in a long time that I just repeated over and over and over.

But it’s not just that song. It’s the beauty of “Christchurch Woman” and patient story of “MTA.” It feels old and new. It feels borrowed and original. Mostly, it feels like a guy finding his voice, an authentic voice. It’s the record I’ve been hoping to hear from Ryan Adams for awhile now- Americana that nods to its roots and keeps adding leaves. Oops. There’s that expectation again.

3) Over The Rhine – The Long Surrender

This won’t even come out til January. But I couldn’t wait. I decided not to do this album the injustice of sitting on it for a year and letting its beauty and impact be lessened by time. So here it is.

A year ago, I got to hear Linford and Karen (the two writers/players/singers in OTR) in a songwriting class, talking about how their unique and unorthodox music career allowed them to grow, and how it allowed them to devoutly believe that– 20 years into the game– their best record was still ahead of them. What other bands can say that their best record would come out 20 years in? The Beatles didn't even last 10 years. (Don't take this as a knock on The Beatles. I am a ridiculously big Beatles fan.) The Stones– a model of career longevity if not continued creative relevance– recorded Undercover in their 21st year, not a landmark record and nowhere near even THEIR Top 10.

I got to hear them preview these songs last September at the Mercy Lounge in Nashville and was blown away, praying that the recorded versions would live up to their in-concert promise.

And Joe Henry captured it. And by “it” I mean the greatness and beauty and devastation and sadness and sweetness of these songs, the power and subtlety of Karen’s incredible voice, the movement, the moment, and, yes, the best record of Over The Rhine’s career. Not a dud in the mix.

4) Tallest Man On Earth- The Wild Hunt (+ the EP)

I jumped to my kneejerk “Way Too Dylanesque” stance on this one and a friend pointed out, “If this was actually Bob Dylan, you would worship these songs.”

He was correct. These songs, while I don’t find myself listening to the whole record in any one sitting (but, hey, sometimes the blues is just a passing bird), are great. Desperate, tender, brash, passionate, sad, poetic. And what a great guitar player.

5) Anais Mitchell- Hadestown

If we’re talking about expectation, I had none with this one. I literally bought it because the album art and cast of musicians intrigued me. I had no idea what to expect. And was shocked by how much I loved it.

There was a month where this was in contention for the #1 spot. Its ambition– a modern day folkie take on an old myth, sung by a murderer’s row of great indie and folk voices (Mitchell, Justin Vernon, Ani DiFranco, Greg Brown, the guy from The Low Anthem), part folk and part Broadway– is staggering. Mitchell has vision and guts. And the songs are good. And if you can get a guy who has a hairtrigger gag reflex when it comes to anything even remotely Broadway to dive headfirst into your record, you’re getting somewhere.

I'd say there were a few ambitious releases this year (Kanye for one) and this has to be in the club.

6) Jakob Dylan- Women & Country

Jakob, you are forgiven for that last postage stamp of a Wallflowers album. This collection is gorgeous, well written, smart, effortless. And Neko Case and Kelly Hogan's perfect vocals don’t hurt. I found myself going back to this record more than I ever thought I would. Sure, it has the mark of T-Bone Burnett, but since when is that a bad thing?

7) Josh Ritter- So Runs The World Away

Unfair expectation dropped a good Ritter album out of the Top 5. Completely unfair and I'm sure time will prove me wrong. Just because I thought it would be something that it’s not, I initially didn’t gravitate towards this album like I thought I would. But if you take a killer live show and the Josh Ritter Pantheon songs “The Curse” and “Change Of Time”, it refuses to be denied. In 5 years, I will still be talking about this record, but I just can't honestly put it ahead of the others as a document of THIS year. Lame, I know.

8) The Lower West- Only The Dead Know Brooklyn

A collection of honest, authentic lo-fi songs by the prolific, dynamic Dominic Moore with a new cast of characters that brings more piano and bass to the mix than usual. Dominic is one of my favorite songwriters and he shines all over this one, his range leaping from explosive to sleepy and everywhere in between.

9) Laura Veirs? Damien Jurado? Horse Feathers? Patty Griffin? Arcade Fire?

No, this isn't a tie. It's indecision and refusal to make a decision. Veirs and Horse Feathers were latecomers, leading a late and furious charge for the Top 10. But Patty and Damien had the writing. And Arcade Fire had the je ne se Quebequois.

10a) Dr. Dog – Shame Shame

10b) Tift Merritt – See You On The Moon

This, however, is a tie. A tie for tenth between two albums that I didn’t listen to as much as the rest, but every time a song came on from one of the records, I loved it and had to chastise myself, “Why aren’t you listening to this all the time?” It still holds. Why, Spike, why?


Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can

Elvis Costello – National Ransom

Peter Gabriel – Scratch My Back

Megafaun – Heretofore

Janelle Monae – The Archandroid

Breathe Owl Breathe – Magic Central

Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

Beach House – Teen Dream

Black Keys – Brothers

Mose Allison – The Way Of The World

Mavis Staples – You Are Not Alone

Jim Lauderdale- Patchwork River

Robert Plant- Band Of Joy

Broken Bells


The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever (a TBC staple. It hurt me to do this.)

Retribution Gospel Choir – 2 (killer leadoff track, less thereafter)

The Weepies – Be My Thrill


Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record


Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig (so much hype that didn't do much of anything for me)

Ryan Bingham- Junky Star ( I love Ryan. This album felt a little blah to me. Uninspired maybe?)

Ray Lamontagne & The Pariah Dogs


Frightened Rabbit

Charlotte Gainsbourg

Spoon- Transference

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

Jason Collett

The Head & Heart

Drew Grow & The Pastors Wives

Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz

Drive By Truckers

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