For me, this was the best year for music since 2007, thanks in part to several of the same bands and individuals who came up big three years ago. And though the follow-up to Radiohead’s In Rainbows failed to appear, Arcade Fire made up for the absence of another game-changer from the Kings of Art Rock with one of their own. Ditto for Kings of Leon, who made their second great album, following ’07’s Because of the Night. And so, for that matter, did Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, though they cut their monumental work 33 years ago. The bands I’ve come to count on in recent years— Spoon, Kings of Leon, Los Lobos and Guster—came through yet again, as did some other standbys in new combinations and settings: Danger Mouse working with The Shins’ James Mercer, while his Gnarls Barkley partner Cee Lo managed just fine with a revolving cast of producers; Robert Plant forging onward without T Bone Burnett; Neil Young finding a viable collaborator in Daniel Lanois. It was a year when a number of artists who emerged back in the 1960s further burnished their legacies four decades later; concurrently, the best young bands and artists continued to make music that honored their forebears while also advancing their own identities. Members of both generational extremes convincingly demonstrated both the durability and the seemingly unlimited thematic elasticity of the rock medium. It was also gratifying to belatedly make the connection with some bands I’d heard a lot about but hadn’t much listened to before, resulting in some new faves—Band of Horses, Beach House and the Black Keys—my killer Bs of 2010. Finally, I feel fortunate to have stumbled across a pair of captivating songs from Delta Spirit and Shawn Mullins that seemingly nobody else noticed, reminding me that there’s no kick like turning people on to something new and different and watching them fall in love with it too.
TOP 20 ALBUMS IN CONTEXT
Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (Merge): A sprawling, thematically rich opus that’s also jam-packed with unforgettable, hook-laden stand-alone songs like “We Used to Wait,” “Ready to Start,” “The Suburbs,” “Sprawl II,””Wasted Hours” and the two killer cuts in my 2010 ultimate playlist below. I expect to be listening to this masterpiece for the rest of my life.
Kings of Leon, Come Around Sundown (RCA): Can’t understand why the Followills’ fifth album isn’t getting the same degree of critical love as The Suburbs. It’s every bit as ambitious and inventive, though KOL’s emphasis is on the ecstatic, hyper-rhythmic performances, every one of them scintillating. Each track has its own vibe, from “Mary,”an astounding melange of doo-wop, Sun-era rock & roll and early Beatles that may be the album’s most bizarro and thrilling piece of work, to the closing vignette “Pickup Truck,” in which Caleb’s now-familiar blue-collar dude gets choked up trying to get the girl of his dreams to forgive him, or just give him the time of day, in a shimmering slice of down-home magical realism. But no matter whether they’re capturing the zeitgeist on “No Money” or dropping by Big Pink in “Mi Amigo,” their unique character always shines through.
Spoon, Transference (Merge): “I wanted it to be a more angular, new wave, weirder record,” Britt Daniel told me about his fully realized intentions for Spoon’s seventh longplayer. Daniel and partner/drummer Jim Eno worked without a producer for the first time in search of what Britt referred to as “pure Spoon,” and this is the challenging, take-no-prisoners result, an audacious fusion of the reliable and the experimental—a record that got the new decade off to an audacious start in January.
BEST ONE-OFF SUPERGROUP
Broken Bells, Broken Bells (Columbia): Wildly original merger of two distinctive sensibilities, as the acrobatic tenor of The Shins’ James Mercer swoops and soars over Danger Mouse’s intricate architectural arrangements.
BEST NEW OLD ALBUM
Bruce Springsteen, The Promise (Columbia): This is a musical time capsule sealed in 1978 and ripped open in 2010, revealing a lost masterpiece. The Promise would have fit perfectly between Born To Run and Darkness, as Bruce points out. Had it come out then, it surely would have been regarded not just as a classic, but one that provides a fully realized bridge between the two landmark albums that sandwich it. At long last seeing the light of day 32 years hence, The Promise improbably yet emphatically enriches the history of a supreme artist and a storied era.
The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street rarities (UMe): One of the greatest rock & roll albums ever made just got even greater, thanks to a sorely needed remastering job and 10 additional tracks that are far more listenable than the bonus tracks on most reissues.
BEST “OLD” NEW ALBUM
Band of Horses, Infinite Arms (Fat Possum/Columbia): From the very first notes of their primarily self-produced third album, it’s dramatically apparent that Ben Bridwell and company have upped the ante big time, creating a musical statement that manages to consistently hit and frequently surpass the peak moments on their previous recordings. Having relocated from Seattle to his native South Carolina, Bridwell has surrounded himself with four talented and like-minded players in drummer Creighton Barrett, keyboard player Ryan Monroe, lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey and bassist Bill Reynolds. The stabilization of BOH’s long-shifting lineup is one of the reasons the new album is so cohesive, so accomplished and so timeless.
Guster, Easy Wonderful (Aware/Universal Republic): Like fellow formalists Fountains of Wayne and Nada Surf, Guster has s pent the last decade and a half crafting pure pop for those relatively few “now people” who respond to the pleasures of layer-cake harmonies, Beatlesque guitars and cascading hooks. Multi-instrumentalist Joe Pisapia, who joined the Boston band for 2006’s delectable Ganging Up on the Sun, yielding the modern-day pop classic “Satellite,” produced much of Easy Wonderful, which is distinguished by impeccably crafted contours, sharp lyrics, buoyant grooves and swelling choruses. These punched-up classic moves enliven big-hearted, irony-free anthems like “Do You Love Me”, “Bad Bad World”, “On the Ocean” and “Architects and Engineers”, bringing a hi-def freshness to ’70s-style power pop.
Cee Lo Green, The Lady Killer (Elektra): While the audacious “Fuck You,” on which Bruno Mars’ Smeezingtons production team balanced one fat hook on top of another, received all the attention, the third solo album from the Atlanta throwback soulman is crammed with impeccably crafted retro R&B gems, over which Cee Lo unleashes his revved-up vocals, a potent blend of grit and velvet. Dude can croon too—check out the elegant, uptown “Old Fashioned,” which sounds like some lost classic from the Billy Strayhorn-Duke Ellingon songbook.
Bryan Ferry, Olympia (Astralwerks): Sleek, atmospheric and erotic, Ferry’s most satisfying album in decades coulda been titled Avalon II. A sort of Roxy Music reunion-plus, with virtuosos from David Gilmour to Jonny Greenwood contributing alongside erstwhile Ferry bandmates Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Brian Eno, Olympia’s myriad pleasures range from the sophisto-funk of “Alphaville” and “BF Bass” to a Homeric rendition of Tim Buckley’s “Song for the Siren” (which, of course, also references Roxy’s fifth album).
The Black Keys, Brothers (Nonesuch): The mic used for Dan Auerbach’s vocals sounds like it was salvaged from a junkyard, the trashed, rusted-out sonics a perfect fit for the defiantly vintage songs and performances on the year’s most improbable rock hit.
BEST ALBUM BY A BAND TOGETHER AT LEAST 30 YEARS
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Mojo (Reprise): Undeniably a late-career classic for this Great American Band, with Petty writing specifically for the occasion and the rest of the crew taking it from there.
Los Lobos, Tin Can Trust (Shout! Factory): The Heartbreakers’ crosstown rivals have been doing the drill so long and so fruitfully that they’ve achieved their own hard-earned status as a Great American Band. Tin Can Trust can be viewed as a companion piece to Mojo: both are essentially blues-based, both draw authoritatively on American roots styles and both feature a remarkably fluent guitarist—Mike Campbell on Mojo and the humbly hell-raising David Hidalgo on Tin Can Trust.
BEST ALBUM BY AN ARTIST ELIGIBLE FOR SOCIAL SECURITY
Neil Young, Le Noise (Reprise): What we have here is the result of Young’s most intensive collaboration since the death of his longtime producer David Briggs shortly after the completion of 1994’s Sleeps With Angels. This new partnership has resulted in a sonic breakthrough for Young, who broke out his iconic Gretsch White Falcon guitar for the occasion. “I’ve made a lot of records, and this is one of the records that will stand up over time as a unique piece of work,” Young told me during a September interview for Uncut. “The last thing my old producer, David, told me, ‘If you can just reduce everything to just you, that’s how people would like to hear you: they want to hear you.’ So that’s what this is. It just turned out that not only is it a solo record, but it’s a solo record where pieces of me have been reconstituted, remanufactured, kind of restructured and tossed back into the mix. It’s like something moving through space and shit’s falling off of it, but it’s being gathered up and placed back on as it goes along. It’s very interesting. Sonically, it’s a big explosion.”
Robert Plant, Band of Joy (Rounder): Advancing the captivating vibe of Raising Sand rather than trying to repeat it, the canny old-timer (once again mining the soulful core of his vocal persona) locates another pair of musical soulmates in Nashville-based producer/guitarist Buddy Miller and singing partner Patti Griffin, and continues his journey into mystic Americana. Among the surprises: a pair of haunted songs from Minnesota slocore purveyors Low—“Silver Rider” and “Monkey”—that could’ve been written specifically for this captivating record.
Tom Jones, Praise & Blame (Lost Highway): In which the brilliant and defiantly analog producer Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon, Ray LaMontagne) finds the sweet spot of the Welsh belter in gospel songs and Sun Records-style arrangements. This album has been criminally overlooked; if T Bone Burnett or Rick Rubin had done something as unexpected and satisfying, I suspect we would’ve heard about it.
Elton John and Leon Russell, The Union (Decca): A number of the freshly minted tunes on John’s heartfelt, T Bone Burnett-curated attempt to give his acknowledged primary inspiration his due would have fit comfortably onto Tumbleweed Connection or Russell’s self-titled 1971 debut album, while the culminating “Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody)” and “The Hand of Angels” reflect back on those days with a mix of “been there, done that” satisfaction and valedictory nostalgia. More often than not, The Union sounds like an Elton John album, thanks to his signature melodies enwrapping Bernie Taupin’s image-filled lyrics, his still-powerful voice and undiminished presence. Only through repeated listenings does Russell’s Hoagy Carmichael-like lazy drawl assert itself, as he sings with disarming poignancy and tenderness, his always-grainy voice now as rutted as a dirt road.
BEST COVERS ALBUM
The Bird & the Bee, Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates (Blue Note): When you hear that Inara George and Greg Kirsten cut an entire album of Hall & Oates covers, you’d be excused for going, “What?!” But when you hear what they do with the likes of “Kiss on My List,” “Sara Smile” and “One on One,” you go “Wow.” George’s gorgeous alto nestles into the intricate folds of Kirsten’s arrangements, which honor the stylishness of the originals while somehow sounding fresh and new.
Nada Surf, If I Had a Hi-Fi (Mardev): On this unorthodox, inventive covers collection, the veteran New York trio draws from synth-pop (Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence”), pomp rock (the Moody Blues’ “Question”), college rock (Bill Fox’s “Electrocution”), indie rock (Spoon’s “The Agony Of Laffitte”) and more. And yet, the band somehow turns the wildly disparate source material into a sonically coherent album that doubles as a tribute to their own roots in the Byrds and Big Star circa #1 Record. This flavor comes through loud and clear on choices as obvious as Dwight Twilley’s “You Were So Warm” and as unlikely as Kate Bush’s “Love and Anger”, transforming the latter into a shimmering display of pealing guitars and regal harmonies.
MOODS FOR MODERNS
Beach House, Teen Dream (Sub Pop): Emphasis on Dream—languorous, intimate and gently enveloping. Works beautifully in tandem with a roaring fireplace.
PRODUCER OF THE YEAR
T Bone Burnett
LABEL OF THE YEAR
ANGEL DANCE, A 2010 PLAYLIST
Since I assembled a midyear 40-track playlist for the Fourth of July weekend, which you can access here, I don’t want to repeat myself any more than is necessary for this ultimate year-end batch, but there are some tracks I couldn’t possibly leave off. I’m not saying these are the best 30 tracks of 2010—just that I can’t get enough of them. Here’s my personal soundtrack to the year:
1. “Month of May,” Arcade Fire: This is a zero-to-60-in-five-seconds blast of adrenalized rock & roll—a Funeral-style explosive climax stretched over the track’s entire four-minute length. It’s like T-Rex on speed and steroids.
2. “Birthday,” Kings of Leon”: A reggae-fied groove from Nathan and Jared and sparkling guitar arpeggios from cousin Matthew swirl around Caleb, who’s at his tough-and-tender best both vocally and lyrically, as he expresses his ardor for his girl in a series of vivid and oddly moving details: “It’s in the way she always calls me out/It’s in the cut of your pretty gown/Your come-on legs and your panty hose/You look so precious in your bloody nose.” The track hardly registered at first, but lately it’s been grabbing me a little bit more every time I play it.
3. “White Table,” Delta Spirit: My sleeper of the year comes from a Long Beach band whose rootsy, acoustic-based material gets force-of-nature forward momentum from monster drummer Brandon Young—and this track is his showcase. Delta Spirit’s secret weapon, Young supercharges the largely acoustic arrangements with his ferociously propulsive stick work, bringing assertiveness and uplift everywhere.
4. “I Saw the Light,” Spoon: If “I Turn My Camera On” from the modern-day landmark Gimme Fiction was Britt Daniel and Jim Eno’s “Emotional Rescue,” this one’s their “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.” The track opens as a jacked-up, White Album-style shuffle with a lemon-tart melodic progression, but at the midway point, everything suddenly falls away as a robot drum stomp takes over, signaling the transition into a mesmerizing extended instrumental section, as a buoyant piano vamp gives way a sheet-metal guitar solo hammering away on a single chord. Awesome spinning song—but that’s generally the case with Spoon.
5. “Howlin’ for You,” The Black Keys: The most rousing stadium stomper since “Seven Nation Army,” with the caveat that Patrick Carney swiped the brutally concussive drum pattern from the ultimate stadium rouser, Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll.”
6. “California,” Shawn Mullins: Returning to the setting of his 1998 hit “Lullaby,” the Atlanta-based writer/artist tells the story of a country boy from Mississippi and a hippie chick from the Pacific Northwest who first catch sight of each other in a SoCal freeway traffic jam. “Her stereo was blaring Dylan/The Bootleg Sessions/And ‘Oh the Times They Are A-Changin’’/Made a pretty good impression/She looked over and caught him smiling/Under the California setting sun/They fell in love on the 101.” From there, the lyric follows the descent of the young lovers into the dark underside of what began as their shared California idyll in what amounts to a contemporary fable about the soul-killing temptations of the material world. A real find, “California” instantly takes its place alongside such Cali classics as Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” and David & David’s “Welcome to the Boomtown.”
7. “Do You Love Me,” Guster: Ryan Miller is a true romantic, and this unabashed expression of belief in the power of love is a worthy sequel to the mesmerizing “Satellite” from 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun. The song’s life-embracing message is driven home by the cantilevered hooks, piled on top of each other like the gang tackling in an SEC game, Miller’s vocal lifting off to power full-voiced through the title refrain, as if to say that only wimps slide into falsetto.
8. “Laredo,” Band of Horses: A midtempo anthem as gorgeous as a sunrise over Ben Bridwell’s beloved Outer Banks, “Laredo” may be the most full-bodied appropriation of the Byrds sound since “The Ugly Truth” from Matthew Sweet’s milestone 1993 LP Altered Beast.
9. “Pyro,” Kings of Leon: On this anthem, the other side of the emotional coin from “Use Somebody,” Caleb elbows his way through the hammering dual-guitar riffage to bray out a righteously old-school Stax-style vocal under clouds of dirty-faced choirboy harmonies, in an inversion of the Exile female-gospel template. Sports the year’s most gut-wrenching bridge, on which Caleb stakes his claim for being rock & roll’s most wildly original young voice.
10. “Gotta Get the Feeling,” Bruce Springsteen: A kitchen-sink opus that seems to contain the entire contents of a mid-’60s jukebox, from Ben E. King to Jay & the Americans, in its 3:20 duration. The track has everything: hyperactive drum rolls, gleaming Latin horns, greasy sax solo, call-and-response backing vocals, all of it topped off by a breathtaking modulation into the final chorus.
11. “Burn It Down,” Los Lobos: The performance here is pushed along by the thick plunks of Conrad Lozano’s fingers on a stand-up bass (he’s the American equivalent of Fleetwood Mac’s rock-steady John McVie), and culminates with the assaultive skronk of David Hidalgo’s guitar fireworks.
12. “Angel Dance,” Robert Plant: Here, with the impeccable taste he’s been exhibiting since this teabag revealed his deep affinity for relocated his spirit in mythopoetic America—“ some deep, dark place in the mud,” as T Bone Burnett put it—Plant dusts off a virtually undiscovered gem from Dave Hidalgo and Louie Perez from Lobos’ 1990 album The Neighborhood (the one before Kiko) and locates its electrifying essence.
13. “You Can Dance,” Bryan Ferry: The first sound we hear on Olympia’s opener is Phil Manzanera quoting his indelible foghorn guitar riff from the title track of Avalon—and when the groove kicks in, the song becomes the haute cuisine equivalent of comfort food. Elegant, elegiac and lascivious, all at once.
14. “The Ghost Inside,” Broken Bells: Here, James Mercer communes with his inner falsetto soul man over Danger Mouse’s lustrous groove as the duo treads on Gnarls Barkley turf.
15. “Crystalised,” The xx: What’s cool and unusual about this song from XX is the way these soulful kids pump the groove into the spaces between the notes—the arrangement is so spare that silence could be seen as the lead instrument on the track.
16. “Zebra,” Beach House: Victoria LeGrand’s voice, somewhere between an alto and a baritone, sounds like that of a disembodied spirit one moment, Mother Earth the next, in this extraordinary soundscape, as it wraps areound partner Alex Scally’s opulent soundscape like the tendrils of a vine, arching heavenward in the metaphysical B-section.
17. “Kandi,” One eskimO: Young English group makes brilliant use of a sample from a vintage single from soul singer Candi Staton, audaciously employing it the setup for a sexy call-and-response chorus hook with frontman Kristian Leontiou.
18. “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” The Bird and the Bee: What a wonderfully nuanced vocal from Inara George—her dad Lowell, the Little Feat auteur, would be proud. Which reminds me—why isn’t Little Feat in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Don’t get me started…
19. “Round and Round,” Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti: Can’t say I expected the shambolic Silver Lake iconoclast to come up with the most engaging evocation of Todd Rundgren’s pop/soul recipe circa A Wizard, a True Star since New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” back in 1998.
20. “Wildflower,” Cee Lo Green: Wonderfully recaptured, deeply felt evocation of the ’70s Philly Soul of Gamble & Huff and Gene Page, right down to the springy groove, burnished strings and regal piano.
21. “The Mystery Zone,” Spoon: The title song of my early-2010 playlist, this one’s a tension builder with a springy groove and lysergic, “Eleanor Rigby”-quoting string-synth billows. It follows the band’s leitmotif on Transference, its ending sheared off like a Marine recruit’s hair.
22. “Agony of Laffitte,” Nada Surf: In which one stellar smart-pop band not only covers another one but also brings something of its own stylishness to the party—check out the gorgeous contrapuntal harmonies, which serve to illuminate the beauty of Britt Daniel’s melody. Interestingly, Nada’s elegant treatment takes the song from acid putdown to fluttering rhapsody.
23. “Dilly,” Band of Horses: Here’s vivid proof that Band of Horses are no longer just a front for Ben Bridwell—this infectious power-pop song is one of lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey’s strong contributions, as he puts himself into a featured role alongside the frontman.
24. “Modern Man,” Arcade Fire: As with “Dilly,” this wicked-cool cut is streamlined and syncopated in the manner of the Cars sublime debut album. The track’s cruising momentum is offset by an oddball rhythmic pattern—completely throwing off crowds that try to clap along with it during the band’s live performances. Here’s a musical explanation from veteran bass player Dennis Parker: “The intro and the verses each have a 5/4 bar that turns around the placement of the snare hits. it’s not really that difficult—just one extra beat for every line of lyric.” And there you have it.
25. “Back Down South,” Kings of Leon: Here, Caleb breaks out his most corn-pone drawl and Matthew plays a Marshall Tucker-like fiddle jig on a slide guitar, in tandem with an actual fiddle, while the DNA-powered rhythm section of Jared and oldest brother Nathan, who’s a monster drummer, bang out a vintage Allmans groove. Here, finally, is a cut that can be readily embraced by rednecks and Boomers alike without alienating KOL’s younger base.
26. “Down by the Water,” The Decemberists: Offered up as a freebie on the band’s site, the first taste of the The King Is Dead (hitting in January) confirms and engagingly animates Colin Meloy’s description of the album as an double-barreled homage to Neil Young and R.E.M. Gillian Welch handles Nicolette Larson’s duet-partner role on Comes a Time, while the role of Peter Buck is played by Peter Buck, though here he’s on mandolin (the R.E.M. guitarist breaks out his signature 12-string jangle on his other two album appearances). As sturdy, straightforward and wood-grained as the Oregon barn in which the album was recorded.
27. “Neil Young,” Love and War: One of two acoustic numbers on Le Noize, this captivating contemplation crams ol’ Neil’s entire career into a tidy (for him, anyway) 5:37. This is as good as he gets, and so’s the LP’s other acoustic epic, “Peaceful Valley Boulevard.”
28. “Holiday,” Vampire Weekend: A burst of sheer ebullience, this cut from the wicked-clever Contra assumes its rightful status as a modern-day seasonal standard through its constant hammering in the year-end TV campaigns of both Honda and Tommy Hilfinger, further fattening the wallets of Ezra Koenig and his cerebral, well-heeled bandmates.
29. “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” Paul Simon: This persuasive preview of So Beautiful or So What, the master’s first LP for Concord, juxtaposes seasonal jollity with sobering reality, accurately capturing the mood of Christmas 2010. A belated (by 45 years) but fitting bookend to “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” from Simon & Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.
30. “When the Sun Breaks,” The Mommyheads: This smart, musically sophisticated indie band that generated a modest but fervent cult following in the ’90s has just reappeared, featured in a ubiquitous spot for Time Warner Cable and self-releasing the career retrospective Finest Specimens (Dromedary). This lovely, newly recorded piece, barely over two minutes in length, contains little more than a crystalline piano and glee club harmonies, echoing as if recorded in a cathedral, sublimely capturing the mood suggested by the title. Can’t think of a better coda for this playlist.
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2010 ROCK: THE SUBURBS AT SUNDOWN