TOP 25 ALBUMS OF 2010
25. Elvis Costello – National Ransom
Some of the acoustic numbers might throw you off, but the Costello-like rockers make a thorough listen well worth it. “National Ransom” is nostalgic and strong on its own, while “That Spell That You Cast” is both unorthodox and somewhat refreshingly predictable, a quality that defines most of the fifteen-song record.
24. Suckers – Wild Smile
Wild Smile might be unfocused and unsure of itself, but it’s unforgettable when it pulls itself together. “Save Your Love For Me” is a spectacular, albeit unorthodox, opener driven by tastefully repetitive vocals and a glimmering soundscape. The guitar and bass mimic each other while the drums do their best to fit in with the infectious “Before Your Brithday Ends.” Although Wild Smile is not an easily digestible album when swallowed whole in one sitting, it shows major promise in Suckers.
23. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
Halcyon Digest is the cure for Brooklyn fever the independent music scene has been waiting for. Although Deerhunter hails from Atlanta, the noise rock band (according to Wikipedia) quartet led by Bradford Cox was more a detriment to the increasingly homogenous music culture than a solution. Fortunately, Halcyon Digest is effective at its most abstract (see “Earthquake”) and downright catchy at its most pop-sensible (“Coronado”).
22. Beach House – Teen Dream
My skepticism of hype is as often a vice as it is a virtue. Beach House had the misfortune of popping up on the wrong Best New Music lists throughout the year, and I’ve only had a few days to pry my mind open enough to fit Teen Dream comfortably. Whether or not my reluctance was warranted, I knew myself well enough to know from the start that this album would have to live and die with its first track. Fortunately, the duo at least smudged the “dream-pop” tag I pejoratively tied to them with Teen Dream’s incandescent opener, “Zebra”. The song is built around a chord progression too obviously poignant for anyone without the perfect balance of restraint and ingenuity to contrive. The pastel-toned guitar roves around Victoria Legrand’s attenuated voice so flowingly that the song stays firmly lodged in place with only the occasional snare hit for natural percussion.
21. Kermit Ruffins – Happy Talk
As a performer and a composer, Kermit Ruffins is a historian. His sharp trumpet style echoes Louis Armstrong in an unpretentious, somehow modern manner. Happy Talk is a mixture of traditional numbers soaked in Ruffins’s personal style and original compositions that scream of his native New Orleans, both in the past and present tense. Authenticity is hard to come by these days, but playing spirited jazz is your best bet if you’re from New Orleans.
20. Good Old War – Good Old War
Good Old War’s self-titled sophomore effort is not without its glaring faults; the instrumental intro, midtro, and outro serve more to clutter the 15-track album than to portion it, and the lyrics are somehow borderline contrived and cheesily simple at the same time. But perhaps I’m just nitpicking in the gigantic shadow cast by the band’s virtually unstoppable debut, Only Way to Be Alone. For its miniscule flaws, Good Old War offers a slew of Only Way-caliber gems, like the harmony-heavy “Here Are the Problems” and the scorching “Get Some”. “My Own Sinking Ship” showcases an unforgettable vocal melody that will lodge itself in a special place in your heart where the trio of vocalists, led by Keith Goodwin and rounded out by guitarist Dan Schwartz and drummer Tim Arnold, croon “Oh, it’s the last time we’ll fall in love / Yeah, it’s the last try to break apart / You are not to blame”. Although Schwartz’s skillful guitar playing and Arnold’s innovative percussion (demonstrated best on “Making My Life” and “While I’m Away”, respectively) anchors the bands’s uniquely familiar sound, Good Old War is at their best when they keep things simple. “That’s Some Dream” strolls by in a cool, sublime two-and-a-half minutes as Goodwin, Schwartz, and Arnold sing, “I’m gonna live, I’m alright / I’m gonna die, it’s alright / I’m okay, lie die die” in such undeniable unison that it seems as though the song came together spontaneously at the time it was played back. Underneath Good Old War is three technically advanced musicians with the skill to anchor any reasonable prog-rock band. But its their collective ability to restrain themselves and let their uncanny skill punctuate rather than dictate their cheery pop songs that makes them so momentous.
19. Bad Books – Bad Books
The allure of Bad Books’s debut album is its spontaneity. Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull and singer-songwriter Kevin Devine offer five original compositions each to Hull’s bandmates for reinterpretation. The new band committed their most impulsive ideas to tape in just two weeks to illustrate the two decorated songwriters’ as honestly as possible. The result can best be described as challenging pop; the songs go down easy with a spoonful of sugar, but the aftertaste is difficult to define. The Devine-penned, monstrous single “You Wouldn’t Have To Ask” employs a soaring chorus to attract attention and agitating guitar tones to separate itself. The acoustic numbers on the album do the same with unique, euphorically thoughtless vocal inflections. The album is full of flaws, but it wears the badge proudly; if nothing else, it’s a portrait of the friendship between Hull, Devine, and everyone else involved, only to be topped in that respect by the band’s live show.
18. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
The Monitor does everything it can to be an unpretentious concept album about a historical event that the average American student is forced to study at least seven times in the average American academic career. It succeeds by its gritty guitars, guttural vocals, and shameless self-awareness. Despite the interludes taken directly from Lincoln speech reels, The Monitor makes no effort to emulate the music or sentiments of the American Civil War. Rather, it applies the societal and personal conflicts that divided the country to contemporary disenchantment. In doing so, it exhibits a nostalgic quality that can only be explained by a close listen.
17. Dr. Dog – Shame, Shame
It took me a few listens to figure out why everyone seems to be all about Dr. Dog lately. It has been a while since I crawled out of my everything-that-sounds-remotely-folky-and-underproduced-with-simple-chords-and-vocal-harmonies-is-awesome phase. For a while, I had a bit of trouble placing a divider between Dr. Dog and that all-too-ubiquitous style that has suddenly become uncool by becoming cool. I’m not sure if the band’s recent buzz made me try harder to like it or to hate it, but either way, I found the wrinkle that makes Dr. Dog worth a good deal of the praise they’ve garnered lately: it’s not the 60s-rock gimmick, but the songwriting and subtleties that make Shame Shame a downright pleasant listening experience.
Effectively establishing a theme to pervade the entire album, “Stranger” starts things off by making you think; after a few measures of pondering, the intertwining vocal and guitar lines suddenly morph from bland to painstakingly clever. Similarly, the two chords (immediately distinguishable as D and G, for all you douchey music nerds) in “Shadow People” are inexplicably filled with color just as the three-part background harmonies come in to supplement the recurring “where did all the shadow people go?” in the chorus that will burn itself into your brain for hours.
By now, it’s apparent that this band’s biggest contribution to musical innovation is bringing it back to basics; who’d have thought a simple vocal melody or well-placed 4-note guitar lick could win over so many fans? The vocal trail in the chorus of “Unbearable Why,” for example, seems to wrap itself around the reggae-influenced bassline like a ribbon, but it never quite meets up at the ends. The bass line in the title track does the something similar around the smokey Jim James-led backup vocals as the outstanding track trails off and grooves the album quietly to rest. These songs leave you wondering how something so catchy can be so intellectually challenging.
And then you realize, who cares? It’s just music. If you like it, you like it. If not, you don’t. Dr. Dog isn’t here to blow anybody’s minds…they didn’t quite blow mine. But that shouldn’t be a reason to let Shame Shame pass by. If anything, they encourage self-righteous music critics and pretentious self-proclaimed experts to get their heads out of their high horses’ asses and trust their first instincts. For me, hopefully, that’s exactly the lesson they’ve managed to give me in Shame, Shame. That, and a great summer driving record.
16. Local Natives – Gorilla Manor
Gorilla Manor is all about tone, energy, and precision—any allusion to folk, electronica, indie, or otherwise is an afterthought. “Wide Eyes” splinters off into numberless directions without varying the chord progression. The vocals carry the song’s scintillating subtleties with a steroid injection almost unfathomably poignant bass. The opening track sets the tone for the rest of the twelve songs that feature a little bit of everything—delayed guitar soundscapes, piano trills, slightly unorthodox auxiliary percussion–but never sound cluttered. “Airplanes” is a product of elusive oneness achieved by subtly active guitars, syncopated bass, and well-planted drum rolls. But, as in nearly every song on Gorilla Manor, the sharp, unified vocal harmonies simultaneously decompose and solidify the song; they break up each intricacy of the song into fathomable pieces that serve a common purpose: to punctuate the vocals. For all Local Natives’s musical skill, the most impressive aspect of Gorilla Manor is the band’s compositional competence, a quality hard to come by in a throwaway music culture.
15. Jonsi – Go
Very few contemporary musicians can get away with dressing like a bird and recording completely over-the-top orchestral music as a side project…especially when that contemporary musician is releasing said over-the-top orchestral music that is more extreme than and separate from his main band, Sigur Ros.
And even fewer can prepare to release such a collection without so much as an utterance of critical skepticism. With Go, Sigur Ros frontman spreads his wings (literally) and whets whatever creative taste buds he couldn’t satisfy with his day job (a scary thought, given Sigur Ros’s catalogue). The album, which was, in its inception, described as “acoustic,” is, as evidenced by his performance for Radio WYNC, borderline unrecognizable from whatever version of the album Jonsi must be hearing in his head. Seemingly omnipotent composer Nico Muhly’s arrangements swallow every acoustic instrument in sight, a style with which Jonsi is familiar and heavily associated.
Upon first listen, Go reads a lot like a Sigur Ros album: You remember how the songs make you feel more so than specific moments, phrases, and hooks. But make no mistake, they are there. It makes you want to listen over and over every time you get in your car in the morning and go to sleep at night…you want to get to know the songs and pick apart why they make you feel how they made you feel the first time you heard them. And by the time you’ve done that, you feel something completely different but even more beautiful.
But Jonsi’s individual influence shines through in a very obvious but can’t-put-your-finger-on-it kind of way. The songs are distinctly his work in that he exerts and even embodies a sense of frantic positivity that even Sigur Ros merely brushes on. With opening track “Go Do,” for example, Jonsi’s tribal bass drum pulses along with butterfly-wing flutes in a way that almost possesses you to do something meaningful, although you don’t know what because you can’t understand his words.
That’s the beauty of Jonsi’s music. Although he sings all the songs in English, it’s almost all indistinguishable from “hopelandic.” But perhaps that is a good thing (see “All Alright“). Jonsi’s music, with Sigur Ros, Riceboy Sleeps, and now under his own name, has always spoken for itself and penetrated human emotions better without decipherable lyrics. Elaborate strings, whisping woodwinds, passionate drums, and Jonsi’s signature emotion-soaked falsetto speak louder than words.
If there’s one thing that struck me on my first listen, besides everything I’ve mentioned already, it’s the closing track, “Henglias.” Reminiscent, in different ways, of both Sigur Ros album-closing tracks “Heysatan” and “All Alright,” the song is water-logged with low-end strings, only to be wrung out by Jonsi’s unmistakable, whistle-like croon. If this song doesn’t make me cry at some point in my life, I’ll know I missed something.
14. The Black Keys – Brothers
A riff can carry a song if, and only if, it’s authoritative enough to fill out the beat and propel the melody, a balance that often eludes classic rock-inspired bands and leaves them with mere drivel. Limitless as the guitar may be, the realm of standard tuning can only hold so many minor, 4/4 riffs. The Black Keys have managed to create rich, novel songs with all fifteen of those riffs.
13. Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig
Genuine Negro Jig is as authentic a folk record as anything America has heard since years before rock’n’roll poisoned its first minds. The folk /bluegrass/country/blues trio uses their bold interpretations of traditional and modern tunes to capsulate the concerns of their community, the Piedmont region of North and South Carolina, the most basic purpose music was meant to serve. The musicianship is flawless and calculated yet democratic in nature; the songs are reproductions meant to be reproduced yet again, the vital life cycle of folk music. The Carolina Chocolate Drops even incorporate modern hip-hop songs, like Blu Cantrell’s 2001 hit, “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” into tradition. Rhiannon Giddens told NPR that “it seems that two things get left out of the history books. One, that there was string band music in the Piedmont, period. (And that) black folk was such a huge part of string tradition.” She and her band have immortalized that proof.
12. Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks
Scottish rock quintet Frightened Rabbit have figured out how to garnish folk-inspired song structures with foggy programming without bullying the listener to focus on one or the other. Frontman and principle songwriter Scott Hutchinson has enough of production tricks up his sleeve to have a firm hold on his songs but not enough to bulge out of the seams and give him away; the songs stand on their own so well that you hardly notice the pulsing effects, but the songs would certainly affect you differently if they were stripped.
The Winter of Mixed Drinks opens with “Things,” a juggernaut of momentum that accelerates throughout but somehow never crashes. “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” is an immediate standout, boasting unshakable melodies that suitably frost the standard folk-tinged pop progression. The rest of the songs on the album prove that Hutchinson does not fear simplicity; the chord progressions are insultingly simple and the melodies are only unpredictable because they are so unexpectedly predictable. But Frightened Rabbit finds interesting, subtle, unobtrusive ways to make The Winter of Mixed Drinks refreshingly peculiar in a 2010 that saw an unwelcome (in my opinion) influx of new, half-assed electronic artists.
11. S. Carey – All We Grow
Unsung Bon Iver percussionist Sean Carey tips his scale more toward classical impulses than the folk-tinged tendencies of his bandmate, Justin Vernon. Carey’s tastefully thin croon shines over the orchestral arrangements of double bass, piano, violin, guitar, and sparse drums but never overpowers the instrumentation. The multi-instrumentalist concerns himself more with creating atmospheric sonic designs than memorable, concrete songs, allowing the tracks to intrigue the listener but never challenge or jar. Standout track “In The Dirt” makes the 7/4 time signature sound as natural as the title while Carey’s nearly indistinguishable lyrics melt into one euphoric sound. There is a gaping rift between ‘boring’ and ‘calming’, and S. Carey fills it and lulls it to sleep.
10. Horse Feathers – Thistled Spring
Sometimes I wish I was born into the setting of Where the Red Fern Grows or Shiloh just so I could move to Boston and let Horse Feathers serenade me into daydreams about my childhood in the country. With Thistled Spring, the Justin Ringle solo project-turned-duo-turned-trio-turned-quartet somehow manages to create something even more eloquently picturesque than 2007’s masterful House With No Home without changing a thing.
Horse Feathers sticks out of the beardy-folk cliché like a sore thumb because of its prominent string section. The cello and violin players are as much full-time members of the band as is frontman/songwriter Ringle, so the string melodies serve to offset and compliment the vocals and guitar rather than to simply provide a backdrop. As Ringle’s wispy voice croons like a gust of wind, the strings, as literally as a metaphor can possibly describe, paint sunset-kissed hills and swaying cattails on a canvas of woody guitars and subtle, tasteful percussion.
And Ringle is so preposterously adept at setting scenes with his songwriting that he should be giving Sam Beam and Justin Vernon lessons. He writes in such a way that the lyrics don’t cut through the music but compliment it; the words are not the focus of the music but a point of reference to direct the listener’s Horse Feathers-induced daydream to a certain place in his or her past. Without even paying attention to the lyrics, “As a Ghost” could transport you back seven years to the top of the hill where you had your first real kiss, while “Belly of June” could be something as simple yet so satisfying as a warm gust of summer air from your open bedroom window as you sleep.
Thistled Spring is a perfect album to end a satisfying hard day’s work as you drift off to sleep. It’s equally fulfilling to listen closely and pick up a few beautiful pointers about flawless songwriting. It does what few albums have been able to do successfully in the past decade or so: remain sonically pleasing without sacrificing originality or freshness.
9. Punch Brothers – Antifogmatic
With Antifogmatic, the second album under the Punch Brothers moniker, Chris Thile and his band of grown-up bluegrass prodigies bring the seemingly polar principles of progressive technical skill and pop sensibility to traditional bluegrass. At times, the quintet’s incalculable musical talent slumps into the background to make way for Thile’s melodious croon (“You Are”). At other times, the vocals drop out and Thile turns his keen attention to his mandolin as he weaves through and around the exceptional violin, stand-up bass, acoustic guitar, and banjo virtuosos that make up his band. The central riff in “Don’t Need No” is knee-buckling as the banjo, mandolin, and guitar parrot each other on top of a deeply rooted bass/violin foundation. Similarly, the fleet-fingered players dart their collective way around “The Woman and the Bell” in such a way that it seems to be sonic illusion. But for the Punch Brothers, songwriting values do not, by any means, take a back seat to astonishing execution and complex, staunchly academic arrangement. Songs like “Next to the Trash” and “Rye Whiskey” cake a thick layer of traditional country flavor on top of modern (yet timeless) subject matter and tops it all off with the aforementioned freakish natural playing ability. The album closes with the pensive “This Is the Song (Good Luck),” a profoundly down-paced ballad that melts Thile’s yearning voice so perfectly with uncharacteristically simple full-band instrumentation that the grave atmosphere of the song becomes entirely separate from its physical origin. I saw these guys live at the Newport Folk Festival last month, and it truly made me want to quit music altogether. They somehow manage to sound even tighter live than on the record, the elusive mark of a legendary band in the making.
8. Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul
By the time it was released, Dark Night of the Soul became much more significant than it was when the Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse collaboration project started. The record almost never came out due to a legal dispute with EMI. Instead, it was available online in the form of a photo album by David Lynch and a blank CD-R with a note instructing customers to “Use it as you will.” Coincidentally, it ended up being Sparklehorse mastermind Mark Linkous’s first posthumous release, as it finally hit shelves only a few months after his suicide.
Sparklehorse, Danger Mouse, and friends (of The Strokes, Neutral Milk Hotel, Flaming Lips, and Pixies fame, to name a few) achieve an elusive balance that some musicians spend their entire careers striving for, often driving their careers into the ground in the process: the balance between simplistic, affective songwriting and intricate, ear-challenging arrangements that sometimes tend to undermine the purpose of a song.
And there are, perhaps, no bookends so evenly matched for such a scale as Sparklehorse, with Linkous’s neo-minimalist keyboard lines and effortlessly satisfying guitar voicing’s, opposite Danger Mouse’s borderline-absurdist electronic backdrops.
The album begins with the tight-lipped “Revenge,” dripping with Sparklehorse’s signature melancholy pulse and topped off with distant twinkles and excessive reverb and delay on the vocals. “Jaykub” pairs a simple acoustic guitar progression with a slightly off-kilter and overemphasized drum beat as the impeccably cute vocal melody and simply perfect guitar lines in the chorus tie the unlikely components closely together.
A pair of somewhat uncharacteristic hard-rockers, “Angel’s Harp” and “Pain,” follows to kick up the album’s energy and down its seemingly pigeonholable walls. Faintly reminiscent of Sparklehorse’s “Piano Fire,” the two guitar-heavy tracks form a refreshing sandbar in the middle of a vast sea of downer songs. “Star Eyes” drags the album’s mood back down as its almost “Sip The Wine”-esque arpeggio seems to try to tug tears out of the listener’s eyes.
“Everytime I’m With You” employs a dreary, slow-motion hip-hop rhythm and a mantle-shaking bassline to haul the listener into the eerie picture Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle paints as he sings, “Every time I’m with you I’m fucked up, and you are too / Well what the hell else are we supposed to do?” The album ends with the title track, an oppressively gloomy number that emanates off its grainy piano line like smoke under a flickering street light in a foreboding dark alley.
It’s a grim finale, discographically speaking, to an album that would tragically be Linkous’s last. Even though most of the voices on the album are not Linkous’s, it somehow still translates the impalpable sense of scenic glumness Sparklehorse spent fifteen years creating and recreating. With Danger Mouse’s lavish electronic ornaments dangling from Sparklehorse’s sturdy branches of downtrodden pop, Dark Night of the Soul will be here for a long time to come.
7. Colour Revolt – The Cradle
In a nutshell, Colour Revolt’s last album, Plunder, Beg, and Curse, bombed commercially and they lost three out of five members, threatening the band’s eight-year career and leaving remaining members, dual vocalists, guitarists, and songwriters Jesse Coppenbarger and Sean Kirkpatrick, to write a whole bunch of songs about a band breaking up. Fortunately, those songs were good enough to keep that band together and breathe new life into its 3/5-dead shell. Lead single “8 Years,” which Coppenbarger wrote the day his band quit on him, relays that sentiment most vigorously and directly as he repeats “One man’s limo is another man’s hearse.” The band tests the more pop-sensible waters they first dipped into with Plunder’s “Moses of the South” on tracks like “She Don’t Talk” and “Our Names”. The music, lyrics, and vocal delivery are still as biting as ever, but the song structures and overall flow of these tracks and others are more listenable than much of Colour Revolt’s back catalogue. The superb and distinctly Colour Revolt guitar work is most prominent on “Mona Lisa” as Coppenbarger and Kirkpatrick trade jarring chug for blood-curdling squeal right before they howl, “I know that I’m weak, tell me I’m strong / When I’m on a streak, tell me I’m wrong.” The Cradle might have risen from the ashes of devastation, but it just might have been the focus Colour Revolt needed to save their career.
6. Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
Ben Bridwell and his revamped Band of Horses has finally broken out of the hobo-pop niche they carved with their first two albums. The newly refined band brings musical intricacies and literate subtleties to the rosey-cheeked bashfulness and everyman lyrics that became Bridwell’s signature on Everything All the Time. “Factory” lightly taps the album to get it rolling with an ethereal string arrangement that somehow defines the song over Bridwell’s nectarous vocals. “Blue Beard” starts with a gigantic multi-part choir and ends with the bass sliding along to a sugary, swooping “Afternoon Delight”-esque vocal melody. But just as the album starts to teeter the line between sweet and saccharine, “Northwest Apartment” juggernauts its way through the gumdrops and marshmallows with steamrolling guitars and relentless drums, kicking the energy up a notch just before the albums culminates with the colossal “Bartles + James”. Before Infinite Arms came out, Bridwell claimed that it was “in many ways…the first Band of Horses record.” Turns out, that was a fair assessment…much more fair than it would be to compare it to Everything All the Time. My advice, for the listener’s sake, would be not to even try.
5. Bruce Springsteen – The Promise
If you need to be told why this double-LP is awesome, here’s a homework assignment: Listen to Darkness on the Edge of Town nonstop for several days, then listen to The Promise and try not to be speechless at the notion that these were the songs The Boss deemed unworthy to be released. That’s what I did, so please excuse the brevity of this review.
4. MGMT – Congratulations
For whatever reason, I could never get into Oracular Spectacular. Maybe it was my intrinsic skepticism of synth-driven music, or maybe it was the legion of whitehat college douchebags I witnessed slowly fall victim to the hypnotizing, ravelike beats of the hits like “Time to Pretend” and “Kids”. Needless to say, I had no intention of paying any close attention to MGMT’s follow-up to their hit debut. But my ears and eyebrows perked when I saw the album art; the hilariously facetious cartoon surfing cat is being devoured by himself as a giant wave. Some fans scoffed at the humor (how dare MGMT do something that’s not sincerely artful like Oracular Spectacular?), while others hailed it as some kind of otherworldly, trippy call to some level of artistic appreciation that the layperson was too, well, lay, to understand. I, however, took it as two dudes trying to separate themselves from the massive spotlight they’ve somewhat unintentionally wandered into since they released their debut album with outright humor; in other words, MGMT didn’t want to take themselves nearly as seriously as their fans take them. As it turned out, they reflected that sentiment throughout Congratulations and, as a result, made better music. Right away, “It’s Working” demonstrates the band’s newfound proclivity for unexpected turns in chord progressions, unnatural- (but charmingly interesting) sounding key changes, and a quirky, almost Buddy Holly-like, hiccuppy vocal delivery. The band doesn’t completely abandon their dancey tendencies (see “Someone’s Missing,”) but more prominent on Congratulations are the oddballs, like the thousand-faced lead single “Flash Delirium” and the preposterous twelve-minute, Simon and Garfunklish opus “Siberian Breaks.” “Brian Eno” anchors the sense of humor that pervades the album as lead vocalist Andrew VanWyngarden self-depricates, drowning himself in the colossal shadow of the influential musician/producer, “We’re always one step behind him, he’s Brian Eno”. The album rounds itself out with the refreshingly but peculiarly simple title track. As VanWyngarden’s sings “Damn my luck and damn these friends / That keep combing back their smiles / I save my grace with half-assed guilt / And lay down the quilt upon the lawn / Spread my arms and soak up congratulations,” it’s clear that all the joking and dancing around old fans’ expectations served a more important, much darker purpose: to shed light on the destructive nature of the lightning-fast celebrity lifestyle.
3. Charles Bradley – No Time For Dreaming
Charles Bradley strives and strains his avuncular little vocal fibers for the extra mile to the extra mile. Where he could reiterate his mid-range register in the opening bars of “The World (Is Going Up In Flames),” he leaps from the mere stratosphere to the moon as he sings “Nobody want to take the blame / Don’t tell me how to live my life / When you never felt the pain.” His Menahan Street Band answers his pile-driving calls with congregation-quaking responses and orbits around his expressive vocals with a rousing brass section and multihued bass. And if that’s not endearing enough, he’s an old man from Brooklyn who trudged through a seemingly hopeless childhood and had to wait 40 years to get his break in the music industry. Oh, and he doesn’t make shitty, pompous indie music like all his neighbors.
2. Mavis Staples – You Are Not Alone
You Are Not Alone proves that former Staples Singers frontwoman Mavis Staples doesn’t need to lean on her iconic status; at age 71, she can still out-pipe the best of America’s contemporary pop singers. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy curled his songwriting and producing tendencies perfectly around Staples’s omnipotent voice to highlight each one of her massaging growls and rousing wails. The Tweedy-penned title track demonstrates Staples’s ability to move her audience without stretching her range, while tracks like “I Belong To The Band” and the immaculate traditional tune “Creep Along Moses” show what she can do when she lets loose. “Losing You” showcases the outstanding guitar work that pervades the album. Accompanied only by Staple’s naked, lamenting croon, it twinkles along to the downtrodden lyrics, sputtering off in countless directions without distracting from the stainless melody. The neat production and youthful energy of the band gives the album a modern feel, but there’s no denying Staples’s inherent blues and gospel roots; she’s a worthy ambassador of a golden era of music that she helped to shape a half-century ago.
1. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt
In a year that grew weary of neo-folk by its end, Kristian Matsson had the gumption to release a follow-up to 2008’s heavily folk-inspired Shallow Graves that is almost identical stylistically to its predecessor. While most “folk” singers in their twenties strain to project shadows of the first batch of pseudo-folkies from the sixties, Matsson, who is actually only 5’9”, is so adept at projecting the nasal-voiced strummin’ poet shtick that it seems like he coined it. But don’t let the stertorous burr typecast Matsson as a Dylan disciple; he uses impeccable melodies to make his words unforgettable, not vice-versa. When he has a pick in hand, he lets the vocals swallow the spotlight whole as the guitar keeps time. In the title track, he renders an arresting picture of a “nervous little boy” surrendering his mortal soul “to the shoutin’ cavalcade” while the half-muted guitar provides a jumpy yet contained low end. On tracks like “Toubles Will Be Gone,” he lets his guitar do the talking. By folk standards, Matsson is a fingerpicking virtuoso; his cursive playing style makes him conspicuous among his contemporaries and in traditional American folk history (even though he is Swedish) and divorces him even further from the naysayers’ pet Dylan stereotype. In any decade between the sixties and the new millennium, The Tallest Man On Earth would have been a refreshing fringe act. Today, he is a benchmark, a standard by which 90 percent of the new folk revival should consider moving onto the next trend; there is little more room for improvement.