Everybody does one, but hey, they are fun to do. These are the ten records I enjoyed the most that came out over the last twelve month period…
(This list was also submitted to Columbia’s Free Times weekly, and should be on their website somewhere.)
The National – High Violet (4AD Records)
I didn’t really get into these guys until they “broke through” this year, but this record didn’t leave my CD player all summer. It’s a gorgeously paced album that elegantly sums the aesthetic of the group, from their post-punk meets experimental baroque-pop backing to lead singer Matt Berninger’s now-masterful vocal presence and poetic, anxiety-ridden lyrics. It’s my favorite album of the year, and also my favorite “album” of the year, if you know what I mean.
Joe Pug – Messenger (Lightning Records)
Last spring I had he pleasure of seeing a tour featuring two of the best young songwriters in America, Joe Pug and Justin Townes Earle. Both put out great records this year, but Pug’s 2010 release wins out for me on goose bump points. If there’s a more poignant song about self-doubt than “Not So Sure,” a more chilling anti-war song than “Bury Me Far From My Uniform,” or a sadder love song than “Disguised As Someone Else,” I’m not sure I’ve heard them.
Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues (Bloodshot Records)
Stints in rehab aside, Steve Earle’s son appears to be on one of the hottest streaks in Americana. He’s released three increasingly brilliant albums in as many years to great critical acclaim, and the latest showcases a powerful range of genres, from Sun Record-style rockabilly and gospel country to Memphis-style soul and plaintive singer/songwriter ruminations. Featuring a slew of ace guest musicians, including Jason Isbell (former Drive-by Trucker) and Ketch Secor (Old Crow Medicine Show), the record’s success is still owed mostly to Earle’s uncanny ability to write astonishingly fresh songs in such dusty and weathered formats.
Superchunk – Majesty Shredding(Merge Records)
Like The National, Superchunk was a band that I’ve kind of liked for awhile, but it took their new record to really blow a hole in my head. This is guitar-heavy, giddy, euphoric indie rock at its finest. Dinosaur Jr might have the edge for sheer guitar histrionics, but Superchunk uses its cacophonous electric guitars and writes pop songs with the kind of free-spirited adventurous that just doesn’t exist in the mainstream. God bless ‘em for making a record as great as this one twenty years out.
The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt (Dead Ocean Records)
I’m starting to release my list is populated by twentysomething singer/songwriters and aging indie rockers, and I’m not sure what that says about me. Anyhow, Kristian Mattson is a short Swedish folk musician who puts on a dazzling musical display with his orthodox guitar picking style and Jeff Magnum-indebted vocals. His songs tend to blast out of the gates guitar and vocals soaring, creating the kind of cinematic sound that is rare among lone-ranging troubadours. His 2010 LP is Mattson’s best release yet, featuring his most refined sound and strongest set of songs, and I’m definitely not alone in calling it one of the best of the year.
Ben Sollee & Daniel Martin Moore – Dear Companion (Sub Pop Records)
Produced by Jim James (frontman of My Morning Jacket), this collaboration between cellist-singer/songwriter Ben Sollee and folkie Daniel Martin Moore was conceived in order to bring attention to the dangers of mountaintop removal coal mining, but its real achievement lies in giving Sollee and Moore each the best recording setting of their (still-young) careers. The two musicians compliment each other beautifully, with Moore’s Nick Drake tendencies providing the perfect balance to Sollee’s soulful delivery, impressive cello work and more socially-concerned lyrics.
The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever (Vagrant Records)
The Hold Steady is a rock band that never lets you forget what being a rock band is all about. Their latest offering focuses more on the guitars and less on the keyboards and guest instruments that laid the Springsteen influence so bare, giving the recording a leaner and more muscular feel. What remains in tact, however, is the sonic roller coaster ride of parties, drinking and rock n’ roll that has made each Hold Steady album great. This one isn’t any different.
Patty Griffin – Downtown Church (Credential Records)
Griffin has long been one of my favorite singers and, while I would hesitate to call this her “best” recording, it is perhaps the most fascinating of her career. Recorded in a church in downtown Nashville (hence the album title) with the pointed intent of doing a Griffin-fied gospel record, the record features the talents of Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris and the McCrary Sister, among others, and finds Griffin recording mostly traditional gospel tunes along with a few originals, a Hank Williams number, and a Catholic hymn. The resulting record sounds like the church service of an alt. country lover’s dreams–so thanks, Patty.
Josh Ritter – So Runs The World Away (Pytheas Records)
Ritter has long been one of my favorite singer/songwriters, and he seems to have quietly built up quite a following throughout the US, despite existing on the periphery of the indie, folk, and mainstream audiences. So Runs The World Away is his most ambitious effort to date; the record sprawls across seas, continents, histories and myths, with Ritter and his acoustic guitar buoyed by the swirling accompaniment of his backing band. While Ritter’s early records felt like outgrowths of the Townes Van Zandt/Bob Dylan tradition, this record takes it cues from Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Wilco–although Ritter makes music that is all his own.
Alejandro Escovedo – Street Songs of Love (Fantasy Records)
I kind of reserved the 10 spot for one of the any number of great roots-rock albums put out this year (readers can yell and scream about why Drive-by Truckers, Bobby Bare Jr., or Kasey Anderson didn’t make this list, and I might half-agree with them). What Street songs did that these other records didn’t, however, was deliver a short, succinct rock n’ roll statement that had me begging for more. Sometimes rock music needs to be big and bold, long on sexual innuendo and short on introspection–and in 2010 Alejandro was the man to do it. Heavily collaboration with Chuck Prophet on the songwriting along with a production and mixing style that puts big drums and snarling guitars in competition for Escovedo at his street-punk best makes for a pretty wild ride.