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2010 gives us eclectic mix of quality records

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

It was a strange year in music for this fan. I came into the year anticipating four big albums.

Three were from some of my stand-bys for the last decade or so. Every time one of these acts released something in the last 10 years, it was in the running for one of my top records of the year.

The other was from a young band releasing its third full-length record.

So what about those well established bands? You won't find any of them here. All three gave us good records, but you will find 10 I thought were better.

The other one? It's my album of the year. If you want to find out who it was, read to the end. (Or just look to the right. There's a good chance the biggest picture is of the right band.)

Cee-Lo Green
10. Cee-Lo Green, "The Lady Killer": For years, hip-hop has been trying to ruin R&B. As DJs and producers took the place of bands, the soul got sucked out of soul.

But a few acts have gotten it right -- the Roots and Outkast come to mind.

Add Cee-Lo to the list. The ex-Goodie Mob MC has made an amazing transition to singer, both with Gnarls Barkley and solo.

Besides producing the catchiest song of the year (I won't say the name here. Look it up.), Cee-Lo gives us an entire album filled with some impressive sounds. He draws on a lot of influences and eras in giving us standout tracks like "It's OK," "Bodies," "Bright Lights Bigger City" and "Old Fashioned."

You probably only know one track on this record, but you should hear the whole thing.

Ray LaMontagne
9. Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs, "God Willin' and the Creek Don't Rise": Besides giving us the longest combination of artist and album name of the year, LaMontagne and his cohorts also gave use a nice mix of folk, blues, country and rock.

LaMontagne has been on my radar for a number of years, but I haven't been especially interested. That all changed when I kept hearing "Beg Steal or Borrow" on my radio. The song captures hometown desperation in a way reminiscent of early Springsteen. While not on that level, it's a good tune.

The album is certainly front-loaded with "New York City's Killing Me," the title track and "Beg Steal or Borrow" all coming consecutively early on. However, LaMontagne's desperate, raspy voice mixes nicely with the rootsy music throughout.

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
8. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, "I Learned the Hard Way": Any fans of Sharon Jones out there should do themselves a favor -- buy her albums on vinyl. "I Learned the Hard Way" came out in April 2010, but it could have been April 1965 or April 1972.

Take a good listen to the record and tell me it isn't from the era when Motown or Stax/Volt or Hi ruled the soul charts. You can't say so for sure.

The combination of Jones' powerhouse vocals, the writing of bassist-bandleader-producer-primary songwriter Bosco Mann and the playing of the entire eight-piece Dap-Kings is absolutely dynamite.

At the heart of the sound are the Dap-Kings, Daptone Records' house band. There are very few quality funk/soul bands left out there, so this one is a special treat.

Of note on this one are "I Learned the Hard Way," "Better Things," "Mama Don't Like My Man" and "She Ain't a Child No More."

Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent
7. Phosphorescent, "Here's to Taking it Easy": As a listener, Phosphorescent's fifth full-length release initially struck me as only slightly above average. It's grown on me a lot since its May release, though. "Here's to Taking it Easy" mixes the moments of unadulterated joy with the total anguish a good country album should have.

The record kicks off with "It's Hard to Be Humble (When You're from Alabama)." Besides possessing a great title, it has the energy you seek in an opener. One can imagine singer and songwriter Matthew Houck uttering the tired opening line "Baby, all these cities, ain't they all starting to look all the same?" each night as he opens the set. The words may be weary, but the music isn't.

"The Mermaid Parade" is the real gem. There are hundreds of more recognizable songs out there, but this is the best song of 2010 for my money. It makes me want to cry every time, but I keep coming back.

Houck's voice is the embodiment of heartache.

John Legend & the Roots
6. John Legend & the Roots, "Wake Up!": Cover albums aren't always the most artistic of endeavors, but when John Legend teams with the Roots, one can't expect conventional results.

The collaborators chose a set of protest songs from the 1960s and '70s, giving us something more thoughtful and profound than a simple set of covers. The choices of Curtis Mayfield's "Hard Times," Donny Hathaway's "Little Ghetto Boy" and Marvin Gaye's "Wholly Holy" recall a time when music meant something more than the right beat and a catchy hook.

Bill Whithers' "I Can't Write Left Handed" provides a powerful moment. Like many good protest songs, it doesn't browbeat so much as tell a story and leave the rest up to the listener.

The Legend-penned "Shine" is the only original on the album, but it fits in well. After an 11-song lesson in the social issues of the '60s and '70s, Legend takes on today's issue of the education system and the hopelessness of many urban students and families.

Carolina Chocolate Drops
5. Carolina Chocolate Drops, "Genuine Negro Jig": The Carolina Chocolate Drops are twice the band on stage that they are on a 5-inch disc. That's what makes this record so impressive; it's still great.

The songs feature different mixes of banjo, fiddle, guitar, jug, bones, kazoo and human beatbox. Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson all contribute their own unique vocals.

From the beautiful and traditional instrumental "Snowden's Jig (Genuine Negro Jig)" to the pure fun of "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine," this band captures the string band tradition of the Carolinas.

Band of Horses
4. Band of Horses, "Infinite Arms": Band of Horses' latest release eases you into the action as if in a dream. Opening track "Factory" isn't cut from the cloth of traditional rock openers, but it set the right tone for the album. You can just sit back and enjoy this one without ever getting too worked up.

The band creates some lush and varied sounds for this collection of songs, ranging from the catchy pop rock of "Dilly" to the pure country of "Older."

While "Compliments" and "Laredo" are the album's two singles, and certainly among the best on the album, it's hard to really choose the top tracks here. These two, the three named above, and "Blue Beard," "NW Apartment" and "On My Way Back Home" also deserve consideration.

Suffice it to say that Ben Bridwell and bandmates have made another outstanding album.

Justin Townes Earle
3. Justin Townes Earle, "Harlem River Blues": This record was one of my surprises of the year. The surprise wasn't so much that Earle produced such a fine album, but that he produced one at all. The prolific singer-songwriter has released an EP or album every year since 2007.

When I learned in July that the 2010 installment was due out in September, I was ecstatic.

Earle did not disappoint, either. His output has gotten better with each of his four releases. This time out, he shows the diversity of his influences and abilities with a series of genre shifts.

We get gospel on the title track, rockabilly on "Move Over Mama," country folk on "Workin' for the MTA," string band on "Wanderin'," blues on "Slippin' and Slidin'" and a piano ballad on "Rogers Park."

Yet it all fits together with strong tracks like "Christchurch Woman" and "One More Night in Brooklyn" filling in the space between the gearshifts.

The album's poor country boy in the city theme isn't a new one, but when it works, it works.

She & Him
2. She & Him, "Volume 2": Although it just misses album of the year status, She & Him's "Volume 2" is the most beautiful record I heard this year. The combination of Zooey Deschanel's vocals and M. Ward's arrangements make an album that is at times sad, at times playful and warm, but always good.

This 13-track collection follows 2008's "Volume 1," and improves on the good tone set by the first record.

"Thieves" kicks the album off in wonderful fashion, and it never really lets the listener down from there. It features 13 tracks and all 13 are quality.

The seemingly unlikely pairing of a Hollywood star (Deschanel) and a folk rocker (Ward) works wonderfully. The pair's collaborations are not what make either of them most famous, yet in each case, it's the most entertaining work of their career.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about this album is that I love it and so does my wife's 82-year-old grandmother. After reading my review, she expressed interest and I got her a copy. She now owns both CDs and listens to them in her car constantly. That kind of multi-generational appeal is a rare feat in the music business.

The Gaslight Anthem
1. The Gaslight Anthem, "American Slang": The first time I heard 2008's "The '59 Sound," I knew I loved this band. The first time I heard "American Slang" back in June, I knew I'd found the 2010 album of the year.

Although the Gaslight Anthem released an album and an EP prior to 2008, "The '59 Sound" was what put them on a lot of people's maps. The band's mix of punk energy and attitude with songwriting reminiscent of (and referential to) Springsteen made them a favorite.

I worried about a slump on the follow-up effort.

Instead, the boys from New Brunswick, N.J. knocked it out of the park with "American Slang. The record is a mixture of songs similar to the old stuff ("American Slang," "Boxer," "The Spirit of Jazz" and "Stay Lucky") and some entirely new sounds ("The Diamond Church Street Choir," "The Queen of Lower Chelsea" and "We Did It When We Were Young").

Best of all, the band knows how to craft an album -- a skill lacking in the iTunes era. They kick the record off with the title track, "Stay Lucky" and "Bring It On" -- the kinds of songs fans were expecting from the album. They follow this up with two of the album's curve balls in "The Diamond Church Street Choir" and "The Queen of Lower Chelsea."

The second half of the record progresses similarly, with four high-volume tracks followed by the painful, sad "We Did It When We Were Young."

It's a treat when not only is every track good, but they work together so well. The band's continued progression has this critic believing (and hoping) we'll be hearing from these guys for years to come.

So there's the top 10. I'd like to tell you all to go out and buy every one of these records. They're all worth it.

But if you check out even one of these, you're doing yourself a favor. Music is everywhere, but the good stuff is sometimes hard to come by.

This is all good stuff.

Honorable Mention

David Broza, "Night Dawn: The Unpublished Poetry of Townes Van Zandt"; Citay, "Dream Get Together"; Drive-By Truckers, "The Big To-Do"; Mumford & Sons, "Sigh No More"; The New Pornographers, "Together"; Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, "Grace Potter and the Nocturnals"; Tad Robinson, "Back in Style"; The Roots, "How I Got Over"; Spoon, "Transference"; Mavis Staples, "You Are Not Alone"; The Watson Twins, "Talking To You, Talking to Me"

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