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.)
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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"