Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Best Albums of 2010 (or at least my favorites)

Around this time of year, it's hard to find a website, newspaper or magazine that isn't presenting "Best of 2010" lists about this topic or that.

So while devoid of any delusions of novelty, far be it from me to abstain, especially after the feedback I received on "My Favorite ____ of the '00s" series last December prompted me to continue blogging as much as I did throughout 2010.

In the days and weeks ahead, I will present my "Best of 2010" selections regarding movies (including feature films, foreign films and documentaries), theater (including plays and musicals produced in Chicago), music and more.

I start today with "The Best Albums of 2010" (or more accurately, my favorites), especially since, unlike with movies, I don't expect many more albums of note to be released in the remaining 3 weeks of this year.

Although throughout the year and particularly within the last few weeks, I have acquired a nice selection of albums and sampled many more that were recommended by friends or in the press, my range of musical awareness is far from exhaustive. While I'm happy with my tastes, there isn't too much overlap between my top picks and those on undoubtedly wider-reaching lists by Rolling Stone, Amazon, Paste Magazine or the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot.

I am not too familiar with Janelle Monae or her album The ArchAndroid, which was the top pick by Kot and raved about elsewhere, and as I'm not too avid about rap or hip-hop, I haven't heard either Kanye West's much-lauded My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy nor Eminem's Recovery. Although I am not as wild about Mumford & Sons' Sigh No More as some friends are, I consider it ineligible here anyway, as it was released in 2009 (at least in England). Solid albums getting some attention this year by Metric and The XX were also 2009 releases.

So take this for what it is; after all, the only Best Album list that really matters is yours. But following are, to my ears and awareness...

The Best Albums of 2010

1. The Len Price 3 - Pictures
The third album by the Len Price 3, which includes nobody named Len Price, came out in January, but I didn't learn about it until I heard Steve Van Zandt cite it in a mid-year interview. And though I was a bit skeptical, as the band is signed to Little Steven's record label--and not coincidentally played a bunch on his Underground Garage radio station on Sirius XM--I've been smitten since the first listen. With 13 songs clocking in at just 31 minutes, Pictures features a collections of pop-rock gems in the vein of early Kinks and Who. Nothing quite reaches the genius of those bands, but there was no album I enjoyed more in 2010 or expect to continue enjoying for years to come.

2. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
The Montreal collective received a lot of attention for its stellar 3rd album, which opened at #1 on the Billboard album charts and is showing up on most "Best Album of 2010" lists. Although I don't think The Suburbs ranks as an all-time classic on the level of, say, U2's The Joshua Tree, and I don't love listening to it quite as much as Pictures (above), it is an extremely impressive artistic accomplishment. Also, and this was an important criteria for me, it is an album that holds up well from beginning to end. Certainly some songs are better than others and there are a few I might occasionally skip, but for the most part The Suburbs is an album in the true sense. It is meant to be heard in full and should have substantive shelf life. (This was my full review and commentary in August.)

Before I get to the rest of the list, I will say that the top two albums are the only ones I consider truly remarkable. The next eight are very good, but in most cases, not even the best album to date by each artist. The above two are, and far beyond the rest, are the only albums that I can say really excited me this year.

3. Alejandro Escovedo - Street Songs of Love
Another in a string of superlative albums from the introspective Austin-based singer-songwriter. It could even rank as his very best, but I think I still slightly prefer 1996's With These Hands and 2008's Real Animal.

4. Paul Weller - Wake Up The Nation
Although I would still rather listen to any album by The Jam, Weller's original group--which I rank as the best ever of those overlooked in America--he has put together a damn impressive solo career over the last 20 years (following a stint with Style Council). While it takes a few listens for the brilliance of Wake Up The Nation to hook you, it ultimately reveals itself as yet another excellent work by an outstanding songwriter. 

5. LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening
LCD is the brainchild of James Murphy, who has blended rock, dance grooves and electronica for three excellent albums. This Is Happening probably isn't the best of the three, but is the one of the best of the year, and in October I was tremendously impressed with how LCD Soundsystem translated live. Murphy has threatened to pull the plug, but we'll see what happens.

6. Johnny Cash - American IV: Ain't No Grave
Yes, the Man in Black did die in 2003, but he and producer Rick Rubin had recorded a lot of music toward the end of Johnny's rich life. American V came out in 2006 and there was still enough material for this year's American IV: Ain't No Grave. While it might sound macabre to hear Cash ruminating on life, and particularly death, from beyond the grave, there's something oddly invigorating about it. A great collection of songs, with "Satisfied Mind" being one of my favorites.

7. Bruce Springsteen - The Promise
If there was an official arbiteur of this list, other than myself, The Promise might be ruled ineligible. For it is not an album of newly written and recorded material but rather a compilation of unreleased songs Springsteen and The E Street Band created in 1976-78 while working toward the album that became Darkness on the Edge of Town. Plus, some of the best stuff on The Promise are alternate versions of Darkness songs and/or songs that have long been known to Boss fans through cover and concert versions (e.g. Fire, Because The Night, Rendezvous). But even in judging just the stuff that was truly new to me, The Promise is one of the best releases of 2010. It's not as good as Born to Run or Darkness and doesn't rank among the very best of Bruce's estimable canon, but stellar supplemental Springsteen is still better than most else that I heard in 2010.

8. The New Pornographers - Together
The New Pornographers are a band I should have paid attention to a lot earlier. I'd heard of them for years and it seems they've been making strong albums since 2000, but I had never owned or heard any. But after my friend Paolo raved about their concert in October, I was able to borrow all five of their albums from my local library. I don't think 2010's Together is quite the best of the bunch, but it's the one I've listened to most so far, and I really like it.

9. Taylor Swift – Speak Now
It might be easy for old folks, like me, to think of Taylor Swift in a similar vein to Britney Spears some years ago. But while Britney and other teen-targeted stars had some fun pop gloss, Swift is considerably more substantive, not in the least because she writes all her own songs. I felt Speak Now deserved my attention when it was released--and sold over 1 million copies in its first week--but hypothesized in my positive review that it may not hold my attention for all that long. That may be true, but in giving it a couple more recent listens, there is a resonance to Swift's impeccable pop songwriting sensibilities.

10. Jason & The Scorchers – Halcyon Times
I have long loved this one-of-a-kind Nashville band that mixes rock and country without softening either, but they had been dormant for years before I saw they were coming to Chicago's Double Door in October. Not only did I get a ticket to see the show, which was excellent, but there I bought their latest album--which I hadn't known they'd released in April--and had it signed by band leader Jason Ringenberg. The best of it ranks with the very best work of their career and the rest of it ain't bad either. Except for the sheer fun of Len Price 3's Pictures, no album has made me happier this year.

Honorable Mention

Wavves - King of the Beach - There were several albums by bands I didn't previously know that I explored because of reviews I read. This is the one that stuck with me the most.

Hop On Pop – Chicken On A Bicycle
- In May, I did a short-term copywriting assignment on-site at an unnamed company. On my first day there, I heard an employee telling another of the temps about a new album he had released. Upon poking my nose in, I learned from Todd Leiter-Weintraub that Hop On Pop was his band (though mostly just him) and Chicken on a Bicycle was his second album. So I bought a copy he brought for me and my enjoyment of it has lasted far longer than the work stint. (

The National – High Violet - A lot of people seem to like The National and their new album a lot more than I do. I can see the quality but can't say I'm motivated to listen a whole lot.

Peter Wolf – Midnight Souvenirs - My friend Dave, with whom I talk about music more than anyone, has been raving about this album--from the lead singer of the J. Geils Band--for most of the year. I only got it rather recently but can see why Dave is so high on it. The first several songs are wonderful, but then the consistency subsides a bit; otherwise it could have made my Top 10.

Honestly, I can't even cite a 5th fully deserving Honorable Mention but Teenage Fanclub - Shadows, Robert Plant - Band of Joy and Kid Rock - Born Free are albums I might continue to listen to on occasion.

@@@@@ Reissues

These three classic albums were newly remastered in 2010 and sound better than they ever have:

The Rolling Stones - Exile on Main Street
R.E.M. - Fables of the Reconstruction (my review)
Bruce Springsteen - Darkness on the Edge of Town
(currently only available as part of a box set)

So what's on your list?

1 comment:

Greg Boyd said...

Haven't heard West's new release yet, either. I've heard it's fantastic. I don't listen to a lot of current bands apart from Radiohead and Arcade Fire.

You are missing one big one, though, and it's probably because you haven't heard it: Joanna Newsom's "Have One on Me". It is a two-hour, three disc album that she released in February, and it is fabulous. There's not a second of filler, which is kind of remarkable given the length. Highly recommended, and also the album to listen to first if you're trying to get into Ms. Newsom's work. While her second album "Ys" is probably better, that one can be a bit... intimidating (with several 12+ minute songs). For me, it was the best album of 2009, with "The Suburbs" a close second.

Also, have you heard "Treats" by Sleigh Bells? It wasn't amazing, but I thought it was pretty good. Given the accolades it got, I'm surprised that it's not showing up on many of these types of lists.