And so, another year marches to a close — another fantastic, adventure-filled, technicolor year. It’s the time when all of us start kicking around our neatly-bulleted lists of bests and worsts. For me, the more I read these lists, the more I feel that I missed more albums and artists than I heard this year.
The stats are staggering: in 2002, about 33,000 albums were released. In 2006 that number was 75,000. Last year close to 100,000 albums were released, with only roughly 800 of those albums selling more than 5K. It’s tough out there — to be heard, and to feel as a listener that you have adequately given a shot to even a fraction of a representative sample of one year’s offerings. I always feel this keening bittersweet regret at the end of each year, as so much more music was released than any one human woman can possibly digest or invest in.
That being said, I had a fairly simple time picking what my personal favorite albums were for 2010, of the ones I heard. I absolutely loved what Carrie Brownstein wrote on her NPR blog about these year-end lists.
She muses: “So I’ll admit that I’m not quite certain how to sum up an entire year in music anymore; not when music has become so temporal, so specific and personal, as if we each have our own weather system and what we listen to is our individual forecast. I’ve written a lot about music bringing people together, fomenting community, and many albums still did act as bonfires in 2010 . . . but many of us are also walking around with a little lighter in hand, singing along to some small glow that’s stuck around long enough to make us feel excited to be alive.”
That is exactly, precisely what I feel. And really, what is any top ten list but an assessment of those songs, those artists, those albums that have hit us square in the solar plexus exactly where we are sitting?
These are the albums that lodged deep and sharp into my red heart and made this year richer, smarter, harder and easier, sharper, sparklier, and all the more brilliant. And some of them seriously made me dance.
FUEL/FRIENDS FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2010
THE BLACK KEYS – BROTHERS
This is just one of the coolest albums released all year — maybe all decade. And I mean the kind of cool that is quintessential, untouchable, badass, just strutting down a sunny street with-your-own-theme-song type of cool. It blends their trademark swampy, bluesy, fuzzed-out guitars with crisp sharp beats that sliced right through that weight the first time I put this album in, on my roadtrip to Missouri. I think I listened to it on repeat through at least two (long, loooong) states and it was love at first listen from that point on.
Additionally – if there is a sicker breakdown all year than what happens here at 1:02, I don’t wanna know about it.
The Go Getter – The Black Keys
DAN MANGAN – NICE, NICE, VERY NICE
(Arts & Crafts)
This album from the Canadian side of the verdant Pacific Northwest was an unexpected discovery this year, recommended to me by a friend who helps arrange the Telluride Bluegrass Festival (another favorite thing of this year, but hey we’ll get to that). Dan Mangan has made a dense, thoroughly gorgeous album, heavy on the intelligent lyrics, his oaky-warm voice weaving in amongst a whole orchestra of instruments. This album is beautifully arranged and well-crafted, one you can swim deeply in during rainy days all winter long (although I discovered it in August and it sounded just as good in the sticky warmth).
Basket – Dan Mangan
DREW GROW AND THE PASTORS’ WIVES – SELF-TITLED
Drew Grow and his band The Pastors’ Wives hail from Portland, making music that easily straddles and jumps across genres to create something marvelously rich and endlessly interesting. The sound production throughout feels like an old, warm, crackly album (tip: get it on white vinyl while you can) with something urgent to say. From those fuzzy, sexy, pleadingly plaintive blues jams like “Company” to the aggressive push-and-tug of the rowdy “Bootstraps” and the dulcet golden ’50s croon of songs like “Hook,” this album has pleased me completely. Every song is a favorite.
The opening “Bon Voyage Hymn” sets the tone for this album (if it has one) of a sort of rough-hewn, honest, rock gospel as Drew howls, “Sing a shelter over me / With a mighty chorus, slaves set free.” And by that I mean the oldest spirit of gospel, in community and a shared love of singing, with our heads thrown back and our feet stomping — but while the guitar squalls and the dirty drums crash. At the house show they played for me in November, it was like the best kind of church, a jaw-dropping explosion of goodness.
Company – Drew Grow & The Pastors’ Wives
N.B.: Drew also has a stunning new acoustic EP.
THE HEAD AND THE HEART – SELF-TITLED
From the first evening back in early summer when I streamed this Seattle six-piece’s songs on my tinny computer speakers, I was reeled in hook line and sinker. The song sang about something that sounds like a hallelujah, the sheer delight of embracing with all of your heart and both your dancing shoes, and no band this year has given me more of that musical enjoyment – whether in a parking garage very late at night, or in the living room of an old house. Amidst the warmth, the uncanny wisdom, and undeniably catchy musical & rhythmic foundations of this band, there is magic. We will be hearing a good deal more from them in 2011, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
Sounds Like Hallelujah – The Head and The Heart
JONSI – GO
This is, simply put, a kinetic album. Jónsi blends his native Icelandic language with forays into English, creating the dizzying effect of running fast through a dream forest, not exactly understanding what is being said and not needing to. He’s made an intricate, joyful album of grandeur that is uplifting and challenging without being overly twee or silly. It is a delicate balance to strike. The paint-spatter of colors on the album cover precisely depict what this explosive album sounds like – purple, yellow, deep red, shot through with sunlight.
This album was completely unlike anything else that I heard this year, and made me simultaneously smile widely and furrow my brow. It’s the most imaginative album I’ve heard all year, perfect at evoking things like riding the back of a jet-black dragon over canyons. Yes, and yes. Please.
Go Do – Jónsi
Addendum: I also just laughed very loudly for a good minute and a half after I just connected the mental dots to the possible inspiration for this album, or at least this song.
JOSH RITTER – SO RUNS THE WORLD AWAY
I’ve said before that I think Josh Ritter is one of the most important and talented songwriters of our generation; this album is a stellar example of why. Through these thirteen sprawling songs, Josh demonstrates to me again exactly why I love the way that he sees the world. When I interviewed him this summer, he said he admires those who “see what everybody else has seen, think what nobody else has thought.”
Josh pens incisive, piercing, widely-varying folk songs with the comfortable intelligence of one who is in no hurry, yet is passionate in pursuing his muse and getting his stories out into the world. Highlights here like “The Curse,” “Folk Bloodbath,” “Another New World,” and “Lantern” are jaw-dropping. Josh has a remarkable way of teasing out truths about the world (seen and unseen), and poking into the human conditions in my own heart with a greater acuity than most out there.
Lantern – Josh Ritter
That song also contains one of my favorite lyrics of this entire year: “So throw away those lamentations, we both know them all too well / If there’s a book of jubilations, we’ll have to write it for ourselves / So come and lie beside me darlin’ — let’s write it while we still got time.”
LISSIE – CATCHING A TIGER
From the first time I heard Lissie’s soulful, immensely evocative voice earlier this year on her song “Everywhere I Go,” I was riveted. Who was this slight, freckled blond gal with the echoes of an entire fifty-member church choir in her lungs? Originally from Rock Island, Illinois, Lissie has harnessed both the brilliance of the sunshine of her new California home on her debut album, as well as all the gnarls of her roots. Bluesy, confident melodies and goosebump-inducing howls are here in scads — this is a notably substantial first album from a woman to be reckoned with.
Record Collector – Lissie
MATT POND PA – THE DARK LEAVES
“We could start tonight, slide back the deadbolts…” Matt Pond suggests at the beginning of this autumnal album with rich hues that gave me endless listening pleasure this year. I was glad I took him up on the invite. I’d admired the work of the Brooklyn songwriter in spurts and starts over the past few years, but this is the first album of his that I have really immersed myself into his uniquely lovely, thrumming view of the world.
There is a sort of expansive, wide-eyed glow in this album that seems to invite transcendent things to happen. From the specks of silver he sings about in the evening sky and the illumination all around us, I love the way things look like an adventure when I am listening. “First hips, then knees, then feet – don’t think anymore,” he sings. Good idea, Matt.
Starting – Matt Pond PA
THE NATIONAL – HIGH VIOLET
This is a decimating, gorgeous, elegant album, much like Boxer was but with additional hints of weirdness and unsettled edges that I like. I was ridiculously excited about this album (in a sort of masochistic way, since I know full well what The National are capable of), devouring every word I could read about it before it came out. The single best definition I heard came from Matt Berninger himself when he said they wanted it to sound “like loose wool and hot tar.” In that regard, they completely succeed – their music is dark, burning, sticking to your skin and all your insides.
This is an incredible album full of terse, razor-sharp observations on the worries that wait in the shadows for me and gnaw when they get a chance: I think the kids are in trouble… you’ll never believe the shitty thoughts I think… I was less than amazing… I tell you terrible things when you’re asleep. But I won’t lie when I say I found some of the strongest redemption of my year in this music as well, with the closing track “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” — singing along with lines “all the very best of us string ourselves up for love / man it’s all been forgiven, swans are a-swimmin…” The honesty of the darkness shot through with these glints is what keeps drawing me back to these guys, fiercely.
Conversation 16 – The National
THE TALLEST MAN ON EARTH – THE WILD HUNT
Kristian Mattson slays me – there are no two ways about it. When he sings on this album, “I plan to be forgotten when I’m gone,” it is almost comical because nothing really seems further from the truth. Mattson’s songs have the kind of heft and intricacy that make me certain his music will be around for a very long time after him. His guitarwork is sparkling, impassioned, and inspired. The words he selects and the way he delivers them are pointed and deliberate. I can’t tell if his lyrics are so sharp in spite of the fact that English is not his first language, or because of it – as if perhaps he can see more clearly through our muddy sea of language to pick out the iridescent rocks from the river.
Also: it’s worth noting that his EP released this year was equally good – serious brilliant work.
King of Spain – The Tallest Man On Earth
BEST ALBUM NOT FROM THIS YEAR THAT I JUST FINALLY DISCOVERED THIS YEAR:
CATALDO – SIGNAL FLARE
I cannot stop listening to Eric Anderson, as evidenced by the fact that I have put him on just about every mix I made in 2010, and listen to this album most days lately on my walk to work. After a chance encounter with his music on a college radio show of a friend, I’ve been smitten by his earnest, unvarnished, incredibly catchy way of looking at the world that simultaneously makes me smile and breaks my heart. You know me. I like that.
He’s got a new album “Prison Boxing” coming out in 2011, according to Facebook. I plan to be substantially more on top of that one.
Signal Flare – Cataldo
NINE SUPERB SONGS I COULDN’T GET ENOUGH OF IN 2010:
Burning Stars – Mimicking Birds [link]
Tell ‘Em – Sleigh Bells [link]
Safe and Sound – Electric President [link]
Six O’Clock News (Kathleen Edwards cover) – Paul Jacobsen [link]
If A Song Could Get Me You – Marit Larsen [link]
Second Mind (live at the SF Independent) – Adam H. Stephens [link]
Fuck You – Cee Lo Green [link]
Carry Us Over – Kelli Schaefer [link]
Baby Lee – Teenage Fanclub [link]
FAVORITE SHOWS OF THE YEAR:
My forays into presenting house shows:
Drew Grow and The Pastors’ Wives with Kelli Schaefer (Nov 4, 2010)
The Head and The Heart (Nov 9, 2010)
Andy Clockwise at SXSW (March 2010)
Joe Pug house show (February 28, 2010)
Tallest Man On Earth (May 19, 2010)
Megafaun and their in-the-crowd rendition of “Worried Mind” (April 12, 2010)
Telluride Bluegrass Festival, holy mackerel.
AND: FAVORITE NIGHT THAT ONLY TOOK 56 YEARS TO ARRIVE
I think we did it, and these were the things that soundtracked it all.
[“Sound Wave” sculpture at top by Jean Shin]