Let me just be clear at the outset: the following list is not meant to represent the best of 2010's music in any kind of remotely "objective" sense. This is my list. It represents my year in music. My musical tastes tend toward the rootsy, the groovy and the nostalgic. I prefer simple, but well-constructed, lyrically-driven songs-- "three chords and a sad story" kind of stuff, mostly. So those of you who don't like that stuff won't like this list, which is heavily weighted toward the Dylan-esque. I've restricted myself here to albums (no singles) that were released in 2010 (even though some of the late-2009 albums got a lot of play for me this year). Finally, there are a few albums released in the last month or so (e.g., Jazmine Sullivan's Love Me Back) or that I just need to listen to more (e.g., The Black Keys' Brothers and Mumford & Sons Sigh No More), which could have been real contenders and only just missed making the list.
Like a lot of music lovers these days, I am often drawn to an album or artist on the basis of some "hit" single. But I try, as much as possible, to stock my music library with complete albums. I still believe in the idea of an "album," disappearing though it may be, and I like to think that the hit singles-- no matter how good they are on their own-- are just a piece of a larger work of art. Of course, keeping whole albums means that I have a lot of mediocre songs in my files, but it also means that I stumble across a lot of great ones. For me, the mark of a good album is if, after one listen, I remember tracks on it that I didn't already know. All of the following albums from 2010 met-- and exceeded-- that criterion.
Jakob Dylan's Women and Country
This is hands-down my favorite album of 2010. There is not a single track on Women and Country that I don't absolutely love. It's brooding, soulful, reflective, sad-- with some of the most compelling lyrical storytelling I've heard in a long, long time. Women and Country also has the distinction of having been produced by one of the best in the music business, T-Bone Burnett, who has a way of making everything sound haunting and beautiful. The title of the album is no lie, either, as Dylan chose two of country music's best young female vocalists (Neko Case and Kelly Hogan) to provide backup harmonies. And Dylan himself is in top songwriting form, from the straightfoward promises of "Nothing But The Whole Wide World" to the ironic resignation of "Smile When You Call Me That" to the resilient hopefulness of "Holy Rollers For Love." Not quite country, not quite blues, not quite pop and not quite gospel, Women and Country is a whole lot of all of those... which makes it one of the best "rootsy" albums I've ever heard.
John Mellencamp's No Better Than This
Also produced by T-Bone Burnett, and partly recorded in Memphis' own Sun Studio, Mellencamp's No Better Than This is an homage to roots music from a man best known for asking the quintessential folk question "ain't that America?." In addition to Sun Studio, Mellencamp laid down tracks at other iconic/historic locations, including the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia and the Sherton Gunter Hotel in San Antonio (where blues legend Robert Johnson recorded "Cross Road Blues"). Story has it that No Better Than This was recorded in mono, using a single microphone, in the manner of classic folk and blues from the 1930's and 40's, which gives it a scratchy, nostaligia-laden sound. All that is to say, Mellencamo obviously took "authenticity" very seriously with this project. None of that would really matter if the songs weren't good, though... but they ARE good. They're so very simple, so very true, that each one sounds immediately familiar. Even the track titles-- "Don't Forget About Me" and "Clumsy Ol' World" and "Thinking About You"-- are so simple and true that you can practically anticipate the lyrics in advance. I had the good fortune to see Mellencamp live back in August, and his performance of "Save Some Time To Dream" from this album was enough to almost silence the entire audience at an outdoor summer concert. It was awed and inspired silence, the kind that makes you think to yourself (like the title of the album says): there's just "no better than this."
Bruno Mars' Doo-Wops & Hooligans
Here's an example of an album I bought only after being hooked by a single... a single, it turns out, that wasn't even on this album! The initial hook for me was Bruno Mars and Travis McCoy's catchy rap-and-reggae single "Billionaire" --so I downloaded Doo-Wops & Hooligans without checking the tracklist first. Lucky me. Interestingly, Bruno Mars' album is the opposite of Dylan's and Mellencamp's in almost every way. It's light and airy, with a lot of vocals and instrumentation (and emotions) in the high registers, and it's got enough of that 70's soul sound to give it an almost "disco" feel. The hit track off this album is "Just The Way You Are," a poppy, skippy, shinyhappy love song. Same goes for the track "Marry You." Doo-Wops & Hooligans stops just this side of the teen/pre-adolescent line, by which I mean that it's cheesy and sweet without being nauseating or corny. "The Other Side" (featuring Cee-Lo Green and B.o.B) may seem a little out of place on the album with its more straightforward contemporary R&B sound, but it fits right into the whole roll-down-the-windows in your car and play-it-loud vibe of the rest of the album. Even though Doo-Wops & Hooligans was released in October, this is definitely a warm-weather record. Can't wait to see what it sounds like in the summertime.
Cee Lo Green's The Lady Killer
Green's is another album that hooked me with a single-- the best single of 2010-- a Motown & Stax inspired breakup song irreverently titled "F**k You." This year's The Lady Killer has a little bit of funk ("Bright Lights Bigger City"), a little bit of classic soul ("I Want You"), a little bit of contemporary R&B ("Satisfied"), and a bigger-than-life personality driving it all forward. I'd recommend this album for the horns alone. Cee Lo Green is as smooth as Al Green (no relation), as soulful as Solomon Burke, as funky as James Brown, as sultry as Luther Vandross, and as badass as Isaac Hayes. He's voice is just pure butter: smooth and delicious and definitely bad for you. Green somehow managed to fly below the radar with his first two albums, so I'm glad to see him getting his due with The Lady Killer. (Even in spite of the unconscionable mangling of his hit song this year on "Glee," in which they purged it of its profanities and, consequently, of all its charm.) This is easily the best 14-track party released all year. And if you can somehow manage the fortitude to remain standing still through the swelling bridge in the last 45 seconds or so of "F**k You," then you should check to see if you have a pulse.
Marc Cohn's Listening Booth, 1970
Most people, if they know him at all, know Marc Cohn by way of his hit "Walking in Memphis," from his self-titled album of 1991. That album came out the same year that I graduated high school, and to this day is still one of my all-time favorites. So, I was excited to see Cohn releasing another album in 2010. Listening Booth, 1970 is exactly what the title suggests: a compilation of hit pop songs from 1970. Cohn covers Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed," Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic," Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown," and Bread's "Make It With You" among others, and he stamps each of those songs with the quiet emotional power that characterized so much of his first album. He's rustled up some excellent background vocals for this album as well, including India.Arie and Aimee Mann. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this album is the fact that all of the original songs were released in the same year. 1970 was a few years before my birth, but these are songs beloved by and familiar to everyone, and Marc Cohn does them all justice.
Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs' God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise
I was a latecomer to Ray LaMontagne's music, but I went from aquaintance to devotee in practically no time flat. I'll be honest, LaMontagne reminds me a lot of Ryan Adams, and I'm positive that my affection for the scratchy, soulful, Americana sound of both artists is of a kind. For those who love that kind, God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise will not disappoint. LaMontagne is joined here by his new band, the Pariah Dogs, which gives him more of a rough-and-rocking sound, but he's still got that intimate and solitary feel in all of his songs with the band. If I'm being honest, I'd have to say that I don't love this album as much as LaMontagne's others (Trouble, Til the Sun Turns Black, and Gossip in the Grain), but it's still one of the best of 2010. There's a kind of brutal honesty to LaMontagne's songwriting, featured especially on the tracks "New York City's Killing Me," "Are We Really Through" and "This Love Is Over" from this album. It's a great rainy day listen, full of all the existential angst that makes life and love so very song-worthy. It's also got one of my favorite song titles of 2010: "The Devil's in the Jukebox." So very true.
Shelby Lynne's Tears, Lies and Alibis
Shelby Lynne is the sole female representative on my list this year, a fact that surprises even me. I was a big fan of her breakout album I Am Shelby Lynne, but that came out almost a decade ago now, and I've been underimpressed with what she's put out since. (Except for that great album she did of Dusty Springfield covers, Just A Little Lovin'.) So, I couldn't have been happier to hear that this year's Tears, Lies and Alibis was going to be Lynne's first self-produced and self-released album, featuring a rootsy, country sound. Shelby Lynne is not the kind of artist who is going to be on the Hit Singles chart, regrettably, but I am absolutely positive that I could sell this album to almost anyone by playing only one track: "Old #7." Here's a video of a live performance of that song, which she introduces by saying "I'm gonna play this song for all my brown-liquor-drinkin' friends." That song is just the very best of what country music has to offer. It could've been sung by Loretta Lynn or Patsy Cline, and it hearkens back to the pre-pop era of country music when women were tragic but strong, reserved but resilient, both the heartbeat and the backbone of America. And oh mercy how that pedal-steel whines! Trust me, Shelby Lynne's whole album is as good as that song.
Jack Johnson's To The Sea
Jack Johnson's music is what my mom would call "elevator music," by which she doesn't mean Muzak but rather music that is best suited in the background, music that you could listen to while doing other things. I'd probably give Jack Johnson a little more credit than that, but I basically agree with Mom that he's the kind of singer-songwriter that is very easy to listen to (without being "easy listening"). And, the truth is, I probably "heard" his album To The Sea in 2010 more often than I really "listened" to it. I don't want to damn this record with faint praise, though, because if you do take the time to listen, you'll find that it's full of carefully constructed, cleverly narrated, and sparsely orchestrated songs. Particularly noteworthy is "The Upsetter" (a quiet ballad of reassurance), "Red Wine, Mistakes, Mythology" (a groovy, rhythmic regret song) and "Pictures of People Taking Pictures" (which has a pop sound vaguely reminiscent of the Beatles circa Sgt. Peppers). My guess is that Jack Johnson has a million of these songs waiting in reserve; the ease with which they are delivered sounds effortless. And it doesn't hurt that his whispery baritone is so intuitively trustworthy, especially when he sings things like "I can tell you anything but the truth."
Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses' Junky Star
If you're planning anytime soon to saddle up a horse and ride the lonely trail, or hop a train and watch the countryside whiz by from an open boxcar door, or hitchhike your way through the heartland of America, you should go ahead and purchase Ryan Bingham's Junky Star for your trip. It's full of travelling song, outlaw songs, brokenhearted songs, trying-to-be-good but still-doing-wrong songs. This album is like aural amor fati. Bingham has a voice that sounds like its already drunk and smoked too much, slept too little, shouted and cried too often. In "Self-Righteous Wall" (also a contender for best song title of 2010), Bingham sings "you're telling me I've lost it all/ you're telling me I've hit the wall" while at the same time flipping a lyrical finger at the world for the rest of the song, almost as if compelled to prove true its judgment of him. I love the rode-hard-and-hung-up-wet defiance of Bingham on this album, cranked up a notch from his previous (and also excellent) album Mescalito. I don't think a lot of people know much about Ryan Bingham, and that's a shame. Somehow, I doubt he cares.
Michael Jackson's Michael
Seriously, is it even necessary to "recommend" Michael Jackson? When The King of Pop died two years ago, I (like many people) worried that we'd never again hear anything new from him. Michael, released just last week, is a collection of 10 previously-unreleased songs that Jackson recorded in the months before his tragic death. Even if every song on this album sucked-- which, of course, they don't and which would never happen anyway-- I'd still put it on my list. There are some really interesting pairings here, with 50 Cent, Akon and Lenny Kravitz joining Micheal on three of the tracks. But a good part of the album is still classic Michael Jackson, especially "Best of Joy" and "Keep Your Head Up." For posterity, I'm glad that "Behind the Mask" is also included here, which gives us another glimpse into the mystery that will always be Michael Jackson. My favorite track is the last one ("Much Too Soon"), which features a tender-hearted Michael sweetly pining "I guess I learned my lesson much too soon." So true, Michael. So true.
Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street (2010 Deluxe Version) [Remastered]
I know it's a little bit cheating to include a re-release on this year's list, but this is not just any old re-release. It's the Rolling Stones' classic 1972 album Exile on Main Street, which many people consider one of the greatest rock albums of all time. There are some previously-unreleased studio outtakes on the "Deluxe" version, along with new videos and vintage photos, but all those extras are really just gravy. I didn't really need all of the bonus material of this re-relaease-- I was just happy to be reminded to put Exile back on regular rotation. Exile is just as good in 2010 as it was in 1972, which is yet another testament to the band that time doesn't seem to touch. Back in May, music mag No Depression hosted a contest they called the "Exile on Main Street vs. White Album Smackdown" which generated an impassioned, informed and thoroughly entertaining debate between Stones and Beatles lovers everywhere. I came down on the side of the Stones in that contest, and I explained why in a post on this blog titled "Why Exile on Main Street Gets My Rocks Off." I'll go on the record as predicting that none of the other entries on this list will make it to 2048 and still get people's rocks off like Exile does now.
That's it for my 2010 Year in Music. I'm sure I missed some good stuff-- and I'm always looking for new music-- so if you know of something that really should have made it on this list, let me know in the comments section.