Its that time: We present our annual “Different Kind of Music List” for 2010; If you missed prior versions, then here’s the deal with what makes this list different:
There are lots of Best of Lists out there, but most of them aren’t relevant to real people, i.e. adults (a group I have only recently begrudgingly joined). Those of you with families, careers, hobbies, etc. do not have time listen to 200 new CDs each year.
Hence, this list. Rather than cranking out yet another list of music you never heard, this is a more useful list: What a relatively informed music fan’s “Most played” albums were this year (at least, according to my iTunes).
These albums are what was most frequently spinning in the car/ipod/computer this past year — my personal soundtrack for 2010.
Those are the ground rules. Let’s have at it:
• Seasick Steve: Man From Another Time is a raucous, ferociously exciting collection of organic rock and blues. Home recorded, Steve displays a musical virtuosity and intensity that is belied by the simplicity of his approach. Never before has so much noise been coaxed forth from a single string. Seasick Steve cranks out solid, listenable rock and blues that will have you standing, clapping, tapping your feet.
2009′s Dog House Music is also worth a throw.
Bonus: Blues so good it makes George Thorogood weep.
• Vampire Weekend Contra:
The sophomore effort was the disc I wanted to dislike for all too many reasons: At first listen, it sounded just like the debut disc, channeled Paul Simon constantly, and sold out way too soon for a new band — their song Holiday seemed to be on every television commercial this year.
But the incessantly inventive, infectiously upbeat, constantly original music made this disc impossible to hate. Its catchy, jangling guitar runs layered with the immediately recognizable vocals are a sophisticated progression from the first album. The sound is immediately recognizable, yet remains fresh and interesting. In addition to the Graceland influence, you can hear bits of reggae, Brazilian funk, and ska.
The first disc had a great first four songs, then tailed off a bit. Contra is a consistently strong album — which probably accounts for why I played it constantly.
• The Black Keys Brothers:
The Black Keys graced our very first “Best of” back in 2004. The reasons I liked it then — crunchy guitar riffs, soulful vocals over no nonsense drumming combining to sound like a lot more than two guys from Ohio — are the same reasons why this disc is on this year’s list.
Described as a “mysterious and heavy brew of seventies-vintage rock, classic R&B and timeless, downhearted blues,” the album poweres its way through track after a track til the very end.
The Black Keys have maturation as song writers and performers, and it shows in subtle ways on Brothers. For those of you who haven’t discovered this great power duo yet, this is their most approachable album.
Bonus: Tighten Up was produced by Danger Mouse
• Ray LaMontagne God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise:
LaMontagne’s fourth album is funkier more upbeat and fun than any of his prior outings. Self-produced, recorded in two weeks at LaMontagne’s home, this album is full of pathos — stories of loss, desire and heartbreak.
Ray’s vocals perfectly suit his strong songwriting, with a killer band — the Pariah Dogs — providing excellent musical backing.
Steel guitars, jangly electrics, snare drums round out the sound to this album that falls somewhere in between Alt Country and Rock n roll.
The songs themselves are the stars here, and Ray’s gifts as a composer are on full display. A terrific outing.
• Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back:
There are musicians and pop stars and rock and rollers. Then there is Peter Gabriel. From his early days as front man of Genesis to enormously successful solo career, from his use of new world instrumentation and musicians, his innovative videos and spectacular live shows, Peter Gabriel is a unique artist. It is not overstating things to say that he is one of the most influential musicians of the past 40 years.
Never one to play it safe, Gabriel decided to “re-listen to” some of his favorite songs from other artists — David Bowie, Paul Simon, Talking Heads, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Radiohead — and reinvent their melodies in a no drums, no guitars orchestral arrangement.
It takes more than a single listening to — seeing the show at Radio City also revealed how intricate and poised this music is — but it is worth the effort.
The result is a fascinating and eclectic mix of familiar yet weirdly new songs, revealing the essence of the original. Sadly beautiful, strange, full of tenderness and remorse, this is an album only Gabriel could have created.
• David Gray White Ladder:
This is a new category: “new found appreciation.” Its the album I changed my mind the most about this year.
I first heard White Ladder a decade ago — and while the songwriting was worthwhile, I couldn’t get past David Gray’s less than impressive vocals.
Then I saw him live, and it changed my entire view of him.
He was on a double bill with Ray Lamontagne, and I was all set to leave after Ray’s set was over. But a funny thing happened: We listened to the first song, then the next, and the next, and soon we had stayed for the entire show. Days later, the songs were still running through my head. The disc played constantly late Summer and into the Fall. Once you look past the vibrato-laden voice, his gorgeous melodic compositions make for unforgettable songs.
• Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone:
When 2010 began, I never expected to fall for a Gospel album. Then again, this is not your run-of-the mill Sunday church music, and Mavis Staples is not your run-of-the mill baritone.
She has been cranking out Gospel, Blues and R&B for four decades. Her resume boasts collaborations with Curtis Mayfield, Bob Dylan, Prince, Ry Cooder and on this album, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
While this is not a traditional Gospel album, it manages to remain true to its roots by mixing both the secular and the sacred, with bluesy guitars, steel pedal, and upbeat hymns. The element that ties it all together is Staples world weary, smoldering voice.
Runner ups: Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, I Learned The Hard Way and Robert Randolph and the Family Band, We Walk This Road.
• Elvis Costello: National Ransom
I am always interested in anything Elvis Costello records, but this disc caught my attention for its cover art — a wolf in Banker’s top hat and tails, fleeing a crisis, the carpet bag he clutches trailing flaming cash the whole way. It is an arresting vision of the economic crisis, too close to the truth for most people’s comfort.
Costello is in fine form on the this album. He has always been idiosyncratic, and this eclectic disc is no different: Tasteful and lyrically sophisticated, it meanders through genres from hard edged rock, New Orleans jazz, acoustic jazz, country, ballads, blues, with a little of the the old “Elvis Costello and the Attractions” thrown in for good measure. All the shifts in style and form are to further the narrative each song presents.
This is an album that rewards the patient listener — its not in your face (i.e., Vampire Weekend) but is filled with little subtleties. It gets better with subsequent listen.
1) Elvis’s home page is a wiki;
2) Courtesy of VF, you can stream the entire album here:
• Sade Soldier of Love
From the file “music to listen to that won’t make your wife annoyed” –
I used to occasionally listen to Sade back in the day — it was pleasant enough, inoffensive “seduction pop.” Sade’s sensual voice was the highlight of their music, even if the song’s quickly became overplayed, even cliched.
Soldier of Love is Sade’s most mature, sophisticated album. It has less pop hooks, and more eclectic, quirky and even joyous melodies.
• Favorite Mash Up: Girl Talk All Day
Any hip hop album that begins with Black Sabbath’s War Pigs gets my attention.
Add to that the free download, and the killer graphic of all the artists used, and you have the making of an instant hip hop classic.
There are 372 samples in the album, all instantly recognizable hooks. The mega mash up serves as rehabilitation for disposable pop of days gone by, lovingly assembled in a stupendously danceable form.
Bonus: Your teenage kids will be impressed you even know this.
• Favorite Electronica: The Chill Lounge – 26 Chilled Euro Tracks (iTunes)
Follow this progression: A reader sends me an MP3 of LTJ Bukem’s Logical Progression (from the out of print disc of the same name). I go ahubting for it, can’t find it, but stumble across this chill mix of etheral beats, containing a song from LTJ Bukem.
Airy jazzy, euro synth driven tunes, good for a relaxing massage or bubble bath.
• Box Set of the Year: Bruce Springsteen: The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge of Town Story
What do you do after a monster success like Born to Run? This set reveals not only how Darkness on the Edge of Town was made, but how Springteen was handling the challenge of new found super-stardom. “An unprecedented look into Springsteen’s creative process during a defining moment in his career.”
This is no ordinary box set– it includes six hours of film, two hours of audio across 3 CDs and 3 DVDs, along with an 80-page notebook, It also features The Promise: The Making of ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,‘ a ninety-minute documentary film directed by Grammy- and Emmy-winning filmmaker Thom Zimny.
The album itself shows Bruce’s talent for editing himself — no easy task for any artist. There are 22 unreleased songs in this package, and they could have easily slipped into The River or Born in the USA without disrupting much.
Fans of Springsteen will find this material fascinating; those of you who are unsure if this work will be to your liking should check out the outstanding reviews at the LATimes and especially Pitchfork.
• Beatles Covers: And speaking of Box Sets: Forget the Beatles on iTunes — anyone who wanted the full digital Fab Four catalogue bought the Box Set and ripped it lossless in 2009. Thsi year, I’ve been getting my Liverpool fix from various Beatles cover albums.
Here are a few are worth mentioning:
-LJ Plays the Beatles (plus Volume Two) Paul McCartney’s guitarist from his Wings period, Laurence Juber, recorded two albums of Lennon & McCartney music — all finger pickin, all acoustic guitar. Very mellow versions, that make for an interesting surprise when mixed into other playlists.
-Rubber Soulive: Imagine the Beatles covered by a jazzy retro groove band, recorded live-in-the-studio, sounding both old school and fresh at the same time. The drumming is all over the place, with a thumping jazz bassline. The essence of the melodies are all here, but the band takes them off in different directions. A very different, surprisingly fun find.
(You can stream the album at their site here)
-Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band: From the band that brought you Dub Side of the Moon, comes this reworking of the Beatle’s classic album, infused with reggae rythms. Its an upbeat, joyously fun outing, one that reworks Sgt Pepper’s surprisingly well.
Guest appearances by Steel Pulse, Matisyahu, Michael Rose [Black Uhuru], Luciano, U Roy, Bunny Rugs [Third World], Ranking Roger [English Beat], Sugar Minott, Frankie Paul, Max Romeo and The Mighty Diamonds.
Check out a few tunes here.