Let me just reiterate what a great year this has been for music. I can’t see how 2010 can even possibly measure up to ’09. A great way to close out the decade.
Back to the list:
10. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
I’m a little late to the party when it comes to this alt-country crooner. Actually, alt-country may be a bit of a misnomer; Case’s voice embodies her songs in a style that is truly unique. Her latest is a tour de force of songwriting acumen and beautifully emotive harmonies. There is something raw and elemental to Case’s artistry, and these are the qualities that make her quite the rarity. Of my top ten, this is the album most likely to climb two or three spots in the next few months. Download this: “This Tornado Loves You”, “Middle Cyclone”
9. Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band – Outer South
This guy has been busy lately. The former Bright Eyes frontman released a self-titled solo album last year while also collaborating with M. Ward, Mike Mogis and Jim James on the Monsters of Folk project. Somehow, he also found the time to release this stellar crop of songs with the Mystic Valley Band, the band he assembled in the wake of Bright Eyes’ hiatus / demise. The result is an album that is equal parts rollicking Americana and bluesy poetic sensibilities. The best track of the batch — the seven-minute “I Got the Reason” — functions as a microcosm of this rock / blues dichotomy. While the album would benefit from some editing — the 16 tracks here need to be trimmed to 10 or 12 — Outer South is an impressive recording nonetheless. Download this: “Slowly (Oh So Slowly)”, I Got the Reason
8. Bruce Springsteen – Working On A Dream
This was the first really great album I listened to in 2009. In my opinion, the E Street Band hasn’t sounded this vital in years. The band demonstrates their versatility by covering a wide range of song styles here: the wistful working man pop of the title track; the rollicking roadhouse blues of “Good Eye”; the gospel-choir tinged “The Last Carnival”. Even a throwaway cut like “Tomorrow Never Knows” sounds like a lost CCR track.
The highlight of the album, without a doubt, is the eight minute western epic “Outlaw Pete”. Springsteen uses the great American cowboy narrative and our infatuation with the West to plumb the themes of death, justice, redemption and forgiveness. I can’t help but think my Dad would’ve loved this song; Outlaw Pete is as conflicted and tortured a character as any Cash ever wrote about. (Well, except maybe that guy sitting in Folsom Prison.) Easily the coolest song of the year.
7. Monsters of Folk – Monsters of Folk
When M Ward, Conor Oberst, Jim James and Mike Mogis collaborated on this little folk-rock project, they had to know the Traveling Wilbury comparisons were going to come their way. What nobody knew is that the comparison would be justified. These four are at the top of their game here, plying their craft and swapping instrumental and vocal solos throughout. One of the best tracks is album-opener “Dear God”, an existential rumination on God’s goodness amid suffering. Who knew these folk-rock wunderkinds were interested in theology? This is the kind of project that could’ve easily turned into “too many cooks in the kitchen”; instead, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Download this: “Dear God”, “His Master’s Voice”.
6. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
These French purveyors of power pop have been labeled as “Strokes-lite”. Maybe, but they’re also producing literate rock music bereft of the self-absorption that derailed their NYC counterparts. Wolfgang is the product of ten years of honed craftsmanship; tight hooks, soaring harmonies, intelligent lyrics. This is indie-rock that yearns to be mainstream. But not at any cost. Take, for instance, the frenetic “Lisztomania”, an ode to 19th-century classic composer Frank Liszt who had young female fans fighting for his handkerchiefs at concerts a full century before the Beatles. The references to both Liszt and Mozart help situate the tension between true artistry and selling out for mass approval. Phoenix have clearly settled the issue for their fans: the adoring masses may come their way, but on the band’s terms. Download this: “1901”, “Countdown”.
5. Justin Townes Earle – Midnight at the Movies
Being the son of a legend must be tough. Following in Dad’s footsteps professionally without trading on his name has to be even more difficult. But with Midnight at the Movies, Justin Townes Earle establishes himself as a bona fide alt-country troubadour in his own right. His sophomore LP is made up of an organic set of folk-blues and country that boasts an everyman-wisdom rarely embodied by a twenty-something. But the lingering questions will always surround the young man and his surname; I can’t help but wonder if “Mama’s Eyes” is a thinly veiled response to those who want to cry nepotism: “I am my father’s son….We don’t see eye to eye….I’ve got my mama’s eyes / her long thin frame and her smile / and I still see wrong from right / cause I’ve got my mama’s eyes.” He may have his mama’s eyes, but he also demonstrates a songwriting ability and precise vocal delivery that approaches both Dad and his venerable namesake. Download this: “Mama’s Eyes”, “Walk Out”, “Can’t Hardly Wait”.
4. The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You
This album was something of a disappointment to a fan base that had grown accustomed to plenty of barn burning hoedowns on their Avett Brothers discs. But the fact that the raucous factor has been dialed down a notch should not take away from the fact that this is a great record. Uber-producer Rick Rubin has smoothed off some of the rougher edges but the result is a radio-ready LP that still boasts some of Scott and Seth’s best songwriting to date. In fact, this is probably best understood as the next step in the band’s natural maturation process. Balladry was always a viable option in the Avett Brothers canon. What they’ve produced here is an album of wall-to-wall ballads. And it works.
The center piece is the title track, a piano-drenched ballad about wanderlust and love lost. Written on tour (after a performance in Brooklyn, New York, a place that seemed as far away from home as any place the band had ever performed), the song laments “three words that became hard to say: I and Love and You.” It is out of this kind of heartfelt honesty that the entire album flows. “January Wedding” is a quirky ode to true love and winter weddings; “The Perfect Space” takes on the dangers of pride (“I wanna have pride like my mother has / And not the kind in the Bible that turns you bad.”); greed becomes the topic of discussion on the stellar “Ill With Want”. My favorite cut, though, is probably “Laundry Room”, a heart-wrenching plea for unrequited love. It also contains a grace note: a sixty-second bluegrass romp that simmers with banjo before exploding into a joyous eschaton of fiddle, guitar, and rhapsody. For just a brief moment, we’re reminded that these boys may be hitting the big time, but they haven’t forgotten their roots. Download this: “I and Love and You”, “Laundry Room”, “Ill With Want”.
3. Eels – Hombre Lobo
Pound for pound, this has to be the most surprising album of the year for me. I had a few free downloads over at eMusic and I came across this one and decided to give it a try. Little did I know that it would become one of the records I would listen to the most this year. I was initially drawn in by the great guitar-rock sound. But what truly gripped me was the lyrical depth. Thematically, the album deals with desire, specifically our deep-seated desire to find love. Hombre Lobo vacillates between yearning / churning rockers (“Prizefighter”, “Lilac Breeze”, “Fresh Blood”) and beautifully minimal sonnets (“The Look You Give That Guy”, “All the Beautiful Things”, “In My Dreams”). The album’s best line comes from “Ordinary Man”: I’d rather be alone than try to be someone that I’m not. You go, Hombre Lobo. These are clearly songs for the Wolf Man in all of us. Download this: “Fresh Blood”, “Ordinary Man”, “All the Beautiful Things”, “Beginner’s Luck”.
2. M Ward – Hold Time
This guy ought to be a household name. He certainly doesn’t lack for trying. In addition to his side project on “She and Him” and moonlighting with the Monsters of Folk gang, Ward produced one of this year’s best albums, in my opinion. Hold Time is an effortless amalgam of blues, folk, country, and gospel that sounds at once immediate and timeless. Ward has played with these genres on previous efforts, but never this well. Americana soul is perhaps the best way to describe this beautiful meandering record.
Hold Time, much like some of Ward’s earlier work, attempts to capture some of our timeless musical expressions while simultaneously reinterpreting them, a difficult — if not impossible — task. Yet, Ward has achieved something that sounds fresh alongside the rest of my favorite albums this year while still retaining a proper sense of perspective. For me, it all works. “One Hundred Million Years” would be comfortably at home on the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack; “Never Had Nobody Like You”, with its guitar grind and drum stomp, pulsates pure rock ‘n roll fun; covers of “Rave On” and “Oh Lonesome Me” attempt to apprehend music’s transcendent quality. The guy’s not afraid to name drop either: Lucinda Williams, Zooey Deschanel, and Jason Lytle all make cameo appearances on Hold Time. But in the end, this is still Ward’s record. And his record is a great one. In any other year, this might’ve been at the top of my list. Download this: “Never Had Nobody Like You”, “Epistemology”, “To Save Me”, “Rave On”, “For Beginners”.
1. U2 – No Line on the Horizon
It’s one thing to say this is my favorite album of the year; it’s another thing entirely to say this is my favorite U2 album. After their last two releases (2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb), I wondered if No Line could possibly measure up. It did. It would’ve been easy for Bono and the boys to mail this one in; after 30 years as the best band in the world and on the heels of two critically acclaimed albums, a subpar effort was almost expected. I mean, how long can they honestly keep this up, right? But No Line plumbed enough familiar terrain to make it a U2 album, but it was risky enough to make it worth listening to. In my opinion, the band has never sounded better. The Edge plays with the ferocity of a mad man here — especially on “Breathe” and “Unknown Caller”. As always, however, Bono’s voice is the band’s greatest instrument. “I was born to sing for you/I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up,” he sings on “Magnificent”. Indeed, Bono.
There are plenty of great songs here: “Magnificent” and “Moment of Surrender” are already live staples. The understated minimalism of “Cedars of Lebanon” and the world-weariness of “Fez – Being Born” help create a sound that is much more textured than anything on How to Dismantle… or All That You Can’t Leave Behind. But the best song on the album, hands down, is “Breathe”, a timely song about fearmongering and the courage it takes to rise up against the fear that is so prevalent. Its a song about refusing to buy what they sell on talk radio and the cable news networks every day. Its about finding all that you need in the siren song of grace amid fears both local and global. Ultimately, in these uncertain times, Bono affirms “I found grace, it’s all that I found.”
In a year when my theme word, my root concept has been hope, there’s not been a refrain that’s filled my ears more often than this one. I love the wistful, hopeful line: “These days are better than that.” Download this: “Breathe”, “Moment of Surrender”, “Magnificent”, “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”, “Cedars of Lebanon”.