If you spend anytime at all reading this blog, you understand how much I love music. I’m always on the lookout for new music; these are the 2010 releases that are my favorites. Note: I’ve acquired all of these legally, most of them at extremely discounted prices at eMusic or the Amazon MP3 store. Now on to the list.
- Arcade Fire, The Suburbs. This album is simply a masterpiece. I raved about it back in August (click here), wondering out loud that this might be my favorite album of the year. Turns out that prediction held true. Sadly, in the digital download age, there just aren’t that many coherent rock albums being put out these days. The Suburbs, Arcade Fire’s third full-length record, is a pesky meditation on all that brims just below the surface in the superficial utopia of modern American suburbia: violence, apathy, easily discarded yearnings for meaning, and the pursuit of the almighty dollar. Arcade Fire always swings for the fences, unflinchingly treading into the thematic territory of giants as Funeral and Neon Bible can attest. But that’s part of what makes them great. And on The Suburbs everything simply works. Sonically, this record is a self-described amalgam of Depeche Mode and Neil Young. Lyrically, it’s easy to see that this is a band that’s knows they’ve hit the big time while remaining true to their indie band roots. Take, for instance, this line from “Ready to Start”: “Businessmen drink my blood / Like the kids in art school said they would.” But the greater theme of The Suburbs is the emerging generation’s discontent with the Pollyanna ideal of “the good life”: easy job, fat pension, 2.5 kids, picket fence, the whole nine yards. The album’s penultimate track “Sprawl II” gives voice to this frustration: “They heard me singing and they told me to stop / Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.” Win Butler’s response comes from “Modern Man”, another of this album’s many stellar cuts: “In line for a number but you don’t understand / Like a modern man.” “City With No Children”, a rumination on the agonizingly enduring period of recovery from love lost or rejected, contains perhaps my favorite lyric of the year: “You never trust a millionaire / Quoting the Sermon on the Mount”. The juxtaposition of sweeping, universal themes in such particular suburban settings is part of this album’s beauty and charm. Plus, it rocks. All in all, The Suburbs is simultaneously defiant and meditative, a full head and shoulders above the rest of the pack of 2010 releases. Download This: Modern Man, Sprawl II, City With No Children, We Used to Wait, Suburban War.
- Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More. This album has taken some time to percolate with me, which is funny because it has plenty of elements that I love: lyrical depth, tight harmonies, banjo accompaniment. But it just took some time for me to really get behind this one for some reason. However, it’s vaulted up the list in the last month; it’s actually been hard to turn it off and listen to anything else lately. Some have made the inevitable Avett Brothers comparison, but these Englishmen don’t have the same Americana sound that Seth and Scott have honed. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Vocally, lead singer Marcus Mumford is more like a Dave Matthews clone; same raspy voice, same taut phraseology. Only Dave never sampled Shakespeare on his records. Most of the songs begin slowly and melodically with layers of text and sound building to grand, rapturous crescendos. The most unfortunate thing about this album is the worst song — “Little Lion Man” — is the cut that’s received the most radio airplay. At any rate, this is still a great album with plenty of tremendous songs. A worthy #2 on this year’s list. Download This: Winter Winds, The Cave, Sigh No More, Roll Away Your Stone.
- Vampire Weekend, Contra. I’m becoming more convinced that these guys are going to be around for a long time. What began as a novelty interest for me (I mean, look at the band name!) has developed into a legitimate appreciation for the artistry of this band. Vampire Weekend puts out some of the catchiest pop hooks that are simply impossible to get out of your head. (See 2008’s “Mansard Roof” as Exhibit A.) And this album is full of such tuneful creations. There are still a few weak spots here, and their magnum opus is still yet-to-be-recorded, but this is an incredibly strong sophomore effort from a band with real chops. Download This: Run, Giving Up the Gun, Holiday.
- Ray LaMontagne & the Pariah Dogs, God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise. LaMontagne has been making vintage sounding records for years, albums that are drenched in the nostalgic sounds of 70’s-era AM radio singer-songwriter bluesy balladry. But with God Willin’, Ray La ventures into alt-country territory and the results are as welcome and comfortable as old denim. Pedal steel, acoustic guitars, mandolin, and sparse piano create a musical landscape for LaMontagne’s bluesy Cat-Stevens imitation. But what he lacks in imagination, he makes up for with execution. This is a very good record. Download This: New York City’s Killing Me, Like Rock & Roll And Radio, Devil’s In the Jukebox.
- Band of Horses, Infinite Arms. In May, I thought this one would rank higher than this. Over time, it drifted to the background, mainly because most of the
songs sound so similar it makes a full album listen a bit redundant. Still, this was an early summer favorite of mine for a reason: there are some great songs here. They’ve kind of become the “It” band of the moment, but I’m looking forward to what the future holds for these guys. Download This: On My Way Back Home, Evening Kitchen, Neighbor.
- Jakob Dylan, Women & Country. I’ve been following the younger Dylan since I stumbled across The Wallflowers’ debut disc at Media Play in 100 Oaks Mall back in my college days. Not knowing he was “Jakob Dylan”, I was drawn to this unknown band because of their artistry. And though he’s ditched the band for a solo career, the same holds true now, 15 years later. On the heels of a sparse acoustic solo debut in 2008, Dylan’s foray into country / western music suits his well-worn voice; guess it runs in the family. Download This: Standing Eight Count, Everybody’s Hurting, Holy Rollers For Love.
- Johnny Cash, American VI: Ain’t No Grave. It seems sacrilege to slot a Cash record this low; after all, some of his earlier American Recordings efforts rated fairly high on my previous year-end lists. While this album completes the American canon, these songs are solid, but not spectacular. There’s a reason these tunes have been sitting on Rick Rubin’s shelf for 7 years. The truth is Cash and Rick Rubin raised the bar pretty high with albums like American IV and My Mother’s Hymn Book. Death hangs like a pall over Cash’s final American Recordings sessions. With titles like “Ain’t No Grave”, “Redemption Day”, and “1 Corinthians 15.55″, it’s easy to see where Cash’s thoughts were in his final days. Overall, a haunting conclusion to a brilliant career. Download This: Ain’t No Grave is as chilling as any tune the Man in Black ever recorded. Also check out Redemption Day.
- Kings of Leon, Come Around Sundown. The formula is simple: lots of reverb, lots of echo, anthem-rock level choruses, cool coastal album cover. All the elements seemed to be in place for Leon’s Royalty to vault into the rarified air of the UBER-BAND with this record. And yet…something just doesn’t quite gel completely for me. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still really strong. But not in the way I wanted it to be. Still, some great tunes here that are worthy of your attention. Download This: Back Down South, Pyro.
- Josh Ritter, So Runs the World Away. I guess Ritter was due for something of a letdown with his next release. But I SOOO wanted this to be his iconic album. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. That said, Change of Time ignited my imagination unlike any other song this year, which is really saying something. Download This: Change of Time, Lantern.
- The National, High Violet. Ditto what I said about Ritter. Solid, but not signature. But these guys are awesome. Download This: Runaway, England.
- The Radio Dept., Clinging To A Scheme. A pleasant eMusic find that has
continued to satisfy with repeated listens. Most of you probably have never heard of them, but you should check them out if you need some chill rock to run or study with. Download This: Heaven’s On Fire, The Video Dept.
- Phosphorescent, Here’s to Taking it Easy. Another of my obscure alt-country eMusic bands. A lot of guys are doing this shtick, but these guys actually make retro alt-country sound fresh and relevant. Download This: I Don’t Care If There’s Cursing, It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re From Alabama).
- The Gaslight Anthem, American Slang. One of these days, these guys are going to be huge. And while I don’t love them the way many critics do, I can respect greatness when I see it. The Springsteen comparisons will never go away, I guess, but give them another five years and they’ll be huge. Huge. Heard it here first. Download This: The Queen of Lower Chelsea, Bring It On.
- Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, I Learned the Hard Way. This proves that my musical tastes are evolving, ever so slightly. This record sounds like you stepped into a time machine and entered the 60s Motown era. (I’m realizing how many of these albums are nostalgic in nature. I’m sure that says something about me.) Anyway, a great album full of soul and spunk from a classic voice. Download This: Better Things, Money.
- She & Him, Vol. II. I’m convinced M. Ward could record an Encyclopedia Brittanica album and it’d be interesting. I don’t know how the guy keeps the schedule he keeps, but I’ll listen to anything he puts out. This second set of tunes with Zooey Deschanel is superior to 2008’s Vol. I. Download This: Thieves, Gonna Get Along Without You Now.