I feel pretty confident in saying I’ve taken procrastination to an entirely new level. It’s been an incredibly busy year, but that’s not much of an excuse for posting a 2010 list in September of 2011, especially because I diligently compiled this list throughout 2010, then refined it based on other year-end lists in January, and even had its order fairly settled, complete with highly considered playlist, by late February. And then there were the many polite jabs and pokes by you, my good friends, many of who drive me to make the list in an effort to continue our ongoing conversation about good and great music.
Perhaps I’ll win back some credibility by confessing that I’ve been punishing myself for every day of delay. In a gesture that may have been brought on subliminally by my living on puritan soil, I’ve not allowed myself to listen to ANY new music in 2011, forcing myself to wait until this list was completed. Obviously, it’s not been the motivator I had hoped it would be, but it’s also possible I might have been the guy that would self-flagellate in the dead of night 300-plus years ago. But I digress . . .
I could write a longer introduction to set up this list, but I’m fearful of this thing pushing into yet another calendar year (I also could have spent more time cleaning it up, please forgive the grammar and spelling issues you will surely find). Fortunately, music worth listening to doesn’t go stale, not very quickly anyway, so I’m guessing you’ll find something worth picking over in the pile below.
So what do you think? Anything still got your toes tapping from 2010? What’s that refrain you can’t get out of your head? In short, what did I miss? If this list is anything, it’s an excuse to add to it.
Here’s hoping something catches your ear . . .
1. Saint Bartlett by Damien Jurado
Songs: Cloudy Shoes, Rachel & Cali, Throwing Your Voice, Wallingford
Jurado’s been nothing short of prolific since his debut in 1997, launching a new album almost every year since then. His oeuvre is something of a mixed bag, hinting at massive potential, with some very good albums, some less than that, but almost always a gorgeous, heartbreaking track or two on each, including “Hoquiam” and “Ohio,” among others. Whether this is the evolution of his talent, or him putting it all together in this one moment, we won’t know until his next effort, but it’s safe to say he found himself in _Saint Bartlett_. You know five notes into the opening track, “Cloudy Shoes,” that this is a new direction, a direction one would have to assume was enabled by producer Richard Swift. At his best, Jurado is a storyteller, and leverages a stripped-down approach to accentuate earnest tales of lost souls and broken dreams, but this album is much more expansive, both sonically and in emotional depth. The aforementioned opener is a harrowing, personal narrative with a symphonic baseline, while more spare tunes like “Rachel & Cali” become ever more intimate with a subtle echoing effect. Musically, you’re going to hear strong influences from Neil Young and the Flaming Lips, but those parts are borrowed to great affect, not stolen. Do yourself a favor and spend a spare evening with this one.
“Sometimes I wish you knew/how I keep living for you/A friend is only a love you cannot commit to”
– Rachel & Cali
2. A Badly Broken Code by Dessa
Songs: Dixon’s Girl, Matches to Paper Dolls, Seamstress
Exceedingly personal, clearly autobiographical, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Dessa, prior to her work with Minneapolis-based Doomtree, got her start in spoken-word poetry. This album has a presence, an assumed confidence, staring you back into your chair rather than punching you in the mouth. _Code_ harkens back to the roots of rap in that its picking itself up by its own bootstraps, attempting to heal a fractured past with strong, literate rhymes and lilting refrains. Musically, Dessa layers in strings, choruses, piano, a refined, strong voice, and exceedingly danceable beats. Self-empowerment at its best. Feels like there’s room to grow here, too. Should be interesting to see where she goes next.
“It’s a tired plot but we bought it/Now we’re lost/Between love and cholera/Saccharine read, such a sentimental novel”
– Matches to Paper Dolls
3. In Memory Of Loss by Nathaniel Rateliff
Songs: Once in a Great While, Oil & Lavendar, You Should Have Seen the Other Guy, Whimper and Wail
Rateliff apparently took his time putting this debut album together, and boy does it ever show. His deep voice and rode-hard lyrics convey a profound sense of solemnity, a true sense of centeredness. The songs are deeply personal and charming, somehow apologetic and revelatory, but are almost always cut with a bit of self-deprecation. Musically and lyrically, this album displays an amazing amount of craftsmanship. Simply amazing to think this is his first recorded work.
“One was set to carry you/but never came./I was laying hungry/but surprised to be.
But I sure love/the way that you linger/here”
– Once in a Great While
4. Magic Central by Breathe Owl Breathe
Songs: Owl Stunts, Dogwalkers of the New Age, House of Gold
If there’s any benefit to this self-indulgent list coming out so late, it’s these guys. The lovely Miss Abbi Uhrick introduced them to be only recently, having stumbled upon them herself up in her native Michigan environs. Admittedly, it’s not as strong as their 2006 album, Canadian Shield (more below), but that effort was probably a little too good to live up to. _Magic_ stands on its own, unfolding a variety of colorful vignettes, in turns blithe, witty, abstract, and vulnerable. It’s also less string-oriented than _Shield_, sometimes leaning more on percussion, or subtle, electronic layering or stuttered choruses. Even if the lyrics are a bit abstract at times, you probably won’t even realize it until a given song is over, thanks to the confidence and earnestness that drives all the way through _Magic._ This is a band to pay attention to.
“Fragile bones and a bird wing suit/This is not what I am used to/Cross my heart and hope to…/Cross my heart and hope to…”
– Owl Stunts
5. View of the Sky by Paleo
Songs: World’s Smallest Violin, King James Fakebook, Me and Mabelene
The title track kicks off this album, and it’s a perfect representation of what follows, a beautifully combustable, teetering collection of distorted horns, deep base, reverberating guitars, strained, broken voices, hand-claps, and maybe even a penny whistle thrown in for good measure. This rambling wreck jauntily pushes forward from the very beginning, disarming you with its exuberance and charming earnestness. Paleo is the namesake of David Strackany, who might be best known for his “Song Diary” project, recording a song a day for a year while traveling across the U.S. It’s hard not to think of Neutral Milk Hotel at first listen, what with the pleasantly strange combination of sounds thrown at you right off the bat, but _View_ reveals itself to be much sunnier and less intimate, maybe even popularly minded at times. It proves to be garsh darn fun when it comes down to it, providing a bit of depth and virtuosity to boot.
“Reminisce in the kiss that she cares for/Her father at his desk pouring over files/An envelope of tacks and a pyramid of pushpins/Wife keeps sentences, don’t forget to smile”
– King James Fakebook
6. Here’s To Taking It Easy by Phosphorescent
Songs: It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re from Alabama), Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly), Mermaid Parade
Phosphorescent launched a Willie Nelson tribute album just a year prior to this latest one, and it appears they’ve internalized Nelson’s cowboy spirit. _Taking it Easy_ comes out swinging with a true shit-kicking, toe-tapper, “It’s Hard to be Humble,” drawing out pride in one and all through its boastful defiance. Thankfully, Matthew Houck doesn’t tone down his daring going forward, neither lyrically, nor in the countrified rock he started with, but he does expose himself just enough via back-handed apologies and wary pleas. And this album features what just might be the best song of the year, an absolutely heartbreaker, “Mermaid Parade.” I’m giving a way a bit with the gut-punching final stanza below, but I can’t help myself.
“Yeah, I’ve found a new friend too/yeah, she’s pretty and small/but goddamn it, Amanda,/oh, goddamn it all.”
– Mermaid Parade
7. Gorilla Manor by Local Natives
Songs: Wide Eyes, Airplanes, Sun Hands, Warning Sign
_Gorilla Manor_ is yet another debut album, with L.A.’s Local Natives living up to their name. _Manor_ throws together all kinds of deep-driving, rhythmic percussion, three-part harmonies, and earthly references, manifesting in a sound that might count as tribal if not for all the great guitar work that holds it together. I’ve seen some reviews accusing Natives as being a bit derivative of recent successful indie bands like Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear, but that seems like a convenient way to dismiss a band that represents a sound you don’t care for. While I’ll acknowledge there are similarities–big, expansive, polyphonic–Local Natives enter the fray with absolutely their own sound, and they own the hell out of it.
“The desk where you sit inside of a/frame made of wood/I keep those chopsticks you had from when/you taught abroad in Japan”
8. Broken Bells by Broken Bells
Songs: The High Road, The Ghost Inside, Mongrel Heart
It’s surprising that this collaboration didn’t get more press, as much for the names involved as for the output they produced. With _Broken Bells_, Danger Mouse continues his legacy of getting the most out of new and existing acts, adding depth to the Shins’ James Mercer, front man to a band that is perhaps an unlikely face of indie rock, one that really hasn’t evolved in the way some may have hoped. At their best, the Shins are idiosyncratic shoe-gazers, with Mercer very clearly leading the charge with his yearning voice and abstract, solemn lyrics. But he’s clearly sharing the stage in _Bells_, complimenting the pulsating rhythms and ethereal syncopation as they do his beautiful voice and brooding lyrics. _Bells_ is an absolute departure from anything the Shins ever did–my word, it’s downright danceable–but it’s also very much a Mercer project, enough so that you’ll be working in _Oh, Inverted World_ to your rotation after a few listens.
“The dawn to end all nights, that’s all we hoped it was/A break from the warfare in your house, to each his own
The soldier is bailing out, and curled his lips on a bar/And I don’t know if the dead can talk, to anyone.”
– The High Road
9. The Big To-Do by Drive-By Truckers
Songs: The Fourth Night of My Drinking, Birthday Boy, Drag the Lake Charlie
If you haven’t given the Truckers much thought in the past, this might be the right time to do so. Admittedly, I’ve not paid much attention to them myself, passing them off as some sort of token gesture of southern rock to the indie scene. Big, big mistake. While there’s a clear theme to their work, you’ll be hard pressed to find an album in recent memory that so genuinely feels like a collection of short stories. _To-Do_ tells one twisted tale after the other, about the downtrodden, the self-loathed, the broken, the “grotesques,” as Sherwood Anderson might say. But there’s more than great stories here, as the Truckers provide something like theme music to these awry narratives, with a classic-rock inspired sound, played very, very well.
“On the second night of my drinking I was looking for my car/And as luck would have it I found it parked outside my favorite bar
I had a leather liver and lipstick streaks/I had a disposition of valleys and peaks.”
– The Fourth Night of My Drinking
10. Good Morning, Magpie by Murder By Death
Songs: On the Dark Streets Below, King of the Gutters/Prince of the Dogs, Foxglove
Boozy, rogue, literate, what’s not the like? _Magpie_ appears to be a step up in quality from past efforts, representing a bit of refinement in Murder’s sound, smartly centering things around Adam Turla’s amazing voice. He’s been consistently compared to Johnny Cash, and though it’s plenty rich and strong, Turla is a little more playful, sometimes theatrical, which is what really makes these songs so good. _Magpie’s_ seedy towns and dark alleys will remind you a bit of the Decemberists, its western undertones of Calexico, and the cacophony of horns of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, but, in the end, they feel something like an exceptionally refined barroom band. _Magpie_ is a fine show in itself, worth going back to a few times.
“The girl waited for me/young and pretty/she gave me something cool to drink/and that was it for me.”
11. Epic by Sharon Van Etten
Songs: Peace Signs, One Day, Love More
I’m cheating here a little, as _Epic_, despite its title, is a slim seven-songs in volume. And despite lyrics that are, at times, a little melodramatic, Van Etten’s delivery is down-right seductive, bringing an immense amount of gravity to her simple rock songs of love unrequited, lost. The album wallows in the pain of a broken heart, reveling in all the anguish that comes with it. You can picture Van Etten singing each song while gazing out her bedroom window, or slowly turning her head from one side of the pillow to the other. “One Day” is the clear standout track, as good as any you’ll hear on the playlist below.
“Call me aside and i will now be/and i will be fine with that/don’t leave me now, you might love me back”
– One Day
IN THE ARGUMENT
- Fields by Junip
- So Runs The World Away by Josh Ritter
- Learning by Perfume Genius
- Mumford and Sons by Mumford and Sons
- This Is Happening by LCD Soundsystem
- The Suburbs by Arcade Fire
- Feast Of The Hunters’ Moon by Black Prairie
- Band of Joy by Robert Plant
- The Sea by Corinne Bailey Rae
- Brothers by The Black Keys
- Mimicking Birds by Mimicking Birds
– Infinite Arms by Band Of Horses. Change lead singers, traded angst for banality.
– Hadestown by Anais Mitchell. Feels like Justin Vernon and some friends decided to improvise a Decemberists album. Oooh, a concept album with Justin Vernon! And the fact that he refuses to sing without his patented, synthensized overlay really adds to the old-timey theme they were apparently going for here. I’m really not clear why people aren’t yet highly annoyed that he taints what is a very nice voice, even though he’s featured prominently on approximate 15 new albums every year.
– Blue Giant by Blue Giant. Kept running across this album in recommendations, not sure why. It brings so little to the table that it’s actually sort of hard to make fun of.
– The Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens. Painful. Just hoping this is a transition record he needed to make in order to work in electronic sounds. The phonetic use of “z” in the title should have been a clue, but, hey, it’s Sufjan. It just plain hurts my ears.
– Canadian Shield by Breathe Owl Breathe. This might actually be the best album I’ve heard all year. Thank you, Abbi, for the recommendation. A full sound, both playful and serious, wholly genuine. I can’t stop listening to it.
– Song Up In Her Head by Sarah Jarosz. Felt a little like the first time I heard Gillian Welch. Literally arresting. Thank you, Heather!
King of California by Dave Alvin. Via Mike Peterson. Classic songwriting, in the spirit of Townes Van Zandt.
– Mescalito by Ryan Bingham. I’ve still not seen Crazy Heart, which featured his work, voice, in place of Jeff Bridges, but it’s press did lead me to this nice little album.
– Pomplamoose Videosongs by Pomplamoose. Yeah, I found them via a car commercial. I can’t blame them for making an extra buck or two. A little lounge, a little funk, they know how to play with a low base. Good stuff.
– Further In by Greg Brown. Heather Moore recommended this years ago, and I’m kicking myself for not getting to it sooner. Classic.