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2010 top albums

May 14, 2012

Don’t count albums out – Despite changing taste, they still offer something new and different
Herald & Review (Decatur, IL) – Friday, January 7, 2011
Author: TIM CAIN ; H&R Entertainment Editor
“You’re doing a year-end list? Are you just going to list songs this time?”

“Does anybody buy albums anymore?”

Those are just a couple of the questions thrown my way in preparation for this, my 26th year-end favorite albums list.

And the answers are: “No. Still listing albums,” and, “Somebody must keep buying albums. Performers keep releasing them.”

For me (to say this again and again and again), the album is the most ideal art form. It can be broken down in chunks, it can be rearranged, it can tell a story, it can tell an entirely different story when arranged differently, pieces can be taken out to stand on their own, and it’s easy to return to albums and experience them repeatedly without making a huge commitment of time or energy.

As our music consumption style changes, fewer and fewer people agree with me. Single cuts are becoming the method of choice for most, and eventually, lists like these will be as quaint as the idea of a department store.

But in the meantime, here’s a list of some stuff that tore the top off my head this year. With any luck, between this and the video examples available this morning on my blog, you’ll find something new and different to experience yourself, in whatever way you choose to consume it.

1. Shooter Jennings & Hierophant, “Black Ribbons”

Choice cut: “All of This Could Have Been Yours”

A concept album built as a radio show on the eve of the conclusion of free speech, with Stephen King as the last DJ. It could have been pompous and bloated and overwrought and ridiculous. Instead, it’s pompous and tasty and dramatic and intelligent. Jennings lands on rock music with both boots and tries to kick some life into the beast. The year’s best head-banging and partying album. And the Stephen King stuff should just freak you out.

2. John Hiatt, “The Open Road”

Choice cut: “The Open Road”

Hiatt is one of America’s greatest songwriters, which can be proven with charts and graphs if necessary. Even the songs here that don’t seem to be about traveling and freedom are still exactly about that. Hiatt is that rarest of singer-songwriters who can make every mid-tempo song sound distinct and a beautiful listening experience.

3. Drive-By Truckers, “The Big To-Do”

Choice cut: “Drag the Lake Charlie”

Their Lynyrd Skynyrd-country rock-storytelling hybrid hasn’t been this striking in years. All three songwriters produced memorable melodies and stories again. That these guys aren’t one of the biggest bands in the United States may be one explanation for why the music industry is where it is today. They reportedly culled these tracks from a proposed double album and set aside more introspective material for a coming release. Wow.

4. Hanson, “Shout It Out”

Choice cut: “Thinking ‘Bout Somethin’ “

At some point, those of us who argue Tyler Hanson has one of the finest, purest pop voices ever won’t feel the need to justify the decision, and those of us who argue this band is well beyond the boy band category many wish to box them into will be proven correct. In the meantime, we’re stuck with enjoying these poppy and R&B-style treats of songs. We win either way.

5. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Mojo”

Choice cut: “Good Enough”

It comes as little surprise that an album received in such lukewarm fashion by Petty’s legions of followers smacked me between the ears and strikes me as his best in 30 years. My Petty love has rarely matched the masses’. These bluesy, lyrical songs don’t attempt to be anthems, they’re just solid and consistent and memorable efforts. If this is Petty not trying hard, maybe he should not try hard more.

6. Night Horse, “Perdition Hymns”

Choice cut: “Confess to Me”

No, you probably haven’t heard of them — they’re a California-based band that doesn’t appear to have gotten much farther east. But the Internet helped make me aware of them (via a British music magazine — crazy, eh?) These guys apparently spent a lot of time in their parents’ record collections. This sounds like a great album from 1976, and that’s meant in a complimentary way. A double-guitar attack with a fine rock singer leading the way, it’s the head-banging feel-good hit of the year.

7. Kasey Chambers, “Little Bird”

Choice cut: “Little Bird”

Chambers’ close-to-yodel of a voice may be an acquired taste, and her not-quite-country and not-quite pop style may be irritatingly coy to some. But she knows how to construct solid and unforgettable songs, and once she clicks with you, you’re going to find those songs have burrowed into your skull and set up residence.

8. Los Lobos, “Tin Can Trust”

Choice cut: “All My Bridges Burning”

Against all odds — how many groups are still churning great material 25 years after their debut, and please don’t say U2 — this veteran unit turns out its best album since 1992’s “Kiko.” Alternately deep and shallow, rootsy and fresh, and unmistakably Los Lobos all the way through, this is both a treat to their fans and a nice entreaty to potential new fans.

9. Jenny And Johnny, “I’m Having Fun Now”

Choice cut: “Big Wave”

Jenny is Lewis, of Rilo Kiley, and Johnny is Johnathan Rice, who’s recorded solo, was part of Lewis’ solo act band and is her life partner as well as musical partner. The pair combined the poppier songs they’d written into a 12-song collection that has more gravitas than might be suspected. Even Lewis’ pop has its share of tart.

10. Two Door Cinema Club, “Tourist History”

Choice cut: “This is the Life”

Sounding like it’s landed here from somewhere in the early 1980s, this reminds me of early XTC, but it may strike younger listeners as similar to Phoenix and The Postal Service. Hauntingly melodic sounds.

11. John Lennon, “Double Fantasy Stripped Down”

Choice cut: “(Just Like) Starting Over”

Not sure why this is just credited to Lennon, since the 1980 original was Lennon and Yoko Ono. This takes some of the overdubs and sheen away from the original release. Lennon’s personality shines through, and some songs benefit. Is it sacrilege to say, though, that what emerges as the best song on the album is Ono’s “Hard Times Are Over”?

12. Scissor Sisters, “Night Work”

Choice cut: “Fire With Fire”

Their first two albums, heavy with Elton John and disco pastiches, were campy fun but hardly seemed the way to build a career. Now they seem to be fading the jokiness into the background (while maintaining a sense of humor and fun) and working on making the tunes more memorable. A kind-of ballad is the best thing on the album. A really filthy call to sexual arms is the next best.

13. “Grace Potter & The Nocturnals”

Choice cut: “Paris (Ooh La La)”

The band’s move away from traditional blues into poppier, rockier and even reggae-ier directions has left some of their faithful puzzled and frustrated. But the result is their most consistent album, an amalgamation of musical styles highlighted with the best collection of songs Potter has composed in her career.

14. Seth Swirsky, “Watercolor Day”

Choice cut: “Matchbook Cover”

The multi-talented Swirsky has moved past the early Beatle-era (1964) fixation he had with the last Red Button album, and moved into the mid-60s and Beach Boys and other “sunshine pop” influences. If you miss 1967 pop, you must hear this. Plus, it features a wonderful tribute to Harry Nilsson.

15. Ike Reilly, “Hard Luck Stories”

Choice cut: “7 Come 11”

A little bit early Dylan and a little bit rock, Illinois native Riley turned out yet another package of finely crafted songs with pointed observations about love and lust and life.

16. Lissie, “Catching a Tiger”

Choice cut: “Little Lovin’ “

Another Illinois native, from Rock Island, Lissie is a singer-songwriter who’s a little heavier sounding than some females in the field, but not so much that you’d call her rock. As with so many other albums on this list, what puts it here is the quality of the songs. She has a distinctive voice, and some of her phrasings may give you pause, but you definitely know you’re not listening to a cookie-cutter album.

17. Devo, “Something for Everybody”

Choice cut: “What We Do”

How much of the whole concept is a joke is uncertain. They claim the entire package of this album was determined via market research. The whole thing could be a sophisticated joke, especially given the perpetrators. However, it earns its spot here because of the music, their best effort since their 1978 debut.

18. Mary Chapin Carpenter, “The Age of Miracles”

Choice cut: “I Put My Ring Back On”

As is the case with John Hiatt, Carpenter is remarkably consistent. All she does every three years is put out an album of excellent songs, and an album that works as a package — many of these tunes suffer when removed from what’s around them. She may never be at the top of the country or pop charts again, but that doesn’t seem to bother her and definitely hasn’t slowed her muse.

19. Cee Lo Green, “The Lady Killer”

Choice cut: “Forget You”

The best singer of his generation? Arguably. The voice of Gnarls Barkley struck again here, with a disjointed collection that could have been better had it only been more consistent. (The hip-hop tradition of working with multiple producers may be pleasing track by track, but it rarely works in an album format.) It’s that amazing voice, though, that cuts through and rises above all the issues.

20. The Dollyrots, “Eat My Heart Out”

Choice cut: “Jackie Chan”

Probably the most likable band on this list, The Dollyrots (who did six shows last year at Decatur Celebration) mash up punk rock, pop references and a wonderful sense of humor to make you want to dance, jump and holler at the heavens.

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