As usual, in creating my annual top 10 albums of the year, I limited myself to albums of original, contemporary studio work. This year, that was harder to do than in previous years. Ruling out reissues meant I had to toss out pretty much the greatest rock album ever made (Exile on Main Street, which saw a fantastic update this year) as well as some other great new looks at old material (Weezer's Pinkerton springs to mind). No live albums meant nixing the Avett Brothers' awesome live set, and casting out compilations of old work meant overlooking Bob Dylan's Witmark Demos. That said, even in limiting myself to new studio work, cutting the list down to 10 proved a difficult task. But here it is, for better or worse, the top 10 albums of 2010, according to me.
10. The Grand Theatre, Vol. 1 by Old 97's
Were it not for the excellent 2008 album Blame It on Gravity, it would be easy to call The Grand Theatre, Vol. 1 the best thing the Old 97's have done since their 1997 masterpiece Too Far To Care. As it stands, that honor goes to Gravity, but only by a hair. The Grand Theatre is as close as a live album can get to making this list -- it was recorded in a concert hall, trying to preserve the live sound as much as possible. But for a band like the Old 97's, whose live show is far more important than recorded work, that's the best way to go about it.
9. The Lady Killer by Cee-Lo Green
If Sharon Jones is carrying the torch for funk, then Cee-Lo Green is the 21st century's soul provider. Let's face it -- "Fuck You" alone should put this album on the list. Rarely has a broken heart been so hilarious. But that's the great thing about Green -- his ability to temper the all-too-serious milieu of love-struck neo-soul with his brand of twisted humor. The Lady Killer is Green's best solo album, and all three of them have been solid.
8. The Heavy Pets by the Heavy Pets
With their long-awaited follow-up to the 2007 double-disc debut album Whale, the Heavy Pets have firmly ensconced themselves in the national jam band scene. The new album features a guest appearance by Blues Traveler's John Popper and production work by Scott Mathews, whose previous credits include work with everyone from Jerry Garcia to Elvis Costello and Joey Ramone. The new album reflects a more-mature sensibility in its improved vocal harmonies and more-varied influences, and the Heavy Pets, now touring across the country, are ready for prime time.
7. Ali and Toumani by Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté
It's only the final album of perhaps the greatest guitarist Africa has ever produced, so there's that. But Diabaté's kora performance can't be understated, the African hybrid harp playing just as big a role on this album. Touré always considered himself more of a rice farmer who occasionally played guitar than a full-fledged guitarist, and this final album from the man, who died of bone cancer in 2006, can't help but raise the question: What if he'd done a little more guitar work, a little less rice farming? Not that rice farming isn't honest work, of course, but man, I just can't believe this is the last I'll hear of the guy. I hadn't even been turned on to him until 2005's In the Heart of the Moon, and now, I'll never hear anything new out of him again. Shit.
6. I Learned the Hard Way by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
With 2007's 100 Days, 100 Nights and its slower, more-Motown-than-Stax sound, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings had me fearing that they were mellowing with age; that the funk had, in a sense, been given up. But I Learned the Hard Way finds Jones and her cohorts blasting out a funk-soul revival as good as the group's Dap Dippin' debut. While every disposable pop hero claims to pay homage to the Motown singers of 40 years ago, Jones reliably reflects their influences and makes no excuses for her straight-up, old-school funk.
5. The Wild Hunt by the Tallest Man on Earth
The comparisons to early Bob Dylan are totally unavoidable, and it's not just the nasally voice or the reliance on acoustic instrumentation. Even song titles such as "Honey Won't You Let Me In" sound culled from a long-lost Dylan recording session. The EP that Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson (a.k.a. the Tallest Man on Earth) released this year, Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird, is great, but way too Dylan-esque for a guy who gets this many comparisons to the man. Instead, it's Matsson's full-length April release, The Wild Hunt, that goes on my list. Although stripped down to its bare essentials, Matsson's music is nonetheless deceptively complex, and his imagery-filled lyrics have a gorgeous, poetic sensibility that brings to mind ... well, you know who.
4. Brothers by the Black Keys
The Black Keys flirted with psychedelic influences on its first four albums, but these slight tendencies were almost wholly subsumed beneath the sludgy, blues-based power that defined the duo's sound. But the trippiness with which Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney flirted on those albums blossomed into hazy maturity on 2008's Danger Mouse-produced Attack and Release and Auerbach's 2009 solo debut, Keep It Hid. This year's Brothers is a perfect synthesis of the two Black Keys: gritty, powerful, blues-based rockers and acid-drenched psychonauts. Having combined these two tendencies successfully for the first time, the Black Keys turned in its best album to date.
3. Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty by Big Boi
The rap album of the year, bar none, in what was overall a pretty good year in hip-hop. With "Shutterbugg," the album also represents the first new work in years by South Floridian wastoid cautionary tale Scott Storch. Significantly, that may be the best song on an album filled with instantly memorable tunes. Despite the undeniable charisma of Andre Benjamin, Big Boi has always been the outstanding songwriter of OutKast. Sure, The Love Below had "Hey Ya," but overall, Speakerboxxx was undeniably the better half of that seminal work. And since then, as Benjamin has gone off into production work and a film career, Big Boi has kept the faith.
2. The Guitar Song by Jamey Johnson
About goddamned time outlaw country reared its grizzled head to spit tobacky juice in the face of the glossy, Taylor Swift-ian sound that utterly dominates modern country music. Over the past couple of decades, artists who would have formerly been labeled country, though of the outlaw variety, have been decidedly persona non grata on country music stations and throughout the industry. Relegated to subgenres such as "contemporary folk," "Americana" or "alt-country," singer-songwriters such as Steve Earle were left staring through the window into the warm, inviting home that is mainstream country music, even when the previous generation's Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard were welcomed inside ... well, perhaps tolerated inside would be more apt. But to continue the already tortured metaphor, Jamey Johnson has picked up a brick, thrown it through that window and stepped on through. His tales of a country boy lost amid the swirl of the big city ("Playing the Part," "California Riots") fit right in to the outlaw country tradition, and he's equally game for a rollicking asskicker or a cryin'-in-your-beer-ballad. And if that ain't country, I'm pretty sure this Marine vet will kick your ass.
1. True Love Cast Out All Evil by Roky Erickson With Okkervil River
I don't follow the party line on a lot of rock-critic conventional wisdom. I think Pitchfork is practically a self-parody at this point, Wesley Willis played atrocious music for an exploitive audience, Chuck Klosterman hasn't had anything interesting to say since Fargo Rock City, and Wilco has grown a lot less fun (though perhaps a bit more interesting) the farther it's strayed from its high, lonesome roots. But I do share with most critics a deep love of the oeuvre of Roky Erickson, which has made True Love Cast Out All Evil even more satisfying than it would have been otherwise. The fact that this album is his best since he fronted the 13th Floor Elevators almost half a century ago doesn't quite do it justice. This album isn't simply a return to form after a couple of decades wandering in the wilderness, like Bob Dylan's one-two punch of Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, or Johnny Cash's American series. Erickson returned from the absolute brink: a penniless burnout who never saw a dime of royalties, mentally unstable and physically broken. That he was able to put this album out at all is a miracle; the fact that it's the best thing I heard all year makes Erickson's comeback one for the record books. The songs on True Love Cast Out All Evil reflect Erickson's journey: harrowing, chaotic, but in the end, hopeful. That Erickson somehow maintained a positive outlook on life in spite of everything may be the greatest part of this, the greatest comeback story in the history of rock 'n' roll.
The Suburbs by the Arcade Fire
The Big To-Do by Drive-By Truckers
Beach House by Beach House
For more on this year's albums, including the long list of previous top 10 winners who failed to make this year's list, the most overrated album of the year, and the worst album of the year, check out the full story at:
Follow Dan Sweeney on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Daniel_Sweeney