After faithfully abiding by the general "Top 10" guidelines for the past decade in my year-end lists, this year I simply had to expand it to a dozen (actually, a baker's dozen). I've often found myself cutting out one or two records that, depending on my day or mood, could have been switched out for another. Not this year. More choices mean more music to listen to. Every year is a great year in music, with 2010 being no exception. As you'll see, I keep referring back to artists "pushing boundaries," as it seemed an excellent time for many to do just that. I hope you enjoy these albums as much as I have over the past twelve months.
The Roots: How I Got Over/John Legend & the Roots: Wake Up!
Well yes, these are two complete separate albums from Iladelph's finest crew. In the spirit of consolidation (and not wanting to remove one of the remaining eleven), we witness a band that over the last two decades keeps getting better. What I've always loved about the Roots is that they reach for something different on each album. This does not necessarily always prove successful, yet with How I Got Over⎯a tour de force featuring an eclectic cast of characters, such as Monsters of Folk, Phonte, Joanna Newsome, Blu, Dice Raw and John Legend⎯the band has once again proved itself impossible to define. While they have received flack for being the Jimmy Fallon house band, that gig has doubtless opened their ears to an even broader possibility of sound, exhibited in the tasteful, bluesy hooks that dominate this record. Black Thought steps back and lets each guest shine, flawless when he throws back and lets loose. Credit the emcee for completely stepping aside and letting John Legend join the band for what is perhaps the finest R&B concept album since Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear, an album that itself began as a throwaway (as proceeds were to go to a divorce settlement) and turned into one of the great soul records of the '70s. Only Legend and crew are not contemplating marriage and heartbreak. Instead they tackle the toughest social issues of the day, including the two wars that America found itself in due to a trigger-happy president. The cover of Bill Withers' "I Can't Write Left-Handed" is one of the most beautiful accolades ever put down on tape, period.
Balkan Beat Box: Blue-Eyed Black Boy
On Blue-Eyed Black Boy, this unique Israeli/Palestinian/American configuration has gone from a band making great singles to one producing incredible albums. Using the backbeat of the Balkans, including the thorny plaints of the clarinet and stimulating drum marches, cumbia meets reggae meets electronica meets Romanian thrash parties. War is the devil and racism the thorn in human pride throughout this fine fourteen-song effort. While the dance floor sees plenty of action, it is the moving title track, with Tomer Yosef's poetic gravity weighing in on racism and intolerance, that shows just how much this band has evolved.
Vieux Farka Toure: Live
While Stevie Ray Vaughn showed how well a blues guitarist could adapt to the studio, the genre has always been about the raw, emotional catharsis of live performance. Two albums and two remix records behind him, the young Malian axeman released his finest album to date with this collection of live tracks recorded across the planet. The son of his country's finest example of bluesmanship (the late Ali), Vieux carries the torch brightly. His stunning nine-minute duet with the Australian Jeff Lang, "Walaidu," is the most ambitious and enjoyable song yet recorded in what promises to be a continually amazing career.
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