In 2010, I went from being 40 to being in my early 40s. I also went from someone who's able to go out and see bands at night to being a parent. So don't think this list of my favorite records of the last year is anything but totally random; it's albums that happened to catch my ear while I was otherwise occupied with changing diapers, getting too little sleep and losing touch (even more) with popular culture in the bargain. That said, I think my top ten are all worthy of the honor, and I would have dug them even if I'd gotten to hear ten times as much new music in 2010.
With all that in mind, here are...
My Ten Favorite Records Of 2010
10. Kanye West -- My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-A-Fella Records). Slowly but surely, over the last seven or eight years, I've stopped feeling the need to hear the newest and latest masterpieces beloved by the hipsters and criterati. I've liked most of what I've heard by Kanye West; his are among the few hip-hop albums I buy lately. But as a cranky, sleep-deprived new parent in the throes of box sets by hipsters like Duke Ellington and John Lennon, I declared (on Twitter, no less) that there was absolutely no need for me to hear Kanye's latest magnum opus. Until I heard a track on YouTube. And liked it. And heard another and liked it even more. At the end of December, I broke down and bought the damn thing. And it really is as good as everyone says. I'm sure you've read at least one of the many, many glowing reviews the album has received in every paper, magazine and blog, so I'll just say I agree. I'd probably place this one higher if I'd gotten to listen to it more before year's end. The fault is mine alone.
9. Tom Jones -- Praise & Blame (Mercury Nashville). It's a shame that Sir Tom is generally thought of as a hairy-chested, medallion-wearing lounge lizard relic from the '70s. Because, like him or mock him, the guy can take just about anything from "That Old Black Magic" to "Lust For Life" and sing the shit out of it. At age 70, with his voice in astonishingly good shape, he tackles what could loosely be called a religious album, though it encompasses songs by everyone from Bob Dylan to John Lee Hooker to Billie Joe Shaver and Susan Werner. The all-star backing band is a little too tame and polite -- I wish they'd pushed Jones a little rather than relying on him to bring forth all the fire and brimstone. But bring it he does. And if you only know Tom Jones from hits like "What's New Pussycat," take a listen to his ferocious cover of John Lee Hooker's "Burning Hell." The scales will fall from your ears, believe me.
8. New Pornographers -- Together (Matador). At their best, the New Pornos are a perfect blend of exuberance and craft, with hook-filled melodies and soaring choruses that can tug at your heartstrings and make you think, "Damn, what an interesting chord progression!" at the same time. Their last album, 2007's Challengers, started to tone down the exuberance a bit in favor of craft, and the trend continues on Together. It's their least thrilling album to date, and if I had to recommend one album of theirs it would still be 2005's Twin Cinema. But even at something less than full steam, this is among the greatest bands of the last decade, and a good chunk of Together still delivers the spine-tingling pop delights I've come to expect from them.
7. Cee-Lo Green -- The Lady Killer. Sometimes I feel like Cee-Lo exists so that old farts like me can say, "Hey, I still like some new music!" His tunes and production often evoke the great R & B and pop hits of the '70s and '80s with just enough of a hip-hop edge to make me feel something less than totally un-hip. And if he attaches a brilliant lyric like "Fuck You" to a finger-snapping beat and a bouncy melody that kids and grownups can both dig, then so much the better. What really makes the album for me is his gorgeous voice. He'd have been one of the great soul singers of any era, and in 2010 he's head and shoulders above the rest.
6. The Dead Weather -- Sea Of Cowards (Warner Bros). The first album by the White Stripes/Kills/Queens Of The Stone Age supergroup, Horehound, left me cold -- it felt to me like a failed experiment more than a cohesive album. But on the follow-up, I think they've reached their destination, and that place is Rawk Central. Eleven tracks of roaring, pounding, Zeppelin-esque whomp-whomp-whomp and thud-thud-thud, with Allison Mosshart (and sometimes Jack White) yelling and screaming on top of it all. It gets my blood pumping, my juices flowing, and set my head to banging. A fun, loud record that your inner 12-year-old will love.
5. Sweet Apple - Love & Desperation (TeePee). Led by Cobra Verde alum John Petkovic and featuring Dinosaur Jr's J Mascis, you might think that this would be a '90s-styled indie rock nostalgia-fest. But if Love & Desperation harkens back to another era, it's the '70s, right down to the racy cover based on Roxy Music's Country Life. Big power chords and fist-pumping choruses predominate -- and of course, given the personnel, the music's got a bit of a grunge vibe as well. But these killer tunes would have gone over in 1974 as well as 1994. In 2010, sadly, the album got lost in the shuffle, but it's never too late to check it out.
4. The Parting Gifts -- Strychnine Dandelion (Into The Red). I came to dig the Reigning Sound rather late, and I know next to nothing about the Ettes, so I'm judging this meeting of the minds between Reigning Sound frontman Greg Cartwright and the Ettes' Coco Hames on its own merits. And it's freaking brilliant. First-rate garage-rock raveups, country-tinged stompers and gorgeous ballads, all played with gusto by a host of special guests including Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Both Cartwright and Hames are tremendous vocalists, so the only bad thing about the album is that they only duet on one song -- and of course it's the best track on the album. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the Parting Gifts evolve into more than a one-off.
3. The Soundcarriers -- Celeste (Melodic UK). I've always admired Stereolab's '60s pop-meets-droning art rock sound, but their stonefaced, chilly vibe has always left me a little, well, cold. Enter the Soundcarriers, who sound quite similar on the surface but with just a touch of "Age-Of-Aquarius" thrown in. The guy and gal vocalists, who often sing together in harmony, sound not only human, but somewhat happy as well. The grooves ebb and flow, the drones and melodies balance each other out, and the result is one of the most gorgeous, hypnotic albums around. Actually, Celeste isn't exactly "around," because it hasn't yet come out in the States, but it should be easy enough to find from various online purveyors.
2. Jason Falkner -- I'm OK... You're OK (Cobraside). This was my favorite album of 2007, when it was only available as a Japanese import. Three years later, it's finally out in the States with different artwork and a couple of new tracks, and it's still a great album. Falkner's well-known by musicians -- he's worked with Air, Cheap Trick, Brendan Benson and Paul McCartney, to name just a few -- but his brilliantly crafted and performed power-pop has never managed to find a significant audience (I wrote about his career at length here). I'm OK... didn't do anything to change that, so you can still be the first on your block to hear it. Apologies for quoting myself, but I can't find a superior way to rephrase it: If you like the Beatles, or XTC, or ELO, or Big Star -- any pop music with strong melodies and intelligent lyrics, really -- then Jason Falkner belongs in your pantheon of faves.
1. The Posies -- Blood/Candy (Ryko). In 1993, the Posies created their masterpiece, Frosting On The Beater, which channeled the power of the Who, the harmonies of the Hollies, and the songcraft of the Zombies and brought it all forward into the Age Of Grunge. It never reached as wide an audience as it should have, because Nirvana fans had no use for the shimmering pop that lay beneath the power chords and pounding drums. Record company pressures and intra-band turmoil laid the Posies low, and by the end of the '90s they were relegated to part-time status, as founding members Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer pursued solo careers and played with everyone from R.E.M. to William Shatner.
It took 17 years, but with Blood/Candy, the Posies have fulfilled the promise of Frosting On The Beater. It's like watching your underachieving, class-cutting child suddenly turn into the class valedictorian with an acceptance letter to Harvard. You can hear echoes of what they've done before, but they go far beyond it into new styles and textures and sounds. The musical breadth and depth of Blood/Candy is astonishing. They jump effortlessly from new wave-tinged rockers to Queen-like bombast to stunning Beatlesque ballads to jazzy art-pop, without losing their touch with hooks that lodge themselves in your cranium and refuse to let go.
I knew half a dozen fellow Posies fans who heard Blood/Candy before it was released. All seven of us (including me) chose a different song as our favorite. If that's not the hallmark of a great album, I don't know what is. And if they've progressed this far from 1993 to 2010, I can't wait to hear what they'll sound like in 2027.
Honorable mention from the "Well, technically>/em> it's a new release "department":
Jimi Hendrix -- Valleys Of Neptune (Reprise). Yeah yeah, I know the guy's been dead for forty years now, but this "new" set of previously unreleased nuggets, mostly recorded in 1969, is one hell of an album. It mostly consists of songs that Hendrix nuts already know in different versions, but I'm not gonna complain when a track like his cover of Elmore James' "Bleeding Heart" totally smokes the version that came out back in the '70s. Most noteworthy is the title track, which may not feature a guitar solo but stands as proof of what a great songwriter the guy was. The mediocre box set West Coast Seattle Boy, which came out this fall, makes it appear that the bottom of the barrel may be close at hand for the most prolific dead rocker of all time. But Valleys Of Neptune is a keeper.