My normal year-end favorite albums list usually tends to favor the bands/artists who I saw live in that year. This is only somewhat true for 2010. While The Hold Steady, The National, Drive-by Truckers, and Justin Townes Earle all had killer live gigs in Toronto this year, I just couldn't get into their 2010 releases (I didn't write a review of The National at Massey Hall on June 8 because every other blogger in Toronto did). Turns out that I tended to like some of the opening acts better than some of the headliners, which makes me sound like an even bigger music snob than I already am. And this list makes me sound worse! Only three pseudo mainstream indie records made the cut. I also noticed that the albums I favored this year leaned towards the Bruce Springsteen/Tom Petty-style of rock. I'm not sure why, but that's just what tickled my fancy, or something, in 2010. If I could, I supplied links to buying the albums directly from the band's/artist's web site (more $ for the band). Go buy these records! Most have cheap shipping, and it's only like $1-2 more to ship to Canada. All of these records are worthy of being in you collection.
The Fox Hunt - Long Way to Go
This modern bluegrass quartet out of Martinsburg, West Virginia, put out the best album in 2010. From my original review posted in September: The band has two primary songwriters, John R. Miller and Matt Kline, who both cover a range of human emotions in their music. Women, sinning, drinking, misery, temptation, you know, the happy subjects, are covered in depth in their lyrics. Their music is mostly uptempo country/folk, filled with vocal harmonies, and lots of banjo and fiddle, rounded out with acoustic guitar, mandolin, and upright bass. And the musicians frequently rotate instruments and share lead vocals. Now that's talent!
Long Way to Go spans an entire range of roots music, with a mid-tempo opening track called "Screw Me Up" which is about a woman messing with a dude's head. Later, a snappy song called "It Suits Me" which is ostensibly about a one night stand (the instrumental outro kills me). One of the best songs on the album, "Four Horses" is a slaying meditation on life and death. "No one said that life was easy. No one said that life was fair." Gulp. One of my favorite songs on the album, "I'll Drink Cheap," is about breaking the bank to please your lush of a woman. I listened to and enjoyed this album more than any other record released in 2010. You should be doing the same.
Third runner up to song of the year:
Buy: Long Way to Go
Glossary - Feral Fire
Remember when The Hold Steady released their first few albums and everyone, including me, said they were the second coming of Thin Lizzy? Wrong! Ladies and gentlemen, I present Glossary. Feral Fire is such a killer rock album. It takes its name from a line in the Cormac McCarthy book, The Road. Apparently this is their sixth album, but I am just hopping on the bandwagon now. Can't wait to listen to their back catalog, some of which is free on their web site. If you like Bruce Springsteen/Tom Petty/Drive-By Truckers kind of rock, then get this album pronto.
Second runner up to song of the year:
Save Your Money for the Weekend.mp3
Buy: Feral Fire
3. Matthew Ryan - Dear Lover (electric and acoustic)
I got a copy of Matthew Ryan's Dear Lover back in October 2009, and I have been dying to put it on my top 10 list for the last fourteen months. From my original review from February: The entire record revolves (evolves?) around the theme of a romantic relationship. Relationships are complicated, wonderful, confusing, stressful, exhilarating, scary, empowering, and even lonely, sometimes all at the same time. "I could be your super hero. I could be your biggest disappointment." Ryan is telling stories in his songs, but the stories are vague enough where each listener can interpret the song in his/her own way. The mark of a great songwriter is the ability to let his audience decide what the song is about, and Ryan thrives in this aspect of musicianship.
The songs on Dear Lover are power pop anthems, indie rockers, soft ballads, and electro/synth tracks you could hear in a Manhattan martini bar. Some people may be turned off by the ambient/electro-sounding songs, but I think they really add to the overall feel of the album and show Ryan's willingness to experiment with diverse sounds. In fact, one fan called Dear Lover "Matthew Ryan's synth/techno/electro Nebraska."
Later in 2010 Ryan released Dear Lover as an acoustic album, with a different track order, and one new track, which makes it a completely different album. I haven't heard of an artist doing this before, except in the context of a live album or something. This approach may be a new way for indie/DYI artists to get more mileage out of one record. Screw that iTunes "exclusive" or iTunes "sessions" crap. I may be old school, but I like the physical disc in my hand, in both electric and acoustic forms.
City Life (acoustic).mp3
Buy both: City Life (electric and acoustic)
Joe Pug - Messenger
I saw Joe Pug open for Justin Townes Earle back in March, and I was totally taken with Pug. At the time I didn't own the album Messenger, but after subsequent listens I was enamored with his work. This is a solid singer/songwriter folk-ish, country-ish album, with brilliant lyrics and great storytelling. I don't have a lot to say about this album. The music speaks for itself.
Fourth runner up to song of the year:
Not So Sure.mp3
Pug has a free EP out right now. You can download it for the cost of your e-mail address.
Tim Barry - 28th & Stonewall
I had the pleasure of seeing Tim Barry in concert twice this year: once opening for Chuck Ragan in February and once opening for The Gaslight Anthem in July, both times solo acoustic.
Barry is intense, and pissed off, but also deeply sincere and forthright. He has deep convictions, and he stands by them. You don't fuck with Tim Barry. You also don't fuck with his album 28th & Stonewall, an intersection in Barry's home town of Richmond, Virginia. I would love to know about the significance of this particular corner. This album continues with Barry's style of simple storytelling about complicated people. The characters in Barry's songs are presumably semi-autobiographical: they are fucks-up who are trying to do the right thing, but keep stumbling into people who are constantly letting them down. In addition, he's also very self-deprecating and self-aware. 28th & Stonewall is Barry's most well-written solo album, with vibrant lyrics boosting his powerful voice. But, this album is not for the timid. You may be offended by some of the content, but Barry doesn't give a shit, and neither do I.
Buy: 28th & Stonewall
Two Cow Garage - Sweet Saint Me
The fact that Two Cow Garage hasn't cracked the indie rock glass ceiling completely baffles me. Sweet Saint Me is their fifth album, and as I said in my November review, this album as a whole is their strongest one yet. Sweet Saint Me is nearly a pure rock album, but this time the lead singers, mostly Michal Schnabel with a few tracks by Shane Sweeney, seemed to have really concentrated on honing their songwriting technique. The entire album seems more mature and focused. But don't worry, "mature and focused" can also kick fucking ass! Take my favorite track, "Lydia;" "Lydia, you're much too young to have your teeth on the tip of my tongue. If your lips were just a little bit older…" I heard through the twittervine that when Schnabel premiered "Jackson, Don't You Worry" at SXSW, a song dedicated to Sweeney's baby son, grown men were weeping. Indeed, I took a hard gulp the first time I heard it. And I'll be damned if Schnabel didn't steal the "Insolent Youth" lyric "just because you can doesn't mean you should" from me, cause I've been saying that for years. Sweet Saint Me is peppered with hard rock anthems ("My Great Gatsby"), love songs ("Closer to You"), and stories ("Lucy and the Butcher Knife"), with the occasional lyric borrowed from Bruce Springsteen, Townes Van Zandt, and Bob Dylan. To paraphrase my reader Ron from Buffalo, Two Cow Garage has written better individual songs ("No Shame," "Swingset Assassin," "Humble Narrator," "Mediocre," "Saturday Night," "Come Back to Shelby") but this album is solid everywhere.
Buy: Sweet Saint Me
The Sadies - Darker Circles
A few months ago I was listening to a podcast of the CBC radio show Q where the host was interviewing The Sadies lead guitarists/singers/songwriters brothers Dallas and Travis Good. One of them said that after their mom listened to Darker Circles she called them to make sure they were OK. You know you've made a good album when you freak your mom out.
Per my May review: Darker Circles is a very different album from their 2007 release New Seasons, although both were produced by Jayhawks member Gary Louris. Darker Circles is, well, much darker than New Seasons, with lyrics like, "it won't be long 'til all your hopes and dreams are dead and gone," ("Another Year Again"), and "I turn to oblivion night after night," ("Tell Her What I Said"). The songs have themes of isolation, regret, remorse, and ponderances of "what could have been." There is even a country-rock killin' song ("Violet and Jeffrey Lee," not quite a murder ballad). The entire album has a very psychedelic feel to it, like a 2010 version of The Byrds. Especially my favorite track "Postcards," (listen below) which sounds like it could be straight out of Roger McGuin's 1960s catalog.
This is not an album that will cheer you up on a bad day, but it is a killer country-rock psychedelic folk bluegrass record (its damn impossible to categorize The Sadies). As my friend Whiskey Devil said, "Dark Sadies might just be the best Sadies."
Buy (Maple Music): Darker Circles
Buy (Amazon): Darker Circles
The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang
I was apprehensive about The Gaslight Anthem's newest release until I saw them live back in July. They totally lived up to the hype. Blew me away actually. They blasted into the title track "American Slang" and never looked back.
American Slang and The Gaslight Anthem are filling in a much needed niche in music right now: they are a solid rock band. They don't fart around with pretentious new sounds, or have weird outfits, or feel the need to do namby-pamby acoustic folk songs (and I like namby-pamby acoustic folk songs). American Slang is essentially following the same Tom Petty/Bruce Springsteen rock formula that they have been using since their 2008 debut album Sink Or Swim, except that they have become better singers/guitarists/musicians in general. I'm hoping that the Gaslight Anthem will get today's teenagers interested in rock and roll. God knows that popular music needs it.
Buy: American Slang
Kasey Anderson - Nowhere Nights
Nowhere Nights came out in early 2010, and as I predicted in February, it set my standard for the year in rock music. It contains eleven tracks of solid rock songs: some slow, some fast, some you can dance to, some that will make you think, and some that will just make you rock out.
Anderson's rock influences are all over this album. You can hear Tom Petty in "Sooner/Later," Bruce Springsteen in "Leavin' Kind," and Mike Cooley-penned Drive-By Truckers songs in "All Lit Up." "Real Gone" is an obvious nod to Tom Waits, but it also seems like it could be Anderson's "Desolation Row."
"I Was a Photograph" is the song of the year. Anderson wrote this song about Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller after reading an article about the Iraq veteran in Rolling Stone. You can read Anderson's thoughts on the song on a post he did for Ninebullets.net.
While the album is largely autobiographical, the themes and stories easily resonate with everyday folks (in other words, me). Two songs specifically hit home for me. The first track, "Bellingham Blues," reminds me of never feeling at home in the town where you grew up. Similarly, the song "Home" reminds me of my home town. I'm assuming that this song is also about Bellingham, a city similar in population to my home town. "That's how it goes in a town this small. You either play your hand a little closer to the vest, or you don't play at all." Great lyrics, and so true.
Song of the year, easily:
I Was a Photograph (Blake's Song).mp3
Buy: Nowhere Nights
The Black Keys - Brothers
The Black Keys do it again with a killer blues-based rock album called Brothers. This album makes me want to tap my feet, shake my ass, and drink hooch like an old blues man on Maxwell Street. Some have compared The Black Keys to The White Stripes in terms of a blues-based rock duo, but The Black Keys has a deeper, more restrained and disciplined sound, as opposed to blues-spaz-rock and bizarre lyrics that sometimes spews from Jack White. For Brothers itself, the recording is raw and uncomplicated, but you can also hear a bit of punk rock and hip-hop influences throughout the record. The songs are catchy, fiery, and sexy, and will get stuck in your head. This is a good thing.
Brothers also has the worst/laziest album art of 2010.
Apparently The Black Keys are driving some of my US peeps crazy because several of songs are licensed for TV commercials. But those licenses didn't reach Canada, so I can't complain!