This has been a very good year for music. Not a great year. That only happens once in a while. The best I hope for in a year is average, so a good year is a very welcome gift from the artists who provided us with such joy.
I’ve had anywhere from 15-25 albums that have been at or near the top 5 for the year at any given time. Lots of good re-issues and live discs, some great stuff from artists who have been out of the spotlight for a while (Mavis Staples), and some really strong work from some new bands (The Joy Formidable) and bands new to me (Bombay Bicycle Club).
However, for the purposes of this blog, there can be only 10. Therefore, none of the above mentioned artists made the cut for this year. Also, my apologies to Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, who once again came JUST short. Better luck in 2011, girls.
Let’s get started, shall we…
10. Stars — The Five Ghosts
A combination of a lot of great things. A little bit Belle & Sebastian, a little bit The Cure, Stars follow-up to In Our Bedroom After the War is an interesting listen. Deep enough to go back to over and over, but light enough to be considered a great driving around record. Great harmony work by the vocalists and a lot of interesting choices to make the background music synthy and dreamlike, but recognizable to all of us.
9. Los Campesinos! — Romance is Boring
I wasn’t a huge fan of We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, but there was some good stuff on that disc. This time out, Los Campesinos! put together 15 tracks that you can listen to straight through for a whole day and never tire of. My favorite two tracks, “The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future” and “This Is A Flag. There Is No Wind,” show up back to back very late in the record, and have completely different styles. One is a heartbreaking ballad, the other an arena-rock anthem reminiscent of a Kaiser Chiefs tune like “Nananana.”
8. The Tallest Man On Earth — The Wild Hunt
The Swedish Bob Dylan, as he is known around the world (insofar as the world encompasses only the three feet around me at any given time) Kristian Matsson actually put out two releases this year. His EP, Sometimes The Blues Is Just A Passing Bird, is also very good. The Wild Hunt has a lot of great tracks, the best of which is “King of Spain,” in which he not only pays tribute to Dylan with the line, “I wear my boots of Spanish leather,” but also paints a vibrant picture for the listener of stolen love and the quest for freedom. Truly one of the best singer-songwriters that I know of, and the best (and only) that I can speak to that lives in country where English isn’t an official language.
7. Broken Social Scene — Forgiveness Rock Record
These guys have been doing it long enough that I don’t really need to write anything here. You know who they are. Thinking about Broken Social Scene, I’m reminded of the “Don’t Fear The Reaper” Behind the Music skit on SNL. Broken Social Scene would be Christopher Walken playing Bruce Dickinson, saying, “I put my pants on one leg at a time, just like everyone else. The only difference is, when I put my pants on, I make gold records.” If Broken Social Scene ever really said that, I would probably sue them for stealing my idea, and then force them to add me to their roster of musicians. I think I’d be number 26 or something. Maybe we could just join forces with Polyphonic Spree and form a super-super group 80 members strong. Ok, this is getting a bit away from where I was initially headed. Lead track “World Sick” is one of my favorite songs of the year, and Forgiveness Rock Record is definitely not lacking in great songs. “Texico Bitches,” “Meet Me In the Basement,” and “All to All” are all fantastic tracks.
6. Avi Buffalo — Avi Buffalo (review)
I’ve already reviewed this album for the site, but let me reiterate a couple things. Avi Buffalo’s music reminds me a lot of Wilco. If you’ve read any of my articles where I casually throw Wilco’s name in for no reason, you can probably tell I’m a fan. So sounding a little like them is never a bad thing. Another thing I’d like to point out is how amazingly talented a guitar player Avi is. I mentioned that it gets kind of lost on the album, but live the dude is electric! This record is deeply personal and intimate. Avi bares his soul for the listener, and in return, he has my great admiration. To be able to write and perform so well at such a young age is a testament to the talent of Avi and the rest of the band.
5. Josh Ritter — So Runs the World Away (review)
So, here’s the thing… if Josh Ritter puts out an album, it’s gonna be in my top 10. If he puts out 10 records in a year, other bands are just out of luck. Now, this album isn’t as strong as his previous one, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. However, in one song, this album went from just another very good album from one of America’s best songwriters, to a must-own for anyone who even has a passing interest in music. “The Curse” is far and away the best song of 2010. It was the best song I heard in all of 2009, as well (he played it live when we saw him in Des Moines). If he plays it when we see him in February at The Vic, it’ll probably be the best song of 2011 also. Seriously, it is that good! The best part of the album, though, is that it doesn’t stop there. “Lantern,” “Southern Pacifica” and “Rattling Locks” are also on this record. An embarrassment of riches, to be sure. Do yourself a favor and pick this up if you haven’t.
4. Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan — Hawk (review)
I had a lot of good things to say about this album when I reviewed it, and none of those feelings have changed. I still think the combination of these two voices is one of the best of all time, and they are easily the tops when it comes to man-woman singing teams. Throw in some support from folk singer Willy Mason, and you’ve got a recipe for success. The song “Come Undone” is still my favorite from this album, but a lot of other tracks deserve a few spins. If you’re a fan of Belle & Sebastian or Queens of the Stone Age (could those BE any different), I think you’ll enjoy this one.
3. Of Montreal — False Priest
I had this one down at seven or eight for the longest time. There was something about it that I loved, but couldn’t quite grasp. Like when you see a great movie, but you don’t feel like you really understood it (Inception?) Then one day I was standing on the corner of Broadway and Irving Park, waiting for the 36, and “Our Riotous Defects” came on. I immediately texted a friend that Kevin Barnes is a genius. I could listen to that song on a loop for a month, probably. The mixture of Barnes and Janelle Monae is also a welcome surprise. I wasn’t the biggest fan of The ArchAndroid, but I love her work here. When they played together at Riviera Theatre here in Chicago, I wanted to go a little bit, but not enough to actually go. Now that the album has had a chance to grow on me, I regret it highly. This may sound crazy, but I think Of Montreal would be a great opener for Prince when he comes to town sometime next year. This album is absolutely funky enough to go on with the Purple One.
2. Titus Andronicus — The Monitor (review)
Back in March or April, I told a friend of mine that this record would be at the top of my list come December. Looks like I was just a bit off, but this is another one that I could just live with forever. It’s dark, it’s deep, and it’s honest. I like every track, which doesn’t happen much these days. My favorites are “A More Perfect Union,” with its Abe Lincoln quotes and Springsteen tributes, and “To Old Friends and New,” which they claim they don’t do very often live, but they played it both times I saw them this year. The Monitor is a truly great record that you shouldn’t deprive yourself of. And when they come back to town, make sure you get to their show, because they are a presence to behold on stage.
1. Otis Redding — Live on the Sunset Strip
This may come out of left field a bit, but any real music lover knows that this release was ridiculous in both quality and quantity. Taken from recordings of three nights, on which Otis played two or three sets a night, Live on the Sunset Strip is a great example of one of the greatest singers/performers of all-time. On this record we get Otis performing his hits “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Chained and Bound,” and “These Arms of Mine,” as well as covers of “A Hard Day’s Night” by the Beatles, “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones, and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” by James Brown. And he outdoes all of the bands he covers. It is truly an amazing collection of songs, though maybe a bit much for the non-Otis fan. But, if you love Otis Redding, or just heard a couple songs and want to know more about him, check out this set. It’s three discs, so you’ll never run out of Otis. If you’re in a bad mood, throw on his version of “Satisfaction.” I guarantee it puts a smile on your face.
And that’s it, folks. I know I didn’t include any Chicago artists on this list, and that’s by design, kind of. I’m putting together another list of ONLY Chicago releases to satisfy our thirst for local bands. Spoiler Alert: No Kanye on that one, either.
Do you feel I got it all right this year? Leave a comment. Do you think I got zero right, and that I’m a complete idiot? Leave a comment. Have a question about one of these releases? Leave a comment. Or, if you’re bored… leave a comment.