Herewith, my top-20 albums of the year. As always, totally subjective; this is what I liked and listened to, not what I deem to be best. Your mileage will vary. Especially if you aren't a cranky middle-aged white guy.
I've written in this space before about T-Bone Burnett. I first heard of him in 1982, when I bought his great 6-song EP, Trap Door. In the mid-80s he produced similarly great records by Marshall Crenshaw, the BoDeans, Los Lobos, Peter Case, and Elvis Costello, all of which were foundation releases for me; his production work kept up in the '90s, with that one Wallflowers record you know, the first Counting Crows record, the last really good BoDeans record, and more.
As always, RIYL stands for "recommended if you like."
4. The Black Keys, Brothers: Every once in a while I buy a couple of records I know nothing about, by artists I either don't know or don't even think I like, but which seem to be all the rage, just so I can keep up with what's happening in music. Sometimes this has served me well (Talking Heads Remain in Light, Prince's 1999, Beck's Odelay). Sometimes not so much (Ultravox, I''m looking at you.) It was in this spirit that I bought the Black Keys record; I had some vague sense that they were what the modern kids were listening to under the guise of "rock" these days. To me, they sound kind of old school, kind of new. Kind of jungle. This sounds like modern musicians reaching back through the technology to grab hold of the primal. Parts of it sound oddly like Led Zep (who, in their day, did the same thing with a different era’s technology.) They're a duo (singer/guitarist, drummer) with enough overdubbing in the studio to sound like a modern garage rock band. RIYL: Led Zep, the future, electric blues.
5. The Black Crowes, Croweology: Like everyone else, I dug the first Crowes record in 1990 ("Hard to Handle" was the hit) and the second one two years later. Then I went to see them at the Beacon (the same week that Keith Richards compared Chris Robinson to Emo Phillips in the Times.) it must have been an off night, because it put me off them for years, and it did the same thing to everyone I know who went. Of course I always stayed interested, but they never grabbed me again in that same way, until... cut to the last couple of years. Luther Dickenson is recruited from the North Mississippi Allstars to fill the rotating guitar chair next to guitarist Rich Robinson; and the band records a double album of new material essentially live in the studio at Levon Helm's place in five days (and Chris says that's how he wants to make records from now on.) The net result of these developments is the best Black Crowes I've heard yet. This record is essentially a crack at their back catalog, with Luther, and recorded Levon Helm style (live in the studio, mostly acoustic.) It is quite simply, new recordings of their best songs, performed and presented in a beautiful, raw, organic, seasoned and earthy fashion. I played it all summer. It's great. RIYL: The midnight ramble, Americana, The Rolling Stones Stripped, Black Crowes songs, NMAS.
6. Jakob Dylan, Women and Country: The first T-Bone Burnett production on the list. I played this one to death in the spring, and it was probably chronologically the first record I knew was going to show up here. Our favorite red-headed Canadian pop-country chick Neko Case and Kelly Hogan provide backing vocals throughout, and Burnett's usual mafia of stringed geniuses (Marc Ribot, etc.) adorn the songs with rich but never cluttered charm. I've read some debate over whether or not this is a country record; it isn't. It's rootsy, gentle rock, the kind of record Burnett does best. And also, it sticks to the time-honored formula of good songs well-played, a relatively simple recipe for success (I don't know where Dylan gets it from.) The lead-off track, "Nothing But the Whole Wide World," is one of the best songs of the year. RIYL: T-Bone Burnett, Wallflowers, Americana, Coffee House.7. The Drums, The Drums. An Indie band from Brooklyn, of whom I first heard in reading articles over the summer about Kings of Leon. Apparently they shared some UK bills and the Kings are fans. So I checked 'em out, and it was a happy find. Kinda post-punky, frenetic, and danceable, and I didn't realize how much I liked it till about the fourth time through; in fact my wife and daughter, who are both blessed with golden ears, took to this record before I did, and I actually kept spinning it around the house because they liked it, which allowed me to keep the stereo on instead of having to watch yet another episode of iCarly. The Drums remind me of that time circa '79 to '81 when punk had morphed into skinny-tie New Wave and was about to merge with disco (especially in their use of keyboards); in fact many of their claimed influences date from that era. They also remind me of a less glamorous Vampire Weekend. By all rights I shouldn't like them this much. Go figure. RIYL: Skinny ties, dance-punk, thinking Brooklyn is the new Manhattan.
8. Derek Trucks Band, Roadsongs: To me live records are always totally different animals from studio records, and I usually leave them off the year-end best-of lists, especially now that so many artists make concert recordings available in different ways; the Black Crowes, Gov't Mule and Phish, to name three, put every show up for digital sale online. But this release from the Derek Trucks Band merits mention, and your attention. Trucks is almost certainly the greatest rock instrumental voice of his generation, and the Derek Trucks Band is one of the best ensembles playing around. Taken from two Chicago dates in 2009, Roadsongs highlights material from the band's excellent Already Free release, as well as some choice covers and back catalog. The covers include "Rastaman Chant," "Key to the Highway," the Derek and the Dominoes classic "Anyday," and the jazz set piece "Afro Blue." Fans collect full show bootleg recordings; but this is a great document of a great band, at its peak yet still evolving. A great place to dive into the catalog. Also, with Derek committed to the Derek Trucks/Susan Tedeschi, Band, the Derek Trucks Band is on hiatus, so this will have to tide us over (until the first Derek/Susan record drops...) RIYL: Santana, the Allman Brothers, blues, soul, jambands.
9. Alejandro Escovedo, Street Songs of Love: This guy just gets up in the morning, grabs his lunch pail, punches in for a full shift at the rock'n'roll factory, puts his head down and does his job. And when it's time to punch out, there's a great, solid, grinding, no-frills rock'n'roll record ready to ship. Here's another one. Springsteen's a fan. In a just world he'd be a star. RIYL: Rock'n'roll.
10. Bryan Ferry, Olympia: I'm not generally a consumer of Bryan Ferry records, although I'm aware there have been some fine ones. This one tempted me because it has the other original members of Roxy Music on it (Andy Mackay, Eno, guitarist Phi Manzanera) as well as David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Nile Rodgers (Chic), and Johnny Greenwood (Radiohead.) Tasteful sideman choices, and supposedly there was originally talk it would be a Roxy reunion. In fact, a really good review at Pitchfork points out that this record wouldn't have sounded out of place as the follow-up to the great 1982 Roxy swan song Avalon, which also makes it seem utterly contemporary, because all that'80s schtick is new again. It's a smooth, classy, retro/modern take on art rock. RIYL: Avalon, art rock, white suits.
12. Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone: Not much to say here; just your basic gospel masterpiece produced by indie rock superstar. The latter being Wilco's Jeff Tweedy. Reminds me a little of the Solomon Burke (so long brother) record that ranked fifteenth on this list. Also reminds me of Al Green. I like the Creedence cover. RIYL: Gospel, soul, Jesus.
13. Elton John and Leon Russell, Union: Another T-Bone production, and I have to say better on paper than on disc, but still darned good on disc. Back circa 1970 Russell was the rock superstar (his own solo stuff, Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen, etc.) while John was the singer-songwriter newbie and justifiably influenced by Russell. Cut to 40 years on... honky tonk piano, gospel style backing vocals, and it is strangely clear how these two disparate souls share a lot of musical DNA (now that I think of it, Russell did used to wear really big hats...) I can't help but wonder how cool this record would have actually been in 1970 or '71; to my ears, at this point (meaning after 1980) Elton John sounds too much like Elton John to be taken seriously. And it gets a little dirge-like in the middle (as in, when Neil Young makes a guest appearance.) Still, Russell is great. RIYL: Piano men, mad dogs, Englishmen.
14. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs: I got swept up in the excitement of Funeral, bought it, thought it was too depressing to ever play again, and promptly traded it on Lala (remember Lala?) I sat out Neon Bible. But I was sucked in again by the buzz and picked this one up, and it is indeed grand and impressive. It is definitely a record that I find myself more impressed with than actually fond of, but I am indeed fond of it. Ranked third in Spin and fourth in Rolling Stone (who both picked Kanye West as album of the year.) RIYL: grandeur, majesty, Canada, being born since 1980.
15. Seth Swirsky, Watercolor Day: Truth is, I read about this on the Audities power pop listserv when others were ranking their top picks of 2010, and I had some holiday gift cards for iTunes, so I went and downloaded it (something I almost never do) on December 29th. it's the kind of record I live for in the summer-- delightful, colorful breezy California pop in the Beach Boys vein with a dose of America tossed in; file it under California Dreaming along the Ventura Highway. Selected lyric from the second track: "She's got the summer in her hair..." I know exactly what that means. And it makes me long for August. RIYL: Cloud Eleven, Jeff Foskett, Nelson Bragg, Wondermints.
16. Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, III/IV: Two discs of songs recorded during the sessions for 2007's Easy Tiger. That was a beautiful, mostly acoustic alt-country album that was really good upon release and has only improved with age. These songs clearly wouldn't have fit in; for the most part they are rock songs, and while I've heard this described as a stylistic hodgepodge, I just hear it as a rock record. Criticized because it is sprawling and all-over-the-place and because it could have been edited down into a tighter single disc-- but obviously, these things are part of the charm, not knocks against it. Hello! If I'd lived with it longer it might have rated higher, like Adams's releases usually do here. RIYL: rawk, excess, "Halloween Head."
17. Robert Randolph and the Family Band, We Walk This Road: The third T-Bone production on this list... and more of a song record than I was expecting it to be, given that I think of Randolph as a part of the jamband scene (to be fair I don't know their earlier studio records, but have seen him live with the Family Band, and sitting in with others e.g. the Allman Brothers.) Randolph plays sacred pedal steel guitar, and has a unique and soulful instrumental voice that is tastefully deployed all over this record. Almost as much a gospel record as the Mavis ("I Still Belong to Jesus," the closing "Salvation") plus Dylan and Prince covers. RIYL: Derek Trucks, gospel, Americana.
18. She and Him, Volume 2: She being actress Zooey Daschanel; him being M. Ward. Their debut a couple of years back was a charmer; this one has all the same qualities but I think I liked the first one better. Like the first, steeped in teenage longing and the musical verities of early-70s FM singer/songwriter (as in, they could cover "Brand New Key.") She's got a really likable voice, him's instrumentation is totally empathetic; it's light, but good light. RIYL: Volume 1; the movie Elf.
19. Willie Nelson, Country Music: Yup, as the title suggests, after all these years Ol' Willie has decided to go nuts and put out a country record... So here's the thing. Outside of an anthology and a live collaboration, I own all of three Willie Nelson albums, and each of them I bought because I liked the producer: Daniel Lanois, Ryan Adams, and now T-Bone. All three of these records are uniformly excellent, and I'm finally getting it that Willie is just great, period, producer be damned (although I suppose it would be possible to muck up a record with too much interference). And he's got, like, 60 albums, which is awesome and a little daunting. A true American treasure, and I say leave his bus alone! RIYL: Country music, organic produce, America (the country, not the band).
20. Brian Wilson, Reimagines Gershwin: I know what you're thinking-- this can't possibly work. Believe me, I was right there with you. But somehow, despite the fact that sometimes Wilson's lead vocals sound a little thorazine-infused, the thing works. Gershwin has clearly been an influence on Wilson all along, and while some of these songs sound like Beach Boysified versions of familiar classics, to my ears they serve to underscore the extent to which the Gershwin influence was always there in the Wilson/Beach Boys oeuvre; it's easy, for example, to imagine this version of "I Got Plenty of Nothing" ensconced somewhere in the middle of 2004's Smile. RIYL: Wilson's Lucky Old Sun; rhyming "glamorous" with "amorous."
Also Noteworthy: Los Lobos (I especially liked their cover of the Dead's "West L.A. Fadeaway"); Ronnie Wood (I'm not saying I recommend this, but I'm a sucker for him and you might like the cover of "Spoonful"); The New Pornographers (one day I'm gonna listen to them and it's all going to snap into place and I'll appreciate them as much as I respect them.)
Finally, this was the first year my 6-year-old was somewhat conscious of popular music. her top-5 songs of the year were: (5) "Dynomite" (Taio Cruz); (4) "Hey Soul Sister" (Train); (3) "Shakespeare" (Miranda Cosgrove); (2) "Baby" (Justin Beiber); and, (1) "California Gurls (Katie Perry.) She also likes "She's Gone" by Hall & Oates, but of course, that's not eligible.