The 10 Best Albums of 2010 (and other random year-end lists)
In recent years, due to iTunes, ringtones, and other technological “advances,” the single has once again become the dominant force in the recording industry. I have mixed thoughts about this. On one hand, I am a big advocate of the artists in the pre-Beatles era who are often relegated to second-tier simply because they recorded more great singles than great albums. But on the other hand, I do agree that albums are the highest level of artistic expression.
So although I do not really know what to think of the recent trend, I will begin with the top 10 songs of 2010.
1. The Dead Weather- “Blue Blood Blues”
2. Shooter Jennings & Hierophant- “Wake Up”
3. Merle Haggard- “I’ve Seen it Go Away”
4. Wanda Jackson- “You Know I’m No Good”
5. Drive-By Truckers- “Birthday Boy”
6. The Rubber Knife Gang- “Oil Well”
7. Johnny Cash- “A Satisfied Mind”
8. Jerry Lee Lewis- “Dead Flowers”
9. John Mellencamp- “No One Cares About Me”
10. Jamey Johnson- “Lonely at the Top”
Now on to the important stuff…The 10 best albums of the year
1. Shooter Jennings & Hierophant- Black Ribbons Imagine, if you will, that the only son of two outlaw country legends grew up listening to Nine Inch Nails, Guns ‘n Roses, Pink Floyd and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Then imagine that after three albums of great outlaw country, he decides to meld all of his influences from both rock and country, adds an apocalyptic storyline, and creates the greatest concept album in years, all while saying “fuck you” to the Nashville and L.A. establishment that refused to accept him. Shooter has began a new breed of rock and roll: very loud, very meaningful, and unabashedly modern while, at the same time, building on the blueprints of classic rock and the outlaw ethos of his parents. This is the protest music for the new Woodstock generation.
2. Luther Dickinson & the Sons of Mudboy- Onward and Upward On the surface, this album should be nothing to write home about. It was recorded in a single day with no rehearsals or overdubs and the songs are all traditional gospel numbers we’ve heard a thousand times, played in the acoustic folk style we’re used to hearing them in. Yet this record manages to overcome all of that and land towards the top of the pile by pure emotion. This is probably due to the circumstances of the recording: Dickinson- perhaps best known as a member of the Black Crowes and the North Mississippi Allstars- called together some friends and family members just three days after the death of his father, the legendary producer Jim Dickinson, and they played some of Jim’s favorite gospel tunes as a tribute. The result is an album made without money, fame, or even artistry in mind. All Luther cared about on this album was playing the music that he loved and, as a result, it is impossible not to love this album.
3. John Mellencamp- No Better than This In my initial review of this album, I stated that I couldn’t choose between it and his previous album Life, Death, Love and Freedom. I still can’t, but they are, nevertheless, the two greatest albums of Mellencamp’s now four-decade career. Where Life, Death, Love and Freedom almost seemed therapeutic at times, as if Mellencamp was exorcising his personal demons, here he sounds more relaxed and a lot happier as he delves further into the trenches of old-time American music. The dark subject matter is still there, but on this album it is dealt with in a much more lighthearted fashion. The last album found Mellencamp accepting his role as a folk singer, while looking back at a time when “I was showing some promise” or longing to “be back on top someday.” This album finds him in a gentler mood, not just accepting, but embracing that role.
4. Nick Curran & the Lowlifes- Reform School Girl Upon first listening to this album I was certain that, through some miracle of modern science, Little Richard had become trapped within the body of Nick Curran. Everything, from the voice to the maniacal energy, was precise. It was only on repeated listens that I discovered this album’s other influences: the Sex Pistols, B.B. King, Phil Spector, and even a hint of David Lee Roth-era Van Halen. From the “Leader of the Pack”-inspired title song to the punk rocker “Psycho” to the Jerry Lee-esque version of AC/DC’s “Rocker” that closes the album, Reform School Girl is pure fun.
5. Titus Andronicus- The Monitor Stylistically, this album almost defies description, so we’ll just call it Springsteen-inspired roots punk. But even that is selling it a bit short. The Monitor is a concept album of sorts about growing up in a small New Jersey town, but it also draws analogies between our modern life and the American Civil War. That sort of pessimistic attitude works perfectly for this band, who have lyrics so angst-filled they make Kurt Cobain look like Bobby McFerrin. And did I mention that “Theme from ‘Cheers'” may be the perfect country song?
6. Pete Seeger with the Rivertown Kids & Friends- Tomorrow’s Children Pete Seeger, even at the age of 91, has never given up on the dream for a better world. On this album, Pete is backed by 4th graders from his hometown of Beacon, New York and together they run through songs both old and new. That Pete isn’t the vocalist he once was is a given and oftentimes the children will take the lead on a song as he merely accompanies them on banjo. Yet it is his voice and his spirit working through the children which makes the album what it is. The intention was for this to be a children’s album, but there will be plenty here for adults to enjoy as well.
7. Jamey Johnson- The Guitar Song Jamey Johnson is hands-down the best artist to have any degree of success in Nashville since Dwight Yoakam. Not only that, he is also the only real glimmer of hope the mainstream has had since the death of Keith Whitley. On the double album The Guitar Song, he sidesteps corporate country-pop for tradition, coming up with an album that easily fits on the shelf next to the works of Willie, Waylon, Kris, and Jerry Jeff. Not everything here is perfect, of course, with “Cover Your Eyes” being merely “good” and the Kristofferson cover being well-executed, but unnecessary. But why focus on that when there are songs here like “Can’t Cash My Checks,” “Lonely at the Top,” and “Poor Man’s Blues”? I’ll make a prediction: five years from now Jamey Johnson will either be the biggest thing in Nashville or he will be forced to sign with a small indie label. He will not sell out.
8. Marty Stuart- Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions Speaking of bringing tradition back to Music City, Marty Stuart has used the blueprint of ’60s-era Nashville to record one of his strongest albums to date. The album has everything you would expect from a country album: songs of death, songs of love, songs of God, even a few instrumentals and a recitation about Porter Wagoner. The highlight is undoubtedly “Hangman,” a bleak ballad Stuart co-wrote with Johnny Cash. Unlike Jamey’s album, this isn’t one that will change the country field. He simply doesn’t have that kind of power anymore. But it is one of the best things to come out of Nashville in years, nevertheless.
9. Carolina Chocolate Drops- Genuine Negro Jig The Carolina Chocolate drops are one of the best traditional folk groups working today. While working to restore the African-American string band tradition, they have discovered the secret of what makes old-time music so great: a strong sense of fun. Almost every song on here is one you will have a blast while listening to and the entire record greatly conveys the spirit of American folk music.
10. Tom Jones- Praise and Blame Welsh-born Las Vegas lounge singer records an album of American gospel songs. Sounds like something from The Twilight Zone right? I thought so too before I listened to it. Afterwards, I gained a new respect for Mr. Jones and his music, although I’m still not a big fan of much of it. But this album is different. This album is the antithesis of everything you think Tom Jones is. It’s not about the showman, but real man. Simply put, Praise and Blame is everything roots-inspired blues-rock should be. And his version of Billy Joe Shaver’s “If I Give My Soul” is guaranteed to choke you up.
Honorable mentions: South Memphis String Band- Home Sweet Home, Merle Haggard- I Am What I Am, Gil Scott-Heron- I’m New Here, Johnny Cash- American VI: Ain’t No Grave, Jimmy Webb- Just Across the River, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers- Mojo, The Dead Weather- Sea of Cowards, Street Sweeper Social Club- The Ghetto Blaster EP, The Secret Sisters- self-titled, The Rubber Knife Gang- Drivin’ On, Watermelon Slim- Ringers, The Gaslight Anthem- American Slang, T-Model Ford- The Ladies Man, The Henry Clay People- Some-where On the Golden Coast, Hank III- The Rebel Within, John Carter Cash- The Family Secret, Nas & Damian Marley- Distant Relatives, Willie Nelson- Country Music, Dylan LeBlanc- Pauper’s Field, Dash Rip Rock- Call of the Wild, Elton John & Leon Russell- The Union, Justin Townes Earle- Harlem River Blues, Dead Confederate- Sugar, Rodney Dillard- I Wish Life was Like Mayberry, Alejandro Escovedo- Street Songs of Love, Asleep at the Wheel & Leon Rausch- It’s a Good Day, The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band- Live in Chicago, Deer Tick- The Black Dirt Sessions, Elvin Bishop- Red Dog Speaks, Angry Johnny & GTO- In the Nuthouse Now
Top 5 Compilations/Archival Releases
1. Kris Kristofferson- Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends: The Publishing Demos1968-72 The greatest songwriter in history at his peak and without the constraints and pressures of a recording studio.
2. There Breathes a Hope: The Legacy of John Work II and His Fisk Jubilee Quartet, 1909-1916 Two discs of extremely influential recordings from one of the most important gospel groups of all time. These recordings will haunt you, while also giving you hope for a better tomorrow.
3. Baby How Can It Be? Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & ’30s Virtually every important form of American roots music- from cowboy ballads to Dixieland jazz- can be found on this celebration of the three major themes in our country’s music. Sometimes it’s mournful, sometimes romantic, sometimes even a little racy, but it’s always a lot of fun.
4. Jimi Hendrix- West Coast Seattle Boy This four-disc set contains some absolutely essential material from the Hendrix vault and gives the listener a perfect trajectory of how Jimi evolved as a guitarist from his days as a sideman for R&B acts like the Isley Brothers to the continuing experimentations at the time of his tragic death.
5. Gastonia Gallop: Cotton Mill Songs & Hillbilly Blues A great collection of early country and blues from the Piedmont region of North Carolina caught on record. This collection gives you a sense of how hard it was to be a cotton mill worker in those days and introduces the listener to David McCarn, a virtually unknown American folk singer who is easily on the same level as his better-known contemporaries like Woody Guthrie.
Best new/up-and-coming artists:
1. The Secret Sisters– Traditional country at its finest. Beautiful harmonies.
2. Ponderosa– Classic heavy Southern rock sound, with a bit of a modern edge. See them live if you can.
3. Futurebirds– Traditional country and Southern rock meets DIY indie punk.
4. The Rubber Knife Gang– Great country-rock-bluegrass band from Cincinnati.
5. The Pretty Reckless– the new Runaways.