Listen up: The year in CDs
December 30, 2010
Listing the best albums of the year used to be a simple pleasure: Stack up the CDs I accumulated over the past 12 months, and pull out a couple handfuls of the best of them. Now? There are CDs, both legitimate and illicitly burned, downloads in my iTunes, streams that exist in a myriad of different places. Record labels have chopped down their publicity departments to almost nada, making it sometimes tough to get the music I want to hear. Add to that the fact that there’s more music being recorded than ever, and selecting the best albums of the year becomes almost a chore.But listen I did, and keep track – well, I have tried. Here’s what 2010 sounded like to me.
Josh Ritter, “So Runs the World Away” – The 33-year-old singer-songwriter Ritter has shown enormous potential on past efforts. All that intelligence and taste come together fully on “So Runs the World Away,” which deftly balances moments of near chaos with simpler beauties like “Lantern” and the unforgettable “Southern Pacifica.”Esperanza Spalding, “Chamber Music Society” – Another young talent fulfilling her promise. Spalding, a 26-year-old singer and bassist, has been the buzz of the jazz world for a few years, and on her third album she shows why. She swings big here, folding a string trio into the ensemble, and emerges with a language all her own – funky, serious, complex.7 Walkers, “7 Walkers” – Louisiana roots player Papa Mali ropes two of the undersung members of the Grateful Dead camp, drummer Bill Kreutzmann and lyricist Robert Hunter, for this project. But instead of going jammy, Mali sticks to Louisiana themes, and creates a surprisingly vivid avant-swamp classic. Willie Nelson and George Porter, Jr. contribute.The Black Keys, “Brothers” – Blues-rock can be a severely limiting genre. But the Black Keys, the duo of drummer-producer Patrick Carney and singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach, are six albums in, in just eight years, and the ideas can seem endless. “Brothers” finds them honing their craft in all areas, and the beat gets funkier, the songwriting tighter, and the singing more assured – check out “The Only One.”Mumford & Sons, “Sigh No More” – The English folk-rock quartet, led by Marcus Mumford, make a big splash on their debut. The songs dig deep, looking at death, hard luck, and romance gone sour, and somehow, on songs like “Little Lion Man,” the beauty of the four-part harmonies and the shimmering acoustic guitars reflect this toughness, rather than softening it.Damien Jurado, “Saint Bartlett” – The fact that Seattle singer-songwriter Damien Jurado, after nine albums, remains an underground thing waiting to be discovered is likely attributable to the fact that bleakness is a tough sell. But bleak only begins to describe “Saint Bartlett”; throw in elegant, beautiful, penetrating and expansive.Railroad Earth, “Railroad Earth” – New Jersey acoustic rockers Railroad Earth take a break from their earthy way of doing things, and bring in a producer to help build a more textured sound on their fifth studio album. It may shake up their fans, known as the Hobos, but only somewhat. The production never gets in the way of Todd Sheaffer’s songs about the need to unplug ourselves from the modern ways and reconnect to the natural world.Martin Sexton, “Sugarcoating” – Martin Sexton has expressed amazement over the fact that, over 18 years, his popularity has followed a constant upward path. It’s little wonder, though; the inspirational “Sugarcoating” is probably his best album. The album opens with the warm, comforting “Found,” gets sensuously playful on “Boom Sh-Boom,” and casts a critical eye on America in the title song.John Legend & the Roots, “Wake Up!” – Two acts – singer John Legend and hip-hoppers the Roots – from the soul hotbed of Philadelphia team to recreate old-school soul. “Wake Up!” is a covers album that doesn’t feel like a covers album, partly because the songs are generally not big hits, and because they only nod to the sounds of the past, and don’t mimic it. The fact that it might have been better- grittier, bolder – shouldn’t obscure the fact that it’s damn solid as is.Carl Broemel, “All Birds Say” – Rock band My Morning Jacket is singer Jim James … and some other guys, right? “All Birds Say,” by MMJ instrumentalist Carl Broemel argues otherwise. Playing introspective, manicured folk-rock – he makes a record that is more reminiscent of the gentler moments of solo George Harrison than of My Morning Jacket.More reasons to plunk your spare change down at the neighborhood record store:Los Lobos, “Tin Can Trust”; Alejandro Escovedo, “Street Songs of Love”; Sufjan Stevens, “The Age of Adz”; Mavis Staples, “You Are Not Alone”; Autumn Defense, “Once Around”; Blitzen Trapper, “Destroyer of the Void”; Rosanne Cash, “The List”; John Hiatt, “The Open Road”; Chatham County Line, “Wildwood”; NAS & Damian Marley, “Distant Relatives”; MGMT, “Congratulations”; Ray LaMontagne & the Prairie Dogs, “God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise”; Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Mojo”; Punch Brothers, “Antifogmatic”; Elvis Costello, “National Ransom”; Merle Haggard, “I Am What I Am”‘ Robert Randolph & the Family Band, “We Walk This Road.”firstname.lastname@example.org