Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Best of 2010

Here is my annual contribution to the continual demise of society in the form of year-end lists. And as usual it's a month late and a few dollars short.

A Top 25 list seemed too brief to cover all of the new stuff I enjoyed this year. And a Top 50 or more list seemed too complete, sort of like the college football bowl season, where everyone makes it. So below is a list of my top 37 albums of 2010. And I know a few of these listed below came out in Nov/Dec 2009, but it's my list so I'm counting them in 2010. Why 37? I don't know. Why do 10, 20 or 25? Anyway, here it is.

2010 Shows

The Soft Pack with Nodzzz at Johnny Brenda’s – 3/30
Wilco at the Electric Factory – 4/10
Huffamoose reunion gig at the Grape Room – 6/8
Pavement with Kurt Vile at the Mann Music Center - 9/17
Superchunk with Jenny and Johnny and Versus at the Trocadero 9/22
The Hold Steady at the Trocadero 10/5
Old 97’s at the TLA 12/11
Jesse Malin and the St Marks Social with Marah at the World Café 12/19

Best EP's, Singles, Reissues

Best Coast - Something in the Way EP (PPM Records)

Best Coast - Make You Mine EP (PPM Records). Check out "Over the Ocean."

Cave In - Planets of Old EP (Hydra Head).

The Get Up Kids  - Simple Science EP (self-released).

Japandroids - No Singles (Polyvinyl). This is a compilation of the Japandroids' first 2 out-of-print EP's from 2006 and 2008. Check out "Sexual Aerosol" and "No Allegiance to the Queen."

Mr. F. (aka Grandpaboy aka Paul Westerberg) - This Machine /Foolish Hand Shake Single (Nimbit).

R.E.M. - Fables of the Reconstruction reissue (IRS/Capitol).

Bruce Springsteen - The Promise reissue (Columbia).

Kurt Vile - In My Time Single (Matador).

Kurt Vile - Square Shells EP (Matador). Check out "Ocean City."

Save Your Money

The Black Keys - Brothers (Nonesuch).

Brian Jonestown Massacre - Who Killed Sgt Pepper? (A Records).

Hole - Nobody’s Daughter (Mercury).

Ra Ra Riot - The Orchard (Barsuk).

Stars - The Five Ghosts (Vagrant).

Vampire Weekend - Contra (XL).

Worth A Listen

Jay Bennett - Kicking at the Perfumed Air (self-released). This free stripped-down posthumous release from the former Wilco guitarist/keyboardist was a pleasant surprise. It was a rough mix and sounds a little raw at times, but "Second Last Call", "Hotel Song" and "Beer" are the highlights.

Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan - Hawk (Vanguard). This is the 3rd collaboration between Campbell, formerly of Belle and Sebastian, and Lanegan of Screaming Trees. It picks up where the others left off with boozy-sounding folk and rock songs, with some crooning vocals. The title track, "Come Undone", "Get Behind Me", and "You Won't Let Me Down Again" are the highlights.

Johnny Cash - American VI: Ain’t No Grave (American Recordings/Lost Highway). This is the 2nd proper posthumous release from Cash's American Recordings sessions. The common theme of the songs recorded in his final few years here involve coming to terms with your own mortality and that continues on here. The material is a bit thinner here than on previous releases. And like most of Cash's American Recordings albums, this has a mix of Cash originals, re-worked traditional songs, and covers. There are still some worthy tracks to add to the great Cash legacy, most notably the title track, "Corinthians 15:15", "A Satisfied Mind", and a cover of Sheryl Crow's "Redemption Day."

Grass Widow - Past Time (Kill Rock Stars). It's easy to lump Grass Widow in with the host of other noisy lo-fi female-led bands of recent years. This effort grows on you with multiple listens. Check out "Shadow", "Submarine", and "11 of Diamonds."

Matt Skiba - Demos (Asian Man Records). The title kind of says it all. These are a batch of 16 demos by the Alkaline Trio frontman/guitarist. They are very raw, stripped-down recordings, similar to his work in the Heavens side project. The rumor is that the songs from this album that are best-received from fans will be reworked on a proper release in the near future. I would guess some of them include, "S.O.S", "Merry-Go-Down", "Haven't You", "You Didn't Feel a Thing", "Special" (really a cover of Pegboy's "Field of Darkness"), and "Into Thin Air."

Corin Tucker - 1000 Years (Kill Rock Stars). After a 5-year break since Sleater-Kinney's last album, Tucker returns with her first new material since. And sadly it was a bit disappointing. "Doubt" and "Riley" recall some her better stuff in S-K, but the rest of the album just seems a little lacking. The title track and "Big Goodbye" are pretty good. The rest of the album contains mostly "mature" AAA-friendly offerings.

Women - Public Strain (Jagjaguwar). There are actually no female members of this band. They've drawn comparisons to Sonic Youth and No Age, among others. Highlights are "Eyesore" and "Locust Valley."

Honorable Mention

The Fractals - Heavy Rotation (self-released). This was an enjoyable debut album by local act and former members of Huffamoose - Kevin Hanson (guitar/vocals), Jim Stager (bass), and Erik Johnson (drums). Check out "The End of End of Days", "Buried Alive", and "Priscilla the Killa."

Marah - Life is a Problem (Valley Farm Songs). Philly originals Marah follows up tumultuous a few years where they couldn't really tour much behind the last album, and then Serge Bielanko left the band to tend to his family, leaving his brother Dave Bielanko to carry on with Christine Smith and others. A few years back they left Philly for Brooklyn, as seemingly every other alt/rock band in the nation did and now they are somewhat local again, recording Life is a Problem in Lancaster, PA. The full story is here. Highlights are "Muskie Moon", "Valley Farm Song", "Within the Spirit Sagging", and "Put 'Em in the Graveyard."

Frankie Rose And the Outs - S/T (Slumberland). Rose played with like-minded bands like the Vivian Girls and Dum Dum Girls the last few years before branching out on his own. Pretty good record. I'd have enjoyed it more if a hundred other bands weren't doing something similar. Highlights are "Candy", "Little Brown Haired Girls", and "Girlfriend Island."

Mavis Staples - You Are Not Alone (Anti). This is similar to the Johnny Cash-Rick Rubin projects, where the legendary gospel/soul singer Staples teamed with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and recorded an album of mostly covers and traditional songs, with a few originals written by Tweedy. The title track and the excellent cover of CCR's "Wrote a Song For Everyone" are the highlights.

Sweet Apple - Love And Desperation (Tee Pee Records). Sweet Apple is a supergroup with members of Cobra Verde, Dinosaur Jr, and Witch. John Petkovic is on lead vocals and guitar, Tim Parnin plays lead guitar, Dave Sweetapple is the bass player, and guitar god J Mascis plays drums mostly and guitar on a few songs. Besides having one of the best album covers ever, it's also a pretty good record with lots of 70's hard rock influences. "Do You Remember", "I've Got a Feeling", "It's Over Now", and "Somebody Else's Problem" are the standout tracks.

Warpaint - The Fool (Rough Trade). This female quartet understandably was lumped in with other similar lo-fi girl bands of recent years. But they have a different sound - a little less noisy and more melodic. At times they sound more like a Shoegazer band. Recommended: "Undertow", "Baby", and "Shadows."

Top 37 Albums of 2010

37. Spoon - Transference (Merge). Spoon has had a certain consistency about them the past decade. I found this record lacking something though. It's neither experimental nor overly catchy. Most of the songs leave you waiting for a hook that never comes. Check out "Trouble Comes Running", "Written in Reverse", and "Got Nuffin."

36. Tyvek - Nothing Fits (In The Red). Tyvek are a lo-fi punk band from Detroit. In the Red is a good landing spot for them. Their sound hasn't changed much on latest record, as they are still raw enough to satisfy most older fans while probably gaining some new ones. Check out "4312", "Outer Limits", "Underwater", and "Pricks in a Car."

35. Band of Horses - Infinite Arms (Fat Possum). This is the 3rd album from Band of Horses and they have endured some lineup changes and a label change since their last release 3 years ago, with Ben Bridwell now as the sole remaining original member. On this release they seem to blend their alt/rock, folk, and pop sound in new ways. Check out "Compliments", "Laredo", "NW Apt", and "Dilly."

34. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones - Pin Points and Gin Joints (Big Rig). The Bosstones returned with their first album of new material in nearly 8 years. The songs don't stray far from the normal formula. I'd say this was at least as enjoyable as their last few records they made before going on hiatus. Check out "The Route That I Took", "You Left Right?", "I Wrote It", and "Wasted Summers."

33. Sweet Lights - S/T (Poor Poor Records). Sweet Lights is the latest project from Shai Halperin, the former leader of the local fave and very under-appreciated act, The Capitol Years. Sweet Lights is more melodic than rocking, sort of a combination of the earlier Capitol Years records and their last one - Dance Away the Terror. Check out "Message on the Wire", "A Hundred Needle Pins", "Relate to You", "Here Comes the Son", and "Ballad of Kurt Vile #2." You can listen to a stream of these and other tracks here.

32. Screaming Females - Castle Talk (Don Gionvanni Records). It's impossible not to immediately think of Sleater-Kinney when you hear this band. But they have more of a classic hard rock guitar sound at times. Check out "I Don't Mind It", "Boss", and "Nothing At All."

31. Unnatural Helpers - Cracked Love And Other Drugs (Hardly Art). They kind of sound like a slowed-down garage rock version of Face to Face. They run through 15 songs in an economical 25 minutes that would make Milo Aukerman proud. Highlights are "I Don't Belong to You", "Sunshine/Pretty Girls", "Tell Me That You Wanna", "Vox Humana", and "Claim It Mine."

30. Alejandro Escovedo - Street Songs of Love (Fantasy). Another solid album by one of the more underrated songwriters around. Escovedo started playing in punk bands in the 70s and this is his 10th solo album. So he brings those punk influences as well as the more obvious Springsteen and Santana influences as well. On the merits of "Anchor", "Faith", and "Shelling Rain" alone this record would make the list. The rest is pretty good too.

29. Ted Leo and The Pharmacists - The Brutalist Bricks (Matador). This was hailed as a return to form of sorts for Leo after a lot of breaks between albums and the somewhat disappointing (to most fans) 2007 album, Living with the Living. I actually liked most of Living though, so for me there wasn't much difference. Check out "The Mighty Sparrow", "Bottled in Cork" (funny video), "Where Was My Brain?", and "Last Days."

28. Jenny and Johnny - I’m Having Fun Now (Warner Bros).  Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice, while also a couple, have been writing songs together for years, even before they started dating. Usually the songs would wind up on each other's solo albums. But they decided to release this together as a duo. Most of the tracks are good. Being a big Lewis fan, the biggest downer is that she only sings lead vocal on less than half the songs. Still lots of highlights - "Big Wave", "My Pet Snakes", "Just Like Zeus", and "Straight Edge of the Blade" are the Lewis songs. The best Rice songs are "Scissor Runner", "Committed", "Switchblade."

27. Dum Dum Girls - I Will Be (Sub Pop). This was a nice little surprise of noisy lo-fi, 60's influenced pop, in the mold of Vivian Girls and Best Coast. Dee Dee (aka Kirsten Gundred) recorded all of these songs in her bedroom using a drum machine and then they were spruced up a little. There are some really good songs on here like "Jail La La", "Bhang Bhang, I'm a Burnout", "Blank Girl", and the surprisingly gorgeous Sonny and Cher cover, "Baby Don't Go." It just seems like too many of them end up sounding the same.

26. Dr. Dog - Shame Shame (Anti). West Philly's own Dr. Dog returned with their 6th full-length album and while good, it was a notch below their last few releases. This is a tad more stripped-down than their last few releases, but the songs are still very good. The highlights include, "Later", "Shadow People" where give a nod to their 'hood in the Baltimore Ave area, "Where'd All the Time Go", "Jackie Wants a Black Eye", and "Mirror Mirror."

25. Woods - At Echo Lake (Woodsist).  This is the 4th album from this lo-fi Brooklyn-based indie outfit and it may be their best. They remind me of a lo-fi version of the Byrds at times. Checkout "Blood Dries Darker", "Suffering Season", "Time Fading Lines", "Mornin' Time", and "Get Back."

24. The Hold Steady - Heaven Is Whenever (Vagrant). The Hold Steady's 5th studio album was a little disappointing, but still a worthy addition to the catalog. Craig Finn and company continue on with their Bruce Springsteen meets Thin Lizzy meets the Replacements sound. "Hurricane J", "The Weekenders", "Soft in the Center", "Rock Problems", and "Our Whole Lives" can stand up with the best of their past material.

23. The National - High Violet (4AD Records). I liked their previous record, Boxer, but got into later. So I went into this with minimum expectations and actually didn't care for it much at first. And this band has sort of come to represent everything I hate about the "adult alternative" genre - basically inoffensive mopey music by a band likely from Brooklyn, who 30-somethings can listen to and still seem kind of hip. But it actually grew on me over the course of the year. I found myself digging this poppier Smiths/Joy Division kind of sound crossed with Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Matt Berninger's voice sounds eerily similar to that of Ian Curtis and even Jim Morrison at times. Check out "Lemonworld", "Bloodbuzz Ohio", and the haunting "Terrible Love."

22. Old 97’s - The Grand Theatre Volume One (New West). You may have guessed from the title that a sequel to this is due soon (Spring '11). It was originally intended as a double album, but was split up at the behest of the record label for promotional/financial reasons. It was another solid outing from this consistently good quartet. My only complaint is Rhett Miller's acoustic ballads are just not as strong on here as they have been in the best. Nothing jumps out at you like on previous albums, but it sort of mixes their various different styles well. The best songs include "Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You)", the title track, "The Dance Class", "You Were Born To Be in Battle", and "Champaign, Illinois."

21. Alkaline Trio - This Addiction (Epitaph/Heart and Soul). Compared to their previous releases this isn't as strong, but I'd rate it ahead of 2008's Agony and Irony. It seems like they tried a little bit too hard to recapture their sound and energy from their Asian Man Records days. It still has its share of catchy punk rock songs and is a good listen, but overall is kind of redundant. The title track is good, along with "Dine Dine My Darling", "Dead on the Floor", "Off the Map", and "Fine."

20. No Age - Everything In Between (Sub Pop). This noise pop duo continues where they left off with Nouns. I probably would have ranked this higher if I didn't find myself skipping over some songs regularly. But the highs are really high. The 13-track album would have probably worked better as a 10 or 11 song release. Check out "Glitter", "Fever Dreaming", "Depletion", "Common Heat", "Valley Hump Crash", and the excellent closer "Chem Trails."

19. Delta Spirit - History From Below (Rounder). The sophomore effort from Delta Spirit is a little more polished, ambitious, and diverse than their debut and they lost a little bit of the live sound their debut had. But the band seems to have a knack for writing simple and accessible songs, no matter the style. The highlights are "911", "Bushwick Blues", "Golden State", and "St. Francis."

18. Sonny and the Sunsets - Tomorrow Is Alright (Fat Possum). "Sonny" is Bay Area songwriter Sonny Smith, in the style of rollicking alt/blues/folk artists like Langhorne Slim. "Too Young to Burn", "Strange Love", "Stranded", "Chapters", and "Lovin' On An Older Girl" are the highlights.

17. Drive-By Truckers - Big To-Do (ATO Records). The 9th album by one of the most consistent artists of the past decade does not disappoint and it may be their best to date. The Truckers have always surprised fans and critics with an obvious southern rock Skynyrd/Allmans thing on the surface, thanks to the triple-guitar attack, but a lot of other depth and influences underneath ranging from Tom Petty to Dylan to the Replacements. And now bassist Shonna Tucker sings vocals on a few songs to mix it up even more with 3 lead vocalists. The highlights are "Daddy Learned to Fly", "Birthday Boy", "You Got Another", "(It's Gonna Be) I Told You So", "This Fucking Job", and "Drag The Lake."

16. Nobunny - First Blood (Goner). Nobunny is a sort of one-man-band and alter-ego of Justin Champlin. This is the 3rd album under this moniker and the poppiest so far, while checking in at an economical 25 minutes. It has a 60's pop mixed with lo-fi garage sound. It's very derivative and kind of original. So many of the riffs sound similar to songs you probably already by groups like the Clash, the Ronettes, and Cheap Trick, among others. Check out "Ain't It a Shame", "Motorhead With Me", "Live It Up", "Gone For Good", and "Pretty Little Trouble."

15. Jeff the Brotherhood - Heavy Days (Infinity Cat). Jeff the Brotherhood are 2 brothers - Jake and Jamin Orrall, forming a 2-piece guitar and drums outfit. They share similarities with Jay Reatard, but with more of a groove-oriented stoner rock sound (think Queens of the Stone Age). Highlights include "Bone Jam", "U Got the Look", "Mind Ride", and "The Tropics."

14. The Soft Pack - S/T (Kemado). One of the best career moves in recent music history was decision by these SoCal rockers to change their name from the Muslims to the Soft Pack. They have a 60's surf rock/garage rock, mixed with a little 80's alt/rock sound. Highlights include "C'mon", "Down on Loving", "Answer to Yourself", "More Or Less", and "Mexico." But there really isn't a weak song on here.

13. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs (Merge). I'm a little to the Arcade Fire party, finally getting into them this year, on the Montreal-based indie rockers' 3rd release. It was a concept album of sorts about life in Suburbia. Their sound has aptly been compared to David Bowie and the Kinks, with some Springsteen grit sprinkled in. And while nothing on here may be as good or inspiring as "Wake Up" or "Keep the Car Running", I think it probably flows better than their previous albums. And it may have more good songs on it overall, just perhaps no great ones. The highlights are the title track, "Ready to Start", "Rococo", "City With No Children", "Modern Man", "Suburban War", "Sprawl II", and "Deep Blue."

12. Wavves - King of the Beach (Fat Possum). On the heels of one of the best lo-fi records of 2009, Wavves returned with a solid follow-up. Singer/guitarist Nathan Williams has now added Jay Reatard's former rhythm section to the band. And the results seem to an album that is more catchy and less abrasive. The highlights include the title track, "Post-Acid", "Linus Spacehead", "Super Soaker", "Take on the World", and "When Will You Come."

11. Against Me! - White Crosses (Sire/WEA). This is a little more slickly-produced than their previous offerings with Butch Vig behind the glass. But don't talk about selling out to Tom Gabel, as he protests on "One By One" - "Are you seriously talking to me about community?" It was definitely a time of personal growth for Gabel and the band, if not musical growth. The old anarchists have now seemed to make peace with what is and what isn't changeable. The highlights include "I Was a Teenage Anarchist", "One By One", "Spanish Moss", "High Pressure Low", and "Because of the Shame" - which sounds eerily similar to Bruce Springsteen's "No Surrender", which Gabel said inspired the song about a friend of his who was a big Bruce fan. And the few ballads on the album are actually better than you would think.

10. Male Bonding - Nothing Hurts (Sub Pop). Sub Pop is the perfect home for this London-based trio. Similarities to early Nirvana are not totally off the mark, but more noise-pop and less power chords. It sounds like Nirvana crossed with My Bloody Valentine and 90's Brit-pop. The best tracks are "Year's Not Long", "All Things This Way", "Your Contact", the very Nirvana-esque "Weird Feelings", "Crooked Scene", "Nothing Remains", and "Worse to Come" with the Vivian Girls.

9. The New Pornographers - Together (Matador). Not too many bands do modern power-pop better than this Vancouver-based supergroup. Not only have they never released a bad album 5 albums into their career, they also may have never released a bad song. They are kind of an 00's/alt-pop version of Fleetwood Mac without the drama. Between AC Newman, alt/country favorite Neko Case, Dan Bejar, and Kathryn Calder there is a lot of songwriting and vocal talent in the room. Check out "Moves", "Crash Years", "Silver Jenny Dollar", "A Bite Out of My Bed", and "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk."

8. Titus Andronicus - Monitor (XL). Let's see...a 5-piece rock band from NJ, who took their name from a U.S. Navy battleship, with a sophomore effort that is a sprawling, ambitious, loosely-based Civil War concept album with 5 of the 10 tracks clocking in at more than 7 minutes long. It sounds like it could be a train wreck, but they manage to pull it off. Mixing Billy Bragg, the Clash, Bruce Springsteen, and the Pixies, among others, they have a sound that is both completely original and yet also derivative. "A More Perfect Union" is easily my favorite song of the year. I feel like I could listen to this on an endless loop as I drive cross-country. Within in the first 2 verses of the song, they reference the Garden State Parkway, the Newark Bears, and lyrics from songs by Bragg and Springsteen. Sold. Other highlights include "Theme from 'Cheers'", "No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future", "Four Score and Seven", and "To Old Friends And New." But to single more would do this album a disservice, since it works so well together.

7. The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang (Side One Dummy). The punk rock/Springsteen influence seems to be a trend on this list and there are so many worthy bands out there now who cite Springsteen and prominent punk bands as their major influences. Gaslight Anthem have a Springsteen, Replacements, and emo influences, so they probably have fans across several genres. Most people have focused on just the Springsteen part of it since they are from NJ. This is their 3rd album and I think their best to date. Check out the title track, "Stay Lucky", "Bring It On", "Orphans", "Boxer", and "The Spirit of Jazz."

6. Harlem - Hippies (Matador). This indie rock trio hails originally from Tucson, AZ and plays 60's style pop/rock mixed with garage rock. So you get some reverb and then you get 60's style harmonies that would make Phil Specter smile. There isn't a clunker on here and it's best as a straight through listen at 16 tracks totaling about 40 minutes. Some highlights include "Someday Soon", "Be Your Baby", "Gay Human Bones", "Faces", "Torture Me", and "Friendly Ghost."

5. Jesse Malin and The St. Marks Social - Love It To Life (Side One Dummy). Malin put together a new backing band, the St. Marks Social, last year. This is his 4th solo album and is as good as his previous best efforts. Todd Youth (Agnostic Front, Murphy's Law, Danzig) plays lead guitar and adds a rougher edge to some of the songs. All of Malin's influences are still present on the surface - the Clash, Springsteen, the Replacements, Neil Young, Johnny Thunders, etc. The title of the album came from a phrase the late Joe Strummer often used and I believe is how he signed an autograph to Malin many years ago. The highlights include "Burning the Bowery", "All the Way From Moscow", "The Archer" which was written for a movie about J.D. Salinger, "St. Marks Sunset", "Black Boombox", and "Burn the Bridge."

4. Surfer Blood - Astrocoast (Kanine). South Florida's Surfer Blood combine smart indie pop (think Pavement) with 60's surf-rock, and 60's "wall of sound" pop music that evokes both Phil Specter and even modern wall of sound groups like Husker Du and My Bloody Valentine at times. The highlights include "Floating Vibes", "Swim", "Fast Jabroni", "Twin Peaks", and "Anchorage."

3. Free Energy - Stuck on Nothing (Virgin). Free Energy now hail from Fishtown section of Philly, after originally starting in Minneapolis. If Philly was NY, then I guess Fishtown would be our Brooklyn as far as being where bands move to from other areas of the country. Free Energy almost digests a little too easy, but they still have the good songs to go along with them. At times they sound like the Strokes or Pavement and then other times they have riffage that is reminiscent of Weezer or Thin Lizzy. Highlights include "Free Energy", "Bang Pop", "Young Hearts", and "Light Love", but there really isn't a bad track on here. And even the pair of b-sides that are out there were good enough to make the cut.

2. Superchunk - Majesty Shredding (Merge). After being on semi-hiatus, Superchunk returned with their first original LP and headlining tour in 9 years. And it was worth the wait for the Chapel Hill legends. This is their best album in a long time and stands up with their best albums during their heyday. After 20+ years they are still on the top of their game. There really isn't a dud on here and the best include "Digging for Something" (great video), "My Gap Feels Weird", "Crossed Wires", "Learned to Surf", and "Everything At Once."

1. Best Coast - Crazy For You (Mexican Summer). Best Coast is the collaboration of Bethany Cosentino and multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno. After being their live drummer, Ali Koehler left the Vivian Girls to become Best Coast's after this album came out. Like other artists on this list, their sound is inspired by 60's surf rock and girl groups from that era, along with lo-fi noise-pop and was easily the most-played album in my collection in 2010. The songs are simple and delivered in a laid-back way, but they are instantly catchy and you'll be humming them to yourself after a few listens. The highlights are "Boyfriend", "When I'm With You", "Crazy For You", "Summer Mood", "The End", "When the Sun Don't Shine", and "Bratty B", but there are no clunkers on here.

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