It’s that time of year. For the fourth time, the Holy Bee presents its Top 20 Albums of the Year. (2007, 2008, and 2009 lists can be found in the archives to the left.)
As predicted, 2010 produced a bumper crop of good music. I struggled last year to come up with twenty albums I liked well enough to put on my list. This year, I had a quota of twenty by springtime, and several worthy contenders had to get the chop. Here, then, are some albums that didn’t quite make the cut, but are certainly worth a listen.
Against Me! — White Crosses
With its 2008 album New Wave, Against Me! managed to alienate its hardcore, politically-agitated “true” punk fans by abandoning social outrage and political sloganeering and embracing a more approachable (and more mature) viewpoint. White Crosses continues that trend, and puts a pretty fine point on it by titling its best song “I Used To Be An Anarchist.” The point when a band pisses off its already angry, narrow-minded “core” audience is usually right when the Holy Bee jumps on board, because that’s when a band has actually gotten good as musicians/songwriters, and has outgrown being the musical equivalent of spray-painting an anarchy “A” on the side of a Rite Aid, thinking they’re changing the world.
Black Mountain — Wilderness Heart
This Canadian collective leaves behind the soaring, fantasy-Zeppelin jams of their previous record (#7 on my 2008 list) in favor of a quicker, more casual effort. These concise hard-rock nuggets sometimes sound a little too tossed-off, and don’t really stay in your head after hearing them. They certainly don’t have that “sweated over” intensity of their last album.
Blitzen Trapper — Destroyer of the Void
Initially a strong contender for the Top 20 this year, the Holy Bee’s #1 act of 2008 also takes a bit of a plunge. Unlike Furr, there’s no risk-taking here. One great song (the title song), several good ones, two with the word “lover” in the title (two too many), lots of mellow, acoustic strummy-strum — with more than a stale, ganja-scented whiff of Crosby, Stills & Nash. But no Young. Furr brought the Young.
The Dead Weather — Sea of Cowards
With what sounds like outtakes from last year’s debut, Jack White’s other other band tumbles from #1 in 2009 to right off my list. I guess I’m a fickle bastard, but in spite of a handful of killer tunes (“Hustle and Cuss,” “Gasoline”), this may be one too many trips to the scuzz-blues well.
OK Go — Of the Blue Colour of the Sky
YouTube darlings and practitioners of my beloved power pop contend for Single of the Year with “This Too Shall Pass.” The rest of the album is just a big bowl of okay. (All things considered, my Single of the Year award goes to Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You.”)
Titus Andronicus — The Monitor
A very interesting band, with a great theme for an album (the Civil War — used mostly metaphorically rather than literally), and some longer epic-ish songs that actually go places instead of chasing their tails. But, in the end, it was a little too abrasive for my tender Beatle-trained ears.
Kings of Leon — Come Around Sundown
Or Only By The Night Part II. KoL certainly aren’t abandoning their billion-dollar formula. Much like Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown, Come Around Sundown follows its predecessor’s template so slavishly, that in spite of the strength of individual songs, it seems stale. Also like Green Day, Kings of Leon are victims of their own platinum-selling status, with much venom and vitriol spewed in their direction by people who hate popular things. (Yes, I spew venom at Rascal Flatts and Nickelback, but if you like Nickelback better than Kings of Leon, this is probably above your reading level anyway.) I won’t try to defend them (again) here, but I will continue to look forward to new releases from KoL, even if they just miss making my top 20. (So really, I’m not a fickle bastard. It takes a boldly stupid and horrendous self-immolation of Weezer-sized proportions to make me stop supporting a band later in its career.) Bonus points to Come Around Sundown for including a real, live, red-hot guitar solo — a rarity these days — on the song “Mary.”
She & Him — Volume Two
The Apples In Stereo — Travellers in Space and Time
The Cute-As-A-Button award for 2010 is a tie between these two, each of whom are like rays of aural sunshine. Diabetics beware — either one of these is liable to make your blood sugar spike before they’re over.
Wolf Parade — Expo 86
The National — High Violet
The Indie-Youngsters-Like-This-Way-Too-Much award for 2010 (also called the Grizzly Bear Award) is another tie. Unlike previous candidates for this award (Dirty Projectors, the intensely mediocre Phoenix, and, of course, Grizzly Bear), Wolf Parade and The National were real contenders for my top 20, because they manage to combine both an original vision and undeniable musical chops. In the best cool slacker tradition, Wolf Parade seems too lazy to make these elements truly cohere, and the doom-laden, downbeat National seem content to allow Matt Berninger’s hypnotic baritone vocals to be the whole show.
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti — Before Today
We all know radio waves broadcast into space just keep going. Imagine if you will, some of it bounced back. Say a nugget of groovy psychedelic rock from 1967 ricochets back toward us when it hits the Horsehead Nebula. As the signal passes Alpha Centauri, it gets corrupted by some early-eighties New Wave. By the time we receive it back, it comes out of our speakers as a faint, hazy, pulsing, slightly alien sound. That’s what Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti sounds like to me. I await my honorary degree in astrophysics.
Of Montreal — False Priest
Eclectic indie-pop Elephant 6 veterans Of Montreal let rip with a full-on, bottom-heavy R&B dance album that’s fun as hell for the first half and “enough already” for the second half. In fairness, the Holy Bee has a habit of getting bored at loud, dumb parties and leaving early.
Spoon — Transference
If my list was a Top 21, you’re looking at #21 right here. No one is a victim of their own success like Spoon (pictured at top), because they make it look so effortless. If they don’t re-invent the wheel with every release, we feel they’ve let us down. Any other band would be rightfully proud of an album of minimalist-yet-soulful jagged-edge pop songs of this caliber. For Spoon, it’s just another day at the office.
Jesse Malin — Love It To Life
There will always be someone ready to step into Paul Westerberg‘s tattered boots as an iconoclastic singer-songrwiter who tempers punk fury with roots-rock classicism. As a veteran of NYC glam punk band D Generation, and a pal of Ryan Adams, the kinda goofy and perpetually sweaty Jesse Malin has been doing an intermittently competent job in that arena since his solo debut, The Fine Art of Self-Destruction, in 2003. His latest is a good slab of riff-rock to blast from your garage while washing your car. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less.
Check these out, too — 2010 albums by:
Kanye West (every major magazine’s #1, I just don’t hear what they’re hearing. It’s a pretty good rap album, that’s all — certainly better than anything he’s done since his debut), Rogue Wave, Fang Island, Mark Ronson, Robyn, Neil Young, Johnny Cash (his second posthumous album, American VI).
Some major re-issues of 2010:
My favorite album of all time, The Rolling Stones‘ 1972 Exile On Main Street got the deluxe re-release treatment in May, with ten bonus tracks. Read the Holy Bee’s write-up here.
Bruce Springsteen‘s 1978 Darkness On The Edge Of Town got a re-issue that blows every other re-issue out of the water: the package comes with:
1. The original album — ten of the best songs Bruce ever wrote (“Badlands,” “Racing In The Street,” “The Promised Land,” etc.)
2. Two albums’ worth of outtakes. (Bruce’s outtakes were not sub-par throwaways. He would write and record dozens and dozens of songs for each album, then cherry-pick the ten or twelve that set a particular mood or fit a theme he had decided on. The rest were shelved. The 1998 four-disc set Tracks let some of these out of the vault. Now here’s two more discs’ worth, and we just ponder that these were not only left off the original Darkness, but also left off Tracks! Songs that could make the career of a lesser artist. Is the Boss’ well bottomless? I hope we never find out.)
3. Blu-Ray #1 — A feature documentary on the making of the album, with plenty of first-hand studio footage.
4. Blu-Ray #2 — The 2009 incarnation of the E Street Band performing the album live in its entirety in an abandoned theater in Asbury Park, NJ.
5. Blu-Ray #3 — A full, three-hour vintage concert from 1978.
All of this comes in a beautifully re-created facsimile of Bruce’s original spiral notebook where he kept all his Darkness lyrics and notes. All the Blu-Rays have additional bonus features. If the music within weren’t 33 years old, this would be Album of the Year, if not Decade.
And finally, another collection from Jimi Hendrix, who evidently recorded and archived every single note farted from his Marshall amp. West Coast Seattle Boy is another round of live tracks and alternate versions (the world does not need yet another version of his blooze-snooze “Hear My Train A-Comin’,” a staple of every goddamn posthumous collection for two decades). What makes this collection interesting is its first disc, which highlights his pre-fame, pre-psychedelia career as a session guitarist/sideman for R&B acts like the Isley Brothers and Little Richard.
Coming soon — #20 – #11: The Countdown Begins…