10. Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
It took me a little while to get into this album and the concert I saw in Columbia, Mo. certainly helped. But, this may be their best album. It's missing some of their most anthemic songs like "The Funeral" and "No One's Gonna Love You" that showed up on their first two albums, but the songs seem to have more depth. Songs like "Older" with its sound that's new but oh so familiar set the tone for a great album. I highly recommend "Older," "Laredo" and "Dilly."
9. Joe Pug – Messenger
Joe Pug, a Chicago based singer-songwriter is new to the music scene, having released just an EP in 2009 and this, his first full-length album earlier in 2010. But, you wouldn't know it based on the great lyrics and the wizened voice that brings those words to life. I mentioned to someone at his show at Off Broadway on July 4 that the second track on this album, "How Good You Are," may just be the most perfect track I'd ever heard. And in that moment, it was. Now I'm not even sure if it's my favorite track on the album. Messenger is a truly great first full-length album. Check out "How Good You Are," "Messenger" and "Speak Plainly, Diana" (also on his EP, Nation of Heat).
8. The Black Keys – Brothers
I didn't know the Black Keys' music until this year. With all of the music out there, sometimes things get missed. When I'd considered them in the past I always thought to myself, "Self, you already listen to the White Stripes. Why should you listen to another band without a bassist?" Well, that dude was totally wrong. When the new album came out, I listened to it … a lot. I also went back to their old albums and listened to them. But, I often find that my first exposure to a band sets the tone for all future albums and I end up loving the first album the most. As is true in this case. In my defense, I do think the songs are better on the new album than any of the previous ones. They've reduced the sludge and allowed the songs to breathe more which, for me, makes for a better listen. Favorite tracks: "Unknown Brother," "Howlin' for You" and "Everlasting Light."
7. Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues
Before this year, I'd heard stray tracks from JTE and knew he was the son of legendary guitarist/songwriter Steve Earle but had never really listened to his albums in their entirety. After hearing Harlem River Blues, I'm not sure why I hadn't. Enlisting help from friends like Jason Isbell, best known for his time spent as the lead guitarist in Drive-by Truckers, this album wears like a favorite t-shirt. Starting with the great gospel-influenced title track, each song takes you to a new place yet sounds familiar. A great album. I love "Harlem River Blues," "Wanderin'" and "Christchurch Woman."
6. Hollerado – Record in a Bag
A brand new band from Manotick, Ontario. They released their debut album Record in a Bag earlier this year and it is exactly that, a record that comes in a sandwich bag filled with confetti, a download code and some nice fortune cookie sayings. The interesting packaging works for them. Their fun, infectious songs remind me of Weezer when they were worried more about having fun than becoming the poster child of the emo movement or matriculating at Harvard. This album (and especially their live show) draws in the listener and doesn't let them go. The album is pure pop goodness with loud guitars, great melodies and lots of energy. I love "Juliette," "Fake Drugs" and "Americanarama."
5. Free Energy – Stuck on Nothing
Another new band, this one from Philadelphia, Pa. Free Energy sound like they could have been sandwiched right between Bad Company and Thin Lizzy on a '70s rock radio station. No frills rock songs with great melodies throughout. Their show at the Old Rock House was probably my favorite show of the year (opened by Hollerado). Check out the opening track "Free Energy" or "Wild Winds" and "Young Hearts."
4. Sharon Van Etten – Epic
Quite a difference between Sharon Van Etten's new album and the Free Energy and Hollerado albums preceding it on my list. This album oozes heartbreak. It's composed of seven amazing tracks about a relationship gone sour. With only seven tracks, it may be more of a novelette than an epic but the emotions presented throughout are of epic proportions. Some words of wisdom for any men in her life in the future: If you're considering breaking up, be prepared to have your heart broken in song when you hear her next album. Luckily, the lyrics are accompanied by songs of great beauty and painstaking care. A few tracks from the album that I recommend are: "Don't Do It", "Peace Signs" and "A Crime." It would be a crime not to hear this album.
3. Peter Wolf – Midnight Souvenirs
Peter Wolf, born Peter W. Blankfield, has had quite a life. The former lead singer of J. Geils Band, former husband of Faye Dunaway in the '70s and renowned artist, has been putting out solo albums sporadically since 1984. With the help of Neko Case, Shelby Lynne and even the estimable Merle Haggard, Midnight Souvenirs is a loose, rambling, fantastic album. From ballads like "Don't Try to Change Her" to rockers like "I Don't Wanna Know" and even a tongue-in-cheek bedroom soul song in "Overnight Lows" where he croons "fill up the waterbed and you and me man, get a little hot oil and do some essay writer rub a dub dub dub.… " Versatile and fun, at 64 Peter Wolf has put together another great album.
2. The New Pornographers – Together
This Canadian group's 5th album doesn't break any new ground for the group but it does build on the great pop songs of its past albums. What this album does have is some of the best songs the NP's have ever released. Consisting of songs by writers Carl Newman (aka AC Newman) and Dan Bejar (also of the band Destroyer), there isn't one weak track on the album. And when the voice of Neko Case is paramount, the songs soar. I love the Carl Newman penned Neko led tracks "Crash Years" and "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk" as well as the Dan Bejar songs "Silver Jenny Dollar" and "If You Can't See My Mirrors."
1. Dan Mangan – Nice, Nice Very Nice
Initially, I considered listing this album lower on my list due to the "who's that?" factor. But, when it came down to it, this was my favorite album of the year. Dan Mangan is from Vancouver, Canada (What? Another Canadian?) and writes quirky, beautiful, folk songs with an edge. The album covers rock in its opener "Road Regrets." to sweet acoustic ballads in "The Indie Queens are Waiting" and "Tina's Glorious Comeback" to heartbreakingly beautiful tracks like "Basket" and "Pine for Cedars." A great album from start to finish. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.
Here's hoping 2011 brings as much joy as 2010.