Friday, December 31, 2010

The Best Albums of 2010

Here are my picks for the ten best albums of 2010.

1.Chrissi Poland - Songs From the Concrete

Listen to "Alone With My Troubles"


An Immensely Talented Singer and Songwriter: Chrissi Poland recorded this album in 2009. When significant label interest failed to generate a suitable deal, Chrissi released it herself as a seven song EP last spring. In addition to guitarist Steve Elliot from her band, she had the services of some pretty amazing jazz musicians on this recording. John Patitucci and Chris Thomas shared bass duties, Brian Blade played drums, and Jon Coward played piano and keyboards; Chris and Jon are both members of the Brian Blade Fellowship Band, and Jon also played with Chrissi's band and co-produced the album. Chrissi did both lead and backing vocals and she also co-produced. All the songs are originals written either by Chrissi or Chrissi and Jon.

"Alone With My Troubles" (above) opens the album with a powerful slow blues, and it's the only track on the record that you could readily categorize. Chrissi has a remarkable talent for singing and writing music that has elements of rock, blues, jazz, soul, pop, country, and gospel but none of those labels can easily be applied to her songs. "Yours Is the Love" is an exuberant soul/pop mix. "Angel Weep for Me" has been a longtime staple of her live show and you might say that it's her signature song; a soulful ballad with a great gospel flavor and in this version Steve's steel guitar gives it a nice country tone. The album ends with "Next Time", a beautiful song with equally beautiful lyrics which give the album its title. Songs From the Concrete is easily the best thing I heard all year.

2.Bruce Springsteen - The Promise

Listen to "Talk to Me"


Manna from the Bruce vault: The Promise is a new two CD set, with ten songs on each disc, either of which might have been a worthy follow-up to Bruce Springsteen's classic Born to Run album instead of the album we know as Darkness On the Edge of Town. For the 30th anniversary reissue of Darkness, the good folks at Columbia/Legacy packed the deluxe boxed set with several DVDs as well as a heaping helping of studio tracks from the vault. In order to not require every Bruce fan to shell out $100+ for the box set just to get the new stuff, they very nicely released the double album separately, titled The Promise.

Due to a lawsuit with his former manager, Bruce was prevented from recording for three years following Born to Run (1975). Bruce is a prolific songwriter and when the matter was finally settled, he took the E-Street Band into the studio and recorded 72 songs. Only a handful were used for the Darkness album, the rest went into the vault. These were not outtakes or demos, they were finished tracks ready for release. Any of them could have been used for the Darkness LP but Bruce chose the songs for Darkness that conveyed the feeling he was after.

These vault tracks represent Bruce and band at the top of their powers. To finally get these songs in 2010 is truly a gift. Some of the songs are readily familiar. Bruce wrote "Because the Night" with Patti Smith and her version has become a rock standard; now we have Bruce's own version. When these songs were not released at the time, Bruce gave some of them away. "Talk to Me" (above) was given to Southside Johnny and has been a staple of the Jukes live show for the last 30 years. You'll instantly recognize "Fire" because the Pointer Sisters had a great hit with it.

Some other songs are early versions of songs that came out on Darkness. "Racing in the Street ('78)" and "Candy's Boy" (which became "Candy's Room") are very different. "Come On (Let's Go Tonight)" got all new lyrics and became "Factory" on the Darkness album. One song, "Rendezvous", has been part of Bruce's live set over the years. The rest of the tracks are being heard for the first time on The Promise.

After Born to Run, many were wondering what happened to the fun songs because they weren't on Darkness. Bruce has said in interviews that he wanted a darker, more serious tone for Darkness saying that he began a dialogue with his audience here that continued on Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and The Rising. The question of where the fun songs went was answered by The Promise; they went into the vault. The Promise is nicely varied, and in many ways is much like The River album.

2. Peter Wolf - Midnight Souvenirs

Listen to "Tragedy" feat. Shelby Lynne


Great Duets and More: Peter Wolf was once the lead singer of the J. Geils Band, but that seems like ancient history now that he has released his seventh and best solo album. Peter produced the album himself, and he wrote or co-wrote all of the songs except for one cover of an Alan Toussaint song ("Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky"); he co-wrote most songs with Will Jennings. The calling card for this album is three dynamite duets. The album opens with the Shelby Lynne duet, "Tragedy" (above). Peter has a great story about cutting the song with Shelby which he tells on the World Cafe program; we don't have room to retell it here but click here and you will be most entertained.

There is an awesome duet with Merle Haggard which Merle jumped at the chance to record with Peter because he liked the song that much; if you didn't know better, you might think Peter has been writing great country songs all his life. There is also a really nice duet with Neko Case. The rest of the album is great, too. "Overnight Lows" is a really smooth soul song that has a little touch of Barry White. Peter is one of the most knowledgeable people in the music business, he knows just about everyone. He puts that knowledge to good use in creating an album with superb production, great performances, and totally consistent songwriting.

4. Tracy Thorn - Love and Its Opposite

Listen to "Long White Dress"


A New Perspective: Tracy Thorn was the voice of Everything But The Girl from the early 80s until the end of the 90s. In 1999, she and partner Ben Waitt put the band on hold in order to raise their family. Eventually, Ben became one of the most in-demand club D.J.s in London and started the Buzzin' Fly record label. Tracy eventually returned to music making solo albums of which Love and Its Opposite is the latest. Produced by Ewan Pearson, this is very much a singer-songwriter record as opposed to the club-friendly pop/rock that EBTG was known for.

Tracy's voice has not changed at all, but her subject matter is altogether new. The songs on Love and Its Opposite are all written from the perspective of a mother of teenage girls ("Hormones") as well as a woman looking at various aspects of love and long-term relationships ("Oh! The Divorces", "Singles Bar"). "Hormones" has a great lyric with lines such as "Yours are just kicking in, Mine are just checking out, You're at the beginning of this tunnel, And I'm just coming out." The songs are great and it's really nice to hear her familiar voice deal with such personal and mature themes. Love and Its Opposite is a pleasure to listen to from beginning to end.

5. Courtney Jaye - The Exotic Sounds of Courtney Jaye

Listen to "Sweet Ride"


A Sweet Ride: Courtney Jaye had the good fortune to make her first album with a major label. When it came time to think about her second album, she parted ways with her label in order to take control of her music which she felt she didn't have on the first one. Courtney released a five song preview EP of this record back in 2008. Courtney's music weaves together seemingly disparate influences that reflect the places that she has lived and soaked up the local music.

There's a bit of indie rock absorbed during her time in Austin ("I Need Love"); Hawaiian folk and island rhythms ("Maru Maru", "Queen of Sabotage") permeate her music which works surprisingly well with the country/pop sensibility she picked up making her first album in Nashville ("Sweet Ride", above). "Don't Tell A Girl" sounds like a new record that you never heard in the late 50s or early 60s. Courtney's music has the unique quality of sounding retro and new at the same time, plus it's a little bit country, a little bit pop, with a touch of Hawaii (where she now lives and records); it all adds up to a sweet ride.

6. Shelby Lynne - Tears, Lies, and Alibis

Listen to "Loser Dreamer"


Calling the Shots: Ever since her Identity Crisis album (2003), Shelby Lynne has been moving further and further away from the normal relationship between artists, producers, and record label. Her desire to have creative control over her music was partially realized on Suit Yourself (2005), but it wasn't until her latest album that she gained complete and total control over her music. She wrote all the songs on Tears, Lies, and Alibis and she co-produced the record with her longtime band member Brian Harrison. Also from her band, the amazingly talented John Jackson plays guitar on this record.

All the songs seem as if they began with Shelby and her acoustic guitar. Most songs have additional instrumentation, applied sparingly; it seems that there will come a day that she will make a record like Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, where she sings and plays her acoustic guitar into a tape recorder at home. The songs on Tears, Lies, and Alibis are all really intimate and personal. The songwriting is solid throughout but she really brings it home on the last four songs ("Loser Dreamer", above, is one) which are among the best she's ever done.

7. Raul Midon - Synthesis

Listen to "Don't Take It That Way"


A Soulful Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist: After two excellent albums for EMI, Raul Midon signed with Decca for 2010's Synthesis. Being that this record was produced by star producer Larry Klein, the way these contracts are done, it is probable that Klein was part of the deal that brought Raul to Decca. In addition to producing, Klein also played bass and keyboards. Klein brought some name musicians to the sessions, Larry Goldings played the Hammond B-3 organ and Vinnie Colaiuta played drums. The overall sound of the record is sweet and commensurate with the quality of the songs which were co-written by Raul except for Lennon-McCartney's "Blackbird".

The first time I ever heard Raul was about five years ago when he opened for Shelby Lynne at the Northstar Bar in Philadelphia. It's purely coincidence (that I just noticed) that Raul follows Shelby on this list. He was so good at the Northstar that I bought his first CD from him on the spot. He was the first performer I'd ever seen who played the mouth trumpet; he purses his lips as if playing a real trumpet and although there is no instrument he still makes the sound of the trumpet. He does that once or twice on Synthesis. A good number of the songs here are about a breakup ("Don't Take It That Way," above); someone must have worked him over pretty bad because he lets loose in a song called "About You" to the point that the lyrics earned him a parental advisory sticker on the cover. As Chrissi Poland has said, you don't break the heart of a singer-songwriter unless you are prepared to hear about it later in their songs. Synthesis is a prime example.

8. Mavis Staples - You Are Not Alone

Listen to "You Are Not Alone"


Updating the Gospel: Giving traditional gospel songs a rock treatment is nothing new, but it's never been done so well as in the last few years. Mike Farris gave some very traditional songs rock arrangements for his 2007 album Salvation in Lights. He took the record out on the road with an eleven piece band and performed one of the best sets of music I saw at SXSW 2008. Patti Griffin made a gospel record her way on Downtown Church (2010). Mavis Staples has made a gospel styled record that sounds nothing like the two aforementioned albums. Mavis has had an illustrious career as the lead singer of the Staples Singers, as well as a string of solo albums of which this is her tenth.

This time she teamed up with Jeff Tweedy (Wilco, Uncle Tupelo) who produced as well as played guitar and bass. This is not a traditional gospel record; there are a few traditional songs but the majority of songs are not. Three songs came from Roebuck "Pops" Staples, Tweedy wrote two, and there are one each by Randy Newman, Allen Toussaint, and John Fogerty. The result is a thoroughly modern album in which the old songs fit perfectly with the new, all with a common tone and message. I've never been particularly interested in Wilco, but Tweedy made all the right choices producing this record, song selection, arrangements, and I really like his guitar work, especially his fuzz guitar. You're Not Alone will lift your spirits, both musically and lyrically, and isn't that what gospel is all about?

9. Norah Jones - The Fall

Listen to "Back to Manhattan"


A First Rate Songwriter: On The Fall, Norah Jones' fourth album, she completes the move away from her interpretive past with a solid singer-songwriter album. Since her second album, she's been writing more and more, to the point that she wrote or co-wrote this entire record. Of the five songs she didn't write all alone, she utilized long time collaborator Jesse Harris on two, one of which also included her Little Willies cohort Richard Julian in the writing. These are the only familiar names from her past that show up in the credits of The Fall. Part of Norah's focus on modernizing her sound was the choice of producer Jacquire King (Modest Mouse, Kings of Leon).

Whatever you want to call her new approach, it's working for her. The sound is mostly electric guitar, bass, and drums. Her acoustic guitar is only really heard on one track, the lovely "December". There are only two piano songs, one is "Man of the Hour" which closes the album with a nice bit of Norah's humor, "It's him or me, That's what he said, But I can't choose between a vegan and a pot head, So I chose you because you're sweet, And you give me lots of loving and you eat meat, And that's how you became my only Man Of The Hour". This is not necessarily a breakup record, but some of the songs are about the fragility of relationships, songs like "Back To Manhattan" (above).

This album has a good many songs with memorable melodies that could be singles, like the above song, "Chasing Pirates", "Even Though" and "Young Blood". Some songs rock a little harder than you may be used to hearing on a Norah Jones record, particularly "It's Gonna Be" which also brings clever lyrics. "Tell Yer Mama" has that country sounding bass line that makes it sound like something she might do with The Little Willies. This year Norah also released an album that compiles many of her guest appearances on other artists' records. That album (...Featuring Norah Jones) sounds good throughout, but it does a great job of exploding expectations and stereotypes. Norah is one of the most musically adventurous artists that you are likely to hear, and all those experiences inform her own songwriting which help to make The Fall her most interesting and enjoyable record since the first one.

10. Buddy Guy - Living Proof

Listen to "Stay Around a Little Longer" feat. B.B. King


A Living Legend: Buddy Guy may not have invented electric blues/rock but his guitar style served as a blueprint for every blues/rock guitarist from Clapton and Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughn and beyond. Buddy is now in his sixth decade of performing and not only has he not lost a step but his albums in the last decade have been consistently good. He's made so many albums that it's hard to say how many but his latest is certainly a treat for anyone who enjoys this sort of music.

Most of the songs are autobiographical, like the opening track "74 Years Young", "Thank Me Someday" (which refers to his family), and the title track are good examples. There are lots of songs about being a musician on the road and about the women he meets. All the songs are originals co-written by the drummer, Tom Hambridge, in tandem with one or the other of two additional songwriters; Buddy collaborated on five of the tracks. These songs all feature Buddy's fiery guitar. Clearly the album's centerpiece is two duets, one with B.B. King (above) and one with Carlos Santana, "Where the Blues Begin". The rapport between B.B. and Buddy can't help but bring a smile to your face. On the duet with Carlos, they let their guitars do the talking.








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