Friday, November 26, 2010

The Music of 2010

Despite my CD of the Day project that dusted off some older CDs in my collection, I still made plenty of time for great new music in 2010. As is my Black Friday custom, all of the music below comes with the highest possible recommendation as you search for stocking stuffers and the like.

Trombone Shorty
I’d never heard of this young New Orleans phenom until this year, and then it seemed like he was everywhere. And with good reason. Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews plays with a fire in his belly, whether he’s attacking his audience with his eponymous instrument, squealing on trumpet, singing, or dancing his way across the stage. The guy is electric, both on his new record, “Backatown,” and in concert. His blend of rock, funk, hip hop, and R&B is infectious, envigorating, and, as a trombone player myself, inspiring. His show at the 9:30 Club in August was so great, we’re going back for more on New Year’s Day.

The Avett Brothers
The Gaslight Anthem
Patty Griffin
Robert Plant
The Whigs

“American Slang,” The Gaslight Anthem (2010)
This should be no surprise, really, since I devoted five days and thousands of words to this spectacular album earlier this year. Everybody always talks about a “sophomore slump,” but third albums are tricky, too, and dangerous. Gaslight had a lot of pressure living up to “The ’59 Sound,” and they nailed it. And not by simply re-recording that album, but by going in a new, more difficult direction.

“American Slang” is the band’s finest record, their most well crafted. Brian Fallon was already one of my favorite songwriters of all time before this album, and yet his work here reaches a new level of depth. These are lyrics you want to sit with and read along to the music, spend time thinking about; I could quote at least a dozen favorite lines. What I love most is that he tackles difficult personal issues without losing his inherent optimism. This may be Gaslight’s version of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” but there’s light at the end of their tunnel.

And the songs! As you’ll see below, I finally managed to settle on one, but at least five tracks from this album were considered my “favorite” at one point or another this year, and I still haven’t fully decided. Pop, punk, soul, classic rock … “American Slang” has it all, yet it all still sounds distinctly Gaslight.

The band set itself apart from its peers with this record.

“Backatown,” Trombone Shorty (2010)
“Band of Joy,” Robert Plant (2010)
“Crazy Heart,” soundtrack (2010)
“Ghosts on the Boardwalk,” The Bouncing Souls (2010)
“Good Morning, Magpie,” Murder By Death (2010)
“I and Love and You,” The Avett Brothers (2009)
“In the Dark,” The Whigs (2010)
“The Promise,” Bruce Springsteen (2010)
“Soulsville,” Huey Lewis and the News (2010)
“Why You Runnin’” EP, Lissie (2009)
“You Are Not Alone,” Mavis Staples (2010)

“High Violet,” The National (2010)
“Maya,” M.I.A. (2010)
“The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire (2010)

“Suburbia,” Trombone Shorty (from 2010’s “Backatown”)
Never would I have thought my favorite song of 2010 wouldn’t have a single lyric, but greatness is greatness, and “Suburbia” is great. There’s so much going on in this trombone-and-guitar manifesto I don’t know where lyrics would even fit, anyway. There’s so much power in this track; Trombone Shorty is absolutely blasting away on his instrument, with a backing band equal to his call. What I really love about this song, though, is how it moves and changes, shifting shapes in so many ways over the course of just 3 minutes 20 seconds. And yet, the powerhouse core riff is always there, waiting to explode again. Since I first heard this song, whenever I needed a boost of energy in 2010, I went straight to “Suburbia.”


“Ain’t No Grave,” Johnny Cash (from 2010’s “Ain’t No Grave”)
Johnny Cash’s final album isn’t as good as the other American Recordings, but this track, which plays like a sequel to “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” was worth waiting for. The sparse, chain-rattling chiller is one of his best from this series.

“All Those Yesterdays,” Pearl Jam (from 1998’s “Yield,” as performed live 5.13.10)
As I wrote back in May, this was one of my Pearl Jam “bucket list” songs. Never thought I’d hear it in person (they’ve only played it 13 times since 1998), but always hoped to. It did not disappoint. The closing track to my favorite Pearl Jam album was as majestic as ever.

“Awake My Soul,” Mumford and Sons (from 2009’s “Sigh No More”)
In the Star Wars novels from recent years, there’s a phrase the authors like to use: suit action to words. That’s the idea with this song. I do actually feel revitalized after listening to it. This was a strong contender for Song of the Year from a brilliant new band.

“Big Eyes,” The Bouncing Souls (from 2010’s “Ghosts on the Boardwalk”)
The Souls continued to stretch themselves with this album, and this song, in particular. It plays like a more serious take on the front-porch feel of “The Pizza Song.” With its acoustic rhythm guitar and overall toned-down vibe, this shows real growth and is one of the band’s best tracks.

“Bloodbuzz Ohio,” The National (from 2010’s “High Violet”)
Yeah, I hated this album. But if I only had one song to try and make someone a National fan, “Bloodbuzz Ohio” wouldn’t be a bad choice. Everything I love about the band is in this song: the pounding drums; the swirling guitars; the piano flourishes that dance around the edges; and Matt Berninger’s resonant voice, which sounds as good as ever here. This is the one song from “High Violet” that holds up to “Boxer,” which is the best compliment I can possibly give it.

“Cry to Me,” Huey Lewis and the News (from 2010’s “Soulsville”)
There’s a full post coming about this album of Stax covers, but for now let me just say: How great is this?!?! Huey and the News may be a fun bar-band-gone-huge from the ’80s, but this release, their first in years, demonstrates there was a lot of depth hiding behind those winking and smiling hit songs. Tough to choose a favorite, so this one may or may not be here for its association with the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack.

“The Day,” Murder By Death (from 2010’s “Good Morning, Magpie”)
After a wonderfully idiosyncratic album, MBD reminds at the conclusion to “Magpie” they can still bring the apocalyptic heavy. “The Day” is spooky, scary, spectacular stuff. The last 30 seconds alone make this song one of my favorites of the year.

“Everywhere I Go,” Lissie (from 2009’s “Why You Runnin’” EP/2010’s “Catching A Tiger” LP)
If you’re gonna sing about angels, then you should probably have the voice of one. That’s Lissie, who stunned me with her 2009 debut EP's stark beauty. “Everywhere I Go” gets the nod here, but really any of those five songs could be considered a favorite of the past year. Unfortunately, she fell victim to pop sensibilities on her first official LP, which makes the inclusion of this song stand out like a sore thumb. Still, when she hits that “ANGELS” note … wow.

“Fallin’ & Flyin’,” Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell (from 2010’s “Crazy Heart” soundtrack)
There are a handful of great songs from Bridges on this outstanding soundtrack to a spectacular film, but I went with this one because it was my favorite scene in the movie, when Farrell joins Bridges onstage. Bridges does this little motion telling Farrell to get back on the mic that I just love, like a dad showing pride for his son. Bridges is magnificent as both an actor and singer, and this is just one of several examples. (Farrell’s shockingly good as a Western vocalist, too.)

“Far Away,” Jose Gonzalez/“Deadman’s Gun,” Ashtar Command (from 2010’s “Red Dead Redemption” soundtrack)
“Red Dead Redemption” is one of the best video games I’ve ever played. Entertainment Weekly described the smash hit from Rockstar (“Grand Theft Auto”) like walking around in “Deadwood,” and that’s just about right. And not only is the game awesome, but so is the soundtrack. These two moody Western ballads come at crucial points in the game and set the perfect tone for what’s happening on screen. They’re a testament to the level of quality Rockstar achieved with this singular title.

“Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” The Avett Brothers (from 2009’s “I and Love and You”)
The Avetts’ voices speak to me in an elemental way I’m a little at a loss to explain. It’s the clarity, I think. They sing with such grace, and power, and finesse, and energy—sometimes all at once, sometimes just pieces of those things. This song is also a good representation of the positivity the Avetts strive to create—in themselves, in their fans, in their world. It’s right there in the title: Everyone has doubts, but there’s always reason for hope; you have to use that hope to drown out the darkness in yourself. Be aggressive about it. It’s a song about living out your dreams, but the subject matter is handled frankly, realistically, and in that acknowledgement is its power.

This song includes one of my favorite lyrics of the past year:

When nothing is old, deserved or expected
And your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected
If you’re loved by someone you’re never rejected
Decide what to be and go be it

Match lines like that to a sweeping, moving score, and you have one of my favorite songs of the year.

“Heavy in Your Arms,” Florence + the Machine (from 2010’s “Eclipse” soundtrack)
Florence Welch is on the verge of exploding into the popular consciousness. Her 2009 debut, “Lungs,” was one of my favorites from last year and it’s still gaining traction—one of those slow-burn situations. Last weekend she delivered one of the best “Saturday Night Live” performances I’ve ever seen, and next year she’s opening for U2. This song isn’t one of her very best, but it’s a more than serviceable introduction for the Twilight crowd, which certainly can’t hurt (just ask Paramore and Muse). The thunderous percussion, dramatic pauses and changes of direction, and, more than anything, Welch’s clarion-call of a voice … it’s all here in this track.

“Hundred/Million,” The Whigs (from 2010’s “In the Dark”)
The year I finally joined Facebook, The Whigs’ Parker Gispert summarized the digital age with this song: “There’s a hundred million people in my mind/Which is me, and which is not?” That’s the chorus of this sinewy rocker, which kicks off one of my favorite albums of the year.

“Hustle and Cuss,” The Dead Weather (from 2010’s “Sea of Cowards”)
I instantly fell in love with this lowdown, dirty piece of blues when it was used on the soundtrack for UFC’s hype series for the Brock Lesnar/Cain Velasquez heavyweight title fight in October. It played in the background as Lesnar went through his grueling, ferocious workout, and fit the mountain of a man perfectly. Even though Lesnar went on to lose that bout, I’ll always think back on the mixture of those images and this song with fondness. It takes Jack White an album to figure out his bands; he’s now three-for-three on second efforts, as “Cowards” is a significant improvement over last year’s “Horehound.”

“Kentucky Rain,” Elvis Presley (from 2009’s “From Elvis in Memphis: Legacy Edition”)
As I mentioned last year at this time, my appreciation for Elvis has grown steadily since visiting Graceland in 2008. It culminated this January, as there was quite a bit of hype surrounding Presley’s 75th birthday. I’m actually drawn more to his latter-career period, so after putting “Suspicious Minds” on my list for 2009, I went looking for more of the same and found this stirring gem on the bonus disc of “From Elvis in Memphis.” The entire album is great, but this was the track that most captured the power of “Suspicious Minds.” That man sure could sing.

“Long Hard Times to Come”/“On the Run,” Gangstagrass (from 2010’s “Justified” soundtrack)
My favorite new TV show of the season, Timothy Olyphant’s modern Western “Justified” was accompanied by two breakthrough tracks from Gangstagrass, who mixes bluegrass and hip-hop so well, I wonder why someone didn’t think of it a long time ago. “Long Hard Times to Come” plays over the show’s opening credits, while “On the Run” was in the trailer. Both songs perfectly capture the sentiment of the show and were crucial elements of why I loved the series so much. Can’t wait ’til February for Season 2!

“The Only Sound That Matters,” Robert Plant (from 2010’s “Band of Joy”)
Plenty of goodies to pick from on Plant’s outstanding new album, but this simple country-feeling ballad rose to the top, if for no other reason than the main guitar lick reminds me of Springsteen’s “My Hometown.” The only thing that could’ve made this charming effort even better is Alison Krauss’ voice.

“Orphans,” The Gaslight Anthem (from 2010’s “American Slang”)
I’ve gone back and forth and back again on which song to select from my Album of the Year. I finally settled on “Orphans” because it’s the capstone for the album—the mission statement. If I had to pick one line to summarize the entire record, it would be from “Orphans”: “And the clothes I wore just don’t fit my soul anymore.” It’s a song about moving on, standing on your own, establishing yourself. It is “American Slang.”

“Radioactive,” Kings of Leon (from 2010’s “Come Around Sundown”)
I love the sentiment of this song, that no matter how much things change you can always go back to your roots to find some clarity. It’s a fitting first single for this band, who became insanely popular between this release and their last, 2008’s platinum-selling “Only By the Night.” The gospel choir is a great touch, too, for one of the band’s best efforts.

“Rock Problems,” The Hold Steady (from 2010’s “Heaven Is Whenever”)
Craig Finn’s self-deprecating sendup of frontmen complaining about their success is a breath of fresh air. Over one of the hardest-rocking songs on his band’s new album, Finn speaks from a fan’s perspective about how those of us in the real world just can’t sympathize with his “rock and roll problems.” “This is just what we wanted,” Finn agrees. 1993 Eddie Vedder, are you listening?

“Snow Is Gone,” Josh Ritter (from 2010’s “Hello Starling” re-release)
So this folky gem would’ve been great any time I heard it, but it just happened to come across my radar following the worst snowstorm of my life. There couldn’t have been any better timing for a track that sounds like spring breaking through winter's gloom. I defy you not to at least tap a toe to this, which is like the best type of Ryan Adams song—only joyful instead of drunkenly morose.

“Sons of Liberty,” Frank Turner (from 2009’s “Poetry of the Deed”)
I’m sure Frank Turner is a liberal (aren’t they all?), but this song was a personal anthem this year as I watched President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and their ilk reshape our nation in their own socialist image. The last line of this rousing Irish folk/punk monster track eviscerates those who want the government to run their lives for them:

’Cause a man who’d trade his liberty
For a safe and dreamless sleep
Doesn’t deserve the both of them
And neither shall he keep


“You Are Not Alone,” Mavis Staples (from 2010’s “You Are Not Alone”)
The inspired pairing of this gospel legend with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy led to the latter’s best song in years. Tweedy’s duet here with Staples meshes so perfectly, it’s like their two voices become one. It’s a beautiful song, both lyrically and musically. More of this on the next Wilco album, please, Jeff.

Monday, November 08, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Manic Nirvana,’ Robert Plant (1990)

Author’s note: In honor of Robert Plant’s new album, “Band of Joy,” I’m going back through his entire solo career to see how he got to this point.

Here Robert Plant trades ’80s pop for his take on late-’80s hair metal. And you know what? It works! “Manic Nirvana” plays like Plant’s answer to the pop/metal bands dominating radio at the time: Motley Crue, Poison, etc. … in an ironic moment, the bands who took Zeppelin-style riffs and smoothed them out for the masses. It’s all about being big: big guitars, big drums, big sound, big talk about sex … big fun.

Sure, it may cause eyes to roll at times, but at least Plant returns to the Golden God strut that was the hallmark of his younger days. The huge rocker “Big Love,” for instance, takes a run at “The Lemon Song” for most flogging of a double entrendre.

That’s only the first half of the CD, though. The rest of “Manic Nirvana” is quite diverse, kicking off with the outstanding title track, “Nirvana,” which starts with a Red Hot Chili Peppers growl before exploding into a bouncy INXS-esque riff. “Tie Dye on the Highway” follows, a swirling, majestic track that counters the bright “Nirvana” with a dash of darkness.

Plant returns to his blues roots with the massive “Your Ma Said You Cried in Your Sleep Last Night,” and the more reserved “Liars Dance.” The latter, one of the shortest tracks in Plant’s solo career at just 2 minutes 35 seconds, is a sparse affair that reminds of a slowed-down “Gallows Pole.” The album closes with yet another twist, as “Watching You” unleashes pounding tribal drums that hint at Plant’s turn in this direction in coming years.

A move away from the studio excesses of the 1980s, this was easily Plant’s best solo album to this point and a harbinger of great work to come. By comparison, it makes me want to go back and downgrade everything he’d done before. Other than “The Honeydrippers,” it’s also the first must-have CD of Plant’s solo career.

Grade: B+

Favorite Track: “Nirvana”

Least Favorite Track: “I Cried”

Friday, November 05, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Now and Zen,’ Robert Plant (1988)

Author’s note: In honor of Robert Plant’s new album, “Band of Joy,” I’m going back through his entire solo career to see how he got to this point.

This is generally regarded as Robert Plant’s best solo album of the 1980s. I wouldn’t argue with that, I guess, but “Now and Zen” doesn’t do much to separate itself from the rest of Plant’s work from this decade (excluding The Honeydrippers). Like the rest, there are a couple truly standout tracks but the rest is, again, your basic ’80s pop filler.

Plant found his stride in the ’80s with slower songs, and here “Ship of Fools” fits that bill. It’s a fantastic companion to tracks like “Big Log” and “Little by Little,” with delicate guitar work and a devastating vocal. It has the feel of Phil Collins’ best work, and I mean that as a compliment. The other highlight on “Now and Zen” is rocker “Tall Cool One,” which gets a boost from Jimmy Page, though is also diminished slightly by the Zeppelin references tossed in at the end.

My thoughts on “Now and Zen” could apply to all of Plant’s solo albums from the 1980s: he was more a follower than a leader, and it cost him. He’s not the only great artist of his time to struggle with the technology of the era; the synthesizers on “Born in the U.S.A.” still grate on my nerves, for instance. The reverb, the faceless background singers, the drum machines … it all adds up to a level of superficiality that makes these albums hard to champion. There are probably more great songs than the ones I found, they're just buried under over-production.

If you’re in love with the “Jewel of the Nile” soundtrack then, by all means, have at it. There are certainly songs from this period worth savoring; I created my own “best of” collection in iTunes of about a dozen tracks. But in the full context of the fantastic work Plant did both before and after this period of his career, none of the albums from this run place among his best work.

Grade: B

Favorite Track: “Ship of Fools”

Least Favorite Track: “White, Clean and Neat”