A little bit of sound advice: Top albums of 2010

The <em>Georgia Straight</eM>’s music critics share the music that made 2010 great, or at least acceptably okay

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      Mike Usinger

      I don’t get Deerhunter in the slightest, have never understood the appeal of the National, and am yet to be sold on Beach House. I do, however, totally love Ke$ha. And, no, I don’t care in the slightest that whatever credibility I might have left has just been destroyed by these revelations.

      Drive-By Truckers
      The Big To-Do
      “Birthday Boy” has to be the greatest rock song of the year, and it’s no surprise it was written and sung by the underrated Mike Cooley. The other main DBT tunesmith, Patterson Hood, does his part as well, especially on the booze-fuelled “The Fourth Night of My Drinking” and the true-life murdered-preacher tale “The Wig He Made Her Wear”.

      Buddy Guy
      Living Proof
      On the opening track, “74 Years Young”, the Chicago blues legend shows he’s still a potent force of nature by unleashing a fierce barrage of blues-metal licks that would make Hendrix weep—or at least jam along. Nobody does it better, although B. B. King and Carlos Santana show up to offer some fancy fretwork as well.

      Tom Petty and the heartbreakers
      I don’t know if Tom Petty ever misplaced his mojo, but he’s definitely got it working on this primo collection of bluesy rock tunes that showcase the guitar work of Mike Campbell.

      Joe Satriani
      Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards
      Satch didn’t put out an album in 2009, but he’s more than made up for that with these 11 startling tracks of strange and beautiful guitar music, coproduced with Langley’s own Mike Fraser.

      Ronnie Earl
      Spread the Love
      His name isn’t as familiar as Clapton, Beck, or Page, but Ronnie Earl is another blues-based guitarist who makes magic whenever his finger touches a fret, as proven by these 14 smouldering instrumentals.

      Desire and Truth
      I got turned on to local rock-guitar wizard Erol Sora and his Gary Moore fetish when he released his Demented Honour album back in 2005. On his latest release he continues his passionate revival of melodic ’70s hard rock in the company of stalwart Vancouverites Jason Solyom (drums), Brendan Mooney (bass), and Gregory MacDonald (keys).

      Black Country Communion
      Black Country Communion
      Rock supergroups come and go, but this one—composed of bassist-vocalist Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple, Black Sabbath), guitar hero Joe Bonamassa, drummer Jason Bonham (son of Zeppelin’s John), and former Dream Theater keyboardist Derek Sherinian—has the tunes and talent to last.

      Joe Bonamassa
      Black Rock
      Before he joined up with Black Country Communion, Bonamassa made a name for himself as a blues-based artist with guitar skills up the ying-yang. His latest solo release displays his formidable chops via a collection of originals and covers of Blind Boy Fuller, Otis Rush, and John Hiatt. Bonamassa’s idol, B. B. King, shows up to put a soulful shine on Willie Nelson’s “Night Life”.

      John Hiatt
      The Open Road
      The 58-year-old songwriting legend goes to town on a bare-bones collection of rootsy rockers and heartfelt ballads. The title track is particularly killer.

      The Telepathic Butterflies
      Wow & Flutter!
      Groovy quartet from Winnipeg brilliantly updates the psychedelic British jangle pop of the ’60s.

      Alexander Varty

      It was a happy, happy day in June when I went out to a yard sale and came back with a complete audiophile sound system for less than the sticker price on an iPod Nano. My new Magneplanar speakers have one small issue, though: they reproduce great analogue recordings with 3-D fidelity, but they don’t really like big digital pop and rock productions. So I’ve let them pick this year’s list.

      Bob Brozman, John McSherry, and Dónal O’Connor
      Six Days in Down
      Irish music can sound fidgety and twee, but American slide-guitar magician Bob Brozman brings an almost shamanic edge to John McSherry’s uilleann pipes and Dónal O’Connor’s fiddle.

      Charming Hostess
      The Bowls Project
      Although it sometimes seems that there are two different albums fighting for prominence here—doom-laden avant-garde interpretations of ancient Sumerian texts versus amped-up covers of gospel classics—both are delivered with gut-wrenching power and wild imagination.

      Nels Cline Singers
      The man who’s made Wilco worth listening to does the same for the oft-reviled idiom of jazz-rock fusion with this double-disc package, split between kinetic studio recordings and an incendiary live set. Bonus points for Simon Norfolk’s gorgeously appropriate cover and booklet photographs, featuring the baleful cybernetic gaze of Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider.

      BenoIt Delbecq
      Circles and Calligrams and The Sixth Jump
      Okay, so I’m cheating by listing two discs here. But French pianist Benoí®t Delbecq and his Vancouver-based label, Songlines, once discussed releasing these two very different CDs as a double album, rather than separately and simultaneously. In any case, they just won France’s prestigious Grand Prix du Disque for Delbecq, thanks to Jump’s muscular, African-inspired trio jazz and the hallucinatory prepared-piano soundscapes of Circles.

      Brian Eno
      Small Craft on a Milk Sea
      Brian Eno no longer rides the cutting edge; in fact, several Small Craft tracks are oddly reminiscent of Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd. But the ambient inventor hasn’t lost his knack for utterly seductive sonic landscapes.

      Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba
      I Speak
      Fula Bassekou Kouyate plays the ngoni—a simple hunter’s lute from rural Mali—the way an electric guitarist might: standing up and rocking out. But he doesn’t so much break from tradition as update it, introducing fresh excitement to an ancient and atmospheric sound.

      Owen Pallett
      This one-man pop opera about a prairie farmer’s homoerotic attachment to a charismatic religious leader—or something like that, anyway—is a dizzying blend of minimalist composition and narrative panache.

      Alasdair Roberts & Friends
      Too Long in This Condition
      Scotland’s finest tunesmith dips into the deep well of traditional song for 10 ghostly ballads (plus one guitar instrumental written by his dad). The past has rarely been so eerily present.

      Saeid Shanbehzadeh
      Iran: Musique du Golfe Persique
      A startling introduction to Afro-Iranian music, courtesy of the age-old connections between Zanzibar and the Persian port of Bushehr. If this sounds like a shirtless wild man playing bagpipes while dancing to tranced-out African beats, well, that’s exactly what it is.

      Stian Westerhus
      Pitch Black Star Spangled
      A big part of the fun of listening to Norwegian guitarist Stian Westerhus’s first solo CD is trying to figure out how he creates sounds you’ve never heard before. Whether working with bit-crunching effects pedals or simply using high-volume distortion and feedback, he’s clearly the latest improv-guitar genius to emerge from the vital Scandinavian scene.

      Win Butler (third from left) recites a pledge of allegiance to Bruce Springsteen before every Arcade Fire concert.

      Gregory Adams

      Between quitting my day job, travelling overseas for the first time, and turning 30, my life saw some significant changes this year. Not so much on the music front, though. Let’s just chalk that up to 2010 being a banner year for a number of music vets.

      The Walkmen
      Whether backed by sorrowful Spanish horns (“Stranded”), rollicking Ventures-style surf rock (“Woe Is Me”), or train-hopping hobo country (“Blue as Your Blood”), Hamilton Leithauser sings of failure in many ways on the Walkmen’s latest. But even though Lisbon marks his moments of crumbling romantic relationships, early-30s malaise, and heartbreaking acceptance of it all with the saddest of smiles, the singer still reminds us that life goes on.

      Twin Sister
      Color Your Life
      If not for the Long Island outfit’s awesome take on polyrhythmic art disco and Cocteau Twins–style dream pop, then for the fact that I put intoxicating indie slow jam “Lady Daydream”, anchored by Andrea Estella’s coquettish cooing, on every playlist I’ve made since the spring.

      Best Coast
      Crazy for You
      There’s a lot of neediness on Bethany Cosentino’s bipolar beach-pop debut. But whether she’s waiting by the phone for a beau to call on “Boyfriend” or lazing woefully in an empty bed on “Our Deal”, she masks her insecurity with some of the sweetest and sunniest vocals of the year. Being clingy never sounded so good.

      Arcade Fire
      The Suburbs
      That Arcade Fire managed to craft an album so huge in scope and depth yet come across as extremely humble is a feat in itself. The outfit’s third long-player cranks out some excellent arena anthems (“Ready to Go”, “Month of May”), but it’s the autumnal grace of its tender canyon-country title track that keeps me coming back for more.

      Halcyon Digest
      Bradford Cox keeps up his winning streak with yet another effortlessly amazing collection of lo-fi, psychedelic garage numbers. That said, electronic experiments like the molasses-drip snap beat on “Earthquake” further blur the differences between Deerhunter and his Atlas Sound project.

      Atlas Sound
      Bedroom Databank Vol 1-4
      Still on the subject of Cox, this sprawling 49-song digital box set from his side gig explores the singer’s every whim and fancy, from slacker pop to back-porch Americana to acid-trip electro-noise to shoe-gazing soul music. Both enormous and essential.

      Spoon Transference Transference’s bizarre cut-and-paste production style may have spruced up the Spoon formula for 2010, but thankfully, Britt Daniel’s penchant for penning timeless indie rock infused with blue-eyed soul (“Mystery Zone”) remains unabated.

      Rohnert Park
      While veteran Bay Area hardcore act Ceremony tones down its thrash attack on Rohnert Park with mid-tempo postpunk in the vein of the Fall, singer Ross Farrar’s glass-gargling wail keeps the band as uncomfortably aggressive as ever.

      The National
      High Violet
      It took me a while to warm up to the National, but High Violet’s epic yet elegant odes to the awkwardness of adulthood had me about as dizzy on the band as I would be if I were guzzling down glass after glass of sorrow-tinged bubbly.

      Beach House
      Teen Dream
      Though it’s not entirely different than 2008’s Devotion, somehow Beach House’s hitherto heartbreaking organ-and-guitar jams shine with a new self-confidence and joie de vivre on Teen Dream. Happiness is actually quite becoming on the group.

      Tony Montague

      On its way up the U.K. Christmas charts, John Cage’s musically noteless 1952 composition 4’33” has provided some salutary radio breaks from the ceaseless chatter of beats, bleeps, and bleats. Silence is the only true fusion of every genre, and may be the sole common element in this bagful of world sounds.

      Michael McGoldrick
      Manchester-based McGoldrick is creating bold new hybrids of Irish music with elements of rock, reggae, funk, and jazz. A virtuosic performer on uilleann pipes, flute, and whistle, he’s backed by a dream team of the U.K.’s roots musicians, including Capercaillie keyboard and accordion player Donald Shaw.

      Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba
      I Speak
      Fula Kouyate has formed a mini-orchestra comprising traditional percussion and four sizes of ngoni—an African ancestor of the banjo—equipped with pickups. His second album is a glorious mix of slow-burning chants and incandescent dance songs from contemporary Mali.

      Charlie Winston
      Trilby-hatted English singer and guitarist Winston writes incisive, quirky, and intelligent lyrics and sets them to a blend of folk, pop, rock, and reggae. His kaleidoscopic songs touch on big issues like social justice, religion, and human identity, but there’s also plenty of wry humour and dry wit.

      The Breakmen
      The third recording from Vancouver’s Breakmen draws on the band’s roots in alt-country, bluegrass, old-time, vintage Neil Young, and Grateful Dead circa Workingman’s Dead to create a West Coast acoustic sound that has muscle and resonance. Oh, and the quartet’s vocal harmonies are tighter than a reindeer’s arse in an ice storm.

      Dobet Gnahore
      Djekpa La You
      Gnahoré, from the Ivory Coast, is a powerful singer, superb songwriter, and fabulous dancer. With her French guitarist and husband, Colin Laroche, she’s created a unique blend of pan-African traditions with western influences.

      Lá Nua
      With these brilliant arrangements of old and new traditional tunes, Lúnasa shows once more why the quintet is still the toast of hard-core fans of Irish music—the aural equivalent of 18-year-old Jameson’s.

      Janusz Prusinowski Trio
      Ace fiddler and fine singer Prusinowski plays the mesmeric music of Mazovia in central Poland—songs from the villages, as well as wiggly cross-rhythm mazurka dance tunes with shawm, droning strings, drum, and tambourine.

      De Temps Antan
      Les Habits de papier
      The sophomore release by the stylish folk supertrio from Quebec skillfully weaves elements of U.S. music—blues, old-time, Cajun, and bluegrass—into its sonic fabric, but the source and heart of the music lie in rural Lanaudière.

      Jakob Dylan
      Women and Country
      The son of America’s greatest songwriter proves once again that, in his case, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. Jakob shares Dad’s ability to craft lyrics and sing them compellingly, and while he may not be a poet in the same league, his voice is a whole lot sweeter.

      Eleven-piece outfit Bellowhead is much more than a big English folk band—its members draw inspiration from vaudeville, jazz, Victorian music hall, Weimar Republic cabaret, and various strands of world and classical music. The behemoth’s third studio release bursts with flair and moves with a brassy swagger.

      Martin Turenne

      Every great album, no matter how consistently excellent it is, peaks somewhere. Here are my favourite records of the year, and my thoughts on the high points of each.

      The National
      High Violet
      Sombre is a word frequently attached to the National, but it’s hard to feel anything but at least mildly rapturous when “Bloodbuzz Ohio” gets going, Matt Berninger’s conversational baritone subduing an otherwise blissful rumination on his home state. If this is sadness, sign me up.

      Beachcomber’s Windowsill
      “Fuel Up” is one of those songs that can still a room. Brian Briggs’s Celtic-tinged tenor cuts clean through to your heartstrings, singing what might just be the year’s best tune to calm a crying child.

      Vampire Weekend
      The slickest, biggest song Vampire Weekend’s ever attempted, “Giving Up the Gun” typifies the band’s turn toward stadiums. There are still quirky bits to be found elsewhere on Contra, but “Giving Up the Gun” is a stampeding thing, swelling upward like an Arcade Fire track, only without the corny melodrama.

      Kanye West
      My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
      “All of the Lights” is Kanye’s victory lap, an overstuffed testament to his own genius that, despite its sheer massiveness—the horn section, guest vocals from Rihanna, Alicia Keys, and Fergie, and piano accompaniment from Elton Freakin’ John—still offers a glimpse into his hyperreal personal life.

      Rick Ross
      Teflon Don
      Hip-hop producer Lex Luger chose his name wisely. His beat for “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast)” makes the song WWF superhero music, all chest-rattling sub-bass and hammer-of-the-gods synthesizers. It’s hard not to stomp along to it, especially with rap’s chief swaggerer Rick Ross bellowing at you, daring you to name someone better suited to something this regal.

      LCD Soundsystem
      This Is Happening
      “I Can Change” distills James Murphy’s brilliance. First, there’s his fetish for voluptuous analogue sounds, burbling synths, and sputtering drum machines recalling, in this case, early Depeche Mode. Then there’s Murphy the clever songwriter and tender vocalist. Near the three-minute mark, when he yowls “Love is a murderer!” it’s hard to know whether to laugh, cry, or keep on dancing. He probably sees no contradiction in doing all three.

      Nothing Else
      This Chicago-based producer updates LFO–style bleep techno for the dubstep generation. “Cherry Moon” feels like an excerpt from some longer track that extends infinitely into the past and future, expressive synth figures interlaced with classical string samples while a stutter-step rhythm pounds ceaselessly toward the horizon.

      Does It Look Like I’m Here?
      The autobahn stretches all the way to Cleveland, home to Emeralds, a trio resurrecting the best of 1970s German cosmic music. “Double Helix” is the sound young men make when they’re worshipping Tangerine Dream, ripping open a seam in the time-space continuum to a weed-scented West Berlin studio in 1975.

      Mark McGuire
      Living With Yourself
      A set of instrumental tracks built around recordings from his childhood, Living With Yourself finds the Emeralds guitarist rendering homage to his family and to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, whose spirit animates the nostalgic crest-and-crash sonics of “Brothers (For Matt)”.

      Brian Eno
      Small Craft on a Milk Sea
      This late-career triumph begins and ends calmly, but at its heart are sinister, percussive workouts like “2 Forms of Anger”, an unsettling piece that swells toward a crescendo of slashing guitars and double-time drumming before disappearing into the mist from which it emerged.

      Tim Craddock

      Most of the music this year was like Piggy from Lord of the Flies—pestering and pointless. If he was half as annoying as Ke$ha, we would have dropped the rock on his head, too. Here are some albums that aren’t asthmatic messes. This list has been brought to you by the letter "B".

      Arcade Fire
      The Suburbs
      Thirty Helen’s agree: This album is the bee’s knees. Fine, putting this record on here isn’t exactly straying from the status quo, with every Tom, Dick, and Torres topping their best-of with it, but who gives a damn? In the words of Huey Lewis, "It’s hip to be square".

      Band of Horses
      Infinite Arms
      Looking at Ben Bridwell while listening to the soothing sounds coming out of his mouth makes us feel as uneasy as Keira Knightley in a wet T-shirt contest. How could angelic anthems like "Laredo" be conjured by such a bearded bad-ass looking man? It’s awesome. Unnatural, but awesome.

      Bison B.C.
      Dark Ages
      Vancouver’s metal darling delivered another East Side epic with its latest release. The album gets extra points for patriotism with the wendigo reference. The pure metal madness almost makes up for summoning the images of Robert Carlyle’s blood-covered mouth. All in all, it’s a pretty Ravenous record.

      The Black Keys
      On its latest release the duo opted for heavier production as opposed to recording in a rubber factory. While change normally heralds a band’s descent into hell, the Black Keys have risen from the flames unscathed with their updated brand of blues-rockery.

      Black Mountain
      Wilderness Heart
      This dichotomy of doom and delight is orgasmic to the ears. The band’s combo of beard and beauty isn’t bad either. If it’s not the top album of the year, it’s at least the best shark-themed release. Richard Dreyfuss would eat this shit up.

      Blitzen Trapper
      Destroyer of the Void
      Based on the fact that Portland, Oregon is reputed to be yuppier than Kits on Earth Day, it’s refreshing to see an indie-country classic climb out of the snobby abyss. Listening to the sublime sounds of Destroyer makes us feel as self-satisfied as a West Coaster in an electric car.

      Dr. Dog
      Shame, Shame
      Being in a retro rock band isn’t always cool—just look at Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats. But when you channel ’60s psychadelica and mix it with indie-pop, it produces Sub Pop-worthy perfection.

      Early Man
      Death Potion
      There was a time when Metallica played this same mode of metal, but it’s been a long time since "Metal Milita". Maybe it’s because nobody’s doing the fun drugs like speed or secobarbital any more. It sounds as if Early Man is still popping some sort of pills because this screams all kinds of ’80s epic.

      How could you not love a band that gave a 30-minute long "This Dust Makes That Mud" gift to the world? This time around, the group eases up on the droning but there’s all the beautifully chaotic noise-rock you can handle, served with a side of ominous style.

      The Sword
      Warp Riders
      Based on the Heavy Metal inspired cover, this record was bound for greatness. But what’s that? It’s also a science-fiction concept album that features lyrics about medieval weaponry? Sold! Sorry Drive-By Truckers, you just got bumped from the list.




      Dec 16, 2010 at 12:00pm

      Albums I'm surprised didn't make any lists...

      Sufjan Stevens - All Delighted People & Age of Adz
      Jim Bryson & The Weakerthans - Falcon Lake Incident
      Massive Attack - Heligoland
      Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

      Album I can't believe ANYONE picked...
      Kesha.... wtf


      Dec 16, 2010 at 4:17pm

      The closest top to my personal is one by Gregory Adams. Though I don't always like what Bradford Cox is doing, all other albums I love.

      jeff randall

      Dec 17, 2010 at 4:45pm

      really indifferent about the newest pack a.d. album.

      Some Guy

      Dec 23, 2010 at 6:46pm

      Am I the only one who thinks Brasstronaut should appear at least ONCE on these lists?

      Matt T

      Nov 21, 2011 at 11:54am

      I see the Straight's annual list of pretentious crap is out again.


      Nov 25, 2011 at 4:50pm

      there are like 3 albums in like a 100 that aren't indie type stuff.


      Nov 28, 2011 at 6:22pm

      Thanks to the contributors. Over the years I have often taken a chance (and bought without listening) on the Straight's recommendations and have come away very grateful.

      And before people start complaining,...whooops, too late

      Music is art people, enjoy whatever form touches your soul

      davy jones

      Nov 30, 2011 at 3:30pm

      the whole music industy has been taken over by the illuminati, if you like an new album all it means is you dig the subliminal messages, all cds have 256 tracks so there can be lots of subliminal messages


      Dec 1, 2011 at 10:13am

      Die Antwoord was a group that really grew on me. Not my typical choice, but I enjoyed their fresh take on hip-hop, inventive beats, and how utterly volatile the lyrics were.


      Dec 4, 2011 at 9:29pm

      idiots, this list is from 2010