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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)”.
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.
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".
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.