As part of our collaborative year-end countdown for the Higher Ed Critics music blog, I’ve assembled my take on top discs I’ve heard from 2010.
20. Good Old War, Good Old War: Any release by this band brings bouquets of clever lyrics, soaring harmonies and genial hookiness. Just a shame the overall material in this effort seems a bit weak. Maybe next time.
19. Broken Social Scene, Forgiveness Rock Record: Honestly, quite disappointed with this long-awaited record. While the Canadian collective hits a groove on songs like “Texaco Bitches” or “Meet Me in the Basement,” too much feels like unfinished ideas thrown on record.
18. Spoon, Transference: With apologies to the many friends who love the band, this would be higher if I was into Spoon … but too much of their stuff just comes off as too smugly self-satisfied, imho. Can’t argue with their overall skills, though.
17. Sade, Soldier of Love: Sade has remained relevant since 1984 (!) with soulful songs and sex appeal, and the latest disc works that formula well. The occasional new trick or two is OK, but it’s rich texture of Sade’s voice that always brings us back.
16. The Scarlet Ending, Ghosts: This Syracuse-based sextet featuring twin singer/songwriters Kayleigh and Kaleena Goldsworthy continues to evolve with image-rich songs buoyed by smart lyrics, eclectic instrumentation and engaging vocals.
15. Stars, The Five Ghosts: Like most Stars efforts, this album combines brilliant flashes like the male-female storytelling of “Dead Hearts” with some pedestrian filler, but provides enough haunting moments to make it worth remembering.
14. Butch Walker, I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart: The singer, songwriter, producer and former Marvelous 3 frontman showcases his many talents here. While he seems to enjoy silky soulful songs, the rocking social satire of “Trash Day” is this effort’s standout track.
13. Pete Yorn, Pete Yorn: With Pete’s warm and craggly voice and knack for melody, the main issue is that he’s never created another album as terrific as “musicforthemorningafter.” With instantly catchy fare like “Precious Stone” and “Paradise Cove I,” this album works more often than not.
12. Brad Yoder, Excellent Trouble: This very under-the-radar singer/songwriter deserves some play. Combine intelligent commentary — “Keep It to Yourself,” on teens staying in the closet, or “How It Ends,” on big-box stores killing downtowns — with earnest singing and graceful instrumentation, and you have a hidden gem.
11. Sarah McLachlan, Laws of Illusion: Where Sarah’s best album, “Fumbling Toward Ecstasy,” chronicled young love, “Laws of Illusion” looks at life after the love departs (mirroring the breakup of her long relationship with drummer Ash Sood). As always, her voice is the engine driving this train, and it’s in fine form.
10. The National, High Violet: I like The National, but find it maddening that a band that can produce such effortlessly catchy fare as “Bloodbuzz, Ohio,” “Lemonworld” and “Conversation 16″ can have so many tracks on this (or any) album that fall flat. But the high points are, as always, remarkable.
9. Gin Blossoms, No Chocolate Cake: Not a typo. Not only is the reformed band still recording, but they’re making good music. Not terribly cerebral, but just listen to “Don’t Change for Me,” “I Don’t Want to Lose You Now” and “Dead or Alive on the 405″ and let the ’90s nostalgia wash over you.
8. Drive-By Truckers, The Big To-Do: At least two reasons I love this album: “Drag the Lake Charlie” is one of the funnier/darker songs ever made, and “Birthday Boy” has the killer lyrics “Pretty girls from the smallest towns/Get remembered like storms and droughts/That old men talk about for years to come.” Marvelous moments of mayhem and mortification suffuse their latest Southern Gothic rock effort.
7. KT Tunstall, Tiger Suit: The latest album by the Scottish songstress is her most complex, least commercial and also her best. Whether it’s world-beat influences on “Uummannaq Song,” electronica touches on “Difficulty” or the simple wistful warbling and whistling on “(Still A) Weirdo,” KT offers a broader range but, as always, plenty to adore.
6. Brandon Flowers, Flamingo: The rest of The Killers wanted to take time off, but their talented frontman decided to put out a solo album that offered a frank look at his hometown, including the masterfully written “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas.” While not quite as good as the full band’s output, Flowers’ vocals + sharp lyrics = jackpot.
5. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs: I keep thinking this album seems overrated, until I listen again and realize just how great it is. While perhaps only “Rococo” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” sit among the band’s greatest tracks, the consistently compelling material in a story arc critiquing our modern suburban life stands up to the hype.
4. Tracey Thorn, Love and Its Opposite: “Who’s next?” the voice of Everything But the Girl sings in opener “Oh, the Divorces”: “It’s always the ones that you least expect.” And who would expect Thorn to reappear with a masterpiece of an album about growing older? But with tracks such as “Long White Dress,” “Hormones” and “Singles Bar,” she imbues wisdom and memorable songs galore.
3. Rocky Votolato, True Devotion: Not quite as phenomenal as his previous effort, “Makers,” but still full of beautifully painted tales of lost love, lovable losers and lovingly lost causes. The well-turned depth he pours into simple refrains like “The less likely you survive” (from “Fragments”) or “Sparklers only burn for so long” (from “Sparklers”) is simply stunning.
2. Dust Poets, World At Large: There’s nothing flashy about this unassuming Canadian foursome: They merely created the best album this year almost no one’s heard. They often tackle issues such as greed (“Deceived by Gasoline”), homelessness (“Big World”), online privacy (“Skeletons in Your Inbox”) and xenophobia (“Border Town”) but always with folksy charm, wit and skill.
1. Girl Talk, All Day: Sometimes you just have to ask: “Was there an album I simply couldn’t stop listening to for weeks?” That would be this record, which drops hook after hook, beat after beat in sensational succession. While I could ponder how Gregg Gillis pushes the envelope of this (controversial) genre or the brilliance of “Jump on Stage” samples running from Portishead to Radiohead, it’s much easier to just dance — anytime, anywhere — to the excessively catchy music.