Tuesday, December 21, 2010

2010 Top 10s: Albums

These rankings are intended to reflect only my favorites, given what I actually listened to, and I lay no claim to being able to proclaim these, or any album, the "best" of the year.

Please note: the excerpted reviews are not written by me, while I may be inclined to write effusively about each of these record so many have already done so that it would be redundant. So I'm just editing for space, with links to the full reviews are in the album title.

Also: a previous post for favorite songs of the year can be found by scrolling down, or if you're too lazy to scroll, just click here.

And now, the list:

1. Carolina Chocolate Drops - Genuine Negro Jig
For the most part this album’s an unashamedly foot-stomping countrified fiddle-and-banjo racket, and with it the trio reclaim what is usually assumed to be exclusively hillbilly property. But this historic black style is mountain music with something more, as these 12 tracks show how it fits between the European quadrilles and the Anglo/Celtic folk that came across the Atlantic and the rural blues and ragtime jazz that grew out the American South, informing so much contemporary music. And in the hands of the Carolina Chocolate Drops this history lesson is far from dry.

The relatively youthful threesome learned their craft from original Piedmont players and swap instruments – banjo, fiddle, jug, harmonica, guitar, snare drum and kazoo – with ease, and although they all sing, the guys, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, leave most of the vocals to the opera-trained Rhiannon Giddens. Cleverly, the group mix traditional songs with original compositions and a couple of surprising covers, allowing them to honour the past, then subtly nudge it forward linking it to the modern music they grew up with.

2. The Green Children - Encounter
From the opening notes of the title song, Encounter, you know you’re in for an album full of lush arrangements that owes as much to nature as to electronics.  Or as the press notes call it “ethereal pop with post-modern dance beats.”  Basically, the kind of music you’d expect to hear at a hip coffee house, a chill after hours lounge or that restaurant where it’s impossible to get a reservation.

But there’s more to The Green Children than simply their music.  There’s also an important movement.  Milla and Marlow also cofounded The Green Children Foundation to help raise awareness and funds for the Grameen Bank and Grameen Healthcare Services in Bangladesh. And when the band released a CD/DVD in Norway in 2006, through sales and donations, they raised about $500k, which helped open the Grameen Green Children Eye Hospital.  And 100% of the money donated to the Foundation goes directly to the cause. 

3. Local Natives - Gorilla Manor
For the L.A indie rock quintet Local Natives, it all comes down to voices. Sometimes they're up front, gliding over a haunting little Saharan-blues guitar lick; often they flit about in the margins, lighting up a song like a pulled curtain...The tipsy saloon piano that buoys lead single "Airplanes" and the coy, restrained fuzz of "Camera Talk" prove the Natives can wring evocative sounds from traditional instruments. Drummer Matt Frazier has an ambitious knack for accenting a song with bursts of clatter...but the band always comes back to the spectacle and possibilities of those vocals. There's a bit of Broadway, a touch of Motown and a tang of choir nerd to them, but Local Natives avoid the preciousness of Grizzly Bear or the gang-chorus rapture of Arcade Fire. It's a rare band that can use its chemistry as its own instrument.

4. LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening
Serving up a comprehensively postmodern survey of pop culture with wit, panache and an enviable dose of hooks, This Is Happening manages to avoid predictability by consistently keeping one step ahead of the listener yet sidestepping clever-clever irony with a genuine warmth that’s naturally layered within the giggling heathen at the heart of the record...What Murphy does best is balance these tendencies so that none of his whim-chasing expulsions ever feel crass or smug, and by finding the spirited inspiration in the nondescript, the self-effacement in our projected criticisms, and the fun in the commonplace, he’s able to keep us entertained in the process....by finding a way to be life-affirming while keeping our hips shaking, without casting off life’s woes and joys as either paltry or boring, LCD Soundsystem has succeeded at capturing both our minds and our bodies without sacrificing its head-nodding spirit or its heavy-hearted sense of purpose along the way.

5. Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid
The songs zip gleefully from genre to genre, mostly grounded in R&B and funk, but spinning out into rap, pastoral British folk, psychedelic rock, disco, cabaret, cinematic scores, and whatever else strikes her fancy. It's about as bold as mainstream music gets, marrying the world-building possibilities of the concept album to the big tent genre-mutating pop of Michael Jackson and Prince in their prime. The first listen is mostly about being wowed by the very existence of this fabulously talented young singer and her over-the-top record; every subsequent spin reveals the depths of her achievement.

6. Eric Bibb - Booker's Guitar
[Eric] Bibb is a creative songwriter, an excellent singer and a masterful guitar player, and that's all on display here. The songs are understated little gems filled with the passion of honest expression. They're what I would call "soft blues" -- music inspired by and drawn from the tradition, but not necessarily in the traditional blues musical format. The tracks are all original, and all-acoustic, with Grant Dermody adding subtly powerful harp accompaniment...this is a gently swinging and thoughtful bluesy album for a cold winter night and a double shot of Jim Beam Black.

7. Justin Townes Earle - Harlem River Blues
On this project, Earle is less concerned with lyrics than with finding his sound, and he finds it in a fat-toned, unhurried country-blues. That greasy groove allows his handsome tenor to relax until he sounds as if he's talking off-handedly and confidentially, even as he hits every note with dead-on pitch and a resonant hum.
The 10 original songs are mostly juke-joint numbers, finger-snapping tunes about fickle women and footloose men. Some of the best musicians in Nashville lay down an understated but irresistible throb beneath such songs as "Move Over Mama" and the title track. But it is Earle's voice, shrugging off a thousand bumps and bruises to look forward to the next scene, that sells them.

8. The Soft Pack - The Soft Pack
Within the band’s stripped-down rock, there are hints of ‘50s surf and ‘60s garage rock, echoes of ‘70s punk and new wave à la the Modern Lovers, traces of ‘80s college rock, and more. Yet the Soft Pack’s music doesn’t feel overtly retro -- they’re just not trying hard to sound “modern.” Unlike some of their predecessors, their simplicity is more direct than arty, a bash-it-out and get-it-out-there approach...They’ve got the template of classic sounds down and failsafe pop instincts...compared to the increasingly delicate, intricate indie of the late 2000s, The Soft Pack sounds vital.

9. Francis and The Lights - It'll Be Better
Francis Farewell Starlite is a smart 28-year-old songwriter in love with Eighties R&B at its slickest, whitest and oddest — he sings a little like Peter Gabriel and mixes cutting jazz-piano chords and clever pop constructions like Steely Dan. That sensibility has earned him production work with Drake, and on his full-length debut, Starlite turns his faith in catchy tunes into a series of studies on the persuasive power of pop itself.

10. Fitz & The Tantrums - Pickin' Up the Pieces
Even if Fitz & company were to fall through a wormhole while performing and land in 1967, they wouldn’t be greeted as great innovators. Their sound is traditional genre to the point of being unabashedly cliché more often than not...yet the tracks that stretch the clichés the thinnest justify doing so by being the catchiest damn sweets on the album...To answer the question inherently presented by anything retro, this band’s debut represents a true revival, rather than an exhumation; Without heart, you’re just a zombie, and Fitz & The Tantrums are not lacking anything in that category. In fact, many of the compositions on Pickin’ Up The Pieces are so perfect and full of conviction that it’s hard not to call them classics without exaggeration...and to say that the flawless, heartstring-plucking album-closer Tighter gives Elton John a run for his money might not even be saying too much.

11. Aqualung - Magnetic North
Aqualung moves from track to track on Magnetic North wearing a variety of different personas. He can change from Beck to Coldplay to Radiohead all within a few bars. And quite often when artists breach that kind of mimicry it comes off as such, but he manages to maintain his identity while taking the form of (what I can only assume are) his greatest personal influences.
And the writing is equally enchanting. The beauty of his writing is found in its simplicity. He says exactly what he is saying…This record has a lot of integrity, and is extremely accessible. I’d recommend this to anyone who just loves music.

12. Seth Swirksy - Watercolor Day
Rejoice, pop fans: the first truly great record of 2010 has arrived, in the form of Seth Swirsky’s gorgeous “Watercolor Day.” The 19-track collection of sweet, summery sounds is equal parts Beach Boys (circa ’66/’67), Emitt Rhodes, Harry Nilsson and every great sunshine pop act from the late ’60s.
Swirsky has fashioned a marvelous mixture of beautifully understated lead and background vocals, perfectly placed horns and strings, and a host of intoxicating melodies that swing and sway. 

And the rest of the top 20, loosely ranked
13. Darius Rucker - Charleston, SC 1966
14. Sara Bareilles - Kaleidoscope Heart
15. Jaheim - Another Round
16. Lana Mir - Lana Mir
17. JJ Grey & Mofro - Georgia Warhorse
18. PJ Morton - Walk Alone
19. Sugarland - The Incredible Machine
20. Sugar & Gold - Get Wet!

2010 Top 10s: Songs

Please note: I make no claim that these represent the "best" of the year, merely my personal favorites.

1. Janelle Monae - Come Alive (War of the Roses)
Favorite song of the year. So much talent, so much range, vocally & musically.

2. Carolina Chocolate Drops - Don't Get Trouble in Your Mind
Saw these guys live back in the October and it was one of the best live performances I've seen. The recordings are great, but live, they go to another level.

3. The Green Children - Hear Me Now (Unplugged)
Easily my favorite vocal of the year. First time I heard it I fell in love with it and I could listen to this song all day.

4. Local Natives - Who Knows Who Cares

5. Fitz & The Tantrums - MoneyGrabber
Favorite music video of the year.

6. LCD Soundsystem - Dance Yrself Clean

7. Eric Bibb - Rocking Chair

8. Justin Townes Earle - Working for the MTA

9. Lana Mir - These Days

10. Francis and the Lights - Knees to the Floor

11. Carolina Chocolate Drops - Snowden's Jig (Genuine Negro Jig)
Live in Fresno! w/ Danny 'Slapjazz' Barber.

Rounding out the top 22, alphabetically:
Anthony Hamilton - Her Heart
Aqualung - Reel Me In
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Conscience Killer
Darius Rucker - Come Back Song
The Green Children - Skies on Fire
Jaheim - Finding My Way Back
JJ Grey & Mofro - Beautiful World
JJ Grey & Mofro - Hottest Spot in Hell
Sara Bareilles - Uncharted
Seth Swirksy - Watercolor Day
The Soft Pack - Parasites

And here are my 5 favorite gems from the past that I just discovered this year:
1. Jackie Wilson - That's Why I Love You So

2. Big Star - Watch the Sunrise

3. The Sonics - Keep A Knockin

4. Donny Hathaway - Sack Full of Dreams (live)

5. Buck Owens -Tall Dark Stranger

And, just for the heck of it, I'll round out a top 10 for the back catalog:
Twilight - We'll Be Special
Sam & Dave - Soothe Me
The Beach Boys - Be Still
Hall & Oates - Rich Girl
Otis Redding - Security

Monday, February 22, 2010

So I Went to the Gym....

I was on the elliptical machine. Pedaling (or whatever you call it on that contraption) and getting nowhere. Slowly. Allen, the trainer, had given me a sheet of paper which outlined the "Cardio" workout. 25 minutes on the treadmill at various speeds and inclines, followed by the dread elliptical. 25 minutes, Resistance 7. I had been at it 2 minutes when I was ready to quit. I'd already done 30 minutes on the treadmill (speed 3.2, incline 3.0). I was watching Dr. Oz on one of the several big screens in front of the various machines. You have to have a radio tuned to FM 97.5 to hear it, though, so I was reading along with the closed captioning. The people around me seemed pretty tuned in to their workouts and unaware of the woman who had gained 100 pounds since losing her job. Armbands with mp3 players. Sleeveless T-shirts. Speed 7.0, running, getting nowhere. Where am I?

Before I got on the treadmill I walked into the locker room looking for the trainer who told me to meet him at 3. It was 3 and he didn't seem to be around, same as last Friday. He was there in the locker room and looked surprised to see me. Looking more surprised, however, was the man of, oh, I'd guess 58 years, standing at a nearby locker, naked as a newborn. It's strange. We have this cultural juvenility when it comes to nudity on our various glowing screens, but in person it's no big deal. Can't square that one. Anyway, the naked man cowered and the trainer told me he'd go get the cardio workout sheet for me.

Maybe I misunderstood. I thought he meant he'd get it promptly. This is when I jumped on the treadmill. Figured I'd pass the time and look ambitious. 18:45/mile the machine blinked at me. My heart rate was 168. 174. 179. 164. I walked and walked and walked. Or at least I thought I had. After 20 minutes the machine tells me I'd walked 1.3 miles. Prove it, StarTrac. I'm exactly where I started. Nevertheless, I felt like a vague sense of accomplishment. (Please note: A sense of accomplishment does not always accompany actual accomplishment.). But now what? And where is Allen? Not seeing him anywhere, I jumped on the treadmill again, this time at the other end of the row, to watch Brett Baier on Fox News. According the closed-captions he thinks President Obama wants to "jam health care down our throats". Is this the only applicable metaphor? I began to sense futility seeing the timer back at 3:15, 3:16, 3:17. A faint whisper crept across my mind, "What are you doing?" Over by the door, there's Allen! No time to be caught slacking. I turn the speed up from 3.0 to 3.2 just in case he finally comes over. He doesn't. He's at his desk, chatting up one of the other trainers. 6:21, 6:22, 6:23. What is he doing? Did he forget I was over here? 7:55, 7:56. Here he comes! 8:10. Nope, there he goes! 9:25, 9:26. Here he comes again! 9:58, 9:59. "Here's your cardio workout".

It's been 4 minutes on the elliptical now and I don't know where to look any more. I can't see outside nor can I see the TVs and I don't know that I'd want to anyway. I close my eyes and try to see if that helps. It doesn't. I can't concentrate with this Rihanna song blaring out of the hidden, but ubiquitous speakers. "The wait is over, the wait is over." No it's not, I'm still waiting for this song to be over so I can think! It ends and Green Day starts whining about something or other. I open my eyes. 10:11, 10:12. How am I supposed to do this for 25 minutes? Then, there it was again, "What are you doing?" I try the eyes closed thing again. Sweat. Now my eyes burn. 12:10, 12:11. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?" I get off this ridiculous roller-coaster of an exercise machine, go down the stairs and leave. How long have I been here? I get in my car and drive home. What was I doing in that place? What were any of those people doing there? Really, what? How are you supposed to think in that place, all that noise, all those people? And no windows, the view never changes for mile after mile (or in my case, mile after .6 mile). If you can't put these things outside, at least give me a window. Where was I?
Exerting all of that energy, getting nowhere in particular, TV after TV after TV, incessant pop music, wasting whole swaths of time because "experts" tell us this is what we need to do. Fits with the rest of life. You haven't truly known existential dread until you've spent an afternoon on an elliptical machine while trying to figure out why.

I'm meeting Allen at 3 again tomorrow. Shoulders.