Thursday, November 10, 2011

Six Water Grog's best albums of 2010 re-cap

It's November and soon I'll be compiling my best albums of 2011 list.  This has been a great year for music, with albums by stalwarts like Gillian Welch, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Del McCoury and Bill Frisell; newcomers Dawes and Floating Action, and the exotic sounds of Jamaican Mento and Afro-Cuban music sure to make the list.  But before I jump too far ahead let's look back at my best albums of 2010. This blog wasn't up and running in December 2010 so this will be the first time many readers have seen this.  For the most part I still agree with my rankings and opinions some 11 months later. 

1) Hammer No More the Fingers – Black Shark
Black Shark, the follow up to 2009's Looking for Bruce, is a definite step forward for this Durham, NC band. You won't find a more cohesive batch of songs on any release this year. It's not possible to pick a favorite track - every one could be a different person's favorite. At times there are hints of surf rock and 90's slacker.  Cryptic lyrics, bright guitar chords, aggressive bass lines and confident but humble drumming.  The parts – 3 musicians, 10 songs – make a surprisingly full whole. Tight, concise, econo jamming and the best album I heard in 2010. (Note – I had an advance review copy at the end of 2010. It actually came out in 2011 so I will probably mention it in some way on this year's list since 2011 will be the year people associate with this album).

2) Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
I had the Suburbs on repeat for quite some time after it came out this summer 2010. While I enjoyed Arcade Fire's critically acclaimed debut album Funeral, that album didn't quite jive with me. And then on the muddy sounding Neon Bible the songs weren't there, or if they were they were buried too deep in the mix. But The Suburbs hooked me right away. It's an incredibly well paced album that never wanes. It's long...over an hour...and it ebbs and flows over that time. Fully deserving of the mainstream attention it received, you don't have to bend your ear at all to see what makes this album so appealing.

3) Jesse McReynolds – Songs of the Grateful Dead
Forget that this is a tribute to Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. This is a great album period. It can stand on that fact alone. The essence of these songs was captured authentically in the studio, better even than the Dead ever did on a studio album. At the forefront is McReynolds' signature mandolin cross-picking style, and there are enough Garcia-esque guitar licks, courtesy of Stu Allen and David Nelson, to keep it real. McReynolds' singing voice seems perfectly matched to these songs which Garcia sang lead on originally. The tunes are lovingly played true to the style. Yet, as you listen to this album it takes on an identity of its own, moving beyond a collection of Grateful Dead covers toward being simply a classic album as if you always wanted to hear the songs this way. Natural born easy. 
4) Preservation Hall Jazz Band – An Album to Benefit Preservation Hall
Despite having a different guest artist on every track, this album is surprisingly consistent and a joy to listen to.  Normally a compilation like this wouldn't end up on my best of the year list. But song after song is delightful, even as it veers from one guest to another, including Tom Waits, Andrew Bird, Jim James, Amy Levre, Merle Haggard, Brandi Carlisle, and more. The strains of New Orleans jazz are played with more fervor and spunk than my novice ears would expect there to be, considering how many times these songs have been done in the past. It's chock full of standards, some that I was familiar with and some that were new to me. The songs on this album will always hold a special place with me from now on, no matter where or how I hear them.

5) Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three – Riverboat Soul
A potent, vibrant collection of old-timey sounding but mostly orginal songs that borrow themes and elements from tradition. You're not going to find new music that sounds like this anywhere else. A true songster, Pokey merges an intoxicating blend of ragtime, blues and stringband music, but there's something more to it than that. Whenever you see him live you feel like you're seeing something really special. Until now this X-faxtor hadn't really been captured on any of Pokey's records. But with Riverboat Soul we have a tangible example of the musical magic he and his band the South City Three are capable of. Pokey remains relatively obscure, however he is carving an influence in traditional music that is starting to be recognized.

6) Two Man Gentlemen Band – Dos Amigos, Una Fiesta
With Dos Amigos, Una Fiest, The Two Man Gentlemen band have finally perfected their musical chops, songwriting skills, and presentation. What we're left with is easily their most enjoyable album to date. The only disappointment is the noticeable lack of plectrum banjo, replaced by tenor guitar. Most listeners won't mind or notice this switch though.

7) The Hold Steady – Heaven is Whenever
More polished and with better production than any of their previous albums this is the best sounding album the Hold Steady has made. The songs themselves might not be as good, and it might not be as classic as some of their earlier work, but it's easier on the ears. And it's music that should be played LOUDLY. It basically hip-hop, Bad Religion style literate punk and beatnik poetry put to classic rock riffs. No individual song stands out as being extremely strong, but I found myself returning to this album a lot in 2010. This one might get loud...turn it up.

8) Dr. Dog – Shame, Shame
Shame, Shame is a great album, better than what almost any other band could put out. The Scott McMicken songs are particularly strong this time. My only complaint is that if you weren't paying close attention, you could mistake Shame, Shame for their previous album Fate, which sounded like their previous album, and so on. So basically they've been sitting at this plateau for a while now, dating all the way back to 2004's impeccable Easy Beat. Shame, Shame is more of a good thing, but I had such high hopes that it ultimately is a slight let down. A let down that still managed to be some of the best music of the year.

9) MGMT – Congratulations
After their first album Oracular Spectacular was such a rousing success, a lot of eyes were on MGMT to see what the next one would be like. Would they fall victim to the sophomore slump? Well, we can scratch our heads on that one because it feels like the verdict may still be out. You have to give them credit for going a different direction than what most of the public probably expected. Once you erase any expectations and just listen to it you're left with a trippy, ambitious attempt at making an artistic follow-up to a very popular first album.

10) Carl Broemel – All Birds Say
This slow moving, contemplative album from My Morning Jacket's lead guitarist and multi-instrumentalist snuck its way into my top 10.  I had to play it a few times before the unhurried groove and mellow mood sunk in. This is a quiet, under the radar, deeply personal release that shows there's much more to Broemel than bigtime rock n' roll gunslinger. It's perfect for both chilled-out late-night listening or on a lazy Sunday morning. You can return to it time and time again. At least one track from this album – the song Carried Away – has started to find its way into MMJ setlists, and we can be thankful for that. 

Honorable Mention:

The Hot Seats EP 2010
The Hot Seats have taken the string band sound a step farther in intensity without losing anything along the way. Only 7 tracks long (if you order it online) and clocking in at just 22 minutes, this isn't technically a full-length but it deserves mention because of the solid musicianship and overall impact. You can search far and wide and you will not find anyone playing old-time music with this level of sincerity and drive. Other young stringbands either play it too safe, or so haphazard and punkish that it comes off as hokey and contrived. It is the tradition for traditional music to evolve, and the Hot Seats know how to honor that tradition by bringing it into the modern era. This was the best old-time recording put out by anybody in 2010. And it covers a wide breadth – from straight up old-time tunes (Betsy Likens, Sugar Hill, Rocky Pallet) to rags (Plowboy Hop and Pig Ankle Rag) to stringband blues (Polecat Blues) to a minor-key Irish reel (Evite Gabriel). This is authentic, no holds barred, stringband music. For your health.

That's a re-cap of my best of 2010 albums list.  Look for my best of 2011 list in mid to late December.

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