Top 5 Albums of 2010

While the traditional music business continued its long, slow decline into irrelevance, 2010 proved to be a surprisingly strong year for album-oriented artists. From young, avante-garde rockers to classic country music masters, artists from across the sound spectrum continued to explore new territory, whether taking a musical sledgehammer to the staid and complacent or finding new meaning and nuance in work that echoes the past while pointing the way to the future. Here’s a look at some of my favorite releases of the past year and a preview of what promises to be an even stronger 2011.

1.The Black Keys-Brothers: The duo from Akron, Ohio unleashed their finest, most varied collection yet. Further expanding on their bedrock blues and soul influences, vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerabach and drummer Patrick Carney cook up a nasty stew of swamp-infested grooves and falsetto crooning greased with modern wit and menace. Not just the rock record of the year, but a mighty fine dance party jam as well.

2. Grinderman-Grinderman2: Nick Cave, one time King of the Goths turned Dylan heir apparent, followed up the primal scream of 2007’s Grinderman with another album of feral gut-punch racket. Working off a template of improvised lyrics and music, Cave and his band mates, all long time members of his other great band, the Bad Seeds, have added a deeply unsettling psychedelic fog to their jazz punk fury. These songs teeter on the edge of control, the band stumbling and galloping in turn as Cave strips the mundane façade from the workaday world to reveal humor and horror in equal measure.

3. Forest Swords-Dagger Paths: Ambient-rock soundscapes to melt the heart and mind. Dagger Paths, the 2010 release from Forest Swords, sounds like a field recording from the battlefields of World War I, after the artillery has gone quiet and the armies have moved on. Ghosts of both men and machines seem to roam through this music — voices lurch out of echo-laden bass and piano jabs one moment only to be replaced by metallic, spaghetti-western guitar and plaintive moans. An acquired taste to be certain, but one that offers rewards well beyond the ephemeral pop joys of the moment.

4. Merle Haggard-I Am What I Am: Against all logic and, seemingly, the very laws of physics, Merle Haggard continues to push his 73-year-old mind and body to creative heights that few, if any, of his modern day country kin seem capable of. Or maybe they simply haven’t lived the life that Hag has, filled with prison stretches, drug abuse and enough woman trouble to put most men half his age out of commission. In a better world this album, filled with deep pools of regret, joy and humor, would have topped the country charts.

5. Steeldrivers-Reckless: One of the finest outfits currently mining the vein of traditional American music, the Steeldrivers second album continues their often-stunning look at the tragedies and mundane wonders that sweep across this country’s history like wind and slow rain.  A confluence of Nashville studio veterans given the chance to spread their wings, the group conjures tales of slaves running for freedom, ghosts at the crossroads and good men making bad decisions. All this and a 44-magnum bemoaning its cruel fate as a dealer of death and heartbreak, sung in hues of regret and pride by Chris Stapleton, whose voice is a wonder of country moan and blues power.

Albums to watch for in 2011:

The Drive-by-Truckers-Go-Go Boots: Lead singer Patterson Hood has described this as the band’s “R&B murder ballad album,” and while the title track, about a preacher who hires a friend do in his wife, and “Used to be a Cop,” which details the mental descent of a former officer, bear out his assessment, this is an album of some breadth and variety, a work that explores the light and shadows inherent in every family, friendship, and dreams for the future. Due out February 15.

Iron and Wine-Kiss Each Other Clean: The latest from Sam Beam, whose last release, 2007’s  “The Shepard’s Dog” was a classic of folk yearning and hard-boiled rural narrative. Beam has expanded the scope of his music and voice with each release, and this album, due January 25, promises new sonic back roads crossed with familiar trails of melody and song-craft.

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