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Ten Favorite Albums of 2010

I was recently asked to provide a list of my top 5 albums of 2010.  It was a seemingly easy task, until I actually tried to do it.  As it turns out, I had to begin making rules to toss out some of my candidates just to get my initial list down to a manageable level.  And once I did that… how in the world should I rank them?

Reviewing my musical preference for the last year is always a fun exercise.  It lets me see where my preferences are and how they have evolved over time.  This year marks something of an oddity for me, where folk music makes up a significant portion of my finalists.  It seems that I may be beginning to really prefer strength in writing and performing musicianship.  Of course my general listening tastes still apply… sorry Kanye, Bieber and Ke$ha fans.  I’m sure plenty of people will disagree with my list… feel free to make your own and I’ll check it out!

First, the criteria an album must meet to qualify:
  • Released in the 2010 calendar year
  • All original music (no compilations, remakes or live albums)
  • No solo or duet acts (I like bands, sorry)
With that, I now present (in no particular order) the finalists for my favorite albums of 2010!

Galactic - Ya-Ka-May
Galactic – “Ya-Ka-May”
If you’ve been missing out on the New Orleans funk/jazz scene you’ve simply been missing out.  Including guest appearances by some of the Crescent City’s most original and promising acts Galactic has done an amazing job of bottling up New Orleans’ jazz, funk, hip hop and electronic music into an approachable and mainstream friendly package.  Everything from “Heart of Steel” (featuring Irma Thomas), which has been featured on television shows and commercials to “Bounce Baby” which is a flat out nasty brass and rhythm jam sounds great and solid.  Of course, drawing on friends like Rebirth Brass Band, Allen Toussaint, Chali 2Na and Irma Thomas doesn’t hurt the cause, either.

Tea Leaf Green - Looking West
Tea Leaf Green – Looking West
Tea Leaf Green has been touring and thrilling jam band fans with the songs on this album for years.  So the songs were familiar to fans before recording ever began, but as with all jam bands Tea Leaf Green finally had to settle on a favorite rendition and then record it.  The problem for an improvisational band is that once you’ve recorded something in the studio, you’re then forever covering your own songs live.  This sometimes leaves the studio efforts feeling out of sorts.  But after hearing this album I’m a strong believer that Tea Leaf Green needed to get these songs recorded.  These songs need to be distributed and enjoyed in the highest possible quality, because they’re simply great songs from top to bottom.  From the dark, brooding rock of “Jackson Hole” to the hopeful, almost folk-rock of “Looking West” and “Drink of Streams” to the obviously jam-based soaring solo’s on “Rattlin'” it’s obvious the writing on this album encompasses a good deal of time.  This long-period writing session adds a depth to the album that leaves listeners with plenty of fun surprises during its run time.

John Butler Trio - April Uprising
John Butler Trio – April Uprising
One of the more raucous mainstream picks for me this year was the latest from the Australian jam band staple John Butler Trio.  Their latest album includes some great, very well-produced songs that seem to be well suited to radio air time.  Unlike the other albums on this list this one is very consistently upbeat and pretty focused on being genre-true to rock music.  From the commercially viable “One Way Road” to the fun syncopated acoustic trip that is “Don’t Wanna See Your Face” to the pressing and tense “Take Me” John Butler seems to be pushing towards a specific sound that will please his long-time fans as well as find a new audience looking for something to fill the gap between the standard pop and the over the top metal fare available on local radio.

Mumford & Songs - Sigh No more
Mumford & Songs – Sigh No More
If you’re a music fan there’s no way Mumford & Sons should be sneaking up on you.  These guys combine impeccable writing and vast river of intensity with well-chosen instrumentation and impressive musicianship to make something really special in their music.  Songs from this album have been featured on everything from “Grey’s Anatomy” (Thistle & Weeds) to “My Generation” (Sigh No More) and the band has been playing sold out shows in North America on their supporting tour.  If you like folk music, or you appreciate solid writing and musicianship this is a must hear album.  While I always recommend that people listen to an album from start to finish (track 1 through track whatever) the first time they hear it, I recommend that people listen to this album from start to finish every time they hear it.  It’s that good.

Ben Folds and Nick Hornby - Lonely Avenue
Ben Folds and Nick Hornby – Lonely Avenue
I play piano, so it’s pretty much obligatory that I like Ben Folds.  His writing is solid and pointed and his style of playing the piano always strikes me as how a pure emotion would play the piano if it was able.  On this album Nick Hornby wrote the lyrics and Ben Folds wrote the music.  So the tone of the album is a bit of a shift (in an evolutionary, not revolutionary sense) from things you’ve heard from Ben Folds in the past.  Ben Folds’ melodic sensibility is stunning (as it always is) as he orchestrates emotion on “Picture Window” and his choice of instrumentation is immaculate as he pokes fun on “Levi Johnston’s Blues”.  This is a really, really good effort from Ben Folds and Nick Hornby and I look forward to another project from them, something they’ve both said they would like to do.

Disco Biscuits - Planet Anthem
Disco Biscuits – Planet Anthem
If you haven’t been introduced to the “jamtronica” (a mixture of jam-influenced live-performance music with electronica) scene or one of it’s most notable acts, the Disco Biscuits, now would be a great time.  It’s always interesting for me to listen to these guys’ early offerings and then see how much they’ve changed as time has gone on.  It’s a credit to their ability to consume new influences and infuse them into their playing and writing which, at least in my opinion, makes every release and performance interesting.  This album is no different, it’s a broad set of sounds that the band generates.  The album ranges from retro-rock tracks like “Fish Out Of Water” which conjure thoughts of a time when recording a song was a far more organic process to enormous and complex soaring dance/electronic tracks like “The City” which shows off what the band can accomplish using all of the modern tools available in the studio.  Because of the broad range of content on this album it’s a great set of music that reaches across a lot of boundaries, just like the band.

Robert Randolph and The Family Band - We Walk This Road
Robert Randolph & The Family Band – We Walk This Road
Listed by Rolling Stone as one of the “100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time” Robert Randolph works a pedal steel guitar like no other.  When you combine his playing with a multicultural gospel and blues influence you get to hear the absolute best that roots music has to offer.  Along with The Derek Trucks Band these guys are presenting something to the music world that many fans have forgotten existed.  I’ve yet to play this album for anyone who didn’t like it… and given the diverse nature of music fan around me that’s an impressive claim.  At the same time, I didn’t play it for anyone who knew these guys were even releasing an album, which is sad.  The album doesn’t waver too much stylistically, gospel and southern blues run deep and Robert Randolph is perfectly comfortable stretching the limits of those genres without worrying too much about what else is out there.  That’s a good thing.  For good examples of what the album includes, check out “If I Had My Way” and “I’m Not Listening”.

Railroad Earth - Railroad Earth
Railroad Earth – Railroad Earth
I simply can’t say enough about the writing in Railroad Earth’s latest album.  The ability to write songs which place a listener in a different place, time or mindset has always impressed me and far too few artists even attempt it nowadays.  That’s not the case with Railroad Earth’s self-titled release.  From “The Jupiter & the 119” to “Lone Croft Farewell” the band makes you feel their message as you hear it.  Back that up with impeccable musicianship throughout and addictive songs like the eleven and a half minute instrumental “Spring-Heeled Jack” and the syncopated “Potter’s Field” and this album turns into something special.  But when you’re able to throw in an acoustic ballad like “Day on the Sand” you really broaden the appeal of the album as an accurate representation of American folk.

Michael Franti & Spearhead - The Sound of Sunshine
Michael Franti & Spearhead – The Sound of Sunshine
There was a time when knowing Michael Franti and his upbeat music was limited to a subculture of people who were intensely addicted to his songs.  That’s no longer the case as his latest release has tracks featured in commercials and television shows all over the place.  If you haven’t heard “The Sound of Sunshine” where have you been hiding?  I don’t know of many musicians who have worked as hard, or through as much, as Michael Franti so whatever success comes his way is something I think he has earned.  And while this album is a far more mainstream release than his previous releases, there’s some great stuff on there for long-time fans as well.  From “Hey Hey Hey” to “Love Don’t Wait” to the familiar island influence of “Only Thing Missing Was You” there’s plenty to enjoy on this studio release.

Widespread Panic - Dirty Side Down
Widespread Panic – Dirty Side Down
There’s no denying that the level of musicianship present in Widespread Panic is among the best anywhere.  They’re simply amazing live and the things they can do in an improvisational format are mind blowing.  Their latest studio release doesn’t deviate too far from that recipe of success, as the band doesn’t seem to get too caught up in adding artificial bells and whistles to their songs, choosing instead to record the songs in a very “playable live” format.  It’s refreshing, and if you’re a fan of the music or the jam genre there’s absolutely no reason NOT to pick up this album.  If you’re not a fan (yet) of the genre, checking out songs like “Dirty Side Down”, “Jaded Tourist” and “Shut Up and Drive” may be enough to get you curious as to what you have been missing.  If so, welcome to the club!

So there they are, my top ten favorite albums of 2010!  Be sure to stop by my top five (in order) list over on to see which albums I picked as the best of the best.

December 3, 2010

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