25. Free Energy- Stuck on Nothing
“We’re breakin’ out this time/ makin’ out with the wind”. There couldn’t be more fitting opening lines for this Philadelphia five-piece’s debut album. Free Energy’s Stuck on Nothing is a record best served with a big slice of Friday night. Complete with a Thin Lizzy-like harmonizing guitar onslaught especially on tracks like “Bad Stuff” and “Young Hearts”. Six-string licks that sound like they could have easily been off Jailbreak. Stuck on Nothing combines carefree songs that also retain a certain ferocity with their feral riffs. Free Energy have crafted this year’s feel-good record bubbling over with sheer exuberance.
Key Tracks: Free Energy, Dream City, Bad Stuff, Young Hearts
24. MGMT- Congratulations
Only MGMT could make a spaced-out psychedelic record and have it be considered more austere than their previous effort Oracular Spectacular. Congratulations may not contain massive hits like “Kids”, “Electric Feel” or “Time to Pretend”, but this album actually holds up as more of a cohesive effort and perhaps an even better Sophomore record than their first. Songs like “It’s Working” and “Flash Delirium” sound like the band are plugging in for the first time in a garage on the moon while projections of amoebas swirl about them. “Someone’s Missing” is a lonely echoing stroll down the boulevard until an eruption in all the pomp and circumstance of Oracular Spectacular dips in for the finale. “I Found a Whistle” is a luminous interstellar ballad that gives way to their most experimental piece yet, the 12-minute acid-drop prog-rock of “Siberian Breaks” with its multiple tempo changes. Congratulations sounds contemporary and vintage also, like it could have been crafted in 1968. Nestle into this record, grab your astronaut helmet and a handful of those good pills.
Key Tracks: It’s Working, Someone’s Missing, Flash Delirium, I Found a Whistle, Congratulations
23. Spoon- Transference
Spoon has been around since 1994 and they seemed to be destined to be perennial Austin, Texas indie-rock darlings. Then came 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and with the help of the uber-catchy single “The Underdog” they were propelled into unprecedented waters… commercial success. Selling more than 300,000 copies of the album in the U.S. alone, they had lofty expectations built in front of them for a follow up. Enter 2010 and the Spoon’s new record Transference. With serpentine melodies, crackling guitars and off-kilter rickety, at times near-vaudevillian pianos, the band goes mining through their past traveling back down the tracks they laid to get here. That’s not to say they have abandoned all hope of hit radio singles. Tunes like “Written in Reverse” with its pounding piano chords and singer Britt Daniel’s trademark snarl (At times it sounds like he’s shredding his throat here, get this guy some lozenges!) and “Trouble Comes Running” with its thumping beat show strong life signs of keeping the casual audience that may have come solely for more “Underdogs”. The band produced this record themselves which gives it more of a rough around the edges quality and also adds a slight element of sincerity that may have been missing from the polished sheen of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. You have to hand it to Spoon, they paid their dues and now they’re reaping the benefits of their new popularity. Transference is them blending in perfectly between the pillars of commercial success and critical acclaim.
Key Tracks: The Mystery Zone, Written in Reverse, I Saw the Light, Trouble Comes Running
22. Brandon Flowers- Flamingo
Say what you will about Brandon Flowers, but the guy knows how to write pop anthems dressed up in all the fixings. Sure the guy may at times have a Bono-like sometimes a Messianic-like complex, but those things can be over looked when you’re wanting to hit the dance floor after listening to his songs. And although you might want to critically pan his debut solo record Flamingo, it’ll be hard to concentrate over yourself and formulate an acidic manifesto as you’re singing along, belting out the tunes with Flowers in all their beefed up, cheesed out glam glory. There’s never really a dull moment on Flamingo as Flowers full-throated pulsating anthems like “Crossfire”, “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas”, “Only the Young”, and “Jilted Lovers & Broken Hearts” could have been right at home on albums done by the The Killers. Even slightly more subdued tracks like “Playing with Fire” and “Out on the Floor” tend to arc towards moments of grandiose cadence. If this is the worst Flowers can do with The Killers on hiatus, life will go on.
Key Tracks: Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Only the Young, Jilted Lovers & Broken Hearts, Crossfire
21. Dr. Dog- Shame, Shame
Shame, Shame, Dr. Dog’s fifth LP continues in the tradition of their previous albums. They make no apologies for their great affinity for 60’s pop/rock songcraft and allowing it to influence their music. Luckily Dr. Dog is a talented versatile band, allowing their influences to sound fresh and revitalizing rather than tired and cliche. Shame, Shame has scaled back some of the chamber pop excess from their previous record Fate yet retains rich enough augmentations to keep the band’s core identity. “Shadow People” begins with a solemn acoustic guitar before being enriched in a sun-drenched melody and warm harmonies. “Station” sounds like a forlorn tune that could have been done been by The Band with its lazy countryside saunter while songs like “Unbearable Why”, “Where’d All the Time Go?” and “Mirror, Mirror” have Beatles-esque harmonies. You can almost hear Lennon and McCartney singing “Mirror, mirror on the wall/ There’s no reflection here at all” in all their “Lucy in the Sky” glory. Dr. Dog may be a throw back band, but they’re a damn good one.
Key Tracks: Shadow People, Station, Unbearable Why, Where’d All the Time Go, Mirror Mirror
20. Blitzen Trapper- Destroyer of the Void
Blitzen Trapper frontman Eric Earley said that recording sessions last year were inspired by artifacts such as the Bible and roots-rock like Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. The result was a freak-folk opus, Destroyer of the Void. The opening title track sets the tone for the rest of the album, sounding like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” had gone up into the mountains, taken a shovel-load of Peyote, talked to the wild animals and lived to tell about it. “Laughing Lover” has an infectious gallop to it while Earley sings, “Your mind is a diamond of blue and green/ Shining out through your eyes like falling leaves/ When you open your mouth a swarm of bees will appear”. “The Tailor” is classic folk-style storytelling and “The Man Who Would Speak True” is a brilliant murder ballad that Dylan himself would have been glad to have written. The band even manages to sound like a gypsy road dog outfit in songs like “Dragon’s Song”. Destroyer of the Void is an amalgamation of Blitzen Trapper’s strong suits to make for an absorbing tantalizing portrait.
Key Tracks: Destroyer of the Void, Laughing Lover, The Man Who Would Speak True, Dragon’s Song, The Tailor
19. Phosphorescent- Here’s to Taking it Easy
Phosphorescent Head of State Matthew Houck is a tremendous wordsmith that has been flying under the radar but he may have just crafted an album with a perfect blend of a Americana and Alt. country to make a break through in Here’s to Taking it Easy. The jubilant opener “It’s Hard to Be Humble (When you’re from Alabama)” complete with an ecstatic horn section sounds more genuine than anything Lynyrd Skynyrd could have written about the state of Alabama and the state may want to adopt it as their unofficial song rather than the ham-fisted Skynyrd one. “Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)” has a superb road trip vibe while “Mermaid Parade” sounds like it could have been off The Byrd’s Sweetheart of Rodeo with its luscious twangy guitars and Houck even sounding like a more world-weary Roger McGuinn. The only subtle sound of darkness creeps in at the close of the record with the lengthy “Los Angeles”. The meandering rumination sounds like a bleak mid-70’s Neil Young epic and yet it even turns into a sort of paean for the city of Los Angeles. Here’s to Taking it Easy is a fitting title for a record that is best enjoyed on the road, windows down with countryside sprawling out for miles ahead.
Key Tracks: It’s Hard to Be Humble (When you’re from Alabama), Nothing Was Stolen (Love me Foolishly), Mermaid Parade, I Don’t care if There’s Cursing, Los Angeles
18. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club- Beat the Devil’s Tattoo
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club cut a chasm between Howl and the rest of their records to make Beat the Devil’s Tattoo, a balanced attack that leads to perhaps their most compelling album yet. A foreboding overcast falls over the record starting with the malevolent tribal stomp of the opening title track. “Conscience Killer” follows as a hellacious British invasion type rocker that has Velvet Underground swagger and “Mama Taught Me Better” has metallic revved-up riffs of a chugging steam engine. Meanwhile “Sweet Feeling” and “The Toll” sound like blood dripping from the black branch folk ballads that could have been standouts on Howl as well. An absolutely sinister track is the blues lick of “River Styx” that sounds as if they beat Robert Johnson to the crossroads to meet the devil, and he gave them this song conjured in fires and cauldrons of hell. B.R.M.C. fall back into the haze of their earlier formative years with the tyrannical juggernaut closer “Half-State” that’s soaked in feedback and reverb. A monolithic end to another fantastic album from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. A matured band realizing all their strong suits.
Key Tracks: Beat the Devil’s Tattoo, Conscience Killer, Sweet Feeling, Mama Taught Me Better, The Toll, River Styx
17. Deer Tick- The Black Dirt Sessions
Deer Tick brain trust John McCauley III broods mightily on the band’s third album The Black Dirt Sessions. Although the ruminations on mortality may seem grim and foreboding there is also an engaging sense of vitality and urgency. From the literal dirge of “Goodbye, Dear Friend” the languishing “Sad Sun” or the reworked austere piano version of “Christ Jesus” all showcase McCauley taking a matured at times sobering approach to his songwriting. That’s not to say the band can’t still kick up a ruckus when needed. “Mange” is a desert trotter until the outro erupts into “Freebird” territory with rollicking barrel-house piano and barn-burning rocket fuel guitars while “When She Comes Home” has a rugged “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” feel. As a live act Deer Tick has garnered a reputation as a hard partying carefree group. On record though, these guys are dead serious, and that’s a good thing.
Key Tracks: Twenty Miles, Goodbye Dear Friend, Sad Sun, Mange, Christ Jesus
16. Drive-By Truckers- The Big To-Do
Drive-By Truckers have become the championed work horses of Southern rock cranking out nine studio albums in the past 12 years. A work rate that’s almost unheard of in this modern age of the music industry. What may be even more startling is the fact that they’ve also managed keep an incredible sense of freshness on what bandleader Patterson Hood has deemed “The duality of the Southern thing”. Hood shares the wealth on lead vocals on The Big To-Do perhaps more than any other DBT record with Mike Cooley and Shonna Tucker. Tucker contributes the disintegrating domestication of a couple in “You Got Another” and the palpitating “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told you So” while Cooley’s three superb numbers include “Birthday Boy” the rockabilly “Get Downtown” and the country-fried delicate closer “Eyes Like Glue” where he sounds eerily like Willie Nelson. The strength of The Big To-Do though still lies in Hood’s matter-of-fact storytelling weaving tales that sound as if the boys in Lynyrd Skynyrd got addicted to Raymond Carver. Thriving tales of disillusionment from the opening ragged glory guitars of “Daddy Learned to Fly” dealing with childhood abandonment, the murder and corruption surrounding a Reverend in “The Wig He Made Her Wear”, “This Fucking Job” sounds like a crotchety latter-day Neil Young tune coupled with “After the Scene Dies” which sounds like Crazy Horse with a dirty South fervent urgency chronicling the deterioration of the good times. With their unparalleled consistency, Drive-By Truckers continue to be not only undeniably relevant on the Southern rock circuit, but they just might be front-runners.
Key Tracks: Daddy Learned to Fly, The Wig He Made Her Wear, You Got Another, This Fucking Job, After the Scene Dies, The Flying Wallendas, Eyes Like Glue
15. Broken Bells- Broken Bells
When Frontman of The Shins James Mercer combined with uber record producer Guru Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) to create Broken Bells they wanted make sure that this was more than just a casual one-off side project. They wanted this to be an act with staying power and they more than succeeded in their self titled debut. It’s evident from the beginning that Mercer’s indie-pop architecture and Burton’s wizardry behind the control booth are a winning infusion with the lunar strutting “The High Road” with lines to match the positive jam like “The dawn to end all nights, that’s all we hoped it was”. The irresistibly catchy “The Ghost Inside” comes complete with Mercer’s fantastic falsetto and hand claps while a world of disco globes and glass dance floor platforms are resurrected all around him and “Mongrel Heart” sounds like someone turned The Smiths lose in a Manchester discoteca. If Burton and Mercer decide to continue with the Broken Bells venture their future looks fruitful.
Key Tracks: The High Road, The Ghost Inside, Sailing to Nowhere, Mongrel Heart, The Mall & Misery
14. Frightened Rabbit- The Winter of Mixed Drinks
As if Poseidon hand-picked these Scottish gentlemen from the belly of the ocean to bring us landlocked folk rumblings from the sea, sounding lonesome and yet incandescent and mighty as well, Frightened Rabbit’s The Winter of Mixed Drinks is the determination of the human heart battered with the waves of that ocean. From the deep sea fuzz intro of “Things” the album’s flood gates burst open with anthemic moments that although it deals heavily with isolation, ultimately feels triumphant and liberating. “The Loneliness and the Scream” begins with reservation only to explode into a full-throated chest-beating futbol hooligan chanting climax, “The Wrestle” builds from calm waters into a tidal wave coming to shore and the thunderous “Living in Colour” keeps listeners holding on for the white-knuckle oceanic journey. Even luminous ballads like “FootShooter” and “Yes, I Would” seem indomitable and show promise of crashing through barricades into the mainstream. If you’re ever washed ashore on a deserted island by the hands of Poseidon, make sure he at least sends these guys to make your marooning more enjoyable.
Key Tracks: Things, The Loneliness and the Scream, The Wrestle, FootShooter, Living in Colour, Yes I Would
13. The Hold Steady- Heaven is Whenever
The Hold Steady have always thrived on spinning narratives of debauchery in an occasional druggy haze. Not in the overtly hedonistic Sunset Strip excess sense, but rather the hood rats on the run while the Stations of the Cross flash through their narcotically-influenced Catholic-guilt riddled minds type. Though that may sound like their records are heavy or weighty with darkness creeping in from all edges of town, at the heart of their records has always been an endearing and enduring sense of comfort and familiarity. Such is the case on their fifth LP Heaven is Whenever bookended by the rare appearance of tender slide guitar in the opener “The Sweet Part of the City” to the ethereal outro of the closer “A Slight Discomfort” and everything in between falls into place as planned. They may have lost some of their E Street resonance with the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay last January however this also allows the guitars more space and gives them a more galvanizing attack. “The Weekenders” has a classic U2 sized arena-rock vibe with frontman Craig Finn dropping knockout lines like, “She said, ‘The theme of this party’s the industrial age and you came in dressed like a train wreck'”. “Hurricane J” is a guitar rave-up up put down while “We Can Get Together” is the closest the band has come to a lullaby with Finn showing affinity for a girl on his mind as well as his record collection singing, “Utopia’s a band, they sang ‘Love is the Answer’ and I think they’re probably right”. Enjoy the warm embrace of Heaven is Whenever, even if it is from a hood rat still on the run.
Key Tracks: The Sweet Part of the City, The Weekenders, We Can Get Together, Hurricane J, Our Whole Lives, A Slight Discomfort
12. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers- Mojo
Tom Petty & his Heartbreakers fly East from their California Byrds-ian nests and first settle down on the Southside of 1950′s Chicago, blues capital of the world at that point for a large chunk of Mojo. The opening track “Jefferson Jericho Blues” sets the scene for the rest of the album as Petty and the boys sound like a crack-ace Muddy Waters band in Rollin’ & Tumblin’ fashion. Multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston blows with the fervor of a mid-1960’s Keith Relf harmonica solo from The Yardbirds, and Petty’s best kept secret weapon also finally lets loose in Mike Campbell, his so called “co-captain”. Always one for restricting himself from reaching the true guitar hero virtuoso status like he’s been owed in favor of a more reserved style, he finally grabs that brass ring blending wildfire frenetic guitar breaks and visceral wild abandon solos. “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove” is a lucid rotisserie rotating song that has Petty meeting up with ghosts and pit-stops of his past before leaving them behind in his buddy’s old Defender with the wink of an eye with lines, “I got a friend in Mendocino/ And it’s gettin’ close to harvest time.” “I Should Have Known It” prominently features Campbell as he has us salivating with a monolithic Zeppelin-esque riff. Definitely one of the heaviest songs done by the band, a pile-driving rocker cut in the vain of “Honey Bee” as Campbell’s slide-guitar playing screeches with feral intensity before the rest of the band joins in and hits the ground running in a frenzied gallop finale. The album’s closer “Good Enough” is an incendiary dirge as Campbell comes completely unhinged with avalanches of Wah-Wah swirling solos around keyboardist Benmont Tench’s cathedral organ before finally setting his frets ablaze until the record finally slows down and comes to a smoldering stop. Petty shows here that he doesn’t have to rely on always recycling his traditional formula. Which in part, is what makes Mojo so good.
Key Tracks: Jefferson Jericho Blues, First Flash of Freedom, Running Man’s Bible, The Trip to Pirate’s Cove, I Should Have Known It, Something Good Coming, Good Enough
11. Local Natives- Gorilla Manor
There’s no shortage of percussion on Local Natives’ Gorilla Manor. Combing African style rhythms with Western world indie-rock and yearning energetic harmonies to make for one of the most compelling debut records this year. From the nocturnal opening track of “Wide Eyes” its evident that of the band is throwing the entire color wheel on their palette for the listeners. “Airplanes” comes off as a strutting vital cacophony of noise and “Sun Hands” comes equipped with tribal drumming before an Isaac Brock/Modest Mouse type freak out at the end. The ultra-addictive “World News” is loaded with so many hooks that it’s hard to get past and “Camera Talk” with its rushes of strings and guitars encapsulate the fervent youth packed into the album as well as the band itself. “Warning Sign” is a solid Talking Heads cover that shows the band wearing its influences on its sleeve and shows that despite their youthfulness, they can show signs of maturity and sophistication beyond their years as well.
Key Tracks: Wide Eyes, Airplanes, Sun Hands, World News, Camera Talk, Who Knows Who Cares
10. The Tallest Man on Earth- The Wild Hunt
Of all the would-be Bob Dylans to come and go over the decades since the early 1960’s, 27-year-old Sweedish-born Kristian Matsson, aka The Tallest Man on Earth (He’s not really the tallest man on the planet, standing only 5’7″) may come the closest to Dylan during his most freewheelin’ years. For his second LP The Wild Hunt, Matsson, like early Dylan is armed again only with an acoustic guitar. It serves him like a fragile blade, delicate and vulnerable yet showcasing the sheer force and authority one man with one guitar alone can have. Matsson’s voice as well at times eerily bears a striking resemblance to an early Dylan in all its Dust Bowl balladeer grandeur. Matsson unravels 10 intimate tales rapt in hopes, fears, doubts, and ambitions where the answers are just blowin’ in the wind of the changing seasons as Matsson sings, “And I plan to be forgotten when I’m gone, yes I’ll be leavin’ in the Fall” as he strolls down that familiar beaten path like other great troubadours, taking the same turn Dylan did on “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. As far as lyricists go, Matsson remains top shelf quality with lines like, “Oh, when it’s God I see in headlights kneeling down on frozen highways/ And salvation in white knuckles on a wheel/ And the deer is in the audience by the border of the darkness/ where forgiveness grows and slowly winds away.” on “Troubles Will Be Gone”. “King of Spain” is a tale of countryside conquest and amour while tipping the cap to Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” while “Love Is All” sees Matsson finding it easier walk upon the river than the land he’s been a traveling minstrel on. The album concludes with a rare piano appearance echoing through cathedral halls with the semi-optimistic “Kids On The Run” that sounds like it could have been the skeletal framework for a cut off Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. With two profoundly moving acoustic masterpieces under his belt, even if he doesn’t make an album in a few years with a full band to record the next “Like A Rolling Stone”, Matsson’s already come a long way.
Key Tracks: The Wild Hunt, Burden of Tomorrow, Troubles Will Be Gone, King of Spain, Love Is All, A Lion’s Heart, Kids On The Run
9. Kings of Leon- Come Around Sundown
Similar sonic landscapes and textures that percolated through out Only By The Night have propagated to the Kings of Leon’s new record Come Around Sundown. It’s evident from the beginning that the band is looking to stay in arena-rock form with the opener “The End” with its amplified drums from Nathan Followill flanked by Jared Followill’s lumbering bass combining together for a brooding crepuscular strut before melding with lead singer Caleb Followill and lead guitarist Matthew Followill’s torrents of guitar attack. One of the more interesting songs in their arsenal on the record is “Radioactive”. Lead by a tense guitar hook of Caleb’s it has a celestial meteoric feel similar to “Sex on Fire”. The anthemic gospel-like chorus is no doubt inspired partly from the Kings religious upbringing with their father Ivan “Leon” Followill who traveled around the deep south as a Pentecostal preacher. It conjures up baptismal images as Caleb wails, “It’s in the water/ it’s in the story/ it’s where you came from/ The sons and daughters/ In all their glory/ It’s gonna shape them/ And when they clash/ And come together/ and start rising/ Just drink the water/ Where you came from”. Where the Kings used to thrive predominantly in high-octane barn-burning songs, they now also flourish in their ability to construct midnight desperation bedroom ballads, such is the case here with “Pyro” and “Pickup Truck”. In “Pyro” you can hear Caleb dealing with maturing issues and imagine him springing up from his slumber in a cold sweat in the middle of the night as he yelps lines like, “All the black inside me/ Is slowly seeping from the bone/ Everything I cherish/ Is slowly dying or it’s gone”. It’s hard to discern whether he is lamentably or defiantly howling the chorus when he states, “I won’t ever be your corner stone”. “Pickup Truck” is continuing in the tradition of the Kings closing their latest albums with beautiful yet aching drifter ballads, similar to “Arizona” and “Cold Desert”. If there is an attempt to bring it all back home and return to their roots on the record it would be the southern clarion-call of “Back Down South”. The album’s centerpiece that’s sure to be a prodigious hit for them like “Use Somebody” was (Perhaps even bigger) is an anthem for the Bible Belt that looks to aim even lower once that belt gets unbuckled by them. Perhaps their most endearing song since “Fans” it’s backed by irresistible hooks of a sunset fiddle and Nathan’s boot-stomping beat as Caleb weaves tales of Americana as effortlessly as Tom Petty. It suggests this song could be heard anywhere from teens on the hoods of their cars on Friday nights, to a music festival audience of 80,000 strong singing along to it, all the way to being blasted on stereos of the most pretentious of hipsters (Though they’d never give you their concession of that). Reaffirmation that the Kings haven’t forgot where it all began for them, and what brought them to the dance. They’re still celebrating and dancing deep into the night on their victory lap.
Key Tracks: Radioactive, Pyro, Mary, Back Down South, No Money, Pony Up, Pickup Truck
8. Josh Ritter- So Runs the World Away
For his fifth studio album So Runs the World Away Josh Ritter continues to be one of the best and brightest of younger upper echelon songwriters. Ritter spreads his wings and takes flight on an album that does not bound him to the earthly domains of his other troubadour peers. Ritter becomes a bard who floats effortlessly through the ether, venturing back and forth through periods of time and space occasionally touching down to deliver captivating fables of majestic grace. Such is the case on “Change Of Time” with Ritter using his masterful strokes painting a devastatingly elegant dreamscape only to be topped with “The Curse”. Who would have thought the most beautiful song of 2010 would be a waltzing piano ballad that’s a love story between a female Museum Curator and an ancient mummified Pharaoh? A Disney-worthy fairytale, “The Curse”, Ritter unravels a romantic tale like the rags of the mummified Pharaoh that ultimately ends in heartbreak in the aging of the woman as the “Dry fig of her heart stops its beating” but not before remembering their time and travels together fondly, “Long ago on the ship/ She asked why pyramids/ He said, ‘Think of them as an immense invitation’/ She asked, ‘Are you cursed?’/ He says, ‘I think that I’m cured’/ Then he kissed her and hoped/ That she’d forget that question”. “See How Man Was Made” soars through clouds buoyed by flourishes of strings while “Another New World” is a saga that sees Ritter take on the guise of a ship’s captain out at sea with his nautical prowess guiding him to new lands. “Folk Bloodbath” is the centerpiece of the album with Ritter taking popular personas from folk and murder ballads with the likes of Delia, Louis Collins, and Stagger Lee with the final results being just as the title suggests, “They buried little Delia in the churchyard deep/ Louis Collins at her head, Stackalee at her feet/ The angels laid them away/ And out of Delia’s bed came briars, out of Louis’ bed a rose/ And out of Stackalee’s came Stackalee’s cold lonely little ghost/ The angels laid them away”. “Long Shadows” is a brief epilogue that’s defiant yet sublime as Ritter states to all his obstacles, “I’m not afraid of the dark”. Ritter has seemingly aced the the territories of confessional singer/songwriter, and yet he still continues to unearth new frontiers for future voyages.
Key Tracks: Change Of Time, The Curse, Folk Bloodbath, Lantern, See How Man Was Made, Another New World, Long Shadows
7. The Black Keys- Brothers
Miami can have LeBron James, 2010’s Brothers proves that The Black Keys are still the pride and joy and best export out of Akron, Ohio. The Black Keys compromising of Singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have appropriately titled their sixth studio album Brothers. Although they’re not blood-related, the two bicker like brothers and have a brotherly bond that would make most doubt that fact. Another name that could’ve been tossed into the hat for the album is “Akron’s Newest Hitmakers” as The Black Keys busted into the mainstream behind the success of their single, the byzantine-whistling funked-up “Tighten Up” which reached the top of the alternative rock charts, and helped propel the album to #3 on the billboard charts. And the catchy hit-sounding cuts don’t end there. There’s the feral lone-wolf strut of “Howlin’ For You” and the R&B gospel-flavored “Everlasting Light” where Auerbach croons in an affectionate falsetto lines like, “Love is the coal that makes this train roll”. Lyrics that would have even Marvin Gaye bowing down. That’s not to say The Black Keys still haven’t forgot their old tricks and they still unleash fuzzed-out scathing monolithic rockers like “Next Girl” (“My next girl will be nothing like my ex-girl/ I made mistakes back then I’ll never do it again”) and “She’s Long Gone” as well as the ferociously vengeful “Ten Cent Pistol” and the lethal “Sinister Kid” complete with some malevolent slide guitar licks. Even the disarming sunset ballad “These Days” is deceptively ominous as Auerbach wails, “These blood red eyes/ Don’t see so good/ But what’s worse is if they could/ Would I change my ways?” as Carney’s drums continuously rush like the tide to shore before gently rolling back into the ocean. Though they have slightly evolved from their Mississippi Delta blues and proto-rock ammalgamation, they still keep the wild primitive abandon of their earlier records. This is soul blues from another solar system. A two man band has never felt more powerful, and this dynamic duo isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Just try to tell them otherwise.
Key Tracks: Everlasting Light, Next Girl, Tighten Up, Howlin’ For You, She’s Long Gone, Ten Cent Pistol, Sinister Kid, These Days
6. Band of Horses- Infinite Arms
Besides maybe My Morning Jacket, no one really comes close to giving Band of Horses a run for their money when it comes to redefining the sound of Americana rock, blending elements of folk and country among other genres. Bandleader Ben Bridwell has seemingly finally found an outfit of a band he feels most comfortable with. Bridwell is the only remaining original member of Band of Horses as a new five-piece group is set in place for their third LP and major label debut Infinite Arms, their best album yet. “Factory” and “Compliments” opens the album in gripping fashion, as a one two punch. The former serves as a captivating vignette with its lush sweeping arrangements while the march of the latter ultimately remains optimistic as Bridwell croons, “If there’s a God up in the air, someone looking over everyone/ At least you got something to fall back on”. The band flexes its expertise for effortlessly creating celestial ballads like “Blue Beard”, “On My Way Back Home”, “For Annabelle” and the title track of the album. The band takes successful detours as well. “Laredo” sounds like a cut from the aforementioned My Morning Jacket, or at least a track they would’ve killed to have with its positive-jam blood flowing guitars. “Evening Kitchen” is a gentle porch ballad with coral harmonies and “Older” sounds as if The Beach Boys moved from the coast to Nashville and soaked up its music rather than the sun. “NW Apt.” is a rapturous change of pace with its chugging guitars and Friday night house party vibe ready to bust at the seams before the closer “Neighbor” sets in as a venerating halcyon canticle that eventually soars into the stratosphere, nearly achieving the transcendence of their career defining hit “The Funeral”. Infinite Arms is an undeniably enthralling and gorgeous album with tunes that like its cover suggests, are made for big Summer sky nights, and possibly a joint if there’s one handy.
Key Tracks: Factory, Compliments, Laredo, Blue Beard, Infinite Arms, Older, NW Apt., Neighbor
5. The Gaslight Anthem- American Slang
He has a lot of suitors beckoning for it, but if Bruce Springsteen ever passes the torch of “A runaway American dream” it might be right out on the Jersey turnpike to Garden State brethren, The Gaslight Anthem. Their gleaming affection for The Boss has been well established, especially on their 2008 LP The ’59 Sound which sounded like Born to Run with more of a D.I.Y. punk-rock spirit mixed with elements of The Killers’ Sam’s Town that was critically acclaimed and put the band on the map. A follow-up would be under immense scrutiny and pressure to succeed. The band still aims big right out of the gate with the opening title track that has a Rolling Stones “Street Fighting Man” swagger and a fist in the air shout-a-long chorus, “And they cut me to ribbons and taught me to drive/ (In a dream I had, oh in a dream I had)/ I’ve got your name tattooed inside of my arm/ And I called for my father, but my father had died/ While you told me fortunes in American slang”. Frontman Brian Fallon continues the chest-beating choruses defiantly bellowing “So give me the fevers that just won’t break/ And give me the children you don’t want to raise/ And tell me about the cool/ He sings to you in those songs/ If it’s better than my love/ Then bring it on”, on “Bring It On”. Fallon mirrors some of the ragamuffin street poetry of Springsteen’s early recordings on songs like the finger-snaping “The Diamond Church Street Choir” and “The Queen of Lower Chelsea”, which has a classic Americana line, “American girls, they want the whole world/ They want every last little light in New York City”. Songs like “Orphans” and “Spirit of Jazz” sound closer to The ’59 Sound firing on all cylinders like the pistons of a getaway car while “We Did It When We Were Young” plays like “Thunder Road” revisited, looking back on time on the run, echoing the sentiment fondly a young Springsteen sang about it 1975, “We ain’t that young anymore”. If The Gaslight Anthem are as dedicated disciples of The Boss as they seem to be, traveling down the same highways in those getaway cars is going to take them far.
Key Tracks: American Slang, Bring It On, The Diamond Church Street Choir, The Queen of Lower Chelsea, Orphans, Spirit of Jazz, We Did It When We Were Young
4. The National- High Violet
After the success of their 2007 LP Boxer bringing them a larger following, The National seized the opportunity to broaden their palette ever so slightly while still brooding in the dark forests of introspection and doubt where they cut their teeth for their latest output High Violet. Singer Matt Berninger continues to be everyone’s favorite love-tortured poet east of the Mississippi. His signature sneering bedroom baritone is still ominous yet undeniably sensual and will once again send girls (and boys?) into undulating tailspins while brothers and guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner weave sonic landscapes with the alchemy and reverence of The Edge. “Terrible Love” opens with the band rising from the turbulent waters of reverb and feedback and marching into new ornamental territories with Berninger firmly clenching onto his bottle of white wine. “Afraid of Everyone” is intravenously addictive fueled by drummer Bryan Devendorf’s pulsating back-beat with rapid-fire snare shots as Berninger nocturnally croons, “I don’t have the drugs to sort it out”, while the Arcade Fire-esque “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is a homecoming to Ohio where the band’s roots were planted albeit an unsettling one via a swarm of bees. “Runaway” is a gorgeous ballad that’s a lilting carousel with the narrative of a disintegrating relationship of biblical proportions while Berninger stands defiant singing, “I won’t be no runaway, cause I won’t run”. “Conversation 16” is foreboding murder of crows song and yet you can still picture capacity crowds singing the chorus, “I was afraid I’d eat your brains, cause I’m evil!”. With High Violet The National not only equals the majesty of Boxer but they surpass it. High Violet is part anthem, part anti-anthem, part Edgar Allan Poe, all bleeding heart. Wrapped in velvet, fireworks and wine.
Key Tracks: Terrible Love, Afraid of Everyone, Bloodbuzz Ohio, Runaway, Conversation 16, England, Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks
3. Titus Andronicus- The Monitor
An opening recitation of an address from Abraham Lincoln sets the scene for The Monitor. The Monitor in part is a concept record that is loosely based around historical Civil War-era references and narratives, even the album’s title comes from a legendary 19th century U.S. Navy battleship. With all this material one would think the album would be cumbersome, even perhaps a little pretentious but Titus Andronicus have crafted an epic rock opera of sorts that may be the most intricately engaging album of the year. With eight of the ten tracks clocking in at over five minutes (And five clocking in at seven minutes or longer) its an aspiring record that never seems exhausting in its sprawl and remains invigorating in a rampantly thunderous nature. The opener, “A More Perfect Union” is an expansive tempo changing barn-burner with singer Patrick Stickles sounding like a more agitated angst-filled Conor Oberst with a lyrical arsenal to match. With guitars that teeter from slashing punk-rock riff tension to lofty heroic interludes Stickles also tips the cap to fellow Jersey comrade Bruce Springsteen with the line, “Tramps like us, baby we were born to die!”. “A Pot in Which To Piss” follows in similar vein as a nine minute roller coaster with twists, shifts, and bends of gnashing guitars and Honky Tonk pianos as Stickles solipsistic delivery of lines like, “I am covered in urine and excrement but I’m alive” and having it seem as if there’s never been anything more triumphant. “Four Score and Seven” begins another self-loathing narrative before billowing into an anarchistically defiant and bombastic stampede as Stickles viscerally lacerating voice repeatedly howls at its climax, “It’s still us against them”. “Theme from “Cheers”” couldn’t be a more appropriate title with its booze-fueled “Close down the bar” lyrics that sounds as if a writer’s workshop were on a pub crawl as Stickles jubilantly snarls, “So give me a Guinness/ Give me a Keystone Light/ Give me a kegger on a Friday/ Give me anything but another year in exile”. “To Old Friends and New” is a Use Your Illusion I/II worthy ballad that conjures images of Slash playing the guitar solo outside a desert chapel in soaring fashion with an arm-in-arm camaraderie “It’s all right the way that you live” sing-a-long finale. The 14-minute juggernaut closer, “The Battle Of Hampton Roads” is an ambitious literary tour de force that in part is a retelling of an actual Civil War naval battle that never loosens its intense grip on its audience as the outro marches onward like a powerful Celtic dirge and the odyssey ends. The Monitor is a staggering piece of work as it is already great with one listen and yet it only gets better with each new spin. If there are to be more records like this in store in their canon, then gladly salute them and echo their battle cry, “Titus Andronicus forever… and ever”.
Key Tracks: A More Perfect Union, No Future Part Three: Escape From the Future, A Pot in Which to Piss, Four Score and Seven, Theme From “Cheers”, To Old Friends and New, The Battle of Hampton Roads
1. Arcade Fire- The Suburbs
We have a tie for first place! Most individuals associate living in the suburbs as something successful, something to strive for. Usually meaning you have a promising occupation, a wife, 2.5 kids, two + stall garage, dog, backyard, a peaceful neighborhood, the works. Frontman Win Butler however has apparently poured over novels like “The Stepford Wives” or “The Virgin Suicides” too many times peering through the venetian blinds of suburbia and see the darkness and piercing that abyss with a gaze of disillusionment. Arcade Fire’s third album The Suburbs picks up where Neon Bible left off. Youths on the run eventually need to slow down, or stop even. But what happens when that kinetic energy is killed? The internal gears, those getaway pistons can corrode, coated in self-doubt. In the opening title track, Butler finds himself in a suburban jungle dealing with complacency. A deceptively jaunty, nearly Caribbean sounding acoustically strummed track in which he recalls the vibrancy of an unwritten ending, he now seems to feel like he’s embattled in a grainy 1950’s suburbia as he sings, “You always seemed so sure/ That one day we’d be fighting/ In a suburban war/ Your part of town against mine/ I saw you standing on the opposite shore/ But by the time the first bombs fell/ We were already bored”. While down in the trenches however Butler reflects in a moment of contrasting clarity deciding, “So can you understand/ I want a daughter while I’m still young?/ I want to hold her hand,/ And show her some beauty,/ before all this damage is done” before yelping, “Sometimes I can’t believe it/ I’m moving past the feeling”. The opening track melds into “Ready to Start” which has a piano line and chugging pulse that plays like a runaway boxcar train leaving town as Butler displays words of wisdom he has received from “sages” about external forces gunning for him like, “…the businessmen drink my blood/ Like the kids in art school said they would”. Elsewhere the band has never made the dark seem more joyous than in anthems like “City With No Children” and “Half Light II (No Celebration)”. “City…” is propelled by a monolithic over-driven guitar riff that makes you feel like it has enough voltage in it to jump start Butler’s failing car engine on the way to Houston. “Half Light II…” seems to be the sound of a band well aware that it’s dabbling in the timeless fires of some of rock’s finest architects as the song has echoes that resonate as far as U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” or The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” (Undercurrents of the latter can actually be heard in the song as well) as Butler states at the end with a wounded howl, “Oh, this city’s changed so much/ Since I was a little child/ Pray to God I won’t live to see/ The death of everything that’s wild”. Plus there may not be a better Springsteen-esque moment than when Butler sings, “Some people say, we’ve already lost/ But they’re afraid to pay the cost/ For what we’ve lost”. “Month of May” has rampant punk-style revving guitars erupting with the fervor of a fountain of youth while “Wasted Hours” is veiled in a Doo-Wop toe-tapping shuffle that almost recalls simpler times of post-World War II suburbia, at the threshold of the baby-boomer generation while Butler croons the lines, “Some cities make you lose your head/ Endless suburbs stretched out thin and dead”. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is a beautiful paean sung wonderfully by Butler’s wife Régine Chassagne which attempts achieving transcendence with its wings built from lush synths as Chassagne sings with her siren wail “Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small/ That we can never get away from the sprawl/ living in the sprawl/ Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains/ And there’s no end in sight/ I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights”. Just as it seems the Phoenix is about to finally take flight, it slowly falls back to its earthly origins in the title track’s outro reprise. Augmented by dreamscape strings Butler seemingly awakes from his clouded conscience and laments in crushing simplicity, “If I could have it back/ All the time that we wasted/ I’d only waste it again” before finally fading beneath the swell of the mighty sprawl. As impossible as it sounds, The Suburbs is Arcade Fire’s greatest achievement yet.
Key Tracks: The Suburbs, Ready to Start, City With No Children, Half Light II (No Celebration), Suburban War, Month of May, Wasted Hours, We Used to Wait, Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
1. Mumford & Sons- Sigh No More
They were not only the rookies of the year with their debut of Sigh No More (The album was technically released in 2009 in the U.K. but not till February 2010 here in the States) but it was a year for the lonely anthem and no one did it better than Mumford & Sons. Mumford & Sons comes through the door fists and hearts first sounding as if the Fleet Foxes, Arcade Fire and The Waterboys walked down the street and found a tavern to sink their teeth into and conjured songs of sorrow, endurance and redemption in a manner that can only be described as epic-folk. The opening title track begins in a hymnal four-part harmony “Serve God, love me and mend” lifted from Shakespeare suggesting this will be a rather somber affair until the quartet erupts into an exhilarating boot-stomping surge with a raucous bass drum that sets the template for much of the record. “The Cave” is a jubilant, rebellious tale that thunders into “Winter Winds” that opens with killer alliteration, “As the Winter winds litter London with lonely hearts”. The guys march out of the mighty swell of a storm at sea for some cold landlocked blues before the warm embrace of singer Marcus Mumford as he croons, “But if your strife strikes at your sleep/ Remember Spring swaps snow for leaves/ You’ll be happy and wholesome again/ When city clears and sun ascends”. “Roll Away Your Stone” is another pint-sloshing anthem that sounds as if the band is sailing a mighty ship to the end of the world before going over edge in a white knuckle ride of sheer ebullience. “Little Lion Man” became a huge hit for the band putting them on the map and could turn even places like the Newport Folk Festival into a dance party. “Awake My Soul” is stirring with cup runneth over inspiration before “Dust Bowl Dance” brings in the swift gavel and hand of God to sweep all antagonists from the land. Songs like “Timshel” and “After the Storm” calm the intensity of the storm brewing inside Sigh No More with the former sounding like an aforementioned Fleet Foxes mountain-pass pastoral and “After the Storm” closes in reverent beauty that shows that the band is as sincere as ever playing it close to the chest. Sigh No More evokes almost every kind of intense emotion. As if you’re attempting to read a Victorian romance novel then fixating on the scotch you’ve been steadily swirling and drinking in your other hand pouring and combing over the trials and tribulations of your day, before finally letting all inhibitions go in a state of pure ecstasy. Mumford & Sons have found a fault-line brimming with promise between gracious folk and adrenaline-rushing pulse-accelerating rock and roll. Sigh No More is one of the greatest debuts of all-time and these English lads seem too poised, too genuine and too polite for a sophomore slump.
Key Tracks: Sigh No More, The Cave, Winter Winds, Roll Away Your Stone, Little Lion Man, Timshel, Awake My Soul, Dust Bowl Dance, After the Storm