Musically speaking, it was a good year for old guys. It was the year of re. As in resurgent. Reinvigorated. Renewed.
Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, Robert Plant (Band of Joy), Jimmie Vaughan, Los Lobos, Ron Wood, Neil Young and the late Solomon Burke all released their strongest work in years in 2010.
Which followed on the heels of last year’s compelling live album from Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood and 2008’s Robin Trower collaboration with Jack Bruce.
I’m tempted to say an impending sense of mortality has these guys digging down deep. That the realization that life isn’t an endless stream of twenty-something days has brought their priorities—like the face of death itself—into sharp focus.
On the other hand, it could be mere coincidence.
Of course, the young-uns were active, too. Best Coast, Plants and Animals, Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice (Jenny and Johnny), the New Pornographers and Robyn all released albums that require the warning Caution: May become habit-forming.
Lest you feel an eyeroll coming on at having to slog through yet-another year-end review, know that mine is the only one which doesn’t list Kanye West at number one or mention Nicki Minaj, pop-hop’s hook girl of the year.
Oh wait—I just did. Shit. So much for originality.
Several highly-anticipated disappointments (you know who you are) nonwithstanding, here are my ten favorite CDs of 2010.
1. Robyn Body Talk
I’m tempted to say this is the guiltiest pleasure I’ve ever installed at number one. But that would be damning Robyn’s tough, brainy dance pop with faint praise.
The irresistible beats lure you to the dance floor while Klas Ahlund’s brilliant production colors Body Talk with bits of electronica, hip-hop and sound effects that elevate the hook-laden songs into the realm of pop-art.
Translated, that means it’s dance music you can stand to listen to even when you’re not dancing. Besides, when was the last time you heard Snoop Dogg drop a memorable cameo? Sexy, smart and the year’s best.
Check "Fembot" and the single, "Indestructible", which features the hottest, most reckless lyric of 2010. (I’m guessing you won’t need that Snuggie any longer.)
2. Robert Plant Band of Joy
Say what you want about the Led Zep-era posturing of Robert Plant, the dude takes his music very seriously. Instead of settling for a huge paycheck by endlessly recycling Zeppelin, Plant has spent the better part of the last fifteen years exploring the folk and Middle Eastern music that first inspired him.
With the stellar support of Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller, Band of Joy recasts songs by Low, Los Lobos and Richard Thompson into something that sounds like they’re wafting from a high plains jukebox, circa 1952.
Check "House of Cards" and the haunting "Silver Rider".
3. The New Pornographers Together
All this Canadian indie all-star band did was turn out another album filled with tuneful songs, inventive arrangements and sparkling harmonies with the same regularity that Robert DeNiro makes crappy script choices.
Were they anything but Canadian, egomania would have split them long ago. But like the joke says, all you need to do to clear a hundred Canadians from the pool is say please. And thank god for that.
Check "My Shepherd" and the epic album-closer "We End Up Together", which contains the faint trace of Magical Mystery Tour-era Beatles that runs through much of Together.
4. Los Lobos Tin Can Trust
Back in the mid-eighties, I tried to hip everyone I knew to Los Lobos by dragging friends to their rollicking live shows and making listening to …And a Time to Dance and Will the Wolf Survive? mandatory in exchange for the pleasure of my company.
I never figured I’d still be forking over cash for their latest and greatests a quarter-century later.
Tin Can Trust continues the twenty-first century revival begun by Good Morning Aztlan, and as the smoldering "Burn It Down" and the sober title track make clear, the 2000 box set was just a bit premature.
Los Lobos’ seasoned melding of rock, folk, blues and norteno is multi-cultural soul music. Check both of the aforementioned tracks.
5. Ron Wood I Feel Like Playing
Ron Wood solo albums happen like weird planetary alignments every decade or so. And when they do, they’re usually worth noting. Recharged after a bout with alcoholism, Wood brings his well-worn Dylanesque croak to this set of twelve songs that display the same rough-edged sense of groove that propelled his first (and best) effort, 1974’s I’ve Got My Own Album to Do.
Check "100%" and "Tell Me Something", which are the sort of mid-tempo crotch grinders the Stones don’t make enough of anymore.
6. Jenny and Johnny I’m Having Fun Now
This low-key gem, a collaboration between the Rilo Kiley lead singer and her longtime boyfriend Jonathan Rice often finds itself exploring the relationship dynamic with tart (but never bitter) results.
It doesn’t hurt that their voices go together like peaches and cream, or that the album is rife with sublime production touches applied with restraint and intelligence.
But like last season’s surprise playoff team, Jenny and Johnny won’t sneak up on anyone next time around. Which might take some of the fun out of the sequel—assuming there is one. So enjoy this while it lasts.
Check "Switchblade" and "Big Wave".
7. John Mellencamp No Better Than This
Like the former Led Zeppelin frontman, the former Johnny Cougar knows a bit about aging gracefully. Substituting intimacy for arena-sized bluster, Mellencamp proves a whisper is just as powerful as a scream. And that multi-tracking and overdubbing don’t necessarily give an album depth.
It’s stark, spare beauty is recorded in monaural, giving No Better Than This an emotional heft that falls somewhere between a nineteen-fifties Elvis Presley EP and Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads LP.
Do yourself a favor and check the title track and "Save Some Time to Dream".
8. Plants and Animals La La Land
Montreal’s other band, Plants and Animals describe their music as post-classic rock. Imagining a less-bombastic Muse is probably a good place to begin.
As a result, La La Land is a bit like seeing an old girlfriend with a new haircut—the same, but different. Their melodic, textural pleasures are a treat, and mark Plants and Animals as a band to watch.
Check "American Idol" and "Game Shows".
9. Neil Young Le Noise
I’d love to see the look on people’s faces the first time they hear Le Noise. Yes, it's a Neil Young solo album. But no, the guitar that accompanies him isn’t a softly-strummed acoustic.
The combination of voice and electric guitar may seem off-putting, but it provides stark relief. The quiver in Young’s voice has never sounded more ghostly.
You’ll be so absorbed by Le Noise you won’t even care that "Sign of Love" nicks the riff from 1975's "Drive Back". Or that it’s technically not a solo album. (Producer Daniel Lanois added some post-production electronics.)
Check "Angry World" and "Love and War".
10. Best Coast Crazy for You
This L.A. trio isn’t doing anything revolutionary here; just executing classic forms like girl group pop and surf to sunny, lo-fi perfection. But it’s enough of a wrinkle that Crazy for You frequently finds its way into my CD player.
Check the title track and "Honey".
Solomon Burke Nothing’s Impossible
If there’s a silver lining in the cloud of Mr. Burke’s passing, it’s that he ended on the upswing of the good-album-bad-album cycle that marked his twenty-first century resurgence.
Tom Petty Mojo
I haven’t liked a Tom Petty album this much since the eighties, which is totally like all you need to know about Mojo.