Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Year to Remember: Top 20 Albums of 2010

With the end of 2010 clearly in sight, it's time for me to post my favorite albums of the year. And what a year it has been, with many of my favorite bands and solo acts releasing some of their strongest discs in memory. When preparing my annual list of favorite releases, I always find myself struggling with the rankings. But ultimately, all of the albums of this list are great ones and truly my personal favorites of 2010. I never pretend to say my list includes the "Best" albums of the year; I have not heard everything released this year and any list is subjective at best.

20. Jars of Clay, Jars of Clay Presents The Shelter
Even the most dedicated fans of Jars of Clay were likely surprised by the release of the celebrated Nashville-based band's latest studio effort. With a number of songwriting and vocal guests, there is a true sense of community as Jars of Clay blends its distinctive style with the likes of Mac Powell, Matt Maher and Brandon Heath.

19. Raul Malo, Sinners & Saints
Sinners & Saints blends country, blues, Latin, rock 'n' roll and jazz with Malo's tenor voice, which draws natural comparisons to Roy Orbison's soaring vocals. Highlights include covers of Los Lobos' "Saint Behind the Glass" and Rodney Crowell's "Till I Gain Control Again," as well as Malo's own "Living For Today."

18. Michael & the Lonesome Playboys, Last of the Honky Tonks
Just when a fan of the singer-songwriter thinks they have Michael Ubaldini figured out, he releases yet another collection aimed in another area of the sonic universe. On Last of the Honky Tonks, Ubaldini revisits the territory explored by the likes of Flying Burrito Brothers, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens via 14 original songs including the beautiful "Highway Ghost," Texas blues-anchored "True Love Denial Blues" and rousing "Shambles."

17. Eric Johnson, Up Close
Virtuoso guitarist Eric Johnson returned with his first new studio effort since 2005 with another stunning collection of material showcasing his amazing talents. The disc even boasts guest appearances from Steve Miller, Jonny Lang, Sonny Landreth and Jimmie Vaughan.

16. Third Day, Move
The well-known Christian rockers' 11th full-length album is outstanding, filled with upbeat rockers ("Lift Up Your Face," "Gone") and introspective material ("Children of God," "I'll Be Your Miracle") celebrating the group's faith and Southern rock roots.

15. Los Lobos, Tin Can Trust
From the midtempo roots rock of "I'll Burn It Down" to the infectious Spanish language gem "Yo Canto" and wonderful guitar-anchored Americana instrumental "Do The Murray," Tin Can Trust is another winning effort from the East L.A. rockers.

14. Jimmie Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan Plays Blues, Ballads and Favorites
Jimmie Vaughan hadn't released a new studio album in nearly a decade before the release of Jimmie Vaughan Plays Blues, Ballads and Favorites. From the swing of “The Pleasure’s All Mine” to the Bill Haley-styled “How Can You Be So Mean,” it was great to hear the legendary guitarist remains at the top of his game.

13. Steve Miller, Bingo!
A tribute to harmonica great and long-time Steve Miller Band member Norton Buffalo (who died of cancer in October 2009), as well as to the classic blues genre that has influenced Miller throughout this career, Bingo! was definitely one of the great artistic comebacks of 2010.

12. Asia, Omega
There was a time when blending amazing virtuoso chops, big choruses and the moniker "supergroup" were cause of celebration. For discerning fans of the prog-rock foursome Asia, the good news is the band's 21st century comeback has resulted in another fantastic return-to-form.

11. The Gin Blossoms, No Chocolate Cake
One of the biggest sonic treats of 2010, power-pop proponents the Gin Blossoms displayed their skills aplenty across No Chocolate Cake. With the uptempo "Miss Disarray," reflective "I Don't Want to Lose You Now" and beautiful "Something Real," it was great to hear the band back and sounding better than ever.

10. BigBang, Edendale
My favorite discovery of 2010 was BigBang, a wonderful trio out of Oslo, Norway that mines the territory somewhere between the classic rock of Cream and '70s-era Neil Young & Crazy Horse and modern outfits like Band of Horses and My Morning Jacket. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Øystein Greni delivers the goods on disc and in concert.

9. Elton John & Leon Russell, The Union
At a time when both piano men were widely regarded mostly as heritage acts came The Union. From the undeniable lead-off track "If It Wasn't for Bad" to the gospel-fueled "Hey Ahab," this is an achievement I never saw coming.

8. Bettye LaVette, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook
Decades ago British rockers such as the Who, Rolling Stones, Elton John and the Beatles fused American blues and other styles into some of the greatest rock of all time. Now blues great Bettye LaVette returns the favor in a collection that celebrates the eternal power of rock 'n' roll and the blues.

7. Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song
A rich life is often filled with its share of joy and sadness. Country music hero Jamey Johnson showcased that the fullness of life can be translated into a song cycle courtesy of his stunning concept album The Guitar Song.

6. Neil Young, Le Noise
There is a beauty, grace and pioneering spirit to so much of Neil Young's body of work, it's easy to overlook his latest project. Don't. From the introspective and confessional acoustic gem "Love and War" to the aptly-titled "Angry World" where Young's distinctive tenor soars amidst his distorted electric guitar, few artists seem willing - or able - to explore the world with the timeless step of Young.

5. Jackie Greene, Till the Light Comes
Singer-songwriter Jackie Greene's latest collection of songs magically blends folk, blues, rock, neo-psychedelic and pop in ways that challenge and thrill with every listen.

4. Band of Horses, Infinite Arms
Hardly a week has gone by since the May release of the Benjamin Bridwell-led North Carolina outfit's latest disc where I haven't closed my eyes while listening to the alt-country kick of "Laredo," Americana ballad "Older" and the haunting title track.

3. John Mellencamp, No Better Than This
Although the T Bone Burnett-produced sessions were preserved using a single vintage microphone and a 55-year-old AMPEX 601 mono tape recorder, No Better Than This explodes with original Mellencamp songs incorporating country-blues, early folk and tinges of rockabilly and gospel. It isn’t music for the masses, but it is truly music that matters.

2. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Occasionally commercial success and artistic achievement collide. Arcade Fire's third album is intelligent, epic and accessible.

1. Jónsi, go
How did the frontman of Iceland's groundbreaking Sigur Rós establish himself as a solo artist? Release the most astounding and beautiful set of songs I heard this year.

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