With such a great year for music, choosing my top 10 albums of the year was a challenge. Suffice it to say, this list of my 10 favorites only grazes the surface of what 2010 had to offer, and after determining my final list, even I was a little surprised at the outcome (for example, I thought for sure the Drums would be on there somewhere, not to mention Caribou and the Moondoggies and … well, they didn’t make the list, so I’ll move on). Here’s what did make it on, and why they deserve it:
1. Frontier Ruckus - “Deadmalls and Nightfalls”
I can’t really say it any better than I did in the review on my blog earlier this year: “Matthew Milia's taut vocals tremble and glide through all 12 songs — over guitar, dobro, banjo, trumpet and drums, accompanied at times by a singing saw, harmonium and a creative-but-subtle array of other instruments. The stark imagery in the lyrics perfectly conjures a midwest mood with a romance for youth, nostalgia, dark winters and deserted places.” A staunch supporter of minimalism, I chose this album for the top spot for its brutally poetic lyrics and idyllic folk musicality. The pastoral charm of Frontier Ruckus is evocative and everlasting.
2. Ferraby Lionheart - “The Jack of Hearts”
It may be named after a one-eyed Jack, but this album is no wildcard. The moment I heard Ferraby Lionheart’s 2010 release, I knew I had a solid winner on my hands. Mimicking early rockabilly, as inspired by popular country western music of the 1940s, every song sends you back in time. Lionheart’s suave as Hank Williams and catchy as the brothers Everly on “Jack of Hearts,” a welcome anachronism if ever there were one.
3. The Black Keys - “Brothers”
This duo of guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Pat Carney is inarguably one of the most passionate pairs of musicians I’ve ever seen on a stage. Carney puts his all into pounding the skins and Auerbach, … why, if that man can work the same magic on a woman’s body that he does with an instrument, she might just die from ecstasy. The Black Keys can be predictable, but the truth remains that they are the best at what they do, which is why their albums get such positive response. “Brothers” is a hearty collection of grungy, bluesy, swamp rock from the heavies responsible for some of the most affecting music this decade’s seen.
4. Jeremy Messersmith - “The Reluctant Graveyard”
It’s possible that Jeremy Messersmith creates the most elegant indie folk-pop I’ve ever heard. If you don’t know what I mean, listen to “Love You to Pieces” from 2008’s “The Silver City.” Messersmith got mad props this year for “Tatooine,” a song set to video of construction paper cutouts reenacting the original “Star Wars” trilogy. But his biggest achievement of 2010 is actually “The Reluctant Graveyard,” a sweetly macabre album reminiscent of ‘60s pop such as Simon & Garfunkel and the Beatles. A self-professed nerd, Messersmith would do well as a collaborator for nerd-folk icon Jonathan Coulton, providing the addition of emotional substance to otherwise benign songs about science and supernatural creatures.
5. Jónsi - “Go”
There must be something weird in Iceland’s water, because the music that comes out of that country is so far from typical. I suspect it’s actually some sort of futuristic extraterrestrial society. Take, for example, Jónsi. Formerly the frontman for Sigur Rós, he released his debut solo album this year, full of breathtaking drums, keyboards, percussion, strings and other sound effects, not to mention Jónsi’s penetrating falsetto. The record is an apt demonstration of the many facets music has yet to fully explore.
6. Miniature Tigers - “F O R T R E S S”
So pretty much “Rock N’ Roll Mountain Troll” is my jam of the year. The song excites me to no end, so much that whenever it comes on, no matter when or where, I insist everything stop for it. So much that for the first two months that I owned “F O R T R E S S,” I was practically unaware there were even any other songs ON the album. Thank goodness I realized more exist, because the album’s a little brilliant. Mostly made up of the stompy indie-rock melodies they’re known for, “F O R T R E S S” satisfies the restless hipster kid in us all.
7. Blitzen Trapper - “Destroyer of the Void”
A lot of people, so burnt out on beard folk, don’t think much of Blitzen Trapper. Not because their music isn’t good, but because it’s perceived as something that’s all too prevalent these days. Yes, their name, city of origin and semi-beardness do suggest they’re just another indie-folk ensemble churning out woodsy guitars and some 1970s flair. Well, I’m not going to lie … that is pretty much what they do, but not in the way you‘d expect. Ever since the band released “Furr” in 2008, I’ve taken to calling what they do “disco-folk.” Listen to any Blitzen Trapper song and what you have is a disco rhythm disguised as a dirty backwoods jam. “Destroyer of the Void” perfects this sound and makes it something you’ll want to hear again and again.
8. Archie Powell & the Exports - “Skip Work”
I hope you didn’t think I’d leave my specialest guys off this list. Some might say I’m biased, but Archie Powell & the Exports is a sharply assembled rock quartet with a simple but effective formula of guitar, vocals, bass, keyboards and drums, concocting concise anthems in standard time signatures. Powell knows his way around a hook, and writes lyrics that are witty and relatable. “Skip Work” is completely fun and easy to love, a delightful package of indie power pop to energize your life.
9. Gogol Bordello - “Trans-Continental Hustle”
You never realize how deprived you are of things like accordion and violin until you hear them so boisterously represented by gypsy punk rascals Gogol Bordello. The group, led by mustachioed sometimes-actor Eugene Hütz, delivers an instrumental onslaught of rollicking rock, the likes of which sober people can’t usually feel so intensely. “Trans-Continental Hustle” is the band’s first on a major record label, but their sound remains as unrestrained as ever.
10. The Morning Benders - “Big Echo”
Though “Talking Through Tin Cans” remains my favorite Morning Benders album, “Big Echo” is an appropriate follow-up, an album of cleaner cuts specifically designed to be heard as a whole, start to finish. In the past couple of years, indie-rock has been heavily focused on recreating the Phil Spector “wall of sound” technique, but the Morning Benders essentially spearheaded this movement, allowing their efforts to culminate for album opener “Excuses.” Lead singer Chris Chu lets his deep passion for music permeate every song. Talented and ambitious, Chu is an artist who’s destined for big things. Rest assured he’ll see himself on many “best of” lists to come.