Several of my favorites this year were great examples of dramatic, almost theatrical narratives that made me feel that the most striking pieces functioned as concept albums, even without overtly claiming to be so. Whether it be through alter egos, operatic storytelling, or just classic, clean songwriting, I seemed to gravitate most to albums that were moody and nostalgic in feel, yet with a slightly veiled bite to them. Maybe this is no different than any other year, but 2010 was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster out there, and not everybody was so happy to be along for the ride—myself included. The following picks made me feel among kindred spirits, equally looking askance at our current social landscape, from both near and far.
Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me: With her third album, Newsom has finally crystallized her signature woodland sprite sound into a mature co-mingling of musical virtuosity and poetic songwriting. Have One On Me will transport you to another time via Newsom’s ever complex orchestrations, channeling the best of the American West’s distant frontier vibe. If ever there was a performer so truly of a place, with its history flowing in and out of her as easy as breathing, Newsom is that musician. With every track, Newsom’s deep love for her rustic California roots shines through, and pulls the listener along to a place off the beaten track, yet more visible on the horizon with each listening.
David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, Here Lies Love: Who else but David Byrne could come up with the idea of a club album about Imelda Marcos, and pull it off? Here Lies Love is sheer, campy brilliance, combining great dance tracks by Fatboy Slim and Byrne’s creation of lyrical internal monologues of Marcos and her nanny Estrella Cumpos. The 70′s and 80′s club pop sound is meant to evoke the era of Marcos’ time in the political spotlight, and most tracks are sung by a wide spectrum of powerhouse female vocalists, past and present: Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine, Tori Amos, Sia, Santogold, Cyndi Lauper, and Sharon Jones, among others, plus the great Steve Earle. The album is head-boppingly addictive, and Byrne’s curiosity to musically interpret the personal story of a powerful public figure, is typically insightful and more than timely.
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, I Learned the Hard Way: This woman could be singing a takeout menu and it would sound like the ultimate soul ballad of female empowerment. Sure, this year saw so many retro acts that retro became a cliché of a cliché, but Sharon Jones is the real deal, and it makes me feel so inspired to think of her out there, belting it out for all the great forgotten soul singers and musicians who were forced to fade away. Jones, luckily, refuses to go quietly, and we’re all better off for it. I Learned the Hard Way delivers more of Jones’ gorgeous, powerful voice, and equally tight musical backing from the Dap Kings. Perhaps with a bit less of the fire and something to prove than their previous albums, I Learned the Hard Way still came at me with a confident sense of self, which is none too shabby in this age of young neo-soul upstarts.
Wilco, (The Album): As always, Jeff Tweedy and Wilco combine some of the most talented songwriting and rock musicianship out there. With each album it feels like Wilco manages to dig deeper into themselves and their musical chops to come up with a sound that defies easy classification. I’m a die-hard fan, and certainly willing to admit that this is far from their best album in recent years, but I was still unable to shake tracks like “You Never Know” or the touching duet “You and I,” pairing Tweedy and Feist, from my head. I haven’t yet had the chance to check out Tweedy’s songwriting and production side project with Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone, but I plan to spend some time with it in the new year.
Menomena, Mines: Menomena were my happy indie discovery this year. I love that these guys are such talented musicians that they regularly swap instruments and members on lead vocals. With highly complex lyrics and dense instrumentation, Menomena represent the best of a new breed of indie bands steeped in digital composition and a detached form of collaboration in tune with our social networking age. Their sound on fourth album Mines made me miss the Pacific Northwest with every listen, and earned my respect for their fantastically biting and whimsical narratives.
DOOM, Born Like This: Some reviewers and fans have complained that Born Like This doesn’t deliver enough innovation from DOOM after a long recording absence from the game. But they’re clearly just jealous, because DOOM is still the master mouthpiece of the twisted cartoon allegory that is our reality. Born Like This still brings the absurdist lyrical flow of his Adult Swim inspired super villain stylings on this album like no other, warping pop culture references and random ephemera into rhymes like mind-bending tongue-twisters. It was a welcome addition to my year’s sense of got-my-back-up defense reflex and made me wish I had more opportunities to pump it from some big-ass speakers, preferably of the automobile variety–but like that ghetto junker you got stuck with in high school.
Sparklehorse, Dark Night of the Soul: This album enjoyed the heaviest rotation in my playlist for the year. Steeped in deeply brooding lyrics, David Lynch’s surreal photographic vision, and the untimely deaths of Mark Linkous and Vic Chesnutt, Dark Night of the Soul touched that deep, inner place of cynicism and frustration that regularly leaves me with mouth agape in a silent scream. The album is primarily a collaboration between Linkous and Danger Mouse, who then brought a stellar group of guest singer-songwriters onto the project to push the collaborative spirit one degree further. Due to licensing disputes with EMI the record was released a year behind schedule, but still felt like it arrived right on time. Linkous’ vibe is palpable in each track, while each guest infuses their contribution with their own signature blend of melancholy. Aside from Chesnutt, other guests include Suzane Vega, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, Iggy Pop, Nina Persson of the Cardigans and A Camp, Black Francis, Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle, and David Lynch himself. It’s a full roster of the best in moody heartbreak and confusion coupled with Danger Mouse’s consistently experimental, yet individually tailored production touch—a fitting soundtrack to a year of collective struggle and uncertainty.