It’s been another bad year for the recording industry, but another great year for music fans. Rock ‘n’ roll is alive and well, as is the opportunity to see it performed live. Musicians can still make a living, but they have to hit the road and seize modern marketing opportunities. One thing that will never change is the public’s desire to hear great music. Bands that can deliver still have a chance to write their own ticket.
Top 10 lists are of course inherently subjective, and this observer’s faves will always lean toward the guitar-driven rock side of the music spectrum. I was certain that the debut album from the long-awaited Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi Band would be topping my list this year, especially after the slew of terrific new tunes they delivered in two stellar shows at the New Orleans Jazzfest back in April. But the album isn’t coming out until 2011. Here’s my take on the best albums and songs that were released in 2010.
10. The Henry Clay People: Somewhere on the Golden Coast
This is just an old-fashioned, ’90s-style indie-alternative rock ‘n’ roll album that stands out with its energetic yet down-to-earth sound. No Pro Tools trickery going on here, just a band plugging into their amps and turning up the volume. It’s got loud guitars with melodic hooks, rocking piano and zeitgeist lyrics from singer/guitarist Joey Siara that tap into this modern era of Depression and discontent. “Working Part Time” is one of the great anthems of the year, while “End of an Empire” sounds like an alt-rock prophecy.
9. The Sword: Warp Riders
The Austin, Texas hard rockers deliver a blast from the past that is easily the best metal album to come along in some time. It’s like a cross between Metallica, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Thin Lizzy, which equals metal heaven. It’s chock full of great riffs, furious rhythms and tight metal mayhem with a twist of classic rock flavor.
8. Stone Temple Pilots: Stone Temple Pilots
Back together with their first new album in years, STP deliver a rocking platter that recalls their ’90s heyday as alt-rock icons. Guitarist Dean DeLeo is at his best throughout, putting on a clinic of plucking guitar strings and alternative guitar strumming. Scott Weiland conquered his demons (temporarily at least), and sounds great here. The band doesn’t play it safe, either. There’s big rockers like the Zepp-ish “Take a Load Off,” the swaggering “Huckleberry Crumble” and the hard-charging “Hazy Daze.” But the band also stretches out with pop rock gems like “Dare if You Dare,” the uplifting “Cinnamon” and the Bowie-esque “First Kiss on Mars.”
7. Juliana Hatfield: Peace + Love
In a year where peace and love were in short supply, the Gen-X songstress delivered a stripped-down acoustic album that comforts the weary soul. It’s low-fi, but it’s some of Hatfield’s best work, demonstrating what a deep vibe can be conjured from just a girl and her guitar (and a little bit of piano and percussion here and there.) Songs like the title track, “The End of War”, “Why Can’t We Love Each Other” and “Faith in Our Friends” offer a melodic sense of hope for the future that I found myself returning to time and again.
6. The Macrodots: The Other Side
Rock goddess Cathy Richardson has been wowing audiences since 2008 in Jefferson Starship, where she fills in for the legendary Grace Slick in stunning fashion. Now she’s taken that classic rock aura and teamed up with former Scandal guitarist Zack Smith to create a great new band. Richardson has a dynamic range that few can match, evidenced from the powerful opening title track. “Beautiful Girl” shows a softer side, yet in compelling fashion. The metaphysical “I Am” soars, while “Not Too Late” and “Every Time” just flat out rock with great hooks and arrangements. This is a band ready to break out to a large audience if they could just get the exposure.
5. Grace Potter & the Nocturnals: Grace Potter & the Nocturnals
Vermont blues babe Grace Potter has got her band clicking at a higher level here with the addition of bassist Catherine Popper (formerly of Ryan Adams & the Cardinals). There’s a variety of classic rock influences at work, yet the band’s sound ripples with fresh energy. There’s lots of big hooks, hot riffs and a variety of vocal styles from Potter. The songs range from hard rock to pop, blues and even a bit of reggae. The dynamic bass playing from Popper boosts the sound throughout, and especially in the live setting, making her the rock ‘n’ roll acquisition of the year.
4. The Dead Weather: Sea of Cowards
With the nation plunged into the worse economic depression since the 1930s, there were plenty of blues to mine. Few albums provided as cathartic an antidote for venting out those blues than this barnburner from Jack White, Alison Mosshart and company. White sets up Mosshart to be the star, giving the dark angel a perfect setting to belt out those intense blues in compelling fashion. “Hustle and Cuss” has one of the year’s best grooves, while “The Difference Between Us” and “I’m Mad” find Mosshart really cutting loose over the deep, dark riffage. The album’s urgent energy and masterful old-school production value really stand out.
3. Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses: Junky Star
This album finds Bingham moving in bit more of a country-ish direction, following his Oscar win with “The Weary Kind.” But he still delivers some of his best rock ‘n’ roll tunes – he’s just interpersing them with some more atmospheric tunes. It’s hard to think of anyone else who is blending rock, country and blues as seamlessly as Bingham does. He’s got one of the most soulful, comforting voices in rock and everything sounds great here thanks to production from T Bone Burnett. The album has a cinematic sort of flow, and some of the year’s best lyrics with zeitgeist rockers like “Depression” and “Direction of the Wind”, both of which tap deep into the hard times of the foul economy and shameful political climate.
2. Galactic: Ya-Ka-May
The New Orleans funk masters score their best studio album yet by bringing in a wide variety of friends to help them explore their diverse influences. There’s memorable vocal tunes like “Heart of Steel,” “Dark Water” and “You Don’t Know.” There’s deep party grooves like “Boe Money” and “Cineramascope,” where the band emphasizes the horns. There’s raucous bounce rap, atmospheric blues, a little bit of everything. It’s all an intentional mix to emphasize the Crescent City’s many diverse sonic flavors. The common denominator is drummer Stanton Moore, who puts on a groove clinic throughout.
1. School of Seven Bells: Disconnect from Desire
It’s always hard to decide which album is the best of the year, but this one gets the nod due to the utterly unique sonic landscape it explores. There’s no other album that made me feel like I was hearing a new sound. Guitarist/producer Ben Curtis conjures a mystical vibe by blending his creative guitar work with trippy electronic flavors and big beats for a soaring dream pop sound. Twin sisters Ally and Claudia Deheza then add their siren-like vocals for mystical harmonies that often seem to conjure another reality. It’s too bad that Claudia dropped out of the band this fall, but it doesn’t diminish what an achievement this album is.
Herbie Hancock: The Imagine Project
Beats Antique: Blind Threshold
Big Gigantic: A Place Behind the Moon
Earl Greyhound: Suspicious Package
Sheryl Crow: 100 Miles From Memphis
Los Lobos: Tin Can Trust
The New Pornographers: Together
Robert Randolph & the Family Band: We Walk This Road
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: Mojo
7 Walkers: 7 Walkers
Hole: Nobody’s Daughter
Nas & Damian Marley: Distant Relatives
Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings: I Learned the Hard Way
Here We Go Magic: Pigeons
She and Him: Vol.2
Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
LCD Soundsystem: This Is Happening
Sleepy Sun: Fever
Jenny & Johnny: I’m Having Fun Now
Railroad Earth: Railroad Earth
Devo: Something for Everybody
Melissa Auf Der Mauer: Out of Our Minds
Michael Franti & Spearhead: The Sound of Sunshine
10. “The New Fuck You,” Street Sweeper Social Club
This killer tune blends Boots Riley’s hip-hop rebel style with some of Tom Morello’s classic Rage-style riffage for one of the year’s best anthems. In a world that is rapidly sliding down the tubes while most stand around feeling helpless, Street Sweeper Social Club lays it on the line in this instant classic chorus – “Revolution is the new fuck you.” You wanna stick it to the Man? Stop spending your money at McDonalds and Wal-Mart.
9. “Summer Day, Sheryl Crow
This combo of deep soul and a catchy hooks is what great pop songs are all about. Sheryl is at her best here and it’s great to hear her tapping back into her roots.
8. “Collector,” Here We Go Magic
This is a next-level song that has the kind of unique sonic energy that suggests this band is just scratching the surface of what seems to be an immense potential. The blend of minimalist style with surging sonic hooks is one of the year’s most unique tunes.
7. “The Game Gets Old,” Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings
This majestic soul tune about dealing with another broken heart offers instant catharsis to the lovelorn. That makes it an instant classic, especially with way Jones and crew bring the old soul vibe into the modern era with such feeling and craft.
6. “Laredo,” Band of Horses
If the whole album rocked like this infectious melodic gem, Band of Horses would be my favorite new band. Alas, this is far and away the best tune on the album.
5. “Black Elk Speaks,” Railroad Earth
This bluesy ode to the legendary Sioux medicine man is probably the hardest rocking song the band has ever put out, and it’s got an appropriately mystical flavor that makes it one of the year’s best. Deep stuff.
4. “Tiny Light,” Grace Potter & the Nocturnals
The band’s lead single has it all, a classic rock vibe with a mystical twist, some of Grace’s best lyrics and most urgent vocals, plus a smoking jam at the end that proves you can stick a jam into a pop rock song and get away with it.
3. “Babelonia,” School of Seven Bells
This tune is a magical blend of rock, pop and psychedelia. The tight rocking beat and angelic vocals make for a compelling dichotomy.
2. “Shotgun,” Earl Greyhound
Power trio rock at it’s best, this hard-hitting tune has a mesmerizing quality that can transform an audience of casual onlookers into instant converts.
1. “Depression,” Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses
The government is clearly lying about the unemployment rate, but leave it to the rockers to tell the truth about how this so-called Recession is really a Depression. This cathartic, up-beat rocker about transcending that economic Depression taps the current zeitgeist like no other tune did this year.
Tags: Band of Horses, Bullz-Eye Year in Music 2010, Earl Greyhound, Galactic, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Here We Go Magic, Juliana Hatfield, Railroad Earth, Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses, School of Seven Bells, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Sheryl Crow, Stone Temple Pilots, Street Sweeper Social Club, The Dead Weather, the henry clay people, The Macrodots, The Sword