(*Spoken as Jimmy Fallon doing wacky FM DJ*) And we’re back! Actually, we were planning on being back a few weeks ago, but Andrew McMahon, lead singer and songwriter of Jack’s Mannequin, is a tough guy to pin down. Turn your back on him for a second, and he’s peeled off in his tour bus to do another four months of dates. We caught his final show with Guster last month, and it was a blast, especially when the two teamed up for a cover of Peter Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks.”
The Mannequin’s third album, People and Things, was released last week, and when McMahon finally decided to sit down and rest for a second, we were quick to strike: Tell us the 10 songs rocking your world at the moment, or your piano bites it. Surprisingly, there is little piano to be found here, but there are lots of happy techno beats. Rave on, rave on.
“Safe and Sound,” Capital Cities
A great tune in the indie/techno vein.
“Our Hearts Are Wrong,” Jessica Lea Mayfield
“The only time I miss you is every single day.” That says it all.
I don’t even know why I’m here, frankly. I think it’s pretty well documented that all I do these days is write about television and interview people ’til the cows come home. Once upon a time, though, I used to be a music critic, dammit…and once you’ve had opinions about music, you’ll always have opinions about music. As such, here are my thoughts on the albums and songs that grabbed me this year. This may be the first time I’ve actually written about most of them, but you can damn well be sure that I’ve spent plenty of time listening to them.
1. Tom Jones: Praise & Blame
Itâ€™s a pretty consistent tradition that my #1 slot on my Best Albums list of any given year belongs to an artist whose career Iâ€™ve followed for quite some time, but Sir Tom earned his spot fair and square. Kicking things off with a stark cover of Bob Dylanâ€™s â€śWhat Good Am I?â€ť which will leave listeners spellbound, the Welsh wonder goes gospel with this record, and while itâ€™s admittedly not the sort of career move that generally results in the shifting of mass units, itâ€™s a creative success, one which befits a man entering his seventies far more than, say, another retread of â€śSexbomb.â€ť Having already secured legendary status (not to mention a knighthood), our man Tom can afford to step outside of peopleâ€™s perceptions, and for those whoâ€™ve been paying attention, thatâ€™s what heâ€™s been doing for the past several albums, including 2008â€™s 24 Hours and his 2004 collaboration with Jools Holland. But while Praise & Blame is a continuation of an existing trend, itâ€™s also arguably the first time Jones has made absolutely no commercial concessions. Thereâ€™s no wink-and-a-nudge cover of â€ś200 Lbs. of Heavenly joy.â€ť Thereâ€™s no song by Bono and the Edge nor uber-hip production from Future Cut. Thereâ€™s just Tom Jones, age 70â€¦and, by God, heâ€™s still got it.
2. Glen Matlock & The Philistines: Born Running
It isn’t as though it’s surprising that John Lydon’s the member of the Sex Pistols who’s gone on to have the most successful solo career – he was, after all, the frontman for the group – but it continues to be equally eyebrow-raising that so few of the band’s fans have kept their ears open for the consistently solid material emerging from Glen Matlock‘s camp. It’s not quite as punk as the Pistols – which makes perfect sense if you believe the story about Matlock supposedly getting the boot from the band for liking the Beatles a bit too much – but the songs on Born Running still pack a fierce wallop.
3. Brian Wilson: Reimagines Gershwin
The older I get, the less I allow myself to feel guilty about enjoying an album that I could easily peddle to people my grandparents’ age. All things considered, I’d much rather have a full collection of new originals from Mr. Wilson, but the way he takes these Gershwin classics and arranges them to match his traditional sound is still music to my ears. Then, of course, there’s the added bonus that he’s taken on the task of completing a couple of previously-unfinished Gershwin songs. Unsurprisingly, they sound just like Brian Wilson compositions…not that there’s anything wrong with that. At all.
4. Farrah: Farrah
There’s Britpop, and then there’s power pop, but you don’t tend to find bands who can manage to comfortably keep a foot in both camp; I’d argue that Farrah succeeds at this task, but given that they don’t have a particularly high profile in either, I suppose it really all depends on how you define success. For my part, though, if an artist releases an album which contains a significant number of catchy-as-hell hooks, it’s top of the pops in my book, which means that this self-titled entry into their discography is yet another winner for Farrah.
Having children has had a profound impact on my musical tastes. Will it make them cry? Will it teach them naughty words? Will it bore them? Then it doesn’t get played around the house, which has resulted in my sharp turn towards the poppier side of modern. And really, once you’ve seen your three-year-old completely lose his shit when hearing a song with a chorus of “Na, na na na, na na na, na na na na na na na,” it’s hard to push anything on him that doesn’t come armed to the teeth with the pop hooks. Mind you, I think the Ramones are a pop band too, so I’m painting with a pretty broad brush here. But make no mistake – these bands are pop bands, of varying stripes and shapes. If you fancy yourself a hipster, you’d be best to move on and check out one of the other writers’ lists. I gave up being hip a couple years ago, and let me tell you: it’s extremely liberating.
Note: Some of the notes at the end of the write-ups will offer suggestions of which songs to check out. Others actually offer the songs. If you see “Click here for a free download…”, those songs are on our server, meaning you won’t be dragged off to some site that asks you to give up your email address for a song. These puppies all come with no strings attached, so please download away.
Top 10 Albums of 2010
1. Mark Ronson: Record Collection
Ahhhhhh. If I get to heaven, this is what the radio station will sound like. Tasteful drum beats paired with even tastier synth tracks, highlighted by brilliantly chosen guest contributors from Q-Tip and D’Angelo to Simon Le Bon and a devastating performance by Boy George. Definitely gonna ride this bike until we get home. Download these: “The Bike Song,” “Somebody to Love Me,” “Record Collection”
3. Prefab Sprout: Letâ€™s Change the World with Music
Man, what a sweet surprise this was. Originally scheduled to be the follow-up album to 1990′s Jordan: The Comeback, the album was scrapped despite Prefab leader Paddy McAloon already finishing studio-quality demo versions of every song. Eighteen years later, the songs finally see the light of day, and the result is instant nostalgia. He supposedly has dozens more albums on his shelves from the same period. Please don’t make us wait 18 years for the next one, Paddy. Download these: “Let There Be Music,” “Ride,” “God Watch Over You”
4. The Hours: Itâ€™s Not How You Start, Itâ€™s How You Finish
This one is knocked down a few rungs on a technicality, in that it’s a Franken-album consisting of the best songs from the band’s two UK-only releases. But hot damn, are those songs good. Shimmering, sky-high, piano-driven pop that addresses the darkness in people’s lives but strives for hope and change. No wonder Nike used one of these songs for their unforgettable “Human Chain” ad earlier this year. Favorite lyric: “I can understand how someone can go over to the dark side, ’cause the Devil, he’s got all the tunes.” Download these: “See the Light,” “Big Black Hole,” “Come On”
5. The Silver Seas: Chateau Revenge
I’m still pissed about this one. I got a sneak peek of the record months before its release because our publicist is tight with the band. We played the daylights out of it, and couldn’t wait to sing its praises when it came out in April…only April never happened. Then it was July, and when it came out, the damn thing was buried. Why, why, why? Not enough irony or cynicism? I see no reason why the Shins can sell millions while the Silver Seas still toil in obscurity. The phrase ‘criminally underrated’ was written about bands like this. Click here for a free download of the Silver Seas’ “The Best Things in Life”
The days of getting lost in an album have passed me by. This year, I really tried to rekindle that lost listening art of playing entire albums â€“ instead of compiling playlists in iTunes. It hasnâ€™t been easy. I think the ease of digitally downloading albums has dried up the sense of anticipation that used to come with a purchase of a physical copy of an album at a record store. Now, the record store is just part of the millions and billions of distractions that await you on the Internet â€“ much of it for free.
Now, I donâ€™t mean to go on a diatribe against the devaluation of music because of the Internet, but one thing that has occurred because of the sheer plethora of music available with one click of your mouse is a kind of ADD when it comes to listening to music. My colleague both here and at Popdose (that would be Jeff Giles) has written about it more eloquently than I can, but the sentiment is very much the same: because of the volume of music that is available in downloadable form, itâ€™s difficult for me to form a deep connection with an entire album. If we could flash back 20 years, it would have been a different story to feature 10 albums. Nowadays, itâ€™s rare that an entire album can hold my attention.
But, never say never, right?
What you will find here are mostly my favorite songs of 2010, but occasionally youâ€™ll find entire albums. I know, after all that â€śdownloadable music is ruining my attention spanâ€ť crap, I say that there were some albums that really captured my attention. But like I said, Iâ€™ve tried to rekindle the art of listening to entire albums, and while I feel Iâ€™m losing that battle, I havenâ€™t entirely lost the war. So, here we go with my top 10 of 2010!
10. Paper or Plastic, â€śThe Honest Manâ€ť
Every now and then a link arrives in my inbox that lives up to the hype. Case in point is the New York group, Paper or Plastic, who has a kind of Ben Folds thing going on with â€śThe Honest Man.â€ť The song is an example of some very lovely power pop, and youâ€™ll find yourself humming the chorus after a few listens. The band is giving away their EP Ron Save the King on their website. Get it, if only for â€śThe Honest Man.â€ť
9. Somebodyâ€™s Darling, â€śLonelyâ€ť In my review of this album, I was upfront about my allergy to country music â€“ even if itâ€™s alt-country. But Somebodyâ€™s Darling has enough rock-n-roll in them to make the musical waters safe for a guy with my particular affliction. â€śLonelyâ€ť is by far my favorite track on the album, and itâ€™s not difficult to hear why. The song is just one big fireball of energy with a great driving beat and some wailing guitars. But itâ€™s the full-throated vocals from Amber Ferris that takes this song from good to great.
In my mind, 2010 will be remembered more for moments of strangeness, oddity, and lessened expectation, than it will be for transcendent music. The throwaway nature of pop has never been more transient or incidental; technology enables us to hear as much as we want and, by the sheer volume of those possibilities, to actively listen as little as we ever have. How else to explain Ke$ha and the Glee cast recordings, much less the continuing nonsense of Black Eyed Peas? Raise your hand if you think Bruno Mars or Rihanna are still going to be churning out hits ten years from now, or that Katy Perry (more about her below) will still be squeezing into latex after she and her pasty Brit hubby have two or three little Russells to contend with, and things start saggin’.
I will remember 2010 for several key moments:
Top 10 Music Moments of 2010
1. The Roots, Being the Roots. Are they the best band on the planet? It’s hard to argue when their versatility is put on display every weeknight, and when they reiterate their overall excellence by turning out two of the best records of the year (How I Got Over and Wake Up, with John Legend).
2. Dio, Chilton Die. We lost metal’s gentle sorcerer (Ronnie James Dio) and Big Star’s genius-in-residence (Alex Chilton) within a few months of one another. May they both rock in peace.
Apparently Don Miggs has been making music and touring for several years, but as the bio for Miggsâ€™ eponymous trio proclaims, they may be one of the â€śbest bands youâ€™ve never heard of.â€ťÂ Thatâ€™s a blessing and a curse, yet in todayâ€™s indie music scene, maybe more of a blessing if you can be heard.Â Indie rock/pop label Rock Ridge was impressed enough with Miggsâ€™ accessible, hard-edged alternative pop.Â Miggsâ€™ latest, Wide Awake, is 12 songs that ride as a roller coaster might – from addictive anthems like â€śLet the Games Beginâ€ť and the title track to Butch Walker-esque ditties like â€śFireâ€ť and â€śSincerity,â€ť to balls-out rockers such as â€śEnemy,” with a positively stunning keyboard-driven ballad, â€śCrawl Inside,â€ť to close out the set.Â Miggs the vocalist sounds at various times like Jon Bon Jovi, Walker and Canadian rocker Matthew Good, and those are all guys with pipes.Â Add in the production expertise of Ken Lewis (Fall Out Boy, Kanye West) and the rough edges of the band are captured on this release, yet effectively smoothed out as well.Â Intrigued?Â You should be, because this is easily one of the best albums of 2010 that youâ€¦.wait for itâ€¦..have not heard yet.Â So do yourself a favor and go hear these guys.Â (Rock Ridge 2010)
My Chemical Romance have balls of steel. They shed their pissed-off jilted lover skin in favor of a full-blown rock opera (2006′s The Black Parade), even though they could have made millions mining teen angst for the next ten years. Then, perhaps to diffuse any overblown build-up over their new album, they release a breakneck rave-up as the first single, and gave it the ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ title of “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na).” It’s a genius move, really – sneak in the back door, despite being one of the biggest bands on the planet. It makes them look like they’re still hungry, and God knows the pop world (and the world in general) could use a little humility.
The problem is, it may have worked a little too well. With Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys just now hitting shelves and e-servers, “Na Na Na” has already peaked at a slightly disappointing #10, and the label has moved on to the second single. Flash back to 2006, when “The Black Parade” dominated radio for months. You have to think that the label is a little nervous at this point, though they shouldn’t be: Danger Days is a powerhouse of an album, positively stuffed with potential singles and shows the band once again exploring new territory, both sonically (keyboards!) and musically.
The band has cooked up another gonzo concept for the album – a group of desert renegades fighting a massive company in 2019, accordingly to Wikipedia – but it doesn’t weigh down the individual songs. “Sing” is a reach-for-the-rafters singalong, while “S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W” out-Oasis’ Oasis. “Party Poison” is another power pop-ish rocker, and “Summertime” is downright tender, if bleak. The band’s reach had been a bit farther than its grasp in the past, but the songwriting steps up in a big way here.
It would have been easy for My Chemical Romance to shy away from the epic scale of The Black Parade and opt for a minimalist approach to the follow-up, so it is to their credit that they not only went for it on Danger Days, but pulled it off. For all the bashing that the major labels take these days, it’s nice to see one of them take off the reins and let their horses run free. (Reprise 2010)
When was the last time you heard a really good power pop record? When the last time recorded music compulsively dictated your feet to tap from the beginning of track one to the end of the last song? When was the last time you heard a disk that sounded fun, nearly flawless and still had enough of a left hook to knock you out? Boys and girls, that record has arrived and it is the brainchild of two music vets who absolutely and unapologetically have made a tremendous pop record.
Zack Smith is the founder of Scandal, which launched several tracks into the collective consciousness of the ’80s, including â€śGoodbye to You,â€ť â€śLoveâ€™s Got a Line on Youâ€ť and â€śThe Warrior.â€ť Cathy Richardson has released five studio discs, including the masterpieces Road To Bliss (2003), Delusions of Grandeur (2006) and Jeffersonâ€™s Tree of Liberty (2008) as part of Jefferson Starship. The collaboration here is nothing short of magically delicious (well, it may not be Lucky Charms but it is one hell of a record). Vocally, Richardson has always shifted in and out of styles gracefully with tremendous command and presence. The Other Side features her staying in the power pop realm from beginning to end. This is demanding material and she is up for the challenge. This statement is one that is difficult to make considering her tremendous reputation, but it needs to be said; this is her best vocal performance to date.
â€śBeautiful Girlâ€ť mixes two parts Beach Boys with two parts late-period Beatles with just a splash of Tears for Fears to create a powerful ambiance and a brilliant canvass for Richardson to blast out the dreamy lyrics. Much like the rest of the record, Smith and Richardson create arrangements that are devoured by the ear. â€śEverythingâ€ť begins with a dreamy effects laced introduction before building into an arena-sized chorus and features some very clever guitar work. It is such a perfectly crafted song that it begs to be placed on permanent repeat status. The power ballad â€śIf I Couldâ€ť caresses your heart and kicks you in the gut at the same time. Studio vets Michael Lockwood and Jude Gold, along with Smith and Richardson, create enough guitar crunch to give the record the kick that provide the perfect complement to Richardsonâ€™s monstrous vocal talent. I am hoping that this is not a onetime project. This is a record that begs for a sequel. (Cash Rich 2010)
For a man as talented as Bleu (William James McAuley III to his mother) is, his solo albums were downright exasperating to listen to. For every sky-high pop classic like “Get Up” or “We’ll Do It All Again,” there were three songs that sounded like they were written to be a hit at that very moment, all post-nu metal ballad-y bluster (think Staind’s “It’s Been Awhile”) and no soul. His label refused to even release his second major album A Watched Pot, and once it finally dropped last year, we could see why – the damn thing was stuffed to the gills with more of those silly ballads. Between the songs mentioned above and Bleu’s efforts as ringleader of Alpacas Orgling, the Jeff Lynne tribute album from one-off indie pop supergroup L.E.O., it’s clear Bleu knows how to turn things up a notch. So why hasn’t he?
Amazing what a little creative freedom and a bunch of Kickstarter cash will do (dude raised over $30K in fan contributions), because Four, Bleu’s latest album and the first to be released on his own label, is decidedly more upbeat than its predecessors. Nothing here matches the dizzy heights of “Get Up” or “We’ll Do It All Again,” but it’s the most consistent and versatile album he’s released to date.
Four also has its share of ballads, but they feel less forced than the ones that clogged his previous two albums. He still can’t help his profane ways, though, taking a lovely Smokey Robinson-ish groove and calling it “When the Shit Hits the Fan.” (Note to aspiring songwriters everywhere: do not ever sing about whether or not someone’s shit does or doesn’t stink. Ever.) “How Blue,” however, could pass for a lost L.E.O. B-side, and “Everything Is Fine” is absulutely gorgeous, a pastoral acoustic ballad filled with strings and what has to be Roger Joseph Manning Jr. on backing vocals (our review copy was a download, therefore no liner notes).
The two songs from Four that will remain standards in Bleu’s live set for time immemorial are “Dead in the Mornin’,” a gospel rave-up where he bequeaths his possessions, and “B.O.S.T.O.N.,” a love song to his adopted home town. The best thing to be said about the album, though, is the absence of that trendy crunch that weighed down Redhead and A Watched Pot – that sound never fit his songs. The production on Four may not be as slick, but it’s more honest. It’s unclear if the solo career is still Bleu’s #1 priority or just something to play with in his downtime – and who would blame him if it weren’t, after penning songs with Hanson, the Jonas Brothers, and Selena Gomez – but better to see Four arrive two albums late than not at all. (The Major Label 2010)
The Posies deliver their first album since 2005 here, and it’s a mixed bag. There’s a handful of songs that rival the Seattle-rooted band’s best work on Frosting on the Beater, their 1993 alternative-era classic. Big melodic hooks, vintage gear, soaring vocals with depth, rich harmonies; these are great to hear in 2010. But there are other songs where it sounds like band leaders Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow couldn’t agree on which direction to go, and fused competing ideas together in odd ways that don’t quite gel. Either that or some of their mutual ideas were just weird. There’s an admirable effort at musical sophistication, but their best tunes tend to be the ones that keep it simple because these guys write really great hooks.
The first three songs all feature guest vocalists, but in subtle fashion. â€śPlastic Paperbacksâ€ť uses some low-end vocals from punk legend Hugh Cornwall of the Stranglers. It’s more of an embellishment than a major factor in the mid-tempo track, based around a melodic piano part and some atmospheric guitar. It feels like a bit of a misfire. But â€śThe Glitter Prize,â€ť featuring Kay Hanley from Letters to Cleo, is a tune with the classic Posies sound. It’s upbeat with layered guitars, a groovy bass line and infectious vocals. It’s too bad that Hanley is buried so deep in the mix, because this power pop gem is the best song on the album. Lisa Lobsinger from Broken Social Scene is a guest on the Beatlesque â€śLicenses to Hide,â€ť but the tune sounds like Lennon and McCartney had an argument while writing the song and neither would budge (the Lennon-esque parts are better).
â€śSo Carolineâ€ť gets back to the melodic rocking that the Posies do so well. â€śTake Care of Yourselfâ€ť is another good one in a similar vein, but goes in a bluesier direction. â€śCleopatra Streetâ€ť mixes in some heavier guitar sounds and has some interesting psychedelia, but feels disjointed. â€śFor the Ashesâ€ť brings in some Sgt. Pepper psychedelic vocal effects, but doesn’t really soar. â€śAccidental Architectureâ€ť is all over the place. It probably felt very creative in the studio, but it won’t likely last long in the band’s live repertoire.
â€śShe’s Coming Down Againâ€ť has the band’s upbeat sound, but with some darker lyrics about a girl’s apparent drug problem. â€śNotion 99â€ť is a dynamic tune with big drums and various sonic counterpoints, but seems like it would benefit from some thicker guitars. â€śHoliday Hoursâ€ť never really gets going, but â€śEnewtakâ€ť closes the album with some majestic rock momentum. It’s too bad the album couldn’t have been a little more consistent, but you can’t really fault the band for seeking to experiment instead of just re-hashing a tried and true formula. It’s a fine line, but the bottom line is that it’s still great to hear Auer and Stringfellow working together again. (Rykodisc 2010)