Bullz-Eye’s Best of 2010: Staff Writer Scott Malchus’ picks

Each year, when I sort through my favorite songs, I have trouble ranking them because each one has a different meaning to me. I always wind up creating a mixtape (or a playlist, for you younger readers) of those songs and arrange them so that the music flows like a great album or concert set. Without further ado, here’s my mix of the twenty songs I returned to for repeated listens throughout 2010.

“Fade Like a Shadow,” KT Tunstall
Tunstall continues to produce pop gems that are spirited, bright and full of life. This single from her latest, Tiger Suit, has everything you want in a single: a passionate delivery, a great melodic hook, and a unique rhythm that helps it stand out from other songs. A great way to kick off a mix tape.

“I Should Have Known It,” Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
The lead single from Mojo has that vintage Petty snarl and bite. The rest of the album may be a mixed bag, but this great rocker builds to kick-ass guitar jam and stands up with some of their best.


Read the rest after the jump...

Elton John & Leon Russell: The Union


RIYL: Leon Russell, classic Elton John, aging gracefully


For the majority of the ’70s, Elton John was positively unstoppable – and for much of the ’80s, he was so creatively bankrupt that by the time he returned to limited form with 1987’s Reg Strikes Back, it was such a welcome surprise that he’s been handed a pass for most of the lukewarm adult contemporary pop he’s released in the intervening two decades and change. Compared to Leather Jackets and Ice on Fire, late-period Elton like Songs from the West Coast and Peachtree Road is a step up, but those albums still lack the heat and creative energy of his best work, and a lot of the positive reviews he’s gotten over the last couple of decades have come through a combination of blessed relief and the standard grade inflation enjoyed by veteran artists who manage not to suck outright.

Leon Russell, meanwhile, has never released anything as half-baked as the junk Elton was peddling at his nadir – but then, Leon never had as far to fall as Elton, and he’s had the luxury of carving out a low-key career for himself as an indie artist in between tours and session cameos. If people know Russell’s name at all, it’s usually because of his early ’70s work; his more recent releases might be second- or third-tier stuff, but they had fewer people to disappoint. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the prospect of Elton and Leon teaming up for The Union, while intriguing, had the look and feel of a classic rock setup – the kind of project with a strong concept, and executed by performers with undeniable talent, but bound to underwhelm because the artists can’t, or won’t, light their creative spark.

So here’s a happy surprise for anyone who’s suffered through Elton’s post-’70s work and wondered when he’d shift back out of second gear, or been frustrated that Russell hasn’t found more suitable showcases for his talent: The Union is not only the best thing either of them have done in years, it’s a vibrant, rootsy template for how many of their peers (coughBillyJoelandRodStewartcough) can get their mojo back.

What’s the difference? It’s true that some of the songs have more bite, including the rave-ups “Monkey Suit” and “A Dream Come True,” as well as the winking first single “If It Wasn’t for Bad,” but there’s also plenty of room for sleepy ballads like “The Best Part of the Day.” What really sets it apart is T Bone Burnett’s production, which strips back the synthetic varnish that both artists have leaned on too often and exposes the knots and whorls in their finely aged voices – and, more importantly, captures some of the best-sounding piano tracks either of them have laid down in the last 30 years. It’s obvious that a lot of money went into The Union – Booker T. Jones, Jim Keltner, Brian Wilson, Neil Young, and Robert Randolph are some of the guests – but it all went into capturing pure performances, rather than dressing them up. This is a loose, vibrant record, and while it isn’t entirely free of the schmaltz that’s plagued Elton’s later albums in particular, it’s obvious that having Russell as a foil (and Burnett’s strong, minimalist hand in the studio) has brought out the best in him. The musical fruition of a friendship struck up 40 years ago, The Union brings Elton John and Leon Russell full circle – and should bring a smile to the face of anyone who’s been holding out hope that both artists would find their way back to what made their music special. (Mercury 2010)

Elton John MySpace page

  

Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses: Junky Star


RIYL: The Black Crowes, Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Bob Dylan

Many know Bingham only from “The Weary Kind,” his deep country Oscar-winning song from “Crazy Heart” that he wrote with producer T Bone Burnett. But Bingham’s sophomore effort, 2009’s Roadhouse Sun, was a critically acclaimed rock ‘n’ roll album, and rightly so. That album – as well as his excellent 2007 debut Mescalito – was produced by ex-Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford. It was clear that Bingham and Ford shared a taste for mixing rock and country elements into some tasty Americana sounds. Both albums were a mix of high energy rock tracks with some low-key, yet compelling country/blues tunes.

It’s therefore puzzling to see Rolling Stone’s Mark Kemp taking Bingham to task for not being more like Billy Joe Shaver, and giving Junky Star just 2.5 stars. Kemp should be immediately relieved of album review duties, because Junky Star is one of 2010’s best. It features Burnett in the producer’s chair, bringing his patented old school blues production techniques, so the sound is fab but it’s not quite as rocking as the first two albums. But this is still Bingham’s show and the album includes some of his best rock songs yet. Is he seeking to tap further into the country crossover market? Perhaps. But anyone who’s caught the live headlining show from Bingham and his Dead Horses knows this is a rock ‘n’ roll band at its core.

Album opener “The Poet” draws the listener in with a laid back vibe, with Bingham’s soulful voice backed mainly by just acoustic guitar and harmonica. It’s one of the most unique voices in music today, like a genuine cowboy (Bingham spent time on the professional rodeo circuit before moving into music) but with the soul of a hippie. The band kicks in for “The Wandering,” and a great band it is. The Dead Horses aren’t just sidemen, but a tight unit with chemistry. The uplifting, mid-tempo number features Bingham at his heartfelt best. “Strange Feelin’ in the Air” has a big bluesy Western sound, featuring slide guitar and more of those gritty vocals.

The title track delves back into “Crazy Heart” territory, with a bluesy, country-ish tune about love lost and feeling down and out. It’s on the somber side, but those heartfelt lonely vocals about “stumbling on the whiskey from the bar” remain compelling. “Yesterday’s Blues” and “Lay My Head on the Rail” delve into similar stripped-down country blues flavor.

A top highlight is song of the year candidate “Depression,” a gorgeously layered zeitgeist rocker about keeping it together after losing one’s job amidst the nation’s economic woes. “Hallelujah” is a highlight too, starting with rich textures before building into a mid-tempo blues catharsis. “Direction of the Wind” is another great zeitgeist rocker, an upbeat bluesy romp with slide guitar and politically-edged vocals that recall classic Bob Dylan. “Hard Worn Trail” features bluesy acoustic picking that recalls Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” before giving way to more of a Western soundtrack vibe. Bingham’s voice takes on a haunting quality that brings the song to life. “All Choked Up Again” closes the album with a slow but shimmering Western tune about a gambling man.

The last third of the album could use one more rocker, but there’s no one on the scene who is blending rock with country and western blues flavors like Bingham & the Dead Horses. Bingham has become one of modern music’s most intriguing troubadors precisely because of how his gritty soulful voice personifies the growing intersection between rock and country. Junky Star fuses the genres beautifully. (Lost Highway 2010)

Ryan Bingham MySpace page

  

Robert Plant: Band of Joy


RIYL: Buddy Miller, Bob Dylan, Daniel Lanois

Robert-Plant-Band-of-Joy-artwork[1]Like a handful of his graying peers – Van Morrison and Neil Young come to mind – Robert Plant has made a career out of defying and confounding his fans’ expectations. What makes Plant unique among rock’s elder contrarians, though, is quality control; he may not give his fans what they say they want, but it’s rare that he delivers an album that’s impossible to love.

Band of Joy is a case in point. In terms of tone and vibe, it picks up more or less where his Grammy-winning collaboration with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, left off: an album of rootsy, Nashville-recorded covers, rich in beautifully subdued atmosphere. But Plant remains too restless to settle for a straight sequel; he abandoned the follow-up sessions with Krauss and Sand producer T Bone Burnett, opting instead to team up with producer/guitarist Buddy Miller for a set whose title serves as a playful reminder of his pre-Zeppelin band.

What listeners are left with is an album that lacks Sand‘s stately grace, but has a pungent, bluesy heft all its own. Plant’s choice of material is as impeccable as ever – standouts include a mandolin-laced version of Los Lobos’ “Angel Dance” and a mournfully loping take on Townes Van Zandt’s “Harm’s Swift Way” – and Miller proves a splendid foil, adding dark, roiling swaths of guitar that hover over crisply recorded arrangements. And then, of course, there are the vocals: Plant remains in fine form, and if you’re disappointed by his continued disinterest in unleashing his old hammer-of-the-gods howl, you can take comfort in the presence of Patty Griffin, who lends a layer of burnished harmony to seven of the album’s 12 tracks.

So it isn’t a Zep reunion, and it isn’t Raising Sand II. Here’s what Band of Joy is: An addictive collection of strong, quietly confident performances from a 62-year-old man who could have started phoning it in 25 years ago, but hasn’t forgotten how to make music simply for the joy of it. If it isn’t one of the best albums of the year, it’s certainly one of the purest. (Rounder 2010)

Robert Plant MySpace page

  

Peter Case: Wig!


RIYL: The Plimsouls, Robert Plant, Stevie Ray Vaughn

Peter Case recently had a heart attack that required multiple-bypass surgery, and it brought the founder of the Nerves and the Plimsouls to within an inch of his life. But luckily for Case, and for his family and for his fans, the surgery was successful, and he even received financial aid in the form of benefit concerts that brought Case together with old friends like T-Bone Burnett, Dave Alvin and Richard Thompson. After a recovery period in which he listened to a lot of old jazz, Case’s new album, Wig! was spawned from a few songwriting and jamming sessions with his band. The result is a raw, bluesy effort that features Case’s distinctive vocals, but is almost more straight blues than the rock he’s been making most of his life. The live, direct-to-analog sound is reminiscent of ‘60s or ‘70s-era recordings, and the songs, while very much following a straight line in style, are nice – not great, but nice. In fact, it’s so bluesy that fans of the Plimsouls might not take to this effort as much as, say, fans of authentic blues would. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Case has earned the right to make music his way, and he sounds, not surprisingly, exuberant and full of life on Wig! Standout tracks are the blazing “Dig What You’re Putting Down” and the piano shuffle, “Look Out!” (Yep Roc 2010)

Peter Case website

  

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