Bullz-Eye’s Favorite Albums of 2010: Staff Writer Greg Schwartz’s picks

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.

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Austin City Limits Music Festival – October 8-10, 2010, Austin, TX

The 2010 Austin City Limits Music Festival continued to make the three-day event’s case as one of the best festivals on the planet. It went off with nary a hitch, and in fact, this year’s edition may have had the festival’s best weather yet. There was no dust, no rain to turn Zilker Park into a giant mud pit (like last year) and the high temperature never reached 90. The sunny afternoons were still plenty hot, but the evenings were downright balmy. Some local fans bitched about the overall lineup when it was first announced, but there truly was something for everyone in the festival’s ever-eclectic lineup. The festival once again sold out well in advance, and again proved to be one of the best weekends of the year for any serious music fan.

The tasty local cuisine available at ACL is topped only by New Orleans’ Jazzfest (although unfortunately neither fest seems willing to bring in local beer), and the football tent returned to enable sports fans to get a fix in between music sets. There were only a handful of occasions where the crowd scene proved overly massive and hard to navigate. Overall, it was three days of near-utopian rock ‘n’ roll bliss. If the word “groovy” is overused in this review, it’s only because there were indeed so many such moments. The biggest problem was choosing between competing bands in a series of mind-bending conflicts: Silversun Pickups vs Broken Bells, Monsters of Folk vs LCD Soundsystem, Phish vs The Strokes, The Flaming Lips vs Band of Horses, and the terrible three-way Friday night dilemma of Sonic Youth vs Robert Randolph & the Family Band vs Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses. Cloning technology can’t arrive soon enough.

Friday, October 8

Those Darlins, Austin Ventures Stage
This upbeat Tennessee quartet featured a relatively unique mix of country punk and garage rock to create a fun vibe. Singer/guitarist Jessi Darlin’s gritty voice recalled Courtney Love at times in its ragged splendor, but with more of a country flavor. “Red Light Love” saw the band at its best on a fuzzy, melodic rocker about the combination of good love and good music.

Blues Traveler, AMD Stage
It seemed like a flashback to the mid-’90s when Blues Traveler drew a huge crowd to the festival’s second largest stage to really get ACL going. It’s been great to see the band able to persevere through the tragic death of original bassist Bobby Sheehan and the health problems of singer/harmonica ace John Popper, who is now fit and sounding great as ever. Underrated guitarist Chan Kinchla always keeps things groovy on his PRS guitar and his brother Tad fits right in on bass. A cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” was a surprise crowd pleaser, followed shortly thereafter with the band’s 1994 hit “Run-Around.” But the clear peak of the set – and one of the top highlights of the entire weekend – occurred when the band welcomed 15-year-old violinist Ruby Jane to sit in on “Mulling It Over.” Jane, who would play her own set on Sunday morning, proved to be a dynamic prodigy. She immediately accented the hard rocking tune in tasteful fashion, before teaming with Popper for a superb violin-harmonica duel that won the weekend’s first huge cheer.

The Black Keys, AMD Stage
The Akron, Ohio-based blues rock duo hit the stage at 4 pm in front of a massive crowd that made it tough for anyone arriving late to get close enough to enjoy. There were so many people camped out in their lawn chairs that the entire area became quite difficult to navigate. The Black Keys are clearly surging in popularity – they played to about 10,000 fans at the 2008 Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco, but this crowd was at least three times as large. I finally gave up and decided I’d rather check out the next band on the intimate BMI stage.

ACL Black Keys

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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


The Black Crowes: Croweology

RIYL: Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses, Derek & the Dominoes, The Derek Trucks Band

The Black Crowes are going on hiatus in 2011 and already delivered a great new double album with last year’s Before the Frost… Until the Freeze combo. You can always count on these guys to mix things up, though. So instead of issuing a standard greatest hits package to tour behind, Croweology finds the band delivering newly recorded acoustic versions of two albums’ worth of material. The songs run the gamut from classic hits to deep album cuts. There aren’t as many rarities as one might hope for, but there’s a strong variety of material, some cool new arrangements and some great jams that are unusual for studio albums.

The set opens with a pretty standard rendition of “Jealous Again,” but this is the song that put the band on the map, so it’s an appropriate opener. But a new arrangement of “Share the Ride” demonstrates how the band is out to try some new things. The beat is based on a drum machine and hand claps, which make for a particularly funky groove. Guitarists Rich Robinson and Luther Dickinson throw down some great six-string interplay here and put on a clinic throughout the album for how two-guitar bands should operate.

“Non-Fiction” takes on a more majestic aura, while “Hotel Illness” smokes with some extra bluesy harmonica and a back yard sort of vibe. “Wiser Time” – perhaps the band’s ultimate jam vehicle – features more superb guitar interplay on a stellar spacey jam. “Cold Boy Smile” is the only previously unreleased tune and features a mystical type of intro jam that recalls the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” before shifting into more of a Crowesy blues vibe with Chris Robinson offering some of his most heartfelt vocals. “Under a Mountain,” a barnburner on the band’s underrated Three Snakes and One Charm, receives a new arrangement that transforms the song into Led Zeppelin IIIterritory with gorgeous results. And that’s all just on disc one.

“She Talks to Angels” kicks off disc two and features some extra fiddle that gives the song an Americana flavor. “Morning Song” is one of the shining gems of the set with its warm groove, sparkling slide guitar and more of that backyard honky-tonk rock vibe. It’s also got a great hand-clap breakdown jam in middle with Chris singing about how “music got to free your mind.” “Downtown Money Waster” is another highlight with some great banjo and fiddle that make for a fresh, higher energy arrangement. “Thorn in My Pride” – the band’s other supreme jam vehicle – receives deluxe treatment as the band blends their Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead and Clapton influences together for another stellar jam on this perennial fan fave.

The entire set features a slew of subtle embellishments that feel like fresh paint strokes on classic art work, just little enhancements that ring with tasty new flavor. The CD version also tries to keep the old school album vibe alive with beautiful psychedelic fonts and a picture inside that turns into a pop-up book with two crows sitting by a campfire in the forest, smoking a spliff while some purple mushrooms grow nearby. It all enhances the band’s classic rock vibe that is sadly all too rare these days. (Silver Arrow Records 2010)

The Black Crowes MySpace page


Paul Manousos: C’mon C’mon

RIYL: Tom Petty, Mick Jagger, Paul Westerberg

San Francisco Bay Area troubadour Paul Manousos is back with his third solo album, on which he continues to distill a seasoned approach to rootsy rock and blues. Manousos has a voice that oozes classic rock, at times recalling such legends as Mick Jagger, Tom Petty and even Otis Redding. The talent is definitely there. But this album isn’t likely to make much of an impact due to how it’s filled with too many slow songs, mysteriously camouflaging Manousos the rocker.

Opening track “Getting Better” is an exception, a mid-tempo rock number that holds much promise. Things slow down on “Outside of Town,” a soulful tune where Manousos does some fine crooning. This is cool too, but the album eventually becomes too heavily weighted in this direction. “One Eye Open” is an upbeat mid-tempo rocker that lifts spirits and sounds like a cross between early ’70s Stones and modern Texas troubadour Ryan Bingham.

The rest of the album is filled with heartfelt vocals, but not much rock. “R.E.D.” is an acoustic tune with some bluesy harmonica, while “Kindly Said” offers a stripped-down romantic ballad. “The Way You…” features some bluesy riffs, but it’s yet another slow tune. A cover of Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb number “Wichita Lineman” is a well done romantic lament, but again seems to show that Manousos is more into the country-ish flavor than the rock these days. “Getting Out” is deep bluesy cut that sounds like a soundtrack song from a cool noir flick, with some fuzzy guitar and swirly organ. “Long Long Way Back Home” closes it out with a mercifully rocking tune that sounds kind of like a lost Heartbreakers song.

Manousos does the whiskey-soaked bluesy balladeer thing very well but the lack of sonic diversity here will probably prevent this album from taking off. It seems like he’s doing himself a disservice by pigeonholing his sound in this narrow direction, which is hard to understand if you’ve seen him rock out live. (Shock & Fall Recordings 2010)