Bullz-Eye’s Favorite Albums and Songs of 2010: Associate Editor Will Harris’s picks

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.

Favorite Albums

1. Tom Jones: Praise & Blame
It’s a pretty consistent tradition that my #1 slot on my Best Albums list of any given year belongs to an artist whose career I’ve followed for quite some time, but Sir Tom earned his spot fair and square. Kicking things off with a stark cover of Bob Dylan’s “What Good Am I?” which will leave listeners spellbound, the Welsh wonder goes gospel with this record, and while it’s admittedly not the sort of career move that generally results in the shifting of mass units, it’s a creative success, one which befits a man entering his seventies far more than, say, another retread of “Sexbomb.” Having already secured legendary status (not to mention a knighthood), our man Tom can afford to step outside of people’s perceptions, and for those who’ve been paying attention, that’s what he’s been doing for the past several albums, including 2008’s 24 Hours and his 2004 collaboration with Jools Holland. But while Praise & Blame is a continuation of an existing trend, it’s also arguably the first time Jones has made absolutely no commercial concessions. There’s no wink-and-a-nudge cover of “200 Lbs. of Heavenly joy.” There’s no song by Bono and the Edge nor uber-hip production from Future Cut. There’s just Tom Jones, age 70…and, by God, he’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.

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Ben Folds & Nick Hornby: Lonely Avenue

RIYL: swearing, playing the piano, swearing while playing the piano

Listening to Lonely Avenue, the geek pop wet-dream collaboration between Ben Folds and “High Fidelity” author Nick Hornby, one cannot help but think that there are moments where Folds is trying to pull a fast one on the public. This is not to say that Hornby’s credit is an ornamental one, but it seems strange that this smart, clever author, whose lightest books have more emotional depth than Folds’ songs have explored in over a decade, would actually write this, ever:

“I’m a fuckin’ redneck, I like to hang out with the boys
Play some hockey, do some fishing and kill some moose
I like to shoot the shit and do some chillin’, I guess
You fuck with me, and I’ll kick your ass”

Bull, shit. That’s a Folds chorus if ever there was one, and besides, it’s hard to believe that the English Hornby – or anyone else, for that matter – would care one iota about Levi Johnston to write a song about him. And if Folds did write the lyrics, that’s fine – actually, it’s not fine; the man is 44 with 11-year-old twins, and the whole potty mouth thing is beyond embarrassing at this point – but don’t include it here. Release it on your web site as a free download. Its inclusion here, and towards the front of the album, no less, nearly derails Lonely Avenue before it’s had a chance to spread its wings.

Indeed, the opening track only sets the stage for this to be like any other Folds album of late: filled with cranky, passive-aggressive hostility and naughty language. “A Working Day” comes off as a pre-emptive strike to people like, well, us, with a chorus of, “Some guy on the Net thinks I suck, and he should know / He’s got his own blog.” Folds may well be speaking from someone else’s point of view, but he has to know the dangers of singing a line like that and how thin-skinned it makes him look. (Plus, it has more foul language.) “Picture Window,” on the other hand, feels like a true Folds/Hornby collaboration, the sad tale of a woman giving birth on New Year’s Eve (at least that’s what we think it’s about). A beautiful string section shrouds Folds’ piano as he sings, “You know what hope is? Hope is a bastard / Hope is a liar, a cheat and a tease.” The album could use more songs like that and fewer songs like “Password,” which commits the unpardonable pop music sin of spelling out words (lots of them, too). Worse, the subject matter is quite disturbing, seemingly from the point of view of a lovestruck hacker. The song’s bitter ending only adds to the unpleasantness.

“From Above,” on the other hand, is one of the best songs of Folds’ solo career, describing two people who were meant for each other but never connect. The song’s last lines capture Folds’ lyrical essence better than Folds has captured it himself in over a decade: “Maybe that’s how books get written. maybe that’s why songs get sung / Maybe we owe the unlucky ones.” The album’s finale is equally moving. “Belinda” tells the tale of a singer forced to sing his lone hit, though it tortures him to do so because it’s about a girl he still loves but ultimately wronged. Is the song art imitating life? Folds, after all, divorced his second wife Kate in 1996, but he still plays “Kate” in concert.

Lonely Avenue doesn’t completely cure all of the ills of Folds’ recent work, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction, and the two are poised to be a modern-day John and Taupin. Keep the guy on speed dial, Ben. Please. (Nonesuch 2010)

Ben Folds MySpace
Click to buy Lonely Avenue from Amazon