First, a few honorable mentions....
"Go Outside" is probably about the catchiest tune of all time, and the album as a whole lives up to it. A bit on the saccharine side, though. "Most Wanted"
Tighter than her sophomore attempt, but could do with more of that quirky edge that was so great about her first. "Swell Window"
Steve Earle—I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive
It's good, and I like it, but it never REALLY grabbed me. "The Gulf Of Mexico"
Gregg Allman—Low Country Blues
Falls off a bit in the last half, but a damn good blues album. Definitely my #11 of the year. "I Can't Be Satisfied"
Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers—Starlight Hotel
A bit kitschy, but solid underneath. "Let's Just Be Friends for Tonight"
Saigon—The Greatest Story Never Told
Well balanced, if not overly deep. "Too Long"
tUnE-yArDs—w h o k i l l
Normally not at all a fan of edgy/avant-garde stuff, but I loved this in spite of myself. "Bizness"
Lykke Li—Wounded Rhymes
A lot of fun. A great debut, and another one that really could have made my top 10. "Get Some"
Every year I miss a few good albums. And every year, it seems that at least one of them would have made my Top 10. Last year I missed . . .
#1 2010 Omission: Kele Goodwin—Hymns
A seductive, beautifully calm album, but one with a lot going on underneath. Goodwin's songs are intricate, woven of iconic—really, mythic—imagery. At the same time, they never seem as fragile as, say, Nick Drake—who has a very similar sound, but not half the depth. I have listened to this album literally hundreds of times over the past year, and I still feel drawn in by it. I can't recommend it highly enough, and I can't wait to hear more from him. [Full review here.]
By the way, thanks to hengie for turning me on to this one in her Top 10 last year.
"Snow" "Hymns" "Feathers"
I don't really consider EPs for the full list, but it seems worth mentioning at least one . . .
#1 EP: Crooked Still—Friends of Fall
It's not truly an EP, I suppose, with seven songs, but on the other hand it is just 23 minutes. Twenty-three solid minutes, which have me trusting that they haven't lost what they found a year ago on Some Strange Country. Their sound crystallized on that album, more than it had previously, and it retains that strength here. Their technical proficiency is as present as ever, but they also manage to make just beautiful, engaging bluegrass. They really seem to have hit their stride.
"Morning Bugle" "It'll End Too Soon"
And finally, on to the list proper. I'm sad to say it, but there is really only one artist here that I wasn't already a fan of from previous work. For an array of reasons, I didn't explore a lot of new music this year. And in the last few months, when I usually push myself to really find some new stuff, I just couldn't find anything that felt like it was worth the effort. So I won't rule out the possibility that it just wasn't a good year for new artists, or for surprisingly good stuff from artists I didn't like before. But more likely, I just wasn't stretching out very far. I'm hoping to do better next year, either way. Still, this is a good list, and these are certainly some fine albums.
10.Trombone Shorty—For True
Shorty just keeps doing what he does so well. The musical stew he puts together is as natural as ever, and a lot of fun to get immersed in. I don't mean to say that he's not doing anything new, either, but in a way it seems that that itself is simply a part of what he does. He's tightened up his lyrics/vocals on this one, which I really appreciate, because that's always been a weak spot. Strong, and getting stronger, if this album is any indication.
9.Florence + the Machine—Ceremonials
I liked their last album, but there was a layer of complexity to it that always struck me as artificial. This album is a bit more straightforward, and seems more genuine. Honestly, I can see how fans of the previous album might regard this one as too simplistic or something (too accessible, frankly). It does flirt with selling out, I guess, but I doubt they'll ever really cross that line. Here's hoping. The balance on this album is about right.
"What the Water Gave Me" "Heartlines"
8.Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi—Rome
With the help of some great work by Norah Jones & Jack White, this composer/producer combo have managed to craft a really wonderful modern-day tribute to the music of so many spaghetti Westerns. It's the kind of project I would normally find uninteresting on many levels, but the artistry here is pretty compelling. They set a real mood from the first few beats, and explore it beautifully for over an hour. If I have any problem with the album, it's probably that it is restricted to that narrow concept—it doesn't break a lot of new ground. Still, it's expertly done, and certainly not difficult to listen to.
"Black" "Two Against One"
7.Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears—Scandalous
I won't be the first or last to say that this album could easily be a lost R&B classic from the '60s. I'm hesitant even to say something like that, though, because it might give the impression that there's something derivative or unoriginal about this music, which there certainly isn't. There's not a false moment on this album, as far as I can tell. It's just sweaty, fun, and desperately good.
"Livin' In The Jungle" "She's So Scandalous"
6.Diana Jones—High Atmosphere
Jones' songwriting has always been really strong, and for the most part, this album is no exception. Her vocals & musicianship, meanwhile, have never been stronger. There is an anthemic quality to many of these songs, not least the title song itself, and it tends to linger with you long after the last song has faded. [Full review here.]
"My Love Is Gone" “High Atmosphere”
5.Vieux Farka Touré—The Secret
I have to admit, I was a bit concerned when I saw the list of guest artists on this one—which, by the way, includes Derek Trucks, Jon Scofield, and Dave Matthews. Not that the artists themselves were a concern (though Matthews does ruin an otherwise pretty great song), but when an artist like this starts to collaborate with a lot of established American musicians, his work can tend to get diluted in the process. Fortunately, what happens here is very much the opposite. Touré shows plenty of flexibility and competency here, and his music expands quite organically to include these disparate elements. It's his strongest work to date. (And "Gido", by the way, was probably my favorite song of the year.) [Full review here.]
"Gido" "Wonda Guay"
4.Gillian Welch—The Harrow & The Harvest
Welch is really in peak form here—it's hard to see how she gets any better than this. From start to finish, this is a masterful performance—the songs are well written, and beautifully performed. The production is about perfect—textured and engaging. It's her most consistent album, and you can really sink into it. If I have a complaint, it's that the album's boundaries are narrowly drawn. Within them, though, you're in very good hands.
"Silver Dagger" "Down Along the Dixie Line"
3.Beirut—The Rip Tide
After Zach Condon's last couple of releases, I really thought Beirut would just fade from consciousness. I almost didn't bother giving this a listen, and what a mistake that would have been. With one exception (the misguided "Santa Fe"), this album marks a real return to form for Condon. Instrumentally, he's back to the eastern-European instrumentation where he is so comfortable. Musically, though, he's begun to really outgrow any such easily identifiable influences. This is probably his most original album, and it's very strong.
2.Thao & Mirah—Thao & Mirah
Even for two such diverse artists, this album is pretty unexpected. Really, it should be considered a trio with the producer, Merrill Garbus (of tUnE-yArDs—see above). And it's a very fruitful collaboration. All three take risks throughout, and it's obvious that they weren't settling for just experimentation. Each idea is cared for, nurtured, fully realized, and virtually every one lands. The sound may be sparse, or it may be flooded with random noises. The song may be intricately composed, or have a thrown-together quality. The performance may be careful, or it may be joyfully spontaneous. But in each instance, it works. [Full review here.]
"How Dare You" "Hallelujah"
1.Eilen Jewell—Queen of the Minor Key
I fell in love with this album right away, and then I kept waiting for that initial reaction to fade. I'm still waiting. Eilen Jewell is one of the strongest songwriters around, and she & her band give a hell of a performance. This album is a tour de force, exploring the disparate cross-genre territory that can only be called Americana. (You might say the same thing of her entire career, actually.) If there's anything that intimidates Jewell, she has yet to find it—whether on a fast rocker like the title track, a dirge-y torch song such as "Only One", or even a novelty track like "Bang Bang Bang", Jewell and her band simply don't fail.
"Home To Me" "That's Where I'm Going" "Reckless"
By the way, if you're interested, I threw together a playlist of all the songs mentioned here. They are in this order, so there are some pretty rough segues, but there it is.