It's that time of year again for everybody to begin pushing their own year-end picks of 2010. For my 2010 picks, I chose the 20 albums released this year that I predict I'll surely be returning to beyond December 31st, 2010.
Here's my list, in no particular order, followed by brief impressions of each.
1. Johnny Cash: American Recordings VI: Ain't No Grave
2. Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band: Legacy
3. Punch Brothers: NPR's Newport Folk Festival Recording
4. Mark Lanegan & Isobel Campbell: Hawk
5. Neil Young: Le Noise
6. Bill Callahan: Rough Travel For A Rare Thing
7. Roland White: I Wasn't Born To Rock N Roll
8. Black Twig Pickers: Ironto Special
9. Carolina Chocolate Drops: Genuine Negro Jig
10. Del McCoury: Del McCoury
11. Mavis Staples: You Are Not Alone
12. Ben Sollee & Daniel Martin Moore: Dear Companion
13. Steeldrivers: Reckless
14. Trampled By Turtles: Palomino
15. Charlie Parr & Black Twig Pickers: Glory In The Meeting House
16. Felice Brothers: Mix Tape
17. Charlie Louvin: The Battles Rage On
18. Black Keys: Brothers
19. Justin Townes Earle: Harlem River Blues
20. Bonnie Prince Billy & Cairo Gang: The Wonder Show Of The World
1. Johnny Cash: Ain’t No Grave. The final installment (unless more material becomes Unearthed) of the Johnny Cash/ Rick Rubin collaboration. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you really need to pick up American Recordings and American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around. Sharing music with family and friends is something I love to do, and a fond memory I have of 2010 is when I passed my new father-in-law a copy of Cash's Ain't No Grave along with Levon Helm's Electric Dirt. If anyone shares this one with someone important to them, I'd sure be grateful.
2. Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band: Legacy. Nothing short of an absolutely stunning, well-varied, and expertly performed bluegrass record. This is easily my pick for the Best Bluegrass Grammy (which is no small endorsement, considering the other nominees are The Del McCoury Band, Patty Loveless, Sam Bush, and The Steeldrivers). Mr. Rowan is joined by an impressive lineup of guests including Del McCoury, Ricky Scaggs, Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, and Tim O'Brien. This is an essential album that bluegrass purists, as well as novices will repeatedly enjoy. I wouldn't hesitate passing this on to anybody. When I've done just that this year, and thankfully, the gesture has been met by nothing but sheer gratitude.
3. Punch Brothers: Live NPR Broadfcast from Newport Folk Festival. As much as I really love listening to the fantastic Antifogmatic, this live broadcast has edged it out for repeated listens more times than I would like to admit. I encourage everyone to check it out, or better yet, download it from NPR. The set list includes an infectiously catchy cover of The Stokes' "Reptilia", the galloping bounce of "Rye Whiskey", and a rendition of Radiohead's "Kid A" (among other gems). This recording captures the tunes beautifully, and showcases the band's energy and virtuosity effortlessly. This one takes the prize for my "live album of the year", despite not being an official release. Thanks NPR!
4. Mark Lanegan & Isobel Campbell: Hawk. The third album by Ms. Campbell, featuring the brilliant Mr. Lanegan, Hawk, continues to mine the textural gothic-blues that these two first conjured up on the excellent Ballad of the Broken Seas and 2008's Sunday At Devil Dirt. Mr. Lanegan has been quite a busy collaborator lately between joining up with the Soulsavers, pairing himself with Greg Dulli as a Gutter Twin, and continuing his work with Ms. Campbell. The tall, dark, and mysterious stranger is always the most alluring character in the joint. And when the shadowy baritone of Mr. Lanegan is partnered up with a beauty like Ms. Campbell's angelic whisper, well, it's the oldest story there is, and still one of the best.
5. Neil Young: Le Noise. I haven't been this excited about any Neil Young material since the Live at Massey Hall album (which was an unearthed recording from the glorious After The Goldrush-Harvest days of 1971). Le Noise is unapologetically my favorite Young album of new material since the one-two punch of the unstoppable 1990's Ragged Glory and 1992's Harvest Moon. It is an impressively atmospheric album, masterfully produced by Daniel Lanolis. The album plays like a collaboration, combining Mr. Lanois' sonically woven tapestry of a production with Mr. Young's guitars and trembling voice. It's an "interesting" first listen, but after the third time I heard it- the record transcended beyond "artistic risk-taking" respect, and became a classic all on it's own terms, without any need for theoretical discourse.
6. Bill Callahan: Rough Travel For A Rare Thing. Releasing stellar albums on Drag City since the mid 90's, Bill Callahan shed his Smog moniker in 2007. This is Bill Callahan's first live album, which followed his excellent 2009 offering, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle. Rough Travel For A Rare Thing presents quite a satisfying cross-section of his career and it's a great place for newcomers to start with Mr. Callahan's large back catalog, and an article that fans will easily enjoy. The album effortlessly accomplishes what seeing musicians play live should make you want to do: revisit their albums you love. Luckily for us, we can play Rough Travel For A Rare Thing and not have to wait until we get home from the club to hear more.
7. Roland White: I Wasn't Born To Rock N Roll. This year I began studying the mandolin, and after playing for a bit, and digging into some of the masters' work, it didn't take long for me to discover Roland White. Roland played together with his brother Clarence in the historic Kentucky Colonels, and went on to join Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys, Lester Flatt's Nashville Grass, the Country Gazette, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band. I Wasn't Born To Rock N Roll is Roland's 1976 solo album, and was re-mastered from the original tapes and released for the first time digitally and on CD in June. The album features traditional tunes, and a previously unreleased song called "Powder Creek", which was co-written by Roland and Clarence White in 1963. I would also recommend White's excellent Grammy-nominated Jelly on My Tofu, as well as any recordings by the great Clarence White as worthy companion pieces.
8. Black Twig Pickers: Ironto Special. The Black Twig Pickers are a band whose records play like they were recorded on a creaking back porch in a cozily nestled backyard somewhere. And that's not far from the truth. The 'Pickers often record themselves with litte more than microphones, and do not mind capturing misteps while playing the tunes- which I love. I have lately been collecting a stable of acoustic albums that have minimal production and promote the spirit of true traditional American music. And Ironto Special is definitely one of those albums. And as a testament to promoting and insuring this music's survival, the CD and Vinyl LP copies of the album include the music for the tunes and notes on tunings, so you can play the songs yourself and pass them along to other pickers! To me, that's what the tradition of this music is all about. What a great bunch of guys.
9. Carolina Chocolate Drops: Genuine Negro Jig. I got turned onto the Carolina Chocolate Drops this year by a friend who passed me Genuine Negro Jig. I was immediately struck by the authenticity of the band, pulling from a long tradition of African-American blues, ragtime, and string band players before them, and producing such a rich and inviting album of stringed music. The album, which practically begs to be repeatedly enjoyed, plays as the genuine article, and possesses a historical honesty without falling prey to being undercut as simply a homage to the past. The band's collection of songs here deeply respect the tradition passed down to them, but offer up a fresh voice all their own.
10. Del McCoury: Del McCoury. I first got turned onto Del McCoury when I heard The Mountain, a collaborative album by Steve Earle And The Del McCoury Band. Having been listening to Del McCoury for some time, I have been slowly digging and discovering some great releases from his earlier catalog. Del McCoury's 1975 self-titled LP, Del McCoury, was the first of his four Rebel Records recordings, and was reissued digitally in November. The album features McCoury joined by his original band, The Dixie Pals, and includes one of my favorite songs by the man, "Rain and Snow", as well as two Ola Belle Reed tunes: "Springtime of Life" and "I've Endured". A great companion to this one is Del's Livin' On The Mountain.
11. Mavis Staples: You Are Not Alone. I first began listening to Ms. Staples when her brilliant album, We'll Never Turn Back was released a few years ago. The new album, You Are Not Alone, which was produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, is a sweet spot of a player that celebrates Ms. Staples' soulful, stirring, and uplifting voice. Clearly a legend, Ms. Staples brings the goods on this set. And Mr. Tweedy should be commended for producing the album that so eloquently presents Ms. Staples in her best light, allowing her to sound both classic and modern.
12. Ben Sollee & Daniel Martin Moore: Dear Companion. Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore teamed up with producer Yim Yames (Jim James) of My Morning Jacket and Monsters of Folk, to produce an excellent album of orchestrated folk music. The three collaborators have used the album to draw attention to Mountaintop Removal coal mining (MTR), that has had a devastating impact on the Appalachia region in their home state of Kentucky. A portion of the proceeds from Dear Companion goes to Appalachian Voices to help the cause. Besides being a well-written, beautifully performed, and richly moving album of great songs, it benefits a great cause.
13. Steeldrivers: Reckless. A great album that is also up for Best Bluegrass Album this year at the Grammys. Granted, ex-lead singer Chris Stapleton, who has an awesome voice and co-wrote some of the best tracks here has since departed, Reckless stands as an exciting, mature, and accomplished sophomore album. When I listen to the album, aside from being impressed by the strong songwriting and brilliant performance, I wonder where the band will bring us next time around. Some of the most memorable, and repeatedly played albums in my collection are the ones that posses much to enjoy, but also raise questions. I love a cliffhanger.
14. Trampled By Turtles: Palomino. Palomino was the first album that I heard by Trampled By Turtles, and it's a great place to start for newcomers. The band memebers, who originally were all in rock bands, but formed years ago to start a string band, bring a fresh energy to the genre. Not quite bluegrass, rock, or typical string band, TBT bring tunes that are catchy, reflective, and barn-busting, all to the table with Palomino. It's a smartly varied set that showcases the virtuosity of the musicians, while emphasizing some great songwriting. I had the opportunity to see this band in November and they were amazing. Equally recommended live and on record.
15. Charlie Parr & Black Twig Pickers: Glory In The Meeting House. Charlie Parr is joined by The Black Twig Pickers for this album of gospel tunes. Complimenting Parr's other releases, as well as albums by The Black Twig Pickers, Glory In The Meeting House has an intimate, but rolicking back-porch feel to it. The album sounds as if everyone here joined up after a day's work to call it a day, sip some drink, and pick some spirituals together. As always, the 'Pickers are in fine form, and led by the miraculous and teriffic Mr. Parr. I picked up Parr's Backslider shortly after hearing Glory In The Meeting House, which features Dave Simonett of Trampled By Turtles. Charlie Parr, Tramped By Turtles, and Black Twig Pickers have released pretty stellar albums this year worthy of my 2010 list, and anyone else's.
16. Felice Brothers: Mix Tape. The Felice Brothers are best when performing live on a stage. Comparing the band's live dynamics, which shift between energetic rambunctiousness, somberful serenading, and rural-tinged ballads, to the renditions found on their studio releases, is just pointless. The band's live performances and studio releases are just two, equally satisfying, experiences. Mix Tape is a loose collection of tunes that doesn't hint at the artistic seriousness of the excellent Yonder Is The Clock, but seems more like middle ground between that album and their debut, The Felice Brothers. It's a comfortable and unimposing collection, that stretches out just enough and feels simpler and more understated without too much refinement. Mix Tape wears well like those old jeans you just can't toss away.
17. Charlie Louvin: The Battles Rage On. Charlie Louving salutes the armed forces with this collection of 12 songs. The Battle Rages On can be taken literally as a tribute to the soldiers, but the set also runs a parallel to Mr. Louvin's own recent battle with pancreatic cancer. Mr. Louvin's health still remains to be an issue, preventing him from live performances, except for a recent fundraiser in Nashville. The Battle Rages On admirably rounds out the man's prolific output of the first decade of the 2000's. Along with the superb 2007 album Charlie Louvin, Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, and Steps To Heaven, the newly released The Battle Rages On rightfully deserves it's place beside these other gems on your shelf.
18. The Black Keys: Brothers. The Black Keys have stretched out their sound in the studio for Brothers, bringing in many more layers and much more instrumentation than ever. The album has a distinct R & B feel to it, and although it may seem like new territory for the band upon the first listen, the duo does not abandon the simplicity of their past work. The Black Keys have crafted a record that carves the space for some new sounds, which helps deliver it's soulful presentation with ease, while managing to remain loose and thumping with the blues. A rewarding and welcome addition to the band's catalog, but in no way the end of the road.
19. Justin Townes Earle: Harlem River Blues. Judging from all of the paise and press he receives, people really love Justin Townes Earle. Harlem River Blues is a very good album, and it's the first release by Mr. Earle where I'm not distracted the production that has been subduing his personality and not quite revealing the true quality of his tunes. I've really enjoyed seeing Mr. Earle perform live, but it's been really hard for me to revisit his previous albums after his shows, just because I have been put off by way they sound. They just do not do the man justice. Harlem River Blues avoids this misstep, and gives the songs some much-needed breathing room and space. Here, we get to hear his singing through his smiling, shifting, smirk throughout. Well done.
20. Bonnie Prince Billy And The Cairo Gang: The Wonder Show Of The World. Will Oldham, otherwise known as Bonnie Prince Billy, has been on quite a roll since The Letting Go, releasing a string of excellent studio work inluding the Ask Forgiveness EP, and the long players Lie Down In The Light and Beware. There's also been some great live releases too, including my favorite, Funtown Comedown, which was recorded live with the band The Picket Line. On the superb Wonder Show Of The World, Bonnie Prince Billy (Mr. Oldham) is joined by The Cairo Gang (the guitarist Emmett Kelly). Mr. Kelly's gentle guitar playing and backing vocals wonderfully compliment Mr. Oldham's eccentric stylings, and help to accentuate the sincerity, humor, and subtlety of Oldham's well scripted verses. Another remarkable piece of work that sneaks up on you, and becomes more rewarding with each listen.