Most end of the year ‘Top Album’ lists seem designed for the critic to show the readers how much more cool his or her taste is. All I know is, that I listen to a lot of music and I am usually scratching my head wondering why I never heard of half the titles on the list. If that’s the case here – I’m only making a list of albums that you may not have heard of, or you may have overlooked… but that you should still purchase or download if you like good music. (Warning – When it comes to country music, I’ve been called a “purist” by Sugarland, who you won’t find on this list.) I’m not cooler than anyone, and this list is simply my way of avoiding the fact that I have nothing cool to do this New Year’s Eve. See?
So Happy New Year, and here are my favorite albums released in 2010, in no specific order because, well, there just isn’t one that I can say tops them all.
Dierks Bentley – “Up on the Ridge”
The country star took a gamble with the bluegrass approach on “Up on the Ridge,” but he knew what he was doing. An album full of tragic work songs and pleading love songs, it was both a major transformation and minor miracle. The lyric to one song could be Bentley’s mantra for recording this album: “I’m standing at the crossroads of temptation and Salvation Street.” Making the music that he wanted to make was sweet salvation, and it resulted in the best album of his career so far.
Dailey & Vincent – “Sing the Statler Brothers”
Choosing the songs that would make up this album must have been a pleasure; The Statler Brothers racked up 33 Top 10 country singles before their retirement. Along came Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent, who brought these classics back to life. Every cut is a gem and every cut conjures up memories of the Statlers’ traditional gospel harmonies. And it’s also a great excuse to visit Cracker Barrel; the only sales outlet for the CD.
The Grascals – “The Famous Lefty Flynn’s”
The Grascals hit the bluegrass scene in 2005 with a self-titled album featuring Dolly Parton on a bluegrass version of Elvis’ Viva Las Vegas. And they have been busy pushing new directions and holding onto tradition ever since.
For example, on this amazing album they used steel guitars, drums, a mandola and even a viola – instruments not usually found on bluegrass albums.
Rhonda Vincent – “Taken”
Last week, the Queen of Bluegrass (Rhonda Vincent) and her band “The Rage” received 8 nominations from the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America. Listen to this, their latest album and you’ll understand why this band is the most awarded band in bluegrass music. If only it were a double album, I’d be even more of a fan.
Buddy Guy, “Living Proof”
Yet another tour de force from the 74-year-old blues legend. “Living Proof” is a testament to his perseverance, his skill and his ability to use an instrument as if a pen writing a letter. Sometimes the letter is a love letter, sometimes a word of warning; it is always writing the voice of experience. Guy takes what could have been an exercise in nostalgia and turns it into a promise for the future.
Murray Perahia – “Brahms: Handel Variations, Op. 24; Rhapsodies, Op. 79; Piano Pieces, Opp. 118 & 119”
The most tasteful of pianists, at the top of his form, reminding us why Brahms is one of the 3 B’s of classical music. Moderation on the brink of an eruption is the only way to describe this stellar performance in which Perahia triumphantly deals with the subtle tempo shifts, polishing the many parts into a unified brilliant whole.
Johnny Cash – “American VI: Ain’t No Grave”
When Johnny Cash teamed up with Rick Rubin (the producer who continued to work beside him until Cash’s 2003 death) to make this “American” series, Cash bequeathed country music a true gift. The albums gave Cash a spare, sympathetic production and first-rate material, making clear his status as an American legend. Sorry to say it, but this album is the last in the “American” series. It couldn’t be more aptly named. Listening to this album, you can feel the legend’s spirit has come back for one final chance to sing these specific songs.
Easton Corbin – “Easton Corbin”
Country music was born of tradition, is steeped in tradition, and loving it is a habit that, once acquired, is nearly impossible to move on from. Easton channels just enough George Strait, Merle Haggard, and Keith Whitley to make any country music lover happy. Put this album on, then sit back and remember why you fell in love with country music in the first place. When a debut album like his comes along, you just want to sigh and thank the country music gods.
Joey + Rory – “Album No. 2”
With the highly anticipated follow-up to their amazing debut album, husband-and-wife duo Joey + Rory showed they still have it. Not only do they have it – they make it all sound so deceptively easy. They are so much more than a duo; they are a partnership in every sense of the word, and the music they make together will get you through even the most single moments of life. Their songs are full of heart, love, warmth, humor, energy and inspiration.
Jamey Johnson – “The Guitar Song”
Probably the best country album of the year. In it, Jamey Johnson inducts himself into that exclusive club of country outlaws. It is a sprawling collection – a two-disc, 25-song set that shows his “That Lonesome Song” was no fluke. In these songs, you can hear shades of George Jones, edges of Merle Haggard, and an accent or two of Hank Williams, Sr. This is an instant classic must-have if you love country music, be it Nashville, classic, alt, or Americana-style.
Kyle Turley – “Anger Management”
If 2010 is the year of True Grit, Kyle Turley is the truest and the grittiest. The man has a helluva story to tell, a mighty powerful voice to tell it, and a spirit that embodies the best of what country music is all about. Like all great artists, Turley has his own sound; it is a mixture of Texas-style country and hard rock. I love putting on this album and cranking it way up.
Mumford & Sons – “Sigh No More”
Mumford & Sons is the discovery of the year – at least on this side of the Atlantic. It will make you feel good, make you want to sing… even the slow songs. The British band is almost everyone in the folk world’s new favorite. And deservedly so. For fans of “new-folk” or “indie-folk” or whatever you want to call it-folk, you will be setting this album to repeat on your MP3 player.
Patty Griffin – “Downtown Church”
A beautiful collection of 14 songs, recorded in Nashville’s historic Downtown Presbyterian Church, honors black and white gospel traditions… while giving it a fresh take on occasion. This album will move you in ways that only a gospel song can… probably because Griffin infused it with as many questions as hallelujahs. She brings an equal mix of power and tenderness to her soothing vocals.
Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden – “Jasmine”
Here they are world – the most virtuosic jazz pianist and the most expressive bassist, teaming up for the first time in 35 years. This album is a quiet affair… One look at the album cover says it all. It is a study of fragility, yet full of purpose. It is an intimate session of mostly standard ballads, but the musicianship is anything but standard. Underneath the surface, these two play a game of rhythmic interplay that is beautiful in a way that words fail to describe.
Bruno Mars – “Doo Wops and Hooligans”
Pop music has a new member of the mainstream royalty in Bruno Mars. He fills the niche created by Elton John and Billy Joel with his songs aimed through the soul and directly at your heart. It is an album full of pulsating grooves waxing poetic. Pop music has found its singer/songwriter center again and it is Bruno Mars. Now the question isn’t, “who is Bruno Mars?” it’s, “what is Bruno Mars poised to do next?”
Taylor Swift – “Speak Now”
“Speak Now” is an intimate musical document that pulls you in with wit and grace. If you weren’t impressed with her previous album, then you might want to give her a second chance; she was clearly saving her best material for this one. For going way beyond expectations heaped upon her, Taylor Swift’s album deserves to be named one of the top albums of 2010. Is it country? Heck no. But is a stunning pop album.
Drake – “Thank Me Later”
This is Drake’s official introduction to the music world. No more buzz. No more guest collabo’s. This album is all about him. If you can get past all the hype, he did a damn fine job. Arriving after years of mixtapes and guest spots, the debut LP from the Canadian actor- turned-rapper delivered the goods. Full of sumptuous beats, airtight rhymes and nuanced introspection, Drake’s soulful flow gave his reflections on the high life an air of irony.
Drive-By Truckers – “The Big To-Do”
The Drive-By Truckers released the album that has it all: suicide, murder, broken relationships, broken towns, drinking, under-employment. It’s about time. Our time, unfortunately. And it hits the painful nail on the proverbial head. “The Big To-Do” didn’t disappoint fans of the band, and it made a whole lot of new ones. With lyrics like “A family can’t live on these fast-food wages,” this album is best listened to with a shot of whiskey.
Robert Plant and the Band of Joy – “The Band of Joy”
With this beautiful album Robert Plant has finally hits his stride after many mediocre years. Forget the past – this album, bathed in country/gospel harmonies, soul classics and folk ballads, demonstrates that Plant has much more to share with the world.