The Albums of 2010: Five Honorable Mentions

2010 is drawing to a close, and with it, a year-end list draws nigh– a countdown of my fifteen favorite recordings of the past twelve months, as is my custom around these parts. It has been suggested to me at various points over the last few years that fifteen is perhaps five too many, but, both generally speaking and with regard to 2010 in particular, I really see no choice in the matter: My response to this year’s excellent selection of albums is simply one of gratitude, recognition of how I’ve been blessed. The good stuff has been so plentiful, in fact, that even fifteen has seemed a bit slim as I’ve worked these last couple of weeks on narrowing things down, so in the end I’ve decided not to. The top fifteen drops in a few more days, but first, and hardly without consequence, I feel obliged to name five further albums that I strongly suspect will stay with me. 2010 wouldn’t have been the same without them, and their mention here is very honorable indeed.

In no particular order.

Trombone Shorty
Backatown


New Orleans, as a musical, spiritual, and cultural center, has been in bloom this year, I dare say as much as ever, prompting me to opine more than once about the diversity and across-the-board excellence of the musics coming out of that city these last few months. I mentioned before that the delightful Treme soundtrack might be the most essential of them all, simply for its sheer scope in encompassing the city’s teeming eclecticism, but, in terms of the quality of the music itself, it might as well be a toss-up between that album, Galactic’s party-starting Ya-Ka-May, Dr. John’s ferocious (and I am inclined to say definitive) Tribal, and Trombone Shorty’s groove-centered Backatown. It’s this last one that I come back to the most, if only for how fully integrative it is in pulling together the city’s popular musical idioms both past and present– funk for a hip-hop era, rock and roll with Mardi Gras horn lines. It’s stacked top-to-bottom with killers songs, but of particular note is Shorty’s take on Allen Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down,” perhaps my favorite version of the song yet recorded– given the song’s long and luminous history, no small feat.

Spoon
Transference


My favorite Spoon album? Perhaps not– I suspect that title will long rest with the sterling, subversively compact-yet-expansive pop of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga— but this one is nevertheless a fine legacy album from one of the great indie rock bands, a sort of mirror-image sequel that rejoins its predecessor with rough-hewn details and songs that alternate between minor-key riddles and swelling anthems. As far as the latter goes, I will happily throw my vote behind “I Saw the Light” as the group’s best single to date.

Jack Rose
Luck in the Valley


A posthumous release though it may be, an American Recordings this is not: There’s nothing morbidly introspective or grimly fatalistic here, but rather an album that celebrates the messy, sprawling humanity that stretches into the past of American music but flourishes today through vibrant performances like the ones contained here. A younger, less imaginative me might have thought it well beyond the scope of an instrumental guitar record to convey with such clarity the stuff of humor, reflection, mystery, and camaraderie, but this handsome recording makes quick work out of dismantling such short-sighted limitations.

John Mellencamp
No Better Than This


There be haints all over this one. T-Bone Burnett‘s method of recording this one– via a road trip through various famous and historically significant locales from the back pages of American folk and rock music– might seem on the surface to be a sort of gimmick, but the resulting music captures a certain, elusive brand of authenticity without a hint of affectation. I often like T-Bone productions in spite of the man himself, not because of him, and I rarely care much for Mellencamp albums at all, but the two find a most graceful connection here that sparks real magic, from the first song to the last.

Elton John and Leon Russell
The Union


I confess to a slight disappointment that this one didn’t turn out to be a bigger presence in the Grammy nominations; not that I care, but this seems right up Grammy’s alley: A highly-touted comeback from a couple of well-regarded veterans. An array of classic Americana styles. T-Bone Burnett. Cameos from Neil Young and Brian Wilson. Perhaps the whole thing just isn’t flashy enough, not as remarkable an occurrence in the wake of Raising Sand, but therein lies its charm: This is a wheelhouse album through and through, an album that takes relish in craft and offers a shame-free exhibition of a pair of professionals doing what they do best.

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