2010: The Year in Musical Review

In addition to holiday cheer, one of my favorite things about the end of the year is all the countdowns of the best musical acts, albums, and songs introduced in the last 12 months. I love to revisit not-so-old favorites and reminisce about the musical joy that the previous year brought with it. For a while, I worried that 2010 would produce some pretty measly "Best-of" lists. I guess I have a tendency to get in musical funks and this year was largely defined by such lows for me; I'd find myself listening to the same old tired songs again and again, completely unable to find anything new to spark my interest.

I was about to give up on compiling my own musical wrap-up list this year when an email from NPR caught my eye. It featured a piece on "The 5 Artists You Should Have Known in 2010." Though only one of the groups included on this list really resonated with me, it got me thinking about some of the other albums and songs that moved me this year, even if only for a week or two until I completely exhausted the CD and had to find something else to listen to on my drive to work. So instead of doing music that was strictly produced in the year 2010, I've decided to include mostly recent releases, as well as some discoveries that I made in the past 12 months that defined my year musically. Enjoy and I hope you find something that you like!

1. The Head and the Heart - Though this group is the one that I discovered most recently, they were my great find on NPR's list that inspired this very list. This video of their live performance of "Lost in My Mind" just struck a chord with me that I couldn't ignore. The Seattle-based band formed about a year ago after meeting at an open-mic night, and they've enjoyed a fast rise to the top since with mentions on NPR and KEXP 90.3 FM among others. Though this song begins with just vocals and a single guitar, it sneaks up and takes hold of you as the violin, piano, and percussion join in. With just one listen, I think it will become pretty obvious why this folk-pop-Americana outfit is making such great waves in so short a period of time. Extolled as a folksy version of the Beatles, The Head and the Heart are enjoying great success and their self-released album "Down in the Valley"

2. Ray LaMontagne & The Pariah Dogs "God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise" - I've always liked Ray LaMontagne but this year's release was my favorite album of his by far. Backed by the Pariah Dogs, LaMontagne's sound is a bit more varied and full this time around. From the funk-influenced "Repo Man" to folksy ballads such as "Like Rock & Roll and Radio," this album showcases LaMontagne's range in style. The first single off the album "Beg Steal or Borrow" is a bit more traditional for Ray, but delve into the album's beautiful love songs and foot-tapping bluesy tunes, and you'll find there's more to Ray than you thought you knew.

3. Brandi Carlile "Give Up the Ghost" - Though Carlile's latest release actually came out in 2009, I had to add it to this year's list because I truly fell in love with the album this past summer. For a few weeks, I was playing "That Year," a heartfelt ballad about coming to terms with a friends' suicide, on endless repeat (and Mike was about ready to delete this song from my iTunes library). When I finally got around to listening to the rest of the album, I finally realized what the big deal is when it comes to this girl. Carlile is a pretty big name in terms of female indie/alternative artists, but I was slow to join the bandwagon. "Give Up the Ghost" provides ample evidence Carlile's talent as a vocalist as well as a songwriter. I was fortunate enough to see her on her tour this fall and was blown away. Performing from her own catalogue as well as classics from the Beatles, Johnny Cash, and even Alphaville's "Forever Young," Carlile and her band put on one of the most entertaining shows I've ever attended. Though I think "Give Up the Ghost" stands up on it's own, seeing Brandi live this year secured her a spot on my 2010 list.

4. Mumford & Sons "Sigh No More" - Mumford & Sons are one of those bands that's been under the radar for the past few years but, finally, seems to be getting the recognition and acclaim they've long been due. I heard their single "Little Lion Man" on the radio earlier this year and enjoyed it but soon grew tired of hearing it replayed over and over on college radio. When I finally got around to picking up a copy of their album "Sigh No More," I guess I realized why their single was all over independent radio playlists. Though I generally like their first single, the majority of the songs that complete the album are even stronger. For strangers to Mumford & Sons, I generally describe their sound as a novel mix of celtic and bluegrass instrumentation, with dramatic compositions and delightful harmonizing. The title track "Sigh No More" is one of the best examples of the sweeping character of most of their songs - it begins with a chorus of voices and limited instrumentation but grows in pace and volume as it progresses, until finally erupting in a climactic instrumental and lyrical reflection on love. I honestly don't feel that my words do any justice to these guys so please, listen for yourself.

5. James Morrison "Songs for You, Truths for Me" - Okay, so this album actually came out in 2008. I knew that I'd heard "Precious Love" many a time before but mostly as background to holiday commercials or heard over the Muzak playing in the mall. Morrison's album, though more of a pop collection, is deserving of a real thorough listen rather than the half-hearted airplay it's given in the pet shop (yes, I did hear a Morrison tune at Petsmart while filling out paperwork to adopt my kitten Digby). Hailing from the UK, Morrison has released two albums with this one being his most recent. It did well on the charts in Britain when it came out two years ago but somehow I missed the memo. Though it's a bit more sugar-coated then usually fits my taste, Morrison's still got some substance behind his pop tunes, as well as a little soul. "Nothing Ever Hurt Like You" is more of a groovy R&B tune on the pains of love, while the album closes with "Love is Hard," another meditation on the agony of love though this time in the form of a solo acoustic ballad. My favorite song on the whole album, however, is "If You Don't Wanna Love Me," a low-tempo soul tune that contains some of the most romantic notions I've heard in recent pop music. Whenever Morrison belts out "you can't push me too far/there's no space in my heart/where I don't wanna love you," I melt a little inside. I guess I just can't resist the relentless male,  persistently trying to make things right and treat his lady right.

6. The Tallest Man on Earth - Swedish folk-rocker Kristian Matsson, known on stage as The Tallest Man on Earth, released two albums in 2010 - an LP entitled "The Wild Hunt" and an EP "Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird." Though I haven't heard anything from the latter, I've got to say I love the title. But I can speak to his full-length release and it's wonderfulness. I find his music reminiscent of early Bob Dylan; all Matsson's got to support his songs is a warble in his voice and a guitar around his neck - and he does alright. Though I find that his style is fairly constant as the album contains little variation in sound from song to song, the lyrical content makes the album (once again kind of like Dylan).

7. Laura Gibson "Beasts of Seasons" - Another 2009 release that I've been a little late in listening to. I think part of the problem was too many Laura's in my music library - Laura Gibson, Laura Marling, Laura Veirs. Gibson is my favorite Laura by far but I wasn't familiar enough with any of their music a few months ago to keep them all straight. Anyway, Laura Gibson. Her muted folksy sound is the perfect complement to her strong and confident voice; the subtle instrumentals allow her vocals and lyrics to really shine. "Beasts of Seasons" is an extremely cohesive album, though sometimes too much so as Gibson's songs can begin to sound fairly similar in style, pace, and general tone when listened to in one sitting. Nonetheless I really enjoy her sound - I often listen to her music when the days grow short and I'm creating something, whether on my blog, in the kitchen, or by hand. Her music is truly beautiful and her talent hard to deny, though I will admit that I hope to see Gibson push her limits with the next release.

8. Dylan LeBlanc - Another late find, but a great one! I actually discovered Dylan LeBlanc's music while blog-hopping. Kelly Ann from The Flowerchild Dwelling raved about LeBlanc's music, in particular his song "Emma Hartley." I had barely even finished my first listen-through when I automatically set it to repeat and listened again and again and again. I can't honestly say that I'm familiar with very much about this artist - I don't know where he hails from, if he's released an album, or even the names of many of his other songs (though a little help from the Google machine would surely help me learn more). But I can say in good faith that he's a talented musician worth listening to for any fans of folksy/indie artists. And I do know that he's released a single entitled "If Time Was For Wasting" (because the YouTube description for the official video told me so). Keep your eyes out for this young guy!

There were plenty of other great songs and albums out this year - I definitely don't maintain that this is a comprehensive list by any means. Jonsi (frontman to Sigur Ros) released his first solo effort "Go" to delighted fans who were far from disappointed (including myself!). And The Arcade Fire's 2010 release "The Suburbs" cannot go unacknowledged - it soared to the top of the charts and made unprecedented strides for independent musical artists, though I can't say I'm a huge fan of the group myself. The National's latest release "High Violet" delivered more of their particular and reliable sound to fans who have come to expect much from the Cincinnati natives. I was especially fond of their first single "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and would highly recommend giving their album a good long listen. For further reading on The Year 2010 in Musical Review, be sure to check out NPR Music (usually a pretty reliable source for quality musical acts) and your local independent radio station (if you need to adopt an indie station, visit the website for one of my favorites - 89.7 WTMD).

***I also came across this really interesting year-end list on The Huffington Post. Click here to see the "7 Things I Learned About Food in 2010" list from Slow Food USA Program Manager Jerusha Klemperer. I feel particularly excited and optimistic about the very first thing listed: The intersection of food, culture and class is a conversation we might finally be ready to have.

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