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CD Reviews:
The top albums of 2010 were...

of the Oakland Press

Posted: Sunday, December 26, 2010

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The decline of the album continues to be a perennial music biz story — for sales, however, not quality.

It’s clear that the full-length album is a challenged art form, taking its lumps as single-song digital downloads become the industry standard. Halfway through 2010, sales were down 12 percent compared to 2009. Major retailers have moved their CD racks from the front of the stores. And while digital album sales are picking up — partly thanks to the Beatles’ arrival at iTunes — they still lag well behind individual tracks.

Fortunately the job at hand is about artistic rather than commercial achievement, and there the news is much better.

Picking the best of 2010 was not easy. Not only was there good music but also a fair number of artists and groups who genuinely embraced the album as a creative vehicle, as any of the choices below indicate.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the best dozen titles of the year, in alphabetical order, a broad group that hails from several different corners of the music world:

* Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs” (Merge): Less bombastic and more spacious than 2007’s “Neon Bible” — which was also one of that year’s best — the Canadian troupe’s third album is sophisticated and nuanced, with plenty of social commentary that even takes to the group’s own hipster cool status. And a fully-realized character manages to tie together the album’s wide sonic range of loud rock (“Empty Room,” “Month of May”), New Wave (“Modern Man,” “Sprawl II”), ambient washes (“Half Light I,” “Sprawl I”), country (“Wasted Hours”) and classic pop (“Deep Blues”). Frontman Win Butler worries that “the music divides us into tribes,” but this is the kind of album everyone can get behind. Download: “Suburban War,” “Deep Blues,” “We Used to Want,” “City With No Children.”

* Big Boi, “Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty” (Purple Ribbon/Def Jam): The OutKast member’s first solo album was a long time coming and well worth the wait, a lush and expansive soundscape that blends an inherently Southern flavor with a phat, club-heavy bottom and funk, rock, electro and dub accents. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from a present-day George Clinton, who guests on the track “Fo Yo Sorrows,” and Big Boi’s rhymes are fleet, flowing and playful throughout. A highlight in what was an overall good year for rap. Download: “Shutterbugg,” “Fo Yo Sorrows,” “You Ain’t No DJ”

* The Black Keys, “Brothers” (Nonesuch): On it sixth album, the Akron duo continued to work with producer Danger Mouse — who expanded the Black Keys’ sound on 2008’s “Attack & Release” — and journeyed to Muscle Shoals (Ala.) Sound Studio. Bringing cutting-edge perspective into an old school house was a masterstroke, and Messrs Auerbach and Carney made good on the opportunity with some of their best and most relaxed songwriting yet. Download: “Tighten Up,” “Next Girl,” “Black Mud.”

* Eminem, “Recovery” (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope): The Detroit rapper continues the comeback he began with 2009’s “Relapse,” but with a new crew of collaborators (Just Blaze, Boi 1da, DJ Khalil) that give “Recovery” a fresh fire that its predecessor — which Eminem dubs “Ehh” here — did not possess. The 17-song set finds him continuing to take stock of the substance addictions that put him in rehab five years before and of his place in the rap game — nowhere better than in the track “Talkin’ 2 Myself” — while “Not Afraid,” “Won’t Back Down” (with Pink) and “Love the Way You Lie” (with Rihanna) are instant additions to the best of Eminem’s career repertoire. Download: “Not Afraid,” “Love the Way You Lie,” “Won’t Back Down,” “Talkin’ 2 Myself.”

* Cee-Lo Green, “The Lady Killer” (Elektra/Roadrunner): The Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley member got back to his solo career for the first time in six years in a big way — with the hysterical and delightfully profane opening salutation “F*** You.” The viral sensation is just one highlight here, however, as Green gets old school on a set of tunes boasting buoyant, Motown-worthy hooks and richly orchestrated melodies rooted in the ’60s and ’70s but with contemporaneous spins. This “Killer” has no filler. Download: “F*** You,” “Bright Lights Bigger City,” “Wildflower,” “Satisfied.”

* Jamey Johnson, “The Guitar Song” (Mercury Nashville): The double album is a rare beast in country music, but Johnson’s fourth album is a tour de force, a definitive and defining 25-songs showcase for both his writing prowess and his vocal chops. He gets help from songwriting collaborators such as Bobby Bare, James Otto and Alabama’s Teddy Gentry — while ace covers of Keith Whitley’s “Lonely at the Top,” Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times,” Mel Tillis’ “Heartache” and Vern Gosdin’s “Set ‘em Up Joe” provide effective reference points for Johnson’s own work. Download: “My Way to You,” “Lonely at the Top,” “Playing the Part,” “For the Good Times.”

* Kid Rock, “Born Free” (Atlantic): A game-changer in the Detroit rocker’s career, the Rick Rubin-produced “Born Free” sets aside the cocksure Early Mornin Stoned Pimp/Devil Without a Cause character in favor of earnest, country-flavored heartland rock cut from the same cloth as Bob Seger and John Mellencamp. Rock’s fusionist nature shows up on the socially conscious “Care,” which mashes together country singer Martina McBride and rapper T.I., but the bulk of the album (which also features Seger, Sheryl Crow and Zac Brown) is down-home, gritty and genuinely thoughtful. Download: “Born Free,” “Slow My Roll,” God Bless Saturday,” “Purple Sky.”

* Mumford and Sons, “Sigh No More” (Glassnote): This year’s breath of fresh air came from a British folk-rock quartet steeped in the Kinks’ “Muswell Hillbillies,” some Fairport Convention and Celtic-flavored forebears such as the Pogues and the Waterboys. This debut is hardly throwback fare, however, as Marcus Mumford and company are decidedly in the present both lyrically and sonically. An understated but essential discovery. Download: “The Cave,” “Winter Winds,” “Dust Bowl Dance.”

* Robert Plant, “Band of Joy” (Rounder): The former Led Zeppelin singer does it again — without Alison Krauss this time but with another fine support cast that includes producer and guitarist Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin as a more aggressive female foil. Covers of Los Lobos, Low and the Kelly Brothers as well as originals like the train song “Central Two-O-Nine” highlight this sumptuous slice of Americana, which more than justify’s Plant’s reticence to return to the Zep fold. Download: “Angel Dance,” “Silver Rider,” “Central Two-O-Nine.”

* The Roots, “How I Got Over” (Def Jam): In 2008, the Roots said the then-new “Rising Down” would be the hip-hop group’s final album. Boy, are we glad they were wrong. Apparently the troupe’s stint as the “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” house band got the creative juices stirring and resulted in one of the best of its nine albums, with simmering grooves and surprising rock touches, pointedly topical rhymes and well-deployed guest appearances by John Legend, Phonte, Monsters of Folk and more. And there’s been no more talk about this being a last album, either. Download: “How I Got Over,” “Dear God 2.0,” “The Fire,” “Radio Daze.”

* Bruce Springsteen, “The Promise (The Lost Sessions: Darkness on the Edge of Town)” (Columbia): On paper this is a set of outtakes Springsteen wrote and recorded between “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” but in truth it’s so much more than that. Carefully chosen and sequenced, the two-disc, 21-song package — which is also part of the box set “The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story” — holds together as its own cohesive album, the half-step between those two iconic entries in Springsteen’s catalog. They’re more than 30 years old, but it’s a testament to his songwriting skills that they still sound decidedly, and vitally, of the moment. Download: “The Promise,” “Racing in the Street (‘78),” “Because the Night,” “Ain’t Good Enough For You.”

* Kanye West, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam): The rapper paid a heavy penance for stepping on Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards but came back with genuine “Power” on his fifth album. The nearly 70-minute aural amusement park returns to the audaciously indulgent sonic ways of West’s previous high water mark, 2005’s “Late Registration,” with an eclectic guest list (Jay-Z, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Drake, The-Dream, John Legend, Elton John, Detroit’s Dwele, Chris Rock, Bon Iver) and cool samples from King Crimson, Black Sabbath, Gil Scott-Heron and Manfred Mann. Clearly there is love after the loathing’s gone. Download: “Power,” “All of the Lights," “Devil in a New Dress,” “Gorgeous.”

Ten More of the Best: Ryan Adams, “III/IV” (Pax Am); Beach House, “Teen Dream” (Sub Pop); LCD Soundystem, “This is Happening” (DFA); Gorillaz, “Plastic Beach” (Parlophone/Virgin); John Mellencamp, “No Better Than This” (Rounder); Janelle Monae, “The ArchAndroid” (Suites II and II) (Bad Boy); The National, “High Violet” (4AD); Rihanna, “Loud” (Def Jam); John Legend and the Roots, “Wake Up!” (GOOD/Columbia); Brian Wilson, “... Reimagines Gershwin” (Walt Disney).

The Top 10 Detroit-area concerts of 2010
1. Roger Waters, Oct. 24, the Palace of Auburn Hills

2. Gorillaz, Oct. 13, Fox Theatre

3. Carole King and James Taylor, May 27, the Palace of Auburn Hills

4. Kid Rock, Aug. 14, DTE Energy Music Theatre

5. LCD Soundystem and Hot Chip, Oct. 27, Fillmore Detroit

6. Eminem, Jay-Z and B.o.B., Sept. 2 Comerica Park

7. Rihanna, Aug. 22, DTE Energy Music Theatre

8. Green Day, Aug. 23, DTE Energy Music Theatre

9. Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, April 19, Orchestra Hall

10. The Hold Steady, Gaslight Anthem and the Whigs, July 15 at the Fillmore Detroit

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