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As the days grow shorter and 2010 recedes into the rear view, it is time to take a look at my favorite  albums of the year.  Last year I narrowed it down to a top 15 list, this year I narrowed it to 18.  Eighteen is way to many to write up, so I posted a list of the second tier favorites which I posted a few days ago.  This, then, is what remains; my favorite albums of 2010.

8) Happy: Robbie Fulks plays the Music of Michael Jackson (Boondoggle, 3/25/10).  It is no surprise that Robbie Fulks ends up on this list, after all he has been one of my favorites for going on 12 years.  The big surprise is that it is a Michael Jackson tribute.  Yep, Robbie Fulks sings Michael Jackson songs, and they are really good.  This isn’t your typical tribute album, it is more of a re-interpretation; Robbie manages to make the songs his own (Ben is the only straight-up cover).  This album is in line with Fulks’ recent works, not as countrified as his early stuff, yet still shying away from anything that sounds like pop.  The album opens and closes with Goin’ Back to Indiana, the opening song is the country-ist song on the album, here is what No Depression says about the last:

Goin’ back to Goin’ back to Indiana – bringing the music and story full circle, this mixes up track one with samples, loops and voice-overs “back to where I started from” is prominently repeated. It’s a metaphor for the way that Jackson’s life was twisted and distorted from its original innocence into something fascinating but darker (check the slightly discordant minor key loops) and more confusing (From the review of No Depression.)

Robbie obviously admires Jackson as a song writer, and this album really shows it.  Rumors are that this album was meant to be released in 2002, but Jackson’s pedophilia accusations pushed it to the back shelf for a while.  It is always interesting when a singer-songwriter does a cover album, but you can quit holding your breath, this one works.

7) Old 97’s, The Grand Theatre Volume One (New West 10/12/10).  This album makes a single statement, the Old 97’s are back and they are as good as ever.  The Grand Theatre is their best release since 2004’s Drag it Up.  I had the pleasure to see the 97’s back in July in Missouri and can attest that, whether on stage or in studio, the Old 97’s have earned their place on this list.  Rhett Miller’s catchy vocals and well turned phrase hearken back to earlier, less poppy, Old 97’s.  Back in the late 90s these guys introduced me to cow punk with their raw rockin’ Texas sound.  Then in the late oughts they made a few albums, their best commercial successes, which were over produced for my tastes but did give them some pop hits.  While I can’t blame them for seeking success, I whole-heartedly welcome them back.  Highlights of the album include the straight country ballads You Were Born to Be in Battle and Let the Whiskey Take the Reins, the re-working of Dylan’s Desolation Angel into Champaign Illinois, and the rousing crowd pleaser Please Hold on While the Train is Moving.  My favorite song from the album is The Magician, it has classic 97’s caustic wit wrapped in sweet innuendo, the kind of music that makes you want to turn up the stereo and scream the lyrics along with the band.  Enough recordings were made in these sessions that Volume Two is slated for release next year.

“What can I say?  The Old 97’s have been making anger and depression sound fun since 1993.”  –Rhett Miller

6) Jon Lanford and Skull Orchard, Old Devils (Bloodshot 8/24/10).  I gave this album a full review earlier this year.

5) Eleven Hundred Springs , This Crazy Life (Smith 2/2/10).  This Crazy Life marks the 10th album from EHS and these Texas stalwarts show no sign of slowing down.  I’ve heard these guys described as acoustic music with a rock n roll attitude, they continue to live up to that description.  Songs like Great American Trainwreck and Honky Tonk Angels are instant classic roadhouse rock.  The lilting I’m in a Mellow Mood paints a picture as good as any paint splattered artist, with the song almost oozing lemonade in its conveyance of a hot summer (maybe stoned) day.  High on the Town and Straight to Bed are out right rockers with Straight to Bed being upbeat in tone as well as message.  Read Nine Bullet‘s take on these long haired tattooed hippy freaks from Dallas.  I’ve been following these guys since 2004’s Bandwagon and know that as good as this album is, it is even better to see them live.  These guys know how to have fun and engage an audience and every show is guaranteed to be a blast.

4) Gretchen Wilson, I Got Your Country Right Here (Redneck 3/30/10).  This album is pure country, it is in turns rousing, trite, flamboyant, hard driving, and earnest; sometimes all 5 at once.  It is, in effect, country the way it was meant to sound.  The song Work Hard Play Harder is an anthem for every working class woman and proved to be a popular single.  Other songs illustrate the working class nature of this album, such as the political Blue Collar Done Turn Red and Trucker Man (masterful slide guitar!).  This is Wilson’s first release since getting out from under Sony and it shows that she has no intention of settling into Nashville smaltz pop.  As she sings on Outlaws and Renegades:

Well, just the other day I was driving down the road
Listening to the stuff coming out of Music Row
I didn’t recognise a single song or none of the names
But it didn’t really matter cause they all seem to sound the same

Where’s all the outlaws and renegades?
Lord knows I miss those days
When they said what they thought
And what they thought was what was on your mind

Outlaw country is alive and well and has an excellent proponent in Gretchen Wilson.

3) Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses, Junky Star (Lost Highway 8/31/10).  Last year Bingham released Roadhouse Son which made number 2 on my yearly list.  This year he again rises into the top three albums, a testament to his depth of lyrics and musical abilities.  The album opens with a harmoica and tells you exactly what to expect.  The opening song, The Poet, is about sleeping on Santa Monica Pier with the homeless, the vagrants, and the junkies; there is a level of feeling to the song that speaks loudly.  The album varies from raspy ballads such as Yesterday’s Blues and full on band assaults on such songs as Depression.  The entire album is dark, with characters seemingly out of luck and desperate.  Bingham earns a place in a long and valued tradition, taking his place amongst Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Steve Earle, and others.  I have no way of knowing what demons are eating Bingham, but he manages to channel them into his music and the result is some of the sparsest, ragged music out there.  Pop Matters describes the album like this:

The record’s best songs also tell the best stories: “Hallelujah”, one of the album’s most polished melodies, is told from the point of view of a murdered man who is caught between worlds, realizing that his faith in heaven was misplaced but who can’t return to his earthly loved one either. “Yesterday’s Blues” is a Nebraska-style folk ballad, the album’s most direct love song. The title cut is a story of a farmer’s plight—a story Bingham knows first hand—but one that takes a tragic turn into murder and addiction: “I borrowed a quarter for a call to the other side/Told God that the whole damn world was waiting around to die”. The album’s best tune is “Depression”, finding the narrator getting out of some bullshit town or another that’s going down in flames, reaching the album’s most powerful moment: “I’d rather lay down in a pine box/than to sell my heart to a fuckin’ wasteland.”

Bingham earns a special level of respect for not making a pop album.  Bingham wrote the song The Weary Kind for the movie Crazy Heart which charted and earned him a Golden Globe, an Academy Award, and Song of the Year at the AMA.  He could have been forgiven for coming out with a pop album to build on his success, but he didn’t, and for that he has earned my respect.

2) Drive-By Truckers, The Big To-Do (ATO 3/16/10).  This marks the Truckers 10th album in 11 years, despite their somewhat fluid line up, this rocking southern band may be the hardest working group in show business.  This album show cases what the band does best, gritty character sketches laid out on a foundation of guitar rock, and no one does it better.  The album opens darkly with Daddy Learned to Fly a hard driving song about a young boy whose father had recently died.  This is followed up with Birthday Boy, a tale of misadventure with a prostitute.  Of the 13 songs on this album (50 minutes, short for a DBT release) fully half a dozen could be mistaken for classic DBT, and that is a good thing.  You Got Another features  vocals by Shonna Tucker, a rare treat.    The album ends on a slower note The Flying Wallendas and Eyes Like Glue, the latter a father giving advice to his son and trying to prepare him that he (the father) is just a man.

Lyrically the album closes where it opened, typical for a DBT album as they still believe in The Album as art format. They hearken back to a day when The Album was the work, the songs were incidental to the whole, and to judge a song without the context of The Album was heresy. Now most albums are just collections of songs, with The Album a casualty of consumptive vapidity run amok.  (Rumor is that DBT recorded two albums and that we can expect another release as early as February!)

1) Backyard Tire Fire, Good To Be (Kelsey Street, 2/16/10).  It is hard to believe that I just discovered this band in January and by March I was listening to little else.  The only way that I can describe them is to say that Backyard Tire Fire would be the progeny if ZZ Top mated with the Bottle Rockets.  The most recent release is catchy and raw southern rock.  The album opens with Roadsong #39, an instant road trip classic.  The song A Thousand Gigs Ago will also make its way onto many road trip mixes.  Musically this is one of BTFs best releases, but lyrically some of the songs seem a little on the thin side.  But even these filler songs will have you singing along while bopping to the music.  Hell and Back and Good To Be are my favorite songs on the album, with Piss and Moan being a sure crowd pleaser.


The album ends with the slow, almost dirge, Once Upon a Time.

2010 was a great year for small label music and these albums and artists are just a small slice of it, focusing on Americana and its derivatives, there are whole other worlds out there to discover and play in.

What music did you discover in 2010?  What artists, songs, or albums did you feel had something to say to you?

Looking forward with eager eyes to 2011.

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