Music Monday Flashback: My Top Ten Albums Of 2010

Originally posted on December 2, 2010 (and featured in the late NewsReal Blog)…

Here’s my third annual blog tradition of counting down the ten best albums of the year (check out2008 and 2009). I’ve actually done this for years, and if you know anything about me and the listmaker that I am, that should come as no surprise.

2010 was actually a decent year for music, though largely you wouldn’t know it looking at the charts. A lot of the best music this year was off the beaten path, and it’s always fun to discover new stuff. Hopefully, you’ll be inspired by this list to dig into some artists you either hadn’t heard of or hadn’t considered listening to before.

Without further ado, here’s my Top 10 of 2010. Links will take you to iTunes or artists’ websites.

10. Lady Antebellum, Need You Now — I’ve been a fan of this trio since they first emerged a few years back. I particularly love their harmonies and their ability to create songs that embrace pop songwriting without leaving country music behind. Their second album was an improvement over their first in writing, production, and performance. From the soaring, heartbreaking title track to the upbeat numbers and everything in between, Need You Now shows the true potential these three talented people have. By no means is it perfect, however; like nearly all contemporary country, it gets cutesy in spots, and a couple of songs (“American Honey” comes to mind) are a little boring, but all in all, Lady Antebellum upped the ante with this one. (Best of the Best: “Need You Now,” “Our Kind of Love,” “Perfect Day”)

9. Chris McClarney, Introducing Chris McClarney – Chris McClarney established himself as an extremely talented worship songwriter when Jesus Culture covered two of his songs (“Your Love Never Fails” and “Your Love Is Everything”). Those two songs appear along with four others on his debut EP. In writing this post, I just discovered that he has also released a full album this year…you better believe I’ll be checking it out. Chris McClarney has a cool voice…I wish I could sing like him…and the knack for writing songs that, even in a smooth pop-rock setting, convey real power. (And I wonder how many of the ladies think he looks like Matt Saracen from Friday Night Lights…) I’m sure we’ll see more great things to come from him. (Best of the Best: “Your Love Never Fails,” “Your Love Is Everything,” “Blessed Assurance”)

8. Cindi Hall, Sleepin’ With The Window Open — I’ve known Cindi for about 15 years, and I was excited to see her get “her chance.” Two songs on this album were finalists for songwriting prizes: “Your First” made the Top 10 of CMT’s 2010 Listener’s Choice Award, while “Watching You Go” made the finals of the 2010 John Lennon Songwriting Competition. Sleepin’ With The Window Open is nice slice of Southern pop, blending jazz, country, and acoustic touches, but Cindi is at her best when she goes in a straightforward pop direction. This album is a nice introduction to a talented singer-songwriter. (Best of the Best: “Your First,” “While I Wait For You,” “I Found Love”)

7. The Weepies, Be My Thrill — The Weepies, married duo Deb Talan and Steve Tannen, have created a unique brand of folky-acoustic pop over nearly a decade and four albums. With their latest, Be My Thrill, they’ve polished their sound to near-perfection. Deb Talan’s vocals are kind of a quirkier version of Shawn Colvin’s, and their songs are pretty similar to hers, especially on songs like the title track and the magnificent “I Was Made For Sunny Days.” The only weak points on the album come when Steve Tannen sings; his voice is forgettable, to put it plainly. All told, the duo make some of the most pleasant music around, and, frankly, they’d be higher on the list if Deb Talan sang all the leads. (Best of the Best: “I Was Made For Sunny Days,” “Hummingbird,” “They’re In Love, Where Am I?”)

6. Brooke Fraser, Flags — I’ve been a fan of New Zealand’s Brooke Fraser for about three years, and I eagerly awaited her follow-up to Albertine, which made the #1 spot on my best of 2008 list the year it was released here in the States. Flags, which she wrote mostly in a cabin in the North Carolina mountains, expands the range of her songwriting and performing talents. From the joyous first single “Something In The Water,” to the jazzy, quirky “Jack Kerouac,” to the lovely, dramatic duet “Who Are We Fooling,” to “Coachella,” which uniquely sums up the music festival experience, the album is full of amazing musical moments. The crowing achievement is the title track, in which Fraser expresses her faith in a moving and heartrending way. Flags shows a tremendous amount of growth for Brooke Fraser, and it hints at more excellence to come. (Best of the Best: “Flags,” “Something In The Water,” “Coachella”)

5. Band of Horses, Infinite Arms — I only knew about one song by Band of Horses before this year (the still incredible “No One’s Gonna Love You”), and I didn’t really know about Infinite Arms until after the band had released the “Georgia” single with the UGA Redcoat Marching Band. I’m glad I had the chance to dig into this album. Band of Horses have polished their sound to pop perfection, but they left just enough of the indie edge to keep themselves from sounding slick. Terrific story songs and confessional-type tunes abound, and the band’s harmonies are rich, sometimes reminiscent of artists like the Eagles, the Byrds, or the Zac Brown Band. This is an especially satisfying set of songs. (Best of the Best: “Infinite Arms,” “Factory,” “Older”)

4. Connor Pledger, Detours — Connor is another personal friend of mine, and he released his debut this fall. Detours is a stripped down affair, with Connor’s acoustic guitar and preternaturally mature voice backed by little more than piano, another acoustic, and backing vocals in spots. Probably one of the best, most succinct things I can say about this album is that I can’t get the songs out of my head. He comes across as a singer-songwriter out of the Jack Johnson/John Mayer school (though he has way more soul than either one), but to make too many comparisons is to deny his originality. Connor’s songwriting sense and unique sound are well beyond his years, and he changes up the acoustic style with some reggae, funk, and even gospel stylings. This is the debut of a major talent, and if you get your hands on a copy of this amazing album, you can say that you heard him before the rest of the world did. (Best of the Best: “Cut Back,” “Stutter,” “Ain’t It Strange”)

3. Cee Lo Green, The Lady Killer — Say what you want about the song (“F— You” was the most profanely irresistible single all year long), but Cee Lo Green most definitely knew one heck of a way to hype his upcoming album. The thing is, he didn’t need any sort of shock value, because The Lady Killer is one of the most incredible albums this year. It’s not so much an R & B record as it is a gloriously retro-pop album, much like a male version of the records Amy Winehouse and Duffy released a couple of years back. Green borrows elements from the early 60s (“Old Fashioned” sounds like it’s straight out of that decade) to the 80s (“Bright Lights Bigger City” has the best synth riff since Van Halen’s “Jump”) It’s not perfect, and it’s not really a concept album, despite the James Bond-ish opener and closer. But with this record, Cee Lo Green proves that he just might be our generation’s Al Green. (Best of the Best: “Cry Baby,” “No One’s Gonna Love You,” “Bright Lights Bigger City”)

2. Melanie Penn, Wake Up Love — I don’t often by an album virtually unheard based on a review or article, but that’s what I did when I first read about Melanie Penn back in the spring. Her story is fascinating: a woman comes to New York to star on Broadway, has some success, then takes a gamble to strike out on her own as a singer-songwriter, and her music is even more incredible. Wake Up Love is a beautiful album full of powerful songs and impeccable production, and Penn’s voice is a fine instrument (I imagine it’s better suited for intimate singer-songwriter stuff than to the bombast of Broadway). Penn blends elements of pop, folk, soul, jazz, and country to create an album that’s often melancholy but never maudlin. She weaves her faith into the songs expertly, without inserting songs that would fit in on sappy, wimpy Christian radio. From beginning to end, Wake Up Love is a tremendously rewarding experience. (Best of the Best: “Ordinary Day,” “Balloon,” “Wake Up Love”)

1. Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give — Anyone who has followed Zac Brown Band for more than a couple of years knows that they are no mere country act, even though 2008’s The Foundation was country up, down, and sideways. The record label apparently allowed them to spread their wings a little more this time out, and ZBB have created the most eclectic and entertaining album this year. You Get What You Give proves even further that these guys are incredibly tight musicians, and they’re not too shabby vocally, either. Guest appearances by Jimmy Buffett and Alan Jackson aren’t distracting; rather, they blend seamlessly into the album’s framework. Though much of the album fall squarely in the country genre, there are plenty of other musical elements through and through, more than enough to keep the music interesting. “Who Knows” and “Settle Me Down” bring in reggae elements, while “I Play The Road” and, again, “Who Knows” prove that the band has studied the Allman Brothers Band catalogue thoroughly. “Keep Me In Mind” throws in a little Philly soul on the bridge. Ballads like “No Hurry,” “Martin,” (an ode to Zac’s guitar that’s nowhere near as cheesy as one might think it would be) and the stunning “Cold Hearted” allow Brown to show off his vocal chops, while “As She’s Walking Away” features some sweet harmonies reminiscent of 70s country rock like the Eagles or Poco. You Get What You Give is hands down the best album this year. (Best of the Best: “As She’s Walking Away,” “Cold Hearted,” “Who Knows”)