Jason & the Scorchers and more...
A record so slept on by the music community, I had to confirm Halcyon Times’ existence wasn’t a dream when I sat down to write this. It’s a shame this record hasn’t found a larger audience (yet!), because Jason Ringenberg, Warner Hodges and friends—including the Georgia Satellites’ Dan Baird and Ginger from the Wildhearts—bring the heat on Halcyon Times, rivaling the output from their mid-‘80s cowpunk heyday. Opening manifesto “Moonshine Guy” (about a guy who “loves the Stones, hates the Doors [and] thinks the Beatles sing for girls”) bounds out of the gate and into a world full of blue collar coalminers (“Beat on the Mountain”), souped-up rockabilly cornpone (“Fear Not Gear Rot”), country soul (“Mother of Greed”), music industry disillusionment (“Twang Town Blues”) and of course, girls (“Mona Lee”, “When Did It Get So Easy (To Lie to Me)?”). I don’t know how a record released less than 12 months ago can already be due for rediscovery, but here we are. Stephen Haag
jj nº 3
The critical response to nº 3 was a classic case of an album being condemned for what it wasn’t rather than considered for what it was. The Swedish pop duo’s debut album, nº 2, was heralded for its fresh mixture of dreampop and hip-hop, its deliberate confusion of irony and humor, and its very good songs. nº 3 got a lot of flak for being more of the same, only less substantial. True, jj didn’t take a quantum leap, but was anyone other than most hard-to-impress web critics really looking for them to? Especially when nº 2 was shorter than a lot of bands’ EPs? Yes, a few bits of nº 3 were too flaky or too Enya-like. But most of these songs were well-crafted pop disguised as indie slacker toss-offs. The near-ambient “Light” was genuinely shiver-inducing. The sampled sports announcer on “Into the Light” was the kind of brilliant off-the-wall touch Saint Etienne would think of. And throughout, Elin Kastlander’s voice had a kind of sweet/trashy edge that most of this kind of music lacks. Compact yet sprawling with good stuff to catch your ears’ attention, nº 3 was one of the year’s most endlessly-listenable albums. Isn’t that enough? John Bergstrom
The U.S. tends to keep some of its greatest artists under wraps while other countries recognize and appreciate the talent of singers and songwriters from North American shores. Ever since debuting with They Don’t Know (2002), singer/multi-instrumentalist/producer Angela Johnson has made an impact on audiences in Japan, France, and the United Kingdom. No matter the geographical orientation, It’s Personal (2010), Johnson’s fourth solo project, should be on the radar of any self-respecting music lover. Johnson excels in song craft, whether in the bass and beats of “Better” (arguably, one of her best compositions to date), the intimately soulful melody of “All in Me” (a duet with indie soul man Darien), or on the rousing, jazz-infused anthem, “It’s Personal”. Across the album’s 11 songs, Johnson exhibits an engaging, accessible, and impressive musicality that positions her as one of the greatest architects of contemporary R&B. Christian John Wikane
Praise & Blame
As Tom Jones hit 70 this year, it already seemed like a good year to rediscover a guy who has been melting audiences for decades with the power of his awe-inspiring vocals and his panty-magnet stage charisma. What made Jones’s 2010 most remarkable, though, was Praise & Blame, his most impressive record in ages and, even for a storied artist, a major artistic step forward. Other aging legends—Robert Plant, Elton John, etc.—got all the attention in 2010 for rediscovering their roots, but Jones’s return to grizzled, glitz-free gospel and blues was one of the year’s nicest surprises. The record, produced by Kings of Leon cohort Ethan Johns, crackles with stripped-down, live-in-the-studio Americana arrangements, as Jones, in miraculous form, takes the temperature of his own soul. And, as always, this gentleman runs hot. Steve Leftridge
Man on the Moon 2: The Legend of Mr Rager
Man on the Moon 2: The Legend of Mr Rager
In 2009, the demise of hip-hop was one of the great pop music memes of the year. As the narrative then went, the genre was all but dead, stagnated by a lack of innovation and its inability to captivate the larger pop culture. But what a difference a year can make. Vitality was injected back in the genre by a little existential introspection, with the likes of Kanye West undercutting his self-importance on Twisted Fantasy, the Roots’ anxious probing on their 2010 release, the self-examination on Drake’s debut LP and the dark confessional Bastard by bedroom rapper Tyler, the Creator. Even Eminem canned the gratuitousness for the sake of introspection, leading to his best album in a decade. But the silver medal winner to West’s opus was Kid Cudi’s psychedelic-rap psychodrama Man on the Moon 2. A follow-up to his lackluster debut, Cudi continues to bring the angst but without the catchy choruses and the shiny production found on his last effort. This makes for an uncomfortable first listen but this agonized beast is a grower in the truest sense of the term. Given the time it deserves, it demonstrates that it is one of the best hip-hop releases—indeed one of the best albums period—of 2010.
Eric Allen Been