Recommendations from last year, pulled from my running list of first-listen impressions. Disclaimer: albums considered in their entirety, and (unfortunately) often based on a couple of listens, or a few hearings with compromised neural bandwidth.
Five winners from 2010
Joanna Newsom. A. Her voice has filled out since Ys, and plays suberbly competent counterpoint to the harp here. At first glance there are a boatload of musically ideas packed in here, yet any instant remains comfortably sparse; any segment of the triple album could stand alone; in its entirety, it demands attention and repays in reams. Caveat: I’ve only listened to it 3 times. Excuse: it’s longer than many feature films.
Sufjan Stevens. A. I dealt it a B on first listen (inventive!), a C on the third (schmaltz!) and a solid A (space pop of the decade!) by the sixth or seventh; it hasn’t left my head or regular rotation since. Features a schizophrenic toolbox of electronic effects and classic madrigal freak elements, which could have been a overpowering disaster if not paired with a core of robust singer-songwriting.
Brad Mehldau. A. Attention-grabbing arranging with an attention-holding groove. Beautifully produced, with a space that moves over speakers and is almost ambient on headphones. Will force me to further scrap any classification of my library by genre.
Esperanza Spalding. A. Her prior has remained in the dinner rotation; this one has held up better over the first few semi-serious listens. Nicely engineered. Flashes of beauty and inventive surprises capture, for me, the best of what jazz is, and what’s often difficult to access as a casual listener.
Cee Lo Green. B+. Inventive, hook-laden disco soul with tight production. Stands up to 10 plays, probably not 100. A CD I would keep in the car, and area 1-year-olds rate it as their favorite dance record of the year. The album runs out of ideas at about the 30-minute mark (the A-side would have made a killer EP), but I’ll get tired of it soon then shelve it until spring weather hits, when it will seem appropriate again.
Five more records worth your attention
Arcade Fire. B+. At first impression, a pleasant compromise between their last two (very enjoyable) releases. Varied and hooky, but I don’t hear the inventiveness adored by some reviewers.
Phil Selway. B. Sounds exactly like a Radiohead spinoff might. Fair, fine; not novel but very listenable.
Stacy Kent. B. Well-executed but straightforward; a really pleasant listen. Stylistically similar to her back catalogue, but I think the francophone strategy sits well with me, because the lyrics don’t get in the way, and English is just a terrible language for music.
New Pornographers. B-. It’s the same formula, without as much heart. No sense putting this on until you need a break from Challengers or Electric Version. That said, I’m particularly attuned to their formula or timbre, and good pop is good pop.
Jonsi. B-. A solid contribution for songwriting, arrangement and stylistic intrigue. I’d put this on when friends visit; while one listen through is satisfying, it doesn’t make me want to queue it up again right away.
Ooh, and the Frazey Ford record; was that this year? And Band of Joy, especially the tracks with more Griffin than Plant. Metric was okay. Oh, and the bells: Sleigh, Broken and & Sebastian – all worth a listen. Deerhunter. Metric. And Blitzen Trapper, from earlier this summer – that was fun. Phoenix! Sharon Van Etten, Titus Andronicus. … …