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Best Albums of 2010 – A Year of Collaborations

10.

Le Noise by Neil Young (Reprise)

Neil Young has released more than 30 albums as a solo artist and with his band Crazy Horse, and with eight of them having come out since 2000, he has not become any less prolific. Unfortunately, as had been the case in the 1980s and 1990s, the results have run the gamut from mildly enjoyable (Silver & Gold, Prairie Wind, Living With War) to entirely forgettable (Are You Passionate?, Fork In The Road).

Sure, nobody at this point is going to tell Neil Young to stop releasing so many albums, but it does seem like we have had to wait around for a few duds before hearing another one that is truly inspired. Le Noise is probably the first album since Living With War that doesn’t sound like an afterthought. The irony is that like Living With War, this album was announced very shortly before its release, and the premise is relatively simple: Neil Young and his acoustic and electric guitars sitting in a room with a plethora of sonic enhancers and producer extraordinare Daniel Lanois. I’ve spoken to a number of people about this album; some love it, some hate it, but in the end one thing is definitely clear – for a man who has taken a lot of chances with his albums and has explored many different types of music, Le Noise actually manages to accomplish something wholly different from anything else in the Neil Young catalogue. So even if it proves to be another second or third-rate Neil Young album, it’s got that going for it.

Key cuts: “Walk With Me,” “Love and War,” “Hitchhiker”

9.

National Ransom by Elvis Costello (Hear Music)

The only thing more predictable than me including a Neil Young album on a Best Of list is me including an Elvis Costello album on the same list. Truthfully, I feel like this is an imperfect album. Where Secret, Profane & Sugarcane had a cohesiveness to it, this album seems like more of a compilation. Not that this necessarily makes it a bad album, but I also find it makes listening to it that much more challenging. The album’s best moments are sonically somewhere between Spike, All This Useless Beauty and Brutal Youth. In terms of musical support, Elvis features members of The Impostors, The Sugarcanes as well as Leon Russell and Marc Ribot.

Key cuts: “A Slow Drag With Josephine,” “Five Small Words,” “I Lost You”

8.

I Learned The Hard Way by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings (Daptone)

It seems like every Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings album leaps forward a few years in the journey through classic soul, R&B and funk. I Learned The Hard Way takes many of its musical cues from the more inventive work that Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and others did in the early 1970s. “The Game Gets Old” and the title track are key examples of this. Elsewhere, it seems to go back even further – “Mama Don’t Like My Man” sounds like it could have been performed by the likes of Ruth Brown or LaVern Baker. Personally, I prefer the rawer, earlier Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings material, but you can’t blame the band for stepping a little more outside their comfort level. From a songwriting perspective, more and more of the band members are having a hand at contributing material. In the long run, this can only help the band’s output stay fresh and varied.

Key cuts: “I Learned The Hard Way,” “She Ain’t A Child No More,” “Money”

7.

El Turista by Josh Rouse (Yep Roc)

When singer-songwriter Josh Rouse moved to Spain, hints of the country’s music started to make its way into his music. El Turista is an even fuller realization of these influences, with Rouse singing as many songs in Spanish as he does English. Just when Rouse’s music started to follow the same patterns, he has managed to deliver a completely fresh sound, but one that doesn’t completely abandon his earlier sensibilities. Pick this one up on vinyl and listen to it on a Sunday morning.

Key cuts: “Lemon Tree,” “Mesie Julian,” “I Will Live On Islands”

6.

Broken Bells by Broken Bells (Columbia Records)

One of the earliest gems in music for 2010 was Broken Bells, a collaboration between producer extraordinaire Danger mouse and Shins frontman James Mercer. Both sonics and songwriting are at the forefront of this solid album, which has been both a commercial and critical success.

Key cuts: “The High Road,” “The Ghost Inside,” “The Mall & Misery”

5.

Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall & John Oates (Blue Note)

This album takes a guilty pleasure and makes it sound really, really cool. From the opening strains of “Heard It On The Radio,” you can tell that The Bird and the Bee are about to take these 80s hits we’ve heard a thousand times and make them sound fresh and exciting. Those who have never heard Inara George sing before are bound to remember her, skipping back a few seconds so they can hear her deliver the line “I’ll do anything you want me to” in “I Can’t Go For That” over and over again, especially when she goes back and hits the high note. Slip “Maneater,” “Kiss On My List” and “Private Eyes” into the playlist at your next at your next party and watch your guests start singing along proudly.

Key cuts: “Maneater,” “Kiss On My List,” “I Can’t Go For That”

4.

Lonely Avenue by Ben Folds & Nick Hornby (Nonesuch)

This collaboration is one of many on the list, but is probably the most unlikely of them all in that it involves a well-known pop musician and a British novelist. Nick Hornby has made his love for music clear, from novels like High Fidelity and Juliet, Naked to his non-fiction volume Songbook. His concepts and words were paired with music in an ill fated stage version of High Fidelity, but Ben Folds has proven a much better collaborator as is evidenced by Lonely Avenue. Just like his novels, Hornby’s lyrics pair humour and the depths of human emotion, sometimes within the space of the same song (as on “Doc Pomus”). “Levi Johnston’s Blues” is probably the best case of topical satire put to music since Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys.

Key cuts: “Levi Johnston’s Blues,” “Claire’s Ninth,” “Belinda”

3.

You Are Not Alone by Mavis Staples (Anti-)

Soul/gospel legend Mavis Staples has been making music for five decades and counting, but she’s proven herself willing to take one of the biggest risks of her career by allowing Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy to produce one of her albums. The results are simply magical, particularly the Tweedy-penned title track which sounds right at home alongside gospel standards like “Don’t Knock” and covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Allen Toussaint and Randy Newman. Tweedy was smart to let Staples use her own band, even though he quietly sneaks in on bass and guitar, and brings Neko Case collaborators like Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor along for the ride.

Key cuts: “Don’t Knock,” “You Are Not Alone,” “Wrote A Song For Everyone”

2.

Plastic Beach by Gorillaz (EMI/Virgin)

If 2010 was truly a year of unlikely collaborations, then this album plays like a compilation of these collaborations. You’ve got Damon Albarn, the lead singer of Blur, front and centre. A wide array of guests from The Clash’s Mick Jones & Paul Simonon, De La Soul, Little Dragon, Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack and Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys make for a pretty wild party. The best songs are the ones fueled by this collaborative nature. “Stylo” starts with Mos Def cryptically rapping over top of a steady groove. Then comes Albarn’s understated vocal performance before soul legend Bobby Womack kicks down the door with his contribution. Elsewhere, “Superfast Jellyfish” models itself after a quirky breakfast cereal commercial that finds De La Soul rapping the verses and Gruff Rhys singing the chorus. Sure, not every moment on this album shines as brightly as the next, but there are enough memorable tracks to make this album one we’ll return to over the years to come.

Key cuts: “Stylo,” “Superfast Jellyfish,” “On Melancholy Hill”

1.

The Suburbs by Arcade Fire (Merge)

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard an hour long album that actually sustains itself over four sides of music. The fact that the incredible “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is buried in the middle of Side Four speaks to just how solid The Suburbs is. I’ve been aware of Arcade Fire since they first hit it big, but this is the first time I’ve been compelled to buy one of their albums. And I’m glad I did. The Suburbs is probably the most accessible album the band has put out, and therefore a great place to get into their unique style of music that sounds both classic and contemporary at the same time.

Key cuts: “City With No Children,” “We Used To Wait,” “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

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