From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
From seasoned stars putting the mainstream back on notice to talented upstarts making promising debuts, the past year was rife not only with sonically stellar music but also with feel-good storylines to amp up the songs.
In 2010, my 10 favorite albums took me on a showy ride through “The Suburbs,” on a sweeping journey to Western Oklahoma and on tuneful treks to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll and country music.
1. Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs” (Merge). Thought-provoking and theatrical, the third album from the Montreal-based indie rockers draws from frontman Win Butler’s upbringing on the well-heeled outskirts of Houston. With arena-filling orchestral rock swirling around them, Butler and wife Régine Chassagne warble intimately about the fears, hopes and human drama going on behind the neatly painted doors of cookie-cutter houses arranged in cannily planned bedroom communities.
2. Robert Plant, “Band of Joy” (Rounder). For Led Zeppelin fans, 2010 brought good news and bad news. Singer Robert Plant follows up “Raising Sand,” his 2007 multi-platinum, Grammy-winning Americana expedition with Alison Krauss, with another rich exploration of roots music and his own personal roots in music. Band of Joy was the name of the psychedelic folk band Plant fronted before joining Zeppelin, and he brings a trippy flair to the album’s bluesy covers of country great Townes Van Zandt, slowcore band Low and Chicano rockers Los Lobos. And if he isn’t going to have Krauss crooning with him, Patty Griffin makes a sublime second choice as his harmony vocalist.
While Plant’s latest solo effort was worth rejoicing over, Zeppelin devotees like myself can’t help but notice that he isn’t getting noticeably closer to the rocking reunion tour of our dreams.
3. Dierks Bentley, “Up on the Ridge” (Capitol Nashville). After dropping his most mainstream and least appealing album with 2009’s “Feel That Fire,” country singer-songwriter Dierks Bentley made a spectacular turnaround with an inspired foray into progressive bluegrass. From the haunting title track, Bentley’s outing “Up on the Ridge” is landmarked by spirited musicianship, guest star power and surprising covers of U2, Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson. “Bad Angel,” his bluesy honky-tonk collaboration with Tishomingo’s Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson, two-stepped its way to the top of my list of favorite country songs of 2010.
4. Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights, “Pardon Me” (F-Stop/ Atlantic Records). The Dallas-based band, which includes Oklahoma transplants in drummer Jordan Cain and bassist Nick Jay, electrified a genre with an unabashed throwback album that blasts through the soulless miasma of modern rock like a lightning bolt from the rock gods. “Maybe it’s been too long since rock ‘n’ roll turned you on/So pardon me, just let it set you free,” yowls Jonathan Tyler on the title track for his band’s major-label debut. Please don’t let it be the last time he extends such a sizzling offer.
5. Janelle Monae, “The ArchAndroid” (Wondaland Arts Society/Bad Boy). It’s a shame that the word “epic” has become so overused because it perfectly describes the fantastical full-length debut of Janelle Monae, a pompadoured science-fiction fanatic who mashes up funky R&B, prog-rock, synth pop and classical music to bring to stunning life her alter ego, a time-traveling android messiah tasked with saving an alternate universe based on Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film “Metropolis.” After crafting a concept album as classy as her beloved tuxedoes, the Outkast protégé seems to have plenty of otherworldly charisma, impressive vocal prowess and boundless imagination left over, which is great news for those of us eager to hear the continuing adventures of ArchAndroid Cindi Mayweather.
6. Hanson, “Shout It Out” (3CG). The gifted Tulsa trio deserves props for finally finding a way to get the mainstream music world “Thinking ‘Bout Somethin’” beside their 1997 pubescent-pop smash “MMMBop.” With its ridiculously infectious Motown groove, plus a clever video riffing on “The Blues Brothers,” “Thinking ‘Bout Somethin’” once again brought Hanson into the cultural consciousness, though the Oklahoma brothers never ceased making music even after radio stations stopped playing their breakout hit. With “Shout It Out,” Isaac, Zac and Taylor Hanson restated their love of oldies, crafting an ideal summer soundtrack of vibrant pop-rock brightened with soulful horns and brotherly harmonizing.
7. Elton John and Leon Russell, “The Union” (Decca/Rocket). British pop superstar Elton John’s mission to bring his idol, Lawton native Leon Russell, back into the rock ‘n’ roll limelight has been an unmitigated success: Their duet album debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart, earned a Grammy nomination for best pop collaboration with vocals for their indelible piano ode “If It Wasn’t for Bad” and propelled Uncle Leon into the Rock and Roll Hall Fame’s 2011 class. More importantly, their rootsy mingling of blues, gospel and country warranted the accolades. With acclaimed producer T Bone Burnett guiding them, “The Union” of Oklahoma’s “Master of Time and Space” with England’s Captain Fantastic proved a musical match worthy of a “Jimmie Rodgers Dream.”
8. The Black Keys, “Brothers” (Nonesuch). From the moment they pleaded with do-wop pizzazz to be my “Everlasting Light” on the opening track, the Black Keys had my undying devotion. The Akron, Ohio, duo traveled to the fertile blues ground of Muscle Shoals, Ala., to record their third album for Nonesuch, and they bring that brawny retro groove to “Howlin’ for You” and “She’s Long Gone.” But they apply psychedelic panache on “Too Afraid to Love You” and “The Only One.” A heady combination like that can light up my iPod any day.
9. Samantha Crain, “You (Understood)” (Ramseur Records). For the third straight year, my top 10 includes an album from the Shawnee singer-songwriter with the well-honed pen and foggily evocative voice. Following the breakup of her band the Midnight Shivers, Crain, who turned 24 last August, cranked the volume on her electric guitar and fired off 11 emotionally raw tracks. Her music may seethe with hurt and anger, but it sounds deceptively pretty doing it.
10. Green Corn Revival “Say You’re a Sinner” (self-released). If Arcade Fire took listeners on an art-rock tour of the suburbs, this seven-piece outfit from Weatherford offered a strikingly cinematic musical journey through Custer County. From the spaghetti Western anthems “Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2” to the galloping dance number “Never That Easy,” this auspicious debut sounds like the soundtrack to an as-yet-unmade Quentin Tarantino film set against the vast plains and big skies of Western Oklahoma. Now QT just needs to come up with a rip-roaring story to go with it.