MAVIS STAPLES: You Are Not Alone (Anti). The voice that stirred so many souls to action during the Civil Rights movement rediscovers the mojo and sets out to galvanize another generation. The task is arguably more challenging this time, given pop culture’s general indifference to gospel, but Mavis Staples, national treasure, will not be daunted. In a voice that’s fierce (think Sister Rosetta Tharpe) and compassionate (think Marion Williams) at the same time, Staples describes all manner of soul tribulations, offering up faith as salve and lifeline and source of endless joy. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy made smart choices as a producer, notably using her touring band as the anchor. The tunes show tremendous range – there are brisk gospel celebrations and downcast medium-tempo cries and sullen country rock introspections that recall the Band circa Big Pink. At each stop, Staples shares what she’s learned on the journey, using grit, gumption, Church Lady manners and an inexhaustible generosity of spirit to remind all those within earshot “You are not alone.”
JOHN ELLIS AND DOUBLE WIDE: Puppet Mischief (ObliqSound). This romping stomping decade-hopping mashup suggests that Wynton Marsalis was not wrong when he insisted that young jazz musicians need to study the gems of the past – he was just way too hoity-toity and precious about the tradition. Saxophonist and composer John Ellis is fluent in Marsalis-approved lineage but far less reverent, and that stance alone unlocks some tremendous possibilities. He picks and chooses randomly, tossing historically important jazz devices – second-line parade beats and big-band shout choruses and dissonant free-jazz cries – into a happy tumult, or a funkified free for all. Drummer Jason Marsalis keeps the pulse clear and honest but can scramble it at the slightest provocation, leading the ensemble through a surprising range of moods. Sometimes they sound like buskers entertaining French Quarter tourists. Sometimes they’re denizens of the Manhattan lofts of the ‘70s, tearing apart the last vestiges of consonant harmony. Sometimes they kickstart an uproar, and sometimes on the way to uproar, they arrive at an elegy.
JASON MORAN: Ten (Blue Note). Jazz pianist Jason Moran said earlier this year that for most of its decade-long existence, the trio he calls the Bandwagon (with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits) has avoided the gigging treadmill. Conventional jazz wisdom says it’s important for groups to work regularly to evolve; Moran’s group has had years where they only played together for a total of three or four weeks. That little fact is remarkable when you consider the intuitive communication these three have developed: They go for months working in other bands, and then, upon reconvening, they find themselves immersed in some unhinged experimentation that demands almost superhuman reflexes. Perhaps that’s one reason Ten feels so boisterously alive: It’s the sound of three alert musicians flying on wits and instincts. The material is almost irrelevant: Whether playing a hymnlike Moran original or a well-traveled standard or a study by composer Conlon Nancarrow, these guys approach everything as a blank canvas, and are determined to fill it in novel ways. Don’t believe me? Compare the original “Gangsterism on Wood,” from Facing Left, with its decade-later corollary, “Gangsterism Over Ten Years.” Same idea, different galaxy.
THE NATIONAL: High Violet (4AD) Here’s the rare album that will outshine the heaping oversized bandwagons of hype that attended its introduction. Celebrated as a masterwork before the files even leaked, the delicately appointed High Violet uncovers new novelistic ways of looking at a tired songwriting topic, the pain that accompanies love’s dissolution. Vocalist and lyricist Matt Berninger presents himself mostly as a victim of the tides, pondering the state of things in poetic code: “Sorrow found me when I was young/Sorrow waited, sorrow won.” And every now and then, he pushes his caustic, bewildered baritone into a place of highly refined sullenness, where even if you can’t quite grok the meaning of the lyrics (those lines in “Terrible Love” about walking with spiders), you can’t miss the ever-darkening mood. A masterpiece.
ROBYN: Body Talk (Interscope) Swedish siren Robyn Carlsson created the grabbiest and most refreshingly unformulaic dancepop of 2010, and she delivered it in bulk. The three mini-albums in the Body Talk series represent an unusually cohesive creative outpouring, a feast of exuberant, sassy, instantly memorable hooks backed up by correspondingly wicked (and mostly gimmick-free) dance rhythms. Whether chasing bliss in the form of a one-night stand or delivering a sharp-tongued manifesto on self-reliance, Robyn sounds like she has inspiration to burn. Hope Lady Gaga enjoyed that victory lap, because between Robyn and Janelle Monae – the singer and songwriter whose frenetic Little Richard-inspired live show remains more interesting than her recordings – there is formidable competition on the horizon.
Ten More, All Close Calls: Robert Plant: Band of Joy; Eminem: Recovery; Elton John and Leon Russell: The Union; Big Boi: Sir Lucious Left Foot…The Son of Chico Dusty; Gorillaz: Plastic Beach; LCD Soundsystem: This is Happening; Mumford & Sons: Sigh No More; The Unthanks: Here’s the Tender Coming; Corinne Bailey Rae: The Sea; Brad Mehldau: Highway Rider.
Wish I’d Discovered This Last Year: Efterklang: Performing Parades. Given the sheer volume of music that comes hurtling at us each year, it’s inevitable that some great life-altering releases escape notice. Every year for the last several, I’ve encountered at least one record that would have been on my yearend shortlist had I discovered it in time. It seems only fair to share it. German prog-rock conceptualists Efterklang put out a record in 2010, the grandiose, Radiohead-reminescent Magic Chairs, that will totally reward repeated investigation. Last year, though, the group brought its 2008 effort Parades to life with help from a 50-piece orchestra, and though it didn’t get tons of U.S. love, the resulting document is a game changer: Haunting wordless vocal melodies and correspondingly bold orchestrations make Performing Parades one of those fragile and breathtaking works you almost don’t trust the first time.
#1 from Jay, NYC - 12/17/2010 8:04
Will you ever admit that you had it wrong about Phish? I highly doubt this comment even reaches publication…. but it would be best if you’d at least admit that your original critique of “A Live One” was about as off base as the Catholic Church’s original “fact” that the Sun revolved around the Earth.
#2 from Noah Shavit-Lonstein, St. Paul - 12/29/2010 12:57
You overlooked one of this year’s masterpieces on the list- Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid! Did you give this one a listen?
#3 from Michael K. Denny, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA - 12/31/2010 3:48
Sale El Sol by Shakira
When you least anticipate an act of quality and the outcome reveals itself to be a wonder of nature, that’s 2010’s late season release Sale el Sol by Shakira. Out Comes the Sun. The most beautiful voice on the planet produced a torrid romance novel of song. The album rocks and salsas. The ballads enflame the soul. Big sound without big noise. No fadeout endings. A dozen summer singles—for the southern hemisphere. No need to know Spanish to love this album. Such is the power of music. MKDCommenting is not available in this content area entry.