A trip to the moon balanced by a stylistic summit in New Orleans. A novel guitar stylist bending Americana tradition, and a British guitar pro unleashed onstage. A touch of tango mixed with Brother-ly love.
Those are some of the sounds and intentions that sit delightfully side-by in this critic's look at the top contemporary albums of 2010. As with all year-in-review summations of this nature, this listing is based on nothing but pure opinion and, of course, a genuine admiration for the music that helped fortify 2010. May 2011 be equally arresting.
1. The Black Keys, Brothers: A mesh of psychedelic funk, fuzzed-out pop and jagged electric soul that is both retro in design and majestically immediate in presentation. On Brothers, drummer Patrick Carney and guitarist Dan Auerbach think big and broaden their sound while retaining the Black Keys' raw sense of duo and ensemble invention.
2. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, I Learned the Hard Way: A modern soul diva, Jones again mines the lessons of R&B tradition but makes them all sound regally new. The lyrical terrain, as the album title suggests, is rough. But Jones' vocal command and the Dap-Kings' exquisite horn- fortified orchestration make this soul party shine.
3. Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Preservation: Team the time-honored jazz luminescence of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band with such disparate vocal characters as Merle Haggard, Dr. John, Ani DiFranco, Angelique Kidjo and Kentucky's Yim Yames, and you have a treatise on the combustive joy that ensues when New Orleans' finest throw a party.
4. Elvis Costello, National Ransom: Tales of deceit and death — some painfully romantic, others wickedly clever — bring together elements of Costello's greatest Attractions and Imposters records with the grassy accessibility of his newer Sugarcanes band. Through it all, Costello maintains a rock sensibility as scholarly as it is poetically punkish.
5. Brian Eno with Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams, Small Craft on a Milk Sea: The veteran producer and sound stylist blurs the ages with a fascinating instrumental suite that recalls the atmospherics of his famed, late '70s ambient recordings before the serenity shatters with shards of electronica and guitar. An otherworldly and tastefully queasy delight.
6. Richard Thompson, Dream Attic: Stuffed with songs of love, corruption and remorse and addressed from a wary but vital British perspective, Dream Attic reveals folk-rock impresario Thompson in typically expert form. But as these songs were cut on stages and not in the studio, Thompson's unrepentant guitar strengths are allowed to go wild.
7. Los Lobos, Tin Can Trust: It's another gloriously unassuming album from the pride of East Los Angeles. Throughout Tin Can Trust, Los Lobos dabbles with the (Grateful) Dead, skirts with norteña and cumbia Latin American musical inspirations, and offers an i nstrumental eulogy to guitarist David Hidalgo's dog. It makes for an album that is unfussy yet proudly dignified.
8. Tift Merritt, See You on the Moon: Merritt balances literate, confessional storytelling with a sense of musical fancy on See You on the Moon in a manner that recalls vintage Joni Mitchell. Yet the album's lyrical intimacy is all her own, whether she luxuriates in a patiently orchestrated piano ballad or floats along with a sumptuous, summery melody.
9. Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamers: Frisell again finds common ground for Americana tradition (through rethinks of songs by Benny Goodman, Blind Willie Johnson, A.P. Carter and, of course, Stephen Foster) and original material full of rhythmic fascination (the Vic Chesnutt tribute Better Than a Machine) with a novel guitar/viola/drums trio.
10. Fred Eaglesmith, Cha Cha Cha: Man, who saw this one coming? One of Canada's finest folk-infused songsmiths slips into The Twilight Zone and winds up sounding like an absurdist cross between Tom Waits and Dan Hicks. The songs are astute, but the sound is a gas as Cha Cha Cha serenades with twang, tango and doomsday vocals. What a trip.