The Best of 2010, Part 1: The Mainstream

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From where I sit, Roky Erickson’s True Love Cast Out All Evil qualifies for the comeback record of the year.

by Pico

We begin this series by covering the kind of music most music critics cover when making lists: the Great Mainstream. What defines “mainstream” depends on who you ask, naturally. I slot all rock, soul and pop here, including artists who are slotted here even if they didn’t necessarily make a “mainstream” record. For instance, John Mellencamp’s No Better Than This is a better fit in the upcoming Blues ‘n’ Roots segment, and maybe even the Black Keys should go there, too, but these acts are thought of as mainstream artists, so that’s will I’ll put them because that’s where people expect to find them.

You might notice a pattern here, although it wasn’t intended. This year is especially heavy with long time major acts, such as the aforementioned Mellencamp, Tom Petty and Eric Clapton. I truly believe that these guys made great records this year and they did it simply by being themselves. They might be very influential, but not even their most slavish adherents can quite duplicate the genuine articles. It could also be that since these are the great rock musicians of my generation, nostalgia played a part. Perhaps, but good music is good music.

As for this year, here is the really good music. Click on the nested links to go to the SER review for each selection:

Best CD Of The Batch: The Black Keys – Brothers

At first glance, this might be a surprising choice coming from a baby boomer perspective; the Black Keys is a band whose found its audience with the Pitchfork set and this act and album are plenty familiar to the twenty- and thirty- somethings. Maybe even so familiar as to breed contempt. But Brothers goes hard for an analog vibe that summons the time where the 60s turned into the 70s, and to someone who is old enough to remember when that vibe was fresh and new, this record pushes all those old, dusty buttons with me.

The heavily reverbed, muddled sound at times could have easily come out of Jay Miller’s studio in Crowley, Louisiana around the time Miller was recording Slim Harpo. At the same time, there’s some 21st century beats and crunch on songs like “Everlasting Light” and “The Only One,” but The Keys, who produced most of the record, slid in these modern touches so deftly as to not disturb that vintage feel at all. In doing so they successfully reconciled the primitive, no-frills blues-rock sound of their first couple of albums with the spooky atmospheres of Attack And Release. Guitarist Dan Auerbach yells, moans and sneers his way through new songs (and one fairly obscure one, the minor soul hit “Never Give You Up”) that adds to the song catalog of another time, not this one, and drummer Patrick Carney’s firm backbeats keeps the songs tied to a groove.

Brothers is richly evocative but manages to stand out on its own, more than anything I’ve heard from the realm of rock this year. Those attributes alone don’t make it a good record, but it’s enough to lift it above a pack of other superb albums.

Best Song Of The Batch: Gil Scott-Heron “The Devil And Me”

Robert Johnson died young in 1938, but the shadow he casts grows longer with each passing year. His songs–though there were less than 30 of them recorded—has consumed the blues world ever since with innumerable covers by bluesmen and blueswomen of every stripe, and it was just a matter of time before those songs were going to find its way into other musical realms. They’re just too powerful not to.

Gil Scott-Heron is not a bluesman and he might not even be the first non-bluesman to take on Robert Johnson, but his hip-hop version of “Me And The Devil” does nothing but embellish on the mystique of Johnson and his tunes. Producer Richard Russell put in a plodding, cymbal-crashing, head-nodding groove and spacious, sparse synths way behind it, creating a spooky, atmospheric march. Scott-Heron’s voice has weathered down quite a bit since Pieces Of A Man, but it’s that same quality that also makes the song chilling. Strangely enough, he sings much like Bill Withers, and it’s that Withers signature style of folk and soul that allows Scott-Heron to sing with authority portent lyrics like:

Early this morning
When you knocked
Upon my door
And I say
“Hello Satan”
I believe it’s time to go

Johnson sang of his life and the time and place he lived in, and yet, his songs hold much resonance today. Leave it to a master street poet like Gil Scott-Heron to find a way to make a Johnson song sound so relevant on today’s streets.

(Honorable Mention: “Nobody” by The Doobie Brothers)

Best Of The Rest:

Roky Erickson With Okkervil RiverTrue Love Cast Out All Evil
: This is a record about the triumph of the human spirit against nearly impossible odds. Erickson’s battered heart and mind emerge through lost decades to deliver a forceful record.

Drive-By TruckersThe Big To-Do: This is DBT’S most consistent album yet as they continue to perfect Southern Rock.

Gil Scott-HeronI’m New Here: Scott-Heron is hardly new, but he’s found a new groove.

Animal Liberation OrchestraMan Of The World: A low-key, MOR rock gem.

Peter FramptonThank You Mr. Churchill: Whatever happened to plain, good old fashioned kick-ass arena rock? Frampton keeps the faith.

Tom Petty And The HeartbreakersMojo: That title says it all: they still have it.

Trombone ShortyBackatown: Fresh, funky and feisty in the Big Easy way, Trombone Shorty is making popular music fun again.

JJ Grey And MofroGeorgia Warhorse: Here is what you get when you take the Black Crowes and twist the soul and funk knobs up to eleven.

Eric ClaptonClapton: This is laid back Clapton, who’s decided to pay no attention to current music trends and instead makes a record that should age well.

Robert PlantBand Of Joy: Plant’s last record brought a lot of needed exposure for Allison Kraus; this one deserves to do the same for silent partner Buddy Miller.

Elvis CostelloNational Ransom: Costello always had a broad palette; here he makes stops to most of his usual musical destinations on a single album.

Erykah BaduNew Amerykah Part Two (Return Of The Ankh): Though stronger in the beginning than the end, it’s hard to fault Badu when so few are even in her league in the neo soul arena.

John MellencampNo Better Than This: Well it won’t make you smile but these dusty tunes just might touch your soul. Years past his commercial peak, Mellencamp is at an artistic one.

Black Country CommunionBlack Country Communion: Just when I thought I didn’t like hard rock anymore, BCC comes along and makes me fall in love with it all over again.

NEXT: Part 2 Blues ‘n’ Roots…

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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