Ten for 2010: Year's best included Field Music, Ted Leo, Band of Horses and Mike Patton

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by Tom Johnson

Every year I start out thinking that I have a feeling what album is going to ride high on my year end list, and more often than not I’m surprised by so many other things that the album in question may not even register.

This year’s victim is Corinne Bailey Rae‘s The Sea, a beautiful, heartfelt album by any measure, one I was excited to hear after gradually falling in love with her 2006 self-titled album. So too appears to be the case with The Sea. It’s not for a lack of great songs or her fantastic and emotive voice – the opposite, in fact, The Sea is the better album – but the simple fact that I just didn’t listen to it. I have no doubt that this album will also gain greater and greater foothold in my life, but we’re not here to talk about possible futures.

This can really only be about what actually did get a lot of ear-time this year.

The simple fact is that I look out over the forecast of releases of the year, like many of us do, and see things that should have potential. Favorite bands should certainly be contenders, regardless of our own attempts to remain free of such fan-boyish behavior. The most enjoyable aspect of being a music aficionado is the discovery of something new, and when it completely blows you away, it’s an even more special thing. So special, in fact, that it makes those years where an old favorite tops the list just a little bit disappointing.

Luckily, 2010 was one year in which I stumbled upon something that grabbed me and shook me for the whole year, and that I could return to over and over and continue to get the same riveting feelings I had the first time. That release is Field Music’s (Measure), an indulgently eclectic sprawl of pop-rock that melds influences as wide ranging as Elvis Costello, King Crimson, XTC, with just a touch of Hall & Oates here and there – and some may catch the Art Of Noise nod. They make smart, angular rock of such high caliber that I fear their ignorance by the public means the rumors are true: people like stupid music. This isn’t simple, straight-ahead rock. As the old saying goes, where you think they’re going to zig, they zag. They work beautiful vocal harmonies over top of interweaving guitar signatures, but the thing is none of it is off-putting.

Just like XTC, the charm of Field Music (pictured above) is that they work all this in without it sounding like exercises. It’s ear-candy for those of us paying attention and just part of the background for the rest who want to hear great songs. For an album that spans two discs and 20 songs, it displays none of the usual issues such a length would indicate – the only other recent example I can think of is Wilco’s Being There, another two-disc masterwork that simply needs to be that long to feel complete. (Let’s disregard that neither of these technically needs to be two discs – they are split for artistic reasons and those reasons are valid.)

There are no lulls. There are no dull spots. It is simply a remarkable rock album from start to finish.

You would think that would be enough for one year, one truly great album. But it wasn’t enough for 2010. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists would release The Brutalist Bricks in order to challenge my ability to handle that much incredible music. Just as smart, just as complex as Field Music, but Ted Leo’s music grows from the punk branch of rock, rather than the art branch that Field Music comes from.

Don’t take that as a slight, though – there’s just as much art here, but it’s spat out with more vigor and energetic emphasis. Ted Leo is just as capable at wielding the axe of melody as those gifted guys in Field Music, but he prefers doing it at higher speeds and a bit louder. Check out “Bottled In Cork” for a perfect example of what Ted Leo does best – a spastic 25 second prelude gives way to the Pharmacists’ take on catchy, strummy punk-folk:

What has made following Mike Patton over the years since he left Faith No More and Mr. Bungle is that you never, ever could guess what was next. Would it be a noise ensemble, or a straight-ahead rock group, or would he be rapping? His love of old pop music is well known, having taken Faith No More to new heights with their straight-faced cover of Lionel Richie’s “Easy” or making concert staples out of songs like Herb Alpert’s “This Guy’s In Love With You,” but few would have guessed that he would make an entire project out of ’60s Italian pop until he mounted the Mondo Cane shows in the past couple of years.

And then we waited. And waited. And waited. The wait until 2010 was worth it. Mondo Cane is one of Patton’s most ridiculously fun projects ever, the kind of thing you want to play for everyone not just to get a reaction but just to share because it’s so beautifully done and so obviously heartfelt by Patton himself. If you thought he might be doing this for a laugh, guess again. Patton may be entertaining himself here, but the results are pretty stunning.

And, seriously, ’60s Italian pop? Weird, weird stuff. Witness “Urlo Negro,” which begins as almost a metal tune, then turns into a zealous explosion of horns and melody.

I feel defensive – I do, really – about Band Of Horses’ Infinite Arms. I think many are selling it short. Their third album has taken a lot of flak for not being, well, I guess, whatever fans had expected it to be after the first two albums. And this is funny because that’s exactly what makes it work so well for me.

One of the problems with music today is not that there isn’t enough good music, it’s that there’s too much “just good music” and not enough “really great music.” And that’s how I felt about Everything All The Time and Cease To Begin. They were slightly above-average rock records with a few really high spots on each, but overall, they didn’t really stick out enough above the din of all other slightly above-average rock albums out there.

All that changed with Infinite Arms, an album that marks Band Of Horses’ coming of age, at least in terms of how a band would accomplish that. It’s maybe a little more downbeat and quieter, but a maturity permeates each of the songs that only peeked through here and there in earlier material. They’ve honed and tightened their skills, focusing on the strengths that made songs like “St. Augustine,” “Marry Song,” or “Detlef Schrempf” so powerful, and making a whole album from that.

A couple of years ago James fans received a great gift in the shape of a reformed band and tour, and that’s honestly all I expected. One album, one tour, and out again. It turns out that not only did they put out that album, it is among my very favorite James albums; they toured the US for the first time in well over a decade and I actually got to see them, and that experience is among my very favorite concert experiences. And now they’ve come back a couple years later with new music once again. Can it measure up to 2008’s Hey Ma? Here’s where it gets complicated.

It’s not an album but two “mini-albums” (or is it EPs? I’m not sure, honestly) released several months apart. It’s easy to look at the earlier release, The Night Before, and think surely James was going to knock this one out of the park, but strangely, The Morning After falls a bit short just by it being the flip-side to The Night Before’s more upbeat, anthemic nature. As such, The Morning After feels more than a bit mopy and regretful, the concept seeming to be that there are consequences for our indulgences.

The Night Before is indulgent – rich, engaging, and fun – and The Morning After is the consequence. The Morning After doesn’t make my list regardless of having a few notable tracks, but The Night Before‘s seven very strong songs continue to showcase James’ strengths. They can and still do it all in one song – there is no need for this attempt at a split-personality.

That’s the top 5 – now the rest:

The Black Keys – Brothers: We had a situation here on our hands with this one. I listened and listened and listened and just … nothing. The thought entered my mind that this was going to be one of those albums that I ripped for my Ipod, put on my shelf, and never thought about again. And that’s basically what I did. Except that I kept hammering at it, curiosity calling me back, or a bit of a song in my head refusing to go away, and then found myself loving this chunk of it and that chunk until I really loved basically the whole thing. Dan Auberach’s solo album (of which I am a huge fan – maybe the only one?) did something to turn this band around, it seems, as since then they’ve been simply on. Many will try to place the emphasis on Danger Mouse’s production, bringing the modern touches to the dirt-n-grime blues-rock, but the songs have to be there first. These are great songs.

Nels Cline Singers – Initiate: Sometimes you wish one of your favorites would release more music. And then sometimes they do and you want to take it back, not because they put out something bad but because it was just too much! Nels Cline delivered to fans an embarrassment of riches this year: two heavy double-CD albums just months apart. Jazz guys can pull that off better than the rock crowd, so quality isn’t an issue. But Initiate wins just because it’s just plain a blast to listen to. Disc one has the Singers trio in “modern ’70s Miles mode,” with Nels taking Miles Davis’ position on guitar instead, while bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola drill holes in the floor with the bottom end. (The band name “Singers” is ironical ‘n stuff.)

Daft Punk – Tron: Legacy: Quite possibly the most unlikely name to find in my music collection, but I seem to specialize in that. “What? I hate them? Well, let me check them out!” The thing here is that this is not normal Daft Punk, but Daft Punk augmented by orchestra, scoring a film. And, it seems, this is a really powerful new genre they need to consider exploring further, because they surpassed all expectations. Having not even seen the film, the music they’ve crafted works as one long piece. It is beautiful, evocative, and exciting.

Brad Mehldau – Highway Rider: Gathering together the team that created 2002’s Largo, a favorite of mine, as well as an orchestra for some tracks, Highway Rider aims high and mostly hits the mark. One of the problems a jazz album of this nature faces is that it simply feels a little unfocused. The majority of the album eschews the orchestra, building on the familial strengths that began with Largo and returning producer/musician Jon Brion and showcasing the strengths of song rather than the art of interplay. There’s more introspection here, and the cover photo’s drive-in movie screen is no mere decoration. These songs have that “soundtrack to non-existent movie” feel that makes you feel as if you’re experiencing something. Some complain that this isn’t really a jazz album in the strict sense, just like Largo wasn’t, but it also isn’t anything else. It’s only minor fault is that the orchestra-heavy songs feel, frankly, out of place, as if they belong on their own, separated from the other songs that would otherwise play through in a beautiful sequence.

Pat Metheny – Orchestrion: There’s an awful lot of gimmick in music these days, so it’s easy to want to be a little jaded when seeing that Metheny was going to use, essentially, a robot band to back him, playing guitar, on this album. But Metheny being who he is, I trusted that he was going to put it to good use. After all, the man has a 42-string guitar that he manages to actually use for songs and not just as something to solo on as quickly, loudly, and ridiculously as possible. In short, Orchestrion is a machine made up of a bunch of computer-controlled mechanisms that strike, strum, bow, brush, or whatever method any instrument calls for. The concept sounds pretty, well, awful, but were you to just listen to any track without knowing what was going on, you’d be hard pressed to say you weren’t listening to a real, live, human-backed band. That’s only part of the magic here – the rest is Metheny’s music, which is as solid as ever, and in some cases, better.

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