Annual Top 10 lists are not always what they should be. It is very easy to fall back on records that seemed important to the year's cultural arguments, rather than those that regularly delivered solace, challenge and release. This is only a list of what mattered to me in 2010, in regular inspiring rotation.
Alejandro Escovedo, Street Songs of Love (Fantasy)
Still not the star he should be, this Texas-born singer-songwriter wrote the year's best bruising songs about the complications of love and the passing of time – and recorded them with the spunk and kick of his favorite Mott The Hoople records, salted with barroom sawdust. "Down in the Bowery" is his "All the Young Dudes," for everyone who remembers that rock & roll boulevard, before the swells moved in.
The Black Crowes, Croweology (Silver Arrow)
The band, now on another hiatus, played three of the best shows I saw in 2010. This live-in-the-studio set of old songs jammed anew – technically unplugged but with plenty of electricity in every lick and surge – has everything I will miss until the next takeoff.
The Drive-By Truckers, The Big To-Do (ATO)
When these Southern avengers ripped into "This Fucking Job" in New York last spring, it was with the righteous incandescent anger and mutinous élan that have made the Truckers the most dangerous cult band in America. It's time they got the breaks and lost the "cult."
Thee Attacks, That's Mister Attack to You (Crunchy Frog)
One of my two favorite Danish records this year was made by four guys who missed the first beat boom by about 45 years but made up for it with this furious delight, blatantly inspired by the mid-Sixties Who and Kinks but delivered with modern enthusiasm, in smart original writing. Ancient history done right, right now.
Roky Erickson and Okkervil River, True Love Cast Out All Evil (Anti)
With the powerful sympathetic support of singer-guitarist Will Sheff's band of younger Texans, Erickson – the singing third eye of psychedelic pioneers the Thirteenth Floor Elevators – bravely went back to songs he'd written at the Seventies peak of his mental duress and brought them forward with the full restored voice of a survivor.
Ave, 12 Poems/Sings Me the Silence I Once Used to Know (Playground)
My other favorite Danish record of 2010 was actually two albums: a disc of this band's heaving dark-pop poignance in 12 songs and a complete rendering of the symphonic undertaking I saw them perform live in 2009, with orchestra, choir and a percussion section of old manual typewriters. A helpful comparison might be the art rock Radiohead embraced circa The Bends, without the paranoia and no apologies for the epic soaring.
Neil Young, Le Noise (Reprise)
The noise alone is a thrill, like those manic distortion codas on Weld blown up into actual chord progressions. But this is howling wind as an open door: Young letting you into his turmoil as he sculpts loss and revelation into song, from the drone and Daniel Lanois' whirlpool-reverb treatments. The rock icon who seems to have been down every wayward path found another one.
The Unthanks, Here's The Tender Coming (Rough Trade)
Issued to immediate acclaim in Britain in 2009, this album deserved the same here. Led by the exquisite interplay and crystal-blade harmonies of vocal sisters Rachel and Becky Unthanks, this contemporary-folk ensemble makes a breathaking chamber music of olde English mystery, and bold original adaptions of traditional sources and early British folk-revival covers. An incredible string-and-singing band.
Dungen, Skit I Allt (Mexican Summer)
This Swedish group's modern psychedelia comes with a fluid grace and melodic detail that reminds me, warmly, of the bucolic romanticism of Seventies English prog-rock – particularly the big C's, Camel and Caravan – and its Scandanavian school, led by the late organist Bo Hansson. Dungen's live shows this year emphasized the heavy in that glow, as did the single I saw them cutting with Jack White in Nashville – out in the new year.
Marc Ribot – Silent Movies (Pi)
This is a master sideman on just the right side of silence: solo guitar pieces (all original but one) that showcase Ribot's melodic gifts and sublime facility, usually given in the service of others (John Zorn, Tom Waits, John Mellencamp), heard here in a quietly stunning purity.