The best Music of 2010

I've largely fallen out of the music blogging stuff that I once was heavily engaged in. Too much writing, not nearly enough reward, and it got to a point where it interfered with other projects that I've wanted to do, and the things that I write about when it comes to music are fewer and further between. I've not stopped listening to music, however, and there's been a number of really good albums released this year. Here's what I liked the most.

Kirby Krackle, E for Everyone

Kirby Krackle was a discovery that I made earlier this year via a musician friend of mine, John Anealio, and it's easy to bill these guys as some of the best all around Geek rockers out there. With their prior self-titled album, they've got an excellent backlog of songs that run the line from comic books (There's a lot here - Iron Man, Green Lantern, Wolverine, Great Lakes Avengers and more) to zombies (what self-respecting geek musician doesn't have a song about zombies?) to things like conventions and geek romance.

E for Everyone is an album that hits all the basic, rich chords, combined with lyrics that I find impossible not to sing along with loudly in the car. The set is a fun one, and I hope to hear more from them at some point in the near future.

Ray LaMontagne, God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise

Ray LaMontagne is a long favorite of mine from college, and his latest album hasn't disappointed as he's changed up his style over the past couple of years. This latest outing is one that carries with it a particular country style with some of the songs, and looks to the virtues of a simpler, uncomplicated existence. The best song on the album is easily Beg Steal Or Borrow with its steady beat, perfect sound and breezy feel that makes me perk up a bit whenever I hear it on the radio.

LaMontagne has kept up with a good habit of not repeating his successes, nor does he change so drastically that his new music is something totally unexpected. God Willin' is an album that retains the best of his past, and changes as needed, and almost always for the better. While the album hasn't quite topped Gossip in the Grain, it's an excellent work by an excellent musician.

Goodtimes Goodtimes, Goodtimes Goodtimes

Franc, of Goodtimes Goodtimes, has been on a roll lately. He's just released a second music video from this album for 'Magic Hour' (Fortune Seller Song is the other, both excellent). Glue, the first album from Goodtimes Goodtimes, was a favorite of mine, but it absolutely pales in comparison to this self-titled album that's just been released. It's almost as if a filter has been removed and Franc's been unleashed. The music is polished, rich and textured, and the songs are superb. Each song on this album is excellent, strong and together, allow for a great album.

Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, Grace Potter And The Nocturnals

Grace Potter & The Nocturnals starts off with a bang with their reworked version of Paris (Ooh La La). It's a blast of energy that Grace has been known for on stage, and it's a good thing to see retained in their latest (and largest to date), self-titled album. The album's not their best: there's a certain flavor that seems to have been lost from their original work, but the band has retained their fantastic songwriting skills, new sounds and still a great energy and vibe that work with Grace's voice wonderfully.

Anais Mitchell feat. Justin Vernon, Ani DiFranco, Greg Brown, The Haden Triplets and Ben Knox Miller, Hadestown

I've described this album as a indie-folk retelling of the myth of Orpheus set in a post-apocalyptic fiefdom. Yep. It's also completely fantastic, an upgraded version of a production that Anais Mitchell worked on a couple of years ago. Hadestown is a rocking good time: it's akin to a stage soundtrack, with various (well known) singers taking on different characters. Justin Vernon (aka, Bon Iver) takes part, and we follow a great story of romance, betrayal, greed and revenge. Musically, this album is diverse, rich and fascinating, and every time I listen to the tracks, I'm intensely reminded of Cherie Priest's novel Boneshaker, with it's dark atmosphere, twisted characters and foreboding surroundings.

Jed Whedon and the Willing, History of Forgotten Things

Whedon is a name that all geeks should know. Not only the name of Joss (who did Firefly, Dollhouse and Buffy) or Zack (Screenwriter for Fringe, Deadwood, and Dr. Horrible), but Jed, for his work on not only Dr. Horrible, but for his fantastic History of Forgotten Things, which is easily one of my top favorites of the year. This well composed alternative-pop album is one that is both smooth and ethereal. There's a real SF/F feel to the album as well: Drones was used in the show Dollhouse (as well as Remains, a single that he's released), as well as Last Man and Ancestors. Is this music that we'll see more of in the future? I hope so.

Holy Fiction, Hours from It

Hours From It is a product of the west, and it feels like it. This was an unexpected album from Holy Fiction, and one that I completely fell in love with after a single listen. It's been on a regular rotation while I take long car rides, and it's perfect for blasting down the roads of Vermont. Each song has a fantastic beat and sound that's been based off of that, one that's not too overpowering. Songs like Exit demonstrate the real shifts capable from the musicians, and where Iron Eyes gives me a nostalgic feel for cross-country trips that I've taken in the past. The album's single downside is its length: it's far too short, and I'm chomping at the bit for more.

Carbon Leaf, How The West Was Vol. 1

One of my all-time favorite bands is Carbon Leaf, and as they've left the major record label Vanguard, they've begun to rework how they release music and tour around the country. I'm sad to have missed them this year, but I'm hopeful that I'll see them again in the state at some point in the future. How the West Was... Vol. 1 is the first of their new strategy to record and release music as an independent group. This short effort is a fun one with songs that I've wanted to hear on a record for a while, such as Native America. The album feels very much like a classic Carbon Leaf record, and it feels far more like an honest look at their songwriting, without the polish and production that's typically required of a major record. Their older stuff is great, and this is a great addition to it.

Hans Zimmer, Inception (Music from the Motion Picture)

This list isn't limited to bands. As such, Hans Zimmer's Inception soundtrack deserves some high praise. I loved the movie, and it's easily one of the best Science Fiction films that I've seen in a very long time, and that comes in no small part as a result of the soundtrack. The music compliments the film nicely, with a number of tracks, such as Half Remembered Dream, We Built Our Own World and Old Souls resonating with the emotional parts of the film, while Dream Is Collapsing, and Mombasa ratcheting up the tension where needed. The album's something I've listened to dozens of times, and it's a constant companion when I'm writing.

Ferraby Lionheart, The Jack Of Hearts

This album by Ferraby Lionheart is one that I'm somewhat split on. Some of the songs are ones that I'm not all that fond of. But the other half of the album is one that is just absolutely stunning: tracks such as Harry & Bess are ones that retain a nostalgic beat that feels like it wouldn't be out of place in the 1950s, and when the chorus kicks in, it's absolutely one of the best songs that I've ever listened to. There's other good ones here too: Arkansas and Sweet Tanzini retain a great Lionheart sound, and on the whole, it's a good, solid follow up to his first album.

Laura Veirs, July Flame

This album was one that I first heard about while driving home from Pennsylvania. Laura Veirs was an artist that I'd heard of, but hadn't listened to extensively - I'd actually seen her in person, opening for The Decemberists. I remember being unimpressed. July Flame, however, is a very good reintroduction to her, and I've found that this is a fantastic indie-rock album. Viers has a great voice and some great songwriting skills here, and July Flame is a quirky, fun listen.

Fictionist, Lasting Echo

Lasting Echo feels like something out of the 1970s, from the front cover of the album to the science fiction nature that some of the songs take on. This was a fun album to listen to, and moreover, it feels ... cool. Fictionist's songs are laid back, interesting and free: the song Human Wings exemplifies this, while Blue Eyed Universe is a neat little song that has taken to space with its music video. The sounds here are well balanced between the vocals and guitar work, which lends itself very well to my ears.

Mumford and Sons, Sigh No More

Recommendations from friends are the best sorts: my friend Laura pointed out Mumford and Sons to me, and it's clear that this album is going to land them on the map. With a short tour of sold out dates, the proof is in the pudding that they'll be growing a bit. Songs like The Cave, Roll Away Your Stone and White Blank Page bring in the energy that works well with their vocals. These guys sound like they're off to a great start. Can't wait to see how they turn out a couple albums from now. In the meantime, Sigh No More will have to do.

Josh Ritter, So Runs The World Away

Josh Ritter's latest album is a stunning piece of work, with some of my absolute favorite songs by him to date. The tone is set with Curtains, an instrumental, before launching into a set of songs that are rife with stories of mummies, killers, explorers and train rides. Ritter's songs are absolutely fantastic, with a rich blend of instrumental wonder and lyrical delights through out. My favorite songs off of this album are easily The Curse, about a mummy who returns to life, and a Southern Pacifica, for its smooth, train travelling song, Rattling Locks, with its harsh edges and Folk Bloodbath, the story of a, well, folk bloodbath. I'm desperately hoping that the band will be back in the area at some point soon - their live act is even better.

The Apples In Stereo, Travellers In Space And Time

For a bit of fun, listen to Travellers in Time and Space, an album that I came across while looking up songs for my geek music playlist. The Apples in Stereo have a slick synth-pop sound and feel that is bubbling with energy and enthusiasm. Songs like Dream About The Future, Strange Solar System and C.P.U. all feel very geeky with their titles and subject matter, and feel full of movement and bright sound that is both over the top and a bit like Electric Light Orchestra.

Cary Brothers, Under Control

Cary Brothers wrote one of my all time favorite albums: Who You Are, which I discovered in college. While Under Control doesn't quite live up to the same heights for me, it's still a very good album. Brothers has refined his sound during the break, and we're left with a lot of the great parts of his older work, along with an even better sound. Ghost Town, Break Off The Bough and Someday rank as my favorites off of this track, and there's a nice blend of fast/fun and softer/serious songs across the eleven tracks. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

This year felt like a good year for music, and at points, I feel like I've not listened to as much new music as I have in the past. Half of the albums that I listened to this year were from bands that I've liked enough to listen to again, while another half were new discoveries, recommendations and stumbled upon records that I'd never heard of before. I'm happy with that, and if you're looking for something to listen to that's reasonably new, these albums are all ones that I highly recommend.

So Runs The World Away

If I had to pick an artist that was my all time favorite, the choice would be fairly easy: Josh Ritter. I first came across his music when I heard him opening for Grace Potter and the Nocturnals at the Waterfront in Burlington, Vermont. It was a fantastic concert, and something about his music really stuck with me when I first heard it. His concert was part of a warm-up for his latest (at the time) album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, which had been preceded by Animal Years, two excellent albums, both stellar examples of singer/songwriter folk-rock. I was hooked on his sound, and all of his albums remain on fairly constant rotation in my own music library.

Ritter's latest album, So Runs The World Away, needless to say, has been a highly anticipated album on my part. When I saw him for the second time last year at UVM, he played a number of new songs which have since made it onto the new album, which only made the anticipation grow. Like The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, this album delves heavily into the storytelling roots that Ritter's been known for, combined with a rich background of sound that makes the album stand out from the pack.

What makes the album even more interesting is the macabre and somewhat gothic nature to the lyrics and sound for So Runs The World Away. Songs like The Curse, Rattling Locks, Folk Bloodbath, The Remnant and Long Shadows really give the album a delightfully darker nature. Out of the entire set of songs, the best song (and it's hard to pick just one), is The Curse, a quiet waltz that tells the story of an Egyptian mummy who awakes when an archeologist discovers him, and he falls in love with her as she takes him to New York City. He learns English and speaks to her, and the two fall in love, but as he gets stronger with new life and pulls away from her, she grows older, and dies, while he lives on. It's a touching story of love and destiny, one that is expertly played out by Ritter and his band, and it's certainly going to be one of my favorite songs from the group.

A couple of other songs on the album carry through with some extremely hard hitting stories: Folk Bloodbath, the story of a, well, bloodbath with a haunting gospel sound to it, while Another New World, the story of an explorer, forced to break up his ship for firewood has a very delicate, chilly sound with some fantastic lyrics. Beyond the story-style songs, other songs on the albums deal with slightly less-concrete themes, such as Change in Time, Southern Pacifica, Rattling Locks and Lantern, each with their own distinctive sound and feel. Ritter has excelled at albums that vary so much in their tone and style, and this album is no different: there is an enormous amount of variety and a certain richness to the sound that makes it a wonder to listen to time and time again.

This also isn’t to say that the album is an overly dark one: Lark sees Ritter positively channeling Paul Simon with his voice and guitar work, Southern Pacifica has a nice, easygoing feel to it that recalls an older, nostalgic time in history, Lantern is a bouncy, exciting song that really carries a lot of Ritter’s energy, and Orbital is full of movement that flows nicely towards the end of the album. The darker elements of So Runs The World Away simply tends to be a bit more interesting, with some very cool stories that really mark Ritter as an expert singer/songwriter, who’s only grown stronger with each successive album that’s come out. Musically, this album blew me away. There’s a real diversity to the sound here, from horns to piano, to a bass clarinet at one point, which both makes the song sound a bit different, with more depth, and demonstrates that there’s a bit more thought put into the album and songs, but not enough to be overwhelming or really take the listener out of the experience. Moreover, the album feels different, as The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter felt different from Animal Years. In both instances, there’s certainly a progression in the sound and experience that the band wants to impart, and I’m thrilled that they haven’t gone back to rely on what worked last time: they continued forward and found what worked this time.

What really stands out for me with So Runs the World Away is the storytelling, something that fits nicely with other songs on older albums. Songs like The Temptation of Adam and Lillian, Egypt, among others, hold to the greatest things that a song can do: tell a story, and in that, give something for a listener to relate to and learn from. This particular album is full of science fiction and fantasy like elements, either in the lyrics, themes or song titles, but moreover, the emphasis on songwriting, and exploring beyond a really simple concept, like in most rock & pop songs out there. That’s not to say that those songs don’t have their own place: they do, but what makes Ritter really stand out is that he’s one of the few that really goes beyond that, telling stories of silent film stars, a couple in a nuclear missile silo at the end of the world, a mummy come to life: these are fun concepts, putting these very common concepts into different contexts, which makes someone think a little differently about something that they may have taken for granted: one of the strongest points of the speculative fiction genre.

This collection is easily the best set together that has been released by Josh Ritter and his group – certainly all of the songs on the album hold a lot of appeal with their somewhat geeky nature, but there is a general level of quality and care that a lot of other albums really don’t hit when released. Ritter has hit that mark already, and surpassed my expectations.