Year in Review: John Metzger's Top Studio Albums of 2010

First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2010, Volume 17, #12

Written by John Metzger

Thu December 16, 2010, 06:30 AM CST

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Elton John / Leon Russell - The Union

1) Elton John / Leon Russell - The Union

On The Union, Elton John connected with his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin as well as producer T Bone Burnett for the sole purpose of dragging Leon Russell back into the limelight. John initially had modeled his career after Russellís hybridized blend of blues, rock, gospel, and soul. With The Union, he wanted to pay homage to his idol by fully acknowledging his influence. The lyrics that Taupin penned for The Union might reflect on life, love, and friendship from a mature perspective, but the music ó with its rousing, piano-led rhythms and swollen gospel choruses ó sounds as urgent as anything either Russell or John has ever recorded. Many believed that John had merely gotten lucky with his 2006 set The Captain & The Kid. The Union, however, proves that Johnís comeback wasnít a fluke.

John Mellencamp - No Better than This

2) John Mellencamp - No Better than This

It might seem improbable because it flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Nevertheless, John Mellencamp is actually getting better with age. He has always had a keen ear for melody. Likewise, his 37-track retrospective Words & Music: John Mellencampís Greatest Hits demonstrated his knack for penning songs that fit the once-cherished industry staple: the 45 r.p.m. single. For a long time, though, his popularity seemed to curb his ambitions. With the music business in disarray, older acts are finding it difficult to gain attention. This, in turn, freed Mellencamp from the constraints he frequently has placed upon himself. With this in mind, his 2008 endeavor Life, Death, Love and Freedom offered a promising new beginning to his journey. His latest set No Better than This is even more remarkable. Following themes similar to its predecessor, the collection contains 13 songs, all of which rank among Mellencampís best compositions.

Neil Young - Le Noise

3) Neil Young - Le Noise

Neil Young doesnít like to mess around with his projects. In the blink of an eye, he writes songs, tests them in front of an audience, and commits them to tape. Then, he moves forward to his next idea. The compositions that are featured on his latest set Le Noise could have been tackled either as gentle folk tunes or as rampaging, Crazy Horse-style blazes of glory. Consequently, it very easily could have become another solid yet underwhelming outing in his canon. Instead, Young connected with producer Daniel Lanois. Together, they sculpted Youngís material into a disorienting commentary about life, love, and politics in the 21st Century. Like most of Youngís work, Le Noise is a visceral experience, but because it takes longer to absorb, it resonates more deeply than most of his recent endeavors.

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Tom Petty - Mojo

4) Tom Petty - Mojo

Tom Petty has always had a terrific working relationship with his band. For a long time, though, he kept the outfit on a rather short leash. On Mojo ó the first album he has made with The Heartbreakers since 2002ís The Last DJ ó he not only freed the group from its constraints, but he also refused to fuss with the recordings after they were made. Mike Campbell, in particular, seems like a man who has been reborn as he spikes the songs with vibrant guitar-driven passages. Not surprisingly, Mojo is a loose and vibrant collection of material that fully explores the intersection between blues and rock. Pettyís approach to the endeavor is particularly fitting simply because it echoes the lives of his characters, all of whom are trying to escape from something and fighting to survive.

Peter Wolf - Midnight Souvenirs

5) Peter Wolf - Midnight Souvenirs

On his latest set Midnight Souvenirs, Peter Wolf continues to highlight his penchant for old-school rock ínĎ roll. Throughout the roots-oriented set, Wolf pursues his love of blues, soul, and country styles, mixing and matching them at will until he finds the perfect combinations to suit his tales of love and loss. On The Green Fields of Summer, he and Neko Case explore a contented relationship, even as they bittersweetly view their own mortality. Joined by Shelby Lynne, Wolf captures the heartache of Tragedy; with Merle Haggard, he ponders the brutal loneliness of old age. Whatever is ailing the music business hasnít affected Wolf. As Midnight Souvenirs proves, he takes comfort in his record collection.

Mary Gauthier - The Foundling

6) Mary Gauthier - The Foundling

Mary Gauthierís The Foundling is not for the faint of heart. Throughout the endeavor, she tells the tale of how she searched for and found her birth mother, only to be rejected once again. Gauthier could have pondered the outcome of her journey for years before setting it to music. Refusing to allow time to soften the blows that she endured, Gauthier immediately transformed her experiences into her latest outing. Consequently, The Foundling peers into the darkest recesses of her mind. Listeners, then, should be forewarned: This is a collection of material that is gut-wrenching and raw. In fact, Gauthier makes her emotions so palpable that they hurt. Nevertheless, The Foundling also contains a glimmer of hope, simply because it also is a story of perseverance and survival.

Ray LaMontagne & the Pariah Dogs - God Willin' and the Creek Don't Rise

7) Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs - God Willin' and the Creek Don't Rise

Ray LaMontagne didnít take quite as long to showcase his backing band as Tom Petty did. Nevertheless, the results largely are the same. LaMontagne has never sounded as consistently relaxed and comfortable in the recording studio as he does on his latest effort God Williní and the Creek Donít Rise. Throughout the affair, LaMontagne reflects upon love, loss, and life, while his backing band conjures music that moodily supports his angry tirades and heartbroken laments. LaMontagne hadnít spent much time in the music business before his debut Trouble became a minor hit. Therefore, he was bound to stumble when the commercial attention inevitably began to play tricks upon his mind. With God Williní and the Creek Donít Rise, LaMontagne not only got back to basics, but he also rediscovered his Muse.

Johnny Cash - American VI: Ain't No Grave

8) Johnny Cash - American VI: Ain't No Grave

American VI: Ainít No Grave is the final chapter in the Rick Rubin-produced series that documents the final days of Johnny Cash. Yet, it hardly sounds as if Rubin has scraped the bottom of the barrel for material. Part of the reason for the success of American VI: Ainít No Grave and its predecessor American V: A Hundred Highways is that Rubin and Cash paid a lot of attention to the songs they chose to record as the amount of time that Cash had left began to run out. Cashís increasingly frail spirit ó particularly after he lost his wife June ó adds tremendous gravity to his ruminations upon life and death. On American VI: Ainít No Grave, Cash casts off the darker tones of American V: A Hundred Highways. He embraces his inevitable fate and takes comfort in his spiritual beliefs.

Jakob Dylan - Women and Country

9) Jakob Dylan - Women and Country

As Bob Dylanís kid, Jakob Dylan is under an enormous amount of pressure every time he enters a recording studio. Even so, between his work with The Wallflowers and his solo career, he has shown a tremendous amount of poise. On his latest set Women and Country, Dylan collaborated with producer T Bone Burnett, who seems to have had a hand in crafting almost all of music industryís finest efforts in the last few years. Seeing Things, Dylanís two-year-old project with Rick Rubin, serves as the foundation for Women and Country. Nevertheless, Burnett sculpted arrangements for Dylanís songs that push beyond the stark backdrops that Rubin had concocted. In the process, Burnett brings out the best in Dylanís writing. The result is a haunted, post-apocalyptic glimpse of American society.

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - Hawk

10) Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - Hawk

Isobel Campbell might be growing restless. Perhaps she is looking for ways to leave frequent collaborator Mark Lanegan behind. On her latest set Hawk, she not only tackles a few tracks on her own, but she also replaced Lanegan with Willy Mason on two other tunes. Nevertheless, her diversions actually bolster the overall collection by adding some variation to the routine. The highlights, however, once again, evolve from the ways in which Campbell and Lanegan fulfill their roles. Working with a broader range of musical backdrops, Campbell turned Hawk into tour-de-force that compares favorably to her work with Belle and Sebastian. As it turns out, there is still plenty of ground left for Campbell and Lanegan to cover.

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For additional information, please also see our other Best of 2010 Lists.

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Of Further Interest...

The Music Box's 2010 Holiday Gift Guide

Music Box Editor John Metzger's Top Albums of 2009

Music Box Editor John Metzger's Top Albums of 2008

Music Box Editor John Metzger's Top Albums of 2007

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