The Best of 2010: Contra to the Suits’ opinions, This Is What Was Happening

Is it just me, or did the year 2010 did just fly right on by? Usually that’s the sign of a good year, one so packed with exciting adventures that you just can’t seem to capture the time and get it to stand still. But it’s actually been a difficult one for me, a fact which may be reflected in a lot of my personal playlists from the last twelve months. Good music seemed to come out of the nooks and crannies as it does most years, but for a while, it seemed like a lot of the greatest stuff was eluding me. But that which seemed depressing at first became a place of solace during a hard year, and that which was happy became an inspiration to live a life worthy of the soundtrack. So my Top 10 list this year, while it follows my usual habit of emphasizing what I enjoyed listening to over what the critics or the general public or anyone else thought, seems to carry a little bit of extra personal weight, as I found so many moments of joy in absorbing it and in sharing it with other people. Music as a facilitator for community has always been one of my passions, and it’s because of this that I continue to expend so much energy writing about it for the handful of people who will actually read any portion of my long-winded articles.

2010_TheReignofKindo_ThisIsWhatHappens1. The Reign of Kindo – This Is What Happens
I was already impressed by this group’s instrumental chops on Rhythm, Chord & Melody, but I wasn’t prepared for the sequel, which managed to improve upon already stellar musicianship as well as the songwriting, which resulted in some phenomenal songs once the band set about trying to express universal emotions in more specific and less cliched ways. Their piano-based, jazz/rock hybrid sound won’t be for everyone, and it’s probably a world away from what the cool kids are listening to nowadays, but I really love it when a band just doesn’t care about all that, sticks to the style they love best, and turns out a stellar collection of kamikaze jams and lush, romantic ballads in the process.

Live in Studio: “Thrill of the Fall”


2010_VampireWeekend_Contra2. Vampire Weekend – Contra
It pains me to see some folks write Vampire Weekend off as “hipster garbage”. I mean, really, just because an indie rock band is literate and infuses worldbeat elements into their sound, does that mean all of us only listen to them to seem like we’re cultured or something? Hipsters are too serious to enjoy an album like Contra, anyway. It’s a lean, mean collection of upstart songs that are carefree one second and subversively political the next, playing around with synthesized keyboards and rhythms a bit more than their debut, but coming out stronger for it, as you just never know what the sonic makeup will be from one track to the next. It’s just plain fun to listen to, and it proved to my skeptical mind that sometimes the brevity of 10 snappy little songs can comprise an A-grade album without it needing to be super long, like a lot of my favorite albums usually are. (And to be fair, while the album runs a mere 36 minutes, 6 of those are unusually epic territory for VW, in the form of the reggae Frankenstein “Diplomat’s Son”, while a couple of other slow, sparse tracks demonstrate that the band is good at more than just being upbeat and poppy.)

Live in Studio: “Run”


2010_KTTunstall_TigerSuit3. KT Tunstall – Tiger Suit
After a three-year gap between albums, KT returned with a revitalized sound, setting aside the intimate folk ballads and radio-ready pop ditties for the most part, and focusing on her love of the loop pedal to create a hypnotic collection of songs in a style that she affectionately refers to as “nature techno”. It’s not just the sonic bells and whistles that make it so much fun, though – KT seems to be committed to being a wallflower rather than fading into the crowd, which is an encouraging change of priorities after the middling Drastic Fantastic. Where there are ballads here, they sparkle and glisten with an extra bit of life due to the mad alchemy that’s going on admidst all of the sonic layers, and to my ears, there are few sweeter sounds. I don’t think this is an abandoning of her old style, so much as an attempt to make a unified album that just plain kicks butt. And it totally does.

Live in Concert: “Difficulty”


2010_TheRiverEmpires_TheRiverEmpiresEpilogue4. The River Empires – The River Empires – Epilogue
Sometimes the best albums are short and sweet, like the aforementioned Vampire Weekend example. Sometimes they’re long, meandering, and it takes forever to make heads or tails of them. That was the case for the daunting debut of The River Empires, a side project of Falling Up‘s Jessy Ribordy and the Dear Hunter‘s Casey Crescenzo. It’s merely the first volume in a planned set of seven (well actually, last if you consider the intended chronology of the bizarre story they’re attempting to tell), and even if you take out the brief interlude and other bits of not-fully-formed weirdness, you get more than what most bands would consider an album’s worth of intriguing songs, performed in the band’s uniquely lush style of classical-meets-bluegrass-meets-occasional-rock. The connecting story threads and musical motifs here are too numerous to mention, so much so that it’s almost impossible to understand what any one track “means” independent of a good chunk of the tracks surrounding it. It’s the sort of immersive musical experience that excites me as a critic, and it’s clearly a labor of love for the band, who has resorted to selling most of their personal belongings and making grassroots attempts at fundraising to support the recording of future albums. It’s tough going because these guys don’t get anywhere near the exposure they deserve, but I hopes it works out for them, because I can’t wait to hear where the story goes next… um, I mean where it went previously.

Listen: “Three Tigers”


2010_JoshRitter_SoRunstheWorldAway5. Josh Ritter – So Runs the World Away
I already knew Ritter had a way with words on his 2007 effort, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. But his latest album secured him a spot on my list of favorite songwriters. What may seem humble at first, just the slightly gravelly voice of a man with an acoustic guitar and a few folk tales dressed up in imaginative musical outfits, becomes phenomenal when you pay closer attention to the way this man rhymes words, draws analogies from places you’d never expect, and tells heartbreaking stories that can be clearly followed from start to finish while never quite getting predictable. It’s telling that he’s the only artist with two entries in the top 10 tier of my favorite songs list this year – his words resonate with me that deeply, sometimes even moving me to tears. And that music video for “The Curse”? It looks goofy enough at first, but oh my Lord, don’t even think about watching it without a box of Kleenex by your side.

Music Video: “The Curse”


2010_ViennaTengAlexWong_TheMomentAlwaysVanishing6. Vienna Teng & Alex Wong – The Moment Always Vanishing
Vienna has always demonstrated the level of songwriting talent that I only recently came to admire Josh Ritter for, and it’s due to that that she’s been my favorite solo performer for many years now. Her live shows have become more and more experimental over the years, from her humble beginnings on solo piano to various “chamber pop” lineups with bass, percussion, and maybe a few strings, to her current love affair (you can decide for yourself whether I mean that literally) with drummer/The Paper Raincoat frontman Alex Wong and some impressive use/abuse of live looping technology to get the desired effect on songs which rely heavily on backing vocals or intricate percussion. This live set focuses almost exclusively on Inland Territory, but digs up a few gems from the old days and presents them in interesting new ways as well. And you can rarely go wrong with an affectionate left-field cover of your favorite Radiohead song. Right?

Live in Concert: “Idiotheque”


2010_HouseofHeroes_Suburba7. House of Heroes – Suburba
HoH is a band that continues to excel at doing much with little, only occasionally embellishing their no-frills modern rock combo of guitar, bass, and vocals with any other instruments or studio effects, but often reaching epic heights with their anthems of conflict between man and his brother, and also between man and God. While 2008’s The End Is Not the End remains their most focused and best record, Suburba is admirable in its attempts to scale the love and war stories back to civilian life, and the band still proves adept at balancing uniquely-phrased power pop anthems that could fit comfortably into modern rock radio with more direct confessions of faith that would certainly serve to elevate any Christian radio playlist.

Music Video: “God Save the Foolish Kings”


2010_ArcadeFire_TheSuburbs8. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
It’s no coincidence that these two albums about suburban life got sandwiched together on my list – both were released on the same day and both feel to me like different sides of the same coin, despite existing in very different musical universes. Arcade Fire’s view seems a bit more cynical, and much of the album plays out as Win Butlerwatches the neighborhoods he knew as a child either fade into urban decay or get overrun by commercialization and young punks with nothing better to do but poilter around and ruin the atmosphere. Yeah, I thought it was a downer at first – and a bit of a long-winded one, running at 16 tracks and over an hour’s length, and scaling back the “army of instruments” approach that characterized many of my favorite Arcade Fire songs from yesteryear. But listen more closely, and there are strings, bits of electronica, and other unusual instrumental flourishes that give each track its distinct character. Whenever Régine Chassagne takes the mic, the results are generally golden, and it’s interesting to hear her and her husband singing about things such as marriages and families growing stale and falling apart, as if addressing the fear head-on is what keeps them strong as a couple. I turned out to relate to the album a lot more than I expected, and while I still think 3 or 4 songs could be cut with no damage done, I’m surprised at how often I find myself going back to listen to it again and again – it started well outside my Top 10 and bravely fought its way up the chart to its current position.

Music Video: “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”


2010_OKGo_OftheBlueColouroftheSky9. OK Go – Of the Blue Colour of the Sky
Sometimes a band earns their notoriety for just turning out a bunch of zippy power pop songs that can be mindlessly enjoyed without too much thought going into it – or they pull a stunt with a clever music video for one of said songs, that ends up going viral. Then they get the urge to experiment and fans scratch their heads. This disc was a tough sell for me, as it took one of those brilliantly made viral videos to get me interested in the first place, and then I wasn’t hearing anything else that resembles the catchy song that first roped me in. Over time, the band’s newfound love of funk and falsetto slowly wormed its way into my brain as more obscure hooks began to take shape and become catchy in their own weird way, and now I even find myself enjoying the downbeat, ambient section toward the end of the album that originally gave me so much trouble. It’s unfortunate that they’ll probably remain most well known for running around on treadmills, designing Rube Goldberg contraptions and playing with dogs in their brilliant one-take videos, but take away the visual component and there’s still a whole lot to enjoy about this group’s new sonic palette.

Music Video: “This Too Shall Pass”


2010_SufjanStevens_TheAgeofAdz10. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
Another album that had to kick, bite, and claw its way into the upper echelons of my year-end chart. I just was not getting it at first, and as a huge fan of Sufjan’s previous work, that was disheartening. The move from Sufjan’s banjo ballads and marching band epics of yesteryear to his new, heavily electronic sound full of flattened melodies and other unexpected personality changes just did not sit well with a lot of people – I was determined to give it a fair shake, but also determined that going this far off the deep end probably wouldn’t land Sufjan on my best-of list like usual. And I was wrong. While Adz does still have its potholes and its overindulgent moments, I can’t help but fall in love with the weird robotic dance that so many of these songs do, even to the point where the uncharacteristic F-bombs in “I Want to Be Well” don’t sting as much as they used to and the 25-minute finale “Impossible Soul” feels more and more like a joyous listening experience than the bloated albatross it seemed to be on the first several listens. I feel like some critics feel compelled to give this album high marks simply because it’s Sufjan and it’s trendy to seem caught up with the bleeding edge of the bizarre work he’s doing, but then again, if I honestly tried to resist liking it this much and still came around, then maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to call those other critics poseurs. I still hope Adz isn’t truly the sound of Sufjan’s future, but it clearly demonstrated that he will not be pigeonholed, and for that, I really admire him.

Live on Jimmy Fallon: “Too Much”

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

2010_JenniferKnapp_LettingGo11. Jennifer Knapp – Letting Go
I know, I know, there’s all the controversy over Jen coming out as a lesbian, and now most of the Christian music audience won’t touch her. Their loss. Her comeback disc is a brief, but strong collection of feisty rockers and hopeful meditations on love, and you can either read between the lines and analyze the struggle to reconcile her sexual identity with her spiritual one, or simply enjoy a bold set of songs about being set free and learning to find renewed faith in God as well as your fellow man.

Live in Concert: “Inside”


2010_Hellogoodbye_WouldItKillYou12. Hellogoodbye – Would It Kill You?
In a similar vein to OK Go, this power pop group revitalized itself with a new album after a prolonged absence. These guys keep the tempo full throttle almost all the way through, so the experimentation doesn’t sacrifice any “power” in their case, but a drastically reduced reliance on the vocorder and other “laptoppy” sounds proves to be a major improvement for a group that was almost too irritatingly cute for their own good at times on their debut. Nothing terribly deep here, but it’s a blast to listen to and feels like the work of a band who had just as much of a blast making it.

Live Acoustic: “When We First Met”


2010_Yoav_AFoolproofEscapePlan13. Yoav – A Foolproof Escape Plan
Another solo artist who proceeded to wow me with his use of live looping on his debut album, and who improved on the formula with the follow-up. Almost every sound Yoav makes comes from his acoustic guitar or his mouth – there’s the occasional bit of true percussion to augment a song or two here, but most of the versatility comes from those two basic ingredients – things which you can watch the man reproduce one step at a time just by searching for any of his live performances on YouTube. Yoav’s lyrics tend toward the skeptical/cynical, so his songs won’t be for everyone, but I find many of his insidious melodies to be intoxicating enough that I don’t mind some of the lyrics to be a downer. And there are some beautiful moments of pathos to be found in between the moments of casting a suspicious eye on the world.

Live in Concert: “Greed”


2010_StevenPage_PageOne14. Steven Page – Page One
The Barenaked Ladies managed a decent enough album after the departure of their frontman and founding member, but I wasn’t prepared for what Steven Page would concoct on his own. “Cynical” doesn’t even begin to describe this onslaught of mercilessly catchy songs, most of which could easily fit on a BNL album, but which are arguably stronger for being presented as a progression of Steven’s uninterrupted thoughts. Fame, money, and marriage are among the topics that get savaged here – not because Steven’s out to destroy our ideals about everything we love, but simply because as a man who’s had his own family problems and run-ins with the law due to the kinds of things that happen when a person makes to much money, he knows the territory and I guess he figures he might as well write honestly about what he’s learned. The occasional left turn like “Chorus Girl” or “Leave Her Alone” reminds us that Steven could easily belt out showtunes for a living if he felt that calling, but I’m personally glad he keeps it mostly in the pop/rock arena. Those who have followed his work with the BNL for nearly twenty years will know there’s a lot of diversity to be achieved even within those bounds, and that’s what keeps Page One a continually surprising and engaging record even when the words string more than a little.

Music Video: “Indecision”


2010_CaedmonsCall_RaisingUptheDead15. Caedmon’s Call – Raising Up the Dead
A long-time favorite band of mine reunited as many of their former members as they could and went the 100% indie route for their latest release, which finds nearly everyone sharing in the songwriting experience as they made their first attempt to keep the writing entirely within the band. This shows a side of frontman Cliff Young that is more intriguing than what we knew of him before, but it also launches his wife Danielle Young into the spotlight, considering that she wrote about half the album and therefore gets dibs on the lead mic for those songs. The band is more downbeat and experimental, so this won’t be a sure-fire win for fans of classic Caedmon’s, but I genuinely admire the commitment to create anything but the typical Christian radio fare.

Live in Concert: “She”


2010_CourtYardHounds_CourtYardHounds16. Court Yard Hounds – Court Yard Hounds
Apparently Natalie Maines was either experiencing a creative drought or just got sick of the spotlight, because theDixie Chicks have put out nothing new for four years now. Upon learning that Natalie wasn’t up for making a new record, the other 2/3 of the group (and let’s not forget, its two remaining original members) Marty Maguire and Emily Robison soldiered on and found their own voice, crafting a record that might come on a bit more subtle than most of the Dixie Chicks’ stuff, but which has a ton of personality on display once you really dig into it. As with Home, the Chicks’ best record by a mile, the banjo and fiddle are brought to the forefront at many of the album’s best moments – a few fall victim to more radio-ready country-pop leanings, but there aren’t too many casualties in that department. I got so hooked on the barn-burner anthem “Ain’t No Son”, which viciously dismantles small-town homophobia in a way that would likely make Natalie quite proud, that I failed to notice the rest of the record at first, but now it feels like there are a wellspring of tunes, both the upbeat and feisty ones and the down-tempo love songs and breakup songs, that make it an album I’ve gone back to quite frequently in the waning days of 2010.

Live on David Letterman: “Ain’t No Son”


2010_Anberlin_DarkIstheWayLightIsaPlace17. Anberlin – Dark Is the Way, Light Is a Place
Not the band’s best work, but still quite enjoyable for an attempt at streamlining their sound and aiming for brevity rather than long-windedness. It’s almost Anberlin by numbers, but even that proves to be enjoyable in the way that the band’s early albums were, as the expected riffs and hooks ring out loud and clear and Stephen Christian‘s formidable yet sensitive voice leads the way through some of the band’s most confrontational breakup songs. Sometimes “more of the same” beats trying to change things up – a lesson learned the hard way on 2008’s New Surrender.

Music Video: “Impossible”


2010_KevinMax_CotesdArmorTrueRebels18. Kevin Max – Côtes-d’Armor (True Rebels)
Well, this is strange, even for Kevin Max. He was already the weirdest member of dc Talk by far, and I enjoyed that about him for his first few solo albums, until he went so far off the deep end that he was making ill-advised attempts at recording holiday and Gospel music. The 2008 EP Crashing Gates returned to his eclectic pop/rock roots, but with seemingly weaker material, so it was a pleasant surprise to see most of that material repurposed in glitzy, danceable, electronic form for what might just be Kevin’s most cohesive album. Working with Graham Crabb of the band Pop Will Eat Itself was the catalyst for this unlikely transformation, which gives Kevin’s music a post-apocalyptic bent as he delves into some story that’s too obscure for most of us to get a handle on, concerning the fate of Hollywood and its self-important celebrities as the End of Days looms. But not like that – this isn’t the dispensational Chick tract that you might expect from less cerebral CCM icons. Kevin’s never been one to express his faith in predictable ways, or in ways that make a conservative crowd particularly comfortable, in the first place, so that makes it an incredibly fun ride for me. At least, if I cast aside the annoyance of some of the instrumental techno side-journeys that take up a bit too much time, and the few tracks where the electronic madness gets in the way of Kevin’s vocal magic.

Listen: “Walking Through Walls (Just to Get to You)”


2010_JarsofClay_TheShelter19. Jars of Clay – The Shelter
My favorite band does a worship album?! It’s one of those things where I had to be patient and learn to see the merits, and not focus too much on whether they were trying to stay in step with a trend or what could have been had they put out a normal, non-special event album this year. While sometimes falling prey to the repetitive conventions of other modern worship albums, Jars of Clay makes up for the shortfall by envisioning The Shelter as a communal experience, and inviting an army of guest vocalists and songwriters to participate, resulting in an album that extols the virtue of brothers and sisters in Christ leaning on each other as an act of worship to the God who gave them the strength to lift one another up. Unlikely pairings often result in heavenly choruses where different vocal parts intertwine in beautiful ways – there’s a lot to discover once you look past the pedestrian, poppy stuff that is unfortunately shoved up to the front portion of the album.

Live in Concert: “Eyes Wide Open”


2010_BarenakedLadies_AllinGoodTime20. Barenaked Ladies – All in Good Time

As mentioned above, Steven Page probably got the better end of the deal when he chose to leave the BNL – his work will probably get noticed by fewer people, but he’s writing more solid songs on his own than Ed Robertson is. Robertson, however, is determined to still have a great time fronting this band all by himself, and giving bandmatesJim CreegganKevin Hearn, and even occasionally Tyler Stewart a little more time in the spotlight. All of them prove to have good ideas for songs that may not have the same gravity as Page’s, but which are affectionate and fun, and even poignant in the case of one or two of Robertson’s contributions. I like bands that function well as a community, and it’s a bit of a bummer than this emphasis on giving more band members a turn at the mic was part of Steven’s decision to leave – it seems he doesn’t share that spotlight with others as well as Ed does. It’s everyone’s loss, but since potentially twice as much good music might get made with Page split from the band, maybe it’s a blessing in disguise?

Live in Concert: “Four Seconds”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6ivhtShZVs

EPs AND OTHER MISCELLANY:
Stuff that got booted from the official list due to consisting mostly of previously released material, or being too short to compete with full-length LPs.

2010_Doves_ThePlacesBetweenDoves – The Places Between: The Best of Doves
A gateway drug to my newfound obsession with this excellent British rock act. It caught me up on hits and some of the band members’ personal favorite album tracks, and the brand new song they recorded for it achieves the difficult task of measuring up to their best work.

Music Video: “Andalucía”


2010_SleepingatLast_YearbookOctoberEPSleeping at Last – Yearbook – October/November/December EPs
Band leader Ryan O’Neal was so giddy with excitement about this project in the days leading up to its announcement on Facebook. It’s simple in principle – record three songs per month and release them digitally for fans to hear – either as individual downloads or for a pre-paid subscription. I’ve gotten nothing but quality from this band in the past, so $30 for three songs of poetic baroque pop bliss every month seemed like a steal. And the nine songs released so far, while possibly more gentle and sparse overall than their Storyboards album, have exceeded expectations. It may be that only getting three songs at a time puts more emphasis on the individual songs than the release of a full album where favorites immediately stand out and subtler material can easily fade into the background. But what could be a rush job instead exhibits great care and finesse on this set of mostly piano and ukulele-based songs that rarely, if ever, betray their indie budget and the breakneck pace at which they went them from scribbles on paper to fully realized recordings. If they can keep it up all the way through next September, they’ll have released the equivalent of three albums of quality material within the space of one year.

Live in Concert: “Next to Me”


2010_MichelleBranch_EverythingComesandGoesEPMichelle Branch – Everything Comes and Goes EP
I didn’t think I’d be all that excited for Branch’s solo comeback – the endless development hell that her full-length album Different Kind of Country has endured thus far had me fearing a complete lack of confidence from her label, But those who liked Branch’s work as half of country duo The Wreckers will probably take well to this sad, but sassy and twangy set of songs – a tasty little morsel that has me looking forward to the full LP.

Live in Studio: “Ready to Let You Go”


WORST ALBUMS OF 2010:
As usual, I’m sure that the ears of the world were assaulted with a great deal of far more awful music than whatever I could come up with. But either due to falling surprisingly short of expectations, or due to sucking in a way that I knew I’d find grotesquely entertaining and therefore worth a listen or two just to warn others about it, these are the discs that ended up at the bottom of my heap this year.

2010_Newsboys_BornAgain7. Newsboys – Born Again
When it was announced last year that Peter Furler was stepping down from his role as lead singer of the Newsboys, to be replaced by Michael Tait, I was incredibly skeptical. The Newsboys make fun music (though in diminishing quantities during recent years), and Tait’s a great vocalist, capable of a much wider range than Furler’s scratchy Aussie voice could ever pull off, so this doesn’t sound like it’d be that terrible of a pairing… at least if the band went the Audioslave/Velvet Revolver route and picked a different name to represent what would clearly be a change in sound for the group. Tait’s involvement in the group brings with it a bit more rock muscle than a lot of the recent albums helmed by Furler, which would be a good thing if Tait were a better songwriter. Truthfully, he managed only a handful of solid lyrics during his tenure as the lead singer of his own band after dc Talk dissolved, and here, the new batch of Newsboys songs are prone to the same overuse of cliches and lyrical gaffes, magnified by the fact that he’s trying and failing to match the Steve Taylor-inspired wit that resulted in many of the Newsboys’ best songs back in the day. This leads to the “totally radical” effect of power-chord heavy rockers making analogies between your spiritual life and things like Twitter and Facebook, as if it were somehow cutting edge to reference these things in 2010. Elsewhere, when they back off on the heavy guitars, the same synthesizer-itis that plagued Tait’s Lose This Life takes over, which results in songs that are more listenable than you expect, but which don’t sound like the Newsboys in any way, more closely resembling a Michael Tait solo R&B/synthpop project. And then of course there are the generic worship songs that round out the tracklisting. I guess that sounds more or less like the worst of the Newsboys in their final years with Furler. Oh, and the cover of “Jesus Freak”? With KJ-52 covering the rap parts? Don’t even get me started on what a terrible idea that was.


2010_WeAretheFallen_TeartheWorldDown6. We Are the Fallen – Tear the World Down
It’s gotta burn when pretty much your entire band is so sick of your diva antics that reform with a new lead singer to replace you. At least when the members of Alter Bridge did this, they made decent music. I can’t say the same forBen Moody‘s attempt to relive the glory days of Evanescence, with American Idol also-ran Carly Smithson playing the role of Amy Lee by proxy. She’d be almost a dead ringer for Amy if this were karaoke, but it isn’t, and the group’s attempts to recapture what made Fallen such an addictive record merely emphasizes the worst traits of that record (further driving home the reasons why some critics slammed Evanescence to begin with). To be fair to a bunch of folks who probably still wanted to enjoy making music together, Amy Lee’s had her revolving-door roster of the band stuck in creative limbo for years now, so I guess someone might as well carry the torch. But one starts to realize when listening to this that Moody’s all about the pop appeal and will leave no cliche unturned looking for a hit, while Lee brought the needed dose of weirdness to make most of Evanescence’s morbid tunes work. When the highlight of an album packed wall-to-wall with dreary, overused goth-pop tropes and wall-to-wall power chords is a Madonnacover intended to be taken seriously, that ain’t a good sign.


2010_TobyMac_Tonight5. Toby Mac – Tonight
Toby’s solo material has always been a bit, well, obnoxious. I enjoyed that enough when he started doing his own thing in 2001, jumping between straight-up hip-hop tracks and banging rap-rockers. it was trendy at the time, and as it ceased to be so, he’s drifted more and more toward bland melodic pop with just enough of the urban trimmings to make the world’s least diverse youth groups feel just a little better about themselves for listening to it. Maybe I’m just getting too old for this, but when Toby’s chewing up and spitting out fragments of genre lingo without seeming to fully understand their suggestive origins, it can make a lot of his Jesus jams a little awkward to listen to. (I mean, seriously. Asking God to “Give me that juicy flow?” No. Just… no.) When the highlight of your album is your ten-year old kid stealing the mic to continue an overly long running gag, maybe it’s time to hang it up.


2010_Ivoryline_Vessels4. Ivoryline – Vessels
Take everything that people enjoy about Anberlin. Recycle it with a similar vocalist and similar musicians, but with less of an ear for memorable guitar riffs and virtually no sense of dynamics, meaning they crash through nearly every song with little to differentiate the tracks from one another, or even the verses from the choruses in many cases. Then add the occasional guilt-trip inducing bit of religious lingo for the folks who think Anberlin isn’t “Christian” enough. Ivoryline sounds good enough as rock radio wallpaper, but they don’t reward closer listening at all.


2010_SanctusReal_PiecesofaRealHeart3. Sanctus Real – Pieces of a Real Heart
The year’s most genuine disappointment, in terms of bands that I actually expected something good from. They’ve always been straight up the alley of Christian Hit Radio, but at least their better records in the past could claim some solid power pop tracks. We Need Each Other was one of 2008’s best rock records. Now they’ve reduced themselves to a mostly mushed-out pop sound, which the occasional bit of twangy acoustic flavor coming out of left field isn’t enough to save them from. I can handle a mellowed-out rock record when there’s something experimental and interesting going on, but this sounds like pandering to an Adult Contemporary crowd, plain and simple. That’s especially surprising, given that some of their previous record’s mellower moments ranked among the group’s best songs.


2010_BrandonFlowers_Flamingo2. Brandon Flowers – Flamingo
I’m really not sure what I expected from this one. Flowers has always been the weak link of The Killers – a band with a capable guitarist and a solid rhythm section who creates catchy enough tunes to make me not mind (usually, anyway) that they’re just a little stoopid. Striking out on his own only causes Flowers to emphasize the worst of his tendencies – the oversinging that causes him to drift uncomfortably out of key, the synthesizeritis that would be OK as a component of a rock song but that sounds incredibly weak as the foundation of one, and his sordid fascination with turning the underbelly of Las Vegas into some sort of epic rock opera. He even goes country for some of it – and sometimes I like country, but these two sounds emphatically do not belong together. To be fair, there’s the occasional inspired idea for a story or witty analogy, but none of that’s enough to compensate for the overbearing awkwardness that plagues most of this album.


2010_KatyPerry_TeenageDream1. Katy Perry – Teenage Dream
I can’t help it. It’s fun to rip Katy a new one whenever she puts new music out, simply because she seems so misguidedly committed to proving what a bad girl she is, which comes across in the form of comically awkward lyrics. I suppose it’s saying something that the worst album I listened to this year still got awarded two stars – for a moment, I can get drawn into the uplifting melody of “Firework” or the more spiritual mindset of “Who Am I Living For?”, or shoot, even the guilty pleasure 80’s pop of the title track. But then along comes the massively embarrassing “Peacock”, and all other trashy and/or subpar material aside, that one track is enough to torpedo any album enough that there’s no way it could even muster an average rating. Plus, given what she’s making the rest of the world think about the attire and apparent ease of getting laid with all of the women here, I can only say this: I’m ashamed that Katy Perry is from California.


2009 HOLDOVERS:
The most exceptional of the albums I should have gotten around to listening to last year when they were new, but didn’t.

2009_PaperRoute_AbsencePaper Route – Absence
The pain of love and loss explored in the form of electronic rock music, equal parts energetic and ambient. Perhaps the record I related to most in 2010.


2009_Sherwood_QUSherwood – QU
I’d describe Sherwood’s brand of indie pop music as 100% cute and harmless, but also surprisingly affecting and insidiously catchy. Someone’s gotta carry the torch with Copeland out of the picture.


2009_OwlCity_OceanEyesOwl City – Ocean Eyes
Speaking of cute and insidiously catchy, I think I’m the only one who likes this unabashedly dorky synthpop record who isn’t either a teenager, a girl, gay, or some combination thereof. (Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things.)



2009_AsTallasLions_YouCantTakeItwithYouAs Tall as Lions – You Can’t Take It with You
It’s hard to hold one’s own when opening for such a fiery, energetic band as Mute Math, but ATAL got my attention by doing an admirable job of exactly this, which translated well to the engrossing, albeit somewhat nihilistic, experience of listening to their latest studio record.


2009_AlltheDayHoliday_TheThingsWeveGrowntoLoveAll the Day Holiday – The Things We’ve Grown to Love
A surprisingly colorful set of songs that seems like your typical indie pop fare at first, but that slowly sinks in with its rolling rhythms and lyrics that seem to overflow with emotion. Sadly, this will remain their one and only studio album.


2009_StevenCurtisChapman_BeautyWillRiseSteven Curtis Chapman – Beauty Will Rise

A veteran CCM pop star ditches the youth group anthems for a thoroughly heartfelt album that faces his grief over the loss of his daughter Maria head-on. It’s a quiet but brave album that offers solace to those struggling to find faith during their darkest days.

BEST SONGS OF 2010:
The same rules apply that I’ve used in past years: If it was released this year, or 2010 was the year I really got into a song from 2009, then it’s eligible for the list. While I’ve discovered belated favorites from older albums as I’ve explored favorite artists’ back catalogues this year, this list is really meant for my favorite new stuff.

1. “Thrill of the Fall”, The Reign of Kindo (from This Is What Happens)
2. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, Arcade Fire (from The Suburbs)
3. “Andalucía”, Doves (from The Places Between: The Best of Doves)
4. “The Curse”, Josh Ritter (from So Runs the World Away)
5. “Tiger Teeth”, Paper Route (from Absence)
6. “Salt in the Sea”, House of Heroes (from Suburba)
7. “Three Tigers”, The River Empires (from The River Empires – Epilogue)
8. “The Catalyst”, Linkin Park (from A Thousand Suns)
9. “Circles”, As Tall as Lions (from You Can’t Take It with You)
10. “Change of Time”, Josh Ritter (from So Runs the World Away)
11. “Slow Your Breath Down”, Future of Forestry (from Travel II EP)
12. “Fallen”, Jennifer Knapp (from Letting Go)
13. “Symptom of a Stumbling”, The Reign of Kindo (from This Is What Happens)
14. “Your Hands (Together)”, The New Pornographers (from Together)
15. “Love Is for the Middle Class”, House of Heroes (from Suburba)
16. “Run”, Vampire Weekend (from Contra)
17. “Carousel”, Paper Route (from Absence)
18. “The Curse of Maybel Cains”, The River Empires (from The River Empires – Epilogue)
19. “Difficulty”, KT Tunstall (from Tiger Suit)
20. “Eyes Wide Open”, Jars of Clay feat. Mac Powell, Derek Webb & Burlap to Cashmere (from The Shelter)
21. “Birds”, Deas Vail feat. Matt Thiessen (from Birds & Cages)
22. “Enemy Among Us”, Paper Route (from Absence)
23. “Another New World”, Josh Ritter (from So Runs the World Away)
24. “Just Breathe”, Pearl Jam (from Backspacer)
25. “Last Time”, Paper Route (from Absence)
26. “Next to Me”, Sleeping at Last feat. Stacy Dupree (from Yearbook – October EP)
27. “Umbrella Beach”, Owl City (from Ocean Eyes)
28. “Empty Room”, Arcade Fire (from The Suburbs)
29. “Love Will Find Us”, Jars of Clay feat. Sara Groves & Matt Maher (from The Shelter)
30. “Bullets in the Air”, The Reign of Kindo (from This Is What Happens)
31. “I Think I Can”, Animal Collective (from Fall Be Kind EP)
32. “Sunlight”, Deas Vail (from Birds & Cages)
33. “The Saltwater Room”, Owl City (from Ocean Eyes)
34. “Around You”, Sherwood (from QU)
35. “Too Much”, Sufjan Stevens (from The Age of Adz)
36. “Inside”, Jennifer Knapp (from Letting Go)
37. “Now We’ve Made Our Ascent”, The Reign of Kindo (from This Is What Happens)
38. “Four Seconds”, Barenaked Ladies (from All in Good Time)
39. “California English”, Vampire Weekend (from Contra)
40. “Ain’t No Son”, Court Yard Hounds (from Court Yard Hounds)
41. “City with No Children”, Arcade Fire (from The Suburbs)
42. “On Love”, Jennifer Knapp (from Letting Go)
43. “The Marching of the Clocks”, The River Empires (from The River Empires – Epilogue)
44. “The Fight Song (Crash and Burn)”, Mae (from (a)fternoon EP)
45. “Set Your Sails”, Future of Forestry (from Travel II EP)
46. “How He Loves”, David Crowder Band (from Church Music)
47. “Relentless”, House of Heroes (from Suburba)
48. “Age of Adz”, Sufjan Stevens (from The Age of Adz)
49. “This Too Shall Pass”, OK Go (from Of the Blue Colour of the Sky)
50. “Blistered Hands”, The Reign of Kindo (from This Is What Happens)
51. “The Mall and Misery”, Broken Bells (from Broken Bells)
52. “Gold Guns Girls”, Metric (from Fantasies)
53. “White Sky”, Vampire Weekend (from Contra)
54. “End Love”, OK Go (from Of the Blue Colour of the Sky)
55. “Wish”, Paper Route (from Absence)
56. “Hysteric”, Yeah Yeah Yeahs (from It’s Blitz!)
57. “Beauty Will Rise”, Steven Curtis Chapman (from Beauty Will Rise)
58. “WTF?”, OK Go (from Of the Blue Colour of the Sky)
59. “The Sound (John M. “Perkins’ Blues)”, Switchfoot (from Hello Hurricane)
60. “We Used to Wait”, Arcade Fire (from The Suburbs)
61. “Candlelight”, Relient K (from Forget and Not Slow Down)
62. “Walking the Dog”, fun. (from Aim & Ignite)
63. “It All Depends”, The Paper Raincoat (from The Paper Raincoat)
64. “Hello Seattle”, Owl City (from Ocean Eyes)
65. “Go Easy”, As Tall as Lions (from You Can’t Take It with You)
66. “What Would I Want? Sky”, Animal Collective (from Fall Be Kind EP)
67. “The Gambler”, fun. (from Aim & Ignite)
68. “Cousins”, Vampire Weekend (from Contra)
69. “White Knuckles”, OK Go (from Of the Blue Colour of the Sky)
70. “Burden”, Mute Math (from Armistice)
71. “Bold and Underlined”, Future of Forestry (from Travel III EP)
72. “You Can’t Take It with You”, As Tall as Lions (from You Can’t Take It with You)
73. “Burning in the Skies”, Linkin Park (from A Thousand Suns)
74. “Holiday”, Vampire Weekend (from Contra)
75. “Protection”, Future of Forestry (from Travel III EP)
76. “The Nearness”, David Crowder Band feat. Lacy Mosley (from Church Music)
77. “Autumn”, All the Day Holiday (from All the Things We’ve Grown to Love)
78. “Idioteque (live)”, Vienna Teng & Alex Wong (from The Moment Always Vanishing)
79. “Fireflies”, Owl City (from Ocean Eyes)
80. “Miss You”, Caedmon’s Call (from Raising Up the Dead)
81. “Nerve Damage”, Lifehouse (from Smoke & Mirrors)
82. “Go Do”, Jónsi (from Go)
83. “The Veil”, David Crowder Band (from Church Music)
84. “A Dimmer Lux”, The River Empires (from The River Empires – Epilogue)
85. “Tornado”, Jónsi (from Go)
86. “Light a Roman Candle with Me”, fun. (from Aim & Ignite)
87. “Not Gonna Love”, Sherwood (from QU)
88. “A Toast to the Snake King”, The River Empires (from The River Empires – Epilogue)
89. “Coppertone”, Hellogoodbye (from Would It Kill You?)
90. “Had Enough”, Lifehouse (from Smoke & Mirrors)
91. “You Run Away”, Barenaked Ladies (from All in Good Time)
92. “Enough to Let Me Go”, Switchfoot (from Hello Hurricane)
93. “Push That Knot Away”, KT Tunstall (from Tiger Suit)
94. “Horchata”, Vampire Weekend (from Contra)
95. “Sleep Well”, Mae (from (e)vening EP)
96. “Oh, Happiness”, David Crowder Band (from Church Music)
97. “Below the Hurricane”, Blitzen Trapper (from Destroyer of the Void)
98. “Worn”, Sherwood feat. Molly Jenson (from QU)
99. “Pray Tell”, Anberlin (from Dark Is the Way, Light Is a Place)
100. “Iridescent”, Linkin Park (from A Thousand Suns)

BEST LIVE PERFORMANCES OF 2010:
These are basically all the concerts I went to this year. I guess I’m economical enough at this point to only go see the bands I know I can expect great things from. Then again, the #1 concert on this list required hundreds of dollars in travel expense and enough stress to warrant tearing my hair out as I tried to secure a day off from work for my wife so that she could accompany me, but hey, a music lover’s gotta do what a music lover’s gotta do.

Iona @ The Rialto Theater, Loveland, CO, 6/20/10

No, that “CO” isn’t a typo. In a larger-than-usual display of music junkie behavior, I actually made arrangements to fly myself and my wife out for a weekend in Colorado, designed around the central event of an Iona concert – the most westerly stop on a limited tour of the U.S. that was such a rare event, the band hadn’t actually been to this country for a decade. This scratched an item off of my personal “bucket list” that had been there since about 1997, and the performance – which went on for a good two hours and change – did not disappoint. From the lively jigs and reels to the lush, reverent hymns and reflections on ancient texts that make up some of this progressive rock/Celtic/jazz/kitchen sink band’s best moments, their live set had no shortage of gorgeous moments that I had once figured I’d never get to hear them perform in the flesh. While the band took a bit of a creative hit with the departure of pipe player Troy Donockley last year, his replacement Martin Nolan proved to be quite capable, especially on difficult passages like “Bi-Sé I Mo Shuìl, Pt. 2” that required perfect sync with guitarist Dave Bainbridgein a difficult time signature. (His dry wit also made the band’s between-song banter that much more amusing – I’m convinced that the guy is a long-lost cousin of Conan O’Brien.) After a period of taking more of an interpretive approach to expressing their faith in 2000, the band seems to have returned to a more literal approach, especially in some of the new songs Joanne Hogg had been writing that they showcased, which did give me some cause for concern. (However, if most of the new material turns out to be as solid as the new anthem “Let Your Glory Fall”, I’ll give them a pass on that.) Their most recently released album, 2006’s The Circling Hour, was surprisingly overlooked in the setlist, as was 2000’s Open Sky for the most part, in favor of classics like “Treasure”, “Irish Day”, and “Today”, and unexpected deep cuts from their earliest albums such as “Revelation” and “Divine Presence”. Really, this band couldn’t put together a bad setlist if they tried. They’re phenomenal musicians, and considering that I once thought I’d have to make a trip to the UK to see them live, the cost of a few plane tickets to Denver seemed like a reasonable expense in order to finally experience their work first-hand and meet them in person.

Sleeping at Last @ Hotel Cafe, Hollywood, CA, 4/26/10
While they began life as an introspective alt-rock act championed by the likes of Billy Corgan, SAL has evolved towards a more intimate sound in the ensuing years, settling on an almost fully unplugged “baroque pop” style for the pristine songs of Storyboards, an album put on generous display for a live set at the Hotel Cafe (my first time at that miniscule venue to see someone other than Vienna Teng). Ryan O’Neal‘s newfound love of the ukulele has led to many highlights such as “Porcelain” and “Green Screens” that brightened the mood in between more somber, piano-based ballads (my only complaint being that downbeat songs like “Naïve” and “Birdcage Religion” were placed too close together in the setlist), while Dan Perdue more than capably handled bass, keyboards, and whatever instrument/equipment support was needed, especially on the more fuller-sounding songs from the band’s rockier days. Guest drummer Aaron Mortenson more than admirably filled in for Ryan’s brother Chad O’Neal, who left the band in 2008. Given the promise that the band’s latest Yearbook material has been showing, I could probably see the band at every possible opportunity within the next few years, never get even close to the same setlist twice, and yet still be rewarded with a beautiful performance regardless of the song selection.

Jennifer Knapp @ The Mint, Los Angeles, CA, 4/24/10
Before her “retirement” in the early 2000’s, Jennifer Knapp was unknown to most of the world outside of Christian music circles. Thanks to her comeback coinciding with her coming out, she’s now earned her fair share of notoriety as “That Christian rock singer who turned gay.” (Which leads to humorous comments about fake lesbian Katy Perry, who ironically, was once signed to a management company that Jen started.) But just taking in Jennifer’s set all by itself, paying no mind to the audience demographics or some of the upstart comments by opening act Amy Courts (who herself is straight, but seems to enjoy rallying Jennifer’s newfound gay audience), reminded me that she’s still the same old Jen whose songs I once connected with as a source of solace in my own life as a Christian. With just Jen and an acoustic guitar played vigorously, and the occasional assistance of Amy on backing vocals, many of those old songs made an appearance, with a sly side comment or two from Jennifer reminding us that these songs still meant the same things they always did, with no need for the news about her sexual orientation to make us go back and reinterpret them. The new material gave me tons of anticipation for the release of Letting Go, a record which never directly comes out and screams “I’m gay!” but which addresses the struggle of being both gay and Christian more subtly for those willing to listen. All opinions of her personal choices aside, she’s still putting out great music, and she performed with the same gusto and sincerity in front of an affirming West Hollywood audience that she did at those Christian festivals and so forth back in the day. For me as a straight person trying to figure out how to navigate the thorny issue of how the Church should address long-overdue questions about sexual orientation, Jennifer’s music is a vital part of the conversation. I still feel that she’s as much of a kindred spirit as I did when I first heard Kansas back in 1998.

Future of Forestry @ Cornerstone Community Church, Simi Valley, CA 12/3/10
I would normally steer clear of a tour that focused almost exclusively on Christmas music, even if it was one of my favorite bands. But Future of Forestry, a band that knows a thing or two about infusing awe and reverence with genuine artistry, applies its style incredibly well to classic carols, so I knew that this year’s iteration of their annual Advent Christmas tour was not to be missed (especially with the release of a new EP that effectively doubled the available holiday material). The idea of slowing Christmas carols way down to create space for unusual indie rock and baroque pop instrumentation works a lot better than it might sound on paper, especially during the heights of their leisurely arrangements of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “O Holy Night”. The startling wake-up call in the middle of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was an unexpected moment that I’m glad to have heard live first before the CD spoiled it for me. And of course, there’s no beating the thrilling percussion breakdown at the end of “Little Drummer Boy” – which rivals that of their original song, “So Close So Far”. Speaking of that song, it was a highlight of the opening portion of the set featuring songs from the Travel discs before they delved into the main Christmas set, as was the gorgeous “Closer to Me” and the encore performances of “Slow Your Breath Down” and “Alleluia”. Despite being plagued with numerous technical difficulties on the opening night of their holiday tour, including some faulty equipment (“PCs stink!”, declared lead singer Eric Owyoung after a mis-timed computer cue forced the band to fly by the seat of their pants during “So Close So Far”) and a fire alarm going off during the closing song, the band pulled out all the stops and played their best for Him. Pa rum pum pum pum.

Mae @ The Glass House, Pomona, CA, 11/12/10
A bittersweet farewell if I’ve ever seen one. I’ve loved Mae’s music for a mere five years, but it seems like a lifetime due to the emotional connection I first made with their music in the life-changing year that was 2005. I got married that year, so nearly any song from The Everglow is going to have a romantic bent in my mind when I go back and listen to it, even if it’s a song of conflict and discord. I’m clearly not the only fan who feels so strongly about The Everglow, as its songs played a huge part in their last-ever performance in L.A., along with their earliest album,Destination: Beautiful (their fans clamoring for many of its songs and the band doing what they could to accommodate the requests, even if it means impromptu acoustic takes on one or two). One could almost forget that the “Goodbye, Goodnight” tour, which reunited the band with a keyboardist and bass player who had departed a few years back, was intended to support (e)vening, the final installment in their independent trilogy of EPs originally intended to be written and completed during the year 2009. The only two appearances from that record – the opening song “Bloom” and “I Just Needed You to Know”, didn’t play with quite the same luster as their classic material or tracks from (m)orning, the opening disc in the trilogy. (The (a)fternoon EP was curiously nowhere to be found, and their lone major label release Singularity was also conspicuously absent aside from “Just Let Go”.) The band played a long and proud set, despite any personal gripes I might have with the overlooked albums, and they were vociferously supported by a grateful crowd, enabling them to soldier on despite Dave Elkins‘ voice nearly giving out due to a cold. Words cannot express the wave of emotion that poured over me during the encore, which hit old favorites “We’re So Far Away” and “Someone Else’s Arms” right before knocking me upside the head with the timely reminder to live out the lesson learned in “The Fisherman Song (We All Need Love)”. If this was truly the last time I’d get to hear from hear from the band, then I can’t think of a better thought for them to have left me with than this: “We all need some understanding, and a little love. And I want to sing this song to somebody who doubts what they’re made of.”

MOST ANTICIPATED RECORDINGS OF 2011:
A lot of these guys have been dragging their feet since early 2010 or earlier, but regardless, here’s what I look forward to pumping through the headphones during long work days, otherwise dull commutes, late night Audiosurf binges, leisurely road trips, hikes, and bike rides next year.

1. Fleet Foxes (my most anticipated record for two years running)
2. Iona
3. Eisley, The Valley (March 1)
4. Sixpence None the Richer, Strange Conversation (Spring)
5. Burlap to Cashmere (what’s this, three years running on this list?)
6. The River Empires – Mars/Brighton Part II
7. Sleeping at Last, Yearbook – January-September EPs (1st of each month)
8. Radiohead
9. Coldplay
10. Falling Up
11. The Myriad
12. Iron & Wine
13. Weird Al Yankovic
14. Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender (January 11)
15. Michelle Branch, Different Kind of Country

ARTISTS I’LL MISS:
This was about the vaguest year of them all in terms of band breakups. So many groups “on hiatus” nowadays that I’ve learned to not hold out too much hope for actual reunions that result in actual productive periods in the studio. It seems the only thing permanently stopping people from making music together these days is death, and the only one of those I can name this year affected an act that had been long since defunct anyhow. On the flipside, sometimes a band can call it quits prematurely, and surprise me by getting back together in record time.

On the hiatus list are MaeSigur Rós, DovesAnathallo, and Falling Up. As noted above, I at least got the chance to bid Mae a fond farewell and to finally embrace the entirety of their discography, so it’s fitting that I came full circle and learned to enjoy their first album due to how big of a role it played in their final setlists. Sigur Rós has actually been on hiatus for a few years now, but I don’t think I fully realized and acknowledged this fact until Jónsi put out his solo record. Truthfully, I’ve been missing the most heavenly heights of the band’s sound since 2005 anyway. Doves had the misfortunate timing of taking a holiday right when I was really starting to get into them… but I get the feeling they’re the most likely of the group to actually come back again in a few years. Anathallo is an obscure enough group to begin with that I completely missed the announcement from one of their members about the band basically being dead in the water. No one’s called it off yet, but seeing as it takes a lot of effort to get a seven-member group back together when having a ton of instruments is a key component of your sound, so I may just have to live with the two near-perfect albums they put out in their short but bizarrely entertaining career.

Did I mention that Falling Up was on hiatus? Psych! They reformed late this year, only about 10 months after announcing their breakup, after Jessy Ribordy‘s side project The River Empires fell short of the fundraising goal for their second album. I think the idea here is that Falling Up is a more established name likely to sell albums to fans who were surprised by a very sudden breakup, so I hope all goes well so that both of Jessy’s bands can keep on doing what they do best. They’re relying almost entirely on the goodwill of fans to make it work, though, so if both acts end up folding after they run out of personal belongings and residences to sell, I guess I can’t say I’ll be too surprised. (But that would be said. So I hope we pull through for them.)

Also on the list of bands departing just as I started to get to know them is All the Day Holiday. They put out one great record in 2009, willingly gave it away to potential new fans on the Internet, and I didn’t have the common sense to come back and really start appreciating it until right around the time they decided to call it… (ugh, this is gonna hurt)… A DAY. I’ve been more of a longtime fan of The Elms, who mostly won me over as a live act with their commitment to keeping the rock & roll classic and the guitar solos epic. Mainstream popularity eluded them despite my high hopes when a major label picked them up for the excellent album The Chess Hotel, though they sort of ended on a lackluster note with The Great American Midrange, their final disc if you don’t count a mammoth retrospective collection of odds and ends. More than anyone else in the band, I really hope guitarist Thom Daugherty finds a way to stay in the business. When the song called for it, the man was just on fire.

Bands still together, but losing key members, include Dream Theater and Paper Route. I’m sure there must have been a massive collective gasp among DT’s fanbase upon the news of drummer Mike Portnoy‘s departure – he was a lot of people’s favorite element of the band, mine included. That said, I’ve found their last few albums to be a bit too corny for my liking, thanks in no small part to Portnoy’s insistence on throwing a lot of growly vocals into a number of the songs, so maybe it’s a mixed blessing. Still… how the hell are you supposed to replace a drummer who sounds like he’s got as many appendages as an octopus? The departure of Andy Smith, one of the two lead vocalists of Paper Route, hurts me a bit more on a personal level, as He has to be at least 50% of the reason I related so intensely to the band’s debut Absence, and I can’t imagine the band being quite the same without him. Nonetheless, both bands plan to stick it out, so we’ll see what happens.

Finally, there was a death this year that didn’t get much acknowledgment outside the circle of old-school Christian rock fans, but the passing of Dana Key took a small chunk of my formative years along with him. The duo DeGarmo & Key was literally the first rock band I got into as a wide-eyed teenager, despite the fact that they broke up right around the time I first got into them with the albums Heat.It.Up. and To Extremes. Those discs, along with classic material from the 80’s like “Boycott Hell”, may sound ridiculously cheesy in comparison to whatever I’m rocking out to these days, but you know, a kid’s gotta start somewhere. Also, I had to admire a guy who had the guts to respond (however inadvisably) to the grief expressed by Eric Clapton in the classic song “Tears in Heaven”. I believe Dana now knows the words he sang in that song to be true.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
For what I took to be a lackluster year for music in the beginning, 2010 lunged forward in terms of the quality of music getting released toward the end. Just as I hope 2011 is a better year for me, personally, I think the music world can also do better, and seeing as I’ve got a huge list of anticipated releases that have been piling up for several years now, I hope some of those still-simmering creations finally get served up in the new year. I figure I’ve got every reason to be optimistic about 2011.

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