Monday, January 17, 2011

The 10 Best Albums of 2010

I started doing these lists as early as 2005, (found here: when I would draft drivel as the Zerfman’s Zoo on Livejournal. Ahhh, yes, those were the days. Over time I got more into music and writing, and found myself compiling these lists more meticulously.

Consequently, like all bell curve examples, my access and consumption of new music has dwindled downward (perhaps I’m just getting old), but I still feel like I’m qualified enough to list a few albums released during the last calendar year that moved me.

They may just do the same for you!

So in tribute to one of my biggest passions and my only really consistent piece over the years, here are the Ryan C. Zerfas Top 10 albums of 2010.

1. Taylor Hawkins & the Coattail Riders – Red Light Fever

Everyone knows this comes with a certain shred of my own Foo Fighters bias, but this is seriously a killer album. Taylor Hawkins continues to develop as a songwriter, writing more complex and catchy song structures to compliment his grit your teeth, yet jazzy drum style. Sprinkle over the top one of the most underrated classic rock voices you’ll hear post-1970 and the kiddies will be searching for this on vinyl. Dave Grohl and some of the boys from Queen make heavy handed appearances on the album along with the already stalwart guitarist of a man—known only as Gannin. Just Gannin.

Allegedly, a song or two remained on the cutting room floor because, and I quote, “it sounded too much like Queen.”

Best moment: The opening build of album closer “I Don’t Think I Trust You Anymore” which starts with a simple rhythm, and slowly elements work their way in like an ostentatious haunted house ride. Epic.

2. The Punch Brothers – Antifogmatic

According to Chris Thile, “'Antifogmatic' is an old term for a bracing beverage, generally rum or whiskey, that a person would have before going out to work in rough weather to stave off any ill effects. This batch of tunes could be used in much the same way, and includes some characters who would probably benefit mightily, if temporarily, from a good antifogmatic.”

I’ve heard Chris Thile introduced as the “Jimi Hendrix of the mandolin”, but I think it would be more accurate and pertinent to call him the “Ben Folds of the mandolin”, simply because his earnest, humorous, and “heart of gold” songwriting compliments his ability to go absolutely off the radar in musicianship. Much like Mr. Folds.

This album is much more accessible than the 41-minute bluegrass opera The Blind Leaving the Blind which was astounding, but lacked the repeatability one may crave once addicted to Thile. Your life may never be the same.

Best moment: The punchy (no pun intended) chug-and-mute opener of “You Are” sets the tone.

3. The Black Keys – Brothers

Until this album, the Black Keys were a fringe band for me. That is, on the fringe of something I would find myself craving. Those days are over! The album manages to keep a steady sound and tone throughout the album, yet in a way that’s dynamically full of range. Some songs sound fuzzy and straight out of the garage as you’d come to expect from the Black Keys, but others sound like the garage was transported to the glory days of Motown.

It has a lot of soul. I don’t know how they blended the Jackson 5, Maroon 5 and MC5 into one fusion of garage soul, but it’s here and you should hear it if you haven’t. I just need to use the word garage one more time nonsensically to use garage five times in this review. Full circle symmetry achieved.

Best moment: Many songs here sound as if they could be montages for the old cartoon The Adventures of Jonny Quest, but once the muted horn comes in during “Never Gonna Give You Up”, it’s like the Gods shined down on me and said “sim sim, salabim!”

4. Minus the Bear – Omni

The opening chords of “My Time” set the tone for Omni when the echoing muted drums crash into a psychedelic ode to Depeche Mode thrash. The album never turns back showing the versatility of MTB with a scattershot of dance, reggae, steel drum and sweaty college rock anthems. The beauty of this album lies in its ability to be a good place to start AND finish their catalogue. One can only hope therein lies another round of this kind of creativity from a band named after a cheap shot dude joke.

Best moment: The opening chords of “Into the Mirror” hit and delay…hit one more time…then merge into a full fledged psychedelic stomp. I don’t do drugs (never have), but this song makes me want to indulge.

5. Ben Folds – Lonely Avenue

This is a great idea that was executed to perfection. Author Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) pens the lyrics while Ben gets all Elton John with the piano and harmonies. I just wish Ben would have called Chuck Klosterman. Can you imagine Jack White working with Malcom Gladwell? Anyway, Ben Folds somehow has always found a way to be accessible for interesting projects—his work with William Shatner and Over the Hedge (this was actually awesome!) prove that.

I was skeptical about this project. And after Ben’s last album that was “way too normal” (oooh!) for me, the spark in creativity ignited what is simply a piping hot batch of really catchy songs. Like in the song “From Above” Hornby writes about inspiration “maybe that’s why books get written/maybe that’s why songs get sung.” Indeed.

Best moment: The chorus to “Levi Johnston’s Blues” was taken directly off his Facebook page and just sounds giddily quirky when sung over and over again, “I'm a fucking redneck/
I like to hang out with the boys/play some hockey, do some fishing/And kill some moose.”

6. Shearwater – The Golden Archipelago

It’s rare to find a band grow so much when its biggest name leaves the band. Will Sheff (Okkervil River) has completely faded out of the band. Although, that was a few albums ago, Golden Archipelago continues Shearwater’s assault on writing compelling nature inspired folk masterpieces solidifying to Al Gore that God IS indeed watching over mother earth.

If you have never walked through a fresh snow storm listening to Shearwater (Rook works best), you have not lived my friend. The light flurry flakes tickle your face as the energy and thunderous stomp of Shearwater builds and builds until your heart explodes into nature’s endless abyss.

Archipelago simply means a chain or group of islands around a large body of water. If you did not know that, get in tune with the earth and pick this album up. I’ll refund your purchase if it doesn’t make you want to take a nap in fresh cut grass outside your nearest body of water.

Best moment: “Black Eyes” cuts with the urgency of the polar ice caps flooding your I-pod with the fresh waters of Antarctica.

7. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks

Though this would make a great title for a Shaquille O’Neal biography, Ted Leo doesn’t really concern himself with pop culture. He does however manage to continue churning out New Jersey pop-punk songs that wage no impact on the Guido’s of Jersey Shore. And quite honestly, if I were you, I would do the exact opposite of anything (excluding the gym, but who needs THAT much gym?) those guys do. The Situation would not like this album. That means you should.

If there is a great political song left to be written, one can bet it’s going to be Neil Young or Ted Leo that writes it. Sometimes it seems Leo has been around as long, but after only a decade of solo work the consistency of energy driven choruses, inspired chants and plethora of rock accessories (handclaps, sirens, crashing organs, etc) remain rock steady. That’s a formula I can live with.

Best moment: The back-to-back sing-a-bility of “Avian Eyes” and “Even Heroes Have to Die” in the #3 and #4 slots of the album. I love when an album hits its stride early.

8. Belle & Sebastian – Write About Love

Over the years many of my favorite artists have collaborated with Zerfas personal heartthrob Norah Jones. Mmmm…Norah Jones. Anyway, a few years ago Ryan Adams and Dave Grohl both released songs with her. Last year, even SNL’s Andy Sandberg was able to get Jones to lay her sweet ass voice down on “Dream Girl”, and I must say, if she really does love Chex Mix that much, my heart is in trouble.

Seemingly impossible, Jones’ voice doesn’t seem to quite mesh with Stuart Murdock on “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John”, but to me it’s in an awkwardly delightful way. If that was the intention, then they are as brilliant as we’d all like to hope. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Although they took four years, Write About Love seems rushed, yet the loose ends are decorative and endearing like a brown eyed girl with a cute nose sneezing.

This album goes great with your next candle light dinner.

Best moment: The title track “Write About Love” when a beautiful voice bellows “I hate my job/I'm working way too much (every day I'm stuck in an office).” Simple, yet relatable.

9. Gogol Bordello – Transcontinental Hustle

It happens to all the good ones...their “major label debut!” This one couldn’t be more grandiose with Rick Rubin taking charge of the knobs. Who else? It’s quite obvious Rubin wanted front man Eugene Hutz to concentrate on the craft of songwriting itself and let everything else come to the band. What results is another album with versatility in sound, yet it doesn’t create the ruckus you’d expect from a Gogol Bordello album. This is good and bad.

A couple of the songs would make nice backdrops to a relaxing wine dinner party. The change of pace is as unsettling as it is refreshing. And those looking for some gypsy circus craziness will be pleased with the back half of the album, which is surely a tribute to the roots of Gogol Bordello. In that way, this album is much like modern SNL—the best (most creative and outrageous) stuff is toward the end of the night when the “diehards” have shut off their tv. And why would Gogol Bordello be any different? They don’t have anyone to impress.

Best moment: The Brazilian flamenco (I’m not an expert on this, but that’s what it sounds like to me) of “Raise the Knowledge.”

10. The Walkmen – Lisbon

Last but certainly not least, New York’s own Walkmen finish off this list. Lisbon is pensive and charming—easily the odds on favorite to be my favorite album of the winter. I would keep this handy for the next New York (or wherever you may be reading this) blizzard and play songs like the horned sexiness of “Stranded” and sure to be a movie credits’ second song “While I Shovel the Snow” to compliment the beauty of the white flakes hitting your window scenery.

The Walkmen are a great band I don’t spend enough time listening to, because I always associate their albums together in a cluster throughout my brain, even though they do in fact vary from year-to-year. I don’t think they will ever touch the urgency of fist-pumper “The Rat” off Bows + Arrows, but every new offering remains consistent and simply demands a spot in the rotation.

Even if this particular one only best compliments winter lagers, get the memo today and put this in the rotation by tomorrow. March will be here before you know it.

Best moment: “Angela Surf City” roars out of the second slot reminiscent of my Walkmen all-time favorite “The Rat.”


Not impressed: Spoon, Sufjan Stevens, Gaslight Anthem

Somehow I missed (didn’t listen to five times): Arcade Fire, Eminem, Neil Young, The National

Thanks for reading,


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