By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
If these songs don't end up scoring a whole host of prime-time TV dramas, then someone isn't doing their job. Simple as that.
7. Old 97's
The Grand Theatre, Volume One
(New West Records)
The Grand Theatre, Volume One is the best album that the band has released in a decade. It's brash where recent Old 97's releases were soft, celebratory where past efforts were sappy, and loud where those other discs aimed for restraint.
It's the sound of a band finally confident in its place in the world. No longer is this a band that fights its alt-country tag and no longer is this a band confused by the pop dalliances of its frontman, Rhett Miller. This, thankfully, is not the pop record the band seemed so intent on trying to perfect lately.
It's alt-country through and through, finding Miller at his charismatic and snarling best, guitarist Ken Bethea at his flashiest, drummer Philip Peeples at his bounciest and bassist/co-vocalist Murry Hammond in his most playful form to date. And, as a result, the disc soars.
6. Analog Rebellion
Once upon a time, Daniel Hunter was stuck in the major-label ringer. He signed with Island Records when he was just 15 years old.
Last summer, though, after becoming jaded by the crowded mall-punk market and frustrated with the musical style of his teen years, Hunter embarked on a 180-degree turn. He left Island, changed his performance name, and struck out on his own.
And how. In 2010, the prodigious Hunter, now 21, released a grand total of 65 songs via various full-length, EP and B-sides releases—in part because he could, but also because he found endless influence in his new direction. Combining elements of the Secret Machines, the Paper Chase, the Pixies and the Postal Service into a massive, epic blend, Ancient Electrons stands as a powerful, defiant statement against mass consumption, as Hunter provocatively explores themes of rebellion and assimilation.
5. The Beaten Sea
The Beaten Sea
Benj Pocta and Jamie Wilson, the songwriting tandem behind The Beaten Sea, never suffered through the Great Depression or the Dust Bowl. But after watching a film documenting the Southern music created during those difficult times, these close friends found all the inspiration they needed, and soon started writing songs fit for that era.
What's most fascinating about their efforts is the authenticity that surrounds them—and not just because Pocta and Wilson both boast enviable character in their wavering vocals. The duo carefully studied the music they found so inspiring. And on this debut, they show off well what made those songs so touching in the first place.
4. The Orbans
When We Were Wild
(Sheffield Avenue Projects)
Like the Old 97's before them, Fort Worth's the Orbans have a thorn in their side—if you call them country, they'll snap at you.
But the should-be heirs to the 97's' throne do have some country elements at play in their otherwise fairly straightforward rock—and that's hardly a bad thing, since it's these pedal steel and banjo adornments that give the Orbans' music such an enjoyable flair. In the band's defense, there are, of course, other elements employed in the vast instrumentation of their phenomenal full-length debut, When We Were Wild—including some synthesizer, which maybe explains the band's anti-country stance.
Fact is, it's all still rock 'n' roll to the Orbans. And who are the rest of us to judge? Nobody—not when the Orbans have released the best rock 'n' roll disc the region has seen in years with this wholly self-funded affair. Highlighted by frontman Peter Black's vocals and clever wordplay and backed by a band as comfortable with restraint as it is with all-out bombast, When We Were Wild shows the Orbans harping on a muse of missed chances and terrible decisions.
Here's hoping there's still some material to mine for future efforts.
3. Erykah Badu
New Amerykah Part II: Return of the Ankh
(Universal Motown Records)
In 2008, Erykah Badu, after having hid from the limelight for five years, returned in a big way with New Amerykah Part I: 4th World War, an album that found the Queen of Neo-Soul exploring a space-age, electronic-infused sound and earning the best reviews of her career.
So maybe it was a little surprising to see that, with her follow-up, this year's New Amerykah Part II: Return of the Ankh, Badu, turned down the dial on her newfound weirdness. This new disc, she promised from the onset, is a return to her roots, an album meant to recall her debut and breakthrough disc, 1997's Baduizm.
Thing is, while New Amerykah Part II: Return of the Ankh indeed reminds of that first release because of its often straightforward R&B arrangement and reliance on Badu's vocal prowess, it scores mostly because it's a blend of both the old and the new, at least in style.
The Courage of Others
No other record released regionally in 2010 even approaches the depths of Midlake's three-years-in-the-making The Courage of Others. And the disc suffers as a result—it's not an easy listen. Not at all, actually, as the band crafts a not particularly enjoyable, faux-historical medieval landscape for its flute-heavy folk-rock to score.