Welcome to the first Top List for It’s Time to Play B-Sides. I’ve considered doing one of these lists every year since 2006, but never before have I had a year filled with as many really great albums that have compelled me to compile a year-end list. 2010 has been a pretty busy year for me as far as music has been concerned. Some fantastic concerts and events and some really interesting local (Eastern Iowa) releases have come out. This list represents releases that spent the most time on my playlist– in some cases I have had direct working relationships with the bands and that certainly was a factor in their appearance in the list, but nothing appears on this list that I didn’t feel very strongly about and in almost every case these were releases I was recommending to others either verbally or in print whether it was here at Play B-Sides or at Radio Free Chicago, or The Little Village.
One thing I’d like to point out is the number of strong releases from Iowa artists this year– this list doesn’t include a comprehensive list of Iowa releases, but I’m proud to include some music from my back yard.
This list is roughly in order of rank– rather than reverse order, I’m listing top to bottom. Truthfully, though narrowing this list to 20 was a tough act, and I left some albums off that I really enjoyed, but these are the albums that I think really struck me this year.
1. Tired Pony – The Place We Ran From – No album this year has moved me as much as this one has. Brilliant work by Peter Buck and Gary Lightbody who are the core members of Tired Pony. Sounds the way I hope the new R.E.M. album will. “Dead American Writers” is easily one of my favorite songs from this year as well (even if it has a confoundingly bland video). Here is my review at Radio Free Chicago on The Place We Ran From.
2. Hiss Golden Messenger – Bad Debt – MC Taylor released what is the second album for Hiss Golden Messenger this year. Titled Bad Debt, it is a collection of “spirituals” in as much as it deals with the matters of faith. It was recorded during the dead of last winter in his kitchen to a cassette recorder– just Taylor and his acoustic. The results are a stark and chilling introspection and really one of my favorite albums this year. The simple approach of this recording lays bare the amazing singer and songwriter that Taylor is. Here is my article on Bad Debt.
3. Death Ships – Maybe Arkansas EP – Although I’m convinced that Dan Maloney– constant frontman for former Iowa City band Death Ships— doesn’t like the songs on this EP based on the fact that he didn’t play any of them the last two times I saw him perform live at The Mill– this is still one of the strongest releases from this year. It’s a little unfair to call this a 2010 release for a number of reasons– first the songs were recorded some time back in 2006, I think and have kind of lingered in Dan’s archives until last year when he was planning to release an EP of them. The EP was finally released this year. To be fair, I guess Dan has moved on to writing songs for the followup to his last full album, so I’m sure he’s less excited about these songs than the prospect of newer songs. Still, this is a fantastic collection of songs and it would be a shame to let these songs die without people hearing them, in my opinion. Read my review of Maybe Arkansas.
4. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs – I’ll come right out and say it– I was not really a fan of Arcade Fire’s first album Funeral. I have friends who really loved it, but it didn’t really move me. Neon Bible was interesting to me mostly because Calexico covered “Ocean of Noise” on an import 7″ and I really liked “Keep the Car Running.” When the buzz started around The Suburbs, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The first “leaked” track was “Month of May” which showed a distinctive change in sound for the band, but I was still skeptical. In what proved to be a genius move by the band and the label, they made the album $3.99 at amazon.com the day of release– so I downloaded it. It quickly took over my playlist and even today, I’ll listen to this album a couple of times a week. Significant holding power for me. On my short list for acquiring on vinyl.
5. Gayngs – Relayted – This is an example of an astonishingly great album that came out of leftfield. Almost any blogger whose opinion I value ranks this as one of the best releases of this year. Smooth, sexy 80’s influenced pop with electronic twiddling interludes by a supergroup of bands from Minneapolis and Eau Claire, WI. The honest-to-goodness legacy to the original Minneapolis sound started by Prince and his minions years ago. Here is an article I wrote about the release.
6. The Right Now – Carry Me Home – A bit of a disclaimer first– I’m the executive producer on the vinyl pressing of Carry Me Home by Chicago R&B band The Right Now, which came out in September. While this might disqualify me from being an unbiased perspective on the album, the fact of the matter is that I loved Carry Me Home from the first time I heard it on CD when it came out in March. I guess, much as Victor Kiam liked Remington razors so much he bought the company, I guess I liked the CD so much I invested in the vinyl! The Right Now is part of a what appears to be a pretty substantial revival in R&B music right now, but in my mind provides a unique spin on the genre in that it draws as much influence from the classic Motown, Stax and Bell sides as it does from more contemporary R&B and funk. In fact, the band might have more in common with The Roots than it does with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings even though all three bands could be considered to fit in this space. A great record from beginning to end and the band’s live shows are not to be missed. The band is planning to hit the studio in 2011 to start recording the follow up and the songs I’ve heard so far are great as well. Here is an article by the band about the vinyl…
7. Backyard Tire Fire – Good To Be – I loved BTF’s last album and their live shows are high-energy straightforward blues-leaning rock. Good To Be marked the move to a new record label for BTF and Ed Anderson’s blue-collar sensibilities and humor (and production by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos) makes for a great and rocking album from beginning to end. Here’s an article I wrote about the album.
8. Pezzettino – LubDub – Brooklyn-via-Milwaukee singer-songwriter and Accordion Girl Wonder Margaret Stutt, who performs as Pezzettino released her third album LubDub this year which was co-produced and created with Milwaukee HipHop producer Jerry Gruvis aka LMNtlyst. Much as her music and art influences before her, Pezzettino draws inspiration from her own life and each of her albums to date have been autobiographical in nature and LubDub is no different. Although we don’t know who the romantic suitors were in songs like “Cold Hard Chick,” “You and Your Headaches,” and “Only One” we know that they may have been star-crossed. The album, taken in whole, can be seen as a progression of sorts in one woman’s journey in love and loss of it. The album started as a tentative collaboration between Stutt and Gruvis who met at a show in Milwaukee last year. As the songs came together it became apparent that this was to be her follow on to Lion. The album is fun, funky and has a sense of humor along with the pain. LubDub was done as a Kickstarter-funded project to wild success which yielded a wonderful CD+vinyl package with the record itself a brilliant transparent yellow. Here is my article about LubDub.
9. Pieta Brown – One and All – The news of Pieta Brown moving to Red House Records was one that I felt was going to be the beginning of a fruitful relationship. Her one foray into major label land was 2007’s Remember the Sun on One Little Indian Records that ended after one release. None worse for the wear, she packed up her guitar and moved home– home being the record label her father Greg Brown was very instrumental in forming in 1983 and continues to be his label today. One and All is Pieta’s seventh release of her very distinctive lazy soprano floating on the Eastern Iowa sound started largely by constant partner Bo Ramsey– but it seems to me like she’s just getting started– maybe it feels like that to her, too. One and All just came out on 180g vinyl, too! Here is my review of One and All.
10. Cheyenne Marie Mize – Before Lately – Postitively lovely, ethereal album from Ms. Mize who is known for her collaboration EP with Bonnie Prince Billy which was her previous release. This album is stripped down to a minimalistic endeavor drawing to focus her longing vocals. Every time I listen to this album I crush on it all over again. She helpfully puts the entire record up on Bandcamp so you can listen to the whole thing. Check out her wonderful Daytrotter session, too. There needs to be vinyl of this release. Here is my article on Cheyenne Mize.
11. Gold Motel – Summer House – I had not heard of Gold Motel until they made an appearance at the August Codfish Hollow show. Chicago-based band has roots in lead singer Greta Morgan’s previous band The Hush Sound. The album is sunshine on CD– 60’s girl bands meets Debbie Harry. I meant to write a review about this album following the afterglow of this show but didn’t manage to– so, here is a review for Mezzic.com by Indie-Rock’s biggest fan, Ms. Amber Valentine.
12. John Legend and the Roots – Wake Up! – I’ve always respected John Legend although I wasn’t really a fan. The prospects of an album with his Philly brethren The Roots seemed like it could be magic. It was. I hope that this is not the last we’ll hear from this pairing. The 2 LP version of this album is the way it is supposed to be enjoyed.
13. Katharine Ruestow – self-titled EP – Katharine Ruestow ends up on my list twice– she’s also part of The Diplomats of Solid sound. This is her first solo effort– a collaboration with Matt Grundstad of Euforquestra. Jazzy, almost Trip Hop sounding pop. Totally worth your digital-download dollar. Click Here to read the review I wrote for Little Village Magazine.
14. The Wandering Bears – self-titled EP – This album came crashing onto my Top List in the last couple of weeks. I was doing research for my review of the Pieta Brown “This Land is Your Music” show. The opening act was a trio from Iowa City known as The Vagabonds. Two of the Vagabonds are also in The Wandering Bears which released an EP earlier this year that really took me by surprise! The sound comes off as a combination of maybe Rilo Kiley and Throwing Muses. Free download, so just go get it.
15. Beth Bombara – Wish I Were You – Around the same time that Pezzettino kicked off her Kickstarter campaign for LubDub, St. Louis musician Beth Bombara kicked off one for Wish I Were You. In fact, before I ever heard any songs for this album I offered up a video of me talking about why I love vinyl to help promote her campaign. I found out about Beth through Arial Hyatt’s publicity website– back when there were fewer artists on it and the odds of finding very talented artists was much greater (my opinion). Her CD Robotic Foundation, was a mainstay in my listening rotation for over a year. Robotic Foundation was an edgy indie rock. Wish I Were You has its edgy moments- particular “Lately”, but the album seems to explore a few different styles drifting between blues, folk and country. I love the album ending track “Don’t You Know” with it’s strings, banjo and harmony. Beth seemingly is part of like 16 bands in St. Louis, but she really shines as a solo artist here. Click Here to read my article about Beth.
16. Wolfgang Schaefer – self-titled EP – Wolfgang Schaefer is a relatively new musician on the scene and this is his first release. I met him during the tour this fall where he opened up for Pezzettino and both of them shared his very talented brother Ben on percussion and electronic wizardry. Margaret had been praising Wolfgang’s music, but I foolishly hadn’t followed up on it. Then I saw him perform live and was very impressed with his command of an audience. His music is VERY dynamic, so it’s a trick to keep your typical bar crowd in sway. Finger-picked acoustic guitars propel his hoarse vocals delivering pained recounts of love and loss. My friend Amber wrote a really great review of this EP.
17. The Diplomats of Solid Sound – What Goes Around Comes Around – The Diplomats are back with their second release on Italian soul label Record Kicks. Like last time, the Diplomats are fronted by the female vocals of the Diplomettes who have by name apparently been absorbed into the band since they are not singled out in credit. Name detail aside, the band came back with a really strong release filled with the sounds influenced by the 60’s R&B bands. I feel like the band has grown a bit in their songwriting with this release, too. Read my review at Little Village.
18. Drive By Truckers – The Big To Do – Love this album front to back– great party music with typical tongue-in-cheek lyricism from Patterson Hood and Co. It’s cool to see this band blowing up a bit. I finally got to see them live this year when they opened for Tom Petty in Chicago. “The Fourth Night of My Drinking,” “Birthday Boy,” “Drag the Lake Charlie,” “This F*cking Job,” and “After the Scene Dies” are all instant classics for me. I never got around to writing anything about this release, although I listened to this album a lot in 2010. Here is the fantastic Daytrotter session for Drive By Truckers.
19. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Mojo – This might be some of my “old guy” coming out a bit. I have been a constant fan of Tom Petty since the 80’s. That said, his last two efforts– The Last DJ and Highway Companion (one a Heartbreakers release and one a solo release) were not as strong or consistent as some of his previous efforts in my opinion. When I started hearing the tracks that “leaked” via videos on line, Saturday Night Live appearances and his XM radio show “Buried Treasures” really started the interest in this release early. Petty stated that for this album they went to the studio loose and welcomed a more jamming approach and this, I feel, really makes for one of the most consistent albums from Petty in a long time. For an artist that could reasonably rest on his back catalog, it is great to see that he’s trying to push the creative envelope.
20. The Budos Band – III – Any release from Daptone Records is worthy of note, but I really love the Afro-Rhythms guitars and Farfisa organ of The Budos Band. The band said that they went into the studio trying to break new ground for the band by braving psychedelic rock and ended up recording an album that sounding like a Budos Band album. After four releases, I feel like this album really shows the band in its element and this album is darker, I feel than the previous releases. Some recent tweets from the band had them soliciting ideas for a new album of psychedelic rock covers for them to tackle which should be interesting. Here is an article I wrote about the album.