First, a caveat. I wouldn't dare claim that these are the five greatest albums released in 2010. Rather, these are the five albums that continually kept me coming back for another listen, that I couldn't get out of my head, the albums that were the soundtrack for my year. Without further adieu:
Free Energy - "Stuck On Nothing"
Pure pop-dance-rock glory from start to finish, this debut album from the Philadelphia quartet manages to be a both a breath of fresh air and a blatant homage to the classic rock that inspired it. Produced by LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, the band succeeds admirably at it's goal of writing songs that, as they say on their website, "observe the Free Energy tradition of turning dark venues into sweaty electric dance parties." It's almost impossible not to tap your toe to party rock anthems like "Bang Pop," perhaps the best track on the album, and almost definitely the catchiest. Big hooks are abundant throughout, as are themes of living life to the fullest and just having a good time. Nothing groundbreaking here, but you'd be hard-pressed to find an album from 2010 that's simply more fun than "Stuck On Nothing."
The Thermals - "Personal Life"
As the title implies, the Thermals' fifth effort is also by far their most introspective. While previous efforts like "The Body The Blood The Machine" and "Now We Can See" focused on much broader themes, especially those of a political or religious nature, "Personal Life" sees lead singer/guitarist Hutch Harris focused almost exclusively on relationship issues. Beginning with the fantastic "I'm Gonna Change Your Life" and ending with the somehow more-fantastic "You Changed My Life," the album seems to tell the tale of a failed relationship, from ambitious beginning to somber end. "Personal Life" also sees the Thermals drift further away from the frantic, brash, breakneck sound that distinguished their earlier albums, and "Personal Life" certainly sounds like a transitional album for the band, but a transitional album that holds up very well on its own.
Titus Andronicus - "The Monitor"
"The Monitor" deserves points for sheer ambition alone. Loosely inspired by Ken Burns' "Civil War" documentary, "The Monitor" features two 9-minute epics back to back, a 14-minute closer, multiple spoken word segments quoting the likes of Abe Lincoln and Walt Whitman, and a bagpipe solo for good measure. Lead singer Patrick Stickles absolutely abuses his vocal chords throughout this album, growling out every last defiant lyric as if they may be the last words he ever sings. For an album to be over an hour long, and have an average track length of over 6 minutes, and to be this utterly gripping and compelling, is remarkable. The music is sloppy and loud and angry, the sing-along choruses are infectious, the themes of wasted youth and self-loathing are haunting. "The Monitor" is a brilliant piece of work for all the reasons it could've been a complete and utter failure, a work of art by a band who simply went for it. It is flawed and heartfelt and beautiful and bitter and rough around the edges, and an absolute must listen.
The Hold Steady - "Heaven Is Whenever"
The most underrated record on this list, The Hold Steady's fifth studio album didn't receive the massive amounts of acclaim from critics and fans they had grown accustomed to with their two previous efforts. The first album released after the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay, "Heaven Is Whenever" continues down the road paved by its predecessors, but also manages to break a little new ground, with opener "The Sweet Part Of The City" venturing into a Southern rock vibe and 7-minute closer "A Slight Discomfort" sounding more ambitious, brooding, and dramatic than anything they've done before. Craig Finn once more shows us that he's one of the best and most creative lyricists in rock-n-roll today, especially on standout tracks like "The Weekenders," an obvious sequel to "Chips Ahoy" off of "Boys And Girls In America," and "Barely Breathing," an homage to the 80s Minneapolis hardcore scene, which features the band's first clarinet solo. "Heaven Is Whenever" isn't the greatest album in The Hold Steady catalog, but it is everything one has come to expect from America's greatest bar band.
Justin Townes Earle - "Harlem River Blues"
"Harlem River Blues," Earle's follow up to 2009's excellent "Midnight At The Movies," sees the talented singer-songwriter focusing on his relocation from Nashville to his newly adopted home of New York City. Earle manages to convey a modern sensibility while making an album that feels like it could've been recorded 50 years ago, especially on tracks like the rockabilly-infused "Move Over Mama" and the classic country heart-breaker, "Learning To Cry." The theme of the country boy trying to make it in the big city is prevalent throughout, and Earle's ability to break your heart with a ballad is second to none, as he demonstrates with instant classics "Christchurch Woman" and "Rogers Park." Earle is one of the most talented artists in the alternative country scene today, and "Harlem River Blues" is his strongest work yet.
On the local front, there's a lot going on in Marlborough this Friday night to help ring in the new year. Check it out:
On Dec. 31 Speakers Nightclub will have a New Year's Eve event with DJ Norm's Top 40 Dance Party. No cover, free buffet throughout the evening.
Dante's @ Firefly's, Doors open at 7pm. Boston's Best Comics at 8 p.m., The Fools at 9:30 p.m. $25 cover charge.
The Lazy Dog will have a New Year's Eve celebration with a guest DJ. No cover.