Published: December 29, 2010
5. Eminem, Recovery (Aftermath/Interscope): Marshall's most mediocre stuff is better than almost every modern rapper's best material — and this is some of the artist's finest yet, featuring two of 2010's most ubiquitous hits including "Not Afraid," arguably the single of the year and a wonderful anthem that transports Detroit's greatest modern cultural export to a whole new level.
6. Midlake, The Courage of Others (Bella Union): Melancholic, minor-chorded beauty and a glance back to the Brit folk-rock revival of the early '70s (with brief trips to the West Coast of that era) from ... a bunch of young Texans? Go figure! Perfect winter weather music, whatever the case.
7. Yukon Blonde, Yukon Blonde (Bumstead/Nevado): Indie, schmindie! Some of this wistful sunshine pop wouldn't have sounded out of place on '80s radio alongside something like Hall & Oates or at least on an early Aztec Camera LP. Surprising, though, that the Delfonics didn't write 'em a letter of complaint for, um, appropriating "La-La Means I Love You" for the melodic hook to their own "Kumiko Song."
8. Alejandro Escovedo, Street Songs of Love (Fantasy/Concord): Not as strong as his previous Real Animal, perhaps, but still a strong set of songs powerful enough to attract fans Bruce Springsteen and Ian Hunter to the party, as well as a return visit by "glam" producer legend Tony Visconti.
9. Band of Horses, Infinite Arms (Fat Possum/Columbia): Americana music, circa 2010, healthy and well.
10. The Sadies, Darker Circles (Yeproc): As their past collaborations with John Doe, Andre Williams and Neko Case surely demonstrated, this is one versatile band. On their second album, they bring the Byrds alt-country (sometimes by way of R.E.M.), the pre- and post-punk influences and the twang — including an epic Duane Eddy meets Ennio Morricone spaghetti Western grand finale.
1. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella): Never has a year-end poll-topping album ever had to be prefaced with "And if you think the guy's an ass-clown, you'll love this album even more!" West crucifies himself for all our narcissist sins and comes away with a bona fide masterpiece. And if there are still any holdouts that refuse to listen, will they really be surprised to hear that most performers, even their personal favorites, are genetically disposed to being assholes and douche bags; that's why they're performers!!
2. Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid (Bad Boy/Wondaland Arts Society): I had this space smorgasbord song suite as my year's best album since May, and the only reason I bumped it down was a feeling that maybe this gifted visionary and producer Big Boi gave us too much. The Kanye record is perfectly paced but this had a less-than-perfect grand finale — and collaboration with Of Montreal that smacks more of cross-marketing than a meeting of like minds. With this much promise and talent, I can't imagine Janelle Monáe not being in-your-face inescapable with her next album. Unless Lady Gaga has a dress made entirely out of dental gunk.
3. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (Merge): We're not supposed to care about albums anymore, and yet five of my top 10 are libretto-worthy long-players. This is the only 2010 concept album that sounds just as good in scramble mode as the start-to-finish order Arcade Fire intended. There hasn't been an album this operatic about quiet desperation since Darkness on the Edge of Town, maybe even Dark Side of the Moon. Which means some idiot is probably trying to sync The Suburbs up to The Wizard of Oz right now.
4. Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest (4AD): People moaning about the limits of digital recording aren't looking for albums like this one, which unapologetically slams the needle in the proverbial red and keeps it there. Deerhunter overloads each track with more sound than your brain on slow-moving drugs can process, as if the ensuing fuzz enhances the beautiful confusion of the lyrics.
5. Gorillaz, Plastic Beach (Virgin): With all the problems facing our planet, it's reassuring to know that Damon Albarn has dehydration covered.
6. The Black Keys, Brothers (Nonesuch): When it was announced Dan and Patrick's awesome show was next going to be broadcast from the legendary Muscle Shoals, I worried that they'd disappear up their own blues purist tendencies. But this is as unpredictable and fun as blues-based music can get, with one foot grounded in the past and the other slipping off into an uncharted future.
7. Best Coast, Crazy For You (Mexican Summer): Sure, it's a breakup album, but what album isn't these days? It's probably the first since Lesley Gore Sings of Mixed-Up Hearts written in actual layman's breakup vernacular — "I want you," "I miss you" and, yes, lotsa gorgeous, wordless "oooh" choruses. Bethany Cosentino is a minimalist's dream, deliberately holding out on us. On "When I'm With You," she informs us that the world is crazy and lazy and that, when she's with her lover boy, she has fun. Next verse, she reverses the order of crazy and lazy. By song's end she's crying, "I hate sleeping alone." There are whole worlds that begin and end in those gaps, and Best Coast is all the better for leaving them blank.
8. The National, High Violet (4AD): I had these mumblebots all wrong. What I originally thought of as latter-day Crash Test Dummies turned out to be Morrissey fronting Joy Division. These Brooklyn transplants are hilarious defeatists, although I'm sure there are some emo-tards out there who think no truer words were spoken than "Lay me on the table, put flowers in my mouth and we can say we invented a summer loving torture party."
9. Vampire Weekend, Contra (XL): Reason this band has so many haters — Ivy League backgrounds, the feeling that they use terms like "contra" and "horchata" the same way a social climber namedrops, that they immortalized their cover girl without getting photographic clearance, leaving her co-workers to think she's a gun-runner, that they seem inauthentic. To you I say they're no less preppy that those other Afro-pop stealers Talking Heads and Paul Simon — and the Vamps seem to be worshipping more at the altar of Human League than Boyoyo Boys at this point. As musical alchemists, they make a fine joyful noise of the kind few bother to make anymore for fear of being labeled everything these guys are labeled.
10. Titus Andronicus, The Monitor (XL): When you make a stirring concept album about how shitty the world is now and marry it to Civil War themes, you either want to take the punk rock art form to the 14-minute prog rock suite level or you want Ken Burns to direct your music video.
1. Bad Party, S/T (self-released): In three tracks, this wild-eyed Detroit duo manages to put the city's entire rock population to shame with 12 minutes of searing, full-tilt fury. You'll be amazed at how pure noise can be so danceable.
2. Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh (Universal Motown): New Amerykah Part Two almost feels like a compilation. Within its grooves, you feel touches of everything Badu has tried to accomplish over the years with her brand of neo-soul distilled into tight, masterful cuts. And you just can't resist nodding your head to 'em.
3. Ufomammut, Eve (Supernatural Cat): Doom metal Pink Floyd? Camel meets Black Sabbath?
4. Afrirampo, We Are Uchu No Ko (Rock Action): Swansong effort from this shamanistic Japanese duo. They bounce from noisy, primal rock to slow, dreamy near Impulse jazz territory.
5. Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma (Warp): Even if it's not taking beat-making into fundamentally new direction as has been espoused by mainstream media press, Steve Ellison, the mastermind behind Flying Lotus, has been crafting some of the most creative and entrancing instrumental soundscapes of his generation.
6. Quest for Fire, Lights from Paradise (Tee Pee): Moving away from the tired stoner rock tropes of their debut, Quest for Fire develops an ear for somber grooves and prog hooks.
7. Barn Owl, Ancestral Star (Thrill Jockey): Amid the wave of lackluster drone records landing in 2010, this San Francisco duo managed to rise above the muck with an entrancing album that lulls you in with reverb-drenched guitars and subtle layers of feedback and ambience.
8. Acid Eater, Black Fuzz on Wheels (Time Bomb): It's like every garage rock album in existence played simultaneously.
9. Ihsahn, After (Candlelight): The black metal scene veteran churns out his third solo effort and laces his "extreme progressive metal" (whatever the hell that means) with squawks of free jazz and arrangements that bleed symphonic bombast akin to mid-'70s prog rock. It looks like a mess on paper, but it's easily his most genuine and consistent piece of work.
10. Les Rallizes Denudes, Heavier Than a Death in the Family (Phoenix Records): The Velvet Underground's Japanese sister band. UK's Phoenix Records rereleases this lauded bootleg of an assemblage of recordings from the '70s.
Charles L. Latimer
1. Geri Allen, Geri Allen and Timeline Live (Motema): Throwing a tap dancer into the rhythm sections, Allen proves she's not afraid to take big risk. Allen did not mind that the tap dance stole the show.
2. Tia Fuller, Decisive Steps (Mack Avenue Records): Fuller's breakout album announced to the jazz world her skills as a clever and formidable saxophonist.
3. The Clayton Brothers, The Same Old Song and Dance (Artist Share): The Claytons are the first family of jazz. I'd take them over the Marsalis clan any day. This album is a straight-up swingfest from start to finish.
4. Azar Lawrence, Mystic Journey (Furthermore Records): Often, compared to the great John Coltrane. This spiritually driven jazz album shows Lawrence is his own man.
5. Jacki Terrason, Push (Concord Jazz): The best rendition of Thelonius Monk's Ruby My Dear and 'Round Midnight I've ever heard. Terrason has been unsung for too long.
6. Marc Cary, Focus Trio Live 2009 (Motema): I can't say for sure civil rights advocates Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were jazz fans, but I bet they would've loved how Cary improvised around excerpts of their speeches. Cary is the most creative jazz pianist to ever sit at a piano.
7. The Asian American Orchestra, India & Africa: A Tribute to John Coltrane Live @ Yoshi's (Water Baby Records): This is best Coltrane tribute album since saxophonist Archie Shepp's Four Trane. The AAO put their twist on some latter-day Coltrane classics.
8. Milton Suggs, Things to Come (Skiptone Music): Suggs is the kind of jazz vocalist you would get if you mixed Johnny Hartman's and Kevin Mahogany's DNA. Suggs' version of We Shall Overcome and Lift Every Voice and Sing made my pit bull cry.
9. James Moody, Moody 4B (IPO Recordings, Inc): My sentimental favorite. The recently departed saxophonist was a blue-collar jazz musician who knew how to make good down-home swing.
10. Benito Gonzalez, Circles (Furthermore Records): A percussive pianist in the tradition of McCoy Tyner. This album is a bombshell. Then again, it's impossible to blow it with a supporting cast of Ron Blake, Myron Walden, Azar Lawrence, Christian McBride, and Jeff "Tain" Watts.
The Wonder Twins - D'Anne Witkowski
1. Breathe Owl Breathe, Magic Central (Hometapes): Magic Central is the perfect name for this record because it's truly the heart of some supernatural beauty. Seeing Breathe Owl Breathe perform live at an intimate and way overcrowded show at the Scarab Club was my musical highlight of 2010.
2. Yeasayer, Odd Blood (Secretly Canadian): This record really grew on me, but the video for "Madder Red" really sealed the deal. I haven't cried that hard since downloading the Human Feelings app on my iPhone. I'm kidding. I don't have an iPhone. Or feelings.
3. Perfume Genius, Learning (Matador/Turnstile): The most ethereally beautiful record of the year is also the saddest. Don't expect to find Learning on rotation at your local mall's Perfumania store. Unless the employees there are super-depressed. As they probably should be.
4. Robyn, Body Talk (Cherry Tree): Releasing this album via three EPs and then a proper album was kind of obnoxious, but Robyn's ability to crank out dance pop anthems with just the right amount of actual feelings made it all forgivable.
5. Beach House, Teen Dream (Sub Pop): I bought this thinking it was the new Katy Perry record. I'm kidding. Before Teen Dream I thought Beach House was lovely but boring. But this record bored lovingly through my skull. "Zebra" is on permanent rotation in my cerebral cortex.
1. Lettercamp, Raccoon Panda (Five Three Dial Tone): Raccoon Panda is not the character name Liz Witman uses at furry conventions, but Lettercamp is the name of her sensational dance pop outfit. The world went Robyn crazy this year, but definitely check out the dance music diva that's right here in Detroit.
2. Copper Thieves, II (Jack Holmes Recording Company): If you can make me like something this much that sounds like it could be played on the classic rock station, that's impressive. Next thing you know I'll be buying Thin Lizzy reissues and getting a WCSX tattoo (please, do not ever let me get a WCSX tattoo).
3. The Juliets, The Juliets (Flat Response Sound): I see a direct correlation between my love for overly dramatic pop music, and my mom playing Barry Manilow constantly while I was growing up. Jeremy Freer doesn't sound like Manilow, but his ear for chamber pop melody makes the Juliets a band even my mom could like.
4. Child Bite, The Living Breathing Organ Summer (Joyful Noise Recordings): I suspect listening to The Living Breathing Organ Summer is a lot like taking a peek into Shawn Knight's brain. Which makes me think it's a lot like how my brain operates when I've had a lot of cough medicine before bed. Except way more musically gifted and unhinged.
5. Bars of Gold, Of Gold (Friction): I first saw Bars of Gold play Small's during Blowout, and their performance blew me away. I was also afraid the singer was going to jump into the audience and scream in my face. Which probably would have literally blown me away. Which would have been scary but awesome!
W. Kim Heron
1. Jason Moran, Ten (Blue Note): The pianist's celebration of a decade of Bandwagon — his trio with bassist Taurus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits — makes one look forward to more. Fluid touches of gospel and cowboy jazz, wisps of feedback in homage to Hendrix, takes on Nancarrow, deft reconstructions of Monk and Bernstein, and more.
2. Nels Cline, Dirty Baby (Cryptogramophone): The first disc is a suite of six concertos for the folk-to-bop-to-skronk guitarist (now best known for his Tesla coil role in Wilco). Disc 2 is packed with 33 big-band miniatures, most of them dark. Intended to accompany paintings (Ed Ruscha) and poetry (David Breskin), the music works also on its own noisy terms.
3. Regina Carter, Reverse Thread (E1): A high-water mark of the Africa-meets-jazz genre with radiant melodies, meticulous arrangements, concise solos, heartfelt ballads and Afro-Atlantic hoedowns. Her virtuoso violin work shimmers against African harp and accordion (yes, accordion).
4. Charles Lloyd, Mirror (ECM): A sage-like presence, the saxophonist seems to levitate above the music, whether originals, Monk or (least-expected) Brian Wilson's "Caroline, No." With the aforementioned Moran on piano.
5. Henry Threadgill Zooid, this brings us to Volume II (Pi): Saxophonist Threadgill's 1978-1996 Mosaic box was the reissue of the year. This disc takes its time delivering its wallops and twisted motifs, but the unfolding of these quintet pieces seems to be the point.
6. Vijay Iyer, Solo (ACT Music + Vision): The pianist shares a lot with his contemporary Moran, including pop populism and a sense of history. On the other hand, Iyer seems even more prone to deconstruction — witness his touching dismantling of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature."
7. Geri Allen and Timeline, Live! (Motema): She released two notable discs on Motema this year. Flying Toward the Sound was an homage to motherhood and some keyboard progenitors ... and then there was this kick-in-the-butt group that treats the phenomenal tap dancer Maurice Chestnut like a horn.
8. Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden, Jasmine — (ECM): This mostly ballads collection should be prescribed listening in a world gone mad with multitasking. Jarrett and Haden are sensual monotaskers, Zen masters of effortless concentration, uninterested in speeding beyond a mid-tempo — beckoning you to sllloooww down and dig.
9. Cassandra Wilson, Silver Pony (Blue Note): Part live, part studio, all confidently covering the range she's staked out from "St. James Infirmary" to Tin Pan Alley to the Beatles — not to mention her originals. A voice that makes you a believer in all of it.
10. Steve Coleman, Harvesting Semblances & Affinities (Pi): Hyper-twisted themes somewhere between bop and insistent SOS messages. Warming touches — some relaxed tempos, Jen Shyu's vocals acting as a fourth horn, an interpretation of a medieval theme — count for a lot too.
Travis R. Wright's most-listened-to music
1. The National, High Violet (4AD): An evening-time rock record that melds the mood of the moon with a somber, often reflective baritone croon. The band certainly distinguished itself from Interpol here. Not an upper.
2. Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot ... (Def Jam): Outkast rapper Big Boi has been — and, here, continues to be — one of rap music's most proficient and engaging lyricists. Way better than Speakerboxx (2003) and we almost don't miss Andre 5000.
3. Band of Horses, Infinite Arms (Columbia): The record features slightly countrified indie pop delivered with more visceral lyrics than past efforts. Short, smart and accessible, it's the band's best yet.
4. Yeasayer, Odd Blood (Secretly Canadian): A simply great record, and "Ambling Alp" received multiple spins daily. It haunts me still. Must listen now.
5. Matthew Dear, Black City (Ghostly Int'l): More moody blues, albeit synthesized and syncopated in Dear's electronic style, Black City captures corners and characteristics of Detroit like no other record. It occupies headspace and festers there. My adoration for it is born out of some sick brand of Stockholm Syndrome.
6. Freeway & Jake One, The Stimulus Package (Rhymesayers): Remember when Philly emcee Freeway was going to be Roc-A-Fella Record's star child and save "real" rap? Well he finally got around to doing just that, only with Jake One instead of Jay Z, which is for the better. Kanye who?
7. Danny Brown, The Hybrid (self-released): Speaking of rap, rappers, and whatever Kanye West is (a film director now?), how about this free record from Detroit's Danny Brown? He's my favorite rapper. He can outrap your favorite rapper. Nobody sounds like him. Metaphors be with you, Danny.
8. The Black Keys, Brothers (Nonesuch): Brothers is perhaps my least favorite Black Keys record; it's that any music they make is my shit. The band's sonic maturation and Auerbach's lyrical growth make for a number of undeniable jams, most of them soulful and jangly.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Horse Power EP (Quite Scientific): Maybe you missed the cover story about how this these two Detroiters' four-song EP (three originals and a Beach Boys cover) catapulted them into the indie rock spotlight. Best compiled 16 minutes of music of the year.
10. Whitey Morgan & the 78s, Whitey Morgan & the 78s (Bloodshot): As far as outlaw country goes, Whitey Morgan is the real fucking deal. Whisky-soaked, weed-smoked, firepit-stoked. The redo of Johnny Cash's "Bad News" seals the deal.
Chris Handyside's "stuff I loved"
1. Lord Scrummage, From the Future (self-released): Dead dogs, knife hits, funny scary shit, scary funny shit, and a thousand ideas that shouldn't coalesce but somehow do. Between these dudes and my next selection, it's clear "Detroit Rock" ain't the shorthand you thought it was.
2. Moon Pool & Dead Band (various MP3s online): Young and Shettler force Moroder and Merzbow, Neu and Neubaten out on a double-blind date. The results woke the neighbors with the all-night banging.
3. Broken Social Scene, Forgiveness Rock Record (Arts & Crafts): Everyone was talking about Pavement getting back together this year, but for the exchange rate, the BSS collective were a waaay better buy. As "World Sick" and half-dozen others here prove, these boho scruffs still best their Canuck peers for indie anthem royalty.
4. Black Keys, Brothers (Nonesuch): Ubiquitous, yes, but — honestly — what's not to love?
5. Cee Lo Green, "Fuck You" (Elektra): A song so infectious it survived Gwyneth Paltrow's hammy Glee-ification and inspired Motown guitar hero Dennis Coffey to rock a viral video version. (And the "clean" version is fun for the kids too!) And the rest of the album, Ladykiller, is flippin' phenomenal in its own right!
6. Jay-Z & Eminem at Comerica Park: Everyone who told you that this co-headlining jammy-jam was a magic night for music in downtown Detroit is right. Stars aligned, multimedia showmanship one-upped itself, hip hop won, we laughed, we cried, we danced, we recovered.
7. Drunken Barn Dance, Grey Buried (Quite Scientific): Scott Selwood keeps the lantern lit at the bar, telling stories that are too true to sound this good. Yet, there we are, riveted by his every word and strum, in the darkness, singing along, drunk again, regretful and loving it.
8. Beehive Recording Company: The MP3 label curated, driven and enthusiastically resurrected this year by Steve Nawara was the gift that kept on giving. Whether it was bubblegum rock 'n' pop, experimental one-offs, lost tracks from Detroit's recent glorious past or whatever else struck Nawara and crew's fancy — it was a year of goodness that reminds me I still need to donate for all the music.
9. Silverghost, The Year We Make Contact (self-released): So this is what it sounds like when we send Detroiters to space armed with the proper equipment. Thank you very much for the thoroughly enjoyable report, Deleano and Bolen.
10. Fred Thomas: 2010 was the year Thomas has been working up to for the last few turns around the sun. He left a trail of exceptional vinyl, cassettes, MP3s and live gems for us fans of homemade experimental art-pop and artful experiments in pop, with his duo City Center, his "other outfit" Swimsuit and his reunion with SLGTM singer Bettie Marie Barnes in the Mighty Clouds.
Jonathan Cunningham's top local hip-hop videos
1. Black Milk, Welcome (Gotta Go) (tinyurl.com/2375e3v): Even though the staggered, stop-motion graphics attached to Black Milk's "Welcome (Gotta Go)" video could make some dizzy, director Anthony Garth created enough kaleidoscopic visuals mixed with key Detroit scenery to make this one of the best music vids of the year on a national level.
2. Miz Korona, "Playground" Featuring Moe Dirdee (tinyurl.com/27cckeb): Watching unruly, miniature versions of Miz Korona and Moe Dirdee as kids picking on people somehow helps make a song about bullying adorable. The video gurus of GhostPost production were crafty enough to take a surly song and make the video street- yet kid-friendly.
3. Invincible and Waajeed, Detroit Summer/Emergence (tinyurl.com/2g8yf96): It isn't just scenes of Belle Isle and vivid shots throughout downtown Detroit but the way director El Iqaa captures the uplifting feel of the city during the summer months that makes this double music video stand out.
4. Elzhi, Deep (tinyurl.com/ybg3dg7): Director Gerard Victor Atillo's star shone brightly in 2010, and his work on Elzhi's "Deep" was arguably his finest of the year. While El proves (yet again) that he can outrap anyone, Atillo does a nearly perfect job of showcasing Elzhi's grounded yet flashy personality. Color treatments and locations all help to make this one hell of a video.
5. Danny Brown, Greatest Rapper Ever (tinyurl.com/2bk8bxl): Considering that Danny Brown is the cleverest shock-value rapper in Detroit, it's only fitting that his video for "Greatest Rapper Ever" features a man stripping copper wiring as Brown raps about selling pregnant women crack. Neither is a farce, and considering that everything is intentionally shot low-budget, that chosen aesthetic mixed with wild punch lines helped Brown's music resonate with Internet rap fans globally.
6. Black Milk, Deadly Medley, featuring Royce Da 5' 9" and Elzhi (tinyurl.com/33p7ren): Here's another top quality video from Gerard Victor Atillo. This was one of the more anticipated collaborations of the year — and it lived up to the hype. Royce, Black Milk and Elzhi on one track proved to be a lethal combination (as the song title suggests), so the video had to be on the same level. Between this and his other work, Atillo proves there's no reason that he shouldn't be working with national artists in 2011.
7. Mr. Chief, Can't Stand It, featuring Guilty Simpson and Wrecknoze (tinyurl.com/2dfsmsb): In terms of creating a true concept video, director Adam E. Pillon alley-ooped a slam dunk. Much of the video was shot in the murky woods of Southfield and at the American Pawn Shop on Eight Mile. Without many frills, they paint a creative picture of rappers fed up with the direction the industry is heading, and their peers going along for the ride.
8. Crown Royale, We Gotcha (tinyurl.com/265jlhn): Even though this video was shot in Southern Cali where half of Crown Royale (DJ Rhettmatic) resides, the group's other member, Buff 1, hails from Ann Arbor, and videographer Jeremy Deputat is a Detroiter. By law of numbers, that makes this gem local, and with all of the sunshine and sand featured, Michigan folks shouldn't mind watching just now. Props for being the last official music video shot at Fat Beats LA before it closed as well.
9. Magestik Legend, All Eye Know (tinyurl.com/26gq5vt): There's no shortage of emcees who compare the rap game to the drug world, thus finding innovative musical illustrations is a tall task. Between the dish rack full of vinyl records and other slick shots, Gerard Atillo (him again) takes a slightly clichéd reference and illustrates just how hard Magestik Legend hustles at his craft.
10. Stoopz N Breeze, Dade County Cruizin (tinyurl.com/29oyczl): Taking place during a fictitious time period in Miami, Detroit's best comedic hip-hop group, Stoopz N Breeze, finds clever ways to flesh out the similarities between Motown and the Magic City in this video. Most of the wardrobes are '80s neon chic, and the visuals are so over-the-top cheesy that they work. Josef Petrous isn't a widely known video director yet, but if he can do cheeky work like this that still sings, he's worth keeping your eye on in the new year.
Jonathan Cunningham's top reggae releases
1. Gappy Ranks, Put the Stereo On: This is the debut album from England's most popular reggae artist in years, Gappy Ranks, and it could easily win the award for Throwback Album of the Year — if such a category existed. Considering Ranks spent the previous year doing mostly dancehall cuts, nobody expected him to drop a proper album full of '70s-style Coxsone-esque production. Such singles as "Heaven in her Eyes," "Studio One" and "Pumpkin Belly" sound as if they were created 30 years ago. Even though Ranks is merely 27 and cut his teeth in London's dance-heavy pirate radio scene, he found an old-school sound that works to make Put the Stereo On this year's best reggae album by a mile.
2. Gyptian, Hold You: Outlets such as the Washington Post, SPIN and Billboard have heralded this as one of the best reggae releases of the year. It's one of the best-produced albums of the year and is filled with contemporary lover's rock ditties. Ladies are the obvious target here, but teens and harder-edged grown men can still groove to the jams. The global hit "Hold You" is the clear standout on this album, but others such as "Beautiful Lady," "Naw Let Go" and "Na Na Na (A Love Song)" help make this a complete project.
3. Busy Signal, D.O.B.: Within the ultra-competitive dancehall world, Busy Signal managed to outpace his rivals and release an album that was universally respected by music critics and badmen alike. With D.O.B., Reanno "Busy Signal" Gordon showed his versatility by crafting tunes that are perfect for early morning passa passa fetes in the garrisons ("Summn a Guh Gwaan," "How U Bad So") and then jacked Phil Collins on a cover of the classic tune "One More Night." Who in the realm of dancehall would think to do a Phil Collins cover? Only Busy Signal, and that's what made his sophomore release one of this year's best.
4. Romain Virgo, Romain Virgo: Teenage singing sensation Romain Virgo had the best jam of 2009 with his hit single "Mi Caan Sleep." But that didn't mean his full-length this year would be able to hold its weight. Surprisingly, it did more than that. Further single-worthy jams such as the infectious "Love Doctor" helped make Virgo's self-titled debut an album worth holding and proved that the cub crooner can hold his weight.
5. Dennis Brown, The Crown Prince of Reggae: Singles 1972-1985: Here's a release from the folks at VP Records that celebrates one of the best voices in reggae history, the late Dennis Brown. At one point, reggae king Bob Marley even stated that Dennis Brown was his favorite singer, which attests to how rich Brown's voice truly was. On this release, you'll get two discs of classic 45s that the singer cut throughout his career, and a third live concert DVD from the Montreux Jazz Festival. These aren't his greatest hits by any means, but having 47 solid Dennis Brown tracks on one release is worth championing under any circumstance.
6. Various Artists, Strictly the Best 43: Since 1990, VP has released compilations called Strictly the Best to showcase the best reggae songs of that year. In recent years, they've begun releasing two volumes of Strictly the Best annually (this year it's Vol. 42 and 43), and if you had to choose which one is the best this year, it's undoubtedly Vol. 43. You'll hear Mavado's infectious "Nine Life," Assassin's "Hand Inna Di Air," Gyptian's "Nah Let Go" and a slew of dancehall jams that a DJ could play from start to finish without looking lazy.
7. Nas and Damian Marley, Distant Relatives: To some, it might seem arguable whether this is a proper reggae album, considering longtime rapper Nas and various guests rap throughout the project. But the production, the stylings and patois-singing of Damian Marley help make this a justifiable reggae release, albeit one that doesn't fit squarely in a box.
8. Major Lazer, Lazers Never Die (EP): Here's yet another release that traditional reggae purists might argue with. Lazer's Never Die, the five-song follow-up to 2009's Guns Don't Kill People ... Lazers Do, is a strong showcase of the way taste-making DJ-producer Diplo continuously mashes up hardcore dancehall culture with club and electro beats. It doesn't hurt that Diplo gets Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke to remix the surly tune "Jump Up" and then brings in ex-girlfriend M.I.A. and popular artist Busy Signal to voice on the track "Sound of Siren." What emerges on these five songs is forward-thinking reggaelectronica and definitely one of the cleverest releases of the year.
9. Various Artists, Hi Grade Ganja Anthems Vol. 3: Let's face it, reggae lovers typically enjoy marijuana. It's not a universal rule by any means, but ganaja and reggae concerts have always been synonymous. So it's smart to feed the need by creating the Hi Grade Ganja Anthem series. Vol. 3 is arguably the best. Jams from Sizzla ("Feed up the Herbs"), Gyptian ("Sensi"), Collie Buddz ("Come Around") and Queen Ifrica ("Coconut Shell") make this a respectable album. This could easily be one of the cheesiest releases in the VP stable, but that isn't the case. Every tune here is chalice-worthy and a decent stocking-stuffer as well — for those with medicinal needs.
10. Clinton Fearon, Mi Deh Yah: Seattle-based singer and longtime bassist Clinton Fearon released one of the best roots rock albums of the year on the family-friendly album Mi Deh Yah. Throughout the disc's 14 tracks, Fearon, who was the original bassist for celebrated reggae group the Gladiators, continuously pushes roots and culture. Some would say this is reggae for an older generation — and it is — but it's also the foundation sound that younger generations tend to embrace as well. Considering Fearon eschews slackness and negativity for one-drop riddims and pure vibes, Mi Deh Yah is safe for all generations without sounding watered-down and definitely deserves more attention.
Doug Coombe's top unsung Detroit discs
1. 800Beloved, Everything Purple (Moodgadget): Milford's 800 Beloved's second release finds Sean Lynch upping his 4AD-dream pop-shoegaze ante with the equally obsessive production skills of Scott Masson of the Office and the Glossies.
2. Silverghost, The Year We Make Contact (self-released): Deleano Acevedo (also from Milford) and Marcie Bolen at last deliver the great record that their amazing live sets hinted at. The best Devo-Gary Numan & Tubeway Army-style collaboration of 2010.
3. Frontier Ruckus, Deadmalls and Nightfalls (Ramseur Records): Frontier Ruckus songwriter-vocalist-guitarist Matthew Milia took his already impressive songwriting and lyrics to a whole new level on the group's Ramseur Records debut, creating what it would sound like if Will Oldham sat in on Neil Young's On the Beach. Frontier Ruckus would also beat any band in Michigan in a busking contest.
4. Arranged Marriage, Dearly Beloved (Suburban Sprawl): Scott Allen of Thunderbirds Are Now! does a record that's seemingly out of left field for fans of his spazzed-out keyboard attack and acrobatic performances in TAN! Teaming up with his father, Brad, Dearly Beloved is a record of gorgeous Paul Simon- and Elliott Smith-inspired songwriting.
5. Drunken Barn Dance, Grey Buried (Quite Scientific): DBD frontman and former Saturday Looks Good to Me keyboardist Scott Sellwood is equal parts great songwriter and amazing bandleader. It helps when the band you're leading is a veritable Ann Arbor supergroup. If the idea of crossing Wilco with the twin guitar attack of Television sounds good to you, this is your CD.
6. Will Sessions, Kindred (The Few Records): Is their anything Sam Beaubien and his band can't tackle? Kindred is Will Sessions' inspired tribute to jazz fusion — as in the hybrid of Miles Davis, Sly Stone and Herbie Hancock. All from a band that puts out funk 45s, breakbeat tunes and records with almost every great hip-hop act in town.
7. Dennis Coffey, F**k You (YouTube tease for upcoming album): Dennis Coffey's inspired instrumental take on Cee Lo Green's tongue-in-cheek classic features a video complete with cameos by Melvin Davis, Mayer Hawthorne (who will be on his upcoming album) and a cast of Detroit hipsters. The song finds Dennis revisiting the aggressive sounds of his Sussex-era classics. Here's to Dennis claiming his rightful title as a household name in the guitar innovator pantheon in 2011.
8. Conspiracy of Owls, Conspiracy of Owls (Burger Records): Ancient Robots — with its accompanying video — was one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs to come out of Detroit in 2010. The Go's new incarnation finds the band inspired by the psychedelic gold of '70s AM radio — with unexpected and catchy results.
9. Black Milk, Album of the Year (Fat Beats): With an album title like that, your record better be all that, and, indeed, Detroit's hardest-working hip-hop producer Curtis Cross delivered the goods. But what the hell do you do for a follow-up next year? How about dropping an album by Detroit's soul diva in waiting, Melanie Rutherford.
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Horse Power EP (Quite Scientific): "Nothing But Our Love" was the most beautiful single to come out of Detroit in 2010. What made it even better was the glorious and inspired low-budget video that accompanied it, complete with one of the most irreverent video endings ever.
Doug Coombe: Best local discs
How can you just pick 10? Short of New York or Los Angeles the rest of the country can kiss our scene's ass (that's right Chicago, Portland, Austin, Nashville, ATL ...). As always Detroit has all the bases covered — rock, jazz, noise, hip hop, soul, blues, techno — we do it all. And this list barely touches on all the great 45s that came out of Detroit this year.
1. 800Beloved, Everything Purple (Mood Gadget)
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Horse Power EP (Quite Scientific)
3. Drunken Barn Dance, Grey Buried (Quite Scientific)
4. Black Milk, Album of the Year (Fat Beats)
5. Frontier Ruckus, Deadmalls and Nightfalls (Ramseur Records)
6. Arranged Marriage, Dearly Beloved (Suburban Sprawl)
7. Mighty Clouds, Mighty Clouds (Polyvinyl Records)
8. Will Sessions, Kindred (The Few Records)
9. The Sights, Most of What Follows is True (Alive Natural Sound)
10. Silverghost, The Year We Make Contact (self-released)
11. Guilty Simpson, OJ Simpson (Stones Throw)
12. Conspiracy of Owls, Conspiracy of Owls (Burger Records)
13. Dennis Coffey, "Fuck You" (youtube teaser for upcoming album)
14. The Dirtbombs, "Sharevari" (youtube teaser for upcoming album)
15. The High Strung, Dragon Dicks (self-released)
16. Secret Twins, Ill Fit (Quack! Media)
17. Friendly Foes, Liz, Ryan & Sean (self-released)
18. Charlie Slick, Elron Hubbard (self-released)
19. Cold Wave, Cold Wave EP (Gangplank Records)
20. Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas, Weird Looking Women in Too Many Clothes (self-released)
21. Breathe Owl Breathe, Magic Central (Hometapes)
22. The Pizazz, Get Out of My House (Burger Records)
23. Beehive Records, "I don't even know where to start. Check out their website."
24. City Center, Spring Street (Quite Scientific)
25. Dwele, Wants World Women (E1 Music)
26. Buff 1 and DJ Rhettmatic, Crown Royale (A Side Worldwide)
27. Moon Pool & Dead Band, Overspace cassette (AA Records)
28. The Juliets, The Juliets (self-released)
29. Big Mess, Big Mess (self-released)
30. Hot Club of Detroit, It's About That Time (Mack Avenue Records)
31. White Stripes, Under Great White Northern Lights (Warner Brothers)
32. Outrageous Cherry, Seemingly Solid Reality (Alive Natural Sound)
33. Apollo Brown, Reset and Gas Mask (as The Left)
34. The Hounds Below, Crawling Back to You 45 (self-released)
35. Timmy's Organism, Rise of the Green Guerilla (Sacred Bones Records)
Doug Coombe: Detroit videos
1. Conspiracy of Owls, "Ancient Robots" (tinyurl.com/yaa5b34)
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., "Nothing But Our Love" (tinyurl.com/22w2nzr)
3. Dennis Coffey, "F**k You" (tinyurl.com/2utaasa)
4. The Hard Lessons, "Wally Broner (Christmas Always)" (tinyurl.com/26xcp64)
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