standout albums of 2010 (in my humble opinion)

It’s 2011, and these are the albums of 2010 that I’m still listening to on a weekly basis.

I haven’t listened to every album that was released last year. Who has the time? I have, however, listened to quite a few of the 2010 releases over the year, both out of personal interest and for the local community radio station where I volunteer.

There were quite a few surprise favorites among the bunch. Surprise in that I didn’t expect I’d like them, much less become obsessed with them and continue to listen with great pleasure months later. So, with that, I bring you the top unexpected favorite album of 2010.

Dan Black – ((un))

Released in the UK last year, the album made its way to US shores in February this year. I saw the press releases due to my work with Blogcritics, but nothing about them made me think this would be an album I’d enjoy. However, when I saw it on the “to be reviewed” shelf at the radio station in April, I gave it a cursory listen and decided it might be worth giving more attention.

Eight months later, I’m still listening to it, and count it among my go-to albums for when I need energy and a happy mood. Black has successfully melded synthpop, creative lyrical songwriting, and addictive hooks. This is no flash in the pan album/artist — there’s potential for longevity and continued freshness in Black’s sound.

Marina & the Diamonds – The Family Jewels

Marina Diamandis released her debut album in March, but I didn’t notice it until a friend sent me a link to the video for “I Am Not a Robot.” This sparked my interest enough that when I had the opportunity to review it for the radio station, I gave it a few spins. It’s still spinning on regular rotation in my personal library now.

The album is chock full of pop hooks, delivered by a woman who’s vocal range and technique is impressive in this age of female pop stars who are more popular for their paparazzi photos than their musical talents. She frequently belts out higher notes that make my cats cringe when I attempt to sing along. Marina can hit them with ease. I cannot. This is probably why she’s a huge UK pop star and I’m some shmuck writing music reviews.

Phantogram – Eyelid Movies

I can’t remember how I first ran across this album — whether it was one I picked to review for the radio station or one that a music director handed to me thinking I’d like it. Regardless, I found myself listening to Phantogram on repeat for a week or so in May, and few things will make me happy in the way I am when I hear the first few bars of “Mouthful of Diamonds.”

Sarah Barthel’s sweet and pure vocals are a nice balance to the rough (and often bizarre) vocal delivery from her partner, Josh Carter. The arrangements are a meld of synthpop, hip-hop, and singer/songwriter folk/pop. It’s similar to Dan Black, but a little more digitized and dirty.

Honorable Mentions:

Jennifer Knapp – Letting Go
I reviewed this for Blogcritics back in May, and you can read the full review if you like. In brief, this is her best album to date, and well deserving of a listen for anyone who enjoys thoughtful lyrics, strong female vocals, and music that straddles the line between acoustic and electric folk-pop.

The Like – Release Me
From what I understand, this is nothing like their earlier releases. The album has a 60’s girl-group sound with a modern attitude, similar to the Pipettes.

Indigo Girls – Staring Down the Brilliant Dream
Of course I have to include this in my list, but mostly because I’ve been a long-time fan of the group. This is a live album, and serves both as a gift to fans and as an excellent “best of” album to introduce the group to new listeners. I gave it a full review in August, if you’re interested in reading more.

Yolanda Be Cool & Dcup – “We No Speak Americano
I discovered this song when a friend linked to a video created by Irish step dancers Suzanne Cleary & Peter Harding doing their hand dance to this track. I watched the video countless times before researching and discovering that the track is an international hit. Even without the hand dancing, it’s still one of my favorite dance tracks of 2010.

Article first published as Standout Albums of 2010 (In My Humble Opinion) on Blogcritics.

2010 Richmond Folk Festival

Boukman Eksperyans at Richmond Folk Festival 2010
photo by Eli Christman (CC BY 2.0)

The Richmond Folk Festival got its start five years ago when the National Folk Festival was hosted here from 2005-2007. The first year I could attend was 2008, but it happens that the RFF coincides with my undergraduate homecoming weekend, and it was a reunion year for my class, so I opted to do that instead. The following year I went to homecoming again, but this year I decided that it was time to check out the festival instead.

The festival starts on Friday evening and runs through Sunday evening. There are seven stages scattered throughout the riverfront area, including two on Browns Island. The terrain is helpful for blocking sound between the stages so that concurrent performances aren’t interrupting each other. The performances are scheduled in a slightly staggered manner, and many of the artists have repeat performances on a different stage and time/day, so in that regard the festival organizers are making sure that everyone has a chance to see the performances they want to see, which is pretty handy considering that more than 190,000 people attended this year.

I was particularly thrilled to hear and meet some of the Sacred Harp singers from Sand Mountain, Alabama. They performed on one of the stages on Saturday, and thanks to some friends, I had a seat in the second row. Then on Sunday, as I was walking through the festival, I stumbled upon them holding a somewhat impromptu (not scheduled but sanctioned by festival organizers) open sing, and was able to join them for the last four songs.

The most entertaining performance award goes to Capoeira Luanda. They showed amazing strength, flexibility, and focus in their demonstration of this African-influenced Brazilian dance/game/martial art. Here’s a video that someone shot during the Saturday evening performance I saw:

The two other stand-out performances I saw were Benedicte Maurseth and Andes Manta. I have heard recordings of the Hardangfele, or Hardanger fiddle, but it wasn’t until Maurseth explained the construction that I understood why it sounds like two people playing when it’s only one. The fiddle has a set of strings under the ones that are touched by the bow which resonate when the string above them vibrates. She played some trance tunes that were so hauntingly beautiful that I felt a little lost when the music ended. Andes Manta are group of brothers who perform traditional Andean music, including flutes, panpipes, and several stringed instruments. I could have listened to them for hours.

One of the aspects of the folk fest performances that I particularly enjoyed was the educational component. I walked away from most performances with a greater understanding of the context, culture, and technical aspects of the music. Getting some education with my entertainment is a nice bonus.

Unfortunately, because I volunteered about 8 hours of my time at an information booth, I missed quite a bit of the festival (minus what I could hear from one of the nearby stages). While I enjoyed helping out, I think next time I will try to pick a volunteer shift that doesn’t overlap with quite so much of the performance times.

The folk fest is admissions-free, but they do suggest a $5 donation per person per day. There are people carrying bright orange five-gallon buckets all over the event, asking for donations from the people attending, but on average, they collected less than $0.40 per person this year. Thankfully, they are able to get sponsorships to cover the rest of the costs of the festival, but there’s some concern that the festival may have to scale back or start charging an entry fee if they don’t get more donations in the future.

So, if you’re in the Richmond area next October and you are looking for something relatively inexpensive and fun to do, please be sure to check out the folk festival!

reviews on blogcritics: november

So, I didn’t end up catching up as much as I thought I would. Hopefully, I can do that in the next few weeks.

Rodrigo y Gabriela – Live in Japan

This live album includes many of the band’s popular tunes, and serves as a “best of” recording much better than any compilation of their past studio work could attempt to do, mainly because as precise and flawless as the studio recordings can be, they do not convey the energy contained in a live performance, which is a significant part of their appeal. [more]

slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations by Nancy Duarte

…Duarte outlines the elements that make up an effective presentation design, and provides many real-world examples of these elements in action. She does not give too many details on specific tools and functions within particular slide presentation programs; instead, she provides the reader with the design theory needed to create an effective presentation. [more]

P!nk – Funhouse

Beginning with the post-relationship celebrity breakdown of “So What,” P!nk tells stories of substance abuse, co-dependency, and emotional/physical abuse. Alternatively cursing her lover and also pleading with them to not leave, she explores the complexity that led to the broken ending that began the album. [more]

Star Trek: The Original Series – Season 3 Remastered

The visual enhancements, for the most part, are not noticeable unless one is obsessively familiar with every detail of the original format, and in most cases, they stand out only against scenes that did not clean up quite as well.

memory, reunions, and being yourself

This weekend, I’m back in Harrisonburg, Virginia, for Homecoming weekend at my alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University. In fact, I am writing this courtesy of the as-yet-not login-required computers in the university library.

Except for the addition of a few more computers, and a small DVD collection where the reference books used to live, the library looks much like it did when I was a student here ten years ago. I think the chairs might be new. They’re more comfortable than I remember.

EMU Campus Center

Not that I remember many details of my college years. That’s the problem I’ve been noticing as I wander around, wondering if the person walking past me was a classmate or if they just look like someone I know. Even the people I’ve met who remember me are fuzzy in my mind. How did I know them then? Did we have a class together? Did we have mutual friends?

I’ve kept in touch with many of my college friends, but we were a small class, so I was acquaintances with most of the rest of them, or at the very least, I knew their name and what they looked like. And, I interacted with students in the other classes which came before and after me. All of this makes it difficult for me to remember just how I knew the people I am reconnecting with now.

In addition to all that, I’ve changed since college. Physically, I’ve put on a great deal of weight, I wear glasses, and my hair is much shorter. Socially, I’m more adept and personable (I think), and I’m less rigid in insisting that my views/philosophies are the only right ones.

I may not remember my old classmates in great detail, but I can’t assume they have as fuzzy memories of me. How do I convey who I am now when the ghost of who I was then still lingers?

Why do I feel that is important? It’s not as though we are a part of each other’s lives anymore and I need their acceptance in order to survive socially. I have gone on for 10 years without them, thankyouverymuch, and I can go on another 10 just the same. However, there is a part of me that craves acceptance, and no matter how much I grow stronger in myself, I still want everyone to like me.

*sigh*

I hope I’ll have gotten over this by our 20 year reunion, but for now, I should head over to the soccer game and see who’s there. Maybe if I show some school spirit it’ll make me seem more like one of them.

reviews on blogcritics – june 2008

I’ve decided that one way I can keep this blog from being just a “look at my latest review/article on Blogcritics” blog would be to do monthly summaries rather than individual posts right after each article is published. Here’s the first installment.

Ladytron – Velocifero

The second track is the album’s lead single, “Ghost,” and it’s easy to hear why that was chosen. The song’s pulsating beat and repetitive chorus are addictive and likely to be club favorites. “I’m Not Scared” follows with a relentless grind and power rock chords that touches the musical soul and compels the listener to crank up the volume a little bit more. With the attitude and energy level of the album set within the first few tracks, the band takes a moment to give the listener a breather before launching back in with the electronic wave assault prevalent in most of the rest of the tracks.

Rosemary & Thyme – The Complete Series

An aspect of the show that I find very appealing is the relationship between Laura and Rosemary. Early on in the series, they addressed the social perception that the only reason why two grown women could care about each other is because they are romantically linked (“Arabica and the Early Spider”). With that bigoted and misguided stereotype thrown out the window, Ferris and Kendal set out to develop their character’s friendship to be something deeper and stronger than what is usually shown on an episodic dramedy television series. The interplay between the two went from merely comedic to the kind of inside joke humor that happens only between very close friends.

Jaymay – Autumn Fallin’

It’s difficult to peg this album into any particular genre. There are elements of folk, pop, and even touches of the wall-of-sound aspects of electronica, although no processors are used in the creation of the music. And, just when you think you’ve got a label, with gusto she throws in the ragtime-style song “Hard to Say.”

That’s all for now! As you can tell from my sidebar, I have a few items that I’ll be working on this next month, although one is for a print publication due out later this year or early next year.