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.

reviews on blogcritics: october

October was a busy month for me. I went to my college reunion, battled with a cold and lower back pain, and attended a professional conference. The end result of this is that I didn’t do as much reviewing as I had planned on, and now I’m having to play catch-up. Expect to see a longer list for November, but for now, I give you:

Jessie Baylin – Firesight

The arrangements and production work on Firesight are both so well done that one hardly notices them. It’s simply a collection of good tunes that flow together well with an appropriate balance between the lead vocals and everything else. This is essential to making the album work, as anything that stands out as too rough or too glossy would immediately break the mellow mood. [more]

Theresa Andersson – Hummingbird Go!

It took a few listens before I began to appreciate the complexity and depth of Andersson’s music. It’s quirky and a bit more subdued that the assortment of rock-tinged pop that tends to be on regular rotation in my house. Putting away all other distractions and focusing on the album alone, I was able to hear the energy and drive of her performance that was not as apparent when approaching the recording casually. Andersson’s creative use of unorthodox instrumentation and unexpected arrangements need the listener’s full attention to be appreciated. [more]

Click and Clack’s As the Wrench TurnsClick & Clack – As the Wrench Turns

If the creators of Click & Clack were looking to achieve the success of shows like The Simpsons or The Family Guy, they have a great deal of room for improvement. Click & Clack: As the Wrench Turns may be enjoyed in small doses, but I would not recommend buying or renting this DVD unless you are a consummate NPR/PBS fan who must acquire everything put out by those media companies. [more]

Awake, My Soul – The Original Soundtrack / Help Me to Sing – Songs of the Sacred Harp

With the release of the two-disc soundtrack, we are treated with the full recordings of the songs referenced in the documentary, including the solfège – singing the song with the names of the notes rather than the words in order to learn the music. The second disc of the set features 20 renditions of Sacred Harp tunes by a diverse group of folk and pop performers. The set is treated as two different albums, each with its own title. [more]

Agatha Christie: Mystery Lover’s Collection

Although the box is given a distinctive design and theme, the contents are clearly pulled from the various sets and single releases previously made available by Acorn Media. It’s a little disappointing that they did not change the packaging of the contents to match, rather than making it appear to be an assortment of remainders marketed as something new. Luckily, it’s the contents that matter more than the packaging. [more]

as it happens

I was driving home last night from a friends house just a little after 9:30pm. The radio in my car was on, as it usually is, and tuned to the public radio news station. To my surprise and pleasure, I caught the end of Future Tense. Since August 13th, Future Tense has been aired at 9pm, followed by some random CBC production due to the lockout. That all ended this week, and last night was the second airing of one of my favorite programs, As It Happens. You may have noticed that for the past two months I’ve had a blog sticker on the main page:


I’m taking it down now. I’m not Canadian, and I have little stake in the politics of the CBC, but I am glad that Mary Lou and Barbara are back on the air.

“It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon

A Prairie Home Companion® – 30th Broadcast Season Celebration

The first live program of A Prairie Home Companion® was broadcast on July 6, 1974 in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Garrison Keillor developed the idea of having a radio show with musical guests, drama sketches, and advertisements for fake products, and it ran for thirteen years before going off the air. A few years later, Keillor re-started the program in New York City as The American Radio Company™ where it gained national attention. In 1992 it returned to Saint Paul, and went back to being called A Prairie Home Companion® in 1993.

I grew up listening to this program with my parents. We would be in the car going to or from somewhere on a Saturday evening, and they would tune in whatever public radio station they could find and we would listen. Sometimes I would lie on the living room floor with the stereo on, listening to the program. As a kid, I was more interested in the funny old-timey commercials than in the music or the rest of the program. I would wait through all that other stuff to hear the Powdermilk Biscuits® song or Bertha’s Kitty Boutique™ or Guy’s Shoes® and then laugh at the silliness of it. I don’t remember listening to the show much when I was in high school and college, but after college I lived without at television for many years and re-discovered public radio. A Prairie Home Companion® again became part my regular Saturday evening schedule. (Note: The program is broadcast live at 5pm Central, so some readers may be used to hearing the program in the afternoon. That’s one aspect of the time change from Eastern to Pacific that I haven’t quite gotten used to yet.)

Continue reading ““It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon”

straight talk

Neocons will hate this book. Moderates will feel enlightened and emboldened. Liberals will enjoy the occasional pot-shots at Neocons and want more.

Straight Talk from the Heartland : Tough Talk, Common Sense, and Hope from a Former Conservative by Ed Schultz

Ed Schultz is conservative turned liberal talk radio host. His show is syndicated on over 30 affiliate stations in the United States and Canada. The cover of his book, Straight Talk From the Heartland, proclaims that his is the fastest growing talk radio show. Not being a talk radio listener, I missed out on the hoopla surrounding this guy. However, having read his book, I’m now interested in hearing what he has to say on a regular basis. In the midst of his at times bombastic ranting (a trademark of talk radio), Schultz displays a keen intellect and average-guy understanding of the socio-politic-economic realities of life in the 21st century world. Neocons will hate this book. Moderates will feel enlightened and emboldened. Liberals will enjoy the occasional pot-shots at Neocons and want more.

The book is divided into two parts. The first describes Schultz’s transformation from hard-line conservative to left-of-center talk radio host. He outlines the events that brought him to his current ideology and lays out criticism of leaders on the Left and the Right, but mainly the Right. The second part is Schultz’s vision of what holds us together as a country and how these “pillars” are becoming unstable. At the end of each pillar section, he reiterates his main points, making this a handy crib sheet for those who may not wish to read them in detail.

My copy of this book has a handful of paper scraps sticking out of the top, marking the pages that have a particularly insightful or amusing comment. Here are just a few:

On Homeland Security:
“Minnesota, which also shares a border with Canada, has two nuclear plants within thirty miles of Minneapolis. Do you know who lives in Minneapolis? Prince! I am willing to make some concessions for homeland security. I am not willing to sacrifice the funk.” p.73

On Corporate Malfeasance:
“We need Ashcroft to stop spying on the librarians of America, and start focusing on the criminals again. And I’m not talking about Martha Stewart. We need the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission to grow some fangs, and start going after the big guns.” p.131

On Class Warfare:
“…I want to make it clear that I’m not advocating class warfare. Every good job I ever had was working for a rich man. Mr. Gates, I don’t mind the big paycheck, but could you at least give me a computer that works? Anytime any company dominates its industry like Microsoft does, there’s little motivation for the company to improve and give the public cheaper and better products.” p.135

On the “Liberal Media”:
“A journalist has to know enough about a topic to explain it to his audience. If he gets it wrong, people will know. So these people see the inner workings of government. They see the problems, they witness the disasters, and pretty soon their experiences tell them things need to change. A liberal is a compassionate proponent of change. So if journalists are liberals, maybe it’s reasonable to assume it was their life experiences that changed them. That’s how it worked for me.” p.201

On Talk Radio:
“Nowadays, it’s all too easy to get caught up in media frenzy. It feels like a new disaster is breaking every hour or so. I know this firsthand: I live, and work, in the bullet-point culture, too. My show is fast-paced. We paint in broad strokes. I provide solid information and opinions, but there’s no time for nuance — even if the President did nuance. So is talk radio the best place for in-depth news? Nah. It’s news delivered with equal helpings of entertainment, advocacy, and opinion, to help the medicine go down. Not all media is created equal.” p.220

Article first published as Straight Talk From the Heartland by Ed Schultz on Blogcritics.org