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.

michelle mangione

Acoustic music fans take note: this album should be in your CD collection.

I have this theory that drummers who become acoustic singer/songwriters have more rhythmically interesting songs than many of their contemporaries. Michelle Mangione is another in my short but growing list of drummer-turned-guitarists that exemplify my theory.

Along with drums and guitar (steel string and nylon), Mangione plays the piano and organ, and she plays them well. Listening to Life Beneath the Sun, one would never know that it is an independent recording with only a handful of studio performers besides Mangione. The classical guitar instrumental "Interlude" shows off her chops on that instrument, just in case you hadn't figured it out by then.

Musically, she reminds me of Melissa Etheridge, but without the corporate rock sheen that has coated Etheridge's career. publicity photo of Michelle MangioneLyrically, she has a lot to say in her songs. The album contains excellent instrumentation, as mentioned before, however the production is done in such a way to emphasize the vocals — a hallmark of singer/songwriter albums. Very little obscures the message and poetry Mangione is trying to convey with the songs on Life Beneath the Sun.

"America the Blue" examines some of the hypocrisy practiced by Americans who revere and support our warriors until they come home. The topic is approached from the side and not a direct confrontation. "I met a hero at my doorstep / He only did what he had to do / He surely had found the American dream come true / He reached out for a nickel with his right hand / Another long, cold lonely night and / He never felt so red white and blue…" Even the poppy, head-bopping music doesn't convey any sort of preachiness. The song is particularly poignant given the reports of conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The chorus of "Prisoner of War" is one that regularly plays on repeat in my mental jukebox. "Are you ready to release me / I am ready to be freed / You know I can't escape this feeling anymore / And if time is all it takes me / I will loosen up these chains / Just enough to make my getaway / And I won't be your prisoner of war…" I can't say I have ever been in a relationship where I have felt that sentiment, but I do like the imagery of the lyrics and the musical hook. Plus, the song incorporates one of my favorite unusual acoustic pop instruments: the accordion.

One of my complaints about singer/songwriters is that so many write songs that have a lot of "I" and "you" in them. Mangione is no different, but as a friend pointed out to me recently, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes writers need to have a period of introspection, or it could be that is where their talent lies. In this case, Mangione is able to convey all of her I's and you's in an interesting and mostly universal way, which is more than I can say for some writers.

Other stand-out songs on the album include "Anything Better," "I've Become," and "Man With a Gun." The album on a whole is a solid mix of toe-tappers and songs that make you go "hmmm…," and a few do both. Overall, I am pleased with Life Beneath the Sun. The production is well done, the songwriting is solid, and the musicians are on their game — good indicators of an album with some staying power.

Life Beneath the Sun is available from CDBaby and iTunes.

Also published on Blogcritics.org.

penny loafers – quicksand

A cappella arrangements that are so good they make me want to listen to Coldplay, among others.

One of the things that continue to draw me to a cappella music is the intimacy it conveys. The voice is not hidden behind instrumentation or electronic trickery. It is left exposed in front for the world to hear.

The same is true with a cappella covers of songs that originally used modern instrumentation. Even when the choir of voices behind the lead singer is replicating the instruments and percussion of the original, the lead voice remains bare. Sometimes it takes that bare intimacy for me to realize just how good a song is.

I first had an inkling of this when I heard folk singer/songwriter Rose Polenzani do a cover of Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" some years ago at a live show. I never liked the song as much as I did after I heard her version of it. The same thing happened when I heard the University of Pennsylvania Penny Loafers' a cappella cover of The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" last year. Their cover made me give the song and the band a second listen, and now I'm hooked on The Postal Service.

Given all that, it was with eager anticipation that I hit the play button for the first track of the Penny Loafer's new album, Quicksand. Quicksand album coverOnce again, I was both surprised and pleased by how much I enjoy their versions of modern pop radio songs I never would listen to in their original incarnations.

"Swallowed in the Sea" (Coldplay) is a prime example of this. I cannot stand to listen to Coldplay. Maybe they are more interesting now, but their first hit single in the US was so dreary that I was immediately turned off and have not bothered to listen to them since then. However, Sam Cohn's a cappella arrangement and performance as lead vocal has made me think I should try them again. The song has a hint of folk to it, as if it had a history in an old English seaport.

Except for Sia's "Breathe Me" and Amiee Mann's "Humpty Dumpty," all of the songs on Quicksand are new to me. Those two are arranged close to the originals, as far as I can tell, and I can only expect the same is true of the rest of the album. The group has over a dozen arrangers represented on this album, and despite that they have kept the quality consistent. There is not a track on the album that stood out either positively or negatively.

A cappella purists might quibble over the obvious studio tweaking on the recording. There are a few places that stand out as examples of what the human voice cannot do without some digital augmentation. Even so, the quality of the recording is still impressive. The Penny Loafers have followed up Side A with another fine collection of a cappella tunes.

The Penny Loafers CDs (all eight of them) are available only on their website or a few online a cappella distributors. You can preview and download individual tracks or entire albums from acaTunes.

damaged goods

One hour of an excellent blend of rock and pop with solid singer/songwriter underpinnings.


by Lennon

Lennon‘s major label debut album had the misfortune of being released on September 11, 2001. With the country focused on other things, the album didn’t get much attention and she was later dropped from Arista. Undaunted, Lennon has continued to pump out an excellent blend of rock and pop with solid singer/songwriter underpinnings.

Most of Damaged Goods leans towards darker sounds. The album is a lengthy collection of songs dealing with tragedy, mainly on a personal level. “Goodbye” is one song that steps out from this and provides, at least musically, a hint of hopefulness. The lyrics capture a moment in time near the end of a relationship when the protagonist realizes that they cannot be who their lover/friend/relative wants them to be. While the lyrics are a bit disparaging, the music and hook indicates a looking forward to when the pain of the moment will fade into memory.

The rhythm of the album flows effortlessly from introspective and dark ballads to head nodding guitar-driven rock. One song that sends this listener into rock ecstasy is “Nothing Out of Me“. It leads out with pounding snares and chunky electric guitars, and then shifts into a hooky chorus that has just the right amount of anguish. The momentum shifts down to poignant at the last verse with just vocals and percussion. Then the guitar is added in and leads into one last driving chorus.

photo by Frank Okenfels courtesy of Susan Blond, Inc.Along with the solid songwriting, Damaged Goods is blessed with a tight studio band. The songs themselves are stereotypical of their genres, and it is the production and execution that makes them shine. In addition to writing (or co-writing) all seventeen tracks and singing the lead vocals, Lennon plays the piano on several. The piano has the potential of turning a good rock album into something that will forever be compared with Tori Amos, but in this case the producers smartly incorporated it in only sparingly and where appropriate.

The lead track (“No One Knows“) begins with a bit of piano and vocals, but then ramps up into full-on rock with muddy electric guitars and aggressive vocals. “Finish What We Start” is a mostly piano-driven tune, and one of the more introspective ballads on the album. After ten tracks of drums and guitars, it is almost like finding a quiet corner away from the party to catch your breath and regroup. None of the energy and momentum of the album is lost on this track; merely, they are put on hold while allowing the listener to revel in the beauty of Lennon’s voice.

Lennon is currently touring with Aerosmith and Mötley Crüe, and if Damaged Goods is any indication, I have no doubt that she will be able to hold her own.

old friends

Mourning the loss of contact with old friends…

On Thursday and Friday of last week, I attended the ACRL Oregon and ACRL Washington Joint Fall Conference. One of the first persons I ran into at the conference was a college acquaintance I had not seen in over seven years. For some people, this may not be unusual. However, this is this first time I have ever run into someone from my undergraduate school outside of a context related to that university. I attended a small, liberal arts university in Virginia, and this conference took place in Oregon. As far as I knew, this old acquaintance had no relationship with libraries or librarianship, which as I discovered was true until recently when she began the distance MLIS program through the University of Washington. Go figure.

I’ve been thinking about old friends lately that I have lost contact with. Some of this was inspired by having recently gotten a great deal on a minidisc recorder/player and finally being able to listen to live recordings I made of a singer/songwriter friend in 1999-2001. For a while, it seemed that Thea Zumwalt was working towards doing music full-time, but her website has disappeared and none of the email addresses I have are working anymore.

One of the many recordings of Thea at the Artful Dodger in my collection makes reference to another old friend, Adi Raz. The last time I tried to email Adi, the message was returned undeliverable. I guess I shouldn’t have let over two years go by without communication. Now I can’t find any contact information for her, which is both sad and frustrating.

For over ten years I have been trying to get in touch with a childhood friend, Katie (Kate, Kathryn) Connolly. About eight years ago, or so, I got her address through her mother and a teacher at the high school where we would have both attended had I not moved the year before. She never wrote back, and the last time I tried, the letter was returned. Our friendship ended on a bitter note, sharply contrasting the sweetness of the friendship to that point. All I’ve wanted since then was to make up for that heartache, but I suspect she’s long forgotten me.

I’ve moved so much in my life that there are countless other people that I occasionally wonder about. People like Susan, my friend who lived down the street with whom I saw (and was frightened by) Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. Joanna Mullins — my first serious crush in junior high school. Dan Nietz — my best friend in high school with whom I lost contact after he got married (although my Dad says he’s seen him around town and gave him my email address… not going to hold my breath, though). And there are and will be others.

I used to be very good at writing letters and keeping in contact with everyone, but as I’ve grown older and busier, my life has become too full to keep up with those who are not a part of my routine. Maybe letting go and moving on is a part of what makes us mature adults, or at the very least, numbs the pain of the loss. I guess I haven’t quite figured out how to do that yet.