Bentley's Bandstand 2010: The Ten Best Albums of the Year

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BY BILL BENTLEY

Standing on the shore as new music floats in throughout the year is one of life’s most dependable treasures. Over all those releases, there are always a handful that rise to the top. Albums come and go, but the really stunning ones make themselves known. Call those choices favorites, because at this late date it is just too much to tag anything so personal the best: my Bongo Joe might be your Beatles, so who knows?

Below are ten albums released in 2010 that never left the heart, and are a good bet to stay there forever. Add to that the stunning Rolling Stones reissue that still stops time, and an Avi Buffalo song which will not leave the mind’s airwaves, and it’s another year of pure joyful noise.

Eric Clapton, Clapton (Reprise). The Englishman may be the survivingest of them all, and on this set of absolutely stirring songs he gives us a lesson in longevity. By having nothing left to prove, Clapton proves he has always been the one fusing blues and the future with the most finesse and feeling. He really is a party of one, and album closer “Autumn Leaves” shows why.

Jon Dee Graham & the Fighting Cocks, It’s Not As Bad As It Looks (Freedom). From the very first song, “Beautifully Broken,” this music sounds like someone is writing themselves a list of reasons to go on living: there is blood on the guitar and brain on the words. Graham is no stranger to adversity, but here he pulls inspiration from the void to make it through to the other side. Hurt heals everything eventually.

Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone (Anti-). When the darkness threatens to get too thick, or the light cannot seep through the shades, Staples is there with the answer, and has been for 60 years. In a moment of stunning power, she and producer Jeff Tweedy take us to the promised land. Mixing gospel gems, a John Fogerty cover and two new Tweedy originals, this is a trip not to miss by a singer on top of the mountain.

Various Artists, Preservation (Preservation Hall). If you’re going to make an album with 19 special guests, there is no better band to make it with than the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. No matter who is now actually in that group, they play with the depth of ancient ground and the spirit of unstoppable force. So whether it’s Andrew Bird or Richie Havens, Paolo Nutini or Tom Waits on vocals, the force is in the house. All for a very good cause: New Orleans music.

Peter Wolf, Midnight Souvenirs (Verve). It’s no mean feat to beat the clock, but rock can be a fickle mistress. Ask anyone in their sixties how to keep things swinging without slowing down or looking foolish. Peter Wolf, best known as lead singer and main provocateur in the J. Geils Band, makes solo albums that slam the heart in a hundred ways. This latest might be his best yet, ending with a Merle Haggard duet that truly brings everything to a close. Forever.

Mike Stinson, The Jukebox In Your Heart (Stag). Country music needs all the best friends it can get right now, and has no better one than Mike Stinson. Slightly beat up but definitely not broken down, Stinson writes new standards like “Square with the World” and “Walk Away” with such natural ease it’s like he has some sort of secret. Even better, he sings them just as strong. Naturally, he’s not allowed in Nashville, but Music City’s loss is our gain. All bets on the outsider.

Shiny Ribs, Well After Awhile (Nine Mile). In his day job, Kevin Russell is the lead singer for Austin’s finest, the Gourds. Put a cape on him and throw Russell off a tall building, though, and the big man becomes Shiny Ribs, making solo albums that tickle the sunny bone and make the world feel like a warm sweater. He’s really that good. There are songs here to turn frowns upside down, and one, “Shores of Galilee,” to turn the big boys green with envy. Anyone who can paint the sky pink on Sam Cooke’s “Change Is Gonna Come” with only a ukulele deserves our permanent devotion. Shiny Ribs for all.

Shelby Lynne, Tears, Lies, And Alibis (Everso). Sometimes only the voice of Shelby Lynne makes sense. She’s seen it all at least once, done it twice and lived to tell the tale, it’s as if she is a one-person survival course. Tired of backtalk, Lynne started her own label. There is enough heartbreak to last several lifetimes, but it’s in the hope where the lady brings it home. Understated devastation never sounded so good.

Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate, Ali And Toumani (Nonesuch). There always has to be room for magic in music, the space where the unexplainable is revealed even if just for a few moments. Fortunately, the magic unfolds over this entire album, with Toure’s guitar speaking in timeless tongues while Diabate’s kora answers back in the language of love. There is nothing like it, and now that Ali Farka Toure is gone for good, might never be again. Rejoice today.

John Sheppard/Stile Antico, Media Vita (Harmonia Mundi). When the modern notes and lyrics get too much, sometimes there’s no other choice but to wander around in the woods. In those wanderings, there is a world of surprises—including this one. Sheppard wrote liturgical works in the Sixteenth Century, filling cathedrals with the sound of the beyond. Stile Antico is an ensemble of current young British singers, and are capable of anything, which is just what they accomplish here. Surprise comes in all shapes and sizes, and Media Vita is surely this year’s soundtrack for salvation.

Reissue of the Year: Of course it has to be the Rolling Stones’ switchblade symphony Exile On Main St. It is the ultimate collision of the most harrowing forces in rock & roll, played by musicians on the run from themselves as much as anything else. Most of the double album was recorded in a damp French basement halfway in the dark, and it sounds like it. Adding to the dire and potent spell the music cast was the early ‘70s, which seemed like the end of the line anyway. Neither Nixon nor Vietnam had fallen yet, and the world looked like it was peeking into the political abyss. Listening now, the band’s secret weapon then was tenor sax player Bobby Keys. Every time the Texan tears off a treacherous horn solo, the song heads for the ceiling, while the Stones throw it into fifth gear. Don’t forget: they haven’t gotten there for long ever since. Have mercy.

Single of the Year: Great songs are sometimes the ones that elude understanding the most. Once a puzzle is solved, does it remain a puzzle? Don’t ask Avi Buffalo, because the intriguing Los Angeles aggregation is too busy creating music that spins a mystery for us all on the song “What’s In It For.” Avi Zahner-Isenberg leads this happy bunch, and it appears he’s having the time of his life. When he sings, “What’s in it for someone with nothing to do/what’s in it for me?” you can feel the frantic joy pouring out of the speakers, and know there are enough guessers out there to make life jump for joy. Oh boy.

Bill Bentley is a writer, musician, publicist, record producer and A&R director. He once played drums with Lightnin’ Hopkins.

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