Robert Plant / Band of Joy – This album surprised me. I listened to Raising Sand, Plant’s duet album with Allison Krauss and, while I liked it, I didn’t spend much time with it. Band of Joy, though, is a bit moodier and the production is airy and interesting. Plant’s singing is, of course, great. I was a fan of Led Zeppelin in the 70s but haven’t listened to much of his solo work. Plus it is fun to hear Plant singing in his lower register.
Elvis Costello / National Ransom – Momofuku, Costello’s album two albums ago was great. I thought it was up there with his very best. But I was disappointed with the follow-up, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. I found the melodies on SP&S to be not as intriguing and the sound of the album didn’t move me. National Ransom is like an extension of Secret except Costello branched out a lot more in style so, where SP&S was somewhat one style throughout, Ransom is quite varied. Every once in a while, when I’m listening to Costello, I realize what an amazing writer he is – his songs have interesting chord progressions and his melodies, which are catchy, are not obvious. I’ve noticed that on many of the songs on National Ransom. It ranks up there among my favorite Costello albums.
Sufan Stevens / All Delighted People / The Age of Adz – This year, Sufjan Stevens put out both and EP and a full album, although the EP was nearly an hour long so calling it an EP was a bit strange. Both of them are among my favorite albums of the year. All Delighted People features a lot of what we’ve come to expect from recent Sufjan albums, twittering flutes, interesting arrangements and heartfelt (if not a bit obscure) lyrics. It is great. Some of the eight tracks are long but the arrangements are complex enough to hold my attention throughout. This album (OK, he calls it an EP so that we realized it wasn’t meant to be his BIG STATEMENT) is great - maybe the lowered expectations helped me see as just a nice collection of songs. Then a few months later he delivered The Age of Adz, a big electronic serious album about schizophrenia and identity. When I heard it I realized that, indeed, All Delighted People was just the warm up. The album is complex and fascinating in it’s combination of quirky Sufjan flutes and other wind instruments mixed with the beeps and blurps of electronica.
Fistful of Mercy / As I Call You Down – Fistful of Mercy is Dhani Harrison, Beh Harpur and Joseph Arthur, all three interesting indie artists who have their own projects. I became aware of them because of Dhani Harrison, George’s son, and because I liked his album of last year with his band thenewno2. In fact, I named their album one of my favorites of the year. Their new project, Fistful of Mercy, is quite different – part Crosby Stills and Nash, part Traveling Wilburys. Not the most elegant or serious album in my collection but it features fine (although a little quirky) three part harmonies most of the time and a nice acoustic vibe throughout.
Eric Clapton / Clapton – Releasing a self-titled album more than 45 years into your career says something. In this case it says that this is a very personal album. While not as emotionally raw as Pilgrim, as radio-friendly as Slowhand, or as guitar heavy as Journeyman, Clapton is a warm relaxed tour through much of the music that Eric Clapton has found himself drawn to over the last few years. There are few songs with drums playing flat-out, for example. Most of them feature brushes or at least drums that are gently played or pushed to the background. But this isn’t an earthy acoustic album – this is a jazzy album that is a combination of blues and standards featuring Clapton the singer as much as Clapton the player. Some of the songs would be at home on an album from the 1940s while others would sit nicely on Clapton’s duet album with J J Cale and still others would be on a slightly softer version of one of Clapton’s blues albums like From the Cradle or Me and Mr Johnson. Don’t come to this album expecting to have your socks rocked off. Clapton apparently isn’t interested in that right now. But for a mature album by a veteran musician, this one is great.
Peter Gabriel / Scratch My Back – The reviews of this album are all over the map from “best ever” to “what was he thinking?” so I hesitated before getting it but when I did I quickly joined the “best ever” camp. Gabriel, who famously instituted a “no cymbals” rule for one of his early solo albums put in a “no guitars or drums” rule on this album and gave us a lushly orchestrated album of cover versions of songs by other artists. The arrangements are hauntingly beautiful and a few of the songs are slowed down to the point where you hear them in a whole new way. His cover of Arcade Fire's "My Body is a Cage" is gripping and Lou Reed's "The Power of the Heart" is just beautiful.
Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson / Frio Suite – Phil Keaggy has released a number of albums over the years but lately he’s been doing some interesting work with other artists. He’s released albums with Randy Stonehill, with Jack Giering and John Sferra and soon he’ll be releasing an album with percussionist Kyle Jones. (He gave me a copy of that album, called Numen, which may well end up on my next year’s list – it doesn’t seem fair to put an album on here that isn’t out yet so I'll wait on that one.) Frio Suite, with keyboardist Jeff Johnson is a beautiful, new-age-type album that is subtle and moving. The two of them recorded this at a distance, each adding their own parts in their own studio, but you'd never know it by listening. It sounds like a wonderful journey down a metaphorical river.
Finally, two albums that I really haven’t taken the time to dig into yet but I want to add to this list because I think they belong here:
Arcade Fire / The Suburbs – Another great Arcade Fire album – they’re three for three now. I like how they manage to tackle big issues while at the same time being not uber-artsy and inaccessible. I find their music often takes me a while to really understand and this one is no exception.
The Rescues / Let Loose the Horses – The Rescues was my big discovery last year and Let Loose the Horses is their first major label release. I don’t like it quite as well as their earlier stuff – yet, at least – but I’m a fan of their harmonies and their sound. Also of note, their cover of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” (unfortunately, not on this album – but available as a single on iTunes) is awesome.