The Year’s Best Music
By LARRY RODGERS
As the decade wound down, some veteran artists recorded some of their best work and newer talents also weighed in.
Here are my picks for the best albums of the year:
Wilco - "Wilco (The Album)"
The nothing-fancy title of this album matches the initial impression of a workmanlike collection of songs. But this CD grows on you. Jeff Tweedy is one of rock's most gifted songwriters, and his band has found a cohesion that it lacked in years gone by. "Wilco (The Song)" is three chords full of fun and screeching guitar by Nels Cline. Feist's harmony with Tweedy fits like a glove on the heartwarming "You and I." In between, the band pushes itself on the paranoia-fueled "Bull Black Nova."
Avett Brothers - "I and Love and You"
After several years of winning over concert crowds with their rough-around-the-edges mix of folk, bluegrass and rock, the Avett Brothers rein in their sound for their major-label debut. Produced by the legendary Rick Rubin, Scott and Seth Avett agreed to the straight-ahead approach that Rubin used in working with Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. The result is less rabble-rousing and more balladry about young men in search of love, friendship and a focus in life. Much of the CD is deceptively simple but satisfying.
Muse - "The Resistance"
This popular British rock band keeps growing on its fifth album. Singer-guitarist Matthew Bellamy continues to write about a world gone mad (on the pulsating "Uprising" and the Queen-inspired "The United States of Eurasia"). But the band also crafts some of its most beautiful music, on "Unnatural Selection" and the three-part "Exogenesis: Symphony."
India.Arie - "Testimony, Vol. 2: Love and Politics"
This creative, soulful singer turns away from the drama of a breakup described in "Testimony: Vol. 1" in favor of political and social commentary, as well as an upbeat personal outlook on life. As in Arie's three other studio CDs, the production and musicianship are exquisite. She moves between smooth retro sounds on "Chocolate High," neo-soul on "Psalms 23," a Latin tinge on "Ghetto" and swampy roots vibe on "Better Way."
U2 - "No Line on the Horizon"
U2 sounds like a band with nothing left to prove on this well-crafted but low-key effort. Front man Bono largely veers away from the over-the-top social and political pronouncements he has engaged in for 30 years, and the Edge records some of his most under-the-radar guitar work. Reuniting with the production team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, Bono and his bandmates ultimately seem more focused on unleashing satisfying layers of sound than drawing the listener into the lyrics.
Ian Hunter - "Man Overboard"
Thirty-four years after releasing his first solo album, former Mott the Hoople front man Hunter still has plenty to say and a charming way of saying it. His 13th solo effort is a mix of old-guy wisdom, stubborn defiance and romance, all served on a bed of folksy rock. Hunter's raspy vocals play well off the acoustic guitar, piano and measured percussion at the heart of such toe-tapping tunes as "The Great Escape," ''Arms&Legs" and "River of Tears."
Dinosaur Jr. - "Farm"
A quarter-century after its launch and four years after reuniting after an eight-year hiatus, this trio continues to fine-tune its mighty sound. Guitarist-singer J. Mascis and his bandmates draw upon post-grunge, country, Southern rock and power ballads (with the emphasis on "power") as they evolve past 2007's "Beyond." Even the most pummeling tracks have an element of constraint.
Kris Kristofferson - "Closer to the Bone"
This quietly insightful singer-songwriter sticks to the winning, stripped-down approach of 2006's "This Old Road." The new CD finds Kristofferson, 73, singing about the value of family and old friends as well as the need to jettison emotional baggage as the decades pass. The title track, a low-key bit of roots rock, finds him observing how people change for the better when they are "running out of time." The rough beauty here is in Kristofferson's poetry, voice and picking.
Brad Paisley - "American Saturday Night"
Paisley has become as reliable as George Strait and Alan Jackson for cranking out solid albums that effortlessly connect with mainstream country fans. "Welcome to the Future" is the masterpiece here, cleverly detailing how Paisley's childhood dreams have come to pass in the 21st century. He deftly dips into the blues for "She's Her Own Woman" and gets soulful on "Oh Yeah, You're Gone."
Alice in Chains - "Black Gives Way to Blue"
After losing singer Layne Staley to heroin addiction in 2002, this multiplatinum '90s band returned with its first album in 14 years. Guitarist extraordinaire Jerry Cantrell still plays some of rock's nastiest and most overpowering riffs, and new member William DuVall takes over Staley's tortured vocals. Strong production gives new polish to the group's grunge-metal sound. The title track brings in Elton John on piano for a moving, mellow tribute to Staley.
Kasabian, "West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum"; Kelly Clarkson, "All I Ever Wanted"; Phoenix, "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix"; Radney Foster, "Revival"; Mos Def, "The Ecstatic"; Neko Case, "Middle Cyclone"; Arctic Monkeys, "Humbug"; Dierks Bentley, "Feel That Fire"; Levon Helm, "Electric Dirt"; Derek Trucks Band, "Already Free."