Rob Patterson

Some Fine Music, If Suprisingly Little Politics, in 2010

For a number of years now I’ve recounted the year in political music here. Alas, the verdict on 2010 is dire indeed. Last year was certainly one with many political issues to be addressed even above and beyond the midterm elections. But little if any music of significance was released that confronted the continuing war in Afghanistan, the failing economy, the divisions plaguing America, the continuing environmental crisis and much more that could be ripe fodder for genuinely creative musical artists with enough of a platform to be heard and have an impact.

There are exceptions. The most notable album with much political content that had some chart action last year was the collaboration between soul singer John Legend and the hip-hop/R&B band The Roots, Wake Up! It was a valiant and musically valid effort, and certainly tried to raise a call to action.

Another fine disc with strong political undercurrents was The Brutalist Bricks by Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, the punk-inflected indie rock’n’roll band. Singer/songwriter Peter Case bounced back from open-heart surgery to cut a bluesy, down and dirty album that’s the best and most vital of his long career, Wig!, which features tunes ripe for our economic hard times as well as a chiming and pointed polemic at those who misuse Christianity, “The Words In Red.” And though little known as yet, Canadian singer-songwriter and activist John Lefevbre — whose politically-oriented CD in 2009 Psalngs was cited in last year’s roundup — released a fine disc suffused with environmental consciousness, Initial Album, late in the year.

A couple of compilation albums did their best to aid good causes. A collection of live recordings from America’s most cutting edge and influential music festival, Best of Bonnaroo, was used as an inducement as a free online download to get fans to send letters to their senators about the energy bill before Congress. Another disc, In Defense: Vol. 1, raised funds for the Civil Liberties Defense Fund, but other than Willie Nelson, most of the artists on it are little-known.

And there were some songs here and there that spoke to political concerns. Neil Young’s crackling solo electric guitar and voice release, Le Noise, one of his finest sets in years, features a number about “Love and War.” And even though the once vital Elvis Costello continues to be mired in his pretensions, the title track to his National Ransom does address how Wall Street and the powers that be are selling we the people down the river for the cause of capitalist profit.

It’s especially sad that there was so little effective musical agitprop last year, as it was a good year for music. My personal favorite album of 2010 was by a superstar in Great Britain who is generally overlooked here: Paul Weller, who led The Jam in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Titled Wake Up The Nation, its title tune is certainly a catchy and fervent number, if largely apolitical, that could get the masses marching. And the masterful disc gathers together everything from punk to R&B to progressive rock to electronic dance music and more in a shimmering collection of mature rock’n’roll talent at its finest.

Another beloved disc from 2010 for me was the melancholic yet delightful Be My Thrill by The Weepies, which proves that pop doesn’t have to be the bad word it is these days. Another one that also kept the notion of quality pop-rock alive is the beautiful and accomplished Intriguer by Crowded House.

And Canadian newcomers Arcade Fire took their original indie rock sound into pop realms and found genuine stardom with the wonderful set The Suburbs. Folk-rock proved it also still had pop appeal on Sigh No More, the stirring debut album by the English group Mumford amd Sons, whose Best New Artist Grammy nomination is well deserved. And the heartland rock of The Hold Steady on Heaven Is Whenever was a favorite regular listen last year.

The old and until recently tired sound of Southern rock got reinvigorated in majestic ways by the Kings of Leon on Come Around Sundown while The Drive-By Truckers explored the more sordid side of the land below Mason-Dixon in song on the skillfully rocking and varied The Big To-Do. Blues-rock has been revived nicely in recent years by the guitar/drums duo The Black Keys, whose 2010 release Brothers is their strongest yet. Another guitar/drums act who made their mark first playing on the streets of San Francisco, The Ferocious Few, raise a mighty studio racket on their debut CD, Juice.

I’m a big fan of gospel music, and 2010 had two genuine winners by notable veteran artists. Longtime gospel singing star Mavis Staples came up with her masterpiece, You Are Not Alone, thanks to able production by Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco. And classic crooner Tom Jones truly shines on his invigorating set of spiritual songs, Praise and Blame.

Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson is masterful as he Reimagines Gershwin, a sumptuous feast of great songs and delectable harmonies. American music legend Mose Allison is found in fine classic form on his first release in way too long, The Way of the World. And former J. Geils Band frontman and ‘80s MTV star Peter Wolf ably tackles everything from R&B to country on his catchy collection, Midnight Souvenirs.

The morass of mediocrity that is country music these days even had its notables last year. If you were to hear one country album from 2010, Jamey Johnson’s 25-track The Guitar Song will do the trick handily with its adherence to genuine country values laced with outlaw attitude. And speaking of the ‘70s outlaw movement, debutante gone bad girl Marshall Chapman was one of its most intriguing ripples, and now decades later, graced with maturity, she’s made an assured and emotionally stirring disc with Big Lonesome.

The last album recorded by the late Johnny Cash, American VI: Ain’t No Grave, cuts to the bone. And the family legacy remains in good hands with his son John Carter Cash, whose musical and production talents were behind three notable 2010 CDs: The Carter Family III’s true to the roots Past & Present, his wife Laura Cash’s clear voiced classic C&W of Awake But Dreaming, and his own eclectic The Family Secret.

There was no better roots/old-time music album last year than the invigorating Genuine Negro Jig by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an African-American trio who illuminate the Black fiddle and banjo string band tradition beautifully. And if the bluegrass style appeals to your ears, Tim O’Brien’s Chicken & Egg is a winner not to be missed.

The wonderful depth and breadth of New Orleans music is captured on the Treme soundtrack album. And new and engaging directions in jazz can be savored on Isla by the Portico Quartet.

Reissues yielded some treasures over the previous 12 months. Otis Redding’s Live on the Sunset Strip unearths three full 1966 shows at the Whiskey A Go Go by the soul music giant, and is s sweaty and vibrant masterpiece. There are albums as essential as English folk-rockers Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out The Lights, which came out last year in a deluxe edition with a disc of live recordings from the duo’s final tour promoting the album. The too long neglected Southern soulful rocking roots band Delaney & Bonnie are skillfully showcased at their finest with an expanded edition of On Tour With Eric Clapton that includes three U.K. concerts.

A couple of my Austin, Texas friends came up with winners in 2010. Psychedelic music pioneer Roky Erickson teamed up with the young band Okkervil River for a stirring set of chamber rock songs about the spirit and survival on True Love Casts Out All Evil. And no album rocked my loving heart better and harder than Alejandro Escovedo’s Street Songs of Love.

Last but not least, I must confess no conflict of interest in plugging some discs by artists I did PR writing for, because they’re all damned good. Master Canadian singer-songwriter melds rock and its rhythmic antecedents into a scintillating look at the vagaries of love and romance on Cha Cha Cha, and also produced a delightful disc of rocking roots music for The Fabulous Ginn Sisters on You Can’t Take A Bad Girl Home. Finally, there’s a roots singer-songwriter of great emotional depth and cinematic breadth, Kevin Higgins, whose Find Your Shine is a minor masterpiece.

That’s some but hardly all of what caught my ear last year. But 12 months from now when I look at the music of 2011, I’m hoping to report that popular music is back at the ramparts and out in the streets leading the political charge to create a better, healthier, greener and fairer America and world-at-large.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2011

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