Franz Nicolay’s Top 5 of 2010

Franz Nicolay. Photo by Miles Kerr

Tim FiteUnder The Table Tennis

Simply the best protest record I’ve heard in I don’t know how long. Not that all records based on social and political anger are successful by any means, but sometimes I think it’s disheartening that given the sheer number of heartbreaking and infuriating things we’re faced with every day, that more musicians aren’t at least taking a stab at it. Maybe it’s that things like being uninsured, working three jobs, losing your house to foreclosure, income inequality, and the hustle of the blue-collar artist require more personal detail and anger than simple anti-war or anti-capitalist sloganeering. It’s an unclassifiable album: performance art and Public Enemy crossed with “Nebraska” and Crass. Do yourself a favor and get this record – it’s for free download on his website, so you can’t afford not to. As he puts it, “If you don’t support Tim Fite, who will?”

Sam Amidon I See The Sign

Really, on my list of favorite records of 2010, there’s Sam Amidon & Tim Fite, then there’s everyone else. And this one is all about the arrangements: the word “tapestry” is the worst kind of music-critic cliche to talk about this sort of thing, but that’s really how this record feels, that is to say, plush, textured, and subtle. Over, under, and around Amidon’s simple folk presentation, Shahzad Ismaily and Nico Muhly hover, jab, cushion, caress, and disorient. It’s gorgeous and comforting. And, no small achievement, the rare successful deployment of flutes in a pop orchestration.

LeatherfaceThe Stormy Petrel

Leatherface is the kind of band where you don’t just like them, you REALLY LIKE THEM; and this was my Leatherface year – I’d been aware of them, of course, but for whatever reason it really struck something in me this summer and it was all I wanted to listen to. For all their crust-punk following, they’re unabashedly romantic (they, or singer Frankie Stubbs, have covered songs like “You Are My Sunshine” and “Moon River”) and melodic under the Husker Du fuzz and Tom Waits growl, and their first release under their own label and first in over five years brings back the virtuosic guitarist Dickie Hammond and gives them the majestic production their giant hooks always implied. It opens “God is dead/He’s definitely dead,” but the biggest sing-along retorts, “Is there a little bit of light? Is there a little bit of hope?”

Andy PrieboyThe Questionable Profits of Pure Novelty

Second singer in Wall of Voodoo, author of a musical based on the life of Axl Rose called “White Trash Wins Lotto,” describes his music as “Gilbert & Hooligan,” writes choral songs from the perspective of a gang of drunks looking for an eclair, and who points out that if you look around, it’s clear that “God wants the pricks and cunts up front.” How am I not going to love that?

Corey DargelSomeone Will Take Care Of Me

This is a two-disc set from the post-classical splash-makers New Amsterdam Records, which compiles two of Dargel’s song cycles: “Removable Parts,” a collaboration with pianist Kathy Supove on the topic of voluntary amputation; and “Thirteen Near-Death Experiences,” an ironic meditation on hypochondria and pathology with the International Contemporary Ensemble. It’s the latter that interests me most, in which Dargel’s customary soundworld – electronic cross-rhythms, skittering piano obbligato, and deadpan despair that lies somewhere at the intersection of art song, early Magnetic Fields, and Momus – is re-scored for acoustic chamber ensemble and drum kit, and holds itself, coyly, just short of anthemic. (Or maybe I’m just into flutes this year?)

Honorable Mention:
Divine Comedy – Bang Goes The Knighthood
Frank Turner – Poetry of the Deed
Dan Reeder – This New Century
The Extra Lens – Undercard
Truckstop Honeymoon – Homemade Haircut

These fall under the category of “reliably awesome” – artists who are good at what they do, doing what they do really well. One doesn’t get the thrill of discovery, but resist the urge to take them for granted! Who is a more steadily jaw-dropping lyricist than John Darnielle, paired in The Extra Lens with multi-instrumentalist Franklin Bruno (who for my money made the last few Mountain Goats records with his tasteful piano parts, and here gets to stretch out a little)? Frank Turner’s taken up the Billy Bragg banner of dead-sincere pairings of the personal and the political to heartwarming effect. Truckstop Honeymoon are a pair of New Orleans refugees to the midwest, documenting a life of marriage and family in a funny and honest way you don’t really see outside of classic country records. Dan Reeder is an American expat in Germany whose songs play like a straight-faced but dirty-minded Mississippi John Hurt. And with the Divine Comedy, every record is like a songwriting and arranging class taught by Bacharach, Brel, and Noel Coward.