Music: Best of 2010

Paul Wells picks his favourites from the past year

(UPDATED with a few visual aids — pw)

Says who? Only me. Here are the albums, in a few different genres, that seem likely to last past the end of the year. No particular order:

Charles Lloyd, Mirror (ECM): The California peace-and-love Coltrane-disciple tenor saxophonist of the 1960s kept growing and deepening until, by the end of the ’90s, he was one of the most compelling voices in jazz. By now he’s become one of its last legends. I’d call this his best work yet, but I feel that way about every Charles Lloyd session these days. With a mighty band featuring pianist Jason Moran, Lloyd is pensive, mournful, incisive. The highlight comes when he revisits the spiritual The Water Is Wide, a decade after he last recorded it: funnier this time, more relaxed, still heartbreakingly pretty.

Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (Merge): It’s a canny album, one recorded, it seems to me, with some thought to keeping Arcade Fire interesting over the long run. So The Suburbs tones down the epic gestures of Funeral and, especially, Neon Bible to avoid sinking into grandiose self-parody: this one’s cooler, more intimate, almost conspiratorial. It’s a summer-evening sound that wears well.

Jordan Officer, Jordan Officer (Spectra): The solo debut of the Montreal guitarist who’s been singer Susie Arioli’s accompanist for — well, seems like forever some days. Like her, he brings old virtues to the table without sounding old-fashioned. This is very impressive small-group jazz guitar with its heart in the ’40s, deep in blues and swing. But Officer chases a few oddly obsessive tangents and overdubs the odd wordless vocal in ways that keep things fresh and agreeably off-kilter.

Kevin Breit, Simple Earnest Plea (Poverty Playlist) The great Toronto guitarist releases his first album as a singer-songwriter. Sounds a bit like Randy Newman, maybe: heartfelt folk-rock balladry that’s several notches smarter in its lyrics and its musical references than the genre is normally thought to require. Breit’s unclassifiable guitar work — a cockeyed, intoxicating mix of blues, rock and jazz influences — is not a major element in these songs, for the most part, and the finest tribute that can be paid to his songcraft is that you don’t find yourself getting impatient for the next guitar solo.

Jason Collett, Pony Tricks (Arts and Crafts): Surely the singer didn’t mean for this to be a big deal. Nine of this session’s 11 songs are from earlier records of his. Here he re-records them, mostly solo acoustic, nothing fancy, with two new songs thrown in. The members of Zeus were apparently around the studio; they throw in unobtrusive accompaniments on assorted instruments. But Collett is well served by the simplicity and clarity of the proceedings. He stakes his strongest claim yet to consideration as one of the country’s best singer-songwriters.

Marc Minkowski & Les Musiciens du Louvre — Grenoble, Haydn: 12 London Symphonies (Naïve): Here’s the Haydn his admirers adore, a Haydn directly opposite the staid clichés of his detractors: dashing, wickedly funny, adventurous, restlessly creative. Superb liner notes explain why his London trips were so important to this immense musician who hadn’t been able to travel widely and who used his late-breaking freedom as a spur to craft his greatest symphonies.

Till Fellner, piano/ Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Kent Nagano conductor, Beethoven Piano Concertos 4 and 5 (ECM): There’s grumbling through the musicians’ grapevine that the OSM musicians could use a lot less of Nagano’s control-freak tendencies. But he does get good work out of them. This is sleek and elegant Beethoven without histrionics, a fine match for the grace of soloist Fellner.

Airborne Toxic Event, All I Ever Wanted: Live from Walt Disney Concert Hall (Island/ Def Jam): This East Los Angeles band came out with a perfectly solid studio debut in 2009, did some touring, and found themselves booked at Frank Gehry’s stunning Disney Concert Hall for the tour closer. As they freely admitted, they didn’t yet deserve such a prestige gig. But they made the best of it. I’ve had more fun watching and re-watching the resulting documentary movie, and listening to the big-hearted live album, than I have with just about any other music this year. The band conscripts a string quartet, a high-school marching band, mariachi musicians, a girls’ choir and other surprise guests for a perfectly charming romp through a great lineup of love-and-heartbreak songs.

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