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Published: 12/25/2010

The Year in Music: Blade reviewers list their favorites

In this CD cover image released by Columbia Records, the latest release by John Legend and the Roots, "Wake Up!," is shown. (AP Photo/Columbia) In this CD cover image released by Columbia Records, the latest release by John Legend and the Roots, "Wake Up!," is shown. (AP Photo/Columbia)
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The great thing about “best of” lists is their diversity.

There really is no disputing tastes and what one person thinks is a great CD someone else will write off as unworthy. And what another person thinks stinks, someone else will consider a must-listen. With that in mind, here's a rundown of what The Blade's music critics thought were the best releases of 2010.

John Legend and the Roots (Columbia)

This timely disc featuring soul singer Legend and the great Philly band the Roots speaks directly to young people using the music of a previous generation to state its case. Th e grooves are deep and so is the message on this inspirational journey through '70s-era protest soul music.

War and poverty, hope and optimism, faith and a strong sense that our leaders don't always have our best interests in mind all collide on this powerful album.

— ROD LOCKWOOD


Trace Adkins (Show Dog/Universal)

With an Everyman persona, a sense of humor, and a voice that is country through-and-through, Adkins' disc goes from sensitive to good ol' boy, and does it all with musical fl air while wearing its values on its sleeve. Just the way country should be.

— RICHARD PATON


Downchild (Linus Entertainment)

With some of the spiciest jump-style and Chicago blues outside of the Windy City, these songs are as tasty and edgy as any you'll find in the blues bin. Slightly rough vocals are a perfect complement to the grooves woven around them. Leader Don Walsh's work on the harmonica is an attention grabber. The music is basic and no-nonsense, with no fancy sounds or studio gimmickry, making it dependable for long-time fans and a treat for blues lovers who have just discovered Downchild.

— KEN ROSENBAUM


Luther Allison (Ruf Records)

One blistering finale from the late, great Chicago blues icon Luther Allison, a guy once called the "Bruce Springsteen of the blues" by a Chicago Sun-Times reviewer. Any Luther Allison album is great, but this one of his last live performance -- released with a companion DVD -- captures him at the top of his game with a show at the Montreal Jazz Festival on July 4, 1997, six days before Allison learned he had terminal cancer. He died a month later.

-- TOM HENRY

Against Me! (Warner)

When agit-punks Against Me! released their major label debut, "New Wave," in 2007, it was the musical equivalent of opening a blast-furnace door. The music's power and gut-punch delivery provided an in-your-face outpouring of punk, rock, and bellowing anger. The only question: could they deliver again? "White Crosses" is a resounding yes, answering the call that its predecessor issued, only it's a little tighter and leaner, with a swagger that's impressive and unyielding. Proof that hard rock can be smart.

-- R.L.

Ben's Brother (Flat Cap)

Pop music doesn't get any better than this. Jamie Hartman's songs boast beautiful melodies, direct and often moving lyrics, and a rhythmic palette that encompasses heartbreaking ballads and can't-sit-still pop-rock. A gem of an album.

-- R.P.

The Grascals (Rounder Records)

The sextet's fourth album is chock full of fresh, contemporary, cutting-edge bluegrass. It's all rooted thoroughly in traditional bluegrass and country. From hard-driving, fiddle-based instrumentals to languid ballads, every one of the 12 tracks is a treat. The tight harmonies conjure images of the Osborne Brothers, and occasional solo vocals recall the high, lonesome sound of Bill Monroe, widely acknowledged father of bluegrass music.

-- K.R.

James Cotton (Alligator Records).

He turned 75 on July 1 and has been playing music professionally for an astounding 66 years. But harmonica-wielding James Cotton -- one of the true giants of the blues genre -- proves he still has a lot of game left. He's backed by an outstanding band on this fine 12-track set that includes four new songs he wrote himself or co-wrote. Among the classics is a brilliant rendition of "How Blue Can You Get?"

-- T.H.

Peter Wolf (Verve/UME)

An admitted perfectionist, the former J. Geils Band lead singer clearly keeps his focus on quality over quantity, crafting albums that are coherent works built to last. On "Midnight Souvenirs" he teams up on three cuts with Shelby Lynne, Neko Case, and Merle Haggard to explore his country leanings to great effect. Few artists are as intelligent as Wolf in understanding American music's roots, which makes him a natural to find that place where country and soul intersect. Wolf is one of the most under-appreciated artists of his generation.

-- R.L.

Ferry Corsten (Premier)

Trance still rules the dance music world, and this compilation from Corsten shows why. Combining vocal and instrumental tracks impeccably mixed and selected, Corsten makes sure the music's melodic and emotional focus is not lost under the driving beats. Quality stuff.

-- R.P.

Little Big Town (Capitol Nashville)

Little Big Town's newest and fourth studio album doesn't stray from its signature, tight harmonies over 12 tracks that don't rely on a single lead vocalist. "Little White Church," the first single from the new album, is a fine example of the group's fresh and upbeat melodies with a strong backbeat and impeccable harmonies, punctuated by some lively instrumental work. "The Reason Why" clearly shows one of the biggest advantages of shifting lead vocal chores from song to song -- one voice is sometimes better suited for a ballad than a chip-kicker.

-- K.R.

Mark Egan (Wavetone)

Grammy-winning bassist/composer Mark Egan displays a fiery mix of energy, power, and confidence rarely heard in a bass guitarist. This 11-song set of material pushes musical boundaries while being largely joyful and upbeat. It's complex, but not mathematical or mundane.

-- T.H.

Randy Houser (Show Dog-Universal)

Houser's rich baritone mates perfectly with the emotion-packed tunes he creates. He wrote or co-wrote all of the dozen better-than-good numbers on this 45-minute album, ranging from barroom foot-stompers to smooth, poignant ballads. His lyrics take center stage while the music punctuates the stories.

-- K.R.

Gogol Bordello (American Recordings)

This band has one of the most wildly loose, free-form, and politically incorrect styles you'll ever hear. One minute, Gogol Bordello sounds like a high-octane, hyper-caffeinated band of gypsies. The next, like a Greek wedding band on acid. Or an Eastern European reincarnation of the Clash. Incorporating elements of ska, metal, punk, salsa, samba, polka, flamenco, and reggae-rock, the group is a bring-the-house-down party band. This is the group's fifth album, and it's a doozie.

-- T.H.

Joey & Rory (Vanguard/Sugar Hill)

Husband and wife duo Joey Martin Feek and Rory Lee Feek make some of the most beautiful country music harmonies in recent memory. There's a solid feel of old-timey, steel guitar smoothness with a loping backbeat on the title track, followed by an assortment of lively and soothing guitar-based numbers rooted in traditional country sounds. Joey's gorgeous, slightly twangy vocals pave the way for great listening on almost all 12 tunes over 40 minutes.

-- K.R.

Steven Schoenberg (Quabbin)

Why this guy isn't a household name is beyond me. Steven Schoenberg has a lush, beautiful musical vision that's hard to beat. He gives you everything you ask for in a solo, improvisational jazz piano album -- music with passion, fury, creativity, imagination, and heart.

--T.H.

Lang Lang. (Sony Classical).

Even if you don't listen to a lot of classical, this brilliant young concert pianist will blow you away. Lang Lang made Time magazine's list of "100 Most Influential People in the World," performed for 5 billion viewers at the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and was a guest soloist at Nobel Prize events in 2007 and 2009. This is a splendid followup to 2004's best-selling "Live at Carnegie Hall," his international breakthrough.

-- T.H.



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