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Album Reviews

The best albums you probably didn’t hear this year

On “Black Ribbons,’’ country outlaw Shooter Jennings ventures into the world of the prog-rock concept album. On “Black Ribbons,’’ country outlaw Shooter Jennings ventures into the world of the prog-rock concept album. (Wiqan Ang for The Boston Globe/File 2007)
December 27, 2010

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For every blockbuster album by the likes of Taylor Swift and Susan Boyle, there’s always another one that inexplicably flies under the radar. Every year we discover exceptional music that gets little fanfare but still gets under our skin. Here are 10 records from 2010 that you might have missed but are better late than never.

MARY GAUTHIER “The Foundling’’ This former Boston resident has never balked at exploring the darker side of life in her songs, but her latest is by far her most revealing. “The Foundling’’ is a concept album about Gauthier’s journey to trace her lineage, from being placed in a New Orleans orphanage as a baby to tracking down her birth mother some 40 years later. It’s a heartbreaking work of powerful storytelling, a blueprint for how modern country records could — and should — sound. By the end of “The Foundling,’’ you realize Gauthier wasn’t just in search of her mother; she was looking for her own identity.

JAMES REED

MIKE PATTON “Mondo Cane’’ Considering he has one of the most chameleonic, and thrilling, voices in rock, it isn’t exactly a surprise that Patton decided the time was ripe to record an album of Italian pop songs from the 1950s and ’60s, in Italian (mostly). He’s brought this “why not?’’ attitude to his many and diverse post-Faith No More projects. Here with a choir, band, and 40-piece orchestra, Patton runs through a spectrum of moods and vocal styles. The songs are by turns sumptuous and romantic (“Deep Down’’), furious and rocking (“Urlo Negra’’), spare (“Scalinatella’’), and swellegant (“Quello Che Conta’’). The album is offbeat for sure but not off-putting, and language is no barrier with music this lovely.

SARAH RODMAN

JORGE DREXLER “Amar la Trama’’ Drexler, a Uruguayan singer-songwriter who was Latin America’s best-kept secret until he won an Academy Award in 2005 for his song “Al Otro Lado del Río’’ from “The Motorcycle Diaries,’’ took a novel approach to making this album. To avoid the sterility of a studio, he recorded “Amar la Trama’’ in four days in front of a small audience chosen from an online contest. Weaving in and out of rootsy folk, after-hours soul, and acoustic blues, the album has a loose and ultimately intoxicating charm. It’s as if you’re in the front row as Drexler’s poetic tales unfold with a lean band backing him. If Drexler has never been on your radar, “Amar la Trama’’ is the best excuse to remedy that. (Bonus: He’ll be performing at Berklee Performance Center on Jan. 20.)

JR

SHOOTER JENNINGS “Black Ribbons’’ For five years, Jennings has been making a solid name for himself mining the same outlaw country vein originally tapped by his legendary daddy, Waylon. But on this ambitious release he takes an intriguing, expectation-confounding leap into the world of the prog-rock concept album. Veering from psychedelic murki ness to ethereal harmonizing, “Ribbons’’ boils over with pummeling, industrial-strength guitar riffs, spacey synth interludes, and an elaborate tale of a dystopian future plagued by censorship and emotional strife. Elements of country and Southern rock remain evident in the many layers of sound. Add in guest spots from Stephen King and George Jones and intricate packaging, and you’ve got one riveting, and surprisingly accessible, left turn.

SR

SAM AMIDON “I See the Sign’’

On his previous albums, especially 2008’s “All Is Well,’’ Amidon blew in like a tumbleweed from the Dust Bowl. With the spirit of Woody Guthrie alive and well, Amidon’s voice and song selections were of a certain vintage, but the overall effect was thoroughly modern, creating a tension between analog balladry and digital flourishes. Amidon, who grew up in Vermont on a diet of sacred-harp songs and old fiddle tunes, continues his exploration of that sound with “I See the Sign,’’ making something new out of something old. JR

LIZ PHAIR “Funstyle’’ Released out of the blue around the Fourth of July as a statement of independence, this is, without a doubt, an odd duck of a record from the former alt-rock queen of raunchy cool. No, it does not equal or even approach the bracing smarts of Phair’s watershed debut, “Exile in Guyville,’’ or the polished pop charms of her 2003 major-label release. But it is an intriguing, loose-limbed snapshot of Phair’s current headspace and her willingness to explore a variety of styles and sounds to varying degrees of success. Whether that means goofing her way through an endearingly silly record-companies-are-evil rap (“Bollywood’’), penning a bona fide Phair-style pop classic (“And He Slayed Her’’), or getting her grind on for a noir-ish rocker (“Oh Bangladesh!’’), “Funstyle’’ captures a certain fearless spirit. SR

KRIS KRISTOFFERSON “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends: The Publishing Demos 1968-’72’’

Before he became one of Nashville’s most influential outlaws, Kristofferson had a decidedly less glamorous life — that of an aspiring songwriter working as a janitor at Columbia Records. Released in a lavish package that includes a 60-page booklet, “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends’’ collects 16 of the acoustic demos Kristofferson recorded early on in hopes of catching a break. The songs, all previously unreleased, are unvarnished and candid (check out his studio banter when he flubs a word on the title track). Kristofferson’s original version of “Me and Bobby McGee,’’ in particular, stands out for its starkness and a choir of ghostly harmonies. JR

BUTCH WALKER “I Liked You Better When You Had No Heart’’ Boasting more hooks than a meat locker and a boatload of heart and charm, the former Marvelous 3 frontman continues his one-man crusade to keep a certain style of classic singer-songwriter pop-rock vital. From the lilting sing-song of opener “Trash Day’’ to the Spector-ian majesty of the aptly named “Pretty Melody’’ to the funny ambler “She Likes Hair Bands,’’ Walker is in top form. Although he has branched out behind the scenes as a successful and savvy producer for female pop stars like Avril Lavigne, Pink, and Katy Perry, Walker’s own songs are worthy of the center-stage spotlight. SR

NATHANIEL RATELIFF “In Memory of Loss’’

A true sleeper, this clear-eyed debut from Rateliff, a singer-songwriter of uncommon grace, takes its time to cast a spell. It’s not until the seventh song that Rateliff’s quiet storm, largely built on the simplicity of acoustic guitar, piano, and harmonies, finally erupts into a fit of wails and emotional upheaval. Not unlike the work of Tim Hardin and Bon Iver, Rateliff turns the most personal moments — “I was the cloak and dagger/ That snuck into you’’ — into universal sentiments that resonate with anyone who’s ever nursed a broken heart into the wee hours. JR

STEVE PAGE “Page One’’ It was sad news for Barenaked Ladies fans in 2009 when singer-songwriter Page departed the group. But it appears the split was beneficial to all parties. The lovable Canadian pop-rockers rebounded with the solid “All in Good Time’’ and Page released this winning solo album, thus doubling the pleasure for BNL fans. Page doesn’t veer too far from what he did in the band setting, offering melody and harmony-rich tunes that oscillate between bright and bleak, clever and cutting, merry and melancholy. Of particular quality is the fizzy “Indecision’’ — which swings with retro, finger-snapping cool and the elegant and eloquent “All the Young Monogamists.’’ SR