This is the time of year when pop critics and related shut-ins start losing precious sleep over life's deep, dark questions, riddles that test our mettle, our passion. You know, like, What were the top albums of 2010? My rundown of this year's very best moments in music will appear in the Floridian section on Dec. 26. But I'm raring to get going, dish some with my fellow music freaks. So after much deliberatin', ruminatin' and flip-flop-inatin', here are five artists and albums that ALMOST made my Top 10, the good-but-not-quite stuff:
Brandon Flowers, Flamingo: The Killers frontman is a neon-lit showman (see cinematic song Crossfire, the most romantic slugfest of the year). But in order to get better, the guylinered Sin City stalwart needs to tame his indulgent New Wave blues.
Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty: Like an obscenely rich milkshake, the OutKast star's solo album is thick, sweet and goes right to your pleasure center — but the funk also gets a little same-tasting and tiresome by the end.
Taylor Swift, Speak Now: The tall, blond diary-entry darling needs to write more sprawling heart-rippers like Dear John and Last Kiss — and fewer factory-line label-pleasers a la Mine and Sparks Fly. Still, cynics take note: She's the real deal.
Robert Plant, Band of Joy: Although not nearly as sexy-creepy as 2007's Raising Sand, Plant's followup to his duets album with Alison Krauss is still great, gritty and atmospheric, Americana blurred at the edges. Psychobilly guitarist Buddy Miller rides shotgun with style.
Cee Lo Green, The Lady Killer: Cee Lo's F--- You is the single of the year. It's brazen in language, artistry and honesty. There are other keepers on this soul-grooved album, but such is the sheen of that profane shimmy, what follows can't help but sound like filler.
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ALBUM REVIEW: Bruno Mars, Doo-Wops & Hooligans (Elektra/WEA)
Are there cooler coattails to ride in the record biz these days than those belonging to Bruno Mars? The 25-year-old Hawaii native was just nominated for seven Grammys, second only to Eminem's 10. Mars croons the hook on B.o.B.'s Nothin' on You (nominated for record of the year), co-wrote Cee Lo Green's life-affirming F--- You (up for record and song of the year) and landed a best male pop vocal nom for his own Just the Way You Are, the tasty centerpiece of his debut album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans.
Mars, who will play the 93.3 FLZ Jingle Ball at the St. Pete Times Forum tonight, is a talent-rich singer-songwriter and style maven to watch, a young guy with a penchant for retro grooves. His production team, the Smeezingtons, is all over the radio. And Just the Way You Are is a perfectly incandescent little love song. It's easy to root for the dude.
Which leads us to the bad news. Mars' rookie release is promising at best, and it sure sounds as if he shipped his better ideas to other acts. Second single Grenade showcases a soulful voice with warbly texture, but the track ultimately adheres to the R&B blandness dulling today's charts. The Other Side, featuring Green and B.o.B., is nothing more than a safe, pleasant Gnarls Barkley B-side. The old-school matrimonial bells in Marry You are a nice touch, but after a faint nod to Phil Spector, Mars frames the song in modern, up-tempo gloss, ignoring all chances to be daring. Doo-Wops & Hooligans is a record with intriguing ideas but frustrating execution. It's way too conservative — especially for a seemingly brash upstart whose best work uses a four-letter word and '60s sashay to get his wicked point across. GRADE: C+
If you go: The 93.3 FLZ Jingle Ball — featuring Bruno Mars, Maroon 5, Train, B.o.B. and Enrique Iglesias — starts at 6:30 tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. $20-$93.33. (813) 301-2500.
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Daly Dose: random musings on pop
I've dog-eared the heck out of the new Rolling Stone, which is called "The Playlist Issue" and features dozens of pop stars waxing iPoetic on their preferred music. I've always found the faves of famous people inherently interesting, as if it's some sort of blueprint to success. Bono loving David Bowie isn't such a shocker, but his humble star-struck passion for Ziggy Stardust is telling. About Fame, Bono writes: "I was fascinated by Bowie's predicament in this song. This was a precious and precocious talent, wanting not to die stupid."
A lot of the playlist pairings you'd expect: Patti Smith on Dylan, Ice Cube on West Coast hip-hop, MGMT on psychedelia. But there are charming eye-openers, too: Alice Cooper adores Pete Townshend ("The Who were almost like a dominatrix"), the Arcade Fire's Win Butler has a crush on Bruce Springsteen ("You don't have to speak English to know what I'm on Fire is about"), Drake digs Hendrix ("I use 'Voodoo Child' as my nickname when I DJ") and Tom Petty owes it all to the Kinks ("That guitar break in You Really Got Me — I'd never heard anything that wild in my life").