The best-sounding music of 2010

Last minute shoppers can still gift the best-sounding records of the year, for less than $20 a pop.

I complain about bad recordings all the time, but there's lots of great-sounding music coming out. Here's a short list of the highlights from the past 12 months.

"Treme: Music From the HBO Original Series, Season 1"

Most soundtrack music is either old tunes or recorded in studios, but "Treme," HBO's series about New Orleans just a few months after Katrina, uses lots of live music recorded on the streets and in the city's clubs. The brass bands swing like crazy, and the funk grooves aren't too shabby. The sound feels real, and has a lot of heart and soul. Even if you've never seen the HBO series, the "Treme" album stands on its own.

The Black Keys, "Brothers"

The Black Keys fuzzed-out blues rock takes a different turn on "Brothers," but don't worry, they dug even deeper on this one. "Brothers"' sledgehammer bass rumblings will test the stamina of your subwoofer or headphones. Every beat of the bass drum is viscerally transmitted to the very core of your being, and if it isn't, you're missing something. Think about getting new speakers or headphones.

Brian Eno, "Small Craft on a Milk Sea"

Brian Eno may be best known for his work as a producer (U2, Talking Heads, Coldplay), but he's made lots of great records under his own name. Eno is also credited with creating "ambient" music, and his latest CD, "Small Craft on a Milk Sea" more or less fits in that category. The new record is a "soundtrack" of sorts, populated with atmospheric scenarios and beat-infested forays. The layering of musical textures and moving spatial elements are a feast for the ears.

Cowboy Junkies "Renmin Park"

In late 2008 Cowboy Junkie Michael Timmins and his family spent three months in China, and "Renmin Park" is a reflection of that time. The album was built around samples Timmins recorded on the streets and he used them as "beds" for some tunes. The music's soundstage is deep and wide, and the bass is huge. The descending bass line on "(You've Got to Get) A Good Heart" is a great test of speakers' or headphones' low-end definition.

Tom Jones, "Praise & Blame"

Jones recorded "Praise & Blame" live in the studio to analog tape, and most of the tunes are single takes (with no edits or overdubs). That's hard-core old-school recording style, and the performances are all the better for it. "Praise & Blame" sounds like you're hearing a band play, not a slick, tweaked-to-death piece of plastic. Musically, it's a perfect mix of gospel, blues, traditional and country. Jones' voice still has the power to get your juices flowing.

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