Sunday, January 31, 2010
Gorgeous, cynicism-free pop that wears its heart on its sleeve, on its pant leg, on every Avett-specked beard, it's even there on the cello and the banjo. Vocals that waver and quiver and hang too long on certain notes evoke sadness and euphoria in equal doses. Sure, the banjo is overshadowed by the piano, and the spazz-outs are kept to a minimum, but every note just seems perfect and, at the end of the day, do you really care who produced it? For the record, Rick Rubin comes up aces here, with each song garnished with an equal mix of punch and shine.
The songs here are so good they should have been spread across three albums. I am totally inside this record - beautiful, sentimental, soul-baring lyrics paired with unforgettable melodies. Ten years from now, I'm guessing this album will sound even better... and move up a spot in the rankings.
Monday, January 25, 2010
The first time I heard “Hornets! Hornets!” (the first song on this monster) was the first time I heard The Hold Steady. I had read a favorable and intriguing review of an unknown band and ordered the disc sound-unheard. When it came in the mail, I ripped off the plastic and tossed it in the player, and my first reaction was to laugh. They came on like an aging metal bar band, with the pick scraping up the neck (zoom!) and the double-voiced Thin Lizzy guitars. Is this a joke? No, I think they’re serious. Still, I’ll confess, it didn’t make sense at first. But over time, things started to rise to the fore: “Do you want to me to tell it like it’s boy meets girl and the rest is history?/Or do you want it like a murder mystery?/I’m gonna tell it like a comeback story.” OK, so that’s pretty brilliant, and the scuzzy riffing groove is irresistible. By year’s end (the album really hit me in December, I recall vividly), the words and music were coming in an avalanche, Craig Finn’s words and Tad Kubler’s riffs catching me like left hooks out of nowhere. And what galvanized the whole thing was the pure rock and roll rage and swaggering street poetry of “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”: “Your little hoodrat friend has been calling me again/And I can’t stand all those things she sticks into her skin/Like sharpened ballpoint pens and steel guitar strings/She says it hurts but it’s worth it/Tiny little text etched into her neck/It says Jesus Lived and Died for All Your Sins/She’s got blue-black ink and it’s scratched into her lower back/Says Damn Right He’ll Rise Again!”
At that point I knew I loved this band like no band since The Replacements. And it was just the beginning.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Wedding image-a-minute profane, cocky street poetry to firecracker riffs with a big ol’ heap of punk attitude, Ike Reilly recalls an unholy alliance of Bob Dylan fronting The Plimsouls. Any disc that features the boys gone wild rave-up of “When Irish Eyes Are Burning”, the anti-war lament “Broken Parakeet Blues” or the stimulant-cataloguing, brain coagulating sing-a-long “Valentine’s Day in Jaurez” just seems too good to go unheard.
Yes, The Rising suffers from some gloopy production and probably could have left four of five songs on the cutting room floor, but the sheer humanity exhibited by Springsteen here as he tries to explore our post 9-11 grief elevates this to classic status. There are few collections that give us a batch of songs that can match the poignancy of the title track, "My City of Ruins", "Into The Fire", "Empty Sky" and the heart-stopping "You're Missing". But's it's not all downbeat, and Springsteen never lets us fail to see the light at the edge of town, as hope springs eternal through the sadness on "Waitin' On A Sunny Day" and "Mary's Place" is call-to-arms to let the healing begin. This was the right record, by the right guy, at the right time.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
By the beating of the drums, something wicked this way comes. One of the decade’s most restlessly original bands made their play for the brass ring here, and grabbed it firmly with two hands. With drummer Jim Eno manipulating rhythm like soft clay, singer/songwriter/resident genius Britt Daniel shows his full arsenal, from wryly sinister (“Don’t Make Me a Target”) to enticingly obscure (“The Ghost of You Lingers”) to full-bore radio ecstasy (“The Underdog”) with horns! It plays out like the most spectacular highwire act, but what the audience doesn’t know is that this cat can fly.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
The ’59 Sound kicks off with the exhilarating 1-2 adrenaline blast of “Great Expectations” (complete with an opening needle drop on an old soul record) and “The 59 Sound” that doesn’t let up until the wistful valentine regrets to old lovers of “Here’s Looking at You, Kid” . The Springsteen comparisons are inevitable and many lyrics are outright homage, but that should induce you to seek this out because these guys masterfully crib Springsteen’s passion and exuberance in a joyful punk soul package. This is a record that seems to have ignored most of the pop culture of the last 40 years, but yet feels so fresh and invigorating, it sounds like a timeless intersection of Sam Cooke and The Clash on the radio.
Sounding like hopeless hobos after a three week bender, The Felice Brothers mine a Basement Tapes freewheelin’ approach with a lead singer with an uncanny resemblance to Dylan (prime Dylan, not the current wounded bluesman dog version). These songs are full of murderers, thugs, pimps and whiskey in their whiskey (novel concept!), all undercut with equal parts menace and celebration. Ian Felice as a songwriter is the real deal, and lyrics like these from the shambolic, small town hood’s tale “Frankie’s Gun” don’t come much better:
“Spit makes a fender shine
Frankie you're a friend of mine
Got me off a bender after long legged Brenda died
I thought we might be on a roll this time Frankie
I could have swore the box said Hollywood blanks”
Video from the Mean Eyed Cat, SXSW 2008 (me and Vinnie!)
Saturday, January 16, 2010
Here’s why modern radio isn’t A-OK with me: This band isn’t on it. And here’s evidence that we’re in a new world where consensus is laid to rest and what’s classic lies solely in the ears of the listener: It would be just the mildest hyperbole to say that no one has heard this album. But around here, these three North Carolinians are titans, sitting comfortably with the artists resting at spots 10 and 11. They have everything – sturdy songs, tight arrangements, wit, soul, smarts, and a keening tenor that transforms songs about small subjects into low-key anthems. You can hear the echo of the history of rural American music in these songs, but mostly what you hear is as fine an indie rock and roll band imaginable at the decade’s end.
No one has ever maximized the minimal the way that Jack and Meg did on this monster, which proves that the only limitation on a two-man band is imagination. It opens with a classic anthem (“Seven Nation Army”), touches on gentle acoustic pop (“You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket”), sizzles with slow-burn blues (“Ball and Biscuit”) and rages through some howling proto-garage rock (“Girl You Have No Faith in Medicine”) that few other bands could hope to touch. This isn’t just an Elephant; it’s a Mammoth.
Bruce Springsteen has always been a perfecter, not an innovator. From his earliest records, discussion of his influences has gone hand-in-hand with discussion of his music, be it Dylan (the debut), Van Morrison (The Wild, the Innocent . . .) or Phil Spector and Roy Orbison (Born to Run). In 2007, he came back hard with a lush, gorgeous disc that conjures memories of 1960s California pop, with the grand Spectorian density it demands. True to the album’s name, Bruce sets up his audience with some sleight-of-hand. The hard-driving opener “Radio Nowhere” bears little resemblance to the rest of the affair, and no Springsteen title track has ever seemed less essential to an album than the quiet, minimal “Magic.” But the songs that form the disc’s emotional core – ones like “You’ll Be Coming Down,” “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” and “Long Walk Home” – give Magic cohesion in their rich melodicism, overt romanticism and unrelenting realism. The music swells and swoons, the Boss bites and croons, and the audience gets one of the finest efforts of a legendary career.
Friday, January 15, 2010
Straddling the line between indie cred and big deal mainstream hacks, More Adventurous was destined to be Rilo Kiley's piece de resistance. This is meticulously crafted pop, the title track sweetened with gorgeous pedal steel, the indie conscience of "It's A Hit" propelled with buoyant horns and a bit of "Ventura Highway" strum kicks off the luminous "Absence of God". The master class in classic songwriting lures you in, but it's Jenny Lewis' magnificent supple ache of a voice (check the torchy tour de force "I Never") that'll bring you back.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
The apotheosis of power pop in the new century, this (predominantly) Canadian collective marries a twitchy indie sensibility to the classic verities of ELO and Cheap Trick to create songs that crackle and hiss with melodies that navigate hairpin turns at breakneck speeds. They have aching, arching balladry down cold (check Neko Case’s vocal on “These Are the Fables”), but their trademark is the three- or four-minute sonic boom, and few songs this decade have detonated as successfully as “Sing Me Spanish Techno.”
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Sunday, January 10, 2010
Friday, January 08, 2010
Wednesday, January 06, 2010
This one is a quiet stunner, a grower, an album that seems good at first but turns great over time as the melodies stick and churn in your head. By turns rollicking (“Unless It’s Kicks,” “You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man”) and heart-stoppingly lovely (“Savannah Smiles,” “A Girl in Port”), The Stage Names is the work of a band that understands dynamics, the tension created by moving from a whisper to a scream. There is real power in a quiet moment, and this album is full of them. And as I listened for the first time in a long time while preparing to write this, it struck me that the record is even better than I remembered. Bump this up ten or fifteen spots, and I wouldn’t quibble a bit.
I had been waiting much of my life for a band that perfectly melded the DNA of T. Rex and the Undertones, and this thunderously melodic trio of Scots delivered in spades. With fuzzed-out guitars and a fuzz-tone vocal burr, this isn’t an album as much as a series of three-minute concertos for buzzsaw and dynamite. Gems abound here, but none is quite as gemmy as “Chelsea Dagger,” as big a blast in the pants as this decade offered. No other list will rank this album so high. Suffice it to say that all those other lists are stupid.
Few punk-era icons have emerged with even half the grace of Nick Lowe, and fewer still have made music in their dotage that compares favorably with that of their raging youth. On this set, Lowe continues down a path he’s been strolling for fifteen years, transporting himself to the Memphis and Muscle Shoals of the late 1960s and conjuring the most delightful cross-section of deep southern soul and classic country. Wiser than before (“A Better Man”) but meaner than ever (“I Trained Her to Love Me”), he reels off one shoulda-been-a-classic after another, none better than “Hope For Us All,” a wistful reverie by a man of a certain age who finds love when he least expects it. An exquisite album.
Tuesday, January 05, 2010
In early 2006, I was minding my own business, enjoying the hell out this release by the young Canadian troubadour – the smartass swagger of “Hangover Days,” the regal chime of “We All Lose One Another,” the jaunty kick of “I’ll Bring the Sun” – and I was also starting to trade e-mails with some like-minded music lover in Philadelphia. Having gotten a handle on his tastes, I said “I think you’d dig this Jason Collett disc.” He listened, he loved it, and Teenage Kicks was born. Sorry, I’m getting a little misty here. Just listen to the songs while I compose myself.
Monday, January 04, 2010
Backward-looking but forward-thinking, the Futureheads made the greatest album from 1979 recorded this decade, a rip-roaring blast of Anglo-angular guitars and jackhammer drums, made for folks who like to pogo in hyper-speed. Half-Wire, half-Ramones, flawlessly executed and completely enthralling.
With a voice like the Montana sky, and songs that stretch beyond the horizon, Neko Case opts for grand and sweeping where most of her Americana colleagues tend toward small and cozy. On this, her finest solo effort, she expertly colors these rustic tunes, from sepia and sun-baked gold to brilliant reds and indigos.
Sunday, January 03, 2010
Near-death becomes him. After nearly succumbing to Hepatitis-C, Escovedo came back with teeth bared on a bracing batch of songs that sizzle (“Chelsea Hotel ‘78”), sway (“Sensitive Boys”) and swoon (“Sister Lost Soul”). This is a master who has never gotten his full due, completely in command.
Or The Album on Which Jeff Tweedy Stopped Trying So Hard and Simply Strode the Earth Like a Giant. A warm, low-key affair colored by new guitarist Nels Cline’s striking and lovely work, it’s the most consistently elegant effort of Wilco’s long lifespan. “Hate It Here” sounds like a White Album outtake by fifth Beatle Geoff Tweedy, and “Impossible Germany” is the decade’s most gorgeous song (and you know it).
Saturday, January 02, 2010
11 songs about girls in less than 33 minutes – I would have liked this record even if I never heard it. Dig the farfisa garage-rock stomp of “Gonna Make You Mine”, the opening strings of “Ooh Girl” (“I bury my face in the pillowcase / I miss her all day long”), the Tijuana Brass horns on the Elvis Costello doppelganger “Floating By”, the Big Star-ish “Can’t Stop Thinking About Her”, the Lennon worthy “Hopes Up” and the absolutely perfect pop of “She’s About to Cross My Mind”. I didn’t think they made records like this anymore.
How can a skinny white British dope fiend sound so authentically like Otis and Carla? And how can it not seem like a nostalgia act or a novelty? The answer is enormous chops and attitude to match, plus a bucket full of songs that emulate the best of deep southern soul without ever imitating it. Perhaps the decade’s only artist who can make heartbreak sound devastating (“Love is a Losing Game”) and thrilling (“Tears Dry On Their Own”).
Play me some mountain music. The pride of the Catskills marry the deep Americana of The Band of Music from Big Pink to the caterwauling folk-punk of Hootenany-era Replacements, and in the process create the greatest album ever to feature two songs with the word “chicken” in the title.
Singer-songwriter Pete Yorn’s debut is as notable for what it’s not – strummy, docile, bland – as what it is – melodic, brooding, rocking. He doesn’t completely eschew the form’s orthodoxies (“Strange Condition” is a low-key stunner), but when he revs it up – like on “For Nancy” and “Closet” – he achieves a sort of lift-off that few of his peers can match.
Friday, January 01, 2010
Seriously? Seriously. As much as any album on this list, We Started Nothing reflects the Teenage Kicks ethic of discovering sheer joy three minutes at a time. There’s plenty of steak and potatoes to come, but this is pure sugar, an ice cream sundae that you can dance to, and not much could be better than that.
“Sea Change” is right – gone is the slacker goofball and the two turntables and a microphone, replaced by a lineal descendant of Gram Parsons and his Cosmic American Music. Weary and wounded, Beck shuffles through these spare songs, illuminating heartbreak with flickering light and pedal steel. A disarmingly lovely record.
Virtually unheard upon release, it seems like the Book of Genesis now, the moment of the first light. On the first song, the band starts it with a positive jam. On the second song, they spent the night in Beverly Hills with a chick who looked like Beverly Sills. On the seventh song, they did not rest, instead they hated all those clever people and their clever people parties. By the time they wrapped it up on the tenth song, the all-time album closer “Killer Parties,” there could be only one reaction: It is good.
If Talking Heads had been birthed in a Detroit auto plant instead of CBGB, they’d be LCD Soundsystem and this would be their Remain in Light, a dark, hypnotic, rhythmic tour de force. But where the Heads sweltered in the African heat, James Murphy opts for Rust Beld cold, producing something mechanical yet still human, like a factory worker operating the world’s funkiest machine press.
By releasing his best album in a quarter-century on the day that the whole world seemed to go to hell, Bob sent amateur Dylanologists over the edge of the batshit-crazy plateau, but these post-apocalyptic blues have their roots in a time long before the flood. The man breathes fire into long-extinct forms, turning the past into the future and reaffirming his status as the culture’s dominant creative force. When he sings “I’m going to stand undefeated, I’m going to speak to the crowd,” who could possibly doubt him?
Hot on the heels of the implosion of the mercurial and semi-brilliant Whiskeytown, Heartbreaker seemed to signal Ryan Adams as the leading light of the sometimes moribund alt-country movement. But ten years on, it looks like a freak - the one complete, coherent, riveting statement where we saw Ryan Adams channel Ryan Adams instead of the chameleon who half-heartedly channeled his heroes on later records. It’s an album of maturity, hope, despair and promise that’s lifts your spirit every time it breaks your heart.
Let’s face it, anyone who can rhyme “discern” and “taciturn” and actually make it catchy is a full-blown pop genius, and Britt Daniel achieves that and many other unbelievable feats on this album that helped cement Spoon’s status as indie rock’s leading lights at the turn of the century.