Sunday, December 31, 2006

WXPN Top 50 Countdown - Day 5

25. My Morning Jacket, Okonokos

Trip: My Morning Jacket is an amazing live band but it’s rare that a live cd captures the essence of seeing a great band in concert. Predictably Okonokos is a little self indulgent and for completists only. For those just coming to MMJ, I’d start with At Dawn or last year’s excellent Z.

Michael: The Digital Millenium Copyright Act continues to doom me to ignorance.

24. Flaming Lips, At War With the Mystics

Trip: For some reason I hadn’t gotten around to giving this puppy much attention – probably because of the schtickiness of the last Flaming Lips show I saw. Well, my loss, because Wayne Coyne is still very much in tune with his warped, psychedelic muse. This is the first “I’ve got to get that record” moment of the countdown.

Michael: I loaned out my copy of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots long ago, and it never came back, which, I suppose was OK. I admire the Lips’ willingness to go where no band has gone before, but the arch concepts can leave me a little cold. I haven’t heard this one. I’m sure it’s interesting, but I doubt it’s something I’d revisit much.

23. Los Lobos, The Town and the City

Trip: In all The Hold Steady hype around here, it’s been overlooked that the once, current and future best band in America might still be Los Lobos, a crown they’ve worn off and on for 25 years. The Town And the City is a real return to form, their best since 1992’s Kiko. All hail David Hidalgo!!

Michael: Got this one not long ago. Sounds like a Los Lobos album. Sturdy, professional, workmanlike, but I’ve yet to discover anything new in it. I’ll keep trying.

22. Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac

Trip: “One of us gets to go to heaven / One has to stay here in hell”… I wish I’d wrote that 27 years ago.

Michael: I’ve had a crush on this woman for a long time, and here she delivers another fine effort, one of the best of a stellar career. The serial losses of her mother, father and stepmother in a short span shape these meditations on love, loss and grieving. Restrained and intimate but never boring, this is the work of a mature artist for a mature audience.

21. Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way

Trip: Any record that includes contributions from Neil Finn, Gary Louris, Mike Campbell and Semisonic’s Dan Wilson should be damn good… and Taking the Long Way is – though a little pruning would have helped. All you old-time Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne fans looking for quality country rock circa 2006 should start with this one.

Michael: The best commercial country act working today, bar none.

20. James Hunter, People Gonna Talk

Trip: This is like a small independent movie with modest charms and a winning execution. What could have been a musty Memphis/Stax homage turns out to be a fine little party record – not one you play to death but perfect for the right moment. And the title track is a stunner that reminds me of Arthur Alexander – high praise indeed!

Michael: Yeah, this is a genre exercise, but it’s an awfully damn good one. Hunter’s no nostalgia act, he’s a man out of time, born (too late) to play this kind of music. Feel good record of the year.

19. Pete Yorn, Nightcrawler

Trip: I like Pete Yorn but I’m not sure I heard one song from this record and didn’t hear it today on the radio, so I’m in no position to comment. Sometimes I actually have a life.

Michael: I really liked Musicforthemorningafter, but it always seemed like all the Yorn I needed to know. Am I wrong?

18. The Killers, Sam’s Town

Trip: Too bad this isn’t a singles countdown because “When You Were Young” might have been the single of the year if it wasn’t for “Crazy”. As for the rest – let’s just the Springsteen sweepstakes winner in 2006 was the Teenage Kicks’ house band.

Michael: Shouldn’t a band this arrogant be, you know, good?

Saturday, December 30, 2006

WXPN Top 50 Countdown - Day 4

29. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

Trip: I believe this record answers the nagging question – what if Patsy Cline and Patti Smith made a record produced by Shadow Morton and used The Band on every cut. This sounded so god damned good today on the radio that I’d like to replace Jenny Lewis with this one as my # 4. Inspirational verse:

And nothing comforts me the same
As my brave friend who says,"I don't care if forever never comes'
Cause I'm holding out for that teenage feeling
I'm holding out for that teenage feeling"

Michael: This album sets a mood from the first tune (“Margaret vs. Pauline”) and sustains it through twelve stellar tunes powered by Case’s sublime voice. Smart, confident and sexy as hell, she’s one of the best we’ve got.

28. Rodrigo y Gabriela – Rodrigo y Gabriela

Trip: I’m not buying the hype on this one, not one bit. Yes, they are excellent players and probably blindingly good live. But it seems like aural wallpaper and my prediction is this one is forgotten by the Super Bowl.

Michael: The surprise XPN hit of the year. Instrumental flamenco guitar music? Who would have guessed?

27. Eric Clapton & JJ Cale – The Road to Escondido

Trip: The Road to Boredom.

Michael: I’m sure that this is probably a pleasurable minor affair, but I haven’t heard it.

26. Tom Waits – Orphans, Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards

Trip: I’m gonna lose my rock geek card on this one, but by and large I’m not a fan of Waits the carny barker and sound collagist. To be sure, there are great moments on all Waits records, but there are a lot of head scratchers too. Since I hold Closing Time, The Heart of Saturday Night and Small Change as his high water marks, put me down for “bawler”.

Michael: I’ve had this epic for just a few days, so I’ve not absorbed the whole thing, but I’ll note two things: (1) “LowDown” is one of the hardest straight-ahead rockers Waits has ever recorded, and (2) “Road to Piece” is stunning in its blunt assessment of the current political and military climate in the Middle East. Waits is so sure of what he wants to say, he doesn’t even bother to rhyme.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

WXPN Top 50 Countdown - Day Three

36. Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

Trip: A great pop-punk blast, as rooted as much in the Strokes as in the Clash, Whatever You Say was one of the surprises of 2006. Believe the hype.

Michael: Starting the day off with a bang! Equal parts adrenaline rush and sly, spiky pop hooks. Precocious and audacious, these guys have a sharp point of view that belies their tender age. A tremendous debut.

35. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Stadium Arcadium

Trip: Even for diehard Chili fans, this 2 hours and 20 minutes of tired jock punk-funk had to be too much.

Michael: I haven’t heard this in its entirety, and “Dani California” sure doesn’t make me want to. These guys are like me on the dance floor. The same moves for the past twenty years.

34. Alexi Murdoch – Time Without Consequence

Trip: Dull and lifeless mope folk…in my alternate universe, every purchaser of Time Without Consequence would instead be given Ron Sexsmith’s new cd.

Michael: I’m not sure whether I should plead ignorance or indifference. I like Nick Drake a lot, but I’ve never been motivated to give this Drake-alike a chance.

33. Johnny Cash – American V: A Hundred Highways

Trip: Some unbearably painful music, but you should hear it – a fitting epitaph to an artist meeting his demons one last time. A haunting, elegiac, flawed farewell from a music giant.

Michael: I’m not sure why I didn’t pick this one up, perhaps because it sounds almost too painfully intimate. Cash is dying on these songs, and that’s a hard thing to hear.

32. Madeline Peyroux – Half The Perfect World

Trip: I don’t think I’d ever buy it… but this was a pretty decent listen today. And this bird can sing.

Michael: I like her. There, I’ve said it. Don’t know a thing about the album.

31. Paul Simon - Surprise

Trip: A restless innovator unafraid to fail, I’ve liked what I’ve heard from this record. So why haven’t I heard the whole thing yet?

Michael: All I know is the first single, which isn’t quite as outrageous as it would like you to think, but still proves that Simon continues to work outside the expectations of his audience, always a welcome trait in an established artist.

30. TV On the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain

Trip: I heard six songs on the radio today – three were monster rock for the hip kids and three were a tuneless mess… but I couldn’t sort out which ones were which. It probably needs to be lived with for quite a while and then I’ll bet it blows your mind. One to investigate.

Michael: This album is a little too dark and thorny for me to fully embrace, but it’s undeniably powerful, and “Wolf Like Me” rocks like a hurricane.
WXPN Top 50 Countdown - Day Two

43. Los Lonely Boys - Sacred

Trip: Los Lobos Lite… tastes great but it’s definitely, definitely less filling.

Michael: Is Sacred nothing? Zzzzz.

42. Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Live at the Fillmore East

Trip: No argument from me on the quality of this record… the performance is stellar. But people… c’mon! Was 2006 that lousy a year that you had to vote for a 36 year old performance with no previously unreleased songs? If you voted for this – run out right now and buy The Hiders’ Valentine or Centromatic’s Fort Recovery, two 2006 releases that won’t be too big a shock to your system.

Michael: A prediction for 2007. The XPN countdown will consist entirely of new albums by Radiohead and Dar Williams, plus four-dozen previously unreleased live recordings by Neil and the Stray Gators, the Shocking Pinks, the International Harvesters, the Trans band (featuring the greatest vocoder solo of all-time), and the Bluenotes, plus an eleven-CD career-spanning live Crazy Horse retrospective (four discs with Danny, seven with Poncho).

41. Slo-Mo - My Buzz Comes Back

Trip: Not my cuppa really, but a pleasant listen on the radio today. Mike Brenner can play.

Michael: I don’t know about the full album (and, frankly, I don’t feel compelled to find out), but the slow-burning title track is a keeper.

40. Damien Rice - 9

Trip: I had shied away from Damien Rice as just too dang melodramatic. But I loved his recent FAN and the single from this record, “9 Crimes”. But this dude definitely needs a pie in the face… lighten up bro. Extra credit and major props for Lisa Hanigan… amazing singer and my current crush.

Michael: Though Rice is a tad delicate for me, I understand his appeal and acknowledge his talent. I just wonder why, after owning the XPN airwaves with his previous effort, this one gets comparatively lukewarm response.

39. The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in America

Trip: Okey dokey - the current “greatest band in America” makes their third great record in a row and reinvents classic rock with an indie twist and uber-quotable literary lyrics. Their # 39 showing is more a comment about WXPN’s constituency than a comment on this teriffic band.

Michael: Only thirty-eight spots too low. There is precedent for the masses being so stupefyingly, bone-crushingly wrong. In 1997, OK Computer placed behind offerings from the likes of Dar Williams, Huffamoose, Jeb Loy Nichols, Bruce Cockburn and Kim Richey. Let’s talk about this one in ten years.

38. Beth Orton - Comfort of Strangers

Trip: I love Beth Orton and the haziness and ache of her voice. You might say she’s a female yin to M Ward’s yang. But this release had some lazy songwriting and not nearly up to the earlier standards she set for herself.

Michael: Roughly the thirty-eighth best album I bought this year (actually, I’d probably place it somewhere in the forties), so I can’t quibble much with the placement. Orton can be strikingly good at what she does, but I didn’t find many memorable tunes here.

37. David Gilmour - On an Island

Trip: You gotta be kidding me with this hookless stew of mindless noodling and epic boredom. I’m gonna pretend Willie Nile’s fine Streets of New York placed here. There… now I can sleep much better.

Michael: Gilmour can sound good playing the phone book, and, unfortunately, that what he sounds like he’s doing on the few tracks I heard from this long-player.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Here We Go, Here We Go, Here We Go Again

WXPN asked, the listeners voted, and we are duty-bound to comment. While we’re certain that we won’t have heard all of XPN’s top 50 albums, let the record show that we are unafraid to voice highly uninformed opinions on records with which we are only fleetingly familiar.

50. Rhett Miller, The Believer

Trip: Rhett Miller may be the most melodically gifted songwriter working these days… so how come I didn’t love The Believer? Just not enough top quality songs. But…the duet with Rachel Yamagata (“Fireflies”) is gorgeous and “Help Me Suzanne” got inside my head early and never left… great song.

Michael: The McDreamiest alt-country-pop-rocker around returns with an album that failed to dent my consciousness. Sounds good on the laptop, though.

49. Alejandro Escovedo, The Boxing Mirror

Trip: No one brings as much gravitas to his material as Alejandro and I really wanted to love this record (considering his ordeal the last few years)… but I just didn’t. This is a record I’ll appreciate but I know when I want my Alejandro fix I’ll be going back to Thirteen Years, Gravity or the True Believers.

Michael: Whoah, a bad sign of things to come with this fine recording checking in so low. Escovedo, a true godfather of the movement, found himself surprised and delighted to be alive in 2006, and I’m pretty delighted about it, too.

48. Joan Osborne, Pretty Little Stranger

Trip: Never gave Joan Osborne much thought past Relish (loved “One of Us”, hated “Right Hand Man”) and with her Grateful Dead association I assumed she was creatively bankrupt. Which makes Pretty Little Stranger a nice surprise…a little alt-country gem filled with restrained, sweetly sung Americana. A minor pleasure.

Michael: I wasn’t around the radio to hear it, so I have no idea how good a record it is (though “Who Divided” is a nice enough listen), but she has always possessed an impressive set of pipes and a good sense of how to use them.

47. M. Ward, Post-War

Trip: I just got this record and now I’m sorry I didn’t include it in my top 10. M Ward is an indie rock Woody Guthrie, creating a slacker mythology perfect for right now and yesterday. He has a knack for sounding half asleep and utterly alive at the same time… My favorite vibe record since… well, since Transistor Radio.

Michael: This is a dark, lovely and moody disc full of quiet, first-rate songs. Ward deserves a bigger audience.

46. Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, The River in Reverse

Trip: Today was the first time I heard this record and I was pleasantly surprised. Unfortunately I only seemed to hear one song on the radio (“Tears, Tears and More Tears) which felt more like an R&B retread than the solemn yet joyous celebration that makes up the rest of the record. An angry and hopeful tribute to pre and post-Katrina New Orleans, this collaboration further cements the sterling reputation of its two stars.

Michael: Both of these guys are completely brilliant, but I haven’t heard this effort, which probably says something about me. I’m sure it’s great.

45. Neil Young, Living With War

Trip: Kudos to Neil for getting this anti-Iraq broadside recorded and released in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, like most topical songs (or albums), it’s just not very good.

Michael: Ain’t exactly “Ohio,” is it?

44. Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam

Trip: I love Eddie Vedder’s voice and Christ is this guy a rock star. There are individual Pearl Jam songs that have gotten through the morass (“Jeremy”, “Daughter”, “Better Man” and “World Wide Suicide”) but mostly (like this album) these guys just seem to bludgeon songs to death. But Eddie Vedder is the genuine article.

Michael: I have this album, and I feel about it the way I feel about most of PJ’s work. I like the idea of it, but in the end, I’m kind of bored. (attention, Pearl Jam fan club members: I know I’m an idiot; you don’t have to fill the comments telling me so).

Monday, December 25, 2006

Friday, December 22, 2006

2006 Top 10

As 2007 beckons, we (Michael , the renaissance man, and Trip, the soon to be grandpa) feel compelled to present our 2006 Top 10 lists. We thank you for reading our just-for-fun blog this year and promise more silliness in 2007. Feel free to leave comments or questions. And for goodness sakes, get out to a club and catch a band up close and personal. You won’t be sorry.

Michael says: A few qualifiers. First, I didn’t actually hear everything released in 2006. Justin Timberlake? I like the singles, never picked up the album. Joanna Newsom? Critical huzzahs by the boatload, but I wouldn’t know her were she yodeling in my ear (and speaking of yodeling, go with your muse, Gwen, and don’t let the bastards get you down). My universe consists of the 45-or-so new releases I’ve invested in over the past twelve months.

Second, I make no claim of “greatest,” “best” or “finest.” What follows are my favorites, the discs that appealed to me for often inscrutable reasons that may have little to do with aesthetic value. For instance, I listen to Rosanne Cash’s Black Cadillac, and it’s obvious to me that it’s a terrific piece of work, full of deeply resonating meditations on love, life and loss. And I’m sure that it’s “better” than half of the albums on my list. But it didn’t get under my skin like the others did.

Third, if you really want to know about my favorites of 2006, ask me some time in the middle of 2007. I’ve lived with some of these albums for nearly a full year, but with others for just a few weeks. I won’t make sense of some of them without the benefit of time and further listens. The good stuff reveals itself over time.

Trip says: Top 10 lists are so arbitrary, so fleeting… because they change day to day. When compiling my top 10, I always adhere to one simple rule – air time – which new releases got lodged in my cd player the most (and yes, I know, I need to get an ipod). But for now, it’s still the little silver discs that thrill me – these provided the most thrills in 2006.

1. The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in America (Michael)

Rarely have I put such colossal expectations on a new release and not been disappointed. But Craig Finn and the Hold Steady delivered with their third straight batch of smart, funny, wordy, blistering rock and roll songs, one that took me back twenty years to a time when I wasn’t too old or tired or jaded to have a favorite band. Boys and Girls finds the Hold Steady shedding some of the idiosyncrasies of the first two records in favor of a more streamlined and somewhat more conventional sound (choruses, which were optional before, abound here). It also finds Finn in a more world-weary and contemplative mood. His characters still party with abandon (see, e.g., “Massive Nights”), but their going-nowhere-fast lifestyles start to take a toll this time around. Holly, the glorious hoodrat from albums one and two, isn’t invincible. In fact she’s in the hospital. But she still looks incredible.

1. The Format – Dog Problems (Trip)

The Format are two high school buddies – Nate Ruess and Sam Means – that have conjured up a latter day Pet Sounds, the record Lloyd Dobler would have made had he taken up guitar instead of kick boxing. In what appears to be a song cycle about one volatile relationship with either a record company or girlfriend (both?), the Format throw everything in the mix to create the album of the year. Soaring harmonies, handclaps, orchestral arrangements, melodies seemingly plucked from show tunes and the astonishing clarity of Nate Ruess’ choirboy tenor all come together to produce a blue spark of a record. How can I convince you to buy this record? It’s got the quirks and sophistication of XTC, the broken heart of classic Jackson Browne, the giddiness of early 70’s AM radio and the timeless quality found in your favorite records. I got these guys as complete nerd perfectionists obsessed with not only Beach Boys/Beatles popadelia but Brill Building craftsmanship and the theatrical melodies of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter and the Gershwins. I'm hearing all that in 3 to 4 minute pop songs. Usually this type of kitchen sink production comes off fey and precious. These guys make it seem effortless... which is what the great ones do, don't they?

2. Belle and Sebastian - The Life Pursuit (Michael)

This isn’t your kid sister’s Belle and Sebastian. The sound is muscled up and infused with a knowing affection for R&B that British bands so often seem to assimilate without imitating. This is pure pop, and while it’s delicate in places, it’s never twee, the descriptor that has defined and limited the band for much of its career. In fact, at times, the bottom-end boogie produces faint echoes of T. Rex or Paul Weller’s various incarnations. A sunny, buoyant, irresistible trip.

2. The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in America (Trip)

Craig Finn gets all the details right… even if they seem wrong. Smart guy rock for aging hipsters that reconnects to high school highs (and lows) they lived through or dreamed about. If I can’t have the Replacements anymore and the E Streeters are pushing 60, I guess the coronation line for greatest band in America begins and ends with The Hold Steady. And after two glorious and near perfect records, Boys and Girls in America expands their musical palette, focuses the writing and also coughs up some massive hooks. All your favorite characters return for more drug addled fuzzy logic and adolescent heartache. Seems like a bummer… but The Hold Steady creates an undeniably joyous racket while Craig Finn croaks line after line destined for the yearbook.

How good is this album? Each of the 11 songs has taken its turn as my favorite and currently I’ve got the perfect opener “Stuck Between Stations”, party call-to-arms “Massive Nights” and desperate plea “You Can Make Him Like You” imbedded in my skull. Tomorrow it’ll be “Southtown Girls” with it’s gorgeous a capella backhanded compliment opening that turns into a fitting swan song. I dig ‘em.

3. Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Michael)

Our greatest contemporary chanteuse? On the New Pornographers’ albums, band leader Carl Newman often has Case reaching for the top of her range for the sugary pop effect it conveys. Here, on her own, it’s all medium register honey, as she inhabits songs that destroy any boundary between alt-country and torch music. With enough reverb to make you feel like you’re listening inside a cathedral, Case delivers a sophisticated, immensely satisfying cycle of rustic, melodic songs.

3. Josh Ritter – The Animal Years (Trip)

I was aware of Josh Ritter before The Animal Years but besides “Kathleen” he hadn’t really made a dent in my music consciousness. But the opening salvo of “Girl in the War” (“I got a girl in the war Paul I know that they can hear me yell / If they can’t find a way to help her they can go to hell”), “Wolves” (with the best piano hook of the year) and the muted beauty of “Monter Ballads”, Ritter’s now dug in. And that’s before the stark a capella stunner “Idaho” and epic, rambling, stream of conscious mindblow “Thin Blue Flame”. Easily the singer-songwriter album of the year and in most years would have been album of the year.

4. Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (Michael)

I love this moment, when a band comes out of nowhere, cocksure and with a cupboard full of songs, and makes a hellacious racket. For thrills and chills this year, nothing else could match the two guitars, bass and drum clatter of this underage band of old souls, simultaneously petulant and poetic. And it’s oh so very English, chock-full of the sort of angular melodies that seem to originate only on that side of the Atlantic.

4. Jenny Lewis & The Watson Twins – Rabbit Fur Coat (Trip)

Similar to Cat Power’s The Greatest in scope and execution, I preferred Jenny Lewis’ take on Laura Nyro due to her undeniable warm and luxurious voice, which seems to beckon you into her world while Cat Power keeps you at arm’s length. Restrained sometimes to a fault, JL & TWT have given us a peek at an imaginary “Dusty in L.A.” Highlights include the cautionary tale “Rise Up With Fists”, the galloping country honk of “The Charging Sky”, the fly-on-the-wall tell all title track and the gospel hoedown “The Big Guns”. And don’t dismiss the seemingly needless cover of The Travelling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care” – it fits perfectly with the damaged but tough story she’s telling and it’s a blast hearing oh-so-serious Conor Oberst, Ben Gibbard and M Ward cut loose a little.

5. Bob Dylan - Modern Times (Michael)

He’s lived a thousand lives, and in his middle sixties Bob Dylan has morphed into the living emblem of a musical tradition, like Son House in 1965. No longer a trailblazing troubadour, Dylan is now a curator and a conservator, leading a master class of musicians who absorb history so thoroughly that it fuses with their DNA. They breathe, they sweat, they play the blues.

5. Rocky Votolato – Makers (Trip)

Rocky Votolato is set apart from the general singer-songwriter populace by his detailed lyrics and sweat soaked delivery. He’s got the acoustic pop simplicity of Elliott Smith, the lyrical cadence of Paul Simon, the raspy vocals of early Jeff Tweedy and the dark, broken, deathly world view of Steve Earle. But all that means nothing without songs – and he’s got at least half a dozen good ones including the breezy pop opener “White Daisy Passing” and “Streetlights”, the alt-country of “Tennessee Train Tracks”, the killer chorus of “She Was Only In It For The Rain”, the Simon & Garfunkel doppelganger “Uppers Aren’t Necessary” and the death, drink and “what does it all mean” elegy of closer “Makers”. Thanks Feeney.

6. Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass (Michael)

I’ve been an unabashed fan now for a long time, and I Am Not Afraid Of You – in addition to being the album title of the year – is the trio’s best work since 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, and maybe their best ever. A sprawling effort (could a Yo La album be anything but?), it features some of the band’s more restrained takes on Sonic Youth-style abstraction, and Ira Kaplan’s lyrical playing even approximates Television’s twin-guitar attack in places (I hear echoes of “Marquee Moon” in “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”). The album also features some of the prettiest and most accessible songs of their career. When the bouncy piano and falsetto of “Mr. Tough” come in, resistance is futile.

6. Jason Collett – Idols of Exile (Trip)

I owe this one to my partner for his strong recommendation… so thanks Michael. It’s sparkling soft rock for those who would disdain that term. Strummy, upbeat melodies wedded to mostly downbeat lyrics giving us little snapshots of romance on the run. Highlights include the wistful lament “We All Lose Another”, the irresistible sunshine pop shouldabeenahit “I’ll Bring The Sun” and the boy-girl pop almost made it but not really, doomed hazy affair that is “Hangover Days” (“We try so hard to love”)

7. Jason Collett - Idols of Exile (Michael)

This early ’06 release has been a year-long companion, a sterling collection of Canadian Americana (Canadiana? Canadarama?). As comfortable as a pair of worn leather boots, Idols is to this year what Crooked Fingers’ Dignity and Shame was to last. And “Hangover Days” is a bitter boy-girl duet for all time, a “Fairytale of New York” appropriate for playing all year long.

7. Art Brut – Bang Bang Rock And Roll (Trip)

I’m still not sure if these guys are putting us on. But this cd keeps me coming back for more – it’s the wondrous sound of things falling apart to make an absolutely joyuos racket. Eddie Argos’ ironic, bewildered, giddy speak-singing (not to be confused with Craig Finn’s world weary, blustery, spittle-filled croaking speak-sing) guides the band through turbo-charged ditties that charmingly state the obvious joys of making music (“Formed A Band”, “Bang Bang Rock & Roll”, “My Little Brother”) and making time (“Emily Kane”, “Good Weekend”). And “Good Weekend” is a sure fire party starter and mix tape opener containing this unforgettable tribute to the first blush of lust that will make every 10 year old giggle (“I’ve seen her naked… twice / I’ve seen her naked… TWICE!!). I expect Art Brut have already peaked – I’m glad I got to enjoy their sure to be brief run.

8. Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 - Ole! Tarantula (Michael)

More shimmering pop songs from one of our finest writers. A tad less cockeyed than past offerings, the four-minute bursts of melody are well-served by the Venus 3 – less prickly than the Soft Boys, more loose-limbed than the Egyptians – who join a proud legacy of Hitchcock bands. And “N. Y. Doll,” the album-closing ode to glam rock pioneer Arthur Kane, is as poignant a song to come along all year.

8. Scott McClatchy – Burn This (Trip)

First of all, yes, Scott is my little brother… but I ain’t letting that stand in the way of extolling the high water mark of his now 30 year career. Freed from the shackles of his own expectations, Burn This is the sound of a relaxed, experienced craftsman making music with his friends. There’s the simple truths of “Burn This”, the fiddle driven shuffle with back porch harmonies of “Take A Walk With Me” and the rollicking declaration of “Just One Kiss”. And don’t skip the final unlisted cover of Springsteen’s “No Surrender”, which is a tender and fitting tribute to a giant of a man… we miss you Bud.

9. Portastatic - Be Still Please (Michael)

A recent acquisition, Be Still Please has come on strong at year’s end. Previously, I knew Mac McCaughan only through his bone-shaking work with Superchunk, so imagine my surprise at hearing Portastatic’s pristine indie-pop complete with glorious string arrangements. McCaughan’s voice remains as thin as a young Hollywood socialite, but the melodies are thick and the pay-offs are huge. Check back in six months and don’t be surprised is this one is a few spots higher up my list.

9. Lucero – Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers (Trip)

Memphis favorite sons, Lucero are the hard-charging, balls out flipside to Rocky Votolato’s obsession with drink and death. Same obsession, different attack. Each Lucero song screams life and death as singer and songwriter Ben Nichols’ gin-soaked vocals either leave you winded in their furious desperation or reaching for the eject button… I understand both reactions. But the new records adds more textures (piano, Hammond organ) and is instantly more accessible. Tales of losers, lovers and rock and roll lifers sifting through the pain of getting to tomorrow make this the year’s best southern rock record.

10. Centro-Matic - Fort Recovery (Michael)

My first reaction was to laugh when I heard the bass and drums roll in like thunder, blasting a hole in the floor, as if to declare WE WILL ROCK YOU even while playing lovely, gentle alt-country tunes. But it’s serious business by a serious band, a triumph of aesthetics over commerce, a grand achievement on a tiny label. In Heat, one of my favorite recent books, author Bill Buford, after a culinary odyssey that takes him from a three-star New York restaurant kitchen to a rustic Tuscan butcher shop, concludes that glory is in smallness, food made by hand with centuries of wisdom behind it. In that sense, Centro-Matic makes small music, crafted by hand, without concession to the marketplace.

10. Willie Nile – Streets of New York (Trip)

Whatever happened to literate alt country power pop? If you’ve asked yourself that question lately, pick up Willie Nile’s latest cd. Streets of New York is a warts-and-all valentine to the New York of Lou Reed, Carole King and Dion. The disc pulses with local flavor (“Faded Flower of Broadway” romanticizes an octagenarian who still sells her paintings on the sidewalk) and the universal blush of first crush (“Asking Annie Out”), not to mention a perfect homage to Joe Strummer with a faithful version of the Clash via Eddy Grant’s “Police on My Back”. Welcome back Willie.

Michael's Extras

Honorable mention: Various Artists, High School Musical Soundtrack. Failure to mention this disc would be an act of sheer denial. Thanks to two young kids at home, I’ve listened to this music more than anything else all year long, and truth be told, I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it. Got my head in the game.

Reissue of the Year: Brian Eno & David Byrne, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Thank goodness for reissues. I had known of this 1981 masterwork before, but I had never bothered to investigate until it was re-released this year. Why? Good question. Given my immense affection for the Talking Heads albums of that period, and my more distant appreciation of Eno’s oeuvre, I should have owned it years ago. It was worth the wait. As much one long, varied soundscape as a collection of songs, Bush of Ghosts is a hypnotic, challenging labyrinth of west African rhythms and found sounds and voices, instantly likeable but strangely stand-offish. Daring, bold and completely successful, it marks a high point for two of the most interesting artists of the past 35 years.

Compilation of the Year: Various Artists, Hugh Masekela presents the Chisa Years, 1965-1975 (Rare and Unreleased). Though overshadowed by the very fine world music compilation Tropicalia, A Brazilian Revolution in Sound, this one hit me right where I live. Featuring fourteen songs by five artists who recorded for the legendary South African musician’s custom label, The Chisa Years sounds way ahead of its time, bursting with hot, fluid tracks that work as pop songs every bit as much as cultural artifacts. Far more accessible than the knotty extended works being produced at the same time by the likes of Fela Kuti, The Chisa Years was my undisputed outdoor party record of the summer of 2006.

Trip's Extras

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say how much I enjoyed the 2006 releases by the following: Arctic Monkeys, Bruce Springsteen, Primal Scream, Belle & Sebastian, Head Automatica, Ben Kweller, Drive By Truckers, The Hiders, Jim Noir and Roddy Frame.

Concerts of the Year – the joyous celebration of rock and roll passion by the Hold Steady at The North Star Bar in November tops my list. The best band in America… go see them now and tell them Teenage Kicks sent you.

Lucero (at Rex’s in West Chester and the North Star) – Ya gotta see these guys… they burn with intensity you didn’t know you needed. And you're sure to sweat and get a face full of beer. Can there be a higher compliment?

John Doe – Tin Angel – punk icon plays to 40 people on a midweek night and proves why he’s one of rock’s most underrated vocalists and grittiest songwriters. Bonus points for mesmerizing cover of Joni’s “A Case of You”.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Forgive Us

We suck. We know it. There hasn't been much activity around here lately (one of us hasn't posted in 26 days, but who's counting?), but that's about to change with all sorts of compelling new content. We promise.

Until that day, please enjoy this performance by Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3, whose new album Ole Tarantula is a gem.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Video of the Day

More proof that just walking around in the 1970s was like being in a surrealist film. I would have loved to have been in the production meeting when this idea was pitched.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

We Departed From Our Bodies

I shook Tad Kubler’s hand last night. That might not mean much to you, but to me it was like shaking Keith Richards’s hand in 1971, or Johnny Ramone’s in 1978, or Bob Stinson’s in 1985. It wasn’t about hero worship – it’s hard to imagine a more ordinary or approachable guy. It was simply a recognition that for an instant, I was grasping the hand responsible for churning out this decade’s best, biggest rock and roll riffs.

The Hold Steady played Lawrence, Kansas, last night, at the Bottleneck, a room that holds 400 people, tops. What happened inside seemed less like a rock show than a big neighborhood barbecue forced into the basement by bad weather, with your five buddies from around the corner providing the entertainment. It just so happens that your buddies comprise the best rock and roll band on the planet.

The block party feeling was reinforced by watching the guys act as their own road crew, setting up and tuning up in plain view (imagine the Rolling Stones doing this), before disappearing for two minutes, only to reappear as conquering heroes, tearing in to “Stuck Between Stations,” the scorching lead track to Boys and Girls in America, their third album in three years, and one of the best in recent memory.

All eyes latched on to Craig Finn, the hyper-literate, hyper-kinetic, gravel-voiced singer, who fronts the band like a man who has learned to manage his seizures. In person, he made for a more impressive physical presence than the tortured elfin nerd he can seem on film. But he still twitched and flailed about, spitting hard syllables of decadence and redemption into the microphone, and then often repeating them more intimately into the faces of the fans who lined the stage, all the while gesturing wildly with his hands and moving his body to rhythms that had nothing to do with the music. He even recognized the yin and yang of the Hold Steady more explicitly in a quiet moment, noting that Boys and Girls is much like the band’s first two albums, and he gestured toward the group’s other members. “These guys play kick-ass rock and roll, and I talk my own bullshit over it.”

The set relied heavily on the new record, while sprinkling in a (very) few older faves like “The Swish” and “Your Little Hoodrat Friend.” The band is quasi-famous for its brand of chaos, but as they ripped through a razor-sharp and drum-tight set, it became clear that the chaos is calculated. The fury of the three albums was reproduced almost note-for-note, save for some minor alterations of Finn’s phrasing and the absence of the occasional flourish of horns or strings that appear in the studio offerings. The Hold Steady draws plenty of Springsteen comparisons, and the similarities are even more apparent live. Every second of the show seemed spontaneous, but, in retrospect, it’s clear that Finn was firmly in control every moment. Even his legendary boozing seemed paced, as he nursed a couple of beers (one, after bubbling over, was used primarily to baptize the revelers in front) before taking a couple of swigs of whiskey late in the evening. The band gave the illusion of intoxication while remaining arrow straight.

The crowd treated the band like friends, from the offering of home-made cupcakes to the spontaneous eruption of confetti during the encore (an obvious reference to the album cover, and a gesture appreciated by the band; “I hope this catches on,” said an amused Kubler). And the band reciprocated. During the evening’s closer, “Killer Parties,” the stage which seemed so cramped with just the five band members, seemed to expand to welcome dozens of fans who pogoed around while the Hold Steady blasted out the evening’s final two minutes of music. As I stood right next to Finn, peering out on a perspective that wasn’t all that different from the view from the audience, his final words rang true. Pointing to the fans on the floor and those on the stage, he said “We, you, all of us, are the Hold Steady.”

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Songs for Stranded Motorists

For the past ten days or so, I’ve been trekking all over the state of Missouri promoting my book, with radio and TV appearances in St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia. It’s not exactly glamorous (imagine eight hours of round-trip travel and an overnight stay for a three-minute interview before the Today show comes on), but it beats the hell out of real work. That is, it did before the biggest snowstorm in a decade hit the region and trapped me in Columbia for a couple of days, as I lived out of vending machines and walks to the Waffle House, and I, um, recycled the limited amount of clothing I had packed.

When the roads finally reopened, travel was mildly treacherous, and the view was beautiful, surreal and a little frightening. Deep, powdery snow blanketed hundreds of miles of rolling hills, giving the landscape a crystalline beauty appropriate for the holidays, but the initial crush of ice cut a wide swath of destruction. Interstate 70 was littered with abandoned cars and trucks, each in its own precarious predicament. Semi-trucks buried in snow banks and tipped at 45-degree angles. A pile of snow that looked like an igloo until I saw the license plate where the door should be. A car standing on its passenger side, like a coin that was flipped and landed on its edge. The scene was repeated dozens, even hundreds, of times.

The slow-going gave me plenty of time sample CDs (I packed more music than underwear, sadly). I managed to gain a deeper appreciation for the new Decemberists’ offering, and took my first crack at recently-acquired new releases from the Pernice Brothers, Portastatic and Los Lobos (all of which I can recommend). But my general fatigue and concern over the conditions led me away from new and exciting music and toward old and familiar favorites. Tom Waits’s The Heart of Saturday Night did the trick for a while, but I found that for the traveler who just wants to get home, nothing can touch Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers. The lush, swinging arrangements. The honey-rich voice. The masterfully executed songs of Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and the Gershwins. The cares of the day melt away when the Chairman sings “Pennies from Heaven.”

So from here on, the winter disaster kit will include, boots, jumper cables, a bag of salt and a copy of Frank’s greatest achievement. And maybe a fedora and a cocktail shaker.