Sunday, January 31, 2010

TK # 2 - The Avett Brothers - I And Love And You (2009)

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

TK #3: The Hold Steady – Separation Sunday (2005)

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

TK # 4 - Ike Reilly Assassination - We Belong To The Staggering Evening (2007)

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.

TK # 5 - Bruce Springsteen - The Rising (2002)

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

TK #6: Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007)

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

TK # 7 - The Gaslight Anthem - The '59 Sound (2008)

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.

TK # 8 - The Felice Brothers - The Felice Brothers (2008)

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

TK #9: Roman Candle – Oh Tall Tree in the Ear (2009)

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.

TK #10: The White Stripes – Elephant (2003)

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.

TK #11: Bruce Springsteen – Magic (2007)

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

TK # 12: Rilo Kiley - More Adventurous (2004)

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

TK #13: New Pornographers – Twin Cinema (2005)

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

TK # 14 - Steve Earle - Transcendental Blues (2000)

With Guitar Town, Steve Earle altered my music listening forever. With Transcendental Blues, Earle capped a remarkable five album run with his best record since that debut. The crackling buzz that slowly ushers in the title track’s existential meditation is right at home with the Gaelic affair exuberantly brought to life in “Galway Girl”. And nothing trumps the desperate but knowing plea from the oft-married Earle on the album’s best track “I Don’t Want to Lose You Yet”.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

TK # 15 - The Duke And The King - Nothing Gold Can Stay (2009)

Leaving behind the ramshackle Americana of self proclaimed “dirtbags” The Felice Brothers, Simone Felice’s new band The Duke and The King’s soulful, brittle Nothing Gold Can Stay has a gentle intensity that combines 60’s soul (Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke) and 70’s earnest, sensitive singer-songwriters (Cat Stevens, James Taylor) in an intoxicating debut that marks Felice as one to watch for the next decade. You can read more here.

Friday, January 08, 2010

TK # 16 - Lucero - 1372 Overton Park (2009)

Certain bands bleed rock and roll through bursting veins and arteries in dangerous blasts of desperation and recklessness. Lucero epitomizes that type of band and their white hot, sweaty mess of a rock show has been their main calling card. Until now… 1372 Overton Park is their bid for the brass ring (or least a little wider audience) and while the scorched-earth vocals of Ben Nichols remain gloriously intact, there’s the slow burn of opener “Smoke”, the Hold Steady-isms of the keyboard-driven party anthem “Sounds of the City”, as well as the addition of horns (!!) on several tracks, most notably “The Devil and Maggie Chascarillo”, a rave-up that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Pleased to Meet Me.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

TK #17: Okkervil River – The Stage Names (2007)

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.

TK #18: The Fratellis – Costello Music (2007)

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.

TK #19: Nick Lowe – At My Age (2007)

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

TK #20: Jason Collett – Idols of Exile (2005)

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.

TK # 21 - Loretta Lynn - Van Lear Rose (2004)

Featuring the most unlikely, intriguing May-December relationship since Harold and Maude, Jack White helps provide Loretta Lynn with the perfect career capstone in Van Lear Rose. Her ferocious talent undimmed at 70, Loretta Lynn unleashes an album full of poignant, self-penned songs that sound like nothing less than the best country record of the decade. From the heartbreakingly autobiographical “Miss Being Mrs.” to the rousing, boozy duet “Portland, Oregon”, Van Lear Rose is a complete triumph.

Monday, January 04, 2010

TK #22: The Futureheads – The Futureheads (2004)

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.

TK #23: Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006)

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.

TK # 24 - Fountains of Wayme - Welcome Interstate Managers (2003)

Power pop nerds had been waiting for years for Fountains of Wayne’s commercial break through that finally arrived with the made-for-masses, slightly icky hook and teenage wet dream video for “Stacey’s Mom”, which will forever consign them to the one hit wonder status of fellow power poppers The Romantics, The Records and The Knack. And that’s a shame, because Welcome Interstate Managers continues the effortless songwriting and wall-to-wall earworm melodies found on the first two FOW albums. Pay special attention to “Valley Winter Song”, a gorgeous song of love and longing set in bucolic New England. Almost makes me wish I didn’t hate winter so much. Almost… (Holy smokes it’s cold!)

Sunday, January 03, 2010

TK # 25 - Blitzen Trapper - Furr (2008)

By sharpening their focus after the all-over-the-place experimentation of the prior year’s Wild Mountain Nation, Blitzen Trapper tightened their sound and set controls for early 70’s Laurel Canyon. With nods to classic Grateful Dead (!) and Pavement (!!), Furr’s strength is derived from their airy CSN harmonies, but they still sprinkle in enough quirk so it’s not a paint-by-numbers genre exercise. Every alt-country home should have one!

TK # 26 - Jenny Lewis - Rabbit Fur Coat (2006)

Jenny Lewis’ solo debut is a soulful country record that leaves all indie trappings (save some guest star wattage) behind. Restrained sometimes to a fault, JL & TWT have given us a peek at an imaginary “Dusty in L.A.”, with the Watson Twins adding a Julee Cruise-ish hillbilly gothic spin to what’s basically a wonderful, straight ahead singer-songwriter record. 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.

TK #27: Alejandro Escovedo – Real Animal (2008)

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.

TK #28: Wilco – Sky Blue Sky (2007)

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

TK # 29 - The Red Button - She's About to Cross My Mind (2007)

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.

TK #30: Amy Winehouse – Back to Black (2007)

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”).

TK #31: The Felice Brothers – Yonder is the Clock (2009)

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.

TK #32: Pete Yorn – musicforthemorningafter (2001)

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.

TK # 33 - Art Brut - Bang Bang Rock & Roll (2005)

Remember when it was enough for rock and roll to simply be fun and a little subversive? On Bang, Bang Rock & Roll, Art Brut do, concocting arch art-punk delivered at 100 mph as lead singer Eddie Argos does his best Bryan Ferry / Woody Allen mind meld as he just talks to the kids in “Formed A Band” (“And yes this is my singing voice / It’s not irony, it’s not rock and roll / We’re just talking to the kids”). Everything on this record sounds like it was made up on the spot – it’s either inspired brilliance or a half-assed, hipster joke – I love that about it.

Friday, January 01, 2010

TK #34: The Ting Tings – We Started Nothing (2008)

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.

TK #35: Beck – Sea Change (2002)

“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.

TK # 36 - The Format - Dog Problems (2006)

Dog Problems has the quirks and sophistication of XTC, the broken heart of classic Jackson Browne, Queen's over-the-top ambition, the giddiness of early 70’s AM radio and the timeless quality found in your favorite records. The Format are complete nerd perfectionists obsessed with not only Beach Boys/Beatles popadelia but Brill Building craftsmanship and the timeless melodies of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter and the Gershwins. Soaring harmonies, handclaps, orchestral arrangements, melodies seemingly plucked from show tunes and the astonishing clarity of Nate Ruess’ choirboy tenor all come together for a record bursting with should-have-been hits.

TK #37: The Hold Steady – Almost Killed Me (2004)

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.