This is far and away my (syncopated-clapping, toe-tapping, driving along with the windows down singing harmonies at the top of my lungs) favorite song of 2014. Shakey Graves has shown up on this blog before, first with his tune “Late July” on the Summer 2012 mix, and his co-conspirator here Esmé Patterson (formerly of the Denver band Paper Bird) is someone whose music I have long admired.
There is a deeply delightful, timeless joy in a good clever duet.
Oh, what a year this was. 2013 was a year when I tried to slow down some (or, more truthfully, grad school & work & adult responsibilities often conspired to force me to slow down, in a very non-rock-n-roll but nevertheless badass way). In some of that stillness, though, was a gratitude — as I look back on 2013, I think I did a better job of enjoying things more deeply and with a greater attention of the heart and soul. This extended not only to people in my life, but to experiences, and also to music. Each of the eight years I’ve been writing this blog has clocked in a bit richer, more settled, probably older and wiser and less frenetic.
These are my ten favorite records of the year by a long shot, and this list is not surprising to anyone who has been following me and my passions this year. These are the easy clear winners that I spent a whole hell of a lot of time listening to, seeing the musicians perform the songs live, hosting some of these folks in my home and sitting up singing with them into the night. These records have nourished my year.
I recommend that you obtain them and let them do the same for you, if any of these flew under your radar. These are not ranked in order of love, they are ranked in order of alphabet, to be clear. Here they are, my favorite records of the last twelve months.
This is just a little wisp of two-song vinyl single, but it represents the only recorded output this year that Denver’s favorite son Nathaniel Rateliff released with his burning-soul outfit, The Night Sweats. Back in April, I called them “the best band in Denver,” and it’s not hard to see why. Even watching that video now gives me chills. This is on the list because these two songs are so damn good, better than some full albums in 2013. I listened to them about a bajillion times and hope Nathaniel releases a full-length with the Night Sweats in 2014.
I am thoroughly taken by this narcotic, melodic speedball of record, all dark hues and complicated beauty. The National is one of my favorite bands, and I’ve waited three years for this. From the understated opening notes and breakingly delicate vocals, this record is magnificence that was absolutely worth the wait. (from the original review, here: God loves everybody, don’t remind me)
The songs here, like all of what I love most about The National, are tangled and conflicted and in that honestly there is beauty, for me. Seeing them live at Red Rocks in September was one of my favorite musical experiences all year — these songs grow and take on a whole new, even richer life with the visuals and lights they are traveling with. The National wedged their way even more firmly into the sharp and soft parts of my soul this year.
From the opening a capella track that is just bleeding and raw with vulnerability (“I know you get lost sometimes, man, I know you get lost…”), it is clear that this is a special and rare record. Winston has an otherworldy quality to both his voice and his person. This record rambles and pours out with little concern for anyone other than exorcising the demons of one Winston Yellen, the man behind Night Beds. Stylistically you can hear his love of old female jazz vocalists (and the way his voice uncannily resembles one — well, that or a spectre), as well as hues infused by the country cabin setting where it was recorded, with broad strokes of sparkly redolence throughout.
This is a damn fine record for such a young kid. It’s just flat out gorgeous, and honest, and brave. I remember from the interview I did with Winston almost a year ago exactly, how struck I was when he said how sometimes in the studio everyone would be crying at the end of a take. I’m so over posturing. That kind of honesty in art takes bravery, and strength.
I’ve struggled with writing this part of the post, and am still struggling. This record has blown me to bits moreso than any record I can remember in a very, very long time. There is something riveting and unsettling and deeply satisfying in the way that Matthew Houck writes songs. It is a very specific, self-effacing, hopeful, visceral-and-eviscerating language that I exactly understand. In addition to what I wrote about The National this year, this piece I wrestled out about the new Phosphorescent record (and it was a bloody battle) is one of my other favorite things I wrote in 2013:
This record wrestles with divergent, simultaneous truths about the brokenness and the bruises. “I am not some broken thing,” Houck howls pointedly in the second track, the stunning “Song For Zula” (which is hands down my song of the year), but two short songs later he is singing this simple line, that absolutely breaks my heart every time he says it: “And now you’re telling me my heart’s sick / …And I’m telling you I know.” It’s exactly that messiness (and the direct engagement with it) that spills out of this record to draw me in, underneath the timeless country veneer, under the old-time two-stepping and the lonely desert songs. Everything is tangled; everything is fucked up and bleeding, aching and glowing in the summer.
Man. And if the record itself weren’t enough, towards the end of this year a deluxe version of Muchacho was released, with a companion disc called Muchacho de Lujo. The bonus disc is a collection of songs from Muchacho and a few from previous albums, and it is just Matthew Houck and his partner Jo on piano, in the cavernous and gorgeous St. Pancras Church in London before an audience of 150 people. It is completely breathtaking — as in some moments of the recording are hard to breathe while listening to. The first time I heard the recording of “Wolves” on this bonus disc, I had to pull my car over, as he loops his voice to become a ravenous cacophony of surrender to animalism: “They tumble and fight / and they’re beautiful.” Usually a deluxe edition seems wasteful to me, but this is a rare exception where the bonus disc is every bit as valuable to me as the original album it accompanies. If you buy ONE album from this list, I would recommend this one. It’s one I will listen to for my next few decades.
This entry on the list bucks convention since the Confetti EP was a physical disc available at shows this year (in a neat little handmade envelope with a wax seal), but it is also a video EP online. If you didn’t catch them live this year, I am not sure if you can get this record, but you can enjoy the video (I recommend over and over), and some of the songs from it are heading towards their new album in 2014. “Barside” was on my Autumn Mix you can still download, too.
Phox creates malleable music: effervescent and smoky at the same time, with shimmery layers of creative instrumentation anchored by the stunning voice of Monica Martin. Listening to her voice radiantly inhabit and effortlessly anchor each song, it is hard to believe that she is a young woman just discovering very recently that she could sing. The percussion is playful and fascinating, with constantly changing time signatures and handclaps and shuffles. I love this record, every moment on it – so fresh and surprising.
We have a chapel session with PHOX coming out soon, recorded this fall when they were in town to play at the new Ivywild School I am booking live music at, and I cannot wait to share that with you. That mellifluous, honeyed voice in that cathedral was something else.
This feels like a very old record to me. Or, maybe, more timeless than old — the sepia-stained hue that our favorite memories take on as we play them over and over in slow motion. It could be the way he smiled at you this morning on the couch over coffee, but the reels clack slowly as if the memory was already somehow a hundred years ago. Jeremy Quentin (Small Houses) sings about Sarah and Karen as if we know them, as if we can see them look up from their work on the porch, as if we can hear the screen door clattering and our homes and photographs come back to life.
He also has a forthcoming chapel session recording that we did this year, so be excited to hear that – him on the big grand piano with the afternoon sun streaming in the stained glass windows. It’s where this record and these songs sounded even more perfect. His piercing, simple sweetness totally disarmed me.
One year ago in a living room in Portland, I sat down with some of the folks in Typhoon to listen to rough mixes of the songs on White Lighter. Even in their unfinished state, my reaction was immediate, and physical. I remember distinctly how my brain lit up and struggled in the best way possible, from the get go, with the dissonant fighting combination of sounds. I sat there shaking my head sharply to the side the way one does when you’re trying to clear out a dizziness. The sonic palette on this album is incredible; there are so many things happening, and it is never chaotic – it’s like this enormous organism with tentacles and razor spikes and glistening softness that is somehow all part of the same beautiful creature.
I have wanted to write about this album so many times this year, and I never have been able to. It’s so big. It’s a Sisyphean epic odyssey of an album. It’s a seamless journey and a massive battle, all the way through, the arc of a story of Kyle Morton’s life as he struggled with chronic illness. I am listening to this vinyl on my new turntable as I write this, and that is how this record is meant to be heard — all the songs bleed into one another. Themes repeat, as do codas and lyrics. The closing dual violins move me to tears in their purity, and in their wordless assertion of a sort of calm peace and beauty as we move into the next chapter. They are elegiac.
Kyle wrote, “The record is a collection of seminal life moments, in more or less chronological order, glimpsed backwards in the pale light of certain death, brought to life by a remarkable group of people who hold as I do that the work is somehow important. When we started working on White Lighter, I had reason to believe that it would be the last thing I ever did. It is now six months since we finished. I’m still here and there’s still work to be done.”
All through the autumn, as nature dried and fell, this compelling and unexpected record was my soundtrack. Justin Vernon blends the stark folk hymns of his first album as Bon Iver with explosive shiny metallic synths and even a potent Bukowski poetry sample. Along with a handful of his musician friends from Wisconsin, these anthems are crafted to somehow juxtapose vocoders with intricate acoustic guitarwork, needling blips with resonant piano, all punctuated by shouted choruses and singalong connections of human voices — in one of my most surprising loves this year.
Paste Magazine described it so well when they wrote, “It’s a musical and lyrical masterwork that builds and blooms in all the right places—and in places you’d never expect.” I saw Volcano Choir perform these songs live at First Ave in Minneapolis in October, and that building and blooming happened over and over in dazzling color (side note: the same folks doing the visuals behind The National on this tour did the Volcano Choir show lights as well). You have to watch this explosive, redemptive moment, one of my favorite live concert moments of 2013. The way that video looks is how this whole album feels to me.
This record is a finely-crafted, understated gem that I’ve been listening to constantly for these last few months, and yep: I just realized that it came out in 2011 and I don’t even care -damn everything. I am including it on this list anyways because this is a 2013 discovery for me, and it should be on your radar. That I am two years late is immaterial. Also, this is a blog so I can do what I want.
Tamara Lindeman is a Toronto musician, and kismet brought her into my orbit in November at the Denver Music Summit to see a late-night art gallery performance of her songs, under the band name The Weather Station. She sat in the center of a circle of white lights in front of the photographs hanging on the walls, and I was transfixed by her restrained, wonderfully droll delivery of these finely-wrought folk songs. She reminded me strongly of another Canadian, Joni Mitchell, or perhaps Laura Marling. I have been listening to this record on repeat, and it keeps yielding up new quiet layers. Get this album; better late than never.
I first listened to this record from Kevin Large (Widower) in Portland in January on cross-town bus rides for school, watching the grey buildings and pastel clapboard houses flick past on wet streets. It was love at first listen. Maybe it is because of the setting where I first heard it, but to me, Fool Moon is a loamy record that feels like a waterlogged seaside town smelling of salt and rust — like forgetting. Or being forgotten. This is a melancholy collection of songs that wrestles to balance beginning-again with battlescars, while being punched clean through with regrets. The night I first heard it, I listened to it once, and then three times more in quick and complete succession; it felt like an oil lamp smoldering the banish some of the damp greyness around me.
Despite some wide open big-sky moments on the album, like on the opening song “Jumper Cables” (on my Spring mix here), or the sweetly wheeling “Oh Catherine, My Catherine,” there’s this gorgeous hesitancy woven through this record on most of the songs. This year, even now, that is perfect for me and what I need.
I also wanted to end this post with my song to welcome in 2014. Curt Krause (frontman of the band Edmund Wayne) was one of the wonderful soul-connections I made this year through music when he came to my house recently to play a house concert. This new song, “1616,” briefly appeared online two weeks ago, and I recognized it as one that blindsided me in the best way at the house concert.
It’s a real nice way to welcome in this new year. Here’s to 2014.
Give me a good day
one without the heaviest load
and pockets of something
doesn’t have to be money or fame, all wrapped in cellophane
a heart, or two hearts on a boat
sounds like a good day…
a good day
Another year of music has come and gone, dense with wonder and goodness. I can’t possibly articulate the qualitatively-best albums of the year, but I can mentally categorize into my favorites (something that has been a hot discussion topic this week with my musical friends). These are my favorite albums that were released in 2012 — tallied in a scientific manner of how long it took me to take the record off repeat. When I love something, I tend to love music furiously and unrelentingly, listening to it on repeat for weeks and months until I get sick of it. I’m not sick of any of these wonderful records yet, and in fact they keep getting better the more I listen.
Here are my favorite ten albums of 2012, in alphabetical order by artist. Take a listen: there are some wonderful things here you might have missed.
Ohhhh, this record. This is a strong, rootsy, growly record that is also stunningly beautiful. Philadelphia “death gospel” musician Adam Arcuragi sings from the very base of his guts, with his head back and his heart forward. Singing along with him and his Lupine Chorale Society (from lupo, the latin word for wolf) during their chapel session, with my head back and heart forward as well, was a highlight of the year for me in terms of the soul elevation, something that this music has in loads. This was definitely one for much-needed replenishment this year.
Andrew Bird has made a spry, elegant record, full of darting violin, freewheeling gypsy stomping, lugubrious plucking, and his famous whistling in true virtuoso style. It is also a complicated record: best listened to as a whole, complete with the interspersed short musical interlude songs that pepper through the larger orchestral numbers. It feels like a journey. Songs like “Lazy Projector” soundtracked long hot summer nights for me, and into the winter this record has continued to be one I reach for often.
Afie Jurvanen cut his musical touring teeth with Feist and the Broken Social Scene kids, and is now on his second record of his own songs. This record is brimming with charm and a sort of playfulness that draws on old Sun-Studios session sounds, lots of golden space and reverb in the room, and so hard not to move your hips back and forth. Afie’s voice is so warm and honeyed (he’s on the super-shortlist for Chapel Sessions in 2013) that this record is completely irresistible.
This feels like a hard-fought record, wrought by a voice who deserves to be around for a very long time. Al Spx’s voice is transfixing, and resonates with this timeless gospel weight that seems to know more than her 24 years should allow. Her video for “Holland” is one of the most perfect things to happen in a long time, visually weaving together the decay and the growth, the chaos and the intention. There is immense power in this record. When she sings: “I am, I am / I am, I am a goddamned believer,” it’s as if she is trying to convince herself, maybe. Sometimes it is hard to be a believer, goddamit. She gets it.
There is a ghostly swing to this record, the twelfth (depending on how you count) from the insanely talented and insanely prolific Seattle songwriter Damien Jurado. It’s haunting and flawless all at once, with the echo of rain on the roof and children singing in chorus – it is as unsettling and it is perfectly incisive. Another Jurado collaboration with Richard Swift, this record is so full of goodness (“I want you and the skyline / these are my demands.” ??? COME ON) that it is almost too powerful some days.
One summer night at 3am, I found myself sitting up with Field Report around my kitchen table, talking about songwriting and art and intentionality (and reading this Annie Dillard essay aloud – thanks, Jonathan). The more I heard Chris Porterfield talk about his songs, giving even small insights into them, the more I decided that this record resonates with the way my brain sees stories unfold in the world. It’s breathtaking. This album feels, to me, like an insistent wrestling with fever dreams, the small failings that slice at us, and the things we wanted and meant to do, but somehow got lost along the way. The words unravel for me like rich poems, to roll over and over in my head, hearing new things each time. Field Report is an anagram of Chris Porterfield, a Wisconsin musician who was once in the band DeYarmond Edison with Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and the Megafaun guys, and he has now crafted a record of his own. These songs took him years to wrestle out, and I am so glad he kept fighting.
Man, this record. The piece of writing I worked out about it earlier this month says exactly what I want to say:
What I hear when I listen to this record is a ragged bravery, a loose-knuckled grip on any sort of stability, and a gorgeous musical honesty. It’s a complicated, outstanding record. Fiona wheels and rages and turns her scalpel alternately fiercely in on herself and outward on a lover (who she calls out by name, more than once). It feels much more raw and bloody than previous records, as she continues to push forward with letting classical prettiness go. I think that notion alone deserves a slow clap, in a society that tends to prefer our ladyfolk a bit more decorous and docile.
This humble, perfect record landed softly on my ears on Easter morning, as the world was waking up. Isaac Pierce crafts songs out of Seattle that meander and drift, thoughtfully probing before landing perfectly where they need to be. He is a songwriter who taps into the exact same navigation my brain steers by, and this EP is deeply satisfying. “We get to be alive / sleep on your porch tonight / with certain distant songs playing, remind me to thank you for bringing us out here just in time…” All bruises heal.
Isaac is playing a house show for me THIS Wednesday, on January 2, with The Changing Colors (chapel session alums from early on) and Mike Clark (whose “Smooth Sailin’” track started and titled my Summer 2012 mix). You really, really should come.
This is a slowly-building, warmly calescent record that totally took me by surprise by how much and how quickly I adored it. I think this record is what a roadtrip might sound like across the West Texas desert if I brought Fleet Foxes along in the bed of my pickup truck, and added some warm Afro-Caribbean polyrhythms.
This is an album of heft and grief, but also of a hovering loveliness. You don’t often get those two together because the one usually crushes the other. Sharon balances both. This record strips and excoriates me, which sounds terrible but is the exact opposite: the type of brave catharsis that is so exquisitely and purely crafted that it makes all the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Her songs wrestle with the desire to love as new as she can, despite her scars, and often start quiet and thoughtfully but crescendo into a hurricane. This is a tremendous, tremendous album.
New Artist I Am Most Excited About in 2013: Night Beds
Because of a voice like this:
In the old tunnels off Gold Camp Road in Western Colorado Springs, Winston Yellen of Night Beds (debut record out February 5 on Dead Oceans) covered 1950s chanteuse Jo Stafford last night, illuminated by the car headlights.
The first Fuel/Friends Tunnel Session, and a pretty damn good way to end 2012.
2011 has turned out to be the year in music where I found myself resting, and drinking deeply. If you look at the three major music festivals I went to in 2011 (other than SXSW, which is always a debaucherous 1000-mph wonderful mess) they were all of the scenic, restorative type: camping at Sasquatch at Washington’s Columbia River Gorge, Telluride Bluegrass where I pitched my tent right by a rushing river, and Doe Bay Fest on isolated Orcas Island in the San Juans. The ethos of these music festivals, more than anything, is a sturdy summation of the music I enjoyed this year – music that sounds good by rivers, with friends, or under the stars.
Speaking of rivers, I kept finding myself near them this year, and being drawn to songs that either spoke explicitly of them (ref: autumn mix) or artists whose overall sound evoked that for me over and over (see: Vandaveer, below). Not only just rivers; this year I dreamt of swimming pools. Two years ago I remember a dream where I was forcing my way through choking growth, gnarled and thick in a jungle, somewhere unrelentingly humid. I broke through into a clearing where there was an abandoned swimming pool, which, really, if you think about it, is one of the saddest spaces imaginable. It sat there, cracked and empty, dirty in the middle of the place you need it most. A swim would have felt so good. And it wasn’t able to hold any water. It would have run out the cracks in the bottom.
And then one night not too long ago, after I returned from a fairly transformative trip back through Europe, I dreamt I was with the best kind of old friend, again on foreign shores; we slipped down clean white subway tiles into the sparkling water of that gigantic pool. My hair was getting wet, I remember I kept thinking about that. The tiles were so flawless. The water was so perfect. Refreshment. Saturation.
Reconstitution. This was a year for that kind of music.
2011 was also the year we got the Fuel/Friends Chapel Sessions rolling, after years of wanting to try something like it. The pieces all fell into place with the generous help of Conor and Ian from Blank Tape Records, and the somewhat fleeting discussion we had one night over beers: “you know, how about, like — in Shove Chapel? It’s so gorgeous in there.” We’ve now captured the acoustic songs of over a dozen magnificent bands and solo artists as they made their way through this gorgeous Rocky Mountain State, and each hour spent recording was humming with magic. We hope to welcome as many next year. The very first session we did, with The Head and The Heart, was even released this year as the UK bonus tracks on their self-titled debut album (via Heavenly Recordings). Yep, that felt pretty good, to share that sparkly sort of magic afternoon with so many people.
So: favorite albums that soundtracked my year? Here are the ten that I’ve listened to the most during the journey this year with deep enjoyment, from musicians that I am excited about. These are all bands that shimmered and exploded for me this year. All are worth some of your Christmas (or Hanukkah) money that’s burning a hole in your pocket. I continue to be grateful for albums like this.
FUEL/FRIENDS 10 FAVORITES OF 2011
(alphabetical, by band)
I’ve long had a thing for Colin Meloy’s mellifluous and flawlessly incisive vocabulary (it’s the way to my heart, you know) but haven’t really dove deeply into being a comprehensive fan of The Decemberists’ uber-literate chamber-rock for geeks. This year’s The King Is Dead bust down the last of my resistances and made me a full-fledged fan, blending rootsy gorgeousness and bluegrass twang throughout (recorded on Pendarvis Farm in Oregon) on this big and bursting album.
Joining the band on this effort was the marvelous propulsion by Peter Buck (R.E.M.) on jangly guitar, and Gillian Welch also makes her first of two appearances here on my year-end list with the flawless combination of her voice and Colin’s voices twining together throughout. In addition to the bright and jaunty jangle, there are moments of quiet, introspective beauty as well on songs like “June Hymn” and the closer “Dear Avery,” which I just love. This album has so many elements that pierce through perfectly: the wheezing of harmonica, a little banjo and the pierce of the fiddle, but also the acoustic fingerpicking on guitar and whiz-bang wordplay. Seeing The Decemberists at Telluride was one of the highlights this year, a simply perfect setting in which to experience this gem of an album.
Not to be confused with the danceable Spanish band from Ibiza named after 1985′s most bitchin time machine, Dolorean is from Portland, has at times served as Damien Jurado’s backing band, and released four records in their own right. I keep track of which band is which by remembering the Spanish word for sadness, dolor, and then listening to the record — and all things flow accordingly. The Unfazed is not a sad record, per se, but it is deeply wistful and bittersweet, and in that richness there is a healthy wash of beauty.
This is a complex, richly gorgeous album of melancholy and ache. Al James’s voice soars with this vulnerable, incisive timbre that cuts right into me. I’ve played it on the stereo for friends when they come over, and the comments I get are often equal parts Ryan Adams/Heartbreaker and Blind Pilot’s smoky, multi-hued, string-laden beauty. This is a marvelous record, front to back. Like the album cover marries “high art” with the impassioned graffiti scrawls of our most base desires, this album sings to me about knowing better, but doing anyways.
Frank Turner came blazing into my ears this summer through the persistent rallying cry from my friends at The Ruckus. From the first listen in the heat of this summer, I was knocked flat on my musical ass by several of my favorite things in music coming together in his anthemic, thoughtful, urgent bar rock that makes me feel alive. Above all, Frank sings like he’s staying hungry, with an undiluted joy in his music for me and unvarnished exuberance, even when he is singing of more heady subject matter.
The Springsteen comparisons are incontrovertible, and he crafts some whoppers of lyrics: “Life is about love, last minutes and lost evenings / about fire in our bellies and about furtive little feelings, and the aching amplitudes that set our needles all a-flickering…” YES. Or this rallying cry: ”And who’d have thought that after all, something as simple as rock and roll would save us all?” A humble sentiment, but listening to Frank Turner, much like when I first heard Gaslight Anthem or Lucero, yes – it seems obvious that something as simple as that, well — it just might.
I continue to appreciate Leslie Feist’s bottomless reservoirs of imaginative musical creativity, led by that voice steeped in a warm, classical throaty beauty that magnetizes every song that it is a part of. Feist is an artist of brilliant imagination, and I think we need more imagination in our lives, more of those unclassifiable moments and unclassifiable records like this one. We need the ability to look at one person standing in a warehouse and picture dozens of rainbow-clad dancers falling out in an arc of motion, or picture that just maybe this morning our toast will fly out the window on tiny pink wings.
That imagination also soaks Metals, her fourth album, and I really appreciate how no two Feist albums or even two songs on the same album are similar. You can have orchestral jazziness one moment, trip-hop the next, playful pop classics with stomping and snapping, and finally these mournful sparse melodies to round it all out. On this album I hear a darker weight to the songs, a level of maturity in the music. The record was recorded partly in Big Sur, California, which is near where I’m from, and if you’ve been there you know that the two things which might leave a lingering impression are the immense redwood trees and the blanketing fog. It’s an atmosphere you can see in her video for “How Come You Never Go There,” and that spirit pervades a lot of this record. A gorgeous record, this one — Metals shows the continuing regenesis and reinvention of Feist.
GILLIAN WELCH - THE HARROW & THE HARVEST
Together with her longtime musical partner David Rawlings, this is the first Gillian Welch record since 2003, and it’s a moody, often-dark, languid album of subtle beauty that was totally worth the wait. These two have an incredible songwriting partnership, with their intricate guitar and banjo work, their harmonies that sound birthed from the very same celestial vein. This one also feels like a chronicle of a journey, with the triplet of songs “The Way It Will Be,” “The Way It Goes,” and “The Way The Whole Thing Ends” arcing a tense thread throughout their sparse Americana, and punctuated by stunners like “Dark Turn of Mind.”
This is a smart record, loaded with lines that whap you across the face in their sly perfection. “Now I’ve tried drinking rye and gamblin, dancing with damnation is a ball / but of all the little ways I’ve found to hurt myself, well you might be my favorite one of all,” Gillian sings in a drawl, but with the precision of a scalpel. There is a spacious pensiveness in this record, and I keep listening over and over, going deeper and my toes haven’t scraped the rocky bottom yet.
Pickwick is a band out of Seattle of six white guys who sound, when they make music, quite convincingly like a soul & blues band from a generation ago, but in a refreshing way, without any posturing. This was the year that Pickwick quite literally found their voice and have shot off into my stratosphere with what they’ve hit upon together. They used to be an ambient folk band, but shockingly found it hard to rise above the din in Seattle with that sound. So one day, frontman Galen Disston was in a cubicle at work and heard “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke “jump out of the speakers” — it hit him powerfully, as Sam is wont to do, and totally changed his perspective about what kind of effect he wanted his music to strive for. So, at the next band practice, they tried something completely new, and oh my does it absolutely work.
Galen seems an unlikely frontman, with his wild curly brown hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and hands that knead each other while he kinesthetically works all the songs out of his lungs. One of my favorite observations about him this year was the person who commented on a friend’s Facebook how unexpected Galen’s voice was, writing: “In a million years you wouldn’t pin that voice coming from him. He’s like, ‘Hello, I’m here to fix your Internet,’ then, BOOM. Voice.” Precisely.
There’s that ambush acapella performance in the gorgeous gothic-style reading room at the University of Washington library. Watching it, Galen is absolutely, without a doubt, is in his element when he sings — he nearly vibrates an easy tidal wave of vocal power, inhabiting and swimming free inside the song. You can see the confidence and the difference, even from the recorded songs on the album, or their KEXP performance from earlier this year, and it is electrifying. They are recording their full-length debut album right now, and will be touring in the Spring (including SXSW). I predict pretty massive and wonderful things for these fellows, and for everyone who hears them in 2012.
RURAL ALBERTA ADVANTAGE - DEPARTING
(Saddle Creek Records)
Rural Alberta Advantage is an elemental band of just three people, with a chemistry that has produced this potent record of push and pull and tension — both in the juxtaposition of the prominent percussion and the distinctive melodies, and also in the vocals of Nils Edenloff and Amy Cole. I went through a phase this summer where I was falling asleep to this record on a regular basis, which is completely weird because it’s heavily drum-based and rough, with almost a punk-rock feel, but to me the percussion literally works with a narcotic effect, helping shut down my brain. Drummer Paul Banwatt is my hero on this record, the star of every single song.
RAA is another band I crossed paths with at SXSW this past March, for a midnight show in a church. The echo and clang were riveting, but they simply took my breath away with the final song of their set, and converted me immediately to this entire record. Like the feeling of the fog-blanketed desolation in the cover art, this is a record chronicling the holding tight and the letting go in nearly every song, every line. Departing is their sophomore album, and is out on Saddle Creek Records (Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley, Two Gallants), a label I tend to associate with urgent, percussive, melodic music.
This is a record from a young songwriter originally from Atlanta, a dozen songs about the ending of one relationship, told with honesty and effervescence. Tyler recorded it in one day, just two days before he moved away from Atlanta and off to the golden coasts of Southern California. He told me he spent $250 total mastering this record, and enlisted some friends to fill in the wonderful instrumentation on this record, the flutes and the cello and the banjo, to technicolor effect. Because it all came pouring out in one day, more than anything this album feels like one exceedingly honest and humble snapshot to me, without artifice, in the best possible way.
I remember when David Gray’s first record came out, the one he wrote and recorded all in his bedroom and arrived out of nowhere, there was a little sticker on the front of that record from Dave Matthews that said something like “…David Gray is beautiful in the purest and most honest way.” No one really knew of David Gray at that time, but the same way that record pierced me reminds me a lot of why I can’t stop listening to Tyler Lyle also, especially on songs like “Sorrow” or “When I Say That I Love You.” People haven’t heard of Tyler, but they will. He’s a young wordsmith who says precisely what he means, with immense talent and a beautifully open heart. The first song muses, ”I think it’s enough to feel the fire” — and this album makes me do that.
I first saw this band in a live video performance from SXSW, where eleven of them crammed into an elegant ballroom in the classy Driskill Hotel and launched into a song medley together that just simmered and exploded cathartically, with all their instruments and their heads thrown back and the voices raising together. Every time I watch that video, even now, it makes me wonder where the hell else nearby I was and why I hadn’t seen them for this.
With a name that suggests a warm wet tropical cyclone, you better deliver something worthy of the moniker, and this band of early-20-somethings from Portland certainly does that, in spades, with their dozen-ish members on stage. There’s an innocence to their music, this brilliant shimmering springtime feel — but also the weight of experience with some of the more difficult parts of life, also. Kyle Morton, the lead singer and primary songwriter, was bitten by a tick when he was young and struggled for years with an initially undiagnosed Lyme disease infection, which stunted his growth some, and isolated him with health issues throughout childhood. A lot of his songs wrestle with themes of that lost innocence — the threat of death — God and suffering. But it’s not maudlin; it’s authentic, and it’s beautiful.
I love the cavalcade of sound and voices that is truly overwhelming. There’s some of the shimmering, redemptive waves of orchestral joy and colossal thumping force that we find to love in Fanfarlo. When they all throw their heads back and sing “alleluia, it will be gone soon,” I get chills, every time.
So I’ve been magnetically drawn to rivers for some reason this year, as I mentioned earlier, and they’ve played an important part in several pivotal memories in 2011. This record reminds me entirely and completely of a powerful river, and I’ve been stupid in-love with it from first listen in late July.
Vandaveer’s music has all kinds of wonderful nods in it to old, rich music: spirituals, dirges, and songs of rejoicing. It often feels primal and organic in the percussion (lots of handclaps), elegant in the wending warmth of the cello. The lyrics are also dang smart; one just needs to listen to a rich allegory on songs like “Spite” to know that. But the real currents that pull me throughout this record comes from the vocal pairings of Rose Guerin’s icy deep low harmonies and Mark Charles Heidinger’s wending ripples and currents that tug us around the rocks. Heidinger’s voice has this vinegar of sadness around it that actually reminds me of Nina Simone (something I would never expect); they both have that slight metallic tang and bitter aftertaste that sounds regretful all the way through. Absolutely terrific, this one.
And so, another year marches to a close — another fantastic, adventure-filled, technicolor year. It’s the time when all of us start kicking around our neatly-bulleted lists of bests and worsts. For me, the more I read these lists, the more I feel that I missed more albums and artists than I heard this year.
The stats are staggering: in 2002, about 33,000 albums were released. In 2006 that number was 75,000. Last year close to 100,000 albums were released, with only roughly 800 of those albums selling more than 5K. It’s tough out there — to be heard, and to feel as a listener that you have adequately given a shot to even a fraction of a representative sample of one year’s offerings. I always feel this keening bittersweet regret at the end of each year, as so much more music was released than any one human woman can possibly digest or invest in.
That being said, I had a fairly simple time picking what my personal favorite albums were for 2010, of the ones I heard. I absolutely loved what Carrie Brownstein wrote on her NPR blog about these year-end lists.
She muses: “So I’ll admit that I’m not quite certain how to sum up an entire year in music anymore; not when music has become so temporal, so specific and personal, as if we each have our own weather system and what we listen to is our individual forecast. I’ve written a lot about music bringing people together, fomenting community, and many albums still did act as bonfires in 2010 . . . but many of us are also walking around with a little lighter in hand, singing along to some small glow that’s stuck around long enough to make us feel excited to be alive.”
That is exactly, precisely what I feel. And really, what is any top ten list but an assessment of those songs, those artists, those albums that have hit us square in the solar plexus exactly where we are sitting?
These are the albums that lodged deep and sharp into my red heart and made this year richer, smarter, harder and easier, sharper, sparklier, and all the more brilliant. And some of them seriously made me dance.
This is just one of the coolest albums released all year — maybe all decade. And I mean the kind of cool that is quintessential, untouchable, badass, just strutting down a sunny street with-your-own-theme-song type of cool. It blends their trademark swampy, bluesy, fuzzed-out guitars with crisp sharp beats that sliced right through that weight the first time I put this album in, on my roadtrip to Missouri. I think I listened to it on repeat through at least two (long, loooong) states and it was love at first listen from that point on.
Additionally – if there is a sicker breakdown all year than what happens here at 1:02, I don’t wanna know about it.
This album from the Canadian side of the verdant Pacific Northwest was an unexpected discovery this year, recommended to me by a friend who helps arrange the Telluride Bluegrass Festival (another favorite thing of this year, but hey we’ll get to that). Dan Mangan has made a dense, thoroughly gorgeous album, heavy on the intelligent lyrics, his oaky-warm voice weaving in amongst a whole orchestra of instruments. This album is beautifully arranged and well-crafted, one you can swim deeply in during rainy days all winter long (although I discovered it in August and it sounded just as good in the sticky warmth).
DREW GROW AND THE PASTORS’ WIVES – SELF-TITLED
Drew Grow and his band The Pastors’ Wives hail from Portland, making music that easily straddles and jumps across genres to create something marvelously rich and endlessly interesting. The sound production throughout feels like an old, warm, crackly album (tip: get it on white vinyl while you can) with something urgent to say. From those fuzzy, sexy, pleadingly plaintive blues jams like “Company” to the aggressive push-and-tug of the rowdy “Bootstraps” and the dulcet golden ’50s croon of songs like “Hook,” this album has pleased me completely. Every song is a favorite.
The opening “Bon Voyage Hymn” sets the tone for this album (if it has one) of a sort of rough-hewn, honest, rock gospel as Drew howls, “Sing a shelter over me / With a mighty chorus, slaves set free.” And by that I mean the oldest spirit of gospel, in community and a shared love of singing, with our heads thrown back and our feet stomping — but while the guitar squalls and the dirty drums crash. At the house show they played for me in November, it was like the best kind of church, a jaw-dropping explosion of goodness.
From the first evening back in early summer when I streamed this Seattle six-piece’s songs on my tinny computer speakers, I was reeled in hook line and sinker. The song sang about something that sounds like a hallelujah, the sheer delight of embracing with all of your heart and both your dancing shoes, and no band this year has given me more of that musical enjoyment – whether in a parking garage very late at night, or in the living room of an old house. Amidst the warmth, the uncanny wisdom, and undeniably catchy musical & rhythmic foundations of this band, there is magic. We will be hearing a good deal more from them in 2011, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Sounds Like Hallelujah – The Head and The Heart
This is, simply put, a kinetic album. Jónsi blends his native Icelandic language with forays into English, creating the dizzying effect of running fast through a dream forest, not exactly understanding what is being said and not needing to. He’s made an intricate, joyful album of grandeur that is uplifting and challenging without being overly twee or silly. It is a delicate balance to strike. The paint-spatter of colors on the album cover precisely depict what this explosive album sounds like – purple, yellow, deep red, shot through with sunlight.
This album was completely unlike anything else that I heard this year, and made me simultaneously smile widely and furrow my brow. It’s the most imaginative album I’ve heard all year, perfect at evoking things like riding the back of a jet-black dragon over canyons. Yes, and yes. Please.
I’ve said before that I think Josh Ritter is one of the most important and talented songwriters of our generation; this album is a stellar example of why. Through these thirteen sprawling songs, Josh demonstrates to me again exactly why I love the way that he sees the world. When I interviewed him this summer, he said he admires those who “see what everybody else has seen, think what nobody else has thought.”
Josh pens incisive, piercing, widely-varying folk songs with the comfortable intelligence of one who is in no hurry, yet is passionate in pursuing his muse and getting his stories out into the world. Highlights here like “The Curse,” “Folk Bloodbath,” “Another New World,” and “Lantern” are jaw-dropping. Josh has a remarkable way of teasing out truths about the world (seen and unseen), and poking into the human conditions in my own heart with a greater acuity than most out there.
That song also contains one of my favorite lyrics of this entire year: “So throw away those lamentations, we both know them all too well / If there’s a book of jubilations, we’ll have to write it for ourselves / So come and lie beside me darlin’ — let’s write it while we still got time.”
From the first time I heard Lissie’s soulful, immensely evocative voice earlier this year on her song “Everywhere I Go,” I was riveted. Who was this slight, freckled blond gal with the echoes of an entire fifty-member church choir in her lungs? Originally from Rock Island, Illinois, Lissie has harnessed both the brilliance of the sunshine of her new California home on her debut album, as well as all the gnarls of her roots. Bluesy, confident melodies and goosebump-inducing howls are here in scads — this is a notably substantial first album from a woman to be reckoned with.
“We could start tonight, slide back the deadbolts…” Matt Pond suggests at the beginning of this autumnal album with rich hues that gave me endless listening pleasure this year. I was glad I took him up on the invite. I’d admired the work of the Brooklyn songwriter in spurts and starts over the past few years, but this is the first album of his that I have really immersed myself into his uniquely lovely, thrumming view of the world.
There is a sort of expansive, wide-eyed glow in this album that seems to invite transcendent things to happen. From the specks of silver he sings about in the evening sky and the illumination all around us, I love the way things look like an adventure when I am listening. “First hips, then knees, then feet – don’t think anymore,” he sings. Good idea, Matt.
This is a decimating, gorgeous, elegant album, much like Boxer was but with additional hints of weirdness and unsettled edges that I like. I was ridiculously excited about this album (in a sort of masochistic way, since I know full well what The National are capable of), devouring every word I could read about it before it came out. The single best definition I heard came from Matt Berninger himself when he said they wanted it to sound “like loose wool and hot tar.” In that regard, they completely succeed – their music is dark, burning, sticking to your skin and all your insides.
This is an incredible album full of terse, razor-sharp observations on the worries that wait in the shadows for me and gnaw when they get a chance: I think the kids are in trouble… you’ll never believe the shitty thoughts I think… I was less than amazing… I tell you terrible things when you’re asleep. But I won’t lie when I say I found some of the strongest redemption of my year in this music as well, with the closing track “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” — singing along with lines “all the very best of us string ourselves up for love / man it’s all been forgiven, swans are a-swimmin…” The honesty of the darkness shot through with these glints is what keeps drawing me back to these guys, fiercely.
Kristian Mattson slays me – there are no two ways about it. When he sings on this album, “I plan to be forgotten when I’m gone,” it is almost comical because nothing really seems further from the truth. Mattson’s songs have the kind of heft and intricacy that make me certain his music will be around for a very long time after him. His guitarwork is sparkling, impassioned, and inspired. The words he selects and the way he delivers them are pointed and deliberate. I can’t tell if his lyrics are so sharp in spite of the fact that English is not his first language, or because of it – as if perhaps he can see more clearly through our muddy sea of language to pick out the iridescent rocks from the river.
Also: it’s worth noting that his EP released this year was equally good – serious brilliant work.
I cannot stop listening to Eric Anderson, as evidenced by the fact that I have put him on just abouteverymix I made in 2010, and listen to this album most days lately on my walk to work. After a chance encounter with his music on a college radio show of a friend, I’ve been smitten by his earnest, unvarnished, incredibly catchy way of looking at the world that simultaneously makes me smile and breaks my heart. You know me. I like that.
He’s got a new album “Prison Boxing” coming out in 2011, according to Facebook. I plan to be substantially more on top of that one.
Speaking of snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes, I worked my last December day of the year on Friday, and now am settling into two luscious weeks of time off over the holidays (one of the hidden benefits of working in academia!). Before the college closed, I went to the radio studio on one of the snowiest and coldest days of the year and recorded my third year-end appearance on NPR’s World Cafe with David Dye. We chatted about some of my favorite albums from this year, and you can listen on Friday January 1st, at 2pm/ET on the radio or 3pm/ET on the XPN website — or stream the archived show through the NPR site shortly after it airs. Whee!
Now in the waning countdown before Christmas, as we open our advent calendars and go on walks to look at the lights, I revel in concentrated time to do things I enjoy — like talk to you all about some of my favorites things in 2009, this last year of the decade.
FUEL/FRIENDS FAVORITE THINGS IN 2009: TEN ALBUMS
THE XX, XX
Hands down, this is my favorite album of the year. They’re barely twenty, but The xx have created a stunningly complete, addictively good album. I cannot get enough of this London band, formed around the female/male pair of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim — best friends from school since they were age three. Their self-titled debut album fuses sparse, effortlessly cool beats and a new-wave sensibility, with thoroughly delicious male/female vocals that play off of each other like the best doo-wop or soul duets. Their playful back-and-forth chemistry (oddly) reminds me of an analgesic, blissed-out Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, in the perfection of the duet. Romy’s voice is very malleable, an immensely flirtatious alto, and in every place, Oliver’s is the perfect counterweight back.
Recorded largely in a garage at the XL studios, over the course of many nights and in the wee small hours of the morning, the album is meticulous and quiet, but it also laden with space and echoes that get under my skin. It is an unabashedly sexy album, full of insinuating bass-lines that propel the songs forward, and clever bits of minimalistic drum machine or coy xylophone melodies. Everyone that I play this for, even if it’s on in the background, instantly wants to know who it is. I think it would be near impossible to not be drawn into this album. It’s like a sticky spiderweb.
I first heard this indie-bluegrass folk band from London while prepping for SXSW early in 2009. The friend who sent me the link knows of (and is largely responsible for) my love for The Avett Brothers, and here in the music of Mumford & Sons I found the wrenching honesty of Frightened Rabbit blended with the banjo-plucking soul and brotherly harmonies of the Avetts. I was completely sold from the very first listen, and I have listened to this album more than almost anything else this year. Sigh No More is out in the UK now, coming to the US on Glassnote Records in early 2010.
This young band makes honest, compelling music that veers towards triumphant even as they chronicle the litany of life’s difficulties. It’s epic and substantial music, loaded to overflowing with truth that crawls under my skin with its vulnerability. And perhaps it’s the multiple voices rising together of all the band members, but there is a distinct feeling of kinship here, almost like a gospel choir or a Greek chorus, a community vibe that lends some sort of strength through such raw lyrical content. As one who often mulls over issues larger than I can get my head around, I appreciated this year how folks like David Bazan, Mountain Goats, J Tillman, and Mumford and Sons all truthfully explored matters of God and grace and falling and seeking in their music. Mumford and Sons are intensely wise in their lyrics, seeming to bely a personal understanding of God’s grace to a broken world, but also an intense, brutal struggle. As I wrote to a friend, “I love how they sing both about grace and the Maker’s plan, but also bald-facedly sing, ‘I really fucked it up this time.’”
Fanfarlo exploded this year from Sweden and the UK, with a shimmering, hard-driving, gorgeously colored album. There’s so much brilliant light in their songs that they’re almost like the anti-xx to my ears this year. I first fell in love with their song (and video) for “Harold T. Wilkins” right before SXSW this year, and then was sucked into their debut album deeply and irrevocably. It is rich, primal, earnest, and effervescent. Although I was first enticed by the thumping drums and the cathartic yell-along lines, they use a hugely expressive palette of instruments — heavy on the shiny trumpets, the dazzling saws, mandolins and accordion.
Lead singer Simon Balthazar has a distinctive voice that’s absolutely evocative of a young David Byrne; all swoops and vibrato, but powerful and clear. The songs often feature time-signature shifts and a loosely-corralled sense of musical primal anarchy that reminds me of Arcade Fire at times, but with a greater effervescence (like a sheer wash of fluorescent color dripping down). It is a stupendous album, first song to last.
Several albums I loved this year fused fascinating, seemingly disparate sounds together to make new amalgamations of awesomeness. Handsome Furs come from Canada via Seattle’s famed Sub Pop label, and have a very simple formula behind this fantastic album: raggedly anthemic electric guitar and howlingly visceral vocals (from Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner) with sexy-as-hell electronic drum machine beats (from the whipsmart bombshell Alexei Perry).
Face Control is unrelenting, often veering from effortless cool to earnest anthems in the same song – laced through with a seething mutual lust between these married two that melts the paint off the walls. The album radiates an icy Eastern-European aesthetic that the duo talked fascinatingly about when we chatted in July. I was hooked from the first time I popped the promo CD into my car stereo player on a roadtrip earlier this year, the yellow lines on the highway flying past to their immense beats. And to watch these two create their music live together at the Larimer Lounge (see: Favorite Shows This Year) was scorching, and somehow even more fantastic than this supernova of an album. It all sounds good to these ears.
I like the way the world looks through a Roman Candle album. You stop to listen to the birds and frogs and cicadas, and see the beauty in every streetlight and every moth, and notice the millions of stars. Oh Tall Tree In The Ear is a fine bluesy Americana album full of richly literate lyrics that keep giving to me, even as I’ve listened to this album dozens of times. It’s hard to think back now in this cold winter weather, but not too long ago this was my soundtrack for the entire sticky warm months of July and August, driving around with my windows down and this sweetly unaffected album playing on my car stereo. It ranges from upbeat, windows-down tunes like this one (which I think channels some Mick Jagger) to slow, easygoing slow-dancing-on-the-back-porch tunes.
Although living in Nashville now, Roman Candle has roots that go back more than a decade in the Chapel Hills, North Carolina area, and those roots intertwine with folks I love like Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary, which is what made me initially take a listen. I was summarily knocked off my hammock this summer by this thoughtfully-crafted little album, and its real attention to detail. You can listen to the lyrics like they’re poems. The title of the album is taken from a Rilke sonnet, and many songs are woven much more densely with subtle wisdom than you might pick up on first listen through. There’s a mature wisdom in the lyrics about love, attempting to balance growing up and growing old with someone, and that desire to go off and see Rome and watch the river go by, or hearing a song on a radio that makes you want to hop a train. As easygoing as it feels on initial listens, it keeps yielding up new rich appreciations every time I listen to it.
Langhorne Slim takes his first name from the rolling farmland town in Pennsylvania, and he makes a delightfully anachronistic blend of music that seems half a step outside of our time. Yet he’s got a youthful passion that I very much relate to, the same stuff I hear in any of the young rock bands I love. Langhorne’s not even thirty yet, but a lot of his songs seem to capture this weight of another generation. There’s a ramshackle, loosely-hinged folk glory on Be Set Free, with threads of everything from soul-stirring gospel to old brokedown blues in his music. It’s all held together with his vulnerable, emotive tenor that’s reminiscent sometimes of Cat Stevens, but with the ragged folksy storytelling chops of the sixties folk troubadour generation. There’s also a larger cinematic quality on this release, where Slim tries broad additions to the recorded sound, whether it’s a horn section or a rootsy group of folks stomping along to his songs (and even a vocal duet cameo from Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards).
Langhorne is a very charming, earnest man, and this past September as we shared his bottle of wine in the old-fashioned Boulderado Hotel, one thing he said that stuck with me was how all the songs he writes are love songs. On this, his third album, those loves can take so many forms — from bidding farewell on heartbreaking songs like “I Love You But Goodbye,” to the convincing swagger of “Say Yes,” to one of my favorite lines of the whole year here on this song: “You can have my television, long as I got lips for kissin’ you, nobody but you…” over that huge shiny Wurlitzer explosion and the gospel handclaps. I’m a total goner.
I first fell in love with Lisa Hannigan‘s haunting voice when she contributed mournful duets throughout fellow Irishman Damien Rice’s debut album “O” in 2003 – I think she infused an immensely gorgeous, heartbreaking weight to songs like “The Blower’s Daughter.” So after the two parted ways a few years back, I’ve been waiting for this album of her solo material and it was completely worth the wait.
There’s an unvarnished air of clean-scrubbed honesty and clever inquiry on Sea Sew. I got to see Lisa play an acoustic set the day after Halloween, at a Denver bookstore in the middle of the afternoon, where she captivated everyone effortlessly. In addition to playing really every instrument I could think possible in the live setting (most of which I don’t know names for) she manages to blend whimsy and beauty without being silly, which is very difficult to do. There’s a charming imagination in her songs, a pristine and heartbreaking depth to her voice, and an incisive emotional honesty to this album that kills me.
KAREN O AND THE KIDS, Where The Wild Things Are Soundtrack
It’s a daunting task to take a beloved children’s book, especially one with only a few dozen pages, and make it into a full-length movie that both kiddos and adults can enjoy. It’s even harder to make a soundtrack that fuses all those primal, wonderful sentiments that course hot through Spike Jonze’s vision in the film, and capture the innocence of youth without sounding child-like. I dislike most kid’s music (no Raffi, no); it’s why my little guy likes things like Wilco and the Avett Brothers. Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and her band The Kids, have made an album we both loved wholeheartedly from the first enchanting singsong melody, which both of us have been humming around the house for months.
This is also a completely palatable album for those who never get near the small people, but who still connect with some of the urgency and imagination of youth. The earliest previews of this film featured a more wild, acoustic version of the Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up,” with the lyrics about “our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.” Perhaps their early involvement in my initial impression are why mentally I get a very similar and marvelous sense from this album, in a year where I also finally truly got into Arcade Fire (!!). This soundtrack takes us to another place, “through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost a year to where the wild things are.”
One of my students interned for a semester at the stellar Numero Group in Chicago this past Spring, they of the Eccentric Soul series and countless badass reissues from the lost vaults of cool. For a fresh-faced twenty year-old, Ben has formidable musical tastes, so when he told me to listen to Detroit whippersnapper Mayer Hawthorne, I took his advice immediately.
Mayer Hawthorne is only in his late twenties, and comes from a background of hip-hop/DJing, and despite a lifelong affinity for the sounds coming out of his dad’s old car stereo, he only started making this throwback doo-wop soul stuff just as a joke. Even the label heads couldn’t believe this was new material (not decades old) when Mayer first played his demos for them — even more amazing since he plays all the instruments, and recorded his swell songs on A Strange Arrangement at home in his bedroom. His music feels fresh and deliciously enjoyable – makes you wanna put on your good Sunday slacks and a healthy daub of Brylcreem and come buy me a mint julep.
It’s hard to cohesively talk about this double-disc compilation album, curated by The National’s Dessner brothers to raise funds and awareness for HIV/AIDS. The range of Dark Was The Night is so vast and all so beautiful, so achingly perfect in the variation. The overall mood in the 31 tracks (from a stunning variety of most of my favorite musicians) is mostly melancholy – although there are a few bright shiny spots from folks like Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings.
But from Antony covering Bob Dylan (and breaking my heart), to the duet with Conor Oberst and Gillian Welch that still sounds the closest to perfection that you can imagine –not to mention contributions from Bon Iver, Cat Power, The National, Grizzly Bear, Feist and Jose Gonzalez– this album is oozing with more flashes of talent than many albums this decade. So many things to love here, no wonder Dark Was The Night has already raised over $700,000 for HIV/AIDS. Beautiful.
I wrote this of their set in the open-air Spring humidity of Texas: Theirs was one of my most anticipated shows and Mumford & Sons didn’t disappoint. They opened with that new song “Sigh No More” that I posted last week and it absolutely slayed me. The chorus sings of “love that will not betray you, dismay or enslave you, it will set you free — be more like the man you were made to be.” I felt more like me, only better, when their set spun off at full tilt. Jawdroppingly pure.
Another year packed with music has come and gone. Music is a language I can’t create myself but it does me good to know that every hour someone out there is humming a snippet of a melody, returning to their seat at the bar with a head full of lyrics that just occurred to them, or tapping out a drumbeat on their leg in the car. People everywhere are trying to get it right, to get the music out just so they can be. I am glad that they do.
2008 was full of fantastic (and varied) music from all corners of the world for me. I sometimes feel overwhelmed with the quantity of music and the subjectivity that swirls around the ones that make it vs. the ones that no one ever hears. I wish I’d had more hours to listen to (and properly digest) more songs this year. As it is, these are ten albums (plus two EPs plus one carryover from last year) that affected me on a gut level in the past twelve months. These are the ones I listened to over and over, that knocked the wind out of me and made me glad I have ears.
These aren’t “the best.” These are just my favorites.
FUEL/FRIENDS FAVORITES OF 2008
Lucky Nada Surf(Barsuk) I’ve been surprised by the intensity with which I’ve listened to this album in 2008. I guess it’s tapping into the introspective moments of my year as it pertains to “grown-up life,” which Caws sings is like “eating speed or flying a plane — it’s too bright.” The album cover hints perfectly at the feel of the music; the moment where it’s still warm from the sun but the gorgeous pinpricks of light are starting to shine through. I talked today about the cascades of glory on this album, a blazing meteor from this band that’s been around so long. I saw Matthew Caws perform solo last night and he said, “We feel blessed to have a second story,” (post-mid-Nineties buzz band). “It’s the story we always wanted anyways.” I’ve listened to this album a hundred times this year and it still affects me deeply, makes it okay to be fragile — and to be on a vector up. [original review, interview]
Midnight Organ Fight Frightened Rabbit(Fat Cat) Coming from Scotland with their hearts held out for the offering, these two brothers plus two bandmates have crafted an album that is not for the fainthearted, but excellent for the honest. Over gorgeous melodies and with a thick and wrenching Scottish brogue, Frightened Rabbit guttingly dissect the moments of bravery and moments of weakness that go with a relationship ending. Peter Katis (The National) produced this lilting, rocking piece of perfection — unflinching in its intimacy. [original review, interview]
For Emma Forever Ago Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar) I didn’t know when I started 2008 just how much I would need this album. Justin Vernon recorded this achingly vulnerable album in the Wisconsin woods in the dead of cold winter as he recovered from a breakup. The name he adopted means “good winter” in French, and I think the name fits the music as well as that ice-encrusted window on the cover. In winter, things move a little slower, but with more crisply defined edges, and the first time I heard this something was scraped loose inside of me. His music is wrapped in a thin skin but a current thrums powerfully under the surface. This is an album that I am unable to shake. [watch: still one of the most perfect things I’ve seen this year]
Stay Positive The Hold Steady (Vagrant) I think the thing that gets me with the Hold Steady, this year or any past year when they’ve released an album, is that they are unabashed in their belief in rock and roll. Craig Finn is a modern day prophet who flails and explodes with the force of the catharsis of these fantastic sounding songs that they must get out. The lyrics trace some of the most intelligent, evocative stories you’ll hear with characters I feel I know by now (they might as well be breathing). This is an immense album, with the pounding piano that crashes across the songs and the brass instruments slicing through. Gorgeously grand and subversively hopeful. [original review]
The ’59 Sound The Gaslight Anthem (Side One Dummy) If the Hold Steady filter their love for Springsteen through a lens of kids raised on punk and The Replacements, Jersey’s Gaslight Anthem play with an urgency and passion of a pre-Born to Run Bruce, young and hungry. Lead singer Brian Fallon grew up in a home four blocks from E Street, and this band is crafting songs that hold up as well when howled out ragged as they do stripped down to their bare acoustic bones. There’s a wisdom and sometimes a resignation beyond their years.
Ode To Sunshine Delta Spirit (Rounder) Delta Spirit was formed in San Diego when lead singer Matt Vasquez was busking loudly by the train tracks and he met with Brandon Young at two in the morning. The honesty and sloppiness that bleeds through at 2am is captured well on this authentic album with a vintage feel. It basks in the warmth of the surf guitars, the singalongs and handclaps and banging on trashcan lids, the tinkly last-call piano over glasses clattering. [original review]
Dual Hawks Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel (Misra) The cinematic desert beauty and chugging fuzz-rock found side-by-side on this dual album swooped in late in the year to win me over. I saw an acoustic video of Will Johnson, who helms both bands, performing “I, The Kite,” from an album I’d passed over too quickly the first time around. Both bands are Will’s and explore different dimensions of his music — Centro-matic electric like the heat in the air even as the Texas August sun has just begun to rise, whereas the more muted, spacious South San Gabriel has tones of evening and fireflies. This album was written and recorded fast and pure in a handful of days in the studio, and has a feeling of distilled essentials.
Oh! Mighty Engine Neil Halstead (Brushfire Records) Taking six long years from his last solo release Sleeping On Roads, influential British musician Neil Halstead (Slowdive) comes quietly back with a humble album of acoustic folk melodies that rewards the listener for their patience. This is a slow grower for me, and I find that more hues in the songs are revealed to me the longer I sit with it — a task I am eminently willing to take on. Halstead sings about trying to get the colors right, and with these unassuming tunes I think he does.
The Great Collapse Everything Absent or Distorted(self-released) This Denver collective does things full tilt. They play with seemingly all the instruments they can find, in order to squeeze the earnest beauty out of every melody and every rhythm. They fearlessly meld incisive lyrics with a resilient hope, like on “Aquariums”: “We are aquariums — left outside, but we hold life and a bright light in our glass walls.” With eight official members (and up to 15 on stage) EAOD is a joy to watch, and that joy transmits onto this smart album of sweeping scope. Amidst banjos and casio keyboards, trumpets and pots and pans, this band is ready for a larger stage. Literally. [original review]
Little Joy Little Joy (Rough Trade) It’s as simple as this: Little Joy just makes me happy. Their thirty-minute debut album is short and occasionally rough, it’s kitschy and danceable with Brazilian influences. I like the quiet Technicolor flicker of songs like the Portuguese “Evaporar” as much as the jerky fun of “How To Hang A Warhol,” and all the shades in between. Binki Shapiro’s vocal contributions on this album are especially charming, as she croons out of my stereo like an old-time Victrola. [original review]
HONORARY TOPS (should have been on last year’s damn list): In Rainbows(physical release) Radiohead Because I was overwhelmed and ignorant at the end of 2007, and didn’t give this my undivided attention until someone sat me down in a darkened room and made me really, really listen to it.
The Confiscation EP, A Musical Novella Samantha Crain(Ramseur Records) Also from the excellent Ramseur label, 22-year-old Oklahoman Samantha Crain has Choctaw Indian roots and a dusky earnestness to her alto voice. The five songs here tell a cohesive story (a musical novella indeed) with shimmering, unvarnished truth. [original review]
LISTEN: Once again this year, I’ll be appearing on NPR’s World Cafe with David Dye on January 1st to talk about stuff from this list! We have a lot of fun. You should listen (online, or via your local station that carries the show), and tell your mom to listen too. I know mine will be.
For each year so far that I’ve been dabbling in this music-blog-writing hobby, there seems to be a greater proliferation of choices for my ears to make. It seems like more artists are making their voices heard, more albums getting out there in one form or another, more people being turned on to music outside the mainstream 35 songs you hear on the radio.
This is good news for ears, hearts, and souls, and bad news for listmakers.
After much struggling, I’ve picked out ten albums that I’m happy with being my favorites from 2007; add all of these to your collections and be happy too. There were some very good albums that I left off this year (I am sure you will point them out to me in the comments) but these 10 are the ones that connected with me uniquely and viscerally. And they’re listed in alphabetical order because even numerically ranking them defeated me.
If you would like to hear me talk more about these albums, and discuss my perspective as a music blogger in the digital music world in 2007, please tune in to NPR’s World Cafe on January 1st. I’ll be doing a piece with David Dye, Tom Moon from NPR and Marco Werman from BBC’s “The World” program.
And yes . . . this is my poker face. I’m doing little freakout backflips on the inside.
TEN FUEL FAVORITES OF 2007
BECAUSE OF THE TIMES Kings of Leon Folks complain that this album isn’t as loose and rough and gut-punch raw as earlier KOL efforts, and they’re right. This album is bigger and hazier and more anthemic, but I find myself craving the riffs, the melody, the scowly drawl of the lyrics, and the unabashed rock. I agree with the fantastic Daytrotter piece that called this one “a sneaker” (as in it sneaks up on you, not a shoe). I like that KOL are experimenting with their sound and pushing the edges. Plus, they absolutely have the best live show I saw (twice) this year, all caged energy, confident strut and rock and roll. Fans – Kings of Leon
BOXER The National This is the richest album in my top ten this year, in that the songs seep under your skin and percolate slowly. As we discussed, so much of this is 4am music; the late-night special, flawed but transcendent. Woven through songs that pulse restlessly with thumping drums, elegiac strings and evocative piano melodies, the lyrics here destroy me. Absolutely. They lament “another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults,” then ruefully note that “we’re so disarming darling, everything we did believe is diving diving diving diving off the balcony / Tired and wired we ruin too easy, sleep in our clothes and wait for winter to leave.” The purity of elemental urges and gorgeous expression makes me wants to live inside the stories of this album. Fake Empire – The National
DIRTY BOMB The Star Spangles Here to save the rock and roll crown from the hands of slicker entries this year, The Star Spangles from New York are filthy and gritty and raw, making pub-chant punk with strong melodies. Full of heart, they are the real deal so don’t mess with their work ethic. In addition to playing roughly 3,528 fiery live shows this year, they’re not above doing things like playing a recent show at the Jesse Malin/Ryan Adams hangout Niagara in NYC wearing only a trenchcoat and a fedora (all the better to rock with less friction, I guess). Listen to this vibrant album loud, and feel the ebullient crush of youth. Take Care of Us – The Star Spangles
FIGHTING TREES The Swimmers The owner of some trusted ears remarked upon first hearing this Philly band that “this is what Wilco might sound like if they just let their popness run rampant.” Fighting Trees is a shimmering, delicious, intelligent album full of pop goodness but not too sugary-sweet. It’s got the jangle and the thump, the three-part harmonies and the cohesive storyline lyrics that sweep me off to somewhere else; they weave a dream-sequence where you are floating above yourself, watching the actions below with a distanced eye. Loosely based around the 1964 short story “The Swimmer,” both the grad-school premise and the resulting album deserve massive props. [stream here, buy CD at shows, out via Mad Dragon in early 2008] Heaven – The Swimmers
GOOD AND RECKLESS AND TRUE The Alternate Routes In a year when I was really hoping for a grand, rootsy, golden album from Ryan Adams that never materialized for me, The Alternate Routes warmed the speakers of my car all summer long with their expansive, windows-down, wholeheartedly good brand of alt-country rock. One of my favorite lyrical pictures all year comes from these opening notes: “I’ve been wasting my days good and reckless and true, I have danced in the dark at the edge of the water, swingin my hips at the black and the blue…” The songwriting is solid and incisive, highlighted by the aching tenor of lead singer Tim Warren — and speaking of Ryan Adams, current Cardinals drummer Brad Pemberton pitches in on the skins here as well. Although the album swings effortlessly from rollicking to pensive, the common thread that I find appealing is the earnest commitment to simply playing their blessed hearts out. Ordinary – The Alternate Routes
THE HISTORICAL CONQUESTS OF JOSH RITTER Josh Ritter A pal recently asked me who I thought the best modern-day songwriter was. At the time it was 2am, and I mumbled something about how I thought Josh Ritter was pretty dang incredible. Upon coherent reflection, I take that back; I think Josh absolutely may be the best songwriter of our generation that I’ve heard. His penetrating lyrics consistently blow me away, and the rock influences of his new album ramp up the folk sounds I’ve loved in the past into something that definitely hits harder and leaves me all itchy and excited-like. You must see him live in 2008, the new material is amazing in concert. As Josh weaves his intricate, literate songs on stage, he overflows with each lyric as if he were birthing every line afresh for the first time. That same refreshing joy is palpable on this album, and we are grateful for it. To The Dogs or Whoever – Josh Ritter
I CAN’T GO ON, I’LL GO ON The Broken West When I first heard this new Merge Records signing last January, my post title was “I want to listen to The Broken West all weekend long, maybe until my eardrums crystallize into sugar.” That pretty much sums up how vividly I crave the sounds on this disc. Catchy hooks and fuzzy power-pop sounds blend with a blast straight from the ’60s in terms of sheer listenability — and you’re having 100% Fun with Matthew Sweet while the Kinks play in your garage. Hailing from Los Angeles, the guys in the Broken West wrap up all kinds of California imagery while also underscoring a bit of the shadow as well: “Sun down, blood horizon, now it feels all right/ No one feels the darkness down in the valley tonight.” Musical novocaine. Down In The Valley – The Broken West
NIGHTTIMING Coconut Records This clever, humble, and thoroughly enjoyable album from Coconut Records (the nom de rock of actor Jason Schwartzman) came out of absolutely nowhere this year in a stealth digital-only release that spread like wildfire. Normally we can all agree that actors making music spells disaster, but in this case it absolutely spells y-a-y. Schwartzman blends some of the jangly California indie-pop of his previous work with Phantom Planet with his experience in composing film scores for this aural delight. No two tracks alike: the Weezer rock of “Back To You” flips over the lo-fi duet on “Mama” (with Zooey Deschanel?) and the scratchy dabble into Beatles pop with “Easy Girl” is a million miles from the disco beats of the title track or the Franz Ferdinand stomp on “Minding My Own Business.” The album is eclectic, stripped of pretension and ready to make you smile. Back To You – Coconut Records
THE REMINDER Feist The completely charming and effortlessly cool Leslie Feist covers a lot of ground on this album, her third of original solo material, in addition to her releases with the Broken Social Scene. Feist is musically adventurous with a sound that is impossible to pin down. Moving easily from intimate songs like “The Park” that aches like a midnight dirge sung lying flat, looking out a darkened window, to the spiritual-gospel handclap community of “Sea Lion Woman,” you never know what the next track will bring. The only common thread among the songs is her gorgeously honey-drenched, knowingly sly voice. Feist possesses a welcome imaginative streak that she’s not afraid to reveal on this album. She deserves every ounce of recognition that Apple commercial got her in 2007; anyone who conceives of the idea to do a rainbow-hued dance video clothed in spangles to a song that good gets my respect. I wait in breathless anticipation to see what she does next. My Moon, My Man – Feist
WE BELONG TO THE STAGGERING EVENING Ike Reilly Assassination Call it defiant pre-punk, cranked-up ’50s rock’n'roll that slipped past the censors, or just some seriously good music. Ike Reilly writes unflinching rock songs full of bluesy, boozy, humid, rock riffs and intelligent, biting, evocative lyrics that make me want to take off with him through the desert on the run from the cops, the windows down and a knowing glance between us. Ike’s not ripping off a halcyon era of memories past like some of the retro-influenced acts today (Brian Setzer, I love you, but I’m talking to you), but rather he feels like an earnest, fierce character who somehow slipped in from a time when the music was rawer, the sex was furtive, and the liquor was bootlegged. This is a fiercely fantastic album that provocatively edged itself into my top ten the first time I listened to it. Valentine’s Day in Juarez – Ike Reilly
And yes, since you asked, my membership in the bloggers guild is currently under review for revocation for not listening to Arcade Fire or Radiohead in 2007. I’ll keep you posted.
Welcome to 12 X 12: The First Annual Some Velvet/I Am Fuel 2006 Year-In-Music Blogger Poll. It’s the obviously logical combination of music and accounting.
Bruce from Some Velvet Blog rocks all sorts of goodness on a regular basis over on his site and at his radio station. We had so much fun working on our massive Girl Talk post together that we once again decided to pool our creative energies to come up with our first meta-music poll (not to be confused with a Metamucil poll) for the year 2006.
Together we brainstormed a list of our blogging dream team, inviting some of the music blog world’s most respected folks to submit their favorite albums of the year. The following brave souls accepted:
Here’s how it worked: We asked everyone to submit their top 20 lists, assigning points to weight their votes with everyone’s #1 top-choice album getting 20 points; number two album getting 19 votes, etc.
We hired the same accounting firm that the Car Talk guys use – Dewey, Cheathem and Howe – to tally all the votes. And (drumroll please) . . . here is what we came up with.
Scientific? Sort of. Meaningful? Surely.
Fun? You betcha.
The Top 12×12 (12 albums from 12 bloggers) of 2006
If you are curious to see the full ginormous list of albums that were tossed into the pot for consideration by all of us, and then lovingly labelled and categorized on a giant spreadsheet by Bruce I mean our accounting firm, then here you go:
9 – Damien Rice Alright, Still – Lily Allen American Myth – Jackie Green American V: A Hundred Highways – Johnny Cash And Now That I’m In Your Shadow – Damien Jurado Animal Years – Josh Ritter Anti Anti – Snowden Antidepressant – Lloyd Cole As Daylight Dies – Killswitch Engine Be Your Own Pet – Be Your Own Pet Beach House – Beach House Bedroom Classics, Vol. 2 EP – Josh Rouse Begin To Hope – Regina Spektor Ben Kweller – Ben Kweller Best of the IRS Years – REM Big Iron World – Old Crow Medicine Show Bishop Allen – EP’s Black Holes And Revelations – Muse Boys And Girls In America – The Hold Steady Breathe – Dan Berne Broken Boy Soldiers – The Racounteurs Canavas – Silversun Pickups Cansei De Ser Sexy – CSS Catastrophe Keeps Us Together – Rainer Maria Chemical City – Sam Roberts Comfort Of Strangers – Beth Orton Corinne Bailey Rae – Corinne Bailey Rae Crashing The Ether – Tommy Keene Dog Problems – The Format Donuts – J Dilla Down Beside Your Beauty – Favourite Sons Dreams Don’t Count – Jules Shear Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly of A Mountain – Sparklehorse Dying To Say This To You – The Sounds Eingya – Helios Everything All The Time – Band of Horses Field of Crows – Darden Smith First Impressions Of Earth – The Strokes Fishscales – Ghostface Killer Flying Canyon – Flying Canyon Food & Liquor – Lupe Fiasco Fort Recovery – Centro-matic Fox Confessor – Neko Case Fox Confessor Brings The Flood – Neko Case Funnel Cloud – HEM Future Sex/Love Sounds – Justin Timberlake Game Theory – The Roots Give Me A Wall – Forward, Russia Gnarls Barkley – Gnarls Barkley Gulag Orkestar – Beirut Half Perfect World – Madeleine Peyroux Hell Hath No Fury – Clipse Hell Under The Skullbones – Grahm Linsey Hello Love – The Be Good Tanyas Homecoming – Griffin House How We Operate – Gomez I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass – Yo La Tengo I’m Your Man: Motion Picture Soundtrack – Leonard Cohen Imaginary Kingdom – Tim Finn Inside In/Inside Out – The Kooks It’s Never Been Like That – Phoenix Just Like The Family Cat – Grandaddy Keep Your Heart – The Loved Ones King – T.I. Let Me Introduce My Friends – I’m From Barcelona Lightness – Peter and the Wolf Living With War – Neil Young Look At Who You’re Talking To – Human Television Love Travels At Illegal Speeds – Graham Coxon Lullabies In A & C – Bel Auburn Makers – Rocky Votolato Minor Works – J. Tillman Mockingbird – Derek Webb Modern Romance – Sasah Dobson Modern Times – Bob Dylan Mr. Lemons – Glen Phillips Night Ripper – Girl Talk Nine Times That Same Song – Love Is All No Midnight – Birdmonster Nothing But The Water – Grace Potter And The Nocturnals October Language – Belong Offshore – Early Day Miners Oh! Calcutta! – The Lawrence Arms Open Season: Remixes And Collaborations – Feist Orphans – Tom Waits Pearl Jam – Pearl Jam People Gonna Talk – James Hunter Pieces Of The People We Love – The Rapture Post-War – M Ward Put Your Ghost To Rest – Kevin Devine Puzzles Like You – Mojave 3 Rabbit Fur Coat – Jenny Lewis With The Watson Twins Rather Ripped – Sonic Youth Rebels, Rogues And Sworn Brothers – Lucero Reiter In – Chris Whitley Return To Cookie Mountain – TV On The Radio Return To The Sea – Islands Say I Am You – The Weepies Show Your Bones – Yeah Yeah Yeahs Shut Up I Am Dreaming – Sunset Rubdown Silent Shout – The Knife Slow New York – Richard Julian Snow Angels – Over The Rhine So Much More – Brett Dennen So This Is Goodbye – Junior Boys Some Echoes – Aloha Songs That You Might Not Like – Boat Soulwax – Nite Versions Stay Afraid – Parts & Labor Sun, Sun, Sun – The Elected Suppy And Demand – Amos Lee Tangerine – Dave Mead The Black Parade – My Chemical Romance The Body, The Blood, The Machine – The Thermals The Californian – Bob Schneider The Crane Wife – The Decmberists The Dividing Island – Lansing-Drieden The Dust of Retreat – Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s The Eraser – Thom Yorke The Evening Call – Greg Brown The Good, The Bad, and The Cuddly – The Bicycles The Greatest – Cat Power The Information – Beck The Lemonheads – The Lemonheads The Loon – Tapes ‘n’ Tapes The Seeger Sessions – Bruce Springsteen The Shining – J Dilla The Trials Of Van Occupanther – Midlake The Warning – Hot Chip The Way To The Bitter Lake – Spider These Four Walls – Shawn Colvin Through The Windowpane – Guillemots Till The Sun Turns Black – Ray Lamontagne Time Being – Ron Sexsmith Tired Of Hanging Around – The Zutons Today Is Tonight – The Changes Tower Of Love – Jim Noir Under The Skin – Lindsey Buckingham Unicornography – The Falcon Ways Not To Lose – The Wood Brothers We Are The Pipettes – The Pipettes We Are The Vehicles – Maritime We Shall Overcome – Bruce Springsteen We The Vehicles – Maritime Westerns EP – Pete Yorn Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not – Arctic Monkeys What’s Going On – Dirty Dozen Brass Band What’s Mine Is Your – Elliot Morris Where Is The Glow? – Kite Flying Society Wolfmother – Wolfmother World Waits – Jeremy Enigk Writer’s Block – Peter Bjorn and John Yellow House – Grizzly Bear Young Machetes – The Blood Brothers Ys – Joanna Newsom
Whew! So now you have some ideas for your Christmas list. But you don’t have to take my word for it.
Ah, 2006. I think it was a great year for music — but then again I think that if you’re open to listening to a whole bunch of different things without much regard for major/minor/no label, “coolness” factor, or obscurity, then every year can be a very good year.
I’ve been refreshed in 2006 to be reminded that music is literally an endless fount that is constantly gushing. You plug up one hole only to have a new leak spring up somewhere else, a new voice, a fresh sound. It’s really quite freaking fantastic.
Now of course I am not any sort of musical expert just because I tip-tap away on this blog. I am just a melodiphile (I made that word up) who loves to share — and these are the albums that I wanted to share the most this year with everyone I met, the ones I listened to over and over, and the selections that I feel have the staying power to stick with me for a while. I don’t think there’s many surprises here since I’ve been pretty verbose about all these artists.
20. WESTERNS EP Pete Yorn (Columbia) I find myself listening to this much more than Yorn’s full-length album of 2006, Nightcrawler (which does have its strong points); Westerns is a seamless little 7-song odyssey that fits together just right with all the flow that Nightcrawler lacks. Yorn called it “twang-rock” and indeed it is a golden and scratchy-warm rootsy collection of tunes. It may be a little cruel to put this on the list since I don’t think it commercially available at the moment (except to those who were fortunate enough to make it to shows on his recent tour where it was sold), but it’s out there to be found by the diligent. And worth your hunting.
19. NIGHT RIPPER Girl Talk (Illegal Art) Undeniably exciting, a thousand samples a minute: Songs you know in ways you never thought you’d hear them. My first comment on this said “This looks horrifying,” and to please ignore the album art. And though it’s nothing I ever thought I’d put on a best-of list, I cannot deny how much I like this instant party-on-a-disc [previous post]. And I find that sometimes when I hear the original songs now, I hear this overlaying it in my mind, so it’s forever warped me. But that’s okay.
18. THE LEMONHEADS The Lemonheads (Vagrant) The Lemonheads come in more flavors and incarnations than almost any other band I know of (the current lineup includes former members of The Descendents and Black Flag), but the one constant is Evan Dando and he still sounds as good as ever. After several solo albums, he’s brought back some of the rocking sounds and undeniably great pop hooks that made me love his music in the first place. I feel like I should be contentedly laying on my back on my dorm room loft bed listening to this one loudly on headphones with a huge smile on my face.
17. PEOPLE GONNA TALK James Hunter (Rounder) I still sometimes mistake this for Sam Cooke or Van Morrison for a split-second when it comes up on my shuffle, even though I know better. James Hunter flawlessly channels the spirits of smooth sounds from decades past with this perfect summer BBQ soundtrack. This feels like a record full of oldies that you somehow missed – you pull it out, put it on the turntable, and there is a sense of recognition, like you’ve heard them before. Solid retro-goodness.
16. WHAT’S MINE IS YOURS Eliot Morris (Universal) I mean no disrespect to Mr. Morris by saying this, but he’s put out the best Counting Crows album of the year. By all means, he has his own unique lyrics and sound, but the similarities are undeniable — and that’s quite alright with me. The entire album is filled with great piano breaks and vocal builds, heartfelt tunes that you will have a hard time not tapping your toes to. Featuring guest appearances by Glen Phillips, Inara George, Gemma Hayes, Lisa Germano and David Immergluck, he’s got an all-star cast of friends who believe in his music, and I think we’ll definitely be hearing more from him in the future.
15. CORINNE BAILEY RAE Corinne Bailey Rae (Capitol) Absolutely charming and never over-cloyingly sweet, this British belle circles back from her days of fronting a â€˜90s rock band with this enchanting disc. Corinne’s smoldering voice really shines in front of these songs with a neo-soul vibe & a variety of alluring influences from rock to swing to jazz. Plus she cites the moment that she knew she had â€˜arrived’ as when Eddie Vedder grabbed her for an impromptu waltz on British television, so she’s definitely a girl after my own heart.
14. ANIMAL YEARS Josh Ritter (V2) From the first time I heard Ritter’s epic song “Thin Blue Flame,” I knew I had heard something special and unique. Ritter comes from the heartlands of America with a rambling folk masterpiece of sweeping lyrical panoramas and intelligent, thoughtful songwriting. A light hand in production by Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Iron & Wine) gives these tracks an immediate and unrehearsed quality. Literate and eminently listenable, this is an album whose depths I still feel I haven’t completely plumbed despite multiple listens. And I love that richness.
13. RATHER RIPPED Sonic Youth (Geffen) It’s a rather formidable task to remain as consistently good as Sonic Youth, with their own distinctive fuzz-laden sound, and yet keep exploring new boundaries and sounds after 25+ years and as many records. With Rather Ripped, Sonic Youth has shown that they are still absolutely unlike any other rock band out there, with a foot strongly in the art-experimental rock world, but with compelling rhythms and harmonic guitars that still seems to talk to each other; a parallel story being told alongside the singing of Thurston Moore or rock-goddess Kim Gordon. Incinerate indeed.
12. SUPPLY AND DEMAND Amos Lee (Blue Note) I still think his debut album is pretty hard to top, but Amos Lee brings back that achingly incisive tenor and a gentle soul vibe (with tinges of gospel) to his sophomore album. A former schoolteacher from Philadelphia whose debut album first blew me away one rainy weekend in Seattle, Lee returns with another collection of heartbreaking songs — although he’s having a little bit more fun this time around (check out the delightful “Sweet Pea” with ukulele). The way he sings the simplest lyrics on this album just devastate me: “Now she’s left me for something more sure . . . I don’t know if I can do this anymore.”
11. TOWER OF LOVE Jim Noir (Barsuk) An exceedingly fresh sound from this 24-year-old from Manchester who clearly has done his sonic homework, and that BBC named “the musical oddball find of the decade.” The base of the album is formed from typical guitar pop with some heavy â€˜60s undertones, but updated with elements of indie electronica. Noir sings winsome odes to his computer and how difficult it can be, the musical note of C and how “it’s easier to sing it,” and other minor things in life that often go unnoticed, or at least unsung. Fun but never silly, and thoroughly enjoyable.
10. THE GREATEST Cat Power (Matador) There’s an instantly-recognizable way that Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) can nail a note with that melancholy voice of longing; it’s distinctive, it’s brutal, it’s fantastic. While this album still has the elegiac piano ballads and the wrenching rainy-day songs that I love about her, we also see Chan kicking it up into a bit more of a romp with brass-heavy swingers like “Could We” or soulful jukebox grooves like “Lived in Bars.” Recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis (made famous by Stax Records) with Al Green’s musicians, that soul is painted all over here in wide strokes. It’s a delicious album which still retains her trademark suggestive longing, but it’s a longing you can mooooove to.
9. AMERICAN V: A HUNDRED HIGHWAYS Johnny Cash (Lost Highway) This is a gritty posthumous release from The Man. Not even “The Man In Black,” he’s just The Man in my book. Each song possesses both a surety and a sadness (like the picture on the cover). As Stephen King recently wrote, “This is the voice of an Old Testament prophet on his deathbed, eerie and persuasive, full of power and dust and experience.” I admire how Cash wasn’t afraid to experiment with different sounds, even right up to the end of this life. Many songs on this album are comforting in their traditional Cash feel (even his take on Springsteen’s “Further On Up The Road” sounds like his own), but each album in this American series has had a few tracks that were unexpected (note the stomp-clap worksong feel of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”). What a legend.
8. AMERICAN MYTH Jackie Greene (Verve Forecast) Kid’s all of 26, skinny as they come, but despite his unformidable presence he rocks and he wails as he creates rambling jewels of songs with a wisdom and a mastery that is well beyond his years. Discovered by Dig Records at an open mic in California’s Central Valley, then garnering rave reviews for his performance at a Bob Dylan tribute, Greene has released a string of albums with strong blues influence and folk-rock sensibilities. American Myth continues to showcase his abilities to let it loose on the harmonica or the keys, he tells rich stories with a lyrical depth and a rockin’ feel.
7. BEDROOM CLASSICS, VOL. 2 EP Josh Rouse (Bedroom Classics) Rouse’s other 2006 release Subtitulo had some ace tracks and was in the running for this list, but overall I just love the vibe and feel of this little collection more, which the talented Rouse says was largely inspired by his love of film scores. It’s indeed cinematic the way the songs blend pleasantly together under a common theme, and although two of the songs are strictly instrumental, they nonetheless speak volumes. Superb and atmospheric, the EP paints an intimate downtempo picture with that smooth-as-butter voice.
6. DOG PROBLEMS The Format (Nettwerk) I became obsessively addicted to The Format after seeing them perform most of the songs off this album live, where they spring to life in front of a full band (of 9 people or more at times), with a charismatic lead singer and plenty of opportunities for audience participation. No sophomore slump here, The Format have put out an effervescent disc of sheer pop goodness. Sometimes it sounds like a circus of trumpets, accordions, and xylophones, and sometimes they channel Queen a bit (and I really don’t even like Queen), but there is no denying the well-crafted nature of their songs, the creative lyricism, and the downright danceability.
5. BOYS AND GIRLS IN AMERICA The Hold Steady (Vagrant) I was surprised by this one, which at first I wasn’t sure I’d like â€“ but it irresistibly taps into something within me that I can’t even describe. This album makes me feel sad sometimes, and captures the urgent moments of youth — like I want to drive off somewhere at night and drink in a dimly-lit bar, and lose myself in the loudness of the music to ease the sadness. Craig Finn is a master with the details in his story-songs, and these are some of the best lyrics all year, hands down. Start with “Stuck Between Stations,” the first track on the album: “Most nights were crystal clear, but tonite its like it’s stuck between stations on the radio. . .”
4. BEN KWELLER Ben Kweller (Red Ink/ATO) A magnetic and well-crafted pop album from former wunderkind rock prodigy Ben Kweller, the songs here are catchy and melodically expansive, with new levels of depth in the words — plus Ben plays every single instrument on the album himself. That’s dang impressive since it sounds so good. I’ve listened to this album over and over and I don’t foresee getting tired of it anytime soon.
3. OPEN SEASON: REMIXES AND COLLABS Feist (Arts & Crafts) With all charming honesty, Feist says of this album, “At first I didn’t really understand what remixes were. If I squinted into the air I knew I could hear old songs with added beats piping out of radios, but I didn’t know why or how that happened. It was so bizarre and exciting to hear a song that we had so carefully dressed, be undressed and re-addressed, and put into clothes it would have never thought to wear on its own.” As if I didn’t have enough reasons to love her with Let It Die, here those songs take on added dimensions, with her transcendent and throaty voice layered over it all. Irresistible.
2. PEARL JAM Pearl Jam (J Records) Just don’t call them the grandfathers of grunge. In being as unbiased as I can with Pearl Jam, I will enthusiastically say that this is without a doubt their tightest effort in years, scorching and soaring back into #1 with passion and style. From the opening gates with the incendiary howls let loose on “Life Wasted” and “World Wide Suicide,” through the gorgeous Beatlesesque “Parachutes” and the absolutely masterful blues-soul ballad “Come Back,” there is a lot to love on this superb disc, which shows that after fifteen years they undeniably still have It.
1. POST-WAR M. Ward (Merge) I cannot get enough of this album. With all its warm textures and fuzzy goodness, rich songwriting detail — hands down the best thing to spin my turntables this year. M. Ward has crafted a distinctive album permeated with a humid beauty and a close immediacy that recalls sounds of eras past, but with an edge that’s all his own. So much to love here: from the Daniel Johnston cover “To Go Home” which thrums along to borderline dischordant piano and Neko Case on BGVs, or the spirited and loose harmonies of “Magic Trick” about a girl whose only skill is the way she disappears (co-written with Jim James from My Morning Jacket) — the varied tracks all work together in a very compelling way. If you only pick up one new album this year, make it this one.
Thanks for playing along this year, and I’ll certainly lay awake tonight rehashing what I may have forgotten on this list, endlessly rearranging the list in my borderline OCD mind. I still have dozens of albums that I haven’t had a chance to listen to yet from this year. I am sure that there are favorites I haven’t even met yet.
Name: Heather Browne Location: Colorado, originally by way of California Giving context to the torrent since 2005.
"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel." —Hunter S. Thompson
Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.