Friday, November 26, 2004
In the new year this site will be updated at least once a week with the Song of the Week feature. The past two Top 20 lists have run the entire year of my picks for Song of the Week, but in 2005 I will post up each week's selection, with a few words about why I chose it that week.
Thanks for reading.
15 years—who would have believed that I’d still be turning out this crap after this amount of time? Not me my friends, not me. I do know that 15 isn’t a big birthday in the scheme of things—Chuck Berry probably wouldn’t have had a hit with “Sweet Little Fifteen,” although R. Kelly still might, the jury’s still out on that one. But at my job we always commemorate anniversaries that end in 5, so I felt compelled to mark the occasion with a big splash.
Celebrating this musical 15th birthday is much better than my own 15th birthday—Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” was the number-one song in the country that week, which could make any sort of birthday cake seem a little too sweet. (Purple Rain was the number-one album, so it wasn’t all bad news.) I was a sophomore in high school when I turned 15, so I’m sure that day involved a long and boring bus ride followed by lots of scorn from the popular kids. That’s just a theory though, as I don’t remember a single thing about my 15th birthday. One thing I do know—it wasn’t spent slaving for hours at a computer, writing and rewriting copy and burning discs.
Right about now you’re probably thinking, “What the heck are these two discs in this envelope?” Well, those CD’s contain The Reynolds Top 20 15th Anniversary Special, a radio show I did with great assistance from two friends, Joe Wills (the man who assembled it all) and Mike Wallace (who reprised his production voice from 14 years ago). I’d like to thank both of them for helping bring my bizarre vision to life. I say bizarre because in the special I pretend I’m back at my college radio station. I say the call letters, 92 WICB, about 450 times, every commercial break has promos I recorded in 1990 and 1991 and Mike did all the voiceovers, just like he did back in 1990.
The concept of the special is rather simple—I figured out the 20 albums I’ve listened to the most of the past 15 years. You’ll find some of the choices rather obvious, while others might be a bit puzzling. Since it’s what I’ve listened to the most, not what my “critical ear” feels are the best albums, there are albums on the list that I haven’t listened to in many years. I listened to some of these discs (or tapes, gasp!) so much when they were current releases that I couldn’t ignore the sheer number of spins I gave them. For example, Soul Asylum’s Grave Dancer’s Union made the cut even though “Runaway Train” never needs to be aired in my apartment (or anyone else’s) ever again. Before the album was overplayed for the masses, I overplayed that tape in my car for months. So it’s on the list (but you won’t hear any of the hits from that album).
For those of you that aren’t interested in hearing my booze-scarred voice ramble on about certain albums, you can just skip the discs and head to page 30 to read about the albums and my increasingly foggy memories about each of them. Or if you’re really brave, you can read along as you listen. I wouldn’t suggest this to anyone who drives back and forth to work, because I certainly don’t have “fanzine insurance” to cover accidents by people multi-tasking in a car to my list.
Now for the second part of the big splash. This year I heard about this newfangled way of communication that all the kids are using. They call it the “Internet.” It’s a grand mystical place where people can send messages to one another via something called “email” and have easy access to something called “porn” 24-7. Not that I’ve ever seen this “porn” stuff, but I hear it is quite popular, especially with all those sickos that live in the Blue States.
I digress. My point was to tell you that the Reynolds Top 20 List is now online at the following address: reynoldstop20.blogspot.com. There you can find copies of all 15 lists, with links to the artists and the albums with sound samples. Now if you ever think, “So what does that album sound like,” or “Why does he waste this much paper,” you can read it on your screen. Alas, there are no pictures, as I haven’t reached that part in the book I’m reading, HTML for Jackasses. As we move in 2005, I’ll be putting up fresh content every week by listing my Song of the Week. Or at least I hope to do that. I’ll probably forget that the site exists by New Year’s Eve.
Finally, thanks for reading for the past decade and a half. Hopefully it will last another 15. Unless I move to Canada first and have to learn how to write in French. Je T’Adore!
November 17th, 7:00 pm
As I compose this opening essay during my well deserved and drunken vacation, I’m listening to a tape of my airshift from May 11, 1990 on my college station, 92 WICB. It’s almost startling to me how happy and chipper I sound at 8:20 on a Friday morning. I listened to this same tape last night and was struck by what I heard during my brief bursts of rambling—I clearly heard an optimistic voice. This guy, the 20-year-old version of me, is actually smiling while he’s talking, even when he’s giving the shitty weather forecast. (Fellow Ithacans would not be surprised when I say it was freezing drizzle…in May. That’s just not right.)
Anyone who knows me knows that bitter may as well be my middle name. Hearing this aircheck tape made me wonder, when did I lose that optimism? And then I realized that this was last shift I did before I started my radio internship in Albany, New York. And that was where that precious optimism started creeping away. Radio (and the recording industry in general) churns out very, very bitter people. I have seen people, some truly upbeat and lovely people, be turned into former shells of themselves because of this industry. If someone created an optimism Geiger counter, it would make no sound in many radio stations and record companies across this land.
So why the heck am I rambling on about optimism? Because that’s exactly what this year was about. While the election didn’t turn out the way I wanted, and I believe that we’re going be stuck in a morass of unnecessary war for awhile because of it, I’ve rarely seen such optimism as I did when I attending a Vote for Change show in Reading, Pennsylvania on October 1st. Walking around the arena I saw and talked with people who were optimistic that they could effect change in our way of life; the American Coming Together volunteer I met in the cash machine line, who had driven six hours to help out registering voters, and then was leaving after the show to head to Ohio the same thing; the guy in his 40s sitting behind me with the “Fuck Bush” shirt who had raised a couple hundred bucks with his own band to donate to the Kerry campaign; or even the kids (okay, they were probably in their early 20s, but I looked a lot older than them) who were handing out anti-Bush bumper stickers after the show. I left that show with—I know you’re going to think I’m being sarcastic, but I’m serious here—a genuine sense of optimism.
(Let’s pause for a second so I can listen for the sound of people I know around the country having their mouths hit their desks. Ah, there’s that clunking noise.)
Non-political events also nurtured this newfound optimism. I met someone that shared the same birthday as I did, which made me look forward to it, knowing that I wasn’t the only one to suffer getting older on that day. (And suffer I did in Las Vegas. Pessimism came back with full force during that trip my friends. When no amount of blackjack or booze at a great garage rock bar can make you feel better, you know it’s not a great time to turn 35.) And on October 20th the Boston Red Sox finally beat the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series. For someone whose other great passion besides music is baseball—and whose two favorite baseball teams are the New York Mets and the Sox--it was like opening up a new dimension in my mind. If this win could happen, anything is possible. I could make more money in the future. I could get down to 200 pounds at some point in the next year (35 pounds down this year, 45 more pounds to go). I might be able to figure out how to program my cable box so I can record programs on different channels back-to-back. I could find someone that I like (that feels the same way about me at the same time) and have a meaningful relationship with them without screwing it up.
(Okay, maybe that last one is a bit far-fetched, but see what the big “O” does to some people? It clouds their judgment more than any 12 pack and six Southern Comfort and lime shots could do. Yeah, I know, you think I’ve lost it. You’re probably saying to yourself, “Okay, enough of the serious stuff—when do we get the usual insults about Creed and Limp Bizkit?” Ah, patience my friend. It’s on the way in a couple of paragraphs.)
I believe that optimism (sometimes mixed with political anger) was the word in music this year. Modest Mouse’s “Float On” became the band’s first hit, and it’s easily one of the most optimistic tracks of the past five years. The lines “Alright, don’t worry even if things get a bit too heavy/We’ll all float on” boil it down—life can be a bitch, but somehow you (maybe with help from friends) will get by. I found a cover of it by Australian singer Ben Lee that I’ve listened to four times today just because it I want to enjoy the song and its uplifting message without getting more radio burnout from the original version. Will this optimism last? Or is just a delusion in my brain that I need prescribed drugs to alleviate? Who knows? I might change my mind by the time I finish the list, or even this sentence.
Here’s something else I’m optimistic about—we’re about to hit a fertile era of music. Remember those eight years of Reagan? An incredible amount of socially conscious music was made during that time in direct response to the Gipper’s world policies. And now we’re starting to see more artists release albums that talk about how fucked up shit is these days. Both Green Day (who in the past have tried to sound like bands from the Reagan era) and Camper Van Beethoven (who definitely lived through the Reagan era) made two of the best albums of this year, and both tackle (albeit in different ways) today’s problems. I predict that we’ll be hearing more music in this vein over the next four years. Of course, when Limp Bizkit releases their politically charged album next year, that’s when I’ll want to eat all the paper this paragraph was printed on.
(See, I told you a Limp Bizkit insult was on the way! And now we return to our regular scheduled bitterness.)
And now some random thoughts about this year:
If we had seen Dolly Parton’s nipple instead of Janet Jackson’s, I believe we would have had a civil war between the red and the blue states.
Creed broke up, and somehow I didn’t care. After wishing for this to happen for seven years, I didn’t even get any joy out of it. I mean, who can I direct all this hate to now? Why didn’t Scott Stapp and Mark Tremonti consider my feelings before they did this?
Phish packed it in for good this year, which has left a lot of very smelly people in their mid-20s without a purpose, and no parking lots to sell their veggie burritos.
The Pixies reunited, and refreshingly, they said it was only for the money. Now if we could only get this kind of honesty from the dinosaur bands that roam the sheds (or cruise ships, and I am talking about you Styx, REO Speedwagon and Journey) every summer, we’d have a lot better concert industry.
All in all, it was a year that Charles Dickens would have loved—lots of drama strung out over months, just like his serialized novels. Perhaps he’ll come back from the grave to write a sequel called a Tale of Two Countries. In any case, I look forward to the next four years. At least John Ashcroft is gone, so how many more amendments can we lose from the Constitution?
2004's Top 20 Albums
20) Magnet - On Your Side (Filter Recordings)
Magnet is essentially the one man band Even Johansen. Johansen writes highly emotional songs cut from the same cloth as such singer-songwriters like Damien Rice or David Gray. That means you won’t be hearing any loud guitar solos, just meticulously crafted tracks like “My Darling Curse” and “Where Happiness Lives” where the music is just as delicate as the lyrics. Perhaps the most surprising cut on the album is a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” remade as a duet with English singer Gemma Hayes. Shifting the second part of some verses to a female perspective brings a new take on an old chestnut, and is one of the best Dylan covers released in the past few years. On Your Side should be listened to at home late at night, either after a tough day at the office or if you’ve messed up a good thing with a significant other. Best Tracks: “Lay Lady Lay,” “Last Day of Summer,” “Where Happiness Lives”
19) The Zutons - Who Killed...The Zutons (Deltasonic/Epic)
I discovered The Zutons completely by accident this year. I was trying to get tickets to see The Thrills, and their publicist said that she didn’t have tickets, but the opening act’s label would hook me up. The Zutons publicist sent me tickets for the show and a copy of this album. One spin through and I was intrigued enough to catch their set as well. They were a bit too much of a jam band in concert for my tastes, but that wasn’t enough to discourage me from listening to this disc. The Zutons have a very distinctive sound that stands out in today’s music scene. Heavy on percussion and tons of sax solos, it seems as if this band doesn’t know that any music was made in their native England past the breakup of Traffic. It wouldn’t be surprising to see “Pressure Point” become popular, as it’s being used in a Levi’s commercial (the one where the dog rips the pants off a girl) that seems to be on during every show I watch. Let the cries of sellout begin! Best Tracks: “Confusion,” “Havana Gang Brawl,” “Pressure Point”
18) Reubens Accomplice - The Bull, the Balloon, and the Family (Western Tread)
Reubens Accomplice’s label, Western Tread, is owned by Jimmy Eat World singer Jim Adkins, and Adkins co-produced the album with the Arizona-based group. That doesn’t mean there’s a lot of whiny emo songs on The Bull, The Balloon and the Family. Reubens’ songs about love, writing songs (“All Chorus”) and drinking for a good reason (“Tonight We Drink”) mix straight ahead rock with the occasional alt-country flourish (a banjo here, some pedal steel there) and great harmonies. Any album that has the line, “I’m conscious to a fault that love songs are overdone, cliché and stand to be ridiculed” (from “Big Apple, Small Heart”) is definitely worth giving a few spins. The Bull, The Balloon and the Family also contains one of the best songs ever written about Arizona (“This Town”). Actually, I can only think of two other songs written about the state, so I guess Reubens Accomplice is in good company with Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb and Public Enemy. Best Tracks: “Underneath the Golden Grain,” “Big Apple, Small Heart,” “This Town”
17) Grant-Lee Phillips - Virginia Creeper (Zoë/Rounder)
Grant-Lee Phillips has been making good records for over a decade now as a solo artist and with his ’90s band Grant Lee Buffalo. Virginia Creeper just might be his best yet. After branching out with more electronic elements on his last solo album Mobilize, Phillips heads in a more acoustic and country influenced direction with this effort. Phillips’ best songs have always been character studies, and tracks like “Mona Lisa,” “Calamity Jane” and “Susanna Little” follow that vein nicely. And Phillips’ best weapon on the album comes from the harmony vocals of Cindy Wasserman. These two voices blend together to produce some genuine magical moments. Wasserman is like an Emmylou Harris to Phillips’ Gram Parsons, a comparison obviously not lost on them as they cover Parsons’ “Hickory Wind” to close out the disc. It’s a beautiful cover of a beautiful song, and a perfect way to cap off a great album. Best Tracks: “Lily-A-Passion,” “Mona Lisa,” “Hickory Wind”
16) John Wesley Harding - Adam’s Apple (DRT)
This John Wesley Harding album is about two years late in making the list. Back in 2002 it was titled The Man With No Shadow and was going to be released by Mammoth Records in the late spring. But as has happened many times over the past five years, the label was shut down, leaving this album in limbo until now. Harding knew he had a good thing in the can, so he got the rights back, resequenced it slightly, it replaced one track with another that was a bit more topical (“Protest Protest Protest”) and came up with a new title. Two years on the shelf hasn’t diluted the strength of these songs, some of the catchiest of Harding’s career. “Nothing at All” and “Negative Love” are probably hit singles in that parallel world I dream of where quality music reins supreme (it’s the same place where the Yankees have never won a World Series, reality shows don’t exist and fat guys are sex symbols). Best Tracks: “Negative Love,” “Nothing at All,” “It Stays"
15) The Hives - Tyrannosaurus Hives Interscope)
I almost feel sorry for Sweden’s best export since Ikea. The Hives had a hit in the U.S. two years ago, got a big record deal from Universal, recorded a great album…and no one cared. This album seemed to sink from view faster than Howard Dean’s candidacy after the primal scream geography lesson. I’d hate to think that the Hives time is over already, because these five guys make insanely catchy songs and are one of the most entertaining performers I’ve seen over the past decade. I didn’t think it was possible, but the tracks on Tyrannosaurus Hives are even more minimalist than their last album. Songs like “Two-Timing Touch and Broken Bones” and “Dead Quote Olympics” don’t waste a single note on anything that isn’t essential to the tune. And how could you not want to own an album where the bass player is an overweight balding dude named Dr. Matt Destruction? Best Tracks: “Walk Idiot Walk,” “A Little More for Little You,” “Dead Quote Olympics”
14) Juliana Hatfield - In Exile Deo (Zoë/Rounder)
I have been a Juliana Hatfield fan ever since I heard the Blake Babies’ song “Cesspool” back in 1989. I own every album she’s done, with that band or in her solo career, and I’m pretty convinced that this is her best work ever. The songs on In Exile Deo are her strongest yet, with sharp character studies (“Because We Love You,” “Singing in the Shower”), very accessible pop tunes (“Sunshine,” “Some Rainy Sunday”) and the silliest song she’s ever done (“Dirty Dog.”) Hatfield’s voice has never sounded better and her guitar playing has hit new heights. There are a couple of songs where guitar solo screeches all over the place, halts suddenly, then gets back on track. It’s as if Hatfield has picked up Neil Young’s way of soloing—don’t concern yourself with technical perfection, just keep the take that’s got the most emotion. And “Because We Love You” features the best Gentlemen riff that they never wrote, so I guess it’s a good thing she toured with that band’s rhythm section. Best Tracks: “Because We Love You,” “Get in Line,” “Some Rainy Sunday”
13) Jedidiah Parish - Torch and Swan (Lunch Records)
The former Gravel Pit singer tackled modes of transportation on his last solo effort, 21st Century American. This time out he’s for the birds. And I mean that literally—“Screech Owl,” “Swan Island Lullabye” and “The Feathered Way” are just the ones that have references to our feathered friends in the titles. There are three other songs that mention turkeys, peacocks and feathers in the lyrics. I’m not sure where the fascination with the flying creatures came from, but it doesn’t matter as long as the songs are this good. Parish is one of the smartest lyric writers around. He stuffs his songs with so many historical name checks that I feel I need to take a night course in world history just to have permission to listen to this album. And Parish’s best weapon, his incredible vocal range, is in full effect here. He screeches (in “Screech Owl,” duh), he gets incredibly soulful (“The Blood in My Brain has Been Cursed”) and overall, uses his voice like it’s another instrument in the mix. I’m anxious to see what will be the thread in his next album. Best Tracks: “Alone (Solo),” “Twilight’s Turquoise Delight,” “Pandora Blues”
12) The Coral - Magic And Medicine (Deltasonic/Columbia)
Like their label mates The Zutons, The Coral seem to operate in a time warp. Every song on Magic and Medicine sounds like it was recorded in the late ’60s or early ’70s. And that’s not meant as an insult, that’s just a comment on the timeless quality of this material. The Coral pay tribute to many of the great English bands of the ’60s—at one moment they could be Traffic (“Lizah”), the next they could be The Animals (“Talkin’ Gypsy Market Blues”) and after that they could be Van Morrison’s first band Them (“Secret Kiss”). Yet it doesn’t feel as if The Coral are rip-off artists. They obviously have a great respect for the sounds of those times, and do their best to recreate them while putting their own stamp upon it. And since there was such a lengthy gap between the English and U.S. release of Magic and Medicine, The Coral had time enough to record and release a bizarre EP (they called it that, even though it’s 11 tracks) titled Nightfreak and Sons of Becker. This EP is included as a free bonus disc with Magic and Medicine, making this the second best two-disc release of the year. (See number-six for the best two-disc release of the year.) Best Tracks: “Lizah,” “Don’t Think You’re the First,” “Secret Kiss”
11) The Thrills - Let’s Bottle Bohemia (Virgin)
It’s obvious from first 30 seconds of the opening track “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know” that touring for a year has toughened up the sound of Ireland’s The Thrills. This track rocks more than any song on their love letter to California, So Much for the City. Let’s Bottle Bohemia is a little less idealistic, but better for it. “Whatever Happened to Corey Haim?” is a funny indictment of people coming to Hollywood expecting to be big stars. The tales of shady clubs in “Saturday Night” could only come from someone that spent a lot of time in them. Most of the other elements that made their debut so enjoyable are still here—great harmonies, a perfect mix between guitar driven and piano driven songs and down to earth lyrics are all in full effect. And I think that the album’s centerpiece ballad, “Not For All the Love in the World,” is such a good song that they’ll have a hard time trying to top it for the rest of their career. Best Tracks: “Not For All the Love in the World,” “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” “Whatever Happened to Corey Haim?”
10) Elliott Smith - From a Basement on the Hill (Anti)
I find it hard to separate the tragic circumstances of Smith’s death last year (Suicide? Murder? Accident? Will we ever truly know?) from the songs on this posthumous album. How could anyone not look at titles such as “A Fond Farewell” and “The Last Hour” without getting a bit of a chill down your spine. Whether Smith had completed all the work on these songs or his longtime producer Rob Schnapf had a lot of cleaning up to do, From a Basement on a Hill sounds like a finished work. While not as slickly produced as his last album Figure 8, Basement finds Smith still doing his usual balancing act between Beatlesque rock songs like “Pretty (Ugly Before)” and quiet meditative acoustic tracks like “Memory Lane” and “Let’s Get Lost.” All in all, From a Basement on a Hill is album that is steeped in sadness, not only from the songs themselves, but the potential songs that were yet to come from this extremely talented and troubled man. Best Tracks: “Memory Lane,” “Let’s Get Lost,” “Coast to Coast”
9) Candy Butchers - Hang on Mike (RPM/Sony)
The ’70s was a decade filled with disco (which I liked), soft rock (which I didn’t) and confessional singer-songwriters that almost shared too much information with their audience (um, I think I was too young to understand Jackson Browne?). With Hang on Mike, Candy Butchers frontman and songwriter Mike Viola captures the essence of those confessional times. Each track is like a page from Viola’s diary—meeting his wife (“What to Do With Michael”), dismay with life on the road (“Unexpected Traffic”) and the anguish of losing his first love (“PainKillers”) cut so close to the bone that you can almost feel uncomfortable reading the lyrics. Fortunately many of these songs are set to the happiest music of the year. Viola has an excellent ear for creating perfect pop music to place these heavy lyrics over, making for quite an uncommon combination in today’s music scene. And Viola not only conjures up a ’70s vibe with his lyrics, he and his all-star roster of musicians (Pete Donnelly and Mike Gent of The Figgs, Jedidiah Parish) have created the best Supertramp song (“Let’s Have a Baby”) that the English group left off Breakfast in America. This song is so bloody well right, I’d almost consider having baby in New York. I said almost. Best Tracks: “Let’s Have a Baby,” “What to Do With Michael,” “Hang on Mike”
8) Wilco - A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch)
There was perhaps no other album released this year that confounded my expectations more than A Ghost Is Born. I thought I knew what to expect from these 12 tracks. I had seen the band play nine of them during their lengthy tour for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and a couple of them (“Company in My Back,” “Spiders [Kidsmoke]”) rapidly became songs I desperately wanted to hear at every show I attended. Yet my first time through A Ghost Is Born I was let down. The energy these songs had in concert seemed to dissipate once they hit the recording studio. Frontman Jeff Tweedy was a (pardon the pun) ghost of himself—all the vocals sounded like someone had just woken him up to head to the vocal booth. (And I thought that before he checked into rehab for painkillers.) Just like Yankee, it took repeated listens—and seeing the band live again--for A Ghost Is Born to catch on in my brain. The album highlights started become apparent pretty quickly after that gig. All of sudden the sleepy vocal didn’t matter on “At Least That’s What You Said,” the distortion-laden Neil Young derived guitar solo did. “Company in My Back” appeared more majestic with drummer Glenn Kotche’s delicately layered percussion and hammered dulcimer. And “I’m a Wheel,” well, that would have fit nicely on of their first two albums, so how could I complain? Now that Wilco is a six piece unit (and perhaps its most talented lineup) I predict their next album could be the best yet. Best Tracks: “Company in My Back,” “Handshake Drugs,” “Hummingbird”
7) Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand (Domino/Epic)
I for one dig this slow take over of modern rock/alternative radio by bands that wouldn’t have come close to smelling airplay three years ago. Hearing The Killers, The Strokes, Modest Mouse, Interpol and Scotland’s Franz Ferdinand on the airwaves is much more bearable than another craptacular hard rock band posing as alternative hit makers. Franz Ferdinand are certainly not breaking any new ground on their debut album. After almost every song on this self-titled debut is over, I think to myself, “Wasn’t this on VH1 Classic last night?” Yet somehow they make it all work. If this album just had “Take Me Out,” “This Fire” and nothing else, it would still deserve a place in the Top 20. Of course, with all these bands having breakthrough efforts this year, we’ll be forced to hear watered down versions of these same bands within 18 months. And then everyone will get nostalgic for the sounds of Creed and Limp Bizkit. Oh joy. Best Tracks: “Take Me Out,” “Michael,” “This Fire”
6) The Figgs - Palais (Sodapop Records)
At this point in their careers The Figgs have done pretty much everything a band could—besides having a big hit. They’ve been on a big indie label, a small indie label, a major label, a big package tour, toured with two rock legends, opened for U2 and taken a great writer out on tour with them. So what was left for them to do in 2004? How about a double album? Voilà—welcome to the sprawling mess that is Palais. I suppose having easy access to a studio (singer-bassist Pete Donnelly co-owns one in Philadelphia) makes it easier to record any idea you have at any time. Palais (named after Donnelly’s studio) plays musical hopscotch through a half a dozen genres. Old school Who (“Everything You Had “) ’60s garage rock (“Simon Simone”), a Kinks-inspired piano-driven cut (“Look at Her [“She’s Walking Away”]) sappy mid-tempo ballads (“Something Happened”) and a Stones/Faces-like groove (“Kill Me Now”) are just some of the touchstones on these two discs. Not all of it works (“Attack VCA” and “Please Hold On” are easily the weirdest and least appealing Figgs songs ever recorded) but double albums are supposed to allow bands to stretch out their creative impulses. And The Figgs stretch out to some great places on Palais. Best Tracks: “Everything You Had,” “I Was Dreaming,” “Je T’Adore,” “Bristol Sisters,” “Embrace the Train,” “End Credits”
5) Bill Janovitz and Crown Victoria - Fireworks on TV! (Q Division)
I’ve always thought that Buffalo Tom singer-guitarist Bill Janovitz had one of the most passionate voices in music. I could listen to this guy sing the directions for making a turkey pot pie and be enthralled. Fortunately for us (and my diet) Janovitz is still writing songs, even if Buffalo Tom has been on hiatus for the past five years. And what a batch of songs he’s come up with for his third solo album, the first recorded with his new band Crown Victoria. Drummer Tom Polce, keyboardist Phil Aiken and bassist Josh Lattanzi rise to the occasion on Fireworks on TV, supplying a rock solid foundation (and tons of great harmonies) for some of Janovitz’s sharpest songs ever. “One, Two, Three,” “Mary Kay” and “Revealed” stack up favorably alongside any of Buffalo Tom’s best known numbers. It’s a shame it took three years for this album to be released. I hope we don’t have to wait that long for the next one. Best Tracks: “Revealed,” “Sinking,” “One Two Three”
4) Rilo Kiley - More Adventurous (Brute/Beaute)
I must admit that I had never heard any music by Rilo Kiley until this year. Heck, all I knew about them was that they were on a popular indie label (Saddle Creek) I was too old to appreciate. Then came the afternoon of October 21st. I was visiting my home area, helping my aunt pick up stuff for her new house and enjoying the glow of the Red Sox triumph. While waiting in the truck in the parking lot of the of-so-suburban Hudson Valley Mall, I turned on WDST, the adult alternative station in the area. The first song I heard started with the lines ”Any chimp can play human for a day/And use his opposable thumbs to iron his uniform/And run for office on election day.” I thought, “What a great line—who is this?” When the song was over, the DJ said it was the latest single from Rilo Kiley, “It’s a Hit.” The following day I went into the indie rock store in my old Brooklyn neighborhood on a mission to buy the album that had that song. My expectations were high considering how great I thought “It’s a Hit “ was, and More Adventurous more than delivered. Singer Jenny Lewis is one of the smartest lyricists around. The set up of the second track “Does He Love You” is pure genius. The protagonist of the song tells her friend about a married man she’s having an affair with, and her friend tells her about the man she’s recently married. In the end the man ends up being her friend’s husband. While that sounds like a predictable outcome, Lewis’s words make it anything but. And yes, the rest of the album that follows “It’s a Hit” and “Does He Love You” is just as great. Best Tracks: “Does He Love You?,” “It’s a Hit,” “I Never”
3) Modest Mouse - Good News For People Who Love Bad News (Epic)
Like Rilo Kiley, I had never heard a single Modest Mouse song until this year. Then one day I heard “Float On” on the radio and had to know who was doing that great impression of Talking Heads. And I happily discovered I had Good News For People Who Love Bad News in my desk! After a few listens, I came to one conclusion: “Float On” is quite simply one of the best songs recorded in this brief century. From its’ surprisingly optimistic lyrics to the I-will-burrow-quickly-into-your-brain guitar riff to the soaring sing along chorus at the end, everything about this song is pitch perfect. To quote one line, “Sometimes life’s OK,” and that’s probably a sentiment people could use hearing a bit more often. And if it’s contained in such a catchy song, that’s even better. “Float On” isn’t the only masterpiece on Good News. “Bukowski” is one of the best songs (maybe the only one?) that accurately nails the experience of seeing (and perhaps being) one of America’s greatest poets. “Dance Hall” is just plain goofy, as frontman Isaac Brock sings “I’m gonna dance hall everyday” approximately 50 times in three minutes. Listening to the eclectic Good News is like a great trip through a big record collection—it’s a journey worth taking again and again. Best Tracks: “Float On,” “Bukowski,” “”Bury Me With It”
2) Camper Van Beethoven - New Roman Times (Pitch-A-Tent/Vanguard)
It feels good to type this phrase: The new Camper Van Beethoven album is great. I never thought anyone would have the opportunity to write that, even after the band reunited and started playing shows around the country two years ago. It’s even stranger that David Lowery and company would come back with a concept album about a fictional revolution in California that somehow reflects the upheaval the good ol’ U.S. of A has experienced the past three years. The concept does inform most of these songs, but you can also ignore it and just think of New Roman Times as a collection of typically diverse CVB tunes. This band could always jump from style to style with ease, and the transition from the hard rock crunch of “White Fluffy Clouds” to the country-inflected ballad “That Gum You Like Is Back in Style” to the ska beat of “Might Makes Right” is a sight to behold. New Roman Times is easily the comeback of the year and one of the best albums ever made by a band that had been broken up for at least a decade. Best Tracks: “51-7,” “That Gum You Like Is Back in Style,” “Militia Song”
1) Green Day - American Idiot (Reprise)
Last year choosing a number-one album was easy, as The White Stripes’ Elephant was head and shoulders above everyone else. 2004 was even easier once this disc arrived in September. How many bands, more than a decade into their career, could make such a bold statement with a concept album about the political and social turmoil of the day—and actually succeed? Releasing an album with two nine-minute mini rock operas when you’re best known for a three-minute song about masturbation is about as big a risk Green Day could take, unless they released an album of electronic dance music. The songs on American Idiot touch upon every influence this group can muster—old school punk, power ballads, Queen-like anthems are all here, and sometimes all in the same song (“Homecoming”). Singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong wrote “Wake Me Up When September Ends” about the death of his father, yet it’s hard to look at the lyrics and not think that it could be the best song yet written about September 11th. The album’s concept about a year in the life of “The Jesus of Suburbia” gets muddled at a couple of points, but not enough to dilute its overall impact. Reviewers writing about American Idiot have thrown around comparisons to The Who’s two rock operas, Tommy and Quadrophenia. And in my opinion, this album should stand side-by-side with them for years to come. Let’s just hope no one makes a crappy American Idiot movie starring Johnny Knoxville as “Jesus of Suburbia.” Best Tracks: “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” “Jesus of Suburbia”
"Hey, What Are You Listening To?" 2004's Songs of the Week
1/2 The Gravel Pit - “Round and Round”
1/9 Wilco - “E.L.T”
1/16 The Replacements - “I Hate Music”
1/23 Candy Butchers - “Nice to Know You”
1/30 Hall and Oates - “Did It in a Minute”
2/6 Jet - “Move On”
2/13 Bee Gees - “Lonely Nights”
2/20 Incubus - “Megalomaniac”
2/27 Led Zeppelin - “Ten Years Gone”
3/5 Wheat - “I Met a Girl”
3/12 Tesla - “Caught in a Dream”
3/19 Tears for Fears - “Broken/Head Over Heels”
3/26 The Who - “Eminence Front”
4/2 Weezer - “In the Garage”
4/9 Modest Mouse - “Float On”
4/16 Juliana Hatfield - “Because We Love You”
4/23 Loretta Lynn with Jack White - “Portland Oregon”
4/30 The Figgs - “Je T’Adore”
5/7 Tesla - “What You Give”
5/14 The Figgs - “I Brought Kicks”
5/21 Candy Butchers - “Let’s Have a Baby”
5/28 Velvet Revolver - “Slither”
6/4 Jay-Z - “99 Problems”
6/11 Ray Charles - “A Song for You”
6/18 Phish - “The Connection”
6/25 Wilco - “Hummingbird”
7/2 Reel Big Fish - “Sell Out”
7/9 Van Halen - “Feels So Good”
7/16 The Hives - “Walk Idiot Walk”
7/23 Happy Mondays - “Step On”
7/30 Elvis Costello and the Attractions -“Accidents Will Happen”
8/6 Bill Janovitz and Crown Victoria - ”Revealed”
8/13 Julian Cope - “5 O’Clock World”
8/20 The Figgs - “Like to Know”
8/27 Coldplay - “Don’t Panic”
9/3 Green Day - “American Idiot”
9/10 Hall and Oates - “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)
9/17 The Band - “It Makes No Difference”
9/24 The Tragically Hip - “Locked in the Trunk of a Car”
10/1 Pearl Jam - “Masters of War”
10/8 Green Day - “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”
10/15 Camper Van Beethoven - “Wasted”
10/22 Riley Kiley - “It’s a Hit”
10/29 Vote For Change Artists - “People Have the Power”
11/5 Whitesnake - “Here I Go Again”
11/12 Guided By Voices - “Chasing Heather Crazy”
11/19 The Postal Service - “Against All Odds”
11/26 Rolling Stones - “Mixed Emotions”
12/3 The Thrills - “Not For All the Love in the World”
12/10 Whiskeytown - "Excuse Me If I Break My Own Heart Tonight"
12/17 Neil Young and Crazy Horse - "Powderfinger"
12/24 Pearl Jam - "I Got Shit"
12/31 The Beach Boys - "Sail On Sailor"
Top 10 Headlines I Hope I Don't Write in 2005
1) Latoya Jackson Flashes Her Breast at the Arena Bowl Halftime Show. No Viewer Complaints Are Registered By The FCC, As No One Is Watching,
2) Ex-Creed Singer Scott Stapp Announces He’s Gotten So Fat He’s Going to Break Up Into Two Separate Solo Careers.
3) Wang Chung: The Musical Opens in Las Vegas. Somehow, Everybody Does Not Have Fun Tonight.
4) Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. Team Up to Record a New Album Called Dead And Loving It.
5) Lil’ Jon, Lil’ Cease, Lil’ Wayne and Lil’ Romeo Form a New Hip-Hop Supergroup Called The Lillys.
6) Britney Spears Charges Her Fan Club Members 50 Bucks to Read a TV Guide Crossword Puzzle She Finished After Two Months of Hard Work.
7) Good Charlotte Releases a Concept Album Called American Dumbass.
8) Slaughter, Poison, Winger and Warrant Kick Off the Vote For Spare Change Tour.
9) Neil Young Promises His Archives Box Set Will Be Released When a Democrat Is In the White House.
10) Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee Gets His Own Reality Show. (Crap, that One Really Is Happening)
2004's Top 20 Singles
20) Jem - “They” (ATO)
My enjoyment of this song confuses even me. It sounds like a third rate Dido rip-off that’s been sped up from 33 and a 1/3 to 45. I was forced to listen to it this fall when I thought I was going to be interviewing her for work. But...yet...I couldn’t resist the little sampled female voices in the background that go “ba ba ba da da da” throughout the track. And then there’s this very bizarre breakdown that sounds like a bunch of kids during recess. And even worse, it came out on Dave Matthews own label! There is no reason for this song to work, yet somehow it does. Oh, and she’s kind of cute too. Maybe I kept staring at her bio picture while prepping for the interview and it somehow convinced me to like this song. Yeah, that had to be it.
19) Interpol - “Slow Hands” (Matador)
It took a long time (and some prodding from my former colleague-turned-back-into-college professor Erik Hage) for me to grasp what this New York band was all about. There’s certainly nothing original going on in this song, or any of their songs really, except some good rhythmic guitar rock that owes a big debt to early ’80s new wave. And I am a total sucker for the line “Can’t you see what you’ve done to my heart and my soul/It’s a wasteland now.” Now that’s depression at its finest.
18) Beastie Boys - “Ch-Check It Out” (Capitol)
To the 5 Boroughs is easily the most disappointing Beastie Boys album to date, with the only exceptions being this single and the stellar tribute to my adopted hometown, “An Open Letter to NYC.” The opening lines of “Ch-Check It Out,” “All you Trekkies and TV addicts/Don’t mean to dis/Don’t mean to bring static/All the Klingons in your grandma’s house/Grab your backstreet friend and get loud” makes me crack up every time. I wonder if anyone under 30 gets all the references they throw in their raps.
17) Wheat - “I Met a Girl” (Aware/Columbia)
This Massachusetts trio packs in enough riffs for four or five songs within the three minutes and 56 seconds it takes for this piece of ear candy to float by. The chorus “I met a girl I’d like to know better/But I’m already with someone” is something that any man (and some women) can identify with.
16) Velvet Revolver - “Slither” (RCA)
When Velvet Revolver—Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland, three Guns n’ Roses guys and some unknown guitar player—released their first single last year, “Set Me Free,” it was just as disappointing to me as the movie it was associated with, The Hulk. So imagine my surprise when “Slither” hit the airwaves this spring. This song actually delivered what I would expect, given these musicians pedigrees. A great driving rhythm, commanding vocals and a solo from Slash that might have been airlifted from 1989 is what I wanted this band to deliver. And they did.
15) Scissor Sisters - “Take Your Mama Out” (Universal)
This song landing on the list will surprise a couple of people I work with, as we openly made fun of it when it started getting airplay. I think I called it “the lamer
14) U2 - “Vertigo” (Interscope)
I’m not one to get caught up in the hype for a release by a so-called “major” artist, and no album and single picked up as much hype in 2004 as this track. The constant airing of the “Vertigo” I-Pod commercial, commercials for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb on every cable channel and that totally stupid “one, two, three, fourteen” count at the beginning was enough to make me dismiss this song and their new album completely. How ironic then after all that TV exposure, it took a T-V performance to win me over. As I write this, I’m listening to the live version from “Vertigo” from Saturday Night Live I downloaded from the net for the third time in a row. It’s by no means technically perfect, but from the opening where Bono screams “live live live” as a response to the Ashlee Simpson debacle (which I still have never seen, believe it or not), it’s three minutes of magic. I don’t think I have any reason to listen to the studio version of this song ever again.
13) Guster - “Homecoming King” (Palm/Reprise)
This was my favorite song from the surprise entry in my Top 10 albums of 2003. So when it was released as a single, I knew that I had to make room for it on this list. I really like the concept behind the lyrics, the folks that ruled with an iron fist in high school get a little bit of comeuppance when they go back for a reunion. There’s a part in the song where singer Ryan Miller almost yells the line, “Back to Massachusetts, to your golden age, where your crown is shining bright” that always slays me. And yes, I still like that Guster album. I was not on mind-altering drugs when I wrote last year’s list.
12) Phish - “The Connection” (Elektra)
Yes, I slagged on Phish earlier—so why are they here? Well, I never said I didn’t like the band, it was just the band’s fans. (And Chris, Brian and Dave, I don’t mean you guys. I know that you guys shower and won’t rudely dance into me.) I did see Phish back before the crowd got a bit too big for me to handle, and one of the best interviews I’ve ever had was with singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio. Okay, enough justification. On “The Connection” the guys from Vermont do their best channeling of—and I’m serious here—Wilco’s first album. This little ditty sounds alt-country all the way to me, and perhaps that’s why I liked it immediately.
11) Usher featuring Lil’ Jon and Ludacris - “Yeah” (Arista)
How could any singles list in 2004 not contain this monster hit? This song is stupid catchy. Well, it’s also kind of just plain stupid, but heck, I was stupid for most of the time this song was at number-one, so I won’t hold it against it.
10) Slipknot - “Duality” (Roadrunner)
Okay, raise your hands if you’ve actually heard this song all the way through? Yeah, I thought so. I don’t know a single person who likes Iowa’s biggest import since Tom Arnold. These nine guys play extremely fast, percussive metal that I just can’t stomach—and they wear masks on stage. The first time I interviewed them, the members insisted on keeping the masks on, so the tape sounded like I had interviewed Charlie Brown’s schoolteacher. This track from Slipknot’s third album, Volume 3: The Subliminal Verses, features something new from this nontet, a chorus that people above the age of 30 can understand, and pump their first along to. Just in time for me to take the devil horns out of retirement.
9) Franz Ferdinand - “Take Me Out” (domino/Epic)
Here’s another chip off the old new wave block. I especially like this Franz Ferdinand track because it starts out as one song, and then changes direction completely 55 seconds into what is essential a totally different tune. Seriously, I want you to take me out, even though I know I won’t be leaving here with you.
8) The Thrills - “Not for All the Love in the World” (Virgin)
Any song that makes me pause and realize, “This is a moment I’m going to want to remember for a long time” is a worthy entry into my annual list. A song that does it twice? That deserves special recognition. This moving piano and string driven ballad from the Irish band’s second album was an unlikely single (and may have killed any momentum they had going for this album). When I saw the band for the first time they played a version of this that was so good that by the end you could have heard a pin drop in the club. After a moment of silence, the crowd just roared, like we had all been part of a rare moment of beauty that music rarely reaches. The second time this song stopped me in my tracks was when I was taking a bus down 5th Ave in Brooklyn to the bar I hang in and occasionally work at. Feeling rather melancholy (ooh, now there’s a word) the lines “You show your age/When you drown your rage” took on a whole new meaning. And then I proceed to drown my rage. Alas, there’s not enough beer in Brooklyn to do that.
7) Loretta Lynn with Jack White - “Portland Oregon” (Interscope)
When I hear “Portland Oregon,” I think Los Angeles, California. Seriously, let me explain. When I went to L.A. for my annual trip, I hung out with my old Ithaca College buddy Jay Frank. I was driving us to get some Mexican food, and we had on the new hip, alternative station, Indie 103.1. The intro to this song came on, and Jay said, “Oh, this is that Jack White and Loretta Lynn song.” And I’m like, “Huh?” I had no idea. 90 seconds of guitar and drum interplay later, I didn’t even care if they ever started singing, I was so into the music. (And seriously Jay, you are lucky I didn’t get us killed. I was that distracted by this song.)
6) Incubus - “Megalomaniac” (Epic)
Damn, these Calabasas, California boys strike again. They’ve never made a completely fulfilling album, but they sure know how to make songs that make speed limits seem inconsequential. I’ve heard that this song might be about our current president or Axl Rose. It doesn’t matter who it’s about—neither one of them is fucking Elvis.
5) Tesla - “Caught in a Dream” (Sanctuary)
Did I mention taking the devil horns out of retirement earlier? Well, they’re in full effect with the return of my favorite hard rock guilty pleasure of all time. I admit it—I have always liked Tesla. I own all their albums (except their 2001 live disc) and was very excited to go see them this year (oh, the mullet is truly alive in the tri-state area, trust me). This power ballad (and their other lighter special, “What You Give”) were the highlights of the show.
4) The Killers - “Somebody Told Me” (Isalnd/Def Jam)
Let me paraphrase the chorus to this goofy, incredibly danceable, bubbly hard rock song: “Somebody told me/That you had one hit/that looked like it was made for/A Rhino collection/I got in February of 2010.” It’s amazing how with some songs, you can just tell that a group is never going be known for anything else. I may live to eat those words, but I kind of doubt it.
3) Green Day - “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (Reprise)
I’m a sucker for Green Day ballads—so sue me. Until then I walk alone, indeed.
2) Jimmy Eat World - “Pain” (Interscope)
Gee, a song about pretending to cover up your pain over heartbreak? Can anyone explain why I would like this song? I have no idea. I will say that the production by Gil Norton (The Pixies, Foo Fighters) is absolutely perfect. The song would not be the same if it didn’t have drummer Zach Lind slapping the side of the floor tom to drive the distinctive rhythm track and those highly compressed background vocals going “ow” throughout the verses. “Pain” is a true masterpiece of sound.
1) Modest Mouse - “Float On” (Epic)
How much more can I write about this song without repeating myself? From the Talking Heads-like beats and guitar lines to the great lyrics, it deserves all the success it achieved during 2004. I hope it’s not the last hit for Isaac Brock and company. And check out the Ben Lee cover if you can find it online—it proves that the song is a killer in any arrangement.
Other Musical Stuff From 2004
COMPILATIONS, REISSUES, ETC.
10) Talking Heads - The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads (Sire/Warner Bros./Rhino)
Another classic finally makes its debut on CD. Last year it was four of Neil Young’s six out-of-print albums, this year it’s this double live disc from Talking Heads. I always wondered why this never made it to the digital age, as I used to listen to these two slabs of wax much more than I ever played the other Heads live effort, Stop Making Sense. Once again Rhino does a reissue justice, adding nine tracks to the first album (recorded from 1977 to 1979) and six tracks to the second album (recorded from 1980 to 1981). Frontman David Byrne sounds like he’s ready to jump out of his skin here, and his underrated guitar work shines on the late ’70s cuts. And I don’t even mind that there are two versions of “Pyscho Killer.”
9) Yes - 90125 (Atco/Rhino)
So, how do I justify this selection? I hate every other Yes album. The opening notes of “Roundabout” send me scrambling to punch another preset on my radio. Jon Anderson’s voice gives me seizures. (Okay, that might not be true.) However, this Yes record has none of those annoying progressive rock tendencies. There’s no overblown Roger Dean cover to look at while you roll your weed on the gatefold sleeve. This was a new Yes for the ’80s, dominated by the pop sensibility of the new recruit, guitarist Trevor Rabin. He sings lead on many of the best parts on this album, reigning in Anderson’s screech. He plays complex guitar parts, but more often than not it’s to serve to hook of the song, not to be overly flashy. And the harmonies that Rabin, Anderson and bassist Chris Squire put together on tracks like “Leave It” and “It Can Happen” are top notch. Having the a capella version of “Leave It” (included as one of the bonus tracks) fills a hole in my library, as the rock station in my lovely homestead of Albany, New York played it only once (at least that I heard) and I wasn’t able to get it on tape. Oh, and it also has “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” one of the best singles of 1983.
8) Grateful Dead - Beyond Description (Rhino/WB)
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it—especially if you were a big Dead fan like I was. For the first three years of college I was really, really into the Dead. (I had over 150 shows on cassette at one point.) But once I discovered The Replacements and Soul Asylum, my time as a Dead fan started slipping away, and pretty much evaporated once I escaped the neo-hippie enclave of Ithaca, New York. As I’ve settled into my mid-30s, some classic rock bands from my youth have started sounded fresh again. And I’m glad to say I was able to drive my co-workers nuts by listening to this 12 disc box set. Beyond Description has almost every Dead live and studio album released from 1974 to 1989 (leaving out the subpar Steal Your Face), and going through it disc by disc this fall was like sipping a cup of that acid-spiked tea again. Whoa, my fingers are leaving trails on the keyboard...
7) Garden State: Music From the Motion Picture (Epic/Sony Music Soundtrax)
One of my favorite films of the year has my favorite soundtrack of the year. This collection, pulled together by the film’s director/writer Zach Braff, is a perfect 50-minute mix tape for folks trapped in a swirling round of depression. Not that I know anyone like that. The killer cut by far is Iron and Wine’s cover of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” Stripped of all its electronic tricks, this bare bones acoustic version shows how truly great the song is. And who would expect that Men at Work’s Colin Hay (who contributes “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You”) is still writing good songs? Not me, or Dr Heckyll or Mr. Jive.
6) Faces - Five Guys Walk Into a Bar... (WB/Rhino)
For those of us that sort of remember that Rod Stewart had talent before the stomach pumping, the disco beat of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and the absolutely horrific three albums of standards he’s unleashed upon the boomers of America the past three years, here’s the evidence to back it up. Five Guys Walk Into a Bar... shows Stewart at his peak with the best group of musicians he ever worked with, The Faces. Ron Wood went on to join “the world’s greatest-greatest-hits-album-releasing rock and roll band” The Rolling Stones, but he has to know he was already in one of the best bands in the world. These four discs are filled with some of the grittiest, soulful rock music made in the ’70s. These guys were so talented that they made a cover of Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” sound like something Otis Redding could have written. Oh Rod, what the hell happened?
5) Minus 5 - In Rock (Yep Roc)
This album from Scott McCaughey and company was originally released in 2000 as a limited edition disc sold at the band’s live shows. I felt fortunate in 2001 when I struck up a friendship with Mr. McCaughey and he sent me a copy of this excellent disc. These 10 fast and quick pop songs were always the highlights of any Minus 5 shows I saw over the past couple years, so I was happy that this album finally received a proper release. A song as excellent as “The Girl I Never Met” (as in, “She looks like you”) deserves to be heard by the masses. I’m still not sure why the reissue drops two songs and adds four new ones—I can only think it’s to make Scott McCaughey collectors like myself go just a bit more gray trying to keep up with all of it.
4) Hot Stove, Cool Music Volume 1 (Fenway Recordings/Q Division)
You tell me there’s a benefit album with Pearl Jam, Paul Westerberg, Bill Janovitz, Kay Hanley and The Gentlemen? And it has a baseball angle, with songs by ESPN baseball guru Peter Gammons, former Cy Young winner Jack McDowell (his band Stickfigure), current major leaguer Scott Spiezio (his band Sandfrog), the Boston Red Sox GM who helped break a curse (Trauser featuring Theo Epstein) and a cover of “Rock and Roll (Part 1)” with members of the Red Sox singing the “Hey” part? Um, sign me up for that one right now. (All proceeds from this disc go to the Jimmy Fund, so feel free to buy it and help out a great charity.)
3) Jeff Buckley - Grace (Legacy Edition) (Columbia/Legacy)
10 years after its release, and seven years after Jeff Buckley’s passing, Grace still has the ability to make me stop whatever I’m doing and simply sit and listen. Buckley’s incredible vocal style has been copied to death over the past decade, but the original still has more power and emotion than 10 imitators put together. This reissue is reportedly the last release the Buckley estate plans to put out, and it’s a fine closing statement on the man’s brief yet stunning career. The live in the studio solo covers of “Lost Highway,” “Alligator Wine,” and Bob Dylan’s “Mama You Been on My Mind” prove yet again that Buckley is one of the greatest interpreters of other people material. Ever.
2) Pavement - Crooked Rain Crooked Rain: L.A.’s Desert Origins (Matador)
How does a 12 track album mushroom into a 49 track double disc a decade later? If you’re Pavement, it’s because you recorded more material outside of album sessions than you did during them. Crooked Rain is one great album, but the treasure trove of B-sides contained here (12 of them alone on disc one) is what Pavement was always about for me. I started collecting every one of their singles shortly after the release of Crooked Rain. I had picked up the single for what is still a pop gem, “Cut Your Hair,” and after one spin through their odd take on R.E.M.’s “Camera,” I knew that Pavement was one of those great bands whose story is really told with the songs that fall through the cracks. Of course, if I had known 10 years later that all these singles I so diligently tracked down would be all on one CD, I could have saved myself some cash at the import counter. Bastards.
1) Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (Rhino/Warner Bros.)
Ah, the always tough follow-up to a blockbuster album. Tusk is filled with some of Fleetwood Mac’s weirdest material ever, all of it supplied by Lindsey Buckingham. The Mac’s own Brian Wilson goes to outrageous extremes on this double album, making most of his songs sound ages away from anything on Rumours. (The USC marching band? Hello?) The second disc of demos and outtakes is fascinating look at where these songs started. Hearing Stevie Nicks say, “I don’t wanna be a cleaning lady,” in a slurred voice on the beginning of the demo version of “Sara” is one of the funniest moments on any album released this year. The only thing I can imagine her cleaning up are the mountains of coke that the band went through while making it. This reissue has made me love this album all over again, and now I think I’ll go be bitter and play “What Makes You Think You’re the One” at a loud volume.
10) Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven - Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY 10/15
These two David Lowery-fronted bands have played a few co-headlining bills over the past couple of years, but never reached New York until this CMJ show. This was a gig designed for us non-college folks—Cracker went on at 6:45, with Camper on at 8:00. That’s perfect timing for us adults to get home in time to watch the 11 o’clock news. (Not that I actually did that, but it was something that could have happened.) Cracker kept up their track record of always putting on quality shows, while Camper were better than I ever could have imagined. It didn’t seem like this was a band that had 14 years between studio albums. Lowery and singer-violinist Jonathan Segal played as if it were 1984—except with less hair and more weight on their frames. And my boss bought a few rounds of drinks after I introduced her to a person that introduced her to Lowery, who she is as fixated on as I am with, well, free drinks. And free drinks always make for a better show.
9) Wilco - Irving Plaza, New York, NY 6/8
I was anxiously anticipating this new six-person lineup of Wilco. I always thought this band needed two guitar players, and with the addition of Nels Cline and Pat Sansone, sometimes they had three. (And when they broke into “Freebird,” it was awesome!) For a lineup that had played only six shows up to that point, they sounded as if they had been together for 600 shows. All the A Ghost Is Born tracks that seemed to lose a little spark in the recorded versions reclaimed their former glory. Warhorses I had seen numerous times on the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot tours gained new traction with Cline’s inventive guitar playing. Best of all, Jeff Tweedy seemed more relaxed on stage than he had in years and his singing seemed more powerful than ever. (Which I guess proves that rehab can help.) Tweedy even did a little dance during “Hummingbird” (which made me reconsider the benefits of rehab).
8) Jed Parish, Jason Trachtenburg, Tammy Faye Starlight, Les Sans Culottes -
Knitting Factory, New York, NY 9/18
This was the weirdest bill of 2004: one great singer-songwriter (Parish), one singer-sort of-comedian-guitarist (Trachtenburg), a bizarre country singer parody (I think?) whose songs got more offensive at the night went on (Starlight) and French garage rock (Cullotes). On paper it sounds like a mess, but I’ve rarely had such an unexpected night of fun.
7) The Gentlemen - Sin-e, New York, NY 2/24
The night before this show, The Gentlemen played a private 40th birthday party, which de-evolved quickly as the free booze and cheap beer flowed. It ended up with the birthday boy on stage singing Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” backed by what was left of the band (and a certain Top 20 list author on backing vocals). Dear lord, never let me drink cheap draft beer again. Somehow I survived the ordeal (and sliding down 15 feet of ice on the walk home) to venture into this show. Somehow the band shook off any after effects of the booze and played a tight show that won over two people that I had convinced to come to the show. Two people down, a million more to go.
6) Juliana Hatfield - Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY 7/9
I joked with my fellow Hatfield fan/fanatic/unhealthily fixated-upon-her friend Joe that this show should have been called the Hatfieldmen, as the rhythm section from The Gentlemen were on this tour. And it rocked just like a Gentlemen show. I’ve never seen Hatfield sing with such authority and gusto. I think I even pumped my fist a few times. Someone put out a live bootleg from this tour, please.
5) Pearl Jam, Death Cab for Cutie, Gob Roberts - Sovereign Arena, Reading, PA 10/1
I expected Pearl Jam to be in good form for this show, which was one of six Vote for Change Tour opening shows in Pennsylvania. I ended up being pleasantly surprised by the opening acts Death Cab for Cutie, whom I knew absolutely no songs by, and Gob Roberts, the politically charged group led by actor/activist Tim Robbins. The political material was, not surprisingly, the highlight for all the bands involved—Gob Roberts reworked Phil Ochs’ “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon” by inserting various administration figures (“Dick Cheney, find yourself another country”). Pearl Jam’s covers of X’s “The New World” (with help from Robbins) and Dead Kennedys’ “Bleed for Me” were outstanding, even if no one in the audience knew the originals. And there’s always something special about seeing a group in a smaller town that rarely gets big acts. The crowd was so loud and enthusiastic at times that they drowned out Eddie Vedder.
4) Electric Six - Siren Music Festival, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY 7/17
Is there a better band today at making stupid rock than the Electric Six? Standing in the middle of a street on a cloudy summer afternoon, pumping my fist to “Gay Bar,” pogoing to “Danger! High Voltage” and doubling over in laughter to the bizarre dance moves of singer Dick Valentine all add up to one great day by the ocean.
3) Bill Janovitz and Crown Victoria - Mercury Lounge, New York, NY 9/17
If I wanted to be completely accurate with this entry, I would have included the opening act for this set—a tightly contested New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox game taking place in the Bronx. As I left the subway and was walking to the club, I saw that the game was back on after a rain delay. I stepped into a corner bar called Nice Guy Eddie’s and ordered a beer. Then I noticed that Bill Janovitz was there, as were two of his bandmates, and then my friend Ed. Then I realized I had stepped into the only place in Manhattan that had more than 10 Sox fans at one bar. Watching the game was a perfect way to get ready for the show—we drank, got loud (I led an “asshole” chant against one Yankee who thought he had a home run and slowly circled the bases, even though Manny Ramirez had caught it), drank some more, got pissed at Yankee fans, drank some more and then crossed the street to go to the show. Janovitz and company were obviously fired up by the game (and the alcohol) and played a blistering set. The show kicked up a notch when someone yelled out the final score was in Boston’s favor. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the band broke into a cover of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference.” Now I’ve always thought that Janovitz’s songwriting (solo and with Buffalo Tom) mines that same vein as Robbie Robertson’s best work—soulful, heartfelt songs with big choruses, written about ordinary people who struggle to get by every day. And having Janovitz sing this particular song by The Band, with spot on harmonies from his bandmates, was almost too much for me to handle. Get these guys in a studio and record this cover posthaste.
2) The Figgs - Spaceland, Los Angeles, CA 4/24
Now just so you know, I didn’t go all the way to California just to see The Figgs. I have lots of friends to visit and hang with and I always need to spend an entire afternoon at the world’s best record store (Amoeba). I just happened to decide that I could book my annual L.A. trip around this show. And the gig alone made the trip on Jet Blue worthwhile. I assumed L.A. audiences would be just as jaded as my fellow New Yorkers. Boy, was I totally wrong. These two transplants from Green Bay single-handedly stirred the crowd up to the point where I felt just like I was seeing The Figgs in either Boston or Albany.
1) Green Day - Irving Plaza, New York, NY 9/21
I spent a few days listening to American Idiot before this show, so I was prepared to hear it in its entirety. What I wasn’t prepared for was how perfectly they would nail each and every song. By the time they wrapped up the second song, the nine-minute epic “Jesus of Suburbia,” I knew I was witnessing the show of the year. Hearing the album played in order was so fulfilling that I left only a couple of songs into the hits set that they did after American Idiot was over. I knew that their older material was going to pale in the wake of such a thrilling performance. And I didn’t want to risk almost cutting off another finger.
DISCOVERY OF THE YEAR
I didn’t get The Thrills’ debut album So Much for the City until January of this year, and I only got it from their label because I was set to interview the band. Before then, I had heard a couple of songs on the local NPR Adult Alternative station, but they didn’t really grab me. The interview fell through, but in the process of preparing for it I ended up spinning that disc a lot. And these songs, rooted in the ’60s pop of The Byrds and The Beach Boys with a healthy dose of alt-country flavor, got stuck in my brain. These Irish guys pretty much wrote exclusively about California (“Big Sur,” “Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far),” “Hollywood Kids”) and I really enjoyed their outsider’s take upon our golden land of dreams. The Thrills also won me over by releasing a new album (Let’s Bottle Bohemia) within a year of their first one. And shockingly, it was even better than the first. Maybe next year they can go three for three.
REDISCOVERY OF THE YEAR
Tears for Fears
Ah, the power of VH1 Classic. Two weeks after getting hooked up with digital cable, I was still watching the channel as much as was possible—mornings before work, as soon as I walked in the door in the evening, or at 2 a.m. just before bed. One day (or night, I lost track of time watching it) they played Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels.” It’s that bizarre video set in a library with a monkey in a Boston Red Sox jersey. After laughing for a few seconds, I realized that I liked this song the most of all the singles off Songs From the Big Chair. I went to the “T” section in my CD rack, and realized I didn’t own any Tears for Fears anymore. You can guess what happened next—I became obsessed with having that song, so I found myself at the Virgin Megastore that Friday after work, buying myself a copy of Songs From the Big Chair. That night I forced my friend Cheryl to put it on at the bar, just so I could hear “Head Over Heels” and the live tag at the end, “Broken,” at a louder volume than was possible at my apartment. The next day I woke up and popped the album in, and found myself liking all the songs. I had never heard the whole thing as a teenager, only the singles. And I certainly wasn’t going to buy a copy of Big Chair after that horrific Beatles rip-off bullshit (“Sowing the Seeds of Love”) was released in 1989. They say time heals almost all wounds, so if I can love Hall and Oates again, I guess the statute of hatred limitations is up for Tears for Fears.
The Top 10 Visual Aids of 2004
10) Garden State (Fox Searchlight/Miramax)
That guy from Scrubs (Zach Braff), who looks like that guy from Ed (Tom Cavanaugh), scored big with his writing and directorial debut.
9) Arrested Development (FOX)
If more sitcoms were this well written and acted, we’d have a lot less airtime for crappy reality shows. It’s amazing that the same network that has The Rebel Billionaire and Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy actually kept this show on the air for a second year. I haven’t laughed this loud while watching a sitcom in many years.
8) Desperate Housewives (ABC)
Yet another reason why Sunday night is the best night to stay in and get warm by the tube. I was initially drawn in by the creepy mystery of the pilot, and have been sucked further in by the soap opera-ish elements (affair with the lawn boy, blackmail, murder) that are always done with a twisted sense of humor.
7) Fahrenheit 9/11 (Dog Eat Dog Films)
It’s rare that a film can make one laugh and then think deeply about the state of the world within the same minute.
6) Chapelle’s Show (Comedy Central)
Who could have ever predicted “Cocaine Is a Powerful Drug” would become the catchphrase of the year? And Dave Chapelle’s impression of Prince playing basketball should go directly to the Museum of Television and Radio so future generations can see what comic perfection looks like.
5) The Simpsons: The Complete Fourth Season (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)
Three reasons to own this set: “Kamp Krusty,” “Homer the Heretic” and “Mr. Plow.” This is the season where The Simpsons become the best television show ever. (And if Season 5 wasn’t coming out four days after the publication date for the list, I’m sure it would have made it on here as well).
4) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Focus Features)
Charlie Kaufman strikes again with yet another mind-blowing script, this time about removing memories about the person that broke your heart. This is Jim Carrey’s finest role to date, and if anyone at the academy had a clue, they’d nominate him for an Oscar.
3) Sideways (FOX Searchlight)
Speaking of Oscar, can someone please give Paul Giamatti his due? He’s obviously one the top five actors working today, and his performance as a struggling writer trying to throw a weeklong bachelor party for his more successful friend (Thomas Hayden Church) with a trip through wine country is stunning. Giamatti plays the dark humor and building bitterness of his character perfectly.
2) Lost (ABC)
Okay, does anyone have any theories about where exactly these people crashed? Every week I’m glued to futon, trying to see if there are any clues about the bizarre things happening on this tropical island (with polar bears?) that I’m missing.
1) Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Miramax)
Welcome back Quentin Tarantino. I’m sorry I hated Kill Bill Vol. 1 so much. All is forgiven. I believe that this film is (get ready for it) even better than Pulp Fiction. Seriously.
What Was I Thinking? 15 Overrated Albums in 15 Years
I suppose I should consider myself a critic, even though I openly dislike the term. I mean, I complain about everything 80 percent of the time (and the other 20 percent of the time I’m sleeping), so that must make me a critic. And of course, that means I’m also my own harshest critic. (Actually, I’m my own worst enemy on almost every front, but that has nothing to do with my writing.) So in that spirit of self-criticism and always doubting every action I take, I figured this 15th anniversary was the perfect time to look back at the albums that I obviously over-estimated during the past decade and a half. Some of these albums made the list because of the artist’s former glories, some because I wholeheartedly got sucked into the music trend of the year and others...well, I just have no idea why I wrote about them. Without further ado, I give you the shit I tried to turn into roses.
Dire Straits - On Every Street (Warner Bros.)
Year Released: 1991 Top 20 Position: 8
What I wrote then: “Skip the first two singles, and you have their best LP since Making Movies.”
What I think now: Skip all of it—each one of Mark Knopfler’s solo efforts are better than this last attempt to keep the Dire Straits name going. “Calling Elvis” is easily the worst song ever recorded that has the King’s name in it’s title. And “Heavy Fuel” was the worst rip-off of “Money for Nothing” ever recorded.
Bruce Springsteen - Lucky Town (Columbia)
Year Released: 1992 Top 20 Position: 15
What I wrote then: “Yup, I’m the only person who still likes the Boss. Human Touch was his worst album, but this one ranks up there with his other work. A great album about starting a family, and the fears and hopes behind it.”
What I think now: Come on now, no one thinks his time away from the E Street Band was worth it. The man himself only has played one song from this album (“If I Should Fall Behind”) regularly with the E Streeters, which is a sign that even he doesn’t like it.
John Mellencamp - Human Wheels (Mercury)
Year Released: 1993 Top 20 Position: 18
What I wrote then: “Has he ever made a bad album? More rhythmic than other albums, and much more soul.”
What I think now: Yes, he has made a few bad albums, and this was the first one, jackass. "What If I Came Knocking” is easily the weakest first single he’s ever released from an album. (With the possible exception of his cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night.”) Human Wheels was where the wheels started coming off Mellencamp’s writing ability.
Aimee Mann - Whatever (Imago)
Year Released: 1993 Top 20 Position: 12
What I wrote then: “Tuesday Who? A great solo debut. Better than anything her old band did. Pure Power Pop.”
What I think now: Maybe this album doesn’t deserve to be on this particular list. But there have been so many whiny interviews with her, complaining about how she got shorted by all her old labels, that it’s almost impossible to not dislike her. I can’t even bring myself to listen to any of her discs anymore. Maybe you could still listen to the lead-off track “I Should’ve Known,” but only on a dare.
The Lemonheads - Come On Feel The Lemonheads (Atlantic)
Year Released: 1993 Top 20 Position: 7
What I wrote then: “Evan does it again. Amazing hooks+many guitars+Rick James=a great record. Having Juliana and Belinda Carlisle sing backup is nice too...”
What I think now: Dude, were you on heroin when you wrote this? Coming off a tight pop gem like It’s a Shame About Ray, Come On is an unfocused mess of second rate songs. It’s surprising “Rick James Style” didn’t kill the man back then it’s so unlistenable.
The Offspring - Smash (Epitaph)
Year Released: 1994 Top 20 Position: 18
What I wrote then: “Not as good as most of the bands on Epitaph, the little label that could, but shows that perhaps the kids of America are ready to put safety pins in their t-shirts.”
What I think now: Young Steve, this may be the entry that embarrasses us both the most. Is “Self Esteem” not one of the worst songs to come out of the ’90s? You can’t even blame this entry because you liked some girl that liked it. Dumbass.
Patti Smith - Gone Again (Arista)
Year Released: 1996 Top 20 Position: 15
What I wrote then: “I chatted about this ‘comeback’ album with a well-known freelance NY critic, and she told me that I shouldn’t bother to waste my time seeing Patti or listening to this album because she did it better in the late ‘70s. I say, show me someone who’s doing this better than her now, and then maybe I’ll listen to you.”
What I think now: Besides the single “Summer Cannibals,” all these tracks don’t live up to her ’70s work. That freelance critic was right. Dammit.
Paul McCartney - Flaming Pie (Capitol)
Year Released: 1997 Top 20 Position: 19
What I wrote then: “The post-Beatles Anthology hype machine (of which I was an unwilling part) scored Pie a big chart debut. But when I went back to listen to the album after six months away from it (except the 1000 times my boss played and sang to it...sorry Sal), I was surprised to find some real decent songs.”
What I think now: Holy shit dude, 1997 must have been a crappy year for music for this flaming piece of crap to make it onto the list. Isn’t that the year you gave up drinking? I think sobriety clouded your judgment.
Imani Coppola - Chupacabra (Columbia)
Year Released: 1997 Top 20 Position: 18
What I wrote then: “An intriguing mix of witty sampling (Donovan's ‘Sunshine Superman’ plays a prominent part on the single “Legend of a Cowgirl”) and her string playing (guitar AND violin) makes it a true sonic pleasure.”
What I think now: You put an album on this list based upon one novelty song (“Legend of a Cowgirl”). Do we even own this disc any more?
Cherry Poppin’ Daddies - Zoot Suit Riot (Mojo)
Year Released: 1997 Top 20 Position: 15
What I wrote then: “As I’ve said, it’s the Year of the Horn, and this band is no exception. The Daddies like their swing, and they like to play it steaming. Frontman Steve Perry (NO, not THAT one) is just a madman live and on record. You’d think he grew up in the ’40’s, not the ’80s. And it’s hard not to like a band that includes a guest horn section called The First Church of Sinatra (‘Come Back to Me’).”
What I think now: Wait, you fell for the swing movement? No, you’ve got be lying about this entry. Seriously, what kind of follow the trend kind of guy were you?
Oasis - Be Here Now (Epic)
Year Released: 1997 Top 20 Position: 11
What I wrote then: “Coming in second only to the Spice Girls for the most stupid things reported about a band in 1997, Oasis survived all the drugs, breakups and aborted marriage attempts to come up with album that almost collapses under its own weight. I’m not saying it’s bad, but sometimes you wish someone had been in the studio with Noel Gallagher AND a stopwatch and cut off some songs at four minutes.”
What I think now: Um, it did collapse under its own weight. Oasis are a two album wonder, no more, no less.
Public Enemy - He Got Game (Def Jam)
Year Released: 1998 Top 20 Position: 19
What I wrote then: “P-E’s first disc in four years is a huge improvement over the true mess of Muse-Sick-N-Hour-Mess-Age. The plot of the Spike Lee film provided the perfect vehicle for Chuck D and Flavor Flav to apply their lyrical genius. “Game Face,” “Politics of the Sneaker Pimps” and “Super Agents” nail the mood of the film—and the shady side of basketball. “He Got Game” borrows a page from the Puffy playbook by remaking “For What It’s Worth,” and ups the ante with Stephen Stills reprising his vocal on the chorus.”
What I think now: Whoa, that Stephen Stills track is just plain awful. This is perhaps Public Enemy’s lowest moment (besides Flavor Flav canoodling with Brigitte Nielsen).
Goo Goo Dolls - Dizzy Up the Girl (Warner Bros.)
Year Released: 1998 Top 20 Position: 18
What I wrote then: “The Goos have mellowed out a bit like their forefathers The Replacements and Soul Asylum, but Buffalo’s best trio seems to have done a better job of it. Some bands don’t deserve their success—these guys do.”
What I think now: They’re still great guys, but this album really launched their slide into mediocrity. Another album that was never listened to again after that year expired.
Everclear - Songs From an American Movie Volume One: Learning How to Smile (Capitol)
Year Released: 2000 Top 20 Position: 16
What I wrote then: “Everclear started out as a hard-rock Nirvana sound alike, but with every album singer-songwriter Art Alexakis’s pop side comes out more and more. Learning How to Smile is his pop opus. ”
What I think now: Seriously Steve, this has a cover of “Brown Eyed Girl” on it. Don’t you know how much we hate this song? It doesn’t matter how good the other songs are on it, it should not be polluting the other quality music sitting next to it on the page. Yeah.
Bob Mould - Modulate (Granary Music/United Musicians)
Year Released: 2002 Top 20 Position: 16
What I wrote then: “Bob Mould’s 20-year career has been based on loud, guitar-oriented, darkly gripping songs. That’s why Modulate is such a jaw dropper from track one—there’s not a guitar to be found in ‘180 Rain.’”
What I think now: Hey pal, we never listened to that again after the list was done two years ago. That’s a telling sign that Bob Mould should not be doing dance music.
You Haven't Heard That? 15 Albums I Missed in 15 Years
In the 15 years that I have done this list, I’ve listened to all of or parts of—it’s a rough estimate here—7500 albums. I have seen a good deal of music cross my desk in college, at the three radio jobs I’ve had, the brief time I worked at the distribution center for a major label and the almost 10 years at my current job writing two daily music news services used by radio stations across this great land of ours.
Currently I get sent about 600 CD’s a year, and a whole heck of it is a bunch of crap: weak traditional country, bad speed metal, mind-numbing electronica, I have seen and listened to it all. Some days I’ll pull a stack of discs out of my desk and just go through them as quickly as possible, trying to determine if a) I like it; b) if it’s something that might get airplay on the rock side of things or on the adult alternative side of things; c) wonder if I have just picked up a new CD case to replace all those cracked ones at home; or d) could I trade this in at Amoeba on my next trip to L.A. Having all these possibilities running through my brain makes it incredibly difficult to give every record a fair shake. There are always albums that slip through my fingers where a few months later I think, “Gee, why don’t I have that?”
So what I’ve compiled here is a list of 15 albums that, for one reason or another, I completely ignored the first time around. Sometimes labels did not send them to me, and what I heard elsewhere made me think I wasn’t missing anything. Other times I’ll have had the record, filed it away and then hear a song on the NPR station out of the Bronx or perhaps at the great indie rock bar near where I used to live in Brooklyn and have to dig that album out once I get home. On occasion I’ve just hated a band so much upon first listen that I never gave them a second chance until repeated exposures to it, or I’ll have thought it was a subpar effort from an artist I liked, only to discover later that the artist knew all along exactly what they were doing.
So for once in my life in public, I’m here to admit my mistakes. I goofed. I fucked up. I was a tool. These 15 discs should have made the Top 20 List in the respective years they were released, but didn’t. If you’ve never heard any of the following discs, go pick them up and check them out. And if you don’t like them upon first listen, give it some time—I certainly know that I should have.
Oasis - Definitely Maybe (Epic)
Year Released: 1994
The last radio station I worked at was called K-Rock. It was one station simulcast in the Syracuse and Utica markets in Central New York, and there I hosted and programmed our alternative music show called 94 Minutes. (Yes, I was ripping off 120 Minutes, but nothing in radio is ever highly original.) Since I was ostensibly the music director (and later the assistant program director), I had weekly access to label reps, so I was able to prod them for the best of the lot of alternative albums even though we were a hard rock station. I always kept up on the alternative charts in the radio trade magazines each week to see if there was anything I was missing. In the late summer of 1994 Oasis was getting a big push in the trades, with everyone saying they were next big thing from England. One day in my mail one day I received the single for “Supersonic,” along with a green T-shirt with the band’s logo. I popped it on and immediately thought, “That riff is such a Neil Young rip-off. He ought to sue them.” I gave no further thought to playing it, but kept the shirt because as everyone says in radio, “If it’s free it’s for me.” For some reason, our program director at the time decided to add “Supersonic” into regular rotation, so I was forced to play the track a couple times a week. It grew on me a bit, but not that much. As part of my job, I had to request promotional product from labels, so I ordered a bunch of CD’s and cassettes of Definitely Maybe. And because of that free rule, I took a copy of each—one for home and a copy for the car just in case I was desperate for something different, or highly derivative.
Flash forward to the next January. I’m completely fed up with my job, can’t stand many of the people that are higher up on the food chain from me and I’m trying to figure out what to do next. I read in one of the trades that the next single from the Oasis album was “Live Forever.” I decided to give it a spin it in my tiny little office on a discman (gotten for free, of course) and within one chorus my mind suddenly clicked. Life was going to be okay, and this song was going to help me. I ended up adding it that week to the alternative show, and eventually the track went to number-one. Oh my, I was glad I kept that cassette. It would spend days in my car’s tape deck, and it didn’t matter anymore that Noel Gallagher ripped off T. Rex, Neil Young, a Coca Cola jingle (seriously, on “Shakermaker”) and scores of others. I reveled in the fuck-all attitude of songs like “Cigarettes & Alcohol” and “Digsy’s Diner.” Definitely Maybe is still one of the definitive debut albums of the ’90s. And that Oasis t-shirt? I wore it all the time in 1995. One of my favorite pictures ever (myself and my friend Mr. Schmidt) has me in that shirt, which I wore until I got too damn fat for it. I saved that shirt, and now 10 years later it fits me again. If I keep losing weight like this, maybe I will live forever.
Jeff Buckley - Grace (Columbia)
Year Released: 1994
Right around the same time Oasis was getting pushed by their label, Jeff Buckley was tapped as the next big thing by Columbia. I had some low level guy from Columbia’s college department call me each week, asking me to listen to the title track of Buckley’s album, and each week I told him it was a little too different (what was up with that guy’s voice?) for the kind of show I was doing. That guy kept on calling though, week after week, and his persistence paid off in 1995 when they went for a second single, “Last Goodbye.” I saw the video one night on 120 Minutes, and the next day decided to add it because there was something in its hypnotic groove that drew me in. That Columbia guy was one happy camper—and then was replaced two weeks later (I kid you not, no success goes unrewarded in the record business). After playing “Last Goodbye” for a couple weeks, I decided that maybe I should give it one of my patented “bedtime spins.” Here’s what “bedtime spins” are: I worked overnights, and when I went to bed at 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. I needed some sort of mellow music to help me fall asleep. I discovered many great low key albums this way. The title track to Grace is not a song to sleep to with its crescendo of loud guitars and Buckley’s screaming at the end. But after that song I found myself getting relaxed rather quickly. The quartet of “Last Goodbye,” “Lilac Wine,” “So Real,” and “Hallelujah” is about as perfect as an album can get in washing away your demons from the day. When I moved to New York later that year, I discovered that my roommate Joe was a big fan of Buckley and we spent many hours using Grace as the music to strip away those nasty hangovers. I suppose if you’re going to leave this planet with just one album released in your lifetime, you couldn’t do better than this one.
Son Volt - Trace (Warner Bros.)
Year Released: 1995
I had been an Uncle Tupelo fan since playing No Depression in college, and played tracks from their final album, Anodyne, on my alternative show. The band’s spilt in 1994 lead to the birth of Wilco (led by singer-bassist Jeff Tweedy) and Son Volt (lead by singer-guitarist Jay Farrar). Wilco released their disc in March of 1995, and I ended up liking it so much it made it into the Top 10 on the list that year. Son Volt’s debut was released in September of that year, right after I had moved to New York, was very poor and most importantly, wasn’t getting free albums from every label anymore. I heard Son Volt’s first single “Drown” on WNEW (R.I.P), and knew I liked it a lot. I believe I finally bought the album right after getting my first Christmas bonus from my current job (ah, those were the days). Alas that year’s list had already been mailed out. After a few listens it was clear that it deserved a place on the list. But I figured being able to pay my rent was more important than getting another disc. Fortunately, I have learned better than that now.
The Gravel Pit - The Gravel Pit Manifesto (Q Division)
Year Released: 1996
I finally got to see The Figgs for the first time in 1996, and have pretty much caught them on every New York gig ever since. At some point in 1996 or 1997 I saw the Gravel Pit for the first time, opening up for The Figgs. I honestly didn’t think that much of them. That’s because I didn’t care about any band before The Figgs—I just wanted to hear those guys from Saratoga Springs, New York blow my ears out. I do vaguely remember looking at The Gravel Pit discs one time and thinking that the cover to The Gravel Pit Manifesto was pretty cool, and that’s as far as it went. As the years went by I saw The Pit a couple more times and grew to dig them a bit more, without ever shelling out cash for one of their albums. Then in 1999 Mike Gent from The Figgs teamed up with three guys from the Pit to form The Gentlemen. Their 2000 debut rocked my world, and made me reconsider my lack of enthusiasm for the Pit when they played. I went to see the Pit play their own show that year and found myself digging them a lot more. In 2001 I bought their new album Mass Ave. Freeze Out online and ended up buying The Gravel Pit Manifesto when they came into town after Freeze Out was released. The opening punch of “New Haven” and “Thought Powered Cloud” made me realize I had made a serious mistake. These guys had songs that were way smarter than most musicians, yet they were able to rock as hard as any band on the East Coast. That summer I listened to Manifesto each car ride I took, cursing myself for all of the great rock I had missed by not becoming a fan sooner. (For more of my babbling about the Gravel Pit, go to TrouserPress.com and search for their entry.)
Whiskeytown - Strangers Almanac (Outpost)
Year Released: 1997
Stranger’s Almanac is yet another album that slipped through the cracks, only to be saved by my habit of needing an album to listen to before falling asleep. I had played it in 1997 when it first came out. Well, more likely I skimmed through it and then just put it into our library at work. In 1998 the song “Yesterday’s News” started getting some rock airplay, and while talking to a publicist at their label, he said he’d send me a copy to check out. The second time around worked, as I started listening to this disc each and every night before bed. The songs on this first half of this album are so depressing that listening to it when I came home unhappy made my own shortcomings seem less imposing. Pining for that girl that lives thousands of miles away? Put on the opening track, “Inn Town.” Upset that your moves on a certain girl didn’t work at a party? Skip directly to track two, “Excuse If I Break My Own Heart Tonight.” Can’t get a certain person to fall for you after a concert, despite the mounting evidence that the two of you would be a good couple? Try track five, “Everything I Do.” I like a full-service depression effort.
The Jayhawks - Sound of Lies (American Recordings)
Year Released: 1997
And speaking of depression, here’s an album chock full of it. I was big fan of The Jayhawks first two major label albums, 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall and 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass. When I got this disc in the mail at work, I didn’t hear any songs that immediately grabbed me like those first two discs. The songs were harsher and a lot darker than I expected from the band. The only exception was “It’s Up to You,” which I threw on my summer mix tape and became a walkman favorite. Even when I went to see the band that fall (and got drunk for the first time all year) these new songs didn’t really sink in compared to the old ones. In 2000 when Smile—a slick production compared to Sound of Lies—was released, I ended up seeing The Jayhawks five times. At each gig the songs that seemed to be the best of the night were the ones from Sound of Lies. They weren’t as slick as the Smile songs and the band always seemed to have more fun playing those than any others. I found myself going back to Sound of Lies after each show, and wondering how I could have missed the best album of The Jayhawks career—and put Paul McCartney on the list that year instead. What an asshole.
Lucinda Williams - Car Wheels On a Gravel Road (Mercury)
Year Released: 1998
So here’s one of those records I sold shortly after getting it, much to my regret later. I read all the critical hoo-haas! about how this album was the best disc released in 1998, how Williams was the best songwriter of our times, blah, blah, freaking blah. I had gone through the album once and just didn’t care for it. I sold it because I needed cash to buy beer, of that I’m pretty sure. When her next album, Essence, was released in 2001, I kept it because I liked the harmony vocals The Jayhawks’ Gary Louris provided on the title track. Over the years I started hearing various tracks from Car Wheels at Great Lakes, a bar in Brooklyn just across the street from where I used to live. I’d hear this really distinctive female voice with this great alt-country sort of sound behind it and I’d have to go to the jukebox to find out who it was. Then I started playing the leadoff track “Right in Time” as part of the massive sets I would play on the jukebox (damn I pissed people off when I’d play 30 songs in a row). So in 2003 I finally broke down and picked up a used copy of Car Wheels, and finally caught up to the rest of those so-called critics.
Doves - Lost Souls (Astralwerks)
Year Released: 2000
Here’s a case of an album released just a little bit too late to make the list. Actually, that’s a stupid thing to say since it was released in mid-October 2000. That’s plenty of time for it to make an impression. I think I had probably made my mind up by that point about the list and was too lazy to change it. Duh. And it’s not if I didn’t spend any quality time with this album. My roommate Joe and I spent the night of the 2000 election listening to this album and watching the returns. (And yes, we both voted for Nader, but our votes weren’t cast in Florida.) This album’s mix of straight ahead rock and moody electronica-influenced instrumentals seemed to be the perfect companion to the images on the screen. That seemed especially true when “A House” (with the lyrics “It was a day like this that my house burnt down”) came on a second time as the night got later—and creepier. Fortunately the Doves second album, 2002’s The Last Broadcast, got the praise from me it deserved, but I really missed out on this one.
PJ Harvey - Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Island/Def Jam)
Year Released: 2000
Ack—another album I sold. Double ack—I sold it twice! In the summer of 2000 I received an advance copy of this album. I listened to it once, was rather unimpressed, and somehow was able to pawn off the plain looking disc when I traded some stuff in at my favorite record store in the East Village of Manhattan. Then in October I got a finished copy and did exactly the same thing. Once again it took that well respected indie rock bar in Brooklyn, Great Lakes, to bring me to my senses. Someone that went to that bar just as much as I did really liked this album. Almost every weekend night in 2001 I heard the second track “Good Fortune.” At first I was kind of irked, as I had already given up on this album. I liked Polly Jean Harvey’s first three albums (this was her fifth), and I figured that’s as far as I was going to go with her. I was wrong. One night I hadn’t heard the song, so I decided I had to play it. And eventually, almost two years after selling it twice, I found myself in that same used record store, buying a copy of Stories From the City. Lesson learned—sometimes it’s not wise to give up on artists that you really liked at one point. They have a way of creeping back up on you.
Pete Yorn - musicforthemorningafter (Columbia)
Year Released: 2001
I’ve been privileged over the years to get tons of records for free. Getting on the mailing list for these record labels has been a full-time job of begging over the years. (Come to think of it, my love life and my record label service have run parallel over the years—they both got better as I got older.) I always had problems getting service from Columbia, Epic and heck, all of the Sony labels (except for the reissue arm Legacy Recordings). In 2001 I finally started getting service from these labels. Alas, this happened just after Pete Yorn’s fine debut was released. Yorn is a singer-songwriter from New Jersey who’s obviously spent a good deal of time worshiping at the alter of Bruce Springsteen, but he makes more tightly constructed pop songs than The Boss could ever dream of making. It took the second single “For Nancy (‘Cos It Already Is)” to get me to break out the credit card and buy this album. I immediately liked it upon first listen, although it was already 2002 and too late to make the list. And here’s the funny part of this story—I ended up buying it a second time when Columbia re-released it with a bonus disc that had covers, a re-recording of the third single “Strange Condition” and four videos. What a sucker. (Full disclosure: I know the co-producer of this album. That had nothing to do with this album making this specific list. However, if I do suddenly gain some greater musical talent by divine intervention, I’m going to have him produce my debut album.)
White Stripes - White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry/Third Man/V2)
Year Released: 2001
Oh man, did I hate the White Stripes. The first single from their second album De Stijl, “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl),” drove me absolutely crazy every time I heard it. I couldn’t believe that people enjoyed such amateurish music, especially a duo with no bass. And really, who the heck was playing drums? Had they lost their sense of rhythm in a poker game? A novelty that wouldn’t last, that is what I thought of the White Stripes. Then came that pesky Lego video. “Fell in Love With a Girl” came onto MTV2 at the exact same time I got the channel on my cable system. That clip seemed to be on all the time, and if there’s nothing else I loved from my childhood, it’s those connecting blocks. So I picked up White Blood Cells, and it took only the first track, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” to realize the error of my ways. And the best song—“I Think I Smell a Rat”—didn’t even come around until track 11. Sometimes it’s good to be a bandwagon jumper.
Zero 7 - Simple Things (Quango/Palm Pictures)
Year Released: 2001
I’ll credit the NPR Adult Alternative station here in New York, WFUV, for turning me onto this gloriously seductive album. I heard the single “Destiny” late one night as I was in bed, and I forced myself to get up and write down Zero 7’s name. I got a copy of the album the next week from the band’s label. The first night I listened to it at home I just about slipped into a coma, I felt so relaxed. This pair of English DJ’s—Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker—definitely made a smooth transition from remixers to talented songwriters and musicians. Simple Things, with its mix of seductive slow jams and instrumentals, is a perfect album for lounging around...or fooling around. This album just oozes sex throughout. When one of the four lead vocalists, Sia Furler, sings in a breathy voice about “watching porn in my hotel dressing gown” in “Destiny,” it’s very easy to imagine her doing just that.
Jay-Z - The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella Records)
Year Released: 2001
I’ve always been a fan of Jay-Z’s singles throughout the years (“Hard Knock Life,” “Big Pimpin’”) yet I never felt compelled to pick up one of his albums. It took a single performance on MTV Unplugged to change that. Watching Jay-Z and The Roots play “Song Cry” live and to see this renown MC get so caught up in the groove that he looked he was about to cry himself was a sight to see. While the album version doesn’t attain the heights of the Unplugged performance, it’s still an amazing track that’s about as close to a ballad as Jay ever gets. The Blueprint is one of the rare rap albums in my collection—I never feel the need to skip ahead to listen to the singles. And considering this this album contains “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” perhaps Jay’s best single ever, that’s some high praise.
The Postal Service - Give Up (Sub Pop)
Year Released: 2003
File this album under the category rescued from my desk. In 2003 I went back to L.A. for the first time in seven years and spent part of my trip staying with my friend Mike, a.k.a. Johnny Reno. He asked me to bring a bunch of discs that I had written about in the list so he could check them out and burn some copies. As we hung out catching up on old times and letting the burner do it’s thing, he told me that he had to copy The Postal Service album for me. He was convinced I would really like it. So when I got back from L.A. with a big haul of disc booty, I popped in Give Up at my desk one day at work. After four songs I was kind of bored by the weird synth sounds and the quirky and somewhat nasally vocals by whoever was singing. So I stuffed it away in the CD rack at my desk and promptly forgot about it. A year later I was looking at the same rack, figuring out what I needed to get rid of to clear some space. So early one Friday evening as I was cleaning up I took out the Postal Service album and popped it in. When I got to track two, “Such Great Heights,” I was struck with a bolt of recognition. I had heard this song plenty of times when I was out, never knew who the heck it was—and I owned it the entire time! Duh.
Jet - Get Born (Elektra)
Year Released: 2003
Is it wrong to admit I started listening to an album a lot more after hearing a song on The O.C.? Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have written that, but it’s completely true. During one episode of The O.C. earlier this year they played one of the songs from this album (I can’t remember which track) and I ended up grabbing the disc off the shelf and listening to it that night. Get Born is about as derivative as an album can be, yet it’s so much fun that it’s hard to resist. Any band that can pull off copying AC/DC (“Cold Hard Bitch”), Iggy Pop (“Are You Gonna Be My Girl”), and The Faces (“Move On”) all on one disc deserves credit for being able to have the cajoñes to pull it off.
Top 10 Reactions to Steve Losing 40 Pounds And Then Shaving Off His Facial Hair, Cutting His Hair Rather Short and Not Wearing Glasses Anymore
1) “Wow dude, were you on one of those makeover shows?
2) “You lost weight, you lost the facial hair—what’s next, an arm?”
3) “Hey, did you get into a fight with a chainsaw?”
4) “Well that takes years off your face.”
5) “Can I see your ID please?” (Said by a doorman that didn’t recognize me)
6) “I’m sorry, I just can’t look at you, it’s too weird.”
7) “Hey, you look like your younger...younger brother.”
8) “Did you lose a bet or something?”
9) “You are gay, right?” (Said by a bisexual hitting on me on Thanksgiving night)
10) “Wow, that’s hot.” (Said by a woman, thank goodness)
The 20 Most Listened to Albums of The Past 15 Years
When I hatched this insane idea to do a big issue of the Top 20 List to mark its 15th anniversary, the first thing I thought of was doing a fake radio show. After kicking around various ideas (trying to do interviews with four of my favorite artists, a countdown of my favorite albums ever, a review of 2004’s music, a punk rock version of All Things Considered, an hour’s worth of me reading Dylan’s autobiography) I figured out exactly what I wanted to do. Radio is, well, at least used to be at one point, about listening to your favorite music. So I looked through my disc (and cassette) collection trying to determine what I listened to the most over the past 15 years. These 20 albums aren’t what I would consider the best albums of the past 15 years (although a third of them would make that cut). It’s just a bunch of albums that I ended up listening to more than others because of different circumstances.
I had planned on going more in depth about my memories of each album within the special itself, and then I realized I didn’t want to ramble on that long. I’d probably want to kill myself listening to my own voice so much over two discs, so why should I torture anyone else? So here are the “annotated track notes” for The Reynolds Top 20 15th Anniversary Special. These aren’t reviews of the albums per se, just random thoughts and memories about them. You can find my reviews of them on the Reynolds Top 20 website (reynoldstop20.blogspot.com) in the year that each album was released.
(Corrections: In the special I say there are three Minneapolis acts on the list, while there are actually five, if you count Bob Mould twice. And when I mention a line in The Gentlemen song “Top Heavy,” I say “With a busted tooth/And a broken heart,” that is incorrect. The line actually is “With a busted tooth/And a mended heart.”)
Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Ragged Glory (Reprise)
Year Released: 1990 Tracks Featured in Special: “Fuckin’ Up,” “Mansion on the Hill”
Neil Young is my favorite artist of all time, and over the past 15 years he’s released some great records. Ragged Glory stands above all of them. It’s gloriously loud and long—10 songs over 62 minutes, with two tracks clocking in at over 10 minutes apiece. I still remember buying it the day it came out, going back to my apartment and cranking it because no one else was in the entire building. Ragged Glory has always been one of the first albums I listen to in a new apartment. I’d like to think it’s so loud that it pounds any bad vibes the previous tenant might have left right out of the rooms. It’s also the album I have taken with me on every long trip I’ve ever been on, and it serves any long drive very well.
The Replacements - All Shook Down (Sire/Reprise)
Year Released: 1990 Tracks Featured in Special: “Merry Go Round,” “Nobody”
All Shook Down came out just a week after Ragged Glory, and just like the previous Tuesday, I bought the album, went to my apartment and cranked it because no one was home. This album makes the list for three different intense listening periods. The first was after its initial release, when my love of The Replacements was at its peak. I listened to that band almost every day my senior year of college, and I played a Replacements song during every shift I had at the radio station. The second came in 1994 when I scored a copy of it on cassette for two bucks at my favorite record store in Utica, New York, where I was living while working at my last radio job. For a week straight I listened to that cassette on every trip back and forth from the radio station. The third time came in 1997 when I got a mix tape from a girl in California that I was, well, obsessed with. On this tape of funny and heartfelt songs was the All Shook Down ballad “Sadly Beautiful.” This girl embodied that song, at least in my twisted lovesick mind. So I started listening to All Shook Down again in hopes that it would reveal some sort of key to wooing her from 3000 miles away. It didn’t, but at least I got to hear some great songs.
Sugar - Copper Blue (Rykodisc)
Year Released: 1992 Tracks Featured in Special: “Helpless” “If I Can’t Change Your Mind”
When I heard Bob Mould had a new power trio called Sugar, I could not wait for it to come out. I bought the single (ah yes, when singles were still around) for “Helpless” in mid-August 1992 at a record store near Cornell University in Ithaca. I listened to the four songs (three b-sides, how cool!) over and over again, blown away by how thick it all sounded. I didn’t have much else to look forward to at this point, as I was waiting to see if I would get hired full-time at the classic rock radio station. At the time I was being paid by the hour as the morning show sidekick. I had no apartment and was staying on people’s couches all over town. The day that Copper Blue was finally released was the day my old program director hired me to come work for her in Utica—and the same day I got a call that I should come home ASAP as my grandmother was not doing well. (She died the next morning as I was in route.) In other words, it was a pretty big day in my life, and this album seemed so big and loud that it perfectly matched the turmoil in my life.
Soul Asylum - Grave Dancer’s Union (Columbia)
Year Released: 1992 Tracks Featured in Special: “Keep It Up,” “New World”
I become a huge Soul Asylum fan when their 1990 album And a Horse They Rode In On was released. I ended up getting the rest of their catalog over the next two years and was really primed for their next album. And while it took a bit of getting used to the fuller sound of Grave Dancer’s Union, I became a big fan of it. I was shocked when the radio station I worked at added the first single “Somebody to Shove.” That gave me the opportunity to request promotional copies of the album from their label, which meant I got myself a cassette version for the car. This cassette stayed in my car rotation (I had a 10 cassette holder next to the armrest at all times) for the next three years, even after “Runaway Train” became one of the most overplayed songs ever. There were plenty of mornings I would leave the station pissed off because the morning guy was an asshole who treated me like I had no clue. So I would speed out of the parking lot, dirt flying everywhere, with either “Somebody to Shove” (side one, song one) or “Get On Out” (side two, song one) playing at an outrageous volume. And while time has not treated this album as well as other Soul Asylum efforts, that doesn’t take away the many good (and some bad) memories associated with Grave Dancer’s Union.
Buffalo Tom - Big Red Letter Day (Beggars Banquet/East West)
Year Released: 1993 Tracks Featured in Special: “Treehouse,” “Sodajerk”
Here’s another cassette special. I got an advance of this album in the late summer of 1993 from our East/West Records rep (who happened to be the brother of Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider). I had been a fan of the previous two Buffalo Tom albums (Birdbrain and Let Me Come Over) and when he discovered that, he dug out this tape from his rental car and gave it to me, saying something to the effect of “I would never work this to your station, but if you’re a fan I think you’re going to be pleasantly surprised.” And was I ever. Bill Janovitz’s vocals were more focused and soulful than ever before. Every song sounded like an instant classic that would be played for years in that utopia radio station that existed in my mind. I’ve heard people make cracks about playing a tape until the oxide falls off—I literally did that with this advance. The end of side one started sounding weird for some reason one day, so I pulled the tape out of my car’s cassette deck and saw that parts of the tape had just peeled off. It was if the tape had said, “Please, let me go. I’m not supposed to be played 150 times in a car.” Even though I haven’t taken it out of its case since then, I still keep that damaged tape just in case I wanna rock.
Bad Religion - Stranger than Fiction (Atlantic)
Year Released: 1994 Tracks Featured in Special: “Incomplete,” “21st Century Digital Boy”
One of the best things to come out of my time in Utica was meeting my friend Mr. Schmidt. (Why I never called him by his first name Mike I can’t remember.) I think it was late 1994 when he started working at The Last Unicorn, the record store where I spent much of my free time. We ended up striking up a friendship over music and ended up hanging out a lot and drinking at each other’s houses because we both realized we lived in a hell hole of town and no bar could really be that entertaining. When we would drive around town to do stuff (usually get beer), invariably one of us would put the cassette of Stranger Than Fiction in the tape deck. We were so into this album that we ended up hatching an idea to start a band that would do smart intellectual punk rock. We never found a drummer before I moved to New York, but I bet we could have kicked ass doing “Incomplete” or “21st Century Digital Boy.”
Oasis - Definitely Maybe (Epic)
Year Released: 1994 Track Featured in Special: “Live Forever”
After overcoming my initial dislike of Oasis, I became fixated upon “Live Forever.” I played this song over and over at home, in my car and during my alternative show. The cassette version I had of the album became a trusty companion whenever I had to drive the hour from my apartment near Utica to Syracuse to make appearances at local club nights promoted by the radio station. It was the almost exact right length to get to anywhere in that city from my apartment. When faced with the prospect of handing out crap to a bunch of knuckleheads (shocking, I know, that metalheads in Central New York could be stupid) at a smelly bar, somehow “Live Forever” made it bearable.
Elastica - Elastica (Geffen)
Year Released: 1995 Tracks Featured in Special: “Connection,” “Stutter”
It’s quite simple why I listened to this album so much over the years—it’s so damn short that it’s almost impossible not to listen to it a second time right after you’ve gotten through it. In the last few months I owned a car (I sold it just before moving to Brooklyn) I would play this album on almost every short trip I took because I knew I could hear at least four songs in that 10-minute jaunt to the supermarket. And I had such a crush on the singer Justine Frishmann. I was very jealous of her boyfriend at the time, Blur’s Damon Albarn. I always wondered if her song about impotence, “Stutter,” was written about him. (Honestly, I hoped it was written about him, so then I could have a shot.) And it’s such a shame that she pissed away her career by taking so long to record a follow-up.
Son Volt - Trace (Warner Bros.)
Year Released: 1995 Tracks Featured in Special: “Route,” “Windfall”
This disc was big hit in the first apartment I shared with my roommate Joe. There were plenty of times I would come home to find him playing along to it on his guitar. Trace became a favorite album to take along whenever I would be in a car, as it captures the spirit of traveling along the open road perfectly. Perhaps my favorite memory of playing it was when I was playing designated driver after my friend Mike’s wedding in 1997. I climbed behind the wheel of my friend Chris’s Toyota 4Runner and popped this disc in for the 30-minute drive from the wedding to the after party. When “Route” came on as we were speeding down the interstate, I cranked it up while Chris and my other friend Scott drunkenly played air instruments in the vehicle. Fortunately no one was hurt, and no one else saw us act like fools.
R.E.M. - New Adventures in Hi-Fi (Warner Bros.)
Year Released: 1996 Track Featured in Special: “Bittersweet Me”
This album might seem like a strange pick. It’s certainly not R.E.M.’s best known album, was considered somewhat of a commercial flop after the success of Automatic for the People and Monster and didn’t contain any hit singles. But try telling that to Steve and Joe at 288 5th avenue in lovely Brooklyn. The two of us were obsessed with this album after it was released. I even took my stupid AOL profile quote from a line in “Bittersweet Me.” We listened to this album so much I’m sure our next-door neighbors got to know it very well. I’m not sure exactly why we were both so into this album. Maybe the fact that it’s such a messy and disjointed collection (it was recorded all over the country during the Monster tour) appealed to where we were in our lives—we’d each been in New York for over a year and I think that we were probably still trying to find some order in the chaos. No matter what the appeal was, New Adventures in Hi-Fi always holds a special place for me. Because many people don’t like it, I feel like it’s my R.E.M. album, the one that they recorded just for me. (I know that’s not true, but can’t a man have a dream to hold onto?)
Radiohead - OK Computer (Capitol)
Year Released: 1997 Tracks Featured in Special: “Lucky,” “No Surprises”
Ah yes, depression dead ahead. OK Computer is not what anyone would call a fun, uplifting, happy-go-lucky album. And as hard as it may be to believe, I am not an uplifting, happy-go-lucky kind of person. So in the winter of 1997 into 1998, I slipped off the wagon and started drinking again after a year, and OK Computer and I became a match made in booze heaven. During my year of sobriety, a bar called The Gate opened up two blocks away from my apartment. I never went there (that whole pesky sobriety thing you know), but my roommate Joe really enjoyed the place, and said they had a great jukebox. So once I started getting back into the swing of things I frequently found myself going to The Gate. And since I was pretty much depressed every single day that winter (ah that twisted lovesick mind) I went there by myself, sitting at the bar drinking pints of Harp (yes, I drank other things besides Rolling Rock), not talking to anyone and playing the most depressing songs from OK Computer over and over. “Lucky,” “Karma Police,” and “Let Down”—I must have spent at least 30 one-dollar bills playing those three songs that winter. Somehow the bar staff didn’t yank that album off the jukebox, and I (and my depression) thank them for that.
The Jayhawks - Sound of Lies (American)
Year Released: 1997 Tracks Featured in Special: “The Man Who Loved Life,” “Trouble”
In 2000 I saw The Jayhawks five times in the space of six months, and all but one of those times with the same girl. Damn, I had it bad for her, but as has been the case throughout my life (up until the past three years) I was too chickenshit to do anything about it. It would be the same routine—we would enjoy the show, I would pine for her during the romantic songs, the show would be over and we would go our separate ways, and then I would spend the train ride home mentally slapping myself in the forehead because I didn’t have the guts to tell her how I felt. After all of my self-created mental drama, I would end up listening to Sound of Lies because it had the most depressing Jayhawks songs about love and life. “Trouble” and “The Man Who Loved Life” seemed especially downtrodden, so I would spin those two songs over and over. With lines like “Well my heart’s already broken down/Looking for a sweeter sound/Looking for a brighter day” how could the depressing side of me not win? I’ve obviously moved on from that time and now I can just enjoy a great album of depressing songs without wanting to smash my forehead into a wall. So I’d like to publicly thank that girl for helping me rediscover a great album. (And hope that she doesn’t fly back to New York to punch me in the face or something for writing this.)
Pearl Jam - Yield (Epic)
Year Released: 1998 Tracks Featured in Special: “Faithfull,” “All Those Yesterdays”
So how about some uplifting rock? Well here you are—an album that has been at my desk everyday since February 1998. This was the disc that pushed me from a Pearl Jam fan into a fanatic. I had seen them three times by this time and owned all their albums up to this point, but something about this album clicked with me. I do believe I drove the guy that sat next to me at my office crazy because I played the advance copy of this album over and over again. I’ve seen Pearl Jam seven times since then, and at each show the Yield songs are always the highlights. The majesty of “Given to Fly,” the silliness of “Do the Evolution,” the hopefulness of “Wishlist” and “Faithfull”—these songs form the core of what I like about Pearl Jam, and I hope they never stop playing these songs live.
Bob Mould - The Last Dog and Pony Show (Rykodisc)
Year Released: 1998 Tracks Featured in Special: “Moving Trucks,” “Reflecting Pool”
Here’s another disc that’s been at my desk since 1998. Whenever I found myself without something to listen to at work, this is the album I would go to. It’s not Mould’s greatest solo album—that is a title still held by his 1989 solo debut Workbook. But The Last Dog and Pony Show does have my favorite Mould solo song ever, “Moving Trucks.” A stunning portrayal of an unexpected breakup, “Moving Trucks” screams to be played at a higher than a tolerable level for any office. And somehow the song has the power to make any bad mood I have disappear.
Wilco - Summerteeth (Reprise)
Year Released: 1999 Tracks Featured in Special: "I’m Always in Love,” “ELT”
Yet another desk special, and still the best album Wilco has ever released, in my opinion. I was fortunate enough to get an advance of Summerteeth in late 1998, a full three months before it was set to hit stores. And I know I drove the people in my cube area nuts because I listened to it day after day, trying to figure what all these new keyboard sounds were in the Wilco mix. This was the album that started my Wilco fixation—I ended up seeing them seven times in eight months that year. When I saw Jeff Tweedy at the sixth performance (which was a taping at a recording studio), he gave me a look like, “Who’s the stalker?” Perhaps the funniest part of my obsession with Summerteeth is that I was so focused on this record and reading as much as possible about it before its release that when I finally got my chance to interview Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett about it, I psyched myself out. I felt like I already knew the answer to every question I could possibly ask, so I had to try and come up with things to ask that no one else thought of. Not surprisingly, the interview went rather poorly. Fortunately I’ve good interviews with Tweedy since then, so I can bury my memories of that Q&A session. If only I could get rid of that tape from our library.
Elliott Smith - Figure 8 (DreamWorks)
Year Released: 2000 Tracks Featured in Special: “Son of Sam,” “L.A.”
I listened to this album a lot in 2000—it even landed at number-three on the Top 20 that year. However, I played it even more when I moved into my new apartment in 2001. It was the first time in eight years I lived completely alone, and I took to it like true hermit and only child does. In the first few months in my new pad, there would be weekends I would not leave the apartment the entire time. I’d hole up with some food on a Friday night and sit in my recliner reading for hours upon end, listening to this album over and over. Figure 8 is a great album to play while browsing through a book. It doesn’t rock too hard and the slow songs don’t fade that far into the background. I always thought of Elliott Smith as a loner type. Since he also played most of the instruments on the album and wrote many songs about being alone, it seemed natural to cocoon myself with this album. Alas, I also listened to this album quite a lot last year after his death, with a whole new perspective on much of his work.
Weezer - Weezer (The Green Album) (Geffen)
Year Released: 2001 Tracks Featured in Special: “Photograph,” “Glorious Day”
When I think of the summer of 2001, I think of a classic line delivered by Jason Alexander on Seinfeld—“It’s the summer of George.” 2001 was “The summer of Steve.” From the end of May until the end of August, I packed in enough debauchery to almost make up for the previous 10 years. I slept with two women, dated a third, picked up a couple of others at bars and made out with at least one more. I was a man whore. It was incredible. I felt like I could do wrong. And the soundtrack to all of it was Weezer’s third album. I never thought Rivers Cuomo and company would make another album, so getting a 10-songs-in-28-minutes masterpiece just added to the greatness of that summer. The weekend of my 10-year college reunion I listened to this disc at least four or five times, with the most memorable time coming in a VW Beetle, speeding down the back roads of Ithaca. The shortness of this album requires you to listen again as soon as it’s done. A shining example of that happened when I went to see my friend Erik Steyn (yes, I do know a lot of Eriks and Mikes) on a Monday night at the bar he worked at, and he ended up playing the CD four times in the space of three hours. This album was addictive as painkillers—I couldn’t stop listening even if I wanted to. Alas, “The Summer of Steve” ended rather abruptly in September. The Green Album always reminds me of a better time before the world got seriously fucked up.
The Gentlemen - Ladies and Gentlemen… (Q Division)
Year Released: 2000 Tracks Featured in Special: “When We Broke in Two,” “Top Heavy”
I could probably write an entire book about the various reasons I’ve needed to listen to this album over the past four years. Except I couldn’t do that while listening to it, because it took me 10 minutes to write that first line because I keep getting up to air guitar, air drum or just sing along loudly. My favorite memories of this album spring from two Gentlemen shows that fall. When they played a CMJ bill, I was still experiencing some anguish over (surprise, surprise) a woman. All that week I listened to “Top Heavy” over and over again, as that song seemed to embody all my feelings at that point. Before the group went on, I was talking with singer-guitarist Mike Gent (also of The Figgs). I asked him if they planned on playing “Top Heavy,” as it was a song I couldn’t stop listening to. He said no, that they had dropped it from the set. I was fine with that. That’s because I had drank so much before the show with my visiting friend Mr. Schmidt that I might have been asking Gent to play the Sammy Hagar song “Heavy Metal” as far as I knew. About halfway through the band’s set, Gent stepped up to the mic and said something like, “This song is for our friend Steve Reynolds. He needs to hear it.” And then they launched into a version of “Top Heavy” that was so perfect that it nearly brought me to tears. Of course, I was pogoing the entire song, so any tears would have flown off my face into my beer. Just the way he dedicated it and then how they played it as if they were the ones having the emotional breakdown at the club is something I will never ever forget, and I thank them again for one of the top three moments of my entire life.
My second favorite memory comes from a show in late November of that same year. It was the first snow and sleet of the season, so not many people came out to the club for the gig. My friend Erik Hage and I were among the faithful in attendance, and we stood right up against the stage to get the full visceral impact of the rock. Unbeknownst to us, the show was being webcast and later archived. During “When We Broke in Two,” just as the last chorus kicked in, both Erik and I pumped our fists and shook our heads in unison as if we were refugees from a Metallica show. It was such a comic display that half the band cracked up—Mike even laughed directly into his mic. I know all of this because I watched this incident on the Internet numerous times. The morale the story? Perfect music creates perfect stupidity.
The Gravel Pit - Mass Ave. Freeze Out (Q Division)
Year Released: 2001 Tracks Featured in Special: “Loved One,” “Short Western Film”
The Gentlemen’s lineup not only includes The Figgs singer-guitarist Mike Gent, it has three-quarters of The Gravel Pit. After digging the Gentlemen debut so much, I found myself wanting to check out The Gravel Pit on their own. And when they announced a new album was coming out in the spring of 2001, I immediately ordered it. Alongside The Green Album from Weezer, Mass. Ave Freeze Out was the other part of my soundtrack for “the Summer of Steve.” Almost every night before I went out that summer I popped on this album and listened to the first five tracks—“Loved One,” “The Ballad of the Gravel Pit,” “Unit Three,” “Baby Gap,” and “Best Friend”—to pysch myself up to be the ladies man yet again. (Yeah, right.)
The Figgs - Sucking in Stereo (Hearbox)
Year Released: 2000 Tracks Featured in Special: “Something’s Wrong,” “Cheap Cassettes”
So what else can I possibly write about The Figgs at this point? I’ve devoted pages of text to every single one of their albums. I’ve traveled thousands of miles to see them. I’ve spent hours trapped with them in a van. I will say that Sucking in Stereo is probably the most consistent album, at least stylistically, that they ever recorded. Each song is pretty short, most of them are very fast and all are dominated by a driving rhythm designed to get people in a rock club jumping up and down and dancing like they were teenagers again. I can’t even estimate the amount of times I’ve listened to this album, but I know it’s probably more than any other released over the past 15 years. Two things come to mind when I think about Sucking in Stereo. First, I went to see singer-bassist Pete Donnelly do a solo gig in September of 2000, and the rest of the band showed up with copies of the album fresh from the pressing plant. When I opened my copy, I starting looking through the notes and was shocked to find myself thanked in it. And how does one react when your favorite band thanks you in their album? Easy—you act like a giggly little schoolgirl. I was so excited I could not stop talking about it for the next week. My second memory is the CMJ show in October of 2000 where they played the album straight through. I was shocked to find a group of people next to me singing along to every word, even though the album had only been out for two weeks. It was like I finally found my own cult. I wonder if that makes The Figgs my Jim Jones?
This year’s list took six pieces of Sugarless Peppermint Bubble Yum, two pitchers of iced tea, 12 20 oz. bottles of Diet Coke, eight hot dogs, five boneless pork loins, one bag of tortilla chips, one container of salsa, four chicken burgers, three bowls of spinach, two bowls of corn, three cups of water, 10 trips on the F Train, one plate of beef with peppers and onions, one bag of Munchos, six cans of Rheingold, seven bottles of Rheingold, four bottles of Rolling Rock, one large order of chicken wings and one london broil, (And having vegetables on here is just shocking to me)
The section to thank people without whom...
Thanks again to Joe Wills for making such a kick ass show, Mike Wallace for being that perfect authoritative voice, Ed V. for setting up the Bill Janovitz interview, and to Bill for sharing some good memories. Special Thanks to apb for never ending moral support, Drew for moral and liquid support, and to Clinton for the kick in the right direction, even if you don’t think it was.
Things that made this year better: VH1 Classic, Game 7, Dead Man, Vegas at 5am, Esai Morales, Jackie’s at 11am, seats behind home plate at Shea, Coney Island karaoke, the Double Down, $140 of credit at Amoeba, text messaging, “Here I Go Again,” Moonshine on a Friday, Tuesdays at 2A, the party deck at Keyspan, “Blinded by the Light,” Hall and Oates as the sun rises, wings at Bonnie’s and Butterfinger Crisp.
Inside thanks to The Cooler, Holy Living Fuck, F’in, The Suicide Pact, and that dirty scarf.