Saturday, December 31, 2005

2005's Top 20 Albums

20) Bob Mould - Body of Song (Yeproc)

I must admit, I was very ambivalent about dropping this album in the CD player when it first showed up at the office. The Bob Mould that I worshipped layered walls of guitars and screamed about relationships going bad. After 2002’s electronic dominated Modulate and hearing about Mould’s dancy DJ gigs in Washington, DC I wasn’t sure what to expect from Body of Song. The presence of Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty made me feel a bit more comfortable, yet I still expected to hear too many loops and Mould’s voice to be processed more than deviled ham. It was a rough listen at first—all I could l think of was Cher when the vocal appeared on the second track “(Shine Your) Light Love Hope.” Over time I somehow banished that 98 year-old woman from my mind and enjoyed that song, as well as the more conventional sounding tracks such as “Circles” and “Days of Rain.” Body of Song lives up to its title by presenting an album that is like a greatest hits compilation, but it’s all new material. The disc touches upon all parts of Mould’s post-Hüsker Dü career—the electronic influenced rocker, the acoustic storyteller (“Gauze of Friendship”), the trio Sugar (“Paralyzed,” which would easily fit in that group’s catalog) and the guy that turns guitars up to ear splitting levels (“Best Thing”) and is pissed that he lost another lover. I can only hope that this diverse type of album sets a template that Mould can follow for the rest of his career (but leave the vocoder out of the studio Bob, Cher wants it back soon). Best Tracks: “Circles,” ”Paralyzed,” “High Fidelity”

19) Common - Be (Geffen)

Music critics will likely be falling all of themselves to rave about Kayne West’s second album, Late Registration (the one with that catchier than the bird flu hit “Gold Digger”). Sure, that album has a couple of good songs, but the best album Mr. “George Bush hates Black People” worked on this year is this one. All the backing tracks on Be are prime examples of how to use samples to make art. Combined with Common’s lyrical flow—perhaps the smoothest of any rapper today—this creates a hard to beat combination. The tale of wrong man being convicted because his scheming wife in “Testify” is one of the more powerful tracks I’ve heard pumping out of a car this year. It’s also hard not to enjoy an album that includes the couplet (from “Faithful”), “I’m bad/But not as Eric Benet,” Be even survives the 108th guest appearance of 2005 by John Mayer (“Go”), which in itself is some sort of miracle. Perhaps all the guest shots will keep delaying Mayer’s next studio album. Come on Kayne, you got to have something else Mayer can work on. Best Tracks: “Testify,” “Faithful,” “The Food (Live)”

18) Aimee Mann - The Forgotten Arm (United Musicians)

Dammit, I think Aimee Mann frustrates me more than the last woman I was interested in. Well, okay, that’s probably overstating it just a little bit—Miss Mann never made me seriously think about destroying a thousand dollars worth of audio equipment by throwing it through a mirror. Yet it’s stunning to me that just a year after I wrote how much I overrated her 1993 solo debut that she would release an album that I like and have played frequently on my IPod. Next thing you know Dave Matthews Band will record a song I like or Ben Affleck will be in a quality film. Even worse, The Forgotten Arm is a concept album about an alcoholic boxer and his girlfriend on a road trip in the ’40s. Come on! Who could write something like this and make it enjoyable for the listener? Apparently Aimee Mann can, because this disc is chock full of catchy songs that you’ll be humming for days after your first spin. “I Can’t Help You Anymore” and “Dear John” are possibly two of the greatest songs she’s ever written, and they weren’t even singles off this disc. I even like this album in spite of its pompous packing (it’s designed to look like a pulp novel from that era). So I await Mann’s next album, and hope she’s not going to drive me insane. Best Tracks: “She Really Loves You,” “I Can’t Help You Anymore,” “Dear John”

17) Son Volt - Okemah and the Melody of Riot (Transmit Sound/Legacy/Sony BMG)

Welcome back, old friend. After a six-year break for his solo career, Jay Farrar finally got the itch to start rocking again, and reconvened Son Volt, makers of one of the best albums of the ’90s, Trace. Alas, the reunion with the original lineup lasted for one song (a track for the Alejandro Escovedo tribute Por Vida), as Farrar and the other three members had a falling out over financial issues just before entering the studio. So Farrar pushed ahead regardless, drafting a new lineup of drummer Dave Bryson (who was part of Canyon, the group that Farrar toured with in 2003), bassist Andrew Duplantis (Bob Mould) and alt-country guitarist extraordinaire Brad Rice to make Okemah and the Melody of Riot. It’s easy to hear why Farrar wanted to reactivate the band, as it features his strongest and most focused songwriting since Trace. And for a group that was thrown together in a couple of weeks, the four sound as if they’ve played together for years. The opening salvo of “Bandages & Scars,” “Afterglow 61” and “Jet Pilot” (a straightforward indictment of our current president) rocks harder than anything the previous lineup ever recorded, while the closing ballad, “World Waits for You,” is perhaps the most emotionally direct the lyrically obtuse Farrar has ever been. A stunning return to form, and hopefully a sign of more great albums to come. Best Tracks: “Afterglow 61,” “Bandages & Scars,” “World Waits for You”

16) Electric Six - Senor Smoke (Warner Music UK)

A note about this second album from Detroit’s most fun band—this disc has not been officially released in the U.S. yet. I bought it as an import back in February of this year, not wanting to wait for the domestic release. Finally, a year after its European release, Senor Smoke will be hitting U.S. stores in February. Normally I would push listing this album until the domestic release, but it took so damn long for somebody to wake up and get this sucker out here in the states that I decided to break my own damn rule. I mean, it is my list; I can do whatever I choose. (Well, expect publish those naked photos of Sheryl Crow, but that’s okay, nobody really needs to see that.) With all the legal mumbo-jumbo out of the way, let’s get down to the music. Senor Smoke is easily the stupidest and funniest album of the year. When a song (“Jimmy Carter”) has a lyric such as “Five teenage boys who sing their way into our hearts/Backstreet’s back alright,” I can’t help but think that singer Dick Valentine is one of the true geniuses of rock. Head to your local record store in February and pick it up—at least you won’t be paying 30 bucks for it like some suckers who couldn’t wait. Best Tracks: “Dance Epidemic,” “Jimmy Carter,” “Vibrator”

15) Nada Surf - The Weight is a Gift (Barsuk)

“To find someone you love/You got to be someone you love.” What a great chorus for an opening track on an album. That song, “Concrete Bed,” is just a preview of the lyrical gems and hummable melodies that abound on the latest album from the band that most folks remember only from that mid-’90s song about high school with that cheerleader-filled video. This band so far removed from that semi-novelty track that I believe that if they had a different name, they’d be much bigger. People who don’t know of anything from Nada but “Popular” are missing out of some of the best power-pop songs being produced today. “Do It Again” and “Always Love” would be huge singles in a perfect radio world, with “Blankest Year” (with the joyous chorus “Oh fuck it/I’m gonna have a party”) being an anthem for anyone who wants to ditch all the dark things that bring them down. And it’s probably the sweetest sounding, harmony-laden “fuck it” ever put on an album. Best Tracks: “Do It Again,” “Always Love,” “Imaginary Friends”

14) Bright Eyes - I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning (Saddle Creek)

Bright Eyes, a.k.a. indie wunderkind Conor Oberst, certainly cause people to draw a line in the critical sand. Some folks think his voice is as annoying as cats in heat, while others think it’s the most passionate voice in music today. At first I was in the former category, but after a few listens of I’m Wide Awake, I decided that if anyone writes songs this nuanced and filled with life’s little details and emotions, I could probably get over the less than perfect quality of the voice. (Bob Dylan and Neil Young anyone?) The secret weapon of this album would be the magical vocals of Emmylou Harris. On the four tracks she appears on, her sweet harmonies take the edge off Oberst’s whine to great effect. I know some folks have issues with the directness of Oberst’s lyrics, especially since he writes virtually every song in the first person. However, looking through the lyrics booklet on I’m Wide Awake, I’m pretty sure that this guy has issues with booze, trains (“Lua,” “Train Under Water”) and every woman he’s ever been with—and sometimes all in the same song (“Road to Joy”). And I can’t imagine anyone else ever having issues like that. Oh, wait…. Best Tracks: “Landlocked Blues,” “Road to Joy,” “At the Bottom of Everything”

13) Ben Lee - Asleep Is the New Awake (New West)

Ben Lee has come a long way from being that talented Australian kid who led a punk rock trio (Noise Addict) as a teenager. Now in his early 20s, he’s evolved into quite a singer-songwriter, and that guy who used to date Claire Danes before some jerk actor left his pregnant girlfriend and hooked up with Danes on a movie set. Somehow Lee doesn’t make Awake Is the New Sleep the latest in the genre I call “I’ve gone through a bad breakup and wrote a bunch of songs about it” albums. Shockingly he stays unflaggingly positive throughout. The only time he allows a little bit of bitterness to seep in is in “Close I’ve Come” when he spits out the line, “You broke my fucking heart/But I still want you anyway.” Otherwise, Lee stays firmly an optimist, whether he’s pursuing a new love (“Gamble Everything For Love”) or if he’s just asking the world—or perhaps more specifically, New York City—to all just get along (“We’re All In This Together”). The only blemish on the entire album is the almost 10 minute “Light,” which features an interminable sax solo that seems stolen from some bad freeform jazz album. Thankfully it’s buried at the end of the album, so you never have to listen to it. Best Tracks: “We’re All In This Together,” “Catch My Disease,” “Whatever It Is”

12) Eisley - Room Noises (Reprise)

It’s been a long road waiting for Eisley to make a full length album. I first heard of the band through their debut EP, 2003's Laughing City. The piano-driven track “I Wasn’t Prepared” was an intriguing enough ballad to make it onto a driving mix I made that fall. So when Room Noises was released this year, I listened to “I Wasn’t Prepared” again and this new version blew me away. The harmonies between the two female singers were absolutely spine-tingling, even if I didn’t understand exactly what the lyrics meant. Then I read the bio that came with the disc, I was stunned to find out that these two great voices came from 20-year-old guitarist Sherri Dupree and 16-year-old keyboardist Stacy Dupree. And then I felt like a dirty old man. Fortunately the rest of Room Noises lives up to the greatness of “I Wasn’t Prepared,” as it’s packed with one slightly depressing, yet catchy song after another. I can only imagine how good they’ll be when they all can legally drink. Best Tracks: “I Wasn’t Prepared,” “Telescope Eyes,” “Trolly Wood”

11) The White Stripes - Get Behind Me Satan (Third Man/V2)

Out of the two albums inspired by being dumped by Renee Zellweger, somehow I don’t think Kenny Chesney’s laid-back beach-inspired faux-country will stand the test of time like Get Behind Me Satan. Jack White might have never said anything about his split with Mrs. Jerry Maguire in the press, but he certainly laid it out in his lyrics. “Forever is a word that she said/That means never” (from “Forever For Her (Is Over For Me)”) is just the first of many lines about being done wrong by a woman that Jack tosses off throughout the album. Those cracks in his usually secretive facade (or, some might say gimmick) make many of Satan’s songs his most personal yet. And musically this is the most diverse album the duo has ever recorded. “Little Ghost” would have fit snugly on the Loretta Lynn album Jack produced. “The Nurse,” with its marimba and walls of feedback, is just creepy. And Meg White’s drumming is actually competent! Lastly, I agree with Jack’s pleas on the album closer: I’m lonely, but I ain’t that lonely yet. Best Tracks: “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet),” “My Doorbell,” “Forever For Her (Is Over For Me)”

10) eels - Blinking Lights and Other Revelations (Vagrant)

eels frontman E has spent much of the past decade documenting the various tragedies that have befallen his family over the years. 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues and 2000’s Daisies of the Galaxy chronicled the ill health of his mother and the passing of his sister. Now on the double-disc opus Blinking Lights and Other Revelations (which reportedly was recorded over an eight year period), E pulls together every sordid and sorry tale of his life…and makes them all delicious ear candy. He somehow turns an emotional breakdown (“Do you know what it’s like to fall of the floor/And cry your guts out ‘til you got no more”) into a great thing to do in “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living).” Suicide, seeing sprits of dead relatives, heartbreak—all the bad things in life, that’s what drives E to create catchy songs, which is kind of disturbing. Yet I hope that he doesn’t stop. And perhaps most importantly on Blinking Lights, E asks a question on everyone’s mind since the 1998 Grammys—whatever happened to soy bomb? Best Tracks: “Trouble With Dreams,” “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living),” “Losing Streak”

9) Brendan Benson - The Alternative to Love (V2)

Brendan Benson has the misfortune of being better known for his friendship with a famous musician than being a musician himself. Benson is good friends with The White StripesJack White, and the pair have an album due out next year under the name The Raconteurs. Perhaps then people will realize that Benson is just as strong a songwriter as his Detroit compadre. He creates catchy songs about love—well, a lack of love—that stick in your brain for days. And while Benson himself detests the term power-pop, songs such as “Spit It Out” and “Get It Together” should be added to the musical term’s entry on Wikipedia. He even salutes the sound that made Detroit famous on “The Pledge” by creating a drum beat that any ’60s girl group would be completely at home with. And what’s even more incredible is that Benson is a virtual one man band—except for the drums on a few tracks, Benson plays every lick on every song, and records it all at his home. Let’s hope Benson’s association with Jack White will draw more fans his way, as music this polished and melodic deserves to be heard by more folks. Best Tracks: “The Pledge,” “The Alternative to Love,” “Cold Hands (Warm Heart)”

8) Mike Doughty - Haughty Melodic (ATO)

Ex-Soul Coughing singer Mike Doughty might have taken his music towards a traditional rock sound on his third solo album, but that hasn’t robbed the recovering heroin addict of his ability to make words and phrases flow in beautiful and mysterious ways. On “Looking at the World From the Bottom of a Well,” he takes a simple bridge like “Lonely/And the only way to beat it is to bat it down” and creates a rhythmically complex vocal that might as well be a drum part. And he throws in a word that I had to look up a couple of times before I could remember what it mean. (“Decathecting” roughly means the divestment, or letting go of, emotional energy put into a person, object or idea. And I’m pretty sure no song that’s every gotten substantial airplay featured that word.) And longtime readers, here’s a shocking aspect of this album—it has Dave Matthews duetting on the song “Tremendous Brunettes.” And I like that song. And Haughty was released on Matthews’ label ATO. And I still like it. I know, I know, I’m just as amazed as you. I can’t even blame my earwax for this one. Once I got them cleared out, I still could tell it was Matthews, and I didn’t change my mind. It’s also hard to not like an album that name checks Nyack and Ronkonoma. Best Tracks: “Looking at the World Through the Bottom of a Well,” “Busting Up a Starbucks,” “Madeline and Nine”

7) The Gentlemen - Brass City Band (TGRC)

The first two Gentlemen albums were a perfect meld of cock rock with a dose of power pop. This third effort offers up a lot more diversity, as if they matured as a band or something stupid like that. There are a couple of rock anthems like the past, supplied by singer-guitarist Lucky Jackson (the title track, “Watchdogs”). However, I must admit I never would have expected to hear horns, harmonica, ’80s-derived synths and a piano that sounds as if it was stolen from the set of Deadwood on a Gentlemen album. Brass City Band has these all over the place and much more. Singer-guitarist-namesake Mike Gent digs deep into the Keith Richards Memorial School of Great Guitar Licks on the opener “Flame For Hire,” a track that the Glimmer Twins would give Darryl Jones’s left nut for in a trade. Gent also channels the spirit of the highly underrated 1976 Stones disc Black and Blue (electric piano via Billy Preston, a slimy sounding phased guitar tone) on “No Need to Leave.” The true star of the album, however, is singer-bassist Ed Valauskas. His three songwriting contributions are by far the best work of his career with a pen, and “Three-Minute Marriage Proposal” is one of the most soulful pop songs of the year. And I’m not just saying that because it mentions Memphis or the Rev. Al Green in the lyrics. The track bubbles along on the twin guitar leads of Gent and Jackson as Valauskas perfectly describes the nervousness and doubt of anyone making a major commitment, and he does it all in just about—you guessed it—three minutes. (And he throws in a mention of weed to keep the kids paying attention. Cool.) Brass City Band opens the door for The Gentlemen to do many types of rock the next time around. Let’s just hope it’s not another three long years. Best Tracks: “Three Minute Marriage Proposal,” “A Lot to Say,” “Flame for Hire”

6) Graham Parker & The Figgs - Songs of No Consequence (Bloodshot Records)

Ever since they first toured together in 1996, both Graham Parker and Figgs fans have wanted them to collaborate on a studio album. It took nine years for it to happen and my oh my it was worth the wait. Songs of No Consequence is by far Parker’s best effort since 1991’s overlooked gem Struck By Lightning, and just might be his best since his last unanimously praised classic, 1988’s The Mona Lisa’s Sister. Parker himself said that he’d been looking for the right collection of songs that would be “appropriate to the bands’ talents,” and he certainly found the right mix. Guitarist Mike Gent, bassist (and producer) Pete Donnelly and drummer Pete Hayes more than deliver on every track, pushing Parker to give some of his most impassioned vocals in years. His comfort and confidence in the trio shines throughout, as he sounds genuinely happy, even if he’s spitting out words that actually have a bit of consequence to them. “Vanity Press” is a withering attack against today’s huge media moguls, while “Dislocated Life” (perhaps the best song the man has written in almost 20 years) takes on what Parker jokingly calls “the big enchilada” of life. Let’s hope Parker finds more songs that fit the Figgs talents, as they are obviously inspire him to raise his game, and in the end we all benefit. Best Tracks: “Dislocated Life,” “Vanity Press,” “Bad Chardonnay”

5) Death Cab For Cutie - Plans (Atlantic)

For a band that made the leap to a major label for a shot at that elusive brass ring, Death Cab for Cutie certainly took a low key path. Plans is possibly the band’s most mellow effort, with only two songs (“Crooked Teeth” and “Soul Meets Body”) that ever cross the mid-tempo barrier. Singer-guitarist Ben Gibbard (that Postal Service guy) and his distinctive voice are hushed at so many times you wonder if the band was afraid of waking up their neighbors while recording. Yet Plans draws you further and further in with each listen. Simply put, Gibbard consistently writes one great song after another about love and all its possibilities. Whether it’s a fling that only leaves summer memories (”Summer Skin”) or following ones soulmate into the great beyond (“I Will Follow You Into the Dark”), Gibbard captures the little details that other writers might miss. Guitarist-producer Chris Walla helps out his bandmate by creating catchy yet incredibly moody tracks to deliver Gibbard’s words. The only misstep on this majestic album is the self-absorbed and clunky kiss-off “Someday You Will Be Loved,” but that’s only a minor quibble. Now, just when might that next Postal Service album be coming? Best Tracks: “Crooked Teeth,” “Soul Meets Body,” “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”

4) The Decemberists - Picaresque (Kill Rock Stars)

If Decemberists singer-guitarist Colin Meloy wasn’t in a band, I think it’s safe to say that he’d be penning short stories in his hometown of Portland…and probably be asking folks if they wanted soy milk in their lattes. Meloy doesn’t write songs—he writes epic tales set to music that could have been played in the middle ages. (Well, except drummers didn’t have ride symbols back then, but you probably get my point.) I’d only heard one Decemberists song before this year, the lovely ballad about the City of Angels called “Los Angeles, I’m Yours.” That didn’t prepare me for how completely different this band sounds compared to everything else featured on the Top 20 this year, or heck, any other year. Plucked violins, horns, orchestral arrangements, impossibly high female backing vocals—it’s almost overwhelming how much is going on in all these songs. I suppose all these extra trappings are needed for such solid melodies when you have lyrics like these: “Here she comes in her palanquin on the back of an elephant/On a bed made of linen and sequins and silk” (“The Infanta”); “Meet me on my vast veranda/My sweet, untouched Miranda” (“We Both Go Down Together”); “And here in our hovel we fuse like a family/But I will not mourn for you” (“On the Bus Mall”). I look (and listen) to lyrics like these and I think two things: Mr. Meloy needs no help finishing the Sunday crossword puzzle in The New York Times and I bet iTunes would have stopped me from downloading this album if I didn’t have a college degree (and a dictionary at my desk). Best Tracks: “16 Military Wives,” “We Both Go Down Together,” “Eli the Barrow Boy”

3) Spoon - Gimme Fiction (Merge)

Spoon mastermind Britt Daniel has milked the old cliché “less is more” for all its worth. On the group’s fifth album, Daniel and company have learned to break down all their songs to the bare essentials—one great riff (either on piano or a lone guitar) matched up with great drumming and perfect use of various percussion pieces. In another band’s hands, songs like “Sister Jack” or “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine” would have a lot more flourishes and instruments added on top. But Spoon have realized that if a song is strong enough, it doesn’t need added bells and whistles to make it great. (I’d love to hear a collaborative effort between Daniel and The DecemberistsColin Meloy—now that would be a tug of war better than any shown on The Battle of the Network Stars.) The highlight of Gimme Fiction by far is “My Mathematical Mind.” A five minute song with no chorus—which sounds like the same eight seconds of piano and guitar interplay over and over—doesn’t seem to be a winning combination. Yet these guys somehow make it work. It's as if the band decided that getting the song down to its essential elements required dropping out that last chord which would normally bring a natural resolution at the end. And I’m pretty sure that they didn’t accidentally chop the last chord off like The Beatles did on Abbey Road. And might I ask, who the heck is “Sister Jack” anyways? An Austin transvestite? Best Tracks: “My Mathematical Mind,” “I Turn My Camera On,” “Sister Jack”

2) Josh Rouse - Nashville (Rykodisc)

I think I enjoy other people’s pain. Check that, I know I really enjoy other people’s pain and misfortune. It’s just a byproduct of covering or talking about the rich and the famous for most of my adult life. (Alas, I have no British accent and I don’t think I could pull off a name like Robin.) I’m especially fond of other people’s pain when it brings out the best of their creative side. Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, most of the eels catalog, Bob Mould’s numerous songs about shitty relationships—I identify with and can’t get enough of these types of works. Josh Rouse went through a divorce while creating Nashville, and even though there’s only one obvious breakup song out of the 10 tracks (“My Love Is Gone”), that breakup mojo must be what drew me into this album. Rouse isn’t reinventing the singer-songwriter wheel on Nashville (so named for Rouse’s former hometown)—he’s just polishing the rim to shiny perfection. From the oh-I-must-sing-along-to-this-chorus-because-it’s-so-catchy opener “It’s the Nighttime” to the wistful whatever happens, happens attitude of “Life,” Rouse is in top form lyrically and musically. The production provided by bassist Brad Jones sets a perfect tone for these songs of loss, moving on (“Winter in the Hamptons”) and memories of misspent youth (“Middle School Frown”). Every note, every backing vocal, every pedal steel run—they’re all exactly where they need to be. It’s not often an artist hits their creative peak five albums into a career, yet Rouse pulls it off easily. This is one side of Nashville that everyone should visit. Best Tracks: “It’s the Nighttime,” “Sad Eyes,” “Carolina”

1) Neil Young - Prairie Wind (Reprise)

I’ve been a Neil Young fan almost 20 years. That means I got to miss out on the confusion and-–at times--anger fans felt toward the idiosyncratic Young as he twisted and turned through style after style in the early ’80s. Basically, I missed out on what most folks call “the shitty years.” I joined the Neil train right around the time of Landing on Water, so I got onboard just as his artistic curve was about to head back up. And what a ride it was—Freedom, Ragged Glory, Harvest Moon, Sleeps With Angels, Mirror Ball all came out within a six year period. The quality of these albums was unprecedented for any artist moving through his mid-40s to that magic mark of 50. So in 1996 when Broken Arrow was released, the fact that it was an “average” album didn’t worry me that much. And when Young came back after a four year layoff with the nice acoustic disc Silver and Gold, I figured his creative batteries had been recharged.

Then came the reunion with Crosby, Stills and Nash. These three guys have always sucked the edge out of Young when they attach their three initials before his, and their reunion tours in 2000 and 2002 were no exception. It’s obvious that they extracted all his good judgment and songwriting skill like a bunch of radio people guzzling down drinks when the open bar runs only for an hour. First came 2002’s Are You Passionate?, a weak soul-inflected album that included the well-meaning but heavy handled 9/11 track “Let’s Roll.” And then came the nadir of Neil’s solo career—Greendale. This perplexing concept album/movie/book/DVD tale of a family and its battle with the media and the devil (at least, I think that’s what is was about) has its defenders. These people are what we like to call in my office, “morons.” It’s horrible. I could only get through it three times. It’s the only Neil Young and Crazy Horse album I seriously thought about not putting on my iPod. (Don’t worry, they are all on there, just in case someone has a serious Rust Never Sleeps emergency.) I’d rank Greendale on par with Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait and Rod Stewart’s entire solo career after Every Picture Tells a Story in the pantheon of bad musical ideas. The two legs of the Greendale tour that visited New York I skipped, that’s how much I didn’t want to hear these songs, or see a half-assed high school-like play acted out next to them. This was the first Neil Young tour I missed since 1987—that’s how much I hated Greendale. Then last year came the Greatest Hits album, which just seemed to scream “holding action” and “I’ve run out of things to write about.”

And then came the aneurysm. That Friday afternoon in early April when I had to write about Young having brain surgery and not being able to make it to the Juno Awards in Canada definitely put me in a daze. I thought to myself, ”What if this is it? I can’t believe his last musical statement will be Greendale—that’s just not fair.” Fortunately for us, it wasn’t, not by a long shot. I had reported about Young recording in Nashville and debuting a new song with a spiritual bent at his father’s funeral, which made me suspect something good could be coming. And once I got back from covering the Philadelphia portion of Live 8, I was able to confirm my gut feeling by watching Young—in front of thousands of his fellow Canadians and millions of others around the world—debut a brand new song…that was all about God? “Uh-oh” I first thought, “Maybe this is Neil’s Slow Train Coming?” Then I replayed the track, called “When God Made Me,” and realized that this was the best song he’d written in over a decade. A simple piano ballad, with heavenly backing vocals from the Fisk University chorus, “When God Made Me” boils down man’s existence to 10 questions about life that whomever is supposed to be up in that great bar in the sky might want to answer someday. And for someone who has never believed in such things (I think I believed in the tooth fairy longer than I did in the big man upstairs), I was stunned by this song. I still don’t believe, but if I did, I’d be behind Neil saying, “Yeah, did he envision all the wars fought in his name?”

The rest of Prairie Wind had a lot to live up to after hearing “When God Made Me,” and it more than fulfills that promise. Young’s brain troubles must have unlocked whatever curse CSN put upon him, as almost every track features Young’s most personal and insightful writing in years. His father, the rest of his family, the prairie area of Canada where he grew up (the title track), his kids growing up and moving out (“Here For You”), his love for his wife and his respect for a fellow rock icon (”He Was the King”) are all covered with such depth and clarity that it’s almost as if Young became a completely different songwriter since Greendale. Prairie Wind is cloned from the same musical DNA as Harvest and Comes a Time, but even there Young messes with his tried and true formula by adding slight horn touches, various combinations of backing singers and a lively drum sound not found on his other acoustic-based works. Simply put, Prairie Wind is another great album from a man who has made a whole lot of great albums. May this be the start of another decade of amazing music. Best Tracks: “When God Made Me,” “Far From Home,” “The Painter”

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