Saturday, December 31, 2011

Song of the Week 12/30/11

Ted Leo & the Pharmacists - "Fisherman's Blues"

Ted Leo's show at the Bell House Friday night might have been even better than his Seaport show this past summer. And this Waterboys cover was a fantastic way to end it.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Party Like It's 1999 12/29/11

Wow, what a great turnout we had last night. Thanks to everyone that made the first year of Party Like It's 1999 such a success. We'll be back in late January with another edition. The date will be announced soon on our Facebook page.

Hear's what you heard last night:

Alice in Chains - “Angry Chair”
Stone Temple Pilots - “Wicked Garden”
Faith No More - “Midlife Crisis”
L7 - “Pretend We’re Dead”
Soul Asylum - “Somebody to Shove”
Bad Religion - “21st Century Digital Boy”
Get Up Kids - “Woodson”
Nirvana - “Sliver”
Metallica - “Enter Sandman”
Smashing Pumpkins - “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”
Incubus - “Pardon Me”
Soundgarden - “Black Hole Sun”
Foo Fighters - “Learn to Fly”
The Breeders - “Cannonball”
The Rentals - “Friends of P”
Cake - “The Distance”
Everclear - “Santa Monica”
Goldfinger - “Here in Your Bedroom”
Reel Big Fish - “Sell Out”
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones - “The Impression That I Get”
Ben Folds Five - “Song for the Dumped”
Eels - “Novacaine for the Soul”
Pulp - “Common People”
Garbage - “Only Happy When It Rains”
The Flaming Lips - “She Don’t Use Jelly”
Fiona Apple - “Criminal”
Divinyls - “I Touch Myself”
Len - “Steal My Sunshine”
Hanson - “Mmmbop”
Backstreet Boys - “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)”
TLC - “No Scrubs”
Michael Jackson - “Black or White”
Lauryn Hill - “Doo Wop (That Thing)”
Notorious B.I.G. - “Juicy”
Positive K. - “I Got a Man”
Wreckx-n-Effect - “Rump Shaker”
Sir Mix-A-Lot - “Baby Got Back”
Pras featuring Michel, ODB and Mya - “Ghetto Superstar (That Is What You Are)”
Blackstreet - “No Diggity (featuring Dr. Dre)”
Coolio - “Gangsta’s Paradise (featuring L.V.)”
Salt-n-Pepa - “Shoop”
Snow - “Informer”
Bell Biv Devoe - “Poison”
Kris Kross - “Jump”
Chumbawamba - “Tubthumping”
Ricky Martin - “Living La Vida Loca”
Spin Doctors - “Two Princes”
Third Eye Blind - “Semi Charmed Life”
Eve 6 - “Inside Out”
Nirvana - “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Weezer - “Say It Ain’t So”
Rancid - “Ruby Soho”
Blink 182 - “Dammit”
No Doubt - “Spiderwebs”
Sublime - “Santeria”
James - “Laid”
Mr. Big - “To Be With You”
NSYNC - “Tearing Up My Heart”
Aqua - “Barbie Girl”
Culture Beat - “Mr. Vain”
Dee-lite - “Groove Is in the Heart”
Juvenile - “Back That Azz Up”
Mark Morrison - “Return of the Mack”
Michael Jackson - “Remember the Time”
Mariah Carey - “Always Be My Baby”
Biz Markie - “Just a Friend”
Haddaway - “What is Love”
Right Said Fred - “I’m Too Sexy”
Ace of Base - “The Sign”
Alanis Morissette - “You Oughta Know”
En Vogue - “Free Your Mind”
Snoop Dogg - “Gin and Juice”
Eminem - “My Name Is”
Prince and the New Power Generation - “7”
Dave Matthews Band - “Crash Into Me”
Counting Crows - “A Long December”

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The 22nd Annual RT 20




Hello, I'm Writers Block. Been So Nice to Screw With You This Year!

So either you’ve just ripped open the envelope this list came in or I handed it to you at my office or a bar in Brooklyn and you’re thinking to yourself, “December 20th? (or 22nd, 23rd, etc.) Isn’t this kind of late for you to be sending this out?” If I was there in person (or perhaps I am there now as you’re reading this) I would say to you, “Yes, you are correct. Ideally I have this list in the mail by about December 8th each year so I can spend the rest of the month letting my usual anti-Christmas rage build up until I finally run over a family a four outside my office like I was doing an impression of Tim Tebow. But it was late this year. You’re lucky to even be holding a copy, as I had the two words no author wants to say out loud—writer’s block.”

Now I’ve had various degrees of this affliction over the past two decades. In 2002 writer’s block delayed the list by a month because in addition to that case, I caught some wicked flu-like malady. That experience didn’t prepare me at all for how bad this bout ended up being. I shit you not; I spent one afternoon at my office rewriting two sentences over and over again for about two hours. It was maddening. Every time I looked at the lines I had written, it looked very, very wrong. Yet I couldn’t come up with the right phrasing that worked. It was a vicious cycle that I couldn’t break out of for about six weeks. I wrote plenty of things for my day job, but boiling down news into easily digestible form comes from some other part of my brain, a part that’s nowhere near the RT20 section.

I must admit that on the Saturday after Thanksgiving I thought I might just skip doing it. I’d just send out an email with the names of the albums and singles and be done with it. Before I got to that point, I asked fellow writer folks on Facebook to chime in with their tips for breaking through particularly bad writer’s block. And what a wide range of answers I received:

—“Think about the never-ending disappointment, guilt, and self-loathing you'll experience if you don't get it done.”
Heck, I don’t need to not write my list to experience those emotions! (It shouldn’t be any surprise that that suggestion came from a former co-worker.)

—“LSD”
Alas, I’m probably too old to know anyone that could get me LSD. And I know that my writing ain’t so hot…ah, let’s just move forward.

—“Read a screenplay."
This one is from my friend Bob, who had the misfortune of sending me his screenplay while I was in the throes of this block. Looking at someone’s productive writing seemed to make it worse. (I did read it, and it’s a fine script that I’d love to see produced.)

—“Bring a waterproof notebook into the shower.”
Well, I can barely fit in the shower as my bathroom is so tiny. I can’t imagine fitting a notebook in there.

—“Take a shower. Tell a friend a story—any story. Allow yourself to not write—don't torture yourself. I should probably take this advice myself.”
Do you people think I’m not clean? Does my typing smell like a homeless subway guy? Do you think each line is done using a laser dirt printer?

—“Concentrate on something totally unrelated, like cooking a new recipe in order to ‘reset’ your brain.”
I did cook every night for a week in hopes of letting my brain settle after writing at work all day. Alas, one time my brain reset so well that I forgot I was cooking and burned a steak into a hunk of meaty ash. (I believe Meaty Ash was also a prog rock band I saw once.)

—“Go someplace else public—a park, a Starbucks, whatever—and just write dialogue that you hear.”
I didn’t do this, but I did decide to write while on a bus, using the following tip…

—“Great exercise from a writing teacher named Natalie Goldberg: start a sentence with ‘I remember...’ and see what happens.”
I took this tip from my friend John Ross Bowie, who happens to have written a couple of things for those Hollywood types, and it actually worked. I wrote three paragraphs on a bus ride and at a bar waiting to meet folks for dinner. They weren’t great paragraphs, but at least I didn’t want to delete them immediately. So thank you John for your invaluable assistance in getting me over the hump. (So to speak.)

Slowly this monstrosity came into shape. I can’t say I’m proud of the content of these 26 pages. I’m just pleased that it’s finally over. And if I have writers block like this in 2012, be on the look out for a brief email with the list. (And perhaps a link to a news story about how I drove my head through the monitor at my desk and caused a 12 state blackout.)

2011: I Do Believe That I'm Nostalic for Someone Else's Nostalgia

It seems like nostalgia never fails to inspire passionate responses from most people. Some really love indulging in it (like TV and film producers remaking old TV shows all the time) and some truly hate it. (Did you see the reviews for that Charlie's Angels "reboot?" Yowsa, there was some vitriol. And bringing back Fear Factor? Was anyone nostalgic for Joe Rogan? Maybe his family?) As I’ve traveled further and further from the golden days of my youth, I’ve fallen into that trap. And you know what? Sometimes that’s a very nice place to reside.

I remember the very first time I felt nostalgic. I'm not talking about nostalgia for a time I wasn't even alive for—I did plenty of that when I listened religiously to the “Electric Lunch” on PYX 106 in Albany throughout high school summers. It was a mix of ’60s songs and clips from that era, with a heavy dose of stage banter from Woodstock. (I knew the “don't eat the brown acid” advice before I ever knew what acid was. Or the glorious results you could have on it. That's a whole OTHER nostalgic story.) I dug it so much that I copied that template when I got a noontime airshift in college. (It was not even close to the smoothness that I heard out of Albany. I have burned tapes of that show for the greater good.)

The specific sort of nostalgia I’m talking about is when you’re recalling a time you experienced first hand, and that warm flood of memories makes you feel good. The first time that happened to me was in May 1990 when my friend Bruce Hartley did a show on our college station WICB that focused on—as the Rhino collections that came out that year were called—the super hits of the ’70s. Looking Glass, Gilbert O'Sullivan, Starbuck, Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds—these were acts that I had forgotten or totally rejected once I thought myself a “rock guy.” Heck, when I got to college I basically rejected everything from my past because I wanted a fresh start. (That apparently included forgetting that eight bowls of cereal a day at the dining hall is a bad idea.) So that night of reliving those songs set me on a path that continues until this day of recovering a lot of music (and memories too) that I worshipped as a 3 year-old until I was 11.

So, as you can see, the lure of nostalgia is something that I can understand pretty easily. Yet even I wasn’t prepared for the pull the ’90s has exerted on folks in their late 20s and early 30s. Last October my friends Allison and Melanie convinced me that a mainstream ’90s night would be a fun time. They knew a bunch of the music and believed that with my DJ experience we could get people out to drink and dance to a decent cross-section of tunes from that era.  And holy crap, they were right. Our second event, for which we dubbed our new collective Party Like It's 1999, was the night before New Years Eve. (The above picture comes from that night.) The bar at the venue, The Bell House, made more money that night from our mix of tunes than they did on the actual New Years Eve. Our unexpected success of that night continued throughout the past 12 months. The pure joy and excitement these people get from hearing Macy Gray, Len, Lit and Notorious B.I.G. is entertaining and, at times, a little bit scary. (Example: I play Spice Girls’ “Wannabe.” Instantly the screaming is vaguely reminiscent of those old newsreel clips of teenage girls at Beatles concerts in 1964.) And while most of these songs don't bring me that kind of joy, I do get supreme satisfaction from bringing those people that moment.

All of this blabbing about music from the past brings me to this point—I found much of the music 2011 unimpressive. I can honestly say that I listened to podcasts (which I’ll cover in The AV Files on page 23) on my commute as much as I did current music. This isn’t meant to belittle the albums and songs you’ll be reading about in the following pages. It’s just that my connection to them is nowhere as strong as it has been in previous editions of the RT20. In fact, some of my favorites of 2011 have a whiff of nostalgia to them. There are two acts on the albums and singles list from one of my all-time favorite musical cities, Seattle. The Head and the Heart’s debut mixes harmonies and acoustic guitars and piano in such a way that I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been initially released in 1974. BOAT hearken back to another golden age of listening—the mid ’90s. D. Crane and company wear their love for such bands as Pavement and Built to Spill on their sleeves—and their album cover, as you’ll see on page 12. Adele’s music has a timeless quality that makes older people nostalgic for their youth, and makes youth nostalgic for a time when everything was “authentic.” I couldn’t help but think of the ’90s yet again when I first saw the video for Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks.” The way MTV hacked out the line “faster than my gun” made me chuckle and recall when I laughed at them doing the same thing to “joint” in Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels.”  Add in such RT20 staples as Wilco, Buffalo Tom and R.E.M. (more on their decision to call it a day on page 8), and I’m starting to think I wrote this list in 2001, not 2011.

Finally, I had one full bout of heavy hearted nostalgia this year as one pillar of my musical identity changed forever. The passing of Clarence Clemons in June struck me hard. I’d only met him once, but his persona was so big that I felt I was meeting him every time I saw the E Street Band. There was a reason that Bruce Springsteen would always announce the Big Man last— Clemons was the embodiment of everything fans (and The Boss himself, I imagine) felt about that band. Those distinctive sax solos were the heartbeat of the albums Springsteen did from the 1973 to 1980. And even though that sax was heard less and less from that point on, the fans love for Clemons never wavered. I distinctly remember a certain moment during one show on the E Street reunion tour when the crowd went rather insane when Clemons burst into the solo of “Badlands.” Springsteen had a shit-eating grin on his face when Clemons finished, and shook his head as if to say “how did you get them to do that?” There’s no way Springsteen can fill that void in the E Street Band sound, so I’m interested to see what happens when they return to the road in the spring.

Okay, that’s enough living in the past, as the old Jethro Tull song goes. Oh, crap. Referencing that 40 year-old song is another dose of nostalgia too. Dammit. It’s a vicious cycle that I can’t seem to stop! Anyways, I hope you enjoy the list more than I did writing it.

2011's Top 20 Albums

20) Bell X1 - Bloodless Coup (YepRoc)
Bell X1 is an Irish band that I've had the pleasure of interviewing on each of their past two albums. The guys in the band are funny and self-effacing and at the same time serious about their music, which has evolved from a sound that brought them U2 comparisons to a sound that, well, brings them Radiohead comparisons. With their mixing of electronics and live instruments, there are times where the songs on Bloodless Coup almost get overwhelmed. “Safer Than Love,” which would be in my Top 5 singles list had it ever been released as a single, is not one of those times. It is by far my favorite song on Bloodless Coup, probably because it sounds like it could have been made in 1985. (Why yes, this nostalgia theme will keep popping up, don’t you fret dear reader.) And I mean that in the best way. It's not a kitschy retro tribute. It's a really fantastic song that just so happens to feature a drum machine and keyboard sounds that make me think of having A Flock of Seagulls haircut. Honestly, “Safer Than Love” is the reason why this album just squeaked onto the Top 20. I just couldn’t imagine doing this list without mentioning this track. (I also can’t imagine doing this year’s list without having fantasies of smashing my keyboard into 10,000 parts. Let’s move on.)
On the Web: bellx1.com Best Tracks: “Safer Than Love,” “Velcro,” “The Trailing Skirts of God”

19) Pete Donnelly - When You Come Home (Donnelly Music)
Pete Donnelly is the singer-bassist in The Figgs. He’s also been serving as the bass player for the new version of NRBQ that Terry Adams has been playing with for a couple of years. And Donnelly has spent some time on the road and in the studio with Soul Asylum. Oh, and his resume includes doing production and playing work for a lot of Philadelphia area bands. All of these facts lead me to one question—how in the hell did he have time to make his first solo album? (Donnelly did a solo cassette, yes, a cassette, 11 years ago, but that was more of a mix of demos and a few fully fleshed out songs than it was a proper album.) When You Come Home sees Donnelly expanding beyond the power-pop template that The Figgs have perfected over the past two decades. His time playing with Adams definitely influenced songs like “Original Wonder” and “Can’t Talk at All.” Figgs fans shouldn’t fret though—Donnelly still has his amazing sense for making great hooks and very hummable melodies. “22nd Street” could fit snugly on any of the recent Figgs albums. Donnelly also gets help from each of his three bands, with The Figgs’ Mike Gent, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner and ex-NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino making guest appearances. If I hadn’t gotten this full album during the second week of December, it might have ranked even high on this list. (I have a feeling I’ll be using that phrase again soon.)
On the Web: petedonnellymusic.com Best Tracks: “Original Wonder,” “The Only One,” “22nd Street

18) The Black Keys - El Camino (Nonesuch)
Here was my only complaint about The Black Keys album Brothers in the 2010 edition of the RT20: “At almost an hour long, the only thing that drags the 15-track Brothers down is its length. They could have shaved off a couple of songs and saved them for their next album without diluting the impact of this one.” Well, it seems like they heard me and responded by cranking out 11 songs in just over 38 minutes. El Camino is a tightly focused album that ups the tempo while doubling the hooks. Producer Danger Mouse knows how to how to add the just amount of sonic sweetening (vintage keyboards, high pitched backing vocals) with out detracting from the powerful groove that singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have built up over years of touring. “Lonely Boy” deserves to be the out-of-the-box (jeebus, did I just use an ancient radio and records phrase?) smash that it’s shaping up to be, but El Camino’s best song is the epic “Little Black Submarines.” Calling that track an epic seems like a misnomer, since it’s only four minutes and 10 seconds. Yet I can’t think of a more appropriate description for Auerbach’s acoustic intro followed by a massive electric guitar riff and thundering drums. This duo has produced a lot of good music over seven albums, yet I don’t think they’ve done anything better than “Little Black Submarines.” If I hadn’t gotten this full album during the second week of December, it might have ranked even high on this list. (Gee, where have I heard that before?)On the Web: theblackkeys.com Best Tracks: “Little Black Submarines,” “Lonely Boy,” “Gold on the Ceiling”

17) Joseph Arthur - The Graduation Ceremony (Lonely Astronaut)
Joseph Arthur shifted away from his low-key vocals, acoustic guitar with some electronics template over the past few years by recording with a full on rock band, doing some experimental EPs and forming a Crosby, Stills and Nash-inspired trio Fistful of Mercy with Ben Harper and Dhani Harrison. The Graduation Ceremony sees him return to the roots of his career with the sound and style of songwriting that attached Peter Gabriel as a big supporter almost 15 years ago. It’s filled with lightly strummed acoustic guitars and Arthur harmonizing his hypnotic falsetto and his low register to a total ear-pleasing effect. Alas, it seems like it took some kind of bad break up to bring Arthur back to the best of what he does. These lyrics sound sweet when Arthur sings them, but damn, they’re all sort of depressing. I guess hearing about bad times goes down better when it’s wrapped in a gorgeous sonic haze.
On the Web: josepharthur.com Best Tracks: “Almost Blue,” “Out on a Limb,” “Over the Sun”

16) Friendly Fires - Pala (XL Recordings)
I need to give a shout out to my friend Dev Sherlock for turning me onto Friendly Fires. We did a podcast two years ago focusing on five albums from the past 20 years that changed his life and Friendly Fires 2008 self-titled debut was on that list. He gave me a copy of the entire album to use when producing the podcast and since I liked the two songs he chose to play, I decided to put the full album on my iTunes and listen to it on the ride home from work late one weekend night. By the time I walked upstairs at my stop, I was hooked. Their mix of indie pop with disco-like beats was irresistible to me. Pala sees the band upping the ante my making the production sound bigger, yet not diminishing the dance-y fun of their debut. Like the late lamented LCD Soundsystem, Friendly Fires are one of the few acts I could see listening to while comfortably sitting down like the old man I am, or dancing to with wild abandon at a club where I’d obviously be the “old guy making a spectacle of himself.”
On the Web: wearefriendlyfires.com Best Tracks: “Blue Cassette,” “Running Away,” “Show Me Lights”

15) Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds - Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds (Sour Mash/Mercury)
Two years after the Gallagher brothers imploded Oasis, they both returned with new projects this year. Singer Liam and most of the final lineup of Oasis joined forces in a new project called Beady Eye, which Liam brashly predicted would be just as big as Oasis. Um, I don’t think so. Beady Eye was perhaps the most half-baked piece of shit album I heard this year. A friend of mine sent me the unmastered advance that he’d gotten from a buddy in the U.K. I listened to it intently once—and realized I never needed to listen to it again. (As a matter of fact, I deleted it from my iTunes right after that listen.) Liam might have had the pipes, but Noel is the brother that got all the talent in that family. High Flying Birds features Noel’s strongest batch of songs in a decade. And he delivers the lyrics with more passion than his brother has in ages. I know that the calls for an Oasis reunion will grow over the next year after both acts first albums have run their course. I think Noel’s got a good case for not succumbing to that type of pressure. He wrote the best Oasis songs, he can keep playing them. And he’s made a fine start on his own with this project.
On the Web: noelgallagher.com Best Tracks: “If I had a Gun…,” “Dream On,” “Everybody’s on the Run”

14) Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes (YepRoc)
Fountains of Wayne get my vote for musical comeback of the year. It’s been four years since their last studio effort, Traffic and Weather, and that album was a huge letdown after the breakthrough of “Stacy’s Mom” and Welcome Interstate Managers. Traffic and Weather was one of the rare albums by a band I love that I started disliking more and more with each listen. It was overproduced and the biting lyrics and descriptions of ordinary Northeast people seemed off-putting for the first time ever. Sky Full of Holes rectifies those problems pretty quickly. There are more acoustic touches throughout, making the whole record sound less frantic. And my goodness, the opening lines on the most of the songs here slay me—“She's been afraid of the Cuisinart since 1977” from “A Summer Place”; “They opened up a bar called ‘Living Hell’/Right from the start it didn't go too well” in “Richie and Ruben”; and “Staring at the sun/With no pants on” from “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart.” (That last one made me laugh out loud on the subway one night.) Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood definitely regained their writing touch with Sky Full of Holes. I hope that continues for the foreseeable future.
On the Web: fountainsofwayne.com Best Tracks: “A Dip in the Ocean,” “The Summer Place,” “Someone’s Going to Break Your Heart”

13) Okkervil River - I Am Very Far (Jagjaguwar)
I don’t think I anticipated any album this year as much as I Am Very Far. The last two albums Okkervil River released—2007’s The Stage Names and 2008’s The Stand Ins— landed in the Top 5 on the RT 20 each of those years. The first I Am Very Far song I heard was “Wake and Be Fine,” which happened five months before the album was released. Will Sheff and company did the song on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon with a bunch of guests to replicate the big sound of the album. I have to say, I didn't like it. And I didn't like it when I finally heard the studio version two months later. It just seemed too cluttered. I couldn’t figure out where the song was in this immense mess of sound. Then I heard Sheff play an acoustic version of it on WNYC's Soundcheck the week the album was released. With the many, many, MANY layers of production stripped away my ears grasped the basics of the song. Since that moment I've come 180 degrees on "Wake and Be Fine" and I Am Very Far as a whole. It's an album that is the very definition of a grower. It’s as if my brain needed to process every instrument before it could enjoy Sheff’s lyrics about…aw, heck, I have no idea what he’s singing about on most of these songs. He definitely went for a less direct approach than he did on the last two albums of music and band centric lyrics. Maybe by next year’s RT20 I’ll have figured out the lyrics too?
On the Web: okkervilriver.com Best Tracks: “Wake and Be Fine,” “Piratess,” “Your Past Life as a Blast”

12) Bright Eyes - The People’s Key (Merge)
I for one was happy when Conor Oberst decided to make another (and, considering what he’s said in various interviews, perhaps final) Bright Eyes album. His last project, the solo disc Outer South, was by far the worst album he’s made since he was a teenager. The People’s Key ditches the rootsy vibe of the past few records Oberst has released and dives back into the modern/alt rock sound of 2005’s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. “Jejune Stars” and “Shell Games” sound more contemporary (and are the catchiest musically) than anything he’s done in years. Of course, Oberst has to have  some sort of spoken word piece to intro the album and on The People’s Key Texas musician Denny Brewer takes on that task. He utters some completely insane things about extra-terrestrial, ancient reptilian life forms—and the origin of the pomegranate. I must admit, I programmed my iTunes to skip right over Brewer’s ramblings at the end of “Jejune Stars.” I didn’t want such a catchy song to be ruined. Sorry Danny. Fortunately he doesn’t mess up a fine album from Oberst and company.
On the Web: conoroberst.com Best Tracks: “Jejune Stars,” “One for You, One for Me,” “Shell Games”

11) R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now (Warner Bros.)
(Note: I wrote this piece for as a Song of the Week for the RT 20 blog back in September after the band announced their breakup. It seems better to reprint that than a regular review.)

I had a feeling that this day would come soon. I wasn’t sure if it was this year, but after  R.E.M. decided to not tour behind this year’s Collapse Into Now it seemed that a decision to split was inevitable. The hints were there in all the songs. The music that Peter Buck and Mike Mills composed quoted parts of the band’s catalog (“Blue” sounding like a sequel to Out of Time’s “Country Feedback,” “Oh My Heart” coming off like an Automatic For the People outtake) while Michael Stipe’s lyrics contained many references to people moving on with their lives (“Walk It Back”—Time, time, time it cannot revive/You, you can't turn away/You asked me to stay/but something needs to change; “All the Best”—“Let's sing it a rhyme/Let's give it one more time/Let's show the kids how to do it fine, fine, fine, fine.”). I wanted to ignore these signs and hope for more from this late career renaissance. I’m in the critical minority on this, but I think 2008’s Accelerate is one of their Top 5 albums ever and that Collapse Into Now keeps growing in stature every time I listen to it.

Full disclosure—I am friends with Scott McCaughey, who’s been a touring and recording member of R.E.M. for 17 years. During the decade I’ve known Scott I’ve gotten to see him play with the band three times. The pure joy he displayed performing his friends songs made me smile every time. I sent Scott a brief note on the day the split was announced. I told him how sorry I was to hear the news and hoped that he and everyone around the band was feeling okay. I added, “I'm sure it's a weird time since they're you're friends and bandmates. But at least they're going out on a high note with the last two albums.” He wrote back to me, “I do appreciate your comment about going out on a high note—I feel that way too.”

One of those high notes is “It Happened Today.” It includes more of those foreshadowing lyrics from Stipe (“And close in on a promise after, after all I've done today/I have earned my voice”) and the last 1:50 features Stipe, Mills and guest vocalist Eddie Vedder doing a wordless chorus that pulls you in and takes you to majestic heights. It’s a stunning moment in a career filled with plenty of them. I’ve never met Eddie Vedder, but from all accounts he’s a man that has respect and enthusiasm for the acts inspired him growing up. I saw his unbridled joy inducting—and singing with—R.E.M. at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies a few years ago. So I can imagine that he was honored, thrilled, and perhaps a bit nervous when the band asked him to sing on “It Happened Today.” I’m sure he wanted to deliver for R.E.M., and he most certainly does with a magnificent vocal turn on it.

I can’t put into words just how much this band has meant to me. All I can say is thank you to Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck (and Bill Berry too) for many years of providing comfort, inspiration and joy.
On the Web: remhq.com Best Tracks: “That Someone Is You,” “Oh My Heart,” “It Happened Today”

10) The Vaccines - What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? (Columbia)
One week in July I spent a lot of time at ye old work desk plowing through albums I'd been sent over...well...the past year? Maybe longer? There was a mess of discs to listen to, much of them pure crap. The Vaccines' What Did You Expect From the Vaccines? was by far the best of lot. A collection of quick, catchy Brit pop-punk songs that are witty? Hells yeah, count me in. The opening track "Wreckin' Bar (Ra Ra Ra)" is the best 1:28 song I've heard in a long time. And the 11 songs (plus a hidden piano ballad track) just crack 36 minutes. If you don’t like one song, don’t worry, it’ll be over shortly and you’ll be on to something even better.  The Vaccines aren’t doing anything highly originally here. Yet there’s something to be said for executing it so well, over and over again.
On the Web: thevaccines.co.uk Best Tracks: “Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra),” “Post Break-Up Sex,” “Wetsuit”

  9) We Are Augustines - Rise Ye Sunken Ships (Oxcart/Turnout)
Full disclosure: In the mid-aughts I worked at a friend’s bar with We Are Augustines singer-guitarist Bill McCarthy. So having any sort of critical distance is almost impossible for me. (Especially because one night the guy was instrumental in making sure yours truly didn’t get stabbed when I working at the door.) The band Bill launched while he was working at the bar was called Pela, and my goodness they were a powerhouse live. The three times I saw them play I feared that Bill or one of his bandmates was going to seriously break something (or someone) with the reckless abandon that they attacked their instruments. I liked Pela’s EPs and 2007 debut album Anytime Graffiti, but those recordings could never capture the passion I saw on stage from Bill and company. Pela broke up a couple of years ago, its’ life a victim of bizarre (Bill’s severe hand injury) and mundane (the usual label and management problems) circumstances. I ran into Bill on the train one Saturday morning and he told me he was starting this new project with one of the guys from Pela. What he didn’t tell me that he was coming up with an album that delivers the passion I saw him have on stage—and them some. Rise Ye Sunken Ships doesn’t contain your typical rock album subject material. Bill crafted a bunch of songs that explore his brother’s psychological problems, stint in jail and eventual suicide as well as his mother’s suicide. Its raw emotional material that’s not for the faint of heart, and Bill sings the hell out if it. Yet you never feel as though Bill is at his wits end. These songs are pulling him through this crazy story. And it’s one I suggest you should listen to.
On the Web: weareaugustines.com Best Tracks: “Chapel Song,” “Philadelphia (the City of Brotherly Love,” “Book of James”

  8) Wilco - The Whole Love (DPM/Anti)
Gosh, what do I write about Wilco this point? Every single one of their eight studio albums (10 if you count the Mermaid Avenue collaborations with Billy Bragg) has made the RT 20. Besides The Figgs, they are the band I’ve seen the most in the 16 years I’ve been living in New York. I love this band, but I think even I’m sick of myself writing or talking about that love at this point. So I’ll just say it’s a solid album and share this anecdote about my favorite track. I can honestly say that “Dawned on Me” may have saved my life. I was upstate in late October, driving to get a blood test at 6:05     a.m. I had slept about two hours the night before and couldn’t have any caffeine before this blood test. I felt myself drifting off when WDST out of Woodstock started playing “Dawned on Me.” I received an instant jolt of energy as well as something to focus on. That helped me when I saw that deer out of the corner of my eye. The animal didn't move into the road but at least I was aware enough to not under or overreact. And I found it very humorous that I heard “Dawned on Me” in a car for the first time just as it was approaching dawn.
On the Web: wilcoworld.net Best Tracks: “Dawned on Me,” “Art of Almost,” “One Sunday Morning”

  7) The Baseball Project - Vol. 2: High & Inside (YepRoc)
(Full disclosure: I wrote the bio for the Baseball Project’s first album, and I did the same with Volume 2. I liked it, so I’m just going to reprint a slightly truncated version of it.)

What happens when your band's debut album is a run-scoring hit with both music and baseball fans? If you're The Baseball Project, you grab some friends to fill out your bench, take batting practice by writing songs for ESPN and deliver a strikeout pitch with Volume Two: High and Inside. The new album from Steve Wynn, Scott McCaughey, Linda Pitmon and Peter Buck is another winning collection of songs about the game's greats that will be pleasing to those who love America's pastime—and fans of intelligent, melodic and fun rock.

When the first Baseball Project album, Volume One: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, was released in 2008 Wynn, McCaughey, Pitmon and Buck had yet to play one note as a unit in front of an audience. But after playing throughout the U.S. in 2009 the quartet were—as McCaughey jokes—“a well-oiled touring machine,” which allowed the band to complete the basics for this new album in just two days. Wynn adds, “We definitely knew how to play as a band when we went in this time and I think you can hear that chemistry on the record.” High and Inside is a collection that sees the quartet deftly mix witty lyrics about baseball players past and present with a sharp melodic sensibility and engaging choruses. Opener “1976” is one of the catchiest songs to ever be written about anything from Detroit. (In this case, it's Tigers phenom pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.) “Ichiro Goes to the Moon” is a manic punk-pop track that marvels at the Seattle Mariners outfielder's ability to eat, build rockets, and yes, play baseball. High and Inside also explores more musical avenues than the first Baseball Project outing. "Pete Rose Way" is a slice of alt-country that echoes one of McCaughey's and Buck's other projects, Tired Pony. And closer "Here Lies Carl Mays" takes the story of the only pitcher to throw a ball that killed another player and turns it into a haunting ballad sung from beyond the grave.

The quartet invited a lot of their friends to help out on Volume 2. Wynn explains, “We had wanted to include some like-minded baseball rocker pals on the first record but there just wasn’t time so we were able to open the door this time around.” Into that open door came contributions from Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (who adds backing vocals to “Ichiro Goes to the Moon”), Los LobosSteve Berlin, The DecemberistsChris Funk and John Moen, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan and The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, who supplies lyrics and the lead vocal on the Minnesota Twins anthem "Please Don't Call Them Twinkies." Twins fan Pitmon had bonded with Finn over the team when the Minnesota natives reconnected in New York. And Pitmon says she was thrilled when Finn accepted the job of writing lyrics about their favorite team. She explains, “I think Craig perfectly captured the feelings that a lot of us Twins fans have for our team of humble, hardworking guys that seem to beat the odds more often than not, and Steve really nailed the mood of the lyrics when he wrote the anthemic tune we set it to.” Finn says, “The Twins don't win every year, or even every decade. They don't normally compete in the off-season arms race—they develop talent. Thus, when they do win I get to feel elation and bliss, and not just relief. In some way, it's like music; many of my all-time favorite bands aren't that great every night, but when it comes together it feels even sweeter.”

Indeed Craig. And things do come together very nicely on Volume 2.
On the Web: thebaseballproject.com Best Tracks: “Please Don’t Call Them Twinkies,” “1976,” “Fair Weather Fans”

  6) The Decemberists - The King Is Dead (Capitol)
Thank you, Colin Meloy. You dimmed my enthusiasm for your band with The Crane Wife, and then drove me far, far away from your camp with the overblown concept album The Hazards of Love. Oh my, did I despise that album. So when I heard that Meloy wanted to go back to simpler song structures and not have an overlying concept for The King Is Dead, I was a bit hesitant. Yet Meloy was true to his word—this is a batch of simple songs, with touches of country rock and an R.E.M. influence through it like no other Decemberists album. And to his credit, Meloy didn’t fight that and got Peter Buck to play 12 string guitar on the two most blatant R.E.M.-like tracks (“Calamity Song” and “Down By the Water”). Gosh darnit, he won me back! Yet Meloy’s greatest achievement with The King is Dead might not be his returning me to The Decemberists fold. It could be making me listen to an album that features the always irritating, faux-alt country singer Gillen Welch. For some reason I’ve always disliked her material (and thought her partner David Rawlings had the worst masturbatory guitar face ever—and he’s soloing on a freaking acoustic guitar, c’mon!) and thought her whole rootsy presentation was a big scam. Obviously, I realize that I’m probably 100% wrong on all of those points. Yet who doesn’t like having some irrational hatred? The Tea Party has it every day. (Oh, wait. Not a good example there.) Anyhoo, her harmony vocals on the majority of The King is Dead are, gulp, very good. I guess Meloy had the last laugh at my expense.
On the Web: decemberists.com Best Tracks: “Don’t Carry It All,” “Down by the Water,” “June Hymn”

  5) Buffalo Tom - Skins (Scrawny Records)
It’s rare for an artist to make some of their best work in the same year they mark their 25th anniversary. Buffalo Tom is one act that can stake such a claim. Skins is probably their finest album since 1995’s Sleepy Eyed. While they can still rock out and come up with great hooks for their faster tracks, Skins really shines with its more personal, introspective and quieter numbers like “Miss Barren Brooks,” “Paper Knife,” “Don't Forget Me,” and “The Hawks & the Sparrows.” Bill Janovitz, Chris Colbourn and Tom Maginnis have found a way to gracefully transition into their 40s by making songs about true grown-up concerns, like a father struggling to hold his life together on “The Kids Just Sleep.” Don’t worry, the hooky rock you’ve come to expect is still here with “Down” and “Guilty Girls." Both sides of Skins mesh perfectly in “The Big Light,” a song by Janovitz inspired by the murder of his gay uncle Vince and the aftermath of going through his possessions. Janovitz’s blogging about the incident (go to BillJanovitz.com and read the entries from November 2009) was one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read in the past five years. Somehow he was able to transfer all those feelings into song that—if you don’t know its inspiration—seems like a great anthem. It’s one of the best songs Janovitz has ever written and worth buying Skins just to hear that track.
On the Web: buffalotom.com Best Tracks: "The Big Light,” “Guilty Girls,” “Don’t Forget Me”

  4) The Head and The Heart - The Head and The Heart (Sub Pop)
The Head and The Heart don’t do anything highly original on their self-titled debut. But just like The Vaccines back at number-10, hearing it executed so perfectly is just a joy to behold. The Seattle sextet mix-up Americana, country-rock, Beatlesque pop, ’70s folk-rock with a dash of Crosby, Stills and Nash in their songs about love, traveling, ghosts, cats and dogs and more traveling. (Really, these guys like penning lyrics about going to or leaving places around the country. It’s a great road trip album.) The harmonies between guitarists Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell and violin player Charity Rose Thielen are pure ear candy in song after song. And the band’s secret weapon is keyboardist Kenny Hensley, whose piano lines propel the songs and give them a bit more heft than other harmony driven acts as of late, such as The Head and The Heart’s labelmates Fleet Foxes. Hopefully The Head and The Heart’s sophomore effort album won’t disappoint me like Fleet Foxes’ did.
On the Web: theheadandtheheart.com Best Tracks: “Lost in My Mind,” “Down in the Valley,” “Sounds Like Hallelujah”

  3) Telekinesis - 12 Desperate Straight Lines (Merge)
I have to credit my former co-worker Kerry DarConte for turning me onto this band. One day out of the blue she sent me a link to the self-titled debut from Telekinesis—without even another word in the email. I wrote back, “I assume you think I should download this album—and you’re not sending me a virus.” She replied that I should, and that I should shut up. (Or something like that. I can’t dig that far back into my work email at the moment.) So I did download that album and listened to it one morning on the way into work—and it actually made me really happy, a feeling that even lasted through part of the work day! I decided that day I needed to download their new album 12 Desperate Straight Lines, and I was thrilled to learn it was even better. Telekinesis is essentially Michael Benjamin Lerner—he plays every instrument (when I saw them live at ACL he was playing drums, but also played guitar on one song) and writes one well crafted power-pop gem after another. Producer/Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla fills in on all the instruments Lerner doesn’t play and he keeps 12 Desperate Straight Lines feeling loose and not the work of a two man show. These 12 songs clock in at 32 minutes, which is just about a perfect length for an album. So thanks Kerry for hipping me to a great band I’d never heard before.
On the Web: telekinesismusic.com Best Tracks: “Car Crash,” “You Turn Clear in the Sun,” “Country Lane
 
  2) Middle Brother - Middle Brother (Partisian Records)
Middle Brother combines the talents of three friends—Deer Tick's John McCauley, Dawes's Taylor Goldsmith and Delta Spirit's Matt Vasquez. These three singer-songwriters went into studio with a few songs and an idea of making an album that would help cross-pollinate their fanbases. They more than succeeded. They crafted an album that equals and at times surpasses the work of their main bands. They are, bluntly put, supergroup that is indeed super. That this is a true collaboration comes shining through on the opening track “Daydreaming,” which features a world weary lead vocal from McCauley and some tremendous harmonies from Goldsmith and Vasquez. On the next song “Blue Eyes” these guys sound like they’ve been playing and singing together for years. Vasquez and Goldsmith do a co-lead vocal that sounds so right I’m amazed that never recorded together before. Parts of their main bands shine through now and again (“Someday” sounds just like Delta Spirit while “Million Dollar Bill” ended up on the new Dawes album Nothing Is Wrong in a version that sounds identical) but most of the time Middle Brother sounds like a great band that happens to have three lead singers. And any group that covers The Replacements rarity “Portland”—and comes close to improving upon the original—is one I definitely hope to hear from again.
On the Web: middlebrother.com Best Tracks: “Blue Eyes,” “Someday,” “Million Dollar Bill”

  1) BOAT - Dress Like Your Idols (Magic Marker)
A tip of the hat to must go to my friend Bill Pearis. I never would have heard of Seattle's quirky popsters BOAT if not for his recommendation two years ago. They've become one of my favorite new bands of the past five years. And I knew back in April when I recorded a podcast with their frontman D. Crane that it would take a truly exceptional album to knock them off the top spot on this year’s RT20. Dress Like Your Idols sees BOAT go into a proper studio for the first time, so they’re not hiding behind a lo-fi disguise anymore. These songs are brightly produced pop gems that definitely show off the influences of D. Crane’s real idols (some of which are pictured on the album cover). His vocals echo Pavement’s Stephen Malkumus with the lyrics at times recalling the silliness of a few Seattle icons—Young Fresh Fellows, The Presidents of the United States of America and Tullycraft. And when you write a song as poppy as “Landlocked,” why not get a guy that knows his way around a great pop song, The Long WintersJohn Roderick, to sing it with you? (The top right cover on the Dress Like Your Idols cover copies The Long Winters’ When I Pretend to Fall.)

A bonus beyond the great music on Dress Like Your Idols is that the members of BOAT are some of the coolest, down to earth musicians I’ve met the past 16 years. Bill ended up introducing me to D. Crane after a show at The Rock Shop in Brooklyn in late March. (Actually, I sort of was introduced to them when they invited people on stage to sing along on a cover of T. Rex's "Children of the Revolution." I was very willing to take up that challenge.) I ended up talking with Crane and drummer J. Long for a while that evening, discovering that we all shared a love of Pearl Jam's Yield, which is one of the nine albums that Crane lovingly reproduced for the Dress Like Your Idols cover. Crane and I did a two part podcast about this album and the artists featured on the cover that you should download now at RT20podcast.com.
On the Web: boat.ohnodisaster.com Best Tracks: “Landlocked,” “Forever in Armitron,” “Classically Trained”

2011's Top 20 Singles

20) The Jayhawks - “She Walks In So Many Ways” (Rounder)
The reunion of The Jayhawks’ Tomorrow the Green Grass (that LP will come up again later) lineup produced a decent album in Mockingbird Time. (It’s probably my #21 album this year.) “She Walks in So Many Ways” is far and away the best song on that album. It’s two minutes and 36 seconds of great harmonies from Gary Louris, Mark Olson, Karen Grotberg and Tim O’Reagan, jangly Byrds-like guitars and a passel of lyrics about…well, I’m not sure who she is, but she seems to like to walk a lot. Especially in clouds for some reason. Maybe she has a hot air-propelled weather balloon that she bought with credit card points or something.

19) They Might be Giants - “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” (Idlewild/Rounder)
This song—like 127% of They Might Be Giants catalog—is extra catchy. The chorus is something you can sing along to within one listen. And it had two great videos made for it—one by a fan about a guy quitting his job and going nuts, the “official” one starring Rip Torn as, well, an insane Rip Torn street-fighting people kids 50 years younger than himself. Lastly, time and time again I have been impressed by these opening lines. “Outnumbered a million to one/All of the dicks in this dick town/Can't keep Johnny down.” Way to go Johnny!

18) The Figgs - “The Central Stumble”/”All The World Will Fall” (Q-Dee)
This double A-sided single is just a teaser for a double album coming out in 2012 to mark the band’s 25th anniversary. (Crap, which also means 25 years since I graduated high school. Dammit.) Pete Donnelly’s “All the World Will Fall” is a jaunty mid-tempo number that sounds great driving along a country road. (Yes, I did just that back in October.) “The Central Stumble” has an opening line that slays me each with each listen: “Jimmy’s sweating/looks five days dead/like Rod Stewart decomposing/in his bed.” It’s one of my favorite lines Mike Gent has penned in the past decade. This single is part the Q-Dee Rock and Soul Series and was recorded at the label’s Q Division studios. There must be something in the microphones there, because anything that comes from that studio sounds exceptional on the technical side of things. It’s like the high end of my hearing has returned, without that pesky 10K tone ringing in my ears.

17) Gomez - “Options” (ATO)
I love songs that have false starts. You know, a guitar starts playing, and then abruptly stops as the person playing it realizes the rest of the band isn’t ready. (Or perhaps they weren’t really ready to record.) The Replacements (“Waitress in the Sky”) Neil Young (“Downtown” with Pearl Jam), The Gentlemen (“Sour Mash”), Green Day (“Good Riddance”), Matthew Sweet (“Divine Intervention”) and Fugazi (“Waiting Room,” sort of) have all done it. Every time it happens I’m hooked. It’s some bizarre pavlovian reaction. “Options” begins with a false start. Once I heard that, I knew I’d be playing this song over and over again.

(I should mention that in the throes of my writer’s block I asked Facebook nation for some false start songs, and people chimed in with over 50 examples in a couple of hours. Yay thing that steals my personal information! My favorite one came from my bandmate Paul Gil, who wrote, “Almost every song by Bunnie England and the New Originals.” Our guitarist Paul Crane followed that up with, “For the record, the only Bunnie songs that have a false start are the ones I start....which are about 96.64287% of them.”)

16) Sleeper Agent - “Get It Daddy” (Mom + Pop)
Sleeper Agent is a bunch of kids (yeah, I called a bunch of folks in their early 20s kids) from Kentucky that make music that sounds like a cross between Southern rock and The White Stripes. The trading off of vocals between Alex Kandel (she's 18, for goodness sake) and Tony Smith is like nothing else that's on the radio these days. I say that because it's the first time in ages that a band I was supposed to interview for the hard/alt rock part of my job appealed to me personally.

15) The Strokes - “Under Cover of Darkness” (RCA)
Hey, remember when The Strokes put out that great single from their solid fourth album in 2011? Yeah, me neither. If I didn’t build this list throughout the whole year, adding tracks and albums to it as I hear them, I would have totally spaced on “Under Cover of Darkness.” Great little song. I especially love how the guitars of Albert Hammond Junior and Nick Valensi sound just slightly out of tune with another when they play the intro part the second time around. It makes my neck tense up every time I hear, yet in a kind of good way. (The bad way would be the random neck spasms I had about an hour before I wrote this paragraph. Huzzah for getting old!)

14) Mastodon - “Curl of the Burl” (Reprise)
I honestly don’t know much about Mastdon. I hadn’t heard any of their music until 2009’s Crack the Skye. All I do know is that “Curl of the Burl” is the ballsy song on this list. It’s a song designed to get you to put your devil horns up and to put a kink in your neck. Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher summed up “Curl of the Burl” best in an interview with my colleague Dave Schulps—“It’s a tongue-in-cheek just kind of goofy song. It kind of sounds like Queens of the Stone Age, a little Black Sabbath-y.” He’s right, and it’s an excellent combination.

13) BOAT - “(I’ll Beat My Chest Like) King Kong” (Magic Marker)
So you’re going to stop your rather catchy tune about love and being domestic with a 12 second sample from the original 1933 version of King Kong? Why yes, I’d like to hear that repeatedly. Also, your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

12) Dawes - “Time Spent in Los Angeles” (ATO)
I saw Dawes perform this song twice before their second album Nothing Is Wrong was released, and each time I thought to myself, “Damn, this song has a great chorus and a great buildup in the third verse. This would be a good single.” Usually I’m horrible picking out singles from album and I would actively tell any band that I would be a career-killer if you went with my choice. Fortunately for Dawes, they never knew what I thought and picked a great song about life on the road and how it can really ruin relationships with the opposite sex. Especially if the other person has “a special kind of sadness.” (I think that’s code for, “She lit all my records on fire.”)

11) Cults - “Go Outside” (ITNO/Columbia)
Technically this song was on the web (and blogged about incessantly) in 2010. The buzz scored the duo of Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion (yeah, probably not his real last name) a deal with Columbia Records. However, I first heard it on the radio this year, so I’m going to count it as a 2011 single. (Hey, at least I’m not like the Grammys and nominating Bon Iver for Best New Artist three releases into a career.) Follin has a timeless voice (I could imagine her being in a ’60s girl group) and her way of singing “I really want to go out/I really want to go outside and make it light all day” would make anyone want to firebomb their cubicle and lounge in Central Park when its that first spring day where there’s not a cloud in the sky and the temperature just peaked at 70 degrees.

10) Lady Gaga - “The Edge of Glory” (Stream/Konlive/Interscope)
  9) Katy Perry - “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” (Capitol/EMI)
I had to pair these two songs together—I mean, it is an ’80s sax double shot. You might be asking yourself, “WTF,” as the kids’ lingo (or the name of a podcast I love) goes these days. Yes, I bought Born This Way. IT WAS 99 CENTS ON AMAZON PEOPLE. Seriously, how much of a risk is it to buy a digital download of an entire album when it's that cheap? It’s not a great album by any standard, but it does have some excellent moments. The half-sung in German "Schei├če" is a hoot and the Madonna-ripping title track is decent. But holy cow, “Edge of Glory” is the best 1986 song that I've heard since, well, 1986. Imagine a single from a sports-themed 80s flick like Vision Quest or Rocky III with the final sax solo by the E Street Band's Clarence Clemons. You have just created this song in your mind. I, without any irony whatsoever, love it.

Perry’s “Last Friday Night” I didn’t have to pay to download (thanks Clear Channel). This track is a total mash-up: music of 2010 + a pinch of 2005 (the “T.G.I.F” chant cribs the breakdown in Gorillaz’ “Feel Good Inc.”) + a sax breakdown from 1987 + lyrics that are quite possibly a sequel to Lit’s “My Own Worse Enemy” = an enjoyable pop treat.

  8) Snow Patrol - “Called Out in the Dark” (Polydor/Fiction/Geffen)
The album this track is taken from, Fallen Empires, isn’t out into January. “Called Out in the Dark” is another entry in the disturbing trend of releasing a single six months before an album is released. It’s one thing to put out a single in November when your album isn’t out until January. It’s just plain odd to put that single out in late August. (Alright, enough complaining about record company strategies.) I first heard “Called Out in the Dark” in its entirety driving in Austin one night. The bouncy synths and weird whispered vocal hook had me bobbing my head as I drove over the road they call Mopac. And the line “Show me now/Show me the arms aloft” seemed rather appropriate since I had just spent three days in a park with people raising their arms to the sky.

  7) Amos Lee - “Windows Are Rolled Down” (Blue Note/EMI)
This breezy mid-tempo track from Philly area singer-songwriter Amos Lee sounds like a natural road trip companion. There’s strummed acoustic guitars, a touch of pedal steel, a swell of piano and organ during the bridge and a drumbeat that clicks like your tires on a road that has equidistant gaps in the pavement. Lee’s collaborators Calexico certainly know how make the atmospheric conditions right for a road trip track. Wait a second, is the first chorus really “Windows are rolled down/Sun is setting high/Windows are rolled down/I'm fixin' to die?” Is this a road trip song that ends like Thelma and Louise? Crap.

  6) Foster the People - “Pumped Up Kicks” (Columbia)
One hit wonder. For real. Did you see/hear them on Saturday Night Live? Gosh, they’re awful live. This song sounds especially bad without the studio trickery. With it, it’s glorious. I can’t see them going anywhere after this album dies out. Oh well, every generation has its own Primitive Radio Gods.

  5) The Head and the Heart - “Lost in My Mind” (Sub Pop)
Since I already proclaimed my love of their album a few pages ago, let me explain how entranced I was with this song. In March I was driving back upstate in my aunt’s car with our dog Aurora in the back. She was sleeping the entire 2 1/2 ride back to her home, so I could comfortably have the radio on the whole way. I was listening to WDST out of Woodstock when the lyrics “Put your dreams away for now, I won’t see you for sometime/I am lost in my mind” came on over a simple set of chords. I turned up the volume, trying to identify it. Then at a minute and 25 seconds, when the drums kicked in, I slowed down, dug my iPhone out of my left pocket, unlocked it, and scrolled through my apps until I got to Shazam. I tapped the app and then held the phone up in there air, praying that I would get a decent recording and that the AT&T service would hold out so the app could identify the song. Thankfully it did. And I didn’t drive off the road. (I told Jonathan and Josiah from the band that story, and they were honored and a bit scared of me, all at the same time.)

  4) Jay-Z & Kanye West - “Niggas in Paris” (Def Jam)
This track is crazy, from the Blades of Glory samples to that little keyboard riff I’ll hear in my sleep for the next decade. It also inspires people to do crazy things, such as this lyrical interpretation by Parks and Recreation’s Aziz Ansari (who appeared in Kanye and Jay’s “Otis” clip) and buddy Matthew Shawver using the emoticon template app Emojis...


  3) Kelly Clarkson“Mr. Know It All” (19/RCA)
I think it is official—I have a new celebrity crush. It’s Miss Clarkson. And that was clinched when I first heard this song and I got to the end of this verse: “Mr. know it all/Well ya think you know it all/But ya don't know a thing at all/Ain't it something y'all.” Y’all? And not in a country song? Sung by someone from Texas that seems like they’d drink Lone Star and do karaoke with you? Swoon.

  2) Foo Fighters with Bob Mould - “Dear Rosemary” (Rosewell/RCA)
I've listened to this duet between Dave Grohl and Bob Mould close to 100 times this year. And I still can't get enough of it. It's the best Foo Fighters song since "Monkey Wrench" in my opinion. (That’s most likely because it sounds like a long lost Sugar song.) I loved “The Pretender” from their last album, but damn, this is just amazing. I tweeted back in February one day that this song gave me goosebumps. It's still doing that.

  1) Adele - “Rolling in the Deep” (Columbia)
I’ve read so much about this song and Adele’s tremendous year that I’m wary of adding anything to the critical mass of critics spinning theses about it. Fuck, heartbreak has rarely sounded this great. I really hope she recovers from her vocal cord surgery and can take a well-deserved victory lap in 2012.