The 25th Annual (And Final) RT 20 List
The End is The Beginning is The End: Why Hang It Up Now?
“Don’t let it end, I’m begging you, don’t let it end this way” – Styx, from that same album that brought you “Mr. Roboto”
I threatened to the pull the plug last year with the skeleton edition of the RT 20, and now it’s actually here. The final edition of this flimsy document I’ve spent way too many late fall days and nights worrying over. It’s been fun, but at some point there’s nothing left to draw from the creative well—at least writing wise. If I find myself feeling sorry for Scott Stapp and his litany of problems, that’s the sign to stop before I find myself enjoying Fred Durst’s career as a eHarmony commercial director. Fortunately my DJ business fulfills my need to be creative. (It also builds up my ego and—most importantly—my bank account.)
Thanks for reading the past quarter of a century. Hope you had a laugh or two and got exposed to music that you still enjoy.
2014’s Top 20 Albums
Everybody loves Weird Al. Seriously. The most liked picture on my Facebook and Instagram It was the one of me and Yankovic. The fact that this album debuted at number-one was very meaningful to many people (including yours truly), as if we had released it ourselves. That’s worth celebrating in this year that’s had a ton of shit go wrong. Oh, and it also has “Word Crimes,” one of Yankovic’s best parodies of the past 20 years. Best Tracks: “Word Crimes,” “Sports Song,” Mission Statement”
My old bar co-worker Billy McCarthy continues to evolve musically on the second album from Augustines (who were called We Are Augustines on their debut). This self-titled album adds a bit more of an atmospheric sound to mix without diminishing the power and passion of McCarthy’s voice. Best Tracks: “Cruel City,” “Walkabout,” “Weary Eyes”
Full disclosure: my friend Mike Viola co-produced half of this record with Adams (as well as serving as the guitarist in his band). So I might be biased in saying that this is the best sounding Ryan Adams album in many years. Just a tiny bit biased. Best Tracks: “Gimme Something Good,” “Stay With Me,” “My Wrecking Ball”
There’s just something about this band from Brooklyn that I can’t quite put my finger on. Amber Papini’s vocals aren’t quite like anything else happening in the indie pop world. There’s this cool detachment at times that makes me think that (warning: crazy idea ahead) that this whole “starting a great band” idea was just a way to kill time before she takes over the planet like a Bond villain. Yeah, Trouble makes me think weird thoughts. But in a good way! Best Tracks: “I Miss You Bones,” “Going Out,” “It’s Not Serious”
Aimee Mann and Ted Leo aren’t a combination that seems like a slam dunk on paper. Yet the chemistry between the two is undeniable on the duo’s debut. Their voices harmonize extraordinarily well for people that aren’t related. Leo brings a little more rock to Mann’s usual sonic palate, while the former ‘Til Tuesday singer’s influence shows that The Pharmacists leader can shine on subdued material. I wonder how this collaboration will impact their next solo efforts. Best Tracks: “Milwaukee,” “No Sir,” “Volunteers of America”
I liked this album a lot. However, I’m really glad I didn’t have to experience it on a piece of vinyl that plays from the inside out, because that’s just crazy. What’s next, Jack? A solo album where each instrument gets their own side of vinyl and you need 10 turntables playing at the same time to hear the entire album? Best Tracks: “Just One Drink,” “Alone In My Home,” “Lazaretto”
Sloan usually has one great catchy and short pop song per album that I end up downloading. This time out I got to hear them play a bunch of songs from it on The Evan “Funk” Davies Show on WFMU, and I’ll be damned if all of those weren’t great. And props to the guys for closing with a track that is the exact opposite of what I’d expect in a Sloan album—a song that’s almost 18 minutes. Best Tracks: “You’ve Got a Lot on Your Mind,” “Carried Away,” “You Don’t Need Excuse to Be Good”
Those of us here in the U.S. had to wait an extra year to hear the latest from Cole. It was totally worth it, as it’s his best album since The Negatives in 2000. I suppose anyone that recorded with Matthew Sweet and Fred Maher as their rhythm section can’t help but sculpt intelligent pop tunes. Best Tracks: “Women’s Studies,” “Period Piece,” “Opposites Day”
Full disclosure: my friend Ed Valauskas is the bassist and producer for this outfit and his wife Jennifer is the singer. The email I sent him after I first listened to this album still applies, so I’ll print it here: “This is one of the highest compliments I can give—it's the Blondie album I've been waiting for since 1981. Just tremendous, yet not a nostalgia trip." Best Tracks: “Getaway.” “Don’t Tell Me,” “Bandit of Love”
I’ll need to tip my hat to my friend Bruce Hartley for talking up this band during one of our record store excursions this year. I wouldn’t have given them a second thought if not for his interest. I’m very glad I did—Lost in the Dream is the rare album summed up by its title. The songs on here are so dense that I get myself lost in listening to them. Or, more accurately, I get so into the songs that I’ve missed my transfer point on the subway and had to ride the train an extra 20 minutes to get to work. Best Tracks: “Under the Pressure,” “Red Eyes,” “Eyes to the Wind”
Gillard elevated the playing of two very fine bands after he joined them—Guided By Voices and Nada Surf. He hasn’t been a flashy guitar player in those bands—he just knows how to come up with the exact right parts to service each song. Gillard’s no slouch when it comes to his own pop gems, and Parade On is filled with them. Best Tracks: “Angel X,” “Parade On,” “Oh My Little Girl”
Scott McCaughey and Steve Wynn penned another batch of great songs about characters from their favorite game. And on this album they got their newest member, Mike Mills, to write his own song and sing it for the first time in over two decades. “To the Veterans Committee” was well worth the wait, and hopefully will kick start Dale Murphy’s case for the hall. Best Tracks: “To the Veterans Committee, “Box Scores,” “13”
Former Verbow frontman Jason Narducy is currently the touring bassist for two of my favorite acts of all time—Bob Mould and Superchunk. So right there, you can probably see why I’d enjoy his new project Split Single so much. Narducy has a knack for catchy hooks (just like his two day jobs), so it’s great to see him back at songwriting after a few years of just being a sideman. Best Tracks: “Love Is You,” “Waiting for the Sun,” “Monolith”
7) The Minus 5 – Scott the Hoople in the Dungeon of Horror (Yeproc)
In 25 years of writing this list, there’s never been a project like this to make the Top 10. Scott the Hoople is a five album vinyl box set of all new songs, broken up in separately titled albums. Only Scott McCaughey would be crazy enough to attempt something like this—and make it work. My favorite of the five albums is Of Monkees and Men, which features and entire suite of songs about all four Monkees and their songwriting/producing team Boyce and Hart. Best Tracks: “Michael Nesmith,” “Song for Peter Tork,” “It’s Beautiful Here”
I’ve felt the career of the New Pornographers has been one of diminishing returns—an amazing debut with 2000’s Mass Romantic, less impressive results on their next four albums. So I was rather surprised by how much I enjoyed every song on Brill Bruisers. All their other albums (besides their debut) I have just a couple of songs on my iPod. All of Brill Bruisers will be on ye old iPod Classic for a long time. (Well, until the Classic dies.) Best Tracks: “Brill Bruisers,” “War on the East Coast,” “Champions of Red Wine”
If I didn’t have to interview Sam Smith for work, I never would have listened to this album. And I would have missed out on a collection of heartbreak and honesty that’s pretty surprising for a dude that’s only 22 years old. I expect him to sweep up at the Grammys in February. Best Tracks: “Money on My Mind,” “Stay With Me,” “Like I Can”
Apparently going off to do Divine Fits recharged Britt Daniel’s creative batteries for Spoon, as this is the best album they’ve done since 2005’s Gimme Fiction. I don’t want to call this “back to basics,” as there doesn’t seem to be a “basic” when it comes to Spoon. Yet something about the four year gap in between albums brought back that spark that initially grabbed me a decade ago. Best Tracks: “Do You,” “Inside Out,” “The Price I Pay”
Full disclosure: I am friends with the members of this band. It’s been 14 years since The Gravel Pit released an album. Honestly, I didn’t think they would ever record again after I last saw them perform in 2005. Somehow the fates aligned to bring the guys back together to make a worthy successor to 2001’s Mass. Ave Freeze Out. Serpent Umbrella doesn’t have that live immediacy of the group’s work when they were consistently performing. It’s a more—sorry to use this word—mature album that sees the band knowing when to not put the pedal to floor and bringing subtlety when needed. Jed Parish still has one of the best voices ever, Lucky Jackson still plays tasty guitar parts, Pete Caldes is as rock solid a drummer as you’ll get and bassist/producer Ed Valauskas keeps it all sounding great. I didn’t expect to have a Gravel Pit album on this list ever again, but I’m eternally grateful that I do. Best Tracks: “Mr. Baby,” “Power Broker Blues,” “Monomaniac”
This is the second album Mould has made with Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster, and it’s clear to me that these guys are the best collaborators in his career. The bassist and drummer push Mould explore styles he hasn’t tackled in years (“Hey Mr. Gray” is the fastest song he’s done since the Hüsker Dü days) and give him a foundation to dive into some pretty heady territory lyrically. I don’t know of too many albums inspired, in part, by the death of one’s father that rock this hard. Best Tracks: “I Don’t Know You Anymore,” “Hey Mr. Gray,” “The War”
It’s not often a band can make one of their best albums 20 years into a career. That’s exactly what Old 97’s have done here. From the start of slice of life on the road opener “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” the quartet sound like they dropped into a studio while they were on a particularly hot tour, hit record and just bashed out their latest batch of great tunes. It’s the tightest, most raucous and hardest rocking group of songs they’ve done since 1999’s Fight Songs. I love it when you can be a fan of a band for over 15 years and they still have surprises in store for you. Best Tracks: “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On,” “The Ex of All You See”
Top 5 Reasons I’m Stopping Production of the RT 20
1) My wireless iPad keyboard got wet and stopped working after 18 people did the ice bucket challenge around me in the space of 5 minutes.
2) That grinding sound in my wrist whenever I type.
3) I can finally spell Evanescence without looking it up, so it’s time to quit writing while I’m ahead.
4) North Korea [REDACTED] [REDACTED] in the [REDACTED] [REDACTED], which of course led to [REDACTED] [REDACTED] [REDACTED]. Ah, [REDACTED] happens.
5) In the latest change in late night talk shows, I’m taking over as host of Comics Unleashed with Byron Allen.
2014’s Top 20 Singles
20) Courtney Barnett – “Avant Gardener” (Mom+Pop/Marathon Artists)
Barnett sings this rather simplistic song an almost monotone voice that, after two verses, is rather hypnotic. “Avant” is almost five minutes long, and I wish that it was twice that length.
19) The Black Keys – “Gotta Get Away” (Nonesuch)
The first time I heard this song I could swear that it was ripping off at least three other songs (one of them being a Black Keys own composition). Upon the second listen—which happened in a car—I really didn’t care where it was from. I just knew that the riff made me pump the gas pedal a wee bit more.
18) Jungle – “Time” (XL Recordings)
This year’s singles list is populated with acts that eschew traditional rock instruments to make really catchy songs. This track and the songs at numbers 17, 15 and 9 were the core of a playlist that got a lot of spins on my commute home.
17) Sylvan Esso – “Coffee” (Partisan Records)
The phrase “get up, get down, get up get down” hasn’t been this appealing to me since I got that James Brown box set back in 1991. And any song where the singer recites the lyrics to “Hanky Panky” at the end gets two thumbs up from yours truly.
16) Phox – “Slow Motion” (Partisan Records)
Phox’s singer Monica Martin has a gorgeous voice. She and her bandmates make great use of it on this track that throws in every instrument possible (except for that goat that sounds like a human).
15) Phantogram – “Fall in Love” (Republic Records)
A lot more electronic goodness is happening here. Damn, what a good year for these types of singles. (Chvrches would have made this list had “The Mother We Share” not come out in 2013.)
14) Chuck Prophet – “Turn to Gold (Tell Me Anything)” (Yeproc)
Like The Black Keys back at number-19, the first time I heard this gem from Chuck Prophet I thought it cribbed its verse from someplace and nabbed its chorus from another song. In the end, I don’t really care where Prophet got it from. It’s a song that I would put on every mix tape for the next year, if I still made mix tapes.
13) Alvvays – “Archie, Marry Me” (Polyvinyl Records)
Oh man, this Canadian band may have born in the wrong decade. In 1993 this would have been played on every alt-rock station across the land. Thanks to one of my favorite writers, Maura Johnston, for exposing me to this song on her Boston radio show.
12) Mike Doughty – “Light Will Keep Your Heart Beating in the Future” (Snackbar Records)
A banjo sample plus big beats mixed with words and phrases that seemingly have nothing to do with each other stitched together for the lyrics. That description makes me want to punch someone, or myself. Yet it all works swimmingly well. Doughty has done a lot of interesting mixing of genres and wordplay in his career and this is one of his finest.
11) Jenny Lewis – “Just One of the Guys” (Warner Bros.)
This set of lyrics may be the best Lewis has written in her career. Read them for yourself.
10) Nicole Atkins - “Girl You Look Amazing” (Oh' Mercy! Records)
I’ve been a fan of Nicole Atkins from the moment I heard her powerful voice on “The Way It Is.” I never imagined she could come up with a song that is just damn funky.
9) Future Islands – “Seasons (Waiting on You)” (4AD)
You’ve seen The Late Show with David Letterman performance, yes? If not, go watch it here and be amazed. It’s the first time in a very long while I reconsidered my opinion on a song because of an appearance on a talk show.
8) Cold War Kids – “All This Could Be Yours” (Downtown Records)
Welcome back guys! After a smashing debut album, I kind of disliked everything this band did. This song recaptures the magic of their debut.
7) Ingrid Michaelson - “Girls Chase Boys” (Cabin 24/Mom+Pop)
Ingrid is my favorite person to interview, hands down. As a bonus, she makes music I actually enjoy. She’s got a knack for singles that burrow in my ear and stay there for weeks. Also, this song is my favorite video of the year.
6) The War on Drugs – “Under the Pressure” (Secretly Canadian)
Yup, I still can’t figure out why this band appeals to me. I’ll have to listen to this 8:32 single and get back to you later in the list.
5) Elbow – “New York Morning” (Concord Records)
Elbow singer Guy Garvey has some of the best pipes in the world. And when he puts them to service on a love letter to my hometown, I feel compelled to listen.
4) Ryan Adams – “Gimme Something Good” (PaxAm/Blue Note Records)
This song is all about the riff. It’s such a great one. I’ve found myself humming the opening part to this song on the subway ride to work…which makes me just as crazy as most the people I run into on the C Train.
3) Sam Smith – “Stay With Me” (Capitol Records)
Unrequited love never sounded this good when I was 22. Damn.
2) Bob Mould – “I Don’t Know You Anymore” (Merge Records)
Upbeat, almost cheerful music plus lyrics about shit crumbling apart. Ah, Bob, I love your tried and true formula. (Oh, and this was my second favorite video of the year.)
1) Paramore - “Ain’t It Fun” (Fueled by Ramen/Atlantic)
Like my introduction to Sam Smith, I wouldn’t have given this song much thought until I had to interview the band. That would have been a big loss. This is a rare pop-rock gem that I like and Top 40 radio plays. And the lyrics have a great message to a certain part of the younger generation—hey, you’re not owed everything on a silver platter and no amount of running home to your parents is going to change that.
Top 10 Stories I Hope I Don’t Have to Write in 2015
1) The latest new judges on The Voice are clones of Adam Levine and Blake Shelton. Sales of Proactiv and Pizza Hut go through the roof.
2) Scientists discover that haters are not only gonna hate, they’re also going to be, at times, apathetic.
3) Weezer releases a new album that critics hail as a return to their sound of Make Believe.
4) Poison’s new album is made available for free around the world through Zune players.
5) The number-one album in the country this week comes from the new band Selfie Stick.
6) Jennifer Lawrence releases her first solo album, The Hunger Gams.
7) Sting writes another musical. Based upon snack manners at a big party, it’s called The Last Chip.
8) Kanye West, The Band Perry, Iggy Azalea, Kendrick Lamar and Steven Tyler appear on a Frozen tribute album called Adult Versions of That Song Your Kids Won’t Stop Playing.
9) Scientists discover it's not all about the bass or the treble—it's all about the midrange.
10) That Hozier song is sold to Church’s Chicken for a massive ad campaign.
2014’s Top 10 Reissues and Compilations
10) Bryan Adams – Reckless: Super Deluxe Edition (A&M/UME)
If there was ever an 80s rock album that needed a huge sonic upgrade, it’s this one. The difference between the old CD version I own and this remastered edition is stunning.
9) Soundgarden – Superunknown: Super Deluxe Edition (A&M/UME)
One of my favorite albums ever sounds better than ever.
8) Bob Mould - Workbook 25 (Omnivore)
The 1989 concert on the second disc of this reissue is well worth the price of this collection. And if you don’t own this solo debut, then stop reading and go buy this now.
7) Oasis – Definitely Maybe: Deluxe Edition (Big Brother Recordings)
Noel Gallagher and company were really productive when they launched their career 20 years ago. The B-sides on here are better than most of the songs they released from 1997 onwards.
6) The Figgs – Badger LP (Stomper Music)
My first listen to this expanded version of the band’s 2001 EP was like stepping into a time machine. There were a batch of great songs I saw them perform during that era that didn’t get released, and getting to hear them on this collection made me feel like I was 32 again.
5) Soundgarden – Echoes of Miles: Scattered Tracks across the Path (A&M/UME)
Damn, Soundgarden had a lot of great tracks that didn’t make their albums. The three disc version of this collection is essential for any fan of the band.
4) Tears for Fears – Songs from the Big Chair: Super Deluxe Edition (Mercury/UME)
This is the fifth—yes, FIFTH—version of this album I’ve owned since it was released in 1985. I had a cassette, the 1999 remastered CD, the 2006 two disc edition, a used vinyl copy I grabbed last year and now this six disc box set. What the hell is wrong with me and why am I obsessed with this album?
3) Scruffy the Cat – Time Never Forgets - The Anthology (’86 - ’88) (Relativity/Legacy)
2) Scruffy the Cat – The Good Goodbye: Unreleased Recordings 1984-1990 (Omnivore)
I’ve sung Scruffy the Cat’s praises for many, many years. They’re one of the great bands from Boston that were overlooked for way too long. It makes me very happy that their entire catalog is back in print, and even happier that all the bootleg outtakes I had for years have been properly mastered for The Good Goodbye.
1) Wilco – Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994 - 2014 (Nonesuch)
Every Wilco b-side and rarity I already knew existed (and owned), plus 10 more I didn’t know, and all those tracks are remastered and compiled in a great package? Sign me up.
2014’s Top 10 Concerts
10) The Both, Bumbershoot, Seattle, WA 8/30
It rained off and on during the entire time Aimee Mann and Ted Leo were on stage. (It was Seattle, so I expected to get wet at some point during this festival.) I didn’t care one bit because their on-stage banter was the most entertaining and funny I heard in 2014. If they do a tour where they’re just in conversation on stage, I’d get front row seats.
9) Nada Surf, Rough Trade, Brooklyn, NY 9/23
Nada Surf played three shows in the United States this year. I was fortunate enough to see all three and this final one was my favorite. It was booked to promote the digital release of their B-Sides compilation, and they served that album well by treating us to a handful of songs they’d never done in front of an audience.
8) Chuck Prophet, The Bell House, Brooklyn, NY 11/21
Prophet is a true showman. He’s got on stage charisma by the truckloads, his guitar playing is phenomenal and he knows how to work a crowd. And it doesn’t hurt that he has a knack for penning some interesting songs, too.
7) Dream Syndicate, Bumbershoot, Seattle, WA 8/31
I’ve gotten to know Steve Wynn over the past few years due to my work on the bios for The Baseball Project albums. I’d even seen him perform some Dream Syndicate material with his longtime backing band the Miracle 3. However, I was not prepared for the wall of sound that Wynn’s original band made on stage. I really hope these guys get unleashed upon some new songs soon.
6) The Figgs, Bowery Electric, New York, NY 4/25
I hadn’t seen these guys play an opening set in a long time, and they used the energy they typically expend during a two hour headline gig into a tight and intense 50 minutes. Oh, and seeing Scott McCaughey perform Young Fresh Fellows’ “Hillbilly Drummer Girl” with them is a moment I’ll remember the rest of my life.
5) Mac McCaughan, Hi-Fi, New York, NY 10/23
The Superchunk frontman played this CMJ show ostensibly to promoter the reissue of an album from his side project Portastatic. The songs he did from Summer of the Shark were good, but when he dug into his main band’s catalog and every single person in the tiny venue sang along it turned into a magical set.
4) Big Star’s Third, Bumbershoot, Seattle, WA 8/31
This tribute featuring Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, Mike Mills of R.E.M., Chris Stamey of the dB’s, Mitch Easter of Let’s Active and Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of The Posies has set the bar for any other concert like this I attend in the future. Fantastic playing and amazing guest vocals (from the likes of Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws and The Baseball Project’s Scott McCaughey) made for a very memorable evening near the Space Needle.
3) Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Times Union Arena, Albany, NY 5/13
This is the weirdest Springsteen setlist I’ve ever witnessed in 29 years of seeing him perform. Five covers (including songs by INXS and the Bee Gees), my favorite song of his from the 1990s (“Better Days”) and a real deep cut (“Seaside Bar Song”) combined for one fun and very different show.
2) The Replacements, Forest Hills Stadium, Forest Hills, NY 9/19
16,000 people singing along to “Bastards of Young.” Never thought I’d see that. It was pretty glorious.
1) Bob Mould, Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY 9/10-11, Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY 9/13
I’ve never been to as intense run of shows in my entire life. The power that comes from Mould, bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster playing together is unmatched by any trio currently gigging today.
2014’s Top 5 TV Shows
5) Too Many Cooks (Adult Swim)
I’m not sure that words can accurately convey what this 12 minute show is all about. It’s unique, bizarre, hysterical, scary—and insanely catchy. Watch it for yourself.
4) Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)
Oliver made his name on The Daily Show before getting his own program. And for all the fine moments mixing comedy and journalism that Jon Stewart and crew did over the years, they were never able to explore topics for an extended amount of time. The long-form pieces that are the heart of Oliver’s show usually make me laugh and feel smarter, and not necessarily in that order.
3) Sonic Highways (HBO)
I think the greatest compliment I’ve heard about this musical travelogue is people saying, “I don’t care about Foo Fighters at all but I really enjoy the show.) Dave Grohl did a subpar job in exploring Nashville and gave a short shrift to female artists throughout much of the series. Those two faults don’t take away from a pretty entertaining love letter to America’s greatest musical cities. (Well, except Detroit, which was a shame.)
2) Person of Interest (CBS)
Yes, it’s a show on CBS. Yes, it has elements of a procedural (“let’s help a new person each week”). Yet unlike any show on that network (or any other for that matter) the serialized portion of Person of Interest has some of the most fascinating government (and other entities) conspiracies since the heyday of The X-Files.
1) Bob’s Burgers
I still watch The Simpsons each week (and almost each weeknight due to the FXX marathons) and am entertained by it. But Bob’s Burgers has replaced it as the animated series that delivers me the most joy each week.
The Consumption List
This list took one trip on the C and F train, one pack of 5 Cobalt gum, one bag of pretzels, two chicken Caesar wraps, one egg white and swiss sandwich, one container of Dannon Raspberry yogurt, five 20 ounce bottles of Diet Coke, one bottle of Shiner Bock, one 33.8 ounce bottle of Poland Spring water and one Trenta sized unsweetened black tea from Starbucks.