Friday, November 26, 2004

The 13th Annual Reynolds Top 20 List (2002)

2002: Rants in D Minor

Let me pose a question: Did you find it hard to maintain any sense of optimism in 2002? I know I certainly did. With talk of attacking Iraq, many of my friends being unemployed, Michael Jackson being freaky, Guns n’ Roses returning to the concert stage and a Nirvana single dominating the fall airwaves, I kept having flashbacks to 1991. I already made it through that horrible year, and I don’t want to relive it (especially that Media and Government class). This year seemed like a continuation of the payback that started last year for all the fun we had in the ’90s.

Thankfully, all of that washed away for me in late October and early November when I got a chance to go on tour for two weeks as a roadie (more details later on in this issue). There was something very liberating about having one goal each day: to wake up and get to the next gig. Even though reality has crept back into my life, the trip cleared my mind enough to concentrate on the task at hand now: making fun of stupid musicians and their actions. And this year was chock-full of stupidity—not all of it my own!

Here’s a news flash (cue the World News Tonight theme): Michael Jackson is insane. And after seeing his baby-handling stunt in Germany, I think it quite possible he’s even more dangerous to children than I’d initially figured. As CNN ran the video over and over, I kept thinking, “Maybe this is his idea of foreplay.” Jackson later apologized, saying he got “caught up in the excitement of the moment. I would never intentionally endanger the lives of my children.” Of course, perhaps Prince Michael II Junior Dairy Queen (or whatever his name is) was just trying to escape and warn us all that pieces of Daddy’s nose are replicating and planning to take over the world.

Then again, maybe “Wacko Jacko” is actually the devil. If the devil came to roost on the Earth, wouldn’t he try some diversionary tatic like saying someone else (i.e., Sony Music president Tommy Mottola) was the devil? Jackson spent a great deal of time telling anyone who would listen that Mottola was a racist who steals money from black artists. Which seems kind of funny, considering Mottola was married to a singer of mixed race (Mariah Carey) and is now married to a Latina singer. Damn, that guy is one hardcore racist! Fortunately for us, the devil decided to reveal himself by damning a lawyer to Hades (seriously) and showing his true form.

Jackson also gave an interview saying he doesn’t listen to pop music. Perhaps that’s because he’s heard all the subpar albums he’s made since Thriller. It also means he missed out on the latest teenage hitmaker, Kelly Osbourne. Her cover of a certain Madonna classic made me wish her papa would preach about the importance of staying in key. Not that Ozzy can hit the high notes in any of those Black Sabbath classics anymore, either. Osbourne’s lack of vocal talent makes me yearn for the good old days when Britney Spears struggled to get through a ballad on live TV. So what’s next? Liv Tyler covering “La Isla Bonita”? Bianca Jagger tackling “Vogue”? Stella McCartney remaking “Justify My Love”?

Top 20 List favorite Jewel made a highly entertaining crack about Bob Dylan, saying she was surprised that Mr. Zimmerman didn’t hit on her when they toured together, which meant he was “probably gay.” I’d have to say that it meant Dylan is probably still sane—or he didn’t look any further south than her teeth.

And I certainly couldn’t let another year go by without a rehab name check:

Billy Joel. First he said goodbye to Hollywood, then tried to say goodbye to booze and who knows what else. And somehow the guy still had enough energy to help produce a Broadway musical based on his works. Billy, let me buy you a few scotch on the rocks so I can spare your fellow New Yorkers from hearing a play based on “Goodnight Saigon.”

Diana Ross. “Baby, baby, where did my pills go?”

David Hasselhoff. Ah, yes, the day the music died—in Germany.

The amount of uninspiring music in the past three to four years (Korn, Creed, N’ Sync, Britney, etc) may have worn down my ability to hate bands for a long period of time—or is it that many of the ’90s “veterans” weren’t as bad as I thought? Regardless, my burnout on The Wallflowers, Billy Corgan and No Doubt has passed. Jakob Dylan and company returned with Red Letter Days, which includes some of the best songs anyone named Jakob has ever written. Dylan finally sounds passionate about his own music and words when he sings. “If You Never Get Sick” is just a big hit waiting to happen.

When the Smashing Pumpkins split up two years ago, I shed no tears. The enormous amount of airplay songs like “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and “1979” received made me want never again to hear Corgan’s off-key, nasally whine. Whenever I hear the opening line “The world is a vampire,” I leap out of my chair and smash the dial. (Well, okay, slowly get up from my chair. Make that slowly roll my chair over to the stereo at my desk.) Corgan’s new band is called Zwan, and I find myself turning up the volume on the first single “Honestly.” The entire album could still suck, but, dammit, what is this feeling I have? Wait…I think I’m optimistic about its chances. I had to spell-check it twice, as it’s a word I don’t think I’ve ever written in doing this list.

I’d just about had my fill of No Doubt right around the time I heard “Don’t Speak” for the 12,000th time. Their 2000 album, Return of Saturn, was a snoozer, with any life the band had produced out of them by Glen Ballard, the guy who launched Alanis Morissette. Rock Steady hit the racks just in time for Christmas last year, and I quickly sold it at my favorite used-record store in downtown NYC. Then in the spring I heard an ’80s song that I couldn’t place—until the DJ said it was “Hella Good” by No Doubt. That song might not contain the same amount of sheer fun as, say, “Spiderwebs,” but it sounds great coming out of car speakers. So, for only the fourth or fifth time, I went and bought an album I’d sold without listening to. (Damn, what a jackass.)

Some brief thoughts:

I discovered that I accidentally got engaged to Jennifer Lopez just by opening her latest album.

If I ever hang with Nelly or Christina Aguilera, I’ll have to introduce myself as Steve Rreynolds, rradio rreporter.

Creed’s Scott Stapp got punched in the face by his ex-wife—with a cell phone. That’s the best use of daytime minutes ever.

Ashanti, who has one solo album and 683 guest appearances on rap albums, wrote a book. So the world should be ending

Now that Australia’s favorite sons AC/DC are finally going into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I can’t wait for the Men at Work reunion at their induction in 2007.

All in all, I’d call 2002 the Year of Comfort. The music I listened to, the TV I watched and the movies I saw weren’t challenging. The radio station I tuned in to the most was WCBS-FM, New York’s oldies station. The things I chose were all about familiarity—I spent money on Bruce Springsteen and Wilco, The Simpsons and Spider-Man. Next year it’s all about adventure, I swear. Maybe I’ll start wearing skinny ties and get a Mohawk…

2002's Top 20 Albums

20) Kay Hanley - Cherry Marmalade (Zoe/Rounder)
Letters to Cleo fans have long been waiting for that band’s former lead singer to step out on her own. Sure, the songs Kay Hanley sang on the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack were blasts of pure pop fun, but they were a bit too slick for my tastes. Cherry Marmalade is nice and sweet and rough around the edges in all the right places. All the songs (most cowritten with her husband, ex-Cleo guitarist Michael Einsentein) are rock solid with great catchy hooks. Hanley’s voice is in superb form throughout. Her strong-woman-mixed-with-little-miss-innocent vocals melt my heart every time. Hearing her deliver lines like “So now you know the world is saved/From lipstick, boobs and babes” (“Sheltering Sky”) and “Oh the simple days in a haze/Out on peaceful seas/And you shook me out of my dungarees” (“Fall”) make me break out in a sweat. (Of course, I break out in a sweat deciding what to have for lunch, but that’s not the point.) Here’s hoping it won’t be five years between albums again for Ms. Hanley. Best Tracks: “Sheltering Sky,” “Fall,” “Chady Saves the Day”

19) Coal Palace Kings - Upstate (Kranepool)
Upstate New York—which most folks I know classify as just north of the Bronx—gets treated about as well as Rodney Dangerfield. Cracks about constant snow, cousins marrying cousins and the mind-boggling number of trailer parks make the area as about as well-respected as the middle of Arkansas. Admittedly, I’ve made many of these jokes myself. Spending 24 years growing up off the Thruway would make anyone bitter (or, in the case of most of the folks I went to high school with, move to Florida). Not all of Upstate New York is bad, or even worth making fun of: Genny beer, buffalo wings, The Figgs and Blotto’s “I Wanna Be a Lifeguard” have all gone on to provide entertaining evenings for people everywhere. The latest good thing to come out of New York’s Great White North is Coal Palace Kings. This five-piece band from Albany continues down the alt-country path forged by Uncle Tupelo. Pedal steel, mandolin and twangy guitar all shine together on “Stoneytown.” “Bend in the River” is powerful as the mighty Hudson it describes. And the album clocks in at less than 32 minutes, a surefire way to win me over. Upstate makes me proud to have part of Upstate in me, just don’t ask me to live there again. Best Tracks: “Bend in the River,” “Doreen,” “Cecil King”

18) Los Lobos - Good Morning Aztlan (Mammoth/Hollywood)
One of the most heart-wrenching stories I’ve had to cover in the past few years was the murder of the wife of Los Lobos singer-guitarist Cesar Rosas. (His brother-in-law was convicted of the crime, and it was more than year after the killing before he told police of the body’s location.) During this time, Los Lobos obviously spent time at home with their families, but they eventually went out and started playing again. I saw one of these shows, at the foot of the World Trade Center, and was struck by the fact that Rosas (one of the nicest people I’ve ever interviewed) had the look of a heartbroken man. When he sang a couple of his blues/soul-based compositions, one could feel his sorrow flowing out in his vocals. So it came as no surprise when Los Lobos abandoned the sonic experiments of their past three albums with Mitchell Froom and returned to their roots. Good Morning Aztlan revives the soulful Mexican sound of Lobos’ 1984 breakout album, Will the Wolf Survive, but incorporates their years of playing wisdom. “Done Gone Blue” and the title track crackle with energy, with Rosas’ and David Hildago’s guitars tearing through the riffs like I attack a plate of chicken fajitas. The Rosas-sung “Luz de Mi Vida” is an ode to his wife that will touch even the most jaded listener. Good Morning Aztlan is all about the power of family, and how it can help one through the dark times. Best Tracks: “Good Morning Aztlan,” “Luz de Mi Vida,” “The Word”

17) Jay Bennett & Edward Burch - The Palace at 4am (Part 1) (Undertow)
Jay Bennett was booted from Wilco last year over the grandest of rock clich├ęs: “creative differences.” One listen of his first post-Wilco project—with fellow Chicago singer-songwriter Edward Burch—explains why Bennett had to bail. The Palace at 4am expands on the quirky, early ’70s, Beach Boys influenced pop path that Wilco started down on Summerteeth. It sounds nothing like the at-times cold and clinical (but also excellent) Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Bennett did get to take two excellent songs he’d written with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (“Shakin’ Sugar” and “Venus Stopped the Train”) and two leftovers from the Woody Guthrie Mermaid Avenue sessions (“No Church Tonite” and “Little White Cottage”). He and Burch also remake Summerteeth’s “My Darlin’,” which, unfortunately, was better the first time around. Bennett’s voice isn’t the strongest, but Burch and his beautifully haunting vocals pick up the slack on “Talk to Me” and “Forgiven.” Bennett was known as the jack of all instruments in Wilco, and on Palace he doesn’t disappoint. The orgy of overdubs is incredible in the middle section of “Talk to Me”: there are solos from a banjo, a mellotron, some unidentifiable ’70s keyboard and a lap steel guitar. After seeing this duo play together, I have a hunch that this partnership might last. I for one can’t wait to hear what Part 2 brings. Best Tracks: “Talk to Me,” “C.T.M.,” “Little White Cottage”

16) Bob Mould - Modulate (Granary Music/United Musicians)
Bob Mould’s 20-year career—in punk rock legends Husker Du, his early ’90s band Sugar and two stints as a solo artist has been based on loud, guitar-oriented, darkly gripping songs. That’s why Modulate is such a jaw dropper from track one—there’s not a guitar to be found in “180 Rain.” As a matter of fact, it takes more than half of the album before that familiar Mould guitar sound comes ringing through (the brilliant “Soundonsound”), and even then it’s buried amid a wall of electronically produced sounds. Neil Young (who made his own weird electronic record in 1982) is the only other artist I can think of who’s taken such a hard left turn away from the music for which he’s best known. Modulate is not an easy album to digest for a Mould fan, but after a few listens the songs buried within the noise start to come forward. And never before has Mould written so honestly about his homosexuality. Modulate is a record I wouldn’t recommend to a lot of people, but it does reward the patient listener. Best Tracks: “Soundonsound,” “Sunset Safety Glass,” “Slay/Sway”

15) Paul Westerberg - Stereo/Mono (Vagrant)
Paul Westerberg’s last album, Suicaine Gratification, was a huge disappointment. Unlike some Replacements fans, I’d been a fan of all of his post-Replacements solo work, but Suicaine sounded like a guy who didn’t care about his career anymore. And when Westerberg didn’t tour behind it, I figured he was content to fade away. The three years since (which included the birth of his first child) must have recharged Westerberg’s batteries. This double album (the Mono disc is under his sloppy rock pseudonym Grandpaboy) is as raw and emotional as anything the Replacements made, even if doesn’t rock out like that band’s earliest works. In the liner notes to Stereo, Westerberg writes, “No effort was made to fix what some may deem as mistakes: tape running out, fluffed lyrics, flat notes, extraneous noise, etc.” He’s not joking, as “Dirt to Mud” gets cut off just before what seems to be a big finish. In “Only Lie Worth Telling,” Westerberg sings with an obviously bad cold. And the disc starts with what sounds like a leftover from another song, which he then recorded “Baby Learns to Crawl” over. Mono taps into that get-drunk-and-play-sloppy vibe that made the Replacements so much fun, with stupid-is-as-stupid-does songs like “Let’s Not Belong” and “Knock It Right Out.” This double album brings out the best from both sides of Westerberg. Mono is the perfect album to start the party—Stereo is the perfect album for when the party is over and once again you’re alone. Best Tracks: “Baby Learns to Crawl,” “High Time,” “Got You Down”

14) Chris Isaak - Always Got Tonight (Reprise)
Chris Isaak has straddled the acting and music worlds since he appeared in two of director Jonathan Demme's films—1988’s Married to the Mob and 1991's The Silence of the Lambs. Last year Isaak scored The Chris Isaak Show, which takes a sly, humorous look at the "normal" life of a rock star. With all this activity, it's a wonder he found time to record his first album in four years—let alone the best of his career. Always Got Tonight doesn't greatly alter Isaak's well-established formula of Roy Orbison influenced vocals and songs of lost love; “Let Me Down Easy,” “Courthouse” and “Notice the Ring” would fit snugly on any of his albums. However, producer John Shanks (better known as a hitmaker for hire with baby acts like Michelle Branch) brings bigger guitar and drums sound to the table, capturing the power of Isaak’s band Silvertone live for the first time on record. The title track rocks hard enough that a metalhead might give it the horns-up salute. Somehow, I still don’t think Isaak will be spending next summer on Ozzfest. Best Tracks: “American Boy,” “One Day,” “Always Got Tonight”

13) Weezer - Maladroit (Geffen/Interscope)
Years ago, I bought a shirt at my first Weezer concert. (Okay, it was only five years ago, and I should have learned by the time I was 27 to stop buying concert T-shirts because they shrink faster than my 401k over the past year…but I digress.) On the front was a drawing of a little kid wearing a Weezer shirt, giving the devil sign with both hands. Apparently, that cartoon guy knew something, as Rivers Cuomo indulges all his hair-metal guitar fantasies on Maladroit. “American Gigolo” starts out like XTC’s “Making Plans for Nigel,” then turns into a crunchy guitar riff that could have come from a Stone Temple Pilots album. In the background on “Dope Nose,” I swear I hear finger-tapping guitar parts. Maybe that’s what Eddie Van Halen’s been doing since recovering from cancer. Weezer’s new bassist, Scott Shriner, used to be in an L.A. metal band, so perhaps he brainwashed Cuomo. No matter—as long as Cuomo keeps writing tortured love songs like “Take Control” and “Slob,” I wouldn’t care if they decided to do a festival tour with Dokken and Y&T. And there’s one more reason to like this album—the band virtually gave it away by putting various mixes of every song up on their web site as they were recording. They pissed off their record company, ended up getting publicity and still sold almost a million copies. It just proves that the Internet isn’t all bad for musicians. Best Tracks: “Dope Nose,” “Keep Fishin’,” “Death and Destruction”

11) Rhett Miller - The Instigator (Elektra)
Rhett Miller has made a series of fine albums leading alt-country popsters Old 97’s. Alas, these solid albums haven’t sold a lot. So when Miller announced an upcoming solo album, many thought it was the end of the band. That’s not the case, but if the 97’s do bite the dust at some point, Miller has got himself a fine start on a solo career. The Instigator is filled with more of Miller’s song specialty—unrequited love. “Come Around” just tugs at the heartstrings with the line, “I’m gonna be lonely for the rest of my life/Unless you come around.” (That sound you just heard was girls swooning across the country.) I’m sure Miller’s label has high hopes. I mean, look to your right—who could resist such a pretty face? I think this pretty face is probably too talented to sell a truckload of records, but I hope I’m wrong. Best Tracks: “Come Around,” “Our Love,” “Point Shirley”

10) The Soft Boys - Nextdoorland (Matador)
The Soft Boys’ 2001 reunion tour was one of the pleasant surprises of the year. Robyn Hitchcock and company sounded liked they hadn’t missed a beat during their 20-year layoff. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Nextdoorland is good album. The 1980 Soft Boys album Underwater Moonlight became legendary among many music fans because of the mix of pop hooks and incredible psychedelic guitar work supplied by Hitchcock and Kimberly Rew. Nextdoorland serves up more of those very hooky pop songs (“Pulse of My Heart”), the guitar work that reminds me why I enjoyed drugs (“Strings”) and, sometimes, both elements in the same song (“Mr. Kennedy”). Hitchcock’s post-Soft Boys solo career has focused on weird characters and much of the fruit and vegetable kingdom, but he reins in those tendencies here while delivering his strongest songs in at least a decade. Well, he still writes weird lines “I’m in love/like a Japanese captain,” so he hasn’t completely straightened out his act, thank goodness. Hitchcock is also in fine vocal form, like he recorded them back in 1982. The only time he sounds his age is when he sings the line “I wish I could be 23/I could waste time” in “La Cherite.” It’s a sentiment I couldn’t agree with more. Best Tracks: “Mr. Kennedy,” “My Mind is Connected…,” “Japanese Captain”

9) Jedediah Parish - 21st Century American (Lunch Records)
Perhaps the only thing wrong with Jedediah Parish's second solo album, 21st Century American, is the title. This intriguing and always entertaining collection of tunes might better be titled Late 19th and Early 20th Century American because of its odd lyrical content. There are songs about trains (“A Train Named Hiawatha” and “A Train Named Ninety Three”), ships (“A Ship Named Eclipse”), obsolete technology (“Rotary Phone”), and even antique bathrooms (“Clawfoot Tub’). Parish, the singer for Boston's Gravel Pit, has a big weapon in his musical arsenal: one tremendous voice. He can leap effortlessly from genre to genre, sounding like a weathered bluesman one moment (“Bad Dream Blues”) and the lead vocalist in a Cole Porter musical the next (“Memories Are Just a Day Away”). 21st Century American is unlike any album released in this century, with pipe organs coexisting easily next to drum machines and catchy loops. Parish has created a timeless work that draws from the touchstones of all types of American music and reveals a new highlight with each listen. If this is what being a 21st Century American is all about, then sign me up. Best Tracks: “Memories Are Just a Day Away,” “Clawfoot Tub,” Bad Dream Blues”

8) Bruce Springsteen - The Rising (Columbia)
Ah, now the most difficult entry of this year’s list. Is there any way to look at this disc—Springsteen’s first studio album with the E Street Band since Born in the U.S.A.—without being influenced by 9/11? Is it exploitation to talk with widows and widowers and put their experiences down in song? Is it crass to talk about it over and over again in print and on TV? The publicity blitz surrounding the album’s launch almost made me sick. (And it certainly made some of the readers of this list even more cynical about everything Springsteen has done.) In the end it all comes back to the music, not the marketing. And The Rising has some of Springsteen’s best songs in ages. The opening punch of “Lonesome Day” and “Into the Fire” obviously is inspired by events of 9/11, but both could just be portraits of anyone who has lost someone. Songs like “Nothing Man” and “Empty Sky” are stunning in the little details they present about those who are dead, and those left to mourn them. The only time The Rising falls flat is when Springsteen tries to lighten the mood a bit with songs like “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” and “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin).” “Mary’s Place” tries to recapture that E Street Band sound of “Rosalita,” but it’s such a blatant ripoff I always skip it on the disc. All in all, I’m happy that the first major 9/11-inspired album didn’t turn out to be done by some hack. If anyone impacted by 9/11 was touched by any of these songs, then I’d have to say Springsteen did his job. Best Tracks: “Lonesome Day,” “Worlds Apart,” “The Rising”

7) Phantom Planet - The Guest (Epic/Daylight)
Phantom Planet’s debut album, Phantom Planet Is Missing, was released four years ago with little fanfare and disappeared rather quickly. Drummer Jason Schwartzman found a side career two years later with his breakthrough-acting debut as Max in Rushmore. His second film, Slackers, followed the same path as Phantom Planet's debut—it came and went in a blink of an eye after being savaged by critics. Fortunately, the Rushmore magic apparently traveled with Schwartzman when Phantom Planet went into the studio for their second album. The Guest is 12 tracks of pure pop heaven. Singer Alexander Greenwald wrenches every emotion possible out of his voice, and the hooks in these tunes are big enough to snag a killer whale. There's nothing highly original here—echoes of Elvis Costello and Todd Rundgren run throughout—but if the opening trio of “California,” “Always on My Mind” and “Lonely Day” don't put a smile on your face, you must be dead. Oh, and the guys are all so dreamy too! Best Tracks: “Always on My Mind,” “California,” “Anthem”

6) The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.)
Apparently, this is some sort of concept album about robots. Or death. Or perhaps the screaming ability of this Japanese singer Yoshimi. Truth be told, I’m not sure exactly what the heck frontman Wayne Coyne is singing about on most of this album. An example from “All We Have Is Now”: “As logic stands you couldn’t meet a man who’s from the future/But logic broke as he appeared he spoke about the future.” Wow. I wonder if this guy ever smoked pot. In any case, it doesn’t matter what he sings about because it all sounds so good. Lush orchestrations, computerized sound effects and a screaming Japanese woman somehow add up to perhaps the most beautiful album of the year. And to be fair, Coyne doesn’t write just lyrics that seem normal in bizarro world. Only a man who’s recently lost someone close (as Coyne did) could write such sad and tender lines as “Do you realize/That everyone you know will someday die/And instead of saying all of your goodbyes/Let them know you realize that life goes fast/It’s hard to make the good things last.” Best Tracks: “In the Morning of Magicians,” “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1,” “Fight Test”

5) Doves - The Last Broadcast (Capitol)
Doves’ 2000 debut album, Lost Souls, was a stunning mix of live instruments and well-placed electronic textures to bring the best out of many melancholy songs. The Last Broadcast is in the same vein, but touring obviously taught the British trio that more up-tempo tunes make shows a bit more fun for themselves and the audience. Right off the bat, “Words” and “There Goes the Fear” show that Doves’ rock chops have been kicked up a notch. “Pounding” goes so fast it’s the closest these guys will come to punk rock. Still, the band creates some of the most beautiful, atmospheric music—perfectly designed for long solo car trips. “Last Broadcast” and “The Sulphur Man” have relaxed me so much that I’ve missed at least three or four turns when returning rental cars. But I swear I wasn’t listening to this album when that rearview mirror got busted on that Ford Taurus. (At least, that’s what I told Enterprise. Suckers!) Best Tracks: “Caught by the River,” “Words,” “The Sulphur Man”

4) The Gentlemen - Blondes Prefer the Gentlemen (Gentlemen Records/Soda Pop Records)
The Gentlemen is the unholy alliance of one-third of my beloved Figgs (singer-guitarist Mike Gent) and three-quarters of the highly underrated Gravel Pit (singer-guitarist Lucky Jackson, singer-bassist Ed Valauskas and drummer Pete Caldes). They play, well, cock rock. It’s music that’s not for the faint of heart (and can make you hard of hearing). Earlier this year, Valauskas described their sound to me: “Put the Stones, Replacements, KISS and Graham Parker in a blender, and add in slightly less alcohol than the Replacements would have back in the day.” Indeed. Seeing a Gentlemen show—with Gent and Jackson’s cranked-to-12 guitars, Valauskas’s thundering bass and Caldes’s shake-the-paint-from-the-ceiling drumming—could send most other musicians crawling away in shame and fear. It's a sound that has many times reaffirmed my belief in the healing power of rock ‘n’ roll. The first Gentlemen album, Ladies and Gentlemen…, covered the bad side of relationships. On Blondes Prefer The Gentlemen, relationships take a backseat to lyrics about pricks in the music business. Gent’s “Let Us Know,” “The Boys All Went Home” and “Let’s Be Gentlemen Please” feature guys getting screwed over by various weasels, and are set to some of the meatiest riffs since “Back in Black.” The Valauskas-penned “It’s Phony Rock ‘n’ Roll” calls out many of the hacks that dominate today's airwaves. And Jackson’s “Show Me How You Rock ‘n’ Roll” shows session musicians, well, how to rock and roll. Do yourself a favor and head to their website to hear how real rock is done. Best Tracks: “Let Us Know,” “Let’s Be Gentlemen Please,” “Show Me How You Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “It’s Phony Rock ‘n’ Roll”

3) Coldplay - A Rush of Blood to the Head (Capitol)
Coldplay seem to have followed the Radiohead path of success in the U.S.: Start with a big hit song on your debut (“Creep,” “Yellow”), have the follow-up singles do very little, then return with a second album that’s even better than your first. A Rush of Blood to the Head delivers on all the potential that Parachutes implied. Singer Chris Martin sounds less like a bloke almost scared to sing and more like a man who wants to scream out his thoughts on death (“Amsterdam,”) war (“A Rush of Blood to the Head”) and love lost and found (basically all the other songs). Thankfully, the band has moved on from its aping of Radiohead’s sound, with guitarist Johnny Buckland learning to create a sound more distinctly his own. The drumbeat in “Clocks” could even be mistaken for a house music track. Martin might have grown up, but only a man who still holds on to his innocence could write the line “Honey you are the sea/upon which I float.” I can’t wait to see how much further Coldplay leaps ahead on album number-three. Best Tracks: “Green Eyes,” “Politik,” “The Scientist”

2) Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)
It seems very odd to me to write about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as 2002 comes to a close. In last year’s list, I covered Wilco’s getting dropped by their label for refusing to change this album and how it got leaked on the Internet. I’ve had a copy it of since August 2001 and saw them play most of the songs live before the album hit stores back in April. By then I was already done with it and ready for the next Wilco album. That’s probably the main reason this album didn’t land at number-one on my list. Not that I’m putting it down—it’s great album, no doubt. Singer Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics invoke powerful images in one minute and head scratching the next—and that’s just in the first four lines of the opening song, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” “Heavy Metal Drummer” is one of the most joyous songs of this or any other year. And album closer “Reservations” has one of the simplest, yet most moving lines in a song (“I’ve got reservations/About so many things/But not about you”). And for all of that greatness, I know it could have been better. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, the documentary about the making of the album, contains alternate versions of some of these songs, which I think are better. And Wilco (which is back to being a five-piece after six months of subpar shows as a quartet) plays all of these songs much, much better now in concert. My reservations notwithstanding (ha ha), Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will likely become an album like Radiohead’s OK Computer. Musicians will sing its praises for years—and try to rip it off for just as long. Best Tracks: “Reservations,” “Jesus, Etc,” “Heavy Metal Drummer”

1) The Figgs - Slow Charm (Hearbox/Earsmile)
It may come as a surprise to longtime readers of the list that this is the first time the Figgs have scored my number-one album of the year (1996’s Banda Macho and 2000’s Sucking in Stereo both were at number-two). Slow Charm is by far the best Figgs album to date. Every facet of Figgs music is in peak form here: ballsy, hip-shaking rock (“Sit and Shake,” “Lose the Pain,”); sweet pop (“Metal Detector,” “There Are Never Two Alike”); love anthems (“The Trench”); Kinks-inspired tracks (“Protocol”); and slow, moving ballads (“Public Transportation,” “Are You Still Mine?”). The latter two tracks show how a good band can get even better when they learn to play the slower songs with as much intensity as the breakneck rock. It stuns me that a group 15 years into its career could make music that is still of such high quality. But the Figgs are no ordinary band. They’re one of the best bands working today, and I’m proud to say I can call them my friends. Slow Charm is the place to start for anyone who wants to know what the Figgs are all about. Best Tracks: “Metal Detector,” “Are You Still Mine,” “Sit and Shake,” “Public Transportation”

Top 10 Headlines I Hope I Don't Write in 2003

1) Axl Rose replaces the current GNR lineup with clones of the original members. Each one is genetically engineered to show up hours late to every show and only say, “Yes, Axl.”

2) John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band return with the reunion album, The Risen.

3) Courtney Love accidentally sues herself. Suit is settled out of court.

4) Ozzy and Kelly Osbourne release duets album SSSSomething RRRReally SSSSStupid, SHARON!

5) Creed frontman Scott Stapp is still alive.

6) Ashanti (featuring Ashanti) hits number-one.

7) Vanilla Ice makes a movie about a rapper-turned-marathon runner titled 26.2 Mile.

8) Las Ketchup, El Mustard and Senor Radish embark on the 25-city Armor Hot Dog tour.

9) Michael Jackson teams up with Pee Wee Herman and Jeffrey Jones (“Ed Rooney” from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) to start a new kids record label.

10) Clear Channel replaces all New York-area employees with clones created from Rush Limbaugh’s skin. All the clones go to the bathroom together and chant “Stay the Course.”

2002's Top 20 Singles

20) Doves - “Caught by the River” (Capitol)
This epic tale about holding your life together when it’s falling apart hypnotizes me every time. And its length is great if you’re dj-ing and need to make a run to the bathroom—not that I’ve ever had to do that with this song. That would be vile. Really, how could you think that? You should be ashamed of yourself.

18) Cee-Lo - “Closet Freak” (Arista)
I must admit that the only reason this song made the list is because the way Cee-Lo sings/raps “freak” is damn funny. And the fact that the guy dresses like he’s trying out for Parliament/Funkadelic doesn’t hurt either.

17) Styles - “Good Times” (Interscope)
A rap track that’s all about pot, with a hook that samples a female singer singing “I get high” and sped up so it sounds like she sucked on a lot of helium? Sounds like a classic to me. I believe Styles when he raps “I smoke like the hippies did/Back in the ’70s.” But somehow I think he doesn’t listen to Foghat when he gets high.

16) No Doubt - “Hella Good” (Interscope)
The synth patterns used on this Rock Steady track have been stuck in someone’s Roland keyboard just screaming to get out for the past 15 years. Gwen Stefani and company deliver what is easily their best single since “Just a Girl.” I hear their next single sounds just like Romeo Void.

15) Chuck Prophet - “Summertime Thing” (New West)
The sounds of the ocean, a funky backbeat, lyrics about wanting to hear The Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” and a party next door that’s cookin’—it doesn’t get more summery than that.
14) Joey Ramone - “What a Wonderful World” (Sanctuary)
It hasn’t been a wonderful world since Joey left us last year. But this cover of a Louis Armstrong classic makes the world a better place for two and a half minutes.

13) Wilco - “Heavy Metal Drummer” (Nonesuch)
Here’s another song that captures the essence of summer—except this kind of summer involves white-trash metalheads. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

12) Pete Yorn - “Strange Condition” (Columbia)
Two versions of this song were released as singles this year. But both are good enough to make this list. (Alas, neither helped me figure out the line “It’s a strange condition/A day in prison.”)

11) Weezer - “Dope Nose” (Geffen/Interscope)
I love how this pop gem brought the food critic out in Rivers Cuomo. “Cheese smells so good/On a burnt piece of lamb.” Huh?

10) Coldplay - “In My Place” (Capitol)
“I was scared/Tired and underprepared.” No, that’s not the way I felt after agonizing over this list for an extended amount of time. That’s my favorite line from this simple tune about finding your way in the world.

9) Rhett Miller - “Come Around” (Elektra)
Miller knows how to write whiny love songs. And I mean it in the best sense of the word. Actually, I’m not sure there is a best sense of the word, but that’s not important right now. This song yet another Miller-penned gem about yearning for someone you don’t have.

8) Nirvana - “You Know You’re Right” (DGC/Geffen)
It’s amazing the amount of court battles and mudslinging generated just by the potential of this, the last song Nirvana ever recorded. Fortunately for us, Kurt Cobain’s widow, Courtney “Check Out What Drugs I’m On This Week” Love, and his bandmates Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic settled their differences. This track might be eight years old, but the instant it hit the airwaves it sounded fresher than any third-rate Nirvana clone.

7) The Hives - “Hate to Say I Told You So” (Burning Heart/Epitaph/Sire)
Sweden’s best export since Roxette (admit it, you liked “The Look” when it was released back in the day) made some noise on modern rock stations around the country because of what they aren’t. There’s isn’t a DJ, a rock-rapper or a third-rate Eddie Vedder within miles of this single—which makes “Hate to Say I Told You So” the perfect counterpoint to 75 percent of the crap on these stations.

4) Missy Elliott - “Work It” (Elektra)
Here’s a sentence I’ve never typed before: This song is wack. Seriously. A track that combines a gurgling rhythm track that nicks the intro to Blondie’s “The Tide Is High,” weird, whistle-like synth sounds and a verse in which Elliot speaks in some sort of Chinese slang would be odd enough. And then add in a reversed vocal used as a hook? Now that’s just insane—insanely excellent.

3) Phantom Planet - “California” (Epic/Daylight)
Here’s yet another song about heading (or returning) to the Golden State. Why do these songs appeal to us? Perhaps it’s that fact that the music much more appealing than the experience actually living there.

2) Zero 7 - “Destiny” (Palm Pictures)
The English DJ duo-turned-real band Zero 7 proved they know how to make a sexy album with their debut Simple Things. Add in a breathy Sia Furler vocal about lounging around, “watching porn in my hotel dressing gown,” and you’ve got a song that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

1) Queens of the Stone Age - “No One Knows” (Interscope)
Foo FightersDave Grohl back in the drum seat + a riff stolen from KISS’s “Detroit Rock City” = an air-drumming, air-guitaring classic.

Other Musical Stuff From 2002

10) Luther Wright and the Wrongs - Rebuild the Wall (Back Porch/Virgin)
This Canadian band did the unthinkable. They covered an entire Pink Floyd album. Not only that, they chose Roger Waters’ pinnacle of paranoia, The Wall. And they turned all the David Gilmour guitar solos into banjo licks. Yes, Rebuild the Wall is a country-bluegrass album—a hysterically funny reimagining of The Wall as a series of great country songs about Momma. Wright and company even redo the phone conversation featured on the original, albeit with a touch more twang (and Canadian accent) in the operator who calls the US. Some might call this a novelty record, but after seeing them play a couple of times, I’d just call it a loving tribute to Uncle Roger.

9) Soul Coughing - Lust in Phaze: The Best of Soul Coughing (Slash/Rhino)
I always felt Soul Coughing played a part in my decision to move to New York. Their debut, 1994’s Ruby Vroom, landed on my desk just as I was thinking about making the big move here. Their second disc, 1996’s Irresistible Bliss, was released just as I was starting to feel like a true New Yorker. And their final album, 1998’s El Oso, came at a point where I was wondering why the heck I moved here. So listening to this album, which features tracks from those three releases plus rarities, felt like a nice trip back through my NYC history. The combination of off-kilter poetry (courtesy of frontman Mark Doughty) and the herky-jerky rhythm-section sound is still different from anything else out there today.

8) Elvis Costello & the Attractions - Imperial Bedroom (Rhino)
Imperial Bedroom has long been one of my favorite Elvis Costello albums. So I was anxiously anticipating this new Rhino edition, which features (as do all their Costello reissues) a second disc of bonus material. I couldn’t have imagined the treasure trove of goodies they put together—23 unreleased and rare songs! Alternate versions of most of the original songs reveal that Costello could have done a dramatically different album if he’d felt like it. This is the way a reissue should be done.

7) Buffalo Tom - Besides (Beggars Banquet)
Great—all that money I spent on eBay finding Buffalo Tom B-sides a few years ago, and now most of them are on one disc. Bastards. At least I finally have a copy of the band’s stellar cover of George Harrison’s “Wah Wah,” which alone is worth the price of this disc if you’re a B.T. fan.

6) The Bottle Rockets - Songs of Sahm (Bloodshot Records)
Made in just six days, Songs of Sahm would make late border-music legend Doug Sahm happy. The loving and respectful versions of 13 Sahm songs are no surprise, considering the high quality of every Bottle Rockets album. Tunes like “Lawd, I’m Just a Country Boy in This Great Big Freaky City” and “Stoned Faces Don't Lie” mesh perfectly with the group's own quirky sense of humor. Singer-guitarist Brian Henneman sounds like he’s having the time of his life screaming “She’s About a Mover,” and I’m sure that’s not too far from the truth.

5) They Might be Giants - Dial-a-Song: 20 years of They Might be Giants (Rhino)
They Might be Giants have been releasing consistently entertaining albums for more than 15 years now, and this jam-packed collection (52 songs on two discs!) is no exception. The first disc is pretty much a fan’s dream, with every single one of their most popular tunes all in one place. If you can’t enjoy such wit as “You’re older than you’ve ever been. And now you’re even older,” then you need to get out and enjoy life more often. The second disc includes some rarities and odder songs (a song about President James K. Polk? Huh?), but it’s just as solid. Dial-A-Song is a must for anyone who takes their music collection seriously.

4) Bob Mould Band - Live Dog98 (Granary Music)
Recorded on what Mould said was his last electric band tour, LiveDog98 starts at 11 on the volume scale, and keeps getting louder until it wraps up 74 minutes later. This album documents Mould in peak form, his intense, scratchy, end-of-tour voice screaming song after song of relationships gone bad. I could almost see the sweat dripping off my speakers after playing it.

3) Uncle Tupelo - Uncle Tupelo 89/93: An Anthology (Legacy/Columbia)
Before Wilco and Son Volt (and Jay Farrar’s solo career), Uncle Tupelo helped kick-start what became alt-country. In this band, Farrar and Jeff Tweedy honed their songwriting styles until realizing in 1994 that they each needed their own band to satisfy their own vision. Most of Uncle Tupelo’s catalog has been out of print for a couple of years, and finally Tweedy and Farrar retrieved the rights to their first three albums. 89/93 collects the best tracks from those albums; their only major-label album, Anodyne, and some rarities. There’s not a weak song in the bunch. It’s ideal for anyone who’s ever wondered, “What is this whole alt-country thing he keeps writing about year after year?”

2) Pavement - Slanted & Enchanted: Luxe & Deluxe (Matador)
If every deluxe reissue followed the example of this one, my American Express bill would be a great deal bigger. The original 14-track album is great, but add in two different BBC sessions, a previously unreleased concert, and singles and an EP released around the same time, and you have one of the greatest reissues ever. Major record companies should take note of this fact: An independent label assembled this package, made it two discs and sold it for a single-album price.

1) Bob Dylan - The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Live 1975 The Rolling Thunder Revue (Columbia/Legacy)
Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour has been widely bootlegged over the years, and it’s been the subject of one subpar official release, Hard Rain. This double disc proves that the stories about the greatness of this tour are all true. From the opening track, an absolutely mind-blowing take on “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” to the beautiful rendition of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” that closes disc two, Dylan sounds like a man possessed. His vocals aren’t mumbled or whiny—they’re forceful and incredibly passionate. Songs that were more than a decade old at the time (such as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall) are just as fresh as a song only a few months old (“Hurricane”). I hope Dylan will continue to allow his management to release more from his vaults. I can only imagine what other good material is locked away.

5) Wilco, Roseland Ballroom, New York, NY 10/18
I’ve seen Wilco 17 times in the past six years (and no, I don’t consider that stalking), but this was perhaps the most important show of them all. The first three times I saw them—when they were a slimmed down four piece unit—were uneven and disappointing. I was prepared to give up on ever seeing them again. I figured the change from a rocking band to a more artsy outfit was too much for me to handle. I figured wrong. From the third song in (an incredible rearrangement of Being There’s “Sunken Treasure”) until the rip-roaring finale of the Uncle Tupelo chestnut “We’ve Been Had,” Wilco were the best band on the planet at that moment.

4) Paul Westerberg, Virgin Megastore Union Square, New York, NY 4/29
A free show at a record store? And it’s excellent? Unheard of—until the former Replacements genius rolled into town. Armed with just a couple of acoustic and electric guitars, Westerberg delivered a ragged and joyful hour of great new songs and classics. Anywhere you looked, there were bunches of slightly overweight guys in their mid-30s with glasses and goatees singing along to every word. (There’s nothing like being amongst your own kind.)

3) The Gentlemen, TT the Bears, Cambridge, MA 3/29
I’ve seen The Gentlemen quite a few times, usually with small, enthusiastic crowds here in New York, and I always wondered what it would be like to see their fist-pumping rock taken to a decent-sized that’s club packed to the rafters. What did I discover? It’s a beautiful, glorious, beer-swigging kind of time. I was sort of scared by the fact that plenty of people knew the lyrics. And for once I wasn’t the only yahoo calling out for requests.

2) The Figgs, Club Helsinki, Great Barrington, MA 1/25
I’ve seen many, many Figgs shows over the past seven years, but this was by far the strangest. Two-thirds of the band was stuck in a huge traffic jam near New York at the time they were scheduled to go on. So singer-guitarist Mike Gent set up his amp, strapped on his guitar and proceeded to do an hour and 20 minutes by himself. He played Figgs songs, Gentlemen songs and an amazing selection of covers (I even sang background on Tom Petty’s “Change of Heart”—I’m a star!) to keep the patient audience entertained. When the rest of the band showed up, I witnessed something that could only happen in a small town; audience members volunteering to load in the band’s gear. After a quick setup, the guys ripped through blistering set that included a stellar and sloppy cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” After three-plus hours of music, I left one satisfied customer.

1) Yo La Tengo, Prospect Park Bandshell, Brooklyn, NY 7/12
I’m a cranky old, set-in-my-ways kind of guy. I rarely go out and see bands that I don’t already really like anymore. Years of crappy tribute bands and horrible pop-metal acts I had to later interview have worn down my tolerance for the unknown to a nub. I couldn’t name a single Yo La Tengo song before this show (actually, I can still only name two or three). I had seen this Hoboken trio once before, but they played all covers at a wedding reception. (I must admit, they are the best wedding band I have ever witnessed.) So the fact it was a free outdoor show, in my neighborhood, within walking distance, led me to get my lazy ass up to check it out. They opened with the slow, majestic “Big Day Coming,” which featured just a piano and two guitars droning on with a hypnotic wall of feedback. When the song was done, I remember leaning over to one of my friends and saying something like “They could walk off stage right now, and it would still be one of the greatest concerts of the year.” Fortunately for us, they didn’t. The rest of the set was just as outstanding—and it’s hard not to truly enjoy a show that features an encore of Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby.” Alright, Hamilton!

Bill Hicks
Bill Hicks is not a musician. Well, not professionally—he could play guitar. Hicks was a comedian who died of pancreatic cancer back in 1994 at the age of 32. Actually, comedian is not even the right term. Hicks was a funny person who happened to use comedy clubs to spread his ideas about government, drugs and the greatness of Jimi Hendrix. He was so good that Denis Leary ripped off much of Hicks’s material and put it on his debut comedy album. I was very fortunate this year to travel with a few musicians who had listened to Hicks’ on various tours and decided to pick up two for a long drive through Georgia and Florida. By the time we reached Tampa, I was a convert. If you want to hear comedy taken to a higher level, pick up any Bill Hicks album and get ready to ache from laughter.

Top 10 Reasons The List Was So Late

1) My dog ate it.

2) I was part of an experiment to see how many colds one person can have at one time.

3) Those auditions to be on The Bachelorette took up more time than I thought.

4) I was waiting until my beard was long enough to audition for my favorite ZZ Top tribute band.

5) Too busy working on my own clone that could write the list for me.

6) I spent too many sleepless nights wondering if I was in material breach.

7) Even a bad writer can get writer’s block.

8) I was too distraught after the Guns n’ Roses tour was canceled.

9) Two words: Playstation 2.

10) Comedy is not pretty—and it’s hard to write sometimes.

The Top 10 Visual Aids of 2002

The past five editions of The Reynolds Top 20 List have included a list of my Top 10 movies. But this year I couldn’t even come up with five movies I liked. So I’ve decided to put together a list (which I obviously like doing) of things I’ve watched (and sometimes played).

10) Road to Perdition (DreamWorks)
Tom Hanks and Paul Newman make for a potent combination in this moving father-and-son story disguised as a mob film. It’s also the first Tom Hanks movie I’ve liked since Philadelphia. Or was it Bachelor Party?

9) Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Rockstar Games)
Oh, how many hours have slipped away from my life since I got a Playstation 2 last Christmas. If I had used my brain cells for something productive with all that time, I could have easily written a 800 page novel (or at least gotten this damn thing done much, much earlier). Being James Bond or Batman or Spider-Man or a commando and getting rid of the bad guys has been fun fun fun. But being the bad guy driving around a place that looks directly copied from my memories of Miami Vice is even more fun. (And the nonstop ’80s music helps the time-warp effect.) Bad guys, good guys, cops, pedestrians, hookers and various ethnic groups are no match for a good beating from a baseball bat or a drive-by in your superfast turbo-charged ride. Not that I ever dream of doing these things in real life.

8) Andy Richter Controls the Universe (FOX)
Conan O’Brien’s former sidekick has landed himself a very weird sitcom. So weird that I think that it will be lucky to survive another season. It’s too odd for most people to get it. But if you’re looking for a slice of comic bizarreness, it’s worth checking out.

7) Everwood (The WB)
This quirky Treat Williams drama reminds me of one of my favorite shows from the ’90s, Northern Exposure. Both shows are about doctors that move from New York to small towns that are loaded with an assortment of oddballs. Since Everwood is on The WB, it has to have attractive kids from ages 16 to 18, but they don’t get in the way of the smart storytelling.

6) Adaptation (Columbia Pictures)
Director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman were the minds behind one of my favorite movies of a few years ago, Being John Malkovich. That movie was hard to describe to anyone who hadn’t seen it, and Adaptation is just as difficult to label. It’s a movie about movies and books and flowers and writer’s block, but it’s also much more. It’s good to see Nicolas Cage (who plays twins) actually use his acting skills again. (I’d been waiting for Con Air 2 or Gone in 61 Seconds.)

5) The Simpsons (FOX)
It’s not as great as it was, say, five years ago, but heck, neither am I. When the show is on, it’s the funniest 30 minutes of each week. I have one plea—more Professor Frink! Mmglavin!

4) Angel (The WB)
Angel is one of the most underrated TV shows on the air. It keeps getting bumped around the schedule (it’s currently on its fourth time slot in two seasons), and critics still give more praise to the program it spun off from, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No matter—Angel’s producers keep coming up with plots that are way into the realm of fantasy but stay believable when delivered by the first-rate cast. (And I’m not just saying that because I was in the same college graduating class as the show’s star, David Boreanaz.)

3) The Kid Stays in the Picture (USA Films)
Producer Robert Evans (The Godfather, just to name one of his blockbusters) became hip again over the past couple of years because of his reading of his autobiography for a book on tape. Evans has slick voice that comes out sounding like his tongue was wrapped in a smoking jacket. The man is old-school Hollywood, and his voice is hard to resist. This documentary wisely uses that voice to create an engaging and hysterical portrait of Evans’ wild life as a Hollywood mover and shaker.

2) Insomniac (Comedy Central)
Comedian Dave Attell has the greatest job in the world. He does his stand-up routine in a city, and then spends the rest of the night exploring its seedy underbelly, meeting those people who think the day starts after 11pm. From bondage in Boise to rodent shooting in New Orleans, Attell shows us how Americans work and play after midnight. It’s the funniest show on TV right now.

1) 24 (Fox)
The gimmick of each episode being one hour in one day drew me in, but the thrilling stories and intricate plot twists made me stick around. Kiefer Sutherland’s portrayal of agent Jack Bauer is the absolute highlight of this sort of Brat Packer’s career. It’s the first drama since The X-Files that I feel compelled to make sure I’m home for (every Tuesday night at 9) since setting the VCR just won’t do.

Don't Turn The Page: Reynolds Goes on Tour

The road. Musicians have written countless songs about it. Hair metal bands have made countless videos about it. This year I finally got to experience it. It’s a dream I’ve had for six years, ever since my friends in the late (and well-missed) Egghead went on the road and I couldn’t go because someone else had already put in for vacation time. I wasn’t going to play in the band. I’m not a musician by any stretch of the word. I play a pretty mean air guitar, but I only can play three chords, and that’s if I really concentrate. I wanted to be a roadie.

Yes, the guy that considers a trip down the stairs to put the garbage out a high-impact workout wanted to lift amps and drum cases and guitars out of a van. And then into a club. And then back into a van. And then into a club…well, you get the idea. I’ve interviewed many musicians about life on the road and heard plenty horror stories over the years. But I felt that knowing what these people (who are truly hard working if they’re not superstars) went through would give me a better perspective and perhaps the ability to do my job better.

Who am I kidding—I wanted to experience sex, drugs and rock and roll before my body was too old to handle it all. So after a brief summer weekend as a tryout, The Figgs were kind enough to let me travel with them on the fall leg of their Slow Charm tour. So what follows is the truth about 12 days on the road (except for the parts I make up). I’ve transcribed my notes from the tour—written in a van, numerous clubs, a couple of hotel rooms and on a beach on the Gulf of Mexico. (Please note: some of this will be a bit rough reading, as some of my note-taking was done under the influence of tasty beverages.)

10/29/02 New York to Virginia
Today was a record breaker—six states in less than 12 hours. It started in New York, as I met drummer Pete Hayes at his apartment. He immediately looked at my duffle bag on wheels and said, “Whoa, we’re never going to have enough room for that.” My stomach dropped three feet, but recovered quickly when he said he was kidding. Guitarist Mike Gent showed up from Boston with our ride—a big white 15-passenger van. And in a sign that all three of us are adults, we sat and watched a DVD of Pete’s wedding before leaving.

Mike drove us to Philadelphia to pick up bassist Pete Donnelly—after making a crack about how big my duffle bag with wheels was, and watching me struggle to lift the monstrosity into one of the seats in the van. On the way Mike played two discs worth of unreleased Figgs material—and I was in heaven. It was like riding shotgun with Bob Dylan as he played stuff from his vaults. I spent the rest of the ride to Philly trying to scheme a way to steal these discs. When we got to Donnelly’s house he was organizing pictures from the entire history of the band. Alas, I couldn’t steal any of the ones with the bad ’80s hairstyles.

Pete D drove us south out of Philly at about midnight and it was my job to keep him awake for long as possible. We talked about two of the most important things in a rock band’s existence—woman and Waffle House. As we went through Pennsylvania into Maryland and then West Virginia, I kept seeing signs for Waffle House. I kept suggesting we stop for a late night snack. (Actually, by 3 am I was begging.) Once we hit Virginia, Pete promised we would stop at the next Waffle House after getting gas. And with just my luck, we hit a stretch that apparently had been declared a Waffle House-free zone. When 5 am rolled around, we pulled over into a rest area for a nap.

10/30/02 Virginia to Asheville, NC
“Cold. Oh so Cold.” Those were my first thoughts upon waking up after napping for almost three hours. The van was as cold as the look this girl Sharon gave me in high school when I asked her out. (Make that cold mixed with a dose of venom.) I volunteered to drive the next leg, and after starting the van I cranked the heat up to the “Florida in July” setting. Mmm…toasty. Everyone else quickly fell back asleep, which left me without the option to turn the stereo on. To me, driving equals music listening. Being forced to drive without something coming out of the speakers makes me focus on my own mind, and that’s just not a place I should be when driving a large vehicle. Things I thought about for that three hour silent drive: who to send postcards to; who I would love to see attacked by a large animal; what’s that smell; is the woman in that SUV next to us hot; how close did I come to hitting that SUV; how freaking long is Virginia and most importantly, WHERE THE HECK IS THE NEXT WAFFLE HOUSE???!!?? Finally, near Blacksburg there was a sign for a Waffle House. Mmm…eggs and bacon and cheese on toast.

We spent much of the afternoon bumming around Asheville, which seems appropriate considering the amount of unwashed neo-hippies bums in that godforsaken, skanky town. Ugh. Double ugh. I can’t believe the amount of kids there just hanging on the streets, looking to panhandle some money. As I was walked around looking to find a place to grab a bathroom and a drink, this guy with dreads and a huge beard walked into a bar and dragged people out to look at the sunset. He kept saying, “This is beautiful man. It’s like a painting.” What I found more beautiful was the fact that 10 minutes later he came back into that bar and preceded to vomit—loudly and violently, I’d like to add—for about 25 minutes. I wanted to ask him what kind of painting he did in the bathroom, but I didn’t feel like being that cruel.

The gig at Stella Blue was almost as odd as the town. I suppose any club named after a Grateful Dead song isn’t going to be anything but odd. The set was good, but it really hit its peak when these three Native American guys started their own little mosh pit and sang along to a bunch of songs off the band’s first album. I later talked to these guys and discovered they had driven three hours for the show and had been waiting eight years (!!) to see The Figgs. They told me they had started a Native American hardcore band and that they were covering a Figgs song in their set. I realize that these are the type of people that can truly make a night at a club worthwhile. Especially since they bought a lot of discs from me. I learned quickly that if this music “journalist” thing ever falls apart, I could sell merchandise and make change at any venue around the country now.

Oh, I almost forgot the coolest thing of all—during the band introductions, Mike said, “On merch, Steve Reynolds.” At that point, life couldn’t have gotten any better. But it did get odder, as this drunken low talker came over and asked me to autograph his copy of Banda Macho (the band’s second major label album). I wasn’t sure what to write, but he kept pestering me, so I wrote, “I had nothing to do with this album,” and signed my name. Of course, he couldn’t read my handwriting, but it’s the thought that counts.

10/31/02 Asheville, NC to Athens, GA
This morning was the first time on tour I helped break the law—I helped someone in the band steal pillows from this horrible Days Inn where we spent the night. There’s nothing so exhilarating as seeing a guy throw two pillows off a fire escape from three stories up.
The drive from Asheville to Athens was a brief one, but long enough for Mike and Pete D and I to argue about the merits of Tom Petty’s anti-corporate diatribe of an album, The Last DJ. Fortunately, no punches were thrown.

Upon first impression, Athens seemed like a good town. It was much warmer than Asheville and the people look like they had showered at least once this year. We had a lot of time before load-in, so I spent time wandering around from record store to record store. I stopped in a bar right around the corner from the venue (The Caledonia Lounge) and discovered that Rolling Rock cost only two bucks a bottle. Two!?! My drinking budget expanded greatly at that moment.

I walked back to the van and discovered we still had another two hours before load-in. So I went for another walk and found a little bar that was showing one of the Halloween movies. This bar’s happy hour deal had Rolling Rocks for a buck-75. Athens is a great town.

After 90 minutes of drinking, I stumbled back to the van just in time for us to go get dinner—and for me to discover that the show wasn’t for another four hours. I had to sober up, or I wouldn’t be able to count any change at all. So I pounded some iced tea and wolfed down some fries to soak up the booze.

After load-in and soundcheck, I hung out in the club and talked with the soundman Brian. He told me how he was a big Figgs fan, but that they never played his favorite song, “A Fuse About to Blow.” So during the set when the band dedicated that song to him, I don’t think I’ve seen a soundman happier. I even saw him dance just a little bit.

I’ve never been a big Halloween fan, but this night I enjoyed it thoroughly. Watching people in bizarre costumes rocking out is a great sight. The band’s Halloween costume was of the musical variety—they opened with a cover of The Kinks’ “Father Christmas.” Not sure if anyone beside me got the joke.

Afterwards we went back to their friend Georgette’s house. At this point I was working on my second buzz of the night, but I didn’t expect any beer to be found in this house. But the party gods were on my side, as I opened the fridge and saw a few cases of beer. Mike started playing DJ and a good old-fashioned dance party broke out. I hadn’t seen this many people dance to Tattoo You since 1982. I even danced. It wasn’t pretty. One of the last things I remembered was someone saying to me, “You’re sweating.” I replied, “Yes, but it’s a fun sweat. It’s fweat!”

11/1/02 Athens, GA to Atlanta, GA
For some reason I slept in a chair for part of the night, and I woke up in severe pain with a back spasm. Damn dancing. After shaking off the cobwebs around noontime, we made our made to a nearby Waffle House, which seemed to set my body right. Mike, Pete D and I went back into town to do some record hunting. At Wuxtury (where Peter Buck used to work) we ran into Wilco’s bass player, John Stirratt. Wilco were playing in town that night. We talked with him for a while and Mike told him we would be in Tampa on our off night, the same night they were playing. So John said he’d put us on their list.

Alas, that was the highlight of the day, as the gig in Atlanta at The Earl was not great. The opener was this female folk singer-type that had enough attitude to fill an entire arena. Her music slowly drove a spike through my brain. Tired from the day, we piled in the van for the long drive down South.

11/2/02 Atlanta, GA to Tampa, FL (Day Off)
I woke up several times on the drive. At one point I sat up and thought Hunter S. Thompson was behind the wheel. Pete H was wearing a wool hat and sunglasses, and I could have sworn I saw him with a cigarette holder sticking out of his mouth. I woke up again when we stopped at a rest area—and realized I was sweating because it was warm. I peeled off a layer of clothing before Mike got behind the wheel to drive us into Tampa.

We eventually picked a Motel 6 just outside the Tampa city limits to set up camp. Mike was the first person to say that he didn’t think this was the best motel in the world to be in—there was a porno shop across the street and a gas station that looked abandoned next door. Oh, and the people that looked like drug dealers prowling around the hotel might have been another tip-off.
That night we drove into downtown Tampa to the Tampa Theater for the Wilco show. The show was great and John left us after show passes. We hung out with him for a while and ended up talking with some locals at the party. Afterwards we went to a bar next door with John and some of these people we’d met. I stupidly bought John a beer, even though he offered to buy the first round. If a rock star offers to buy the first round, one should always say yes. Dammit. In any case, I snagged myself a barstool and hung out watching the odd mix of “hip” people and the people that looked out of place (that being us). After an hour or so John had to leave, literally running out the front of the bar to catch his tour bus. The four of us headed back to the van with a few of the locals in tow and hung out listening to Bill Hicks, until someone had to get out of the van and throw up. That kind of broke the mood, and the locals left shortly afterwards.

11/3/02 Tampa, FL
Another day, another Waffle House. Alas, this one wasn’t as good as the other ones, as I felt ill for most of the rest of the day. Or perhaps it was the huge flea market that made me ill. We went to this huge big-top flea market in search of bargains, but all I got was enough redneck talk for a lifetime. (Well, I also got a three-dollar work shirt, which would have cost 20 bucks in New York.)

After the flea market we drove to the beach and hung out enjoy the rays for a couple of hours. We found a seafood restaurant that had a great happy hour deal—2 for 1 Bloody Marys. This two for one concept was confusing for some, especially when three people ordered them and the waitress brought four of them out. I don’t think I’ve laughed harder at a dinner table trying to explain this two for one concept. Of course, the laughs were on me when I got lost on the way back to Tampa and the gig. Fortunately everyone else was too out of it to realize we were lost until I found the right road back into the city. The gig at the Orpheum was much better than Atlanta, as the people in attendance were hardcore fans, shouting out requests for old and new songs. And the guys played with incredible intensity—I found myself pumping my fist just like I was a normal fan.

11/4/02 Tampa, FL to Orlando, FL
We spent the night at the apartment of Pete D’s cousin, and he rode with us to Orlando and let us crash at his other apartment, which he kept saying was very tiny. I laughed when we walked in and discovered that his “tiny” apartment was a great place that would fetch over 2500 a month in New York. A short walk from the apartment we found a Middle Eastern type deli that happened to serve the best chicken sandwiches in the world. I don’t think I ever seen four guys so satisfied after a meal that cost less than 9 bucks. That was the highlight of Orlando. We loaded in and wandered around the downtown area and quickly discovered that home of Disney world is pretty ugly. The people that ran the club, called the Back Booth, were stuck up and the sound was bad. I was glad to get the heck out of there.

11/5/05 Orlando, FL to Rock Hill, SC
Lots of driving. Lots and lots of driving. 500 miles in one day. I never realized it before—much of being on tour is being bored. The time between load in and the gig starting can at times seem to go incredibly slow. And 500 miles can seem like a 1000 when it rains for much of the drive.

11/6/02 Rock Hill, SC to Chapel Hill, NC
On the way to Chapel Hill we stopped at another Southern food icon, Cracker Barrel. Alas, the food put me over a barrel, as I spent much of the day with stomach pains. I’m not sure if it was the food, or the fact we were returning to colder weather or what, but the mood was pretty sour amongst all of us for the entire day. We all scattered our separate ways for a while. I had spent time in Chapel Hill a couple of years ago, and went to my favorite bar, He’s Not Here, to have a couple of beers and shake my dark mood.

By the time I returned for load-in at Local 506, my mood had gotten better, but no one else’s had. I realized that I was finally witnessing the other side of touring, where things aren’t always fun and not everyone enjoys each other’s company (even though we should have, since we all did laundry earlier in the day, which decreased the smell in the van). Even hanging out in the first proper band area of the tour (couches, beer, big screen TV and Internet access) didn’t brighten the mood. When bands talk about how that time on stage is what makes it all worthwhile, now I know exactly what they mean, as the gig ended up being incredible. The soundman had mixed the band perfectly—it was the best sound of any Figgs gig I’ve ever been at. The sound on stage was great too, and it showed in the band’s performance. All the gloom of the day was wiped away in about five or six songs.

I even made a brief on stage cameo. During the song “The Daylight Strong,” there’s a breakdown where Pete D bangs on the tambourine while Mike solos, and then Pete throws it to Mike who plays it while Pete does a bass solo. About 30 seconds before this was supposed to happen, I realized that no one had unpacked the tambourine when we loaded in. So I calmly left the merch table, walked to back of the stage, found the tambourine, turned around and threw it to Pete D at the exact moment he needed it. Both Pete and I broke out into big grins and I slowly walked back to the table. The biggest compliment I got all tour came after the show, when Pete H. told me “I knew you were a part of the band at that moment.”

After the show I went to the van to drive it around the back of the club. On the front under one of the windshield wipers was a folder with a KISS disc and a note from Jon Wurster, Superchunk drummer and Chapel Hill resident. He graciously offered us a place to stay and his phone number to call him for directions. As we drove to his house, we cranked up the KISS disc (entitled You Wanted the Best, But You Got KISS) and reveled in the worst songs Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley had to offer.

11/7/02 Chapel Hill, NC to Baltimore, MD to Philadelphia, PA
We woke up, cleaned up and went to lunch with Jon, who I quickly discovered is one of the nicest and funniest men in music. He also does some amazing character voices and impressions, which we experienced by listening to his latest comedy disc, Chain Fights, Beer Busts and Service with a Grin (I highly recommend picking it up), as we drove out of town. Nothing makes a long drive go by quicker than comedy albums.

The Baltimore club, Sidebar, was a place that I could easily see myself spending many quality hours. Cheap beer, non-nonsense blue-collar owners and customers and a very friendly dog were what we met upon our arrival. And they had a great place to set up merch, which included a nice comfortable seat. I was excited for this show because for the first time on the tour one of my friends would be attending. I felt like such a big shot putting my friend Nancy’s name on the guest list. She had the good fortune of catching the best show of the entire tour. I sort of had an idea it would be when Mike said to me shortly before we got to the club, “I think we should get really drunk tonight.” Me, never one to avoid a challenge, heartily agreed. So the rest of my memory of the night is kind of foggy. I do remember Mike jumping into the crowd to play a guitar solo, him telling the crowd during the band introduction I was “on merchandise” and loading up the van for the relatively short drive to Pete D’s house in Philadelphia, but that’s about it.

11/8/02 Philadelphia, PA
Most of the day was spent at Pete D’s house, watching episodes of The Simpsons and Family Guy. I think the sitting around was a bad idea, as everyone’s energy level was pretty low when show time rolled around at the Grape Street Pub. The best part of the day was heading back to Pete’s house for the after party, where I met plenty of cool people before I passed out and started snoring in the middle of a crowded room. (I’ve done that before, and I‘m sure I’ll do it again.)

11/9/02 Philadelphia, PA to Providence, RI
To make sure that Pete and Pete and I had a way back after the gig in Providence, Pete D drove his car to the last gig, and I rode shotgun with him. Unfortunately his car had no radio, so it was one long six-hour drive, especially on top of the hangover I had. But somehow we talked most of the way about, well, everything I guess.

The gig ended up being packed and the crowd was extremely enthusiastic and the guys responded with a great set. Pete H got to sing a lead vocal (on “Do the Bounce”) for the first time all tour as band friend Mike Moore showed up and played guitar while Mike drummed. And people bought a lot of merch. It was a great way to close out a tour.

So what did I learn from the tour?

Bring less clothing.

Seriously. The less you have to carry across the country, the better. I also learned that touring could be exhilarating and aggravating at the same time. It’s not a life that most people could handle, let alone do for 15 years like the Figgs. But having that one goal each day—get up, drive to the show, crash, get up and do it again—was very appealing to me. Hopefully someday again soon I’ll have the opportunity to do it again.

The Tour By the Numbers

Miles Traveled: 3489
Times I belched in the van: 1202
Subways visited: 4
Cracker Barrels visited: 1
Times I felt REALLY ill from Cracker Barrel: 3
Waffle Houses eaten in: 3
Times I spotted a Waffle House: 47
Times I complained about my heavy bag: 8
Times the band complained about my heavy bag: 6
Times I wished I could dump it into a river: 235
Times I heard a Hootie and the Blowfish song: 5
Albums bought: 7
Albums sold at the merch booth: 64
Albums listened to: 37
Times I said “Hello Cleveland” in a backstage area: 1
Times I showered: 8
Times I hit on a woman: 0
Times I was hit on: 1
Number of Rolling Rocks drank: 47
Percentage that were free: 73%


This year’s list took Two Iced Venti Chai’s, one plain bagel with butter, two loads of laundry, five pieces of Sugarless Peppermint Bubble Yum, three hot dogs, one pitcher of iced tea, three 1.5 liter bottles of Poland Spring Water, eight glasses of ice water, two Tastykake Peanut Butter Kandy Kakes, two bananas, one foot-long meatball sub, one large cup of sloppy joe over rice, one sesame bagel with butter, one plate of rigatoni with vodka sauce and meatballs and 12 trips on the F Train.

The section to thank people without whom...

Thanks to: April for her help in going over this mess.

Inside thanks: Ashanti, Fat Joe, Geddy, Taco, Zakk Wylde and the whole silly metal community and Tenacious Lee. Jashpot!.

Things that made this year better: Yi Pin hot sauce, Mendoza Line’s line of sobriety in Prospect Park, dancing to “Trouble,” Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day, Coldplay at Jones Beach, “Jolene” at Roxy, X-Files marathons, “Magic Balls” and Bruce on Conan O’Brien.

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