Saturday, December 31, 2005

The 16th Annual Reynolds Top 20 List

Maybe I Should Make This a Podcast Next Year?

“Seriously, you listen to the discs in your car? What’s wrong with you?”
Steve Reynolds (a.k.a me) talking to a subscriber in February of this year.

Hello readers, both new and old. For those of you exposed to the list for the first time this year (of which there are a few), let me explain what you’re holding in your hands. This loosely stapled pack of papers is my annual attempt to sum up the year in pop culture as I see it. Somehow my jaded (and occasionally insane with lovesick-depression) mind has been able to crank out a bunch of gibberish about albums, singles, concerts, movies and TV shows for 16 years now. This process usually makes me a bit cranky and incredible stressed out at the end of the year. (Hmm, maybe it’s this list that makes me act like the Grinch around the holidays, not working near the Rock Center Christmas tree.) So if you’re reading this, you’re someone who I think might share the same sensibilities. Or like my potty-mouthed humor throughout, whatever.

(RT20 veterans, you can start reading again.) So let me admit this: I never expected the response I got from last year’s multi-media edition of the list. Those two CDs of my fake radio show elicited more feedback than anything else I’ve ever done with this crappy little end of the year rag. People listened to those two CDs in their cars, at home, while on vacation and even put it in their iPods. I was constantly amazed, and I thank all of you for the great feedback and compliments.

Of course, all that positive reinforcement is not something I’m used to, or accept very easily. And that just about increased my self-created pressure while planning this year’s edition to new almost-lethal heights. I spent a good deal of time during the summer trying to plan out what my next radio show could be, and how much time it would take and if I’d have to actually pay my voice and production talent this time around (they were cheap suckers the first time around—ha ha). I thought about doing a one disc show of the top singles of the year or perhaps two discs that would cover most of the Songs of the Week from this year. I even thought about an audio documentary about me making this list, but I figured nobody needed to hear me belching, farting and yelling while I type (the people I work with have to live with that five days a week already).

And then I had a couple of things come along that postponed those plans: 1) I spent four months pursuing a book deal (which, alas, had the plug pulled on it in early December) and 2) I’ve taken a part-time job creating a classic alternative radio format that will be launched in early January on the ’net and elsewhere. I can’t go into full details about what it entails, but let me just say this: when you find yourself working on Thanksgiving night at 10pm in an office with no heat, you kind of start thinking, “Did I sign on to do too much? And did my pinky toe just fall off inside my Doc Martens?” So with this extra work, you can see why I would be a little hesitant to try and create something to follow-up last year’s Top 20 radio show. But that doesn’t mean I won’t do one next year.

One final note—this list was the easiest to write since the first one, which I only listed the albums and wrote nothing else. Doing two different blogs over the past year had certainly made the creative muscles in my mind easier to access and get working, once I can pull myself away from watching Miracle for the 138th time it’s shown on Starz. (For those that don’t know, the two blogs are the Reynolds Top 20 which contains all of the previous issues of the RT20, and Zisk, which is an offshoot of the baseball fanzine my friend Mike and I co-edit.) I wrote something once a week for the RT20 blog, and while the Mets season was going, I wrote something everyday for the Zisk blog. Let me tell you, coming up with new ways to say “Braden Looper blew an important game” forces you to up your level of writing and made me able to crank out copy at a stunning pace. (Everything you read after this page was written over a space of six eight-hour working days, which is a record for me. And no, I wasn’t on coke, only Diet Coke.)

Well, that’s it for this year’s babbling explanation. Thanks once again for reading this pile of my loves, likes, neuroses, paranoid fantasies, weird ideas to change the music scene and many half-baked jokes. May it keep you in good company in your bathroom or your train ride home.

It's True, We All Are (I)Pod People

2005's Top 20 Albums

Top 10 Headlines I Hope I Don't Write in 2006

2005's Top 20 Singles

Other Musical Stuff From 2005

Top 10 Visual Aids

It's True, We Are All (I)Pod People

December 4th, 4:40 p.m.

When it all comes down to it, this was The Year of I. No, I’m saying that this year was all about me, Steve Reynolds (and if you saw the sorry state I was in mentally and physically on this particular Sunday, you would know I was not talking about yours truly). The “I” stands for Indie Rock and iPod. And these two things made this perhaps the most musical year of my life since I was in college. And I credit (or, in the case of my checking account, blame) two folks for this, my much younger friends Drew and Moria.

Late last fall Drew (25 at the time) introduced me to Moria (23 at the time) as we were visiting Drew at one of his bartending gigs. As Moria and I talked, I discovered that we knew many of the same folks in Boston (where she had just moved from) and that we definitely had similar musical taste. As we kept emailing over the next couple of months, she would mention tons of bands I had never heard of, or hadn’t listened to that much. And whenever I would find a free MP3 of these bands on the ’net, 90% of the time I would really dig it. So I found myself digging deep into tons of new artists (well new to me): Spoon, Josh Rouse, Bright Eyes, Brendan Benson, Spinto Band, Of Montreal, The Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie, Mates of State, Stars and Nada Surf are just a few of the acts that I knew nothing or very little about before this year. I must thank Moria for the introduction to a whole slew of music that genuinely excited me. Heck, I went to five times as many shows this year as I had in the past two years, and it felt pretty good enjoying some live rock. Who says youth is always wasted upon the young? (My way of paying her back was a bit old school—I took her to her first Tom Petty concert, where we had 11th row seats. It almost made me feel like somebody’s cool uncle passing down something to the next generation. I said almost.)

As for the other “I,” Drew was the first person I met who would attempt to DJ while they were bartending by frantically scrolling through their iPod looking for that next song to play to entertain his fellow bartender or the latest attractive girl to walk in. That fateful night in late 2004 when he showed me how to work the iPod opened up a whole new world to me. I rarely listened to music on the train, I only turned it on at work or in my bedroom. Now I dreamed of listening to stuff all the time on the train and wherever else I walked. And when I got a new computer at work with iTunes on it, I knew I was a goner. So 12841 songs later, my iPod is as essential to my life as breathing, eating, showering and fixing my toupee every morning. I can’t imagine going anywhere without it.

Thank goodness I had this new found musical enthusiasm, because there certainly was a whole lot of bullshit in the music world to get me ticked off. First off, let’s start with the craptacular state of radio in my hometown of New York City. Granted, it’s always been pretty bad while I’ve lived here, but it sank to new lows this year. First, the only current rock station in town, K-Rock, dumped all of their cool current music to a web only stream and proceeded to play the same Red Hot Chili Peppers, Guns N’ Roses and Pink Floyd songs over and over. I didn’t listen to them that much besides Howard Stern in the morning, so it wasn’t that great of a loss. But then our oldies station WCBS-FM—which had been on for 30 years—was unceremoniously changed into the latest radio format de jour, Jack. This format is supposed to combat the spread of iPod listeners by “playing what we want.” Alas, that meant playing the same over-tested and over-researched songs, but just in an order that makes no sense and would make people run to the stereo to punch up another station quickly. So I’m basically down to an NPR affiliate (WFUV) and sports talk (WFAN), and with the way the current administration has spread havoc with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, who knows how long NPR will last?

Another trend that pissed me off was the reemergence of the all-star duets disc. This painful concept was kick-started in the early ’90s by the Frank Sinatra Duets albums (which led to a spot-on impersonation of Sinatra in the studio by the late Phil Hartman on SNL that is one of the best skits that aired back then). It reached a higher commercial level with Santana’s 1999 all-star fiasco Supernatural. (Gosh, did I really like “Smooth” at one point—what was wrong with me that year?) And then this year saw Ray Charles’ album Genius Loves Company sweep at the Grammys. Now I like Ray Charles as much as the next guy (as long as the next guy isn’t Jamie Foxx), but did any of these Grammy voters listen to this disc? The duet with Van Morrison on “Crazy Love” is quite possibly the low point in either one of these gentlemen’s outstanding careers. And its success has led to even more horrific pairings that make me want to put the wax back into my ears. Les Paul celebrated his 90th birthday with a disc that sounds like it was genetically engineered in a boardroom in Los Angeles. B.B. King, a man who can still belt it out with the best of them, was reduced to singing with a third rate Roger Daltrey impersonator (oh, wait, it WAS Roger Daltrey) and Herbie Hancock had to rely on John Mayer to get him some airplay. When Bob Dylan releases an album where he sings with Ashlee Simpson and Shakira, I’ll be strapping something to my chest and sneak my way into the offices of Sony BMG to cause what could be called a sudden lethal event.

Here’s some quick thoughts on some other musical misadventures this year:

Britney Spears and her white trash husband Kevin Federline had their first child (his 15th or 16th overall, so I’m told), and it took Ferdeline only a couple of months to get thrown out of the house for too much partying. Looking at this guy’s track record, he must be hung like King Kong to keep finding sugar mommas.

The marriages of Kenny Chesney and Renee Zellweger and Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey somehow didn’t last through 2005. In other unexpected news, the sun rose today, gas prices are high, and Steve likes Rolling Rock.

On Thanksgiving night members of 311 and ex-Creed blotard Scott Stapp got into a fistfight at a Baltimore hotel. I mean, I dreamed of something like this before, but it involved knives, the score from West Side Story, and everyone involved being extremely dead. But still, I’ll take what I can get.

Lastly, on a serious note (wow, I’ve never used that phrase on the Top 20 before), I’d like to commemorate the passing of Soul Asylum bassist Karl Mueller, who died way too young of throat cancer this summer. He didn’t write any of their songs, but he was still an important part of one of the bands that shaped my formative musical years. I suppose as time marches on I’m going to have to get used to more events likes this. (I’m hording sedatives for the day that Neil Young is gone.)

So what did I learn from this year? Ear wax is bad, celebrity marriages aren’t all perfect and I need to tip that doorman in Baltimore next time I’m down there. You know, looking at that list, I’d have to say I learned nothing this year…which is pretty much like every other year I’ve done this list, and by the looks of it, the exact same amount of learning our President has done this year. That might be the first and only thing that we have in common.

2005's Top 20 Albums

20) Bob Mould - Body of Song (Yeproc)

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

19) Common - Be (Geffen)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12) Eisley - Room Noises (Reprise)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8) Mike Doughty - Haughty Melodic (ATO)

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

7) The Gentlemen - Brass City Band (TGRC)

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

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

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

5) Death Cab For Cutie - Plans (Atlantic)

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

4) The Decemberists - Picaresque (Kill Rock Stars)

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

3) Spoon - Gimme Fiction (Merge)

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

2) Josh Rouse - Nashville (Rykodisc)

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

1) Neil Young - Prairie Wind (Reprise)

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

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

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

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

Top 10 Headlines I Hope I Don't Write in 2006

1) Jack White, Damien Rice and Kenny Chesney form a new supergroup called Renee’s Rejects and release an album called the Zellweger Follies.

2) Mariah Carey writes her first novel, The Emancipation Proclamation of Mimi.

3) The iPod Anal is introduced. Steve Jobs says it’s for record companies to shove straight up their asses.

4) Kevin Federline gets both Jessica and Ashlee Simpson pregnant.

5) Chris Novoselic and Dave Grohl are judges on the new summer reality series, Rock Star: Nirvana. Those guys from Bush, Puddle of Mudd and Seether are disqualified from entering.

6) At a corporate gig for Charmin toilet paper, Kayne West says “George Whipple doesn’t like black people.”

7) iPods found to not only cause deafness, but also paranoia, dementia, vertigo and rob users of their sexual drive.

8) All four members of Black Eyed Peas to release solo albums.

9) Thousands of people catch Ben Lee’s disease. Claire Danes is kidnapped by the CDC so they can create a vaccine.

10) Axl Rose sues Tommy Stinson for playing in Soul Asylum. (Wait, that seems like it could actually happen.)

2005's Top 20 Singles

20) The Killers - “All These Things That I’ve Done” (Island/Def Jam)
Let’s see, what did I write about The Killers last year? Oh yeah, this: “It’s amazing with some songs, you can just tell that a group is never going to be known for anything else. I may live to eat those words, but I kind of doubt it.” That sound you hear is me chomping on a paper hero with lots of mustard. Who knew they’d go four singles deep on Hot Fuss and it would go triple platinum? And who would have thought that this would end up being my favorite song on the album because it sounds like nothing else on it? Mmm, ink and paper.

19) Franz Ferdinand - “Do You Want To” (Domino/Epic)
And speaking of bands I didn’t think would have more than one crack at the big time, I’m pleasantly surprised that these Scottish rockers crafted a worth successor to the catchy tunes on their debut album. And they do it by showing more of their sly sense of humor. The opening lines “When I woke up tonight/I said I’m going to make somebody love me” slay me every time.

18) Hal - “Play the Hits” (Rough Trade)
I don’t know much about this Irish band, though I do know that they created a song about playing pop songs on the radio—which has no shot in hell of ever getting played on pop radio here in the U.S. And that’s definitely a shame. The great multi-part harmonies, the catchy wordplay in the verses and a bouncy bassline are all a critic’s dream, yet a record promoter’s nightmare.

17) The Redwalls - “Thank You” (Capitol)
I was trying to describe this band to a friend of mine one night, and the best thing I could come up with was “David Bowie fronting a roots rock band.” Now that I look at it in print, that seems rather lame. Every song on their major label debut de Nova sounds like a ripoff of two other acts at the same time. Somehow that doesn’t matter to me when it’s paired up with these lyrics, which, when I read them in print, are pretty damn cliché: “These days it seems as though/I’ve lived a lonely life time because I never had a girl like you to hold me tight/And since you came around and you showed your world to me/I’m beginning to think that I’ll never be blue again.” I just guess that sometimes the right song comes around at the same time you meet the right girl, and you can’t help but like the song for a long time. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, “Damn you stupid happy feeling!”

16) Mike Doughty - “Looking at the World From the Bottom of a Well” (ATO)
Hearing Mike Doughty’s voice back on the airwaves was one of the best parts of the year in music, and somehow this tale about Doughty’s ex and their drug use garnered a fair amount of airplay. What really propels this song is the powerful groove of the drums supplied by Eric Fawcett. There are times when it sounds like the drum part will just explode into this wild Buddy Rich inspired solo (without Buddy’s cursing) when Fawcett just comes back from the edge of oblivion to lock back into a simple groove. Many times I have found myself stopping whatever I was doing (typing, reading, eating) to violently air drum when the chorus kicks in. And I think I only hurt myself doing that once.

15) Louis XIV - “Finding Out True Love Is Blind” (Atlantic)
This track brings a little poem to mind: “Ah, one hit wonder from afar, what a shooting star you are.” San Diego’s Louis XIV seemed to explode out of nowhere here in New York. Within one month it was as if I heard this song every time I turned on the only current rock station here in town. And then the song disappeared just as quickly as, well, rock stations in New York. This glam rock crossed with white boy rap confection still sounds great blasting out of a good set of speakers. Alas, it seems as though it will be the only tune most folks hear from them. It’s a shame because their album, The Best Little Secrets Are Kept, delivers many songs that are even better than “True Love.” (And the cover’s not so bad either.)

14) Natasha Bedingfield - “These Words” (Epic/Sony BMG)
Every year at least one catchy MTV or Top 40 staple will catch my eye or ear, rattle around its way around my brain for a few months and then secure a place on the Top 20. Last year it was Usher’s “Yeah;” in 2003 there were three such tracks—Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful,” Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body” and Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love;” and in 2002 there was Busta Rhymes “Pass the Courvoisier Part II” and Missy Elliott’s “Work It.” So welcome to the Top 40 slot, Natasha Bedingfield. I happened to catch this video one late night on MTV Hits and thought to myself, “Why are all these boomboxes walking around following this cute woman?” The next time I heard the song I caught on to the rather clever words, which were about how difficult it is to write a song. And how often does a Top 40 hit reference reading Byron, Shelly and Keats? Do 14 year olds even know who these folks are? Wait, do I even know?

13) System of a Down - “B.Y.O.B.” (American/Columbia)
Only System of a Down would have the balls (I tried to find the Armenian phrase for chutzpah, but didn’t have much luck) to combine the elements for six totally different songs into the first minute and 20 seconds of this blistering anti-war and anti-Bush track. For those of you scoring at home (or at someone else’s home, ha ha!), here’s the breakdown:
0:00 - 0:09 - A little fast repetitive metal riff
0:10 - 0:20 - The standard fast SOAD sound
0:21 - 0:41 - Triple time bass and drums
0:42 - 0:50 - The standard mid-tempo SOAD sound
0:51 - 1:09 - Um, a disco song?
1:10 - a double time bass and drums thing
Wow, that’s a lot to digest. And even though they wanted to sue me, I still like it. Oh, and let’s not forget the three important questions raised by this song: Why don’t presidents fight the war? And why do they always send the poor? And where the fuck are you?

12) Rob Dickinson - “My Name Is Love” (Sanctuary)
The Catherine Wheel were yet another one of those English bands whose talent never quite matched up to their commercial success in America. The band's been split up for five years, and finally singer-guitarist Dickinson has returned to the music scene with a solo album, Fresh Wine for the Horses. "My Name Is Love" was the lead single, and with each listen this gorgeous chorus kept getting stuck in my head. Dickinson and his old bandmates always had the knack for making songs with huge hooks, and "My Name Is Love" follows in that tradition. And not many people could pull off writing a great song about a conversation with an emotion.

11) The Coral - “In the Morning” (Deltasonic/Columbia)
This UK group has a knack for making music that sounds as if it could have been recorded in any time period—well, except perhaps for this century. All of their albums have echoes of classic ’60s British rock, with hints of Traffic, The Yardbirds and Fairport Convention scattered throughout. “In the Morning” hearkens back to the 60s, but definitely more on the pop side of things. I could almost imagine Donovan covering this song—and I don’t mean that as an insult to the band. “In the Morning” just has a lighthearted feel that some of the fake-folkie’s tunes tapped into. Even so, if you didn’t show this paragraph to the members of The Coral, I’d be happy. Thank you.

10) Death Cab for Cutie - “Soul Meets Body” (Atlantic)
I imagine any long-time Death Cab for Cutie fans loudly screamed “sell out!!!!!!” when they heard this pop gem. The combination of a crisply recorded acoustic guitar, highly processed drums and a slick little keyboard riff (along with a little subtle trumpet) could lead one to think this was the grab for the top of the charts. And even though this combo (and the major label push) helped give Death Cab their breakthrough hit, this song is still an anomaly on the airwaves. Frontman Ben Gibbard’s wimpy and nasally voice and lyrics like “Cause in my head there’s a Greyhound station/Where I send my thought to far-off destinations” aren’t exactly the perfect hit-making formula. I also imagine that the Greyhound station in my mind is a lot tougher and drunker crowd than the one in Ben Gibbard’s mind.

9) Coldplay - “Fix You” (Capitol)
I know, I know—Coldplay is so summer 2002. And I really think that the band’s latest album, X&Y, is completely inferior to A Rush of Blood to the Head. And I also know that right around the 761st time everyone heard “Clocks” they wanted to choke the living crap out of singer/whiner Chris Martin. That being said, “Fix You” is the only song on the album that captures what made me like Coldplay in the first place. In this track the lyrics aren’t so over-the-top earnest like the rest of X&Y. It's just a gorgeous ballad about wanting to help a person you like (girlfriend, family member, whomever) in any way you can, even though you know there’s absolutely nothing you can do at all. It’s that feeling of helplessness in the face of someone else's problems that just might overwhelm them. It's a feeling that (at least in my emotionally stunted way) only a song can accurately convey.

8) Spoon - “I Turn My Camera On” (Merge)
The falsetto doesn’t get used enough in rock music today. Just listen to Spoon frontman Britt Daniel channeling Mick Jagger circa Emotional Rescue on “Camera” and you’ll hear exactly what I mean. Add in the slinky groove laid down by drummer Jim Eno, and you have one of the most danceable rock songs of the year.

7) Gorillaz - “Feel Good Inc.” (Virgin)
Has anyone else noticed that since Damon Alburn started this whole Gorillaz project, the Blur records have pretty much sucked? It’s obvious that he cares more about making music for these cartoon characters than he does for his own flesh and blood band. I love how Alburn sings “feel good” in this high pitched voice, when it’s obvious that he feels anything but. And props to Alburn’s collaborator Danger Mouse for bringing De Le Soul for the guest rap that disguises the fact that no one seems to be happy on this song.

6) Hot Hot Heat - “You Owe Me an IOU” (Reprise)
I’d like to nominate the piano run throughout this song to the Keyboard Riff Hall of Fame—that is, if one ever exists. And I bet if it does they’d put the fucking opening from “Piano Man” in there, which means I’d have to torch the place. Sorry, I got sidetracked, where was I? Oh yeaaah, “You Owe Me an IOU.” The first time I heard this third single from the Canadian quartet’s second album on I stopped working (okay, reading’s baseball coverage) to check out who this was, and wondered how a song that I thought was catchy was getting played on a radio station. (Okay, an Internet radio station, but still, we all know that I am a killer of people’s musical careers.) I’m still not sure what the heck “You Owe Me an IOU” means. Does the song’s narrator owe money to someone, or does that someone owe money to them and want some sort of legal documentation proving that? Crap, let me look up my accountant’s number…

5) Ben Lee - “Catch My Disease” (New West)
Normally I would hate a song which has lyrics like “They play Good Charlotte on the radio, and that’s the way I like it.” Or that uses the gimmick of repeating “and that’s the way I like it” at the end of every line. But like its’ title, the song is as catchy as the bird flu. The joy coming from Lee and his gaggle of background singers is so infectious that at times I found myself singing it throughout an entire day. But just a word of warning—don’t sing the chorus out loud when you’re in a hospital. They don’t see the humor in that for some reason.

4) Brendan Benson - “Cold Hands (Warm Heart)” (V2)
Here’s yet another great song about a relationship falling apart from the Detroit native, and yet another song that I’ve found myself humming for an entire day. I especially like the line “All talk no action/So what’s the big attraction.” Been there, done that Brendan.

3) The Mars Volta - “The Widow” (Universal)
I have no idea what this song is about. I don’t think singer Cedric Bixler ever mentions the song’s title. In fact, the only lyrics I can truly make out in the entire three minutes of the single version are “I’ll never sleep alone.” That lack of lyrical understanding doesn’t mean a thing, since the music and Bixler’s voice are the most passionate combination of the year. After waiting what seemed to be months for a co-worker to bring in the album so I could listen to the entire thing, I finally broke down and made the single version of this song my first iTunes purchase for the iPod. I’m still waiting to borrow that album though.

2) Oasis - “Lyla” (Epic)
I haven't liked an Oasis single since 1997's “D’Ya Know What I Mean,” so I must admit to being surprised that this grew on me so much. Like most of Noel Gallagher's best songs, “Lyla” is a complete ripoff of someone else’s work. The melody of the opening verse is a complete nick of the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” and the rest of the song sounds like it was borrowed from The Who and Soundtrack of Our Lives. The thievery is besides the point—it’s just good to have Oasis back is somewhat fighting form. Now we just need more outlandish Noel Gallagher interviews.

1) Josh Rouse - “It’s the Nighttime” (Rykodisc)
This track is the most played on my iTunes and iPod this year (over 52 as of press time), so I guess it’s only fair that it tops the single list. Once again, Rouse isn’t inventing the singer-songwriter wheel here, but something about this song draws me in over and over again. I think the highlight has to be when the last chorus rolls around. Rouse harmonizes with himself (bless that multi-tracking) on the final line, "It's the nighttime baby/Don’t let go of my love.” But when he sings “love” this time, he stretches the syllable out, and squeezes all the heartbreak out of it by singing “looooooooooooooovvvvvvvvvvveeeee.” (Gosh, that looks stupid in print.) It’s a beautiful way to open up a album about heartbreak all around.

Other Musical Stuff From 2005


10) Bill Withers - Just As I Am (Columbia/Legacy)
All I knew about Bill Withers before this reissue crossed my desk was that he sang “Lean on Me” long before that one hit wonder Club Nouveau took it to number-one when I was in high school, and that he sang that theme to Kate and Allie. (Hey, when I was growing we only got a couple of channels in clearly, so I was forced to watch a lot of CBS crap. You think I actually liked the Dukes of Hazzard? Umm, okay, bad example.) Oh, and I also knew that “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the second track on Just As I Am, was probably one of the best breakup songs ever. So hearing the other 11 songs on this fine album came as something as a revelation. Withers wrote a series of great portraits of growing up in the South and what life was like in Harlem in the ’70s. And his rich voice is more than ably supported by producer/keyboardist Booker T. Jones (as in, and the MG’s) and guitarist Stephen Stills. Just As I Am was reissued as one of them newfangled DualDiscs, with one side a regular CD and the other a DVD. The DVD side includes a great documentary about the creation of the album, with Withers cutting down the interviewer Elvis Mitchell on just about every point the former New York Times film critic brings up. Those tense moments convinced me this new format is definitely worthwhile.

9) Rick Springfield - Written in Rock: Rick Springfield Anthology (RCA/Legacy)
Okay, hands up if you think this is the stupidest choice you’ve seen on this the list this year? One, two, three…106, 107…okay, I get it. Hands up those that don’t find it so crazy…………alright McEwan, you can put your hand down. Yes my peeps, I have spent time listening to two discs of Rick Springfield songs—and more than just once! What made me spin these discs (well, I’ll admit, the first disc got a lot more play than the second one, which features such non-winners as “Bop ’Til You Drop” and “Celebrate Youth”) wasn’t just those ubiquitous hits like “Jessie’s Girl,” “I’ve Done Everything For You” and “Don’t Talk to Strangers.” The deep album tracks on this collection, especially the pre-Working Class Dog material, are some pretty solid guitar-based pop songs. Springfield also wrote some of the most honest liner notes I’ve ever seen, especially when it comes to describing his film Hard to Hold: “I’m sorry, but that movie sucked. I know a lot of people liked it but in retrospect, maybe playing a musician wasn’t the best way to show off my acting chops.” I gotta give props to a man that will slam his own film in print. Okay, I gotta get back to singing along to “Affair of the Heart.”

8) Paul Westerberg - The Best of Besterberg (Rhino)
I almost chose to leave this album off of this list for this set’s one glaring omission: “Waiting for Somebody” isn’t on here! I mean, what gives? Is director Cameron Crowe trying to make sure that anyone who ends up discovering Westerberg’s post-Replacements catalog has to buy the Singles soundtrack (where “Somebody” first appeared in 1992)? It’s still the best song Minneapolis native has written in the past decade plus, and it still never fails to make me happy for those three minutes and 32 seconds. The kicker to this is reading the very end of Westerberg’s own track notes where he writes “Missing Songs”…and lists five songs that aren’t “Somebody!” He follows that up by writing, “I had the opportunity of input on which songs to include, but declined—seeing as I’ve been known to be wrong in the past.” Argh. Just another way this great man has aggravated me and many fans over the years. (I’d count 1/3 of the way-too-drunken show I saw this past May as a big chunk of that aggravation.) You might ask, “So with all that complaining, why did it make the list?” Well, any disc that has “Dyslexic Heart,” “Runaway Wind,” “Love Untold,” “Let the Bad Times Roll” and the best B-sides ever, “Seeing Her” and “Man Without Ties,” must be chock-full o’ goodness. Or in this case, bestness.

7) Fountains of Wayne - Out-Of-State Plates (Virgin)
For a group that’s released only three albums in their 10 year existence, it’s amazing that Fountains of Wayne had enough B-sides to fill up two discs. What’s even more surprising is the high quality of these supposed “throwaway tracks.” Each disc flows like the songs were all meant to go together, even though they were recorded at different points in the band’s career. Tracks like “I Know You Well” and “Kid Gloves” should have made the cut for one of their real albums, and why Adam Schlesinger, Chris Collingwood and company decided to not hold back the two new songs on the collection—“Maureen” and “The Girl I Can’t Forget”—boggles the mind. “Maureen,” the tale of being the male best friend of a girl who shares a little bit too much information, is just too damn funny to be placed on a stop-gap release. The lines “I know you think I'm just a friend/But can we please just put an end/To all the graphic imagery that you insist on feeding me” slay me—and at times is just a little too close for comfort. Add in witty liner notes, some choice covers (finally their version of “…Baby One More Time” that’s not of bootleg quality) and two great Christmas tunes, and you’ve got one of the best B-side compilations of recent memory.

6) Bob Dylan - No Direction Home: The Soundtrack - The Bootleg Series Volume 7 (Legacy/Columbia)
So when is a soundtrack not a soundtrack? When it’s a Bob Dylan project, nothing is bound to make sense. (I might just be saying that because I saw Masked and Anonymous on cable recently, and I was still confused.) Most the 28 tracks on this collection are not featured in the acclaimed Martin Scorsese film, or least the versions in the film are usually the standard album versions. The producers of the soundtrack wisely figured out that people didn’t need another Dylan best of (even though yet another compilation was released on November 15th), so they drew on rare live recordings and early takes of well known classics to make it yet another fine release in the Bootleg Series. This edition echoes the spirit of The BeatlesAnthology series by revealing Dylan’s creative process during his mid-’60s peak. The alternate early takes of “Tombstone Blues,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” show that Dylan wasn’t afraid to radically rearrange his material when searching for that perfect combination of wordplay and a messy cacophony of rock. Even though the live version of “Like a Rolling Stone” was previously released on the Bootleg Series Volume 4: Live 1966, hearing that fan yell “Judas” and Dylan’s venomous response (and commanding the band to “play fucking loud”) is worth listening to over and over again.

5) T. Rex - The T. Rex Wax Co. Singles: A’s and B’s 1972-1977 (Rhino)
I’ll admit that at the beginning of this year my knowledge of T. Rex was limited to the hits on Electric Warrior (“Get It On” and “Jeepster”) and the few songs played in that film from a few years back, Billy Elliott. Wow, I was missing out on some good music. These two discs collect almost all the essential tracks Marc Bolan and company recorded after Electric Warrior until his death in 1977. Yes, that song from that car commercial is here (“20th Century Boy”), as are some of the best songs produced in the glam rock heyday (“Telegram Sam,” “Metal Guru” and “Children of the Revolution”). What fascinates me most about this collection are the tracks that were the B-sides. The fact that songs as strong as “Cadilac,” “Satisfaction Pony” and “Solid Baby” never made it to albums seems, well, kind of crazy to me. I suppose it was a different time back then, where artists actually recorded good songs for B-sides (as opposed to offering up a live track or a remix like most acts today). The T. Rex Wax Co. Singles is great place to start for anyone looking to discover one of the most underrated (at least in the U.S) artists the ’70s produced.

4) Elvis Costello - King of America (Rhino)
I’ve been a big fan of all of Rhino’s reissues of the Costello catalog, yet this is the one I’ve always been waiting for. This is the only Costello disc to feature two of my Top 10 all-time Elvis songs (“Brilliant Mistake” and “I’ll Wear It Proudly”) and has always been my favorite album of his since I picked it up in the summer of 1989. This is my third different CD version of the album, which makes me hope that this is it for the reissues. (Yes, I’m talking to you Mr. MacManus.) The original Rykodisc reissue had a bonus disc of live material and some other extra tracks, but the Rhino edition blows it out of the water with a second disc of 21 bonus tracks. The highlights by far are the eight solo demos Costello recorded before bringing in the multiple casts of musicians featured on the final product (billed to The Costello Show). The raw angst in Costello’s voice in “I’ll Wear It Proudly” and “I Hope You’re Happy Now” (which ended up on his next album, Blood and Chocolate) leave no doubt that this was a man going through a bitter breakup, and we as listeners were all the better for it. The title of the leadoff track “Brilliant Mistake” has never been so appropriate.

3) Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run 30th Anniversary Edition (Columbia)
Here’s a tiny piece of advice: if any artist is going to do a reissue of one of their classic albums, and not include any unreleased songs or alternate takes, this is the way they should do it. Having a properly mastered for CD version of one of my Top 10 albums of all time is nice (it certainly sounds a whole more powerful and less hissy now), but the two DVDs that came in this box set are nothing short of extraordinary if you’re a Springsteen fan. Hammersmith Odeon, London 1975 is a two hour-plus tour de force of Springsteen and the classic E Street Band lineup at their ferocious best. How footage this good was left to languish in Springsteen’s vault is beyond me. This concert took place three months after Born to Run was released, so the six songs from that disc they play still have a freshness and a little bit a wild edge to them. I’m pretty sure that “Born to Run” and “She’s the One” were never played this fast again. The best part is finally having high quality renditions of the “Detroit Medley” and “Quarter to Three” and the beautiful solo version of “For You.” The other DVD in the set, Wings for Wheels, is a decent look at Springsteen in the studio at that time and is pretty entertaining to watch, especially when Springsteen listens to the playback of alternate takes of “Jungleland.” I swear he must have bite into a lemon before one of them plays. However, the best part of this DVD is the bonus footage of three songs from 1973. Springsteen and this smaller version (only one keyboardist, no second guitarist) of the E Street Band seem tentative on the first two songs, “Spirit in the Night” and “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” and then shift into 5th gear when they break into “Thundercrack.” This version of the long lost gem—which was only released on the 1998 box set Tracks—is worth the money I paid for this box. With all that being said, I have one question: Why couldn’t we get to hear full versions of those alternate takes that made Bruce look as though he chewed on citrus fruit?

2) Wilco - Kicking Television: Live in Chicago (Nonesuch)
This release makes me think I might have the ability to project my will upon people—or at least upon Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Back in June of 2004 when I saw the new six-piece lineup of Wilco (which I wrote about in the 15th annual Reynolds Top 20 List) for the first time at their Irving Plaza show, I was struck by how expansive the sound was and how much better Tweedy sounded doing these A Ghost Is Born songs than he did on the album itself. Halfway through the set I started thinking, “Someone’s gotta properly record this lineup—bootleg recordings aren’t going to be good enough.” I think that I mentioned the same thing to Tweedy when I interviewed him for the day job a couple weeks later, and I thought about it again in the fall of 2004 when I saw them at Radio City Music Hall. Somehow my thoughts got through, and the band booked a four night stand in their hometown of Chicago in May of this year to record. Listening through these 23 tracks over and over again lead me to the conclusion that they had four rather hot shows in the Windy City. From the 38 times Tweedy screams “nothing” in “Misunderstood” to the final soulful lament for peace in “Comment,” Kicking Television captures a great band at the height of their powers. I can’t wait to hear what this latest lineup does in the studio.

1) The Figgs - Continue to Enjoy The Figgs Volume One (Stomper Music)
After years of pleading from fans (and this author) The Figgs finally recorded a live album this year. And the best part? Look at the title above—it ends with Volume One, which means a Volume Two is on the way next year. Recorded over Labor Day weekend at guitarist Mike Gent’s Providence, Rhode Island home in front of friends and family, Continue to Enjoy the Figgs captures everything that makes a Figgs live show one of the only things that keeps me going on this planet. There’s a couple of previously unreleased songs (“Place Is Packed,” “Painted Panel Basement”), aggressive jamming within their tightly focused pop tunes (“Static,” “Inside the Disco”), shout outs to fellow bandmates as they’re about to blow the doors off some dump (Gent yells out “Come on Pete” just as the band is about to kick “Something’s Wrong” into hyperdrive) and little vocal improvs that can be damn funny (Gent stretching out the “eeeeee” at the end of “Simon Simone” is priceless). Continue to Enjoy The Figgs is essential for any Figgs fan, and is a great place to start for the uninitiated. And now pardon me, as I have to go listen to it for the fifth time today.


10) Weezer - Roseland Ballroom, New York, NY 5/12
Relief. That was the one feeling I had when this show ended. I had listened to the new Weezer album, Make Believe, twice before this show and all I could think was, “Please, please, please, don’t do the entire new album.” Make Believe is easily the worst record in this band’s career, with only two bearable songs. Thankfully they only did five songs from Make Believe, and redeemed those poor selections by doing a few songs from Pinkerton. Those tracks got me pogoing, and then gave me the Achilles heel problem I’ve battled for most of the year. So thanks for that leg pain Weezer, it was worth it.

9) Juliana Hatfield - Maxwells, Hoboken, NJ 8/11
I think I wrote something like this last year about either her last album or her band show in New York, but I feel the need to repeat myself—Juliana Hatfield is a great guitar player. Now I don’t mean in the Eddie Van Halen/Yngwie Malmsteen vein. I’m talking about playing that isn’t technical perfect, but is perfect for the mood of certain songs. During this show Hatfield laid down solo after solo that zigged and zagged all over the place, at points almost falling apart before finally making its way back to solid ground. And with great support from the monster rhythm section of Ed Valauskas and Pete Caldes, how could she go wrong?

8) The Figgs - Southpaw, Brooklyn, NY 3/12
The first time The Figgs played at this venue in early 2003, it was packed, most people were drunk and raucous and screamed after every song and the band played great. The second time…eeeh, it wasn’t so hot. The crowd was snoozing, which robbed the guys of any energy. This show more than made up for that Xmas gig of 2003. And the fact I got five people who had never seen them before to go to the gig was an added bonus.

7) White Stripes/The Shins/Brendan Benson - Keyspan Park, Brooklyn, NY 9/24
By the time this early fall triple bill rolled around, I had already seen The Shins headline a sold out Webster Hall and Brendan Benson play for a few thousand at the annual Siren Festival at Coney Island. So the only unknown quantity in spending my hard earned entertainment dollars were Jack and Meg White, who I had never seen before. In retrospect, I can’t believe I ever doubted that they would be good. Jack White’s guitar was so loud and covered so much territory that I can’t ever imagine them needing a bass player or another guitarist live. And you know what? Meg White ain’t so bad herself. (And she’s kind of cute too, sexist pig that I am.) It was also apparent that playing on a bill with the Stripes inspired both opening acts to up their games. Brendan Benson played all of his most rocking songs and commented how much he enjoyed playing on the same bill as his friend (and sometime bandmate) Jack White. And The Shins could barely contain their glee at being on the same stage as the Stripes. It’s not like this group acts morose on stage, but keyboardist-bassist-guitarist Marty Crandall and bassist-guitarist Dave Hernandez jumped around just a little bit higher at this show. A great bill of indie rock at the home of the Brooklyn Cyclones—who could ask for anything more?

6) Rilo Kiley - Webster Hall, New York, NY 5/26
Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis is a goddess. She’s also one of the best front persons I have seen in recent years. She snarled, cooed and belted in all the right places during this set. I was excited about this show after it ended that I jumped up and down and my IPod flew out and landed at someone’s feet. So thank you Josh, and the mysterious woman, for realizing what had happened and retrieving it for me. And thank you Jenny Lewis, for just being you.

5) Bob Mould - Irving Plaza, New York, NY 10/5
The top 3 things about this concert:
1) Bob Mould played Hüsker Dü songs with a full band.
2) Bob Mould played Sugar songs with a full band.
3) Bob Mould played some solo stuff with a full band.
Do I need to write anymore about how great this night was? Or how meaningful it was to hear “Could You Be the One?” and “Makes No Sense at All” at ear-splitting rock band volume? If you’re a longtime reader, probably not. After Mould’s “retirement” of playing live shows with a live band in 1998, and his refusal to play either Hüsker or Sugar songs with any other bands, I never thought I’d get to see this happen. Yet I did. Amazing. This show was part of one of the greatest concert weeks of my whole life, which you’ll be able to read more about below.

4) Gravel Pit/Nada Surf - Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY 10/6
It had been four long years since The Gravel Pit had played in New York, and honestly, I never thought I would see them play again. I was okay with that—seeing the singer and recent New York transplant Jed Parish play solo shows and getting the occasional Gentlemen (the other 3/4 of the band) show down here was good enough for me. So when I found out they had signed on to open for their old touring pals Nada Surf (and were doing other shows in their hometowns of Boston and New Haven), I immediately bought a ticket and took the next day off work so I could thoroughly enjoy the night. I did worry that I might have psyched myself up too much for this show and I would end up disappointed. Thankfully, those fears were unfounded. For a group that had one rehearsal and two gigs under their belts, they sounded quite incredible. Parish’s voice blended effortlessly with muscular riffs that guitarist Lucky Jackson spun out song after song, while rhythm section of Ed Valauskas and Pete Caldes proved yet again that they are two of the best in the business. And the biggest surprise of the night? Nada Surf were damn good too. I hadn’t seen them since the “Popular” days, and they certainly have moved miles beyond that.

3) Soul Asylum - Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY 10/26
In this year where a good deal has been written about New Orleans, I left this show thinking that it was as close to a New Orleans style funeral as I would ever get. Perhaps that’s because singer-guitarist Dave Pirner moved there a few years ago, I’m not sure. The spirit of late bassist Karl Mueller weighed over this entire evening, yet not in a sad way. When Pirner said that this and every show the band played from now on would be dedicated to Mueller, people whooped and hollered and shouted out his name in joy. (And then in the case of me and my friend Mike, we got more beer.) Apparently Mueller himself picked his own replacement (pardon the pun) before his death, as ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson filled in more than capably. He, along with new drummer Michael Bland (who’s played with Paul Westerberg and Prince), propelled the band, giving Pirner and guitarist Dan Murphy more energy than I had seen in them since the pre-Grave Dancer’s Union days. The new material held up well amongst all the band’s hits, which makes me optimistic for the new album due out next spring. And as much as I don’t need to ever hear “Runaway Train” again, Pirner’s small gesture during it made it totally worthwhile. Just before Stinson stepped up to play the little solo bass lick just after the first chorus, Pirner looked up at the ceiling and pointed. It was a tiny moment, but it spoke volumes about his love for his fellow bandmate. Welcome back guys—I think Karl would be proud.

2) Electric Six - Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY 9/30
I’d probably write more about this show—which was amazing, don’t get me wrong—but I do have a hard time recalling the exact details of what songs they played. I do know they opened with “Dance Epidemic,” the Queen cover “Radio Ga Ga” had a lot of people clapping their hands in the air and that frontman Dick Valentine still has the best dancing moves this side of Usher. And of course, I do recall that I jumped up and down enough to reinjure my heel for like the fourth time this year. My friends Erik and Kat and I did drink a lot of beer before the show. However, all that beer was no match for the random shot that was given to me at one point by some folks who worked at Bowery and were there on their night off enjoying the gig. I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned around with some girl saying, “Here, join us for a shot!” I asked her why, and she replied, “You look like you’re having so much fun that you deserve it.” So I stupidly slugged back the shot, not knowing it was the LSD of booze—tequila. I immediately followed that up with a beer (bought by the same folks that gave me the shot) in hopes of keeping my brain in once place. Alas, that was not to be, and that’s a story for another time.

1) The Figgs/Graham Parker & The Figgs - Knitting Factory, New York, NY 6/11
I’ve obviously seen many Figgs shows in my decade plus of being a fan and my more than five years of unofficially working for the guys. And I know that they can be their own harshest critics. So imagine how puzzled the look on my face was when all three of them agreed with me on one point after this gig—it was the best they had ever played with Graham Parker. And I’m not just talking about their set backing him; their opening set (with guest guitarist Brett Rosenberg) was just about as perfect a 45 minutes as you’ll ever see in music. That pace didn’t let up when they came back out with GP. Every note was in the right place, all the harmonies soared, the solos were immaculate and their enthusiasm on stage was met with an ecstatic response from a packed venue. If they tour together again, it’s going to be hard to top this night.



Here’s a good sign of how swept up I became in Spoon’s music this year. In the space of four weeks, I went from only owning one song, “The Way We Get By” from the first The O.C. Mix, to having their entire catalog and some live bootleg tracks on my iTunes. Last year my friend Bill told me he was positive I would like their music, and I admit I didn’t really take him seriously. (Sorry about that Bill.) Then when I mentioned to him I had heard this great new song by them called “I Turn My Camera On,” he sent me a couple of MP3s, which got stuck in my head for a few days. Britt Daniel’s voice and the forceful, yet sparse drums were a combination I was powerless to resist. So I spent days looking on the ’net for other songs I could sample, and every track I found was better than the next. I was pleasantly surprised when I picked up their 2001 album Girls Can Tell and discovered that I already knew one song, “Everything Hits at Once,” from somewhere—WFUV perhaps? I’m still not sure. Of course, now that I own everything, I want them to make another album very soon so I can continue my Spoon fix.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention these discovery runner-ups: Brendan Benson, Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, Josh Rouse and The Shins were all key parts of my musical resurgence this year.


Little Feat

Long ago in the dark ages (a time historians now call the mid-to-late ’80s) I loved what kids today call “jam bands.” The Dead (who’ve I’ve mentioned in the past), The Allman Brothers Band and Little Feat were all in high rotation when I had wild hair and way too big of a moustache. Little Feat’s catalog was just being released on CD when I entered college, and I think five or six of my first 100 discs ended up being those reissues. Something about the slinky grooves and at-times bizarre lyrics from frontman Lowell George connected with me—perhaps it was because George had been in a band with Frank Zappa for a couple of years, who knows? And when the rest of the band reformed without the late George in 1987 and hit the road, I tried to see them as many times as possible, and gladly bought their first two reunion albums, Let it Roll and Representing the Mambo. Then after I graduated my tastes drifted away from Little Feat and the like, and I eventually sold off many of the band’s albums during various moves. Last year the amazing live album Waiting for Columbus was reissued, and listening to it made me remember why I liked them in the first place. Then one day at work I heard “Rock and Roll Doctor,” and immediately wanted to hear it again. So this year I have re-added three Little Feat albums to my collection, with all of them making it to the iPod. Now if I start talking about buying those Allman Brothers albums of the late ’70s, someone, please, stop me at all costs.