Friday, December 29, 2006

Song of the Week 12/29/06

Motorhead - "Ace of Spades"

My friend Vanessa sang this song at our gig last night.

Oh my, I've never heard a chick sing it like it was death metal before. WOW. What a way to bring the curtain down on a great year of Live Band Karaoke.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Song of the Week 12/22/06

Justin Timberlake & Andy Samberg - "A Special Christmas Box"

Four-million people can't be wrong.

Or at least the four-million people who have watched this genuis nugget of musical comedy from last week's Saturday Night Live. And here I thought they stopped being funny when Will Ferrell left. This song is so catchy I ended up recording it as an MP3 for my Ipod. And I can't wait to buy this shirt:

I almost look forward to Christmas this year!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Magnetic Field 4th Anniversary Party 12/16/06

I was honored to spin tunes at Magentic Field's 4th anniversary party Saturday night, with help from Trouser Press head honcho Ira Robbins. Here's the playlist of perhaps the best night of music I have ever been involved with.

The Replacements - “Can’t Hardly Wait”
Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians - “Flesh Number One”
Hoodoo Gurus - “I Want You Back”
Los Bravos - “Black Is Black”
The Byrds - “Eight Miles High”
The Kinks - “Death of Clown”
Barry & the Remains - “Don’t Look Back”
Big Star - “September Gurls”
Badfinger - “No Matter What”
Billy Bragg - “Greetings to the New Brunette”
Lemonheads - “It’s a Shame About Ray”
Husker Du - “I Apologize”
Ramones - “Beat on the Brat”
Social Distortion - “Ball and Chain”
The Pretenders - “Mystery Achievement”
NRBQ - “Me and the Boys”
Uncle Tupelo - “Gun”
Soul Asylum - “Cartoon”
Teenage Fanclub - “What You Do to Me”
Belle & Sebastian - “Funny Little Frog”
Spoon - “Sister Jack”
Small Faces - “Itchycoo Park”
Bee Gees - “Massachusetts”
? & the Mysterians - “96 Tears”

Public Image Limited - “Public Image”
Pylon - “Beep”
My Bloody Valentine - “Only Shallow”
Ride - “Polar Bear”
Roxy Music - “Out of the Blue”
Van Morrison - “Moondance”
Animals - “We Gotta Get Outta This Place”
Mysteries of Life - “That’s How Strong My Love Is”
Penelopes - “When Tomorrow Comes”
Paul Revere & the Raiders - “Take a Look at Yourself”
Queers - “Don’t Back Down”
Paul Revere & the Raiders - “Kicks”
Ronettes - “I Wonder”
Rolling Stones - “Dandelion”
Rod Stewart - “(I Know) I’m Losing You”
Arctic Monkeys - “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor”

Sugar - “Helpless”
R.E.M. - “I Believe”
Blondie - “Atomic”
Dramarama - “Anything Anything”
Motorhead - “Ace of Spades”
Mudhoney - “Touch Me I’m Sick”
Iggy & The Stooges - “Search and Destroy”
The Clash - “Julie’s Been Working For the Drug Squad”
Bob Dylan - “Like a Rolling Stone (Live 1966)”
Pavement - “Rattled by the Rush”
Jesus & Mary Chain - “Far Gone and Out”
Alice Cooper - “No More Mr. Nice Guy”
T. Rex - “Telegram Sam”
Humble Pie - “30 Days in the Hole”
The Who - “Punk Meets the Godfather”
The Waterboys - “The Whole of the Moon”
Lloyd Cole & The Commotions - “Lost Weekend”
Joy Division - “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
The Waitresses - “I Know What Boys Like”
Love and Rockets - “Ball of Confusion”
Midnight Oil - “The Dead Heart”
The Cure - “Catch”
Big Audio Dynamite - “E=MC2”
Blur - “Chemical World”
The Cult - “She Sells Sanctuary”
Camper Van Beethoven - “Pictures of Matchstick Men”
Hoodoo Gurus - “Like Wow-Wipeout”
The Jam - “David Watts”
Joe Jackson - “It’s Different For Girls”
XTC - “Senses Working Overtime”
The Strokes - “You Only Live Once”
Oasis - “Slide Away”
Hoodoo Gurus - “My Girl”
Nada Surf - “Inside of Love”
Rolling Stones - “Loving Cup”
Patti Smith - “Frederick”
Beach Boys - “Good Vibrations”

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Song of the Week 12/15/06

The Hold Steady - "First Night"

As I came down to the wire on the 17th edition of the list, I started spinning the top five albums over and over so I could get into the right frame of mind for writing. I listened to Boys And Girls in America on Sunday, and Monday morning woke up with the gorgeous ballad "First Night" in my head. Just as I was about to hop into the shower, WFUV played "First Night." I was stunned, as I haven't heard them play anything off the album with regularity. It set me off on a good start to the day--and made me pick "First Night" as the best track on the album when I finally did write an entry on Boys And Girls in America.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The 17th Annual Reynolds Top 20 List

2006: I'm Bringing Sexy, I Mean Lazy, Back

How Live Band Karaoke Saved My Life (Or At Least Made It More Interesting)

2006's Top 20 Albums

2006's Top 20 Singles

Top 10 Headlines I Hope I Don't Write in 2007

Other Musical Stuff From 2006

Video Killed the Moviegoer: 2006 in TV Land

99 Degrees and Loving It: Steve Goes to the ACL Festival

The Section to Thank People Without Whom...

The Last Day of ACL, 9/17, 3:30 p.m.

I'm Bringing Sexy, I Mean Lazy Back

I think it’s safe to say that this year was kind of odd on the musical and cultural front. When we’ve seen more pictures of Britney Spears’ vagina than Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’s baby, when a soundtrack to a Disney Channel musical outsells Janet Jackson and Beyonce combined, Billy Ray Cyrus’s daughter has a platinum album, “Weird Al” Yankovic scores the first Top 10 hit of career and Bob Dylan gets his first number-one album in 30 years, I tend to think we’ve traveled even further down the rabbit hole here. If I walked out of my office tonight and saw a midget in a tophat 10 sizes too big pouring cups of tea for tourists, I couldn’t be less surprised. (That’s because it would most likely be one of the little people working as elves at the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show.)

Fortunately some things didn’t change in 2006: the Red Hot Chili Peppers continued their unmatched streak of “band who was cool 15 years ago that gets more annoying with each overplayed single;” Nickelback released that song “How You Remind Me” for the fifth time…but somehow each year they’ve changed the name (“Photograph,” “Saving Me,”); Tool made an album where each track is over 35 minutes long; and Limp Bizkit did something at some point to somebody. Yet without having a current rock station in New York, I never got the chance to let any of that upset me. I didn’t get the chance to switch off the radio in disgust, because there’s nothing left on New York radio to disgust me.

Instead I witnessed the most disturbing musical trend of the year through the multiple video channels I get through digital cable. The commercial explosion of emo-core-whiny-overwraught rock bands—now that made me throw my remote control more than a few times. Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco, Hawthorne Heights, 30 Seconds to Mars, Thursday and My Chemical Romance all write songs that are in constant heavy rotation on Fuse and make me embarrassed to say I was a depressed geek at one point in my life. It’s all fine and well to sing about being bummed (many great albums have been created this way), but does everyone have to sing it in a high whiny off-key voice that makes me want to suggest a looser pair of boxers? Or in the case of My Chemical Romance, do they have to do a Queen tribute album that’s also a concept album about death—with a cameo from Liza Minnelli? As a friend said to me about the My Chemical Romance album, “Is everyone in the world taking a break from Dungeons and Dragons to listen to this record?” Furthermore, someone ought to punch the Panic! in the Disco kids in the nads for naming a song “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom And Suicide Is Press Coverage.”

Heck, I can’t make sense of it all. I haven’t been this puzzled about the state of music since the heyday of Hootie and Alanis. Maybe that’s why the albums and singles on this year’s Top 20 are all over the place. We’ve got female singer-songwriters (KT Tunstall, Jenny Lewis), male singer-songwriters (Ben Kweller, Josh Rouse) grizzled rock veterans (Neil Young, Tom Petty), a dance rock band from Sweden (The Ark) and, simply put, hitmakers of the day (Kelly Clarkson, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna). There’s no real thread that holds all these types of music together. The closest to a theme is the multitude of female artists on those lists (even a couple made the reissues list). The female contingent is the highest it’s ever been in the 17 years I’ve been doing this list. Maybe it’s a fact of me getting older, or getting in touch with my female side, or wanting to touch a female’s side and other parts, I just don’t know.

This pic has nothing to do with what I wrote on this page. I just wanted it in here because it cracks me up and makes me think highly of drunken driving.

How Live Band Karaoke Saved My Life (Or At Least Made it More Interesting)

12/9/06 10:11a.m.
I’m sitting in front of my computer 36 hours after the craziness and my brain keeps going back to a classic baseball call by announcer Jack Buck at the 1988 World Series—“I don’t believe what I just saw!” Did I really get to sing at Gracie Mansion, the ceremonial home of New York’s mayor? Did I really witness our current Mayor Mike Bloomberg sing a parody of “Born to Run” dressed up like Bruce Springsteen circa Born in the U.S.A. with his senior staff? Did I really hear the mayor give an on stage thanks to the band I work for, Bunnie England and the New Originals? And did I really steal the copy of the mayor’s speech he left on our lyric stand? Why yes, all of those things happened, just look at this picture (Bloomberg’s in the bandana):

Stunned? Yes, me too. Before I get to the tale about the most bizarre December 7th of my life, let me share a little background about how a drunken Thursday night diversion turned into a something that filled a gap that’s been in my life for more than a decade.

In 2004 I started going to a bar-slash-rock club off Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn called Magnetic Field. In what in the literary business might call “foreshadowing,” my first experience at the bar was singing with Utensil, my boss Ira’s cover band, at his 50th birthday party. After 10 Rheingolds to overcome my stage fright, I did a drunken blast of yelling through The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” A few days later when my head cleared, I still remembered that the Field had a cool vibe so I started making it a regular stop on my social rounds. One week I saw that they had a live band karaoke night every other Thursday. In November 2004 I got the nerve up to go and attempt to sing. Alas, the show was canceled that night, which was probably a good thing because I don’t think I was quite ready to be on the mic. Three months later I mustered up the nerve again and went to the bar and signed up to sing Cheap Trick’s “Surrender.” I picked that song because it seemed to be the only one I could sing without looking at the lyrics that much. When my name was finally called, I felt like I would vomit. Then I got on stage, the guys started playing…and I went nuts. I screamed the words, jumped around and at points yelled so loud that without the mic I was louder than the band. When the song was all done, I just about sprinted off the stage.

Then something shocking happened—all three guys in the band came up to me and said my performance was great, and one hoped that I would come back for their next show. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I can’t sing; I wouldn’t know the difference between the key of A and the key of C if my life depended upon it. I guess they were just impressed by my stage presence, which I hadn’t tapped into since my days of hosting radio events. After the adrenaline high and the compliments, I was hooked.

I became a regular at the gigs for this band, Bunnie England and the New Originals. I got to know Michelle, the woman who hosted the evening (I guess she was the Bunnie of the name…oh I am very glad no one has called me Bunnie while I’ve been on stage) pretty well. One week when I showed up she walked right up to me and said, “Oh good, I need a ringer tonight.” “Ringer?” I said. “If I’m your ringer, than you must be having a shitty night.” Yet, she was correct. I had people coming up to me and request that I sing “Surrender.” (One attractive woman wrote it on one of the index cards people filled out to get a slot on stage and gave it to Michelle. And yes, I saved that card as a boost for my ego.) In early October 2005 William, one of Magnetic Field’s co-owners, asked me if I wanted a shot at hosting one week. I said yes immediately, and then spent the few days before my hosting debut having dreams about flopping on stage. It was as if I stepped right back in time to my radio days when I would have that gnawing feeling in my stomach the day I had to go introduce a Styx or Rush tribute band and give away some crappy T-shirts.

Hosting live band karaoke seems pretty simple: you tell people to write down their name and the song they want to do from the band’s master list on an index card and then hand it over. That first night I discovered there was a bit more to it. You have to warn the band what song is coming up; quickly find the right page in the massive lyrics book; remember to pass the hat so the band can get paid; figure out the right time to take a set break; get people to sign up when it’s slow, and placate people when they don’t get on stage right away when its busy. It was a bit rough at times, but by the end of the night I realized what I had been missing in my life—this outlet to entertain. Or at least the outlet to think I was entertaining people. Being on air more than a decade ago fulfilled that void in my life. In the time since I ditched the on-air life my various DJ gigs had satiated that need, but not all the way. This new monthly job did the trick—and I got to pretend I was a rock star!

I split hosting duties with Michelle for four months until she left the bar and then I took over both monthly gigs. The amount of fun I’ve had twice a month during the past 14 months is probably more than I should ever expect to have in my late 30s. I’ve struck up friendships with the three amazing musicians in the band, Paul the guitarist, Paul the bassist and Troy the drummer. (And I’d like to once again thank them publicly for allowing me to tell bad jokes, make fun of some singers, make fun of myself and otherwise work out my various emotional issues in front of a crowd.) I’ve seen long-time friends give it their all on the Magnetic Field stage (to watch my colleague Dave pour his soul out on The Stones’ “Dead Flowers” was something we’d never see at a company Christmas party) and become friends with a bunch of nice neighborhood people who like to stretch out their vocal cords on a regular basis. And for my birthday I got to warble songs by The Figgs and Nada Surf off key and fulfill a long-time goal of jamming on stage with my guitar-slinging friend and former roommate Joe (oh we rocked “Highway to Hell.”) Only three times has it actually felt like work, and two of those times it was due to a bunch of drunken Brooklyn Law students. (After the ways these yahoos acted, it’s easy to see why people have an inherent distrust of the legal profession.)

So how does a hobby that fills a huge void in my life get me singing “Summer of ’69” in front of a bunch of political cronies at the City Hall holiday party? Well, New York City’s TV station Channel 25 features a segment called On the Prowl where the host does short segments about cool things in the city. One of the show’s producers had his birthday party at one of the live band karaoke nights and they filmed it for On the Prowl. Seth the producer enjoyed the experience so much that when the planners for the City Hall holiday party were looking for something different for this year’s shindig, he suggested us. So somehow we ended up at Gracie Mansion on a cold December night, sitting in the nicest green room I have ever seen, with waiters and waitresses bringing around some of the best looking appetizers I have ever seen—and knowing that the Mayor and a bunch of his staff were going to sing new lyrics for “Born to Run” penned by one of his speechwriters. I suppose if I had known that this was the holiday party for all of City Hall (I just thought it was for NYC TV 25) I might have hired my own speechwriter to craft something that would get this pack of public servants to chuckle. For some reason none of them laughed when I got on stage and said “We haven’t seen this many suits since our last trial.” Their lack of humor seemed to dissolve as more booze flowed—and especially after our Mayor got up and did his impression of the Boss.

The picture above can’t do justice to how surreal those 10 minutes felt. I almost forgot to take Paul’s camera out of my pocket because I was so stunned watching this unfold in front of me. When the crew did their exit stage left, I hopped on…and for the first time in 20 years I was left speechless as to what to say into a mic. I somehow recovered enough to get a few people up to sing Green Day’s “Basket Case,” which somehow seemed appropriate for what I had just witnessed. Apparently we were big enough of a hit that they want us back for next year’s party, which might be the biggest surprise of all. Who knew that the quickest route to politics for me would be through music?

2006's Top 20 Albums

20) Neil Young - Living With War (Reprise)
When Living With War was released back in May critics came crawling out of the woodwork to slam Neil Young for his anti-war and anti-Bush sentiments. (“He’s Canadian, how dare he say ‘Let’s Impeach the President!’”) Six months later Young seemed somewhat prophetic as the Republican majority was ushered out of Congress. Written and recorded in just two weeks, each song on Living With War is like a dispatch from the frontlines that you won’t see on Fox News. Each track sounds as if Young and his rhythm section of bassist Rick Rosas and drummer Chad Cromwell had learned the final arrangement just before the engineer pressed record. The beats they supply are basic, blunt and brutally effective, which I’m sure is exactly the way Young wanted it. Young isn’t just singing about the frontlines of Iraq, but the American psyche battered by reports of death every day (“Looking for a Leader”) and the families with men and women serving overseas (“Families”). And while many of the songs are a bit heavy-handed lyrically (“Let’s Impeach the President,” “Shock and Awe”) and will sound rather dated in a year or two (I hope), tracks like “After the Garden” and “Roger and Out” deal less in specifics and could be written about any conflict. I must admit, I’m still puzzled by the 100 person choir that sings background vocals throughout the album. It’s a bit distracting at times—especially when I discovered that Andrew Gold, the guy who sang “Lonely Boy” in the ’70s, was a member of the choir. Thank you for being a friend indeed. Best Tracks: “After the Garden,” “Flags of Freedom,” “Looking For a Leader”

19) Ben Harper - Both Sides of the Gun (Virgin)
Oooh, the double album. The artistic high point for some (Rolling Stones, Prince, Hüsker Dü) and a giant misstep for others (Yes and every 70s prog rock band). Let’s place Ben Harper and Both Sides of the Gun squarely in the first category. All of the styles Harper has dabbled in over the years—acoustic balladeer, guitar hero, funky soul singer and gritty Stones-influenced rocker are on display here. The first disc consists of all acoustic-based material with nicely done orchestrations here and there. For a guy who’s happily married to actress Laura Dern, Harper sings an awful lot about heartbreak and mourning for lost loves and relationships (“Waiting For You,” “More Than Sorry”). On the second disc Harper cranks up the guitars (“Serve Your Soul”), gears up the funk (the title track) and directs his venom towards those steering this country down a bad path (“Gather ’Round the Stone”). Harper also learns to have a bit of fun on Gun’s second disc—“Get It Like You Like It” is perhaps the happiest and most humorous song he’s ever recorded. Hearing the usually very serious Harper crack, “Fire makes it burn and water makes it turn/We must still be here living on earth/They keep telling me Jesus walked on water/He shoulda surfed” is a pure delight. Best Tracks: “Get It Like You Like It,” “Morning Yearning,” “Please Don’t Talk About Murder While I’m Eating”

18) Gomez - How We Operate (ATO)
It took Gomez eight years, but they’ve finally come up with an album that lives up to the all the hype they received in England when their debut was released. How We Operate isn’t designed to change the face of music or be weirdly difficult for the sake of being artsy. It’s a collection of 12 well-crafted rock songs that in a decade will sound just as timeless as they do right now in my iPod. Vocalists Tom Gray, Ian Bell and Ben Otwell each have very distinctive voices and for the first time they seemed to have figured out how to intertwine their voices to create ear catching melodies and hooks on almost every song. “Girlshapedlovedrug” is one of those songs that sneaks up on you, grabs your head and forces you to bob it along, even if you might hurt your skull by banging it into the side of the subway car. And “See the World” is the most optimistic song of 2006, and maybe this century. Best Tracks: “See the World, “Girlshapedlovedrug,” “Charley Patton Sings”

17) The Ark - State of the Ark (Rebel Group/EMI)
Sweden knows how to produce bands that write catchy material. Joining the pantheon of ABBA and The Hives, I present to you The Ark. This five piece outfit has been cranking out over the top, humorous and pompous pop-rock tunes since 1990 in their homeland. State of the Ark is their third album overall, but first to be released here in the states. Singer Ola Salo delivers likes like “We gotta hurry with no worry to get done today/Cause one of us is gonna die young” with a sneer and chuckle in his voice while the music bounces along behind him. And how could I not like an album with a song that compares friendship to free computer programs (“Trust Is Shareware”)? Best Tracks: “Trust Is Shareware,” “Girl You’re Gonna Get ’Em (Real Soon),” “Deliver Us from Free Will”

16) KT Tunstall - Eye to the Telescope (Virgin)
Upon first listen KT Tunstall sounds like any one of the singers that have followed in the well trod footsteps of Sarah McLachlan. Eye to the Telescope’s opening track “Other Side of the World” features Tunstall aping that McLachlan-esque tick of jumping into her highest register to stretch out one word—each “you’re” she sings in the chorus goes for almost four seconds. Eye to the Telescope is also rather slick sounding in many spots, which I guess explains why “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” and “Suddenly I See” have made such inroads at American radio. Yet there’s something else going on with Tunstall, a couple of things that help her rise above the McLachlan comparisons. First (and this sounds odd) she readily admits that she’s over 30 (31 to be exact). In the music industry, being a new artist over 30 is a kiss of death. Tunstall makes no attempt to hide that she’s older than most new singer-songwriters. I think that maturity serves her songwriting well (and makes her a joy to speak with). Secondly, Tunstall is definitely is not as slick a performer as her album portrays her to be. Live she often plays as a one-woman band, sampling her own vocals and claps and guitar lines with what she calls the “Wee Bastard Foot Pedal” to back herself up. I find that watching her do this is just fascinating. Oh, and thirdly I think she’s incredibly attractive—and she speaks with a lovely Scottish accent. Oh yeah, that definitely seals the deal. Best Tracks: “Other Side of the World,” “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” “Under the Weather”

15) Ben Kweller - Ben Kweller (ATO/RCA)
Ben Kweller’s last album On My Way was recorded basically live in the studio with his touring band. This time out my fellow Brooklynite decided to take matters in his own hands—literally. Kweller plays every note on his self-titled album, and I must say the guy’s a pretty damn good drummer. His Ringo-like rock solid playing serves this batch of poptastic songs very well. Kweller has perfected his art of writing catchy tunes about hanging out, falling in love and the occasional heartache those things bring. And while Kweller still has that boyish charm in his voice, getting married and having a child seems to have brought a bigger world view into the 25 year old’s lyrics. The hard-rocking “This Is War” doesn’t seem like something the 17-year-old musical prodigy version of Kweller would have written. The moment where it all comes together on Ben Kweller is “Penny on a Train Track,” about as fine a power pop song you’ll hear this year. One listen and you’ll stop the disc, go back, and listen to it over again. Trust me, I wouldn’t steer you wrong. Best Tracks: “Penny on the Train Track,” “Run,” “Magic”

14) Beck - The Information (Interscope)
The Information opens with a drummer counting off, “One, two, you know what do.” And it’s for certain that producer Nigel Godrich knows what to do when he teams up with Beck. Their previous two collaborations, 1998’s Mutations and 2002’s Sea Change, were both low-key singer-songwriter affairs. The Information is far away from those discs, mining some of the same territory of Guero and Odelay with funky rhythms and quirky wordplay. The main difference between those albums and The Information is that Godrich focuses on getting the best sounding beats possible without resorting to drum programming. The drums and percussion sound crisp and clear and drive all these songs without all the distracting bleeps and bloops we’re used to from our favorite Scientologist. As for what Beck is singing about, I still have no idea. All I know is that the words sound good on top of those incredible rhythm tracks. Best Tracks: “Strange Apparition,” “Think I’m in Love,” “Nausea”

13) Belle and Sebastian - The Life Pursuit (Matador)
I know that many Belle and Sebastian fans miss the very mellow and almost wimpy sounds of their first two albums. Not me. I’ve enjoyed this evolution of B & S’s sound, thank you very much. Their last album with producer Trevor Horn (Seal, The Buggles and that oh-so-amazing Yes album 90125) pointed the band in a more uptempo pop-rock vein that they’ve continued to explore with The Life Pursuit. The first time I heard “Funny Little Frog” I ended up humming it for the rest of the day at work. And while this has nothing whatsoever to do with their music, I really like the fact that band spent more than half of their CD booklet answering questions fans submitted while they were recording The Life Pursuit. I especially like the question from a fan named Jenny: “Damn, string players do seem ‘sexually sophisticated,’ don’t they? Why is that?” Frontman Stuart Murdoch’s response: “They know how to fiddle from an early age.” (Cue snare hit!) Best Tracks: “Funny Little Frog,” “The Blues Are Still Blue,” “Another Sunny Day”

12) The Raconteurs - Broken Boy Soldiers (Third Man/V2)
Let’s see…Jack White, whose band The White Stripes has made my Top 10 with their last two albums, starts a group with Brendan Benson, whose last solo album made my Top 5 in 2005…I think the chances I would like this project are extremely high. And I do like them (obviously) but I had built up this collaboration so much in my head that I was a bit disappointed with my first few listens to Broken Boy Soldiers. To me it seemed like too much Jack White—all I could hear was his guitar blaring all over the place, while Benson’s pop edge seemed to be buried amongst all the rock. That all changed when I got to see them at the Austin City Limits Festival in September. On stage the band seemed to be much more than the sum of its supergroup parts. And my oh my, the harmonies between Benson and White were spot on. Their voices intertwined perfectly that day, which I found impressive considering it was a festival set on a huge stage in front of 30-thousand people. When I listened to Broken Boy Soldiers on the flight back it was as if a window into the album had been opened for me. I stopped trying to pick out who was doing what and just enjoyed the fact that two good friends were making some new and exciting music together. Best Tracks: “Hands,” “Yellow Sun,” “Steady As She Goes”

11) Josh Rouse - Subtitulo (Bedroom Classics/Nettwerk)
Josh Rouse’s 2005 album Nashville was his farewell to his adopted hometown, so I guess it’s only fair that Subtitulo is a hello to his new hometown in Spain. The influence of his new country is central to the sound of the album. “Summertime” and “Jersey Clowns” are driven by the sound of a finger-picked nylon string guitar, the instrument of choice for the flamenco music of Spain. And as if to make his point perfectly clear, the album ends with a song titled “El Otro Lado.” Rouse’s time in Spain has also brought him a new love, Paz Suay, who sings a cute as a button duet with him on “The Man Who…” That track seems to be Rouse’s way of poking fun at the sad man many fans though the became after his divorce. As much as I like the new happy Josh, I secretly look forward to some more heartbreak in his life so he can pen another album of sad sack songs like Nashville. Best Tracks: “It Looks Like Love,” “His Majesty Rides,” “The Man Who…”

10) The Minus 5 - The Minus 5 (a.k.a. The Gun Album) (Yeproc)
Scott McCaughey started the Minus 5 many years ago as an outlet for his darker songs that didn’t fit into the Young Fresh Fellows catalog. As the Fellows started playing less and the Minus 5 started touring more, McCaughey started writing more up-tempo songs for Minus 5 album. Many of these songs (especially the Minus 5 in Rock disc) wouldn’t sound out of place in the Fellows catalog. Well, McCaughey has pulled off a neat trick with The Minus 5 (a.k.a. The Gun Album)—he’s written a bunch of mostly up-tempo poppy songs with some of his darkest lyrics ever. Even if I didn’t know that he had split from his wife a couple years ago, it would be easy to tell with lyrics like these: “I’m going to be an asshole for the rest of my life/Aw shit man/I’ll never be forgiven by my daughter and wife/Aw shit man.” It’s a testament to McCaughey’s melodic gifts that instead of wanting to jump out a window after listening and reading through the lyrics on this album, I end up singing along and smiling as if nothing was wrong whatsoever. Perhaps the best part of the album is to finally have a studio recording of “Twilight Distillery,” one of my live favorites for the past five years. And that one isn’t that depressing. It’s a nice relief from all the lyrics about guns, booze and generally fucking up one’s life. I do enough of that myself. Best Tracks: “With A Gun,” “Twilight Distillery,” “Cigarettes, Coffee and Booze.”

9) Soul Asylum - The Silver Lining (Legacy)
I must admit it—I never expected to like a Soul Asylum album this much ever again. I detested 1998’s Candy From a Stranger so much that I never again opened the CD after two spins. So this return to form on The Silver Lining is nothing short of stunning. The band once again has a kick ass drummer, stealing Minneapolis legend Michael Bland from Paul Westerberg and Prince. His powerful drumming drives songs like “Slowly Rising” and “Bus Named Desire.” It’s also obvious that bassist Karl Mueller’s battle with cancer was a focal point for the band’s desire to make a great album. The opening track “Stand Up and Be Strong” was written long before Mueller got sick, but its positive outlook (“If your life’s a mess/Remember you’re blessed/Stand up and be strong”) in light of his passing is hard not to embrace. I hope that this creative rebirth inspires the band to forge ahead and continue to make albums. If they record anything else this good, I’m sure Karl would be very proud. Best Tracks: “Stand Up and Be Strong,” “Bus Named Desire,” “Lately”

8) Tom Petty - Highway Companion (American/WB)
Why is it that when Tom Petty works without The Heartbreakers, he seems to make his best albums? It doesn’t make any sense. The Heartbreakers are a great band. I’ve seen them 10 times over the seven different tours in the past 20 years and I’ve never been disappointed. So what happens when Petty takes the Heartbreakers name off the front of his albums? Almost all of the Heartbreakers play on his first two solo albums, so it can’t be the musicianship. Petty still has one of the best guitarists in the business, Mike Campbell, doing one tasty solo after another. I’m just puzzled by it. I guess it will go down as one of life’s mysteries, just like where all my pens went in college and why the hair in my ears grows faster than the hair on the top of my head. Highway Companion sees Petty reunite with fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne. Usually that would be a warning sign of slickness ahead. Apparently Lynne has mellowed out production-wise over the years, as these songs don’t feature 18 acoustic guitars taking the place of the highhat. Speaking of highhat, Petty plays all the drums on the album. They’re kind of basic and clunky at times but do serve this intimate batch of songs about traveling down life’s figurative and literal roads. Let’s just hope keyboardist Benmont Tench doesn’t get too pissed about being left out again and quit the band in a huff. Best Tracks: “Flirting With Time,” “Damaged By Love,” “Square One”

7) The Decemberists - The Crane Wife (Capitol)
So this latest offering (and major label debut) from Portland’s The Decemberists is a loose concept album based upon a Japanese folk tale. (Yes, even I don’t want to listen to the album after hearing that description—and I wrote it!) Somehow frontman Colin Meloy makes the tale sound pretty damn cool, especially when he indulges his prog-rock side on the multi-part epic (12:42!!!) called “The Island: 1) Come And See 2) The Landlord's Daughter 3) You'll Not Feel The Drowning.” Fortunately Meloy still knows how to create a magnificent three minute pop song like “O Valencia.” Much has been written about Meloy’s use of some flowery words in his songs, which I see has gotten him a bit ticked off in a couple of interviews. So I figured I would use the rest of this entry to point out some words he uses that don’t normally come up in a conversation: “threadbare,” “cormorants,” “asteraceae,” “fontanel,” “fuck stick.” (Okay, I made up that last one to make sure you were still paying attention.) ( Best Tracks: “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then),” “O Valencia,” “Sons & Daughters”

6) Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins - Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love)
Rilo Kiley frontman Jenny Lewis indulges her country influences on her solo debut Rabbit Fur Coat. And to make those country leanings shine, Lewis grabbed Kentucky-born singers Chandra and Leigh Watson to contribute sweet bluegrass-type harmonies. Their three voices have a magical blend on “Rise Up With Fists!,” “The Big Guns” and “Born Secular” and take me back to all those country records my grandfather used to play quite loudly. It’s a brilliant move on Lewis’s part, as it takes away the focus from her tendency to cram too many lyrics into a song at one time. When she cuts back on the words the results can be truly breathtaking, especially on the ballad “Melt Your Heart,” which has melted mine numerous times. And while I’m not sure the world really needed a cover of Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care,” it is fun to hear Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Bright EyesConor Oberst take on the roles of Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan. I do hope that Miss Lewis finds the time again to step outside her day job. Best Tracks: “Rise Up With Fists!,” “The Charging Sky,” “The Big Guns”

5) Guster - Ganging Up On the Sun (Reprise)
The opening line of “One Man Wrecking Machine,” the first single from Ganging Up On the Sun, is “I built a time machine.” That got me thinking—if I built a time machine and went back to 1999 to play a copy for Ganging Up On the Sun for a hardcore Guster fan, I’m sure they wouldn’t think it was those same guys from Tufts University. How could a band whose basic set-up was two acoustic guitars and congas be the same group that’s now a four piece rock act creating a lush pop epic (7:06) called “Ruby Falls” which ends with a lengthy jazz trumpet solo? To paraphrase another one of my favorite bands, “It’s evolution baby.” The leap Guster made from their earlier albums to 2003’s Keep It Together is tiny compared to the evolution between Keep It Together and Ganging Up On the Sun. The array of styles that they’ve mastered is astonishing: they can be pissed off hard rockers (“The Beginning of the End”) one moment, cautiously optimistic pop guys the next (“Hang On”) and country-influenced rockers (“The Captain”) elsewhere. This is also the first album with multi-instrumentalist Joe Pisapa on board as a full-fledged member. Pisapa has made some fine music on his own as a solo artist and the leader of Nashville’s Joe, Marc’s Brother. The addition of his wide-ranging musical vocabulary is felt throughout the album. There are gorgeous harmonies and well-placed guitar and keyboard licks everywhere, yet it doesn’t seem slick, it just feels perfect. My only criticism is that we had to wait three years between two great albums. I hope I’m not writing about the next great hook-filled Guster album in 2009. Best Tracks: “C’mon,” “The Beginning of the End,” “The New Underground”

4) Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 - Ole! Tarantula (YepRoc)
When Robyn Hitchcock gets together with his old friends, we the listeners win big time. His 2001 reunion with The Soft Boys produced his best work in many years. This year he worked with The Venus 3—which consists of Hitchcock’s long-time pals, Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin (a.k.a 3/4 of the Minus 5 and half of the touring lineup of R.E.M.). This comfort level with the band seems to have inspired Hitchcock to revisit his entire catalog over the span of Ole! Tarantula’s 10 songs. It’s not a greatest hits album, but it damn sure sounds like one, and it’s easily his best album since 1991’s Perspex Island. Opener “Adventure Rocket Ship” sounds like an outtake from the Soft Boys classic Underwater Moonlight, while the title track would fit in nicely with the mid-to-late ’80s albums Hitchcock made with The Egyptians and Buck on board as a second guitarist. “Belltown Ramble” could easily blend in with any of the great acoustic albums he’s made over the past decade. Hitchcock still writes about the odd creatures of life—spiders, locusts, various vegetables—yet the best tracks here are based upon two characters, one fictional, one real. “(A Man's Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs” takes its title from the last line Clint Eastwood says in 1973’s Magnum Force, which is easily the best entry in the Dirty Harry series. “N.Y. Doll” is a sung from the point of view of the late New York Dolls bassist Arthur Kane. I honestly don’t know much about Kane and his life, but I can’t imagine any man getting a finer tribute in song. It’s the perfect closer to great album. Best Tracks: “(A Man's Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs,” “Ole! Tarantula,” “N.Y. Doll”

3) The Hold Steady - Boys And Girls in America (Vagrant)
A singer from Minneapolis with a quirky voice who’s a Replacements fan + a guitar player who rocks out like he listened to lots of Soul Asylum + piano and organ parts that sound lifted directly from Bruce Springsteen’s first three albums + a guest appearance by Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum (“Chillout Tent”) + songs about drinking (“Party Pit”) and betting on horses “Chips Ahoy!”) + one great ballad about how a relationship could never be as good as the first time you met that special girl at the bar (“First Night”) + it was all made by guys in their mid-30s = one great album + one happy Steve. It’s an equation that I didn’t think ever possible. The first time I heard The Hold Steady I thought, “What the fuck is up with this guy's voice?” Craig Finn’s vocals sounded somewhere between a throaty spoken word performance and a strangled cat. I had read on tons of blogs that this band’s previous two albums were “amazing,” “earth shattering” and “a drunken fest.” Even The New York Times got into the act one week with a huge one page spread in a Sunday Arts & Leisure section about the places named in Finn’s lyrics. Then one Monday night I was listening to the World Cafe and they had picked the band as their “Next Artist” for the week. So I sat there and checked out “Chips Ahoy!” And I realized that Finn's voice had nothing to do with murdering cats. It was more like a raspier John Easdale (the frontman of the great Jersey band Dramarama). And the song sounded like a pre-Born to Run Springsteen outtake. I was sold, and quickly fell in love with the whole album. “Party Pit” particularly (ooh, alliteration!) caught my ear upon first listen. It's a perfect snapshot of that reckless party time at the end of high school or beginning of college with a great refrain that carries the last third of the song: “Gonna walk around and drink some more/Gonna walk around and drink.” Yeah, I’ve done that in Brooklyn—maybe at some of the same places these guys have. I suppose I should mention that the album title was inspired by Jack Kerouac, but I’d rather grab a beer and crank this album up again. Best Tracks: “First Night,” “Party Pit,” “Southtown Girls”

2) The Long Winters - Putting The Days to Bed (Barsuk)
Long Winters frontman John Roderick writes such interesting and hooky songs and delivers them in such a unique and passionate voice that I’m amazed it took me this long to discover them (or that anyone I knew hadn’t yet turned me onto them). Putting the Days to Bed is their third album and best yet. One glorious pop song follows another, with guitars chiming all over the place, multi-part harmonies on every memorable chorus (of which there are many) and a bouncy, happy vibe throughout. And I’m not the only who recognizes the talent of Roderick. A veritable who’s who of Seattle musicians lend their talents to this power-pop songwriting clinic, including Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla, The DecemberistsChris Funk and Young Fresh FellowsKurt Bloch. I wish I could accurately describe the genuine surprise I felt that one Friday afternoon I popped the Putting the Days to Bed advance into my CD player as I was tidying up my desk. When the chorus to “Pushover” came rolling in at 31 seconds in I thought, “Who the fuck IS this? Why has this been buried in my desk for three weeks?” Once the massive harmonies came in on the lines “I just want you to say, ‘Come on!’” I knew that I was going have to listen to this song over again as soon as it was over. Sometimes it pays to plow through all the discs that pile up on my desk. Best Tracks: “Pushover,” “(It’s a Departure),” Seven”

1) The Figgs - Follow Jean Through the Sea (Gern Blandsten)
How many bands have recorded what could be their finest album ever just as they’re about to celebrate their 20th anniversary? Well, there’s only one I can think of—The Figgs. I’ve been a Figgs fan for 12 of those 20 years, and I don’t think I’ve heard this band sound better on an album. Every single note of each instrument is perfectly placed for maximum clarity and impact. The band’s basic elements—Mike Gent’s distinctive guitar, Pete Donnelly’s melodic bass and Pete Hayes’ always in the pocket drums, along with Gent and Donnelly’s tight harmonies—are front and center throughout the album. Yet it’s the added touches to each track that propel this batch of songs to a higher level. There’s the little keyboard sounds in right channel during “Breaking Through These Gates;” Gent doing some mouth percussion noises (I don’t think you could call it beatboxing) during the bridge of “Regional Hits;” The Beatles-like stereo of “Don’t Hurt Me Again” with drums in the left channel and soaring harmonies behind Donnelly’s lead vocal; and the keyboard riff in the title track that only shows up for a few seconds after the first chorus, yet I can’t help but hum along to it every single time I listen to the song.

If there’s a thread that runs through lyrics on Follow Jean it’s one of restlessness, looking to break out of a rut and go somewhere, anywhere. The characters in these songs feel trapped by their lives (“City Loft Home”), or their loves (“I Won’t Go To Miami”), or their travels, and are always chasing something else. Sometimes the characters are the guys in the band themselves—“Jumping Again” sees Donnelly reflecting on a Figgs tour of a few years ago and reveling in the recuperative powers of aspirin and a good show. The chorus of this song is one of my favorite Figgs moments ever. Donnelly starts the first line of the pre-chorus, “Looked inside to a world within,” and is quickly followed by Gent singing “Looked inside,” and then they harmonize on the line “This time is no easy than it's ever been.” Donnelly then sings “Mike brought a couple extra aspirin,” with Gent harmonizing to fish the line with “for the pain—I’m jumping again!” I was sitting as my desk at work when I first heard the song on the band’s My Space page—and I had to restrain myself from pumping my fist in the air and yelling “Yeah!” when that 13 seconds ended. In a perfect world, an edit (Donnelly does sing “Hayes had the shits”) of this song would be burning up the airwaves on quality radio stations around the country. I suggest listening to it right now and experience the joy that this song inspires.

I’m amazed that after all this time The Figgs still have the ability to surprise me with what they create. Follow Jean Through the Sea is a sterling example of how great rock music can be when it’s done with care and intelligence. I’m sure that most people who have read the Top 20 for years are thinking, “Geez, what a surprise that The Figgs would be number-one.” Well, I’ve only given them the number-one spot once before, with 2002’s Slow Charm. As a matter of fact, I’ve probably knocked their albums down a couple of pegs over the years just so I wouldn’t be accused of extremely overwhelming favoritism. When I name one of their albums number-one on this list, it’s because they’ve gone far and above what I expect from them. I always expect great music with great hooks from The Figgs, but Follow Jean delivers so much more. If you’ve never bought a Figgs album before, there’s no time like the present. Best Tracks: “Jumping Again,” “Hobble Skirt (In Erie),” “I Won’t Go Back to Miami,” “Regional Hits”

2006's Top 20 Singles

20) Dixie Chicks - “Not Ready to Make Nice” (Open Wide/Columbia)
Hey, remember a few years ago when the Dixie Chicks got in trouble when singer Natalie Maines said on stage in London, “We’re embarrassed President Bush is from Texas?” Yeah, me neither. But the usual close-minded country radio format never forgot, even if a majority of folks here in the grand old U.S. of A. made it clear in the mid-term elections that they ain’t so fond of W. “Not Ready to Make Nice” didn’t make a dent on the country charts, and with the sound and lyrics of this first single from Taking the Long Way, it seems as though the Chicks could care less. In fact, when I listen to this very-much-a-rock-and-not-a-country-song and such phrases as “I'm through with doubt/There’s nothing left for me to figure out/I’ve paid a price/And I'll keep paying,” I picture one Texas-size middle finger being given to the fans and the country establishment who turned on them. And being a guy who’s used his middle finger as a vehicle for expression for over 25 years, I can totally understand where the Chicks are coming from.

19) Josh Rouse - “It Looks Like Love” (Bedroom Classics/Nettwerk)
On last year’s Nashville Josh Rouse penned a song called “My Love Is Gone” which couldn’t be interpreted as anything else but a commentary about the state of his falling-apart marriage. “It Looks Like Love” could be called the flipside of “My Love Is Gone,” as Rouse sings about his new Spanish lady in almost embarrassing detail. Hey Josh, I’m happy that Paz (that’s the new girlfriend’s name) sends you pictures “She shot in the nude,” but do we really need to know that “She likes to sit on me too, yes, yes/She got me coming, baby, every night/And in the daytime too.” I swear, if this song somehow ends up in a Cialis commercial, I’m taking my copy of Subtitlo and throwing it out the window of my office. (And hoping that it hits one of the folks from Radio City Music Hall telling through megaphones that people holding tickets for the 4p.m. Christmas Spectacular to enter on 51st street.) Thankfully for us listeners, the rest of the song is a sweet message to those who have been dumped and don’t expect to discover true love again. Who these people are—cough, cough—I don’t really know, but I’m sure lines like “There goes that melancholy feeling again/It looks like love is gonna find a way/And just when you stop believing in it/It looks like love is gonna show its face” could help almost anyone heal a little bit.

18) Ok Go - “Here It Goes Again” (Capitol)
There is perhaps no better example of the power of You Tube than the resurrection of Ok Go’s career through two extremely popular videos that are low on production values yet but high on inventive choreography. The “Here It Goes Again” clip (with its use of treadmills) is absolutely one of the best videos I’ve ever seen. I’ve probably watched it a couple of dozen times, yet had no idea what this little guitar pop gem was about. (Except that it was about three minutes long. Thank you, thank you very much.) One day I happened to look up the lyrics and discovered it describes the aftermath of a one night stand almost perfectly. Who hasn’t a night like this opening line: “It could be ten, but then again, I can't remember half an hour since a quarter to four/Throw on your clothes, the second side of Surfer Rosa, and you leave me with my jaw on the floor.” I mean, I’ve heard of bands ripping off the Pixies’ sound for years, but how often does a band name check Black Francis and company? Not often enough for my tastes.

17) Justin Timberlake (featuring T.I.) - “My Love” (Jive/Zomba Label Group)
The former boy band star might have tried to bring sexy back, but he was much better at bringing marriage proposals back. It’s hard to think that Timberlake wrote this stunningly catchy song with his longtime girlfriend Cameron “Look at the Moon and You’ll See My Meteor-Ravaged Face” Diaz in mind. I mean imagine what she’s going to look like when she’s forty? That face will have more potholes on it than that one section of the BQE that makes a couple of my teeth shake loose every ride back from Shea Stadium. Okay, enough about crater-face, back to the song. Everything about “My Love” points to me hating it—it’s got one of those guest raps (from Atlanta star T.I.) that seem tacked on because the producer didn’t know what to do in the middle; it was produced by Timbaland, who’s personally responsible for two of the crappiest number-one hits of this year or any other (Timberlake’s “SexyBack” and Nellie Furtado’s “Promiscuous”) and it’s got that damned human beatbox trick that Timberlake is so fond of showing off as much as possible. And yet… yet…aw fuck it, this song is so catchy I want to get up and dance in the middle of the F train each time it comes up on my iPod. That keyboard sound that was dated 15 years ago hooks me like a candy cane to the brain. And then there’s either a human voice sped up or some interesting sample during the chorus that sounds similar to a hyena laughing that grabs me more and more with each play. Damn you Timberlake—how can I rightfully hate you when you make pieces of pop that are this good!

16) Lupe Fiasco - “Kick Push” (Atlantic)
I’ve never liked skateboarding—even when I was in high school and everyone is supposed to want a skateboard. I must admit (Cranky old man alert!) even now I hate hate HATE the two teenagers that skate almost every weekend on my block. The sound of the wheels down the street, the clickity clack when they jump off their boards and then do a bit of wiping out, the screeching of car tires when they have to stop short because these kids are dangerously close to being hit. Oh yeah, it really brings out my inner Tony Hawk. With all of this hatred, it makes perfect sense that I would like a Muslim rapper from Chicago with a great sense of lyrical flow who does a track about a skateboard kid growing up. I will now jump out my window and hope my brain returns to its upright position.

15) Paul Westerberg - “Love You In the Fall” (Lost Highway)
Oh what a joy it is to hear Paul Westerberg make a song that sounds (and was) professionally recorded. It seems like years since the former Replacement released something where I didn’t reach for the treble knob on my receiver. “Love You In the Fall” has almost all of the elements I look for in a great Westerberg song: a single guitar opens up with the riff, Paul yells out something completely unintelligible when the drums kick in; the drums are damn powerful (thank you, Josh Freese); and I can sing along with the chorus after one listen. Lyrically this isn’t a masterpiece from the Westerberg songbook, but—and I know I will hear about this from some folks—I like this song much better than the two Replacements reunion songs. (And it even had the exact same personnel as those reunion tunes, minus Chris Mars on vocals.) The line to make your complaints starts to the left.

14) The Raconteurs - “Steady As She Goes” (Third Man/V2)
I still remember the first joke I thought of when I heard the opening 30 seconds of this song—Joe Jackson called, and he’s looking sharp to sue your ass. The extremely similar bassline to “Is She Really Going Out With Him” aside, this first single from the Detroit via Nashville supergroup is a perfect introduction to this band’s strengths. 2005 list favorites Jack White and Brendan Benson sound as if they’ve been harmonizing since they were little kids. And the rhythm section knows how to rock hard when the chorus rolls around. I hope for their next album White and Benson rip off the bassline from “Steppin’ Out.”

13) Snow Patrol - “Hands Open” (A&M/Interscope)
Ireland’s Snow Patrol have scored success in the U.S. with two mid-tempo ballads—“Run” from their 2004 disc Final Straw, which I happen to like, and “Chasing Cars” from this year’s Eyes Open, a song which makes me want to get some Gray’s Anatomy DVDs and start throwing them at innocent bystanders. I had really high hopes for Eyes Open when I first heard the lead single (and sort of title track) “Hands Open.” Singer Gary Lightbody is...wait, I can go no further without writing this guy’s last name again: Lightbody. And as far as I can tell, it’s his real name! Wow, I can only imagine what kids said to him while growing up. It makes me dream of a day where everyone will be named as if they were a minor character in the Star Wars film series. Sorry, I got a bit distracted there. “Hands Open” is a rarity in the Snow Patrol world—it rocks. As a matter of fact, the opening combo of guitar and drums may be the simplest and dumbest combination these guys have created. I like stupidity in my music and in most aspects of my everyday life which explains why I enjoy it so much. Alas, the rest of the album doesn’t live up to this song’s promise, but I’m sure other tracks on it will help move along the plot development for Dr. McDreamy’s character throughout 2007. And while we’re at it, I hate that Fray song too. Wow, why am I so bitter about a show I never watch? Maybe it’s all those music video looking ads I saw over the summer. Okay, it must be time for a cold beverage to take the edge off.

12) KT Tunstall - “Other Side of the World” (Virgin)
The latest single from perhaps the most unlikely Top 20 album of the year is a tearjerker of the highest order. Heartbreak oozes out of Tunstall’s voice with every line about a troubled long-distance relationship. Again, on the surface there’s nothing different from the tons of other female singer-songwriters on the scene today. Yet I can’t resist being sucked in. And you know what? I still hate that fucking Fray song.

11) Death Cab For Cutie - “Crooked Teeth” (Atlantic)
When this song was released as the second single from Plans back in January of this year, I knew that it would be on the Top 20 11 months later. It’s always been my favorite song from that album. It’s a perfect match-up of a wickedly catchy song with some crisp production. There’s a part just before the second verse starts where a heavily processed backwards symbol crash slowly fades in, and every time I hear it I think, “How did Chris Walla (he’s the producer and band’s guitarist) know that would be perfect little trick for that moment?” The imagery that gives the song its title (“Cause at night the sun in retreat/Made the skyline look like crooked teeth/In the mouth of a man who was devouring, us both”) comes to mind whenever I’m riding the train home as the sun is setting over New Jersey. And the lines “You're so cute when you're slurring your speech/But they're closing the bar and they want us to leave” make me think frontman Ben Gibbard spent some time trailing me during his visits to New York. Hmm.

10) Christina Aguilera - “Ain’t No Other Man” (RCA)
I will now throw my credibility into a poorly cleaned toilet in Penn Station. Yes, the woman who was once voted Most Likely to Whore Herself Out to a White Trash Dancer (amazing how Miss Spears wrestled that crown away) returned this year with a double album (wtf?) that, from most accounts, isn’t half bad. “Ain’t No Other Man” is an ode to Aguilera’s husband that does go a bit overboard with the pledging o’ the love at times: “What was cloudy now is clear/Yeah, yeah/You’re the light that I needed/You got what I want boy, and I want it/So keep on givin' it up!” Oy. But D.J. Premier’s irresistible beats mixed with a snappy horn sample and Aguilera’s great pipes add up to a track that is hard to resist.

9) Kelly Clarkson - “Walk Away” (RCA)
Oh, wait, here’s where I throw away my credibility. But dammit, this song is so fucking catchy and is a worthy successor to “Since U Been Gone.” It pains me to know that Canadian singer Chantal Kreviazuk co-wrote the song with Clarkson and her husband, Our Lady Peace singer Raine Maida. Kreviazuk was one of the most arrogant people I ever had to interview in the past 11 years and to me seemed to be the least likely person to write or co-write a hit song that Top 40 stations around the country would play ad infinitum. So I’m just going to believe that Clarkson’s talent overwhelmed the Canadian crappiness that could have come through this track.

8) Brandi Carlile - “Throw it All Away” (Columbia)
The self-titled debut from Seattle’s Brandi Carlile was one of those albums that dropped through the cracks in 2005. It took a good deal of airtime on our local Triple A station WFUV for me to get the talent that Carlile packs in her incredible voice. The first time I listened to it I dismissed her as another clone in the Sheryl Crow/Lucinda Williams vein. Yet with repeated listens it’s obvious that Carlile takes her cues from the late Jeff Buckley. Her voice soars, ringing emotion from every line. “Throw It All Away” is a tearjerker that stopped me in my tracks one morning. At that point I'd already put the album in the giveaway stack ages ago, so I had to go to iTunes that day and download it. Then I proceeded to listen to it over and over that week. Something about Carlile's passionate delivery of the chorus slays me every time. I look forward to her follow-up due out next spring.

7) Gomez - “See The World” (ATO/RCA)
Ladies and gentlemen, here’s my nominee for the Most Optimistic Song of 2006. The first time I heard the song on the World Café I knew I would need to get my hands on copy of it as soon as possible. I’m not one to usually enjoy such optimistic lyrics, but even I find these simple lines from singer-guitarist Tom Gray hard to resist: “See the world/Find an old fashioned girl/And when all's been said and done/It's the things that are given, not won/Are the things that you earned.” And I don’t think I could sum up this light guitar pop confection any better than Gray does: “’See the World’ is obviously a very optimistic song. There is light at the end of the tunnel, you know. For chrissake, just stop being such a miserable so and so and get out of that rut and get on with it.”

6) Pearl Jam - “World Wide Suicide” (J)
Over the past decade I’ve come up with a good theory about how much I’m going to like a new Pearl Jam release: the less I like the first single, the more I will love the album. For example, 1996’s No Code was led off by “Who You Are,” which I didn’t like at all. No Code placed at number-five for that year. The first song we heard from 1998’s Yield was “Given to Fly,” which I disliked very much because it was a huge rip off of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California.” Yield landed at number-one. (I did go on to like “Given to Fly,” but that was after witnessing numerous live performances.) “Nothing As it Seems” is easily the worst first single in Pearl Jam’s career, which lead to their 2000 album Binaural to also check in at number-five. 2002’s Riot Act had “I Am Mine” leadoff, and I loved that song. Hence, Riot Act didn’t even crack the Top 20 that year. “World Wide Suicide” is my favorite leadoff single from a Pearl Jam album since “Spin the Black Circle,” and might be my favorite single they’ve ever put out. So that should explain why the album doesn’t appear in this year’s Top 20. While most critics hailed the self-titled album as Eddie Vedder and company’s best album in more than a decade, I was much less impressed. Proving that you can still rock on almost every song on an album doesn’t necessarily mean quality. But damn, “World Wide Suicide” rocks hard and with a determined purpose and massage: this war is wrong. The lines “Medals on a wooden mantle/Next to a handsome face/That the President took for granted/Writing checks that others pay” spell out who is to blame—and who’s paying the price. And shockingly, this political blast ended up being Pearl Jam’s biggest radio hit since “Last Kiss.” Go figure.

5) Rihanna - “S.O.S.” (Island/Def Jam)
Dear lord, was there anything catchier on radio or MTV than this song this year? Whoever decided to use Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” as the sample for the track is a pure production genius. I listen to it once, I want to listen to it again immediately. As a co-worker said a few months ago, “It sounds like a mash-up of two really good songs.” And at age 18, Rihanna is the youngest artist to appear on the list this year. I will now go bang my head against the wall next to my desk.

4) Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris - “This Is Us” (Warner Bros.)
Simply put, I believe this is the best song Mark Knopfler has written in his solo career. (Yes Hank, I know you’re probably shaking your head no right now.) Knopfler and his duet partner Emmylou Harris delivery great low key vocals in this beautiful tale of a couple sharing their memories with one another. Knopfler doesn’t use a lot of words to describe this couple’s life, but the imagery he evokes is striking in its simplicity. “Rocking at the barbecue/Yeah, when we said I do/Hand jiving on the ballroom floor/You in that wedding coat you wore/And you in that amazing dress/I was stoned on love I guess/You and me we were meant to be/This is us.” I can only imagine the amount of hip weddings over the next couple of years where this song will be a main attraction.

3) Soul Asylum - “Stand Up and Be Strong” (Legacy)
(I was going to write a new entry about “Stand Up and Be Strong,” but the Song of the Week entry from June 30th says it all. Visit it here.)

2) Electric Six - “I Buy the Drugs” (Metropolis)
Electric Six frontman Dick Valentine has a knack for making some of the catchiest—and funniest—songs of the 21st century. “I Buy the Drugs” is funny for its entire three minutes and 22 seconds. It’s hard to pick out my favorite line in this keyboard-driven romp, but perhaps it’s the bridge:
“If you ever find yourself in need
You can submit your request in writing
And this is what you do
Send in a self addressed stamped envelope
To PO Box 900
Los Angeles, California 90212
And I will fill your prescription with some degree of accuracy
And then I'll send it back to you”
The first time I heard it I laughed for the entire rest of the song. (And then discovered the address is to a P.O. Box on the Fox lot. I wonder if Rupert Murdoch had to fill someone’s valium prescription this year?) Do yourself a favor and check out the video too. College never looked like so much fun, even while I was in college.

1) Gnarls Barkley - “Crazy” (Downtown/Atlantic)
How can anyone accurately convey the juggernaut that was “Crazy” this year? Do I review each of the 21 versions of the song that I have downloaded this year? How can anyone aptly describe a song that is so different, moving, strange, creepy and ubiquitous that artists from all across the musical spectrum have covered it? (And how often do you think The Raconteurs and Nelly Furtado would tackle the same cover?) And how many songs inspire mash-ups using tracks from Supertramp, Sugarhill Gang, Donna Summer and Elton John? I can’t imagine that Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green ever expected such a response to a song that samples a theme from a spaghetti western and probes the deepest fears of Cee-Lo’s brain. What an amazing format crossing phenomenon. The only song in recent memory that compares would be Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” And while that song may have burned its way in and out of the collective conscience due to overplay, somehow I think “Crazy” will leave its mark for a little while longer. And hey, at least it wasn’t 26 different bands covering that fucking Fray song.

Top 10 Headlines I Hope I Don't Write in 2007

1) The release of Guns n’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy inspires the Bush administration to try democracy out in the U.S.

2) Gwen Stefani signs on to be the new spokesperson for Drake’s Cakes Yodels brand.

3) Eminem marries his ex-ex-wife Kim Mathers again, and then accidentally divorces himself two months later.

4) Rick Rubin decides to produce every album that will be released in 2008.

5) Jim Morrison comes back from the dead to record an album of standards called Dead and Singing It.

6) Chris Robinson, Kid Rock, Dave Navarro and Kevin Federline form a new supergroup called We Saw Their [Bleeps] and You Didn’t.

7) Red Hot Chili Peppers release a triple album called Taste Retardium and announce plans to have every song on it released as a single.

8) The rest of the cast from My So-Called Life start a band called 60 Seconds to Venus.

9) Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan and Paris Hilton record a collaborative album called, Have You Seen Our [Bleeps] Yet? If Not, Please Let Us Show Them to You.

10) Hinder follow-up their hit “Lips of an Angel” with a cover of Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight.” (Oh crap, that actually is happening.)

Other Musical Stuff From 2006

10) Bright Eyes - Noise Floor (Rarities: 1998-2005) (Saddle Creek)
Ever since I became a fan of Bright Eyes, lo those 18 months ago or so, I’ve slowly been building up my collection of recordings by Conor Oberst and company. I’ve discovered that while the “genius” (or annoying whiner, take your pick) from Nebraska made some good albums before 2005’s double dose of I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, Oberst’s best work was saved for EPs, compilations and singles. Many of the rarities I downloaded over the past year quickly became my favorite songs in the Bright Eyes catalog. Now a good chunk of that rare material is all in one place on Noise Floor. Tracks 2 through 5 on this disc (“I Will Be Grateful for This Day,” “The Trees Get Wheeled Away” “Drunk Kid Catholic” and “Spent On Rainy Days”) are as good a lineup of four songs as there are in the entire Bright Eyes catalog. “Spent on Rainy Days,” drawn from a collaborative EP with Spoon frontman Britt Daniel, is tremendous and makes me wish these two would record an entire album together. My only complaint about this compilation is that isn’t enough tracks. There’s at least two more albums worth of material floating out there that deserves to be placed under one umbrella, if for nothing else to save me the pain in the ass of looking for some limited compilation that came out in 2002 only in New Zealand. Or something like that, not that I’m a bitter collector or anything…

9) The Replacements - Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was? (Sire/Reprise/Rhino)
Most Replacements fans I know didn’t buy this compilation. That’s because they already own all the Mats albums and the 1997 Sire/Reprise era collection All For Nothing/Nothing For All, which was chock full of an entire disc of rarities. Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was? serves as a fine introduction for someone who’s never heard The Replacements. Most of their best songs—“I Will Dare,” “Unsatisfied,” “Bastards of Young,” “Alex Chilton,” etc.—are here, just waiting to blow someone else’s mind like mine was in 1988 when I first heard Paul Westerberg and crew. And hopefully this compilation did that trick for a few folks. But for long-term fans of the band, all we need are the two new “Replacements” songs. Now I used those air quotes around the band’s name because “Message to the Boys” and “Pool and Dive” aren’t really Replacements songs. They’re solo Paul Westerberg tunes that just happen to feature his former bandmates Tommy Stinson on bass and drummer-turned-artist Chris Mars on backing vocals. Is it really fair to call these new songs “Replacements” songs when the drum seat is being filled by the man pictured next to ubiquitous in the dictionary, Josh Freese, and Slim Dunlap (who logged four years on guitar) isn’t involved at all? You know, I’m not sure. I suppose if Westerberg, Stinson and Freese toured under the Replacements name, I would sell off body parts (mine and someone else’s) to go. And as much as I enjoy “Message to the Boys,” it sounds like a Westerberg song. A really damn good Westerberg song. And nowadays that is more than enough good news for my ears.

8) The Pretenders - The Pretenders (Sire/Real/Rhino)
Years of Chrissie Hynde making crazy statements on behalf of PETA, cranking out subpar album after subpar album with a rotating cast of lead guitarists and bassists and being as cranky as Lindsay Lohan gets without her special Strawberry Quik powder in almost every public appearance I’ve seen pretty much dimmed my enthusiasm for The Pretenders. This jam packed two-disc reissue of their 1980 debut blew away all those negative thoughts. Damn I forgot how sexy Hynde sounded when she was pissed (“Precious,” “Tattooed Love Boys”) about boys, not about the Chicken McNuggets I just ate. And could I have gone so long without having “Mystery Achievement” on CD? Wow, I had forgotten how smoking James Honeyman-Scott’s solo is on that song until I cranked it at my office when everyone else had left for the day. Like most Rhino reissues the bonus disc is packed with great rarities, demos and some scintillating live material recorded at the BBC. Now I can understand how The Pretenders made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now when are The Go-Gos getting in?

7) The Monkees - The Monkees: Deluxe Edition (Rhino)
Who knew that the songs that weren’t Monkees singles could be so good? I had no idea. I think that in my entire life I’ve seen parts of three episodes and half of that trippy movie Head once on cable, so I never knew the depth of quality to their albums. “Last Train to Clarksville” is the best known song here, but “This Just Doesn't Seem to Be My Day” or “Tomorrow's Gonna Be Another Day” could have been smash hits as well by my ears. Even the obvious throwaway track “Gonna Buy Me a Dog”—with its bordering on laughter lead vocal by Mickey Dolenz—rocks pretty damn hard for 1967 pop. And once again Rhino outdoes themselves in the reissue department, packing this double disc set with stereo and mono versions of the albums, 17 rare and previously unreleased tracks and some thoroughly researched liners notes about the creation of the “Pre-Fab Four” and their debut album. Hey hey, I’m a Monkees fan!

6) Feist - Open Season (Remixes and Collabs) (Interscope)
French-Canadian singer-songwriter Feist left me unimpressed with her debut album Let It Die. Listening to Open Season, I do believe that when I first listened to that album I must have a) been in a pissy mood, b) hadn’t gotten my ears cleaned at that point in 2005 c) thought the title of Let it Die was her comment on my latest relationship or d) all of the above. Hmm, I’m gonna guess d). What a fantastic voice she has, and all of these remixes of her songs put the focus squarely on her pipes. Her cover of the Bee Gees “Love You Inside and Out,” a stripped down version recorded at the BBC, is quite possibly one of the best covers recorded in the past five years. I had listened to Open Season at least four times before I realized that she was covering the same song. Even when I read that it was a Bee Gees cover, I had to Google the lyrics just to triple check. Now that’s the sign of a cover that works. Other highlights include a great Postal Service remix of “Mushaboom” with gloriously wimpy vocals from Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and the lovely French ditty “Tout Doucement.” My love of Open Season is just another shining example of why I shouldn’t always listen to new albums while I’m cranky. Sorry Feist—I promise to give your next album my full and undivided attention.

5) Open Season featuring the Songs of Paul Westerberg (Lost Highway)
As much as I liked the new “Replacements” song, I like these songs Paul Westerberg wrote for this animated film even more. And since Josh Freese and Tommy Stinson play on a few of them, it makes almost as much sense to call this soundtrack the new Replacements album. (Well, except a new Replacements album wouldn’t have Talking Heads’ “Wild Wild Life” dropped in the middle for no discernable reason.) Considering my favorite solo song Westerberg ever did is “Waiting for Somebody” from Cameron Crowe’s Singles, it makes me think he should write for films 100% of the time. If watching an animated bear helps him pen a song as goofy as “Right to Arm Bears,” then let’s send this guy a bunch of kids DVDs and lock him in a studio. It’s also rather strange to see “Good Day,” Westerberg’s tribute to his late bandmate Bob Stinson, on this soundtrack. I haven’t seen the film (maybe when it comes to one of the 178 HBOs I subscribe to I’ll find the time) so I’m rather afraid to see where it’s placed in the film. I can’t imagine a bear in the film dies after a lonely life in Minneapolis, but who knows?

4) Bee Gees - The Studio Albums 1967-1968 (Rhino)
This six disc box set took me by surprise just as much as the Monkees reissue on the previous page. Who knew these first three Bee Gees albums contained so many great pop songs? (Well, my co-worker Michael did, but I never would have believed him.) The hits like “Massachusetts,” “To Love Somebody” and “I’ve Got to Get a Message to You” are all here (in mono and stereo form), as well as quirkier tunes like “Harry Braff,” “Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy of Arts,” “Cucumber Castle” (get your mind out of the gutter on that one) and a song that could perhaps be a country hit today on its title alone—“I Have Decided to Join the Airforce.” And the loads of bonus tracks feature some genuinely weird material. “Mrs. Gillespie's Refrigerator” is pretty damn psychedelic for a three minute pop song, while “Come Some Christmas Eve or Halloween” prefaced the whole consolidation of the holiday season by a couple of decades. (And somehow I still like Thanksgiving in the midst of that calendar shift.) I don’t know if I could in good conscience recommend this box anyone expect a huge Bee Gees fan (that $74.98 list price is a bit much to pay) but who knows—you might become a big fan after giving it one spin.

3) Graham Parker & The Figgs - 103 Degrees in June: Live in Chicago (Bloodshot Records) In last year’s Top 20 I wrote this about the second Graham Parker and The Figgs show I saw on their Songs of No Consequence tour. “[The Figgs] 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.” Two weeks later Parker and the Figgs played at the Double Door in Chicago, and they were still in that groove where a band and its material mesh perfectly—and the crowd knows it. Throughout 103 Degrees in June you can people yelling at certain parts, just screaming because they are having a great time and know they are witnessing a great performance. I think guitarist Mike Gent (whose enthusiasm for Parker’s work is evident throughout the entire set) summed it up best when I emailed him to say that 103 Degrees was smoking hot—“It’s our finest work with him yet.” Indeed. We can only hope for more work between these two artists down the road.

2) Neil Young - Live at Fillmore East (Reprise)
The June 2nd, 1988 issue of Rolling Stone featured Neil Young on the cover. Young is pictured in his bluesman’s grab for the album he had recently released with The Bluenotes, This Note’s For You. I was a subscriber to Rolling Stone at the time (hey, who knew that it would start sucking later on) and had spent an entire year immersing myself in as much Neil Young music as I could during my post-high school summer and first two semesters at college. So I read and reread that entire Neil Young interview the very day it showed up at my house. One thing that struck me in the piece was when Young mentioned that he was working on another compilation called Decade II that would features songs since the first Decade was released in 1977 and a bunch more unreleased tracks. This excited me to no end, since the unreleased songs on Decade (like “Love Is a Rose” and “Winterlong”) were some of my favorites in his catalog. So I waited, figuring that within the next year we would have another multiple disc set to enjoy. And waited. And waited some more. Every couple of years Young would mention this project, which in the 90s changed to the Neil Young Archives. And then I waited some more. I WAITED FOR HALF OF MY LIFE FOR THIS. Then, out of seemingly nowhere, the first release from the Neil Young Archives appeared, with more promised soon. And the only reason I can see for it coming out now is that Young’s health scare last year made him less inclined to keep tinkering with this project. So I guess the question is this: was the wait worth it to get Live at Fillmore East, a six song live disc that features a tune (“Come On Baby Let’s Go Dowtown”) that already appeared on 1975’s Tonight’s the Night? Well yeah...I mean, fuck yeah, it was worth it. What else did you expect me to say? Words escape me while listening to these powerful performances. As a matter of fact, I’m going to end this entry here and just air guitar to the 16 minute and 9 second version of “Cowgirl in the Sand.”

1) eels - With Strings-Live at Town Hall (Vagrant)
Ever said to a friend, “yeah, I really wanted to go see _____ at _____, but I couldn’t because something came up. Oh well, I’m sure they’ll be back?” Fill in the first blank with eels and the second with Town Hall, and that’s the exact line I said to a friend back in mid-July 2005. I missed this eels show because I was going to Philadelphia to help out with our coverage of the Live 8 concert. (Yeah, I don’t remember what it was about either.) I had three friends tell me in no uncertain terms that the gig was amazing because it wasn’t a standard rock show—the strings supplied a bulk of the instrumentation. I though that as much as I liked the eels and their latest album Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, I wasn’t sold on a show dominated by strings being that good. And then I downloaded With Strings, and proceeded to curse Bob Geldolf and Bono quite loudly for their damn good intentions on my train ride home. I interviewed that dude from Linkin Park and missed this concert? I will now slam my keyboard against my ears. This stunning document of eels mastermind E’s inventive idea to shun a proper rock band for his 2005 tour is one of the best live albums I have ever heard. Simply put, it’s a must have for any fan of good pop songs that lay life’s emotions bare. (And for those downloaders, the iTunes version features three bonus tracks, including a great cover of Prince’s “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.”)

10) Marah
- Austin City Limits Festival, Zilker Park, Austin, TX 9/16
I’ve got two commandments about rock shows—I should be able to grab a cheap beer at the venue and they shouldn’t happen anytime before lunch. Marah’s set at the second day of ACL violated one those rules—they went on at 11:45 a.m. My friend Stacy and I remarked that the guys in Marah looked like they hadn’t bothered to go to sleep the night before. Singer-guitarist Serge Bielanko confirmed just as much for us, saying “I guess you had two choices this morning—it was either go get a coffee and a breakfast burrito or come see the Marah. We appreciate you coming out this early here in the morning. To me, this is the equivalent of 4:30 in the morning. Me personally, I would have been having the breakfast fucking burrito.” Of course, this being Austin, Serge would have been having a breakfast fucking taco, not burrito. Yet even with all the talk of yummy Tex-Mex food, Serge and singer-guitarist-brother David Bielanko sure didn’t act as if was before noon. Their energy crackled off the stage and into the crowd at the start of the set and didn’t let up for 45 minutes. They ran around as if it wasn’t 90 degrees, jumped off the stage into the photo pit to get closer to the fans and even busted out a crowd-pleasing, fist-pumping verse of “Baba O’Riley” in the middle of one of their Springsteen-like tales of life in blue collar Philly. Next year I think Marah should kick off the festival at 9:00 a.m., and I’ll bring breakfast tacos enough for everyone.

9) The Minus 5 - Southpaw, Brooklyn, NY, 3/26
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again and I’ll write it in this paragraph right now: Scott McCaughey writes some of the catchiest songs ever. Any time I get to see him play in either of his bands, the Minus 5 or the rarely- ever-touring-outside-Seattle Young Fresh Fellows, I know that 90 minutes to 2 hours later I will have laughed a whole lot, bobbed my head and sung along to a bunch of songs. McCaughey is also one of the few people that I would go see perform on a Sunday night when there are new episodes of The Simpsons and Family Guy to be had. This first Minus 5 show out of two in New York was the most fun I had on a Sunday night in 2006. McCaughey joked about all the new songs with guns (which made me think about how the area where Southpaw is located used to be dangerous years ago) and made some very odd crack about being stalked by a woman. Alas, I was the only person that laughed at the joke, which caused everyone around me to sort of give me a look like I should be put in jail. After the show my odd sense of humor was appreciated by none other that the Minus 5’s bassist, Peter Buck, who also plays in some other big band whose name I can’t quite recall. Buck said to me, “Thanks for coming. I'm glad you enjoyed it. And I especially liked the fact you enjoyed the stalker comments.” Somehow I felt just a tiny bit better after that.

8) Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3 - Hiro Ballroom, New York, NY 11/17
I’m not the only person who appreciates the greatness that is the Minus 5—Robyn Hitchcock likes them so much he used them as his backup band. The Venus 3 configuration sees Peter Buck back on the Rickenbacker guitar (and it sounded oh so good), Scott McCaughey on bass and harmony vocals and Bill Reiflin on drums. This trio formed a rock solid foundation for Hitchcock to explore his entire catalog of quirky pop songs. It might be blasphemy to say this, but I believe that the Soft Boys songs Hitchcock and the Venus 3 did this night (“Queen of Eyes,” “I Wanna Destroy You”) were even better than when I saw the Soft Boys reunion tour a few years ago. And to hear Buck’s classic chiming 12-string on cuts like “Flesh Number One” and “Madonna of the Wasps,” well, it brings out the old “reminiscing about his college radio days” guy in me. Another highlight of any Hitchcock show is his ability to go on these extended soliloquies that can be puzzling and painfully funny—usually at the same time. He was his talkative self this night, spinning tales about Mick Jagger, elephants, God, Jesus and what seemed to be hundreds of other topics. I anxiously look forward to the day when someone finally releases a Hitchcock version of Having Fun on Stage with Elvis.

7) Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris - Radio City Music Hall, New York, NY 6/22
I must admit, I didn’t expect much from this show, as Knopfler and Harris’s collaborative album All the Roadrunning didn’t do too much for me. It did start out a little rough (especially vocal mix-wise) but settled down after a few tunes. And then Knopfler pulled out the Dire Straits classic “Romeo and Juliet” and it was, in a word, breathtaking, and somehow much, much better than the previous Knopfler solo tour I saw back in the late ’90s. When Knopfler and Harris started singing “This is Us” something clicked—between them, between their band, between themselves and us in the audience. It was that tangible feeling in the air when you just know that the moment you’re in is pretty damn good and you want to bottle it up for future reference. The song clocked in at probably at a little over five minutes, and I wished that it could have gone for another 10. The set closer “Why Worry” was a great surprise, and showed just how well Knopfler and Harris’s distinctive voices work together. Hopefully their brief tour will encourage them to work together in the not too distant future.

6) Nada Surf - Hiro Ballroom, New York, NY 11/27
In scoring tickets for this show I felt like part of the...well, what is this Generation of 20 year olds who text message all the time and make sentences that look like Prince song titles called anyways? Generation Y? Z? AA? Whatever they’re called, I was one of them for a night. I text messaged some number I saw on Nada Surf’s website for what they called a “Flash Concert.” That’s apparently a play on “flash mob,” where those Generation AA’s get together at a public place after getting a text message. Usually it’s done as some sort of civil disobedience or some crap like that, I’m not sure. All I know is that I had to show up at the Hiro Ballroom, show the text message saying I was on the list and I got in. I wasn’t sure if the band would give it their all for a free private show, especially after they’ve been off the road for a while. But they flat out rocked. At one point drummer Ira Elliot kept having a problem with the snare. During “Popular” Elliot hit his snapping point—he started hitting the drums so hard it looked like he wanted to break all of them in half. Afterwards singer-guitarist Matthew Caws said, “Wow dude, you went all Tommy Lee at the end of that.” It was awesome. (And yes, I did yell out for “Shout at the Devil.”) They did every single song in their catalog that I love. I could haven’t been happier singing along with “Killian’s Red,” “Inside of Love” and especially “Blankest Year” and “Do It Again.” During the latter track I started really pogoing and screaming the words to the last refrain: “Maybe this weight was a gift/Like I had to see what I could lift/I spend all my energy/Walking upright.” All those 20-somethings quickly cleared out so the old man could act like a kid again. Again, it was awesome. (And thankfully my new New Balance sneakers did the job and saved me from walking like an 80 year-old man the next day.)

5) The Figgs - Maxwells, Hoboken, NJ 6/16
With all The Figgs shows I’ve seen over the past decade (60 plus now), I’ve discovered one thing that never fails to kick the intensity up a notch—when guitarist Mike Gent is ticked, they rock harder. Now Gent might dispute this claim (and I’m sure he’ll tell me one way or another if I’m wrong), but I’ve seen it a few times and believe it to be true. The event this evening that got his annoyance level up a bit was when the act on before them went well past when The Figgs were supposed to hit the stage. We’re talking at least an hour later than it was supposed to be. Heck, Mike had to be getting ticked, because I certainly know I was. So indeed, the rock was brought when they finally got on the stage. They played seven songs that ended up on the great Follow Jean Through the Sea, did my favorite unreleased track (“Who’s Your Mother Out With Tonight”) and blasted through the venomous true story that is “Fucks Off.” All in all, it was well worth getting back to Brooklyn after 3 a.m.

4) World Party - Irving Plaza, New York, NY 9/9
I must publicly thank my co-worker Dave Schulps, for if he hadn’t raved about the World Party gig he saw in Los Angeles, I never would have finagled myself a spot on the guest list. I’d been a big fan of the band since I first heard “Ship of Fools” yet had only seen them once before back in 1993 when it seemed Karl Wallinger was going through the motions while opening for 10,000 Maniacs. This jaunt was much different, as it was Wallinger’s first full band tour since he had a brain aneurysm over five years ago. I can't even imagine what it must feel like to get a second chance after staring down death, but I can say I’ve seen how it can impact a person’s take on their own songs. Wallinger had a grin etched on his face for 90 minutes straight. The pure joy the man got from playing with what is a kick ass band came through in every song he sang. Wallinger's vocals on the studio versions of his songs such as set opener “Put the Message in the Box” and “Is It Like Today” always seemed to me a little bit detached, as if he needed to put some distance between himself and his words. Not on this night. Wallinger's passion for these songs rang through loud and clear. The set went deep on Goodbye Jumbo songs, with seven cuts played. And with many lyrics in those songs about not letting life pass you by ("See the world in just one grain of sand/You better take a closer look/Don't let it slip right through your hand") it was obvious that the meanings to many of his own words had changed for Wallinger. Even "Way Down Now," which is not the most uplifting song, came across now as anthem of carrying on. And damn, this audience was glad Wallinger carried on. Irving Plaza wasn’t sold out, but the rapturous ovation Wallinger and company got throughout the evening was so loud I thought I was at the Garden. And it was obvious that Wallinger was touched by all of it. Someone left him a bouquet of flowers at his feet, and I could have sworn that he looked a little choked up when he went to the mic to thank the anonymous fan who had left them. Overall, it was stirring example of the healing power of music. Wait, did I just write something that New Age-y? Fuck, I am going soft…

3) Gnarls Barkley - Austin City Limits Festival, Zilker Park, Austin, TX 9/15
I thought I had seen some sweaty people in clubs before, but nothing could compare to the oceanic waves of perspiration coming off of Cee-Lo’s head during this late afternoon set. Even though we were pretty far away from the stage, the video screen left no doubt as to the hotness up there. Whew, I’m starting to wipe my own forehead thinking about it. Somehow that didn’t stop Cee-Lo and company from delivering the most surprising performance of 2006. Sure, I loved “Crazy,” but after a couple of listens St. Elsewhere seemed to pale in comparison to that gem. Heck, my friend Stacy and I half-heartedly went to that stage with very low expectations. I figured we’d bag it after a couple of tunes. Yet we stayed all the way through, becoming more and more impressed with each tune. Live, all of those moody songs take on a much bigger life. The claustrophobic and paranoid tone that carries through the album is replaced by one of pure exhilaration on stage. The band that Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse put together stick to the basic arrangements yet add enough, well, let’s call it ooompf, that 40-thousand people in 97 degree heat can jump around and dance. Somehow I don’t think Nickel Creek (our other option) would have given me the energy to stand for an hour on that day.

2) The Minus 5 - Mercury Lounge, New York, NY 3/28
The Minus 5 show I mentioned at number-nine was just as much fun as this show, which came two nights later. But that show didn’t have a smoking guest appearance by Lenny Kaye on guitar, and it didn’t have the surprise performance of one of my favorite songs ever. Singer-guitarist Scott McCaughey walked up to the mic at one point and said, “This next song is a cover. It’s by one of the best bands you'll ever see, and this song is probably one of the best you’ll hear this year.” Then McCaughey kicked off that killer riff that starts off the Young Fresh Fellows’ “Hillbilly Drummer Girl.” I started jumping up and down, screaming “yeah, YEAH!” All of the people around me at the front of the stage gave me some extra space for the rest of the show after that little display. And then two people came up and asked me, “Who does that song originally?” “Ugh,” I thought, “How could these people not one of the best Fellows songs ever?” After the show was over I went up to Scott, gave him a hug and thanked him for breaking out that song, telling him he had no idea what it meant to me. The Minus 5 have covered a Fellows track before—“I’m Not Bitter” from 2003’s Down With Wilco was first released on a rare Fellows LP—but I never expected this song to ever make a Minus 5 set. Hey, the Fellows have played New York only three times in the past 12 years, so I'll take what I can get. And for it to be this song, well, it was almost too much.

1) Soul Asylum - Irving Plaza, New York, NY 8/3
I can’t exactly explain why this Soul Asylum show was slightly better than the gig I raved about in last year’s list. Perhaps it was that I knew every single one of their new songs this time around. Or the fact I was able to drink copious amount of Rolling Rock. Or that when my friend Eric said to me, “Do they ever do that ‘Summer of Drugs’ song anymore,” and then a couple of songs later they did it, completely blowing our minds. Or that each gig seems like a New Orleans style funeral/celebration of their late bassist Karl Mueller. Or that “Cartoon” is still one of the best co-lead vocal songs ever. Or that approximately 18 guitarists joined them on stage to do this year’s anthem “Stand Up and Be Strong.” I just don’t know and I can’t explain it. All I know is that I never felt better coming out of a show this year than I did that night.

The Long Winters

How was I to know that cleaning my desk one fateful Friday would lead to one of my favorite new quirky pop bands? Frontman John Roderick’s creative wordplay and knack for memorable melodies sucked me in on Putting The Days to Bed and inspired me to buy the entire catalog and then write an entry for Trouser Press. Think about it—I liked this guy’s music so much I spent my own money on it and volunteered to do extra work for no pay. What am I, an asshole? (Don’t answer that, we all already know what the correct response is to that rhetorical question.) I spent a couple of weeks listening to only their three albums and one EP on my commutes back and forth to work. I was amazed by the interesting characters I found throughout Roderick’s lyrics. The debut Worst You Can Do Is Harm captures people on the seedier side of life: common thieves, murderers (“Government Loans”), drunks and junkies (“Medicine Cabinet Pirate”). The follow-up When I Pretend to Fall features insanely catchy songs that border on the nonsensical at times (“Shapes” opens with the line “Rice won’t grow at home and the Moon doesn’t favor girls”—huh?) The only problem about discovering a band’s entire catalog at once? The wait for their next album seems to take fooooorever.

Nada Surf

I’m not sure that this technically counts as a rediscovery, since I only discovered how much I truly liked this band in 2005. But it’s my list and I’ll do whatever the hell I want. I did like Nada’s 2003 album Let Go when I initially played it, but I had no idea how much I loved it until I put it on the iPod and was dumbstruck one night at the Clean Rite (the name of my local laundry joint) by the power of “Inside of Love.” I won’t rehash what I wrote about the song earlier this year (because it’s too damn long). However, I will say that seeing the band play it twice in two months and encouraging people to two-step while they performed it somehow turned “Inside of Love” from a “feeling sorry for yourself” song into a “c’mon, smile and have a laugh about yourself and your pathetic life and maybe grab a drink” song. And that’s a lot more fun than being depressed for four minutes and 58 seconds. At least I hope it is.