Monday, December 31, 2007

Song of the Week 12/28/07

Okkervil River - "Plus Ones"

I just can't stop listening to this track from my number-four album of the year (online version coming soon, I promise). Here are the amazing lyrics:

"No one wants to hear about your 97th tear, so dry your eyes or let it go uncried, my dear. I am all out of love to mouth into your ear, and not above letting a love song disappear before it's written. And no one wants a tune about the 100th luftballoon that was seen shooting from the window of your room, to be a spot against the sky's colossal gloom and land, deflated, in some neighbor state that's strewn with 99 others.

8 Chinese brothers; well, there's a reason why the last is smiling wide and sitting higher than the others, swinging his arms.

You would probably die before you shot up 9 miles high, your eyes dilated as light plays upon the sight of TVC16 as it sings you goodnight. Relaxed as hell and locked up in cell 45, I hope you're feeling better. The 51st way to leave your lover, admittedly, doesn't seem to be as gentle or as clean as all the others, leaving its scars.

All in the after hours of some Greenpoint bar, I told you that I can't listen, baby, about the 4th time you were a lady, and how your forthrightness betrayed a secret shyness, stripped away by days of being hailed as "Your Highness." And what's new, pussycat, is that you were once a lioness; they cut your claws out. Kitten, not everyone's keen on lighting candle 17. The party's done. The cake's all gone. The plates are clean. The chauffeur's leering from the cheerless mezzanine. And, in just 1 year, the straight world can pay to see what they've been missing.

You were caught kissing 8 Chinese brothers, but there's a reason why the last is smiling wide and sitting higher than the others, stinking with charm. And he says, "Let's get lost. Let them send out alarms." He says, "Let's get crossed out and come to harm. Let's make the world's stupidest stand and truly mean it. Let's hit the limit of laws over lovers' arms - no, let's exceed it."


Saturday, December 22, 2007

Song of the Week 12/21/07

John Fogerty - "Rockin' All Over the World"

This track from Fogerty's self-titled 1975 solo album must have gotten some airplay on WGY, the A.M. Top 40 station in Albany while I was growing up. I remember this song 32 years later as clear as any of my Top 20 Singles from 2007. Fogerty put it on his great live album Premonition a decade ago, but thanks to the interesting out-of-print blog Rock Is Dead I now have a pristine copy of the studio version.

Speaking of the Premontion version:

Friday, December 21, 2007

The 18th Annual Reynolds Top 20 List

Competent Things Come to Those Who Wait

2007: The Year Where Idiocracy Got Its Start

2007's Top 20 Albums

Top 10 Headlines I Hope I Don't Write in 2008

2007's Top 20 Singles

Other Musical Stuff From 2007
--Compilations, Reissues, EPs, Soundtracks, Etc.


--Discovery of the Year

--Rediscovery of the Year

2007's Top Visual Aids

Top 5 Songs Steve Should Have Never Sung (or Never Should Sing) With Bunnie England and the New Originals

Compentent Things Come to Those Who Wait

I bet you opened up this envelope just before or after New Year’s Eve. And you’re probably thinking, “What the heck took so long? Did you get the flu again?” No, no flu this time. But I did come with a multiple choice list of ready-made excuses:

a) I threw out my back singing Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” bunch of hot drunk chicks.

b) It took three weeks for me to realize I wasn’t a member of the Writer’s Guild of America East and that striking against Steve Reynolds was kind of idiotic.

c) My 16 year old sister got pregnant and it caused a nationwide controversy.

d) First I had to finish writing this long overdue term paper called the Mitchell Report.

The real answer? I got tired of missing things that happened in December. Invariably some compilation would be released, some film would come out or I’d go to a Figgs Christmas show—and immediately regret not having that event or album on the list. When the Figgs announced three nights of shows in New York December 14th through the 16th, I realized that I need to push back my own deadline.

Now the Top 20 deadline hasn’t always been right before Christmas. The second list I did I sent out in mid-January 1992. And the 13th edition some people didn’t see until just before February because of that dreaded flu and writers block. At first this list was my cheap way of doing a Christmas card, so it needed to go out by December 15th. Then when I moved to New York and made friends in the record industry I needed to ship copies out even earlier because record companies closed up shop the last two weeks of the year. Now that the record industry barely exists and I don’t giving a flying fuck about December 25th because the tourist season has made me one jaded bastard, I have no reason to get this out until the very end of the year. So I set my deadline to get it all done for December 22nd, which is the day after my Top 10 albums and singles were due in to both the Village Voice and Idolator critics’ polls.

There’s something else I considered with this list—doing it online only. It would save a whole shitload of time copying, doing layout, labeling, sealing envelopes. And that’s not counting the numerous paper cuts on my fingers and all the trees and staple plants I’ve killed the past 18 years. I thought about either making it a downloadable PDF or just posting it straight to the Top 20 blog (home of the trademark pending Song of the Week). Once I finished writing the list I could have been done with it for the year just an hour or so later. In the end I decided against it—for this year.

So what I’m looking for is a little feedback. Email me at and let me know—do you prefer paper, or would you like for the Reynolds Top 20 list to go ahead into the 21st century?

Speaking of the 21st century, I did decide to cook up a podcast for this year’s list. Starting December 31st you’ll be able to download me talking about this year’s music and playing some of the best tracks at the Reynolds Archives. It won’t be as slick as the 15th Anniversary Special, but it will still feature my hungover soaked pipes.

2007: The Year Where Idiocracy Got Its Start

About a month ago I stumbled upon a film called Idiocracy on one of the 67 HBO channels I get through digital cable. It’s a Mike Judge film that barely got released but found some second life on DVD (sound familiar?) and now has a tiny cult following. Luke Wilson plays an average guy who takes part in an army experiment only to wake up 500 years later to discover he’s the smartest person on Earth. Judge’s vision of a truly stupid society is one of the funniest things I saw on the small screen all year. Imagine Planet of the Apes played for laughs and satire, but it’s just a planet of stupid humans. The second time I saw the film I laughed just as hard until a disturbing thought raced across the neurons in my brain:

This could actually happen.

Seriously, this may have been one of the stupidest years of all time. Look at this list of seriously dumb things people reported and talked about in 2007: Paris Hilton went to jail, yet Phil Spector didn’t; baseball players got raked over the coals for steroid use, yet the press barely yawned when plenty of football players got caught; Britney Spears shaving her head is worldwide news, yet Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize for trying to save the planet doesn’t even get a mention in the New York tabloids. I’m not absolving myself from this—I wrote more about stupid things bands did than ever before because that’s what radio stations like to talk about. I started asking questions of bands hoping to get them to say stupid things. And anyone who’s ever been in my office for more than 30 minutes would know we are a bastion, a castle, nay, a secret bunker of all things stupid.

There’s a lot of money to be made in smart people playing dumb. Look at the recent film careers of Vince Vaughn, Will Farrell, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and writer/producer Judd Apatow. These guys have made millions playing (or writing) characters that are likeable yet not that bright. The biggest selling rock album of the year came from a band led by a fourth place finisher on American Idol. And lesser “reality” TV programs (ratings-wise I mean) show plenty of people who are stupid, yet smart enough to scheme their way into 10 minutes of fame. (Andy Warhol would probably shorten his estimate down if he were alive today. He’d also be scratching at the inside of his coffin.) The question is this—when doing we stop pretending that we’re being dumb and actually become dumb?

I don’t know, it’s probably all Bush’s fault. Or maybe Chaney’s. And I’m sure Karl Rove had all the water the U.S. spiked with some stupefying drug.

Fortunately not all music was stupid this year. There are quite a few songwriters in the following pages who wrote smart, literate tunes that also happened to be very pleasing to the ear. Okkervil River’s Will Sheff explored the life of a rock and roll band and the connection to their fans and popular culture with a set of very cinematic songs. Bruce Springsteen once again wrote about average Americans and their everyday battles, disguising his political bent in a bunch of big hooks. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy yearned for a simpler time and wrote tales of acceptance and hope. All three of these guys didn’t make me feel dumb when I listened to their works of art in 2007.

There were some artists who surprised me by releasing some incredibly bad albums. We’re not talking someone you’d expect to be bad (like Fergie or Nickelback). These are artists whose last albums I really enjoyed and couldn’t wait for the follow-up. The main offender was Rilo Kiley. Their Under the Blacklight has made plenty of critics’ year end lists—and these people are all fucking morons. When I took the CD out of the drive after playing it, I swear my computer made a sound like it had just thrown up in its hard drive just a little bit. Under the Blacklight reeks of contractual obligation—the songs sound half baked, the only halfway decent track is a rip-off of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” which in itself a rip-off, and frontwoman Jenny Lewis somehow decided that the way to commercial success was wearing shorter skirts and hot pants and singing about sleazy sex and break ups. Ugh. Honestly, it was the most heartbreaking album of the year.

Australian teen punker-turned mid 20s poppy songwriter Ben Lee had a decent sized breakthrough in the U.S. two years ago with Awake is the New Sleep. Lee crafted a batch of smart and humorous pop songs for that disc. The title of his new album, Ripe, was more than appropriate as it stank. Every song screamed, “I want to be on Top 40 radio!!!!” Well, except for “American Television,” which screamed “I am very similar to that John Mellencamp song you hate from those Chevy ads so you’ll be able to sing along by the second time the chorus rolls around!!!”

I suppose I should write something about Radiohead’s idea to let fans name their own price for a download of their latest album In Rainbows since every other critic has chimed in. Let’s see, I paid exactly the same price as I have for every other Radiohead album (zero dollars) and for the first time I felt like I wanted my money back.

I also wanted to mention another disturbing trend happening in what’s left of the music industry—the extra or bonus track. Labels have been trying to double milk consumers by repackaging albums a few months after their original release with deluxe editions that have a few added songs or videos. To quote John Wayne, “it’s getting to be re-goddamned-diculous.” It makes the artist look like a money-grabbing prick to their fans, and those fans feel like suckers for buying the original album in the first place. The worst example of this took place in early November when the Eagles, with their lovely partners Wal-FuckOverYourWorkers-Mart, released a special edition of the album Long Road Out of Eden one week after its initial release.

One week. I think someone needs to re-record “Don Henley Must Die,” stat.

One more thing about this proliferation of bonus tracks—some of the extras (especially iTunes bonus tracks) are better than the songs on the original album. My favorite song on The ShinsWinching the Night Away isn’t actually on the album—“Nothing at All” was available only if you pre-ordered the download through iTunes. Okkervil River’s The Stage Names had different bonus tracks for iTunes and eMusic, and both are just as good as if not better than the nine tracks on the disc you’d buy in stores. The same could also be said for the Bright Eyes song “Susan Miller Rag” on the iTunes version of Cassadaga. I’ve always been a sucker for B-sides and I dig that these songs are such high quality. But holy crap, I’m getting tired trying to track down which places have the most extras.

And don’t get me started on how Neil Young had six different bonus tracks for six different retailers with Chrome Dreams II.


All in all, 2007 gets a B grade, stupidity included. I saw a bunch of great shows. I got my favorite band in the world to play at my favorite bar. I played songs I co-wrote on stage in front of people I knew and didn’t know. One of those songs went over so well that someone (not me, mind you) blogged about it. I sang Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” on my birthday with my band. I sang Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” with my band in Asbury Park, New Jersey. I danced my ass off at a couple of parties and didn’t care who saw me. I sang Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body” in a Santa Claus suit. The Red Sox won the World Series. Roger Clemens was proven, once again, to be the world’s biggest scumbag.

And most importantly, Natalie Portman and Marisa Tomei both got naked in films. When that happens, a year like that can’t be all bad.

2007's Top 20 Albums

20) Jesca Hoop - Kismet (3Entertainment/Red Ink/Columbia) The first time I heard a Jesca Hoop song it was preceded by this introduction: “She used to be Tom Waits’ nanny, and now she has a major record label deal.” That was one of the most mind-blowing sentences I heard all year. I actually sat up from my bed (it was one of those periods where I wake up in the middle of the night every night) and cocked my ear towards my speakers, as if I expected them to say, “Ha, just joking Steve!” Taking care of Tom Waits’ kids gets you a recording budget? What’s next, Randy Newman’s housekeeper being a judge on American Idol? That first track I did hear was the gloriously overdubbed with multitudes of Hoop’s vocals “Summertime.” Her harmonies upon harmonies weren’t anything I would associate with the man who sang “The Piano Has Been Drinking.” So I’m glad I listened to this album all the way through. The rest of Kismet is filled with the twists and turns that Waits has made a career staple. “Silverscreen” sounds like Hoop stole one of Waits’ old backing tracks and laid her vocal over it. That’s not to say it’s a total Waits imitation. The way “Seed of Wonder” moves from hip-hop to Native American chants and beats sounds completely natural. Its speaks well to the diversity of these songs that she can have Police drummer Stewart Copeland guest on one song and Incubus drummer Jose Pasillas on the next. Since I spoke about Mr. Waits so much in this paragraph I think it’s only fitting I let him have the last line, as cribbed from the sticker they included with my copy of Kismet: “Her music is like going swimming in a lake at night.” Best Tracks: “Money,” “Enemy,” “Seed of Wonder”

19) The Mooney Suzuki - Have Mercy (Elixia)
The last time I heard the Mooney Suzuki was a few years ago when I played “Electric Sweat” during a DJ gig. That song, the title track to their 2002 album, was a smoking bit of garage rock perfect for mix tapes. I never heard their next album Alive and Amplified, but from all accounts their decision to slicken things up with the Avril Lavigne hit-making team The Matrix was very, very bad idea. One could call Have Mercy a return to form, but is it a return when the band sounds nothing like its previous two albums? Have Mercy a truly enjoyable good old fashioned rock record, yet it is miles away from the Electric Sweat days. These songs are mostly acoustic guitar based tracks that hearken back to '70s power pop (“First Comes Love,” “Rock n’ Roller Girl”), late ’60s Rolling Stones (“99%”) and, um, Urge Overkill (“Adam and Eve”). The second half of the album gets even better with a trio of fine mellow tunes. “Good Ol’ Alcohol” sounds like a song written in pre-Prohibition times with its’ tuba and gang lead vocal, “The Prime of Life” is a ballad rooted in ’50s rock and “Down But Not Out” could have been a Faces outtake. These could have been one of the best closing triads on an album this year, but then band had to go and tack on two extra songs recorded after the Have Mercy sessions to make up for the fact the disc leaked last year after their label V2 went under. (What did I tell ya about those extra tracks?) Best Tracks: “Down But Not Out,” “Alcohol,” “Rock n’ Roller Girl”

18) Dinosaur Jr. - Beyond (Fat Possum)
Steve’s Indie Rock Credibility Damaging Statement # 46: I hate to say it, but I didn’t like Dinosaur Jr. until after Lou Barlow split (or rather moped away from) the band. When the original trio of Barlow, drummer Murph and singer-guitarist J. Mascis got back together in 2005 for a tour I didn’t even think about trying to catch them because the band was only doing material from the Barlow era. I enjoyed Dinosaur Jr. when Mascis took over every aspect of the band and made the slicker sounding major label albums Green Mind and Where You Been virtually by himself. So imagine my surprise when Beyond came across like missing link between their first three albums and Green Mind. It’s still got the massive amount of overdubbed guitars and lengthy solos that marked Dinosaur Jr. when it was just the Mascis show, yet it retains the harder edge of their earlier material. It’s quite simply a stunning return to form for a songwriter and guitarist I had given up on over a decade ago. And shockingly one of the Barlow songs (“Back to Your Heart”) is one of my favorite tracks. I guess now I have a reason to get off my ass and see them at some point before Mascis mumbles Barlow out of the band again. Best Tracks: “Almost Ready,” “Back to Your Heart,” This Is All I Came to Do”

17) Son Volt - The Search (Transmit Sound/Legacy)
The creative rebirth of Jay Farrar and Son Volt continues full speed ahead on The Search. Like its predecessor Okemah and the Melody of Riot, Farrar is still pissed off at our current administration. “The Picture” is about as direct a song Farrar has ever written: “Flotsam and jetsam in charge of the agency/Where truth gets twisted in danger of dissolving/When war is profit and profit is war.” Almost every song is populated with lyrics that ponder our country’s fate over the past seven years and what’s happening to the average American. Farrar’s newfound political lyric book probably would have fallen flat if he stuck to the same musical palate as the band’s original lineup. This new band knows how to shake things up a bit. The rhythm section of Andrew DuPlantis and Dave Bryson make a couple of these songs (“Circadian Rhythm,” “Beacon Soul”) almost swing in parts, while keyboardist Derry DeBorja is all over the place adding touches that flash out the picture Farrar is trying to create. I’m optimistic about the future of this band, as Farrar seems to have found a perfect cast of musicians who can take his restlessness about America and put it into musical terms. As Farrar sings in the title track, “it’s the search not the find” that drives him. Best Tracks: “The Search,” “Methamphetamine,” “The Picture”

16) Mike Viola - Lurch (Good Morning Monkey Records)
This latest solo pop gem from the esteemed Candy Butchers leader makes me very happy I pushed back my usual publication date this year. If I hadn’t I never would have gotten a chance to experience this batch of hook-filled tunes. Viola always had the knack for writing big hooks and a melody that was hummable after just one spin. This time around the hooks sunk into my head so quickly that I found myself listened to some tracks (“Girly Worm,” “The Strawberry Blonde”) one time through, pausing my iPod, and starting it over again because I needed to hear it again. As I write this piece I’ve only had Lurch for six days—and I’ve listened to it every one of those days. Viola and producer/drummer Ducky Carlisle have created a truly intriguing sound. These songs have a pop gloss all over them (those amazing stacked harmonies provided by Viola along with The Gravel Pit’s Jed Parish, The FiggsMike Gent and Pete Donnelly and Candy Butchers drummer Todd Foulshom) yet it’s still rough in all the right places. To these ears it evokes that great homemade sound of Paul McCartney’s one man band albums. If I finished this list after New Year’s Day, Lurch might lurch its way into the Top 10 next the Beatle I just namechecked. Best Tracks: “So Much Better,” “It Comes in Waves,” “The Strawberry Blonde”

15) Graham Parker - Don’t Tell Columbus (Bloodshot)
The 21st century has been very good to the creative well of Graham Parker. His previous three studio albums—2001’s Deepcut to Nowhere, 2004’s Your Country and 2005’s Songs of No Consequence—stack up comparably with any of his classic albums released in the mid-to-late ’70s. That creative streak continues of Don’t Tell Columbus. This album leaves the driving rock sound of Songs of No Consequence behind to focus on more mid-tempo works where the listener’s attention is pointed squarely at Parker’s always interesting words. Oh, those words can be rather pointed when Parker set dead aim at a target. “Stick to the Plan” just eviscerates the Bush administration on their dealings with New Orleans and Iraq, their religious zealotry and their “my way or the highway” of doing things—and tops it off with a jaunty kazoo solo. It’s easily the funniest (and perhaps smartest) song I have heard inspired by the incompetence in the Oval Office. (One can only hope that Parker’s U.S. residency doesn’t suddenly get revoked.) Parker also takes pot shots at his home country, slamming both musician/fuck-up Pete Doherty for his laundry list of fuck-ups and the English tabloids for propagating the breathless coverage of such stupidity. Amongst all this Parker found time to write one his best songs of the past 30 years. Don’t Tell Columbus draws its title from “I Discovered America,” in which Parker tells the tale of coming to the U.S. looking for success and finding himself love. This line in the first bridge always makes me smile—“Well I knew one day she’d let me in/I knew I’d get the girl/And live in a town called/Veteran pork capitol of the world.” Huh, I never knew that anyone even sold pork in Parker’s adopted hometown of Woodstock. Who knew all those old hippies liked their BBQ? Best Tracks: “I Discovered America,” “Total Eclipse of the Moon,” “Stick to the Plan”

14) PJ Harvey - White Chalk (Island/IDJMG)
Warning: do not put this latest album from PJ Harvey on at a party, a bar at 4 a.m., while you’re driving a dangerous piece of machinery (like a backhoe) or for a roomful of suicidal mental patients. Trust me, it would not end well. The most important female artist of the past 15 years strikes again with another shift in tactics. This time Polly Jean decided to sing in the highest register of her voice, making it sound thin, breathy and most of the time very disturbing. Now I’m not trying to persuade you to NOT listen to White Chalk—it’s another miraculous entry in Harvey’s stellar catalog. It’s just that all of these low key mostly piano-based songs are quite dark. Very dark. They could be the darkest and bleakest songs she’s written yet, and that’s saying something for a woman who’s penned songs about drowning a daughter and chopping up a significant other. Even with the creepiness that inhabits all of these songs, they get stuck in your brain. The first time I heard White Chalk was when one of my co-workers played it at his desk. By the time it was done I couldn’t stop thinking about “When Under Ether.” It’s kind of hard to work when the melody from a brutal song about someone undergoing an abortion gets stuck in your heard for a couple of hours. Best Tracks: “When Under Ether,” “Grow Grow Grow,” ”Broken Harp”

13) Josh Rouse - Country Mouse, City House (Bedroom Classics)
Yawn—another year, another great album from Josh Rouse. He’s found a groove (quite literally in the case of “Hollywood Bass Player”) in exploring the ’70s singer-songwriter template. Whether penning a song about his own life (“Sweetie”) or exploring other characters he observes, Rouse writes interesting little short stories that happen to make you bob your head up and down. The storytelling aspect of his songwriting—both fact and fiction—came into focus this past fall when I saw Rouse and author Nick Hornby take part in a reading/performance at a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan. Rouse performed “Domesticated Lovers” with his girlfriend Paz Suay providing some very sweet backing vocals. Rouse explained how the song had sprung from watching two people eat dinner and not say a single word to each another. A few days later I was in upstate New York visiting my aunt. We stopped at a Friendly’s restaurant (my upstate and New England peeps will know what I’m talking about) in suburban hell just south of Albany. My aunt picked out a couple, one of whom she used to work with at her hospital. She whispered across our table (in the way that older folks do when they have something bad to say about someone else), “They’ve been eating without saying a word for the entire time.” I slowly turned and glanced at the couple, and in that moment I could see exactly who Rouse was writing about. Best Tracks: “Hollywood Bass Player,” “Nice to Fit In,” “Sweetie”

12) The Shins - Wincing the Night Away (Sub Pop)
Five years ago I started a new tradition to make doing the Top 20 just a bit easier. The first day of work in January I created a new document, labeled it “2002 Stuff” and saved it to my desktop. This way I figured I would always have a handy place to write down albums and single that caught my ear throughout the year. There were many times over the previous years I would forget albums that were released in January by the time October rolled around. The “2007 Stuff” list I started before the 2006 Top 20 was finished. At that point I’d already spent a couple of months listening to an advance of Wincing the Night Away. It didn’t change my life like Natalie Portman’s character said the band would in Garden State (actually, that short film with Natalie Portman naked in it changed my life more than the Shins, but that’s a topic for another day). I did find myself with a bunch of cool songs running around my head—which I promptly forgot by April of this year. By the time this list reaches its 20 year anniversary, I’ll forget what I’m writing about when I get down to this far in a paragraph. Pork chops, paper towels, chili, two cans of soup…crap, that’s my shopping list. I’m already losing my short-term musical memory. Where was I? Right, The Shins. To me, the words are completely secondary with every Shins album. The melodies are the crucial part and what gets stuck in my head. To prove my point I just looked up the first verse of “Phantom Limb” and I had no idea it mentioned one of my favorite pork products: “Frozen into coats/White girls of the North/Fire past one, fire the one/They are the fabled lambs/A Sunday ham/The ancient snow.” Mmm…ham. Best Tracks: “Australia,” “Phantom Limb,” Turn on Me”

11) Buffalo Tom - Three Easy Pieces (Ammal/New West)
After nine years between albums I couldn’t wait to welcome back one of Boston’s best bands back into my CD player. Three Easy Pieces was definitely worth the wait. It’s got all the elements I expect for the trio—great ballads (“You’ll Never Catch Him”) and fist pumping rockers (“Bottom of the Rain”) delivered in a passionate voice from singer-guitarist Bill Janovitz, with a couple of lyrically interesting tunes sung by bassist Chris Colburn. The time away seems to have sharpened Janovitz’s lyrical skills, and his two songs sung from the perspective of a female (“You’ll Never Catch Him” and “Good Girl”) carry empathy for their subjects that most male writers could never capture. Even with all of that positive ink spilled, I’ve got a bit of a hang-up about Three Easy Pieces. Who sequenced this sucker? The best songs on the album—“September Shirt” and “CC and Callas”—are tucked away at the very end of the disc, while the two weakest tracks—“Bad Phone Call” and the title track—are the one-two opening punch. I found myself not wanting to listen to this album because I was so down on those songs. Fortunately the two great BT shows I saw this year made me dive back into Three Easy Pieces again and again. And as much as I hate to admit it, I would always skip those first two tracks and pretend it was an 11 track album. Best Tracks: “September Shirt,” “CC and Callas,” “You’ll Never Catch Him”

10) Ryan Adams - Easy Tiger (Lost Highway)
I’ve wondered what would happen if Ryan Adams decided to actually focus on making one good album in a year. Not three in a year, not releasing one and scrapping five others, not going crazy and yelling at hecklers and rock critics. What would happened if he was to use his obvious abundance of talent and just focused on a set of high quality songs, get a group of great musicians to play them and sing them for all he’s worth. Dear reader, I believe Easy Tiger is the byproduct of such an experiment. Adams cleaned up while making this album, kept the same touring lineup of his backing band The Cardinals together for more than a few weeks and handed the producing reins over to Jamie Candiloro (who engineered Adams’ Rock N Roll album and much of R.E.M.’s post-Bill Berry catalog) and wrote a bushel of great songs with members of the Cardinals. Sure it’s slick sounding, but songs this catchy and concise deserve a bright shiny package. Hell, Easy Tiger could just consist of album opener “Goodnight Rose” and 12 tracks of silence and it would still make it into the Top 20. “Rose” might be my favorite song Adams has written since Whiskeytown was still a band and not just a place I wanted to visit late at night. Best Tracks: “Goodnight Rose,” “Halloween Head,” “Tears of Gold”

9) Josh Ritter - The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (Victor/Sony/BMG)
I interviewed Josh Ritter last year for his album The Animal Years. The album, was, well, deadly dull and depressing. It was full about songs about war and how crappy life can be. Normally I’m down for a full dose of in your face depression. But having to listen to that album was a real chore. I found myself longing for a third rate grunge band I could interview. So who could have predicted that that the same guy from Idaho could make an album that’s such a joyful listen. Starting with its cheeky title, The Historical Conquests of… is crackling with energy, wit, infectious music and choruses and some rocking performances by Ritter’s band. The lyrics come fast and furious in songs like “Right Moves” and “Real Long Distance,” echoing early Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan at his ’60s peak. Ritter’s more subdued acoustic side still shows up on tracks like “Heart Still Beating” and “Wait for Love.” But he seems to be having too much fun to stay contemplative for too long. Heck, Ritter even reprises “Wait for Love” at album’s end as a singalong with his band as they happily clank percussion (and maybe a trash car at one point) as the track fades. Ritter’s greatest conquest? Perhaps it was beating his own reservations of having fun with his own music. Best Tracks: “Right Moves,” “To the Dogs or Whoever,” “Real Long Distance”

8) Paul McCartney - Memory Almost Full (Hear Music)
Yup, Paul McCartney in the Top 10. A man, pardon me, a Beatle who hasn't released a single song in the past decade that I've given more than a couple of cursory listens. Yes, he’s that guy who wrote perhaps the worst non-country post-9/11 song, the hackneyed “Freedom.” A guy who with every interview he gives sounds bored by hearing himself speak. With all of this against him, McCartney somehow released his finest album in 25 years. (Yeah, I’m still a sucker for Tug of War). Memory Almost Full sounds like McCartney wanted to make an album made for the iPod that sampled his entire solo career. I've listened to it through regular speakers and it just doesn't have the same impact. But my oh my, it’s an incredibly addictive pop gem when I'm riding on the F train with the headphones cranked. Some songs remind me of the 1980 quirky entirely DIY work McCartney II, others of the great Wings single “Junior’s Farm” and at other moments XTC and (I swear) Guided by Voices. Could his ugly divorce have inspired him to actually focus on his incredible songwriting craftsmanship? Maybe he finally cut down on the legendary amounts of pot he’s reported to have smoked over the years. (Quick thought: wouldn’t the guy who scores McCartney’s pot have access to the best herb in the world?) Maybe when he signed with Starbucks they gave him a lifetime supple of chai tea? Who knows. Whatever he did, it’s nothing short of miraculous. Best Tracks: “Dance Tonight,” “The End of the End,” “Mr. Bellamy”

7) Bright Eyes - Cassadaga (Saddle Creek)
As I was listening to this latest effort from Conor Oberst and company to prep for this year’s list I decided to do a little research. I’ve dug through some reviews and fan comments about Cassadaga and it seems the biggest complaint is that he stopped writing about himself, which has weakened the power of his songs. I’m here to say that’s as much crap as watch two girls and one cup. I think Oberst has gained great depth in his songwriting as he’s started to look more and more at the world around him. And with a larger lyrical worldview, the sound of Bright Eyes is has gotten bigger as well. Cassadaga is the most produced album in the Bright Eyes catalog, with strings, horns, loads of guitar overdubs and multiple background vocalists fleshing out the alt-country direction Oberst embraced on 2005’s most excellent I’m Wide Awake Its Morning. And the guy seems to have reigned in his tendencies to scream when he wants to evoke powerful emotions. All of this is blasphemy to old school Bright Eyes fans. I’ve got a message for those folks—get over it. Bands and songwriters change over time (unless they’re AC/DC) just like every other person on the planet. Change is an essential part of life and the creative arts. So these folks should just appreciate the path the Oberst is leading them down right now, and be happy when he busts out an old song once in a while at a show. (Wow that was a wee bit angry. Guess I should stay off message boards for a while.) Best Tracks: “Four Winds,” “Soul Singer in a Session Band,” “Classic Cars”

6) Peter Bjorn & John - Writer’s Block (Almost Gold Recordings)
I need to give thanks and mad props to my friend Bill Pearis and his blog Sound Bites for my PBJ fandom. I had heard “Young Folks” a couple of times at the beginning of the year and dismissed it as nothing more than novelty track. “All that whistling? Come on, give me a break,” I thought. Then I read Bill’s extensive accounts of the band’s first U.S. shows. I highly respect Bill’s musical opinion, so after a couple of email exchanges with him I decided to give the Swedish trio another shot. And wouldn’t you know that Bill was right. Peter Morén, Björn Yttling and John Eriksson craft incredibly catchy tunes that are all about the ups and down of romance. Most of these songs would have sounded fine with the standard guitar-bass-drums backing, but with each track they seem to find a perfect arrangement that adds another hook. The steel drums on “Let's Call It Off,” the shh-shh-shh percussion and fast paced drum machine on “The Chills” and the tubular bells of “Roll the Credits” each add another level to all of these tracks. I will admit I found myself skipping “Young Folks” by the time September rolled around, so I hope the Levi’s ad that uses “Up Against the Wall” will disappear from every sporting event soon. Best Tracks: “Let’s Call It Off,” “Amsterdam, “Roll the Credits”

5) Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge)
With each album Spoon singer-guitarist Britt Daniel and drummer Jim Eno keep paring down Daniel’s compositions to their bare essentials. Just like Gimme Fiction, there is not a single wasted note in any of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga’s arrangements. Each tambourine shake, perfectly recorded handclap, ominous piano chord, distorted guitar lick and idle moment of studio chatter (Daniel talking to Eno at the beginning of “Don’t You Evah” is essential to that song to these ears) is placed in the exact right spot. It’s remarkable that this band has used one sonic template over the past four albums, yet it hasn’t gotten old. The biggest sonic change is the use of horns on “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” and the unlikely semi-hit “The Underdog,” and even those departures mesh perfectly with the band’s constant approach. One thing that Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga has over its predecessor is a stronger lineup of songs from start to finish. Gimme Fiction started running out of steam during the last three tracks, while this album closes on one of its strongest “Black Like Me.” As long as Spoon keeps making high quality albums like this, they can name every other album they record after more nonsensical baby talk. I nominate Da Da Pee Pee for the disc that’s bound to come out in 2009. Best Tracks: “Rhthm and Soul,” “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb,” “Black Like Me”

4) Okkervil River - The Stage Names (Jagjaguwar)
I first discovered Austin’s Okkervil River last year under a blistering late afternoon sun at the Austin City Limits Festival. My friend Stacy suggested we stop and catch some of their set after Gnarls Barkley and the 20 or so minutes we got to witness were really good. Or at least they seemed good. At one point I thought I might pass out from the heat, so I might have misjudged their quality. Frontman Will Sheff—another vocalist I like who has an either love it or hate it voice—has crafted a loose concept album about the life of “midlevel rock band” as he sings in “Unless It’s Kicks.” Sheff’s lyrics tells multitude of stories covering both sides of the rock equation—the musician whose passion has lead him to a lonely life (“Savannah Smiles”) and the fan whose passion inspires and confounds that same musician. Sheff’s wordplay is dense and takes numerous listens to capture every offhanded reference or comment. The perfect example of this is “Plus Ones.” On the surface it seems like a typical picking apart of a failed relationship. Then one look at a lyric sheet shows just how incredible this song is:

“You would probably die before you shot up 9 miles high
Your eyes dilated as light plays upon the sight
Of TVC16 as it sings you goodnight.
Relaxed as hell and locked up in cell 45,
I hope you're feeling better.

The 51st way to leave your lover, admittedly,
doesn't seem to be as gentle or as clean as all the others,
leaving its scars all in the after hours of some Greenpoint bar”

And that’s just a small sample of song filled with great pokes at numbers throughout rock history. In any other year, this could have been my number-one album. And who knows—by this time next year I might still be discovering new lyrical highlights that will make me think I should have put this album up a couple of notches. Best Tracks: “Plus Ones,” “Unless Its Kicks,” “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe”

3) LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver (Capitol/DFA)
I read a review of Sound of Silver online a few months ago that said it was “about as close to a perfect hybrid of what makes both dance and rock music great.” I don’t think I could come up with more apt description. Well, except maybe “It’s a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of dance and rock.” Nah, that doesn’t work, it just makes me hungry while I type. Don’t get me wrong, Sound of Silver rocks. It just rocks while using the atypical drum programs and synth parts and it does that much more successfully than Trent Reznor ever did. It’s an album that makes me want to get up and dance—and that’s not a statement to be taken lightly. In the past two years I’ve actually danced in public a few times and onlookers have somehow survived. My attitude about the whole “getting on a dance floor and making a fool of myself” has definitely changed. It’s evolved from my own parody of dancing to an “I know I suck but I’m having fun even though my heel spurs hurts” kind of thing. And if I saw a bunch of people dancing to LCD Soundsytem (and it wasn’t outside in the Texas heat) I would totally join them. LCD mastermind James Murphy is the same age as me and has a background of playing in punk rock bands. So I can see why I could understand and get his twisted take on dance music. All of that being said, the best Sound of Silver track is the most straightforward rock song of the bunch, “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” A slow building piano-based track, “New York” crystallizes a lot of the problems I have with my adopted hometown. For example: “New York, you're safer/And you're wasting my time/Our records all show/You are filthy but fine/But they shuttered your stores/When you opened the doors/To the cops who were bored/Once they'd run out of crime.” Yet like Murphy, I can’t stop loving New York. And I can’t imagine not wanting to dance to Sound of Silver. Best Tracks: “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” “North American Scum,” “All My Friends”

2) Bruce Springsteen - Magic (Columbia)
I knew there was something different about this Bruce Springsteen album when two people I know who aren’t normally fans asked me, “Hey, how’s that new Springsteen album? I kind like that single.” And when one of my co-workers, who hasn’t like Springsteen since Kitty was back in town, actually dug a few songs and gave it an overall positive review in a well known music magazine I was convinced something was afoot. At first I wasn’t sure I liked Magic. Brendan O’Brien’s muddled production (the term sonic sludge applies to the solo in “Radio Nowhere”) robbed the E Street Band of its muscular power on many of the tracks. And Springsteen’s crooner voice on “Girls in their Summer Clothes” made me cringe upon the first couple of spins. Then I started digging deeper into the album and could understand why people outside the usual Bruce cult might enjoy it—Magic is Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. for the 21st century. The parallels between the two are pretty obvious after a while. Each has a subtle message about the state of our country. Each was launched into the public eye by a track that didn’t sound like anything else in The Boss’s catalog, yet they’re unmistakably Springsteen songs. "Long Walk Home" seems to be a young cousin to "My Hometown," with its similar description of a small town with its closed diners. (Except the one in “Long Walk Home” has flags flying at half mast over a courthouse, for reasons we’re all too readily aware of.) Even the bridge in “Livin’ in the Future” seems cribbed from Born in the U.S.A.’s “Cover Me.” Springsteen has stated in interviews he wanted to make an album with hooks, and he most certainly did that. It just so happens that along the way he made his best album in 20 years. Best Tracks: “Long Walk Home,” “Radio Nowhere,” “Terry’s Song”

1) Wilco - Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch)
After all the changes that have taken place in Wilco the past seven years, it’s nice to see Wilco finally land on some stable ground. The quiet confidence that frontman Jeff Tweedy has in this current lineup has rewarded us with one of the finest albums in their career. This post-rehab Tweedy has written his most direct and honest songs ever, and the rest of the sextet have created sympathetic arrangements that make those simple words and phrases shine. Alas, it seems most folks (a.k.a, the ones who bent over backwards for the experimental-leaning Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born) don't understand the open and tenderly optimistic vibe this album strives for. Oh well, it’s their loss. The opening lines to “What Light,” the lead track of the album, seem to sum up Sky Blue Sky’s mission statement: “Maybe the sun will shine today/The clouds will blow away/Maybe I won't feel so afraid/I will try to understand either way.” After making a couple of records that reflected their times (claustrophobic, paranoid and unrelenting in their darkness), perhaps Tweedy realized that everyone—himself included—could use a little bit of light and hope. Sky Blue Sky is another low-key achievement in a career filled with them. Let’s hope Tweedy and company will explore this path further. Best Tracks: “Either Way,” “Side With the Seeds,” “What Light”

Top 10 Headlines I Hope I Don't Write in 2008

1) To get back at Heather Mills, Paul McCartney joins the new season of Dancing With the Stars.

2) Bon Jovi records a polka-influenced album called Lost Kielbasa.

3) The latest panty-less crotch shot on the ’Net? Joan Baez.

4) Chris Daughtry starts his own line of products for shaved heads. The first is called Generic Guy’s Gel.

5) The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn announces their next album will be all songs about Williamsburg.

6) Coldplay’s Chris Martin and actress Gwenyth Paltrow divorce. Both record solo albums about the break-up.

7) Midwestern moms are turning tricks for Miley Cyrus tickets.

8) Guns n’ Roses release Chinese Democracy—with a catch. The disc includes software that forces the user to finish the album themselves before they can listen to it.

9) Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears team up for an album of duets called The Scumbags We Loved.

10) Goo Goo Dolls frontman John Rzeznik is the judge on a new FOX reality show. (Crap, that actually did happen)

2007's Top 20 Singles

20) Rihanna (featuring Jay-Z) - “Umbrella” (Def Jam)
Out of the crop of female pop/R&B singers that have broken out over the past years, I have the biggest soft spot for Rihanna. Each album the now 19 year old has recorded has contained at least one fantastic single that takes over the airwaves. In 2005 it was “Pon de Replay." In 2006 it was “S.O.S.” Two huge songs in two years—and Jay-Z feels he has to “help out” on the first single from her third album? C’mon Hova, what gives? His rap at the beginning of “Umbrella” is perhaps the worst and most useless verse he’s uttered in a stellar career. To me it reeks of desperation. Fortunately for us he’s gone after 32 seconds and then 23 seconds later we’re onto the great chorus that sticks in your head for a week or two before it moves on to infect someone else. I predict that people will be saying “ella, ella, a, a, a” for years to come.

19) Interpol - “Heinrich Maneuver” (Capitol)
I’d like to crown Interpol the new kings of catchy songs that never feature the song’s title in the lyrics. Their first album is chock full of songs that I couldn’t give you the title to without looking it up. I have no idea why this song is called “Heinrich Maneuver.” Is it due to the line “and today my heart swings” in the chorus? I have no idea. All I know that when the song opens with these lines—“How are things on the west coast? I hear you’re moving real fine/You wear those shoes like a dove. Now strut those shoes we go roaming in the night”—I’m sucked right into their peculiar kind of groove. And as long as that groove doesn’t come along with some sort of STD I’ll be okay.

18) KRS-One, Kanye West, Nas & Rakim - “Classic (Better Than I've Ever Been DJ Premier Remix)” (Nike)
Here’s a first in the history of the Top 20 list—this track was financed by a shoe company. In the state of today’s music industry where songs become hits due to their placement in commercials, I guess that’s to be expected. Honestly, some of the lyrics go by so fast I have no idea if Kayne or Nas or Rakim even mention Nike shoes. (Oh, wait, Nas just rapped “I’m classic like the Air One’s/The hustler’s shoe that’s what I’m accustom to.” Can’t believe it took 25 listens for me pick that reference.) In any case, this meeting of rap talents past and present is memorable due to the mixing talents of the always reliable DJ Premier. And KRS-One has been a favorite since I first heard BDP in college, so it’s good to hear him get some mainstream airplay.

17) The Bird and the Bee - “I’m a Broken Heart” (Blue Note)
A song that repeats its title 18 times, the phrase “I try” over 50 times and doesn’t have much more in the lyric department shouldn’t work this well. The Bird and The Bee singer Inara George pulls it off with a breathy voice that conveys serious heartbreak mixed and healthy dose of detachment from the relationship that’s just tanked all at the same time. It’s fascinating to hear. Some moments I think her vocal is making fun of romantic suckers; at others she’s the most sympathetic singer you’ve every heard. Her bandmate Greg Kurstin doesn’t make my decision any easier by surrounding her voice with a lush pop production.

16) Common (featuring Lily Allen) - “Drivin’ Me Wild” (Good/Geffen)
Common’s latest album Finding Forever is definitely a letdown after 2005’s fantastic Be. I didn’t give this song a second thought until I saw him perform at the Austin City Limits Festival down in Austin back in September. Three sets of lines caught my ear—and made me chuckle—as he rapped in the Sunday sun:

1) “She was the type to watch Oprah and the Today Show/Be on the treadmill like Ok Go”

2) “Doin all she can for a man and a baby/Drivin herself crazy like the astronaut lady”

3) “They was one of them couples, people said they were the it/Unbreakable, like Bobby and Whit/Or Ryan and Reese, or Kimora and Russ/Relationships can be dead but look live to us”

That “drivin herself crazy like the astronaut lady” line never fails to entertain me, which proves that a) one humorous line can land a song on this list and b) I’m a mean and cruel person.

15) White Stripes - “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)” (Third Man/WB)
The latest effort from Jack and Meg White didn’t grab me like the duo’s last two albums. (I suppose I should have known that sooner when their cover of “Conquest” was my favorite song after a couple of listens.) “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is by far the best original on Icky Thump and just might be the most accessible and pop-oriented song Jack White has penned.

14) Arcade Fire - “Keep the Car Running” (Merge)
This one’s easy to explain why it’s here—it’s the second best Bruce Springsteen single of the year. Well, except he didn’t write or record it. But he did perform it with the song’s writer Win Butler in Ottawa in October, so I think he’s okay with this Canadian collective ripping him off. The clips on YouTube of the E Street Band performing it show that Springsteen totally digs the song, as he’s singing along to the words even when it’s not his turn at the mic.

13) Pearl Jam -“Love Reign O’ Me” (Ten Club)
Even the Pearl Jam and Who fan in me will admit that this is about as carbon copy a cover as you’ll find. But the Pearl Jam fan in me is blinded by hearing Eddie Vedder scream for all he’s worth during the song’s chorus. And that guy wins over the logical guy every time.

12) Modest Mouse - “Dashboard” (Epic)
Modest Mouse singer Isaac Brock sticks with the positive outlook put forward by “Float On” in this first single from We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, or as positive as a song that uses a car wreck metaphor can possibly be. New Mouser Johnny Marr—yeah, that guy who created the “How Soon is Now” riff—doesn’t add much to the band’s distinctive scratchy guitar sound. As a matter of fact, most of the guitar parts are drowned out by horns and strings. Thankfully Brock’s always distinctive voice is there on top of it all, yelling great lines about erasing taped T-V shows and how “the windshield was broken but I love the fresh air y’know.”

11) Suzanne Vega - “Frank & Ava” (Blue Note)
I’d have to choose Suzanne Vega as the most welcome comeback of the year. Her New York-centric Beauty and Crime is one of the best albums I discovered this year when prepping for an interview. In “Frank & Ava” Vega looks back at a time when stars like Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardener ruled (and fought all over) the town. It’s the catchiest tune Vega has done since the days of Tom and his diner, helped in no small part by the sublime backing vocals throughout by 2006’s Top 20 crush of the year (sigh) K.T. Tunstall. And like most great singles, it’s over (at 2:37) long before I want it to end.

10) Amy Winehouse - “You Know I’m No Good” (Republic/Universal)
How can anyone write about Amy Winehouse in their year end list without taking her personal problems into account? Each story about her, her husband, her drug habits, her tendency to stumble around London in just a bra, her being arrested for pot and then for “perverting the course of justice”—it’s hard to separate the punchline from the talented woman. In this tale of doing a boyfriend wrong Winehouse sounds so sure of herself and her actions (even if they were wrong) it’s a shame that she’s obviously destroyed all that self-confidence in the year since Back to Black was released in England. Maybe Roger Moore needs to get some gadgets from Q, kick some ass and get her back on the right path.

9) Peter, Bjorn & John - “Young Folks” (Almost Gold Recordings)
If I hadn’t heard this song in at least five TV series along with various commercials over the past few months I might have been in the Top 3. I can only imagine how burned out the people who first heard the song as an import last fall must feel right now. I bet the Seven Dwarves would be murdered if they ventured into Williamsburg.

8) Ted Leo & The Pharmacists - “The Sons of Cain” (Touch and Go)
My iTunes says I’m listening to “The Sons of Cain” for the 32nd time this year as I write this sentence. Yet I couldn’t recite a single lyric that Leo sings in this power-pop-punk confection. This song is all about the riff. I’ve air guitared to it at my desk, on a bus, on a train and when I was pissed off and wanted to make a fuss. Whoa, when did Dr. Suess get behind the keyboard?

7) Foo Fighters - “The Pretender” (Rosewell/RCA)
I must admit I found myself stupefied as I watched the Grammy nominations be announced in early December. Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins had just finished reading two sets of nominations when producer Jimmy Jam announced that the guys had just been nominated for Record of the Year for “The Pretender.” I knew the song had gotten a lot of rock airplay through the fall, but who knew that would actually sink into the heads of Grammy voters? “The Pretender” is another entry in a long line of catchy singles Dave Grohl has unleashed upon us over the past decade. Did I finally have something in common with the Recording Academy? I had to play it again to get a clearer view.

After a couple more listens “The Pretender” didn't seem that different from the patented soft-loud-louder-soft-loudest template that Grohl helped perfect during his time in Nirvana. Then I searched out the lyrics, and that is where I discovered what won over Grammy voters. “The Pretender” isn't about a girl keeping secrets—it's a spot-on indictment of our current administration. Get a gander at these lines:

“Keep you in the dark
You know they all pretend
Keep you in the dark
And so it all began
Send in your skeletons
Sing as their bones go marching in... again
The need you buried deep
The secrets that you keep are ever ready
Are you ready?
I'm finished making sense
Done pleading ignorance
That whole defense
Spinning infinity, boy
The wheel is spinning me
It's never-ending, never-ending
Same old story
What if I say I'm not like the others?
What if I say I'm not just another one of your plays?
You're the pretender
What if I say that I'll never surrender?”

In light of the CIA destroying evidence and the revelation that we, the people, were being lied to about Iraq...I mean Iran, Grohl's words really take on a new meaning.

Well, that, and that it fucking rocks.

6) Kanye West - “Stronger” (Hip Hop Since 1978/Roc-A-Fella)
A rap cut that uses a song from a French techno duo for its main sample? Now that is a producer really putting his noggin to work. My first thought about “Stronger” when I heard it on the radio is that it sounded like nothing else out there getting played. The Daft Punk-propelled track just jumped out of the speakers while I was getting a haircut. (Fortunately I didn’t move suddenly to the beat or I could have been doing a list of my favorite closed captioned movies instead.) The lyrics are average, but this hysterical couplet is a sign that Mr. West might just be right about his own brilliance: “You know how long I've been on ya? Since Prince was on Apollonia/Since OJ had Isotoners.” Ha ha ha.

5) Patty Griffin - “Heavenly Day” (ATO)
Following in the footsteps of Suzanne Vega at #11, I was exposed to Patty Griffin’s brilliant songwriting because I had to prep for a work interview. Griffin is best known as the songwriter who the Dixie Chicks covered for the title track of their gazillion-selling album Fly. This first single from Griffin’s own Children Running Through is a slow, sappy ballad through and through. Look at these lines:

“Oh heavenly day, all the clouds blew away
Got no trouble today with anyone
The smile on your face I live only to see
It's enough for me, baby, it's enough for me”

Before my interview I found myself liking it against my best judgment. Then Griffin explained that the song tumbled out of her one day after her and her dog Bean got to move back into her house after some renovation. The puppy ran itself ragged around her backyard then fell asleep with a “little doggie smile on its face.” I’m a cold hearted bastard, but even I find it kind of hard to dislike a song written for someone’s dog. Also I have found myself liking songs written about cats, yet not liking cats. I guess that falls into the whole “hates tomatoes, likes tomato sauce” mystery of my life.

4) Justin Timberlake - “What Comes Around…Goes Around” (Jive/Zomba Label Group)
So when does the backlash start against this guy? Three great # 1 singles from one album, some well received minor roles in films, sold out shows around the world and he’s been with Scarlett Johanson and Jessica Biel. Actually, I think my backlash started just as I finished that sentence. Lucky bastard.

3) Feist - “1234” (Cherrytree/Interscope)
My lifelong habit of singing and humming along to songs (especially in a car by myself) is something I picked up from my aunt. She would sing and hum along to everything, even if the radio’s off. While I was visiting her this spring she was humming along to some song that made me wanted to drive the truck into a ditch. Instead, I decided I needed to get a tune into my head to combat the noise she was making. All of sudden “1 2 3 4” popped in there...and that was it. This song was stuck in my head for two full days until I was able to pop the iPod on and give it a spin. And another. And then another. And repeat. Also I feel pretty proud of myself for genuinely liking this song long before the video popped up on every blog or was used in that iPod Nano commercial.

2) Bruce Springsteen - “Radio Nowhere” (Columbia)
I first heard “Radio Nowhere” when one of the promo folks at Columbia dropped by to play it for a couple of us at our office. I thought it was okay, but certainly not as good as “Lonesome Day” from The Rising. Yet I found myself humming it again and again that afternoon. Then I realized why I was humming it—the riff sounded suspiciously like Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309 (Jenny).” That was kind of disappointing but after all the people who’ve ripped off the Boss over the past 30 years (see song #14) I think he’s entitled to a little thievery. A song this hooky and rocking overrules the critical part of my brain. Each time Steve Van Zandt’s harmony vocals cut through Brendan O’Brien’s cluttered production on “I just want to feel some rhythm” I want to pump my fist like I’m at an E Street Band show. It’s the best single Springsteen has released since “Murder Incorporated” and one that captures the power of this massive edition of the E Street Band.

1) Amy Winehouse - “Rehab” (Republic/Universal)
Again, I have a hard pulling the tabloid view of Amy Winehouse away from one of the best songs ever written about drug and booze abuse. The picture to the left of her today and her three years ago is the best visual proof that she should reject her own song’s tale and get herself some help, fast. On the musical side of things, producer Mark Ronson deserves some major props for constructing a masterful backing track that echoes the best of ’60s soul yet at the same time sounds right at home in today’s hip-hop. No wonder why multiple rappers made their own versions of the song. And just to bring the singles list full circle, the remix that has Winehouse’s U.S. label president Jay-Z’s dropping a verse is worthless and ruins a song that is perfectly fine in its original version.

--2007's Compilations, Reissues, EPs, Soundtracks, Etc.

10) Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Columbia)
Writer-director Judd Apatow (remember that name loyal reader) tackles the deluge of Oscar-hopeful musical biopics of recent times with his latest flick Walk Hard. I think the film is probably the funniest movie of the year, but I haven’t seen it yet as the list goes to press. (I always wanted to write that.) If the film is as half as funny as these songs, I think my gut feeling will be dead on. John C. Reilly showed his vocal chops a few years ago in the movie version of Chicago and he’s a revelation as the pipes of Dewey Cox. Reilly has no problems mimicking or paying tribute the styles of (get ready for this list) Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Bob Dylan, The Beatles—and ’70s disco singers? (You have to hear the disco remake of David Bowie’s “Starman.”) For me the highlights of the album are the back-to-back spot-on parodies of protest folkies like Phil Ochs. “Dear Mr. President” is the most patently offensive political song ever written, where Dewey stands up for “the injun all hopped up on booze” and “the cripple who lives in my street in a box.” And “Let Me Hold You (Little Man)” made me cackle so loudly on the subway one evening that every single person in the car turned and looked at me. How could anyone not laugh at lines such as these:

“All the elevator buttons
All so incredibly high
I stand today for the midget
Half the size of a regular guy
Let me hold you little man
As the parade passes by
Let me hold you little man
We’ll make believe you can fly
You shout for me to put you down
But I’m marching today for your cause
I’m banging the drum
Your big day will come
When they remake the Wizard of Oz.”

It took me 20 minutes to transcribe those lyrics because I kept laughing and would lose my place. Is it wrong to like a song about midgets that much?

9) Bridging the Distance: A Portland, OR Covers Compilation (Arena Rock Recording Company)
Bridging the Distance isn’t a tribute album per se, yet it what makes it so appealing is exactly what makes a tribute album worthwhile. Almost all of the 22 artists aren’t afraid to take the song’s original structure and reinvent it in their own style. The Minus 5’s take on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “That Smell” focuses in on the dark lyrics away and strips away the muscle-bound riffs that somewhat diluted the original’s impact. Lackthereof reimagine the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” as an OMD-styled synth pop groove. (I think Michael McDonald might approve it’s so well done.) Spoon’s Britt Daniel makes Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home” an example of how shakers, handclaps and tambourines can carry a song all by themselves. The only close-to-the-source covers come from the two best known artists on the album, The Decemberists (Fleetwood Mac’s “Think About Me”) and Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla (Jimmy Hates Jazz’s “Shattered Dreams”). And even those remakes are pretty decent. It seems like Portland has more going for it these days than just rose gardens and well planned-public transportation.

8) Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 - Sex, Food, Death and Tarantulas EP (Yep Roc)
On this mostly live EP The Venus 3 (a.k.a. 60% of the R.E.M. touring lineup) prove yet again that they’re the best band Robyn Hitchcock has worked with since his days in The Soft Boys. Peter Buck’s chiming Rickenbacker intertwines perfectly with Hitchcock’s always masterful playing, while Scott McCaughey’s melodic McCartney-like bass playing and sweet harmony vocals shine on take on the Soft Boys classics “The Queen of Eyes” and “Give to the Soft Boys” as well as “A Man’s Got to Know His Limitations (Briggs)” from 2006’s Ole Tarantula. The two studio tracks included on the EP, “Luckiness” and “Copper Kettle,” show that this band also knows how to bring out the best of Hitchcock’s acoustic side. R.E.M. has a new album due out in 2008 (which I am cautiously optimistic about) yet I hope they find time to explore more of what could come out of this fine collaboration.

7) Elliott Smith - New Moon (Kill Rock Stars)
The second posthumous from the incredibly talented yet troubled Smith focuses on his time on the Kill Rock Stars label from 1994 and 1997. These unreleased tracks, demos and radio recordings show his songs in their most basic form—just Smith’s voice (with some help from his haunting double-tracked vocals), a lone acoustic or electric guitar and some occasional percussion. (That being said, “New Monkey” rocks as much as anything on his last two studio albums.) Knowing his tragic end, it’s hard not to listen a bit closer to Smith’s lyrics and look for clues. Overall, the songs are depressing yet have a bit of lightness that is missing from Figure 8 and From a Basement on a Hill. The final version of the Oscar-nominated “Miss Misery” ends with the line “Do you miss me, miss misery like you say you do?” In this original version Smith hints at a different ending. “’Cause it's all right, some enchanted night I’ll be with you.” There’s a tiny window of hope in that last line, something that seems to run through many of these songs that was lacking later in his career. One more highlight worth mentioning is the cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen” that was recorded in a DJ’s basement and later played back on the air. It’s the best cover of this song I’ve ever heard. Smith’s vocal captures the aching innocence of adolescence that every 13 year old has ever gone through.

6) Guster - Satellite EP (Reprise)
Guster obviously hit a new creative peak when they were recording Ganging Up on the Sun if they felt like they could leave the three unreleased tracks on this EP on the cutting room floor. “G Major,” “Rise & Shine” and “Timothy Leary” are three of the catchiest songs this band has recorded and all of them were stuck in my head after a couple of listens. However, I can see why the band had a hard time figuring out where these tracks would fit into Ganging Up on the Sun’s sequence. “I’m Through” is also an unreleased track, sort of. It shares a similar form and melody during the verses as “C’mon” from the album. And while the band obviously took what they thought was the best parts of the track and reshaped it into something different and stronger, “I’m Through” is still a decent song. The EP’s title track appears in a remixed form that isn’t exactly my travel mug of iced tea. (I don’t drink cups of hot tea.) I can wholeheartedly support the two covers that follow—The Beatles’ “Two of Us” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” That last track is “sung” by drummer Brian Rosenworcel (if you heard it you’d know why I used quotes around sung), it’s nothing sort of a classic that obviously is the highlight of the night for the audience in Portland, Maine. And hearing Brian’s voice go over that well makes me think I’ve got a chance of having a hit band in Maine.

5) The Foxboro Hot Tubs - Stop Drop and Roll (
The Hot Tubs are a trio from the Bay Area who obviously have listened to a truckload of great rock from the ’60s. This six song EP (available for free from their website) echoes songs from the great Nuggets collection, early period Kinks and The Who and—at one point—The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love.” The guitars on “Highway 1” capture that gritty sound that came back into vogue when garage rock was the new trend for 15 minutes. And the healthy dose of farfisa in half of these songs is a sound that’s welcome in my iPod anytime. Oh, almost forget to mention that you’ve heard of this band when they play as their side project—Green Day. Yup, Billie Joe Armstrong and company took a vacation from themselves to create (and give away) an EP that would leave many fans of American Idiot and Dookie puzzled. It’s obvious that guys are just letting off some steam with the pressure of following-up an album that’s sold almost six-million copies hanging over their heads. And while I’m sure Green Day would never admit to being the Foxboro Hot Tubs, they should be proud of creating a stellar tribute to a style of music from the 60s that never got its proper respect from mainstream America.

4) Forever Changing: The Golden Age of Elektra Records 1963-1973 (Elektra/Rhino)
Forever Changing: The Golden Age of Elektra Records 1963-1973 surveys a decade of releases from the label that brought us everyone from Judy Collins to The Doors and Carly Simon to The MC5. This five CD set is packed with some so-so folk songs, some so-so early ’70s singer-songwriter tracks and a whole bunch of weird shit. One night while doing some laundry I listened to the second and third CD discs and I had to look down to make sure my iPod hadn’t suddenly tuned in WFMU. (For those outside NYC, WFMU is the great community station based out of Jersey City that serves up some of the best garage rock and other oddities put down on wax.) One great '60s gem after another made for perhaps the best night of laundry ever. I have to point out one specific band and song on this box that blew me away—Earth Opera’s “The Red Sox Are Winning.” The liner notes say this Boston band got caught up the “Bosstown Sound’ hype of the mid-to-late ’60s. I just think these once and soon-to-be-again bluegrass musicians just got their hands on some great drugs to make this tracks. There's a xylophone solo, weird lyrics about wars and arranging hair while looking in a mirror, a bridge that sounds stolen from a Gershwin tune and a hook about the 1967 Sox “Impossible Dream” team. Whew, it's almost too much for a brain unaddled by drugs to take. I suppose I shouldn't have been shocked to find that one of the main forces behind Earth Opera's everything but the mushroom-filled-kitchen sink sound was David Grisman, who later went on to make bluegrass recordings with Jerry Garcia. Oh, and did I forget the over-the-top lyrics at the end of the song? Here you go:

“Let’s make Boston America’s number-one baseball city. Kill the hippies! Kill the hippies!”

Wow. I’m glad I was born in the '60s, but even gladder I wasn't old enough to be aware of anything until 1973.

3) The Figgs - Continue to Enjoy The Figgs Volume Two (Stomper Music)
This disc makes me want to paraphrase a line from a Herman’s Hermits’ song: “Second volume, great as the first.” Recorded over Labor Day weekend 2005 at guitarist Mike Gent’s Providence, Rhode Island home in front of friends and family, Continue to Enjoy the Figgs Volume Two, like its predecessor, captures everything that makes a Figgs live show one of the only things that keeps me going on this planet. It’s got one of their best unreleased tunes is finally captured (“Who’s Your Mother Out With Tonight?”), aggressive jamming within their tightly focused pop tunes (“One Hit Wonder”), proof that their great drummer is also a great songwriter (“Je T’Adore,” “Come On Tonight”) and some laugh out loud funny moments (especially when Gent starts singing “How do you play this song?” when he’s trying to figure out the chord progression to “Gonna Get Out” and then he starts playing a guitar line that he mimics with his vocal and sings “you’re busting out with some George Benson shit.”) Continue to Enjoy The Figgs Volume Two, like Volume One, is essential for any Figgs fan, and is a great place to start for the uninitiated. Now pardon me, as I have to go listen to it for the third time today.

2) I’m Not There Soundtrack (Columbia)
I’ve heard widely divergent opinions on this film where six different actors portray Bob Dylan’s life. (I have a feeling that Cate Blachett probably does a kick ass mid-’60s Dylan.) In the end, it doesn’t matter how good the film is since it inspired perhaps the best Dylan tribute ever. There are some truly masterful performances in this two disc set. Ex-Pavement singer Stephen Malkmus is a revelation as an interpreter of Dylan material as his takes on “Ballad of Thin Man” and “Maggie’s Farm” are as passionate and bile-filled as the originals. It also helps that Malkmus (and four other vocalists) is backed by the Million Dollar Bashers, an all-star band that captures the essence of Dylan’s work on Highway 61 Revisited without doing an exact copy. As much as I don’t need to hear yet another version of “All Along the Watchtower” their version backing Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder is pretty damn good, with three guitarists (Nels Cline, Smokey Hormel and Tom Verlaine) trading great yet contrasting solos. Calexico serve as another house band for this album, and their distinctive sound produces great results with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James (“Goin’ to Acapulco”), Iron and Wine’s Sam Bean (a radically rearranged “Dark Eyes”) and Willie Nelson. Their take on “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” is so good that I’d suggest Nelson get into the studio with Calexico and cut an album as soon as possible. Finally, what makes I’m Not There a fitting tribute is that like the man’s career there are some absolute clunkers worth hearing once and never listening to again. So if you pick up this album, think of John Doe and Tom Veraline’s vocal contributions as I’m Not There’s Self Portrait or Down in the Groove.

1) Neil Young - Live at Massey Hall (Reprise)
In the late spring I thought I knew what would be at number-one on this reissues, etc list—Neil Young’s Archives Vol. 1. There were full articles online and in print about exactly what the set would contain. Young himself said that this was the year it was coming out. Even Reprise, Young’s long-time label, set up a website with a trailer promoting the release in the fall. I was practically drooling on my keyboard with anticipating. The 20 year wait was over! Then good ol’ unpredictable Neil decided to make a sequel to an album that was never officially released using an all-star lineup drawn from his various backing bands over the past four decades and release it two months later.


Chrome Dreams II isn’t as good as the original Chrome Dreams. (This, honestly, would be a major achievement in itself. That album contained five genuine Young classics that ended up as highlights of five other albums.) The sequel is average Young album. The best track, the epic “Ordinary People,” had been sitting in Young’s vaults for 20 years and would have been a centerpiece of the second Archives set. On Chrome Dreams II, it’s a great song that sticks out like my gut after Thanksgiving dinner. Fortunately not all was lost in this fan’s never ending pursuit of unreleased material. Live at Massey Hall is an incredible document of Young playing solo during two really good nights in Toronto. Recorded between After the Gold Rush and Harvest, it presents a fascinating look at Young before he’s fully crafted the songs that would be his biggest commercial success. “A Man Needs a Maid” had different lyrics and then segues into what would become the first verse and chorus of “Heart of Gold.” “See the Sky About to Rain” wouldn’t be released until three years later as part of On the Beach and this solo take just might be better than the recorded version. Oh, and there are three songs that never made it to any album and Young cracks a bunch of jokes about himself and the songs. Taken with last year’s Live at Fillmore East, I can’t help but think everything in those tape vaults must be of mind-blowing quality. Alright, now I am really, really, truly am ready for the Archives Neil. Please, please, keep to the spring 2008 date. Please?