Friday, December 21, 2007

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”

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