Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The 19th Annual Top 20 List

Under Pressure is Now Not Just a Queen Song

2008: Yes We Can (Make Mediocre Music)

2008's Top 20 Albums

Top 10 Headlines I Hope I Don't Have to Write in 2009

2008's Top 20 Singles

Other Musical Stuff from 2008:

--Compilations, Reissues, EPS, Soundtracks, Etc.


--Discovery of the Year

--Rediscovery of the Year

2008's Top 10 Visual Aids

Under Pressure is Now Not Just a Queen Song

Ah, pressure. It can come in many forms. The pressure of a campaign. The pressure of a baseball collapse. The pressure of putting on a great show. Or the pressure of change. 2008 for yours truly meant change having to do with pressure, extremely high blood pressure. It's amazing how much your life will change when you go to the hospital because you think you're having a heart attack, but its only that your blood pressure is at dangerously high levels. Now I actually exercise, watch my sodium and trans fat intake and take 13 pills a day to make sure I make it to 2009—and hopefully 2039.

Simply put, this year sucked. And obviously not just for me. I only had to figure out how shitty my medical plan was, change certain ways I approached my life and mourn the fact that the makers of Bubble Yum stopped producing their Sugarless Peppermint brand. (Oh, and worry that my job will be gone with a couple weeks of the list being published.) I didn't have a spouse or a father or a mother or a grandparent die. I didn't discover I have MS. I didn't have a long-term marriage or relationship end. I didn't find out I have cancer. I didn't undergo risky surgery. I didn't have someone tell me I was clinically depressed. I didn’t lose my job. I didn't have the business I worked on so hard for many years take its last gasp. None of those things happened to me. But they happened to people I know. And in this trying year I have no words of comfort that would help. I can only say my ability to empathize has grown tenfold. It's funny how having your life sort of flash in front of your eyes on the way to a hospital will do that.

Mortality is not fun when it comes up and grabs you by the balls—so to speak. My friend Jonah has battled lymphatic melanoma since April. He's written eloquently (and sometime drug-oquently) about his ups and downs at his blog Groinstrong.com. He and I sat in his hospital room one night after his second surgery to remove cancerous lymph nodes talking about what he would do if his disease became terminal. It was the first honest conversation about mortality I've ever had, and I thought to myself, “This dude isn't even 30 and we're having this heavy of a conversation. This is the worst year ever. And I wonder if I can sneak another piece of chocolate from that box of candy someone gave him.”

I met Jonah while he was bartending at Magnetic Field, which closed up for good on March 31st of this year. That week fate showed its sense of humor by putting Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed” in my ears five times. It's pretty amazing that an eight year-old song could turn up that much, yet at the same time very appropriate. One of the biggest changes of my life was the closing of Magnetic Field. Now before you say, “c’mon, it’s only a bar, you can drink elsewhere cheaply,” it wasn't about the beer. It was about the camaraderie and friendships that I got through that place. On that tiny stage with Bunnie England and the New Originals I first got to live out my rock star fantasies, which then led to me rediscovering the fun I had entertaining people with a microphone in front of me. It pains me to think that I won't be able to sing “Surrender,” spin Soul Asylum’s “Sometime to Return” for a totally psyched crowd, make funny comments about someone stumbling over some lyrics, edit both of my fanzines at the bar, help friends talk through their problems, make bizarre ’70s references with April and Scott, sing sad songs with Joe or act silly in the photo booth there ever again. I can honestly say that except for the one night when some idiots from Brooklyn Law came in at the end of Live Band Karaoke, all of my memories are good.

So let's review before we move on to the rest of the list: this year sucked, lots of bad things happened and Steve needs a new place to socialize. Yeah, that's about right. Um, Obama, any chance you can make next year a tiny bit better? Please?

2008: Yes We Can (Make Medicore Music)

Oh 2008, how forgettable of year were you? That’s not to say it wasn’t memorable. Any year where Clay Aiken has a child with a woman twice his age conceived through artificial insemination, Lindsey Lohan says she’s gay, Madonna starts banging A-Rod, Amy Winehouse bounces in and out (and in and out and in and out) of rehab, John Mayer starts dating Jennifer Aniston, O.J. Simpson was actually convicted of a crime and Britney Spears makes a comeback from her disastrous 2007 MTV Video Music Awards lip synch fiasco by taking a vacation to Costa Rica with Mel Gibson and then lip synching poorly on Good Morning America is definitely memorable. (Um, wait, how is that a comeback?) Memorable doesn’t necessarily mean I want to remember everything that’s happened this year. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we each drank a bottle of Jameson’s, blacked out, and woke up on January 1st with no recall of the previous 364 days—save November 4th? If you wondered why this year’s list is a couple weeks later than usual, it’s because I kept hoping that December would deliver some better music, some better shows or some better news that would lift 2008 out of its morass of mediocrity. A few things did come through (thank you Neil Young), but not enough to make a huge difference in what is contained in these pages.

If we were able to enact my Jameson’s memory loss plan, then we could all forget Guns n’ RosesChinese Democracy was finally released after being talked about for more than a decade. (And I could still be writing snarky stories about how it still hasn’t come out. Sigh.) Oh, and that Axl Rose had his lawyers send a threatening letter to Dr. Pepper, saying the makers of the soda had reneged on their promise to give out free cans of soda to everyone in America when the album was released. (The company’s website crashed from all the folks wanting some sugary soda goodness.) I feel compelled to quote the story I wrote just to show off the insanity that is inside’s Axl’s head: “Rose’s lawyer, Alan Gutman, demanded that Doctor Pepper make good on its offer by extending the period for the offer and wants full-page apologies in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, U-S-A Today and Wall Street Journal. The letter also states that the original campaign was ‘an exploitation of my clients’ legendary reputation and their eagerly awaited album.’ Gutman is seeking what he says is ‘appropriate payment for the unauthorized use and abuse of their publicity and intellectual property rights,’ and threatens legal action if a proper offer is not made.” WOW. That is just bizarre. I think Axl’s cornrows are tied just a little too tight. Oh, and if we could also forget that a member of The Replacements has made a living the past decade by being on Axl’s payroll, that would be great too. (You know what? Pass that bottle right here. I need to kill some of my remaining memory cells.)

There are plenty of other things to forget this year. Nickelback decided to switch things up this year by working with producer Robert “Mutt” Lange. Now why Mutt would do this is beyond me. He helmed AC/DC’s best albums with Bon Scott (Highway to Hell) and Brian Johnson (Back in Black) and well as turned Def Leppard to masters of pop metal (Pyromania still sounds great to me to this day). So what in the world was he doing with Nickelback, Canada’s answer to a question no one asked? I think his judgment must have been impaired this year. I mean, look at this picture:

He cheated on the woman on the left, his wife of almost 15 years, Shania Twain, with the woman on the right, their former personal assistant. The guy obviously has lost the ability to judge right and wrong and good and bad. Or needs a pair of glasses. Seriously, dude.

Hey, remember Hootie and the Blowfish? (Yeah, me neither. That Jameson’s has started kicking in me thinks.) Perhaps the most unlikely story of the year is the emergence of Hootie frontman Darius Rucker as a country star. It’s true! You can look it up or ask the folks in Nashville who get the list. Rucker’s “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” topped the country charts in September, making him the first African-American solo singer to hit Number One since Charley Pride in 1983. (Charley Pride. There’s a name I never thought I’d write in this list. I think I need to go listen to “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” right now. Talk amongst yourselves for a few minutes…..Okay, that was fun. Back to my original train of thought.) Honestly, I don’t really have a problem with this. I just think it’s awesome that Rucker had bigger success in the country market than two women known better for their assets than their talent—Jewel and Jessica Simpson. (And I’m sure Giants fans everywhere appreciate that Simpson sucked the talented out of Tony Romo. Well, not literally sucked the talent out of him. Um, actually, maybe…let’s move on.)

Katy Perry was everywhere on the airwaves this summer with “I Kissed a Girl” (and, as the rest of the chorus goes, “and I liked it”). That song was the follow-up to “Ur So Gay” (whose chorus is so stupid I can’t bear to type it). These two songs are about as offensive as any rap song released this year. “I Kissed a Girl” (which sullies the catchy Jill Sobule song of the same title of a decade ago) is not some great statement about homosexuality—the song’s narrator is appropriating a gay identity to get the attention of her boyfriend and, in turn, the audience. “Ur So Gay” comes off as pretty homophobic, which I guess isn’t surprising for a woman who started out as a Christian singer (under her real name of Katy Hudson). I wonder if hearing “I Kissed a Girl” all the time drove people to vote for Prop 8 in California.

From the category of “reunions no one really wanted,” both Stone Temple Pilots and New Kids on the Block hit the road this summer. The STP reunion was great for my day job, as I was able to spend months milking the “Scott Weiland did something crazy that looked drug-related on stage” and the “latest Velvet Revolver singer rumor is ____” stories for months. I secretly hope that the NKOTB reunion fizzles out, leaving Jordan Knight in perfect position to fulfill his dream of singing while Slash plays lead guitar.

Besides all the bad music (and bad financial dealings), 2008 also featured the untimely passing of E Street Band keyboardist Danny Federici. He might not have been the most prominent foil for Bruce Springsteen, but his organ solos and glockenspiel parts were key ingredients to the Jersey Shore sound that entertained and enthralled folks worldwide for over 30 years. Springsteen and E Street Band have a new album coming out in late January, and I’m sure that Bruce will include some sort of fitting tribute to his fallen comrade.

So what was actually good this year? (And that you shouldn’t have to pound shots all night to erase it all from your brain.) Well, four cities that have deep musical histories saved 2008 from being a total loss. From Athens, Georgia came a revitalized R.E.M., who realized they could make an album without laboring over it for two years. From Minneapolis, Minnesota Paul Westerberg recovered from a hand injury to release more than two entire albums worth of new material online—for the sum total of fewer than six bucks. The great Northwestern town of Seattle saw another one of its bands (Death Cab For Cutie) top the album charts with a disc that just as dark as it was tuneful. And Austin, Texas (the place I’d love to retire to, but only if I hit the lottery and can afford to retire) saw its own Okkervil River release another great album for the second year in a row. Four good artists are not enough to make up for a palpable lack of quality, but it is enough to keep my musical hopes alive for at least one more year before I finally settle into listening to playlists of songs from 1987 to 1991 for the rest of my life.

2008's Top 20 Albums

20) Aimee Mann - @#%&*! Smilers (Superego)
Oh Aimee Mann, I love you, I hate you, I love you. What will happen next in our relationship that seems to be penned by the staff of The Young and the Restless? Mann's last album was the holiday collection One More Drifter in the Snow, which I had absolutely no use for. (Yes, I am The Grinch with white skin.) The album before that, 2005’s The Forgotten Arm, landed on that year's Top 20. So according to this twisted soap opera design, I had to like @#%&*! Smilers. And I do. It’s yet another collection of well written character sketches that are buffeted by outstanding melodies and hooks. “31 Today” is quite possibly one of the best songs Mann has ever written. This tale of a lonely woman celebrating her 31st birthday evokes some great imagery right from the opening stanza: “31 today/What a thing to say/Drinking Guinness in the afternoon/Taking shelter in the black cocoon.” Mann is concise with her choice of words, but they’re so spot on I can imagine exactly what this woman looks like and at what bar she’ll be doing her imbibing. And once I finish these album reviews, I'm off to find her. Best Tracks: “31 Today,” “Freeway,” “Ballantines”

19) Juliana Hatfield - How to Walk Away (Ye Olde Records)
One of the saddest (yet rather unpublicized) stories in the rock world this year is that Juliana Hatfield went to rehab for an eating disorder. (I highly encourage reading her blog for an explanation about why she went in—and for some of the best self-examination of songs and the motives behind them by any artist ever.) After reading an excerpt of her new book and repeated listens to How to Walk Away, the trip to rehab wasn't surprising at all. Almost every song is an unflinching look at Hatfield’s unhealthy relationships and damaged psyche, with very few moments of levity to let up from the gloom. (“Just Lust” and its tale of a booty call is the only tune that hints at a smile.) What makes this batch of highly personal songs work is that Hatfield's words are buoyed some strong melodies and hooks. When someone can sing a line such as “ooh my baby doesn't love me anymore” and you feel like singing along every time with her heartbreak, that's the sign of a really good song. It’s also a highlight of a strong, yet disturbing album. Feel better Juliana. Best Tracks: “This Lonely Love,” “Such a Beautiful Girl,” “My Baby”

18) Old 97’s - Blame It On Gravity (New West)
That large sigh you heard coming from Brooklyn back in May was produced by the lungs of quite a few Old 97’s fans. It was a sigh of relief that the band’s slump of the past six years was a thing of the past. Memories of Old 97’s and solo Rhett Miller shows we walked out of in a state of disgust vanished after just a couple of plays of Blame It On Gravity. Gone were the less than stellar attempts to return to their roots on Drag It Up and the sickeningly slick sound of Miller’s gawd awful second solo album The Believer. Perhaps the band just needed a hefty dose of their home state of Texas to rediscover their sound that mixes twangy country rock and catchy and forceful power pop. Blame It on Gravity was recorded in their hometown of Dallas by longtime friend Salim Nourallah. He captures a band that, for the first time in ages, sounds confident in what they’re playing. They’re not afraid to dabble in a hefty dose of twang (“The Easy Way,” “The Fool”) or tinge of Spanish flamenco (“Dance With Me”). Miller’s songs are his most focused in years and filled with sparkling wordplay while fellow songwriter Murray Hammond contributes one of the most moving ballads in their catalog (“Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue”). Album closer “The One” is a humorous fictionalized account of the band’s life when they signed to a major label. Miller’s loving description of his bandmates in song shows that there’s still a deep friendship among these four guys, and makes me hope that this comeback won’t be short-lived. Best Tracks: “The One,” “The Fool,” “No Baby I”

17) Kate Nash - Made of Bricks (Geffen)
In January I was convinced that Kate Nash's Made of Bricks would be a minor hit here in the U.S. This infectious collection of songs about break-ups and relationships going all sorts of wrong seemed certain to strike a chord with young women who could indentify with a 20 year-old from the U.K. Alas, American audiences weren't ready to fully embrace Nash probably since she sounds exceedingly British when she sings and incorporates lots of British slang in her lyrics. It didn;’t help that the first single "Foundations" had Nash proclaiming “you’ve gone and got sick on my trainers,” a line which would make most Americans scratch their heads. I'm not a young woman (I did play one on TV once, but that’s another story), but Nash’s appeal to me is that she can balance the sweet (“Pumpkin Soup” is the cutest song of the year about wanting to make out) and the salty (“Dickhead” is just a vicious put down of, well, a dickhead) sides of her persona. Made of Bricks was a smash hit in the U.K. and hopefully that will give her a shot at releasing another album her in the states. Best Tracks: “Pumpkin Soup,” “Foundations,” “Dickhead”

16) The Whispertown 2000 - Swim (Acony Records)
One of the reasons I like doing this list besides the massive unloading of my ego upon everyone I know, the fantastic amounts of money it rakes in each year and the celebrity it has brought me is that I always end up discovering an album or two each year that I never thought I would like. This year that surprise was named Whispertown 2000. They’re an L.A. quartet that had two strikes against them before I slid the advance disc out of the plastic sleeve. First, their label Acony Records is co-owned by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. People have bent over backwards giving these two critical woo-has for Welch's old-timey folk tales and Rawlings over the top, masturbatory acoustic guitar solos. They're about as authentic as Appalachian balladeers as The Pussycat Dolls. So I was prepared to hate anything on their label. Second is that the press release that came with Swim quoted Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis as saying singer-guitarist Morgan Nagler was one of the most original songwriters around. Considering how Lewis has pissed away her talent the past two years with her band and her solo career by making watered down, slickly produced albums, I would not be looking for her endorsement. Yet Whispertown 2000 overcome those odds to make a very intriguing album. Nagler has a strange voice that sounds like she's singing through an old transistor radio all the time. She makes that work with the quirky lyrics she pens about living a long life (“103”), kicking addiction to keep a lover (“No Dope”) or finding love in the home of Aquaman (“Atlantic.”) Swim is a fascinating debut that delivers new surprises with each listen. Best Tracks: “103,” “Done With Love,” “Lock and Key”

15) Bob Mould - District Line (Granary Music/Anti)
Bob Mould has spent much of this decade trying to find the right balance between his loud guitar roots and his newfound love of electronic music. 2005's Body of Song showed hints of a merging of those two opposite desires and on District Line he's definitely succeeded. The bleep and boops and vocoder (um, okay, the vocoder can be a bit much at times) flow seamlessly together with his usual wall of acoustic and electric guitars. The most striking thing about District Line is that Mould sounds calmer here, at times even relaxed. That’s not to say he's lost his fiery passion. Its just that he sounds in complete control of everything he sings and plays here. Mould leaves his emotions raw in album opener “Stupid Now” as all the instruments drop out save the bass and he, well, croaks the lines “Everything I say to you feels stupid now/Feelings that I shared with you are over now.” (Imagine rolling out of bed, skipping that first cup of java, and trying to sing a really high note. That's exactly what Mould does here.) It’s a just a powerful a line as any of his most vitriolic work with Hüsker Dü, and yet another example why Mould is one of the best songwriters of the past 25 years. District Line is a great summary of Mould’s strengths as an artist. Best Tracks: “The Silence Between Us,” “Stupid Now,” “Again and Again”

14) The Hold Steady - Stay Positive (Vagrant)
Stay Positive isn’t the great leap forward like the Hold Steady's last album Boys in Girls in America. This go around Craig Finn and company seem content to not shake up their formula too much and continue churning out great meat-and-potatoes rock with wickedly evocative lyrics on top. Keyboardist Franz Nicoly is the only one to break out of his comfort zone on Stay Positive. “One for the Cutters” starts out with a harpsichord while “Navy Sheets” adds a distinctive synthesizer riff that I’m pretty sure he stole from Greg Hawkes’ old Cars moog. Finn is still writing about losers, townies, relationships with God and others and his own band. “Constructive Summer” contains two of the best lines I’ve ever heard that links people and the power of music: “Me and my friends are like the drums on ‘Lust for Life’” and “Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer/I think he might have been our only decent teacher.” As long as Finn keeps penning phrases like that, I’ll keep coming back. Best Tracks: “Sequestered in Memphis,” “Constructive Summer,” “Lord, I'm Discouraged”

13) Little Jackie - The Stoop (S-Curve/Capitol)
Four years ago in this very list I questioned why I even liked Imani Coppola's 1997 solo debut album Chupacabra. In my section of self-flagellation I wrote, “You put an album on this list based upon one novelty song (‘Legend of a Cowgirl’). Do we even own this disc any more?” The answer was yes, we (myself and the crazy guy I talk to when I'm all alone in my apartment) still have that disc. And I dug it out again when I heard Coppola sing on Little Jackie’s “The Stoop” for the first time. “The Stoop” is a joyous, piano-based soul confection that captures an essential part of hanging out in certain parts of my home borough of Brooklyn. If it’s the summer, it’s time to hang out on the steps leading to your house, a.k.a. the stoop. This chorus instantly takes me to that time, even on a cold November night. “Sitting on the stoop in Bed Stuy/Always sayin hi when the brothas walk by/Just proper etiquette/Sitting on the top step/With a bag of chips, sit back, relax, enjoy the trip.” The rest of the album is just as much fun as its title track. Coppola provides some of the wittiest lyrics of any R&B album this decade as her partner in crime Adam Pallin surrounds her with a great hybrid of old school soul and today’s beats. So I need to apologize: I'm sorry Imani. I didn't know you had another great album in you 11 years later. Best Tracks: “The Stoop,” “The World Should Revolve Around Me,” “LOL”

12) Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend (XL)
There are so many reasons I should hate Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut. They're four guys from Columbia who look about as preppie as anyone with an Ivy League degree could appear. Singer-guitarist Ezra Koenig writes lyrics that rhyme Louis Vitton and the colors of Benetton (“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”) and penned the most navel-gazing lyrics about (shudder) college in the wittily titled (...wait for it, wait for it) “Campus.” The band wears its Afro-pop influences on its J. Crew sleeves (and they probably owe David Byrne and Paul Simon some royalties as well). And worst of all, I saw bassist Chris Baio wear white cutoff shorts on stage. That alone should get him thrown in jail, not to mention the thievery of an entire continent's music. But, but...I really like it. It’s fun, light-hearted music. Almost all the songs clock in at under four minutes (the album is only 34 minutes long, which is always a good sign). And I’m still not sure why the line “but this feels so unnatural/Peter Gabriel too” works so well in “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” and I don’t care. I’m sure a backlash will be in full swing by the time their second album is released, so I’ll feel free to start hating them then. For now, I’m going to hum along to some damn catchy tunes. Best Tracks: “A-Punk,” “Mansard Roof,” “Oxford Comma”

11) Conor Oberst - Conor Oberst (Merge)
The last time I saw Bright Eyes play was back in November 2007 just downstairs from my office at Radio City Music Hall. Frontman Conor Oberst gave it his all performing yet seemed really fried around the edges, as if he was carrying too heavy of a load. Apparently Oberst recognized that himself, as he decided to set aside the Bright Eyes name when guitarist/producer Mike Mogis bowed out of their next project because of a new child on the way. Oberst shucked off all the mannerisms of the past two Bright Eyes albums and is downright relaxed on this self-titled album. He seems freed from his own legacy of penning self-loathing lyrics. These tracks have a playful sense to them. I swear Oberst even smiles when he sings a couple of these songs (“NYC-Gone, Gone,” “Souled Out!!!”). Who knew he could? For a guy who's been carrying the tortured artist mantle around for so long, it's refreshing to hear him create an album of alt-country-esque rock that is fun to listen to and seems like it was a good deal of fun to create. Best Tracks: “NYC-Gone Gone,” “Moab,” “Souled Out!!!”

10) Hayes Carll - Trouble in Mind (Lost Highway)
Full disclosure: I inadvertently had a hand in what tracks ended up on this country-rock album. In late 2007 my co-worker Dave was hired by Lost Highway to write the bio for this album and was sent a disc of all the tracks recorded for it. One of those scheduled to not make the cut was “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.” But Dave and myself dug the track so much that he suggested to the folks at Carll’s label they rethink their decision. Few months later the song destined for the scrapheap made the cut. Carll didn’t write “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” but it fits snugly alongside his own songs about boozers (“Knockin’ Over Whiskeys”), wild women (“Drunken Poet’s Dream”) and steady gigs in Texas (“I Got a Gig.”) Album closer “She Left Me for Jesus” is one of the funniest songs of the year (the chorus ends with the line, “But if I ever find Jesus, I’m kickin’ his ass”). In a perfect world, this track would be a huge hit on country radio. But as we all know, country radio would rather play shit like The Eagles than an artist who gets what country music should really be about. Best Tracks: “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” “She Left me For Jesus,” “It’s a Shame”

9) Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
I remember telling a friend of mine earlier in the fall that I was really starting to dig this album. He looked at me, cocked his head, and replied, “That’s hard for me to believe. I thought you’d hate that album.” I suppose with its layered harmonies, hippie type lyrics (“Sun rising/dangling there/Golden and fair/In the sky?” Really?) and a general vibe that could place it in the vicinity of the Graham Nash-esque portion of Crosby, Stills and Nash, Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut has all the ingredients to brew up a heaping batch of Reynolds hate. Yet I never hated them. I guess I decided to focus on their other qualities—mainly their abilities to create harmonies that would make Brian Wilson blush and to make songs that remind me of the best British folk-rock of Fairport Convention and Nick Drake. Singer Robin Pecknold has a voice that seems from a completely different era of music. It’s haunting, majestic, mysterious, moving and probably a bunch of other words that begin with “M” that escape me right now. Fleet Foxes is an album that’s essential for an iPod. The production and those voices, oh those terrific voices, sound so magical when they’re placed right next to your eardrums. I’ve never seen Fleet Foxes live, so I have no idea if they could pull off these intricate songs live. But with a band this talented, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did all of them to perfection. Best Tracks: “White Winter Hymnal,” “He Doesn’t Know Why,” “Ragged Wood”

8) Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak (Roc-a-fella)
Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak is one of the most intriguing albums of the year. Its’ sound is reminiscent of the early ’80s rap tracks that I loved growing up. Now that doesn’t make it some sort of retro album. (The auto-tune all over West's vocals places it squarely in the early 21st century.) It’s just that most of the backing tracks come off like cold and clinical electro music, as if Newcleus (“Jam On It”) had returned from one hit wonder oblivion as West's producers. The distant feel of the music matches up perfectly with West’s extreme introspection as he examines a life falling out of control. Each track is a bitter dissection of the end of his engagement (except for “Coldest Winter,” which is about his late mother), putting 808s in line with great breakup records like Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Elvis Costello’s Blood and Chocolate. Those two albums are my favorite in Dylan’s and Costello’s catalogs, so I guess it’s no surprise that 808s is my favorite of West’s four albums. There are no big beats and flashy guest appearances here. It sounds like it might have been made by West, for West, in his bedroom. For someone who’s made such a big deal about how great he is, 808s & Heartbreak is a fascinating look at how West acts when the egotistic façade is stripped away. Best Tracks: “Paranoid,” “Robocop,” “Welcome to Heartbreak”

7) The Baseball Project - Volume One: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails (YepRoc)
Full disclosure: yours truly wrote the bio for this album. When Scott McCaughey asks if you’d like to pen something for his latest project, it takes less than two seconds to say yes. McCaughey teamed up with another fabulous songwriter, Steve Wynn, to pen an album of great songs about my favorite sport. I mean, how can you wrong with songs about players like Curt Flood, Satchel Paige, Ted Williams, and Black Jack McDowell? You can’t. Since what I wrote back in the spring came out so well, I’d like to include one of the key paragraphs here: “This is album that impresses not only with its depth of both widely known and obscure baseball lore, but with its melodic sensibility, walls of guitars, and catchy choruses. No, Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails does not require a PhD in pitching mechanics or membership in three fantasy leagues to enjoy on a purely musical level. The joyous chorus of ‘Ted Fucking Williams’ would probably compel Babe Ruth to sing along. ‘Broken Man’ is about slugger Mark McGwire, yet anyone can identify with the semi-tragic tale of being built up and then being humiliated in public in such a brief span of time. And in ‘Jackie’s Lament,’ Jackie Robinson’s trials while breaking baseball’s color barrier become an anthemic call to anyone who overcomes life's obstacles.” Best Tracks: “Past Time,” “Harvey Haddix,” “Broken Man”

6) Nada Surf - Lucky (Barsuk)
I must admit, Nada Surf was in no win situation with me when it came to their fifth album. Their third album, 2003’s Let Go, has slowly grown to become one of my favorite albums of the past decade. And their fourth album, 2005’s The Weight is a Gift, is certain to have a place in my Top 20 albums of all time. (I mean, if I ever do a list like that again, for say a big anniversary or something like that.) Seriously, how could any band live up to the expectations I’ve put upon them? Fortunately, Nada Surf had no idea about my crazy thoughts and pressure I placed upon them. They just went ahead and made a damn fine album. Frontman Matthew Caws focused a bit more on the world outside of his own this time around, writing about Fox News (“The Fox”), World War 2 (“Ice on the Wing”) and ancient civilizations (“See These Bones”). Even when he’s singing about something that doesn’t involves his own life, Caws still has a knack for writing melodies you’re humming and lyrics you’re singing along to within a couple of listens. My only knock against Lucky is that the band re-recorded “I Like What You Say,” a song that appeared on a 2006 soundtrack. It’s a great song, yet I found myself playing the original more often than the album version. But that’s just a minor quibble with yet another fine entry in the Nada Surf catalog. Best Tracks: “Whose Authority,” “I Like What You Say,” “Weightless”

5) David Byrne and Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Todo Mundo)
With all the ground-breaking and experimental music that David Byrne and Brian Eno have created together and separately, who could have imagined that when these two musicians paired up again for the first time in over two decades they’d create an album of conventional and uplifting pop songs? (Well, conventional by the standards of these two. The single “Strange Overtones” would be pretty darn weird sounding in the hands of anyone else.) Byrne writes in his notes for the album that tracks Eno sent him “inspired a sort of folk-electronic -gospel feeling” and that his goal was to write “simple, heartfelt tunes without drawing on cliché.” Byrne more than succeeded, as tracks like “Home,” “Life is Long” and especially “One Fine Day” are easily the most uplifting and positive words he’s written since the days of the Talking HeadsTrue Stories and Little Creatures. And in this year, it’s exactly the kind of album I wanted to hear. Best Tracks: “Life is Long,” “One Fine Day,” “Strange Overtones”

4) The Raconteurs - Consolers of the Lonely (Third Man/WB)
The Raconteurs first album, Broken Boy Soldiers, never seemed to completely mesh the styles of their two frontmen, Jack White and Brendan Benson. It was a quality album for sure, but after seeing the band perform after a few months on the road it was easily apparent that they had much more to offer. Consolers of the Lonely definitely delivers the goods. It’s a virtual potpourri of every style of music from the late ’60s and early ’70s—Zeppelin-esque rock (the title track), country rock and funky organ dominated pop (“Old Enough”), confessional piano-based pop (“You Don’t Understand Me”), an almost absurd Morricone-like epic (“The Switch and the Spur”), sleazy sped up Stones (“Hold Up”) and, as the bizarre cherry on top, a Terry Reid cover (“Rich Kid Blues”). It makes me think that Jack White just wanted to build a messy wall of sound (and styles) that he could never do in his day job. Mind you, none of these stylistic choices sounds forced. They sound effortless. Consolers of the Lonely is a sprawling, glorious mess of a rock album. And in these messy times, that’s exactly what we need. Best Tracks: “Old Enough,” “You Don’t Understand Me,” “Rich Kid Blues”

3) R.E.M. - Accelerate (WB)
I read an interview with R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills in the fall of 2007 where he said one of the objectives the band had going into their fourteenth studio album was to write shorter songs. My goodness, they succeeded: half of the tunes on Accelerate come in at under three minutes, and a quarter of them are just over the two minute mark. In a brief, yet very effective 34 minutes, R.E.M.’s shortest album ever helps them reclaim their mantle as one of the best bands America has ever produced. Since the departure of original drummer Bill Berry a decade ago, almost everything the band has done has come off like either some sort of sonic experiment (Up), an exercise in pop song craft (Reveal) or totally overlabored (Around the Sun). On Accelerate, they sound hungry again. One might think the back-to-basics approach is an attempt to win back old fans and regain critical respect. That being said, these batch of songs don’t come off as forced or desperate for commercial success. They sound like a band pissed off about the world and their place in it. Michael Stipe sounds every bit his age, singing in a gruff, low register as he spits out lyrics about the government’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina (“Houston”) and how crappy the past eight years have been for this country (“Living Well Is The Best Revenge”). And the band (with guitarist Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Rieflin on board) has not sounded this much like a band since New Adventures in Hi-Fi. I hope this is the first of many fine late career albums from R.E.M. Best Tracks: “Living Well is the Best Revenge,” “Horse to Water,” “Supernatural Superserious”

2) Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs (Atlantic)
Death Cab For Cutie has never been an especially cheerful band, but on their 2005 breakthrough disc Plans that darkness might have been muted a bit by the “get out the lighter and let me put this on a mix tape for my girlfriend” acoustic hit “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.” On Narrow Stairs the darkness of Ben Gibbard’s lyrics shines through loud and clear. The album’s sunniest musical moment, the Beach Boys-esque “You Can Do Better Than Me,” features some of its bleakest lyrics. There's also the sham marriage of “Cath…,” the ominous undertones of “No Sunlight” and the creepy stalkerish quality to the epic “I Will Possess Your Heart.” Narrow Stairs features one depressed character after another—and I for one can’t get enough of it. If you ever doubted that people make their best art when miserable, this collection of songs will set you straight. Guitarist and producer Chris Walla does a great job of stripping back some the extra production he used on Plans. When he does reach into his bag of tricks (the keys and crisp overdubbed acoustic guitars on “Your New Twin-Sized Bed”), he shows the perfect amount of restraint. If Kayne West’s 808s & Heartbreak hadn’t debuted at number-one on the Billboard album chart, I’d say that Narrow Stairs was the most depressing chart topper of the year. Best Tracks: “No Sunlight,” “Long Division,” “Your New Twin Sized Bed”

1) Okkervil River - The Stand Ins (Jagjaguwar)
Every song is a short story for Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff. These stories are packed with delicious wordplay and are usually sung in the first person, with Sheff's at-times unhinged voice making the drama in each tale scale greater heights. On last year’s The Stage Names Sheff focused his eye on what it’s like to be a performer. On The Stand Ins (the bulk of which was recorded at the same time as The Stage Names), he contemplates the darker side of all sorts of entertainers and hangers-on: singer-songwriters (um, in the song “Singer Songwriter”), a movie star, a porno actress, an actor’s fan, a backstage fling and an imagined interview with 1970s glam-rocker Jobriath. And there’s a tale of touring band re-imagined as sailors (in “Lost Coastlines'“) who sing, “Every night finds us rocking and rolling on waves wild and white.” Sheff is fascinated by the way people willingly buy into the grand fantasy of art and culture (whether it be music or movies). The center of The Stand Ins is in “Pop Lie,” an incredibly catchy new wave-ish track about “the man who dreamed up the dream that they wrecked their hearts upon, the liar who lied in his pop song.” The lyrics are incredibly self-conscious and could come across as just a little too cute for their own good. But the uninhibited glee with which the musicians rock out behind him, like a bar band running on a few six packs of Pabst, makes it impossible for one not to sing along with the liar who lied in the song. With The Stand Ins and The Stage Names, Will Sheff has proven himself as one of the finest songwriters of today. I wonder what part of American culture he’ll dissect next. Best Tracks: “Lost Coastlines,” “Starry Stairs,” “Pop Lie”

Top 10 Headlines I Hope I Don't Write in 2009

1) Katy Perry’s latest hit is called “I Kissed a Goat.”

2) Axl Rose announces that the next Guns n’ Roses album will be called American Monarchy. It’s due out November 23rd, 2025.

3) Kid Rock’s new single “All Winter Long” samples Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock n’ Roll,” The Allman Brothers Band’s “Ramblin’ Man” and ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.” The song’s writing credits run two pages long.

4) Sarah Palin attempts to expand her media empire by recording a country album backed by the reunited Mavericks.

5) Kenny Chesney hits number-one on the country charts with “Seriously, I’m Not Gay. (And If I Was, it Would be With Jimmy Buffett or Sammy Hagar.”

6) Molson says everyone in Canada gets a Molson Golden if Neil Young releases his Archives Volume One set on CD in 2009.

7) Madonna spotted in New York’s Central Park with her latest conquest, Mets reliever Francisco Rodriguez.

8) A rapper takes power pop up the charts. The debut album from Lil’ Fountains of Wayne bows at number-one.

9) John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Jason Bonham hit the road with new vocalist Melissa Etheridge. The three musicians pay a certain tribute band 100 grand for the rights to the Lez Zeppelin name.

10) Creed reunite for a 50 city tour. (Crap, that one might actually happen.)

2008's Top 20 Singles

20) Black Kids - “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You” (AG/Columbia)
I’m not sure why Black Kids singer-guitarist Reggie Youngblood starts this song with the words, “You are the girl that I’ve been dreaming of/Ever since I was a little girl.” Um, what? By the time keyboardists Dawn Watley and Ali Youngblood start their cheerleader-like vocals on “Dance! Dance! Dance!” on the chorus, you’ll have forgotten about the sexual ambiguity and feel like having someone teach you to dance.

19) Santogold - “L.E.S. Artistes” (Downtown)
This collective that revolves around singer Santi White recently had to shorten their name to Santi for legal reasons. Hopefully the name change won’t impact their ability to make catchy songs that that fuse punk, reggae and indie rock with electronic music. I couldn’t tell you if the lyrics of “L.E.S. Artistes” are an accurate description of the new generation of people who inhabit that neighborhood, not having been a regular on Manhattan’s Lower East Side for more than a decade. But I guess my subconscious knows the answer, since I first wrote “inhibit that neighborhood” and missed that mistake the first three times I edited this damn thing. Oh my brain, does your hatred of scumbags in lower Manhattan know no bounds?

18) What Made Milwaukee Famous - “Sultan” (Barsuk)
I wish I knew why this slice of addictive power-pop was called “Sultan.” It doesn’t seem to be about Babe Ruth (“The Sultan of Swat”) or Hassanal Bolkiah (“The Sultan of Brunei”). I do know that it stayed in my head for a couple of days after I saw them play the Austin City Limits Festival and that “If you don’t cut your losses before you get lost/They're never going to leave you alone” is one helluva line for a chorus.

17) Cold War Kids - “Something is Not Right With Me” (Downtown)
It’s a shame that Cold War Kids second full-length Loyalty to Loyalty turned out to be such a letdown. When I heard this first single I was definitely anticipating a strong disc. Instead we got an album where the band tries to rock too hard and seemingly forgets how to come up with a melody. Only “Something is Not Right With Me” strikes the right balance, with Nathan Willett's crazy-sounding vocals matching up perfectly with the paranoid narrator of the song.

16) Estelle featuring Kanye West - “American Boy” (Atlantic)
For the first time in say, oh, eight years, I feel proud to be American. And I credit it all to U.K. singer Estelle and this song. Okay, maybe she doesn’t deserve all the credit. It did take until after our Presidential election for this bouncy and oh so hummable song to click in my mind. I heard it all throughout the summer but thought it was the last single from West’s Graduation, an album that didn’t really hold up for me after repeated listens. Then the first Saturday after the election I heard “American Boy” cranked in the NHL store in midtown Manhattan. Standing there next to a batch of Sidney Crosby jerseys the lines “I just met this 5 foot 7 guy who’s just my type/Like the way he speak here, his confidence is peaking” and “Take me to your hood/I neva been to Brooklyn and I'd like to see what's good” hooked me. She’s a very attractive singer (who also has an English accent, which always slays me) proclaiming she likes guys from the good ol’ U S of A. How could you not like this song? If we’re lucky, perhaps Estelle will lead a cultural revolution around the globe that makes us American boys seem just slightly less evil than we look right now to the rest of the planet.

15) Kings of Leon - “Sex on Fire” (RCA)
I can’t believe it took until my 18th listen (that is a rough estimate) to this song for me to understand these lyrics. I mean, with words like “Soft lips are open/knuckles are pale/feels like you’re dying” and a chorus of “Your sex is on fire/consumed with what’s to transpire,” how dumb could I be? It’s plain as day what’s going on here—the subject of the song is talking about passing a kidney stone.

Wait, why are you laughing? Oh. Oh. Um, yeah. Forget that kidney stone thing.

14) Morrissey - “That’s How People Grow Up” (Decca/Universal)
Apparently for the former Smiths singer, growing up includes a big ol’ cowbell being played for three minutes straight and wasting time looking for love. And holy crap, I think I agree with him. “That’s How People Grow Up” was one of the two new tracks on Moz’s Greatest Hits: Deluxe Edition and it's the rare new song on a best of that stands up with all of the previously released material. I haven't liked a Morrissey song this much since “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get.” It’s wickedly catchy. And the following may just be the best line I’ve heard this year: “I was driving my car/I crashed and broke my spine/So yes there are things worse in life than/Never being someone's sweetie.” Brilliant, just brilliant.

13) She and Him - “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” (Merge)
She is actress Zooey Deschanel, Him is singer-songwriter M. Ward. The two met on a movie set, discovered they enjoyed some of the same types of music and ended up working on one of the most surprising releases of this year. This isn’t some vanity project like those from Scarlett Johansson, Keanu Reeves or that old guy from The Sopranos. Throughout She and Him’s debut disc Volume One Deschanel proves herself as very capable songwriter and as a fine singer. “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here” is a charming tune that exists in the sweet spot where ’60s pop meets country and up-tempo folk. And Deschanel’s highly overdubbed a capella breakdown towards the end of the song sucks me in every time. I wonder if Deschanel will go back to acting full time? I’d be comfortable letting her stay on music side of her career for a long time. (And with the news just before press time that she’s engaged to Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard, I’m sure she’ll continue her path in music.)

12) The Delta Spirit - “Trashcan” (Rounder)
Someone in The Delta Spirit actually plays the lid of a trashcan throughout this song. That is just too fucking cool. Who wouldn’t want to be in a band and spend three and half minutes banging the crap out of a metal trashcan lid? Sign me up for that right now. And the rest of the song, which reminds me a bit of Cold War Kids, is pretty good too. Seriously, a trashcan lid. Awesome.

11) The Raconteurs - “Old Enough” (Third Man/WB)
Brendan Benson really shines on this second single from The Raconteurs’ Consolers of the Lonely. This mash up of country (hear that fiddle go!) and 70s organ-driven pop features Benson doing some great harmony and lead vocals that were a bit in short supply from him on the band’s debut. And “You're too young to have it figured out/You think you know what you're talking about/You think it will all work itself out/But we'll see” is a great stanza that anyone 40 and over can quote to anyone 29 and younger. Damn kids. Get off my lawn.

10) Ingrid Michaelson - “Be Ok” (Cabin 24 Records/RED)
It’s not often I really connect with someone I interview. Ingrid Michaelson is one of the very few exceptions. I spoke with in the fall of 2007 when her song “The Way I Am” was in every Old Navy commercial and within minutes we were cracking each other up like old friends. I spoke to her this past summer about her upcoming EP called Be Ok, and within a minute we were bantering like a longtime morning drive show. I don’t usually dig this kind of music, but knowing that there’s such a cool person behind it somehow removes that barrier. (Um, and she’s incredibly cute and a native New Yorker as well, which certainly doesn’t hurt her cause.) “Be Ok” is wickedly catchy and is done in under 2:30, which plants it right in my wheelhouse. And part of the proceeds will go to the Stand Up 2 Cancer. So basically you'd have to be an asshole not to dig this song. Wait, I am an asshole. Well there’s a conundrum…

9) Kathleen Edwards - “The Cheapest Key” (Zoe/Rounder)
Kathleen Edwards has followed the path made by Lucinda Williams for country-rock female singer-songwriters. But I don’t think Williams has ever written an opening pair of lines as funny as these: “A is for all the times I bit my tongue/B is for bullshit and you fed me some.” “The Cheapest Key” takes the musical keys and breaks them down into a laundry list of slams against some dude with a guitar that picked the wrong woman to fuck with. It’s also got a very funny bridge where Edwards spits out the line “Don't write me off, here comes my softer side,” and then 3 seconds of a fanciful piano roll flies by and then she snarls, “And there it goes!” “The Cheapest Key” is easily the funniest “I’m pissed off” song of the year.

8) The Hold Steady - “Sequestered in Memphis” (Vagrant)
In July I went in for my second stint of jury duty in Brooklyn—and once again I got picked. In 2003 I served two weeks on a murder trial. Fortunately this year it was a civil case that got settled before we went into the courtroom. And each time I walked to the court building I found myself singing this Hold Steady song. It's another great slab of (I almost hate to write this phrase but I will) Springsteen-esque rock with frontman Craig Finn spinning the tale of a guy being questioned by the cops. It was the perfect antidote to being wrapped up in the clutches of our jurisprudence system. At least I don't have to go to jury duty for another eight years. By that point society might have broken down completely and vigilante justice will rule. Woo-hoo!

7) Joe Jackson - “Too Tough” (Rykodisc)
This second single from the Rain album is reminiscent of Jackson’s more mellow work on Night and Day and Body and Soul. Like those discs Jackson went guitarless once again, playing in a piano trio with his original rhythm section of bassist Graham Maby and drummer Dave Houghton. “Too Tough” features some gorgeous piano playing, especially when Jackson hits the chorus. And oh my gosh, it’s a somewhat bitter chorus. Who would have thought I would enjoy a line like this? “And if I try hard enough/to do or die/when we push and shove/I know that I will be too tough/Too tough to fall in love/With you.” After transcribing that line I realized that “Too Tough” might be my favorite Joe Jackson song in at least 17 years...and that the last Jackson song I liked this much (“Stranger Than Fiction”) was released when I graduated college. Sigh.

6) Carrie Underwood - “All American Girl” (19 Recordings/RCA)
And now the most shocking entry anywhere on this year’s list. Yes, an American Idol winner who went on to a country career released a song I liked a whole lot. Let’s file this one under “Reasons I Have CMT and GAC Among My Programmed Favorites on My Remote.” The video features Underwood (who, um, is kind of an attractive 25 year old) in a parade of outfits you’d find all-American girls in: cheerleader, swimmer, waitress, nurse, stewardess, army ranger, police officer, firewoman and beauty queen. Yeah, I kind of felt like a pervert the first time I watched the entire video. Then I found myself actually humming the melody one day on the train home. That’s when I knew this song was more than just a pretty face (so to speak). Underwood and her co-writers Ashley Gorley and Kelley Lovelace came up with some damn fine hooks on this one. Just as the second chorus is about to end with “girl,” they skip it and head back to the beginning of the chorus, building up the tension in the next go around, where they proceeds to skip it again until they finally reach the end of the chorus on the third try. It’s almost a relief when they finally get to that resolving note. And it’s pure hit songwriting genius.

5) R.E.M. - “Supernatural Superserious” (WB)
This might not be the best song on Accelerate, but it was certainly the perfect song to reintroduce a revitalized R.E.M. to the world. There’s the chiming of Peter Buck’s Rickenbacker, a great (and at times wordless) backing vocal from Mike Mills and one great hook after another. It’s yet another entry in Michael Stipe’s line of lyrical pep-talks. It was the first time in a long while (since “What’s the Frequency Kenneth”) where I dug an R.E.M. single from the very first listen.

4) Mudcrutch - “Scare Easy” (WB)
This is the best Tom Petty original song in many years—and the members of the Heartbreakers not in Mudcrutch must be pissed they didn’t get a chance to record it. Mudcrutch is the band that Petty, guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench were in before the Heartbreakers were born. I’m pretty sure this country-rock/psychedelic sound wouldn’t have brought them a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career like the Heartbreakers. However, Petty and company got to do something most of us who will never have that opportunity to do—get back together with some old friends and see if that magic from long ago was still there. And it’s obvious the revisiting his roots inspired Petty, as “Scare Easy” is catchy as hell, it has a great “let’s get this down on tape live here in our rehearsal space” sound, Mike Campbell plays the hell out of the solo and the chorus is one of Petty’s strongest in age. He sounds absolutely recharged, which I’m grateful for after seeing some average Heartbreakers performances over the past two tours. I love how Petty spits out this chorus: “I don’t scare easy/I don’t fall apart/When I’m under the gun/You can break my heart/And I ain’t gonna run.” I hope this Mudcrutch reunion isn’t just a one shot deal.

3) Bob Mould - “The Silence Between Us” (Granary Music/Anti)
The best work of Bob Mould’s post-Hüsker Dü career has seen him explore the fraying edges of relationships. “The Silence Between Us” is a surprising exception to that rule. This time Mould is describing an event in a relationship that seems solid—or will at least be solid when his partner relaxes and realizes how good they have it. A simple trip to the woods (“There were trails of fallen trees/Deciduous and weeding marsh/The lowland birds and crickets roared/The final sound of fall”) has never sounded this hooky before, as Mould revisits the power-pop that made Sugar such a joy for the first time in more than a decade.

2) Nada Surf - “Whose Authority” (Barsuk)
Damn, this song is so fucking catchy. I’ve always thought “Whose Authority” was kind of odd because there are two lengthy verses before the chorus kicks in. Then one day while I was walking to a gig the chorus just hit me. I had to start pumping my fist and soundlessly mouth these words: “On whose authority/I have none over me/on whose authority/there's none that I can see/on whose authority/I have none over me/on whose authority/nothing speaks to me/on whose authority/I have none over me” It's hard to describe just how anthemic it is—or even what frontman Matthew Caws is singing about. I do know that the video has the older brother from The Adventures of Pete & Pete riding his bike around New York, and there’s a point at about 1:57 in where he just throws his hands in the air as the chorus is going...and it’s absolutely perfect. This song brings me that moment of exhilaration on every listen. I can't explain why, I can only revel in it.

1) Okkervill River - “Lost Coastlines” (Jagjaguwar)
Okkervill River frontman Will Sheff is by far the best lyricist in rock today (might have been that schooling at Macalester in St. Paul, I'm not sure). Each one of his songs is a compelling, funny, sometimes heartbreaking, yet always tautly constructed short story. "Lost Coastlines" is ostensibly about a crew departing on a ship, yet it's a great metaphor for a band leaving on what looks to be a hard slog of a tour. (“Leaving behind/All the faces that I might replace if I tried/on that long ride/Looking deep inside/but I don't want to look so deep inside yet.”) And departed keyboardist-vocalist Jonathan Meiburg makes a great counterpoint to Sheff's distinctive off-kilter delivery with a smooth baritone that takes two verses. A great leadoff track to a fantastic album.

Compilations, Reissues, EP's, Soundtracks, Etc.

10) Warren Zevon - Warren Zevon (Asylum/Rhino)
Since his passing in 2003, Warren Zevon’s recording career has finally been getting the attention it so well deserves. Last year saw a sonically improved reissue of 1978’s Excitable Boy as well as an expanded version of the great live album Stand in The Fire. Those two reissues are fantastic, but they’d be hard pressed to top the treasure trove of outtakes on the second disc of Zevon’s 1976 self-titled album. Zevon’s solo piano demos of “The French Inhaler” and “Mohammed’s Radio” (with a wicked Dylan impression thrown in on a few lines) are perhaps even better than their fully fleshed out versions. The alternate take of “I’m Sleep When I’m Dead” crackles with energy as Zevon and the band gleefully rip through it. Oh, and let’s not forget that the original album (which sounds so much warmer than the previous CD version) is pretty damn good too. From the Western tale “Frank and Jesse James” (originally written for Zevon’s former employers The Everly Brothers, and includes harmony vocals from Phil Everly) to one of the best drug tales ever committed to song, “Carmelita,” Warren Zevon is chock full of great tales of losers, hustlers and other seedy characters from L.A. Zevon’s somewhat abrasive edge is taken off a bit by producer Jackson Browne, yet he shows good restraint in not allowing the huge list of guests (Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, Bonnie Raitt) not overshadow Zevon’s genius. Somehow I don’t even mind that Glenn Frey and Don Henley are on a couple of tracks. (Of course, I still wonder why those two didn’t get cancer instead.)

9) ZZ Top - Eliminator (Collectors Edition) (Rhino/WB)
Here’s a simple fact—ZZ Top’s pre-Eliminator albums have held up better sonically than Eliminator (and much more so than Afterburner) 25 years later. The Eliminator drums (a mixture of triggers and wickedly e-qued actual toms) and the rudimentary synth patterns totally date all of this material. The extra tracks on the first disc are a bunch of previously unreleased live versions that simply sound like hell. So why is it on this list? Because my friends, I fucking love every single one of those sounds. Those live tracks are so low-fi and feature the sound of what I swear is a synthesizer actually dying—and it makes me cackle in joy. “Gimme All Your Lovin” comes on and once again I’m that 14 year old kid discovering how rebellious it can be to listen to that “heavy rock” station out of Albany called PYX (as in picks) 106. I figure I’m turning 40 next year, I might as well just fully let go of any shame I have about enjoying the rock of my youth. (Yes, I did download Sammy Hagar’s “There’s Only One Way to Rock” this year. Okay, I didn’t pay for that download, but I still had to seek it out.) I almost forgot to mention that this Collector’s Edition comes with a DVD with all three of the classic Eliminator car videos. No more relying on YouTube or the two hours a day VH1 Classic still shows videos.

8) Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band - Magic Tour Highlights (Columbia)
This digital only tour EP would have made this list if it just had one song—the last appearance Danny Federici made with the E Street Band before his death in April. (All proceeds the sales of the EP are being donated to The Danny Federici Melanoma Fund.) Add in the best guest appearance at an E Street Band show that I’ve ever heard and you’ve got something I had to download at 9 a.m. on the day of its release. Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello joined Springsteen on a duet of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” at two Anaheim shows back in April. Rage had done their own cover of “Joad” back in 1997 (I even interviewed Morello specifically about their take on it), so one would figure Morello would be well prepared for his guest shot. Who knew he would steal the entire performance? Springsteen takes the first verse, Morello the second, they split the third and the trade solos in the middle. All of which are great. Then Morello takes over and delivers a solo that uses his whole bag of tricks. It’s simply jaw-dropping, and the accompanying video with the EP shows Springsteen and the rest of the band just in awe of Morello. It’s good to see that when one artist respects another artist’s work and are invited to share the stage, they take that responsibility very seriously.

7) Nada Surf - Vinyl Box Set 1994-2008 (Barsuk)
Don’t go looking for this box set in your local store or on Amazon. They only made 1,000 of them and they’re all gone. And with good reason too. This set is one of the best packages I’ve ever seen. The booklet that comes with their five studio albums (and a repressing of their debut 45) is gorgeous, with reproductions of many tour posters, pictures from the road and the lyrics to every song. The best part of the set is the download code that comes inside—those eight letters get you get digital copies of their last four albums as well as a 16 track compilation of rarities. Just like many of my favorite acts, Nada Surf leave lots of great songs off of their albums. Hopefully very soon I’ll actually get a new receiver so I can use my turntable and hear how these albums sound the old fashioned way.

6) Whiskeytown - Strangers Almanac: Deluxe Edition (Outpost/Geffen)
There are deluxe editions, and then there are truly deluxe editions. Count this Stranger’s Almanac reissue in the latter category. The first disc has a remastered version of the amazing original album plus five unreleased NPR performances. The second disc has 17 unreleased tracks, including acoustic demos of “16 Days,” “Avenues” and “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart” and seven unreleased songs that didn’t make the cut for the album. Two of these songs, “Nurse With The Pills” and “10 Seconds,” are as strong as anything else Ryan Adams has written in his post-Whiskeytown career. (And kind of makes me sad he hasn’t fulfilled the potential he had more than a decade ago.) It’s amazing that a 22 year-old kid could have come up with so many great songs in such a short time period. And I haven’t even mentioned the great covers on here—Fleetwood Mac's “Dreams,” Gram Parsons' “Luxury Liner,” and Johnny Cash's “I Still Miss Someone.” Many years ago I wrote about how Stranger’s Almanac was a “full service depression effort” because Adams’ lyrics fit various depressing parts of my life. Those memories and accompanying bouts of depression have faded away (whew) and thankfully I can still get enjoyment every time I play Stranger’s Almanac.

5) Pavement - Brighten The Corners: Nicene Creedence Edition (Matador)
Matador Records sure knows how to do reissues right. This latest deluxe edition from the Pavement catalog is packed with a great booklet of previously unreleased pics and artwork, 10 B-sides, 10 outtakes, and 14 live radio performances. What’s the most surprising about the reissue is discovering that most of the B-sides for their next album Terror Twilight were drawn from the Brighten the Corners era. I applaud Matador for including those B-sides on this reissue so that they’re in their proper context time wise. Pavement won over many critics with 1992’s Slanted and Enchanted and its follow up 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. But time and time again Brighten the Corners is the Pavement album I return to. It’s one beautiful and majestic recording, and Pavement’s most accessible. Well, I suppose I should use that term loosely when it comes to Pavement. The guitars of Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg intertwine to create a symphony of mid-tempo delights that are just downright pretty in songs like “Shady Lane” and “Type Slowly.” And 11 years later, “Date with IKEA” has come true as the Swedish giant set a new store up near the docks here in Brooklyn. So does one get the meatballs when you go on a date there? (On a side note, I preordered the reissue for Matador as it came with a previously unreleased live album on vinyl. So here’s another reason to get my ass to Best Buy and get a new receiver so I can actually listen to all the vinyl I’ve purchased in the past year. That Minus 5 EP ain’t gonna play itself.)

4) Big Dipper - Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology (Merge)
The career of Boston’s Big Dipper could be the template for college rock/indie rock/CMJ new music bands of the late 80s—have a small but loyal following, release a couple of well reviewed albums, get signed to a big deal by a major label, then overdo it on your major label debut, have fans revolt, watch one member leave, get dropped from same major label, try to carry on for a couple of years and then quietly break up. Big Dipper were one of those quintessential bands of my college era. They made jerky, rhythmic, angular pop songs with lots of guitar hooks. Their subject matter was not typical “Boy meets girl, boy never gets girl.” They wrote songs about hunting down the Loch Ness monster, former bandmates and their destructive house parties and UFO enthusiasts and astronomers. And people who liked Big Dipper really liked Big Dipper. My pal Dev kept the band’s catalog alive when his band covered the ultra catchy minor Boston hit “All Going Out Together” at every single gig I saw them do. My college friend Scott almost always brought up “Ron Klaus Wrecked His House” as one of the tunes he wished he could find on CD. Supercluster made Scott’s dream (and many others I assume) come true. This three disc set combines the band’s debut EP and two full length albums they recorded before making the jump to a major label. The third disc, subtitled Very Loud Array, serves up 15 tracks the band recorded after their major label failure. It’s a shame that this material didn’t see the light of day 15 years ago, as songs like “Edith” and “The Beast” hold up just as well as their “hits” like “She’s Fetching” and “Ron Klaus.” It’s said that Tom Scharpling, WFMU radio host and executive producer and writer on Monk, is the reason for this reissue and the band’s few reunion shows this year. If that’s the case, I’d like to ask Mr. Scharpling to start work on a Scruffy the Cat reunion right now.

3) Eels - Useless Trinkets-B-Sides, Soundtracks, Rarities and Unreleased 1996-2006 (Geffen)
50 songs. 50 tunes that have never appeared on an album. Jeebus, eels mastermind e (Mark Everett) is one productive mofo. Maybe next year I can subcontract some of this list out to him. Useless Trinkets has everything an eels fan could want. Drastic reworkings of favorites (“Novocaine for the Soul (Live From Hell)” makes that hit positively chilling); songs about hate (“Fucker”); thoroughly depressing tales (“Stepmother,” the collection’s title track) crazy covers (“I Put a Spell On You”), genuinely moving covers (“The Dark End of the Street”); a ton of BBC performances and a bunch of the soundtrack songs e and company seem to release every year. It’s a shame that eels will go down in most people’s minds as a one hit wonder. Just one listen to this collection of songs that didn’t even make the cut for albums proves that they’re one of the most consistently engaging acts of the past decade.

2) Creedence Clearwater Revival - Cosmo’s Factory (Concord/Fantasy)
If you are an American male between the ages of 35 and 65, it’s more than likely than at least 10 Creedence Clearwater Revival songs are imprinted upon your DNA. And there’s nothing wrong with that. John Fogerty and company crafted some of the strongest and most timeless songs of the rock era. (What artist in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame wouldn’t have killed to write a song like “Proud Mary” or “Fortunate Son?”) CCR’s 1976 20 song best of album Chronicle just might be the best greatest hits album ever released by a band whose name doesn’t rhyme with meatles. Alas, Chronicle kept me from truly exploring the CCR catalog while growing up. Who needed to hear those other album tracks when “Down on the Corner” and “Up Around the Bend” and “Bad Moon Rising” were all on one hit-packed album? (Gosh, now I sound like I’m about to pitch you the latest album from the Time-Life collection.) Fortunately Fogerty buried the hatchet with his old label Fantasy Records and sort of buried the hatchet with his remaining former bandmates Stu Cook and Doug Clifford so the CCR back catalog could get a proper reissue. And 1970’s Cosmo’s Factory stands taller than the rest. Normally I would follow that up with a big ol’ “duh” since the heart of Cosmo’s Factory is three double-sided singles that hit the Top 5 in 1970 (“Travelin’ Band”/”Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Up Around the Bend”/”Run Through the Jungle” and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”). This reissue is better than the other five that came out this year because of the clarity of the sound. Reissue producer Chris Clough (who was in charge of the whole catalog) was definitely on his game the day it came to remaster Cosmo’s Factory. The handclaps on “Up Around the Bend” sound as if they’re happening right next to your left ear. Fogerty’s always biting guitar leads cut through like never before. Clough and his team have pulled off an amazing feat—these songs I’ve heard thousands of times over the past 35 years or so sound as fresh as the first time I heard them. And lastly, I was able to type this entire entry with time to spare while spinning Cosmo’s Factory’s tour de force jam, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Damn, they really don’t make albums this good all that often any more.

1) (tie) The Replacements - Tim, Pleased to Meet Me and Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (Rhino/Ryko/Sire)
I could have easily put all eight of the Replacements reissues at number one. Each one is a fantastic album. And they each have a generous helping of bonus tracks. So I picked 1981’s Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, 1985’s Tim and 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me because they had the highest quality bonus material. Sorry Ma would have made it even if it just included the first proper CD release of the drunkard’s lullaby “If Only You Were Lonely.” Add in the band’s original four song demo (with the immortal “Shut Up”) and an over-the-top version of “Customer” and you’ve got a winner. Tim includes an absolute stunning acoustic band take on “Can’t Hardly Wait,” the great B-side “Nowhere is My Home” and a blistering fast take on “Kiss Me on the Bus” that just might be better than the original. (For those who know the original track, you know that is high praise indeed.) And Pleased to Meet Me includes fascinating alternate takes on “Alex Chilton” and “Can’t Hardly Wait.” There’s so much good extra stuff it makes me wonder what else could be in the vaults for when the long-rumored Replacements box set finally sees the light of day. I for one can’t hardly wait. And I can’t believe I just went for the joke.


10) Letters to Cleo, Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY December 11th
Perhaps it’s seeing that dreaded age of 40 coming up in less than 11 months, or just acting more like an adult this entire year that has made me a fan of reunions. The latest reunion I had to was Letters to Cleo. The band hadn’t played together in over a decade (and I hadn't seen them in over 11 years), so I was rather excited when their gig at Bowery Ballroom was announced. I let my old roommate and fellow LTC huge fan Joe S. know immediately and we grabbed tickets. This was a reunion that did not disappoint. Kay Hanley might just be a better frontperson now than she was a decade ago. Her voice has a warmer tone nowadays, which made songs like “Co-Pilot” and “Awake” sound better than I remembered them. She seemed to work the crowd more easily, which she might have picked up having to entertain thousands of kids as one of Miley Cyrus's backup singers. (Um, and she has gotten hotter in the past 10 years too.) The rest of the band (minus original bassist Scott Riebling) now plays with more confidence in their own abilities and material. Drummer Stacy Jones (who happens to front a great band of his own called American Hi Fi) is just a monster behind the kit. And it wasn’t just the great performances that made the night so much fun. It was the chance to reveal in the memories the band’s music brought back (their album Go! was in heavy rotation at 288 5th Avenue in 1997) and to catch up with some of the band’s friends (like Jed and Pete from The Gravel Pit). Yeah, I guess getting old can be fun sometimes. I’d like to give LTC guitarist USA Mike (Michael Eisenstein) the last word on the Bowery show with a post he left on the Kay Hanley message board: “What a great night. I haven’t done an official ranking, but that was in the top 10 (maybe 5) Cleo shows of all time.” I’d have to agree.

9) Nada Surf, Terminal 5, New York, NY April 11th
So why does this Nada Surf show stand above the other four I’ve seen this year? Well, I’d have to say it was a certain part of the crowd at New York’s latest shitty venue. (The sound at Terminal 5 is NOT meant for rock shows. No freaking way). I went with Moria the concert pal, and we were convinced that the show was made better by these three kids (it was an all ages show, they might have been 21) in front of us who knew every single word—even the songs from the relatively new Lucky—and danced around and took pictures like they were having the time of their young lives. Heck, they probably were having the time of their lives. Their enthusiasm was infectious and made me enjoy a show that under normal circumstances wouldn't make it onto my Top 10 concerts for the year. An added bonus was how they pissed off this snooty couple in front of us. They both looked as if they swallowed a box of sour balls. Screw them if they can't have fun.

8) Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, ACL Festival, Zilker Park, Austin, TX September 27th
I knew that the Bright Eyes frontman was staying away from doing songs from that catalog on this solo tour, yet I didn't expect his hour-long set to be focused almost exclusively on his self-titled solo album. It’s apparent that escaping from the Bright Eyes name has freed up Oberst. He seemed very relaxed on stage. For once I didn’t expect him to throw a tantrum. He looked like a guy just having fun playing with some friends. That relaxed attitude went well with the one tremendous cover in the set—Paul Simon’s 1973 solo hit “Kodachrome.” I started chuckling as Oberst sang the opening line and I wondered if any of this mostly under-30-looking crowd had even heard the song. There were a few pockets of people dancing and clapping—and I was pretty sure those folks were definitely my age or a bit older. No matter, we old folks and Conor had fun, and that’s all that mattered.

7) Big Dipper, Southpaw, Brooklyn, NY April 25th
I stupidly missed Big Dipper when they played at The Haunt in Ithaca 18 years ago. I wasn’t going to miss my chance this time when they did a few dates in support of the anthology that the always great Merge Records released this year. (Even if I did get food poisoning from a pre-show catfish burger, yuck.) These four guys looked a whole lot older, but played just as well (and as loud, my left ear thought for about 36 hours) as they did back in the day. The next to last song in the set, "Ron Klaus Wrecked His House," was still stuck in my head a few days after the show. One can only hope we don't have to wait another 18 years for a Big Dipper show here in New York.

6) Neil Young, Wilco, Madison Square Garden, New York, NY December 16th
Eight years. Yes, it had been eight freaking years since I had seen Neil Young play an entire show (I did catch his Farm Aid set at New York's Randall’s Island in 2007) without the baggage of CSN on stage. It’s not that I haven’t had the chance to do so. I boycotted the 2003-4 Greendale tour with Crazy Horse as there was no way I was spending money to watch him perform his worst album ever. And the ticket prices for last year's theater tour behind Chrome Dreams II were just too pricey. However this time the temptation to go was great with the bonus of Wilco as the opening act. I hemmed and hawed about going until my dearest friend April (who was tired of the hemming, hawing and complaining) finally said, “I can buy tickets for you as a birthday present.” Since she had never seen Young, I felt okay letting her buy seats that were really expensive. Wilco did a great opening set, with Jeff Tweedy bringing out his son Spencer to play drums on “The Late Greats.” It was the younger Tweedy's birthday, which certainly must have made that appearance the best birthday present ever. Then Young came out with his Electric Band (made up of a cast of characters from throughout his career) and cranked out a decent version of the Ragged Glory gem “Love and Only Love.” As Young continued playing the hits I've seen many times before (“Hey Hey, My My,” “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere”) I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. I kept thinking “Crazy Horse did these songs better, I wish Crazy Horse was here.” And then these opening lines rang out: “Look out mama, there's a white boat coming up a river." Instantly my doubts went away. I mean, I was seeing Neil freaking Young! Dude, this is fucking “Powderfinger!” This is awesome! The rest of the show was fantastic. It clocked in at over two and a half hours, which is the longest Neil show I’ve ever seen. And to prove that he's got some life in him yet, he mixed in nine new tunes. Alas most of them were subpar, yet it was great seeing an artist I respect taking a chance by performing what basically was an entire unreleased album. It reminded me of the Neil shows I saw in the late ’80s and early ’90s where he would play songs that would end up on his next album. And considering the nostalgia trip I’ve been on during this trying year that was alright with me.

5) The Figgs, Knitting Factory, New York, NY, August 29th
What makes this Figgs gig different than the rest of their shows I saw this year was the element of surprise when they broke into a cover of Neil Young’s “The Loner.” I didn't expect it at all, which made it even more incredible. It had to be one of the Top 5 moments I've ever experienced at a Figgs show. (And there have been over 80 shows now.) Mike Gent, Pete Donnelly and Pete Hayes just rocked the hell out of it, while keyboardist Scott Janovitz absolutely nailed the keyboard parts that Young discarded after he recorded the song for his 1969 self-titled solo debut. I don’t know what else to write. It was one of those rock moments that can probably never be duplicated.

4) Wilco, McCarren Park Pool, Brooklyn, NY August 13th
Wilco + Brooklyn + outdoors on a beauty of a summer night + the horn section The Total Pros, on 11 songs = fucking magnificent.

3) Okkervil River, ACL Festival, Zilker Park, Austin, TX September 28th
Okkervil River + Austin + outdoors as the sun is starting to sink in the Texas sky + a raucous group of hometown supporters = fucking magnificent.

2) David Byrne, Paramount Theater, Austin, TX September 25th
When the Austin City Limits Festival was announced, I was intrigued by the listing of David Byrne “playing the songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno.” My Austin friend (and place-to-crash supplier these past three years) Stacy is a huge Talking Heads fan and was excited by this prospect as well. Alas, when the schedule was released Byrne’s set was on the first day of ACL, which of course was the day Stacy couldn’t go. About a month before the festival a bunch of aftershows were announced for various Austin venues and Byrne was one of them. So we decided to take the plunge and get tix for this ACL aftershow...that was the night before ACL. Huh? In any case, it was a very wise decision. Byrne’s latest collaboration with Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, is his strongest album in years and was the centerpiece of a set consisting only of songs he wrote with Eno. (Or, in the case of the Al Green cover "Take Me to the River," Eno produced.) I am a huge fan of the Jonathan Demme-directed Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, which takes simple staging and brings it to another level. Byrne’s show that night felt like an extension of all of that. The entire band was dressed in white and supplemented by three dancers. And these dancers were tremendous. The choreography during the songs (I’d say about 75% of the set featured the dancers) adds an extra dimension to the old Heads classics and the strong new material. In times of rising ticket prices, it’s good to see someone who can put on a true show without having to resort to 800 video screens and autotuned vocals.

1) R.E.M., Madison Square Garden, New York, NY June 19th
It’s rare when I can say this about a band, especially an act that I’ve been a devoted fan of for 23 years: this was the best R.E.M. show I’ve ever seen. Ever. You might ask, “Why do you feel this way after 20 years of seeing them perform?” Well, I would reply that the set list was about as diverse as I’ve ever witnessed. The band finally seemed comfortable without Bill Berry behind the drum kit. (Bill Rieflin is the second best Bill the band has ever had.) Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck looked like they actually enjoyed each other’s company and were having a terrific time going through their past (“Harborcoat?” “Disturbance at the Heron House?” OMFG!) and their present (“Living Well’s the Best Revenge” from the great Accelerate is a quintessential set opener). My friend, fellow baseball fanatic and longtime R.E.M. touring guitarist Scott McCaughey was his typical cheery on stage self. And they played “Ignoreland.” “Ignoreland” has always been the stepchild of the mostly downbeat Automatic for the People. It’s got loud guitars, a funky clavinet part and sounds distinctly out of place next to “Monty Got a Raw Deal” and “Star Me Kitten.” Stipe spits out the lyrics about the Reagan/Bush 1 era as co-producer Scott Litt makes Stipe’s voice sound as if it’s being broadcast over distorted speakers at the world’s largest political rally. It’s a song that would fit snugly on Life’s Rich Pageant or Document, yet the band never played it live until this tour. And my oh my, it really was a treat to see and hear. Lastly, I must admit there are times where I am way past my job being cool. Having someone the R.E.M. office calling me two hours before showtime to offer a last-minute pair of free tickets that ended up being eight row? Holy shit, that was fucking cool.

Discovery of the Year

I suppose it’s strange to say that a band who had an album in your Top 5 last year is a discovery. Yet my fandom kicked up to a higher level this year after it had come full circle. Allow me to explain. At the 2006 Austin City Limits Music Festival I got my first exposure to Okkervil River. In the 100 degree heat at Zilker Park my friend Stacy said, “We should stop and watch some of Okkervil River.” Even though I was wilting, I agreed. The second song we saw them do was “The President's Dead.” I was immediately hooked by this tale about how a simple and beautiful day in someone's life become memorable because of an assassination of a world leader. I found the song online once I got back to New York and it started me on my path to Okkervil River fandom. Flash forward two years—I saw Okkervill River twice in the space of nine days, the first at ACL and the second time at Webster Hall here in New York. Frontman Will Sheff opened this show up with a song that used “The President's Dead” music, but with some decidedly darker lyrics: "The President's alive. I see his face on FOX 5. My friends I feel so terrified.” However, “The President's Alive” isn't about our current ineffective leader. The lyrics go on to mention “The Vice standing by” with “just one tear in her eye.” To open up a show with this song, on the night of second presidential debate, well, damn, it was pretty powerful.

Rediscovery of the Year

The Temptations
I spent much of the fall listening to New York's oldies station CBS-FM. Perhaps it was just a function of another birthday rolling around and I felt like reveling in my past. Or maybe I didn't want to sit through another WFUV fund drive. Or perhaps I just didn't want to listen to baseball on the radio done by people not named Howie Rose. Whatever the reason, I woke up one night to hear “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and it struck me that I haven't owned a single Motown album (and only a couple of tracks scattered on some compilations) since I scored a major case of burnout on all their acts in the early ’90s. “Papa” sounded so good that night I realized I needed to get that song again. And while I was at it, I decided to download all of The Tempts greatest hits. As I was scrolling through the various song selections, I stumbled upon “Shakey Ground.” I didn’t even realize that the funky gem from 1975 (which I remember hearing on WGY-AM growing up) was a Temptations song. Damn, what a killer track. 20 downloads later, I had filled in a crucial gap in my musical history.

2008's Top 10 Visual Aids

10) Costas Now With Aaron & Mays (HBO)
Full disclosure: Bob Costas tapes his radio show out of the studios on my floor, so I’ve had the chance to actually speak with him a couple of times. After seeing this hour long discussion with two of the greatest living ballplayers, I felt compelled to stop him and pay him a compliment. He replied with the simplest explanation possible about why this town hall meeting style show worked—“With those two up there, I just tried to stay out of the way.” And Costas largely succeeded, gently directing the pair to another topic when it was needed and smartly bringing in some select audience members (Dave Winfield and Jimmy Rollins) to further the conversation. It was an extremely well executed show on every front (most of the reaction shots from the star-packed audience were perfectly placed) and was one of the reasons I’m glad I kept up my HBO subscription this year. (Well, that and the fact that Flight of the Conchords returns in January of ’09.)

9) Psych (USA)
This fake-psychic-plays-detective show seems to draw a divisive line down the viewing audience. Folks like me enjoy the witty banter of James Roday’s character Shawn Spencer. Others can’t stand any line that the character says and feel that Roday comes off a smarmy. (I particularly enjoyed reading one TV critic’s blog where he said that “I’d enjoy watching an episode where Shawn repeatedly gets punched in the face.”) In other words, this Friday night comedy-mystery ain’t for everyone. I’ll admit that every plot is the same every week—Shawn takes a case, his partner Gus (Dule Hill) poo-poos Shawn’s antics, Shawn hits on detective Juliet O’Hara (Maggie Lawson), detective Carlton Lassiter (Timothy Omundson) gets annoyed in a laughable way, and Shawn’s dad (Corbin Bernson) gets in a few sarcastic remarks. Fortunately the first half of season three expanded on the show’s blueprint by giving Shawn and his father some emotional depth by bringing Shawn’s long-departed mother (played by Cybil Shepherd) into the mix for a couple of episodes. It brought a new light onto this prickly father-son relationship and gave Roday and Bernson some good scenes in which to explore the motives of their characters. The show also scaled new comedic heights with an entire episode set around a murder on a Spanish telenovella. Roday (whose real last name is Rodríguez) looked especially gleeful in his scenes where he had to speak Spanish in a halting, ill-constructed manner. And now that I have a DVR, I’ll never miss an episode.

8) How I Met Your Mother (CBS)
This year has been a bit uneven on the first CBS show I’ve watched regularly since the days of Northern Exposure. The sitcom that never felt looked like it was shot, acted or written like a traditional sitcom fell into some of those long held plots and jokes that could have been on any other unfunny comedy polluting the networks. More than once I said to myself, “Isn’t this something I saw, or could have seen, on Friends?” Yet the high points have more than made up for the typical plots that are very atypical for this show. And the main reason for that is the award-worthy performance of Neil Patrick Harris. His portrayal of womanizer Barney Stinson discovering he’s in love with his friend Robin (played by Colbie Smothers) has brought a human edge to the character. And Harris was especially outstanding in the episode where Barney tries to resist the lure of single, horny women at a wedding while hoping to reconnect with Robin. Harris should win an Emmy based on those five minutes on screen alone. I’d also like to mention that this year the show has included goats as plot points in two episodes—and you can never go wrong with a goat.

7) Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence (TCM)
Elvis Mitchell served as one of the New York Times film critics from 1999 to 2004. During that time I always looked forward to Friday’s paper, as I knew I’d get to read a humorous yet thoughtful take on everything from the latest Jerry Bruckheimer blow ’em up blockbuster to the smallest shoestring budget indie film. Mitchell wrote my favorite film review ever, a hysterical indictment of John Travolta’s hard-on for Scientology flick Battlefield Earth. (I still have the clip of it from the paper in my archives.) The opening few lines still make me laugh eight years later: “‘Man is an endangered species,’ announces one of the titles at the beginning. And after about 20 minutes of this amateurish picture, extinction doesn't seem like such a bad idea. Sitting through it is like watching the most expensively mounted high school play of all time…It may be a bit early to make such judgments, but Battlefield Earth may well turn out to be the worst movie of this century.” Ha ha ha! Mitchell’s post-Times career has seen him work for the L.A. NPR affiliate KCRW as an interviewer. This year he brought his ability of drawing the best out of his subjects to a cable talk show about films. Normally I’d yawn at that idea (and maybe even fall asleep typing out that sentence) but Mitchell’s soothing voice and way of posing questions that make his guests think works for me. His ability to get normally press shy actors like Bill Murray and Edward Norton to open up about their favorite films and actors is no small feat. Under the Influence is perfect show for a fan of film or smart, in depth conversation to watch as they wind down their week.

6) Nova: Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives (PBS)
I’d never watched PBS’s Nova before this fall. I’m pretty doubtful I’ll ever watch it again. That’s what made the enjoyment of this episode so surprising to me. Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives is a documentary about eels frontman Mark “E” Everett and his exploration of his father’s theory of parallel universes. Watching the guy who wrote “Novocaine for the Soul” learn about quantum physics from his father’s old college buddies and co-workers while saying he couldn’t even remember his father ever hugging him was damn fascinating. I felt smarter after the show was over—and that I definitely knew where Everett’s dark view of the world was formed.

5) Burn Notice (USA)
I am fearful for the second half of the second season of this lighthearted spy show. It’s coming back in January and I wonder if I’ll love it as much as I did during the summer. Will its mix of inventive action and comedy work when its not 65 degrees at night and I’m not sitting around in shorts sipping on a cold beer? I sure hope so. The first part of second season showed that the writers have really understood what makes these characters so memorable and watchable. The interactions between Jeffery Donavan and Sharon Gless (going to therapy together, Donavan’s Michael Weston sometimes revealing the dangerous line of work he was in) have been superb. Bruce Campbell is the glue that holds this whole action and comedy mix together. Campbell’s Sam is an old army green beret, and his old high school football coach look (a former athlete gone to seed) fits his role to a tee. His peculiar mannerisms and delivery might be a bit campy on another show, but here he's fantastic. I hope Burn Notice makes an easier transition to the “real” TV season. (As if anyone pays attention to the traditional beginning and end of the TV season anymore.)

4) Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog (Timescience Bloodclub)
Here’s how to make comedy/sci-fi fans like me crash a website (and keep checking iTunes day after day to download something new): have Joss Whedon (Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) launch an online only tale in three acts about an evil doctor, a beautiful woman and a smarmy superhero that also happens to be a musical that stars Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillon (Firefly). This hysterical program is the best thing that came out of the lengthy writer’s strike. (The second best is that my number two show of the year got to come back for a second season.) Whedon wrote Dr. Horrible as a way to prove that writers deserved a cut of internet profits networks were getting for showing episodes on the web. And with the amount of online buzz and server crashes that happened this summer, I think Whedon proved his point.

3) The Middleman (ABC Family)
The television landscape is littered with shows that lasted all of one season, got canceled and had a cult following pining for a resurrection that never came. That’s the (still unofficial, yet likely) scenario for The Middleman. The show’s title character, as played by Matt Kessler, is the guy that saves the world from aliens, demons, vampire puppets and other unlikely forms of evil that turn up in California. His sidekick Wendy Watson, as played by Natalie Morales, is a Middleman in training and can kick some serious ass on her own. On paper the idea for the show seems flat out stupid. On screen, it was a pure joy to watch. The Middleman is an almost too decent to be true good guy (drinks milk, doesn’t swear, watches old westerns for their heroic qualities) on TV today. Yet Kessler makes him absolutely believable because he doesn’t play him with a knowing wink to the audience. Kessler believes in the goodness of his character, and we in turn end up believing right along with him. The Middleman also had some of the finest pop culture references ever stacked into TV dialogue. (The show’s blog would list about 30 of them for every episode.) Sadly, the show seemed horrible misplaced on ABC Family, even at a more adult oriented 10:00 p.m. time slot. (And who knew that at 11:00 p.m., Pat Robertson still hosted the 700 Club on there from the old Family Channel days. Wow.) When the inevitable DVD comes out, add it to your Netflix que. You won’t be sorry.

2) Chuck (NBC)
Here’s exactly when I knew that the second season of Chuck might be one of the best second seasons ever for a TV show: a plot about how Missile Command had actual codes to control a satellite buried on the game’s final screen and how Chuck needed to play along to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” to make it to that screen made complete sense. And inspired some gut busting laughter in my little slice of Kensington. The writer’s strike that shut down production of the first season did wonders for Chuck, as co-creators Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak figured out how to make everything fit together on the series. The main plot of each episode (whatever bad guy is trying to control the world, etc.) now usually has a thematic link with the events at Chuck’s non-spy job, working at the Buy More. They also have squeezed in some top-notch guest stars. John Larroquette as a spy who was once the world's greatest lover and is now the world's biggest drunk, The O.C.’s Melinda Clarke as a Russian black widow and Morgan Fairchild and Bruce Boxleitner as Chuck’s sister’s future in laws. While stunt-casting has killed many a show, it works perfectly here. With such a large ensemble cast and so many different parts of Chuck's life to maintain plot-wise, there's never been much screen time to establish the one-shot characters. Having a Larroquette or a Clarke gives you a stronger sense of each character and helps fill in a lot of blanks. And as I said last year, any show with Adam Baldwin is always a good time.

1) Lost (ABC)
I’m running out of good things to say about this show, which rebounded in second half of season three and hit new peaks in season four. Giving the show’s writers a specific end date for the series was the best idea ever. Not every mystery has been answered (there’s at least 30 things I still don’t understand, some dating back to the freaking pilot) and I’m sure not all of them will. I don’t care. As long as we keep getting the twists and turns of the Oceanic Six and those left on the island for the next two years, I still won’t care. Well, I really would love a real answer about the polar bears on a tropical island.