Wednesday, December 16, 2009

2009's Top 20 Albums

20) Steve Shiffman and the Land of No - Steve Shiffman and the Land of No (Tiny Beast)

Full disclosure: I am friends with two-fifths of this band. I’ve known the drummer Pete Hayes (he’s in some band that was originally from Saratoga Springs, New York) for over a decade now. I got to know Steve Shiffman about nine years ago when he started playing with Hayes. It’s been fascinating to watch The Land of No evolve from Hayes on a tiny drum kit using plastic brushes and Shiffman using a tiny amp with a very distinctive tone playing in a tiny café to a full fledged rock band with three guitars and a bass player. What’s remained constant throughout that time is Shiffman’s unique and haunting voice and his collection of strong songs. I always have a hard time describing exactly what his music sounds like. I used to bill them as a two man version of Pavement, but that doesn’t work when you’re a quintet. For lack of a better term, I’d call it New York rock. I’ve always associated Shiffman’s songs with the streets of the city I love, whether they are specifically about Manhattan (“Squirrel in Chinatown”), they have the same kind of crazy rhythms that you can sense on an interesting night out (“Tweed Skirt”) or they just mark certain times of my own life (“Everyone’s Getting Married”). It’s good to finally be able to bring these songs with me on the subway or bus. I just hope it doesn’t take another nine years to get another batch. Best Tracks: “Unfortunately for Her,” “Tweed Skirt,” “Everyone’s Getting Married.”

19) John Wesley Harding - Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (Popover/RBG)
I’ve been a fan of John Wesley Harding’s for most of his 20 year career and own almost all of his albums. Yet I couldn’t help but think Mr. Wesley Stace made this album to make sure I would definitely buy it. Heck, I think he constructed it to make sure I preordered it through his website. (Pause for chuckles of laughter at my insanity.) Seriously, hear me out. First, he co-writes three songs with (and gets backing vocals from) one of my favorite singer-songwriters Mike Viola. Then he recorded the entire album using the Minus 5 as his backing band. And if that isn’t enough, he gets a Young Fresh Fellow (Kurt Bloch) to play guitar and a Los Lobos member (Steve Berlin) to add baritone sax. Oh, and the preorder thing? He adds a bonus disc recorded at Union Hall in Brooklyn (a venue I’ve performed at many times) for fans that would shell out some early bucks. If he had gotten Neil Young to play lead guitar on one song, I really would have become paranoid that Harding was spying on me for many years. The songs are just as witty as ever (“Top of the Bottom” neatly fictionalizes his career in four and a half minutes) and catchy too. Wait…I think I hear someone in my living room. Is that YOU Harding??!!? I’ll get you for spying on me… Best Tracks: “Top of the Bottom,” “Congratulations (On Your Hallucinations),” “Love or Nothing”

18) Pronto - All is Golden (Contraphonic)
The guys from Wilco have a pretty good success rate when they step outside the band. Frontman Jeff Tweedy has recorded some worthy songs with Golden Smog and done some fine experimental work with Loose Fur. Bassist John Stiratt and guitarist-keyboardist Pat Sansone have made solid dreamy pop under the name Autumn Defense. Guitarist Nels Cline had a worthy avant garde jazz career before joining the band. And Glenn Kotche has done some fascinating solo drum works. This year keyboardist Mikael Jorgenson became the last Wilco member to strike out on his own with Pronto. All is Golden is a funny title, considering Jorgensen admits the disc stems from a rather bad breakup (amongst other emotional upheavals) he went through four years ago. “Good Friends Have Gone” and “Precious Like a Sneer” take both sides of that breakup coin. “Good Friends” ponders the sadness of loss, and “Sneer” is just that—Jorgenson being pissed off at the person who done him wrong. (The opening line “Hello there, asshole” cracks me up at every listen.) This breakup album also shows that Jorgensen might have had a bigger impact on Wilco’s sound than most have thought. All Is Golden is couched in that ’70s sound Wilco explored on Sky Blue Sky, with various vintage keyboards and horns contributing to that gauzy sonic haze. With all the talent these guys show outside Wilco, imagine what would happen if they made an album this year. (Um, yeah, don’t skip ahead to the Top 10 just yet.) Best Tracks: “All is Golden,” “Good Friends Have Gone,” “Precious Like a Sneer”

17) Dipsomaniacs - Social Crutch (FDR Label)
Full disclosure: my bandmate Paul Crane played guitar in this band. I’ve known Paul for five years now, and I know he’s got a pretty good taste in power pop. His own band, Bastards of Melody, has a knack for great hooks. He’s the one (at least I think he was) that randomly started playing the riff to Superdrag’s “Sucked Out” at rehearsal one night, and everyone had so much fun playing it we had to add it to our song list. So I should not have been surprised when a band he joined would dole out hooks by the bucket load. Social Crutch features one song after another with choruses that wrap snugly around the music parts of my brain. It’s just like those tasty tortillas wrapped around the chicken fajitas at that Mexican place run by those Chinese folks two blocks away from me. (Hang on, I gotta go for a walk. Be back in a sec. Okay, that’s tastier…um, I mean better.) Mick Chorba knows how to get his point across and get out before you can get tired of it. Social Crutch is 10 songs in just over 31 minutes. We’re talking early Beatles album length here. The Dipsomaniacs are not seduced by the 78 minute length of CDs. They know that there is joy in brevity. And Social Crutch provides a whole bunch of joy. Best Tracks: “Halo Around You,” “Blame it on the Gin,” “Loretta After All”

16) BOAT - Setting the Paces (Magic Marker Records)
I don’t make too many musical mistakes and regret it immediately. Usually it takes years before I see the error of my ways. Not with Seattle’s BOAT. Just like Arrested Development’s Michael Bluth, “I’ve made a huge mistake” is something I uttered two minutes into Setting the Paces’ opening song “We’ve Been Friends Since 1989.” Singer D. Crane has a voice that sounds like it was stolen from one of the characters in Toon Town. The lyrics and music are steeped in that hooky non-sensical-yet-somehow-sensical-to-my mind way that I loved so much about Pavement. When the second song “Lately” was over I said, out loud and to no one in particular because I was in an empty office, “Aw fuck, I should have seen them last night.” Yes, I had a chance to see them…in Brooklyn…at one of my favorite venues, Union Hall…and had someone I could get a few beers with at the show…and I botched it. I took my sweet time getting from social stop to social stop, not knowing what I was missing. My friend Bill Pearis (who sent me the album) wrote to me that night, “You should come out. I think Boat is a band you’ll like.” And dammit he was right. (Postscript: A week after I wrote this entry, I discovered that BOAT did an EP in 2008 called Topps that dealt with…sigh, here it comes…baseball. Well, fuck me.) Best Tracks: “We’ve Been Friends Since 1989,” “We Want It, We Want It,” “Prince of Tacoma”

15) Bob Mould - Life and Times (Granary Music/Anti)
Bob Mould has found himself on some strong creative ground the past four years, as the three albums he issued during that time have made the RT 20. Well, okay, even if the albums weren’t that good (helloooooo 2002’s Modulate) they probably would have made the cut. As a matter of fact, every album Mould put out under his own name (and those as part of Sugar) has landed on the RT 20 in the year they were released. Even with my obvious bias, I still believe Mould achieved a creative renaissance in the last half decade. He’s been able to combine his talent for writing guitar-and-tortured-lyrics-laden pop songs with his full embrace of gay culture and dance music on the D.C. area. The newfound comfortableness in his own skin has served Mould’s art well. He’s gotten back to writing extremely focused relationship sketches—most of which have gone horribly, horribly wrong. (I’m sure nobody I know can identify with that.) Life and Times hearkens back to Mould’s first solo effort, Workbook, with its use of multiple acoustic guitars and songs that are less verse/chorus/verse and more of a guy telling a story over three and a half minutes. What separates Life and Times from being a outright Workbook sequel? I’m pretty sure lyrics as “the taste of last night’s sex in my mouth/my breath is blood and sweat” (from “Bad Blood Better”) and “lead me to the Sanifair/reach into my underwear” (from “Argos”) probably wouldn’t have been as acceptable in 1989. Best Tracks: “Spiraling Down,” “I’m Sorry, Baby, But You Can’t Stand in My Light Anymore,” “Life and Times”

14) Gomez - A New Tide (ATO)
Gomez have carved themselves a pretty interesting career over the past 10 years. They’ve gone from a critically-acclaimed, award-winning, somewhat experimental band to a group embraced by parts of the jam band scene to a collective of song craftsmen (especially on 2006’s How We Operate). The pendulum has swung back towards the more experimental side of things on A New Tide, as the instrumentation and song structures hearken back to their debut Bring It On. The band doesn’t go all out in that direction, as they’ve come too far as songwriters to completely ditch their pop sensibilities. “Natural Reaction” sums up the album nicely—it sounds like a fine slice of Americana-influenced music (beautiful three-part harmonies atop a mix of mandolin, acoustic and electric guitars) until the kind-of-creepy marimba part appears in the middle. I knew that this album would probably make the RT 20 after just one listen to the fifth track—“Win Park Slope.” Any song that name checks my old neighborhood is alright by me. And the way they sing “gotta win, let me win, gotta win, gotta win” over and over again makes me think they’ve got experience with the parking and stroller battles of Brooklyn’s most gentrified hood. Best Tracks: “Little Pieces,” “Natural Reaction,” “Airstream Driver”

13) Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Glass Note)
I’ve liked Phoenix ever since I heard “Run Run Run,” the second single from their 2004 album Alphabetical. Singer Thomas Mars has an interesting voice that stands out amongst the crowd of today’s indie rock singers. It sounds right at home on up-tempo material (“1901”) as well as slower, atmospheric material. (His work on Air’s “Playground Love” is stunning, and I was totally pleased to see Phoenix cover that song during their appearance at the Austin City Limits Festival this year.) That distinctive voice might be because he’s a Frenchman singing in his second language, I’m not really sure. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is the first album from the band that isn’t all over the place (which Alphabetical was guilty of) and features compelling hooks on every song (their 2006 disc It’s Never Been Like That is lacking in the chorus department). The opening punch of “Lisztomania” and “1901” almost makes the rest of the disc irrelevant. And if you think you haven’t heard Phoenix, trust me you have. Do you recall that Cadillac SRX ad that features a gurgling synthesizer and quickly strummed guitars? Well, there’s your introduction to Phoenix. I liked “1901” before it was in that ad, but I will admit that the song fell off my singles list just because I’ve seen/heard that spot just a little too much. So if you like the music in that Cadillac ad, I suggest picking up Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Best Tracks: “1901,” “Lisztomania,” “Lasso”

12) Dan Auerbach - Keep It Hid (Nonesuch)
I got turned onto The Black Keys with last year’s Attack and Release. I had never paid much attention to Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney’s gritty two-pronged attack of blues and classic rock-influenced music until Danger Mouse helped expand the band’s sound. The slightly more accessible Attack and Release seems to have paved the way for singer-guitarist Auerbach to step out on his own with an album that shows off more of his talents as a damn fine songwriter. “My Last Mistake” is the poppiest song he’s ever written—so much so that I’m sure some group could have a crossover rock hit with it if done properly. As a solo artist Auerbach allows his songs to stand on their own, without relying on the distortion heavy guitar and thundering drums that are crucial elements to the Black Keys sound. Auerbach has succeeded in making an album that (minus the drum machine driven “Real Desire”) could have been made in 1969, 1979 or 2009. Keep it Hid is a fine collection of songs that, like some of Bob Dylan’s best work of the past 20 years, seems not of its’ own, or any time. I’m interested to see what Auerbach comes up with when he returns to his day job next year. Best Tracks: “My Last Mistake,” “I Want Some More,” “Goin’ Home”

11) Fanfarlo - Reservoir (Atlantic)
I’m pretty sure Fanfarlo is the product of some sci-fi show. I think plot goes something like this: an English band gets started in the early part of this decade and likes to make somewhat melodramatic music that features a wide range of instruments (mandolins, trumpets, etc.) Then an evil record company man (let’s say he’s played by Gerard Butler) kidnaps them, extracts the DNA of members of Arcade Fire and Beirut and the vocal patterns of David Byrne and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah singer Alec Ounsworth and grafts it into the brains of the band members. Then he unleashes them upon the world and forces David Bowie to praise them in print by holding Thin White Duke upside down out of the window of his Central Park West apartment. I know it seems highly unlikely (really, would Gerard Butler do TV at this point?) yet Fanfarlo sounds exactly like parts of all four acts I mentioned above. I suppose some would call the London-via-Sweden sextet extremely derivative. I can’t do it. I enjoy this album too much. If it had come out in May instead of September, it might have even made its way into the Top 10. Reservoir is a grower of an album, one that yields a new treasure with every listen. In fact, why don’t you go listen to it? I have a show to go pitch to SyFy…. Best Tracks: “The Walls Are Coming Down,” “I’m a Pilot,” “Fire Escape”

10) Mike Gent - Mike Gent (Stomper Music)
I can’t recall the exact gig, but I remember when The Figgs’ singer-guitarist Mike Gent told me he’d just gotten a new Gibson acoustic guitar. He said something like it being the finest one he’d ever played (Mike, I’m sure you can correct me on this) and that he couldn’t wait to use it. That guitar obviously had an immense impact on Gent’s songwriting for his self-titled third solo album. (I prefer the original title he told me—The Name of This Record is Mike Gent. Heck, that’s how I still have it listed in my iTunes. It still makes me crack up and I have no idea why.) This disc sees Gent exploring more of a mellow singer-songwriter vibe than his one man band efforts The Intake and Received even hinted at. Even the most Figgs-like song, “Haste & Wrath,” is driven by that acoustic guitar sound, with a sweet dose of slide guitar and Zombies-like piano thrown in for good measure. Mike Gent features all those hooks I’ve come to expect from the man and shows off another side to a guy who—as I famously once said—shits out great songs seemingly every day. Best Tracks: “Paper Knives,” “Haste & Wrath,” “(Romantic Needs Led To) False Alarms”

9) Them Crooked Vultures - Them Crooked Vultures (DGC/Interscope)
Rock music rule number 12: supergroups never pan out. The exceptions to that rule are so few and far between that I can only think of one (Golden Smog) that didn’t turn into some joke or wasn’t a relic that hasn’t aged well. (I mean, I still like Asia’s “Heat of the Moment” and it also draws a few yells when I crank it out DJ-ing, but does anyone remember the Alpha album? I thought not.) Even with this rule, the teenager in me who loved Led Zeppelin and hard rock of that ilk couldn’t stop being excited when word leaked out in July that Zep bassist John Paul Jones, Queens of the Stone Age singer-guitarist-riffmaster Josh Homme and Foo Fighters mastermind Dave Grohl had teamed up for a new band. And Grohl was playing drums again. The last time Grohl played drums for any sort of length in the studio produced Queens of the Stone Age’s greatest song, “No One Knows.” Add the multi-talented (and rather nice guy) Jones to that mix? My mind reeled with anticipation. I actually breathed a sigh of relief when I listened to Them Crooked Vultures self-titled debut. These three didn’t disappoint. This shit rocked hard. It grooved hard. The riffs were massive. The interplay between Jones’s bass and Grohl’s drums is, well, damn, it sounds fucking great. Why can’t other hard rock bands learn how to do this? This album came out in November, and that’s a disappointment on two fronts. 1) It might have climbed even higher if I was able spend more than three weeks with it before completing this list. (And when I submit my Village Voice Pazz & Jop ballot on Christmas Eve, it might do just that.) 2) This is an album designed to play at an incredibly loud volume on a long road trip. I just know being behind the wheel of a car on a warm sunny day will make all of these songs even more massive. Listening to it on an iPod just isn’t enough. Best Tracks: “Mind Eraser, No Chaser,” “New Fang,” “Scumbag Blues”

8) The Minus 5 - Killingsworth (Yeproc)
Named for a street (and neighborhood, I believe) in Portland, Oregon, Killingsworth sees Scott McCaughey embrace the musicians of his new hometown to create yet another strong collection of darkly tinged pop songs. McCaughey and his Minus 5 partner-in-crime Peter Buck are joined by several members of The Decemberists for most of the album. And the combinations of these two talents don’t create some sort of indie folk-rock explosion—surprisingly they make for a pleasant country-rock album. Violins, banjo and lots of pedal steel guitar mix in with Buck’s distinctive 12 string playing for a disc that comes across as some bastard child of The ByrdsSweethearts of the Rodeo. Well, if that album had actual sweethearts singing on it like this one does. The vocal group the She Bee Gees is the secret weapon in McCaughey’s incredibly talented arsenal on Killingsworth. Their harmonies and call and responses to McCaughey’s (and on “Scott Walker’s Fault,” The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy’s) lead vocal help make the songs sound lighter when needed, or darker when the mood calls for it. McCaughey says he set out to make some type of girl group album when he started thinking about this record. I’d still be interested in hearing how that would turn out, but I’m very happy that McCaughey embraced his inner countryesque ambitions. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention that Killingsworth contains one of my favorite lyrics McCaughey has ever penned: “Your wedding was so well planned/like a German occupation” from “The Dark Hand of Contagion” has made me chuckle from the very first time I heard it. Best Tracks: “Ambulance Dancehall,” “Scott Walker’s Fault,” “The Lurking Barrister”

7) Morrissey -Years of Refusal (Attack!/Lost Highway)
Last year “That’s How People Grow Up” made the RT 20 singles list, mainly for the line “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.” I had no idea that “Grow Up” (as well as “All You Need Is Me”) weren’t just new songs written and recorded for Greatest Hits: Deluxe Edition compilation. They were just the tip of the iceberg—Morrissey had recorded 12 great songs for his next album. Years of Refusal lives to the brilliance of “Grow Up” by delivering one muscular rock song after another with some of Morrissey’s best lyrics in 15 years. He sounds engaged and inspired by the music his collaborators have come up with this go around. His pokes at his own mopey identity (as in “Grow Up”) are flat out funny. And when he gets down to really complaining about his lack of love on “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris,” he uses just a few lines to create an indelible image of someone giving up: “In the absence of your love/And in the absence of human touch/I have decided I'm throwing my arms around/Around Paris because only stone and steel accept my love.” Welcome back Moz, we’ve missed you. Best Tracks: “That’s How People Grow Up,” “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris,” “Something is Squeezing My Skull”

6) Regina Spektor - Far (Sire/WB)
I’m going against the grain by placing Far in my Top 10 list. Many critics have said the Bronx-via-Russia native took more chances on her previous album Begin to Hope, which included the minor hit “Fidelity.” I read one damning review that called Far “unbearably precious” and that it didn’t “live up to expectations based on all the talent involved in making it.” The talent (besides Spektor) they’re talking about is the four big time producers who worked on the disc: David Kahne (her collaborator on Begin to Hope); Garret "Jacknife" Lee (R.E.M., U2); Jeff Lynne of ELO; and Mike Elizondo (Fiona Apple, Eminem). I think each producer did a great job of bringing the best out of Spektor on each of their tracks. They don’t allow their own personal stamp to overwhelm the essential elements to Spektor—her personality and her piano. Spektor spends much of Far capturing moments of connections between people, whether it’s getting to know someone through a lost wallet (“Wallet”) checking out a “meat market” crowd (“Dance Anthem Of The ’80s”) or pondering life’s big questions, as in “Laughing With.” That track alone carries the album up to a higher level. I am a full on atheist, but even I am impressed by the opening stanza “No one laughs at God in a hospital/No one laughs at God in a war/No one’s laughing at God/When they’re starving or freezing or so very poor.” It’s a stunningly somber track that shows Spektor is more than just the quirky lady born in Russia who sings like a dolphin…which she does on “Folding Chair.” Um, yeah, I’m not really sure what to make of that. Best Tracks: “Laughing With,” “Eet,” “Dance Anthem of the 80s”

5) Young Fresh Fellows - I Think This Is (YepRoc)
An open letter to Robyn Hitchcock:

Dear Mr. Hitchcock,

I wanted to publicly thank you for what you did for Young Fresh Fellows fans. Your decision to call Scott McCaughey and say “I’m coming to Seattle to work more on my record, so why don’t I come in five days early and let’s do the Fellows album before that” is one of the best decisions I’ve heard in the past eight years. Sure, we could have used the joy that a Fellows record brings during the eight years of the past administration. But maybe the Fellows didn’t want to sully their joyful reputation by having something new out there during those eight horrible years.

Mr. Hitchcock, your work as a producer cannot be underrated here. You’ve drawn some great performances out of McCaughey, Kurt Bloch, Jim Sangster and especially Tad Hutchinson. I’d forgot how exciting and joyful his drumming can be, and he really shines on “Go Blue Angels Go” and “YOUR Mexican Restaurant.” Bloch’s and McCaughey’s distinctive guitar styles match up so well throughout this disc. And you somehow convinced the band to go out of their comfort zone on “The Ballad of the Bootleg,” which sounds like no other Fellows song before it. Mr. McCaughey told me you did a great job on that song in particular and that the finished version “sounded like something off [The Clash’s] Sandinista.” The autobiographical song about the band’s ill-fated attempt at making an album in one day two decades ago is one of my favorites.

Mr. Hitchcock, I again thank you for your service for the common good. I do hope that at some point in the future you decide that you have five extra days in your schedule—and that you’d want to spend them on Seattle’s best export.



Best Tracks: “Ballad of the Bootleg,” “Let the Good Times Crawl,” “YOUR Mexican Restaurant”

4) Brendan Benson - My Old, Familiar Friend (ATO)
Brendan Benson’s time in The Raconteurs paid off in two ways for his solo career. One, he now has a much wider name recognition so the great power pop he creates is bound to find a bigger audience. Two, he was able to actually have a recording budget for My Old, Familiar Friend. No recording it in his apartment or stealing studio time (and other musicians) where he could. The upping of the budget gave him the cash to hire producer Gil Norton (Pixies, Foo Fighters). Norton was an inspired choice, as he’s brought out the best in Benson’s material. Adding strings to “Garbage Day” takes it from just another song to the level of a lost Motown or Stax gem. The same goes for the ballad “You Make a Fool Out of Me,” which soars higher than anything Benson has recorded before on his own. Fortunately the budget hasn’t robbed Benson of his touch for creating breakup songs than are almost cheerful in spite of their subject matter. “Don’t Wanna Talk” makes me bob my head even as Benson sings lyrics like “Don’t wanna hear about it, just wanna tune you out/You wanna make me scream, you wanna make me shout.” He’s also does some of the best harmonizing with himself of any artist making music today. The mass of vocals he does on “Misery” and “A Whole Lot Better” are sweet sounds to these ears. Best Tracks: “A Whole Lot Better,” “Garbage Day,” “Poised and Ready”

3) Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 - Goodnight Oslo (YepRoc)
Robyn Hitchcock has been making consistently good records either as member of The Soft Boys, with The Egyptians or all on his own for over 30 years. Yet I think he might be at a creative career peak right now working with The Venus 3, which is R.E.M.’s Peter Buck on guitar, Scott McCaughey on bass and R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin. I’m not sure if it’s the comfort level Hitchcock has with these three musicians or if he feels compelled to deliver high quality songs so as to not waste their talents. But it’s obvious that something works extremely well with this outfit. Buck, McCaughey and Rieflin have played together so long that they have that unspoken communication of how to get the best out of every song, leaving room for Hitchcock to blend in seamlessly. It’s a joy to listen to such talented musicians on the top of their games when working together—and having fun together. The T. Rex-esque “Saturday Groovers” is one of the silliest and most fun songs Hitchcock has ever written and sounds like it must have been a blast to record. (And you can practically hear the shit-eating grin on the face of The DecemberistsColin Meloy when he really starts getting into his guest backing vocal.) One of Hitchcock’s musical heroes is Bob Dylan, and he is one of the few artists I can think of that was still achieving creative high marks well into the third decade of his career. At this rate, I think it’s safe to say Hitchcock is following in the footsteps of Mr. Zimmerman and will be doing that well into his fourth decade. Best Tracks: “Saturday Groovers,“ “Up to Our Nex,” “Hurry For the Sky”

2) Wilco - Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch)
My friend Erik Hage and I have had differing opinions about Wilco during this decade. We both believe Summerteeth is the high water mark of the band’s career and that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (and the David-versus-Goliath record company battle mythology) is overrated. However, Erik has been somewhat dismissive of the band’s work over the past few years and I thought they’ve come into their own on 2007’s Sky Blue Sky and this year’s Wilco (The Album). Erik wrote a review about the new album in Albany’s Metroland, saying he wasn’t going to talk about it “but Seth Rogen referencing the band in Funny People cemented it for me: Something has to be said. Wilco, a band I have ardently followed since their inception in 1995—and a band who were one of my favorites until early in the millennium—have come to represent something that makes me uncomfortable. A Wilco reference itself—as Funny People attests—has become a point of light in the hip constellation for 30- to 40-somethings.” My only response to that is, “You went to see Funny People? Of your own volition? How can I ever trust your taste again?” (I kid, I kid.)

Erik is right on many of those points. The band has become that touchstone for what “hip” is for the NPR-aged set. (Wait, I listen to NPR. Actually, I listen to an NPR station that plays music…like Wilco. I drink Starbucks every day on the way to work. I even check my iPhone when the line takes too long at Starbucks. Holy shit—I am one of those people Erik is talking about! How come I don’t have a BMW and a summer home in the Hamptons? Oh, right, that radio thing.) I’ve basically tried to ignore all of that and focus on the music, which still brings me as many thrills as the first time I saw the band in 1996. Wilco (the Album) sounds like Wilco’s Greatest Hits to these ears, only taking place of the hits are all brand new songs. There’s a slice of the band’s proggy side (“Bull Black Nova”), the band’s ’70s pop side (“You Never Know”), the Woody Guthrie-inspired folky side (“Solitaire”) and their downright silly side (“Wilco The Song”). Mostly I enjoy the fact that Jeff Tweedy decided to focus on songwriting again. It’s his strongest batch of songs in ages. Of course, this probably means the next Wilco album will be something totally out of left field. So I’ll enjoy the simple pleasure of a Tweedy verse-chorus-verse while I can. Best Tracks: “You Never Know,” “I’ll Fight,” “Sonny Feeling”

1) The Avett Brothers - I And Love And You (American/Columbia)
I had never heard anything by North Carolina’s Avett Brothers until one fateful morning this summer when the title track to I And Love And You snuck out of my speakers and got its hooks into me. I never imagined that a band I had never heard of could write a song, and in turn, a full album, that would secure its place on the top of RT 20 after only two listens. But in those two listens it was readily apparent that no one else this year could come to close to making an album with such emotional depth. I And Love And You shows that Rick Rubin still has an ear for talent and can work his studio magic (and not just collect a paycheck from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica every few years). Rubin took everything this band did well before (gorgeous ballads, acoustic-hillbilly-punk, traditional pop) and somehow gave them the keys to take it to the other level. Listening to the band’s older works (which I bought in a frenzy in a couple of weeks after seeing them at the Austin City Limits Festival) I could see hints of a leap. But I never would have expected this. I And Love And You is an album that’s timeless. I don’t mean that it will last 1000 years. It’s an album that sounds like it belongs to no time. It could have been recorded at any point in the last 40 years. It’s filled with songs that are drawn from the essential parts of American roots music. The great melancholy moments (and man oh man, there are plenty) remind me of another band that explored the rural American experience like no other (even though they were mostly Canadians), The Band. The title track makes me think that Rick Rubin had a séance to call in the ghost of the late Richard Manuel to add his piano and soul. I have no idea how Scott and Seth Avett are going to top this one. Best Tracks: “I And Love And You,” “And It Spread,” “Laundry Room”

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