Friday, December 10, 2010

2010's Top 20 Albums

20) Meaghan Smith - The Cricket’s Orchestra (Sire)
The time between finishing up each year’s list and major acts releasing albums again spans about three months. From mid-December to mid-March the decks are cleared in my brain, at least musically. (The rest of the space in my brain is usually taken up with baseball stats, which probably explains all that excessive drooling from April to October each year.) I use that time to go through albums that I might not have time to listen to fully or by brand new acts. Meaghan Smith’s label just so happened to release The Cricket’s Orchestra in February, which meant I could spend more than just a cursory listen upon it. I’m glad I did, as Smith has a gorgeous voice and a musical attitude that sees her embracing everything from jazzy torch songs to elements of hip-hop. Yes, hip-hop. The opening track “Heartbroken” and “A Little Love” feature samples of old jazz albums, scratched and messed with almost beyond recognition. It’s a sound unlike any other I heard this year. The second half of the album does start to peter out a bit (how many producers can try to make a female chanteuse sound like Norah Jones anyways?) but there’s enough quality material to keep me intrigued to see what Smith does next.
On the Web: Best Tracks: “You Got Out,” “A Little Love,” “Heartbroken”

19) Neil Young - Le Noise (Reprise)
Neil Young experienced a traumatic 2010, as his best friends L.A. Johnson and Ben Keith died within six months of each other. (And as I went to press, I read that Young’s dog died last month. Seriously.) Those deaths inform Young’s first ever truly solo album Le Noise. Made at a house in Hollywood with super producer Daniel Lanois, this is Young at his most raw since the days of Tonight’s the Night. The opening song “Walk with Me” lays bare Young’s thoughts on the passing of his collaborators—“I lost some friends I was travelling with/I miss the soul and the old friendship.” The rest of the album sees Young reflecting on his youth (“Hitchhiker”) and more recent concerns (“Love and War”). Lanois guided Young into recording this album just with his electric guitar, and it’s a choice that makes it unlike anything else in Young’s 42-year solo career. There are times where Lanois uses his sonic genius to make Young’s guitar sound like three or four guitars at once. And this isn’t the messy garage rock riffs he’s made second nature with Crazy Horse. These songs see Young strumming his ax, making the notes ring out like cries for his lost friends. Le Noise is a fitting tribute to the men that helped Young achieve his creative visions over the past four decades.
On the Web: Best Tracks: “Hitchhiker,” “Love and War,” “Walk With Me”

18) Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 - Propellor Time (Sartorial/Yep Roc)
Propellor Time is the third album Hitchcock has made with The Venus 3—R.E.M.’s Peter Buck on guitar, Scott McCaughey on bass and Bill Rieflin on drums. Recorded right in between 2006’s Ole Tarantula and last year’s Goodnight Oslo (and the subject of a good portion of the documentary Sex, Food and Other Insects), Propellor Time focuses on more of Hitchcock’s down tempo and acoustic-based compositions. Once again, it’s easy to discern that there’s a comfort level Hitchcock has with these three musicians. Buck, McCaughey and Rieflin have an unspoken communication of how to get the best out of every song, giving Hitchcock a solid base to work upon. (Buck’s mandolin work on “Luckiness” is a joy to hear, and the performance is so spot on that it’s surprising to hear the applause at the end and realize it’s a live recording.) Add in a top notch list of guests (John Paul Jones, Nick Lowe, Johnny Marr, Chris Ballew), and you have this Hitchcock fan hoping that there’s more than just three albums coming from the Venus 3.
On the Web: Best Tracks: “The Afterlight,” “Luckiness,” “Propellor Time”

17) Mt. Desolation - Mt. Desolation (Cherrytree/Interscope)
I’ve had an ambivalent attitude about the piano-driven UK band Keane. I’ve dug some of their hits (“Somewhere Only We Know,” “Is It Any Wonder?”) but have found the rest of their albums not that inspiring. So why am I bringing up Keane in this paragraph below the name Mt. Desolation? Well, this shockingly good album comes from Keane keyboardist and songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley and bassist Jesse Quin. The pair wrote songs specifically for this project after touring the world with their main band in 2009. They drafted some famous friends (Ronnie Vannucci, Jr. of The Killers, Country Winston of Mumford & Sons and John Roderick of The Long Winters, just to name a few) to help cook up an album of catchy pop songs that are tinged with a hefty dose of American alt-country. Although they’re the non-singers in Keane, Rice-Oxley and Quin have two pretty decent voices that work well within this mix of up-tempo numbers (“Departure,” “Annie Ford”) and sweet ballads (“Home”). Mt. Desolation’s secret weapon is Jessica Staveley-Taylor, whose gorgeous vocals add a nice touch to several songs. With an album this good, I might have to go back and listen to those old Keane albums again.
On the Web: Best Tracks: “Departure,” “Bitter Pill,” “Another Night on My Side”

16) LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening (DFA/EMI)
LCD Soundsystem’s last album Sound of Silver snuck up on me. Mastermind James Murphy concocted 55 minutes of music that met in the exact spot where my love of rock and dance and punk all collide. It was—simply put—a revelation. The epic “All My Friends” from Sound of Silver made me want to pogo and dance at the same time. (This, with the state of my knees, would not be a wise thing to do. Ever.) I also had a chance to see Murphy and his insanely tight band play for the first time at the Austin City Limits Festival that same year, and I couldn’t stop talking about how great they were for a month. This year, I couldn’t name an album that I anticipated as much as This Is Happening. That’s probably the only reason that this album isn’t higher. The initial rush of discovery (which happens maybe once ever one of two years for me with a new band) has worn off. I know what I’m going to get with an LCD album. I know that I’m going to be listening to a guy my age who has an amazing knowledge of music pay homage to his influences. Yet at the same time, Murphy makes it seem something totally new. “I Can Change” could have been beamed in from 1985, yet still sounds like nothing else being made. (And it has the amazing self-aware line “Love is an open book to a verse of your bad poetry... and this is coming from me.”) Murphy dives headlong into Brian Eno and David Bowie's Berlin trilogy with “All I Want” which borrows that “Heroes” guitar and kraut-rock beat. Yet it never feels like a rip-off. He makes it fiery with his own tour-born lament: “You learn in your bed you’ve been gone for too long/So you put in the time, but it's too late to make it strong.” Murphy has stated that he might retire the LCD Soundsystem name at the end of this tour cycle, which would be a major shame. I’d love to hear whatever else his brain could come up with for this project. I guess I’ll have to settle for being a fan of a band that left us wanting more.
On the Web: Best Tracks: “I Can Change,” “Dance Yrself Clean,” “Pow Pow”

15) The Black Keys - Brothers (Nonesuch)
At the end of my entry about The Black Keys’ singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach’s 2009 solo debut Keep It Hid I wrote, “I’m interested to see what Auerbach comes up with when he returns to his day job next year.” What he and drummer Patrick Carney have come up with is an expansion of their sound that is more like an evolution from Auerbach’s solo work than the Keys' Danger Mouse-produced 2008 album Attack and Release. I’m sure many folks have heard “Tighten Up,” which is the group’s breakthrough whistling hit. That song is great and hopefully inspired a bunch of folks to buy this album. Yet it’s “Everlasting Light” that shows off the best the duo has to offer. The track is the finest T. Rex tribute I’ve heard in, well, since I first heard T.Rex. And Auerbach reaches up in his vocal to deliver a killer falsetto. At almost an hour long, the only thing that drags the 15-track Brothers down is its length. They could have shaved off a couple of songs and saved them for their next album without diluting the impact of this one. So, I guess what I’m saying is that the Black Keys should tighten up. Um. Well. Yes, please, someone go back into time to December 3rd at 9:15 p.m. and break into my office and punch me in the arm for using that joke. Oh, and also use that time machine and travel back to March so we can bet on the Giants to win the World Series.
On the Web: Best Tracks: “Tighten Up,” “Everlasting Light,” “Too Afraid to Love You”

14) Mumford & Sons - Sigh No More (Glassnote)
Last year, I might not have given a second glance to the December 7th email announcing the debut album from heart-on-the-sleeve, folky Mumford & Sons if it weren’t for my best friend April Bernard. She had spent much of the CMJ Marathon in October of last year trying to see a couple of their shows. I emailed the publicist (one of the good ones in the business, Jim Merlis) to ask for an advance. It arrived a couple days later and quickly I was hooked. A year later, they’re nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammys. I never would have thought it possible. I could write more about the album, but I’d rather talk about noisy people at concerts. Specifically, I want to crucify the loud people standing next to April, Allison and I when we ventured to Webster Hall on a rainy Wednesday night in May. The venue holds about 1400 people, which is a big step up from the 500 people I had to share space with when I first saw Mumford & Sons at Bowery Ballroom in February. Those extra 900 people must have been the douchiest 900 folks in Manhattan that night. They were loud at all the wrong times. They seemed to have lost the art of sliding through crowds without elbowing each person. And the three loudest Irish women in North America happened to plant themselves right next to us for the entire show. I have rarely had a more miserable time at a concert. It was so bad I wanted to delete this album from my iTunes. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed—mainly because “Blank White Page” is still one stunner of a tune.
On the Web: Best Tracks: “Blank White Page,” “Little Lion Man,” “Awake My Soul”

13) Tired Pony - The Place We Ran From (Mom + Pop)
(Okay, this paragraph might look a bit familiar if you’ve read every entry so far. But trust me, it totally makes sense.)
I’ve had an ambivalent attitude about the guitar-driven UK band Snow Patrol. I’ve dug some of their hits (“Run,” “Eyes Open”) but have found the rest of their albums not that inspiring. Why am I bringing up Snow Patrol in this paragraph below the name Tired Pony? Well, this shockingly good album comes from Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody. Lightbody started thinking about exploring his love of American alt-country while touring the world with his main band in 2009. He drafted some famous friends to help out (Peter Buck of R.E.M., Scott McCaughey of Young Fresh Fellows and The Minus 5, and Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward from She & Him, just to name a few), spent a week in Portland, Oregon, and cooked up an album of moody pop songs that are tinged with a small dose of alt-country. They recorded the whole damn thing in a week. Deschanel makes the most on her guest appearance on “Get Out on the Road,” wrapping her vocals around Lightbody’s to create a hypnotic anthem. (Well, if you can call a song that is as slow as my running pace for its first two minutes an anthem, then yeah, it’s an anthem.) Lightbody and Buck spoke in interviews this fall about getting together to make another album in Portland in January if their schedules line up. I for one, certainly hope that they do.
On the Web: Best Tracks: “Dead American Writers,” “Get Me on the Road,” “The Silver Necklace”

12) eels - End Times (Vagrant)
eels frontman Mark “E” Everett has—rather unfortunately—written much of his greatest work after tragedy. His sister and mother passing away in quick succession was the basis for much of 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues. Those deaths came back to inform the songs on his double album masterpiece Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. In the past 18 months Everett has released three albums, part of a trilogy about love, breakups and moving on. The second of these, End Times, is one of the most painful albums ever about the end of relationships. Everett is brutally honest about his own faults. In “Gone Man” he lays it out for us: “Some things you can fuck right up…my problem was that I could not see/what was important right in front of me…too soon gone man gone…She used to love me but it’s over now.” That’s the uplifting number on the album. (Here’s a tip: do not listen to this album if you’ve just had a breakup. Not unless you have a lot of pharmaceuticals nearby that can totally defeat severe depression.) There are charming moments of irony and self-awareness, but it’s mostly it’s an unflinching look at a damaged psyche and a man mourning what he fucked up. There are times when great art will extract a terrible toll on its creator. End Times most definitely proves that.
On the Web: Best Tracks: “Little Bird,” “In My Younger Days,” “End Times”

11) Bastards of Melody - Hurry Up and Wait (Face Down Records)
Full disclosure: Bastards of Melody is my karaoke band Bunnie England and the New Originals, minus my “talents” (cough, cough, joke telling and beer fetching) plus the great original songs of guitarist Paul Crane. I find it pretty hard to have any sort of critical distance on this album of mature power pop that fans of Big Star, Cheap Trick and The Raspberries will eat up. So I just decided to do a list within the list (ooh, meta, or something like that) and encourage you to pick it up.

Top 5 Things I Love About Hurry Up and Wait
1) The album is nine songs that clock in 30:25. A half hour! People, it’s almost impossible to make a 30-minute album and not have it be great. Heard of The Beatles? Hello?

2) The cover photo (of Troy Messina, the Bastards drummer at the time these basic tracks were done) was taken at Bunnie’s last gig at our birthplace, Magnetic Field, in March of 2008. I miss that bar. This album cover makes me wistful.

3) Paul Crane obviously took his time in layering loads of guitars and harmonies to make these songs have a lush full sound. Yet there are still tunes that totally rock like “Around You” and “Unproductive.” (And there’s a song title I’ve totally identified with doing this year’s RT20.) It’s a great balance between the two.

4) “Flunkin’ Out” makes me think of AM hits of 1973 and going to Lake Taghkanic in Columbia County in upstate New York. And that’s pretty cool.

5) Holy crap, I’m thanked on the inside! That’s even cooler!

On the Web: Best Tracks: “Flunkin’ Out,” “Around You,” “Unproductive”

10) Broken Bells - Broken Bells (Columbia)
Ever have a friend (say, me, for example) tell you repeatedly, “Dude, okay, you might not totally dig their records, but wait until you’ve seen them live. You’ll be blown away!” Well, I’d like to switch that around for Broken Bells—“Dude, don’t go see them live. It might make you dislike what’s a great album.” The duo of The Shins frontman James Mercer and star producer Danger Mouse do not exactly have a compelling stage presence, which their technically proficient five piece band can’t make up for. I always thought that the best part of The Shins stage show at past shows was the fun that keyboardist-bassist Marty Crandall exuded from stage. (Alas, Crandall got booted by Mercer in 2009.) When I saw Broken Bells at the ACL Festival in October, I actually felt like I was getting lulled to sleep. (Maybe the beer and sun had a bit to do with it as well.) I think you probably get my point: boring live band, excellent album. The first time I listened to the album I was making the trek from my office to a great restaurant called Aurora in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The trip took 38 minutes, which is just 35 seconds longer than this atmospheric collection of songs. The various moods that these songs explore meshed perfectly with the natural rhythms of a New York commute. I decided that night that listening in headphones is the only way to experience this album. Something gets lost when it’s coming out of speakers and then hitting my ears. That direct connection from the in ear phones right to my eardrum…damn, I can’t even describe how cool it sounds. Mercer’s multi-tracked vocals; the perfectly mixed guitars; loose, almost off-the-beat drumming from Danger Mouse; the meticulous use of piano and organ all add up to a great listening experience. As much as I’d like to hear another Shins album, I wouldn’t mind if Mercer and Danger Mouse worked on another Broken Bells album instead. I’ll just know not to waste my time going to see then play it.
On the Web: Best Tracks: “The Ghost Inside,” “The High Road,” “October”

9) Delta Spirit - History From Below (Rounder)
Delta Sprit won me over the old-fashioned way two years ago—by putting on a kick ass live show. The second time I saw them was during an opening slot for Nada Surf. The next day, I ordered their debut Ode to Sunshine. Singer Matthew Vasquez has a powerful voice and a stage persona to match. I’m wary to use this comparison, yet I have to say I see bit of Bruce Springsteen’s old showmanship in the way Vasquez delivers his songs about love, family and spiritualism. Delta Sprit’s music doesn’t sound anything like Springsteen—they combine a mix of blues, country and a small dose of Tom Waits and weave it together with some great guitar work. History From Below takes the sound of Ode to Sunshine and makes it -ier: it’s grittier, moodier and rocking-ier. For a band that toured incessantly for 18 months, it’s not a surprise that History From Below comes off as a travelogue, taking the listener from New York (“911”) to Brooklyn (“Bushwick Blues”) and all the way back to their home of California (“The Golden State”). History from Below is clever, very heartfelt, and well-produced. Delta Sprit is a band that seems well placed to have a long career ahead of them. (So guys, please don’t break up in the next six months and make me look like an asshole, okay?)
On the Web: Best Tracks: “Vivian,” “Bushwick Blues,” “Ransom Man”

8) The Acorn - No Ghost (Bella Union)
I wrote above that Delta Spirit won me over the old-fashioned way. Ottawa, Canada’s The Acorn won me over with a combination of old-fashioned and rarely used ways—a friend’s recommendation and personal contact with the band. My friend Jonah Eller-Isaacs raved about the band’s 2007 album Glory Hope Mountain, so much so that when I was pitched by their label I decided to book the band for an interview at my day job. I also said I would go see them play even before I interviewed them, which is a rarity for me. I hardly interview bands that I like, and it’s rarer still that I start digging a band because I’ve interviewed them. Yet Acorn singer Rolf Klausener was instantly likeable and very funny once we got into the recording studio. As the session went on, I found myself thinking “Damn, I wish I had really spent a lot more time with this No Ghost album before this interview.” At the show that night, the band showed off a powerful ability to go from full on powerful rock to delicate and haunting acoustic material without breaking a sweat. (Well, that’s a figurative sweat. It was a VERY hot summer in NYC, and all the air conditioning in the world can’t help in most venues when it’s that hot.) After that I found myself listening to No Ghost more often and its many moods would be a perfect fit for long walks as I attempted to wrestle my body into some kind of shape. I’m sorry Arcade Fire, but I don’t think you made the best album by a Canadian indie rock band this year. (And you what I think is a great band name now? Figurative Sweat. Hell yeah.)
On the Web: Best Tracks: “Misplaced,” “Cobbled From Dust,” “Bobcat Goldwraith”

7) Bettye LaVette - Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook (Anti)
I must admit to having a soft spot in my musical heart for tribute albums and well done covers of hit songs. (Also have a soft spot for Rolling Rock, McDonald’s fries and Pop-tarts, but those soft spots actually attack my heart.) That love has made me pick up (or download) some pretty piss poor singles and albums just to add to my collection. I haven’t extended that love to placing any of these collections onto the main RT20. I created a specific category (Reissues, etc) just to have a catchall place where I could note the rare collection that stood above the rest. And then Bettye LaVette came along with her cover of Led Zeppelin’s “All My Love.” I’m not bullshitting here when I say that it’s one of the top five covers I have heard in my entire life. It was available as a free download through one day and I had to click on it just to see what kind of person would tackle this In Through the Out Door ballad. And holy crap, my jaw was agape after the first two minutes. This piano-driven take sees LaVette just obliterate any thoughts that Robert Plant was the best person to sing this song. LaVette sings every word as if she’s lived them for years. It’s stunning. And because of that performance, I agonized about whether to place The British Song Rockbook on the proper albums list. I finally decided that LaVette's vocals are so powerful and the arrangements of such warhorses as “Wish You Were Here” and “Maybe I’m Amazed” are familiar yet broach enough new territory that, in my mind, I couldn’t classify this as just a covers album. There was a time where singers did entire albums of other writer’s material and critics didn’t think it was less of an artistic endeavor. Lavette proved to that point to me in the space of four minutes and eleven seconds.
On the Web: Best Tracks: “All My Love,” “Isn’t it a Pity,” “Wish You Were Here”

6) The Young Veins - Take a Vacation! (One Haven)
Hey readers, do any of you remember Panic! at the Disco?


(Still waiting.)

(Opening a box of Jujyfruits that to acquire I had to plow through 100 tourists wondering aimlessly in Rock Center.)

Yeah, me neither.

Okay, okay. I do recall them. They were a Las Vegas quartet that road on the coattails of The Killers to have a couple of huge MTV hits. (Yes, I had to go to Wikipedia to look up those hits and was stunned to find out that one of them, “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” actually won Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards.) The band dropped their exclamation point from their name for their follow-up album Pretty. Odd. The first single “Nine in the Afternoon” sounded quite different. All of sudden they mutated from an emo-type band into worshippers of the Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles. I actually liked it. So I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised when two former members of Panic at the Disco--Ryan Ross and Jon Walker—started a 60s influenced band. The Young Veins’ music has these guys worshipping at the altar of pop radio hits from 20 years before they were born. There’s garage rock, homages to The Kinks and 50s balladry (“Dangerous Blues”) and psychedelia. Yet they do it a way that doesn’t make me think, “Hey, get an original idea!” Their respect and joy at playing this type of music is infectious. And like those 60s acts they love, The Young Veins keep it short—11 songs, 29 minutes. All records should be this concise and this much fun. (Alas, the fun wasn’t meant to last. On the day we went to press, The Young Veins announced they were going on hiatus. Dammit.)
On the Web: Best Tracks: “Take a Vacation!” “Maybe I Will, Maybe I Won’t,” “Capetown”

5) The Figgs - The Man Who Fights Himself (Stomper Music)
Recorded over two years in Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, The Figgs’ latest studio effort isn’t as easily accessible as their last album Follow Jean Through the Sea. As people say in the music criticism biz, “It’s a grower.” (Or, if you were a Boston area critic, “a growah.”) Much of the album (“Stuck on Leather Seats,” “Some Desperate Measure”) is in the same acoustic guitar driven pop vein that singer-guitarist Mike Gent explored on his self-titled 2009 solo disc. My favorite track “A One Man Fiasco” is probably a first in the Figgs catalog—it’s totally a power ballad. I mean that in the best way possible, not in the “Which is better? Warrant’s ‘Heaven’ or Poison’s ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn?’” way. The verses are quiet and contemplative of a man’s life and his misfortune, yet the chorus makes me want to punch one fist in the air and wave my iPhone lighter app in the other. I also like the musical sequel on the album, “…And Here’s Some More.” Gent plays a riff that’s similar, but not exactly the same, as the one in “Hobble Skirt (In Erie)” from Follow Jean Through the Sea. I suppose that the song has a perfect title with a musical heritage like that. Finally, I couldn’t review The Man Who Fights Himself without mentioning drummer Pete Hayes’s acapella track “I Got the Drums.” With its lyrics about “I got a van/that’s how I got in this band” to the fake crowd noise and bottle clinking background effects that make it sound like a crowd totally disinterested in what’s going on on stage, “I Got the Drums” is an anthem all drummers can get behind.
On the Web: Best Tracks: “A One Man Fiasco,” “…And Here’s Some More,” “Gone Spent”

4) Pete Yorn - Pete Yorn (Vagrant)
It’s been a rather productive two years for Pete Yorn. Last year saw the release of both a melancholy, slick album called Back and Fourth and the lightweight duets album Break Up with Scarlett Johansson. Yorn’s self-titled fifth album was recorded before Back and Fourth and shares one song with that album, “Paradise Cove.” And that’s about all the two share. Where Back and Fourth is polished to perfection, Pete Yorn is a messy, gritty dark but catchy hell of a breakup album. Yorn strips bare his lyrics and music, no doubt under the influence of producer Black Francis. The Pixies frontman drew out of Yorn his most impassioned vocal performances, even if at times he sound like he’s battling a cold or just got done crying over the girl that ditched him. The guitars have a hint of Pixies at times (or some of Black Francis’s first solo efforts under the name Frank Black) and are easily the grungiest parts of Yorn’s career. Back and Fourth saw Yorn lamenting a lost love and there’s much of that here, but he’s clear in pointing the finger at himself now as a bad man. (Um, especially in the song “Badman.” Duh.) And all the self-examination comes to a stunning peak on “Future Life,” the finest 4:12 of Yorn’s musical career. His voice seems at the edge of cracking on every line. I find that the second verse and the chorus cut pretty close to home:

“House, a dog, two kids and a van
Good jobs in real estate, a fireman
Why the hell does it scare the shit out of me
Am I different, am I afraid

Life's been great to me
It feels a little sad
Gotta break out of here
Appreciate what I have”

You and me both Pete. You and me both.

On the Web: Best Tracks: “Future Life,” “Stronger Than,” “Velcro Straps”

3) Egghead. - Would Like to Have a Few Words With You (KnockKnock)

Full disclosure: The three members of Egghead.--Mike Faloon, John Ross Bowie and Johnny Reno (a.k.a. Michael Galvin)—have been good friends of mine since college. And they’ve thanked me in each of their albums as well as had me write an essay for their collection Dumb Songs for Smart People. Heck, there’s a picture of me in this CD’s inlay card flashing the devil horns along with a bunch of other friends and fans. So any objectivity is out the window on the trio’s first full length studio album since their breakup in 1998. I love it. I can’t imagine my 20s and 30s, and now 40s without their music to cheer me up when I need it. Bowie and Reno write catchy punk-pop songs that are filled with humorous insights about life, family, um, script writing and, well, spying? After many years of seeing most of these songs at shows (and on the live disc of the unofficial collection Intellectual Valentine), it’s just pure bliss having these full-fledged studio versions. Of course, I thought “What the Hell Is She Thinking” was titled “What the Hell Is He Thinking,” so yeah, that song has a different meaning now. As for the newer material, Bowie’s take on raising a tough little kid, “My Daughter,” would be a hit in the perfect Reynolds radio world. (And they even provided an edit for the chorus “My daughter can fuck up your daughter.”) It’s also the best song about child-rearing since “Cat’s in the Cradle.” That song’s about being a great parent, right?
On the Web: Best Tracks: “My Daughter,” “Thompson is in Trouble,” “What the Hell is She Thinking”

2) Guster - Easy Wonderful (RCA)
Full disclosure: I was hired by the band to write the bio for this new album. It was an up and down experience. Up: I was making some extra money, singer-guitarist Ryan Miller took me to Cobble Hill’s Char 4 for an amazing dinner, and I had a great Turkish lunch with drummer Brian Rosenworcel. Down: I just went through a breakup and then had to listen to a song titled “This Is How It Feels to Have a Broken Heart” repeatedly to prep for these interviews; and getting paid by a large corporation can be a lengthy process. I’m very glad that I go to do it because I was able to spend moths with this album before anyone else heard it. It made me feel like I had a great secret in my iPod. I wrote a couple of drafts of the bio, and when I looked at them to write this entry, I realized that the opening to the second one summed up my feeling perfectly. So here it is:

Guster’s 15-year recording career has seen them challenging preconceptions from day one. Critics scoffed that a band that started out with two acoustic guitars and some bongos and played colleges in the Northeast could never produce any timeless music. But Adam Gardner, Ryan Miller, Brian Rosenworcel and Joe Pisapia have been quietly confounding expectations for more than a decade. The band has steadily evolved from their acoustic roots into a group fully capable of creating melancholy ballads, harder edged rock and smartly crafted guitar pop with ease. Many people might have dismissed them upon first impression years ago. But like such artists as Wilco and The Flaming Lips, Guster has grown into a band that demands to be heard with new ears. And with their new album Easy Wonderful, the quartet has made a piece of art that delivers new rewards upon each listen. With the reflective opener “Architects and Engineers,” the pop gem “Do You Love Me,” the optimistic anthem “Bad Bad World,” the wall of sound production of “What You Call Love” and the haunting ballad “Stay With Me Jesus,” Guster has produced its best album ever.

I still believe every word of that. There’s also something Rosenworcel told me over some hummus that stuck with me as an apt description for the album: “When I tried to describe our album to people I’ve been saying, we really just honed in on trying to write 12 great pop songs. I think Easy Wonderful is more consistent than anything we’ve done.” Indeed Brian, indeed.
On the Web: Best Tracks: “What You Call Love,” “Bad Bad World,” “This Could All Be Yours”

1) Superchunk - Majesty Shredding (Merge)
My initial spin through Superchunk’s first album in nine years made me recall think of an album from two years ago—R.E.M.’s Accelerate. That album saw Stipe, Buck and Mills stop hunting around for some new musical avenue to explore and just be themselves. It was a rousing back-to-basics album that saw the band focused like they hadn’t been in years. Of course, while R.E.M. has been making albums throughout the aughts, Superchunk stayed quiet during that time except for a single, a couple of compilation appearances and the occasional weekend show around the U.S. The last couple of Superchunk albums saw them moving to a more layered and mid-tempo approach that took them away from their away hooky neo-punk indie rock roots. Those explorations disappear on Majesty Shredding. It’s as if the band stepped back in time and made it 1995 all over again. The sound that was exhilarating back then sounds just as fresh now—loud drums, a thrilling twin-guitar attack, and singer Mac McCaughan’s always impassioned vocals. This batch of tunes is as catchy as anything the band has ever recorded. Yet it’s not a total nostalgic trip—McCaughan has adroitly shifted his lyrical focus to more adult concerns like kids and growing old mixed in with the usual tales of anxiety and heartache. There are songs here that stand with the best the band has done (“Learned to Surf,” “Crossed Wires,”) songs that you’ll want to yell along at an “annoy the neighbors at 10:00 p.m.” top volume (“My Gap Feels Weird”), and songs that sound exactly how I’ve imagined the perfect Superchunk song would be if it was created in a lab (“Digging for Something”). Superchunk certainly wouldn’t be considered hip now like their label mates The Arcade Fire or Spoon, but they sound as vital, fresh and important as they did when I first heard them back in 1994. It’s a crowning achievement in a career that hopefully will continue well into a third decade.
On the Web: Best Tracks: “Digging for Something,” “My Gap Feels Weird,” “Learned to Surf”

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