Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Top Ten of 2008

Another year has come and gone, which means it's time to bring you that time-honored tradition of telling you what I thought the best stuff of 2008 was. Sure, it's pretentious to assume that I know better than, well, every single other person with a blog and the ability to type just what the best albums of the year were, or even to assume that my list is somehow more important or worthwhile than theirs. But hey, this is the internet, where everyone assumes their voice is worth more.

Honorable Mentions: some of these albums were good, they just didn't quite make the cut. Sad, really.

My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges: I wanted to love this album, I really did. But so much of it was either just too weird (I'm looking at you, "Highly Suspicious") or just kinda boring ("Librarian," "Sec Walkin"), and I was left wanting more songs like "I'm Amazed" and the awesome title track.

Cat Power, Jukebox: I like the way she interpreted the songs, I just didn't care for the songs she chose. Though it was nice to see Dylan's "I Believe in You" receive such an awesome treatment.

Counting Crows, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings: It's not that it was a bad album, per se, just that there wasn't anything that really jumped out and grabbed me about it.

Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs: Not bad, but again, nothing about it really jumped out and grabbed me.

The National, The Virginia EP: Almost made the cut, but the songs just weren't quite finished enough in many cases. But hey, it's an EP, not a real album, so we can forgive that.

The Decemberists, Always the Bridesmaid: A series of singles and an EP, it was easily some of the most awesome music I heard all year. If this'd been released as a whole thing instead of in a series of singles, it would've totally cracked the top ten.

Jesse Malin, On Your Sleeve: A fun set of covers with just enough of a twist on 'em to make them sound different and familiar. Includes "You Can Make Them Like You," a Hold Steady tune Malin regularly covers in concert.

REM, Accelerate: Fast, energetic, and fun. Three words you don't associate with the REM of the past decade or so. But this record certainly brings those traits back with a vengeance, and thank God for it.

The Fireman, Electric Arguments: A Paul McCartney album with a fresh coat of paint and some youthful production help. This record finds McCartney sounding more with-it and aware of the world around him than anything else he's done in the past ten or fifteen years. He sounds vital and fresh, not rehashed, and you get the sense he still has something left to say with his music, so hurray for that.

The Top Ten: For the longest time, I didn't feel that this year was as strong as last year. That being said, I found some albums this year that were absolutely fantastic.

10. Jenny Lewis, Acid Tongue: This is what I expected last year's Rilo Kiley album to sound like: clever lyrics, soaring vocals, and a variety of instrumental variation from the simple title track (with it's lone acoustic guitar and swelling backing chorus) to "Fernando" (which has some fun slide guitar). Plus, it's got a duet with Elvis Costello, "Carpetbaggers," that is just pure awesome.

9. Elvis Costello, Momofuku: Speaking of Costello, his latest is also wonderful. There's nothing particularly surprising about the record, it's just Costello doing his thing and doing well.

8. The Raconteurs, Consolers of the Lonely: More varied in style and sound than their first record, with a bit more overt Jack White control in evidence. This plays like a full-band version of a White Stripes record in some places, but the Raconteurs have still carved a separate existence apart from White's other band. "Salute Your Salution" is currently the most-played song on my iPod, if that tells you anything.

7. Coldplay, Viva La Vida: I admit it: I only got this album because of the use of the song in that iTunes commercial. I am officially Apple's bitch. That being said, it's a strong album, full of solid craftsmanship and polished, catchy songs that you can't help but sing along and tap your toes to. I know it's stylish to dog on them for being so earnest and bombastic (kinda like U2), but this is honestly a strong album from start to finish and different enough from their usual thing to be worthwhile.

6. The Hold Steady, Stay Positive: "Our songs are singalong songs," the band boasts in the opening number, "Constructive Summer." And it's true: "Sequestered in Memphis" is the sort of shout-along bar song that has everyone joining in, while "Magazines" rocks in a convincing Bruce Springsteen sort of way. This album's been compared to the Boss's The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, but that comparison only works if you think of every single song on here being as good as "Rosalita."

5. Jakob Dylan, Seeing Things: I'm a sucker for all things related to the Dylan family, so a Jakob Dylan solo album was right up my alley. The spare instrumentation and introspective lyrics are exactly the sort of thing you'd expect from a solo record, but the warmth and occasionally even joy that permeates these songs is a welcome breath of fresh air.

4. The Walkmen, You & Me: Atmospheric, thumping, and jangly as all hell, it's everything I wanted the new My Morning Jacket album to be (but wasn't). The shout of "hey!" in the chorus of "Four Provinces" just invites you to shout along with it, and the reverb-heavy early days of rock and roll vibe that permeates the album is just perfect for these late-night tunes.

3. The Gaslight Anthem, The 59 Sound: Damn, Gina. Talk about energy and owing a debt to the Boss. Not only do they reference his songs in at least three or four tunes here (along with a passing nod to Tom Waits, Tom Petty, and probably a dozen other classic rockers), they manage to do so in a way that doesn't sound like a tribute band or as though they have to cop lyrics and motifs from their idols to make it. There's not a band song on here, from the thunderous opener "Great Expectations" to the title track (the most driving meditation on death and dying I've heard in ages), the Counting Crows-quoting "High and Lonesome," and the quieter closer "The Backseat," this is simply one of the best records I've heard all year.

2. Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series, Volume 8: Tell Tale Signs: Collecting b-sides, rare cuts, alternate and live takes, and soundtrack work from the past twenty years, the latest entry into the Bootleg Series may not be as essential as the first couple of sets, but it's no less revelatory or amazing to listen to. Hearing the songs that Dylan left on the cutting room floor is always an interesting (and occasionally frustrating) exercise (I'm still not over him dropping "Blind Willie McTell" from Infidels). There are a couple of frustrating points this time out: two versions of "Dignity" seems a little superfluous, especially since I didn't care much for the song to begin with. The two alternate takes on "Mississippi" are less annoying, though I'd have still been fine with just one version of it and maybe some stuff from the Masked and Anonymous soundtrack instead (I'm still waiting for that solo acoustic version of "I'll Remember You" that was featured in the film but never released otherwise!). Definitely a must-have for any fan of Dylan, and a reminder that this man's leftovers are usually just as strong as anyone else's a-game.

1. She & Him, Volume 1: Maybe I'll catch flack for this. it's not an Important Album, it's not some experimental conceptual record designed to challenge our notions of what music can do. All it is is great music. Simple, direct, fun, with a sense of humor, longing, and sentimentality. I wouldn't have thought the record could have grabbed me the way it did, but it's held sway over my listening since essentially the moment I first downloaded it. I don't get tired of listening to it, and that's as high a compliment as you can really pay to a piece of music, I feel.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Here We Are In The Middle Of The First World"

Just what the hell have I been doing with myself?

1. Teaching. Apparently it's something that can be time consuming. Who knew?

2. Tutoring. Two to three nights per week and Saturdays, I'm sitting at a table surrounded by knee biters, tutoring the crap outta them. It's different enough from my day job to keep me at least halfway interested, though it does make some of my days rather long.

3. Music. A lot of good stuff's come out in the last couple of months. More than I've actually been able to keep up with, as a matter of fact. The new Ryan Adams isn't too shabby (far superior to last year's Easy Tiger, for certain), and I'm absolutely enamored of the Gaslight Anthem. I should have a list of my top ten or so albums of the year by the end of next week, so hurray for that.

4. Reading Comics. Lots of stuff here lately. Been trying to follow the happenings in the Batman titles, what with Batman supposedly dying and all. But mostly I do trade paperbacks, since they're more economical and I get to read a whole story in one go. I finally got all of BPRD (well, all the stuff that's been collected so far), all the new Blue Beetle trades, and a couple of odds and ends. Some of Keith Giffen's Justice League stuff (I Can't Believe it's Not the Justice League and Formerly Known as the Justice League), which is hysterical and exactly what a comic should be, I feel.

5. Waiting for Winter Break. I mean, seriously, I'm freakin' exhausted from work. Even when I get a full night's sleep, I don't feel very rested. I am ready for 2008 to be over.


Song of the Moment: The Submarines, "You, Me, & the Bourgeoisie"

Thursday, December 04, 2008

"She Blinded Me With Science!"

Heading up to New York for a three-day weekend tomorrow (hurray for taking the day off from school!), but before I left the science teacher here at school asked me to put together a playlist for the Science Fair tomorrow. Being the music nerd that I am, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to foist my musical tastes on other people, even if (especially if) I wasn't going to be there to do it in person. He asked for mostly mellow, low-key stuff, and I only had whatever was available on my computer (as opposed to the external hard drive where the vast majority of our music lives), so it was an interesting challenge. Thought it might be something worth sharing.

Interesting side note: many of the songs are from this year, which is surprising for me...since, y'know, I usually only really dig stuff recorded before I was born.

1. Jakob Dylan, "Something Good This Way Comes." I have a soft spot for the Dylan family and any project it's involved in, and I really dug the younger Dylan's solo record from this year. Probably in my top ten for the year (but that's a post for another time).

2. Ingrid Michaelson, "Over the Rainbow." This was a year for indie girls for me, I guess. She does a beautiful read of the old standard with just an acoustic guitar to back her vocals.

3. Jackson Browne, "Oh, My Love." Jackson Browne doing John Lennon? Sure, why the hell not! Definitely one of the best tunes to come off the otherwise bland (or occasionally infuriating) double-album Lennon covers thing.

4. Graham Dolby & the Grahamophones, "Jeeves & Wooster." Because you can never have too much Jeeves and Wooster in your life. Or your playlist.

5. Jack Johnson, "If I Had Eyes." The laid-back surfer shtick is one of my guilty pleasures.

6. Hem, "Jackson." I think every cover I've ever heard done by Hem has been perfect. Yes, perfect.

7. The Dave Clark Five, "Because." British Invasion goodness from the band that once went toe to toe with The Beatles.

8. Martin Sexton, "Diner." I love this song entirely because it was used in an episode of Scrubs. That quite possibly makes me very lame.

9. Delaney & Bonnie, "Piece of My Heart." Not as well-known or as definitive as the Janis Joplin version, but a nice read of the song nonetheless.

10. The Watson Twins, "Fall." I have a soft spot for these sisters after their turn as the backing vocalists for Jenny Lewis's first (excellent) solo album.

11. Marc Cohn, "Walking in Memphis." I have no excuse. Really.

12. The Weepies, "Wish I Could Forget." Dunno what prompted me to download them in the first place, but they're exactly what I wanted out of strummy indie folk pop (that is totally a genre).

13. She & Him, "Sentimental Heart." I've listened to this song over 20 times easily this year. It's that catchy.

14. Glen Hansard & Marketa Irgolva, "Falling Slowly." I really dug the movie Once, though I feel the music loses a bit of something outside of the context of the film.

15. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, "Killing the Blues." Whoever decided these two needed to make an album together deserves some sort of award.

16. Don McClean, "Vincent." I'm a sucker for Don McClean, I can't help it. And this was way less obvious than "American Pie."

17. The National, "Gospel." Still one of my favorite albums from last year, Boxer just sounds better and better with each listen. I totally missed this song somehow last year, but I love it now.


Song of the Moment: Hem, "Jackson"