The Best of 2011 … So Far, Top Ten June 30, 2011Posted by Matt in Best of 2011.
Tags: Beastie Boys, Best of 2011, Bon Iver, Eddie Vedder, Fleet Foxes, Hayes Carll, music, My Morning Jacket, Raphael Saadiq, Thurston Moore, top ten, TV on the Radio, Yuck
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As I said in Tuesday’s honorable mention post, this year has been a great one for music. So, my list of the best in the first six months of this year continues today with the top ten. Enjoy.
10. Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts
While I have listened to Sonic Youth for many years, I had never quite felt the urge in indulge in side projects from the band. And though was no particular reason behind this bit of negligence, I pretty much ignored those works amid the glut of releases each year. Then my friend Lynn posted a tweet in which he called it the “best album of the year,” and I knew I had to check it out. Once again, I found that he and I were on the same page. If, like me, you are accustomed to the chaotic noise of Moore’s work with Sonic Youth, this Beck-produced collection of acoustic numbers by the elder statesman of alt-rock guitarists is a wonderful surprise. With strings a-plenty and lyrics bending to the abstract, this is a truly wonderful work. From his first words, “With benediction in her eyes / Our dearest gods are not surprised,” over a strummed guitar, it becomes clear that this is another stellar work from an amazing talent. Whether or not you like the experimental noise of Sonic Youth, this is something you should hear.
9. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
The Thoreaun legend behind Justin Vernon’s debut as Bon Iver, For Emma, Long Ago, was perhaps as intriguing as the simplistic and beautiful music contained therein, but it also left questions regarding his future as an artist and whether or not he would be able to duplicate the spellbinding efforts of his initial work. The simple, lone acoustic guitar has mostly been replaced by a talented band and a virtual cornucopia of sound and warm textures, yet Vernon’s remarkable and unmistakable falsetto, still aching, remains intact. Incredibly, despite adding so many pieces to the puzzle, Bon Iver is still a very intimate album, one that will hold your attention and stretch your emotions. “Holocene” (And at once I knew I was not magnificent / strayed above the highway aisle / jagged vacance, thick with ice / I could see for miles, miles, miles) is a stunning achievement in and of itself This is an album that will stick with you, even haunt you, long after you finish it and, really, what else can you ask from an artist?
8. Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’
At the risk of sounding like someone far beyond my years or mindset, they just don’t make music like they used to when it comes to soul and R&B, so there has long been a gap existing in the music community, waiting for some eager people full of that special, heart-wrenching spirit to fill. Last year hip-hop artist Cee-Lo stepped up, producing an album of incredibly fun tunes with a sound akin to a potty-mouthed Stevie Wonder. This year another artist who has been around for some time, Raphael Saadiq, is picking up the soulful baton and taking his own turn. Saadiq first came to prominence in the late 80’s-early 90’s R&B group Tony! Toni! Tone! (“Feels Good,” “If I Had No Loot”) and since then he has worked as a producer for other top-selling artists as well as creating his own acclaimed music, but this is the first solo work of his I have acquired. Needless to say, I’m hooked. Listening to Saadiq, I hear a huge Sly and the Family Stone influence, particularly on the opener “Heart Attack,” while other tracks seem to draw from the likes of Ray Charles and other greats of times past. Make sure and check out songs like “Over You” and the title track and I’m sure you’ll agree: this is old school soul at its best.
7. Yuck – Yuck
Having come of age in the 1990’s, it’s only natural that I would be a bit nostalgic for the music of that era, so it is refreshing to find artists whose vision of the past is similar to mine. Over the years, the results of this endeavor have varied wildly, but occasionally a band breaks through the ever-thickening shroud of time and channels the energy of that fondly recalled time with such flair that you feel as though you’ve stepped into a flannel-covered time machine. Yuck, despite their name, is one of those wonderful memory-laden bands, their loud and fuzzy guitars eliciting a sense of euphoria rarely felt any longer. If Thurston Moore and Stephen Malkmus had a child who was then raised by J Mascis, it would sound like Yuck. It opens with “Get Away,” and a guitar that sounds as though it’s being played through a wall of white noise and the repeated intonation to “Tell me when the pain kicks in.” From that point on, the band rolls through a grunge litany long thought extinct, from the lovely “Georgia” to the distortion-filled “Operation,” making us believe again that stalwart indifference may be the answer to all of life’s questions.
6. Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2
The Beasties have been doing this a long time and, after listening to their latest release, it’s obvious that there is still plenty of gas left in the proverbial tank. Originally set to be a two part album, Hot Sauce Committee, Part 1 was to be released two years ago, but after Ad-Rock’s cancer diagnosis, his bandmates (Mike D and MCA) put the project on hold until his treatment was complete. With a joking nod, they kept with the original release schedule and entitled their latest Part 2. Hot Sauce is full of the old school jams you would expect from the band, with record scratching, loads of samples, and those long familiar voices belting out song after song of danceable fun. Album opener “Make Some Noise” is a joyful blast from the past, with both the best music video in years and a great nod to their 25 year old hit, “Fight for Your Right to Party.” Their collaboration with rapper Nas on “Too Many Rappers” shines as well, and even though they acknowledge their veteran status, “Grandpa been rappin’ since ’83,” they more than hold their own and show once again that they are and have always been a force to be reckoned with in the rap community. With another eye on their pre-Party, punk rock past, the Boys blast through “Lee Majors Come Around” with a ferocity that belies their age. The Beasties are just pure, rocking fun. Turn up the volume and, as they would say, it’s time to get ill!
5. Hayes Carll – KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories)
I had never heard of Hayes Carll before I caught him opening for the Drive-By Truckers a couple of years ago and, though I enjoyed his short set of country-tinged rock, particularly the irreverent fun of “She Left Me For Jesus,” it wasn’t until this album that I purchased any of his work and I was instantly hooked. Carll is a smart songwriter who reminds me at more serious times of a young Steve Earle and at more playful times of Todd Snider. His boozy vocals complement the bar band music perfectly, creating a sound that would be at home in a smoky honkytonk, but infused with originality and intelligence that belie that sort of lowly presentation. His one liners (I’m like James Brown, only white and taller / And all I wanna do is stomp and holler) will make you chuckle out loud while unconsciously moving to the catchy brand of southern rock. “Grand Parade” is a bit of light, summer fun, while the rocking title track tells a story of the Afghanistan war and drugs, but it is the funny back-and-forth wordplay of Carll and Cary Ann Hearst in, “Another Like You,” that takes the prize as the most memorable song. The two meet in a bar and begin an insult-laden conversation that runs from politics (Her: Well, you’re probably a Democrat / Him: What the hell is wrong with that? / Her: Nothing if you’re Taliban) to personal barbs (Him: I bet you slept with half the South / Her: Don’t you ever shut your mouth? / Him: How much did you pay for that tan?), before they finally leave together. Overall the album is a lot of fun and one of the most played ones on my iPod from this year.
4. My Morning Jacket – Circuitous
Over the past ten years, there have been a number of bands that have entered and become fully planted in my consciousness, so much so that I wait with great anticipation for every release and passionately yearn for them to visit our city. There are those like the Drive-By Truckers who I have seen numerous times and then there is a band like My Morning Jacket, who I follow religiously but have somehow has never made their way to Memphis. Their latest release, Circuitous, is another stellar release, complete with their trademark hazy, reverb-drenched sound and a bunch of excellent songs from Jim James and the boys. Following the incredible Z and the psychotropic freak out of Evil Urges, which I loved even more, MMJ fans wondered about the direction in which the band was headed. Would they return to their earlier sound or continue down the rainbow hued path to the always-elusive hallucinatory nirvana? Well, the answer is somewhere in the middle and this may be just as good, if not better, than either of those releases. The trippy seven minute “Circuital” (Circuits / Connect the Earth to the moon / And link our heavenly bodies / Not a moment too soon) is a must hear, as is the wonderfully weird “Holdin’ on to Black Metal” (Oh black metal, so misunderstood / Don’t turn yourself into Lucifer’s fool), but it is the carefree joy over somber tones of “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” (I’m going where there ain’t no fear / I’m going where the spirit is near / I’m going where the living is easy / And the people are kind / A new state of mind), that for the moment is my favorite cut on the album. It’s really a great work all around and I wholeheartedly endorse it.
3. Fleet Foxes – Hopelessness Blues
The 2008 debut album from Fleet Foxes was a pleasant surprise with its Crosby, Stills & Nash style folk harmonies over acoustic guitars, and songs that lent a natural feeling of forest-covered hills and bubbling brooks, of a quiet sunrise in a gentle meadow. But, despite the success of their first release, there were some questions over how the band would proceed with their career, and whether or not they would suffer that inevitable problem of popular music acts – the sophomore slump. After one listen, though, all doubts were put to rest. The music is hypnotic and beautiful with just enough tweaks to the formula of their first album to keep their creations interesting. “Montezuma” starts the work off with a melancholic fingerpicked guitar, followed by ___’s words, “So now I am older than my mother and father / When they had their daughter / Now what does that say about me,” his voice filled with yearning and feelings of youth lost as he continues the nostalgic and sad litany, “Oh man that I used to be / Oh man, oh my, oh me.” There is an interesting dichotomy at work in the Fleet Foxes, with their simplistic music against complex lyrical themes that I find fascinating and ultimately wonderful. In the title track, he offers up incredibly deep and penetrating stanzas like, “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique / Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see / And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be / A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.” This is an album full of difficult themes, and one that certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but to those who do put forth the effort, it is a veritable treasure trove.
2. TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light
First off, I must admit that I’m a bit of a late comer to TV on the Radio. Sure, I had heard some of their stuff in the past, but had never been moved enough to reach out and grab any of their albums. But the overwhelming positive reaction to the band was more than I could hold out on any longer and I grabbed a copy of Nine Types of Light soon after it came out. Needless to say, it was a great decision. This genre-hopping outfit is not easily defined, but that fluidity is perhaps their greatest asset as they effortlessly flit between soul to the sound of early 80’s post-punk to jazzy excursions, from electronic bleeps to distorted guitars, mixing it all together into a glorious whole, turning chaos into a sublime experience. You can feel the heartbreak in songs like “You,” where Tunde Adebimpe sings “You gave no reason for letting go / I just thought you might like to know / You’re the only one I ever loved,” and then the hopes for reconciliation in “Will Do,” (But I’ll be there to take care of you / If ever you should decide / That you don’t want to waste your life / In the middle of a lovesick lullaby). It’s a very personal work and one that requires several listens to fully appreciate, but once it reels you in there is no escape and that’s really the best thing you can ever hope for with an album.
1. Eddie Vedder – Ukelele Songs
I could easily cajole you once again with stories of my long-standing love for all things Pearl Jam, of the times I’ve seen them and frontman Eddie Vedder in concert and of the extensive collection of their releases I keep on file in my iPod, but perhaps the best thing I could do with this latest addition to one of rock music’s greatest catalogues is to tell you to leave your worries and cares at the door and just listen. Much like his solo work on the Into The Wild soundtrack or on recent Pearl Jam songs like the heart-wrenching “Just Breath,” Eddie strips away the noise and opens a door straight to his soul, using little but his unmistakable voice filled with yearning and loss and love and a lone, unlikely instrument – the ukulele. The simple beauty of each and every song will squeeze your heart, bring a smile to your face and maybe even a tear to your eye. Of all the iterations of Eddie Vedder that I’ve followed across the years – from his early days as a spokesman of the disaffected grunge rock youth, to his anti-corporate stands, to his political diatribes – today’s may be my favorite. There is something quite special about watching a man finally come into his own after years of fighting and discover contentedness, to find love and hope and beauty in life. The muted strums that open his version of Pearl Jam’s “Can’t Keep,” kickstart the album with a burst of energy that it rarely reaches again, and that’s a good thing. It’s the loveliness of “Without You” (For every wish I hold a star / That goes old and sets in the dark / There is a dream I’ve dreamt about you), the forlorn “Goodbye” (I’ve got our love to remember / That will never change / I have you in my head / And though I’ll never hold you / And I’m still asking why / I guess that this is goodbye), and the playful duet with Cat Power “Tonight You Belong to Me” (Yes, the song from The Jerk), that make this my favorite album so far this year. It’s an offbeat, moving, and utterly beautiful masterpiece from one of the greatest artists of our generation.
Best of the Decade – Music Edition November 16, 2009Posted by Matt in Top 100 of the Decade.
Tags: 2000s, Bon Iver, decade, Eminem, Fleet Foxes, guns n roses, Iron and Wine, Johnny Cash, K'Naan, Mos Def, The National, top 100, Warren Zevon
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A few weeks ago I wrote a short entry regarding my plans for compiling a monstrous list of the top 100 albums of the past decade, from 2000-2009. Since the end of the year rarely yields any real gems in the music industry, I felt that this would be as good a time as any to start our list, so below are the first ten, those ranked 91-100, and the rest will follow of the course of the next few weeks. As we move along let me know what you think.
100. Guns N’ Roses – Chinese Democracy (2008)
There are few albums that match the level of anticipation that followed this, G N’ R’s first album of original material in 17 years, but nobody really knew what to expect. The result was, well, interesting. Some tunes like the title song and “Shackler’s Revenge” rock like only Axl & co. can, some, like the excellent “Better” and “Catcher in the Rye” seem to hint that the band still has great things ahead of them, and then there are songs like “If the World,” which sounds like some cheesy James Bond theme reject. It’s no Appetite for Destruction, but it’s not bad.
99. Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002)
There are few figures in the annals of country music with the kind of well-deserved stature that Cash had and this album, one of five produced by Rick Rubin, was a fitting goodbye to the Man in Black. His baritone was well-worn with age, but that only added character to this set of songs reflecting on a life well lived. With the end in sight, Cash’s selections were particularly poignant, particularly “Give My Love to Rose,” “We’ll Meet Again,” and the heartbreakingly beautiful “Hurt,” a song originally performed by Nine Inch Nails. Some of the choices go a bit overboard in the sentimentality (do we really need versions of “Desperado” and “Bridge over Troubled Water?” but I guess when you’re a 70+ year old music icon, you’ve earned the right to play anything you want.
98. Iron and Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days (2004)
Sam Beam’s mostly one man band is oftentimes compared to past artists like Nick Drake, Simon and Garfunkel, and Elliott Smith. His fingerpicked acoustic guitar style is both beautiful and haunting, while still being quite listenable and rarely boring. On an album where the songs tend to blend together, “Naked as we Came” is one that stands out as truly great. After a hard day, this is a great one to just turn on and relax to.
97. Mos Def – The Ecstatic (2009)
Mos Def is an anomaly in the world of modern rap music. His lyrics are intelligent and socially conscious with a style that is as inventive as anybody working today. Songs like “Auditorium” and “Quiet Dog” incorporate interesting samples with good beats that complement Def’s flow nicely.
96. Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
This one hasn’t held up as well for me as other albums (hip hop and otherwise), have over the past decade, but it still deserves a spot for its timely shock value and cultural significance in the early part of the decade. Though he soon became a parody of himself, this album really shook things up in 2000, providing a quite a subversive shock through the establishment with infamous songs about dangerously rabid fans and killing his girlfriend.
95. Warren Zevon – The Wind (2003)
In 2002, wry singer-songwriter Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable terminal cancer. Rather than engaging in treatments that might prolong his life but leave him incapacitated, he decided to record this, his final album. The Wind retains much of Zevon’s characteristically dry and somewhat morbid sense of humor, while offering up the poignant views of a man who has reached the end of life’s road. His cover of Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” takes on a lot more meaning when sung by someone in his state and the album’s finale, “Keep Me in Your Heart,” is a fitting goodbye for a singer-songwriter who tasted success, but never let it control his artistry.
94. The National – Boxer (2007)
Best characterized by vocalist Matt Berninger’s deep baritone and their downbeat style, The National had been playing together for several years before becoming critical darlings in the last half of the decade. Their style is expansive and lush, with songs like the politically motivated “Fake Empire” and the incredible “Mistaken for Strangers” (which is probably one of my favorite songs of the decade), this album is definitely one that needs to be heard.
93. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes (2008)
With vocal harmonies reminiscent to those of past acts like Crosby, Still, & Nash, Fleet Foxes burst on the scene in 2008 with one of the more unlikely success stories of 2008. “White Winter Hymnal” is an inescapably catchy song that will grasp hold of your brain and not let go.
92. K’naan – Troubadour (2009)
I imagine that Mogadishu-born Muslim rapper K’naan just shakes his head at American rappers and their tales of life on the street saying, “You think you have it hard?” His rhymes cover timely topics involving the problems in his homeland, from civil war to pirates. Troubadour, his sophomore release, is heavy on special guests, some of which work better than others, but the overall product is quite good, especially in songs like “Somalia” and “Wavin’ Flag.”
91. Bon Iver – For Emma, Long Ago (2008)
In early 2007, following two devastating breakups (one with his girlfriend, the other with his band) and a strong bout of mono, Justin Vernon retreated to a cabin in northern Wisconsin for three solid months of solitude. Armed with his guitar, some old recording equipment and a load of heartache, Vernon took on the name Bon Iver and created this album. Songs like “Flume” and “Skinny Love,” feature little besides an acoustic guitar and Vernon’s aching falsetto, but that’s really all you need. This is one beautiful piece of modern day Americana.
2009 In Music – A Look Ahead January 21, 2009Posted by Matt in Best of 2009.
Tags: 2009, album releases, Andrew Bird, Bon Iver, Bruce Springsteen, Dan Auerbach, Dave Matthew Band, Justin Townes Earle, M. Ward, music, neko case, The Decemberists, U2
Over the past two weeks I’ve taken a look at the best (In my opinion, at least) music releases of 2008. Now, though, it is time to look to the future, to gaze into that proverbial crystal ball and try to glean from it the upcoming releases that I most look forward to. I used the upcoming releases listed on Metacritic as my source, so if anything is incorrect you can lay the blame on them. Below you will find my top ten announced releases as well as five more taken from the “anticipated releases” tab that I certainly hope come to fruition.
10. Justin Townes Earle – Midnight at the Movies (expected release date: March 3)
Last year’s release from Steve Earle’s son proved to be an excellent collection with that classic country sound that is so rarely heard anymore, so I am greatly looking forward to what else he has in store for us.
9. Bon Iver – Blood Bank (Jan. 20)
This would probably be much higher on the list if it were more than a 4 song EP, but for now it will suffice from Justin Vernon. His For Emma, Long Ago was one of my favorites of 2008 and I see a great future ahead for this young singer-songwriter.
8. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast (Jan. 20)
Bird’s 2007 album, Armchair Apocrypha, quickly became a favorite of mine and has been a staple on my Ipod. I heard some of his latest release on NPR and was again greatly impressed. Though it has already been released, I have not yet downloaded this. But, mark my words, it will soon be on my Ipod.
7. Dave Matthews Band – Title TBA (Apr 14)
DMB is one of the few artists classified as a “jam band” who have released studio albums in the past that almost rival their incredible live shows. Though I have been a bit disappointed with their releases in recent years, I will still most likely pick this up.
6. M. Ward – Hold Time (Feb. 17)
I’ve been a big fan of M. Ward’s retro singer-songwriter style for the past few years and greatly enjoyed his 2008 collaboration with Zooey Deschanel. He has proven himself to be one of the best young artists working today and I expect this album to again show off his bourgeoning greatness.
5. Dan Auerbach – Keep it Hid (Feb. 10)
Auerbach is the guitar/vocals half of one of my favorite acts working today, The Black Keys. Their incredible blues-rock sound is in a world of its own compared to their contemporaries. I expect their down-and-dirty blues sound to be no less apparent on this solo debut.
4. The Decemberists – Hazards of Love (March 24)
I first became a fan of this hyper-literate band from Portland, Oregon, after listening to their 2005 release Picaresque. Their storytelling style, employment of a vast arrangement of instruments, and strange sound (at least compared to other popular acts) caught my ear and has not let go since.
3. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone (March 3)
It only took one listen to Case’s 2007 opus Fox Confessor Brings the Flood for me to fall completely head over heels in love with her. I listened to it over and over and never grew tired of her enchanting wail. She is one of those few people who could sing the phone book and I would listen attentively.
2. U2 – No Line on the Horizon (March 3)
Every release of Bono’s crew is greatly anticipated by fans and this one is definitely not an exception to the rule. Give me their signature, stadium-ready style any day.
1. Bruce Springsteen – Working on a Dream (Jan 27)
It’s hard to beat the Boss, so this follow-up to 2007′s excellent Magic is without a doubt my most anticipated upcoming release. He is an American icon who must be present in the music collection of anyone that calls themselves a lover of music.
As promised, there are also 5 “anticipated releases” that also have me greatly intriqued.
The New Pornographers
This collaborative effort, which includes the aforementioned Neko Case, has consistently put out stellar albums and I expect this one to follow along in that mold as well.
If she would just clean herself up and stop doing crack, I would be totally in love with her.
Seriously, this guy just keeps plugging along with mind-blowing releases.
Jeff Tweedy’s group is one of the best working today, so every release deserves several honest listens.
They are without a doubt one of my favorite bands of all time so I always look forward to their releases and hope that they will perhaps stop here for a show.
The Best of 2008 in Music – The Top Ten January 12, 2009Posted by Matt in Best of 2008.
Tags: 2008, albums, Best Of, Bon Iver, Coldplay, drive-by truckers, guns n roses, music, My Morning Jacket, Okkervil River, The Black Keys, The Gaslight Anthem, The Hold Steady, Vampire Weekend
Black Mountain – In the Future
Blue Mountain – Midnight in Mississippi
Justin Townes Earle – The Good Life
Ra Ra Riot – the Rhumb Line
North Mississippi All-Stars – Hernando
Motley Crue – Saints of Las Angeles
Thao – We Brave Bee Stings and All
The Raconteurs – Consolers of the Lonely
She & Him – Volume I
Portishead – III
The First Ten:
20. The Raveonettes – Lust Lust Lust
19. Mudcrutch – Mudcrutch
18. R.E.M. – Accelerate
17. Jason Isbell – Sirens of the Ditch
16. Beck – Modern Guilt
15. Lucinda Williams – Little Honey
14. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
13. Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst
12. MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
11. Metallica – Death Magnetic
I am an admitted music snob that mourns the slow, tragic death of the album in favor of single songs purchased from Itunes, but, thankfully, there are still some truly great collections of music being released today. Let me know what you think. What did I get wrong? What should I have included?
10. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
I fell in love with the poppy, Police-influenced sounds of Vampire Weekend the first time I heard them. These Ivy Leaguers make the kind of catchy music that is just impossible to dislike. Kick back and enjoy.
Download: Mansard Roof, A-Punk
9. The Black Keys – Attack & Release
I first came into contact with the great blues-rock of The Black Keys in Memphian Craig Brewer’s offbeat but incredible film Black Snake Moan. I soon caught on to the duo and downloaded all of their albums, which quickly became staples on my Ipod. As would be expected, their latest release if also filled with great blues guitar riffs cranked to the max and, really, that’s all you need. I had the chance to catch the Keys here in Memphis over the past year and let me tell you, these guys are just plain awesome. So, turn it up loud and groove like there’s no tomorrow.
Download: I Got Mine, Strange Times
8. Coldplay – Viva La Vida
Coldplay is the kind of band that I’m not supposed to like. Their safe, sanitized sound carefully packaged to appeal to the masses should be the antithesis of what I enjoy. But, I can’t help it, I am a fan. They have made a name for themselves by constructing huge, sweeping stadium-ready anthemic rock while still finding a way to connect personally with the individual, making music for both Ipods and coliseums. It is a characteristic to which all bands aspire but few achieve. The latest release is a great improvement over the undwhelming X&Y and may even be to the level of what is generally considered their masterpiece, A Rush of Blood to the Head. Oh, and I also want to say that Mike the Eyeguy made a perfect observation when he said some time ago that this band was perfect for running to….now if only I could myself on that elliptical gathering dust in the corner…
Download: Viva La Vida, Lost
7. Drive-By Truckers – Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
I have been a huge fan of the Truckers for several years now and have had the chance to catch them live twice (and they are coming to Memphis again February 27 if anyone wants to go with me!), so I anxiously await each of their releases. Their songs tell distinctly Southern stories, from the myths of old to dark tales of racism, violence, and drug addiction. The lyrics and style of Patterson Hood evoke images of old men in front porch rocking chairs spinning tales about times past, but never flinching from the harsh realities of life. Their latest release, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, continues with these themes, tackling topics like alcoholism, war, murder, and crystal meth…yeah, this isn’t lighthearted stuff.
Download: The Righteous Path, Lisa’s Birthday
6. Bon Iver – For Emma, Long Ago
Justin Vernon , a.k.a Bon Iver, was having a really rough time at the end of 2006, his longtime girlfriend broke up with him, his band disintegrated, and he was suffering through a bout of illness, leaving him lonely and depressed. As a way to, in a sense, recharge his batteries, Vernon moved into a remote Cabin in northern Wisconsin for the winter. Armed with his guitar and some old recording equipment, this album was the product of those three months of solitude, as he dealt with the demons that plagued him. It’s an incredibly intimate album and one that will haunt you long after the last strains of his acoustic guitar have faded away.
Download: Skinny Love, Flume
5. The Gaslight Anthem – That ’59 Sound
In case you ever wondered what would happen if a young Bruce Springsteen had fronted the Clash, here is your answer. The Gaslight Anthem blaze through songs that seem like snapshots of real life in small town America with a punk rock ferocity. Like the aforementioned Springsteen, they name-drop characters (like Mary, unsurprisingly) all around, lending an air of realism to each of these slices of Americana.
Download: Great Expectations, That ’59 Sound
4. Okkervil River – The Stand Ins
I first became a fan of this Austin band following their 2007 release, The Stage Names, but I think this year’s sequel may be even better. Their hyper-literate lyrics stand out in a time in which intelligence is seldom rewarded in the music world. “Lost Coastlines” is another song that is among my favorite for the year and I just can’t seem to get that “La la lalalala,” refrain out of my head for anything. Check them out, you’ll be glad you did.
Download: Lost Coastines, Singer-Songwriter
3. Guns N’ Roses –Chinese Democracy
Say what you want, but one thing Axl Rose has is vision. Some 17 years and all of the original band members sans Axl Rose later, G N’ R have finally returned to the music world with the long awaited Chinese Democracy, a much-maligned album that has undergone a gestation period more than eight times that of an African elephant. Its hugeness and messiness is perhaps only matched by it’s brilliance. Mind you, this collection is far from perfect. It definitely has its misses, such as the James Bond theme song sound of “if the World, but these are more than made up for by rockers like the theme song or “Shackler’s Revenge. It also has its surprises, such as Axl’s nice piano ballad, “This I Love,” and the genre-hopping “There Was a Time.” Whatever you do, don’t base your opinion on just one or two songs, CD is an album that is meant to be heard in its entirety. In this age of Ipods and single song purchases, this release may be the marker for the end of the album era…and it’s a heck of a farewell.
Download: Chinese Democracy, I.R.S.
2. My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges
I’ve wavered a bit on MMJ’s latest release throughout the year, but its consistent presence on my playlist is evidence enough that I love this album. This collection certainly has its fair share of weirdness, most notably in the Prince-like freak out of “Highly Suspicious,” a song whose presence I would imagine turned off a lot of listeners, but regardless of one’s thoughts on that track, though, the remainder of the album is stellar in its reverb-shrouded psychedelia, repeatedly channeling the greats ones of the past like Neil Young, Pink Floyd, and any other number of 70’s classic rock acts. I just wish I had it on vinyl…that’s how an album like this is supposed to be listened to.
Download: Evil Urges, I’m Amazed, Aluminum Park
1. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
There was no other album in the year of 2008 that enthralled me the way The Hold Steady did. The band once called the greatest bar band in America may now just be one of the best bands, period. I’ve always been a big fan of good storytelling songs and there are few acts around today that do it better than Craig Finn’s group. On Stay Positive, the band blazes through tale after tale of life on the dark side, stopping only for the few seconds between songs to take a quick breath before delving in again. The opening cut, “Constructive Summers,” has a line in it that goes, “Let’s raise a glass to St. Joe Strummer / I think he might have been our only decent teacher,” that I think probably best describes where these guys, with smart songs and classic punk riffs, are coming from. Another of the songs included tells the story of a night gone wrong in our neighboring city (“Sequestered in Memphis”) that has gotten a good bit of play here on an independent radio station and it was really what turned me on to this band in the beginning. I think, though, that one of the greatest songs on the album is perhaps the darkest, most harrowing one as well. “Lord I’m Discouraged,” concerns love in the throes of drug addiction and ends with one of the most heartbreaking couplets in recent memory, “I know it’s unlikely she’ll ever be mine / So I mostly just pray she won’t die.” Yeah, it’s not always easy to listen to, but, take my word for it, this is the best of 2008.