Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Not Top Ten List

Update:  This post suffered a Google take down and so I am reposting without the mp3 files.

Why this should not be considered a real top ten list of the year.

  • I only started this blog midway through the year and it was only then that I was really trying to stay connected to what was happening out there musically and so this could, at best be considered a top ten list from the second half of 2008.
  • I don't even want to compete with the so many others out there who are so much more informed than me.
  • I actually kind of hate these lists and find them a bit pretentious.
  • I have conflicted feelings about list making.
  • I have more than 10 albums on the list.
  • And really, it isn't like I was scanning the entire, or even a majority, of the music world so it could only be a top ten list of my limited perspective and that really isn't a top ten list, is it?

And so that really is what this is--my limited take on the music world for 2008. And not really a ranking, but rather a recounting of the albums that I enjoyed enough to recommend to others and to you dear readers. So here are samples from each album not arranged in a hierarchical order with pithy commentary, but rather in the order I might put them if I were making a mix disc for a friend to let them decide what they thought since obviously as the maker of the mix, my feelings are fairly well known. Some of these I have posted before (although I will spare you all the self-referential links), but many are new offerings from these discs. A few more thoughts follow the playlist.

Flume / Bon Iver
Crook of My Good Arm / Pale Young Gentlemen
Love Me Tenderly / Felice Brothers
Honor Among Thieves / These United States
Man Sized Wreath / REM
Four Provinces / The Walkmen
Modern Guilt / Beck
Harps and Angels / Randy Newman
20/20 Vision / Charlie Haden
If I Die Sudden / John Mellencamp
Real Love / Lucinda Williams
My Two Feet / Old 97's
It Won't Be Long / Corey Chisel
Re: Stacks / Bon Iver

Regarding Bon Iver: you will notice that the list opens with tracks from that album (the actual opening and closing tracks from that album) and yes you can assume that it means that were I forced to pick an album of the year (which for me means that it will be listened to the most in the future), it would be this one from Justin Vernon.

A few comments about omissions. There are a few like Fleet Foxes who made many others' lists, but aren't here by choice (for whatever reason they just didn't resonate with me as they did with so many others). However, many omissions are due to lack of time rather than a matter of opinion--albums like this year's releases by Connor Oberst, The Pretenders, the Raconteurs and so many others just didn't make it into the little listening time I have.

I should also note that there are a couple tunes in the list that are pretty new to me and I haven't really written about yet much although I have been enjoying the discs a lot this December (and I shall take care of the writing about them in the new year).

And finally, the list is obviously focused just on rock/alt-country/indie tunes, but obviously there were some great albums in other genres that deserve attention. Unfortunately, I just didn't keep The Room as eclectic as I first intended and so I have focused on just this group this year (can you smell that New Year's Resolution coming?).

So there you have it. Thanks for all who stopped by this year as I tried to get this little blog going. I didn’t put "Buy Album" links by every song, but please support the artists.

Happy New Year to all and Bon Iver!

Monday, December 29, 2008

RSHIP: Close to Me

I will be trying to get some sort of end of the year list together during our "vacation" in parental land. Until then I give you The Cure's "Close to Me" which is featured as the closing song of the fine film Son of Rambow (which we just watched and so this tune remotely qualifies for RSHIP status). All through the movie you get to chuckle as they not-so-subtley take the piss out of 1980s techno-pop scene, but then I found myself grooving to this tune with all the little jazzy licks in it. Of course, I have a soft spot for The Cure who has been cranking out the pop hits for an Elton-John-like-long-time starting back in my college days which gives them a leg up.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Car-Tunes: Things I Learned Today

Made the 8-hour trip from Washington, D.C. to the home of rock n' roll today with Neats and the boys. That would be basically six hours of driving with prerequisite stops for dough and gas and the requisite stops at Bob Evans for lunch (lest we have a children riot on our hands) and the Latte Mocha stop in the afternoon (lest we have a parental riot). Here is what we learned about music from this trip.
  1. After nearly twenty years of marriage, Neats is still amazed that it takes me longer to decide what music to take with me than to pack my clothes (or do anything else related to the trip).
  2. Hearing Lucinda Williams sing AC/DC's "Long Way to the Top" is fun, but not as fun as hearing The Engineer singing it from the back of the van afterwards.
  3. Traveling through the hills and mountains of Pennsylvania was a good time to listen to Charlie Haden's new bluegrass disc.
  4. Forty-five minutes of live Phish jams will, in fact, drive my wife to take control of the music.
  5. The Artist is perfectly happy to ignore the music being played to sing his own songs that he is making up as he goes along.
  6. Fortunately, we have discovered that if you play REM's album Accelerate very loud, you can drown out three boys screaming nonsense--yes that would be four middle aged men screaming nonsense drowning out three small children, and that is not fair, but this was before the requisite coffee stop.
  7. Despite heading home for multiple holiday gatherings, we are musically done with the holidays as nary a single holiday disc made it into the player today.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas All

Here is this year's pick for classic holiday album of the year. Guaraldi's music on the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas (buy album) has the ability to transport me to my childhood and all the nostalgia of the those holidays like no other album and that is a wonderful thing. And now I get to watch my own children and their excitement and wonderment during this time of year.

May your day be peaceful and warm and full of fond memories and the glee of young children.

Christmas Is Coming
Christmas Time Is Here

Monday, December 22, 2008

Three to Consider: Hidden Holiday Treats

I am still happily preoccupied with seasonal activities (and less happily still dealing with work too close to the big day). So here is a lazy offering to fill the time let's take a look at a new category--holiday tunes that appear on regular albums as opposed to included on entire holiday albums. They just sort of pop-up on these albums.

In many cases, I am not a big fan of these as they seem terribly out of place to me. For instance, one of my all time favorite jazz artists is Dexter Gordon and one of my favorite tunes of his is "The Panther" which is on the album with the same title (it is also the reason our big black and white cat's name is Dexter). Anyway, in the midst of this album comes Dex's version of "The Christmas Song." It is a great version and, in fact, leads off a nice jazz holiday compilation album I have . . .  but it is totally out of place there.

Now this is surely part of my over-the-top rules about holiday music which shall never be played before Thanksgiving our after New Year's Day (really, that is enough isn't it?). Of course, as with all hard-and-fast rules, there are exceptions and here are three of mine. The key to all of these very different tunes is that they all work as holiday songs and as songs on the albums they appear on.

First up, we have The Waitresses with "Christmas Wrapping"--and this is a bit of stretch since it was first released as an EP, but I have it where I suspect many do which is on their Best Of album. So we find it mixed in with other holiday favorites such as "I Know What Boys Like" and "They're All Out of Liquor, Let's Find Another Party." And yet, it works--perhaps cuz it is so eighties danceable, who knows.

Next we have an absolutely beautiful retelling of the Christmas story from Bruce Cockburn. No sap here, just a great storyteller putting his spin on a narrative that has been told a million times. I love, in particular, how he characterizes Joseph as the miffed-jealous partner and how Mary sets him straight. "Cry of a Tiny Babe" sits in the midst of a great Cockburn album Nothing But a Burning Light which is held together by a theme of searching for the character of a man's soul (and for Bruce, I do think it is about a man's character), which is perhaps why this fits so well.

And last, we have Chrissie Hynde singing "2000 Miles" from the Pretenders Learning to Crawl album. This tune is really a song of love and longing, but the use of Christmastime as a place-holder for happier times and the snow imagery make it a fine holiday tune, although it also serves as a wonderful closing tune to this album.

Christmas Wrapping
Cry of a Tiny Babe
2000 Miles

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Whistling While We Wait

Still trying to keep up with work and the holidays and finding it a bit hard to blog about music, but I have been meaning to note the upcoming release of Andrew Bird's new album and now is as good a time as any. Me, I am hoping for an album that is more in the direction of Armchair Apocrypha than, say, The Mysterious Production of Eggs. I know that the latter (which is really the former) got a better critical reception than the former (which is really the latter) did--although they were both very well received.

I am also quite well aware that the things I like about Armchair are the very things that critics didn't--more pop-oriented, more upbeat, more straight-forward lyrics, more not as hip artsy-indie music. But remember that is within the spectrum that is multiple-string-instrument-playing, best-indie-whistler world of Andrew Bird, so even the most "pop" AB album has a certain feel to it. This isn't to say that I don't appreciate the Eggs, but rather that I find it a bit more produced and intentionally artsy or overly cerebral (or both) where I find Armchair somewhat more honest and, dare I say, fun--and therefore more effective in its mission.

So, in anticipation of the new release, here are the opening tracks from Armchair (buy album), which I really enjoy.

Fiery Crash

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Holiday Music: Squirrel Nut Zippers

The first two installments of holiday music have been beautiful acoustic albums, so let's step it up a bit. One might suggest that this week's installment would be better categorized as a jazz album rather than a pop influenced album, but my sense of the Squirrel Nut Zippers is that they were always about making their brand of jazz influenced music popular.

The SNZ have always been true to their wonderful mix of Dixie-influenced jazz that has a certain bluegrass feel to it and always has that great feel of music made in the mountains of Carolina. Their holiday effort is no exception. On top of that, this effort has that feel of musicians who grew up and experienced the holidays through the lens of the 1950's or 60's. The beauty here is that you know this is all history and a passing down of tradition.

So put on SNZ's Christmas Caravan, stir up a batch of egg nog, get out your Lionel train set and imagine yourself in the snow covered southern appalacian mountains and enjoy some holiday fun.

Squirrel Nut Zippers (Buy Album)

Winter Weather
Carolina Christmas
Hot Christmas

Friday, December 12, 2008

Three to Consider: Maybe, Probably, Can’t Help Myself

I’ve been traveling quite a bit for work without much time to write or even listen to all that much music. So here are three to consider that caught my interest in recent reviews and samplers—two new artists for me and one I have lost track of.

First up is the indie instrument infused Anathallo’s second album Canopy Glow. I have been listening to “The River” which reminds me of Andrew Bird (particularly the Mysterious Production of Eggs) with its ornate layering and complex lyrics. Reviews of their first album suggest that perhaps they are trying just a bit too hard, but reviews I have seen for Canopy Glow suggest consistent song writing with a wonderful mix of music and choral arrangements. The key for me will be whether the album has good variation in song style which I am not sure, so any input there or in general is appreciated. For now it’s a maybe.

The River (Buy Album)

Now what is up with dudes and cabins in the Wisconsin woods? First we had Bon Iver which probably still holds favorite album of year status for me. Now along comes Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons for our second consideration. I have been listening to “Home in the Woods” from the EP Cabin Ghosts which is apparently named for his family’s cabin in the Wisconsin woods where this is recorded. When I first heard the song, I thought it might be an older artist who had been working for some time and I had just missed him like so many others. His voice has a kind of Marc Cohn sound to it (which I really like), but the sound is more bluesy and raw in a way that makes me think of Greg Brown. To my surprise, Chisel is a newer artist (and young) which might mean we are hearing someone who is at the beginning of a promising career. I am looking forward to hearing more, so this one is a probably for me.

Home in the Woods (Buy EP)

For the last consideration we have Joan Osborne’s latest release, Little Wild One. I confess to being one of those people who only have the hit album Relish which I really loved and played a lot one summer back in Salt Lake City. I remember thinking that this is someone I am going to explore and then didn’t. I got interested again when I read the reviews of her latest album. They (the reviews) weren’t all that great, although respectful of her as an artist. But all the descriptions about songs set in New York City and her role as a newish parent attracted me—but again, I didn’t pursue. However, when I heard “Cathedrals” I couldn’t stop playing it. It isn’t the most complex song, but I simply love the arrangement, the way the tune builds and then resolves. Osborne has such a strong alto voice and the lyrics are clearly from someone who I can identify with. It reminds me of early Billy Joel in many ways, but that is a whole other issue. In short, I am quite sure this one is going to be picked up unless some dear reader tells me otherwise.

Cathedrals (Buy Album)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Holiday Music: Shawn Colvin

Not that I think anyone is paying that close attention, but I am going to change the holiday music posting approach. I am still going with the advent approach--that is, a post a week for the four weeks leading up to Christmas for all you heathens. However, rather than doing the various genres I suggested last week, I am going to stick with one type of music for this year (pop/rock influence) followed by a final post on a classic album. If we are still around next year we will take up another genre or style--jazz, classical, compilations, etc. All of which is to say, we are sticking with pop/rock influenced holiday album this week (as if you didn't know that from the title).

This week's pick is influenced by the weather (and of course my attachment to the album). Yesterday started cold (about freezing) with blue skies but quickly became a gray day with low December light. Mid-afternoon brought a light snow that continued into the night and left a skiffof snow on the ground this morning with flakes still swirling in the air. We spent the weekend doing holiday errands, putting up a few tasteful outdoor lights (in case anyone is taking video), building fires, making lists, walking in our little snow, and drinking eggnog (and a few other holiday spirits).

Shawn Colvin's Holiday Songs and Lullabies was made for just such weather. Calm and peaceful like a first December snow, Colvin arranges a host of wonderful songs on this 1998 release.  It has the potential to be a sugary holiday overload, but Colvin's sincerity and vocals (that could make the phonebook sound like great lyrics) overcomes any such worries.

Now this album is slow with little attempt to be anything else, so don't try it on unless you aren't ready for some quietude. I surely have a soft spot for it since I have been listening to it for the last eight years which has, for at least six of them, involved rocking small boys to sleep, so it has been the perfect holiday album. But a fire on a cold night and your favorite sippin' and a good book (or blog) is the perfect companion for this holiday album.

The song choice is also key. There are some traditional tunes here (e.g. Silent Night), but a good number of the songs are not ones you will hear on your local holiday radio station, or, frankly, on other holiday albums. So all you peaceful folks or new parents looking for an album to quiet the little one in your home, here are a few samples to put you in that seasonal and contemplative mood (0r you can just Buy the Album).

In the Bleak Mid-Winter
Love Came Down at Christmas
Little Road to Bethlehem

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Lucinda Returns from the West

Despite the fact that I have been listening to Lucinda Williams' latest album Little Honey off and on for a couple months now, I just seem to not get around to posting about it. There are a variety of reasons, but one of the main reasons was that so many folks seemed to be so happy about this album in juxtaposition to the previous release West. Here is Paste:
A sharp contrast to the studied tapestry of sound and embittered lyrics of West, Little Honey finds Williams in celebratory mode, with raucous rock, bluesy testimonies and tongue-in-cheek twang.
But all of these "thank God she is over that" comparisons made me keep thinking: "But I liked West!" More to the point, I kept going back and listening to the two albums, one against the other.

Sure, the new album is more upbeat and it definitely has the Lucinda swagger that you have to love, but dang people, West is about loss and hurt, and really does anyone do that better these days than Lucinda? The songs on West take anyone who has lost someone back to that moment in time and weep. They make jilted lovers remember both the hurt and anger. And they make anyone who has hurt another, feel the razor's edge of guilt and regret. Little Honey on the other hand makes you laugh, dance and nod knowingly.

All of which is not to say that I prefer West to Little Honey, but rather to say that they are apples and oranges in one sense, but in another they are all the fruit of Lucinda's emotions and that is what makes them so sweet (sorry, bad metaphor, but it just happened).

So let's talk just a little bit about the new effort which in overall is a really fine and fun album. It is confident with that don't mess with me--alright you can mess with me a little--attitude. The songs are varied both in style and content from honky tonk to blues to rock but they all express a certain sense that Williams is settling in with who she is. On West she longs for her Mama (who had recently passed) and tells her she's sweet, but on Little Honey, "she is gonna see her mother in heaven," not to mention "talk to God" and "set things straight."

Some have pointed out that the album is a bit inconsistent which I would sort of agree with (it might have been a couple songs shorter and I, too, would have lost the duet with Elvis Costello--despite loving the Elvis man). At the same time, I agree with those who have suggested that some of the nit-picky criticisms of this album are, in part, has to do with the bar being set high for Williams. If you had never heard Lucinda prior to this album, I think you would feel like you stumbled onto something great and that is something to remember. So, sure covering AC/DC is a bit silly, but I confess it makes me happy every time I hear it! And while it doesn't quite hold together as a perfect album, it is really an above average album--definitely worth a spin.

Here are a couple tracks to give you a sense, and since I spent more time than I meant covering West too, I have thrown in a couple from that album as well to give you a flavor if you don't have it.

From Little Honey (Buy Album)

Real Love
Heaven Blues

From West (Buy Album)

Mama You Sweet
Wrap My Head Around That