Sunday, March 14, 2010

15. “I’m a Cuckoo” by Belle and Sebastian (2003)

Belle and Sebastian are very similar to Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings to me. Both have never released a bad song; both have sounds that seem to come from a different era, even though the songs are so good that you know that it’d be impossible to keep it from being part of a “classic” pantheon if they were from a different time; both seem immensely popular and influential, yet both likely don’t sell that many records, nor do they play huge venues when touring. To call either of these bands underrated would be silly, but Belle and Sebastian is so good and so consistent that it is truly amazing that their appeal is still somewhat limited.

At any rate, B&S released three new LPs this decade and after the first one, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, from 2000, people seemed worried that they were on the decline. In 2003 they came out with Dear Catastrophe Waitress and put those fears to bed. They began rocking like they had never before, busting out of the bookish folkie Glasgow sound that made them so popular and taking on different Thin Lizzy-style exploits, like “I’m a Cuckoo”. The new sound was then expanded even more on probably the best album they’ve ever done, 2006’s The Life Pursuit, which had all of their great trademark songwriting, melodies and lyrics, but made it feel like this band could go in a million different directions in the future. If you’re reading this, you know B&S; if you don’t, listen to “I’m a Cuckoo” and see for yourself.

16. “Let There Be Rock” by Drive By Truckers (2001)

“Dropped acid, Blue Oyster Cult concert, fourteen years old, and I thought them lasers were a spider chasing me. On my way home, got pulled over in Rogersville Alabama, with a half-ounce of weed and a case of Sterling Big Mouth. My buddy Gene was driving, he just barely turned sixteen.

The Truckers have quietly become one of the best pure rock bands around and it’s almost incredible how one band can be so underrated simply due to the silly band name and the absurd cartoon cover art on their LPs. Even with a strong recommendation from friends back in 2001 or so, I bought Southern Rock Opera with much apprehension, simply because the cover art looks one notch above that of a college rock band from Western Michigan. On top of that, their first two albums were incredibly named Pizza Deliverance and Gangstability, essentially assuring the fact that it will be tough for anyone outside of Kalamazoo to take them very seriously. This is a shame, because not only do the Truckers absolutely kill it with their southern rock attack, but they are outstanding craftsmen and great songwriters. Check out “Carl Perkin’s Cadillac” or "Uncle Frank” if you are unsure of this.

I’ve only seen them live on TV (“Austin City Limits”) but reports from the street claim the following: (1) it is a four-dudes-on-the-edge-of-the-stage-three-guitar-one-bass-southern rock assault of the senses -- sick, heavy, Jack Daniels-soaked southern rock; (2) the volumes at one show at The Bowery in 2002 were so extreme that a number of my friends had to spend the night in the basement bar debating the validity of the Society of Friends (that’s right, Quakers); (3) at the same show, Craig Finn of the Hold Steady was so inspired that he went out and formed The Hold Steady. What does this mean? Our friends are losers but the Drive By Truckers are awesome.

And I'd like to say, "I'm sorry", but we lived to tell about it, and we lived to do a whole lot more crazy, stupid, shit. And I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd but I sure saw Molly Hatchet With 38 Special and the Johnny Van Zant Band.”

If you like to rock, The Truckers hook it up all over the place, but you can start with “The Righteous Path” or, better yet, go to one of the best songs released this decade,“Let There Be Rock”.

17. “Teenage Wristband” by The Twilight Singers (2003)

Greg Dulli’s run of great albums started in 1992 with The Afghan Whigs’ “Gentleman” and went all the way through to The Twilight Singers’ last LP, Powder Burns. Because of Senor Sleaze, we know what jail is like, we know how to burn someone’s house down and we know about life as a GUTTER TWIN. Denis Leary called Powder Burns one of the best albums of the past 10 years, for whatever that’s worth to you. Point is: it’s a pretty freakin’ great six record stretch that only came to an end last year with Dulli’s collaboration with ex-Screaming Tree Mark Lanegan on the Gutter Twins Idle Hands LP that was still pretty damn good, but not consistent enough to stand up to his previous releases, all of which are classics in my mind

Dulli has always operated in and written about the darkest corners of the world, but he has apparently abandoned the Class A substances and gone “clean”. That depends on how you define “clean”, I guess. What’s awesome is that Dulli and Leary seem to define it the same way: “Man, I am out of control. I need to slow down. Get me and eighth and a six pack…” Kudos for Mr. Gutter for not being a quitter. So if you see him live, he will probably only be a little drunk and little high and therefore you will likely be spared him talking shit about your girlfriend and walking you through the gruesome scene of Elliott Smith’s death (yes, he did this), but you will not be spared Awesomeness. Check out the late night anthem that is “Teenage Wristband” here.

18. “Clam, Crab, Cackle, Cowrie” by Joanna Newsome (2004)

“There are some mornings when the sky looks like a road.
There are some dragons who were built to have and hold.
And some machines are dropped from great heights lovingly,
and some great bellies ache with many bumblebees, and they sting so terribly.”

It would seem foolish to write a missive trying to convince you on the greatness of Joanna Newsome, since you probably have an opinion one way or another already. Once again, it’s all about her voice, but in this case I would argue that there are very few voices this polarizing. You either quiver and run from the nails-on-a-chalkboard shrieks, or you think it’s incredibly unique and a beautiful compliment to the music. Obviously I am in the camp of admirers – not so much of her voice, but of the songs and the lyrics and the uniqueness of what she’s doing. You can hear the Neutral Milk Hotel influences, but the reality is that there is nothing out there like Ms. Newsom. Check it out and give it more than one listen, por favor.

19. “1,2,3,4” by Feist (2007)

I think you’ve officially made it when you are chosen for the iPod commercial. Check that, I think you’ve officially made it when you are performing your song on Sesame Street. That the girl that wrote “Mushaboom” did both of these things seems pretty incredible. But she added a couple of other cool things to this song: (1) the video is fantastic; (2) her performance of this song on Letterman was equally fantastic – she enlisted the who’s who of indie rock (I see Ben Gibbard, Elvis Perkins, AC Newman, Grizzly Bear – damn you Grizzly Bear! – and many others) to aid her with handclaps and backup singing and it ends up being one of the more memorable songs of the decade.

I know people who really dislike Feist, but I am not exactly sure why. It might be because this song crossed over into places you’d never have expected, with kids and housewives singing it all over the country. There are plenty of crappy songs inhabiting our radio space these days, but this isn’t one of them.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

20. “Hold On, Hold On” by Neko Case (2006)

“The most tender place in my heart is for strangers. I know it's unkind but my own blood is much too dangerous.”

I feel slightly cheap including this song on this list, as WFUV named this the top song of 2007. I look like I am biting off of WFUV, which would be far from my proudest moment.

Neko really came into her own after The New Pornographers started recording together. It seems like she abandoned her country and western sound for something more pop-oriented and nuanced and unique to her – like a combo of the country and pop rock sounds. But there’s much more to it than just that.

I think her last two albums, Fox Confessor and Middle Cyclone, are the best reflection of what she has to offer. What sometimes gets lost behind Neko’s beautiful force of a voice is how perfect her band is for her unique sound – there is a subtle greatness that her band to the overall sound and feel of her records. The voice is the driving force – how could it not be? -- but the latter is what makes her, and this song, great.