Wednesday, November 25, 2009

65. “Skinny Love” by Bon Iver (2008)

Everyone loves a back story and the one behind Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago seems to have driven a lot of the critical praise for the album. Real quick: Justin Vernon lived in North Carolina but when he broke up with his girlfriend, he decided to also break up his band and move back to the frozen tundra of Wisconsin. It was there that he spent a winter in a freezing cabin, adopting the name Bon Iver (French for “good winter”) and unintentionally writing the songs that would make him an overnight darling. The tastemakers and music blogs loved the thing long before it was even released, of course, and that led to tons of buzz, which in turn led to Letterman appearances, ABC News specials and Town Hall-headlining shows.

The thing is, Vernon deserved it. For Emma is a mini-classic in my mind, an album with real depth and soul, and something that seems to be timeless and of one particular time and place (in a freezing cabin in Wisconsin, after breaking up with a girlfriend in North Carolina). Whether the back story matters of not is hardly the point. The songs stand on their own – the mix of folk and gospel is perfect and Vernon’s falsetto carries the day throughout. All nine songs are great in their own way, but this one seemed like the most obvious pick.

Listen here.

66. “A Praise Chorus” by Jimmy Eat World (2001)

I’ve never been much into the silly tags attached to music genres, but even with that said, the one that most mystifies me is the “emo” tag. From what I can gather, Bleed American is something of an emo classic and Jimmy Eat World seems to be one of the Godfathers of the emo genre. Is it because they emote a lot? Is it because they play punk-influenced pop rock that is palatable to suburban teens? I don’t know. What I do know is that Bleed American has 4 or 5 fantastic tunes on it, and this one stands out among them. It’s an ode to rock n roll, for sure, but it’s also about getting out there and making it happen, something only a 25 year old guy can write. This is Jimmy Eat World’s version of “Cigarettes and Alcohol” or “Born To Run” – exciting, catchy, energetic and…inspiring? See for yourself.

67. More Yellow Birds” by Sparklehorse (2001)

Will my pony recognize my voice in hell?
Will he still be blind, or do they
 go by smell?
Will you promise not to rest me out at sea
But on a fiery river boat that's rickety?

In the late 90s, Mark Linkous had a near-death experience in London when he took too many pills and ended up in a coma. He ultimately survived and the artistic result of that was one of my favorite albums of all time, 1998’s Good Morning Spider. It’s truly incredible to listen to because it sounds and feels like something that was made from a hospital bed, with the morphine drip on.

In 2003, he followed Spider up with It’s a Wonderful Life, something equally spooky, but also equally fantastic. Linkous’ skill as a producer alone is something to marvel at, as the sound -- the overall feeling and level of intimacy -- he gets out of his songs is hard to find anywhere else.

“More Yellow Birds” is vintage Sparklehorse – a half-sedated glimpse of the sun shining through the late autumn trees with a slight chill in the air. Contemplative, unique, sad and absolutely beautiful.

Listen here.

68. “Light Years” by Pearl Jam (2000)

This decade found Pearl Jam settling comfortably into themselves, churning out solid album after solid album, solid tour after solid tour – not breaking new ground for them, but releasing tons of good tunes and doing what they do and doing it really well. Some people see this negatively as the same old Pearl Jam, but I actually appreciate exactly where they are at this point. Twenty years after releasing their first record, The Stones officially announced their decline when they sharted out Emotional Rescue and went on to become a touring novelty act (though I still think Tatoo You is a solid album).

Amazingly, PJ is almost twenty years in and they still seem to be releasing enjoyable, relevant records. I was not a fan of these guys when they first blasted onto the scene, but over the years I have really come to appreciate them for what they are – a solid straight ahead rock band with tons of great tunes.

“Light Years”, to me, is the best embodiment of everything they did well early in their career, filtered through their post-Versus need to avoid a simple, catchy song. At times, this has been to their detriment – are good pop hooks really something to avoid? – but it’s hard to argue with their output.

Listen here.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

69. “Sunken Waltz” by Calexico (2003)

With Calexico, it’s easy to get lost in the mariachi horns and pedal steel and incredible musicianship while sometimes ignoring the fact that some of their most simple songs are actually their best. “Convict Pool” is a tremendous song that fits in this category. “Sunken Wealth” is in the same boat.

Washed my face in the rivers of empire,
Made my bed from a cardboard crate,
Down in the city of quartz.
No news, no new regrets,
Tossed a Susan B. over my shoulder,
And prayed it would rain and rain,
Submerge the whole western states,
Call it a last fair deal
With an American seal
And corporate hand shake.

That’s not to say that I don’t love me some epic tex mex jams like “Crystal Frontier”, which, in the live setting is taken to new heights -- a fact that seems to be no secret to anyone these days, as they seem to be the house band for every live tribute and every collaboration. They are the Booker T’s of southmex aughts indie rock, some might say. Their split EP with Iron and Wine, for example, seems to have brought Sam Beam out of homespun shell and launched him into a more percussive, swinging world that Calexico sometimes inhabits.

Anyway, this is a really great live band and their recordings don’t seem to do them much justice, but “Sunken Wealth” still stands alone as a great tune. Check it out.

70. “Let’s Explode” by Clem Snide (2001)

“A peacock died to cover my lips, so I dyed my hair in all its sweat. But now I’m haunted by these visions of me.”

Eef Barzelay And Clem Snide are criminally underrated. Who rates him, you ask? Well, I’m not sure, but I saw him play a solo gig in 2006 at the Mercury Lounge and there were literally less than 100 people there. On one level, I love being able to move freely, get a brew, get to the commode, break dance, whatever. But on another, it struck me as ridiculous that more people don’t come out to hear this guy’s songs. I would hope that Senor Barzelay could make a decent living doing what he does, because he does it pretty damn well.

Clem Snide was a very good live band that put out two great albums (“Your Favorite Music” and “The Ghost of Fashion”) and few other very good (“The End Of Love”) to good ones (“Soft Spot”), all of them filled with songs that I could have included on this list. Songs about Ryan Adams not being as “weird as you’d like me to think”, about having a kid (“never have I been made to feel less doubtful, never have I been made less cynical”) and songs about…explosions.

“And I don’t want to live forever, when the sky is full of little holes exploding as they take my picture. Let’s explode!”

I chose “Let’s Explode”, because it always seemed to define these guys to me, both on their albums and at their shows. I saw them once at one of those free South Street Seaport shows and when it became obvious that the rain was going to cut the show off after a few songs, he opened with this and blew it out, singing, “I don’t want to know me better”, over and over until we got to Jeremy’s Ale Haus.

These guys have a great ear for a catchy tune, but their real allure is Eef’s lyrics and his quirky, crackling vocal delivery. I saw shows that were really too slow to get you going, but he always kept you engaged with his songs. One example is “Made For TV Movie”, a sad song about Lucille Ball and how, in life, the chocolates always seem to move too fast. My favorite example -- the one that reminds me of the dawn as seen from the roof of my old, big yellow house in Queens -- is “Joan Jett of Arc”, which documents the first time a teenage boy got to know his lady friend. The lyrics are fantastic, but the production, the overall feel of the song, so perfectly captures the summer night, the innocence ending, the fact that the cicadas and crickets had gone silent.

71. “Some Red Handed Sleight Of Hand” by Cursive (2003)

Tim Kasher’s projects (Cursive, The Good Life) would hardly be possible without THAT VOICE. And as a fan of Minor Threat, old school Fugazi and Kasher, it’s hard not to listen to Cursive without thinking of Fugazi. And I mean that in a good way. I have often said that Kasher’s voice is the exact middle ground between Robert Smith of The Cure and Ian McKaye. In the end, it makes much of Kasher’s stuff very compelling and awesome.

Kasher released a handful of very good albums this past decade, both by Cursive and the Good Life and there were several tracks from both bands that could have been included here, but in the end I knew I would have to go back to Cursive’s 2003 classic “The Ugly Organ”, Kasher’s take on his own self-deprecating statement about his own art and how it is created, as if the things in his life that make their way into his songs exist for the art, and not the other way around. It’s a great album that fits into that “post-hardcore” genre very nicely.

Check out another great tune from this album here.

One of the things that music critic seem to constantly ignore is the power of the voice that is singing the song. How many songs, how many BANDS, exist because they have captivating singers. I am not talking about Beyonce and Mariah. I am talking about rock groups that build a basic sound around a unique vocal delivery. The National comes to mind. People either seem to love or hate Neil Young because of his voice. Imagine if Neil Diamond sang the Neil Young classics – it’d completely change the audience, even if the songs themselves were the same. There are many extreme examples like this, but the truth is that the vocals are the number one thing that draws most people to a song. You might not love Eddie Van Halen’s guitar style, but if you hate Sammy Hagar, you will be forced to disown Halen and profess allegiance to only Diamond Dave-era Halen. You might also be forced to drive 55, which is not something I will promote here at TAGTOE.

Point being that Kasher’s voice perfectly fits his Cursive and Good Life sounds perfectly. Neither could exist without that delivery.

Listen here.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

72. “You Were Right” by Badly Drawn Boy (2002)

I don’t know where I was on the night Jeff Buckley died, but I appreciate that Damon Gough included him in the company of the somewhat overrated Kurt Cobain and other actual legends such as Sinatra and Juan Lennon.

This is a very nice, touching song about all those things that Damon seems to do so well – namely, communicating sappy sentimentality without clobbering you over the head with it. The best songwriters assume some level of aptitude from the listener, but some, like Gough, seem to also excel at drawing out the obvious and building his songs around that. Badly Drawn Boy had some real up and down moments since the debut album came out ten years ago, but a collection of his best songs, like this one, is really impressive and enjoyable to listen to.

Listen here.

73. “Lost Coastlines” by Okkervil River (2008)

Clifftus McMaximus said it best about these guys – they seem to put a lot of OOMPH into their shit, and they should get some credit for that. I love the album version of this song, but what really endeared me to it was this duet between Will Sheff and AC Newman of the New Pornographers, recorded in one of these guy’s living rooms in Brooknam.

One of the more amusing things that happened this decade was Win Butler of The Arcade Fire’s response to Sasha Frere-Jones’ article in the New Yorker that maintained that there were no current bands that were drawing from black influences. Win went on to argue the contrary, providing awesome sound samples of how the last part of “Wake Up” was basically stolen from “You Can’t Hurry Love”. Since hearing that, it occurred to me that “Lost Coastlines” and “Last Night” by The Strokes all must have stolen from either each other or the same place. It also occurred to me that I am apparently a huge sucker for the bass line from “You Can’t Hurry Love”.

Listen here.

74. “Rubies” by Destroyer (2006)

Dan Bejar is better known for his contributions to The New Pornographers, but the title track from the Rubies LP – another of the decade’s best records -- is a phenomenal, quirky, rock / folk / pop single that seems to owe a lot to Van Dyke Parks. Either way, this song is hardly epic in the conventional rock sense, but on some level, this thing just grabs me for nine plus minutes and never lets go.

I love all the lyrics to this song, but some really jump out at me: "Quiet Ruby, Someone's coming! Approach with stealth! It's just your precious American underground, and it is born of wealth."

75. “Television Rules The Nation / Crescendolls (LIVE)“ by Daft Punk (2007)

Daft Punk is playing at my house.

I didn’t set a rule that live song should not be included here, and even if I did, do you think I would have been able to exclude the robot rock duo that is Daft Punk? Highly doubtful.

As such, Daft Punk’s 2007 live LP, Alive, is a fantastic relic of the decade, one that seems to be the aughts’ version of Frampton Comes Alive, with all its silly excesses and hooks and auto-tone and extended grooves. Frampton and Daft Punk don’t seem to inhabit the same world, but I think they both got their respective generations to a similar place. Though I am far from a connoisseur of electronic dance music, the Alive LP is something every music completist should own. I don’t claim to know that much about Cuban music, but I play the Buena Vista Social Club LP all the time. Same with Alive.

Listen here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

76. “In Shock” by Kristen Hersh (2007)

The first concert I ever saw was 10,000 Maniacs at Jones Beach and it was pretty underwhelming. I was expecting crazy energy and people dancing and partying and I got Natalie Merchant spinning around the Jones Beach Amphitheatre and a bunch of 30-somethings sitting there nodding their heads. This is relevant because the second concert I ever saw -- R.E.M. at the Nassau Coliseum on the Green tour – featured the Throwing Muses as the opening act. They were a huge revelation to me – punky, but conventional; dissonant, but tuneful; cool, but energetic; edgy, but accessible. It was everything I had imagined a rock concert would be. After it, I went to Tower and bought all of their records – one of them cost me something like $14.99 for a tape, a German import. I’ve since lost those tapes, but I still own Hunkpapa on vinyl and I still listen to “Hate My Way” all the time. Strangely, of all the music out there, this was without a doubt one of my favorite bands from high school.

So it’s safe to say that I have a soft spot for Kristen Hersh.

The Muses had some breakthrough hits in the early 90s, like everyone else. Tanya Donnelly really cashed in when The Breeders got huge and through all of this I lost touch with where Hersh was. As it turns out, she has been making great, Muses-style music for all that time as a solo artist. In 2007, I happened upon a review of her new record and ended up buying “In Shock” on iTunes. It brought everything back, but it also improved on everything I used to like about The Muses. Instead of tons of treble and snare drums, there is lush orchestration and baroque sounding strings. The song is deep and layered and powerful and it basically takes everything good about Kristen Hersh’s music and builds on it. This song is a winner, check it out.

77. “Baby C’Mon” by Stephen Malkmus (2005)

If you don’t like this song, then you and I just don’t like the same type of music. ‘Twas hard for me to choose this one instead of “Jenny And The Ess Dog”, but the lead guitar riff just gets me every time with this one. I couldn’t keep it off this list.

78. “Pounding” by Doves (2002)

When I re-listened to this song, it made me realize that putting it on this list also allows me to not have consider any Oasis and Coldplay songs, because this song does that post-britpop sound better than any of them.

I love the way this one just bursts out of your speakers with the, ehem, pounding drums and chiming guitars. Within 45 seconds of this song you are rocking to the groove. Doves put on a roof-raising live show that everyone should see at some point and this and “There Goes The Fear”, “Words” and “Pounding” are the centerpieces to those shows. This is an excellent band that has been somewhat underrated and the sum of their best singles is up there with many of the best bands of this decade. Check it out for yourself.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

79. “Won’t Be Home” by The Old 97s (2004)

“You’re a bottle cap away from pushing me too far”

Rhett Miller does not get the same wunderkind / boy genius / teenie heartthrob press coverage that Ryan Adams and Conor Oberst have gotten over the decade, but he has been quietly prolific, releasing record after record, year after year, it seems, either solo or with the Old 97’s. Most of these records are a bit uneven, but every one of them contains some really high points. “Won’t Be Home” is one of many songs that takes their patented “Cow Punk” sound, mixes it with a huge hook and chorus and some great lyrics to create a fantastic and subtley unique sound.

“I was born in the back seat of a Mustang on a cold night in the pouring rain, and the very first song that the radio sang is ‘I Won’t Be Home No More’”.

The Old 97s rock it. When I first heard them, I was turned off by Miller’s voice, which seemed like a bad imitation of Billy Jo Green Day. I came back to them after hearing them all over the place, and one day it clicked. Miller is a great songwriter and the aforementioned solo albums are very solid, but he’s at his best when the Old 97’s get that Johnny Cash “chugga chugga” drum going and that cow punk lead guitar takes over and it lets Miller pitch in as another member of a kick ass ensemble. These guys had a few records that seemed to come real close to mainstream pop rock, but other than that, they have never tried to expand their sound much, and that’s fine. They have a little place doing their thing and that’s how it should stay.

Listen to it here.

80. “Lazy Eye” by Silversun Pickups (2006)

I make no apologies that this list contains some bands that are straight up rip off artists for a sound that has long since passed. I included Interpol in this list earlier and now we have the best Smashing Pumpkins cover band this side of LA, Los Silversun Pickups.

Maybe I am not giving these guys enough credit. No worries though, this band harkens back to the early to mid 90s and they nail that whole dream pop sound so well that it was impossible not to put them in here. There were a bunch of great tunes I could have included, like “Well Thought Out Twinkles” and “Kissing Families” but “Lazy Eye” made the cut, as even the video is has those 90s style themes to it. Let’s let it stand on its own, though: take a look and listen here.

81. “Ibi Dreams of Pavement” by Broken Social Scene (2005)

If it sounds like there are a bunch of people playing drums and guitar on this song, it’s because there are. Or at least there were when I saw them blow this out at Webster Hall in 2006. This band or, more accurately, this collection of Canadian musicians (including Feist, members of Memphis, Metric, Stars and Apostle of Hustle) seems to be the vision of Kevin Drew, and as other members of this collection started to branch out / gain bigger success, Wu Tang style, Drew started to release records that defined that fact. But before that happened, they released some excellent records as Broken Social Scene that seemed to take Drew’s ideas and use these collaborations to get an eclectic bunch of sounds. On top of that, the twenty-or-so musicians that make up BSS put on a whale of a live show, creating something of an indie rock orchestra.

The You Forgot It in People LP was definitely their high point, but this song, to me, is their best individual single, with the muscular percussion and symphonic guitars and over abundance of horns. Put this noise on your home stereo on a Saturday afternoon and turn it up, you’ll see.