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.

21. “The Denial Twist” by The White Stripes (2005)

Without thinking too much about it, I have been lumping Jack White, Ryan Adams and Conor Oberst together as three of the decade’s best and most prolific songwriters. Oddly, it is Jack White -- the one who has made the loudest, most abrasive music of the three -- that has become the most commercially successful and universally beloved. It is strange that the punky “Fell In Love With a Girl” and the bass-heavy “Seven Nation Army” – unconventional songs as it relates to what is now considered “mainstream” -- were their breakthrough hits, but that probably speaks more to the fact that The White Stripes’ music was the easiest to bridge into a commercially popular genre -- after all, hard rock radio stations actually still exist in some markets. So while Adams and Oberst have a ton in common, White does seem like the one that doesn’t belong of this grouping. But the reason I’ve lumped them together is because they have all sort of separated themselves from the unprecedented heap of albums and songs released this decade in both quantity and quality. While White is likely the least polarizing of the three, I mention them in the same breath because of their final output over the last ten years.

That’s not to discount all of the actual bands on this list, all of whom have done more than just release a few great songs. Hell, bands like Spoon, Modest Mouse, Built to Spill and Camera Obscura, to name a few, were not even included in this Top 100 even though all of those groups are all personal favorites. The point being that rather than justifying my ranking as “this band is better than the other band”, the top 100 list seeks to put it all out there, in one playlist, for everyone to consume and enjoy and argue about. So lumping White, Oberst and Adams together is only natural because it’s three guys basically doing it on their own, with varying supporting casts depending on the record. In the end, all three of these guys has released album after album, great song after great song, year after year, at a similar pace to what we saw with The Stones, Beatles and Dylan in the 60s. We never waited longer than 18 months to hear anything new from either of these three and in almost every case, it was something worthy of your time and money.

To my main point above, there doesn’t seem to be much to say about Jack and Meg White that hasn’t been said already. People love Meg for what she is but Jack is the one that gets the guitar god / genius / legend treatment, and rightfully so. Whether it’s with The White Stripes, The Raconteurs or The Dead Meadow, Jack has killed it.

Once again, it’s impossible to choose amongst Jack’s hits – “Seven Nation Army” or “Hotel Yorba”; “Fell In Love With a Girl” or “Icky Thump”; “My Doorbell” or “There’s No Home For You Here”? The list goes on and on, but I settled on something that had a little bit of everything and if you like to rock, you will not be able to deny “The Denial Twist”. Check it.

22. “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love or To Be Loved)” by Bright Eyes (2002)

“But where was it when I first heard that sweet sound of humility? It came to my ears in the goddamn loveliest melody. How grateful I was then to be part of the mystery, to love and to be loved. Let's just hope that is enough.”

The first time I saw Bright Eyes was at The Bowery Ballroom in the fall of 2002 at a Saddle Creek showcase featuring, in order of appearance, Now It’s Overhead, Azure Ray, The Good Life and Bright Eyes. During The Good Life’s set, Tim Kasher was wailing away, yelping about some relationship gone bad, commanding the room and making people stop in their tracks. I turned to sip my beer and some girl and her boyfriend quietly tapped me on the shoulder, still in their jackets and scarves, and asked, “Is that him? Is that Conor?” ‘Twas then that it was evident that Conor Oberst’s reputation as a thing to see preceded him. ‘Twas then that it was evident that the buzz bin of the music blogs was taking hold and bands were being hyped to a point where their shows were events, rather than musical experiences. That night was free of screaming girls, but a year or two later that would not be the case, as Conor became The Voice of a Generation and captured the undying love of teenage indie chicks across the land.

The screaming girls made Mr. Oberst, Mr. Bright Eyes, a polarizing figure indeed, someone who was easy to dismiss on that fact alone. Add in the quavering voice, the “new Dylan” comparisons, the confessional, hyper-sensitive, self-aware lyrics and his use of simple three chord progressions and you’ve got yourself a backlash to all the crazy the hype and popularity.

But just like with The Strokes, haters ignored all of those catchy songs, the captivating live performances, the sprawling Americana sound (think Neutral Milk Hotel meets Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions band) and, most of all, the lyrics. The “new Dylan” comparisons are clearly tied to those lyrics as well as the simple folk songs and Conor’s snarling delivery, but in the end, like so many before him – John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg and Dan Bern – Oberst has had to live with this silly “new Dylan” tag to an almost absurd extent. He was not just the “new Dylan” because he wrote rootsy folk songs, he was also the “Voice of a Generation”. If you saw him performing “When The President Talks To God” on Jay Leno while rocking a white and red tasseled cowboy outfit, it was easy to think that the protest song was back and someone was taking the mantle as someone who was happy to point a finger at “them”. And if you thought that something was going on during that performance, you were right. But much of Conor’s critical ceiling has less to do with a misunderstanding of Oberst as it does of Dylan, a man who wanted no part of being the voice of anything but top 40 radio. To compare anyone to a guy that completely revolutionized music, whose stamp on what we listen to today might be greater than anyone not named Elvis, would be silly.

No, Conor Oberst is not Bob Dylan. If anything, he’s some mix of Paul Simon and Phil Ochs. But more than anything, as Emmylou Harris has noted, Conor is simply a great songwriter that captures things in words that others dance around and miss. He has a unique knack for marrying a catchy melody with a vocal delivery that completely matches the tone of the lyrics, and that is where the “new Dylan” tag seems to apply. The backlash comes when these lazy comparisons ignore all of the other brilliant things that Dylan did that made him Bob Dylan, but that should not diminish anything Oberst has done and it should not diminish the fact that while no one really wants to say it, Conor was, in fact, rock’s voice of the aughts.

“I should stop pointing fingers; reserve my judgment of all those public action figures, the cowboy presidents. So loud behind the bullhorn so proud they can't admit when they've made a mistake. While poison ink spews from a speechwriter's pen, he knows he don't have to say it, so it, it don't bother him. "Honesty" "Accuracy" is just "Popular Opinion." And the approval rating is high, and so someone's gonna die.

Well, ABC, NBC, CBS: Bullshit. They give us fact or fiction? I guess an even split. And each new act of war is tonight's entertainment. We're still the pawns in their game. As they take eye for an eye until no one can see, we must stumble blindly forward, repeating history. Well, I guess we all fit into your slogan on that fast food marquee: Red blooded, White skinned oh and the Blues. Oh and the Blues! I got the Blues! That's me! That's me!”


Some my most memorable live experiences this decade were a result of Bright Eyes:

“To Love and To Be Loved” at the Bowery that night in 2002 was a revelation – 14 people on stage, horns and energy that you rarely find anywhere, Conor spewing venom and conducting a band of twelve, complete with pedal steel, a full horn section and everything else imaginable. It went on for ten minutes, crescendoing with that final verse that wondered what the hell happened on 9/11 and understanding that the whole world was about to change that more wars were to come. As a frame of reference, I saw Built To Spill and Wilco play a few weeks after 9/11 and neither even wanted to address what had happened, despite, in Wilco’s case, the added, unintended weight of their THF tunes like “Ashes of American Flags”. Conor was the first person to take it all head-on and he never let go until The Bright Eyes moniker went on hiatus in 2008.

In early 2003, with the Iraq war approaching, Conor strode on stage to a packed crowd at The Knitting Factory, sat down with a makeshift band and opened with “Landlocked Blues”, which was then called “One Foot In Front of the Other”. If you were ever wondering what the hype was about, this was the place and the song to see, with Conor’s eyes lighting up as he pleaded for everyone to walk away from the insanity. Rob Sheffield from Rolling Stone was standing next to us and nodding his head as if to say “that’s it, right there”.

In the early summer of 2003, when Long Island’s ill-fated Field Day festival was moved to The Meadowlands parking lot, Conor put together one of the best shows I saw this decade on the following night: Bright Eyes, Jim James and Beth Orton, for $15 at The Bowery. Not only did Orton kill it, but James absolutely blew the roof off with just his guitar and voice and Bright Eyes had one of the strongest lineups I had seen, with a full, tight, well-rehearsed band amping up his songs and rocking the place ‘til way into the early morning.

The seven nights of Town Hall shows in 2007 with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings were an event for all the right reasons. First, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings were playing. Second, it was at The Town Hall, an absolutely perfect venue in terms of intimacy and stateliness. Third, each night featured a different special guest appearance, from Lou Reed to Ben Kweller to Jenny Lewis to Britt Daniel of Spoon to Ron Sexsmith to Norah Jones. Each show culminated with a rollicking rendition of “Road To Joy” and the night I was there it featured Rawlings smashing a toy piano as everything seemed to fall apart around him.

The Radio City show in the late fall of 2007 featured support from Thurston Moore and the Felice Brothers, but the real kicker was the greatest hits set and an encore rendition of “Lua” that essentially catapulted that song, in my mind at least, into the pantheon of great New York City tunes.

By the time we got to the end of the decade, Conor was touring as something of a solo artist, with the roots rock “Mystic Valley Band” that he assembled down in Mexico to record his self-titled debut for Merge. It was a fresh new experience for anyone who had seen Bright Eyes. Gone were the screaming girls and, it seemed, the “new Dylan, I am waiting with baited breath for the next word to come out of his mouth” anxiety of earlier performances. Instead, Conor was having fun, cranking up his songs and generally killing it, once again at the best venue in New York, The Bowery Ballroom.

And in the summer of 2009, he played Battery Park on the Fourth of July and, as he did at Radio City, closed with a scathing “patriotic” song, called “Roosevelt Room”, a fitting end to the show and the decade.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

23. “All I Need” by Radiohead (2007)

You’d think it’d be hard to choose a Radiohead song, but it turned out not to be the case. As I went back and listened to their albums released this decade, I concluded the following:

If you saw the film Meeting People Is Easy, about the OK Computer tour, you saw Thom Yorke falling apart at the seams. For whatever reason, it did not look like he was effectively BUILT for the rock star thing and clearly Radiohead had into entered a world in which he was not comfortable. Feel free to debate what this says about Thom, but that’s the deal. My man was close to having a full-on breakdown, it seemed.

And so, in 2000, they released “Kid A”, their post-OK Computer-trauma-piece -- Thom’s need to destroy guitar rock and everything they had done on The Bends and OK Computer. It’s a polarizing album. Some maintain that they shat out this mope-fest and critics were so far up their ass that they couldn’t smell the heap of dung sitting in front of their faces. Others saw it as a mini-masterpiece, a moody work of art that reinvented Radiohead as something even more important than the “next Pink Floyd”. Over time, Kid A has aged well, but it remains a frigid group of songs. You sure have to be in the right mood for this album and you sure should listen to this album as a group of songs rather than a song here and there. It’s powerful and all, but I don’t find myself deciding to listen to it all that much. And if that’s the case for Kid A then Amnesiac is it’s “down in a K-hole” cousin, with some excellent moments, but little of the cohesion.

Many thought that Radiohead would return to rawk with Hail To The Thief, but that wasn’t really the case. It took Kid A’s organs, computers and synths out of the mix and re-introduced some guitars, but little offered tunefulness and little warmth. It was a long record and there are some really powerful songs, especially in the live setting, but ultimately it pushed you away, rather than drew you in.

(Pearl Jam seemed to go through a similar exercise with “No Code”, yielding similar mixed results. However, both Hail and No Code would prove to be important bridges to their future album(s) and, maybe most importantly, the long term health of the band.

Enter In Rainbows and, true to the title, the sun is finally out. Tuneful guitars reappear. Tuneful SONGS reappear. And finally there is a little warmth in a Radiohead song. The whole album is so appealing to me because it just feels like the weight has been lifted from this band and they finally opened it up to something enjoyable. And after hearing In Rainbows it feels like Hail was part of a transition back to what they do well.

The songs are not epic on In Rainbows -- they are not even huge statements – but they are allowed to exist and stand on their own as what they are. It’s still moody, but it’s not mopey. And “All I Need” is at the very center of the record, just brimming with optimism and soulfulness. It’s gem of a song and for the first time since OK Computer, I found myself getting this song stuck in my head, humming it and belting it out all over the place, to the chagrin of anyone within earshot. And it’s not a coincidence that In Rainbows is the first time since OK Computer that Radiohead constructed an album that was both inviting and cohesive (Kid A was cohesive but isolating and Hail To The Thief had some inviting moments – “Sail To The Moon” and “There There” come immediately to mind – but in the end it was too dense of an album to really enjoy).

The aforementioned soulfulness is the most refreshing element of this record, and it’s not only found on “All I Need”. “Reckoner” sounds like a stripped down Jeff Buckley song, “House of Cards” whiles away with summery electric strumming, “Wired Fishes / Arpeggi” is also very light, easy and welcoming and “Nude” feels like it could possibly exist on “OK Computer” instead of “Fitter Happier” or “Electioneering”. Radiohead always saves the saddest and most beautiful song for last and “Videotape” gets the nod on this one and it’s tremendous. That’s not to forget the rollicking tunes that open the album, “15 Steps” and “Bodysnatchers”, which are basically the perfect marriage of everything they had done from OK Computer on through to Hail, like they took all the good parts of all those albums and put them into these two songs.

I could have picked any of the songs listed above, but “All I Need” seems to encapsulate their soulful resurgence best, a little example of the things that make people feel so strongly about this band.

Check it out here.

24. “Wrecking Ball” by Gillian Welch (with David Rawlings) (2003)

Gillian is one of very few musicians (along with Marley, Dylan and a host of others) that has never released a bad song. I seriously cannot think of one song she’s released that I do not like. She has the type of voice that could make anything sound perfect. She sounds like she was born in the hills of West Virginia, but she actually is from LA via Berkley in Boston. I’m not sure where she learned to sing with such authentic American soul, but she claims that it’s just in her blood and after listening to her music, it’s hard not to believe her.

Like any great duo, one could not really be GREAT without the other and though Gillian could make names in the phone book sound good, guitarist Dave Rawlings is a huge part of her sound and remains a unique part of what Gillian has done. The two of them put on a hell of a live show and always rock out great covers like Radiohead’s “Black Star”, Neil Young’s “Albuquerque” and Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately”. In the end, there’s not much to talk about with Gillian Welch – her music speaks for itself. Check it out here.

25. “Let It Ride” by Ryan Adams (2005)

“Moving like the fog on the Cumberland River, I was leaving on the Delta Queen, and I wasn't ready to go -- I'm never ready to go. Twenty-seven years of nothing but failures and promises that I couldn't keep, oh lord, I wasn't ready to go -- I'm never ready to go. Let it ride, Let it ride easy down the road.”

It’s been a long decade for Ryan Adams. It seems like a long time ago that he was a flavor of the month sitting in front of the twin towers, being perceived a grief monger and singing about his favorite city. It’s even longer since Whiskeytown broke up and Adams took off and released an album filled with mini-classics. Since then, he’s been lauded as a semi-genius and a wunderkind, or derided as a hump, a brat, an actress-shagging drug addict, a narcissistic blogger and a thief.

“Loaded like a sailor tumbling off a ferry boat, I was at the bar till three. Oh Lord, I wasn't ready to go -- I'm never ready to go. Tennessee's a brother to my sister Carolina. Where they're gonna bury me? I ain't ready to go -- I'm never ready to go. Let it ride, let it ride easy down the road.”

For whatever reason, the guy has a hard time sorting things out. He hates our vapid celebrity-obsessed culture, but he seems to feed it with his public spats with other rock stars, late-night phone calls to radio stations and the absurd need to answer criticism with long, rambling Phil Lesh-style missives.

Which brings us to the next point: there is no use in trying to figure out what the hell goes on with the guy. Anyone I know who has met him says he’s wacky and charming and out there and hilarious. He’s a self-professed comic book geek, a crazy Merge Records fan, an Oasis-freak, a Slayer fan and someone that, frankly, seems to need tons of loving attention, for whatever reason. I mention all of this only because many people’s view of Adams seems to stem from a decade’s worth of tantrums and stupid news items that in the end mean nothing. Adams will tell you that it’s all about the art, maaan -- that in the end, as a music fan, isn’t that all that really matters? I sometimes draw the line (and raise a middle finger) when he goes into a 20-minute version of “LA Woman” at Roseland or when he shows up crazy late to a show in Tribeca, wasted, with Minnie Driver, and claims to have had all sorts of issues getting a taxi. But in the end, he’s kicked serious ass in most of the live shows I’ve seen and he’s given us an encyclopedia’s worth of incredibly great tunes. The peripheral drama is amusing for a short period of time, but I stopped caring about that stuff after he stopped killing me with “fuck you to the record company” releases like 2003s Rock n Roll.

The truth is, it is impossible to complain about Adams’ output this decade – 11 LPs, if you include Whiskeytown’s Pneumonia. Hell, in 2005 alone, he released 3 full albums, one of them a double LP. You can pick things apart and criticize this or that, but the art (maaaan) does stand on its own. And after the aforementioned abomination that was Rock n Roll he returned a year later with Cold Roses, a double album filled with Grateful Dead-inspired jams, that, for the first time since Heartbreaker did not feel like he was aping someone else, but instead trying to find the middle ground between Black Flag, Gram Parsons, The Dead, The Smiths and Oasis. Since that time -- not coincidentally this was the same time he started playing with The Cardinals -- his music has seemed very comfortable with what it is and I love Cold Roses for that reason.

The most common complaint with Adams is that he needs an editor. Springsteen and Petty, for example, are very fond of reminding us that they have hundreds of songs that were worthy of some album, just not the ones they ended up releasing. People think that if Adams took some time to craft a proper album with a common theme, the overall product would be better. But it’s clear that he doesn’t work this way. His process, the one that has brought us TONS of great songs, is to write songs and immediately put them to tape, capturing the vibe of five guys in a room. There are some relative clunkers on each of his records, but in the end, has anyone this decade written and recorded a larger volume of high-quality songs as Adams? You could say that Jack White has and certainly Conor Oberst has matched Adams in terms of sheer volume of releases, but that’s pretty good company, I think.

All of this leads us to the final fact that I had to choose one of his songs for this list and it’s a nearly impossible task, except that I could all but eliminate many of the songs that he wrote that seemed to simply be tributes to his heroes. To wit:

“Damn Sam I Love a Woman That Rains” – Bob Dylan

“So Alive” – The Smiths

“Magnolia Mountain” – Grateful Dead

“Answering Bell” – Van Morrison

“La Cienga Just Smiled” – Elton John

“New York, New York” – Hootie and The Blowfish

“Beautiful Sorta” – New York Dolls

“Tears of Gold” – Neil Young

“Chelsea Hotel Nights” – Prince

“Sweet Illusions” – Chris Isaacs

“A Kiss Before I Go” – Hank Williams

“Tina Toledo’s Street Walkin’ Blues” – Rolling Stones

“Halloweenhead” -- Weezer

I’m left with 300 other songs, but “Let it Ride” is Adams distilling all of these influences into one tune with great lyrics, great playing and a great melody…and what else is there? Check it out here and tell me you don’t agree.

Monday, February 15, 2010

26. “Fake Empire” by The National (2007)

“Stay out super late tonight, picking apples, making pies. Put a little something in our lemonade and take it with us. We’re half-awake in a fake empire”

The National are clearly indebted heavily to R.E.M. and this song sounds like something that could have appeared on the follow-up to Automatic For The People had Stipe and Co not decided to initiate their decline by trying to get “back to rock” with the relative abomination that was Monster. (Monster did have 3 or 4 excellent songs, but the bad ones, for the first time in R.E.M.’s career, were bad).

“Fake Empire” a little gem of a song that is boosted in a huge way by the lyrics, which either reference New York City (“Tiptoe through our shiny city with our diamond slippers on…”) or the good ol’ US of A. Like every great tune, it leaves a lot to the imagination, while also keeping your foot tapping.

“Let’s not try to figure out everything at once.”
Word, Senor Berninger.

Listen to it here.

27. “Crazy In Love” by Beyonce (Featuring Jay-Z) (2003)

Don’t you hate all those songs on your iPod that are categorized with the guest artist’s name in parentheses? That one Chieftans album does this. Amy Winehouse’s album does this. Every hip hop album does this. It makes my iPod all out of whack. I don’t like it.

Anyway, you know this song -- it’s probably the best pop song of the decade, a brilliant concoction of radio-friendly goodness. It requires little introduction -- that 70s horn loop sample should do fine, don’t you think? I will submit that you will not have to work hard to like this song, and that will be my statement. A not-so-side-note is that this song was written in D minor, which, we all know, is the saddest of all chords. Also worth noting: I have danced to this song at the Copacabana, the hottest spot north of Havana. Listen here.

28. “Inni Mer Synger Vitleysingur” by Sigur Ros (2008)

I’ve heard someone say that Sigur Ros is what you hear playing when you ascending to Heaven and what’s ridiculous is how that statement doesn’t even strike me as preposterous.

My brother bought me their first record for Christmas some time around 2000 or 2001, before iPods and music blogs. I knew nothing about them. I put the CD in my then state-of-the-art CD walkman, put my head back on the window of the R train and drifted off into outer space. Most bands on this list are doing something, however subtlety, that is unique to them. But Sigur Ros is on an island unto themselves as far as uniqueness is concerned. The music is ethereal and otherworldly, which is not terribly surprising given that they are from Iceland, a country that is often described as…otherworldly. The lyrics are in Icelandic, or some other made-up language that I can’t understand. And yet, there is nothing clunky about this. In fact, that’s part of the appeal – the vocals and the guitars (often played with a violin bow) come together to make this crazy, beautiful sound. Bottom line: I actually remember that I was on the R train when I first heard these guys.

‘Twas in 2008 that I finally got around to seeing Sigur Ros in New York and from upper reaches of the United Palace, with a tray of checked cab beers at my feet, I could almost see the elaborate costumes worn by these fancy Icelanders. Almost. And while there were more than enough moments of transcendent majesty in Sigur Ros’ 2nd night in Washington Heights, some of the nuances were lost on me because I was too cheap to buy the $50 seats. So, I won’t hold Sigur Ros at all responsible for the fact that, while this was a terrific show, I was not completely blown away by their performance as I’d have thought I would be. In some ways, it was part of the build up in my mind. I had seen their concert film Heima over the summer and the version of “Glosoli” was about as good as it gets – velvet underground-style visuals with lights, silhouettes and shadows, walls of beautiful sound, otherworldly vocals and anthemic crescendos. It’s safe to say that those performances set the bar pretty high and it’s also safe to say that that version of “Glosoli” blew me away on a fairly profound level.

They opened that show with “Svefn g englar” and it was predictably spellbinding. The show went on along that same path -- “Hoppipolla” was as uplifting as it sounds on the record, “Gobbildigook” was a celebration with confetti and massive percussion, and “Fijotavik” was sung with a bunch of fake candles lighting the stage. All were perfect. The list goes on and on. They sounded great – just four guys, no orchestra, but a full sound and a voice that is possibly better live than on the records. And even though I was not completely taken away by the show, as a band, these guys are top notch – tight and great on their instruments. I had in my mind that I’d be seeing one of the best live bands around and they did nothing to dispel that thought.

Over the course of the decade, they’ve drifted a little bit from the original sound that made me take notice of them in the first place. Instead of playing the guitar with a bow, they’ve added pianos and some straightforward pop songs, but not to their detriment. In fact, the song I chose here is from their most recent album, and it’s freakin’ fantastic. Check it out here.