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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpQ6m2Qf918 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.

29. “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” by Wilco (2001)


I feel like the release of Wilco’s most recent album, 2009’s Wilco (The Album), and Jay Bennett’s untimely death, have both allowed us to gain some perspective on Wilco’s 15 year career. The first realization is that, eight years later, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot remains the best album in Wilco’s catalogue, followed closely by Being There and Summerteeth. Like any great band at their peak – and Wilco from 1996 through 2001 were indeed great – it’s hard to take a pick of any of these three albums. As with REM’s Murmur, Reckoning and Life’s Rich Pageant, each one fits a different mood. But for me, long after the hype surrounding YHF has come and gone, it still remains the strongest, most cohesive set of songs this band has put together. There’s not anything resembling a clunker on the record and while people always like to claim that it is avant garde and experimental, I actually don’t think of it as much of either. To me, it sounds like that perfect mix of fractured pop rock mixed with timeless melodies. In a weird way, it’s not that much different than M. Ward’s 2006 masterpiece “Post-War”. It’s a little trippy, but not psychedelic, the melodies are nice on the surface, but the songs all seem to have this strong hummable undercurrent that reveal themselves to be better and better with each listen.

“I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” is first song and the centerpiece of YHF in that it sets the template for what is to come. At the time, many of the reviewers were terribly focused on the idea that these songs were experimental and non-linear and I think much of that is owed to this opening track. “Heavy Metal Drummer”, “I’m The Man Who Loves You” and “Reservations”, for example, were all new, improved tweaks on tried and true Wilco song templates. They broke little new ground on that level. But when the drums kick in on the opening sequence to “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, you immediately knew that Wilco had moved into a new realm -- for one, you noticed that they had a new drummer and it changed their whole approach to the songs. And when Tweedy’s voice kicks in, you hear traces of “Via Chicago” or “She’s a Jar” in his lyrics, but the whole offering seems way more abstract than anything they had done to that point:

“I am an American aquarium drinker, I assassin down the avenue.”

The song itself, to me, defines the whole feel of this album, and what makes it so great – that many of the best songs are somehow fractured and dense all at the same time.

Wilco would go on to fire Bennett and they would never be the same. A Ghost Is Born was a cool record, if not one I love to listen to all the time. It was a strong set of songs, all fairly cold and institutionalized, as if they came from the white walls Tweedy’s rehab facility. By then they had basically reinvented themselves as Wilco Mach 3 (or, more accurately “Jeff Tweedy and The Wilcos”), with a completely new lineup of kick-ass musicians. They released the enjoyable but somewhat forgettable Sky Blue Sky and then, this year, the enjoyable, but less forgettable Wilco (The Album).

They have not gotten back to that five year period where everything they touched was rock n roll gold. And that’s fine. But looking back now, it’s nice to see that YHF was not just some overhyped media story. It’s their defining moment as a band and it’s definitely one of the best albums of the decade.

Listen here.

30. “The Rat” by The Walkmen (2004)


“When I used to go out, I would know everyone that I saw. Now I go out alone if I go out at all”

The best dressed men in rock n roll, Los Walkmen, have spent the decade quietly churning out excellent records that, amazingly, have gotten them to the point where I guess they could be called “veterans”. They seemed like one of the first Brooklyn bands to make their mark and create a critical buzz, and then it seemed like they went away until…they came back with a great album to close the decade, You & Me.

“The Rat” is on the 2004 release, Bows + Arrows, and it kicks much ass. Check out a clip from Letterman here.

31. “Twilight Creeps” by Crooked Fingers (2005)


“Why does everyone always act so tough when all anyone wants is to find a friend? Why does everyone try to hide the heart that, hidden, has no use?”

Eric Bachmann, the main man behind Crooked Fingers, is a tremendously underrated songwriter and Neil Diamond impersonator. “Twilight Creeps” is probably my favorite song he’s written, though there are a lot more where this came from. Check it out here.

32. “10am Automatic” by The Black Keys (2004)


If The White Stripes (i.e. the other Midwest-based blues-influenced duo) are channeling Robert Johnson via Led Zep via Hank Williams, then the Black Keys are taking the delta blues into the swamps of Mississippi, heading directly north to someone’s garage in Ohio and then heading up to the home of The Stooges and MC5. It’s a very heavy and rugged blues-based sound, and it seems to have that late-night weariness to many of the songs. And while it might be unfair to compare these guys to The White Stripes, the truth is that they both do similar things, with completely different results. The swampy sound that The Keys produce is chock full o’ soul, authentic to their world and incredibly excellent. In the end, it’s just great rock n roll, great songwriting, and great guitar playing. Their most recent album with Dangermouse took things in a different direction and it still came out on top. This is a great band and I think “10 a.m. Automatic” is probably the best introduction to their sound. Check it out here.

Monday, February 1, 2010

34. “Frankie’s Gun” by The Felice Brothers (2008)


I first heard of these guys through some sort of e-mail blast via Team Love Records, which took me to their MySpace page, which allowed me to sample “Frankie’s Gun” and many other great tunes.

As a fan of The Band, there was nothing to not like about these guys – foot-stompin’, homespun folk rock from upstate New York is a pretty good way to get my attention. (Velvet Underground wannabes, Joy Division imitators and Talking Heads knock-offs make up a large part of my record collection as well, it seems). These songs all sounded great and they sounded even better on the actual record. The thing is, I never expected these guys to be much more than what I’d initially discovered, but to my surprise, they have far exceeded that. Sure, they owe 95% of their sound to The Basement Tapes, but they also grew up in the place that inspired that record. This is not some band from Ohio that moved to Brooklyn to reinvent The Big Pink. These are some kids who grew up together who are playing the music that best suits them. It doesn’t hurt that Mr. Lead Singer Felice is turning out to be a fantastic songwriter and the band itself has carved out a perfect place for itself in the world of live music. Anyone that has seen these guys (i.e. not me) has reported that they tear the place apart with their hootin’ and hollerin’ and accordians and fiddles. They also seem to be the type of guys that will play anywhere, from The Beacon Theatre to a Surf Shop in Montauk – they constantly tour and always impress.

None of their live energy would be possible, though, without the songs and this decade saw these guys releasing a bunch that I play over and over again without ever getting old – “Love Me Tenderly”, “Penn Station”, “Cooperstown”, “Take This Bread” and “The Greatest Show on Earth”.

In the end, though, “Frankie’s Gun” is the one that got me hooked from the outset and it’s the one that will not leave your head for days after listening to it.

Listen here.

35. “While You Were Sleeping” by Elvis Perkins (2007)


“While you were sleeping, your babies grew, the stars shined and the shadows moved.
Time flew, the phone rang, there was a silence when the kitchen sang.
Songs competed like kids for space.
We stared for hours at our makers’ face.
They gave us picks, said, "Go mine the sun, and go gold and come back when you’re done".

The most obvious difference in the music of the aughts compared to music at any other point in time is the instant accessibility of the songs. Half finished songs are leaked, albums are leaked out of sequence, bands are anointed The Next Big Thing before they’ve been together long enough to get a proper album and tour together and, most importantly, the sheer volume of music available right now makes everything somewhat disposable, especially if the listener has gotten that music for free. There are good and bad things to all of this, obviously, but it leaves music fans is the weird position of not being able to really separate average from good from excellent. Over time, the great ones stick around and reveal themselves, but many of today’s current recordings are blending into one another. And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead addresses this in their 2005 song, “Worlds Apart”:

“Random lost souls ask me ‘what’s the future of rock n roll’ I say, ‘I don’t know. Does it matter? Doesn’t it seem to sound all same to me, neither much worse nor much better?”

With all of the having been said, I am here to report to you that Elvis Perkins is the real deal. After his debut album, Ash Wednesday, on which “While You Were Sleeping” sits as the opening track, it was easy to be impressed with the songs and his songwriting. But the songs grew on you with repeated listens and then he released the follow-up, In Dearland, which found him expanding on that sound, churning out fantastic song after fantastic song and really separating himself from the aforementioned group of nice bands that fade away after five listens.

“So I waited for the riddled sky to be solved again by the sunrise.
I made a death-soup for life, for my father`s Ill widowed wife.”

“While You Were Sleeping” uses the standard singer-songwriter template that has grown somewhat tired over the last ten years, but there’s some real depth to the song – the vocals, the delivery of the lyrics – that allows it to transcend that. It could be the emotional weight of the lyrics, what with his father, Anthony Perkins, dying of AIDS in the 1990s and his mom dying on September 11th, but there’s this real meditative aspect to this song that makes its weight palatable and enjoyable. Obviously Elvis goes for that timeless sound that Prine and Dylan and all their blues and gospel predecessors nailed -- and it works. And in the live setting, Elvis is charismatic and magnetic, commanding the scene and making you take notice. He pretty much blew me away at Newport this year. See if he does the same for you.

“Did you have that strangest dream before you woke? `Cause in your gown you had the butterfly stroke. Did it escape you like some half-told joke when you reached for your plume of smoke?”

36. “Zero” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs (2009)


Karen O is a performance artist, but she also is a bit of a throwback. She’s a rock star in an era where rock stars are dead, but she has also maintained some of the teenage innocence that reminds the audience that this “act” is just that. She is having fun dressing up in outrageous gear, she’s chuckling as the songs end and the crowd starts cheering and she’s basically reminding you not to take everything so seriously. She may look like a cross between Joan Jett and Pat Benatar, but the show she puts on is distinct to her. I have much respek for this band because they have created something new and unique while looking back to past influences, without losing their own current identity.

I saw a documentary called “Kill Your Idols” on the early aughts New York music scene that tried to draw parallels between it and the “No Wave” scene from the 70s. Obviously, in 2003, when it was filmed, people were starting to see that New York (and primarily Brooklyn) was the new place to be for young musicians. So the documentary sought to go back to the Godfathers of the “No Wave” scene to see what they thought of what was happening in Brooklyn circa 2002-2003. What they said was pretty great -- all these old school downtown New York punks were pissed off that these young bands seemed to be missing the point altogether. The point being that their noisy music was a statement on how not to conform. It was a “fuck you” to the world. It was an outlet for fucked up people. It was funny and interesting to see the scorn they had for The Liars and The Strokes. It also made you realize how great Sonic Youth is to have mixed the best parts of that No Wave sound with some semblance of listenable rock music to make….Sonic Youth.

In that documentary, the YYY’s are interviewed long before “Maps” became an MTV hit and even longer before Karen O was playing to 30,000 people at All Points West Festival in Jersey City. Karen O and Nick Zinner seemed so damn young and na├»ve in the movie and it made you realize that they were basically just kids trying to make a name for themselves. They weren’t looking to make a statement and while Zinner truly seemed to love all the No Wave noise music from the 70s (he’s a huge Swans fan), it was clear from their interview that they weren’t owed anything and they were simply kids that were trying to go about this in their own way, which they did.

They graduated from Karen spitting beer all over the audience in small clubs to Karen spitting water all over a sea of people on huge stages around the world. Along the way, their overall sound became more conventional, less noisy and easier to digest. “Our Time” from the debut EP was lo fi and abrasive, “Maps” from the debut LP was a nice catchy ballad and “Y Control” was a nice indie punk song, but “Gold Lion” and “Zero” were huge pop songs that would have been the Shriek of The Week and more if progressive radio stations still existed. Even so, “Zero” is the tune I picked here, because it seems to exemplify where they’ve come from and where they are as the decade is coming to a close. It also asks us all to “get your leather on”, which is good for many points in my scorebook.

Listen here.

37. “This Year” by Mountain Goats (2005)


'I played video games in a drunken haze

I was seventeen years young.

Hurt my knuckles punching the machines,

the taste of scotch rich on my tongue.”

Throughout the 1990s John Darnielle gained a cult following by recording hundreds of songs -- little short stories, vignettes of wacky fictional characters he had created -- to a boombox, full of hiss and all. By the early aughts he had graduated from this world and he started recording in an actual studio and writing an autobiographical trilogy of albums about his teenage years growing up in a broken home in California. “This Year” is from The Sunset Tree, the second part of this trilogy and it’s probably the most quintessential song from that series, in that it chronicles a single day of dodging his abusive stepfather by drinking with his girlfriend, playing video games and then, finally, driving home only to have it all end “as badly as you can imagine.”

It’s a fairly literal song and much of what makes it great depends on the fact that it’s all right out in front of you. And, like any great song, even if you don’t identify with everything there, there are lines and phrases throughout that are universal to any person who remembers what it was like to be 17 years old.

“I drove home in the california dusk.
I could feel the alcohol inside of me.
Home.
Picture the look on my stepfather's face,
ready for the bad things to come.

I downshifted as I pulled into the driveway,

The motor screaming out stuck in second gear.
The scene ends badly as you might imagine,
in a cavalcade of anger and fear.

I am going to make it through this year if it kills me.”

Listen here.

38. “Vincent O’Brien” by M. Ward (2003)


“He only sings when he's sad, but he's sad all the time, so he sings the whole night through.

Yeah, he sings in the day-time, too.”

Every review of an M. Ward cites his dusty, timeless sound and it is indeed impossible listen to him and not marvel at the fact that his music seems like it is being filtered through an AM radio somewhere in Oklahoma. What’s makes him great, though, is how his music seems old and new at the same time. I think that 2006’s Post-War is one of the decades best records, something every music fan should own, and it’s aging really well as time goes on. I reckon that Noel Gallagher, as usual, said it best in a 2006 interview with Exclaim Magazine:

“I've just got an album in New York by a guy called M. Ward, it's called Post-War. Fookin' hell, man. I've never heard this guy before, and I was doing a photo shoot, as us rock stars generally do, and some guy was playing it in the background. I was like, ''What's that fookin' music?’ And he's like, [adopts American accent] 'Dude, it's M. Ward.' One of the best albums I've ever heard actually.”

“To Go Home” is probably my favorite M. Ward song, but it is a Daniel Johnston cover, so I thought it best not to break the already-broken-rules and include it on this list. (That’s not to say that you don’t need to listen to this song RIGHT NOW.)

“There may be mermaids under the water,

There may even be a man in the moon,

But Vincent, time is running out.

I hope you get yourself together soon.”

That having been said, “Vincent O’Brien” ain’t too shabby either, so make sure you give it a listen here.