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.