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APW Top-20 Albums of 2006
Friday, December 29, 2006

There was a time when I would listen to a new record with the fullest attention possible-- no other stimuli save for the lyric sheet, and me is the comfy chair in the sweet spot between the speakers of my stereo. Back then records confronted my consciousness, and within a day or two I was pretty sure how I felt about a new one.

These days, though, more often than not I’m popping a new CD into the computer and giving it a first listen at my desk while I’m answering my email, and my daughter’s in the room watching Noggin in the background. Or maybe I’ve thrown out 90% of the data on the songs by ripping them to MP3, then dumping them onto my iPod. I used to treat a new record like a Broadway opening; now I treat it like, well, just another piece of multi-media content to occupy me while I’m multi-tasking (one of the tasks, invariably, being the purchase or downloading of the next album.)

This isn’t a rant on Technology Today or on Getting Older. It’s just by way of explaining that nowadays, a record has to really grab my ears by the lapels on the first or second listen, otherwise I’ll toss it in the pile and go on to the next one. I’m sure I miss some good ones along the way. In preparing this year-end list, I’ve had the opportunity to go back and re-listen to most of the records cited herein, and I note that several on the list did indeed slip through the net the first time around. These include Willie Nelson, Ollabelle, and even the Raconteurs (if I’d given this record the old full-attention treatment the first time around, it would have pinned me back against the wall.) I’m sure that in the coming months I will “discover” something else that I’ve thus far given short shrift (Midlake? Golden Smog? T-Bone Burnett?)


Happily though, the top-5 slots are solidly occupied by records that grabbed me right off. Some had the benefit of the pre-existing condition of my devout fandom of the artist (each of the top-4); others broke through the clutter on the strength of immediately catchy songs (#5 and #9.) The top-5, I should note, could have really come up in any order; it was difficult to flag something as number one; I put Lindsey B up there as a straw man, and ultimately that just worked. But hindsight may well cause me to favor any of the records that I’m showing in slots #2-5, maybe even #2-10. All twenty, though, should be in the Grand Rotation for years to come.

As always, this is a list of the records I liked the most, not an attempt to objectively assess the year’s best. I felt no compunction, for example, to listen to the Killers or Panic! At the Disco or the Arctic Monkeys or Fall Out Boy or anything “emo” or any other band your kid in Junior High might have turned you on to. I like what I like, and the same kinds of music generally bubble to the top of this list each year. If you’re a cranky music geek in your late 40s, you might find that some of these records will appeal to you.

A note about the song samples. For each album, I’ve included a link that lets you hear a song, either my favorite from the record, or one that is representative of the whole album. As always, I use Putfile to host these songs, because Putfile allows you to listen but not download (because if you all went and downloaded these songs for free, that would be piracy, and therefore wrong.) If you like what you hear, support the artists by buying a CD (or visiting iTunes or your favorite online retailer.) And if you happen to represent any of these artists, please don’t sue me. It’s still Christmas, after all.

If you click on the name of the artist and album, you'll go to the artist's website; in some cases that will be a MySpace page. I love it that Bob Dylan has a MySpace page.

And yes, I still call them records. Which I will continue to do, as long as they are recorded.

1. Lindsey Buckingham, Under the Skin
Lindsey Buckingham is one of my stone cold favorites, a musical hero, a rare popcraft genius whose peer group includes Todd Rundgren, Brian Wilson, XTC’s Andy Partridge, and maybe Karl Wallinger of World Party. So be forewarned, it is difficult for me to be objective here. Lindsey was the guy who made those classic Fleetwood Mac records sound like such ear candy (even the otherwise insipid Stevie Nicks songs.) Each of his previous three solo records is, in its own way, a work of pop genius. Under the Skin is a much sparser record than the full-on, electric, densely layered studio compositions Buckingham has produced in the past; here the main instruments are voice and acoustic guitar. I didn’t realize quite how sparse some of these tracks were until I saw him live at Town Hall, because he’s such an agile fingerpicker that what sounds like two guitars on record can easily be just one. Songs like “I Am Waiting” and “Not Too Late” are constructed from acoustic guitar and voice and nothing else, although both are intricate and finely wrought, and neither sounds remotely like singer-songwriter fare. Of course the trademark sounds are still there—the layered vocals, each placed very deliberately in a specific spot in the stereo spectrum; the little clippity cloppity percussion mixed dead center. “It Was You” and “Show You How” both erupt into vocal arrangements that are dazzling and joyful on the chorus. But for the most part this is an airy, gentle record. As with a lot of my long-time favorite musicians, the effects of aging are most certainly creeping into the mood and lyrical content, and there is a sense of mortality here that hasn’t cropped up before in his work. But it’s an honest record—he’s always honest—and it’s a keeper. RIYL: acoustic guitars with fancy picking; Fleetwood Mac; ear candy.

Listen: "Show You How"

2. Cloud Eleven, Sweet Happy Life
This record came out in December, and I’ve had it all of two weeks. But I’ve played it enough times to know. Cloud Eleven is essentially the nom de band of Rick Gallego, and this is their fourth album. Like the other three, it evokes the best of ‘60s sunshine pop while sounding fresh and timeless. This time out, Gallego lays on an extra helping of sweet harmonies and acoustic guitars. Breezy, wistful, melodic; it will be the soundtrack to many a summer day around the APW offices. Gallego makes most of the noise himself, but he enlists the help of two Wondermints, so it is not surprising that the record is somewhat sonically evocative of Brian Wilson’s recent Smile (the Wondermints form the core of Wilson’s backing band.) I’d sound byte it as Smile meets Skylarking. Not a bad intersection. Note that this record doesn’t work in the dark; for full effect play loud during the day, preferably outdoors. RIYL: XTC’s Skylarking; Wilson’s Smile; Jeff Larson; Jeffrey Foskett; harmonies and acoustic guitars.

Listen: "Leaving"

3. Derek Trucks Band, Songlines
2006 was a breakout year for Derek Trucks (“the Kid,” as my wife calls him), owing to his featured spot just to the right of the headliner on Eric Clapton’s world tour. But as gratifying as it has been for Derek’s fans to see him get the visibility and the recognition that comes from playing the big rooms, Songlines is almost certainly going to endure as the most significant 2006 development in his career. Like all the players who orbit through the Allman Brothers universe, what Derek Trucks and his band do is all about the creation, improvisation, and collaboration in the moment—the live experience. Typically the records are touchstones, templates, providing sort of blueprint versions of the songs that are then endlessly modified live; as a fan you buy the record, listen to it, absorb it, and then file it away and scout out the (official and otherwise) live show recordings, where the music crackles and sizzles and nips and bites and breathes. With Songlines, though, the Derek Trucks Band have managed to solve the riddle of the studio, and have made a record that exists wholly on its own, separate and distinct from the live shows. It is a record that works as a record; there is a richness and flow to the album that puts it a step ahead of the rest of this band’s studio work, which has previously been at its best when most directly evoking the live shows (whereas here, for example, “Volunteered Slavery,” usually a 10-minute workout live, is a snappy 2-minute invocation as the disc’s opener.) Songlines is tuneful, soulful, and spiritual; blues, jazz, world music, and pop are seamlessly blended together into a unified whole. Part of the chemistry is due to vocalist Mike Mattison, who makes his first studio appearance with the band; his presence pushes the record in the direction of songs as opposed to instrumentals. Part too is due to percussionist Count M’Butu, who’s rhythmic underpinnings help make the rock, jazz, and blues here all sound of a piece. And of course, Derek’s slide guitar is one of the most distinctive and articulate instrumental voices in music today—even though on Songlines he uses his ax in the service of the song, generally staying inside the lines, which tends to leave you wanting more. So you’ll want to catch him when he comes through town, either with this band, the Allmans, or EC. RIYL: Santana; the blues; “soul” music.

Listen: "I Wish I Knew"

4. Prince, 3121
How do you assess a Prince record with any objectivity? I did my best in my Amazon spotlight review (98 helpful votes out of 104; thank you), calling it his best since Sign O’ the Times, which would make it his best since the classic stuff. It is certainly his best since Emancipation (1996.) A solid, colorful, crisp playful record, full of funk but with a heavy female vibe (often provided by protégé Tamar, occasionally by Price himself), making it sound an awful lot like the classic '80s work. It is probably not a coincidence that shortly after 3121 was released (or, rather, “dropped”), Prince performed live with Wendy, Lisa and Sheila E. The songwriting is not quite as memorable as the old school stuff, but the music is right there, and maybe stronger. On the first track, I’m almost sure I hear his old alter ego, Camille. He’s having fun and it shows. RIYL: Da funk; Old school Prince.

Listen: "Beautiful, Loved and Blessed"

5. Little Willies, Little Willies
Sometimes a “small” record ends up rewarding the listener more than a big one does. The Little Willies are something of a novelty act, a downtown New York City project originally conceived as a Willie Nelson cover band (hence the name.) They draw more attention than your average Willie Nelson cover band, though, owing to the fact that the chick that plays piano and shares lead vocals just happens to be Norah Jones. (Noteworthy as well is the presence of New York singer-songwriter Richard Julian.) This record is not, in fact, a collection of Willie Nelson songs (there’s just one), but it is squarely in the genre I’d call downtown hipster country—only without a stitch of irony (at least not until the last song, which is about Lou Reed going cow tipping.) Julian and Jones co-front, Jones’s bass player and boyfriend Lee Alexander produces. The whole thing is way more fun than it has any right to be (and I’m not even a Norah Jones fan—well, I mean, I am now.) She sings the hell out of the Leiber-Stoller song “Love Me” originally done by Elvis (“Treat me like a fool…”). Norah is just one of the guys here, which is pretty cool of her. The playing is all tasteful and first rate, and the production is unobtrusive, giving the thing a live, easy back porch (or front stoop) feel, and everyone I spin this for likes it. RIYL: hipster country, Norah Jones, Johnny Cash & June Carter.

Listen: "The Streets of Baltimore"


6. Los Lobos, The Town and the City
One of America’s greatest enduring rock’n’roll bands, and the records are always of a high quality, but the last couple of Los Lobos records were kind of indistinguishable from one another to me, and I confess I liked them better before the drummer turned into a third singer-guitarist. (Although to his credit, once he began to sing he stopped being the drummer; the only drummer who should be allowed to sing, ever, is Levon Helm.) (Don Henley, I’m looking at you.) But I digress. This record harkens back to the band’s masterpiece, Kiko. Ambient washes of studio wizardry bathe many of these songs, reminiscent of Kiko and also the two Latin Playboy records. It broods and seethes, totally rocking in a very deft way. Their strongest in years, I think. RIYL: Kiko, By the Light of the Moon, moody rock’n’roll with its shirt untucked.

Listen: "If You Were Only Here Tonight"

7. The Raconteurs, Broken Boy Soldiers
Talk about the big bam boom. Long time APW readers will know that my general take on Jack White of the White Stripes has been, “Yo dude, hire a freaking bass player!” Two-person bands are so early-‘00s to me. But here White joins forces with power popster Brendan Benson (we already liked him and recommend his ’02 release Lapalco), plus a drummer and BASS PLAYER to form a proper band. Broken Boy Solders is big and loud and dumb in a way that makes you want to smoke angel dust and crank it loud on the 8-track player in your brand new ’74 Camaro (note: APW has never smoked angel dust.) Every instrument—lead vox, backing vox, bass, this guitar, that guitar—is mixed big and loud and simple and distinct. This is a record without a ton of tracks and overdubbing, although White does provide some synth; the result is that maximum impact is delivered from a somewhat minimalist palette (not unlike, say, Led Zep, obviously a White influence.) There are a couple of collisions at play; vocally, White sounds like an evil wizard singing through a fuzzy megaphone, while Benson’s vocals are more classic and pretty. And there is the clash of modern and retro. Ultimately, the record sounds like old school hard rock, but with a weird, modern edge of the unfamiliar. RIYL: White, Led Zep, really big poppy riffs.

Listen: "Steady as She Goes"

8. Josh Rouse, Substitulo

I very much enjoyed Rouse’s 2003 release, 1972 (and so did the missus.) Substitulo is a quieter record than 1972 or the follow-up Nashville (neither of which was that noisy to begin with), way less power poppy and almost into singer-songwriter territory. We saw him at Town Hall earlier in the year, and the show suffered for a lack of energy; on record though, it all works quite well. A quick 33 minutes, like they used to make ‘em; pretty, pleasant, tranquil, pastoral songs, with a sort of happy domesticity permeating (Rouse moved to a small town in Spain to be with his now-fiancée, and the record sort of oozes his new lifestyle.) A great Sunday morning record. Note should be made of producer Brad Jones, who has an uncanny knack for being involved with great records, and I’m starting to think it isn’t a coincidence. “Quiet Town,” the track included here, reminds me of ‘Everybody’s Talkin’.” RIYL: soft, purty records.

Listen: "Quiet Town"


9. Dan Zanes & Friends, Catch That Train!
I’ve loved this record since the day I saw it in Starbucks, recognized Zanes on the cover from Nickelodeon, and decided that maybe my 2-year-old daughter might like it. Dan Zanes was in the ‘80s roots rock band the Del Fuegos, but he’s surely best known to a nation of toddlers for his kids’ records and “Dan Zanes House Party,” a series of musical vignettes featured regularly on Nick. Would I have bought this if I didn’t have a small child? Nope, I can’t imagine. But I heartily recommend it to children of all ages. Catch That Train! is a concept album, with most of the songs about trains, and about leaving the city to go on a rail adventure to the country; Zanes mixes originals with perfectly chosen covers (including Louis Jordan’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie.”) And when Zanes is having a party, you never know who might drop by; here, Natalie Merchant, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and Nick Cave(!) stop by for cameos. The record sort of reminds me of what John Fogerty might sound like if he made a kids record, like Willie and the Po’ Boys down on the corner passing a guitar around. The music is built upon American folk forms, informed by an inclusive multi-cultural world music vibe. It also reminds me of what Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions could have sounded like; this is the hootenanny of the year (though I’m told the Seeger Sessions live shows were way better than the record.) Fun, loose, easy, happy music that I play whether my daughter is around or not. I could easily have put this higher; I’ve listened to it more than any other record this year and it makes me happy. RIYL: kids; lazy happy music.

Listen: "Let's Shake"

10. Ollabelle, Riverside Battle Songs
I first discovered Ollabelle opening for Ryan Adams in the fall of 2004; I did not buy their debut record until ’05, so it missed the APW Best of ’04 list, where it would otherwise have placed high. The first time through this album, I was disappointed; it was good, but it wasn’t the first one all over again. That was my bad. Most reviews to the contrary, I’m finding that with repeated listens it stands up to the first one. Ollabelle is a NYC Americana band that comes with built-in street cred courtesy Amy Helm, daughter of Levon. You’re tempted to say “they don’t make records like this anymore,” but the neat trick of Ollabelle is that, really, no one ever DID make records like this. Lush and rich, but organic and simple; a little spooky, very earthy, very woody; and a healthy dose of American gothic fear of God. RIYL: Getting washed clean of your sins down in the river.

Listen: "Riverside"

11. Bob Dylan, Modern Times
Maybe enough time has finally passed that we can hear this guy for what he is (a grizzled folk bluesman who writes pretty decent tunes and has a hell of a touring band), and not as “Dylan.” Maybe that’s why his last three releases are consensus classics. He does 2 songs here that are generally associated with Muddy Waters (claiming them as originals, by the way), so that might be why the record reminds me of no one so much as Waters himself; specifically his late-‘70s work, those “past-prime-and-back-in-new-prime” records with Johnny Winter. There are few “Dylan-isms” here (although “When the Deal Goes Down” is solid Dylan-ism); mostly just extraordinarily tasteful takes on classic blues and folk forms. In fact, the weakest moments on the record are the “Dylan” moments. I like the straight blues numbers best. The band—Dylan’s road warriors—is deceptively easygoing and squarely in-the-pocket. Not surprisingly, the sound is as close to a live feel as you can get on a studio record. RIYL: The Real Folk Blues.

Listen: "Someday Baby"

12. Tom Petty, Highway Companion
Ole’ Tom can still bring it. This is a solo record, so it doesn’t have the Heartbreaker kick; Petty (who drums!), producer Jeff Lynne (who covers the bass), and Heartbreaker Mike Campbell made the whole thing as a trio. Campbell is outstanding, playing with his usual underrated precision and tonal clarity; every song, he gets just exactly the guitar sound that he wants. The man is a virtuoso of tone… as for the album, it is very much front-loaded; I put 6 of the first 7 tracks on my iPod, and none of the last 5. A good car record, a good summer record. RIYL: The Traveling Wilburys, Petty’s Full Moon Fever and She’s the One.

Listen: "Square One"

13. Sid’n’Susie, Under the Covers volume 1
Talk about a record I knew I would like just based on the concept. Sid’n’Susie are Matthew Sweet (auteur of APW all-time power pop fave Girlfriend) and Susannah Hoffs (the chick in the Bangles with the eyes), and Under the Covers is all covers of ‘60s songs originally performed by the likes of Neil Young, the Who, the Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas, the Beach Boys, Bee Gees, Dylan, and Love. Hoffs and Sweet, of course, first played together in Ming Tea, the fictional band that performed in Austin Powers’ apartment in 1966. (“Hey!” I said to my wife, in the theater. “That’s Matthew Sweet! And-- and Susannah Hoffs!” She shushed me.) Under the Covers was a fast-grabber due to the familiar nature of the songs in the capable pop hands of Sweet, Hoffs and company. These are songs that provide the musical DNA for both artists, and it is the most natural thing in the world to hear them harmonize on, say, “The Warmth of the Sun” (and as has been noted elsewhere, Hoffs was born to sing “Different Drum.”) Oh, and we should note the contribution of guitarist Richard Lloyd, who tarts up several songs, and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard him attack Crazy Horse classic “Cinnamon Girl.” Might have placed higher, but I had to consider that ultimately, when I want to hear “The Kids are Alright” or “And Your Bird Can Sing,” I’ll go to the originals. What I really long for is that long lost Ming Tea album. Oh, PS, I just noticed my copy’s signed. Sweet! RITL: All Over the Place, Girlfriend, the originals. And if you like this, you’ll probably also like the Kennedys 2006 release, Songs of the Open Road.

Listen: "Run to Me"

14. Willie Nelson, Songbird
Well, in the absence of a new Ryan Adams record in ’06, this one will have to do. Adams produced, and the Cardinals serve as Willie’s backing band. A decidedly low key affair, but with Willie Nelson that’s about what you want. Some new versions of old Willie tunes, a new Adams song (“Blue Hotel,” which Adams has been playing all year even though he wrote it for Willie), and some quirky covers: Christine McVie’s “Songbird;” the Dead’s “Stella Blue” (Adams’s idea no doubt), Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” although Jeff Buckley pretty much put the latter out of everyone else’s reach. The Cardinals dirty up “Stella Blue,” and they and Adams take the record almost into Lanois territory. I dismissed this one at first, but it gets better with each listen. RIYL: Willie Nelson, the Cardinals, weed.

Listen: "Rainy Day Blues"

15. Jon Auer, Songs From the Year of Our Demise

An album of divorce songs, and some of the best records in rock are break-up records (see Blood on the Tracks, Rumours.) I like this record because Auer—a Posie and a Big Star—uses the Power Pop form and topes to tell musical stories heavy on narrative, and the song-craft moves the songs forward. Too often, Power Pop becomes a style for its own sake—verse chorus verse, the entrance of the jangly guitar, the sweet perfect harmonies, everything on cue from central casting. That’s why a lot of the stuff sounds generic to me (although to be fair, some Power Pop is great precisely because it revels in its own form.) Auer gives you the sounds, textures and tones that please the ear, wrapped around tight, biting songs. And, always a sign of a great record, my wife wants to put it on her iPod. Better than the latest record by both the Posies and Big Star. RIYL: The Posies; Big Star; break-up records.

Listen: "Six Feet Underground"


16. Paul Simon, Surprise
Surprise indeed. Much of Simon’s best work has been in collaborations; with Artie, sure, but Hearts and Bones benefited greatly from the doo-wop of the Harptones, and Graceland featured his African band and Ladysmith Black Mambazo (not to mention Linda Ronstadt, the Everly Brothers and Los Lobos.) Surprise is a full-on collaboration with producer Brian Eno, whose sonic landscapes (that’s how he’s credited) color most of the tracks, and Eno even gets a writing credit on three of them. Surprise takes a couple of songs to get up a head of steam, and frankly I’m not quite as giddy over this as some folks, because the songs just aren’t up to Simon’s best (but then, Simon’s best are among the best, period.) Surprise is very much a collaboration, though, and Eno is as responsible as Simon for this record’s success. The “sonic landscapes” are rich and complex and beguiling, and it’s an aggressive, challenging album, very much not the same, old same-old. Style points for, well, style. RIYL: Eno atmospherics, Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints, “The Great Curve.”

Listen: "Beautiful"

17. The Silos, Come On Like the Fast Lane
I’ve been a fan of the Silos since the late ‘80s, when they were part of the Great Eighties Roots Rock Revival. Over the years leader Walter Salas-Humara has been the one constant, and he is a great songwriter; honest, simple and true, writing about the little things that make up a life. The Silos’ ’04 release, When the Telephone Rings, was one of their very best ever, and was near the top of APW’s Best of ’04 list. That one was a return to the classic sound of 1988’s Cuba; this record doesn’t quite scale those heights, more a straight-ahead rock outing with slightly less memorable songs. On the plus side, like every Silos record, it will age well. RIYL: Straight ahead rock’n’roll; honest songwriting; Los Lobos.

Listen: "I Won, You Won"

18. The Flaming Lips, At War With the Mystics

I wasn’t crazy about the single, which kicks off the record, but move further in and the Lips’ twisted, drug-free brand of psychedelic acid rock begins to take hold. The 7-minute “The Sound of Failure” whisks you away in a pretty, candy-coated glaze, depositing you into a gauzy pink soundscape, trippy but, as always with the Lips, a little ominous.. I think it’s a good witch, but I’m never quite sure; I tend to want this kind of music to be more consistently pretty than the blend the Lips dose out, but that’s probably my bias. Extra points for “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.” RIYL: Yoshimi, freak-outs, Elephant 6, early Pink Floyd but with poppier song craft.

Listen: "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion"


19. Parallax Project, Perpetual Limbo
This is the second album by this four-piece power pop band. They don’t really do anything new, but they play power pop well. Power pop is like the blues; it is easy to play, but difficult to play well, because to do so requires a certain attitude, a feel, a grasp of the clichéd, archetypal, and simple. It is an elusive gift, and it is why so much of the stuff sounds generic to me, even though I like the genre. These guys get it. The keyboard is prominent, giving the sound a different texture than the straight guitars-bass-drums formula (not that I dislike that formula.) And of course, they have the songs. RIYL: The other power pop bands I recommend.

Listen: "A Whole Different Mary"

20. Rhett Miller, True Believer
This record can’t decide whether it wants to be alt.country or power pop. Fortuitously, I like both genres. If the whole record was as good as the best songs (“Help Me Suzanne,” “I Believe She’s Lying”) it would be a top-5 pick. RIYL: poppy alt.country.

Listen: "Help Me Suzanne"


If I had more time, I would have made this a longer list, and included:

21. Jack Johnson, Sing-a-longs and Lullabyes for the Film Curious George (another kids record)
22. Lane Steinberg, The Return of Noel Coward’s Ghost (21st century psychedelia)
23. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (best Ukrainian folk record of the year)
24. Indigo Girls, Despite Our Differences
25. Cat Power, the Greatest
__________

Papa Don’t Preach: Sloganeering seldom makes for good records, and even though I agree with the sentiment, I’ll trade you all 10 tracks off of Neil Young’s Living With War for one “Barstool Blues.” Play this whole album through, and then play “Love to Burn” off of Ragged Glory. If Young had brought that kind of fire to the table and excised about 80% of the lyrics, THAT would have been a political statement. But hey, his heart is in the right place, and he did put out an archival release from a 1970 Crazy Horse show with Danny Whitten, so all is forgiven… Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions record was a fun genre exercise, but to me it felt inauthentic and ultimately lightweight; I hear the live shows were a blast though… A lot of folks were all gaga over the Mark Knopfler/Emmylou Harris duet record. I was mostly bored. I wanted it to sound more like the Caitlin Cary/Thad Rockrell duet record from 2005 (Begonias, which would have been a 2005 APW top-10 pick if not for the fact that we didn’t discover it until 2006), or else the Chip Taylor/Carrie Rodriguez records; these evoke the classic Emmylou duet stuff with Gram Parsons, which, I’m sorry, HAS to be the point if you’re going to do a duets album with her…

…I thought Alejandro Escovedo’s Boxing Mirror and Calexico’s Garden Ruin would be better. Calexico seems to have abandoned everything that made them who they were—the spooky, organic Americana vibe—and discovered pop songs. Maybe I’ll like it better over time, when I can separate my expectations for Calexico from the music on the record. As for Escovedo, the double live fan club release Rooms of Songs, with string quartet, is outstanding and more than makes up for any disappointment; if that was a 2006 release instead of ’05 it would be on this list. You can get it from his web site, and if you like the idea of a string quartet that absolutely rocks, check it out. I have not lost my faith in this great American artist…

…I really like T-Bone Burnett, and he put out a record for the first time in ages (even if you don’t think you know him, you know his work; he produced the soundtracks to Oh Brother Where Art Thou and to Cold Mountain.) Sadly, though, his album is one of those damn Dual Discs (CD on one side, DVD on the other), designed to bring added value to me, the consumer, and the damn thing just won’t play on my relatively new and pricey stereo CD player. Thanks for all the added value of the Dual Disc, Columbia Records. Now if only the friggin’ thing would play…

…I listened to Beck’s The Information all the way through, on the big stereo. I tried so hard to like it, honest I did. Yeah, yeah, the guy’s a genius, bla bla bla… but he just doesn’t speak to me. Now, I really liked Mutations and to a lesser extent, Sea Change; and I loved Midnight Vultures (which was a total motor booty affair, and a great way to party like it was 1999 when it came out, in 1999.) But all three were sort of deviations from his best-known, “normal” sound, the hip hop electro-collagist stuff that just doesn’t fire my synapses.

Loved It: The Beatles, Love. The Beatles were a popular British band in the 60s that had a lot of stateside success. Love is the soundtrack record to the Circ de Soliel production that is based on their music; original Beatles producer George Martin (who is now deaf, so kudos to him) and his son took their recordings, spiffed them up, cut, pasted, blended, and reinvented the catalog into something new and fresh. I hate to use the term “mash-up,” so I’ll call it collage instead. If you like the Beatles but thought you’d heard everything there is to hear of them, this is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. It doesn’t make the APW list because the music isn’t new, but Love was one of the records we most enjoyed in 2006.

So... what did you listen to this year?

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Posted by: --josh-- @ 11:32 PM  5 comments


"This is my kind of church!"
Saturday, December 23, 2006

In 1990 I was at a Marshall Crenshaw concert at the Bottom Line, with my friend Fred and his brother Phil and a couple of others. Crenshaw was doing his cover of the Bobby Fuller Four version of the Buddy Holly song, “Love’s Made a Fool of You.” As I sat there (first chair in front of the stage) watching him play, I thought to myself, “Hmm… press there, strum there, and you make songs.” Playing guitar seemed so suddenly easy, inevitable, and right in that moment I decided to take guitar lessons.

After the show, Fred’s brother Phil and his friend Murray went over to Mondo Cane to catch Phil’s guitar teacher, who was playing a late set. I asked Phil to hook us up, and soon I was taking lessons.

I’m no good, never was; at the apex of my playing, John (that’s him, the teacher) said I played rhythm guitar like Lou Reed. This was a compliment, and I think somewhat accurate, but really, all it means it that if the song has A, D and E in it, I can strum the chords and make it sound like a rock song.

I don’t take lessons anymore, and John has since become my friend. His stage name is Johnny Allen, and he’s played around Manhattan’s blues clubs for nigh on 20 years. He was part of the NYC blues scene that yielded Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, Chris Whitley, and Joan Osborne in the early 90s (once I was at his apartment and he came upon a book and remarked, “This is Joan’s… I have to return it.”) The blues club, as I’ve heard John declare many nights as the clock crept past midnight, “is my kind of church!”

When I got married, I hired John and a 5-piece band to play at my wedding. The accompanying photo is from the wedding.

It was easy for John to get pigeonholed into the “blues guitar hero” ghetto. But when he put out a record in 1991, it was full of well-written, catchy poppish songs. I was expecting Albert King, but I got Elvis Costello, the Smithereens.

Check this one out. It’s called “Emmy Jewel,” and it is probably his signature song. He told me once he wrote it with Willie Nelson in mind, and once he sang it for me in an imitation of Willie’s drawl, and it made perfect sense.

John came over the other day—I hadn’t seen him in maybe 2 years—and we sat around in the living room, and he picked up my Ovation guitar and played me a couple of his songs. It was a short visit, but it served to remind me that you should never let go of your dreams, never stop doing the things you love. Never forget to pick up that guitar every once in a while, even if only to bash out “Love’s Made a Fool of You.” Which I did, after he left.

John is one of a million stories in the naked city, a great player, a wicked talented singer/songwriter (that’s how I like to think of him—a singer/songwriter, not a blues gunner, although he is that as well), and largely undiscovered. He needs a MySpace page. But until then, my space will have to do.

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Posted by: --josh-- @ 11:00 AM  0 comments


Ryan Adams at Town Hall, December 6, 2006
Monday, December 18, 2006

APW favorites Ryan Adams and the Cardinals played a three-night stand at Town Hall December 4, 5, and 6. I would have loved to have been at all three gigs, but I passed on the first night because I couldn’t convince my wife of the inherent romance of celebrating our wedding anniversary at a Ryan Adams concert; then the next night I had to stay home because my daughter was under the weather.

I did manage to make it to night three, but it is clear from a quick scan of the set lists for the three shows that Adams treated the stand like one long concert in three movements; he didn’t repeat a single song across the three nights. On Monday, Adams played 21 songs, without a break. He stuck close to the general format of his recent shows, heavy on the Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights material that have formed the backbone of the Cardinals repertoire, plus a sprinkling of new songs presumably destined for one of the three records he says he has coming in ’07 (Adams has debuted and road tested at least 15 new songs since July). Tuesday night, having taken many of the band’s staple numbers off the table, he dug a little deeper, but also the show was only 14 songs long and there was an intermission.

Singer-songwriter Leona Ness opened the third show. If I were to give her an Indian name, it would be Single Pining Girl With Unexpected Chord Progressions. She played solo save for an endorsement-slash-backing vocal by Ryan on her first song. Quirky, honest songwriting, although once she moved to piano the Rickie Lee Jones influence was betrayed.

Adams and the Cardinals hit at about ten after nine, and open with “Come Pick Me Up” off Heartbreaker. It is a twangy, dewy read, with Adams playing some harmonica straight out of the Dylan/Neil Young playbook, underscoring the deep roots his work has in the best of so-called classic rock. This version is a gooey alt.country masterpiece.

“When the Stars Go Blue” is up next, a spare, jangly version that is gorgeous, aching before resolving into a shit-hot rocker. Adams begins the first verse to “Oh My Sweet Carolina” almost solo, just voice and guitar with a gentle backing by Jon Graboff on pedal steel; the band steps up, the steel remains pronounced, lilting through the song; again Adams layers on the Classic Rock harp.

Adams sort of bifurcates between two poles—the high lonesome, country rocker, and the Paul Westerberg-influenced punk-rocker. “Love is Hell” veers squarely into the latter territory, and the Cardinals follow him there without missing a beat; it is a big, brooding, pure piece of razor rock. The refrain (Love is… HEEE-EEELLLLL!!) is cathartic, a scream of defiance, not defeat. “This is It” delivers the back end of the one-two punch, pivoting hard on the song’s stop-time riff. Guitars screech and squeal. It is thrash and bash, visceral, thrilling. Then “Afraid Not Scared,” murky and minor, finishing with an extended jam that is a wash of sound, like fragile white glass.

By the time Adams begins “La Cienega Just Smiled,” I’m starting to think this may be one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to. This take has a Cardinals-ish, country feel to it, despite the insistent backbeat of drummer Brad Pemberton. Adams plays it tonight like the broken-hearted Cowboy song it really is, and Neil Casal’s guitar leads ache right along with him.

Set break, an almost perfect 38 or so minutes.

The second set is not as good. It is as if Adams knows that he’s earned some slack with the first set, and the now he’s just pleasing himself. It becomes frustratingly hit-and-miss; the hits are glorious, but the misses mess with the flow of the night. Adams opens with “Hallelujah,” a song off his 2002 record Demolition that he’s played live only twice before. This one’s a hit. It sounds like a pop song, in a good way. At the end, Adams takes an atonal run up the neck, and the band slows, following him into a spacy decay, until there’s just a fat hum, out of which Adams emerges to hit the chorus one last time.

But the momentum begins to turn with “Judy Garland,” a new song, a bash-rocker, that is not immediately compelling. “Wish You Were Here” continues in the Paul Westerberg-ish rock mode; I’m generally less impressed by the bashing.

The ballad “Blue Sky Blues” is next, with Adams at the piano. A nice piece of melancholy. Then back to the lilt’n’twang for of “Games,” featuring some fine pedal steel from Graboff. Adams follows up with an honest, bleeding-heart version of Heartbreaker fave “Winding Wheel,” a solid hit.

Adams trades verses with guitarist Neal Casal on the Casals song “Willow Jane,” then busts out “29,” the Truckin’-covered-by-Paul-Westerberg opener off last year’s record of the same name, the band taking it into the bash-o-sphere. Then Adams sits at the piano for “Rescue Blues,” taken with sweet restraint as the band eases in. Casal makes the riff feel like a Band song, a thing of fragile beauty.

And you figure Adams is moving into the home stretch, but instead “Rescue Blues” is the last number of the night. No encore, despite maybe 25 minutes left till the room’s curfew. Afterward, some fans speculate that Adams had a bad reaction to some audience members up front who talked through songs; others claim Adams is not at his best in a staid, seated venue like Town Hall.

Whatever. He was at his best for the first set and parts of the second, and I came away wishing that I’d seen all three shows. And really, the only real knock I can put on the show is that it should have been longer, and you know what they say—always leave ‘em wanting more. Next time he comes through town, I’ll be first in line.

Here is “Hallelujah,” from an audience recording of the show available in FLAC format at the Ryan Adams Archive.

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Posted by: --josh-- @ 10:26 AM  0 comments


On the First Day of Channukah, My True Love Gave to Me...
Saturday, December 16, 2006
Fear not dear readers (and Annie.) We have 3 posts almost to fruition, all about music in some way. Until they start to pop, though, enjoy this seasonal number, in honor of the first day of Channukah.

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Posted by: --josh-- @ 11:15 PM  1 comments


The Penguin Agenda
Friday, December 08, 2006

Have you heard that conservative "pundits" (i.e., twits on Fox with their own soap box) have got their knickers all in a twist because, apparently, the movie Happy Feet is really a thinly veiled parable about homosexuality? (as Lewis Black vented, "How homophobic do you have to be to see the gay agenda in a kids' movie?") Apparently there isn't enough real news this week to occupy them (outside of the question of whether the War on Christmas is now an all out civil war.)

Naturally, I assumed the whole thing was preposterous. But then, last weekend I decided to go and see the film with my 2-year-old daughter. And I think maybe the Fox pundits with the penguin gaydar are on to something.

Because, unaccountably, ever since I've seen the film, all I can think about is fucking a penguin up the ass.

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Posted by: --josh-- @ 7:09 PM  3 comments


Where's the Decency?
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
We're going to have a lot to say about Iraq and the Iraq Study Group Report in the coming days (don't worry though; in the midst of all that you'll be getting the much-anticipated APW "top-20 albums of 2006" post.) For now, though, before looking forward toward a solution, we wish to look back. Quoth the report, on the very first page of text (page ix for those checking the source text), under "letter from the co-chairs," we are told:
No one can guarantee that any course of action in Iraq at this point will stop sectarian warfare, growing violence, or a slide toward chaos. If current trends continue, the potential consequences are severe.

Let me paraphrase. "Stay the course" is calamitous, and there is no sure alternative that can bring anything resembling a victory.

And that's on page ix. (Or "ix-nay," as I'm sure the Bush administration will refer to it.)

So now it is official.

Shortly after 9/11, this incompetent administration began the drive to Iraq. Within days, they were attempting to link Iraq to Al Qaeda. The 9/11 attacks, perceived by the rest of us as a terrible and egregious affront to the American way of life, were perceived instead by the administration as an opportune development to justify the plan they already had, for invading Iraq. ("Woe is me," went the thinking in the White House... "but how serendipitous!")

The Iraq invasion was never justified. The war in Iraq was a distraction from, not a front in, the War on Terror. The war never furthered American interests. Saddam did not have WMDs. Iraq represented no threat to Americans. Iraq had no ties to Al Qaeda. Iraq did not greet us as liberators. Democracy is not thriving there. For the average Iraqi, life is actually worse now than under Hussein. Everything George Bush and his administration told us about Iraq was in error, a lie, or both. Some of us knew that all along, and we were called traitors.. But nNow it is as obvious as a bad hairpiece.

And yet, even days before the mid-term election, President Bush and his compatriots had the nerve, the gall, the temerity to tell Americans that we had to "stay the course" until we "won" in Iraq (what constitutes victory, we were never told); that any suggestion otherwise constituted "cut and run," and that to question the administration's stay-the course mentality was to embolden terrorists, and was therefore treasonous.

President Bush had the nerve to challenge the patriotism of all of us Americans who questioned his ill-fated Iraq boondoggle, who did not and do not stand with him in this mess.

Now that group numbers well over half of all Americans, including most senators and congressmen. And now, we see, it includes the members of the Iraq Study Group.

Before we all suck it up and pitch in to dig our way out of this horrendous no-win mess that George Bush, Condi Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and their coterie of arrogant neo-con screw-ups have gotten us into, I think it is fair to ask the president, in much the same way that Army lawyer Joseph Welch asked Joe McCarthy, "Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" Because I'm not going to soon forget that the president called me a traitor for seeing the folly of his actions, where he could not.

Yes, as Americans we will fix this un-fixable mess. But I'd like to think there is some measure of accountability. That's all I'm saying.

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Posted by: --josh-- @ 2:20 PM  1 comments


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