I have to start off with two headlines though.
Headline: Technology Changes the Way We Experience Music
Can there ever be another musical revolution as big as Elvis or the Beatles? I would argue that we’ve just been through one. It’s called the iPod.
We all know about the MP3, and about how that Napster kid killed the entire music business all by himself, from his skateboard. Why buy a physical CD when you can download it digitally? (Or, if you’re of a mind and willing to look a little, download it for free?)Me, I like CDs, and I’m still scheming how to get my wife to let me take my turntable and vinyl out of storage. But the allure of the iPod is irresistible, the impact profound. I’m using iPod here as a proxy for the general concept of having 3,000 albums in your pocket—or on your hard drive. Because now, none of us listens to music the same way we did at the decade’s dawn. Think about it. Back then you listened to music on your stereo, on the good system with the big speakers. Now 90% of the music you listen to comes through ear buds or computer speakers.Music has become portable, transferable, disposable, convenient. But there is a corollary that comes with those benefits. In order to put 3,000 albums in your pocket, the music has to get smaller. And music has gotten smaller; when we shrunk our record collections down to pocket size, we also robbed the music of its grandeur. I’ll address myself for the moment to other folks about my age. Remember that feeling the first time the needle hit the vinyl on Sergeant Pepper? Or Dark Side of the Moon? Or Born to Run? Or Remain in Light? Or Moondance? Or Sticky Fingers? Or, hey, you X-ers: remember when that laser first hit the bits on Nevermind and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came pounding out of the speakers? Remember how scared your parents were.Remember how we used to actually listen to music, as in, the listening was the primary activity? “What did you do today?” “You know, hung out, listened to some records.” I spent 80% of my waking time in college lounging in a dorm room with friends, listening to records, where the music in the room defined the physical space we all occupied, captivated our attention, became the construct within which we interacted. (I’d like to tell you I spent 80% of my time studying, but we both know I can’t put that over.)I thought we’d stopped doing that because we’re older now, we have jobs and kids and spending money, and even if we wanted to just listen to music, well, we have to go to the wallpaper store. But I wonder… because I don’t think anyone listens to music like that anymore. About a year ago my wife and I were finishing off a Saturday date night with an ice cream cone at the place across the street, and the kids working there had set up a turntable and were playing classic vinyl. We listened to side one of Thriller there, and were both amazed (me less so because I rant like this all the time) at how great it sounded. When we made our deal with the MP3 devil (and don’t get me started on the compromises we make in fidelity with a file format containing a tenth as much data as a CD track does; if you can’t hear the difference, it is likely because you can’t tell the difference on those ear buds of yours) we diverged the music from the equipment through which it sounds best. As a result, we’ve traded engagement for convenience. We have the music wherever we go; but it doesn’t draw us in, wash over us, like it once did; And I don’t think that’s because we’re older now and music was better when we were kids; I think it is an artifact of the technology we use to store and listen.Sacrificing engagement for convenience. Sure, that’s the story of modern life (I’m blogging, tweeting, and podcasting right this moment). But is anyone really ever going to change the world, one pair of ear buds at a time?Every once in a while my wife and daughter have to go somewhere or other for the day and I stay home. On such occasions I make a beeline for the living room with a stack of CDs, and I sit in the big chair and listen. Really listen. Make a point, if you think of it, to do that some time. Get reacquainted with your CD collection, on the big speakers. You’ll be amazed. Unless, heaven forbid, you digitized them all and tossed them away.Headline: Artist of the Decade The first honorable mention is the Allman Brothers. Yes, really, the Allman Brothers. Or, more accurately, the extended family that begins with the seven current band members and extends outward to include the Derek Trucks Band, Gov’t Mule, Susan Tedeschi, and so on.I could go on about how great they are live—you’ve either caught them at the Beacon, or else you’ve heard about the near-legendary stands they do in Manhattan each spring. And I know a lot of you are thinking, this is a 40 year-old nostalgia act, dude, you have to be kidding me. So let me break it down, in very simple terms.The Allman Brothers Band has always been all about guitars, and while each member is a stellar contributor, what makes them a contender for artist of the decade is the fact that they have arguably (or, perhaps, unarguably) the two best guitarists of this generation, side by side, sharing a stage. Of course I’m talking about the incandescent Derek Trucks, and the Bunyanesque Warren Haynes, who have been together in the band most of the decade, starting with the March 2001 Beacon shows.
I’ve been grappling with a way to put the magnitude of this pairing in context, to describe to others who don’t follow this band what that pairing means, how I think future generations will look back on this line-up (the band’s second classic line-up, along with the Duane Allman-led originals.) And here’s what I’ve got. Imagine that Jimi Hendrix didn’t die, and that he spent most of the ‘70s touring in a band with Jeff Beck, but they didn’t do much in the studio. Imagine, say, those three-hour shows at the Palladium on 14th Street, with “Freeway Jam” segueing into “Crosstown Traffic.” My second honorable mention is Ani DiFranco. In the late ‘90s I knew of her as a “punk/folk” singer who had her own record label; but my wife, who I met in 1997, was a fan, and it wasn’t long before we made our way to a show together (With Kerry Carley and Donna Moran). Seeing Ani live made me a believer; I remember leaving my party to wander closer to get a better look at Ani and band during the slow jam “Come Away From It.”
Hyperbole? Overly kind? Perhaps. But if you can get your head around how groovy that would have been, if you can appreciate that kind of 6-string wet dream, then you’re at least open to the possibility of what the Derek/Warren Allman Brothers means.
Trucks, who plays slide guitar like it was a trumpet, or a sax, or a blues singer, is finally, at age 30, old enough that fans, after 13 years, can stop prefacing everything we say about him with “and he’s still only (insert then-current age).” He is without question THE most unique and distinctive guitar voice of our time, and there really isn’t a number two, and if you’re going to propose someone like John Mayer then I’ve got to come back and say, there probably isn’t a number three through nine either. Whether with the Brothers, with his own band, with Clapton playing the big rooms, or in some other context, Derek is simply a joy to behold, seemingly capable of playing anything, conveying any emotion, all without breaking a sweat or offering a grimace.
Meanwhile Haynes has cut a Herculean swath through the decade. Here he is dropping Christmas Jams; there pre-jams, Mountain Jams, solo gigs, Mule tours, Allman tours, Dead tours, One for Woody, the Phil Lesh Quintet, the Deep End, the Deepest End, the Jammys, the sit-ins—if you judge a man by the tracks he leaves in the snow, Haynes is the Abominable Freaking Snowman of jamband nation. Which, when Radiohead, Gov’t Mule, Arcade Fire, and Tom Petty all play the same festivals, really means live band nation.
I didn’t put any official live bootlegs on this list, but if you want to hear what I’m fussing about, I can recommend the following concert recordings, available for sale from Hitting the Note: 8/10/03; 9/25/04; 9/18/05; 3/20/09 (that one has 45 minutes of Clapton); and 3/26/09.
I’ve heard her talk about how in the folk singer pantheon Bob Dylan is the brightest star, whereas she was always more influenced by Joni Mitchell (certainly the way she uses guitar tunings is evocative.) But for me, there’s more than a little Patti Smith in there too, because on stage, Ani is both a poet and a shaman. Her concerts—at which, invariably, you’ll hear three new songs you’ve never heard before, even if you have the record she released yesterday—are cathartic, communal happenings where something profoundly mystical and medicinal is going on between artist and performer. Shamans are healers. Very few musicians have had that shaman thing going on; Bob Marley comes to mind, and definitely Patti. Ani has it as well.
She’s also an absolutely great acoustic guitar player. Her style is uniquely rhythmic and percussive, as is her vocal phrasing, the net effect of which is that she manages to create polyrhythms and counter-rhythms with just one voice and one guitar. It’s truly uncanny to behold. So there is an undeniable funk to the folk; she puts the hips in hippie. With a band around her, the effect is even more beguiling, as the rhythms, cadence and poetry draws you inexorably into the music.
If there is a criticism, I’d say it is her sometime inclination toward overtly political songs. I've always believed that the more powerful political statement is a song about one farmer, not about Big Farming (Mellencamp's "Rain on the Scarecrow" comes to mind.) But on songs like “Tis of Thee” Ani manages to scale down the political into the personal, weaving a compelling compelling narrative that places her squarely in the tradition of great American folk music, going back to Woody Guthrie.
She is a major voice who put out at least two great records in the decade, but like a true folk artist she made her art a night at a time, in the moment. I’ve probably seen her 25 times now, and she’s way at the top of the list of artists I consider must-see acts. The live work is amply documented via the Official Bootleg series at Righteous Babe; try the newest, from Chicago, 9/22/07, with her latest four-piece, and full of the new happy tunes, 2 CDs for the can’t-beat-it price of ten bucks.
My artist of the decade has to be Ryan Adams. He was the frontman for Whiskeytown, a raucous alt.country band during the previous decade when he was known to be, shall we say, reckless in his… well, everything. He announced his arrival as a solo artist in 2000 with Heartbreaker, a great, sad country break-up record that made a lot of rock magazine best-of-decade lists. He followed it up with the incandescent Gold, in 2001. In 2002 he was supposed to put out five records, but that didn’t pan out; the best of the sessions was collapsed into Demolition (a play on the term “demos.”) But it wasn’t hard to find the studio bootlegs for Suicide Handbook, Destroyer, Pinkhearts Demos, Exile on Franklin Street, and 24 Hours.
In 2003 he put out Rock’n’Roll, which may be seen as a Paul Westerberg homage; on the same day he released the first half of Love is Hell, which came out with less fanfare but which was the better record. Then a pivotal event-- in January 2004 he fell off the stage and broke his hand. There was talk of retirement (in fact he’s retired from music right now), but instead he essentially relearned to play the guitar, embraced the notion of playing in, as opposed to fronting, a band, formed the Cardinals, and by the fall of ’04 he was playing out with the first Cardinals line-up, working through some new material, dropping in the occasional Dead cover.
2005 was his year. Adams put out three albums, all outstanding: first Cold Roses, a double album of exquisite (American) beauty, about which more below; then Jacksonville City Nights, more twangy and country, with more narrative in the songs and the nod in the direction of Whiskeytown that many fans were waiting for. Both were credited to Ryan Adams and the Cardinals. Then late in the year, 29, a solo record with a skew to sadder piano songs, each one playing out like a little movie (save for the title track, which was essentially a rewrite of the Dead’s "Truckin’.”)
So we’re six years in, and he’s put out 8 official albums, at least five unofficial ones, and there’s not a stinker in the bunch. Meanwhile the Cardinals came out of the gate great as a performing entity—the 2005 shows, featuring songs from the new records before many of them had been released, are preserved and memorable. Somehow, the band managed to turn over three of five members in two years and get better each time. In 2006 Adams produced Willie Nelson’s Songbird, with the Cardinals as backing band; ’07 brought Easy Tiger, an extra half an album in the form of an EP, and a gorgeous string of acoustic shows through the spring and summer. If you aren’t flustered by bittorrent and FLAC, do yourself a favor and go get this one right now. You’re welcome.
Adams also began an enchanting musical partnership with Phil Lesh, the bass player from the Grateful Dead, in 2005, with Adams joining the band for some Lesh gigs, including a noteworthy New Year’s Eve show. Lesh continued to include Adams songs in his repertoire long after, and they sounded great alongside the Dead, Beatles, Van Morrison, Band, and Dylan songs he also covers. I saw Phil Lesh & Friends on February 19, 2006, and in the first set they moved from “China Cat Sunflower” into the Adams nugget “Cold Roses,” then segued via jam into the Jerry Garcia solo tune “Cats Under the Stars.” I was sure many there mistook the Adams song for an old Garcia original they couldn’t quite place.
The Cardinals kept getting better, Adams sobered up, put out Cardinology in 2008, released 10 free albums of hip hop, metal, and studio tomfoolery through his website, married Mandy Moore, and retired from music. So now you’re all caught up.
Really, a hell of a decade, in terms of both quantity and quality. If he never plays another note, for my money he’s already a hall of famer.
Herewith, the list.
OK then. Enough preamble. Here’s the amble. As a rule, I tried to include only one title per artist; there are two exceptions to that rule, Ryan Adams and Ani DiFranco. Derek Trucks came damn near putting another one here as well. And don’t sweat the actual numerical rankings too much; I didn’t. There’s a standard error of about 3-5 slots.
My second honorable mention is Ani DiFranco. In the late ‘90s I knew of her as a “punk/folk” singer who had her own record label; but my wife, who I met in 1997, was a fan, and it wasn’t long before we made our way to a show together (With Kerry Carley and Donna Moran). Seeing Ani live made me a believer; I remember leaving my party to wander closer to get a better look at Ani and band during the slow jam “Come Away From It.”
40. Tan Sleeve, Bad From Both Sides (2003): Tan Sleeve is Lane Steinberg and Steve Barry, who had been two thirds of the secret/legendary ‘80s power pop band The Wind. Even more important, I went to summer camp with Lane.
Bad From Both Sides is, for me, their best work, a lovely invocation of the Big Bs (Beatles, Beach Boys, Big Star, Bert Bacharach.) Check out their exquisite cover of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” perhaps my favorite rock coverage of Henry Mancini. I also love “Equidistant,” “Destruction,” and “It Doesn’t Snow in New York Anymore.” In addition to being melodic and poppy, they’re also eclectic and funny.
And I can’t say this enough; Lane, I’m sorry about that incident with the softball in 1972.
39. Beck, Sea Change (2002):
Beck is hit or miss for me, and his biggest hits aren’t my biggest hits. I liked Tropicalia, loved the totally funkadelic Midnight Vultures. On Sea Change the smart nerdy techno white guy gets his heart broke, and he writes some of his most human and direct songs ever; “Lost Cause” will break your heart. I love albums that have a sound to them; this one does. It is sad and gauzy and floaty and white and atmospheric, and it stands apart from the rest of Beck’s catalog for the rawness of the songwriting and the directness of the presentation.
38. Mudcrutch, Mudcrutch (2008): Mudcrutch were a bunch of kids from northern Florida who moved out to LA in the early ‘70s to make a record and become rock stars. The record company wasn’t so keen on the sessions, but they liked the bass player. So long story short, the bass player moves over to rhythm guitar, a couple of line-up changes, and presto! Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Mudcrutch finally went and made their breakthrough record in 2008. If it had come out in the early ‘70s it would have placed them squarely in the Eagles/Burritos school of country rock (Mudcrutch guitarist Tom Leadon’s brother Bernie actually played in both those bands.) Lots of Southern California style country rock with all members singing, although Petty clearly sings the most. Heartbreakers Benmont Tench (keys) and Mike Campbell (guitar) are both always studs; of particular note amongst all the laid back country rock is a nine-minute track called “Crystal River” which, Petty said in concert at the Fillmore in April ’08, “runs through Florida… and occasionally my mind.” The song builds and flows like Neil Young’s “Down by the River,” melodically evocative of “White Bird,” and is a tour de force for Campbell, one of rock’s most underrated players, who usually does his thing in a tightly structured song (think “American Girl” or “Listen to Her Heart”) but here gets to take his time exploring, climbing, crafting some of the best guitar work of the year.
Late in ’08 they put out a live EP with an even better version of “Crystal River,” plus a killer take on Jerry Lee Lewis’s “High School Confidential.”
37. Susan Tedeschi, Wait for Me (2002)
I came very close to including her 2005 Hope and Desire, a great soul record on which she put down the guitar, gave her regular band the record off, and worked with producer Joe Henry; the album is a cousin to the Solomon Burke release elsewhere on this list. But Wait for Me is really Suzie T in the pocket. If Bonnie Raitt and Buddy Guy had a baby in the ‘70s, that baby would be Susan Tedeschi. And as Mrs. Derek Trucks, she’s a part of the Allman Brothers traveling road show as well.
Wait for Me is hard not to like if you dig the blues. She sings the hell out of everything, including “Gonna Move” and “The Feeling Music Brings,” both originals and signature songs now; and her killer-diller cover of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” (even better than the Four Seasons!) The live album from Austin City Limits is also pretty good and might even be more essential; it has all three of those songs, some of her other signature tunes (“Lost Lover Blues”), and also “Angel From Montgomery,” so you can make your own Bonnie Raitt comparisons. But for some reason I tend to shy away from live recordings on these lists; probably because it’s hard to tell where the live albums, the “official bootlegs,” and the actual bootlegs leave off and pick up; for example, I’d probably direct you to 10 commercially available concert recordings from the Allmans before I’d point you to their actual “live album” from the decade, One Way Out (which is way good, but not as good as, for instance, 8/24/04.)
36. New Pornographers, Electric Version (2003):
Along with Wilco and the Shins, this is a band I really wish I “got.” A Canadian indie-rock super-group including Neko Case, who I mention because she sings country songs and is a redhead, the Pornographers have put out four albums this decade of quirky guitar rock that you want to call power pop, only it isn’t, not really. The music is full of hooks, but they are inverted, subverted, combined, twisted, layered, delayed, so that they come at you but in very non-traditional forms; not a lot of verse-chorus-verse here. These are the kind of songs you have to hear 15 times before they sound catchy; then you can’t get them out of your head.
I don’t know what the consensus is, but Electric Version, the second, is my favorite. (Editor's note: after I posted this, Ron Everhart wrote to tell me he thinks Twin Cinema is probably the best of the four New Pornographers records. Knowing Ron, he's probably right.)
35. She and Him, Volume One (2008)
She being Zooey Deschanel, indie film sweetheart, him being M. Ward, indie rock sweetheart. This is a cheerful collection of folksy pop songs, definitely and deliberately evocative of the radio fare of the ‘60s and ‘70s (the two covers: the Beatles, Smokey Robinson.) Your wife will totally love this. And you can play it for your work friends if you don’t want to go with Norah Jones.
34. Jack Johnson, Sing-Alongs and Lullabies From Curious George (2006)
On Paper I should love Jack Johnson, surfer dude, mellow king. Sometimes he's so mellow, though, you're afraid he might rot.
This plays like a kids’ record, plain and simple, the soundtrack from the Curious George movie. And I had a 2-year-old when it came out. And, well… it’s breezy, giddy, wistful, full of great songs, irresistible for kids of all ages. A great record for a family drive on a lazy spring day.
33. Gov’t Mule, Banks of the Deep End volume 1 (2001)
Obviously a band best served live. When bass player Allen Woody, Warren Haynes’s best friend and musical partner, died in 2000 Haynes embarked on a three-year period of catharsis, wherein he channeled pain into passion by writing, playing, and touring, splitting time between three different bands (Mule, Lesh, the Allmans) while opening shows as a solo act. He used work as therapy, bestowing upon us a ton of great work in the process. This is the first of a series of Deep End projects that included 2 CDs, a live CD/DVD, and a movie, all of which were specifically done in tribute to Woody’s memory, with a pantheon of different bass players anchoring the now-bottomless Mule throughout.
While the Mule records are generally calling cards for the live shows, and fans generally quickly put aside the formal album releases for official and unofficial live recordings, this one merits a place here, because it includes many of Haynes’s best-loved and best written songs: the beautiful ballads “Banks of the Deep End” and “Beautifully Broken”; jam band anthem “Soulshine” (already on an Allman Brothers album); the jazz instrumental “Sco-Mule”; and scorcher “Worried Down With the Blues,” a staple of Allman Brothers shows since the mid-90s. There’s also an absolutely smokin’ 9-minute read on the Creedence song “Effigy” that will put hair on your chest.
Haynes can’t decide if he’s a soul man, an ass kicker, or a singer-songwriter. At his best he’s all three. He’s at his best here.
32. Bob Dylan, Modern Times (2006):
If you would have said, 25 years ago (twenty-five years!) that Bob Dylan would be a vibrant, relevant artist doing some of the best work of his career in the 21st century, you would most surely have been branded as a madman (and who could have quarreled with that assessment, just projecting forward off the trajectory from Blood on the Tracks to Empire Burlesque?) Yet here we are, with this grizzled old blues cat from another time, making records the old fashioned way, and making them really, really well.
31. King Crimson, The Power to Believe (2003) :
:Crim goes through periods of activity and inactivity. The activity had ended in 1996, followed by a phase wherein subsets of the 6-man line-up convened as the “ProjeKCts” for musical experimentation. In 2000 one of those ProjeKCts became King Crimson again, putting out The Construction of Light. It wasn’t quite there; frankly the songs, and Belew’s lyrics, weren’t up to snuff. Several EPs and tours later came The Power to Believe, a beautiful, terrifying work that sounds more than anything else like the shattering of spun crystal. My wife says King Crimson makes her want to kill someone; my friend Henry considers this an apt description, and a compliment.
30. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002): This album sounds like nothing so much as songs falling apart, like a sad somewhat alt.country record slipping out of song form and getting sucked into a lost vortex of static and radio noise. Which is great; I’ve been fond of the “song form decaying into chaos” gambit since Jefferson Airplane came out of “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil” with “A Small Package of Great Value Will Come to You, Shorty,” 45 years ago. So I’m still not quite sure why it’s supposed to be so effing brilliant when Wilco or Radiohead (see also, “Kid A”) does it.
Be that as it may, I do like the shtick when it’s done well and with heart, and Wilco does a nice job here. Wilco is definitely a band I wish I “got.” Like the Shins and the New Pornographers, I’m sure that one day I’ll put in the time and Wilco will just snap into place for me. So I’ve got that to look forward to. Foxtrot does have a beguiling and alluring quality to it, and it takes you on a sonic journey, starting here, ending way the hell over there. It’s still a good listen, and if it isn’t as revelatory as the rock cognoscenti would have you believe, you still ought to own it.
29. Paul McCartney, Memory Almost Full (2007): Every record he’s put out since Flaming Pie has been heralded as a return to his Beatle sound. None of them are. To my ears, since Linda died he’s sounded old, brittle, and mortal, which is not how I like my whimsy served, and frankly, some people just want to fill the world with silly love songs. Undermine the whimsy on a McCartney album and what have you got left?
On Memory Almost Full, which vies with the Fireman release (Macca with producer Flood) as his best of the decade, Paul doesn’t find his inner Beatle, but oddly enough, he does locate his inner Wings. “Mr. Bellamy” is clearly more than a passing acquaintance of Mrs. Vanderbilt, “Dance Tonight” has the full-on whimsy mojo and it’s not hard to imagine it on Ram or Red Rose Speedway, and the medley toward the end—including “Vintage Clothes” and “That Was Me”—strings some unbelievably likable songs together while revisiting his Beatle past: “Mersey beat n' with the band, that was me.” Some of my pop friends thought Chaos and Creation was the real deal, but having Radiohead’s producer do Macca was not a good idea. No, this is the real goods—“Gratitude,” “Ever Present Past,” Only Mama Knows”—maybe a final burst of melodic genius from the cute one. It took me three plays to fall into this record, and I haven’t fallen out yet. Well done, Sir Paul.
28. Lucinda Williams, World Without Tears (2003): Of course you loved 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road—it was the great album you knew Lu had in her. Then Essence came out and you were all, WTF? And then World Without Tears came out, and you were all, OK, that’s the follow-up to Car Wheels I was craving. World Without Tears is brutally honest, gripping, at times raw, at times melancholy. But it sounds great, especially her weary slur in “Ventura” and “Those Three Days.” Her best of the decade, and I think a great album.
27. Future Clouds and Radar, Future Clouds and Radar (2007): Robert Harrison’s Cotton Mather made one of the best pop records of the ‘90s (Kon Tiki, which sounded like John Lennon fronting Big Star in 1979.) FC&R is his next band. Their debut is the kind of album they invented the word “sprawling” for. Vintage psychedelic rave-ups give way to gorgeous pop songs and vice versa. It’s a double album of classical rock and power pop psychedelia, with that everything-but-the-kitchen-sink effect that usually means genius, over-indulgence, or both. Here I’d have to call it some of both.
26. Thad Cockrell and Caitlin Cary, Begonias (2005): Caitlin Cary was in Whiskeytown for a spell, and is one of Tres Chicas. I’m not really familiar with Cockrell outside of this album; Wikipedia tells me he has three solo records out as well. Begonias is an album of country duets, beautifully played and sung, mostly sad songs, which is how you want your country duets. The first song, “Two Different Things,” leads into the chorus with, “What I want and what I got are…”
I’ve given this record as a gift several times, including, apparently, to my brother on two different occasions (both times with the Ollabelle debut.)
Also of note, the country duet records made by Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez, which if you like this, you are sure to like as well; I’d recommend Red Dog Tracks.
25. Ani DiFranco, Evolve (2003): Evolve was the sound of a folksinger shedding her skin. Ani had begun playing with her 4-piece band around 1997, added horns, made Reveling/Reckoning, made a DVD and a live album… and that arc was done. By 2002 she was playing solo shows (see her official bootleg from Carnegie Hall), and while her band is on Evolve, the record always sounded to me like Ani poking her beak out of the shell, looking toward the next musical plateau. Indeed there is a butterfly on the cover, and an egg on the actual CD. On the title track I hear just Ani’s voice and guitar, and I do not believe that is a coincidence (“We are trying to be born… we are trying to evolve.”) The shows around the time of Evolve, which first featured these songs, were without band, and Ani was a girl-with-a-guitar for a good 18 months before beginning to flesh out to her next band, adding Todd Sickafoose on upright acoustic bass (when I peruse my collection of her official bootlegs, it looks like he shows up in the Spring of 2004.)
Ani put out a couple of records next that didn’t grab me (Standing Stone and Knuckle Down) but by 2008’s Red Letter Year, and with husband and baby daughter in tow, Ani had gone all happy on our asses—including a lyric reminding herself, “Don’t forget to have a good time.” As a three-piece or four-piece, anchored by Sickafoose, who hangs on her every movement, giving back precisely the note, the riff, the melody she needs, Ani now sings happy songs, a strange happenstance for her core audience, and not least for the little folksinger herself. The happy songs are lovely, and it turns out you can find happily ever after and still write a great song. For me, the arc to that place begins on Evolve, a funky, catchy, forward-looking piece of art that will make your ears dance.
24. Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker (2000): The record that announced to the world that the wild drunken front man for Whiskeytown was gonna be a contenda. Full of aching, heart-breaking, beautiful alt.country ballads, and if you were inclined to miss the lineage from Gram Parsons, he makes sure you don’t by singing one of the prettiest ones here as a duet with Emmylou Harris. There are some rockers (“To Be Young”), but the best songs are the soft ones: “My Winding Wheel,” “Oh My Sweet Carolina” (with Emmylou), “Come Pick Me Up,” “Why Do They Leave.”
Heartbreaker showed up on several best-of-the-decade lists, but for me it wasn’t Adams’s high water mark; it was an incantation. At his worst, he’s whiny, weepy, wallowing, sloppy and self-indulgent. At his best, well, let’s just admit that each of those descriptors has been applied to Dylan and Neil Young at some time or another. He’s not the voice of a generation, but he makes great records. Next up he’d make a great rock’n’roll record (Gold) and soon he’d be fronting one of the best live bands around.
23. Florapop, Sunshine Saturday (2003): Florapop is a married couple who named their kid McCartney, and that ought to tell you about 40% of what you need to know here. This record sold, I’d wager, maybe 5,000 copies, but I’m damn glad one of them was to me. It is Beach Boys-inspired, California sunshine pop, a nostalgic romp through the days of your youth (if you’re about my age) when you’d look forward all week to watching cartoons on Saturday morning. The music is a paean to being a kid, and being carefree, and to Saturdays and sunshine and color. The way they manage to evoke the whimsy and innocence and feel of those times is truly uncanny; I don’t know if they’re evoking being 12 universally, or specifically being 12 in 1971 or so, but it sure works on me. When I told Mark Flora in an email that the record sounded to me the way a sweet tart tasted (the big ones, the ones that filled your mouth with sugar, but there was no way to bite them so you just stuffed it in and sucked) (and no, that wasn’t dirty), he took that as a compliment. Which it was. I break this out early every summer, for those carefree days on the beach.
22. Los Super Seven, Heard It on the X (2005): They started off half Los Lobos spin-off, half Tex-Mex supergroup. On this, their third record, there is nary a Lobo in sight. The X is a tribute to the border radio of the ‘50s and ‘60s—the title track is a ZZ Top cover referencing the powerful Mexican stations that beamed all across Texas (Mexican radio station call letters begin with the letter X.) The record features more Tex than usual but still plenty of Mex, with a core band including Calexico (we like them a lot) and Austin guitar hero Charlie Sexton, and different vocalists offering up Tex-Mex border radio staples. So you get treats like John Hiatt singing “I’m Not That Kat (Anymore),” Lyle Lovett blowing the doors off of “My Window Faces the South,” Joe Ely nailing Bobby Fuller’s “Let Her Dance,” and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown singing “See That my Grave is Kept Clean.” And Delbert McClinton, Raul Malo, Freddie Fender forchrissakes, Rodney Crowell, Rick Trevino… all in all, a great romp through a great sound, a great batch of songs (two, fittingly, by Doug Sahm.)
21. U2, All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000): You have to hand it to U2. Same four guys, and a supergroup in the ‘80s, the ‘90s, and the ‘00s. Has anyone else managed to do that?
You loved 1987’s Joshua Tree, don’t try and tell me you didn’t. But that record was the culmination of a drive to the top of the heap that finally saw them get too big, too earnest, too mythic. Afterward, there was only one way for U2 to go—and that was to deflate the myth, to go all ironic on your ass. Hence most of the ‘90s; Zoo TV, the Fly, and Pop. But by 2000 U2 had gotten to a place where they could push through the sly wink and just make a kickass rock record again, and fortuitously they chose to do so. In an interview, Bono described this album as U2 re-applying for the title of world’s greatest rock band.
Their work this decade was strong—three fine records, and at least as much stuff released to the fan club (some of it better than the official records)—but the first one was the very best, wherein they go back to doing what they do beat, which is making the hair on your knuckles stand up. You knew they were back 5 seconds into the first song (“Elevation.”)
Live, of course, they have remained one of the very best bands in rock.
20. Sufjan Stevens, Come On Feel the Illinoise (2005): Freak folk was a trend I tried to go with, just to prove to myself my ears weren’t old, until one too many Devendra Banhart records made me give it all up. But this sucker is a heck of a piece of work, and was Paste’s best of the decade. It doesn’t rate that highly here, because I don’t fine myself called back to it; I actually rated it more highly when it was out than I do with a couple years passed.
Stevens was supposedly going to record an album for each state—he’d done Michigan already. Of course that conceit would have required him to live to about 140. This weird, brittle work doesn’t sound like Illinois—I’d expect the state to sound more like Buddy Guy, whereas on Illinoise, as I wrote in my round-up of the best of 2005, “One minute vocals and acoustic guitar, the next synths and glockenspiel and he's channeling Phillip Glass.”
There are titles here like “Casamir Pulaski Day,” and “Decatur, or a Round of Applause for Your Stepmother.” A lot of people have pointed to the eerie piano ballad, “John Wayne Gacy,” as a highlight, me included. Gacy, of course, was a notorious Illinois-born serial killer; here’s a spooky video of the song.
In April 2008 when I happened to be in Chicago for the Counting Crows appearance at the Apple Store, I asked them what records they’d liked recently. Duritz waxed immediately about Illinoise, and even said that they built one of the songs on the “Sunday Mornings” half of their ’08 album around the piano part from “John Wayne Gacy.” If you’re reading, Adam, I forgot which one, and sorry you didn’t make the list.
19. Robert Plant and Alison Kraus, Raising Sand (2007): Raising Sand won album of the year at the 2009 Grammys, so I guess my tastes are pretty mainstream after all…
For me, the artist here is producer T-Bone Burnett. No offense intended to the blond prima donna (or to Alison Kraus), but Burnett has quietly weaved one of the most compelling discographies of the decade, beginning with the sound track to O Brother Where Art Thou? (which triggered a bluegrass resurgence, and featured Ms. Kraus); and including but not limited to soundtracks to both Cold Mountain and a Mighty Wind, and fine records by Elvis Costello, the BoDeans, John Mellencamp, BB King, and Warren Zevon’s last, The Wind. Oh, and this.
Bluegrass queen Kraus and—well, I’m sure you know Plant, he took his shirt off a lot in the ‘70s, yowled on blues songs, and was in a band with a guy who played guitar with a bow, and who collectively achieved some degree of popularity. Anyway, somehow, the Appalachian roots of Kraus and the Celtic roots of Plant (and believe me, his roots are showing) meet smack dab in the middle of T-Bone’s rootsy acoustic Americana. Burnett plays acoustic guitars and brings out the usual crew—including stringed instrument whizzes Norman Blake, Greg Liesz, and Marc Ribot. The result is a timeless, moody, spooky music, the two voices melding like otherworldly aches, over the most tasteful picking you’re likely to find. I didn’t get to see them live, but I’m sure it was a drag dealing with the aging frat boys standing on chairs hollering “Whole Lotta Love!”
18. Calexico, Hot Rail (2000): Calexico is a Tucson-based band that brings an indie-rock sensibility to Tex-Mex border music. This is Americana with a distinctly Tejano, mariachi vibe, right down to the trumpet. Feast of Wire, from 2003, and Carried to Dust (2008) are also fine records, although Garden Ruin (2006) strays from the organic rootsy sound that they do best and plays too slick. There was also an EP with Iron and Wine in 2005, and a supporting co-headlining tour where each band played separately and then they did the EP together, and that was a musical highlight of the decade as well.
Hot Rail was strongly recommended to me by a man known only as the Tour Mystic… it is a beautiful and spooky thing, a late night record, recorded from a mythical place where Tejano and classic Coltrane meet up, with a dash of Sketches of Spain for good measure. It is border radio re-imagined as make-out jazz. And Hot Rail is the kind of record where the silences—the notes they choose not to play—say as much as the notes they do play. The music breathes, occupies its own space in your living room. Go there, don’t mind the smoky haze, and be careful not to drink the worm.
17. Cloud Eleven, Orange and Green and Yellow and Near (2002): Cloud Eleven is really one guy, Rick Gallego, although ably assisted here by contemporary Cali posters (and Brian Wilson band members) Nelson Bragg (who’s own Day Into Night was a candidate for this list) and Probyn Gregory. The title is a line from a Byrds song, but it also describes the music herein. This album comes straight from some parallel version of 1968, Southern California sunshine with some buzzy kick and bite, kind of like if Roger McGuinn and George Harrison had joined the Beach Boys after Smiley Smile. If in fact this record had come out in 1968, we’d all know it as a classic. Gorgeous vocals and harmonies, great concise pop songs that will make your ears happy. There were a lot of so-called movements and trends in music in the ‘00s; I wish the resurgence of SoCal sunshine pop, which generally orbited around Brian Wilson and the people who moved through his touring band, had garnered as much attention as, say, bands from Brooklyn who were influenced by Duran Duran.
16. Fleetwood Mac, Say You Will (2003): Or more accurately, the nine Lindsey Buckingham tunes on the proper album plus the Lindsey-sung Dylan cover on the bonus EP. Lindsey is one of my favorites, and he actually put out two solo albums in the decade, plus a live record (making the’00s an insanely productive time for him.) I wanted Lindsey on this list because he’s one of my absolute favorites, but I keep coming back to his songs on this record, more than either of the solo works, although both (Gift of Screws and Under the Skin) contain some solid gems.
In the mid-90s Lindsey cut a solo record tentatively titled Gift of Screws as follow-up to the gorgeous Out of the Cradle. For reasons that elude me, it never came out. So when it was time for Fleetwood Mac to reunite and shift some units, he had a trove of tunes all ready; even better, serendipity-wise, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood were already on a bunch of ‘em. So all that remained was to layer on some Stevie Nicks vocal tracks, and voila! Fleetwood Mac songs.
Nicks didn’t want to do “Come,” a scathing Buckingham FU to an ex-girlfriend that she feared people would think was about her. (Really? Still?) But we know it’s actually about Anne Heche.
A couple of the Nicks songs are OK—in particular the title track—but then, not a one of them made it onto my iPod. This is on my list as the best Lindsey Buckingham record of the decade.
15. Solomon Burke, Don’t Give Up On Me (2002): Please, for the love of God, can I get a witness?
One of several great, true soul music records produced by Joe Henry in the decade (also including Susan Tedeschi’s Hope and Desire, which almost made this list, and the multi-artist session I Believe to My Soul, and the Costello/Toussaint collaboration The River in Reverse.)
But this is Burke’s show. Henry’s talent here is to facilitate while staying out of the way; on the liner notes he describes himself as the corner man to Burke’s boxer. The album was recorded live in the studio in LA over a four-day period, and features guest spots by Daniel Lanois on guitar, and by the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. The songs are mostly unrecorded originals (some written specifically for Burke) by people like Tom Waits, Brian Wilson, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe. Not too shabby. The band is in the pocket and perfect and restrained, falling like autumn leaves around the vocal arrangement Burke brings to the take. Burke’s own church organist, Rudy Copeland, falls in like a second skin, an instrumental response to Burke’s incantations, putting the spell in Gospel.
Because Don’t Give Up On Me was recorded live in the studio, and is comprised of songs the players were learning at the time, you can hear the music breathe as the songs take on form and life. You’ll listen to this, marvel at how fresh it sounds—contemporary recording technology applied to the kind of soul music they mostly stopped making when Al Green first hung it up-- and wonder why no one makes records like this anymore. I’m going to guess, it’s because not many can. Call it the make-out record of the century, call it an old pro doing what he does best, call it a lesson in love and soul-- but by God, call it!
14. The Little Willies, The Little Willies (2006): In 2002, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone who wanted to play you this great new album by this great new singer—Come Away With Me by Norah Jones. You heard it in Starbucks, at the chiropractor, in your wife’s friend’s car. Naturally, all this ubiquity put me off it (I couldn’t listen to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours until 1983); my reaction to Norah at the time was a desire to go back to an earlier Jones, Rickie Lee, of whose work I found Norah to be derivative…
…much better this release, from one of Norah’s numerous fun side projects. The Little Willies are a sort of urban hipster country band, the name referring to their alleged beginning as a Willie Nelson cover outfit. The Willies included Norah, then-producer-boyfriend Lee Alexander on bass, and the always exquisite Richard Julian (the ill-rewarding “songwriter’s songwriter”) sharing vocal and guitar duties. The band’s zeitgeist is perhaps best captured on the closing track, “Lou Reed,” wherein that quintessential black-clad Manhattan hipster is observed going cow tipping. A mix of covers and originals, including the Leiber/Stoller Elvis tune “Love Me,” the country song “Streets of Baltimore” that I’ll always associate with Gram Parsons, and of course two Willie Nelson tracks. This one stuck in my CD player for months; it still rewards, and is instantly likable and fun.
13. Lewis Taylor, The Lost Album (2007): The Lost Album was originally slated to come out in the ‘90s (when Taylor was a Brit blue-eyed soul man.) It is a poppy, colorful summertime romp, full of ringing and harmonies and colorful guitars.
This is one of those records where you’re going to want to play “spot the influences,” so let me make it easy for you. The Beach Boys are in there for sure (in fact on another record Taylor covers Brian Wilson’s “Melt Away”). But the biggest influence by far is Todd Rundgren (and Taylor has been known to encore live with Todd’s “Everybody’s Going to Heaven/King Kong Reggae” medley from the 1973 Todd album.).
A lot of other artists have mined the Todd-and-Beach-Boys vein to good effect (the one-man bands New Radicals, A Simple Carnival, and June and the Exit Wounds come immediately to mind, and maybe even Matthew Sweet.) But what separates Taylor, I think, is the way he manages to run amok in his own record, laying down the tracks, the lead instruments, the vocals, the harmonies… and then sort of dancing and squirting colorful joy all over the top, supplementing the studio craft with unchecked id. Especially vibrant and noteworthy—and most evocative of Rundgren’s early-mid period work—is the Jackson Pollack way Taylor uses lead guitar to splay color across the outros of songs.
So sure, this record is derivative, and if that puts you off, so be it. But I’d argue that all the best music is derivative, the sound of artist or artists assimilating something that came before and making something new, or pushing what came before forward in some way. Taylor might not actually be breaking a whole lot of new ground here, but if you want a soundtrack to doing the snoopy dance on the beach, here it is.
12. Alejandro Escovedo, A Man Under the Influence (2001): One of Bruce Springsteen’s favorites, and one of America’s great and tragically unsung voices, Escovedo made a lot of fine music this decade (By the Hand of the Father, Real Animal, and especially the live string quartet recording Room of Songs). But this album was his best. It was produced by the dBs’ Chris Stamey, who was fresh off his work on an unreleased Whiskeytown album, and features ex-Whiskeytown members Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary. But really this is all Escovedo, pure border town grit and heartbreak, part Freddie Fender, part Lou Reed, part Chuck Berry, part Iggy Pop, part Keith Richards. It’s basic Americana rock-n-roll at its best, Austin Texas style.
There really isn’t much else to say. He’ll break your heart and shake your moneymaker, sometimes in the same song.
11. Jim Boggia, Fidelity is the Enemy (2001): Shortly after 9/11 I found myself working the merch table at a Saturday afternoon show for David Bash’s International Pop Overthrow festival in New York City. The first act was a guy from Philly with an acoustic guitar, slated to play a solo set (I knew he was from Philly because I heard him on the phone talking about what song he wanted to do for a George Harrison tribute, and he said “Wah-Wah—the song, not the store.”) He sound checked with a lovely version of the Beatles song “Long Long Long” (Also a Harrison tune.) When he brought me his CDs to sell, he reveled in showing me all the Beatle and classic pop-inspired touches—the name of the label (Scrapple), the apple on the CD itself. “I threw in every cheap trick in the book!” (About which, we agreed, capital C, capital T was probably more appropriate.) The booklet to my copy of Fidelity is the Enemy is inscribed, “To Josh—thanks for selling me. Jim Boggia.” I sold 18 of them that day—most I’ve ever moved.
It is possible that Safe in Sound or Misadventures in Stereo are better records—they certainly sound like they had more money behind them—but this one is my sentimental favorite and absolutely remains the one I’m closest to; I think probably the home-made feel of it serves to enhance its charm. Like all of Jim’s work, it is imbibed with the feel of the Beatles, and of classic sixties and seventies rock and pop in general. His catalog is essentially an homage to his (and my) record collection—songs with titles like “Bubblegum 45s” (on this one), “Listening to NRBQ,” and “8 Track;” an EP of Beatle tunes; and his brilliant covers of the Faces (“Debris”), Queen (“Somebody to Love,” spot on, just voices and acoustic guitar), and especially the Kinks “Waterloo Sunset,” which includes his brilliant deconstruction of, and master class on, the backing vocals on the original.
In the liner notes to Fidelity Jim calls it his “love letter to Pop music,” and he references Mal Evans, Todd Rundgren, Paul McCartney, Emmitt Rhodes, Brian Wilson, and Jon Brion. A group of artists who, collectively, triangulate this record pretty well. I love it, and I love Boggia. (special note: I played with Jim live once—him on piano, me on invisible trumpet, backing Jill Sobule at Joe’s Pub on “Cinnamon Park.”)
If great Pop music is bad for you, then Jim Boggia is a casualty. I’d like to think I’m right there with him.
10. Drive-By Truckers, Southern Rock Opera (2001): I came late to this band, first hearing 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, then doubling back to check this one out. More exploration is clearly indicated.
If I told you that this double-album was a rock opera about Lynyrd Skynyrd, you’d probably think I was pulling your leg. But it is. Ultimately it is about more; it’s about coming of age as a rocker in the south in the early ‘70s, but damn if that doesn’t make it very much about Lynyrd Skynyrd, who are central throughout, and who’s tragic story frames, provides context for the piece. Southern Rock Opera is about “the southern thing,” coming to grips with the baggage of, and then finding redemption for, the culture and heritage of the south. The pantheon of Alabama luminaries is a three-headed Mount Rushmore here—Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zandt, football coach Bear Bryant, and George Wallace, who’s own story—embodying the racism of the south that made it so easy for Yankees to generalize, then winning 80% of the black vote the last time he ran—is presented as one of many microcosms of the paradoxical nature of that “southern thing.”
There’s a lot of drinking and bad behavior; the very first song ends in a tragedy, with the protagonist’s best buddy and girlfriend in a fatal car accident the day before high school graduation; when they tell of it the next day, everybody says that “Freebird” was playing on the stereo. And it goes from there, two sprawling records, the first set in the ‘70s, the second set in the present. Of course there are three guitars, like in Skynyrd, but this doesn’t sound strictly like southern rock to me, not unless you count Exile on Main Street as southern rock. Which I do, sort of.
Southern Rock Opera is a work of art that is distinctly of the American south, with a consistent, compelling, and subversively intelligent narrative (I don’t think the Truckers want you to know how literate and smart they are, because they wouldn’t want the other good ol’ boys to find out.) It is almost gothic novel as rock’n’roll record. So you can follow the narrative arc and appreciate what the band has to say about the southern experience; or you can just lose yourself in all those guitars. For artful narrative, holistic cohesion across two sprawling discs, and for the sheer gritty rocking out that ensues, I have no choice but to mark this one of the decade’s best.
9. Ollabelle, Ollabelle (2004): Ollabelle is a roots rock ensemble usually fronted by Levon Helm’s daughter Amy, who are part of papa Levon’s Midnight Ramble musical universe. This, their debut album, is pure lightning in a bottle, like the Cowboy Junkies record Trinity Sessions; a document of something magical, the spooky whole exceeding the sum of its parts. I first heard of Ollabelle when they opened for Ryan Adams at the Beacon in late 2004; Adams sat in on guitar, set up unobtrusively in the back.
I don’t know if Ollabelle are religious, but this is a deeply religious, spiritual, gospel sort of record. Just look at the song titles; “Elijah Rock,” “No More My Lawd,” a spooky, haunting take on the old blues “John the Revelator”, and two songs with Jesus in the title (and he pretty much shows up in every song here.) The record plays like, and feels like, a revivalist river baptism.
I met Tony Leone, the drummer from Ollabelle, outside the Beacon at a 2007 Allman Brothers show; he wanted to get inside. He just kind of casually mentioned that his band had played the Beacon recently, and so I asked him what band. Since Allman Brothers Tour Manager Kirk West is big Ollabelle fan, that was good enough to get him a backstage pass.
8. Josh Rouse, 1972 (2003): If my wife were to make a list like this, Rouse would occupy several of the top-10 slots. This record, a tribute to the year both he and his guitar were born, was supposed to be musically evocative of the time. I can’t decide whether it is or it isn’t (the opening line of the first track: “She was feeling 1972, grooving to a Carol King tune…”) But it is lush, poppy, folky, soulful, certainly drawing influence from ‘70s soul of the “Betcha By Golly Wow” variety, as well as ‘70s singer-songwriters of the James Taylor variety, not to mention ‘70s pop like “Brand New Key” or “Brandy.” The net effect is that this is sheer ear candy, in continued heavy rotation at our place. “Love Vibration,” “Come Back (Light Therapy),” and “Rise” are probably my favorite tracks, with funky percolating bass underneath pretty melodies and plaintive singing.
Each record Rouse has put out since has been lovely; Nashville, Substitulo, and City Mouse, Country Mouse, not to mention his various EPs and download-only releases. Next time your wife’s friend plays you the Norah Jones record, play her some Josh Rouse. She’ll love you for it.
7. Todd Rundgren, Liars (2004): In my formative musical youth, I was a fanatical Todd fan from, say, 1978 through 1985. I loved his work. But by the time this century rolled around, I’d kind of written him off as a contemporary artist. He’d put out The Individualist, a middling effort, in 1995; then a record of bossa nova versions of his own hits, and Up Against It, a record of show tunes he’d composed for a play of the same name, which is pretty much unlistenable. Then there was One Long Year, a weak accumulation of the odds and ends he’d already put out through his ill-fated Patronet online music service… and that was it. For my money, by 2004 this wizard, this true star, hadn’t put out a notable album since 1993’s No World Order.
And then this. Thematically constructed around the concept of the lies we tell each other (and ourselves), Liars is a brilliant, textured, synthetic work that ranks, for me, among his 5 best albums ever.
Like a lot of Todd’s work over the years, Liars sounds like the technology with which it was recorded. You hear computers and synthetic sounds, and very little that reminds you of guitars or pianos. But for me, that’s part of the charm of the album; it’s meta-textual, even the music is a lie. Importantly though, the songwriting is outstanding. “Past” and “Sweet” are reminiscent of his Philly soul-style ballads; and “Afterlife” and “Wondering” are nice and poppy, while “Truth” and “Future” could, if rearranged for the appropriate style of the era, fit as songs on any of his best records.
Rolling Stone called Radiohead’s Kid A the best of the decade. I played that and Liars back to back in preparing this list, and I’ll tell you what, I don’t see how anyone could be taken with Kid A and not be blown away by Liars; all the same high-tech trickery, but Liars adds songwriting and soul.
When I saw the Liars tour in Manhattan, I ran into Todd out front, and told him the truth: “I did not see an album this good coming.” He took it as the compliment it was supposed to be. And the tour smoked; the live DVD is recommended as well.
6. Brian Wilson, SmiLE (2004): Let’s get the criticism out of the way first. Wilson is a casualty, he doesn’t even play the keyboard he sits at in concert, and he’s totally propped up by a band of talented acolytes who just want to pretend they’re in the Beach Boys.
Fine. Whatever. SmiLE is a great song cycle, containing some of his greatest compositions (or “teenage symphonies to God”)—“Surf’s Up,” “Heroes and Villains,” “Good Vibrations.” This isn’t the Beach Boys version (if you want that, you can find recreations that follow this running order, assembled by fans off the original tapes.) It has Wilson’s now-brittle, shaky voice at the center, with most of the hard stuff executed by a great cast of supporting musicians who collectively virtually define 21st century California Beach Boys pop—including the Wondermints, Nelson Bragg, and band leader Jeff Foskett (all of whom made records that vied for consideration on this list.) There is so much talent assembled here, all musicians who were raised on this stuff, who totally get it, who have assimilated it until it comes out their pores. And the blueprint, the original song cycle, does indeed turn out to be a work of fractured genius.
A final note. Both SmiLE and my daughter were released in 2004. I played it for her most of the first year of her life; in fact until she was 2 it was a steady diet of SmiLE, Pet Sounds, Beatles (who she still loves), Elvis, and Ricky Nelson. I think it seeped in. To this day she has a killer ear for great pop.
5. Ryan Adams, Gold (2001): This is the album that made me say, “Holy Toledo, I love this guy.”
Gold came out right around 9/11, and in the days and weeks that followed the events of that day, the lead track, “New York,” became something of a rallying cry, a defiant exclamation that “I still love New York.” (Never mind that the song was about a girl, not a city.)
I think I nailed it pretty succinctly at Amazon, where my review is the lead one for this album. Allow me to pilfer from myself, noting that “…the whole thing had masterpiece written all over it from the very first spin at my home in September of 2001. As my wife so aptly said, ‘It has that sweet familiar ring of every album you ever loved as a kid.’ Which, if you are our age, means it feels like Van Morrison, Neil Young, Dylan, Exile-era Stones, like that. It hits you in that ‘Into the Mystic,’ ‘Brown Sugar,’ ‘Everybody Knows This is Nowhere’ place. Do you like that place? Yeah, me too.”
Songs like “Stars Go Blue,” “La Cieniga Just Smiled,” “Answering Bell,” and “Firecracker” sound like you’ve known them all your life. “Somehow, Someday” manages to hit you with two hooks in a row. If there is one criticism about Gold, I’ve heard some say that the first 8 songs are the whole album. While I agree it is front-loaded, those 8 songs alone would make this a great record. And “Wildflowers,” “Harder Now That It’s Over,” and “Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard” aren’t even among them.
4. Derek Trucks Band, Songlines (2006): Jam bands are, it is axiomatic to say, best appreciated live; the fans eagerly buy up the new studio recordings, learn the songs, and then proceed to file them away, opting instead to listen to the live bootlegs that in the digital age are literally a click away at all times. In fact, many so-called “jam bands” probably hate the term, and only merit that description because their art is best appreciated on stage, not in the studio. The two classic Miles Davis Quintets, for example, would be jam bands.
By that circular definition, the Derek Trucks Band is indeed a jam band. So when this studio album came out in 2006, it was quite an accomplishment-- because Trucks and band had managed to take that magic in-the-moment mojo and filter it through the prism of the recording studio, making a near-perfect album that is the ideal combination of great playing and great songs. From the opening invocation, Rashaan Roland Kirk’s “Volunteered Slavery,” through the wistful, soaring “This Sky” that closes the record, every song pulls you in further, tugs you forward, deposits you squarely at the doorstep of the following track. In between, there’s straight-up blues (the 8-bar “Crow Jane,” “Chevrolet”), reggae (a Toots Hibbert cover, “Sailing On”), Sufi world music (the “Sahib Teri Bandi/Maki Madni” Ali Khan medley), and some almost-radio-friendly pop (“I’ll Find My Way,” “I Wish I Knew.”)
Of course, the thread weaving all these styles together is Derek Trucks’ guitar. Only 30 (despite going on his 12th year in the Allman Brothers Band) Trucks is probably the definitive guitarist of his generation, a master of tone and feel. Derek plays guitar like Miles and Coltrane played horns, he is not limited by such conventions as scales and notes, and it often sounds like he’s not so much playing as painting with sound. He is one of those players—like Carlos Santana—whose presence on a record is unmistakable the first time he steps up and solos.
Credit too goes to Count M’butu, whose percussion work also serves to blend and bleed the styles together into a seamless whole.
3. The Jayhawks, Rainy Day Music (2003): Their early records were great, and 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall was, for me, a high point of ‘90s rock’n’roll and the whole “alt.country” twang thang. Then Mark Olson left, and they made another really, really good record (Tomorrow the Green Grass), and then they kind of lost their way. On Rainy Day Music, they found it again.
I always feel like I’m damning a band with faint praise when I compare them so directly to a different band… but this record is very much like an early ‘70s Eagles album, like say the Desperado record, all harmonies and acoustic guitars and electric guitars and weepy, longing, pretty cowboy songs. Rainy Day Music reminds us, if we need reminding, that good songs well-played (on actual, you know, instruments) and well-sung never goes out of style. I think what makes this one so damned good is the songwriting; “Stumbling Through the Dark” (on there twice, just like “Desperado”), “Tailspin,” “All the Right Reasons,” “Save It for a Rainy Day,” and “Angelyne,” to name 5, are just exquisite. I played it in the house recently, and my 5-year-old Beatlemaniac daughter was singing along with songs the first time she was hearing them.
If there is a criticism here, it is that the record is front-loaded; the first four songs on the album are on that list of five songs I rattled off just a second ago. But heck, isn’t that what shuffle is for?
2. Ani DiFranco, Reveling and Reckoning (2001): When I showed up for the ride circa 1998—I’d had a couple of records, but my then-girlfriend; now-wife was a fan, and so we went to see Ani live at Battery Park-- Ani was working with a four-piece band, bringing what had once been thought of as punk-folk into the jam band realm, which was a testimony to how tight and flexible that combo was live. We went to a bunch of shows, the missus and me, and we came to call the young ladies in the crowd “clip girls”—20-somethings with tank tops and spaghetti straps, tattoos, and clips holding their parted hair to either side. They were like the mostly-female version of Phish fans, spinning and twirling to the groovy sounds. Then in 2000 Ani added two horns to the band, which I thought removed some of the live spontaneity—horns requiring charts-- and that’s the line-up that was in place for this sprawling masterpiece.
This might not be her best or most consistent collection of songs (consider Out of Range), but it is, for me, her best record, a double album that captures the arc of a major phase of Ani’s career at its zenith, that is, I think, the only studio work of hers that approaches the shamanic ecstasy of her live work. Reveling is the happy, joyous, break-beat romp; Reckoning is the more traditional folkish meditation, although the two discs each boast some of both styles (and lots of others). Together they comprise a double album, the breadth and scope of which is still, almost nine years later, a thing to behold. There are techno-folk mash-ups (“Aint That the Way”), sound collage poetry (“Tamburitza Lingua”), moody meditations (“Rock Paper Scissors”), achingly beautiful political folk songs (“Your Next Bold Move”), and lovely romantic folk songs (“Imagine That.”) Keep in mind that Ani had put out three albums in the past three years, so this explosion of songs was almost too much to absorb. But it has legs, and we still give these two discs a spin every now and again around our place, and we still love them.
1. Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Cold Roses (2005): I loved this when it came out, it has only grown on me over the years, and I consider it to be a stone cold classic. Not much I can say about it now that I didn’t already say when it came out, here; in that post I mentioned that he is spotty live, but to be clear, the Cardinals are nothing short of outstanding live.
Adams broke his hand in January 2004, took some time off healing, relearning the guitar, and apparently listening to a lot of Grateful Dead; this beautifully crafted double album (one of three records he put out in ’05) is a sort of homage to the Dead’s two acoustic masterpieces, American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead (“Rosebud” is actually about Jerry Garcia’s guitar.). But Cold Roses is a timeless work, country rock that harkens back to Mick Taylor-era Stones, the Band, Neil Young, Van Morrison, and the Band. I know that’s a lot to lay on the guy’s shoulders, but Adams is up to it. Apparently he’s retired from music. I don’t believe that will hold up, but if it does, he’s already given more than his share. Many of the songs on Cold Roses remain staples of Adams and The Cardinals live work through their most recent shows, in early 2009, which helps to codify them as classics: “Magnolia Mountain,” “Let It Ride,” Mockingbird,” “Cold Roses,” “Meadowlake Street”… these are songs that take on beauty with age.
Other artists and records that made the slightly longer short list: Cowboy Junkies (Trinity Sessions Revisited), Derek Trucks (Already Free), Prince (Rainbow Children, 3121, One Night Alone), Flaming Lips (Yoshimi), Ryan Bingham (Mescalito), Dan Zanes (Catch That Train!; imagine John Fogerty making a kids record), the Shins (all three but mainly Chutes Too Narrow), The Silos (When the Telephone Rings), Neil Young (Greendale, which I loved in 2003 but which didn’t age well for me), Radiohead, Iron and Wine, My Morning Jacket, and Modest Mouse.