This is probably the latest I've been with my annual round up. And it's surprising, given that I spent a bunch of time in December at home on painkillers and listening to records (I was recuperating from a hip replacement.) In any case, the wait is over! Here is the much-anticipated round-up of my top-20 favorite albums of the year. As I usually say, this is not intended to be an objective list of the 20 best; it's a list of the 20 albums that this one particular guy liked best. Very much not the same thing.
I usually rag on in this preamble about fidelity and digital and buying hard copy. This year, it crystallized for me that I actually like the experience of buying, and owning, music. It's something I've always known, but maybe took a little bit for granted.
Like all the other cool kids, I subscribe to Spotify, one of the more popular music subscription services; five bucks a month for unlimited streaming of most of the music in the world, to any device I choose (and soon I'm sure I'll be able to choose my refrigerator.) And if you don't mind the ads, you can subscribe for free. Even better, there's Deezer, a high-fidelity music subscription service that I heartily recommend if you can hear the difference (I absolutely can; but if you can't, don't sweat it.) I use and enjoy both at our beach house through Sonos. Indeed I heartily recommend the Sonos/Deezer combo; the two services integrate quit nicely.
But if there is an album that I like, I want to buy a hard copy. If I discover a new record on Deezer or Spotify, and I really like it, then I will buy a copy, even though I can obviously stream the dang thing to my heart's content from any of my seemingly infinite number of connected devices. This makes the kids in the office think I'm a consummate idiot.
But when it comes to music, the concepts of ownership, value, and appreciation are all inextricably intertwined for me. I realized that with some clarity this year-- and I have U2 to thank.
See, I own a hard copy of every U2 record they've commercially released, and a bunch they haven't; some of them, I've bought more than once. But not Songs of Innocence, the one they gave you digitally for free if you have iTunes, whether you wanted it or not.. I saw it in iTunes, listened to it a couple of times, and shrugged it off. Yes, I know it was Rolling Stone's album of the year. But I listened to the free digital copy, wasn't especially moved, and that was that. It's the first and only U2 album I didn't buy. And believe me, if I really dug it I'd have probably bought the CD.
And let's face it. if I'm not gonna buy it, who will?
This U2 experience reinforced for me just how deeply the concept of buying music-- unwrapping the CD or vinyl, admiring the packaging, holding the thing, touching it, smelling it, dusting it off, reading the booklet-- is enmeshed for me with loving music. See, if it hadn't appeared in my iTunes library, I would certainly have bought a copy, held it in my hands, played it on the big living room stereo. And oddly, I feel a little cheated that I didn't get to (but I feel sillier buying a record I already decided was kind of "meh.") I know some of my younger friends will never "get" that, and I understand why. Why buy the cow whene you're getting the milk for free, or something like that. But I think maybe they're missing something...
And I guess I just like cows.
U2 notwithstanding, there were a lot of good records that I did buy in 2014-- a bunch more than the 20 we humbly present here. I thought it was a good year for music. Of course my tastes have so little in common with whatever slim target market the music business still pursues, that my assessment is indeed wholly irrelevant in any sort of objective context. Hell, all I do is buy the stuff; why would anyone target folks like me...
...One nice thing is that this year my list features fewer artists over the age of 60, and more under the age of 30, than has generally been the case.
This was a year where the rankings didn't readily suggest themselves. My choice for number one, I picked out of a bunch of worthy candidates because they are clearly making a GRAB for the top spot. It's the War on Drugs, a young band who were totally new to me, although they've been around four years or so. They've been number one on a couple of lists I've seen, and those lists were compiled by people who are way hipper than me. But there are probably another five or six records here that at some point during the year I considered as my favorite.
I also want to mention Benmont Tench, of all people. He's been a Heartbreaker (as in "Tom Petty and the...") for almost 40 years, and is a crucial architect of that band's perfect wall of rock'n'roll sound. He's made dozens of other people's good records better. This year he put out his first solo record, which makes this list-- in fact, it ranks higher than the record by the mother ship. And he features prominently on the Blake Mills and Ryan Adams-- his trademark organ drives Adams' rock-jam-of-the-summer single, "Gimme Something Good." I haven't bothered to scour the credits on all these picks, but I would not be flummoxed if it turned out he was one a couple more of my 20. Let's induct him into the Hall of Fame as unsung hero.
I've noticed in the past that sometimes specific musicians (or producers) turn up on a surprising number of my favorite records of the day. It happened with T-Bone Burnett in the mid-80s, and recently with Danger Mouse and Jonathan Wilson. As you'll see below, a handful of players (including Tench) seemed to crop up on the credits to a lot of these albums, I usually take this as a sign that I'm on to something.
Anyways, that feels like a good amount of ado. As always, RIYL is, "Recommended If You Like." And here's a link to a Spotify playlist with as many of these records as I could find there (a couple are missing, but Spotify's got most of them.)
1. The War On Drugs, Lost in the Dream
I didn't know anything about The War On Drugs till this year. AllMusic describes them as "Philadelphia-based purveyors of stripped-down, haunted rock perfection," which pretty much hits the nail on the head. I am still unfamiliar with their earlier work, but this album is shimmery, undulating rock'n'roll beauty. It manages to be both moody and atmospheric on the one hand, bracing and urgent on the other-- a pretty neat trick if you can pull it off. And they sound like they're trying to make the album of their lives, like Springsteen used to sound circa his first 5 records. It's not like you'd confuse Lost in the Dream with Born to Run or Darkness (although the comparisons have been made). But on this album, the War On Drugs have that Springateen-at-his-peak, metatextual thing going on; they let their intentions show, and that reveal enhances the charm of the music. They sound like they're shooting for greatness, and you can't help but root for them. If they don't quite get there, they get more than close enough for rock'n'roll. RIYL: Darkness on the Edge of Town, classic rock, indie rock, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
2. Hard Working Americans, Hard Working Americans
In a year where Ryan Adams and Tom Perry both put out good albums, ranking this particular pure rock'n'roll record this high says something. The Hard Working Americans are something of a "supergroup," including singer/songwriter Todd Snider, Neal Casal on guitar, Widespread Panic's Dave Schools on bass, and Derek Trucks's kid brother Duane on drums. This is a record of thematically linked cover versions, 11 songs addressing in some way the plight of the working man. It's loose, it rocks, it swings, mining the place where jam bands and Chuck Berry-inspired four-on-the-floor rock'n'roll converge. Casal, who we know from his stellar work with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, has found another band to shine in. He's not flashy, but everything he touches is good. Hard Working Americans also put out a rockin' live album at the end of the year, but I generally leave live albums out of this annual round-up. RIYL: Black Crowes, gritty Tom Petty album tracks like "Swingin'," North Mississippi All Stars, Drive-By Truckers.
3. Chris Forsyth and the Solar Panel Band, Intensity Ghost
Another band with a back story about which I was clueless; I bought this album, knowing virtually nothing about it, based on a very short review I saw in Mojo (I think.) Forty minutes, 5 songs, no singing. I know, that doesn't exactly sound like a hit (and I assume my wife would hate it)... It's a serious guitar record, with a two-guitar/bass/keys/drums line-up. The first time through you'll be immediately reminded of Television-- in particular, the stretch from 4:27 through 9:15 of "Marquee Moon," one of the most dramatic instrumental breaks in rock. It's impossible to avoid the Television comparison, but the music opens up over time and repeated listens, and it unfolds and grows richer with repeated listens, revealing textures and collisions and throbbing waves of color. The more you listen, the more you'll hear, and I'm a sucker for records that get better and better as you get more familiar with them. Once you blow past the obvious Television reference points, there's no telling what this music will evoke for you. RIYL: "Marquee Moon," modal Indian music, the blues, trebly guitars.
4. Neil Finn, Dizzying Heights
Sure, good old Neil Finn! You might remember him from such bands as Crowded House, Split Enz, and the Finn Brothers. He's one of the most underrated melodic geniuses in pop/rock music; how Crowded House isn't in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame is beyond me. Finn's solo work is uniformly solid, although he hasn't made a proper solo album since 2001. This time out he collaborates with producer Dave Fridmann, best known as THE contemporary go-to acid rock/psychedelic mixer/producer (his credits include both Tame Impala records, most of the Flaming Lips catalog since Soft Bulletin, Mercury Rev, and Future Clouds and Radar--who's trippy, stellar self-titled 2007 release ranked second here.) Fridmann bathes Finn's melodicism in gauzy, psychedelic effects; the songs wash and pulsate and whoosh their hooks over you, the production effects burying those hooks a little, so you have to find them. Once you do though, it's blissful. I saw him at Town Hall in the spring, and he was outstanding, and the songs off Dizzying Heights stood up against the liveliest Crowded House tunes. RIYL: Paul McCartney, "Hole in the River," Tame Impala, Try Whistling This, that gum that squirts in your mouth.
5. Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams
A straight ahead rock record-- maybe even a "rawk" record-- from one of my very favorite artists. "Gimme Something Good," the lead-off track, would have been THE rock'n'roll song of the summer, if there was still such a thing as a rock'n'roll hit single (or if, say, they replaced Benmont Tench's organ with an Iggy Azalea rap in the middle...) The whole album harkens back to a big '80s rock sound, sleek and shiny and solid; Tench's presence tends to underscore that fact, his signature organ sound having graced many hallmark rock records of that era (hell, he even shows up on Rattle and Hum.) But Adams's favorite new collaborator is singer/guitarist Mike Viola (Candy Butchers), who's on this record and in the touring band. When Ryan Adams is operating at his peak, he pretty much throws off records like you or me tossing socks into the hamper at the end of the day; like Prince, he has almost as many unreleased albums as official ones. After taking some time off due to his Meniere's Disease, he's solidly back in that zone now. In addition to this album, he's been putting out a series of singles on Pax Am; some of his best songs of the year aren't even on this record (I love "Jacksonville," the title track of the second Pax Am single). And of course, his live gigs have been great. I can't wait to see what he does next. RIYL: Lone Justice, the Del Fuegos, the Long Ryders, Tom Petty and especially the Heartbreakers.
6. Eric Clapton & Friends, The Breeze: An Appreciation of J.J. Cale
Call him the breeze, indeed... If you've heard Clapton's work from say 1974-1979, and if you've heard the first two Dire Straits records, then you've heard J.J. Cale-- or at least you've heard his influence. Songs like "Lay Down Sally," "I Can't Hold Out," "Once Upon a Time in the West," and "Water of Love" are pure Cale; indeed two of Clapton's biggest '70s hits, "Cocaine" and "After Midnight," are Cale covers. Now, I'm no Clapton pushover-- I thought his last release, Old Sock, could just as easily have been called Has-Been. But he's just SO comfortable in the breezy, gentle, laconic, utterly unhurried Cale mode, and his friends here-- including Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler, Derek Trucks, and Willie Nelson-- are the perfect round of foils and compatriots to help give Cale his due. A great record for the summertime, especially for the window right fter you've come back from the beach, but before you've started up the barbeque (and believe me, I tested it in that slot many times last summer.) A loving testament to the timeless appeal of Cale's distinct vibe, and it's impact on his acolytes. RIYL: J.J. Cale, the first two Dire Straits records, Slowhand, Backless.
7. David Crosby, Croz
No, seriously. David Crosby... Look, I was as surprised as you are. This is his first solo record in 20 years, although he's made group records in that time (CSNY, CSN, CN, CPR) But I think it's fair to say, this is his best, most consistent work since his touchstone 1971 album, If I Could Only Remember My Name. It's less hazy than that record, more present and bracing (there's something to be said for sobriety I guess), but notably, given that the artist is 72 years old, it sounds remarkably fresh, and unlike some recent records by others in his age cohort, it's not morbid. Some credit for all this probably goes to James Raymond, Crosby's son (and the R in CPR) who is the primary musical collaborator here. Some extra-tasty (but not gaudy) guest appearances too, like Wynton Marsalis, who adds a lovely break during "Holding On to Nothing," a song you could slip onto Deja Vu without missing a beat. RIYL: If I Could Only Remember My Name, CSN, breezy California pop.
8. Blake Mills, Heigh Ho!
Mills is a 28 year-old singer/songwriter/guitar player who went to high school with, and was a founding member of, the Dawes. As a session player he's a hot commodity; nevertheless, I'd never heard of him until this past autumn. Heigh Ho! is a SoCal singer/songwriter record in the vein of some of those classic early-70s artists, but with a bit of a country bent... It took me a while to really ease into this album, because to my ears the first three songs are the weakest ones, so if you check it out, be patient (or skip to track 4)... If you're a read-the-album-credits kind of guy or gal (and if you've read this far, you may well be) then check out the core band Mills uses: Benmont Tench on keys, Don Was on bass, Jim Keltner on drums. It would be tough to go wrong... and delicate pop genius Jon Brion colors several songs, and two of the best songs here ("Seven," "Don't Tell Our Friends About Me") feature Fionna Apple on counterpoint vocals. Lots of traditional instruments, elegantly deployed, with lots of space in the songs so that each element carries maximum impact. And the songs themselves are good ones. RIYL: Jackson Browne, the Dawes, Jonathan Wilson, early Iron and Wine.
9. Prince, Art Official Age; Prince and 3rd Eye Girl, Plectrum Electrum
Yes, I'm cheating by treating these as a single entry. But they came out on the same day, and hell, they could have easily been packaged as one double album... It is tough for me to be objective about Prince right now; every once in a while I go on a Prince binge, where I listen to almost nothing else for weeks. I'm on just such a binge right now, immersing myself in '90s Prince, an underrated era I should write about some time (but find and download the fan-assembled 3-CD comp, The Dawn, for a revelatory Prince '90s listening experience.) He didn't stop being great just because he passed out of the epicenter of pop cultural relevancy; if you need a reminder, check out his show-stopping 8-minute stint on SNL last fall... For me, Art Official Age is the better of the two; it's psychedelic, audacious, colorful, eccentric, melodic music. Unaccountably, given that Plectrum Electrum was recorded with an all-female backing band, Art Official Age is the one where I hear Prince really indulging his feminine side, which has always been a major element in his work ("If I Was Your Girlfriend." all the songs that were supposed to be on aborted release Camille.) Art Official Age is more of a studio record, complete with silly (but for me, endearing) connecting segments, a female narrator helping "Mr. Nelson" come to from his 45 years in suspended animation. Plectrum Electrum is more of a rock record, and yeah, dude can rock (as can his lady friends in 3rd Eye Girl, who have been immersed in Prince's College of Funkified Knowledge for at least 2 years now). One of my musical buddies has said that you could make one great album from the best tracks across the two discs; but Prince has never been one for self-editing, and shut up, damn, we love that about him. RIYL: Emancipation, Parade, Dream Factory (Art Official Age); Gold, Chaos and Disorder (Plectrum Electrum)
10. Dave and Phil Alvin, Common Ground
'80s roots rockabilly revivalists the Blasters are another in a storied line of bands that were fractured by brotherly disharmony (see also: Kinks, Oasis, Black Crowes.) Brother Dave went off, did a stint with X, cut two records with the Knitters (basically an acoustic version of X), and crafted a great string of manly country-rock records as a solo artist. Brother Phil continued to periodically front the Blasters, but without Dave they really weren't the same. There was a Blasters reunion tour with Dave in the fold circa 2004, but this is the first whole studio record they've made together since 1985; it's a tribute to old time blues man Big Bill Broozy, one of the first musicians the young Alvin brothers loved as boys. There is plenty of electric blues here, but I think it's the acoustic numbers that carry the day. And the best news is, it looks like the brothers are sticking together; I've got tickets to see them this March. RIYL: This one is easy-- Dave Alvin, the Blasters, Big Bill Broozy.
11. Lucinda Williams, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
This is a double album, and I'd call it more of a vibe record than a song record. In contrast to Car Wheels On a Gravel Road, which I think is her best, and which was full of memorable songs, this one is more about the feel, the cumulative mood, that all these tunes make taken together, as you let them unfold in their own time. She sounds world-weary throughout, but no one makes that work quite like Lu. Same can be said about the way she slurs her words as she wraps her southern accent around them; the way she sings, "that's the way we do it in West Memphis," just dripping with laconic attitude, is priceless. The opening track, which provides this set's title, is a poem of her dad's that she set to music; it's something of an invocation, and dirge-like; but after that, this is a guitar record, executed with the exquisite taste but relative lack of flash you'd expect. Players include longtime Williams compadre Doug Pettibone, Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz (another guy who seems to turn up on an insane number of good records), and Jonathan Wilson. The late, great Ian McLagan's keyboards grace a few tracks as well. Two full discs of quality songwriting, well-played. It's not a trivial accomplishment. RIYL: Country rock, Alejandro Escovedo, but really, Lucinda Williams.
12. Hiss Golden Messenger, Lightness of Dreamers
This is another band that was brand new to me this year. Hiss Golden Messenger is essentially a vehicle for two guys: North Carolina-based singer/songwriter MC Taylor and instrumentalist/engineer Scott Hirsch. Taylor is a true folklorist-- his bio says he's a college lecturer on the topic, and I want to say, you can hear the expertise-- but the lore in this folk is heartfelt and real, not the least bit academic. As I listen to Lightness of Dreamers, I imagine them playing this music in a log cabin somewhere (well, somewhere in North Carolina) in the middle of winter, with a white velvet blanket of snow covering the ground, and the players huddled around a wood-burning stove. Or something like that. It's true roots music, especially if you're prepared to include southern R'n'B as roots music. And indeed to my Yankee ears, it does seem to be a very "southern" record. Not Lynyrd Skynyrd-southern though; more, Southern Gothic. Lightness of Dreamers is full of mystery and secrets and depth. I expect that I'll be buying all the Hiss Golden Messenger records for the foreseeable future. RIYL: Iron and Wine, Calexico, modern folk rock, The War On Drugs.
13. Benmont Tench, You Should Be So Lucky
The list of records Tench has been on is impressive (and here's that list, if you're curious.) All the Petty, of course; both Lone Justice Records; A bunch of Dylan; Don Henley and Stevie Nicks' biggest solo '80s hits; and the Eurythmics' "Would I Lie to You," just to drop a few names and a song title. His associates here are first rate, including Petty, Ryan Adams, Ethan Johns (Glyn's kid and a frequent musical partner of Adams), Blake Mills, and Don Was. It's as tasteful a record as you'd expect, low key, and of course graced by great rock-n'roll piano throughout-- although it leans more to the grown-up and less to the barrelhouse. Preoducer Glynn JOhns mostly recorded the band live in the studio, to capture the organic grooves as they were laid down. Of course Tench is not the vocalist that Petty is (or Ryan Adams, for that matter), but he does just fine. The cover of Dylan's "Duquesne Whistle" that closes out the record is priceless. And any time he lays down that organ, you're home. RIYL: Bob Dylan's later work, Tom Petty, Vince Guaraldi.
14. Carlene Carter, Carter Girl
Carlene Carter's country credentials are of course unimpeachable; her grandma was Maybelle Carter, and her mom was June Carter, both of the legendary Carter Family, and her step-dad was Johnny Cash. (and her step-sister is Roseanne Cash, and her third husband was Nick Lowe. And so it goes.) If you liked Rockpile circa 1979, then chances are you came to Carter via Musical Shapes, the killer record she did with that band backing her in 1980. Here she's assembled a crackerjack band to revisit a set of songs associated with the Carter Family, plus two new ones about the Carters. How crackerjack is that band? Well, she has Blake Mills (again!) and Greg Leisz (again!) on guitars, Don Was (again!) on bass, Jim Keltner of drums (yes, again), and Rami Jaffee (Wallflowers) on keys. Was produces, and if it doesn't quite sound as authentic the records it harkens back to, it is nonetheless pure and earnest; it has the sound of a band playing takes live together in the studio. It may lack a certain urgency or flash, but it's as easy as honey going down. RIYL: The Little Willies, Foreverly (but not necessarily Norah Jones), real country music.
15. Jack White, Lasaretto
I wasn't a White Stripes fan-- a situation I'm starting to think I should remedy-- but otherwise I really do like and respect Jack White's work. I really enjoyed his first solo record; to my ears, it sounded as close as anyone has come to Led Zep in quite some time. I'm less keen on this one, but it's still danged good. One thing you have to give White credit for-- he doesn't make small records. He's a total throwback to the days when you didn't listen to your stinkin' MP3s through your crappy little earbuds; no, you got a vinyl LP and you put it on the big stereo int he living room (or really, your dorm room, or your bedroom in your parents'' house) and you turned it up, and it filled the room and your head and your chest, and it was good. Indeed the louder I play this the better I like it. It's big and stoopid in all the best ways. And maybe it's just me but I still find White's voice to resemble Robert Plant's in places; this may or may not be deliberate. RIYL: Led Zep, Foghat, Free, Bad Company, Aerosmith, and all the other bands you (or your dad) pumped your fists to in the '70s. Also, the Raconteurs.
16. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Magnetic Eye
I've loved Tom Petty for a long time. His tour 2 years ago, where he played theaters instead of hockey rinks (I saw him twice at the Beacon) was a revelation, a great rock'n'roll outing with lots of covers and lesser-played catalog gems. Then he was back in the hockey rinks last year, and while he continued to open shows with the Byrds' "So You Wanna Be a Rock'n'Roll Star" (a lovely touch from the theater tour), the rest of the setlist was pretty much back to the overly-familiar, 19,000-voices-raised-in-off-key-unison, hit-laden crowd-pleasers. (Honestly, if I never hear "Free Fallin'" again, that would be fine.) Down in the grooves, though-- or I guess the bits and bytes-- Petty and the Heartbreakers have made their second solid, rootsy, blues-rock record in a row. Petty has said 2010's Mojo was a blues record, and this one is a return to their early rocker roots, but really, they sound of a piece to me. Like Mojo, this one brings the goods with that classic, Brit-influenced, American blues rock sound that you know from a thousand bars. And this is a good thing. There's nothing here remotely as catchy as "I Won't Back Down," and the jangle of songs like "Listen to Her Heart" is nowhere to be found. You're not going to walk away humming the score, and that's why I didn't rate it higher. But if this is what Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are going to sound like in 2014 and on, I say God bless 'em. RIYL: "Last Dance With Mary Jane," "Swingin'," Mojo, the Stones.
17. Walter Salas-Humara, Curve and Shake
I've been a big fan of Walter and his band, the Silos, since his 1988 record Lagertija. I think he's a criminally underrated songwriter, and I have no problem at all calling him a peer of Bruce Springsteen, Alejandro Escovedo, and Lou Reed in terms of the craft. He writes straightforward, easily-relatable songs about regular people doing the simple things that we all do-- the things that, laid end to end, make up your life (drinking a beer, driving down the highway, getting married, waking up at 6AM, going to work, raising kids). But he uses the magic of rock'n'roll to imbue these people with something that feels an awful lot like heroism. (Check out a quick primer of my favorite WSH/Silos tunes on this Spotify playlist.) I've had the chance to meet him and chat several times at shows, including one glorious solo acoustic affair this past September, in the back room of a bar for about 25 of us (afterward, I got a hug.) So I can attest, he's truly a nice guy. And I funded this album on Kickstarter, so I feel vested... Anyway, this is a fine, beguiling album. As always (well, almost always) the instrumentation is sparse, with every instrument there for a reason and distinctly audible. There are both softer, folk-rock type tunes and rockers, although of course they share the same DNA, and I dig them both. Overall the album has a sort of Lanois, Latin Playboys feel, a musical side WSH explored more fully on Woozy. I love the way this record sounds-- warm, rich and present, but full of room. OK, you get the drift. RIYL: the Latin Playboys, Alejandro Escovedo, Willie Nile, Dave Alvin solo.
18. Beck, Morning Phase
It's not common for the Album of the Year Grammy winner to make my list, but here it is. (The last time this happened was with Herbie Hancock's Joni Mitchell tribute in 2007. And no one expected that to win the Grammy.) Morning Phase is so much a follow-up to Beck's 2002 break-up record, the gauzy Sea Change, that when the opening track kicks in I still think it's going to be that album's "The Golden Age." I'm frankly shocked that Grammy went for this, but what do I know? This is as close as Beck comes to a singer/songwriter album, and while it does sound like Sea Change, that record was something of a downer (because it was a break-up record) while this one is way more wistful (Oh-- and by the way, Greg Leisz turns up on this album too.) Of course since it's Beck, so it's not as if you'd ever confuse this with a Jackson Browne record; it has the same spacy, gauzy, white sheen as Sea Change, which makes it one of Beck's more accessible, warmer outings, but it's still got that Beckian touch of otherness. RIYL: Really, It's got to be Sea Change.
19. Black Keys, Turn Blue
So I seem to have all the big "rawk" records clustered down here, in the last third or so of the list... my bias against the White Stripes (and my well-documented hatred of the Doors) tends to stem from their eschewing of a bass player, so it's a little bit of a surprise that I've taken a shine to the Black Keys. (If there's two of you, you're not a band-- you're a duo.) This album is pretty much a collaboration with producer Danger Mouse, with whom they worked on 2 of their 3 previous albums (but not the breakthrough, and the one that caught my attention, 2010's Brothers.) Auerbach, Carney and Burton (that's Danger Mouse's real name) wrote all the songs together, and the Mouse plays keys. Like Jack White, the Black Keys make big records that sound best nice and loud. I was beguiled by Brothers, not so keen on El Camino, but I really like this one. It's swirling and trippy (AllMusic says it's a "churning psychedelic excursion that slowly pulses in any color you like." (Once again AllMusic, you've crystallized my thoughts precisely.) I also hear hints of Pink Floyd in more than one song. RIYL: Danger Mouse, Pink Floyd, Jack White.
20. New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers
I have to confess, I find the New Pornographers to be somewhat frustrating. They flit all around catchy, but generally without actually alighting directly upon it. That's probably the point, but my simplistic ears, trained on AM radio bubblegum in the late '60s, want to hear that big obvious hook in the chorus. The New Pornos are a Canadian alt.rock supergroup, and while I know that AC Newman is supposed to be the pop genius here, for me Neko Case remains this band's secret weapon; although Newman and Don Bejar do the writing, the songs Case sings tend to be my favorites. (To be fair though, she is a redhead.) It's 21st century wall-of-sound, with big drums and lots of cascading keyboards, and quirky melodies and sub-melodies weaving in and out. One day I'm going to totally "get" the New Pornos (probably I need to see them live) and it'll all snap into place and they'll be one of my favorites. Even so, they're consistently interesting and good and worth a spin. RIYL: Neko Case, The Shins, Fountains of Wayne, the other New Pornographers records. And, one presumes, Zumpano.
Also good this year: The Psycho Sisters, Jill Sobule, Ani DiFranco, Jenny Lewis, Sean Lennon's band Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Drive-By Truckers, St. Vincent, the Ryan Adams singles, and the Fauntleroys. Indeed the EP by the Fauntleroys (a new band with Alejandro Escovedo and Ivan Julian) was so good that I considered putting it on the list, despite the fact that it's only 6 songs long. It's killer though, full of glam and punk energy, and heartily recommended. Maybe this year they'll cut a full-length.
Biggest disappointments: The first Broken Bells record was my favorite of 2010, and I tried and tried to like this year's follow-up, to no avail. And Springsteen's High Hopes, I don't know, for all those people who say he's never been better-- including the man himself-- I say, go listen to Born to Run, Darkness and The River and get back to me. To be fair, High Hopes was an odds'n'sods kind of assemblage. But I liked it better when Springsteen's boyfriend was Miami Steve as opposed to Tom Morello.