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A penny for your thoughts indeed. Around here that would be a raise.

What makes a good blog? I think thematic consistency, a little exhibitionism, and honest writing. I can promise you the last one.

Most of my posts seem to be about music or politics. Some of them are funny. But all of them would love to hear a comment from you.

Oh-- and please welcome God to the APW team. We're thrilled and humbled to serve as His earthly vessel.

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I was born at a relatively young age. Growing up consumed the better part of my childhood. As a young man I chased a lot of girls. But they kept getting away. Then I got older and even slower, so I got married. I've lived in New York City almost since before I moved here. I summer in Manhattan, which is like New York City, but with more humidity.

Here's me, without baby, thinking big thoughts. (Actually, what I'm thinking is, "Hey, these aren't Pringles!") I think I look better with baby.

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On Polling and "Fake" news
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
I want to direct your attention to what I think is an extremely important blog post. It's by Brad Fay of Engagement Labs, and it's called What the Trump Victory Can Teach Brand Marketers.

But this isn't about brand marketers. Its about fake news. Bear with me a second.

Donald Trump has waged war on what are, quite literally, our greatest journalistic institutions-- the New York Times, the BBC, the major TV networks, CNN-- calling them fake news, scum, the enemy of the people. He believes it, and his supporters believe it.

We need to address the big fat orange elephant in the room.

Running up to the election, Trump-- fueled by his mental disorder-- was confident that he was winning. He only believes information that validates his outsized ego needs, so he dismissed all the polls (and they were overwhelming) that had him behind, and embraced the rare polls that showed him ahead.

Then he won. In his mind, and in the minds of many others, this validated what he was saying all along-- that you cannot believe anything in the mainstream media. "All the poll results were 'fake news,' they said I was behind all campaign, but they lied!"

The fact that the polls all said he'd lose, but then he won, serve to prove to Trump and those around him that mainstream media is fake news, while nonsense like Fox or Breitbart or Infowars are legit. And let's face it-- our collective worlds were rocked by this twist, and even those of us steeped in logic and leaning left have been doubting the veracity of things we have taken to be true our whole lives.

We really need to unpack this. It is important.

In his blog post, Brad notes: "There also was an enormous face-to-face conversation happening among Americans, and those offline discussions proved to be far more predictive of the state of the race in the election’s final 10 days than traditional preference polls." Political polls have limitations. First, they are not predictive; they only tell you what people say or think right now. And second, because of the time it takes to field a poll, and the fact that national forecasts are generally an aggregation of many local polls taken at different times, it takes a while for changes in sentiment to register. So not only are polls not predictive, they are actually a lagging indicator.

But Brad's company, Engagement Labs (they deserve a plug), was running a different kind of research-- a sentiment tracker for the presidential candidates. What this tracker picked up was a dramatic shift-- indeed a flip flop-- in sentiment for the two candidates, triggered by James Comey's bombshell 11 days out. "Immediately afterwards," he notes, "there was a 17-point drop in net sentiment for Clinton, and an 11-point rise for Trump, enough for the two candidates to switch places in the rankings, with Clinton in more negative territory than Trump."

Let that sink in. Market research showed Trump catch up to, and pass, Hillary in the last 11 days before the election. 

Indeed Brad states, "it is our conclusion that the Comey letter, 11 days before the election, was the precipitating event behind Clinton’s loss, despite the letter being effectively retracted less than a week later."

I am in fact 100% confident that if the election had been held 12 days earlier, Hillary would have won. I am also equally confident that if the election had been held a week or two later, the tracking polls would have picked up what Engagement Labs' sentiment tracker picked up-- that the candidates had switched places. (Let's also note that in addition to the Comey letter, Hillary had perhaps the worse close in the history of presidential politics. It is possible a better candidate could have overcome this hit.)

Do you understand what this means?

For all the hand wringing about how the mainstream media and Big Polling could have gotten things so wrong-- THEY WEREN'T WRONG. Up is not down, black is not white, fake is not real, real is not fake. Solid research indicates that the James Comey letter to congress did indeed change the outcome of the race, and that this change happened too close to the election for it to really ripple out into the polls. But the research by Engagement Labs serves to both (a) confirm and validate the findings of the polls, as reported in the mainstream media all season, AND (b) document that Trump pulled ahead for good in the last 11 days. 

Wrap your heads around that. The polls were right all along AND Trump won. These two things are not paradoxical. This was exactly what it looked like-- Hillary sandbagged by an October surprise.

For those of us who had the experience of questioning everything we thought was true in the wake of November 8, take heart. We haven't fallen through the looking glass after all. The laws of physics do indeed still apply. And, perhaps more important, the underpinning for Trump's assertions that our finest journalistic institutions are purveyors of fake news-- his attack on the first amendment-- is, in fact, the bunk. 

Posted by: --josh-- @ 10:04 AM  0 comments

My Favorite Albums of 2016
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Let's not kid ourselves. 2016 sucked. We lost Prince, we lost Bowie, we lost Glen Frey. We lost Paul Kantner, we lost Leonard Cohen. I'm not going to run down the whole list; we'll remember this as the year a lot of the music died. Then reason and common sense died with it, and we put Donald Trum in the White House.

For a while I thought I wouldn't be able to come up with a full 20 picks; it was a lighter-than-usual year for me as regards new music. But I'm actually pretty happy with this collection; indeed a couple of good ones slipped off the list.

As always, RIYL is "Recommended If You Like."

1. Hiss Golden Messenger, Heart Like a Levee
I'm relatively new to this band; their last album placed 12th on my 2014 list, and it's the only other thing I've heard from them. Like that album, Heart Like a Levee was a "creeper." it doesn't smack you in the face on first listen; rather, it sort of seeps in, insinuating itself on your consciousness with repeated listening.  Heart Like a Levee is the kind of record I love; it breathes, it sounds warm and welcoming and out-of-time (by which I mean, you can't guess what year it was made based on how it sounds.) And there is a fundamental and exquisite tastefulness about it; if the song needs six seconds of dobro, then there's six seconds of dobro-- no more, no less. Singer-songwriter MC Taylor and engineer Scott Hirsch are Hiss Golden Messenger, and they are serious about their folklore and their Americana. Many different tributaries of American music converge here-- mainly folk and folk rock, but also blues and soul and southern R'n'B. When I wrote about their last release on my 2014 list, I said that it sounded like they were playing the music in a log cabin in winter in North Carolina (where they're based.) This one comes from that same log cabin. With pretty much no fanfare, they've become one of my favorite bands. RIYL: Iron and Wine, Calexico, Bonnie Prince Billy, Bon Iver, new folk music that sounds timeless.

2. Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate
I've gone back and forth on the ordering of this list, and every time I do, I flip-flop Kiwanuka and Hiss Golden Messenger; this could very easily be my album of the year. Kiwanuka is a Brit soul man, and Love & Hate, his second album, immediately reminded me of Lewis Taylor's Lost Album in the way it blends searing, guitar-driven classic rock with lush soul. (Taylor, in turn, immediately reminded me of Todd Rundgren, something of a touchstone as far as melding together influences from both the white and black halves of '60s radio.)  Kiwanuka also layers in a reggae-- I want to say "lilt," but it's really more of a drive, a reggae groove that serves to propel the songs forward. This is only his second album, and I haven't heard the first. But Im keeping an eye on this guy. RIYL: Lewis Taylor, Todd Rundgren, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, D'Angelo, Bob Marley.

3. The Jayhawks, Paging Mr. Proust
It's tough to overstate how good this band is at their best (e.g. Hollywood Town Hall.) The Jayhawks combine influences like Gram Parsons, The Everly Brothers, the Eagles, and Neil Young into a warm, modern but organic country rock, with an emphasis on the rock. The principals are singer-songwriter-guitarists Gary Louris and Marc Olson; Olson left the band after 1995's Tomorrow the Green Grass, even though he and Louris have continued to tour and record together; but he was back for 2011's Mockingbird Time. His return was welcome news; surprisingly, that album didn't make much of a dent in my psyche. Yet this one, with Olson gone again, is I think way, way better. It's just dripping with songcraft and melody, from he first track onward, and don't miss the ear candy of "Lovers of the Sun." By the way, I supported this on PledgeMusic, so you're welcome. RIYL: Zuma-era Neil Young, Gram Parsons, Poco, the Eagles, Rainy Day Music.

4. Kaleo, A/B
A/B is the first album by Kaleo, a young blues-rock band from Iceland that sounds like they learned about rock'n'roll driving around Long island in a Camaro in 1974. Who knew there was such a thing as Reykjavik Boogie? This is music deeply influenced by old time delta blues, but presented in a big, loud electric package; I'm thinking Humble Pie or Bad Company. They totally shred, and they sing in English (the exception being "Vor Í Vaglaskógi") Of course like all good badasses, they know how to weave a good power ballad ("All the Pretty Girls.") Indeed the second half of the album-- what we once would have called "side 2"-- is a little less bluesy and a little more, play-this-side-for-your-girlfriend after you buy the 8-track. RIYL: Black Keys, Humble Pie, Bad Company.

5. Alejandro Escovedo, Burn Something Beautiful
If you rejoice at the sound of loud electric guitars being deployed with abandon... prepare to rejoice. Escobedo is one of the best rock'n'rollers we have, and a truly unsung hero. This is his first album in four years, although he was in the Fauntleroys (with Ivan Julian), who put out a searing EP in 2014. After three albums with the same core crew (Bowie co-hort and producer Tony Visconti, alt.country rocker Chuck Prophet), Escovedo is working here with a new crew, anchored by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, and R.E.M. touring guitarist Scott McCaughey. The result is hard-edged and bracing yet melodic; harsh gritty world-weary songs full of tone and vibration and color. I think one of his better albums. RIYL: Lou Reed, Ian Hunter, edgier Walter Salas-Humara,  the Minus Five.

6. The I Don't Cares, Wild Stab
This is a collaboration between Juliana Hatfield. best known to me as early-90s alt.rock power popster, and Paul Westerberg of the Replacements. Both of these artists have a childlike quality to their work-- Juliana, more innocence, Westerberg, more irresponsible misbehavior-- so there is a definite childlike quality in this bashed-out, charming, lo-fi affair. I mean, not that they're having an affair.... His sloppiness and her pop songcraft compliment each other perfectly; the record sounds tossed-off, but in the best possible way. A couple of guitars, drums, songs, some harmonies, and before you know it, you've got an album. The charm is palpable. RIYL: Grandpaboy, Rockpile, Lemonheads, your kid's middle school music recital.

7. The Candles, Mind + Spirit
I know the '60s are hipper, but I've always had a soft spot for the music of the '70s, and thus for records that invoke a '70s vibe. The Candles, who have worked as Norah Jones's touring band and are led by singer/songwriter/guy-who-gets-a-lot-of-work Josh Lattanzi, do just that. This is their third album, and i don't know the first two. But this is a breezy  slab of country rock Americana that makes you feel like you're just runnin' down the road tryin' to loosen your load. Good songs, harmonies, organic instrumentations.  This is a short album-- nine songs and about 32 minutes-- and in this era it could have easily been called an EP. But All that means is you want to hear it all again soon. RIYL: Jackson Browne, the Dawes, Blake Mills, Taylor Locke, Ventura Highway in the sunshine.

8. Mudcrutch, 2
Speaking of records that evoke the '70s... Mudcrutch, of course, was the band that morphed into Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. They reconvened in 2008 for album and tour, and in 2016 did it again. The album kicks off with "Trailer," a new recording of a song that was a Heartbreakers B-side (and a good one) circa Southern Accents. the 'crutch is a country rock band, with Petty on bass instead of rhythm guitar and Tom Leadon, brother of original Eagle Bernie, joining the incandescent Mike Campbell on guitar. Everyone sings,, although of course the Petty-sung tunes tend to be the best. Simple and fun. RIYL: Eagles, Flying Burrito Brothers, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

9. Walter Salas-Humara, Explodes and Disappears
WSH is one of my famous singer-songwriters, and he's been on a prolific run of late, putting out solo albums each of the last three years. He's best-known via his band the Silos, an under-appreciated founding alt.country band from the mid-80s and still going strong. Explodes and Disappears is another ten earnest, simple, direct songs that are real and true and that are imbued with the feeling and spirit of family and friends, because that's how he makes his records. One day I'm going to have him do a house concert at the beach. RIYL: Silos, Alejandro Escovedo, Bodeans, Los Lobos.
10. News Cline, Lovers
A prolific avant jazz guitar player who's best known as a member of Wilco and who I've seen tear it up sitting in for a half hour-plus with the Allman Brothers, Cline has made a double album of what can best be called soundtrack music for an imaginary, sweeping, romantic old  movie. I confess this is the only solo work of his I've heard, so I lack context. But this is all melody and romance, no stinging guitar solos; you could play it for your mom and she'd love it. All instrumental, and covers of composers like Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Gabor Szabo, alongside a cloth of originals that blend right in. I should probably look more deeply into this guy's catalog, because everything I've heard of him, I like. RIYL: West Side Story, An Affair to Remember, Henry Mancin

11. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, Shine a Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad
A high concept piece of art; Bragg and Henry took a train ride from Chicago to Los Angeles, and recorded this collection of old train- and rail-inspired songs at stops along the way. (Maybe for their next collaboration, they the a raft down the Mississippi and do a record of flood songs?) As cheesy as it may sound though, this is definitely a case of the whole exceeding the sum of it's parts. Just two acoustic guitars, two voices, and some ambient train-related noise in the background, if you listen for it... but the two dry, crusty, brittle old voices sound remarkably good together, and while you've almost certainly heard a bunch of these songs covered elsewhere, they just work here. A special treat is This is an extremely likable record, elegant for its simplicity, and it may make you want to pack a kit and hop a freight. RIYL: Mermaid Avenue, Elvis Castello's King of America, trains.

12. William Bell, This is Where I Live
Bell is one of the original architects of the classic '60s Stax/Volt sound, a true and authentic southern soul man; he's the author of "You Don't Miss Your Water" and Born Under a Bad Sign," and had a hit with the former. (Indeed I was fortunate to see Bell sit in with the Warren Haynes Band at the Beacon in 2011, where he performed both these numbers with Haynes; you can listen to the show here.) You know this record has the mojo about four seconds in, bringing southern soul, R'n'B, and gospel into the 21st century, sounding neither contemporary or dated (that pretty much leaves, "timeless.") It is familiar in an instant, and it gets better with repeated listening. He's paired here with writer/producer John Leventhal, best known for his work with artists like Shawn Colvin and Roseanne Cash, but who manages to either bring out Bell's best, or to stay sufficiently out of the way and let it flow. Either way, a real sleeper, and one of my favorites of the year. RIYL: "You Don't Miss Your Water," Al Green, Bobby Womack, Solomon Burke, the Mavis Staples records with Jeff Tweedy.

13. David Crosby, Lighthouse
Honestly, who in their right mind would have predicted a career resurgence for David Crosby, of all people, now closer to 80 than 70? Hell, who would even have bet he'd still be alive? But he is, both alive and resurgent, and if I hadn't heard it with my own ears, I wouldn't have believed it. Croz, his 2014 release, was almost certainly his best solo record since 1971, and this one isn't far behind. Lighthouse is downright minimalist, there and not there; sparse and airy, full of those hanging, open, dramatic David Crosby chords. If you find yourself muttering, “I can’t believe it’s still dark out and I’m already up,” that’s probably a great time to listen to this album. Sonically it's built around Crosby's pretty if now-brittle voice, acoustic guitar, harmony vocals, and a smattering of spare but tasteful accompaniments that weave in and out as needed, in as unobtrusive a fashion as possible. RIYL: If I Could Only Remember My Name, Another Stoney Evening, CPR.

14. case/lang/veirs, case/lang/veirs
I'm not familiar with Laura Viers's work, but lang is a long-time favorite, and I'm a fan of Neko Case's sort-of-country solo records (and the Ukrainian folk), and of course she's a mainstay in the New Pornographers. I like to think there's some alternate universe where lang and Case are country stars. lang's songs here are airy and seductive; this is probably the most memorable record of hers for me since Invincible Summer. But the whole thing is gentle and lush, full of strings, acoustic guitars, and pretty voices. This is a pretty record that would sound great at 4AM, and that your wife will like. It's easy on the ears, with solid songwriting, and when the harmonies break out, you'll wanna soak them up. RIYL: Ingenue, harmonies, Suzanne Vega, collaboration.

15. Drive-By Truckers, American Band
An urgent rock'n'roll record, with guitars snarling; you hear the fire five seconds in, and it really doesn't let up. Something about the vibe here reminds me of mid-70s Rolling Stones, and you know that's good. The Truckers are what southern rock sounds like today-- loose, questioning, propulsive, political, electric, articulate. Singer-songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have different voices, but both write thoughtful songs that are charged with the hard but beautiful truths of everyday life. RIYL: It's Only Rock'n'Roll, Southern Rock, Jason Isbell, the more rock'n'roll stuff by Ryan Adams.

16. Rolling Stones, Blue and Lonesome
The buzz on this is that it's the best Stones album in years; for that though I direct you to disc one of the Voodoo Lounge outtakes bootleg, Voodoo Brew, which is ostensibly Keith's mix of that 1994 album. It is nice to hear the Stones chugging fast and loose through a bunch of sloppy blues covers, although I do keep waiting for a Rolling Stones record to break out. And It's not as good as Keith's last solo album, Crosseyed Heart. Still, if this is to be the last Rolling Stones record, they could do worse. RIYL: Chicago blues, Buddy Guy, old Stones blues tracks, Crosseyed Heart.

17. Tedeschi Trucks Band, Let Me Get By
I have to say, I'm torn on the Tedeschi Trucks Band. I love-- LOVE!-- Derek, and I love Susan Tedeschi. But that's sort of the thing. The TTB is a 12-piece ensemble, and sometimes I think the distinct instrumental voice of Derek Trucks-- one of a very small handful of the greatest guitar players today in the rock/blues/jazz/soul idiom-- is lost in the mix. I miss the 12-minute excursions on "Afro-Blue" or "Maki Madni" from the Derek Trucks Band. I also think Tedeschi is a fabulous blues/soul singer. But I find myself wishing that the band was smaller, and thus more reliant on these two distinctive voices. Let Me Get By is gritty and soulful, but the songs strike me as being short; that's what comes from becoming exposed to a player like Trucks through the lens of the Allman ("Whipping Post!") Brothers. This is ultimately a band you want to hear live; the double live set Everybody's Talkin' from 2012 is still the place to start, for my money. RIYL: Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, a big bowl of Memphis Soul Stew.

18. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker
My wife is the Lenny fan in the family, and she's responsible for my appreciation of him. Cohen essentially creates his own musical eulogy here, assisted by his son Adam, who produces; "I'm ready my lord," the 82 year-old Cohen sings (I mean if you want to call it singing) on the title track, which kicks things off. I guess it's an inevitable consequence of aging that more and more of the musicians I grew up with are addressing their own mortality directly on record; Cohen does so the way he lived, which is to say, with honesty, directness, and poetry. And that voice, the voice that make Johnny Cash sound like a schoolgirl (not really.) It's a voice you feel as much as hear, the way you feel the bass. Godspeed Leonard. RIYL: Cohen's later work, the great abyss.

19. Lucinda Williams, The Ghosts of Highway 20

For years Lucinda Williams was known for sporadic output—when Car Wheels came out in 1998, it was her fifth album in 19 years. So it’s a little jarring to think that this is her second double album in three years. The melodies, such as they are, are monotonous. The songs tend to proceed at the same pace, and it’s not fast. And there’s a general sameness to them. It's not a happy record… but the sound of the guitars is beguiling, and draws you in; not twin leads; more like two voices existing in a state of laconic co-habitation. Credit Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, two masterful old pros; the latter, I swear, shows up on a couple of albums every year on my top-20 list, and the list of stuff he's been on is staggering. RIYL: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, Greg Leisz, Lu's world-weary slur.

20. Chris Forsyth and the Solar Motel Band, The Rarity of Experience, I and II
I thought 2014's Intensity Ghost was a masterpiece; this is more of the same brand of psychedelic, colorful, instrumental guitar music, evocative of Television at one end of the spectrum, and jam bands at the other. The line-up is the classic guitar/guitar/bass/drum, with some keyboards tossed in for texture.The music is rock'n'roll, but mostly without vocals; as waves of electric guitar wash over you, the music shifts, slashes, changes shape, and paints vivid color schemes across your mind. Indeed when there are vocals, they're distracting; I'd have put this higher if there was no singing.  RIYL: Marquee Moon (specifically, the 7-or-so-minute jam in the middle of the title track); Velvet Underground, Nels Cline, Jim O'Rourke.

Posted by: --josh-- @ 12:10 AM  0 comments

Top-20 Albums of 2015
Saturday, February 27, 2016
I'll be honest with you. I had a tough time this year finding 20 records to feature in my annual "top-20 releases of" list for 2015. I don't know why that is. I even looked at a bunch of high-profile and not-so-high-profile year-end lists for ideas and inspiration-- in magazines and on music websites-- and what I found was that records that tended to land at or near the top, I'd actually heard and wasn't thrilled by. Tame Impala's Currents was popular, but it did nothing for me-- and I generally like them (but they traded in their psychedelic chops for EDM, and, meh.) Likewise, everyone seemed to love Father John Misty's I Love You Honeybear, and I tried very hard to warm up to it (after all, it's produced by one of my recent new favorites, Jonathan Wilson.) But no such luck.

Then of course, everyone seemed to love the Kendrick Lamar, but you know, hip hop is just not my cup of tea. So I haven't heard it.

D'Angelo was one of my personal discoveries in 2015, and  this year I bought all three of his albums, and they're all great. Some Best of 2015 lists included his Black Messiah, and while it's true I didn't hear this till 2015, it was actually released December 15, 2014-- making it, based on my scrupulous and rigorous rules, ineligible. If I'd heard it in time for 2014 it would have been a top-10 pick, maybe higher. (Actually, the 2014 list is here; D'Angelo would have ranked somewhere between 4 and 7.)

So anyway, here's what I liked, with a real minimum of ado. I have indeed managed to find 20 albums I can stand behind. As always, RIYL is, Recommended If You Like. I've made you a Spotify playlist of as many as I could find; numbers 1, 7 13 and 20 aren't available on Spotify.

1. Jim O'Rourke, Simple Songs.
You may know O'Rourke from Wilco spin-off group Loose Fur... O'Rourke is a fixture in the US and European "experimental music" scenes, and since I'm wholly unfamiliar with his body of work, I can't really tell you where Simple Songs fits in amongst the rest of it. I do know this is his third "song" album, following 1999's Eureka and 2001's Insignificance... Most of his recent work has been instrumental. I bought this album very late-- like last few days of December-- but I haven't been able to stop playing it since. It is oddly, elusively beguiling. Rarely is there an album that I can listen to all the way through, where when it ends I want to go play it again. But this one I do... 8 songs, 38 minutes. I want to call it "guitar pop," but I suspect it's really some higher, more complex kind of music masquerading in pop's clothing. The guitars are beautiful, biting, lush and precise, and the recording let's every instrument breathe and pack maximum impact. Periodically a string section or some brass will weave into the song, do something wonderful, then weave out again. My first exposure to O'Rourke, but it won't be the last. RIYL: New Pornographers, The Shins, Wilco.

2. Keith Richards, Crosseyed Heart.
Keith's three solo records have been, arguably, the best Stones records of the last 30 years (and it's been 10 years since the last Stones record). On Crosseyed Heart he leavens the classic riff rocker persona with grizzled old bluesman, and it suits him well. I was sold half way through the opening track, just Keith and an acoustic guitar, two minutes of 8-bar blues, and if you didn't know better you'd swear he was an old blind black guy from the '30s (ditto the closer, a cover of Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene.")  If your favorite pair of old blue jeans was a record, they'd sound like this. There is, as per usual, a little reggae, a little country, and lots of loose swinging rock'n'roll rhythmic riffage. RIYL: Talk Is Cheap, Main Offender, Muddy Waters, the Keith songs on Rolling Stones records.

3. Kamasi Washington, The Epic.
A triple album opus and declaration of purpose, this was Washington's fourth release, but the first on a formal record label. For a while I debated putting Washington the top spot for sheer breadth and audacity. While I haven't heard the Kendrick Lamar smash, To Pimp a Butterfly, I do know that Washington, a tenor sax player with a serious jazz pedigree, is all over it; he uses some of the same players here, notably Thundercat on bass (has there ever been a better name for a bass player than Thundercat?). Familiar themes weave in and out across the three hours or so of music on The Epic; there's some orchestral backing, some old school vocal balladry, acoustic small combo riffing, electric big band grooving. And all through, there's lots to please fans of Coltrane, who's influence Washington wears on his reed. RIYL: Coltrane, A Love Supreme, Charlie Haden's Quartet West.

4. Ryan Adams, 1989.
Back when Cher's slick, schmaltzy, auto-tuned "Believe" was getting airplay, every time it came on the radio, I would turn it up. My wife couldn't understand why I liked that song-- it didn't make sense.  I was a rocker, and this was-- it was-- well, it was Cher! And not "Gypsies Tramps and Thieves" Cher, either-- disco diva Cher! But I was adamant that under all that production, there was a good song in there somewhere. Then I heard the Luxury Liners cover, and I knew I'd been right... which brings us to 1989, wherein Ryan Adams covers Taylor Swift's hit record 1989 song for song, ostensibly in the style of the Smiths. The record does run a little long, but that's her doing, not his. And I'm not convinced about the Smiths; it just sounds like the rock'n'roll version of Adams to me (that's rock'n'roll the musical persona, not the album title). This record doesn't sound unlike his self-titled 2014 release, or the singles he put out throughout 2014 and early 2015 (you could easily cobble together an album from those singles that would make this list.) Some of the songs that have been played to death on the radio (Tay-Tay's versions, obviously; the closest Adams gets to radio ubiquity is the Sirius/XM soccer mom channel) are less effective because the original is still burned into your brain (e.g. "Blank Spaces.") But check out how well he puts over "Welcome to New York"  or "Wildest Dream." Here's a great version of Swift playing "Wildest Dream," just voice and guitar; and here's Adams from the record. I admit, part of me thinks he just did this to get into her knickers, in which case, I wish him Godspeed. He does get a little messy with gender in the lyrics, but seriously, it's rock'n'roll, who listens to the words? And he's right; the Swift songs hold up. While my 11 year-old daughter may think it's heresy, I think Ryan's record rocks. RIYL: Ryan Adams, Taylor Swift, the Smiths.

5. Todd Rundgren, Emil Nikolaiasen, Hans-Peter Linstrom, Runddans.
Todd Rundgren put out two albums this year. The "main" one, Global, was his third EDM release in a row, and frankly, I have no use for it, or for the two previous ones either. Some of the big names in EDM (like Skrillex) have cited Todd, and especially his A Wizard, A True Star album, as a touchstone, and I guess he's returning the love. But it just aint my cup of Joe. Then there's this one... a long-distance collaboration with two Norwegian space-disco artists who are clearly enamored of Todd's classic work. The result is a twelve-song cycle that plays like one long piece, swirling, trippy, electronic, and far more evocative of todd's classic '70s "synthesized noise" than anything Todd himself has done in ages. You hear Todd's exquisite guitar soloing and unmistakable vocalization throughout (although I wouldn't go so far as to call these "songs"), with all three artists (or at least the Norwegian acolytes) paying tribute to the sounds of Todd's 1973-1975 output. If you can get your head around an extended piece of music that has no lyrics or hooks to hang your hat on, give this baby a spin. RIYL: Side 2 of Initiation, Todd Rundgren's Utopia, prog.

6. Dave and Phil Alvin, Lost Time.
Moving from the sublime to the... less sublime.  Dave and Phil were the driving forces in the Blasters, who's modern take on rockabilly placed them squarely in the middle of what I called at the time the Great '80s Roots Rock Revival (the Blasters, Del Fuegos, Del-Lords, Los Lobos, Long Ryders, Green On Red and so on). Big Brother Phil has the big, perfect rockabilly voice; baby brother Dave wrote the songs and played a nasty lead guitar. But since they were brothers in a band, naturally they fought; Dave left the Blasters in 1986, and the two didn't record together again till they teamed up for a couple of tracks on the Ghost Brothers of Darkland County album (20013).  Now they're making up for lost time; in 2014 they put out a record of Big Bill Broozy covers. Then in 2015 they followed that up with the aptly-titled Lost Time, in a similar vein but with covers of an array of old blues and R'n'B artists (there are  tunes by Willie Dixon, James Brown, and three by Big Joe Turner). The sound is a blend of Bakersfield country, Texas boogie, and Chicago blues, the playing is solid and organic. RIYL: The Blasters, the blues, juke joints, the Great '80s Roots Rock Revival.

7. Prince, HitNRun Phase 2.
You may be thinking that I'm just a sucker for Prince, and whatever he does, I'll love. But I was decidedly underwhelmed by HitNRun Phase 1, also released in 2015, and I came THIS close to not even buying Phase 2 (because I couldn't find a physical copy, and I'm not keen on lossy audio formats.) Plus, I'd heard almost half the songs already, as he'd released them previously as digital singles ("Screwdriver," "Groovy Potential," "Rocknroll Loveaffair.") But I finally relented, and with the exception of "Baltimore," all the previously released tracks appear here in somewhat different form. As for the album as a whole, it's sweet, soulful, groovalacious and melodic. In "Stare," Prince sings, "I'd rather let the music talk while you and me walk into the past," and that pretty much sums it up. He's self-referential throughout-- you'll spot the quote from "Kiss," and maybe even the synth line from "Take Me With You." Of course nothing here is as insanely catchy as his greatest hit songs-- there's no "Purple Rain" or "Little Red Corvette" to hang your hat on. But honestly, if someone besides Prince put this exact album out, you'd call it one of the best of the year (and wish Prince still made records like this.) RIYL: Emancipation, 3121, Musicology, The Rainbow Children. 

8. Taylor Locke, Time Stands Still.
Locke is the guitar player in the power pop band Rooney, and this is is first solo release, although he has recorded in a band called Taylor Locke and the Roughs. This record luxuriates in the 70s singer-songwriter sound; it feels like a lost recording from Laurel Canyon in say 1972, spiked with a dose of radio pop from the same vintage. If you can imagine a place where classic early Jackson Browne and Emmett Rhodes intersect, with maybe a dollop of The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, that's where this album lands. Charming songs that will, if you're about my age, remind you of 8th grade. Or, if you're that age of the kids in my office, it will remind you of that damn XM station your mom listens to. RIYL: Emmett Rhodes, Jackson Browne, Blake Mills, Dawes, Paul McCartney's Ram.

9. Natalie Prass, self-titled.
An alumnus of Jenny Lewis's touring band and opener for Ryan Adams (basically hopping on the tour right after Lewis left). At one show she missed due to a flight snafu, Adams memorably opened for himself in a dress as "Natalie Sass" and played her set. This is her first album, on the Spacebomb label and produced by Mark E. White; White provides the Spacebomb house band, and the Spacebomb strings, which Prass uses to excellent effect. This is another singer-songwriter record in the tradition of the '70s Laurel Canyon sound, but swathed in rich and textured orchestrations-- strings and brass augment a more traditional "folk-rock" instrumentation, in a fashion reminiscent of Dusty In Memphis. There's so much going on on each of these nine tracks that the songs open up and unfold with repeated listens; they manage to be lush and yet somehow quirky and elusive. I think Prass is an artist to watch. RIYL: Jenny Lewis, Dusty in Memphis, Lilith Fair, lush orchestration.

10. Los Lobos, Gates of Gold.
Los Lobos were up for the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame this year, and of course they didn't get in-- but if there was any musical justice, they'd have been first ballot inductees. All they do is grind out great meat-and-potatoes-- or, more accurately, arroz y frijoles-- rock'n'roll. I've been a fan since 1983's EP, ...and a Time to Dance.  I saw them three times this year, and the show at the beach to ring in summer was just so joyous and rocking (although my nephew Laszlo with the perfect pitch wondered, "Why is every song in G?") This one doesn't have any jump-out-at-you hits, although the moody, minor-key "When We Were Free" sounds like a classic, the groove melancholy, subtle and insistent as David Hidalgo's sad, emotive vocals weave a tale of woe and innocence-lost over the top. Then of course, Ceasar Rosas hits you between the eyes immediately after with his patented boogie; that's basically the Los Lobos formula. If you like the grinding, Tex-Mex, heel-pounding, feel-good stomp that Los Lobos have long since perfected, well, here's a big ol' mess of it for you. You're welcome. RIYL: Tex-Mex, Norteno, Alejandro Escovedo, the Silos, other Los Lobos records.

11. Amy Helm, Didn't It Rain.
When it comes to the musical genre of Americana, it's hard for Amy Helm to go wrong. Her dad was Levon Helm of The Band (and her mom was Libby Titus; talk about a pedigree) and her '00s band, Ollabelle, was one of my favorites. (I first came upon them in 2004 when they opened for Ryan Adams, who sat in on guitar for their set.) This is her first solo work, and it's largely what you'd expect-- rootsy, authentic, impeccably played, with more than a little of the ethereal, ghost-voodoo vibe that made the first Ollabelle record so memorable. Actually, this album and the Campbell/Williams record below could almost be a double album; Larry and Theresa are on Amy's record, Amy's on theirs, they share both musicians and musical sensibility, and all are graduates of Levon's band and his Midnight Rambles. RIYL: The Band, Ollabelle, Larry Campbell and Theresa Williams, mandolins, midnight rambles.

12 Warren Haynes, Ashes and Dust.
Typically records by Haynes, with or without Gov't Mule, don't make this list, despite my devout fondness for the artist, because I almost always end up listening to live versions of the songs on the album. Haynes is a jam band all star, and that means he lives in the here-and-now of live performance. For this album of folky Americana, which dips into his North Carolina, Appalachian roots, Haynes works with fellow jam bandsters and roots rockers Railroad Earth, and together they offer up a bunch of Haynes originals, plus some choice covers (his take on Fleetwood Mac's "Gold Dust Woman" with Grace Potter is a highlight.)  In a softer musical setting than Gov't Mule, Haynes's songwriting takes a more central place in the mix; his writing voice is distinct (at some point you can be pretty sure a protagonist wrestling with doubt will find himself heading down a road), and continues to grow and blossom. "Spots of Time," a tune he wrote with Phil Lesh, and which he performed in the Allman Brothers the last couple of years of that band's touring life, is a centerpiece, and a lyric from the song provides the album's title. The tour was great, with Haynes and backing band Chessboxer stretching out on many of these and other songs from the Haynes multi-band oeuvre.  RIYL: The Band, mandolins, Amy Helm and Larry and Theresa Williams, mountain music.

13. Neil Young + the Promise of the Real, The Monsanto Years.
I give Neil Young a lot of credit. His unique brand of ornery grit has served him well for the long haul; he's one of the very few artists who's made great records in the '60s, and pretty damned good ones this century. This is a pretty good one. The Promise of the Real is the band that Willie Nelson's two sons front, and the racket they make together with Neil is very much like Crazy Horse. But the new, young whippersnapper band is bringing a freshness to Neil and the ghosts-from-a-sacred-Indian-burial-ground bray of his signature electric guitar style. I regret missing what I heard was a great show they put on at Jones Beach in July, and I won't miss them if they come around again. Some of the songs get a little preachy, and with very few exceptions, even if I 100% agree with you, chances are if I hear your politics overtly in your songs, you're trying too hard (one tune has this chorus: "Too big to fail/Too rich for jail." Hardly "Tonight's the Night.") RIYL: Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill, MSNBC.

14. North Mississippi Osborne, Freedom and Dreams.
A collaboration between the roots blues trio North Mississippi Allstars (NMAS), and guitarist Anders Osborne. As with the Prince, this release loses points because I can't get a damned physical copy, so I can only hear the MP3s, which means I haven't really "heard" it at all... I first caught Osborne and Main NMAS man and ax stud Luther Dickinson together in 2014, when they both toured in a line-up of Phil Lesh & Friends. Honestly, all the jam band kids were telling me I'd love Anders, but generally I thought Luther stole the show via the sheer electricity with which he imbues every bluesy lick. Given that collaboration, it's not surprising that this record has an unmistakable Grateful Dead vibe, the dewy, bluesy guitars reminiscent of that band's more straight ahead rock'n'roll, and their more slippery, laid back, drunken lopes.  One song aptly features the refrain, "space dust turns into milky rain." Indeed. RIYL: North Mississippi Allstars, Phil & Friends, "US Blues."

15. Larry Campbell and Theresa Williams, self-titled.
Campbell is a long-time associate of Bob Dylan, and he and wife Theresa were part of Levon Helm's midnight ramble crew, and frequent live collaborators of Phil Lesh. Nowadays, if you want to inject a little "The Band" vibe into your set, you call on Campbell; see also, Gov't Mule's second set this past New Year's eve. This record is, as noted above, a neat companion piece to the Amy Helm record.  Tasteful Americana, with Campbell's tasteful but not showy guitar shining throughout. RIYL: The Band, Ollabelle, Amy Helm, Dylan from the last 20 years, mandolins.

16. Pugwash, Play This Intimately (As If Among Friends).
An Irish band making Britpop in the spirit of XTC, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and especially ELO. Heroes Jeff Lynne (ELO), Andy Partridge (XTC) and Ray Davies of the Kinks each make a brief appearance on the record (think of that more as a stamp of approval than anything else.) For me, Pugwash is at their best when you an hear the acoustic guitar strums and the layered backing vocals, as on "Lucky in Every Way." Lovely, gentle, breezy psychedelia. RIYL: Psychedelic Beatles, ELO, World Party, Skylarking.

17. JD McPherson, Let the Good Times Roll.
Three seconds into Let the Good Times Roll, and the bass line to Eddie Cochran's "C'Mon Everybody" has already been quoted. So it's going to be that kind of a ride. This is Okie McPherson's second solo release. Let the Good Times Roll is equal parts Chicago bar band blues, Little Richard, juke joint jump and jive, classic R'n'B, and Sun rockabilly, with all the slap back and twang you could ask for. Yet the retro verities are presented in a fresh and vibrant context. I've never seen the guy live, but I'd love to-- especially in a standing room club. They really just make 'em like this anymore... except, thankfully, once in a while, they do.  RIYL: Bar bands, juke joints, Little Richard, Stray Cats, the Blasters.

18. Walter Salas-Humara, Work Part One.
I've been a fan of Walter (WSH) and his band The Silos since coming home with his solo record Lagartija (on vinyl) in 1988. So I was more than happy to fund the Kickstarter campaign for this and his next album. On Works Part One, WSH revisits what he considered to be his best songs from the beginning part of his career-- two from About Her Steps (1985), five from Cuba (1987), and three from the self-titled "one with the bird on the cover" (1990). The songs are presented in a stripped-down, acoustic setting; Walter is accompanied by producer Richard Brotherton on an assortment of stringed instruments, by Mary Rowell of Ethel on violin, and Amy Allison on vocals; Allison and Rowell graced many of the originals that are reworked here. Rowell's exquisite violin features on "Mary's Getting Married," a song about her very own wedding. WSH's songs are simple, beautiful and true; they speak of life in an honest and heartfelt way, and to me he's one of our best, and most underrated, songwriters. Hearing these songs again is like reconnecting with an old friend. RIYL: Early Silos, Unplugged, Los Lobos, Alejandro Escovedo.

19. Jeff Lynne's ELO, Alone in the Universe.
For better or worse, Jeff Lynne has a SOUND. Worse, if you're a rocker like Tom Petty or Dave Edmunds, and he's producing your album, because it's going to sound like Lynne, not you. Better, if you've just bought the latest release by Jeff Lynne's ELO. Not as giddily grandiose as those classic '70s sides (there's no "Telephone Line" here, for example), but if you long for those sweet harmonies and that classic sound, you've got it. Lynne sounds a little older, a little more mature maybe, but the fat, lush, rollicking post-"I Am the Walrus" vibe is here in all it's glory. With 12 tracks in 37 minutes, not a note is wasted (I have the version with two bonus tracks).  Swim out to the deep end and immerse yourself in "Love and Rain" and the rest of it. RIYL: Electric Light Orchestra, "I Am the Walrus," Traveling Wilburys.

20. The Wind, Re-Wind.
It's tough for me to be objective about the Wind, or really any of Lane Steinberg's bands, as I've known him since we were kids at Trail's End Camp in the early '70s (I remember circa '74, the camp counselor being impressed because Lane could name all three members of Cream. Lane remembers me hitting him in the head with a softball.) The Wind blew out of Miami in the '80s, putting out a couple of power pop records that were evocative of Big Star and the Beatles, at a time when Big Hair, fairights, and fake drums were ruling the charts; in a way they were anachronistic in the same sense that Big Star had been a decade before. Lane and Steve have worked together since, in Tan Sleeve. Re-Wind grabs you right out of the gate; I told Lane, they had me at the hand claps 4 seconds in. Smart, quirky songs by both primary writers; great harmonies, solid guitar-driven pop, perky drumming, and some lovely guitar solos. RIYL: Big Star, Tan Sleeve, the Archies, 1965 Beatles.

Posted by: --josh-- @ 6:58 PM  0 comments

My Belated Top-20 Albums of 2014
Wednesday, February 18, 2015

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.

Posted by: --josh-- @ 7:25 AM  2 comments

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