Taking The Long Way by Dixie Chicks: I became a fan of the Chicks last year when I first heard their 2002 release, Home, and named it number 6 on my Best of 2005 list. After I heard that one of my favorite producers, Rick Rubin, would be producing their new album, I had great expectations. I was not disappointed and, in fact, this album exceeded all of my expectations. Although the production is fuller than what Rubin often delivers (see Johnny Cash or Neil Diamond), it’s not “slick” by any means. Natalie Maines’ voice has gotten better and soars on songs like “Voice Inside My Head” and “Baby Hold On”. Although the Chicks utilized a bevy of co-songwriters this time (see the review I wrote on last.fm for more details), the lyrics for each song feel personal and cover themes such as regret over lost lovers, appreciation for present lovers, rebellion, being an outsider, and Parkinson’s disease. Of course, “Not Ready To Make Nice” is a big middle finger to the shameful country music establishment which was so quick to cast them out in 2003. It’s alright with me, though. The Dixie Chicks are better without Nashville and Nashville is poorer for their loss.
Stadium Arcadium by Red Hot Chili Peppers: I saw the Chilis live back in 1989 in Mexico on the eve of my 23rd birthday and instantly became a fan. I loved Mother’s Milk but with each release after I found myself less and less interested. Starting with Californication, it was obvious to me that they had turned in a new direction and were evolving into a new band. Stadium Arcadium is the result of that evolution and what could well be the best album they ever make. In addition to the beautiful harmonies they added on the previous two albums, they also turned loose guitarist John Frusciante who unleashed a masterpiece of lead guitar wizardry. It’s the kind of playing to which you can just close your eyes and let the guitar take you away. Like U2 from last year’s list, it struck me that RHCP has matured into a truly great band where each member has really mastered their instrument and they all know exactly when and how to integrate themselves into the whole sound. Songs like “Snow”, “Charlie” and “Especially In Michigan” really illustrate this point. Even though this is a two disc set, there’s no filler here – every song is good and most are great. Earlier this year I wrote a review for Last.fm. Finally, this album was also produced by long-time Chili’s producer Rick Rubin.
Rainy Day Music by The Jayhawks: Every great album must start with a great song and this album is no exception. It opens with the classic line “You’re so in love, little girl” and continues to dazzle for the next 50-odd minutes. Each song is a testament to the beauty of two-part harmony done right. Easily classified as “alt-country”, this disc harkens back to old CSN, Byrds and even early Eagles. Like many of their alt-country counterparts, the influence of Gram Parsons is also quite evident. Unlike all those obvious influences, the production here is quite modern and the sound is crystal clear. That makes the harmonies all the more beautiful on songs like “All The Right Reasons”, “The Eyes of Sarah Jane” and “Angelyne”. The instrumentation is pretty sparse but it serves the vocals just fine. The guitar solos definitely have a Neil Young feel at times but never take over or feel out of place. I added this disc to my Lala.com “Want List” knowing only that The Jayhawks were a respected alt-country outfit. What a pleasant surprise to get one of the best discs of this year!
Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground by Bright Eyes: Although calling someone the “next Bob Dylan” has been a curse to almost everyone it has been foist upon (see Steve Forbert, Loudon Wainright and John Prine), I can’t think of a better description for Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst. His songs are revolutionary with incisive, cutting lyrics that really twist you inside. His voice, like Dylan’s, can be charitably described as “unique”. But, like Dylan on “Like A Rolling Stone”, his vocal delivery is perfect for his material. His delivery on “Waste of Paint” really underscores the point, especially when he questions the worth of his own work and notes that it’s “trite and cheap and a waste of paint, of tape, of time”. Tina can’t stand to listen to Bright Eyes, but I think she misses the implicit hopefulness that lies between the lines. Other songs like “Bowl of Oranges” and “Make War” are more obviously joyful but still retain Oberst’ trademark angst. Of course, if you want angst, there’s plenty in songs like “Don’t Know When But a Day Is Gonna Come”, “Nothing Gets Crossed Out” and “Method Acting”. Like the Dixie Chicks, this is the second straight appearance for Bright Eyes, even if he did drop from number one last year to number four this year.
Has Been by William Shatner: OK, stop laughing. You think of William Shatner as a washed-up over-actor who is best known musically for the campy cover songs he did back in the 60s. Well, that’s all true, but he’s also a poet and master of the spoken word. With Ben Folds at the production helm and providing musical accompaniment, Shatner reads poetry about his estranged daughter, failed ambitions, the ideal woman and the drowning of his wife. In the latter he agonizes about how he tried to save her and failed. But it’s not all dark – in the title track he ridicules those who call him a “has been” with “never-was talking about still-trying” and concludes that “has-been was, has-been might again”. All this over a spaghetti western soundtrack motif! Guests on the album include Lemon Jelly, Henry Rollins, Aimee Mann and Brad Paisley. I enjoyed this album much more than I would have ever guessed.
The Millennium Collection by Buddy Holly: Rock and roll grew up because of Buddy Holly. Although his career was cut short in that famous plane crash, he inspired the next generation of rockers (include the Beatles) to take rock and roll places that nobody had ever dreamed it would go. Aside the huge influence he’s had on rock, Holly’s music is feel-good music at it’s very best. One can’t help but sing along and smile to all of these songs. Some standouts are “Everyday”, “Rave On” and “Peggy Sue” but they are all very good. Holly fans can also check out Not Fade Away, an excellent tribute to Buddy.
Dreamboat Annie by Heart: It opens with “Magic Man” followed by a short version of “Dreamboat Annie” that segues into “Crazy On You”. The rest of the album flows together and includes two more versions of “Dreamboat Annie” as a kind of running theme. You’ve probably never heard the tracks in between but they are full of guitar hooks, Ann Wilson’s poignant crooning and a mellow groove. It’s classic rock at it’s best.
De-Loused in the Comatorium by The Mars Volta: This concept album tells the story of Cerpin Taxt who attempts suicide by overdosing on morphine at the beginning of the album. He spends a week in a coma and has visions. When he awakes, he jumps to his death. While the plot is certainly compelling, it only plays a small part in my appreciation of this album. Much like OK Computer (definitely a “Best of” that year), vocals are treated as an instrument and the lyrics are secondary and sometimes unintelligible. The music is very dissonant at times, but it is a beautiful dissonance that fits the larger vision of the overal sonic picture.
Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses by Slipknot: Another blind pick from Lala.com based only on a video I had seen on Fuse and the fact that they are from Des Moines, Iowa. Previous experiments in modern metal bands (At The Gates, Blind Guardian) were not as successful as I would have liked. Most of my preconceptions (i.e. hard-to-understand vocals, monotonous instrumentation) concerning listenability proved to be true for most of these bands. That is until I found this album brimming with grinding guitars, pounding drums and vocals you can understand. Perhaps producer Rick Rubin should get the credit for this because their previous album (Iowa) is completely unintelligible. All the gladder I am that I found this gem whose highlight is probably electric and acoustic versions of a brilliant song called “Vermillion”. The latter version is mellow enough that even Tina likes it.