This is the final article in my long-incubating series reviewing the best music I heard in 2008. Earlier I wrote about my criteria for selection, honorable mentions and best songs.
Now that 2010 is here, I think it’s high time I finished the articles I began writing about my favorite music from 2008. The introduction I wrote explains the criteria I use for selection and I already published my picks for best songs of 2008.
- Top 5 Songs of 2008
- Killing the Blues by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss: “Leaves are falling, just like embers, in colors red and gold they set us on fire.” The opening lines to this song touch my soul but I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because of the beautiful imagery or maybe it’s a reminder of the even finer chorus to come. More likely it’s the wondrous way that Robert Plant and Alison Krauss blend their voices. Of course, it’s all of those and more. Accompanied by a sublime slide guitar and a restrained rhythm section, Plant and Krauss turn this John Prine song into their very own.
- Last Month of the Year by the Blind Boys of Alabama: This song epitomizes everything I love about the Blind Boys: a jumping rhythm section, call & response vocals, great singing and the unique sound that only the Blind Boys can deliver. If you’ve never heard them, check out their appearance on Austin City Limits if you get a chance. There is nobody like the Blind Boys of Alabama.
- Little Wing by The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Although I’d heard Jimi’s original version of this song (from Axis: Bold As Love), I never grew to love it until I heard Stevie Ray Vaughn‘s instrumental cover a few years ago. Last year I discovered that the Jimi Hendrix Experience Box Set has two different versions of “Little Wing.” My favorite has to be the sublime live version which reminds me greatly of the SRV cover.
- Stewball by Peter, Paul and Mary: I first heard this song when I was a teenager in the 80’s. It appeared on the legendary “Hangman Album” by Mason Proffit. While that version is good, it only begins to hint at the beauty of this version by Peter, Paul and Mary. In the PP&M canon, this song is right up there with “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “500 Miles”. You can find it on their third album, In The Wind, or on one of several greatest hits compilations.
- Da Da Da by Trio: Fifteen years before Volkswagen used it in their 1997 ad campaign, my old friend Arnie Walthoff introduced me to this strange song. In a music landscape dominated by MTV, Prince, Michael Jackson and Huey Lewis, it was a revelation to my teenage ears. Shortly after I arrived at Wartburg College a few years later, I stumbled upon a reel of tape at our college radio station with this song and other German pop songs. I played it on my radio show announcing it only as a cool song for which I did not know the artist. Within minutes several people called in to tell me that the artist in question was German band, Trio. It took until this year before I was finally able to lay my hands on the CD but it was well worth the wait.
Click the song titles to hear a sample of the song in the iTunes Music Store. You can get iTunes here.
This is the first in a series of posts describing my favorite music from 2008. To be eligible, an album only had to be added to my music collection in 2008, but not necessarily released in 2008. Some long-time favorites with which I had familiarity but had not previously owned were only eligible for “Honorable Mention” along with a few others that didn’t quite make the Top Albums list.
In order to make it into the Top Albums, a CD had to saturate my listening time for an appreciable length of time. Although I have ranked them, distinguishing between any two of these CDs is very difficult indeed. When I obtained each it probably remained in heavy rotation at home, on my iPod and at work for several weeks, often receiving two or three plays per day. This is the quality level required to make the Top Albums.
This year in listening was markedly different than recent years. In the past, most of my music listening occurred while biking to work or while at work. Because of my job change, neither of those times were practical until my office was closed in September. Since then, however, I’ve had ample time to listen to music while working and I take full advantage of it.
In the coming days, I’ll have articles delineating my picks for Best of 2008. In addition to the Best Albums, I’ll list my favorite songs.
- Top 10 Albums of 2007
- Corinne Bailey Rae by Corinne Bailey Rae: The first notes of the opening track (“Like A Star“) say almost everything that you need to know about this wonderful album by chanteuse Corinne Bailey Rae. The spare dynamics of a lone acoustic guitar coupled with her expressive voice soon give way to a slow-rolling bass line, temperate drums and light backup vocals. Bailey Rae’s collaborators know enough to hang back and let her be the star but their subtle performances are no less sublime. Just as her musicians shift so easily from one style to another, so also does Bailey Rae. Songs like “Enchantment” and the incredible “Put Your Records On” put a groove in your bones while the singer lights up your soul. Bailey Rae isn’t afraid to get her croon on with songs like “Til It Happens To You” and “Choux Pastry Heart” which demonstrate that she knows how to wail but also that she knows not to overdo it. This album is great from beginning to end and it dominated my listening in the early part of the year. It was easy to pick this as my favorite album of 2007.
- The Rising Tied by Fort Minor: Notwithstanding the next album in this list, I can’t say that I’m a big fan of what Linkin Park does. I did, however, sense a certain kinship with sideman Mike Shinoda when I first saw the video for “Where’d Ya Go“. Although the chorus certainly reminds one of Eminem’s “Stan,” the verse is more introspective and shows the downside of success and fame. Sometime after that, the video for “Remember The Name” started getting heavy airplay and I realized I had to hear more. The Rising Tied harkens back to hip-hop’s finer days when it was all about having fun on the block while still maintaining a social conscience. On top of gorgeous musical backdrops, Shinoda and his posse rap about war, poverty, drugs and society. One of my favorite songs on the album is “Kenji“, where Shinoda tells how his Japanese-American grandfather spent World War II in an internment camp. It’s not all preaching and teaching, though, when Shinoda and crew throw down with mad beats and rhymes in songs like “In Stereo” and “Petrified“. This is a great first album by Shinoda and I look forward to what he comes up with next.
- Collision Course by Jay Z and Linkin Park: Although I’m not really a fan of either rapper Jay Z or hard rock band Linkin Park, I really enjoyed this six song “mashup” EP which a co-worker recommended. Because it’s an EP, it’s only six songs long which is nearly perfect for the material. Part of the problem I have with Linkin Park is that lead singer Chester Bennington‘s voice, like Geddy Lee‘s, is too thin and can’t carry an entire song. On this album, Bennington’s voice is just another instrument that is only occasionally added to the mix. Most of the vocals are handled by Jay Z and Mike Shinoda, who I suspect is the mastermind behind this recording. As I mentioned in an earlier article, Collision Course climaxes perfectly with the anthem, “Points of Authority/99 Problems/One Step Closer.” However, all the songs before it are also very nearly perfect. It is rare that you can rock out to distorted heavy metal guitar licks and groove to infectious hip-hop beats in the same song but these tracks tracks definitely deliver both.
- Broken Boy Soldiers by The Raconteurs: My love for all things Jack White is probably obvious by now so it should come as no surprise that White’s recent project made this list. Although he revisits territory familiar to White Stripes fans (“Bleu Veins” for example), most of the material here is more richly produced and enjoys a much bigger sound than the White Stripes deliver. Moreover, the vocal interplay between the unique voices of White and Brendan Benson add a wonderful texture to this album. Their voices complement each other in the same way that Vedder and Cornell complemented each other on Temple of the Dog. Nowhere is this more evident than on the mellower tracks, “Together” and “Yellow Sun”, which also features a dandy acoustic guitar riff. Fine musicianship is on display throughout, especially on tracks like “Hands” and “Level” when the quartet brings the full power of the band to bear. Instead of being the show, Jack White’s corrosive guitar is merely part of a greater show and does not suffer for it’s reduced role. “Level”, in particular, really showcases White’s mastery of tone and overdubs. Bonus points to whoever (White? Benson?) wrote the word “kakistocracy” into a rock and roll song (“Intimate Secretary”).
- Wolfmother by Wolfmother: Like most people, my first exposure to Wolfmother was via their hit single, “Woman.” Based on the music video for the song, I concluded that this was a high energy band that was reviving the classic power trio format of the 1970’s. Soon, though, I became disenchanted with Wolfmother as they became over-exposed in the media. “Woman” was even featured on the soundtrack for MotorStorm and was “playable” on Guitar Hero II. Still I was interested to hear the rest of their material and was pleasantly surprised to find that they are not nearly as one-dimensional as I had imagined. Admittedly, 70’s arena rock is an apparent influence but I also hear echoes of 90’s grunge and recent indie rock. In particular, much of this album greatly reminds me of the White Stripes. At times Wolfmother exhibits the same minimalism that makes the White Stripes so good (“Where Eagles Have Been”, “Apple Tree”), but they can also assault you with a crushing rock and roll wall of sound (“White Unicorn“, “Dimension“). The straight ahead rock is tempered with many mode changes and bridges (see “Colossal” and “Joker and the Thief“) making it more sophisticated than your standard verse-chorus-verse formula. I would be tempted to compare it to prog rock but it’s not as soft and definitely not as self-consciously pretentious. The only drawback to listening to Wolfmother is that you might find that you have an uncontrollable desire to turn the stereo up to 11.
- Kid Rock by Kid Rock: If I could be a musician, I would be a musician like Kid Rock. It’s always amazing to me when I find someone who shares my diverse musical tastes but it is especially amazing when a musician shares my musical eclecticism. Kid Rock is one of those musicians. Effortlessly combining elements from Run DMC, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, Hank Williams Jr. and classic rock from the 70’s, Kid Rock makes music like nobody else. Like Neil Young, he writes whatever his muse tells him: sometimes to embarrassing effect (“Cadillac Pussy”) but often evoking real emotion (“Hard Night For Sarah”). In a genre that’s all about ego and being bombastic, careful scrutiny of Rock’s often autobiographical lyrics reveal a man that is more complicated than he is often portrayed in the media. They tell the story of a man devoted to family who sometimes grows tired of the rock and roll lifestyle. He’s troubled by his past and views his success as “payback” to all who doubted him on the way up. But Kid Rock is also a braggart and trash-talker in the classic hip-hop tradition who infuses his lyrics with a trailer-park sensibility that almost always puts a smile on my face. When he raps “Rollin in my pick up/Truck jacked up with the 4 gold shocks/And where i come from/Mud flaps come in stock” on “Hillbilly Stomp”, you can tell that he’s not frontin’.
- Chrome Dreams II by Neil Young: Most people who know me know that I have long been an ardent fan of Neil Young. At times that fanaticism has crossed over into obsessive territory, but I’ve dialed it back considerably in recent years. Although I still eventually purchase every album he puts out, it’s no longer on the day that it is released and is often a couple years after. I’ve come to realize that he’s equally capable of producing a masterpiece or a flawed diamond-in-the-rough. His latest release is somewhere in between but closer to masterpiece than flawed. Young has successfully melded together some unreleased gems from his past with a new batch of songs that he wrote for the album. Together they form a cohesive work that feels like the Neil Young that everybody loved in the early 1970’s. Hardcore fans welcome the official release of “Ordinary People”, a long unreleased epic that has been available on bootlegs since it’s conception in the late 1980’s. Nifty instrumental interludes and subtle double-tracked harmonies bely the fact that the song stretches beyond the 18-minute mark. Shorter songs like “Shining Light”, “Beautiful Bluebird” and “Ever After” show Young’s lifelong love affair with country music is still as strong as ever. Perhaps if Ben Keith wasn’t such a good family friend, Neil wouldn’t return to the twang again and again. There’s also lots of Neil’s signature guitar mangling on “No Hidden Path”, “Spirit Road” and the aforementioned “Ordinary People”. The only weak spot on the album is the inclusion of a typical Young throwaway, “Dirty Old Man”, which feels a lot like it’s predecessors “Piece of Crap” and “T-Bone”. Even so, there’s something here for everyone and it’s clearly his best effort since 2003’s Greendale.
- Guitar God/Population II by Randy Holden: Randy Holden is the best guitar player you’ve never heard of. After a brief stint with Blue Cheer in the 1960’s, Holden went on to form Population II, a band consisting of just him and a drummer. The band released it’s self-titled debut in 1970 before Holden disappeared into obscurity after his manager sold all of his guitar gear without his permission. He returned to the music business early in the 1990’s to record his second solo album, Guitar God, which can often be found packaged with Population II. An album in the truest sense, Population II delivers a dark sonic message that’s all about phenomenal tone, incredible sustain and well-heeled feedback. Holden’s singing is as good as any of the other great guitar slingers (Clapton, Hendrix, King, Vaughan, etc.) but he’s not going to win any awards for vocals any time soon. Still, the psychedelic era production qualities make the vocals fit right in with the soaring and thunderous guitar passages. Dark and heavy like Iron Butterfly‘s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Holden goes way beyond anything else of that era with gigantic notes that will sear your soul. In particular, the two part odyssey of “Fruit and Icebergs” is as good, and better in some ways, as anything that Jimi Hendrix did. After reading one of only a few interviews with Holden, it’s clear that he spent his whole life trying to achieve the perfect sound with his guitar. I believe these two albums show that he has done precisely that.
- Icky Thump by White Stripes: Although this album is probably not up to the high standards that the White Stripes have set for themselves, it is still quite worthy of your adoration. Like previous efforts, “eclectic” is the operative word as they veer from Celtic (“Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn”) to mariachi (“Conquest“) and back to blues-based rock and roll (“Icky Thump“, “You Don’t Know What Love Is“). Although he sometimes sprinkles in the occasional funky synthesizer part, Jack White‘s strength is obviously big riffs and the screechy tone that makes his guitar solos so delicious. On songs like “Little Cream Soda” and “Catch Hell Blues”, White achieves the tonal perfection that recalls the Pixies and Neil Young when they are at their best. Still, I think this is a weaker effort than I expect from the White Stripes and would have been a disappointment if my expectations weren’t so high. It should be enough to hold me over until their next album but until then I’ll probably listen to the Raconteurs (see above) when I need a dose of Jack White.
- Blind Faith by Blind Faith: After Eric Clapton left Cream, he formed a new “supergroup” with Steve Winwood, Cream drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Ric Grech. Clapton grew restless in the band after only a year and they broke up with only this album to show for their time together. Even so, it’s an album that was ahead of its time (1969) and was a precursor to where rock would go in the 1970’s. The most recognizable song on the album is probably “Can’t Find My Way Home” which, like most of the songs on the album, features lead vocals by Winwood. Clapton does take the occasional vocal lead but when Winwood contributes harmony vocals, it becomes obvious that these two were meant to sing together. Also noteworthy is Clapton’s guitar which is typically mournful and lyrical, but on songs like “Presence of the Lord” he breaks out a blistering solo that doesn’t match his long-time nickname, Slowhand. The album’s only downside is the indulgence given to Ginger Baker in “Do What You Like”, a song that he wrote but thankfully does not sing. Likely deemed “experimental” at the time, it clocks in close to 15 minutes and includes a long drum solo. It represents everything that went wrong with 70’s rock, but the rest of the album represents everything that was right with 70’s rock.
- Top 5 Songs of 2007
- Remember the Name by Fort Minor: “This is ten percent luck, twenty percent skill, Fifteen percent concentrated power of will.” So begins the swaggering second single from The Rising Tied, the side project album from Linkin Park band member, Mike Shinoda. The lyrics are crafted so well that you can’t help but chant them to yourself even after the song is over. The fact that the rapping is very old school (i.e. easy to understand) also endears it to me. Oh and the video is fun, too.
- Put Your Records On by Corinne Bailey Rae: From the moment I first saw her perform this song on Saturday Night Live, I loved the exuberance and joy, both in her delivery and in the song itself. The lyrics evoke a warm summer day from your childhood while the song plants a gentle dance groove in your body. Corinne’s inflections and phrasing is near perfect without seeming contrived, even during the “diva moments” that so many female singers these days over-dramatize. This song is going to be on my future playlists for a long time to come.
- Points of Authority/99 Problems by Jay Z and Linkin Park: What do you get when you “mashup” songs by a mediocre rock band and a highly acclaimed but sometimes mediocre rapper? A hard-rocking, rabble-rousing polemic that has a metallic edge and street smarts. I quoted the refrain, “99 problems and a bitch ain’t one,” many times to Tina last year whenever she had to deal with a particular bitch. The lyrics make this inappropriate for some situations but ideal among adults of a specific vintage.
- I’d Love To Change The World by Ten Years After: Alvin Lee‘s take on the hippie revolution that never came to pass still sounds fresh 37 years later. Frantic and insistent during the verses, Lee lays back and relaxes for the chorus: “I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do. So I’ll leave it up to you.” Although the song doesn’t give you much of his famous electric guitar, the frenetic acoustic guitar strumming more than makes up for it.
- Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull: I know it’s cheating a little bit to include this entire album as a “song”, but Tull’s intention was that it should be heard as a continuous work. I used the “Join Tracks” feature in iTunes to turn the two songs on the CD (called simply “Side 1” and “Side 2”) into one. Although the 45-minute length might be intimidating, the song never meanders and revisits common themes often enough to keep your attention. The lyrics are a musical retelling of a poem written by the fictional character, “Little Milton“. “I really don’t mind if you sit this one out. My words but a whisper, your deafness a SHOUT,” begins the first of many verses that peek in and out between the musical change-ups and not-too-extended jams. Although it’s not necessary to appreciate the song, the newspaper covered album cover provides a lot of background to the story and is fun to read as you listen to the album.
Click the song titles to hear a sample of the song in the iTunes Music Store. You can get iTunes here.
- Honorable Mention Albums for 2007
- The Blind Leading The Naked by Violent Femmes: Talk about a late 80’s flashback! Few bands can lay claim to the soundtrack of my college career but the Femmes are definitely one of them. Of their first three albums, this is probably my least favorite but also the most accessible for the masses. While “Old Mother Reagan” definitely sounds dated, the rest of the album still sounds as fresh as the first time I heard it twenty years ago.
- Chicago IX (Greatest Hits) by Chicago: Before they were the Peter Cetera Love Song Band, Chicago was a kick-ass rock band with a great horn section. Although some of these songs hinted at the mediocre ballads that would come later, this set of songs is never formulaic and recommended for all fans of classic rock.
- Eagles Live by The Eagles: Classic rock seems to be the theme for this year’s crop of Honorable Mentions and this live album represents the classiest of the classics. This two-disc set was the capstone on the Eagles’ decade long run at the forefront of the country-rock movement. Although it’s a little heavy on songs from The Long Run (most of the album was recorded during that tour), two discs leaves lots of rooms for all the old favorites and even a “new” classic for this album, “Seven Bridges Road”. More than anything this album proves that the Eagles were a great live band that did not rely on the studio to make their sound. The harmonies are all spot-on and the musicianship is exquisite, particularly on “Hotel California” which ends with a legendary guitar duel between Joe Walsh and Don Felder.
- Volcano, Riddles in the Sand, Last Mango In Paris by Jimmy Buffett: My sister introduced me to Jimmy Buffett in the 80’s and I have loved his music ever since. For years I had been satisfied with owning the wonderful Boats, Beaches, Bars, Ballads box set but I have missed many of the album tracks from the period of his career I like to call the Mustache Years. Upon signing up for Lala I immediately put those albums into my Wanted queue. This year I was lucky enough to receive three of those albums. Riddles and Mango have particular meaning for me because they helped provided the soundtrack for my summers in 1984 and 1985 when I lived with my sister in South Carolina. I’ll never forget the look on my brother-in-law’s face as the melody to “La Vie Dansante” played near the end of “Beyond the End” – we were perplexed, delighted… and stoned.
- Walls and Bridges by John Lennon: Although this album is not considered among Lennon’s finest by most critics, I still count it as one of my favorites by John, probably because it was my first solo Lennon album. The Phil Spector-inspired production can get unnecessarily cluttered with horns sometimes, but each song has almost exactly the right atmosphere it needs. The downbeat numbers, in particular, have a definite dark feeling to them and John’s estrangement from Yoko is obvious. Perhaps that’s why the upbeat numbers feel forced, as if John was trying to convince himself that he was happy when he was not.
- Apple Venus Volume 1 by XTC: Although I would classify myself as an XTC fan, I haven’t been very impressed with anything they’ve done since Skylarking, perhaps one of the Top 10 albums of all time. Sure there have been songs that I liked, but each album has been a disappointment as a whole. And so it took awhile for me to finally pick up the first release on their own record label, Apple Venus Volume 1. It undeservedly languished outside of the rotation for months last year until I finally set my mind to rediscovering XTC. Oh how I was rewarded! The lush production and the willingness to throw in a horn or some strings harken back to Skylarking but this album isn’t quite up to that standard. Thus, it only makes Honorable Mention this year.
- Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull: Convential wisdom says that Aqualung and Songs From The Wood make up the essential Jethro Tull oeuvre but I would make the case that this masterwork should be included in that collection as well. I first stumbled upon this album in the mid-80’s as a plundered my sister’s record collection with cassettes in hand. I finally purchased the album on vinyl sometime in the 90’s just so I could have the full version of the epic liner notes but it took this long for me to pick up the CD. After ripping the CD into iTunes using the defaults, I went back and re-ripped it as a single track since I think that’s what Ian Anderson intended all along.
As I explained last year, to be eligible, an album only had to be added to my music collection in 2007, but not necessarily released in 2007. Some long-time favorites with which I had familiarity but had not previously owned were only eligible for “Honorable Mention” along with a few others that didn’t quite make the Top 10.
In order to make it into the Top 10, a CD had to saturate my listening time for an appreciable length of time. Although I have ranked them, distinguishing between any two of these CDs is very difficult indeed. When I obtained each it probably remained in heavy rotation at home, on my iPod and at work for several weeks, often receiving two or three plays per day. This is the quality level required to make the Top 10.
In the coming days, I’ll have articles delineating my picks for Best of 2007. In addition to the Best Albums, I’ll list my favorite songs for the year as well as some musical disappointments for 2007.
- Top 10 Albums of 2006
- 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.
- Wingspan by Paul McCartney & Wings: I picked this up primarily because it’s the only CD that contains “Mull Of Kintyre”, which I named one of my Top 5 Songs of 2006. I was quite surprised to find myself listening to both discs repeatedly. Although there is some duplication with the other McCartney albums I own (Ram and Band on the Run), this set fills in the gaps very nicely for those that I won’t buy. For example, I would never consider buying Back To The Egg or McCartney II, but I quite enjoy “Goodnight Tonight” and “Waterfalls”.
- 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.