Monday, January 28, 2008

The Top 25 of 2007, Part 5 (5-1)

5. SKY BLUE SKY-Wilco (Nonesuch)

Considering this current incarnation of Wilco is the best in its history, it's unsurprising that this, the Chicago band's sixth release, finds itself among the best of the year. Leader Jeff Tweedy gets in touch with his inner 70s with just a great straight-out rock record that is completely accentuated with texture and layers. The string-tinged "Either Way" gets things kicked off and sets a great tone, with Tweedy providing his usual steady vocals and rhythm, while the very underrated Nels Cline noodles away. The strength of the dozen tracks here is that the cohesiveness of the band is showcased more than ever. Many previous Wilco releases, as brilliant as they are, seemed rest mainly on the talent of Tweedy. But Sky Blue Sky allows you to really hear the contributions of everyone from Cline, to multi-instrumentalists Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen, to astounding drummer Glenn Kotche. "You Are My Face" has an awesome groove, as does "Hate It Here" and the stomp of "Shake It Off" is a fun change of pace. You can always expect something different from these guys, but the results never cease to amaze.

Previous list appearances: SUMMERTEETH (Honorable mention in 1999), YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT (#6 in 2002), A GHOST IS BORN (#1 in 2004)

4. IN OUR BEDROOM AFTER THE WAR-Stars (Arts & Crafts)

Stunningly gorgeous. Upbeat and meloncholy. Read my full review here.

3. NEW MOON-Elliott Smith (Kill Rock Stars)

This double-disc collection of unreleased and alternate version tracks by Elliott Smith is both inspiring and deflating. The second posthumous release since his terrible and untimely death, New Moon is bare-bones in its production and sound, but does a wonderful job at proving what an outstanding songwriter and guitar player Smith was. Virtually every song here is delicately sung and played acoustically, from "Angel in the Snow" to "Going Nowhere" and everything in between. Some of the unreleased songs, like "Riot Coming", "Almost Over", and "New Disaster" are among Smith's all-time best work. Also interesting to hear are an early version of the chill-inducing beauty of "Miss Misery" from Good Will Hunting and an alternate version of the fragile "Pretty Mary K" from Figure 8. A lot of these types of collections are for hardcore fans and completists only. Not such with New Moon. The quality of these songs are so high, that those interested in this sorely missed artist would feel right at home starting their Elliott Smith experience here.

Previous list appearances: FIGURE 8 (#2 in 2000), FROM A BASEMENT ON THE HILL (#3 in 2004)

2. RAISING SAND-Robert Plant & Alison Krauss (Rounder)

I am thoroughly amazed at how often I find myself going back to this disc. Read my full review here.

Official site

1. ICKY THUMP-the White Stripes (Warner Bros)

Well, they finally did it. Year upon year of making great records has led to their first foray to the top of this list. And there are many reasons for this. No longer a low-fi, blues-only duo, Jack and Meg White have broadened their sound and made it even more refined. The result is powerful (the title track, which might not only be the song of the year, but the song of many years), poignant ("A Martyr For My Love For You") and fun ("Effect & Cause"). Jack's arrangements here are more complex than before, using effects and non-guitar instruments to their full potential, and the unfairly maligned drumming of Meg fits what he is trying to do perfectly. There's a bit of a country rock tinge to "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told)", one of the many excellent lyrical exercises by Jack here), and the befuddlingly awesome mariachi Patti Page cover "Conquest" shows the broad landscape here. But expanding musical styles does not mean at all that Jack is focusing less on guitar. In fact, his playing is more raucous than ever. The acoustic funk of "300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues", accented with chaotic guitar leads is outstanding as is the barroom stomp of "Bone Broke", the blues fury of "Rag & Bone", and the infectious "I'm Slowly Turning Into You". And among all this strength is a jangly, folky tune called "Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn" that is among the best in the band's career. Icky Thump is a stunning achivement and one that showcases a two-person band at the top of their game. Jack White is one of music's most consistently brilliant writers and performers and it's about time that Meg gets her due for being the percussionist that completes the sound perfectly.

Previous list appearances: ELEPHANT (#4 in 2003), GET BEHIND ME SATAN (#2 IN 2005)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Top 25 of 2007, Part 4 (10-6)

10. ERA VULGARIS-Queens of the Stone Age (Interscope)

While not quite paying off as immediately and decisively as other QOTSA efforts, Era Vulgaris is a labor of love that you will ultimately warm up to if you have some patience. Mastermind Josh Homme is still churning out fuzzy guitar riffs and cool vocal lines with reckless abandon and while the songs are a little less sophisticated than some of the band's prior work, they still show the band as being one with few equals in sound and performance. "Into the Hollow" has a fantastic groove, exhibiting Homme's surprisingly strong vocals and the more simplistic songs, like "Sick Sick Sick" and "Battery Acid" pummel with brawn, rather than brains. The production seems a little bit off, perhaps purposely, and tunes like the cool "3's and 7's" and the dreamy "Suture Up Your Future" may have benefitted from something a little cleaner, but Era Vulgaris ultimately is a very good Queens release. The string of #1 albums is broken, but this one is still worthy of praise.

Buy it

(Previous list appearances: RATED R (#1 in 2000), SONGS FOR THE DEAF (#1 in 2002), LULLABIES TO PARALYZE (#1 in 2005)

9. EASY TIGER-Ryan Adams (Lost Highway)

Easy Tiger is further proof of the prolific Adams fully embracing his alt-country roots. With his incredible backing band, the Cardinals, Adams forges thirteen tracks that are all crisp, mature, and complex. "Goodnight Rose" is wonderfully constructed and the radio-friendly acoustic shuffle of "Two" is insanely catchy. The goofy bombast of "Halloweenhead" is completely forgivable because it's so damn well-done and the more delicate tunes, like "Everybody Knows", the piano-driven "The Sun Also Sets", and "Rip Off" cement Adams as one of the more amazing songwriters in music today. There might be times where you want something like a rocking Gold track or one of the more uptempo numbers from Cold Roses, but Easy Tiger manages to satisfy in virtually every way despite this because of just how brilliant Adams and the Cardinals meld together, the latter fully orchestrating Adams' challenging musical vision.

Easy money

Previous list appearances: 29 (#14 in 2005), JACKSONVILLE CITY NIGHTS (#11 in 2005), COLD ROSES (#6 in 2005)

8. THE HAIR, THE T.V., THE BABY, AND THE BAND-Imperial Teen (Merge)

A shockingly consistent and fun pop record. Check out my full review here.

7. ASH WEDNESDAY-Elvis Perkins (Xl Recordings)

I'm telling you this right now. If you like Neutral Milk Hotel, you will love this disc. If you don't like being spoonfed generic, formulaic crap, you will love this disc. If you appreciate musical talent and tremendous songwriting, you will love this disc. If you enjoy being a bit challenged by what you hear from time to time, you will love this disc. Perkins tells some amazing stories here: the wonderful acoustic nature of "While You Were Sleeping" is spellbinding and his use of strings propel "Moon Woman II" and "Emile's Vietnam in the Sky" and the glorious title track. Perkins' vocal style might take some getting used to, but once you accept it, you open yourself up for complete enjoyment. Few discs are this refreshing and emotional, true and powerful. Some tunes are fabulously simple and others more substantive, but the end result is one of the more impressive offerings from a songwriting standpoint in quite some time.

Official site

6. LEARN TO SING LIKE A STAR-Kristin Hersh (Yep Roc)

Kristin Hersh's latest effort may be the most well-balanced release of her career. Known for her quirky lyrics and recognizable vocals, Learn to Sing Like a Star should make people notice her for something they should have been paying attention to all along: her sharp songwriting and excellent arranging. What makes this disc so striking is the perfect mesh of acoustic guitar, rocking elements, and strings, provided by the McCarricks. "In Shock" is nearly perfect in showcasing these strengths. But pretty much all of the songs here are flawless: the string-infused "Nerve Endings" is beautiful and the haunting simplicity of "Vertigo" are standout tracks. But the rockers here are every bit as potent as the down-tempo numbers. "Day Glo" is glorious in its melody and "Sugarbaby" a textbook example of what a great, edgy, and unconventional pop song should sound like. The only slight missteps are the brief musical interludes sprinkled throughout. They're not bad at all, but if including them meant leaving off another song as fantastic as "Winter", then I would be disappointed. With this disc, Hersh continues to solify herself as an amazing songwriter and criminally underrated artist.

Previous list appearances: STRANGE ANGELS (#8 in 1998), SKY MOTEL (#3 in 1999), SUNNY BORDER BLUE (#1 in 2001), THE GROTTO (#15 in 2003)

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Top 25 of 2007, Part 3 (15-11)


This band certainly is quirky and hard to pin down. But about 20 seconds into the disc's opener, "March Into The Sea", you are greeted with everything that is great about Modest Mouse: complex music, interesting (if enigmatic) lyrics, and vocals that sound like they were spouted by Charles Bukowski on a Heffenreffer bender. Isaac Brock's stylings might take a little getting used to, but the songs here are so dynamic and interesting, you definitely get past any vocal oddities in a hurry. The controlled chaos that is "Florida" is a great Modest Mouse primer (with a overtly poppy chorus, no less!) and the catchiness of "Missed The Boat" really encapsulates when everything lines up in perfect synergy for the band. "Education" is a typical MM stomp and the epic "Spitting Venom" benefits from the band's gift of discord as well as Johnny Marr's guitar work. As difficult as Modest Mouse is to categorize fully, mostly due to Brock's unique vocal work, We Were definitely a fine slice of edgy pop, worthy of appreciation by long-time fans and new discoverers alike.

Official site

Have yourself a listen.

Spend some dough.

Previous Modest Mouse list appearances: GOOD NEWS FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE BAD NEWS (#18 in 2004)

14. SWEET WARRIOR-Richard Thompson (Shout Factory)
Richard Thompson's latest is yet another outstandingly solid offering that demonstrates his excellent songwriting ability along with his truly underrated guitar god chops. "Needle And Thread" carries a fantastic melody with Thompson's typical, jaw-dropping fretwork. Nicely focusing on the folk pop that works so well for him, the war-tinged shuffle of "Dad's Gonna Kill Me" is a lyrical opus and the multi-layered "Johnny's Far Away" are different in many ways, but equal in strength. His ballads also hit the mark consistently like few others. "Take Care Of The Road You Chose" is earnestly brilliant and "She Sang Angels To Rest" is just so achingly beautiful, you marvel that someone has the talent to write something like this and can also compose the raucous, horn-driven "Bad Monkey" and have both be amazing in their own way. On Sweet Warrior, the criminally underrated Thompson expertly balances the rockers with the down-tempo numbers to create a release every bit as impressive as his outstanding 2003 The Old Kit Bag release.
Previous RT list appearances: THE OLD KIT BAG (#5 in 2003), FRONT PARLOUR BALLADS (#16 in 2005)

Official site
Buy it now

13. YOU AND OTHERS-Vega4 (Sony)

Expertly executed Snow Patrolish Brit pop. Read my complete review here.

Official site

Mmmm...Brit pop...

Drop a pence, will ya?

12. CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR-Jonatha Brooke (Bad Dog)
Somewhere along the way, Jonatha Brooke decided to expand on her folk style and incorporate more and more pop aspects into her songwriting. The idea of a folkie going pop might make some people shudder, but the result is a rocking, accessible offering that makes you wonder why more people aren't hearing this disc. Brooke's vocals are completely solid here, perfect for the style and nary a note out of place. The big, overproduced sound of the title track is actually a fantastic opener and sets a high expectation that Brooke delivers upon. She is an excellent songwriter and the more mainstream sounding tunes ("Keep The River On Your Right", the acoustic-driven "I'll Leave The Light On", and the excellent "Hearsay") demonstrate Brooke's great ability to write on relationships on practically every song without having it sound redundant. The brightest gem out of all of these songs, however, is the chill-inducing "Prodigal Daughter", about as perfect a haunting track as you can wish for. Brooke's gift of melody is well-represented here, as well as the rest of the disc. A very solid and impressive effort, one very much worthy of your listen.
Once again, Carl Newman continues to prove to the musical world that he is the master of the pop song. With his usual outstanding backing band, Newman forges a dozen prototypes of what power pop should be about. The opening track, "My Rights Verses Yours" is excellent, showcasing impressive group vocals and catchy melodies. The funky riff of "All The Old Showstoppers" drives the tune as one of the best on the disc, with all its musical complexity and the gorgeous title track, sung absolutely perfectly by the divine Neko Case, might be one of the band's best. And while I never quite dug the Dan Bejar-sung tunes nearly as much ("Myriad Harbour"), all the others more than make up for it: "All The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth" rocks most excellently, the trippy electronica of "Failsafe", and the Beatles "Dig A Pony"-ish guitar riff of "Go Places" all showcase Challengers as a disc, more uh, challenging, than Twin Cinema or Electric Version, but no less of a masterpiece in pop songwriting and execution.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Top 25 of 2007, Part 2 (20-16)

20. WEARY & WIRED-Marc Ford (Blues Bureau Int'l )

Sometimes I am just really in the mood for a blues rock record and thankfully, Marc Ford obliged this year. Ford, former guitarist of the Black Crowes, is one of my personal favorites and this solo effort really showcases his raucous blues chops amidst 15 inspired tracks. Sure, the vocals aren't particularly noteworthy and the lyrics are what you expect from a blues rock record, but Ford's playing is so top-notch it drives Weary & Wired to transcend being just a solo disc from a guitar player who was once in a great band. "Featherweight Dreams" is a great, upbeat opener and the campy claps in "Dirty Girl" make it even more catchy than it was destined to be. The epic "Smoke Signals" is Ford's tour de force and even the somber "Currents" has Ford at the top of his guitar game. A surprising and satisfying release and a cure for those needing a blues rock fix.

19. IN RAINBOWS-Radiohead (Ato Records / Red)

Truth be told, Radiohead lost me a little after OK Computer and then lost me completely after Kid A. So, when I heard that they were putting out a record that didn't exactly sound like the band farting into a Moog synthesizer, I was on board. And I was pleasantly surprised. I still don't think anything here approaches the absolute perfection of The Bends and OK Computer, but there are some good rock tunes here. "Bodysnatchers" is delightfully fuzzed out behind Thom Yorke's borderline indecipherable lyrics and the acoustic beauty of "Faust Arp" recalls the time when these guys wrote great songs. The rest of the disc does flirt with the really obscure and inaccessible sounding stuff of later discs without immersing you in it. The result is a new Radiohead that fans of the distant and not-so-distant past can both fully appreciate.

Official site

Get some 'head (and take your mind out of the gutter)

Previous Radiohead list appearances: OK COMPUTER (#1 in 1997), KID A (#14 in 2000)

18. SNAKES & ARROWS-Rush (Atlantic)

A smart return to the past in sound yields one of Rush's most impressive discs in a long time. The musicianship here is what you would expect: each their own virtuoso. Neil Peart's drumming is Herculean, of course, and Geddy Lee's bass playing is as dextrous as ever. But coming out of this disc is the rebirth of Alex Lifeson as a guitar god. His solo acoustic piece, "Hope", is chill-inducing and his work on the disc's instrumentals, most notably "The Main Monkey Business" further cements him as the trios most underrated member. "Far Cry" might be the band's best single in over 20 years and the complexity of "Workin' Them Angels" really draws upon Rush's strengths of both lyrical and musical power. Now, if we can just get Geddy to quit triple-tracking his vocals...!

Previous Rush list appearances: VAPOR TRAILS (#9 in 2002)

17. WHITE CHALK-PJ Harvey (Island)

Spooky. Ethereal. Challenging. Read my full review here.

Previous PJ list appearances: IS THIS DESIRE? (#9 in 1998), STORIES FROM THE CITY, STORIES FROM THE SEA (#4 in 2000)

16. YOU CAN'T WIN-Dolorean (Yep Roc)

The beauty (and I mean that literally) of this disc is its simplicity. Al James doesn't have a great voice. In fact, it is quite limited. The music is simple. But James gets what KT Tunstall gets: the concept of "the song". Folky, but not overtly so, the disc is peppered with mandolins, piano, and strings, but it is really James' narratives that propel the songs. "Heather, Remind Me How This Ends" is blissfully sad and the lyrically clever "In Love With The Doubt" and "What One Bottle Can Do" are high points of the disc and showcase James' writing style. On top of it all. the opening title track's hypnotic repetition is so brilliant, you wish everything so simple sounded this good.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Top 25 of 2007, Part 1 (25-21)

Here's the annual "best of" list. In chunks of 5 to not bore too much. Take a chance on some of these records if they sound interesting. After all, they were the tops of the year.

25. 4-WAY DIABLO-Monster Magnet (Steamhammer/Spv)

If you happen to love absurd, bombastic, tongue-in-cheek, loud, stripper psychedelic stoner metal (and who doesn't?) then this is the perfect, long-awaited and long-needed Monster Magnet fix to cure your jones. Leader, vocalist, and guitarist Dave Wyndorf returns from a near-fatal drug overdose to forge (appropriately) thirteen songs that just drip with a dirty, heavy sexiness. Wyndorf's voice, one of the best of the genre, is at the top of its game and his chunky and oppressive guitar riffs still rock harder than most out there. While not quite up to par with Monster Magnet's more brilliant offerings, there are more than enough cool tunes here (the plodding "Cyclone", the spooky ballad "I'm Calling You", and the shuffling sleaze of "Slap In The Face") to make you say, "Thank the bullgod! Monster Magnet is back!"

Previous Monster Magnet list appearances: POWERTRIP (#4 in 1998), GOD SAYS NO (#10 in 2001), MONOLITHIC BABY! (#15 IN 2004)
24. CHILDREN RUNNING THROUGH-Patty Griffin (ATO Records)
Griffin's records are just so effortlessly flawless sometimes it's hard to evaluate them. She has such a powerful and emotive voice and hits pretty much every tune out of the ballpark. Children Running Through is no different, and while she doesn't quite rock as hard as she can, she has found the nice balance between the uptempo tunes (like the sassy "Stay On The Ride") and the more contemplative numbers (the jazzy, moody opener "You'll Remember", the country ballad "Trapeze"). The second half of the disc is a little slower, but still contains that undeniably elegant Patty Griffin vocal presence. Delicately teetering on the acoustic folk line, Griffin's latest is definitely a triumph in both style and execution.
Sounds awesome, Dim! Where can I buy it and not pay shipping?
Previous Patty Griffin list appearances: FLAMING RED (#3 in 1998), 1000 KISSES (#11 in 2002), IMPOSSIBLE DREAM (#19 in 2004)
23. NEW SEASONS-The Sadies (Yep Roc)
Toronto's favorite sons (well, second favorite behind Rush, of course), the Sadies' return to disc marks the virtually uncategorizable country twang garage rock that makes them such a stellar live act. Brothers Dallas and Travis Good drive this four-piece who seem hell-bent on playing whatever kind of music they damn-well please. The enigmatically titled "The First Inquisition (Part 4)" is an infectious, low-fi stomp and "What's Left Behind" perfectly showcases the band's uncanny penchant for gorgeous vocal harmonies and truly absurd musicianship. Gone are the breakneck instrumentals, but New Seasons finds the Sadies in a rarefied air of outstanding songwriting and impressive performance. The disc is simply gorgeous and lavish in sound, with an underlying meloncholy that makes its appeal all the more impressive.
22. STRANGELET-Grant-Lee Phillips (Rounder)

Grant-Lee Phillips' last two offerings were regrettably underwhelming, which pains me to admit considering the high esteem in which I hold him as a songwriter and performer. Strangelet thankfully finds Grabt-Lee back in the saddle with an offering that is as strong as any of his solos discs and, at times, harkens back to his fabulous work in Grant Lee Buffalo. Phillips' strength here is his ability to craft a mesmirizing melody all framed by his breathy and soothing voice. The upbeat opening of "Runaway" immediately demonstrates the difference between this disc and the previous, slower offerings. And even when Phillips brings the pace down, like with "Fountain Of Youth" and "Same Blue Devils", he still commands your attention. The musical layers here also augment the songs well. The strings behind "Killing a Dead Man" are a nice touch and the electricity of "Johnny Guitar" brings out some of the fun that permeates Phillips' live performances.

Previous Grant-Lee list appearances: MOBILIZE (#6 in 2001)

21. DRASTIC FANTASTIC-KT Tunstall (Virgin US)

Here's the thing about KT Tunstall: She gets "it". She's not the best guitar player. Her voice is good. Damn good, actually, but neither drastic nor fantastic. Her songs are pretty simple, uncomplicated. But she gets "it". And that "it" is how to write a fabulous song. And not just one. But a whole slew of them. And that's why she rocks (killer dimples help too). There's some attitude here along with some catchy choruses ("Little Favours", the cool vibe of "Hold On"). But all of those qualities, fine on their own, don't mean too much unless they all come together in perfect synergy. Luckily for us, they do and on all of the 11 tracks here. This is the "it" that Tunstall thankfully gets. "Hopeless" gives off a nice acoustic shuffle which the bratty "I Don't Want You Now" expertly offsets. And at the end of the disc you realize that this is what pop music should be all about: the concept that Tunstall consistently nails. The concept of "the song".
Previous KT list appearances: EYE TO THE TELESCOPE (#15 IN 2006)
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