Because of my past life as an on and off rockcrit, I still get asked to vote in various music polls. And it seems like I get asked earlier and earlier every single year. It’s difficult to come up with a list when you are still digesting music: for example, the new Tom Waits doesn’t make my list because I haven’t heard it enough times. (And no spoilers!!)
One of the more interesting things to note is that in an era where the album has been eclipsed by the single; the single has actually been eclipsed by the song. One of the trends that has been growing but has reached its tipping point this year with all of the various polls is that they mostly aren’t ranking singles anymore, but rather “songs” or “downloads” or “tracks.” Sure, there are now, and will always be what we used to think of as “singles:” people still have to have something upon which to focus — noone who ventured into any public space or airwaves this year could avoid “Crazy” — but not always. I think that this reflects the post-millenial randomization of how we immerse ourselves in music.
I’m no different: all I ever wanted from a radio station was some kind of mix of things I already loved; things I was getting to love; and new discoveries which I could love. Or not, as the case may be. And now that I can do that in nearly every situation, I have. One of the things that has become evident is that digital music has changed my listening habits for the forseeable future: while I still buy CDs, I don’t really listen to albums as albums that much any more.
Albums have become buckets of songs. Or directories, actually. And the directories that are filled with the highest percentage of songs that I love the most are — by definition — the best albums. What does this mean in English? It means that my list of favorite records is going to be drawn from a wider — but not deeper — pool. It means that records that tell stories, where every song makes the songs around it better, might get lost in the shuffle. It means that a great set-up track to an even greater follow-up track could be just a few minutes of lost opportunity.
I don’t know what to do about that, though ironically some of my favorite recent records have been concept-y albums that break through in their entirety — Separation Sunday, American Idiot, Southern Rock Opera — which suggests that there is a part of me that misses putting 5 CDs on the changer and letting it go in order. Of course, that would mean that I would have to do it all over again in a few hours and who wants that when I can just point the Slimserver to a hard drive, select “Random” and hit play and it will pretty much never run out of music . . .
And still not come close to finding everything out there. It just ain’t possible anymore, folks.
In any event, the following are my favorite 10 albums, CDs, records, downloads, directories –whatever you want to call them — as well as songs that I loved & my favorite reissues. This list — as always — is highly subjective, and likely to change over the rest of my life. Hell, it may change by the time I end up voting in the Pazz & Jop poll. If I do this year. And as always, it’s also skewered wayyy too Indie, as that’s essentially my niche. I know that these aren’t the best albums of the year, just the ones I like the most.
Top 10 Albums
- The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant): Craig Finn and Tad Kubler opened up their music this year, and so instead of riffs with rants that were part of a larger storyline, we got an album full of, well, just fucking great songs. Now, I happened to love those riffs with rants — I’m still not over “The Swish” or “Banging Camp” — but pound-for-pound, this is their best album. From “Stuck Between Stations” to “You Can Make Him Like You” to “Southtown Girls,” there isn’t a bad song here, and just when you think that a song isn’t going anywhere, it’s redeemed by some telling detail in the words or a sing-along chorus, like for example “Gonna walk around gonna walk around gonna walk around and drink,” which is both. I think that this is their third straight winner in in three years. And would like to point out that the last time the same band made my #1 record two years in a row was The goddammned Clash in 1979-80, back before many of these boys and girls in these songs were born, and I was just beginning to live a lot of these stories.
- The Long Winters – Putting The Days to Bed (Barsuk) – Big epic pop songs, full of ringing guitars and memorable choruses. Never, ever will there be anything wrong with that.
- Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (Domino) – Yes, the hype became almost unbearable, but over the year, the songs kept getting stronger even as the hype mutated into backlash. Bollocks to the hype and to the backlash: it’s just purely modern two-guitar post-Britpop that is either the beginning of something all-time or a fondly-remembered one-off. Upcoming song title: “Sometimes The Hype Given Something Is Actually Well-Deserved, So Shut Up, Already”
- Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador) – Welcome back Ira, Georgia and James, all is forgiven. Thanks for not just the album title of the year, but leading off with “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” which isn’t just the psychedelic noise-guitar jam of the year, but quite possibly the first time that The Velvet Underground has loved them back.
- Drive-by Truckers – A Blessing and a Curse (New West): You just get the impression that Patterson, Jason & Mike could do this every year: walk into the studio and crank out a dozen or so near-perfect rock ‘n’ roll songs. This year, the songs seemed a bit more personal, as announced by the (criminally ignored) single, the unironic love/hate song “Feb 14” and sealed by the closer “World of Hurt,” where Patterson Hood — the writer of some of some of the best death songs ever — declares “it’s good to be alive.”
- Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 – Ole Tarantula (Yep Roc): An unexpected return to form after what seems like a decade (some might say two, but they’re wrong) of wandering in the wilderness. Of course, for Robyn, that wilderness is his own brain, which was still good for a couple-three strong songs per album. This time around, he gives us nearly a full record’s worth in what is by now his classic, highly personal style. If you ever liked him in the past quarter-century, you’ll like him again. Let’s only hope that his most famous bandmate was paying attention.
- Bob Dylan – Modern Times (Columbia): If I don’t think that his first #1 album ever isn’t quite as good as his last two albums — neither as startling as Time out of Mind nor as epic as “Love and Theft” — that’s on me, because other Zim fans think this is the best of his latest trilogy. Where he goes from here, not even he knows. Just as long as he keeps going.
- The Concretes – In Colour (Astralwerks): On some songs, great gobs of color; or others, just little dabs where needed.
- Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Live at the Fillmore East 1970 (Reprise): Sure, it could have been longer. And sure, “Winterlong” and “Wondering” are nice rarites, but hardly essential (except for pointing out how little he was really trying on Everybodys Rockin), and “Downtown” isn’t all that different from the take on Tonight’s The Night, then what’s to recommend this? Oh yeah, the amazing extended takes on “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down By The River,” each of which I’ve heard 35 zillion times in the past 35 years, yet both of which sound fresh and new because — oh yeah — they were. Also just missing this list: Living With War, where Neil single-handedly rassles the Prez to the ground.
- Sonic Youth – “Rather Ripped” (Geffen): As per entires on Yo La Tengo and Robyn Hitchcock, a long-time fave returning to form. If you love the form, you’ll love this record. I do, and I do.
- Secret Machines – Ten Silver Drops
- Neil Young – Living With War
- Jenny Lewis – Rabbit Fur Coat
- Pete Yorn – Nightcrawler
- Silversun Pickups – Carnavas
- Raconteurs – Ranconteurs
- Cat Power – The Greatest
- Robert Pollard – From A Compound Eye
- The 88 – Over and Over
- Pearl Jam – Pearl Jam
- Wolfmother – Wolfmother
- Rhett Miller – The Believer
- Ray Davies – The Tourist
- Sufjan Stevens – The Avalanche
- Amy Rigby – Little Fugitive
- Tom Waits – Orphans
- Yo La Tengo – Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind
- Camera Obscura – Hey Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken
- Jenny Lewis and The Watson Twins – Rise Up With Fists!
- Dan Bern – Storm
- Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Cheated Hearts
- Cat Power – Living Proof
- Pearl Jam – Worldwide Suicide
- Gnarls Barkley – Crazy
- Raconteurs – Steady, As She Goes
- Drive-by Truckers – Feb 14
- Drive-by Truckers – World of Hurt
- Dramarama – Everybody Dies
- Wolfmother – Woman
- Pete Yorn – Policies
- Long Winters – Ultimatum
- The Hold Steady – You Can Make Him Like You
- Concretes – Fiction
- Sonic Youth – Pink Steam
- Walkmen – Louisana
- Marah – Sooner or Later
- Neko Case – Margaret vs Pauline
- Steve Wynn – No Tomorrow
- Pretenders – Pretenders (Rhino)
- R.E.M. – And I Feel Fine… The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987
- Pavement – Wowee Zowee
- Replacements – Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was?
- The Byrds – There Is A Season