So let's just cut the crapola and get started, shall we?
11. Will Hoge - Draw the Curtains*
Any gifted musician who depends on constant and impassioned touring to make money and is involved in a near-fatal scooter accident that results in his touring being ground to a halt as he rehabilitates himself back to some modicum of health is automatically given a 3-month bonus period for consideration on this list. (* -- Hoge's album came out in late 2007, but I didn't buy it until January, after I'd received all my gift cards for Christmas.)
Those who know me know I have an irrationally soft spot in my heart for this guy, because he frequently stops in at The 'Noog, and because his performance is clearly modeled after The Boss in that every minute he's on stage, Hoge knows he's working, and he desperately wants to give his audience their money's worth and have fun doing it.
After almost a year of this album remaining on fairly heavy rotation, I'm comfortable claiming it is his best album. Although Draw the Curtains does not have any of my three favorite Hoge songs, it definitely has four of the top 10 and is his strongest collection from start to finish.
10. The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
I've been dangling off the back of the Hold Steady's bandwagon since 2005, when I picked up Separation Sunday on an out-of-town trip on something of an inspired whim. Their music is consistently praiseworthy and manages to feel simultaneously original and ripped straight from an E Street Band jam session.
While most critics claim Stay Positive is the band's strongest effort yet -- and while it's possible those critics are correct -- I've found myself a little bit numbed to their charm after so much heavy rotation. The Hold Steady is, for me, a band best served in 20-minute increments. They are a wonderful change of pace for me, but not a great main course.
So, while Stay Positive might truly be better than Boys and Girls in America, I would undoubtedly have ranked the latter one higher on my list in 2006. The band seemed fresher to me back then. Now? It's still plenty brilliant, but less fresh. Like Springsteen's post-concert T-shirts.
9. Paul Westerberg - 49:00
With my mind on my money and my money on my mind, Paul Westerberg's 2008 release was the best bang for your buck. The $0.49 download from Amazon.com (no longer available) provided a 44-minute mp3 file containing 10-12 bona fide songs interspersed with random sound garbles and glimpses of cover songs.
It is messy, and it is imperfect. But for half the price of one Britney Spears song, you could hear an entire album from a man who is still madly talented and can turn a clever and occasionally brilliant lyrical phrase with minimal effort. It makes the list based on value, plain and simple.
8. Keane - Perfect Symmetry
Again + Again (mp3) -- Removed lest I inspire people to purchase Keane's albums, thus infuriating their lawyers
To say I hated Under the Iron Sea would be a slight exaggeration, 'cuz I didn't hate it. But I sure as hell didn't like it very much. It was a colossally disappointing sophomore album in an era where sophomore albums seem almost destined to disappoint. So I didn't remotely expect to like this new one. Didn't even plan on buying it, really, but I overheard it playing in a record store and, not knowing what it was, found myself listening intently.
Perfect Symmetry is pretty cut-and-dried Brit Pop, full of hand claps and synth-overdose. I feel a little more James when listening to this one, although in the first 20 seconds of the opening song, if you aren't thinking about The Human League, your ears aren't working properly. Yet, for all of this negative-seeming commentary, I keep listening. This album is more enjoyable from start to finish than either of their previous efforts and is darn tasty pop music.
7. The Heavy - Great Vengeance and Furious Fire
The Heavy is never going to be accused of mining new territory, musically speaking. Their style is a mesh of various influences, although most swim in the '70s with Sly and some other funk-rockers of the era. But the sound is decidedly updated, with some grunge and '90s rock noise thrown into the stew. Their subject matter is the stuff of timeless inspiration: getting laid, having fun, drinking, and getting laid some more. But anyone who tires of such topics should stick to Barry Manilow or Charlotte Church.
The last time I remember being this surprised at how much I enjoyed a throw-back album was when I discovered the debut Black Crowes album months before they ever dented the cultural/MTV conscience. No one ever accused the Robinsons of being particularly original.
Great Vengeance... is certainly not flawless, and I'm always fascinated when a band chooses to open up with some atmospheric or moody piece that has almost nothing to do with the rest of the album and doesn't even stand very well on its own, but there's enough strength in the collection to merit mention on this list.
6. I Nine - Heavy Weighs the King
The harsh critic would say that this band hopped on the Avril Lavigne Clone Train and headed for the metropolis of Wannabe. And, if you don't listen past the first two songs, I guess that would be a jaded yet defensible claim. But if you listen to the entire album, you will hear an expression of nascent rock/pop talent that is searching for itself, strangely preoccupied with space and some oddball literary references, and capable of kicking some musical ass.
This band earned a recording contract because Cameron Crowe "discovered" them and put them on his Elizabethtown soundtrack. But where the song on that soundtrack leaned more country-rock, their debut album is pure-on rawk, full of energy and exuberance and, occasionally, teen angst. Which is a good thing, particularly to those of us who work with teenagers every day.
Based on how often I've listened to it, this was easily my favorite pure pop rock album of the year, but there's just enough Avril in the lead singer's voice that I'm hesitant to openly admit it. Which is a shame, 'cuz she can belt out some serious tunes.
These albums can be found on iTunes and Amazon.com's mp3 site.