20. “Magick” by Ryan Adams and the Cardinals
This is the year I turned on Ryan Adams. I like his live sound, where the Cardinals have more of a chance to play the Grateful Dead in their arrangements, but there’s a sameness to much of Adams’ recent studio work. I start this list off with “Magick” because it gives me hope that Adams will rock a bit more in the new year.
19. “Looking At The Sun” by Gramercy Arms Gramercy Arms--"Looking At The Sun" (mp3)
Good, clean retro-pop that portends good things to come, until someone snaps this up as the soundtrack for a TV show and ruins everything.
18. “Freeway” by Aimee Mann
A simple, droning Aimee Mann toss-off, built around the verbal irony of “You gotta a lot of money, but you can’t afford the freeway.” But, the riff is insistent and hummable and the chorus soars just enough to shake you out of your reverie. I sing this one all the time.
17. “Ordinary People” by Neil Young
I guess this song was performed back in the late ‘80’s, but it wasn’t released until this year on Chrome Dreams II. The band is Neil Young and the Bluenotes, the historical references don’t have the impact they once might have had, and the song goes on for over 18 minutes. Who else could pull this off? Like much of what Young writes, this opus is in need of some editing, but each verse tells its own mini-story and helps to create a cumulative effect of the resilience of people in the face of corruption and injustice and the general downtroddenness of life that seems very appropriate as we face our current troubles and the hope of our new president.
16. “Ruby” by the Kaiser Chiefs Kaiser Chiefs--"Ruby" (mp3)
Everything that joyous, girl-crazy rock and roll should be. Wait for the chorus. Wait for it. I was in the car yesterday listening to this with some other people and when someone came up to the car to talk, we stopped the Ipod so we wouldn’t miss the chorus. How often does that happen?
15. “Stupid Now” by Bob Mould Bob Mould--"Stupid Now" (mp3)
There are a number of very good songs on District Line, but I like the opener “Stupid Now” because it ratchets up the emotion immediately. I don’t know much about Mould’s personal life, but with each new cd, it seems like some guy has broken his heart again. This time, it feels like the stakes are higher, like there was the expectation of a long-term relationship that exploded/imploded. One of Mould’s many gifts is his ability to convey either the explosion or the implosion with equal dexterity.
14. “Pull Up The Roots” by the morning benders the morning benders--"Pull Up The Roots (Talking Heads cover)" (mp3)
Stumbling across the bedroom covers, a little ep of odd covers from the morning benders, stuff by Paul Simon and Fleetwood Mac to Roy Orbison and the Beach Boys among others, was one of the great small treasures of this year. The vibe is of a band sitting around and most anything that they can think of they can cook up into a version that honors the original but becomes their own. To my ears, this Talking Heads cover is the cream of a very good crop. The benders write good stuff, too: their “dammit anna” was one of my favorites a year or so ago.
13. “Devil’s Arcade” and “Terry’s Song” by Bruce Springsteen
“Devil’s Arcade” feels more like a song that should have been on The Rising than Magic. The subject matter has been updated from 9/11 to post-Iraq war, but the circumstance of individual people, husbands, wives, and soldiers having to come to terms with what has happened to them feels very much the same. That you get the hidden track “Terry’s Song,” an ode to a lost friend, is both simpatico and pure gravy.
12. “Tiny Island” by Leo Kottke Leo Kottke--"Tiny Island" (mp3)
The greatest re-release of the year. How do I know? Because I re-released it, with the help of the USB turntable I got last Christmas. This long-lost gem of the out-of-print Greenhouse album is the sonic definition of “wistfulness.”
11. “This Girl” by Jordan Zevon Jordan Zevon--"This Girl" (mp3)
It’s not just that his voice sounds like he’s channeling the old man; this is catchy stuff. Lost in the Zevon mystique of crazy song subject matter and an overdeveloped sense of irony is the fact that Warren Zevon wrote melodic, radio-friendly pop songs. It sounds like Jordan is a chip off the old block.
10. “Scare Easy” by Mudcrutch
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know Tom Petty can probably write songs like this in his sleep, but this is a tightly-played single by a group of veterans who clearly enjoy being back together and trying to make the years between disappear. Perhaps to honor that spirit, the production is cleaner and simpler than most Petty records of late, and I’m not sure he’s put out anything this direct in quite awhile.
9. “Hittin’ It Hard” by Jim Lauderdale Jim Lauderdale--"Hittin' It Hard" (mp3)
I despise modern country music’s typical fallback on a nostalgic vision of agrarian-society-meets-Roadhouse world that never was. How refreshing, then to encounter Jim Lauderdale’s honest song about a friend who drinks too much.
8. “Expecting To Fly” by Emily Haines*
The blog world loves covers, and I am no exception. I think this actually might have slipped in near the end of last year. Nevertheless, it’s my favorite cover song of this year, taking a beloved late Buffalo Springfield track and stripping all the layers of nervous Neil Young and David Brigg’s inventive (at the time) engineering. Nothing but piano and vocal, Haines’ version takes us back to the heart of the song.
7. “Jesus Had A Sweet Girlfriend” by Justice of the Unicorns* Justice of the Unicorns--"Jesus Had A Sweet Girlfriend" (mp3)
To me, this is the slacker, lo-fi hit of the year. If it’s true that every generation remakes Jesus and Hamlet in its own image, then the Christ had the typical relationship issues, parent issues, enemies, and just-get-me-through-these-years resignation that any teenager encounters.
6. “Live Your Life” by T.I. (featuring Rhianna)
I’m always susceptible to whatever my children are listening to, and this rapper’s manifesto is just friendly enough that I’ve grown to really like it. I have to admit, though, the first time I heard it, I thought Rhianna was saying “ ‘cause I’m a big, fuckin’ slut” each time at the end of her section. That’s a judgement on my hearing, not her lifestyle. Apparently, she says, "'cause I'm a paper pusher."
5. “You Don’t Know Me” by Ben Folds and Regina Spektor Ben Folds (featuring Regina Spektor)--"You Don't Know Me" (mp3)
The catchiest song of 2008, with Regina Spektor’s sexy, breathy vocals playfully mocking the mock-seriousness of Fold’s complaint. You know I love duets; this is a good one. It will stay in your head forever, and at least you can tell your brain, hey, back off, I’m listening to Ben Folds.
4. “The Devil Raised A Good Boy” by Paul Westerberg and “Cop Light Parade” by High On Stress* High On Stress--"Cop Light Parade" (mp3)
If I didn’t like Paul Westerberg so much, the grouping with High On Stress might seem like a tiresome comparison for the younger band. Maybe it’s just me, but if someone said, “You know, that song you just played reminds me of Paul Westerberg,” I’d beam. So hats off to the Stressers for showing their influences and for being named, by me, as the best band who sent a song to this blog this year! “Devil Raised A Good Boy” begins at minute 14:28 of Westerberg's conglomerated cd, 49:00. It’s his best rocker in years.
3. “Acid Tongue” by Jenny Lewis Jenny Lewis--"Acid Tongue" (mp3)
I know critics weren’t as positive about Jenny Lewis’ second outing, but “Acid Tongue” is a quality (autobiographical?) stand out track. Rockers were never supposed to get older, but since they do, assessments of earlier lives can be quite compelling, like this is.
2. “Can’t Go Back Now” by The Weepies The Weepies--"Can't Go Back Now" (mp3)
Having made a case for really short songs in a post earlier this year, it’s not surprising that this perfect little gem from the Weepies should be one of my favorites. Put simply, it’s a song about life that cheerfully, for two minutes, helps us to come to terms with what we’ve lost and what we have to face. It reminds me of one of my favorites by the Sheds, “All The Right Things.” It’s hard to ask much more from a song than what this delivers.
1. “Lord, I’m Discouraged” by The Hold Steady* The Hold Steady--"Lord, I'm Discouraged (live)" (mp3)
The Hold Steady’s music is often not as engaging as their lyrics, but everything clicks in this song. Maybe this is where Craig Finn finally shrugs off any comparisons to Springsteen (though musically Meatloaf, John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band or Bon Jovi might have worked, too). Springsteen tends to traffic in impressionistic images and abstract ideas, while Finn give you the gory details. The narrator misses the frivolous fun of dancing because his girlfriend is hooked on drugs and spend time across town and in the company of sketchy characters. I like lists in songs, and I have to say, "Excuses and half-truths and fortified wine" is one of my favorites. There is an unease in America right now as we begin to face what we’re really about, and, in capsule form, this song captures that for me.
What were your favs?
Many of these songs are available at Itunes, though a few have not made it that far yet or are out-of-print. Those marked with an asterisk (*) have been previously posted on this site.