When I listen to entire CDs, that likely means that I'm on the road, to and from work or to and from somewhere far away from here, and that I'm alone. These CDs were good companions. I especially enjoyed listening to a lot of women this year, as evidenced by four women-fronted bands on this list.
In no particular order:
The Lumineers--The Lumineers
Probably the place where my tastes intersect with conventional wisdom. I listened to this one a lot, and if I stepped away from it some as it became more and more popular, well, that's just me. The good news is that you can skip the more popular songs like "Ho Hey" and still find plenty to latch onto, from the short opener "Flowers In Your Hair" to ballads like "Dead Sea." I have called this band, in various places, The Avett Brothers meet Edwin Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and end up better than either one. I'm sticking to that.
Much as I love acoustic-based music, this is the only CD on this list that honors that. Also a "freebie" from the BOTG mailbox, My Bonneville is the most "ready for prime time" CD I heard from our mailbox this year. I tried to learn more about this band, but their website was never quite up and running when I checked. The aching vocals and the songs are so strong that I had to wonder where all of this came from. It's like this band burst upon the scene fully formed. The title track is a foot-stomping acoustic number with a sexy edge, but the range of the songs is equally impressive; from the dreamlike "Wake Up Mama" to the majestic "Light At The End" to the wistful "Come On" that closes the album, these are mature offerings. The production has the superb separation of the best acoustic recordings. There's a bit of that Gillian Welch old-timey feel, but Annie's bunch have a voice and sensibility all their own.
Neil Young--Psychedelic Pill
You can toss the lesser material from Psychedelic Pill and still have a stunning, complete, mature modern record from an aging rocker that is near an hour long. The three extended jams--"Drifting Back," "Ramada Inn" and "Walk Like A Giant"--make the other material on the CD almost superfluous, even though there are some pleasures in the other songs. "Ramada Inn," in particular, goes where no other 6-decades rocker has gone, which is a confrontation of the realistic toll a life of drinking has taken on a relationship. Young's gift has always been to use simplicity to his advantage, and here the sparse lyrics and simply sentiments like "He does what he has to" or "She does what she needs to" take on multiple meanings as the narrative evolves. While Mick Jagger and the boys haul out their catalog one more time and pretend to be young again, Young's work now continues to focus on reflection with a simmering anger about what has been compromised or didn't work out. These are not always his best songs, but the lyrical explorations are superb in the best three songs.
Billy got the CD for free from the BOTG mailbox, he went to see the band along with about two other people in Knoxville, he gave me the other copy of their CD that they sent. Along the way, I bought my daughter a car, unloaded my old car, and inherited hers. Which also brought me the CD system I'd bought her last Christmas. This was the only CD I had in the car, so I played the shit out of it. And it grew and grew and grew on me. I don't really like the production, which I find to be cluttered and noisy, but I admire the songs, top to bottom, especially "Bartender," "Please Lie," "Saint Bowie," and "Won't Be Long." This band has a range of styles and influences that they make all their own. I'm sorry I missed the show.
Sufjan Stevens--Silver and Gold
Sufjan may be the Quentin Tarantino of Christmas, taking sometimes subpar, B-grade material, infusing it with his own wit and charm, and elevating it to the status of art. Remixing those stale ideas and adding centuries-old hymns and his own compositions, he invites a re-examination of an entire genre with an approach that is simultaneously respectful and playful. Nothing and everything is sacred in Stevens' hands--he'll invent whatever melody he wants to sing a popular ditty you've heard a thousand times, but in doing so, he will give the song more gravity. If I don't enjoy these 5 CDs quite as much as the first five, it's only because the forays into electronica don't always work for me, though the "remix" of "Do You Hear What I Hear?" is brilliant. Also contains my Song Of The Year, "Christmas In The Room."
Bruce Springsteen--Wrecking Ball
Probably my runner-up for Song Of The Year is "Wrecking Ball," Springsteen's clever use of the destruction of The Meadowlands as a challenge to all comers, including Time. The rest of these songs didn't really speak to me until I saw them repeatedly live, but the fact that these are songs he has toured behind so successfully speaks to their strength. "Death To My Hometown," "We Are Alive," "Shackled and Drawn," and "Land Of Hope and Dreams" are all show highlights. "We Take Care Of Our Own," which I didn't get until we played it as a band, is the CD's "Born In The USA," embraced as a slogan for a presidential campaign even while it documents a government's failures. There is simply no one better in concert than Springsteen, maybe for all-time in popular music, and he used these songs to prove that once again.
Donald Fagen--Sunken Condos
With the exception of one solo offering, every incarnation of Steely Dan or its individual efforts has deeply enriched my life. Sunken Condos is a small project from Donald Fagen, kind of an apartment jazz-rock offering, but, like the others, it simply dazzles. The songwriting, the musicianship, the idiosyncratic singing, the intimate production--this is pop music at its finest, its most literate, its most authentic craftsmanship. I don't think it's quite as good as Morph The Cat, but then, you didn't hear that one either.
The soundtrack of my summer, or one of them. Allo Darlin' is the only non-American band on my list. Airy, breezy, and Euro-poppy, Europe is not as deep as it wants to be, but it doesn't want to be that deep. It captures relationships that I'm too old for and sentiments a continent away, but it also captures the places of a season and makes me want to be a part of them. "Neil Armstrong," "Capricornia," and "Some People Say" are jangly gems, but, really, all of the songs make you want to put on a backpack and go live a fuller life among people with accents that have no apology. In a way, it reminds of that Frente! CD from some years ago, which I loved against all reason.
Bright Little Field--Treatment Bound
Nothing more than a Replacements tribute album by a ukulele band, Treatment Bound nevertheless enriches the 'Mats entire catalog. Sure, these are not the definitive versions of the songs, but when these guys lo-fi something that was already lo-fi, they find edges and nuances that aren't in the original songs. And why wouldn't you "read" a love letter to someone you love?
It's fun to not be this big Nora Jones fan and to read comments from fans of hers who find this "jagged little pill" to be too negative and jarring for their tastes. Me, I've always loved the vitriolic, vindictive song--"Positively 4th Street" or "Stupid Girl" (Stones or Neil Young) or Jenny Owens Youngs' "Fuck Was I"--because that is when artists really bare themselves. Someone Nora Jones loved did a number on her with a much younger woman, and this is her musical payback. I am with Nora from the first note to the last; she gets the last and only word because I don't give a crap about hearing his side of it. These are brutally painful, dark songs and yet there are still should-be hit singles in the mix. That Jones was willing to play along with the conceit of the movie Ted only adds to her bruised charm.