Seems like everyone is making their end-of-decade lists these days. Top 10 best movies, top 10 worst predictions, top 10 ninjas, top 10 animals having sex on video videos, top 10 pieces of cheese; it’s sort of a requirement that when you have a blog, you tell people about what you liked the last 10 years as if anyone really cares.
In fact, it’s mostly a self-aggrandizing back slap fest that is not even worth the time spent reading it on your iPhone while sitting on the toilet (you know you do that…don’t lie). So, in keeping with that ringing endorsement, here is MY LIST, but mine is different because it’s better, it’s faster and it’s me, i.e. awesome to the power of sexay and you know that’s right.
(In case you wondered – and I know you did – about my criteria, I picked records that I both loved for the music and those that had a direct impact on me as a musician. The more I loved them and the greater the impact, the higher the ranking. I know some people who read my stuff are a little more mainstream when it comes to music, so I tried to give comparisons at the end of each review, where needed.)
10. The Raconteurs – Consolers of the Lonely
When Jack White and Brendon Benson got together to make this album, I kinda thought it might just be another Jack White dalliance, most of which I didn’t really care for, but I do have a fondness for Benson, so I took a listen and I was hooked. In many ways, this reminds me of classic rock records in that it is loud, powerful and ecclectic. They clearly wore their influences on their sleeves channeling Led Zeppelin and The Who in songs like “Old Enough” and “These Stones Will Shout” and 70’s bands like Blind Faith and even Kansas, but done with modern production and indie flair. Benson’s voice is my preference among the two, but there is no doubt White’s mark is all over the record with horn section arrangements, quirky lyrics, oddball guitar tones and the like. The high point for me is probably the title track that blends a bluesy, slow guitar riff and party sounds in the intro with a earth shaking wall of guitars throughout the verses. It’s one of the more interesting rock records (and I say “rock,” not “indie” on purpose) made in quite a while.
You’ll like this if you like: Led Zeppelin
9. The Damnwells – Air Stereo
I was turned on to The Damnwells when I heard one of their songs on a music blog and I was hooked by the strong melodies and rootsy pop vibe. Air Stereo was my first and my favorite thus far. It is loaded with songs I really like. Singer Alex Dezen is the brother of local singer/songwriter Cameron Dezen and Cameron’s husband has toured with the band as a drummer, giving a local reason to support them. While there is certainly plenty of rock on this record, it’s the mellower stuff that keeps me coming back from the Fleetwood Mac-like “Golden Days” to the Rolling Stones inspired “You Don’t Have to Like Me to Love Me” to the bittersweet groove of “Heartbreak List.” If there is any drawback to Air Stereo, it could be argued that the band doesn’t really stretch and plays it safe too often both in terms of production and arrangement, but it’s a minor quibble considering the quality material on this release.
You’ll like this if you like: The Jayhawks
8. Mute Math – self titled
It’s rare that I find a band that sounds like nothing I’ve heard before and yet is as eerily familiar as New Orleans rockers Mute Math. Part indie rock, part industrial, part dark pop, part 80’s post punk, Mute Math’s self-titled CD shines with deft musicianship and soaring Peter Gabriel-esque vocals. One of the first things you notice about the sound of the band is how up front and odd the drums sound. It’s like Stewart Copeland from the Police on steroids and processed through 50 guitar stomp boxes. The effect is hypnotic grooves injected with moments of sheer chaos. They are probably best known for their video for the single “Typical” performed so that it could be shown in reverse complete with diving over keyboards, splattering paint and instrument destruction. As complicated as all this might sound, the melodies are as piercingly beautiful as any great pop music you’ll hear and delivered with crystal clarity. It is a very impressive effort highlighted by songs like “Break the Same,” “Noticed” and, appropriately, “Chaos.”
You’ll like this if you like: Peter Gabriel
7. Duncan Sheik – Whisper House
I have long been a fan of this folky popster going back to what is still my favorite of his, Humming. His interesting use of orchestral instruments within the framework of what are generally very sparse musical arrangements is always beautiful and I can’t help but appreciate someone with only moderate singing skills who is able to convey himself so clearly. With Spring Awakening, he turned his focus to the stage, writing music for the musical of the same name and garnering Tony awards and nominations in the process. On his second foray into similar territory, he released Whisper House, the precursor to what will ultimately be a musical for the stage. Unlike Spring Awakening, the album for Whisper House came first and Sheik, along with whispy songstress Holly Brook, handled singing duties instead of performers. The story arc follows a young boy during World War II sent to live with his aunt. He befriends the ghosts that inhabit the lighthouse she owns. The music is like chamber pop – spare, orchestral and hauntingly bittersweet. The lyrics range from silly folk tales (“The Tale of Solomon Snell”) to the profoundly touching (“Earthbound Starlight”). It is Sheik at his finest gently blending storytelling with evocative musical arrangements. I’m not usually a fan of musicals, but I’d pay to see this one.
You’ll like this if you like: Nick Drake
6. Fountains of Wayne – Traffic and Weather
I have a very tough time resisting Beatle-influenced pop music. From XTC and Jellyfish to Cheap Trick and ELO, I’ve long been a sucker for layered harmonies and lush instrumentation. Fountains of Wayne (FOW) not only continues that tradition but adds a sardonic touch through sometimes hilariously quirky lyrics in the tradition of bands like They Might Be Giants. I became a fan of FOW through the record Welcome Interstate Managers and immediately appreciated their ability to float from one pop style to another with little effort. On Traffic and Weather, they continue that tradition performing pop in many flavors including country (“Fire in the Canyon”), indie (“Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim”), 60’s (“Revolving Dora”) and George Harrison – yes, that’s a category (“I-95”). Unlike some of their more orchestrated predecessors (Jellyfish, for example), they keep their musical arrangements pretty straightforward, through it all remaining a rock band first and foremost. Like previous offerings, they continue to muse about New York City and the tri-state area, but not quite to the same degree as before. What is the same, however, is their story telling. They are masterful at describing a teller at the DMV or two old men in a coffee shop or two beleaguered travelers who have lost their luggage. Musically and lyrically, this record makes me smile and want to sing along and that alone makes it deserving of a spot in my top 10.
You’ll like this if you like: Ben Folds
5. k.d. lang – Invincible Summer
On about the third listen to Invincible Summer, an album of songs about a summer romance, I realized that I was listening to one of the most sweet and alluring records about love I had ever heard and it hadn’t even crossed my mind that it was written by a woman for another woman. Lang’s vocals are smokey and disarming as usual. She has always had a beautiful, silky voice that made every song she sung feel decadent, a tribute to the slow drawl sin her western twang roots, but something about this pop/rock record stands out to me. There is a sense of maturity and understanding in not only how the songs are written but in how they are performed. She is ably assisted in this effort by gifted drummer/producer Abraham Laboriel, Jr. (Paul McCartney), who infuses the arrangements with modern grooves, but it is lang who shines on Invincible Summer. From sensual to downright giddy, she purrs and giggles her way through a summer fling and it’s downright irresistible
You’ll like this if you like: Fleetwood Mac
4. Foo Fighters – One by One
I would be remiss to not include at least one Foo Fighters effort on this list. As one of my favorite artists, period, there were plenty of options, but One by One stands out for me by simply hitting you in the face with the first track “All My Life” and not bothering to let you take a breath until you get to about track 6. It’s reflective of their live shows, which are exhausting to watch, so I can’t imagine how tough it would be to actually perform them. One by One displays the full range of the Foo’s music and the depth of Dave Grohl’s oddly introspective lyrics. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what he is talking about with lyrics that sound like an inside joke, but it’s hard to ignore the poetry of “I’m a new day rising / I’m a brand new sky to hang the stars upon tonight.” It’s a well balanced effort that maybe doesn’t have the singular brilliance of a song like “Everlong” (The Colour and the Shape), but more than makes up for it with solid performances throughout.
You’ll like this if you like: Foo Fighters (let’s be honest)
3. Bruce Springsteen – Magic
I have never been a HUGE Bruce Springsteen fan. I liked Tunnel of Love and Born to Run and I certainly respected him as a songwriter and performer. The whole blue collar, working man’s American rock and roll thing just never held great appeal for me. But Magic made me go back and re-evaluate how I felt about the Boss. Not only does it contain typically well written songs, but it has an invigorated energy from the band, no doubt courtesy of veteran producer Brendan O’Brien. Most of all, it has the reluctant resignation of a man who has reached a certain point in his life and is uncomfortably coming to grips with it while recognizing the life altering power of staring your own mortality in the face. Springsteen channels his best Bob Dylan with religious metaphors like “The pages of Revelation lie open in your empty eyes of blue” and opens up to the insecurity of aging by saying, “She went away / She cut me like a knife / Hello beautiful thing / Maybe you can save my life.” The latter from the best song on the release, “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” addresses the struggle to accept getting older with heartbreaking simplicity. Magic may not have converted me to a full-fledged fan, but it made me a believer.
You’ll like this if you like: It’s SPRINGSTEEN for Pete’s sake!
2. The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America
When I first heard The Hold Steady, I thought, “Damn, someone finally brought the rock back.” With the sensibility of a loud 70’s rock band, the energy of an 80’s post punk outfit and the intellect of a college professor, singer Craig Finn and bandmates tear through songs on Boys and Girls in America with the kind of reckless abandon that helped earn them the title of “the best bar band in America.” Finn, in particular, seems to almost spit words at you like a young Elvis Costello being backed by a mix of the Ramones and the E Street Band. The influence Bruce Springteen, in particular, is readily apparent, but The Hold Steady makes it their own. Honestly, it’s impressive to hear what amounts to a glorified bar band delivering sophisticated lyrics like “You don’t have to go to the right kind of schools / Let your boyfriend go to the right kind of schools / You can wear his old sweatshirt / You can cover yourself like a bruise” without an ounce of pretentiousness and with the kind of lead pipe subtlety of a balls out rock band.
You’ll like this if you like: Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello
1. Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
I will admit that I did not discover Wilco until a few years ago. I had tried on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and just wasn’t ready to embrace the noisy avant garde nature of Jeff Tweedy and company. Hearing “What Light” from Sky Blue Sky on a car commercial changed my mind and I dove head first into album after album. Wilco rapidly became one of my favorite bands and it was pretty obvious to anyone who knew me that their influence on me as a musician and songwriter was deepening. When Wilco (The Album) began trickling out in internet streams, I was immediately intrigued. Several reviewers have described this album as a greatest hits record if instead of old songs the band just wrote new one’s and combined the best of what they do musically into that material. That is a fairly accurate assessment as they deliver rootsy rockers, indie pop, noisy chaotic arrangements and more with their trademark dynamics, diverse instrumentation and balance between noise and melody. For me, the album coalesces in the song “One Wing,” which showcases some of the best of what Tweedy does as a songwriter and what the band does collectively with dark, heartfelt lyrics and a rangy musical arrangement that moves from barely audible to chaotic rocking by the end. If I could wear out digital downloads like I used to wear out cassette tapes, Wilco (the Album) would be screeching in pain from too many plays.
You’ll like this if you like: Good Music (’nuff said)
The Other 15
25. Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears – Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is!
24. Zero 7 – When It Falls
23. Scott Matthews – Passing Stranger
22. The Finn Brothers – Everyone is Here
21. Death Cab for Cutie – Plans
20. Bebel Gilberto – selt titled (mention Tanto Tempo – 2000)
19. The Rembrandts – Lost Together
18. Tears for Fears – Everybody Loves a Happy Ending
17. Wayne Shorter – Alegria
16. The Long Winters – Putting the Days to Bed
15. Guster – Ganging Up on the Sun
14. John Scofield – A Go Go
13. Ben Folds – Rockin’ the Suburbs
12. The Black Crowes – Warpaint
11. Muse – Absolution