Every year we've been blogging, we've done a year-end music list. This one's no exception. Scott's list will be up on Friday.
I'm no Chuck Klosterman and no Lester Bangs, but I listen to a lot of music and I like to talk about that music. It's the same with Scott, so we have a great fit with the typical year end music list, something we've done since pairing up. This year, it is a Klosterman line that has me thinking most. In his review of Chinese Democracy, Klosterman called it "the last album." I've often wondered if we needed street dates, big buildups, and the marketing push that big albums once needed in the age of iTunes. Old paradigms die hard and with record labels using "360 contracts" to make it impossible for us to get instant downloads of live shows (a real no-brainer that still hasn't worked), I'm not sure if it's correct. I think we'll see quicker, cheaper releases, more along the lines of what Coldplay did this year with Prospekt's March than anything like GnR. I've been wrong before but when the landmark release of the year is Lil Wayne, the music industry has bigger issues than release schedules. It's a sad commentary that the most important song of the year didn't even get released. Will.I.Am's "Yes, We Can" video and song may be remembered as the turning point of a campaign, the point where pop culture and politics met perfectly. That Obama never truly embraced it was his campaign's only misstep. Here's my top ten of the year, though I'm told that Nate Silver had the same list in early May.
#1: Back Door Slam -- Roll On/Back Door Slam
Readers of this blog will not be surprised to see me rank my favorite discovery of the year at #1. Davy Knowles burst onto the scene at SXSW and stamped down his contention for lead blues slinger. Not since Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang over a decade ago has a real, honest blues voice come on to the scene. Both Shepherd and Lang quickly tried to become mainstream, while Knowles and his band are already within reach. The Manx band is simply tight, does great originals and covers, and knows when to let Knowles stand in front and put everyone to shame with blues licks that recall everyone from Clapton to Jeff Healey. It's that last name - the departed too soon Healey - that is the comparison that immediately came to mind for me when I first heard BDS; Knowles' voice is a dead ringer for Healey's and their fluid playing styles are also very comparable. The band toured incessantly behind both the album and their EP, exposing them to a varied audience. Touring with Kid Rock had to be an experience and it will be interesting to see where Knowles and this young band will take things next. I know I'll be listening.
#2: Fall Out Boy -- Folie A Deux
I left their last album off my Top Ten despite putting their breakout, "From Under The Cork Tree", on top of a previous list. I can't make the same mistake here, underrating FOB because they write smart pop. Great lyrics from a maturing Pete Wentz sung by rock's new best voice in Patrick Stump makes for great music. Important? Influential? I'm not sure. There's a lot of bands with similar sounds trying to do what they do without hitting the mark. Hit them for goofy song titles if you must, but this is a band that is maturing subtly. While they'll go ironic with a cover of "Beat It", they're digging a bit deeper on the songs on this new album. Originally titled "Welcome To The New Administration" and scheduled for release on election day, FOB held it back but won't get lost. Every song is solid, with some standouts moving towards real greatness. It's not revelatory. It's not significantly different than the last two. What it is, is damned good music that will stick in your head but will give you something to think about at the same time. "What A Catch, Donnie" might be the catchiest song in years, with the chorus of "Tiffany Blews" just behind.
#3: Kings Of Leon -- Only By The Night
From the first bloop-bloop of bass and guitar to the western picking fadeout of the last track, "Only By The Night" is dominated by the passionate vocals of Caleb Followil. He's part preacher and part carnie barker, but all rock n roll while the songs go from U2-style anthems to country-tinged ballads. You wouldn't think a song called "Sex On Fire" could be a breakout hit, but it's the most accessible song the band has ever done. In making this album, they've stopped being potential and crafted a classic album that showed what all that potential and previous experimentation was leading up towards. With classics like "Use Somebody" and "Revelry" that follow up strongly, the band shows a confidence that's lacked on their past albums. It's passion and confidence that's given this a swagger. Followil knows that you want to follow now rather than hoping you will and it gives him a freedom to be just a bit more dangerous than he's been.
#4: My Morning Jacket -- Evil Urges
The more I listen to this album, the more I think that MMJ might be a more sane and down-to-earth version of Flaming Lips. Jim James and the guys are just as out there, just as unique sounding, and James' vocals can even recall Wayne Coyne at times, especially on the opening title track. It's also their most accessible album at the same time, though it's not an album that will find much of a radio home. "I'm Amazed" makes for a nice single with it's simple focus and James channeling Ronnie Van Zandt by way of Patterson Hood for a song. Still, it's the indulgent musicality of the album as MMJ takes another step away from the reverb anchor that both defines and holds back their early work and tries to find itself. There's no center here to hold together many of the songs, leaving them to ramble a bit too much in places. Also missing is the playful soul of their live show, where they'll often cover everything from Sly and the Family Stone to James Brown to Motley Crue. These might sound like big criticisms, but the album is a great one, leaving only some nitpicks from this being a masterpiece.
#5: Guns N Roses -- Chinese Democracy
Apart from the back story, it's ... well, it's a fine rockin' album, but while every review of the album tries to take the backstory out and just listen, you can't and shouldn't do it. This album is nothing but backstory and without context, none of the songs do more than rock. If that's enough, fine, but they're all missing the urgency of Appetite for Destruction or even Use Your Illusion. Heck, Velvet Revolver rocked harder, so if that's all you're looking for, you'll be disappointed aside from a few songs. With the backstory, the album works as both music and as a story of something gone horribly awry, yet ending up somewhere good. It's an album without context in the sense that takes apparently took place decades apart, yet somehow work on the song. Every decision seems to have consequence and as Klosterman said, it's more interesting to try to figure out what Axl Rose was trying to do than analyzing what he actually did. The answer to the latter is "everything." There's nothing subtle here and very little cohesive. It's songs, end to end, that if there's any unifying principle, it's just excess. Great? Maybe. Very good. Certainly, as much as it's the end of an era. Metallica's album proved you can't go backwards, but Axl Rose just went every direction all at once.
#6: Glasvegas - Glasvegas
The Scottish band recalls, but doesn't ape, the Jesus and Mary Chain. It's also oppressively Scottish, from local stories and characters to James Allan's accented vocals. It's all impressively earnest and while it doesn't always translate, the passion does. It's a Spectoresque wall of sound with girl group vocal patterns. The ringing guitars can drone a bit and there's little complexity here, a surprise for something that sounds so big on first listen. The drums echo. The guitar rings. The vocals drone. This is a band that has greatness within it's reach, but only hits it in spots. Hyped mercilessly in the UK, they've made absolutely no dent in the US. That's no surprise, especially when they seem as happy writing inevitable football chants ("Go Square Go") as true pop songs. If they're fated to be more My Bloody Valentine with a work ethic rather than Oasis, that's still well worth a spin.
#7: Your Vegas - A Town And Two Cities
Apparently, there's some obsession with Vegas over in the UK right now but at least it's giving us good bands. This version, based in New York now, but from Leeds, makes the name ironic, given that this is the album that The Killers wished they'd made with Day And Age. Where The Killers have gone from Duran Duran to Springsteen and back, rolling about in the ridiculous that they try to make sublime, Your Vegas is combining that mid-80's Britpop sensibility with the anthemic songs and guitar of U2 and Coldplay. Where Your Vegas loses it is in predictably aping its influences. In their lead single "In Your Head", the song starts with the ringing Gibson you'll hear on Glasvegas and quickly shifts to an emo riff and a lead singer in a Bono pose. There's a series of tick boxes -- Keane falsetto? Coldplay piano? Black and white 'Boy' era walking? Brooding ballad that could be played while the teen girl reads Midnight Sun?-- and yet it's never really derivative. In an age where YouTube is the new MTV and MySpace* is the new place to find music, there's something satisfying in knowing that pop music still works.
* Actually, Lala.com and iTunes' Genius feature are much better. MySpace Music is as much of a mess as MySpace.
#8: John Mayer -- Where The Light Is
John Mayer is that guy you don't want to like, but can't help but like anyway. He's the good looking guy with all the girls, all the talent, and an aw shucks demeanor that belies all that. He's a pop star who wants to be more, but sincerely seems to be just following his muse. In this live set, he shows off everything he's got, from the acoustic start of his career that holds up better than you'd expect to the blues trio that opened many eyes, as well as the more mature rock of Continuum. Chicks still scream for "Neon", but the original "In Your Atmosphere" demonstrates his real songwriting talent and his ability to deliver both a story and a feeling within the same song. He still sounds alarmingly like Stevie Ray Vaughan when he brings out his trio, but given Stevie's pop inclinations - go take a listen to "Tick Tock" and tell me it's not as much a John Mayer song as anything Mayer's doing - maybe they would have met in the middle. He's evidently closing chapters and maybe focusing on things aside from music with this live set, but having seen him live this year, Mayer's perhaps a defining voice for this generation and losing it, even if it's just a pause, would be troubling.
#9: The Fireman -- Electric Arguments
It's one of those endless arguments - what would the Beatles sound like today if they'd stayed together? It's not a stupid question, since the Rolling Stones were contemporaries. Of course, the Stones never really changed their sound much more than some experimentations (Sympathy for the Devil) and never matured the way the Beatles did, especially in their studio-only phase. Given what the various Beatles' solo careers sounded like, it's safe to say that they wouldn't have had giant sonic jumps past Abbey Road, which makes Electric Arguments be a nice what if. There are points where McCartney sounds as if he's back in full throat, such as the opening scream of the bluesy "Nothing Too Much Just Out Of Sight" that might be the same note as "Back In The USSR." It gets noodly at the end, as if McCartney turned things over to his producer, the ambient Youth, rather than continue to work. That artistic laziness and tolerance for poppy mediocrity is both the problem with this album and with McCartney's post-Beatles career. He's good enough to remind us he was and could still be great. The problem is he's not great aside from bursts. "Sing The Changes" might be his best pop song since the early days with Wings while "Dance til We're High" is very much the song you'd expect to here from the Beatles in 2009. Oh, and backwards lyrics to end the album? Seriously.
#10: The Gaslight Anthem - The '59 Sound
I agonized over this one, loving this album, but not quite sure if it was better than some of the other albums just off the list. It's top ten, but top eleven or twelve, so how was Gaslight Anthem better than very solid albums by Hammock, Nick Cave, The Parlor Mob, The Raconteurs, The Cardinals, Low Vs. Diamond, and others? They were original. They're somewhere in between Bruce Springsteen and Social Distortion, a combo you don't often think of, let alone hear. It works and works well. It's punky and upbeat, even when you realize they're not upbeat at all. Maybe it's Jersey, but it's working class anthems, discussions of the good old days, and the occasional sweating out on the beach with a runaway American dream of mansions of glory and suicide machines. The title track simply works on every level and hits you in the gut while your foot taps to the beat. I'm surprised this band isn't getting more recognition, but in this day and age, who knows who will and who won't, unless you're Britney Spears or the Jonas Brothers. Somehow, their albums didn't make my list.
This is also my last post on the blog. Whether here or back at the old place, the direction this has gone has always been simply wherever. Only nominally about baseball, if that much, it's been a place that has both exceeded any expectation I've had and occasionally crushed my desire to do this kind of open discussion. In the end, for me, it's simply run it's course and had for a while. I've enjoyed coming back to cover for Scott while he and his wife welcomed in twins, but it only served to remind me why I stopped, really. I would like to thank Ken Arneson and the Toaster crew for putting up with me. I'd also like to thank Scott Long, a great friend, comic, and writer.