Well look who's back, thejuiceblog's originator, ESPN and Baseball Prospectus' Will Carroll. This is our 3rd annual year-end Best of Music list. I have split up my picks from Will's this year, as my post is too long. Look for mine, tomorrow.
WILL CARROLL's TOP 10
1) Tom Waits -- Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards
Look, you either love or hate Waits. His percussive music and voice provoke black and white reactions, but is it as big a surprise as it should be that this collection of outtakes and misfits going 52 tracks deep is his most accessible work since "Heartattack and Vine?" He goes across the board here with his Scotch and gravel scream, his distinctive piano, his Brecht and Weill fetish, as well as playing liar's poker with his soul on some of his songs and spoken word pieces. Waits has become more than a songwriter; he's a character in his own stories, singing them along in a way that we don't seem to be doing anymore. Warren Zevon's gone, Randy Newman's gone Hollywood, so Waits and Tom Russell are all we have left from that generation. There are actually songs here, not sound experiments, from Ramones covers to his own demented blues-jazz. The second disc is full of heartbreakers that sound as if Waits recorded them just past closing time at a bar that existed only in his mind. The trio of "World Keeps Turning", "Tell It To Me," and "Never Let Go" have to have Rod Stewart salivating at a cover version that will sell a hundred times better with a tenth of the soul. If the album was only there to get "Children's Story" out into the world, it's worth it, but this is so, so much more. There's your story.
2) My Chemical Romance -- The Black Parade
Let's see ... emo kids, a concept album based on their friend's death from cancer, and production from the man that brought us "American Idiot." That could be either a recipe for disaster or the breakout album that many thought MCR had in them. It's the latter. Always dark, but always accessible, it takes a different direction than the band had gone without reeking of sellout. Songs like "The Black Parade" and "Teenagers" should be radio staples if they didn't scare the living crap out of any adult in the vicinity. Like Green Day, I have no idea how this band will -- or even can -- follow up this work. Any album that dares to start with the beep of a heart monitor and ends with "The Patient" spitting out his final words as he dies has a higher goal than most and MCR delivers here.
3) The Decemberists -- The Crane Wife
Stephen Colbert's favorite band isn't an easy one to categorize. With their latest album, they've pulled closer to pop than the sober Pogue pub shanties they often leaned to in the past, in large part to production from a member of Death Cab For Cutie. Two songs here are three part epic tales, always challenging for a pop oriented audience. The crisp sound draws you in and holds you, even when they up the ante by putting Part 3 of the title track as the first song on the disc. The album builds through the single "O Valencia" to "When The War Came," a song unlike anything the Decemberists have done previously and the sound shocks just enough to get the message through. You'll probably be on the tenth listen or so before you notice the high-pitched wind just above the instruments in this song, but there's hidden gems on nearly every track that hide subconsciously. No album has ever made my Shure earphones work harder.
4) Drive-By Truckers -- A Blessing and A Curse
An off album from the Truckers is good enough to rank this high. No, it's not as good as "The Dirty South." No, it doesn't have a classic song on the order of "Outfit." No, it doesn't match up to the epic "Southern Rock Opera" but if that's the standard you have, you're going to be disappointed a lot. From Patterson Hood's plaintive cry of "Be my valllll-en-tiiiiine" on the opening track to his talked out world view on the closing track, Hood, Cooley, and Isbell prove themselves more than just the best Southern rock outfit since their sainted Lynyrd Skynyrd. They're a collection of singer/songwriters that match up with anyone out there. I'm scared that all three could put out solo albums -- Hood has, the brilliant but spare "Killers and Stars" he released to stop bootlegs -- and fail to remember that they're more than the sum of their parts. One interesting comparison point is that the Truckers often echo The Eagles - different lead singers with different feels for each, but somehow cohesive enough to not sound like a supergroup trading leads. Live, this band is as powerful as any, an American Led Zeppelin who you do not want as an opening act. Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post sent me a CD of the Truckers playing at their Christmas party from a few years back. The sound is crystal clear, to the point where in the midst of a guitar solo, someone speaks at the party, looking for another drink and I never fail to turn my head as if the person is next to me. One Maker's Mark isn't enough to thank him for that.
5) The Beatles -- Love
I'm having the same debate about this album as I did when Brian Wilson released "Smile" a few years back. It deserves it's place, but is it "new?" It's my list so it's my rules and the work that the Martins did to make what's old new again is worthy of inclusion on any list. The "reimagining" of the Beatles catalog doesn't stray far from the original in most cases, but the clarity is often revelatory. Where the music does go off path usually goes great places. The version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is almost an entirely new song. I can only hope that the rumored digital remaster will extend to the rest of the catalog soon.
6) John Mayer -- Continuum
Mayer stunned me with his 2005 turn with the John Mayer Trio. Sure, he'd been a solid album guy, one that many college freshmen swear by for seduction and who seemed to have something deeper than most gave him credit for. Still, I never saw anything like his Stevie Ray Vaughan turn of "Try!" or what his sudden distoritification would do for his guitar skills. This album is more an amalgam of "Try" and "Heavier Things", a continued maturing of both his musical and songwriting skills. I don't agree with his sentiments on "Waiting For The World To Change," but I can appreciate that he's fast becoming the voice for the generation trailing mine. I can't think of any artist aside from The Black Keys who play electric blues with as much sincerity as he does on "I'm Gonna Find Another You" or "Slow Dancing In A Burning Room." A couple tunes make studio changes from versions heard on "Try!" and are solid as expected, but the high points of this album are ones that will not just be heard for years, but will be felt.
7) Lupe Fiasco -- Food and Liquor
Jay-Z's not on the list, but Lupe is? Hard to believe, I know, but listen to both and tell me which one's more important, which one has the better production, and which one sounds like an artist who's next album will be more important. Lupe's another Chicago hip-hopper in the mold of Kanye West but he's more socially conscious than self-conscious. Kanye's worried about his girl and his bling; Lupe's Muslim background forces him to worry more about his community and his people. Ignore all that if you want because the album sounds as good turned up in the car as any from this year. In fact, "Kick Push" is the song that Pharrell has been trying to write for years.
8) The Fray -- How To Save A Life
Bill Simmons says the soundtrack to "Gray's Anatomy" makes him feel gay. This album probably makes Bill look for pink and glitter in his closet, but is good, catchy pop something to keep in the closet? It's light, airy, and sticks in your brain like nothing since the theme to The Banana Splits. More than anything else, this album reminds me of the first disc from The Wallflowers and I think The Fray could end up down the same career path. Funny that Jakob Dylan is now doing TV as well.
9) Brand New -- The God and Devil Are Raging Inside Me
Anytime you find a new band, it's a good thing. Anytime you find a new band and the story starts with "So I woke up in bed with Miss Pennsylvania ...", it's better. I wish I could give credit to the friend who clued me in, but it's better that he stays anonymous, unlike Brand New. I don't think they will, given a big leap and a more mature sound, according to reviews that often focus on the three year gap between this and their last album. This album goes well beyond the emo label with complex song structure, a lack of irony, and an underlying religious tone that wouldn't be out of place with one of the "stealth Christian" bands like Switchfoot or Needtobreathe. The title isn't the giveaway it should be since we've grown accustomed to the emo convention of the title having nothing to do with the song (see Fall Out Boy's new single "The Carpal Tunnel of Love" for an example.) It's not as radio-friendly as much of the pop-punk coming from this corner of the music world, but in an XM-Sirius universe, that doesn't matter as much.
10) Muse - Black Holes and Revelation
Scott's going to have this one much higher. From the Pink Floyd-esque cover to the over the top prog-rock inside, Muse have somehow gone from being the new Radiohead to the new Rush. I'm a big fan of Geddy, Neil, and Alex, so don't take that as a diss. Over the top doesn't begin to describe this album and while initial listens will sound like a big departure from its previous work, it's not. Muse is facing the Radiohead curse in the US, popular, but not nearly the level of acclaim they get elsewhere. In a world without Clear Channel and payola, that wouldn't happen.
James Dean Bradfield -- The Great Western: First album from the lead singer of Manic Street Preachers is just like his old band. Socially conscious, solid, and doesn't get a tenth of the audience it deserves. Bradfield has a chance to go further than MSP ever did. Tragic.
Neko Case -- Fox Confessor Brings The Flood: Great album that in most years would have made the ten. It's not as accessible, at least to me, as her previous albums, but Neko is always pushing the boundaries.
Rock Kills Kid -- Are You Nervous?: I can't believe this really isn't higher. A very solid album that recalls The Cure and does mood better than almost any other album this decade.
The Roots -- Game Theory: Wow, just wow. The Roots are the bridge between old school Motown/Stax and new school hip-hop. You'll never knew how much live musicians added to hip-hop until you hear this.
Prince -- 3121: Musicology showed he still had his purple magic. This album feels like 1999, like something big is coming next.