Yes We Did. The Year of Hope produced some of the best music made in this past eight years of idiocy in this great land. America finally awoke from a deep funk and elected a man crazy enough to want to save the country. Having stepped into a pile of lost money, greedy bankers, 4217 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, war profiteers, a staggering automotive industry and great fuckin music, Barack Obama has triumphed and convinced the American public that we are a better country than we have been. Now comes the hard part; to be as great as all this music.
2008 saw retro soul, retro hippie, retro country, retro pop and the return of great American voices. In addition to everything else I am a true lover of American storytellers, as is evidenced by my picks. Music has never sounded better to my ears; I listen while I run, while I fly and while I read. Music is life. Music is the reason to SMILE. With a global recession there is no salve better than great sounds; be they soft and mellow, soulful or just great rock n roll. 33 seemed like the right number this year. After all, Cazzie Russell wore it.
There is extraordinary music out there and I feel a personal responsibility to at least let you know what exists. You can lead a horse to water….I have listened to so much great albums, I can assure you that this was difficult to edit. Every album (my age is showing) is as good as the next or the previous. Some that I left off should be on, so next year the number will be 50. After all, the music industry needs all the help it can get.
This will be the inaugural year as this blog begins in earnest, chronicling the cultural rainbow, which on a daily basis never ceases to amaze me. Film, books, music, whether it is live or recorded, television or whatever inspires me to write. This is an amazing and at times a terrifying ride we are on; so another voice never hurts. Maybe you will even smile on occasion and in this day and age there is nothing wrong with a smile on your face. Enjoy the words and the sounds. Peace.
33. Dr Dog: Fate Roots American Music mixed in with influences from the sun kissed California sound of the Beach Boys and the pure pop of the Beatles; this is one of the happiest albums of the year. Highly recommended to me by rock writer and guitar player extraordinaire J Howard, these boys sing as well as they write. Smile.
32. The Pretenders: Break Up The Concrete “By the way you look fantastic in your boots of Chinese plastic” Chrissie Hynde never really left, she just has been chillin in Dayton Ohio and this is a masterpiece, on par with anything she has done in the past. Chrissie has one of the great rock and roll voices and when she sings softly she could even seduce an old coot like Cheney; although she would slap him upside the head.
31. Was (Not Was) : BOO! The Was Bros who hail from Oak Park Michigan (Full disclosure: As do I) have provided the kind of soul funk back into the music scene that has not been seen for years. A comeback album of sorts with Sir Harry and Sweetpea adding aforementioned funk along with a guest appearance by….Kris Kristofferson and a song written by Bob Dylan. Don and Dave nice to have you back with an aural assault, which has made this a Semi Interesting Week.
30. The Tallest Man on Earth: Shallow Grave He is not that tall and his name is Kristian Matsson and he is a folk singer from Sweden. That being said if you close your eyes you may think you have been transported back to the late sixties and you were listening to a folksinger in the village from Hibbing MN named Robert Zimmerman. He is on the list at #5 this year.
29. Shelby Lynne: Just A Little Lovin One of the best Dusty Springfield albums not sung by Dusty Springfield. Phil Ramone produced this and did not at all disappoint, although her live performance did, Shelby Lynne has one of the warmest and sexiest voices since Dusty. These are all Dusty songs which are done as well as anyone can possibly do them.
28. James McMurtry: Just Us Kids Son of the great American writer Larry McMurtry, somehow James has never been given his due. This is an ode to America 2008 and his song Cheney’s Toy will keep you riveted as he plods slowly through the words and shows just how pitiful the invasion was and what it meant to the families and our country.
27. Jakob Dylan: Seeing Things As the lead singer of the Wallflowers, Jakob sought to just sing in a band. Well it was a great band and Jakob Dylan is a great singer and songwriter and his genetic disposition helps. From the opening song Evil is Alive and Well to Everybody Pays as They Go, the young Dylan prodigy can sing and write like a true Dylan.
26. Melody Gardot: Worrisome Heart This should actually be rated a bit higher since my wife loved it and she only likes 85 bpm to exercise to. Melody Gardot was injured while riding a bicycle at age 19, and even though her closed head injury impaired her she has gone on to make one of the most remarkable records of 2008. You will love this. Think Norah Jones. This woman is a phenom jazz singer.
25. Ry Cooder: I, Flathead This third part of the California trilogy, which started with Chavez Ravine and chronicles the life and times of Kash Buk and the Klowns. Cool and dusty just like the desert he writes of, Ry Cooder is an American treasure and this is truly an American album, centered on the gritty area of desert California.
24. Lucinda Williams: Little Honey Falling in love has only made Lucinda Williams finally live up to the potential of her early great albums. She still rocks and still has that beer soaked voice but her songs have comeback to singing about REAL LOVE. Lucinda is happy and this sweet old world is a better place with her singing.
23. John Hiatt: Same Old Man John Hiatt has the kind of voice that reminds you of that old barn you drive by in the country or the great singer you see in that smoke filled room with about 150 people and wonder why he aint bigger than that? In a career that has spanned three decades, John Hiatt is a songwriter’s singer. A wonder to behold and a voice and words that will thrill you. American roots music at its best.
22. TV On The Radio: Dear Science To classify this Brooklyn based band, as Art Rock is too simplistic. They play some of the best music which covers many genres from 50s rock, reggae, electronic, soul, hip-hop and rock n roll. Shake it all up and put it on record and this is what you get. Family Tree is one of the all time great songs on this album, which has many. You are in for a surprise if you have never heard them.
21. Frightened Rabbit: Midnight Organ Fight & It is nice to know that rock and roll music is alive and well in Scotland. Although you may think this is an early version of U2, this band plays straight on rock and roll with the Hutchison brothers providing the second best brother record of the year.
20. Al Green: Lay It Down It matters not if you call him Reverend or just Al. This is one of the most honest soul records Al Green has made since the 70s and damn if it does not sound as if you listened to this “back in the day.” No One Like You is a classic Al Green song and every time Al says “Baby”…. well you will know when you hear this. That voice is still golden.
19. Okkervil River: The Stand Ins Will Sheff is part of the newest generation of great American voices. To follow up last years The Stage Names with this great epic is more than fantastic. This is a big sound and the only word to describe how beautiful this is would be to say his storytelling and subjects are extraordinary. It could be the Titos (vodka for you uninitiated) in Austin TX water that helps make this lush music find its way.
18. She and Him: Volume One : She and Him is singer/songwriter M. Ward and singer/songwriter and actress Zooey Deschanel. Trust me the girl can sing and write. Her voice is angelic and at times I thought I was listening to Carly Simon; and for those who know me that is enough to keep me interested. This was one of the most pleasant albums I listened to all year.
17. Department of Eagles: In Ear Park Daniel Rossen is from the band Grizzly Bear. This is a band he started when he was at NYU with his friend Fred Nicolaus in 2001. Grizzly Bear has gone on to indie-rock fame and this can only be described as a folk rock electronica record of pleasant aural proportions.
16. Duffy: Rockferry The moment I heard this release I was hooked and I immediately knew she would be referred to as “Amy Winehouse Light” With a blue eyed soul 60s girl group voice and some great songs, Duffy is truly one of the great success stories of 2008. There is not a bad song on this album and the first three are as good as any that Ms Winehouse has sung.
15. Lambchop : OH (Ohio) Kurt Wagner is another great American voice who has been overlooked; but not by me. His 2000 release NIXON was one of my all time favorites and I somehow lost touch with him until this great release. The folk voice with references to John Gorka and Bill Morrissey, Wagner and his band have made an alt country folk record, which will delight you.
14. Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes and Sun Giant EP Seattle Washington is home to this sweet, and I do mean sweet, sounding band. They released an EP in April and followed it with an album in June; each is phenomenal. The best way to describe the harmonies is Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Now I am sure Robin Pecknold and Skyler Skjelset would not be too upset since this was like a breath of fresh air. Freak folk is so 2007. This is just great music played in earnest by young hippies with a bright future.
13. Jamey Johnson: That Lonesome Song In 2005 Johnson released an album with the song The Dollar on it. A country song about a little boy who rarely sees his daddy. He had me with that song. This album though is Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and David Allan Coe all wrapped into the new bad boy of country music. Cocaine, ex wives and prison. Sure is plenty of material there. If you like country music you will thank me.
12: Calexico: Carried To Dust Tex/Mex Folk Rock at its best. I am not sure that is even a genre but Ry Cooder would be proud of these boys. Formerly part of Giant Sand with Howie Gelb, Joey Burns and John Convertino have expanded that sound into a modern day neo-Mexicali band. The sound is big and soft and live they are one of the best bands I saw all year. Horns and mariachis; how can it be bad?
11. Elbow: Seldom Seen Kid Guy Garvey is the lead singer and founder of Elbow. Chris Martin is the lead singer of Coldplay. Coldplay could have been in this position, but Elbow is a British band that sounds better to me than Coldplay right now; and I think Coldplay is one of the great bands. This band has enjoyed a bit of critical success but is relatively unknown in the States. This album will hopefully change that. How about this: Great orchestral pop!!
10. Anathallo: Canopy Glow Once again, Jake my son was way ahead of me on this one. When I asked him if he had heard of the band he said; “Let me let you hear their old stuff”….To me the band was brand new!! Not so fast: originally from Mt Pleasant MI these Chicago based Michiganders made a soaring splash into my ears with a lush, majestic sound which can only be compared to ……….Polyphonic Spree? This is a big band with all sorts of sounds that will make your smile ( a trend)….
9. Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band: Conor Oberst The wunderkind from Omaha can do no wrong in my eyes and ears. After playing one of the best shows in 2008 with Bright Eyes he went to Mexico and recorded this with a different group of musicians. A little more country and a little rawer, Conor writes like the big boys and the kid is only 28. Soulful and mournful, this grown up emo kid writes songs like Danny Callahan and Sausalito and then throws in a shofur……..It is really amazing to me that he is so prolific and for the past four years has continued to excel. May the force continue to be with you Conor.
8. Randy Newman: Harps and Angels Never let it be said that I do not enjoy a little sarcasm. Randy Newman has been a hero of mine for quite some time; unfortunately he decided to write movie scores instead of make records for the last 20 years Something must have finally pushed him (could have been the morons running the country) to make a record on par with Good Old Boys, Sail Away and Randy Newman. With an orchestra on hand and his wry humor, Randy Newman has written some of the best songs in his long and illustrious career. Witness “ A Few Words In Defense of Our Country” to see what I’m talkin about. “In times like these we could sure use a friend…now we are supposed to be afraid, its patriotic isn’t it?” “A couple young Italian fellas and a brotha on the supreme court” Randy Newman is back and I hope he keeps writing intelligent songs; not for films.
7. Sigur Ros: Med Sud I Eyvum Vid Spilum Now it must be said that I spend a little bit of time in the most beautiful country on earth; Iceland. So the translation of the album is…..With a Buzz In Our Ears We Play Endlessly….I had no idea really of the translation; but I do know that Jonsi Birgisson and his mates are one of the best and most prolific bands in the world. This album was not recorded with an orchestra or with the help of Amiina; just the band. Recorded in Reykjavik it is sonically one of their best and one of their smallest as far as production goes; thanks to Flood. It must also be said that their concert in Detroit on September 23 2008 was the best live show I saw all year. Did I mention it was my birthday? The last great show I saw on my birthday was 1975 in Ann Arbor………Bruce Springsteen. (I had to include Bruce since The Wrestler is one of the Best Singles of the Year)
6. Golden Animals: Free Your Mind and Win a Pony Tommy Eisner and Linda Beecroft are the Golden Animals. They are a two-piece outfit that could be categorized as a psychedelic folk rock band. That would be an injustice. This is an album that could have been recorded in 1968 and to make it even juicier this guy sounds like Jim Morrison. Now if you are really young or do not remember who Jim Morrison was…The Doors. No they are not a derivative sounding White Stripes; they sound like the Doors for god’s sake. The first cut Steady Roller will knock you over and when you get up listen to the rest and hopefully you will enjoy every other cut including Ride Easy…..
5. Bob Dylan: Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series #8 So a man from Hibbing releases a double cd of outtakes from his last 3 albums and it sounds completely different than any of the albums that he released. Bob Dylan is a genius. Nothing is what it seems, especially when it comes to him singing a song. He could sing a song different every time and you would think it was a different song every time you heard it. I am not quite sure that anyone has been as prolific as Zimmy ( a nod to Jack Bergman) but you cannot deny that he is a folk rock blues singer for the ages. I am not sure there is such a thing as a “folk-rock-blues” singer but there is no one like Bob Dylan and there may never be again. We are blessed to have had the opportunity to witness Zimmy…. R.I.P. Jack!
4. Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago Written in a cabin in a self imposed exile in Wisconsin in the winter of 2007 Justin Vernon’s debut album is truly one of the most beautiful lo-fi records of the decade. It reminds me of those beautiful runs that I have in freshly fallen snow. Soft and almost angelic in scope, this is a masterpiece of epic proportions considering when and how it was done. Sweet does really describe the quiet intensity of this gift of music, which has been bestowed upon all of us. If you enjoy closing your ears and sitting on a cloud my I recommend Bon Iver?
3. Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend The debut albums just keep getting better and the most hyped Columbia University band lived up to their Internet buzzzzzzzzzz…..Vampire Weekend are a bunch of clean cut white boys making PHENOMENAL pop music in the great tradition of the Paul Simon Afro pop phase. They write melodic songs, which are beautifully produced with plenty of hooks. Mansard Roof, Oxford Comma, A-Punk, Cape Cod Kwassa, M79, Campus, Bryn….and those are just the first 7 songs on the album out of 11. How can you not like a band that uses bleeding madras, Louis Vitton, the Khyber Pass, darjeeling and Welfleet MA in their songs? This is one of my most played Cds in the first 3 months of 2008 and it makes me feel optimistic every time I listen. Keep on smilin………
2. Raphael Saadiq: The Way I See It The soul album of the year and maybe the last 20!! This guy could be Marvin Gaye, Smoky Robinson, David Ruffin, Jackie Wilson…you get the picture. If you don’t then go out and buy this right now. If you are disappointed then I am convinced you aint got no soul. Raphael Saadiq is the real deal. He has put together a soul picnic of epic proportions. This producer of countless soul singers has outdone them all and this could have been released when he was born in 1967. Soul music has never had a better singer than this cat and I mean that with all due respect to all that have preceded Raphael.
1. The Felice Brothers: The Felice Brothers " Regrets I have a few, but then again too few to mention." One is MISSING the Felice Brothers open for Bright Eyes at the Royal Oak Music Theatre. This album came out in March and there is not a month that has gone by when this has not accompanied me on one of my morning runs. Think, The Band. Think, Bob Dylan and the Band. Ian, Simone and James Felice along with their friends Harley and Christmas (hey, its only rock n roll) are truly the most overlooked great American band of 2008. This is one of the best American records made since Music From Big Pink; and if I’m lyin I’m dyin….The haters may say they are derivative (Pitchfork; fuckin assholes) but this is a masterpiece every bit as good as last years great album from The National. Frankies Gun, Little Ann, Greatest Show on Earth, Helen Fry, Take This Bread (hysterical phone message intro), Love Me Tenderly, Ruby Mae, Whiskey in My Whiskey (stop and think about that), and Radio Song are the highlights of this 15-song extravaganza. If there is any justice in the music industry these guys will be rewarded. Listen to the organs, the accordions, the drums and the guitars. I think you will agree; The Felice Brothers are the real deal as far as the “folk, country, indie rock music” genre goes…Smile!!
Bajonfondo Tango Club
Brightback Morning Light
David Byrne and Brian Eno
Eli “Paperboy” Reed
Ezra Furman and the Harpoons
Justin Townes Earle
Ra Ra Riot
Sun Kill Moon