Albums of the Year

Every year, I find my favorite albums and make a list of ’em, like roughly 99.9999% of the blogosphere. I’ll forgo the whole Best of the Decade thing that so many are doing, because honestly I have a difficult time remembering everything that came out that I liked this year, let alone ten years ago (besides, I was a mere slip of a thing ten years ago; what the hell did 19-20 year old me know?). You’ll notice that I tend to favor enjoyable music to challenging music (which isn’t to say challenging music can’t be fun, but you won’t see much noise or art rock on my list, and I really can’t abide by Animal Collective). Also, The Beatles box set was not eligible on account of it being totally unfair and there only being ten spots on the list, not 14 (13 albums plus Past Masters). Anyway, in a rather particular order, here’s my top ten albums of 2009…

10. Wilco, Wilco (the album): The winking smirk of the album title and the opening track (“Wilco (the Song)”) are a great indicator that this is a band that’s having some fun. With great tunes such as “Sunny Feeling” (my favorite on the album; just listen to that slide guitar) and the lovely “You and I,” it’s clear that Wilco has found their comfort zone and could churn out warm, lovely songs for the next ten or fifteen years easily without changing a thing. And I’d buy every single album they released.

9. Works Progress Administration, Works Progress Administration: I’ve always had a soft spot for anything related to Glen Phillips (he of Toad the Wet Sprocket), and throwing a few members of the progressive bluegrass mainstays Nickel Creek into the mix always works out well. This is a mellow, folky record that’s just fun to listen to; you can tell the musicians had a blast recording these songs, and shouldn’t music be fun?

8. Monsters of Folk, Monsters of Folk: I also have a soft spot for the Supergroup (the Traveling Wilburys will always be my favorite, of course). While this folkie indie supergroup isn’t the second coming of the Wilburys or anything, it’s still a lot of fun. It may not be a challenging listen, but it’s definitely a fun one.

7. Modest Mouse, No One’s First and You’re Next: It’s only an EP, but it was a damn good one. There’s not a bad song on here, and the opener, “Satellite Skin,” is one of my favorite songs of the year. They’re not doing anything all that different than what they’ve done on their past couple of full-length albums, but they’re doing it really well, so I won’t complain.

6. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone: Case sounds like she’s finally recording the sort of songs she wants to, a nice balance of country, indie pop, and traditional roots rock that fits right alongside what’s come before but is also a step away from her earlier sound. “This Tornado Loves You” is like a theme song for my home state of Oklahoma, I swear; who else would have the chutzpah to personify a tornado?

5. Iron & Wine, Around the Well: An odds-and-sods collection shouldn’t be this good, but Around the Well is. Looking at the leftovers and castoffs usually strikes me as a good time, and this collection is pretty rewarding in that respect. Plus, really awesome covers of the Flaming Lips’ “Waitin’ for a Superman” and the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” Awesome.

4. The Flaming Lips, Embryonic: Noisier and messier than anything they’ve recorded in the past fifteen or maybe even twenty years, Embryonic sounds a lot like the record the Lips have been wanting to record their whole career. Warm and cathartic and amazing when played live, the songs from this album are great, and the loose thematic organization helps them hang together really well.

3. Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca: Remember how I said I prefer fun to challenging? I also said that you could have both at once, and this album fits that. These guys and gals are clearing having a blast on this record, and making some music that is both thought-provoking and fun to just sit back and listen to.

2. Bob Dylan, Together Through Life: Dylan continues his late-career renaissance with an album that incorporates a whole lot of accordion and a heaping helping of his rusty, 40-of-whiskey-and-two-packs-a-day voice. This is also funny Dylan, as he cracks jokes, snarks a lot, and generally sounds like he has a smirk on his face the whole time. Favorite line: “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I’m reading James Joyce/Some people tell me I’ve got the Blood of the Lamb in my voice.” Classic.

1. A.C. Newman, Get Guilty: Usually, in a year that features not one but two Dylan albums (Christmas in the Heart being the second, which almost made the list for sheer bizarro-ness), the top spot would be Dylan. But that is not the case this year, and not because Dylan wasn’t deserving (hey, #2 ain’t bad). No, the simple fact is that A.C. Newman’s Get Guilty was the best album I’ve heard all year. I came out back in the beginning of the year (January, I think), and I’ve been listening to it pretty much constantly since then. And there’s not a bad song on the record: everything from “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer” to “Prophets” is a perfect slice of bouncy, energetic power-pop that you can’t help but shout along with. Newman has a McCartney-esque way with hooks and melodies, making them sound effortless and obvious, but he’s also got some great lyrics to go along with the tunes. Definitely my favorite album of the year, and probably one of my favorites of this decade.

Honorable Mentions: M. Ward’s Hold Time, Dark Was the Night (a great compilation featuring a who’s who of indie guitar rock), Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart (bizarre and awesome), The Minus 5’s Killingsworth (getting back to the 5’s earlier, more countryish sound), The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love, The Dead Weather’s Horehound, Elvis Costello’s Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane, and Yo La Tengo’s Popular Songs.


Comics Cavalcade

Yesterday was New Comics Day, the greatest day of the week! Get ready!

Detective Comics #860: The completion of the origin of Batwoman. This was definitely a stronger story than the opening arc, and seeing Kate Kane’s motivation for becoming Batwoman really made a lot of sense and felt pretty good. JH Williams III continues to knock it out of the park artistically, coming up with amazing page layouts and fantastic little details (the subtle changes in Kate’s physical appearance to the more jarring changes, such as her pallid skin and the dark circles around her eyes) make this book a pleasure just to look at. I’m sad this issue ends his run on the title, but there’s apparently hope of further collaboration on the character between Williams and Rucka in the near future (yay!). Rucka’s writing is pretty solid; this is the kind of story he can write in his sleep. And the Question backup was lots of fun, too, which is what I want out of a wise-cracking faceless crimefighter comic.

Incredible Hercules #139: The Assault on New Olympus isn’t going well as we finally find out what Continuum is. This title continues to be pure, distilled awesome (favorite sound effect: Maceindaface!), and I’m glad that I’ve started following it on a monthly basis instead of just waiting for the trades. The Agents of Atlas backup fits in well, and is appropriate considering the Agents are attempting to infiltrate New Olympus themselves for their own ends.

Wonder Woman #39: I heart Gail Simone. Her taking on this title was the whole reason I started following any comics on a monthly basis instead of just trade-waiting everything, and she hasn’t disappointed (neither has Secret Six. Damn, that’s an awesome comic!). We finally see why her bracelets have been acting all wonky, Alkyone gets the smackdown she’s been deserving, and the Amazons prove why they’re awesome. Also, Zeus apparently gets a little humility and does some stuff he should’ve done ages ago (and those weird space suits the Olympian gods have been wearing since their return are explained finally). Good stuff.

Trades I picked up: Incredible Hercules: Dark Reign (I love me some Herc), Agents of Atlas: Dark Reign (there’s like a pattern here or something), and the More Than Complete Action Philosophers! (one of the most awesomest titles ever). Seriously, with one floppy and two trades by Mr. Fred Van Lente, it was definitely Van Lente Week around here!

Beatles Bonanza!

Because I’m an individual with limited impulse control, I tend to unwrap the Christmas presents from my family (who live halfway across the country) as soon as they arrive. And man was there some awesome stuff this year!

It seems it was the Year I Got Beatles Stuff. My grandmother gave me a rather nifty Beatles wall calendar. Mom got me a Beatles Christmas ornament and an Eskimo Joe’s t-shirt with a Beatles theme (Joe, his dog, a polar bear, and a moose crossing…well, not Abbey Road, actually, but the street in front of Eskimo Joe’s, which is pretty clever, really). And, the coup de gras, the Beatles Box Set: all thirteen original albums (well, Magical Mystery Tour is American version of the record rather than the British because the British version was just an EP of a half dozen songs and the American version has been the standard since the Beatles catalog was issued on CD back in 1987) plus the two Past Masters discs (non-album singles…mmm, non-album singles). And holy crap, does this stuff sound good.

I know a lot of people (myself included) have been clamoring for a remastered edition of the Beatles albums for the past ten or fifteen years (I mean, the original CD issues were from ’87, when CD remastering was still in its infancy, and the sound quality on those original CDs, while not bad, is pretty weak sauce compared to the technological improvements that’ve been made since. I mean, listen to the remastered Dylan or Van Morrison or Elvis Costello stuff to see what a difference it can make). Let me tell you, the wait was worth it. The only better way to hear these albums now is to bust out the vinyl. I’m really excited to use my new Bose headphones to give these a close listen, because even through my laptop speakers these songs sound amazing.

Christmas Playlist

With it finally being after Thanksgiving, I feel more comfortable with the idea of listening to Christmas music now (it concerns me that they start the Christmas stuff – music and decorations and whatnot – the day after Halloween now). To that end, I’ve put together a playlist of my favorite holiday tunes.

1. The Royal Guardsmen, “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron”: not a holiday song per se, but I had this Christmas tape growing up that had a whole series of songs about the conflict between the German World War I flying ace and everyone’s favorite cartoon dog, so I’ve always associated the song with Christmas.

2. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (Live)”: growing up in a household devoted to ye ole Classic Rock, this song was always something of a Christmas gimme.

3. Barenaked Ladies, “Green Christmas”: even if it came from that atrocious Grinch remake, the song itself is pretty good and a nice encapsulation of the Grinch story. And funny, to boot.

4. Bing Crosby, “White Christmas”: isn’t this just sort of a no-brainer when it comes to Christmas? I mean, the holiday season without this song isn’t the holiday season, really.

5. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Christmas All Over Again”: doesn’t really do anything that Petty and the Heartbreakers don’t do on pretty much every song they’ve ever released, but when your sound is that good, it doesn’t have to. Lyrics are a little goofy, but there’s a lively tempo, a sense of warmth and humor, and Petty gives us his Christmas list at the end (surprisingly devoid of illicit drugs, even).

6. The Eagles, “Please Come Home for Christmas”: using an R&B-style rhythm for a Christmas song is pretty clever, actually.

7. Vince Guaraldi Trio, “Linus and Lucy”: even though the song wasn’t written specifically for the Charlie Brown Christmas special, it’s sort of synonymous with that particular special and just way too much fun not to include.

8. Death Cab for Cutie, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”: I’m allowed at least a couple of random indie songs on the list, right?

9. Dean Martin, “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!”: not as ubiquitous as the Bing Crosby number, but it still ranks up there as one of the all-time greats.

10. Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlin, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings”: what’s probably must surprising about this track is just how bouncy it is. This tune swings, baby!

11. Burl Ives, “A Holly Jolly Christmas”: Burl Ives is pretty synonymous with Christmas, y’know? Not having a Burl Ives song on here would’ve been a crime.

12. Over the Rhine, “All I Ever Get for Christmas is Blue”: an indie Americana tune that’s mellow and sad. Very pretty.

13. Bob Dylan, “Must Be Santa”: zydeco Dylan Christmas song? How could this not be pure, distilled awesome?

14. Thurle Ravenscroft, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”: another of those classic Christmas cartoon specials comes through with a fantastic, witty song about the humbuggiest of them all.

15. Frank Sinatra, “Mistletoe and Holly”: man, those old crooners really did some great Christmas songs, didn’t they?

16. Jack White, “Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over”: a folk blues Christmas song from the Cold Mountain soundtrack (Jack White’s involvement in the soundtrack was the best thing about that film).

17. John Lennon, “Happy Christmas (War is Over)”: another of those classic rock Christmas songs that we heard every year at the ol’ homestead. The anti-war message is as relevant today as ever, sadly.

18. Bing Crosby & David Bowie, “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth”: has there ever been a stranger duet? I think not.

19. Neko Case, “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis”: again, not one of those songs that’s really about the holidays, but it’s such a great cover of a Tom Waits tune and the title does have Christmas in it.

20. Paul McCartney, “Wonderful Christmastime”: the most saccharine song on the list, but not horrible for all that.