Remember the band Toad the Wet Sprocket? Damn, did I love those guys in high school. And college. And graduate school. And even still today, if we’re being totally honest. In fact, I recently backed their Kickstarter campaign for the new album they recorded (got the digital download just the other day. It’s quite good, in fact).
But this isn’t really about them.
After they broke up, the lead singer, Glen Phillips, embarked on a quiet, stripped down solo career. He released a string of subtle, beautiful albums that I still listen to even today.
And he’s the reason I listen to Wilco and Greg Brown.
See, on his first solo album, Abulum, he had a song that featured the line, “And it’s sadly sweet/Like a Wilco song.” I’m highly susceptible to musical suggestion, it turns out, so I decided to give these Wilco guys a listen. I started with the (then) most-recent album they’d put out, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
So yeah, I was sorta hooked from that point forward.
Wilco led me to Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt. Those led me to other alt-country bands, like the Jayhawks and Whiskeytown. That led to Ryan Adams (maybe we shouldn’t pursue that thread too far). So it’s fair to say that a good chunk of the music I love can be directly traced to that one line in that one Glen Phillips song.
As for the Greg Brown connection, Phillips did a cover of “Small Dark Movies” on his Live at Largo album, and that song got its hooks into me deep. The Greg Brown album that song came from originally, Further In, still cracks my head open and pours my brains on the sidewalk every time I hear it. It’s just so damn perfect.
So I guess the point is this: you never know where a lyric might take you. You never know how you’ll gain access to a new band or a new album. If you stay open to it, you might find yourself falling down a pretty deep rabbit hole, and it can be a great trip.
Can we be honest with ourselves, for just a minute, and admit how ballsy it is to put your pasty British face with your (very obviously) thinning hair front-and-center on the cover of your album? Is there a measurement for the number of fucks Phil Collins simply does not give for how pop superstardom was supposed to work in the 1980s?
No Jacket Required, released in 1985, was a big part of the soundtrack of my childhood (along with George Harrison’s Cloud 9, it was one of the two tapes that I actually wore out from listening to over and over again). I have the album memorized and can break into virtually any song from the set, be it “Sussudio” or “Take Me Home,” with the slightest provocation. I am, I admit, an unabashed fan of Phil Collins, and it’s all because of this album.
It’s kind of funny to think that this record won a Grammy for Album of the Year back then. Looking back on it from 2013, the record sounds horribly, horribly dated. Synthesized horns, processed and programmed drums everywhere, vocoders…you don’t think it could get more ’80s on you, then you hear the sax solo in “Who Said I Would,” and realize that there’s always a way to add more ’80s to a song.
Things start off strong if nonsensical with “Sussudio,” which Collins claims is a word (I’m still a bit dubious). It’s a punchy, upbeat number, and I remember the video for it being very self-effacing and funny as hell. You have to give Collins credit for that, if nothing else: he didn’t ever take himself too seriously.
“Only You Know and I Know” continues the trend of up-tempo, horn-and-drum machine-driven tunes, adding a guitar solo straight out of Miami Vice for good measure. Things slow down with “Long Long Way To Go,” an Asian-tinged track with lots of atmosphere and backing vocals from Sting. Things pick back up with “I Don’t Wanna Know,” a mid-tempo adult-contemporary rocker with a chugging guitar line and layered vocals that has one of the best sing-along choruses about moving on that the ’80s could offer. The first side of the album (I still remember it from the tape) is the ballad “One More Night,” which is exactly what you’d expect from a Phil Collins mid-80s ballad: mannered, just enough emotion in the chorus to really get the sense of pleading across to the audience.
Side two opens with the drum machine-driven “Don’t Lose My Number,” one of those ambiguously dangerous-sounding songs (like “In the Air Tonight” or “Just a Job to Do,” owing more to the latter than the former in this case) that Collins pops out every album or two. “Who Said I Would” features the aforementioned sax solo and vocoder backing vocals, and is probably the most ’80s-sounding song I’ve ever heard (and, oddly enough, I love it). “Doesn’t Anybody Stay Together Anymore” features Collins doing his famous polyrhythmic drumming. “Inside Out” was always my favorite song when I was a kid, largely because of the guitar part (especially in the chorus, with that great delay effect. As an adult, though, my favorite song is “Take Me Home,” which I’m pretty sure was the last song on the cassette I had as a child (but isn’t the last song on the CD version I bought a few years ago). “Take Me Home” is a beautiful song with unique percussion and gorgeous keyboards, not to mention the soaring vocals in the chorus (with backing vocals provided by the likes of Sting again and Peter Gabriel, among others). I always thought it was the perfect song to close the album, and it’s usually where I stop listening now.
The final track, “We Said Hello, Goodbye,” is a piano-based clunker of a ballad, and it feels very out of place with the rest of the album. It’s a very straightforward lost love song, the sort that Collins usually does with much more aplomb and effort, and the sort of thing he did much better on tracks like “One More Night.” It feels…unfinished, compared to everything else, and I’d swear it was just a bonus track added to the CD of a demo from the same time period as the rest of the stuff on the album, but I can’t be sure. Like I said, it wasn’t on the tape I had of the album when I was a kid.
Regardless of the last-track blunder, No Jacket Required is still a consistently great album from start to (almost) finish. It’s a stronger album overall than Face Value, and on-par with just about anything else released by any other band at the time. Collins knew exactly who and what he was – a pop singer with a knack for catchy songcraft – and never loses sight of creating engaging, memorable tunes with sing-along choruses. Here it is, almost thirty years later, and I still can’t stop listening to this album. What more could you want from a pop record?
Another year, another bunch of songs I listened to over and over and over again on my iPod. As per usual, I’ll hit the ol’ reset button on the iPod after posting this list, making it possible for new songs to reign supreme in 2013.
25. Moxy Fruvous, “Boo Time” (23 plays): This was one of my favorite bands in college, and I still (obviously) enjoy putting their songs in playlists or just listening to entire albums. The album this particular gem is off of, You Will Go to the Moon, is fun and serious and silly and touching and everything else, all at the same time.
24. Dr. Dog, “Lonesome” (23 plays): I dunno how iTunes decides what song is in what position when they’ve all got the same number of plays, but it decided to put this one in at number 24. I love the dobro part (it sounds like a dobro. Might just be a regular acoustic, but I dunno).
23. Better Than Ezra, “At the Stars: (23 plays): Another of the 23 Plays Club, this one a classic (can I use that word for a song that came out during my lifetime?) from a quintessential ’90s band.
22. Paul McCartney, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (24 plays): This is one of those songs I just love singing along to. I defy you to listen to it and not bounce along merrily. You can’t do it.
21. Mumford & Sons, “Little Lion Man” (24 plays): I tend to think of these guys as “Dave Matthews with a banjo,” ’cause that’s all I hear when this guy sings. And now you’ll hear it, too, and you won’t be able to un-hear it.
20. Led Zeppelin, “Hey Hey What Can I Do” (24 plays): I’ve always liked the folky side of Zeppelin, when they bust out the acoustics and get a little more down-home. This just happens to be one of the best “my woman ain’t no good” songs out there, and it’s fun to play on the guitar (even if I can’t hit the high notes like Robert Plant).
19. Charlie Sexton, “Regular Grind” (24 plays): The Dylan guitarist and near-legendary session man from Austin is something of a perennial favorite of mine, and this is one of the best songs off of the excellent Cruel and Gentle Things. Isn’t it about time he did a new solo album?
18. Bruce Springsteen, “Two Faces” (24 plays): I feel like Springsteen’s late ’80s/early ’90s albums are rather unfairly maligned. There’s some great songs on them (and some crap, too, to be quite honest), and though they definitely suffer from the production style of the time, you can find some stuff worth listening to. “Two Faces” is such a song: heartfelt, sad, a little bit angry, but with a great organ solo in the outro.
17. Richard Thompson, “Beeswing” (25 plays): Just a beautiful, sad song. The live version is even better than the original studio recording.
16. fun., “Some Nights” (25 plays): What? I’m allowed to like things that are popular sometimes, even if I think most of the rest of the album is absolute rubbish.
15. Woodkid, “Iron” (26 plays): I like it exclusively for its use in the trailer for Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Don’t judge me.
14. John Fullbright, “Satan and St. Paul” (26 plays): Probably my favorite song off of his first studio album, From the Ground Up, which you might recall was one of my favorite albums of the year.
13. Deer Tick, “Easy” (26 plays): A holdover from last year’s list, when it was #1 with a bullet, this song still held me captivated for a good chunk of the year. It’s just a damn good song, and pretty sinister.
12. The National, “Ashamed of the Story I Told” (28 plays): An amazing cover of an old Polaris song, one of those rare instances where the cover truly surpasses the original.
11. The Wallflowers, “Sugarfoot” (30 plays): Say what you will about the Wallflowers debut album (and believe me, I know it was a flawed effort), this song is just awesome and clearly firing on all cylinders.
10. Of Monsters and Men, “Little Talks” (31 plays): I was amazed how much I actually ended up liking their full-length album when it came out this past year. Much stronger than I’d thought it would be, even if I did forget and leave it off my end of the year list.
9. The Gaslight Anthem, “Stay Lucky” (31 plays): The disappointment that was Handwritten drove me back to American Slang and this particular track, which I always have to listen to more than once when it comes up on rotation.
8. First Aid Kit, “The Lion’s Roar” (31 plays): The title track from their debut album (which I did remember to include on my list of albums for 2012) is just a masterclass in how to do awesome Americana. I’m rather in awe of these two (barely out of their?) teens from some cold country in northern Europe.
7. Dan Auerbach, “My Last Mistake” (32 plays): I think next year I may have to disqualify songs that were in the previous year’s list, ’cause otherwise you end up with nothing new to say about a song other than, “Yes, it’s still awesome, what do you want?”
6. The Black Keys, “Sinister Kid” (32 plays): I think it’s all down to the “Uhn!” that starts the song. I could care less what happens after a start like that, so it’s just gravy that the rest of the song is so damn awesome.
5. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Hometown Blues” (33 plays): One of the best Tom Petty songs you probably don’t even know. It’s off their debut album from way back in the ’70s, and obviously gets overshadowed by hits like “American Girl” or “Breakdown,” but it’s just a damn fun song.
4. Josh Ritter, “Girl in the War” (33 plays): A beautiful, melancholic tune about loss and war and fighting for what is important to you. It’s a very moving song, really.
3. Josh Ritter, “See Me Through” (36 plays): A great acoustic number from Ritter’s 2012 EP “Bringing in the Darlings” (if more of So Runs the World Away had sounded like this, I’d have liked it a lot more). I could sit and listen to the chorus of this song for days.
2. Gin Blossoms, “Pieces of the Night” (36 plays): Look, I’m not proud. I know the #2 song on my list is a Gin Blossoms song. About drinking so heavily the night before that you don’t remember jack squat the morning after. I realize all this, okay? I’m not proud of it, but I own up to it, at least.
1. Old 97s, “Champaign, Illinois” (38 plays): It’s an authorized rewrite of Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” only replaced that song’s sense of sadness and desperation with a kick-ass yowl and beefed-up alt-country rhythm and lyrics about Illinois and being on the road. And the chorus is just perfect.
So, there you have it: the twenty-five songs I listened to the most in the year 2012. Thoughts? Favorites? What did you keep hitting repeat on this past year?
How was I that ignorant of one of the absolute best albums that has ever existed ever in the history of music?
In my defense, he wasn’t Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Queen, or Moxy Fruvous (the bands and musicians I was, well, obsessed with throughout high school and most of college). He was my brother’s favorite, and while I liked tunes like “Brown-Eyed Girl” well enough, Van just didn’t really pop up on my radar that much.
Then I spent the summer in Yellowstone National Park with said brother. We spent a lot of time listening to (and making our own) music. Van Morrison was in heavy rotation (along with plenty of Dylan, Neil Young, etc.). It was inescapable, and soon I was a fan.
Moondance is, simply put, the best album Van Morrison ever released. Sure, there are those who say Astral Weeks is the better, more-ambitious album, or that Tupelo Honey better represents the blend of country, R&B, Celtic soul, and whatever else Van wanted to throw into the mix. There might even be a couple of apologists for 1974’s Veedon Fleece (my wife’s uncle, for one). Those people are, in a word, wrong. To be any wronger, we’d have to develop a whole new wrongness scale with new terms for being completely, absolutely, fundamentally wrong, then bury the needle on it, because Moondance is the best damn album in Van Morrison’s extensive catalog.
What Moondance does, better than any other album, is put amazing song after amazing song down in front of the listener. It’s not a matter of genre-hopping for the sake of having a country song and a Celtic soul song and an R&B song and a jazz standard song on the album; instead of letting form dictate the song, the song dictates the form. This isn’t pastiche, it’s genuine affection for different styles of music that Van had absorbed in his youth and synthesized into something new and wonderful. Each song feels a little different, but of a whole: the lead-off, “And it Stoned Me,” is a beautiful ode to childhood (and moonshine), done in an almost country ballad style, while the title track is a swinging pop standard that wouldn’t sound out of place if sung by the likes of Sinatra (or, if you want to get more recent, Michael Buble). “Crazy Love” is just one of the most beautiful love songs ever. “Caravan” is a bouncy, jazzy, jubilant tune with a sing-along coda that I will join in with at the top of my lungs every time, and “Into the Mystic” is the best Celtic soul song Van’s ever done, period.
The second half of the record, while not the string of instant classics that is the first side, is still really damn impressive. “Come Running” has that great horn line that pops up in the chorus and a bridge that gets me smiling every time. You can almost hear Van himself grinning through “These Dreams of You,” with its clever lines like, “You slapped me on the face/I turned around the other cheek.” The only song that I don’t particularly care for is “Brand New Day,” which just feels too slow and drags a bit. It’s not a bad song, per se, but amidst nine other tracks of sheer brilliance, it kinda sticks out as less than stellar. Things pick back up with the harpsichord-driven “Everyone,” with its sprightly martial drumbeat and flute or fife or whatever instrument it is trilling in the background. Things come to a close with “Glad Tidings,” with its insistent bass line and horn stings, pointing the way to future tracks like the always-awesome “Wild Night” (off Tupelo Honey, natch).
From start to finish, Moondance is an accomplished, comfortable record that I always want to start over from the beginning whenever I reach the end. It doesn’t feel as mannered or as calculated as some of his later work, but what it lacks in formal stateliness it more than makes up for with sheer inventiveness and just damn-good songwriting and performance. It is, hands-down, my favorite Van Morrison album, and the highlight of a career that is, frankly, full of them.
There are some things that I just keep coming back to again and again: particular albums, specific books or comics, movies that I’ve seen a dozen times or more. There’s just something about them that keeps drawing me back in, and every few months I find myself cracking open the book/CD case/DVD case and running through it all over again.
Warren Ellis (writer) and Stuart Immonen’s (artist) Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. is one of those things. I feel the overwhelming urge to reread this comic every couple of months, just to remind myself that, yes, something this awesome does in fact exist. It’s probably my favorite Ellis comic, and I’m quite the fan of most anything he writes. It’s probably that he seems like he’s just having so much fun writing the comic. I happen to usually like my comics with a bit of “bwahaha” in them (hence, JLI is a perennial favorite), and there are plenty of those moments here. Ellis throws so many completely random things at the reader (Fin Fang Foom in purple underpants, for instance, or “drop bears,” deadly koala commandos dropped from the aeromarine, which is itself basically four submarines thrown together with great big jet engines strapped onto the back), and it’s the sort of comic that never takes itself too seriously. I like that. I like comics creators that see this as a fun medium (which isn’t to say you can’t have Serious Comics; I also happen to like some of those, but I tend to come back to the fun ones more often) and take advantage of the goofy and downright bizarre nature of the artform to craft engaging, entertaining stories.
Ellis’s writing is, of course, top-notch, wry, and funny as hell, but what really sells this particular book is the art by Stuart Immonen. Immonen’s art for Nextwave is a loose, cartoony style that perfectly captures the crazy, kinetic nature of the action. “Cartoony” doesn’t mean “less detailed” in this case, though; Immonen crams so many details into each page that it’s amazing the book doesn’t just explode awesome all over the place. The series of splash pages in the middle of issue #11 – in which our heroes face increasingly bizarre enemies such as Elvis M.O.D.O.K.s that spew hamburgers, monkeys with Wolverine’s claws, a dinosaur with Cyclops’s eye beam, and crazy ninjas – as they march towards their enemy’s inner sanctum is just brilliant and reason enough to read the book.
Nextwave is a great cheek to the somewhat-stale superhero genre. It’s out-over-the-topping (yeah, I just made that up) the sometimes-extreme nature of superhero comics, with the splash pages and the hyper-violence and the old anti-hero trend (seriously, can we get away from that one now?). While Ellis and Immonen clearly have some affection for the genre they’re so mercilessly lampooning, they don’t pull any punches. Nextwave is easily one of the best comic books that’s been released in the past decade, and the only problem with it is that it doesn’t last longer.