Top 25 Most-Played Songs of 2012

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?

Old 97’s – Fight Songs

Here’s yet another album review, this one from September 2004. Apparently I spent all of graduate school listening to music and telling anyone who would listen what I thought about it.

So my most recent musical acquisition has been the Old 97’s fourth album, Fight Songs. It’s the follow-up to Too Far To Care, which is still their best record in my opinion.

The most noticeable difference between the two albums is the musical tone. Whereas Too Far To Care approached country music from a punk angle, Fight Songs takes the more traditional country-rock approach, a la Neil Young or some of Dylan’s ’70’s work. There’s still plenty of energy and twang here, but a lot of the ragged edges have been smoothed in favor of songcraft and melody.

The tradeoff works well, in this case. Rhett Miller’s lyrics and croon take centerstage, and his wordplay is as sharp as ever. Miller spent much of Too Far To Care yelping and speeding through his lyrics, attempting to keep up with the hyperactive music. On Fight Songs, he’s slowed down, giving each phrase the time and attention it deserves. He’s also toned down the vocal theatrics. Miller sings most of the songs with a croon reminiscient of Jeff Tweedy’s (from Wilco) or Elliot Smith, though more melodic than the former and less fragile than the latter.

Despite this slight stylistic shift in music and vocals, there are still plenty of rockers on the album. The lead-off tune, “Jagged,” keeps a great beat and has wicked lyrics. “Oppenheimer” sounds like something off of Rhett Miller’s solo album The Instigator in terms of the music and his delivery. “Indefinitely” has some wonderful vocal interplay between Miller and bassist Murray Hammond, and is one of the most straight-ahead pop-rock tunes on the album.

The highlight of the disc, though, is the closer “Valentine,” which features just an acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, and vocals courtesy of Murray Hammond (backed up by Miller). Lyrically, the song could be an old Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard tune, and features lines such as “Valentine the destroyer” and “Of all the many ways a man will break his heart/well there ain’t none meaner than he pulls his own apart.” It’s a witty, nakedly honest tune that leaves you wondering whether you’re supposed to smile or frown, and it closes out the album perfectly.

All in all, Fight Songs is a worthwhile effort from the Old 97’s. While it lacks Too Far To Care’s manic energy and enthusiasm, it’s still a fine album filled with wonderful tunes. Besides, Too Far To Care‘s shoes are pretty big to fill, and rather than attempting to, the Old 97’s took their music in a slightly different, and ultimately just as satisfying, direction.

Top Ten Albums of 2011

I am, as anyone who has spent ten minutes talking with me knows, a bit obsessed with music (also, comic books, but that’s a totally different post). I try to keep up with new stuff, but there’s always just so much coming out, and all the old stuff I’m discovering that I hadn’t heard before, and all the other stuff I had heard before but really liked and wanted to hear again and again…it’s tough to keep up. That being said, there were a couple of albums I just did not get to this year that I really wanted to listen to. Stuff like They Might Be Giants’ Join Us, Calexico’s Selections from Road Atlas (1998-2011), or Deer Tick’s Divine Providence. I’ll get to them eventually, especially now that we’re in that dead time of new music releases that is the post-holiday time, but in the meantime, here’s the stuff I really liked this year.

Honorable Mentions (things I listened to and rather enjoyed, if not enough to really gush about):

William Elliott Whitmore, Field Songs: A pretty solid album, though not as engaging as Ashes to Dust (still my favorite of his).

Cake, Showroom of Compassion: It’s kinda nice to see these guys, fifteen years later, still doing their thing their own way. Sure, John McCrea might actually almost sing once in awhile now, and there’s occasionally no irony in his delivery, but it’s pretty much the same as it ever was, and what it was wasn’t broken.

Tom Waits, Bad As Me: A new Tom Waits album is always welcome, and this one hit some pretty sweet spots, but it just didn’t have the oomph that I wanted it to have. There really wasn’t a standout track for me, which is probably why it didn’t make my top ten.

The Submarines, Love Notes/Letter Bombs: These songs feel like they were custom-made for iPod commercials. Take from that what you will.

Steve Earle, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive: A solid outing from Earle, the only tragedy being that the standard version of this album does not include his cover of the title track, a wonderful rendition of the old Hank Williams tune.

Radiohead, The King of Limbs: I think somewhere along the way, Radiohead and I headed off in different musical directions. I’m not sure which of us went wrong, but I’m not sure I really want to follow where they’re going anymore. Didn’t they used to play guitars and stuff?

R.E.M., Collapse Into Now: The final album from these guys isn’t too shabby, but it’s not really anything spectacular. Not a whimper, not a bang, but somewhere in-between.

The Top Ten (the albums I couldn’t stop listening to):

10. Old 97’s, The Grand Theatre, Volume 2: Picking up where last year’s The Grand Theatre, Volume 1, left off, this finds the band in fine form, cranking out poppier songs than were found on the first disc. You can hear them having fun with their music, which is always appreciated.

9. The Black Keys, El Camino: This picks up right were Brothers left off, sonically. They’re mixing in more old-school soul and whatnot with their standard minimalist blues, and it really adds some depth to the sound. It’s highs aren’t as high as on Brothers, but it’s a leaner record without a lot of the filler that weighed down the middle part of the earlier record.

8. Drive-By Truckers, Go-Go Boots: I mentioned the song “Everybody Needs Love” from this album in my iPod list yesterday, but honestly the rest of the album is pretty damn solid, too. These guys (and gal) are great storytellers in the Johhny Cash/Merle Haggard tradition, crafting sagas of hard liquor, harder luck, and infidelity that has all of the disturbing allure and attraction of a massive accident on the side of the highway.

7. Jonathan Coulton, Artificial Heart: I hadn’t really heard of this guy, then discovered he was responsible for the hilarious and whimsical song at the end of the game Portal. I decided to check this album out, and feel I’ve been deeply rewarded for doing so. His songwriting is top-notch, and this album would be worth it for “The Stache” alone, his paean to fuzzy upper lips.

6. Okkervil River, I Am Very Far: These guys become more awesome with each album. I still find it entertaining that “White Shadow Waltz” is not, as one would expect, in 3/4 time. Also, drums are used almost as punctuation in these songs, sharp cracks that accent the rest of the music and the convoluted lyrics perfectly.

5. Wilco, The Whole Love: This sounds like the album Wilco has been trying to make since A Ghost is Born. There’s a little something for everyone here: “Born Alone” could have fit in alongside anything on Summerteeth or Ghost, oddly enough, while “Dawned On Me” sounds like a Ghost outtake. “The Whole Love” itself is a distillation of everything the band is right now, a mission statement along the lines of “Wilco (The Song),” only even better.

4. 8in8, NightyNight: It was an ambitious if slightly ridiculous premise: get four like-minded souls in a recording studio for 8 hours to write and record 8 brand-new songs on the fly. The final product may have fallen short of that goal (only six songs in something like 10 hours, when it was all said and done), but the music they created was fun, whimsical, and more than a little emotionally engaging. Besides, it features Neil Gaiman singing a song about Joan of Arc wandering around a park in London in the modern day, and what’s not to love about that?

3. Beirut, The Rip Tide: The is the most streamlined album Beirut’s done, and it still features so much accordion and brass that it’s not even funny. It is, however, fantastic: I remain in constant awe about how this band creates such depth in the music. It’s almost operatic in places, but not pretentious or overwrought. It’s a nifty trick to pull off, and The Rip Tide walks the tightrope perfectly.

2. Portugal. The Man, In the Mountain in the Cloud: Oddly enough, I found out about these guys while sitting in a community college cafeteria over the summer. Regardless of how I discovered them, they sound like what would happen if the Flaming Lips started an Oasis cover band, and there’s nothing about that sentence that isn’t brilliant.

1. The Decemberists, The King is Dead: This may be the least-unified album thematically by the band in many years, but it makes up for that by being the most consistently great album they’ve done in years. There is a unifying concept to the record, though not in the same way there was for The Hazards of Love or The Crane Wife. For The King is Dead, they’ve stuck to a particular style for most of the record: a loose, country-ish, folky rock sound that creates a cohesion despite the lack of an overall theme. Many of the songs do share a longing for pastoral simplicity and a desire to be surrounded by good friends and family. The album came out back in January, but I’ve listened to it so many times already it feels like I’ve had it for years. I had to remind myself it actually came out this year.

So, that’s the list. Agree? Disagree (in which case, you’re wrong)? Let me know your thoughts and your favorites from this year!

Top Ten Albums of 2010

We’ve come again to the end of the year, which means I – like so many others out there in the blogosphere who thinks their opinions are the only ones worth listening to – have compiled my list of the ten best albums of 2010. Here they go, in some particular order:

10. The Walkmen, Lisbon: Moody, atmospheric…yeah, those’re words that describe a typical Walkmen album. And while Lisbon definitely fits in with the band’s prior output, there’s a new approach here, a cleaner take on the production and some nice sonic touches that stand out. Not their best album ever, maybe, but a damn fine record nonetheless.

9. Spoon, Transference: Another album by another band that seems to be in keeping with what’s come before, but also marks a bit of a departure. Whereas Spoon seemed to strip away more and more elements in their previous records, apparently in an effort to see how minimalist they could really get and still have a rock record, here they start adding stuff back in, throwing in strange keyboard swirls and clipped vocal parts that jump in and out of the mix, often stopping mid-phrase. The obvious standout track, “Written in Reverse,” could’ve fit in comfortably alongside anything from Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga or Gimme Fiction, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

8. John Mellencamp, No Better Than This: Mellencamp’s been doing his best Bob Dylan impression lately. No, not singing like Bob, but digging back into the history of American music like Bob, going through the trunk in America’s attic and pulling out all sorts of interesting sounds and trying them on. Here, he decides the old ways are definitely the best ways and records an album the way they used to: no overdubs, all live, one mic, the whole band in the room together. It creates an interesting atmosphere. It helps that he’s written some compelling tunes, too, and it adds up to one of his best albums in years.

7. Jesse Malin and the St. Marks Social, Love it to Life: I really dig Jesee Malin (just saw him live last week, as a matter of fact). I heard him live before I ever heard one of his studio albums, and it really wasn’t fair: live, there’s energy, charisma, and plenty of rough and raw power. In the studio, Malin is meticulous, almost clinical, in his attention to sonic detail. Usually to the point of making his studio work sound like it’s been recorded in a hermetically-sealed bubble. I was always sad that his albums lacked that live energy. This record corrects that problem, bringing the energy and live band feel of the shows to a studio record. They may not be the best songs he’s ever written (most of those are still on The Fine Art of Self-Destruction), but they come the closest to replicating that live feeling.

6. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs: They’ve dropped the definite article from their name, but they’re still the same band that recorded Funeral: that is to say, they’ve still got a lot on their minds, some of it mundane, some of it esoteric, almost all of it compelling. This record comes the closest to reflecting the actual size of the band (there’s, like, seven or eight of them), as the songs feel full and outsized in the best possible way. They’re a band that trades in bombast and anthems, but they do it very well and very convincingly.

5. The New Pornographers, Together: The power-pop supergroup brings their A game here, with everyone contributing songs that are poppy, bouncy, energetic, and, above all, fun. These guys haven’t ever released a bad record (despite what some critics may say about Challengers), but this one easily ranks in the top half of their discography. Good stuff.

4. Jakob Dylan, Women and Country: If this list were based on sheer number of listens, Jakob Dylan would win hands-down. Granted, it had the unfair advantage of being released really early in the year, but even without that advantage, it has some of the best damn music I’ve heard all year. T-Bone Burnett produced the record, and his sonic fingerprints are all over the place: the flourishes of pedal steel that creep in, the soft, muted percussion, the hazy atmosphere that wraps the songs up like a blanket, and the beautiful backing vocals. Add to that the set of fantastic songs Dylan penned for this album, and you’ve got a record that was easily one of my favorites for the decade, not just the year.

3. Old 97’s, The Grand Theatre, Vol. 1: I had a little trepidation when I downloaded this album. I didn’t really care for their last full-length effort, Blame it on the Gravity, and the Rhett Miller karaoke-fest of Mimeograph had me worried. But this record put those fears to rest, as the band cranked out some of the most fun, energetic music of their career. These guys are a little older and a little wiser than the Too Far to Care days, but they’ve found that era’s vitality again. They’re also better musicians, and that shines through on tracks like “Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You)” and their (apparently authorized!) revision of “Desolation Row,” “Champagne, Illinois.” This is the best record they’ve made in years, hands down.

2. The National, High Violet: While it may not reach the heights of Alligator or reach the brooding majesty of Boxer, this is a damn fine album. Just because it’s not an automatic masterpiece doesn’t mean it isn’t great. There are plenty of beautiful moments, plenty of wryly clever lines, and lots of swelling anthems that you can’t help but sing along with. There’s not a bad song on the album, and while it is a grower (like most albums by the National), some of the songs do get their hooks in you immediately (“Bloodbuzz, Ohio” comes to mind).

1. The Gaslight Anthem, American Slang: I could listen to the first four songs on this album over and over again every day for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy in doing so. This is the record they’ve been trying to make since they started: anthematic, energetic, and powerful. Yes, they still owe a huge debt to the work of Bruce Springsteen, and they still sound like what would happen if the E Street Band started playing punk, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s the best album they’ve released, and it’s my favorite album of the year.

Honorable Mentions: Josh Ritter’s So Runs the World was nice but fairly forgettable, She & Him’s Volume 2 just didn’t have the same spark as their first album, Bob Dylan’s The Bootleg Series: Volume 9 – The Witmark Demos was interesting but ultimately a little repetitive (I mean, we’ve basically heard all these songs before), and Mavis Staples’s You Are Not Alone was a nice tour of her strengths. I was pretty disappointed in the offerings from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Vampire Weekend didn’t do anything new on their second album that they hadn’t already done on their debut, and the Gorillaz just didn’t grab me (except for “Some King of Nature,” but I love me some Lou Reed).

Old 97’s – Mimeograph

I love me some Old 97’s. I remember hearing their album Too Far To Care at a CD Warehouse when I was in college (man, do I love me some CD Warehouse! Used CDs, and you could find all sorts of crazy stuff that people would bring in and trade. And also fifty copies of any given Backstreet Boys album. That wasn’t so great, but it was funny), and I was just hooked. They always sounded like they were just on the verge of falling apart completely; the skittering drums, the half-shouted vocals, the blistering guitar work…these guys made having an emotional breakdown sound like fun.

Their albums since then have been, for me at least, a series of diminishing returns. Sure, Fight Songs, Satellite Rides, and Drag It Up all had some solid tunes and the good generally outweighed the bad, but each successive album smoothed away the rough edges, and Blame It On The Gravity just went for straight power pop with no rough edges (and missed the mark considerably, if you ask me).

Then I see Mimeograph, a four-song EP featuring covers of classic rock songs. The very idea sounds winning and engaging, and I’m thinking maybe they used this to cut loose and really have fun. But I guess the title (a reference to an old copy machine-type thing, for those of you who’re, y’know, young and don’t know how to use the internet to find things out) should have been a dead giveaway: these are raucous alt-country versions of classic rock songs, these are almost exact duplicates of classic rock songs performed with expertise and precision by a band that used to be much more fun.

It starts out with a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Rocks Off,” the four-on-the-floor rocker that kicked off Exile on Main Street. And…well, it sounds exactly the same, except Rhett Miller is singing. They stay so true to the original, they even keep the same vocal effects in the bridge. It’s sad. This could have been so much better; they could have reinterpreted it into something new rather than an exact duplicate of the original.

It doesn’t get any better from there. Sure, these four tracks are played well, and the band clearly enjoys the music they are paying homage to, and they are definitely better musicians than they were in the Too Far To Care days, but I really do feel this was a missed opportunity to recapture some of the energy and vitality of their earlier albums. Their cover of the Fratellis’ (the newest song here) “For the Girl” doesn’t add anything new, nor do their covers of REM’s “Driver 8” or David Bowie’s “5 Years.”

Ultimately, Mimeograph is something of a disappointment. I guess had I not gone in with expectations about what this could have been, I would have enjoyed it: after all, these covers are competently done and well-played, even if the arrangements are too safe and predictable. Maybe next time, we’ll get some of the energy and rough edges of their early stuff.