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?

Top Ten Albums of 2012

As the end of the year draws nigh, I, like so many other self-important know-it-alls, stoop to bequeath you, the audience, with my illuminating and elucidating best-of list for the year 2012. First, the also-rans.

Honorable Mentions

1. The Gaslight Anthem, Handwritten: Back when I first reviewed the album, I wasn’t all that impressed with it, and that hasn’t really changed. Not bad, but not up to the level of expectations I had after the one-two punch of The 59 Sound and American Slang.

2. Calexico, Algeria: A good album, but it didn’t really do much to grab my attention or work in a vein outside of what this band’s been doing for awhile now.

3. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill: It’s classic-sounding Neil Young & Crazy Horse. If that’s something you don’t feel you have enough of in your life, it’ll definitely fill that hole, but it doesn’t do anything we haven’t heard from these guys over the past about 40 years.

4. JD McPherson, Signs and Signifiers: Okie musician doing ’50s rockabilly/R&B/swing. Good stuff, even if it feels a little too pastiche-y.

5. Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits: Britt Daniel could’ve just done another Spoon album. No one would’ve been able to tell the difference.

And now, on to the main event!

10. The Avett Brothers, The Carpenter: A much stronger effort than their previous, I and Love and You, with better songs and fewer fussy details. There don’t seem to be as many harmonies, though, which I find sad, and this particular record still fall short of their best effort (Emotionalism, for those keeping score at home).

9. First Aid Kit, The Lion’s Roar: Scandanavian (barely out of their?) teens doing Americana and doing it right? Yes, please. “Emmylou” is gorgeous and heartfelt, and the title track is just one of the best damn songs I’ve heard all year.

8. Of Monsters and Men, My Head is an Animal: “Little Talks” has been stuck in my head since sometime last year, and it hasn’t gone away. The rest of the album may not be quite as good, but it’s still pretty damn good. Plus, the lead guy in the band is a chubby man with a beard, which gives me hope of one day being a rock star myself.

7. Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra, Theatre is Evil: The album crowdsourced funding made possible, this ode to everything ’80s is pretty damn catchy. Palmer sounds like she’s having fun fronting a full band, and the GTO rise to the occasion. I do rather miss the old Dresden Dolls days, though.

6. Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue, Volume 3: A bit of a cheat, as this is sort of a “leftovers from the first two volumes” deal with less-developed songs from the Woody Guthrie lyrics with Bragg and Wilco tunes collections. There are still some great songs here, though, especially in Wilco’s offerings (“When the Roses Bloom Again” and “The Jolly Banker” are two of the best songs to come out of the Mermaid Avenue project, if you ask me).

5. AC Newman, Shut Down the Streets: A rather more somber album than we’ve come to expect from the power-pop wunderkind, but a compelling set nonetheless. It’s not anything particularly different from what he’s done on previous albums, but why fix what ain’t broken?

4. Bob Dylan, Tempest: I know, I know, a Bob Dylan album only ranking 4th for the year? Surely this is a sign of the apocalypse. But Tempest just didn’t really do enough new that I felt it deserved a higher spot. It’s good and all, but it didn’t really wow me. The best I can say about it is that it’s new Dylan songs, and they’re pretty good, but they’re nothing we haven’t really heard before.

3. John Fullbright, From the Ground Up: Another Okie, this one a widely-proclaimed “next Dylan.” Or maybe a “next Woody Guthrie,” as Guthrie is an obvious touchstone for the young man’s work (they’re both from the tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Okemah, where my own father grew up and I spent many childhood summers). As I mentioned back when this album came out, it sounds exactly like what I thought Fullbright would sound like with a full band, and that was a good thing indeed. The good songs on here are great, and the songs I didn’t care for were still pretty good, just not to my taste.

2. The Wallflowers, Glad All Over: A surprisingly fantastic album from the younger Dylan and his crack team of cohorts. Glad All Over featured several of my favorite songs all year, the best of which was “Misfits and Lovers.” It’s got a bit of the Clash to it, and there’s a nice change in the style from the Wallflowers’ earlier sound while maintaining some continuity. Good stuff.

1. Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself and Hands of Glory: Yeah, they’re two separate releases, and they really don’t share a theme or sound or anything, but they’re both fantastic and this is my list and shut up. Break it Yourself continues Bird’s streak of creating brainy, esoteric chamber pop that incorporates all sorts of different styles and sounds. His use of the violin becomes less and less about traditional playing and more about seeing what sorts of interesting sounds you can get out of the instrument. Hands of Glory feels like a spare, country companion to the world music-esque Break it Yourself. “Three White Horses” is probably my favorite song of the year. The changing tempos and shifting dynamics make it an inventive, enjoyable song.

Those were the ones I dug this year. What grabbed your interest?

The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten

I’m always excited when a new Gaslight Anthem album comes out. American Slang was one of my favorite records the year it came out, as was The 59 Sound before it. So I had high hopes for Handwritten, their debut on Mercury Records.

Then I found out Brenden O’Brien was producing it.

Brenden O’Brien is the guy behind several big-name records from the past fifteen or twenty years, including Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising and the Wallflowers’ Rebel, Sweetheart. And while I really enjoy both of those records, O’Brien has a tendency to make the production of all the records he does sound the same. They’re bright, shiny rock records, with strummed acoustics, chiming and chugging electric guitars, and deep drums.

And really, what we get here isn’t exactly bad: the band are all excellent musicians, and there’s definitely craft at work in these songs. But the writing doesn’t seem as sharp, the choruses don’t seem as catchy, and everything sounds smoothed out and rather murky. It’s glossy, arena-style production, and the already-weak songs suffer because of it.

It’s odd that everything ends up sounding so same-y, because O’Brien helps the band bring in some new instrumentation to fill out their sound. There’s organs and pianos in several songs, and many feature acoustic guitars more prominently (granted, the band’s used acoustics before, but never quite this much).

There are some decent songs here. “Here Comes My Man” is a ’60s girl-group song that swings and rocks all at once; “Keepsake” is standard Gaslight Anthem, but stronger than much of the other material on the album. “Howl” is pretty solid, and “National Anthem” shows quite a bit of promising growth for the band.

The bad, though, is mostly just bland and uninspired. “Handwritten” is standard fare for the band, but doesn’t do anything particularly well. Several of these songs – “Handwritten” chief among them – feel like leftovers from other albums, lesser versions of songs we’ve already heard.

Ultimately, Handwritten is a bit of a letdown, not because it’s bad but because it’s not as good as it could be. This is an album that doesn’t live up to the promise of its predecessors. Hopefully they’ll turn it around for the next album.

Top 25 Most-Played Songs for 2011

Every year, I reset the playcount on all the songs on my iPod. But before I do that, I count down what the top 25 most-played songs on the iPod were for the year.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for that once again. Here they are, in descending order:

25. Elliott Smith, “Baby Britain,” from XO (13 plays): I love me some Elliott Smith, as does my wife. He’s one of the few artists we completely agree on, and makes a great compromise when we’re in the car and want something to listen to. The man had a way with words and a deftness and nimbleness in his guitar playing that I absolutely loved.

24. Amanda Palmer, “Oasis,” from Who Killed Amanda Palmer (13 plays): This is quite possibly the best song about date rape and a trip to the abortion clinic you’ll ever hear, though that’s probably a pretty short list of songs to begin with, I’d imagine. Palmer offsets the seriousness of the situation with one of the brightest, poppiest melodies you could imagine (with Ben Folds on backing vocals, no less!), and the bouncy rhythm really makes you think there is something seriously wrong with Amanda Palmer in the best possible way.

23. Moxy Fruvous, “The Present Tense Tureen,” from Wood (15 plays): There was a time in college – probably about six to nine months – when I listened to nothing but this Canadian band, and it may have broken me. I mean, how many songs do you know about a guy walking along a creek, encountering an elf, and getting relationship advice while waiting for a stew to boil that isn’t actually in the tureen? Just this one, I assure you. Plus, it features the line, “Then he giggled in French/That’s what he did,” and that is possibly the best line in anything ever.

22. Counting Crows, “Mr. Jones,” from August and Everything After (15 plays): Several of the songs that pop up on this list (including this one) are songs on the playlist I designed specifically for my wife, because the alternative was she would always have to listen to Bob Dylan (or we’d be divorced; I imagine it’s a one thing or the other sort of situation) in the car. Anyway, we both enjoy this song, and it features a Bob Dylan reference, so I’m happy.

21. The Arcade Fire, “Intervention,” from Neon Bible (15 plays): Another song off the playlist for the wife. She identifies it as her favorite Arcade Fire song, while I love the prominent use of church organ.

20. Harlem Shakes, “Sunlight,” From Technicolor Health (17 plays): This band’s place in my music collection seemed like a bit of an anomaly, though I’ve never been able to really articulate why. They don’t really sound much like any other band I listen to much, and I don’t really care for any other bands that play their particular style of indie-guitar rock, and yet…I really love this album, and this song in particular. Dunno why.

19. The Gaslight Anthem, “Stay Lucky,” from American Slang (18 plays): Okay, these guys, I know exactly why I like. Anyone doing straight-ahead Bruce Springsteen-inspired rock is okay in my book, and these guys have finally grown beyond just aping their influences (the aforementioned Bruce Springsteen). This is a great song for driving to, though I do have to pay attention not to drive too fast when it’s on. Also, way too much fun to sing along with at the top of your lungs.

18. Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?,” from Pendulum (19 plays): Let’s speak plainly: Pendulum is not a good CCR album. Hell, it’s not a particularly good album, full stop. It’s bland and does not have a clear identity, something CCR albums usually never suffer from (Mardis Gras is pretty mediocre, too). However! However, it does feature this particular song, which is a slice of redemption so powerful, so beautiful, so perfect, that I am willing to forgive the existence of the album based solely on the presence of this single song. Also, “Hey Tonight” is pretty good.

17. The Asteroids Galaxy Tour, “The Golden Age,” from The Golden Age – EP (19 plays): Yeah, it’s that song from the Hieneken commercial. I am highly susceptible to the music used in advertisement, if not the product (I don’t really care for Hieneken, for instance). Plus, it’s fun.

16. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Kings Road,” from Hard Promises (20 plays): Tom Petty has been one of my favorite musicians since I was a young, young man (one of the first concerts I ever went to, in fact, was a Tom Petty concert). He’s one of the best songwriters in rock and roll, and Mike Campbell is one of the most criminally overlooked and underappreciated lead guitarists in music. Campbell’s guitar parts always fit the song perfectly, and he doesn’t solo to show off his skills, he solos to meet the needs of the song. I think it’s safe to say I’ll buy any album these guys put out.

15. Cream, “Badge,” From Goodbye (20 plays): Between this and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” I think it’s safe to say that the Eric Clapton/George Harrison songwriting partnership is one that should have been much more fruitful. These guys did some of their best work together, but never really got around to doing many songs with each other. I call it a tragedy.

14. 8in8, “One Tiny Thing,” from NightyNight (21 plays): Take three musicians and one Neil Gaiman, sit them in a recording studio for a night, and see what they come up with. It’s a beautifully simple concept, and one that created several of my favorite songs this year. This particular tune, “One Tiny Thing,” is an excellent example of what they accomplished: simple, direct, but perfectly captured, a little slice of four friends working together to create music that is both fun and emotionally engaging.

13. The National, “Think You Can Wait,” from the Film “Win Win” (21 plays): I will listen to pretty much anything the National puts out. Seriously, it could just be Matt Berninger reading the phone book over Bryan Devendorf’s drums, and I would listen to it and declare it wonderful.

12. The Avett Brothers, “Will You Return?,” from Emotionalism (21 plays): Harmonies and banjos? Yes, please.

11. The Pixies, “Here Comes Your Man,” from Doolittle (23 plays): I never really listened to contemporary music when I was in high school, so I completely missed out on bands like the Pixies in the ’90s. My wife, on the other hand, was a bit of a Pixies devotee, so I’ve since been indoctrinated into their holy communion. This is probably my favorite song of theirs; I just love the harmonies in the chorus.

10. Josh Ritter, “Golden Age of Radio,” from Golden Age of Radio (23 plays): I think the record will show I love me some Josh Ritter (even if his last record was a little bland). This song is just fantastic: thumping percussion, a great chord progression, and a spirited vocal delivery from Ritter. Plus, it name drops Patsy Cline and Townes Van Zandt.

9. Florence + the Machine, “Dog Days are Over,” from Lungs (23 plays): I really only play the guitar, but I am apparently a sucker for a stripped-down, bone-rattling drum beat. This song has that, plus Florence Welch just sings with such gusto. That woman can belt it and has no fear, which I appreciate in a vocalist (possibly why I like Dylan so much).

8. Stephen Stills, “Wooden Ships,” from Just Roll Tape (24 plays): More a demo than anything else, this rough draft version of the Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young AOR staple is stripped down and simple, just Stills and a guitar. But stripped of harmonies and bombast, it’s still a great song. The core of the tune – the chord progression, the melody – is strong enough to make this just as great as the version everyone knows.

7. Dan Auerbach, “My Last Mistake,” from Keep it Hid (24 plays): While it may just be a simple song about screwing up a relationship, there’s something universal about the concept that musicians keep coming back to for a reason. And hell, this is just a great tune. The chord progression is catchy, the bluesy lead is pitch-perfect, and Auerbach’s vocals really deliver the emotional punch the song needs. It’s a simple song, but it’s a simple pleasure that really satisfies.

6. The Beatles, “Chains,” From Please Please Me (25 plays): Is this the best Beatles song? No, not by a long shot. Is it even the best song on this album? Heck no (I mean, there’s “I Saw Her Standing There,” For crying out loud). However, it’s a perfect distillation of what’s great about early Beatles: a great beat, excellent melody, and some of the best upper-register vocals you’ll ever hear. Plus, it’s got George on the lead vocals, and he didn’t ever get the love he deserved in that group, man.

5. Colin Hay, “Beautiful Word,” from Scrubs (Original Television Soundtrack) (27 plays): This song was used to great effect in the TV show Scrubs, but even standing on it’s own, it’s beautiful. The melody is gorgeous, and the simplicity of Hay’s delivery (and the stripped-down arrangement of just his voice and acoustic guitar) makes it all the more affecting. It’s one of those sad, sweet tunes I could just listen to over and over, and obviously did this year.

4. Drive-By Truckers, “Everybody Needs Love,” from Go-Go Boots (29 plays): Again, a pretty universal theme (people want to be loved) that’s been tackled hundreds, even thousands, of times in popular music, but this is just the sort of anthematic song you can’t help but sing along to at the top of your lungs when it comes on.

3. The Decemberists, “Don’t Carry it All,” from The King is Dead (29 plays): I have a pretty solid music crush on the Decemberists. I will listen to any album they put out, though I’ve always been a little disappointed they went the prog-rock concept album route instead of focusing on smaller, single-song stories. Well, The King is Dead was something of an answer to my prayers, and “Don’t Carry it All” was the hallelujah. It’s the loosest and most joyful I’ve ever heard them be, and it’s just fun to listen to (I know, not a word I’d really associate with the band, either). Honestly, The King is Dead is a strong contender for my favorite album this year, and it’s mostly on the strength of this one song.

2. The Hollies, “Just One Look,” from The Air That I Breathe: The Very Best of the Hollies (33 plays): A great little unrequited love song full of harmonies and a great bridge. If you can listen to this song and not want to sing along, I think you might actually be dead inside.

1. Deer Tick, “Easy,” from Born on Flag Day (35 plays): This song has consumed me in the past few months. Everything about it is amazing, from the feedback that opens the track to the use of the vibra-slap, the deep throb of the bass line under those riffs in the intro, to the Telecaster twang of the guitar and the growl in the singer’s voice. This is a song full of despair, gloom, doom, and a sense of overwhelming frustration and anger. It’s brilliant: in under 4 minutes, Deer Tick deliver one of the most affecting songs I’ve heard in a long time. As soon as the song is over, I want to hit the back button and hear it again. And the harmony in the second verse? Gets me every time. It’s perfect, and it’s the song I’ve listened to the most times this year.

The Top 25 Most-Played Songs for 2010

As with every year, I’m about to reset the play count on my iPod. Before I do that, though, let’s see what got the most play this year.

1. The New Pornographers, “The Bleeding Heart Show” – 48
2. Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Cotton Fields” – 43
3. The National, “Ashamed Of The Story I Told” – 38
4. The National, “Bloodbuzz Ohio” – 38
5. Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Midnight Special” – 37
6. The Gaslight Anthem, “Stay Lucky” – 35
7. Jakob Dylan, “Everybody’s Hurting” – 34
8. The New Pornographers, “Sing Me Spanish Techno” – 33
9. Harlem Shakes, “Strictly Game” – 32
10. Josh Ritter, “Wait For Love (You Know You Will)” – 31
11. Dawes, “That Western Skyline” – 30
12. A.C. Newman, “Take On Me” – 28
13. Bruce Springsteen, “Hungry Heart” – 27
14. Jakob Dylan, “Holy Rollers For Love” – 27
15. Cat Stevens, “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” – 26
16. Andrew Bird, “Fiery Crash” – 23
17. Jakob Dylan, “Lend A Hand” – 23
18. She & Him, “In The Sun” – 23
19. The Band, “The Weight” – 22
20. Bon Iver, “Flume” – 22
21. Eric Clapton, “I’ve Got A Rock ‘N’ Roll Heart” – 22
22. Great Lake Swimmers, “Everything Is Moving So Fast” – 22
23. Great Lake Swimmers, “Pulling On A Line” – 22
24. The Spencer Davis Group, “Gimme Some Lovin'” – 22
25. Steve Winwood, “Back In The High Life Again” – 21

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).

The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang

I have a soft spot in my heart for bands that wear their influences proudly. The Gaslight Anthem are definitely one of those bands – hell, it seems like one out of every four lines on their second album, The 59 Sound, was directly lifted from Springsteen. I’m definitely okay with anyone who honors the Boss, and you could obviously do much worse than using some of his lyrics, but I felt they needed move beyond that.

American Slang does just that: pushing forward, but looking backward. This isn’t just an album that trades in nostalgia, it’s an album about nostalgia. Many of the songs deal with the way we view the past through rose-colored glasses and bemoan the loss of some wasn’t-ever-really-real golden age. Most of the lyrics are written in the past tense, and everything from the song titles (“The Spirit of Jazz” and “We Did It When We Were Young” spring to mind) to the cultural references and touchstones (references to Sinatra and “old records”) seems to hearken back to a bygone era. The themes of the music aren’t anything new for the band – they’ve been trading on this nostalgia for the swingin’ ’50s New York City era since their inception – but they’ve perfected their Boss-meets-Sinatra balance of sincere and earnest street poet and street-smart, tough-as-nails backstreet kid.

Vocalist Brian Fallon is in strong form on the record, though he tries to reach beyond his range in a couple of noticeable places. His rough, everyman voice works well for these story songs, and the E Street Band circa The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle backing vocals are the perfect complement. Guitars alternately chime and growl, and the swinging, muted jabs on “The Diamond Church Street Choir” are perfect. The band tries some new sounds here, too, throwing in dub-inflected rhythms on “The Queen of Lower Chelsea.” This isn’t to say the band’s abandoned the driving, anthematic sound that defined their previous songs. Those are still here in spades (“Get Lucky” being the best and most obvious representative), though the band isn’t afraid to slow the rhythm section down a bit and let the song roll along at a less breakneck but no less enjoyable pace. The opening track, “American Slang,” is a perfect example; the band let the song build and still retain the anthematic feel without sacrificing melody or a fantastic build. The band feels tighter overall on this record; previous outings featured at least a track or two where things didn’t quite feel like they synced up, but that isn’t the case here.

The opening four tracks on the album – “American Slang,” “Stay Lucky,” “Bring It On,” and “The Diamond Church Street Choir” – are probably the best opening salvo on a record I’ve heard all year. In fact, it’s often hard for me to get to the back half of the record because I keep going back to hear those four songs over and over again. The album does lose some momentum on the back side, though it never loses its sense of purpose or driving rhythms.

American Slang is easily one of the best albums I’ve heard all year and avoids many of the pitfalls I feared the band would hit trying to follow up their breakout record. Definitely recommended.

The Top 25 Most-Played Songs for 2009

I always reset the play count on all the songs in iTunes at the beginning of a new year, but first I like to look back at the songs that received the most play over the course of the year. Here they are, along with the final play count for 2009.

1. The Replacements, “Alex Chilton” – 38
2. Steve Earle, “More Than I Can Do” – 37
3. The Gaslight Anthem, “Say I Won’t (Recognize)” – 36
4. Jakob Dylan, “Will It Grow” – 33
5. A.C. Newman, “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer” – 32
6. The Gaslight Anthem, “Senor and the Queen” – 32
7. Daniel Lanois, “Where Will I Be” – 31
8. Elvis Costello, “Pump It Up” – 29
9. The National, “So Far Around the Bend” – 29
10. Bon Iver, “Skinny Love” – 28
11. Neko Case, “People Got a Lotta Nerve” – 28
12. Death Cab for Cutie, “The Sound of Settling” – 26
13. Statler Brothers, “Flowers on the Wall” – 26
14. Creedence Clearwater Revival, ” Wrote a Song For Everyone” – 25
15. The Grass Roots, “Temptation Eyes (Original)” – 25
16. Modest Mouse, “Satellite Skin” – 25
17. Band of Horses, “The General Specific” – 24
18. The Submarines, “You Me and the Bourgeoisie” – 23
19. Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime” – 22
20. A.C. Newman, “Take On Me” – 21
21. Bruce Springsteen, “All the Way Home” – 21
22. Michael Andrews & Gary Jules, “Mad World” – 21
23. Bellamy Brothers, “Let Your Love Flow” – 20
24. Bon Iver, “Blood Bank” – 20
25. The Envy Corps, “Story Problem” – 20