Top Ten Albums of 2013

I listen to a pretty fair amount of music. Not as much as when I was a young lad, back in high school or college or even graduate school, but I’ve still got my finger on the pulse of…well, not current trends in popular music, but something. I know what I like, and I usually find plenty of stuff to listen to each year.

This year, it was a little tricky to come up with ten albums that I actually really liked. There were lots of disappointments for me (hello, Arcade Fire’s Reflektor), but I still managed to find ten albums I really enjoyed.

the-national-trouble-will-find-me-608x608-136871505110. The National, Trouble Will Find Me: This album didn’t feel as strong as High Violet, and there were plenty of songs that I feel just fell flat, but the songs that are good (“I Should Live in Salt,” “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” and “I Need My Girl” all jump immediately to mind) are really, really good. And the album works really well in a live setting, I can attest. I hate to use the term, but Trouble Will Find Me is one of those albums that’s just a grower. It honestly just gets better with every listen. Even just in the few months this album has been out, I’ve already found a half dozen tracks on it that I absolutely love. In time, as with all other albums by the National, I’m sure it’ll be one of my favorites and something I put on all the time.

NEWWEST62729. Steve Earle & the Dukes (and Duchesses), The Low Highway: This album mines the same vein of Americana Steve Earle’s dug in to for the past several albums, but I’m not complaining. I mean, why fix what ain’t broke? There’s still plenty of mileage left in what he’s doing here, if you ask me. I really wish more country musicians would go this route, mining not just country but folk and other branches of American music for their inspiration (because, seriously, the dudebro country that’s so popular right now really, really needs to go away and never come back. I don’t care how many parties you’ve been to down at the ol’ swimmin’ hole; country music can have way more depth than that, dudebros).

SheAndHimVolume3Details8. She & Him, Volume 3: This album finds M. Ward and Zoey Deschannel in fine form (actually, much better form than the mediocre Volume 2 from a few years ago), and Zoey’s vocals much stronger and more interesting than last time around. The songs are by turns bright, bouncy, and bittersweet, and the duo prove there’s still plenty of good stuff in the tank. “I’ve Got Your Number, Son,” is one of the most infectious slices of pop songcraft I’ve heard in absolute ages, and it’s just fun to listen to, and just about every single track is jam-packed with retro-style arrangements and good, old-fashioned pop songs that you can’t help but bop along to. The world needs more fun music, if you ask me.

billiejoenorah-13848753357. Billy Joe + Norah, Foreverly: Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day and Norah Jones doing duet covers of old Everly Brothers tunes? Who thought this was a good idea? And where can I find them, so I can shake their hand and tell them they were right? Holy crap, I wouldn’t have given you ten to one odds this would’ve worked, but it totally does. The two of them have voices that meld together well, and the playing is understated but effective. These are simple songs from a bygone age (I’m not about to call it a simpler time, because that’s just stupid), and the duo give the songs a reverence, a sense of awe and beauty and wonder that you don’t get to hear all that often in contemporary music. It’s in sharp contrast to the bright bubblegum retro styling of She & Him, but coming from a similar love of the classics.

81MlMGCPEwL._SL1500_6. Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, The More I Love You: As Neko Case becomes harder and harder to classify musically, the more I find myself enjoying her work. Sure, there’s something to be said for those early hard-driving alt-country albums, but her last three records have become increasingly impossible to pin down, and she seems to revel in the violation of genre conventions. And damn, can that woman sing. “Man” is a fast-paced, exciting song that I find dangerous to drive to (unless you’re okay with doing 90 mph down the highway), while other tracks like “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” are slower, more-thoughtful ruminations on filial relations and how those can really screw us up. Like, really screw us up.

The-Flaming-Lips-THE-TERROR-1024x10245. The Flaming Lips, The Terror: This album lives up to its title. Full of jittery, nervous tunes, a dark sense of foreboding, and lyrics that are something like the sinister flipside to Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, The Terror leaves you feeling ill at ease. But it’s also a damn good set of songs, which is to be expected from a group that’s been going for about thirty years and shows no sign of slowing down or settling into a rut. While I didn’t enjoy this album as much as Yoshimi or At War With the Mystics, it’s still a solid offering, and one that I’m likely to return to somewhere down the line, when I’m more comfortable with getting creeped out and unnerved by music. It, um, might be awhile, though.

b4b022387dd2106b3d93a5485957a599_large4. Toad the Wet Sprocket, New Constellation: Holy cow, a Toad the Wet Sprocket album? Is it the ’90s again? I wouldn’t have thought this would happen, but they did a Kickstarter campaign and funded their first new album in 16 years. What’s interesting is that they managed to sound like Toad without sounding like they were frozen in carbonite back in the late ’90s. Instead, they sound like they kept playing in those intervening years and kept growing and developing as a band, and this is the record they happened to put out. It’s pretty great. There are lots of achingly beautiful songs, Glen Phillips sounds just as good as he ever did, and the band sound like they never broke up. It’s really everything you could possibly want out of a Toad the Wet Sprocket album in 2013.

Paul-McCartney-NEW-Deluxe-Edition3. Paul McCartney, NEW: Seriously, is this just the year of guys you thought were done doing anything interesting surprising you? ‘Cause I wouldn’t have thought a latter-day McCartney album would be anything to write home about. Sure, some of his stuff in the past decade and a half has been good (I loved Run Devil Run, and Flaming Pie certainly had its moments, but Memory Almost Full? Driving Rain? Ugh), but to come across a McCartney album this good, this vital, this current, in 2013? If you’d told me about it ten years ago, I’d’ve called you a liar. And then asked you how you’d managed to time travel to 2003. But you get the point: the album’s title isn’t just laziness, it’s a declaration of artistic relevance as McCartney settles into his 70s. There are musicians out there in their 20s who aren’t being as creative as this guy is right now, and that’s damned impressive. McCartney always seemed to rely more on craft than anything else, but this album shows he’s willing to learn some new tricks and move with the times a bit, all while remaining resolutely Paul McCartney.

JR_TBIIT_Digipack_F2. Josh Ritter, The Beast in its Tracks: I wasn’t so fond of So Runs the World Away when it came out. I thought it was overproduced and a little too thick with layered instrumentation. This album feels like a direct response to such criticism. It’s much more stripped-down, with a greater focus on guitar rather than piano, and a bunch of songs that apparently detail the collapse of Ritter’s marriage. None of that matters, though, because it’s probably his best overall set of songs in years, with its fair share of wit, warmth, sadness, and cleverness, all wrapped up in arrangements that aren’t too busy or too fussy. It’s exactly what I want out of a Josh Ritter album.

Unknown1. Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series, Volume 10: Another Self Portrait: What do you get when you put together a few dozen outtakes and alternate versions of songs from one of Dylan’s most controversial (even reviled) albums? Um, a great freakin’ collection, that’s what. While Self Portrait is overwrought and undercooked, possibly purposefully so, this collection reveals the bones of the work, often just Dylan with a guitar, and it’s a fascinating look at what he was trying to accomplish in the early ’70s. That the collection also contains tracks from what became New Morning (a much better-received album that Self Portrait, though really of a kind with it in many ways) and some live stuff with the Band only makes this one of the best things I’ve heard all year.

Top 25 Most-Played Songs of 2013

Another year, another reset of the play count on my iPod.  Let’s see what songs I couldn’t get out of my head in 2013, shall we?

25. Iron & Wine, “Hard Times Come Again No More” (15 plays): One of the few songs I haven’t been able to find through legitimate means in many, many years, it’s a damn fine cover of an old tune from the Civil War era. If Iron & Wine were making whole albums as good as this one song, I wouldn’t have found Ghost on Ghost so boring.

24. R.E.M., “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” (16 plays): I will admit, I listened to this song about ten times last week when I drove to Rockville and bought a new guitar. Yes, I’m a nerd.

23. Tom Waits, “Long Way Home” (17 plays): It’s strange, but I first came to this song by way of the Norah Jones cover of it. I still have a particular fondness for that version, though Tom’s is pretty damn good, too.

22. The National, “You’ve Done it Again, Virginia” (19 plays): One of the few songs by the National I can almost sing (damn, his voice is low!) and actually play on the guitar.

21. Crosby, Stills, and Nash, “Southern Cross” (19 plays): I absolutely, 100% non-ironically love this song. It’s kind of the best.

20. The Rolling Stones, “Moonlight Mile” (20 plays): Because every playlist should include at least one song about heroin use? I dunno.

19. Owen Danoff, “Never Been Kissed” (20 plays): I backed this guy’s Kickstarter back in the summer, and I’m really excited for the full-length debut from him.

18. fun., “Some Nights (iTunes Session)” (20 plays): There are ways in which this version is superior to the original studio version, mostly because it hasn’t been autotuned to crap.

17. Placebo, “Every You Every Me” (21 Plays): You know what I didn’t listen to much in the ’90s? Nineties music. Know what I listen to quite a bit now? Nineties music. Go figure.

16. The National, “Afraid of Everyone” (21 plays): Even a few years after the fact, High Violet continues to surprise me and offer new, interesting things I missed the first time around. I dig this song a hell of a lot.

15. Colin Hay, “Beautiful World” (21 plays): I like acoustic songs about how life is, on the whole, kinda good. This one just makes me feel happy.

14. Alexi Murdoch, “All My Days” (21 plays): Yes, it’s that one song from that one commercial. Yes, that’s how I found the song. No, I don’t care how unhip that makes me. I enjoy what I enjoy, I guess.

13. XTC, “Stupidly Happy” (22 plays): As I mentioned on Twitter some time ago, if this song doesn’t make you feel that way, then I just don’t think we can be friends.

12. The Riveras, “California Sun” (22 plays): I happen to absolutely love surf music. And this song. Especially this song. It’s a great end-of-the-summer song.

11. The Clash, “Train in Vain (Stand by Me)” (22 plays): It’s the Clash. Do I really need to elaborate?

10. The Avett Brothers, “Shame” (23 plays): I figured this one out on the guitar and love singing it, even if that bridge is weird and kinda throws me off every time.

9. Wilco, “Summer Teeth” (25 plays): I’m half-convinced this song is about a serial killer, but I can’t prove it. Or a schizophrenic suffering from visual hallucinations. One of those two things is going on in this song, and it’s this huge slap of cognitive dissonance when it’s such a sunny, peppy tune.

8. Dave Edmunds, “I Hear You Knocking” (25 plays): I’m a sucker for this song and its guitar riff. English blues-rock at its best, I say.

7. Rilo Kiley, “Silver Lining” (27 plays): I know Under the Black Light wasn’t the greatest Rilo Kiley album, and I know the guitar riff is ripped almost note for note from “My Sweet Lord,” but I love this song.

6. Neil Young & the Stray Gators, “Bad Fog of Loneliness” (27 plays): Over the summer, I read the 33 1/3 book on the recording of Neil Young’s Harvest. In many ways, the book was awful, especially since the guy writing it didn’t even seem to like the album, but it did bring this song to my attention, so I guess the whole thing wasn’t so bad.

5. Young Dubliners, “Last House on the Street” (29 plays): A band my uncle used to be in played this song at gigs all the time when I was in college, and it took me years to track the damn thing down. Turns out, it’s not available digitally, but you can still find a used copy of the EP it was originally released on over at Amazon for, like, two bucks. Worth it.

4. Dan Auerbach, “Trouble Weighs a Ton” (29 plays): I think this song was on last year’s list, but I’m way too lazy to actually check. It’s still a damn fine song, regardless.

3. Churchill, “Ark in a Flood” (29 plays): My brother introduced me to this band. They feature a mandolin quite prominently in their otherwise fairly straightforward pop-rock songs.

2. Andrew Bird, “Orpheus Looks Back” (32 plays): Andrew Bird has quickly become one of my absolute favorite musicians. This song is a perfect example of why.

1. Golden Smog, “Until You Came Along” (36 plays): And here we arrive at the song I listened to more than any other in 2013. It’s a fun sing-along, and there’s nothing better than cruising down the highway with the windows open and the radio blaring a song like this at high volume.

So, what did you all listen to in 2013?

Weekend Update #39 – Nostalgia Trip

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When I heard this line earlier this year, it really struck me. It’s a bit of nostalgia, a bit of longing for things that might’ve been, maybe even a bit of regret for chances not taken, roads not traveled. Am I the only one who feels this way? Probably not. I can’t imagine that I could be.

And I feel rather nostalgic and maybe even a bit melancholy and sad now. Because there are people I once thought the world of, who were basically my world, and I never get to talk to them anymore. I never get to see them. People I considered family whom I only know through Facebook posts of pictures of their children and political views I sometimes agree with and sometimes find baffling or even abhorrent. There was a time when these people were my world, and now I’m too wrapped up in myself or too afraid to reach out to even have a conversation. It’s like a crippling, paralyzingly fear, knowing there are people you love whose voices you’ll probably never hear again, whose faces you’ll only see in pixels on a computer screen.

And now I feel old and sad. Way to be a bummer on a weekend, Charlie boy.

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 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).

Holy Crap, the Music!

I’m something of a music fanatic (as anyone who’s been around me for any more than five minutes is probably aware), and looking at the upcoming releases for the next few months has be extremely excited.

And with good reason: new releases from She & Him, The Walkmen, Band of Horses, The National, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Josh Ritter, Jakob Dylan, The Hold Steady, The New Pornographers, Ra Ra Riot…it’s like a season of music specially-designed to make me happy. The only thing that could make the next few months of new releases better would be if Bob Dylan announced he had a new one coming out, too.