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?

Why Glen Phillips is Responsible for me Liking Good Music

Remember the band Toad the Wet Sprocket? Damn, did I love those guys in high school. And college. And graduate school. And even still today, if we’re being totally honest. In fact, I recently backed their Kickstarter campaign for the new album they recorded (got the digital download just the other day. It’s quite good, in fact).

But this isn’t really about them.

After they broke up, the lead singer, Glen Phillips, embarked on a quiet, stripped down solo career. He released a string of subtle, beautiful albums that I still listen to even today.

And he’s the reason I listen to Wilco and Greg Brown.

See, on his first solo album, Abulum, he had a song that featured the line, “And it’s sadly sweet/Like a Wilco song.” I’m highly susceptible to musical suggestion, it turns out, so I decided to give these Wilco guys a listen. I started with the (then) most-recent album they’d put out, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

So yeah, I was sorta hooked from that point forward.

Wilco led me to Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt. Those led me to other alt-country bands, like the Jayhawks and Whiskeytown. That led to Ryan Adams (maybe we shouldn’t pursue that thread too far). So it’s fair to say that a good chunk of the music I love can be directly traced to that one line in that one Glen Phillips song.

As for the Greg Brown connection, Phillips did a cover of “Small Dark Movies” on his Live at Largo album, and that song got its hooks into me deep. The Greg Brown album that song came from originally, Further In, still cracks my head open and pours my brains on the sidewalk every time I hear it. It’s just so damn perfect.

So I guess the point is this: you never know where a lyric might take you. You never know how you’ll gain access to a new band or a new album. If you stay open to it, you might find yourself falling down a pretty deep rabbit hole, and it can be a great trip.

Top 5 Desert Island Discs

It’s a question that’s been asked since we first figured out how to record sound onto physical media for later playback: if you were stranded on a desert island and could only have five albums to listen to for the rest of your life, what would they be?

Now, admittedly, in the age of the iPod and cloud-based computing, this is maybe a slightly less relevant question than it once was. However, it’s still a fun exercise, and one I have given much thought to over the past few days. It doesn’t hurt that I watched High Fidelity Friday night.

Anyway, my top five, desert island discs are, in no particular order:

"And no one is ever gonna change my life for me/I lay it down/A ghost is born, a ghost is born, a ghost is born"1. Wilco, A Ghost is Born: This may not be the best Wilco album (an honor that still goes to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or maybe SummerTeeth), but it’s my favorite. It’s one of those records I can listen to over and over and never get tired of it (well, except for maybe “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “Less Than You Think”). Plus, every time I hear that record, I hear something new in the songs. That’s something worth taking to a desert island.

"Hey, ho, rock 'n' roll/Deliver me from nowhere!"2. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska: Atypical of the Boss’s albums in terms of style and arrangement, but Nebraska is (I think) the essence of Springsteen’s songwriting boiled down and stripped of all unnecessary elements. It’s just his voice, his guitar, and occasionally a harmonica. It’s just the bare soul of the songs, and you really connect with the tunes on this album in a way you can’t with some of his more elaborate, bombastic stuff with the E Street Band. I know folks toss around words like “haunting” a lot for records like this, but it’s applicable. And it’s not like there’s a single bad song on the record, either: “Atlantic City” is a fatalistic yet somehow still optimistic look at struggling through a rough economy, “Open All Night” is a fun, goofy rockabilly number, and “Reason to Believe” is at times warm, at times sad, and at times jubilant. This is Bruce’s best storytelling album, hands down.

"Why, tell me why, did you not treat me right?/Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight."3. The Beatles, Rubber Soul: It’s hard not to just pick all Beatles albums for this (and even then, it’s hard to just pick five), but if I had to narrow it down to a single Beatles record for the rest of my days, it’d probably have to be this one. It’s the Beatles at the peak of their early career, transitioning into the headier themes of the second half of their arc. You start to get a bit of the experimentation that was to come (“Norwegian Wood” and its sitar, for instance), but you still have just really well-crafted, fun pop songs, too. I think I’d have to have the version of the album with the false start on “I’m Looking Through You,” just because it’s always interesting to think of the Beatles as fallible.

"And that wasn't the opening line/It was the tenth or the twelfth/Make of that what you will."4. AC Newman, Get Guilty: I would listen to this guy sing the phonebook, I think, because he just writes such damn catchy songs. This would be the album I’d have to spin to remind myself that, while I might be stuck on a desert island, life is still pretty damn good. Also, maybe I could finally take the time to figure out what the hell it is, exactly, that he’s singing about. It’s the newest album in this group, admittedly, but it’s one that I listened to a dozen or so times in the first few months that I had it, and I never seem to get tired of songs like “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer” or “Elemental.” Alternately, I could swipe this out for the New Pornographer’s Twin Cinema, which is essentially more AC Newman goodness with Neko Case singing a bunch (and that’s always awesome).

"I started out on burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff/Everybody said they'd stand behind me when the game got rough."5. Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited: Selecting a single Dylan album to take is, much like the case with the Beatles, very difficult. But if you have to go with just one, this is the album to go with. From the pistolshot crack of that first snare on “Like a Rolling Stone” to the honky tonk piano of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and the wailing harmonica outro on the epic “Desolation Row,” it’s an album unlike anything else in his catalog, and there’s just not a bad song on it (well, maybe “Queen Jane Approximately,” but that’s less bad and more just kinda boring). Plus, I’d have that police whistle thing from the title track to keep me company on those lonely nights on the island.

It’s hard making a list like this. On another day, it might’ve included Van Morrison’s Moondance (or Tupelo Honey), or the Avett Brothers’ Emotionalism, or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedos! (yes, the exclamation mark is necessary and part of the title), or Pink Floyd’s Meddle, or…well, you get the idea. This isn’t easy.

But, dear reader, what would your top 5 desert island discs be? Let me know in the comments section!

The Minus 5 – Down With Wilco

Yet another of my old album reviews, this time for a Minus 5 record. Man, I need to go listen to this one again.

I bought this CD expecting it to be, essentially, a Wilco album with a couple of extra guys involved. In that respect, I was sorely disappointed–this is not a Wilco album, it’s a Minus 5 album on which Wilco play most of the instruments. But that’s not a bad thing, I discovered, because the Minus 5’s Down With Wilco is an album of many pleasures in its own right.

Sonically, the best way to describe Minus 5 is that they’re a hybrid of the Beach Boys, Village Green Preservation Society-era Kinks, the Byrds, and Neil Young. The melodies are lilting and infectious, the guitars range from gently-strummed acoustics to chimming twelve strings and Neil Young-esque electrics, and the harmonies sound very much as though the head of this project (a man named Scott McCaughey) has a huge Beach Boy fetish.

And he does–several of the songs display a Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson type of arrangement, utilizing Wilson’s modular techniques and a wide range of instrumentation. Wilco provides most of the musicians for the set, but they tend to accommodate rather than forcing him and Peter Buck (of REM, who is also a key figure in this project. A few words about the “group”–it’s the side project of Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck, and they just have a rotating cast of supporting musicians. This time around, they hooked up with Wilco) to bend to their sound.

The most entertaining aspect of this record is the loose, free feeling of the music. Everything is tongue-in-cheek, everyone is wearing a smile while they play. You can hear it. There’s a feeling of whimsy and playfulness in this record that’s usually missing from Wilco’s very serious albums. While Wilco is still a great band (and one of my current favorites, as I might’ve mentioned), they don’t often crack smiles.

All of the tracks on this collection are winners. The opener, “The Days of Wine and Booze,” is an ode to loss and regret, a commitment to remember the old times, whether they were good or bad. “Retrieval of You” is a fairly straightforward song on paper–a man who lost the woman he loves because she became a pop star. But with its jaunty tune and laugh-out-loud funny lyrics (“They call me DJ Minimart, ’cause that’s where I work”), it rises above its basic premise. “The Town that Lost its Groove Supply” tells you everything you need to know in the title–witty, humorous, bouncy, and just plain fun. “I’m Not Bitter,” the most Wilco-sounding track on the collection, has a chanted call-and-response chorus of the phrase “I’m not bitter” over and over again, as though the narrator were trying to convince himself or his audience (you’re never sure which). The album closes with “Dear Employer (The Reason I Quit),” a Dear John letter to one’s place of employment that is both humorous and bittersweet.

But really, there’s not a bad song on the album. McCaughey is an excellent lyricist, and Wilco rises to the occasion musically and vocally. Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s frontman, doesn’t take lead vocal duties often (only once exclusively, on “Family Gardener”), but provides excellent backing and harmony vocals throughout to McCaughey’s lead vocals.

Overall, the Minus 5’s Down With Wilco is an excellent, well-crafted album that takes a familiar band and casts them in a slightly different light. The result is one of the more enjoyable and cohesive albums I’ve listened to in a long time, and that’s saying something for a side project.

Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue, Volume 1

I continue scavenging my own body of work for fun things to repost here. Have another album review, written sometime back in 2003, I believe, when I was but a poor graduate student.

It seems like a bad idea on the face of it–take a bunch of unused Woody Guthrie song lyrics and let a couple of contemporary musicians set them to music and record them. God only knows what sort of crap you’ll get–either stuff that tries too hard to be Guthrie and fails, or stuff that completely ignores Guthrie and fails.

But what we ended up with isn’t either of those. No, what we got is absolutely wonderful, 15 songs of absolute majesty, humor, warmth, wit, anger, and acute insight into not only the mind of one of American music’s most important songwriters, but a glimpse of the America he lived in and how that America was the same as and different from the America of his dreams. What we got is Mermaid Avenue.

The songs on this album (and its second volume, released a couple of years later) all used lyrics Woody Guthrie wrote from the late 1940s until his death in 1967. Guthrie himself stopped performing after about 1950 due to a neurological disease, but he kept writing until he died. In the early 1960s, he offered the lyrics to a young Bob Dylan, who initially took him up on the offer but was never able to get them from Guthrie’s wife (Dylan made mention of this in his excellent memoir Chronicles, Volume 1). Instead, almost forty years down the road, Guthrie’s daughter offered the lyrics to Billy Bragg, who promptly called up alt-country heroes Wilco and got down to picking out fifteen absolute gems for this record.

The album opens with the drunken sea shanty “Walt Whitman’s Niece,” a sly and raucous song about two drunken sailors in search of comfort and whores (there’s really no more polite way to phrase it, honest). It just gets better from there. Guthrie had a knack for capturing very human portraits in his music and for crafting wonderful images in his short, economical lyrical style.

The songs are divyed up between Bragg and Wilco, each taking a turn fronting the song (which means you’ve got either Bragg or Jeff Tweedy singing, essentially, though there’s one tune where Natalie Merchant takes the lead vocal to great effect). Each partner in this endeavour came up with music for a particular set of lyrics–Bragg was responsible for songs like “Walt Whitman’s Niece” and “Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key,” while Wilco did duty on “California Stars” and “Christ for President.” Each partner brought a different style and aesthetic to their songs, but the overall effect is very pleasing and very consistent. Bragg’s numbers tend to be more universal and enjoyable, though Wilco turns the children’s song “Hoodoo Voodoo” into a bright, cheerful sing-along. Wilco’s contributions, while not slouchy in any way, just aren’t as timeless as Bragg’s, and seem very much a part of the moment they were written in (you can hear that Wilco is between their Being There and SummerTeeth albums).

This is an album of wonderful gems of songs. “Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key” is a funny, dirty song about a young man in Okfuskee County (home of Okemah, Oklahoma, Guthrie’s home town) who convinces a young lady to go off with him into the woods to a “holler tree” (that’s “hollow tree” for those of you who don’t speak Okie) and take off her shirt by telling her that, yes, he may be ugly, but “there ain’t nobody who can sing like me.” “Christ for President” is a reminder that, while Guthrie was a Christian and a man of fairly traditional values, he was also a leftist who thought that big business and the government were ruining the country and perhaps America would be better if it followed true Christian values, starting with tossing the ol’ moneychangers out of the Temple.

Mermaid Avenue is a rousing, eclectic collection of excellent songs. It’s a reminder of Guthrie’s breadth and depth as a writer, and a fitting tribute to one of the icons of American music. But this is no mere tribute album; rather, it’s a true collaboration–lyrics from Guthrie, and music that makes no attempt to mimic or imitate Guthrie’s musical style from Bragg and Wilco. But even without attempting to sound like Guthrie in their playing, the partners manage to invoke Guthrie’s spirit and power in their music. It sounds nothing like the sort of songs Guthrie himself wrote, but you can feel his energy pulsing through these songs nonetheless. And that’s the greatest thing about the record–Bragg and Wilco’s contributions don’t feel grafted on, nor do Guthrie’s lyrics feel like they were crammed into existing melodies in some shoddy, half-assed effort to make money off a dead man. No, this is real collaboration across forty years’ time, and it works. I can’t wait to go pick up Volume 2 next paycheck.

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!

Albums of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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