Sunday, November 14, 2021


 2020 was the year that I made the transition from buying CDs (I've bought two this year) to listening to music almost exclusively via streaming.  It's scrambled my brain a bit, to be honest.  I've had to force myself to dedicate time to listening to full albums, because it's so enticing to come up with another playlist; another quest for the perfect segue between songs.  There are albums on the list below where I can't remember a single song.  That's not great, obviously - so for my 2021 sidebar list, I'm going to include only those albums that truly sunk in, that I've gone back to on a regular basis.  

The 2020 list:

  • Starting Over - Chris Stapleton
  • Generations - Will Butler
  • Hey Clockface - Elvis Costello
  • Love is the King - Jeff Tweedy
  • Uncivil War - Shemekia Copeland
  • On My Own - Lera Lynn
  • Letter to You - Bruce Springsteen
  • Serpentine Prison - Matt Berninger
  • Cuttin' Grass, Vol. 1 - Sturgill Simpson
  • Speed, Sound, Lonely kv (EP) - Kurt Vile
  • Good Luck With Whatever - Dawes
  • As Long As You Are - Future Islands
  • Alone Together Sessions - Hayes Carll
  • The New OK - Drive-By Truckers
  • What Is There - Delta Spirit
  • Aftermath - Elizabeth Cook
  • Hearts Town - The War and Treaty
  • Daughter - Lydia Loveless
  • The Ascension - Sufjan Stevens
  • Shore - Fleet Foxes
  • Long Violent History - Tyler Childers
  • Shallow Graves - India Ramey
  • Blackbirds - Bettye Lavette
  • Die Midwestern - Arlo McKinney
  • The Beautiful Madness - Jerry Joseph
  • Twelfth - Old 97's
  • Total Freedom - Kathleen Edwards
  • Xoxo - The Jayhawks
  • The Dirt and the Stars - Mary Chapin Carpenter
  • Such Pretty Forks in the Road - Alanis Morrisette
  • Made of Rain - The Psychedelic Furs
  • The Balladeer - Lori McKenna
  • Old Flowers - Courtney Marie Andrews
  • folklore - Taylor Swift
  • Hate for Sale - Pretenders
  • The Waterfall II - My Morning Jacket
  • Gaslighter - The Chicks
  • All the Good Times - Gillian Welch, David Rawlings
  • That's How Rumors Get Started - Margo Price
  • What's Your Pleasure? - Jessie Ware
  • On the Road: A Tribute to John Hartford
  • Women in Music Part III - HAIM
  • No Dream - Jeff Rosenstock
  • Homegrown - Neil Young
  • Rough and Rowdy Ways - Bob Dylan
  • Punisher - Phoebe Bridgers
  • Built to Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston
  • Self Made Man - Larkin Poe
  • Introduction, Presence - Nation of Language
  • All Visible Objects - Moby
  • World on the Ground - Sarah Jarosz
  • Dreaming Again - Lizzy Long
  • RTJ4 - Run the Jewels
  • Spider Tales - Jake Blount
  • Folk 'n Roll Vol. 1 - J.S. Ondara
  • A Different War - Daniela Cotton and the Church Boys
  • Danzig Sings Elvis
  • Neon Cross - Jaime Wyatt
  • Tessy Lou Williams
  • Dedicated Side B - Carly Rae Jepsen
  • Chromatica - Lady Gaga
  • Cold Water - Medhane
  • Copy That - Sara Evans
  • how i'm feeling now - Charli XCX
  • Going to the Movies - Mark Fredson
  • Reunions - Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
  • Beautiful and Strange - Chelsea Williams
  • Bad Luck - Sylvia Rose Novak
  • The Way It Feels - Maddie & Tae
  • Invisible People - Chicano Batman
  • We Still Go to Rodeos - Whitney Rose
  • Alphabetland - X
  • Future Nostalgia - Dua Lipa
  • Lamentations - American Aquarium
  • Walking Proof - Lilly Hiatt
  • Fetch the Bolt Cutters - Fiona Apple
  • The New Abnormal - The Strokes
  • Mama's Biscuits - Kirby Heard
  • Never Will - Ashley McBryde
  • The Family Songbook - The Haden Triplets
  • Saint Cloud - Waxahatchee
  • Gigaton - Pearl Jam
  • Anybody Out There - Sadler Vaden
  • Your Life is a Record - Brandy Clark
  • Expectations - Katie Pruitt
  • The Dream - Hailey Whitters
  • Saturn Return - The Secret Sisters
  • Honeymoon - Beach Bunny
  • color theory - Soccer Mommy
  • Open Book - Kalie Shorr
  • Miss Anthropocene - Grimes
  • The Unraveling - Drive-By Truckers
  • County Squire - Tyler Childers

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Top Ten Albums of 2020

1. Fleet Foxes - Shore.  Over the years I've toyed around with the concept of what I call "Autumn Albums."  Not necessarily albums that were released in the fall, but ones with a signature sound that evokes the feel of the season.  Linda Ronstadt's Simple Dreams is an Autumn Album; I wrote about about it here (dear Lord, more than ten years ago now).  George Winston's Linus and Lucy: The Music of Vince Guaraldi is an Autumn album, as is Frank Sinatra's Where Are You?  Bruce Springsteen's The Ghost of Tom Joad is another, having been released two days before Thanksgiving in 1995.  Great albums all.  Autumn Albums.  When it comes to Autumn Albums, however, it's doubtful that anything that came before it or anything yet to come will ever match Shore.  Having been released at the exact moment of 2020's Autumnal Equinox, Shore literally is an Autumn Album.  

In and of itself, being the quintessential Autumn Album would not be enough to justify ranking it at #1.  What allows it to land here is the fact that from first cut to last, over the span of 54 minutes and 29 seconds, it is absolutely gorgeous music.  There isn't a weak cut or any filler on the entire album, and from day to day it's difficult to choose what is the album's best song.  Today I'd probably say "Thymia," tomorrow I might think it's "I'm Not My Season," and the day after that it could be "Maestranza."  And just keep repeating daily, adding a new track until you've fully absorbed the record.  Shore is only their fourth album over the course of twelve years, but it's their best.  A wonderful record.

2. Lilly Hiatt - Walking Proof.  Hiatt's previous work has all been excellent, but with Walking Proof she has fully developed a sound and approach that sounds unmistakably her own.  The album features great rockers ("Some Kind of Drug," which according to Spotify was the song I listened to more than any other in 2020, "P-Town") great mid-tempo ballads ("Rae," the title track, "Drawl", several others), and as the Pitchfork review put it, "winds through moments of incandescent joy, gentleness, cathartic noise, and even unease."  

3. Dua Lipa - Future Nostalgia.  I might have this one a little high, but then again I might not.  What I'm comfortable saying is that it reminds me a lot of Madonna's debut, and for me that's high praise indeed.  The album title was well calculated - the record would have sounded new and fresh in each of the past four decades, so you really can feel as if you're delving into nostalgia while wondering if this might just be the sound of the future.  And you can dance to it.

4. Letter to You - Bruce Springsteen.  Speaking of "future nostalgia."  If a couple of these songs sound as old as anything he's ever written, it's because they are - I've been hearing about "Janey Needs a Shooter" for more than 40 years now, and "If I Was the Priest" was one of the songs he sang in his audition for John Hammond all the way back in 1973.  And if one song in particular sounds transparently Dylanesque, well then Bruce can do anything he darn well pleases in this phase of his career.  And if you can have fun deciding which previous album each of these songs would best fit on, well that's OK too.  Overall, Letter to You is as good as anything he's recorded in this century, and better than at least some of the albums he recorded before then.  The E Street Band sounds as good as it ever has, Ron Aniello comes up with a beautiful sound, and "Ghosts" can stand proudly with any Bruce songs you might pick for your own personal pantheon.  It's that good.

5. The Unraveling - Drive-By Truckers.  In my January review of the album, I called it "relentless and unforgiving."  I also called it their bravest album.  They were depicting a world on The Unraveling that felt as if it were about to fall apart.  What we didn't know at the time is that it was.

6.  how i'm feeling now - Charli XCX.  Not surprisingly, there were numerous artists who released "pandemic albums" in 2020.  My favorite was Charli XCX's, because it was so obviously homemade, and perfectly conveyed the fractured nature of the year.  But at the same time, there were several tunes that were as catchy as anything she's ever recorded.  A fractured fairy tale.

7. Reunions - Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Even though I have this album rated lower than The Nashville Sound, the band's previous effort (which I tabbed as the best album of 2017), there's no question that Isbell grows as an artist with each succeeding effort.  The standout track is "What've I Done to Help," a 7-minute magnum opus that poignantly poses a question that we should probably all be asking ourselves right about now.  

8. Shallow Graves - India Ramey.  My favorite country music album of the year, from an artist I had not heard of when the year began.  She called the record a "post-apocalyptic western," and in sound it carries - especially on "The Witch" and "You and Me Against the World" - a sense of menace that would fit right in during Unforgiven or The Revenant. My favorite song is "Montgomery Behind Me," in which she leaves behind a town, a bad relationship and quite possibly the remains of someone who richly deserved his fate.  

9. Run the Jewels - RTJ4.  Not for the faint of heart.  Come to think of it, "relentless and unforgiving" would work as well as a description for RTJ$ as it did for DBT.  Robert Christgau, who gave the album a rare A+, wrote, "the gangsta sonics that power El-P and Killer Mike's inchoate aggressiveness will feel tonic to anyone with both an appetite for music and a political pulse (you can put me down for both).  The album closer, "a few words for the firing squad," matches in its intensity any music that I've heard in recent memory, and well beyond that.  The rest isn't far behind.

10. Sarah Jarosz - World on the Ground.  It wasn't easy to decide which album would fit into the final spot this year.  Jarosz is another artist with whom I was not familiar when the year began, but fortunately there are numerous online publications that focus on the broad category of "Americana."  The album was produced by John Leventhal, who I've criticized at times for softening the rough edges around his partner Rosanne Cash.  That's not the case here - the sound and the accompaniment are perfect for Jarosz' spare vision.

OK, so there it is, and now it's time to play Pazz & Jop - 100 points, divided among the 10 albums, with no more than 30 and no less than 5 awarded to any of them.

1. Fleet Foxes, Shore                                    20

2. Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof                        15

3. Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia                     13

4. Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You             12

5. Drive-By Truckers, The Unraveling        10

6. Charli XCX, how i'm feeling now             8

7. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Reunions      7

8. India Ramey, Shallow Graves                   5

9. Run the Jewels, RTJ4                                5

10. Sarah Jarosz, World on the Ground         5

And as alluded to above, narrowing the list to 10 this year was a bear.  Here are some of the albums that I hated to leave off (in alphabetical order):

Ashley McBryde, Never Will - Not quite at the level she showed on her debut, but still strong.

Beach Bunny, Honeymoon - "Promises" was right up there with my favorite songs of 2020.

Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways - The epic "Murder Most Foul" was the song of the year.

Chris Stapleton, Starting Over - Country soul.  

Drive-By Truckers, The New OK - Cooley's "Sarah's Flame" right up there with his best.

Emma Swift, Blonde on the Tracks - Right up there with Bettye Lavette's as the best Dylan cover album.  Maybe women make the best Dylan covers?

HAIM, Women in Music Pt. III - Their strongest album yet.

Jayhawks, Xoxo - Still sounding great after all these years.

Kathleen Edwards, Total Freedom - A very nice comeback.

Lydia Loveless, Daughter - I feel like I've yet to fully plumb the depths of this one.

Ondara, Folk 'n Roll Vol. 1: Tales of Isolation - Addressing the isolation we've all felt over the past 11 months.

Soccer Mommy, Color Theory - An album that seemed to foresee the isolation we'd begin to feel a month after it's release.

Sylvia Rose Novak, Bad Luck - Ready for a fight.

Taylor Swift, Folklore, evermore - Don't ever underestimate a force of nature.

Coming soon (?), the songs of 2020.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

NFL Memories and "The Football Book"

 A few years ago, one of my Christmas "stocking stuffers" was a coffee table book on the history of the NFL.  Cleverly titled "The Football Book" and published by Sports Illustrated in 2006, the book includes article excerpts from several of the great football writers who graced the pages of SI, including Paul Zimmerman, Peter King, Dan Jenkins and Michael Silver, as well as the great feature writers George Plimpton, Gary Smith, Frank Deford, and S.L. Price.  The book also includes Dr. Z's (how Zimmerman was known to his biggest fans) indispensable All-Decade Team choices, which are guaranteed to be the perfect argument starter. 

But as good as the writing is, the highlight of the book is the photography, which shouldn't come as a shock given that the "Illustrated" part of SI was always key to its enormous success.  The photograph at left was taken by Neil Leifer, who, over the course of a career that spanned several decades, earned the right to be called a legend.  It's a wonderful photo that evokes both the effort and grace that is involved in the game of football, but is also evocative of the atmosphere at Lambeau Field, longtime home of the Green Bay Packers.

What made this photo of particular interest to me is that it comes from the first NFL game that I have a memory of watching.  The game was played on Saturday, December 7 in 1968 (the year the Colts went 13-1, and were then upset by the Joe Namath-led New York Jets in the Super Bowl).  My dad drove over to a friend's house to watch it, and for some reason brought me with him.  I'm not exactly sure why I remember all this, but that's the strange way my mind works sometimes.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Albums of the Year: Finalists

With the help of Spotify, there's no question that I listened to more new music this year than ever before.  On the one hand, that's a great thing.  On the other, it did make me wonder if there was such a thing as "too much music."  It's my own fault, but I found myself too often reaching for the shiny new object (i.e. that week's new releases), and not spending enough time doing a deep dive into those albums which I enjoyed the most.

By the end of the year, I think I'd figured it out.  But there are still going to be a lot of 2020 albums that end up on my "subjects for further research" list.  

This list is the list from which my year-end Top Ten will come.  That will be, and this is a promise that will be kept, sometime during the holiday break - and definitely sometime before year's end.

My picks for the best of 2020, with further refinement to come:

Ashley McBryde, Never Will

Beach Bunny, Honeymoon

Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways

Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You

Charli Xcx, how i'm feeling now

Chris Stapleton, Starting Over

Courtney Marie Andrews, Old Flowers

Drive-By Truckers, The Unraveling

Drive-By Truckers, The New OK

Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia

Emma Swift, Blonde on the Tracks

Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fleet Foxes, Shore

HAIM, Women in Music Pt. III

India Ramey, Shallow Graves

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Reunions

Jayhawks, Xoxo

Kathleen Edwards, Total Freedom

Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof

Lydia Loveless, Daughter

Ondara, Folk 'n Roll Vol. 1: Tales of Isolation

Run the Jewels, RTJ4

Sarah Jarosz, World on the Ground

Soccer Mommy, Color Theory

Sylvia Rose Novak, Bad Luck

Taylor Swift, Folklore

Taylor Swift, evermore

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Summer 2020 Album Diary: "Either/Or," Elliott Smith (1997)

"Either/Or" is enjoyable enough as music, but it's impossible to separate the album from the circumstances of the artist who created it.

For anyone unfamiliar with Elliott Smith, he died in 2003 from two stab wounds to the chest, and it doesn't appear to have ever been fully determined whether it was suicide or homicide.  His life had not been an easy one.

A lot of the album is reminiscent of some of Sufjan Stevens' work, but after a couple of listens I'm not sure it's anywhere as musically interesting.  The standout track is "Cupids Trick," which takes the same general approach but adds a dash of mystery to the proceedings (not to mention some additional instrumentation).

Monday, July 06, 2020

Summer 2020 Album Diary: "The Belle Album," Al Green (1977)

When Greil Marcus reviewed The Belle Album for Rolling Stone in late 1977, he wrote "...we may someday look back on The Belle Album as Al Green's best..."  After more than half a decade of hit singles (and outstanding albums) that one could rightly call "legendary" without engaging in hyperbole, that was a heady claim to make.  There were no hit singles from this one, and I honestly don't recall ever having heard any of the album's songs over the course of the 40+ years since its release.

The shocks I felt when listening to the album for the first time were all happy ones.  At first, it felt a little disorienting to hear synthesizer and clavinet on an Al Green record - this was the first album he recorded without longtime producer Willie Mitchell at the helm, and the first without the fantastic crew of Memphis musicians (Al Jackson Jr., Wayne Jackson, several others) who came to represent the "Al Green sound."  And then, lo and behold, there's Al Green himself playing a quite mean acoustic guitar!

And when the album's fourth song, "Georgia Boy," rolled around I realized that it was simply foolish to have waited so long to dive into this one.  This certainly fits my definition of a great album.  Whether it's his best, as Marcus speculated might be the case in 1977, is a question worth contemplating.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Summer of 2020 Album Diary: Pacific Ocean Blue, Dennis Wilson (1977)

The point of this project is to write, at least a little bit, about a notable album from the past that I've never listened to all the way through, until setting up a Spotify account.

Kicking off the series is Dennis Wilson's "Pacific Ocean Blue," released in the late summer of 1977.  It was the summer of Star Wars.  I was working six days a week at McDonald's, getting ready to begin my senior year of high school.  My musical tastes were beginning to expand a bit, mostly with the help of the Rolling Stone Records review section.  1977 was the year I bought my first albums by Talking Heads, Blondie, Ramones and Elvis Costello, but my purchases that year also included Hotel California, Rumours, Aja, and admittedly more than a few albums that are probably best categorized as "forgettable."

I almost bought this one. It received an excellent review in RS by Billy Altman, who called it "a wonderful and truly touching album."  Because I remember this sort of thing, I do remember picking it up in the record store, and perusing the packaging, and mulling it over.  For whatever reason, I never ended up walking out of the store with it.

Listening to it now is a bittersweet experience, because we know how his story ended - Brian would end up being the tortured Wilson brother with a happy ending, not Dennis.  But this is excellent work; you can really hear the promise behind Wilson's songs.  You can hear the influence of The Beach Boys, but this is not a Beach Boys record.  His gravelly voice has a lot of depth, and on songs like "Pacific Ocean Blues," "River Song," and "Rainbows," you can hear both artistic and commercial potential.  You can definitely hear why the album has gained supporters in the decades since its original release.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Albums of the Half Year: 2020

Here we are in July, which seems impossible.  There are times when I can't believe we're coming up on four months since the shutdown began; other times it feels as if the time has flown by.  My hair is the longest it's been in my entire life.  We celebrated my 60th birthday in April, but needless to say the big party we were planning never quite got off the ground.  If it's possible to have a daily out-of-body experience, that's what the first six months of 2020 felt like.

That feeling could be applied to the year in music as well.  The year that is now half over has seen the biggest change in my music listening habits since the mid-1980s, when the vinyl record bins in music stores began to make way for the CD racks.  I'd already started buying a lot fewer CDs in the months leading up to 2020, for the simple reason that most of the record stores (yeah, I still call them that) in Sacramento have closed up shop.  With the exception of a handful of CDs I bought in the Fall, most of my purchases were MP3 purchases, which went straight into the hard drive and the iPod.

In February, at the urging of my sons, I finally made the leap to the streaming world, and signed up for a premium Spotify account.  The floodgates opened, and haven't closed since.  Accustomed to physical media that can be held onto, it's been strange.  On the one hand, I haven't bought a single CD since the year began.  On the other hand, I've listened to more music in the past six months than, quite possibly, any other time in my entire life.  There are times when the sheer volume of availability is overwhelming - what should be listened to today?  An old Joni Mitchell or Beach Boys album that I've never heard all the way through, or the new releases by Run the Jewels or Bob Dylan?  Or maybe the incredible quarantine playlist from Questlove, which then just sends me down another deep rabbit hole?  But if you're going to have a problem, then I suppose this is a good one to have.

By my count, I've listened, at least once, to 45 newly released albums all the way through.  Quite a few of those are records that demand greater attention, and may very well end up in a year-end Top Ten.  But for now, I've selected twelve albums that stand above the rest.  When, God willing, we look back on this time from a space of normalcy, these are the ones that I'll remember for speaking to the moment.

In alphabetical order:

Honeymoon, Beach Bunny.  Sounding like the GoGos filtered through "Rocket to Russia," this has been my go-to album when a respite from the real world was most needed.  The hook-to-minute ratio is off the charts.

how i'm feeling now, Charli XCX.  Recorded entirely in quarantine, revealing once again that with this artist, there is a lot to be found under the surface.

The Unraveling, Drive-By Truckers.  When I wrote about this album in February, I called it their bravest yet.  Little did I know how prescient it would be.  

Rough and Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan.  His first album of original tunes since 2012, and worth the wait.  He gave us a taste in the early spring with the almost 17-minute "Murder Most Foul," a musical chameleon - it can be anything you want it to be (sort of like Dylan himself).  The rest of the album doesn't quite stand up to that lofty standard, and it will take me a while to fully figure it out, but for now I'm comfortable saying that it's somewhere between "very good" and "epic."

Walking Proof, Lilly Hiatt.  Trinity Lane, her last, was outstanding - but Walking Proof is a quantum leap above anything she's ever done.  The entire record is instilled with a sense of confidence on every song - it's probably my #1 album of the year, so far.

Reunions, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.  He and his band just keep getting better and better.  And without question, the absolute funniest musical artist to be found on Twitter.

World on the Ground, Sarah Jarosz.  It's hard for me to describe what it is that I find so appealing about this record - there's something about the music that just feels filled with mystery.  

Future Nostalgia, Dua Lipa.  It may be going too far to call this one of the best dance records since Madonna's debut, but then again, it may not be.

Bad Luck, Sylvia Rose Novak.  Country punk?  Outlaw country?  Americana rock?  Call it what you will, but it's a great album.  

Folk 'n Roll Vol. 1, J.S. Ondara.  Armed with a great backstory, Ondara has written the diary of the first two months of the quarantine, right up until May 25.  Here's hoping that Vol. 2 deals with the aftermath of that dark day.

RTJ4, Run the Jewels. Quoting Robert Christgau here, who gave the album an A+: "Who knows whether this would feel so right absent a historical moment when trying to distinguish rage slavery from righteous anger is a waste of emotional wisdom?  With trap on its opiated treadmill, the gangsta sonics that power El-P and Killer Mike's inchoate aggressiveness will feel tonic to anyone with both an appetite for music and a political pulse."

Color Theory, Soccer Mommy.  An emotional maelstrom, from the very first chords.

And what the heck, here's a few Honorable Mentions that could find their way closer to the top before this dumpster fire of a year is over: Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers; Danzig Sings Elvis; Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple; Saint Cloud, Waxahatchee; Women in Music Part III, HAIM; Chromatica, Lady Gaga; Invisible People, Chicano Batman; Never Will, Ashley McBride; Homegrown, Neil Young; Lamentations, American Aquarium; Gigaton, Pearl Jam; Open Book, Kalie Shorr; Saturn Return, The Secret Sisters; We Still Go to Rodeos; Whitney Rose; Your Life is a Record; Brandy Clark; Alphabetland, X.

Happy Summer, everyone.  Here's hoping the great sounds continue.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #2 - "Seasons (Waiting on You)," Future Islands

There have been a lot of great and/or memorable musical performances on late night television over the years - Elvis Costello beginning one song and then storming into "Radio, Radio" in December 1977, Patti Smith delivering a shattering performance of "Gloria" in April 1976.  More recently, there were incredible performances from Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar on SNL, and Billie Eilish just last year.

But however you rank the greatest late night TV performances, this one certainly has to be near the top of the list:

I think this is what they mean when they talk about leaving it all on the stage.  What makes the performance particularly notable is Letterman's reaction to it.  He was nearing the home stretch of his legendary late night career by this point, and on most nights was so grumpy and/or disinterested that it was difficult to watch.  But his visible joy following Samuel T. Herring's performance was in itself a joy to watch.

And well earned that joy was.  This is a great song, plain and simple, and one of those songs that sounds as exciting and fresh on listen #100 (or 200, 500...) as it did on first listen. 

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #2 - "Seasons (Waiting on You)," Future Islands.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #3 - "Slow Burn," Kacey Musgraves

I've commented on this phenomenon elsewhere, but every now and then, you hear a song for the first time and it just takes your breath away.  The chills run up your spine, and you just want to keep listening to the song over and over.  And when it's the first song on an album, sometimes it takes a while just to get to the second song.

"Slow Burn" is such a song.  When I heard it for the first time, I thought that Kacey Musgraves had captured the Holy Grail, creating a song that was not really country, not really pop, but transcended every category one could conceivably assign to it and reach a level that this artist - great as she has been over the course of three albums - had yet to achieve.

She will be around for a generation.  Let's just hope there is a music industry waiting for her when we emerge on the other side.

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #3 - "Slow Burn," Kacey Musgraves.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #4 - "Ya Hey," Vampire Weekend

Usually the first thing that grabs me with a song is the music, but on this one it was these lyrics, near the end of the song:

Outside the tents
On the festival grounds
As the air began to cool
And the sun went down
My soul swooned as
I faintly heard the sound
Of you spinning "Israelites"
into "19th Nervous Breakdown"

A little explanation be in order.  First of all, I've loved both "Israelites" and "19th Nervous Breakdown" since I was about 9 years old.  Second, I love to experiment with transitions between songs - so hearing that snippet was like giving candy to a baby.

There is also something about the easy lilt of this song that is irresistible.  For me, at least.

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #4 - "Ya Hey," Vampire Weekend.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #5 - "Songs She Sang in the Shower," Jason Isbell

Well, it's been 41 days since my last post.  Has anything happened during that time?

This isn't the place to write my thoughts about "the new normal," but that will be coming eventually.  For now, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen from his legendary 1978 show at the Roxy, "Y'all are just gonna have to settle for some rock 'n roll."

It's pretty funny to think that the original plan was to finish this Top 50 list before the New Year began.  But better late than never, a wise sage once said, so let's embark on the final stretch.

Clocking in at #5 is the estimable Jason Isbell, one-time Drive-By Trucker and current leader of a great band of his own, the 400 Unit.  The band's name alone is evidence of Isbell's humor, "400 Unit" being the nickname for the psychiatric ward of Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital in Florence, Alabama.  There may have been a time when Isbell wondered whether he might end up there himself, after having been fired by the Truckers for being a mean and angry drunk and by all accounts (including his own), an insufferable jerk.  But the best stories are ones of redemption, and Isbell recovered to the point where he was one of the best artists of the last decade.

I loved this song from the very first time I heard it.  And it has survived the test of being overplayed, and still sounds fresh (and at times, very funny, although it's certainly no comedy routine).  It's a perfect example of Isbell's ability to spin a yarn, and this is a great one.

"Songs She Sang in the Shower," Jason Isbell.  Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #5.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #6 - "FEEL." Kendrick Lamar

"Ain't nobody praying for me."

I've been struggling to come up with something profound to say about this song, which begins and ends with the line quoted above.  After a few failed attempts at profundity, the most important thought to leave you with is that it's the best song on an album that is a masterpiece.  It's really best to just listen, drink it all in, and think about what he is saying, and how he is saying it.

The one semi-cogent thought to leave you with is that, during the course of the song's 3:34 running time, Lamar achieves a level of intensity that represents the very best of what music can offer.

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #6 - FEEL., Kendrick Lamar.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #7 - "She's Not Me," Jenny Lewis

The Song

A Short Story, starring Jeff, Ron and Richard (and featuring Jenny Lewis)

I. A Hot July Night, 1973

"If you don't turn that radio off, we're never going to get this show rolling."

It's July 1973.  To be specific, it's the early morning hours of July 6, 1973.  A Friday morning, although as far as we're concerned it's still Thursday night, the night after the 4th of July, and it's really, really hot.  Too hot to sleep in my book, although Morte - Richard was his first name, but back then we all called each other by our last names - is snoring quietly behind us.

Nelson (Ron was his first name) is hot under the collar because he wants us to get to the task at hand, which is throwing toilet paper all over the big tree in the front yard of the house where Kirsten lives.  Kirsten is the girl that Nelson has a crush on, and what better way to demonstrate that by decorating her front tree with toilet paper?  All I can say is that it seemed perfectly reasonable at the time.

The three of us are laying on top of sleeping bags in this little section of green space between Ron's house and mine, and I've got my little Panasonic transistor radio pushed up against my right ear, trying to find the perfect volume - loud enough for me to hear, but not loud enough to wake up my mom and dad.  Their bedroom window isn't far from where we're "sleeping," and take my word for it, it would not be good if my dad had to come outside and tell us to knock it off and go to sleep.  It would be even worse if Ron's dad came out.  He wasn't anywhere near as nice as my dad.

"Why don't you start trying to wake Morte up, instead of bugging me?  There's only three songs left."

I was listening to "The After Midnight Countdown," as they called it, on KROY - 1240 AM on your radio dial. Anyone who lived in or around Sacramento in the Sixties and Seventies should remember KROY, will probably remember a few of their DJs.  Those guys (and yes, it was all guys in those days) didn't just play records - they were personalities...heck, they were legends, and everyone had their favorite.  Mine was Bob Sherwood, but coming in a close second was Chuck Roy.  Chuck was handling the countdown on this hot night, which was a little unusual; he was usually the 3-7 p.m. guy.  Always closed his show with "Treat," by Santana, talking over the first part of the song with a monologue that was sometimes hysterically funny, and sometimes somewhat philosophical.  I guess he was having to fill in for someone on vacation.  But Chuck was not the kind of guy who was going to mope around about having to work the midnight shift on the hottest night of the year - nope, he was having a great time, cracking horrible jokes, introducing each new track with a level of enthusiasm that only he could muster.  I wish I could remember some of his jokes, but I'm confident enough in my distant memories to know that they were terrible.  They always were.  But despite the fact that it was after midnight on the night after a major holiday and heading into the weekend, meaning there were probably three people listening, Chuck was building the excitement leading up to the #1 new song like this night's countdown was going to result in the greatest musical revelation since The Beatles.

"Coming in at #3 - He's been gone for a while, and it's probably best not to ask where, but now he's back and this song sounds like it's heading all the way to the top."  

It's "If You Want Me To Stay" by Sly and the Family Stone.  I really liked this song.  It still sounds good today, but what I failed to appreciate at the time was that, as good as it was, it really didn't hold a candle to much of Sly's earlier catalog - including any of the songs on Sly's Greatest Hits album.  What I know now is that those songs were as good as anything that's ever been released, so there's no shame in not being quite that good.  Bottom line: good song, then and now.

"At #2 - He's a living legend, and boy o boy, on this new track he sounds frisky."  

This one is "Let's Get It On," by Marvin Gaye.  OK, I have a confession to make.  My 13-year old self really did not like this song.  I mean, really really really did not like it.  All I can say is that while  I think my 13-year old self had pretty damn good taste in music, no one is perfect.  I got this one wrong.  It happens.

By this time Richard was awake, and giving me a look that was half "I'm still asleep, even though my eyes are open" and half "Why the f*ck are you holding that ridiculous radio up to your ear like that?"  When you put those two halves together the outcome isn't positive, and I knew that my time listening to the Midnight Countdown was just about up.  Come on, Chuck, please don't cut to commercial, just play #1 so I can join these two idiots in our idiotic quest.

"All right folks, the song you've been waiting for - it's a new artist, one we haven't heard from before and man o man, I think you're really going to like this one.  She's from Las Vegas, Nevada, and before you turn out the lights, I want you to give a listen to Jenny..."

It was at this moment that Ron grabbed my arm, and hissed (that's really the only way to describe the sound that came from him at that moment) "All right, Vaca, we're out of here. Four rolls each."

So...of course I missed the artist's full name, and the name of the song.  I didn't even get to hear the whole song.  But what I heard, changed my life forever.  (Not really.  But it seemed so at the time.  Everything seems really dramatic when you're 13 years old).  A guitar lick, followed by a female vocal and an arrangement that blended the best of early Seventies Soul with the best of early Seventies pop.  As we packed up, I even got to hear a little snippet of an awesomely cool guitar solo near the end, right before Ron ripped the radio out of my hand, turned it off, and threw it on the sleeping bag.

The toilet paper?  It went to good use.  A guy a couple of years older than us, who lived across the street from Kirsten, even came out to help out a bit.  And he - if memory serves, his name was Ned - contributed the piece de resistance to our little crusade.  The thing that turned something epic into something epicly stupid - an M-80 firecracker, which we lit on the front porch of Kirsten's house.  Yes, we really did do dumb things like that back then, and the one thing I really remember about that night is how hard we were all laughing as we frantically ran down the street, back to our relatively safe haven.  No one saw us, no one heard us (or if they did, it was late enough that they chalked it up to experience), and eventually we went to sleep.

The #1 song that I didn't quite get to hear?  Oh well - a song that good, I would hear it again. That's what I told myself at the time.

Except I never did.  Not even once.  And because this was the way my mind worked at the time (and truth be told, not much has changed), I clung to those short snippets of music - creating an entire song in my mind, imagining who "Jenny" was and what might have happened to her, wondering most of all how such an incredible song could just slip into the darkness like that.  Over the years, I began to wonder if that part of the night was a dream.  Maybe I was the one snoring quietly, and not Richard.

II. A Hot July Night, 2014

I bought four CDs on the way home from work that day, but only had time to listen to three of them before heading to bed.  It was another hot July night, one of those nights where you have trouble deciding whether to open the windows when you go to bed, or just leave the AC on all night.  We chose the latter, but then faced the first-world dilemma of trying to find that exact temperature that a) will allow you to sleep restfully, while b) not having to cover up with a bunch of blankets that at some point during the night will leave you overheated and soaked with sweat.  I failed in the effort, leaving myself wide awake at 3 in the morning. Not wanting to wake Debra, but wanting desperately to do something other than toss and turn and worry about the work day ahead of me, I decided to make myself relatively useful and give a listen to the last new CD of the day: "The Voyager," by Jenny Lewis.

I would imagine that, like most music fans, my first exposure to Lewis had come via her lead role in the band Rilo Kiley, which made at least a couple of great albums in the "decade of the aughts."  Her album with the Watson Twins was one that I bought on the strength of the cover photo alone, thinking that an album with a cover that good had to have some great music inside.  That theory has not always worked for me, but in this instance it did.

The album's opener, "Head Underwater," was a promising start.  That segued into "She's Not Me," and...

Have you ever felt the feeling that follows when your heart literally skips a beat?  The first time it happened, it scared the you-know-what out of me.  I was having some particularly bad digestive problems at the time, and one of the side effects was a slightly irregular heartbeat.  In any event, it's unnerving because you can literally feel your heart stop beating for a moment, and then you get this feeling of light-headedness, and then (hopefully) everything goes back to normal.

That feeling is exactly what happened when "She's Not Me" began playing.  And I was instantly transported back to that hot July night, 41 years earlier, the night I spent with Ron and Richard throwing toilet paper over a tree and lighting a firecracker on the front porch of the house where a girl lived that Ron really wanted to ask out.  Because this was the song that Chuck Roy played that night, and then disappeared into the darkness for four decades.

Of course, I know that's impossible.  But I'm telling you, that's exactly what happened.  And this is what it sounded like:

I lost track of Richard a long time ago.  Tragically, Ron took his life in the 1980s, after a bad breakup.  He always did wear his heart on his sleeve, even if it sometimes took the odd form of throwing toilet paper.  My mom and dad still live in the house, but the place between what was then "our" house and Ron's is all paved over, and my guess is that no one in their right mind would allow their 13-year olds to sleep overnight in the front yard in this day and age.  I'm not even sure if Chuck Roy is still alive, though I'm pretty sure now that "Chuck Roy" wasn't his real name.

What is left are the memories of a hot July night, and this song.

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #7 - "She's Not Me," Jenny Lewis.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #8 - "Lightning Bolt," Jake Bugg

For me, this song's life began with a Gatorade commercial.  This one was on HEAVY rotation when it first came out; you could not watch a sporting event without seeing it multiple times.  After several times wondering "WHAT IS THAT SONG?," I finally Googled "Gatorade commerical lightning bolt" (it seemed likely that was the song's name), and lo and behold, this popped up:

It's one of those songs that can easily be described as "timeless," because there probably isn't an era since rock 'n roll began that it wouldn't fit, and wouldn't sound great.  It's also a classic driving song, one of those that just screams to be turned up as high as the dial (and the eardrums) will allow.

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #8 - "Lightning Bolt," Jake Bugg.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #9 - "Best Years of My Life," Pistol Annies

"Hankering" is such a great word.  I'm not exactly sure why it appeals to me so much, but it's one of the words that I try to work into a conversation, or online dialogue, as often as I can.

The fact that "hankering" is used in "Best Years of My Life," however, is not why it made the Top Ten.  It made the Top Ten because it's a truly great song by one of the truly great groups - and I mean, really really great - of the entire decade.

For the uninitiated, Pistol Annies is comprised of, from left to right in the video, Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley, and Miranda Lambert.  In total, the trio released twelve albums during the decade of the 2010s: three Pistol Annies albums, four solo albums by Lambert, three solo albums by Monroe, and two solo albums by Presley.  Two of those albums (Presley's "American Middle Class" and Pistol Annies' "Interstate Gospel") made my Top 30 of the Decade, and if I expanded that list to 50, Lambert's "Platinum" and Monroe's "The Blade" would have joined them.

In short, they're great.  As in, great on an historical scale.  They are at the vanguard of the new wave of women country artists that have scorched the musical world with their boldness, their brilliance, in recent years.  Although you may not know it, since country radio is still loathe to give them the spotlight they deserve.

"Best Years of My Life" is a great place to begin diving into their catalog.

Top 50 Songs of the Decade, #9 - "Best Years of My Life," Pistol Annies.