1. Ryan Adams: Easy Tiger
My initial reaction to Easy Tiger, an album I was very excited to get my hands on, was slight disappointment. “Pearls on a String” was awesome, but the rest was underwhelming. It sounded vanilla, and it sounded unlike Heartbreaker (which is what I always hope for from an Adams release). And “Halloweenhead” was just awful.
But time passed, and somewhere in there I fell for nearly every track. It’s becoming clear to me that Ryan Adams is my favorite musician by a wide margin, and it makes me very happy that he’s still young and energetic. There looks to be plenty more to come from the guy.
2. Kings of Leon: Because of the Times
Because of the Times is for driving. Driving cross country. Driving home from the bars. Driving fast on the freeway with the windows down and a cigarette in your mouth.
Three tracks made me come back to this album again and again this year: “Knocked Up” (which pulled me in initially), “Ragoo” and “Fans.” But the rest is solid gold. The album has the kind of youthful energy that feels manic and relaxed at the same time.
I really regret not seeing these guys at Bonnaroo.
3. Spoon: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
I discovered Spoon back in 2003, when I was working out a lot and spending a lot of time by myself. Most days, I’d run a few miles with Semisonic’s Great Divide, then listen to Kill the Moonlight while doing my push-ups and sit-ups and showering the grime off. Moonlight drove. It pushed me to pound out those last few push-ups.
Eventually, I discovered Girls Can Tell, which sounded the first time like I’d heard it a hundred times. No complaints.
But then Spoon released Gimme Fiction. And I was like: WTF? Fiction, while not so different on the surface, just didn’t grab me. “I Turn My Camera On” was a great tune, but the rest of the album was flat, unmemorable, uninteresting. It still had the pulse of their previous stuff, but something was missing.
(Maybe it’s because I don’t work out much these days.)
So I’d sort of given up hope that Spoon was going to continue being one of my favorite bands. And I was disappointed that any opportunity I’d get to see them live would feature primarily songs I didn’t like. (However, I actually did see them live this year, at Bonnaroo, and that theory was proven wrong.)
When they released Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, I bought it, but I wasn’t that excited. And when I listened to it, I wasn’t surprised. It sounded like more of the same. But, of course, it grew on me. It found its way into my regular rotation, and now it’s among the first few albums I’ll put on while I’m working, trying to get down to business.
Not only that, but it caused me to reconsider Gimme Fiction and realize that, somewhere along the line, I grew to like most of that album, too. Spoon has fully regained my affections.
4. Rocky Votolato: The Brag and Cuss
The iTunes recommendation system thought I’d like Makers, by Rocky Votolato. It was so, so right. Makers is the kind of music I wish I could make. Rocky Votolato fits the sad-white-dude-with-an-acoustic-guitar profile that seems to call to me. His sense of melody is strong, and his production is straightforward.
The Brag and Cuss is the same sort of thing, and while it doesn’t have as many mix-worthy tracks as its predecessor, it’s a pleasant little album, all the way through.
5. Feist: The Reminder
Speaking of albums that are strong end to end, Feist’s new one is a pleasant surprise. Her previous album, Let It Die had some good singles, but the low points were low. Reminder has more stand-out tracks (“1234″ in particular), but it ups the ante by being hummable throughout.
6. Dan Wilson: Free Life
Dan Wilson, I knew you still had it in you.
I was a huge Semisonic fan, just as I was getting into music. And while my musical tastes have become a bit more mature, I am, as I mentioned earlier in this piece, still drawn to crisp production and strong melodies, and nobody does it better.
7. Wilco: Sky Blue Sky
After their deconstruction and experimentation on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, what was the logical next step for Wilco? Were they going to continue down that road or move back toward straightforward alternative country?
A Ghost Is Born didn’t quite answer that question. It kept some elements of YHF, but introduced periods of jammy solo guitar and repetitive nonsense. But the nonsense was usually followed by huge payoffs, rocking hard.
Ghost showed me Jeff Tweedy changing from being depressive to being content. There’s little joy in YHF. Only on “Heavy Metal Drummer” is there a sense of optimism, of pleasant reflection. Ghost‘s payoff jams embraced that feeling, and its lyrics sounded more and more like the work of a mature, confident adult. And Wilco’s live shows after Ghost were phenomenal. They had the same youthful energy that I praised so unreservedly in my notes on Because of the Times, above.
And then came Sky Blue Sky, which, to my mind, shows what’s essentially the completion of Tweedy’s maturation. It has more of the jammy interludes followed by monstrous high points, more lyrics with content and perspective, and while it’s not chock full of tracks I want to put on a mix tape, it’s a quality listen, even beyond the fact that it makes me happy to hear one of my heroes coming to terms with everything dark in his life.
8. The Arcade Fire: Neon Bible
I don’t have much new to say about Neon Bible. The critics loved it, and rightfully so. I liked it a lot for a while, but got sort of sick of it later in the year. Regardless, I recognize that it’s a good album, and I’ll be listening to it for years to come.
9. The National: Boxer
This is another challenging album, like their last one. None of The National’s songs makes you think you want to become a fan of The National. But their albums evoke a feeling that I can’t quite put into words. I suppose I’ll leave it at that.
10. Iron & Wine: The Shepherd’s Dog
More of the same from Iron & Wine, but that’s far from a bad thing. Sam Beam has released only one mind-blowingly good track (“The Trapeze Swinger”), but almost the entire rest of his output has been well above average. Shepherd’s Dog is no different.
11. Ryan Adams: Follow the Lights EP
On the strength of a few awesome tracks (“Follow the Lights” and “Blue Hotel”) and a few retreads, this EP was a pleasant surprise. Ryan Adams could fart on a snare drum and it might just be good.
12. The White Stripes: Icky Thump
Another band I’d sort of given up on, The White Stripes are on their way, here, to a return to higher status. Icky Thump is far closer to what I expected of them after White Blood Cells and Elephant than Get Behind Me Satan was. I expect them to rock, to get stuck in my head, and to be fun, and Satan did none of those things to satisfaction. Icky Thump does.
13. Radiohead: In Rainbows
Good, but not great. I was a bit worried, but ended up pleased.
14. Okkervil River: The Stage Names
This album is about how pop culture doesn’t adequately reflect our lives. Love the concept. Like the music.
15. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Some Loud Thunder
Massively disappointing at first, but I learned to like several tracks.
16. Joe Purdy: Take My Blanket and Go
A huge improvement on the meandering mess of his previous album. Perhaps Joe Purdy is back on his way up.
17. Josh Ritter: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
This wasn’t what I wanted, but it’s hard to deny that it contains some keepers.
18. Andrew Bird: Armchair Apocrypha
Despite a grating live performance (which I attribute to the venue more than to Mr. Bird), Andrew Bird has improved on his previous work, both in terms of the quality of his melody and his consistency.
19. MIKA: Life in Cartoon Motion
Not normally my cup of tea, this album is a bit bubble-gum. But “Grace Kelly” is one of the best pop songs I’ve heard in a while. The rest of the album is
20. Travis: The Boy With No Name
Only on the strength of Eric’s recommendation did I listen to this. It’s very good.
21. Jens Lekman: Night Falls Over Kortelada
Swedish pop is strangely affecting.
22. Paolo Nutini: These Streets
Paolo Nutini sounds like Rod Stewart. That’s neither good nor bad. What’s good is many of the songs on this album.
23. Elvis Perkins: Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday makes the list mostly because of the awesomeness of “While You Were Sleeping.” I haven’t listened to the album enough to determine whether it should be higher on the list.
24. The Shins: Wincing The Night Away
Another let-down. It feels like the made-for-TV-movie version of The Shins. But even that is decent.