At the end of each year, when I'm inspired to relax for a moment and take a look back, I always come back to the same realization: I have very little, if anything, to bitch about. I love music, I love to write, I love to spew my opinions all over the place and I happen to hold the position of music editor at the second largest, and arguably most hip entertainment and culture newspaper in the city I was born and raised in, and am irrevocably attached to ... score! And one of the many perks this job provides is being able to backtrack through 12 months of music—some of it fantastic, some of it excruciatingly bad—in an effort to compile an annual list of the CDs that have most positively affected my life over the past year. It's one of the most difficult parts of the job considering the sheer number of new releases I wade through each calendar year, but it's also one of the most rewarding tasks I'll ever undertake.
Like any “Year in Review” list, my word isn't the final one, and I encourage you to let me know if there's something I've overlooked. I'm a sucker for great, new music, and I'm generally in a pretty good mood for the first few months of the New Year, until I start finding things I think I have the right to bitch about.
It took American Recordings producer Rick Rubin to revive Johnny Cash's career. And legendary country singer Loretta Lynn seems to have picked up on the genius of having a rock dude produce your first new record in over a decade. Only she chose Jack White. It's a pairing that works to startling effect. White's arrangements of Lynn's original songs are towering achievements that bend the rules of both rock and country into something unrecognizable and entirely magical. And the Thin White Stripe himself avoided beating the shit out of Ms. Lynn at the record release party, Von Bondies-style, which is a plus.
Four years since her last studio release, PJ Harvey returned with, if you can fathom the notion, her most personal record to date. That's partly due to the fact that she wrote, performed and produced the entire affair herself, but also because she's mastered the art of peeling away her own skin. Deeply emotional and musically visceral (if sparse), Uh Huh Her is a painful listen that's also intensely addictive. Harvey's recordings have always been completely devoid of charm and hope, a tool she has effectively used to make her work irresistible. Brutal, delicious.
Being a self-professed alcoholic is a cliché lost on AMC's Mark Eitzel. There are gobs of songwriters regularly crediting their insights to booze and drugs, but few of them actually write from that place between reality and sad, slow death. Eitzel, unquestionably, is one of them. The pain, loss, heartbreak and sadly accurate worldview he crafts songs with can't be faked. As a result, AMC's first studio album in 10 years bristles with passionate suicidal tendencies and the kind of yearning that'll reduce you to tears—proof that giving up may well be the first step in starting over.
Considering that her early career was largely based on revamping the songs of others—mostly country music greats—it's no big surprise to find k.d. lang making a return to that formula on Hymns. ... But now far removed from her kitschy Patsy Cline persona of the past, lang, herself of Canadian descent, has chosen to relish and reflect upon some well-known songs by Canadian artists, from Leonard Cohen and Neil Young to Joni Mitchell and Jane Siberry. Hymns ... is a bona-fide stunner. Lang's voice has matured alongside her instinctive sense for passionate delivery and considerable musicality, resulting in an absolute masterwork.
Legendarily difficult to pin down, Sam Phillips is the Anjelica Huston of the recording artists' world: unpredictable, ultra-gifted and always surprisingly brilliant. A Boot ... in many ways sounds like the continuing saga Phillips established on her last album, 2001's Fan Dance, but it's more loosely-hewn and jovial, relying on occasional quirky guitar work by guitarist Mark Ribot (Tom Waits) and the plodding, off-the-beaten-path rhythms pounded out by percussionists Jim Keltner and Carla Azar for its textures, the album is yet another nearly carnivalesque effort by one of the most interesting songwriters working just under the radar today.
Like a modern-day Nick Drake, Sam Beam—as the one-man band Iron and Wine—delivers whisper-folk with Neil Young-like unease and the sort of melancholy that defines such bands as Hayden and Badly Drawn Boy. Sparse instrumentation occasionally gives way to acoustic orchestrations on Our Endless Numbered Days, Beam's second full-length, but all the hushed emotional and melodic beauty that made his debut one of the best records of 2002 remains intact. Beam's "new folk" is actually an amalgam of the old stuff and a discernible touch of the blues. The effect is haunting, tantalizing and, often, blissfully overwhelming.
Jason Lakis' (a.k.a. The Red Thread) debut was built on understated alt.country pop numbers that flirted with the broad, windswept soundscape tendencies of bands like Lanterna and the folk-heartedness of the Idahos and Haydens of the music world. Tension Pins doesn't stray far from that elegant formula, but Lakis nonetheless sounds more confident, more in-the-moment and startlingly more relevant with regard to both lyrical content and compositional skill. These 11 songs harbor a dreamlike quality that enables the vilified notions of soft rock to coalesce with indie aesthetics and inklings of countrified pop. Incredible songwriting and unpretentious instrumental prowess. Killer.
Rock duos are nearly a dime a dozen these days, but none—and I do mean none—are as compelling as Beaverton, Ore.'s Helio Sequence. Three years after releasing their Beatles-meet-My Bloody Valentine masterpiece, Young Effectuals (Cavity Search), guitarist/smooth-as-silk vocalist Brandon Summers and Benjamin "I Play Live with Modest Mouse, Too" Weikel have evolved a more blues-drenched aesthetic that's also dipped in psychedelica and bristling grooves. Love and Distance is an all-occasion indie rock record: not too sad, not too happy and, most importantly, not too melodramatic or Stooge-rivative. Easy like a Sunday morning yet deeper than the deepest ocean.
On their second effort, The New Year, fronted by former Bedhead leaders Bubba and Matt Kadane along with Chris Browkaw (Come, Codeine) on drums, Mike Donofrio on bass and multi-instrumentalist Josh McKay, sound as ominous as ever. But The New Year aren't Bedhead—the frustration and bitterness come careening down the chute rather than remaining quietly (and sinisterly) understated. The End is Near shimmers with complexity and Browkaw propels the Kadanes' songs with a new intensity, pretty much picking up where 2001's Newness Ends left off. Like Bedhead, only better.
Recorded in Iceland with members of Sigur Rós and the Black Heart Procession's Pall Jenkins lending various hands, Jimmy LaValle's (a.k.a. The Album Leaf) latest glittering achievement puts a pop twist on his standard take on the ethereal and melancholic. But the new record sounds plenty isolated and just as whisper-cool as any of LaValle's previous (largely) solo efforts. More Brian Eno than Tristeza, LaValle's former piano-rock outfit, In a Safe Place is at once beautiful and disconcerting, much like what most of us imagine Iceland to be like. Brilliant.
Here, U2 attempt to strike a balance between their distant past and their perceived future, and they very nearly succeed. The Edge is allowed back in the driver's seat, accelerating each of the album's 11 songs with his trademark effects-soaked, chiming guitar figures.
He's backed by the comfortably predictable rhythm section that is Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton, and Bono navigates the entire affair with the same prophetic lyricism that made "Where the Streets Have No Name" a slightly mismatched anthem for slightly disenfranchised, aging Gen Xers trying desperately to remain hip while working their corporate 9-to-5s.
Vanessa Carlton has a knack for setting her deepest emotions to craftily hewn melodies in such a way as to infect the listener with the actual feelings. A remarkable feat for a 24-year-old who's made just two albums, but Carlton's Harmonium sounds ageless and timeless nonetheless. There's a depth here, both lyrically and instrumentally, and with regard to arrangement, that creates a far greater sense of urgency and maturity in Carlton's latest batch of songs than in the previous bunch.
If it wasn't for bands like NYC's Candiria, filling the void left by the demise of Jawbreaker and Quicksand, I'd have taken my own life a long time ago. Tragically, Candiria's last tour took the life of their van, equipment and, very nearly, the lives of all five members when a semi smashed into them at freeway speed. After two years of physical and mental recovery, Candira are back with their fourth—and best—record. Part prog metal, part hardcore and part classic thrash, this one's close to perfect.
If you locked Will Oldham and members of 16 Horsepower and Doo Rag in an analog studio together for a year, the resulting recording would probably sound like Ill Lit's second record. Bordering on country, folk and junkyard electronica but never delving headlong into any of them, Ill Lit can best be described as purveyors of one of the forgotten tenets of Americana—the overwhelming urge to stake a claim and get rooted thwarted by an insatiable wanderlust and a belief that the grass is greener someplace else, someplace that's always just a few more miles down the dusty road.
After taking three decades to furnish the follow-up to their 1972 debut, it only took the Flatlanders—Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore—two years to provide us with a third installment of near-perfect Texas country music. Wheels of Fortune was recorded immediately following the band's 2003 Now Again tour, and it's got the feel of a trio who've been on the road together for 30 years. Truth is, each member is a musical icon in his own right, but the sum of Flatlanders is more than its parts. Like the Beatles with twang raised in a roadhouse.
In all of the few ways I pine for the '80s, Unit 7 Drain more than satisfies the monkey. But what makes them special is not just their unabashed reverence for new wave nuance that's now more than 20 years old, but their ability to embrace post-punk and straight-out rock with reckless abandon, and hold it all together with meaningful grooves, thoughtful lyrics and, courtesy of Harry Redus-Brown, the best male rock voice in Albuquerque. They're an enigma taken with a grain of salt: fully accessible, yet in some ways wonderfully unpredictable.
I can't find nearly enough gushy adjectives or sentimental turns of phrase to describe the depth and breadth of Oktober People's long-overdue debut. Guitarists Nate Santa Maria and Sean McCullough share a magical intuition that manifests in brilliant, shimmering harmony and counterpoint figures. Rhian Baston (bass) and Chris Moffatt (drums) make cunning use of dynamic swells and shifts that underscore the already roiling passion and intensity inherent in the songwriting. Absolute fucking genius!
The Foxx guitarist/vocalist Juliet Legend has found her niche. After several recordings and tours with the Rondelles, she's proceeded to co-front a band that perfectly blends campy '60s pop and the kind of trashy '70s glam rock that exploded out of Alice Cooper and the New York Dolls. Garage guitars and a strict Romantics groove lend themselves perfectly to dual, male/female vocals and syrupy-but-sincere lyrics, mostly about the boy-girl stuff that makes the world go 'round.
Nels Andrews' most recent release finds him fronting El Paso Eyepatch, his live band that features multi-instrumentalist Jeffrey Richards. Like Crazy Horse, EPE can be incendiary and legendarily powerful when it comes to extended jamming and/or solo sections that swell and recede in ocean-like waves of sonic resolve. But the 'Patch's work on this batch of Andrews' songs is more restrained for the most part, showing yet another side of this fine collective of talent and passion. Andrews' melodic structures recall Lyle Lovett, while he's vocally on-par with guys like Josh Ritter. Nice!
Although Follow the Signs doesn't move along any single lyrical theme, it's a concept album in more ways than one. For one thing, Joni Rhodes-Orie's vocals have matured to the point of becoming a melodic element of the music rather than merely a vehicle for lyrics. And the addition of a second guitarist has solidified the band's sound significantly, giving the songs a unique signature—there's no mistaking them as anything but Feels Like Sunday songs. Songwriting is tight and terse, and there's passion to spare both lyrically and musically. Follow the Signs is a near-complete triumph.