Thursday, December 23, 2004

Best of 2004

I’m not a big fan of “best of” lists, although like any sucker, I find myself reading through most of the ones I come face to face with.

Deciding to jump on the bandwagon, yet differ from others, I give you my best of list that falls short of the usual ten items. These selections are the best of what I’ve listened to in 2004 and represent the personal tastes and predilections of the author.

Neil Young’s Greendale disc was actually released in the fall of 2003, but for my purposes, it was a 2004 release, particularly since I saw the movie on a cold Saturday in April, driving to Waterville to catch the showing at Railroad Square.

Without any further provocation, here’s my best in 2004:

Steve Earle-The Revolution Starts Now
Populist troubadour Steve Earle followed 2002’s excellent Jerusalem with another solid effort. When Earle wished for the return of Woody Guthrie, back in ’97, many music fans could identify. Not to be iconic, but with the combination of his music, outspokenness concerning the war and politics in general, as well as his efforts as a writer and host of a weekly radio show, Earle might be the closest thing that music has to a modern-day Woody Guthrie.

Spouse-Are You Gonna Kiss or Wave Goodbye
Spouse’s latest release shows growth from a band that gets better every time out. Representing indie rock’s best elements, Are You Gonna Kiss has pensive tunes like the title cut, interspersed with uptempo rockers like Army Song, with it’s dead on take about what it means to join the military. Spouse eschews the "louder is better" approach to write songs that both rock and don't insult the listener.

Spouse is one of those “secret” bands that fans like to keep to themselves, as some type of badge of honor. Don’t! Spouse is a band deserving of a wider following, so blast the new record and do it loud and do it proud.

Neil Young-Greendale
What’s there to say about Young that hasn’t already been said? Young is an American rock icon as much as any artist alive today. With that status, it would be understandable for a 57 year old rocker to put it on cruise control and dial it in, but that’s never been Young’s style and he’s not about to start now. The latest effort from Young and mates shows a display of some vintage song-smithing, guitar work, all the while pushing boundaries with his latest concept album.

Greendale is a musical novel as much as anything. Chronicling the goings-on of a mythical town and three generations of the fictional Green family, the movie and subsequent soundtrack, hearkens back to a simpler time.

The stories, represented by the songs, represents a rural America where old-time values and ethics still existed—a place where deals were signed with a handshake and a person could still make a successful life with hard work and an honest effort.

As we all know, those days are gone and not coming back anytime soon.

Social Distortion-Sex, Love, and Rock and Roll
After doing his best to channel the spirit of outlaw country artists like Hank Williams, George Jones and Johnny Cash, Mike Ness is back with a new Social Distortion effort and it kicks fans right in the teeth with its classic punk-tinged rock and roll.

His foray into traditional country and American roots music was a welcome respite for Ness. He showed his abilities to do something other than rage above the roar of his Les Paul. It’s when Ness is rocking however, that he’s at his best and most comfortable. Like prior SD efforts, this one has Ness belting out lyrics filled with despair, anger, yet surprisingly offering some hope also.

It’s been a tough stretch for Ness, as he lost long-time bandmate and musical collaborator, Dennis Canell, in 2003. It’s obvious that Ness has spent some time thinking about life, loss and why are we here. The pain and questions are apparent in the lyrics, particularly the fast and furious opening track, “Reach for the Sky”.

Other solid tracks are the nostalgic “Highway 101” and the signature SD slower track offering redemption, the reflective “Angel Wings”.

Mike Ness has never shied away from wearing his heart and emotions on his sleeve and the latest outing with the boys is no departure from that style.

Matt Newberg and the Hurricane-Buffalo
Local singer/songwriter Newberg teams up with his band, the roots-rocking Hurricane to produce their strongest effort to date. Mixing in music that has a very “lived in” quality in tunes such as “Cover Me” and “Turn Black”, to the more rock and roll title cut, Buffalo shows a band ready to break out of the regional category they currently reside in to a larger national audience.
Pick up the latest disc and take the opportunity to go out and catch Matt and the boys when they come to a town near you.

The Speaking Canaries-Get Out Alive: The Last Type Story

Pittsburgh’s The Speaking Canaries are rock and rolls best-kept secret. Like hundreds of other talented and underappreciated bands everywhere, TSC continue to put out solid record after solid record to the collective ignorance of the musical marketplace.

Sporting songs that hearken back to the best of 70’s rock and roll, with song structures that afford the musicians room to move, their songs are too long for modern-rock radio. Guitarist Damon Che channels Eddie Van Halen in an indie rock sort of way. Songs like “Menopause Diaries” combines strong songwriting, a melodic arrangement, and Che’s signature axe grinding. “The Last Side of Town” has a prog-rock vibe in parts, but then crashes back into driving rock tempo. It represents the kind of seven minute workout that those of us old enough to have experienced the 70’s can appreciate.

You can listen to the two above-mentioned songs via MP3 at the great Scat website. Do your part to support truly-independent music and pick up a couple of Scat releases before the end of the year.

Robyn Hitchcock-Spooked

The prolific Brit released his 23rd solo record in the last 23 years. If adjectives are necessary, he could wear the tired “prolific” as a crown. On this latest offering, Hitchcock teams with Americans David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, and this lends an interesting Americana vibe to the usual quirkiness of a Hitchcock release.

With an ode to his TV on “Television”, to the somber “Creeped Out”, this disc is an interesting departure for Hitchcock. Older fans will enjoy, new fans of his singer/songwriter efforts might enjoy the addition of Welch on vocals.

There are a handful of artists that when you find out they have a new disc, you rush out to pick it up. The above-mentioned Neil Young comes to mind, as does Dylan, and I’d add Hitchcock to my list.

Black Forest/Black Sea-Forcefields & Constellations

2004 began my foray into post-rock, a broad category that allows rock musicians the opportunity to embrace elements that go beyond the standard rock structures. There is no definitive “sound” in this category and it is the perfect vehicle for the debris-strewn, postmodern, cultural wasteland we inhabit.

BF/BS are a perfect interjection of beauty and sparseness in an age of information overload and screaming talk show hosts. At times stark and hypnotic, at other times melodic and percussive in an ambient sort of way, BF/BS are a great addition to your music catalog, tailor-made for those snowy winter days, curled up with a book in front of the fire. The song “Tangent Universe” comes to mind here.

Without becoming too hyperbolic, BF/BS has become a soundtrack of hope for me in an otherwise ugly and hopeless world.

Ray Charles LaMontagne-Trouble

This guy’s bio is the stuff of legends-shoe shop worker who wakes up one morning to Stephen Stills’ “Tree Top Flyer” on clock radio; calls in sick from work because he needs to find out who the song is by and that he feels called to a life of music; quits job, builds cabin in the woods without electricity and begins teaching himself guitar and writing songs; word gets out about his music and he is flown to Los Angeles where he’s signed to record deal.

If you’ve never heard LaMontagne’s music, run right out and get the record before he becomes a household name. Singing about gritty, slice-of-life vignettes about society’s lesser lights, LaMontagne has one of those immediately recognizable voices.

Trouble is the real deal with cuts like “Jolene” and “Narrow Escape” giving you lyrics you can experience and almost sense the smells and see the spilled blood of lives gone into the ditch.

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