I used to agonize over “Best Album” and “Best Song” lists, factoring in the cultural import of the music, the lyrical astuteness, the pervasiveness of the hooks, and the proficiency of the musicianship, and then calculating the overall results based on a complex formula known only to me and a couple folks at NASA. Now I don’t. Now I just focus on the music I listen to the most. And trusty iTunes actually keeps track of these things, so now I know.
10. Country Caravan – Blitzen Trapper
Blitzen Trapper’s third album Wild Mountain Nation is a tribute to ADD and short attention spans. It’s a dizzying lo-fi psychedelic prog rock power pop alt-country indie rock jamfest – and that's just the first five songs. But on “Country Caravan” they hold it together for an entire two minutes and twelve seconds, and perfectly recapture the cowboy stoner vibe of the early ‘70s Grateful Dead and New Riders of the Purple Sage.
9. Dress Sharp, Play Well, Be Modest – Devon Sproule
Behind an atmospheric country-noir accompaniment that gives her plenty of room to stretch out vocally, 24-year-old wonderfolkie Devon Sproule conjures images of a lazy summer evening in the South, a lingering conversation over rum-ginger zingers, the slow, languorous turning from friendship to something that will become much more than friendship. It's a perfectly realized moment, augmented by singing that is equal parts Joni Mitchell folk confessional, Victoria Williams looseness and sweet playfulness, and Billie Holiday stylized blues.
8. Fiery Crash – Andrew Bird
You can’t beat a guy who knows how to whistle. Andrew Bird can also write fine, enigmatic lyrics, and effortlessly, endlessly inventive melodies. But I’m telling you, it’s the whistle.
7. 31 Candles – The Mendoza Line
A snarky, snarling mess of rage and invective, this is the best song on the best breakup album of the year. The spurned Shannon McCardle turns on then-husband Timothy Bracy with a vengeance, coyly noting the “fucking kitty” on the shirt of Bracy’s new romantic interest, and accusing him of “building a shrine around his dick” as electric guitars rampage in the background. Apparently the marital counselling didn’t take. Needless to say, there will be no followup from this pair.
6. Chemicals – A.J. Roach
I’m still enthralled by the biblical framework and the raw, Appalachian vocals and instrumentation. This is bluegrass gospel for the halfway house. Who else would turn a tale of addiction into a Psalm?
Whiskey is my shepherd, I shall not want
It maketh me lie down in a strange woman’s bed
It maketh me talk out of both sides of my mouth
It maketh me feel like I’d be better off dead
5. Lord Franklin – The Pentangle
Originally released back in 1969, this song (and most of the Pentangle catalogue) was re-released this year. So I’m claiming it. Maybe it’s John Renbourn’s mournful soulfulness. Maybe it’s the twin guitar leads, as Renbourn and Bert Jansch play rings around each other. But this two hundred year old folk song sounds surprisingly contemporary, and utterly timeless. That’s because missing what you can never have back never goes out of style or fashion.
4. You Can’t Fail Me Now – Joe Henry
It’s a love song. It’s a prayer. It’s both. But this is church from the 2:00 a.m. salloon, where the communion cups hold single-malt Scotch, and where the priest is a Boho piano player and poet who offers his dazzling liturgy to an indifferently bored or drunk congregation. This is the prettiest song I’ve heard this year, and the perfect marriage of world-weary poetry and jazz dirge. And something remarkable and utterly unexpected given the 2:00 a.m.doldrums: hope.
3. Radio Nowhere – Bruce Springsteen
“Radio Nowhere” is an arena-rock, air-guitar anthem that makes me want to jump up and down on the newly refurbished couch cushions and incur the wrath of my spouse. “I want a thousand guitars,” Brooooce sings. “I want the pounding drums/I want a million different voices speaking in tongues.” It turns out that I do too.
2. American Highway – Ezra Furman and the Harpoons
So here’s a 20-year-old kid doing acoustic Dylan circa 1964 and Bringing It All Back Home. Surrealistic imagery? Check. Frenetic strumming? Check. Dubious nasal whine? Check. There are a million and one Dylan acolytes out there. But this time the song lives up to the hype.
1. Down in the Valley – The Broken West
The debut album from L.A.’s The Broken West is good. But “Down in the Valley” is sublime, a perfectly realized power pop anthem, complete with chiming guitars, multi-part harmonies, and a hook-filled singalong chorus that will instantly conjure memories of all the great ones, from Big Star through The dB’s through The New Pornographers.