For a good portion of the first decade, I wrote a blog with my friend, Will Carroll. Will is an author of 3 books (Saving the Pitcher, The Juice, and The Carroll Guide to Sports Injuries), who has written for the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and has many appearances on ESPN. He currently works for Baseball Prospectus and Football Outsiders. Will and I have done a top 10 music list for the past few years, which I will be posting during the next week. Here are his picks for 2009.)
So the decade closes out, unless you’re one of those geeks that insists the millenium party should have been 2001. If partying like it’s 1999 was good enough for Prince, it’s good enough for you too. The funny thing is that someday, Sirius will have a channel that’s like the 80’s and 90’s channels they have now, but for the life of me, I have no idea what it will sound like. It will be mostly manufactured pop, but you know what – so were those. Maybe the chain goes Madonna to Britney to Gaga, but the big wheel of music has spun around to … nothingness.
There’s a nihilism in the decade without a name. We’ve reinvented and “reimagined” everything, either for better special effects or because we were out of original ideas and music was no different. Boy bands have been around since Dion and Frankie. Hot girls sell records, whether they can sing or not and auto-tune really has nothing to do with it. The only thing we forgot to fake was Milli Vanilli. We’re left with middling efforts from U2, John Mayer, and Green Day, artists that seemed to define the decade, while The E Street Band may have ended while no one noticed. Even Muse went a bit too over the top for my taste and forgot that we needed to keep on rockin’ in a not so free world.
So was there good music? It wasn’t hard to get to ten, despite solid efforts from The Decembrists and Sara Watkins, two disparate artists who showed a willingness to be original. (And before you knock me for originality, Charm City Devils deserves some recognition for being a modern AC/DC blended with Stone Temple Pilots.) The surprise for me is that Taylor Swift became the next Garth Brooks. The album was everywhere and yes, Swift is talented, but let’s also realize “originality” is much better applied to the work of Miranda Lambert or Keith Urban. It’s not so much a vast wasteland as one where the best music is hidden. iTunes and Sirius have made it possible for any band to distribute its music, but few have solved how to get noticed. I’d venture to say none of them got more than a smattering of airplay outside the channels you don’t know the names of on your satellite dial. What we end up with is everything from parody to B-sides, from classics to guitar shredding, from rap to metal, but great? Truly great? I’m just not sure.
1) Brother Ali – US
If there’s any album that sums up 2009, it might be US. Brother Ali is a nearly unknown rapper, coming from the underground hip-hop hotbed of Minneapolis. Part of the crew that’s given us Murs, Eyedea, and Atmosphere, Ali isn’t your normal rapper. There’s no T-Pain, no remixes, and the hulking Muslim albino has only his voice and mind to fight with. (Ok, give some credit to his producer, Ant from Atmosphere, who lays down some amazing beats and samples for Ali to work with.) Ali takes all of ten seconds of opening track “The Preacher” to recall Chuck D at his angriest, Biggie at his smoothest, and yes, that’s some KRS-One you hear in between the lines. There’s some hope inside the dark storytelling and his autobiographical spin on his unique experience can almost make you forget that the man’s rhymes are just flat out sick. Blueprint 3? There hasn’t been flow like this since Jay’s original Blueprint. By the time Ali brings in some friends and gives the standard swagger you’d expect from a song called “Best@it”, you might not be surprised to hear him rap about making sure that his bills are paid and that he has insurance. That Ali’s not pumping out of every stereo in the streets and the suburbs is the only failure here.
2) Fun. – Aim and Ignite
From the moment I first heard “All The Pretty Girls”, with it’s recollection of ELO on the vocals, I knew something amazing was happening. Somehow, I missed The Format, but Nate Ruess has expanded on his great work with what comes off as less a side project as a culmination of American pop music. There’s a bit of everything here in the Brian Wilson canon – parties, girls, heartbreak, love, passion, nostalgia, and God. Ruess dares the Holy Ghost to find him shortly after the showy, carnival opening and by the time we get to the life story of “The Gambler”, we’ve not just listened to this album, but lived it. It’s a story we all know, universal and personal all at once. Ruess’ thin vocals break under the emotion and the lyrical hoops he makes himself jump through. It’s occasionally too much or a bit too cute, like the mouse circus of Coraline (or actually the whole movie of Coraline), but the brilliance never quite takes it over the edge. Instead we’re left teetering there, realizing that this band is willing to go all the way over it to make their point. This album is one of those that not only never gets old, not only reveals something new on each listen, but is one of those that will make you forever remember where you were when you heard it. I was in Ft. Myers, driving to a game with Zach Spear, for the record, and I thank him for playing this for me.
3) Booker T – Potato Hole
Let’s see what we have here. An aging Stax legend, an iconic guitarist, and a band that’s well respected but largely unknown to the public. Mix them in a studio and while it’s no wonder that it was ignored, the resulting music is no less amazing. Mixing Booker T – the famous organist who led the MG’s as Stax’s house band – with Neil Young and the Drive By Truckers is just inspired. While it’s never quite more than the sum of its parts, there are times when you can see the various parts challenging themselves to keep up, to be worthy of taking the next lick. There’s songs like a cover of “Hey Ya” where they’re clearly just having fun and others like “Pound It Out” where the fun almost becomes an iconic song. Instead it’s another cover – Tom Waits’ “Get Behind The Mule” that pulls just enough unexpectedness out to reach for greatness. Booker might be in his sixties and we’ve heard his signature Hammond for nearly as long, but it’s still vital as well as being one of rock’s treasures.
4) Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Seven-Mile Island
Jason Isbell might end up the Don Henley of Drive By Truckers. He’s made two solo albums since leaving the band and while his first only hinted at how he’d be different solo than when he took his turn singing in front of the band, he figured it out on the second. He’s got a very solid backing band, best showcased on “Coda”, but he’s found a voice apart from the southern rock revivalist camp that’s starting to expand out to … well, you know how the Eagles were really just the fusion of Jackson Browne/J.D. Souther style singer-songwriter stuff and the proto-alt-country of Gram Parsons? Isbell and his band are a fusion of Memphis classics, Skynyrd by way of Truckers, and the Eagles themselves. He’s become the voice of the Southerners that want to be known more for what they can do than an accent, who can enjoy a Cabernet as much as Jack Daniels, and are have escaped the shadows of George Wallace, Bear Bryant, and Ronnie Van Zandt. Isbell’s matured, while the rest of the Truckers seem to be the guys who still go to the high school game on Friday night. There’s nothing wrong with either, but I can only hope they both show up for the class reunion someday.
5) Paul Gilbert & Freddie Nelson – United States
Paul Gilbert is the shredding phenomenon that guitar players still talk about standing around a store where they stare at the latest Ibanez and Gibson. His work with Racer X is simply legendary. It was simply stunning that, with Billy Sheehan, he’d go poppish metal in Mr. Big, but he did. Over the last few years, Gilbert’s been focusing more on instrumental work that is less about chopping heads with Satriani and Vai and more about melody. He’s always been a conflicted guitarist, one that could credibly play with his picks on a spinning drill head, and yet appreciate that a good pop song didn’t have to be a sell out. With vocalist Freddie Nelson channelling his inner Mercury, Gilbert makes a album that recalls all the best of his career, all the best of his genre, and even carves out a bit of a new one. “The Last Rock and Roll Star” tells you where it’s going from the title to the first driving riff. Nelson’s vocals measure up against all the influences you hear – the ever present Mercury, Weiland, and frankly remind me of Jack Russell, the lead singer of the too-overlooked Great White. If Muse doesn’t cover “Paris Hilton Look Alike” on this tour, the terrorists have won, because that song on “The Resistance” is what it was missing.
6) Steel Panther – Feel The Steel
If you miss the heyday of heavy metal, you’re not alone. While Scott Weiland is this generation’s Mick Jagger — somehow, I don’t get it — there’s a series of bands like Charm City Devils and The Last Vegas, not to mention a bunch of guitar slingers out there. If it’s a new metal revival, Steel Panther’s joke reminds us that nothing feels good like excess. There’s too much spandex and hairspray, too much frat boy bragging and language that would shock Richard Pryor, but my lord, it WORKS. The musicianship is so spot-on perfect as to go from parody to homage and yes, I think if they decided to be serious, they could pull it off. They play off every cliche of the genre, but for younger kids that only know Poison because Bret Michaels is on a reality show, there’s a pull of melancholy for a time they never knew, when groupies came to the bus and that a career could be made off one good three-chord power ballad and a profile in Kerrang.
7) Band of Skulls – Baby Darling Doll Face Honey
Jack White remains the genius of this decade, but Horehound just didn’t do for me what Raconteurs did. If you want that vibe, minus Mr. White somehow, Band of Skulls wins the prize here. They’re a stripped down threesome with trade-off male and female vocals. They have a lot of the early Led Zeppelin vibe of early White Stripes, but they also have an additional complexity that you really get on repeated listens. They’re dark enough to be selected to be a vampire band in “New Moon” and it wouldn’t surprise me if they break big based on their connection, the way that Muse has. (If there’s a redeeming value in Stephanie Meyer’s books, its that Muse and Radiohead are getting heard by tweens now.) Rock and roll isn’t dead, it just wears more eyeliner now.
8) Drive By Truckers – The Fine Print
I debated back and forth on whether an album of B-sides making a top ten list was a good thing or bad. It takes a lot to get even a live album onto one of my lists. Look, DBT’s discards and seconds are better than most A-list stuff out there, but is it really an *album* or just the kind of thing done for completists and fanboys? The only comparable one I can think of like this is REM’s Dead Letter Office and that’s not the worst comparison. It’s ragged and clearly not a true DBT album, but the idea of the band doing Tom Petty and Warren Zevon is enough for me. There’s some alternate takes and experimental things that clearly show a band in transition, but it’s the covers you didn’t expect that make this so good. There’s a Tom T. Hall cover that’s updated enough to realize that a song about a returning vet sadly needs no updating to be current, and then it closes with Bob Dylan’s classic “Like A Rolling Stone” that seems to find new life. I’d love to know the timing of the last one, because the band sounds much like the one that backed Booker T and I wonder if that work re-energized and refocused them. We’ll see next time they make a “real” album.
9) Orianthi – Believe
It’s fitting that in the year where we forgot Michael Jackson was a tabloid-fodder weirdo and alleged pedophile, sainting the man’s Elvis-style exit — seriously, when do the sightings begin? — he left us with one thing. Not the movie of his rehearsals that people breathlessly ran to, allowing someone to cash in, but the guitarist Orianthi. She would have succeeded without being pegged to be Jackson’s guitarist on tour – check out her Grammy work shredding with Carrie Underwood … wait, did I just say SHREDDING with CARRIE UNDERWOOD? Yeah, that’s the world we live in. Anyway, Jackson always found someone to play the Eddie Van Halen role on his 80’s albums and was great at picking the zeitgeist. Van Halen, Steve Stevens, Slash … all played for Jackson. Orianthi could keep up with any of them. Its her playing that makes her special, at times recalling Paul Gilbert’s speed and precision and at times going the Full Vai on the lone instrumental “Highly Strung.” The young, blonde, Australian female guitarist that looks a bit like Taylor Swift can flat out play and the fact that some of it comes in mediocre leftovers from Kelly Clarkson’s last album doesn’t make it any worse. With some maturity and without the rush to get an album out, Orianthi could put something really special out rather than just giving us glimpses. If this album had the old MTV to push it, it’d be huge. Instead, it’s a name that’s hard to type into YouTube and has been sadly overlooked.
10) Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears – Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is
There’s nothing here from Joe Lewis and his backing band that you wouldn’t hear from James Brown on one of his soul revue tours in the sixties. Original? Not really. In fact, Lewis and his crackerjack band could be accused of pastiche if they weren’t so damned good at it. Songs like “Sugarfoot” and “Big Booty Woman” are pretty much straight out of James Brown’s playbook, down to Lewis’ scream-singing. There’s a bouncing funk, ringing horns, and a tightness here that belies a band that has worked things out on Austin’s stages over the last few years. This is deceptively easy sounding and while you just dance — oh come on, you’re tapping your foot and bobbing your head — you might miss just how good this is. In fact, while James Brown is the easy comparison, there’s another that might be better. There’s a lot of Steely Dan in here, which tells you the level of musicianship you’ll get if you’re just catching on to this.