15. The National - Boxer
“Apartment Story” got me into the dark forbidding place, and “Fake Empire” kept me there. All the rest is about atmosphere and how much low singing you can stand. I apparently have a very high threshold.
14. Okkervil River - The Stage Names
When people bashed Bright Eyes “I’m Wide Awake...” a couple years ago, they usually used Okkervil’s “Black Sheep Boy” as what real modern folk music should sound like. I wasn’t having any of it. Austin kept playing it for me, and I just couldn’t ever manage to sneak in. The latter album felt slick and detailed, while Mr. Conner’s effort felt freewheeling and spontaneous. Of course, Bright Eyes followed that album with the mannered Cassadega, and Okkervil make a rocking Americana record full of strange characters and lots of guitars. It’s the clear winner this year, and one of the last albums I thought I’d get into. I had kind of convinced myself I didn’t like them. And then “John Allyn Smith Sails” came on.
I never, ever, in a million, billion years would have predicted that they would just break into the Beach Boys. It’s one of the most rousing endings to any album I’ve heard since, probably, “I’m Wide Awake”. I know I keep comparing them to Bright Eyes, and they really don’t sound much alike at all, but I guess that means I (finally) like them. It’s a good thing.
13. Paul McCartney - Memory Almost Full
Its no longer accurate to say Paul makes bad solo albums. He’ll probably never make anything as convincing as his Beatle compositions, or even the fantastic Ram, but he’s made five solid solo albums in a row. That’s impressive. They haven’t been classics, but for someone (rightly) demonized for thirty odd years for making mediocre shlock it is a feat.
I don’t really feel right ranking these new achievements, but if I had to pick I’d probably settle on this one. It shows a rejuvenated Paul taking his best shot at pop music since his early 70’s pinnacle, and mostly succeeding.
I’ll always be that guy fighting for Paul. He’s my favorite Beatle, and I cringe when people continue to belittle his contributions to modern music. It’s just nice to have something to show for my side. This helps.
12. Feist - The Reminder
It’s no great secret that Let It Die’s best moments were those actually written by the lady singing it. The second half of covers felt overbearing and fussy compared to the stripped down simplicity of the wondrous first half. It would seem smart of her to have learned her lesson and made a beautiful, stripped down album with nothing but originals. So it comes as a rather shocking surprise that the least interesting moments on The Reminder are those that most recall her first.
There is nothing wrong with these songs (So Sorry, The Park, Intuition), but the best moments of this CD are when she subverts these and either ratchets up the sex (My Moon My Man) or turns into a big goofball with her ear set on a sing-along. (One Two Three Four). Honestly, she could sing about just about anything and I’d listen, but the more insincere and mysterious she becomes the more I pay attention.
11. Jay-Z - American Gangster
I got watches I ain’t seen in months!
Oh, really? I haven’t worn a watch in years! When I still lived in New York, clocks smacked my face on a regular fifteen second interval on the subway. When not in the subway, I was usually staring at a computer screen with little numbers constantly glowing in the top right. What about on the street? I either had my nose buried in an ipod (top right), or had my handy cellphone at arms length. Who needs a watch?
Jay-Z’s separation from the streets he’s trying to rap about here is miles thick. I’m not convinced for a moment that he’s more Frank Lucus than Ludicrus. You can’t have it both ways. It’s the thinnest of concept albums, and one that features some of his absolute weakest production jobs.
This could have been just as big a disaster as Kingdom Come, but somehow, it manages to rank among his very best. I do love “Roc Boys” and “No Hook”, but it’s over that furious organ, spitting rhymes with Nas, that Jay really gets his point across. Jay didn’t become famous because he was a drug dealer. He got it because he can ride the wave of some organ crash, saying something ridiculous about eating too much at Mr. Chows, and still come out sounding downright triumphant.