Monday, December 8, 2008

Best Albums of 2008: 16-20

20. Lucinda Williams – Little Honey

Though she's often thought of as tough and difficult, part of Lucinda's appeal has been her giddy pop songs. Don't believe me? She actually wrote "Passionate Kisses", which Mary Chapin Carpenter took and made into a pop country hit (it also won a Grammy!). But it was no fluke single. Between 1988 and 1998 Lucinda made three albums loaded with these strange, immediate pop singles that should have been mega hits had anyone somewhat normal sung them. Perhaps it was the songs in between, full of anger and spit that turned people off, or it could have been her voice. I don't know.

There is hardly a week that goes by when Abby and I don’t listen to her unfuckingbelievable 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road or her equally awesome self titled album from 1988. Unfortunately, her most recent album, West, which wallowed in sub-Time Out of Mind ramblings and weightlessness, was an enormous step in the wrong direction, so unworthy of its predecessors that I couldn’t even believe it was her. It shattered me. Lucinda always tried to get at something profound, but at least I could sing along to her pain.

That's what made me so depressed about West: it was no fun.

Apparently she’s tired of wallowing in her pain, too. Little Honey is about as happy as anyone can rightly expect Lucinda Williams to be, and nearly half of the songs sound like were back in the the middle of her very good 1992 album Sweet Old World. Not exactly top of her game, but still a joy to listen to.

I'm particularly fond of "Tears of Joy", "Little Rock Star" and "Real Love". It derails sometime around "Honey Bee", which is kind of filthy and obnoxious. But after West I didn't expect to Lucinda to get back to here. I'll take what I can get.

19. R.E.M. – Accelerate
Though championed as R.E.M.'s comeback album, Accelerate doesn’t even approach the top half of their best albums. Hell, it isn’t their best post-Berry album (that title goes to very underrated Up). It just happens to be much, much better than Around the Sun, the worst album (by an incredibly wide canyon) of their career. Though a huge mess, and horribly produced, it does have a strain of something we might actually describe as "passion", something R.E.M. haven't shown since...well...when?

Everything good and bad about this album is located in the first single “Supernatural Superserious”. It starts off with a riff (a dumb one, by the way), showcases a verse we know we’ve all heard before, then kicks in with some killer harmonizing by Mills (welcome back to the mix!), and finally and surprisingly, ends with with a kick of the kind of prolonged jangle pop that would make "Pretty Persuasion" proud.

That's basically how the album goes. I’d probably give up the first half of this album for Reveal’s "Imitation of Life", but not the last half. "Mr. Richards" starts off a four song suite that reminds me of the glory days of Lifes Rich Pageant. Perhaps it's the new producer, but it actually feels like they were playing together in the same room.

Hell, I even like "I’m Gonna Dj", which is a stupid song that doesn't mean anything. But why deny Stipe in such a frenzied mood? He's a singer that used to change lyrics around at will and sing about chairs and nonsense. I wish he would do that more often. The winner is definitely “Horse to Water” which sounds like nothing much in the catalog. No one has been clamoring from the to make a revved up punk number with great drumming, but thanks anyway.

If they'd have asked my opinion, I'd have stripped all the distorted guitars from this album and not produced with such a dumb fucking thumb. Why does it need to be so loud? This habit of mastering albums within an inch of the red line has got to stop! I care hear little sweet arpeggios ringing on the sides of the speakers until the mammoth guitars come in.

I don't really know where I'm going with this. R.E.M. is one of my very favorite bands, and though it doesn't come close to their cannon, it's a strong album with some wonderful songs to pick off. And average R.E.M. is still worth an awful lot to me.

18. Brian Eno and David Bryne- Everything that Happens Will Happen Today

This album sounds really good on headphones. Really good. I know with Eno involved that was bound to happen, but it's such a thrill to put on this album and have the music swirl around your head with such abandon. He is, gasp, a phenomenal producer.

But this album could have been recorded with on Garage Band and these David Bryne songs would still be good. That's really the backbone to this album. Though it's a little scatter shot, with some really weak electronica-flecked tracks mucking up the second half, when Bryne strums simple chords and Eno has the background pulsing something magical happens.

It's essentially a simple album elevated to the heights of technicolor drama, which is basically the opposite of what Coldplay did with Eno this year. Sometimes it's great to be humble when you have so much power, and that's what I feel every time I kneel down before these gods of modern music.

17. Tilly and the Wall - O

I had what can only be described as a crush on their first album, the absolutely adorable Wild Like Children. We're talking a Junior High crush, so innocent and pure, yet so important as to feel like the weight of the whole world hung upon every interaction. Though the tap dancing is cute, what I loved was the sweet acoustic pleas. I wrapped meanings into things that I'm sure weren't there, and longed to actually meet these people so I could fawn over them.

So it’s kind of surprising that I’m loving the new raucous Tilly, that specializes in guitar riffs and minor key chants. Honestly, there are parts of the album that sound like the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs. "Pot Kettle Black" is an obvious choice, but so is "Chandelier Lake" and "Too Excited".

To their credit it still sounds like them, and though they've pushed that tap dancer a little further back in the mix, she's still there.

Perhaps it's a more profound enjoyment. I no longer want to hold their hand, but I probably listened to this album more, but that doesn't always mean everything. I'll always return to their first album for the pinch of first love, but this one will do for the morning after.

16. Hold Steady - Stay Positive

For the past three years I've felt like the lone champion of the Hold Steady. Though I threw the delightful Pipettes atop my best of 2006 list, I continue to listen my number 2 album, the Hold Steady's Boys and Girls in America, far more. Though I don't exactly feel guilty about it, they should have been number 1.

When this album came out I thought I could rectify that small mistake. Not only is it another strong album, it comes with zero filler, something their previous album couldn't even say. The only complaint, and it's a big one, is that they are musically identical albums. The surprise is lost.

I stopped listening a few months ago, and never felt like I was missing too much. Though they are often touted as our generation's Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, the Boss never felt like he was standing still. He followed the exuberant and overblown Born to Run with the somber Darkness on the Edge of Town. The downright depressing Nebraska was followed by Born in the U.S.A. And even that album, which is criminalized for its pop songs and reliance on bad synths, is stuffed with somber gems like the sex starved "I'm On Fire" -- still one of his very best songs.

The Hold Steady aren't there, but maybe that's asking for too much. I'll trade all of my old Pearl Jam albums, and every other grunge band for that matter, for "Lord I'm Discouraged" a song that should rightly end around the four minute mark, but instead drifts off into a completely unexpected coda so affecting and genuine as to make you want to listen to it again and again.

They will always sound great cranked late at night. This album is another fine example. Here's hoping their next album goes even further.

p.s. who designs their covers? For crying out loud...


medina said...

again, none of these albums are on my list. I didn't even know R.E.M. came out with a new one. My list will be up later tonight.

Blake said...

I was hoping Lucinda Williams would be on your list, since I know you're a fan. Unfortunately, I hated that album. And REM never grew on me. But good to see that you found room for some old friends.