Friday, November 28, 2008

The Songs, the Words, and the Reasons: The Music of 2008

As has become tradition, I offer surefire Black Friday stocking stuffer advice. What follows wasn’t necessarily released in 2008, but these are the artists, albums, and songs that moved me in some way this past year.

The Gaslight Anthem
Yeah, no surprise here. I’ve already written rather extensively about them this year, so I guess there’s nothing much more to say than in 2008 this New Jersey quartet grabbed a hold of my heart and soul, cementing itself as one of my all-time favorite bands. They’ve engendered in me a fervor that I’ve felt for only a few other musicians in my life. May it never end.

Runners Up:
Kings of Leon
The National
The Raconteurs
Eddie Vedder
The Whigs

“The ’59 Sound”/“Senor and the Queen,” The Gaslight Anthem
I spent all last week in Orlando for work, and was so busy I didn’t get to listen to music for eight straight days. When my plane took off Sunday morning, I slammed on my headphones and woke the iPod out of its hibernation. Out of all the albums on my little friend, there was only one I wanted to hear: “The ’59 Sound.” This a record that is as rewarding after 25 listens as it is on the first—more so, even. It’s one of the best I’ve ever heard.

And speaking of, a year ago I wrote a piece about my favorite EPs. Well, now “Senor and the Queen” goes straight to the top of the list. It is perfect: Four five-star songs, released just because they were there and the band wanted to put them out. Amazing.

Runners Up:
“Boxer,” The National
“Consolers of the Lonely,” The Raconteurs
“Konk,” Kooks
“Mission Control,” The Whigs
“The Odd Couple,” Gnarls Barkley

“The ’59 Sound,” The Gaslight Anthem
Completing the 2008 TGA trifecta, this song still stops me in my tracks even after hearing it I-don’t-know how many times. It raises the hair on my neck when Fallon yells “GRANDMAMA’S RADIO!!!” and that’s just one little moment among 3 minutes, 10 seconds of perfection. It mourns the dead, reaffirms life, commiserates with the downtrodden, lifts the spirit, and worships the Almighty all at the same time. Not bad for a little rock and roll song.

“3 Dimes Down,” Drive-By Truckers (from 2008’s “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark”)
One of my disappointments of this year is I didn’t make time to get to know this expansive album better (same could be said for TV on the Radio’s new record). I’ll have to rectify that in 2009, but for the meantime I can wholeheartedly recommend this Uncle Tupelo-style thrashing alt-country jam.

“A Little Better,” Gnarls Barkley (from 2008’s “The Odd Couple”)
Though it didn’t generate the type of buzz and breakout hits like its predecessor, this disc was solid from start to finish and deserved more hype and praise this year than it received. This soulful ballad closes the record, and I don’t know if Cee-Lo’s voice has ever sounded better. One of the group’s best songs.

“Angel of Harlem”/“When Love Comes to Town,” U2 (from 1989’s “Rattle and Hum”)
I never imagined I’d ever get to stand where these two songs were recorded. One of the coolest afternoons of my life. I love my job.

“Another Way to Die,” Jack White and Alicia Keys (from 2008’s “Quantum of Solace” soundtrack)
Jack White had a very good year. Again.

“Arc,” Eddie Vedder (from 2002’s “Riot Act,” as performed live 8.16.08//8.17.08)
Performances of this song were mesmerizing.

“Boots of Chinese Plastic,” The Pretenders (from 2008’s “Break Up the Concrete”)
Chrissie Hynde goes rockabilly. Wonderfulness ensues.

“Both Crosses,” The Hold Steady (from 2008’s “Stay Positive”)
While the group’s known best for their rambunctious rockers, this quiet, moody acoustic affair made the biggest impact on me from their excellent new album, evoking Zeppelin circa “Tangerine” or “The Battle of Evermore.”

“Carcinogen Crush,” AFI (2007)
This one-off was nice, but it really just whet my appetite for more. Here’s hoping in 2009 …

“Fans,” Kings of Leon (from 2007’s “Because of the Times”)
Could’ve picked any of a number of great tracks from these Tennessee hooligans, but the riff/rhythm combo of this one made an indelible impression.

“I Am Mine,” Pearl Jam (from 2002’s “Riot Act”)
I covered the impact this song made on me in my reviews of PJ/Eddie Vedder shows this summer (here, here, and here). I guess there’s no more praise I could give this song than to say it, along with “Arc,” makes “Riot Act” seem not so bad anymore. It’s also cracked my list of all-time favorite Pearl Jam songs.

“I Walk Alone,” Saliva (from 2006’s “WWE: Reckless Intent”)
What on EARTH is a Saliva song doing on here? Well, it’s not the song, really (I don’t even own a copy), but the man associated with it. I took my dad to see WWE’s “Monday Night Raw” this summer and, while the show itself wasn’t that great, being in the building was a ton of fun. Of particular impact was Batista, who uses this song as his entrance music. I had never paid that much attention to the D.C. native, but in his return to “Raw” this summer he’s worked over his character a bit from a brooder to include more condescension and sarcasm, and it fits him quite well. Plus, the guy’s a beast in the ring.

“If You Want Me,” Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (from 2007’s “Once” soundtrack)
“Falling Slowly” may have won the Oscar and everything, but this haunting ballad is both my favorite song and scene from that tremendous movie.

“In the Air Tonight,” Phil Collins (from 1981’s “Face Value”)
Sometimes a song just strikes you exactly right at the exact right time. Such was the case when myself and my four best friends at IAAPA heard this track on the way home from dinner at the beginning of what we knew would be a long, difficult week. A moment of preemptive group catharsis—and rockin' air drumming.

“Love It All,” Kooks (from 2008’s “Konk”)
The lighter, poppier cousins to the Arctic Monkeys delivered another standout record this year, somehow managing to better their excellent and infectious 2006 debut. The hooks are stronger, the songs even better crafted. Could’ve picked any number of tracks to highlight, but this slow burner stood above the rest.

“Man in Black,” The Bouncing Souls (from 2008’s “All Aboard: A Tribute to Johnny Cash”)
My favorite type of cover: A band stays true to the original without simply copying, making the song their own. (This is a rather good cover collection; The Gaslight Anthem’s more straightforward take on “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” is a standout, as is Ben Nichols’ incredible gravelly take on “Delia’s Gone.”)

“Memphis,” PJ Harvey (from 2000’s “Good Fortune” single)
Just came across this excellent b-side this year (if anyone knows where I can find her entire b-side collection online, please let me know!). The fact that this great song is relegated to toss-off status is just further proof that she peaked with “Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.”

“Paper Planes,” M.I.A. (from 2007’s “Kala”)
Every year it seems there’s a movie trailer that makes perfect use of a particular song. Last year it was “American Gangster” and Jay-Z; this year it was “Pineapple Express” and M.I.A. I had to have this song from the moment it hit the speakers during that hilarious trailer. Ironically, I didn’t even end up seeing the movie, but this album is great.

“Right Hand on My Heart,” The Whigs (from 2008’s “Mission Control”)
This is the album review I’ve been writing in my head all year. I don’t know how it hasn’t actually come to pass, but such is life. There are a half dozen songs on “Mission Control” that could justifiably be on this list, but if I had to play someone just one song to convince them why The Whigs are so good, “Right Hand” would be that song.

“41”/“Say Goodbye,” Dave Matthews Band (from 1996’s “Crash”)
A virtuoso performance by saxophonist Leroi Moore, who died way too young this year.

“Shady Grove,” Mudcrutch (from 2008’s “Mudcrutch”)
From Tom Petty’s long-gestating side project, this song gets the nod because, after moving to a new house, I get on the Metro at Shady Grove every day now.

“Slow Show,” The National (from 2007’s “Boxer”)
Wow, I could put at least a dozen National songs on this list after finally giving in this year and realizing how incredible this band is. “Boxer” is now on my all-time favorite albums list, but that’s not to overlook how amazing their other records are. “Slow Show” was the song I came away humming to myself after seeing the band in May, so it gets top billing here. But it’s real tough to not mention songs like “Fake Empire,” “Start a War,” “Mistaken for Strangers,” “Daughters of the Soho Riots,” “Secret Meeting,” "Lucky You," "About Today" … the list could (and does) go on and on. I don't think they've written a song yet I don't like.

“Sometime Around Midnight,” Airborne Toxic Event (from 2008’s “Airborne Toxic Event”)
It had me at the violin solo.

“Strange Times,” The Black Keys (from 2008’s “Attack and Release”)
Though the album didn’t quite live up to my expectations, this lead single is one of the Keys’ best tracks.

“The Battle of Evermore,” Led Zeppelin (from 1971’s “Led Zeppelin IV,” as performed live by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, 6.13.08)
Stunning. Just heart-stoppingly beautiful. Let the old Zep geezers find a new lead singer for their last-chance cash drive; Plant’s making absolutely the right decision.

“The Golden Floor,” Snow Patrol (from 2008’s “A Hundred Million Suns”)
Though Snow Patrol’s new album is chock full of the big anthems they do so well, this quiet, mellow track is a standout from the band’s solid fifth album. I love the stripped-down vibe and handclap rhythm. A nice cousin to The Hold Steady’s “Four Crosses.”

“There Is a Thunder (Out in the Distance),” This Charming Man (from 2008’s “Every Little Secret …” EP [re-release])
And to think, this is the band Brian Fallon threw away to form The Gaslight Anthem …

“These Stones Will Shout,” The Raconteurs (from 2008’s “Consolers of the Lonely")
The Raconteurs’ evocation of Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away” always gets my blood pumping. Here’s another album that could’ve had multiple entries on this list (“Carolina Drama,” “Top Yourself,” “Consoler of the Lonely”—this album was deep).

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

'Dance All Night': Kings of Leon in D.C., 11.10.08

If it's possible to use the term "groovy" without dredging up the doofus hippie connotations, then that's exactly how I'd describe Monday night's Kings of Leon concert at Constitution Hall in D.C. These boys from Tennessee certainly know how to lock into a groove and keep the intensity up for a show.

It was nearly five months since I'd last seen the quartet, when they opened for Pearl Jam in Virginia Beach. I'd never heard a KOL song prior to that night, but they won me over and I've been digging into their catalog ever since.

They played basically every song I could have hoped for Monday night over the course of an excellent 1 hour 40 minute set. Though I wasn't taking notes, as best I can figure post-show they took seven songs each from their three most recent albums, opening with back-to-back whammies "Closer" and "Crawl" from this year's release, "Only By the Night." Other standouts included "Fans" (my personal fave KOL track), the sprawling "Knocked Up," and show-closer "Black Thumbnail." I also particularly liked a strong five-song stretch amidst the main set that started with the chust-thumping "Four Kicks" then moved on into "The Bucket," "McFearless," "Use Somebody," and "On Call." It was impressed upon me how much I like the way their songs always keep moving, adding layers upon layers without losing the core riff where they started; if nothing else, the Kings of Leon are rarely boring.

One of the most surprising aspects of the night when compared to my first KOL experience was how powerful the band's stage presence is when they unleash their full headlining power, which has so enraptured the UK but failed to catch on Stateside. They gave off a much more confident vibe topping the bill, and their rather expansive light show was just right—always complementary of the music, never overwhelming it. Playing to a raucous capacity crowd, the only slightly off moment came near the end of the main set with the ballad "Cold Desert"; as the final track on the new album it works OK, but at five minutes plus, it dragged in concert. The Kings redeemed themselves right away, though, closing the set with "Slow Night, So Long," a surefire favorite. Overall, they moved effortlessly from one crowd-pleaser to another, keeping the energy level at a high level all night. It wasn't the best show I've ever seen or anything, but it sure was fun.

One of the reasons I went in the first place was for the strong three-band bill. Unfortunately, due to personal scheduling issues I missed all but a couple songs of The Whigs' half-hour opening set (no D.C. show should EVER start at 7 p.m.—it's next to impossible to get to the venue on time!). What I heard was great, which made it all the more disappointing that I missed everything from the band that produced one of my favorite albums of the year. Hopefully they'll come back soon and hit a place like the Black Cat.

In the middle was We Are Scientists, who have to be one of the best geek-rock bands since Weezer. Their breezy 40-minute show was also great fun, and they did well to hold the crowd's attention in a room that's probably too big for them. Their new record from this year is another that's well worth your time.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

‘The ’59 Sound’: Fulfilling Great Expectations

One way to define a truly great album is its ability to evolve for the listener over time. There will be those tracks that jump out immediately on first playback, but upon repeated listens other songs will move into the limelight with nearly equal force and passion. The best of the best never stop providing these momentum swings, continuing to challenge the audience in perpetuity until picking a “favorite” track is nearly impossible.

Such is becoming the case with The Gaslight Anthem’s “The ’59 Sound.”

I’ve been living with this outstanding, seminal record for more than two months now, and its 12 tracks continue to reveal new treasures seemingly every new turn through. There certainly isn’t a weak song on the entire thing, so I felt it warranted a track-by-track breakdown. Here I’ll rate each entry on a five-star scale, iTunes style:

“Great Expectations”
This clarion call to arms sets the mood and tone immediately with its scratched-record intro. From there it’s … blastoff—a perfect way to begin this record.

“The ’59 Sound”
This is now one of my favorite songs of all time. The first verse and chorus are especially poignant and spectacular, with frontman Brian Fallon contemplating life after death through the prism of music. It’s mournful and uplifting at the same time; yes, one of his friends has died unexpectedly, but despite the pain Fallon longs and hopes for the heaven promised by the Everlasting, where we will cast off “the chains I’ve been hearing now for most of my life.” That’s a lot to engage in three minutes, all the while delivering one powerhouse of a track. The band’s best song, and that’s saying something.

“Old White Lincoln”
A bouncy, throwaway rocker (though with somewhat melancholy lyrics) in the tradition of Springsteen’s 1980 album “The River.”

“High Lonesome”
It’s count-the-references time, with lines honoring the Counting Crows and Springsteen. Another uptempo stomper that maintains the album’s breakneck, breathtaking pace. My favorite part comes about two and a half minutes in, where the quote from “I’m on Fire” leads to a pounding drum break into the final chorus.

“Film Noir”
Here’s the albums first (of several) major departures, dipping into a bluesy riff to open before building to a blowout climax at the end of each verse. It’s unlike any other track in the band’s catalog.

“Miles Davis and the Cool”
Drummer Benny Horowitz is definitely the unheralded MVP of this album, and this is the track where he really shines. This song is all about his drum cadence, driving on into yet another thrilling peak in the final chorus. Played live, this song—in which Fallon mixes Springsteenian themes from “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road,” and “Rosalita”—explodes off the stage.

“The Patient Ferris Wheel”
If I had to pick my least favorite track on “The ’59 Sound,” this is it—guest vocals from The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ Dicky Barrett notwithstanding. The “maybe I should call me an ambulance” refrain is repeated a few too many times, and the guitar part is rather indistinguishable from the album’s other high-energy tracks. Still, that’s being extremely hypersensitive. Performed in concert, this is another winner, especially when the crowd picks up Barrett’s part.

“Casanova, Baby!”
An absolute joy of a swinging song, this contains one of my favorite lines of the entire album: “We could run all night/And dance upon the architecture.”

“Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”
As the title states, this is The Gaslight Anthem’s most straightforward blues song of their short career. It offers a singular main riff that does Led Zeppelin proud. Or maybe it's the best ’80s power ballad you’ve ever heard—only, you know, cool.

“Meet Me By the River’s Edge”
Of all The Gaslight Anthem’s songs to this point, this is the one I could most envision the E Street Band playing, and not because it name-checks three Springsteen tracks. It’s an epic in the best possible way, and contains another of my favorite lines: “You were Audrey Hepburn in pearls.” It’s pure catharsis.

“Here’s Looking At You, Kid”
Playful, yet still pointed. This is basically a Fallon solo acoustic effort, with just the right amount of complementary instrumentation floating in the background. I love the subject matter, as Fallon manages to stay humble even as he works out some lovelife issues and exacts a bit of retribution on all those girls who ignored him before he became the frontman of a successful band. It’s quietly devastating in the mode of “I’m on Fire,” yet somehow playful, too.

“The Backseat”
To cap off the monumental achievement that is “The ’59 Sound,” the band returns to its punk roots with this finale, which evokes The Bouncing Souls’ “For All the Unheard.” Fallon saves one of his best vocal performances for last, staying almost entirely in his upper register. In the final minute, it takes all the emotion built up throughout the record and pours it all out, sending the listener away drained, but with a smile and buoyed heart.


I know there’s hardly any criticism to be found in my second review of this album, but there’s just none to be had from me. I’ve been listening to "The '59 Sound" almost constantly for the better part of three months now, and I just can’t find anything really wrong with it; on the contrary, it has continued to get better and better and better. It gets my heart pumping just as hard now as it did the first time I heard it—maybe even more, actually, as I've come to know and love each entry. Its ebbs and flows are perfectly paced, and the band stretched its sound just enough and in just the right ways. Fallon has said the goal was to reinterpret soul music through punk rock, and they succeeded. I can't explain how, exactly, but there's such honesty and heart and passion and authenticity written all over and through this record. I don't know how anyone couldn't enjoy it.

Seeing the band live last month sealed the deal: “The ’59 Sound” is an A-plus record. It’s one of the best I’ve ever heard.

(Oh, and just as a, you know, afterthought: The Gaslight Anthem released a four-song EP earlier this year, "Senor and the Queen," and, yep, those are ALL 5-star songs, too. The fact that those were just warm-ups to this album is downright mindblowing.)