#20. Old 97’s – The Grand Theatre, Vol. 1
The Old 97’s continue their winning streak, even they did just squeak in at #20 (beating out all theHonorable Mentions, many of whom could realistically occupy this space.) This powerhouse country-rock quartet once again makes its traditional appearance on the Holy Bee’s Best Of list. The Old 97’s are my musical comfort food, and while they may never again reach the heights of Too Far To Care or Satellite Rides, their charisma and eminently agreeable blend of rollicking Tex-Mex and bubblegum power pop is something I can listen to at any time in any mood. Old 97’s are the old standbys. Bless ‘em.
#19. The Constellations – Southern Gothic
This mixed-gender collective presents a travelogue through the sometimes seedy nightlife of their native Atlanta. Harnessing a jam-band mentality to a hip-hop framework, the best Constellations songs are so insanely catchy that they border on commercial jingles (“We’re Here To Save The Day,” “Felicia”), and even their worst make you admire their moxie (a nine-minute cover of Tom Waits’ “Step Right Up”? Really?). A word of warning: visually, they’re a nightmare, encapsulating everything hateful about insufferably smug “quirky” hipsters. (Avoid pictures of them. They will make you stabby. OK, click here at the risk of ruining your enjoyment of their music.)
#18. The Black Angels – Phosphene Dream
You gotta be some kind of asshole not to love Nuggets, the compilation of obscure proto-punk garage rock singles originally released on mostly local record labels in the post-Beatlemania years of ’65 to ’68. Muddy production and primitive musical skill usually result in disaster, but damned if those kids didn’t make it work, even if they were something less than virtuosos. They were having a ball, and they inspired an entire sub-genre of rock music, exemplified in its modern incarnation by the Black Angels. Thudding tribal tom-toms, droning organ, and fuzzbox guitar slither and snarl under Alex Maas’ reverb-heavy vocals that declaim doom-laden lyrics in the best possible fake-Euro accent a Texas garage-rat can unleash.
#17. Belle And Sebastian — Write About Love
Do they ever. I was never a fan of their earlier work. Far too precious and twee, and I’m suspicious of any band started as a school project (see also: the tiresome Dirty Projectors.) But beginning with 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Belle and Sebastian re-structured their sound (ditching that fucking cellist was a good start), discovered the fat groove and the bottom end, channeled the spirit of rock & roll (especially its glammier side), and went from the Holy Bee’s Shit List to his #1 album of 2006 with The Life Pursuit. In all honesty, I can admit now I’ve gone back to re-listen to their earlier stuff, and it’s not as odious as I remember. Guess I’m mellowing with age.
So I’m not too distressed to report that some of that earlier, chamber-pop style is creeping back in on Write About Love, along with more overt references to main songwriter’s Stuart Murdoch’s creepily intense Christianity (on “Read The Blessed Pages,” he’s not talking about Mad magazine). Also more pronounced is the group’s gift for melody, which was always profound, but here reaches levels only hinted at on previous releases. The handful of weaker tracks drift into dreariness (never a problem on Life Pursuit), but the strong tracks (“I Didn’t See It Coming,” the title song) have the complexity of a film score and the deceptively simple sophistication of an old Burt Bacharach arrangement.
#16. Broken Bells – Broken Bells
The magic touch of super-producer/collaborator Danger Mouse is applied to the melodic indie-rock of Shins frontman James Mercer, giving us everything we want an album to be: A couple of great singles (“The High Road,” “The Ghost Inside”), some stuff more suited to solo headphone listening (“Float,” “Your Head Is On Fire”), and a sense of ambition and experimentation. Danger Mouse draws upon his DJ experience, laying beds of trip-hop beats and spacey keyboard flourishes under Mercer’s vocals and guitar. Mercer, an avowed disciple of 80’s mope-rock, stops short of full-on shoegazing, keeping his lyrics and voice introspective but clear and fully engaged. The collaboration doesn’t always mesh — the listeners remain aware they are hearing a somewhat calculated coming-together of two different traditions — but hearing two great talents together at the top of their game is worth any minor bumps in the sonic road.
#15. The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang
They haven’t changed their sound or approach from their previous two records, a post-punk roar that tempers its aggression with breathless romanticism. Which is fine with me, because it’s a damn good formula. True to their name, the Gaslight Anthem want every song to be bigger than life. The easy comparison is to anthem-rock godfather Bruce Springsteen (who is known to be a big fan and has joined them on stage), but sharp ears will detect a lot of other influences as well. You could also describe them as “The Clash meets Billy Joel.” Or “Social Distortion meets Cheap Trick.” You get the idea. Pile-driving drumbeats and chanted backing vocals launch the tracks into rock-radio overdrive, and they also give the listener a few breathers in the moments where they do change it up slightly (the melancholy, atmospheric album-closer “We Did It When We Were Young,” the pulsating “Queen of Lower Chelsea”).
#14. The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever
The face of the Hold Steady is Craig Finn, a guy who every music nerd in their mid-thirties believes could be them. But despite his history teacher-like appearance, Finn is a wild man — or at least writes knowledgeably about wild men. The band didn’t bother to replace their keyboard player, who bailed early in the year, so guitars are to the fore, creating a leaner, more stripped-down sound than the E Street grandiosity heard on earlier releases. Here, the Hold Steady combine the simple, ragged electricity of the Replacements with the literate wounded-heroism of Elvis Costello. The Hold Steady’s trademark has always been tales of the dark side of a party-all-the-time existence. The good times are always followed by a bleary-eyed hangover, a passionate tryst is always followed by shame and regret (and possibly a trip to the clinic.) But the characters inhabiting Finn’s narratives go out and do the same things the next night. Until now. The costs are finally adding up, and Heaven Is Whenever sports a hard-won new maturity.
In the arrogance of youth, we think we are indestructible, and have all the answers. The people populating the Hold Steady’s songs have finally woken up and realized they’re permanently damaged, and haven’t even been asking the questions. Like everyone who’s been following the overall arc of the Hold Steady’s albums, I eagerly await the next installment.
#13. Cee-Lo Green – The Lady Killer
Cee-Lo’s two albums under the Gnarls Barkley moniker were pastiches of 60′s and 70′s soul and funk. The Lady Killer is similar, but without G.B. partner Danger Mouse’s techno tweaks and innovative knob-twiddlings, we get a much more straightforward alternate history of what old-school R&B might have evolved into were it not hijacked by operatic pop-schlocksters like Whitney Houston and bland hacks like James Ingram in the 80′s. Green’s warm, gospel-inflected voice on top of a batch of jams spiked with horns and sassy backing vocals make this a great listen. And of course, it has “Fuck You,” a monster of a summer sing-along single, which sounds like the 1965 Marvin Gaye, all tunefulness and bounce, teaming up with the 1979 coked-out Marvin Gaye, all bitterness and paranoia.
#12. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song
Occasionally, we all have to do things we’re not proud of to pay the bills. If you’re a professional Nashville songwriter, that includes writing “a lot of dumb-ass songs” (to quote Robbie Fulks), because that’s what modern country radio -– and by extension, the modern country audience — wants. Since we don’t really have Fred Durst to kick around anymore as the poster boy for musical dumb-assery, the broad target that is mainstream country will have to suffice. Trace Adkins’ cheerfully brain-dead “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” can serve as an example of the kind of steaming cowpat I’m talking about. The author of the song? None other than Jamey Johnson, when he was wearing his hack-songwriter-for-hire hat. Such crimes against taste should surely result in the hanging of Johnson from the nearest sour-apple tree, but when he’s wearing his other hat…the masterful singer-songwriter, he redeems himself.
The songs Johnson crafts for his own albums are literate and witty, sometimes with a touch of smoldering anger. He’s at his best when dealing with the country music staple of lost love (as in “Cover Your Eyes” and “That’s How I Don’t Love You”), or letting loose with a Merle Haggard-style polemic lamenting the exploitation of the working man (“Poor Man’s Blues,” “Can’t Cash My Checks”). There’s also duets, novelty songs, a few intelligently-chosen covers (like Kris Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times”), and a few anti-California red state songs that veer dangerously close to Toby Keith territory.
Make no mistake, this album is long, and far from flawless. The length is part of the fascinating spell the album weaves. The Nashville session pros that make up Johnson’s band stretch out and jam as if they’re off the studio clock and just hanging out. And the flaws are part of its charm. I certainly could’ve done without the ultra-corny “I Remember You,” a dialogue with God that gives “Christmas Shoes” a run for its money for nauseating mawkishness. The Guitar Song can be seen as a country version of the Clash’s Sandanista! – scattershot, overlong, sprawling, compelling, with total misfires nestling next to flashes of sheer brilliance.
#11. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast
Subtle it ain’t, but the explosive choruses and widescreen sound of Surfer Blood provide a catharsis…for a build-up that seems to have already happened before the songs start. In providing an out-of-left-field release the listener didn’t even know s/he needed, Surfer Blood implant themselves with devious cunning, relentlessly tickling the ear’s subconscious pleasure centers, refusing to be dislodged. Everyone knows a crafty hook and a big sing-along are what make a great pop record, but there’s something so uncalculated and unpolished about Surfer Blood that their pop savvy seems accidental and savant-like. There’s certainly no gloss or overproduction. In fact, their songs sound like deep cuts from the Who’s Sell Out being played from the bottom of an elevator shaft. In keeping with their moniker, there’s also some elements of surf music (particularly in the repeated nautical imagery and splashy echo) playing around the edges. This was the very first album I acquired in 2010, and I knew immediately it would be on the list at the finish line.
#10. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
For all the Holy Bee’s railings and ragings about pretentious collegiates insisting their band is an “art project,” there are rare times when that construct actually works. Even if you aren’t aware of Gorillaz, or of the fact that it is not a real band – it’s the work of former-pretentious-collegiate Damon Albarn (founder of influential Britpop band Blur) and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett (Tank Girl) – you are certainly aware of what this “virtual band” is capable of producing. Their 2005 single “Feel Good Inc.” was one of those absolutely inescapable pop-culture atom bombs. Even if you don’t know it by title, if you hear two bars of it, you’ll recognize it.
You can jump into the whole fictional Gorillaz universe here, and thrill to the adventures of 2D, Russel, Murdoc, and Noodle (and her cyborg replacement). Albarn and Hewlett are behind the concepts and visuals, while the actual music is crafted and performed by Albarn, keyboardist Mike Smith, and drummer Cass Browne. They are aided by a revolving-door army of collaborators, many from the world of rap and hip-hop. Plastic Beach features input from Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, De La Soul, the Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys, the Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, the Fall’s Mark E. Smith, and music legends Bobby Womack and Lou Reed. Hearing the result is like opening a musical toybox – colorful, random, messy, and lots of fun. The album’s loose concept is an indictment of waste, both materially (overflowing landfills, etc.) and culturally (time spent on disposable celebrities.) The concept does not always come through in the music. This may not be a bad thing, keeping the album barrelling along and preventing it from sinking under the weight of its ambitions. (The concept of Sgt. Pepper doesn’t really come through, either. As Lennon pointed out, “It works because we say it works.”)
Is Plastic Beach a rap album? Sort of, but with an oddball British twist. It’s a musical scavenger hunt. Hip-hop has some rhythmic overlap with reggae. Follow that down the rabbit hole a bit, and we discover that the Clash put out some pretty striking (for white Englishmen) dub reggae cuts. Take a left turn and realize that neither the Clash nor Blur would have existed without the Kinks. The Kinks started as an R&B cover band, and we’re right back where we started. All these elements and influences feed each other. (The New York visual-art aesthetic of Warhol and the Velvet Underground might as well squeeze in there somewhere, too. What the hell.)