That Auld Lang Syne Thing
Live music is certainly an option for NYE but the show to see this year, Band of Horses at the Variety Playhouse, has long since sold out. There are several other shows going this year at the typical places, Smith’s, Eddie’s, The Earl, and even places named after animals instead of people, like the Fox. Col. Hampton (Smith’s) and Derek Trucks (Fox) are both cool if you like that classic sound, but I have no idea about the ticket availability for either show. Friends of the A-List, Bonaventure Quartet, will also be playing gypsy style jazz instrumentals at Feast in Decatur and Gringo Star is making yet another appearance at Star Bar to close out the year.
If you have waited this long to make plans for the waning hours of ought eight, then here’s to next year working out a little better for you (try to get an early start).
The Hangover Weekend
The truly hardcore among you now expect me to preview the first weekend of the year. Right. If you do have the stamina to make another go of it after New Year’s Rockin’ Eve there will won’t be much to choose from. The Earl will be officially closed until January 9th. The Variety Playhouse effectively will do the same. There just isn’t much out there worth spillin’ the pixels.
Here’s an idea though. Try something new. Check out the Atlanta Songwriter’s Series at Kavarna – that’s Czech (like the country) for cafe. This Oakhurst Village joint is a coffee house that serves middle eastern fare and PBR. Saturday nights feature local unknowns plying the trade in a largely acoustic format. It’s sort of a scene, in the good way. Wander east and check it out. Next week, the A-List will be making resolutions but this week it is the longest A-List ever.
Best of Oh-Eight
This is the part I have been waiting for and thinking about for weeks. I had a couple of drafts in progress and when I sat down tonight to read them, well, they sucked. So I am scraping that plan and I am just going to tell you what I have to tell you.
If you enjoy the A-List, it’s not because of polish or professionalism. (C’mon, what can you call a music blog with no pictures, no downloads, and no ads, other than lame?) If I can flatter myself for a moment, you keep reading because there is a glimmer of entertainment tucked in amongst the information (and if not, then you stopped reading before getting this far anyway). I love music and I like to write. I am terrible at the former and only relentless at the latter, but the A-List has become a ritual of sorts for me – one that I share with all of you (be thankful that is all).
Now before you get all teary-eyed for me, this is not going to turn into some cheap emo lyric (like “I want to hate you half as much as I hate myself” which you can find buried in a some song by this unmentionable band). Instead, I find my inspiration for my year-end review (and the A-List in general) in the words of Jack Black, one-half (I think I got the math right this time) of heavy rock powerhouse Tenacious D, in his movie role as Po: “There is no charge for the awesomeness…or the attractiveness.” Enjoy.
These are my opinions and there were dozens of shows that I wanted to see but missed – Black Keys, Black Kids, Cool Kids, Kid Rock (not really, but I sort of had a thing going on there) – and since nobody pays me to go to shows, the selections are limited to what I actually saw (and probably even paid for).
1. Alejandro Escovedo at Eddie’s Attic in the early Spring. This show was truly remarkable and in some ways had a hand in the creation of the A-List. I wanted others to have a chance to see a show like this. Al was hanging at the bar shortly before he started his set accompanied only his band mate – both on guitar. He opened the set by literally tearing the B string off his acoustic guitar while trashing it to “Chelsea Hotel ’78″. Two songs after restringing, he played the rest of the set in the crowd (without PA or microphone) bringing new meaning to “in the round” and delivering the kind of performance that could only happen at Eddie’s. The crowd was transfixed during the songs and ear-splitting with its applause. He filled that little room with incredible energy. You don’t often see an old man do that and that is a testament to his committment to the craft. I don’t exaggerate when I tell you that this was the best show I have seen in a decade. Transcendent.
2. Gnarls Barkley – The Variety Playhouse. This was not the first show of their summer tour but it was their only appearance in Atlanta this year. I didn’t bother much with these guys in the wake of “Crazy” – a very legitimate song but as well all know (and Cee-Lo admitted at the show) a bit overplayed. The Odd Couple really grabbed me when I first heard it and as I love the Variety, I decided this was the time to see them. It was sold out and justifiably so. There are many ways a band can impress, but none more satisfying than when they do not rest on the laurels of a million seller and actually come out playing with energy, excitement and fun. I walked away from this show convinced that this band deserved the sales figures and a bit disappointed when this album never really took off like it should have (maybe they’ll get a Grammy).
3. Ra Ra Riot in the Drunken Unicorn (isn’t in how you really feel when you are there?) – The night I was there it was like Plato’s cave – the pictures dancing on the walls where wondrous. This show is the perfect example of why live music matters (borrowing liberally from Eddie). I bought the ticket on a hunch (I think I had heard one tune and read an album review) and showed up late. I stayed until the very end, bought the CD and regretted that I had missed even a minute of the show. These youngsters from Syracuse, NY put on a fantastic show and introduced me to one of my favorite records of the year. The reason you will always find me at shows of relative unknowns like this instead of Coldplay or Weezer is not the gruesome ticket prices charged by the latter bands or the even more obscene service fees charged by Ticketmaster to buy said tickets. You will always find me at these shows because there is absolutely no substitute for enthusiasm. I think a girl said that to me once, but anyway I think you see my point. Young bands are excited to have you in the crowd, excited to play their songs, and most often are just having fun. There is no substitute.
4. Ha Ha Tonka – Somewhere in Indiana, Pennsylvania. Yeah, there’s really a town in PA named IN. Of course, if you drive from Chattanooga to Knoxville you will also pass Athens, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Decatur. I guess the point this time is that most founding fathers were not nearly as original as they may have thought. Oh yeah, the show…it was great. Again, a young band – one I was well familiar with at the time – but like Gnarls Barkley, I left the show liking them more than when I walked in. Look for their next release on Bloodshot Records in double-oh nine. If you don’t know the band check out their Monkees inspired video for “St. Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor.” (P.S. – they’re way better than the Monkees, they just have a sense of musical history is all.)
5. Grace Potter & the Nocturnals – Variety Playhouse. Youth is king (or in this case queen). They might say that youth is wasted on the young but in Grace’s case she has grabbed it by the lapels and given it that kind of kiss that makes it simply give in. At 23, with three full lengths and hundreds of tour dates in her rear view (including two visits to our town this past year), you might think this Vermont vixen would be a bit worn down but not this night. Sporting a flying V and Bowie T, she delivered on the soul that she has put on vinyl. Check out “Treat Me Right” for a tame example of what I saw.
Best Live Covers
The cover song has become a staple of the live encore and personally I love it. Unless I have a friend in the band, I never go for cover band shows. But there is nothing quite as fun as hearing somebody put some new energy into a classic tune – new or old.
1. “Stronger” (Kanye West) as performed by Rebecca Loebe in The Atlanta Room at Smith’s Olde Bar. It’s two weeks in a row for Rebecca (I still heart you Bernadette) but she deserves it. I can’t do justice to her clever intro to this song that night (I think she said her grandmother sang it to her as a lullaby), but I did laugh out loud when I recognized the tune from the line “play secretary, I’m the boss tonight.” The single cut is suitably fun (with 20s rag horns) but it does not compare to solo little girl with the big hollow guitar version.
2. “Rockin’ the Free World” (Neil Young) as performed by Drive By Truckers with The Hold Steady at the Tabernacle. Nobody seems to have more fun on stage than Craig Finn and watching him wait in the wings for his turn to join DBT for this finale made it even more fun. Having seen Neil Young perform this tune many years ago, I have to say that this ensemble version compared quite favorably. Very simply, it rocked.
3. “Jet Airliner” (The Steve Miller Band) as performed by Grace Potter with The Wood Brothers at the Variety Playhouse. This classic was made unforgettable by Chris Wood (one half of The Wood Brothers (I know I have that math right) and one third of Medeski, Martin and Wood (pretty sure on that one too)) playing what must have been an aluminum pipe (because it was about six feet long and he was holding it over his head for at least three and half minutes) with a toilet plunger. With local boy Oliver Wood helping out on that classic opening riff, Grace just let go with the vocal. I couldn’t help but smile as my legs started moving.
4. “Sister Christian” (Night Ranger) as performed by Butch Walker (yeah, the audio is horrific after the first 3 minutes and that wasn’t me singing into the handycam – you had to be there, really) during 500 Songs for Kids at Smith’s Olde Bar. A nod to friend of the A-List – Josh Rifkind – for making this song number two in a remarkable and relentless countdown. This is without question the best recurring musical event in Atlanta. Great music for all the right reasons. Not to be missed. I have hyped it before and will again as it heads our way this spring.
5. “Beast of Burden” (The Rolling Stones) as performed by Alejandro Escovedo at the Variety Playhouse. After the Eddie’s show I had to see him again at the Variety, right? Another great show, not sublime like in March, but still very good. A Stones cover from my childhood (yeah, I’m that old) got me dancing (really, I do dance) and thinking of Bette Midler (okay, so that part wasn’t so good).
I feel this section deserves some explanation (but again, if you have read this far it probably isn’t necessary except to satisfy myself). I have chosen to create a list of best songs of the year instead of albums for a couple of reasons. First, I will not declare the album dead, but it sure ain’t what it used to be. Thank God that vinyl is making a comeback (really it is) or the art form would be completely lost. Cover art is usually seen on a digital screen that is not even 3 square inches. While thematic records survive (maybe 808s and Heartbreak?), I do not expect to see a major artist release anything like Tommy or The Wall any time soon. iTunes is the future (I bought something there today) and digital clips have returned us to the world of music that my father (and his impressive collection of 45s) knew. Of course, those were all singles, pushed by growing record labels and guaranteed by payola. We have a little more freedom now and we can choose our own singles (though I expect that within five years somebody will find a way to manipulate that). Even if we do listen to one album at a time, it’s probably on shuffle. Did I mention that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” (No, I will not link that!) is the greatest selling song of all time on iTunes? It wasn’t even the top selling single off that album (which was called Escape if you care), that was “Open Arms”. The point is that songs – in and of themselves – seem to matter more now than they have in a long time (I also think albums have suffered as a result – I have heard some bad deep tracks lately).
I understand that top ten lists are a function of our decimal (or denary) numeral system, but I have the same problems with convention that I have with authority, organized religions, and Republicans, so the A-List will go with a baker’s dozen and take a stand against triskaidekaphobia.
These are the ground rules. I have resisted the urge to repeat artists or include reissues in making this list (otherwise the list might be dominated by The Replacements – check out the TwinTone reissues). So to contradict everything that I just said about the album being dead (almost) there were several difficult decisions to make in selecting my favorite song from some really good records out there. I also noticed that many of my choices were sequenced at the beginning of those records (which is traditionally where the singles are) – another point for the continued relevance of the long play format and a mark against my shuffle theory. Maybe my theory is bunk and I just wanted an excuse to make a best of Y2K8 mix tape (playlist) for myself.
Finally, it is only fair to let you in on my criteria for selecting the songs. The standard is not that the song is well-crafted (though there are some of those) or inventive (maybe one of those) or expertly produced (probably two or three of those). I have abandoned critical snobbery (and I do sheepishly recognize that I am a music snob despite my shameless affection for DLR-era Van Halen). There effectively were two criteria and nothing scientific. These are songs I found myself listening to (and wanting to listen to) over and over, over the course of the year OR songs that I simply could not get out of my head. (The links are to Amazon which is certainly not the only place to buy music but certainly the easiest to link to – see my motive there?) Buy music!
1. “Sequestered In Memphis” from the album Stay Positive by The Hold Steady. I cannot get enough of Craig Finn’s stories. I get the Springsteen comparisons, but these tales are not so romantic and sentimental and thus, better. Maybe that’s just the generational gap showing up. As for this song, anyone who has ever been anywhere near a deposition has got to love the line “Man, they want to know exactly which bathroom / Dude, does it make any difference?” and I think we all understand what he means by “in daylight she looked desperate / that’s okay, I was desperate too.”
2. “Charity Case” from the recording The Odd Couple by Gnarls Barkley. This song excels in the nuance. The film projector. The snare and hi-hat. The hand claps. The whispered background vocals – the voices in the head of the lead vocal? I don’t know, but I do know that charity works and “If I help somebody / baby there’s mercy for me”.
3. “Always a Friend” from the release Real Animal by Alejandro Escovedo. Twenty-five years ago this would have been a top ten single. I know that might not be the most enticing endorsement you ever heard, but if you consider that the entire rotation of 97.1 (The River) is at least that old, there must be a market out there. This is a great rock n’ roll song in the classic tradition of The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Faces. I worry about my snakeskin boots too.
4. “One Two” from the EP The Bake Sale by The Cool Kids. Ah, hip-hop the way I grew up on it. Clever, funny, and absolutely, completely hook laden. The beats are infectious and the lyrics, instead of misogynistic, are actually positive – “Hmmm, let me think to myself. If I wasn’t me I would wanna be myself.” Impossible to resist. “I’m Annakin and I’m ramblin’, so blah da blah da blah to the chorus..”
5. “Ghost Under Rocks” from The Rhumb Line by Ra Ra Riot. I absolutely love the way the strings open this song (and I wish I could tell you what the technique is) but it is certainly something I never thought I would be saying about a rock n’ roll record. The vocal is so melodic and the songs so well constructed. This is irresistible pop music.
6. “Call it a Ritual” from At Mount Zoomer by Wolf Parade. I simply found this song infectious. It’s the hook, the stomp (without stomping), the naturally mellifluous vocal. It’s vaguely reminiscent of early prog rock Yes but certainly more modern. Again, I wish this is what I heard when I turned on the radio (and despite plugs by well-respected A-Listers, I haven’t heard it on AM1690 either).
7. “Lost Coastlines” from the album The Stand-Ins by Okkervil River. It may not seem like it to you but this is the last thing I am writing tonight (and gosh do I feel like mailing it in) but this song (and the record it is on) deserves the hype it gets from being on this list (??). Seriously, I believe great drummers make for great bands (and that doesn’t mean you have to be Neil Peart or Buddy Rich). The beat in this song allows the guitars to jangle and the vocals to wander without ever losing the feeling that you are engaged in a rock n’ roll song. Of course, “la la la” is the most versatile of all lyrics and it works here too.
8. “Nite Beat” from the LP The Air Salesmen by The Selmanaires. I don’t know if it is the drums or the soft Brian Eno-style production or what, but this reminds me of Talking Heads, and guess that is a good thing. These boys are local but have the potential to be so much more. Radio just doesn’t listen anymore.
9. “Strange Times” from the record Attack & Release by The Black Keys. I love the video on their website and want to replay this song every time it finishes (I had the same feeling with last year’s “Almost Ready” by Dinosaur, Jr.). I only wish I was as enthusiastic about the entire album (despite the Brian Burton production).
10. “Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!” from the album of the same name by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. I do not apologize for my preference for literary lyrics and my further affinity for biblical references (I love Josh Ritter and Bob Dylan for just those reasons). Nick Cave, poet, author, and the product of an Anglican boarding school, is well-suited to be the perfect foil for my songwriting bias – and is. The whole story is so good, I will not choose a line. I also like the obviously intentional overuse of the exclamation point. Emoticons beware – you have met your match!!!
11. “I Will Possess Your Heart” from the recording Narrow Stairs by Death Cab for Cutie – Despite the 4:34 intro, this song is perfectly captivating. In fact I think the intro perfectly parallels the lyrical story. The steady mounting intensity suggests that, as Ben Gibbard suggests, “you gotta spend some time love” and you just might come around. I don’t know why this album is being overlooked by so many of the real critics. Of course, I don’t know much.
12. “Paper Planes” from the release Kala by M.I.A. I usually don’t go for songs with gunshots but the rack of the magazine merging into the ring of the cash register is perfect commentary. This is everything that serious hip-hop can and should be. Of course, I am a sucker for the line “we pack and deliver like UPS trucks” too.
13. “Pray Enough” from the LP Loaded by The Wood Brothers – Finally, just in case we’re wrong about that unlucky 13 thing, “you can’t praaaay enough”.
Thirteen songs, whew.
Biggest Disappointments (*sigh*)
I don’t deny that I try to keep things positive here at the A-List. If I don’t like it or I’m not into it I just don’t mention it (e.g., OTP shows, Coldplay, Star 94, etc.) Nonetheless, I don’t think there is much credibility in offering musical selections for your entertainment without some kind of critical filter. The following are things that sucked. I will keep it short.
Manchester Orchestra – Despite the glimmering examples of Ozzy Osborne, Keith Richards, and Nikki Sixx, not everyone can play while wasted.
Rock City Drop-Outs – Nothing ruins a show like when the lead singer asks a 280 pound woman to get on stage and show the crowd the new tattoo on her ass.
Song – My Morning Jacket – “Highly Suspicious” might be the worst song committed to audible media by a band of consequence since Queen cut “Back Chat” in 1982. Ugh.
Album – The Killers, Day & Age – I am embarrassed to admit that I spent money on this record and in the immortal words of Stan Lee that is ’nuff said.
Put a Ribbon on It