Rocktoberfest Acht

So yeah, my friends and I, in a bout of total unoriginality, started this annual party called Rocktoberfest back in 2002. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of beer and friendship and meat and rocking until you break yourself. If that sounds childish and/or unimportant to you, maybe you should attend Rocktoberfest before you go judging things you don’t understand. Or maybe you’re humorless California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who doesn’t seem to like anything at all, especially if it has ever a) been in a union or b) been poor. But I digress.

This year was the 8th annual Rocktoberfest (Rocktoberfest Acht in German. So Achtoberfest, as my pal Jom pointed out while quite drunk) and we held it at my friend Badier’s mostly former house in Menlo Park, which is dangerously close to Stanford University. Having a massive party in a house that is mostly empty is definitely the way to go. Less shit to break.

I’d like to think that everyone who attends  our Rocktoberfest recognizes that, like Hold Steady albums and good beers, the most recent one is always the best one ever. This year was no exception.

Somewhere in the haze of music, drunk, and smoke, I realized why Rocktoberfest feels like a holiday to those who attend it and, as a sort of bonus realization, why rock ‘n’ roll is not a terrible substitute for a religion (when it doesn’t suck, of course). Let’s deal with the last thing first: at its best, rock ‘n’ roll creates community. When you go to see your favorite band, you share in the pure joy of music with a roomful of strangers. The audience and the band are all plugged in to something much bigger than the sum of its parts. The potential exists in that moment to meet new people and make new friends. You don’t have to do that, of course, but you totally can. And maybe you should. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of an ever-expanding community that started with five guys in a house. Those five guys didn’t always get along by any means, but Rocktoberfest creates a unique present in which the past is mostly obliterated while people sing along to songs like “This Fire” by Franz Ferdinand (modified by us so that the chorus is now, “This beer is out of control/ I’m gonna drink this beer/ drink this beer”) and “Holy Diver” by Dio (we poured one out for Ronnie James Dio this year). Sure, it’s silly. But what’s wrong with being silly?

What happened at Rocktoberfest this year was what I  imagine happened around Joe Strummer’s famous campfires at Glastonbury. Old friends met new friends, some of us had wives to bring, others had kids to leave at home. But for several hours of a Saturday, everyone was cool with everyone. For my part, I was deliriously happy. You can do this anytime you want, and you should. Gather your friends and some drinks and some great music, and celebrate your personal community. Rocktoberfest Acht was a reminder of why I love music and – more important – why I literally love a majority of the people I know. It’s not prayer and it won’t save you from much besides boredom, but it could provide you with one helluva a great night.

So, in the great words of Mr. Craig Finn, “Let this be my annual reminder/ that we can all be something bigger.” Go forward, kids, be awesome to each other, and rock the fuck on.

Believe This Hype Too: The 8 Most Underrated Guitarists I Can Think of Right Now

Even if you hate the guitar, you probably know some guitar player names: Hendrix, Slash, Eric Clapton, that asshole from Metallica (no, the other asshole from Metallica. No the other one). But there are some guitarists you might not know and I think you need to know them if you enjoy music. And fun.

1. Tad Kubler hid his guitar playing talents from the world by playing bass for Lifter Puller. When it came time to start the Hold Steady with fellow LP alumnus Craig Finn, Kubler upgraded to six strings and almost instantly (see “Most People Are DJs” from The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me for proof) became the best rock guitarist in America (more proof: “You Gotta Dance [With Who You Came With]”) . Clearly a graduate of the Melodic Riffage School founded by Angus Young and Slash, Kubler spends the bulk of any given Hold Steady record kicking ass and taking names. Basically, if I could have just one guitar lesson from one living guitar player, it would be Tad Kubler. Hands down.

2. Ani DiFranco. You probably don’t think of the guitar when you hear Ani DiFranco’s name. You might think “angry feminist folkie,” and that’s your prerogative. However, DiFranco has one of the most unique approaches to the guitar I’ve ever seen, her rhythms all choppy and funky, almost as angry as some of her songs (which aren’t all angry. Listening to Ani DiFranco won’t make your penis fall off, guys). She sounds simultaneously self-taught and accomplished, which is harder to pull off than you might think. When I saw her live, it struck me that she was someone who picked up a guitar and had no preconception of how it was supposed to work – so she made her own way with it and is really one of our finest acoustic players working today.

3. J. Mascis is the Rainman of the electric guitar. Seriously, if you see Dinosaur Jr. live, it looks like he has to be led to the stage and propped up between his two giant stacks of amplifier. But once he starts playing, you will fucking see colors. Mascis’s solos can seem a bit overstuffed at first, but his attack is furious and at his best, he is staggering. Some of his best moments can be heard on Dinosaur Jr’s Beyond, the “comeback” album for the original Dino Jr. lineup. Also check him out playing “Maggot Brain” on Mike Watt’s Ballhog or Tugboat album.

4. Doug Martsch. Built to Spill, like Death Cab for Cutie, is one of those bands that I associated with indie rock long before I ever listened to them. I was almost intimidated by the expectations I had for those two bands (and I wasn’t disappointed until Death Cab released Plans back in 2006; but they’re much better now) but Doug Martsch and Built to Spill put my mind at ease from the first time I heard Keep It Like a Secret. Then, in 2006, I heard You in Reverse and “Conventional Wisdom,” the central riff for which just makes me giddy all over. Martsch is a total package guitar player, busting out melodic solos, excellent rhythm parts, and – as he showed us on his solo outing, Now You Know – he’s no slouch when it comes to acoustic and slide guitar. Martsch has something for everyone, really, and now that you know that, go find some of his stuff.

5. Peter Buck. You don’t get to be a guitar god by having a tight grasp of nuance. R.E.M.’s Peter Buck is one of my very favorite guitarists because he doesn’t put on any airs about it. He’s the epitome of no-frills, but he can still play a lovely solo when the song demands it (the solo for “Flowers of Guatemala” is a perfect example). The lesson Buck teaches, with the patience of a Zen master, is that a good guitarist should be more interested in making great songs with his band than in showboating and noodling like a prick. This lesson is lost on far too many guitarists (and lead vocalists too).

6. Marc Ribot is not a household name. If it helps, he played on a lot of Tom Waits records. He combines the sort of buzzing electricity of the Ramones with the choppy funk of, say, Danny Elfman. Ribot is well versed in basically every style of music you want and his work spans pretty much every section of the record store. In 2005, he released an album of improvised sort-of covers of Albert Ayler (the famed free jazz saxophonist) songs. Let’s see Yngwie Malmsteen tackle that shit.

7. Nels Cline. If you’ve seen Wilco live since A Ghost is Born came out, then you’ve heard Nels Cline take Wilco’s songs and wrap them in a lovely ribbon of his furious riffage. Clearly a disciple of the Tom Verlaine school of guitar playing, Cline is one of the noodliest guitarists that I still enjoy. Why? Because when Cline plays, I imagine the proton beams from Ghostbusters firing out of his pickups. Watching the man play is like peering through your fingers at the Ark of the Covenant – expect some face meltage.

8. Ted Leo. Ted Leo plays the guitar like a motherfucker, but like Peter Buck, he doesn’t have to play a solo one thousand miles per hour to prove his chops. I read an article the other day that chided Ted Leo & the Pharmacists for considering themselves punk, but that article was bullshit. Punk isn’t a genre (not anymore), it’s a spirit, and Ted Leo certainly has it. The Brutalist Bricks is a compelling argument, but it’s only a fraction of the case Leo can make as a guitarist. See his band live and you’ll understand what it means for a guitar player to literally rip into a solo. Leo rips into them and tears them apart from the inside and then, as you’re coming down from that, he might just wow you by strumming out a cover of “Fisherman’s Blues” or something.

So there you have it. Some guitarists that people love too much, some that people love exactly enough, and now some that need more love. So go give it to ’em. We’ll return to regularly scheduled bitching about albums later this week, probably starting with Avi Buffalo.

I Can’t Review the New Hold Steady Album

Why, you’re wondering, can’t I review Heaven is Whenever, the new album by the Hold Steady? After all, they are my favorite band. It would seem to be a natural fit: they put out an album and I tell you all about how wonderful it is.

But that’s exactly the problem. I’m not going to pretend that Bollocks! is ever (or has ever been) even remotely objective, but at this point me reviewing a Hold Steady album is like an alcoholic reviewing beer. Except the Hold Steady won’t fuck up my liver.

So there’s no point in me telling you that Heaven is Whenever, despite the departure of Franz Nicolay, is probably the best Hold Steady album yet (someone on the interwub claimed that Separation Sunday was the Hold Steady’s “peak” but that’s probably the drugs talking. The best Hold Steady album seems to always be the latest one, which is really an achievement. Almost Killed Me is a great record, and they’ve only gotten better since then. I keep waiting for the Hold Steady record that’s going to disappoint me and they keep not making it). Of course I think that. At this point, it’s in my blood to think that.

If you’ve read Bollocks! much at all over the last two years, you probably expect me to say that Craig Finn’s lyrics are sharper than ever (standout lines include, “You can’t tell people what they wanna hear/ if you also wanna tell the truth”; “Heaven is whenever/ we can get together/ lock the door to your room/ and listen to your records”; and the simple, probably true, “In the end/ I bet no one learns a lesson”) and that Tad Kubler is still the most underrated guitar player in the world (opener “Sweet Part of the City” even features slide guitar and it sounds sweeter than honey dripping from the vulvas of angels*) .

So maybe you should find another reviewer to give you the nitpicky stuff. Someone will try to accuse the Hold Steady of making the same album over and over (which they haven’t) and someone else will say Craig Finn can’t sing (he’s gotten a lot better since Almost Killed Me and Heaven is Whenever is his strongest vocal performance yet). Pitchfork thinks “these new songs just don’t hit as hard,” so you can go there and try to figure out what about Heaven is Whenever warrants a score of 6.2. (Parenthetical rant:  I’ve got serious beef with scoring systems in general. If someone can’t tell how you feel about a record by what you wrote, you did a shitty job of writing. Almost every website rates things with numbers, stars, or grades like “A-“, which is bad. But Pitchfork’s numbered rating system is by far the most pretentious, goofiest bullshit ever. What the fuck are they judging, figure skating? Did the Hold Steady not land their Salchows and Lutzes to your liking? I suggest a new motto for you, Pitchfork: “No One Skates a Clean Program. Except Radiohead”) Perhaps Pitchfork didn’t notice the additional (and quite welcome) harmony vocals on nearly every track or the fact that Heaven is Whenever is heavy on chord-based riffs but not as heavy on Kubler’s guitar pyrotechnics (though those do make some appearances as well) .

You know who you should read? Probably that Robert Christgau guy. He’s a real intellectual about this shit and he’ll probably give you some good copy on Heaven is Whenever. He’ll probably tell you all about what’s wrong with it, from start to finish. But I won’t. Because I love it. Would I sit here and tell you all the bad stuff (which is far outweighed by the skull-crackingly awesome stuff) about my fiancee? No. Because I love her and I’m going to marry her and if things don’t work out, I just might marry Heaven is Whenever.

On the bright side, Heaven is Whenever has done some brilliant housekeeping for me here at the imaginary Bollocks! office. I no longer feel compelled to compile a list of my favorite albums of 2010 this December. Heaven is Whenever is my favorite album of the year – I listened to it six times the day it started streaming on NPR’s website and at least twice a day since then. That was before the fucking album even came out! Now that it’s out, there’s not gonna be a lot of time for me to listen to other albums in my car. I might as well roll out a little red carpet that leads to my CD player and forget that my other albums even exist.

So does this make me a Hold Steady fanboy? Possibly. Hell, probably. But I’m not gonna run to your blog and tell you to kill yourself if you don’t like Heaven is Whenever (this happened to me once when I had the temerity to not like an album. I won’t say which album, but the band’s name rhymes with Shmortugal. The Pan). Whether or not you like this album is immaterial to the fact that to my refined, devilishly handsome ears, this album kicks several buckets of ass.

So what is it, you might be inclined to ask, that makes me like the Hold Steady so damn much? Glad you asked. They consistently scratch an itch that I have for fun (listen to “Rock Problems” and “Our Whole Lives” and tell me those aren’t fun songs), literate rock ‘n’ roll music. Craig Finn’s musings on death and religion are not that far from my own – I believe, as he has mentioned before, that we are our only saviors. In a godless universe, we have two powerful things to help us out: each other and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not Nietzsche, but it’s not the worst ethos in the world either. But more than that, the Hold Steady has taken the music I grew up hating (I call it Alcoholic Stepdad Music, which should let you know everything you need to about where I’m coming from), music I thought was for dead-end buffoons in dead-end towns, and they’ve spit it back to me as something uplifting, positive, and goddamn entertaining. “Beautiful” is not a word that a lot of people would use to describe the Hold Steady’s music, but it’s beautiful to me.

So no pretense here. In an era of completely bullshit objectivity, I came here to praise Heaven is Whenever. There is nothing I don’t like about this album and if that ruins whatever credibility you were lending me, I can live with that (what the hell were you doing lending credibility to a blog anyway?). Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve only listened to Heaven is Whenever once today and that’s not nearly enough.

*If you’re unsure as to exactly how sweet that is, why not ask your reverend when you’re at church next Sunday?

Oh Good. A New Hole Album. (Part 2)

If you’re just tuning in, beer (Ninkasi’s Total Domination IPA, to be exact. The good folks at Ninkasi have helped me through a lot of shitty records, but they’re also there for me during the good times and I would like to give them a very special Bollocks! shout-out) and I are reviewing the new Hole album. So far, neither of us like it very much.

The track I’m listening to now is called, “For Once in Your Life” and the music is a blatant ripoff of a song from 2005 or 2006 (I remember it from a Boston winter, but can’t remember anything else) that I can’t remember for the life of me. It’s driving me nuts that I can’t remember what song this is. Is it a Perishers song? Snow Patrol? I don’t know, but it’s definitely hackwork. I spent a fucking hour trying to figure out what song “For Once in Your Life” is ripping off – if anyone can help me out with this, I’d be much obliged. Vocally, she’s impersonating Bob Dylan circa Blood On the Tracks, to which I can only respond with some of Dylan’s lyrics from that album: “You’re an idiot, babe/ it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.”

Super good. The next song is called “Letter to God.” My Cloying-Meter just broke. OH LOOK, EVERYBODY. COURTNEY LOVE IS WONDERING WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT AND WHO SHE IS AND WHAT THE POINT OF IT ALL IS! WOW! NO ONE HAS EVER WONDERED THAT IN SONG FORM EVER BEFORE!!!!1!!!ONE.  If you’ve deduced (correctly) that I hate Nobody’s Daughter at this point, think about how much I hate the whole album, multiply it by a thousand, and you’ll get to about half as much as I hate “Letter to God.” This song is pretty much everything I think is wrong with music and writing in general right now.

The next song is called “Loser Dust.” It’s really dumb. Love doesn’t really bother staying in tune much on this song. I want you to ponder something with me, Bollocks! readers: how much did Kurt Cobain have to loathe himself in order to shack up with someone like Courtney Love? “Loser Dust” is the typical Love ego married to a bad Foo Fighters song (i.e., one that came after The Colour and the Shape). Also, it’s about – what else? – how people are always waiting for celebrities to  fuck up in public. You know what? There are two cultural things that make me wanna riot right now: 1) movies where well-meaning white people come into the inner cities and teach African American kids how to read* and 2) songs by spoiled famous retards about how tough it is to be famous because everyone is watching you all the time. If it sucks that bad, Courtney Love, try getting a real fucking job. You wouldn’t last a minute – your job now is “do drugs in public and make shitty records”. That doesn’t exactly qualify you for anything in the private sector, does it? Maybe you can be some town’s Doddering Fuck-Up in Residence**, but that’s about it.

Not too much to go, but “How Dirty Girls Get Clean” is pretty awful. See, it starts out with an acoustic guitar for a few lines and then it gets all loud. To show the emotional impact of Love going through rehab or something. All the dynamics on Nobody’s Daughter are trying to be the dynamics from the Pixies’ Doolittle and they’re failing miserably. “How Dirty Girls Get Clean” is packed with the same lyrical cliches that plague the whole album. Also, more Dylan-impersonation. Minus a million points.

Last track! It’s called “Never Go Hungry.” Love sings about how she’s hungering for dignity. It’s a little late for that. “Never Go Hungry” has a sorta folky vibe to it, but the overall message is that Love will do anything so long as she doesn’t have to go hungry again. You know, like Ghandi did. Actually, I think Courtney Love is making a pretty bold declaration of her morals here: “I don’t care what I have to pretend,” she sings with more conviction than she has shown on the album so far. It’s cliche as fuck, but Love has finally let us know what she stands for: Courtney Love stands for Courtney Love and if you don’t like it, she’ll Twitter some incoherent nonsense about you.

Okay. It’s nearly 1 in the a.m. and my Ninkasis are nearly drained. Musically, Nobody’s Daughter is bland, derivative, and obvious. Lyrically, it is cliche as hell when it’s not being irritating as hell and the combination serves to make it, overall, fucking dreadful. I wouldn’t even recommend this album to people who hate themselves.

*I know someone is going to say that Dangerous Minds and movies like that are based on true stories, but that’s bullshit. “True story” movies are almost always embellished for dramatic effect (hate to rain on your parade, but the real guy from The Pursuit of Happyness was a bad father who abandoned his kid for his precious Wall Street career; the coach in Rudy actually wanted to let the runt play football, they just needed a villain for the film; and don’t even get me started on Braveheart). Know what I wanna see? A movie where Samuel L. Jackson goes to the backwoods of Georgia or Louisiana or Kansas and teaches white rednecks about evolution. Hell, if Mr. Jackson is game, I’ll fucking write that movie myself.

**It’s sort of an advanced version of the Town Drunk.

She & Him, Puppies, and “You HAVE to Like…”

I usually post the album art for whatever album I’m reviewing, but for my review of She & Him’s Volume Two, I’ve chosen to post a picture of my dog. Her name is Asha (Swahili word for “life,” and you are free to make jokes about the Cornershop song “Brimful of Asha” all you want) and you don’t have to think she’s awesome. But she’s awesome. Where am I going with this? You can guess: you don’t have to think She & Him’s Volume Two is awesome. But it is awesome.

Before we go much further, we would benefit from a short discussion of something that I fucking hate: when people tell you that you have to love something or do something or believe something (unless that something is, say, scientifically verifiable. Like the germ theory of disease) or whatever. I’ve literally been told I have to like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” because it’s “a classic.” Well, I fucking abhor that song. Its chorus has fuckall to do with its verse, the instrumentation is nauseating, and Steve Perry sings like someone’s applying a vice grip to his balls (if someone hasn’t, they fucking well should). It’s a shitty song and I do not have to like it. I don’t have to like anything. At all. Ever. Are you reading this, Portugal. The Man fans? (Probably not.) While we’re at it, we should also do away with the myth that you have to have an objective reason for not liking something (by “do away with,” I mean “shoot execution style”). “It sounds like shit” is all the reason you need, although my preferred reasons, when pressed by some argumentative nimrod, are either 1) “Fuck you” or 2) “Your mom” or, if I’m feeling saucy, 3) “Fuck your mom.” I really like to elevate the discourse.

Now having said that, there are certain things that I think nearly everyone likes and I’m baffled when I meet people who don’t like whatever thing that is. Like puppies. You like puppies, don’t you? Who the fuck doesn’t like puppies? Or ice cream – excusing, of course, the lactose intolerant. I can understand not liking foods that your body rejects out of all possible exits.

So, for people who like puppies (presumably everyone), you still don’t have to like Journey or Portugal. The Man or Jesus or pizza or sunshine (and you don’t have to like Mariah Carey, for that matter. I sure as hell don’t). But I’m betting you will like She & Him’s Volume Two. I’m betting you liked Volume One. Unless you hate joy (in which case, you might be House Minority Leader John “My Skin is Orange” Boner*. Can we say that your skin tone is natural? HELL NO, we can’t!).

The thing is, it barely makes sense for me to attempt criticism of She & Him’s Volume Two because I liked it a whole lot almost instantly and I like it more every time I hear it. I liked Volume One a lot and Volume Two does not depart much at all from its predecessor’s winning formula. Zooey Deschanel’s voice is in its usual excellent shape (and let’s pause for a second here to give her the maddest of props for blowing up the myth of the actress-as-musical-dilettante. She’s about the only actress I can think of who should definitely quit her day job and pursue music full time. Scarlett Johannsen, on the other hand, should be jailed for her blasphemous desecration of Tom Waits songs, entitled Anywhere I Lay My Head. That album was a pioneering example of epic fuck-awfulness. And those of you who think Miley Cyrus counts as either an actress or musician, well, you’ll grow up some day and be really embarrassed by the passions of your misspent youth**) and M. Ward once again creates brilliant sonic landscapes upon which Deschanel’s voice can freely frolic. Sure, like Volume One, this album is part 70’s country and part oldies radio pastiche, but it’s so musically on point that I don’t care. I’m too busy enjoying the album to point out that it’s derivative, mostly of its predecessor. If anything, Volume Two is a little more uptempo and there are a few more (quite welcome) electric guitar bits. As Deschanel sings on “In the Sun,” “Well, all right.”

I think She & Him’s success is based on three guiding principles: 1) strong melodies. If you asked me, “Matt, what is an indelible melody?”, I would point you to She & Him’s two volumes of pop awesomeness. The melodies on Volume Two are perhaps a bit stronger, but that’s like saying you won two more bucks in the lottery this year than you did last time; 2) understanding, and paying, their debt to the Beatles. I know, everyone owes a debt to the Beatles, but She & Him are two of the Fab Four’s most capable (if obvious) disciples. ‘Nuff said; 3) rarely straying past the four minute mark. This is crucial to the success of music that is so clearly nodding to music we’ve all heard before. A nine minute jam on Volume Two would, in all likelihood, sink the whole enterprise. I’ve said before that brevity is the soul of pop, and She & Him understand that.

Volume Two’s other big improvement over Volume One is the better use of M. Ward’s voice, laying subtle harmonies under Zooey Deschanel’s lovely melody lines. Volume Two is a harmony-rich album (album closer “If You Can’t Sleep” gives me chills), which is impressive to me because it manages to do so without wallowing in the Brian Wilson-worship that has permeated a lot of  indie music over the last few years (I may be committing blasphemy here, but I find Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys to be completely overrated. I’m glad he stopped singing about surfing, but can you honestly tell me what the big fuss was about Smile? No? I didn’t think so. For my money, Dark Night of the Soul, which might actually see the light of day this year***, is a much better “lost” record than Smile).

So  yeah. Not much more to say about She & Him, Volume Two. It’s awesome, though not as awesome as my dog, and you don’t have to think so but you probably will. About the album, I mean. And the dog too. You seem pretty smart.

* Spelled phonetically, of course.

** I don’t exclude myself from this. I used to own Bon Jovi albums on cassette. If I could go back in time and kick my ass for that, I would.

*** I am not blaming EMI for Mark Linkous’s death earlier this year. But I’m not not blaming them either. And since today is April 2, make of that what you will.

My 13 Favorite Albums of 2009 13-6

Well, here we are in 2010, the year we make contact. For those of you who don’t know, a new federal law went into effect at midnight on New Year’s Day: if you hear any of your fellow citizens call this year “oh-ten”, it is legal to punch them in the face exactly one time.

Having safely seen 2009 out the door, I think it’s time to start talking shit about it. Everyone loves a list, especially one that doesn’t include Animal Collective or Phoenix, so I compiled a list of my 13 favorite albums of 2009. I don’t know if they’re the best albums of the year or not and I don’t care. They’re the ones I like the best and, honestly, I think that’s all anyone can say. Also, my list contains 14 albums (well, technically, 13 albums and an EP) because there was a tie. Anyway, feast yer eyes on this here list (helpfully rendered in a distinctly non-slide-show format):

13. Lord Cut-Glass, Lord Cut-Glass. I’ll just assume everyone knows that Lord Cut-Glass is really former Delgado Alun Woodward. And I know that my review of this record spent a good deal of time bitching about how the Delgados ought to just reunite, come to the U.S. and play shows in the courtyard of my apartment complex. But the fact remains that Lord Cut-Glass is a really beautiful record; Woodward lilts over plucked acoustic guitars and low brass, quietly issuing some of the best melodies of his career. Highlights include “Picasso,” “Even Jesus Couldn’t Love You,” “Holy Fuck,” “A Pulse” and “Big Time Teddy.”

12. Mike Doughty, Sad Man Happy Man. Last year, Doughty put out an album called Golden Delicious that I liked well enough at first. And then it kinda grew off of me with a stunning quickness. Just wasn’t feeling it, I guess. However, because I love Mike Doughty, I’m always willing to listen to his stuff. This year, he put out the superb Sad Man Happy Man, which I nabbed from Amazon’s digital store for five freaking bucks (gargle my balls, I-Tunes). SMHM is driven by Doughty’s chunky guitar strumming and absurd humor, and it’s my favorite album of his since Skittish (which has to be one of the most underrated albums I’ve ever heard). It opens with one of its best moments, “Nectarine (Part Two)” and also includes the coolest prayer ever (“Lord Lord Help Me Just to Rock Rock On”) and “Year of the Dog,” which might be Doughty’s best tune since “Sweet Lord in Heaven.”

11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz. 2009 was a great year for some of my favorite female vocalists, not least of whom is Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Not only did I get to delight in an affordable deluxe edition of It’s Blitz! (Amazon’s mp3 store has not yet let me down in the cheap goodies department), but I got to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs play a kickass set at Coachella (one of the best sets I saw at that festival). The album is filled with awesome turbo-pop (starting with a pair of aces in “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll”) and a few pretty ballads (“Hysteric” splits the difference between the two types of song and is, in two words, fucking awesome). It’s Blitz! firmly established the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as one of the best bands in America and their live shows will back that claim up for the doubters.

10. Brother Ali, Us. I could make a joke about how Brother Ali is the king of white rap (ha ha, because he’s an albino, ha ha), but, taking Us as exhibit A for the prosecution, it’s more accurate to place Ali near the top of the hip-hop heap, regardless of skin pigment. Jay-Z has never, in my estimation, done anything to rival  “Tightrope” or “The Travelers.” To my knowledge, he’s never even tried. With Us, Ali threw down a gauntlet of new rules for the hip-hop community, chief among them: no skits and fewer songs about how badass you are (Us has ’em, but they’re matched pound for pound by songs of real substance and at least one tune wherein Ali shows gratitude for his good fortune, saying, “I’m the luckiest sonofabitch that ever lived”). Us is a truly refreshing album, and it stays fresh with every listen.

9. Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career. Speaking of refreshing, Camera Obscura released one hell of an orchestral pop album last year. My Maudlin Career, despite its potentially emo-sounding name, starts and ends with a bang (“French Navy” and “Honey in the Sun”, respectively) – in between, Tracyanne Campbell drops lines like “when you’re lucid, you’re the sweetest thing” and “drinking has never been the same again”, the latter from the stellar, mournful ballad “Other Towns and Cities”. My Maudlin Career is so good that I think almost anyone who likes music will like it. But some people who like music like Wavves, so I could be wrong.

8. The Minus 5, Killingsworth. Killingsworth is the album that elevated Scott McCaughey from Person of Interest to Folk Hero in my estimation. It’s basically a dark country rock album, but it’s so fully realized and wittily rendered (“your wedding day was so well-planned/ like a German occupation”) that it cannot be denied. Backed by an excellent chorus of women, McCaughey sings of lurking barristers, broken love, and crowded urban apartment life (“Big Beat Up Moon”) with a drunken weariness that is deeply appealing to young curmudgeons like myself. He also takes the time to satirize fundamentalist Christianity on “I Would Rather Sacrifice You”, a song that never fails to but a big smile on my face.

7. The Future of the Left, Travels with Myself and Another. I have said many times that, all appearances to the contrary, I like more music than I dislike. A small subsection of music that I like is nasty, noisy stuff that almost no one else I know likes. Titus Andronicus comes to mind here, as does the Future of the Left, whose Travels with Myself and Another beat its way into my skull and won my heart last year with its pounding drums and Andy Falkous’s snarling vocals. Subjects range from girls who get off on hitting people (“Chin Music” will only be appropriate at a very small number of weddings:  “I only hit him ’cause he made me crazy/ I only hit him ’cause he made me mad/ she only hit him ’cause it gets her wet/ yeah, she’s one of a kind/ she’s got chin music”) to the practical concerns of Satanism (“You Need Satan More than He Needs You”). Travels with Myself and Another pretty much kicks ass, though it’s not for the faint of heart or the humorless.

6. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast. I guess #7 and #6 on my list are a study in contrast. Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast is an understated, mellow, and completely lovely work – his finest to date, if I may be so bold. It blends Bird’s myriad musical talents (no one on earth – no one – can whistle like this motherfucker) into quirky pop (“Fitz and the Dizzyspells”), old school folk (“Effigy,” which is nothing short of stunning), and whatever you’d classify “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” as. Some of the songs have unique movements, but they never seem to wander, even on the seven minute “Souverian.” Bird is a musician’s musician, a guy you can study as well as enjoy, and Noble Beast is the textbook for aspiring musical ninjas.

I know. It’s taken me four days into the new year to even start counting down my favorite albums of the old year and now I’m doing it in two parts. Pitchfork took a week to do their list and they still fucked it up, so maybe it’s better that I’m taking my time. I, for one, wholeheartedly endorse every choice I’ve made so far. Tune in tomorrow or Wednesday for albums 5 through 1, which are bound to include demure rodents, plenty of references to whiskey, a rant about shitty record labels, the best pop album of the year, the word vagina, and plenty of weather.

Best Albums of My Life #2: Mule Variations

There are a couple of things that even Pitchfork and I can agree on. #1: the Hold Steady is awesome. #2: you won’t “write a song as good as Tom Waits’ very worst song. Sorry, you just won’t.” They wrote that about the first Tom Waits album I ever heard, 1999’s Mule Variations. And, to this day, it’s the one sentence in all of Pitchfork’s history with which I agree word for word.

I first encountered Mr. Waits on an episode of VH1’s Storytellers and I was immediately struck by how awesome his stories were and how little they had to do with the songs he was performing. And the songs! Sweet Jesus, the first time I heard “House Where Nobody Lives”, I think I had an experience like the Mormon missionaries try to sell you about divine revelation. Here was a dude who was speaking the truth in a way I’d never heard anyone speak it before. I ran out and purchased Mule Variations immediately. That was ten years ago and my copy has seen better days, but it spins just fine and still resonates just as deeply.This album, like many Tom Waits albums, is the real shit – the deep down, bloody, muddy, messy, broken, gospel of sinners, whores, bums, ruffians, ne’er-do-wells, and basically everyone else.

What is it about Waits that’s so goddamn impressive? His songs are journeys, for starters. And, though they are full of specificity (including street names and weather, things Waits views as essential to good songs), they strike a universal chord. Take “Tom Traubert’s Blues”, for example: you don’t have to have actually been somewhere where no one speaks English and everything’s broken to understand exactly how he feels. Right? Waits intuitively understands broken-hearted, busted-ass loneliness and the anguish he howls from the rooftops is our anguish – a friend of mine in college said that Waits is crying so that you don’t have to. You couldn’t do it that well anyway. And that’s due in large part to his voice. I know, I know, a lot of people are all “Tom Waits can’t sing” or “his voice sounds funny” or “he sounds like Cookie Monster” but what they don’t understand is that for what Tom Waits is trying to tell you (about you, about us, about nasty, brutish, and short fucking life), ordinary voices are useless. I’d go so far as to say that they are insultingly inadequate. For the heartache and, yes, the joy that Waits is bringing on his tunes, you need a voice that’s a still-beating heart being tossed into a wood chipper in the middle of a nuclear war. You need a voice that took a stiff shot of whiskey and chewed up the glass. You need exactly the voice that only Tom Waits has. Do you really wanna hear Josh Groban inviting you to come on up to the house when “the only thing that you can see/ is all that you lack”? No. No, you don’t.

Mule Variations is full of some of Waits’s best busted-ass moments, too. On “Get Behind the Mule” (this is how Waits encourages perseverance – he’s not gonna tell you you’re beautiful no matter what they say and that words can’t bring you down; there’s no time for that in the Tom Waits universe. You’ve gotta get up and get to work, just like the rest of us), he gave me a line that resonated through pretty much every failed romance of my life since I first heard it: “Big Jack Earl was 8 foot one/ and he stood in the road and he cried/ he couldn’t make her love him/ couldn’t make her stay/ but tell the good lord he tried.” Again, a lot of people have probably stood in poor Jack Earl’s giant shoes. On “Cold Water”, Waits feels the pain of “pregnant women and Vietnam vets/ out there beggin’ on the freeway/ ’bout as hard as it gets”. That’s a line Bruce Springsteen would’ve sold (and/or had sex with) his mother to write.

But Mule Variations isn’t all gritty, bone-tired heartache, either. It also features a fair amount of that magical Tom Waits weirdness. “What’s He Building?” reads like a list of rumors Waits’s neighbors might cook up about him. “Eyeball Kid” is a circus-freak anthem complete with a telling autobiographical element: the Eyeball Kid was born on December 7, 1949, the same day as Thomas Alan Waits. Like the Eyeball Kid, Waits came here to show us how to really see. And “Filipino Box-Spring Hog” is a recipe for awesome disaster and possibly also a terrible dinner.

The thing (if there is indeed only one thing, which I kinda doubt) that makes Mule Variations a masterpiece (in a career full of them) is how easily the oddball tunes sit along side some of Waits’s finest ballads: “Picture in a Frame” features a line that I find so honest and so simply romantic that it has caused me, upon reflection, to give up writing love songs myself: “I’m gonna love you till the wheels come off.” Maybe that doesn’t grab y’all the same way it grabs me, but when the radio is crowded with people singing about how someone is their whole life or their everything or whatever, Waits’s lyric cuts me to the quick. I want to love someone till the wheels come off and, luckily, I get to. Sorry, Portugal. The Man fans, someone out there really loves terrible ol’ me. No one said life is fair.

And then there’s “Georgia Lee”, a piano ballad about a girl who was murdered. I love that Waits doesn’t just make a tug for your heart strings here. He does nothing less than call God out for dropping the ball: “Why wasn’t God watching?/ Why wasn’t God listening?/ Why wasn’t God there/ for Georgia Lee?”  It’s clear, then, that Tom Waits doesn’t just understand romantic loss. He understands the feeling of being massively, cosmically fucked over, and he can howl that pain for you too. Is it overstating it to suggest that Waits is out there, strolling the universe, absorbing some of the hits for all of us? Maybe; but when I listen to his stuff, I’m not so sure. This is my gospel music, kids – and Mule Variations closes with a kick-drum stomping spoonful of raw spirituality called “Come On Up to the House,” where Pastor Tom tells us to “come down off the cross/ we can use the wood” and reminds us “the world is not my home/ I’m just passing through.” Is that corny? So be it; after my sister died last year, this was one of the songs that picked me back up, that let me laugh and cry at the same time. So for me, Tom Waits’s music has real healing power, the kinda stuff some people find in church and other people find in a bottle.

If a major criterion for being the voice of your generation (or any generation) is being able to tap into the hopes, joys, loves, and fears of that generation with a profound understanding (is that a major criterion? I should hope so), then it might be time to consider that Tom Waits is the true voice of at least one generation and probably of many generations. Sure, he’s not as glamorous as Kanye West and he doesn’t want the job nearly as bad as Kanye does, but his music is 9000 times more honest. In my lifetime, Tom Waits has made some of the most heart-wrenchingly meaningful music I have heard and Mule Variations is my favorite of his albums not just because it’s amazing, but also because it was my gateway into the man’s entire body of work. It has shown me the way to songs that have seen me through pretty much every high and low point of my life for the last ten years.