Category Archives: Listomania

My Top 10 Albums of 2016

Hard to believe that another year has come and gone. I won’t beat around the bush, 2016 was a hard year for me (and the world at large) and I’m not sad to see it go. That said, there was some fantastic music released this year. I haven’t done a Top 10 Albums list since 2012, the biggest reason for that being I am super-lazy and didn’t make much of an effort to listen to stuff as it came out. But this year I made a real effort to listen to as many new releases as I possibly could and I also kept a running list of what I heard and what tickled my fancy.

Please keep in my that this is a music blog, first and foremost, so even though it’s called Defending Axl Rose I listen to many genres of music. Meaning: all you racists fucks that want to complain that I have rap albums on this list can just stop reading now. I can (and do) approve pretty much every non-spam comment I receive on this website, including all sorts of hateful comments attacking myself (or my shitty writing) but if you leave a comment bashing me for including non-rock artists on this list I’m going to delete it.

Lastly, I feel the need to address what’s not on this list. Specifically, the album everyone seems to think was “the best” album of 2016: David Bowie’s final album BLACKSTAR. Just before he died, I remember a creepy music video was released to promote the album. I recall vividly pushing play with eager anticipation. I silently prayed that the Thin White Duke still had it. Then the video started and…I wasn’t impressed. It’s just not my cup of tea if I’m being honest.  BLACKSTAR, which is described by many as “jazzy” is just too avant-garde to me. I tried as recently as last month to make it all the way through the album in order to “get it” and include it on this list…but I just couldn’t. Sorry, Bowie. I love the glam-rock era stuff, but I just couldn’t connect with this final effort. I will say that the album now sounds terribly sad now that he’s dead. The album is riddled with allusions to death and passing which does change the way BLACKSTAR plays.  He truly was writing about the end of his life on that record. Anyway, I know some of my music loving firends are going to comment “Where is BLACKSTAR?” and I just wanted to address that now rather than later.

So without further ado…

 

 

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10. TEENS OF DENIAL by Car Seat Headrest. I kept hearing good things about a band called Car Seat Headrest, so I checked out TEENS OF DENIAL and was surprised the album lived up to the hype. What really piqued my curiosity was the band’s use of The Cars track “Just What I Needed,” however by the time I got around to listening to the album the song “Not What I Needed” had been gutted of The Cars lyrics following a massive recall on the album. Turns out The Cars (or whoever owns the rights to their music) hadn’t approved the use of their music. Bummer. Anyway, this band has been around for a while (Wikipedia states this is the 13th album!?) but these guys sound young. TEENS OF DENIAL reminded me of the early 2000’s garage rock revival with a dash of Moldy Peaches Adam Green thrown in for good measure. These songs tell little stories and are kinda funny/strange at times. “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” has a great riff and the lyrical hook to the semi-epic “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” reminds me of all the great indie music I was listening to in my early 20’s. A throwback album for sure, TEENS OF DENIAL is a fun one that gets better with each listen. Definetly check this one out if you’re still listening to the Juno soundtrack.

 

 

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9. SHAPE SHIFT WITH ME by Against Me! Though I don’t typically go for aging punks there’s something very charming about Against Me!’s latest record SHAPE SHIFT WITH ME. Part of what I find so appealing about this record is its unrepentant pop leanings. (Because aging popstars are fun, aging punks are sad, get it?) Songs like “Boyfriend” and “Crash” are damn good fine pop songs, the kind that stick in your head for days and make you wonder what the hell is wrong with pop culture that these things didn’t break through. Though many of the songs deal with the lead singer’s transition from male to female (which, what could be more punk than being true to yourself?) there’s something universal in the album’s awkward and angry-ish songs. So while SHAPE SHIFT WITH ME does have flourishes of aging-punkism, there’s a lot more going on throughout the album. The spooky “Dead Rats” is also a bitchin’ tune that, in addition to “Crash,” is what convinced me that I liked this band and loved this album.

 

 

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8. GOOD TIMES! by The Monkees. What a delightful surprise that a 2016 Monkees album is actually really, really good! Growing up, I was a Beatles-fan and always considered The Monkees to be lame imitations. But the concept behind this record was too intriguing for me to pass up: the reunited band (minus the deceased Davy Jones) would record songs written by their famous admirers. Admirers like Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne), Andy Partridge (XTC), Paul Weller (The Jam), and Noel Gallagher (Oasis). The album works both as a modern album and as an artifact of classic 60’s pop. What’s more, there are even moments of real honest-to-god greatness on this record, such as the tearjerker “Me & Magdalena.” I think of all the albums on this list, GOOD TIMES! is the one that many people will be the most skeptical of, but give it a fair shake. Believe me, this lifelong Beatles fan wouldn’t have this album on his Best of 2016 list unless this was a legit, great record.  Read my original review here.

 

 

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7. WILD STAB by The I Don’t Cares. A fun, playful meeting of minds between singer-songwriters Juliana Hatfield (The Lemonheads) and Paul Westerberg (The Replacements) WILD STAB is great. I’m a big fan of Westerberg’s wryly earnest lyrics and WILD STAB has Westerberg playing off of the charming Hatfield quite nicely. In fact, the two go together so well one can’t help but wonder if songs like “Kissing Break” are even more intimate that they appear on the surface. Regardless of whether or not our two leads are an item, as The I Don’t Cares they make a great team. After Westerberg disbanded The Replacements (again) I didn’t expect to hear from him so soon. Thankfully, this stripped-down/laid-back album is the perfect capper to the ‘Mats reunion tour. The playful lyrics of songs like “Wear Me Out Loud” and “Sorry For Tomorrow Night” reminded me of how great a songwriter Westerberg can be. The single “King of America” is a fantastic example of classic-Westerbergian writing. The shimmering lyrical hook blended with the sneering, almost dashed-off disdain in the vocal delivery is everything I love about Paul Westerberg. I was so happy that this album came out, though it doesn’t appear to have made much of an impact, I could only find a few reviews of it online when researching WILD STAB in order to confirm it’s 2016 release date. Don’t sleep on this one, especially if you like The Replacements.

 

 

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6. COLORING BOOK by Chance The Rapper. A fusion of rap, pop, and gospel music, Chance The Rapper’s COLORING BOOK shares many similarities with another high-profile rap album released in 2016, Kanye West’s THE LIFE OF PABLO. But whereas Mr. West’s album is littered with the debris of hubris and unchecked ego, Chance’s album is more playful and has 99% less cringe-inducing moments. There are many parallels between the two albums, the opening “All We Got” (which features Kanye) is reminiscent of “Ultralight Beam” off LIFE OF PABLO. Both albums have a song about the transient nature of friendship (“Real Friends” vs. “Summer Friends”). But Chance’s song “No Problem” is the fun summer-jam  2005 Kanye used to make. In fact, despite tackling some heavy subjects (“Same Drugs”), COLORING BOOK is vibrant and makes you feel good as you listen. Had COLORING BOOK not been released the same year as Kanye’s latest opus, I can safely say it would have been my favorite rap album of the year. Hopefully, he’ll get that Grammy.

 

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5. iii by Middle Class Fashion. While not yet household names, Middle Class Fashion earned a spot on my Best Albums of 2016 by crafting clever, catchy songs. The band’s third album is a little darker than their previous effort, 2013’s JUNGLE (which is also fantastic), but still just as engaging and fun. These are songs that you’re almost instantly able to sing along with, this is most exemplified by the track “86.” It’s one of those songs you swear you’ve heard somewhere before because it’s immediately accessible/familiar. To me, that’s the hallmark of truly great songwriting. Middle Class Fashion sorta defy easy/neat categorization, but if I had to describe them I’d say they’re a piano-centric indie rock band that flirts with dance/electronic music. Some of the tracks on this album have a retro 80’s synth quality about them, but not in an annoying way (if that makes sense). Stand out tracks like “Runaway” and the aforementioned “86” were definitely in heavy rotation in my playlists this year. Even as I write this I keep thinking about how great the melancholic “Outer Space” is or how fun “Schoolboy” is…and how great is it that they appear back-to-back! I can’t recommend this album enough.

 

 

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4. HARDWIRED…TO SELF-DESTRUCT by Metallica.  It took me a long time to decide if Metallica’s latest album was worthy of this list. After issuing my final verdict on the album earlier this month, I went back and re-listened to HARDWIRED…TO SELF-DESTRUCT. Having removed myself from the sky-high expectations that haunted my first few listenings of the album, I can safely say that this is the best modern Metallica record. Overblown and overlong, but nonetheless a thrilling ride. There are very few massive album releases that impress me anymore, but Metallica has successfully pulled off a AAA-release in 2016 that’s actually worthy of all the attention. I recently learned that “Moth Into Flame” was written about the late singer Amy Winehouse, which adds a tragic dimension to the song. I’m not surprised that this album didn’t land on the Best of 2016 list for Heavy Metal Overload, this isn’t an album for hardcore metalheads but is instead for all of us filthy casuals. But at the end of the day, Metallica is keeping the torch of metal lit and that needs to be respected. The fact that they were able to put together such a solid album needs to be celebrated. I also still can’t get “Now That We’re Dead” out of my head. Read my original review here.

 

 

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3. BOY KING by Wild Beasts.  Though I didn’t cite them in my initial review, I think the specter of Queen haunts BOY KING. Sure, Wild Beasts’ latest album may sound more like Trent Reznor-meets-Stereophonics at first brush, but the confident strut and purring sexuality are 100% Queen. There’s a theatricality radiating throughout BOY KING that recalls A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. I went from having never heard of Wild Beasts to falling head over heels for them in 2016. This is a great record to run (or do other things) to and was my #2 most-listened to album top to bottom (see #1 for my most listened-to album). “Big Cat” and “Get My Bang” are essential tracks, but there’s something fantastic about “Eat Your Heart Out Adonis” and “Alpha Female.” If you like (dark) Brit-pop or just pop with flair, give BOY KING a listen. Read my original review here.

 

 

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2. WEEZER (The White Album) by Weezer. The first time I heard the latest Weezer album I had it on softly while I did other things. I only really gave it a shot out of habit. “Oh, the new Weezer album? Yeah, I heard it…” I remember being pretty unimpressed and wrote the band off as finally no longer worth the effort and moved on. Then something strange happened, I started seeing it pop up online and on a podcast or two that I listen to. Word on the street was that this new Weezer album was the real deal. So I sat down and gave WEEZER (The White Album) another shot. Boy, am I glad I did because this was one of the best albums I heard all year. As is the case with most modern Weezer albums, the singles are the worst songs on the record. “Thank God For Girls” is pretty cringe-worthy, no matter how big a fan you are. But 90% of this album is a pleasant return to form for the band. “Endless Bummer” the album’s final track, is a spooky campfire song that builds into a crescendo of awesomeness. I also really enjoyed the 60’s throwback “(Girl We Got A) Good Thing” which could have been a cut on the #8 album on this list. This is the sort of album that reinforces my belief that it’s never okay to write a band off.   Read my original review here.

 

And finally…

 

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1. THE LIFE OF PABLO by Kanye West.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s never been harder to be a Kanye West fan than it’s been in 2016. I was introduced to Kanye in the fall of 2005, and since that time he’s been the most consistently great artist of the past decade. Every new Kanye West album pushes forward–Kanye never back-peddles or plays it safe even when many in the record buying public would prefer if he stopped experimenting and just got back to writing summer jams like “The Good Life.” I take the good with the bad and largely ignore everything not music related when it comes to Mr. West. So no, I don’t want Keeping Up With The Kardashians and I don’t follow him on Twitter. Critics of Kanye West focus on the over-sized ego, but listening to his songs provides a clearer picture of just how fragile and insecure Kanye can be. Like many great artists, Kanye no doubt suffers from some form of mental illness and should be forgiven for some (but not all) of his transgressions. And as far as the out of control ego goes, if you take the time to study his catalog you’ll notice that the best parts of all his albums always go to his guest stars. Usually, these are up-and-coming rappers whose careers get a much-needed shot in the arm by appearing on a Kanye track. Chance the Rapper first appeared on my radar this year after his amazing turn on “Ultralight Beam,” the opening track of THE LIFE OF PABLO.

THE LIFE OF PABLO is tour de force, one that perfectly showcases the fragility and the bravado raging inside Kanye West. The album paints the picture of a man who is at war with himself and his shortcomings. Yes, there are some truly awful, cringe-worthy moments on this album, but there are also wonderfully sublime, beautiful moments, too. I won’t defend “Famous,” where Kanye continues to publicly harass Taylor Swift. I can’t claim that “Father Stretch My Hands” isn’t creepy as shit (a gospel song about fucking models? Okay, Yeezus). But these unflattering moments sit along tracks like “Ultralight Beam” which is about as divine as music can get. The brilliant “Highlights” feels like the old Kanye everyone’s also saying they miss, its celebratory message wouldn’t be out of place on any of the early, so-called classic Kanye albums. “Real Friends” and “Wolves” offer a glimpse beneath the bravado, showing us a lonely, isolated individual. One who can’t even rely on family. The capper, of course, is the now famous (infamous?) “I Love Kanye.” An a capella track, “I Love Kanye” is West at his most painfully self-aware. The first time one listens to the track it feels like a joke. A playful jab at his own public image. But upon repeat listens the song turns tragic, “I Love Kanye” is the work a man who knows he’s damaged but feels powerless to change.

This is the only album on this list I both bootlegged and purchased legally. LIFE OF PABLO is a strange and hyper-modern album, both finished and incomplete, with West becoming the rap equivalent of George Lucas. The album is full of interesting samples and arrangements and sounds completely alien from the majority of modern rap albums. THE LIFE OF PABLO feels as though it could be the beginning or end of Kanye West’s career. On one hand, the album’s undeniable brilliance and fluidity could be the first salvo in a series of released and then post-released altered albums. The next few albums from Kanye could be less finished product and more like evolving conversations with the listening public. But the recent spate of bizarre news items relating to Kanye West the man (not the artist) could also mean THE LIFE OF PABLO might be the last album we get from him. I don’t blindly put faith in Kanye West’s music, I’m sure he’s more than capable of crafting a shitty album. But I do have faith that Kanye won’t release anything less than his pure, unadulterated artistic vision, which is exactly what THE LIFE OF PABLO is. So in that sense, he’s the last true artist working in mainstream music. And we’re lucky to have him while we do. Read my original review here.

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2016 Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Nominees Depress Me

I’m not even sure why I’m bothering to even write about this. Let me state upfront that I think the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is 100% complete and utter bullshit. The idea of a Hall of Fame is so un-rock and roll it’s not even funny. Then when you learn who is and isn’t in the Hall of Fame it becomes clear just how meaningless it all really is. Humans like lists and categories, which I totally get, but why does this thing need to exists? I mean, really?

So once for whatever reason I went on the Hall of Fame’s Official website…and boy did it bum me out. For the first time ever, the Hall is collecting fan votes that will be tallied alongside the regular votes to help determine who will be inducted this year. The list of nominees runs the gambit between no-brainers (The Cars, Cheap Trick, Deep Purple) and real headscratchers (Chic, The JB’s, Los Lobos). That Janet Jackson and Chicago are on this ballot just goes to show you how dumb this Hall of Fame really is. Look, I get that we can broaden the definition of “rock” and include N.W.A in the Hall…but should we really do that BEFORE iconic bands like Deep Purple and Cheap Trick are inducted into the Hall? That’s a rhetorical question.

I guess, if you feel so inclined, go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s website and cast your votes. Then check out the fan vote results so far, they’re super depressing!

I'm gonna need a stiff drink...

I’m gonna need a stiff drink…

Cheap Trick is #7! Who the hell is voting? It must be all the dude’s in Yes. Should Yes be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Hell no, they’re a prog-rock band that had a few hits back in the day. They do NOT deserve to be in the Hall before CHEAP TRICK or Deep Purple. Sure, Deep Purple may be considered a one-hit wonder too…but that one-hit is a song so iconic that even I can play it on guitar! And I can’t play guitar.

Happy Friday.

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Defending Shoegaze/Dreampop/Synthrock

I recently explored the growing world of streaming music and one thing that I found was that Pandora is the best at recommending new music. I pay for Spotify because I usually know what I want to hear, but when it comes to finding new artists, no one beats Pandora. Pandora’s music genome sounds a bit like a con until you compare it with similar recommendation features of competing streaming services. My beloved Spotify has an absolutely atrocious “radio” mode that winds up playing the same ten songs by roughly the same four to five artists. And usually these so-called recommendations are so oblivious that I’m rarely surprised by anything that gets played when I use this feature. I have access to a premium Pandora account where I work, and on Fridays when no one is around I like to pick an artist I’m currently grooving on and see what new stuff I can find.

Now I’ll freely admit that I’ve always been a sentimental fool. I like quiet, moody songs that are bittersweet. Dream pop. Chillwave. Shoegaze. Whatever you want to call it…I love this kind of music even though I don’t know much about this genre. One of my current favorites is the French pop singer Melody Prochet, who fronts the psychedelic dream pop band Melody’s Echo Chamber. I discovered Melody’s Echo Chamber via label mate Tame Impala, an Australian psychedelic band who kick all kinds of ass. Anyway, I took it upon myself to create a Pandora station based around Melody’s Echo Chamber. What happened? I fell down a rabbit hole of electronic-psychedelic-dream pop that melted my mind and made me fall in love.

One of the great things about myself, if I can take a moment to brag, is my ability to love a lot of different/conflicting things. Like, for example, I really love cock rock. Give me a hard-charging guitar riff and with some semi-sexist lyrics and I’m happy as a pig in shit. The more dunderheaded, the better. But I’m also a sensitive soul that likes to be lulled by a sweet melody and lush wall of quiet noise. This music that Pandora showed me was amazing in that it was both distorted and crystal clear. It was intimate and human, while at the same time adorned with the trappings of modern electronic music. This music was full of synthetic sounds and real emotion. It was like discovering a new color.

The branching spectrum of music Pandora showed me was absolutely breathtaking. It was like having a cool older brother with a kick ass record collection show me what’s what. I was certain that all the music I was hearing was brand new, but with a little research I found out that most of it was several years old. How on Earth had I missed the stunning pop of Hannah Georgas? Or the cool electro-funk of Walter Meego? What if I’d never decided to play around with Pandora and these amazing songs had remained unknown to me? This post is part advertisement for Pandora, which is an amazing service, but it’s also about stumbling out of one’s comfort zone. I love The Beatles, but you shouldn’t listen to them 100% of the time, this experience only reinforced that.

If you haven’t played around with Pandora in awhile go give it another shot. Let it show you things you didn’t even know you wanted to see. Or go visit a record shop and talk to that weird guy behind the counter. You know, the fat guy with Elvis sideburns who sweats all over you purchases and mumbles to himself. That guy knows stuff. Pick a genre you don’t normally listen to and give it shot. Or go on r/Music on Reddit and see what all the cool Internet kids are chatting about.

I feel like a kid on Christmas having discovered all these cool new bands! Here are a sampling of my favorites. If you have a chance, take a listen. And if you like this kind of music tell me about it in the comments. I want to find more of this mellow, dreamy, electronic music.

Currently in heavy rotation in my Shoegaze Playlist:

  1. You and I” by Washed Out. Washed Out famously provides the opening theme to Portlandia a hilarious sketch show on IFC. This song is hypnotic and mellow, I love it.

 

  1. “Happy Birthday Party” by Dom. This song totally feels like more upbeat, less drugged-out Animal Collective. This song should have been a monster hit with it’s rad hook and goofy-fun lyrics. It’s time to get gnarly, happy birthday party-party indeed…

  1. “Gasoline” by Alpine. A mix of dance and indie pop, Alpine are a really cool Australian band that have this weird knack for writing really fun songs that are catchy and fun as hell. These people should be household names.

  1. “Walk in the Park” by Beach Fossils. This is probably the only song on this list that I’d heard prior to falling into my shoegaze rabbit hole. This song is so ethereal and dark, but also really beautiful. I love this song.

  1. “Bullets” by Rebecca & Fiona. This is 100% pure dance music. Straight from Stockholm, Sweden, Rebecca & Fiona are these two really hot DJ’s who are making embarrassingly good dance music with sweet pop hooks. This song “Bullets” is rad and makes me want to dance. I never want to dance.

  1. “Standing on the Shore” by Empire of the Sun. I’ve been a fan of The Sleepy Jackson for many years but had no idea that Luke Steele was also the member of a synthpop band. Totally theatrical and totally glammed out, “Standing on the Shore” is a dreamy pop masterpiece. Weird? You bet. Over-the-top? Sure. Fun? You bet.

  1. “Robotic” by Hannah Georgas. This song is a real heartbreaker. There’s so much soul in her voice. This is one of those songs that feels old and worn in the first time you hear you it—like it’s been a part of your life this whole time. Sad and wistful hurts so good. I love it.

And in case you’re interested, here is my Shoegaze playlist on Spotify. There’s a ton more really cool songs and artists with more added every Friday:

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Songs Ruined By Pop Culture

One the of great properties of music is its ability to serve as a sort of emotional shorthand.  Songs about love or loss allow us to experience these feelings vicariously while also drawing upon our own pool of half-buried emotion.  Songs can have personal connections to us, but what I’m talking about are the broader, surface-level connections that we all feel to some degree.  Every time you hear Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” you don’t get a knot in your stomach thinking about a dark-haired girl I knew in 8th grade. But when we all hear The Beatles “Something” or Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” we all feel an approximation of the same thing.

This ability to instantly invoke feeling makes music the perfect complement to film and television shows that want to underscore and heighten their down dramatic moments.  When used effectively, the results are memorable and wonderful.  That said, there are some songs that are used a little too frequently in films/shows, turning a wonderful thing into a cheat, a lazy-shorthand for actual emotion.  Worse, there are other uses of songs in various pop culture where, even when not overused, become so iconic that the song ceases to have a life outside this one specific use.  For me, these songs are ruined.   Perhaps ruined is too strong a word, but whenever a song becomes unlistenable without conjuring up residual cultural baggage that’s what it feels like to me.  Ruined.

Don't drop that thing on your head...

Don’t drop that thing on your head…

Here are some notable songs “ruined” by pop culture:

1. “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel.  Most casual music fans are probably under the impression that this is a Bob Dylan song.  “Stuck in the Middle With You” feels like a Dylan song because the song was conceived as a spoof of Dylan.  The song was released in 1972 and by 1973 reached all the way to #6 on the Billboard Music Charts. Songwriters Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan put out two more albums and then disbanded, with Rafferty going onto have moderate solo success including a hit with his 1978 song “Baker Street.”  The song probably would have remained a curiosity/answer to a trivia question had director Quentin Tarantino not resurrected the song for his feature film debut Reservoir Dogs.  The song took on a fresh, demonic connotation when Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen, gleefully tortures a policeman while dancing to the track.   Now 99.99% of people are unable to hear “Stuck in the Middle With You” without thinking about ears being lopped off.

2. “Gimmie Shelter” by The Rolling Stones.  The first cut off the Stones 1969 classic LET IT BLEED, “Gimmie Shelter” is an epic tour de force.  The song is notable for prominently featuring vocals from a non-Rolling Stone (singer Merry Clayton) and for tackling the Vietnam War, which was raging at the time. The song’s dark, seductive groove and “rape and murder” references make the song ideal for use in films with violent content.  So not surprisingly, the the song has been used in countless cops ‘n robbers shows and films.  I also think it’s impossible to make a film about the Vietnam War without using this and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.” But the person who really ruined this song was director Martin Scorsese who has used it in not one, but three films: Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed. It’s a great song, but it has been done to death.  For a song about the horrors of the Vietnam War, I sure do think of garlic-breathed mobsters when I hear it…

3. “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel. Originally released in 1986, “In You Eyes” was the first song on the second side of Gabriel’s fifth solo album SO.  Essentially a perfect time capsule of 1980’s pop, SO also famously featured the hits “Big Time” and “Sledgehammer.”  At the time of the album’s release, “Sledgehammer” was the bigger hit due in part to a really cool stop-motion animated music video.  But all that changed three years later when Cameron Crowe used the song in his teenage love story Say Anything… The song gained renewed attention and immortality when, near the film’s climax, John Cusack blasts the song from a boombox hoisted high over his head.  I was but a babe when Say Anything… came out, so the nostalgia is a bit lost on me, but even I can’t hear Gabriel’s song without thinking of Cusack.  The song’s been used over the years in similar context, but everybody is really just copying Crowe.

4.  “All Along The Watchtower” by Bob Dylan but covered famously by Jimi Hendrix.  Everybody agrees that Hendrix was a guitar god, and his cover of Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” is an amazing interpretation (seriously, have you heard Dylan’s version?) but much like “Gimmie Shelter” the song has been co-opted by filmmakers who use the song as a kind of shorthand for “doing drugs in ‘Nam.” The song’s use in Forest Gump is the gold standard of such use (that film is probably one of the worst offenders when it comes to using music as lazy shorthand).   The track’s overuse has reached the point of cliché, I actually laughed when I saw Zack Synder’s Watchmen film where the song’s use bordered on parody.

5.  “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood & The Destroyers.  The title track off the George Thorogood’s 1982 album, “Bad to the Bone” was not a hit.  But within a few short years “Bad to the Bone” became the band’s most recognizable hit.  How you ask?  Because the song has been used countless time to telegraph to the audience that a certain character is a badass.  Most famously the song was used in conjunction with Arnold Schwarzenegger in T2: Judgment Day when the muscular robot first dons his iconic black motorcycle jacket.  “Bad to the Bone” was a kinda cool tough-guy song that has now been watered-down into a novelty song, thanks in part to it’s uber-level of machismo.  Today the song is now mostly used in comedies in contrast with a particularly un-tough character (i.e. a loveable loser).

6.  “What I Am” by Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians.  The impetus for this list was the recent use of Edie Brickell’s 1988 one-hit wonder “What I Am” on HBO’s Girls. This season on the show, an ill-advised cover of the song that makes its way onto YouTube and haunts a particular character. I hadn’t thought about/heard this song in ages, but the day after I saw the first episode of Girls third season, I started noticing the song was on the radio more than in previous years.   A catchy chorus and twisty, semi-thought provoking lyrics are now rendered meaningless thanks to the series.  This is now a song about defeat and the soul-crushing reality that none of our dreams are going to come true.  Thanks Girls.

 There are countless other examples of song ruined by pop culture, Queen’s epic “Bohemian Rhapsody” was forever stamped by Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey in Wayne’s World as was “Sweet Home Alabama” in every movie to every take place in the South (or feature Southern characters).  I’m sure just how ruined these songs are depends on your film/TV watching habits.   I’m curious to hear what songs you the reader feel have been used to death or ruined by pop culture.  Speak up in the comments section.

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Happy Birthday Keith Richards!

Today is Rolling Stones guitarist/mummified junkie Keith Richard’s birthday.  It’s sad that Richards (who turns 70 today) has become a bit of a joke simply because he’s managed to not-die.  Although to be fair, the joke isn’t that Keith Richards the musician is still alive, it’s that Keith Richards the vagabond-druggie is still alive.  There’s cheating death and then there’s dropping your pants and taking a huge dump on Death’s chest–Richard’s been doing that for decades.

Kids these days are more likely to know him as Johnny Depp’s pirate-dad than for “Satisfaction.”  That bums me out because Richards has contributed a lot to the world of rock n’ roll beyond his off-stage antics.  It’s widely accepted that Keith Richards is a fantastic guitarist and that his ability to write amazing riffs is second to none.  What’s not so widely-accepted is his ability to sing songs.  Since 1967’s BETWEEN THE BUTTONS Keith has been allowed to sing lead on at least one song per Rolling Stones album.  This has been viewed by many as a bit of rock n’ roll charity, similar to an arrangement The Beatles had with Ringo Starr.  But I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that, with all due respects to Mr. Jagger, 80% of my all-time favorite Stones songs are sung by Richards.

Keith is 70 and doesn't look a day over 700.

Keith is 70 and doesn’t look a day over 700.

Does Keith Richards have a pleasant singing voice?  No.  But there’s a haggard, raw quality to it that Mick Jagger’s voice lacks.  When Keith sings about hard living and late nights alone, you can hear his suffering in the timbre of his voice.  Time (and cigarettes) haven’t been especially kind to Richards voice, but in a way his rougher sound serves to accentuate his songs with a extra layer of desperation.  Much like with Bob Dylan, another take-him-or-leave-him vocalist, I find that hearing Richards sing his own songs adds an extra dollop of sincerity.  I’m sure Mick Jagger could have sung all the Stones tracks, but we’d be much poorer for it.

To that end, I present to you my Top 10 Keith Richards songs.  These feature Keith on lead vocals and while they may not have set the Top 40 charts ablaze, have a special place in my heart.  Here’s to 70 great years!

My Top 10 Keith Richards Songs

1. “Before They Make Me Run” off SOME GIRLS.  First off, this song has an amazingly good guitar riff.  The song is all about Keith’s legal problems following numerous drug busts.  At the time, Richards was facing the real possibility of doing some serious jail time.  So of course he writes a boozy song about “walking” before he’s forced to “run.”  It’s a badass song.

2. “Happy” off EXILE ON MAINSTREET.  This is Richards signature song, the one you’re guaranteed to hear him sing if you see The Rolling Stones live.  It’s heralded as his best song and with good reason.  Despite being recorded during one of the darkest periods in Rolling Stones history, “Happy” is bouncy and well…happy. There’s a real off-the-cuff aspect to his singing on the song, it’s almost like he’s making it all up as he goes.  This joyous spontaneity and the bright horn section make “Happy” truly great.

3.  “Wicked As It Seems” off MAIN OFFENDER.  This track is not a Rolling Stones song but rather a straight-up Keith Richards solo-song.  The song’s a slow burn with a  great groove.  This is the track that convinced me that Richards really was the heart-and-soul of the Rolling Stones.

4.  “You Got The Silver” off LET IT BLEED.  Keith Richards may be a rocker but he’s got the soul of a country artist.  In fact, my all-time favorite Rolling Stones affectation is when they do a country song. “You Got The Silver” is a mix of country and dirty blues, it’s simple but damn earnest.  I still get chills when I hear it to this day.

5. “Coming Down Again” off GOATS HEAD SOUP.  A gentle piano ballad sung by Keith Richards? Yep.  Add a knowing nod to drug abuse and you’ve got yourself a fantastic song.

6.  “Little T&A” off TATTOO YOU.  People give TATTOO YOU a lot of grief, and while it’s not the best Rolling Stones album it does have this tight little gem on it.  Many considered Richards past his prime by 1981, but Richards proves on this track that he’s just as spry as ever.

7.  “Locked Away” off TALK IS CHEAP.  Another Keith Richards-solo track, “Locked Away” almost sounds like a serious Traveling Wilbury’s song.  Richards is full of self-doubt and this track which also makes reference to prison/jail which like death has always loomed threateningly over the guitarist.

8. “Hurricane” off VINTAGE VINOS.  A short little acoustic bonus track recorded during 2002, “Hurricane” finds a creaky-voiced Richards quietly singing with just a guitar.  Even though it’s just a short, dashed-off track the song is endlessly compelling.  I think it’s the world-weary voice.  Keith sounds sound beaten it’s kinda heartbreaking.

9. “We Had It All” a bonus track recorded during the SOME GIRLS sessions. Another bonus track, “We Had It All” is a gentle ballad drenched with regret and sorrow.  Not quite country, not quite blues, the song wasn’t right for SOME GIRLS but it’s still really good.

10. “This Place Is Empty” off A BIGGER BANG.  The most recent track on my list, this song also has the roughest sounding Keith Richards vocals.  It’s a little creepy to hear old-man Richards ask his lady to “bare your breasts” I’ll admit, but this is a good song.  The song’s I-miss-you sentiment pairs well with Richards voice and somewhat halting delivery.

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Dancing Days Are Here Again: Led Zeppelin Now on Spotify

This week one of the biggest bands in rock history was added to Spotify.  Yes, friends Led Zeppelin is available to stream!  I worry that I talk about Spotify a bit too much, but it’s been a godsend for me.  The ability to stream a wide swath of popular music has allowed me to dig deeper than I would if I had to go out and buy CD’s.  I never was a fan of illegally downloading music, though I did dabble with that in the past.

Spotify may not pay artists the way traditional album sales would, but I’d argue that the exposure the service gives band is worth it’s weight in gold.  I may have slowed down my consumption of records, but more importantly I’m a fan of more artists, from more genres than ever before.

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Led Zeppelin being on Spotify makes me happy for two reasons.  Firstly, I just moved and all my CD’s are packed away in boxes.  Meaning I’ve been living a horrible Zep-free life. Now I can hop on my computer, or smartphone, and instantly be in Led Zeppelin nirvana. Secondly, having the band’s entire catalogue available at my fingertips will finally allow me to explore the band’s last two albums.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve never heard 1976’s PRESENCE or 1979’s swan song (pun intended) IN THROUGH THE OUT DOOR.  Sure, I’ve heard a few cuts of each album on the radio, but I’ve never heard them all the way through.  It’s basically like I’ve got new Led Zeppelin to listen to!

A few years back, my local Best Buy had a mega-sale on Led Zeppelin albums and I snapped up everything up to PHYSICAL GRAFFITI.  Why did I stop there?  Well, even though the CD’s were dirt cheap, Mrs. Defending Axl Rose isn’t the biggest fan of my expansive CD collection…so I stopped where everyone said the band stopped being good. But as I sit here, typing this listening to IN THROUGH THE OUT DOOR, I can assuredly tell you that Led Zeppelin were good all the way to the bitter end.  Would I have had this epiphany without a streaming music service in my life?  Probably, though it would have taken me years to work my way back to Zeppelin.   If you’ve never fully explored the Led Zeppelin catalogue or if you’re an old-fan like me who haven’t listened to them in years, take some time and explore the band on Spotify.

My Top 10 Led Zeppelin Tracks (1969-1975)

1.  “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” off LED ZEPPELIN III.  This is my all-time favorite Zeppelin song.  I love the homespun feel of this song, it’s like a campfire song…Led Zeppelin-style.

2. “Living Loving Maid [She’s Just  A Woman]” off LED ZEPPELIN II.  Repeat after me: love the riff.  Killer, killer riff.

3. “The Ocean” off HOUSES OF THE HOLY.  Have Robert Plant’s super-high vocals ever been higher?  Every time I go to a concert and look back on the swell of faces I think of Plant singing to his “ocean.”

4.  “Going To California” off LED ZEPPELIN IV.  The entire fourth LED ZEPPELIN album is amazing (everyone knows that) but if I had to pick one song that I love the most from that record it would be “Going to California.”  While the rest of the album rages, this song is the quite eye of the hurricane.  The song gets bonus points for being about Joni Mitchell.

5. “Kashmir” off PHYSICAL GRAFFITI.  A wonderfully weird, and powerfully heavy track.  It’s a shame that most kids know it as “that Puff Daddy song.”  *Shudder*

6.  “Communication Breakdown” off LED ZEPPELIN.   The first Led Zeppelin album is more blues-oriented than most people discovering the band after that fact might expect. But while Zeppelin might have pioneered hard rock/heavy metal, they really were just bluesmen.  “Communication Breakdown” is a wonderful fusion of blues and hard rock the band would later use to dominate the world.

7.  “Immigrant Song” off LED ZEPPELIN III.  Elves and hobbits are nice, but it’s when Zeppelin sing about Vikings that my heart soars.  Truly this song is the hammer of the gods.  

8. “Hey Hey What Can I Do” B-Side to “Immigrant Song.”  This is probably the least-known song on this list (and not currently available on Spotify) but man, do I love it.

9.  “D’yer Mak’er” off HOUSES OF THE HOLY.  Funky.  This song is funky.  It also features a great vocal performance from Page.  Took me many years to learn that this song pokes fun of the way British people say “Jamaica.”  Which of course explains the reggae-ish vibe the song has.

10.   “Moby Dick” off LED ZEPPELIN II.  Come to Led Zeppelin for the killer Jimmy Page riffs and the stellar Robert Plant vocals…stay for John Bonham’s drumming.  Why on Earth don’t more drummers try to sound like Bonham?  He’s the greatest rock drummer of all time.  Period.  The song starts with some fun guitar licks and then devolves into an extended drum solo.  The genesis of the tune is that it began as something used during the live shows to give the rest of the band a break.  “Moby Dick” on record is over 4 minutes long, but Bonham would sometimes play a ten minute version live.

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My Top 10 Albums of 2012

Why have end of year lists have grown in popularity over the past 10 years? What does it say about us as a species that we clamor for and around arbitrary lists created by people we don’t know? My own personal theory is that the popularity of end of year lists serves two functions:

1. Validation. Obviously we like having someone tell us that our opinions are the right ones, and seeing our favorite things on someone else’s end of year list does that. It’s comforting to know that we agree with others but it’s even more comforting when that other is a critic of stature like David Wild or Roger Ebert.

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2. Facilitating our laziness. Why go out into the world looking for the best music, books, films, or art when someone in a black turtleneck can do all the heavy lifting for us? End of year lists distill a year’s worth of media into an easy to consume morsel. I’ve met people who base all their film watching on top critics end of year lists.

I’m guilty of both: I like looking at end of year lists to see my own personal tastes validated AND I like to use them to discover things I was too lazy to find on my own. I don’t think there’s anything evil or wrong about end of year lists, but they do tend to get out of hand this time of year. I think reading end of year lists are an okay use of your time…but I think making one of your own is a far better way to kill a few hours.

Why? Well, I think a great end of year list functions as a kind of yearbook. When I sat down to write my Top 10 Albums of 2012 list I started to simply list all the albums that really knocked my socks off this year. But then I started to consider things like “Am I still listening to these albums?” and “Do I see myself still thinking about/revisiting these albums in future years?” That made things a little more difficult, which I rather liked (I always do fancy a challenge).

So once I had my albums that moved me (or whatever) and then removed the ones I wasn’t still listening to, I found I had a much shorter list. I took that list and compared it to my blog for the past 12 months, chiefly–how many of these albums did I get around to writing about? What did I say? In the case of one album in particular, I found that I wrote about it A LOT. I factored that in when arranging my list from #10 to #1.

What was the most difficult part of making this list? Figuring out what actually came out in 2012 and what came out in 2011 that I only discovered this year. There were a TON of really great records that came out at the end of last year that I sadly only discovered this year—meaning they could not appear on my list. The record I most wanted to put on my list was Metronomy’s THE ENGLISH RIVIERA. That was probably the album I enjoyed the most this summer, but wouldn’t ya know it? It came out last year. I ran into a lot of that while making this list.

Please read this list, compare it to your own personal tastes (feel slightly validated) and then use it to lazily fill-in the parts of 2012 you overlooked or missed. Once you’ve done all that, jot down your own best of 2012 list, I think you’ll find it’s an interesting mental exercise and a fantastic way to reevaluated the music you’ve heard this year. Maybe even slip me copy of your list in the comments section below (I won’t judge).

With all that in mind, I present my Top 10 Albums of 2012:

10. HARMONICRAFT by Torche. Arguably the stupidest genre name of all-time is sludge metal. I don’t even know what that means. Torche’s album HARMONICRAFT is supposed to be sludge metal, but to me it just sounds like awesomely melodic hard rock. “Roaming” and “Kicking” are brilliant hard-rockers that sound like Jane’s Addiction meets The Cult. The album is dark and has a rough edge while still being catchy and fun. If you’re like me, you’re always looking for a hard rock that isn’t super-stoopid or endless banshee screaming: HARMONICRAFT strikes a nice balance between hard rock and pop. The guitar work is great, and so is that Brony-filled rainbow wonderland on the front of the album.

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9. COBRA JUICY by Black Moth Super Rainbow. I’m not really into electronica, but every now and then an artist comes out that manages to combine the best of rock/pop and dance music. Experimental music is really hard to like and even hard to recommend, but Black Moth Super Rainbow really pull it off on COBRA JUICY. It’s a neon-rave-up that’s got rock soul. Songs like “Windshield Smasher” and “Hairspray Heart” are what the second Sleigh Bells album should have sounded like: aggressively noisy yet super-groovy. Worth noting, this one was waaay off my radar, but was pointed out to me by my super-cool friend over at TAKEN BY SOUND, which is a really cool indie-rock music blog.

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8. WRECKING BALL by Bruce Springsteen. I know, I’m just as surprised as you are that Bruce Springsteen is on this list. I was listening to Little Steven’s Underground Garage and Little Steven (who is more than a little biased, being in the E-Street Band) talked up the record and played “Easy Money.” Before I could dismiss WRECKING BALL outright, I heard “Easy Money” and became instantly hooked. The whole album has a very electric-folk/Old-Timey feel to it. WRECKING BALL is Springsteen’s recession album, which while not much fun, does provide an excellent palette for a rough and tumble artist like The Boss. “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Death To My Hometown” are great, hardscrabble songs that could work for The Great Depression or the late 2010’s. Through it all, Springsteen remains a symbol of art nourishing us through the hardest of times. These are the times when a bard of his stature is most desperately needed. He didn’t disappoint.

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7. SLOW DAZE by Blonde Summer. Technically these 5 songs are an EP and not an LP, but after listening to SLOW DAZE on virtual infinite repeat this summer: I’m promoting it to full LP status. Blonde Summer’s amazingly breezy, super-fun album reminded me what it feels like to be young and just enjoying the warmth of summer: and that was just the title track. The rest of SLOW DAZE is top-notch indie-rock that’s fun (“Robots on Command”) and heartfelt (“Walking in Space”). Minimal and echo-y, SLOW DAZE is like a short romp with an incredible lover—it doesn’t last very long, but the warm glow it gives you lasts and lasts. Hell, I’m still tingling from the noise-rock of “December,” and it’s actually December now. SLOW DAZE owned my summer and has made me super-eager to see what these guys do next. But for now, we’ll always have this summer.

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6. LONERISM by Tame Impala. Pound for pound, LONERISM has more cosmic-freak-out-otherness than any other album on this list. If you’ve ever wanted to get high without drugs, grab a pair of headphones and take this album into a dark room. Close your eyes and prepare to go on adventure. Imagine Oasis and The Flaming Lips doing a shit ton of LSD and then merging into one band: that’s LONERISM. “Endors Toi” and “Elephant” shatter your mind and then blow away the pieces. I really liked BEARDS, WIVES, DENIM by Pond, which is essentially Tame Impala, but overall I think LONERISM is the stronger, more accessible record. But don’t take my word for it: go sit in the dark tonight with this album.

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5. CLASS CLOWN SPOTS A UFO by Guided By Voices. One of my all-time favorite bands came back, and they came back in a big way this year. Not only did the original GBV line up return to tour, they released not one…not two…but three incredible records. When was the last time a band came back after disbanding and put out ONE good album? Exactly. Robert Pollard is a rock ‘n roll Jesus (sorry Kid Rock). Picking which of the three albums to put on this list was hard, but also kinda easy: of all their 2012 records, this is the one I rock out to the most. The title track is probably the greatest GBV “single” in a decade. “Keep It In Motion” and “Forever Until It Breaks” are icing on the cake. All GBV albums have short, micro-songs that many people dismiss, but CLASS CLOWN SPOTS A UFO has the best short Pollard nuggets I’ve heard in a long time (“Roll of the Dice, Kick in the Head”). And don’t get me started on the awesome, Who-like “Billy Wire.” Okay, I’ll get started on it: “Billy Wire” fucking rocks my socks and makes me feel like I’m a badass Mod seeing a super young/virile Who tear up a small English nighclub. Long live GBV.

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4. MAJOR by Fang Island. Fang Island does what Torche does in that, they offer up heavy riffs with strong melodies. The difference is that Fang Island is more indie rock than mosh pit. “Sisterly” is so hard-charging but at the same time sweet. I don’t mean “Dude that’s sweet,” I mean little kitten hanging on a clothesline sweet. Fang Island are so cool they don’t care what you think of their earnestness. These guys are serious musicians, too. Even if you don’t usually go for instrumental rock, you’ll dig their instrumental “Dooney Rock.” It’s an interesting, tasteful, non-wankfest that will win over even the most jaded music fan. Fang Island is equally heavy and gentle; it’s hard indie rock for sensitive hearts.

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3. LOVE THIS GIANT by David Byrne & St. Vincent. Who knew that teaming up the dude from Talking Heads and that weird indie-chick St. Vincent would yield such a good harvest? The bombastic lead track “Who” is real stunner, but it’s the one-two-punch of two unlikely freaks getting together and letting their freak flags fly that elevates LOVE THIS GIANT beyond “Who.” This is Byrne’s strongest post-Talking Heads work, hands down. It wasn’t that I’d written him off so much as I just didn’t bother to really think too much about David Byrne at all. LOVE THIS GIANT re-establishes Byrne as a relevant artist with a lot more to say. I wasn’t super familiar with St. Vincent prior to LOVE THIS GIANT, but I’m learning. That she’s half his age and still manages to hold her own in the presence of such a legend is no small feat. I still get chills every time I hear “Optimist.” So, in summary: the triumphant return of one of rocks most unlikely superstars plus a rising indie-songstress plus crazy horns equals LOVE THIS GIANT. It’s a record that you put on and feel refreshed, challenged, and puzzled by.

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2. A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH by Van Halen. Nobody thought that a new Van Halen album was going to be a dismal failure more than me. Go back and check the endless jaded, negative, anti-Wolfgang posts. I’m a big man, I can admit when I’m wrong. Sure, “Tattoo” fucking sucks. It’s the worst song on the album and it’s slightly embarrassing…but everything else on A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH works. Maybe the songs are recycled from decades long since past, but so what? They were still re-worked and recorded by the Van Halen of today, and they don’t disappoint. It’s like it’s 1984 all over again: big choruses, crazy solos, thumpin’ drums, super-bravdo, etc. Van Halen don’t reinvent the wheel so much as get it rolling again, and thank God…because rock was starting to get so dismally boring. “Blood and Fire” recalls the pure adrenaline of “Panama.” “You and Your Blues” is like an update of “Unchained.” Van Halen shouldn’t work in 2012, but somehow they do. My favorite track, the one that gets the most play at the gym is the stupidest: the frivolous “Stay Frosty.” Why does “Stay Frosty” continue to get played? Probably because it’s a straight up rocker that’s fun and funny. While I was busy being jaded, Van Halen was busy partying. At a certain point, it’s easier to just give-in and love them. So you win guys, A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH rules.

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1. PSYCHEDELIC PILL by Neil Young & Crazy Horse. I am completely and utterly in awe of this album. Long, meandering, and epic, PSYCHEDELIC PILL was the one album this year that could have been released in 1968 or 1970 not no one would have blinked. Not because it sounds like it’s from that period in time, PSYCHEDELIC PILL is truly a record out of time: intensely personal and yet also very distant and spacy. This is a folk record. This is a jam-band record. This is a singer-songwriter album created by a full band. “Walk Like A Giant” is the work of an incredibly powerful wizard, hurling lightening bolts of rock. I had no idea Neil Young still had it in him to create such a potent work of pure genius. This doesn’t even sound like a comeback it sounds like he never left. Those who scoff at the albums longer cuts, of which there are a few, are missing the point. Like I said in my original review: “the album opens with “Drifting Back,” a 27 minute-long song that’s acts as a kind of sonic air lock, decompressing the listener into the album’s atmosphere. Or perhaps a better metaphor would be that’s a time machine. I like that better because PSYCHEDELIC PILL sounds like lost 1970’s record, with the lengthy “Drifting Back” serving as a trippy time tunnel to the past.” The free flowing extended jams are the destination, not the journey. PSYCHEDELIC PILL is an intricate album that I predict will endure as a kind of sonic evergreen, which will be studied and appreciated for decades to come. Do yourself a favor and check out this once-in-a-generation masterpiece.

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