Well, it happened.
It finally happened.
I knew this day would come. It’s unavoidable, right? It happens to everyone. I just…I just…didn’t expect it to happen so soon. I’m still young! I still have so much time in front of me. And yet, here I am…unable to make a list of my top five favorite albums of the year. Heck, I’m one more Carly Rae Jepsen song away from going on an epic rant about kids and their lousy music.
The thing is, I’m not one or two albums away from a top five this year – I’m five albums away from a top five. Sure, there were some decent records released in 2012. I enjoyed the Kendrick Lamar album as well as the new Punch Brothers album. And while it’s always nice to have a new Fiona Apple record, I’m not sure if I actually like it or feel a sense of loyalty to Ms. Apple because we were born on the same day.* Nothing grabbed me. Nothing consumed me. There wasn’t a single album that I could whole-heartedly recommend.
*Side note: I’m obsessed with birthdays. My secret dream is to have a big party with all the people born on my birthday. Fiona and I can host. Ringo Starr can be in charge of music. Ben “Mr. Topanga” Savage can entertain folks with the inside scoop about the new Boy Meets World reboot. And Joe E. Tata can provide catering from The Peach Pit. Hmmm. I’ve got kind of a lousy birthday.
When I was a kid I used to spend hours sitting in front of the stereo system with my parents old LPs listening to various A and B sides of the greatest bands from the 1960s and 70s. The Temptations. The Beatles. The Beach Boys. That was my happy place. For years my favorite thing in the world was buying a new album and just devouring it. Listening to it over and over again. Reading the liner notes. Memorizing the lyrics and the name of every person who helped make the record. Those are the kinds of things I’m looking for when I make a top five favorite albums list. Not something I kind of liked or something I feel loyal to. I want something that makes me stop everything else I’m doing and listen.
I thought a lot about this last night as I sat through 67 hours of The Grammys. The vast – vast, I say! – majority of the time, the broadcast was just background noise. Occasionally, something would break through the monotony and demand my attention, for better or worse. For better when the great Mavis Staples joined in a tribute to The Band’s Levon Helm. For worse when fun. – a band I don’t like just because they have a period in their name – made me wish I didn’t have ears. As the show went on I realized that I actually like a lot of the winners and nominees, I just didn’t like their albums this year. I like Mumford & Sons, I just don’t think that Babel is that great of a record. Ditto with The Black Keys and this year’s El Camino. And The Boss is one of the all time greatest everythings in the history of music – but, well, let’s be polite and say Wrecking Ball isn’t one of his best.
That realization was like a new lease on life. Maybe it’s not me. Maybe 2012 was just a down year. (And just because I haven’t found any great albums in 2012 yet doesn’t mean they’re not out there. How many times have you discovered a new record a year or two after its release?) Nor does it mean that 2013 won’t have any. Afterall, there were at least half a dozen records in 2011 I really, really liked. But, sadly, there’s no Top Five list for 2012.
I don’t want to leave you sans list though. Last night’s tribute to Levon Helm got me thinking about The Band and what my all time favorite bands are. (And how none of them had a record come out in 2013.) To my surprise, the list was fairly easy to put together. The only debate was for the last spot – where Pearl Jam fell just a bit short. As always, these are just one four-eyed, big-nosed guy’s opinion. (Click on any of the links to check on the availability at SJCPL.)
Here’s what I love about Wilco: They are always evolving. Their first record, 1995’s AM, sounded a bit like Jeff Tweedy’s previous work with Uncle Tupelo and then a bit like what Wilco’s next record, 1996’s Being There, would sound like. Being There sounded a bit like AM and their third record, 2002’s Summerteeth. Summerteeth sounded a bit like…well, you get the idea. Subsequently, when you put put in a new Wilco record it always sounds a bit foreign and a bit familiar. They grow and you grow with them. Their most recent album, last year’s The Whole Love, is solid from the first song to the last and is the capstone of a discography that is one the greatest of all time.
Last summer I spent a week in Cooperstown, New York, a stone’s throw from Big Pink – the affectionately named large pink house where The Band lived and recorded their debut record, 1968’s Music From Big Pink. My schedule was pretty tight, but there was brief window where I could hop in a rental car, drive the hour to West Saugerties, and pay homage to one of the greatest landmarks in rock and roll history. Unfortunately, the fine folks at O’Hare had other plans and when I finally landed in Albany at 2:30 am – a mere 12 hours after I was supposed to arrive – I didn’t quite feel up for the journey. But some day I’ll make that drive with the windows down and “Don’t Do It” turned up as loud as my rental car speakers will go. In the meantime, I’ll just watch The Last Waltz for the bazillionth time.
My adolescence was spent memorizing the backs of baseball cards and listening to Huey Lewis & the News in my bedroom. (This might not come as much of a surprise, but I didn’t have a girlfriend until much, much later in life.) Even now, a couple of decades later, one of my favorite days of the year is when the new series of Topps comes out. I pick up a pack (or ten) and put on a little Huey Lewis.
U2 is the greatest rock and roll band of all time. Notice, I said the greatest. Not the best. Not the most influential. Not even my favorite. But whatever you think about them, take a step back and look at their career. They have stayed at their creative peak for longer than any other band in history and continue to be relevant more than 36 years since their formation. There is no other band you can say that about. For my money, Achtung Baby is the greatest rock and roll record ever made. (In case you missed it, From the Sky Down – a documentary about the making of Achtung Baby – came out last year and is incredible.)
Songwriting lingo lesson: In your basic verse/chorus song structure, the verse is known as the A and the chorus is known as the B. The bridge – a part that contrasts the prior chorus and sets up the return of the next chorus – is called the C. Your typical pop or rock song has an ABABCB structure. It’s a formula that’s worked for dozens and dozens of years. The crazy thing about the bridge is that we, the listeners, know it’s coming. We don’t realize it – but we want the bridge. We need a little mix up before the singer comes back with the familiar hook of the chorus. Songwriters know this too – and far too many hours are spent shoe-horning a C between two B parts just for the sake of having it there. A good bridge part makes a good song great. A bad bridge stops a song in its tracks. Neil Finn, the singer and chief songwriter of Crowded House, writes the best bridges in the business. He makes them seemless when they need to be seemless. For example, his bridge in “Fall at Your Feet” is perfect – taking a simple love song and making it so much more. He makes them jarring when they need to be jarring – like in the almost dissonant bridge to “Distant Sun” that rips you from the chorus and then, after six bars, takes you peacefully back into it again. And then, sometimes, he even skips them all together when the song doesn’t need it, like in the perfect “Weather With You.” That’s just one of the many, many reasons I’ve loved the music of Crowded House for twenty plus years. They’re the band that changed my life – but that’s another blog for another day.