Thursday, July 12, 2007

#7, #6, #5

#7 - Rancid. Out come the wolves.

#6 - Damien Jurado. Rehearsals for Departure.

#5 - Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Gravity’s the winner

#1 Uncle Tupelo, March 16-20, 1992 (Rockville, 1992)

As others have remarked here, the less said about the top favorites, probably the better. I should also note that I wrote a paper about this album for a creative non-fiction writing class in college, and that kinda burst into flames, so will try to keep this short. This record is Uncle Tupelo’s stripped down acoustic album. Several of the tracks are covers or arrangements of traditional or country gospel songs, including standouts “Atomic Power,” “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” and “Moonshiner” This album tops my list because it was almost quite literally a friend to me during college days – it’s very melancholy, of course, and good for all the post-adolescent self-pity, but it’s also very warm and inviting. It has a bit more of a Farrar than Tweedy vibe (though that might be Wilco-influenced hindsight), but it includes my favorite tracks of Tweedy as a singer. My favorite thing about this record is its ending – after a string of mostly desperate stories, the penultimate track, “Sandusky,” a bright instrumental, offers a glimmer of real hope. The last song, though (“Wipe the Clock”) is perhaps sadder than the rest and concludes with this great couplet – “Ain’t it hard/ when the spirit doesn’t catch you?/ Gravity’s the winner / and it weighs you down” – followed by 15 seconds of wailing harmonica. Then: end of disc. It slams the door on the glimpse of hope in “Sandusky”, but it does so while the experience of hearing “Sandusky” is still vivid. This album puts hope and despair right up next to one another; we know that one of them is the literal winner, but I always think of March 16-20 as suggesting that they are just two sides of the same coin. That, and Uncle Tupelo rules.

The baffled king

#2 Jeff Buckley, Grace (Columbia, 1994)

This is surely a sign of a real character flaw, but I think that my #2 favorite of all time is also a guilty pleasure. It’s possible that I would feel less guilty about Grace if I liked it less, since really liking this album seems too tied up with the infatuation with the now way overblown mythos of the tragic mysterious genius of Jeff Buckley. (I also distinctly recall hearing “Hallelujah” played twice over misty teenaged montage scenes on The O.C., and that probably doesn’t help either). But I do really like it, especially for the ways in which it is conflicted, earthy, and even cheesy. On Grace, Jeff Buckley always seemed to me to be just as much or more a lounge singer and barroom cover-band leader as he was an otherworldly angelic figure. The cover of “Hallelujah” is still the best track, and the one most nakedly yearning toward transcendence, but it also is all about very earthy desires. (I heard a critic on the radio last week claim the John Cale’s version of the song is better than Buckley’s. That’s some contrarian bullshit, for the record.) Grace also puts “Corpus Christi Carol” right next to the most standard rocker on the album, “Eternal Life.” The effect is jarring, but a perfect encapsulation of how I think of Grace. It’s an album by a standard rocker who was a good, but not great, songwriter, but also an album that ably moves way, way beyond that. More importantly, though, it shows how the truly transcendent highs are only real or meaningful when they begin, and ultimately stay, within the mundane and prosaic language of rock and roll. Now I haven’t studied theology for a few years, but the title of the album strikes me as especially apt, because isn’t grace only grace when it enters into the ordinary and fallen world? Pure transcendence in pop music is what, Enya? Case closed.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Station started to fade. We picked another one up the very next day.

#3 The Replacements, Tim (Sire, 1985)

I might have cheated to get this one in so high on my list. At the time when I had first received the email from Brandon to come up with a top 25, I hadn’t listened to Tim for nearly seven years, ever since I had this and over 100 other cds stolen. (By the way, if anyone out there ever finds a copy of Tim in a pawn shop in Christchurch with “SB” written on the disc, please report it as stolen. thx.) This album and band were my high-school favorites (I’m not that old, by the way – my introduction to the Replacements came through a cutout bin purchase of their final album All Shook Down shortly after they broke up). My comfortable, never-been-anywhere, never-drank-a-drop 16-year-old self obsessed over lonely desperate youth songs like “Here Comes a Regular” and “Bastards of Young” as if I had written them myself. I hadn’t replaced this record all those years because I had a copy of a Replacements greatest hits cd that had the better-known songs off Tim on it. But when I finally bought a copy last November, I realized/remembered how stunning the non-‘greatest hits’ tracks are. Yes, “Left of the Dial” = superclassic, but “Hold My Life”, “Swinging Party”, and holy shit, “Little Mascara” are also amazing songs. I never fully bought into the beery punk fuckup mythos of the Replacements (I’ll readily admit that “Lay it Down Clown” is a pretty average track). The Replacements/Paul Westerberg were always at their best in my mind when they balanced, as on this album, the disaffected proto-emo shtick with great pop songs. For that reason, despite Let It Be's reputation as the canonical Replacements record, I'll take Tim over it any day (OK, 6 days out of 7).

Windex tears flowed down the robot’s face; he never felt a mother’s embrace.

#4 The Silver Jews, American Water (Drag City, 1998)

Well, nearly six months after I wrote #5, and over two months since anyone’s posted at all, I’ve finally decided that I can’t let this project die. Maybe my top 4 will fall in the forest with no one around, but at least I’m not a quitter.

I was initially going to say that American Water is country music for an alternate universe. I think it’s more accurate, though, if only slightly less banal, to say that this album is country music for an alternate universe that we just happen to live in. It’s frequently and bizarrely hilarious (I listened to this record for all of about 10 seconds, just enough to hear David Berman sing “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection” on “Random Rules”, before I decided to buy it – see also the couplet from “Send in the Clouds” at the title of this post). Berman’s lyrics also reveal a darkly insightful edge to his (and our) comic world. This is best exemplified in “Smith and Jones Forever,” which I hear as the standout track. “Smith and Jones” draws a picture of the vast America that holds up and hides underneath our more comfortable world. Now, we’ve all seen things like the shirtless guy on Cops, so we can see our selves laugh at the obvious and pathetic humor in lines like “they sat there with their hooks in the water and their mustaches caked with airplane glue,” and “come let us adore them, California overboard, when the sun sets on the ghetto, all the broken stuff gets cold.” But while still witty, the next verse’s “the alleys are the footnotes of the avenues,” also contains a grimmer truth. The most moving part of the song for me, though, comes in the final verse, where, accompanied by a muted bass line and barely audible and chaotic guitar notes, Berman begins a story: “got two tickets for a midnight execution, we hitchhike our way from Odessa to Houston.” More voyeurism of the underclass spectacle – an occasion for gothic carnivalesque adventure (tickets and hitchhiking). The next line, though, repeats the phrase, “and when they turn on the chair, something’s added to the air” at which point the snare and guitar drop back in for the word: “…forever.” Something’s added to the air, forever. That final shock of a word shoots through the humor, not negating it, but yet reminding us how the things we want to laugh at and to repress never fully go away when we want them to.

All right. I meant to keep this short. I also want to observe that while it seems wrong to say so, this album is my favorite project that Stephen Malkmus has been involved in. On to #3…