Archive for October, 2009

My Posts are Too Long

October 28, 2009


I just noticed that most of my posts are too long for most people’s attention spans. If you are one of these people, I am sorry, I promise to work on it. As a consolation, here is an extremely short post, along with an intriguing picture that is kind of discomforting. And now I’m making it just a little bit longer. Uh-oh, now I’m ruining it by making it too long. Seriously, if I could just stop writing now it would be perfect… but I can’t help myself. Ok, I’m going to stop now. No, seriously, I will.

My Favorite Songwriters of all Time

October 21, 2009

Ok, I hate “Best Of” lists just as much as you do. That’s why I’m just calling this my “favorite” list so there isn’t the feeling of who is better than who. I like to write songs when I’m not writing this blog or herding cattle on the range, and have delved into many a great one and pulled it apart to discover what lies within. Most of the time I’m left with nothing but a bunch of words that sound cool together, but are meaningless and shallow. A great song is like a children’s book – when the story is over and the pages are closed, the world created by the author continues to exist within the reader’s head, and echo of the tale lingers and develops a life of its own.

Great songwriters are capable of creating a world we can live in beyond the limits of the song’s duration. Their words toss and turn in our dreams, their melodies drift in our minds and out of our mouths on the elevator to work, and by the end of the day we can’t wait to get back to our record player, put that needle down and relive the moment one more time. A great song lives and breathes and has a personality all its own. The greatest writers have entire albums full of these songs that actually exist as characters in our minds. If you let them, these writers may climb into your conscience too, and you may feel as if you know them. But you cannot really know this person, no matter how you long to, because their existence is a fabrication of their own design, just like their songs. Even those who are related or married to a songwriter cannot claim to know them. They are the modern shapeshifters of society, taking on forms of different characters and moods, living in different times and places all at once. I bet few songwriters would even claim to know themselves.

Now to the list. These are people that I have wanted to meet and thank for making the world more bearable. Another part of me doesn’t want to ruin the fantasy of who I think they are, and I also wouldn’t want to bother them. But if they ever happen to sit down next to me at a bar, I’d treat them as if they were an old friend, because in my mind that’s what they are.


50’s – Hank Williams – The original “Songwriter”, and one of the greatest of all time. Before this you have the Tin Pan Alley scene, but no one man could cut to the chase the way Hank did, and no one has come close since. “Cold, Cold Heart” is one of the saddest songs ever written. Definitely the greatest songwriter of the 50’s.

60’s – Bob Dylan – What a bastard. How can you be such an anemic prick, sneering and jeering your way via lies into people’s hearts and minds, first with a fake smile, then behind dark darting sunglasses, only to tell them all to go fuck themselves? You write nimble poetry that connects far-off distant memories in our minds and make us thing we know what’s going on, then leave us in the dust like all your forgotten lovers. I hope you can forgive yourself what you’ve done to us, Dylan – I definitely have. You’re still the greatest songwriter to come out of the 60’s, and you’ve done pretty well for yourself in the 70’s and 2000’s, too.

70’s – Neil Young – Neil is friendlier, furrier, and more rustic than Dylan. If Dylan is New York, Neil is Half Moon Bay. Still, a darkness underlies every word the man has written, and sadness is ultimately the subject of most of his greatest songs. What makes Mr. Young so great must be the same thing that makes Steinbeck great – everything is simple, straightforward, and seemingly contemplative of the human spirit, which is treated with reverence and fear. Very few songwriters can put so much of themselves in their songs without it coming out pretentious. Neil’s got my vote for the best songwriter in the 70’s, moving from After the Gold Rush and Harvest through Tonight’s the Night, On the Beach, all the way to Rust Never Sleeps.

80’s – Bruce Springsteen – He is both seductive and honest in his approach to songwriting. Never mind that his voice sounds like warm leftovers after about the fifth song, no one can write a song for the workin’ man like the Boss. His stories appeal to the most basic needs of humans, to be loved, to honor brotherhood, to make quick money and go to Atlantic City. If only judged by Nebraska, he would still come out on top as the greatest songwriter of the 80’s.

90’s – Elliot Smith – Yes, I know he was kind of pathetic and whiny. So was Dylan and Hank Williams. Songwriters are like little brothers – they always get beat up, and instead of fighting back they brood in their rooms for days to perform some act of genius that makes you feel like a jerk for picking on them in the first place. Mr. Smith must have spent weeks in his room, shooting up and drinking vodka in a mad depression, in order to create the incredibly fragile ballads that he is known for. I am aware that most of his songs are about dope and suicide, but no one writes such brilliantly bitter pop melodies that leave you wondering whether heroin is such a bad thing after all (except maybe John Lennon, Elliot’s idol). I guess it was, considering it’s elemental in Smith’s suicide stabbing(!?!). Definitely my favorite songwriter from the 90’s.

00’s – Ryan Adams – Jesus Christ, not again. Another twitchy genius with big mouth and bad hair making snarky comments that cause discomfort. It’s like Dylan all over again, isn’t it? Well, not exactly. Adams is by far the most prolific artist of his  generation, releasing so many albums in the past 10 years it’s ridiculous, starting with the indespensable Heartbreaker. The good news is that he is now “retired” from songwriting after cleaning up off drugs and alcohol, and spends his time writing novels, recording joke heavy metal albums, sleeping with new wife Mandy Moore, painting, and writing blogs about arcade games. What a delightful twist! Actually, I really wish he would get back to writing songs again, because no one can tell lyrical tales of pain and heartbreak in late-night diners over coffee and cigarettes like ol’ Ryan Adams. This decade isn’t over yet, but I’m calling it now:  best songwriter of the 00’s.


Gram Parsons – It took me a little while to forgive him for singing out of tune on most everything he did, but it actually accentuates the earnest sense of urgency that makes his music so endearing. Gram is not the “Golden Prophet” that he is often revered as, rather he was a lost young man with a difficult emotional past that he channeled into great songs. Most interesting is that his concept of “Cosmic Country” is right on – his music inspires a humanitarian empathy that can’t be ignored.

John Lennon – Definitely not Paul McCartney, Lennon was the antithesis of happy safe pop music. This is one is so obvious, but I really like his post-Beatle catalog the most, as he delves deeper into the personal darkness that made him so such a tragic figure (even if he wasn’t murdered, he was still a tragedy). The most loveable basketcase I can think of, Lennon proved that being a genius songwriter doesn’t change the world, but it definitely makes it more bearable to live in.

Kris Kristofferson – Most people don’t know that Kristofferson wrote hits like, “Me  Bobby McGee”, “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, and “Help Me Make it Through the Night”. Plus, he was in the Highwaymen and is a great actor (which has nothing to do with his songwriting, I know). He evokes feelings of the best of times, along with the worst of times. Without sounding too much like a Dickens novel, I can’t live without him.

Lefty Frizzell – A lesser-known contemporary of Hank Williams, Lefty wrote some incredible songs in his short career, most notably the ones covered by Willie Nelson. “If You’ve Got the Money” is the #1 sugar mama track, and that was waaaayyy before it was cool to have one.

Leonard Cohen – If Gram Parsons is the loveable boy-child of songwriting, then Cohen is definitely the Ice King. His lyrical content is seductive without frills, and while Parsons will sing about the Armaggedon with cautionary hope, Cohen will sing as if it has already happened and he is the product of the fallout, mourning the loss of innocence in a land ravaged by sin and overconsumption. It’s no wonder that his adult themes of cheating wives and fallen kings resonate so well with the Hollywood crowd and strip clubs. His voice is the last shred of humanity left standing in Babylon, and it’s like we’re listening to the folk music of the future. I’m guessing that this bard would have fared well in the world of “Total Recall”.

Loretta Lynn – People give Taylor Swift so much credit for being so young and writing her own songs. They forget it’s happened before, and it was done better in the past. Loretta’s about the same as Swift, except she had already had a couple of kids and was married to a no-count drunk which gave her much more interesting things to sing about. She was also poor and uneducated, but that didn’t stop her from becoming one of the fiercest female voices to ever stick up for the forgotten housewives in America. With song titles like, “The Pill” and “Fist City” Loretta could be considered one of the first feminist songwriters. If she isn’t the first, she most certainly is the best of the lot. A special place in my heart is reserved only for this strong woman.

Lou Reed – Inspiring generations of noisy garage bands is easily forgiveable when you write a song like “Heroin”, which has never  before or since been matched in meniachal intensity. The voice of the urban New York underground, Reed has never played it safe lyrically, and almost always delivers in creating the paranoid, zonked-out feeling of hanging out with a tranny, midget twins, and a drug dealer at one of Warhol’s parties. Even Nico could sing his songs and they sounded cool.  Not to mention that his solo exploits, while often scattered, continue to display his mastery of the language of filthy human resiliency.

Lucinda Williams – The queen of modern country, or Americana, as it is now referred to. She has the wail and moan of Hank Williams in her leathery voice, but what makes her so amazing is that she is poetic without being flowery. Much of the themes in her music (especially the more recent “West”) are biographical in nature, conjuring images of single mothers driving buicks in the desert. The forlorn sadness captured in her stark imagery reflects both spiritual and existensial realities, and her writing abilities continue to stretch outward successfully. Definitely the strongest and most responsible female voice of modern songwriting, Williams just keeps getting better and better. I can’t wait to see what she does next. 

Merle Haggard – Never before has the voice of the prisoner been so well emoted as with Merle Haggard. If it just came down to songs about leaving behind mama and getting into trouble, then Merle would be well ahead of the game It just so happens that he also wrote some of the best ramblin’ train songs of all time, too. Try to understand the humor and irony in songs like “Okie From Muskogee”, “Workin’ Man Blues” and “Fightin’ Side of Me”, and you’ll find yourself a happier person. You can’t play a single juke joint from here to Texas without knowing some Merle Haggard.

Townes Van Zandt – The most depressing human on Earth. Seriously, why do you have to do this to us, Townes? What I like best about his music is that for a second you think things are looking up, and then he swoops in like a bird of death and kills all hope. I can’t listen to him too much, but his music fills an irreplaceable void in my life – the depressed space. “Waitin’ Around to Die” pretty much tops the charts of all-time biggest downers, and makes Neil Young sound like Bob Marley. He also writes great story songs like “Pancho and Lefty”, too.

Willie Nelson – He definitely is a beloved country icon, but before Willie was famous for being Willie, he wrote “Hello Walls”, “Mr. Record Man”, and Patsy Cline’s best song, “Crazy”, and sold the rights to them all for less than a bag of weed. Of course, he’s written hundreds of great songs since then, and continues to pump out one great tune after another to this day. The best part about Willie is his sense of humor, and when I heard “Cowboys are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other” I nearly died laughing. Please ignore the fact that he lets people like Toby Keith and Kid Rock sing on his albums. Please at least try.

Great songwriters who should be on this list but aren’t (with excuses):

Alejandro Escovedo – I must confess, I only own one album (Boxing Mirror), but the words are awesome!
Beck – If humor were the main criteria for a great songwriter, he would be #1.
Brian Wilson – He loses points for writing songs about surfing. No one wonder he went insane.
Buddy Holly – I love Buddy Holly, he wrote perfect pop songs. But Carole King isn’t on this list either.
Cat Power – Sometimes her words are gibberish, other times fantastic. Keep writing, Cat!
Curtis Mayfield – Songs for the ghetto, I guess. Curtis is a political spokesman, but he isn’t a lyrical genius.
David Bowie – I’m also tempted to add him now, but his words don’t quite carry the power of some of the other cats.
George Jones – A great songwriter indeed, but his songs never sound as good when someone else sings them.
Jim Morrison – Really more of a poet than a songwriter, don’t you think?
Keith Richards/Mick Jagger – Rock n’ Roll isn’t supposed to have good lyrics. These guys do it for me, but I’m not taking the words to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” with me to the grave.
Neil Diamond – The man did write some amazing songs, but the schmaltz aspect of his act has always detracted from his genius.
Nick Drake – Neil Young and Townes are depressing enough. I can’t take it any more!
PJ Harvey – She is fun to listen to, and her lyrics aren’t burdened with depression and sadness. I need those in my songs.
Ralph and Carter Stanley – Bluegrass couldn’t exist without these cats. But cautionary religous tales about drinking too much just don’t resonate much with me. I never knew why:)
Robert Hunter – I love his lyrics, they have important life lessons in them. But clever they are not.
Roy Orbison – He definitely wrote great songs, though I can’t exactly admit that he is one of my favorites.
Tom Waits – Awesome lyrics, hideous, overwraught voice. I can’t stand his music.
Stevie Wonder – What a fantastic writer, especially his melodies. But one of my favorites? I gotta say close, but no cigar.
Willie Dixon – The greatest blues songwriter ever, to be sure. But seriously, how hard is it to write a blues song?
Win Butler – Pretty good, pretty good. I’ll make the decision when more albums are released.
Woody Guthrie – Ok, I know he’s great. I’m just not educated enough on his music to make a valuable assesment. Maybe when I finally get enough cash together to get some of his records…

WTF!? Black Taco?

October 19, 2009
Finally, dinner for the poor Existentialist!

Finally, dinner for the starving Existentialist!

Marketing is everything… except when a company that has run out of interesting ways to reorganize beans, cheese, beef, sour cream, tomatoes, and grease resorts to making its food black in order to keep it interesting. And did I mention that the public is going to call this is racist and sexist, even though it clearly isn’t? Could this represent the death of the taco as as whole in society, or just the death of Taco Bell as a relevant fast food choice? It’s in danger of leaving the A-List likes of Jack in the Box, McD’s and Burger King, and being pushed into the B-List Hardee’s, Del Taco, Arby’s category. Either way, it doesn’t matter… nothing matters… except the “Nausea” that Sartre would have felt had he eaten on of these things…

In the meantime, here is the commercial for this new black sheep of fast food:

Is Your Favorite Reality Show Fake?

October 16, 2009
Operation Repo, or Operation Hippo?

Operation Repo, or Operation Hippo?

Ok, I’ll admit it. I watch Reality TV from time to time. I mean, after all, where else can you find desperate bimbos and shameless douchebags needlessly screaming at each other in order to resolve some issue that was created by the production staff of the show to make interesting television? I fondly remember the early days of COPS and Real World (what ever became of Puck, by the way?). I even jump on board to watch the first few episodes of American Idol every year when the crazy people sing. And yes, I was witness to probably the greatest season of Reality TV ever created, Surreal Life, season 2 (remember the first episode where Verne Troyer peed on the rug?). Yes, I have indulged and continue to consume Mark Burnett’s out-of-control creation that pretty much dominates modern television today.

Recently I have been watching some of the new reality shows and found myself staring in awe and amazement at what they were able to capture on tape. My first reaction was , “How did that just happen?” As the shows progressed I started thinking the forbidden, and by the end of each one I let out a scream of frustration and the following taboo words:  “This is so fake!”

Now, I know what you’re thinking. All reality shows are fake to some degree. Many scenes are instigated and controlled by story editors, who manipulate common folk and turn them into pseudo-actors. But this is just outright fraud that I’m talking about. Remember those “reenactments” from shows like Unsolved Mysteries, interspersed with commentary from the actual people involved? Well, that’s what they’re doing on these supposed “reality” shows nowadays, except the people involved are also taking part in the reenactments, and they’re playing it off as reality.

I first noticed this happening on Jerry Springer. While it seems impossible that the guests aren’t paid actors, but real specimens of American society’s dark side, it was Richard Dominick’s The Springer Hustle that so brilliantly revealed the degree to which guests were coached, coerced, and coaxed into “performing” on stage and elaborating their stories. No, the Springer show isn’t fake, but it’s not real either. At least it’s not trying to pretend to be a reality show, though.

The first show that I can, beyond a shred of doubt, proclaim to be fake (except that the reenactments are based on true stories), is Operation Repo (which is ironically broadcast on TruTV). While I don’t doubt that Luis ‘Lou’ Pizarro and his gang of repo dudes/dudettes are the real deal, it’s clear that filming of the actual repossessions are actually overly-dramatized reenactments. There is no other way that this kind of action could be happening to them on a regular basis and be caught on tape. One viewing of a single show is enough to convince me that these people have collected stories over the years and decided to make a TV show out of them. Of great concern to me (although I’m sure no one else cares) is that we don’t even know if the stories happened to the people on the show, or if they are collected from other sources. The worst case scenario would be that most of these stories aren’t even true, and they are created by a television writer who is probably an underpaid intern under the guise of “story editor”. Hey, wait a second. Wouldn’t that just mean that we’ve come back full circle to actually writing television shows again instead of relying on real people and real stories to provide us with entertainment? If so, I’m totally ok with that, as long as I’m told the stories aren’t real and the writers are getting paid. Neither of these things are happening.

This show is obviously the worst offender, and there are many more out there that are almost as bad. I specifically point my finger at Rehab:  Party at the Hard Rock Hotel (also suspiciously on TruTV), and any of the VH1 “Love” shows (Rock of Love, I Love NY, etc). While some elements of these shows are based on reality, the fights and confrontations are all staged and, in some cases, don’t even involve the people who were actually in the real fight (if there ever was a real fight). Half the time there is a huge build-up to something that looks like it’s going to be a fight, and then the situation is resolved without a confrontation. Apparently this disappointment makes you crave more action – like having a steak wafted under your nose and being fed carrots instead. 

There’s an interesting article that TIME ran about this phenomenon, and even though it’s a little outdated (2006), it reveals what’s really going on and why this continues to happen. The bottom line I guess is that studios don’t want to pay real actors or writers to do television because they have to hire union workers and pay more money. Those bastards have figured out how to make TV entertaining without spending big money by eliminating talent from the equation. At least the cameramen are safe, or at least until they can train a monkey to hold a video recorder.

The saddest news in all of this is that Americans absolutely love this format, and most people don’t even question whether what they are seeing is real or not. The shows are entertaining and people are fiercely loyal and identify with particular characters, despite the fact that they are really just underpaid actors whose lives are scripted for our amusement. Offices are still filled with mindless chatter about what happened to Spencer on The Hills last night, or whatever they’re talking about over there. Couples continue to gather around with their pets and children, eyes glued to the boob tube. Yes, it does seem like the television is a destructive force in society. It’s doing a great job at keeping you from getting up and doing something else that might be more interesting than watching teenagers get drunk and yell at each other, fat people hanging from ropes, or gangsters getting their rides repossessed. Sometimes I feel like Running Man is closer to reality than we think. What it’s not doing a great job of is fooling me into thinking that any of this crap is real. I guess reality isn’t actually all that interesting after all. America, you are being lied to again. Alas, I’m still waiting for the revolution.

Rainy Days are Here Again

October 13, 2009


As Robert Plant says:

These are the seasons of emotion
And like the winds they rise and fall
This is the wonder of devotion-
I see the torch we all must hold.
This is the mystery of the quotient-
Upon us all a little rain
Must fall.
Just a little rain?
Ooooh, yeah yeah yeah!

 – “The Rain Song”

New Music for the Culturally Clueless

October 5, 2009

Good music is hard enough to find, but it’s even harder sifting through the malaise of more recent, over-hyped offerings of current artists whose reviews and exposure usually have nothing to do with how good their records are. If you’re like me, you probably stick to new releases from those you know will deliver (Dylan, Beck, Ryan Adams, etc.), and perhaps only download single mp3’s of songs you have heard that you liked. But buying single mp3’s of an artist is limiting in that it only gives you a slice of what the album really encompasses, and taken out of context can leave the listener short of the full experience they deserve and crave. It’s like getting to second base with someone really hot, and never finding out what they’re like in bed. I want the whole enchilada!

That being said, I would like to offer my most recent discoveries in new(er) music, and since I am a musician and serious music-lover who is very skeptical of anything new, I hope you will appreciate the fact that I am not easily swayed by public opinion and advertisements that too easily cry, “the Next Big Thing”. My inspiration for finding new music comes from my local public library and a blog called dk presents, and am much indebted to dk for opening my mind to contemporary music that doesn’t make my ears bleed. And so now I am passing my findings along in hopes of inspiring someone else to revise their stale music collection. Without further ado, here’s a list of albums I think you will like (and ones to avoid):

*Disclaimer* – This list is not intended for people who read Blender and/or  are avid followers of the current music scene. Most of these records have come out in the past 2-3 years. It is more intended for the person who is admittedly unaware of modern culture and probably hasn’t bought a new CD in the past couple years (but wants t0).

1. Madeleine Peyroux – Half the Perfect World

Peyroux croons like Billie Holiday and this album delivers with great modern song selections, stylish session players, and wonderful engineering/production. Just when you think jazz is dead, along comes a new surprise…

2. Iron and Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days

Apparently, folk is coming back in a big way, and it’s partly due to Sam Beam, the wizard behind Iron & Wine. Soft vocals with female harmonies create a great subtle mood throughout the album, but it is the songwriting that ultimately carries this record, with clear and introspective lyrics that evoke visceral images of children and the South. This is your lazy morning chillout record.

3. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

This one is idiosyncratic because no one will be able to replicate the atmosphere and conditions under which it was recorded. Not even Justin Vernon, who did most of it himself on a home recording setup in the woods, and it’s a miracle that it turned out as well as it did. Whiny singing and meager drumming over acoustic guitars never sounded so good. I wouldn’t expect the follow-up to be close to this, but you never know. A great listen, especially if you are going through a breakup.

4. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

SubPop is a great record label, probably the best around today (with the exception of ATO). They continue to discover great underground acts and give them enough exposure to become successful. This album is on most music critics’ list of greatest records in 2008, and it does sound great, mostly because the reverb on the vocals is so moody and entrancing, and the playing is so tastefully complementary to that. The songwriting isn’t so important as the ambience, which makes it a great listen from start to finish.

5. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

Funeral was a wonderfully inspired and solid first record from this Canadian indie band , and I was thoroughly impressed when I heard the equally solid followup. Win Butler clearly shines as the main songwriter, and his passionate singing about religion and loss perfectly complement his mostly positive, and sometimes sentimental, dirges. Beautiful melodies throughout make this a great hum-along disc. As a band, Arcade Fire rocks kind of like Crazy Horse with violins and humming girl backup singers.

6. Calexico – Carried to Dust

Ok, at first I was skeptical. When someone tells me to listen to a band from Arizona that blends Mexican folk music with American pop, I am immediately thinking this is going to be a cheesy train wreck, like a cross between Sublime and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, or something like that. Not so. White people canwrite songs with Mariachi horns behind them, and the results are definitely cinematic. This album offers a lot more than just the aformentioned desctiption entails, and I think it’s to the band’s credit that they can cover so many styles without seeming unfocused. Probably the best goup you’ve never heard of that’s been doing it for 10+ years, they just keep cutting their little niche in modern music deeper and deeper. You’ll have to pay attention sooner or later, why not start now? (By the way, Feast of Wire isn’t as good as this record is).

7. Cold War Kids – Loyalty to Loyalty

With a name like this I expected something between Dashboard Confessional and Bright Eyes. Instead I got a cd full of great songs (some are better than others, admittedly), with interesting arrangements over singing that conjures thoughts of Jeff Buckley. There is a soulfulness to the record that is vacant on most of the “indie” discs I’ve listened to, and I’m looking forward to checking out their debut album as well.

8. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

I’m still kind of on the fence about this one to be honest. On one hand, you have really great arrangements featuring awesome musicians (everybody loves Garth Hudson from the Band), and unique songwriting that is more Victorian than anything else. The words and concept of the album are a little inaccessible and pretentious, although ornate and beautiful, and Neko’s voice, while sultry, at times sounds a little sharp and dissonant to my ears. I keep listening hard to see if the songs will start to make sense. The main reason I put it on this list is because it’s so unique and at random moments will catch me off guard with bursts of eloquenence, which leads me to believe that the music will continue to grow on me.

9. The Black Crowes – Warpaint

I’m an old-school Black Crowes fan from their very first single (Atlanta represent!), but most people probably thought this band was way past its prime, especially after Marc Ford quit forever ago. I myself had kind of swept them under the sentimental rug, along with the likes of Pearl Jam and Portishead, but this album seriously blew my mind upon first listen. Seriously, folks, you really owe it to yourself to check it out. The Crowes sound like a well-worn version of themselves that doesn’t try too hard, and the album is so comfortable to listen to that I made it all the way through without stopping the first time I heard it. It really gets great around the sixth song, and I felt like I was listening to Pink Floyd, the vibe was so heady. Admittedly, Luther Dickenson isn’t the virtuoso that Marc Ford is, but he plays the hell out of the slide guitar and actually fits in with the band’s sound better than Ford. I’m thoroughly impressed by this effort, and am looking forward to the day I can afford their newest double-length with Levon Helm, entitled Before the Frost/Until the Freeze.

10. Elliot Smith – New Moon

Not much needs to be said here if you already know who Elliot Smith is. If you don’t like him, you won’t like this, because he’s at his most whiny and softest acoustic peaks here, ala Elliot Smith and XOXO. But man, this guy could write wonderfully acerbic pop songs, and this double-disc posthumous release just proves that he had so much more left to give . If you like Smith, you won’t be disappointed by this one. If you aren’t sure, check out Figure 8 and Either/Or first.

11. Ryan Adams – Easy Tiger

This was my first record of Ryan Adam’s, and I admittedly had never really listened to any of his music before a couple of years ago. As a songwriter, it’s ridiculous that I discovered this guy right before he decided to call it quits and marry Mandy Moore (he’ll be back, I just know it). This is his first album recorded after his alleged sobriety, and many of the songs have to do with him grappling inner demons and recovery. There are some great tunes on here, and proves that you don’t have to be on high on speedballs to be the greatest songwriter of your generation (you were sober when you wrote those songs, weren’t you Ryan?). And trust me, Adams is undoubtedly the greatest songwriter of the 2000’s, just like I think Elliot Smith was in the 90’s and Dylan was in the 60’s and 70’s. The Boss gets stuck with the 80’s. Anyway, check this album out, and if you’re really brave and want to have your life changed, go out and buy Heartbreaker. I dare you.

12. Wilco – Sky Blue Sky

It seems like everybody knows and loves Wilco these days, so it’s not a surprise that I picked this album as a winner. I just would like to say that while it’s not as good as A Ghost is Born, it has some shining moments, and Nels Cline continues to be tasteful and creative without stealing the show. My only complaint is that Jeff Tweedy still sounds pharmaceutical, for lack of a better word, and any songwriting he does that isn’t explaining why he’s such a grumpy old man doesn’t really mean much to an ordinary guy like me. That being said, there are songs on here that touch just slightly upon fusion and stay away from the experimental wastleland of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. “Impossible Germany” is possibly the best song to listen to while taking off in an airplane

13. Lucinda Williams – West

Lucinda Williams is a godsend to country music. I know she’s not straight country, but the subject matter of the songs on West is so earthy and personal, that you can’t help but feel like this woman is the sole inheritor of the Hank Williams legacy. Written shortly after her mother’s death, this album features songs that call to Momma throughout, and the mournful lonesomeness in her voice is like a coyote in the desert, sending chills down my spine every time. By far some of her most sophisticated and deepest songwriting yet, Lucinda elucidates souls of dead poets throughout, and for the most part avoids the man-hating sludge rock that she’s never really pulled off that well on past efforts. Also, the cheesy Nashville production and distorted guitars that showed up on World Without Tears have been toned down in favor of sonic layers that really complement the music. I think this is her finest record yet – be prepared to weep.

 14. Kelley Stoltz – Below the Branches

Kelley Stoltz is a San Francisco songwriter I have been following for many years. He’s not really well-known outside of the City, but is clearly a very gifted musician. I chose this record to share, even though it came out in 2006, over the more recent Circular Sounds, simply because it’s better. Stoltz always self-records with an eight-track tape machine, which creates the loose psychedelic warble that gives his records a well-worn glow. By far the best album I have ever heard by anyone from the Bay Area in the last 10 years, Below the Branches collects influences and jumbles them up into original music, courtesy of Stoltz’s ability to conjure the sounds and atmospheres of classic records. The songs are simple and fun, the music cheerful and effortless. In fact, Stoltz should put more effort into his music, because he has such a wonderful voice and an endless supply of talent to draw from that everyone should know about. This is a great summer album, my friends.

15. Alejandro Escovedo – The Boxing Mirror

Lots of people have probably thought to themselves, “I see his name everywhere, I wonder if that guy is any good”. Well, I can assure you that he is great, and once you become accustomed to his unique style, you will find yourself entranced by the moody and spiritual presence that shape-shifts throughout this record. The closest influence I can name is Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, and hallucinations of animals in the desert appear often throughout songs that vary from folk rock to 80’s electro pop in instrumentation and feel. Escovedo sounds like no one you have heard before, and the indigenous loping of his enchanting lyrics will cast a spell on your soul and leave you wanting more. Oh yeah, and it’s produced by VU legend John Cale, if that helps.

CD’s that really didn’t do it for me:

1. Prince – Planet Earth

Just in case you are a Prince fan and thought that since he rocked “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and the Superbowl so hard that his most recent album must be a winner as well, I’m here to let you know that it’s not. Sorry, Prince, please don’t sue me.

2. My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges

I’ve really liked this band ever since I heard It Still Moves. Since then they have moved further away from the reverb drenched Neil Young sound and more towards the Prince and whiteboy reggae sound. Ewww. Admittedly, there are some great moments on this record, and it’s worth buying some mp3’s, but please, for the love of God, stay away from “Highly Suspicious”. Z is a much better album, buy that instead.

3. The Black Keys – Catch and Release

Is it just me, or this band highly overrated? And is it just me, or is Dangermouse in that same category? Well, it makes perfect sense then that these two should be paired together to make what I consider to be a true dud of an album. Why buy the Black Keys when I can have the White Stripes? I caught and released this album as quickly as I could. Dan Auerbach’s solo effort is looking much more promising.

5. Grandaddy – Just Like the Fambly Cat

I really like Jackpot, and I thought this would kind of be in the same vein. It was, just not in a good way. If the synthesis of obnoxious synths and repetitive loops over folky acoustic guitars is your thing, check out Beck instead. I wanted to like it. I really did.

6. LCD Sound System – Sound of Silver

 I am guessing that James Murphy took all the money he made from his first record and blew it on coke, then decided to make something “genius”. In any case, I can’t get into this disc because I keep thinking that my CD player is skipping. After getting rid of this record, I am relieved to discover that my CD player is just fine.

Singles I’m Diggin’

1. The National – “Mistaken for Strangers”

2. M. Ward – “Helicopter” 

3. Slaid Cleaves – “I Feel the Blues Moving In”

4. Flight of the Conchords – “Bowie” & “Hiphopapotamus vs. Rhymenocerous”

5. Black Lips – “It Feels Alright”

6. Dan Auerbach – “My Last Mistake”