The Best of 2013, Part III: #10-1

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I know it’s ridiculous to complete this blog series now — a mere ten months after I started it — but closure feels good. And these songs are amazing.  To the three people who read this blog: I promise the Best of 2014 won’t take as long.

10. “St. Croix,” Family of the Year. You’ll forget this song in a year. But perhaps it will linger as long as next summer, when it will seem perfect.  I’m a sucker for SoCal harmonies and melodic pop-rock.

9. “Sweet As John Hurt,” Hiss Golden Messenger. HGM is a duo of former West-Coast punk/indie rockers who relocated to North Carolina in 2007 and are a recent addition to the stable of Merge artists.  This song is more Whiskeytown than Arcade Fire, and it has an earnestness that gets me every time.  Check out their new album The Lateness of Dancers.  Here’s a great live HGM track (“Southern Grammar”) recorded this summer.

8. “Anchors,” The Attika State. This is one of the greatest bands no one knows about. Their 2008 album Measures is outstanding — punchy, slightly angular indie rock. I love this acoustic set — are they playing in an ice cream shoppe?  That’s rock n roll.  I also love that I introduced them to Jeremy Kerman, a man whose musical and artistic tastes are impeccable, and who likes them as much as I do.

7. “Starlet,” Matt Pond PA.  Matt Pond doesn’t have any rough edges, and he can be a little precious with his song and album titles, but he’s compulsively listenable.  This is a great song.  Here he is with Rocky Votolato covering “Don’t You Want Me Baby” by the Human League at The AV Club.

6. “The Woodpile,” Frightened Rabbit.  Great Scottish band, introduced to me by Lanis Wilson.  This song is off their latest album, Pedestrian Verse.

5. “Highwire Days (live),” Tommy Keene.  The original version of this song is on Keene’s 1989 LP Based on Happy Times, which is a criminally overlooked masterpiece of 80s pop rock. This version comes from his live Showtunes LP.  Last September I saw TK at King’s Barcade in Raleigh with my friend Adam.  There may have been fourteen people there.  And it was amazing.  He’s a guitar virtuoso.  At one point, he asked for requests, and I screamed for this song as if I was standing at the back of an arena (I was in actuality about ten feat from the stage.) I don’t care — he played it.

4. “City Swan,” Neko Case.  Another concert with Adam, this time at DPAC.  I admire Neko Case and love her music.  She also has the Seinfeldian quality of either looking drop-dead gorgeous or road weary.  Here she is looking fabulous:

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Of course how she looks has no bearing on her music, which is uniformly excellent. This is a fantastic song off her latest solo LP, The Worse Things Get….It’s almost as good as my all-time favorite song of hers, “People Got a Lotta Nerve.”

3. “Love Is All,” The Tallest Man on Earth.  As a “singles guy,” these days there aren’t many albums that are more compelling to me as units than as their component parts.  I’m always looking to cherry pick great tracks for the next best-of compilation. TTMOE (Swedish folk singer Kristian Matsson) writes great singles and makes great albums.  It’s both criticism and praise that he seems to imitate (or channel) Bob Dylan.  I think he’s fantastic, and this song is tremendous.  Here is a great versions of “Love Is All” recorded live on Later…with Jules Holland in 2011.

2. “Walk Away,” The English Beat. Another reclaimed gem.  I was a General Public Fan first, but The English Beat may now be tied with early R.E.M. as my favorite band.  I’ve owned Special Beat Service (The Beat’s masterpiece, in my opinion) for decades and acquired the very good I Just Can’t Stop It somewhere along the way.  Somehow, Wha’ppen escaped me until last year, when I purchased the EB boxed set.  It’s a bit more uneven than the other two (though it includes the classic “Doors of Your Heart”), but “Walk Away” would make my top-five English Beat songs for sure.  Ska perfection.  Also, The Beat played the Cat’s Cradle the same night that Neko Case played the DPAC — an embarrassment of riches, for sure.

1. “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo,” Superchunk. I was scared of Superchunk when I was in college.  And I also confused them with the grunge band Mudhoney.  It’s a hole in my college music experience that I’ve been trying to fill ever since.  This song is pop perfection. It’s the lead track on Superchunk’s most recent release, I Hate Music, which is excellent, though not as good as their masterpiece Majesty Shredding.  Great live version of the song here.

Here’s a link to the Best of 2013 Spotify playlist if you’re interested.

That’s it for 2013.  Looking forward to sharing the Best of 2014 in the new year!


There Is a Light That Never Goes Out

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“A while back, when Dick & Barry & I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you *are* like, Barry proposed the idea of a questionnaire for potential partners, a 2 or 3 page multiple-choice document that covered all the music/film/TV/book bases…It amused us at the time… But there was an important & essential truth contained in the idea, and the truth was that these things matter, and it’s no good pretending that any relationship has a future if your record collections disagree violently, or if your favorite films
wouldn’t even speak to each other if they met at a party.”

“Is it wrong, wanting to be at home with your record collection? It’s not like collecting records is like collecting stamps, or beermats, or antique thimbles. There’s a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colorful, sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the world I live in; there is history, and geography, and poetry, and countless other things I should have studied at school, including music.”

— High Fidelity, Nick Hornby


If this post and my last one are any indication, I’m clearly preoccupied with identifying favorites.  I have a habit of pop-quzzing others with favorite lists [e.g., top five favorite Michael Jackson songs: (which are, of course) “Rock with You,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Beat It,” “Billy Jean.”  Discuss.]  You can learn a lot about a person by doing this. I don’t claim that this predilection makes me especially unique, though. Nick Hornby’s Rob Fleming is similarly bedeviled in High Fidelity (I won’t lie, it’s an influence), and Hornby wrote another book that’s essentially a paean to his favorite mix tape.  Rob Sheffield did the same.  Chuck Klosterman has built a career on publicly dissecting these decisions.

But just because it’s not an especially original idea doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  As Fleming muses above, what you like matters.  I build my own lists with great care not just because I assume people will judge me by them, but because I hope they will.

For this same reason, it should come as no surprise that I hate having books or music in storage.  If it’s worth owning, it’s worth displaying — you never know who might stop by.  My wife once told me I collect books because I like to surround myself with them.  She was only half right.

A few years ago, I read an essay in The Atlantic in which the author lamented the advent of the tablet and the iPod because those devices render it impossible to tell what someone is reading or listening to from a distance.  His argument runs thusly: if everyone’s bookshelf eventually becomes virtual, then we lose an admittedly incomplete but nonetheless reliable indication of what the person likes and is like. Far from linking him with other likeminded souls, this new technology prevented him from making connections.  I tried using the essay with my students, but they just couldn’t relate.  I suppose the argument seemed hopelessly quaint to a generation of people who share everything about themselves, all the time.

Here’s an example of what we’ve lost. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Patti Smith recounted a memory of meeting Lou Reed in the lobby of the Gramercy Park Hotel.

“I was carrying a book of poems by Rupert Brooke.  He took the book out of my hand and we looked at the poet’s photograph together.  So beautiful, so sad.  It was a moment of complete peace” (p. 27).

I would’ve experienced the Rapture right then and there.

This post, then, is a way of reclaiming lost ground, with the full understanding of an inherent contradiction: that the very technology that makes this feel necessary to me is the same tool that facilitates discussions about it.

What follows is a recent conversation between me and two college friends of mine — Ian, a suitemate, and Anthony, an Australian exchange student — with whom I’ve remained close, in large part because of our shared enthusiasm for music.  We had challenged ourselves to identify our top-twenty favorite albums of our high school years (1985-1989).   We chose that era because it represented music that we loved more intensely than anything before or since — largely, I hypothesized, because these albums were released before “The Great Digital Fragmentation.”  These were the last albums we could love as whole units.  The conversation then evolved into a discussion of our top-ten favorite songs of all time, which was even more free-wheeling…and maddening.

The dialogue here highlights the care and precision (and agony and angst) required in these kind of selections — when albums, books, songs, and John Hughes movies approach the symbolic.

First, the rules:

  1. The album has to have been released during the years we were in high school (we later felt unduly constrained by this decision, and much teeth gnashing ensued — no Squeeze! — so we punted it.)
  2. The album has to have influenced your musical tastes (which means you can omit all the lame dance music or obscure knock-off Smiths bands you listened to and at the time loved but are now embarrassed by — I call it the “Erasure Rule”; it could also be called “The Railway Children Rule” or “The Lilac Time Rule.”

My selections:

The High School Years, 1985-89

(1986) The BoDeans, Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams

(1986) Crowded House, Crowded House

(1989) The Connells, Fun & Games

(1987) The Cure, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me

(1988) drivin’ n’ cryin’, Whisper Tames the Lion

(1985) Echo & the Bunnymen, Songs to Learn and Sing

(1985) Hoodoo Gurus, Mars Needs Guitars

(1985) INXS, Listen Like Thieves

(1989) Tommy Keene, Based on Happy Times

(1985) Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Easy Pieces

(1986) New Order, Brotherhood

(1985) Oingo Boingo, Dead Man’s Party

(1985) The Outfield, Play Deep

(1986) Pretty In Pink Soundtrack

(1985) R.E.M., Fables of the Reconstruction

(1989) The Reivers, End of the Day

(1989) The Replacements, Don’t Tell a Soul

(1986) The Smithereens, Especially for You

(1986) The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead

(1985) Talking Heads, Little Creatures

(1987) 10,000 Maniacs, In My Tribe

The Songs: (no restrictions, but much metaphysical agonizing)

Ian: I’m obsessing on this top 10 songs thing… just can’t do it. It’s creating a spiritual crisis.

All songs are not equal. But I offer the notion that all GREAT songs are equal. Or should be to the individual.

A truly great song is the ultimate, there’s nothing better, so no other song should be better.

 So… even with one person’s limited knowledge, I can still think of dozens, probably hundreds of songs I believe to be actually great. So to rank them…

Is it the ten songs that I love the most right now?  The ten songs I loved the most when each particular song meant the most to me in my evolving relationship with it? I can name my favorite ten songs now, but maybe none of them mean as much to me as my favorite 10 meant to me in 1986 or 2001. Or more realistically my ten favorite now mean MORE to me now than my favorites then… but that seems like cheating.

 How can I make a list without a Bowie song? Without ten Bowie songs?! ChangesOne Bowie more than any record probably influenced the course of my life to date, but none of those songs are in my current 10.

 Can I seriously consider “No Distance Left To Run” by Blur? Yes, I can.  That song stabs me in the heart.

 It really is maddening!

“Ocean Rain” is on the list. I can tell you that. Does that mean it’s my favorite song?I don’t feel like it is. But it is seriously the only one I think of & don’t doubt immediately.  My choices:

Echo & the Bunnymen – “Ocean Rain”

Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live Is To Fly” is officially on as well.

The Faces – “Ooh La La”

The Band – “It Makes No Difference”

American Music Club – “Firefly”

Steve Earle – “Pilgrim”

Van Morrison – “Into the Mystic”

David Rawlings – “I Hear Them All”

Little Feat – “Willin'”

That’s nine I could live with tonight. At this hour. At this minute.

After all the songs/artists that are important to me on some personal, almost spiritual level, including all those I listed, there is a whole other list of AMAZING songs that I could argue for, even if I don’t have a deep connection to them. See Beatles, Buddy Holly, Zombies, one-offs like Human’ League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” “Life In a Northern Town,” “Spirit In the Sky” … endless.

And then there’s this. Which totally destroys me. I mean this exact version.

Anthony: You know, I agree with everything you’ve said.

 Your email though has given me a lot to mull over.

The more I thought about the list, the more I realised, top 20 would be easier. That way I could add “Pride” by U2. Or “Hold Me Now” by the Thompson Twins, “In a Big Country” by Big Country, “Run to Paradise” by  The Choirboys. “Raspberry Beret” by Prince. I love “Solitary Man” by Neil Diamond or covered by Crooked Fingers. Kate Bush. Nick Drake. Some INXS or Midnight Oil. Some truly great songs that didn’t make the cut.

And like your Bowie stance, I love at least a dozen REM songs, early stuff, mid-career stuff like “Half a World Away” or “World Leader Pretend.” Even their new stuff. All good.

Do I still listen to them all? Well, except for Lloyd Cole, whose songs I don’t actually love with the same intensity that I once did, I still do love these songs.

I’m going to have to think about how to respond.  But what a thing to wrestle with!

Lee: (I was on a plane at the time Ian and Anthony were wringing their hands; otherwise, I would’ve joined in.) I’m going to go with these, not in descending order.  There’s no way I can cut it to ten.

“Back on the Chain Gang” — Pretenders
“Fall on Me” — REM
“Just Like Heaven” — The Cure
“Frances” — Dillon Fence
“World Where You Live” — Crowded House
“The Game” — Echo and the Bunnymen
“Highwire Days” — Tommy Keene
“This Must Be the Place” — Talking Heads
“Settled Down Like Rain” — The Jayhawks
“Fun & Games” — The Connells
“There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” — The Smiths
“Bizarre Love Triangle” — New Order
“Tenderness” — General Public
“Your Love” — The Outfield
“Driver 8” — REM
Ah, to be at home with one’s record collection….