Music

24th October
2011
written by Jeff


This week, I bought a new little practice amp from my good friend, Jim, out at Texas Music Emporium. In truth, I have not put a lot of time into practicing the bass guitar in quite a few years. When I was much younger, I spend countless hours hunched over my bass playing until my fingers were raw and my arms tired.

At this point in my life, that doesn’t really interest me as much, but I have felt the need to put in some practice time, if for no other reason than to see how I’m doing compared to lo those many years ago when I actually spent time with a metronome and learned songs note for note.

To my pleasant surprise, things that seemed terribly difficult to me back then are not nearly as tough today. I thought my skills had eroded thanks to years of neglect, but the lesson I learned is that the practical application of all those hours of work has not only allowed me to maintain what little skill I do have, but actually improve from where I used to be. In short, I may not be the next Jaco (he was kind of a big deal), but I’m also not completely devoid of ability.

Since I’ve spent the better part of 30 years working on this instrument, I figured it was a good time to pay tribute to the guys who literally informed every note I play — another thing I learned while jamming along to music this week. These are the ten bass players who have most influenced my playing.

I put them in no particular order because, well, they are all so good, it would be ridiculous.

Billy Sheehan

When I was 15, I went to my first concert. It was Yngwie Malmsteen at a bar in Houston. The opener was Talas featuring the monster, shredder bass player, Billy Sheehan. While I certainly dabbled (poorly, I might add) in speed demon theatrics and ridiculous finger tapping as a young player, the thing that impressed me about Sheehan was the same thing that impressed me about many bassists: His strength.

Whether it’s Sheehan or Stanley Clarke or Ron Carter or John Entwistle, the best bass players are always guys who play(ed) with strength and aggression. I love how Sheehan would pull strings out of position and make the instrument growl like a guitar. A lot of how I simply approach the playing of rock music came from watching Sheehan grind strings and throw the bass around like a rag doll. I got to the point where I would put my pinky on top of my third finger just to push it down harder and that was all Sheehan.

Pino Palladino

The first time I saw the above video, my jaw hit the floor. I was probably about 15 and I had never heard anything like this before. Later, I heard the work Palladino did with Pete Townsend and I realized I had to have a fretless bass. There was such a fluidity to the instrument that just didn’t happen with frets.

Also, there was a tremendous funkiness to his playing, something that was common to many of the guys on this list. Like most of the great session guys, he knew how to add something really cool at just the right moment without stepping out of line — check some of his work for Tears for Fears as an example. I also first heard the practical use of an octave pedal from Palladino’s bass.

Even after he dropped his nearly singular focus on fretless to play r&b with guys like D’Angelo and the John Mayer Trio, you could always tell when it was that lanky Brit (ok, Welsh) guy on bass.

Rocco Prestia

In my teens, I became friends with a guy that worked at Sound Warehouse, the chain of music stores eventually bought by Blockbuster. He would turn me onto really cool music. One day, after reading the latest Bass Player Magazine, I came in looking for Live and in Living Colour by Tower of Power having no idea what it was, just knowing the magazine said it was one of the best bass albums of all time. My friend was impressed.

I had never heard anyone with such precise command and freight train-like speed from his right hand. It was insane. To this day, I can barely make it through “What is Hip?” without my hand going into full on cramps, nevermind trying to cover all 23 minutes of “Knock Yourself Out,” which was the entire B-side of that live album.

Rarely are guys this funky and this busy at the same time. It blew me away and still does.

Darryl Jones

When Sting assembled his first solo backing band (his best, in my opinion), I had never heard of Darryl Jones. Hell, I’d never heard of Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland or Omar Hakim either. The making-of film Bring On the Night was a complete life changer for me, not because I loved Sting all that much, but because, at age 16 or 17, it opened me up to a world that I had never known before.

I was a little metal kid and this live film and album demonstrated to me that electric guitar could be inconsequential and the music could still kick ass. Once I heard Jones on this, I went out and dug up everything he did including his work with Miles Davis and John Scofield. I loved the smoothness of his playing and how sneaky he was at getting really complicated stuff into fairly simple songs.

The song above was and is my favorite Jones-Hakim groove.

Donald “Duck” Dunn

As a young kid, I was mostly influenced by the listening habits of my parents. Fortunately, my mom mostly played the oldies station in the car which consisted mainly of the Beatles, British invasion pop, Motown and Atlantic r&b, which is where I got my first inkling of funk music and the brilliance of Dunn. Once I saw The Blues Brothers, it was over.

I tended to prefer the earthier sounds of Atlantic with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Bar-kays, Ray Charles, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding and others to the more sparkling pop of Motown and Dunn played on virtually all of it. His tone was fatter than that of his Detroit-based contemporaries as he owed as much of his playing to country music as the Motown guys did to jazz.

It set him apart and made him not only a melodic player, but a guy that could lay down a foundation groove as powerful and rock solid as you could imagine. The video above has perhaps my favorite song with Dunn and easily my favorite from Charles.

Paul McCartney

I am a self-confessed Beatles nerd. I love virtually everything about them. For many years, I was so focused on the songs, I essentially ignored McCartney’s beautiful and brilliant bass lines. I knew they were interesting, but my bass playing and my songwriting didn’t always cross paths, so I focused on the songs.

Later, I realized that some of this playing was seeping its way into mine, particularly the big, beefy, upper-register stuff that he is so known for. “Something,” to me, was nothing short of spectacular. Not only was it one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, but McCartney’s fascinating counter melody on bass brings it to life.

In the last verse, when he plays that bouncy melody in the giant gap between lyrics, I still try to stop people from talking and force them to listen to it. It’s pure bass player ecstasy.

Jaco Pastorius

There is very little that can be said about Jaco (note he and Geddy are the only bassists I refer to by first name partly due to the uniqueness of the names and partly out of respect) that would accurately describe his impact on the world of bass. He was nothing short of a genius on the instrument. If there were a bass guitar Mount Rushmore, his head would be one of the four.

His tragically short life (I remember reading about his death buried deep inside the Austin American Statesman) was as chaotic as his music was serene. “Portrait of Tracy” is a song that first introduced me not just to the possibilities of fretless bass, but a way to approach the bass that removed it slightly from its beefy undertones, making it light, airy and almost etherial.

One of the true “artists” of the bass guitar and the definition of a legend.

James Jamerson

Whenever I would trace back the roots of players I really liked, all roads would invariably lead to Jamerson. It’s hard to imagine just how great an impact his playing has had on countless bassists throughout the years.

For me, the insane grooves mixed with all the accents and silky melodies he added underneath the dense musical arrangements of Motown’s dozens of hits are as instructional as they are remarkable. To hear that kind of swagger and funk buried inside the pristine melodies of Holland-Dozier-Holland is, in and of itself, miraculous. To be able to play them with such deft skill and subtlety is almost unimaginable.

Every time I listen to a Jamerson part — like the wonderful line in the above video he played while drunk and lying flat on his back (Jesus!) — I recognize all the little elements I try to incorporate into my own playing, realizing full well that I’m not 1/100th the player he was.

Geddy Lee

Geddy was my first true bass hero. How could he not be? He was playing incredibly difficult parts in a loud, albeit nerdy, rock band. The signature grind of his Rickenbacker bass became a staple of garage musicians hoping to be like Geddy and mostly failing miserably.

What constantly impresses me about him is the way he has grown over the years and improved as a player. His sound has matured. His playing has grown more deeply rooted in grooves — though he was and is clearly the most funky of the trio and not just funky by Rush’s standards, which are decidedly un-funky — and driven a band that is better today, musically, than ever.

There are few things about my playing that aren’t informed by Geddy. He’s quite possibly the greatest single influence on my playing and, like Sheehan, it was the WAY he played, not the complexity that drew me in, though I’d still love to be able to play the solo breaks in “La Villa Strangiato.”

John Paul Jones

No one combined the groove of r&b music with the power of rock like Jones. He was, at least for me, the one guy that could do it all. It didn’t hurt that he was paired with perhaps the greatest groove drummer in the history of rock and roll or that his session musician background provided him with both technical and practical skills.

More than anything else, Jones was the ultimate bass guy. In a band dominated by a guitar virtuoso, a drum god and one of the seminal rock singers of all time, Jones played the straight man and held it together. He was my greatest example of how to be the glue that keeps a band held together.

But Jones had chops. “Ramble On,” “Bring It On Home” and, my favorite, “Song Remains the Same” (see above) demonstrate a guy deeply rooted in blues and r&b with the aggressiveness and intensity of a rocker. If I could be one bass player, Jones would be it.

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6th December
2010
written by Jeff

I’ve had a few discussions lately with people who, with varying degrees of subtlety, told me that many of the things I like about music are just plain stupid. They can’t seem to understand why I prefer melody over noise. They can’t fathom how I could dare to think McCartney was Lennon’s equal. It’s worse than being music snobs. They actively think I’m an idiot!

Well, I’m here to tell you something: I do not give a shit and to prove it, I’m giving you the music I love and you hate. Happy Holidays! You can make fun of me later. :)

10. Phil Collins/Paul McCartney (tie)

These may very well be the two most unfortunately maligned singers from famous bands. Phil could never be as good as Peter Gabriel. Paul could never live up to John Lennon. The one problem with that theory is that it’s utter bullshit. Both of these guys are world class musicians and songwriters. They just happened to take different directions from their former parters. For many it’s almost as if to like either of these guys means you must hate the others and vice versa, which is almost as dumb as it is ridiculous. I love Gabriel and, without McCartney AND Lennon, there would have been no Beatles.

“Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs, and what’s wrong with that?”

9. Christmas Music

It’s the wrong time of year to even breathe the notion that I like Christmas music, I know, but it’s true. I’d listen to it in January if I weren’t worried that someone might strangle me with a strand of twinkling lights. Some great jazz and vocal standard music happens to be in the form of Christmas songs and a number of our most beloved seasonal tunes also happen to be wartime odes to home and family. Besides, it only lasts for the general public for about six weeks, so get over it.

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

8. David Lee Roth

The first post-Van Halen DLR record, Eat ‘Em and Smile, is still one of my favorite records. The guy had life and energy and knew how to turn a phrase. He also understood the value of surrounding himself with great musicians, a lesson he no doubt learned from his time in VH. Eddie and company were never the same after he left (I always liked Sammy Hagar solo, but Van Hagar was mostly a travesty mixed with more than a smidge or shame) mainly because he injected some humor into what appeared to be some rather dour surroundings. Diamond Dave may have been corny, but the guy was also awesome on steroids.

“And the meek shall inherit shit.”

7. Billy Joel

Poor, Billy. This is a guy who always felt under-appreciated and, unfortunately, it’s true. The Piano Man was mostly known for his soft pop hits, but he was a master songsmith of the highest order. Sure, he made some missteps at times (who doesn’t?) and perhaps took bad advice on making videos on occasion (“Tell Her About It” should be banned and then burned), but the guy who wrote “Vienna” and “Summer Highland Falls” deserves better than being dumped in the same boat as Barry Manilow.

“There will be other words some other day and that’s the story of my life.”

6. Coldplay

In an era where music is more about atmosphere and sound than melody, these guys still do it old school: with hooks. Remember those? You know, catchy, interesting, singable musical moments that allow us all to join in? Yeah, those things. It’s also really refreshing to see a band that doesn’t pretend to be bad because they think it makes them cool. Their records sound really, really good and they are unapologetic about it. To add to it, these guys professional and humble and like working together. These are novel concepts in an industry fueled by controversy, noise and drug-fueled hazes making them a throwback and that’s cool with me.

“When you work it out, I’m worse than you.”

5. Hair Bands

I grew up in the 80’s and at that time you either liked new wave or you liked metal. Guess which one I liked. I may have grown into enjoying music more dominated by synthesizer and eyeliner than guitar and hair spray, but at the time, Yaz and Depeche Mode could suck my Dokken. Today, I may not yank out the Tesla or the Judas Priest with as much regularity, but I still have the ticket stubs to prove I saw them and it can still rock your balls off.

“I hot, young, running free, a little bit better than I used to be.”

4. Prog Rock

I went to see Rush recently, even reviewed it for 29-95.com. They were fucking phenomenal, better than ever. Prog rock bands like Kansas, Rush, Yes and others were just bands who wanted to bring complex musical arrangements into their material. As someone who was always striving to be a better musician, I greatly appreciate this. Plus, Rush is as loud and balls out rock as anyone and any band that can remain that way – let alone relevant – for 40 years has earned my respect even if they can’t earn it from the critics.

“It rises now before me, a dark and silent barrier between all I am and all that I would ever hope to be. It’s just a travesty.”

3. Light Rock

I’m a sucker for a good melody and I’m a child of the 70’s. The result is I like the Little River Band, England Dan & John Ford Coley, Bread and Ambrosia. Sometimes, all I want is a good hook that I can sing along with. I don’t really give a crap that you don’t like it. I don’t listen to “Brandy” to make you happy, but it sure does make me happy, which is the essence for me of what music is about.

“It’s hard to walk away from love. It may never come again.”

2. Fusion

Even I will admit straight up and with no equivocation that a lot of that blend of rock and jazz we call “fusion” sucks donkey balls. Bitches Brew may be one of the most singularly horrible experiments in music ever created. But, just as Bob Dylan plugging in alienated a lot of people while moving his art forward, Miles Davis understood that doing the same thing over and over is the death knell for an artist. As a bass player, it’s fair to say that the best players of my instrument are not generally found in rock music. But Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius and Jeff Berlin were some of the best of all time and that meant listening to a lot of stuff that I may not normally sit around and hum. And whatever if you don’t think Al DiMeola’s Elegant Gypsy isn’t one of the best damn records ever.

[Insert killer wanking solo that you couldn’t play if God gave you his guitar to play it on here.]

1. The Eagles

You hate them. Admit it. I can hear you out there bitching about them. For years, I was even convinced that I didn’t care about the Eagles and I certainly won’t call myself their biggest fan, but I’ve come to appreciate the fact that it is not easy to write good pop songs and they wrote a shit ton of them. Like I said earlier, I don’t listen to music to make anyone happy but myself. I listen to enjoy it and I enjoy the hell out of the Eagles at times. If you don’t want to, that’s totally cool with me, but don’t regard me as some sort of musical retard because I happen to like the guys that wrote “Life in the Fast Lane.”

“So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains and we never even know we have the key.”

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18th August
2010
written by Jeff

While I do maintain my blog, Broken Record, over at Chron.com and have posted there on this subject, I thought I might put some of my personal feelings on my own blog. Honestly, I’m somewhat torn and I’ll try to cover the angles here as best I can.

First, it should be said that I really never cared for the programming on KTRU. To say that most of their programming was extreme would be a considerable understatement. Pitchfork Media, the purveyors of all that is cool in alternative and underground music, would check their playlist and think, “Wow, dude, that’s freaking weird.” I have honestly tuned in to KTRU in the middle of the day and heard guitar feedback for 3 minutes.

Having said that, I understand and appreciate the contribution KTRU has made to the community, particularly for local musicians. While its narrowly focused demographic didn’t make room for most local artists on the airwaves, KTRU did play local music and the new station, I’m fairly sure we can safely assume, will not leaving only KPFT’s limited music programming and KACC’s weak transmitter to fill the void.

Additionally, consolidating one of Houston’s four major players in the independent radio market can’t be good for consumers on the whole.

On the other hand, I am a fan of NPR. For too long, Houston has missed out on its in-depth programming and news. I am hopeful that vibrant music shows like World Cafe and great news programming like This American Life and Fresh Air will have their place in the new format for KUHF. If we don’t get World Cafe, I’ll admit that I will be sorely disappointed.

Being the fourth largest city in America means we should have good choices for news. Since KTRH left its news programming in the dust in favor of conservative talk shows, it will be nice to have a station that covers news for most the day, particularly one featuring NPR.

What has been interesting for me to watch since this news hit the internet is the disdain from those who consider KTRU “vital to the community” or should I say, more vital than classical music. There is this sense that, somehow, what KTRU provided in programming is so important it cannot be simply lost in this way.

As one of the commenters on Broken Record pointed out to me, most kids don’t listen to radio anyway. That fact really cannot be underscored enough in this situation. I cannot imagine that KTRU’s listenership demographic skews on the old or technologically feeble side. My guess is that many of them would be more than happy to continue to listen to KTRU online.

And this notion that classical music is so much more mainstream than the alt that KTRU provided is just preposterous. There have been a few instances of classical music stations trying to survive in Houston and they have all failed. Much like the alternative music of KTRU, classical and fine arts programming is a tough sell and very much a niche market. But, more importantly, classical music fans do tend to be in the older and less tech savvy demographic, making them far more likely to tune in to a radio station than seek it out online.

Bottom line is that I’m sorry to see a true college radio station go. I’ve long wondered why Houston didn’t have a legitimate college station with alternative and more mainstream programming. Even with KTRU’s broadly eclectic palette, it still served a purpose and I hate to see it turn to static. Some of that disappointment will, fortunately, be tempered by access to a full-time NPR station, something our city has needed for years.

It would have been easier for many of us had KUHF just bought a defunct station or some commercial radio station that programs the same 50 songs ever day. But, if this is what it takes, I guess that’s just how it goes.

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17th May
2010
written by Jeff

Last August, I wrote a blog post about what I termed the “doucheification” of Washinton Avenue. This lead to a story in the Chronicle as well.

Since then, life on the Jersey Shore of Houston has continued unabated. Walter’s remains open as they supposedly search for a new home base.

Today, I ran across a story in the Chron about how one of the bars is bringing live music to Washington Avenue at the Salt Bar. Let me just post the excerpts and leave my comments.

The owners of Salt Bar on Washington Ave. have started a songwriter night, hoping to provide a venue for original work and, perhaps, build a live-music scene in Houston from the ground up.

Elecia Wheeler and her partners opened Pearl Bar on Washington Ave.three years ago. When they discussed opening a new watering hole next door she had a stipulation: “If we open a new space, it’s going to focus on live music.

“I want people to know that there’s so much great talent here in Houston,” Wheeler said. “You hear all the people, they’ve moved to Austin or they’ve moved to Nashville or they’ve moved to Branson. I want people to know they could come to Houston or stay in Houston and producers will come here looking for them.”

First off, Ms. Wheeler, if you were SO concerned about having live music on Washington Avenue, why not keep Mary Jane’s alive in the Pearl Bar? That venue had a long tradition of live music dating back to when it was called the Bon Ton Room and the Arc Angels were among the regulars.

Second, if you truly wanted to build a music scene from the ground up, why not encourage the same from your neighbors – Pandora (formerly Rhythm Room), Front Porch (formerly Cosmo’s), Blu Salon (formerly Satellite Lounge) the small bar next to Walter’s (formerly Silky’s Blues Bar)? There are MANY former live music venues along the half mile stretch of road just waiting for revitalization.

Finally, who from Houston has ever thought moving to Branson was a viable alternative. Austin I get, even Nashville, but BRANSON?

But, there’s more…

Wheeler said she wants songwriters to get on stage and present original work, to share a bit of themselves.

[…]

For now, the event will continue to feature both invited, established artists, and newcomers with a song or two to share.

Croucher describes the evening as something of a hybrid between a songwriter showcase and an open-mic night, “Which is very Houston, really: a weird convergence of everything.”

Ok, so your decision to bring live music to Washington Avenue has resulted in a Tuesday night open mic night? That’s it???

There are quite a few of those all over Houston. Mucky Duck has one of the most well-established and well-attended in the area. There are great blues jams on Monday’s and Tuesday’s in numerous locations, none of which would think to consider itself a “showcase,” understanding what they are, which is a chance for musicians to hang out and jam, maybe test out some new material on an audience.

If you REALLY want to help, Ms. Wheeler, how about having live music five nights a week at Salt Bar? Do your open mic on Tuesday. Bring in bands for happy hour Wednesday and Thursday with full on music nights Friday and Saturday. Maybe once a month on Sunday, coordinate afternoon or early evening performances with other venues on the street.

Speaking of which, how about getting together with your sister venue, which could still conceivably put on shows (though I know they won’t), or with Walter’s, right across the street. Convince some of the other owners to suck it up and put on a live original band a few times a week. Imagine the impact if 9 out of 10 of the venues up and down Washington had live music even three nights every week?

If you are truly serious, don’t put on an open mic night on a Tuesday and then expect every musician in town to drool at the prospect of a gig on Washington Avenue and don’t expect this sudden infusion of one night a week to make everyone in the city think we’re on the road to Sixth Street.

Look, I commend your desire to have live, original music on a stage in the heart of what is rapidly becoming the most popular entertainment destination in Houston and I will HAPPILY eat my words the day your Tuesday night open mic turns into an every-day occurrence along your thoroughfare, but please don’t expect any of us who have any history with this city to appreciate all the hard work it took to set up a mic and some speakers and invite people to play for free at your bar on a Tuesday night.

Photo by kshilcutt

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9th December
2009
written by Jeff

Seems like everyone is making their end-of-decade lists these days. Top 10 best movies, top 10 worst predictions, top 10 ninjas, top 10 animals having sex on video videos, top 10 pieces of cheese; it’s sort of a requirement that when you have a blog, you tell people about what you liked the last 10 years as if anyone really cares.

In fact, it’s mostly a self-aggrandizing back slap fest that is not even worth the time spent reading it on your iPhone while sitting on the toilet (you know you do that…don’t lie). So, in keeping with that ringing endorsement, here is MY LIST, but mine is different because it’s better, it’s faster and it’s me, i.e. awesome to the power of sexay and you know that’s right.

(In case you wondered – and I know you did – about my criteria, I picked records that I both loved for the music and those that had a direct impact on me as a musician. The more I loved them and the greater the impact, the higher the ranking. I know some people who read my stuff are a little more mainstream when it comes to music, so I tried to give comparisons at the end of each review, where needed.)

10. The Raconteurs – Consolers of the Lonely

The Raconteurs - Consolers of the LonelyWhen Jack White and Brendon Benson got together to make this album, I kinda thought it might just be another Jack White dalliance, most of which I didn’t really care for, but I do have a fondness for Benson, so I took a listen and I was hooked. In many ways, this reminds me of classic rock records in that it is loud, powerful and ecclectic. They clearly wore their influences on their sleeves channeling Led Zeppelin and The Who in songs like “Old Enough” and “These Stones Will Shout” and 70’s bands like Blind Faith and even Kansas, but done with modern production and indie flair. Benson’s voice is my preference among the two, but there is no doubt White’s mark is all over the record with horn section arrangements, quirky lyrics, oddball guitar tones and the like. The high point for me is probably the title track that blends a bluesy, slow guitar riff and party sounds in the intro with a earth shaking wall of guitars throughout the verses. It’s one of the more interesting rock records (and I say “rock,” not “indie” on purpose) made in quite a while.

You’ll like this if you like: Led Zeppelin

9. The Damnwells – Air Stereo

The Damnwells - Air StereoI was turned on to The Damnwells when I heard one of their songs on a music blog and I was hooked by the strong melodies and rootsy pop vibe. Air Stereo was my first and my favorite thus far. It is loaded with songs I really like. Singer Alex Dezen is the brother of local singer/songwriter Cameron Dezen and Cameron’s husband has toured with the band as a drummer, giving a local reason to support them. While there is certainly plenty of rock on this record, it’s the mellower stuff that keeps me coming back from the Fleetwood Mac-like “Golden Days” to the Rolling Stones inspired “You Don’t Have to Like Me to Love Me” to the bittersweet groove of “Heartbreak List.” If there is any drawback to Air Stereo, it could be argued that the band doesn’t really stretch and plays it safe too often both in terms of production and arrangement, but it’s a minor quibble considering the quality material on this release.

You’ll like this if you like: The Jayhawks

8. Mute Math – self titled

Mute MathIt’s rare that I find a band that sounds like nothing I’ve heard before and yet is as eerily familiar as New Orleans rockers Mute Math. Part indie rock, part industrial, part dark pop, part 80’s post punk, Mute Math’s self-titled CD shines with deft musicianship and soaring Peter Gabriel-esque vocals. One of the first things you notice about the sound of the band is how up front and odd the drums sound. It’s like Stewart Copeland from the Police on steroids and processed through 50 guitar stomp boxes. The effect is hypnotic grooves injected with moments of sheer chaos. They are probably best known for their video for the single “Typical” performed so that it could be shown in reverse complete with diving over keyboards, splattering paint and instrument destruction. As complicated as all this might sound, the melodies are as piercingly beautiful as any great pop music you’ll hear and delivered with crystal clarity. It is a very impressive effort highlighted by songs like “Break the Same,” “Noticed” and, appropriately, “Chaos.”

You’ll like this if you like: Peter Gabriel

7. Duncan Sheik – Whisper House

Duncan Sheik - Whisper HouseI have long been a fan of this folky popster going back to what is still my favorite of his, Humming. His interesting use of orchestral instruments within the framework of what are generally very sparse musical arrangements is always beautiful and I can’t help but appreciate someone with only moderate singing skills who is able to convey himself so clearly. With Spring Awakening, he turned his focus to the stage, writing music for the musical of the same name and garnering Tony awards and nominations in the process. On his second foray into similar territory, he released Whisper House, the precursor to what will ultimately be a musical for the stage. Unlike Spring Awakening, the album for Whisper House came first and Sheik, along with whispy songstress Holly Brook, handled singing duties instead of performers. The story arc follows a young boy during World War II sent to live with his aunt. He befriends the ghosts that inhabit the lighthouse she owns. The music is like chamber pop – spare, orchestral and hauntingly bittersweet. The lyrics range from silly folk tales (“The Tale of Solomon Snell”) to the profoundly touching (“Earthbound Starlight”). It is Sheik at his finest gently blending storytelling with evocative musical arrangements. I’m not usually a fan of musicals, but I’d pay to see this one.

You’ll like this if you like: Nick Drake

6. Fountains of Wayne – Traffic and Weather

Fountains of Wayne - Traffic and WeatherI have a very tough time resisting Beatle-influenced pop music. From XTC and Jellyfish to Cheap Trick and ELO, I’ve long been a sucker for layered harmonies and lush instrumentation. Fountains of Wayne (FOW) not only continues that tradition but adds a sardonic touch through sometimes hilariously quirky lyrics in the tradition of bands like They Might Be Giants. I became a fan of FOW through the record Welcome Interstate Managers and immediately appreciated their ability to float from one pop style to another with little effort. On Traffic and Weather, they continue that tradition performing pop in many flavors including country (“Fire in the Canyon”), indie (“Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim”), 60’s (“Revolving Dora”) and George Harrison – yes, that’s a category (“I-95″). Unlike some of their more orchestrated predecessors (Jellyfish, for example), they keep their musical arrangements pretty straightforward, through it all remaining a rock band first and foremost. Like previous offerings, they continue to muse about New York City and the tri-state area, but not quite to the same degree as before. What is the same, however, is their story telling. They are masterful at describing a teller at the DMV or two old men in a coffee shop or two beleaguered travelers who have lost their luggage. Musically and lyrically, this record makes me smile and want to sing along and that alone makes it deserving of a spot in my top 10.

You’ll like this if you like: Ben Folds

5. k.d. lang – Invincible Summer

k.d. lang - Invincible SummerOn about the third listen to Invincible Summer, an album of songs about a summer romance, I realized that I was listening to one of the most sweet and alluring records about love I had ever heard and it hadn’t even crossed my mind that it was written by a woman for another woman. Lang’s vocals are smokey and disarming as usual. She has always had a beautiful, silky voice that made every song she sung feel decadent, a tribute to the slow drawl sin her western twang roots, but something about this pop/rock record stands out to me. There is a sense of maturity and understanding in not only how the songs are written but in how they are performed. She is ably assisted in this effort by gifted drummer/producer Abraham Laboriel, Jr. (Paul McCartney), who infuses the arrangements with modern grooves, but it is lang who shines on Invincible Summer. From sensual to downright giddy, she purrs and giggles her way through a summer fling and it’s downright irresistible

You’ll like this if you like: Fleetwood Mac

4. Foo Fighters – One by One

Foo Fighters - One by OneI would be remiss to not include at least one Foo Fighters effort on this list. As one of my favorite artists, period, there were plenty of options, but One by One stands out for me by simply hitting you in the face with the first track “All My Life” and not bothering to let you take a breath until you get to about track 6. It’s reflective of their live shows, which are exhausting to watch, so I can’t imagine how tough it would be to actually perform them. One by One displays the full range of the Foo’s music and the depth of Dave Grohl’s oddly introspective lyrics. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what he is talking about with lyrics that sound like an inside joke, but it’s hard to ignore the poetry of “I’m a new day rising / I’m a brand new sky to hang the stars upon tonight.” It’s a well balanced effort that maybe doesn’t have the singular brilliance of a song like “Everlong” (The Colour and the Shape), but more than makes up for it with solid performances throughout.

You’ll like this if you like: Foo Fighters (let’s be honest)

3. Bruce Springsteen – Magic

Bruce Springsteen - MagicI have never been a HUGE Bruce Springsteen fan. I liked Tunnel of Love and Born to Run and I certainly respected him as a songwriter and performer. The whole blue collar, working man’s American rock and roll thing just never held great appeal for me. But Magic made me go back and re-evaluate how I felt about the Boss. Not only does it contain typically well written songs, but it has an invigorated energy from the band, no doubt courtesy of veteran producer Brendan O’Brien. Most of all, it has the reluctant resignation of a man who has reached a certain point in his life and is uncomfortably coming to grips with it while recognizing the life altering power of staring your own mortality in the face. Springsteen channels his best Bob Dylan with religious metaphors like “The pages of Revelation lie open in your empty eyes of blue” and opens up to the insecurity of aging by saying, “She went away / She cut me like a knife / Hello beautiful thing / Maybe you can save my life.” The latter from the best song on the release, “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” addresses the struggle to accept getting older with heartbreaking simplicity. Magic may not have converted me to a full-fledged fan, but it made me a believer.

You’ll like this if you like: It’s SPRINGSTEEN for Pete’s sake!

2. The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America

The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in AmericaWhen I first heard The Hold Steady, I thought, “Damn, someone finally brought the rock back.” With the sensibility of a loud 70’s rock band, the energy of an 80’s post punk outfit and the intellect of a college professor, singer Craig Finn and bandmates tear through songs on Boys and Girls in America with the kind of reckless abandon that helped earn them the title of “the best bar band in America.” Finn, in particular, seems to almost spit words at you like a young Elvis Costello being backed by a mix of the Ramones and the E Street Band. The influence Bruce Springteen, in particular, is readily apparent, but The Hold Steady makes it their own. Honestly, it’s impressive to hear what amounts to a glorified bar band delivering sophisticated lyrics like “You don’t have to go to the right kind of schools / Let your boyfriend go to the right kind of schools / You can wear his old sweatshirt / You can cover yourself like a bruise” without an ounce of pretentiousness and with the kind of lead pipe subtlety of a balls out rock band.

You’ll like this if you like: Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello

1. Wilco – Wilco (The Album)

Wilco - Wilco (The Album)I will admit that I did not discover Wilco until a few years ago. I had tried on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and just wasn’t ready to embrace the noisy avant garde nature of Jeff Tweedy and company. Hearing “What Light” from Sky Blue Sky on a car commercial changed my mind and I dove head first into album after album. Wilco rapidly became one of my favorite bands and it was pretty obvious to anyone who knew me that their influence on me as a musician and songwriter was deepening. When Wilco (The Album) began trickling out in internet streams, I was immediately intrigued. Several reviewers have described this album as a greatest hits record if instead of old songs the band just wrote new one’s and combined the best of what they do musically into that material. That is a fairly accurate assessment as they deliver rootsy rockers, indie pop, noisy chaotic arrangements and more with their trademark dynamics, diverse instrumentation and balance between noise and melody. For me, the album coalesces in the song “One Wing,” which showcases some of the best of what Tweedy does as a songwriter and what the band does collectively with dark, heartfelt lyrics and a rangy musical arrangement that moves from barely audible to chaotic rocking by the end. If I could wear out digital downloads like I used to wear out cassette tapes, Wilco (the Album) would be screeching in pain from too many plays.

You’ll like this if you like: Good Music (’nuff said)

The Other 15

25. Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears – Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is!
24. Zero 7 – When It Falls
23. Scott Matthews – Passing Stranger
22. The Finn Brothers – Everyone is Here
21. Death Cab for Cutie – Plans
20. Bebel Gilberto – selt titled (mention Tanto Tempo – 2000)
19. The Rembrandts – Lost Together
18. Tears for Fears – Everybody Loves a Happy Ending
17. Wayne Shorter – Alegria
16. The Long Winters – Putting the Days to Bed
15. Guster – Ganging Up on the Sun
14. John Scofield – A Go Go
13. Ben Folds – Rockin’ the Suburbs
12. The Black Crowes – Warpaint
11. Muse – Absolution

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