I don’t know why it’s so hard to come up with the dorky “best of” list every year – I guess because so much of it is so damn good, it’s hard to choose a favourite. I always worry that I’m going to forget something or hurt someone’s feelings by not putting them on the list, or someone’s going to think I’m a goof for listing something that they don’t like, yadda yadda, for a guy with anxiety issues, it’s just too much.
But, sooner or later, I realize that the lists mean nothing, and taste is totally subjective. The stuff on those lists isn’t any “better” than anything else, it’s just what some joker likes more than other stuff. Whatever.
I also wait to see what other people have picked, so I know what others are thinking. I’ve spent a lot of time looking over those lists lately, and I realized that they were all WRONG.
So, I present to you, the only “best of” list that really matters – mine.
I don’t really intend for these to be in any particular order – they’re just listed how they’re stacked on my desk or how they fly into my cluttered mind.
The Warped 45s – Matador Sunset
I’d probably get kicked out of my house if I didn’t list this one, and I kind of like it here, so it made the list. Seriously, though, this is a disc that my whole family loves (well, the teenager is off on her own on this one, but I bet if she gave it a chance and wasn’t afraid of being embarrassed, she’d love it too.) Everyone likes it for a good reason – it’s AMAZING. Every song is so well crafted and delivered, and all of it is original and interesting. There’s a huge diversity here, some really thoughtful folky numbers and some all-out rockers, and everything in between. Songwriter dudes Dave & Ryan are intelligent and thoughtful writers, who really know how to craft a story in song. The band backing them up is solid, and contributes a lot to the sound. And, perhaps best of all, they’re just about the finest fellows you could ever run across. I bought a T-shirt at a gig, and didn’t take their advice about what size to get (I’m an idiot who knows nothing), and not only did they switch it for me TO THE SIZE THEY SUGGESTED IN THE FIRST PLACE, but they delivered it to my door. They weren’t in the neighbourhood or anything like that, they’re just good guys. I love these guys because they’re humble and decent, but they happen to make some of the best damn music I’ve heard in a long time, so I can’t help but recommend it. Get this one. You’ll be glad you did.
Standout tracks are numerous, but start with Pale Horse, Grampa Carl, Voice of the Mountain’s Song, or my kids’ favourite, Live Bait.
Middle Brother – Middle Brother
I have to thank super-listener/supporter for the recommendation, and my favourite store on Earth, The Electric Fetus for selling to me on the cheap, because I bought this one having never heard a note of it. It’s essentially one of those thrown-together supergroups, made up of a guy each from Deer Tick, Dawes, and Delta Spirit. I was familiar with those bands, and liked them just fine, but had no idea what the combo would be. Luckily, it turned out to be magic. It’s a bit of a cliche to say that the group is better than the sum of its parts, but that’s more than true here. While their main groups tend to be pretty electrified and rocked up, Middle Brother is a bit more acoustic and laid-back. There are some killer originals and a great take on a Replacements rarity. Overall, it’s a fabulous disc that demands repeat listening (I recall when I bought it wanting to listen again, right away.)
Favourites: Daydreaming, Blue Eyes, Middle Brother, Million Dollar Bill
Matt Andersen – Coal Mining Blues
Matt Andersen is without a doubt one of the most engaging and amazing live performers I’ve seen in a long time. When he performs, you can’t help but be drawn in by that powerful, soulful voice, and the way he makes his guitar come alive. Most of the time, he’s called a blues singer, but he’s so much more than that. There’s a whole lot of folk & soul thrown in there, so it’s really blues for people who don’t necessarily like the blues. His audience grows by leaps and bounds every time he plays here, and it’s almost entirely by word of mouth, because once you see the guy, you can’t help but rave about him. Unfortunately for him, he’s never seemed to make a record that really captured the magic properly. Until now. He hooked up with Colin Linden, and it’s obvious that the two are kindred spirits or something, because they wrote and played together on this album like they’d been doing it all their lives. Linden seems to have brought out the best in Andersen, and he supplied him with some great material, too, cowriting and suggesting a Willie P Bennett classic. This is the record I’ve been waiting for Matt to make, and the one that should break him even bigger in the public eye.
Check out: Coal Mining Blues, Willie’s Diamond Joe
The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
I don’t want to list this, because it was such a huge hipster hit, and placing it on the list makes me feel like one of the cool crowd (which, clearly, I’m not), but the fact is, it’s a damn good record. Shockingly good. I got into this band a couple of records back, but after that last bizarre piece of crap that they put out, I’d given up for good. Until I heard a song or two off of this new one. Gillian Welch joins the band on a bunch of it, and maybe it was her that smartened them up, and if so, THANKS! It’s melodic, it’s fun, it’s totally enjoyable, how could one not list it among the best?
Recommended: This Is Why We Fight, Rox in the Box, Calamity Song
Deer Tick – Divine Providence
Brock Zeman – Me Then You
Steven Bowers – Beothuk Words
World Class Winnipeggers:
Scott Nolan – Montgomery Eldorado
Romi Mayes – Lucky Tonight
The JD Edwards Band – Roads and Roads
The Easy & Obvious Choices:
The Damnwells – No One Listens to the Band Anymore
It’s true, I have a solid man-crush on Alex Dezen, leader of this “band,” which led me to drive all the way to Cedar Falls, Iowa this year just to see him/them live. It was worth the trip, and this disc was worth the wait. I’ve loved all of the Damnwells records, but the last one was missing the rock. It’s back on this one, as evidenced by the title track, and the song that was released as a teaser last year, She Goes Around. He’s got the sappy ballads, the melodic hooks, and plenty of interesting material, so it’s another winner. Plus, dorks like me shelled out a bunch of dough in a fundraising campaign to get this thing made, so it seems just a little more “mine.”
Recommended: No One Listens to the Band Anymore, She Goes Around, Werewolves
Ron Hawkins – Straightjacket Love
Ron was (is?) the songwriter behind The Lowest of the Low, who released the greatest album of all time (it’s true), Shakespeare My Butt. He spent a lot of years trying to distance himself from that record (and the band), before caving in and going all the way with last year’s re-release. Personally, I miss the band and wish that they’d give it another go, but it doesn’t much matter, because he makes such brilliant albums on his own. This one is once again a real DIY effort, as he plays pretty much everything himself and releases it totally on his own. You have to admire that, I guess, but this is music that deserves to be heard, and since Hawkins’ tours usually amount to venues along the subway line from his house, one has to wonder how folks get to hear this brilliance. Oh yeah, that’s where we come in. Buy it and tell a friend. Oh, and tell Ron to play outside of Toronto/Buffalo some time.
Faves include: One Hundred Five, Straitjacket Love, Prairie Girl
Steve Earle – I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive
Although I’ve been an Earle fan since I really started listening to music as a kid, his records only really started grabbing me in a big way recently. There was a time when the best advice you could give Steve was to “stay away from women, and DON’T GET MARRIED,” he seems to have proven that wrong by marrying Allison Moorer, and not only staying married, but by becoming, well, happy! That ain’t a word you would once use to describe ol’ Steve, but he’s writing, performing, and behaving better than he ever has. His albums are more sensitive and tender, and really really smart. He was already one of the world’s great songwriters, but in my opinion, he’s at the top of his game, and somehow keeps improving. At this point in his career, Steve could easily coast on past glory, but somehow he keeps pushing himself, and his audience, and you have to admire that.
Highlights: Waitin’ on the Sky, God Is God, Every Part of Me, This City
Matthew Ryan – I Recall Standing as though Nothing Could Fall
Gurf Morlix – Blaze Foley’s 113th Wet Dream
Oh Susanna – Soon the Birds