Monday, October 27, 2008

The List Reaches the Far Turn: 20-16

20. Whiskeytown -- Strangers Almanac (1997)

Before Ryan Adams was the absurdly prolific, Gap-pitching, hipster pastiche that he is now, he was the absurdly young, drunk, petulant, and brilliant leader of Whiskeytown. The band’s three records -- Faithless Street, Strangers Almanac, and Pneumonia -- are better than anything Adams has done since, and he’s done some pretty good things. He was 22 when Almanac was released, which, along with his notoriously belligerent, immature stage presence at the time, makes the record’s mature, graceful sound all the more remarkable. Helped along by the support of violinist, vocalist, and sometime co-songwriter Caitlin Cary, Adams convincingly conveys a weariness beyond his years. Two of the gentler songs, “Avenues” and “Houses on the Hill” are efficient heartbreakers, each clocking in at just over two and a half minutes. Other, rowdier highlights include the Alejandro Escovedo-assisted “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight” and the blistering “Yesterday’s News.” The song that’s grown on me most over the years is “Dancing With the Women at the Bar,” which starts as a quiet lament about following in a father’s lonely footsteps and picks up a bit of pace with each verse.

19. Uncle Tupelo -- Still Feel Gone (1991)

Two songwriters as talented as Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, reared on country and punk music, don’t cross paths every day (they were high school classmates). The result was inimitable. Uncle Tupelo is credited with starting the alt-country movement, but a lot of that movement’s biggest names -- including Whiskeytown -- sound like they could exist without Tupelo’s influence. Whiskeytown, for instance, draws on country-rock like Gram Parsons and rock-rock like the Rolling Stones, but never really showcases in one song the alternately twangy and staccato sound of Tweedy and Farrar. Denying their level of influence is not to denigrate Uncle Tupelo but to properly praise them; they were sui generis. I think Still Feel Gone is the band’s most consistent and unique-sounding record. Songs like “Nothing” and (especially) “Postcard” are built on the band’s quick-change dynamic, “True to Life” might be my favorite song of theirs, and “Still Be Around” is certainly their prettiest, as Farrar sings, over a gentle strum, “when the Bible is a bottle / and the hardwood floor is home / when morning comes twice a day or not at all / if I break in two, will you be put me back together? When this puzzle’s figured out, will you still be around?”

18. Richard Buckner -- Bloomed (1995)

Continuing with the alt-country-heavy stretch of the list... Buckner has a loyal following, but I still think he’s one of the most underrated songwriters of the last 15 years or so. Over those years, his husky but pretty voice has been used in the service of songs with a slightly more experimental structure, but here on his debut things are mostly verse-chorus traditional. You can hear in his lyrics, though, the seeds of what would become a more poetic, fragmentary approach. There will be more on that approach to come. Buckner’s intelligence gives Bloomed a fresh feeling, but it’s his more comforting elements, like a consistent naming of people and places, that keep the record feeling familiar and rooted. On “Surprise, AZ,” which should be taught in songwriting seminars, he sings of the Arizona town in the title and also hopes to get “back to Oklahoma, where we belong.” And on “Cradle to the Angel,” after asking Austin and Atlanta if they’ve seen his “darling dear,” he sings, “once I wanted an explanation / now I’d settle for just a sound.” There’s the poetry. (I didn’t factor them into this ranking, since they didn’t appear on the original album, but today’s version includes five terrific extra songs that fit right in with the rest.)

17. The Smiths -- Best of, Vol. 1 (1992)

The Smiths, taken as a whole, deserve better than 17. I detract just a couple of points because it’s a compilation. But the band’s career was so singles-oriented that it’s impossible for me to include anything by them other than a compilation. This and the second best-of installment are what I listen to when I listen to The Smiths, and it’s hard to fault a collection as solid as this one, which shows off Johnny Marr’s glittering guitar work and slight variations on Morrissey’s clever lyrics and persona. Song titles like “Girlfriend in a Coma,” “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” and “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” reflect Morrissey’s mischief, but it’s the one-two closing punch of “Panic” and “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” that might best capture the band’s dual purpose of irreverent shimmying and unrepentant moping.

16. Teenage Fan Club -- Bandwagonesque (1991)

When I was in high school, my friends Jeff, Shannon, and I would often spend part of Monday’s lunch hour talking about what we’d seen and heard the night before on MTV’s 120 Minutes. The two conversations I vividly remember to this day were about Nirvana and Teenage Fan Club. (Spin rated Bandwagonesque over Nevermind as the best album of that year, which raised some eyebrows at the time, but it's a judgment that I obviously think holds up.) Having been shamefully undereducated on classic rock to that point in my life, it’s safe to say that I loved this album in its entirety even before I loved records by The Beatles and The Byrds, among others. “The Concept” is a great six-minute opening track, with a strong melody and a three-minute outro, that leaves the band a bit of work to do in living up to the album’s start. But what follows is a whole slate of strong material, including “Star Sign,” one of the all-time great songs by anybody.

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Blogger Jeff said...

I think all of Teenage Fanclub's albums are quite good. Teenage Fanclub includes three talented songwriters--that's a lot of fire power for one band.

Same for Silkworm, one of my favorite band. If you haven't heard Silkworm, check out their albums In the West and Libertine. Both albums have remained in my top 10 albums since they came out. That's about 15 years.

12:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Smiths a singles band? Are you crazy? The Queen is Dead, for one! They're a singles band in that almost every single song they wrote is great.

Your friend,
the Humorless Feminist

5:54 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

Whew. That's a solid set there. The Whiskeytown and Tupelo records both appeared on my list as well. I agree with your assessment of Ryan Adams. (Although, his latest that came out today is damn good. I would recommend checking it out, especially the song "Crossed Out Name", which I have listened to about 5 times since I bought the album this afternoon.)

You turned me on to Buckner. He's great.

I can't fault The Smiths.

Not really familiar with Teenage Fan Club. Will check them out.

10:39 PM  

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