Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Top 10 CDs of 2013

Well, 2013 has come and gone, and I have one blog to show for it. This isn’t going to be some ramble through the changes I experienced in 2013, the job shifts, the waking up with a beautiful wife in my bead and then hearing one of my new step-kids yelling, “CAN I WAKE-UP NOW?!?” It’s not about any of that. It’s about the one thing that will make me take a step-way from my ever evolving life and reflect on the music that moved me in 2013, my Top Ten CD of 2013.

#10 – Paramore – Paramore:  No one is more surprised to see this album on my Top 10 than me. Not that I do not like Paramore or one of their previous albums didn’t make its way onto one of my lists, but their self-titled fourth album was not their best, and that is something that often affects my decision. Several albums found themselves in the teens and 20’s this year because they did not compare to their preceding efforts. I am not saying it is a bad album; it’s just not profound. Paramore moved in different directions, pushed themselves, and delivered a very likeable and spin-worthy disc. For that post rough-day-ride home, you can never go wrong with popping it in and letting that teenagey, band break-up, angst wash over you until you are smiling; doing a little seat-salsa; and have forgotten you are closer to 40 than 30; driving a mini-van; spend more time at work than you do anywhere near your house; and will probably never be what you dreamed of being…oh, wait…is that just me? Very well then, carry on.

#9 – Patty Griffin – American Kid: If you know me, there are going to be several albums on this list that you probably could have predicted, this being the first. Patty can do no wrong. Her voice is my favorite of all the voices that have ever whispered to me, screamed at me, or sang their heart’s song to my empathetic ears. American Kid is personal, yet accessible. The instrumentation is honest and perfectly pairs to the lyrics creating Americana tales that remind us we are a nation of amazing immigrants. As you would expect, Patty’s voice melts you with every emotionally charged phrase. For me the strength of the album lies in the middle: “Mom and Dad’s Waltz,” “Faithful Son,” “Highway Song,” and “That Kind of Lonely” gives you everything you need to know you are listening to something special.
#8 – Samantha Crain – Kid Face: As a nod to my predictability, Samantha Crain has not put out an album that hasn’t ended up on my end of year list. She is brilliant, and I should stop there because that is all that really matters, isn’t it? Her voice is quite possibly the most distinct I have ever heard. There is just no mistaking it, and it shines on this CD. What excites me most about Kid Face is Samantha’s continued evolution. She pushes herself in new directions with some of the musical directions she chooses while not losing her sound. It’s not Samantha doing Paramore; it’s Samantha doing Samantha with a thump that you can feel in your chest as her voice haunts your head. Standout tracks for me: “For the Miner,” “Churchill,” and “Sand Paintings.”
#7 – Amos Lee – Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song: This is really the best version of Amos. Since 2005 Amos has been pushing out CDs, showing different sides of himself, but Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song strikes the perfect balance of all the things I love best about him. His voice is clear and passionate; his instrumentation merges country and soul; and his words are intelligent and inspired. He is telling us about his world without forcing us to search for the meaning or beating us over the head with it. It’s an album that you can think through while shaking your ass. “Stranger,” “Chill In the Air,” and “Scared Money (bonus track)” will be enough for you to understand why this album is on the list.
#6 – Water Liars – Wyoming: A late add, like super late, like someone bought me the CD from my Amazon List for Christmas, but from the first harmony, which happenes 25 seconds into the first song “Sucker,” I knew a CD was going to get booted. Of all the albums on this list, I would say the guitar tones captured on Wyoming are my favorite. That crunchy overdriven sound of cheap guitars (well, cheap when they were originally released as Sears and Roebuck specials somewhere around 1956) through old amps is like heaven to my ears, but it is the rawness of “Fake Heat” that stops my mind from wandering and makes me realize just how talented Justin Kinkel-Schuster and Andrew Bryant are. And that is just track number two. The CD never lets up, never offers a throw away, just great song after great song. 

#5 – Jay-Z – Magna Carta…Holy Grail: By no means am I a hip-hop aficionado. Until this year my hip-hop selection consisted of The Roots, Common, Kanye West, Eminem, and Nas, but I married someone who has Jay-Z on her Friends Top-5 List. So, when I saw that there was some pre-release hype for Magna Carta, I got on the bandwagon and pre-ordered it, so Amanda could have some bumps on my iPod.  There is a moment in “Holy Grail” when they shift meters. The first time I heard it I instinctively grabbed my crotch and let out an elongated daaaammnn, while making some exaggerated gesture over my face. It was at that moment when I knew I was going to love this disc. Jay-Z’s strength has always been his ability to turn slick phrases that are intelligent. He consistently spares his listeners from victim-of-rhyme raps. That remains true throughout Magna Carta…Holy Grail. But what I love about this album is it is texturally brilliant. If the rhythms on “Tom Ford” don't make you bob, you are dead, so stop reading. 

#4 – City and Colour – The Hurry and The Harm: Admit it. You knew this was coming. I mean I purchased the special soundcheck tickets and gushed like a teenage girl at an Elvis concert when I got to meet him. In fact, you are probably surprised to see it in the middle of the pack. There is nothing about The Hurry and The Harm that prevented it from being #1 like Little Hell was when it came out. I absolutely love this album; love the recording; the instruments used; the tones captured; Dallas’s flirtation with mortality; the contemplative nature of the lyrics; the way he reveals pieces of himself to us… “Two Coins” is, without a doubt, one of the best written songs of the year. There were just a few albums that moved me in such a way that I had to put them in the top three spots. 

#3 – Caroline Smith – Half About Being a Woman: When one of your favorite folksy female singer/songwriters drops an authentic neo-soul R&B album, you take notice. I am so completely enamored with Half About Being a Woman. It pays homage the foundations of Rhythm and Blues, takes you back to when R&B was pure…when soul was less about twerkin’ and more about interpreting the world through different lenses. Recorded in New York using some of the best session musicians, the album is empowering, filled with songs that not only make me want to love my lover, they make me want to show her the respect she deserves. The title track, complete with rim shots and a bass line that sits perfectly in pocket, will have you swaying with someone special in your arms. 

#2 – Patty Griffin – Silver Bell: Did you just do a double take? Yes, you saw that name earlier on this list. This has never happened before and may never happen again. It is extremely uncommon for an artist to record two albums in one year; in reality, Patty didn’t either. Silver Bell was recorded in 2000 but went unreleased by A&M, her label at the time. What they failed to recognize was the album was full of amazing songs that would have transcended any demographic data that they had pushing them to pass on the release. As it turns out, the Dixie Chicks released “Truth #2” and “Top of the World” which both became huge hits. And I legitimately thought “One More Girl” was the best song The Wreckers ever released. Little did I know it was actually Patty Griffin’s. Erected on the strength of those tunes, Silver Bell is filled with gems that are still relevant 13 years after they were recorded. Some of the tracks have a lingering grunge feel too them, ripe with distortion and atmospheric cacophony; they are not what you have grown to expect from Patty, but they make you respect her even more as an artist who is willing to stretch herself. 

#1 – Jason Isbell – Southeastern: Released on June 11, 2013; listened to on June 11, 2013, I knew immediately this was the best album of 2013. Nothing released before or after changed that opinion for me. Jason Isbell makes me realize just how much I have to learn about being a singer/songwriter. The best part of Drive By Truckers, Jason has been on his own since 2007. Every CD he has released has been filled with songs that make me want to be a better writer, but Southeastern is on a different level all together.  I could spend hours pulling quotes from the lyrics of this album, as genius is intricately woven throughout. In each song there is at least one line that makes me wish I had written it. In truth, if I was compiling my Top Ten of All Time, right now, this would be sitting at #1, just slightly edging out Tom Waits, Nighthawks at the Diner. And in the middle of it all, is the best song of 2013, Elephant. I remember the first time I saw someone cry at one of my shows, that feeling of connection and acceptance; knowing that they got it; that they really listened; being able to move them, was humbling and satisfying. Well, Jason, if you are reading this, know it happens nearly every time I listen to Elephant. The starkest portrayal of cancer I can imagine, yet he manages to present the tale in a way that offers a sense of strength and survival. Do yourself a favor; shut the door; turn the lights down; click the video below; and let it go. You will thank me.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

#MicroPoetry November - January (2013)

Let's just address that huge elephant in the room, sitting calmly in the corner noshing on nuts and sniffing the hair of pretty ladies that pass by, I am late, super late, a month late, but I just didn't feel like I had enough material from November and December to do a post. This doesn't mean I wasn't writing, just wasn't writing #MicroPoetry. 

In December my Friend Sarah Firebaugh and I embarked on a collaborative project called, If Photographs Could Talk. Almost all of my creative energy was devoted to that. I hope you will all forgive me and enjoy these musings.

#MicroPoetry: November - January (2013)

When world works at a low hum
Quiet moments
Tucked into my chest
Share secrets
Send me
To dream of days yet to come

I stood there
As I stood years before
Thankful for my freedom
Reassured in my convictions

Woke up peaceful
My stereo mind
Taking long laps
Outstretched arms
Pulling through warm water
Fluttering legs propel forward
Body breaks towards light
Surface broken
Rhythmic water dances on air
Exposed mouth takes audible breath
Relieved muscles retract and compress
Filled lungs and sealed lips
Body returns to calm cocoon

Grey breath
Against black canvas
Silent shadows
Engulfed by darkness
Weepy eyed ragdolls
Buried in pillows
Wait for raspberry rays
Their first chance to see the sun

Pillowcase shimmer
Of the last time
Her head
Laid next to his

Silver air
Fell gently
Swirled effortlessly
Blurred vision
Forced focus

With wounded words in my head
Words which once were power
Now nothing more than cracked porcelain

My head
On you scented pillow
Is restless
Deep in dreams of moments
When my head
Rested on my pillow
And you
Were pulled into me

The day
Waits patiently
For new energy
For new direction
To stretch its arms
And breathe new wind

Sleepy streets
Populated with weary workers
Who daydream drive of warm beds
And lovers arms
Still tucked beneath winter sheets
Too deep in dreams
To appreciate gray morning calm
The stillness
The silence
The solitude
The emptiness
The existential vacuum
As those with wide eyes
Seek meaning from the materialist maze
The Great Green having usurped God’s grace

Puzzled into
Creates perfect painting
Low-light sunrise
And love

Birds perch on icicles
High above ice skating rink roofs
While squirrels scamper for footing on slick streets

I watched it struggle through black night
Flapping obscenities into January’s bitter breeze still sick with Winter’s chill
Desperately trying to release itself from the naked limbs that bound it
To fly effortlessly
To kiss silver clouds lining black sky
To be free
Having failed
It hangs
Like a defeated ghost

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Top 10 CDs of 2012

It is time for another one of those opinionated blogs about which CDs someone thinks are the best of the year. In this instance that someone is me, just a small-time singer/songwriter who is absolutely obsessed with music.

This is my 4th annual Top 10 list, but for those that have never read one of my reviews, please allow me to give you some background on my scoring criteria. First, I will only rank CDs that I have purchased. I find it to be somewhat ridiculous to beat my chest in praise of a CD that I wouldn't cough up the $9.99 to purchase when it went on Amazon sale. Second, and possibly the weirdest of my judging criteria, bands that perform well live rank higher. But, you are ranking CDs Eric, not live performances? And in your question is my answer, I am ranking them. I'll do it how I want, and, frankly, I do not care what kind of magic you can create in a studio if you cannot pull it off live. Other factors include, but are not limited to: sustained plays - how long did it live in my dash or end up on iPod rotation; intensity of vocals; quality of lyrics; and interesting instrumentation. Lastly, I will only rank full albums, so if you dropped an EP, I may love it, but I will not rank it. That being said, I would like to make note that if the Superhero Killer EP was and LP, it would have been in this list.

With all that gibberish behind us, here is my Top 10 for 2012. Please feel free to love or hate me in the comments, and let me know your Top 10.


#10 The Lumineers by The Lumineers Number 10 is always a bitch. There were so many great CDs this year: Lucero, Jack White, Lana Del Ray, John Mayer, Kathleen Edwards, Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins, Mumford and Sons...any one of these could have edged their way in with sustained spins, an amazing concert, or the right moon, but alas the Lumineers trumped them all with the strength of their Southern Ground Music and Food Festival performance, another one of my Epic Roadtrips of 2012. We went, primarily, to see Amos Lee and David Grey, but all of us ended up buying The Lumineers CD after seeing them play. "Ho Hey" may be my favorite song of the year; it showcases the power of strong songwriting, sing-along choruses, and acoustic instrumentation, and it helped get The Lumineers on my Top 10 list.

#9 Rot Gut, Domestic by Margot & the Nuclear So and So's I credit Pandora and Union Tree Review with turning me on to this band. Pandora for constantly injecting them into my stations, and UTR for opening for them, allowing me to see them pull it off live. They are an explosion of intensity on stage. They create dirty, buzzy, Indie rock that keeps me young and creative. Rot Gut, Domestic is a perfect roadtrip CD. Enough movement and variance to keep you attentive and enough thought provoking lyrics to keep the mind alive. 

#8 Neck of the Woods by Silversun Pickups There is probably no band that has influenced me more over the last few years than Silversun Pickups. Towards the end of So Much Closer I was drawing a significant amount of inspiration from this band, so when they finally announced the release of a new CD, I was elated. I bought the pre-order package with all the bells and whistles: the book, the picture cards, the box, the whole damn thing, and I would do it again. I was fortunate to see them for the second time at the Peabody Opera House this year. Neck of the Woods showed a pretty significant departure from their previous albums, it was more subtle, more musical and less atmospheric. I was concerned about how they would pull it off live, but they Pro'd it up and put on my best show of the year. Some of that had to do with my friend Brian having the hook-up on some sweet corporate tickets that got us a box on the rail, valet parking, food, drinks...I felt rich for the evening. And we were with Warren and Hsu. The company always makes a show better, but I could have been by myself on the floor behind some tall bastard, and I would have, still, been blown away.

#7 Little Broken Hearts by Norah Jones You can assume if Norah puts out a CD it will appear on my Top 10 list for the year. She is that amazing. In 2012, if I was doing a Top 20 list, she would have been on here twice because the second Little Willies CD was pretty fantastic too. But, it is a Top 10, and Little Broken Hearts resonated with me. When I first heard the CD I thought for sure it would end up in the Top 5, but, for some reason, it didn't stay with me as much as the others. Every time I come back to it, I am reminded of how delicious it was to pair Norah with Danger Mouse, really pushing her to develop textures that we are not used to hearing from her. More guitar than keys and more sultry than sad, Little Broken Hearts reminds us of how the suck of heartbreak can be used to create beauty.


#6 Rhythm and Repose by Glen Hansard This was a last minute change for me. As I was writing this Rhythm and Repose jumped 3 spots. Glen Hansard can do know wrong to me. His pen is magic, and his voice makes all singers wish we could sing better. I have seen Glen in one incarnation or another 4 times in the last 3 years, and he never fails to put on an amazing show. I got to see him twice this year. Once up in Chicago and once at home in St. Louis. Each time I left thinking that may be the best show I will see all year. Rhythm and Repose is filled with the things that make Glen so special. The lyrics are sincere and personal, yet tug on universal heart strings. His songs refuse to leave you once you hear them, and he voice is as incredible as ever.

#5 Boys and Girls by Alabama Shakes As I have perused other Top 10 lists, Boys and Girls was the CD from my list that seemed to appear the most on other lists. Alabama Shakes are definitely a breakout band, and it is well deserved. I went on a pretty amazing roadtrip with my friends Bryan and Steph. Bryan was the pilot so Steph and I were responsible for music. We agreed to both make 3 mixed discs to fuel the drive. Alabama Shakes was one of the few artists that appeared on my mixes and hers. Powered by the old soul vocals of Brittany Howard, Boys and Girls hits in all the right spots. Feet will tap, asses with shake, love will be made, and salvation will be achieved.

#4 Ownerless by Everest Everest is the only band on this Top 10 that I have not had the chance to see live. That should give you some indication of how great Ownerless is. They are just a great rock band. While they can drive a straight 4 with the best of them, they are certainly not afraid to step outside of standard rock licks and bury you beneath a wall of washed out distortion and delay. Their harmonies are spectacular, and the grooves on Ownerless are just sexy. They make me want to brush the hair out of my lover’s face, as my lips have her pinned to the wall and her wanting hands pull me closer. Yeah. It’s like that.  

#3 The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do by Fiona Apple What can I say, I love Fiona Apple, always have. I don’t care about her social blunders or her heroin sheik emaciation. She is brilliant: great voice, talented pianist, and an amazing lyricist. More importantly, she has grown over her career, and this peculiarly named album showcases that growth. Without a doubt my favorite line from 2012 came from this CD, “Just tolerate my little fist tugging on your forest chest.” So completely sensory. How do you not love it?

#2 The Body Wins by Sarah Jaffe I love when I can point directly to the person that introduced me to an artist, and I can credit Malaina Mobley with my love for Sarah Jaffe. She posted one of Sarah’s videos on my Facebook page with this statement, “I think you should marry her.” While I do not doubt that we would make amazing little singer/songwriter babies, I am not sure Amanda or Sarah’s significant other would approve. Never the less, I did fall in love with her music. I think the best compliment I can pay Sarah is to say she is completely original. When I try to explain her to people I am lost for connection points. She doesn’t remind me of anyone, and that is simply amazing. She is a thoughtful songwriter that is able to escape the acoustic guitar and create interesting tapestries of sound to wrap around her words. This CD will make you move as much as you will think.

#1 The Styletones by The Styletones Much like 2011, for me, there was a clear #1 in 2012. The moment I put the Styletones in my car dash I knew nothing could touch it, and nothing did. It lived in my dash, carried me through several roadtrips, and still gets weekly spins. The Styletones is an example of everything I love about music: an extremely tight rhythm section created by Jake Najor and Bill Thomas; the transformative B3 supplied by Ben Moore; a ridiculously funky horn section courtesy of Andy Geib, Gabriel Sundy, and John Reynold; the sweet soulful guitar of Deron Gant that sends me to my practice space in search of my own soul inspired licks; and great…no wait…FUCKIN’ GREAT lyrics and vocals provided by Stevie Harris. If that name sounds familiar, you probably remember reading the Top 10 of 2011 where his other band, Stevie and the High-Staxx, placed 10th on my Top 10. I have spent several hours trying to determine why there was such a gap between two bands that share members and a singer/songwriter, and all I can come up with is it is me. 2011 was kind of a dark year for me, I was mourning the loss of So Much Closer; spent the majority of the year pining; and ended it in a crazy rollercoaster relationship. I wasn’t ready to be lifted. 2012 has been a year of acceptance for me, embracing my station; realizing how much I truly love my life; and I met a fantastic girl right around the time that Styletones arrived. So when I heard, “There’s a healing on the dance floor, salvation in the groove” and my ass was seat-shaking, I felt that shit. Or when Stevie unleashed, “My wings are dirty from doing the sanctified strut” with an intensity that jumped through my speakers and shook me, I felt that shit. And when the band laid a fat groove allowing Stevie to hop on his pulpit and tell me, “Be a jewel in the heart of a lotus; keep your cool and sharpen your focus; yes you can, be a better man.”  Well, I felt that shit. And, at the end of the day, I want music that makes me feel, and this CD moves me on every track.