In my mind, the ’00s didn’t really kick in until 2007. By this time that year, I could not believe the number of terrific records that kept coming one after another. By Oct. 1, when Radiohead’s fully godhead In Rainbows appeared online, the decade’s most artistically supremo top 10 was complete. It topped off a batch comprising Kings of Leon’s Because of the Times, the Shins’ Wincing the Night Away, Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand, LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver and Fountains of Wayne’s Traffic and Weather. Those records were so loaded with killers that I filled three CDs putting together my year-end comps of fave tracks, using a mere handful of other cuts like Rilo Kiley’s “Dreamworld,” Springsteen’s “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” and Steve Earle’s “Satellite Radio.”
We haven’t seen anything quite like that explosion of creativity since, which makes the midyear arrival of the utterly sublime Wilco (the album) a major event in my house. This record has everything I love about the band (and rock in general): dynamics, smarts, heart, tunefulness and the players’ ability to seamlessly juxtapose the timeless and the adventurous so that every passage sounds instantly familiar and endlessly thrilling at the same time. I can think of no modern band that does a better job of honoring the past without being limited by it than Wilco—and that is precisely the challenge facing any contemporary artist with a sense of context and the ambition to stake a claim in the rock pantheon.
We could conceivably get new albums from the Shins and Arcade Fire before the end of the year, and I’m definitely looking forward to the upcoming LP from the reconstituted Crowded House, working with Wilco (the album) coproducer/engineer/mixer Jim Scott. But here’s my personal soundtrack to the half-year. This is a playlist, meaning that it’s meant to be played, in this order (transitions are important in the post-album era), and I’ve road-tested it both in the car and the spinning room at the gym. The following takes are meant to accompany the listening experience, which is the real point of this exercise.
1. Wilco, “You Never Know”: Delectable Beatlesque pop-rocker that appropriates the groove from Sly’s “Everyday People” and the slide lick from George’s “My Sweet Lord” in the service of a generational anthem with the irresistible singalong refrain, “I don’t care anymore.” Not just Jeff Tweedy’s catchiest song yet, but the catchiest track anybody has released this year.
2. Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs, “Go All the Way”: Sue sexes up Eric Carmen’s lead vocal part while Matthew cranks out Wally Bryson’s lusty guitar riff, nailing the distortion and overtones in all their serrated glory. The rock & roll equivalent of a bravura interpretation of a key piece from the classical canon.
3. Beck, “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat”: In contrast to the above track, Beck takes radical liberties with the familiar source material from Blonde on Blonde but still captures the sarcastic snarl of the original via his brutally distorted guitar riffage and howling harp over an earthmoving industrial beat.
4. The Decemberists, “The Rake’s Song”: The last album contained “The Perfect Crime #2,” a pumping rocker that picked up where “Life During Wartime” left off, and The Hazards of Love sports this similarly seductive cut, powered by a springy single-note acoustic riff and thunderclap drumming. The lyric, which concerns the black deeds of a cold-blooded killer, would be tasteless and horrific if set in the modern world and described in straightforward language, but in Colin Meloy’s deft hands it comes off like a newly discovered chapter of The Canterbury Tales. That’s not why it’s batting cleanup in this playlist, however; it’s here because it rocks like crazy.
5. Doves, “The Outsiders”: After a sequencer-sparked opening that looms like gathering storm clouds, the Brit trio unleashes a gale-force rocker that never flags, the mix burying Jimi Goodwin’s defiant vocal in a sonic maelstrom of guitars and synths. As with chunks of the U2 record, I’m picking up the influence of Elbow’s brilliant 2008 opus The Seldom Seen Kid in the band’s delectable use of dynamic contrast.
6. Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody”: Yes, this cut is from a 2008 album, but the Kings are breaking big right now behind it, and this arena anthem, with its Arcade Fire-like full-throated chorale, is a lot closer to what makes them the best young rock & roll band to come along in this century than “Sex on Fire,” their improbable (if slyly seductive) ticket to the big time. KOL’s rise parallels that of Spoon in the sense that the band’s artistic coming of age, Because of the Times, preceded the commercial breakthrough of Only by the Night in the same way that Gimme Fiction preceded the irresistible but not quite as mind-blowing Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. That said, all four are essential pieces in any contempo collection.
7. U2, “Magnificent”: At any previous point since the early ’80s, this signature U2 epic would’ve been a colossal hit; the fact that times have changed doesn’t diminish the awesomeness of the work, with the requisite 16th-note flurries from Edge, lots of billowing, Eno-manipulated effects, Bono barely keeping a lid on his overarching tendencies, the struggle further ramping up the sense of urgency, and, best of all, Adam Clayton’s burrowing bassline, on which he seems to be quoting “Billie Jean,” of all things. This is as good as they get—it would’ve worked just as well on The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby.
8. Wilco, “Bull Black Nova”: The jittery one-note sequencer pattern—actually mimicked by an electric keyboard—is straight out of A Ghost Is Born’s “Spiders/Kidsmoke,” and the curlicue guitar riffage is a hopped-up variation on Sky Blue Sky’s gossamer “Impossible Germany,” but the end result has a soft/LOUD, tension/release excitement quotient all its own, one further distinguished by a twist of Steely Dan-like pretzel logic. It’s right here that the band opens up the hood of the deceptively serene Wilco (the album) to show off the massive horsepower lurking in its purring power plant.
9. Sam Roberts, “Them Kids”: For a half decade now it’s been the same story for Roberts, who’s Springsteen big in Canada and can’t get arrested in the States (assuming he doesn’t attempt to get through customs with a bag of weed in his road case). This burner turns on a wicked-clever premise: Sam is bummed that “the kids don't know how to dance to rock & roll,” and he’s worked up a backbeat-powered stomp in hopes they’ll snap shut their cellphones and come around. Otherwise, “If nobody listens, will we disappear?” But the best lines get right to the heart of being the keeper of a flickering flame: “We're under pressure to reconcile/our point of view with contemporary style.” You said it, Sam.
10. Harlem Shakes, “Strictly Game”: These smart-ass post-collegians may not have gotten the lavish attention bestowed on Vampire Weekend last year, but they’re similarly charming in that shambling, playful way. Mixing harsh reality and life-embracing optimism, “Strictly Game” slaps together organic and robotic rhythmic elements, intercut with hints of world beat and glee-club ingenuousness, en route to as refrain that sounds like a communal singalong. “This will be a better year,” they sing in unison, their voices as reassuring as their message.
11. Franz Ferdinand, “Ulysses”: Franz puts across this paean to the conjoined pleasures of sex and drugs with the arch, swaggering irony of early Roxy Music. Alex Kapranos manages to slide upward to a fey falsetto while keeping his tongue jammed into his cheek, while Bob Hardy plucks out a bassline as thick and flexible as Monster cable, uncoiling a tantalizing groove that’s laid-back and lascivious at the same time. Note: these Scots will get some competition in the archly swaggering department from England’s Wild Beasts when Domino puts out their Two Dancers in September.
12. Phoenix, “1901”: I keep reading that “Lisztomania,” the opening track of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, is a contender for track of the summer, but I’m partial to this spikier cut, which follows, as super-compressed power chords sandblast the balmy soundscape.
13. Empire of the Sun, “Walking on a Dream”: We now arrive at the prime MGMT moment of the last six months, courtesy of Aussie eccentric Luke Steele. He lost me on the second Sleepy Jackson album, but he’s lured me back with this sparkling bit of sunny pop, studio-tweaked so that it seems to be wafting out of a radio in some parallel universe.
14. The Bird and the Bee, “My Love”: Who woulda thunk that Lowell George’s daughter Inara would grow up to be an alterna-diva, flitting from an orchestral LP with Dad’s pal Van Dyke Parks to a synth-pop workout with Greg Kurstin that sports this luminous neo-new wave romantic ditty?
15. Brendan Benson, “Eyes on the Horizon”: This piano-powered midtempo gem from the upcoming My Old, Familiar Friend evokes Runt-era Todd Rundgren, from the surging bass notes on the ivories to the cascading melody. I hope Benson meant to make that lift, cuz Todd is quite possibly the most important artist to be shunned by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (although I could—and have—named a bunch more on my rocksbackpages.com blog). Benson has been building up to his big moment since the mid-’90s; could this LP be the one that does it. And if it is, will anybody notice? Let’s hope the Raconteurs connection makes a difference this time out.
16. Sweet/Hoffs: “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”: Rundgren was the only artist to get covered twice by Matthew and Sue on Under the Covers Vol. 2, and both selections come from Something/Anything? I adore their take on “Hello It’s Me,” with Matthew handling the lead vocal while his longtime cohort Greg Leisz plays lead with characteristic silkiness, but listening to this perfectly rendered performance of Todd’s power-pop classic, with its chiming guitars, layer-cake harmonies and eruptive bridge raises goosebumps as big as the ones that popped up every time I blasted the original on my KLH stereo back in the day.
17. New York Dolls: “Nobody Got No Bizness”: Todd produced the Dolls for the first time since their hugely influential debut album in 1973, and this winking chunk of strutting old-school R&B hews close to the spirit of their early days. David Jo’s dee-lite-ful spoken shtick also recalls “Loosen Up” from Todd’s teenage group the Nazz, itself a goof on Archie Bell & the Drells’ “Tighten Up.”
18. Derek Trucks Band, “Down in the Flood”: Another Dylan cover that honors the original without worshiping it. No longer locked into purist live-off-the-floor recording, Trucks layers the track with overdubbed parts over a groove as taut as military corners, interweaving an acoustic rhythm pattern, a keening slide part that sounds like a siren-like female voice and a shimmering dobro lick plucked right out of old weird America.
19. Bob Dylan, “It’s All Good”: Here’s the Bard himself, capturing the zeitgeist as only he can on a bluesy basher that finds him ferociously playing off the most obnoxious phrase in the current American vernacular. Dylan’s sensational combo, augmented by David Hidalgo’s Tex-ex accordion runs, powers through a deep-gut groove cut from the same rugged cloth as Modern Times’ “Someday Baby.”
20. Wilco, “I’ll Fight”: Here, over a ’50s-style acoustic rock & roll arrangement accented by Del Shannon-style carnival organ and hillbilly lap steel, Tweedy unleashes a lyric composed almost entirely of one-syllable words, hitting like a flurry of quick jabs and generating a sense of desperate earnestness as he works himself up to the ultimate vow: “I’ll die, I’ll die, I’ll die for you I will, I will, I will.”
21. Pete Yorn, “Don’t Wanna Cry”: Just heard this track in a promo for an upcoming movie (wish I could remember which one), and I expect music supes to jump all over it in the coming months, because it is the kind. A brokenhearted ballad sung with tattered intensity by Pete, as he goes from muted to unhinged, “Cry” splits the difference between Tom Petty circa Wildflowers and Sufjan Stevens circa Nebraska. Kidding—Sufjan hasn’t gotten around to that state yet, but Yorn cut this album in Omaha with Conor Oberst producer Mike Mogis and arranger Nate Walcott, who’ve crafted a stirring outro using a one-off orchestra of local horn players. Like “You Never Know” and “Magnificent,” this track sounds like it’s been around forever.
22. U2, “Unknown Caller”: The U2 of No Line on the Horizon is a six-piece that includes musician/cowriters Eno and Daniel Lanois, and the expanded lineup delivers the goods on this intoxicating slab of sonic bliss climaxing charting the course of a long night’s journey into day with a rare solo from the Edge that seems to part the clouds and let the sunshine in.
23. Sweet/Hoffs: “Back of a Car”: The most knowing proponent of the Big Star school, Sweet gets every nuance right as he burrows deep inside the stoned hormonal bliss of this Radio City cornerstone. Where other pop groups strive for perfect circles, Big Star worked with oblong shapes, and Matthew, more than any Chilton-Bell acolyte, understands how compelling the results of drawing outside the lines can be. If Picasso had been a rocker, he might’ve sounded like this.
24. Wilco, “You and I”: The perfectly imperfect coupling of Tweedy and Feist’s voices on this unabashedly tender duet ineffably captures the sense of wonder of a guy and a girl in a long-term relationship who are still discovering things about each other while keeping certain parts of their respective psyches private. “You don’t have to tell me . . . everything,” they harmonize at one key moment. It’s a way of saying that one and one makes three—lovely notion.
25. M. Ward, “Outro”: The Portland-based singer/songwriter has a way with words, spooling them into modern-day folk songs armed with metaphysical payloads, but I’m going with the instrumental closer of Hold Time—mainly because it’s so durn purdy. For what it’s worth, this shimmering nocturne, in which Ward’s tremolo guitar curls like smoke rings around the hovering strings, encapsulates the album’s collective contemplations with wordless eloquence, though it holds up beautifully on its own . . . or at the end of this playlist.