The first half of 2010 has brought with it a boatload of memorable music, thanks to an tsunami of killer cuts from the usual suspects and recently overlooked veterans, as well as definitive tracks from a healthy number of rookies and formerly below-the-radar (my radar, at least) bands and artists. On top of that, several albums that work from start to finish have come along, demonstrating the continuing viability of the extended listening experience in an era ruled by the single and perpetuated by the public’s ever-shortening attention span. I’m referring to the instant classic Broken Bells, Spoon’s latest triumph Transference, Band of Horses’ coming-of-age opus Infinite Arms and, coming up strong on the outside, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ authoritative roots romp Mojo. There were also not one but three irresistible covers albums in Nada Surf’s If I Had a Hi-Fi, Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back and The Bird and the Bee’s love letter to Hall and Oates, Guiltless Pleasures, Vol. 1. This, I think, is a promising trend.
Before I get down to the track-by-track rollout, let me also put in a good word for some of the other gripping experiences of the year so far: the intense drama and black comedy of Nurse Jackie, the impossibly dense 30 Rock, the sensory overload of Treme, the unbearable tension of the NBA Finals, Thom Yorke and Flea’s riff on So You Think You Can Dance on stage at the Santa Barbara County Bowl, and the characteristically offbeat final act of Alex Chilton.
OCEAN / MIDYEAR 2010 PLAYLIST
1. “Vaporize,” Broken Bells: Nobody’s made a better longplayer so far in 2010 than the perfectly matched team of James Mercer and Danger Mouse, and the latter’s arrangement on this cut, climaxing with a trumpet solo right out of the Tijuana Brass, is sublime in its detail and subtle wit, balancing the innate emotiveness of Mercer’s melodically untethered voice. Bravo, boys.
2. “I Saw the Light,” Spoon: If “I Turn My Camera On” was the Daniel and Eno’s “Emotional Rescue,” this one’s their “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.” Here's my pick for the coolest groove of the half-year…if not the two coolest grooves. The track opens as a jacked-up, White Album-style shuffle with a lemon-tart melodic progression, but at the midway point, everything suddenly falls away as a robot drum stomp takes over, signaling the transition into a mesmerizing extended instrumental section, as a buoyant piano vamp gives way a sheet-metal guitar solo hammering away on a single chord. Awesome spinning song—but that’s generally the case with Spoon.
3. “Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren),” The Rolling Stones: Speaking of the Stones, a number of reviewers (including our own Roy Trakin) have speculated that the Exile Rarities disc is the geezers’ best chance to place an album in the year end critics’ Top 10 since, oh, 1981 or so, thanks to killer cuts like this one, with its fat-bottomed bump (sounds like Bill Wyman to me), Keith’s woozy riffage and Mick’s pimpin’ harp solo, ornamented by horn riffs that would morph into the bleats you hear on the official “Soul Survivor” (a wonderfully wobbly Keith-sung version of that one can be found here as well).
4. “Laredo,” Band of Horses: This one’s totally up my Byrds/Neil Young & Crazy Horse/Big Star alley—meaning, I suppose, that it’s essentially boy music. On this shimmering folk rock anthem, the band deftly fuses the buoyancy of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” with the jutting-jawed physicality of “Cinnamon Girl” around a twisting riff from lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey right out of Creedence’s “Up Around the Bend.” A midtempo anthem as gorgeous as a sunrise over Ben Bridwell’s beloved Outer Banks, “Laredo” may be the most masterful appropriation of the Byrds sound since “The Ugly Truth” from Matthew Sweet’s milestone 1993 LP Altered Beast—although it has some competition from…
5. “Electrocution,” Nada Surf: …the overdriven jangle of these skillful veterans’ take on an obscure 1998 song from cult artist Bill Fox. It’s one of three tracks on the band’s engaging covers album, If I Had a Hi-Fi, that vividly reflects their roots in the chiming guitars and soaring harmonies of 1960s folk-rock; the others are Nada’s glorious re-creation of the Dwight Twilley Band’s “You Were So Warm,” cleverly suggested to them by Hits’ Karen Glauber, and, less obviously, Kate Bush’s “Love and Anger,” which they transform into a shimmering aerial ballet of pealing guitars and regal harmonies.
6. “Ocean,” The 22-20s: This track from the previously blues-rocking English trio is here because (A) it carries along the Byrds-y vibe of the two preceding tracks and (B) it provides both a title and a theme for this midyear playlist. The early-summer compilation is a decades-old tradition for me, starting in 1980 with a cassette comp (also quaintly known as a “mixtape” here in the Digital Age) I made for a Catalina vacation titled Where’s My Sandy Beach after a line in the Pretenders’ “Mystery Achievement.” I still have that tape…
7. “Candy,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Still digesting this 15-track, 65-minute record, but I can say right now with complete confidence that it’s undeniably a late-career classic for this Great American Band, with Petty writing specifically for the occasion and the rest of the crew taking it from there. For proof, check out their recent performance on SNL. This below-the-belt blues-rocker isn’t one of the two songs they played on the show, but the playfulness of its formal perfection makes me laugh every time Petty sings the opening stanza: “I sure like dat candy/I don’t go for dem turnip greens.” One obvious reference point is the Standells’ “Dirty Water,” but there’s a ton more.
8. “Burn It Down,” Los Lobos: Like the Heartbreakers’ crosstown rivals have been doing the drill so long and so fruitfully that they’ve achieved the hard-earned status of Great American Band, right alongside Petty, Campbell and company. Lobos’ upcoming Tin Can Trust can be viewed as a companion piece to Mojo: both are essentially blues-based, both draw authoritatively on American roots styles and both feature a remarkably fluent guitarist—Mike Campbell on Mojo and the humbly hell-raising David Hidalgo on Tin Can Trust. The performance here is pushed along by the thick plunks of Conrad Lozano’s fingers on a stand-up bass (he’s the American equivalent of Fleetwood Mac’s rock-steady John McVie), and culminates with the assaultive skronk of Hidalgo’s guitar fireworks.
9. “White Table,” Delta Spirit: My sleeper of the half year comes from a Long Beach band whose rootsy, acoustic-based material gets force-of-nature forward momentum from monster drummer Brandon Young—and this track is his showcase. Delta Spirit’s secret weapon, Young supercharges the largely acoustic arrangements with his ferociously propulsive stick work, bringing assertiveness and uplift everywhere. Everyone I’ve turned on to “White Table” has instantly fallen in love with it, much like two years ago when I introduced friends to Luke Reynolds’ criminally obscure Pictures and Sound…
10. “Floating in Space,” Luke Reynolds: On his eight-song mini-album Maps, Reynolds uses the same awesome rhythm section that enlivened Pictures and Sound cuts like “100 Directions” and “the Last Ocean,” but on this outing the trio is in a mellower mood, set here by the buoyant, life-embracing opener, which conveys both his depth and his disarming dudeness.
11. “Ready to Start,” Arcade Fire: Woke up this morning with the hook of this tease from The Suburbs circulating though my subconscious, which leads me to believe it could be a radio single. One of Win Butler’s more understated, lower-register vocals, which mysteriously makes the emotionality of the performance seem that much more intense, amid the pummeling drums and skyrocket sequencer oscillations.
12. “Crystalised,” The xx: What's cool and unusual about this song from XX, the half year’s second best debut album next to Broken Bells, is the way these soulful kids pump the groove into the spaces between the notes—the arrangement is so spare that silence could be seen as the lead instrument on the track.
13. “Saturday Sun,” Crowded House: The first sound you hear on the reformed band’s brand new Intriguer is the syncopated thunder of L.A. native Matt Sherrod’s drums, the earth to Neil Finn’s air as he gives flight to another elegant melody—further proof that Finn and Nick Seymour picked the right guy to fill the empty drum stool left by their fallen comrade Paul Hester. With guitarist/keyboardist Mark Hart completing the lineup, Crowded House Mk. 2 is a formidable unit, especially on stage, where they take off on extended forays behind Finn’s guitar explorations. But after this bracing start, you’ll need to have patience, because it takes several spins for the songs to sink in—which is what I’m in the middle of right now…
14. “Why Does the Wind,” Tracey Thorne: Like Intriguer, the Everything but the Girl singer’s Love and Its Opposite is an emotionally taut but musically restrained set out of which pops one dynamic exception—in this case a sensuous, Sade-style groove over which Thorn’s emphatic, no-nonsense voice glides with its trademark effortlessness—she’s a modern-day cross between Julie London and Peggy Lee. Deepening our theme, the track sounds just like a seaside summer sunset looks.
15. “Kandi,” One eskimO: Young English group makes brilliant use of a sample from a vintage single from soul singer Candi Staton, audaciously employing it the setup for a sexy call-and-response chorus hook with frontman Kristian Leontiou.
16. “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” The Bird and the Bee: When you hear that Inara George and Greg Kirsten cut an entire album of Hall & Oates covers, you'd be excused for going, "What?!" But as soon as you hear the first song, you go "Wow." Love Hall & Oates, btw. What a wonderfully nuanced vocal from Inara—her dad would be proud.
17. “That’s Not My Name,” The Ting Tings: Yup, this track is from 2008’s We Started Nothing, but it deserves the ecstatic response male/female duo Sleigh Bells are getting right now, and it makes the playlist because Katie White and Jules De Martino absolutely killed it on SNL back in January. This’ll hold me till the follow-up—reportedly titled Massage Kunst—hits later this summer.
18. “Looking East,” Jackson Browne and David Lindley: Their memorable shared history makes the former collaborators’ reunion on a 2006 tour of Spain auspicious, casual as the presentation may have been. What’s more, most of the songs Browne chose for the first disc of this two-CD set are from records on which Lindley didn’t appear, enabling the erstwhile partners to see what they could do with the material in an only slightly expanded configuration from their two-man shows in the ’70s. On the double album’s most audacious performance, Lindley picks up and pummels an oud, providing a Kaleidoscope-like exotic spin on the still timely 1996 message song.
19. “Taxi Cab,” Vampire Weekend: The brainy band’s sophomore album is so of a piece that it demands being heard as a whole—with the exception of this understated gem, which rolls along as weightlessly as a fogbank.
20. “Pow Pow,” LCD Soundsystem: Dunno what I was expecting from James Murphy after the 2007 landmark Sound of Silver, and I’m still trying to figure out what’s ticking behind This Is Happening, right down to settling on a particular cut to pull from it. For now I’m going with this homage to the Talking Heads’ Eno period, which sound intoxicating the first time I heard it, driving through Santa Barbara under starry skies after Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace show at the Bowl.
21. “Take It In,” Hot Chip: My fondness for their fanboy groove-a-rama increases with each album, and although the latest, One Life Stand, went for consistency over a roller-coaster ride, it did yield some progressively involving winners, including this poppy set piece, which they chose to use for the closer.
22. “Flume,” Peter Gabriel: Another striking covers album yielded this hushed, gorgeous ballad from Bon Iver’s 2008 stunner For Emma, Forever Ago, as Gabriel hits that oosebump-inducing leap into the first chorus without the celestial stacked harmonies of Justin Vernon’s original.
23. “Goodbye Girl,” The Shins: Mercer’s crew (whoever they are these days) covering Squeeze—how perfect is that? A wistful yet propulsive reimagining, the track is just one of several winners from the freebie online grab bag Levi’s Pioneer Sessions. While you’re on the site, you’ll also wanna download She & Him covering Rick Nelson’s “Fools Rush In,” Raphael Saadiq doing the Spinners’ “It’s a Shame” and Jason Mraz power-chording through Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.”
24. “Shot of Love,” Robert Randolph & the Family Band: T Bone Burnett combines his deep understanding of American roots music with Randolph’s grounding in gospel on the sacred steel virtuoso’s third studio album, resulting in a set of fervently funky performances steeped in authenticity and powered (like all of the producer’s sonically detailed recordings) by grooves as deep as trenches. Randolph and his rock-steady crew share space with some well chosen Burnett ringers; this song from Bob Dylan’s foray into Christianity Slow Train Comin’ gets the devil beat out of it the great by Jim Keltner, while Randolph’s buddy Ben Harper handles the lead vocal.
25. “How Do You Like Me Now,” The Heavy: This 2009 horn-powered neo-soul workout thrust its way onto the playlist after its appearance on the Kia spot that debuted during the Super Bowl. Wilson Pickett would surely approve.
26. “Heart of Steel,” Galactic featuring Irma Thomas: Gives me a chance to plug the offbeat and mesmerizing HBO series Treme, which just concluded its delectable first season, with Irma reprising her original version of “Time Is on My Side,” soon thereafter made famous by the Stones.
27. “Medicine,” Grace Potter & the Nocturnals: I’ve been friends with Grace since writing her first Hollywood Records bio back in 2005, and I’m impressed not just by her own growth but by that of her band, featuring the terrific lead guitarist Scott Tournet. Here, they crank out a steaming slab of riff rock that sounds to like the belated sequel to Heart’s “Barracuda.”
28. “Month of May,” Arcade Fire: This is a zero-to-60-in-five-seconds blast of adrenalized rock & roll—a Funeral-style explosive climax stretched over the track’s entire four-minute length. It’s like T-Rex on speed and steroids.
29. “On Main Street,” Los Lobos: As I played this cut last night, Peggy riffed on two points of reference for David Hidalgo’s vocal, both right on the money—Richard Manuel and Stevie Winwood. Think of this as Lobos’ own “Summer in the City.” And check out my review of Tin Can Trust in the upcoming Uncut.
30. “Free Love,” Cornershop: When Nick Lowe went country (so to speak) back in the ’90s, he left the job of purveying pure pop for now people in the capable hands of Tjinder Singh, who proceeded to stake his claim with the classic “Brimful of Asha,” and has subsequently spun out some of the wittiest rock & roll of the last two decades. Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast, Singh and partner Ben Ayres seem (among other things) to be riffing on the Beatles’ fascination with Indian music, breaking out the sitars and tablas and mixing them in with their standard Western instruments…or have they come up with their own twisted version of A.R. Rahmann’s Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack? Quite possibly both. But I can state with confidence that this mesmerizing soundscape is Judy’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.” It came on as four of us were pulling into the driveway after dinner at Ammo, and none of us got out of the car until it was over.
31. “Running Man’s Bible,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: The groove reminds me of “Breakdown”; Petty’s lyric reminds me of all the years that have passed since then. And the band plays on…
32. “The Mystery Zone,” Spoon: The title song of my early-2010 playlist, this one’s a tension builder with a springy groove and Revolver-like lysergic string-synth billows. It follow’ the band’s leitmotif on Transference, it’s ending sheared off like a Marine recruit’s hair.
33. “Agony of Laffitte,” Nada Surf: In which one stellar smart-pop band not only covers another one but also brings something of its own stylishness to the party—check out the gorgeous contrapuntal harmonies, which serve to illuminate the beauty of Britt Daniel’s melody. Interestingly, Nada’s elegant treatment takes the song from acid putdown to fluttering rhapsody.
34. “The Ghost Inside,” Broken Bells: Here, Mercer communes with his inner falsetto soul man over DM’s lustrous groove as the duo treads on Gnarls Barkley turf.
35. “Dilly,” Band of Horses: Here’s vivid proof that Band of Horses are no longer just a front for Ben Bridwell—this infectious power-pop song is one of lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey’s strong contributions, as he puts himself into a featured role alongside the frontman.
36. “The River,” Audra Mae: The lyrical precision of Leonard Cohen converges with the dangerous undertow of Amy Winehouse on this dreamscape, awash in water symbolism.
37. “The Shores,” The Sea of Cortez: I was initially trying to keep the playlist to 25, then 30—but when I grabbed this download of a brand new song because of the band name and title, I figured, what the heck, it’s a holiday. It turns out to be an indie-rock update of one of those Beach Boys coastal panoramas from early ’70s LPs like Sunflower and Holland—meaning it’ll fit right in alongside Fleet Foxes when their much-anticipate follow-up hits.
38. “Waves,” Holly Miranda: Extending the aural sea foam is this enigmatic indie singer/songwriter (if Kristen Stewart hasn’t heard her yet, it’s essentially that she do so immediately), who doesn’t forget about putting a groove underneath her mood, which was the most important lesson of Portishead’s now-iconic Dummy.
39. “The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire: I promised myself I wouldn’t throw in three tracks from any one act, but c’mon, this new Arcade Fire stuff is epic. People who have grabbed the blithely floated links to four tracks are mostly gaga over “Ready to Start,” myself included, but don’t overlook this one—widescreen, poignant and seductively detailed, like a Todd Haynes movie.40. “Heaven and Earth,” Blitzen Trapper: If John Ford were still around, he’d use this band for the score of his next western. Cue the orchestra…