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135. Vince Gill - These Days (2006)

In country, artists who compose their own material are the exception rather than the rule. And yet here we have Vince Gill, who has not only released 4 albums simultaneously (a feat not even matched by Prince), but also had a hand in writing all 43 songs.

As many admirers as Gill has (myself included), none would have considered him an artistic force. Maybe it's time to change that. As with any sprawling project, there are some duds, but there are also plenty of gems. Here's the scoop on the four discs, by the numbers:

Disc One: Workin' On A Big Chill (The Rockin' Record)

Happy Love Songs: 5
Sad Heartbreak Songs: 2
Church Songs: 0
Murder Ballads: 0
Wanderin' Man Songs: 3

Guest Artists: Gretchen Wilson, Rodney Crowell, BekkaBramlett, Michael McDonald

Lowlights:
Cowboy Up (bravado-laced hick song more suited to Toby Keith)
Workin' On A Big Chill (a beach bum tune more suited to Jimmy Buffett)
Rhythm Of The Pourin' Rain (uncomfortably horny and unsexy)

Highlights:
Love&…

134. Robbie Williams - Rudebox (2006)

Talk about contrast. Robbie Williams' previous effort, 2005's Intensive Care, was the most focused of his career. Now we have Rudebox, which is easily the most all-over-the-map album he's made.

I should be in no way surprised. Williams has proven himself an adept musical chameleon over the years. There was the Eltonesque balladry of Angels, the faux-hip-hop of Kids, the 50s crooning of Swing When You're Winning, the cock rock of Cursed, the Bowie posing of Radio, the ska experiment of Tripping, and so on. The difference with Rudebox is that all of those styles and more are compressed into a single album.

The record features 5 unexpected covers, along with 11 original collaborations with various electro-pop producers/composers. On the surface it seems like a completely overindulgent project, but if you take each song individually, it's clear that Williams' gift for pop magic is fully intact.

More than anything, this is a dance record. It starts with the earl…

2006: Top Ten

It's once again that magical time when we summarize a year's worth of music consumption into a couple of handy lists.

Check out my pal Richard Nelson's picks on Highway 290 Revisited.

Soul Asylum – The Silver Lining

read the review

A Twin Cities supergroup featuring an ex-Prince drummer, an uber-producer, an ex-Replacement, a member of Golden Smog and a guy who dated Winona Ryder make the best album of a 20-year career.





Dixie Chicks - Taking The Long Way

read the review

After the gentle, easy-going Home, it’s nice to hear the Chicks get fired up and passionate. I guess Bush is good for something.







Ronnie Milsap – My Life

read the review

I actually hate 2 of these 11 songs. But I love the other 9. In fact, they stand with any other of the other fine tunes Milsap has recorded in his long career.






The Roots - Game Theory

read the review

One of the rare rap albums that manages to give an instant thrill but also deepens with every listen.







Elton John - The Captain & The Kid

read …

2006: Best Of The Rest

#11:
Regina Spektor – Begin To Hope

Some years it’s very easy to make that cut at 10, but when you have an eccentric, varied, mysterious album like Begin To Hope, it’s almost painful! Witness the demented nostalgia of That Time, the heart-broken beauty of Samson and the irresistible bounce of Fidelity. If Bjork and Fiona Apple recorded an album together, this is how it’d turn out.


Biggest Disappointment:
Glen Phillips – Mr. Lemons

Last year’s number one artist took a frightening tumble with an all-too-appropriately-titled effort.


Biggest Surprise:
Gnarls Barkley – St. Elsewhere

Every year seems to produce at least one left-field success story. Who would've thought it’d be Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse teaming up for an exceedingly weird vanity project that could have just as easily slipped into obscurity? If you’d told me that at the beginning of the year, I’d have called you, well, crazy. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)




Guiltiest Pleasure:
Corinne Bailey Rae – Corinne Bailey Rae

Why should I feel …

133. The Honeydogs - Amygdala (2006)

You don't need a dictionary to enjoy The Honeydogs' new album, Amygdala, but it might help. As you listen, you'll come across words like algorithim, veneer, placebo, zeitgeist, apotheosis, serotonin, atavistic, basura and microphage. Clearly, singer/songwriter Adam Levy utilizes the most obscure vocabulary in rock.

Thankfully, Amygdala is also the most melodically pleasing, if not straightforward, set of songs The Honeydogs have created in their 10-plus years. The band is coming off an excellent concept album, but somehow that accomplishment has the effect of making a collection of unconnected songs seem that much sweeter.

That's not to say that the songs don't speak to each other. A trio of the album's tunes are simultaneously informed by the politics of the world and the politics of the heart. Opener Too Close To The Sun could be read as a break-up tune or as a condemnation of the leadership of our country: "After all of these sweet years / Came the t…

132. The Hold Steady - Boys And Girls In America (2006)

The Hold Steady are not a band everyone is going to like.

Musically their sound - pristine piano runs, wide open guitar riffs - is as populist as rock 'n' roll gets. Vocally, well, that's where the problem comes in. No one will ever mistake Craig Finn for a talented singer. As my buddy John astutely observed, "He sounds like Randy Newman on crank."

The band's first two albums concerned the hard-partying and salvation-seeking exploits of three characters, Charlamagne, Gideon and Holly. The songs rarely had choruses; the lyrics flew at you like you were Tippi Hedren. As Finn explained in an interview last year, he had so much to say that repeating himself hardly seemed worth it.

On the excellent Boys And Girls In America (named after a line in Kerouac's On The Road), that's all changed. Sure, Finn still sounds like a man ranting on a street corner, but he has freed himself from his characters, and found joy in repetition.

He takes advantage of it righ…

131. Scissor Sisters - Ta-Dah (2006)

What's wrong with America?!

Sorry, that's kind of a broad question. I'm specifically referring to the fact that our pop music consumption is seriously low on fun.

I've written before about how we've unjustly turned away poor Robbie Williams. Kylie Minogue only gets American love once every 15 years, it seems. And then there are the Scissor Sisters, who, while being mostly ignored here in their own homeland, have become stars in the U.K.

Now the British charts can be a wacky place, so success there is not necessarily a banner of quality. But Scissor Sisters are far from a novelty act. Okay, so they use stage names and they dress like the Village People after a long hard night. And their lyrics, while funny and self-aware, are far from deep. None of that matters, because the band is deadly serious about creating perfect pop music, and they succeed more often than not.

The opener from their new album, I Don't Feel Like Dancin', could well become their signa…

130. Elton John: The Captain & The Kid (2006)

In 1975 Elton John released Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy. It was the very first album to debut at the top of the Billboard charts. And it wasn't even a commercial album! Instead it was an autobiographical song cycle, the type of complete listening experience that record affeciandos such as myself tend to completely geek out over.

That album told tales of two men, Elton and his lyricist Bernie Taupin, struggling together on the precipice of fame.

As the 2006 sequel The Captain & The Kid begins, they've fallen over the side.

Postcards From Richard Nixon finds Bernie and Elton arriving in America and heralded as heroes. They're amazed by what they find there, beautiful people, Steve McQueen in a red Porsche and open arms of a president who never failed to try to ride coattails of a popular culture he was completely out-of-step with. My favorite moment is when Elton describes California as "Brian Wilson's promised land" and the band responds …

Top 200 Songs of the '80s

I promised a big project was in the works, and now here it is!

Inspired by Pitchfork's recent Top 200 Songs of the '60s, I thought I'd try my hand at putting together a list for the '80s. I sought out the expertise of some music-lovin' friends and the list was born! The idea was not to create a definitve list, but rather to pick songs from the decade that mean(t) something to us.

I'll be posting them on a subsite, Top 200 Songs of the '80s. The plan is to post 10 new songs every other day until all 200 are there! I hope you enjoy reading the list as much as I have enjoyed putting it together (though I can't speak for my collaborators)!

Shorties

126. P.O.S.: Audition (2006)

Though it doesn't hang together as an album, Audition has a surplus of excellent tracks. P.O.S. approaches his raps with the mentality of a punk singer and the beats match his intensity. Stand Up (Let's Get Murdered) is a signature example, turning an funky horns and soulful backup vocals into something akin to doomy metal. De La Souls is his life story mixed with a statement of purpose. There are guest stars too: Safety In Speed (Heavy Metal) features Hold Steady singer Craig Finn, and Slug (from Atmosphere) shows up on a couple of tracks.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Bleeding Hearts Club (Mpls Chapter)
Fave Line: "First of all, fuck Bush, that's all, that's the end of it" (from Half-Cocked Concepts)

127. Leroy Smokes: Love Hustle Theater (2006)

This multi-culti Twin Cities rap-with-instruments crew returns with a new long-player, emphasis on the long. The 22 tracks are all over the place both in quality and style, but there's a lot …

125. Soul Asylum: Silver Lining (2006)

My dad was a pop music obsessive in the '80s and has stacks of Rolling Stone, Spin and Musician magazines to prove it. Every so often he passes on a few of these old chestnuts to me. I always get a kick out of looking at the reviews of "new" albums, at who was a big deal at the time, who was up and coming and who never came. Recently, I found an especially interesting issue of Musician, dated May 1987 and featuring a triumphant U2 on the cover. In the Faces section, which highlighted new musicians, we find profiles of not only Minneapolis pre-Semisonic group Trip Shakespeare, but also of a young new band called Soul Asylum.

The brief article finds the band already on their second full album, While You Were Out, facing comparisons to The Replacements and Husker Du and lead singer Dave Pirner declaring that he has no interest in stardom. The writer makes it clear that Pirner expects their career to burn out any second. In fact, he claims he will not be quitting his j…

An Open Letter Regarding Hidden Bonus Tracks

To All Musicians:

I'm fired up!

Recently, Soul Asylum, Boy Kill Boy and The Rewinds have chosen to raise my ire by tacking hidden "bonus" tracks onto the end of their respective albums. You know what I'm talking about? The last listed song ends, but then there's a period of silence - sometimes as short as a minute, sometimes as long as 30 - followed by an additional song.

I hate this practice absolutely. In the past, artists have tested my patience by tacking on a ridiculous amount of dead air only to be broken by studio chatter, a bit of acoustic strumming or some symphonic bullshit (The Rewinds, Robbie Williams, Ok Go and Jars Of Clay should all be guiltily avoiding eye contact right now).

Other artists give us real songs after our wait, artists like Atmosphere, Counting Crows and the above-mentioned Soul Asylum and Boy Kill Boy. I use these as examples because the bonus songs are actually somewhat worthwhile in each case. But let me make this clear: It has…

124. David Mead - Tangerine (2006)

Why on Earth did I buy a David Mead album?! I first heard of him in 2001 via a kind review of his second CD, Mine And Yours. I intended to buy that record and even listened to it at a listening station a couple of times, but never pulled the trigger.

Then I saw him in concert, as an opener for Hem. It was just him and a guitar and I was unimpressed with both his songs and his attitude. He seemed miffed that the audience was more interested in talking to one another than listening to him. And rather than getting over it, he just kept sniping. Okay, I get annoyed at indifferent concert audiences too, but he was the opener, for goodness' sake!

So why did I buy his new album, Tangerine? Maybe it was more good reviews, or the whimisical cover art or the low introductory price. Whatever the reason, I'm glad I did. It's an unassuming gem of a pop album.

The opening title track is a piano-driven instrumental with lush harmonies. It's a nice little intro, in more ways th…

123. Robbie Williams - Intensive Care (2005)

One can't really blame U.K. pop star Robbie Williams (or his label) for giving up on an American breakthrough. His first American release, The Ego Has Landed was actually a combination of the best songs from his first two U.K. albums. It arrived with high praise and a couple of ready-made hit singles: Angels and Millennium. There was minor success, but not as much as expected.

His next effort, Sing When You're Winning, was even stronger, just as critically adored, and performed even worse. His unfortunate final attempt to make an American splash was 2003's Escapology, a passable album that was clearly not strong enough to grab the ears and wallets of U.S. buyers.

So his latest record, Intensive Care, will not even be released stateside. And that's a shame, because it's his best one yet. Perhaps that has something to do with who he's working with. He has left behind longtime collaborator Guy Chambers (like an inverse version of pop star he's most often …

122. Dashboard Confessional - Dusk And Summer (2006)

Dashboard Confessional are a polarizing group. Their fans worship them. In concert, the audience shouts along to every word Chris Carrabba utters, verse to chorus and back. To their detractors, they embody the worst of emo's whiny, self-absorbed tendencies.

I've always been on the more positive side of the pole, mostly because I could relate to Carrabba's tales of fucked-up girls. The band's 2003 album, A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar, contained a satisfying number of pissed-off odes and ruthless condemnations, such as Rapid Hope Loss, So Beautiful and Hey Girl. In the latter Carrabba used his anger to display a clear worldview, "Where I'm from we live like it's the latest attraction."

Unfortunately he's gone fuzzy on the band's new album, Dusk And Summer. Strange to say, but it seems that as Carrabba's love life has improved, his songwriting has suffered. A full half of the album consists of over-dramatic odes to the power of love…

121. Kubla Kahn - Lowertown (2006)

A sense of humor is not valued in rock 'n' roll. Spinal Tap aside, I understand why. As a kid I worshiped "Weird Al" Yankovic; I wore out his tapes in my Walkman. However, as an adult, I can only take him in small doses. Repetition isn't what it used to be, and the jokes tend to wear thin.

The best way for bands to get around this institutionalized stoicism is to be "quirky." It's as though the rock establishment has said, "Be clever or weird or surprising, but don't TRY to make us laugh. We want to laugh on our own terms."

Bands like They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies have mastered this by balancing their cheek with serious sentiment. And Twin Cities natives Kubla Kahn follow that path nicely on their new CD Lowertown. Of the seven songs, at least four are pretty damn funny, in unexpected ways.

In the opener, Memory, the singer is having trouble remembering a girl's name, despite meeting her a few times. As the song p…

120. Ronnie Milsap - My Life (2006)

I'll admit Ronnie Milsap is one of the odder musical obsessions of my life. It all started when I sat two rows behind him on an airplane that was en route to Nashville. I wasn't impressed; I didn't even know who he was. And my thoughts were elsewhere anyway, since I was headed to my grandfather's funeral.

Later, I decided to check out Ronnie's music. It spoke to me immediately. Which is strange, since I'm not much of a country fan, and Ronnie's popularity seems to have peaked in 1983. But there was something about the soulfulness of his voice, and the way the songs were so earnest, simple and straightforward. I became an immediate fan, and Ronnie rocketed into my top 10 favorite artists, an ascent rarely seen before or since.

That's why I was a bit more nervous than excited about his new CD - the first country album he's done since 1993 - especially after hearing the Jimmy Buffet-lite lead single Local Girls. I was afraid the album would be an…

119. Guster - Ganging Up On The Sun (2006)

Expectation can be a bitch. I tend to believe the events, moments and experiences we truly enjoy in life are the ones that take us by surprise. The ones we count down to and anticipate and build up in our minds often manage to bring us joy, but at a higher cost. Those events, moments or experiences have to live up to the high expectations our mind has created.

This goes for CDs too. Every month there are CDs I anticipate, mostly by artists whose work I've enjoyed in the past. Sometimes I read reviews or articles in advance, and depending on what they say, that can stoke my fire even more. And then there are those unexpected gems. Something I heard on the radio, or read about, or discovered on a listening station or had recommended by a friend. These are the CDs that have a better chance of taking hold, because they carry no expectations. And to complete the circle, those artists that really impress me usually get a free pass for their next release.

In 2003, Guster released K…

118. Jon Auer - Songs From The Year Of Our Demise (2006)

Paul Simon once sang, "Losing love is like a window in your heart / everybody sees you're blown apart." This is especially true for singer/songwriters. Those of us who can't express our sorrow ourselves turn to song. The musicians have to create them for us. I'm forever fascinated with the transformation of pain into art. When a songwriter can synthsize their heartbreak into something that others can relate to and take comfort in, that's special.

Jon Auer has done that on his new solo album, Songs From The Year Of Our Demise. Auer has been making clever power pop since 1990, first with The Posies, and also as part of the new line-up of Big Star, but never has he been as personal and engaging as he is here.

On the surface, Songs From The Year Of Our Demise seems to be a morbid break-up album. Opener Six Feet Under serves as a thematic overview of what's to come. The narrator mournfully accepts that a relationship is over: "There's no time ma…

Quatre Petites Revues des Femmes

114. Nelly Furtado - Loose (2006)

Something is off about this album. Don't get me wrong; mindless, sexy albums are all well and good. In the summer, you need to be able to roll down your windows and foist your music selctions on other drivers. Mindless, sexy music is perfect for that. I guess what's bothering me is that this is not really a sexy or mindless album at all. In fact, there's actually an undercurrent of meloncholy that pervades even the upbeat tracks. Maybe producer / co-writer Timbaland has finally gone too far with the minor key thing, or maybe Ms. Furtado didn't really feel as sexy and free as she has claimed in all of her recent interviews.

For example, why did it take Chris Martin to co-write All Good Things (Come To An End), basically a late '90s Madonna ballad? Maneater has an appropriately '80s chorus, too bad Hall & Oates did it better IN the '80s. And the worst offense is the downer opener Afraid. Note to all parties inter…