When it comes to technology, it's like I came over on the Mayflower. I'd like to be more techno-savvy, but it's just not working. During this past year, however, I did join ranks the rest of the 21st century when my wife gave me an iPod for Christmas.
I've been listening to music all my life, but getting this device (which flies like a hungry buzzard over the crumpled remains of transistor radios and Walkmans) has changed the way I listen to music.
Historically, my listening was accomplished by taking note of albums from beginning to end. In the digital age, a new album is loaded on the iPod and is pretty much always part of a 1,000-song shuffle. I've found that I still hear the majority of songs on an album as many times as I would have heard them the previous way, so everything gets a pretty fair shake.
And through the magic of these tiny ear buds, I've discovered whole new sonic layers to songs I've been listening to for 30 or more years. Not only have I heard "lost" touches to Beatles and Dylan tunes, but listening to Brother Bones' 1940 whistling of "Sweet Georgia Brown" has unearthed new delights.
Rewarded for my devotion to song by this apparatus (for which I am also now devoted), it's only natural I'd think this was a good year for music, and it was. The kinds of writers, players and singers (some perhaps fairly obscure) I enjoy the most were all in good form over the past 12 months, and I found that I also enjoyed tunes by well-known pop-and-rock entities like Amy Winehouse, Wilco and Feist.
For the past 12 years, I've written an end-of-the-year, "baker's dozen" music column for the Citizen, and it's always been fun to look back on the past 12 months and reacquaint myself with my album collection. I appreciate the opportunity to be able to do this for a "baker's dozen" years.
And as I often do, I'd like to dedicate this year's essay to someone special. This year, I'm thinking of the late Jim Gleeson, who was a neighbor, a boss, a mentor, a friend and, sometimes, an inspiration. When I worked for Jim, he clued me in on compositions for pipe organs, choral excursions and brass-filled workouts, and for that I'm ever grateful.
Happy listening in 2008.
13. Arcade Fire - "Neon Bible"
I've always had an interest in big rock bands, and Canada's seven-piece Arcade Fire is one of the best. Win Butler and his mates first captured my attention with their 2004 album "Funeral" and more than exceeded my expectations with "Neon Bible," a fetching collection of songs about, as Rolling Stone put it, "a twisted faith in escape."
The band's appearance in 2007 on "Saturday Night Live" led me to believe its members were a bit too serious about this fun thing we call rock and roll, but it takes a level head to create an Arcade Fire-worthy song. And there are plenty of great songs here, particularly "My Body is a Cage" and "Intervention."
12. Mavis Staples - "We'll Never Turn Back"
It was my great good fortune in 2003 to visit with the signature voice of the Staples Singers ("I'll Take you There," "Respect Yourself") when she performed at a blues festival at the Georgia International Horse Park, and this album - heavy on anthems from the Civil Rights era - reemphasizes the critical role Ms. Mavis has not only played in music, but in the history of our country.
Produced by the iconic Ry Cooder (whose slide guitar, mandolin and percussive touches provide the edge in a sometimes-tart set of songs), "We'll Never Turn Back" is perhaps the album Staples has waited her entire life to record. With songs like "Down in Mississippi," "I'll be Rested" and "Jesus is on the Mainline," Mavis Staples reminds us that after five decades, she's still a musical - and social - force to reckon with.
11. Amy Winehouse - "Back to Black"
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings - "100 Days, 100 Nights"
Wow, where to start with Amy Winehouse? Here's hoping we're not mourning this train-wreck diva's untimely demise this time next year. It's hard for me to believe Winehouse will ever be able to top "Back to Black," but that's no slight on her - a collection of soul, pop and blues neo-classics like this only comes along once in a great while.
While Winehouse owes much to producer Mark Ronson, a primary factor in the success of "Back to Black" comes via the instrumental support provided by Brooklyn's Dap-Kings, who can also be greatly appreciated on Sharon Jones' "100 Days, 100 Nights," which sounds like it could have been recorded in the 1960s. There's so much soulful funk going on here, I'm not sure a lot of folks can take it all in one helping.
If Winehouse survives her "Brittney year," perhaps one day she'll be able to trade R&B chops with Sharon Jones; there's just no telling what she'll learn from that experience.
10. Andrew Bird - "Armchair Apocrypha"
I don't even pretend to understand Bird's lyrics, which seem to point to a future world that doesn't appear to be very promising, but his music - created in concert with Martin Dosh - and his vocal styles are easily appreciated.
Utilizing his considerable skills on the violin, guitar and glockenspeil (not to mention his captivating whistling), Bird is also an expert in sound experimentation, and it all meshes nicely with his uncanny ability to create melodies that stay with you for years. My personal favorites include "Fiery Crash," "Imitosis" and "Cataracts."
9. They Might Be Giants - "The Else"
Now hurtling toward their second quarter-century together, John Linnell and John Flansburgh took time away from a productive spell as children's artists and soundtrack meisters to roll out this 13-song set of what they've always done best - nerdy rock with a keen sense of humor and an encyclopedic interest in some pretty off-the-wall topics.
Folks who don't like their jobs can relate to "Climbing the Walls" while those who long for the days of the Monkees will delight to "The Mesopotamians," both of which prominently feature Linnell. But Flansburgh shows his imaginative side as well with pieces like "Shadow Government" and "Feign Amnesia." "The Else" was co-produced by the Johns and the Chemical Brothers to great effect, and it would be nice to hear them all together again sometime.
8. Crowded House - "Time on Earth"
Tim Finn - "Imaginary Kingdom"
My iPod is loaded with tunes from Neil and Tim Finn, New Zealand natives who have been providing the world with inspired pop notions for more than three decades, and for that I am grateful.
"Imaginary Kingdom" is filled to the brim with delightfully considered tunes like "Still the Song" and "Couldn't be Done," while Neil Finn's reconstructed Crowded House (which hit the big time in 1985 with "Don't Dream it's Over" but hasn't recorded a proper studio album since 1996) dreamily drifts from the Beatlesque "She Called Up" to a number of more somber-sounding songs.
7. Feist - "The Reminder"
Although she's released a couple of albums that established her indie cred and flew just slightly under the radar, Canadian Leslie Feist now has the world's attention, thanks to the charming "1 2 3 4," which many of us have heard a million times, thanks to its inclusion in an iPod commercial (and for the record, I would delight in hearing it a million-and-one times).
But while "1 2 3 4" may be the signature song on "The Reminder," there's so much more included in this straightforward batch of songs, all of which feature Feist's one-of-a-kind voice. And after seeing her on "Saturday Night Live," I've found that Feist (who has a membership in the musical cooperative Broken Social Scene) is also an excellent rhythm guitar player, which is another reason to buy into what she's selling.
6. Rilo Kiley - "Under the Blacklight"
Like Feist, Rilo Kiley has been an underground darling for a while, but lead singer Jenny Lewis' triumphant 2006 solo album "Rabbit Fur Coat" brought new attention to the band, and signing with Warner Brothers may have cost the band some of its longtime followers.
Anyone that cries "sellout" about "Under the Blacklight" is welcome to that opinion, but Rilo Kiley breathes new life into its sound with a cranky, sexy mix of synth-driven sounds and Latinesque rhythms. It will be interesting to see Rilo Kiley's next move, but in the meantime I'll continue to enjoy "Dejalo," "Breaking Up" and the naughty "The Moneymaker."
5. Bruce Springsteen - "Magic"
In 2002, my top album of the year was the Boss' anthemic "The Rising," which also happened to be his first collection in more than a decade recorded alongside his seminal E Street Band. Since then, Springsteen has released a somber solo disc and a big folk-band tribute to Pete Seeger, and I was left to wonder if there was one more great E Street album left.
I need not have worried. While "Magic" doesn't match the intensity of "The Rising" in terms of subject matter, it's got a nice rocking sheen (thanks in no small part to producer Brendan O'Brien) that recalls the brightness of "Born in the U.S.A." I'd rank "Radio Nowhere" with any song in the Springsteen canon, and there are plenty of others here that merit repeat listening.
4. Robert Plant/Alison Krauss - "Raising Sand"
Pairing the queen of contemporary bluegrass with the voice of Led Zeppelin might seem a bit odd, but so did matching chocolate with peanut butter. With T Bone Burnett selecting the songs and leading a crack band, Plant and Krauss delve into an eclectic songbook that features some outstanding selections, including "Please Read the Letter" and "Gone Gone Gone."
"Raising Sand" could have been a contender for the year's top album if it had really allowed Plant to cut loose in a Zep-inspired howl a time or two, but in terms of country, folk and roots styles, it has no peer in 2007.
3. Peter Case - "Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John"
If somebody told me in January that one of my favorite albums would be from a journeyman performer and musicologist who recorded an album of stark, acoustic guitar-driven (mostly) solo pieces, I'd have thought they were crazy. But here it is - a riveting neo-blues onslaught that owes just as much to Case's charm as it does his thought-provoking songs.
As the leader of the 1980s one-hit wonders the Plimsouls, Case knows the musicians' lifestyle and does an excellent job describing in literary entries on his Web site (www.petercase.com) and in his songs. The days of strictly-solo turns by bluesmasters Mississippi John Hurt and Sleep John Estes are long gone, and Case is one of the few artists who only needs his guitar, voice and stories to keep me interested.
2. White Stripes - "Icky Thump"
I suspect that part of the reason I gave Robert Plant a pass on his album with Alison Krauss is that I got a tasty Led Zeppelin fix from this album, in which Jack White blends an arena-rock crunch with stark blues and Celtic greens.
"Icky Thump" represents the album where White takes on the organ and synthesizer (previous albums have prominently featured xylophone and piano figures) with the same fervor he attacks the guitar. His synth work on the title track reminded me of incredible squiggly noises my boyhood friend Brad Lahr used to make on his Mini-Korg, and for that fun trip backward, I'll always be appreciative.
1. Wilco - "Sky Blue Sky"
After spending the first five years of the new century in an experimental mood, Jeff Tweedy and his very gifted band mates have geared down to a more austere sound yielding quite a few sonic gems that call to mind the dedication to songcraft adhered to by the late, lamented Band.
While Tweedy's tunes always dominate center stage, "Sky Blue Sky" is also an achievement in execution, especially on the part of lead guitarist Nels Cline, whose influential work with the Geraldine Fibbers and Mike Watt is topped only by his playing here. Hopefully it won't be too long before Wilco happily surprises us again.
Honorable Mention: Nick Lowe - "At My Age"; Lucinda Williams - "West"; The Broken West - "I Can't Go On, I'll Go On"; The Detroit Cobras - "Tied & True"; Japancakes - "Giving Machines"; Kelly Willis - "Translated From Love"; Levon Helm - "Dirt Farmer"; Neva Geoffrey - "The Days are Rolling"; Ry Cooder - "My Name is Buddy"; Brian Connell - "The Sordid"; The Ladybug Transistor - "Can't Wait Another Day"; Original Soundtrack - "I'm Not There"; Buffalo Tom - "Three Easy Pieces"; Black Francis - "Bluefinger"; Grant-Lee Phillips - "Strangelet."