Trying To Get To You

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Springsteen's Top 25 Of The Decade

Not only was this past decade Bruce Springsteen's most productive decade ever, with five new studio albums released, it featured some of his best work ever. Album for album, none of them (The Rising, Devils & Dust, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Magic, Working On A Dream) were quite at the level of Springsteen's work from 1973 to 1987 (from the Wild & Innocent through Tunnel Of Love), but the following 25 songs rank favorably with the best of his work, and I'd love to know another artist who had 25 songs that are the equal of these.

1. "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" (Magic, 2007)

The sound of a weathered and bruised man trying to get out from under a whole lot of loneliness and heartbreak, stepping out and ready to love again, knowing that love is the only thing that saves, and all too aware time waits for no one, especially him. With a super-compressed 12-string acoustic guitar, a Pet Sounds influence all over the thing, and lyrics so vivid that they're worthy of the bridge of "Born To Run," this isn't just Springsteen's best song of the decade, it's one of his best songs ever. An absolutely magical recording - it's no wonder they never got it right live.

2. "Lonesome Day" (The Rising, 2001)

If you read "Portraits Of Grief," The New York Times section on the victims of 9/11, it sometimes seemed as though in each day's section, there was at least one victim who was a huge Springsteen fan. Springsteen took in the events of that day and even more importantly, the aftermath, speaking to families about what they were going through in the wake of the horror. Then he made it all personal - people with an uncertain determination to pull through betrayals private and public, with music that was like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

3. "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live" (We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions [American Land Edition], 2006)

Taken from Ry Cooder who took it from Blind Alfred Reed, Springsteen kept the original first verse, and then rewrote it as an indictment of the Bush Administration's response to Hurricane Katrina. One of Springsteen's most powerful protest songs, it burned with an anger and resentment that made it one of his greatest songs ever. If there was a better protest song written and released in the wake of Katrina, I don't know what it is.
4. "Long Time Comin'" (Devils & Dust, 2005)

Debuted live in 1996, but released in 2005, "Long Time Comin'," with its pedal steel, and the swing of Steve Jordan on drums, hit the mark perfectly in the studio - the beauty of the arrangement matching the hard earned contentment of the lyrics.

5. "O Mary Don't You Weep" (We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, 2006)

I was hooked on this from the moment I heard it in the spring of 2006, and the natural joy of it never ceased to thrill me after dozens and dozens of listens. Unlike the Brendan O'Brien produced material of the decade, The Seeger Sessions was recorded live and had an ease about it that hearkened back to The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. Bruce's mastery of soul and gospel shone through abundantly on this, and it makes me long even harder for a whole album of soul style originals.

6. "My City Of Ruins" (The Rising, 2002, debuted live 12/17/00)

From the moment it debuted at Springsteen's Christmas shows with the Max Weinberg 7 in Asbury Park in December of 2000, it was recognized on first listen as a special song. The Asbury crowd, despite never hearing the song before, had their fists in the air by the second chorus, singing "Rise up!" along with Bruce.

After 9/11, it was obvious that the song, despite being written for and about Asbury Park, fit the aftermath of the horror perfectly. So Springsteen opened with the 9/11 telethon with a smart and hymn-like version of it, led with acoustic guitar.

On The Rising, Springsteen found the perfect arrangement for it, with Max Weinberg's drums, sounding more modern in feel and tone than he ever had, leading the way. And anyone who has ever lost someone can relate to the final question Bruce asks, "How do I begin again?"

7. "The Rising" (The Rising, 2002)

Think about the subject matter of "The Rising" for a second, and then think about how utterly disastrous it could have been: A firefighter is called to duty, ascends into the darkness and then ultimately, his death, and then speaks to his beloved from beyond. What other rocker could write about that, and then write about it as movingly and effectively, without pathos, as Springsteen did?

On record, Springsteen found the perfect balance between the somber and the exultant - live with the E Street Band, played in a higher key, the song eventually became anthemic overkill. But Springsteen found another home for it on acoustic guitar, playing versions of it on 2005's Devils & Dust tour that were heartbreaking, and made it clear that it's one of his greatest songs.

8. "Reno" (2005, Devils & Dust)

A song that was an instant "love it or hate it" proposition for many Springsteen fans, with the majority winding up in the latter camp, "Reno" is one of Bruce's saddest songs, a song about a man debasing himself, fantasizing about his lost love while with a prostitute. On record, Springsteen missed the mark on it, but live, he found the true power of the song, turning it into something like a Hemingway short story set to music.

9. "Maria's Bed" (Devils & Dust, 2005)

Bruce introduced "Maria's Bed" in Cleveland in 2005 by saying it was about "the ecstasies of love, the pleasures of passion," and you could taste both the ecstasy and the pleasure in every note. Whether on Devils & Dust or live, the song was a moment on the peak, before the inevitable descent into the valley.

10. "You're Missing" (The Rising, 2002)

A song about the incomprehensibility of sudden death - how the mind struggles to understand loss when the physical evidence of a departed loved one's presence is still around. The genius of this song was in the details - the shirt hanging in the closet, the children asking if their parent will be back - and then an organ coda by Danny Federici that put in whatever the lyrics might have left out.

11. "Livin' In The Future" (Magic, 2007)

A rarity in Springsteen's career - a brilliant studio track that almost completely missed the mark live. On the album, it swung, and Springsteen's harmony vocals, doubled against each other along with Steve and Patti, provided moments of pure bliss for a lyric that was filled with dread for a second George W. term. Simultaneously the sound of the old Asbury boardwalk and something new, mainly due to the primacy of the guitars, this is one criminally underrated song.

12. "Eyes On The Prize" (We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, 2006)

Bruce take the old spiritual and does the almost impossible - he makes it sound like he wrote it. Maybe that's because there's not much spiritual difference between "it's a town full of losers/and I'm pulling out of here to win" and "keep your eyes on the prize, hold on."

The vitality of the recording - from Soozie Tyrell's fiddle to the New Orleans feel of the horns - it astounding, a river that knows exactly where it's flowing. When Bruce cues the horns for their second solo by commanding, "Horns Go!" it's a little piece of Springsteen heaven. Hold on.

13. "You'll Be Coming Down" (Magic, 2007)

Lyrically, it's a sort of weird song, seemingly a message to a beautiful young woman, someone like Lindsay Lohan, warning her of being ground down and used up. Nothing particularly profound, but the song sounds so goddamned good that it doesn't matter. He should have played this one live a whole lot more.

14. "Empty Sky" (The Rising, 2002)

From the moment I heard its opening drum loop, I knew that Bruce made the right decision to work with Brendan O'Brien. O'Brien brought an unmistakably modern feel to the E Street Band, while still having it sound like the E Street Band. The sound of the acoustic 12-string; the natural sounding crack of Max Weinberg's drums, the perfect placement of Roy Bittan's piano in the chorus - the whole arrangement worked in a new way for Springsteen.

Filled with grief, rage and confusion, "Empty Sky" may be about the aftermath of 9/11, but it's also beyond the event, which is why the song will continue to resonate powerfully in the coming years.

15. "Leah" (Devils & Dust, 2005)

"With this hand I build/and with this I burn." In that lyric in "Leah," Springsteen posits that we, and we alone, are the genesis of both our salvation and destruction. How to avoid the destruction? Love. And you gotta work at it.

The impossibly beautiful arrangement embodies the lyric perfectly, and when a mariachi trumpet blows, it's enough to make you want cry. Had Devils & Dust had 11 songs all this good, instead of about five, it would be one of Springsteen's greatest albums.

16. "The Last Carnival" (Working On A Dream, 2009)

A tribute to E Street organist Danny Federici worthy of their 40 years together, that encapsulated the sadness of his death; the acknowledgment that the band was going to keep going on without him; and lastly, the fact that Danny made Bruce utterly crazy at times. And with a beautiful and ethereal vocal coda, it felt as though the band was trying to be with Danny one last time.

17. "All I'm Thinkin' About" (Devils & Dust, 2005)

Bruce showing off the falsetto that he developed in the mid-90's for a joyous little love song with some great steel guitar. It's one of those Springsteen songs that can slip by unnoticed, but when you dig in, you get its greatness.

18. "Let's Be Friends (Skin To Skin)" (The Rising, 2002)

This is the song that should have been the second single off of The Rising. With a great groove, gorgeous background singing and an instantly rewarding chorus, the song had me at hello, but alienated a lot of Springsteen fans for whatever reason. The song was probably a little too black for them.

19. "Code Of Silence" (The Essential Bruce Springsteen, 2003)

June 12, 2000 at Madison Square Garden was the only time I've ever been scared at a Bruce Springsteen concert. The first concert of 10 as the controversy around "American Skin (41 Shots)" became incendiary, with Fraternal Order of Police head Bob Lucente calling Springsteen a "dirtbag" and "floating fag." There were a lot of off duty cops there that night, and most of them seemed, especially the ones in the row in front of me, were drunk and pissed off.

So to start the stand, he opened with this song, a great rocker about a breakdown in communication that creates suspicion and distrust. This was his statement, and it was a great one, for all 10 nights.

As far as the cops went, they booed during all of "American Skin," and then they sang along with "The Promised Land." Then, when Bruce did an incredible acoustic version of "Born In The U.S.A.," one of them shouted, "You have no right to sing this song anymore." Three songs later, he was passed out, drunk.

20. "Long Walk Home" (Magic, 2007)

Disillusionment and the realization that in the Bush Administration we veered so far off the path of what this country is supposed to be about, that we may never get back.

21. "All The Way Home" (Devils & Dust, 2005)

Written for Southside Johnny in 1991, Bruce changed the arrangement completely, speeding it up, making it far less reflective, effectively turning it from a Sinatra-esque torch song into a cool country end-of-the-night come on. Worked for me.

22. "Devil's Arcade" (Magic, 2007)

Love, sex, death, destruction, a killer arrangement and a dramatic high point of Magic.

23. "This Life" (Working On A Dream, 2009)

A gem of a song that should have gotten a lot more attention, mainly from Bruce, who played it barely at all on the Working On A Dream tour.

24. "Gypsy Biker" (Magic, 2007)

An odd song in a way - it's characters seeming more like Vietnam Vets than veterans of Iraq, "Gypsy Biker" burned with some great lead guitar and one absolutely killer line: "To the dead it don't matter much/about who's wrong or right."

25. "American Skin (41 Shots)" (Live In New York City, 2001)

It's too long, and it's lacking a killer melody, but the power of it is undeniable, especially considering the ruckus it caused. It was never a diatribe against the police; after all, the person praying for the victim's life in the first verse is a cop who knows what a deadly error he's made.

Rather, it's a lament about an America where we've been taught to fear the other, and what happens in that climate. The fact that it's another song about the lack of communication made the controversy about it even more fitting - everyone who criticized it had absolutely no idea what the song was about.

Best Springsteen albums of the 2000's in order:

1. Magic
2. The Rising
3. Devils & Dust
4. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
5. Working On A Dream.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Deeper Shade Of Soul: Top 40 Songs of 2009

Compiling this year’s Top 40 was much harder for me than last year. Is that due to a lack of worthy material? I tend to doubt it – but it sure felt like it. I spent a lot of time listening to new music and feeling very uninspired by a lot of it. That makes me start to think that I'm getting old, or not getting what's going on. But I have a feeling that songcraft has become a lost art - or maybe it's just obscured by the glut of mediocre crap that's out there. There may be marginally more needles out there, but the haystack has gotten a hell of a lot bigger.

And with that negativity out of the way, I'm more convinced than ever that all it takes is one - artist, song, album, or innovation to change the game anew. Nothing just is, and while it seems as though, in John Lennon's words from forty years ago, "everybody had a hard year," anything really is possible.

Have an amazing holiday, a tremendous New Year, and let's make next year and the next decade a great and soulful one.

1. Jay-Z with Alicia Keys – “Empire State Of Mind”

The exception that proved the rule to the new music business, the song of the year proved that it’s still possible to get a fragmented audience to agree on something as long as you bring the goods. While the Blueprint 3 may have been inconsistent, this track was indelible, unforgettable and undeniable, and backed up Jigga’s boasts to the hilt. The new Sinatra, indeed.

2. Peaches – “Talk To Me”

What I’ve always loved about Peaches is her commitment to making people uncomfortable and shattering their complacency. “Talk To Me” is the sound of her hand reaching through the speakers, grabbing her lover by the collar and shaking them until they get their head out of their ass – simultaneously scary and very sexy.

3. Florence & The Machine – “Kiss With A Fist”

The best song from one of the best albums of the year. “Soul-inspired indie rock” was what I read about this, and damn if this song didn’t back up the claim. And like the best soul singles, Florence Welch makes her point in a little bit over two minutes. AND she did a Candi Staton cover (“You’ve Got The Love”). I’m in.

4. U2 – “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”

No Line On The Horizon didn’t do much for me, and I’ve come to think that they’re the most overrated band of their generation. But this song reminds me why I once loved them – Bono’s phrasing in the chorus is like an eagle in flight, and while I’ve heard that Edge guitar part in a zillion different variations, criticizing him for it would be like giving Keith Richards shit for playing variations of the same riff for 45 years.

5. Tegan & Sarah – “The Cure”

I’m still waiting for them to make a masterpiece, which Sainthood most definitely is not. But “The Cure” is more than enough to keep me intrigued. Filled with compassion, caring and sex, the track is such an irresistible invitation/come on, it’s easy to imagine Prince covering it.

6. Me’Shell NdegeOcello – “Mass Transit”

Dislocation, isolation and the simplest and perhaps most profound truth of the year: “At the end of the day, nobody wants to be alone.” Twitchy and discomforting, it sounds as though it was written for Kid A. After almost fifteen years, she’s doing her best work.

7. Lily Allen – “The Fear”

The great smart-ass provides a superb critique of the failures of material goods to fulfill, without denying the power of its pleasures. It’s Not Me It’s You was inconsistent, but not only does she have greatness within her, consider that she’s already great - and has a lot more growing up to do.

8. Passion Pit – “Little Secrets”

In an alternate universe, this was a #1 single and its “higher & higher” chorus was played during basketball and hockey games across the country. In this universe, a bunch of hipsters liked it a lot.

9. Dirty Projectors – “Temecula Sunrise”

Avant-Garde pop is what this is supposed to be, and they found enough balance between the two to keep me happy. Pretention is this band’s mortal enemy and natural habitat, but if they sprinkle the incandescence of this track in enough of their other work, they’ll be fine.

10. Franz Ferdinand – “No You Girls”

A great piece of modern dance-rock that’s testament to the eternal power of beautiful women.

11. Bruce Springsteen – “The Last Carnival”

There’s no way to look at Working On A Dream as anything other than a misfire, the main proof of which is that Springsteen barely played the thing live. But this tribute to E Street organist Danny Federici is a poignant gem; weighted with 40 years of friendship, love, and the miraculous, where even death does not do them part.

12. Dave Sitek – “With A Girl Like You”

The TV On The Radio maestro does a cover of the Troggs song from 1966 for the Dark Was The Night compilation and brings a haunted obsessiveness to the proceedings. Extra credit for a fine use of horns.

13. Phoenix – “1901”

It just sounds good. Sometimes it doesn't have to be deep.

14. Florence & The Machine – “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)”

She gets compared to Kate Bush and Bjork, but Florence Welch is more soulful than either, and her real antecedent is Marianne Faithful – ethereal and angelic, but firmly grounded in the real world and its irresolvable contradictions.

15. Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens – “What Have You Done”

A Daptoned piece of retro soul, the track transcends its slavish devotion to sonic authenticity because of Shelton’s piercing growl and some sublime backing vocals.

16. Madeline Peyroux – “I Must Be Saved”

The pleasures of Peyroux’s Bare Bones are subtle, but infinitely rewarding, much like this track. Peyroux sings with restraint, subtlety, warmth and wit – traits that couldn’t be more out of fashion in today’s pop mainstream.

17. Animal Collective – “My Girls”

I listened to Merriweather Post Pavilion ten to fifteen times, liked it enough, but it didn’t really speak to me. “My Girls” does. The fact that it has got some killer hooks going help immeasurably. Yeah, the lyrics are probably a tad too oblique, but they’re geeks, so have some sympathy and forgive them their cleverness – they’d be lost without it.

18. Elvis Costello – “My All Time Doll”

The old misanthrope (not really) reaches back and writes a song worthy of his glory days, filled with piss, vinegar, resentment and an arrangement befitting his station in life.

19. Justin Townes Earle – “What I Mean To You”

I never got a chance to go to Bakersfield, California in the late 1940’s and slow dance and fall in love with a beautiful red-lipsticked girl with auburn hair wearing a clingy dress that was soft to the touch. But if I had, this is the music I would have liked to have done it to.

20. Them Crooked Vultures – “No One Loves Me & Neither Do I”

In a rock environment where it’s natural to wonder where everyone’s balls have gone, this is a welcome reprieve, even if the songs aren’t all that. But the riffage in this song makes concerns about songcraft seem like a mere trifle, at least for a moment.

21. Passion Pit – “The Reeling”

I didn’t get to experience this song in its natural habitat – the dance floor. But this song is great enough that it makes me wish I had. God loves well-placed hi-hat kicks – even if it’s in dance music for hipsters.

22. Bob Dylan – “If You Ever Go To Houston”

In an America of the (not so) creeping corporate takeover, Mr. Zimmerman, more than any major performer of the past decade, seems intent on preserving the musical heritage of post-war U.S. prior to the Interstate Highway System. If he retires to somewhere in rural Mexico to play accordion in a Mariachi band for German tourists, I won’t be surprised.

23. Bruce Springsteen – “This Life”

Bruce gets in touch with the white pop/rock of his youth, and with a bass line right out of Pet Sounds, he makes a shimmering ode to late middle age contentment, with an implicit acknowledgment through the whole thing that the end isn’t that far off.

24. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Heads Will Roll”

I still couldn’t care less about them, but for one song at least, they got me.

25. Miranda Lambert – “Only Prettier”

Pedal steel and a smart and pretty (in that order) girl that don’t take shit. AND a sense of humor. I don't need much more that that.

26. Allen Toussaint – “West End Blues”

The great producer, songwriter, arranger, gentleman and ambassador of New Orleans music makes Louis Armstrong very, very proud.

27. Manchester Orchestra – “I’ve Got Friends”

I got heavily hyped on this one and didn’t really get it, except for this song. A good chorus goes a long way. Remember that.

28. A.C. Newman – “Like A Hitman, Like A Dancer”

I haven’t paid much attention to Newman’s music since the New Pornographers 2001 album, Mass Romantic, finding it increasingly dull. But with an acoustic riff akin to a matador fending off a bull, this track got me re-interested in Newman’s work, at least for the duration of the song’s three and a half minutes.

29. Beirut – “La Llorona”

I have nothing clever to say about this one – I just find it beautiful.

30. Monsters Of Folk – “Ahead Of The Curve”

Conor Oberst sings without even sounding remotely whiny, and sounding reminiscent of “The Weight,” he sounds more his own man as part of a band than he ever has on his own.

31. Lady GaGa – “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich”

I have a feeling that her shallowness is a sham – but it works for her. Impenetrable in a way Madonna never was, what she has in common with Madge is a killer work ethic. Andy Warhol would have loved her.

32. Florence & The Machine – “You’ve Got The Love”

They make a lost Candi Staton song grand, orchestral and majestic. They’re easily the rookies of the year, no doubt about it.

33. Built To Spill – “Good Ol’ Boredom”

Quietly one of the best American bands for the past 15+ years, Doug Martch’s voice is a tried and true indie commodity, and he sounds like he hasn’t aged a day. They just do what they do, and do it really well.

34. The Flaming Lips – “Evil”

I prefer less their more song-based albums like The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, but I found this track hypnotic and moody enough to go back to for repeated listening.

35. The xx – “Islands”

Slinky and seductive, this new British band has been the recipient of some strong buzz courtesy of Pitchfork and a host of others. “Islands” captures the magic of falling hard and the magical time when the world seems to end at the edge of the bed you’re sharing with the new object of your desire.

36. M. Ward – “Never Had Nobody Like You”

A song that could have been recorded in 1957, which is about the biggest compliment I can give it. Except perhaps that Carl Perkins would have sounded great doing it. Maybe Dion should cover it.

37. Wilco – “You And I”

I still find them dull overall, and seeing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (zzzzzzzz) on so many “Best Album Of The Decade” lists annoyed me. But amidst another album I found rather boring, the simple charm of this one broke through to me.

38. The Doves – “Kingdom Of Rust”

Ok, so Kingdom Of Rust is not The Last Broadcast, but I’ll take it. They make somewhat inscrutable music, often more vibe than song, but the orchestral grandeur of this song worked beautifully.

39. Mary J. Blige – “Said and Done”

Listening to Stronger With Each Tear, it’s clear that Mary has been making the same album since 2001’s No More Drama; breakup songs, inspirational songs, self-affirmations, suffering-in-love songs, etc. Here, she teeters back and forth on the line of cliché, but the pre-chorus works so well that I couldn’t care less.

40. Alice Russell – “Hurry On Now”

A re-worked version of a great single she released in 2007, it doesn’t make it any less of a wonderful song. Pot Of Gold was a major disappointment for me, but with quality material, she’s still a singer to pay attention to. Someone get her some good songs, please.