10. Steve Goodman – “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request”
Like the Cubs’ century without a World Series title isn’t depressing enough, Goodman’s tale of a fan who spent a long life root- root- rooting for the “doormat of the National League” might bring a tear to your eye—until you guffaw at some of his last words: “I’ve got season’s tickets to watch the Angels now…but you, the living, you’re stuck here with the Cubs/So it’s me who feels sorry for you.”
09. Rhett Miller – “The El”
It wouldn’t be a Chicago playlist without a song about “rattling along on the El,” that institution of Chicago mass transit. This catchy pop tune is from the Old 97′s frontman’s solo debut The Instigator
08. Paper Lace – “The Night Chicago Died”
If this song isn’t on your iPod, it’s on your list of go-to karaoke songs. Whether you sing the actual chorus recorded by these two-hit wonders or the version Jack Black sang in High Fidelity is up to you. Gloooooory be!
07. Sufjan Stevens – “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!“
We’d be remiss if we didn’t include a song from Stevens’ 2005 tour de force Illinois. This nearly seven minute opus has two parts: the first about the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and its myriad attractions (the world’s first Ferris Wheel, the White City are two that feature prominently in Stevens’ lyrics), the second about author/poet Carl Sandburg, who, of course, wrote the poem “Chicago.”
06. Kanye West feat. Chris Martin – “Homecoming“
West—joined by piano and vocals from Coldplay’s Chris Martin—raps a love letter to his hometown, which he imagines as a girl named “Wendy” in a clever take on Chicago’s “Windy City” moniker.
05. Graham Nash – “Chicago“
Nash scored a Top 40 hit in ’71 with this song, which was inspired by the riots in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and subsequent trial of the Chicago Eight.
04. Bessie Smith – “Chicago Bound Blues“
Several have recorded this song, but nobody sounds quite like Bessie when she wails “Blues on my brain/My tongue refused to talk.” Luckily said tongue was okay with singing—they don’t call her “Empress of the Blues” for nothing.
03. Elvis Presley – “In the Ghetto“
This depressing tale of urban poverty and violence, released in 1969, was Elvis’ first U.S. Top 10 hit in four years. Since then it’s been recorded by Dolly Parton, Nick Cave, and several other artists.
02. Frank Sinatra – “Chicago“
Fred Fisher penned this tune about the toddlin’ town that evangelist and Prohibition advocate Billy Sunday could not shut down. Too bad Ol’ Blue Eyes is no longer around for us to take him up on his offer to “show [us] around.” That sounds like the definition of a good time.
01. Robert Johnson – “Sweet Home Chicago“
I have no idea if the Delta Blues legend actually visited Chicago before his death at age 27. But this recording is one of the most important songs in the last century of American music.
10 Songs About Winter
Sure, there are plenty of songs about winter. Between those seasonally inescapable Christmas carols and the preponderance of “Let It Snow”-type chilly charmers, there’s no shortage of odes to the supposed magic and mystery of the winter season.
But they don’t really capture the spirit of winter, do they? Jack Frost doesn’t concern himself with the oppressive sleet, harsh winds, and insidious black ice of the winter we have to live through each year.
Here then are ten songs to play while you’re waiting at the bus stop, trying to keep snow off your laptop case and wondering why you didn’t just move to Florida like your grandma said you should.
10. Sally Shapiro – “Anorak Christmas”
Finally, a wintry song you can dance to. Actually, just pick up the 2007 album from which this track comes, entitled Disco Romance. Before long you’ll be belting out Sally Shapiro songs in the long, hot showers you take after spending the morning shoveling show off your driveway.
09. The Emeralds – “Double Helix”
Beneath the cold, electronic surface of this song beats a pensive heart with an unabashed love for all things ambient and experimental.
08. Radiohead – “Kid A”
Have you heard of this band? They’re from England and they make super-cool rock music equal parts guitar-based and synth-driven. The title track from their seminal 2000 album is eerie, sad, and heartbreaking, like a child’s tricycle half-buried in the slushy snow covering your neighbor’s front lawn. Heads on sticks sold separately.
07. Grouper – “Wind And Snow”
Grouper makes hazy, reverbed, ethereal folk-pop music. Imagine if you downed a bottle of cough syrup and listened to the Cocteau Twins (please don’t actually do this).
06. The Shins – “Young Pilgrims”
God, I played the hell out of Chutes Too Narrow back in high school. Join James Mercer and “Watch the ice melt on the glass” while you listen to the sister song to their classic “New Slang.” I kind of like this one better, actually—but maybe that’s because Garden State didn’t ruin it for me.
05. Au Revoir Simone – “Another Likely Story”
This shimmering mid-tempo ballad from these Brooklyn-based synthesizing ladies is the first track off their 2009 album Still Night, Still Light. It’s gorgeous, as is the entire album. You might start crying when you listen to this song, but you’ll also want to hear it again and again. Oh, beautiful pain.
04. Beach House – “I Do Not Care For The Winter Sun”
Okay, so this song is indeed about winter, but this mp3–released as a gift to their fans–follows the undeniably excellent Teen Dream and deserves mention here for that fact alone.
03. Sun Airway – “Infinity”
These Philadelphia-based psychedelic dream-poppers released their debut LP, Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier, in October of last year, but the album’s just gotten a UK release—and it provides the perfect soundtrack for checking your local public access channel to see if you have a snow day.
02. The Knife – “From Off to On”
Shed your gay apparel and brood to this icy meditation from the Swedish pop duo’s critically acclaimed 2006 album Silent Shout.
01. Biosphere – “Poa Alpina”
If there’s one thing they know about in Norway, it’s the cold. But as Geir Jenssen proves, the Norwegians also have a firm grip on the delicate art of abstract ambient music. His seminal 1997 album Substrata not only sounds like the whiteout conditions of the worst Scandinavian blizzards, but more impressively, it makes them sound tender, engrossing and weirdly beautiful.
Top 10 Country Music Albums of 2010
If your musical tastes are anything like mine, you’ll remember 2010 as one of the worst years for country music in a very long time. Mainstream country was almost unbearable, and some of the year’s most promising Americana releases (Ryan Bingham, Robert Plant) were lackluster affairs that failed to live up to their predecessors.
But, for every Colt Ford there’s a Jamey Johnson, and for every Danny Gokey there’s a Gary Allan. And just like every year, a handful of talented artists stepped up and delivered albums full of inspired music. Here’s a list of the ten best albums of the year.
#10. Darrell Scott – A Crooked Road
Songwriter Darrell Scott, who has penned such hits as Sara Evans’ “Born to Fly” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Long Time Gone” (as well as the modern roots staple “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”) followed up his critically acclaimed 2008 album Modern Hymns with a collection that’s every bit a worthy successor. A Crooked Road is a dense (20 songs over two discs), emotionally complex album on which Scott compliments introspective ballads with tracks that feature flourishes of bluegrass instrumentation. His songwriting shines especially brightly on the uncomfortably honest “The Day Before Thanksgiving,” a song perfectly suited to a year (2010) characterized by economic stagnation and political frustration. “It’s the day before Thanksgiving I’m not feeling much of thanks,” he sings. “Just a low-grade desperation that leaves me reeling in the ranks.” Elsewhere, “Snow Queen and Drama Llama” employs grungy electric guitars and gives the collection a shot of adrenaline. The songs are good, but Scott’s sense of musicality and pacing makes this lengthy playlist an essential album.
#9. Rose’s Pawn Shop – Dancing on the Gallows
Indie country (especially that of the self-released variety) is typically—how should I say this—terrible. And when I write “terrible,” I don’t mean merely mediocre—I mean “undeniably terrible by any set of reasonable stands.” So, I was simply blown away when I first listened to the sophomore effort from Los Angeles outfit Rose’s Pawn Shop this summer. Dancing on the Gallows features genuinely interesting songwriting, and the record sounds great from a production standpoint. What really makes this album so compelling, however, is the way it successfully blends sounds and styles together into something that’s actually unique and progressive. Rose’s Pawn Shop brings together subtle rockabilly rhythms with Celtic flare, occasional bluegrass flavor and even a spattering of Texas honky tonk, and the result is a sound that really can’t be described in terms of anything else. It’s unique, and worthwhile. If you overlooked Dancing on the Gallows(and it’s likely that you did), rectify that mistake as soon as possible.
#8. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions
Ghost Train plays like a history lesson taught by a master professor, as Stuart—one of country music’s eminent historians—meticulously constructs new compositions that sound like classics. Like a history lesson, the content can be dry and tedious—especially for the casual observer. Ghost Train is only concerned with breathing life into old things, and the result is a record that’s incomparably accurate but not especially valuable to listeners who don’t already possess a great interest in the types of songs presented. Still, it’s difficult to understate Ghost Train’s excellence. Stuart executes his vision of traditional country music to perfection and underscores it with astonishingly crisp production. The Johnny Cash co-write “Hangman” is essential listening.
#7. The SteelDrivers – Reckless
Reckless, The SteelDrivers’ sophomore album, was released five months after lead singer Chris Stapleton announced that he was leaving the fast-rising bluegrass band. That fact zapped some of the energy from the lead-up to its release, and shifted media focus away from the music and onto the switch at vocalist. That is undoubtedly one of the year’s greatest injustices, because Reckless is every bit as good (if not better) than its predecessor. Stapleton sings his bluegrass like he’s a rockstar, driving powerfully through a series of impeccably written songs that sound progressive (even when they stick to traditional themes) and founder Mike Henderson inventively adds slide guitar throughout.
#6. Taylor Swift – Speak Now
The most courageous release of 2010, a brave Taylor Swift poured herself into 14 songs and turned them over to the world. Any observer who has been paying attention over the last five years already knew that Swift is a deft songwriter who understands how to take the personal and make it universal. But what’s most striking about Speak Now is the way she takes what’s personal and keeps it personal. Songs like “Mean,” “Back to December” and “Dear John” are not just epistolary works of fiction that draw from her experiences; they’re secrets culled from a deeply personal place, and they show weakness, and flaw, and failure. There are few artists—young or old, country or pop—who have the courage to wear those things on their sleeve. If Speak Now doesn’t prove that Swift is the real deal, I don’t know what will.
#5. Kasey Chambers – Little Bird
Long one of country music’s (and/or Americana music’s) most under-appreciated artists, Australian singer/songwriter Kasey Chambers finally “broke out” in 2008, thanks to the masterful roots album Rattlin’ Bones (which she recorded with her husband Shane Nicholson). The follow-up to that record is Little Bird, which was only released in Oz. It’s a logical successor; the album is full of what music critic Juli Thanki described as “rootsy pop-rock with sharp lyrics and oodles of hooky melodies.” In addition to those hooky melodies, you’ll find songs like “Somewhere,” a mournful ballad which proves that few modern singers do heartbreak and sadness as well as Chambers.
#4. Gary Allan – Get Off on the Pain
With Get Off on the Pain, Gary Allan reminded us that mainstream country music can be made for adults, too. Of course, lines like “Sometimes I think I get off on the pain,” “Come on over, kick me to the ground and kiss me when I’m down” and “Hurry home lover, I’m wearing nothing but a smile” doomed the record at country radio, but that lack of airplay doesn’t detract from Allan’s accomplishment. This is a gritty, sexy record full of great songs that Allan sings with passion. It’s cool to hate doesn’t mainstream country these days, but don’t overlook a gem just because it has a bit of polish.
#3. Elizabeth Cook – Welder
Cook came into her own with Welder, her most balanced and powerful record yet. The album soars high on the spunk of opener “All The Time,” the sex of “El Camino” and the sass of “Yes To Booty,” but it’s a pair of deeply personal ballads (“Heroin Addict Sister” and “Mama’s Funeral”) that gives the album its soul.
#2. Peter Cooper – The Lloyd Green Album
Peter Cooper is best known as the country music reporter for Nashville’s daily newspaper The Tennessean, but he’s also a gifted songwriter with a quirky sense of humor and a keen eye for detail. For the follow-up to his acclaimed 2008 album Mission Door, Cooper enlisted the services of legendary steel guitar player Lloyd Green, who lends his masterful musianship to each of the album’s 12 tracks, including a sterling cover of Tom T. Hall’s “Mama, Bake a Pie,” on which the instrumentalist’s mournful licks brilliantly compliment Cooper’s delivery of the ballad. The album’s highlight, however, is “Elmer, The Dancer,” which intricately tells the story of a quiet, snowy night in a South Milwaukee polka bar. It’s a character piece, but if there’s a better rumination on the death of America’s rust belt I have yet to hear it.
#1. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song
The Guitar Song isn’t a perfect record. It’s long, slow and unwieldy, like the unedited version of a manuscript that contains a few too many of the author’s tangents, subplots and indulgences. But, as an artistic achievement, the record is simply monumental. The Guitar Song is 105 minutes of unbridled country music delivered by one of the genre’s most enigmatic figures. Yes, a concentrated, 15-song version of this 25-song double disc would have packed a more focused musical punch, but this bulging tome provides a rare look into the psyche of a unique artist who was given space to create without restriction.
10 Songs About Actors and Actresses
These ten songs about actors and actresses are all OSCAR-worthy performances.
10. Rain Perry – “Keanuville”
You really have to love Keanu Reeves to attend thirteen Dogstar shows and see him in Hamlet twice. (For those who haven’t seen or read Hamlet at all, Perry helpfully provides a tongue-in-cheek spoiler: “the ending is really sad.”)
09. Elton John – “Roy Rogers“
We’re a little (okay, a lot) sick of “Candle in the Wind,” so here’s a song about another actor. When “you just seem older than yesterday/And you’re waiting for tomorrow to call,” you might as well live vicariously through the televised adventures of Roy and his trusty horse, Trigger.
08. Bree Sharp – “David Duchovny“
Unrequited love should always be as catchy as this pop song about “the man, the myth, the monotone” behind Fox Mulder.
07. Robbie Fulks – “Jean Arthur“
Fulks is alt-country’s resident smartass, but he’s sincere when he sings that “any woman God’s made yet/Stands like a rough draft” next to legendary actress Jean Arthur (You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).
06. Bauhaus – “Bela Lugosi’s Dead“
Bauhaus’ debut single clocks in at nearly ten minutes, which is about one-eighth the length of the horror actor’s most famous film: Dracula.
05. Cake – “Frank Sinatra“
This song, with its image of an old man listening to a skipping record of “Stormy Weather” while surrounded by the things “others throw away,” is mighty depressing; it also happens to be one of the band’s best singles. Not content to merely sing about a Sinatra record, Cake covered “Strangers in the Night” for the soundtrack of videogame Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse
04. Eagles – “James Dean“
No song will ever be able to perfectly describe the king of cool, but this one comes pretty close. Too fast to live, too young to die , indeed.
03. Johnny Cash – “Who’s Gene Autry”
Cash counted Autry, whose signature adorned one of his guitars, as one of his heroes. This song is a loving tribute to The Singing Cowboy, “an image of justice and goodness and purity” who made the world look a little brighter to a poor country boy.
02. R.E.M. – “Man on the Moon“
This song about Andy Kaufman from Automatic for the People is far better than the Jim Carrey film of the same name.
01. The Clash – “The Right Profile“
Here’s a gem from London Calling about “Montgomery Clift, honey:”the handsome and troubled movie star whose 1956 car accident caused severe facial injuries, forever changing his appearance.
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