Everything But the Girl: Origins of a Love Affair

Sometimes I think love is so elusive because it comes to you in unusual ways and often when you least expect it. Such is the case for my now nearly 40-year love affair with the sound of U.K. band Everything But the Girl. These days Tracey Thorn’s voice is as familiar to me as my own, though nobody should ever be forced to hear me sing.

It was the early 1980s and I was studying journalism at San Jose State University and working nights at a record store. One of the perks of the job was that we were allowed to take home any record in the store under the guise of “research” to be a more informed clerk. We could have any five records checked out at any given time, and the store manager would return the used vinyl to the manufacturer as defective. One day I was sorting the bins and I ran across an album cover that caught my eye.

I’d never heard of the band, but the two kids peeing in the puddle made me laugh and since it cost me nothing to give it a spin I took it home. The moment I heard the first few notes of the first track I felt that unmistakable twinge of familiarity — I knew this woman’s voice. I racked my brain for a while, and then it hit me. The voice on this album was the same voice that sings lead on The Paris Match from the Style Council’s 1984 debut record Cafe Blue.

I’d been a longtime fan of Paul Weller from his days in The Jam and when he joined forces with Mick Talbot of Dexy’s Midnight Runners to form the Style Council I was hooked. The Style Council was a huge departure from The Jam’s punk sound. Instead, it was soul-infused pop. But The Paris Match was different even from the rest of Cafe Blue. It was a torch song that could have been written and performed in the 1940s, and the sultry voice on lead vocals was haunting. But apparently not haunting enough for me to check out the liner notes on Cafe Blue to learn that the singer was Tracey Thorn, and even if I had I had no idea who Tracey Thorn was…until the moment I put Everything But the Girl onto my turntable and touched the needle down.

Love Not Money turned out to be the second studio album by British band Everything But The Girl, a duo made up of friends and sometimes lovers Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt. The pair met as students at the University of Hull and by 1984 had recorded and released their first record, Eden. Thorn had previously been a member of a band called Marine Girls, but she and Ben were destined to be together. Eden sparked a minor hit with the song Each and Every One, gained critical acclaim, and obviously caught the ear of Paul Weller which ultimately led her to feature on Cafe Blue.

I played Love Not Money over and over, and even found a promotional poster at work that ended up on my dorm room wall. The band wasn’t getting played on radio stations in the U.S., though it likely got some play on college radio. In fact, the band never built any momentum in the U.S. despite its popularity in England until 1994 and that was unintentional (more on that in a bit).

Over the succeeding years, my appreciation for the band grew even as Tracey and Ben morphed the band’s sound. In 1986 the pair released their third album, Baby, The Stars Shine Bright and it opened my ears for the first time to what I naively call mid-century country. The album consisted of ballads and torch songs backed by lush horn and string sections. It was unlike anything I’d ever listened to before and I honestly think it opened my mind for the first time to country-like music. I’m not saying I ran out and bought a Patsy Cline record, but it did lead me to artists I still love today like k.d. lang and Lyle Lovett. Baby, The Stars Shine Bright was a gateway drug to alt-country.

The band followed that album up with 1988’s Idlewild which is my favorite EBTG album. For my money it’s a damn near perfect album with spectacular songs from start to finish, including my all-time favorite song by the band, I Always Was Your Girl. Idlewild peaked at #14 on the U.K. charts but the band remained unknown in the U.S. Still, at least one song off the record turned some ears as Apron Strings was featured in the film She’s Having A Baby starring Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern.

1990 brought another new record, The Language of Life. This album marked a bit of a turning point again for EBTG as it was the band’s most highly produced record to date as Tracey and Ben brought in Grammy award-winning music producer Tommy LiPuma to give the record a polished feel versus the smoke-filled small club feel of the band’s earlier records. LiPuma worked with a lot of mature-sounding artists like Al Jarreau, Anita Baker, George Benson, and Barbra Streisand. The result was a gorgeous pop album with songs designed to be hit singles like Driving, Me and Bobby D, and Imaging America. The album featured a sensational list of guest artists like Kirk Whalum on sax, Russell Ferrante on piano, Omar Hakim on drums as well as Stan Getz, Joe Sample, Michael Brecker, and more. Still, American success did not come despite the band’s growing success and influence in Europe. The album went gold in the U.K. and reached the top 10 on the U.K. album charts.

It was around this time I got my first taste of EBTG in concert. The band toured America promoting The Language of Life and I saw them at The Warfield Theater in San Francisco. It’s a day I’ll never forget because the theater was open seating so my girlfriend and I decided to camp out all day in line to be among the first fans let in. When we arrived in the city we took our seats on the sidewalk in front of the theater as the first two people in line. By midday, hundreds of EBTG fans lined up behind us. We ended up in the front row for the concert and seeing Tracey and Ben live was a treat I’ll never forget. But I’ll also not forget what took place on the street and sidewalk in front of the Warfield that day. It turns out the city’s famous gay and lesbian pride parade was on the same day. As we sat on the sidewalk we watched the whole parade go by, from the Dykes on Bikes to topless trans men showcasing their buxom boobs to full-on half-naked makeout sessions right in front of us. But the thing I remember most is that more than once a gay man or couple stopped in front of the Warfield to see what we were up to, looked up at the marquee that read Tonight Only: Everything But The Girl, nodded, and said yeah, that’s about right.

By the time I moved to Phoenix EBTG put out a few more wonderful albums, including a really fun covers album called Acoustic. In 1994 the band released Amplified Heart, for me their second-best record after Idlewild. When the band toured that year we scored front-row seats to the show at what was then called the Red River Opry (now san seats and called The Marquee). But the highlight of that day was the in-store appearance by Tracey and Ben at Borders prior to the concert. Leslie and I showed up and got what turned out to be damn near a private acoustic set by the band as only a few people found out about the appearance.

Amplified Heart sounds like most previous EBTG records, but something unexpected happened not long after its release that propelled the band to international fame and launched its first U.S. hit. The album’s second single, Missing, was remixed by American deejay Todd Terry as an electronic dance song and it skyrocketed up the charts, eventually reaching as high as #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The hit pushed Amplified Heart to gold status in both the U.K. and U.S. and introduced Tracey and Ben to a whole new audience. Striking while the iron was hot, EBTG went back to the studio and in 1996 released Walking Wounded, an album that took full advantage of the new audience and turned into the band’s highest charting album ever in the U.S. peaking at #37 in the U.S. (it landed at #4 in the U.K.). Walking Wounded is an electronic dance record, but no matter what the music sounds like it still benefits from the magical voice of Tracey Thorn.

I have to admit Walking Wounded isn’t my favorite EBTG album, mostly because I’m not much of an EDM person. But I can’t fault Ben and Tracey for cashing in while they had the chance and for folks who like EDM it certainly resonated. The band doubled down on EDM with its 10th studio album in 1999 called Temperamental which also charted in the U.S. but not as high.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Everything But The Girl these days because the band is back this month after a 22-year hiatus with the release of its 11th studio album, Fuse. Over the past 22 years, Ben and Tracey have lived quietly together in North London and in 2009 the longtime collaborators tied the knot. They have three children together. Each released solo work in the time between 1999 and now, and in truth, I’ve really liked Tracey’s solo albums, especially 2018’s Record.

But I’m nervous about Fuse because the first few tracks I’ve heard are electronic, and I much prefer the older acoustic and natural-sounding stuff. I’ve read Fuse will contain some of both, which is smart I guess as they may be able to appeal to both old and new fans. Here’s a taste.

All this is to say, Everything But The Girl is one of my all-time favorite artists, and the story of how I found them is typical of how I stumble across artists I like. Some people have asked me how I stay abreast of new music when it’d be so easy to just stick to what I know and love. I love the chase. I love the rabbit holes. I’ll hear a voice on a song and explore it. I especially like it when an artist I like brings in a guest vocalist that I don’t know because it gives me the chance to research the artist and take a listen. This is exactly how I came to like Noah Cyrus — she was a guest vocalist on a Jake Bugg song that I loved (Waiting off Hearts That Strain).

For me, music really is the soundtrack of my life. I remember bits and details of my life, but those details are made more memorable by the music I was listening to at the time. And I love to share the music I love, which is why I write this blog and why I’m constantly posting about music on social media.

I hope you enjoyed my deep dive into Everything But The Girl, but even more I hope that if you’ve never listened to them you’ll go back to the start and give them a shot. And I won’t even hold it against you if you prefer the EDM stuff!

Parton Me, But You Ain’t ‘Rockin’ IMHO

I still can’t get over the shit show that was the final segment of the 2022 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. I’m kind of on the same page as Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, who said in 2018 that the Hall was “an utter and complete load of bollocks … run by a bunch of sanctimonious bloody Americans who wouldn’t know rock ‘n’ roll if it hit them in the face.”

It’s nice that the trustees have recognized the early criticism that the Hall was biased against female acts — this year they inducted six women, but female artists still represent less than 10 percent of members. But more than that, the Hall can’t seem to settle on the definition of rock and roll which has led it to some odd decisions, the most ridiculous of which was this year’s induction of Dolly Parton.

There is no doubt that artists like Pat Benetar and Annie Lennox, both of whom were inducted this year, belong in the Hall. And I fully agree with adding rhythm and blues artists who paved the way for rock, like Robert Johnson and Ma Rainey, and even folk rock artists like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. But at some point, you have to decide if you’re the “rock and roll” Hall of Fame, or the “music” Hall of Fame. If you’re truly the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame then you cannot induct Janet Jackson, NWA, Miles Davis, and Dolly Parton.

Rock and Roll exists on a spectrum, which is why Carly Simon and Judas Priest can be inducted on the same night and I have no complaints. Rock is The Who and The Smiths. The Stones and Cat Stevens. Led Zeppelin and ABBA. But rock is not hip hop, bluegrass, jazz, or country. The Hall needs to define what qualifies and stick with it or change the name to the Music Hall of Fame.

This has been an issue for years, but the Dolly Parton situation has turned the Hall into a mockery. Don’t get me wrong, Dolly Parton is a musical legend and genius who deserves all the accolades possible. But it was clear from her speech at the Hall that she doesn’t think she belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and frankly she proved it with her awful attempt at writing and performing a song she called rock and roll at the ceremony.

A month after being nominated for Rock Hall consideration for the first time in February, Parton declined the nomination.

‘Even though I am extremely flattered and grateful to be nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I don’t feel that I have earned that right.’

Dolly Parton

Parton finally relented and accepted the nomination and induction, but even she knew it was a mistake. To her credit, she attempted to write a song to perform for the night to show she could rock if she wanted to, but all that song did was prove beyond a shadow of a doubt she didn’t belong. It was awful, and the Hall should have declined to let her play it after hearing it. See for yourself:

I’ll be rockin ’til the cows come home? Did she really sing that? Oh for fuck’s sake. It’s a mockery I tell you.

I’m not disparaging her as a singer. She’s great. I like Jolene. I enjoy 9 to 5. I think she’s a great person and a humanitarian. But she has no business being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Frankly, neither does 2022 inductee Eminem. Or 2022 inductee Lionel Richie. Nothing against them either — they’re just simply not rock and roll.

I think music industry executives are so afraid of being accidentally racist that they’ve erred so far on the side of wokeness that they’ve forgotten about common sense. The Rock Hall is guilty of being so inclusive they’ve muddied the waters on the very thing they set out to celebrate — rock and roll.

Look, the fix here is simple. Change the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the Music Hall of Fame and get on with it. You get no qualms from me inducting Dolly Parton and Lionel Richie into the Music Hall of Fame…hell they are both first ballot inductees in my mind.

But stop insulting our intelligence by trying to fit square pegs in round holes in the name of inclusivity. It cheapens the whole institution.

My Favorite Albums of 2022

2022 has been a banner year for music I think in part because so many artists took time during the lockdown to record new music. It felt like the albums just kept dropping all year long and have just now started to slow down. As of this writing, I am not anticipating any more key albums this year, but early 2023 looks like it will be promising with new records scheduled for artists I like including Peter Gabriel, Everything But The Girl, Boy & Bear, The Arcs, Phoebe Bridgers, Zero 7, and Depeche Mode to name a few. But I have gotten ahead of myself. This year was so prolific I couldn’t narrow down my favorites to just 10, so instead I’m going to share my favorite 20 records from 2022. Here goes:

20. SIDES by Alice Merton. This German-born, London-based artist burst onto the scene in 2019 with her hit song No Roots off the album Mint which earned a spot in my favorites that year. SIDES is more of the same, which is to say really great alternative/pop tunes with a bit of a rough edge given her raspy bluesy voice.

19. Expert in a Dying Field by The Beths. This indie quartet from New Zealand released its third album in 2022 and it’s the second to make my year-end countdown. The Beths are a straightforward indie pop band that for me is reminiscent of bands like the Go-Go’s, the Bangles, and the Cranberries. Lead singer Liz Stokes writes most of the songs, sings and plays guitar, and has just enough punk ethos to put the power in power pop. The title track from the new album is a bit on the softer side, but it’s probably my favorite track from the album.

18. Nut by KT Tunstall. If you only know KT Tunstall from her huge early 2000s hit Black Horse and the Cherry Tree you have barely scratched the surface of one of the coolest pop artists around. Kate Victoria Tunstall is surely the only Scottish-Chinese artist you’ve ever heard, and she also happens to be a gifted singer-songwriter who has continually churned out great record after great record for going on 20 years. Nut is her best effort in years and for me, it’s got 10 strong songs. If you like Nut, do yourself a favor and go back and listen to her full discography — you won’t be disappointed. Oh, and she’s a super funny person and a great follow on social media.

17. Resist by Midnight Oil. Yes, Midnight Oil. I’m always skeptical when a band tries to make a comeback after 40 years, or won’t allow itself to die gracefully when time has passed them by. So yeah, I was not expecting much when I clicked play the first time on Resist. The truth is I was a huge fan of The Oils back in the day as far back as 1982 when I heard Power and the Passion the first time. I still think Blue Sky Mining is among the best albums of the generation. Resist is damn good though. It’s Peter Garrett preaching about climate change and rising oceans and everything else he’s passionate about and literally tried to fix as a member of the Australian House of Representatives and Minister for the Environment, Heritage, and the Arts. Resist is likely the swan song for The Oils, and for that I’m both appreciative and a little sad if I’m being honest. 40 years or so is a hell of a run and Resist is how you go out big.

16. The Car by Arctic Monkeys. I’ve been a fan of Arctic Monkeys for about a decade now, and what I can say is the band has really evolved from 2013’s AM (which included great upbeat songs including Do I Wanna Know? and I Want It All). But then in 2018 they released Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino which really defied categorization. It was almost as if lead singer Alex Turner was trying to be some 1940s crooner, but for some reason, for me at least, it worked. Critics loved it. It got Grammy and Mercury Award nominations. It was one of the fastest-selling albums in U.K. history. It was so different than AM, but so interesting in its own right. It was not for everyone, but with The Car it’s clear Alex and the gang don’t give a shit what you think. The Car is pretty much Tranquility Base redux. If you liked the thematic crooning and orchestration of Tranquility Base you’ll like The Car. And I sure do.

15. There is So Much Here by Glen Phillips. When Toad the Wet Sprocket released Starting Now last year, an album that came in at #6 on my year-end list, the last thing I expected was a solo Glen Phillips album less than a year later, especially not such an upbeat “Toad-like” record. Glen’s previous solo work has been good, if not a tad more acoustic and folky than Toad records. Color me happily surprised by There is So Much Here. There are some artists that have a voice you can’t get enough of and that’s how I feel about Glen Phillips. The 51-year-old Santa Barbara native is simply special. He could sing Happy Birthday and I’d buy it.

14. Home, Before and After by Regina Spektor. The first time I remember hearing Russian-born Regina Spektor was on her duet with Ben Folds on the song You Don’t Know Me which is a really great song. It’s surprising how many artists I “discover” through appearances on other artist’s songs, but sometimes a backing vocal or pure duet hits home. I “discovered” Tracey Thorn on an early Style Council track. Noah Cyrus first hit my senses on her duet with Jake Bugg. Vanessa Carlton on Counting Crows’ Big Yellow Taxi. Regina Spektor shows up in the craziest places, like on the theme songs from Orange is the New Black and Weeds. It seems to me she has a lot of fans among her musical brethren. I’m a sucker for a female piano-based singer-songwriter. Tori Amos. Vanessa Carlton. Fiona Apple. Spektor is kind of the musical version of the manic pixie dreamgirl for me. Home, Before and After is her best album in years. Plus, bonus points, she is a recurring contributor to my Jews of Rock playlist on Spotify.

13. Hold on Baby by King Princess. After the release of this, her second full-length album, 23-year-old Mikaela Mullaney Straus, AKA King Princess, is poised to be a breakout star. She’s performed on Saturday Night Live. Is making the talk show rounds. And she’s becoming a regular on the gossip pages as much for her lifestyle than for her music — what does America make of a non-binary, gay, great-great-grandchild of the Macy’s Department Store founder who most recently dated pansexual Hollywood It Girl Amandla Stenberg. King Princess is on fire and she’s taking advantage of all that fame offers. I don’t really care about all that though. I just love her music and her style. Dang, Generation Z sure is unique and interesting.

12. Surrender by Maggie Rogers. 28-year-old Maggie Rogers has had a meteoric rise to stardom in just three years and Surrender, her second album, is proof her debut album was no fluke. Her first album made my favorites list in 2019 and I was excited about her sophomore effort and it does not disappoint. Did I mention she has a master’s in divinity from Harvard? It feels like we’re in a great time for female singer-songwriters, but maybe it’s just something I gravitate toward. That’s Where I Am is such a great song…one of my favorites of the year by any artist.

11. (self-titled) by Marcus Mumford. I wasn’t sure what to expect with the first solo album from Mumford & Sons frontman Marcus Mumford. I’ve been a huge fan of the Mumfords, but I was worried Marcus would use his solo work to explore some weird subgenre of bluegrass or Civil War-era hymns. Over the summer I saw Brandi Carlile in LA and she brought Marcus out to play the song they collaborated on. It was a dark, emotional song about his experience of being sexually abused as a child. So yeah, I expected his solo album would be slow and painful. But I was wrong. Yes, there are emotional tunes like Cannibal about his childhood, but the bulk of the album sounds like Mumford & Sons — which is fantastic. The more I listened the more I enjoyed, and the more I felt like this was really the fifth Mumford & Sons record. So if like me you like the Mumfords don’t hesitate to give (self-titled) a listen. The truth is the guy is really talented.

10. The Hardest Part by Noah Cyrus. Can a 22-year-old singer-songwriter write songs that resonate with a 56-year-old man? Hell, sometimes it’s better not to overthink things and just enjoy the music. Yeah, I think Miley’s little sister has a world-class voice and a sound that is all her own. She’s a little country, but with so much soul. On her second album, Noah works with some familiar artists (like her dad Billy Ray) and some surprising ones (like Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard). The result is a really listenable album that I find myself going back to time and time again. Noah could have taken the easy way into show business by modeling her sound after her big sister and riding Miley’s coattails. Instead, she worked hard to develop her own sound and went off to make her own way. When it’s all said and done, I wouldn’t be surprised if we remember Miley for her antics and Noah for her musical artistry.

#9 Alpha Zulu by Phoenix. Thomas Mars and his pals have been putting out quality indie records for 20 years already, though I didn’t jump on the bandwagon until 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (the 2010 Grammy Award winner for Best Alternative Music Album) which was one of my favorite albums of the aughts. I’ve really liked every album since, including Alpha Zulu which just came out a few weeks ago but is getting plenty of repeat plays on my Spotify account. I love the band’s 1980s sensibility and they really seem to be enjoying themselves in their music. Thomas is kind of a doofus, but he’s the doofus that gets the amazing girl at the end of the film (in his case, Sofia Coppola who is beautiful and talented). I always root for the underdog, be it Ducky, or Watts, or Farmer Ted, which maybe says a lot about what I think of myself more than anything. As for Phoenix, they’re not an underdog anymore…just one of the most popular pop bands on the planet. Oh, and this video is crazy creative.

#8. Into the Blue — Broken Bells. Side projects can be hit or miss, especially when the band member(s) aim for a very different sound. But the side project that joined Shins frontman James Mercer and producer Brian Burton (AKA Danger Mouse) has been a huge success in large part because the combination of Mercer’s voice and Burton’s production is pure genius. It’s also surprising to see a side project stick around for so long — Into the Blue is the third album by Broken Bells over the past dozen years. Both of the duo’s previous efforts have made my year-end list and Into the Blue makes it three for three. Broken Bells has stuck to the recipe over the years, with Into the Blue delivering more dance-infused alternative tracks brought home by Mercer’s unique and beautiful voice. I was fortunate to see them perform live a few years ago and I hope they tour again. By the way, if you ever feel like being impressed take a look at all the amazing artists Danger Mouse has worked with over the years.

#7. Things are Great — Band of Horses. It has been 12 years since Band of Horses released the spectacular Infinite Arms album that made me a fan, and since then I’ve enjoyed everything they’ve put out. Things Are Great is sort of a return to their earlier sound and it’s beautifully done. Band of Horses is part of a new wave of what for better or worse has been called a resurgence of southern rock, though I think that’s a misnomer. I think we need a new genre to define Band of Horses, and similar artists I love like Lord Huron, Iron & Wine, My Morning Jacket, and others. Maybe we call it southern-infused indie? Who cares really. It’s just great music.

#6. Chariot of the Gods— Hoodoo Gurus. Every once in a while something surprises me, and this year the biggest surprise came from Australia. I had long ago put Hoodoo Gurus into my oldies but goodies pile, listening to Stoneage Romeos or Mars Needs Guitars and enjoying the down-under punk sound I loved. I never expected the band to make another record in 2022, let alone one that sounds as if it belongs right in between those two alt rock classics of the early 80s. Chariot of the Gods simply kicks ass. This year a few bands from the old days made new records — Simple Minds and Crowded House to name two — but those records sucked because the bands forgot what made them great in the first place and tried to make something fresh. If I want fresh I’ll listen to King Princess. Thank you Hoodoo Gurus for sticking with what you know and producing a damn fine 80s alt rock record in 2022.

#5. The Tipping Point – Tears For Fears. I have loved Tears for Fears since 1981 and still believe The Hurting is one of the best modern rock albums of all time. I’ve seen the band live four times and will always count them among my all-time favorites. Roland and Curt can still make magic together, although the albums come with more time between them these days. Everybody Loves a Happy Ending came out in 2004, so it has been eight years of waiting for The Tipping Point. After they released the first cut late last year though I knew the album was going to be classic TFF no matter when it hit store shelves. That finally happened in February and it was indeed worth the wait. It’s brilliant from start to finish, filled with lovely alternative pop songs and that great Roland/Curt harmonizing. Here’s a taste in case you haven’t been paying attention to the band’s last few records.

#4. Dropout Boogie — Black Keys. There’s a reason why every Black Keys album since 2010’s Brothers has made my year-end list and some have sat at the top of the list. Dan and Patrick make great rock and roll records with an R&B/Blues slant and put on as good a live show as you’ll ever see. Dropout Boogie is no exception. It rocks from the first moment and doesn’t let up for 33 minutes and 55 seconds. There are no duds here…only amazing tunes meant to be played loudly. After last year’s blues covers record Delta Kream I wasn’t sure where the guys would go next but it didn’t take long for them to get back to basics and deliver another gem. If you don’t like the Black Keys I’m not sure you like rock and roll.

#3. WE — Arcade Fire. Well, here goes. The question of our times seems to be can you enjoy the art if the artist is a bad person? Louis C.K.? Canceled. Kevin Spacey? Canceled. Kevin Hart? Canceled. And rightfully so on all three of the aforementioned. But what are you to do when one of your favorite artists turns out to be a pig? 2022 was the year the chickens came home to roost for Arcade Fire lead singer Win Butler as he was accused by multiple women of sexually assaulting them — coming to public light after opening act Leslie Feist left the recent Arcade Fire tour because she could no longer perform with a man she believed to be a sexual predator.

This is not the first time I’ve struggled with the question of what to do in these situations and it will not be the last. A few years ago I stopped listening to Ryan Adams because he was a serial abuser. But I don’t like Ryan Adams as much as I like Arcade Fire, so this one is harder. I’ve asked a few friends what they do in this kind of situation, but nobody really seemed to care that much. I care a lot. There’s no fucking way I’m going to ever listen to Michael Jackson again, or pay to see Louis CK in concert.

Of course, not all situations are the same. Or as serious. Or as clear. Over the years I think a few celebrities have been accused without much proof. And while I know the right thing to do is to start by believing, again, it’s not always so cut and dry. Woody Allen is a good example. Is he guilty of sexual misconduct because he married his girlfriend’s adopted daughter? Not in my mind. Nor is there any proof that he molested anyone. Is there room to think Woody is disgusting for marrying Soon-Yi but still not someone who deserves to be canceled? In my mind, the answer is yes. But your mind might lead you on a different path. But I digress.

What have I decided to do about Arcade Fire? I’ve decided to continue to listen to one of my favorite bands, but not to buy albums or merchandise, or concert tickets. That’s what I’ve decided to do. Does that make sense? Who knows. But I do know WE is a fabulous album.

#2. Lucifer on the Sofa–Spoon. Austin-based Spoon is a band that sort of crept up on me. I remember liking The Underdog way back in 2007, but it wasn’t until 10 years later with the release of Hot Thoughts that I really jumped on the Spoon bandwagon. Hot Thoughts was a great record that made my year-end list in 2017, but even I couldn’t have predicted how much I’d come to like them when Lucifer on the Sofa was released this year. I can say that no album got more play time for me in 2022 than Lucifer on the Sofa. From the first song to the last I love it. Honestly, the first time I heard The Hardest Cut I was hooked. Spoon delivers straight-forward alt rock and for my money, they seem to keep getting better with each record.

#1. Asphalt Meadows – Death Cab for Cutie. Speaking of bands that keep getting better, Death Cab For Cutie tops my list this year with their late 2022 release Asphalt Meadows. I am a longtime fan and consider DCFC as one of my favorite bands, so this album topping the list should come as no surprise to anyone. Asphalt Meadows is their best album in years, but truthfully I love all their albums going back to the late 1990s. This record, the band’s 10th, is chock full of upbeat indie pop that the band recorded during Covid. In fact, the first time I heard some of these songs was on lead singer Ben Gibbard’s Facebook live streams during the lockdown. He played keyboards and guitar and took requests for several weeks during the pandemic and it was the first thing that made me feel normal during Covid. I think Ben Gibbard is the best singer-songwriter in the alt rock world and I always find myself going back to Death Cab time and time again. What other band delivers a shoutout to 80s Brit Pop legends Prefab Sprout in one of their songs? Here to Forever is classic DCFC.

In every movie I watch from the ’50s
There’s only one thought that swirls
Around my head now
And that’s that everyone there on the screen
Yeah, everyone there on the screen
Well, they’re all dead now
They’re all dead now

My Favorite Albums of 2021

This year my musical tastes took me to a wide range of places, from soul to Americana to pop to blues and everything in between. It was also a year in which some old favorites returned, some with albums that really landed and a few that, for me, disappointed. I’m not sure what one can expect when an artist returns after a lengthy hiatus — do I want more of what made me appreciate them in the first place or something different? I suppose I can only take them as they come.

I had high hopes for new music from Aimee Mann, Tori Amos, and Crowded House, but ultimately these left me feeling empty and longing for their old stuff. On the other hand, new records from The Wallflowers, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and The Connells brought back 80s and 90s sounds that still worked for me.

Before I get to my 10 favorites, here are a few honorable mentions: I Don’t Live Here Anymore by The War on Drugs; Steadman’s Wake by The Connells; Blue Weekend by Wolf Alice; and Life by Misadventure by Rag’n’Bone Man. The latter delivered one of my favorite singles of the year, the beautiful soulful duet from Rag’n’Bone Man and P!nk entitled Anywhere From Here.

Now on to my 10 favorites:

Long Lost by Lord Huron. This indie folk band from Michigan has become regulars on my year-end list since their debut in 2012 and has never disappointed. Long Lost is hard to define, just as the band is hard to categorize. To me, the band feels part country, part folk, a little rockabilly, with a touch of the old west. The title track is a great example of their unique throwback sound.

Exit Wounds by The Wallflowers. Maybe you forgot about The Wallflowers or you relegated them to the one-hit-wonder pile whenever you heard One Headlight on the radio. I mean, Bringing Down the Horse was released in 1997. I sorta forgot about them too. But a few years ago lead singer Jakob Dylan reemerged as the narrator/tour guide of a wonderful documentary film about the Laurel Canyon sound called Echo in the Canyon and I marveled at how much history Dylan knew and loved how he brought together modern artists like Beck, Cat Power and Fiona Apple to cover classics from The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Mamas and the Papas, and others. I was reminded how good Dylan is and was excited to learn he was bringing The Wallflowers back together to release this new record. And it’s really solid.

The Future by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. Nathaniel Rateliff is another artist that defies category, typically filed under soul or blues. I’m really into neo-soul, blues rock, blue-eyed soul, or whatever you call artists that sound like they grew up on Al Green, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin. There has been a tremendous resurgence in this genre of late and I don’t care if the artist is white or black if they sound like Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. I loved their debut album in 2015 and the new album is super.

Obviously by Lake Street Dive. I’ve been a fan of these guys for a few years now mostly because they have a great pop/jazz sound and frankly I think Aussie-born lead singer Rachael Price is adorable. The band came together in the early 2000s at the New England Conservatory of Music, were named after a dive bar in Minneapolis, but is now based in Brooklyn. No question Hypotheticals is one of my favorite songs of the year and the whole album simply makes me happy. LSD is getting more notice thanks in large part to the Colbert Bump.

Starting Now by Toad the Wet Sprocket. This was the best surprise for me this year. I had low expectations for a new Toad album, but Glen Phillips could sing the alphabet song and I’d be all in so I gave it a listen and it transported me back to the early 90s in a good way. The band’s last good album, Coil, came out in 1997, and while Glen made some very solid solo records since that time I missed the Toad of the 90s. Starting Now is vintage and unlike some other older bands I found I wanted more and this album hits the mark. If like me you love Pale, Fear, Dulcinea, and Coil you’ll enjoy Starting Now.

Delta Kream by Black Keys. Every Black Keys record since Brothers has made my top 10 list over the years so it should come as no surprise Delta Kream lands on this list at no. 5. What is surprising though is that this record is unapologetically pure delta blues and not a rock record. In fact, it recently earned a Grammy nomination for best contemporary blues album, and rightfully so. Recorded over a couple of days in Nashville, Pat and Dan brought in some powerhouse blues musicians like guitarist Kenny Brown, bassist Eric Deaton, and organist Ray Jacildo and covered some special songs that Dan and Pat say they grew up on. It’s 54 minutes of down-home Mississippi blues and it shreds.

Saturday Night, Sunday Morning by Jake Bugg. Twenty-seven-year-old Brit Jake Bugg released his first record as a teenager, but he has matured into a great rock and roll singer-songwriter. I first got hooked when I saw him open for the Black Keys, and at that time he was heavy into blues-oriented rock just like the Keys. Then in 2017, he released Hearts That Strain which sounded more like a Cat Stevens record, and his follow-up this year follows in that mold…weaving in some blues, rock, and even a little electronic. It’s beautiful and he has earned his place among my favorite artists.

When You See Yourself by Kings of Leon. 2021 was a rough year for the Followill clan as shortly after they released their new record and headed out on the road they lost their mother to cancer. The band canceled their remaining U.S. tour dates for the year but are expected to head back out on the road in 2022. When You See Yourself is a great KoL record and if you’re a fan of the band you’ll undoubtedly love it as I do. The Bandit is one of my favorite songs of the year.

Private Space by Durand Jones & The Indications. My love affair with neo-soul bands continued this year and no soul record got more airtime on my Spotify account than this one. These guys formed in Bloomington, Indiana and have been together for almost 10 years but for my money this album should put them into the upper echelons of the modern soul revival. Durand’s vocals are reminiscent of the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye and that’s saying something. This record is smooth and soulful and a joy to listen to. If this song doesn’t make you want to dance I can’t help you.

In These Silent Days by Brandi Carlile. One thing is clear — Brandi Carlile’s time has come. On the heels of her 2017 Grammy-winning album By the Way, I Forgive You she toured for a while, made Barack Obama’s popular year-end playlist, formed supergroup The Highwomen with Amanda Shires and Maren Morris, covered a pair of Soundgarden songs to critical acclaim, and then finally went back into the studio to release a new album that even before this week’s five Grammy nominations I knew was going to redefine her once again. By the Way, I Forgive You gave her wins in three categories — Americana, American Roots, and the all-genre song of the year category. This year the Grammy goofballs put her in pop, but to her credit, she doesn’t give a shit. She just makes her music and lets the cards fall where they may, but she did tweet: “Americana/American Roots music is more than a genre to me…it represents my community, my family, my friends, and my beautiful island of misfits.”

In These Silent Days may not win any Grammy’s (which would be criminal), but it’s the best album of the year by far and also my favorite album of the year. If you’re already a fan I’m sure you’ll agree. But if you’re not, do yourself a favor and find an hour to be by yourself and give this record a listen from start to finish. It’s flat-out gorgeous and Brandi is truly a genre-busting megastar. When she hits the crescendo on Right on Time I get chills. And because this album is so great I’ve included a bonus song!

My Favorite 20 Albums of 2020 (#10 to #1)

Earlier this month I posted the first half of my countdown of my favorite 20 albums of 2020, which you can review here. Interestingly, looking back, 9 out of the 10 were fronted by female voices and the one that was not had no vocals. Hmm. Not sure what that means, if anything.

Nevertheless, to quote the late great Casey Kasem…on with the countdown.

10. On Sunset — Paul Weller. This should come as no surprise to my longtime readers, given I’m a huge Weller fan. Mr. Weller has been prolific of late, with On Sunset being his sixth studio album since 2010. This album is classic bluesy Weller, which is always a good thing. There are some special tracks and some odd, experimental ones too. It’s a solid effort, though it’s not going to rank high in the Weller pantheon. I do think the title track is one of those great Weller tunes so enjoy.

9. The End of Everything — Noah Cyrus. I’m not gonna lie, this one surprises me too. I didn’t even know Miley had a little sister, let alone one with a voice so hauntingly beautiful. The first time I heard her sing it was on a 2017 Jake Bugg track called Waiting. I loved the song and when I looked to see who that female voice belonged to I was truly surprised. Noah is only 20 years old, but her sound is really mature. Billy Ray may have been a hack, but his girls got chops.

8. Women in Music Pt. III — Haim. I didn’t think much of Haim when they first hit the music scene. I may have, just may have, referred to them as Hansen with tits. But once I let my guard down and listened I found a trio that played their own instruments, wrote their own songs, and had something to say. Kind of like Hansen. And while I still didn’t consider myself a fan, from the very first moment I heard I Know Alone off their new album Women in Music Pt. III I was all in. This album has been getting huge critical accolades since before it was released, and the Haim sisters are everywhere. They are smart, wise, and fucking talented. I was wrong. I admit it…I was wrong.

7. Swimmer — Tennis. Not since Captain and Tennille have I enjoyed a husband and wife due as much as I love Tennis. The musical couple of Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley met at the University of Colorado in 2008 and have been churning out pop delights ever since. 2016’s Yours, Conditionally made my year-end list that year and Swimmer is more of the beautiful same. I’m really happy Alaina decided not to go to law school and instead chose to chase her musical dreams. The world has enough lawyers!

6. Serpentine Prison — Matt Berninger. There was never any question that the first solo album from The National front man Matt Berninger was going to make my list. What is worth noting though is just how unique and interesting this record is…it’s not just a National album without the rest of the band. It’s a beautiful album full of wonderful heartfelt songs that showcase Matt’s remarkable voice. Yes, if you like The National you’ll probably like this album. I love it. Matt could sing the alphabet and I’d be all in.

5. Gigaton — Pearl Jam. I was a little late to the Pearl Jam bandwagon, but over the years I’ve come to consider Eddie and the boys the class of the rock world and the best thing ever to come out of the 90s grunge scene. Pearl Jam makes rock and roll records. If you like rock, you have no excuse not to like PJ. Gigaton is a perfect rock album, one with a nice mix of ballads and rockers. I hope they never stop making music. I think Dance of the Clairvoyants is one their best songs ever.

4. Alphabetland — X. Has it really been 27 years since the last studio album from X? Shit. It has. I’m getting old, but apparently John, Exene, Billy and D.J. are not. I got to see X perform live late last year at the Chandler Center for the Arts (somehow it seemed like a strange venue for a punk act) and they flat out brought it. Exene can still belt it out. John still shreds. And while Billy Zoom sat on a stool while playing his signature guitar, he sounded superb and not too shabby for a 68-year-old punker. The whole band is pushing 70 but they blew the doors off the venue that night. Honestly, it wasn’t too different than the previous time I’d seen them live in the 80s on the tower lawn at San Jose State. Alphabetland is classic X. Welcome back.

3. Always Tomorrow — Best Coast. Lead singer Bethany Cosentino is everything you want in a rock star. She’s cool, she’s smart, she’s a little edgy, and she brings all her demons to her songwriting. This is the third time Best Coast has made my countdown and while I don’t love this record like I did 2015’s California Nights it’s still awesome enough to nearly top my list. I simply love Bethany’s whole vibe.

2. The New Abnormal — The Strokes. I think of The Strokes as the prototypical 21st century indie band and they have certainly been influential. It has been seven years since their last album, and folks in the industry were starting to wonder if we’d ever get another Strokes album but it finally came in April and it was worth the wait. The New Abnormal is perfect alternative rock and critics seem to agree. I simply love listening to it as every song has something to offer.

Before we get to number one, a quick word about some disappointments in 2020. I was looking forward to a few releases that just didn’t do it for me. The Psychedelic Furs released a new record that was meh. Morrissey delivered a dull record in 2020. I was excited for a new record by The Pretenders, but it didn’t do anything for me nor did the latest from Dawes, Joan Osborne, Tame Impala, Vanessa Carlton, Fleet Foxes, and The Struts. But nothing was more disappointing to me than the long awaited fifth studio album from Fiona Apple, who I absolutely love, and who never disappointed me before. I found Fetch the Bolt Cutters really difficult to listen to and despite getting critical raves I just didn’t like it.

What I did like, was my favorite album of 2020 though!

1. Reunions — Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. From the first notes of Reunions I was hooked and no album got more playing time on my Spotify account this year than this gem. Reunions is what rock and roll was meant to be. Critics and music fans around the world agreed, and Reunions topped charts in the U.S. and the U.K. In June in the U.S., Reunions topped the country, folk, and rock charts — at the same time. Is it country? Is it rock? Who cares. It’s amazing songwriting and guitar-playing and it just gets under your skin and stays there. I mean, the first song includes my new favorite artist Michael Kiwanuka. The album features the amazing Muscle Shoals, Alabama based members of the 400 Unit, including Jason’s talented wife Amanda Shires on fiddle. Jason is making music the way it should be made, songs from deep down in his soul, with lyrics that have weight, and with indifference to little notions like genre. It’s just gorgeous, heart-felt, music. Truth is, if you don’t like this album I’m not sure I can be friends with you.

My Favorite 20 Albums of 2020 (#11 to #20)

This year has been like no other, to say the least, but even while most everything has sucked one thing that surprisingly has not sucked is new music from a wide array of artists. It’s almost as if the pandemic caused musical acts to dig deeper and record special albums. Either that, or it’s just luck. Regardless, 2020 has been music to my ears.

2020 has also proven to be a very diverse year in music for me. My tastes have certainly expanded over the years, but it’s becoming clear to me that I’m mellowing with age. Oh I still like to rock out on occasion, but truthfully I’ve just been drawn to more slow and thoughtful albums. I also have to say my ears have continued to open to music that in the past I would have just written off as “country” and never given it a second thought. And while I’m still not likely to ever listen to mainstream country, I am delving deeper and deeper into the murky waters of alt-country and Americana/roots music. This is reflected in the list below to be sure.

Usually I only choose to rank my top 10 favorite albums of the year, but because I’ve enjoyed so many different artists this year and because it’s 2020 I decided to go ahead give 20 albums some love. So I’ll skip the usual honorable mentions and get right to the count down.

20. Punisher — Phoebe Bridgers. Maybe I’m just getting old, but it sure seems like the artists are getting younger these days. I have to admit, at first I was uncomfortable as a 54-year-old adult man listening to music by a twentysomething artist — especially a female artist. But I realized I wasn’t being true to my musical self by neglecting younger artists just because they are young. Yes, Phoebe Bridgers, at 26, is more than half my age. But the fact is, she’s talented, interesting, unique, a proud member of the LGBTQ community, and way cooler than I ever was at 26 or any age. She’s also a badass, having been one of the artists who called out ex-beau Ryan Adams for sexual misconduct. Punisher is a great album made up of interesting songs written and performed by a talented woman.

19. RoundAgain — Joshua Redman. The members of the original Joshua Redman Quartet—Redman (saxophone), Brad Mehldau (piano), Christian McBride (bass), and Brian Blade (drums)—reunite with RoundAgain, the group’s first recording since 1994’s MoodSwing,

18. Jump Rope Gazers — The Beths. This New Zealand quartet is the definition of power pop. Jump Rope Gazers is only their second full-length record and it rocks. Lead singer Elizabeth Stokes has one of those lovely pop rock voices that for me is reminiscent of one of my favorite female pop vocalists, Harriet Wheeler of the Sundays, but with a little more rock. As they say in New Zealand, The Beths are choice.

17. Such Pretty Forks in the Road — Alanis Morissette. It has been 25 years since the release of Jagged Little Pill and while Morissette has worked steadily since then she’ll always be considered a 90s artist. That’s unfortunate because her best album in my opinion is 2002’s Under Rug Swept and now all these years later this, her ninth record, showcase’s a whole new side of her — a matured Morissette if you will. Hell, it’s downright motherly.

16. Gaslighter — The Chicks. The artists previously known as Dixie Chicks have officially shed their connection to country music (the genre rejected them in the early 2000s after lead singer Natalie Maines was quoted as saying she was ashamed that George W. Bush was from Texas). Regardless, these chicks have been genre-defying from the start and I’m proud to be a fan. Gaslighter is solid rock and roll (with a country twang) and the band has continued to say “fuck you” to the Country music establishment, its fans, and anyone else who thinks they should shut up and play. I love them for that as much as their music. And if you cross Natalie, expect to be featured in their next song!

15. Shelby Lynne — Shelby Lynne. Now in her early 50s, if it feels like Shelby Lynn Moorer has been around forever that’s probably because she had her first breakthrough at 19. Over the years she’s been a rising country star, a Grammy-winning “Best New Artist,” a folk singer, an Americana artist, and a pop chanteuse. Categories aside, for me she’s just a great singer/songwriter.

14. Look Long — Indigo Girls. The first time I saw Indigo Girls live was in the late 80s in Berkeley, CA on Halloween night and it was an experience to say the least. I’ve been a fan since the first album and they never let me down. Look Long, in fact, is their 15th studio album and one of their best records in years. Emily and Amy write separately, but sing together better than any two women to ever share a stage.

13. Superstar — Caroline Rose. This New Yorker has been around for a few years but I’m just now discovering her work. I did enjoy her 2018 album “Loner” but Superstar is solid from top to bottom. She has a cool voice and plays multiple instruments. She is not a classic singer/songwriter but instead delivers really fun pop songs and has a great sense of humor as evidenced by this crazy good video. If Greta Gerwig was a pop star she’d be Caroline Rose.

12. St. Cloud — Waxahatchee. I’m not gonna lie, I’d never heard of Waxahatchee before mid-2020. Officially this band, fronted by Alabama-native Katie Crutchfield, is considered indie rock or indie folk, but I don’t care what you call it — it’s damn fine music by a wonderful songwriter. Can’t Do Much is my favorite track from the album and a good representation of her powerful voice.

11. Lianne La Havas — Lianne La Havas. For me London-based Lianne La Havas has the most soulful voice around with a sound that frankly reminds me of one of my all-time favorite artists — Sade. Which is to say, if you like smooth soul and music designed for a rainy day or quiet evening in you’re gonna love Lianne La Havas if you don’t already. She’s not just a singer either — she plays multiple instruments too. Plus, she’s not afraid to think outside her genre — she covers a Radiohead track on this her third studio album. I’ve been a fan for a while and trust me you should be too.

Stay tuned for the second half of my year-end top 20 albums post coming soon to a blog near you. In the meantime, enjoy these albums and let me know what you think.

Deep Dive: The Velvet Underground/Lou Reed

You know those musical artists and bands that are supposed to be super influential but you only know like one or two of their hits? Or the bands that your hipster friend raves about, but every time you hear them on the radio you change the station because all you hear is noise?

I’ve been told I know a ton about music, and yeah I probably do know way more than the average person. But, there are still plenty of artists about which I am ignorant. This year I decided to randomly select one of those artists each month and do a deep dive, reading about them and listening to their songs and albums to get a better sense of who they are and what they are about. And more importantly, to see if I have been missing out on some awesome music.

For January 2020 I chose to do a deep dive on The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. Both the band, and Lou Reed, are Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. The Velvet Underground is regarded as one of the most influential bands in rock history. Rolling Stone ranked them as the 19th greatest artist of all time, and Lou Reed is rock royalty. But I didn’t know shit about them beyond a few hit tracks.

The Velvet Underground was active for a short period in the late 1960s and early 70s. The original lineup most notably consisted of vocalist Reed, guitarist Sterling Morrison, and John Cale on bass, keyboards, viola, and anything else he could get his hands on. Maureen Tucker was the primary drummer on all of their albums. The lineup changed a bit over the years.

The Velvets were tremendously influenced by artist Andy Warhol, who was even their manager for a while. They were part of Warhol’s “Factory” community with other artists and performers and they will always be associated with pop art and the New York counterculture scene.

I found the Velvets sound to be hard to listen to. Reed’s harsh voice over acerbic guitar riffs full of feedback, most notably on the faster, louder songs, left me reaching for noise-cancelling headphones. The slower, softer songs were much better in my opinion. That said, I understand how their sound could have been seen as revolutionary in the 1960s when compared to the melodic sound of the Beatles and the rhythm and blues influence of the Rolling Stones. The Velvet Underground sounded nothing like the popular bands of the day and without question they had an influence on the punk and alt rocks bands to come.

I came away from this experiment with an appreciation for what The Velvet Underground accomplished, but still only like their more accessible hits like Rock & Roll and Sweet Jane.

Given that I liked the slower, more accessible Velvets songs it should come as no surprise that I really liked Lou Reed’s solo work. I can’t say I’ve always been a Lou Reed fan, but I definitely enjoyed his well known songs like Dirty Blvd., Walk on the Wild Side, New Sensations, and I Love You, Suzanne. But listening to deeper tracks cemented my fandom. I can definitely see Lou Reed becoming part of my regular rotation, especially when I’m feeling in the mood for something a little on the dark side.

Perhaps no other artist wrote more eloquently about the struggles of people living on the fringes of society, likely because he truly lived among them. His demons have been well chronicled over the years, and decades of drug and alcohol use led to his death from liver disease in 2013 at the age of 71. Over the years he suffered from diabetes, hepatitis, and eventually cancer.

Lou Reed lived hard, but his music lives on.

My Favorite Albums of the Decade

As the decade comes to a close and I reflect on the music that served as the soundtrack to the last 10 years of my life, I’m struck by the fact that so much of the music I enjoyed over the past decade are from bands that made their mark mostly in the 21st century. Of course, I still listen to artists from the 20th century and once in a while one of these artists made their way into my rotation with a newer offering, but for the most part the list of favorites from below are from “newer” artists.

I blogged about the common refrain I hear from people my age that “there’s no good music anymore” last summer and offered up a tribute to many of the modern acts that I love — most of which are not surprisingly reflected in the list below. What I can say in all honesty is that the artists that made my favorite list for the past decade are now among my favorite artists, artists that in every way bring me musical joy as much or in some cases even more than the artists I grew up with. I still love listening to the music of my younger years — and do so all the time — but more often than not I queue up the artists below these days.

First, a few honorable mentions from the decade that spanned 2010 to 2019:

  • More Than Just a Dream — Fitz and the Tantrums (2013). Lots of folks like the debut record earlier, but their sophomore album really got me moving.
  • The King is Dead by The Decemberists (2011). Colin Meloy’s vocals plus REM’s Peter Buck on guitar — who could ask for anything more.
  • AM — Arctic Monkeys (2013). Do I Wanna Know? was my ringtone for half the decade.
  • Codes & Keys — Death Cab For Cutie (2011). A solid record from one of my favorite bands.
  • My Head is an Animal — Of Monsters and Men (2012). Breakout debut from Icelandic alt rockers.
  • Hozier — Hozier (2014). The best debut of the decade.
  • Momentum — Jamie Cullum (2013). He really should be much more popular in the U.S., but this Brit can really sing and play piano.

And in order, my favorite albums of the decade:

10. Masseduction – St. Vincent (2017). I’ve always liked Annie Clark, but this album set me on fire for a few months in 2017. It was alternative, soul, and electronic all rolled into one and I couldn’t get enough of it. She made the rounds on the late night shows and combined these incredible songs with a little performance art and I fell in love. Here she is performing my favorite song from the album, Los Ageless, on the Ellen Show.

9. High Violet — The National (2010). Boxer was one of my favorite albums of the first decade of the century, so it was a happy surprise that their follow up was so good. High Violet was a huge international hit right off the bat, and Bloodbuzz Ohio really helped the band blow up. It’s still one of my favorite songs by The National, a band I rate as among the best of the entire century. Still not sure what the hell Bloodbuzz Ohio is about but Matt could sing nursery rhymes and I’d listen and weep.

8. Bankrupt! — Phoenix (2013). French pop band Phoenix seems like an odd fit for me, but their sound really makes me happy and there’s a certain 80s feel to their music that reminds me of my youth. Bankrupt! was the follow up to 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix which launched a bunch of alternative hits. But Bankrupt! shows some maturity in their sound as they weren’t afraid to slow things down a bit on a few tracks. Still, I love the upbeat ones like Trying to Be Cool.

7. Reflektor — Arcade Fire (2013). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this album when it was first released, followed by a very strange 30 minute TV special directed by Spike Jonze and featuring Bono, Michael Cera, Ben Stiller and others. But the more I listened the more it impressed me and by the time I saw them live later in the year I was entranced by this artsy album with Haitian influences and lyrics tied to the 1959 film Black Orpheus (which I actually saw in film class in high school in 1984) and Søren Kierkegaard. Take a look at yourself and you’ll see two sides. Meanwhile, enjoy this video montage directed by Roman Coppola featuring three songs from the album.

6. Babel — Mumford and Sons (2012). I loved the Mumfords debut album but this second record hit it out of the park for me. It took the best of their folksy sound from the first record and added some pop and polish and it truly jumps off the charts. Perhaps they wore out their welcome in the mainstream too quickly with their Appalachian sound and hipster waistcoats, but I love them and Babel for me is their best record. Lover of the Light is a prime example of their unique sound.

5. Lonely Avenue — Ben Folds/Nick Hornby (2010). What do you get when you ask award-winning author Nick Hornby to write song lyrics for the first time in his life and then you put those lyrics to the piano-driven goodness that defines Ben Folds? You get Lonely Avenue, complete with songs about Bristol Palin’s white trash boyfriend, handicapped songwriter Doc Pomus, a guy hacking into his girlfriend’s computer, and an obscure American Poet with a catchy name. I love Ben Folds and Nick Hornby is one of my favorite authors. This was always going to be great. As for that obscure poet, here’s a crazy good fan-made video tribute to the song Saskia Hamilton.

4. El Camino by The Black Keys (2011). 2010’s Brothers may have broke the band big, but for my money El Camino is the true gem of the bands work this decade. And what a decade it was by the way, with not just the above two albums but also Turn Blue and Let’s Rock which each scored high on my year-end blog posts. The Keys were at the top of their game when they released El Camino in 2011 with huge hit songs like Lonely Boy and Gold on the Ceiling, but my favorite track — and my favorite Keys song period — is Little Black Submarines which is often compared to a Led Zeppelin song and certainly echoes 70s hard rock and shows off Dan and Patrick’s full range.

3. Broken Bells — Broken Bells (2010). Early in 2010 the unlikely partnership of lead singer James Mercer of The Shins and super-producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) gave us the innovative alternative band Broken Bells. The album garnered a Grammy nomination for best alternative album and several songs including The Ghost Inside and The High Road were ubiquitous on alt radio that year. I saw them in concert in 2010 and Mercer was tremendous live and the backing band (including Burton on keyboards) was studio perfect. I never stopped listening to Broken Bells over the decade and count The Mall & Misery as one of my favorite songs of the decade (this video was shot by a fan at a secret live set in a parking garage at SXSW).

2. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World — The Decemberists (2015). I don’t think there’s a better songwriter in modern music than Colin Meloy and this record is all the proof you need. Here Colin laments about how life in America in this decade is a dichotomy of love and hate, beauty and horror. Sandy Hook was on his mind when he wrote the songs, and the album is powerful and lovely. The Decemberists have grown over the past 20 years from folk-forward art music to polished rock music and both the aforementioned The King is Dead from 2011 and this record were perhaps the two best back-to-back offerings of the decade. I loved them both, but What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is simply genius. For a small taste of the highs and lows of this record take a listen to my two favorite tracks, the beautifully melancholy Lake Song to the upbeat, reflective love song that is Make You Better. Damn this is beautiful music.

And my favorite album of the 2010s (and it wasn’t even close):

The Suburbs — Arcade Fire (2010). The music moment of the decade for me took place on Feb. 13, 2011 when Arcade Fire shocked the pop music world by beating out a handful of the world’s biggest artists including Lady Gaga, Eminem, Katy Perry, and Lady Antebellum to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and then closed the show with a rousing rendition of Ready to Start. I literally jumped out of my seat when the award was announced, and I don’t think I’ve come down since. Award presenter Barbara Streisand was so dumbfounded she barely got the words out. The Suburbs was unquestionably the soundtrack of the decade for me and I am confident no other album in my collection received more airtime over the past 10 years. It never lets me down. It is my go-to record when I can’t decide what to listen to. It is alternative rock majesty from start to finish. It was only the band’s third studio album but it made a statement that they were a force to be reckoned with in alternative rock. The Butler brothers used their Woodlands, Texas suburban upbringing to write songs that fit the mood of suburban life and the music that influenced them (from Depeche Mode to Neil Young according to Win Butler). It has strings and horns and keyboards and guitars and it speaks softly at times and it rocks out at times. It feels like a rock opera, but it’s really just that each song feeds off the next. In a world where songs are king, it is a complete album. The Suburbs was named the top album of the year by a wide range of review sites from BBC6 to Clash magazine to Q magazine, but I’m not suggesting it was the best album of that year or the 2010s. It was simply my favorite album of the decade.

My Favorite Albums of 2019

2019 has been a banner year for music for me. For whatever reason a ton of bands I like released new music this year and while it has been a mixed bag for me I can’t remember a recent year when I had so many solid albums to choose from to get to my Top 10.

More than 30 albums caught my attention in 2019 across a wide array of genres. Alternative rock is always going to be my favorite, but this year it’s pretty obvious that modern soul and R&B have leaped to the forefront. I think we’re smack in the middle of a soul revival, one that probably owes its growth to the likes of Amy Winehouse, John Legend, Adele and others who reinvigorated the genre in the early part of the century. So many soul artists have emerged in their wake, from the more classic soul sounds of Leon Bridges, Michael Kiwanuka, and the late Sharon Jones to blue-eyed soul greats like Hozier, St. Paul and the Broken Bones and Nathaniel Rateliff. This year I added two amazing new soul artists to my rotation that you’ll see in the list below.

This year also brought some disappointments from some artists I love. Sometimes it’s hard to live up to my admiration year after year and record after record, and for a few artists this year began with high expectations and left me feeling…meh. Guster, New Pornographers, Fitz and the Tantrums, Jamie Cullum, Two Door Cinema Club, Coldplay, and Of Monsters and Men released so-so records in 2019, and perhaps most disappointing was the new record from Keane, which broke up a few years back and returned this year with the dull Cause and Effect. I liked these records, but none cracked my Top 10 or even garnered honorable mentions.

Speaking of honorable mentions, here are the albums that I liked in 2019 but didn’t quite make the cut for my Top 10. Alice Merton broke through this year with her debut album Mint, which got a lot of attention for her song No Roots but which is a great listen all the way through. Santa Fe band Beirut is an artist I discovered this year and their release Gallipoli is a sweet mix of pop and horns and indie rock. American Love Call from Durand Jones and the Indications was a suggestion from a friend that proved my point about the neo soul resurgence — this is pure soul goodness that would make Sam Cooke proud. And then there was Lux Prima from the unique combination of Karen O (lead vocalist of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Danger Mouse (super producer Brian Burton who turns everything he touches into gold). Lux Prima defied genre logic — Clash Music described it this way: “whirring, mysterious sounds – reminiscent of sci-fi film scores – are eventually invaded by a chirpy, poignant piano…the worlds of the two creators collide instantly.” This Land from guitar god Gary Clark, Jr. was a sweet mix of Hendrix inspired rock and soul, You’re Stronger Than You Know from James Morrison added to my soul train this year, and then there was Kings and Queens / Knaves and Thieves from The Ocean Blue which proved the 80s still has legs.

Here now, my 10 favorite albums of the year:

10. Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost—Part 1 — Foals. I have to admit I didn’t know much about Oxford, U.K.-based Foals until this year. Then I heard a track on satellite radio and I was interested enough to listen to the whole album. It’s really solid alternative rock, and apparently they have a reputation in the U.K. for great live shows. Check out Exits for a taste.

9. Sound & Fury — Sturgill Simpson. There was no bigger surprise for me this year than this album from country/Americana artist Simpson. I mean, he was the first country artist to make one of my Top 10 lists when A Sailor’s Guide to Earth came out in 2016, but imagine my surprise when he released his next album this year and it was straight up rock and roll. And damn good rock and roll. Dude can shred the guitar. Check out this cut, Sing Along.

8. Kiwanuka — Michael Kiwanuka. Album number three by Michael Kiwanuka did not disappoint. His voice is truly an instrument and his sound is unmistakable. This is a brilliant record that just envelopes you in its soulful softness. It was great to see him blow up a bit by providing Cold Little Heart to the opening segment of HBO’s Big Little Lies. Kick back, relax with a cup of joe or a glass of wine, and let Michael Kiwanuka take you to your happy place. Check out Solid Ground for a sample.

7. I Am Easy To Find — The National. It could be argued that The National is my favorite band of the 21st century, and this year’s release proved once again that this band from Ohio by way of Brooklyn is doing things that other bands simply are not. I Am Easy to Find feels almost like a rock opera and brings new voices to the front to go along with the baritone genius that is Matt Berninger. My favorite track from the record is Rylan, which is arguably my favorite single track of the year. Light Years is also memorable and includes a video starring actress Alicia Vikander. To describe this album as haunting would be fair.

6. Wasteland, Baby! — Hozier. Andrew John Hozier-Byrne broke through the clutter in 2014 with his brilliant debut album that proved soul can come from a white guy from County Wicklow in Ireland. Wasteland, Baby is a memorable sophomore effort that debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. I think he sets himself apart from the slew of neo soul artists breaking out lately because his voice is so powerful and his songwriting is quite memorable. I mean, did you know Take Me to Church is about a same-sex relationship? Anyway, best track off the new record is the first track featuring rock and roll hall of famer Mavis Staples called Nina Cried Power that’s a message about protest songs.

5. Father of the Bride — Vampire Weekend. Sometimes I’m not looking for hard hitting rock or smooth soul, but rather pure pop that makes me nod my head along. Ezra and his college boy friends write solid pop music and this album also benefits from the addition of Danielle Haim on several songs. I’ve always been a fan of their songs, but this album is good from top to bottom. And somehow, out of all the great music I listened to this year, this one got a Grammy nomination for best album. I think it’s very good, especially Harmony Hall and This Life.

4. Black Pumas — Black Pumas. I was sitting on the sofa one day a few months ago reading and listening to Music Choice Adult Alternative on the cable TV. I love this station because I often hear new music and on this particular afternoon I was struck by a song I’d never heard before called Black Moon Rising by a band called Black Pumas. I looked them up and found out this was their debut song and the story of their formation was really unique. Two years ago Austin-based guitarist Adrian Quesada was walking along the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica when he heard singer/guitarist Eric Burton busking and was blown away. He told him he was looking for a singer just like him for his new band and not long after Burton moved to Austin and Black Pumas was born. Fast forward to today and Black Pumas have released their self-titled debut album and this month they were nominated for a Grammy for best new artist. It’s a Hollywood story for sure, but truthfully their debut album is so damn good the Grammy nomination is just icing on the cake of what I’m sure is just the start for these guys. Black Pumas is soul and funk with a modern twist and I defy you to listen to their album and not feel compelled to get up and dance. Which is exactly what I did when I saw them a few weeks ago at a tiny club in Phoenix where they set the place on fire. If you listen to only one album on my Top 10 list make it this one.

3. On the Line — Jenny Lewis. The incomparable Jenny Lewis has been a staple on my year-end lists going back to her days with alt-country band Rilo Kiley. Truth be told, I’ve been a fan even longer than that as I remember her fondly from her role in the short-lived but wonderful CBS situation comedy Brooklyn Bridge on which she played teen love interest Katie Monahan. Jenny is a Renaissance woman who infuses country, rock and pop into a sound and look all her own. Her music is smart and funny, and hard to define. She usually gets put in the Americana category or sometimes the alt-country genre but no matter what you call her sound I adore it (and her). I was lucky enough to see her live a few weeks ago at the Van Buren where I was right up front and it was easily one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. On The Line is a fabulous album that any fan of her music will love. If you’re not familiar with her sound and style, check out Rabbit Hole or Wasted Youth from her set on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

2. Let’s Rock — Black Keys. Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach have been together as the Black Keys for close to 20 years now and they have never disappointed me. Several of their records have topped my year-end list over the year and you should not be surprised to find at least one of their records from this decade high up on my soon-to-be-posted best of the decade list. Let’s Rock is classic Keys and it very nearly topped my list this year. It is aptly named as it consists of a dozen hard-rocking tracks. I literally love every song on the album, but here’s a couple I think stand out: Go and Tell Me Lies.

And my favorite album of 2019:

Social Cues — Cage the Elephant. I didn’t think much of Cage until 2015 when they released Tell Me I’m Pretty, an album produced by Dan Auerbach that infused their sound with a little taste of the Black Keys. This year they continued that sound with Social Cues and this is the one album I find myself listening to most this year. I think their updated sound is more mature and somehow both raw and polished at the same time. The band finally seems to be getting the attention it deserves, and while the Grammy selection committee still has no clue where to put them (this album was nominated for Best Rock Album this year when it should have been in the alternative category) it’s nice to see them get a nomination. Take a listen to Ready to Let Go or Night Running (with Beck on vocals) for a taste of this great record.

Joe Jackson Not Going Out in a Blaze of Glory

And they say it’s a tragic story
He just wasn’t there one day
But he went out in a blaze of glory
And you and I, you and I just fade away

Blaze of Glory by Joe Jackson (1989 Sony Records)
Joe Jackson, circa 1979

It’s hard to witness your heroes fading away. Heroes seem larger than life. Unbreakable. Immortal. But the truth is, they are not immortal — like everyone else they are human and age takes its toll on all of us.

Joe Jackson understood this, as his 1989 song Blaze of Glory articulated. There is a certain mythology that comes with dying young (just ask James Dean or Jimi Hendrix) and old Western films served to ingrain this archetype in the zeitgeist.

I set out on the evening of March 9, 2019 to see my musical hero, who when I think of I still envision as that angry early 80s punk in the pointy shoes. But the truth is, Joe Jackson is 64 years old and from what I could see he isn’t a young 64. Yes, he’s touring the world and making new music at that ripe old age and that’s a hell of a lot more than I could do at 53 let alone 64. But the biggest takeaway I had from the gig was that Joe Jackson is getting old and it’s too late to die young in a blaze of glory. He has already begun to fade away.

This is not to say he didn’t put on a tremendous show at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Phoenix that night. On the contrary, at times he was downright manic, firing off fast pace lyrics and slamming the piano keys on early-career songs like One More Time, Sunday Papers, and especially I’m the Man. But during those same songs he forgot lyrics and repeated the same line more than once instead of singing the correct line. And of course, he stayed seated behind the piano for the entire show, never venturing out to engage the crowd of mostly Baby Boomers and older Gen X fans. Sitting behind the piano is fine for ballads, but you kind of want to see some movement during the fast songs.

You’re probably thinking…Len…give the guy a break…he’s 64. And you’d be right. And I loved the show. But the overwhelming feeling I came away with on this, the fifth time I’ve seen Joe Jackson in concert, was that this may be the last time I see him perform live. And that makes me sad. And nostalgic. And feeling a bit old myself. I didn’t have that feeling when I saw him last just a few years ago in Scottsdale. There was something different about the Joe Jackson I saw on the stage on this night and it was bittersweet.

Joe Jackson, circa 2019

Joe looked all of his 64 years. A lifetime of smoking his beloved cigarettes have taken a toll on his skin and truthfully he looks like he’s maybe had a little work done. That said, his piano skills are still world class and he can still belt out a song, including some with fast-paced lyrics that require at times a scream and at times a falsetto. You can certainly see his inner punk is fighting hard to stay relevant.

So about the music. Joe delivered on his “Four Decades Tour” a magnificent journey across more than 40 years worth of great music. He deftly sprinkled in songs from his new record, Fool, in between classics from the 80s, 90s, and 00s. The set had something for everyone, and while it’s impossible to fit in everyone’s favorites, he knew which hits the fans would respond to most. The aforementioned early songs were met with cheers and standing ovations. During the encore he brought out his original old drum machine from the early 80s and recreated Steppin’ Out just as it sounded back in 1982.

He picked a handful of favorites from the 90s and 00s like Stranger Than Fiction from the underrated Laughter & Lust record, and Citizen Sane and Wasted Time from the Rain album.

Then there were the tracks from his new record Fool. I have been listening to Fool over and over since its release a few weeks back and it is a real throwback to his earlier days. I mean, 40 years on and he can still write amazing songs that would have been well received had they been on Laughter & Lust (1991), Blaze of Glory (1989), or Big World (1986). It’s a beautifully crafted album with ballads and sarcastic anthems and an edge that has been missing on the past few albums.

He opened the show with the luxurious ballad Alchemy, about turning junk into gold.

Thrill, to secrets never told
Taste, the bitter turned to sweet
See, the dross turned into gold
Hear, a B sharp turned to C

Alchemy by Joe Jackson (earMusic 2019)

It set a soft mood but in classic Joe fashion he launched directly into One More Time and Is She Really Going Out With Him? as if to remind us he has not gotten soft. He did Big Black Cloud and Fabulously Absolute from the new record, two songs I really love (the latter he performed on the Tonight Show a few weeks back). Again, he gave us just enough new and old to keep us wanting more.

I will give him credit for delivering a pretty long set. He played for about 90 minutes with no opening act and I came away fulfilled with his song selection. It’s never easy to please a longtime fan like me with deep cut favorites, but he did play a few of mine (including my all-time favorite Joe song Real Men) so it’s hard to argue with that.

I hope I’m wrong and Joe was just experiencing some “senior moments” on stage. But given how long he’s been smoking (he’s a fierce advocate for smoker’s rights) I have to admit when he forget a huge chunk of one song I thought maybe he was having a stroke (that’s a byproduct of working for the American Heart Association).

I should also mention that Joe put together a bang-up band for this album and tour, with the remarkable Graham Maby on bass (he’s been at his side for 40 years), Teddy Kumpel (Rickie Lee Jones, Feist, Janet Jackson, Tower of Power) on lead guitar and the powerhouse Doug Yowell (Suzanne Vega, Duncan Sheik, Judy Collins) on drums.

Overall, it was a great night for nostalgia and Joe Jackson is, and always will be, my favorite musical artist. Not too many musicians have put together a more eclectic and musically gifted discography over a 40-plus year career. And while for the vast majority of music fans he’ll likely be associated as an 80s one-hit wonder for Steppin’ Out, for those of us who knew him before then and followed him after Night & Day we have been treated to a lifetime of a musical genius.


  • Alchemy
  • One More Time
  • Is She Really Going Out With Him
  • Another World
  • Big Black Cloud
  • Fabulously Absolute
  • Real Men
  • Stranger Than Fiction
  • Drowning
  • Cancer
  • Citizen Sane
  • Wasted Time
  • Fool
  • Sunday Papers
  • King of the World (Steely Dan cover)
  • You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)
  • Ode To Joy
  • I’m the Man
  • Steppin’ Out
  • Got the Time
  • Alchemy (reprise)