Good Music for People Who Love Bad Music

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the van lear rose

Every year WXPN, the AAA Format radio station here in Philadelphia, asks its listeners to list their favorite albums of the past year. Then they play back the top fifty vote-getters, a cool year-end tradition. I still remember sending in a postcard (pre-internet connection) with my favorites sometime in the early ‘90’s (it must have been 1992 because I recall Los LobosKiko being on it). While I don’t think I have missed a year since that postcard, ‘XPN has made this task harder and harder each year.

Since those earlier days ‘XPN has moved from wildly eclectic (I recall an hour of Spanish music followed by Johnny Meister doing two hours of R&B every weekday afternoon), to album-oriented (under genius Programming Director Mike Morrison), to their current single-oriented format (the World Café era). We are now asked to pick the ten best albums of the year while only hearing one or two tracks from them. ‘XPN does have a featured album of the week where they do go deeper into a new release, but once that week is over they go right back to playing only the label-approved released single from it. It always amazes me when they refer to a single as a “new song” when the album it came from is over six months old. The song’s not new, you just haven’t been playing it.

I don’t want to make this a rant on ‘XPN or I could go on for hours (just ask the missus). ‘XPN is still the best station in Philly and for good music it's the only game in town anyway (at least until I get satellite radio). I just want everyone to understand that many of my picks were made on limited samples or my previous familiarity with the artists. So here goes:

Van Lear Rose - Loretta Lynn. If you told me this would be on my top ten back in January I think would have laughed. Now not only is it on my list, I think it is hands down the best album of the year. Some of this is due to production from Jack White (of the White Stripes - a band that has never really impressed me), but Lynn deserves most of the credit. All the songs are new compositions by Lynn and they’re all great - whether they're all-out rockers or quiet autobiographical ballads. People compared this album to Rick Rubin’s work with Johnny Cash, but much of Cash’s later stuff was comprised of cover songs.

A Ghost is Born - Wilco. Nowhere near as good as its predecessor, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but still a great album. The experimental spirit of YHF is there, but the lyrics aren’t as strong and the music has a little too much electric drone. Still, songs like "Spiders (Kidsmoke)", "I’m a Wheel", and "Theologians" alone make this worthy of my top ten.

Good News for People Who Love Bad News - Modest Mouse. I know I come off as square for not knowing about this band earlier, but what a wakeup call. It took ‘XPN too long to go deeper into this album, but I didn’t ever mind hearing "Float On" again (although when my two-year-old son starts singing “All right, already, we all float on”, it may have hit its saturation point).

Around the Sun - R.E.M. I know I trashed this album when it first came out, but even sub-par R.E.M. is better than most of the stuff out there. This is one that definitely took a long time to grow on me and though I’d like to see the band move in a different direction, I’m satisfied listening to this.

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb - U2. This album may suffer from ‘XPN’s single-oriented format more than any other. While critics are raving about this release, ‘XPN listeners are still stuck listening to "Vertigo" (an excellent song, but come on already!). The few times they’ve played something else I’ve liked it.

The Ride - Los Lobos. Twelve years after my first ‘XPN list and Los Lobos is still list-worthy. This CD is mix of new and old songs, special guests and just the band. Los Lobos asked their favorite artists to sing with them and ended up with gems like Elvis Costello’s great take on "Matter of Time" and Richard Thompson contributing his unique sound to the "Wreck of the Carlos Rey."

The Revolution Starts Now - Steve Earle. Not Earle’s best stuff, but you have to give him credit for releasing a political album during a campaign year loaded with songs that get their message across without being annoying, boring or overly earnest. Instead he lets the characters in his stories get his message across (except on "Condi, Condi", a great love song to a certain National Security Adviser).

Drag It Up - Old 97's. After practically wearing out my copy of his solo CD, I was ready for anything from Rhett Miller. Drag It Up picks up right where the Instigator left off, with the same clever songwriting plus a stronger sound now that the band is back with him.

Lonely Runs Both Ways - Alison Krauss and Union Station. This is a latecomer to the list, having been released on November 23, but come on - this is Alison Krauss. She could sing the proverbial phone book and sound great. I listened closely when 'XPN made this the featured album of the week, and it went right onto both my top ten list and my Christmas wish list.

Silence Is Easy - Starsailor. Another band I knew nothing about before this year. I’m a little surprised this ended up on this list, but every time I heard one of these songs I dug it. They’re songs that stay in your head all day (in a good way). Talkie Walkie by Air was another great discovery for me this year, but Starsailor just beat them out to get on the list.

There were a lot of artists whose albums I was interested in hearing (like Paul Westerberg's Folker) but it never got airplay. Then there were albums where I only heard one great song, but didn’t feel comfortable putting on the list because I didn’t know the rest of the album (like Camper Van Beethoven’s “51/7” from New Roman Times). Maybe I’ll do a list of the best songs of the year later on. I’ll need something to write about once Rowan wins the Stagg Bowl.


At 9:42 AM, Blogger Donna said...

remember when we went to xpn in what felt like the middle of the night and answered phones for their fundraiser? That was almost 13 years ago...Megan was just an infant. I remember most going to WaWa for coffee and being sure we were about to be mugged lol. I've never been very street saavy lol. The song I remember liking ALOT that they played on that station was Sinister Minister. Bela Fleck? Its been so long I don't remember, but I loved it back in the day.

At 1:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting list, Mark. Like you, I'm a little down on 'XPN, and for a lot of the reasons you cited. I'd also add that they're way too apt to play junk for the simple reason that no one else is playing it.

As for your choices, I have the R.E.M. and Old 97's records in my car right now; the former is growing on me, and I'm undecided about the latter.

What I can tell you is that my 3-year-old's favorite song right now is the Beastie Boys' "Ch-Ch-Check It Out," followed closely by the Beatles' "Love Me Do."



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