Wolfson's List

It’s that time again. Here, in full, are Howard Wolfson’s picks for Albums of the Year:

Dixie Chicks — Taking the Long Way and Alejandro Escovedo – Room of Songs

In retrospect, the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” on their last album was a pretty clear sign of the direction they were headed. Even before Natalie Maines’ comments about the President, Lubbock was beginning to recede in the rear view mirror and California lay ahead. Maines’ remarks accelerated a process already in place away from country radio; the “incident” as the Chicks call it, was less a sharp break than a final straw. “Easy Silence” and “Not Ready to Make Nice” form the album’s emotional core — a rocking stick in the eye to those seeking an apology twinned with a heartfelt paean — one of the years’ most beautiful — to those who kept “the world at bay for me.” Of course, drawing lines and choosing sides is not the best way to sell records, and it’s not a surprise that a lot of old fans didn’t take the journey to the coast. Here’s hoping that a new audience will appreciate the Chicks’ beautiful harmonies, pop hooks, and deeply felt songwriting.

Alejandro Escovedo started his career thirty years ago in California and headed East, eventually settling in Austin — another place with an ambivalent relationship with country radio. Over three decades he formed and left two seminal cowpunk bands — Rank and File and The True Believers — before settling down as an elder statesman of the alt-country community. It was then, as his solo career was beginning to blossom, that Escovedo’s hard rocking past caught up with him — he collapsed following a show and was diagnosed with hepatitis C. Room of Songs is what recovery and rebirth sound like — short stories of the road set to string quartet. Elegant and stately sounds of the Southwest that draw upon Escovedo’s entire musical heritage — Mexican, country, folk and rock.

Arctic Monkeys — Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and Pearl Jam — Pearl Jam

We’ve all been trained stateside to view the hype from the other side of the pond with a healthy skepticism, if not outright disdain. Too much praise from the British music press (Gobsmacked!) is usually your fair warning that the band in question is worth neither your time nor your money. So when the Monkeys arrived on our shores amidst the typical hysteria many were understandably wary. Understandable, but wrong. Quite simply, this is the record of the year, and one of the best rock debuts ever. Twenty-one year lead singer Alex Turner is an heir to the British songwriting tradition of Ray Davies; notebook out, recording the world around him. His lyrics are particular enough to poetically capture the intimate and idiosyncratic moments in the teenage lives of his Sheffield friends, while simultaneously speaking to the universal truths of rock and roll (girls, rebellion, fame) that have animated every great since Chuck Berry tried to push Maybellene’s pedal to the medal. But you won’t have to understand a single word to fall in love — the music is all teenage angst, fast without being furious, melodic without a touch of saccharine.

It’s a long time since Pearl Jam were angry teenagers, writing songs with deep hooks about teenage suicide and wicked stepfathers. The self titled Pearl Jam sounds like a band returning to its roots — dual guitar riffs that married stadium and garage — after a decade of albums that failed to sustain the intensity of the band’s early work. Here, the songs are tight and focused and announce themselves from the get-go: “I’ve faced a life wasted and I’m never going back again,” Vedder sings on the album’s first cut — and indeed there isn’t a wasted moment here; the world is falling apart (“World Wide Suicide” is the disc’s second cut) and Pearl Jam isn’t going gently into the good night — theirs, or ours.

Bruce Springsteen — We Shall Overcome:The Seeger Sessions and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy — The Letting Go

Exhorting that “the country we carry in our hearts is waiting,” no prominent artist did more than Bruce Springsteen to try to defeat George Bush in 2004. And when the Voters for Choice concerts and the campaigning with John Kerry proved insufficient, Springsteen returned to his New Jersey farm and did a most unexpected thing: he recorded an album of work, religious, and protest songs written or popularized by folk musician and political activist Pete Seeger. It was as if the only antidote to the failures of electoral politics was an immersion in the deepest vein of American folk traditions — a journey not dissimilar to one that Bob Dylan and the Band took while discovering “the old, weird America” in the Big Pink as the world burned around them. Of course, Springsteen being Springsteen, this was no ramshackle basement affair — the production sands the rough edges and amplifies most of the quiet parts; more Spector than Lomax. The result is a joyous noise, a big band singalong that celebrates the best of American song with horns, banjos, fiddles and enough backup singers to raise the roof and fix it back on. This was especially true live; Springsteen opened the warm-up tour I saw in Asbury Park with a cover of the Band’s Long Black Veil (one of several Band songs he would cover on this tour) and didn’t stop until we danced out of the crumbling old convention hall three hours later. And if the best anti-war song of the decade — Mrs. McGrath — was actually written more than a hundred years ago, well then, that just means we have more work to do.

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy — or Will Oldham — has been living in “the old, weird America” since at least 1993, when he put his first disc out. Freak-folk? Alt-Country? Lo-Fi? Oldham makes the kind of music that critics attempt — and largely fail — to characterize with hyphenated names. Oldham has made more than a dozen records, and recorded under nearly as many different monikers — what remains constant is Oldham’s idiosyncratic determination to make music can be made that fits no obvious categories and has no real chance of commercial success. The Letting Go may be Oldham’s most approachable work — for the first time he has widely employed strings and enlisted the romantic harmonies of Dawn McCarthy. It is unlikely that anyone will be covering these songs a hundred years from now at a hoedown — but their hushed beauty deserves your attention today.

TV on the Radio– Return to Cookie Mountain and Beirut — The Gulag Orkestar

Sadly, in the age of box stores and mega malls, New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams’ frequent reminder that some things happen “only in New York” has never been less true. This past year saw the demise of far too many live music venues, independent bookstores and small cd stores driven out by rent hikes and competition from the Internet. Face it — New York is beginning to look more like every where else.

That’s why TV on the Radio and Beirut; bands that could exist “only in New York,” are such treasures. Extraordinary live, musically adventurous and lyrically inquisitive, TV on the Radio and Beirut reflect their founders’ unique and idiosyncratic visions and the melting pot where they jelled in equal measure.

TV on the Radio’s founders Dave Sitek and Tunde Adebimpe met in Williamsburg as artists; other band members were recruited from around the neighborhood and busking on subway platforms. Beirut brainchild and 19 year old wunderkind Zack Condon moved here from New Mexico after a European backpacking tour. Where else in North America was he going to find half dozen musicians who could translate his one man bedroom recordings into the keening, crooning Balkan pop that Beirut regularly perform live?

Return to Cookie Mountain is a polyglot of soul, doop wop, and gospel amplified by all the technology that 21st century production can provide. And just when you think that all those bells and whistles threaten to get in the way, Adebimpe’s voice — the best in rock — cuts through the clutter.

If Return to Cookie Mountain can sometimes sound overproduced, The Gulag Orkestar suffers from the opposite problem — recorded on a shoestring in what sounds like a tin can, the album is not the best representation of Condon’s vision — but what a vision it is: gentle swaying, sweaty dancing, brass, strings, accordions, ukuleles and woodwinds all wrapped up in a real “teenage symphony” and guided by Condon’s romantic tenor.

Only in New York, kids. Only in New York.

Gnarls Barkley — St. Elsewhere

“Crazy” was this year’s “Hey Ya,” coming out of rolled-down windows and store fronts, uniting every head in nodding synchronicity. A 21st century Funkadelic of rock, gospel, funk, soul, and psychelica, St. Elsewhere joyously proclaims nothing off limits. The brainchild of DJ and producer Danger Mouse and falsetto singing front man Cee-Lo, Gnarls Barkley were a duo, a band, and a marketing strategy all in one. Regularly performing live in costume (the Wizard of Oz characters were a particular favorite) and appearing on the covers of magazines as their favorite movie characters, Danger Mouse and Cee Lo know how to capture attention and have a good time doing it. Most importantly they understand that great music is the best attention grabber of all and that in the age of mypace, file sharing, and itunes, an album that transcends genre occupies just the right niche