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Wilco albums ranked worst to best – the definitive list (for now)

miloHey Pal:

Let’s talk about Wilco. Over their 20+ years, front man Jeff Tweedy and the boys have evolved from boundary-pushing alt country darlings, to purveyors of so-called “dad rock” (is that supposed to be a bad thing?), to elder indie statesmen who still have a few tricks up their plaid and denim sleeves.

You and I have been on hand for much of that evolution and we’ll be on hand when Wilco roll into Toronto next week to blow the roof off Massey Hall yet again; so in honour of the occasion I thought I’d take a crack at ranking all their studios albums from worst to best. There are a few such lists on the internet, with a good deal of disagreement among them, so it’s high time somebody did the definitive list.

This is not that list.

But until the king of “worst to best” lists, Stereogum, gets one done it will have to do.

In preparation I sat down and listened to every one of Wilco’s albums in chronological order, some of which I haven’t heard in years, and then I listened to them all a few more times for good measure. It was a beautiful journey, during which two thoughts dominated:

  • They’ve never really made a bad album (although the chasm between “worst” and best is wide).
  • Certain assumptions and beliefs I’ve held for a long time are wrong.

(Quick note – the Mermaid Avenues are not here because they are not purely Wilco albums.)

All right, let’s assassin down the avenue…

10 – Schmilco (2016)

Painting myself as a normal American kid
I always hated it

schmilcoI really didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to pick on Wilco’s newer albums by putting them at the bottom of the list. I didn’t want to suggest the quality of their albums is in decline and all their best work is behind them.

I really, really didn’t want to do that.

Alas.

It’s unfortunate too because I was pumped about Schmilco (despite the goofy title), because its sound hearkens back to their days of strange, eerie, psychedelic alt country. The songs are mostly acoustic and some are infused with a hint of sonic weirdness, but this time it feels put upon – like they’re just trying to elevate what they know are dull songs.

Jeff Tweedy is a marvelous songwriter with a gift for musical left turns and provocative lyrics that are more for feeling than understanding. There’s some of that on Schmilco but not enough to resonate.I will say I love the bitter nostalgia of “Normal American Kids”.

They’ve never made a bad album, but this one’s just OK. Perhaps the live versions of these tunes we hear next week will inspire me to change my mind.

(Bonus points for the cover, though, which takes the idea of “dad rock” to a whole new level.)

 9 – Star Wars (2015)

I change my name every once in a while
A miracle every once in a while

star_wars_wilco1

I should mention that Wilco are absolutely epic in concert. Six masterful musicians who have been playing together long enough they can read each other’s minds.

Because of that, they were able to make this album sound more interesting than it is when they played it in its entirety at the Toronto Urban Roots Festival last summer. I respect the choice of playing the whole thing. Many other artists of their vintage devolve into greatest hits nostalgia acts. Not Wilco. They stand by what they’re recording now.

Star Wars is pretty cool, but doesn’t quite knock my socks off. The chugging “King of You” is awesome, though, as is “Random Name Generator”, which is destined to become a perennial concert favourite. Also, gotta dig closer “Magnetized”, with its weird pauses, organ sounds and a classic WTF Tweedy line: “Orchestrate the shallow pink refrigerator drone.”

Points for brevity – at 33 minutes it doesn’t last long enough to overstay its welcome.

wilco-live

Did I mention Wilco are epic in concert?

 8 – A.M. (1995)

You’re gonna make me spill my beer,
If you don’t learn how to steer

amConventional wisdom has it that the band got off to a shaky start with this debut. Conventional wisdom declared this a paint-by-numbers set of country rock tracks that in no way hinted at the experimental genius that was to come.

Conventional wisdom needs to give its head a shake because I’ll bet it hasn’t actually listened to A.M. since it came out.

If conventional wisdom would do what I did – crack a beer on a Friday night, crank A.M. to top volume and air guitar the shit out of “Casino Queen” and “Box Full of Letters”, then bliss out to “It’s Just that Simple” and the Tonight’s the Night tribute “Passenger Side” – then it would understand the truth. A.M. is terrific. It’s heartfelt and infectious. It’s tight and it’s a blast.

I’m pretty sure the problem is that Tweedy and two bandmates were fresh out of the wildly revered alt-country legends Uncle Tupelo and this debut from a “spin-off” band suffered by comparison. If a completely different band had made A.M., alt country fans would have been bouncing off the walls and exclaiming that they’d just found the new Uncle Tupelo.

7– The Whole Love (2011)

This is how I tell it
Oh, but it’s long
One Sunday morning
Oh, one son is gone

whole-love

I’m going to venture onto a long, treacherous limb and declare this Wilco’s most overrated album. Not bad. Just overrated. Many people, myself included, saw it as a return to form after the so-called “dad rock” albums (more on those soon enough), and we all got very excited because the boys were getting back to being a little loud and experimental.

Also, the thing starts and ends magnificently, opening with the righteous blast of techno rock that is “Art of Almost” (a song that we learned, Pal, also makes for a jaw-dropping opener in concert), and closing with the folky, 12-minute Dylanesque “One Sunday Morning”, a heartbreaking study of a troubled father/son relationship. Two awesome tunes.

Unfortunately, I find now that too many of the songs in between are kinda forgettable. I enjoy them while they’re happening but they don’t stick. Exception – “Born Alone”. That song rocks.

Also, the band sounds amazing, especially guitar god Nels Cline, who can do absolutely anything with six strings (and occasionally 12), whether it’s building swirling atmosphere for the rest of the band to play in, or taking centre stage with a mind-bending solo.

nels-cline

Don’t hurt yourself, Nels

6 –  Wilco (The Album) (2009)

One wing will never fly
Neither yours nor mine
I fear we can only wave goodbye

220px-wilco_the_album_cover1 Boy was I wrong about this one. At the time of its release I wrote it off as bland and forgettable, and going into this ranking exercise I was fully expecting to plunk the “camel” album – the second dad rock album, incidentally – in the basement.

Then I listened to it.

And I listened to it again.

And I fell in love with the camel.

“Bull Black Nova” is the cool kid brother of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, and that is a fine thing to be. The second half of “One Wing” is transcendent. “I’ll Fight” is a contender for top 10 Wilco tune. And “You and I” is a deceptively sweet little duet with Canadian singer Feist that boldly questions the merits of honesty and transparency in a relationship.

I do wonder if the band carries Tweedy a bit on this one. This is the second album with the perfect ensemble line-up that still exists to this day, and by this point they were magically in sync. That’s why this album sounds so good even though Tweedy’s songwriting and weary but expressive voice are not at their best. Consider “Country Disappeared”. It seems like a pretty flaccid tune to me, but by the end I’m transfixed. Just listen to that interplay of guitar and keyboard.

I could be wrong, but I think it’s the playing, not the writing, that elevates the camel to greatness. 

5 – Sky Blue Sky (2007)

But I’ve turned to rust as we’ve discussed
Though I must have let you down
too many times
In the dirt and the dust

sky-blue-sky

This is the precise moment that Wilco were branded “dad rock” and it’s all thanks to the wise-ass kids down at Pitchfork, who called Sky Blue Sky “an album that exposes the dad-rock gene the band has always carried but attempted to disguise– the stylistic equivalent of a wardrobe change into sweatpants and a tank top.”

Someone needs to knock some sense into those punks and make them listen to it again.

Is it less experimental and more “comfortable” than its predecessors? Definitely. But that doesn’t make it lazy or dull. It’s a beauty. Tweedy finds poetry in everyday life in these “sweatpant” tunes, whether it be gentle pleadings (“Please be Patient With Me”), or puttering about a house that no longer feels like a home (“Hate It Here”), or the glorious jam that is “Impossible Germany”. The playing is perfect and the songs, while mellow, still go in unexpected directions.

Also, the album closes with the thrilling one-two punch of the sage and inspiring “What Light” followed by the haunting and unsettling “On And On And On”.

4 – A Ghost is Born (2004)

Saxophones started blowin’ me down
I was buried in sound
The taxicabs were driving me around

a-ghost-is-born1

It might not be the obvious choice, but I nominate A Ghost is Born for the award of Weirdest Wilco Album because, seriously, where did this come from? The previous four albums were an amazing but logical evolution down the band’s uniquely carved road of atmospheric alt country, and then along came this abrupt left turn into pop rock city.

Explosive guitar jams and sweet pretty ballads (sometimes in the same song); bobbity piano pop, groovy jams, and even 12 minutes of electronic hiss – this album has it all and it’s a ton of fun. You never know what’s coming next.

My personal favourite is the smooth and seductive “Hell is Chrome”…or maybe “The Late Greats”…no wait, “Handshake Drugs”…or “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”…or….never mind, just go listen to the whole thing (except the 12 minutes of hiss – we didn’t really need that).

tweedy-singing

“I never hear it on the radio,             Can’t hear it on the radio”

3 – Being There (1996)

When you’re back in your old neighborhood
The cigarettes taste so good
But you’re so misunderstood
You’re so misunderstood

being-there

What a surprise this turned out to be – another album that landed higher on this list than I thought it was going to. I used to think Being There was half brilliant and half filler but I’ll be damned if I can find the filler now. As much as I think A.M. is underrated, there is no question this follow-up sophomore album, with its experimentation and expanded range of sound, is a huge leap forward.

It’s a double album and each “disc” is a lean and perfect set of gems worthy of standing on its own. And the openers! Oh the openers! Disc one kicks off with the epic six and a half minute mind-bender “Misunderstood”, which aggressively declares in its rattling thumping intro that Wilco had no intention of settling into any kind of formula. The song is a beautiful noisy unleashing of emotions from nostalgia to rage. Disc two opens with the comparatively spare but almost as stunning “Sunken Treasure”, which might have been my favourite Wilco song if I hadn’t heard “Misunderstood” first.

 2 – Summerteeth (1999)

She’s a jar
With a heavy lid
My pop quiz kid
A sleepy kisser

summerteeth

How can misery and madness sound so sweet?

The band took the trippy sound they found on Being There and added sunny pop flourishes so that when they didn’t sound like the grooviest alt country band on the planet they sounded like the Beach Boys, but cooler.

And Tweedy’s lyrics went extra dark. Whether he’s dreaming about killing you again last night, or being begged not to hit her, or reading messages in an ashtray, he captivates with his weird, morbid thoughts and sounding like the weight of the whole world is upon him. Even the sweet lovely lullaby to his kid, “Oh Darling”, sounds haunted.

Every song is a beauty, with “Via Chicago”, “She’s a Jar” and concert favourite “Shot in the Arm” the obvious stand-outs.

For most other bands, this would be the pinnacle of achievement but for Wilco this was just another warm-up leading to their grandest statement…

 1 – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Tall buildings shake
Voices escape singing sad sad songs
tuned to chords
Strung down your cheeks
Bitter melodies turning your orbit around

yhf

Was there ever any doubt? All hail Wilco’s masterpiece. It doesn’t contain the band’s greatest songs (see #2 and #3). It doesn’t even feature their finest musicianship (see the “dad rock” of #5 and #6). But Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is studio alchemy; the most cohesive and immersive journey in Wilco’s catalogue – their most album-y of albums – and the perfect evolution of the moody experimentation they started on Being There and Summerteeth. If Radiohead made a country album this is what it would sound like, but now they can’t do it because Wilco beat them to it.

I don’t know what was in Jeff Tweedy’s enigmatic mind when he made Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but here’s what it’s about as far as I’m concerned: It’s about memories that make you smile and cry at the same time. It’s about alienation and communication breakdown. It’s about being in a crowd but feeling alone, about staring into a loved one’s eyes and wondering if you really truly know them. It’s about struggling for understanding.

It pulls you into a world entirely its own and doesn’t let go until its final notes – a world that is both comforting and unsettling, familiar yet foreign. There’s nothing else like it.

I could go on and on but I already have, not just here but elsewhere in this blog, so I’ll shush up now.

One last point – it needs to be noted that the top three albums just happened to be the only three Wilco albums made with multi-instrumentalist and wannabe co-leader Jay Bennett on the roster. The story – as shown in the excellent documentary “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” – is that Bennett was canned during the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for being a dick, and he may very well have been one – but the music suggests he was a terribly gifted dick. They were never as good as they were with him.

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RIP Jay

So there you go, Pal – my ranking of Wilco’s albums. How’d I do? Bang on, way off, or somewhere in between? Don’t let this post go unanswered. I expect a merciless analysis of my mistakes. Take off the band aid cuz I don’t believe in touchdowns.

Later, Pal.

Review of a Perfect Album Vol. 2: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

I miss the innocence I’ve known

 playing KISS covers beautiful and stoned

miloThere is a moment in the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film about Wilco in which Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy sits on a bus with his young son and sings “Heavy Metal Drummer”, the two of them patting out the beat on their laps oblivious to the world as it glides along behind them.

Tweedy has been through a lot by this point in the film, dealing with grown-up problems like fractured friendships, legal battles and high expectations at work. The lad, sucker in mouth, provides a moment of serenity and escape, taking Dad back to what it’s all about: beauty, creativity, connection.

The film is about the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot which, Pal, I would like to submit as an addition to our series on perfect albums. (Hell of an idea, by the way, and you got us off to an excellent start with Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.)

YHF cover

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album of sweet, pretty country rock songs that sounds like it was recorded over a few beers and joints in Jeff Tweedy’s garage, and then sent to a distant planet to be mixed and engineered by aliens. It is a strange, beautiful, haunting trip; a collection of folk songs built, in the words of the band, on a “sonic landscape”. Simple songs turned inside out and backwards with feedback, loops, beeps, bops and whizzles to create something utterly strange and unique.

It’s one of those albums that periodically calls to me, like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks or Love’s Forever Changes. Albums that sound like nothing else. Albums that, when a certain mood strikes, creep out of the rabbit hole and demand to be heard.

As a lyricist, Tweedy manages to make no sense and perfect sense at the same time. Here’s the opening verse of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”:

I am an American aquarium drinker

I assassin down the avenue

I’m hiding out in the big city blinking

What was I thinking when I let go of you?

On the one hand, what the hell is an American aquarium drinker, and how exactly does one assassin down the avenue?

On the other hand, why fuss over the details? As a whole, these lines paint a picture we all recognize: pain, regret, hiding in plain sight, walking dangerously close to the edge… We’ve all been this guy or known this guy at some point.

Tweedy isn’t always inscrutable. Sometimes he makes himself crystal clear, usually on the lines he chooses to repeat again and again:

From “I’m the Man Who Loves You”:

If I could you know I would just hold your hand and you’d understand

I’m the man who loves you

From “Reservations”:

I’ve got reservations about so many things, but not about you

And from “Radio Cure”, the sludgiest, druggiest song on a sludgy, druggy album:

Oh distance has no way of making love understandable

If that all sounds very bleak it’s because it is. But it also isn’t. There’s hope and optimism all throughout. This is the sound of a man with miles behind him, going through a dark tunnel but seeing the light at the end. A man who knows you have to go through the bad stuff to emerge better.

walking away

“You have to die/if you want to want to be alive”, he sings on “War on War”, one of the jauntier numbers.

For me, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album for grown-ups. But grown-ups who still know how to think like a kid. It’s full of “seen it all” aged weariness and youthful, experimental exuberance. Just as you came to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as an adult, Pal, so did I come to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And the experience was better for it.

It all comes together in the sweet nostalgia of “Heavy Metal Drummer”, in which Tweedy pines for teenage days when the hassles and triumphs of life were still some vague future and all that really mattered was the present: beer, girls and “those heavy metal bands we used to go see on the landing in the summer.”

This summer, Tweedy is touring with his son Spencer, who is now 18 and is a drummer. What a great collaboration – the old and the young – both, I’m sure, learning from each other as they go.

Jeff Tweedy. Missouri Theatre.

Pal, you and I are going to see the father and the son at The Urban Roots Festival in Toronto on July 6. I’m not sure what to expect but I can’t wait to see what they do together. Of one thing I am sure: they ought to do one hell of a version of “Heavy Metal Drummer.”

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Americanarama Review: One Amazing Show, One Blissful Fan, and One Crappy Reviewer

binkley

Pal, your review was all that is needed. You knocked it out of the park with that one. I should just leave it there and say ditto, but I can’t. I have to gush. I must unload my belly full of joy up in this hizzous. I wrote mine before reading yours. Here it is….

Pal, I have one made up word for you.

AMERICANARAMA

americanarama

I wasn’t this excited about a concert in a long time. Bob Dylan, Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Richard Thompson Trio. All at the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto. This is the exact opposite of your Fun concert. Well established bands touring together. My expectations were high for this one.

EXPECTATIONS EXCEEDED!!

Holy crud was that a good show. This was Rolling Thunder Revue revisited. My favourite Bob era. In my mind, Bob Dylan’s amazing musical journey came to a dizzying climax when he headed out for his Rolling Thunder Review Tour. Amazing music. Top tier musicianship. Collaboration. Intermingling of musicians. A witches brew of crazy greatness. Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review had that in the mid-seventies (Check out his Bootleg Series Vol. 5 if you want some of the best Bob Dylan there is) and his Americanarama tour has it now.

We missed Richard Thompson’s set. But he came out again to perform with Wilco on “Sloth” (a Fairport Convention song) where Richard and Nels Cline of Wilco traded atmospheric shredding solos. I knew Nels was one of the best around, but I had no idea that Richard had such outstanding chops.

My Morning Jacket was great. Powerful hard driving etherial hard rock. I am not an avid MMJ fan, but, I had heard of how great they were to see live and I can affirm such a declaration.

amaericanarama mmj

Next was Wilco. This will be our fifth time seeing them live and I have to say that this was up there as the best of their shows we have seen. They were unbelievable as always, but this time there was a different feeling in the air. Maybe it was the outdoor venue, maybe it was the extreme heat, maybe it was our ninth row floor seats, maybe they were just better. This time I felt a deeper connection to them than before.

americanarama wilco

Wilco provided some “Canadianorama”. They brought Feist on for two songs. “You and I”, which was something we kept on missing (it was always the other night of a two gig run). The other song was Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” which was sublime. Wilco outdid themselves that night. This was made even more so when they finished on Cinnamon Girl. MMJ joined them for that one. Pure magic. The crowd went nuts. I was out of my head and I am pretty sure you were too Pal.

americanarama dylan

And then came Bob Dylan. To see him that close up was other worldly. He was completely on his game. Every song was great. He played a lot of newer stuff which fits his current voice so much better. The oldies like “Tangled Up in Blue” and “All Along the Watchtower” were great as well, but I was intensely digging songs like “High Water”, “Duquesne Whistle”, “Things Have Changed” and “Beyond Here Lies Nothing”. Every song was on point. Bob was in his groove. Dancing and posing with gusto. His harmonica solos were melodic and well constructed. He seemed to be right into it. I think I caught him signalling the band for more time soloing on more than one occasion.

americanarama all

Collaboration continued in Bob’s set. Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) and Jim James came out for two songs. First was an old gospel/folk song called “Twelve Gates to the City”. What made this even better was Bob started a sing-a-long! HOLY FREAK! It was at this point in the show where I entered another plain of existence. Bob pointing his microphone to us asking us to sing, and by golly we sung…

Oh what a beautiful city
Oh what a beautiful city
Oh what a beautiful city
There are twelve gates to the city
Hallelujah

Picking that song to perform was a stroke of genius linking the past to the present. A traditional song that demonstrated where all the bands on this tour came from. And to include us in this celebration was a wonderful gift.  My goodness, I can now say that I sang with Bob Dylan, Jeff Tweedy, and Jim James all at the same time, on the same stage.  Not at different times.  The same time. To quote the great Sean Astin as “Mikey” in The Goonies, “This is OUR time”.  Whoa man! Was this our time or what! Tweedy and James came on again for the encore which was “Blowin’ in the Wind”. A fine enough rendition, but, it was the rest of the show that sent me spinning in ecstasy like a little girl putting on a new fancy dress. I was walking on air. I have never seen a better show. And I have seen some amazing shows. This was the best.

This is why I hate bringing up what I am about to bring up. I don’t want to sully the pure joy that is still lingering in my bones even days later. But I can’t let this one go. Ben Rayner of the Toronto Star wrote a review of the show that made my blood boil. He is an admitted Dylan-not-liker. Fine. He says he was there at the show, but was he? His review is light on specifics. Most of his article is about the crowd and how it dwindled when Bob got on stage. I don’t know what he saw, but, I saw a packed amphitheatre with everyone on their feet cheering like maniacs. When the show was over it took us a good while just to get out of the amphitheatre because of the crowd. If he was there, which I doubt, he must have been there with his arms crossed sitting in his chair sulking like a jerk about having to see one of the greatest artists of all time. I don’t want to rant about this guy anymore. Bottom line: His review sucked! Ben Rayner got it wrong. Just look at the comments under his review. They all think he missed the boat.

Bob Dylan got it right. He assembled an amazing group of bands. They played amazing music. They collaborated. We sang with them. We danced. We cheered. I felt connected to history. I felt a part of history. I felt like the missing piece of my Bob fanaticism has now been put in place. I dreamed of being there in the 70s during Rolling Thunder. Instead, I can relive being there for Americanarama. And with my best Pal by my side. I am all a glow.

Thanks Bob.

Lessons Learned at Americanarama

miloHey Pal:

So, in my review of the fun. concert the other day I was admittedly a little hard on the old boys of rock, arguing they can’t generate the same level of excitement as the up and comers. In principle I stand by the argument, but I do enjoy witnessing an exception.

On Monday at the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto, you and I witnessed an exception: Americanarama – with Bob Dylan, Wilco, My Morning Jacket and Richard Thompson. A bunch of old dudes. A hell of a show.

In fact, the old dudes taught me a few things. Here are my lessons learned at Americanarama:

We shouldn’t have been late

It must be said that a 5:30 start on a Monday night is a little bizarre. Nevertheless, that’s what it was, so you and I missed all of Richard Thompson’s set. I have dug me a little Fairport Convention in my time, and I adore Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot out the Lights album…

shoot

…but I wasn’t, at first, too broken up about missing the old guy’s set. But events later in the evening taught me it’s a big fat bloody shame we didn’t get more of Mr. Thompson. More on that in a bit.

My Morning Jacket loves bears and saxophones

We did manage to catch most of My Morning Jacket’s set, and I’m glad we did. I don’t know MMJ too well but man oh man did they blow the roof off. And they did it with flair. Bear flair. Bears all over the stage, including a golden bear that frontman Jim James held aloft in worship, and bears all over the t-shirts of the handful of adoring MMJ fans in the crowd. Why bears? I have no idea. Maybe because furry frontman Jim James looks like one….

jimbear

Also, just when you thought rock sax was history, half the band rocked a saxophone at some point. And it was awesome! Hail rock sax! Hail the bear! Hail MMJ.

Wilco are honourary Canadians

Bob was the headliner, but the evening’s number one star must go to good ol’ Wilco. Pal, you and I have seen Jeff Tweedy and the boys, or Jeff Tweedy solo, five times now and I think this may have been the best. Sweet mama these guys are good live. So very very good. And, to make things even better, Jeff promised us a night of Canadianarama. This meant duets with Canadian chanteuse Feist on Wilco’s own “You and I” and Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”. And, if that wasn’t enough, they brought out MMJ to destroy (in a good way) “Cinnamon Girl”…

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…It was loud. It was epic. Wherever in the world Neil Young was at that moment, he heard it and he was pleased.

When Bob is on, it is mesmerizing

I’m not going to lie – these days, live Bob is not the finest show you’re going to see. We saw him last fall at Air Canada Centre (ACC) and it was OK. But this time was better. In fact, it was pretty damn good. The band, which faced Bob the whole time (respect!), was tight. The beautifully lit stage was stunning. And Bob’s piano and harmonica sounded sweet. The focus was on newer songs, and they sounded just like they should, and the older songs – like “Tangled Up in Blue”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and encore “Blowin’ in the Wind” – sounded like the new songs, and were hard to recognize until the refrain rolled around and everyone went crazy. When I slid into Bob’s groove, the whole scene was hypnotic.

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You’re not supposed to sing along with Bob

I like to sing along to songs I know, and I am pretty darned familiar with many Bob songs. So it was a little frustrating when his grizzled, snarly voice refused to enunciate any line but the title of a song. Why does he do that? Well, for one, I suspect he’s just keeping things interesting for himself after doing this job for 50 years. But I also think perhaps he doesn’t want you to sing along. This ain’t no duet, dude. Don’t be trying to share the air with Bob. When Bob sings, you shut up and listen, even if you don’t know what he’s trying to tell you.

Bob really does love us! (maybe)

Bob is famous for not acknowledging his audience anymore. Not a word. Not a look. Not a gesture. That’s how it was at ACC, but this week we got a little love! He talked (for a moment anyway). He brought out Jeff Tweedy and Jim James to help him out on “Twelve Gates to the City” – a nice crowd-pleasing gesture…

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…and at one point he stood at the mic and gave us all a little smirk and a wiggle. “I know you’re out there,” he seemed to say with that sly little grin. “I’ll do whatever the hell I feel like doing up here, but I am glad you came.” Thank-you, Bob. That’s more than we dreamed of and all that we needed.

Sometimes a crowd needs a good kick in the ass

What’s wrong with this picture?IMG_00000021

I’ll tell you what’s wrong: One of the greatest live bands in the world (yes, Wilco) is on stage and no one is standing! These people have the best seats in the house, and they can’t be bothered to rise out of them out of respect for the hard-working geniuses on stage? (Well, OK, one person is standing. And please note she is wearing a Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat. My hat’s off to her – that’s an awesome gesture at a Bob show.)

The flaccid crowd erected itself eventually. Here is a charming little dance party that broke out during Wilco’s rollicking version of “California Stars”:

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By the time MMJ were back on stage to help with “Cinnamon Girl”, all were on their feet (see “Wilco are honourary Canadians” pic above), and they stayed that way for Bob. But it shouldn’t have taken so long. My message to everyone at every rock concert everywhere – Get Up, People! Dance! Sing! Wave your devil horns! Rock is not a spectator sport.

The chances that there is a God are slightly greater than I thought

Like you, Pal, I think it is extremely unlikely there is a God. But when Wilco brought out Richard Thompson to join them in playing Fairport Convention’s “Sloth” something very strange happened. Did you notice? The heavens above the Molson Ampitheatre opened up, a pair of divine hands reached down to gently caress the minds, hands and guitars of Thompson and Wilco’s Nels Cline, resulting in two of the world’s best guitarists launching into a mind-blowing guitar duel, a 12-stringed miracle of unearthly beauty. At one point, the very fabric of space-time peeled open and we were all transported to a supernatural realm where water is wine, the blind can see and the sky blue sky is full of rainbows and radiance and boundless love. Did you notice that? Was it just me? Anyway, as you might have guessed, it was the highlight of the show for this Pal (Nels on the left, Richard on the right).

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That’s it, eight lessons learned. Thanks for getting the tickets, Pal. Ninth row! You did good. We did good. The old rockers did good. Wonderful night.

Later, Pal.

An Atheist’s Guide to Religion in Music

binkleyPalbert Einstein! That’s what you are. With every post you submit, I gain glorious new knowledge. Now you have imparted math on to me? Wowzers! That’s good work. I only hope that the world adopts your equation. Lives could be saved. If only one person uses it to justify buying a copy of Who’s Next, it will all have been worth it. Speaking of music. Here is my blog post.

segway

 

SEGWAY!!!

There is not a lot of music out there that speaks specifically to the atheist. I am likely wrong about this and I have done no research to confirm or deny my claim but I need an intro statement to start off my discussion so I am going with that one.

Steve Martin wrote a song about this very matter. The song is called Atheists Don’t Have No Songs. In it he discusses the issue:

Romantics sing Claire de Lune
Born agains sing He Has Risen
But no one ever wrote a tune
for Godless existentialism.

imagesCAXMZ1HYhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7KMQ_7OFtiY

There is lots of agnosticism and there is lots of religion in music, but there is no music for the atheist. Why is that? Atheists can be just a passionate as the next person. We too have loins that burn resulting in the overwhelming need to sing.

As an atheist who loves and listens to a fair bit of music I can’t escape God. The word God is dropped all over the place in song lyrics. It makes sense why. Aside from belief, the word God can be a very effective artistic device to represent intangibles like hope, love and wonder. Quick and easy. One word. Atheists can appreciate the intangible too, we just don’t have a single word as powerful as God. For that reason, I tend to embrace its use in music. It moves me. I react to it in a positive way. Maybe it’s a remnant of how entrenched religion is in me still (a lingering affect of the kool-aid), or maybe it is the idea of expressing some kind of bigness, but I just think it works so well.

So what do we do Atheists? How do we navigate the quagmire of God in music without getting all bent out of shape about perpetuating its myth. Easy. I say embrace it. It is just a word. A powerful word. It makes sense to have a lyric like God if only for its artistic efficacy. For all those angry Atheists who get upset at the mere mention of a deity, I say get over it (and possibly yourselves). People who put God in their lyrics aren’t necessarily pushing any religion. Sometimes they might just be telling a story. I could write a song that has the word juggle in it. That doesn’t mean I think everyone should take up juggling. To have an issue with the word might be more a reflection of the listener than the artist.

Still not sure Atheists? Well, let me be your atheistic Mr. Rogers and take you through the land of make believe. DING DING! Hop in the trolly car. We are off to see King Friday. Here are some songs that I love that mention God. Come with me. Let us see if we can’t fit them into our own godless biases.

Jesus etc. by Wilco

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I am not sure I have fully wrapped my head around the meaning of this song. Lyrics about Jesus, skyscrapers, last cigarettes, and turning your orbit around. Here are the God lines.

Jesus don’t cry
You can rely on me honey
You can combine anything you want

Huh?

Or, what about this one?

Our love is all of God’s money

That’s a great line. I used to think it was “Our love is all we gots honey”. Until pal and I saw the correct lyric on a T-shirt at a Jeff Tweedy concert. The currency of God is love. I might say the currency of life (or time) is love, but that wouldn’t have the same impact. To me the song is about a boyfriend talking to a girlfriend who is having some kind of trouble. It is a consolation song for someone going through hard times.

Don’t cry. You can rely on me honey. You can come by any time you want.

There are a million sad songs in the city. Wilco does a great job of making pretty songs out of that sadness.

Tall buildings shake.
Voices escape
singing sad sad songs.
Tuned to chords
Strung down your cheek
Bitter melodies
Turning your orbit around

When He Returns by Bob Dylan

0Religious motifs are all over Bob’s music. Whether it is his born again phase or not. Here, I think, is his pinnacle born again song.

Don’t you cry and don’t you die and don’t you burn

Yikes! I can’t reword this one. It is blatantly about the return of Christ. However, when you brake it down he is just talking about being good, not being so full of yourself, removing greed, cutting out the BS, finding the truth. You don’t need religion to agree with all that stuff.

Truth is an arrow and the gate is narrow

It is a terribly beautiful song. The last track on Slow Train Coming. A great way to end that album. I always find myself lost in this song to the point where when it is over and I am just sitting there in silence with my brain swimming not realizing the music has stopped. This song just makes me think.

How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?

How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?

I don’t have answers to those questions Bob. Do you?

Church by De La Soul
092412_delasoul_2Moving into some fun stuff now. Introduced by Spike Lee “church, it’s reality”. This is a song about healing urban youth laced over a funky churchy beat. Never has rapping about putting a book in your face and graduating the school year ever been so hardcore.

The pay off is much sweeter than the pay back

The song is about healing and gaining a self-actualized religious perspective via organized togetherness. Finding a healing reality via church.

The early bird catches the worm in this rotten apple. But dig more and you’ll find a seed.

Take God out of this picture and I can’t argue the benefits of getting together as a community. To get rid of one’s pride and be accepting of help from others when it is needed.

Your holding fear to close. Unfasten it.

Dear God by Monsters of Folk

imagesCAYTPVCBTo me the song is about someone searching for help. Looking for an answer that can’t be found. Wondering why is it so hard to see good (or God) in the world sometimes. And where the H E double hockey-sticks are You when the badness faces us.

Dear God I’m trying hard to reach you
Dear God I see your face in all I do
Sometimes your so hard to believe in
But God I know you have your reasons

For believers it might be looking for God. For non believers it might be looking for humanity. The voices in this song are all troubled. They are looking for religion but can’t reconcile that with the bad things that they do and the bad things that surround them.

What keeps you out, it keeps me in.

Take God out and it is really a song about self doubt. There are three voices in this song. I like to think that each person contributed their perspective on the hypocrisy of God’s love.

If your love is still around, why do we suffer?

Such Great Heights by The Postal Service or Iron and Wine

postal This is a sweet song. The Postal Service have a version and Iron and Wine Have a version. Both very different sounding. This song for me represents the idea of soul mates. I don’t believe in soul mates, but I am well aware of the feeling of being so in sync with somebody as if you were literally made for each other.

I am thinking it’s a sign that the freckles in our eyes are mirror images and when we kiss they’re perfectly aligned
And I have to speculate that God himself did make us into corresponding shapes like puzzle pieces from the clay

To the non-believers, this can’t be. This is a common feeling tho’. I have this feeling. Why? Maybe it reflects the evolutionary need to find and be bound to a mate to procreate. When you fall in love, you feel like there is no better match for you than this person and you never want leave them. You are locked in and can now make and/or raise babies with this person. It may not sound as romantic as God (although I might argue it is). It is not built on a higher power, but the feelings are real and the feelings are pretty sweet.

And true it may feel like a stretch
But it’s thoughts like this that catch my weary head
when you’re away and I am missing you to death

I also think it reflects how over time we become tuned into our mate. For example, thinking the same things at the same time becomes more common as a relationship evolves. How ’bout changing the word God to Time? Maybe more accurate but does it work artistically? Like Arsenio Hall would say, “hmmnnnn”.

arsenio

Well that is it. These are all great songs regardless of what they mean. Give ’em a listen. God be with you pal, if only in the artistic sense.

Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums – An “Appreciation”

Hey Pal!

Let me be perfectly clear. As you know, I love Rolling Stone magazine. It has been my musical bible ever since it taught my 15-year-old self that Springsteen and Midnight Oil were a better way to spend my time than Twisted Sister and Quiet Riot. I may never have discovered most of my favourite albums and artists if not for them (Here’s looking at you, Velvet Underground and Nico, Love’s Forever Changes and Joni Mitchell’s Blue).

But, as one of our biggest fans has pointed out, I prefer to criticize than praise, so without further adieu, I present:

THE 10 BIGGEST MISTAKES IN ROLLING STONE’S 500 GREATEST ALBUMS OF ALL TIME

Number four is the real number one!

Sgt. Peppers is a predictable and dull choice for the top spot. I know its release was a watershed moment in rock history, but for those of us who weren’t around to witness its impact, it doesn’t even sound like the best Beatles album. As for Pet Sounds at #2, I give up. I have tried and I have no idea why that album is such a big deal. Revolver at #3? No argument here – great album, right where it should be.

And then comes Highway 61 Revisitedway down at number four. How can that be? Dylan is the best, and this is the best Dylan. It opens with Like a Rolling Stone and closes with Desolation Row, with nothing but perfection in between. Sample lyric:

The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone
Causes Galileo’s math book to get thrown
At Delilah who’s sitting worthlessly alone
But the tears on her cheeks are from laughter.

I have no idea what that means – I just know it’s awesome. It’s Bob’s world; the rest of us are just trying to keep up. Number four?  As if. Number one, all the way, Baby!

BOB DYLAN       Beach Boys

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot way too low.

At #493, Wilco’s masterpiece barely makes the list. Are you kidding me? One reviewer aptly called it “OK Computer for the heartland.” It’s a moody, mesmerizing blend of rock, country and electronics that feels like it’s being transmitted from the distant past and the distant future. I don’t know how a band does that, but I do know that when life sucks and I’m not looking for anyone to cheer me up, I just need to go someplace faraway and strange and be reminded that pain can be beautiful too – this is the place. Top 50, easy.

Speaking of OK Computer

OK Computer too low.   

Before looking at the list I took it for granted that OK Computer or Kid A would be in the top 20. My personal choice is OK Computer. Turns out it’s only the third highest Radiohead album. Kid A is #67 and The Bends is #111. OK Computer doesn’t show up until #162. Arguably, they’re all too low, but OK is definitely too low.

Here’s what you do: throw on a pair of headphones, hit play on OK, lay back and close your eyes – then, when you return from your journey, tell me this isn’t one of the top tier accomplishments in rock. It’s the modern day Dark Side of the Moon. Our great grandkids are going to study it in music class. I should point out that #162 puts it precisely 10 spots behind the B52s’ debut album. “Rock Lobster” > “Paranoid Android”? Just wonderin’.

It includes Greatest Hits collections.

If you took the best nine innings in the history of the New York Yankees and spliced them together, could you call that the best game they every played? I don’t think so. Same goes for music. An album is a collection of songs that represents a moment in time for an artist. A gathering of singles spanning a career doesn’t count. That’s a playlist. So Madonna’s Like a Prayer (#239)? Fine. Immaculate Collection (#184)? No.

Note – this rule (my list, my rules!) does not apply to live albums. A kick-ass show or tour is a moment in time. So KISS Alive (#159) – rock on.

  

Not enough Neil Young.

OK, so the Beatles, Stones and Dylan all get 10 albums each – that’s cool, they are the crowned kings of rock. But if Springsteen gets eight and The Who get seven, Mr. Young deserves similar numbers. Five ain’t quite enough. On the Beach and Freedom ought to fill things out nicely.  

Wrong Stones album in the Top Ten.

Time has been kind to the reputation of Exile on Main St (#7). Too kind, if you ask me. This was not always considered the Stones’ best album – somehow that notion has crept into the collective consciousness in recent years. Upon its release, many critics panned it. Lenny Kaye wrote in Rolling Stone: “There are songs that are better, there are songs that are worse, and others you’ll probably lift the needle when the time is due.”

Forty years later, he’s still right (except the needle part). The album is fine, but it’s ragged and sloppy, and when it’s over, not a single song sticks with me. I think we can agree the Stones belong in the top ten, but give me Beggar’s Banquet, Let it Bleed or Sticky Fingers any day of the week.

I’ll say this about Exile, though – side two is awesome and so is the cover.

Wrong Steve Earle.

I should probably just be pleased that there’s even one Steve Earle album on the list (Guitar Town, #482), but Mr. Hard Core Troubadour has provided the soundtrack of my life and I ain’t satisfied with this choice. Guitar Town is just his debut – the man evolved! I’m glad he gets his one spot, but let’s use it properly: Copperhead Road, El Corazon, or Train a Comin’ – in that order. Guitar Town’s fourth.

          

In a related side note, I’m delighted Los Lobos got a spot, but How Will the Wolf Survive (#455) should have been Kiko.

They’re living in the past!

Did I mention I love Rolling Stone? I really do. But they favour the old guard just a little too much. You see it in their reviews. And you see it on this list. The top 50 has just one album newer than 1990 (Nirvana, Nevermind, #17), and only four from the 1980s (but one of those is Bob Marley’s Legend and, like I said, Greatest Hits don’t count). Everything else is older. In fact, the whole list is old, old, old. I’m pretty old, so it’s mostly what I listen to too. But you can’t tell me there haven’t been more masterpieces in the last 20 years. Do the list again in 50 years and we’ll see where Radiohead, Wilco, LCD Soundsytem, Bjork and PJ Harvey shake out. Even better, why wait to give them their due?

  

Dookie higher than American Idiot.

I have two wishes for Green Day. The first is that we all come to our senses and realize that American Idiot (#225) is the band’s crowning achievement, not Dookie (#193). Dookie is three punks farting around. American Idiot is the punks GROWN UP – angry, rocking and politically-charged. It’s a sophisticated concept album – a rarity now – and it makes Dookie look like child’s play.

My second wish for Green Day is that they one day take a picture where they don’t look like total jackasses.

Automatic for the People too low.

REM’s somber masterpiece clocks in at a respectable #249 so you might wonder what I’m complaining about. I’m not saying this one’s personal, but I think the voters just didn’t have enough information. For instance, they probably didn’t know that “Everybody Hurts” got my wife and me through some lonely nights when we were first together and going to school in separate cities. And I doubt they were aware that “Nightswimming” was our wedding song. And they probably weren’t at Toronto’s Molson Ampitheatre on June 13, 1995 when REM put on a show so cosmically perfect that a huge full moon actually glowed above the stage during “Man on the Moon”.

No, I’m not saying this one’s personal at all. I’m just wondering how anyone with a heart could float along from the opening notes of “Drive” through to the final strains of transcendent closer “Find the River” and not call it best album ever.

Well, right after Highway 61 Revisited, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and OK Computer of course. That goes without saying.

OK, Pal, over to you. Feel free to give me your take on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums sometime. There is at least one big juicy oversight I let slide because I know you feel even stronger about it than I do.