Why I Love What I Love: 30 Favorite Recordings, 2000-2009 (Part III)
18. Sam Phillips
Fan Dance (2001)
Fan Dance stands apart from every other album I own as a sort of dark marvel, a series of riddles that build upon one another into a grand puzzle that absorbs me even as it remains slightly elusive. Certainly, Phillips lives up to her album title: A fan dance is a strip tease, and so is the record, a performance of gradual revelation and a winking smile, an album that does indeed tease the listener with enigmatic poetry about art, truth, and grace– ideas formed and cultivated by Phillips’ own experience of being artistically and spiritually stunted within the confines of Christian pop, and her subsequent exodus into true, expressive freedom. This is something of a belated sequel to The Turning, a diary of an artist’s life wherein questions come easier than answers and the journey carries more weight than the destination. It’s also the seed of everything I love about singer-songwriter records; everything from the unvarnished production, the deep resonance of the creaky acoustic instruments, to the lyrics’ sly, knowing humor, has been formative for me, and the album still dazzles.
17. Buddy Miller
Universal United House of Prayer (2004)
I grew up listening mostly to Christian rock, a habit I long ago abandoned, but this record reminds me of how far a little holy fire goes toward making religious music really burn. Buddy’s gospel is more about creed and conviction than a particular aesthetic or style, as he surveys everything from fiery gospel-rock to hillbilly sing-alongs, country balladry to soaring spiritual anthems. It testifies to the astonishing depth and variety of American religious music, but what to make of the album’s centerpiece, a somber, epic take on Dylan’s “With God on Our Side?” It’s a spiritual of a different variety, a prayer for peace and a plea for compassion, an acknowledgment both of political realities (remember, this is a year into the Iraq War) and of the transcending power of the Divine. Falling where it does, it transforms the album into a powerful witness to the very real hand of God in affairs both personal and political, and House of Prayer into a timely and timeless ode to unity, tradition, and heavenly-mindedness.
16. Arcade Fire
I have something of a love-hate relationship with the indie music scene; I am dazzled by the innovation and eclecticism on display, but frustrated by the genre’s tendency toward exclusivity, and artists who seem to pour all their effort into emphasizing the line between those who “get it” and those who don’t. Not so with Arcade Fire, a band that transcends both their scene and their peers with open arms, big hearts, and anthems designed to reach all the way to the rafters and coax everyone into singing along. This is raw catharsis, music of intense feeling and a conviction that rock and roll can actually make a difference in lives, which might make Arcade Fire the closest thing this generation has to a new U2, and Funeral is their Boy and their Joshua Tree rolled into one: An album of suburban malaise and yearning for spiritual release, music that soars because it’s rooted in something personal, but aims to say something universal.
15. Josh Ritter
The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (2007)
An album that I will always defend, Ritter’s reinvention from a mannered folkie into a frisky, rambunctious pop troubadour recalls nothing if not Nick Lowe’s funny, layered records of the late 1970s, cartwheeling as it does from one style to the next with giddy energy and a pop craftsman’s ear for melody. Ritter’s album is deeper and richer, though, as he hijacks American myth and music and refashions it in his own image. Here Ritter is the gunslinger, the grizzled cowboy, the consummate lover; he is the American Adam, the new Dylan, the randy soul man and the soulful rocker. The album is built from a vocabulary we know– the language of pop songs– but from it Ritter fashions something that’s funny, original, and meaningful. The album is full of frayed ends, loose electricity, and odd left-turns, but its heart is true– love shines as the ultimate temptation and the only true redemption. This is Josh Ritter’s Americana, and it is mine as well– and I will love this album forever.
14. Richard Hawley
Truelove’s Gutter (2009)
I guess Richard Hawley just wasn’t made for these times. These songs are rich with images of modernity, of cling and clatter, noise and complication, drugs and addiction and love that hasn’t faded so much as atrophied, killed by the din. But the music rebukes all these modern demons through its sheer beauty, its elegance, its clarity. This is an album of rich, enveloping sadness, a kind of melancholy that feels warm and comforting, not dispiriting but awe-inspiring, and it becomes not just a prayer for serenity and a monument to enduring romance, but a note of permission to feel again; the last song is called “Don’t Cry,” but actually the singer tells us we can cry, that perhaps a little release is much-needed in this age of numbness and overload. Certainly, that’s what Truelove’s Gutter has become for me– a gateway to catharsis, my go-to sadsack album for when I need music to simply wash over me.
13. The Hold Steady
Boys and Girls in America (2006)
In 2006, Craig Finn and his Hold Steady weren’t simply heralded as the new ‘it’ band; they were greeted as saviors, which was on one level quite literally true– they may not have saved rock and roll, but, for many of us, they saved our faith in just what rock and roll could do. Certainly, that’s what this record will always be for me: A clear bolt of rock’s youthfulness and romance, its brash energy and cock-eyed sense of wonder. This is rock that knows no boundaries, lacking any kind of self-awareness or pretense; it may weave together threads picked up from Bruce Springsteen, Thin Lizzy, and The Clash, but it does so without making a big to-do about its influences or the way the band blends them into a voice all their own. It’s simply the sound of men who love power chords and beer-swilling anthems, creating a glorious ruckus.
That The Hold Steady is on some level a lyrics band has been said time and time again, and it somehow seems to state the obvious while missing the point altogether; yes, Craig Finn writes sharp and visceral stories about down-and-out losers, barstool romantics and gutter poets, but these have always been the heroes of rock and roll, just as integral in making this vital, crackling rock and roll as the E-Street piano and devilish guitar riffs. It’s what Finn does with these characters, though, that makes The Hold Steady a band of uncompromising heart and integrity; he leads them through back alleys of addiction and raw desire, and allows them to at least see the light of redemption shine through. I’ve never been a drug addict, but his references to Judas and Jesus in “Citrus” ring true; I don’t always like to admit it, but the story Finn’s telling is my story, too.