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Albums of the Year: 2010

December 16th, 2010 8 comments

A few months ago I complained that few albums released this year had grabbed me; suddenly there came an avalanche of quality albums that compensated for my disappointment in sets by some favourite artists that I had looked forward to.

I have not been able to get on with the Ben Folds and Nick Hornby collaboration, much as I am a Folds fan and as I like Hornby’s books. Joshua Radin’s album is decent enough, but it did not attract the affection I had for his debut album. Jenny Lewis’ collaboration with Jonathan Rice bored me. Even the Weepies’ album, which does make it into my top 20, will not become my favourite of theirs.

I am quite sad to leave out of my Top 20 a few albums that could have been contenders in previous years: Shelby Lynne, Josh Ritter, Patty Griffin, Plants & Animals, Krista Detor, Audrey Assad, Belle & Sebastian, Leif Vollebekk, Merle Haggard, She & Him (which I took a while to like) and Bruno Mars.

So, on to my top 20, which is rather dominated by the Americana and country thing. It comprises albums I enjoy playing; it’s not intended to be a list of the year’s best albums, nor are they the most groundbreaking or experimental releases. These albums simply just gave me joy (which is why I listen to music). The songs listed with the album appear in the compilation linked to at the end of this post.

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Lloyd Cole – Broken Record
The music mags’ reviews were respectfully lukewarm to what is a hugely appealing set. This warm and intelligent album is Lloyd’s county record, with slide guitars, banjos and harmonicas. Funny enough, it’s a song called Rhinestone that sounds least like country and most like Cole’s stuff with the Commotions (one of whom turns up in this album). Lyrically, the album is standard Cole with clever turns of phrase and endearing self-deprecations. The vocals of Joan Wasser (Joan As Policewoman) are much welcome. Homepage
Lloyd Cole – Like A Broken Record
Lloyd Cole – Oh Geneviève

Brian Wilson – Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin
Brian Wilson reports his earliest musical memory as hearing Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue (which bookends this set). It makes sense that the great American songwriter of the ’60s should record an album of music by the great American songwriter of the ’30s. The standards – They Can’t Take That Away from Me, Someone to Watch Over Me, I Got Rhythm, It Ain’t Necessarily So etc – are engagingly recreated, and even the overdone Summertime, so often violated by mannered interpretations, is bearable here. Of particular interest are the previously unrecorded Gershwin songs, completed by Wilson at the invitation of Gershwin’s estate. Wilson’s style is so distinctive that it is difficult to imagine how they might have sounded in interpretations by, say, Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra. They are nonetheless quite lovely. One of these originals, The Like In I Love You, sounds a lot like a song from Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man. Homepage
Brian Wilson – I’ve Got A Crush On You

Caitlin Rose – On The Town
Caitlin Rose is receiving massive buzz, deservedly so. The Nashville native’s debut album recalls Tift Merritt at her country-folkiest: mellow melodies and vulnerable vocals. It’s a mature album that belies Rose’s 23 years – even if some of these songs were written when Caitlin was a teenager. Homepage
Caitlin Rose – Own Side

Mavis Staples – You Are Not Alone
Mavis and her family are probably best known for soul hits such as Respect Yourself and I’ll Take You There, but their primary genre was gospel. Now 71 years old, Mavis continues to work the gospel beat, using the genre’s traditional sounds as well as new approaches. Produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy — who on tracks such as In Christ There Is No East Or West marries the Wilco sound with the gospel sensibilities which Pop Staples would have approved of with— You Are Not Alone will rightly feature high on many end-of-year lists. Homepage
Mavis Staples – In Christ There Is No East Or West

Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses – Junky Star
I know a music journalist who has stated his objection to musicians going by their civilian names if these sound like those of school teachers. My pal might not review Ryan Bingham’s album because of his name, though his interest might be peaked that it also serves as George Clooney’s character’s name in Up In The Air. Or he might listen up because Bingham has won an Oscar and Golden Globe for his song The Weary Kind, the theme song of the film Crazy Heart. Don’t expect Junky Star to be a pure country album; this is Steve Earle and  Tom Waits territory, before Waits’ voice became excruciating. One almost expects Bingham, blessed with a gruff, expressive voice himself, to likewise lose his voice by the end of this powerful album. Homepage
Ryan Bingham – Depression

Dylan LeBlanc – Paupers Fields
If the critics are right, 20-year-old Dylan LeBlanc is the new saviour of the country music heritage. The happy news is that, despite his age and name, this is no male version of Taylor Swift, whose primary relationship with country resides in marketing, nor is he likely to don a black Stetson, wifebeater and sing masculine tunes about the good ole U S of A. LeBlanc is a serious country musician, of the Gram Parsons or Townes van Zandt school (true enough, Emmylou Harris turns up to lend harmonies on one track, which also invites comparison to another much-hyped prodigy, Conner Oberst). His young age is no issue: he sounds much more mature than a lad just out of his teens. Even if he doesn’t sing from experience – if he does, then he has lived the life of a man twice his age – his delivery is credible. Homepage
Dylan LeBlanc – If Time Was For Wasting

Bill Kirchen – Word To The Wise
A veteran musician and guitar maestro who released his first solo record in 1972 and not much else before 2007’s brilliantly titled Hammer Of The Honky Tonk Gods, Kirchen has issued a fun rock & roll album with the likes of Nick Lowe, Chris O’Connell, Maria Muldaur and Elvis Costello collaborating. It’s unfair, actually, to reduce the album to rock & roll: it draws from the traditions in the melting pot that produced the genre: blues, rockabilly, boogie woogie, honky tonk. It’s an eclectic album: opener Bump Wood sounds like Jerry Lee Lewis, it is followed by a Merle Haggard ballad, which in turn is followed by a blues-rock number with Elvis Costello, and so on. His duet with Asleep At The Wheel’s O’Connell, Roger Miller’s Husbands and Wives, is particularly well executed. Homepage
Bill Kirchen (with Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack) – Shelly’s Winter Love

Ray Lamontagne and the Pariah Dogs – God Willin’ And The Creek Don’t Rise
The reviewers’ meme with this album refers to Neil Young, Harvest era. If so, then I’m grateful that Lamontagne has a raspier voice than whiney Neil. Lamontagne’s fourth album is folk-rock, but heavily country influenced. Maybe a reference to the Byrds would be more apt. And when Lamontagne slows things down (even more), one might recall Joni Mitchell. A most captivating album. Homepage
Ray Lamontagne and the Pariah Dogs – Devil’s In The Jukebox

Cee Lo Green – The Lady Killer
Regular readers will be in no doubt about my abiding love for the rich repository of soul music, but I have little patience for the current crop of high-pitched auto-tuned R&B gubbins, nor for stylised retro singers like Amy Whitehouse or the frog-voiced Duffy. Even John Legend, who does understand his soul heritage, doesn’t excite me. I am, however, hugely excited by the Gnarls Barkley singer’s album, which draws from different eras of soul. On It’s OK he sounds like namesake Al on Motown steroids, Old Fashioned draws from the 1960s, Bodies recalls Bobby Womack, Cry Baby and Satisfied a nods to ’80s soul-pop. Green has a couple guests on his album, but none are likely to blind him with dental bling, brag about their wealth or threaten to bust caps in his ass. Paradiso Girls’ Lauren Bennett turns up; it’s a delicious irony that the author of the ubiquitous Don’t Cha gets a member of a Pussycat Dolls knock-off band to guest. The other guest is Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey, on a song that sounds more contemporary  than most of the material here. It’s also a funny album: when Cee Lo subtitles the title track “Licence To Kill” it seems to be a tongue-in-cheek finger at his cliché-mongering R&B contemporaries, and the Gold Digger reference in the fantastic Fuck You is inspired. Homepage
Cee Lo Green – It’s OK

Raul Malo – Sinners and Saints
The former Mavericks frontman’s sixth solo album is eclectic, to say the least. Opener Living For Today sounds like Little Feat jamming with Lynyrd Skynyrd; that’s followed by the mariachi horns and telecaster guitar dominated title track, followed by a Tex-Mex rocker, then a country song performed as if by Springsteen (Rodney Crowell’s Til I Gain Control Again),  later a Spanish ballad, and so on. Raul Malo, a multi-instrumentalist whose powerful voice is full of character, clearly enjoyed making this album. And the result is hugely agreeable. Homepage
Raul Malo – Living For Today

The Watson Twins – Talking To You Talking To Me
Chandra and Leigh Watson (who actually are twins) harmonise the hell out of catchy tracks with shots of experimentation that takes them over the alt.county boundaries of their reputation, at times sounding like Sade if she was an Indie musicians (Savin’ Me, Harpeth River). And, yes, there are songs where they sound like Rilo Kiley, whose frontwoman Jenny Lewis they backed on their fine 2006 collaboration (Savin’ You). Homepage
The Watson Twins – Devil In You

Johnny Cash – American VI:  Ain’t No Grave
Seven years after Johnny Cash died, we get another collection of his Rick Rubin-produced American series, apparently the final release. It is a fine way of going out. There’s nothing new here, but the special poignancy of knowing that Cash recorded these ten songs in the four months between the death of his beloved June in May 2003 and his own in September, with Cash acutely aware of his mortality without descending into morbidity, and to the end insisting on communicating his deep religious faith. Some songs I can live without (Aloha Oe!), and some cannot compete with the previous versions (Kristofferson’s For The Good Times). But the minimalist arrangements and intimacy of Cash’s fragile yet forceful and soulful voice wrap the songs in a warmth and appealing sense of yearning. Buy
Johnny Cash – Redemption Day

Lissie – Catch A Tiger
Lissie Mauros reminds me a lot of Neko Case, with a heavy dose of ’80s pop influence. Or maybe Stevie Nicks, in attitude and voice – In Sleep sounds like Fleetwood Mac ripping off Blondie (Atomic-era). And, seeing as I’m grappling to find comparison to female singers, there’s a hint of Nicole Atkins, if the wonderful Atkins was a folk-rock singer. Almost every song here is utterly catchy, some even exhilaratingly poppy  (Loosen The Knot, Stranger). Homepage
Lissie – Stranger

Carl Broemel – All The Birds Say
As guitarist and some-time saxophonist of My Morning Jacket, Carl Broemel was not an obvious candidate for the release of a solo album, much less such a sweet one. This, his second solo effort after 2004’s Lose What’s Left, is a perfect Sunday morning record; played while one sips the morning coffee, bites into the croissant and opens the newspaper. Think of it as a lighter version of Ron Sexsmith, an artist influenced (and highly rated) by Paul McCartney, as clearly is Broemel. Homepage
Carl Broemel – Enough

Willie Nelson – Country Music
This is a T-Bone Burnett-produced tribute to the country songs that reside in the juke box of Willie Nelson’s memory. Cover albums are a precarious beast. Some artists feel they need to re-interpret, re-invent and update the songs they profess to love. Others will give us the very best in karaoke. Nelson just damn well sings the songs, straight and without bullshit. He knows these songs and their context, and preserves them there. The sound is timeless. And some of the song choices are inspired. Homepage
Willie Nelson – Satisfied Mind

Crowded House – Intriguer
The trouble with Crowded House is that their songs are really made to be heard live. The second post-reunion album is something of a grower. The hooks that at first seem to be absent reveal themselves over time. The album was produced by Jim Scott, who also produced Wilco’s last album. It shows, even as the album is very recognisably a Crowded House effort. Homepage
Crowded House – Twice If You’re Lucky

Walt Cronin – California I Gotta Run
Already in his 50s Walt Cronin’s gravelly baritone and sound reflect the experience of life, wistfully and defiantly. “I would never count the days of my life, but I’ll always let the dawn greet my eyes,” the former medic in the Vietnam war sings in Shinin’ Through, one of several sweet love songs on this most appealing set. Homepage
Walt Cronin – Road I’m Takin’

Tift Merritt – See You On The Moon
I am bound to love an album that kicks off with a song about making a mix-tape (“with home-made covers”). Of Merritt’s three preceding studio albums, two were filled with slow-burning ballads, one was a rootsy affair. See You On The Moon has a bit of both; she is both plugging into the templates of both Harris and Ronstadt (even if she has evidently departed the world of county). I expected that her cover of Loggins & Messina’s Danny’s Song would make me wince; happily it is tender and amiable. Homepage
Tift Merritt – The Things That Everybody Does

The Weepies – Be My Thrill
In this post’s introduction I declared myself vaguely disappointed by Be My Thrill, but this is only in relation to the album’s three predecessors. Like them, Be My Thrill is very likeable. Deb Talan and Steve Tannen are happily married, have a happy family and are (no surprise twist coming up) very obviously happy (“I was made for sunny days,” Talan sings, “and I was mad for you”). The streaks of darkness from the debut have been usurped by all the colours of the rainbow. The album is relentlessly happy (with the jarring exception of Tannen’s “How Do You Get High?”) and unless one’s demeanour is governed by inexorable melancholy, the occasional burst of happiness can be richly welcome. So Be My Thrill is a bit like a double strawberry milkshake.  Homepage
The Weepies – Please Speak Well Of Me

Sahara Smith – Myth Of The Heart
T-Bone Burnett is on a golden streak. Among his protégés is Texan Sahara Smith, a former child prodigy who has been writing songs since she was 14. Blessed with a beautiful and expressive voice, Smith writes smart lyrics set to appealing melodies, some of them very memorable. Train Man sounds much like Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game. Smith might have a name that conjures images of pop muppetry, but she is a very talented artist who has created an impressive debut. MySpace
Sahara Smith – Are You Lonely

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Previous Albums of the Year

Albums of the Year: 2004

November 17th, 2009 6 comments

My ten favourite albums of 2004 exclude — and here I fully expect to be shouted at — the rather overrated Arcade Fire debut (it will not feature in 2005 either, seeing as that’s when it came out in many regions). But, Canadians take heart, Ron Sexsmith does feature. As always, this is not intended to represent the ten best albums of the year, only those I have and like best, with some not making the cut much to my regret (Patty Griffin, Anna Ternheim, Sufjan Stevens, A.C. Newman, Joseph Arthur, Kings Of Leon, Laura Veirs). Looking at some contemporary “best of 2004” lists, I feel hopelessly out of touch. Have some of these people ever been heard of again? Did they ever exist, or were their inclusion some kind of critics’ practical joke (Dungen!)?

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Rilo Kiley – More Adventurous

rilo_kileyWhat is it about Rilo Kiley that puts the critics in such ambivalent mood? More Adventurous lives up to its title: it’s an eclectic album, even if there is not much that’s particularly experimental. The variety seems to have puzzled the critics; I like it. There’s the alt.country, folk-rock stuff with which the group has been mostly associated (such as on the lovely title track and The Absence Of God), power indie-pop (the fantastic Portions For Foxes and It’s A Hit), a 1920s throwback (Ripchord), a torchsong country number (I Never), and what might be described as electronica country (the dyslexic Accidntel Deth). Apart from Portions For Foxes, the dramatic Does He Love You (discussed HERE) is the stand-out track. Throughout the lyrics are sharp, and on this album Jenny Lewis found her sexy, expressive voice.
Rilo Kiley – I Never.mp3
Rilo Kiley – It’s A Hit.mp3

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Brian Wilson – SMiLE

brian_wilsonWhen I first got SMiLE , I did not get it. In fact, I was so disappointed by Brian Wilson’s long-awaited and much-hyped collaboration with Van Dyke Parkes that I didn’t expect to ever play it again, just to file it away in a spot where the handsome packaging, with the rather good booklet, would look nice. Then circumstances conspired, making me play the thing four times over on loop. The penny dropped and I got it. There are moments I can live without, yet these moments are a part of the trip: a post-psychedelic trip, a melancholy yet buoyant trip, a trip to a place that doesn’t exist anymore, and probably never did. It’s an album as removed from reality as Brian Wilson is said to be today. The timing of its release, in the middle of the corporate, synthetic ’00s was fortuitous. Coinciding with an era when commercial realism tends to trump enterprising creativity, SMiLE appeared as a connection to a time when innovation was not scorned but rewarded — ironically by putting together the one ’60s masterpiece that never was.

Mike Love apparently described SMiLE as an insult to the Beach Boys’ legacy. To prove his point, Mike Love in 2006 recorded that instant classic Santa’s Going To Kokomo, thereby mercifully redeeming the Beach Boys’ reputation.
Brian Wilson – Roll Plymouth Rock.mp3
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Mindy Smith – One More Moment

mindy_smithMindy Smith’s name evokes the image of plastic blondes in skimpy beachwear living it up at the Playboy Mansion, not the reality of a writer and singer of beautiful country-folk music. Smith was in her early 30s before she finally released this, her debut album. Occasional visitor to this parish Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop (whose periodically updated blog is always very readable) last week commented about One Moment More that it packs an “emotional punch”, referring to Smith’s “supreme songwriting”. Indie-Pop, a man of discerning musical judgment, got it right. Add to that Mindy Smith’s superb, clear voice and ability to invest the right amount of emotion into her songs. Her version of Dolly Parton’s Jolene is probably the best of the many I’ve heard.
Mindy Smith – Fighting For It All.mp3

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Jens Lekman – When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog

Jens LekmanTime was when Sweden burdened us with the regrettable likes of Roxette and Ace Of Base who were hauling in the glorious slipstream of ABBA. This decade, Sweden is a hotbed of wonderful Indie-pop created by artists who can create a catchy hook and an incisive lyric, even a cappela style. The Cardigans set the scene, but the godfather may well be Jens Lekman. Indeed, he gets namechecked, alongside Townes van Zandt, in what may be the best Swedish song of the genre, Hello Saferide’s The Quiz. Lekman turns out some rather good melodies, but the charm of his songs exist in the idiosyncratic lyrics. Take the upbeat You Are The Light: the protagonist gets arrested for defacing his girlfriend’s father’s Mercedes Benz at her prompting, and uses his one phone call to ask the local radio station to dedicate a song to her. There are startling surprises in many of his wry lyrics, but they aren’t contrived, and at times they are casually profound. That is an art in an age when so many people discern depth in Coldplay’s lyrics. And unlike Coldplay and their fellow worthies, Lekman is frequently very funny indeed.
Jens Lekman – The Cold Swedish Winter.mp3

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The Weepies – Happiness

weepiesDeb Talan and Steve Tannen were solo performers on the folk circuit when they met. They decided to collaborate, chose a stupid name for their duo, fell in love, married, moved to Topanga, California, and had a child, and in the interim have released three albums. It’s a happy story, with the title of their debut album an opportune portent. The harmonies are, as one would expect, lovely (especially on closing track Keep It There); none of the songs are likely to jolt the listener out of their comfort zone. But it’s not all predictable introspective coffeehouse folk stuff, and when it is (such as on the lovely Somebody Loved or Simple Life), it’s of superior quality. On other tracks, there are jangly guitars on the suitably upbeat title track, snowbells on the Christmas-flavoured All That I Want, bluegrass guitar on Vegas Baby. Perhaps the most affecting song is Tannen’s Dating A Porn Star, as good a country a song as one might find in this decade.
The Weepies – Dating A Porn Star.mp3

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Dave Alvin – Ashgrove

dave_alvinDave Alvin is a flexible musician, at home in country, folk, blues, rock and punk. He has been a member of rockabilly band The Blasters (with his brother Phil) and the influential punk band The Flesheaters, and he wrote Dwight Yoakam’s country classic Long White Cadillac. Ashgrove is a departure from his previous albums, which covered either country and folk or bluesy roots rock (a genre title I despise). Personally, I prefer the country stuff. I’m not a great roots rock fan, but I do like it when Alvin does it — his guitar work is terrific. As always with Dave Alvin, the lyrics are worth following; some of them are compelling. Two stand out: Out Of Control tells a hell of a story, and The Man In The Bed Isn’t Me is truly touching. The sequencing is a bit jarring, though, with the bluesy rock alternating with the country songs, preventing the set from settling into a coherent mood.
Dave Alvin – Sinful Daughter.mp3

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Ron Sexsmith – Retriever

Ron SexsmithEvery male singer-songwriter who enjoys any amount of critical esteem is likely to be compared to the tragic Elliot Smith, the genre’s eternal poet laureate (whose posthumously assembled collection of demos was released in 2004). Flattering though such comparisons are, often they are inappropriate and lazy. Ron Sexsmith’s sound has little in common with Smith’s, and his lyrics are more hopeful. Sexsmith also gets compared to Paul McCartney (and Happiness from Retriever sounds much like a Macca song), who has championed him. I suppose that the comparisons to Smith do not relate to sound or mood, but to songwriting chops. Retriever, like almost all of Sexsmith’s works, is a beautifully written. It’s a warm, gorgeous album, it embraces the listener in a comforting auditory blanket, aided by Sexsmith’s engaging voice and thoughtful lyrics. It’s not the kind of album, and Sexsmith not the kind of artist, that one turns to for a fix of challenging music; there is enough depth here to remove it from vacant pop, but it will not test the listener. It’s more of an old friend, instantly familiar and great company one is happy to seek out again.
Ron Sexsmith – Not About To Lose.mp3

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Nouvelle Vague – Nouvelle Vague

Nouvelle_VagueThis is one of those unexpected albums: loungey covers of Punk and New Wave classics, such as Love Will Tear Us Apart (here set on a beach), Teenage Kicks, Making Plans For Nigel, Too Drunk To Fuck, and Guns Of Brixton (the latter two of which sound like Gainsbourg songs here). It’s all very sincere and quite fabulous, rendered mostly in a bossa new wave nova groove. Nouvelle Vague, a project by Frenchmen Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux using a roster of female vocalists, does not aim for camp comedy or winks and nods. The exercise requires that the listener simultaneously forgets the originals, the better to understand them on Nouvelle Vague’s terms, and to remember them, so as to appreciate their imaginative reinventions. Some don’t quite work (such as The Undertone’s Teenage Kicks), others compare very well to the original, especially The Cure’s A Forest, The Specials’ Friday Night Saturday Morning And PiL’s This Is Not A Love Song.
Nouvelle Vague – Friday Night Saturday Morning.mp3

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Missy Higgins – The Sound Of White

Missy HigginsI can’t profess to be a great fan of the Australian accent, mate. And yet, it is always satisfying when non-American singers resist the temptation of adapting their accent for the international market. Melissa Higgins retains her strong Aussie enunciation, which can be grating but also helps to invest in her lyrics unblemished authenticity. Much of the lyrics are, or seem, intensely personal. Some of them are standard singer-songwriter fare, but there is much here that moves the listener, particularly the title track, about her sister’s death in an accident (featured HERE) and the child-murder song The River. The hit on the album was the upbeat Scar, which was rather unrepresentative of this pensive, though appealingly arranged album which has few weak tracks. If the disagreeable This Is How It Goes is the price one has to pay to have Ten Days or Nightminds, than that’s not a bad deal.
Missy Higgins – Nightminds.mp3

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Wilco – A Ghost Is Born

wilcoThank goodness for the technology of digital playlists. With this album, I’ll never need to hear the pointless noisy distortions on the 12-minute long Less Than You Think again, even as I applaud Tweedy and pals for their willingness to do something different (though that something almost rivals Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music album for unlistenability). And, depending on my mood, I may skip the 10min-plus Spiders Kidsmoke as well, because the guitar solo really annoys me, by which I am doing the song an injustice. But the rest of the album is very enjoyable. It includes some of Tweedy’s best songs, such as The Late Greats and Hell Is Chrome. But the absolute highlight is — and Wilco fans will have guessed it — the opener, At Least That’s What You Said, which plods along with Tweedy in pensive mood until it explodes in gloriously angry guitars.
Wilco – At Least That’s What You Said.mp3

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More Albums of the Year