Thursday, December 16, 2010

This Year's Listening: Albums That Were Released In Past Years

While getting ready to compile my favorite albums of 2010 list, I noticed I'd been listening to and discovering a lot of albums from past years.  These might be albums I was late discovering, albums I enjoyed but had forgotten about or albums I heard a little bit late that were released in 2009 and didn't make my previous lists.

Here are some albums that were in heavy rotation this year that were released prior to 2010:

Fleet FoxesFleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (2008): I actually got this album in 2009 while I was in London.  For some reason it took a while to really get into it, but now it's one of my favorites.  The harmonies, the beautiful acoustic guitar work and superb songwriting all contribute to making this one of my favorite albums.

One Fast Move Or I'm Gone: Music From Kerouac's Big SurJay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard - One Fast Move Or I'm Gone (2009): This is an album based on a documentary for the book Big Sur by Jack Kerouac. For the documentary, former Uncle Tupelo and current Son Volt frontman Jay Farrar was asked to provide the music.  Armed with one of the most lyrical books of all time, he mostly just set various lines from the book to music, but the results are spectacular.  He invited Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, a huge Kerouac fan himself, along for the ride and the results are spectacular. Much like a Kerouac book, the songs mostly feel like a trip across America.  I recommend the album and the book from which it was drawn.

For Emma, Forever AgoBon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago (2008): This is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I've heard in a long time. Indie-folk songwriter Justin Vernon retreated to a cabin in Wisconsin to regroup after the break-up of his band and his relationship with no intention of writing or recording any music.  While there in isolation and battling mono, he wrote and recorded all the instruments for the songs on For Emma, Forever Ago while singing wordless melodies.  He went back and listened to the songs and wrote lyrics to replace the hummed melodies. Both mellow and catchy, this album is a grower, so be sure to give it several listens to pick up on the intricacies before making a final judgement.

Twin Cinema
The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema (2005): This record was released while I was still in college and for some reason, I largely ignored it.  Featuring Neko Case, A.C. Newman and a whole host of other members, The New Pornographers are a supergoup of sorts.  The first thing you will notice listening to this album is how catchy these songs are.  One listen is enough to have you singing them in your head all day long.  Repeated listens reveal the excellence of the album, and I'm actually glad it took me this long to get into it.  It's sort of like finding an unopened Christmas present in July.
Sufjan Stevens - Illinoise (2005): Like the previously mentioned Twin Cinema, this one came out while I was still an undergrad.  It was a little bit too weird for me back then.  I finally went back this year and gave it another chance, and now I see why it was so praised upon it's release.  Illinoise was the second (and so far the last) of a proposed 50 albums depicting the States.  This one is all over the map, so be prepared for a wild, slightly jarring ride while listening, and if you only hear one song, make it "Chicago."

The Very Best of Otis ReddingOtis Redding - The Very Best of Otis Redding (1992, but recorded in the years leading up to his death in 1967): Don't ask me why I never noticed that Otis Redding was one of the finest artists in history.  Sure, I always liked "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay" and "These Arms of Mine," but it wasn't until I picked this up in a bargain bin this year that I began to truly realize how incredible Otis was.  It doesn't hurt that he recorded right here in Memphis, and worked heavily with Steve Cropper (who, thanks to my father-in-law, I had to opportunity to meet). Regardless of geography though, Otis was a powerhouse vocalist who wrote many of his own songs (which was rare in those days).  I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone convey as much emotion as Otis Redding, and he was still on his way up in the music world and beginning to grow as an artist ("Dock of the Bay" was much different from any of his previous work and was recorded just days before his death) when a plane crash took him way too soon.

Everything All the TimeCease to BeginBand of Horses - Everything All The Time (2006) & Cease to Begin (2007): It took me way too long to enjoy Band of Horses.  I think it's because they are often erroneously compared to My Morning Jacket, and taken in that context, they can sound like a second rate imitator.  However, thinking of Band of Horses as more of The Shins with a Southern drawl puts them in a much better context.  Whatever the reasons for me passing on this band in the past, I'm glad I've discovered them now and I'm sure you will be too.  Their atmospheric songs are perfect for soundtracks, and you've likely heard them and just don't know it. Catchy and well-written, these songs should stand among the biggest hits on the radio

A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey [Explicit]R. L. Burnside - A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey (2005): What do you get when you pluck one of the original Hill Country Bluesmen out of Holly Springs, Mississippi, pair him with modern blues band The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, probably provide liquor, put them in a studio and record?  You get one of the finest, most explicit and raw representations of many of the things that make Hill Country Blues unique. A Wikipedia article describes this album as "lo-fi storytelling garage punk-blues rock with explicit lyrics," and listening to the album reveals this to be pretty accurate.  Oxford, Mississippi-based Fat Possum records was instrumental in getting some of the original blues men into the studio before it was too late, and this is a perfect example of why we are lucky they did. If you can get your hands on You See Me Laughin' you can see a very entertaining, sometimes shocking look at how all this came together.

There are surely other albums I've greatly enjoyed this year that weren't released during 2010, but these are the ones that had the biggest impact.

In a week or so, I'll start posting my favorite albums of 2010. 

Do you have any favorites from past years that you've just discovered?

Why I Like Albums, And Why I'd Like To Keep Them Around

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m prefer full albums over individual songs. There’s something about the feeling I get when I listen to a great album that shuffling songs on the iPod can’t replicate (not that the random smattering of music doesn’t have its place...I generally listen this way at the gym). It’s not just about the music either. The packaging of music used to be an art form. The digital age has made it too easy to buy (or steal) songs on the fly without having to worry about the context they fit into the album.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve read about the “death of the album” as an art form. Music industry prognosticators predict that soon, all of our music will be released in a singles-only format. I guess it makes sense, though I think a lot of those predictions are because much of the music that is gaining attention now doesn’t fit into the “album music” category. As we are starting to see an abundance of year-end best albums lists hitting the internet, I thought it was a good time to write a post to convince anyone who cares to read this, how important it is that artists continue to make albums.

My first reason for fighting to keep the album alive is this: songs may be the soundtrack to people’s lives, but albums can change people’s lives. I remember where I was and what I was doing the first time I heard “Stairway to Heaven,” but when I listened to Led Zeppelin’s IV (ZOSO), it changed my life. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” turned the music world upside down, but Nevermind showed a lot of kids that felt like outcasts in their towns that maybe there was a place for them in the world.

Another reason is some of my favorite songs are album tracks that probably wouldn’t get many listens in a singles-only environment. “Going to California” from the aforementioned Zeppelin album is an example (it isn’t on the most recent “hits” package and it’s only the band’s 25th most popular song on Itunes). The song isn’t exactly rock and roll bombast, but nestled between “Four Sticks” and “When the Levee Breaks,” it becomes an album standout (and one of my 5 favorite Zeppelin songs). Most people probably wouldn’t hear that song for the first time by itself and think ”that’s a hit,” but in the context of the album, it's incredible. Same goes for Radiohead’s album OK Computer. None of those songs would make me think they are one of the greatest bands in the world, but the album does (so does In Rainbows).

Here’s a good reason to keep the album around. Have you noticed that a great band will sandwich a mediocre EP between two fantastic album releases? I think much of this stems from the fact that some bands need an extended time together in a recording environment to make something special. Just getting together to record a song now and then doesn’t allow a band to find the same cohesive sound and vision that spending time creating an entire album does. Bands have been known to do some pretty interesting things to create the perfect artistic environment to make an album (rent a beach house/farmhouse, try different producers, hire a spiritual advisor, grow beards, etc.), and I just don’t see them going to all that trouble to make a song or two (hey, a beard takes a while).

An album is the perfect length for focused listening. Songs are meant to be played, while albums are meant for listening; active listening. Active listening implies putting the album on with the sole intention of listening to that album. Are you going to make yourself a drink, get a comfortable chair and kick back just to listen to a song or a playlist? Probably not, but you might for a great album. Great albums are like movies, with a sequencing and cohesiveness that makes prefect sense.

What about the benefit to songwriters an album provides? In genres that heavily rely on outside songwriters (pop, country, etc.), an album of 10 songs may only have 2 or 3 potential singles. Without the album format, those 2 or 3 songs may be the only ones to be recorded (and certainly the only ones to achieve any commercial success). Many of these songs are really good, and may become fan favorites, but just don’t fit in with radio. Getting a song on a successful album helps songwriters pay the bills while they continue their craft.

For the most part, when I use the term “album,” I’m referring to a group of songs released together, not a vinyl record. An album can be digital, on CD, a cassette, or on vinyl; the medium is irrelevant. Here’s one area of my argument that demands a physical product; packaging. After all, they do give a Grammy for packaging. Whether it contains lyrics, an essay or pictures, the packaging can add to the album listening experience. Some of the best albums have a record sleeve or booklet that you want to sift through as you listen. One trend I've noticed lately that I really like is selling a vinyl version of an album with a code included that allows the purchaser to download an MP3 copy of the album at no extra charge.  This gives you the best of both worlds; the portability of an MP3 with the superior sound and excellent packaging of vinyl.
I predict (hope) that the best artists will continue to make albums well into the future, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Although the music industry is rapidly changing, the fact that an album is still the best way to hear music won't change. An album is the perfect length for focused listening, and for true music fans, and the quality of their albums is the true measure of a band.

What do you think? Do you ever take the time to evaluate an entire album, or do you prefer your music in single serving packets? What are some of your favorite albums?

I'll be following in in the coming weeks with a few posts about my favorite music of the past year.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Turn off the TV? It's Easier When You Don't Have 78 Channels.

Around seven or eight months ago, Crystel and I got the idea to have our cable turned off. This decision was partially a cost cutting move, but it was mostly to help pry ourselves away from the endless channel surfing. We wanted to spend more time doing other things, and if we did sit down in front of the TV it would be to watch a movie. Comcast offered a package that included around 13 channels for only $15, so we did it. The only problem was the channels never went away.

That all changed last weekend when we returned from a road trip to find ESPN had disappeared (apparently the change took effect when we unhooked our TV last week to have some cabinet work done). At first I was a little depressed that I couldn’t catch football highlights, but I remembered why we had the cable turned off in the first place, and read a book for a while instead.

Something else happened the same night that we became cable-free. I finally got in touch with one of my two best friends from high-school. I’d spent the weekend in my hometown and tried to look him up while I was there. I got his number from a mutual friend and sent him a message, and he called me back the next day. We talked for over an hour just catching up. Anyone who knows me will understand how hard it is to keep me on the phone for over five minutes, so this was quite a feat. Of course, not watching TV had nothing to do with this occurrence, but if you believe in signs, it was a pretty strong one. The conversation I had that night with my high school friend was one of the best I’d had in quite some time.

So in one day, I freed up more time for important things in life by removing much of the distraction of TV and I also did something more important; I reconnected with an old friend. It had been at least 6 years since we’d spoken and while so much had changed in our lives, it still felt like I was having the conversation circa 1997. It’s funny how time doesn’t take away the things that made you friends with someone in the first place. I’m not sure why I’ve been so distant from some of my best friends, but I am making it one of my personal goals to change that. As I look back over the past 10 years, I can’t pinpoint a time when I stopped hanging out with some of my best friends, but it’s definitely happened. Much of the problem stems from my own selfishness, and not making time for people.

My point in all this is that you should occasionally make time do something besides sit in from of the TV. Reconnecting with someone whose friendship you may have neglected is just an example of one of the many things you could do. It’ll make you feel much better than an hour (or four) of ESPN. The excuse that you don’t have time is just that, an excuse. Make time, even if you have to cut off your cable. Having your cable turned off is a bit extreme, but if we would all pull ourselves away from the TV more often and genuinely interact with people, I wonder how differently we would see the world. What if people spent more time reading books, going for a walk or even doing something creative? I’m not one of those people who thinks the TV is evil, but I do think it is one of the many crutches that serves to keep us all isolated from other people…even when we are in the same house together. How many times have you spent hours with someone and not had a conversation because you were both engrossed in the TV?

So does this sound crazy to you? Would you ever consider turning off your cable or at least limiting you TV viewing? Do you have any friends you’ve reconnected with after a long absence? What about any ways you’ve managed to carve out more free time for the important things in life? What are those more important things?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Travel Rituals: The Little Things that Keep Me Sane on the Road

In my profession, auditing, I’ve spent a great deal of time on the road. It’s pretty common to work away from home for a week at a time; flying out on Sunday and home on Friday evening. With all of the time I’ve spent in hotel rooms, a few OCD-like traits have become part of my routine.

First of all, before every trip, I update the music on my iPod. My music tastes change pretty often, and I like to use travel time to really dive into albums I want to dedicate some listening time to (I’m an album person by the way. I like to hear an album in its entirety and judge the music in that context. With the shift to digital music, many people today don’t even grasp the idea of listening to an album. Sure, every track won’t be a standout, but it puts a new perspective the individual songs…maybe a future blog post…I digress). I can spend hours changing the music on my iPod. Most of that time is spend poring over which songs to eliminate to make room. On my most recent trip to the Kansas City area, I finally dove into the classic Weezer album (and their last good album) Pinkerton. For some reason, I never liked the album when it was new but now I finally get it (again, future blog post).

Next on my list of strange travel habits is that I like to get to the airport more than two hours before my flight. For domestic flights out of Memphis, most people I have traveled with shoot for a maximum of an hour (and usually less). I actually like being in the airport for a while before my flight. It’s some of the best people-watching anywhere, as you can literally “watch the world go by.”

If I’m traveling alone, I always opt for a compact car like the one pictured above I drove on my most recent trip (hey, when it comes to compact cars for me, the nerdier the better…I did mention I listened to Weezer on this trip, right?). I don’t opt for the monster car like a lot of people I have traveled with in the past. Why? Well, the first reason is that I don’t need anything bigger if I’m traveling alone. Compact cars are always cheaper. Whether I’m paying or it’s on the company dime, it seems foolish to pay for something I don’t need. Second, it’s easier to maneuver in unfamiliar places. Third, with today’s compact cars, you have a better shot at getting something “cooler” (like the Prius Crystel and I got in L.A. last year) than you do with a mid-size sedan (usually an Impala or something equally as exciting). Most of the compact cars always have the features I want, like the MP3 player input. The last reason is that it’s just better for the environment. While I’m not completely sold on the idea that our “carbon footprint” is causing global warming, I do know that the less oil we can use, the better. Oil is not a renewable resource and using it puts money into the hands of some pretty shady people.

Yet another travel habit I have picked up is that I try to completely unpack my suitcase as soon as I get to the hotel. I learned this from Jimmy Buffett when I read his book, A Pirate Looks at Fifty. He always unpacks, even if he’s only there for one night. I’ve found that unpacking my bags and ironing a few things when I first get to the hotel helps ease some of the chaos of traveling. It allows me to put the suitcase away, and I feel much more settled. Along with this trait, I like to fold my dirty clothes and put them back in the suitcase as I’m finished with them. Putting the clothes in the suitcase helps keep the hotel room cleaner, and I like to fold them because it’s makes me feel like I’m taking better care of my things. Since I pay my hard-earned cash for my clothes, I don’t like the idea of wadding them up and stuffing them in a suitcase…hey, it’s the little things.

So there you have it, just a few of my somewhat strange travel habits. Does anything here strike you as incredibly odd? What about you? Do you have certain things you do when you travel that are outside the norm?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

When Grunge Took Over

I don’t remember any music genre or movement having the profound effect on me that “grunge” had in the early 90s. I mentioned in a previous post my feelings about a photograph of Kurt Cobain I viewed at a recent art exhibit. We’d been through a pretty long stretch in the late 80s and early 90s where mainstream music mostly consisted of regurgitations of what had been successful previously and formulaic reinterpretations (much like a lot of today’s mainstream country). A glance at the charts before and after the grunge movement helps to validate this opinion. While I understand that music trends tend to be cyclical, grunge was the first major music movement of my generation. It completely changed the musical landscape. It didn’t last, but a lot of the doors grunge kicked open are at least still unlocked today.

A lot of grunge’s success is attributable to timing. Grunge didn’t kill hair metal as is so widely reported. Rather, hair metal killed itself, and grunge just moved into the vacant house. With the exception of a handful of bands, the music of this time wasn’t even that great when compared to previous music explosions (see the music of the late 60s for another, much higher quality game changer). What grunge did, however, was bring passion back to music. Most of the early grunge pioneers were just doing it because they couldn’t really see themselves doing anything else. In the beginning, it wasn’t about the money or the success (although it eventually became more focused on these things, and the music suffered).

Music meant something again when Nirvana came around, and for kids like me, it helped to ignite my passion for music. Grunge was the first music to hit the mainstream that truly belonged to my generation and was completely foreign to our parents. I suppose hip-hop could fall right in with grunge, but I didn’t run and pick up a guitar because of Doggystyle or The Chronic. When I heard Nevermind and my cousin taught me to play "Come as You Are," it wasn't long before I bought my first guitar. A lot of other kids did the same thing.

So what made grunge so successful? I only consider a few of the albums “classic.” Dirt, Jar of Flies, Nevermind, In Utero, Superunknown, Temple of the Dog, Purple by STP, Siamese Dream and pretty much any Pearl Jam album (this last one is certainly a personal preference and not the view of most people) instantly come to mind. Of course there were other albums I enjoyed, but these were the big ones. As I mentioned earlier, it was largely because of timing. Most of the best grunge bands were hitting their peak at the perfect time and, for the most part, all at the same time.

Of course, grunge’s stranglehold on the music world didn’t last, and soon we had the often tragic breakups of many grunge bands, a thousand grunge imitators (see Creed), the boy band movement (which actually brought better music than most of the grunge imitators) and generic Hip-Hop (I don't consider all Hip-Hop to be generic, just most of what became popular in the latter half of the 90s into the 2000s). Grunge’s lasting influence is that “fringe” artists that don’t fit the perception of mainstream can be successful. Green Day probably wouldn’t have become mega stars without Nirvana kicking in the doors open. Countless other bands would have never gotten their time in the spotlight either.  Artists like Beck who had little in common with grunge (and probably would have been laughed out of the building had they made a pitch to a record company while the Warrant posters were still on he wall) were given opportunities by the majors.

Today, this movement wouldn’t be so profound. The internet has taken a lot of power away from the people who used to control what we see and hear. In the early 90s, a kid like me from small town Mississippi only had access to the music of MTV and the radio, which were controlled by a lot of people who focused only on how much money they could make from the music. It was the same way for most people back then. Now the internet allows me to get music recommendations from people I don’t even know, quickly go and check out that music, and if I like it, allows me to make an instant purchase. This environment hasn’t really been good for the traditional music industry (especially the large labels), but it has vastly improved the music available to most people.

Here are a few videos of my favorite performaces from the grunge era:

My favorite Soundgarden song, "Fell on Black Days."

And my favorite Nirvana song, "Lithium."

Here's Alice in Chains doing "Rooster" unplugged.

And finally, here's Smashing Pumpkins' video for "Cherub Rock"...I reallize they weren't from Seattle, and neither were STP (mentioned above), but like it or not, they were part of the grunge scene.

What are your impressions of the grunge movement? Do you think its ultimate influence has been good for music? What music movements most influenced you?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Adventures in Memphis Part 2: Midtown is Memphis

As a continuation of my previous blog post, here is Part 2 where I delve into the eclectic Midtown area of Memphis.

After leaving the South Main area, we headed to the Brooks Museum to check out the exhibit, Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History 1955 to the Present. We were convinced upon entering to become Brooks Museum members for the year, so it looks like we will be going to a lot more exhibits in the future. The Who Shot Rock & Roll exhibit was a collection of photographs throughout the history of Rock & Roll depicting historic stars in a variety of settings. Separate sections were devoted to pre-fame photos, behind the scenes photos, performance pictures, and various other categories. Looking at the pictures of some of my favorite artists (Kurt Cobain, Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, U2, Elvis, Velvet Underground, and many, many more), and listening to the audio guide and learning the stories behind some of the most famous photos in music history was incredible.

In particular, I was moved by the picture above of Kurt Cobain crying backstage taken by Ian Tilton just minutes after a show. The photo took me back to my high-school years when I thought Cobain was a god. It reminded me how it was such a breath of fresh air when the grunge movement first hit and the artists had passion again after the many years of declining quality in music with the central focus on fame and partying of the hair metal groups. The images in rock music changed overnight from makeup-clad hair metal stars surrounded by groupies to the more realistic images of the “grunge” era (I realize I’m making a generalization about this, as some of my favorite music was made in the 80’s…R.E.M., Pixies, U2, and the multitude of one-hit wonders to name a few, but since we are talking about the images portrayed in photographs in the media, I think the generalization applies).

After the successful trip to the Brooks Museum (and an incredible history lesson in my favorite subject), we headed back across Union to the always interesting Cooper-Young neighborhood. Cooper-Young boasts an eclectic collection of restaurants, bars, art galleries, shopping and some very interesting people.

We dropped off a few books for store credit at Burke’s Books (my favorite used bookstore in Memphis), and headed over to Goner Records (my favorite record store in Memphis). Goner specializes in vinyl and also runs a record label. While browsing I spotted records by Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett that I had to have. Both of these artists worked heavily with the Stax record label in Memphis, and I think the music of Stax and Hi Records are at least equal to the Sun Recordings when it comes to Memphis’ contributions to the music world. The music Steve Cropper made with Wilson Picket and Otis Redding (see the video below for an example of the power of Otis) ranks high among my favorites, and together, Willie Mitchell and Al Green made some of the finest music in any genre for Hi Records. And don’t forget about Isaac Hayes and David Porter, as they also made some incredible music right here in Memphis.

After a bit more wandering around in Cooper-Young, we decided to check out one more bike shop. I had previously read that Memphis Bicycle Company on Summer Avenue specialized in old Schwinn bikes, and since we are interested in cruisers, we decided to check it out. While we didn’t find the bikes we wanted, he did have a few old bikes that are collectors’ items and if we ever need any parts, it will be one of the first places we’ll check. Having the opportunity to check out some of the classic cruisers (some apparently valued at thousands of dollars and headed to a museum) was really interesting. Anyone who knows Crystel and I, knows about our love for old things (cars, houses, bikes, buildings, etc…). Stop by and check out his collection sometime (be sure and use the side door), although he’s not always open so you may have to stop by a few times to catch him there.

On the way home, we talked about how unexpectedly fun and interesting the day was. The weather was near-perfect, and I think we really felt some of the soul of Memphis. This city has a rich history with lots of new things being added every day and I can’t wait until the next time we irresponsibly forget about our chores for the day and explore our home.

So there you have it, our Memphis adventure. Do you have any experiences with the places I’ve mentioned? Anything else I should check out during our next adventure?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Adventures in Memphis Part 1 – Goin’ Down South (Main)

Like many Memphians, I sometimes get down on my city. The news reports of corruption, crime and poverty, the oppressive summer heat, our low ranking on almost every best cities list and the general consensus that Memphis just isn’t a good place to live make it hard to remember the many great things this city has to offer. And as my friend Anna said in her blog a while back, don’t even consider reading the comments section of any news story in our local media; good or bad.

Living here, we deal with a lot of problems that are merely an abstract thought to outsiders. However, most large cities have comparable problems and being careless in even the safest of big cities can get you into trouble pretty quickly. So maybe Memphis isn’t really that much worse than the cities we like to compare it to (I’m talking to you, our hilly neighbor to the east). Of course there is the option of staying in a small town, but I enjoy the benefits of the city too much for that. So, in an effort to improve our outlook on our city, Crystel and I decided a day of Memphis adventure was in order. A staycation if you will. We decided this at the last minute on Saturday morning, and left the house without a plan. Since we had so many interesting experiences, I’ll be splitting this blog into two posts. This post, Part 1 focuses on our downtown experience, while Part 2 will describe our experiences once we made our way east to Midtown. You can check out my wife’s blog for pictures of our day.

We began our adventure in the South Main Historic District. We wanted to pick up a few items from the Memphis Farmers Market and check out the bikes at Midtown Bike Company. As a side note, the bike shopping was brought on by the upcoming grand opening of the new greenline that connects our neighborhood to Shelby Farms. That’s something to get excited about in Memphis. With the recent hiring of the city’s new Bike / Pedestrian Coordinator, it looks like Memphis might start shedding its image of being a terrible biking city. This may be a future blog post in itself.

After picking up a few items at the farmer’s market, checking out the bike shop (if you’re thinking of buying a bike, stop in and talk to the friendly and knowledgeable staff) and popping in and out of a few interesting shops, we decided to stop by Earnestine & Hazel’s for our first Soul Burger. Earnestine & Hazel’s is one of Memphis’ oldest dive bars and has a rich history. At one point it was a brothel, and tales of ghosts haunting the premises abound. These days, it’s known as a place where celebrities stop by while in town and numerous movies have been filmed. Check out the pictures on the wall for a sampling of the celebrities who have visited. Don’t forget to check out the jukebox for a history lesson in Memphis music.

Our first Earnestine & Hazel’s visit was an excellent and unique experience. We’ve wanted to go there since watching the movie Elizabethtown, in which Orlando Bloom’s character made a pit stop for a quick beer and some conversation, but for some reason we’ve never made it until last weekend. The bartender on duty was the perfect mix of entertainment and information (Crystel thinks his name is Clarence). I loved how he referred to the stars who have visited by their first name. When I mentioned Elizabethtown, he said “Ol’ Orlando, yeah he loved this place.” And “Norah is my girlfriend. She can sing to me anytime.” He told us about the party the night before and the crowds brought on by the South Main Trolley Tour (Definitely check out the Trolley Tour if you get the chance. It’s the last Friday of every month).

Earnestine & Hazel’s lack of a menu was great (When I asked for a menu, I was told “We keep it simple. Burger with grilled onions, cheese and a bag of chips.”), and the soul burger was one of the best I’ve had. Plus, it wasn’t so large that I left there feeling like I needed to be rolled down the street after eating it. I’ll be taking my friends and family there in the future.

After leaving Earnestine & Hazel’s we decided to stroll around South Main a bit more, and wound up standing in front of the Lorraine Motel, home of the National Civil Rights Museum. As I stood there taking in the scene of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, I couldn’t help but wonder how race relations in this country would be different had he lived a longer life, and felt a deep sadness when I thought of the events that transpired there. His message of non-violent protest and a color-blind society should be more widely taught today. I recommend that everyone who has the chance go and take in the scene and really think about what happened on that balcony over 40 years ago. We’ll probably never know the entire truth surrounding Dr. King’s assassination (as numerous conspiracy theories exist), but what is known is that we lost a man who dedicated his life to the struggle for necessary change in this country.

So the beginning of our Memphis adventure turned out to be a mini stroll through history. It was fitting that the soundtrack to our day was Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, which was released a few months after King’s assassination in 1968. I’ll follow-up in a few days with Part 2 which will continue our day into Midtown.

What are some of your favorite things to do in Memphis? We are constantly looking for new experiences, and we know we’ve only scratched the surface of all Memphis has to offer.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

I'm a Habitat Hero!

Normally, I'm not one to brag on myself.  I normally try to quietly do what I think is right, and go on about my business.  This week, however, I was thrust into the spotlight.  Well, maybe thrust into the spotlight a bit of an exaggeration, but I was recognized for charity work that I'd done.

This past Tuesday, I went to a Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis Homeowner/Sponsor Reception to help Crystel with the event.  At the reception, the future Habitat homeowners and their respective sponsors are recognized.  In addition, awards are handed out for the "Habitat Heroes" for July and August.  As I was sitting at the back of the room, my name was called as the July Habitat Hero.  I was recognized for my assistance at the Exotic Italian Car Show in June of this year.  I was shocked to be recognized, because I felt like I was just doing my duty at the car show by helping Crystel with a very difficult event. 

While I am very grateful for the award (it will be displayed proudly in my office), I feel that Habitat has already given much more valuable things to me in the two-plus years I have been associated with the organization.  See, I've never been very civic-minded.  I didn't grow up doing charity work or donating to local charitable organizations.  My involvement with Habitat has been my first real experience with volunteer work.

When Crystel accepted a job with Habitat for Humanity in early 2008, I didn't know what to expect.  What we did know was that she was facing a long commute from Collierville.  This prompted up to move into the city from the suburbs.  We bought a house in the High Point Terrace neighborhood in East Memphis, which was one of the best decisions we could have made. We love it here.  We'd probably still be living in Collierville if it wasn't for Habitat.  Don't get me wrong, Collierville is great, but Memphis has a lot more to offer a young couple.

Shortly after Crystel started her job at Habitat, she started telling me about all of these interesting people she was meeting.  Little did I know these people would go on to become dear friends.  As I started going to some of the events with Crystel, I too started meeting some great people.  I look back at our time in Memphis, and our list of friends would be much shorter without our involvement in Habitat.  It's true what I've read that the best way to meet people in a new city is to volunteer. 

While I haven't spent a lot of time at the build sites, I do spend a lot of time (and a lot of effort) at the Habitat fundraising events.  Volunteers don't just hang around at these events.  There is a lot of hard work to be done.  To see a group of strangers and friends come together in one day to pull off these events is amazing.  You can always count on leaving a Habitat event tired, but very fulfilled.  It sounds cheesy, but you often time come to the event as strangers and leave as friends.

I have learned a tremendous amount about Memphis through volunteering with Habitat.  I know about cool neighborhoods, events, organizations, and people that I never would have been exposed to without my involvement with Habitat. Just this past Friday night, we went to the South Main Trolley Tour and had a great time.  We were there to hand out Habitat information and try and spread the word about the Tool Box Bash (Habitat's biggest fundraiser, and a very fun event).  After taking in the scene, we will definitely be going back to South Main as soon as possible.

Of course, everything I have mentioned is a benefit that Habitat gives me as a volunteer (which is a very selfish view).  The best part about Habitat is the work they do for the very deserving homeowners.  Going to a home dedication and seeing the joy brought to the new homeowners is amazing.  There are many great, hardworking families that deserve an opportunity for homeownership.  Habitat creates that opportunity. 

So, if you feel down on your city, get out and volunteer.  Get out and try to make it better.  You might find that the volunteer work can benefit you as much as it does the people you are helping.  So many people tend to focus on the negative aspects of Memphis (or any city), and overlook many of the fantastic things this city has to offer.  When we moved to the Memphis area from Oxford in 2006, we felt like outsiders.  Thanks in large part to our work with Habitat, we feel like a part of this great city.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Little Change and Some Music Suggestions

As alluded to in my previous post, I am slightly altering the content of my blog. I decided to expand my writing topics beyond the world of music. While I will still write about music, I also intend to include posts about things I've discovered that bring me happiness, contribute to my health, help me save money, and generally any other topic that I think might be useful to others. I just wanted to give fair warning to the two people that read this blog so they wouldn't think they'd clicked on the wrong link when I post something seemingly out of left field.

Speaking of music, go listen to Mumford & Sons. One of my favorite musical discoveries this year.

Also, if you haven't listened to Justin Townes Earle, go ahead and do that too.

One last suggestion, if you miss quality country music from days gone by, check out Stoney Larue, and his cover of "Empty Glass."

Can you tell I've just discovered how to put links in my blog?

So you've been warned. Future posts could deal with any number of unrelated topics so don't be alarmed you two.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Living Simply: Is It Possible for a Music and Movie Addict?

If you've spent any time at all reading online news articles or blogs as we've progressed through our latest recession, then it's likely you may have run across the term "Living Simply." This afternoon, I read a great article on about how the economy has forced many people to downsize their lives creating an unexpected side effect...happiness. It seems that "stuff" really doesn't make you that happy at all. It's the experiences that make you happy. Vacations, time spent socializing with friends, taking a class, hiking, etc. are the things that truly create lasting happiness.

As I read this article, I couldn't help but agree with most everything written and I found myself comparing a lot of the suggestions and experiences to my own life. Crystel and I have made a conscious effort to try and live more simply over the past year or so. We've slowly downsized some of our stuff, limited our shopping trips (music and books for me, antiques and clothes for Crystel), and generally tried to put more thought into where our money goes. You know the funny thing? I've actually been happier, and I think Crystel has too. It's worth noting that our simple living wasn't forced by the economy, but rather a choice to try and focus more on things that truly contribute to happiness and less things that bring temporary happiness at best.

That brings me to the biggest hurdle for me. As long as I can remember, I've collected music and movies. My memories are full of tearing the shrink-wrap off of VHS tapes, cassettes, records, DVDs and Cd's. Listening to music and watching movies has long been my favorite hobby. So how does this obsession with music and movies fit into my new living simply lifestyle? Let's just say I am incredibly thankful for the internet.

For starters, I've been able to sell many DVDs and CDs that were just collecting dust via (an Ebay company). Next, I received a subscription (great gift idea)to Netflix for all my movies as a birthday present from my parents. The movie buying excuse was always that my movie tastes don't necessarily fit the Blockbuster inventory strategy, so I wound up buying countless underground comedies and concert films only to watch them one time. With Netflix, this isn't an issue.

Last week, I subscribed to Rhapsody; an online music service. Since Rhapsody released their Iphone app (Finally!), I have access to almost any music I can imagine for free (after paying the monthly fee). Again, with music my tastes are pretty diverse and with the exception of some of the shows on WEVL (especially Jukebox Graduate, my friend Kevin's show on Tuesday mornings), the radio is pretty useless to me. I would buy music just to try and discover new artists which is hit and miss at best.

Hopefully I can successfully continue to implement the simple living philosophy in all aspects of my life. I plan to blog more on this in the future. In keeping with the advice from the article I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I plan to blog more on experiences as well (since that seems to be the real key to lasting happiness).

Has the economy forced you to rethink where your money goes? If so, have you discovered other sources of happiness?

Here's a link to the MSNBC article that I mentioned.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Favorite Racing Inspired Songs

I come from a family of drag racers. My granddad, dad, and younger brother are all addicted to the smell of burning tires and race fuel. Family road trips are usually planned only for the occasion of heading to a weekend race.

I even tried racing for a while, but never caught the "fever." Instead of racing, I developed an obsession with music. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy heading to the track. Especially when my little brother is racing. It's just more about spending time with my family than the actual racing for me.

In honor of my family's favorite past time, here are my top 5 Favorite Racing Inspired Songs.

5. "Slow Ride" - Foghat: This song really has nothing to do with racing. It is included in this list for 2 reasons. First, it was featured in the movie Dazed and Confused, which contained my two favorite muscle cars (a Pontiac GTO Judge and a Chevy Chevelle). Second, my dad has always loved the song and said he wanted to name a drag car after it someday. He'd paint "Slow Ride" on the side and "Take It Easy" on the back.

4. "Going the Distance" - Cake: Cake's finest moment is the perfect balance between quirkiness and pop sensibility that makes their best songs so infectious. My best interpretation of the song is that the main character can only get his ex out of his head while racing, so long after "Somebody left with the cup," he's still circling the track and "thinking of someone for whom he still burns."

3. "Stroker Ace" - Charlie Daniels Band: Featured in the Burt Reynolds movie of the same name, "Stroker Ace" hearkens back to the days when the best drivers were former (and sometimes present) moonshiners. What better motivation to learn to take a curve than to avoid meeting the local county sheriff? This song was perfect for Daniels with its spoken verses and rolling banjo.

2. "Racing in the Streets" - Bruce Springsteen: My favorite Springsteen song perfectly captures the imagery of the '70s street racing scene and the people who lived it. To give up street racing is to give up living for the song's character, and the girl who fell in love with him after seeing him race three years ago is now left crying herself to sleep at night while he is still out racing. Like many of Bruce's songs, I could write an entire post dissecting the lyrics and find a deeper meaning in each line.

1. "Daddy's Cup" - Drive-By Truckers: I don't know much about Mike Cooley's youth (Patterson Hood is the talker of the group), but he was probably exposed to his fair share of racing if "Daddy's Cup" is any indication. The main character of the song is remembering his deceased father who lost part of his eyesight in a wreck and lived out his racing dreams through his son. The father could still build race cars and the son (and the song's narrator) remembers his father's efforts to teach him by pouring a bucket full of engine parts out on the garage floor and making him tell him the name and purpose of each one. The song traces the son's journey from his birth to the present; recalling his first race and vowing never to quit until he is dead or wins the championship and gets his father's name engraved on the cup.

Many of the father/son interactions in this song remind me heavily of time spent with my dad. He is always eager to pass his knowledge down to me, and I'm usually eager to learn. Although my dad drag races, he used to help the dirt track racers build their engines, and the details of this song perfectly capture the essence of southern dirt-track racing. Get a junk car, knock out the glass, weld the doors shut, build a fast engine, and go racing.

What are your favorite racing inspired songs? How about songs that just make you want to drive fast?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Timeline of My Life - George Strait

As I'm sure is the case with many people, music has a way of taking me back in time. When I hear certain songs, I am instantly transported back to another time and place. Many songs by many artists have this effect. Tupac takes me back to the 10th grade. Phish...11th grade. Whiskeytown reminds me of my first year of college, and Dierks Bentley will always remind me of Ole Miss.

Few artists have been making relevant music long enough to bring back memories that span my entire life. As a matter of fact, the only one that comes to mind is George Strait. The only time in my life I would have considered him one of my top 10 favorite artists was probably around the time of Pure Country in the early nineties, but he's always been there. He had his first #1 single in 1982 when I was just 3 years old, and his most recent just last year.

In my first memories riding with my dad in his Chevy Silverado car hauler taking his 68 Camaro to the drag races, "Amarillo By Morning" was playing. On the first country music award show I ever watched, George played "If I Know Me," and Crystel and I danced to "I Cross My Heart" at our wedding reception.

When it comes to albums, Strait has a reputation as "Mr. Consistency," which can sometimes mean making the same album time and time again. However, he does have a tendency to release his best work around the milestones of my life. Greatest Hits came out when I started 1st grade, Pure Country when I hit junior high, Strait Out of the Box in high school, Carrying Your Love With Me around the time of high school graduation, Honkytonkville right before I moved to Oxford, and Somewhere Down In Texas right before my first international travel. One of his best albums of the last decade, Troubador, was released shortly after Crystel and I got married and moved into our new house. Any time I hear anything from any of these albums, I instantly think back to these times.

I find it strange that I still listen to George after all these years. He doesn't have many of the qualities I look for in an artist. He doesn't write most of his own songs, he rarely uses his touring band in the studio, he isn't much of a guitar player (his guitar is mainly a prop), and he has been a mainstream country artist for most of his career. He does, however, record songs that he believes in (even if he doesn't write them), and I could argue that he has never catered to mainstream country radio. Mainstream country radio has always allowed him to be the exception to their standard playlists. In the age of Rascal Flatts and Taylor Swift, he still gets radio play by recording his brand of Texas country music.

In my opinion, most of his singles over the last 5 years or so have been pretty dull, but his album cuts have been much better. Almost all of his albums are perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon on the back porch with a cold beverage. George is one of the few country artists making music today that I still care when he releases a new album. The critics care too. His latest album, Twang, showed up on many year-end best-of lists by self proclaimed "music snobs." Many artists will bash other musicians for not writing their own songs, but in the same interview claim George Strait is one of their favorites. This is the mystery of George Strait. He's done this for over 3 decades.

I'm looking forward to seeing what George releases for the future milestones of my life. He spends his downtime riding around his farm listening to demos to select songs for his next album, and he could be listening to the soundtrack some major life event as we speak.

Are there any artists that have been there your entire life? What about any songs or albums that transport you back to an earlier time in your life.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Life's Playlists: Deck Music

Due in part to the fact that our back yard is a mud pit and has virtually no grass growing anymore (mostly because of Porter, our 1 year-old black lab), Crystel and I have decided to have a deck built. I think we finally settled on a contractor this morning, so we're pretty excited. Me being the music fanatic that I am, I'm mostly looking forward to hanging out on the deck with friends and listening to music.

In anticipation of our finished deck (hopefully within the next couple of weeks), I decided to make a playlist of songs that I find perfect for relaxing with food, friends and drinks. After breezing through my iTunes library, the playlist had grown to a whopping 60 songs. Since I figured no one would read all the way through a list that long, I narrowed it down to 35, roughly 2 hours of tunes.

These songs weren't necessarily chosen for lyrical content, but for their vibe. This is the music I'll be listening to while lounging in my Adirondack chair as soon as the weather permits. Here's the playlist in no particular order.

1. It's Alright - Big Head Todd & the Monsters
2. Crush - Dave Matthews Band
3. Jacksonville Skyline - Whiskeytown
4. Hollow Moon - The Central Standards
5. Dreams - Fleetwood Mac
6. Country Comfort - Elton John
7. Tryin' To Reason With Hurricane Season - Jimmy Buffett
8. Summer Skin - Death Cab for Cutie
9. Here Comes the Sun - The Beatles
10. Going to California - Led Zeppelin
11. Feelin' Better - Hank Williams Jr.
12. Constellations - Jack Johnson
13. Love Street - The Doors
14. Carolina In My Mind - James Taylor
15. Blue Indian - Widespread Panic
16. A History of Lovers - Iron & Wine with Calexico
17. Natural Mystic - Bob Marley
18. Lookin' Out My Back Door - Creedence Clearwater Revival
19. Question - Old 97's
20. Wildfowers - Tom Petty
21. Without a Struggle - Golden Smog
22. California Zephyr - Jay Farrar & Benjamin Gibbard
23. Knockin' Over Whiskeys - Hayes Carll
24. California Stars - Billy Bragg & Wilco
25. New Slang - The Shins
26. Four Strong Winds - Neil Young
27. Perfect Timing - Drive-By Truckers
28. The Right Place - Monsters of Folk
29. South Georgia Sugar Babe - Justin Townes Earle
30. Gumbo - Phish
31. Grandaddy - Patterson Hood
32. The Boxer - Simon & Garfunkel
33. Ripple - Grateful Dead
34. And It Stoned Me - Van Morrison
35. Livin' Part of Life - Eric Church

What are some of your favorite songs for outdoor relaxation?

Monday, January 25, 2010

My Music History - Where It All Began

If you've spent any time around me, you no doubt know that I am very passionate about music. I spend countless hours listening to music, playing music, reading about music, and discovering music. The other day, I started trying to figure out when this all started.

The first memory I have of being drawn in by music was around 1983 when I was 4 years old. My grandparents were buying a new car, and I got to tag along for the ride. We were excited about the new car, but I was most excited about the upgrade in the sound system. Their current car at the time had an 8-track player, and most everyone had started listening to cassettes by then.

We decided we'd need some tunes for the ride home, so we stopped by the local Wal-Mart. Anytime you needed new music in Booneville, MS, Wal-Mart was and still is your only option. I still remember how much easier it was to shop for cassettes than CD's. All the artists' names were right there staring back at you, and I learned quickly how to find my favorites. We settled on Willie Nelson's Greatest Hits and were on our way. I had no idea at the time how much it would add to the "cool factor" of my first musical adventure to be able to throw in Willie's name.

We got to the dealership, and soon we were off in a brand new blue 1983 Pontiac Bonneville. Careful not to touch the velour seats with my shoes, I climbed into the front seat. Right in front of me was the stereo. An AC Delco unit with a chrome knob on each side, six chrome buttons for the station presets, and a dial that went left to right and indicated the radio station. I popped the new cassette in and my journey began.

As we rode home to the sounds of "Whiskey River," "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain," "Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground," and 'On The Road Again," I was drawn in like never before. From that day on, I always rode front and center with full control of the tunes. It was my first experience being able to listen to what I wanted without waiting for the radio DJ to play it.

I rode thousands of miles in that car, and a big part of my personality was formed. My grandparents were young enough that they were usually mistaken for my parents (this thrilled my grandmother), and they were always on the go. I treated the car like it was mine, and would scold any one who dared put their feet in the seats. I remember how my granparents would enjoy it when I sang along with their favorite songs. I also remember how they tolerated some of my personal music choices (I was really into 80's hair metal for a while). Most of all I remember the good times we had.

They kept that Pontiac until 1991. By that time, I was completely infatuated with music of all kinds. That infatuation continues to this day.

If you've been reading this blog, you know the music that I am currently enjoying. Now you know where it all began. I'll be filling in the gaps with my future posts (I'll also write about the present). If you have any early musical memories, feel free to share them in the comments section.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

My Favorite Albums of 2009 Conclusion - #5-1

This turned out to be much harder than I thought. I ended up leaving out a few albums that I really enjoyed, and on any given day could have replaced most any of the albums on this list. There are also a few albums that I didn't pick up until the last week of 2009 (or the first week of 2010) that would have likely made the cut if I had a few more weeks to evaluate them.

At any rate, these are my top 5 favorite albums of 2009.

5. Lucero - 1372 Overton Park: I only have two Lucero albums, this one and Rebels, Rogues, & Sworn Brothers. 1372 Overton Park is a quantum leap forward from their last album. The hooks are tighter, the lyrics stronger, and the music more memorable (the horn section is a nice touch).

These songs are full of whiskey, cigarettes, and youth searching for something (meaning, love, the next bar....). Although the tunes don't specifically mention it, you can definitely tell from the feeling that this is a Memphis-bred album (of course the title is a dead giveaway for locals). This album is polished in all the right areas and ragged just the same. All the studio sheen in the world couldn't take the grit out of front man Ben Nichols' voice, and the band is better for it.

Perhaps my favorite trait of the album is how decidedly Southern it is. It begins with the characters of from the song "Smoke" hanging around a mid-town bar and ends with the line "Mama we're still your boys." To me that pretty much sums up the Sunday morning / Saturday night phenomenon so prominent in the South.

4. The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You: Brothers Scott and Seth from Concord, NC have been at this for years, building a loyal and expanding fan base in the process. Say what you want, but when you bring in Rick Rubin to produce, you are clearly aiming for the stars. A lot of their long-time fans took offense to this and fans of underground bands usually do. Luckily, the music here is as good as ever (if slightly less quirky) and Rubin manages to bring focus and just the right amount of production value to the talented siblings.

This album shows how powerful acoustic music can still be. The songs are smart, the harmonies tight, and the musicianship outstanding. When I saw the somewhat dark cover art and read the title of the second song "January Wedding," I expected a murder ballad. However, nothing could be further from the truth as this is probably the sweetest song released this year. Here is my favorite verse from the song and the album:

No longer does it matter what circumstances we were born in
She knows which birds are singin'
And the names of the trees where they're performin' in the mornin'
And in January we're gettin' married
Come January let's get married

Funny how a seemingly simple line can say so much. Don't get the wrong impression that this is an album full of sappy love songs, but don't expect much moping or negativity either...just beautiful music.

3. Monsters of Folk - Self Titled: Monsters of Folk is comprised of Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes, and M. Ward. This super group manages do what most super groups fail to do...make an album of good songs. Most super groups sound fine and they definitely seem to be having a good time, but the songs tend to sound like they were written in a week as an excuse to get together and record an album. That's not the case here. Every song on this album is fully developed and interesting. The range of styles here is immense. From the beat-driven lush pop of "Dear God" to the pure folk of "Man Named Truth," this album manages to create something entirely different from the members' full-time gigs.

I think the thing that strikes me most about this album is that the guys sound like an actual band. Maybe that's because they have played together off and on since 2004when they toured together with their respective bands. On many of the songs, you can't even tell when the baton is passed from one singer to the other, the voices flow together so perfectly. Why do Monsters of Folk succeed where so many others have failed? My suspicion is that Jim James is their secret weapon. James has quickly become one of my favorite artists (mostly from his work with My Morning Jacket), and he doesn't disappoint here. I'll be listening to this album this time next year, and beyond.

2. Justin Townes Earle - Midnight At The Movies: It's hard to describe just how good this album is. Don't expect the early day rebellion or latter day politics of his father's work. The younger Earle has definitely paved his own path. The strange thing is his music is more traditional than his father's. Earle and his band make the most of the bluegrass instrumentation and make the music on this album every bit as captivating as the lyrics.

The title track is one of the best written songs I've heard in years, and the cover of "Can't Hardly Wait" may even be better than the original. It's on the song "Mama's Eyes" where Earle shines brightest though. He begins the song explaining that he is "his father's son," which explains many of his flaws including never "knowing when to shut up." However, he goes on to sing "I still see wrong from right, cause I've got my Mama's eyes." Anyone familiar with the Hell-raising exploits of his famous father will definitely understand this song.

1. Jeffrey C. Capps - The Muddy and the Blue: After years as a member of the Memphis band The Central Standards, Jeff has shown he has the talent and the vision to continue to make an impact with his music. The first thing you'll notice when hearing this album is how melodic these songs are. Try listening to the opener "Let The Fever" without it being stuck in your head the rest of the day. However, upon further listening, you'll start to realize the depth in the lyrics. He left Memphis shortly after this album was released, and the excitement of something new and the sadness of leaving the familiar behind definitely influenced this album.

On the song "Sleep Easy," he acknowledges the downside of the city, especially in the line "There's a million lights turned on in a thousand neighborhoods, but when midnight comes around they never seem to do no good." It amazes me how many Memphis references he fits into this album, while never being too literal. He's not touching on the "tourist themes" of Memphis either(Beale Street, Elvis, etc). These songs were written from the perspective of someone who picks up on the day to day things that make Memphis unique. If you've lived in the nighttime flight path of the FedEx planes, as my wife and I did our first summer in Memphis, then the song "47 747's" will strike a chord with you. I've had the album since last spring and I still hear something new almost every time I listen to it.

To me the best track on the album is "Marguerite." The troubled characters in the song combined with the understated instrumentation and harmonies make this one of my favorite songs of the year.

Check this album out on Itunes or Better yet, go see Jeff live if you get the chance. You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

My Favorite Albums of 2009 Continued - #10-6

Here are the next 5 songs from my top 20.

10. Wilco - (The Album): After the very straightforward Sky Blue Sky in 2007, Wilco got a bit more experimental again with this album. Starting with the somewhat comical but deeply infectious "Wilco (The Song)" and containing three of the catchiest tunes Jeff Tweedy has ever written ("One Wing," "You and I," and "I'll Fight"), this album will not disappoint. I saw Wilco at the Orpheum in Memphis this year, and these songs are even better live.

9. Iron & Wine - Around The Well: This double album consists of B-sides, soundtrack songs, and other rarities. The first disc will please fans of the old-school, lo-fi Sam Beam creations, while the second disc will please those who enjoyed The Shepherd's Dog and his collaborations with Calexico. I think "God Made the Automobile" may be my favorite Iron & Wine song, and the rest of the album is almost as excellent. This one doesn't really feel like a B-sides album, but more like two very good proper releases.

8. Patterson Hood - Murdering Oscar: The second solo album from Drive-By Trucker Patterson Hood is an excellent collection of new songs that didn't quite fit the Truckers' style. It's easy to understand why Hood decided to release these without the band. While the style is a bit of a departure from his full-time gig, the songs are undeniably Patterson Hood. My personal favorites are "Pollyanna," "Pride of the Yankees," and "Grandaddy."

7. Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses - Roadhouse Sun: The sophomore album from Texan Ryan Bingham may be my favorite road-trip album of 2009. The gritty, roots-rock style of the production fits these songs perfectly. You can almost smell the gravel of a run-down beer joint parking lot when this album is playing. The whole album is outstanding and it includes my favorite song of the year in "Dylan's Hard Rain."

6. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit - Self-titled: The second album from former Drive-By Truckers member Jason Isbell is a mostly melancholy affair. There's a lot of regret in these songs. With lines like "I can't make myself do right on Friday night" and "The chairs are up on the bar now, and they're asking me to leave," you can tell Isbell writes from the perspective of a man who feels like he should make a change, but isn't quite ready. Don't get the impression that this album is a depressing affair. Isbell and his bandmate keep things too soulful for that, and you'll be singing along after a couple of listens.

I'll follow up with my top 5 in a couple of days.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My Favorite Albums of 2009 (20-11)

Since I am new to the world of blogging, I figured it best to give a little insight to the kind of music that interests me. What better way to do that than share my favorite albums of 2009. I'm not making a case that these are the most important albums of the year. These are just the albums that helped pull me through a year that saw much of the world in a somewhat depressed state (bad economy, Yankees winning the World Series, etc).

So here we go with #20-11. I'll follow up with 10-1 in a few days.

20. Charlie Robison - Beautiful Day: The man who was once married to a Dixie Chick makes an album about dealing with divorce, but surrounds it with music so sunny you don't feel the least bit depressed while listening.

19. Phish - Joy: The closest band we have to a modern day Dead regroup and make their best album in years. Listing to this album takes me back to my high school years when my friends and I would ride around and listen to Billy Breathes and A Live One...this album is almost that good. Try listing to the song "Backwards Down The Number Line" without a smile on your face.

18. Drive-By Truckers - Live From Austin TX: This one would place a lot higher if it actually contained any new music. This set comes packaged with a DVD of the entire concert. Check out the excellent versions of "Let There Be Rock," " The Living Bubba," and " 18 Wheels of Love."

17. Cross Canadian Ragweed - Happiness And All The Other Things: This may not be one of the boys from Oklahoma's best albums, but it had enough stellar songs to keep it on my iPod for most of the year. The version I have includes a bonus track of Cody playing the Willie Nelson classic "Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground" acoustic. This song alone is almost worth the price of the album.

16. Son Volt - American Central Dust: After Uncle Tupelo disbanded in the early 90's, Jay Farrar formed Son Volt and made the excellent album Trace. In all the years since then, this is as close as he's gotten to matching Trace's greatness. After many years of experimenting with new sounds, Jay Farrar finally steered Son Volt back into the realm of pure Alt-Country.

15. Steve Earle - Townes: Mr. Earle takes on his mentor, Townes Van Zandt's songs. While the entire album consists of covers, all the songs are undeniably Steve Earle as he manages to make each song his own. My favorite track on the album is the duet with his son Justin Townes Earle (yes, named after Van Zandt)"Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold."

14. Brad Paisley - American Saturday Night: I'm not much of a mainstream country fan these days, but Paisley is a master of his craft. He is the total package of musician, singer, performer, and songwriter. This is his best album. With songs like the title track and "Water" this was a great album enjoy on those hot southern summer nights.

13. Drive-By Truckers - The Fine Print (A Collection of Oddities and Rarities 2003-2008): The second Drive-By Truckers album on this list. This album has a few throw-away tracks, but the majority is way above average for a B-Sides album. The cover of Tom Petty's "Rebels" is a personal favorite along with "TVA," "George Jones Talkin Cell Phone Blues," and "The Great Car Dealer War." Too many covers, reworked songs and not enough contributions by band members not named Patterson or this one would be much higher on my list. I can't wait for the new album in March of 2010.

12. Pearl Jam - Backspacer: One of my favorite bands released the most pop-oriented album of their career. Many of my friends don't care for this album because of it's simplicity. It's not their best work, but I think it was the right album for them to make at this stage of their career. I saw an Eddie Vedder quote that said something to the effect of "we've made difficult records, and I'm sure we'll make more difficult records in the future." For this one, they just wanted to rock. Who can blame them for that?

11. Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Cardinology: In my opinion, this is the strongest album from Adams since Jacksonville City Nights. The songs are more polished than we are used to seeing from him. He stated shortly after this album was released that he would be taking a break from music, presumably to focus on his new wife Mandy Moore. Check out the song "Magick" for one of the best feel good rock songs of the year.