If you grew up in the 1980's, you were likely exposed to the phenomenon known as the 'Computer Lab'. A classroom at your elementary school, junior high, or high school that had anywhere from 5 to 30 really really low powered, really really high cost Apple computers that were good for pretty much only one thing.
Sure, there were OTHER games, typically involving a block-headed-Mickey-Mouse, a stick figure carrying random balloons to no foreseeable destination for no explainable reason, or some other early attempt at computer 'graphics', but the only game where you could potentially DIE, and even KILL (mostly snakes, and buffalo, but STILL) was Oregon Trail. As a prototypical bloodthirsty eight year old, this was the absolute greatest 40 minutes of my school week.
Keep in mind, had I had Oregon Trail on my home Commodore 64, it would have very rarely, if even been played. See, at HOME I had all sorts of games where I could kill eight-bit baddies with all the malice of a truly vengeful deity of ancient times, but isn't that true of everything 'great' we were exposed to in school? I can recall really digging on a Greek Mythology reel-to-reel I watched in my Sophomore year World History class too, but it was no Clash of the Titans, that's for DAMN sure. It was just the best you could get as a captive audience, and that made it about 1000% better than listening to a room full of fifteen-year-olds reading excerpts of a text book chapter about the importance of clay pots.
This is not to say that the entire state of Oregon is infested with rattlesnakes, charging buffalo, and only entertaining to a captive audience, it was simply a brief aside turned into a chilling look into my childhood psyche. Relax, you'll all be glad to know that I got out of the habit of killing innocent digital citizens round about the release of the original Grand Theft Auto. Now I'm more an Angry Birds type of guy.
Still, whenever I consider Oregon, I can't help but being both angered an elated by the dark and brooding Apple green glow, informing me that my quest had ended. Somewhere along the line I had contracted a disease, and the GS Reaper now delivered the ghoulish news: You Have Died of Dysentery. Sure, my game was over, but not because I didn't deliver the ridiculous balloons to the useless party in time because I hadn't properly spelled my vocab words, Oregon told-it-like-it-was. My game was over because I was DEAD. That's it, that's all, no more buffalo burgers for me. Oregon turned eight-year-olds into men. At least during computer lab.
Anyhoo, we're not here to wax nostalgic, or ruminate upon the great cleansing force of that nostalgia, making even the dullest moments of our past shine like great beacons of 'Better Days', we're here to talk music, right? It's time to pay homage to not just a game, but the great state that is it's namesake, Oregon. A land where one can find many trees, fabulous donuts, and The Goonies! There is oh so much to love about Oregon. Rain, liberal politics, towns ending in the words 'falls' and 'pass', a Salem where they DON'T burn witches, craft beers, industrious uses of tofu, and a thriving indie music scene.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't also share some Internet acquired "facts" about the 33rd state inducted into this great US of America. For example:
- Oregon's Crater Lake National Park is the only national park in Oregon. Crater Lake is not a crater but a caldera. Kind of makes you wonder what ELSE Oregon is lying about, DOESN'T it?
- Humans have inhabited the area that is now Oregon for at least 15,000 years, and claim it has rained every day.
- In 1811, New Yorker John Jacob Astor financed the establishment of Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River as a western outpost to his Pacific Fur Company; this was the first permanent European settlement in Oregon. In 1985, Sean Astin declared it was Our Time... Down Here...
- According to the Oregon Tourism Commission (also known as Travel Oregon), present-day Oregonians pronounce the state's name as "OR-UH-GUN, never OR-EE-GONE". Good for THEE-EM.
- Some famous Oregonians (OR-UH-GUN-EE-ANS) not listen as our musical honored guests include: Wally 'I Was a 1986 Met' Backman, Scott 'I Was a 1998-2000 Yankee' Brosius, Trevor 'I Play For the Indians' Crowe, Sam 'I Don't Play Baseball' Elliot, Beverly 'Mouse and the Motorcycle' Cleary, David 'The First Rule of Fight Club is I Directed Fight Club' Fincher, Kevin 'Good Lord Lots of Baseball Players are from Oregon' Gregg, Tonya 'Lead Pipes and Sex Tapes' Harding, Howard 'Dr. Johnny Fever' Hessman, and Johnnie 'The Singer NOT the Baseball Player' Ray. As well as lots of other people, most of whom played baseball.
There's all sorts of other things I can say about Oregon, but really what more is there to say but Voodoo Doughnut.
Musically, Oregon is an interesting place. Through much if the state's history, it had been isolated from the popular forces of music present in most of the east coast and Midwest states forming in the early part of the 1900s. The population of Oregon, always a higher percentage of white, European immigrants than the Latin, or African American cultures that have held a profound effect on the music of the rest of the nation, didn't really become a contributing factor to the nation's music scene until popular radio spread rock n' roll coast to coast. In the 60's Oregon began making up for it's slow start in a big way, and Portland is currently one of the booming scenes for the modern independent rock genre. As such, there will not be culture-shifting historical selections on this list, but role-players in the great rock explosion of the Pacific Northwest during the fuzz-guitar end of the 1960's, and a look into the future face of rock with the Young Turks beginning to make 'Portland' the next 'Seattle'. For more info on the hyper-speed evolution of Oregon music, check out the Music of Oregon wikipedia entry, and all it's corresponding links. It's a great place o explore if you're looking
Referring to M. Ward as a solo artist is as fair as giving the 'Best Picture' Oscar just to a film's producers. It's really not an accurate reflection of the depth of people involved in a film, or in this case, in making the full catalog of music that can been rolled up under the stage name of one Mathew Stephen Ward. Since his self-released 1999 Duet For Guitars No. 2 M. Ward has been an icon in the indie scene. He has collaborated with Bright Eyes, is a member of the Folk-Rock super group Monsters of Folk, is the 'Him' of She & Him, and within his solo work, has partnered with Zooey Deschanel ('She'), Cat Power, Neko Case, Beth Orton,
M. Ward is one of the seeming stereotypical hard workers of the Portland indie circuit, having released seven solo long players and two EPs, two volumes under the name 'She & Him', one Monsters of Folk LP, along with production credits and guest appearances on the albums of many of those mentioned above.
For someone who loves his music, I appreciate the voracity with which he records. At the same time, as someone who've followed the trajectory of musicians, the best approximation I can think of to his work ethic and immersion into an entire music scene in Steve Albini, who traded in his Big Black axe for a producer's seat, greatly slowing down his prolific music making pace.
Until (and if) that day comes, grab a pair of headphones, a cold Pacific Northwest craft beer, and enjoy.
Me gotta go
Aye-yi-yi-yi, I said
Louie Louie, oh baby
Me gotta go
Fine little girl waits for me
Catch a ship across the sea
Sail that ship about, all alone
Never know if I make it home
Three nights and days I sail the sea
Think of girl, constantly
On that ship, I dream she's there
I smell the rose in her hair.
Okay, let's give it to 'em, right now!
See Jamaica, the moon above
It won't be long, me see me love
Take her in my arms again
Tell her I'll never leave again
Let's take it on outa here now
Now you know the words. And here you didn't think you'd get anything of value out of reading this blog post. I aim to surprise.
Aside from recording the penultimate version of the undeniable classic above, The Kingsmen, along with Idaho honorees Paul Revere & The Raiders helped fire the first salvo of pop music cred from the streets of the Portland music scene. With fuzz rock guitars, department store discount amps, a pieced together drum set stashed in a closet in the bedroom of a parents' house, a movement was born. From suburban neighborhoods came Garage Rock, which begot West-Coast Punk/Hardcore, which begot Grunge, which begot Alternative, which begot Indie.
We owe it all to the little bands that could, and to The Jolly Green Giant.
I could have used this space to expound upon the indie cred of long-time independent stalwarts Floater, who have been riding the 'Indie' wave since 1993, sill never signing with a major label, but it would be disingenuous. I don't listen to Floater, never have, and if I begin to now, it won't happen 'organically' but rather because I came across them while researching this post. Instead, I'll attempt to prognosticate what 'In the Know' hipsters the world over will be listening to 6 months from now (for a period of about 2 weeks). Honestly though, even that is hedged bet. Blitzen Trapper has been performing in the greater Oregon indie circuit since 2000, and has seen indie radio airplay outside of Oregon's rocky shores off and on for much of that time. My bestest friends at Pitchfork wrote them up in 2007 on the strength of their 3rd album, Wild Mountain Nation. Since then, 'BT' has proven to be as prolific as they are talented, changing labels (moving over to Sub Pop records) and releasing two more full lengths and an EP in the following three years.
I'm sure signing with one time Indie cred-maker, now alt-rock power-players Sup Pop is the modern Hipster version of 'Sellign Out', but for those of us who think artists SHOULD get paid for the work they do, and that fame is part of the goal, Blitzen Trapper is still on their way up. Their 2008 release, Furr earned them a two-page write up in Rolling Stone and a #13 spot in the Rock-God-Mag's albums of the year. The band is currently touring their 2010 release Destroyer of the Void and will be releasing a new single in a months time. Head on over to the Sup Pop merchandise forum on April 16th and get yourself the latest and greatest.
But I'm not here to sell records, I'm here to try and explain why I think Blitzenn Trapper is 'Important' enough to beat out any of the other Indie artists who could have taken this spot. The big reason for me is that if all I knew of Oregon was the Lewis and Clark expedition, the settling of the west, the great dreams of the people who arrived here two hundred years ago to fulfill America's Manifest Destiny, my expectation would be that the modern music currently being played in this rugged enclave would sound a hell of a lot like Blitzen Trapper. See what you think.
I hope this nugget will help you enjoy the great music of Oregon as much as I do, and in 10 years time when the new 'Scene' is Peoria, or Evansville, or Yucaipa, or Osh Kosh, you can tell folks that you remember back in the days when 'Portland' was the hub of indie rock and roll... Then they'll call you old and laugh at you as they take off down the street on their rocket powered skateboards...
Damn those kids!!
Next up Pennsylvania! What will the land of Hershey's chocolate and the Amish hold in store? Stay Tuned!!
I feel bad for Oklahoma, really, I do. The dustbowl, having to be so close to Texas all the time, living life shaped like a stock pot, this is no way to live! Pennsylvania doesn’t have to put up with that crap. Hell, even Kentucky can fall back on that whole rhymes-with-gettin’-lucky thing. What does Oklahoma have? I mean, even the state abbreviation is just OK.
Well just OK isn’t OK enough for me. We’ve got to find ourselves something OK-TASTIC to say about the poor folks who live upstairs from the rowdy partiers in Texas. These people have had to spend the last hundred-and-four years beating on the floor with a broom handle, yelling KEEP IT DOWN! To those shit-kickin-truck-driving-neighbors-down-stairs, and it’s high time somebody showed them some love.
Let’s start by shining a light on all the wonderful things Wikipedia can tell us about Oklahoma.
- Oklahoma is Nicknamed The Sooner State. This is because sooner or later something cool is bound to happen here. That’s just statistics. Math doesn’t lie.
- Oklahoma is a major producer of natural gas, oil, and agriculture. Don’t light a match in Oklahoma.
- The name Oklahoma comes from the Choctaw phrase okla humma, literally meaning red people. After years of immigration, migration, dodgy blanket giving, dust storms, and hopelessness, most of the red can now only be found on resident’s necks.
- Oklahoma is the 20th largest state in the union. Yup, just OK.
- The state holds populations of white-tailed deer, coyotes, bobcats, elk, and birds such as quail, doves, cardinals, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, and pheasants. In prairie ecosystems, American bison, greater prairie-chickens, badgers, and armadillo are common, and some of the nation's largest prairie dog towns inhabit shortgrass prairie in the state's panhandle. That explains why their only pro sports team is called the Thunder. Sure are no ANIMALS in this state you could name your team after.
- The OKC Greater Prairie-Chickens would be my FAVORITE basketball team.
- Native American leader Geronimo was from Oklahoma. He was famous for jumping off of high things whilst screaming his own name.
- General Tommy Franks is also an Okie. Pleasedontsmartbombmeforsayingbadthingsaboutyourstateokaythanks.
- Noted Werewolf, Lon Chaney Jr was from Oklahoma, though he’s often been referred to as being of London. AAAOOOOOOOOH!
- Actors Ron Howard and Clint Howard were both born in Oklahoma. Ron is also a Director and Producer. Clint is also Ron’s brother.
- Heather Langenkamp, noted sufferer of insomnia and bad dreams grew up on Elm St., Somewhere in Oklahoma.
- Oklahoma is apparently a place where lots and lots of people are born, then they leave. People like James “Rockford” Garner, Joan “No Wire Hangars” Crawford, Gary “Endocrine System” Busey, Kristin “Good Lord She’s Tiny” Chenoweth, Blake “God Rest His Soul and the Soul of the Pink Panther” Edwards, Rue “Slutty Golden Girl” McClanahan, Chuck “I Thought Walker was a TEXAS Ranger” Norris, and the people I’m about to profile below!
Solo Artist: Eddie Cochrane
In my time, I have raised both a fuss, and a holler. It happens to the best of us when we are expected to work an entire summer, just to earn ourselves a dollar. I guarantee you, it’s not going to do any good to reach out to an elected official for help, especially if you’re too young to vote.
On April, 16th car accident in the UK stole Eddie from the world before he could realize his true genius. The term ‘ahead of his time’ is often bandied about, especially when speaking of musicians taken from the world before they had a chance to truly shine. Eddie Cochran might just be the best possible example of that trite-but-true bit of sorrow. In the words of Lester Bangs, writing in Rolling Stone in 1972, "Eddie may have imitated Elvis vocally even more than a dozen or so other stalwarts of the day such as Conway Twitty, but his influence on pop consciousness of the magnitude of The Beatles and The Who was deep and profound".
If only Eddie could have had a chance to lean on those contemporaries who were able to stand on his shoulders.
We all know ‘Summertime Blues’. It’s a classic, oft imitated, never replicated, still as high energy and rebellious as it was in 1958. For my money though, nothing shows the snuffed potential of Eddie Cochran like a B-Side from the same year, C'mon Everybody.
If I was ten years older, it would have been The Gap Band. If I was 10 years younger, it would have been The All-American Rejects. There is no way on God’s green earth it was EVER going to be Hanson. Though if I were really drunk, and feeling super-nostalgic for junior high dances, it could have, for a split second, been Color Me Badd. OK, not really. It was ALWAYS going to be The Flaming Lips. I mean, this is ME. They’re a mid-90’s-Dada-inspired-psychedelic-space-rock band. Is there anything here NOT to love?
Alright, to be completely fair, I don’t actually LOVE The Flaming Lips. As a matter of fact, I think you could say I’m woefully under exposed to TFL. I’ve heard maybe a dozen tracks in my time, and other than the radio track ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ played ad-nauseam my Junior year of High School, I can’t say that any of their other songs ever really stuck with me.
But I SHOULD love them.
And they’re NOT Hanson.
Oklahoma, you have my solemn pledge to give your native sons The Flaming Lips a second chance. Now that I’m no longer held captive by a minimum-wage salary and the whims of FM rock radio, I am free to more deeply explore the bowels of your Lips.
Lips of your bowels?
OK, this is just getting worse. I promise I’ll download a few albums, give them a fair listen, and if I don’t end up loving them as much as I think I will, I’ll come back here and write a treatise on the greater social merits of Mmm Bop.
It’s probably been a good 15 years since you’ve heard this track 12 times a day, so hopefully it’s no longer sickening…
It should come as no surprise to anyone, anywhere that I am not a fan of the country music genre. It ranks up there with New Age, Opera, and Gansta’ Rap on a list of things I typically-would-rather-sack-wrestle-a-rabid-weasel than listen to. Really though, weasels are meant to be wrestled just as rules are meant to be broken,and when in Romelahoma, do as the Romelahomans do.
The Romelahomans… Err… Oklahomans do country.
It was a foregone conclusion that I was going to have to include a purveyor-of-the-twang on this list, and I just couldn’t bring myself to sing the praises of Garth Brooks, or Roger Miller even if he WAS the King of the Road.
Luckily for me, one of country’s rare exceptions is a product of the panhandle state. Reba McEntire was born near Kiowa, Oklahoma and began her solo career at a rodeo in Oklahoma City. She sang at least one song that I somewhat enjoy, and she was in Tremors.In my opinion, that is more-than-enough for her to have earned her moniker, The Queen of Country.
Enjoy Fancy, it’s shit-kickin’, dramatic, and has a Tom-Jones-esque touch of melancholy story telling that makes me long for the days when the heroes of story telling songs went to prison for killing their underage girlfriend’s fathers…
I’ve linked to an on-screen lyrics version, ‘cause you all know you want to sing along at home. Here’s your one chance… Don’t let me down.
That’s it for the Okies. Next up will be Oregon. A state that I like, with music that I like even more! This is exciting for me, but probably not as humorous for you. I’m sure you can’t wait!
Halfway through my iTunes list and I've found 153 qualifying bands/artists. Suprised by how many do not qualify because I only have one really, really good album, and nothing else. I'd love to include The Jane Austen Argument or The Mars Volta but there's either just not enough music out there, or I haven't heard enough to crack the top 100. As it is, by the time I'm done I'll have to narrow down from about 300 qualifiers, so it's probably good artists are getting dropped on a technicality.
Enjoy some Jane Austen Argument since they won't be on the list and all... At least, not yet... Well worth the $5 investment.
I have mentioned before that the Internet in general, and Internet Blogs specifically really only exist for one reason.
OK the Internet in general, and Internet Blogs specifically really only exist for TWO reasons. The OTHER one is we all just want to arbitrarily influence the opinions of complete strangers by subjectively ranking things.
All of us.
All the time.
At least, that’s what I like to convince myself. Otherwise, it’s just ME obsessively compulsing all over the ‘net with reckless abandon. Please, join my on my fools errand, won’t you?
My current, and by far most ambitious ranking project is actually designed to have a purpose beyond artificially inspiring debate in hopes to gain regular readers. This ranking list will serve as a master ranking list for many little sub-lists. Those sub-lists will subsequently be turned into playlists, those playlists will then allow me to listen to the best-of-the-best-of-the-best without having to surf through all the less-than-stellar filler found dotted through the catalogs of even the most talented recording artists. Sorry, Duran Duran, but no one is listening to your debut album for Night Boat to Cairo.
…Waitholdonbackupaminute… I guess I should explain what The List IS. See. I’m going to systematically dig through my iTunes playlist, and pull out ALL the artists who have over 25 unique separate recordings. Example, a live version of a studio track already counted would not count. A Greatest Hits or ‘Single’ edit version of an album track previously counted would not count. A live recording of a track not available on a studio album, or preferred to a studio version would count, but only if said studio version either does not exist, or isn’t counted. Confused yet? Good, that’s what I was aiming for.
From there, I will rank all the artists based purely on my own subjective ranking system with some caveats. Namely, to land in the top 5, you MUST have a minimum of 100 individual tracks, and to land in the top 10, that minimum requirement is 75. Outside of that, it’s Game On. After all, music appreciation is nothing if not subjective. Otherwise, there is no explanation for Ween.
Once ranked, the top 100 will each get a top-25 track playlist. The top 10 will get a top-50 track playlist, and #1 will get a top-100 track playlist.
To avoid suspense, #1 will be The Beatles, and breaking down their catalog to a Top-100 is a challenge I’ve been putting off for about 20 years, so that’s going to be… Fun? Yeah, we’ll say fun…
The thing is, as I think about this project, I’m finding myself left with more questions than answers. I’m pretty confident in determining a number of qualifying tracks per artist, but where do I draw the line for ‘combining’ artist catalogs? For example, in my opinion, Adam Duritz, Counting Crows, and The Himalayans are all one ‘Artist’ under the main ‘Artist’ category of Counting Crows; however, Sting and The Police are two separate artists. Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, and Steve Hackett are seven different ‘Artists’, yet Dresden Dolls, Evelyn Evelyn, and Amanda Palmer are all Amanda Palmer to me. Do I case-by-case my decision, or should I institute some theorem to keep consistent? Does it matter?
I run into the same issue when I alphabetize. Do I use the iTunes logic and put 10,000 Maniacs at the end? Do I use standard logic and put 10,000 Maniacs at the beginning? Do I just file it under T for Ten-Thousand Maniacs? If you immediately disregarded option 3, then consider Four Non-Blondes? I file The Beatles under B, omitting the word ‘The’, so where the hell does The The go?
OK, that was a joke, but in all seriousness, the whole when-to-combine issue is a big one. I guess, if the potential combinees could occupy multiple spots on their own merit, then they deserve to be separated accordingly (The Morrissey vs. The Smiths theorem) However, when it takes the combined efforts to make the best potential qualifying catalog (The Amanda Palmer Solution) then combine I shall. Sound good? Good. Suggestions, comment away my dear 'netizens, I cannot confirm I will heed your advice, but I will most assuredly listen.
Now, to begin digging through the 1,400 separate artist listings on my iTunes playlist, determine the qualifiers, and assemble the Top 100…
I’m dropping this post to explain that I’ll check in as I go, and throughout the playlist making process. Also as a sort of trail for the authorities should the overwhelming obsession lead to CSD Julie murdering me and disposing of my body rather than having to listen to me endlessly debate with myself about just which tracks to pull off of the Beach BoysPet Sounds. By the way, if this is going out posthumously, she dumped me somewhere off of Ortega Highway, and Wouldn’t It Be Nice, God Only Knows, and I Know There’s an Answer and/or Hang On To Your Ego, but I mean, they’re really the same song, right? But that’s kind of the brilliance of the tracks, isn’t it? You kind of need both to really make it work, but taking both kills space for a lot of other great Beach Boys tunes from other records, and I don’t know if I can really afford to take 4 tracks from this one album, even if it is their best work, and I’m already cutting out Sloop John B, and…
For the record, the 50-state-strategy is still in effect, but seriously, this sounds like a hell of a lot more fun than finding bands from Oklahoma. I’ll get there eventually…
1997 was a prophetic year. I was convinced I had my life figured out. I mean, what else was there to learn? I was away from home, makin’ it on my own as they say, ready to implement a life plan that would make me the envy of 19 year olds everywhere. Sure, I was slinging sandwiches for less than a grand a month, hanging on to my failed attempt at higher education by a fingernail, smoking a pack of Winstons a day, living with the soon-to-be-ex-love-of-my-life (shocking how high school romances have a tendency to do that), and still years away from meeting my true soul mate, who showed be what making a life together is REALLY all about. C’mon though, I was NINETEEN, employed, shacked-up, had a car, and money for smokes. What could POSSIBLY go wrong?
Yeah, in 1998 the bottom dropped out. Within 12 months I was working an office job, single, back at home, re-examining the last years of my life and wondering what I was supposed to do next, but one event from 1997 stuck, in a big way. That fateful summer I went from casual listener of one Mr. Elvis Costello into knock-down-drag-out-super-fanatic-to-the-extreme, which I remain to this day, as one could ascertain from the title of the blog, and this post.
I point out the demarcation year because it paints an important frame of reference for my Costello fandom. Prior to that summer, my exposure to Elvis was limited to a cassette copy of 1991’s Mighty Like a Rose, and a CD copy of the 1994 collection The Very Best of Elvis Costello and The Attractions 1977-86 (Thank you Columbia House!). My point is, aside from the aforementioned album and collection, as far as I was concerned, every Elvis Costello album might as well have been released post 1997, and as a relatively under-knowledged listener, it pretty well seemed that the Costello catalog was more or less complete. The last original rock recording had been 1994’s Brutal Youth, which incidentally, for non-Elvis aficionados, is as good a place to start as any. Yes, there had been ‘other’ stuff, like the ’95 covers collection Kojak Variety, 96’s classically inspired All This Useless Beauty, and a few pre-Bacharach compilations with other artists, but again I was young and stupid and thought the 20 or so studio albums already in circulation was about all the Elvis I would every have a chance to hear.
Hindsight being 20-20, we now know that the prolific Declan Patrick MacManus would release 12 more studio albums, 2 live albums, 3 collections, 3 box sets, appear as an actor in multiple movies and TV shows, have his own talk variety show, receive an Academy Award nomination, and be enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame all in a span of thirteen years. Certainly, accomplishments worthy of a career on their own, even without what had come before.
That leads me to the meat of this blog sandwich. Using the year of my fandom as a deviding point, what are the absolute best Elvis albums released post 1997? As mentioned above, there are a total of 12 studio albums to choose from. We’ll blow out live performances, collections, and box sets as they are chock full of older material, and by the same token, remove cover collections, guest appearances, classical compositions, and jazz, because one cannot truly compare apples to oranges, or in this case, apples to persimmons, mangos, or other exotic fruit of your choice. We’ll stick with what can classically be called pop-rock albums, and all the sub-genres that entails.
Reducing the criteria thusly, we’re left with six albums in the eight years between 2002 and 2010. That’s the kind of sample size I can sink my teeth into. I’ll take a look at each one individually, and then do the-single-most-important-thing-a-person-can-possibly-do-with-an-internet-blog-post-anywhere-ever. That’s right, I’ll RANK THEM!!!
First though, in order of chronology:
2002 When I Was Cruel- Elvis returns! WIWC was the first return to the rock genres since arguably 1996’s All This Useless Beauty, though considering the very classical underpinnings of that record, it’s really a first since the at the time eight year old Brutal Youth. Consider that for a minute. In the eight years since WIWC, Elvis has dropped five more rock genre albums after releasing arguably none in the eight years previous. So much for entering the twilight of his career… Anyhoo, WIWC was an absolute success in returning Elvis to the world of Rock and Roll. Huge basslines, two quantifiable hits in ‘45’ and ’15 Petals’ a top 20 spot on the Billboard hot 200 album chart, and 15 back-to-back sing along tracks announcing to the world that Elvis had most certainly NOT left the building, and Mr. Costello will certainly make a hell of a lot of racket when he does. Elvis worked with a “New” backup band on this one, going by the name ‘The Imposters’. For the uninitiated, the ‘Imposters’, ‘Attractions’, ‘Costello Show’, ‘Confederates’, and ‘Sugarcanes’ all feature Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas with only Bruce Thomas (no relation) not remaining in the fold, Thomas the Bruce being replaced by bassist Davey Faragher. I’ll end each summation with a list of top tracks from the album. From this one, you can listen to the whole damn thing. It’s just plain good, and varied, front to back. Some best-of-the-best cross section tracks would include 45, When I Was Cruel No. 2, Daddy Can I Turn This, Episode of Blonde, and Radio Silence. I don't want to take anythign away from the big reveal, but the name of the post is a line from WIWC#2...
2003 North- Michael Caine is famously quoted as saying he picks movies to do “One for the Art, and One for the Money”. As a result, Caine has a prolific, varied, and extremely entertaining body of work. I’m not sure which ones Elvis does for Art or Money, but the contrast between WIWC and North is definitely varied and entertaining. While Cruel attacks you from the first chord with the sharp edge of Rock and Roll, North is like a glass of scotch on a rainy Sunday. It’s numbing and comfortable. It warms you up while still reminding you how cold you can be. A collection of Sinatra style torch songs designed to transport the listener back to the days where the voice was an instrument, not simply a weapon. Like Elvis did for Country tunes with 1981's Almost Blue, and with pop vocals during the Bacharach sessions of 1998s Painted from Memory, he has now done for jazz vocals with North. From a collector’s point of view, it’s frustrating as hell, because you cannot genre sort Elvis Costello. Oh well, I guess the awesome range of music is some small consolation. North is billed as a solo album, but includes The Imposters on most tracks with the exception of the title track, and Fallen. Top tunes: ‘Someone Took the Words Away’, ‘Still’, ‘I’m in the Mood Again’
2004 The Delivery Man- If one was to put Almost Blue, When I Was Cruel, and North in a blender, and dash it with a bit of Oscar magic, one would end up with a packaged product called The Delivery Man. A mix of rock, country, jazz vocals, old-American folk, and a star studded cast really put a shine on this perfect example of everything Elvis is in the new millennium. Working with The Imposters and artists Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and T-Bone Burnett among others, this album is a perfect celebration of Elvis’ 2003 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. If you wonder why he got in, he delivers the goods on this one. During the same year, Costello co-wrote the songs on wife Diana Krall’s The Girl in the Other Room, and performed his nominated track "The Scarlet Tide" at the Academy Awards. Top tunes: Button My Lip, There’s a Story in your Voice, The Delivery Man, The Judgment, The Scarlet Tide.
2008 Momofuku- Elvis took a hiatus from mainstream rock albums after Delivery Man, if by ‘Hiatus’ you mean released a classical suite, a jazz piano album, and a vocal duet collection with Allen Toussaint all while scheduling, shooting, and selling the first season of Spectacle for UK, Canadian, and US television. At any rate, there were no more rock records for about four years, but when Elvis got back on the horse, he brought a throwback style reticent of early 80’s Attractions records Get Happy!! and Trust. As with Delivery, and darn near everything Elvis as done in the last 10+ years, he didn’t do it alone. Momofuku, so named for Momofuku Ando, the Japanese inventor of instant ramen noodles (a tongue in cheek reference to how quickly the album was put together) included backing vocals from Rilo Kiley front woman Jenny Lewis, a favor Elvis would return by dueting on the track “Carpetbaggers” from Lewis’ absolutely flawless Acid Tongue album later in the year. Momofuku also marked a new distribution style for Elvis as it was the first album he offered initially as a digital download. The trend would continue on future releases. Top tunes: This is another one that’s great all the way through, but you can hear some different Elvis styles on American Gangster Time, Harry Worth, Flutter and Wow, Mr. Feathers, and My Three Sons
2009 Secret, Profane & Sugarcane- Expanding upon the Americana of previous album King of America, and his Oscar nod The Scarlet Tide Elvis opted for an acoustic band, recorded with produced T Bone Burnett, and knocked out the record in a three day recording session in Nashville, Tennessee. One of the biggest selling points of the record is that it was blasted in a review by Pitchfork Media. Any album that upsets those poser douchebags automatically gets 2 thumbs up from me. In defense of the hipster trash site, Secret doesn’t resonate with me quite as much as the albums before it, but it does hit the chords Elvis was going for with additional collaborations with Country artists Emmylou Harris, Stuart Duncan, Jerry Douglas and featuring a track co-written by Loretta Lynn. Pitchfork dismissively referred to the album as “yet another entry in Costello's string of gestural albums”, which says much more about the assholes at Pitchfork than it does about the quality of the recording. Sorry not every album released in the new millennium is over-produced-fuzz-pop-noise, Pitchfork. Down another PBR and have a debate about who’s more intentionally ironic while gunning to catch Ashton Kutcher’s prolific Twitter following. Dicks. Wow… Geez… I mean, Top tracks include: The acoustic send up of a Costello classic Complicated Shadows, My All Time Doll, I Dreamed of My Old Lover, and Sulphur to Sugarcane.
2010 National Ransom- Ransom picked up where Secret left off, expanding Costello’s foray into Americana to include the Best Coast as well as Country and Blues roots. Recorded both in Nashville and Los Angeles, Elvis and his Imposters, nee Sugarcanes, trade in the acoustic setup of Secret for a stripped down, plugged in throwback to garage rock. Think Creedence with a killer fiddle player adding harmony, and the trademark Attractions organ. Costello adds another layer of depth by not just plugging in, but beefing up lyrics to tackle the American debt, religious debate, and gun control along with the regular recurring themes of lost and found love that seem to transcend genre through Costello’s catalog. An incredibly interesting contrast is the track Jimmie Standing in the Rain, lyrics depicting a working class Brit forgotten and dismissed by his nation behind a civil war era ultra-American tune. Makes sense coming from the mind of a British born son of Irish immigrants tapping into the roots of Americana. This album was released about 5 months before this writing, and admittedly I’m still digesting it. Consider that caveat when I divulge the ever-important rankings… Top tracks include: The first half of the album National Ransom, Jimmie Standing in the Rain, Stations of the Cross, A Slow Drag with Josephine, Five Small Words, Church Underground, You Hung the Moon, Bullets for the New-Born King. Perhaps others as well, I haven’t digested the 2nd half of the album as fully as the first.
With that, only one task of tremendous import remains. The Internet would be nothing more than a series of tubes were it not for the arbitrary rankings of sycophant bloggers, expressing their opinion as though it were written in stone. Far be it from me to undermine the value or the entire World Wide Web, so without further adieu, from six to one…
#6 Secret, Profane & Sugarcane: Coming in last in this contest is kind of like being the last person across the finish line at the Indy 500. You just got to drive a super tuned open wheel racer for 500 miles at over 200 MPH, and you didn’t crash. First or last, you still beat out a good number of the folks who showed up to race.
#5 North: A beautifully crafted love letter to his new wife, Elvis tackled vocal jazz with aplomb. As a fan of Costello classics like My Aim Is True, Armed Forces and Blood & Chocolate, this album had no chance of ranking any higher. That being said, it would still fit on my top 10 list of albums released in 2003.
#4 National Ransom: Remember the all important caveat. Six months from now this record could fall anywhere in the top 4. Based on the first 8 tracks it’s going to best Secret and North, and would fall very close to the top of my 2010 albums of the year, in what was in my opinion, a pretty good year for new music.
#3 The Delivery Man: In a week this might be #2. In two weeks, it might be #4. Right at this minute, it is #3 based more on the strength of the #2 album than on its content. Picks up major points for There’s a Story in your Voice, loses a few for The Scarlet Tide, just because I don’t need to hear that song anymore for a while. I’ve listened to it a lot.
#2 Momofuku: For an album Costello compared to the simplicity of instant ramen, I think it’s fucking brilliant. That could say as much about me as it does about the album. Of the six, this is the album that tries the least to hit a theme. It is eclectic, dirty, wild, and packaged without much thought given to flow. For those very reasons, and for the organ backing on American Gangster Time, #2 belongs to Fuku
#1 When I Was Cruel: I spilled the beans halfway through. I would totally not blame you if you stopped reading above the fold; after all, I know you were only here to see what #1 was. In my defense, it’s kind of a no brainer. Drive through the desert, throw on this album crank the speakers to eleven, and allow the bass, vocals, and ennui drenched in the emotions of a man transitioning from one marriage to another, one career to another, one life to another to seep into every pore. This album turned me from a simple Convert into a Missionary. Let me teach you, one Spooky Girlfriend at a time.