Wilco

Rust Is Just Right’s Best Albums of 2015

Today is April 18, and while the rest of the nation celebrates Tax Day (an extra three days later this year), we here at Rust Is Just Right choose this occasion to release our Best Albums of the Year list.  We follow this unusual schedule for a few reasons: 1) It allows some of the albums that are released at the end of the calendar year to get some recognition, since they usually get swallowed up in the attention of the flurry of year-end lists; 2) We get the chance to analyze other lists to pick up on albums that somehow escaped our attention during the course of the year; and 3) It provides a handy consumer guide for people to focus where to spend their tax refund.

The process that is used to determine this list is highly rigorous and hardly scientific.  However, we are still in the process of attempting to patent and trademark The Process, which if you may recall, is simply tallying up the play counts on iTunes for each album.  It has served us well in years past, and a quick glance at our list this year proves that it has worked once again.

Note: Though the list is a Top 10, there are more albums than slots, because we don’t like breaking ties for the same play count.  If you’re really intent on focusing on only 10, I guess take the 10 highest performing albums from the list, but you really shouldn’t limit yourself like that if you can help it.  Also, we have reviews for nearly all of these albums, so for those of you seeking a more detailed analysis all you need to do is click the appropriate tag above.

10. Deaf Wish – Pain; Disasterpeace – It Follows (Score); EL VY – Return to the Moon; HEALTH – Death Magic; Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer; Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon (7 plays)

A very interesting mix at the bottom of the list, including our token electronic choice as well as our first pick of a film score in this site’s history.  Deaf Wish broke through with one of the best noise-rock albums of the year, showing a surprising amount of depth for such a narrow niche, and EL VY proved that side-projects don’t have to be boring.  The debut album from Tobias Jesso Jr. is the star of this particular slot, as Goon shows that the world may have found a true heir to the rich musical legacy of Harry Nilsson.

9. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment – Surf; Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside; Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy; Vaadat Charigim – Sinking as a Stone; White Reaper – White Reaper Does It Again; Wilco – Star Wars (8 plays)

Another eclectic group at the number nine slot–there’s the ambitious rock opera from Titus Andronicus sharing space with the keep-it-simple garage rock of White Reaper, the joyous jazz-inflected Surf project featuring the exuberant Chance the Rapper sliding up next to the brooding and intense personal meditations of Earl Sweatshirt, and the veteran purveyors of Americana in Wilco sitting comfortably by the Israeli shoegaze group Vaadat Charigim.

8. Blur – The Magic Whip; BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah – Sour Soul; Ghostface Killah – Twelve Reasons to Die II; Joanna Gruesome – Peanut Butter; Low – Ones and Sixes; Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp (9 plays)

Most people seem to have forgotten that not only did Blur come back this year, but they did so with a brilliant album that recalls their peak during the mid-90’s BritPop era, with the group showing that they learned a few things during their downtime.  Similarly, Low once again suffers through the Spoon Curse of being consistently great, with little love being shown for their latest excellent release.  Waxahatchee broadened her sound to great results this year, while Joanna Gruesome solidified their style.  But it is Ghostface who deserves special recognition this year for releasing two separate fantastic records this year.

7. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color; Foals – What Went Down; Ought – Sun Coming Down; Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love; Viet Cong – Viet Cong (10 plays)

We are glad to welcome back Sleater-Kinney into our lives, as No Cities to Love fits in comfortably with the rest of the other great punk records in their back catalog.  Viet Cong’s debut album and Ought’s second record were challenging post-punk works, but there were enough intriguing elements to be found in both to inspire continued listening.  Alabama Shakes improved immensely from their debut album, showing off a broader range than what had been expected from their previous blues-rock groove.  However, we once again wait for Foals to break through into the mainstream, even though they did their part by releasing this great arena-ready album.

6. Beach Slang – Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us; Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves; Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect (11 plays) 

A lot of people may be surprised by the high ranking of the new Modest Mouse album, but we feel that there was enough on this sprawling effort to reward repeated listens.  While it may not appear as seamless as classics like The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica, there are several tracks that different eras of fans can enjoy–even the notorious “Pistol” gets better each time you hear it.  Meanwhile, Protomartyr’s brooding post-punk serves as a great contrast to Beach Slang’s exuberant beer-soaked punk.

5. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (12 plays) 

A worthy recipient of many accolades this past year, Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus brilliantly pushes the boundaries of what many thought hip-hop could do.  It is often a difficult and uncompromising listen, but there are still many joys to be found throughout the album.

4. Bully – Feels Like; Royal Headache – High (13 plays) 

Both of these records are thrilling half-hours-of-power, and frankly I am wondering why they did not receive more publicity.  There were few albums as fun as this duo.

3. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress; Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (14 plays) 

Amazingly enough, Godspeed You! Black Emperor seem to be improving with each new release, with Asunder being possibly their most accessible work yet.  There were few moments as powerful as the climax of “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!” or the bombastic ending of “Piss Crowns are Trebled”.  At the other end of the spectrum, Sufjan Stevens may have finally made us converts with the quietly devastating and deeply personal Carrie & Lowell.

2. Deafheaven – New Bermuda (16 plays)  

Deafheaven successfully met the challenge of following up their genre-bending breakthrough album Sunbather, returning with the powerful, if more conventional, New Bermuda.  However, the amazing thing about this album is that not only does it stand on its own, it somehow enhances their previous work; each listen of New Bermuda inspires an additional listen of Sunbather, and somehow that album gets better every time we hear it.  Still, New Bermuda stands on its own as a brilliant album, with each of its five tracks jockeying for position as best song on the record.

1. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear (17 plays) 

We had a feeling at the beginning of last year that Father John Misty would place high in our list, but even we were surprised that our favorite shaman ended up in the top slot.  I Love You, Honeybear is a gorgeously lush record, filled with swelling strings and ebullient horns, but there is a dark undercurrent lurking below much of the album.  The record works on both a superficial level and with a more critical approach, which helps explain its surprising ranking.  But in the end, it is just a damn good record, and we cannot wait to see one of modern rock’s great showman return to Oregon later this year.

Advertisements

Catching Up On The Week (Aug. 28 Edition)

A few #longreads for your perusal as you relax this weekend…

Now that you have read our extensive look at the discography of Wilco, be sure to read Jeff Tweedy’s interview with Rolling Stone talking about the creation of Star Wars and how the band is already working on the next record.

The New York Times has an in-depth piece that takes a thorough look at the evolution of the “Creative Economy”, and in particular scrutinizes the way the music industry has developed in the wake of technological advances.  While I would take some of the conclusions they reach with a grain of salt, the article is worth reading to see the process of how they came to develop these arguments.

Another weekend, another anniversary–this time, Stereogum is taking a look back to the year 2005 and the release of Kanye West’s second album, Late Registration.  Considering his continued impact on popular music, it is somewhat amazing to realize Kanye has only been around for a little more than a decade, and this well-written piece makes the argument that Late Registration stands out from the rest of Kanye’s formidable catalog.

Consequence of Sound has a retrospective piece on the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s seminal album Highway 61 Revisited, with the added bonus of including tidbits from a couple of the session players that contributed to the record.

Finally, Pitchfork has a piece that uses the twentieth anniversary of Rancid’s hit “Time Bomb” as a jumping-off point for a look at the history of 2 Tone Ska, analyzing the differences between its development in the UK and the US as well as how the social issues that were a central part of the music decades ago still are relevant today.

The Wilco File, Part 2

In Part 1 of our examination of Wilco’s discography, we began with a look at the origins of the band and finished with an analysis of their biggest commercial success.  Today, we take a look at the second half of Wilco’s career, as they emerge from their tumultuous early years and solidify into one of the most consistently riveting live acts in the country.

A Ghost Is Born Though Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would ultimately prove to be a high point for the band, the process took a toll on the group.  As the band dealt with the external difficulties that arose from their record label troubles, the group was also once again experiencing internal struggles, culminating with the departure of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett.  In addition, Jeff Tweedy was coping with an addiction to painkillers stemming from his chronic migraines, which would affect the promotion of YHF‘s follow-up.

My entry point into Wilco was A Ghost Is Born, so I have always held it in higher esteem than most, but I still insist the album represents the band’s creative peak.  The band’s sonic explorations had a more clear focus, and instead of being merely ornamental flourishes, helped support the songs themselves, like the Krautrock-inspired “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”.  The album is loaded with some of the group’s best pure rock songs, from “Handshake Drugs” to “Theologians” to “At Least That’s What You Said”, the last of which features the most scintillating and inventive guitar playing of Jeff Tweedy’s career.  The tour in support of A Ghost Is Born also spurred the creation of one of the greatest live records of all time, Kicking Television, a two-disc compilation that served as an effective showcase of the genius underlying that album.

Sky Blue Sky With their record label situation fully resolved and a lineup finally settled, Wilco decided the time was right to relax a bit, and the result was the release of the laid-back Sky Blue Sky.  It is the ultimate lazy summer album, perfect for unwinding with a beer after toiling under the hot sun mowing the lawn, though chilling after engaging in hard labor is hardly necessary for enjoyment.  This is around the time when the band began to be tagged with the derisive label of “dad rock”, and though it is somewhat accurate in reflecting the nature of the music, it need not be taken as an insult.  Sometimes, the mood is just right for easygoing jams like “Either Way” or “Side with the Seeds”, though Sky Blue Sky does feature the most epic guitar jam of the group’s career, with the three-headed attack of “Impossible Germany”, led by Nels Cline’s impeccable lead playing.

Wilco (the Album) The band continued to mine the same vein of Sky Blue Sky with the release of Wilco (the Album), a record that at the time seemed like a fine addition to the Wilco catalog but has come to be regarded as one of their least essential recordings.  Cuts from the album have for the most part disappeared from the band’s setlist, and while there are several pleasant moments scattered throughout (ranging from the soaring “One Wing” to the beautiful “Everlasting Everything” to the restless “Bull Black Nova”), it rarely leaves a lasting impression on the listener.

The Whole Love Wilco switched gears with the wide-ranging and adventurous  The Whole Love, which saw the band scratching that itch for the experimental for the first time in years.  For the first time since A Ghost Is Born, it seemed the band decided to challenge themselves, an intention that is clear from the outset with the multi-part opener “Art of Almost”.  In addition, Wilco prove that they still have a playful side, as seen with the bouncy “Dawned on Me” and the goofy “I Might”, and that they are not afraid to cut loose, as they do with the boisterous “Standing O”.  In many ways, The Whole Love served as a perfect encapsulation of all facets of the Wilco sound.

There you have it.  Oh, because everyone likes lists, here is the definitive ranking of Wilco albums, which also doubles as a handy step-by-step guide to working through their back catalog.

  1. A Ghost Is Born
  2. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
  3. Summerteeth
  4. Being There
  5. The Whole Love
  6. A.M.
  7. Sky Blue Sky
  8. Wilco (the Album)

The Wilco File, Part 1

Last Friday, Wilco released their ninth studio album Star Wars in a more tangible form than “downloadable files”.  We already published our review of their excellent new record, but there are probably several readers who may have been intrigued by what they heard in Star Wars but have yet to take the plunge into Wilco’s extensive back catalog.  Sure, the band helped simplify the process a bit by releasing the greatest hits collection What’s Your 20?, but a compilation only gives you a partial glimpse of the evolution of the band.  So we are here to provide this handy guide to the Wilco discography, broken up into two easily-digestible halves.

A.M. In order to understand the poor reputation of Wilco’s debut album, one needs to know the circumstances of its creation.  Wilco was formed after the breakup of the beloved and influential underground alt-country act Uncle Tupelo.  Tensions had been simmering for a while and came to a head just as Uncle Tupelo was breaking into the mainstream, and irreconcilable differences between the two primary songwriters resulted in the group being split into two bands.  Jay Farrar formed Son Volt, while the rest of Uncle Tupelo lined up under Jeff Tweedy to form Wilco.  The initial critical consensus was that Jay Farrar, who wrote the bulk of the material for Uncle Tupelo, had the stronger debut with Son Volt, and Tweedy’s group suffered in comparison.

However, when you separate the album from the drama that surrounded its release, A.M. holds up much better.  Without those expectations of living up to Uncle Tupelo’s past work, one can enjoy the record for what it is: a light and fun country-tinged rock album.  The band keeps the song structures simple and the tone is very playful, and the inclusion of some of these early songs in recent setlists has been a pleasant surprise.  Those connoisseurs of fine taste, Beavis and Butt-head, knew what was up.

Being There Critics were quick to dismiss Wilco after A.M., but they were quick to reverse themselves when the group released Being There, one of the few double albums that actually works as a double album.  Being There hints at the direction the group would take in subsequent albums, with its shift to a more serious and melancholic tone.  The album also marked Wilco’s beginning into more experimental production touches, most notably their initial forays into incorporating noise and other similar elements into their songs, as can be heard with the opener and audience favorite “Misunderstood”, a relatively straightforward three-chord ballad that is marked by little details like an alarm beeping in the background as well as the big noisy crashes that interrupt the flow of the song periodically.

The division into two discs makes sense from a sonic perspective, with the first disc primarily composed of upbeat rockers with the second one focused on more acoustic numbers.  Though the entire album could fit onto a single disc, the split helps prevent the listener from becoming overwhelmed in attempting to listen to eighty straight minutes in one sitting, and allows the listener to choose a side that more appropriately reflects the mood.  It is a testament to the balance of Wilco’s sound that each disc is qual in quality.

Summerteeth After earning plaudits for Being There, Wilco decided to cut loose a bit and go in a poppier direction, a decision that caused a split with the group’s fans at the time.  Summerteeth is a bright, lush album filled with huge arrangements and a sparkling production that allows all the musical layers to shine.  The album moves at a brisk pace, but the peaks represent some of the best work that Wilco has done in their career, including the groovy “Can’t Stand It”, the driving “A Shot In The Arm”, and the ebullient “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)”.  Still, amid all the happiness, the record is probably best known for the stark, bleak “Via Chicago”, with its memorable opening line “I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt alright to me” and its several band freakouts.  In the middle of all that turbulence, however, there is still that incredible descending melodic hook that persists throughout and drives the song, summing up the theme of the record.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Considered by many to be Wilco’s masterpiece, the album was close to never being released at all, as documented in the film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.  The initial rejection by the band’s label seems quaint now, with its reputation as an anti-commercial record seeming overblown as the years have passed; the fact that Reprise did not think it could sell the record based on pure pop songs and ready-made singles like “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” says more about their own skills than anything.

However, there is the faintest hint of merit to the label’s concern, as a lot of the songs are gussied up with unnecessarily bracing production flourishes.  These random elements obscure some of the most gorgeous and eloquent songwriting of the band’s career, though it was their clear intent.  It is an album that is meant to be off-putting on the first few listens, but the hints of what lay underneath the surface are enough to entice closer inspection.  Live editions of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot tracks help strip away some of the artifice to reveal the heart of the songs themselves, and may be a better entry point into the record, but when one gets comfortable with the material, it is easier to appreciate all those extraneous touches.

Wilco, Live at Edgefield

Edgefield is easily one of the best venues in Oregon, and it is too bad that we were unable to see more shows there this summer.  However, if it ends up that we only make it out to Troutdale one time this year, Wilco certainly did their best to make it worthwhile.  The band entertained the sold-out crowd with a career-spanning, thirty song set that captured every aspect of the group’s sound.

If you look closely, the cat from the Star Wars cover is hanging out by Glen.

If you look closely, the cat from the Star Wars cover is hanging out by Glenn.

Wilco kicked off the show with a mini-set of their entire new album, Star Wars, entering the stage to the noisy opener “EKG” before playing straight through the entire record.  The crowd ate it up, with a fair portion having already memorized many of the lyrics from last month’s surprise release.  The new material translated well live, with the band staying faithful to the record, besides Nels Cline adding some embellishments and Glenn Kotche indulging in an extended drum solo between songs.

To Jeff's delight, it finally got dark enough.

To Jeff’s delight, it finally got dark enough.

Once “Magnetized” closed out the “opening set”, Jeff Tweedy greeted the crowd and the band launched into a roaring version of “Handshake Drugs”.  For the most part, the band kept the energy up during the main set, flying through uptempo numbers like “Dawned on Me”, “Heavy Metal Drummer”, and “I’m the Man That Loves You”.  Wilco did not just stick with the fun, bouncy songs though, as they played a varied set that covered all the assorted genres the band has flitted with over the years.  The group delighted the crowd with their moody, noisy freakouts in “Via Chicago” and “Art of Almost” as well as the introspective favorite “Jesus, Etc.”, but the audience truly came alive with the epic, extended guitar workouts of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “Impossible Germany”.

For the encore, Wilco went retro

For the encore, Wilco went retro.

For the encore, the band eschewed amps and went old-school with a full acoustic lineup, with even keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen picking up an axe at one point.  The band began with a solemn rendition of “Misunderstood”, featuring an ending that stood in stark contrast with the way the long-time live favorite has been performed–instead of an ever-escalating repetition of the “nothing” part in “I’d like to thank you all for nothing at all”, the band gradually played softer, with members dropping out, finishing with Tweedy whispering the final notes in a powerful moment.  Bassist John Stirratt then got a turn at the mic as the band played “It’s Just That Simple” from their debut A.M., followed by an even earlier selection as they played “We’ve Been Had” by pre-Wilco group Uncle Tupelo.  Special guests (and Portland residents) Peter Buck of R.E.M., Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, and Scott McCaughey joined in for the second of two Mermaid Avenue selections, livening up “California Stars” with an extra dose of familial feeling, before the band closed out with a relaxed take on “A Shot in the Arm”.

Wilco proved once again why they have been consistently one of the great live acts of the past two decades, and we wish we could have seen more of Speedy Ortiz’s opening set.  Unfortunately, Portland’s terrible Sunday traffic only allowed us to see a handful of songs from one of our favorite new bands, but we liked what we heard, even if most of the crowd seemed relatively indifferent.

Review: Wilco – Star Wars

Wilco stunned the music world with the surprise release of their ninth studio album, Star Wars, a few weeks ago.  While we have seen some of the biggest pop stars on the planet undertake this kind of gambit (such as Beyonce and U2), it did not seem to be the kind of maneuver that the normally staid indie rock darlings would attempt.  However, the casual nature of the album’s release serves Star Wars well, as it fits the easy-going mood of the material; freed from the anxiety that comes with the build-up and anticipation of months of promotion, Wilco sounds as loose as it has ever been, and the result is the perfect album for a lazy summer afternoon.

Wilco reached their greatest commercial success with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, albums that were intricately composed and fussily produced, but there has always been a part of the band’s identity that pushed back against that instinct and ease up a bit.  Jeff Tweedy most recently indulged in that tendency with his Tweedy side project he put out last year with his son, but unlike Sukirae or Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, the looseness of Star Wars is based more on having fun than simple relaxation.  Even on moments like the sweet “Where Do I Begin”, the band is not afraid of blowing up a lovely ballad to explode in a noisy and triumphant finish.

In a stark contrast with the multi-part layered epics on The Whole Love, the music on Star Wars is stripped down to its basic elements, with songs rarely stretched beyond three minutes.  Guitars with a touch of fuzz distortion dominate the sound, with multi-instrumentalist Patrick Sansone making it a three-guitar attack for most of the record.  The shift in approach creates a sharper and more rocking feel to the album, which is apparent on such songs as “More…” and “Random Name Generator”.  The downside is that Mikael Jorgensen’s keyboards are often lost in the shuffle and minimized for the most part, save for a key role in shaping the closer “Magnetized”.

As a gift to fans, Star Wars is a perfect treat.  Those that longed for the carefree days of the early years circa Being There should be more than satisfied with the album, and those that appreciate the knottier and denser material can appreciate cuts like “You Satellite” that stand out after repeated listens.  Though there were many that took advantage of the generous free download opportunity, most will certainly feel compelled enough to give their thanks by purchasing the album when it goes on sale in the near future.

As for the mystery behind the title and the goofy cover art?  Jeff Tweedy can only respond, “I cry at the joke explained.”

Over the Weekend (July 20 Edition)

New music, new videos, and news as you recover from a weekend spent with the sun shining mercilessly on a gravel pit…

Wilco shocked the music-loving world last week with the surprise release of their latest album, Star Wars, for free through their website.  The record is a very loose affair, hearkening back to the pre-Summerteeth era, and serves as the perfect soundtrack for a lazy summer afternoon.  They played the record in its entirety during their Pitchfork Musical Festival-headlining set, so those of you who are lucky enough to have tickets for their current tour should prepare yourselves accordingly.

We are entirely against the idea of playing the song “Friday I’m in Love” on any day except Friday, though we may have to make an exception for Yo La Tengo’s pleasant take The Cure’s classic for their new covers album Stuff Like That There, especially for its hilarious music video that is perfect for any Monday.

Wavves shared their latest single “Way Too Much” last week after a brief brouhaha with their label.  The drama seems to have ended, which is great news because the song has us amped for the October 2nd release of V.

Pitchfork has a handy guide to a list of the best books of the 33 1/3 series, which allows writers to examine classic albums through a variety of perspectives.  We can vouch for the excellence of the entry on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and one of these days we will pick up a few more selections.

If you are in need of a laugh this week, we highly recommend you check out Clickhole’s irreverent take on the Oral History.  Their most recent look at the making of Jay Z’s The Blueprint is hysterical, though it may be topped by their examination of the creation of OK Computer.  Those expecting a serious look at the making of those classic albums will be sorely disappointed, but everyone else should enjoy the mocking of an often tired format.

Catching Up On The Week (May 8 Edition)

Some #longreads as you make plans for Mother’s Day

In case you were unaware, Mother’s Day is this Sunday, so let this be a reminder to make plans if you have not done so already.  Over the years, there have been plenty of tributes to Dear Mama, though few of them are truly memorable.  The AV Club takes a closer look at an overlooked effort from Menomena, examining the backstory from their album Moms and one of its most personal tracks, “Baton”.

The biggest release of the week was My Morning Jacket’s latest album, The Waterfall.  While we work on our own review of the record, we recommend that you read this Stereogum essay to help provide some perspective, as it analyzes the album not only within the My Morning Jacket discography but in context of trends of the past decade in rock as a whole.

This week’s most entertaining piece was the oral history of the immortal Redman episode of Cribs, courtesy of Thrillist.  Yes, Redman actually lived in that tiny apartment.

Rolling Stone interviewed Dennis Lyxzén to get the story of how after their successful reunion tour that the time was finally right for Refused to record a follow-up to their classic The Shape of Punk to Come, and what to expect from Freedom.

Trunkworthy published an ode to one of our favorite Wilco albums, the underappreciated Summerteeth.  To this day, it is still one of my favorite records, and hopefully when Wilco stops by later this summer they play more than a few cuts from it.

The Best Songs That Use Sleigh Bells

It’s time once again for another list, but this time we have one that’s a bit more season-appropriate.  Rust Is Just Right is ready to present to you the somewhat-definitive list of the “10 Best Songs That Use Sleigh Bells” that are in no way affiliated with Christmas.

10.  Death Cab for Cutie – “You Can Do Better Than Me”.  A selection that implies “we needed one more song to fill out this list” in more ways than one.

9. Grizzly Bear – “Ready, Able”.  A lot of people love this single off the excellent album Veckatimest, but it always felt a little incomplete for me.  But Grizzly Bear gets this spot because they often use a lot of unique percussion to great effect and should get credit for that effort, and I am at least certain that sleigh bells make an appearance (even if it’s a faint one) in this particular song.

8. Wilco – “Outta Mind (Outta Site)”.  While the raucous “Outtaside (Outta Mind)” has a nifty video, it’s the stripped-down reprise that’s augmented by the cheerful sound of sleigh bells.

7. The Replacements – “Kiss Me On The Bus”.  One of the highlights of the classic album Tim, you can hear the sleigh bells make their appearance on the final chorus, providing an intriguing color to the music.

6. Eric B. and Rakim – “Microphone Fiend”.  Built on a sample of Average White Band’s “Schoolboy Crush”, this is one of the landmark singles from the Golden Age of Hip-Hop and still sounds great today.  Always good to hear a smooth operator operating correctly.

5. The Walkmen – “Nightingales”.  The Walkmen were definitely not strangers to the allure of the sleigh bells, sprinkling their sound throughout their career, most notably on multiple songs from the beloved Bows + Arrows.  But we’re going to give the honor to this lovely track from their swan song Heaven, since it includes moments where the sleigh bells are given their time to shine.

4. The Hives – “Walk Idiot Walk”.  What should a band do as a follow-up for their huge break into the American charts?  If you’re The Hives, you write a single that uses the sleigh bells to keep time in the chorus for no particular reason.  If anything, it at least gives some insight to the casual listener that The Hives are willing to look outside the box of traditional garage rock sounds.  It’s too bad that Tyrannosaurus Hives has been neglected over the years, since it’s a fantastic album.

3. The Beach Boys – “God Only Knows”.  When you fill out your sound with a hundred-piece orchestra, you’re bound to have someone playing sleigh bells for some songs.  We’re going to go with one of the most beautiful songs in the deep catalog of the Beach Boys with this one.

2. Radiohead – “Airbag”.  Radiohead kicks off one of the defining albums of the 90’s with the sound of sleigh bells over sliced-up drum tracks, adding a touch of humanity to an opus about the haunting alienation of technology.  In a song about being miraculously saved from a car wreck, are we to assume that Santa was the savior?

1. The Stooges – “I Wanna Be Your Dog”

I don’t think there’s any argument here with this choice for the top spot.  Once you notice that insistent sleigh bells part chugging along with the rest of those buzzsaw guitars and ramshackle drums, it’s hard to get out of your head, and it adds a strange psychedelic element to the entire enterprise.

So there you have it–the greatest non-traditional Christmas song is “I Wanna Be Your Dog”.  Be sure to include it in your setlist tonight when you’re out caroling!

Covered: “Thirteen”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original.  If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

Fans of the forever-underrated Big Star were thrilled with the recent release of Live in Memphis, which captures a semi-reunited version of the group performing a homecoming show back during the early 90’s.  While it is somewhat of a disappointment that bassist Andy Hummel and guitarist/singer Chris Bell were not a part of the tour, it’s still a wonder to hear the majority of the band’s impeccable catalog in a live setting competently captured (and it’s especially moving to hear Alex and Jody cover Bell’s gorgeous “I Am the Cosmos” and dedicated to their deceased friend).  Still, despite many of the high points of the album (personally I loved how high Jody Stephens’s drums were in the mix, and the use of reverb to really bring out his integral contributions to many of the band’s best songs), many of the reviews can’t help but reveal the disappointment at finding out that the delicate favorite “Thirteen” didn’t make the cut.

“Thirteen” is universally beloved for its touching depiction of early teenage love.  The initial scene of the first verse perfectly captures the innocence of that time, when the biggest concerns were a partner to walk home from school and whether that special someone would accept your invitation to that week’s dance.  The second verse is memorable as well, with its generational standoff over music and the comfort that allies find in their shared love (“Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay/come inside where it’s okay”).  And the final verse offers both a view that exaggerates the situation (“Would you be an outlaw for my love?”) and also diminishes the stakes (“If it’s so, well let me know; if it’s no, well, I can go.”).  The lyrics are accompanied by some of the most beautifully recorded acoustic guitars ever, a trademark of the entire #1 Record album.  Alex Chilton carefully picks a classic folk chord progression, mainly alternating between G and C chords, but also brilliantly involving the relevant minor chords as well to bridge the main sections.  The guitar solo, in all of its simplistic glory, is also a perfect example of how modesty should be a path taken more often; a couple of precisely selected notes and a graceful little run can be all you need to add the necessary flourish to a song.

Today, Wilco released the rarities box set Alpha Mike Foxtrot, and for many who pick it up it will be the first time that they’ll hear their cover of “Thirteen” (among many other tracks–it’s nearly 80 songs across four discs, many of them previously unreleased).  I managed to randomly find a copy of their single “Outtasite (Outta Mind) a couple of years ago which included this cover, so even though I haven’t gotten a chance to plow through the rest of the box set, I can at least comment on this track in particular.  Wilco is careful not to overwhelm the tender ballad, but they also are able to add a couple of subtle touches that make it sound like a regular part of the Wilco catalog.  The graceful backing piano, the more deliberately strummed rhythm guitar, and a gorgeous lap steel lead guitar all give extra color to the song, and make the song sound like a folk or old country standard.  And Jeff Tweedy’s distinctive warble helps bring out some of the pathos inherent in the song, though Tweedy is a good enough musician to not overindulge in this regard, letting the melody and words speak for themselves.

I would be derelict in my duty if I also didn’t share Elliott Smith’s hauntingly beautiful version of the song.  As one may expect, “Thirteen” is a natural fit for Elliott, as it allows him to use his well-honed style of gentle finger-picked acoustic guitar and his delicately yearning vocals to great effect.   The result is a more mournful and melancholic reaction to this tale of nostalgia, and allows one to reflect the story through a different lens.  You can find a more polished version (with more precisely picked guitar and vocals a bit higher in the mix) on the rarities collection New Moon, but this particular video was a pleasant surprise, as Elliott’s emotions really shine in the performance.

Not only is “Thirteen” a great song in and of itself, inspiring several other cover versions, but you can hear its direct influence on songs like “We’re Going To Be Friends” by The White Stripes.  It’s proof that even the seemingly simplest songs and ideas can have an undeniable influence and far-reaching impact.  It’s also evidence that Big Star was a really, really great band.