Thursday, December 31, 2009

100 Best Songs of the Decade


As with the 100 Best Albums of the Decade, the criteria for this list is pretty much non-existent. This is purely subjective. If anything, picking favorite songs is even more arbitrary and inexact than picking favorite albums. And if I were to make this list a week from now, it might look very different. But today is the day the year comes to a close. Here’s my take on the best songs of the decade:

1. The White Stripes – Seven Nation Army
2. The Hold Steady - Stuck Between Stations
3. Green Day – Jesus of Suburbia
4. The Flaming Lips - Do You Realize?
5. The Killers – Mr. Brightside
6. MGMT – Fated to Pretend
7. Eminem – Lose Yourself
8. The Strokes – Last Nite
9. Amy Winehouse - Rehab
10. Bruce Springsteen- My City of Ruins
11. Gnarls Barkley – Crazy
12. John Doe - The Golden State
13. U2 - Vertigo
14. Modest Mouse – Float On
15. Spoon - The Underdog
16. Rilo Kiley – Portion for Foxes
17. Johnny Cash - Hurt
18. Ryan Adams – New York, New York
19. Coldplay –Viva La Vida
20. Son Volt – The Picture
21. The Hold Steady – Constructive Summer
22. U2- Moment of Surrender
23. The Gaslight Anthem- The ’59 Sound
24. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Maps
25. Bruce Springsteen – The Rising
26. Franz Ferdinand – Take Me out
27. Arcade Fire – Rebellion (Lies)
28. Norah Jones – Don’t Know Why
29. Wilco – At Least that’s What You Said
30. Outkast – Hey Ya!
31. The Middle – Jimmy Eat World
32. Band of Horses – No One’s Gonna Love You
33. Arctic Monkeys - I’ll Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor
34. The Walkmen – The Rat
35. Kaiser Chiefs – I Predict A Riot
36. Camera Obscura - Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken
37. Beck- Lost Cause
38. Rilo Kiley- Does He Love You?
39. Ike Reilly – Last Time
40. Bob- Dylan- Mississippi
41. Kathleen Edwards – Back to Me
42. Green Day - Boulevard of Broken Dreams
43. The New Pornographers – My Rights Versus Yours
44. My Morning Jacket - Off the Record
45. Pete Yorn- Strange Condition
46. Sufjan Stevens – Chicago
47. The Libertines – Time for Heroes
48. Amy Winehouse – You Know I’m No Good
49. Bruce Springsteen – You’ll Be Coming Down
50. Shout Out Louds – Tonight I have to Leave it
51. Coldplay- Yellow
52. Corrine Bailey Rae- Put Your Records On
53. The Pernice Brothers – PCH One
54. The Fratellis- Chelsea Dagger
55. Bright Eyes – First Day of My Life
56. Matthew Ryan - I Hear a Symphony
57. Elliott Smith- Son of Sam
58. The National- Fake Empire
59. Alejandro Escovedo – Always a Friend
60. Ray Lamontagne – Trouble
61. Stars – Your Ex-Lover is Dead
62. Wilco – Heavy Metal Drummer
63. The Shins – New Slang
64. Bruce Springsteen – Long Walk Home
65. The Raveonettes – That Great Love Sound
66. Iron & Wine – Such Great Heights
67. The Hives – Hate to Say I Told you So
68. Ryan Adams – Come Pick Me Up
69. The White Stripes- Fell in Love with a Girl
70. Wilco – Impossible Germany
71. U2 - Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out of
72. Voxtrot- Raised by Wolves
73. Cracker – Turn On, Tune In , Drop Out With Me
74. Maximo Park – Girls Who Play Guitars
75. Bob Dylan – When the Deal Goes Down
76. Foo Fighters – Best of You
77. Wilco – Jesus, etc.
78. Phoenix - 1901
79. Okkervil River – Unless it Kicks
80. M83- Save us from the Flames
81. Lucinda Williams – Essence
82. M. Ward – To Go Home
83. British Sea Power – Waving Flags
84. Keane – Somewhere Only We Know
85. Silversun Pickups – Lazy Eye
86. Emmylou Harris – Red Dirt Girl
87. Cold War Kids – Hang Me Up to Dry
88. Grand Archives – Torn Blue Foam Coach
89. Beck- E-Pro
90. Neil Young – The Painter
91. Panic at the Disco – Nine in the Afternoon
92. Rufus Wainwright - Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk
93. Black Kids – I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You
94. Joseph Arthur – In the Sun
95. The Thrills – Santa Cruz
96. Queens of the Stone Age – Go With the Flow
97. Andrew Bird – Fake Palindromes
98. Tegan & Sara – Where does the Good Go
99. The Kooks – Always Where You Need to be
100. Ray Davies – After the Fall

Happy New Year!


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

100 Best Albums of the Decade


Technically, the decade isn’t over ‘til next year but don’t tell that to the list-makers. Since I’m a list-maker too, I needed to get in on this.

I took the liberty of sampling a few other “Best albums of the decade” lists assembled by critics and magazines and decided, quite naturally, that they were mostly terrible. Was the decade in music really THAT bad? I had trouble believing it. And that’s what inspired me to jog my memory, peruse my iTunes collection and make my own list. When you surrender to your own biases and preferences and compile your own list, suddenly the decade looks quite a bit better. I highly recommend the experience.

So here is my own purely subjective list. There is no attempt to be fashionable, hip, culturally diverse, well-rounded or representative of different musical genres. Without further apology, here are my favorite albums of the first decade of the 2000s:

1. Green Day – American Idiot
2. The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America
3. Bruce Springsteen – The Rising
4. U2 - How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
5. Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
6. Brian Wilson – Smile
7. Drive-By Truckers – Southern Rock Opera
8. Bob Dylan – Love and Theft
9. Amy Winehouse – Back to Black
10. The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You
11. Ryan Adams – Gold
12. Johnny Cash – American III: Solitary Man
13. Bruce Springsteen – Magic
14. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
15. My Morning Jacket – Z
16. Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
17. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
18. The Strokes – Is This It
19. Elliott Smith – Figure 8
20. U2 – No Line on the Horizon
21. Arcade Fire – Funeral
22. The White Stripes – Elephant
23. Norah Jones – Come Away with Me
24. Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker
25. Pete Yorn – Music for the Morning After
26. Radiohead – In Rainbows
27. Drive-By Truckers – The Dirty South
28. The Hold Steady – Separation Sunday
29. U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind
30. The Jayhawks – Rainy Day Music
31. O Brother Where Art Thou – Soundtrack
32. Beck – Sea Change
33. Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown
34. Coldplay – Viva La Vida
35. Wilco – A Ghost is Born
36. Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake it’s Morning
37. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss - Raising Sand
38. The National – The Boxer
39. Band of Horses – Cease to Begin
40. The Gaslight Anthem – The '59 Sound
41. REM – Accelerate
42. The Felice Brothers
43. Old 97's - Satelite Rides
44. Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around
45. The Walkmen – Bows + Arrows
46. Marah - Kids in Philly
47. Sufjan Stevens – Illinois
48. Rilo Kiley – More Adventurous
49. My Chemical Romance- The Black Parade
50. Ike Reilly – Salesmen and Racists
51. Josh Ritter – The Animal Years
52. Belle and Sebastian – The Life Pursuit
53. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
54. Bob Dylan - Modern Times
55. Lucinda Williams – Essence
56. The Raconteurs – Consolers of the Lonely
57. Radiohead – Kid A
58. Alejandro Escovedo – Animal
59. Ryan Adams – Love is Hell
60. Bruce Springsteen – The Seger Sessions
61. Beck – Guero
62. Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
63. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
64. Elliott Smith – From a Basement on a Hill
65. The National – Alligator
66. Wilco – Sky Blue Sky
67. The Avett Brothers – Emotionalism
68. Corinne Bailey Rae
69. Bob Dylan – Together Through Life
70. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
71. Pearl Jam – Backspacer
72. My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges
73. A.A. Bondy – When the Devil’s Loose
74. Bruce Springsteen – Working on a Dream
75. Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out of This Country
76. Glasvegas
77. Lucero – 1372 Overton Park
78. Paul Westerberg – Stereo
79. Oasis – Don’t Believe the Truth
80. Vampire Weekend
81. Fountains of Wayne – Welcome Interstate Managers
82. Death Cab for Cutie - Transatlanticism
83. Ryan Adams – Rock N Roll
84. Okkervil River- Stage Names
85. Son Volt – The Search
86. Elvis Costello – Delivery Man
87. The Killers – Hot Fuss
88. Shelby Lynne – I am Shelby Lynne
89. Rancid – Indestructible
90. Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
91. Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris – All the Roadrunning
92. Ben Folds – Songs for Silverman
93. The Whigs – Mission Control
94. Peter Bjorn & John – Writer’s Block
95. Dinosaur Jr. – Beyond
96. Nada Surf – Lucky
97. Patty Griffin – 1,000 Kisses
98. Beck – The Information
99. Modern Skirts – Catalogue of Generous Men
100. Warren Zevon – The Wind


Thursday, December 24, 2009

The New Atheism

I have a confession. I’m a fan of the New Atheism.

Of course there’s nothing “new” about atheism. Atheism, agnosticism, skepticism and godlessness are as old as belief itself. The new atheism isn’t all that new either, or different from earlier varieties. But it is more confident. Within the past 5 years, there has been an observable trend in book publishing, and in cultural attitudes at large, challenging religious orthodoxy and conventions of faith. It is a trend most clearly reflected in three books: The End of Faith by Sam Harris, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. These three writers, Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens comprise a sort of Unholy Trinity. (When joined with philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell, they become the Four Horsemen.)

I like all three books, partly because they appeal to my own skepticism concerning religion and faith-based assertions, but also, because they are well-written, incisive and appropriately provocative. In raising consciousness about the nature of dogma and of evidence, these books are sorely needed in a society plagued by an assault on reason, and in a world where religion and its depredations have truly run amok.

All three books are polemical, bold, engaging and lots of fun even as they are deadly serious. Yes, they skewer religions’ easy targets - Al-Qaeda, Jihad, the Spanish Inquisition, Jerry Falwell, anti-Semitism, homophobia - but they don’t stop there. They insist that religious “moderates” are also part of the problem. We often hear it said that religion itself isn’t bad – the trouble starts when extremists carry things too far. Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens are having none of that. They argue that well-intentioned moderates contribute to religion’s toxicity because they provide cover for extreme fundamentalists and Jihadists by making a virtue of faith itself – as if believing something for which there is insufficient evidence can ever be a good thing.

Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens have been accused by their critics (including fellow atheists) of going too far in their hostility toward religion. It’s a charge that Hitchens, at least, would happily embrace. Each takes careful aim at his target, but goes after it in a slightly different way and with different emphasis. Dawkins, the scientist, sets out to address why religion’s claims are not true. Harris emphasizes why such beliefs are so dangerous. And Hitchens argues for why they are wicked. All three books challenge the presumption that entitles a person to a heightened degree of respect when a particular view they hold is said to be rooted in religion. We see this all the time. When a person says “oh well, but that’s my faith,” that person’s view of reality is immunized from the give-and-take and criticism that comes with expression of any other opinion or idea. Our Unholy Trinity says “Enough!” Believing nonsense has consequences, and we should be brave enough to say so.

I enjoyed Dawkin’s The God Delusion the best, probably because my own interest in this subject stems from my study of evolutionary biology. Learning about evolution in school piqued my interest in science and enhanced my sense of wonder about the natural world. I’ve never understood the fear, expressed by some religious believers, that Darwinian evolution degrades life by reducing all things to the cold calculus of materialism. I always felt that the opposite was true. It always seemed to me that science, and evolution in particular, heightens our appreciation of life by enriching our understanding and by offering us glimpses into the majesty of nature and its workings.

I’ve enjoyed Dawkins writing for years, having first encountered his work in college when I read The Blind Watchmaker, which explains how evolution produces an illusion of design, but not evidence for a process guided by the supernatural. Dawkins is the rare scientist who can effectively reach a popular audience writing about evolutionary biology. So why write about atheism? One reason is because he see first-hand how fervently religious forces push for Creationism (cynically packaged as “Intelligent Design”) to be taught in public schools. For anyone who cares about science and academic integrity, that would be toxic enough, but there is more. For Dawkins, the evidence of evolution and the belief in a supernatural creator who designed the world are incompatible. He struggles to comprehend how a renowned biologist like Francis Collins can be really be a faithful Christians. Intellectual consistency, Dawkins argues, requires agnosticism at a minimum. He even wonders if such Christian biologists really do believe all they claim to believe. He figures that whereas they may believe in a Creator and embrace the cultural values of their religion, they are unlikely to believe in the suspension of the natural order, Miracles? Virgin births? Talking snakes? Personally, I have no idea what percentage of theist scientists (or non-scientists) believe in such things. But even if religious faith seems like cognitive dissonance to Dawkins, I am far more hesitant to question the sincerity of those who profess to believe.

But Dawkins is on solid ground when he takes on the famous position advanced by the late Stephen Jay Gould (who was an atheist) that science and religion occupy different spheres of human experience (“non-overlapping magisteria”) and are therefore perfectly reconcilable. Gould’s proposition sounds nice and cozy, but it doesn’t work. Religion does not simply describe some separate compartment of reality to be labeled “spiritual.” Rather, religion constitutes a system of belief that makes all kinds of claims about the physical world. For example, there is the claim that living forms were purposefully designed by a supernatural intelligence that has special regard for humans (to say nothing of virgin births and talking snakes). These are not metaphysical abstractions. They are statements of the natural order. When such claims are treated like any other hypothesis, they simply don’t hold up. Dawkins effectively takes on the various talking points advanced by religion’s apologists (“The Universe is too finely-tuned”, “It couldn’t all come from nothing,” “Evolution can’t account for morality,” etc). While a tone of annoyance and intellectual superiority does sometimes emerge in his writing, so does the force of his argument as well as his love of science and reverence for the natural world.

In The End of Faith, Sam Harris examines the nature of faith itself and the dangers of surrendering to it. A philosopher and neuroscientist at Stanford, Harris is a rising star in this milieu, a clear thinker and a strong writer. He details how religious doctrines, incompatible with reality and with each other, have Balkanized the world and now threaten us with destruction. He has no use for political correctness and isn’t afraid to single out Islam as the monotheism that is most likely to get us all killed. He easily dispenses with the canard that that secularism, and faith’s decline, were responsible for the crimes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. Were Auschwitz, the Gulag and the Killing Fields really the result of too much rational inquiry? Too much skepticism? Too much insistence on evidence? Hardly. These atrocities resulted from dogmartic ideologies which operated all too much like religion.

Harris is also interested in the possibility of transcendental experience and maintains that these are as available to the atheist as they are to any religious believer. But what seems to interest him most, is changing the nature of public discourse when we think and talk about things like faith and religion. As he observes in his follow-up work, Letters to a Christian Nation:

When considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn't. Religion is the one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.

Hitchens is the most scathing and mischievous of the three writers. Ever the iconoclast, his glee is palpable in God is Not Great as he pokes a stick in the eye of the faith-based establishment and calls on humanity to emancipate itself from the infantile crutch of religion. He insists that monotheism is inherently totalitarian since God is, by definition, a celestial dictator who supervises you around the clock and promises to punish you for your very thoughts. Hitchens is not above blasting the easy targets like child-molesting clergymen and you can almost discern his smirk while he suggests that the motto of the Church might well be “No Child’s Behind Left.” Too clever.

The more serious charge is also more forcefully argued – that religion’s fundamental teachings are not moral teachings. Like Harris, he observes that not all monotheisms are equal and indeed, the Al Qaeda attck on 9/11 was the impetus for his book. He reminds us that theocratic terror takes many forms. Hitchens is good friends with Salaman Rushdie, who dared blaspheme Islam’s Prophet more than 20 years ago in his novel, Satanic Verses. Rushdie still requires a security detail because of a Fatwa issued by Iran’s Ayatollah. Hitchens recalls the infamous Danish cartoon incident. The publication of a cartoon poking fun of Mohammed led to an international incident, a breach of diplomatic immunity and murderous riots by angry Muslims. Hitchens has no patience for those who make excuses for thugs and rioters or who call on cartoonists to be more “sensitive” about the offense that might be taken. He correctly calls it what it is: cowardice, capitulation and an erosion of freedom.

Judaism is not spared either. He blasts the zealotry of Israel’s Messianic settlers, the practice of circumcision (“genital mutilation”), the Old Testament’s warrant for sexism and genocide and the hideous lesson at the core of all Abrahamic monotheism - that a willingness to kill at God’s command should be seen as praiseworthy. (He does, however approve of the Jewish tradition of self-criticism, secularism and talent for atheism). But Hitchens is just getting warmed up as he moves to his next target: Christianity. Because as brutal as the Old Testament is, at least when you’re dead, your punishment is over. Only with the advent of Christianity and the teachings of the gentle Nazarene, are you threatened with eternal never-ending torture. Christianity also introduces the barbaric concept of vicarious redemption, the idea that you can be saved, absolved of your own wrongful conduct, by means of the brutal blood sacrifice of another, 2,000 years before you were born. Then there’s Original Sin, the Trinity and well…you get the picture.

Perhaps what offends Hitchens most is the notion that without some supervisory dictator calling the shots, humans would not know how to behave morally. Religion, he concludes, belongs to an earlier time when humanity lived in terror of nature, and understood little about disease, geology, astronomy, archaeology, physics, neuro-chemistry etc. We have far better explanations now. It is time to dispense with the superstitious wish-thinking, which insults our humanity and threatens our very survival.

Not surprisingly, given the success of these books, there has been something of a backlash. College campuses host debates on the existence of God, the blogosphere is alive with fury, and Christian Apologists have published screeds blasting the New Atheism for its militant tone, its unsparing naturalism and, predictably enough, for attempting to unhinge our moral underpinning as a nation. For Christian fundamentalists, the success of the New Atheists is simply the latest call to arms in the “Culture Wars.” For these right-wing holy warriors, this spate of atheism is part and parcel of the same godless secularism that seeks to separate church and state, supports gay marriage and teaches evil -ution. Of course this political effort to impose a fundamentalist Christian vision of America represents the very religious bullying that has given the New Atheism such traction and popularity.

More interesting are the objections posed by fellow secularists who insist that the New Atheists are too strident and aggressive for their own good. For these critics, many of whom are non-believers themselves, the New Atheism is like an unruly kid brother who speaks out of turn and must be instructed to tone it down in the presence of respectable company. Shhh! How can we expect to get public support for science if you are telling parents that science and religion are incompatible? And do you really think the Muslim world will be persuaded to curb its Jihadists and reform its society when you insist that the Koran is a fairy tale? These are valid points. But to the extent they are objections to the New Atheism, they are about tone and tactics – not propositions of truth.

Polls indicate that the percentage of Americans who are non-believers is on the rise in the U.S. To be sure, polls of this kind must always be taken with a grain of salt. So much is in the wording of the questions (asking “Do you identify yourself as an atheist” will produce a very different result than “Do you believe in the God of the bible?”). But the trend seems real enough. The New Atheist authors aren’t the cause of the trend, but it’s fair to say that their popularity is a reflection of it. Their arguments resonate with Americans who are tired of religious bullying at home and faith-based violence around the globe.

I don’t think that any of these books will actually persuade anyone, who isn’t already deeply skeptical of the divine, to suddenly become an atheist. But the books succeed on a more important level: They tear at the shroud of taboo that discourages people from thinking and speaking critically about articles of faith. They encourage a closer look at the consequences – intellectual, moral and geopolitical - of rejecting reason and evidence in favor of supernatural belief and religious authority. Finally, they invite us take part in the fullness of life’s experiences and celebrate the “awe of understanding” on human terms. On this point, I’ll leave the last word to Charles Darwin:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

And on that note, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!


Saturday, December 5, 2009

20 Best Albums of 2009

My favorite albums of 2009:

20. Hockey – Mind Chaos

Portland band combines elements of Brit pop, rock anthems, snarling vocals, and dance beats to create a fun, refreshing album.

19. The Raveonettes - In and Out of Control

Yeah, they’ve got a formula but it’s a pretty good one. Catchy hooks, rich Spectorish production and an 80s guitar sound reminiscent of the Jesus and Mary Chain. Even songs about rape and suicide are coated with sugar.

18. Cracker – Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey

One of America’s best bands of the past 15 years, Cracker is still going strong, with David Lowery’s wry observations and off-beat humor very much intact. Standout track: Turn On Tune In Drop Out With Me.

17. Willie Nile - House of a Thousand Guitars

There's no mistaking the Dylan and Springsteen influence, but never mind. Nile is a solid songwriter who has flown under the radar for years and he delivers wear-on-your-sleeve rock and roll.

16. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast

To be as wordy as Andrew Bird is, you have to be at least slightly pretentious. Who cares? Bird delivers some musically lush, eclectic and beautiful songs.

15. Monsters of Folk

An unlikely "super group" with Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes, Jim James from My Morning Jacket and the excellent, M. Ward. Forget the dopey title and enjoy the music.

14. Rosanne Cash – The List

Some excellent guest appearances (Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Tweedy) contribute to this album of country covers, but it is Cash’s intimate vocal delivery that gives this album its poignancy.

13. James Maddock – Sunrise on Avenue C

Maddock was the voice of Wood, a group that scored a hit with the lovely “Stay You” about 10 years ago. He's landed in New York City and has put together an impressive, well-crafted album. Maddock's ragged voice (which sounds a bit like Ian Hunter) is full of heart.

12. Bruce Springsteen - Working on a Dream

Not as good as his last album, Magic, but this is still a solid work. I’m a sucker for the opening track, "Outlaw Pete," a lush, sprawling, over-the top, western epic. I’m less impressed with Springsteen’s Grammy nominations. Grammys are dumb.

11. Lucero – 1372 Overton Park

Describing the voice of lead-singer Ben Nichols as “whiskey soaked” is so obvious that it makes more sense to pin-point what kind of whiskey. I’m thinking sour-mash bourbon. The horns on this excellent alt-country album are a nice touch.

10. A.A. Bondy – When the Devil’s Loose

The former lead singer of Verbena, one of the better Nirvana sound-alike grunge bands of the 1990s, Bondy is charting an impressive course as a singer and songwriter with this moving stripped-down recording.

9. Pearl Jam – Backspacer

Their best album in years.

8. Bob Dylan – Together Through Life

I never thought I’d get so much pleasure listening to someone who sounds like death, sing about death. But if anyone else had made this album, they’d be calling him the next Bob Dylan. His live performance at the United Palace Theatre in November was a revelation.

7. Brakes – Touchdown

The lads from Brighton, England (including Hamilton of British Sea Power) have put together a wonderful recording of alternative pop-rock.

6. Allen Toussaint – The Bright Mississippi

A tasty helping of New Orleans jazz and blues. Allen Toussaint, pianist, singer and producer extraordinaire, is surely one of the most under-appreciated musical giants of the last half-century.

5. U2 – No Line on the Horizon

Some people like U2 best for their soaring anthems. Others prefer their willingness to experiment and play with dance beats. Here, they do both. This is an album that grows with repeated listening.

4. Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown

What could be more self-indulgent and audacious than following up a rock opera with yet another rock opera? Who do they think they are? The Who? Well, they just about pull it off. This soaring follow-up to American Idiot is masterful, including their faithful cover of the Who’s “A Quick One While She’s Away.”

3. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

Neko Case delivers well-crafted, soul-baring songs with a powerful voice and expressive phrasing. This is her best album yet.

2. Wilco – The Wilco Album

I had the pleasure of seeing them play at Keyspan Park in Coney Island on a perfect summer evening. Tweedy and company are in top form.

1. The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You

The North Carolina roots band has made an album of gorgeous songs with their usual harmonies and emotional resonance. There's less bluegrass than on their last album, but it's a catchier, more accessible album and an enriching experience. Terrific stuff.

Honorable Mention:

  • Joe Henry – Blood From Stars (deep, haunting songs from Madonna's brother-in-law)
  • Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels (lovely, mellow, well-crafted songs)
  • M. Ward – Hold Time (hypnotic voice and acoustic guitar playing - a very good year for Mr. Ward)
  • Cage the Elephant (guitar riff rock with a hip-hop influence and Brit-Pop swagger)
  • Atlas Sound – Logos (eclectic, dreamy, psychedelic pop)
  • The Felice Brothers – Yonder is the Clock (roots Americana as authentic as it gets)
  • White Rabbits - It's Frightening (up-and-coming Brooklyn-based Indie rock outfit)
  • Patterson Hood - Murdering Oscar (fine solo release from Drive-By Truckers front man)

For most list-mania check out largehearted boy


Cocky Draw

Fans of U.S. soccer are ecstatic about Friday’s World Cup draw, which has set the U.S. in a group where they will play against England, Algeria and Slovenia. Predictably, that joy has been accompanied by an overconfidence that is entirely unwarranted. On ESPN, Alexi Lalas was practially giddy over the prospect of a U.S. cakewalk into the second round. Only the England game is viewed as a challenge. According to ESPN Soccernet, “there should be few problems for the U.S. as they survey their group.” Few problems? Personally, I think these people are out of their minds.

To be sure, the draw went as well as could be expected. The U.S. was going to have to face one of the top seven teams in the world and drawing England is surely more favorable than drawing Brazil, Spain, Italy, Germany or Netherlands. (The only better draw would have seen them play the host, South Africa.) They were going to draw a team from either South America or Africa and Algeria, who struggled to qualify, is probably the weakest of that bunch. And from the final pot, drawing Slovenia is surely preferable to facing one of the European nations they might have drawn: France, Portugal, Serbia or Denmark.

Of course the goal for the U.S. has to be first or second place in the group, which means advancing to the knock-out round. They accomplished this in 2002 but disappointed in 2006, when they failed to advance in Germany. But the folks who think that the U.S. should be strongly favored to advance, or think that they will do so easily, have clearly swallowed the Kool-Aid.

For starters, anyone who thinks Algeria will be a push-over ought to consider the kind of adversity the Algerian team endured in order to qualify. And as the only Muslim nation to qualify for the World Cup, Algeria will be motivated and put all of their pride on display against the Americans. As for Slovenia, one need only look at what this tiny nation had to accomplish in order to qualify, finishing ahead of Poland and the Czech Republic (a team which beat the U.S. 3-0 at the 2006 World Cup) and then upsetting Russia in a qualifier. Here’s the deal: The U.S. has qualified for the last five World Cups and each time, it has lost to a team from Eastern Europe. It was the Czechs in 2006, Poland in 2002, Yugoslavia in 1998, Romania in 1994 and Czechoslovakia in 1990. You get the picture. They really play soccer in Eastern Europe. They usually play it better than we do.

But I’m looking forward to the June World Cup and as for as expectations for the U.S. team, there should be hope and humility. I’m especially looking forward to the game against England with all of the plots and sub-plots. (The 1950 U.S. upset win in Belo Horizonte, Beckham vs. Donovan, that whole American Revolution thing, etc.) And it should make for a fun scene at the pubs in New York City. Right now, I think the keys for the U.S. success in South Africa will be 1) the fitness of Oguchi Onyewu, 2) the emergence of Jozy Altidore (or another striker) as a true scoring threat, 3) avoiding that most fatal of conditions – overconfidence.