2008: Year Of The Indie

by Jason Warburg

If last year was big, this year was more medium-ish, musically speaking.  Several of my favorite rock acts didn’t release anything bigger than the odd digital-only track or three (Springsteen, Switchfoot, Fountains Of Wayne, Ian Hunter, Chris Cubeta) and the prog scene was relatively quiet, other than well-received solo albums from David Gilmour and Billy Sherwood, and rumors of a Yes/ELP/Asia package tour in 2009.  Where that left me personally was focusing yet more attention on the ever-growing ranks of super-talented independent acts out there.  So this year for the first time, I’m offering five awards to label-backed releases and five to indies.

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Best Album I Didn’t Review This Year

The Hold Steady -- Stay Positive

Sometimes I get there too late.  I was vaguely aware of The Hold Steady before Julia Skochko joined our staff this July, but had never heard a single track until her debut review of Stay Positive virtually compelled me to go buy it.  And while a big buildup ahead of time risks a big letdown when you finally hear the music, there was no letdown whatsoever here.  Stay Positive is rich with my favorite brand of musical artistry – gripping storytelling in an original voice over cataclysmically gorgeous rock and roll.  But really, what could I possibly add to Julia’s review?

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Best Risky Proposition

Queen + Paul Rodgers -- The Cosmos Rocks

It was a questionable combination from the start -- and I say that as a big fan of Queen and a moderate fan of Bad Company.  But the live set Return Of The Champions proved Rodgers, Brian May and Roger Taylor were onto something, delivering an arena-sized gut-punch of Queen classics, plus a few Rodgers nuggets.  So what would new material from this trio sound like?  Interestingly, it feels like an equal partnership, that is, 50% Rodgers and 50% the May-Taylor hard-rocking half of Queen.  In other words, earthier and bluesier and more straightforward than a lot of Queen material, but more vocally and musically imaginative than a lot of Rodgers material.  Is it great?  Maybe not, but it’s solidly entertaining and works better than I think anyone had the right to expect.

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Best Answer For The Sophomore Jinx

The Subways -- All Or Nothing

What do you get when you marry throbbing, visceral punk-pop with intraband entanglements and recriminations that would do Fleetwood Mac proud?  Musical nitroglycerin, of course, and with the help of Nirvana producer Butch Vig, The Subways took a big step towards making their mark on the world by not just refusing to back down in the face of adversity, but channeling it into jet fuel for a sweaty, cathartic explosion of head-banging melody.  Top this, Billie Joe.

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Best Album By A Guitar Player Who Qualifies For The Senior Discount

Jeff Beck -- Performing This Week: Live At Ronnie Scott’s

Jeff Beck will turn 65 next June, and he just issued one of most astonishingly impressive albums of live instrumental guitar music I have ever heard.  That’s all I’ve got, expect for this -- repeat after me: old guys ROCK.

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Best Digital-Only Release

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band -- Magic Tour Highlights

This digital audio/video EP available on iTunes collects four very special performances from the 2008 Magic tour.   All four cuts are superb and feature special guests (e.g. Tom Morello, Alejandro Escovedo), but hearing and seeing Bruce and the band back Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn on “Turn, Turn, Turn” is simply spectacular, and if you aren’t moved by the sight of E Street Band organist/accordionist Danny Federici’s final performance before his untimely passing, well, you’d best leave now ’cause I’ve got nothing for you.  The fact that all artist and label revenue from the EP goes to benefit the Danny Federici Melanoma Fund just makes the whole package that much sweeter.

 

Indies of the Year

First it was one, then three, and this year five independent albums made my “Best Of” list, every one a gleefully unique concoction created by an artist with genuine vision and soul.

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5.  Spiraling -- Time Travel Made Easy

If you like any of the following -- The Cars, Somewhere In Time, Fountains Of Wayne, Time After Time, David Bowie and/or The Rocky Horror Picture Show – there is a good chance you already need this disc and just don’t realize it yet.  A full-blown pop-rock concept album that’s cheeky, catchy as hell and produced to perfection.

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4.  Amy Lennard -- I Need To Love

Lucinda Williams better make room at the top, because this contemporary folk-country-rock singer-songwriter is in the same class of heartfelt, gripping artistry.

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3.  Mike Zito -- Today

You’ve got to have big nerve to walk in the footsteps of a giant like Stevie Ray Vaughan, and you’ve got to have big talent to pull it off as impressively as Texas blues guitar slinger Mike Zito does.

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2.  Jon Troast -- A Person And A Heart

In an era when the AAA radio waves sometimes feel overrun with earnest young male singer-songwriters, one of the best I’ve heard this century is a virtual unknown from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.  This disc, one of two issued by Troast in 2008, presents sharp-eyed insights with an endearing unpretentiousness, managing to be clever, catchy, down-to-earth and deeply perceptive all at once.

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1.  Last Charge Of The Light Horse -- Fractures

So many terrific independent albums crossed my desk this year that it’s truly a challenge to pick one that rose above the rest.  But if I have to, then it has to be Fractures.  Jean-Paul Vest and his band Last Charge Of The Light Horse make what I can only describe as thinking-man’s rock and roll, lyrics that demand you invest your full attention to their nuances and poetry even as the coiled intensity of Vest’s guitar work continually ups the emotional ante.  Forget about calling this “a record album” -- this is rich, wonderfully multilayered art.



 

Honorable Mention Awards

Best Head Fake By A Band That Got Too Big:  Foxboro Hot Tubs -- Stop, Drop & Roll!

Best Return To Form By An Artist Who Needed One:  Sheryl Crow -- Detours

Best Electric Blues Album I’ve Heard Before But So What:  Gary Moore -- Bad For You Baby

Best Modern Indie Picking Up Where The Byrds Left Off:  The Quarter After -- Changes Near

Best Band To Have Back On The Scene Even If The New Album Was Nothing Special: AC/DC




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