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Nick Lowe, “Christmas at the Airport” 

Sometime in the late summer, when sweat still puddled under your thighs while you idled at long stoplights, Starbucks started playing holiday music, topping every iced Frappuccino with the latest limp arrangements of the same handful of standards. The grocery stores dragged it out a couple of weeks later, followed by the pharmacies, the malls and then even the saddest-looking Citgo had Bing Crosby in the background when they handed you the key to their one terrifying bathroom.

Despite all of that, I still can’t do it. Christmas doesn’t start on my stereo until after the Thanksgiving dishes have all been Tetris-ed into the dishwasher, which meant I didn’t peel the plastic from Quality Street, Nick Lowe’s first-ever holiday record, until last Thursday afternoon and, man, it was worth the wait. 

They don’t make Christmas albums like this one anymore (and this is not a vague collection of holiday songs; it’s 100% a Christmas album, shaking off its swaddling clothes and spinning in a manger at 33 1/3 rpm) and haven’t since Nat King Cole had a pile of unroasted chestnuts and Gene Autry tried to remember which deer came after Donner and Blitzen. Lowe’s songs sound like they came straight from that same timeless period, back when TVs still had three channels and a doctor could deliver a baby while holding a lit cigarette.

Although Lowe does cover some Golden Standards, they aren’t the ones you’ve heard ten billion times while you waited in line at the bank; his chugging rockabilly version of “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” is a perfect album opener while he brings a new dad tenderness (and Lowe’s probably still at the far end of that category) to Roger Miller’s “Old Toy Trains.” I can’t think of another modern artist who could pull these off with Lowe’s charm, sincerity and total lack of winking irony, which makes them even more endearing.

But—unsurprisingly—the standout tracks are the ones that Lowe wrote himself. “Christmas at the Airport” is from the perspective of a shockingly upbeat traveler (No, this person does not and cannot actually exist) who tries to entertain himself while he’s stuck at a departure gate for the holidays. (“I took a set of X-rays/They came out rather well,” he sings, a legit ell-oh-ell line), while “A Dollar Short of Happy”—cowritten with Ry Cooder—covers an unmistakable brand of gated subdivision sadness (“No more private schools or exercise machines/No more crazy nannies gettin’ high in the SUV”), as the just-unemployed narrator wonders how he’ll cope. (And as the victim of a late November layoff, this could’ve fallen out of my own head. HAPPY HOLIDAYS!) 

Although Quality Street essentially serves as a sampler platter of genres, covering rockabilly, Johnny Cash-caliber country, old school crooning and O! Brother Where Art Thou? Americana, the best instrument on the album is Lowe’s voice. With every release, it sounds a little richer and a little more worn in all the right places, like a cardigan sweater that has a pair of shiny patches on the elbows.

I read an Amazon review that gave Quality Street a two-star slam because it wasn’t party music (I’m paraphrasing) and that’s true, but not for the reason that person bashed out on their MacBook. Most Christmas songs do get relegated to the background, the musical equivalent of wallpaper, either because we’ve heard them every year since we were pouring milk for Santa or because they’re so cheesy they should be wrapped in a thin layer of red wax. These songs—Lowe’s songs—aren’t those songs. This is the rare Christmas album that deserves both repeated spins and your full attention, whether while you’re having a late night glass of bourbon or while you’re stranded at the airport, wondering whether anyone ever leaves that X-ray machine unattended. 

A Belated Best Of

OK, it’s the first day of 2013, but before I peel the plastic from my new Dollar Tree day planner, I want to post some of my favorite songs and albums from the year we just discarded. This is the music that soundtracked parts of the past twelve months: it’s what made me air guitar through my empty office, what I played loud enough to make the neighbors arrhythmically pound on the walls and what I listened to instead of making small talk with the stranger on the other side of the airplane armrest.

Frank Ocean isn’t on this list. Neither is Kendrick Lamar or Fiona Apple or El-P. Although I appreciate their records on an artistic level, they weren’t the ones that I was consistently spinning. There’s no Dylan or Springsteen or Neil Young either. (But I did listen to A LOT of Psychedelic Pill, even though I’ve had relationships that were considerably shorter than the opening track.) I like sharing things that might’ve been overlooked and since Bob and the Boss will probably end up on American currency at some point, they obviously don’t qualify. (I seriously expect Dylan’s craggy face to be on the next dollar coin. Sorry Sacajawea, but you never went electric).


Here goes, in the order that they fell out of my brain.

Father John Misty, Fear Fun: I had The Current playing in the background during an otherwise forgettable workday when the sparse footstomp-ish percussion of “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” caught my ears. The recently christened Father John Misty—formerly known as J. Tillman—had just skipped out of Fleet Foxes, ditching Seattle for Lauren Canyon, stopping to ingest a handful of acid tabs (and weed and Adderall and…) along the way. He gives his autobiographical backstory in “I’m Writing a Novel,” his own “Ballad of John and Yoko,” right down to the rhythm of the first verses. Fear Fun is both unique and totally familiar, like yard after yard of pre-distressed denim.

First Aid Kit, “Emmylou”: You don’t expect the best Americana song of the year to come from two Swedish sisters whose umlauts outnumber their mandolins, two to one.  But Johanna and Klara Söderberg out Mumforded everyone else with their collective promise to “be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June, if you’ll be my Graham and my Johnny too.”

Americana Honorable Mention: The Lumineers for their inescapably catchy "Ho Hey" which is still listenable despite advertising everything from Blue Moon beer to Bing searches. And despite prime time ubiquity that has almost reached “Too Close” level, showing up in a search engine ad is still better than the struggling immigrants in Passion Pit’s “Take A Walk” being forever linked with Doritos Locos Tacos.

Honorable Americana Honorable Mention: The Avett Brothers, “Live and Die.” True story: If you’re a North Carolina resident (like I am) and don’t sing along with an Avett song every year, your property taxes will double.

Japandroids, Celebration Rock: When I was in middle school and grounded (which was pretty much all of middle school), this is the kind of good time I imagined that everyone was having without me.

Kelly Hogan, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain: I can’t believe that I might’ve missed this album. I may not have picked it up at all if I hadn’t read that Robyn Hitchcock had written the twangy title track. Thirteen songs later, I had never been more thankful for my interest in all things Hitchcockian. Hogan collected songs from some of her friends—from M. Ward to Stephen Merritt to John Wesley Harding (who wrote “Sleeper Awake,” my favorite track on the album)—and recorded them for ‘Pain,’ her first release in eleven years. But regardless of whose name might be on the ASCAP paperwork, these are HER songs, HER confessions, HER stained coffee table. She doesn’t just sing them as much as she inhabits them and the end result is a genre-spanning collection that can grab you by the emotions and won’t let go until you have a lump in your throat and a glass of bourbon in your hand.

Graham Parker and the Rumour, Three Chords Good: OK, ignore the cover art (which looks like a flyer for Vacation Bible School) and focus on the fact that Parker and the Rumour have reunited for their first album together—including keyboardist Bob Andrews!—since 1979. Parker’s songwriting is still as spikily observant as it was in the seventies, whether he’s politically charged (“Snake Oil Capital of the World”), a frustrated suburban shopper (“The Last Bookstore in Town”) or grooving on the title track, which sounds like something that could’ve echoed out of the open door of the Hope and Anchor pub, back when guitarist Brinsley Schwarz was playing behind Nick Lowe in his namesake band.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Heist: I’m not sure I listened to any album more than ‘The Heist’ both because it’s first track-to-last track excellent and because I played it during literally every solo gym session I’ve had for the past three months. (“Can’t Hold Us” makes me feel like I can deadlift a musk ox and chew through a cinderblock wall). While other hip-hop artists are launching Cristal corks at each other from behind velvet VIP ropes, Macklemore is buying hand-me-downs at a thrift shop, struggling with sobriety and admitting that he “got around 980 on my SAT.” I hate to drop the word ‘inspiring’ onto his ironic tank top-wearing shoulders, but there it is.

Honorable Mention: Plan B, “Ill Manors”: I appreciated this entire album a lot more after seeing Ill Manors: The Movie (which Ben “Plan B” Drew also wrote and directed) but the title track captures the frantic tension of the 2011 London riots thanks to the most menacing-sounding cello since a Great White shark spent a summer terrorizing Amity Island.

Justin Townes Earle, Nothing’s Ever Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now: “There’s a lot of pressure that comes with [my last name],” Justin Townes Earle told me a couple of summers ago. “So I came out and made a record that was the exact opposite of what everybody expected.” Earle, whose dad is legendary singer-slash-hellraiser Steve Earle, has built a career by being as introspective as his father is inflammatory; Steve’s latest is called “I’m Thinking About Burning a Walmart Down,” but his oldest son is asking “Am I Really That Lonely Tonight?”  The Way You Feel is an album built on assurances and apologies and one that only JTE—a man familiar with both—could pull off, giving a shrug and a half-smile as he whispers another already-cracked promise.

Jake Bugg, “Two Fingers”: “I drink to remember/I smoke to forget/Some things to be proud of/Some things to regret” is what I wish I’d written in every yearbook ever. If I’d been this pulled together at eighteen, I probably wouldn’t have a wardrobe composed predominantly of sweatpants.

The Menzingers, “The Obituaries”: The Menzingers, a solid punk band from Pennsylvania, combine confessional lyrics with chunky guitar blasts and appropriately frayed vocal chords. Their “Obituaries” might as well serve as my own: “But I will f*ck this up/ I f*cking know it” is a chorus that has gone through my head for the past thirty years.

Alabama Shakes, Boys & Girls: There’s nothing I can say about this album that hasn’t been said by every music magazine, blog or Best Of list, other than the fact that it deserves all of the positive-sounding adjectives that have been assigned to it. If I were going to create some kind of iPhoto montage of 2012, you’d hear Brittany Howard’s distinctive woozy warble over unflattering snapshots of my face.

Chuck Prophet, Temple Beautiful: This album does for San Francisco what Joseph Mitchell’s essay collection ‘Up in the Old Hotel’ did for New York. Prophet and his Telecaster provide miniature character studies of the city, covering everything from Harvey Milk’s murder to Jim Jones to the codependent brothers who introduced the world to Marilyn Chambers’ boobs, along with some of the most singalongable (that’s totally a word) and fist-pumpable (so is that) choruses of the year. 

The Vaccines “Teenage Icon”: Four scruffy but self-aware Brits remind us that music is just supposed to be fun sometimes.

Divine Fits, Divine Fits: Britt Daniel (Spoon) + Dan Boekner (Wolf Parade) + Sam Brown (New Bomb Turks) = an indie rock Turducken that I salivated over before I’d even heard it. Unlike an actual Turducken, it lived up to my expectations.

Jukebox the Ghost, Safe Travels: I hadn’t heard Jukebox the Ghost until I saw them at Yep Roc’s 15th anniversary concert and I left with a copy of this album tucked under my arm. There’s some kind of law that says you can’t be an earnest piano-driven band without being compared to Ben Folds, but I honestly dug Safe Travels more than the latest from Folds’ recently reassembled Five. And I’d like to think that they’d take it as a compliment when I say that I hear less Folds and more  Billy Joel (think The Stranger era, not “River of Dreams”) in songs like “At Last” and “Don’t Let Me Fall Behind.” But when I traded a sweaty wad of bills for a slab of vinyl, it was based on the strength of their own songs, not who they kind-of sort-of sounded like. 

Lord Huron, “Time to Run”: Lord Huron released their full-length debut after they slightly redecorated their sound and fully embraced the American West. Although every track is worth a listen, “Time to Run”stands out like pearl buttons on a yoked shirt. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if Graceland-era Paul Simon took Johnny Clegg on a long hike through Wyoming, this is it.

Aaaand I’m spent. If you’re still interested (or still reading or still conscious) here’s a Spotify playlist with a track from each album listed, save for Kelly Hogan who gets two. Seriously, King Solomon would filet a baby before he’d pick a favorite from that record.

"I can’t see myself at 30," R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe sneered at the start of "Little America," a song written while the band sat wedged in the rear seats of a panel van during an early ’80s tour. Stipe was 24 when he recorded those eight syllables, so there’s no way he could’ve conjured himself as he is today, a bald fiftysomething with an Obadiah Stane beard and the same now-31-year-old band.

Or he did have the same band, until last week. On Sept. 21, the three remaining original R.E.M.-ers — Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bass player Mike Mills — released a statement on their website saying that after three decades of recording and touring, of corners and spotlights and losing their religion, they’d “decided to call it a day.”

For all of my fellow music nerds, click HERE for last week’s interview with R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter, who talked about the band’s legacy, their time together and where Peter Buck tried to pick up chicks. It’s half profile, half trans-Atlantic conversation transcript and I’m completely grateful that he endured my fumbling attempts at introspective questions.

It’s a total cliche, but I’m logging off, queueing up “Everybody Hurts” and aiming my speakers towards Jonathan Papelbon’s Benedict Arnold of a right arm.


Perfect Circle - R.E.M.

Perfect Circle

R.E.M. • MTV Unplugged '91

Pull your dress on and stay real close
Who might leave you where I left off?
A perfect circle of acquaintances and friends
Drink another, coin a phrase

Thanks for everything, Mike, Michael, Peter and Bill.

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