You Must Be This Tall to Ride
Great Albums that Won't Be In the Top 10 List

Some of you may be aware of this, but now I’m telling everybody: I quit my job this week. And in fact, what I expect I’ve done is quit newspapers entirely.

But I’m not getting out of journalism. In fact, I love reporting and writing more than ever, a fact that’s truly crystallized for me in my last weeks at the Beacon-News. But as dwindling circulation numbers and layoffs across the country show, the newspaper model is broken, and I’m not sure there’s a way to fix it. The New York Times is rolling out an interesting online subscription model, one that sends files that read like a newspaper to readers’ inboxes, but they’re still giving their content away for free on the web, so who knows if that will work. It’s a crazy time in newspaper-land, and a while ago, I started looking for What’s Next.

So I’m going to work for AOL’s new creation, It’s a hyper-local, online-only news model that sets up journalists with the tools they need, and lets them cover communities the way they choose. I’ll be in Montgomery, Illinois, acting as a one-man news machine. I get more money and more freedom, but more than that, I get to participate in something that looks, to me, like what might be next. Patch is the first serious attempt I’ve seen to move local news coverage online, with full corporate backing. And even if it evaporates sometime in the next couple of years, whatever comes after it will likely resemble it in important ways, and I’ll have a head start.

I’ll miss covering Aurora. In fact, I already do. But I think this is a good move for me. Don’t worry, I’ll still be writing and posting this column once a week. For those who don’t know me, you won’t notice anything has changed. For those who do, though, I expect I’ll be happier next time you see me. The Beacon was the best job I’ve ever had, and the people there are forever woven into my life. But I’m excited for the future.

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So it’s that time of year: time for me to explain the rules of my top 10 list, and talk about some great, worthy albums those rules disqualify. Some have suggested that my list should be a free-for-all, that I simply include the best albums I heard that year, whether they be live records or EPs or compilations, or even from prior years. I have honestly considered doing that – it would be a lot easier – but then the list wouldn’t mean very much, I think.

I honestly believe the limitations I place on this list keep it focused on the best new studio albums of the year. That’s what I’m interested in ranking, after all – if I were to allow compilations, for example, that would give an unfair advantage to bands with solid singles, but weak albums. If I were to allow albums from other years, the 2010 list would be topped by the remastered version of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. No contest whatsoever.

No, I think what I’m doing keeps this list honest. I only allow new, full-length studio albums from the current year. No live documents, no re-releases, no EPs, no projects that revisit old songs. In the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve relaxed only one rule – albums released digitally are now eligible. Used to be, an artist would have to put out a CD to get on the list, but the changing music business is poised to leave CDs behind entirely.

But every year, I reconsider my rules, and every year so far, I stick with them. Which inevitably leads to this column each year, collecting the cast-offs, the extraordinary albums that you won’t see on the top 10 list. We’ll start with this: every year, there’s at least one live album that knocks me to the floor, and outdoes the majority of studio records I hear.

But I can’t include live albums. It’s just not fair. Live, a band with a huge back catalog can draw from decades of songs, while relatively new bands will only have their current stuff. I’m ranking the songs as well as the performances, so it’s important that I only include songs released for the first time that year. And that way, every band has a fair chance of writing 10 or 12 killers and making the list.

Still, those amazing live albums always make me reconsider. This year’s stunner is Go Live, the first concert document by Jonsi, lead singer of Sigur Ros. And it is one of the most glorious things I heard all year. Earlier in 2010, Jonsi released Go, his first solo album, and it was sort of his idea of a pop record. While Sigur Ros specializes in atmospheres and extended pieces, Jonsi’s album was full of three-minute wonders, little songs with big melodies, English lyrics and vibrant instrumentation.

Live, he brings us the best of both worlds. Go Live is a lovingly-packaged CD and DVD set, containing a film of the first show of his Go tour, and a 78-minute CD with highlights from two later shows. Jonsi and his band play all of Go, and debut five new songs. They arrange the show like a rising wave – slower, prettier pieces are at the beginning, and it builds and builds, culminating in a 10-minute take on “Grow Till Tall.” Percussive stunners like “Animal Arithmetic” and “Boy Lilikoi” are saved until late in the set, and the overall effect carries you along.

I really wish I’d seen this show. The disc starts with one of the new songs, “Stars in Still Water,” and it contains little more than an acoustic guitar and Jonsi’s high, unmistakable voice. Pianos and xylophones come in for the next few tracks, but things stay gentle, almost airy. The extended run through “Tornado” is remarkable, and new song “Icicle Sleeves” took my breath away.

The show takes off with “Go Do,” the lead track from Go, and builds in intensity from there. The drumming on “Animal Arithmetic” is superb, and even when Jonsi takes it down several notches for a new piano song (called, um, “New Piano Song”) and the lovely “Around Us,” you can feel him rearing back for a final roar. “Around Us” explodes halfway through, and Go Live never comes back down. Jonsi then takes on “Sticks and Stones,” the propulsive song he wrote for How to Train Your Dragon, and it’s awesome.

But it’s the finale, the aforementioned “Grow Till Tall,” that blows things open. It starts at a whisper, but blooms into a howl, drums flailing and Jonsi reaching for those alien high notes. It’s captivating, all the way through, and when it ends and the audience goes nuts, you’ll be tempted to clap and cheer right along with them.

I’ve often said it’s impossible to describe just what Sigur Ros does, and even though Jonsi’s solo work is more compact and more accessible, the same problem applies. He uses typical instruments – drums, pianos, bass, guitar, percussion – but his music is unlike any other, and his unearthly voice just drives that home. In the studio, Jonsi is a singular craftsman, but on stage, he taps into the emotional heart of this music, and it’s a wonder to behold. Go Live is my favorite live record of the year, and if I could, I’d put it in the top 10 list.

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I mentioned that older albums just can’t make the cut. But when it comes to long-lost records, ones just getting their full, official release, I’m often torn. I made an exception once, for Brian Wilson’s SMiLE in 2005, but that was an extraordinary case – the songs were all written in the early ‘60s, but the recordings were new, and the album was presented as a finished suite for the first time in ’05. Still, it’s a gray area, and I probably wouldn’t make the same decision now.

Certainly, new renditions of old songs are not eligible, which is why the Choir’s second album of 2010, De-Plumed: Laid Bare; Exposed; Featherless, will not appear in the top 10 list. The Choir, longtime readers know, is perhaps my favorite band on the planet. They famously take five years between records, and each one appears with a silent threat that it may be the last. So the fact that they put out two studio albums this year is just miraculous.

De-Plumed is something of a retrospective of the band’s 26-year recording career – they picked 12 songs, one from each of their studio records, and recast them with acoustic guitars, hand percussion and weeping cellos from Matt Slocum. They’ve sequenced these songs in chronological order, so you can trace the Choir’s evolution. Obviously, for longtime fans, this is a lovely trip down memory lane. But it also means the really good stuff is hidden a few tracks in.

This record sounds amazing. In fact, I’d call it the most beautiful thing I’ve heard this year, but that’s at least partially because these songs mean so much to me. I know every note and every word of these 12 tunes, and hearing them in these brand new ways was both nostalgic and revelatory.

Derri Daugherty’s voice is in fine form, and his acoustic guitar playing is lovely – Daugherty sometimes hides behind racks of effects, and I love that sound, but here he’s out in the open, and his playing is fragile and graceful. And Steve Hindalong remains one of the most inventive percussionists on the planet. On “Black Cloud,” a minor-key wonder from the band’s second full-length, Diamonds and Rain, Hindalong adds immeasurable depth with some well-placed accents.

It’s difficult to pick favorites, but the stretch in the middle is hard to beat. “To Bid Farewell” has long been one of my favorite Choir songs, and here it is handled reverently, delicately picked and sung. “A Sentimental Song” is amazing here, particularly the bridge section, in which Hindalong rings out the guitar melody on xylophone and Slocum plays his heart out. And I’ve always liked “Love Your Mind,” one of the band’s most romantic tunes, but never more than here, Daugherty singing like a bird over some of his most gorgeous playing.

Other favorites: the band runs through the best song from their early days, “15 Doors,” and completely reinvents it. They slow down “Spring,” a song that was covered in distorted guitar on Speckled Bird, and accentuate its wonderful melody. And they put a Bob Dylan twist on “Leprechaun,” harmonicas and all. I probably would have chosen different songs from their last two records (the best they’ve done since 1990), but both “Enough to Love” and “A Friend So Kind” are played so beautifully that I can’t really quibble.

As I said before, these songs mean a lot to me. I’ve been a Choir fan for 20 years now, and they continue to enrich my life beyond measure. I wish I could include De-Plumed in the top 10 list – if not for the rules I’ve set, it would probably be there. (The fact that their other 2010 album, Burning Like the Midnight Sun, has a place reserved is some consolation.) This album is for long-time fans, it’s true, but it’s hard to imagine that even newbies won’t find something that moves them here. Check it out here.

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But how about true long-lost albums? This year’s example is Mr. Mister’s Pull, recorded in 1990 and finally (finally!) given an official release last month, on singer Richard Page’s Little Dume Recordings. Bootleg copies of this record have been circulating for years, and I reviewed one earlier this year. But now the real deal is here.

Yes, I get made fun of for liking Mr. Mister. No, I don’t care. Go On… remains a very important record to me. What many forget is that all of these guys can play, and play well. Drummer Pat Mastelotto went on to pound the skins for King Crimson. Page started prog-pop band Third Matinee. All of the Misters had years of session experience before they started the band. They had hits, but they also had real chops, and songs that should have kept them going for decades.

Instead, RCA Records just didn’t know what to do with Go On…, a defiantly serious record that stopped Mr. Mister’s career in its tracks. And they must have had a conniption when they heard Pull, a darker and weirder effort that delves even further into the progressive. RCA never released it, and dropped the band for being too artsy. (As Mastelotto says in his new liner notes: “WTF? Music that has too much art?”) Speaking as a fan, I’m angry that it took 20 years for this record to come out. In the short time I’ve had it, it’s become like an old friend. I think it may be the Misters’ best.

The official Pull differs from the bootlegs considerably. The sound is fuller and thicker, of course, and the mixing perfectly balanced. But the first six songs have been rearranged, too – where the record once opened with the swaying, poppy “Lifetime,” now it starts with one of its most difficult songs, “Learning to Crawl.” It’s a statement right off the bat that this is not the band you think you know, and the record bears that out.

I know I’ve already reviewed this record, but I’ve grown very attached to it recently. In fact, I can’t stop listening to it. “I Don’t Know Why” may be the Misters’ finest song, all slashing guitars and ride cymbals and amazing harmonies. “We Belong to No One” is a great song, dark synthesizers covering it in a thick fog. “No Words to Say” stands out in its new version – it has a terrific chorus, some dynamite guitar work, and those harmonies again. And closing instrumental “Awaya” is awesome – the six-string on that one is played by Trevor Rabin, of Yes and the Buggles.

The reliance on keyboard sounds is the only hint that Pull was recorded 20 years ago. It sounds fresh to my ears – if a new band released this very album, it would be hailed for taking pop in new directions. It’s taken two decades to get this album into my hands, and I’m so glad it’s here. Make fun of me all you like, Pull is a terrific record from an underrated band. I can’t put it in my top 10 list, but it’s still one of the things I love most about 2010. Check it out here.

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And now I’ll end a column about albums that won’t make my top 10 list by talking about one that probably will.

For about six months, my fellow music junkies have been trying to get me to check out Jukebox the Ghost. I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long, but I’ve recently heard Everything Under the Sun, the Philly band’s second album. And ho-lee crap, is it excellent. Jukebox is a three-piece, keys and guitars and drums, and they write some astonishing, energetic pop songs, ones that keep surprising you again and again.

At least four of these songs rank among my favorites of the year. “Half Crazy” is a guitar-fueled party, “Empire” starts with a wonderful piano figure and moves into a chorus you’ll be singing for weeks, “Summer Sun” gets all ELO on your ass, and “Carrying” is just jaw-dropping, spinning its piano melody out over four ecstatic minutes. But every song here is superb, and the whole thing, while not a concept record, certainly carries a thematic thread. It’s a cohesive album of remarkable tunes.

I expect I’ll be writing more about this in a couple of weeks. Suffice it to say that everyone who recommended this was right, and I’m an idiot for waiting so long to hear it. Everything Under the Sun is easily one of the best pop records I’ve heard this year. Listen here.

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Next week, the posthumous Michael Jackson album, a new one from Over the Rhine, and a list of honorable mentions from 2010.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.