Best albums of 1998: #2 Billy Bragg and Wilco “Mermaid avenue”

After seeing him perform at a Woody Guthrie tribute concert in New York City, Guthrie’s daughter Nora contacted Billy Bragg in 1992 about a project. It seemed Woody Guthrie had left the lyrics for thousands of songs he had written but not recorded and for which, no music had been notated. Nora wanted to bring these songs to life for a new generation. Bragg agreed but not before enlisting the help of American alternative rock band, Wilco. The results were better than anyone could have expected, garnering critical acclaim, record sales, and a Grammy for everyone’s troubles.

I picked up on this album a few years after its release and mostly because I’d been a fan of Billy Bragg for a number of years. I’d heard a few of its songs beforehand but didn’t know then that they were re-creations of those written by Guthrie. Of course, when I first listened to it, I preferred the songs sung by Bragg to the others sung by Jeff Tweedy because I only knew Wilco by name, not their music. However, I have since grown to love all of the songs and appreciate the difference Tweedy’s voice lends to those others.

The sound and instrumentation of “Mermaid avenue” was definitely different from what I was used to with Bragg, which is likely why he wanted Wilco to help: to signal to all that this was not about him. It is old school Americana but with a modern edge, like actors dressing up in old costumes but speaking in modern colloquial. I’m not all that familiar with Woody Guthrie’s music, save for the iconic “This land is your land”, of course, but I have to imagine he would’ve been happy with the results. His daughter definitely was because the success of this album spawned two later volumes, as well as a box set collecting all of the compilations in one set.

It is typically difficult to narrow down my picks for you to three but this one was near impossible so I just took the first three in running order. Enjoy.


“Walt Whitman’s niece”: My first pick here is a song that sounds like a tall tale that might be spun in any bar in the world. “Last night or the night before that, I won’t say which night, a seaman friend of mine, I’ll not say which seaman…” It is a literary conquest sung (and told) by Bragg with the band members of Wilco as house band. You can almost picture Bragg sitting precariously on a stool having at it on his guitar after one too many and the band stomping along with him at the piano and harmonica, shouting along with him at the appropriate parts. It’s unseemly and full of innuendo and lots of good fun. Whitman would’ve been proud.

“California stars”: Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco) sings this next one around the campfire after a hard day’s work in the fields with fellow workers. “I’d like to rest my heavy head tonight on a bed of California stars. I’d like to lay my weary bones tonight on a bed of California stars.” It is a clear but lonely night. The sky is big and full of stars but not the same ones that watch over California, where his beloved lays sleeping and waiting for him. You can feel this longing and dreaming in every strum on the guitar, whine of the pedal steel and peal of fiddle. Tweedy’s voice is perfect here, giving it a completely different than it would’ve had if sung by Bragg. It’ll charm you for sure.

“Way over yonder in the minor key”: This one’s got a feel that reminds me of Huck Finn or The Little Rascals. “Her mama cut a switch from a cherry tree and laid it on the she and me. It stung lots worse than a hive of bees but there ain’t nobody that can sing like me.” Its language is childish, like a skipping game or patty cakes, and suggests a young first love. Billy Bragg leads the tale with Natalie Merchant adding her lovely vocals at the chorus. It’s gentle and melancholic, perhaps a remembering of a time long gone. It’s so beautiful, you’ll want to listen to it over and over again.


Check back next Thursday for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Sloan “Navy blues”
9. Cake “Prolonging the magic”
8. Embrace “The good will out”
7. Mojave 3 “Out of tune”
6. Rufus Wainwright “Rufus Wainwright”
5. Manic Street Preachers “This is my truth now tell me yours”
4. Pulp “This is hardcore”
3. Neutral Milk Hotel “In the aeroplane over the sea”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best albums of 2018: The honourable mentions (aka #10 through #6)

Happy Friday, November 23rd everyone! Black Friday, to boot. And happy belated Thanksgiving to our American friends!

Yep, it’s that time of year again. The best of the year lists are going to start pouring in from all over. It was actually around this time last year that I kicked off my Best Albums series with an end of the year list for 2017. I then travelled back in time through the decades, with stops at 2007, 1997, and finally, 1987 (you can find all of these completed lists here). It was a fun exercise and I’ll endeavour to do the same over the next year, starting with this 2018 list.

The drill is this. You’ll get albums ten through six, a sort of honourable mentions collection, today, and then, I’ll run through my top five albums of the year over the next five Fridays. If all goes well, the number one album will be revealed on the final Friday of the year.

For 2018, you’ll likely find that my list won’t resemble many of the lists from the real music sites. In fact, if you’re hoping for spoilers in the photo at the top of this post, you’ll be disappointed. None of those albums will appear in this series. As I get older, I find my tastes don’t line up as often with what is hip and new. I did check out a few of the buzz bands and some of them were quite good (hello, Shame and Starcrawler), just not top ten good in my opinion. And well, the ten albums that will make up this list may not be everyone else’s best. But they’re mine.

As always, I welcome hearing your own favourites and thoughts on my choices in the comments section of each post.

Let’s get started…


#10 David Byrne “American utopia”

To be honest, the only reason this album made this list at all is because I got to see the former Talking Heads frontman this fall at Ottawa’s CityFolk festival. I had only given “American utopia” a cursory glance prior to the festival and wasn’t even sure I would stay for his whole set because of a scheduling conflict with another artist but I was glad, in the end, that I did. His was probably one of my favourite sets in recent years and I’ve been listening to this album regularly ever since, it growing in my esteem with each play. Yes, it’s varied in sound but not in theme. For his first solo album in fourteen years, Byrne is as fresh and quirky and intelligent as he ever has been.

Gateway tune: Everybody’s coming to my house


#9 James “Living in extraordinary times”

As some of you may undoubtedly already know, I’ve been a pretty big James fan for a couple of decades now but the appearance of their fifteenth (!!!) studio album here has nothing to do with loyalty. In fact, I wasn’t much of a fan of their last album, 2016’s “Girl at the end of the world”, as a whole, disagreeing with a bunch of people who made it the band’s highest charting album to date. “Living in extraordinary times” is at times as big as the best of James’s hit singles but it also has its quiet moments. At its core, though, it’s an album that has Tim Booth and band trying to find a forward in these crazy times, with more than a few nods and kicks at the current US president.

Gateway tune: Coming home (pt. 2)


#8 The Limiñanas “Shadow people”

Okay. So I had never heard of this band before this year. I don’t even remember how I originally came across their sixth studio album, “Shadow people”, but i know it hooked me from the beginning. It took some doing to figure out what they were about, including reading a Wikipedia entry written in French. My French is improving but far from perfect. Still, I was able to ascertain that they are a duo, Lionel and Marie, indeed from France, that were performing in other groups for many years, before forming The Liminanas in 2009. This latest album checked a lot of my boxes with its droning and driving psychedelia and then mixing it with laid back and cool Serge Gainsbourg sounds. That it includes contributions by Anton Newcombe and Peter Hook is just topping on the cake. I can’t wait to dig into their earlier work.

Gateway tune: Istanbul is sleepy


#7 The Essex Green “Hardly electronic”

For a band that hasn’t worked together in over a decade and an album whose players reside in three different states, The Essex Green and their fourth studio album, “Hardly electronic”, sound pretty slick indeed. I got into this group after seeing them open for Camera Obscura in 2007 and bought their album “Cannibal sea” based on their performance. I have now been salivating while listening to that album and waiting over eleven years for new material. Now that’s in my hands and spinning on my turntable, I am not disappointed in the least. They picked up the 60s and 70s inspired indie pop right where they left it and they quite possibly might have improved on their sound in the intervening years. Hopefully, it’s not another decade before we get album number five.

Gateway tune: The 710


#6 Colter Wall “Songs of the plains”

Who is this Colter Wall? He definitely does not sound of this time and place, singing somber and slow-burning numbers about the plight of the plainsmen in the 1800s and the legend of Wild Bill Hickok. Amazing, then, that this kid is but 23 and hails from Saskatchewan, Canada. It was my brother Mike that alerted me to him when he saw his name on the lineup for Ottawa’s CityFolk festival. His was definitely one of the highlight sets of the festival for me. Not only are his songs well written and of a different sensibility in today’s pop world but Wall has a voice that has been compared to the likes of Johnny Cash, though I for one would say it is even more profound than that. This is his sophomore album and builds upon the fantastic work laid out on last year’s fine debut. I think we’ll be hearing lots from him in the coming years.

Gateway tune: Saskatchewan in 1881


Check back next Friday for album #5 on this list. In the meantime, you can check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best albums of 2007: The honourable mentions (aka #10 through #6)

Back at the end of 2017, I counted down my favourite albums of the year in a weekly series that culminated with me posting words about my #1 favourite album on the final Friday of the year. In the initial post for that series, I hinted that I might continue to intersperse my favourite tune posts with a few more of these ‘best album’ series over the course of this year. I figured that the first day of February was as good a day as any to start off the first of what I hope will become many such series.

For starters, I’ve travelled back a decade to 2007, a pretty incredible year for indie rock, particular for those bands hailing from Canada. I’d been pretty proud of the music coming out of my home country for the previous couple of years already. My favourite magazine in those days, Under the Radar, had done a special issue focusing on Canadian indie rock in 2005. The Polaris Prize, the Canadian equivalent to Britain’s Mercury Prize, was established in 2006, the inaugural prize won by Owen Pallett (aka Final Fantasy). And pretty much every Canadian indie band, whether from Montreal, Toronto, or the Vancouver area, was exploding on the scene. So you shouldn’t be too surprised to see that this list will feature a sampling of these talented Canadians.

To sum up, starting from today and continuing over the next five weeks, I will honour the Throwback Thursday theme/meme (#tbt) with a series on my favourite albums from 2007. Enjoy.


#10 The Besnard Lakes “The Besnard Lakes are the dark horse”

I feel like it was the resurrected MuchMusic alternative show, “The Wedge”, that introduced me to The Besnard Lakes in 2007 with the video for “Agent 13” off this, their second record. “The Besnard Lakes are the dark horse” is eight beautiful and dreamily atmospheric arrangements that meander at their own pace and might dissipate into the ether altogether it weren’t all held together with those Beach Boys-esque vocal harmonies. This was the album that really put the Montreal-based sextet, led by husband and wife Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas, on the map.

Gateway tune: Devastation


#9 Okkervil River “The stage names”

Like many other people (in my head, anyways), “The stage names” was my introduction to the Austin, Texas-based indie rock band led by Will Sheff. What initially drew me to the album and keeps me coming back is that it has all the traditional Americana elements and instruments but plays with song structure and lyrics in a very different way. Will Sheff sings with a voice that belongs more in the post-punk era (think Gordon Gano or David Byrne), telling intricate stories in a very literate way, overtop a cacophony of Hammond organs, xylophones, pedal steels, woodblocks, and mandolins.

Gateway tune: Our life is not a movie or maybe


#8 Handsome Furs “Plague park”

Handsome Furs was Dan Boeckner’s (also of Wolf Parade, Divine Fits, and Operators) side project that he formed in 2005 with his then wife, Canadian poet Alexei Perry. Named after a park built overtop a mass grave for plague victims in Finland in the 1700s, “Plague Park” was the first of three albums the Montreal-based duo would release before dissolving (and separating) in 2012. Of the three, it is the most guitar heavy but it is characteristic for the heavy bass, raucous synths, and of course, Boeckner’s raw Springsteen-like vocals.

Gateway tune: Dumb animals


#7 Cuff The Duke “Sidelines of the city”

For their third record, Oshawa, Ontario’s Cuff The Duke rotated their lineup some and expanded their sound from their alternative country roots to include a bit of blues and psych rock. Wayne Petti, the band’s driving force doesn’t eschew everything that worked for the band in the past, however, staying with Paul Aucoin for the album’s production and writing some quality, quality lyrics. I’m especially fond of Oshawa love letter, “Rossland square”, because the city is incidentally the town where I was also born. But that’s not the only reason I’m fond of the album. Listen to the track below for more firepower.

Gateway tune: If I live or if I die


#6 Arcade Fire “Neon bible”

To be perfectly honest, I was disappointed with this album when I first heard it. But how could I not with the insane expectations I found myself heaping upon it after the brilliance of the Montreal-based indie rock collective’s debut album, “Funeral”. Nonetheless, “Neon bible” grew on me over the years. For the sophomore album, the group added Ottawa’s Jeremy Gara on drums and included violinist Sara Neufeld as a full time member. Frontman Win Butler has stated that he had wanted a stripped down sound for the album but the big themes of televangelism and religion begged for equally big instrumentation so the layers and the final sound ended up being immense.

Gateway tune: No cars go


For the rest of the albums in this list, check out my Best Albums page here.