Best of 2008 — Music

To tell you the truth, for a significant part of 2008 I wondered if there was going to be a best of music post this year. And it wasn’t for lack of listening. I explored a wide range of new releases: Jack Johnson’s Sleep Through the Static, Counting Crows’ Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, Mudcrutch, Everclear’s The Vegas Years, Death Cab for Cutie’s Narrow Stairs, Fleet Foxes, Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels, Viva la Vida, O.A.R.’s All Sides, TV on the Radio, Ben Folds’ Way to Normal, the Pretenders’ Break Up the Concrete, and Mellencamp’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom. Even Jackson Browne’s Time the Conqueror didn’t seem to flip my trigger. Roughly three-quarters of the year was gone before one of the masters and serendipity took charge.

The master? Mr. Robert Zimmerman. While Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 is a collection of unreleased recordings, studio demos, alternate takes and live tracks of material from 1989 to 2006, it became my favorite record of the year as I seemed to enjoy it more each time I listened to it. This is almost quintessential Dylan. He takes songs you’ve heard or are familiar with and turns them inside out. In doing so, he not only gives them a different musical feel, but a different flavor to what underlies the song. For example, there are two versions each of “Mississippi” and “Dignity” unlike the cuts appearing on prior records. But each, particularly the opening acoustic version of “Mississippi” and the piano demo of “Dignity” just two tracks later, easily stands on its own.

Tell Tale Signs shows the breadth of Dylan’s talent and craft. These are tunes Dylan, for whatever reason, decided not to release publicly when recorded. Most recording artists would love to have one release that sounds like this archival material. Who’da thunk a 67-year-old would put out a rock album wholly deserving of the critical acclaim it’s received?

But serendipity means it isn’t just retirement age musicians that grabbed my interest. Within weeks of the release of Tell Tale Signs, I happened across two other releases that, while falling a bit short, are deserving of runner-up awards.

The first was Original Boardwalk Style by former Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and the “Undectet“. I’ve never been a huge jam band fan. In fact, my favorite Phish release may be among the least “jammy” of their catalog. Yet this CD, recorded live at The House Of Blues in Atlantic City on December 30-31, 2006, may take the concept of jam bands to a new extreme. It combines Anastasio’s tremendous guitar skill with an excellent rhythm section (including what certainly sounds like the greatest organ ever, the Hammond B-3) and then throws in something that makes me feel good all over — five horn players. Now you’re talking a jam band. You might have to be real old (my age or so) to get the comparison, but at times the sound here puts me in mind of what Terry Kath could have achieved had someone just turned him loose to lead the Chicago rhythm section and horns wherever his inspiration and guitar skills took them.

The CD is available only on Anastasio’s web site and I stumbled across it simply because someone lent me their copy. It would have made album of the year but for the fact that my general inclination about jam bands tends to take over. In addition, I wouldn’t rank Anastasio as among today’s most gifted lyricists. But trust me, “Plasma” and “Shine,” the second and third cuts on the CD, are alone worth the price.

Finally, in the last month or so two co-workers turned me on to The Gaslight Anthem’s The ’59 Sound. I’m not sure if it’s something to do with the water in New Jersey, but this New Brunswick, N.J., band undoubtedly has some Springsteen coursing through it (even quoting Springsteen in its lyrics). The band’s website describes it as part of the punk underground, I might classify it as a garage sound. Regardless, the songs mine much of the same ground for which Springsteen is noted. If there’s a problem it’s one I’ve often had with punk-based music. After a while, there seems a sameness to the tunes and their structure. Here, it’s that the same drum beat reappears too often, giving the same feel to too many of the cuts. Regardless, considering this is only the band’s second full length release, it is one of the best of the year.

I met the sons of darkness and the sons of light
In the bordertowns of despair

“Dignity,” Bob Dylan

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