By Nicki Escudero
By Amy Silverman
By Brian Palmer
By Chris Parker
By Troy Farah
By Lauren Wise
By Lauren Wise
2. Robert Pollard with Doug Gillard, Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department (Rockathon). He parodies himself ("Pop Zeus"), waxes poetic ("Larger Massachusetts") and rips off the Who yet again ("Frequent Weaver Who Burns"), but on his second solo release this year, Robert Pollard rises from the ashes of weirdness (see Kid Marine and Waved Out) to do what he does best: write great pop songs. With guitar virtuoso and fellow Guided by Voices member Gillard playing all the instruments, Speak Kindly is the most listenable and cohesive of Pollard's solo records to date, and the refrain "Life is beautiful" of the track of the same name is a great mantra in case you encounter any "unexpected turbulence."
3. Elliott Smith, Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars). Elliott Smith's already been to hell and wants to tell you about it. What could be a better proposition when you think you're about to die a fiery death? Smith's 1997 release Either/Or is a study in alienation, obsession and godforsaken loneliness set to some of the prettiest acoustic guitar music this side of Jim Croce. It's not depressing, it's uplifting, especially since Smith does nearly a 360 turnaround and ends the album with "Say Yes," a heartfelt love song that epitomizes the '90s.
4. Tobin Sprout, Moonflower Plastic (Welcome to My Wigwam) (Matador Records). Sprout, Robert Pollard's faithful sidekick in GBV through some of the band's finest moments, found his true voice on his second solo release -- and realized it was really John Lennon's. Moonflower Plastic is a sleeper hit if there ever was one and, if you skip the abominable first track, you'll get a short-hop flight full of pure, Beatlesque-pop listening enjoyment.
5. Guided by Voices, Alien Lanes (Matador). This is GBV at its feel-good finest. Alien Lanes is arguably the most complete record of the four-track years of Dayton, Ohio's Budweiser-fueled band of merry men, with Robert Pollard leading the troops through pop anthems -- among them GBV favorites "Game of Pricks" and "Motor Away" -- like a drunk Robin Hood. Alien Lanes sinks into near-psychedelia toward the end of the record, but instead of pressing Stop, just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
6. John Hofmann, Ghost in the Polaroid/Calculate the Distance (Red Shift Records). So it sounds like shit, produced muddily on a four-track in Hofmann's Phoenix apartment. So his vocals, while compelling, are often off-key and he wears his indie-rock influences on his sleeve. Listen to the songs. There's not a dud in the bunch, which makes this two-sided cassette an easy repeat listen -- handy for cross-country flights. While Hofmann can match Elliott Smith shot for shot when it comes to evoking quiet desperation ("Spiked With Sea Salt" and "Numbers to Call"), his real strength is in the surprisingly complex craftsmanship of very listenable rock songs.
7. Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador). Dreamy and droning, this 1994 release showcases Pavement at its most irreverent ("Range Life") and witty ("Cut Your Hair") before the band members started hating each other. Steve Malkmus' dirgelike, improvised "I need to sleep" refrain on the last track is especially conducive for meandering reverie.
8. Frank Black and the Catholics, Pistolero (spinART). Frank Black has finally learned to sing, and his second album recorded live to two-track with the Catholics and released this year rocks steady from beginning to end -- perfect when you want to zone out without having to hit forward to pass a song you don't like. There's only a few guttural Black screams to jolt you out of your seat, and if kept on a reasonably low volume, you can even take a nap to it.
9. Aquanaut Drinks Coffee, Live in the Living Room (self-released). This long (40-plus songs), convoluted CD from the now-defunct Phoenix trio is like a roller-coaster ride -- you're terrified at times, but there's no way you would want to get off. Led by singer/guitarist Larry Hicks and his alarmingly high voice, the band's Live in the Living Roomis a journey of teen angst and postadolescent self-discovery on hyperdrive. The tracks were recorded in sessions over a period of about six years (from when band members were about 15 until they hit legal drinking age), so the songs careen between pylons of acoustic-flavored pop, frenetic punk and guitar-driven rock, hitting every one more than once.
10. Old 97's, Too Far to Care (Elektra). The quartet from Dallas plays some down and dirty alt-country tunes on its major-label debut. Spiked with songs about drinking, wooing women, fucking and the ups and downs of life on the road, the Old 97's instilled a fire in a tired genre with this 1997 release. There are some damn catchy songs on Too Far to Care, so keep yourself in check and don't annoy the shit out of your seatmate by singing aloud.
Top 10 Records I Bought This Year Without Hearing Any of Beforehand
The best perk from writing about music is getting lots of records in advance for free. Still, I love to record shop, because the other upside to writing about music is that I spend lots of time talking to people about what they're listening to. Based on recommendations from friends, editors and other writers, as well as reading, reading, reading about music, I buy a lot of stuff note unheard.