Stephen King’s top music picks for 2006
In 1957, I was 10 years old and my mother worked at a laundry in Stratford, Connecticut. She came in one afternoon while I was watching American Bandstand. The kids were dancing to something by Chuck Berry — maybe ”Roll Over Beethoven.” She watched in silence for a while, then said: ”The man singing that is a Negro.”
”How do you know, Mom?” I asked. I had simply assumed that Chuck Berry must be as white as…well, Pat Boone.
”Because,” she said, ”he swings too hard to be white. Come here, Stevie.”
And then, with her feet almost certainly yelling for her to take a load off after her eight-hour shift, she taught me the basic bop-turn-and-dip step that I still use, when the music moves me.
Between Chuck Berry and Nirvana, I had a passionate 40-year love affair with the kind of music my mother called ”hard swing.” I fell out of touch for a while, during that time when all the pop singers on the radio — female as well as male — had started to sound like Michael Jackson, and guitars were banished in favor of synthesizers.
What brought me back were two radical innovations: satellite radio (my brand happens to be XM) and iTunes (also my iPod, but for me that came later still). These were digital honky-tonks where I found — to my joy — that hard swing was alive and well. I’ve been listening, usually with the volume turned up to 11, ever since. These are the tracks that moved me in 2006…quite often enough to get up and shake my increasingly elderly ass.
10. ”Drunk All Around This Town,” Scott Miller & the Commonwealth/”My Drinkin’ Problem,” Hank Williams III (tie)
I no longer drink, but I love songs about boozing, and these are beauts. The Hank III album is called Straight to Hell, and I imagine the Nashville establishment wishes young Mr. Williams would go there, posthaste. Me, I hope he sticks around. This is the real country: hollow of eye, pale of face, and bursting with the rhythm of the damned. Also, check out Hell’s ”Low Down.”
9. ”Over My Head (Cable Car),” The Fray
Old-school pop; for me, there’s nothing better. Another of its ilk is ”Rudebox,” by Robbie Williams.
8. ”Face the Promise,” Bob Seger/”Real Mean Bottle,” Bob Seger and Kid Rock
Not all of Seger’s new album is great — ”Wait for Me” is schmaltz — but these tracks are magnificent. They’re part of a specific hard-swing genre; see below.
7. ”I’m a Rat,” Towers of London
There is something to be said for straight puke-on-your-Dingo-boots rock & roll. Towers of London are mostly a joke, but this track — beginning with the shrieking air-raid siren — is, like those two priceless tracks on the Seger, the real deal.
6. Snake Farm, Ray Wylie Hubbard
Hubbard, an alt-country Southern rocker (his most memorable tune is called ”Screw You, We’re From Texas”), is one mean motorcycle. Snake Farm is a double-wide load of blues guitar and sly humor, your basic old-school boogie. Best tracks: ”Heartaches and Grease” and ”Live and Die Rock and Roll.”
5. Zoysia, The Bottle Rockets
The Bottle Rockets are often categorized as alt-country — by people who need categories — but what they really are is America’s premier bar band. Zoysia (I don’t know what it means either) is their best album ever — tuneful, soulful, and best of all, loud. Primo cuts: ”Better Than Broken,” ”Feeling Down.”
4. ”Chasing Cars,” Snow Patrol
Call me a sloppy sentimentalist if you want; I love this song. In fact, I never met a Snow Patrol song I didn’t like (runner-up: ”You’re All I Have”). If that makes you want to call me a sap, I can take it; that’s why they pay me the big bucks.
3. ”Hey Valerie!” The Derailers
The best country single of the year (from the album Soldiers of Love), but of course it got no airplay on the Top 40 country stations (duh). Country runner-up: a gorgeous love song, ”Would You Go With Me,” by baritone Josh Turner.
2. ”God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” Johnny Cash
You could argue that Cash saved the best for last and get no disagreement from me. This is the voice of an Old Testament prophet on his deathbed, eerie and persuasive, full of power and dust and experience. The entire album (American V: A Hundred Highways) is a masterpiece, but this and ”Like the 309” are the ones I keep coming back to.
1. The Animal Years, Josh Ritter
The best album of the year in a walk, and maybe the best album I’ve heard in the last five. Mysterious, melancholy, melodic…and those are only the M’s. Songs like ”Girl in the War” simply do not leave the consciousness once they’re heard, but the album’s real gem is the strange and gorgeous ”Thin Blue Flame.” This is the most exuberant outburst of imagery since Bob Dylan’s ”A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” in 1963. The Animal Years is an amazing accomplishment.
That’s my list of the best — all of it legally downloadable. My mother might have winced away from Towers of London, but as for the rest, I think she’d approve. After all, most of it swings hard — turns out that white people (everyone on this list is, in case you hadn’t noticed) can do that after all. It only took us 50 years, but hey…we’re gettin’ there.