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The Decemberists: Think You're Done With That List? Not So Fast

By David Greenwald | 27 December 2005

It happens every year. You laboriously compile your top 10 (or 25, or 50) albums of the year, heave a sigh of relief, and hate yourself for the next few months after discovering another half-dozen contenders. It’s not your fault, you tell yourself – after all, you’re not a machine. You don’t do this for a living. You listened to a hundred records! You gave it your best shot! And you’re right. Chad VanGaalen would have easily made my list last year, as would New Buffalo and maybe even the Kings of Convenience, but I regret nothing. At some point, it’s out of your hands and you have to just throw in the towel.

Except when great albums come out in December. You’ve already turned in your list to the Pazz and Jop poll or posted it on your favorite message board. You thought you were home free, and of course, here’s a four-star album refusing to be ignored. To put it bluntly – and this is assuming you take these kinds of things seriously, because you do – you’re fucked.

This has happened to me two years in a row now. I can’t remember exactly when I first heard Sea Snakes’ phenomenal Clear As Day, The Darkest Tools, but since then I’ve listened to it dozens of times and grown to like it more than just about anything else I heard in either 2004 or 2005. Like Hayden’s Skyscraper National Park or The One AM Radio’s A Name Writ In Water (which did make my 2002 and 2004 lists, respectively), Clear As Day does everything I want a forward-thinking folk album to do. The production has an inviting clarity – not too cold and glossy, but not too warm and porridge-like, either – and takes full advantage of the stereophonic spectrum. Jim McIntyre is gifted with a similarly clear, clarion voice to lay over the music beneath, and of course the melodies and the songwriting and everything else is distinctive and remarkable. I’ve spent all year wondering if I can somehow throw Sea Snakes on a list – for one thing, the band already broke up, and for another, they were on Three Gut Records, a label that no longer exists. If you don’t hear about them now, you never will.

The same thing happened this year. This time, it was almost ironic; rather than be surprised by an obscure debut, I was caught off guard by my current favorite musician. Yes, that musician is Ryan Adams, for whom I’ve taken more than my fair share of friendly in-"print" ribbing (I’m not crazy, dammit), but I honestly thought 29 was going to suck. Jacksonville City Nights was a slight disappointment and wasn’t going to make my list, and when the “29” single sounded even worse, I was all set to finish off my list with only the thoroughly enjoyable Cold Roses in my top 10. Then “29” turned out to be a throwaway introductory track, “Starlite Diner” rocketed to the top of my iTunes play count, and I decided the album was Adams’ second (Ed: God damnit…) masterpiece. I heard it in time for it to crack my list, but if I were to re-do my top 30 now (which I haven’t, if only because there’s already another three albums I’d like to add to the bottom and I like Animal Collective less than I thought I did, and so on and so forth), 29 would land squarely in my #2 spot, behind The National and ahead of Sufjan Stevens and, um, Ryan Adams.

The point is, nobody’s perfect…except Ryan Adams and Jim McIntyre. So go buy those records before it’s too late, or you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.