|Album of the Year: Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose
Two years ago I found myself in an Indian casino drunk on whisky, stomping my feet and waiting for Loretta Lynn to find the stage. She was late, and the crowd was edgy and impatient. Turns out Loretta was having a “denture malfunction” backstage and was having a tough go getting her mouth to do what it was supposed to. She finally made it and gave us what we were waiting for - the hillbilly Maria Callas. And even though she was clearly aging, the electricity in her arced across the stage. Despite the fact I was down $70 at the blackjack table, there was love.
Love is a strong word, but upon first spin of Van Lear Rose, it’s easy to feel something close to “all gushy inside.” Loretta teamed with producer Jack White of the pretty great band The White Stripes for this album, and White’s influence is profound and striking. Don’t expect Nashville’s brand of flavor-extracted country mush here, for Jack White likes his guitars loud and proud. In fact, the only thing overshadowing Mr. White’s six-stringers are the up-front and confident vocals of Loretta. There are plenty of great moments on Van Lear Rose, but the finest comes on “Portland,” a hair-raising duet with White that’s as high energy as anything Loretta has ever belted out before. And that’s saying something considering that this is the woman who wrote “Don’t Come Home from Drinking (with Loving on Your Mind).”
Portland Oregon [feat. Jack White]
Van Lear Rose
Winery of the Year: K Vintners
Yes, there really is a Walla Walla, Washington, and in fact, it’s the appellation being caressed by all the wine kingdom’s in-the-know lips at this very moment. And who’s the grand poobah of Walla Walla? Turns out it’s K honcho Charles Smith, who’s been turning out wines that’re simply amazing. Smith’s syrahs are big door-busters full of personality and enough spice to offset the abundant fruit. I love the sense of wildness, the notion that this juice is barely contained by the bottle. Upon opening, K’s wines run out to meet you with exuberance and spirit. This wine may be something of a secret now, but best to hop on the bandwagon immediately as it’s quite a drive to Walla Walla.
Best Nasty Rock Album: Death From Above 1979, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine
Holy Cow! This album, by a scuzzy-looking duo from Toronto, is one part Queen, one part AC/DC, one part Sabbath and one part Black Flag. Consisting of one guy banging on drums and one guy beating the hell outta a bass guitar, Death From Above 1979 can kick like the heaviest stoner combo in the world. But they’ve also got a quirky side that’ll throw in moments of new wave synth or pure pop, and sensitive guy’s lyrics. Mostly though, they just rock, rock, rock.
You're A Woman, I'm A Machine
Romantic Rights (Album Version)
Honorable Mention: Liars, They Were Wrong So We Drowned
Red of the Year: Abeja Cabernet Sauvignon 2002
If my bank account weren’t so slim, I’d surely fill a wading pool with this wine and die a true Irishman’s happy death. Abeja (Spanish for “bee”) is a young winery in Walla Walla that’s found immediate success. This, their second release, generated tremors of delight for those smart enough to grab a few bottles. This juice is so juicy that it makes blackberries green with envy. But it’s not just fruit. The wine’s silky smooth and refined, and the blending of the other flavors (cassis, hints of chocolate) is absolutely seamless. It’s tragic that all wine is not this good.
Best Nice Rock Album: Wilco, A Ghost is Born
As regular readers of this space are well aware, it’s ridiculous to compare an album to a bottle of wine. But when it comes to Wilco albums this is true: they get better with age. Wilco makes albums that’re complex and evolved, and sometimes need a few moments to breathe before they “taste” right. A Ghost is Born is no exception. Wilco’s music is fully mature and finely crafted, but as always, it’s full of surprises and, sometimes, contradictions. Amidst a handful of spare, straightforward tunes in the middle of the record, there’s eight minutes of drone and noise - an “I dare you to listen” moment. Meanwhile, a tune about taking taxicabs to buy drugs follows a tender love song. Through it all, however, Wilco remains smart, literate and more than ever, interesting.
I'm A Wheel
Honorable Mention: Iron and Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days
White of the Year: St. Innocent 2002 Shea Vineyard Pinot Gris
If you find yourself in a discussion with some pointy-headed wine geeks, they’ll gesticulate wildly and foam at the mouth if the 2002 Oregon vintage is mentioned. But here’s the thing: try to ignore the peer pressure that points you to a chardonnay and hunt for the pinot gris instead. None comes more highly recommended for the money than the St. Innocent Shea Vineyard 2002. The Shea opens with both the smell and the taste of fat, ripe peaches. The middle is peachy, while the finish shows hints of peach trailing off into note’s of peaches. Along for the ride are juicy bits of melon and pineapple and sweet spice. But what’s great about this wine is that while the first note’s full and fat, the tastes mix and evolve as the juice swirls and slides and swishes down the hatch. This wine is delicate enough for shrimp/scallops but complex enough to tackle something extraordinary, like beer can chicken, for example. (See The Surreal Gourmet, Vol. 5.2 for Beer Can Chicken recipe.)
Best Jazz Album: Charles Lloyd & Billy Higgins, Which Way is East
Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins were the best of pals, sharing a friendship that took in the greater part of contemporary American jazz history. When Higgins was diagnosed with a terminal illness in 2001, the pair sat down to record their musical farewell. Which Way is East is the result of those sessions, and it’s as warm and giving as the circumstance suggests. The music here is conversation; giving and sharing; listening and communicating. There are no tracks that one remembers; rather it’s a feeling that emanates from this record - a sense of Zen weightlessness that fills the entire room. A gorgeous farewell from two masters.
Sea Of Tranquility
Honorable Mention: Medeski Martin & Wood, End of the World Party: Just in Case
Beer of the Year: Rainer Beer
I’m a much more obnoxious beer snob than I am a wine snob, so the thought of naming Rainer Beer as my favorite beer of 2004 has even me flummoxed. But dammit, I grew to love Rainer in 2004. On hot days it’s a drinking man’s Gatorade. Between fat and filling pints of microbrew it cleans the palate. And best of all, it’s cheap, cheap, cheap! Snobs may guffaw, but Rainer ain’t all that bad! It has a clean, crisp taste; a slightly hoppy nose; and a light (and refreshing!) body. I have no proof, but I’m sure it’s also low in carbs and halts male pattern baldness as well. My advice: grab the change from under the sofa cushions, run down to the market, get a 24 ounce can, toss it in the freezer for 17 minutes, crack open and enjoy. You’ll be convinced!