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Albums of the Year: 2011

December 27th, 2011 6 comments

With Christmas out of the way, and the year almost over, it’s time I finally get around to compiling my Top 20 albums of the year of 2011 (in fact, there are 21 entries). Each album is represented on the mix with a song, and each entry has a link to the artist’s homepage or other outlet where the album can be ordered from. Because this list is intended not only to show off my impeccable taste, but also to showcase artists, all data files in the mix have been downscaled to 128kbps. This is not really a chart, but we’ll be counting down from roughly 20th to first. Other than the top 5, all rankings have a margin of error of a couple of places. The playlist of the mix counts up, from #1 to #21.

21. Michael Kiwanuka – Tell Me A Tale EP
This is supposed to be a Top 20 of albums, but I am breaking a rule by making it 21 and including this three-track EP. If Michael Kiwanuka’s debut, due for 2012, includes just three tracks as good as those on this EP, it will be a contender for next year’s list. The Ugandan-born, British-based  singer recalls the sounds of mid-’70s soul, with flutes, strings and rhythm guitar, and lovely melodies. And still, the sound is contemporary, with a jazz saxophone getting all funky on lead track Tell Me A Tale. Homepage
Michael Kiwanuka – I Need Your Company

20. Maria Taylor – Overlook
It is been a while since Taylor’s great debut albums, 11:11 and Lynn Teeter Flower, both of which were consistently excellent. Overlook is more like an old friend coming to visit; at first, the conversation is animated and a little exciting, then you settle down on the couch with a bottle of wine and just enjoy each other’s company, even if the level of communication is more comfortable than inspiring. In this way, Maria Taylor is a most welcome visitor. HOMEPAGE
Maria Taylor – Happenstance

19. Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion – Bright Examples
Arlo’s daughter (and therefore Woody’s granddaughter) and her husband channel Fleetwood Mac, The Magic Numbers and a dash of Emmylou Harris on their second country-folk album. This is by no means edgy stuff, but it’s pretty much perfect over a cup of strongly brewed coffee on a Sunday morning. And sometimes that all we can ask of music. BUY ALBUM
Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion – Seven Sisters

18. Säkert! – På Engelska
Or otherwise known as Hello Saferide. It’s a bit confusing: Swedish singer Annika Norlin is otherwise better known by the moniker Hello Saferide, by which she became something of an indie darling a few years ago. In 2007 and again in 2010 she recorded Swedish-language albums as Säkert! (which apparently is Swedish for “yeah, right”), selected tracks of which she then re-recorded in English, maintaining the Säkert! name. And just to mess with us, and rob the album of any commercial prospect, the album’s title is rendered in Swedish. It has no tracks as instantly catchy as The Quiz or High School Stalker, but this is an engaging set, with Norlin’s personality and appealingly idiosyncratic lyrics the real star. HOMEPAGE
Säkert!  – The Lakes We Skate On

17. Lori McKenna – Lorraine
Lori McKenna is better known as a songwriter for the likes of Alison Krauss, Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and Faith Hill than she is as a performer. That’s a shame, because her performance is preferable to the corporate gloss of a LeeAnne Rimes. The strength here reside in McKenna’s emotional honesty as she introspects on her life and relationships (touchingly also with her late mother, also named Lorraine). BUY ALBUM
Lori McKenna – You Get A Love Song

16. Ralph Stanley – A Mother’s Prayer
Some 64 years after making his first record, bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley releases an album of Christian music that will make even the most hardened atheists wish, at least momentarily, that they had religion. His once smooth but now worn octogenarian voice might betray Stanley’s age, but he has the confidence to do four of the present 14 tracks a cappella style, including a rousing version of Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘John The Revelator’. HOMEPAGE
Ralph Stanley – I’ll Not Be Afraid

15. OK Sweetheart – Home
One of two self-released albums in this lot, which suggests that there is much talent that is going unrecognised. Thank goodness for the Internet, through which fans can spread the word. So I got to hear of OK Sweetheart – the moniker singer Erin Austin operates under – and this very lovely debut album, which calls to mind Regina Spektor in a calm mood. HOMEPAGE
OK Sweetheart – We’ve Got Love

14. Ron Sexsmith – Long Player Late Bloomer
After a dozen beautifully crafted albums, the acclaim awarded by the likes of Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Michael Bublé (hey, you would take it), and a memorable surname, the Canadian singer still is no superstar. Long Player Late Bloomer won’t change the injustice, even if it is another quite excellent album. Here Sexsmith scores his mostly downbeat lyrics with upbeat guitar, keyboard and strings, all gorgeously arranged. Sexsmith has an extraordinary warm sound (and, indeed, warm voice), which provides for a most welcome antidote to the autotuned stylings of current mainstream pop. BUY ALBUM (incl. special editions)
Ron Sexsmith – Michael And His Dad

13. Death Cab For Cutie – Codes And Keys
There’s nothing new here; Death Cab pretty much do what they’ve been doing since 2003’s excellent Transatlanticism (and Underneath The Sycamore sounds to me a bit like that album’s New Year), with the layered, textured arrangements and polished production which form little indie-pop symphonies. And like that album, the best track comes right at the end: Stay Young, Go Dancing.  Like the band’s previous three albums, Codes And Keys is best heard through headphones while tuning out, letting the texture of the sounds and Gibbard’s gentle singing cascade over the listener. HOMEPAGE
Death Cab For Cutie – Stay Young, Go Dancing

12. Buddy Miller – The Majestic Silver Strings
It takes two minutes and 10 seconds before the gentle opener Cattle Call launches any vocals. From then, things pick up, with a succession of guest vocalists, including Emmylou Harris, Patti Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Lee Ann Womack, and Miller’s wife Julie. Even Marc Ribot, like Buddy Miller a great session guitarist, chips in on a couple of numbers. And that’s how The Majestic Silver Strings sounds: a great studio romp with friends popping in and out to sing new material and lots of covers of lesser-known songs by country greats such as Lefty Frizzell and George Jones. It’s great fun and musically pleasing, even when the concept fails (cf. Roger Miller’s Dang Me!). And for an album featuring four highly rated session guitarists — Bill Frissell and Greg Leisz also feature – there is a commendable absence of guitar solo wankery. One for those who enjoy the A History of Country series. BUY ALBUM
Buddy Miller feat Julie Miller – God’s Wing’ed Horse

11. The Pierces – Thirteen Tales Of Love And Revenge
You have to love an indie-pop band that can sound vaguely like TLC, as The Pierces did on 2007’s Lights On, and who can riff on the Pet Shop Boys as they did on Boring (“Menage a trois? Boring”), from the same album. On their fourth album they play it a bit more straight – and more commercially viable. The sensibility is here is catchy indie-pop: imagine The Cardigans passing through Nashville (with a nod to The Mamas and the Papas, especially on Kissing You Goodbye). It’s unfailingly engaging. I love the cover design which gives the appearance of a well-worn LP sleeve. HOMEPAGE
The Pierces – Glorious

10. Josh T. Pearson – Last Of The Country Gentlemen
A man of gloomy outlook and plaintive voice, Josh T. Pearson is not likely to cheer you up. There is so much sadness and anger here, Last Of The Country Gentlemen might well be Pearson’s primal whisper. With four of the seven melancholy songs longer than ten minutes, this is an intimidating album. But becoming immersed in it, the genius of this exceptionally powerful set will reveal itself. BUY ALBUM
Josh T. Pearson – Thou Art Loosed

9. Tom Rhodes – Better Son
Screw old the system of musicians being at the arbitrary mercy of record companies; Tom Rhodes sells his self-financed albums on the Internet and at live gigs. His sophomore album of alt.country should by rights sell enough to pay the singer’s bills and more. In sound and in merit, it recalls one of the best albums of 2010, Ryan Bingham’s Junky Star. Bourbon-voiced Rhodes must have had confidence in his set of songs: he keeps the album’s best track, the title number, for the finale.  BUY ALBUM
Tom Rhodes – Better Son

8. Alison Krauss and Union Station – Paper Airplane
It took Alison Krauss seven years to record a new album that didn’t feature grizzled old Robert Plant, and the result feels like a long, warm hug by somebody who really loves you — and you might need that hug after Dan Tyminski’s angry vocals on Dust Bowl Children. Crystal-voiced Krauss and her band of maestros on mandolin, fiddle and banjo offer little that is new, but with such great material performed so beautifully rendered, who needs innovation? HOMEPAGE
Alison Krauss & Union Station – My Opening Farewell

7. Over The Rhine – The Long Surrender
Understated, warm and gorgeously slow-burning, Over The Rhine’s The Long Surrender gets under the listener’s skin with its raw, introspective lyrics delivered by Karen Bergquist in her torchsong-folk voice (from which the overhyped and overrated Adele could learn) to a sensitive but textured production by Joe Henry. The production was funded by fans and supporters of the Cincinnatti group, and alt-country legend Lucinda Williams pops in for two songs. HOMEPAGE
Over The Rhine – Sharpest Blade

6. Amos Lee – The Mission Bell
It’s hard to pin a genre on Amos Lee, but on The Mission Bell he is emphatically in the alt-country camp. Produced by Calexico’s Joey Burns, The Mission Bell channels The Band, without really reaching their depth (as if many ever do), and then descends to the pedestrianism of Jack Johnson. It’s an uneven album, to be sure. But when it works, it is quite impressive. The songs deal with songs of discovery and redemption, and Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson (who provides an elementary maths lesson) drop in for duets. BUY ALBUM
Amos Lee – El Camino

5. Nicole Atkins – Mondo Amore
Nicole Atkins’ excellent 2007 album Neptune City drew from eclectic influences; on Mondo Amore she cast her net even wider and, counter-intuitively, arrives at a more coherent sound. The result is an energising, self-produced album (by force, her former label unaccountably dropped this wonderful talent) which details, with no exaggerated bitterness, her break-up with a boyfriend. On the lovely Hotel Plaster (which might have been a Richard Hawley song), Atkins sings: My pain could learn to play the violin, but it might not bring you back. But at least we’d have a pretty soundtrack.” And that’s just what we got. HOMEPAGE
Nicole Atkins – Cry Cry Cry

4. Zahara – Loliwe
A surprise hit, this is South Africa’s top-selling album of the year. In a musical scene in which her best shot at stardom was to do dance music of vocal jazz, 24-year-old Bulelwa Mkutukana took her acoustic guitar to create a bi-lingual album that references the great South African female singers of past and present – legends such as Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, Busi Mhlongo, Letta  Mbulu and, especially, Brenda Fassie, but also contemporaries such as Judith Sephuma and Simphiwe Dana. And yet she manages to sound fresh and entirely relevant. BUY ALBUM
Zahara – Ndize

3. Wilco – The Whole Love
Alas, poor Wilco, you shall never satisfy all your fans. Nobody can say they hate The Whole Love, but lots of people pronounced themselves a little disappointed. These are the hazards of being masters at different styles. On The Whole Love, Wilco offer a duo of opening tracks that should satisfy the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot fans of distorted sounds, and then go on to keep Sky Blue Sky devotees like me happy (and I firmly believe that one day Sky Blue Sky will be regarded as an all-time classic rock album). The sequencing is risky: the first half is not easy to navigate; it takes repeated listens to really appreciate them. The superb Born Alone rings in a series of instantly catchy numbers – but by then the casual listener might have switched off already. BUY ALBUM
Wilco – Born Alone

2. Brandi Carlile – Live At Benaroya Hall
Brandi Carlile should be a massive star, but if she was, she probably would have to make compromises. So it’s just as well that she’s big enough to get Elton John duetting with her on an album, to appear on Austin City Limits and to record a live album with orchestra, but retaining some artistic control. Not having to compromise means having your backing singers perform “the creepiest and most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard” on your live album, and it means that you can close the set with a couple of cover versions. Of those, bloody Hallelujah is so overworked, I can’t work up interest in Carlile’s version; Alphaville’s Forever Young is a surprising choice; nicely executed, but hardly going out on a high note – the set would have climaxed well with the final original, Pride And Joy. The original songs are performed with power where appropriate and restraint when necessary, with barely a dud note. The orchestra adds little to most songs, and on some tracks keeps quiet altogether, but gets going on the two stompers, The Story and – the album’s revelation – Dreams. HOMEPAGE
Brandi Carlile – Dreams

1. Gillian Welch – The Harrow and The Harvest
Gillian Welch’s first album in eight years is mesmerising. It draws the listener into its world of mystery and melancholy, modern Americana and old Appalachian sounds. Welch’s clear and expressive voice, supported by collaborator Dave Rawlings’ close harmonies, glides effortlessly over the lovely sparse arrangements, which pay a respectful tribute to country’s rich legacy. This album is a monument to the majesty of restraint and simplicity. BUY ALBUM
Gillian Welch – Tennessee
Gillian Welch – Hard Times
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Previous Albums of the Year

In Memoriam – August 2011

September 5th, 2011 6 comments

The two most notable deaths in August happened on the same day: the 22nd. I’ve already paid tribute to Nick Ashford (HERE); on the same day that great songwriter passed away, Jerry Leiber died. I don’t think it’s necessary to go into detail about the Leiber & Stoller story other than to say that they had a crucial impact on the development of rock & roll. Leiber was the lyricist, and as such got Elvis Presley to sing the great line in Jailhouse Rock: “Number 47 said to number 3,’You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see. I
sure would be delighted with your company, come on and do the Jailhouse Rock with me.'”

Billy Grammer died at 85. Fans of The Originals will appreciate the song in this mix: Grammer’s I Wanna Go Home later became a hit for Bobby Bare as Detroit City. Grammer played at the rally during which the racist Alabama governor and presidential hopeful George Wallace was shot. Grammer apparently wept after the incident, suggesting that his views on race relations were less than entirely endearing.

Akiko Futaba, one of Japan’s most popular singers, had a lucky break in utter tragedy on 6 August 1945. Just as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the train she was travelling in entered a tunnel. The singer, who had started recording in 1936, lived to the age of 96.

In May, we lost Bob Flanigan of the pioneering vocal group The Four Freshmen; this month the last surviving member of the original line-up, Ross Barbour, died at the age of 82. Through many changes in the line-up, Flanigan and Barbour remained Freshmen until the latter’s retirement in 1977.

I don’t often include recored executives in the In Memoriam series, but there are two this month who qualfy. Rich Fitzgerald, who has died at 64, had a massive influence on pop music. In the 1970s he worked for RSO, with whom he helped spearheaded the massively-selling Saturday Night Fever and Grease soundtracks (and, later, that of Fame). After RSO, he ended up via a handful of record companies as vice-chairman of Warner Bros. Along the way, he helped give artists such as The Pretenders, Prince, Madonna and Green Day achieve their breakthrough.

Frank DiLeo was a executive at Epic Records where he nurtured the careers of acts like Meat Loaf, Luther Vandross, Gloria Estefan, Cyndi Lauper, REO Speedwagon and Quiet Riot, as well as the US success of The Clash and Culture Club. He was twice Michael Jackson’s manager, in the late 1980s and at the time of Jackson’s death. And he played Tuddy Cicero in GoodFellas, impressing as Paulie’s brother who executes Joe Pesci’s obnoxious Tommy character. He also appeared in Wayne’s World.

Finally, it’s not at all usual to include non-musicians on account of their being the subject of a song. But in the case of William ‘Stetson’ Kennedy I must make an exception. The human rights activist’s infiltration of the Ku Klax Klan helped bring down the racist organisation and made it his mission to expose racists. Woody Guthrie wrote a song named after Kennedy.

Trudy Stamper, 94, Grand Ole Opry artist relations manager and first female presenter on US radio, on July 30
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Grand Ole Opry Song (1972)
Grand Ole Opry Intro (Prince Albert Theme) (1940)

DeLois Barrett Campbell, 85, singer with gospel group The Barrett Sisters, on August 2

Andrew McDermott, 45, singer of English metal group Threshold, on August 3

Conrad Schnitzler, 74, German musician (Tangerine Dream, Kluster), on August 4

Marshall Grant, 83, country bassist (in the Tennessee Two/Three with Johnny Cash) and manager (Cash, Statler Brothers), on August 6
Johnny Cash & the Tennessee Two – Cry Cry Cry (1955)
Leo Mattioli, 39, Argentine cumbia singer, on August 7
Leo Mattioli – Despues de ti (2006)

Joe Yamanaka, 64, Japanese rock singer, on August 7
Joe Yamanaka – Mama Do You Remember

Billy Grammer, 85, country singer-songwriter and guitarist, on August 10
Billy Grammer – I Wanna Go Home (1963)

Jani Lane (born John Kennedy Oswald), 47, frontman of US glam-metal band Warrant, on August 11
Warrant – Cherry Pie (1990)

Richard Turner, 27, British jazz trumpeter (Round House), on August 11
Rich Fitzgerald, 64, record executive, on August 15
Frankie Valli – Grease (1978)

Akiko Futaba, 96, Japanese singer, on August 16

Kampane, 33, New York rapper, murdered on August 16

Ross Barbour, 82, last original member of barbershop band The Four Freshmen,
The Four Freshmen – It Happened Once Before (1953), on August 20
Jerry Leiber, 78, legendary songwriter and producer, on August 22
Elvis Presley – I Want To Be Free (1957, as lyricist)
The Clovers – Love Potion Number 9 (1959, as lyricist and co-producer)
The Exciters – Tell Him (1962, as co-producer)
Donald Fagen – Ruby Baby (1982, as lyricist)

Nickolas Ashford, 70, soul singer, songwriter and producer as Ashford & Simpson, on August 22
Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell – You’re All I Need To Get By (1968, as songwriter)
Ashford & Simpson – Street Corner (1982)

Glen Croker, 77, singer and lead guitarist of honky tonk band The Hackberry Ramblers (joined in 1959), on August 23

Cephas Mashakada, 51, Zimbabwean sungura musician, on August 23
Esther Gordy Edwards, 91, Motown executive who lent brother Berry Gordy the money to start Motown, and founder of the Hitsville USA museum, on August 24
Rod Stewart – The Motown Song (1990)

Frank DiLeo, 63, music executive, ex-manager of Michael Jackson and actor (GoodFellas, Wayne’s World), on August 24

Laurie McAllister, 53, bassist in The Runaways (post-1978) and founder of The Orchids, on August 25

Liz Meyer, 59, US-born and Netherlands-based blugrass singer, on August 26

William Stetson Kennedy, 94, author who helped bring down the KKK and subject of a Woody Guthrie song, on August 27
Billy Bragg & Wilco – Stetson Kennedy (2000)
Johnny Giosa, 42, drummer of hard rock band BulletBoys, on August 28
BulletBoys – For The Love Of Money (1988)

George Green, 59, songwriter (especially with John Cougar Mellencamp), on August 28
John Cougar – Hurts So Good (1982, as co-writer)

David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards, 96, Delta blues guitarist and singer, on August 29
David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards – West Helena Blues (1988)

Alla Bayanova, 97, Russian singer, on August 30
Alla Bayanova – Wolga
Alla Bayanova – Romance Ya ehala domo

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Keep up to date with dead pop stars on Facebook

Albums of the Year: 2009

December 22nd, 2009 7 comments

You can finally exhale: here are my top 20 albums of 2009. Apart from the two top spots, the order is rather random. Ask me in ten minutes’ time, and Grizzly Bear or M. Ward might sit at number 3 and 4. I’ve put sample tracks of each album on a mix; the song titles appear at the end each abstract.

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1. Richard Hawley – Truelove’s Gutter
I didn’t expect Hawley to top his majestic 2005 album Coles Corner. A profoundly soulful pop symphony with accomplished and unusual instrumentation, Truelove’s Gutter may very well be the best album of the decade.
(Open Up Your Door) Homepage

2. Ben Kweller – Changing Horses
Kweller at last finds his sound (changing horses?) with an outstanding country album that provides an antidote to the corporate side of the genre. An absolute joy.
(Gypsy Rose) Homepage

3. Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
Wilco are incapable of releasing a bad album. The eponymous album will probably not go down in the band’s history as a classic, but it’s solid quality.
(You And I) Homepage

4. Brandi Carlile – Give Up The Ghost
It took me a few listens to realise just how good an album this Rick Rubin-produced effort is. Stay-At-Home Indie Pop put it better than I could: “Anthemic, brash, cool… the abc of Brandi, and I could go on to devilish, euphoric, fresh but fragile, and beyond (to gargantuan, hoarse-heavenly, incandescent), but all I want to really do is pathetically declare my love.” But will you still do so when Brandi gets that first clutch of Grammys, Indie-Pop? See if you can guess, without googling, with whom Carlile duets on Caroline.
(Caroline) Homepage

5. Farryl Purkiss – Fruitbats & Crows
The South African singer-songwriter dude returns three years after his excellent full debut with rockier effort. Purkiss draws his influences widely but manages to create his own coherent, late night sound.
(Seraphine) Homepage

6. Elvis Perkins – Elvis Perkins In Dearland
Here’s what I wrote earlier this year: Imagine Dylan as an indie artist, but with an appealing voice. There is a bit of an experimental edge to it, which in the wrong mood can be annoying, but exhilarating in the right mood.
(Doomsday) MySpace

7. Prefab Sprout – Let’s Change The World With Music
Released 17 years after it was actually recorded, this is supposed to be Paddy McAloon’s lost masterpiece. It’s not a masterpiece, but a damn good, and very accessible album, on which McAloon is on a bit of a God trip.
(Last Of The Great Romantics) MySpace

8. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Pitchfork calls the New Pornographer “a force of nature”. Hackneyed turns of phrases, even when they intend to pun on an album title, sometimes are just the most appropriate. Case is so much a force of nature that listening to the album can leave the listener exhausted.
(People Got A Lotta Nerve) Homepage

9. Monsters of Folk – Homework
I should love this. Two Bright Eyes guys, M. Ward and the singer of My Morning Jacket, and a batch of very good songs. It’s a fine album, and yet it fills me with a sense of unease, the same vibe I got from the Travelin’ Wilburys (and one song here sounds like a Wilburys track!). And yet, I keep returning to Homework
(Man Named Truth) Homepage

10. Peasant – On The Ground
This deserved more of a buzz. Nicely crafted guy-with-guitar stuff that recalls Joshua Radin and, yeah, Elliot Smith, with a bit of Simon & Garfunkel. A lovely cool-down album.
(Fine Is Fine) MySpace

11. Eels – Hombre Lobo
E offers nothing much new here, but, hey, it’s an Eels album, and does everything you want an Eels album to do. That’s enough for me.
(That Look You Give That Guy) Homepage

12. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Beguiling and frequently surprising. It’s an aural extravaganza. Now, which Ben Folds does Two Weeks borrow its riff from?
(Two Weeks) MySpace

13. Mindy Smith – Stupid Love
Indie-Pop may be in love with Brandi Carlile; I declare my (admittedly promiscuous) love for the likewise deceptively named Mindy Smith. Stupid Love, it must be said, is not as breathtaking an album as Mindy’s debut, One Moment More, but it has Mindy’s beautiful voice and pleasant enough songs.
(What Went Wrong) Homepage

14. Bob Evans – Goodnight Bull Creek
I’m a great fan of Evans’ 2006 sophomore album, Suburban Songs. Like that set, Goodnight Bull Creek was recorded in Nashville. Creek lacks the immediately catchy songs of the previous album, but has a much richer, textured production.
(Brother, O Brother) Homepage

15. Jason Paul Johnston – Willows Motel
Solid country, recalling Prine rather than Twitty. And just when I think Johnstone has settled into predictable country mode, he pulls something that makes me think, “What the fuck was that?”
(She’s A Friend) MySpace

16. Marissa Nadler – Little Hells
Again, to quote myself: I am not acquainted with Nadler’s previous effort; apparently it is gloomier than Little Hells. Well, this one isn’t a courtjesters’ convention of heedless madcappery either. It is, however, a beautiful, hypnotic album which draws much of its inspiration from medieval, cloistered sounds.
(Rosary) Homepage.

17. M. Ward – Hold Time
Here Ward draws from the heritage of country and soul, from the Beach Boys and from Spector — the choice of two covers affirm the retro vibe: an excellent cover of Buddy Holly’s Rave On, a less than brilliant rendition of Hank Williams’ Oh Lonesome Me (featuring Hank Sr’s namesake Lucinda). The production is polished, the sound a lot more mainstream than previous albums
(Rave On) Homepage

18. Loney, Dear – Dear John
Our Swedish homestudio-bound genius returns with another magical multi-layered chamber-pop epic which is at once orchestral and, largely thanks to the man’s voice, intimate.
(Airport Surroundings) Homepage

19. Micah P Hinson – All Dressed Up And Smelling Of Strangers
I am not a big fan over covers albums. Usually they are self-conscious about doing something “different” with a song, or issue redundant carbon copies. Cover albums work when the performer is idiosyncratic, so unique that he or she need not try to make a song sound differently. Johnny Cash pulled it off; and for the most part Hinson does so here, where he takes on the likes of Sinatra (My Way, the ambitious fucker!), Leadbelly, Holly, Dylan, Beatles and John Denver, armed mostly only with his trusty guitar and croaking voice.
(This Old Guitar) Homepage

20. Laura Gibson – Beasts of Seasons
Pitchfork nailed it when their reviewer called the singer-songwriter  Gibson’s music as “far better suited to a fireplace and a cup of warm apple cider than to your local Starbucks”. Beasts of Seasons is bleak and beautiful.
(Funeral Song) MySpace

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Albums of the Year: 2007

December 15th, 2009 No comments

This is the final part of the series of my favourite top ten albums of every year through the ’00s. And to celebrate it, I accidentally wrote 11 reviews. So these are a top 11 then. There is still a link up to my top 20 albums of 2008, which covers that year, and I’ll post a similar mix of my top 20 for 2009 once I have decided which they are. As before, I’m sad to leave out some fine albums from ’07, including efforts by Josh Ritter, Kate Walsh, Laura Gibson, Rilo Kiley, Jens Lekman, Maria Taylor, Rickie Lee Jones, Feist, Billie the Vision & the Dancers, A Fine Frenzy, The National, Brooke Fraser, Foo Fighters, Over The Rhine, Andrew Bird, Josh Rouse, Iron & Wine, Miranda Lambert, Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles, Common, Tim McGraw, The Shins, Abra Moore…

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Wilco – Sky Blue Sky

The Wilco cognoscenti are rather too ready to dismiss the unpretentious Sky Blue Sky, measuring it against the experimentations of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. This is an uncomplicated album, and does what its creators set out to do admirably. Here, Jeff Tweedy and chums eschew cacophonic innovations for a straight-forward, mellow rock album that channels the ’60s (Dylan, Grateful Dead, Abbey Road-era Beatles) and ’70s (Van Morrison, Pink Floyd, the Eagles, Thin Lizzy) without losing its identity as a Wilco album. Sky Blue Sky is immediate and intimate. Nels Cline’s guitar work is an utter joy. The highlight here is Impossible Germany, with Jeff Tweedy and Nels Cline duelling on a magnificent guitar solo, an integral part of the song’s lyrics, that borrows from Gary Moore (check out Thin Lizzy’s Sarah) and Carlos Santana.
Wilco – Either Way.mp3
Wilco – Impossible Germany.mp3

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Brandi Carlile – The Story

The name Brandi Carlile suggests a fake-breasted airhead straight outta the Playboy Mansion. As the reader may have guessed by dint of her inclusion on this list, that notion is way of the mark. Carlile is a hugely talented writer and singer of solid rock and country-rock songs. I liked her eponymous 2005 debut, which was rather more rootsy than this set. Here Carlile straddles genres, veering from rock (My Song) to folk-pop (Turpentine) to country (“Have You Ever”). Her distinctive voice can whisper softly and soar ferociously (hear the climactic Joplinesque roar on the title track). The lyrics booklet reveals that Carlile wrote some of the songs as a teenager in 2000 or earlier, hinting at a precocious talent.
Brandi Carlile – The Story.mp3

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Loney, Dear – Loney Noir

The bizzarely named Loney, Dear (real name Emil Svanängen) is something of a genius working in his Stockholm bedroom studio, in which he conducts an orchestra consisting of himself. Operating mostly under the cover of earphones so as not to wake the rest of the household, his songs tend to start softly before building up to a multi-layered, orgasmic crescendo. The melodies are pretty — even twee, in the way Belle & Sebastian are twee — and Svanängen’s high and slight voice is appealing enough, within the context of his music. But I have no idea whether the lyrics are any good; I’ve never really listened to them; I rather have the bedroom symphonies wash over me.
Loney, Dear – Saturday Waits.mp3
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Nicole Atkins – Neptune City

Neptune City came out at a time when Amy Winehouse, another artists borrowing from pop’s rich legacy, was absolutely everywhere. I prefer Atkins’ eclectic references over Winehouse’s mannered soul pastiche. Neptune City is, in places, like Petula Clark covering Blondie through an ABBA filter — glorious pop. On other tracks, Atkins does torchsong soul (“The Way It Is”), or goes into ’80s throwback mode, sounding like the B-52s as sung by Sandie Shaw on Broadway (“Love Surreal” or the rousing “Brooklyn On Fire”, which featured here). Elsewhere there are hints of Phil Spector’s production and Edith Piaf and Joni Mitchell. It should be a total retro mess, but it isn’t. It sounds entirely modern. Neptune City may not be an entirely cohesive album, but it is rather fabulous.
Nicole Atkins – Love Surreal.mp3

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Holmes Brothers – State Of Grace

Some time ago I posted the Holmes’ Brothers gospel-blues style cover of Cheap Trick’s I Want You To Want Me (HERE) from this album. That track was my introduction to the Holmes Brothers, who had released nine albums before this one, starting in 1991 — more than three decades after the two Holmes brothers, Sherman and Wendell, started in the music business. The third member, drummer Popsy Dixon, hooked up with them in the mid-’60s. But they did not become the Holmes Brothers until 1979, having spent the interim as a covers bar-band. Covering blues, soul, gospel, country and even a spot of bluegrass, State Of Grace is warm and often surprising, especially in the Virginian group’s interpretation of other people’s songs, which include tracks by Lyle Lovett (twice), Credence Clearwater Revival, Nick Lowe, Hank Williams Sr and Johnny Mathis. Guesting here with the three brothers are Joan Osborne (who championed the Holmes Brothers in the 1990s), The Band’s Levon Helms and Rosanne Cash. Featured here is the Hank Williams song, featuring Cash.
The Holmes Brothers (with Rosanne Cash) – I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You.mp3

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Panda Bear – Person Pitch

I can’t claim to be much of an Animal Collective fan. I’m sure I would be if I had the patience to get into them. I was not going to have patience either with this solo album by Collective’s drummer Noah Lennox. But I was attracted to it by the cover art and a glowing Pitchfork review. For some reason I ended up playing Person Pitch on loop, and was entranced by it. The critics in their reviews invariably referenced Brian Wilson, and coming a couple of years after SmiLE (another album I got into by playing it on loop) was released, that is neither surprising nor inaccurate. Person Pitch is a glorious psychedelic trip, especially the epic Bros, that owes a tip of the hat also to the Beatles.

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Richard Hawley – Lady’s Bridge

It is this album’s misfortune to be chronologically sandwiched between Hawley’s two masterpieces, 2005’s Coles Corner and this year’s Truelove’s Gutter, two of the decades finest albums. Lady’s Bridge may not quite reach the heights of those masterpieces, but it gets damn close. It is a very, very good album, with no weak point. It is mostly a sad collection. The gorgeous opener, Valentine, will move the vulnerable listener to tears, or close to it, especially when the strings swell and the drums emphasise the anguish. A couple of rockabilly songs and the upbeat Tonight The Streets Are Ours lighten the mood before suitably gloomy (and very lovely) songs called Our Darkness and The Sun Refused To Shine close the set.

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Missy Higgins – On A Clear Night

Where Missy Higgins full debut album The Sound Of White (with its astonishing title track) was mostly plaintive in sound; On A Clear Night is more accessible and upbeat. Higgins invests her intelligent lyrics with evocative vocals. The Sound Of White dealt much with trauma and depression; On A Clear Night is frequently life affirming, talking of escape, healing and self-assertion. Thankfully Higgins’ toned down her distinctive Australian accent which previously came perilously close to making her sound like an Aussie wicketkeeper. This is the kind of album that may at first seem slight, but its depth reveals itself after repeated listens. Crowded House’s Neil Finn makes an appearance on the album, contributing guitar to Peachy and backing vocals to the lovely Going North. That’s what it says on the booklet; I can barely hear the guy.
Missy Higgins – Going North.mp3

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Bright Eyes – Cassadaga

In 2005, Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning was by far my album of the year. It was an immediately accessible album in ways its predecessors were not. Cassadaga is not as easy to fall in love with as I’m Wide Awake. It is a grower which requires a few spins before its full beauty reveals itself. Songs that at first do not seem much creep into the ear slowly, and then take root. It is a richly textured, and cohesive album. Connor Oberst’s poetic lyrics are delivered here with greater self-assurance and less of a quiver than on preceding albums. At times, the album overreaches in its ambitions, and another spoken intro on the first track is simply pretentious. For this album Oberst roped in guests such as the marvellous Maria Taylor, Gillian Welch and Rilo Kiley’s Jason Boesel (whose backing vocals on the excellent “If The Brakeman Turns My Way” provide an album highlight).
Bright Eyes – If The Brakeman Turns My Way.mp3

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Rosie Thomas – These Friends Of Mine

Rosie Thomas’ fourth album is her most consistent. It’s for albums like these that the hackneyed phrase “achingly beautiful” was invented for. On These Friends Of Mine, she is supported by her friends Damien Jurado, Denison Witmer and Sufjan Stevens. The lyrical thread running through the album is love and New York, sometimes both together. Recorded as live, the album is engagingly intimate. The sparse, moving “Why Waste More Time?” is preceded by an appealingly giggly count-in. The cover version of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love”, nice though it is, seems redundant, but Tomas’ interpretation of Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird” captures the intense delicacy of the original. The highlight, however, is “Much Farther To Go”, a love song in which the arrangement, harmonies and lyrics coalesce to create an evocative hymn to deep yearning (like Nicole Atkins’ Brooklyn’s On Fire, it featured here).
Rosie Thomas – If This City Never Sleeps.mp3

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Colbie Caillat – Coco

Like Lily Allen and Kate Nash before her, Colbie Caillat launched herself into the pop charts on the strength of Internet buzz. Releasing her music first on MySpace, she was soon picked up by the music blog community. Her debut album, titled rather cornily after her childhood nickname, is breezy folk-pop of the sort usually associated, by way of deceptive shorthand, with the rather more boring Jack Johnson. In sound Caillat is much closer to Tristan Prettyman, her fellow Californian who burst on to the scene equally unexpectedly in 2005. This is summer music, agreeably laid-back yet effervescent, and, crucially, not banal.
Colbie Caillat – Battle.mp3

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My top 10 albums for 2008 (not a vintage year) were:
Jay Brannan – Goddamned
Ron Sexsmith – Exit Strategy Of The Soul
Tift Merritt – Another Country
The Weepies – Hideaway
Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue
Kathleen Edwards – Asking For Flowers
Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst
Ben Folds – Way To Normal
Hello Saferide – More Modern Short Stories…
Neil Diamond – Home Before Dark

Full post here

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More Albums of the Year

Albums of the Year: 2005

November 23rd, 2009 6 comments

It was a great year for fine albums, though only one merits to be remembered as a stone cold classic. I’m sorry to omit a number of very good efforts released in 2005, such as those by Brandi Carlile, Iron & Wine, Damien Jurado, Death Cab for Cutie, Maria Taylor, Andrew Bird, Emilíana Torrini, John Frusciante, Colin Hay, Kathleen Edwards, Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators, Kevin Devine, Eels, The Cardigans, John Prine, Kate Earl, Richard Thompson, Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Blue Eyed Son, Sarah Bettens, Antony & the Johnsons, Beck, Tristan Prettyman, The Magic Numbers, Hot Hot Heat, Charlie Sexton …

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Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning

On the same day as Conor Oberst and chums released their best album — and one of the decades finest — they also released what I think is their worst, Digital Ash In A Digital Turn. It was wise that they did not take the option of releasing these two entirely distinct albums — one alt.country, the other electronica — as a double album. I’m Wide Awake, which features Emmylou Harris on a couple of tracks, has Oberst in a restrained, though not necessarily tamed, form. The indisciplined excesses from previous albums have been ironed out, but not at the expense of that most essential Oberst quality: the feverish intensity. It certainly is the most consistent Bright Eyes album. Every song here is beautiful, especially First Day Of My Life and We Are Nowhere And It’s Now, on the latter of which Emmylou harmonises.

Lyrically, Oberst is in fine form: tender, resigned, confused, hopeful, angry. When he sings on At The Bottom Of Everything about capital punishment, he rightly hectors: “Into the face of every criminal strapped firmly to a chair, we must stare, we must stare, we must stare.” And on Old Soul Song, about an anti-war protest in New York, has some beautifully poetic lines: “We left before the dust had time to settle, and all the broken glass swept off the avenue. And on the way home held your camera like a bible, just wishing so bad that it held some kind of truth.”
Bright Eyes – Old Soul Song (For The New World Order).mp3
Bright Eyes – We Are Nowhere And It’s Now.mp3

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Richard Hawley – Coles Corner

From the moment the melancholy strings strike up on the album’s opener, the gorgeous title track (featured HERE), this album captivates the listener. A more even effort than 2003’s Lowedges, Hawley tries to capture a mood of 1950s balladeering, drawing from country, pop and rockabilly with a healthy dose of torchsong crooning. One can almost imagine Hotel Room being reworked as a doo wop song. The orchestration is lush, scoring Hawley’s warm baritone beautifully. Besides the title track and the countryish Just Like The Rain, the standout track here is The Ocean (not the most encouraging title, it must be said) which starts off quietly and slowly builds up to a dramatic crescendo. I’d gladly call Coles Corner Hawley’s masterpiece, but he has topped it with this year’s Truelove’s Gutter.
Richard Hawley – The Ocean.mp3

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Jens Lekman – Oh You’re So Silent, Jens

Jens Lekman featured with his debut album in the 2004 list; here he returns with a compilation of single and EP tracks — and Lekman has an extravagant catalogue of EPs, some of which he made available on his site for free downloading a while back. So it is suitable, and doubtless intentional, that the opening track would be called At the Dept. of Forgotten Songs. Lyrically and musically it’s all very quirky, but nowhere as much so as A Sweet Summer’s Night on Hammer Hill, a song that is at once funny and wistful (and which gets the release date of Warren G’s Regulate wrong and fails to credit Nate Dogg), recorded with probably not entirely sober pals who improvise the backing vocals and at the end shout out requests (the woman who requests Black Cab gets her wish on the album). Lekman channels Morrissey and The Byrds on I Saw Her At The Anti-War Demonstration, muses on the use of the F-Word, and forges the punchline to childhood jokes. In a sequence of three songs, Lekman assumes the alter ego Rocky Dennis (the name of the facially deformed character played by Eric Stoltz in the ’80s film Mask), whom he finally bids farewell at the end of the trilogy. It’s a thoroughly likeable collection of songs.
Jens Lekman – I Saw Her At The Anti-War Demonstration.mp3

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Wilco – Kicking Television – Live in Chicago

I’m ambivalent about live albums. Much of the time they are a letdown: the songs don’t sound as good as they did on the studio album, the live atmosphere is not captured and so on. Some live albums work because the artist’s stage presence or audience vibe translates to record. And some live albums work because the performer adds something new to the songs. Kicking Television satisfies at least the latter requirement (I’d argue that the vibe is there, too). Take Misunderstood. A weedy, proto-emo number on 1996’s Being There, here it’s a dramatic monster — I’m among those who love the repeated “Nothing”s. There’s humour as well. Following the mid-tempo Wishful Thinking, Tweedy announces, laughingly: “Let’s get this party started…with some mid-tempo rock”. True to his word, the band eases into the mid-tempo Jesus etc. With the great Nels Cline in the line-up and Tweedy having polished his guitar work, there’s much to be had by way of axemanship, most notably on At Least That’s What You Said.
Wilco – Misunderstood.mp3

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Hello Saferide – Introducing…Hello Saferide

Like fellow Swede Jens Lekman, who gets a namecheck in the wonderful The Quiz on Hello Saferide’s 2006 EP, Annika Norlin (for she is Hello Saferide) benefits from a quirky sense of humour, an attractive Swedish accent and the fact that English is not her first language. The latter is not a handicap as she manoeuvres her way around conventions to create novel lyrical ideas that are often cute but never twee. Norlin’s mind is fascinating: expressing her affection for a friend, she wishes they were lesbians; she wishes her boyfriend illness so that she can take care of her “teddy bear on heroin”; getting in touch again with an old pen pal, she admits to having told lies; as a high school stalker in the very funny song of the same name she breaks into the dentist’s office so that the object of her desire won’t need braces and then has coffee with his mother. The upbeat tunes are catchy, and the slow numbers are saved by almost invariably great lyrics and Norlin’s lovely, vulnerable voice.
Hello Saferide – Highschool Stalker.mp3
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Neil Diamond – 12 Songs

God bless Rick Rubin. Having re-established Johnny Cash as relevant artist, he resurrected Neil Diamond, redeeming him from the lame-jacketed crooner reputation. The title 12 Songs became a misnomer with the belated introduction of two bonus tracks (a rip-off, surely it’s the initial purchasers of an album who deserve a bonus), one an alternative, upbeat version of Delirious Love, a song featuring Brian Wilson that appears in more muted form among the original dozen tracks.. That song is the closest Diamond comes to his late ’60s pomp, the bonus track’s arrangement in particular. Most of the album is reflective, pensive and acoustic. It is beautiful. And it’s tempting to give Rubin all the credit. That would be unfair to Diamond, who wrote the songs and for whom the acoustic arrangement is not foreign, as fans of his ’60s albums will know. More than equipping Diamond with a new sound, Rubin harnessed the man’s strength and, perhaps more importantly, by association made him, like Cash, relevant again.
Neil Diamond – Save Me A Saturday Night.mp3

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Common – Be

I can think of very few albums on which the three closing tracks may be the set’s best. Ziggy Stardust comes to mind as a contender (though its best song, Starman, is on Side 1). This is certainly the case here. Modern hip hop, especially the leering misogyny and swaggering materialism expressed by dentally adventurous people in whose company I would not want to spend a minute, leaves me largely cold. Kanye West’s album of the same year had its moments, but I never feel prompted to play it. West did, however, produce most of Common’s album, which is good, and appears on many of the tracks, which is not so good when he makes those idiotic high-pitched noises. This certainly is not a hip hop album that’s representative of the contemporary genre. As much of Common’s work, it is thoughtful and socially conscious. It draws as much from Public Enemy as it does from the great era of politically aware black music, the early to mid-1970s. There is more than a hint of Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott-Heron on Be, and the Last Poets even appear on the album, as does John Legend, one of the few current non-nasal R&B crooners whose music is rooted in the ’70s soul scene (slightly unexpectedly, John Mayer also pops up). Common, in short, is the Marvin Gaye of hip hop.
Common – It’s Your World (Part 1 & 2).mp3

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Josh Rouse – Nashville

On his fifth album, the Nebraskan Rouse said goodbye to his temporary domicile of Nashville before moving to Spain. Where his previous album, 1972, sought to capture the vibe of the year of the title, on Nashville Rouse revisits 1980s indie pop through a country lense. It’s cheerful, catchy stuff for a warm summer’s evening (even if one track is called Winter In The Hamptons), admirably coming in at under 40 minutes, like LPs used to. The lyrics aren’t very memorable here; some are decidedly pedestrian. The album’s most powerful song, Sad Eyes, is also its least jovial. It starts slowly as Rouse observes a woman’s melancholy and builds up to a, erm, rousing climax as he offers encouragement. Alas, it’s followed by the set’s one clunker, the rocker Why Won’t You Tell Me What.
Josh Rouse – Sad Eyes.mp3

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Ben Folds – Songs For Silverman

Ah, the album the hardcore Foldsians love to hate. Granted, there’s some forgettable guff on here. Much as I love Ben Folds, I would not be able to tell you a thing about Time or Sentimental Guy. And, as I’m getting all my irritations with Silverman off the chest, the tribute to Elliott Smith, Late, has some really poor lyrics. But then there is the vintage Folds stuff. Bastard, ostensibly about young Republicans in old clothes, packs a decent groove. Give Judy My Notice has a great West Coast rock vibe. You To Thank has a superb piano break, and the break-up songs, Trusted (“She’s gonna be pissed when she wakes up for terrible things I did to her in her dreams”) and Landed (“Down comes the reign of the telephone czar”), are among the best work Folds has done, musically and lyrically. And having just listened to Time and Sentimental Guy for the purpose of this project, well, they are not bad songs.
Ben Folds – You To Thank.mp3

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Rosie Thomas – If These Songs Could Be Held

The title If These Songs Could Be Held seems apt; there is fragility in Rosie Thomas’ songs, emphasised by her beautiful, sad voice. You want to hold her and the songs. Her family and friends help out again, with Ed Harcourt duetting on the unpretentious cover of Let It Be Me (featured in The Originals Vol. 24). The arrangements are more complex than a casual listen would suggest. Hear the almost martial bass drum in the opener Since You’ve Been Gone. The lyrics range from perceptive introspection to sophomore poetry, but expressed through the medium of Rosie’s gorgeous voice, even the more inopportune words are entirely forgivable.
Rosie Thomas – If These Songs Could Be Held.mp3

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More Albums of the Year

Albums of the Year: 2004

November 17th, 2009 6 comments

My ten favourite albums of 2004 exclude — and here I fully expect to be shouted at — the rather overrated Arcade Fire debut (it will not feature in 2005 either, seeing as that’s when it came out in many regions). But, Canadians take heart, Ron Sexsmith does feature. As always, this is not intended to represent the ten best albums of the year, only those I have and like best, with some not making the cut much to my regret (Patty Griffin, Anna Ternheim, Sufjan Stevens, A.C. Newman, Joseph Arthur, Kings Of Leon, Laura Veirs). Looking at some contemporary “best of 2004” lists, I feel hopelessly out of touch. Have some of these people ever been heard of again? Did they ever exist, or were their inclusion some kind of critics’ practical joke (Dungen!)?

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Rilo Kiley – More Adventurous

rilo_kileyWhat is it about Rilo Kiley that puts the critics in such ambivalent mood? More Adventurous lives up to its title: it’s an eclectic album, even if there is not much that’s particularly experimental. The variety seems to have puzzled the critics; I like it. There’s the alt.country, folk-rock stuff with which the group has been mostly associated (such as on the lovely title track and The Absence Of God), power indie-pop (the fantastic Portions For Foxes and It’s A Hit), a 1920s throwback (Ripchord), a torchsong country number (I Never), and what might be described as electronica country (the dyslexic Accidntel Deth). Apart from Portions For Foxes, the dramatic Does He Love You (discussed HERE) is the stand-out track. Throughout the lyrics are sharp, and on this album Jenny Lewis found her sexy, expressive voice.
Rilo Kiley – I Never.mp3
Rilo Kiley – It’s A Hit.mp3

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Brian Wilson – SMiLE

brian_wilsonWhen I first got SMiLE , I did not get it. In fact, I was so disappointed by Brian Wilson’s long-awaited and much-hyped collaboration with Van Dyke Parkes that I didn’t expect to ever play it again, just to file it away in a spot where the handsome packaging, with the rather good booklet, would look nice. Then circumstances conspired, making me play the thing four times over on loop. The penny dropped and I got it. There are moments I can live without, yet these moments are a part of the trip: a post-psychedelic trip, a melancholy yet buoyant trip, a trip to a place that doesn’t exist anymore, and probably never did. It’s an album as removed from reality as Brian Wilson is said to be today. The timing of its release, in the middle of the corporate, synthetic ’00s was fortuitous. Coinciding with an era when commercial realism tends to trump enterprising creativity, SMiLE appeared as a connection to a time when innovation was not scorned but rewarded — ironically by putting together the one ’60s masterpiece that never was.

Mike Love apparently described SMiLE as an insult to the Beach Boys’ legacy. To prove his point, Mike Love in 2006 recorded that instant classic Santa’s Going To Kokomo, thereby mercifully redeeming the Beach Boys’ reputation.
Brian Wilson – Roll Plymouth Rock.mp3
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Mindy Smith – One More Moment

mindy_smithMindy Smith’s name evokes the image of plastic blondes in skimpy beachwear living it up at the Playboy Mansion, not the reality of a writer and singer of beautiful country-folk music. Smith was in her early 30s before she finally released this, her debut album. Occasional visitor to this parish Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop (whose periodically updated blog is always very readable) last week commented about One Moment More that it packs an “emotional punch”, referring to Smith’s “supreme songwriting”. Indie-Pop, a man of discerning musical judgment, got it right. Add to that Mindy Smith’s superb, clear voice and ability to invest the right amount of emotion into her songs. Her version of Dolly Parton’s Jolene is probably the best of the many I’ve heard.
Mindy Smith – Fighting For It All.mp3

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Jens Lekman – When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog

Jens LekmanTime was when Sweden burdened us with the regrettable likes of Roxette and Ace Of Base who were hauling in the glorious slipstream of ABBA. This decade, Sweden is a hotbed of wonderful Indie-pop created by artists who can create a catchy hook and an incisive lyric, even a cappela style. The Cardigans set the scene, but the godfather may well be Jens Lekman. Indeed, he gets namechecked, alongside Townes van Zandt, in what may be the best Swedish song of the genre, Hello Saferide’s The Quiz. Lekman turns out some rather good melodies, but the charm of his songs exist in the idiosyncratic lyrics. Take the upbeat You Are The Light: the protagonist gets arrested for defacing his girlfriend’s father’s Mercedes Benz at her prompting, and uses his one phone call to ask the local radio station to dedicate a song to her. There are startling surprises in many of his wry lyrics, but they aren’t contrived, and at times they are casually profound. That is an art in an age when so many people discern depth in Coldplay’s lyrics. And unlike Coldplay and their fellow worthies, Lekman is frequently very funny indeed.
Jens Lekman – The Cold Swedish Winter.mp3

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The Weepies – Happiness

weepiesDeb Talan and Steve Tannen were solo performers on the folk circuit when they met. They decided to collaborate, chose a stupid name for their duo, fell in love, married, moved to Topanga, California, and had a child, and in the interim have released three albums. It’s a happy story, with the title of their debut album an opportune portent. The harmonies are, as one would expect, lovely (especially on closing track Keep It There); none of the songs are likely to jolt the listener out of their comfort zone. But it’s not all predictable introspective coffeehouse folk stuff, and when it is (such as on the lovely Somebody Loved or Simple Life), it’s of superior quality. On other tracks, there are jangly guitars on the suitably upbeat title track, snowbells on the Christmas-flavoured All That I Want, bluegrass guitar on Vegas Baby. Perhaps the most affecting song is Tannen’s Dating A Porn Star, as good a country a song as one might find in this decade.
The Weepies – Dating A Porn Star.mp3

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Dave Alvin – Ashgrove

dave_alvinDave Alvin is a flexible musician, at home in country, folk, blues, rock and punk. He has been a member of rockabilly band The Blasters (with his brother Phil) and the influential punk band The Flesheaters, and he wrote Dwight Yoakam’s country classic Long White Cadillac. Ashgrove is a departure from his previous albums, which covered either country and folk or bluesy roots rock (a genre title I despise). Personally, I prefer the country stuff. I’m not a great roots rock fan, but I do like it when Alvin does it — his guitar work is terrific. As always with Dave Alvin, the lyrics are worth following; some of them are compelling. Two stand out: Out Of Control tells a hell of a story, and The Man In The Bed Isn’t Me is truly touching. The sequencing is a bit jarring, though, with the bluesy rock alternating with the country songs, preventing the set from settling into a coherent mood.
Dave Alvin – Sinful Daughter.mp3

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Ron Sexsmith – Retriever

Ron SexsmithEvery male singer-songwriter who enjoys any amount of critical esteem is likely to be compared to the tragic Elliot Smith, the genre’s eternal poet laureate (whose posthumously assembled collection of demos was released in 2004). Flattering though such comparisons are, often they are inappropriate and lazy. Ron Sexsmith’s sound has little in common with Smith’s, and his lyrics are more hopeful. Sexsmith also gets compared to Paul McCartney (and Happiness from Retriever sounds much like a Macca song), who has championed him. I suppose that the comparisons to Smith do not relate to sound or mood, but to songwriting chops. Retriever, like almost all of Sexsmith’s works, is a beautifully written. It’s a warm, gorgeous album, it embraces the listener in a comforting auditory blanket, aided by Sexsmith’s engaging voice and thoughtful lyrics. It’s not the kind of album, and Sexsmith not the kind of artist, that one turns to for a fix of challenging music; there is enough depth here to remove it from vacant pop, but it will not test the listener. It’s more of an old friend, instantly familiar and great company one is happy to seek out again.
Ron Sexsmith – Not About To Lose.mp3

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Nouvelle Vague – Nouvelle Vague

Nouvelle_VagueThis is one of those unexpected albums: loungey covers of Punk and New Wave classics, such as Love Will Tear Us Apart (here set on a beach), Teenage Kicks, Making Plans For Nigel, Too Drunk To Fuck, and Guns Of Brixton (the latter two of which sound like Gainsbourg songs here). It’s all very sincere and quite fabulous, rendered mostly in a bossa new wave nova groove. Nouvelle Vague, a project by Frenchmen Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux using a roster of female vocalists, does not aim for camp comedy or winks and nods. The exercise requires that the listener simultaneously forgets the originals, the better to understand them on Nouvelle Vague’s terms, and to remember them, so as to appreciate their imaginative reinventions. Some don’t quite work (such as The Undertone’s Teenage Kicks), others compare very well to the original, especially The Cure’s A Forest, The Specials’ Friday Night Saturday Morning And PiL’s This Is Not A Love Song.
Nouvelle Vague – Friday Night Saturday Morning.mp3

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Missy Higgins – The Sound Of White

Missy HigginsI can’t profess to be a great fan of the Australian accent, mate. And yet, it is always satisfying when non-American singers resist the temptation of adapting their accent for the international market. Melissa Higgins retains her strong Aussie enunciation, which can be grating but also helps to invest in her lyrics unblemished authenticity. Much of the lyrics are, or seem, intensely personal. Some of them are standard singer-songwriter fare, but there is much here that moves the listener, particularly the title track, about her sister’s death in an accident (featured HERE) and the child-murder song The River. The hit on the album was the upbeat Scar, which was rather unrepresentative of this pensive, though appealingly arranged album which has few weak tracks. If the disagreeable This Is How It Goes is the price one has to pay to have Ten Days or Nightminds, than that’s not a bad deal.
Missy Higgins – Nightminds.mp3

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Wilco – A Ghost Is Born

wilcoThank goodness for the technology of digital playlists. With this album, I’ll never need to hear the pointless noisy distortions on the 12-minute long Less Than You Think again, even as I applaud Tweedy and pals for their willingness to do something different (though that something almost rivals Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music album for unlistenability). And, depending on my mood, I may skip the 10min-plus Spiders Kidsmoke as well, because the guitar solo really annoys me, by which I am doing the song an injustice. But the rest of the album is very enjoyable. It includes some of Tweedy’s best songs, such as The Late Greats and Hell Is Chrome. But the absolute highlight is — and Wilco fans will have guessed it — the opener, At Least That’s What You Said, which plods along with Tweedy in pensive mood until it explodes in gloriously angry guitars.
Wilco – At Least That’s What You Said.mp3

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More Albums of the Year

Albums of the Year: 2003

November 11th, 2009 7 comments

Before we move to my Top 10 albums of 2003 — a purely subjective choice of albums from that year which I enjoy, rather than an attempt at a best-of list — let me apologise for the confusion created by wrong links in last week’s two posts, and thank the kind people who alerted me to them. It was a little negligent of me not to test the links first. I have worked out what the trouble was: on Mediafire’s infuriatingly redesigned site, the “copy link” button is seriously wonky; instead of copying the link for the requested file, it copies the link of the first file in the upload folder (in last week’s instance the Iron & Wine song). So, here’s an urgent message to Mediafire, Facebook and all other services: please don’t innovate yourselves into oblivion. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

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Josh Rouse – 1972

josh_rouseTo mark his 30th birthday, Josh Rouse decided to record a concept album intended to evoke the year of his birth. I’ve written about the cover before here. In that post, I wrote the following about the album itself. 1972 might easily have turned out as a pastiche of the worst clichés. Happily, it didn’t: the sound is contemporary. Rouse evokes rather than recreates what he imagines were the sounds of 1972. Imagine the concept as the subtle but essential spice in a delicious meal. The album borrows its influences wisely: James, a song about alcoholism which appears on the first Any Major Flute mix, is a psychedelic soul workout, with Jim Hoke’s excellent jazz flute and Rouse’s falsetto positioning the song closest to 1972. Elsewhere, swirling strings and saxophone (also by Hoke), handclaps and Latin percussions serve as a marker for the ’70s influence being filtered through Rouse’s sound.
Josh Rouse – Rise.mp3
Josh Rouse – Love Vibration.mp3

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Lloyd Cole – Music In A Foreign Language

lloyd_coleLloyd Cole used to get such a bad rap back in the day. I could never understand the charges of Cole being pretentious. Even Easy Pieces, the second Lloyd Cole & the Commotions album which Cole has virtually disowned (on account of having been rushed by the record company to prematurely complete it), has many great and not particularly pretentious moments. Having broken up the Commotions after three albums, Cole’s solo career didn’t really take off. That is a shame. On Music In A Foreign Language, Cole continued on the acoustic trip he began on the previous album. Here it’s just him, his guitar and minimal backing music, with Lloyd singing his melancholy, beautiful songs straight on to his computer. The whole exercise is so intimate, listeners may be forgiven if they feel like they are intruding on a private moment. Lyrically he is on introspective top form. I don’t listen to this album nearly often enough.
Lloyd Cole – Music In A Foreign Language.mp3

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Death Cab For Cutie – Transatlanticism

death_cab_transatlanticismThis is the album where Death Cab for Cutie crossed the line from oddly-named Indie group to serious rock band. Transatlanticism is something of a rock symphony; it’s not rewarding to pluck out its songs in isolation, except perhaps the excellent opener, The New Year, and the acoustic coda, A Lack Of Color. It’s the kind of lush album one must hear in full, preferably with headphones while in a kicked back mood, being immersed in the sound. Lyrically it has its moment, such as the story of the protagonist in Title And Registration who finds a forgotten photo of an ex-girlfriend after being pulled over by a cop (it also features the annoying line: “The glove compartment is accurately named”; thanks for pointing that out, Gibbard).
Death Cab for Cutie – A Lack of Color.mp3

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Colin Hay – Man @ Work

man@workThe title of the album is an obvious reference to the Australian band with which Scottish-born Colin Hay had some chart success in the early ’80s. Here Hay revisits some of his best songs from his solo repertoire as well as the Men At Work catalogue. None of these re-recordings do their originals injustice. The acoustic versions of the three big Men At Work hits — Down Under, Who Can It Be Now and Overkill — are strikingly remade and worth the price of the CD alone, especially the far superior interpretation of Overkill. There is also a more faithful reworking of Down Under, with brass replacing the flute; and fine remakes of Men At Work’s Be Good Johnny and It’s A Mistake.

Hay fans will have their own views on which versions here eclipse the original. Looking For Jack is vastly improved here, but I prefer the less dreamy version of Beautiful World on Going Somewhere to that reproduced here from 2002’s Company Of Strangers. Hay does recycle enthusiastically; the recording of Waiting For My Real Life To Begin here is the same as that on Going Somewhere; he recorded a rockier, inferior version for 2005’s Topanga, named after the California town where he now lives.
Colin Hay – Overkill (acoustic).mp3

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The Minus 5 – Down With Wilco

minus5The title of The Minus 5’s fifth album notes the involvement of Tweedy and pals in its production, not an antipathy towards Chicago’s finest (and the group was doubtless aware of the title’s gag). A project of songwriter Scott McCaughey, leader of The Young Fresh Fellows and touring bassist for Robyn Hitchcock, this incarnation of Minus 5 also includes long-time collaborator Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. The sound borrows heavily from White Album period Beatles, early Byrds and the Hollies (Life Left Him There sounds more than a bit like Jennifer Eccles), filtered through an ambient alt.country colander. Wilco’s mark is evident but not overbearing, and Tweedy’s voice is welcome when it pops up. There is a joy in the sound which suggests that the collaborators had great fun recording it. This is an upbeat album that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Minus 5 – Where Will You Go.mp3

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Richard Hawley – Lowedges

hawley_lowedgesAll of Richard Hawley’s five full albums will feature in my Top 10s of the ’00s. All of five of them are superb; all are beautifully orchestrated with Hawley’s attractive baritone giving life to his fine, often melancholy lyrics. So when I declare that Lowedges is my least favourite Hawley album, I am being somewhat unfair to what is a fine album. The songs on Lowedges are as affecting as any; one wants to live inside them. Don’t Miss Your Water, On The Ledge, The Nights Are Made For Us or the dramatic Run For Me are as good as almost any Hawley songs. Lowedge’s The Motorcycle Song probably is my least favourite Hawley song; and even that is not terrible.
Richard Hawley – The Nights Are Made For Us.mp3

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Damien Rice – O

damien_riceO, but Damien was one overwrought lad. You fear for him in what must be a terribly fragile state. But, goodness, there are some beautiful songs on this album, and some heartwrenching lyrics. Rice is not a very good singer, so all the happier the moments when Lisa Hannigan supports him (although, typically, only to make poor Damien even more heartbroken). There are no clunkers on this set, and a bunch of quite brilliant songs, particularly The Blower’s Daughter, Volcano, Eskimo (with the operatic interlude), and Delicate. And Cannonball, which eclipses all of them. The album’s inclusion in this post is something of an anomaly. O was released in Ireland in 2002; after slow-burning success which eventually took the album into the UK top 10, it was released internationally in 2003.
Damien Rice – Eskimo.mp3

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Rosie Thomas – Only With Laughter Can You Win

rosie_thomas_laughterOf Rosie Thomas’ four albums (excluding last year’s Christmas effort), this is the one on which she is most explicit about her Christian faith. That is good news, of course, for the believer, but should not put off the religious sceptic, for her brand of Christianity — like that of her frequent collaborators Damien Jurado and Sufjan Stevens —bashes no Bible and does not glorify or moralise. Mostly, she is asking God how the hell she is supposed to live this life. Indeed, the evangelical fundamentalists might well call Rosie a Maoist Osama Nazi, as is their objectionable wont, should they encounter lyrics like this, on Tell Me Now: “How am I to tell them if they never follow Christ that heaven doesn’t hold a place for them…when I’m no better than them.” Christ is periodically present; and He should be: the album was recorded in Detroit’s 19th century St John’s church.

The music, as on all Rosie’s albums (which is another way of saying predictably), is intimate, delicate and entirely gorgeous — but there isn’t much by way of the victory-aiding laughter in the title. Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam makes an appearance on Red Rover, alas the weakest track on this album, which is also the weakest of in the Rosie Thomas catalogue — though here I hasten to invoke the Hawley doctrine.
Rosie Thomas – I Play Music.mp3

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The Darkness – Permission To Land

darknessWas it all a glorious piss-take, lending heavy rock all the camp that Queen fans so routinely denied in their group because the band’s name provided absolutely no clue? The cover of Permission To Land even aped the sexism we occasionally encountered in Queen (remember the Fat Bottomed Girls poster that came with the Jazz album?). The debut, unlike the follow-up, borrowed its influences more broadly than merely Queen, of course. The Darkness swigged copiously from the vats of hair metal, Van Halenesque CocRock, and AC/DC. Singer Justin Hawkins camped it up in striped spandex trousers, while bassist Frankie Pullain played the straight man. It was all a bit Spinal Tap, and if not quite a spoof or wind-up, then certainly rock music performed with a wink and a nod. And yet, the Darkness was not a novelty act; they took their music seriously and wanted the listener to have fun with it. They even gave us a damn good power ballad, featured here.
The Darkness – Love Is Only A Feeling.mp3

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eastmountainsouth – eastmountainsouth

eastmountainsouthBefore there were The Weepies, there were the shift- and space-bar boycotting eastmountainsouth. Discovered by Robbie Robertson, the folk-pop duo released only this one album, before Kat Maslich Bode and Peter Bradley Adams went their own way. That’s a pity; the album is lovely. It does not spring surprises on the listener; indeed, played in the wrong mood, it could be considered boring. The songs don’t go beyond mid-tempo, and they don’t always engage as immediately as those of fellow folkie Rosie Thomas. But the harmonies are exquisite, the vibe is warm. This is an album to savour on a lazy, preferably rainy weekend over a cup of coffee.
eastmountainsouth – Ghost.mp3

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More Albums of the Year

Unrequited love again

November 6th, 2009 7 comments

The theme of unrequited love continues to provide a goldmine, and we’re not even close to even scratching the surface! It’s a universal thing, of course; most people have had a bout of unrequited love. If it was infatuation, they got over it fairly soon. If it really was love, they bear the scars forever. Or at least until they find another true love. Surveying the search engine terms that bring visitors here, there are many people looking for music to soundtrack their lovelorn existence (there are also lots of hits for the songs about impossible love, which tells you all you need to know about just how fucked up a thing romance is). Anyway, if he or she doesn’t love you back, remember to love yourself.

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Cat Stevens – Here Comes My Baby (1967).mp3
cat_stevensWell, it does sound like everything is well with the still beardless Cat. He’s taking a walk at midnight, which is nice. But soon we are alerted that all is, in fact, not well, for the mile he walks is not only long (as miles go), but also lonely. And he keeps “seeing this picture of you”. Which is were the songtitle comes in. But, oh no, she’s not alone: “It comes as no surprise to me, [she’s] with another guy”. And things don’t look like she’ll dump the chump any time soon: “Walking with a love, with a love that’s all so fine. Never could be mine, no matter how I try.” So is Cat entirely discouraged and looking to move on? Is he fuck! Like anybody in unrequited love, he hangs on to that thread of hope woven from the strands of a particularly thin cobweb: “I’m still waiting for your heart, because I’m sure that some day it’s gonna start.” Let’s make a bet it won’t, Cat. The loser turns Muslim.

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Warren Zevon – A Certain Girl (1980).mp3
zevonZevon is having a conversation about his unrequited love — and not just unrequited love, but the dreaded frienditis —coyly refusing to reveal the name (aaah!) of the “certain chick I’ve been sweet on since I met her”, which is “a long, long time” ago. He resolves that “someday I’m going to wake up and say: ‘I’ll do anything just to be your slave’”. In the interim he’ll do what most guys in unrequited love do: procrastinate, hoping that the girl will suddenly realise that actually she is in love with him. Which she won’t, not because Warren refers to her as a “chick”, but because, as she will point out, it’ll destroy the fucking friendship.

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Earth, Wind & Fire – Wait (1979).mp3
Frienditis is indeed a bastard. Here, our singer is suffering his frienditis with a heroic and surprisingly jaunty optimism, as though he is inebriated with the godfather of self-help books, The Power Of Positve Thinking. “To wait, it takes love that’s for real”, and if his love is authentic, he reasons, reciprocity is inevitable. The certainty — not just mere hope — that she will eventually fall for him sustains him. All he needs is patience, that great source of succor for the poor devils suffering from frienditis: “It’s crazy if you think we’re just friends. Loving when infatuation ends. The wait for you, baby it now begins.” He seems to pick up mixed signals — “You sigh, when I come close to your heart” — which persuade him that she shall come around (“someday you’ll grow”). Of course, these sighs might be prompted by her discomfort at his clumsy moves, perhaps because she knows how he feels, and how she feels, and that there will be one broken heart and the end of a friendship.

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Sam Cooke – Cupid (live, 1963).mp3
sam_cookeAh, a Cupid who unquestioningly follows orders would be a fine thing. Alas, the best alternative, if one wishes to invoke imaginary entities, is to outline your predicament with a plea for intercession. Sam, heard here in his live performance at the Harlem Square Club, states his case to Cupid with humility and urgency: “Now, I don’t mean to bother you, but I’m in distress. There’s danger of me losin’ all of my happiness, for I love a girl who doesn’t know I exist. And this you can fix.” He knows Cupid’s methods — “draw back your bow and let your arrow go straight to my lover’s heart for me” — and makes a pretty big pledge should Cupid choose to make “a love storm” for him: “I promise I will love her until eternity”. Ah, go on then Cupid, let’s test the dude’s ambitious promise.

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Pete Yorn – A Girl Like You (2001).mp3
yornIf you can’t get the one you want, aspire for a clone. That’s what Pete Yorn is doing on this rather good bonus track from his musicforthemorningafter album: “Some day I’ll look into her green eyes and know that she’ll come with me – a girl like you. Tomorrow I think I’ll tell you something, the thing that I haven’t said – to a girl like you.” The poor girl-like-her will, of course, be just a proxy, forever liable to be compared to Unrequited-love Girl, and possibly hear Pete moaning Unrequited-love Girl’s name in the throes of passion. And, unless Pete isn’t just throwing a strop here, he might pass on some perfectly great girls who don’t have green eyes…

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Liz Phair – Extraordinary (2003).mp3
phairAn anthem for the outsider girl in love with a guy who she thinks has too high expectations. He might see her as average, but she thinks of herself as extraordinary. And not just ordinarily extraordinary; she’s “your ordinary, average, every day sane psycho supergoddess”. And she’ll go to extraordinary measures to get him (or at least his attention); “I drive naked through the park, and run the stop sign in the dark; stand in the street, yell out my heart…To make you love me.” I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there probably is a good reason why the guy isn’t falling for Liz.

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Mama Cass Elliott – I Can Dream, Can’t I? (1969).mp3
cassThe story of Cass’ life in the ’60s was defined by her unrequited love for Papa Denny Doherty, with whom she started on the road to stardom in the Mugwumps. So when she sang about unrequited love (as she did with Denny on Glad To Be Unhappy) in this beautiful version of the old standard, she did so from her broken heart, the pain of which is palliated by daydreaming. She doesn’t go into the specifics of her reverie, other than “that I’m locked in the bend of your embrace”. She takes a frequent reality check as she justifies why she won’t give up on her dream: “I can see no matter how near you’ll be, you’ll never belong to me. But I can dream, can’t I?”

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Wilco – I’m The Man Who Loves You (2002).mp3
Tweedy goes all poetic on us, blathering on about unsent love letters and dropping metaphors about him apparently being like the sea. Basically your average victim of unrequited love who can’t find the right words to say. And then he nails it when he makes the most basic observation: “But if I could, you know, I would just hold your hand and you’d understand: I’m the man who loves you.” Sometimes that works better than complex literal devices.

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Indigo Girls – Ghost (1992).mp3
The spectre of a person the singer was in love with (unrequited, death; though a line in the first verse suggests that it might have been a failed adolescent relationship) lingers still, and does terrible injury. “And time passed makes it plain, of all my demon spirits I need you the most. I’m in love with your ghost.” She has sexual dreams about the person which just add to the pain: “When I wake, the things I dreamt about you last night make me blush. And you kiss me like a lover, then you sting me like a viper.” The protagonist is trapped by a love that will never find expression: “Unknowing captor, you never know how much you pierce my spirit. But I can’t touch you. Can you hear it? A cry to be free. Oh, I’m forever under lock and key as you pass through me.”

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Merle Haggard – Always Wanting You (1975).mp3
merleApparently a song about Dolly Parton. As country singers do, Merle is telling Dolly, and us, exactly how he feels: “Always wanting you but never having you makes it hard to face tomorrow, ’cause I know I’ll be wanting you again. Always loving you but never touching you sometimes hurts me almost more than I can stand.” And there he had thought that he had it all together. The song could go into the post on love that can’t be, and maybe that’s where it belongs, since there seemed to have been “a yearning and a feeling across the room that you felt for me”, suggesting that Merle’s feelings were reciprocated, if not actually acted on. Of course, when a relationship isn’t possible, love remains unrequited even when the sentiments are reciprocal. Either way, Merle regrets knowing her: “I’d been better off if I’d turned away and never looked at you the second time.”

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Albums of the Year: 2002

November 4th, 2009 3 comments

Goodness, wasn’t 2002 a dire year for music? Still, there were some highlights, and doubtless a few gems I missed (as always, I can only include those albums I have and like).
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Johnny Cash – American IV – The Man Comes Around

johnny_cashIn 2005, Any Minor Dude had his first guitar lesson. The tutor, a session musician of some repute, asked the 10-year-old what he wanted to play, probably expecting to hear Green Day or Black Eyed Peas. Any Minor Dude responded: “Johnny Cash”. It had nothing to do with my influence; he had seen the wonderful video for Hurt on MTV, and became an instant fan. Soon after, he bought the Highwaymen CD (Cash’s supergroup with Jennings and Kristofferson) and polished up on older Cash music, even buying a live DVD. I suspect that Hurt, which features on The Man Comes Around, may have introduced many young people to the genius of Johnny Cash. It certainly established this album as the best known of the American recordings.

I don’t know whether it is the best of the series. When I hear it, I think it probably is, especially when I consider that this was released only three months before the man’s death, and so stands as a testament (in a prescient bit of sequencing, the traditional ballad Streets Of Laredo, with its theme of death, burial and redemption, closes the set). But when I hear the first or third American albums, I think whichever one I am listening to is the best. American IV has a few songs that did not need to be recorded, such as Personal Jesus and Bridge Over Troubled Water. But then there are those two extraordinary covers, Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt and Sting’s Hung My Head, which Cash entirely appropriates. Those two and the title track eclipse almost anything in this great Rick Rubin-produced series.
Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around.mp3
Johnny Cash – Streets Of Laredo.mp3

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Rosie Thomas – When We Were Small

rosie_thomasFew singers achieve such immediate intimacy with her listeners as Seattle’s Rosie Thomas, whose beautiful, vulnerable voice accompanies sweet acoustic melodies. Lovely though her songs may sound, her lyrics are in turn sardonic, sad and dark. On her debut album, childhood is a running thread, with what seem to be random old family recordings linking tracks. As all her subsequent albums (other than last year’s Christmas album), When We Were Small has a sense of deep yearning for absent contentment, fleeting moment of love to fill in long, lacerating periods of loss felt deeply. If that sounds boring, know that Thomas was signed by Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop, the record label that made grunge, who had caught Rosie singing during her stand-up comedy gigs (what’s that about sad clowns?). This is an astonishing debut, and Rosie would get even better yet.
Rosie Thomas – Wedding Day.mp3

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Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

WILCOMy pick of song from this album will alert the Wilco fan which side of the group I prefer: the alt-country Wilco. There’s some of that on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which many seem to regard as a highpoint of ’00s music. Some Wilco purists may hate me for saying it, but my preference resides with this album’s 1999 predecessor, Summerteeth, or the undervalued Sky Blue Sky. On Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Wilco go experimental, with noise distortion and electronic innovations, which ordinarily are not my bag. Then what, the reader is entitled to demand, is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot doing on this list? Well, within the Wilco framework, it’s actually very good, and at times exhilarating as the musical dissonance accompanies the discord in the relationships Tweedy is singing about. It may not be my favourite Wilco album, but I’ll concede that it is the Wilco classic.
Wilco – Jesus, etc.mp3

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Ben Folds – Ben Folds Live

folds_liveNo artist I like ever comes to play where I live (other than Missy Higgins, whose gig I missed, and Counting Crows, whose tickets I couldn’t afford at the time); only megastars and superannuated irrelevancies fly in to fleece the South African consumer (a largely ignorant group of people who think that Coldplay is on the sharp end of the cutting edge). Happily, I had my fill of great concerts when I lived in London. But if I could invite one artist to tour South Africa, it would be Ben Folds, alone on strength of two DVDs and many bootlegs I have of Folds in concert — and this album.

It seems a strange decision for Folds to have recorded a solo live album only one album after having split the Ben Folds Five. So the tracklisting incorporates old BFF numbers (such as the astonishing Narcolepsy, Army, Best Imitation Of Myself, The Last Polka, Brick, and Song For The Dumped), which lose little through the absence of his rhythm section, and material from the solo debut, 2001’s Rockin’ The Suburbs, plus a rather good cover of Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. The set includes Folds’ two party pieces: directing the audience to provide backing orchestration to the very funny Army (“Well, I thought about the army; Dad said, ‘Son, you’re fucking high”) and spooky harmonies to Not The Same, the song about a friend who climbed up a tree during a party while on an acid trip and had become a born-again Christian by the time he came down.
Ben Folds – Army (live).mp3 (link fixed)

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Alexi Murdoch – Four Songs

alexi_murdochMaybe I’m cheating by including an EP comprising, as the title suggest, only four songs by Murdoch, who is usually compared to Nick Drake, and reasonable so. But those four songs are excellent; why dilute things with mediocre filler tracks? Having said that, Murdoch’s full debut album, 2006’s Time Without Consequence, turned out to be a consistently fine effort with few fillers. That album featured re-recordings of three of the songs on the EP (and those three also appear in re-recorded form on the recently released Away We Go soundtrack, which also recycles a heap of tracks from Time Without Consequence). From the EP, the moody Orange Sky received a fair amount of exposure on several TV shows and soundtracks — which we must not scorn; the licensing fees from TV shows, soundtracks and commercials feed many excellent musicians.
Alexi Murdoch – Blue Mind.mp3

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Tift Merritt – Bramble Rose

tift_merrittLike soul music, country in the past decade or so has been molded and packaged to turn out generic, corporate slush headlined by the regrettable likes of Shania Twain, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift. For the most part, it’s pop that is unconvincingly dressed up as country. The cowboy-hatted diehards may have recourse to perennial Grammy nominees such as Tim McGraw and Alan Jackson, or the bluegrass offerings of Alison Krauss or, lately, Dolly Parton. But beneath the surface of commercial prosperity, country remains vibrant.

Tift Merritt is one of those who work from a rich, venerable tradition without being compromised by the dictates of commercialism. Merritt’s quiet, melodious debut is the most traditional country of her three albums, with slide guitars and the sensibilities of such legends of the genre as Emmylou Harris or Jessi Colter (and, on the rockier songs, Linda Ronstadt) much in evidence. Her second album veered towards bluegrass, and the third album is more accomplished, but this is a very creditable debut.
Tift Merrit – Diamond Shoes.mp3

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Joseph Arthur – Redemption’s Son

joseph_arthurThe Indie singer-songwriter has not produced anything I like since 2004’s Our Shadows Still Remain, but the trio of that album, 2000’s Come To Where I’m From and Redemption’s Son should sustain me in those times when I require a Joseph Arthur fix (actually, I’ve sequenced my favourite tracks from those albums on my iPod). Arthur’s strength resides in his introspective lyrics, much on this set of a Christian bent (of the Sufjan Stevens variety, I hasten to add. The man has his fill of inner conflicts). Musically, he is eclectic and experimental, which is certainly commendable and perhaps expected of a Peter Gabriel protégé, though I can do without the kitchen sink production of some tracks. And the album is a few songs too long. But when it hits the sweet spot, it’s gorgeous.
Joseph Arthur – Honey And The Moon.mp3

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Josh Rouse – Under Cold Blue Stars

josh_rouseI know a venerable music journalist who’ll fling all review albums by anyone called Josh or Joshua (or, indeed, Ben) across the floor. It’s safe to say that the man is not a great fan of the often misunderstood and unjustly maligned singer-songwriter label. Still, I have a feeling he’d like Josh Ritter, though I’m not quite sure whether he would take to Josh Rouse. Certainly the music of this Josh would not conform to his expectation of a guitar strumming singer-songwriter. He might be surprised to hear a musician who creates appealing, intelligent pop numbers, many of which would not have been out of place on early Prefab Sprout albums. Under Cold Blue Stars is a fine album; if it was all Rouse would ever record, I’d regard it as a favourite. It was, however, followed by two outstanding albums, 1972 and Nashville. This set can’t compete with those (but it’s better than the two albums that came after those). I’ve had trouble deciding which song to feature, which is a mark of how good an album this is.
Josh Rouse – Feeling No Pain.mp3 (link fixed)

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Iron & Wine – The Creek Drank The Cradle

iron_wineSam Beam, for he is Iron & Wine, recorded the songs on this album, another debut on Sub Pop, as demos at his Florida home on four-track, and it very much sounds like it. Beam’s almost whispered vocals accompany very pretty but not necessarily memorable melodies. But it’s not that kind of album (whereas the follow-up, 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days, had a few of those); you put it on to be immersed by a soothing and ultimately engaging atmosphere, aided by some astutely ambiguous lyrics. The deficiencies in sound quality make sense when Beam borrows from old country and bluegrass, as he does on An Angry Blade and The Rooster Moans, which one might well mistake for some old, lost Appalachian recordings. Indeed, the aural imperfections add to the set’s intimacy.
Iron & Wine – Upward Over The Mountain.mp3

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Counting Crows – Hard Candy

counting_crows_hard_candyThe early ’00s suffered from nostalgia trips by people who grew up in the ’90s: Ben Folds Five devotees who refuse to accept the Ben Folds One, Weezer fans who want Pinkerton perpetually recycled (and, to be fair, the latest Weezer album is awful), and Counting Crows devotees who need to compare every new Crows album to August And Everything After. The latter group was hard on Hard Candy. It may not be the (rather overrated) debut’s equal, but it certainly is more upbeat — and Duritz finally stops going on about the heartbreaking Elisabeth. Admittedly, Hard Candy includes some filler material, but this is the age of WinAmp which allows the listener to re-sequence albums (if only to avoid the ghastly American Girls). If some of the album is frustratingly disappointing, the other half comprises some of Counting Crows’ finest moments. Holiday In Spain is gorgeous, even if the album version is rendered entirely redundant by the gorgeous live version on the New Amsterdam album, which was recorded on the Hard Candy tour. Counting Crows have referenced The Band throughout their career; here their heroes get a namecheck by way of noting Richard Manuel’s death (even if The Band’s late, bearded singer serves only as a MacGuffin to a reflection on a relationship).
Counting Crows – If I Could Give All My Love (Or Richard Manuel Is Dead).mp3

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More Albums of the Year

Say something

September 7th, 2008 23 comments
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Somebody once asked me: “What do get out this blogging thing?” My immediate answer was: “To share the music,” just about restraining myself from rounding off my statement with an emphatic “maan”. My friend knows me as an obsessive mix-tape distributor, and so my agenda was understood. I might have added that I get a kick out of writing about music, hoping my prose and insights find as much favour as the music I discuss. And I love it that blogging puts me in touch with fellow music obsessives, some of whom I would love to have a beer with if I ever find myself in Minnesota, Georgia, Bielefeld, London, Slawit or wherever.

There is another reward to blogging: receiving comments. Any writer thrives on feedback. Unless you are Stephen King, Michael Moore or you blog on US elections, the writer never gets enough of that. For the blogging writer, feedback comes through comments. When a post gets few or, God forbid, no comments, the blogger feels very much alone and unsure of whether that post was spectacularly misjudged or just impoverished in quality. On a music blog, a song might get more than a hundred downloads within a couple of days, and three people might comment – mostly fellow bloggers (whom I wish to thank explicitly), two of whom already have all the songs you posted.

I asked another friend (well, the other friend), who is a blog trawler and enthusiastic downloader of music. “Do you leave comments on blogs you download from?” I asked. “Er, no, not really.” “Why not?” “Don’t know, sometimes I’m in a rush and forget. And sometimes the blogger has said everything already so well, I don’t have anything useful to add.” And sometimes my friend feels intimidated, as if congratulating the blogger on an excellent post is like telling JM Coetzee: “Well done, nice bit of writing. Props, pal.” I understand my friend. There are blogs I enjoy reading, but I have nothing constructive to add. I am grateful that I have learned something new, or that I’ve been entertained, but don’t think just to say “thanks”. And to say “thanks” to every single post on the blogs I read regularly would seem a little silly.

And yet, it would be a good habit to get into. I certainly do appreciate any comment, even if it’s just a note of thanks for a song, or a brief reaction to my writing, or even a bit of criticism. Just to make me feel that I’m not whispering in the wind. OK, Google Analytics shows me I’m not, but it would be nice if some of the other 98,72% of visitors took two minutes to say hello…

And to entice them, here are a few songs that have absolutely nothing to do with comments on blogs, other than a tenuous relationship in their title…

Wilco – Comment (live).mp3
John Mayer – Say.mp3
Bee Gees – I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You.mp3
Rosie Thomas & Sufjan Stevens – Say Hello.mp3*
Lisa Loeb – What Am I Supposed To Say.mp3
The Lemonheads – If I Could Talk I’d Tell You.mp3

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