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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! ““ PÃ¥ 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

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

Albums of the Year: 2001

October 30th, 2009 5 comments

I was very pleased that the first post in this series of my personal top 10 albums for every year of the outgoing decade (depending how you count decades, of course) created such a positive and generous response. Thank you for all the comments; they are always appreciated. I should point out again that I can include only those albums I actually have and know well. So Gillian Welch’s The Revelator fails to make the cut, though I believe that those of my friends who argue for its brilliance might have a point.

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Ben Folds ““ Rockin” The Suburbs

ben_foldsThe are at least two types of Ben Folds fans: those who don”t think that Folds has ever topped the work he did in union with with Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee as the ironically named Ben Folds Five, and those who prefer his more mature solo output. Put me down as belonging in the latter group. While the very funny title track, the driving Zak And Sara, Annie Waits or Not The Same would fit snugly in the Ben Folds Five canon, Folds” solo debut exhibited a greater empathy for the subjects of his lyrics. On Rockin” The Suburbs (released on September 11), Folds took the baton from BFF songs such as Brick, Don’t Change Your Plans or Best Imitation Of Myself, musically and lyrically.

Folds is a wonderful story teller. The story of Fred Jones, the old newspaper man whose retirement is going barely noticed by “all of those bastards” who don’t even remember his first name, is particularly poignant. Indeed, throughout the album Folds moves the listener: in the father-and-son relationship of Still Fighting It, in the desperation of the guy still trying to get over a girl in Gone (“the chemicals are wearing off”¦”), or in the tenderness of the astonishing love declarations on The Luckiest (one of the greatest love songs ever written; alas Folds has since divorced the song”s addressee). The album is not flawless “” there is a weak trio of successive tracks in the middle) “” but it does suggest that Ben Folds is this generation”s Randy Newman. And that is high praise.
Ben Folds – Fred Jones Part 2.mp3
Ben Folds – Zak And Sara.mp3

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Hedwig and the Angry Inch Soundtrack

HEDWIGThe first time I saw the Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I was gobsmacked. The curious storyline, the intense performances, the incongruous humour (black GIs in East Berlin!), the imaginative setpieces, the animation and costumes, and, above all, the fantastic music, written by Stephen Trask and performed mostly by John Cameron Mitchell as the genitally mutilated Hedwig, which ranges from ballads and punk to Ziggy-style glam rock.

The highlight of the film is the Wig In A Box setpiece, also the soundtrack”s most appealing track. Since I am urging those who have not seen the film to catch up with it, I”ll restrain myself from describing the scene. I expect that many viewers will want to see it repeatedly. I”ll limit myself to posting only one song from each album here (apart from the #1 album of the year), but I also might have posted the gorgeous The Origin Of Love, with its Aristophanes-inspired lyrics, or Wicked Little Town, or Midnight Radio, or the explosive Angry Inch”¦
Hedwig and the Angry Inch ““ Wig In A Box.mp3

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Judith Sephuma ““ A Cry, A Smile, A Dance

sephumaBefore the Idols franchise spewed forth disposable singers of debatable ability, at least in South Africa, televised talent shows in the country brought several artists of notable aptitude to the public”s attention. One of these was Judith Sephuma, born in the northern town of Polokwane (then Pietersburg) and a music graduate from the University of Cape Town. Her 2001 debut album is a captivating blend of jazz and Afro-pop which fully met, and even exceeded, the expectations observers had invested in the artist since her performance at the inauguration of President Thabo Mbeki in 1999, a year before she made a huge impression at the misnamed North Sea Jazz Festival in Cape Town (the local equivalent of the Montreaux festival). If the wonderful Randy Crawford had been South African, this is what she might have sounded like.
Judith Sephuma ““ Mmangwane.mp3

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Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions – Bavarian Fruit Bread

sandovalMuch as I love Sandoval”s group Mazzy Starr, I struggled long and hard to “get” this album. It”s the sort of ambient set one needs to be in a perfect mood for (perhaps when one is recovering from a bout of inebriation). But when everything is set, it hits home in its quiet way. If Sandoval sounds fragile on Mazzy Starr, here you want to pack her in cotton wool and keep the volume low, just in case she breaks. The result is exponentially mesmerising and ultimately gorgeous. It”s not the sort of album from which one can pick a representative track (though I”ll try here); it works best as a body of music. If one is in the mood.
Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions – Around My Smile.mp3

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Richard Hawley ““ Late Night Final

HAWLEYLast month Hawley released a masterpiece, Truelove Gutter. Without wishing to resort to hyperbole, I”ll claim with confidence that it is not only the best album of the year, but one of the best of the decade. Hawley, a former member of Britpop groups Longpigs and Pulp, has produced a series of delightful and always affecting albums that started with his full debut, Late Night Final (it was preceded by a self-titled EP in 2000). The gorgeously melancholy, late night mood of that great triptych of Hawley albums “” Coles Corner, Lady”s Bridge, Truelove Gutter “” is already evident here. His voice has now dropped a register and the arrangements have become more intricate since Late Night Final (on which Hawley”s country influence is still evident), but the basics of the Hawley sound, and the quality, are already there. The stand-out track is Baby, You”re My Light, which I featured on this mix (which also features Ben Folds” The Luckiest).
Richard Hawley ““ Love Of My Life.mp3

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Death Cab For Cutie ““ The Photo Album

dreath_cabDeath Cab For Cutie is one the most stupid band names in modern music. It evokes the image of shouting and wailing nu-metal emo types, or perhaps a death metal outfit that failed in conjuring a suitably satanic-sounding moniker. Death Cab are nothing of the sort, of course, nor do they deserve to be dismissed for featuring so prominently on the teen drama-soap The O.C. (which was actually quite good for a couple of seasons and featured some excellent music that otherwise would not have received wider exposure). The Photo Album is Death Cab”s transition album, still drawing from the Indie rock of the earlier albums but preparing for the almost symphonic feel of 2003″s Transatlanticism and last year”s Narrow Stairs. It lacks the diversity of 2005″s Plans, but like Plans and more than Transatlanticism, it does have tracks that stand on their own. This is solidly guitar-driven, ambient Indie rock, but more accomplished (or, purists might say, polished) than the four preceding Death Cab albums.
Death Cab For Cutie ““ I Was A Kaleidoscope.mp3

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Rilo Kiley – Take-Offs & Landings

rilo_kileyIn 2004, Rilo Kiley released a brilliant album in More Adventurous. The preceding two albums are more patchy. Take-Offs & Landings borrows its influences widely, blows some alt.country over it, and voila. Sometimes it works, and there is nothing here that is really objectionable, but this is very much the work of a group still finding its way. Likewise, the wonderful Jenny Lewis is still discovering her voice, which here is still banking on its cuteness before it became the sexiest voice since Julie London”s. If all this sounds half-hearted, then that is not quite fair on an enjoyable album. It suffers not on its own merits, but in comparison to what the group and Lewis as a solo artist produced later.
Rilo Kiley ““ Plane Crash In C.mp3

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Alicia Keys ““ Songs In A Minor

alicia_keysAt a time when soul music is dying a gangrened death at the hands of dancing corporate muppets and sexless nasal whiners, we ought to be grateful for the few artists who still refer to the rich heritage of the genre. So I find it difficult to sympathise with those who dismiss the artistry of Alicia Keys. OK, she”s not quite all that which the hype claims her to be, as a pianist or as a singer. Much of her material is bland. It”s safe to say that she cannot compare with, say, Roberta Flack. Judging only from her appearances at the Grammys (which I still watch for reasons I cannot comprehend; probably only for the In Memoriam section), I find her a bit smug, a bit corporate, a bit too convinced of her own genius. And yet, her albums includes a clutch of tracks which, had they been recorded 35 years earlier, would be noted as fine contributions to the canon of soul music, celebrating the derivations of her material as reflecting an astute choice of influences. Despite all the caveats I have raised, I”m glad that Alicia Keys is around.
Alicia Keys ““ A Woman’s Worth

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The Shins ““ Oh, Inverted World

SHINSPlaying the song New Slang from this album, Natalie Portman”s character in the fine film Garden State promises Zach Braff”s protagonist that it will change his life. Without wishing to spring spoilers upon the reader who unaccountably have not seen the film, it indeed does so. The Portland, Oregon-based band”s debut thus broke out from the ghetto of Indie cult on the back of Braff”s championing. If the Kinks had been Americans recording their music in the “00s, this is what they might have sounded like. I have quite enjoyed The Shins” subsequent albums, which are musically accomplished, perhaps more than Oh, Inverted World. But if I want a fix of The Shins, it”s the debut I turn to.
The Shins – One By One All Day.mp3

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Weezer ““ Green Album

WEEZERWhat is it with all those people who are so quick to dismiss every Weezer album because it isn”t Pinkerton? It seems to be accepted wisdom that Pinkerton, one of the great albums of the 1990s, set some kind of standard that Rivers Cuomo and the other three chaps must live up to. The trouble is, by the time the Pinkerton evangelists listened to the other Weezer albums, they were no longer of an age when they locked themselves in their bedrooms because school and parents and jocks sucked and listened to Pinkerton in the recovery period between wanks. The Green Album is a fine album; it has some great tunes, it”s fun, it doesn”t challenge you; it does everything you”d want from a Weezer album. Island In The Sun is my cellphone ringtone, by the way.
Weezer ““ Island In The Sun.mp3

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More Albums of the Year

Songs of love and death

March 20th, 2009 8 comments

Let”s bring everybody down a bit with love songs about death (though the final song should resurrect some mirth). To me the song of death will always be Julie Covington”s Don”t Cry For Me Argentina, the last record my mother and father listened to together before his sudden death in 1977. My mother would play the record at high volume for months after. This selection is about the kind of loss my mother felt. Some can, or even do, apply to the loss of somebody other than a lover. And, no, the notorious Honey does not feature.
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Missy Higgins – The Sound Of White.mp3
missy-higginsThis entirely gorgeous song is not about the death of a love interest, but about that of Melissa”s sister in a car crash. The sisterly love must have been profound “” as deep as that of romantic lovers (which is why this song works for them too). “My silence solidifies, until that hollow void erases you so I can”t feel at all. But if I never feel again, at least that nothingness will end the painful dream, of you and me”¦”

Although not religious, Missy goes to a church, presumably Catholic, to pray before a statue of the Virgin Mary. “I knelt before some strangers face, I”d never have the courage or belief to trust this place. But I dropped my head, “cause it felt like lead, and I”m sure I felt your fingers through my hair.” That physical contact is, of course, just an illusion. All that”s left are the memories: “And if I listen to the sound of white [presumably meaning a state of blankness or meditation] sometimes I hear your smile and breathe your light.”

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Death Cab For Cutie – I”ll Follow You Into The Dark.mp3
death-cabBen Fold in his song The Luckiest ““ possibly the greatest love song ever written ““ tells the story about his neighbour, an “old man who lived to his 90s” and one day dies in his sleep. His wife lives on for a couple of days and then follows him. The notion of not being able to live without a loved one is the point of this song, performed by a singer much younger than 90. He sets out his stall early: “Love of mine, some day you will die. But I”ll be close behind, I”ll follow you into the dark.” There are hints of suicide should the tragic moment come, and that point may be imminent, suggesting the presence of a terminal illness. “You and me have seen everything to see from Bangkok to Calgary, and the soles of your shoes are all worn down. The time for sleep is now. It”s nothing to cry about, “cause we”ll hold each other soon ““ the blackest of rooms.”

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Iron & Wine – Naked As We Came.mp3
ironandwineMusically and lyrically a companion piece to I”ll Follow You Into The Dark, Sam Beam is pondering the death of a lover: “One of us will die inside these arms. Eyes wide open, naked as we came, one will spread our ashes “round the yard.” The instructions have been given: cremation, no burial, just scatter the ashes. “She says, “˜If I leave before you, darling, don”t you waste me in the ground.”

That notion corresponds with my postmortal plan: bury my ashes into a hole in the garden, and plant a fruit tree over me. The idea comes from a German poem by Theodor Fontane, apparently based on a true story, I learnt as a child, about a Herr von Ribbeck in the Havelland (near Berlin), who”d give passing schoolchildren a pear from his tree. As his death approaches, in 1759, he gives instruction that a pear tree be planted over his grave, because his miserly son would not continue the distribution of fruit. His final wish is honoured, and generations of passing children will now help themselves to a pear (at least until the tree”s destruction in 1911), thanks to Herr von Ribbeck. (English translation of the poem)

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Anna Ternheim – Lovers Dream.mp3
ternheimSwedish songbird Ternheim rounds off the trilogy of not wanting to live when the other has died. The twist here seems to be that she wants to be in death with someone whom she could not be with in life. “Maybe I could be yours, maybe you could be mine. God, I waited so long, maybe my time has come to walk by your side. Please put me at ease, now my soul is ready for peace.” Which is a twist on the saying, “See you in the next life.”

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Bobbie Gentry – Ode To Billie Joe.mp3
bobbie-gentryThis song can be interpreted in several ways. We know that Billy Joe MacAllister committed suicide by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge on Choctaw Ridge. For Bobbie”s family it seems to be the stuff of casual dinner conversation: “Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense. Pass the biscuits, please”. And so the conversation goes, except Bobbie seems to have lost her appetite entirely when mother mentions something uncanny: “”That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today. Said he”d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday. Oh, by the way, he said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge, and she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin” off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Shortly we leave the dining table and fast forward a year as Bobbie updates us. “A year has come “˜n” gone since we heard the news “bout Billy Joe. And brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo. There was a virus going “round, Papa caught it and he died last spring, and now Mama doesn”t seem to wanna do much of anything. And me, I spend a lot of time pickin” flowers up on Choctaw Ridge ““ and drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.” We can only guess what Billie Joe was to Bobbie, and why Billie Joe committed suicide. A popular theory has it that what the preacher saw them throwing off the bridge was their baby (though how blind must the parents have been to fail noticing their daughter”s pregnancy?) or a premature, self-administered abortion. Whatever it is, Bobbie”s grief ““ for Billie Joe or her putative child ““ runs deep.

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Ari Hest – Didn”t Want To Say Goodbye.mp3
ari-hestApparently written about a 9/11 victim, singer-songwriter Ari Hest does what most grieving people do when confronted with a sudden, unnatural death ““ asking why. And for those with religious faith, it can be shaken by such an event, as seems to be the case here. “I can ask all I please, I can beg down on my knees, for a reason, for a sign. But these answers I won”t find.” So instead, “I”ll go on without you, and what”s left for me to do but to stay where I am in my world of pretend.”
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Loudon Wainwright III – Sometimes I Forget.mp3
loudon-historyThe song starts off unpromisingly as Loudon sets the scene: “Sometimes I forget that you”ve gone. You”ve gone, and you”re not coming back.” But we quickly learn that he has not been dumped as he surveys the scene: “And your bookcase still holds all your books; it”s as if all you”ve done is go out of town”¦” The addressee could be returning any minute now, but the person “” my guess it”s his father, so let”s identify him as such “”never went on a journey. “But your suitcase is empty, it”s right here in the hall. That”s not even the strangest thing. Why would you leave your wallet behind. Your glasses, your wristwatch and ring.” He has unresolved issues with his father, having failed to say what needed to be said. Death creates a distance, but Loudon feels his father”s proximity. “You”re not far away, you”re near. Sometimes I forget that you”ve gone. Sometimes it feels like you”re right here. Right now it feels like you”re right here.” Wainwright does not specify the nature of his relationship to the deceased, so it can be applied, at least in spirit, to a separation by death of any loved one.
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Richard Thompson – Vincent Black Lightning 1952.mp3
rthompsonTurning the teen death genre (which we”ll turn to in the next item) on its head a little, Thompson tells the story of an outlaw in love. James Adie, a criminal, and Red Molly fell in love over the eponymous motorbike. Then the day comes that James robs a bank and is shot by the police. Red Molly is called to his deathbed. James declares his love for Molly and the bike, then “he reached for her hand and he slipped her the keys, saying: “˜I”ve got no further use for these. I see angels on Ariels in leather and chrome swooping down from heaven to carry me home”. And he gave her one last kiss and died, and he gave her his Vincent to ride.”

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Jimmy Cross – I Want My Baby Back.mp3
jimmy-crossI promised that we”d end off with a much-needed laugh. The early “60s were a fertile period for teen death songs such as The Leader Of The Pack, Tell Laura I Love Her, Teen Angel, Dead Man”s Curve, Run Joey Run, and Ebony Eyes. Jimmy Cross” 1964 song is a parody that moves swiftly from the ridiculous to the bizarre.

Jimmy fills us in on that fateful night, putting on his best Ferlin Husky accent: “I don”t hardly know where to begin. I remember, we were cruisin” home from the Beatles concert. I”d had such a wonderful evenin” sittin” there watchin” my baby screamin” and tearin” her hair out and carryin” on. She was sooo full of life. Then…” disaster strikes. “I see this stalled car right smack in front of me! Well, I wa”nt about to slam on the brakes “cause I didn”t have none to start to with. So I swerved to the left, and what do I see? Some mush-head, on a motorsickle, headin” right at us! And I knew at last, me and my baby were about to meet the leader of the…” CRASH! “Well, when I come to I looked around, and there was the leader, and there was the pack, and over there was my baby.” Time flies, and he still misses his baby. So, punning unsubtly, he takes a spade and digs up her grave and, lo, he has his baby back. Oh blessed joy ““ a happy, necrophiliac ending!

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In this series so far:
Love hurts
Unrequited love
Being in love
Longing for love
Heartbreak
Adultery

More Songs About Love

Top 20 albums of 2008

December 12th, 2008 8 comments

Everybody’s doing it, so I might as well dabble in the conceit that anybody is really interested to know which releases of the year I liked best. I don’t think it has been a vintage year for music, or perhaps I have not paid much attention. I’ve also found myself falling off Planet Indie, so the “singer-songwriters” boss the list. I’ve put sample tracks into one file, in case somebody is interested. The featured titles appear below my brief comments. Full tracklisting in the Comments section. Read more…

On current rotation – June

June 24th, 2008 1 comment

I’m not sure if 2008 is turning out to be a good year for music or not. A year ago, new releases by Wilco, Rosie Thomas, Bright Eyes and Brandi Carlile had me very excited. Sky Blue Sky turned out to be my album of the year, and I will be listening to it for many years to come. I’m not sure I’ve yet discovered my album of 2008, even though there are some albums I really like. But, none as much as Wilco’s last year. Here are tracks from some of 2008’s albums I’m enjoying very much, to go with the previous rotation, which featured Tift Merrit, whose effort may well be my album of the year so far, with Kathleen Edwards and the Weepies in the mix.

Jay Brennan – At First Sight.mp3
Jay Brennan – Half-Boyfriend.mp3
Jay Brennan – Housewife.mp3 (all three direct download links)
To start off, three tracks from an exciting new artist in the genre of “guys with guitars named like schoolteachers”. The alternative title for the genre would be singer-songwriter, but that has become a bit of a dirty word (unjustly so). I am sharing the above tracks at the invitation of Jay Brannan’s record company, where he is stablemates with the absolutely wonderful Rosie Thomas. And Brannan does channel the Thomas/Damien Jurado/Sufjan Stevens vibe, right down to the engaging lyrics which ask you to pay attention (just listen to Housewife ““ video here). His debut album, goddamned, will be released on July 1. I’m looking forward to hear more of Brannan’s songs; on evidence of these three songs, it could well be contender for my year-end list.

The Weepies – All Good Things.mp3
The Weepies – Can’t Go Back Now.mp3
I have bigged up the Weepies since I started this blog. The new album, Hideaway, came out in April, and has been on regular rotation ever since I got hold of it. It’s one of those albums I play when I survey my music, and have no idea what I fancy; the default go-to album de jour. The Weepies ““ Deb Talan and Steve Tannen ““ have produced a richer sound than previously without straying too far from their acoustic roots. This is a very warm album; I sort of imagine it like having good coffee and freshly baked waffles on a sunny Saturday morning.

Kathleen Edwards – I Make The Dough, You Get The Glory.mp3
I featured Kathleen Edwards (and Deb Talan) in the Songbirds series. So I was really looking forward to her new album, Asking For Flowers. At the first listen, I was a little disappointed. Second, third listen…same. I was about to write off the album when Indie Pop Ian virtually instructed me to give it a few more chances. Seeing as he is a man of refined taste who shares my love for the Songbirds, I did. And, boy, was he right, and I wrong. This is a mesmerising album with fantastic lyrics and a great alt.country bent. Forgive me, Kathleen, for doubting you. Come December, this may well be in the top 3 of my albums of the year.

Weezer – Heart Songs.mp3
Some say Weezer are living off the greatness of two albums they made in the ’90s. I think that’s a little harsh. The last set was, in my view, pretty good (Perfect Situation is a top notch song). So I approached the new album with hope, and some trepidation. Because Weezer albums can be quite poor, too. The new album, nicknamed the Red Album, falls in between the two extremes. There are a few tracks that beg to be skipped, and others that are a joy. I particularly like Heart Songs, in which Rivers Cuomo tabulates all the artists who influenced him, from childhood to stardom: Gordon Lightfoot, Eddie Rabbitt, Springsteen, Grover Washington, Abba, Devo, Quiet Riot, Judas Priest and so on ““ though I think he might be confusing Debbie Gibson with Tiffany…

Death Cab For Cutie – Talking Bird.mp3
And yet another album I had been looking forward to. I was gratified to read The Quietus giving it a positive review (more surprisingly, The Quietus didn’t rip the new Coldplay album to shreds, as I had expected and, indeed, hoped). Death Cabs’ Narrow Stairs is a fine, richly textured album which rewards repeated listens. It satisfies my occasional desire for a Death Cab fix ““ for now. The rub is this: Narrow Stairs does not have the stand-out tracks of 2005’s Plans (I’ll Follow You Into The Dark, Soul Meets Body), and as an Indie symphony does not quite reach 2002’s Transatlanticism‘s lofty level. So I wonder if in, say, three years time, I will listen to Narrow Stairs instead of these two albums (or, indeed, some of the earlier ones, such as We Have the Facts And We’re Voting Yes from 2000). Maybe it’s too early to say: I will continue to play Narrow Stairs in the hope that it will lodge itself permanently in my head. It just might.

Neil Diamond – Act Like A Man.mp3
Micah P. Hinson – Throw The Stone.mp3
I played this album with Any Minor Dude sitting next to me (playing a football manager game). He looked up from guiding Manchester United to greater glories and pointed out that he liked what he was hearing: Micah P. Hinson and the Red Empire Orchestra (Any Minor Dude also endorsed Jay Brannan, by the way). Sounds like Johnny Cash, he said. And he is quite right, of course. In fact, throw in Nick Cave and Steve Earle, and you have Hinson’s sound. The album is coming out in mid-July, so I trust that the buzz is going to build. This album deserves it.

The new year cometh

December 28th, 2007 No comments

For the final post of 2007 we’re looking to the new year. Ten songs which review the year gone by and anticipate the next. I don’t like New Year’s Eve much. I resent the pressure of having to have a good time as time hurtles forward another digit closer to the year of my death. Bah! Still, don’t let me spoil it for you. And look, Ma, no U2!


Death Cab For Cutie – The New Year.mp3

The song that kicked off the stunning Transatlanticism album (the title of which I dedicate to the British music writer Robin Carmody) so brilliantly. Will you feel any different at 00:01 on January 1? I think Death Cab are due another album soon, which gives us a good reason to be welcome 2008 with some anticipation. I hear a new album by Postal Service, which features Death Cab singer Ben Gibbard, is on its way, too. And last night I listened to Nada Surf’s new album Lucky, out on February 8, on which Gibbard guests. Lucky deserves much buzz; it’s a very fine album.

District Six – New Year.mp3
Go to any New Year’s Eve party in Cape Town’s coloured (mixed-race) community, and you’ll be hard-pressed to avoid this song from the hugely popular and deeply moving musical District Six. The eponymous area was a large working-class suburb on the foot of Table Mountain, on the edges of the city centre, populated mainly by coloureds, one of four main population groups by which people were classified under apartheid. In 1966, the apartheid regime decided that District Six was a slum “” which it was, seeing that the white rulers had little interest in developing and upgrading the area. By the mid-70s, District Six had been cleared, and the inhabitants of this close-knit community were removed to ghettos far away from the city (while huge swathes of the area are still vacant today!). Some of these new ghettos were cruelly named after District Six landmarks, so as to drive home the humiliation. District Six – The Musical captured the life in District Six, and its demise, with great humour and heartbreaking pathos. “New Year” illustrates the party spirit in the community. With its blend of global musical influences, the song is representative of the traditional sound of the coloured community (though most would probably rather listen to hip hop, R&B or jazz fusion).

Hello Saferide – 2006.mp3
The wonderful Annika Norlin wakes up on New Year’s morning and already knows it’ll be “another shitty year”. She makes resolutions (” I will learn a new word each day. Today”s word is dejected”), chief among them, “there”s you”. “I”m going to be with you. I haven”t told you yet, but I”m going to be with you.” Oh, I think I’m in love with Annika. (more Hello Saferide here)

K’s Choice – Another Year.mp3
For some, the new year promises another cycle of being in a rut, which in itself can be a soul-destroying comfort zone, as Belgium’s finest observe. “You’re not sick, so you can”t heal. But I wonder do you feel the need to cry: ‘I’m out of here’?” Sarah Bettens’ smoky voice rarely sounded better than on this track. (more Sarah Bettens here)

The Weepies – Not Your Year.mp3
Not your life, more like. The Weepies have a good way of putting into words the vague unhappinesses of life. “Movies, TV screens reflect just what you expected. There”s a world of shiny people somewhere else, out there following their bliss, living easy, getting kissed, while you wonder what else you”re doing wrong.” (more Weepies here)

Maria Taylor – Leap Year.mp3
Well, 2008 is a leap year. So this song gets included on strength of its apposite title, even if it has little to do with the coming 366 days. The excellent Maria Taylor actually does make reference to the seasons in this touching song, from 2005’s 11:11, about a relationship that is somehow stuck. (more Maria Taylor here)

Dan Fogelberg – Same Old Lang Syne.mp3
Apart from the title, seasonal reference and the strains of Auld Lang Syne in the fade out, this has nothing to do with the forced jollities on December 31. In fact, there is nothing jolly about this apparently autobiographical encounter between Fogelberg and his old school girlfriend whom he meets by chance and they trade their stories. He finds that they could be great together if not for circumstances and unloved architects. The final line is quite wonderful. Sadly Fogelberg died a couple of weeks ago, putting to rest my briefly running gag of “fogelberging” as an euphemism. (more Dan Fogelberg here)

Mindy Smith – What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve.mp3
I really like Mindy Smith, but I’m uncertain about her Christmas album. Is The Man trying to turn her into Norah bleedin’ Jones? This standard has been recorded by many great singers, as well as by the likes of Diana Krall and Vonda Shepard. Mindy’s version has a lovely torchsong jazz arrangement, and as always her voice is lovely. The problem is this: here she sings the tune; on her originals (and her stunning cover version of “Jolene”), she lives the songs. (more Mindy Smith here)

The Walkmen – New Year’s Eve.mp3
Brilliant piano riff, great drums, and wonderfully alcohol-soaked vocals in this 2004 indie song about”¦er…a break-up? Adultery? Alienation in a relationship? Not a song to play after the corks pop.

Abba – Happy New Year.mp3
Among all these not terribly jolly songs, Abba deliver the right note of cautious optimism and anticipation. Life’s a bit shit, but, hey, let’s say Happy New Year, because things might get better. Here’s hoping it will, for all of us. Happy New Year everybody, see you in 2008.