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Albums of the Year: 2010

December 16th, 2010 8 comments

A few months ago I complained that few albums released this year had grabbed me; suddenly there came an avalanche of quality albums that compensated for my disappointment in sets by some favourite artists that I had looked forward to.

I have not been able to get on with the Ben Folds and Nick Hornby collaboration, much as I am a Folds fan and as I like Hornby”s books. Joshua Radin”s album is decent enough, but it did not attract the affection I had for his debut album. Jenny Lewis” collaboration with Jonathan Rice bored me. Even the Weepies” album, which does make it into my top 20, will not become my favourite of theirs.

I am quite sad to leave out of my Top 20 a few albums that could have been contenders in previous years: Shelby Lynne, Josh Ritter, Patty Griffin, Plants & Animals, Krista Detor, Audrey Assad, Belle & Sebastian, Leif Vollebekk, Merle Haggard, She & Him (which I took a while to like) and Bruno Mars.

So, on to my top 20, which is rather dominated by the Americana and country thing. It comprises albums I enjoy playing; it”s not intended to be a list of the year”s best albums, nor are they the most groundbreaking or experimental releases. These albums simply just gave me joy (which is why I listen to music). The songs listed with the album appear in the compilation linked to at the end of this post.

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Lloyd Cole ““ Broken Record
The music mags” reviews were respectfully lukewarm to what is a hugely appealing set. This warm and intelligent album is Lloyd”s county record, with slide guitars, banjos and harmonicas. Funny enough, it”s a song called Rhinestone that sounds least like country and most like Cole”s stuff with the Commotions (one of whom turns up in this album). Lyrically, the album is standard Cole with clever turns of phrase and endearing self-deprecations. The vocals of Joan Wasser (Joan As Policewoman) are much welcome. Homepage
Lloyd Cole – Like A Broken Record
Lloyd Cole РOh Genevi̬ve

Brian Wilson – Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin
Brian Wilson reports his earliest musical memory as hearing Gershwin”s Rhapsody In Blue (which bookends this set). It makes sense that the great American songwriter of the “60s should record an album of music by the great American songwriter of the “30s. The standards ““ They Can’t Take That Away from Me, Someone to Watch Over Me, I Got Rhythm, It Ain’t Necessarily So etc ““ are engagingly recreated, and even the overdone Summertime, so often violated by mannered interpretations, is bearable here. Of particular interest are the previously unrecorded Gershwin songs, completed by Wilson at the invitation of Gershwin”s estate. Wilson”s style is so distinctive that it is difficult to imagine how they might have sounded in interpretations by, say, Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra. They are nonetheless quite lovely. One of these originals, The Like In I Love You, sounds a lot like a song from Billy Joel”s An Innocent Man. Homepage
Brian Wilson – I’ve Got A Crush On You

Caitlin Rose ““ On The Town
Caitlin Rose is receiving massive buzz, deservedly so. The Nashville native”s debut album recalls Tift Merritt at her country-folkiest: mellow melodies and vulnerable vocals. It”s a mature album that belies Rose”s 23 years ““ even if some of these songs were written when Caitlin was a teenager. Homepage
Caitlin Rose – Own Side

Mavis Staples – You Are Not Alone
Mavis and her family are probably best known for soul hits such as Respect Yourself and I”ll Take You There, but their primary genre was gospel. Now 71 years old, Mavis continues to work the gospel beat, using the genre”s traditional sounds as well as new approaches. Produced by Wilco”s Jeff Tweedy “” who on tracks such as In Christ There Is No East Or West marries the Wilco sound with the gospel sensibilities which Pop Staples would have approved of with”” You Are Not Alone will rightly feature high on many end-of-year lists. Homepage
Mavis Staples – In Christ There Is No East Or West

Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses – Junky Star
I know a music journalist who has stated his objection to musicians going by their civilian names if these sound like those of school teachers. My pal might not review Ryan Bingham”s album because of his name, though his interest might be peaked that it also serves as George Clooney”s character”s name in Up In The Air. Or he might listen up because Bingham has won an Oscar and Golden Globe for his song The Weary Kind, the theme song of the film Crazy Heart. Don”t expect Junky Star to be a pure country album; this is Steve Earle and  Tom Waits territory, before Waits” voice became excruciating. One almost expects Bingham, blessed with a gruff, expressive voice himself, to likewise lose his voice by the end of this powerful album. Homepage
Ryan Bingham ““ Depression

Dylan LeBlanc ““ Paupers Fields
If the critics are right, 20-year-old Dylan LeBlanc is the new saviour of the country music heritage. The happy news is that, despite his age and name, this is no male version of Taylor Swift, whose primary relationship with country resides in marketing, nor is he likely to don a black Stetson, wifebeater and sing masculine tunes about the good ole U S of A. LeBlanc is a serious country musician, of the Gram Parsons or Townes van Zandt school (true enough, Emmylou Harris turns up to lend harmonies on one track, which also invites comparison to another much-hyped prodigy, Conner Oberst). His young age is no issue: he sounds much more mature than a lad just out of his teens. Even if he doesn”t sing from experience ““ if he does, then he has lived the life of a man twice his age ““ his delivery is credible. Homepage
Dylan LeBlanc – If Time Was For Wasting

Bill Kirchen – Word To The Wise
A veteran musician and guitar maestro who released his first solo record in 1972 and not much else before 2007″s brilliantly titled Hammer Of The Honky Tonk Gods, Kirchen has issued a fun rock & roll album with the likes of Nick Lowe, Chris O”Connell, Maria Muldaur and Elvis Costello collaborating. It”s unfair, actually, to reduce the album to rock & roll: it draws from the traditions in the melting pot that produced the genre: blues, rockabilly, boogie woogie, honky tonk. It”s an eclectic album: opener Bump Wood sounds like Jerry Lee Lewis, it is followed by a Merle Haggard ballad, which in turn is followed by a blues-rock number with Elvis Costello, and so on. His duet with Asleep At The Wheel”s O”Connell, Roger Miller”s Husbands and Wives, is particularly well executed. Homepage
Bill Kirchen (with Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack) – Shelly’s Winter Love

Ray Lamontagne and the Pariah Dogs – God Willin’ And The Creek Don’t Rise
The reviewers” meme with this album refers to Neil Young, Harvest era. If so, then I”m grateful that Lamontagne has a raspier voice than whiney Neil. Lamontagne”s fourth album is folk-rock, but heavily country influenced. Maybe a reference to the Byrds would be more apt. And when Lamontagne slows things down (even more), one might recall Joni Mitchell. A most captivating album. Homepage
Ray Lamontagne and the Pariah Dogs – Devil’s In The Jukebox

Cee Lo Green – The Lady Killer
Regular readers will be in no doubt about my abiding love for the rich repository of soul music, but I have little patience for the current crop of high-pitched auto-tuned R&B gubbins, nor for stylised retro singers like Amy Whitehouse or the frog-voiced Duffy. Even John Legend, who does understand his soul heritage, doesn”t excite me. I am, however, hugely excited by the Gnarls Barkley singer”s album, which draws from different eras of soul. On It”s OK he sounds like namesake Al on Motown steroids, Old Fashioned draws from the 1960s, Bodies recalls Bobby Womack, Cry Baby and Satisfied a nods to “80s soul-pop. Green has a couple guests on his album, but none are likely to blind him with dental bling, brag about their wealth or threaten to bust caps in his ass. Paradiso Girls” Lauren Bennett turns up; it”s a delicious irony that the author of the ubiquitous Don’t Cha gets a member of a Pussycat Dolls knock-off band to guest. The other guest is Earth, Wind & Fire”s Philip Bailey, on a song that sounds more contemporary  than most of the material here. It”s also a funny album: when Cee Lo subtitles the title track “Licence To Kill” it seems to be a tongue-in-cheek finger at his cliché-mongering R&B contemporaries, and the Gold Digger reference in the fantastic Fuck You is inspired. Homepage
Cee Lo Green ““ It”s OK

Raul Malo – Sinners and Saints
The former Mavericks frontman”s sixth solo album is eclectic, to say the least. Opener Living For Today sounds like Little Feat jamming with Lynyrd Skynyrd; that”s followed by the mariachi horns and telecaster guitar dominated title track, followed by a Tex-Mex rocker, then a country song performed as if by Springsteen (Rodney Crowell”s Til I Gain Control Again),  later a Spanish ballad, and so on. Raul Malo, a multi-instrumentalist whose powerful voice is full of character, clearly enjoyed making this album. And the result is hugely agreeable. Homepage
Raul Malo – Living For Today

The Watson Twins – Talking To You Talking To Me
Chandra and Leigh Watson (who actually are twins) harmonise the hell out of catchy tracks with shots of experimentation that takes them over the alt.county boundaries of their reputation, at times sounding like Sade if she was an Indie musicians (Savin” Me, Harpeth River). And, yes, there are songs where they sound like Rilo Kiley, whose frontwoman Jenny Lewis they backed on their fine 2006 collaboration (Savin” You). Homepage
The Watson Twins ““ Devil In You

Johnny Cash ““ American VI:  Ain”t No Grave
Seven years after Johnny Cash died, we get another collection of his Rick Rubin-produced American series, apparently the final release. It is a fine way of going out. There”s nothing new here, but the special poignancy of knowing that Cash recorded these ten songs in the four months between the death of his beloved June in May 2003 and his own in September, with Cash acutely aware of his mortality without descending into morbidity, and to the end insisting on communicating his deep religious faith. Some songs I can live without (Aloha Oe!), and some cannot compete with the previous versions (Kristofferson”s For The Good Times). But the minimalist arrangements and intimacy of Cash”s fragile yet forceful and soulful voice wrap the songs in a warmth and appealing sense of yearning. Buy
Johnny Cash – Redemption Day

Lissie ““ Catch A Tiger
Lissie Mauros reminds me a lot of Neko Case, with a heavy dose of “80s pop influence. Or maybe Stevie Nicks, in attitude and voice ““ In Sleep sounds like Fleetwood Mac ripping off Blondie (Atomic-era). And, seeing as I”m grappling to find comparison to female singers, there”s a hint of Nicole Atkins, if the wonderful Atkins was a folk-rock singer. Almost every song here is utterly catchy, some even exhilaratingly poppy  (Loosen The Knot, Stranger). Homepage
Lissie – Stranger

Carl Broemel ““ All The Birds Say
As guitarist and some-time saxophonist of My Morning Jacket, Carl Broemel was not an obvious candidate for the release of a solo album, much less such a sweet one. This, his second solo effort after 2004″s Lose What”s Left, is a perfect Sunday morning record; played while one sips the morning coffee, bites into the croissant and opens the newspaper. Think of it as a lighter version of Ron Sexsmith, an artist influenced (and highly rated) by Paul McCartney, as clearly is Broemel. Homepage
Carl Broemel ““ Enough

Willie Nelson ““ Country Music
This is a T-Bone Burnett-produced tribute to the country songs that reside in the juke box of Willie Nelson”s memory. Cover albums are a precarious beast. Some artists feel they need to re-interpret, re-invent and update the songs they profess to love. Others will give us the very best in karaoke. Nelson just damn well sings the songs, straight and without bullshit. He knows these songs and their context, and preserves them there. The sound is timeless. And some of the song choices are inspired. Homepage
Willie Nelson – Satisfied Mind

Crowded House ““ Intriguer
The trouble with Crowded House is that their songs are really made to be heard live. The second post-reunion album is something of a grower. The hooks that at first seem to be absent reveal themselves over time. The album was produced by Jim Scott, who also produced Wilco”s last album. It shows, even as the album is very recognisably a Crowded House effort. Homepage
Crowded House – Twice If You’re Lucky

Walt Cronin ““ California I Gotta Run
Already in his 50s Walt Cronin”s gravelly baritone and sound reflect the experience of life, wistfully and defiantly. “I would never count the days of my life, but I”ll always let the dawn greet my eyes,” the former medic in the Vietnam war sings in Shinin” Through, one of several sweet love songs on this most appealing set. Homepage
Walt Cronin – Road I”m Takin”

Tift Merritt – See You On The Moon
I am bound to love an album that kicks off with a song about making a mix-tape (“with home-made covers”). Of Merritt”s three preceding studio albums, two were filled with slow-burning ballads, one was a rootsy affair. See You On The Moon has a bit of both; she is both plugging into the templates of both Harris and Ronstadt (even if she has evidently departed the world of county). I expected that her cover of Loggins & Messina”s Danny”s Song would make me wince; happily it is tender and amiable. Homepage
Tift Merritt – The Things That Everybody Does

The Weepies ““ Be My Thrill
In this post”s introduction I declared myself vaguely disappointed by Be My Thrill, but this is only in relation to the album”s three predecessors. Like them, Be My Thrill is very likeable. Deb Talan and Steve Tannen are happily married, have a happy family and are (no surprise twist coming up) very obviously happy (“I was made for sunny days,” Talan sings, “and I was mad for you”). The streaks of darkness from the debut have been usurped by all the colours of the rainbow. The album is relentlessly happy (with the jarring exception of Tannen”s “How Do You Get High?”) and unless one”s demeanour is governed by inexorable melancholy, the occasional burst of happiness can be richly welcome. So Be My Thrill is a bit like a double strawberry milkshake.  Homepage
The Weepies – Please Speak Well Of Me

Sahara Smith – Myth Of The Heart
T-Bone Burnett is on a golden streak. Among his protégés is Texan Sahara Smith, a former child prodigy who has been writing songs since she was 14. Blessed with a beautiful and expressive voice, Smith writes smart lyrics set to appealing melodies, some of them very memorable. Train Man sounds much like Chris Isaak”s Wicked Game. Smith might have a name that conjures images of pop muppetry, but she is a very talented artist who has created an impressive debut. MySpace
Sahara Smith ““ Are You Lonely

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Previous Albums of the Year

This is Splitsville

February 16th, 2010 3 comments

Much as there are songs about the sweetness of being in love, as we saw last week, the shards of a broken relationship glisten on the corridors of popular music. This lot of ten songs has a fair share of numbers dealing with break-ups and divorce; happily not an action I am contemplating.

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P.P. Arnold – Letter To Bill (1968).mp3
Poor Bill. This morning he left his happy home for the office in good spirits, but when he returns he will not embraced by a loving P.P. She is gone, having left him an enigmatic letter announcing her departure that morning. It will be of scant comfort to poor Bill to learn that “it”s not that I don”t love you” and that “I”m not leaving you for anything you”ve done” (ah, the old “it”s not you. Nooooo! It”s me” chestnut). Bill probably will not feel comforted by her reassurance that she still remembers “the good times”, certainly not if he hadn’t realised there actually had been bad times. Thoughtfully she left housekeeping instruction (“tell the milkman to drop down on the order”), and observe her counsel concerning neighbourhood gossip. But most of all, Bill will be dismayed by her admission of having written the letter hurriedly under pressure of the train timetable. She couldn”t even bother to write a proper letter? Ouch.

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Kool & the Gang – Too Hot (1979).mp3
Kids, don”t get married too young. Mr and Mrs Kool were 17 when they fell in love, “high school sweethearts, love was so brandnew”. So they got married and things were fine. Until they drifted out of love. Now, with all the anger and recrimination, the climate is one of excessive heat, as the song title alerts us. Kool (yeah, I know, it”s really J.T. singing) doesn”t quite understand how or why everything changed. Apparently, they failed “to stop and feel the [unspecified] need”. Oh, but it hurts. “So long ago, you were my love. Feeling the pain!” The excellent guitar solo won”t palliate the distress. Kool continues to assure us that it is indeed very hot before letting us in on the twist: recalling that once they took their vows, he insists: “We”re man and wife forever!” And then the final plea: “Baby, please won”t you listen?” Ah, it looks like only Mrs Kool wants out.

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Tompall Glaser – If I”d Only Come And Gone (1975).mp3
You”ll remember Tompall Glaser as the co-writer of Streets Of Baltimore (featured in The Originals Vol. 32), which could feature in this post. Here, Tompall got himself tied down after what seems to have been a one-night stand. She had no idea that he was a bit of a cad “” “If you”d only stopped to read cold hard words I caved on the other bedroom walls” “” and now she”s stuck with a man who wants out. He regrets that he”ll hurt her. If only he had come and gone, Tompall notes by way of double entendre, “you”d be safely tucked away among the pleasures I”d remember “stead of laying here beside me fearin” restless thoughts inside me that might awaken with the breaking of each new day.” Yes, if he had “only come and gone the way I”ve always done with summer girls before, shared one night with you and never reached for more, then we wouldn”t face this long and painful righting of the wrong”.

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Boz Scaggs – It”s Over (1976).mp3
Boz is having what seems to be an inner confrontation with two contrary voices conversing in this deceptively upbeat song, with former Ikette Maxine Green doing backing vocals duty. First there”s the lovelorn man who can”t face up to the end of a relationship. “Best of friends never part; best of fools has loved forever from the bottom of his heart.” The second voice, in the chorus, gives it to him straight, in a brutish and artless fashion: “Why can”t you just get it through your head? It”s over, it”s over now. Yes, you heard me clearly now, I said it”s over, it”s over now.” But Voice One isn”t ready to hear that, protesting wretchedly: “You might say that. I can”t take it, I can”t take it. Lord, I swear I just can”t take it no more.” Voice Two urges him to cut his loses: “Go away”¦it”s too late to turn back now, and it don”t matter anyhow.” And then comes Voice One”s admission of guilt: “I”m to blame; can”t go on the same old way.” And still he protests that he”s not over her.

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Tift Merritt – Keep You Happy (2008).mp3
The relationship isn”t over, but it will be soon. There will be no drama; it will just slip away. Tift doesn”t want it to end but is resigned to it. He is dutifully holding her, but “a feeling has me and tells me it will never stay. Your heart beats miles now, I feel them as they fly away. Close gets so far away.” He is drifting away and she yearns for a place where she could keep him happy. But there is no such place. She sadly reflects: “Why do we pretend there is something to hold onto? See how my world fell in? I was trying to hold you; I was just trying to hold you.” And the sound of a slowly crumbling heart is is set to the prettiest of melodies. What kind of man could ever tire of the lovely Tift Merritt?

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Hem – Too Late To Turn Back Now (2006).mp3
Same story here: the breakdown is inevitable and irrevocable. Here, the pair have clearly done pretty horrible things: “You know we both been feeling reckless since we crashed into the come down.” Bridges have been burnt. “What will keep you next to me, my love, since it”s too late to turn back now.” And yet there is always a flicker of hope. “I caught your face in the reflection, I thought I recognised a corner of your smile. A tired light from your direction; that will keep me in the meanwhile.” And still she knows, they will keep moving forward into separate futures.
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R.B. Greaves – Take A Letter Maria (1969).mp3
Our man R.B. is a pragmatic sort of guy. Coming home one evening, he finds his wife with another man. More emotional types, usually found in country music, might take a gun and shoot the wife and/or her lover; and, if they have no intentions of writing a song about it, perhaps bring the sorry scene to a climax by means of suicide. Not so Ronald Bertam Aloysius Greaves III (apparently a nephew of Sam Cooke). Clearly a man of professional success, he calls in his secretary, the titular Maria, to dictate a terse letter addressed to his wife: “Say I won’t be coming home, gonna start a new life.” And don’t forget to send a copy to his lawyer. Divorce business out of the way, we get an idea as to why Mrs Greaves had John Terry paying nocturnal visit. “Was I wrong to work nights to try to build a good life? All work and no play has just cost me a wife.” Ah, but it seems that R.B. hopes that all work and no play might have brought him closer to a liaison with Maria, who apparently has been a good secretary to him. He comes on strong: “I never really noticed how sweet you are to me. It just so happens I’m free tonight. Would you like to have dinner with me?” Our friend is indeed a pragmatists; dictating the letter to Maria was just a ruse to let the her know that he no longer is attached. Word of warning: office romances are terrible ideas.

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Barbra Streisand – One Less Bell To Answer/A House Is Not A Home (1971).mp3
The Burt Bacharach/Hal David song was a hit for the 5th Dimension (featured on the Burt Bacharach mix), but let”s have Barbra”s perspective from 1971. There is a bright side to a split. Babs enumerates them: one less bell to answer, of course; one less egg to fry, less tidying up. Great! Except, and your hunch was quite correct, she is not happy. Not at all happy. All she does, as Johnny Cash once did, is to “cry, cry, cry”. When the doorbell goes, it reminds her of him. More tears (which, as Barbra would later note in another song, are not enough). “I end each day the way I start out: crying my heart out.” Even simple grammar falls victim to desperation: “one less man to pick up after” (just how many men are you living with, Babs?). But we forgive her grammatical lapses “” for which, in any case, we ought to blame Hald David “” as we feel her pain: “Somebody tell me, please: where did he go, why did he go, how could he leave me?” My guess is that he couldn”t live on just one fried egg any longer. Babs expands on the post-split vibe in the second part of the medley, noting a house is not a home when it’s empty of love.

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Tammy Wynette – D.I.V.O.R.C.E. (1968).mp3
Standing submissively by her man didn”t work out too well for Tammy, and today is the day the divorce is coming through. She is hurting at the end of her marriage, of course, because she still loves the man by whom she had stood. But mostly she feels the pain for four-year-old Joe, who is cheerfully oblivious to the imminent trauma. Mom and Dad evidently have done little to prepare the kid for the rupture, having thrashed out matters by spelling them out, literally, Sesame Street style. “We spell out the words we don”t want him to understand” like one might spell out “T.O.Y. or maybe S.U.R.P.R.I.S.E.”. Those are fun words; D.I.V.O.R.C.E. and C.U.S.T.O.D.Y. obviously less so. Tammy, who has custody of Joe, suffers pain from two sides: the prospects of losing her husband and of seeing the little boy suffer. “I love you both and it will be pure H.E. double L for me. Oh, I wish that we could stop this D.I.V.O.R.C.E.”. Alas, we get a sense that this is not going to happen.

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Rilo Kiley – Breaking Up (2007).mp3
Breaking up need not be all emotional trauma. Rilo Kiley”s Jenny Lewis evidently thinks that worse things could happen. “It”s not as if New York City burnt down to the ground once you drove away.” That”s not to make light of a break-up, however. It hurts. “Are we breakin” up? Is there trouble between you and I? Did my heart break enough? Did it break enough this time?” The emotions are conflicting, though tinged by resigned cynicism. “Here”s to all the pretty words we will never speak. Here”s to all the pretty girls you”re gonna meet.” Hey, maybe he feels bad too. Or maybe not. He let Jenny down, and she kicks back: “Betrayal is a thorny crown; you wear it well, just like a king.” And in the chorus, the ultimate fuck-you to the ex, repeated three times: “Oooh eh [sounds like a taunting “˜nyah nyah nyah”], it feels good to be free.”

Songs by the Dumped
More Songs About Love (happy, unhappy, ending etc)

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

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

March 22nd, 2008 4 comments

When I started this blog, my idea was to flag new releases I enjoy while occasionally dipping into the archives of pop. As it has turned out, I’ve had greater fun doing nostalgia. But that means I’ve sometimes neglected the original purpose of this blog: to promote new music which I like. So, here are some songs from new releases (and one that is a year old) which I am listening to at the moment.

Tift Merritt – Keep You Happy.mp3
Tift Merritt – Morning Is My Destination.mp3
I can’t claim to know much about Tift Merritt. The new album, Another Country, is her third. I have not heard the previous albums, but the buzz has been good. Another Country may become Merritt’s breakthrough album. Merritt swings between country, alt.country and folk-pop, which places her alongside the adorable Mindy Smith, another singer who is receiving attention only in her 30s. Another Country is a gentle but engaging exercise, one for Sunday mornings. Keep You Happy, with its Wilcoesque guitar, has a depth which may at first not be apparent, while Morning Is My Destination fuses alt.country sounds (even more Wilco guitar here) with classic country rock.
Tift Merritt on MySpace

Landon Pigg – Falling In Love At A Coffee Shop.mp3
Another singer-songwriter with shaggy hair and a funny name… His 2006 solo album, titled LP, was a pleasant folk-pop effort, but lacked a killer track. Pigg delivers such a track with Falling In Love At A Coffee Shop, an entirely sweet acoustic song which will doubtless end up on the soundtrack of a quirky independent movie (think Garden State). This is a song that should have featured in the Love Songs for Every Situation series (guess in which part). I hope the coffee shop in question an independent joint, not bloody Starbucks. And I hope that Pigg won’t sell his soul by letting Starbucks use this song for an advertising campaign; the song is far too lovely to be tainted by the stink of capitalist globalisation.

Tristan Prettyman – Madly.mp3
I loved Tristan’s 2005 debut album, Twentythree, a slice of California Dreaming which was trumped last year by Colbie Caillat’s entirely lovable album. I had sort of hoped that Tristan would in turn trump Colbie with more of the same. Instead, on her second album, Hello, Tristan suggests musical growth, and a welcome country influence. The beach vibe is still evident (see Madly), but many tracks are darker and more complex than those on the debut (California Girl sounds nothing like the title suggests). At first I was thrown by this; my expectations thrown, I was disappointed after the first listen. Having put the thing on rotation for a bit, I’m falling for it. (More Tristan Prettyman here)

Joshua Radin & Ingrid Michaelson – Sky.mp3
Joshua Radin’s We Were Here album was my album of 2006. I love the man’s gentle voice, his Drake-channelling acoustic sound, and I really enjoy his lyrics. I’ve read that Radin’s soft sound was forced by their production in a NYC flat. Sky, his new duet with the wonderful Ingrid Michaelson is upbeat and poppier than previous material. The rest of the four-song Unclear Sky EP (an iTunes special described by the singer as a teaser for the upcoming album) is more like the Radin we know, understated and intimate. Lovely Tonight, which should be on the CD later this year, is a gorgeous duet with Catherine Feeny, one of my favourite songbirds (whom I featured here), featuring guitar work by Ryan Adams. (More Joshua Radin here and here)

Counting Crows – When I Dream Of Michelangelo.mp3
Adam Duritz and pals are releasing their first studio album in five years, following the critical failure Hard Candy. Actually, there was much that is good on Hard Candy, though the true quality of some of the tracks revealed themselves only when performed live, as the fine New Amsterdam live album showed. Listening to Counting Crows albums requires patience; not unlike hearing an album by their spiritual godfathers, The Band. On my first listen, I didn’t much like the new album, Saturday Nights And Sunday Mornings. After the second listen, I liked it better. A few listens further, and I’m sold on much of the album. Apparently the first, rockier half is a band effort, while the second, more reflective half is something of a Duritz solo project (as if anyone ever remembers any of the other Crows). The tracks I’m posting are the immediate stand-outs; the former a rock tune in the manner of The Band, the latter a slow-burner in the manner of, er, The Band.
Counting Crows homepage

Laura Veirs – Saltbreakers.mp3
Laura Veirs – Pink Light.mp3
Laura Veirs on MySpace