The year is swiftly drawing to a close, and it is time once again to write about the best music, films, and books that I have had the pleasure to hear, see, or read. Normally I look back over the previous 12 months, but this year, as we are nearing the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it seems an opportune time to cast a wider net.
I am planning a series of five posts, on popular music records, popular music songs (“hit singles”), classical music, films, and books. In previous years I have admitted for consideration anything I heard, saw, or read during the year, regardless of when it was originally released or published, but this year, to make things manageable, I will confine myself to things which were actually released or published between 2000 and 2009.
In this first post the topic is popular music. My initial short list consisted of about 40 albums. After long hours of re-listening I whittled the list down to 10 stellar records, along with a few runners-up. I tried ranking the final 10, but the rank order was unstable from one day to the next, so I have settled on a simple chronological list.
Without further ado:
16 Horsepower — Secret South : It would not be true to say that the music of 16 Horsepower had no antecedents. Country singers had been shouting about God and the Devil for a long time, but not often with the fervent intensity that the band’s singer, David Eugene Edwards, brought to his songs. He came from Denver, but he sounded like he’d come out of the woods, down from the hills, and he bore an unwelcome message for our troubled times: repent, every one of you, for the Almighty is near, and He is not tame. The sonic backdrop for Eugene’s wild-eyed evangel was a swirl of twangy banjos, wheezing accordions, and reeling fiddles, often in minor keys and dark tones. This unique sound has since been given a label — “Gothic Americana” — and a long parade of bands have lately begun to ape it, but, as is so often the case, the originators do it best. Of 16 Horsepower’s 5 full-length albums, Secret South is the strongest — indeed, it is terrific from start to finish. In some ways it is mellower than their other work, but the songs have great atmosphere. It includes, in “Praying Arm Lane”, one of my favourite gospel songs of recent memory, as well as two very good cover songs (the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger” and Bob Dylan’s “Nobody ‘Cept You”, another gem from his warehouse of unreleased songs). This record is not to be missed.
Leonard Cohen — Ten New Songs : Everybody knows that Cohen is a great songwriter. The quality of his specifically musical inspiration, not to mention his taste in arrangements, might sometimes justly be in doubt, but when the words are as carefully wrought as his there is something to be said for not letting the music distract too much. On Ten New Songs the music and the delivery are relaxed, even cool, but this doesn’t prevent the songs from being intense and probing. There is nothing here to rival the political and cultural critique that we heard on The Future, but somehow this record goes even deeper into the longing and brokenness of the human spirit. Ultimately it is a beautiful and hopeful collection of songs, his strongest since 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen. It would be difficult to think of higher praise (unless it be that my wife votes this record “Album of the Decade”).
Gillian Welch – Time (The Revelator) : Country music from the borderland of sleep. It’s mellow and ruminative, perhaps sometimes in danger of becoming somnolent, but if you’re in the right mood this is a really terrific record. The songwriting, which takes a few hallucinogenic tips from Dylan’s playbook, is uniformly strong and evocative. Though Welch gets top billing this is really a partnership, with her austere voice tastefully but very imaginatively supported by David Rawlings’ intricate guitar playing. I won’t say this record surpasses 1996’s Revival, but it is a near thing.
Tom Waits – Alice : Tom Waits released two records simultaneously in 2002: Alice and Blood Money. The latter was the noisier and more violent of the two, and I have not returned to it often. Alice, on the other hand, I have found to be a winsome record, very much worth getting to know. Apart from the eruption of phlegm that is “Kommienezuspadt” (a song which properly belonged on Blood Money), Waits filled this album with quiet and moody melodies, gently sanded by his graveled voice, and music that sounds like an old, creaky house. As he is wont to do, he populated the songs with oddball characters whom, it seems, would be more at home in a circus funhouse than in the real world. In some cases this leads to genuinely disquieting results (“Poor Edward”), but more often, on Alice at least, it is sweetly endearing. I think this is one of Waits’ best records.
Johnny Cash – Unearthed : Johnny Cash died in the fall of 2003, and we lost one of the truly great figures in American music. In the decade before his death he had experienced a bona fide late-career renaissance, having made, beginning with American Recordings in 1994, five outstanding records in collaboration with producer Rick Rubin. Several months after his death Unearthed was released. It is a 5-disc set of outtakes, alternate versions, new songs, and duets which were recorded during the sessions for his Rubin records. It is a marvellous collection of songs. The first disc mainly consists of outtakes from the American Recordings sessions. Like the rest of that record, it is just Cash and his guitar, singing some great old songs (“Flesh and Blood” and “Dark as a Dungeon” being favourites). The second disc finds Cash backed up by a full band, singing covers of songs by the likes of Neil Young (“Pocahontas”, “Heart of Gold”), Jimmie Rodgers (“T for Texas”), and Steve Earle (“Devil’s Right Hand”). The third disc is similar and includes an excellent cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and a duet — a duet, if you can believe it — with Nick Cave. The fourth disc is the best of the bunch: titled My Mother’s Hymn Book, it has Cash singing a set of old gospel standards like “When the Roll is Called up Yonder”, “Softly and Tenderly”, and “In the Sweet By and By”. The combination of that tremendous voice with those wonderful songs is something to treasure. The final disc is a “Best Of” collection of songs culled from the first four Rubin recordings. (The fifth Rubin record, A Hundred Highways, was released posthumously in 2006.) By any reasonable measure, this is a major contribution to Cash’s discography, and that makes it a major contribution to popular music.
Sufjan Stevens – Come on, Feel the Illinoise! : Were I forced to choose an “Album of the Decade” I would probably choose this one. It’s not perfect, but it is so rich in wonders that I have returned to it again and again with joy. Sufjan Stevens had released a few indie records before this one, but none of them really indicated what he was capable of. Illinoise is a pop-orchestral masterpiece, with bleating horns, shimmering flutes, jaunty drums, witty chorus, and Sufjan’s idiosyncratic songs — all of them about the great state of Illinois — holding it all together. The record’s main flaw is its lack of discipline: it sprawls all over the place, with delicate and finely crafted little songs rubbing up against exuberant circus music and soundscape experiments, and the song titles spilling out uncontrollably, but in the end it is this very surplus of energy that makes it such an enchanting, life-affirming, and joyful record. It’s a real treat.
Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood : This decade was a great one for Neko Case. In addition to an EP and two live albums, she made a string of four excellent records (Furnace Room Lullaby, Blacklisted, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, and Middle Cyclone). I have had some difficulty deciding which of them to include on this list, but in the end I settled on Fox Confessor. Case has a lot of things going for her: enigmatic but engaging songwriting, a terrific voice, and good looks. Her songs have no padding: she gets right to the point, delivers the goods, and then moves on. At times this can give them a fragmentary feel, their full potential left untapped, but it hardly matters when her inspiration is evidently so fresh and prolific. I came late in the decade to her music, only in the past year going back and listening to her previous records, and I am very glad that I did. (Thank you, Nick.)
Joel Frederiksen – The Elfin Knight: Ballads and Dances : This is the only record on this list that qualifies as popular music in the strict sense — that is, music of the people. It is a collection of folk songs and dances from Britain and America, mostly dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Joel Frederiksen has a resonant and warm bass voice, and he is joined by the singers and instrumentalists of the period group Ensemble Phoenix Munich. The performances are tasteful and idiomatic, and far better than is typical in this repertoire. The selection of songs includes some well-known classics (“Barbara Ellen”, “Scarborough Faire”), but also a nice variety of less famous but nonetheless wonderful folk songs (“The Lover’s Tasks”, “Fortune, my foe”), and even a humorous bawdy song (“Watkin’s Ale”). I don’t know how many times I have played this record during the past three years, but I have probably listened to it more than any other. It is excellent. (Read more.)
Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight : This was an indie album that became a surprise hit (a critical hit, anyway) for Frightened Rabbit, who hail from Glasgow. It is an extraordinary record on a few counts. First is the spontaneity and immediacy of the music making. These guys had no idea they were making a record that would be heard by a large audience, and they probably didn’t have much money to put into it, but they had some songs and they needed to play them with all their hearts. They did themselves proud. They are brash, earnest, and vulnerable, with singer Scott Hutchison’s voice sometimes breaking under the strain, but the result has a rough beauty. The song lyrics, mostly on (post-)romantic themes, are occasionally flat-footed, and they are laced throughout with obscenities — Frightened Rabbit are Glaswegians, after all — but the songs are unfailingly tuneful and memorable. On acquaintance, however, the greatest merit of the record becomes evident: it is a portrait of the spiritual desolation visited upon so many of my generation. Musings about death and nothingness, sex and loneliness, meaninglessness and desperation appear again and again through these songs. In this respect it resembles Counting Crows’ fine recent album Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, but whereas those songs were written to theme intentionally and artfully, here everything is unselfconscious, and all the better for it. Listen, and enjoy, but not too much.
Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes : Fleet Foxes is another young band to have a hit (a critical hit, anyway) in 2008 with their debut record. In some respects they are the antidote to Frightened Rabbit. Their music is simply gorgeous. The arrangements are spare but not spartan, the songs are plaintive and cryptic, if perhaps a little too homogeneous, and the long and beautiful melodies are juiced up with ravishing vocal harmonies that dazzled me on my first listen, and kept dazzling me each time I returned to them. Fleet Foxes’ musical touchstone is The Band, as near as I can tell, and their music has that mature, knowing assurance that normally comes only with long experience. It astonishes me that they are all young men, just starting out. Fleet Foxes is a great record, and a very promising beginning.
Sam Phillips – Fan Dance : A smoky record of tightly written songs that suit Phillips’ dry voice and terse lyrics perfectly. This is the best of the three very good records she made this decade. Songs: “Five Colors” (listen); “Taking Pictures” (listen) [This song includes a wonderful line that always makes me smile: "Nostalgia isn't what it used to be".]
Radiohead - Hail to the Thief : I am well aware that Radiohead is one of the “important” bands of the decade. The trouble is that I don’t actually enjoy listening to their music all that much. I find that on Hail to the Thief their inhuman tendencies are least pronounced. Songs: “2+2=5″ (listen); “I Will” (listen)
The Innocence Mission – Befriended : This is as far from Radiohead as one can get. Befriended sounds like it was made in a living room, and the songs are lovely and delicate. Karen Peris is a distinctive songwriter, and her light-as-a-feather voice is well-suited to this collection of quiet, reflective songs. Songs: “I Never Knew You From the Sun” (listen); “Tomorrow on the Runway” (listen)
Buddy Miller – Universal United House of Prayer : A very strong record that mixes country, blues, and gospel. It includes two of the best cover songs that I heard this decade: Mark Heard’s “Worry Too Much” and Bob Dylan’s “With God on our Side”. Buddy Miller’s voice is a chief attraction, and his gutsy guitar playing is another. This might be his best record overall. Songs: “Shelter Me” (listen); “With God on our Side” (listen)
That’s the way “the noughties” sounded to me. If you have a record that you think deserves to be included among the “Best of the Decade”, I’m all ears.
- Rolling Stone has published their Top 100 Albums of the decade. If I counted correctly, 5 of my Top 10 were included on their list. They didn’t do too badly.