These selections are drawn from music to which I have been listening in 2008, but not necessarily from music first released this year.
It seems that with each passing year the amount of popular music to which I listen decreases. I find that most of it is simply not interesting enough as music to hold my attention. Nonetheless, a few albums did catch my fancy.
Pride of place goes to Bob Dylan’s two-disc collection of studio outtakes and live recordings Tell Tale Signs. Even the stuff Dylan leaves off his records is better than what most people put on theirs, so it is good to have these songs collected in one place. I know that not everyone has been enamored of this set, and in truth I could have done without some of the live tracks in which Bob’s singing is frankly abysmal, but when it’s good it’s really good. “Red River Shore”, “I Can’t Escape From You”, and “Cross the Green Mountain” are the highlights for me, the first of them especially is one of the best songs he’s written in decades. I also like the acoustic versions of some familiar songs that were “amped up” (and so, generally speaking, “dialed down” in my estimation) on their official album releases. One of the best appreciations of Tell Tale Signs that I’ve seen comes from Andy Whitman; I am in agreement with him.
Another album released this year that I really enjoyed was Sam Phillips’ Don’t Do Anything. First of all, I like the idea of not doing anything, so I was in sympathy with her from the start. Second, these are smart, carefully constructed songs that generously repay close listening. I’ve admired Sam Phillips since the early 1990s, but her last three albums (Fan Dance (2001), A Boot and a Shoe (2004), and now this one) have been especially outstanding. She has been honing her songwriting craft, trimming away all excess until what remains is lean and potent. The songs are as enigmatic as ever, but that’s just encouragement to listen to them again, and she’s got a superb band behind her that provides nuanced support. (promotional video [for some reason the sound in the video is boxier than on the disc])
Finally, this year I acquired Close Harmony, a big collection honouring the recorded legacy of the Louvin Brothers. Their music making always drew on the deepest roots of country music, and few expressed that tradition better than they did. If sweet country harmonies, tragic ballads, and plaintive gospel songs are to your taste, you must hear them. For me, this collection has been very enriching. (video clip)
Notable: I suppose everybody knows that Guns N’ Roses finally released their album Chinese Democracy this year. I’d not say this is properly-speaking one of my favourite albums of the year, but I did notice it. Their last album of original songs came out in 1991, when I was in high school, so it has been a long wait. Despite its dumb title, Chinese Democracy is actually pretty good. From the beginning Guns N’ Roses were better than just about anyone at straight-up rock and roll, and while this album doesn’t have the energy and spontaneity of Appetite for Destruction (I imagine it is difficult to be spontaneous when you’re spending $1 million to record each song), nor the sweeping ambition of the Use Your Illusion albums, and though none of its songs have the catchy hook of “Sweet Child O’Mine” and nothing breaks from the gates like “You Could Be Mine”, Axl Rose shows that he is still deserves his rock n’ roll credentials. His trademark banshee squeal is unfortunately quite moderated on several of the songs.
Maybe it doesn’t really belong on a classical music list – it has more in common with the Louvin Brothers than with Leonard Bernstein – but it is on a classical label and is sold in the classical section at the store, so I’m filing it here. I am referring to The Elfin Knight: Ballads and Dances, an album about which I have written before. It is a collection of English folksongs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (primarily), sung by the wonderful baritone Joel Frederiksen with accompaniment from a subtle and very musical band on traditional instruments. The songs are pure gold. This is the disc I listened to more than any other this year. (Music Note; eMusic clips)
Another disc I wrote about earlier this year was the dismally-titled Heavenly Harmonies. There was nothing dismal, however, about the music or the performances. The young British choir Stile Antico put together a really engaging and intelligent program of music by William Byrd and Thomas Tallis designed to highlight the contrasting musical traditions – roughly speaking, Catholic and Protestant – that existed in Elizabethan England. The contributions by Tallis are sturdy and tuneful, and beautifuly sung, but the real glories of this disc are the elaborate Latin motets by William Byrd. This music has been sung and recorded many times, but seldom as well as it is here. (Music Note; eMusic clips)
Last year for Christmas my darling gave me a box containing Riccardo Chailly’s cycle of the Mahler symphonies, played by Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Over a period of several months I listened to the entire cycle, and it was one of the great musical experiences of my year. These recordings have been widely praised, not only for their intense musicality, but for the amazing clarity and presence of the sound. They really are spectacular to behold. It is the only full cycle of the symphonies by a single conductor and orchestra that I have heard, so I cannot really say how it stands up against Bernstein or Bertini or Tennstedt, but I can say that I’d have no qualms about recommending it.
As regular readers will know, 2008 was the centennary of the birth of Olivier Messiaen. I listened to a lot of Messiaen this year! Perhaps the most curious and delightful thing I came across in the course of my binge listening was a recording of La Fête des Belles Eaux. Incredibly, this is the work’s first recording. Messiaen composed it for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, and the music was meant to accompany a water and light show. Much of the charm of the piece – and a sure clue to why it is performed so rarely – comes from the fact that it is written for an ensemble of six ondes Martenot. The ondes Martenot is one of those instruments, like the arpeggione, the sarrusophone, and (let us hope) the didgeridoo, that seemed like a good idea at the time, but which passed out of favour and into forgetfulness without leaving much of a mark. Messiaen wrote for it frequently, but is probably the only major composer to have done so. In fact the ondes Martenot is not entirely obsolete, just awfully obscure. McGill University in Montreal is one of the few schools to offer a degree program in the instrument, and so it is not surprising to learn that this recording was made in Montreal. It is an electronic keyboard instrument that can alter its timbre, but it sounds roughly like a cross between a clarinet, an organ, a flute, and the dreaded Moog machine. Here it sounds sleek and perky. Those familiar with Messiaen’s Quatour pour le fin du temps may be surprised to hear how the quiet sections of La Fête des Belles Eaux anticipate the meditative, transcendent qualities of that more famous work. (eMusic clips; promotional video)
Finally, I am in agreement with Alex Ross that Andreas Scholl’s recital entitled Crystal Tears is one of the great records of the year. Scholl is probably the leading counter-tenor singing today; he has a rich, pure voice that I find quite alluring. This recital draws on songs by Renaissance composers like John Dowland, Robert Johnson, and William Byrd, and is filled out by delicate instrumental pieces for lute and viols. Collections of this sort have appeared before, but Crystal Tears is distinguished by its intensely atmospheric recording, its feeling of unity, and the sheer beauty of Scholl’s voice. Outstanding. (eMusic clips; promotional video)