Posts Tagged ‘Leonard Cohen’

Pop music odyssey: the 1980s

March 15, 2015

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Alright, enough of that.

I have completed another decade of my pop music odyssey, and I’m here to offer a few thoughts. The 1980s are, in my imagination, a kind of desolation for popular music, when the airwaves were ruled by — well, by nobody in this odyssey. Quite a few of the albums I listened to since my last report were new to me, so I have taken my time, listening to many of them numerous times in an effort to get a good sense of them.

This leg of the journey has been composed of 13 albums by Van Morrison (where, as usual, I count bootlegs and live recordings too), 12 by Dylan, 10 by Neil Young, 6 by Tom Waits, 5 by Mark Heard (about whom more below), and a pair each by Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen.

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In my notes on the 1970s I deftly skirted the matter of Dylan’s gospel records, but I suppose I should say something here. The gospel period began with 1978’s Slow Train Coming and continued up through … well, it’s not entirely clear. There is no doubt that Saved and Shot of Love belong in this group, and I think it is pretty clear that 1983’s Infidels also belongs, but things get a little hazier when we come to Empire Burlesque a year later. A case could even be made for Oh Mercy — indeed, a case could be made for every album he’s made since.

If we stick just with the least ambiguous cases, it is fair to say that I don’t greatly care for Dylan’s gospel records. Too often angry, too often hectoring, too often downright paranoid — I find little to like. I want to honour the sincerity of Dylan’s religious convictions, which burned up in short order the goodwill he had storehoused with critics and the left-leaning social elites who had cherished him in the 1960s. Songs like “I Believe in You” and “Pressing On” are obviously the work of a man who has turned to God with his whole heart. But I cannot help thinking it a pity that the Christianity into which he converted was in the Hal-Lindsay-laced apocalyptic style, suspicious and rather shallow. Perhaps it was fitting that this most iconic of American talents should adopt a characteristically American branch of religion, I don’t know. But I wonder sometimes, late at night, what might have come if that seed had fallen into richer, more balanced, more nourishing soil. We’ll never know.

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Dylan has never been scrupulous about putting his best music onto his records, but the 1980s were an especially unscrupulous period for him. You can count on the fingers of one hand the truly great songs he put on his records during these years: “Every Grain of Sand”, “I and I”, and a few from Oh Mercy. One could make a case for a few others: “Sweetheart Like You”, “Brownsville Girl”, depending on how generous one feels.

But then consider the songs he wrote and left off his records: “Angelina”, “Caribbean Wind”, “Blind Willie McTell”, “Born in Time”, “Dignity”, “Series of Dreams”, “Foot of Pride” — all of them pure gold. That, in a nutshell, is what makes Dylan in the 1980s such a frustrating listen.

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Favourite anecdote:

Dylan: “How long did it take you to write “Hallelujah”?

Cohen: “About two years. How long did it take you to write “Isis”?”

Dylan: “About fifteen minutes.”

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The plan all along was for this odyssey to focus on a core group of artists, but to pull in others as my fancy led. Thus a few Nick Cave records were included during this leg of the journey, but I also decided to fold in the music — more or less all of it — of Mark Heard. Heard was a songwriter and singer who toiled without much recognition in the “contemporary Christian music” world until his early and unexpected death in 1992. I wanted to include him because most of his early work (beginning in 1975) was unknown to me, and because in the early 1990s he made three truly outstanding records that can stand toe-to-toe with anything else in this odyssey. Maybe I just wanted to hear those records again, in context.

Anyway, I did backtrack to 1975 and listened all the way up through Mosaics, from 1985. (I wasn’t able to find his side-project record, Ideola, from 1987.) I admit I was disappointed. Heard started out as a kind of James Taylor character, plucking his guitar and singing in a sweet tenor. Production values on those early records are poor — the sound is generally thin and flat — and, what surprised me more, the songwriting is pedestrian. In his last years Heard became one of the most incisive and personal songwriters that I’ve ever encountered, but in the beginning he was, it seems, not that. Those early songs are mostly one-dimensional, overtly and rather carefully pious, sometimes hokey, and generally forgettable. But there were signs here and there of things to come: an evocative little song called “All the Sleepless Dreamers” popped up on Fingerprint (1980), and as the years passed his sound became rougher around the edges, the voice more ragged, and the songwriting more thoughtful and probing, until I could hear the whole Mosaics (1985) record as a bridge to his first masterpiece, Dry Bones Dance (1990). It was an interesting and rewarding side-journey, even if it didn’t turn up as much gold as I’d hoped it would.

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Most With Least Award: Van Morrison, “Daring Night” (from Avalon Sunset). There can’t be more than 3 or 4 lines in this song, but Van spins from them a pretty terrific 6 minutes of music.

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Neil Young in the 1970s was great; Neil Young in the 1980s was the opposite. Was he ever. Starting with 1980’s Hawks and Doves and continuing up through 1988’s This Note’s for You he released a string of 8 albums that could only be described as mediocre by an unusually generous listener. He seems to have temporarily mislaid his artistic identity, experimenting with whole records devoted to computer music (the execrable Trans (1983)), rockabilly (the likable but weird Everybody’s Rockin’ (1984)), and flipping from country to jazz to ill-judged synth-pop. A mess. And the songs were no good either, for the most part.

Now, it seems that at least part of the reason his music suffered so badly in this period was because, though he had a contractual obligation to release one record each year, his time and energy were absorbed in caring for his son, who had been born with a disability. In this sense his artistic declension was an honourable one, and I do not hesitate to praise his priorities, but honour and praise do not make the declension any less real.

He rallied, however, at the end of the decade, with Freedom, which saw him return to an even-more-crazed-than-usual Crazy-Horse style of fuzz-drenched rock. I’m not enamoured of the songs for the most part, but the sound of that record is outstanding: once again he is vital and passionate and really, really loud, and it suits him. “Rockin’ in the Free World” became a hit, making it perhaps the bitterest, most ironic stadium anthem ever written.

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Literary figures named in Van Morrison’s songs of the 1980s: Blake, Wordsworth, Rimbaud, Lawrence, Eliot, Whitman, Yeats, Donne, Coleridge, Gibran. That’s off the top of my head. Does Gibran count as a literary figure?

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The 1980s were an exciting time for Tom Waits. It was, arguably, the decade in which he did his best work, and in which he reinvented his sound. The down-and-out lounge poet was replaced by some kind of maniac wielding a monkey wrench and milk bucket and gargling razor blades. The transition was especially sharp between 1982’s Night on Earth soundtrack, with its orchestral score and gravelly love duets, and 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, with its bagpipes, bang-on-a-can percussion, and phalanx of (yes) trombones. It was a tremendously good move for Waits; it opened up a whole new world of sound and songwriting that he has explored for the rest of his career. And yet, as I listened through the records, the sharp lines between this and that began to blur a little. Swordfishtrombones was indeed a radical record, but Rain Dogs, from 1985, seemed to backpeddle a little and it is not too hard to hear continuity with 1980’s Heartattack and Vine, especially on the more “conventional” numbers like “Hang Down Your Head” and “Downtown Train”. Rain Dogs set a template for his future work, in which hallucinogenic croakings often sit comfortably cheek-by-jowel with endearingly downtrodden sentimental numbers. It’s a winning combination, and one unique to Waits.

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I am convinced that three songs on Dylan’s Oh Mercy are masterpieces, but which three varies day to day.

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As much as I count myself an admirer of Van Morrison, his records from the 1980s I have tended to neglect. Part of the fun of this odyssey is that I have opportunity to revisit and revise my thoughts, and I have been favourably impressed by these records.

I think it is fair to say that his mid-decade albums — from 1982’s Beautiful Vision up through 1987’s Poetic Champions Compose — suffer, if that is the right word, from a certain homogeneity. It is not always quite evident where one record ends and the next begins. Roughly speaking, the production values are slightly gauzy and there is a proliferation of mid-tempo musings. But if you can get past that the truth is that there are quite a few excellent songs to be discovered, and, more than that, there is a compelling through-line that makes of these records a unity greater than that afforded by mere musical similarities. He is stalking the holy. He is a dweller on the threshold of the transcendent. So many of these songs are about trying to grasp the ineffable, to behold a primordial beauty, to put himself in the way of ecstatic delight. “I’m a soul in wonder!” In these records — and it is a unifying thread through his whole catalogue, not just here — he is on an inner odyssey. And while it is true that he seems to be at heart beholden to the Romantic tradition of seeking a non-dogmatic transcendence (mediated most intensely through literature and art and nature), in his murky wanderings he does occasionally butt up against the solidity of religion. It’s a fascinating body of work, and I am thoroughly enjoying the time I am spending exploring it.

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I’ll close with some lists. First, my favourite odyssey-albums from the 1980s, in rough descending order:

Tom Waits — Rain Dogs (1985)
Bob Dylan — Oh Mercy (1989)
Tom Waits — Swordfishtrombones (1983)
Van Morrison — Avalon Sunset (1989)
Bob Dylan — Infidels (1983)
Van Morrison — No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)
Leonard Cohen — I’m Your Man (1988)
Van Morrison — Beautiful Vision (1982)
Neil Young — Freedom (1989)
Van Morrison — Common One (1980)

The first four I consider essential. Not perfect, and not as masterful masterpieces as the same singers produced at other times, but they are records that I can, and do, listen to again and again, and they bear the scrutiny.

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Choosing a list of just ten favourite songs is tough, but since I am forced to do so by arbitrary convention, here I go:

Leonard Cohen — “If It Be Your Will” (Various Positions)
Bob Dylan — “Blind Willie McTell” (Infidels sessions)
Tom Waits — “Johnsburg, IL” (Swordfishtrombones)
Bob Dylan — “Foot of Pride” (Infidels sessions)
Bob Dylan — “Shooting Star” (Oh Mercy)
Bob Dylan — “I and I” (Infidels)
Van Morrison — “Summertime in England” (Common One)
Van Morrison — “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God?” (AS)
Tom Waits — “Jersey Girl” (Heartattack and Vine)
Van Morrison — “In the Garden” (No Guru)

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What was the worst album in this leg of the odyssey? Going in I expected it to be Dylan & The Dead, the concert album that Dylan recorded with the Grateful Dead in 1987. I’d never heard it, but its noxious reputation has achieved canonical status. To my surprise, I found it not all that bad! Bad, yes, but not greatly worse than many of his other live albums, and — more to the point — nowhere near as bad as Neil Young’s Trans, as ill-conceived and unlistenable a record as I have ever heard. It takes the broken palm.

As for worst song, I’m going to stick with Neil Young again. So many candidates! How about “T-Bone”, from Re-ac-tor (1981)? There is just one line in the song: “Got mashed potatoes, ain’t got no T-bone”, repeated ad nauseum. The song is over nine minutes long.

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Next time: the 1990s.

Varieties of wild mountain avalanche

January 21, 2015

Today I’d like to share a couple of curiosities that I have encountered during my pop music odyssey. I am currently working my way through the music of the early 1980s, which means that I am shuffling into the deck, for the first time, the music of Nick Cave. Tonight I began listening to his debut solo album, From Her to Eternity, the very first song of which is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche”.

This is interesting because although both Cohen and Cave are singing the same song, the songs are radically different. Each singer has stamped it with his own distinctive personality. Cave, in particular, has taken the song and made it totally his own. In my experience, this degree of assimilation of a cover song, in which a singer seems to inhabit and alter a song that we already thought we knew, is quite rare. And I like it.

Actually, to be strictly honest, I don’t like Cave’s version, just as I don’t like being threatened and frightened in a dark alley, and for much the same reasons. Cave scares me. But I admire what he’s done; I like that he is a force to be reckoned with.

Let’s hear the songs. Here is Cohen’s original:

And here is Cave’s version:

This is not the first time this phenomenon of the absorbed, pondered, and reborn cover song has impressed me during my odyssey. Back in the early 1970s I came across a Van Morrison song that I had not noted before, and I loved, loved, loved it. The song was “Purple Heather”, and it was a thing of beauty:

I heard the song numerous times before I realized that it was a song I already knew: the old folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme”, but so thoroughly and idiomatically reinterpreted so as to be almost unrecognizable. It’s a wonderful thing.

If you don’t know the original, here it is, sung by Emmylou Harris, Dick Gaughan, Rufus Wainwright, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. That’s a room full of talent if I’ve ever seen one.

Favourites of 2014: Popular music

January 5, 2015

To be honest, I have hesitated to write a retrospective about the popular music I’ve enjoyed this year. As my leisure time has been squeezed I have had to prioritize, and more often than not I simply never get to those things that are second or third on the priority list — like popular music. And this year most of my pop music time has been devoted to that pop music odyssey, about which I have already been writing. So it is not clear that I have much of interest to say.

As if to drive the point home, when I look at a list of 2014’s critical darlings, I’ve heard only 2 or 3 of the top 20, and I haven’t even heard of many more. In the past few days Jeffrey Overstreet has been writing extensively about his favourite records of 2014; his tastes overlap to a large extent with mine, but even so many of the records he praises are new to me. When you’re done here — it won’t take long — I recommend you go over there. (Part 1, Part 2)

Anyway, on paper I was excited about new records from Joe Henry, U2, and Taylor Swift this year, but for various reasons they failed to make a good impression on me. Joe Henry’s latest, Invisible Hour, I believe to be a great record, but I believe it strictly on the testimony of those to whom its greatness is evident; I myself do not perceive it, and this makes me feel rather bad about myself. I was keen when I first heard of U2’s What Was It Called Again?, but it seems to me a pretty indifferent record, nowhere near U2 at their best; for years now I have been awaiting their rumoured collection of songs based on the Psalms, rumoured to be called Songs of Ascent, but rumour has it that we have to keep waiting. As for Taylor Swift: my fears have been realized. I complained last time about the noisy pop posturing of the biggest hits from her last record, and sadly 1989 is cut wholesale from the same glittery cloth. Garish. There are still glimmers here and there of the girl I used to know — I quite like the back-half of “You Are In Love” — but on this record she has mostly been smothered by The Machine, or so it seems to me.

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cohen-problemsWhich brings us to the one record from 2014 that I am truly fond of: Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems. I wasn’t sure we would get another record from Cohen, and then suddenly there it was, an unmerited gift. It’s a strong collection of songs, with a production that is lusher and warmer than was the case on his previous record, Old Ideas, closer to a record like Ten New Songs. Though I am not sure I like the album quite as much as I did his previous effort, and while there does seem to be something unbecoming about an octogenerian tossing off double-entendres, in the end this record has found a place in my heart. If its last song, “You Got Me Singing”, should turn out to be Cohen’s last, it will be a most fitting departure. But I hope that it will not be his last.

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oh-hellosWhen Mumford & Sons announced in 2013 that they would be on extended hiatus, part of me began quietly casting about for someone or something to take their place — that is, someone or something that would unite spiritual sensitivity with accessible roots rock and hipster sartorial excellence. It was then that I stumbled upon The Oh Hellos, who are doing very well on the first two criteria and failing decisively on the third. It’s good enough. The Oh Hellos are a brother and sister duo, Tyler and Maggie Heath, hailing from Texas. To date they have issued an EP (2011) and one full length record (2012), plus a Christmas EP. They are not as hip or as groovy as Mumford & Sons, and not as photogenic as Mumford & Sons, but the comparisons are most invidious only where they matter least. Where they matter most — in the quality of the songs — The Oh Hellos are very interesting indeed. When they sing, “We were young when we heard you call our names in the silence / Like a fire in the dark / Like a sword upon our hearts,” I, for one, feel like I have found a songwriter who is getting to the heart of things. There’s a lot of that sort of thing in their songs: sorrow and trouble, but rumours of glory whispering from between the lines. At the end of the day, I do not know very much about The Oh Hellos, but I like what I hear, and I recommend them for your consideration.

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Other records I enjoyed, just not enough to write about them: Loudon Wainwright III, Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet); The Lone Bellow, The Lone Bellow.

Pop music odyssey: the 1970s

December 11, 2014

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Another leg of my pop music odyssey has been completed, and I offer a few quick notes. This stage of the journey included sixteen records by Bob Dylan (including some live albums and bootlegs), fourteen by Neil Young, twelve by Van Morrison, ten by Tom Waits, seven by Leonard Cohen, and just one by the Beatles (to whom we now bid farewell). It has been a long road, and I’ve had to watch my step.

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When I listen through Dylan’s records from the early 1970s — and here I am thinking of Self Portrait, New Morning, and Planet Waves, principally — I cannot but be curious about the precipitous decline in his standards. His albums from the 1960s were among the greatest on record. In retrospect I would argue that 1969’s Nashville Skyline was an ill omen, the promise of which was to be so sadly realized in the records that followed. In truth these records are not quite so bad as their reputations would suggest, considered in themselves; they are dismal, but it is by way of comparison with what had come before that they appear so crushingly dismal.

If one goes rummaging about in the statements Dylan has made about this period a few possible reasons for this appalling state of affairs can be discerned. One possibility is that Dylan had decided to make bad records; this might be thought a fancy concocted by his fans to save his face, but in fact there may be a real kernel of truth in it. This was the period of Woodstock, when Dylan was still being lauded as “the voice of his generation”. He famously declined to appear at Woodstock, and he has said that he simply wanted to record songs that would disappoint all those who had saddled him with a role he did not want for himself. He wanted them off his back, so he decided to record songs to which they would be unable to relate. Framed in this way, as a joke born of a kind of existential crisis, these records can be seen as the work of a man of paradoxical courage who would destroy his reputation to save his life.

But there must be more to the story as well, for not only had he nearly stopped writing good songs, he nearly stopped writing altogether. It was his first extended period of writer’s block. His muse seems to have abandoned him.

And I think there was something else going on too, something which might have been related to the writer’s block, but was distinct from it. The songs he wrote during and after this period have a quality which was largely absent from his great songs of the 1960s, and that is a sincere concern with simple feelings and direct communication. For instance, one cannot imagine “Forever Young” appearing on one of his mid-to-late 1960s records; the sentiment is too honest and straightforward. Dylan has said that in this period he wanted to get out of the limelight, and to live a normal life with his wife and children. “I realized what I was missing,” he said. And I think it is possible that his efforts to deepen his own personal relationships, and to learn how to express those commonplace but no less genuine feelings, without resort to swirls of imagery or clever wordplay, may have simply taken some time. He was deepening his art, and he went slowly. Whether he ever fully succeeded, and whether his songwriting thereafter ever reached the heights that it had reached before, is arguable, but any case to the contrary will have to contend with the mighty Blood on the Tracks.

It should also be said that no appraisal of this particularly difficult section of Dylan’s discography, and especially no dismissal of it, can be credible if it fails to take into account the recently released Bootleg Series, Vol.10 — Another Self Portrait, which consists of outtakes from the Self Portrait and New Morning sessions. These previously unreleased versions of the songs are frequently greatly superior to the versions that Dylan originally released: they have more spark, more poise, better singing, and clearer arrangements. The contrast with what we thought we knew of those records rather tends to support the “intentionally bad” theory that I mentioned above.

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Tom Waits was the sole singer in this survey for whom all of his 1970s records were previously familiar to me. I have tended to divide Waits’ recording career into two or three phases: an early, somewhat anomalous, period in which he crooned at the piano (Closing Time and, to a lesser extent, The Heart of Saturday Night), a skid-row beat poet period (The Heart of Saturday Night up through Heartattack and Vine in 1980), followed by a sharp phase transition in the early 1980s when he ditched his piano and his jazz-trimming for a junkyard orchestra and a case of tuberculosis (starting with Swordfishtrombones). But this neat taxonomy has been upended by an encounter with a live bootleg recorded in Bremen in 1977. It’s a superb record, both sonically and for what it reveals about Waits’s development. It was astounding for me to hear an early song like “Depot, Depot”, which for me epitomizes his crooning period, rendered in such a way that it could fit comfortably next to a song like “Shore Leave” (from 1983). Many of the songs are like that. It was recorded with the same instrumental backing as on Small Change — to wit: piano, saxophone, upright bass, and drums — but it is so much more visceral and impolite and phlegm-laden than the studio albums of the same period that it is hard to believe it comes from 1977 and not a decade later. In any case, it’s a terrific concert recording, a very happy discovery for me, that illuminates Waits’ early career in a most satisfying way.

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In my summation of the 1960s leg of this odyssey, I noted that the Neil Young of the 1960s paled in comparison with the Neil Young of the 1970s, and it is true that he had a spectacularly good decade. He slipped rather easily into Dylan’s evacuated shoes with Harvest (1972), but his parallel work with Crazy Horse showed he could stomp around in big boots as well when the song called for it. Indeed, this is one of the most remarkable things about Young’s career: it’s bifurcation into a mellow, rootsy groove on one hand and a raucous, feedback-drenched noise on the other, not as phases in his “development” (as is often said of Dylan) but in tandem, and somehow the two sides don’t seem to be at odds with one another, and I think this is a testament to the strength and consistency of Young’s artistic vision. The perceived unity of his work is also due in part to that eerie, wavering voice, which always makes the song unmistakably his.

Young is probably the only singer under consideration in this odyssey whose music — the sheer sound he makes — is more interesting than the songs he writes. He has a gift for melody, and he has his moments as a songwriter, but for the most part I find his songs most attractive when I listen least attentively to what he is singing. I could not but be dismayed, for instance, when I discovered that when he sang that “A Man Needs a Maid,” he actually meant that a man needs a maid — you know, to clean his house. Even his best songs suffer a lyrical vacuousness: “You are like a hurricane / There’s calm in your eye / And I’m gettin’ blown away.” Thud. There’s a lot of that sort of thing in his catalogue. Where he is memorable, he is memorable principally for a musical hook, not a turn of phrase.

I think it is also worth noting the extent to which Young was, during this period (without necessarily implying a contrast with what came before or after), the conscience of rock and roll. His forays into political songwriting are mostly failures, but when he is personal he can be very incisive. He was particularly good at indicting the drug culture which took the lives of several of his friends and bandmates during the 1970s. “The Needle and the Damage Done” is probably the most famous instance of this, but there are others, and indeed whole records (Tonight’s the Night) devoted to exploring and exhibiting the personal cost and the terrible sadness of drug addiction. Given his times and his place, this was an honourable vocation.

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Allow me to present a list of my favourite odyssey-albums from the 1970s. I make no explicit claim that these are the “best” albums from this period, but such a claim might well be implicit. More or less in descending order:

Bob Dylan — Blood on the Tracks (1975)
Van Morrison — Veedon Fleece (1974)
Neil Young — Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Van Morrison — Moondance (1970)
Van Morrison — It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1974)
Tom Waits — Nighthawks at the Diner (1975)
Neil Young — Harvest (1972)
Van Morrison — Into the Music (1979)
Tom Waits — Live in Bremen (1977)
Van Morrison — Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972)

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Likewise, here are my ten favourite songs from this period. This was a tough list to put together, there being many good candidates. The list I came up with is a rather personal one; most of these songs are close to my heart. Again, in rough descending order:

Leonard Cohen — “Famous Blue Raincoat” (Love and Hate)
Van Morrison — “Country Fair” (Veedon Fleece)
Van Morrison — “Contemplation Rose” (1972, unreleased)
Van Morrison — “Into the Mystic” (Moondance)
Bob Dylan — “Tangled Up in Blue” (Blood on the Tracks)
Bob Dylan — “Idiot Wind” (Blood on the Tracks)
Van Morrison — “Full Force Gale” (Into the Music)
Van Morrison — “You Don’t Pull No Punches…” (Veedon Fleece)
Neil Young — “Needle and the Damage Done” (Harvest)
Van Morrison — “Madame Joy” (1972, unreleased)

Bob Dylan dominated the list from the 1960s, but here it is Van Morrison who makes the strongest showing. I’m not surprised by this — he wrote so many great songs in the 70s — but I am surprised that not a single song by Tom Waits made my list. There are a lot of Waits songs that I like, but when I put them up against this rather stiff competition I found that they couldn’t crack the top ten.

Those two “unreleased” songs by Van Morrison did eventually see the light of day on his 1991 back catalogue showcase The Philosopher’s Stone. Technically, then, they were “unreleased” only during the period under consideration. They are great songs nonetheless; it is a mystery why he left them off his records at the time.

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There wasn’t much point of doing so in the 1960s, but here in the more uneven 1970s it might be enjoyable to poke fun at the worst of what my odyssey had to offer. Worst album? Dylan is in competition with himself and the competition is fierce, but I will go with Self Portrait, a record whose quality was well-summarized in the opening flourish of that famous Rolling Stone review. As for the worst song, the runner-up is “All the Tired Horses” (from Self Portrait) and the winner is “If Dogs Run Free” (from New Morning), a song so wretched that I feel physically ill when I hear it. No, don’t listen!

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And now it is time to swing around and peer into the future: we stand on the cusp of the 1980s. I have long maintained that there were only five great pop/rock records made in the 1980s, and sadly only one of those will be part of my odyssey. My prospects look dim.

But, then again, that might just be because I’m wearing these shades.

Odyssey notes: The 1960s

June 17, 2014

My pop music odyssey, structured, you may recall, around the discography of Bob Dylan, has been making slow but steady progress over the past few months. It began in 1962 with Dylan’s self-titled debut record, and, as time goes on, is widening to include the discographies of the Beatles, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits, along with a few other things thrown in from time to time.

I recently reached the end of the 1960s, which seems a good time to pause and offer a few thoughts. This leg of the odyssey has included 15 records by Bob Dylan (including a number of live and bootlegged recordings in addition to his studio albums), 12 by the Beatles (leaving only Let It Be, from 1970, still to come in their discography), 3 each by Neil Young and Van Morrison, and 2 by Leonard Cohen.

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Of these, it is of course Bob Dylan who reigns supreme: listening to those records from the middle years of the decade again — from Freewheelin’ in 1963 up through John Wesley Harding in 1967 — it is amazing to consider his achievement. His debut album hardly prepared us for the supple, evocative, and often hilarious songwriting that showed up on Freewheelin’, and he only went from strength to strength. Sometime in 1962 he wrote “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song whose ambition outstripped everything else he’d done, but in the years that followed it was outstripped in turn. He seemed to spiral upward, shedding one persona after another, his music changing along with him, as in a whirlwind. It is hard to imagine where he might have gone after Blonde on Blonde had a motorcycle accident not laid him low, out of sight, for an extended period in 1966-7. When he came back, he had jumped tracks again, singing with a simplicity and straightforwardness that was belied by the enigmatic songs he had written. It is a period of artistic creativity that I, at any rate, find endlessly fascinating and absorbing, and it has been a great pleasure to revisit it.

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What can it have been like to hear Astral Weeks for the first time? Van Morrison was not entirely unknown at the time: he had been the frontman for Them, and in the months leading up to Astral Weeks his record company had, without his consent, released a couple of records of solo material. But, even so, listeners could hardly have been ready for the ecstatic flights and spiritual longing of this, his official debut album. It is a kind of miracle, a one-off in a career by no means devoid of admirable achievements. Its whole spirit seems to have descended from on high, an exultation in song burst from the heart of the singer, who was, astoundingly, then just 23 years old. Despite the absence of anything resembling a single, and though it has long lingered in the shadow of the more accessible (and justly beloved) Moondance, there are few pieces of popular art that affect me more deeply and delight me more thoroughly than it does. Give me Astral Weeks, a steady rain, and the open road, and I’ll be the happiest man on earth.

**

A few years ago, on a bit of a whim, I sat down and listened to the first four or five albums by Pink Floyd; Pink Floyd was a famous band whose work I did not know well, and I thought it would be instructive. I was surprised — flabbergasted, really — to find those albums almost unlistenable: the dull sonic experiments, the aimless meandering, the pretentious tedium…

Well, I had a similar sort of experience — though admittedly to a lesser degree — with Neil Young’s self-titled debut record. Though I am an admirer of Neil Young, this was an album that I had never heard, and it turns out I wasn’t missing much. My purpose right now is not to critique it, but simply to ask: how did a lacklustre record like that lead to anything else? How did it become a stepping stone to a great career, rather than a torpedo to it? What did people hear in it that they liked? Maybe I’m just spoiled by knowing the Young of the 1970s before knowing the Young of the 1960s.

Now that I think of it, I suppose much the same line of comment could be applied to Dylan’s debut record too. It barely hinted at what was to come, and that only in retrospect.

**

This leg of my journey may well eventually prove to have been the most rewarding. In Rolling Stone’s list of the “Top 500 albums,” for instance, fully seven of the Top 10 are from the 1960s (and, of those, six have been part of my odyssey). Perhaps it’s all downhill from here. But I hope not.

**

Meantime, here is a list of my ten favourite odyssey-albums from the 1960s, more or less in descending order:

Van Morrison — Astral Weeks (1968)
Bob Dylan — Blonde on Blonde (1966)
Bob Dylan — Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
Bob Dylan — Freewheelin’ (1963)
Bob Dylan — Live 1964 (1964)
Bob Dylan — John Wesley Harding (1967)
Beatles — Abbey Road (1969)
Bob Dylan — Another Side (1964)
Leonard Cohen — Songs (1967)
Beatles — Help! (1965)

Making a list of favourite odyssey-songs from the same period seems slightly pointless: it more or less amounts to making a list of favourite Dylan songs. But why not? It’s a cruel exercise, there being so many fine candidates, but I’ll give it a shot.

“Desolation Row” (Highway 61 Revisited)
“To Ramona” (Another Side)
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (Bringing It All Back Home)
“Visions of Johanna” (Blonde on Blonde)
“All Along the Watchtower” (John Wesley Harding)
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (Freewheelin’)
“I Want You” (Blonde on Blonde)
“One Too Many Mornings” (The Times They Are A-Changin’)
“Love Minus Zero / No Limit” (Bringing It All Back Home)
“Suzanne” — Leonard Cohen

Looking at that list, I realize it probably doesn’t overlap much with a standard list of Dylan’s “best songs”: no “Blowin’ in the Wind”, no “Like a Rolling Stone”, no “Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”. But there are not meant to be his best songs, by some indeterminate measure, but only my favourite songs, tried and true over many years of listening. And look! one non-Dylan song snuck onto the list in spite of all.

**

And now, turning to face forward, and putting on my bell-bottoms, I see in the distance Dylan painting a Self-Portrait, Neil Young reaping a Harvest, Van Morrison breakfasting on Tupelo Honey, Leonard Cohen donning New Skin for an Old Ceremony, and Tom Waits, who until now has been warming up his crooning voice in the wings, I see serenading Nighthawks at the Diner. It’s the 1970s, and I’m cautious but resolute.

Favourites of 2012: Popular music

December 19, 2012

Truth be told, I heard relatively little popular music this year. I therefore cannot claim that my selections are anything like a “best of the year”. But these are the records that occupied my attention more than any others.

(Note: Several of the videos in this post are prefaced by short advertisements. I apologize for this. If I could get around them, I would.)

CohenOldIdeasOld Ideas
Leonard Cohen

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tune
(“Going Home”)

I do not know if we shall have another record from Leonard Cohen, who is now nearly 80 years old, but if it should happen that we do not then Old Ideas will stand as a fitting leave-taking. The songs seem to come to us from one perched at the boundary between life and death, looking first at one, then at the other, calmly but not complacently, and trying to say something fitting to the occasion.

Given the way these songs circle ceaselessly around loss and death, it is perhaps surprising to find them also enlivened by sly humour, stately grace, and a steady hope. For Cohen, it seems, the prospect of death provokes serious reflection but not despair, and he approaches us, his audience, not as one sliding into oblivion but as a prophet — albeit a reluctant one (which is the only true kind) — who can speak with confidence because he speaks the truth.

To say that he “speaks” is closer to the truth than you might expect, for some of the songs are indeed close to being simple readings of his poetry rather than songs sung. The music, which is never of very great interest on its own merits, sometimes settles into the merest background accompaniment. That is fine with me. And though I will not claim that Old Ideas is an unqualified success — the first half is notably stronger than the second, and that ought not to be true of a bona fide masterpiece — it is a record that I believe ranks with Leonard Cohen’s best, and that is no small matter. It is my favourite record of the year. [Music Note]

O see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart.
Come, healing of the reason.
Come, healing of the heart.
(“Come Healing”)

***

mumford-and-sons-album-babelBabel
Mumford & Sons

When Marcus Mumford first came to my attention a few years ago, following the release of his band’s debut record, I was surprised that he was possible. His songs, dressed up in attractive if fairly nondescript roots music, revealed a mind and heart of rare qualities. Here was a young man, still in his early 20s, writing songs about purity of heart, about grace, and about his desire to live in the truth. It was as though he had somehow gone around the moral and spiritual squalor of contemporary life by another route, emerging onto the stage holding a candle in the darkness, ready to sing about hope and a happy ending.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the songs struck a chord with young audiences, and in the several years since that first record became a surprise hit, Mumford & Sons have been on a wild ride, thrust into the limelight, playing to sold out stadiums, and lionized by taste-makers. They have been rubbing elbows with people who matter. Mumford himself went and married an edgy Hollywood actress. My great fear in advance of hearing Babel was that this success, and this new social status, and the scrutiny that goes with them, would have quenched that good and courageous spirit that had attracted me in the beginning.

These worries were not entirely in vain. If I am interpreting the record well, it is fairly clear that the success of Sigh No More was destabilizing in much the way I had feared. “I’m a cad, but I’m not a fraud,” he sings in “Whispers in the Dark”, “I set out to serve the Lord.” So the memory is there, but this new record is notably darker than the last, the songs populated by ghosts and wanderers making their way through trackless wastes, out of balance, lost and labouring under a confusion of tongues. Hope is not absent, but the traveller’s song is no longer a confident “I will hold on hope”, but a plaintive “Give me hope”.

The good news is that Mumford himself seems aware that something precious is under threat, and he is not content. The record’s lead single, “I Will Wait”, shows us a man broken-down and exhausted by “days of dust” who falls in a heap with this prayer on his lips: “Tame my flesh, and fix my eyes”, and who asks for something that only seems contradictory: “a tethered mind freed from the lies”. At several points on the record we encounter a similar wish, for an anchor, a secure foothold in a storm. In “Hopeless Wanderer” the wayward pilgrim is encouraged by these words: “Don’t hold a glass over the flame / Don’t let your heart grow cold / I will call you by name / I will share your road”. And there is reason to hope that this encouragement has been taken to heart, and that all shall yet be well. “Raise my hands,” they sing, “Paint my spirit gold, and bow my head. Keep my heart slow.” Keep my heart slow. It is the prayer of a man who has not lost sight of the most important things.

Musically, Babel ploughs much the same field as did Sigh No More; call it folk-rock, or call it pop music in acoustic garb. I’ll not quarrel. There are, in my judgement, no songs on Babel as immediately memorable as “The Cave” or “Little Lion Man” from their first record, but, taking the record as a whole, the quality of the songwriting has in general improved; fewer peaks, but also fewer valleys.

At the same time, some apparent limitations to their range are becoming apparent. The music has a tendency to bounce between two poles: adagio and piano, on one hand, and allegro and forte, on the other, with not much in between. It becomes predictable, and I’d like to hear something more supple from them on subsequent records. It also feels increasingly clear that the name of the group is all too apt: Marcus Mumford is the man among boys, and without him there would be little reason to pay attention. (Admittedly, I say this without any knowledge of how their songwriting happens; I give my impressions as a listener.) The musicianship, too, is not all that it might be; I cannot play the piano, but I expect that in two or three days I could learn to play the keyboard bits on these songs. Taken together, these considerations point to a lack of depth, and I am not altogether sure that his Sons are going to help Mumford reach his full potential. Nonetheless, for a sophomore record — often a major hurdle for any band that meets with great success their first time out — Babel is promising, and I’ll keep listening.

Here is a live performance of “Ghosts that we Knew”:

***

taylor-swift-red-album-1350575305Red
Taylor Swift

This is getting complicated. Ms. Swift’s previous record was — whatever the musical cognoscenti may say — some kind of middle-brow masterpiece that bounced from strength to tweeny-bopper strength, but which continued her gradual migration away from her country sweetheart roots. Not that she ceased to be a sweetheart, of course, but the music was definitely shedding whatever perfunctory twang and drawl it once had. For some of us this was an unhappy trend, though it was hard to be too anxious when sated on such irresistible confections. Then last year she appeared on the Hunger Games soundtrack alongside The Civil Wars singing “Safe and Sound”, a pleasantly creaky little song co-written with T Bone Burnett (!); in even my fondest imaginings I’d not dared to hope for such a thing, and it raised a question that suddenly seemed a genuine question: what would she do next?

Red answers the question, but not in a simple way. She’s doing this, that, and the other: the record, which clocks in at over an hour (even without the [not-to-be-missed] bonus tracks), sounds like two or three records thrown together. Songs that would have been at home on her previous few records, like the jaunty “Stay Stay Stay” or the smiling-through-the-tears ballad “Begin Again”, are placed cheek-by-jowl with material that stretches hard toward a trendy pop sound (“State of Grace”, “Treacherous”). After Speak Now, for which she wrote all the songs alone, Red is a real “Swift & Friends” affair: there are several flat-footed duets with male partners hopelessly overmatched by her sparkle, a half-dozen co-writers, and a similar number of producers lending a hand.

Which brings us to the nefarious handiwork of two vandals named Martin & Shellback, enlisted by Ms. Swift to produce a handful of songs (“I Knew you Were Trouble”, “22”, and the monster hit “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”). These songs are cause for concern, for in them Swift’s country roots are not only entirely effaced but actually defaced by pop-monster studio gee-whizzery, and in them the neighbourhood girl for whom we felt such wholesome affection struts forth bearing a disturbing resemblance to those dime-a-dozen robo-divas one hears too loudly in shoe stores. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is by far the worst example of this; it makes me ill. I will confess a grudging affection for the groove of “We Are Never Ever…”, which retains a sense of fun (and the cheerful one-take music video will, I predict, have a long life as a favourite of dancing-animal-loving children), but I cannot finally approve of any song sung in a valley girl dialect.

Despite those reservations, there is much on the record to admire. The quality of the songwriting, which has improved markedly with each of her new albums, continues to trend upward. Not that she is (or ever will be) Karen Peris, but within the parameters typical of mainstream pop Taylor Swift is a songwriter to reckon with. Her strength has always been in her expansive melodies, and though to my ear that element is less dazzling on Red than it was previously, she has stepped up in other areas. She is, for instance, at the age of 22, taking strides to shed her teenager-oriented reputation; if her principal audience until now has been teenaged girls and their mothers, Red seems directed more at the moms than the girls. Seeing this, I am inclined to relax my complaints about aspects of this record: growing up is hard to do, and who among us wasn’t a wee bit awkward as we made the transition?

dylan-tempestTempest
Bob Dylan

Dylan’s latest is an ambitious and lively record that I really want to love, but somehow cannot. It is his best record since Modern Times and maybe earlier (pre-modern times?), with generally fine songwriting, superb musicianship, and loads of phlegm. He cannot here be said to be resting on laurels; the record is by turns funny, jaunty, haunting, and disturbing — it is certainly not boring. Yet I find that I do not much enjoy it, and for me I think the principal reason is the dominance, in the music, of the blues. The blues are not my thing, especially in long form. (Quite a few of the songs on Tempest are longer than 7 minutes, which is too long to be sustained by a blues riff.) Also, the title song, about the sinking of the Titanic and weighing in at nearly a quarter-hour in duration, is off-putting; the words are disturbing, but Dylan sings them in a casual, even jovial, manner that makes him sound like a tubercular Bad Santa. To my regret I cannot enjoy it.

dement-singSing the Delta
Iris Dement

It had been over fifteen years since Iris Dement’s last record of original material. She hadn’t been entirely quiet during that time — she sang some celebrated duets with John Prine and she issued an enjoyable hymn-sing — but some of us had been wondering if we’d ever hear new songs from her again. The mere existence of this record, therefore, is cause for some celebration. The chief reason to hear it is the same as it has ever been with her: that voice, which is one of the wonders of American music. It is not conventionally pretty, but it is unforgettable; call her the Callas of country.

The songs themselves are a mixed bag, but with a singer of this stature you take the good (“Before the Colors Fade”) with the bad (“The Night I Learned How Not to Pray”) and count your blessings. Sing the Delta certainly doesn’t replace 1993’s My Life as the first Iris Dement record everyone should own and give to their friends, but it is something to be thankful for in any case.

I note from her Wikipedia page that since her last record she was divorced from her first husband and re-married to Greg Brown. Obviously no mere aesthetic consideration could cast a divorce in a happy light, but I will say that I’d give my left kidney to hear those two singing together.

***

Songs That Meant Something To Me This Year: Loudon Wainwright III & Ramblin’ Jack Elliot: “Double Lifetime”; Josh Garrels: “Farther Along”; Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson: “The Quiet Life”; Dan Bern: “I Need You”; The Avett Brothers, “Winter in my Heart”.

Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas

February 15, 2012

Leonard Cohen’s most recent record, Old Ideas, has been available for a few weeks now. His songs always take a while to unfold, so it is premature to make any definitive judgments about it, but my initial impression is that it’s a very fine record. Love, carnal and spiritual, has long been his special preoccupation, and that is true in these new songs as well, but the dominant theme on Old Ideas, from a man who is now 77 years old, is mortality, which he confronts with a fitting seriousness and what I imagine must be a hard-won graciousness.

He declares himself in the first lines of the lead track — or, to be precise, the Almighty Himself sets the stage: “I love to speak with Leonard / He’s a sportsman and a shepherd / He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit”. But he is, it seems, also a man willing to say what must be said: “He only has permission / To do my instant bidding / Which is to say what I have told him to repeat”. Thus, with cunning good humour, Cohen opens up a space in which to address the biggest, and oldest, ideas of all.

It is a late-night record, best heard in a quiet room, in a big leather chair, with something pungent in your glass. The musical textures on Old Ideas are more organic than has been typical on Cohen’s records during the past few decades: the soft-focus synthesizers are not entirely gone, but they are countered by the snap and twang of real guitar strings, real drumsticks hitting real drumheads, and what sounds like a real violin wending its wandering way. With that welcome difference, the songs here are built on the model we have come to expect: Cohen’s sepultural voice in the foreground, speaking as much as singing, and a halo of women’s voices shining in the background.

“Come Healing” is in some respects atypical on the record; the figure and ground are reversed, with the women moving into the foreground, and as such it functions as a kind of interlude. I include it here simply because it is so lovely, and captures well the hopeful spirit that, it seems to me, is at the heart of the record.

Happy birthday, Leonard Cohen

September 21, 2011

At Light on Dark Water Maclin Horton points out that today is Leonard Cohen’s birthday. I had entirely forgotten — it’s almost enough to get my citizenship revoked! Here is my favourite of his many wonderful songs, in a live performance from a recent concert. He is 77 years old today.

Best of the Decade: Popular Music

December 4, 2009

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 HorsepowerSecret South [2000]: 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.

Songs: “Clogger” (listen); “Poor Mouth” (listen); “Praying Arm Lane” (listen)

Leonard CohenTen New Songs [2001]: 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”).

Songs: “A Thousand Kisses Deep” (listen); “Alexandra Leaving” (listen); “The Land of Plenty” (listen)

Gillian WelchTime (The Revelator) [2001]: 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.

Songs: “Revelator” (listen); “Everything is Free” (listen); “I Want to Sing that Rock ‘N’ Roll” (listen)

Tom WaitsAlice [2002]: 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.

Songs: “Flower’s Grave” (listen); “Poor Edward” (listen); “Fish & Bird” (listen)

Johnny CashUnearthed [2003]: 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.

Songs: “Long Black Veil” (listen); “Redemption Song” (with Joe Strummer) (listen); “I Shall Not Be Moved” (listen)

Sufjan StevensCome on, Feel the Illinoise! [2005]: 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.

Songs: “Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois” (listen); “Casimir Pulaski Day” (listen); “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!” (listen)

Neko CaseFox Confessor Brings the Flood [2006]: 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.)

Songs: “Hold On, Hold On” (listen); “Maybe Sparrow” (listen); “The Needle has Landed” (listen)

Joel Frederiksen – The Elfin Knight: Ballads and Dances [2007]: 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.)

Songs: “Farewell, Lovely Nancy” (listen); “Watkin’s Ale” (listen); “Scarborough Faire” (listen)

Frightened RabbitThe Midnight Organ Fight [2008]: 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.

Songs: “The Modern Leper” (listen; obscenity warning); “My Backwards Walk” (listen; obscenity warning); “Poke” (listen; obscenity warning)

Fleet FoxesFleet Foxes [2008]: 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.

Songs: “He Doesn’t Know Why” (listen); “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” (listen); “Oliver James” (listen)

***

Runners-up:

Sam PhillipsFan Dance [2001]: 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 [2003]: 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 MissionBefriended [2003]: 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 MillerUniversal United House of Prayer [2004]: 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.

***

UPDATE:

  • 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.
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