This year almost all of my popular music listening was devoted to that on-going pop music odyssey, and I didn’t go out of my way to listen to a lot of new records. In other words, to the extent that there was any good popular music this year, I probably don’t know about it. As such, you might wish to stop reading now.
It was a good year to be a Bob Dylan fan. Early in the year he released Shadows in the Night, a disc devoted to covering songs associated with Frank Sinatra. If that seems like an intriguing combination to you, and if you’re keen to transmute a voice of gold into a voice of lead, you’re not alone: it received good reviews. I confess it is not really my thing. Sinatra’s music is a big blind spot for me, and Shadows in the Night hasn’t convinced me to rush to change that. I think of this record as a minor side-project, rather like (though not nearly so loveable as) his Christmas album.
No, the really exciting Dylan record this year was The Bootleg Series, Vol.12: The Cutting Edge, 1965-66, a set of studio outtakes from the recording sessions for Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Popular music doesn’t get any better than those three records, and exploring these alternate versions and previously unreleased songs has been a thrill. The Cutting Edge has been issued in a 2-disc sampler version, a 6-disc “deluxe” edition (which is the one I have), and, if you can believe it, an 18-disc collector’s edition. Included in the set are a long-rumoured but heretofore unreleased electric version of “Desolation Row”, a full-band version of “Mr Tambourine Man”, a superb acoustic “She Belongs To Me” taken as a gentle andante, and many other delights. One disc is devoted entirely to outtakes of “Like A Rolling Stone”. There are even a few songs (some fragmentary) in this set that I’d never heard before: “Jet Pilot”, “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”, “California”, “Medicine Sunday”, and “Lunatic Princess”. One of Dylan’s most famous unreleased songs — and, I am tempted to say, one of his best — is “She’s Your Lover Now”, a version of which appeared on the very first Bootleg Series issue back in the 1990s, but on this set we get a handful of other takes, some of them quite different. For years it has been an entertaining parlour game to try to complete the stanza in which the previously-released recording faltered and broke down:
Your mouth used to be so naked,
Your eyes used to be so blue,
Your hurts used to be so nameless,
And your tears used to be so few.
Now your mouth cries wolf
While what?! On The Cutting Edge we finally find out how it ends. And if you’ve ever dreamed about what it would have been like to eavesdrop on Dylan as he first strummed out one of his masterpieces, the very last track in this set, a quarter-hour long, tentative first airing of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, will be a dream come true, as it was for me.
To move from Dylan circa 1966 to anything else is inevitably to make a precipitous decline, but let’s look around and see what else came my way this year.
Sufjan Stevens returned with Carrie & Lowell. After pulling out all the musical stops on his previous record, The Age of Adz, here he retreats to a quiet, dark corner to pluck out a collection of intimate songs about memory, family, and death — the record was written, I believe, following the death of his mother. It is a difficult record, thematically, though sprinkled with moments of grace here and there, and all that pain is transmuted into a quiet beauty by the simple arrangements and gentle melodies. When I first heard the record I did find it disappointing, not because of the spare sound (which I generally prefer to something more ambitious), but because the songs sounded too much alike. On further acquaintance, however, I withdraw this objection, and the record has been growing on me. And if I want to cleanse my pallet at record’s end with something more jovial, I can always take a ride on the “Christmas Unicorn”.
It is fitting that John Fullbright’s sophomore record (from 2014) is called, simply, Songs; he is a young songwriter of considerable gifts. Blessed with a nicely-rounded baritone, an instinct for good melodies, and enough heartbreak and melancholy to satisfy even the most exacting critic, he comes across as a genuine artistic force to be reckoned with. Most of these songs, influenced variously by the blues and the classic American songbook, are on the quiet side, with acoustic guitars and pianos in the foreground, though a few tracks do get the full band treatment. There is an intensity and a modesty — nothing too flashy — about his songwriting that I admire, and I’m going to be keeping an eye on him in the future.
The biggest disappointment of my year was unquestionably Mumford & Sons’ Wilder Mind. The first disappointment was that there was to be a third Mumford & Sons record at all; as much as I’d enjoyed their previous work — and I had — it was, and is, my view that Mumford would do better if he disinherited his Sons. Nonetheless, if there must be a third record, I was keen to hear it. I bought it. I listened to it, once, and couldn’t bring myself to listen to it again for the next six months. Nearly all that had made them distinctive and interesting was thrown overboard in favour of amped-up stadium rock of the kind you can hear any hour of any day on your local Bland FM station. I could hardly believe my ears. What possessed them to do this, I don’t know — though I $uppo$e I can think of $ome po$$ible rea$on$. Late in the year I have returned to Wilder Mind to give it another chance, and I will say that it’s not quite as bad as I had initially thought. There are some catchy tunes, and a couple of the songs I rather like (“The Wolf” and “Only Love”, principally). But there’s no denying that it’s still a big disappointment.
Perhaps the oddest release of the year was Ryan Adams’ 1989, a track-for-track cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989. He says he became interested in what it would sound like if Nebraska-era Springsteen were to sing Swift’s songs, and so he decided to find out himself — and a very creditable imitation he does too. Now, I am one of those who think that Nebraska-era Springsteen could sing any old dreck and it would sound pretty terrific, and Adams’ 1989 vindicates me to a considerable extent. Some of the songs succeed better than others, naturally. In any case, Adams is one of those singers whom you can’t help but respect: he’s been toiling away in the indie rock world for years now, famously prolific, but never hitting the big time. I can only imagine that this little project, in addition to being an interesting experiment, will do wonders for his bottom line, and I hope so.
Children’s Music: Let me put in a good word for Justin Roberts, who has a respectable stack of children’s records under his belt, but whom we just discovered this year. It was his Pop Fly record that we found first, after I heard it described as “the Sgt Pepper of children’s albums”. We all enjoyed it tremendously. From there we got Jungle Gym, and then Meltdown!, and with each new record my appreciation of his talents has grown. He writes songs that the kids can relate to: songs about field trips, having a broken arm, getting lost in a store, playing in a treehouse, playing baseball, crossing the street, having an imaginary friend, going to bed, liking trucks, riding a bike, getting a new baby sister, having a birthday, and that sort of thing. He has a wonderful way with words too; if your typical pop music songsmith was half as witty the world would be a better place. What really sets him apart, however, is the quality of his music: the melodies are catchy and the arrangements are often impressively intricate. It’s rare to hear this level of craftsmanship from a children’s entertainer. So: Justin Roberts, thank you for a good year; our van singing would not be the same without you.
Other good records I heard: Josh Garrels, Home; Josh Ritter, Sermon on the Rocks; Andrew Peterson, The Burning Edge of Dawn; David Ramirez, Fables; The Innocence Mission, Hello, I Feel The Same; Robby Hecht, Robby Hecht.
Songs, Both Ear-Worms and Things More Substantial: Sinead O’Connor: “Take Me To Church”; Tim McGraw: “Losin’ You”; John Fullbright: “All That You Know”; Lee Ann Womack: “Chances Are”; Justin Roberts, “Fruit Jar”; Robby Hecht, “The Sea and the Shore”; The Collection, “Scala Naturae”; Ashley Monroe, “Has Anybody Ever Told You”; Jason Isbell, “Flagship”, Josh Garrels, “At The Table”.