Posts Tagged ‘Sufjan Stevens’

Favourites of 2015: Popular music

December 29, 2015

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.

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dylan-shadowsIt 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.

dylan-cuttingNo, 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…

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-carrie-lowellSufjan 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”.

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fullbright-songsIt 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.

**

adams-1989Perhaps 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. roberts-pop-flyHe 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”.

Favourites of 2010: Popular music

December 29, 2010

Mumford & Sons: Sigh No More
My palm this year goes to the debut album from Mumford & Sons, a folk-rock outfit from the UK. I liked it the first time I heard it, and it has continued to grow on me throughout the year. In Marcus Mumford they have a wonderful singer. What really sets the record apart from the competition, however, is the songwriting. It is rare to hear a rock album in which themes of truth, hope, grace, and purity of heart recur, and that fact alone makes Sigh No More rather surprising and special. There is something about the spiritual vitality of this record that reminds me, ever so gently, of a certain Irish band that still hasn’t found what it’s looking for. In the beginning I turned to Sigh No More simply for good music; now I find I go to it for sobriety and refreshment of spirit. No-one is more surprised than I am. [Listen to samples]

Here they are performing “Roll Away Your Stone”. This song starts rather quietly but gathers steam as it goes.

Bob Dylan: Bootleg Series, Volume 9 –
The Witmark Demos: 1962-64

A long time ago, when the world was still young, a collection of Bob Dylan’s early, unpublished songs was issued on a disc called The Bootleg Series, Volume 1. That disc was bread and butter to me. You can imagine my excitement, therefore, when I learned that Volume 9 in the now encyclopedic Bootleg Series was going to revisit those songs again, and the sessions in which they were recorded, issuing two new discs of previously unreleased material. When you love something, the prospect of having “more of the same” is tantalizing indeed.

As it turned out, I found Volume 9 not quite as revelatory as I had hoped: most of the very best material, it seems, had been judiciously chosen for inclusion on Volume 1, so that what remained for Volume 9 has the character of something like musical flotsam and jetsam. Quite a few of the songs here are actually the same as on Volume 1, though in slightly different, and somewhat inferior, versions. In some cases the songs break off in mid-stream, Dylan remarking that he can’t remember the rest. Some of his famous songs are given here in early versions, in a few cases with piano accompaniment: ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’, ‘Don’t Think Twice’, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” among them.

I will say this: if you have not heard the Volume 1 recordings, I do believe that this collection will blow your mind. Even in those early days, Dylan’s songwriting was terrific, and that voice was like a force of nature. In these songs we hear him sending exploratory roots down into the bedrock of American song, and from those roots, as we all know, a mighty oak would grow. Even if I judge that these Volume 9 recordings take second place to Volume 1, this is still an altogether remarkable collection, and one of the best things I heard this year. [Listen to samples]

Sufjan Stevens: All Delighted People EP
It seems that the Fifty States Project is dead, and that is a disappointment to me. Sufjan Stevens, after writing two records on Michigan and Illinois, respectively, promised that his life’s work would be to bring each and every state in the union under his musical wing. Such promises must now, I suppose, be attributed to the rashness of youth, for after a five-year hiatus he issued two new records in the closing months of 2010 — the All Delighted People EP in August and The Age of Adz in October — and neither has anything to do with the Fifty States.

Of the two new albums, The Age of Adz is undoubtedly the more ambitious and sweeping. Unfortunately — and I say this with real regret — it is a horrid, beastly thing. He has taken the songs, which for all I know were perfectly good songs, and thrown every kind of cacophonic device into the mix: computer bleeps, static blips, electrical feedback, old-school synthesizers, and, worst of all, drum machines programmed to peck out the herkiest, jerkiest rhythms you ever tried to lay ears on. The result is distressing, and I struggled to listen through to the end.

All Delighted People is another matter, thank goodness. As usual with Stevens the arrangements are elaborate and detailed, but at least here it sounds like music: there are recognizable instruments, and rhythms to which one can tap. There is a celebratory, and even ecstatic, feeling to the record, and he is painting on a larger canvas than before, not only because the songs are long, but conceptually, too, they are moving in a larger space than we have heard from him before. It is hugely ambitious, and he unbuttons a little, which is nice to hear. The guitar freak-out that opens the 17-minute closing song is something we would not have found (and did not find) on his last few records. All in all, it’s a fascinating record that shows that this talented musician still hasn’t reached the end of his tether. The Age of Adz obviously raises the troubling question of what we might expect from him in the future, but I’ll not look a gift-horse in the mouth: All Delighted People is delightful. [Listen to samples]

Taylor Swift: Speak Now
Say what you want about Ms. Swift and the legions of adolescent girls who propelled her, once again, to the top of the chart. The simple truth is that her songs have more hooks than a box of fishing tackle. From the first listen I found Speak Now pretty irresistible.

There is something very likable about Taylor Swift: a girlish charm, an impish sense of humour, a good-natured lack of self-regard, and, without wishing to be overly moralistic, there is something wholesome about her too; she believes in true love, and hers are romances in which marriage and children are the natural telos. It is enough to annoy the heck out of the grey lady feminists, which is great, and it is also something that young girls ought to hear. If it takes an earful of sugar to help that medicine go down, well, I have no objections. It is true that she loses her temper once or twice on this new record (“There is nothing I do better than revenge”), but this is balanced off by moments of moral counsel (“Why ya gotta be so mean?”).

I’m having fun. Well, it’s a fun record. For the first time she wrote all the songs herself, which is itself a noteworthy achievement since every Nashville mother’s son is clamouring to get a song onto one of her records. And, to give Ms. Swift her due, the songwriting on Speak Now is considerably stronger and more consistent than on her previous records. A song like ‘Long Live’, a lively reflection on fame and friendship, would have overreached her ability before; not this time. [Listen to samples]

Honourable mention: Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone [Listen to samples]; Innocence Mission, My Room in the Trees [Listen to samples]

Around and about

August 26, 2010

Here are a few things that have caught my attention of late, but which I haven’t time to write about at any great length:

  • Did you know that the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki produced an illustrated version of Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill?
  • Speaking of Chesterton, Ignatius Press has just issued the third (and final?) volume of his poetry in their monumental and indispensable Collected Works. This would make a nice Christmas gift for yours truly.
  • Sufjan Stevens, whose album Illinoise took top spot in my retrospective Best of the 2000s a while back, released a new EP, All Delighted People, earlier this week. So far I’ve heard about half, and it is terrific. Though it is being called an EP, it clocks in at just under an hour.
  • Canadian pro-lifers are often perplexed by the public’s complacency about abortion, but a recent poll casts that complacency in a new light: two-thirds of Canadians do not know that Canadian law places no restrictions on abortion. When the current legal vacuum is explained to them, only 27% think it should stay that way. Evidently the first step in changing the status quo has to be education.
  • Josef Pieper has been dead for over ten years, but his books are still making their first appearances in English translations.  A case in point: next week St. Augustine’s Press will issue The Platonic Myths.  In my experience, anything Pieper wrote is worth reading carefully, and I’ve already placed my order.
  • Based on data from the Hawaiian Keck Observatory and the Chilean Very Large Telescope, a group of astrophysicists are claiming evidence that the fine structure constant, which is one of the fundamental constants of physics (related to the strength of the electromagnetic force), varies spatially. Variable “constants” is one of those peculiar possibilities that many speculative theories predict, but which hasn’t had any experimental support to date. This might go away too once more people take a hard look at the data, but it’s an interesting claim in the meantime.
  • Looking for the Office of Mayhem Evaluation? It’s somewhere in Asia. (Hat-tip: Light on Dark Water)
  • The National Post has run a pair of features on the “most overrated” and “most underrated” Canadian writers. Predictably, I haven’t heard of any of the allegedly underrated ones, but the article on overrated writers hits most of the big names and is hilariously over-the-top. As good as our Canadian novelists are (and there are some fine ones), our literati do tend to heap accolades on a certain kind of poetic pretentiousness, and it is funny to see that pretentiousness skewered, even if a tad too exuberantly. Poor Michael Ondaatje.
  • Since watching all five seasons of The Wire a few years ago, I’ve been convinced that nothing is likely to surpass the quality of that show.  Now I hear a few claims that a programme called Breaking Bad bears favourable comparison with The Wire.  Can it be true?  Anybody seen it?

Best of the Decade: Popular Songs

December 11, 2009

In a previous post I wrote about my picks for the best popular music albums of the decade.  Today is devoted to my favourite songs of the decade.  In some cases they are drawn from those favourite records, in some cases not.  I have no idea if these songs received radio airplay and were bona fide commercial hits.  I can only be sure that they were well beloved in my house.

I have tried to put them into some sort of ranking, with the best ones first.  Where possible I link to the music itself so that you, should you be so inclined, can listen.

“The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!” (from Sufjan StevensIllinoise [2005]): I cannot get enough of this terrific song.  It’s a miniature pop symphony, moving from a gentle innocence to a joyful alleluia to a poignant lament.  It is a song about childhood and friendship.  If you do decide to click below and listen, don’t give up too soon.  This song cannot be judged without hearing it through to its finish.

“The Modern Leper” (from Frightened RabbitThe Midnight Organ Fight [2008]): I wrote about this record in my album picks.  “The Modern Leper” is the lead track, and it captures most of the good qualities that I find in the record as a whole, most notably a disarming honesty and plenty of urgent rock ‘n’ roll.  There’s nothing pretentious here, just straightforward music from the heart.  (Be forewarned that there is vulgar language in the first stanza of the song.)

“Intervention” (from Arcade FireNeon Bible [2007]): Arcade Fire were critical darlings during this decade, but I must admit that for the most part I just didn’t get it.  There were a few exceptions to that rule, and “Intervention” is one of them.  (Another is their terrific song “Rebellion (Lies)” (listen)).  From the massive opening chord on the organ, “Intervention” goes from strength to strength, building like a tidal wave.

Here is a live performance from the Rock en Seine festival.  It is amazing for me to see them playing before this huge audience; it wasn’t so long ago that I saw them give a concert in somebody’s living room in Montreal.  Anyway, the song begins about 1 minute in. (The studio version is here.)

“Cattle and the Creeping Things” (from The Hold SteadySeparation Sunday [2005]): The record from which this song is taken is an ambitious concept album that only just missed making my “Best Of” list.  It weaves together the stories of a group of down-and-out drug addicts and prostitutes as they try to live another day of their troubled lives.  The band’s singer, Craig Finn, is a talented and sensitive songwriter, and his songs, while honest in their portrayal of the damage these characters do to themselves and one another, is also compassionate and humane.  You get the feeling that these people are loved anyway, and that they are not without hope.  It’s a feeling that seems justified by the album’s closing track in which Holly, a prostitute, “crashed into the Easter Mass / with her hair done up in broken glass” and asked, “Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”  But the song I love most from the record comes earlier on.  “Cattle and the Creeping Things” is threaded with Biblical allusions, as two of the characters are reading the Bible and finding echoes of the events of sacred history in their own lives on the street.  It’s a great song.  Craig Finn has developed a kind of New York City sprechstimme, the better to get all the words of his rather wordy songs in.

“Down There by the Train” (from Tom WaitsOrphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards [2006]: I have loved this song since Johnny Cash included it on his 1994 album American Recordings.  We had to wait until 2006 to hear Waits’ own take on it, and it remains a wonderful song — one of his best, I think, and that is saying a lot.  The song moves against the backdrop of the American folk, blues, and gospel traditions, conjuring up memories and shadows, with a few of those inimitable touches that set Waits’ songs apart.  Over the years he has written a few “gospel” songs that were spoiled by a bit of sarcasm or irony thrown in, but I believe that this one can be taken straight.

“Wise Up” (Aimee Mann, from the soundtrack to Magnolia [1999]): I am cheating a bit here, but only a bit.  In the last week of 1999 the film Magnolia premiered at the box office.  It was a film that made unusually effective use of music, and one of the crucial sequences was set to Aimee Mann’s song “Wise Up”.  The song is unavoidably tied up in my mind with that moment in the film, and its context in the film makes it a better song, but I think (I think) it is still a good song without those associations.  Anyway, it has been one of my favourites these past ten years.  The song’s final line is open to various interpretations.  One might consider it a counsel of despair; I believe it conveys real moral wisdom.  Here is the sequence from the film in which the song plays.  I cannot take the time here to explain the situations of all the characters, but suffice it to say that the use of this song at this point in the film is really brilliant:

“Set Out Running” (from Neko CaseFurnace Room Lullaby [2000]): Neko Case wrote a lot of great songs during this decade, but this is the first song I ever heard her sing and it has remained a favourite.   My goodness, what a voice this woman has!  It makes my skin tingle and my hair stand up.  She’s pretty too.

“Bridal Train” (from The WaifsBridal Train EP [2004]): I love a good story song, and this is the best one I have heard in a while.  “Bridal Train” tells about a group of Australian women who, having married American soldiers, are embarking by ship to the United States to join their husbands.  It is a tear-jerker, so have a hankie handy if you decide to listen to it.

“Sweetest Waste of Time” (from Kasey Chambers and Shane NicholsonRattlin’ Bones [2008]): Ever since Tammy Wynette and George Jones recorded their classic albums together, the country music duet has been a high-stakes genre.  There have been some great duos over the years: Emmylou Harris with Gram Parsons, and Iris Dement with John Prine come immediately to mind.  In the 2000s I give the palm to Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, whose album of original duets is really excellent.  They sound great together, and they have an ear for the classic country sound.  This is sweet, sweet music to my ears.

“Roots” (from Show of HandsWitness [2006]): The Chestertonian song of the decade must be this one, from a relatively obscure British group.  It’s a song about loving one’s own land and country, and a lament for the erosion of British culture because of political correctness and mass entertainment.  It’s a simple song, but sincere and effective.

That rounds out my Top 10.  Here are a few runners-up:

  • “Keep Your Distance” (From Buddy and Julie Miller [2001]) [listen]
  • “The Beauty of the Rain” (From Dar Williams — The Beauty of the Rain [2003]) [listen]
  • “Aint’ Talkin'” (From Bob Dylan — Modern Times [2006])
  • “American Girls” (From Counting Crows — Hard Candy [2002]) [listen]
  • “The Man Comes Around” (From Johnny Cash — The Man Comes Around [2002]) [listen]

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)

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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.