Albums of the Year 2010
If all the big mags can have end of year lists then so can we all, right? Yay for the democratising power of teh interwebs, or something… I’ve written about a few of them already, so I’ll just link to these with brief, flippant executive summaries and you can click through to the full reviews should you so wish. Consider them all recommended:
Too bluesy, but if that lets Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench show off a little, it’s probably not such a bad thing after all. Docked points for not touring Europe yet, about which I will continue to sulk until they do so.
The best Wailin’ Jenny cuts loose, makes solo album and tells us how she really feels, in the process writing a couple of heartbreakingly incisive love songs, meanwhile gathering around her a strong cast of guest artists including most of Crooked Still and her fellow Jennys.
LA band that no-one had ever heard of suddenly rocketed to, well, slightly greater fame thanks to Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz and his obsession with Twitter. They put the album up for free download, which many of us took advantage of. I wrote about it. They promptly retweeted my review and caused a small virtual stampede in the process. Great songwriting, tasteful banjos and mandolins, nice people, heartwarming story of modern day goodwill between musicians and music fans.
Brian Fallon and co return, make an album that isn’t quite as good, or quite as Springsteen-y, as The ’59 Sound, but seeing as how that was a slice of almost undiluted genius, this one is still quite good actually. Unfortunately, there are no Tom Petty lyrics hidden in this one, just a U2 line, which isn’t nearly as cool.
And now, the rest. I look forward to seeing whether you agree with my choices!
Midlake – The Courage of Others
Even if for no other reason, this would merit inclusion purely for the astonishingly detailed study the band made of early Fairport Convention LPs (see track 9, “The Horn”, for the best Richard Thompson impression anyone has committed to tape in recent years). Indeed, if I were scrabbling around for reasons to put this in, I could do worse than mention that they originate from Denton, TX, a college town home to the University of North Texas with a special place in my heart. As it is, it’s really not necessary to resort to such underhanded tactics, because The Courage of Others is one of the best albums I’ve bought in the last few years and a worthy successor to The Trials of Van Occupanther, a favourite that still gets a lot of play round these parts. TCoO is darker than TToVO (mmm…ungainly abbreviations) though, almost exclusively in minor keys and riven with a sense of foreboding and an epic scale. “Acts of Man”, “Core of Nature”, “In the Ground”; the song titles rightly suggest big themes and a kind of reverent mystery. “I will never have the courage of others / I will not approach you at all,” sings Tim Smith on the title track, just one of a number of lyrics laden with sinister couplets. The idea of cycles and seasons pervades a number of them: in Winter Dies, he sings
As the spring is made alive the winter dies
And the final cries of creatures are long behind
And full of spirit the village starts again
With one more year for a man to change his ways
amidst countless other references to the earth/ground, seeds, growing, dying, no more so than in “Core of Nature”:
I will wear the sun,
Ancient light through these woods,
Woods that I walk through alone
I will take my rest
Several of them have hymn-like qualities, resonating like big pipe organ swells, echoing like empty cathedrals with their choral harmonies. Woodwind textures feature heavily too, with the flute particularly prominent, all giving credence to the suggestion that Tim Smith harbours a latent admiration for Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.
All in all an astonishing achievement, a coherent artistic statement the likes of which we see all too seldom from popular music in today’s major-label-dominated world. Give thanks then for Bella Union, the artist-run, London-based label with the faith to let Midlake create.
Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
If you’re the kind of indie fan who was wearing Band of Horses t-shirts before the kids from Questionable Content (there’s a prize for the person who finds me the comic(s) featuring said shirt, as I’ve just looked through a load and cannot see it!), this is the year they well and truly jumped the shark. For the rest of us, we’re quite glad to have them in the nice, cosy middle-of-the-road place where we can find them easily and catch them on major network TV shows. I first came across them playing on Later…with Jools Holland, probably the death knell for their cool as far as Pitchfork were concerned, but their loss is our gain. From Carolina via Seattle (you can hear the Fleet Foxes-esque sheen, must be something about Sub Pop…), their sweet, jangly melodic goodness and remarkable way with an uplifting chorus is moderated by just enough indie cool and edginess to stop them slipping into saccharine cliches. For these reasons I can’t quite work them out; on the one hand they’re writing 3-minute radio-friendly singalong songs with tambourine overdubs and ultra-tight harmonies, on the other they’re skinny-jeans-wearing hipsters who are far too cool for me, let alone my parents (who, incidentally, rather like this album, probably because it reminds them of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the Beatles, both of whom Band of Horses owe more to than they’d likely care to admit). Still, set aside such concerns and enjoy the music.
She & Him – Volume Two
Speaking of jangly goodness, the winning combination of Zooey Deschanel and M.Ward returned with another slice of late-50s/early-60s-inspired retro pop loveliness. With orchestration this syrupy, who cares if Deschanel doesn’t really sing in tune? I should add at this point that she has two other redeeming features: a) Being Unutterably Beautiful b) Being Named After A J.D. Salinger character and therefore Being Unutterably Cool. If I were you I would be extremely suspicious of the writer’s ability to form a rational judgement of Ms Deschanel’s creative output. All the same, she has a remarkable way with writing songs that sound like they originated in the Brill Building, an illusion aided by occasionally covering something vintage (“Gonna Get Along Without You Now”, written in 1951 and made famous in 1964). Volume Two is, if you’ll excuse the analogy, like a good Chardonnay: delicate, summery, easy on the senses and with a smooth, buttery aftertaste. Mmm…feel that overstretched simile work!
Carole King & James Taylor – Live at the Troubadour
And while we’re on the subject of albums my parents liked, some real nostalgia here. Zero new artistic content here, but that’s not really the point. Rather, it’s a beautiful recreation of the early 70s shows at the LA Troubadour that these two legends of the California sound played together, enhanced by the benefit of hindsight, artistic maturity and digital technology to deliver it into your living room in fabulous surround sound and colour.
The authenticity is boosted by the presence of three of the greatest session musicians ever to walk this earth, Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar (guitar), Russell Kunkel (drums) and Leland Sklar (bass). Long-time collaborators with both King and Taylor as well as a host of other stars of the West Coast firmament including Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Linda Ronstadt, “The Section”, as they became known, are as slick and powerful as ever and appear to move effortlessly through the songbooks of King and Taylor
This a great buy for anyone who enjoys James Taylor’s songs but finds Mud Slide Slim and Sweet Baby James, well, a little stilted in places. There are fantastic performances of “Country Road”, “Fire and Rain”, “Sweet Baby James” and “Carolina On My Mind”; liberated from the strictures of the studio environment and with a few decades’ extra patina on his voice, these are fast on the way to becoming definitive for me. “Machine Gun Kelly”, always something of a damp squib, has new life breathed into it by Taylor and (the song’s writer) Danny Kortchmar and has has a whole new menace about it, appropriate enough for a song about a gangster, I suppose.
The collaborations are beautiful too; “Up On The Roof” and “You Can Close Your Eyes”, the one-two killer punch that closes out the album, are both duetted with delicacy, tenderness and the kind of relaxed atmosphere of mutual appreciation that suggests Taylor and King are just two old friends having a great time.
And now for the
Disappointment of the Year Award
…which, I’m afraid to say given her penchant for being upstaged by idiot hip hop stars while receiving awards, is presented to none other than Nashville’s answer to the question no-one was asking (What would Avril Lavigne be like with a pedal steel player behind her?), Miss Taylor Swift!
I’m sorry, Taylor, I really am, but I loved Fearless, and frankly Speak Now is a terrible followup. Fearless appealed to my love of pure, unabashed pop music done well, and also to the part of me that enjoys listening to the Dixie Chicks while no-one is looking. Speak Now ticks neither of those boxes, principally by trying to be all things to all (wo)men and succeeding in practically none of them. I’ll grant you that the first two tracks are great, but that’s because they follow the tried-and-tested formula from Fearless. Unfortunately, by the end of “Sparks Fly” you’re already realising that all we’re likely to get here is the same set of songs written about some slightly more famous boys this time round. Ok, Taylor, we get it, you like being kissed while standing outside, particularly if there’s some sort of violent/unusual weather event going on.
From there onward it’s pretty painful. The title track is godawful, demonstrating that Swift really shouldn’t be left alone to write lyrics. The moment she is forced to put the emphasis on the second syllable of the word “pastel” to maintain any semblance of meter is ugly, “Story of Us” has a drum machine tacked onto it in such an incongruous fashion it might have been an amateur mashup, and the not-too-subtle Kanye song “Innocent” is hideously cloying, as if Swift cannot quite bring herself to tell us all what a prat she thinks he is and instead has to tell him that “[his] string of lights is still bright to [her]“.
I think I just wrote more about an album I don’t like, and a Taylor Swift album at that, than three that I do like. I should probably take this as a sign that it’s time to stop writing…
Things That Will Probably Make This List In The Next Few Weeks
In addition, there are a number of albums I fully expect to be brilliant but cannot yet evaluate because they’re on my Christmas list/Amazon Wish List and/or they’re not out yet. These include:
Ryan Adams & the Cardinals – III/IV
Ryan passes his semi-retirement/sabbatical/extended honeymoon with Mandy Moore (some people have all the luck) by sorting through the archives and releasing lost gems he recorded in between the established discography of the last 10 years. This was apparently overspill from the Easy Tiger sessions, and features Catherine Popper on bass, Neal Casal on guitar and Brad Pemberton on drums and, as, such, will likely sound pretty good. Double album, out on Monday, should be awesome.
Jenny & Johnny – I’m Having Fun Now
Rilo Kiley lead singer Jenny Lewis makes duo album with current beau and solo-project-guitarist Johnathan Rice. Her post-Rilo output has been consistently good and occasionally inspired, and the free giveaway single Scissor Runner is delectably catchy.
The Autumn Defense – Once Around
Features Wilcoites John Stirratt and Pat Sansone, which gives it something of a head start really. Ryan’s Smashing Life recommends it, which is all the recommendation anyone should need. Ryan also has a sample track available, so have a listen.
Bruce Springsteen – The Promise
Not really a new release at all but rather the long-lost material recorded and never released during the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions. Much as I’d love the £73 box set, I’d settle for the ordinary £10 album. Tantalising not least because it includes Bruce’s recording of his Patti Smith co-write “Because The Night”, which happens to feature among my favourite songs of all time.