Friday, 29 January 2010

2009: A Year in Music [Part 2: Musical discoveries (i)]

Here's the first part of my "musical discoveries" of 2009. These are the best albums which I purchased in 2009 (or late 2008) that weren't actually released in 2009.

Ryan Adams - Love is hell

Ryan Adams is an artist I have been meaning to get into for a while. Heartbreaker has been on my list of "albums to get", but I haven't purchased it yet. A few friends, namely Peter and Adam, have separately recommended him to me. I finally took the plunge this year, and purchased both Love is hell and Gold. They are both very solid albums, but while Gold has a little bit of filler near the end, Love is hell is almost filler-free (a remarkable feat for an almost 70-minute album).

Love is hell was originally released as 2 separate EPs, before they were combined into an LP with the addition of Anybody wanna take me home, which appeared in a shorter version on his previous album Rock n roll. It's considered in some circles to be the "least country" of his albums, opting for more of an indie singer-songwriter sound.

Overall, it's a very eclectic album which never gets boring for me; there are always new songs to discover. Highlights include the Smiths-esque numbers This house is not for sale and Anybody wanna take me home, stunning mid-album ballads Avalanche and World war 24 (the latter of which sounds like a lost Ed Harcourt number) and the evocative closer Hotel Chelsea nights, which owes a lot to Prince's classic Purple rain.

The Byrds -
Mr tambourine man
Sweetheart of the rodeo

I had a few Byrds albums prior to 2009 - Younger than yesterday and The notorious Byrd Brothers, considered by many critics to be some of their finest works. While I do enjoy those albums, in many ways I also find them a little dated. Definitely a product of the late-60s when they were released, steeped in psychedelia and the drugs of the era.

I decided to pick up a few more Byrds albums, and after doing some research picked up 2 albums which bookend their classic era: debut album Mr tambourine man (1965), and landmark country-rock touchstone Sweetheart of the rodeo (1968).

Mr tambourine man is a classic debut album, a time capsule of that mid-60s chiming guitar sound. Roger McGuinn had obviously been listening to a lot of Help!-era Beatles, because his guitar sound owes a lot to the sound George Harrison achieved on that album (in particular Ticket to ride).

It's amazing, listening to this album retrospectively, how much it influenced so many bands that I love: Big Star, The Smiths, R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub and any other indie band who has used that jangly-guitar sound to such amazing effect. Highlights on the album include the glorious title track (written by Bob Dylan of course), Gene Clark's I'll feel a whole lot better (later covered by Tom Petty) and the amazingly catchy You don't have to cry.

Sweetheart of the rodeo (recorded with the late Gram Parsons) is a different beast entirely. Book-ended by two Basement tapes era Bob Dylan covers (You ain't going nowhere and Nothing was delivered), this is a ramshackle feel-good country-rock album of toe-tapping delights. The songs are played with conviction by the talented line-up, the harmonies are flawless, and it's amazing how original it all sounds considering that only 2 of these songs are original compositions. Don't let the country-rock tag put you off, this is how country-rock should sound.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - Déjà vu

Gee, with all of these country-influenced albums, I should probably invest in a good pair of cowboy boots shouldn't I? I think I've been turning a lot more to "rootsy" music as an antidote to so much fake modern music that I have grown disillusioned with. It just feels more real, y'all?

I already had this collective's (sans Young) self-titled debut album, and while it's a good listen, it's definitely a product of its Woodstock era. This follow up was released as the new decade rolled around, and shades of the emerging singer-songwriter movement can be heard through the cracks of the songs on this album.

The album is book-ended by two Stills compositions (Carry on and Everybody I love you) which are probably my least favourite songs on the album. The remaining eight songs on the album are practically flawless, shared amongst the 4 singers and songwriters (with 1 cover). Nash deals with anti-war protest (Teach your children) and domestic bliss (Our house). Crosby's songs cover the demise of the hippie dream (the anthemic Almost cut my hair) and drug-fuelled nostalgia (the haunting, psychedelic Déjà vu).

Young's songs aren't that different from his solo material of the era (Helpless and the epic Country girl). Stills doesn't let the side down with his haunting ballad 4+20, and the group's cover of Joni Mitchell's of Woodstock is rock solid.

The album is proof that these four men together were indeed a supergroup.

Fairport Convention - Unhalfbricking

The 3rd album by British folk-rock outfit Fairport convention is a thing of pastoral beauty. I got into this band through the work of band member Richard Thompson, who later released some amazing albums with his wife Linda Thompson (including I want to see the bright lights tonight and Shoot out the lights), as well as having a distinguished solo career.

They don't make music (or albums, for that matter) like this anymore. Consisting of 8 songs, 40 minutes and not an inch of filler, this album is grounded in the minimalism of the instrumentation and the purity of Sandy Denny's vocal performances. Three of the songs are Bob Dylan covers, but the outfit demonstrate that they are incredibly underrated songwriters too.

In particular, Who knows where the time goes (one of my favourite songs of all time) shows that Denny could write as well as she could sing, while Genesis hall and Autopsy are further evidence of the talent of Thompson and Denny respectively.

The album ends on a wonderfully fun and ramshackle note with Dylan's Million dollar bash, where different members of the band take turns on vocals. I wish they still made music like this.

Liam Finn - I'll be lightning

I've stated many times on this blog that I have become quite disillusioned with a lot of modern music. Which made the discovery of this album an even more pleasant surprise. In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have been surprised. After all, his dad is none other than Neil Finn (of Crowded House and Split Enz fame). With a musical pedigree like that, how can you go wrong?

This is one of my favourite albums of the last 5 years. Released in 2007 (a great year for music), this was the debut album for the (at the time) 24-year-old Finn. It it interesting to note that 2007 was also that year that Crowded House's reunion album Time on earth was released. While I do enjoy that album (it was in my top 5 albums of 2007), it has nothing on the quality of this release. Let's hope that Neil's pride in his son overshadows any jealousy that he may have that his son outdid him in the songwriting department.

Liam wears his influences proudly on his sleeve, but mixes them up in a way which is thoroughly unique, and it never feels like mere pastiche. The influences range from Paul McCartney whimsy (Energy spent), darker alcohol-influenced Elliott Smith (This place is killing me) and Chutes too narrow era Shins (Wise man). He rocks out on occasion (Lead balloon) and there's even a bit of Split Enz art-rock in there (the title track which took me about 5 listens before I realised how amazing it was).

It's all wrapped up in layers of melodic beauty which ensure that it remains grounded; other highlights include Wide awake on the voyage home and Gather to the chapel, the latter of which is apparently an ode to the late Crowded House drummer Paul Hester.

I'll be lightning is a three dimensional album where certain tracks jump out on first listen, while others take several listens to reveal their charms. It's one of those albums which finds a rare balance between immediacy (to lure you in) and musical depth (to keep you going back to it).

I'm glad to say that the genius Finn gene has lived on; let's hope he can maintain this level of quality on his next full-length album.

Paul Kelly - Hidden things

This album has been on my "to buy" list for a long time; it was recommended to me by my good friend Dean, who is a big Paul Kelly fan. I also have quite a few Paul Kelly albums, and I'm glad I bought this one because it might be one of his finest albums.

While it's officially considered a studio album, it feels more like an odds-and-sods collection than a proper album; it contains alternate versions of some of his classic songs (Sweet guy waltz), live songs (Yil lull) and cover versions (Reckless, made famous by Australian Crawl and James Reyne).

For a 70-minute album, it maintains a remarkable sense of consistency, and some of the songs on this album are some of the finest he has released (and that's no mean feat for someone as prolific as Paul Kelly). Highlights include Other people's houses (a 7-minute song which almost feels like a novella), Special treatment (an ironic song about Aboriginal hardship in Australia), Beggar on the street of love (one of his catchiest efforts), Bradman (which I already had on his excellent best-of Songs from the south) and Hard times (with another singer on lead vocals).

For overseas readers who haven't heard of Paul Kelly, he is one of the finest Australian singer-songwriters and someone who deserves international recognition. His musical eclecticism and lyrical themes have often resulted in him being compared to Bob Dylan, and while this is over-simplifying his contribution to Australian music, I don't think the comparison is too far off the mark.

Together with Songs from the south, this album would be a great entry-point into the Paul Kelly catalogue, and a highly recommended purchase to any existing Paul Kelly fans.

Nick Lowe - Jesus of cool

I first heard of Nick Lowe through his association with Elvis Costello, who I am a huge fan of. Lowe produced most of Costello's early (best) records on the Columbia label, and was also the writer of Costello's early hit (What's so funny 'bout) love and understanding -- he originally wrote and performed this song while in the pub-rock outfit Brinsley Schwarz.

This album has been on my "to get" list for a long, long time; it's only in late 2008 when I finally snapped up a copy on eBay for a decent price. Many reviewers absolutely rave about this album, and because of this my expectations were very high; I don't think it quite lived up to my expectations (it's no This year's model) but it's an amazingly accomplished new wave pop/rock album all the same.

Highlights include the bouncy I love the sound of breaking glass, the catchy-beyond-words So it goes, and the wonderful marriage of dark lyricism and new wave pop that is Marie Provost. But my absolute favourite is Rollers show, which sums up everything I love about music in about three and a half minutes; it's a perfect pop song which concludes the album on a perfect note (even though it's technically a bonus track).

Loretta Lynn - Van lear rose

I've certainly been getting into a lot of "rootsy" music lately. I say "rootsy" when really I should be saying "country", but I don't want to put people off. Country music has such a bad stigma associated with it. Yes, there is a lot of really bad commercial country music which has given the genre a bad name. But when done properly, it exhibits a lot of heart, integrity and soul; many traits that are absent from a lot of contemporary music.

This album received universal acclaim when it was released in 2004. Produced by Jack White (of the White Stripes and Raconteurs), this album was a chance for the 70-year-old Lynn to re-ignite her career with the help of a very popular contemporary artist, hopefully reaching a wider audience in the process.

It could have all gone very wrong, but she succeeded beyond all expectations. The song Portland Oregon (where she trades vocals with Jack White) even got a lot of play on Triple J, an alternative radio station in Australia with a predominantly youthful audience.

Portland Oregon is a highlight on an album full of highlights. This album ticks three very important boxes for me: songwriting, performance and production. The lyrical themes are dark and personal, the performances honest and heartfelt and the production is appropriately minimalistic, allowing Lynn's amazing vocals and the band's subtle instrumentation to shine through.

There are upbeat numbers (High on the mountain top, Have mercy), dark ballads (God makes no mistakes, Women's prison) and touching laments about her past (Miss being Mrs, Family tree). Don't let this miraculous album pass you by; this is one case where you can believe the hype.

Lynyrd Skynyrd - (pronounced lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd)

I first discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd through the inclusion of their southern anthem Sweet home Alabama on the seminal Forrest Gump soundtrack. This is their debut album from 1973, and is considered a classic album of the southern rock genre.

Consisting of 8 tracks over the space of 43 minutes without an ounce of filler, they simply don't make 'em like this anymore. Every song has something to say, and there's a perfect balance between rootsy rockers (Gimme three steps, Poison whiskey), heartfelt ballads (Tuesday's gone, Simple man) and honky-tonk (Things goin' on).

And just when you think you're already in "classic album" territory, it all ends with the anthem Free bird, possibly the definitive southern rock song and one of the best songs of the era. Try to stop yourself air-guitaring to this number over its 9 minute duration! It's no wonder that this song has become such a cliche, where music fans at any live gig will yell out "Free bird!" in the vain hope that the band they are seeing will play it.

Whenever you're in the mood for pure southern American rock, this album will hit the spot every time.

Friday, 22 January 2010

2009: A Year in Music [Part 1: 2009 albums]

I've been very slack. In previous years, I would always try to summon up the discipline to post my end-of-year posts in December, but this time I've been far too lazy.

I haven't bought many albums that were released in 2009. Not even enough to write up a top 5 list! So instead of my usual 6-part end of year extravaganza, I'm going to keep this brief:

Part 1: 2009 albums
Part 2: Musical discoveries (i)
Part 3: Musical discoveries (ii)
Part 4: Re-evaluation of 2008 list

This is significantly cut down, but it indicates where my musical tastes lie at this point in time. I haven't been buying a lot of new music, so don't have a lot to say about my songs of the year, albums of the year, etc. Most of my musical enjoyment is coming from discovering more classic albums from the past.

Without further ado, let's kick off part 1.

Part 1: 2009 albums

These are the albums from 2009 that I purchased in 2009. I'm not going to attempt to order them, because there's only 4 of them. And let's face it, top 4 lists are no fun.

Manic Street Preachers - Journal For Plague Lovers

This was a really pleasant surprise. While I enjoyed 2007's Send away the tigers, nothing prepared me for how much of a return to form this album was. I'd heard various tidbits in the pre-release chatter: how they were using lyrics left by late founding member Richey Edwards, how they had Steve Albini on board as producer, how it was the thematic and spiritual successor to their masterpiece The holy bible. I certainly didn't want to get caught up in the hyperbole, but when the universally positive reviews started rolling in, I couldn't really help myself and bought it on the day of release.

And it's an amazing album! The combination of Richey's tortured lyrics and Steve Albini's primal production is a match made in heaven, reinvigorating a band who many had given up on. It's an incredibly well-balanced album, incorporating disparate strands of their 20+ year career: there's the raw punk of their Richey-era ("Peeled apples", "Marlon J.D."), melodic but dark pop ("Jackie Collins", "Virginia State") and moments of acoustic beauty ("This joke sport severed", "Facing page: Top left").

It's a bit too early to tell whether history will put this album alongside the classics The holy bible and Everything must go, but in the meantime I'm happy to call this a remarkably accomplished effort from a legendary band who many had probably given up on.

Super Furry Animals - Dark Days / Light Years

What a great year for Welsh musicians. Looking at the history of my 2 favourite Welsh bands (Manics and SFA), there have been 3 previous years where their album releases have coincided:

Everything must go:
Fantastic post-Richey effort from the Manics.
Fuzzy logic: A very promising debut from SFA.

Know your enemy: Highly underrated (and unfairly panned) album from the Manics, even if it could have used a bit of editing.
Rings around the world: Major label debut from SFA, a very polished but authentic effort with some of their finest songs.

Send away the tigers: A semi return to form by the Manics after the bland Lifeblood.
Hey Venus!: Back-to-basics SFA album consisting of a lot of short and catchy numbers.

Well now we can add 2009 to the list. How did the SFA album compare to the Manics' stellar effort?

Well, it's a typically enjoyable and innovative album from SFA which adds a few new influences like krautrock. The album has some very interesting rhythms and textures, but I can't help but feel in many ways that it's "just another SFA album" and while it's very impressive, I don't get excited about their new work as much as I used to.

The album is framed by 3 songs which are quite different to anything SFA have done. Opener Crazy naked girls is a gutsy introduction, lacking a distinct melody (very unlike SFA) but certainly illustrating that they weren't resting on their laurels. Centrepiece Cardiff in the sun is almost prog-pop in sound and scope, although it doesn't really seem to go anywhere. And closer Pric is all about its chugging rhythm, working really well to bookend the album.

The rest of the album is SFA-by-numbers with a few twists thrown in, like Franz Ferdinand's Nick McCarthy counting in German (Computer world, anyone?) during Inaugural trams. Massive kudos for naming one of their songs "The very best of Neil Diamond" - surely one of the funniest song titles I have seen in many years (and one of the best songs of the year too).

Patrick Wolf - The Bachelor

I feel that this album was unfairly panned by a lot of critics. Yes, it's pretentious and overblown in a typical Patrick Wolf way. But in an era where so many musicians wear their influences so obviously on their sleeves, Patrick Wolf is an incredibly unique voice in contemporary music.

The best reference point for this album is the more experimental work of Kate Bush (circa Hounds of love) and David Bowie (circa his late 70s Berlin trilogy). It's a thoroughly adventurous album, with several moments that give me goosebumps, a feeling that I don't get from a lot of new music.

In particular, the uplifting lilt of Damaris is anthemic in all the best possible ways; the glorious spoken-word introduction of Thickets (courtesy of actress Tilda Swinton) never fails to bring a smile to my face. Thickets in particular sounds like it could be from the 2nd half of Hounds of love, and that's one of the best compliments I could give.

Kudos to Patrick Wolf for the ambition and sheer musical talent he demonstrates on this adventurous album. I'm looking forward to the next one.

Madness - The Liberty Of Norton Folgate

This was a recent purchase. I bought it after reading a lot of impressive reviews which describe it as the best album of Madness' career, and one of the best albums of 2009.

I have to admit the jury is still out on this one. There's no doubt that it's a cohesive song cycle with lots of classic pop moments, but I can't help but feel it's a little too sugary sweet and lacking a bit of darkness and shade which could elevate it to somewhere special. Having said that, I have only had 4 listens so far (thanks iTunes!) and I feel like I haven't given it enough time to sink in yet.

At this stage, highlights include That close, On the town and the epic closing title track which is unlike any other Madness song I have heard. Time will tell whether this album does indeed go "one step beyond", or whether it's just an "embarrassment".