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.

1 comment:

  1. As always, another great post Jeremy.

    Glad you are digging Hidden Things, its a great album, and it is an odds and sods collection, but it just works so well. Your favourites are some of mine too - I love Other Peoples Houses, Special Treatment and Begger on the Street. I also like Rally Round the Drum and Elly, but they are all good, not a bad track on it. And I agree, he should have more world recognition.

    In terms of some of the other albums mentioned, I have borrowed a few of these. Van Lear Rose is great, most enjoyable, I also liked Sweetheart of the Rodeo when I borrowed it of you. I was a bit disappointed with I'll Be Lightning though, maybe you talked it up to much for me, maybe I haven't given it enough of a listen, I dunno, but I like some of the tracks on it, but overall, it didn't work for me. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sounds like something that would appeal to me, as to that Nick Lowe album.

    Keep up the good blogging though!!


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