Wednesday, 18 January 2012

2011: A Year In Music [Part 4 of 4]

5. Morrissey - Bona Drag

The few Morrissey albums that I had prior to this one (Your arsenal, Vauxhall and I, You are the quarry) are all good (the latter) to excellent (the first two), but were still in a different ballpark to most of the work he did with his former band The Smiths. Bona drag is a compilation of his non-album singles, with the exception of Suedehead and Everyday is like Sunday which both also appeared on his solo debut Viva hate (anyone who has heard Ryan Adams' debut album Heartbreaker will find this little tidbit amusing). Consider it his Louder than bombs, if you will.

Anyone who has several Morrissey solo albums but doesn't own this compilation isn't getting the full picture of his solo career, and that makes this essential listening. Some of his finest moments are here -- November spawned a monster, The last of the famous international playboys and of course the aforementioned Viva hate singles.

The highlight of the album for me is Hairdresser on fire, a typically camp Morrissey number with a melody to die for and lyrics detailing the frustration of trying to make an appointment with his hairdresser. It all sounds typically over-the-top, but it's a fantastic song that would have sit quite nicely on any of the Smiths albums.

4. Ringo Starr - Ringo

Ahhh, Ringo. Always the punchline of Beatles jokes, but we know Ringo will have the last laugh when he is the last surviving member (and you know he will be). And for a short time in 1973, he demonstrated that he too could release a great album, with a little help from his friends of course.

This solo Beatles album is special, as it's the only one which all of the ex-Beatles appeared on. Ringo was probably the most diplomatic and likable Beatle, which is probably why he didn't have a falling out with any of them. Each of the ex-Beatles wrote a song for him -- I'm the greatest (Lennon), Six o'clock (McCartney) and Sunshine life for me / You and me babe (Harrison). George Harrison also helped Ringo co-write Photograph, one of my favourite solo Beatles songs, which made it to number one in the US singles charts.

The production on the album is amazing, with the crowd cheers on the opening and closing tracks reminding me of George Martin's production work on Sgt. Pepper's (and fitting in well with the theatrical feel of the album cover). This is a fun album with incredibly catchy songs which is a pleasure to listen to. While it's not as deep as Imagine or All things must pass, it's an album I can see myself returning to again and again.

3. Loudon Wainwright III - Attempted Mustache

With the purchase of this album, I think the Wainwrights' may be the biggest musical family in my CD collection (Loudon's children being the folk singers Rufus and Martha).

This is Loudon's 4th album (from 1974), and is best described as folk music with a sense of humour. Opening track The swimming song is a catchy, banjo-driven number which is memorable from the first listen and only gets better with age. Bell bottom pants and I am the way are hilariously cynical portraits of the hippy-era and religion respectively (the latter being based off a Woody Guthrie song, but with updated lyrics).

I already knew the amusing ballad The man who wouldn't cry as Johnny Cash covered is on his American recordings album (Cash's version is quite similar to the original here). Nocturnal stumblebutt is a song about Loudon trying to find his keys and cigarettes in the dark without waking up his partner. The closing song Lullaby is about how his baby boy Rufus was keeping him up at night, and includes pearlers such as "You're a late night faucet that's got a drip".

Suddenly, the vitriol that Martha Wainwright expressed in her song Bloody mother fucking asshole (apparently an ode to her father) is starting to make a lot more sense.

2. Galaxie 500 - On Fire

Indie publications like Pitchfork and the like have been praising the work of Galaxie 500 for a while, in particular this album from 1989. Galaxie 500 were part of the "slowcore" movement, bleak music with languid tempos and often heavy use of reverb. I bought this album with much trepidation, expecting an album that had been surpassed by the work of bands who it had influenced. It took several listens to make me realise that I was dealing with a very special album.

The songs tend to blend into each other on the initial listens, but over time the nuances of each track appear. The beautiful harmonies on Tell me, the whining, desperate vocals of Snowstorm and Strange and the stunning, minimalistic landscape of Decomposing trees (one of the few tracks from the 80s which has a sax-solo and doesn't sound the least bit dated). It is all capped off with a cover of George Harrison's Isn't it a pity, a radical reinvention that gave me a renewed appreciation for the song.

1. Nina Simone - Sings The Blues

I didn't really think I was a big fan of the blues, but it took a masterpiece of a record from one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century to sway me.

Like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, Nina Simone is known more for being an interpreter of songs rather than a songwriter, and that is reflected in the track-listing of this album where only 4 of the songs were composed by her. I'm glad to say that 3 of the songs that she did compose here (Do I move you?, Real real and I want a little sugar in my bowl) are probably the finest on the album, so calling her an amazing singer is still doing her a massive injustice!

Opener Do I move you? begins with seductive verses before exploding into a wonderfully shambolic chorus. Real real is my favourite number here -- it swings, it bops, it gets the blood pumping through your veins. It's a delightful number, and like all of the songs here, is a perfect showcase for Simone's uniquely androgynous vocals. Her interpretation of the traditional The house of the rising sun (made famous by The Animals) reinvents it as a fast-paced number. The album alternates between slow-paced torch songs and more rhythmic numbers, and it never fails to hit all of the emotional notes.

Disclaimer: There are several versions of this album available -- I have the one called The blues (from 1991) which has a different cover than the one above and appends 6 bonus tracks to the end. Normally I'm not a big fan of this, but the bonus tracks are all high quality (in particular the drug ode The pusher) and it's easy enough on the iPod to separate the bonus tracks from the album proper.

That concludes the list of my musical discoveries of 2011 -- I hope you have enjoyed reading it.

What did you enjoy listening to throughout the year?

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

2011: A Year In Music [Part 3 of 4]

10. Rolling Stones - Singles Collection: The London Years

The Stones didn't really become an "album band" until Beggars banquet in 1968 (although some may argue that their first great album was Aftermath from 1966). I have their 4 classic albums released between 1968 and 1972, and a few other recommended works, but there was a giant hole in my CD collection where Satisfaction, Paint it black, As tears go by, Jumpin' Jack Flash, and Honky tonk women needed to sit (many of which were released as stand-alone singles, as was the style at the time).

For a long time I have been researching about the best way to plug the gaps in my Stones collection. I considered the 2CD Hot rocks set (which was my first exposure to the Stones, via my brother's CD collection) and also their Big hits (High Tide and Green Grass) collection from 1966. Hot rocks is a killer set, but overlapped a bit too much with their classic run of albums; Big hits omitted a lot of their later classics (such as Ruby Tuesday) as it was released earlier in their career.

Further research eventually led me to this 3CD set, considered by many critics (Allmusic included) to be the definite Stones singles collection. While not as tight as Hot rocks (which is all killer no filler), there's no denying the breadth of this set. The first CD focuses more on their early blues-based material, the second CD covers their mid-late 60s work (my favourite of the set) and the third CD overlaps most with their 1968-1971 albums and was the least essential to me.

There's an abundance of brilliant material here, but it was also great discovering lesser-known hidden gems like The spider and the fly, Dandelion and The lantern. Just a warning - most of the songs here are in mono; if you want stereo versions you may want to stick with Hot rocks. This doesn't bother me so much; that's how the songs were released originally so it feels authentic.

9. Neil Young - Harvest Moon

Harvest moon was considered to be the long-awaited sequel to Young's most commercial successful album Harvest, released 20-years later in 1992. Harvest has never been one of my favourite Young albums; I preferred his music when it became less MOR and "headed for the ditch" as he so eloquently put. For this reason, I never considered Harvest moon an album which was worthy of attention.

I'm glad to say now that I own it that I was wrong; this may just be in my top-5 Neil Young albums (and there's a lot of competition!). This is a very rootsy country-folk-rock album and quite a change in sound from his previous raucous affair, Ragged glory from 1990. It's easy-listening, but never bland. Neil is in fine voice throughout and the performances are all impeccable. My favourite cuts are the political War of man, and the epic live finale Natural beauty which doesn't outstay its 10-minute running time and is one of the most beautiful songs Young has released to date.

8. Hank Williams - 40 Greatest Hits

Harvest moon has a great song on it called From Hank to Hendrix, which provides a nice segue into this album. Hank Williams was obviously a country music legend, a man who died very young but left an indelible impression on the music industry. I read about this compilation in a Rolling Stone (magazine) countdown of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

To be honest, I wasn't expecting much. The songs on this compilation were recorded between 1947 and 1953 (the year that Hank died, on New Year's Day). With the exception of Robert Johnson, this is the oldest music in my collection. I was expecting this to have more historical value than music I would enjoy listening to; an album that wouldn't get a lot of spins but fill an imaginary void in my collection.

While I expected the music to be dated and cheesy, instead I got an honest singer-songwriter performing songs that anyone can relate to. So many of the songs on this collection have been covered enough times to be considered standards -- Lost highway, I'm so lonesome I could cry, Hey good lookin' and Your cheatin' heart amongst others.

Almost every song in this collection is worth listening to -- Jambalaya (on the bayou), Kaw-liga, the poignant I'll never get out of this world alive (sadly, the last single released during Williams' lifetime). This is an amazing retrospective of a musical legend.

7. Lyle Lovett - Pontiac

Most will remember Lyle Lovett as the unattractive man with the funny haircut who Julia Roberts married in 1993. I'm not sure what made me investigate his music, but I started reading about his music and his 2nd album Pontiac (from 1988) was commonly accepted to be his masterpiece. $3 later on eBay and the album was in my possession.

This is a folk singer-songwriter album with elements of country, and a lyrical quirkiness that's not too far removed from the early work of Tom Waits. If I had a boat is a charming opener with cute, nostalgic lyrics that sets the scene for the rest of the album. Other great songs include the Dylan-sque murder ballad L.A. county and the misogynist She's no lady.

The latter part of the album changes the pace considerably, with the jazz textures of Black and blue, the beautifully understated melody of Simple song and the poignant portrait of a WW2 veteran in Pontiac. A short and sweet album that's worthy of your ears.

6. Leonard Cohen - New Skin For The Old Ceremony

Prior to picking up this album, I had a few early Cohen albums from the late-60s/early-70s (Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs of love and hate) and his excellent late-80s record I'm your man. His early work is very understated, with acoustic guitar, subtle string sections and Cohen's monotonic (yet powerful) baritone delivering lyrics that can only be described as poetry. I'm your man introduced some 80s production elements, but it's to Cohen's credit that only a few of the songs come across as dated now; his composition abilities and delivery are able to transcend the era.

New skin for the old ceremony was his 4th album, released in 1974, and provides an early indication of his evolving sound. New instruments are introduced here, including banjo and mandolin, giving the album a much fuller sound than the earlier records. Cohen's "sexually religious" lyrics as usual steal the show -- from the odd metaphors of the opening track ("You were K.Y. jelly / I was vaseline") to the hotel-act captured on Chelsea hotel #2, one of the finest Cohen tracks (supposedly about his affair with Janis Joplin).

Closer Leaving green sleeves is a reworking of the traditional folk song; in typical Cohen fashion it ends with him screaming the lyrics while the music fades away. This is an incredibly underrated album and probably the Cohen album I have enjoyed listening to most.

Monday, 16 January 2012

2011: A Year In Music [Part 2 of 4]

15. Gram Parsons - Grievous Angel

Gram Parsons, considered by many to be the godfather of alt-country music, only released 2 solo albums in his lifetime. Combining this with his work with the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers and International Submarine Band, he left behind a remarkable oeuvre which influenced countless bands in the subsequent decades.

I picked up his 2-albums-on-1-CD set which included his solo debut G.P. and his swansong, the posthumously released Grievous angel. Both are very solid albums, but Grievous angel hits a few more emotional chords with me -- from the lucid storytelling of the opening semi title-track, to the poignant closer In my hour of darkness (with chanteuse-for-hire Emmylou Harris sharing vocal duties), via the emotive honesty of centrepieces Brass buttons and $1000 wedding, this is music with heart and soul from a talented musician who left the world way too soon.

14. The National - High Violet

I'd been putting off buying this album for a while, but I'm very glad I caved in and bought it. Their previous album, Boxer, was a real slow-burner for me -- an album with some immediate standout moments but others which took a bit longer to reveal their deeper layers to me.

I think that I may prefer High violet even more. I've talked a lot about how claustrophobic production can affect my enjoyment of music, but this is one of those albums where the production actually adds to the vibe of the album. Where Boxer was more about rhythms and textures, this album puts frontman Matt Berninger in centre stage where his haunting vocals take the spotlight on most of the songs here.

Opener Terrible love is a bit of a false start for me; it's a song where the production hinders rather than improves the song. The mid-album peak of the ominous Afraid of everyone and single Bloodbuzz ohio (with the outstanding lyrical imagery of "I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees") seems like it would be hard to beat, but the lower-key ballads on the latter-half of the album (Runaway, Conversation 16, England) all maintain that beautifully eerie tension that makes The National one of the better bands releasing music these days.

13. Phil Spector - Wall Of Sound Retrospective 12. Phil Spector - A Christmas Gift For You

Other than Gary Glitter's Rock and roll which I have on "The Full Monty" soundtrack, this may be the first time I own a CD by a convicted felon (okay, I'm prepared to be corrected on this one). Ignoring his recent murder conviction and incarceration, forgetting about his psychotic behaviour throughout the 60s and 70s (including keeping musicians in the studio at gunpoint until he got the take he wanted), there's no doubt that he is the most famous and influential music producer of the last 50 years.

I needed a Phil Spector primer in my collection, or at least a way to get a copy of the Ronettes' Be my baby (one of the great pop singles in musical history). I picked up the 2 CD box-set which contains a retrospective of his infamous "Wall of sound" production numbers, and his secular holiday album A Christmas gift for you.

Wall of sound retrospective contains many of the classic songs of the era from his favourite girl bands including The Ronettes, The Crystals, Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans and Darlene Love. It's capped off with a few songs by The Righteous Brothers (You've lost that lovin' feeling, Unchained melody) and the song which he considered to be his finest moment (but a commercial flop in America) -- River deep, mountain high by Ike & Tina Turner. It's all essential listening; an important part of musical history.

A Christmas gift for you is often considered as one of the great holiday albums. The formula is simple -- take some famous songs from Christmas time (Rudolph the red nose reindeer, Santa Claus is coming to town), add some of Phil's favourite girl bands, cover the songs in dense wall-of-sound production, and listen to the magic. I have never celebrated Christmas, and I don't have the nostalgic attachment to these songs that I'm sure a lot of others would. But listening to this album makes me wish I did, just so I had an excuse to play it at that time of year. Christmas (Baby please come home) by Darlene Love is a stunning number and one of my musical discoveries of the year.

11. NRBQ - At Yankee Stadium

Despite the name, this isn't a live album. It's a tongue-in-cheek name from a band who you probably haven't heard of, who were certainly not afraid to have a bit of a laugh.

NRBQ stands for New Rhythm & Blues Quartet, a band with rotating lineups who formed in 1967 in Miami, Florida. It's hard to describe their music, but if you imagine a pub band who delve into jazz-rock, power-pop, swing and R&B, you'd have a pretty good idea of their sound.

I think I read something about this band when doing a bit of research about Brinsley Schwarz, Nick Lowe's former band. NRBQ were mentioned as a very underrated and under-appreciated band, and this album was singled out as a "lost classic" worthy of consideration.

There are a few covers here -- country-blues chugger Get rhythm (made famous by Johnny Cash), the rock 'n' roll classic Shake, rattle and roll, the R&B number The same old thing -- but the heart and soul of the album rests with the original NRBQ numbers. Just ain't fair is one of those songs that you feel like you've known forever; I love her, she loves me is a beautiful love ballad.

At Yankee Stadium is a tight, filler-free and fun rock album that doesn't outstay its welcome and makes you pretty goddamn happy for 35 minutes. What more can you ask for?

Friday, 13 January 2012

2011: A Year In Music [Part 1 of 4]

I purchased 56 albums in 2011, and only 2 were 2011 releases (Build a rocket boys! and The king of limbs). There's a few more albums on my "to purchase" list from 2011 -- in particularly Bad as me, 50 words for snow and The whole love. Needless to say that, similar to previous years, most of my musical enjoyment has come from discovering gems from the past.

Here is my top 20 list of my album purchases / musical discoveries of the year.

Enjoy the list - and happy new year!

20. Bob Dylan - Self Portrait

A bit of an odd choice, really. It's now been 50 years since Bob Dylan's self-titled debut album, and the man has one of the most expansive back catalogues in history. Once you have gone through the classics (Blonde on blonde, Blood on the tracks, Highway 61 revisited -- amongst many others) and uncovered some of the lesser-known gems, where does a Dylan fan go? You go to an album that was (and still is) considered by critics to be the nadir of the Dylan catalogue, an album which destroyed the near-flawless streak of albums that Dylan released in the 60s.

This was released in June 1970, and the whole package, from the album title, the cover, the long running time (73 minutes) is all somewhat tongue-in-cheek. If you try not to take this album seriously (a mean feat considering that it's about 2/3 covers, sung in Dylan's Nashville skyline croon) -- one can uncover many hidden gems here. Days of '49, Belle isle, Copper kettle, The mighty quinn and Minstrel boy are all great songs (the latter even sounding like it may have influenced Tom Waits' work).

I'm pretty sure that if this album didn't begin with All the tired horses -- a 3 minute repetitive dirge where the same line is repeated again and again by a female backing group -- history would have been a bit kinder to this album. Getting past that song, I look at this as just another facet in Bob Dylan's fascinating musical output.

19. The Lemonheads - Car Button Cloth

Let me get this straight first -- if you don't have a copy of the Lemonheads' 1992 album It's a shame about Ray, go and get it now. It's a flawless album of pure, hummable, lyrical, toe-tapping alternative pop/rock which is looked upon now as one of the absolute gems of the 90s. Their follow-up album, Come on feel the Lemonheads, had its moments but it was overly long and lost a bit of steam by the end.

Car button cloth was released in 1996 and it was their last album before they broke up in 1997, before reforming in 2005. I was already familiar with If I could talk I'd tell you as it got a bit of airplay back in the day and I had listened to it on one of those Triple J compilation CDs. I bought this album with some hesitation but was pleasantly surprised.

Like much of the Lemonheads' work, there is a dark undercurrent to a lot of the lyrics here (Break me, Hospital) which is understandable considering frontman Evan Dando's history with substance abuse. The outdoor type is another killer cut, a humorous alt-country ballad about hating the outdoors and wanting to spend all of your time inside. C'mon daddy is another great song, apparently about Liv Tyler discovered who her real Dad was.

18. Nirvana - Unplugged In New York

I'm not usually a big fan of live albums, but this is an interesting piece of work. It's an intimate recording of acoustic songs recorded by a band who were known for turning the volume up, recorded only a few months before the frontman committed suicide.

What is most fascinating about it is that almost half of the album is made up of cover versions, including a 10-minute mini-set of songs by cult Arizona band Meat Puppets (a big influence on Cobain). Another thing to note is the exclusion of their biggest hit, Smells like teen spirit. Maybe they felt that an unplugged version wouldn't do it justice.

I wasn't a big Nirvana fan at the time, so wasn't affected by Cobain's death. But I could imagine what this album must have been like to fans when it was released in November 1994, 7 months after Cobain's suicide. An emotionally charged album which shows Cobain's songs in all of their stripped-back glory.

17. Bright Eyes - I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

My friend Pete lent this to me back in 2005 with strong recommendations. I wasn't particularly blown away at the time, but maybe I hadn't given it the chance it needed. I had subsequently picked up his 2002 album Lifted and was very impressed, and I eventually picked this one up too.

Bright Eyes is a bit of a polarising musican, and the new-Dylan tag which the musical press attached to him probably didn't help a lot. Looking past the image and his unfortunate (and unfair) connection to the emo musical genre/lifestyle, this is a great indie-folk album full of clever lyrics and toe-tapping melodies.

At 45-minutes, consider it a compressed version of the long (but still incredible) Lifted. Don't let the spoken-word introduction to the opening track put you off; there is music here to be enjoyed!

16. Sparklehorse - It's A Wonderful Life

It's saying a lot (especially coming from me) when the worst track on an album is a collaboration with musical genius Tom Waits. Dog door, also included on the Tom Waits compilation Orphans, is a decent (but not brilliant) Tom Waits song, but it stands out on this album like a sort thumb and completely destroys the flow of it.

With the exception of that song, this is a very lo-fi recording of the late Mark Linkous' fragile vocals, dark lyrics and spare intrumentation. Various special guests (including PJ Harvey) show up on a few tracks in more subtle roles than Waits', but this is Linkous' show. It's heartbreaking stuff in light of what happened to Linkous 9 years after its release.

I have a few Sparklehorse albums -- their debut Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, the Danger Mouse/special guest collaboration Dark night of the soul -- but this one is their most stunning piece of work and the one I would recommend to newcomers.