I don’t even know why I’m here, frankly. I think it’s pretty well documented that all I do these days is write about television and interview people ’til the cows come home. Once upon a time, though, I used to be a music critic, dammit…and once you’ve had opinions about music, you’ll always have opinions about music. As such, here are my thoughts on the albums and songs that grabbed me this year. This may be the first time I’ve actually written about most of them, but you can damn well be sure that I’ve spent plenty of time listening to them.
1. Tom Jones: Praise & Blame
It’s a pretty consistent tradition that my #1 slot on my Best Albums list of any given year belongs to an artist whose career I’ve followed for quite some time, but Sir Tom earned his spot fair and square. Kicking things off with a stark cover of Bob Dylan’s “What Good Am I?” which will leave listeners spellbound, the Welsh wonder goes gospel with this record, and while it’s admittedly not the sort of career move that generally results in the shifting of mass units, it’s a creative success, one which befits a man entering his seventies far more than, say, another retread of “Sexbomb.” Having already secured legendary status (not to mention a knighthood), our man Tom can afford to step outside of people’s perceptions, and for those who’ve been paying attention, that’s what he’s been doing for the past several albums, including 2008’s 24 Hours and his 2004 collaboration with Jools Holland. But while Praise & Blame is a continuation of an existing trend, it’s also arguably the first time Jones has made absolutely no commercial concessions. There’s no wink-and-a-nudge cover of “200 Lbs. of Heavenly joy.” There’s no song by Bono and the Edge nor uber-hip production from Future Cut. There’s just Tom Jones, age 70…and, by God, he’s still got it.
2. Glen Matlock & The Philistines: Born Running
It isn’t as though it’s surprising that John Lydon’s the member of the Sex Pistols who’s gone on to have the most successful solo career – he was, after all, the frontman for the group – but it continues to be equally eyebrow-raising that so few of the band’s fans have kept their ears open for the consistently solid material emerging from Glen Matlock‘s camp. It’s not quite as punk as the Pistols – which makes perfect sense if you believe the story about Matlock supposedly getting the boot from the band for liking the Beatles a bit too much – but the songs on Born Running still pack a fierce wallop.
3. Brian Wilson: Reimagines Gershwin
The older I get, the less I allow myself to feel guilty about enjoying an album that I could easily peddle to people my grandparents’ age. All things considered, I’d much rather have a full collection of new originals from Mr. Wilson, but the way he takes these Gershwin classics and arranges them to match his traditional sound is still music to my ears. Then, of course, there’s the added bonus that he’s taken on the task of completing a couple of previously-unfinished Gershwin songs. Unsurprisingly, they sound just like Brian Wilson compositions…not that there’s anything wrong with that. At all.
4. Farrah: Farrah
There’s Britpop, and then there’s power pop, but you don’t tend to find bands who can manage to comfortably keep a foot in both camp; I’d argue that Farrah succeeds at this task, but given that they don’t have a particularly high profile in either, I suppose it really all depends on how you define success. For my part, though, if an artist releases an album which contains a significant number of catchy-as-hell hooks, it’s top of the pops in my book, which means that this self-titled entry into their discography is yet another winner for Farrah.
A trio of well-coiffed lookers who scored a worldwide #1 smash in 1985 thanks in large part to a revolutionary, eye-popping video. For an entirely different generation, though, a-ha is this:
The one-hit wonder is now distilled down to a “Family Guy” cutaway. A very funny cutaway, but a marginalization of the band’s legacy just the same. But here’s the thing about a-ha that most people don’t know:
They were one of the most underrated pop bands of their time.
Underneath those drum machines, Fairlight samples, rubber bracelets and gel – it’s no coincidence that their 1986 US tour was sponsored by Agree shampoo – was a damn smart band, with a dark side to boot. That they came to prominence in the mid-’80s is both the best and worst thing that could have happened to them. Best in that they were able to capitalize on the video medium and reach the hearts of teenage girls everywhere; worst in that many of their songs were crippled by dated production that prevented the band from reaching a larger audience. Still, that dated production didn’t stop a new generation of bands from finding inspiration in their songs, and with a couple FOA (Friends of a-ha) currently dominating the charts, our friends at Rhino decided the time was right for a little revisionist history. Please bear in mind that star ratings are for the overall package. Subtract half a star for the rating of the albums themselves.
Hunting High and Low (1985)
With all due respect to Tony Mansfield – his work on that first Naked Eyes album forever puts him in our cool book – we can see why the band chose to go with Alan Tarney for their sophomore album. Mansfield’s production does not feature much in the way of sonic experimentation, despite the fact that sampling and drum programming were still very much in their infancies and the ones who went for broke (Art of Noise, Shannon’s “Let the Music Play”) reaped the biggest rewards. All the same, you can hear the births of both Keane (“Love Is Reason”) and Coldplay (the title track, which Chris Martin has performed live) in these songs, and “The Blue Sky” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an OMD record from that period. Still, the Tarney productions “Take on Me” and “The Sun Always Shines on TV” are playing a different sport than the rest of the album on a number of levels. They even sound like an honest to goodness band on the latter song, and its fast but melancholy tone would serve as the perfect springboard for the band’s follow-up album, which came a little over a year later. Even better, the success of the Tarney singles encouraged the brass to pony up for an orchestra on the remix to the title track, a genius move by all accounts.
Extras: Sweet Jesus. This set is absolutely packed. Remixes of three of the album’s four singles are tacked on to Disc 1, including an incredibly rare extended version of “The Sun Always Shines on TV” and the original single issue of “Take on Me” that was issued a year before Tarney’s version became a smash. We can see why they didn’t include the Dead or Alive-ish remix of “The Sun Always Shines on TV” that was issued on 12″ in the States (it just doesn’t fit in with everything else), but the exclusion of the promo-only 12″ mix of “Take on Me” is unfortunate. Still, the demo versions of every song that made the album, along with 13 others that didn’t, atone for this oversight. The original version of the title track sounds nothing like the final version, and one wonders why songs like “The Love Goodbye” were not considered for the album. Better yet are “Lesson One” and “Never Never,” which would ultimately evolve into “Take on Me” and “The Sun Always Shines on TV.”
Scoundrel Days (1986)
Chart success (or lack thereof) be damned, Scoundrel Days is actually better than its predecessor. It may not have, as the Warner suits were quick to observe, a clear hit single, but it boasts a far stronger overall set of songs – and despite none of them achieving worldwide hit status, the three singles released from the album were still damned good – and the production, handled by Tarney this time around with additional help from a-ha guitarist Paul Waaktaar and keyboardist Magne Furoholmen, eschews Hunting High and Low‘s bedroom pop aesthetic for a more muscular approach. Embracing the darker aspect of their songwriting, a-ha is like a more pinup-friendly Ultravox here, skillfully blending full-blown melodrama with vaguely danceable beats and the occasional burst of guitar. “Manhattan Skyline” is still the band’s oddest and finest song, with waltz-driven verses and a slamming, guitar-laden chorus. The more rock-driven “I’ve Been Losing You,” meanwhile, shows that the band could come up with a good lyric as well. “I can still hear our screams competing / You’re hissing your s’s like a snake / Now in the mirror stands half a man / I thought no one could break.” If Ben Gibbard had written that, it would be called poetry.
Extras: Like the Hunting High and Low issue, Disc 2 contains demo versions of each Scoundrel song, some better preserved than others (“The Swing of Things” and “Cry Wolf,” to name a couple, are pretty rough). Most of the songs are pretty faithful to their final counterparts, though the version here of “I’ve Been Losing You” sounds like The Hurting-era Tears for Fears and “Maybe Maybe” sounds like a lost Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis track. B-side “This Alone Is Love” is here, along with the ultra-rare “Days on End.” The rest of the disc is fleshed out with live performances from a show in Croydon, where the trio takes full advantage of their backing band and fleshes the songs out (i.e. each track is over five minutes long). They don’t best the original versions, but they’re not without their charms. Rhino (2010)
Albums like The Best of Bond…James Bond are tough to critique; on one hand, this album was released with a near-identical track listing back in 2002 (the 2008 version replaces Moby with Chris Cornell and k.d. lang), which means the 2008 issue is just an opportunistic cash grab. On the other hand, the contents of both albums are impeccable. Louis Armstrong, Shirley Bassey (three times), Paul McCartney, Duran Duran, Carly Simon, A-ha (don’t laugh, their theme for “The Living Daylights” is one of the most underrated Bond themes ever), and Tom Jones on one disc? That is 16 different flavors of awesome, right there. Of course, the album doesn’t feature “Another Way to Die,” Jack White and Alicia Keys’ theme for “Quantum of Solace,” but don’t worry; that will surely appear on the 2014 issue of this album. See our problem with this? It’s good stuff – but its existence is awfully cynical, too. (Capitol)