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.
RIYL: swearing, playing the piano, swearing while playing the piano
Listening to Lonely Avenue, the geek pop wet-dream collaboration between Ben Folds and “High Fidelity” author Nick Hornby, one cannot help but think that there are moments where Folds is trying to pull a fast one on the public. This is not to say that Hornby’s credit is an ornamental one, but it seems strange that this smart, clever author, whose lightest books have more emotional depth than Folds’ songs have explored in over a decade, would actually write this, ever:
“I’m a fuckin’ redneck, I like to hang out with the boys
Play some hockey, do some fishing and kill some moose
I like to shoot the shit and do some chillin’, I guess
You fuck with me, and I’ll kick your ass”
Bull, shit. That’s a Folds chorus if ever there was one, and besides, it’s hard to believe that the English Hornby – or anyone else, for that matter – would care one iota about Levi Johnston to write a song about him. And if Folds did write the lyrics, that’s fine – actually, it’s not fine; the man is 44 with 11-year-old twins, and the whole potty mouth thing is beyond embarrassing at this point – but don’t include it here. Release it on your web site as a free download. Its inclusion here, and towards the front of the album, no less, nearly derails Lonely Avenue before it’s had a chance to spread its wings.
Indeed, the opening track only sets the stage for this to be like any other Folds album of late: filled with cranky, passive-aggressive hostility and naughty language. “A Working Day” comes off as a pre-emptive strike to people like, well, us, with a chorus of, “Some guy on the Net thinks I suck, and he should know / He’s got his own blog.” Folds may well be speaking from someone else’s point of view, but he has to know the dangers of singing a line like that and how thin-skinned it makes him look. (Plus, it has more foul language.) “Picture Window,” on the other hand, feels like a true Folds/Hornby collaboration, the sad tale of a woman giving birth on New Year’s Eve (at least that’s what we think it’s about). A beautiful string section shrouds Folds’ piano as he sings, “You know what hope is? Hope is a bastard / Hope is a liar, a cheat and a tease.” The album could use more songs like that and fewer songs like “Password,” which commits the unpardonable pop music sin of spelling out words (lots of them, too). Worse, the subject matter is quite disturbing, seemingly from the point of view of a lovestruck hacker. The song’s bitter ending only adds to the unpleasantness.
“From Above,” on the other hand, is one of the best songs of Folds’ solo career, describing two people who were meant for each other but never connect. The song’s last lines capture Folds’ lyrical essence better than Folds has captured it himself in over a decade: “Maybe that’s how books get written. maybe that’s why songs get sung / Maybe we owe the unlucky ones.” The album’s finale is equally moving. “Belinda” tells the tale of a singer forced to sing his lone hit, though it tortures him to do so because it’s about a girl he still loves but ultimately wronged. Is the song art imitating life? Folds, after all, divorced his second wife Kate in 1996, but he still plays “Kate” in concert.
Lonely Avenue doesn’t completely cure all of the ills of Folds’ recent work, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction, and the two are poised to be a modern-day John and Taupin. Keep the guy on speed dial, Ben. Please. (Nonesuch 2010)
The cool thing about alt-pop band Nada Surf is that they appear to always do things their own way. For whatever reason, though, they stayed together all these years and broke through in 2005 with The Weight Is a Gift, which was produced by Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla. The band continued some of that magic with 2008’s Lucky, and instead of lying low as they had planned, decided to release an album of cover tunes. Fast-forward to today, and If I Had a Hi-Fi. While it’s a set of songs that varies widely from the known (Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” and The Moody Blues’ “Question”) to the currently hip (The Go Betweens’ “Love Goes On” and Spoon’s “Agony of Lafitte”) to the mostly obscure (Bill Fox’s “Electrocution” and Macromina’s “Evolucion”), the base of this is Nada Surf’s signature sound, which is akin to Josh Rouse or Ben Folds fronting a modern version of the Beatles. And it’s that sound that is so endearing. That said, there is something about this album that, while nice enough, may leave you wanting more. That could be because Nada Surf’s original material is that good, or it could be that they just chose these songs on a whim based on what they were listening to at the moment. Surely we can’t fault them for taking chances, because they even covered Kate Bush’s “Love and Anger.” But one or two covers on a new Nada Surf record would have worked just as well. (Mardev 2010)
Aqualung, a group that is essentially one man, Matt Hales, flirted with retirement before realizing that his gift for songwriting needed to continue being shared by the masses. His/their latest, Magnetic North, is Aqualung’s second album on Verve and first set of new material since 2007’s Memory Man. Following a move from his native England to Los Angeles, Aqualung’s new material is slightly more upbeat and inspired in spots than some of his previous work, which tended to be mostly dark, moody and melodic. Right from the start, Magnetic North kicks off with “New Friend,” a super catchy ditty that features, for lack of a better term, a psychedelic piano riff. “Reel Me In” is like a cross between Ben Folds and Death Cab for Cutie, and it’s another upbeat anthem.
There are more melodic-as-hell tracks in “Fingertip” and “Hummingbird,” but that doesn’t mean Aqualung forgot where he came from. Some of the best numbers are the haunting and falsetto-laced “Lost,” which sounds like it could have come from 2004’s Strange and Beautiful; the powerful “36 Hours;” or the quirky and dark title track, a fitting closer to this unique batch of songs. If you’re a fan of alt-pop that has more alt than pop, chances are good you’ll love this new one from Aqualung – and as an added bonus, it’s the kind of record that will make your significant other think you’re cool and sensitive. And what could be wrong with that? (Verve 2010)
It’s one thing to say you sound different than everyone else. It’s another thing entirely to do it without trying. New York City-based singer/songwriter/pianist Danny Ross falls into the latter category, at least it seems that way on his latest, One Way. Sure, you can try to lump Ross in with the likes of Ben Folds or Sufjan Stevens, but he set out to add elements of the Who’s Tommy or Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, while also channeling his background studying jazz piano. The result is an exuberant batch of songs that may not grab you right away, but slowly do so after repeated listens, when you hear things you didn’t hear the first time around. Ross’ falsetto and unique melodies may also remind you of the late Jeff Buckley, but that’s just a point of reference because dude is clearly doing his own thing. If you like your music to have perfect structure and ear candy hooks, you won’t find much to like on here – but if you veer off the beaten path and like your music to do the same, you’re going to love Danny Ross’s music. The best tracks on this fine set are the literal opener, “Sleepy Dream;” “Stay Here with Me” and “And The Trumpets Sing” which both have melodic elements of ‘60s pop; and the driving, triumphant title track. Just do yourself a favor, and give this one a few spins with time to fully digest it. (Danny Ross 2009)