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: Leon Russell, classic Elton John, aging gracefully
For the majority of the ’70s, Elton John was positively unstoppable – and for much of the ’80s, he was so creatively bankrupt that by the time he returned to limited form with 1987’s Reg Strikes Back, it was such a welcome surprise that he’s been handed a pass for most of the lukewarm adult contemporary pop he’s released in the intervening two decades and change. Compared to Leather Jackets and Ice on Fire, late-period Elton like Songs from the West Coast and Peachtree Road is a step up, but those albums still lack the heat and creative energy of his best work, and a lot of the positive reviews he’s gotten over the last couple of decades have come through a combination of blessed relief and the standard grade inflation enjoyed by veteran artists who manage not to suck outright.
Leon Russell, meanwhile, has never released anything as half-baked as the junk Elton was peddling at his nadir – but then, Leon never had as far to fall as Elton, and he’s had the luxury of carving out a low-key career for himself as an indie artist in between tours and session cameos. If people know Russell’s name at all, it’s usually because of his early ’70s work; his more recent releases might be second- or third-tier stuff, but they had fewer people to disappoint. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the prospect of Elton and Leon teaming up for The Union, while intriguing, had the look and feel of a classic rock setup – the kind of project with a strong concept, and executed by performers with undeniable talent, but bound to underwhelm because the artists can’t, or won’t, light their creative spark.
So here’s a happy surprise for anyone who’s suffered through Elton’s post-’70s work and wondered when he’d shift back out of second gear, or been frustrated that Russell hasn’t found more suitable showcases for his talent: The Union is not only the best thing either of them have done in years, it’s a vibrant, rootsy template for how many of their peers (coughBillyJoelandRodStewartcough) can get their mojo back.
What’s the difference? It’s true that some of the songs have more bite, including the rave-ups “Monkey Suit” and “A Dream Come True,” as well as the winking first single “If It Wasn’t for Bad,” but there’s also plenty of room for sleepy ballads like “The Best Part of the Day.” What really sets it apart is T Bone Burnett’s production, which strips back the synthetic varnish that both artists have leaned on too often and exposes the knots and whorls in their finely aged voices – and, more importantly, captures some of the best-sounding piano tracks either of them have laid down in the last 30 years. It’s obvious that a lot of money went into The Union – Booker T. Jones, Jim Keltner, Brian Wilson, Neil Young, and Robert Randolph are some of the guests – but it all went into capturing pure performances, rather than dressing them up. This is a loose, vibrant record, and while it isn’t entirely free of the schmaltz that’s plagued Elton’s later albums in particular, it’s obvious that having Russell as a foil (and Burnett’s strong, minimalist hand in the studio) has brought out the best in him. The musical fruition of a friendship struck up 40 years ago, The Union brings Elton John and Leon Russell full circle – and should bring a smile to the face of anyone who’s been holding out hope that both artists would find their way back to what made their music special. (Mercury 2010)
As the aughts draw to a close… who cares? Seriously, who really does care? Does it mean the same to you as it does to me? I ask because this is what I see:
The span of time between the years 2000 and 2009 was like no decade that came before in that, given the rapid and ever more sophisticated advances in technology, we’ve been able to create our own very unique cultural experiences. There may be no “i” in “team” or “us” or “together,” but “i” creeped into our TV viewing experiences (TiVo), our telephones (the iPhone), our computers (how about the iMac?), and – most significantly – the way we listen to music (iTunes, the iPod, etc.), which is arguably where many of our personalized media experiences began in the first place. Which is great, on one level. If we only want to hear what we want to hear at the moment that we want, we can have that experience for relatively little money, at any time we please.
But on the other hand, what was threatening to become reality pretty much happened in the ’00s – we collectively eliminated the possibility of there ever being another Beatles, Elvis Presely or Michael Jackson, someone that most of us can all agree on. Given that Michael left us mid-way through the last year of the decade, we have effectively lost our last great pop culture figure, and even he was vulnerable to the pressures of our shape-shifting culture. The one album of all original material he released this decade (2001’s Invincible) was not only one of his poorest sellers, it also sucked way more often than it didn’t. Granted, we still have two Beatles left, but even Paul McCartney hasn’t been able to produce an album that could unite all of his old and young fans the way his work with the Beatles continues to do.
Which brings us to the album itself. It’s not completely dead, and will always have a place so long as musicians think of themselves as artists and still revel in the joy of creating a cohesive work of art. But let’s face it – fewer people are buying albums (on CD, that is – digital download sales and even sales of vinyl records continue to increase, though not nearly enough to offset the decline in CD purchases). And that translates to fewer people who can come together to agree on which ones are great, and which ones are best forgotten. And fewer people to care.
Having said all that, in conjunction with our End of Decade series, I present to you my picks for ten best albums of the decade, in no particular order. These are albums that, for one reason or another, connected me to many, many different people over the past ten years, all of whom mean something to me. Maybe you’re one of them, or maybe you will be someday.
Doves – Lost Souls (2000) Queens of the Stone Age – Rated R (2000) Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes (2008) M. Ward – The Transfiguration of Vincent (2003) Brian Wilson – Smile (2004) The Gutter Twins – Saturnalia (2008) Beck – Sea Change (2002) Ambulance LTD – LP (2004) Erykah Badu – Mama’s Gun (2000) Herbie Hancock – River: The Joni Letters (2007)
It’s hard to believe that a band as talented as Dublin’s Pugwash could have such a low profile in a post-MySpace world – though if we’re being honest, that band name is doing them no favors whatsoever – but expect that to change post haste. Thomas Walsh, lead singer and songwriter for Pugwash, was recently showered with accolades for his work in the Duckworth Lewis Method, a concept album about cricket that Walsh assembled with Divine Comedy singer Neil Hannon. Leave it to the band’s new label head Andy Partridge to strike while the iron is hot with Giddy, a collection of the finest moments from Pugwash’s first four albums. You can tell what Partridge sees in the band – namely, himself. “Song for You” is a dead ringer for Apple Venus-era XTC, and “Apples” is about as perfect a pop song as you’ll find. The unstoppably sunny “It’s Nice to Be Nice” will make Brian Wilson shed tears of joy, but the band isn’t stuck mining ’60s pop gold; “Monorail” out-Beck’s Beck, and look for Kelly Jones and the Stereophonics to cover “Finer Things in Life” in the near future.
Even better, Giddy features material from the band’s forthcoming album Eleven Modern Antiquities, and if the groovy “My Genius” is any indication (that has to be Hannon on backing vocals), it looks as though Pugwash are just getting warmed up. Pardon the cliché, but this is the best pop band you’ve never heard. (Ape House 2009)
This year has seen some extraordinary new music come our way. I’ve heard the opposite opinion from elsewhere, but for me, being on the West Coast has a lot to do with my enthusiasm. In fact, seven of the albums in my top ten are by West Coast artists, some more well-known than others. Not only that, three of the albums in my top ten aren’t albums at all. The “EP” is an anachronistic term that originally referred to a 7” vinyl record with more music crammed on each side (usually at the expense of volume and general sound quality) than what a normal single would hold. It’s an abbreviation for “Extended Play.” And yet, today’s EP is really just a half-length CD. They tend to be overlooked, either because they’re too short to warrant much attention or they contain songs not deemed strong enough for a full album, or both. But, like Bob Dylan said, “things have changed.” Our lives are busier, our attention spans are shorter, and our disposable income is shrinking by the hour. What better time for the EP to make a mini-resurgence than now?
Top 10 Albums of 2008
1. The Parson Red Heads: Owl & Timber (EP)
There’s a timelessness to the sound and the vibe of the Parson Red Heads that’s beyond explanation. You can single out the familial harmonies, the guitar interplay that recalls the Byrds and the Dead, the irresistibly solid pop songs, or their flowery evocation of a bygone era. But when it comes down to it, this band’s music simply feels good. No other band has released music this irresistible and uplifting in years, and only a select lucky few up and down the West Coast have had the luxury of being able to see and hear them live. With a little luck, this may change, and we’ll be able to look back at Owl & Timber as one of the elements that made it happen.
2. Brian Wilson: That Lucky Old Sun
Following up the 37-years-late Smile with another similarly built song cycle seemed like little more than a fantasy in 2004. But here we are in 2008, and Brian Wilson pulled it off. Mike Love would be proud to hear that there’s only one “downer” on the album (the beautiful, Pet Sounds-worthy “Midnight’s Another Day”), while all the rest are upbeat, aural murals depicting the sunny side of Southern California. It’s Brian doing what he does best, and outside of Smile, it’s easily his best, most enjoyable solo work.
3. Bob Dylan: Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8
Technically, Tell Tale Signs is an archival release, but the recent vintage of the material (1989 through 2006), the abundance of never-before-heard songs, and the fact that most of it was recorded during the same period in which Guns n’ Roses’ 14-years-late Chinese Democracy gestated, qualifies it as new. And even if it didn’t qualify, it would still be listed here, since it does as good a job (if not better) as any of his last three records of proving that, even in his old age, Dylan has lost none of his power to inspire, confound, delight and move his audience.
4. The Gutter Twins: Saturnalia
Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli have collaborated in the past on a few tracks from Greg’s Twilight Singers albums, and while those duets were pretty good, they were never major stand-outs. Not until the two covered Massive Attack’s “Live with Me” on last year’s A Stitch in Time EP, anyway. As good as that cover was, this full album of originals by Greg and Mark is even better. Dulli stretches himself here, eschewing his usual rockin’ R&B swagger and falling under Lanegan’s dark, spiritual influence.
5. Chris Robley & The Fear of Heights: Movie Theatre Haiku
That straight-laced dude from Portland with the Harry Nilsson fixation strikes again, this time crediting his road band and turning in an even more confident record than last year’s The Drunken Dance of Modern Man in Love. If the 1966 Beatles were a young band today, they’d likely be playing songs like Robley’s “User-Friendly Guide to Change.”
6. Joseph Arthur: Vagabond Skies (EP)
Of the four EPs and full-length album Joseph Arthur released this year, Vagabond Skies rises to the top not only for bearing some of his most captivating and ethereal songs, but also for containing the year’s most memorable guitar solo, in the EP’s centerpiece “She Paints Me Gold.” Plus, the cover art is damn cool.
7. The Happy Hollows: Imaginary (EP)
They’re funny, they’re smart, they’re tight as a conservative’s behind, and they’re the most exciting live indie rock band in L.A. right now. Imaginary is just a short burst of five songs, but what a burst it is – from the simple exclamatory chant of “Colors” to the almost prog-like tour-de-force of “Lieutenant” with singer/guitarist Sarah Negahdari’s Eddie Van Halen-esque guitar tapping, Imaginary tantalizes and teases, just like you want it to.
8. Guns n’ Roses: Chinese Democracy
Yes, it’s bloated and overproduced. No, it’s not the old, sleazy Guns n’ Roses of the late ‘80s. Yes, it should have been out ten years ago, and would have sounded even more contemporary in 1998 than in 2008. But Axl Rose is still the king of tortured, overwrought power ballads and menacing rock n’ roll screams, and on these counts, Chinese Democracy more than delivers – it beats you over the head with its twisted logic.
9. Metallica: Death Magnetic
Metallica sounds like Metallica again! It may be clichéd to say this is their best album since …And Justice for All, but it’s true, and it bears repeating: Death Magnetic is Metallica’s best album since Justice.
10. My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges Evil Urges goes to great lengths to prove that My Morning Jacket is no typical southern jam band. Not that they ever needed to go so far as to throw some Prince-like falsetto singing and funky R&B into the mix, but as it turns out, it sounds pretty cool.