Archive for the ‘2010’ Category

Making music is not akin to building a model, though sometimes it may seem that way. Prefabricated pieces aren’t stamped out at a factory in some far-off foreign land. Picture-laden directions aren’t included. There’s no inserting of staccato guitar solo A into steady rhythm B, and no slathering on glue and waiting for it to dry. Otherwise, the world would be awash in indistinguishable songs.

Oh wait. We are.

But such has been the case since the dawn of the entertainment industry. Hits beget blurry copies that smell of mimeograph ink – and if you don’t appreciate that reference, don’t worry. It only serves to point out my age and say, slyly, that much of modern pop music isn’t being made for me. (Nor should it be.) As Paul Simon summarized in “The Boy in the Bubble,” “every generation sends a hero up the pop charts.”

Anyway, although my much-ballyhooed “Album of the Year” is an honorific I’ve doled out every year since 1978, when I was 13, putting forth an “Album of the Decade” never occurred to me until a month ago, when the notion was mentioned in someone’s tweet; and then, this month, magazines, newspapers and online outlets began posting their lengthy and semi-lengthy lists. The ones I’ve seen basically weigh artistry and commercial impact, and inevitably mix in a handful of niche records while ignoring select popular hits.

Most are little more than clickbait exercises designed to boost ad impressions.

You’ll find no advertisements on this page. To borrow/adapt the lyrics from Neil Young’s “This Note’s for You,” I don’t write for Pepsi/I don’t write for Coke/I don’t write for nobody/Makes me look like a joke. Also, very few of those lists achieve what I love most about reading about music: a sense of the author. From where I sit, the best music reflects the listener(s) as much as it does the artist. It intertwines with our DNA. (And “best” in that sentence construct is a subjective thing.) 

With all that said, the reality of the past decade – which saw good times, bad times, and plenty of in-betweens for me and mine – is that a handful of albums turned my ear every year, and quite a few became constants. And of those, a select some have pretty much become one with my soul; they mean as much to me as the music of my youth.

One caveat: Your mileage may vary. One more caveat: It’s too early for my favorite albums of this year to be included here, as one never knows just how long they’ll stick with you (though I can’t imagine Allison Moorer’s Blood fading away). And one last caveat: I’m a middle-aged white guy with catholic tastes. (To quote Paul Simon again, “I know what I know.”) While I enjoy many different musical avenues, I generally find myself circling the same blocks of rock, pop and Americana/country.

And with that out of the way, here are my top seven albums for the 2010s.

1) Rumer – Seasons of My Soul (2010). In my first blog post on the Hatboro-Horsham Patch (which I’ve since moved to this site) in February 2012, I called it “an atmospheric song cycle that’s teeming with soulful, knowing lyrics and melodies that wrap themselves around the heart.” It spoke to me then and speaks to me now. It’s the definition of “essential.

2) Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life (2016). I cannot properly put into words the many ways this album affected me, other than to say this: From the moment I first heard it, it felt like it had been with me all my life. “Honest Life” is a song I want played at my funeral, whenever that may be. “Some things take a lifetime to fully understand.” (For my initial review of it, click here.)

3) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill (2012). This may be a controversial pick for some, as not even all Neil fans appreciate its grandeur. Such is life. But as I wrote in this “essentials” essay, “it features sprawling songs that capture the messy essence of this thing called life.”

4) First Aid Kit – Stay Gold (2014). So, long about 2012, I had pretty much given up hope for the youth of the world. And then I heard “Emmylou” by the Swedish sister act known as First Aid Kit and realized that, indeed, I was wrong. As good as The Lion’s Den album was, however, nothing prepared me for this gem. The psychedelic folk of “Cedar Lane” remains as hypnotic to me now as it did then.

5) Juliana Hatfield – Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John (2018). I can hear some guffaws echoing through the interconnected tubes that make up this thing we call the “internet.” Whatever. This album saw two of my favorite worlds collide, and made a rough last half of the decade much sweeter. To rework a line from my initial review, it captures the spirit of the originals while adding a touch of Juliana’s heart.

6) Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball (2012). From my original review (another first posted to the Patch but since relocated here): “[W]hat makes a song great isn’t that it conjures spirits from our youthful nights, but that it speaks to the present. Maybe the first blush of melody hurtles us into the past, but the bridge jerks us as fast into the here and now. And the lyrics ring true no matter the age – or our age, for that matter. The runaway American dream that drives Born to Run, for example, represents today as much as 1975, just as the bitter realities and resignation of Darkness reflect working-class life of every era. As Springsteen sings on the title track of Wrecking Ball, his new album, “hard times come and hard times go/yeah, just to come again.” Some things, for good and bad, never change.”

7) Diane Birch – Nous (2016). This EP is a true work of art anchored by what, to me, is one of the decade’s greatest songs: “Stand Under My Love.” To borrow from my review, Nous “documents dreams, disappointments, disillusionment, faith and acceptance, and an awareness not spoken that, indeed, the Last Things are the First Things.”

“Woke up this morning, thought it was a dream/I can’t watch the news for the life of me/Seems the seeds that we’re sowin’ are gettin’ heavy to bear/Less than a dream, more like a nightmare.” So opens “Lived and Let Go,” one highlight from Kentucky country/roots singer-songwriter Kelsey Waldon’s new White Noise/White Lines album.

Who doesn’t feel that way, these days? But what lifts the song above a broadside about the ugliness that permeates life circa 2019 is what comes next: “And the voices, they call, and they promise, they swear/They’re talkin’ so loud, but don’t get anywhere/And I’m not one to claim more than I know/But we live here and die here, take heart ‘fore you go.”  

White Noise/White Lines, as a whole, mines the earthen strains of country music that mainstream Nashville, too often these days, ignores. It’s not the country-pop played on the radio, but the country-punk once played in the honky-tonks. It’s raw and ragged, real. Black soot courses through its veins.

One of my favorite songs is “Kentucky, 1988,” about growing up in the oddly named community of Monkey’s Eyebrow, Ky. It’s neither a gauzy nostalgia fest nor a bitter reminiscence, I hasten to add, just an honest remembrance of life as it was, and how she carries those years with her, still. “This is my DNA/No matter how far I get away/There’s just some things that will never change/Kentucky, 1988.” 

Here she and her band are on The Burl Sessions performing it:

In short, Kelsey’s Kentucky twang is as strong as her talent, and her talent is on full display in these 11 tunes. I hear echoes of everyone from Loretta Lynn to Townes Van Zandt to Dwight Yoakam in the grooves, but most of all I hear her heart beating strong. White Noise/White Lines is highly recommended.

(For more on Kelsey’s backstory, and insights into the album, be sure to read this No Depressions article and this NPR piece.)

I currently have not one, not two, but eight external hard drives on my desk, a network drive plugged into our router, plus my rarely used HP desktop. Most contain the result of the Great Undertaking of 2007, when I invested in a then-pricey external HD and began ripping our CDs. It was a six month-long endeavor born from frustration: We owned thousands upon thousands of discs, but had run out of space for them in our over-stuffed apartment. Stacks of jewel boxes took up residence here, there and everywhere.

After those six months, I bought a second external HD, copied everything over, and then plugged it into Diane’s computer. Presto, we had matching libraries – and more room in the apartment, as I boxed up the CDs. Whatever we wanted to listen to was, quite literally, a mouse click away, and because our library was so expansive…well, it was a bit like our own private Spotify or Apple Music. Then, in theory, if either of us bought an album, be it physical or digital, we’d copy it to the other’s drive.

But theories don’t always play out in real life the way they do on paper. Over time, our libraries took on slightly different hues. Sometimes Diane would procure a disc or download and not tell me. And vice versa. But, regardless, I routinely backed up my library. At one point, before I switched from the HP to a MacBook, I had two external desktop HDs plugged in at all times, and a third that I employed as a backup for the first two. Whenever I ripped a CD to the internal HD, I then copied it over to the externals. And, every month or so, I’d plug in the third external and do it again.

It’s just the way it was.

There’s more on those HDs, of course. One holds most of my high-res music. A few include now-ancient Super 8 home movies that I had digitalized, plus various versions of my own Long Medley – all those home movies edited into one long film and accented by a letter-perfect soundtrack. There’s also photos, photos, and more photos; my digital art, which wasn’t much in the way of art (as the example to the left demonstrates), that I played around with for more than a decade, and short animations that never came out as envisioned; the last iteration of the original Old Grey Cat website; umpteen versions of an unfinished novel; Word documents galore, including old TV GUIDE essays; and old mix-CD covers, such as the one below (and this one for a Juliana collection).

I may be wrong, but I believe it’s the last mix I made, as a Christmas gift (along with, I believe, a bottle of wine) for my brother and his wife in 2010. The cover art was an original, but something that I didn’t take much time with. I created it in an hour, rendered it, and was done.

Which leads to today’s Top 5: Mixdisc 2010…as in, songs from that very mix.

1) Tift Merritt – “Mixtape.” What better song to start a mix than this, a song about mixtapes? (And, too, it was from my Album of the Year for 2010.)

2) Mazzy Star – “Fade Into You.” If you listened to that Tift song, you’ll hear her mention Mazzy Star in the lyrics. So what better song to bat second?

3) Diane Birch – “Heavy Cross.” Yeah, I just featured this song in my Diane Birch roundup; and have featured it a few times before that, too. Back in 2010, however, it was relatively new – and totally unavailable anywhere but on YouTube. (That’s still true.) My sister-in-law liked Diane Birch, so it seemed a good idea to include it. (I used one of those crappy ad-heavy sites to strip away the video and save the audio as an MP3.) Also, on a more practical note, after the languid “Fade Into You,” the tempo needed a jolt, and “Heavy Cross” is like a double espresso…

4) Natalie Merchant – “maggie and milly and molly and mae.” Another hypnotic song, this time from one of my 2010 Album of the Year runners-up.

5) Rachel and Kurt (aka Lea Michele and Chris Colfer) – “Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy.” Yeah, yeah, not everyone liked Glee. But I did, and always enjoyed the episodes that showcased Lea Michele, as her voice was (and is) magical. (I still wish they’d spun off Rachel into her own series. But c’est la vie.) It’s also a performance that, divorced from the TV, stands on its own. (And, yes, I’m aware it’s a knockoff of the Barbra Streisand-Judy Garland rendition. I still love it.)

And a few bonuses…

6) Kim Wilde – “Kids in America.” A classic new-wave entry from the dawn of MTV. Who doesn’t love this tune?

7) The Jam – “Stoned out of My Mind.” Paul Weller & Co. tackle the classic Chi-Lites tune. And it’s absolutely fantastic – one of my favorite Jam tunes, actually.

10) The Lemonheads – “It’s About Time.” Jumping down a few tracks to No. 10 brings us to this, my favorite song from the Lemonheads.

11) Juliana Hatfield – “It’s Only Rock and Roll.” This was a free download from the Daytrotter site back in 2009. It’s an absolutely brilliant, stripped-down rendition (and is a perfect followup to Evan Dando & Co.’s “It’s About Time” due to Juliana’s guest vocal on that tune).

Life. It’s sweet. Every day is a gift, every moment a treasure, despite the pain and misery we sometimes endure. Those are cliches, I know, but I believe them – especially while listening to The Natalie Merchant Collection, which I’m doing as I write. The set, for the uninitiated, features her seven studio albums alongside one disc of new and old songs performed with a string quartet, and another disc of, as the press release states, “rare and previously unreleased tracks recorded between 1998 and 2017.” It’s due out on July 14th, but those of us who preordered received it early.

Much has and will be written about the collection, I’m sure, and I plan to write about it myself this weekend, after I’ve had time to digest the new material and contemplate what the set, writ large, means in the scheme of things. I will say, however, that if you had told me back in 1986, when I first heard Natalie with the 10,000 Maniacs, that I’d still be listening to her all these years later…well, I’m not sure how I would have responded. But I’m glad she’s still making music, and glad to still be a fan.

Anyway, for now, here’s today’s Top 5: Natalie Merchant. Not necessarily her greatest songs (though some are), but great songs and performances, nonetheless.

1) “Carnival.” (From Tigerlily.)

2) “Life Is Sweet.” (From Ophelia.)

3) “Break Your Heart.” (From Ophelia.)

4) “I’m Not Gonna Beg.” (From Motherland.)

5) “Space Oddity.” (From 1999’s Live in Concert, which isn’t included in the collection.)

And three bonus tracks:

6) “Maggie and Milly and Molly and May.” (From Leave Your Sleep,)

7) “Ladybird.” (From Natalie Merchant.)

8) “Frozen Charlotte.” (From Butterfly, the collection’s disc of new and old material recorded with a string quartet.)