Archive for the ‘2010s’ Category

The best music reflects the audience as much as the artist; we hear and feel our own life’s highs and lows in the lyrics and melodies. Hardship and happiness are singular yet communal experiences, in other words. Everyone encounters each along the way, though the where and when may differ. Life unfolds like a maze, after all. Though no two journeys are the same, at some point everyone treads down a rocky path that turns into a dead end – just as everyone eventually, at least for a time, finds their way. We do it again and again, over and over, until, at last, the maze comes to an end.

Years end, too. 

Which leads to this: On New Year’s Eve of 1978, the year when the music bug bit me, I scrawled “Wings – London Town” on a piece of looseleaf paper I titled “Best Album of the Year” (or words to that effect) that I then slipped into one of the drawers of my desk – the same desk, in fact, that I’m writing on now. With every passing year, another album or albums were added to said paper. In time, I transferred the burgeoning list to typing paper, then entered it into our first computer, then saved it to a floppy disc and, in the late 2000s, moved it lock, stock and barrel to an external hard drive. I now have it stored in the Cloud. 

(Heirs beware: There’s a lot of digital junk in my digital drawers.) 

The selection process, then and now, remains the same. As I explained in a Facebook post way back in 2010 that I’ve since moved to this blog: “The candidates are drawn from what I’ve purchased, so the pool is decidedly limited in comparison to, say, what the writers at Rolling Stone or Allmusic.com are exposed to. Some years I buy a lot and some years not, primarily due to my listening habits – I play albums I love over and over and over until they become one with my subconscious (obsession, not variety, is my spice of life). So the more I like certain albums, the less overall I hear.” (I’d amend that ever-so-slightly now. The explosion of streaming music has caused the need to spend money moot, but time is the new currency. And few of us have a lot of that to spend.)

Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars bowled me over upon its June release. It marries an art form I adore – the “adult pop” sound of the 1960s – with Bruce’s well-honed songcraft, which this time out features a slew of recognizable characters finding their way through life. As I wrote in my review, it “spins tales of life’s casualties who invariably take two steps back for every one step up. Springsteen’s sympathy and empathy for them ring clear, perhaps because he sees himself in them – as should we all. (‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ in other words.)”

It’s such a tremendous album that, honestly, I’ve assumed it would be my Album of the Year since I first heard it.

But it’s not. It’s my No. 2.

No, my top album of the year is Allison Moorer’s Blood, the companion album to her poetic (and highly recommended) memoir of the same name. As I concluded in my review, it’s “a soulful treatise that resonates like few albums I’ve heard this year, let alone this decade. It’s a personal journey through pain and darkness that shares universal truths about life, love and forgiveness. Don’t miss experiencing it.”

Not all of the year was given over to darkness, however. The 3×4 compilation, which found the Bangles, Three O’Clock, Rain Parade and Dream Syndicate tripping back to the mid-‘80s and the Paisley Underground via vibrant renditions of each other’s songs, was and is pure joy set to vinyl. As I said in my review, “the music was utterly of its time – and, I’d argue, timeless.” It’s my No. 3.

Coming in at No. 4: Kelsey Waldon’s White Noise/White Lines. To cop a few lines from my review, it “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.”

And, finally, my fifth favorite album of the year is Leslie Stevens’ Sinner, a set that both conjures and transcends the Cosmic American Music of Gram Parsons. To borrow from my review, “[i]t’s the kind of album you play once, and wind up playing again and again, each time hearing something new. Her vocals are a thing of ever-shifting beauty, soulful and sweet and pure, and the songs are strong and sure.”

(There were many other albums that caught my ear throughout the year and, I’m sure, in the weeks and months to come I’ll regret not singling a few out here. Feel free to peruse my First Impressions of them.)

Tonight, the streets outside our home will be littered with limousines and Town Cars as nominees, presenters and industry bigwigs arrive at the Old Grey Cat’s annual, and much ballyhooed, Album of the Year shindig. Select music artists and assorted others will walk the red carpet (and UNC Tar Heels welcome mat), pose for photographers, and field questions from reporters covering the event.

As is customary, after weeks of spirited deliberations, each member of the awards committee submitted their top pick for the past year via a web form, with the tabulated results printed out, folded over and placed sight unseen into an envelope that was then hermetically sealed and dropped in a mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnalls’ porch. No one, and I mean no one, knows the contents of said envelope. No one, that is, except for the evening’s host, the great seer, soothsayer, and sage, Catnac the Magnificent.

But before that Big Reveal, there’s this: Song of the Year. 

It is not a new addition to the fete, but an occasional one, and generally relegated to a single mention during the main awards summary. This year, however, due to the strength of several songs, the committee has deigned to break it out into a separate “teaser” post.

The “committee,” of course, is me, JGG. As I’ve said before, and will likely say again in tomorrow’s Album of the Year post, I am who I am: a middle-aged white guy with catholic tastes and a whimsical sense of humor that, some days, only my wife and cat appreciate. In my estimation, and to switch to serious mode, music lifts us when sad, calms us when mad, makes bad times manageable and good times even better. My picks come from what I’ve either purchased or added to my Apple Music library, which is packed with longtime favorites and albums discovered through reviews.

And with that out of the way, here’s today’s Top 5: Remember November – Songs of the Year, 2019.

1) In another era, Allison Moorer’s hymn-like “Heal” (from her Blood album) would have sat atop the charts for weeks on end, been played on the radio alongside Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” and – as those two songs – covered by Aretha Franklin. It’s that powerful. It’s that perfect. Soul-salving set to song, it’s a soaring – yet restrained – prayer for inner peace. It’s my Song of the Year.

2) In some respects, Bruce Springsteen’s “Hello Sunshine” follows a similar thematic blueprint. As I wrote upon its release back in May, “it’s a masterful treatise on melancholia and depression” that describes Bruce’s “desire to step from the shadows and stand in the sunshine.” 

3) Kelsey Waldon’s “Kentucky, 1988” (from her White Noise/White Lines album), on the other hand, is less a treatise and more a celebration of roots. Kelsey may have been born of “two imperfect people” and weathered tough times as a kid, but that doesn’t stop her from looking back with wonder.   

4) The Three O’Clock – “Tell Me When It’s Over.” Not to tip my hand, but the 3×4 project was one of my favorite albums of the year – and how could it not be? The Three O’Clock’s rendition of this Dream Syndicate song tosses me through spacetime like few other tunes… as does the album as a whole. (That said, the unofficial video itself is best listened to, not watched.)

5) Juliana Hatfield – “Lost Ship.” Released way back in January, Juliana’s Weird album was a damn good outing and this moody track, with its mercurial guitar break, remains – for me, at least – its piece de resistance. It takes me places.

Maria McKee, long a favorite in this household, has a new album slated for release in early 2020, aka the Year of Visual Acuity. Titled La Vita Nuova, it’s available for pre-order on Bandcamp; and the first teaser track, “Effigy of Salt,” is – to my ears, at least – instantly addictive. Stylistically speaking, the song echoes the baroque and operatic rock that percolated throughout her criminally underrated Life Is Sweet and High Dive albums. Lyrically? It’ll make you think.

 

A few weeks back, I upgraded our meager 20-channel cable package to include ACCN, the cable network that provides coverage of the ACC – a necessity for a Tar Heels basketball fan like my wife. Cable companies being what they are, however, it wasn’t just a matter of adding the one station; I had to add bunches, most of which we’ll never watch.

That same day we discovered one of our favorite TV series of yore in a “binge-worthy” marathon on one of those new additions, WEtv: the original Law & Order. For those who’ve never seen it, the Dick Wolf-produced crime procedural followed a well-hewn pattern: cops investigate in the first half; and ADA Ben Stone or Jack McCoy prosecute the suspect(s) in the second half. Personal stories involving the principal characters are generally pushed to the periphery, though their personalities are on full display thanks to their interplay, wisecracks and conversations. There’s something oddly comforting about its predictability. Bad things happen; and good generally wins out in the end.

Which leads, in a roundabout way, to this:

Why certain artists and bands connect with some listeners but not others is one of the universe’s true mysteries. I had, have and will always have a wide range of likes and loves, for example, from pop to rock to country to R&B, from gritty to kitschy and all stops in-between, and can reel off many favorite artists and bands within each genre. And, as many other music fans, I had and have artists and bands that left and leave me…eh. Which is to say, when the Police came on one of Philadelphia’s rock radio stations, I sometimes tuned away but, as often, just bided my time. I didn’t actively dislike them, as I did other acts of that and other eras, but every little thing they did was not magic to my ears.

The Police, for those not in the know, were one of the few new wave bands embraced by the mainstream rock world during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. In retrospect, it’s understandable: The three principles (Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers) were clean-cut, conscientious, peppy and preppy – aka the kind of young rockers one could bring home to the folks and older siblings without setting off any alarms.

As political and pointed as they may have been on album cuts, their singles told another, less controversial story. In fact, as I wrote a few months back, when I was 14 in late ’79 or early ’80, I liked what I heard on rock radio enough to buy the “Message in a Bottle” 45 (which featured “Landlord” on the b-side). If they were sending out an SOS, like many other kids, I was listening.

And then I stopped.

Others of my generation, however, obviously heard something compelling in their music. Juliana, for instance, included a cool cover of “Every Breath You Take” on a bonus CD single that came with the two-fer bundle of her Beautiful Creature and Juliana’s Pony CDs back in 2000. I’m sure it left some fans walking on the moon, just about.

Anyway, Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police hews close to the peppy and preppy side of the Police, and mostly includes songs I’m not familiar with and/or just don’t remember. (I saw a headline somewhere describe them as “deep tracks,” a phrase I generally deride, but I suppose it’s accurate.) I have no inclination to seek out the originals and A-B them against Juliana’s versions, as – for me – Juliana’s versions are enough. “Hungry for You (J’Aurais Toujours Faim de Toi)” is my favorite of that bunch, as Juliana singing in French is a delight…

…and “Murder by Numbers” and “Landlord” rock with righteous abandon. (“Landlord,” actually, should have been the lead single. It’s killer, and the message remains as relevant today as ever.)

Of the four songs I do remember: “Can’t Stand Losing You,” “Every Breathe You Take” (a new recording, not the 2000 one) and “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” are good fun; even if she wasn’t, I hear Juliana smiling through the microphone during each of them. But the guitar in “Roxanne” annoys me to no end.

In summary: By and large, cover songs and albums are akin to procedural affairs. If you like Juliana, you’ll enjoy this; and if you like Juliana and dream the Police, you’ll be in heaven.