Archive for the ‘2014’ 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.”

On a chilly eve in late December 2014, Diane and I traveled from our suburban enclave to center-city Philadelphia, home to the region’s best concert hall (acoustically speaking, that is), the Kimmel Center. It was for no mere concert, however. It was for an audience with the queen – the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. 

She was touring in support of her then-recent Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics.

It was a great, if odd show. The evening began with “(Your Love Is Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” and included such stalwarts as “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby),” “Ain’t No Way,” “Angel,” “Don’t Play That Song,” “Freeway of Love” and – of course – “Respect,” as well as her cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” which she turned into a medley with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The Williams Brothers joined her for “Precious Memories.” Also in the set: the Christmas carol “O Holy Night”; “The Way We Were” (which she sang offstage); and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” (Yes, you read that last one right – the Irving Berlin song from Annie Get Your Gun. It was reminiscent of when we saw Van Morrison, decades earlier, cover “Send in the Clowns.”)

Like I said, it was a great, if odd show. 

Other oddities: After 30 minutes, or thereabouts, she left the stage for a full 10 minutes. While the band vamped, we were treated to pictures from her holiday party. And, after singing with the Williams Brothers, she left the stage and let them take the spotlight for a few songs.

It wasn’t the best concert I’ve seen in my life – but it gave glimpses of what Aretha must have been like in a live setting in, say, 1970 or ’71.

I’ve uploaded my video of “Respect” and the Berlin send-off to YouTube (but am leaving it unlisted due to its poor quality):

The Allentown Morning Call reviewed the show, which can be found here. Philadelphia Magazine reviewed it, too. 

And Diane, who saw Aretha once before, asked to chime in:

The weirdness of the show didn’t matter to me—Aretha invited us (the audience) into her world for a bit and played songs that are the heartbeat soundtrack to my life. Jeff surprised me with tickets to this show, which was a good thing, because the first time I saw Aretha was a show in Atlantic City, and I left it rather disgruntled with the idea of never seeing her live again. She barely acknowledged the audience’s existence and seemed put out at being there.

This show—even with the pictures of her party and the Williams Brothers—was a much better memory to have of the greatest woman performer in rock and soul, the icon, the Queen. I walked down to the front when she performed the song that never gets old or careworn. Aretha may be gone but ‘Respect’ and her musical legacy will never suffer with the aging process.

Thank you, Jeff, for getting those tickets!

As I mentioned in Friday’s countdown, “This Guy’s in Love With You” may well have been lost to time if not for Herb Alpert reaching out to Burt Bacharach and asking if he had any old tunes lying around that had never been recorded. Bacharach offered him “This Guy.” Alpert liked the melody, that there was a break where he could insert a trumpet solo, and that it didn’t require vocal gymnastics on his part. He was a horn player, after all, not a singer.

That clip comes from Alpert’s TV special The Beat of the Brass, which aired on CBS on April 22, 1968. The 45 was released the same month, and flew up the charts, eventually spending four weeks at No. 1 and becoming the year’s seventh most popular single.

The song’s soothing, sweet melody can’t be denied; it lingers with you long after the song is over. Lyrically speaking, it’s the declaration of a head-over-heels guy (or gal) laying it on the line to his dream gal (or guy). It works equally well no matter the gender of the singer, or who they’re singing to. Love is love, after all.

Anyway, it quickly became one of those songs every vocalist of note wanted to sing, and I thought it might be fun to spotlight some of those other versions here. Dusty Springfield, for example, recorded it for her Dusty…Definitely LP, released on November 22, 1968 – not that folks in the U.S. heard it (except via import). Dusty was on different record labels in the U.S. and the U.K., and Atlantic – her American home – decided not to release the album. It wouldn’t become available in the States until 1972, when it was included on the A Tribute to Burt Bacharach compilation LP. (It’s since been included on a handful of best-of/rarities collections, including Dusty in London.)

Here’s the audio of her singing it on the All Kinds of Music TV special, which was broadcast in the UK on Christmas Day 1968:

That same November, the Temptations and the Supremes released their own version on Diana Ross & the Supremes Join the Temptations LP.

Before both of them, however, Petula Clark included her rendition of it on her 1968 Petula LP, which was released in the U.S. in September 1968.

Dionne Warwick, a frequent collaborator with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, also recorded it for her Promises, Promises album, which was also released in November 1968. It would become one of her greatest hits when it was released as a single the following year; it rose to No. 7 in the charts.

Also in 1969, Ella Fitzgerald covered it on her Sunshine of Your Love album. Here she is on TV performing it…

Sammy Davis Jr. also laid down a jazzy rendition of it on The Goin’s Great the same year. Here he is in Germany:

In early 1970, Aretha Franklin released her This Girl’s in Love With You album, though the song wasn’t issued as a single.

That same year, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles covered it on their whatlovehas… concept album.

Hundreds of others have covered it in the years since (and thousands more in karaoke bars). In 1982, the Reels – an Aussie pop-rock band – scored a No. 7 hit with it Down Under:

In 2009, jazz-pop singer Jane Moneheit included her dreamy take on the song on her The Lovers, the Dreamers and Me album:

Here’s She & Him (Zooey “One Day You’ll Be Cool” Deschanel & M. Ward) from their 2014 album Classics:

Finally, British singer-songwriter Rumer released her rendition of it on This Girl’s in Love: A Bacharach & David Songbook in late 2016. (That’s Burt Bacharach himself at the song’s start.) It and Dusty’s are my favorite versions, though every rendition has something going for it.

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.)