Archive for the ‘Album of the Year’ 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.”

(An edited version of my original post that adds my 2018 and 2019 picks.)

“Album of the Year” is an honorific I’ve bestowed on one album (sometimes two) every year since beginning my journey into music fandom. I started the practice one late-December evening in 1978, when I was 13, on a piece of looseleaf paper, selecting my favorite LP from the dozen or so LPs I owned. In time, I transferred the list to typing paper, entered it into our first computer, saved it to a floppy disc and, in the late 2000s, moved it to an external hard drive. I now have it stored in the Cloud along with all my Pages documents.

And, for the longest time, that’s all it was – a list that I returned to every year to add another line. Even when we had our Old Grey Cat website in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, I never wrote year-end summations of my favorites – I was too busy critiquing Neil Young bootlegs. It wasn’t until 2008 on Facebook that I posted my top picks for the year; and, on and off over the next few years, I followed with missives until launching this blog on the Hatboro-Horsham Patch in 2012. (I’ve since moved to wordpress.com, obviously.)

I think I best explained the way I go about it in this 2010 post: “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 added this addendum at this year’s soiree: “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.”)

That’s not to say that I still feel the same about each of my past selections as I did when I picked them. I was (and am) a major McCartney fan, but London Town and Back to the Egg weren’t his best, let alone the best of their respective years. I know that now, but at the time…I was a kid on a limited budget. More recently, I’d flip my top two picks in both 2010 and 2012 – in 2010, as I wrote at the time, I relegated Rumer’s Seasons of My Soul (one of my all-time favorites) to the second slot because it hadn’t been officially released in the U.S.; and, in 2012, I was simply smitten with Susanna Hoff’s perfect solo effort, Someday – I still am, but Neil’s Psychedelic Pill has received more play in the years since, as I explained in a 2014 rumination I titled On Albums of the Year & the Pono Player.

But, in a way, that’s beside the point. The list, as I see it, is less a critical exercise and more a reflection of the evolution (or lack thereof) of my musical tastes. Where possible, I’ve linked to past blog posts about each of the albums or artists.

2019 – Allison Moorer – Blood (1); Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars (2)
2018 – Juliana Hatfield – Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John
2017 – Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life (1); Juliana Hatfield – Pussycat (2)
2016 – Rumer – This Girl’s in Love: A Bacharach & David Songbook
2015 – The Staves – If I Was
2014 – First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
2013 – Susanna Hoffs & Matthew Sweet – Under the Covers Vol. III
2012 – Susanna Hoffs – Someday (1); Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill (2)
2011 – Juliana Hatfield – There’s Always Another Girl
2010 – Tift Merritt – See You on the Moon (1); Rumer – Seasons of My Soul (2)
2009 – Diane Birch – Bible Belt
2008 – Juliana Hatfield – How to Walk Away
2007 – Maria McKee – Late December
2006 – The Dixie Chicks – Taking the Long Way
2005 – Juliana Hatfield – Made in China
2004 – Juliana Hatfield – in exile deo
2003 – Maria McKee – High Dive
2002 – Neil Young – Are You Passionate?
2001 – Natalie Merchant – Motherland
2000 – Juliana Hatfield – Beautiful Creature
1999 – Natalie Merchant – Live in Concert
1998 – Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
1997 – Steve Earle – El Corazon
1996 – Neil Young – Broken Arrow; Maria McKee – Life Is Sweet (tie)
1995 – Natalie Merchant – Tigerlily
1994 – Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Sleeps with Angels
1993 – Maria McKee – You Gotta Sin to Get Saved
1992 – 10,000 Maniacs – Our Time in Eden
1991 – Mary Black – Babes in the Wood
1990 – Rosanne Cash – Interiors
1989 – Neil Young – Freedom
1988 – Steve Earle – Copperhead Road
1987 – 10,000 Maniacs – In My Tribe
1986 – Paul Simon – Graceland; Bangles – Different Light (2)
1985 – Lone Justice – self-titled debut; Long Ryders – State of Our Union (2)
1984 – The Go-Go’s – Talk Show; Prince – Purple Rain (2)
1983 – Neil Young – Trans
1982 – Paul McCartney – Tug of War
1981 – Neil Young & Crazy Horse – re*ac*tor (1) / Go-Go’s – Beauty & the Beat (2)
1980 – Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band – Against the Wind
1979 – Wings – Back to the Egg
1978 – Wings – London Town

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.