Posts Tagged ‘Album of the Year’

(An updated version of my original post that adds this year’s pick, among other edits.)

“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 night in December 1978, when I was 13, by jotting the name of my favorite LP of the year on a piece of looseleaf paper. 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 and then the Cloud, where it shares space with all my other Pages documents.

For the longest time, that’s all it was – a list that I returned to every year to add another line. Even when I oversaw the original 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 similar 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 last year: “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 said, I still buy a lot.)

That’s not to say I’d make the same selections now as I did then (or even last year). 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. Nowadays, I’d pick Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town as my No. 1 and Bob Seger’s Stranger in Town as my No. 2 for ’78; and Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps as my No. 1 and Rickie Lee Jones’ self-titled debut as my No. 2 for ’79. I’d re-do quite a few other picks, too. Paul McCartney’s Memory Almost Full would be my top album for 2007, for instance, pushing Maria McKee’s Late December down a notch. I’d also flip my choices for 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 Young’s Psychedelic Pill has received far more play in the years since, as I explained in a 2014 rumination titled On Albums of the Year & the Pono Player. It takes me places I need to go whenever I play it. I’d also flip last year’s top two, as Bruce’s Western Stars – like Psychedelic Pill – has become one of my latter-day go-to albums. “Hello Sunshine” slays me every time.

But that’s all beside the point. The list, as I see it, is less a critical exercise and more a chronicle of the evolution (or lack thereof) of my musical taste, silly as it sometimes is, and is evidence of of my simultaneously suburban and idiosyncratic tastes. Where possible, I’ve linked to past blog posts about each of the albums or artists.

2020 – Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You (1); Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers (2)
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 (1); 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

’Twas a strange, saddening and maddening year, 2020. The world writ large flitted like a moth above a flame, its wings increasingly singed and brittle and unable to provide the lift needed to escape a fiery end. Too many people fell ill. Too many perished. Too many lost jobs. In decades to come, historians will undoubtedly study the whys and wherefores of the pandemic, including how it impacted almost every aspect of daily life. One hopes they’ll focus on more than just the death toll, politics and economic fallout, however, and celebrate the stuck-at-home troubadours – many facing hardship themselves – who bucked our spirits.

The biggest change within my realm arrived in mid-March, when – like many others – I began working from home, which it looks like I’ll be doing through next spring. Prior, much of my music listening occurred in the car, stereo blasting while I rode the 15/501 between Chapel Hill and Durham. Now? Aside from once-a-week grocery runs and the occasional doctor visit, it’s here in the den. Early on, I often pulled up the SiriusXM app on my phone and listened to E Street Radio for hours on end – or just played favorite albums. Part of that nostalgic indulgence hailed from the pre-pandemic life, to be honest, as last winter found me musing on the days that used to be even more than usual. From January through June, for example, I penned 17 entries in my Essentials series…but only three in the months since.

Somewhere in the middle of the year, the flip switched.

I share that because music – as all art – is neither created nor experienced in a vacuum, though we sometimes tell ourselves different. The rush and crush of life colors our aspirations, perceptions and opinions, with – when it comes to us fans – tossed-off takes becoming gospel until, years later, we discover we were wrong. (Or not. Sometimes we were right all along.) Add to that this: I’m a 55-year-old, long-married white guy with catholic tastes, a product of my time but not a prisoner of it. (To borrow a lyric from Paul Simon, “I know what I know.”)

Such has been the case with my much-ballyhooed Album of the Year, at any rate. It’s an honorific I’ve bestowed on one album (sometimes two) every year since beginning my journey into music fandom in 1978, when I was 13, for no other reason than…well, why not? It’s a fun, if occasionally frustrating endeavor to rank one’s favorites for the year. The selection process, then and now, is the same. As I explained in a long-ago Facebook post 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 amended that, ever-so-slightly, last year: “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 said, I still buy a lot.)

The only real difference between then and now: The lobbying campaigns. Since I revealed the 25 top contenders last week, for instance, I’ve been deluged with emails and phone calls from their courtiers explaining why they should receive the OGC plaque. (Diane nudged me to choose her No. 1 as my No. 1, in other words. Though she shouldn’t have worried.)

And, with that…drumroll, please…here’s my Top 5 Albums of 2020 (links to my original reviews can be had by clicking on the titles):

1) Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You. As I said above, Diane need not have worried. Springsteen’s studio reunion with the E Street Band is an album-long rumination on life, death and the ghosts that haunt the night – as well as the solace that only rock ’n’ roll can bring. As I summarized in my review, “It’s real, it’s raw, it’s rock ’n’ roll. It cleanses the soul.”

2) Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers. Simply put, this is a sterling treatise on heartache, heartbreak, forgiveness and moving on. From my review: “Often, such as with the hypnotic ‘Carnival Dream,’ the songs build bit by bit, with the drums kicking in until they approximate a heart pounding louder with every beat. It’s mesmerizing, akin to a fever dream, and finds Courtney, by song’s end, repeating ‘Will I ever let love in?/I may never let love in’ again and again like a mantra while the music – and intensity – swells high like the ocean tide at night.” I’d only add that Andrew Sarlo’s production is note-perfect.

3) Melody Gardot – Sunset in the Blue. As noted in my review, the album “finds the soft hues of the chanteuse’s heart lilting like a leaf lifted from the ground by a gentle breeze on an autumn afternoon.” And: “[W]ords alone can’t quantify the beauty inherent in Sunset in the Blue. My wife says she hears hints of Billie Holiday within some songs; that may be so, but most of all I hear Melody, her heart and her soul. The music stops time for me in a way few other releases have this year.”

4) Stone Foundation – Is Love Enough? From my review: “These are days of worry and fear, of not knowing whether or if ‘normal’ life will return, but these songs strip away those unsettling concerns, albeit for just under an hour. The Midlands-based band is providing much-needed sustenance to my weary soul, in other words, and in the best way possible. Their music, as I used to say on my old website, ‘takes you there, wherever there is.’” ‘Nuff said.  

5) Natalie Duncan – Free. Neo-soul, R&B and jazzy elements fuse together in hypnotic fashion in this delectable outing from the British singer-songwriter, who first turned my ears way back in 2012. As I noted upon its release, “With these 12 songs as part of one’s personal soundtrack…the downtimes will hurt a little less and the good times will rate with the best. It’s a great album.”

And, in alphabetical order, two honorable mentions:

Malin Pettersen – Wildhorse. I often feel instant kinship with an album or artist – it’s as if they’ve been with me forever and a day. Such is the case here. The atmospheric song cycle seamlessly blends the past, present and future of country music; and, when the album comes to an end, you’ll want to play it again – at least, that’s what I do.

Zach Phillips – The Wine of Youth. This album buoys my spirits every time I listen to it, which is quite often. From my review: “Stylistic shifts notwithstanding, the 13 tracks ebb and flow as one. At heart, it’s a literate singer-songwriter’s album that, to my ears, conjures the long-ago time when dollops of other genres were often mixed into tasty morsels. ‘It sounds like it’s from the 1970s,’ Diane said after hearing it earlier this week – and she meant it in the best way possible. To an extent, on this album at least, Phillips reminds me of another Illinois native who rose like a phoenix during that latter part of that decade and flew high during the early ’80s, Dan Fogelberg.”

This past week, I undertook my annual review of the year’s top releases in order to determine my much-ballyhooed Album of the Year. It was, in its way, a not-so-grueling slog through the plethora of platters (both digital and physical) that have captured my attention since January 1st. In years past, much of this last-minute “research” would have been performed during my weekday commute to and from work but, thanks to the pandemic, I now generally drive my car once a week – to the grocery store for curbside pickup – so this year my listening was primarily done in the den and living room – sometimes while I worked, sometimes not.

In short, I winnowed a super-long list to a few dozen, winnowed again, and then winnowed some more, and finally concluded the process this morning, when I wrote my top choice and a few runners-up on a piece of paper that I sealed in an envelope and left to fester inside a mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnalls’ porch. Next Saturday afternoon, aka November 28th, the jar will be transported by armed guard to a park about 30 minutes from where I live; the socially distanced ceremony will take place not long after the honorees and invited guests have chowed down on delicious brisket sandwiches from the Hillsborough BBQ Company.

Yep, attendees are fed well.

For those curious about past winners, here’s the list – along with a less tongue-in-cheek explanation of the process. Below is the list of this year’s nominees prior to my second-to-last pass (the “few dozen” mentioned above). I’ve written about most, though not all; where possible, I’ve linked to my “First Impressions” pieces about them. (Those marked ** were archival delights/re-releases.) They’re listed in alphabetical order.

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.”