Posts Tagged ‘Honest Life’

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.”

Fun, but frustrating. That, in a nutshell, summarizes my reaction to the Facebook challenge of naming 10 all-time favorite albums over the course of 10 days. I have far more than 10 all-time favorites, many of which are equally weighted on the scale I employ to rate records. (Among my measurements: “wondrous,” “wow. just wow,” “sublime,” “mesmerizing,” “transcendent” and “it takes you there, wherever there is.”)

Selecting them also meant adopting a different mindset than when choosing my ballyhooed Album of the Year honor. There, I look back at what I’ve bought and played most often during the previous 12 months, and gauge what resonated with my soul at such a deep level that I know, just know, I’ll be listening to it for the rest of my life. (Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong.)

Memes weren’t created to be fair, however, but to entertain. And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: 10 All-Time Favorite Albums, Part 2. (Part 1 can be found here.)

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Day 6: Juliana Hatfield – in exile deo. I’ve yet to feature this album in my “Essentials” series, but will at some point. It’s one of Juliana’s best albums – and her second to nab my esteemed Album of the Year honor.

Day 7: Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – I Love Rock ’n Roll. It may not be Joan’s best album (her debut, Bad Reputation, is likely that), but it’s her most important – and, in my estimation, one of the most important albums in rock history. Thus, its “Essential” status. 

Day 8: 10,000 Maniacs – Our Time in Eden. As perfect an album ever released, in my opinion. And another “Essentials” pick.

Day 9: Stephen Stills – Manassas. A two-LP (now one-CD) gem. Another “Essentials” pick.

Day 10: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – Darkness on the Edge of Town. This 1978 album is one of the greatest albums of all time. What’s amazing about it, to me, is that the themes that Springsteen explores, both lyrically and musically, speak to their time and to all times. (It’s a future “Essentials” pick, in other words.)

And a three non-Facebook bonuses…

Day 11: Dusty Springfield – Dusty in Memphis. Another perfect record. And another “Essentials” pick.

Day 12: The Jam – Snap!. One of the greatest best-of compilations to be released on vinyl, and a set I’ve listened to as much in the past year as I did in the first year I bought it. It never grows old. (It’s an “Essential,” in other words.)

Day 13: Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life. It may be a relatively recent album, and as such doesn’t qualify for “essential” status just yet (my homegrown rule is an album has to be at least five years old for that), but it shot to the top of my internal charts the moment I heard it, and hasn’t left. It’s everything good about music. 

The Delaware Valley faces a variety of weather-related advisories and warnings this morning. The same historic storm that brought snow to Texas, Louisiana and the Deep South is brushing the Delaware and Jersey coasts, and is large enough that those of us inland are facing slushy and slippery roads if we dare to leave the comforts of our homes.

It’s a reminder that the year is coming to a close.

‘Tis the season for merriment, of course, with office parties, family gatherings and auld lang syne, and our annual screening of It’s a Wonderful Life (one of the greatest movies ever made), but it’s also a time for reflection. In the case of this blog, that means contemplating the music that stirred my soul over the past 12 months and selecting my Album of the Year. I gather the contenders, listen to them from start to finish, listen to them again and again, and cogitate long into the night. What’s No. 1? What’s No. 5? Should I list honorable mentions?

First, though, the caveat that I first penned in a Facebook post back in 2010: “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.”

Second: The candidates are also winnowed by my age, race, gender and idiosyncrasies. I’m a middle-aged white guy, in other words, with catholic tastes.

Third: I’m not prone to highfalutin analysis, per se, and only think about meters and rhymes if they teeter or grind a song to a halt. On American Bandstand’s “Rate-a-Record” segment, the cliched “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” critique became a thing of jokey scorn, though it had much merit. Likewise, my pet phrases of “it takes you there, wherever there is” and “wow, just wow,” though overused, have merit. Great music takes us away from the immediate – it makes good times better and bad times manageable.

With that in mind, here are the Old Grey Cat’s Albums of the Year…

5) Neil Young – Hitchhiker. Neil released two albums in 2017: the archival Hitchhiker, which he recorded in one night in 1976, and the Promise of the Real-backed The Visitor. Hitchhiker, which was released in September, is a gem that shines brighter with each play while The Visitor…I like what I’ve heard, but – given that it was released on December 1st – haven’t heard it enough to weigh in, as of yet. But Hitchhiker…as I said in my review, “it’s a magical, mystical set.”

4) The Staves & yMusic – The Way Is Read. The Staves, of course, are sisters Jessica, Camilla and Emily Staveley-Taylor, whose luscious harmonies are a thing of utter wonder. yMusic is a chamber ensemble that, honestly, I know little about, but their musical flourishes on the album are reminiscent (to me, at least) of the instrumental passages in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. In short, The Way Is Read is unlike any other album I’ve heard this year – or decade, for that matter. It’s bright, dark, brave and hypnotic, with swirling strings and intertwining vocals.

It’s also why I’ve barely listened to The Visitor, as it was released a week earlier. There’s a strong undertow to the music that just pulls me in.

3) Lucy Rose – Something’s Changing. Before this year began, I’m sure I saw Lucy Rose’s name in one of the British music magazines I flip through (and sometimes buy) at Barnes & Noble. But it took the Staves for me to hear her. They sing on “Floral Dresses,” which was one of the lead singles from this five-star delight, and mentioned that fact on their Facebook page in March. That led me to discover this video…

As I wrote in my review of Something’s Changing, “The folk-flavored album is chock-full of tuneful musings on life and love, at turns retro and utterly modern.” I’ve turned to it many times throughout the year. Lucy recently tweeted out a picture of her day’s listening – Joni and Neil albums, all. Those influences are in the grooves, just beneath the surface; anyone who enjoys either of those greats would do well to snap up this set.

Oh, and if I named a Single of the Year? “No Good at All” would be near or at the top.

2) Juliana Hatfield – Pussycat. The Boston-based singer-songwriter-guitarist extraordinaire took out her anger over the Chump election with this cathartic set. As I wrote in my review, “Fans (new and old) who share her outlook on politics and life will thoroughly enjoy it, though some may be put off by the blunt imagery in some songs. It’s a claws-out affair that draws blood and trades, at times, in the profane. There’s an energy and drive to the performances that’s as palpable as the passion dripping from her vocals; and the lyrics, with a few exceptions, are soaked with anger, indignation and bitterness.”

Oh, and for what it’s worth, she played all the instruments except drums.

I mentioned in my original review that Pussycat likely won’t age well – 25 years from now, when Chump’s but a bad memory (akin to Nixon now), this set will take a backseat to such classics as Become What You Are, in exile deo, Made in China and How to Walk Away. And that’s okay. But for right here, right now? It hits the spot. It’s my second-most played album of the year.

It’s also home to one of Juliana’s greatest songs of all time (says I, of course), the nostalgic – and decidedly nonpolitical – “Wonder Why.”

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life. Yes, Honest Life was released in the U.S. in late 2016 and, as a result, shouldn’t qualify for this list, let alone for the year’s most ballyhooed music honorific, the Old Grey Cat’s Album of the Year. And, yet, here we are.

My contorted logic is thus: It was released in the U.K. in January; I read reviews of it in Mojo and Uncut the following month; so, ergo, it qualifies.

It’s my most played album of the year. As I wrote in my review, “In a sense, it’s a simple singer-songwriter album that, due to the age we live in, has been categorized as country because of the country-flavored overtones on some of the songs. In another era, though, ‘Table for One’ or ‘Put the Fire Out’ would have been played by radio stations that also programmed Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell.”

“There is nothing revolutionary in the grooves, in other words. And, yet, there is everything revolutionary in them. That conundrum-powered clarity, carried forth by Andrews’ evocative vocals and lyrics, echoes everything from Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Steve Earle’s Guitar Town to the Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall, to say nothing of Rumer’s Seasons of My Soul and First Aid Kit’s Stay Gold. Each of those LPs, after all, chronicle the human experience in ways that are unique yet familiar.”

I not only stand by that assessment, but – after a year’s worth of repeated plays – would argue that Honest Life stands shoulder-to-shoulder with each of those albums. It speaks to the heart and mind. It’s soulful, country and folk. The songs are plaintive and pretty, mesmerizing and wondrous, and dozens of additional superlatives rolled into one.

Like any great art, Honest Life takes you there, wherever there is. In other words, wow. Just wow.

Any year that I see Juliana Hatfield in concert is a good year. And a year when I see her twice? Logic, at least my logic, says it should be good times two – i.e., great. And to see Juliana cover not one but two Olivia Newton-John songs while backed by Wesley Stace & the English UK? The surreal sweetness of the moment just can’t be beat. For that alone, 2017 should be damn near the best year of them all.

But this has not been a normal year. It’s as if someone spiked the water supply with mescaline in January and the hallucinations have yet to end. I’ll sidestep diatribes about America’s answer to Hugo Chavez, the human Scrooge McDucks that call themselves Republicans, and the leches that call themselves men, and instead share this:

When the music starts, we just slip away – just like a river rollin’ down…

Live music often has a more visceral impact than via CD, LP or digital download. It’s an immediate connection. You feed off the performer, he or she feeds off you and … you’re there, wherever there is, not stoned but STONED, and not from drink or drugs but from the music itself. The worries of the world cease to be, albeit for a few hours, and when you leave the venue you feel spiritually renewed.

From Lights Out in January to Patterson Hood (of the Drive-by Truckers) this past Thursday, and including such stalwarts as Graham Parker, Garland Jeffreys and Shawn Colvin, we enjoyed more live music this year (21 shows by my count) than the past few years combined. Some shows were good, others great, and a handful absolutely sublime.

First, though, a caveat: As all things “best of” on this blog, I work from a deck stacked by my aging demographic, idiosyncratic tastes, and budget. I enjoy singer-songwriters with folk-rock and/or country overtones, and delight in discovering new artists within that realm, and generally rock out to the same artists I’ve rocked out to forever and a day, including (but not limited to) Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, the Kinks, Joan Jett, Paul Weller and Juliana Hatfield, among others.

And, with that, here’s Remember December, Vol. I: Concerts of the Year. (Click through to read my original reviews.)

1) Paul Weller with Lucy Rose at the TLA, 10/4/17. This show fell in what was the awful week that included the mass shooting at a country-music festival in Las Vegas and the passing of Tom Petty. Perhaps that explains the jubilation I felt at being able to forget, if only for a few moments, and let go. And, too, it was just a killer concert.

2) Kasey Chambers at the World Cafe Live, 7/5/17. Breathtaking. That’s the only word for this show, which found the Aussie country-music maven weaving heartfelt odes from thin air. Even now, watching this video, I’m stunned at how good she is.

3) The Juliana Hatfield Three at the Boot & Saddle, 4/24/17; and Juliana Hatfield with Wesley Stace & the English UK at the Ardmore Theater, 10/12/17. When formulating this list, I found myself going back and forth as to which of these shows should be third or fourth on my list. At the Boot & Saddle, Juliana and the Three personified “brutal grace.” It was raw, raucous, loud and great, and – given than the bulk of the setlist was Pussycat-heavy, cathartic. The only strike against it were the muffled vocals.

The Ardmore show, both in her solo set and when backed by the English UK, was near the reverse, with an expansive set list that included such gems as “Slow Motion” and “Somebody’s Waiting for Me,” and way-cool covers of two Olivia Newton-John songs. Here’s one:

Watching that clip again, just now, I couldn’t help but to smile.

Anyway, both shows spoke to me in equal measure. Her songs, new, old, rocking, mid-tempo or ballad, are ingrained in my soul. So, why rank one above the other? For the purposes of this list, the two concerts are a tie…

4) Courtney Marie Andrews at the Boot & Saddle, 5/9/2017. As I wrote in my review, this was as magical and mesmerizing a concert that I’ve had the pleasure to witness in my concert-going career. Courtney reminds me of Shawn Colvin circa the early and mid-‘90s, who synthesized a wide swath of influences into a hypnotic whole.

5) The Staves at the World Cafe Live, 3/9/2017. What did I love about this show? Everything! Within moments of its start, it felt as if we’d stepped through a time portal to some point in the early ‘70s. About the only thing missing: bell-bottom jeans.

And, finally…honorable mentions: Bruce Springsteen on Broadway was the definition of compelling, but not a conventional concert due to the monologues. Thus, I’m not including it within my Top 5 (though, if I did, it wouldn’t knock Weller from the top spot). Also, Garland Jeffreys at the World Cafe Live Upstairs was grand; Lulu at the Sellersville Theater was wondrous; Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer at the World Cafe Live were sublime; and Tift Merritt at the World Cafe Live was utterly captivating.

As Tift sings, “Love Soldiers On.” And it does.