Posts Tagged ‘Remember December’

Breathe deep and exhale: We, as a people, have survived another run around the sun. I may or may not reflect on the year writ large in the next week, but suffice it to say that 2019 has had its share of good and bad times, and plenty of moments that fell somewhere in-between. We’ve all weathered days not with smiles or frowns, after all, but a stoic determination to get the job – whatever it may be – done. We soldier on.

That said, I posted less often over the past 12 months than the past few years – about 75 percent of what I managed last year, which was curtailed by preparations for our move, and a little more than half of what I shared in 2017, when life was groovy. The main reason? As David Crosby sang on a now decades-old song of his, “time is the final currency/not money, not power/the time will come/when you will give/anything for one more hour.” Life’s demands took a toll, in other words.

(Hopefully, the Year of Visual Acuity – aka 2020 – will see me return to frequent postings.)

Yet, despite the steep drop-off in my posts, traffic actually ticked up by a bit more than 15 percent; it was my best year, stats-wise, since resurrecting The Old Grey Cat back in 2014. Thank you to everyone reading this for that.

Below are the top 20 posts (old and new) for the past 12 months, along with the published date and links to each.

  1. Neil Young: The Best of the Unofficial Canon (9/27/2015)
  2. Shelby Lynne: Here I Am (Movie Soundtrack) – The Review (8/12/2018)
  3. The Natalie Merchant Collection – The Review (7/4/2017)
  4. Today’s Top 5: Linda Ronstadt’s Rare TV Appearances (1/21/2019)
  5. The Essentials: Stephen Stills – Manassas (9/23/2017)
  6. The Essentials: Maria McKee’s Life Is Sweet (6/23/2018)
  7. Blinded by the Light: A Fan Is Born (8/17/2019)
  8. The Essentials: Natalie Merchant’s Live in Concert (7/4/2019)
  9. Of Concerts Past: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band in Philadelphia, 9/24/1999 (7/6/2019)
  10. Today’s Top 5: The Paisley Underground (3/9/2019)
  11. Today’s Top 5: March 21, 1966 (via Newsweek) (12/17/2016)
  12. Linda Ronstadt: Live in Hollywood (2/2/2019)
  13. First Impressions: Juliana Hatfield’s Weird (1/6/2019)
  14. Neil Young’s 1973, Part I (4/24/2018)
  15. The Essentials: Psychedelic Pill by Neil Young & Crazy Horse (9/7/2019)
  16. First Impressions: 3×4 – The Bangles, The Three O’Clock, The Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade (2/24/2019)
  17. First Impressions: Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Colorado (10/27/2019)
  18. Melody Gardot: Live in Europe – The Review (2/11/2018)
  19. Neil Young & the Santa Monica Flyers – ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live – The Review (4/28/2018)
  20. Stone Foundation: Everybody, Anyone – The Review (9/2/2018)

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.”

Last night saw a who’s who of singer-songwriters gathering for a swank soiree at one of the region’s finest (if over-priced) restaurants. While some arrived in tuxedoes and others in gowns, a few underdressed artists explained/complained that they would have bedecked themselves if only they’d known they should. (“Who would’ve thought,” said one of the offenders.) The occasion: the Old Grey Cat’s first-ever “Album of the Decade” fete.

The six-hour event is now being edited into a one-hour TV special to air on the world’s top TV networks next Saturday night; apparently, watching an LP rotate on a turntable isn’t as enthralling as initially imagined. (That said, watching the LPs spin turned out to be more exciting than watching the CDs being dropped into a CD tray and then disappearing inside the player.)  

One of the night’s highlights came when select performers took to the stage to sing holiday songs. Up-and-coming Rhode Island-based country singer Charlie Marie, for instance, warmed hearts when she sang her latest single, “Old-Fashioned Christmas.”

And Shelby Lynne and Daryl Hall recreated their Live From Daryl’s House duet on Shelby’s bluesy “Xmas.” 

Lucy Rose, for her part, chided the Old Grey Cat for forgetting her No Words Left album in his rundown of the top albums of 2019 before forgiving him with her sweet rendition of Shakin’ Stevens’ “Merry Christmas Everyone.”

Maja Francis and First Aid Kit brought the house down with their stirring cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River.” (Technically, it’s not a Christmas tune, but…)

Finally, the Greta Garbo of rock ’n’ pop ’n’ soul, Duffy, returned from reclusion to close the festive fun with her stripped-down spin on Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song.”

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.)