Posts Tagged ‘Today’s Top 5’

In today’s world, it’s easy to explore an artist’s oeuvre. Pre-Internet, not so much. In my slice of suburban America in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, one had few options for digging into rock ’n’ roll’s past beyond flipping through the racks of the local record stores and checking the song titles on the back of the LPs in hopes that they contained the older song or songs you heard Ed Sciaky play the previous afternoon. 

Top 40 radio only played current chart hits, while the AOR stations cherry-picked recent releases that adhered to the rock orthodoxy and programmed them alongside popular platters from the late 1960s onward; the same held true at mellower WIOQ, although its deejays – such as Sciaky – occasionally featured deep tracks from albums past and present. The same closed approach could be found on WPEN-AM, an oldies station I listened to on weekends; it only featured rock ’n’ pop hits from the mid-‘50s through the early ‘60s.

New releases were easy to find – even the mom-and-pop record store I frequented stocked them, as they were the bread and butter of the music industry – though singles and albums on smaller labels could be hit or miss. The music magazines helped fill the knowledge gap for new releases, of course, as there were far more than made it to the airwaves, and sometimes the old – but, by and large, their focus was on the present and future, not the past.

Which is where record guides proved handy. These days, if the various Facebook groups I belong to are representative of the wider world, many music fans decry reviews and such all-encompassing guides as the Rolling Stone Record Guide – especially when they’re critical of their favorites. But to this kid in the early ‘80s, they were necessary for navigating the canons of established artists and bands – as well as discovering older acts that the established history (aka rock radio) had bypassed.

In 1979 or ’80, I bought the red version of the Rolling Stone Record Guide; in 1983, I ponied up the cash for the second. They are among the most important books in my life, sharing space with such tomes as Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire and Jayne Anne Phillips’ Machine Dreams. Sure, sometimes they gave my favorites one- or two-stars (or, in the case of ONJ, none) – but so what? A good or bad review only reflects the writer’s opinion. Period. And, too, it forced me to think through what I liked about the albums and why. 

In fact, my main criticism of the tomes isn’t that they sometimes say mean or petty things about a few of my favorite artists, as that’s de rigueur for dorm-room debates (which, in a sense, the two editions represent), but is the same issue I have with much of music criticism (including, at times, my own in this blog). Making great music isn’t akin to making a model airplane – it’s about intangibles that, as often as not, have more to do with the listener(s): Who we are, where we are in our lives, and what’s going on in the wider world. There’s no right or wrong, per se, just right or wrong for us.

Such is the case for this year for me, at any rate. Much new music has passed me by not because of the merits (or demerits) therein, but that – due to the pandemic – my headspace is elsewhere. That said, there have been some new songs and albums have found their way into heavy rotation within my den…

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – “If I Told.” From every indication, aka the new songs I’ve heard her play in her livestreams, Courtney’s forthcoming album, Old Flowers, is sure to be a five-star affair. Even if it’s not, this song just tugs at the heartstrings. 

2) Jess Williamson – “Infinite Scroll.” I just wrote about Williamson’s latest album, Sorceress, yesterday; to my ears, this disco-light number conjures Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You,” but maintains its independence all the same. “Time did unfold like an infinite scroll” – that sums up life when young, if you think about it. It’s just great.

3) Neil Young – “Try.” After 45 years, Neil’s legendary Homegrown album is finally slated for released in June. For those unaware of its history, Neil planned on releasing the album in 1975 only to decide at the last minute to put out Tonight’s the Night instead. Based on this track, it has the markings of an instant classic.

4) Lucy Rose – “Question It All.” Even if my Tyler the Cat wasn’t featured in the video at the 28-second mark, this single from the British singer-songwriter would be getting my attention. As I mentioned in my First Impressions piece on it, it’s essentially a Marie Bracquemond painting set to song.

5) Emma Swift – “I Contain Multitudes.” On Bob Dylan’s 79th birthday (May 24th), Emma announced her next project: a collection of Bob Dylan covers that she’s dubbed Blonde on the Tracks. That she’s including this, one of the bard’s latest releases, is way cool.

As occasionally happens even in the best of times, though a more frequent occurrence since the pandemic hit, I had a fitful night’s sleep on Thursday, with every descent into dream-laden REM sleep disrupted by jagged imagery. The next morning, as a result, I sought out sounds to cleanse the unquiet residue clogging my mind: one of my favorite Van Morrison albums, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, and the three studio albums that followed it: A Sense of Wonder; No Guru, No Method, No Teacher; and Poetic Champions Compose.

I should mention that, although released in March 1983, I didn’t buy Inarticulate Speech of the Heart until the latter days of my college years, though why I can’t say for sure. I picked up Moondance on cassette in January 1983, so liked at least some of his music, and David Fricke gave Inarticulate Speech of the Heart a rave review in Rolling Stone’s April 28th edition the next month. Perhaps it had to do with me being knee-deep into my Lou Reed phase at the time and/or being distracted by high-school graduation, and then seeing Crispin Sartwell’s negative review in the July issue of Record magazine: “Listening on Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, like listening to inarticulate speech, is a frustrating and ultimately unrewarding experience.” Whatever the case, as I said, I didn’t pick it up until a few years later, when I spent my summer and winter breaks working full-time in a department store – and many lunch or dinner breaks flipping through the racks at the Listening Booth in the same mall.

In many respects, it taps into the collective subconscious; as Fricke observes, “It captures in a simple phrase that desperate expression of pain and need, as well as the floundering over words inadequate to communicate one’s joy over a new love or a gorgeous country sunrise.”

The same delay between release and purchase isn’t true for Van’s next studio album, A Sense of Wonder. Released in the spring of 1985, Rolling Stone’s Parke Puterbaugh lavished it with praise in the pages of Rolling Stone in its May 9th issue and Ric O’Mitchell did the same in the May issue of Record magazine. I subscribed to both, so reading those reviews is probably why I picked it up on LP along with, on cassette, Van’s classic Astral Weeks on the 17th of the month. (Friday was also payday, of course!)

By year’s end, I was raving about its lyrical and soulful acumen with the poet John Haag, who was one of my favorite professors once I reached the Penn State mothership in State College. I frequented his office for one-on-ones quite often, and our conversations routinely diverged to topics beyond poetry. He was high on the album, as well, and like me impressed with how Van quoted the poets and philosophers of yore within metaphysical (and melodic) meditations on this thing called life.

No Guru, No Method, No Teacher was next on my aural adventure. Released in the summer of 1986, it quickly became another favorite – and another that Haag and I discussed once autumn came and classes resumed. David Fricke primarily focuses on the yin-yang dynamics at play in the 12-song set in his Rolling Stone review, as Van’s bitterness at “copycats” seems at odds with his quest for serenity. To me, however, his search is powered by his recognizing the rancor within; the discordant pieces fit together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, if you think about it.

A few years later, my father borrowed a low-tech gadget from a workmate that enabled one to transfer Super 8 home movies to VHS; it required one to position the projector in front of a gadget that then reflected the moving images into an internal lens that, in turn, captured the pictures on videotape. When I discovered that an external microphone could be used to add sound, I created a soundtrack to match the reels, then recorded to the videotape while the film was captured. No Guru’s “Foreign Window” accented our 1970 visit to London and Buckingham Palace – and, when I hear it now, I see those images in my head. (About 10 years back, I had the original Super 8 footage digitalized and then re-did the soundtrack, swapping out many of the songs due to having a much larger library to pick from – but “Foreign Window” remained.)

By the time Poetic Champions Compose was released in September 1987, I’d graduated college and was working as an assistant department manager in the same department store where I’d previously whiled away my time as a sales associate. If memory serves, it was among the first CDs I purchased after splurging on a CD player. Jimmy Guterman’s review in the December 3rd edition of Rolling Stone accurately summarizes it: “Like Neil Young — another restless veteran who has been prematurely blackballed, only to persevere — Morrison follows his muse wherever he likes. And every time, those who have committed themselves to the journey have been rewarded.” 

Anyway, after those four servings of yearning, meditative music – and also due to having little sleep the night before – I fell asleep with ease Friday night, and stayed asleep until the next morning, when a certain feline fellow patted me on the cheek to inform me that it was breakfast time.

Such is life in these odd times.

There, atop the dresser in the photo to the left, is a portion of my record collection circa early 1982, when I was 16; I stored my 45s in a stack beside the turntable as well as in a shoebox on the floor that was situated beside another shoebox filled with cassettes. I also stored some LPs in a small rack near my desk, which was across the room.

After five years of intense music fandom, in other words, my entire music library clocked in at a little less than 100 LPs, about 40 cassettes, and maybe – and I’m likely stretching it – 100 45s. I’d yet to complete my Beatles collection, though – as the posters demonstrate – I was a big Beatles/McCartney fan. I owned the red and blue best-of sets (Christmas gifts both), plus everything from Rubber Soul onward (sans the Hey Jude collection), but it wouldn’t be until late 1987, after graduating college and landing a full-time job, that I owned everything Fab.

Similar situations occurred with other favorite artists. I fell in Mad Love with Linda Ronstadt in 1980 due to “How Do I Make You,” for example, but never picked up her first few LPs until the early 1990s, when they were only available as Japanese import CDs; and in late 1981, I bought my first Neil Young album, re*ac*tor, and then the one that preceded it, Hawks & Doves, but it took me most of the ‘80s to work my way through his backlog. 

It wasn’t that I wanted to wait, but records and cassettes were expensive. By the early ‘80s, new releases generally set consumers back $5.99 (the equivalent to $16 today) – but some were discounted to $4.99 and others priced higher, at $6.99 or even $7.99. Factor in sales tax, which in Pennsylvania was six percent, and buying an album was a major expense for a kid on a budget.

And once you consider other typical teen expenses, such as movie tickets, magazines and fast food, prioritizing a catalog item over a new release was an extravagance (just as hardback books were to paperback editions). That said, as I noted in my piece on Jackson Browne’s Hold Out album, I had a hierarchy of fallbacks whenever I walked into a record store; if A was out of stock, I’d look for B, and then C, and then, often, something totally unrelated would catch my eye and I’d walk out with that, instead. Later that year, I discovered a used record store where $7.41 bought three, four or more LPs instead of one, but the same basic rules applied. Wants waited.

I think of those times often, these days. If the streaming services existed back then, how much money would I have saved through the years? But, hand in hand with that, would I treasure specific artists and their oeuvres the same way I do now? Would the years-long journey that, as I outlined here, took me from the Byrds to Emmylou Harris have ended the same if it had occurred within a few weeks? I doubt it.

Which is to say, I have a love-hate relationship with the streaming services. Artists don’t get their fair share from the proceeds, which is a big concern, but another issue is whether the services actually help or hinder music discovery. As I noted last summer, the algorithms used by Pandora barely scratched the surface when I created a “personalized” station around the Bangles. While the results were fine for background music, they were sad for active listening. This Paisley Underground geek was not impressed.

Apple Music, which I subscribe to for simplicity’s sake – when driving in my car, or even hanging out in my living room, it’s easier to say, “Hey, Siri, play All I Intended to Be by Emmylou Harris” than work my way through the iPhone app – often denigrates the album as an art form, as does Spotify with its emphasis on playlists. I’ve added albums to my library only to discover, at a later date, the songs have been split between various collections or even different editions of the same album or, in the case of Juliana Hatfield, 22 “unknown” albums. (On the flip side, I’ve added specific best-ofs only to find the songs then listed under their original album homes.) It doesn’t impact the listening experience when I ask Siri to play the albums in question, but it does if I select the album through the app – which, if we ever return to our workplaces, is what I do in the office.

Anyway, at its best, music is the currency of the soul, and that soul isn’t as well nourished as it should be. Since 2000 or thereabouts, music artists have seen their revenue streams upended, first through the illegal-downloading craze and now via the streaming services. Live shows and merchandise sales is all they have – and for the young ‘uns, it’s likely all they’ve known. If you watch a live-stream and see a tip jar, and can afford it, send money their way – doesn’t have to be a lot. If an artist you like has set up a Patreon thing, and you can afford it, sign up. 

Don’t, however, feel compelled to blow your budget; and don’t feel guilty if you can’t or don’t contribute. (I’ve been very judicious, myself.) This pandemic’s economic fallout has caused many folks to lose their jobs – and even those of us who aren’t unemployed may well be, at some point, if the global economy continues to deteriorate. In some respects, then, this new reality isn’t all that different than the one many fans experienced during the 1960s, ’70s, ‘80s and ’90s, when every visit to a record or CD store forced us to whittle our wants down from the many to the few or even just one. Me, I always felt guilty heading home with a single LP, but such was life – and is life, again.

There’s not much I can say about John Prine’s passing that hasn’t been said better elsewhere. While his music and children are his main legacies, so too are the many up-and-coming singer-songwriters with whom he shared a stage. His embrace of those new artists speaks volumes of him as a person, just as the reverence those artists have for him says much about him.

Anyway, I discovered John Prine’s music in the mid ‘80s while deejaying a folk show on my college radio station. I picked up Bruised Orange and the 1976 best-of on vinyl, and – a few years later – The Missing Years on CD. I was never a huge fan, in other words, though he was someone whose music I liked and respected; I always intended (and still intend) to explore his oeuvre, but have yet to get there. In 1993, Diane and I saw him with Nanci Griffith when they played the Mann Music Center in Philly on a co-headlining tour. Most of my memories of the night have long been lost, though Diane and I both recall being surprised at the numerous Warlocks or Pagans (Philly’s versions of the Hell’s Angels) in attendance. They, like the rest of us, were spellbound during his set.

Here he is with Nanci in 1990 on the U.K. television show “Town and Country.”

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: New Music, Vol. CIII, given that it’s the 103rd day of the year.

1) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – “Shut It Down.” After first listening to “Shut It Down” last year, I liked the music but found the lyrics somewhat simplistic. Now? I hear them as oddly prophetic. As the new music video for the song shows, we are, indeed, shutting the whole system down.   

2) Hazel English – “Five and Dime.” I featured one of Hazel’s other new songs a few weeks back. This one, the latest teaser track from her forthcoming long player, is as hypnotic.

3) Shelby Lynne – “I Got You.” If the songs released thus far are any indication, Shelby’s new album – which features some (remixed) tracks from the Here I Am soundtrack alongside new tunes –  is going to be great. 

4) Shelby Lynne – “Don’t Even Believe in Love.” To my ears, this sounds like a long-lost Dusty in Memphis track, which is about the highest compliment I can give. Play it once and you’ll play it twice, and then find yourself playing it ad infinitum.

5) The Petersens – “Gentle on My Mind.” I stumbled upon this track this morning. It represents everything wonderful about music.

And one bonus… 

6) 10,000 Maniacs – “Hello in There.” In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, it became a thing for acts to release CD “maxi-singles” that coupled their latest hoped-for hit with a few songs not available elsewhere. Such was the case with the You Happy Puppet CD from 10,000 Maniacs, which featured the Blind Man’s Zoo cut alongside an acoustic version of “Gun Shy,” the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower” and this cover of the John Prine classic – which, as it happens, is my favorite song by him (I’ve known many lonely older folks in my day).