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Friday, January 04, 2013

Tis the season for year end lists, & since all the painting is done at my house & the basement is cleaned & I have vacation days to burn, I've read alot of best album lists for 2012 in between playing with a two year old.  In the old days, I liked to think I was uniquely qualified to weigh in on what I thought were the best albums of the year.  Nowadays, with time to listen to music & money that isn't being used for house remodeling limited, I read these lists as a way of catching up on what I might have missed.  The other night, my friend  & I got to talking about our favorite albums after he showed me how to use spotify which lead us to trade playlists of our favorite albums.  We're not that full of ourselves to claim that these are the best albums of all time or anything, just full of ourselves enough to come up with a silly music list.  It's fun, & I'm on vacation.  Currently, I've got a bad head cold & am missing a Christmas party, so bear with me.

I was going to keep it to ten, but my friend broke the rules & made it thirteen, so I broke the rules even further & made it twenty, in no particular order.

The Milk Eyed Mender by Joanna Newsom

Life for me got a whole lot better when, as an adult, I quit worrying about what was cool, how many friends I had or what I was doing on a Saturday night.  I'm not sure what that has to do with Joanna Newsom, except for the fact that you can't make an album like this when you are concerned with such things.  You don't play an album like this for friends when you're worried about whether they think you're cool or not.  Most people I know who have heard this album think it's the wierdest thing they've ever heard.  Once you don't worry about that any more, there are worlds to discover.  Reading the lyrics only tells you half the story, the way they're sung keeps you searching for the ending to the story. 

"no means no, where I come from, i am cold & waiting for the spring to come"
"never get so attached to a poem, you forget truth that lacks lyricism"

 Desire by Bob Dylan

For some reason, I own 4 copies of this album, two on vinyl, one on cd, & one on vinyl framed with the album cover, one of the coolest gifts I've ever received.  The story goes that Dylan heard the violinist playing on the street & hired her to play on the album.  The violin makes it.  It weaves it's way through the album like a snake, giving it an other-worldly kind of sound.  The interplay between the violin & the harmonica is sublime.  The story also goes that when Emmylou Harris was hired to sing back up on the album, she was given none of the music to rehearse ahead of time.  You can hear her struggling to catch up with the lyrics mid-song.  This is Dylan's great melting pot approach to music, to create a moment that can't be rehearsed & can't be duplicated.

"it was true that in his later years he would not carry a gun, 'I'm around too many children,' he'd say, 'they should never know of one'"
"Isis, oh Isis, you're a mystical child, what drives me to you is what drives me insane"
"Oh sister, am I not a brother to you?  And one deserving of affection?  And would our father not like the way that you act?  To love & to follow his direction?"

Our Endless Numbered Days by Iron & Wine

There's so many kinds of emotions on display in this album.  Anger, sadness, joy, rebellion, but mostly melancholy, & this album finds the beauty of all of them. The album takes a happy moment & reminds you of all the sad ones that came before, but also finds hope in sadness as well.  I've enjoyed other albums by Sam Beam, but none of them come anything close to this one.

"love is a dress that you wear, long to hide your knees"
"slept through Christmas, slept like a bucket of snow"

Trace by Son Volt

This album was released in 1995 & I don't listen to it too much anymore.  It caught my ear though & made me seek out all kinds of music that came before it & after it.  It is one of the more famous Alt-Country albums & it lead me to seek out music by some of my favorite artists like Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Buddy Miller & lots of others.  The album used to get played on "The River--93.9", a station out of Windsor that played all kinds of great music.  Of course, the station didn't last too long, but my fascination with the kinds of music it played continues on.

"now & then it keeps you runnin', never seems to die, trails spent with fear not enough living on the outside"
"looking for the right kind of live free or die..."

Kind of Blue-Miles Davis

Post 1950's jazz is the rarest of art forms that is rarely understood or appreciated by anyone who doesn't play music.  I think I'm one of those rare people who loves jazz who doesn't play it, although I still don't understand it.  Kind of Blue is accessible to the jazz novice, but yet is brilliant all the same.  The key to this album is the space between the notes, or the notes that don't get played.  Someone who is truly good at something doesn't need to tell you how good they are.  Miles was great, & he knew it, but he didn't care who else knew it.

Souvenirs-John Prine

If there's one album in my collection that gets the most play over the last five years, it's this one.  In 2000, after recovering from cancer surgery, Prine re-recorded a collection of his greatest songs with his new voice.  This voice was the first I ever heard from Prine, & I still don't enjoy the original versions of these songs as much as I do on Souvenirs.  His voice sounds like he's lived the life he tells of in these songs, much like a John Updike novel, Prine finds the greatest meaning in the smallest of details.  His songs sound like a liquor store in a small town on a Saturday afternoon, that feeling that life is moving for everyone but you. 

"you know that old trees just grow stronger, & old rivers grow wilder everyday, old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say hello in there."

"there were spaces between donald & whatever he said, strangers had forced him to live his head, he envisioned the details of romantic scenes, after midnight in the stillness of the barracks latrine."

Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus-Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

If I were in a band, & I wanted the band to go for a specific sound, it would be the sound of this record.  It's so big, it's got the four powerful backup singers, a driving percussion style piano, an eery sounding violin, plus a full rock band.  Then there's angry, crazy old Nick Cave, who's singing teeters in the balance between singing & shouting.  The energy level is so high, you think it can't sustain itself but it does, & the album's balanced out nicely with a few choice slower songs like Babe You Turn Me On.  . 

The mighty wave their hankies from their
high-windowed palace
Sending grief and joy down in supportable doses
And we search high and low without
mercy or malice
While the gate to the Kingdom swings
shut and closes

I See a Darkness-Bonnie "Prince" Billy

Whenever I hear someone lament how music isn't as good as it used to be back in the day, I always tell them they aren't looking in the right places.  Will Oldham, aka Bonnie Prince Billy, is one of the greatest songwriters of the past twenty years.  He's a little strange to say the least, & his singing isn't for everybody, but if Oldham was around in the sixties, I'll bet the Byrds would've done a whole album's worth of covers from him & had hits from them.  Johnny Cash covered the title track, & he even got Oldham to sing backup.  His voice is so fragile on this record it feels like it will fall apart at any moment.  It stares depression & hurt right in the face.  I think he could've made twenty albums that sounded just like this one (and I'd buy every single one), he's that prolific, but every one of his album of his is a different direction.  

" i hope that one day, buddy, we'll have peace in our lives, together or apart, alone or with our wives.  and we can stop our whoring, & pull the smiles inside, & light it up forever, and never go to sleep.  my best unbeaten brother, this isn't all i see."

Bryter Later-Nick Drake

There's two approaches to appreciating art of any form, you can listen to the piece on it's own & appreciate it on it's own merits or you can wrap together the art & the artist & understand the conditions that may have given root to the art.  With Nick Drake, I don't think you can separate the art from the artist.  Bob Dylan once wrote, "pain sure brings out the best in people...doesn't it?".  I'm not sure what drives a person to become a songwriter, but I think with some of the best ones that there's just thoughts swirling around their heads that will make them go crazy if they don't do create something.  There's a long list of great songwriters that committed suicide in the prime of their lives, or more accurately, in the prime of their artistic output.  Phil Ochs, Elliot Smith, Kurt Cobain to name a few.  That seems to be the case with Nick Drake.  His lyrics are small & sparse, he's that rare musicians who can generate power from quiet sound.  A brilliant, sad, little album.

Automatic for the People-REM

REM was the first band I was really into as a teenager, my buddy Mike & I used to listen to them while playing ping pong all the time.  I happened to borrow his cassette copy of Automatic for the People when I went on a school trip to New York City in January 1995.  I can't separate the bittersweet sound of "Sweetness Follows" from the New York skyline, and I'm not sure I want to.

Bootleg Series Volume 4 "The Royal Albert Hall Concert"-Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan isn't the first artist to not give the audience what they want, but he's probably the most notable musician to do it.  By the time this concert was played, it was no secret that Bob Dylan was playing with an electric guitar (gasp!) & that he abandoned the topical songs that made him famous.  Most reviews will tell you that the audience loved the acoustic first half of the show, but the songs Dylan chose to play weren't the folkie "Blowin' in the Wind" type songs that the audience wanted to hear.   He plays the long, Rimbaud inspired epics that span for eight plus minutes, drawing out the lyrics & spitting the consonants into the mike as percussion.  It's pure punk, long before anybody ever came up with the term "punk music".  The harmonica solo on Mr Tambourine Man seems to get lost in time somewhere, he loses control of it for about a minute or so before pulling it back down from the rafters to end the song.  The electrified second half starts like a shot gun blast with "Tell Me Momma".  The song has no defined set of lyrics, alot of them are made up on the spot or sung so loudly that you can't understand them.  It's rock & roll for the sake of rock & roll and the crowd was amped up and ready to hate him for it.  In that sense, he did give the crowd what they wanted.  They heckled & booed & Dylan feeds off of it, heckling them back. 

All of this leads up to the penultimate moment after the show piece of the night "Ballad of a Thin Man.  One guy shouts (audible on tape) "Judas!", another shouts (inaudible on the tape) "I'll never listen to you again!", to which Dylan replies drolly, "I don't believe you...you're a liar" & then turns to the band & yells "play fucking loud" before kicking off "Like a Rolling Stone".  Rarely does an actual event live up to the hype & mythology that surrounds it, but I believe this one exceeds it.

Blue-Joni Mitchell

This album sounds to me like it is longing for something always out of your grasp.  Longing for a place, longing for a lover, longing for a past to be made right.  Usually, I like my music to be spontaneous, & with spontaneity comes imperfection.  This album, on the other hand, is as close a thing to perfection as I've heard.  Every guitar strum, every note, every breath is perfect.  Anything I could say about would only muck it up.  Just listen to it.

"let's have a round for these freaks & these soldiers, a round for these friends of mine, let's have another round for the bright red devil who keeps me in this tourist town"

Horses-Patti Smith

I wonder what women of my Grandma's generation might think of this album.  That isn't any kind of value judgement, sometimes I prefer the lack of sarcasm & irony from people who came of age before 1965.  You don't hear anything like this from anyone before 1975.  And yet, I believe there is a consistency of human emotions & experiences that exist throughout the ages.  Some might say it's drugs, but I don't need drugs to appreciate anything, & I'm pretty sure Patti Smith didn't need drugs to make this album.  What I love about this album is it shatters the idea that things have to be pretty, & this isn't pretty, or that the unpleasant things of society need to be shoved into a dark closet.

I'll finish the rest later...


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Grand Haven, Michigan
the sun shines on a dog's ass every now & then...