What I Listened To in 2010
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James Taylor: A Christmas Album (Hallmark 2004)
At my house, it's against the law to deck the halls, trim the tree, or open gifts without Christmas music in the background. This year, I decided to give the Roches a rest and pulled this gem from the pile. Ironically, given that he's a "singer-songwriter," Taylor has written only a handful of really memorable songs, but he's turned out to be a remarkable interpreter of the songs of others. In this case, his version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" ranks with the best of them. His duet partner is Natalie Cole, and their exchanges are both relaxed and sultry. Cole's presence is a clue that the music is closer to "lite jazz" than folk or rock, due to Grusin's presence as pianist and arranger. "Go Tell it on the Mountain" turns out to be a great Christmas song, well suited to Taylor's voice.
Keith Jarrett: The Out-of-Towners (ECM 2004)
Big pile of final exam essays, pressure to get done on time, Christmas presents to wrap, pressure to get them in the mail on time. Time for music that drops the stress level and does not intrude on the intellectual problem of deciding if a particular student essay merits a B- or a C+. These piano explorations of six songs were recorded in the summer of 2001, a time we now recall as sunnier and less insane. The general mood is a pleasant stroll in the park. In short, this is my kind of jazz: it works perfectly as background music, but it's not bland, either. Jarrett's released a number of these sets of "covers" with this trio, and I selected this one simply because I like the song "It's All in the Game." Given that it's Jarrett at the piano, that's reason enough.
John Fogerty: The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again (Verve 2009)
Is it a sign of the apocalypse that Fogerty, the voice of Creedence Clearwater Revival, has released an album of country music on Verve, a jazz label? No, it's just the collapse of the music business. That aside, it's an extremely strong record, right up there with another similar disc from about the same time, John Doe and the Sadies' Country Club. Fogerty has assembled stellar supporting musicians and a great set of songs. The John Denver tune is a bit sentimental, and covering himself ("Change in the Weather") is silly, but the opening three ("Paradise," "Never Ending Song of Love," and "Garden Party") are outstanding versions of well-known songs. Given his status, he even gets two members of the Eagles to sing with him on "Garden Party." He sounds great, they sound great, all of which just highlights how poorly Springsteen sings in HIS cameo appearance.
Joe Henry: Blood from Stars (Anti 2009)
My initial reaction was annoyance. His singing is more mush-mouthed than ever, as if he's imitating Leon Redbone, and the arrangements smack of middle-period Tom Waits by way of New Orleans. While the singing is still annoying in spots, the complexity of the arrangements has grown on me, as have about half of the songs."The Man I Keep Hid" and "Truce" are lyrically and musically gripping. "Stars" has a great line, worthy of Bob Dylan ("I remember tomorrow like it was yesterday") and a great "la la la" hook that gets stuck in my head. "No Lamp When the Sun Comes Down" has a touch of Kurt Weill. But for a very long stretch in the middle of the disc, he's working with standard blues progressions, and only the jazzy horns hold my interest.
Van Morrison: The Healing Game (1997; expanded Exile 2008)
The first few listens highlight how little difference there is among Van Morrison's recent records. Ten listenings later, this one proves to have a batch of superior songs -- I particularly like "It Once was My Life" -- and a few really strange ones, like "Burning Ground." There's a touch of the Caribbean in some rhythms, the gospel backup vocals are well done, and there's some intelligent arranging of the horns. And then, of course, there's the big, sad ballad that lets us wallow in sentimentality. "Sometimes We Cry" opens with a short bass solo and then builds slowly, appropriating a long tradition of gospel and soul music into a majestic account of existential resignation that moves to the sheer joy of singing nonsense syllables, an ending that ends all too soon.
Mary Margaret O'Hara: Miss America (1988 Virgin Records)
Listening to Grace Slick's vocals and idiosyncratic songwriting (e.g., "Rejoyce" on Baxter's), I decided to dig this disc out. I give it a listen from time to time, then put it away. I know it's a cult favorite and that a used disc sells for $20 to $50, so send me a check for $50.00 and I'll send you my copy. O'Hara's voice frequently moves up into a squeal that sounds like a fingernail on a blackboard. It's the same problem I have with Victoria Williams. And I hate the attempt to do a free-form, Patti-Smith-style rant on "Not Be Alright." Yet many of the songs are very fine (I like what the Cowboy Junkies did with "You Will Be Loved Again") and the atmospheric guitars are compelling. If only O'Hara sang it all as she does on "Dear Darling."
Jefferson Airplane: After Bathing at Baxter’s (RCA 1967; expanded CD RCA/BMG 2003)
Most psychedelic music bores me to death. Yet one of my favorite records has most of the tell-tale signs. Lyrics about dropping acid? Check. Flutes and harpsichords? Check. Gratuitous movement of instruments across the stereophonic environment? Check. Long, unorganized stretches of instrumental jamming? Check. So why, if I hate so much of this music, do I regard this controlled anarchy as one of the great discs of 1967? Great vocalists, strong harmonies, intelligent (if cryptic) lyrics, and gorgeous melodies. From the opening squeal of feedback to the goofy sonic experiment of “A Small Package of Value…” to the hippie-anthem “Saturday Afternoon,” I think this is just about a perfect summation of the attractions of the so-called summer of love. And the bonus tracks are uniformly strong.
Graham Parker: Imaginary Television (Bloodshot Records 2010)
Don't judge an album by its cover. I don't know why Graham Parker has released so many albums with horrific covers (after the first three, anyway), but it can't have helped his career. Which is still going after all these years. Here's the latest disc, with ten originals and one obscure cover version, mixing together pub rock, r&b, reggae, and whatever else appeals to him. To borrow from Elvis Costello, with whom he was frequently compared when both were starting out, he used to be disgusted, but now he's mostly amused. As usual, there are a few very strong songs, including "Bring Me a Heart Again" and what may be my current imaginary theme song: "You're Not Where You Think You Are," which begins, "This room got really weird..."
Bob Dylan: Bob Dylan (Columbia 1962)
I finally bought this on compact disc because I was just under $25 for an order over at Amazon.com, and another cheap purchase got me free shipping. And it was cheap: under $8, about the price that would have been fair for all compact discs and that might have kept more people buying music. But I digress. Having not played it in years, I am reminded of how genuinely rude and raw and energetic he sounds here, on his debut. (He even jokes about the reception to his singing on "Talkin' New York.") We wouldn't hear another voice like this until Captain Beefheart, then punk. Nonetheless, he really could sing. His "Man of Constant Sorrow" is phenomenal. Above all, he was a master of timing. Those tiny pauses and extended notes are brilliant.
Harold Budd: Pavilion of Dreams (Obscure 1978; EG 1991)
For me, this is morning music, something to play while reading the morning newspaper with a cup of coffee. Four lovely minimalist pieces with a total running time of a little over 45 minutes, this is music without tension, direction, or disruption. Much of the time, it's the musical equivalent of staring at a pond of water, throwing in small pebbles, then watching the ripples form and then fade away. At other times, it's the equivalent of watching a small stream flow over the pebbles. Other listeners will supply their own metaphors, but no one is going to describe it as a ride on a bucking stallion. But if you're not in the mood for it, you might describe it as kicking a dead horse.
The Clash: Sandinista! (Epic 1980)
I bought it the week it was released, 30 years ago, and haven't played it in 20 years. Although I remembered most of the songs, I'd forgotten how boring most of it is, especially the second half. Clash fans praise it as inventive and experimental, but today's fans don't listen to the original stuff that they're appropriating. If you don't own any dub reggae, I suppose their version of it sounds pretty good. Strangely, my two favorite tracks are both cover versions of songs they didn't write: "Police on My Back" (my very favorite Clash track?) and "Lose This Skin" (if only for the weirdness and energy it injects into disc 2). There are some strong originals, including "Charlie Don't Surf," but the final impression is a band that couldn't agree on what they were doing.
Elvis Costello: King of America (Columbia 1986)
I thought this was a pretty good record when it was new, even a sort of comeback after a pair of weak albums. Applying the test of time, it's even better than I remembered, and it's certainly the best of the three albums he's made with T-Bone Burnett. Some of it is country music, in the very British and twisted way that the Kinks sometimes recorded country music. Especially the fast ones, like "Glitter Gulch." Set those aside, and it's a exploration of American music styles, including a slow, aching cover version of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" that draws on Nina Simone rather than the Animals. "Indoor Fireworks" and "I'll Wear It Proudly" are two of the most moving things he's written and recorded.
Soul Asylum: Grave Dancers Union (Columbia 1992)
The title is missing an apostrophe, which is somehow apt for an expression of life in the underclass. "Runaway Train" was the big hit, and its bright acoustic jangle and big sing-along chorus are the most optimistic thing here. Which is ironic, since it joins the rest of the songs in expressing themes of alienation, failure, frustration. (Case in point: find the line in "Without A Trace" that gives the disc its title.) Overall, it's a melodic singer-songwriter album buried under surging, distorted guitars. "Homesick" is a better song than the midtempo "Runaway Train," but these quieter songs are a brief respite from the adrenaline rush of the loud stuff. (Case in point: "Somebody to Shove.")
Bruce Springsteen: Prodigal Son At Winterland (Great Dane 1979)
A bootleg, beautifully recorded from the KSAN broadcast in December 1978, as Springsteen was wrapping up his "Darkness" tour and Winterland itself was about to be torn down. Having seen him on more than one tour, and having seen an earlier show of this tour, I join those who maintain that he peaked in 1978, and that this is one of the greatest rock performances ever. The guitars snarl, the piano tinkles, Springsteen howls, and the band's timing is perfect. He fumbles some of the lyrics, but the venue was relatively small (perhaps 5,000?) and the audience actually shuts up and listens with admiration to the slow ones. So why has he put out so many weak live-recordings when he could be releasing shows from 1978?
Roxy Music: Stranded (Island 1973)
I hadn't played this album in years, and I'd forgotten how experimental it was. The first LP by they made after Brian Eno's departure, I may be in the minority in suggesting that his departure benefited the band. The songs are better, and so are their arrangements. The opener, "Street Life," is my favorite opening track on any of their albums, and "Amazona" is one of my favorite Roxy tracks ever, with a mixture of funk and instrumental swagger that they seldom attempted again. (On vinyl, "Serenade" was another great side-opener.) Above all, I admire the thin line between sincerity and irony in songs like "Psalm" and "Mother of Pearl." The production, by Chris Thomas, is divine.
Lloyd Cole: Antidepressant (One Little Indian 2006)
Cole was a philosophy major at Glasgow, and when I listen to him I sometimes wonder if we have mutual acquaintances. In any case, his education is there in the metaphors and wordplay (e.g., "nondescript manuscript"). The opening two songs are superb: "The Young Idealists" and "Woman in a Bar," and the rest are never less than good. His voice is often conversational -- think Leonard Cohen, but pleasanter and with more melodic movement -- but he can sing more conventionally when he chooses, as on "Traveling Light" and a moving cover of Moby Grape's melancholic "I am Not Willing." He favors keyboards now, instead of guitar, but Neil Clark is on hand to provide slide guitar here and there.
The Kinks: Everybody's in Show-Biz (1972; Expanded re-release, Velvel 1996)
Originally a strange hybrid, with a disc of studio songs and a disc of highlights from a concert at Carnegie Hall. The studio disc is structured so that each side ends with a big, sad ballad, "Sitting in My Hotel" and "Celluloid Heroes," two of Ray Davies' very best songs and performances. On compact disc the organization just feels random, with "hillbilly" music, show tunes, calypso, English music hall, and a few touches of hard rock. But I do like the way Davies toys with our expectations on the live segment with "Banana Boat Song" and "Lola," editing out the songs themselves and just giving us the sing-along with the audience. Such a tease.
Hi Times: Hi Records R&B Years (Hi 1995)
This three disc overview of 1970's Memphis R&B is better, track for track, than virtually any box set ever assembled. In part, that's due to the presence of all of Al Green's major hits ("Tired of Being Alone," followed by "Let's Stay Together" -- sheer bliss). But Green is merely one attraction. Ann Peebles is criminally underrated and largely forgotten, and George Jackson's "Aretha, Sing One for Me" is the great lost R&B track that I somehow never heard when most of this was on the radio. I admit that there are some tracks that underwhelm me (the early stuff on disc one, and the novelty tune "Drunk') but the house band at Hi could hold their own with cross-town rivals Booker T. & the M.G.'s.
Brian Eno: Another Green World (Virgin 1975)
Notice how the cover image is assembled from geometric shapes of distinct colors. The music is like that, as well. On one level, it's a all about the juxtaposition of static parts. On another level, it's about the interaction of those parts, and the unexpected beauties that arise as distinct sounds interact to form music; "Sky Saw" opens the album with jagged, raw guitar against a bubbling bass line, punctuated by seemingly random drum sounds. After that, things are generally calm (and predominantly instrumental, with lots of synthesized sound), as if someone has re-imagined Satie's piano music as a Roxy Music album. It doesn't hurt to have Phil Collins (yes, Phil Collins) and Robert Fripp on board for percussion and guitars, respectively.
Judy Collins: Who Knows Where The Time Goes (Elektra 1968)
Sometimes you get a song stuck in your head and you don't even know it's there. A week ago I listened to a Sandy Denny album, which included the song "Who Knows..." and then, today, it was in my head. But not Denny's original. I needed to hear Collins singing it, along with "Someday Soon." Those are the two standouts on this virtually perfect disc: outstanding songs, beautifully arranged and sung. Stephen Stills had a big hand in this album (and his relationship with Collins led to one his own greatest achievements, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" -- just look at those eyes on her album cover). One Dylan cover, one Leonard Cohen cover, two traditional songs. And "My Father," which she wrote.
Bruce Cockburn: Waiting for a Miracle (Gold Castle 1987)
This intelligently selected "best of" album pulls the best songs from half a dozen albums, and the success rate is much higher than is typical for such projects. I like to think of Cockburn as the Canadian Jackson Browne -- so why is he so obscure down here in the USA? His only American hit, "Wondering Where the Lions Are," is an amazingly catchy piece of folk reggae, "The Trouble with Normal" could have been written yesterday (as a critique of yet another American turn to the right), and "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" makes it clear why even a pacifist might think that violence is sometimes necessary. I like it when he uses his speaking voice: he sounds like Roger McGuinn, which is not true of his singing.
The Very Best of Jackson Browne (Rhino/Elektra 2004)
Two discs, and it almost lives up to its title, since I find that only three of his albums are worth having in their entirety (and those would be albums one, three, and four in his discography). Browne chose the song lineup for this collection, and other than the choices from number four (The Pretender) they're pretty much the ones I'd select, too. The real reason to own this, to be honest, is the presence of "Lawyers in Love," the funniest thing he's ever recorded (better than "Redneck Friend"). It's an almost perfect documentation of the Reagan years and, with the possible exception of "Somebody's Baby," the catchiest thing he's done.
Big Star: Live (Rykodisc 1992)
Alex Chilton was not the sole reason to love this band, but with his death last week, I pulled this one off the shelf because it's an Alex Chilton showcase, recorded as a live radio gig in 1974, after Chris Bell left the band. It's not particularly well recorded, and operating as a trio, they sound thin in spots. But at the heart of it there are four acoustic numbers, just Chilton and guitar: "The Ballad of El Goodo," "Thirteen," "I'm In Love with a Girl," and Loudon Wainwright III's "Motel Blues." Right there you get three of my favorite Big Star songs, and you get Chilton in prime voice, without sonic distraction for eleven glorious minutes. For him, it was another day on the road, but I'm thankful it was preserved.
Robert Plant/Alison Krauss: Raising Sand (Rounder 2007)
I don't spend much time in bars, but the last one I was in was coincidentally playing the same record that I'd just heard at home: this one. I love it for three reasons: Krauss, Plant in a gritty, subdued mode, and T. Bone Burnett's production and song choices. I see over at Amazon.com that a lot of people hate it for the latter two reasons. Krauss does her usual thing, which is already a positive, but then Burnett's steered her into bluesy material, and then everyone had the good sense not to pursue "blooze" music of the sort we know from Led Zep -- no banshee wailing! Then there's the deep, bottom-heavy production: when they duet, it's two sweet voices singing over the abyss.
Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster (American Roots 2004)
I've thought, many times over the years, that Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More" is our alternative national anthem. The number of children who go to bed hungry at night, the number of people who are one illness away from bankruptcy -- Foster caught it and Mavis Staples delivers it here. This disc is one of the few places you can hear a selection of Foster's songs without a syrupy, sappy treatment, and most of them are incredible. Each song features a different singer who imprints her or his personality on it. Henry Kaiser treats "Autumn Waltz" like a Grateful Dead performance, and I'm going to have to look into the music of BR5-49.
John Mellencamp Scarecrow (Mercury 1985)
His voice is always welcome on the radio, but his records always seem uneven. Except this one. (Okay, I admit I haven't heard the last decade's worth, so don't hold me to that.) This is small-combo rock and roll with a hint of roots-country, with genuine working-class bitterness in the lyrics. At the time of its release it got a lot of comparison's to Springsteen, but now I think it holds up better than the Boss's Born in the USA. Kenny Aronoff's drumming is rock solid and "Small Town" gives a voice to conservative pride, and "Scarecrow" to economic suffering, that together keep the red states red. Mellencamp wanted us to take this seriously. I do.
John Doe and the Sadies: Country Club (Yep Roc 2009)
I have to wait until everyone else has gone home for the day before I can play this in my office--the honky tonk sound is too disruptive. Doe covers thirteen country classics (and the Sadies throw in two instrumentals, most likely to throw some publishing revenue their way). These might be my favorite renditions of "Stop the World and Let Me Off," "I Still Miss Someone," and "Are the Good Times Really Over," all of them songs that I enjoy in their original incarnations (from Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard, respectively, and those names are a pretty good indication of the kind of music featured here). Yee-haw!
What I Listened to in 2009
What I Listened to in 2008
What I Listened to in 2007
What I Listened to in 2006
What I Listened to in 2005
What I Listened to in 2004
What I Listened to in 2003
What I Listened to in 2002
What I Listened to in 2001
All text © 2010 Theodore Gracyk
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