I am not a music blogger, but since music surrounds and suffuses my daily activities, and inasmuch as all the cool kids are posting their “Top Albums of the Year” (woe to the December release that doesn’t garner enough attention to be “top,” and then doesn’t qualify in the next year), I too decided, after having examined some of the top ten lists carefully, to write an orderly account of the year’s releases, just as they have been handed down to us by those who were on top of the music scene from the beginning.
My list below includes some material I haven’t heard, and some I know pretty well. It doesn’t add up to a round number, and it mingles single cuts with albums, and it includes music I don’t like that much along with music I greatly admire. Since I am not a music blogger, I can do whatever I want (even the whole “of the year” premise seems arbitrary to me, so I’m likely to deviate from that criterion as well).
I don’t get to listen to as much new music as real music bloggers, since I treasure long-term favorites and am not extensively patient with listening to haphazard novelties when I could be listening to consistently marvelous past performances.
I was not as impressed with this year’s Bob Dylan album, Modern Times, as I was with Love and Theft. When I heard Love and Theft, I heard a new chapter in Dylan’s work, and I delighted what I took to be his perfect accomplishment. He laid claim to the folk tradition’s continual re-employment of its own history toward new performances that still bespeak the old; on Modern Times, I hear him say, “Oh, yeah, and another thing. . . .” I’ll keep it around and I’m prepared for it to surprise me (what would be more typical of Dylan?) on relistening, but it doesn’t make a “top” anything list for me.
The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America does make my list. I still prefer Separation Sunday — it’s tough to beat an album whose centerpiece tells “How a Resurrection Really Feels” — and Almost Killed Me, but Boys and Girls sustains the band’s repertoire without falling into repetition. Many critics invoked Bruce Springsteen comparisons when the album came out, but I hear echoes of the Boomtown Rats’ better work, transplanted to U.S. turf. Job well done. (Speaking of Springsteen, I admired the Seeger tribute, but it didn’t win over my listening time.)
I did not take to twee pop quickly; I liked some odds and sorts of Belle and Sebastian (“If You’re Feeling Sinister,” “She’s Losing It”), but didn’t listen long enough, carefully enough, to take them up enthusiastically. Over the past year I gathered more of their work and they’ve won me over. During the summer, Margaret heard a fair amount of The Life Pursuit at our church-day coffee haunt, the Brothers K and intrigued her. I respect the band’s willingness to extend themselves, and their success in sustaining a distinct style as they move out from the secure base they built over their earlier albums. Another top recording.
While I’m talking twee, I can’t say much about Camera Obscura except that their single, “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken” (from Let’s Get Out of This Country) captivated me. If you don’t already know Lloyd Cole’s “Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?” (with the Commotions, from Rattlesnakes, itself an estimable track), you can size up the blithely appealing lead vocal and the smooth arrangement — but if you can make the connection back to the Commotions, the wit of Camera Obscura’s response is irresistible.
The Indigo Girls’ new album Despite Our Differences didn’t knock me out; good, not outstanding. On the other hand, Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins’ Rabbit Fur Coat knocked me out (pre-album live performance available for download here). Lewis’s voice and her musical sensibilities already sttod out from Rilo Kiley albums, but the this album distills many of the qualities I admired before into a more intense, tighter focus.
Margaret pointed me to the Wood Brothers’ Ways Not To Fail, a sort of bluegrass-meets-blues endeavor that works. That reminds me (not sure why) of the Raconteurs Broken Boy Soldiers, which I enjoyed (though not as much as last year’s White Stripes album, Get Behind Me Satan). I like M Ward, haven’t soaked up Post War yet.
My patterns of taste suggest that I might like the critical favorite TV On The Radio’s Return to Cookie Mountain, but I haven’t heard enough to form a judgment. The Beatles’ Love album sounds all right, but I haven’t quite passed the “acceptable novelty” feeling about it. I just haven’t heard Gnarls Barkley much, though I’d anticipate liking at least “Crazy” (I’ve got it, will listen right away as soon as Camera Obscura is finished). I deliberately neglected the Arctic Monkeys — I may be small-minded, but I got a flash-in-the-pan vibe from their internet buzz. I’ll repent if they show staying power.
I’m getting acquainted with Ghostface’s Fishscale album. I’m still not cool enough (or whatever) to take to hiphop as certified tasteful critical listeners, but Fishscale is this year’s tentative step into hiphop.
Speaking of not cool enough, I also fail the Joanna Newsom test. I can admire Ys in a distant, unconvinced way, but right now it will never be on a playlist I make for myself. I’m not quite sure where all the enthusiasm is coming from; I have a hunch that if this were still the material-artefact era, there’d be a lot of used Joanna Newsom CDs and LPs on the market in a year or two.
Oh, I discovered Laura Cantrell this year — if you haven’t yet, you might want to try the material she’s offered on her downloads page.
As always, I’m sure I’ve forgotten good stuff, and I’d love to be convinced that I misjudged something. The more enjoyment of music, the better; I’m not doctrinaire about any of this. Use the “email” button to send me comments, and we can continue the conversation in the “extended” version of the post. I’ll finish adding links as I can; right now I have papers to mark.
Three other music notes: Geoffrey Pullum posts an appreciative commemorative reminiscence of Ahmet Ertegun, and Tim Bray nails it with his 5-star review of “Better Git Hit In Your Soul.” And Michael Iafrate has released a Christmas EP, The Rebel Jesus, freely downloadable here.