Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Top Ten

In the nearly 40 years I've been writing about music, I've come to dread the year-end top ten requirement. Once, I dreaded it because there were more than ten records I wanted to draw people's attentions to at the end of the year, so every magazine that asked me for one got a different one, the lead item or two usually remaining the same. Then came the mathematical horrors of Bob Christgau's Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll, where you had to assign numerical values to each of your ten. Thank heavens I'm no longer asked to contribute to that.

Quantifying pleasure is a dullard's task, anyway, it seems to me, something which keeps away the real work of being culturally aware, of looking for connections with society at large and other art-forms. But, of course, that means being a critic, not a reviewer, and there are damn few critics out there anymore. How much more edifying to argue that the Morrissey record is two points better than the Lambchop one!

Of course, one of the salutary effects of moving over here has been my total disengagement from the music business and the rock critic business, so now I'm pretty well out of the highly-competitive but uninteresting world of the rock press. True, I've tried to put a toe back in to make money (see "Frustration"), but my listening to records has taken a real blow over the past few years. For one thing, I get very few new ones any more, although reissues continue to come in (thanks!) so I can do pieces on them for Fresh Air. What new ones I do get tend to be in the so-called Americana genre because I write frequently for two magazines, No Depression and Harp. Much as I like some of it, though, it's not something you can live on an exclusive diet of, and I do long to hear some weirder stuff a lot of the time.

The result is, I spend days without playing anything at all. Really. I look at the stack, see nothing that moves me, and sit down to silence. Silence is nice. Without it, you can't evaluate or really appreciate what you do listen to, in my opinion. (Take that, drones walking around plugged into a 40 gig iPod on shuffle!)

That said, both No Depression and Harp asked me to contribute a top ten this year, so I thought I'd share it with you. It's in no particular order, it's Americana-heavy, and has a lot of world music because the Wall St. Journal asked me to do a story about the two big world music labels and both shipped me huge boxes of stuff. I said it's in no particular order, but that's not strictly true: I feel very strongly about Jon Dee Graham's record, and if you're only going to get one on this list, I'd recommend that one. But hell, I recommend all of them, of course. It is my top ten, after all.

* Jon Dee Graham: The Great Battle. Yeah, his voice is hard to get used to, but he writes about things nobody else even gets close to. Possibly not for teenagers, either. Adult music by an adult who also plays darn good guitar.

*Various Artists: Por Vida, A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo. I've known Al for years, and was horrified by his illness. I saw him in March, and he seemed healthy and happy, although he admits he's still got problems. One problem he doesn't have is a lack of friends, and the talent assembled for this collection totally overwhelms my usual qualms about tribute albums being a mish-mosh of stuff thrown together so that you can't just sit down and listen to them. The high quality of his songs might have something to do with that, as might the fact that most of his friends are also extremely fine performers in their own right.

* Los Lobos: The Ride. Another thing I hate is albums of duets with "special guests." The Lobos lost me some time back when their albums began to be produced by West Coast weirdos (and with their unlistenable but inexplicably popular-with-critics Latin Playboys side-project), but, again, this transcends all of this. I resisted, but I soon caved in.

* Dave Alvin: Ashgrove. Not much to say about this: a great new album by one of my favorite performers. A double bill of Dave and Jon Dee would be worth walking all the way across town for. Not much chance of it happening here, unfortunately.

* The Gourds: Blood of the Ram. One of the worst times I had writing this year was trying to do a feature on the Gourds for the next issue of No Depression. Not that I don't love this idiosyncratic, deeply-rooted, bunch of Texas oddballs; I think they are to today what The Band was to 1969. But what to say about them? Fortunately, as I noted in the article, they're as easy to listen to as they are hard to write about, and if you've never heard them, this or Bolsa de Agua, from a couple of years back, would be the place to start.

* Doug Hilsinger & Caroleen Beatty: Brian Eno's Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy . Now, here's a crazy idea: completely reproduce one of your favorite albums in your home studio. But...what an album! And...what an inspired recreation! Hell, Eno likes it. So do I. And who wants to argue with him, anyway?

* Mory Kante: Sabou. Here's one from the world music pile. Some years ago, Kante had a huge disco hit in France (and elsewhere) with "Yé Ké Yé Ké," with its irresistable beat and fluid melody being one of those irresistable forces -- except, of course, in America, where Good Americans don't buy records with songs in other languages. Me, I thought a lot of the success of the hit was probably due to the various French synthesizer players and so on who play on a lot of African dance hits. Boy, was I wrong: this is the first album of his I've heard since, and as you can hear, all the French guys did was sort of beef up what was already there. Joyful, rockin' acoustic music.

* Various Artists: World 2004. There are two schools of world music out there: the fusionists and the authenticists. The authenticists are happy to let ethnic popular musics do their own thing in their own culture unassisted by the outside, and this is a good thing, because it gives us albums like Sabou. The fusionists like to mix things up and stir them around and seven times out of ten what comes out is either reggae or trip-hop. The other three times, you can wind up with some delightful surprises, as epitomized by bands like 17 Hippies or (in the oldies but goodies department) 3 Mustaphas 3. This collection was assembled by Charlie Gillette who (along with the Mustaphas' Ben Mandelson) was at the meeting where the marketing term "world music" was coined, and who has a BBC radio show dedicated to it. Some fusion, some authentic, all superb. Hell, it's worth owning for the Terry Hall/Mushtaq track "The Hour of Two Lights" alone.

* Brian Wilson Presents Smile. Well, of course. Only someone with a heart of stone (or, rather only someone my age with a heart of stone) could dislike this. And now it's done. And you know what? It's won-won-won-won-wonderful. If this is the sort of thing that appeals to you, you might also want to check out my last year's number one record, to which I return often, the Swimming Pool Q's' Royal Academy of Reality, another "rock suite," albeit one far less known. Just as melodic and satisfying, though.

So there it is. What? Yeah, I know there's only nine on the list. Sue me. Thinking about the Swimming Pool Q's reminded me of something, too: some records take a long time to sink in (although that one didn't), and some you only discover later. I just listened to James Talley's album Touchstones over the weekend, because I had to write a short item on him, and I was reminded of what a great songwriter he is. Had it not been from 2002, it would be up there, too.

And that's just the thing: for some years now, everyone has had the technology to make, manufacture, and distribute their music. And, as Sturgeon's Law notes, 98% of it is crap. It's daunting to wade your way through all of it, and, if you're off the mailing lists, as I have been for some time now, extremely expensive. The bad news is, I've probably missed some fantastic stuff this year. The good news is, I've got the rest of my life to catch up with it. Enjoying what I play when I play it is, after all, far more important than being Heap Big Number-One Rock Critic.

(I'll devote a separate post to the reissues somewhere down the line, but not today.)


Nancy White said...

My holiday wish list just got longer. Thanks, Ed!

Daniel Rubin said...

Got an opinion about Blanche, those Handsome Detroiters who Jack White hangs with (and scuffs in front of)?

Ed Ward said...

Sorry, Dan, never heard of 'em.