Monday, January 16, 2006

Best of 2005, Part One

Like I did last year, I've been meaning to put down a list of my favorite records from last year, but I've actually had so much work it's been impossible to find the time, since this project involves my putting down a lot of links. So today I'm taking a break from writing my book proposal to jot some notes about the best new records I heard last year. A second, much longer, post will deal with the reissues.

There's a major problem, though, about writing about new stuff. I hardly heard any. I don't think there's been a year in my adult life when I listened to less music. I've been puzzling over this and there are a few reasons which come to mind. First, I hardly have any place to write about music any more. There are virtually no "general" music magazines left, and the ones which exist want formulaic, short reviews with no criticism. I find it risible that so many writers call themselves "rock critics" which they don't do a lick of criticism, and concentrate instead on description. Some of them are very good at it, but it's still a recitation of feelings or technical observations with no attempt to link them to any higher purpose or broader context. The majority of my writing this year was done for specialty, ie, genre-driven, music magazines: No Depression, Harp, and the oddly-named Paste. All lean towards the "Americana" label (although No Depression has gone through a salutary re-evaluation, and Paste is more an "adult" rock mag than a purely "Americana" one), and so the few makers of new music who send me stuff tend to be in that area.

Which leads to the second reason I haven't listened to much. Back before cultural overproduction killed off any possibility of being a musical generalist, I'd have listening sessions when I'd grab a given kind of music and play a bunch of related records. One night it might be jazz, another night some kind of oddball pop, another singer/songwriter stuff, another hard rock, another some kind of acoustic quiet stuff. Almost all of this was stuff that came in the mail to me as a reviewer/writer. But without those choices, my evenings now tend to be "Do I want to listen to Americana or not" kinds of affairs. There is, on the newly-made music front, an appallingly monochromatic set of choices in front of me. So, as often as not, I just opt for silence.

Which leads to the third reason I haven't listened to much. I tend to get up late and work late, because nearly all the business I transact is with the United States, which is from six to nine hours behind Central European Time. Thus, at 10 pm, which is when I tend to quit for the day, it's still only 1 pm out on the West Coast. After that there's dinner, and then the traditional time I spend reading and listening to stuff. But there's a law here that there can be no noise after 10pm. For years I paid it no heed. I don't listen to music very loud, and much of what I play is pretty quiet anyway, but as soon as the building next to me changed hands a few years back and became an ownership building instead of a rental one, the two women on the other side of the wall -- a double wall, it should be emphasized -- informed me that they would tolerate no noise after 10, since they're both sensitive artists who need to paint during the daylight hours. So this means that my listening has to be done through headphones. And I hate headphones. Hate 'em! Music, for those of you who are so iPod'd out that you don't remember, should be played into an acoustic space, be it a room or a concert hall. Not inside your head.

So you add it all together, and I'm listening, when I'm listening, to a kind of music which tends towards the personal and confessional, sung by people inside my head, which is much too close, on records which basically kind of sound alike. No wonder I'm opting out.

There's also the fact that I've now been away from the American mainstream so long that there's tons and tons of best-selling, cultural-touchstone stuff that I've just never heard. White Stripes? Nope. Coldplay? Nope. (Although that may be a blessing). Strokes? Uh-uh. Arcade Fire? One track on a compilation that came with Word, the only general music mag I can think of, and probably the best music magazine out there. But it made no impression. And I've just given up trying to seek it out. It would mean buying tons of CDs I'd read raves about, but never heard, and that, I know from long experience of listening to stuff I got free that I'd read raves about, is an experience which would lead to inevitable disappointments.

Is it okay not to care? I do care, somewhat, but I've gotten a lot more passive about seeking stuff out. Yeah, I could download stuff from websites (legally, of course!), but I find it deeply ironic that we've just spent 100 years learning how to reproduce the natural sound of musical instruments as closely as possible to the original, only to enter into the drab world of compressed MP3 fidelity. And (sorry Dr. Jon) I spend enough time in front of my computer all day without wanting to stare at the screen while I play music, too.

So I'm losing interest in new music. Big deal. I've been writing about it since I was 16, had a job where I was out at least five nights a week for five years seeing it live, met and interviewed some of the top people on the scene (and cooked dinner for a bunch of 'em, too!), and now, well, there are other things to engage me. Yes, I'll be going to SXSW again this year, and yes, I'll be trying to catch as much good stuff as I can, but I'm not anticipating any epiphanies.

There's a larger essay here, if anyone's interested (and don't all e-mail me at once, of course...), but I've got other things to write and other stuff to do. Meanwhile, here's the new stuff from this year.


My big discovery this year was a guy from St. Louis named Jon Hardy, whose album Make Me Like Gold is a disturbing, catchy, haunting melange of influences filtered through a very distinctive personal style. I guess the nearest touchstone is Neil Young, but that's actually not very accurate. I'm still waiting (albeit not as tensely as he must be) to find out if he's been accepted at SXSW, because I really, really want to see this band live. If you live around the midwest, you've got a shot at seeing them. If not, the record's only eleven bucks from his website, and I think it'd be a real good investment.

My other big discovery this year, which kind of unsettles me, is that I'm beginning to like some jam band music. I always hated the Grateful Dead, and the genre's other antecedents, from latter day Little Feat to post-Duane Allman Brothers, did nothing for me, either. But when fearless publicist Ken Weinstein sent me the North Mississippi Allstars' new album Electric Blue Watermelon, I remembered going out one evening in Memphis with Jim Dickinson and his wife to hear his boys play in an awful grunge/metal band called DNA and found myself wondering what they're doing now. This is what they're doing now, and I find it more rooted than most jam music -- and in fact didn't snap to the fact that it even was jam music until I heard their previous record, Hill Country Revue and realized what was going on. Anyway, I'm watching these guys.

A band I caught at SXSW this year which really impressed me, although they have a ways to go, is the Heartless Bastards, whose debut record (on blues label Fat Possum, no less), Stairs and Elevators, doesn't quite capture their live show. Frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom, however, is a force of nature, and I'm very curious to see where they go from here, not to mention whether they get sued by James McMurtry, whose band has been using that name for a couple of years now.

I usually hate superstar records, where a bunch of "guest vocalists" come in to sing on a track, but all rules are off for Los Super 7, who are only sometimes a band and exist mainly as a project that's a vehicle for just such records. At any rate, this year's celebration of Texas border radio music from them, Heard It On The X, is a sheer pleasure right up to its final track, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown singing Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," which has nothing to do with what preceded it, but was probably the song the cantankerous old man insisted on recording and nobody could talk him out of it. Did he have a premoniton that he'd die last year? Eerie. The rest of the record celebrates the wild mixture of R&B, rock and roll, and Mexican border music the "X" stations broadcast. Of particular note: Raul Malo's rendition of Doug Sahm's classic-to-be "The Song of Everything."

While we're on the cross-cultural tip, it seems appropriate to mention Ry Cooder's much raved-about Chavez Ravine, which has everything going for it: great story-line, performances by Mexican-American legends like Little Willie G, Lalo Guerrero, and Don Tosti, and impeccable production. Trouble is, I find it a chore to listen to. Cooder can no longer sing, nor can Bla Pahinui, who's brought in for the album's pentultimate number, "3rd Base, Dodger Stadium." A lot of people enjoy the recording of the Coasters' "Three Cool Cats" here, saying how it brought out the Latin rhythms, but they're there on the original, which is better sung. I'm going to play this a few more times, but if it's still hard going, I'll file and forget it, and relegate it to the category of stuff critics all like but I don't. It sort of brings back memories of those awful Latin Playboys albums that spun off of Los Lobos some while ago.

One band I was happy to see come back this year was the Go-Betweens, even if that long-legged blonde drummer of theirs has retired. Still, on the evidence of this year's album Oceans Apart and the half-concert I saw in July, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan -- who are the Go-Betweens -- are still writing amazing songs which sound almost effortless, and still performing them brilliantly. Their back catalogue, too, is worth exploring.

Another band which re-formed this year kinda sorta is Son Volt, and although I haven't played it as much as I should have (I lost it: record companies send me advance copies in plastic sleeves, and they just get lost on the shelves: guys, I do want production copies, too!), their new album Okemah and the Melody of Riot shows that Jay Farrar isn't quite as limited melodically as his solo albums would have you believe. (He's no Brian Wilson, either, of course). This year also saw the old Son Volt's Best of, A Retrospective, for which I wrote the liner notes, which involved interviewing the usually taciturn Mr. Farrar. I still haven't seen a copy of this. Thanks, Reprise!

And as far as reunions go, howzabout that Cream? Yeah, I know, it's a guilty pleasure, but their recorded reunion at the Royal Albert Hall definitely had its moments. Inessential, but fun.

Outside of rock, or whatever you file the above under, I really didn't hear much new that was worth crowing about. One exception (which might need to go under reissues, but the originals were barely issued in the first place) was Numero Records' reanimation of the Belize pop scene of the 1970s, Cult Cargo: Belize City Boil Up. No indigenous musical tradition to turn into world-pop? No problem! Steal liberally from others and make the rest up off the top of your head! This may be the year's goofiest album. It'll sell dozens, but it deserves more.

Finally, one jazz album. One. Jason Moran ruined SXSW for me this year by playing a set on the first night that set the musical bar so high none of the poor rockers I saw afterwards came anywhere near. Moran's not always easy to listen to, but boy, does he have ideas, and boy, does he have the skills to express them. He also has a killer band, and some very modern ideas about what to do with samples. At any rate, one day when I found a little extra cash in my pocket, I bought the album he excerpted that evening, Same Mother, and was blown away, as I thought I would be. Too bad, though, that it has such an astonishing amount of copy protection that my portable CD player, the machine on which I listen to everything, doesn't recognize the disc.

But that, again, is another rant for another day. That's just barely ten records there, too. Gone are the days when I'd submit four different top ten lists to four different magazines because of the embarrassment of riches I'd heard that year.

Still, ten good records is ten good records.

Reissues later, okay?

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