I’ve now downloaded and listened to my penultimate eMusic set for the year, so given that I won’t have enough time to absorb next month’s in time to make a reasonable judgement, I thought I’d do my Albums Of The Year now. If nothing else doing it this year will give some googlejuice to the post, which will in turn hopefully bring some attention to these artists, many of whom are very obscure.
My criteria for this are simple – the album goes on here if either I’ve obsessed over it and listened to it repeatedly (even if I didn’t think it was very good at first) or if I’ve not listened to it as much but have listened enough to know it will one day be a favourite.
The only album to be released this year that I haven’t listened to but think I might include is Joanna Newsom’s new one. It’s not on eMusic, and I use that for pretty much all my new music these days. I’ll get it one day.
I’ve created an 8tracks.com playlist, containing my two favourite tracks from each of these albums (8tracks is a legit streaming service and pays royalties) here . Take a listen and let me know what you think, and if you like them I’ve included links to the eMusic pages for most of the albums.
EDIT Didn’t embed properly, but you can get to it here.
1) Kristian Hoffman – Fop (emusic link)
Kristian Hoffman’s last album, &, which I wrote about here, is a very strong candidate for best album of the last decade, and while I’m not sure Fop is of quite that quality, it’s definitely the album of the year.
Hoffman writes about religion, politics, sexuality and the intersections of the three from the perspective of a gay, liberal (in the USian sense) sceptic, but manages to avoid polemic – there’s nothing as strident and obvious as Dear God or Tramp The Dirt Down. Rather, he’s one of the most subtle, moving lyricists I know of.
Those two songs are not chosen at random though – Hoffman is a unique talent, but XTC and Elvis Costello are two of the reference points I would point to to give some idea of his music. The others, though, would be Queen, ELO, Sparks, The Kinks, 20s revivalists like Janet Klein, Rufus Wainwright, Candypants (and the rest of that LA powerpop set of musicians, especially the Wondermints), Corn Mo, Van Dyke Parks, Stephen Sondheim, Abbey Road era Beatles…
Basically if you like witty lyrics, a glam feel, a sense of fun, intricate arrangements and strong melodies, that manages to do bombast while still showing restraint where necessary, buy Fop – straight after you buy &.
The two songs I’ve chosen from Fop are Imaginary Friend, which starts out as a foxtrot with fairly accurate 20s-style instrumentation before going into a gigantic Queen big ballad chorus, about the solace that can be gained from religion even when the religion in question is controlled by people with less than benign motives. Hey Little Jesus on the other hand is a fantastic strutting rocker, a 50s pastiche melody (with more than a touch of Stupid Cupid to it) about the crucifixion, from the perspective of someone taunting Jesus, with a wonderful arrangement, far more subtle than it first sounds (a harpsichord, hammond organ and steel guitar solo, just for starters, and the string part is wonderfully detailed).
2) Blake Jones & The Trike Shop – The Underground Garden (emusic link)
Some might accuse me of bias here, because Blake is a friend of mine, and guested on my last EP. He’s also, though, a wonderfully talented songwriter and performer who gave the single most impressive live performance I’ve ever seen when he and the band played the Love Apple Cafe in Bradford to an audience of less than ten paying customers but still played an hour of everything from Zappa pastiche to a performance of Harlem Nocturne on the theremin. His songwriting is astounding, reminiscent of Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney and Harry Nilsson – but *ACTUALLY* reminiscent of them, not just copying their musical and lyrical tics in a pale imitation. Rather, he’s doing the same thing as them. While the two selections I’ve chosen here don’t show it, as well, his music is also remarkably varied, showing influences as varied as Dick Dale, Frank Zappa, old horror films and the Beach Boys, often in the same song.
Sing Along is my personal favourite of the songs on the new album – the lines “sometimes I wonder why my friends they all still play guitar/It’s not like they’re in line to be rock stars/There must be some kind of belief in a better world/Where we can strum and smile and get the girl” got to me especially. And Christmas Sale is a nice attack on the people who complain about the “War On Christmas” – “Your money don’t say feed the poor/And your courthouse won’t say blessed are the merciful/And your fences don’t say love your neighbour now/But you’re mad ’cause Macy’s won’t call it a Christmas sale…”
3) The Asphalt Orchestra – Asphalt Orchestra (emusic link)
The Asphalt Orchestra are a marching band from New York, but one that plays fiendishly complex jazz and art-rock covers. Their debut album features pieces by Stew & Heidi Rodewald, Charles Mingus, Bjork, Frank Zappa and Goran Bregović among others, and they just recorded a single with David Byrne. They make very good skronking noises indeed.
The two tracks I’ve chosen here are Zomby Woof, a cover of the Zappa track from Over-Nite Sensation, and Carlton, a specially composed piece by Stew & Heidi of the Negro Problem (which is how I first heard about them), which sounds like TV theme music, but in a good way (Tilt will know what I mean).
4) Imagined Village – Empire And Love (emusic link)
The Imagined Village are a ‘supergroup’ of sorts, a loose collective of musicians brought together by Simon Emerson of Afro-Celt Sound System in an attempt to reinterpret the English folk tradition in a way that incorporates elements of all the different cultures in the UK today – partly as a gigantic “fuck you” to Dickibegyourpardonnick Griffin, who tried to link traditional folk to the Bastard Nazi Party. (Incidentally, apparently Dickibegyourpardonnick is in hospital at the moment, with suspected kidney stones. Apparently they can be very painful…).
Their first album, a few years ago, was interesting but suffered from too many cooks – it featured Paul Weller, Billy Bragg, Benjamin Zephaniah… basically everyone who anyone who read the Guardian in the 80s likes, and so was a bit amorphous. This one, on the other hand, while still featuring a large backing band with English and Indian traditional instruments mixed with electronic music, limits the vocals to folkies Martin & Eliza Carthy and Chris Wood.
The two songs I’ve chosen here are Space Girl, an old Ewan MacColl song about the dangers of copping off with a spaceman, and Scarborough Fair.
5) Roky Erickson – True Love Cast Out All Evil (emusic)
This was the real surprise here. For those who don’t know, Roky Erickson was the leader of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, a seminal mid-60s psych-rock group, but was arrested for marijuana possession, took an insanity plea, and unfortunately, because of the state of psychiatric medicine in the late 60s, became severely mentally ill. His music since then has had moments of power, but has been for the most part best judged as ‘outsider music’.
This new album, though… it’s still clearly the work of an ill man, but for the first time in decades he’s working with musicians who are sympathetic to his songs, and a producer who knows what he’s doing. The result is something close to Skip Spence’s Oar, The Beach Boys Love You, or Syd Barret’s early solo work, rather than to Wesley Willis or someone. Still the work of a fractured psyche, but one with the tools to express himself properly.
The two songs I’ve chosen are the first two from the album. Devotional Number One is deliberately recorded in the style of a field recording, and features the best vocals I’ve ever heard from Erickson. The organ coming in on the line “Jesus is not a hallucinogenic mushroom” sends shivers down my spine. Ain’t Blues Too Sad is a short alt-country song, and the difference in vocals is astounding – Erickson sounds like a totally different singer here, but an equally good one. And anyone with any knowledge of his personal history will be moved to tears by the line “Electricity hammered me through my head, til nothin’ at all is backward instead”.
This is raw, harsh music, borne out of immense torment, but still beautiful.
6) Al Jardine – A Postcard From California
I wrote about this here, but in brief this is a Beach Boys reunion album in all but name, featuring the full band on one track and Brian WIlson and David Marks on several, and better than any Beach Boys album since 1979’s LA (Light Album). That still doesn’t make it great, but it’s surprising what a grower this one is – a lovely, pleasant, relaxing album, that has absolutely no ambitions other than to be nice background music, but fulfils that ambition admirably.
The two tracks I’ve chosen are Looking Down The Coast, the most interesting song on the album, if overproduced – a miniature suite originally dating back to the late 70s, and a remake of Jardine’s old Beach Boys song California Saga, done as a duet with Neil Young, and also featuring Crosby & Stills, Jardine’s son Matt, and a sampled Brian Wilson. They’re probably the most representative tracks from the album, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
7) Eliza Carthy & Norma Waterson – Gift (emusic)
Emusic lists this as being an Eliza Carthy solo album, but it’s definitely a mother-and-daughter collaboration – Emusic just seem to randomly label albums by the members of the Waterson/Carthy family, but that’s fine, because they’re all worth getting. Singer Norma Waterson and her daughter, vocalist/fiddler Eliza Carthy are two of the greatest interpreters of traditional English music alive, though they occasionally venture into other territory.
While this album is mostly folk, the two tracks I’ve chosen aren’t. The first is a medley of the 20s song Ukulele Lady and the old Amen Corner song If Paradise Is Half As Nice, while the second, Prairie Lullaby, is a solo vocal by Eliza Carthy backed by Martin Simpson on banjo. When I say this version stacks up well against the versions by Jimmie Rodgers and Mike Nesmith, you’ll know what high esteem I hold it in.
8) Brian Wilson – Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin
I wrote about this here and my opinion pretty much stands – this is a fundamentally flawed album. But it’s a fundamentally flawed album by one of the great creative forces of modern popular music, interpreting music by one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century.
Of the two tracks I’ve chosen here, I’ve Got Plenty O’ Nothin’ is a showcase for Paul Mertens, Wilson’s principal collaborator on the album, who provides the various lead harmonica parts. But the clanking, banjo-driven arrangement calls back both to Wilson’s own Smile and to the ‘hot jazz’ early arrangement of Rhapsody In Blue, and makes this easily the most successful track on the album. Someone To Watch Over Me, on the other hand, is the most ‘Wilsonesque’ track – while one can, again, question how much input he had into the arrangement (which sounds like someone trying to be Brian Wilson, rather than like Brian Wilson), the subject matter is so close to Wilson’s other work that this still sounds the most heartfelt track on the album.
9) Jeremy Messersmith – The Reluctant Graveyard (pay-what-you-like download)
I only discovered Messersmith this year, but my wife’s known about him for ages – he’s from her home state, Minnesota, and very popular on their NPR affiliate. He seems to be popular in ‘geek’ circles too – he seems to have done a song about Star Wars or something, and gets webcomic artists to design his T-shirts. Don’t let that put you off, though, there’s some genuinely good stuff here. Unfortunately, all the comparisons I can come up with are people like Elliot Smith or the Eels, and he’s not really very like that either. I don’t want to put people off, so just listen.
The two songs I’ve chosen here are John Dillinger’s Eyes, a Big Star-esque powerpop song about John Dillinger, and John The Determinist, a chamber-pop song about determinism, with a nice string backing (obviously going for an Eleanor Rigby feel).
10) Mark Bacino – Queen’s English (emusic)
This is actually the kind of music I criticised earlier, in that this album sounds exactly like a Harry Nilsson album. I could honestly believe that Bacino has never heard an album other than Pandemonium Shadow Show, Aerial Ballet and maybe, maybe, Nilsson sings Newman. Maybe.
But the music sounds so exactly like those albums that it’s hardly fair to criticise him for it – because I like Nilsson, and this really is like having another prime-era Nilsson album.
Of the two songs I’ve chosen here, Happy sounds like a Harry Nilsson song, while Middle Town is the least Nilssonesque song on the album, sounding closer to Squeeze or Marshall Crenshaw.
Bubbling under – Thom Hell – All Good Things (sounds like 70s soft rock crossed with the Beach Boys – for fans of ELO and LA-period BBs, but a little derivative) Heaven Is Whenever – The Hold Steady (they’re missing Franz Nicolay’s keyboards), Apples In Stereo – Travellers In Time And Space (sounds like every other Apples In Stereo album, which means it’s great but breaking no new ground). Belle & Sebastian Write About Love (sounds like every other Belle & Sebastian album, which means it’s pretty good but breaking no new ground)
A little break from politics – some music.
Those of you who follow my musical interests will know that my tastes run in two seemingly contradictory directions. Half the time I like extremely harsh, visceral music – squonking jazz like Ornette Coleman, aleatory compositions like John Cage, Frank Zappa’s orchestral music, Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, Edgard Varese, Boulez, Howlin’ Wolf, Sun Ra and all that good stuff.
But the other half of the time I like extremely melodic stuff, in very conventional song structures, with interesting chord changes and vocal harmonies and witty lyrics – the Beach Boys, the Zombies, the Move, Elvis Costello, the Kinks, the Beatles, ELO and so on.
For much of the last decade or more, music in that second category has been pretty much absent from the pop charts, at least as far as I’ve been able to tell, but that doesn’t mean it’s not been being made. I’ve listened to far more ‘new music’ from the last decade or so than I did in the 90s, but almost none of it has made any impact outside a very small group of people. So I’ve put together this playlist of some of my favourite Californian music (a lot of this stuff comes from California, for some reason).
Unlike many of my other playlists, this is on 8tracks.com , which means my foreign friends will be able to listen to it. This is because 8tracks allows you to upload MP3s to create your playlists, and a lot of this music isn’t on Spotify. It also means you won’t need any special software (other than a web browser with a Flash plugin) to listen.
Devil May Care by Kristian Hoffman & Russel Mael is from Hoffman’s &, an extraordinary album of duets with everyone from Van Dyke Parks to Pee Wee Herman by way of Lydia Lunch and El Vez (the Mexican Elvis) along with many of the other people in this playlist. Here he reworks the Give Me Some Loving riff with the lead singer of Sparks, with an extraordinarily witty and literate lyric, the two singers one-upping each other for who can do the silliest falsetto while singing lines like “Gonna put the ‘ooh’ in the human condition”. Not many lyricists would dare to write a glam-pop song with lines like “Some postulate reward if you should mortify the flesh”. The lyric is almost Cole Porter good…
Clever Things by Blake Jones & The Trike Shop is by a friend of mine (Blake guested on the most recent National Pep EP on vocals, theremin and melodica) but it’s also a favourite of mine anyway. I was privileged to see Blake live a couple of years ago in Bradford, doing a fifty-minute set to an audience of ten people (only two of whom were paying customers – I know, Tilt and I promoted the gig), but it was still one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. I am frankly in awe of Blake’s talent, and he’s a lovely bloke as well. Buy his records and make him rich.
Tracy Hide by the Wondermints is from their first album, which was essentially just a release of their four-track demos. How come *MY* four-track demos never sounded this good? Oh yes, because I’m not a group of incredibly talented musicians who can all play about a dozen instruments as well as singing wonderfully. The Wondermints have since become the core of Brian Wilson’s backing band, and while I’m eternally grateful for the music that’s brought us, they haven’t recorded a new album as themselves in eight years, which is *MUCH* too long.
Ken by The Negro Problem is a touching song about the difficulties of being a gay Ken doll. Stew, the lead singer/songwriter of TNP, is also here as a solo artist, and to my mind is the greatest songwriter of the last twenty years. (He also wrote the song for my wedding, which I also think is one of his best songs). This is hilarious and heartbreaking – “Some day soon I’ll be in your child’s room/I’ll be forced to kiss Barbie’s plastic tits/And I will hate myself but what’s more I’ll hate you/For not allowing me to love as I wish to”.
Hey Ann Margaret by Cosmo Topper is just perfect pop – “Hey Ann Margaret do you wanna dance?/Elvis has left the building, maybe I got a chance”, with one of the best piano parts I’ve ever heard.
Silly Place by Chewy Marble was originally a track Brian Kassan, Chewy Marble’s leader, wrote as the B-side to the Wondermints’ single Proto-Pretty, before he left to form his own band. Chewy Marble are by far the most commercial-sounding of the bands on this playlist, and I’m astonished that they’ve never had a hit.
Man In A Dress by Stew is one of two songs here from his first solo album, Guest Host, which for some reason is not on Spotify yet. This one has some of the best backing vocal lines ever – “I hated Titanic, you see”, “I don’t even like chicken soup” and especially “some cake and ice cream by the way”, which made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it.
Proto-Pretty by the Wondermints is what early Elvis Costello records would sound like if he sang more about trilobites and DNA.
Rehab by Stew manages to be both hilarious and sad, and to use the word ‘very’ ninety-six times in four minutes and forty-three seconds and have that be a good thing.
Virginia Woolf by Blake Jones & The Trike Shop is the emotional centrepiece of Pop Songs & Kyries, their most consistent album. It loses something out of context, not getting the repeated themes of that album, but it’s still an astonishing song.
Shrink by Carolyn Edwards is a soft-pop Bacharach-esque song about being uncomfortable with someone coming on to you far too strongly.
Cross-Hatched World by Chewy Marble is a melodic, staccato song along the lines of some of the best Beach Boys or Kinks songs.
MacArthur Park by The Negro Problem is an absolutely straight cover of the first part of MacArthur Park, except for one crucial word change…
And Scarecrow by Kristian Hoffman & Rufus Wainwright is one of the most beautiful, upsetting songs I’ve ever heard, about the homophobic murder of Mathew Shephard in Wyoming:
What penalty must we perform
for craving someone warm, somewhere upon this chilly planet?
A rifle butt against the head,
because we’d heard it said
that only God can make a man. It’s true.
But only man can make a scarecrow out of you.
And only man can make a God who might approve.
OK, so it’s not *all* completely apolitical…