Well, going with it’s better late than never, I finally was able to put this together. Always difficult to do because I am not a writer, nor can I type well. But gosh I sure do love music. And this was a great year, especially for female vocalists. Also for new discoveries [Magic Kids, Tallest man, Best Coast, Spring Standards, and Elizabeth and the Catapult]. Nothing better than stumbling onto a new artist and having that pay off for you. So here I go, picking albums and attaching numbers to them.
1] Joanna Newsom- “Have one on me”-
“On a good day, you can feel my love for you…”
From the moment I put disc one on, I knew I was hearing something that would resonate with me for years to come. Never any doubt. Album of the year. It took me weeks to even graduate to disc two, and eventually the third. The songs filled with whimsy held me captive. Her voice has matured, and her harp is pure magic. I am still finding little treasures, melodic twists, and poetic lyrics take on new meanings. An American masterpiece by a major artist. Ambitious and well worth the investment. Aaron Copland would be proud.
Key tunes: “Easy”, “On a good day”, “You and me Bess”.
2] John Grant- “Queen of Denmark”- Mojo’s album of the year. John is from the country noir band the Czars. This appears to be the album he has been waiting to make. The Texas mystical band, Midlake is his backing band and perhaps the best thing that could have happened to him. Their 70’s soft rock sound forms the background for John’s bittersweet songs laced with black humor. There is a timeless beauty to it all that is captivating. I love his honey tinged voice. I enjoyed the Czars, and this album is a delight. The opening track, “TC and the Honeybear” gets to me every time. When the song hits its crescendo and stops, the ending coda gives me chills.
Key tunes: “Marz”, “It’s easier” “Caramel” and the Scott Walker like “Where dreams go to die”
3] Silver Seas- “Chateau Revenge” – After the pop splendor of “High Society” from 2007, this Nashville group is back with an even stronger effort. The opener, “Another Bad Night’s Sleep” is a total rush, perhaps the best first track of the year. The album is loaded with pop hooks, some R&B, and tasty guitar. Daniel Tashin is an extraordinary songwriter, and terrific pop vocalist. I love “From my Window.” It breaks my heart even more that David Mead’s cover. The chorus to “Candy” was stuck in my head for weeks. My favorite track is last one, “Kid”, with its advice to a young broken heart. This group knows how to begin and end a song. A very well thought out pop album.
4] Belle and Sebastian- “Write About Love”- After a break and detour with last year’s girl group “God Help the Girl,” Stuart Murdoch and Co. are back with afresh set of pop tunes. They continue to expand their palette with sweet melodies. “Come on Sister” is irresistible, “it’s fun thinking of you like a movie star…” “I want the world to stop” stays in your head. There is a nice duet with Norah Jones, and the title song has a swell Zombies organ break. This is a top notch British band that keeps moving forward.
5] Magic Kids- “Memphis”- A young band from Memphis that plays pop like it was a science project. They’ve got it down from the sunshine pop of “Phone” to the Brian Wilson sounding “Summer.” This is feel good music you can hop skip and jump around the room to [I’ve done just that]. “Superball” is a sheer delight. The falsetto vocals in “Summer” make me swoon. There are horns, flutes, oboes, and cool girl vocals. And this is their first album. More please!
6] Spring Standards- “Would things be different”- Ever since I saw them on Conan (back when he was still on NBC), I was hooked. It is so cool to find a new band to follow. They put out a fun 8 track EP, and this is their debut album and it is excellent. All three members trade instruments, and all sing. There’s some honky tonk piano on “Queen of the Lot”, sweet humming on “Halcyon Days”, and pure pop on “Bells and Whistles”. They touch on folk and country, and tour constantly. All the vocals are first rate [Heather is my fave]. Great live reviews, so look for them.
7] Edwyn Collins- “Losing Sleep”-This is a miracle. After 2 brain hemorrhages, here he is overcoming all that and is back with a thrilling album. He does have vocal help, but his own voice shines through. His songwriting is strong. Upbeat tunes like “Do it Again” with its R&B chorus, and a great collaboration with the Drums. Alex from Franz Ferdinand guests, as well as the great Roddy Frame. Lyrics like these are in the title song: “I must believe, I must retrieve, the things I know, the things I trust” – words from an artist who is still piecing his life together. He makes a glorious noise here. It’s been a terrific year for Edwyn, with his Orange Juice box set released, and now this. Welcome back Edwyn. I prayed for you.
I am including one of the videos from a concert he did with Teenage Fanclub from September 2009. Not a great copy, but it was fun to see them back him up. Edwyn does not have the use of one of his hands.
8] Teenage Fanclub- “Shadows” One of my favorite bands of all time are back with a superb set. Three songwriters, shimmering guitars, and beautiful Byrds-like harmonies. This is what they are known for and do not disappoint here. Jazzy bossa nova opening track “Sometimes I don’t need to believe in Anything,” is followed by Norman Blake’s classic power pop “Baby Lee.” And my fave is the gorgeous folk rocker “When I still have Thee.” There are moments on this album when the harmonies remind me of the Association [huge compliment]. This is a quiet, confident, and well crafted album that blends together like a California Meritage. Savor it. If we can have one these every few years, life is definitely good. Just for fun, I have added a video of the group doing a Gene Clark classic.
9] Living Sisters- “Love to Live”- 2 of my favorite female vocalists, Inara George and Eleni Mandell, together with Becky Stark [of Lavender Diamond – who I am not familiar with] make up this splendid group. I hope it’s not a one album deal, because the vocals are out of this world. The opener, “How are you doing” reminds me of the Roches. I love Eleni’s tunes like “Ferris Wheel” and “Double Knots,” and Inara’s “Blue” is a fun doo-wop song. But the real surprise for me is Becky Stark. “This Mountain has Skies” is the loveliest song here, and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down” closes the set leaving you wanting more. A laid back country sounding Bessie Smith cover “Good Ole Wagon,” and a Nancy Wilson 60’s cover “How Glad I Am” round out this excellent set. They also cover Bowie’s “Starman” as a bonus track. Wonderful record.
10] The Roots- “How I got over”- What a year for the Roots. It seems like they were everywhere, least of all TV stars. Their Jimmy Fallon gig has really paid off. They are meeting many musical acts. That connection has led to some of those acts appearing on this set. For example, Angel and Haley of the Dirty Projectors, Jim James and the Monsters of Folk, and Joanna Newsom all met on the show, and all take part in this journey. This a well constructed album, extremely musical featuring coherent raps. The songs flow together, some dreamy like “A Piece of Light” and “Right On.” All of the raps and vocal hooks work magic with repeated play. At the center of the sound are those hard hitting drums of Questlove. I have not heard Kanye’s latest, but it would have to go some to top this fine album.
Key tracks: “Dear God 2.0″, “Radio Daze”, “How I Got Over”.
Note: Questlove is the most entertaining tweeter around, some done while the Fallon show is in progress.
11] Nellie McKay – “Home sweet mobile home”- On the heels of her Doris Day tribute, here is a new set of tunes by this amazing artist. She is equally adept at pop, show tunes, jazz, and here she tackles some sweet reggae, “Caribbean Time’” which was recorded in Jamaica. My faves: “Adios”- lovely ballad with Nellie on her ukulele, the jazzy “Beneath the Underdog” [a nod to Mingus?], gospel flavored “Dispossessed” -“I’m going to exorcise your spirit from my soul,” the R&B “No Equality” with it’s fiery piano solo. Nellie plays all kinds of instruments, wrote all the songs, did the arrangements and co-produced. She also painted the front cover. I recently saw her live, with a tight band, and boy did she deliver. She ended the set with a Tom Waits impression singing “Strait to the top” that was dead on.
12] Tallest Man on Earth – “The Wild Hunt”- Just a man and a guitar, traveling the land singing his songs, telling his tales. A troubadour. This is the Tallest Man on Earth, who is Swedish artist Kristian Mattson. The immediate influence is Dylan, and yes he does remind one of early Dylan. Oh, but there is so much more going on. The guitar, like the intro to “Troubles Will be Gone,” is intricate, the perfect background to these tales. The more you listen to his voice, you hear nuances, little touches that are like pop hooks. Melodic twists that grow more endearing with each listen. Moments like a whisper, or humming, or just a simple vocal inflection that delights. Early tunes like the title song and “Burden of Tomorrow” set the pace. My favorite is “The King of Spain.” End result is a performer that is so original in what he is doing here, that someday artists may claim him as their influence. He is that good.
13] Best Coast -“Crazy for you”- One of the “buzz” bands of the year, on the strength of some early noisy singles. This debut album, with its summery wall of sound, is a treat. Bethany Corsentino has the perfect voice to pull this off. Her teen angst lyrics are filled with wishing and longing that are rock poetry in its simplest form. “Boyfriend” and “Crazy for You” are cool delights, and the sway of “Summer Mood” shows off her voice. The bonus track, “When I’m with You” is actually one of the best tunes: “When I’m with you, I have fun…” Fun indeed! Live reviews report her doing a Loretta Lynn cover, and a recent Letterman appearance displayed a vocal talent far more advanced than the album. Check it out below, and listen at about 3 minutes in as she belts out some torch. Shows there is so much more to come.
14] She and Him- “Volume Two”- “You’ve Got to be Kind to Yourself…” This enduring sentiment illustrates the positive vibe in Zooey Deschanel’s songs. This is a very “up” collection, one that further advances the music from the first album. For one thing, Zooey has become a more comfortable singer. And M. Ward’s fine guitar is more on display, like the top notch solo at the close of “In the Sun.” He even croons a bit on this set. We dip into their record collection with NRBQ [“Riding in my car”], and Teresa Brewer [” Gonna get along without you now”] covers. And 10 sweet Zooey tunes such as “Me and You”, and “Brand New Shoes.” The set ends with a gentle lullaby “If You Can’t Sleep” For a treat, check out their jazzy cover of “Fools Rush In” below.
15] Laura Viers- “July Flame” “Even the most shimmering rain, empties the sky and comes to the end…” Set to a pining pedal steel, these lyrics from “Sun is King” are one example of the poetic arc contained in this album. Somewhat like Joanna Newsom, but more moody folk, “July Flame” is Americana at its most mysterious. Laura sounding a bit like Suzanne Vega in tunes like “Life is Good Blues”, with subtle background vocals that elevate this. She adapts Rimbaud in “Sleeper in the Valley”, and salutes the great Carol Kay with a list of songs she played on [“Natural Man”, “I’m a Believer” etc.] Touches like ethereal humming on “When you give your heart to me”, and a string quartet on the closer, “Make Something Good”.
16] Rufus Wainwright- “All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu”- As impressive as Rufus’s catalog is, this diverse set stands out. The album is just Rufus and his Steinway. His singing has never been stronger, and his piano playing dazzles. The songs include an ode to NY [“Who are You NY?”], family drama [“Martha”], 3 Shakespeare Sonnets, and an aria from his opera [“Prima Donna”]. Intense is an apt description, but there is so much beauty here. The three sonnets set to music by Rufus are simply gorgeous. “True Loves” with its hushed silences is ravishing. “Martha” written while his mother was dying of cancer, is a series of messages to his sister: “there’s not much time for us to really be angry at each other…” Fragile and deeply personal, Rufus has delivered a song cycle worthy of Schubert.
17] Crowded House- “Intriguer”- With his brother Tim still recording, and his son Liam making records, it is nice that Neil Finn is back with Crowded House. This is very much a band album, proven by the DVD in the deluxe edition. “Upstairs at Home” are 8 of the songs performed in their home studio. And wonderful tunes they are, filled with those Finn trademark bittersweet melodies, and minor key harmonies. Neil is in excellent voice. Two songs to point out are “Either side of this world,” with its breathtaking keyboard break, “When you’re in luck, the world moves with you…” and my absolute favorite, “Twice if you’re lucky” – one of those Neil Finn songs that brings me to tears. “These are times that come, only once in your life, or twice if you’re lucky.”
Do check out the fun video for “Either Side of the World” with its vintage dancing girls
18] Radio Dept.- “Clinging to a scheme”- Third album by this Swedish trio, mixing icy guitar and fuzzy synths, yet ending up with a warm sound. The mix is very reminiscent of Factory Records, with its up front bass, detached vocals, lots of percussion, and those lovely synths. Add dashes of dub and reggae to the mix. Key tunes: the immediate rush of “Heaven’s on Fire,” and the dub filled “Never Follow Suit.” “Heaven” opens with a Thurston Moore vocal sample, and is filled with layers of echo. With repeat plays, the album reveals its sad, romantic, low key dance pop. The lovely slow closer, “You Stopped Making Sense,” with its high vocals, points to a possible new direction. Another winning release from the reliable Labrador label.
19] Elizabeth and the Catapult- “The Other Side of Zero”-I discovered Elizabeth from an NPR “Song of the Day”, and have been hooked ever since. What a find. This is their second release of their brand of folk-pop. The star here is Elizabeth Zinman who plays a mean keyboard, and has a clear, beautiful voice. I can’t praise her intoxicating vocals enough. “You and Me” is a bright pop gem that was stuck in my head for weeks. “Julian Darling’s” hook is its dreamy chorus, and ends with some captivating “ooh ooh’s.” [gotta love those]. The heartbreaking “Do Not Hang Your Head” finishes the album with just Elizabeth, piano and strings. Just beautiful.
“If ever I do hurt you, make your willows bend
If ever I deceive you, darling do not hang your head…”
20] Tender trap- “Dansette Dansette” -Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey have been doing this for over 20 years. First there was the punk sounds of Talulah Gosh, then the switch to pop and Sarah Records with Heavenly. Now it’s the Tender Trap, and they haven’t changed at all, except with two new girls. Amelia can pull off those girl group harmonies. “Dansette Dansette” [a certain record player] name drops Sandie Shaw, Leslie Gore, and the Supremes. “Do You Want a Boyfriend” is as groovy as can be with the girls asking questions and Amelia answering: “Does he have to kiss right? Yeah, the best things are free…” This leads to a gleeful chorus: “Heaven perfect heaven. You got to wait so long.” They visit their punk past with the fast moving “Girls with Guns.” This is timeless music that America is finally catching on to with groups like the Vivian Girls and Dum Dum Girls.
21-Arcade Fire- “The Suburbs”- Anthems galore
22-Josh Ritter- “So Runs the World”- inspiring work- features the awesome “Change of Time”
23-Spoon- “Transference”- Spoon getting their groove thing goin’
24-The National- “High Violet”- Glorious brooding
25- Neil Young- “Le Noise”- Just Neil+ guitar and Daniel Lanois producing- Sounds like s full band album
26-Broken Social Scene- “Forgiveness Rock Record”
27- Pernice Brothers- “Goodbye Killer”
28- Beach House- “Teen Dream”- a lovely dream it is
29-Sambassadeur- “European”-Elegant Swedish pop on Labrador Records
30- Various artists- “Dark night of the Soul”- Flaming Lips, Danger Mouse, Iggy Pop, and David Lynch plus others- shouldn’t work but it does.
31-Bubblegum Lemonade- “Sophomore Release”- Long live the Rickenbacker 12 string! Scottish pop on Matinee Records
32-Sufjan Stevens- “Age of Adz”- Electro pop
Recording of special merit:
Brian Wilson- “Reimagines Gershwin”- Didn’t expect much, and was pleasantly rewarded. The cool thing is how Brian makes these sound like his work. For example, his version of “I Got Rhythm” sounds like vintage Beach Boys. He also completes two unfinished Gershwin songs. One of those, “The Like in I Love You” is a classic. Brian certainly did not phone this project in.
Songs of the year:
John Grant- “TC and the Honeybear”
Josh Ritter- “Change of Time”
Silver Seas- “Kid”
Magic Kids- “Summer”
Teenage Fanclub- ” When I Still Have Thee”
Best Coast- “Boyfriend”
Arcade Fire- “Ready to Start”
Crowded House- “Twice if You’re Lucky”
Bubblegum Lemonade- “Caroline’s Radio”
Belle and Sebastian- “I Want the World to Stop”
James Taylor- Self titled debut on Apple Records from 1968 is a revelation. The string arrangements are so beautiful, and James’s songs are some of his best. No wonder the Beatles were taken with this guy.
Orange Juice- “Coals to Newcastle”- Truth of the matter is I can’t afford this currently. But, except for the dvd, I know this music very well. And my emotional attachment to Orange Juice and Edwyn Collins is quite strong. It is so amazing that this box set now exists.
Stuart Moxham- “Personal Best”- lovely package of post Young Marble Giants music.
I need to hear: Tame Impala, The School, Robyn, Mighty Clouds, Morning Benders, Allo Darlin, MGMT, Rose Elinor Dougall, Eux Autres, Clare Burson, Brave Irene [ex-Softies], Lucy Wainwright Roche [just got it], Spampinato Brothers [ex-NRBQ], Ocean Tango [Louis Philippe and Trestbild], Rumer
Looking forward to: Strokes, Decemberists, Low Anthem, Okkervil River, Ron Sexsmith, Cleaners from Venus, Beady Eye, Nicole Atkins, Lykke Li, Peter Bjorn and John, David Mead, Stars in Coma, Roddy Frame[Please!], Pearlfishers [Pretty please!], and any media connected to Boo Hewerdine’s upcoming reunion with the Bible.
I discovered: Rosie Thomas. I got a used copy of her Christmas album, and fell madly in love with it. So I just got “These Friends of Mine” and am enjoying it. She is good friends with Sufjan Stevens, and the music is quite special.
Rest in Peace Don Van Vliet- better known as Captain Beefheart. Where would I be without “Trout mask Replica?” Hope to hear him and Frank Zappa in the afterlife. “I love you, you big dummy”.
Special thanks to Matinee Records. Terrific pop label, reminiscent of Sarah Records. Also thanks to Mojo Magazine for always inspiring me. And Pitchfork and Popmatters for my daily news. And to Ray and Kool Kat Music. With Not Lame gone, here is a pop site you can get lost in. And Bill Demain’s blog at his Swan Dive site is simply the best.
That’s about it. Apologies to any music I left out. Looking forward to another year of music discoveries. Let the hits keep coming.
Thank you dear wife for putting up with a music freak like myself.