Saturday, December 5, 2009

My Top Ten Albums of 2009

2009 wasn't such a good year for me (sure, there are 25 more days in which a turnaround could occur, but I ain't holding my breath...) but there was some great music popping out. For the first time in a few years, I had lots to choose from. My guidelines were that it had to come out in 2009, and no live albums allowed. That's about it. I even ranked them for a change.

#10- Boo Hewerdine - "God Bless The Pretty Things".

Boo Hewerdine was in a nifty British pop group called The Bible in the 80s, and later in the 90s. He hung out with American songwriter Darden Smith and put out a good album of songs called Evidence in 1996 that I thought was good enough to make my top 10 that year. So 13 years later he does it again, nailing the last available slot on my roster.

"God Bless The Pretty Things" is an album of spare acoustic arrangements, lovely lyrics, and a breathy voice that suits them . "Suits you, sir. Suits you."

Interestingly enough, or not, there's not much about Dick Taylor's band The Pretty Things on this album.


#9 Imogen Heap - "Ellipse"

Imogen Heap comes out of a group I found somewhat annoying called "Frou Frou", but this album hit me at the right time. Moody, loopy, broody, and lots of other "oo" words I'm sure. She inhabits that "Goil Singah" niche somewhere between Kate Bush and Jane Siberry on the landscape. More poppy.

This is Imogen Heap's third solo album, and though the others are a nice listen, this is the one where she hits all her marks in my opinion.

I've heard her called "laptop folk" which is a pretty good description. It certainly fits on "Ellipse. Check it out.


#8 Lyle Lovett - Natural Forces

Lahl. You just have to love Lahl Lovett.

I know I do. I like this album very much. I think it's his best album since "The Road To Ensenada".

Contains a couple of sweet Lyle-penned ballads, a Townes Van Zandt cover, and an hilarious double entendre-laden ditty called "Pantry".

Lyle is an American treasure. One day he'll die, and you'll say "Oh yeah, Lyle Lovett...I have ALL his records." Do yourself a favor and get this one.


#7 Ian Hunter - "Man Overboard"

Ian Hunter, of Mott The Hoople fame, has been making great records for years, and it seems to me the older he gets the better he gets. 2009 found him at 70 years old with an excellent follow up to one of my favorite Hunter albums, 2007's "Shrunken Heads".

If you don't know Ian Hunter, you suck, but impress your friends by knowing he's the guy that gave us "Cleveland Rocks", or "Theme To The Drew Carey Show". Assholes.

Hunter has always written good lyrics, and here he adds the old wit and charm to such subjects as the world economy, life as a rock n roll grand-dad, and even a song that would get him a firm lecture from HR if he actually worked in an office, called "The Girl From The Office". Not Pam Beasley nor Dawn Tinsley either.


#6 Monsters Of Folk - "Monsters Of Folk"
If you'd told me in 2008 that 2009 would see me owning an album that has Connor Oberst on it, I'd have grabbed a ball point pen, rammed it into the side of your neck, and watched you bleed out, all the while laughing. But your death wouldn't have changed the fact that you'd have been right.

This album is off the hook good. Conor Oberst doesn't even annoy me that much, although I find that I do skip his contributions almost automatically. I just don't like him. He's like Devandra Banhart, only more so. But back to the Monsters of Folk. Yim Yames is the anti-Conor, and he can do no wrong. Mike Mogis, one of Conor's men, and M. Ward are the other guys. This album is full of 70s hippie references, and they pull off the CSN routine well enough to make my top 10 for the year. Good work, men.


#5 Yusuf Islam - "Roadsinger..."
Yep. Cat Stevens. It looks like my list this year is all stuff that reminds me of music that came out when I was young and vital. If that's the case, so be it. It is after all my list, and I can pick what I want. Effers.

So our boy Yusuf released an album in 2006 called "An Other Cup" which I enjoyed a few times and then ignored. I even gave it to some relatives for Christmas, and they didn't like it. And not because he's a terrorist, either.

So 2009 gave us "Roadsinger..." which is a much more solid effort. Cat was the ultimate spinning hippie in the early 70s, and just about everybody liked him, even though he couldn't rock his way out of a paper sack. He still can't, but that beautiful voice is still in full effect, and I'm not ashamed to award him the five position ahead of all that other stuff we already discussed. Vintage VW bus on cover too. So he's got that going for him, which is nice.


#4 Cornershop - "Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast"

You probably know these guys from the kickass Fatboy Slim remix of "Brimful Of Asha". They've always been the kings of South Asian Britpop, and this album does nothing to dim their glowing star in that firmament.

I had the song "Who Fingered Rock N Roll" which opens the album stuck in my head for weeks, and I'm sure my neighbors considered legal action on those days when I put it on endless repeat. Only later did I realize the whole album was as good as anything they've done. It always makes me happy when I play it. Gotta get it at the Cornershop Shop though. Worth tracking down, I promise.


#3 Imaad Wasif - "The Voidist"

WTF? Who's this guy? Have terrorists invaded my top ten? Nope. Imaad Wasif used to be in an incarnation of The Folk Implosion, and was a touring guitarist for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I had never heard of him either. But then some guy said give this a listen. Oh. Yeah. This guy is pretty intense. Crunchy, stinky guitars. And you can almost smell the reefer. Which usually signals something good to me. This is no exception. Go to the link, and give a few tracks the perfunctory listen. It might be something you'd enjoy.


#2 The Rolf Lislevand Ensemble - "Diminuito"

In my early teens, I heard an album of lute music that haunted me. I didn't know the title, nor who did it, nor where to find it. I never found it. But I did roll the dice on a few lute albums I found in the cheap bins. I loved them all. In fact, every so often I buy an album of lute music. I've never not liked one. A few years ago, I bought a Rolf Lislevand album. The Norwegian lute player-- I'm sure you've heard of him?

His 2009 release, "Diminuito" is pretty spectacular. Diminuito was the renaissance practice of improvising over well known melodies of the day. Early jazz, and that. Soothing without being boring, the lovely music on this CD is my current favorite stress-reducer. Besides a nice wank. It's on the ECM label, a label that I am usually wary of, due to its association with "experimental" jazz releases like "Suite for Cello and Engine Block" and shit like that. This is renaissance lute music, brought alive and right next to you. No engine block required..


My number one album of 2009? Yep.

1) Madness - "The Liberty Of Norton Folgate"

Madness' brilliant debut album, "One Step Beyond", which came out in 1979, is one of my favorite albums of all time. It's fun, infectious, and still holds up today. I often go back to it when I need to energize.

Sadly, I didn't like much stuff by them after that, not even "Our House". They have always been likeable chaps, so I gave everything they did at least a listen, but nothing ever measured up to "One Step Beyond".

So, thirty years on, they release a double concept album about a neighborhood in London, and it's bleeding fantastic. In fact, this is their magnum opus. Bleeb dat shit, Jigga. Three years in the making, they earn a pass from me forever, because I know that at least every thirty years, they release a perfect album. An easy choice for me for my "Album Of The Year" for 2009.

"Honorable Mentions"

There were some live albums that were automatically rejected as per my rules, but I loved Thea Gilmore's live cd "Recorded Delivery" and Tom Petty & The Heartbreaker's four disc live retrospective "The Live Anthology". My hero, Richard Thompson, released a live version of his fine album "Sweet Warrior" called "Live Warrior" on his website, but couldn't be included either, although I love it.

I also disqualified Rosanne Cash's wonderful "The List" album, because it was all cover versions. My list, my rules. But I love that album. New albums by Elvis Costello, Levon Helm, The Decemberists, Cheap Trick, Echo & The Bunnymen, Jill Sobule and Robert Earl Keen were considered for my lists but didn't make it because the ten I picked were better, in my opinion (which is the only one that counts for the purposes of this list.

The hardest cut of all, and perhaps the unkindest, was the debut album by The Big Pink called "A Brief History Of Love". Time may make me wish I'd included it instead of the Cat Stevens one, but what the hell. It's a fine album, and you 4AD kids will be well pleased by it. Thank you for your attention. Bring on 2010.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Classic Album: Sweet Warrior by Richard Thompson

While getting ready to compile my "Top Ten of 2009" album list to share with my equally geeky pals and palesses, I checked my iTunes library to see what I've listened to the most. Not surprisingly, the 2007 album by Richard Thompson, "Sweet Warrior" was the album I listened to the most. I hereby name it the best album of the last five years, and quite possibly my favorite Richard Thompson album, no mean feat.

A critical darling and a "guitarist's guitarist", he's never had big hit album. He gets some nice royalty checks, I'm sure, from the cover versions of his songs by such people as Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, The Corrs, The Pointer Sisters (!) and lots of other folks. I went to see him at the long-lost Palms Playhouse in 1985 or so on the strength of the Rolling Stone magazine review of his current album at the time "Across A Crowded Room", and I haven't looked back since. I've seen him dozens of times since, by himself or with a band. Anyone I've ever introduced to his concert experience has been lightning-bolted like Saul on the road to Damascus.

He's that good.

But back to "Sweet Warrior". I've neglected it over the last several months because it was completely intertwined with my last failed relationship. In fact our last "date" was to see him in Santa Cruz. Of course he was fantastic, my beloved was blown away too, and I thought that it was right and good in a perverse way that Mr. Gloom & Doom himself, Richard Thompson, would serve as the punctuation to that bittersweet stab at rekindled love.

But I couldn't listen to him for awhile. My favorite artist, and I couldn't bear to listen to him. The horror.

But last night, I manned up and decided to give it a spin. Then another. Then another. Then some tequila. Then another tequila. Then tequila some more. Then another spin. Then muted foggy daylight. Sigh.

If you don't have it already, you need to buy it. That's an order. Then you have to listen to it. Tequila optional.

Track 1 - "Needle & Thread".

This jaunty number describes in humorous fashion various relationships gone wrong after which the singer must get a needle and thread to sew his heart back together again. He gets extra credit for using names of girls who rarely make it into rock songs, like Caitlin and the beautiful Welsh name Myfanwe. (Myfanwe runs off with a guy named Dai.) Nice crunchy guitar solos.

Track 2-"I'll Never Give It Up"

He's pissed at somebody. Maybe a stalker? (I'd better watch out). Nice line "You're someone I can't help but betray / Because you built me up that way..."

Track 3-"Take Care The Road You Choose".

The heartbreaker. My favorite on an album of favorites. Still a bit tough to listen to, but its overwhelming beauty compels me. Every verse of the beautiful lyric is punctuated by his fluid, melancholy yet uplifting guitar work, and the solos give me chills. Chills, Jerry.

Track 4 "Mr Stupid"

From the sublime to the ridiculous in one song. Ridiculously good song though.
Clear the streets and book your seats, Mr. Stupid's back in town.
I like this line:
"When your friends point out your stuck with a Neanderthal for an ex
Don't fret about it, darlin, I still sign my name on cheques..."

Track 5 "Dad's Gonna Kill Me"

This is the one that got all the (limited) press. NPR highlighted it on "All Songs Considered" and he played it for Terri Gross on Fresh Air. It's from the point of view of a soldier fearing for his life in Baghdad ('dad for short.) I think it was a single. I can't see the kids dancing to it, but a great song nonetheless.

Track 6 "Poppy Red"

This beautiful song is about a girl who died. Par for the course for Mr. Cheerful and lighthearted. Not.
"Now my love makes her bed
Where poppies grow over her head
There in a field, there in a field
Warm and red - as the blood she shed"

Track 7 "Bad Monkey"

Very fun very catchy song with sax and accordian solos. Don't hold that against it. It's advice to someone about ditching their loser boyfriend.

"Where's the joy in a boy who dribbles when he drinks his tea
I've seen better manners from a baby chimpanzee..."

Track 8 "Francesca"

A broody number praising Francesca. Nice beat. This one snuck into my favorites on the album upon repeated listening.

Track 9 "Too Late To Come Fishing"

Has RT added a fishing song to his oeuvre? Nah. This one's about somebody
fake. Sweet harmony by Michael Hays on this one.

"But now you want to make a new start
I'm so touched by your change of heart
But my diary's fit to overflow
Find yourself another gigolo..."


Track 10 "Sneaky Boy"

This one's dressing down some sneaky boy. Handclaps, unique melody, and this couplet. Top this, Bernie Taupin:

"Spleen of Mammon, Spleen of Midas
Now you scold us, now you chide us.."

Track 11 "She Sang Angels To Rest"

Very sweet ballad about a summertime love. How do you fall when you already fell for the best?

Track 12 "Johnny's Far Away"

The album closes with three monsters right in a row. If it weren't for "Take Care The Road You Choose", the next three songs would be in a dead heat for favorite song on the album. Kicking off with "Johnny's Far Away", a modern sea shantey about a guy in an unhappy marriage who signs on with a cruise ship as part of a Ceilidh band. (Ceilidh pronounced "Caley" is a Scottish traditional dance form. Some cruise ship, huh!) While Johnny's far away on the rolling sea, his unhappy wife is making time with someone on the side, in their own bedroom after she puts on a video to babysit the kids. Meanwhile, while the cruise ship is turning hard a-port in the Bahamas, Johnny's helping some matron out of her pyjamas. At the end of the song, Johnny stumbles home with "eleven battered roses", perhaps my favorite image on the album. My beloved pointed out to me that she saw it as he fished them out of a trash bin on the way home from the pub. I agree with her. The couple reconcile at the end of the song, and "get down to the job of man and wife..."

Track 13 "Guns Are The Tongues"

This fine lyric is complex and full of imagery. The tune is swell too. It's about Carrie, a woman in the IRA who has a little gang that attacks British soldiers. She gets recruits by seducing them in her bed. She comes across a guy named Joe who is a dullard, but very tall. The other guys derisively call him "Little Joe" because his head scrapes the ceiling. Carrie tells Joe she'll "lie like a rose on his pillow, and will twine the laurel in his hair." Don't know about you, but if a woman told me that, I'd be putty in her hands.

Joe's mission is to drive a car-bomb into a roadblock full of soldiers. He is supposed to jump clear at the last moment so he doesn't get blowed up. But Joe's a dullard, remember? He's worried that he'll scrape his knees on the pavement if he jumps out. So he blows up. Soldiers investigating the explosion "marvel at how far his boots had travelled". Simply a great song.

Track 14 "Sunset Song"

This one's another heartbreak. A beautiful finger-picking intro on the ol' acoustic. The singer is taking his leave of a lover in yet another failed romance. Someone who wants him to love her in total depth, and yet that's not good enough.

"You said if I held my breath, and dove down deep enough, I might grow fins.
Seems to me I've held my breath, held my breath to please you ever since..."

The perfect ending to a pretty perfect album.

I can't recommend it highly enough.