Some years ago, back when that sort of thing mattered to me, I used to enjoy going through the albums of the years lists in the music press and congratulating myself on how many of the top 50 I owned. As my tastes have grown a little more, eh, rarefied, I find that my own picks of the year correspond less and less with those of the press. So what I’ll do here is mention some of my favourite albums and tracks of the year, while also casting an eye over what the critics have been touting.
Our main point of contention is that I’m sick to the back teeth with guitar bands. Have you watched that daytime music show on Channel Four on the weekends? It’s the most depressing thing in the world. One hack guitar band (Orson, anyone? The Feeling?) after another parades their wares and does a boring interview, each leaving less impact on your consciousness than the last. You’ve forgotten their name even while they’re still on the screen in front of you. The only breath of fresh air comes from the occasional pop act that the producers deign to allow on the show. Still, the world of guitars gave us a few decent moments, most notably the Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever You Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. For song-writing, it’s the best thing all year by some distance. They’ve also been responsible for a critical renaissance of their forefathers, The Jam. The other big guitar album was the Raconteurs Broken Boy Soldiers to which I can only respond with a resounding “meh???. I liked the singles (especially “Hands???) but I think I listened to the whole thing through about twice all year. Perhaps I was just put off by all the other crummy guitar bands.
Ali Farka Toure’s Savane topped a lot of lists this year, and I have to confess that whatever’s there that’s exciting everyone, I’m not hearing it. It’s pleasant enough, but didn’t grow on me the way last year’s big African cross-over, the poppier Dimanche a Bamako by Amadou & Mariam did. What I did hear out of Africa that excited me was Love’s A Real Thing a compilation from David Byrne’s ace Luaka Bop label. It’s basically the usual 1970’s West African psychedelic funk that we all know so well. Free downloads of two of the best tracks here.
Another big critical hit was Ys by the harp-strumming Joanna Newsom. So far, so quirky, but her incredibly annoying squeaky voice is a deal-breaker for me I’m afraid. Another critical fave that left me unmoved was The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls In America. A “knowing??? contemporary attempt at Springsteen’s Born to Run (big, big sound, lyrics about streetfighs, cars and girls called Mary, all that) it misses the point that if Bruce had tried to perform those songs with anything less than absolute sincerity, the whole affair would’ve sounded absurd. Amusing the first time, if only because I really didn’t see an indie vogue for Born to Run coming, it grates very quickly. Also much touted were Scritti Politti and Lindsay Buckinham’s albums. Both are refreshingly weird, but ultimately, not for me. And Thom Yorke, as I’ve been saying consistently ever since Pablo Honey, can go and shite.
Pop-wise, I found much of Justin Timberlake’s new stuff a bit too harsh-sounding, probably because I’m getting too old. (Though it is apparently true that music today is more demanding on the ears than ever before). Christina Aguilera’s album was very disappointing too, but there were a few good singles in there. For all that Madonna seemed 12 months ago to have again triumphed, leaving in her wake platinum discs and gasps of “She’s in such good shape, you’d never think she was 78, would you????, I can’t help but feel that she’s like, so totally over. Striding imperiously back onto the scene, the way Madonna used too, but possessed of perhaps even more star power was Beyonce. OK, so her new album, like her last, has its share of gloopy ballads, but there’s still enough awesomeness there to satisfy. Some day soon she’ll make a classic soul album. In the meantime, here’s a fab acoustic version of “Irreplaceable???.
Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley made a near-perfect solo album which mixed country, folk and soul in a Bobbie Gentry-esque manner, while displaying an indie-rock queen’s ear for a hook. Her show in the Village was a highly enjoyable night, climaxing with a spirited version of gospel tune and Grateful Dead warhorse, Cold Jordan.
Bob Dylan’s Modern Times is really very good, if not actually a “great??? album. Fellow old-timer Neil Young’s Living With War elicited another “meh???, this time from the world at large, and The Beatles corpse was once again dusted down and wheeled out in the form of Love. Definitely worth listening to, it’s not worth listening to twice, and asking people to pay actual money for it is taking the cheeky scouser thing too far.
Significantly more dignified as acts of musical repurposing, two of the best things I’ve heard all year were examples of a genre one might call the “folk makeover”. This is where old songs from a folk tradition are recorded by contemporary artists. The Everlys probably started it all in the 50’s with Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. Fabulous examples include the Billy Bragg/Wilco collaborations Mermaid Avenue I & II, and Eddie Reader’s lovely Songs of Robert Burns. Less fabulous is what I’ve come to think of as “Sting and his fucking lute???. This year’s offerings in the genre were Wonder Wheel, the Klezmatics’ take on Woody Guthrie (Bernard tells me there’s a follow up out), and Bruce Springsteen’s immersion in the American folk tradition, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. Both are raucous, full-blooded records, resisting any urge to mess with the timelessness of the songs with “up-to-date??? studio messing, while avoiding an earnest, museum-piece approach. They share the much-coveted title of Fergal’s Album of the Year. Unfortunately they can’t be here tonight to accept the accolade, but you can be sure that wherever they are, they have absolutely no idea who I am.
I saw Bruce and the Seeger Sessions Band perform most of the album in the Point not long ago, easily my musical event of the year, and another show that climaxed with a gospel number (what is it with me and all the God-music?) A feast of virtuosity, passion, fun and fervour, it left me on a high that lasted several days, and the more I think of it, the more I’m inclined to say it was the greatest gig I’ve seen in my entire life. Auds will know what I’m talking about here.
So here’s to another year. Not being the chief futurologist around here, I’ll not attempt predictions. But if in twelve months I’m listening only to religious music, perhaps subtly re-purposed to suit my own church devoted to the worship of Beyonce and Bruce, I will not say I didn’t see the signs.