As with the past few years, I have failed to listen to much new music in 2010. Only Exclaim’s annual streaming of their bests of the year has kept my appraisal at a reasonable level. This year, like the last, I spent absorbed in older sounds, particularly baroque and romantic music, and some jazz and rock. My lack of a decent income was as much of a factor as my decision to listen to my entire collection in chronological order (which took nearly a year). So this is list isn’t anywhere near as authoritative as the movie list (not that the movie list is). As usual, the rankings are relative and the ratings are not.
The best new music experience I had this year wasn’t on record, for once. I saw Wilco live at Hamilton Place in February and they knocked my socks off. Having since heard a number of their live albums, I should have known what to expect, but being there in person was a truly wonderful experience. Added to that, they covered my favourite Buffalo Springfield song of all time for the encore, even if they did it straight up. It was incredible. It was far and away the best new musical experience of my year. Now, to the fairly weak list of albums.
1. The Element Choir at Rosedale United (9/10)
Like nothing I’ve ever heard. (The only thing keeping me from giving it full marks is its length.) Read the review.
2. Nels Cline: Dirty Baby (9/10)
A soundtrack to an art exhibition is certainly an interesting / odd concept. I like the possibilities even though I don’t know anything about the actual installations.
The first disc actually stands alone as an album. I don’t really need to know anything about the art to appreciate the music, though it is neat to imagine it being played on continuous repeat as people toured the exhibition. It shows off Cline (and his larger than usual band) as a little more varied than usual. He comes across as a little more of a composer than merely my current favourite guitarist. It is good stuff.
But the real star is disc two, where each track is paired to a painting. (Again it is neat to imagine the execution: what if each painting had a set of headphones next to it with the track playing on a continuous loop?) This disc contains an astounding array of styles as Cline shows he is the master of much of the disparate styles of film music. I relate it to Delirium Cordia, only this is far less consciously spooky, and far more diverse. It really is a triumph and though it is a soundtrack without a film, it still immediately jumped near the top of my list of favourite soundtracks ever. Great.
3. The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights (9/10)
Rabid fans claim this is one of their weaker live albums (they having sought out bootlegs) but I sure can’t tell. To me this is more engaging than the film. A number of the songs are drastically different than on record and throughout the performances the Whites sound way bigger than a two-piece. As good a live album as I’ve heard in a while (this coming from the guy who lost his shit over Wilco live and has multiple Wilco live albums).
4. Elvis Costello: The National Ransom (9/10)
Costello seems to be attempting a similar project to Dylan at this stage, but unlike Dylan Costello is writing his own songs instead of reinventing old ones and pretending they’re his own. It’s not as raw as Dylan’s stuff, obviously, but it still involves sort of a genre cherry pick of traditional American music styles. Automatically this appeals to me more than Costello’s career-making music. And I find his songs to be particularly effective this time out, even if they are less obviously acerbic than what he used to write (and that makes sense since he is no longer young and presumably no longer as angry). This is pretty much as good as it gets for roots influenced pop.
5. Peter Gabriel: Scratch My Back (8/10)
When I was young, I had a problem with interpretive music; for my idealistic self it suggested a lack of creativity, a lack of artistic will, or something like that. (I definitely had a bit of an obsession with the idea of The Artist as a True Individual or some shit.) Over the years my position has markedly changed, but I do know why I felt that way: too many covers in pop rock are ‘straight-up’, i.e. the songs are clearly recognizable as as the originals and the artist has re-used the original arrangement, tempo, production etc. One of the things that first attracted me to jazz was how jazz artists were expected to be different every time out. (This is also a little frustrating in the “classical” music world where most of the industry is focused on replicating older performances of works or trying to recreate the “original intentions” of a particular composer.) But I have come to believe that covers can be truly great. It doesn’t matter whether or not the performer wrote the song really, it’s what they do with it. Yes, most covers blow donkey balls, but there are great ones. And it follows that there can be great cover albums. (One critic called this “classy karaoke,” which suggests that cover albums are always inferior to music that is original. I beg to differ: I would rather listen to a great cover album than most 2013 Top 40 pop, for example.)
6. The Claudia Quintet: Royal Toast (8/10)
We’re at a time when all genres blend together and bleed into one another. This record is a perfect example of that: there’s music that could be jazz-influenced chamber music, there’s music that sounds freely improvised, there’s music that sounds like jazz, but also sounds like it was completely written in advance (and rehearsed a lot).
The music itself ranges from quite pleasant chamber music to lively, intricate, knotty jazz fusion type stuff – albeit with very different instrumentation than is usual for jazz fusion – to pretty free stuff. It’s a great combination of stuff, showing off the versatility of the performers and their wide-ranging interests.
7. Jason Robinson: Two Faces of Janus (8/10)
This is, for the most part, a great record. I appreciate his attempts to connect with the past while still trying to push boundaries. But I feel like he is a bit too ambitious; sort of trying to do everything one record.
The solo / near-solo tracks feel out of place compared to the band tracks. Otherwise, very solid.
8. Grinderman 2 (8/10)
The songs are better this time out and the sound is more diverse. More Bad Seeds than Birthday party. As much as I liked the “debut” (such a silly thing to say about people this old), this sounds better and stronger. It is a significant improvement on Dig Lazarus, Dig!!! and a slight improvement on the eponymous album. I like.
9. Bill Frisell: Beautiful Dreamers (8/10)
I can’t help myself and keep wondering about how jazz this is. It’s sort of an odd approach to jazz, as it’s more seemingly about a jam or a vibe than it is about improvisation, at least to my ears.
But that doesn’t remove its fascination for me: one of the early tracks could almost be prog – if that was improvised, I am very surprised – and the whole thing seems to exist in this odd space between jazz and rock and some other genres, while clearly sounding like it should be jazz. I guess this is where we’ve gotten in the genre, where some of the hallmarks that make something what it is are repressed as a way of trying to move forward. Or maybe I’m just thinking way too much about it.
The playing is excellent, the covers are all interesting and the band is clearly very much on the same wavelength. Good stuff.
10. theHEAD: Trojan Jazz Festival (8/10)
This album gets off to a weird note when the opening of the first track sounds straight out of early ’70s Roxy Music. But things definitely pick up after that. The set is apparently totally improvised, and the interaction between the players is pretty solid.
This band has managed to find a relatively unique niche where they integrate a lot of should-be-cheesy synthesizers into music that is definitely not cheesy and which stays interesting even when it seems like things should be getting boring.
11. The Arcade Fire: the Suburbs (8/10)
I’ve never been one to follow hype, as you know. If anything I irrationally dislike things with too much hype. But I like this more than anything I’ve heard of theirs to date. There are still a couple songs which are way too obsessed with the ’80s – was I the only person my age to dislike that decade? seriously – but on the whole I can handle this more than the last two. It is well made. I won’t be buying it any time soon though. They just don’t do it for me.
12. Janelle Monae: The Archandroid (8/10)
This is entirely not my kind of music but this woman sure is talented. It kills me that most female talents are oppressed to the point of losing any and all originality. This chick’s got it in spades. I may not appreciate her particular musical tastes, but wow is she ambitious and out there. I like that, even if I could care less for the genres she pillages. Good for her. If only there were more female artists (allowed to be) like her.
13. Neil Young: Le Noise (7/10)
I love that Neil is trying to push things in his old age. I love that he is desperately trying not to rust. It would be better if he wrote some classic songs.
14. The Dillinger Escape Plan: Operation Paralysis (7/10)
Less ambitious than their previous record, which feels like a minor let down. Read the review of Operation Paralysis.
15. Laurie Anderson: Homeland (7/10)
This sounds an awful lot like her debut, Big Science, of thirty years ago. I wish it sounded newer. I like her politics, but the music isn’t quite as creative as something Exlcaim! claims is the best avant garde album of the year should be.
16. Drive-By Truckers: The Big To-Do (7/10)
Some of Hood’s songs here are as weak as any of his I’ve heard. That’s a big disappointment. But then there’s something like “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” which is among his very best.
I agree with the “more Mike Cooley” sentiment though.
Probably their weakest album to date (of those I’ve heard anyway).
17. John Legend, the Roots: Wake Up! (7/10)
I don’t know John Legend and I’m barely aware of the Roots. And I only know one of the originals. But I’m reasonably impressed.
The version of “Compared to What” is different enough to be worth listening to. I am making the same assumption for the other tracks, though I have no idea.
This is absolutely not my thing, but I get the appeal, and it’s nice to see at least the odd band concerned that things appear to be horrible, politically speaking.
I like the concept and cannot say that I know enough to complain about the execution.
18. The Hold Steady: Heaven in Whenever (7/10)
From the opening notes of “The Sweet Part of the City” it’s pretty clear that this band has finally overcome their Springsteen odour. Sure, Finn is still an extremely Sprinsteenian songwriter, but the rest of the band no longer sounds like a louder E-Street band minus the sax. (I’d blame that on the departed keyboard player but I know this had already happened on the previous album.)
19. Konono No. 1: Assume Crash Positions (7/10)
The follow up to their debut is pretty much the same thing, albeit with a fair amount more polish, as there are more recognizable pop rock instruments and the general “garage/DIY” feel is sort of gone.
The music itself is just as compelling as the first record but, like much music that relies so heavily on repetition, if you are not 100% down with listening to repetitive music, it can feel like repetition of the first album, which felt like some kind of new thing.
20. Giant Sand: Blurry Blue Mountain (6/10)
This is only the second Giant Sand album I have heard and it is considerably less ambitious and less chaotic than the first one. It almost feels like a different band but I guess 10 years changes a man. The arrangements are certainly more consistent here than the earlier record – and I’m not sure the songs are any weaker – but the whole thing feels much more conservative, in addition to feeling much more sedate.
It’s kind of hard to get excited about a set of decent songs performed decently.
21. Crime in Stereo: I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone (6/10)
The more I hear stuff like this, the more I miss – and I think I undervalued – At the Drive-In. Post-hardcore really does seem to be the 2000’s version of post-grunge; its everywhere and its watered down. (In its defense, at least it has a lot more character than post-grunge.)
To be fair, these guys aren’t the biggest At the Drive-In rip-offs I’ve heard. In fact, to my ears they sound far more indebted to Desaperacidos. In fact, they sound like a more mature – and more aggressive – version of that band.
And I guess that’s fine, but it’s just not blowing me away.
22. Robert Plant: Band of Joy (6/10)
He takes old and new songs and makes them sound indistinguishable. Good for him. But they sound indistinguishable. What is with the reverb?
23. Torche: Songs for Singles (5/10)
Not metal. Unfortunately, somebody (Exclaim!) told me this was a metal album before I listened to it. So I was thinking it would, you know, sound like metal. Oops. If you’re going to make sludgy hooks, you should probably write better hooks.
Compilations, archival releases and new performances of old music.
BBC Philharmonic conducted by Rumon Gamba, featuring Martin Roscoe and Orla Boylan: Hangover Square; Citizen Kane by Bernard Herrmann (9/10)
This disc collects a suite of pieces of from the 1945 film noir Hangover Square, arranged for orchestra, with a piano concerto Herrmann wrote for the film, with what seems to be the complete (or nearly complete) score to Citizen Kane.
Lawrence Power: Hindemith: The Complete Viola Music 2 (9/10)
Part 2 of Power’s performances of Hindemith’s viola music focuses on the sonatas for solo viola, of which Hindemith also wrote three. Though these all lack the incredible, complex and difficult piano parts of their cousins, that doesn’t make them any less impressive and, not surprisingly, the viola parts are more complex.
Vadim Repin, Nikolai Lugansky: Violin Sonatas: Franck; Grieg; Janacek (8/10)
This is a strong collection of mid-to-late Romantic violin sonatas, all of which feature piano accompaniment.
Though the music spans a long period of time, I find it similar enough that it doesn’t feel completely arbitrary as a a set. Of course, it helps that I enjoy all three of these pieces immensely; I think the problem with so many of these collections, when music is pulled from the extremes of a particular era, is that there isn’t enough musical commonalities between the pieces. Not so here, to my uneducated ears.
Antonio Meneses, Northern Sinfonia: Haydn: Cello Concertos; Pereira: Concertino for Cello (7/10)
This is an odd collection that pairs Haydn’s two most famous (and likely sole surviving) cello concerti with a totally unrelated piece of music by the 20th century composer Clovis Pereira. Grumble.
Halle: The Kingdom by Edward Elgar (7/10)
Dietrich Frischer-Dieskau, James King, Urzula Koszut, Rose Wagemann, William Cochran, Peter Meven, Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Rafael Kubelik: Mathis de Maler by Paul Hindemith (7/10)
This opera has a weird origin, it was a symphony that was expanded to be an opera.
Anyway, The opera is massive (it’s 3 hours long, divided into 7 “tableaux”), and is generally regarded well because it’s an allegory for nazism.
Not to be picky, but I feel like there are a number of better (and shorter!) allegorical operas about nazism out there. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s a fine piece of music – despite it’s size – it’s just that it’s revivalism. It’s really high end revivalism, but it is revivalism nonetheless. So I have trouble getting excited about it.
Jimi Hendrix: Valleys of Neptune (6/10)
This is yet another collection of Hendrix demos and alternate takes.
As usual everything sounds great – though in one case the sound quality is weak compared to the other tracks – and professional. The tracks are from all over the place, as usual, and it’s a record that’s for Hendrix fans rather than for casual listeners. There are a few new songs, but many have other takes other places.
One notable thing is that this version of “Sunshine of Your Love” contains a hilarious bass solo from Redding, much like some live versions of this song. So if you want to hear why Redding should never have been the bassist for this band, well there’s that.
…Featuring Norah Jones (5/10)
This is a compilation of some (though apparently far from all) of Norah Jones’ guest appearances after she became a star. (Though some feel more like duets.) I guess it’s a way for people to see what else she’s doing? I don’t know.