Friday, 11 December 2009

News, Views and Music Issue 50 (Top Five): Releases Of The Year 2009/Releases of the 2000s

And so it is with a hint of sadness and a touch of cynicism that we look back at the past year’s releases and delve beneath the hype to see what releases really were worth buying after all the dust and hoo-hah has settled down. It’s not been a vintage year – in fact, very few AAA artists released new music at all (Yusuf and Stuart Murdoch from Belle and Sebastian are the year’s only real contenders) – however, 2009 seemed to be something of a milestone year in terms of deluxe re-issues and the fruition of projects that we’ve been promised for much of the past decade (more in Neil Young’s archives). So even though we’ve had very little that’s been ‘new’, as such, there’s been an awful lot of releases this year that I’d have never predicted this time in 2008 (The Beatles finally make good on their promise to replace the awful 1987 CD masters; The Beatles officially sanction their first ‘game’ since the ‘flip your wig’ monstrosity of 1963; A record company actually has the belief in Graham Nash and the patience to sift through all the record company changes to come up with a 3CD best-of; CSN sanction a CD of demo recordings, first mooted way back in 1991; Neil Young finally gets round to releasing the follow-up to 1977’s compilation ‘decade’ with a set that’s been on the schedule sheets since the mid-1980s). Let’s hope for more of the same in 2010!

5) Neil Young “Archives”. We’ve moaned about the price. We’ve moaned about the lack of rarities in quota to songs we own dozens of times over. We’ve moaned about the lack of packaging. We’ve moaned about the fact that Neil’s going to keep adding costly downloads to each set as and when he feels like it. We’ve moaned about the fact that the box set only covers the years up to 1972. And we’ve moaned that this set has been so long in coming that practically all of Neil’s fans have gone and got the stuff on bootleg already. But the dozen or so rarities on this set really are interesting for the most part – Neil’s earliest recordings dating way back to 1963 when he was with The Squires (they sound a pretty nifty band too, more than able to give The Shadows a run for their money); an exhilarating unreleased song ‘Everybody’s Alone’ which sets the template for much of the ‘doom trilogy’ to follow in its wake, the ridiculously rare single-only ‘War Song’ that makes it onto CD for the first time and sounds like Ohio’s baby brother and an exquisite first take of ‘Birds’ from 1969, that gorgeous song of fragility and loss from ‘After The Goldrush’. It’s not what fans had hoped for and the release of all the semi-interesting concert recordings as CDs in their own right was truly a bad move, but for this handful of goodies alone the set is worth an entry on our list.  

4) Jefferson Starship ‘Five Original Classics’ (see the above news section). I’m not too clear when this set did make it out on CD but it seems to be this year so it’s going on our list. This nicely packaged set might not have many rarities but it has been produced with a lot of care and a straightforward CD pressing of these first five Starship albums is more than overdue. ‘Dragonfly’ is the first and best – an exhilarating ride through angry Kantner political rants, soaring Grace Slick explorations of love and loss, a fine cameo song from Marty Balin and a couple of decent songs from the under-used David Freiberg. Almost every song is a gem and  we haven’t a band this together on a Jefferson release since Bathing At Baxters. The other albums are a lot patchier (make that an awful lot patchier for the pretty ordinary ‘Earth’) but are also well worth hearing – especially the 3rd and 5th albums which – to the best of my knowledge – have never made it to CD before. Now if only 2010 could see the release of the next three Starship albums I could die a happy man...

3) Graham Nash ‘Reflections’. It seems so long ago when this set came out in February that I’m quite amazed I’m talking about this long-awaited set in the right year. But I am and so let me fill you in on this long-awaited follow-up to Rhino’s equally excellent David Crosby set ‘Voyage’. There are less rarities from the classic era to be found – and spreading them throughout the set doesn’t work quite as well as with Voyage’s ‘bonus’ disc of rarities – but there are oodles of gems in this collection. Highlights include alternate – and better – mixes of such superb songs as Better Days, Military madness, Another Sleep Song, Cathedral and especially Cold Rain, a handful of unreleased songs including two gems in concert favourite ‘Magical Child’ and the superlative 1986 song ‘Lonely Man’ plus some of Graham’s rarer and hard-to-find later material. It would have been nice to have hear more rarities (there are plenty more in the can, especially from the 1970s) and we’ve q few quibbles with the running order of even the best known songs, but this is still an impressive set and the packaging is glorious, chock-a-block full of Graham’s own pictures of himself, friends and family. We reserve the right to add Stephen Stills’ ‘Manassas Pieces’ to this list by the way – hopefully it’ll be under the tree gathering pine needles and record needled this year...

2) The Beatles ‘The Beatles’ (Mono/Stereo Box Set). Not for the first time, the sheer extent of the coverage and publicity for the Beatles’ latest re-awakening for another generation has split the music collectors down the middle. Much mooted this set delivers on all the key points (excellent sound, nice packaging and an attention to detail that usually passes Apple by these days) even if you have to admit that critics of the set have their fair points too (no bonus tracks or rarities, a high retail price albeit not as bad as the old CD sets and the bonus documentary(s)was a bit of a damp squib after being screened the day before the sets were released). By and large, though, they finally got a Beatles set right – no fancy extras that don’t quite work, no gimmicks to tie the thing to this time (‘Beatles Rock band’ is a separate enterprise and rather a good one I hear) and no teasing the public by releasing the CDs one by one. At long last Apple/EMI have excelled by concentrating on the one single aspect of The Beatles’ legacy that’s guaranteed to last: the songs.  You can sell your unwanted copy of ‘Beatles Love’ now the real thing is here at last!...   

1) Yusuf aka Cat Stevens ‘Roadsinger’. ...But the best release of the year by contrast came out quietly, with just the one radio and one TV appearance to plug it. Yusuf’s second album since his retirement easily beats the first and finally lives up to the hype we were given for that set ‘An Other Cup’ a few years ago, full of the quiet warm thoughtful ballads that Cat used to excel at, with a sensitive modern production that actually works (you wouldn’t believe how many AAA albums have been scuppered by force-feeding musicians ‘modern trends’ this past decade or maybe 2 or 3). Cat’s voice sounds like it always did and his message is more or less intact. If only every ‘comeback’ album could live up to this one, which doesn’t put a foot wrong anywhere... Highlights include the long awaited (by me, anyway!) Sun/C79 follow-up ‘Everytime I Dream’, the masterpiece in epic miniature ‘In This Glass World’ and the slow and soothing ‘Dream On’. Excellent stuff.

And for those who haven’t noticed, 2009 also sees the end of yet another decade. Again, it’s not been a vintage one by any means but it has at least seen the continuation of the 1990’s interest in all things 60s and has seen the release of some archive sets that we never would have dreamed of even a few years ago. There has been lots of good music around too – and no we don’t mean The Spice Girls or any of their modern interchangeable boy or girl bands either – talent doesn’t fade overnight, it just gets a bit rusty and there have been plenty of AAA albums well worth digging out in the past 10 years. Here’s our run-down of our favourite 10:

10) Brian Wilson ‘Gettin’ In Over My Head’ (2004). This album suffered from being released hot on the heels of the surprise issue of our beloved ‘Smile’. Compared to that masterpiece of a milestone any album would suffer, but this album (whose title seemed only too apt given its frustratingly unfinished state) – like every Brian Wilson solo – contains its fair share of jewels that glitter so brightly and wonderfully that suddenly I can forgive everything. ‘Soul Searchin’ is a delightful archive song featuring brother Carl on lead and finally finished by Brian several years after being abandoned; ‘You’ve Touched Me’ is the most genuinely happy we’ve heard Brian Wilson sound since parts of Pet Sounds and a delight to hear; the title track is one of the most gorgeous orchestral epics of Brian’s complete back catalogue; and ‘Rainbow Eyes’ is a valiant attempt at welding the complex middle period Beach Boys sound with the fun primitivism of the eras either side of it. You won’t want the rest (even the long awaited duet with Macca on ‘A Friend Like You’ is a big let down) but when this album is good it’s very very good indeed.

9) Neil Young ‘Prairie Wind’ (2005). Neil’s been on a downward curve for some time now – at least since 1995’s ‘Mirrrball’, some would argue longer – and his last two albums have rather ruined the idea that this album represented something of an upward momentum. But ‘Prairie Wind’ is a special album recorded in trying circumstances: first the death of Neil’s father, famous Canadian sports journalist Ben Young and then Neil’s own near-brush with death after suffering a brain aneurysm mean this album is even more introspective and mellow than normal. But the lyrics are easily the best of Neil’s 1990/00s output, full of outpourings of grief for all the things he never got to say to the dearly departed, fragmented memories of a childhood when the past 6 odd decades seemed unimagineable and an eerie presence breezing though the whole thing, from the pull on the artist’s paint brush in the first track to the dying embers of Neil wondering aloud what God put him on earth to do in the last. Like many a thematic Neil Young album you desperately need something different to come in and shake up the tempos/instrumentation/ ideas, but as an ongoing concept suite this is Neil’s best in a very long time. Highlights include the scary epic ‘No Wonder’ and the gentle ballad of goodbye ‘Falling Off The Face Of The Earth’.

8) Paul McCartney aka The Fireman and Youth ‘Electric Arguments’ (2008). We covered this one in detail last year (its in ‘news and views 13a if you want to go look for it). Suffice to say it still sits as the best McCartney release of the decade (beating most of his albums by some margin, although 2001’s ‘Driving Rain’ was ‘bubbling under’ for this list too), fragmented, elliptical, curious and compelling in a way we haven’t seen since 1980’s McCartney II. Adopting a persona and a new way of working (making up songs on the spot after choosing a tempo, key or snatch of lyric to work on) really brought out the best in Macca, freeing him of his commitments as an ex-Beatles and giving him the freedom to experiment and use his fabulous hard-working sub-conscious for a change. Not every track works but then you’d expect that from an album this experimental and open – the remarkable thing is just how much of this album works as well as it does. Highlights include the buoyant ‘Dance Til’ We’re High’, the White Album-ish ‘Travelling Light’ and the fascinating, impenetrable ‘Lifelong Passion’ and ‘Is This Love?’ which sounds like Macca working out his recent problems with Heather Mills and turning his fears into art. Just like old times.

7) George Harrison ‘Brainwashed’ (2002). Perhaps the saddest album on this list is this posthumous farewell from our dear old friend George, who left this album in a ‘nearly’ finished state after dying of throat cancer in 2001 and left his son Dha ni and his friend Jeff Lynne to complete for him. What’s sad isn’t that this is an album that actively tears at your heart strings (well, not till the moving title track and it’s Eastern coda anyway), but that it represents such a grand return to form after the over-produced misery that was ‘Cloud Nine’. Again, not every track works and George’s barbed tongue stings more than it needs to throughout (not to mention Jools Holland’s truly diabolical playing) , but the gems such as the exquisite song of helplessness ‘Stuck Inside A Cloud’ and the rallying cry of a title track are among the best things that George Harrison had ever done. No wonder we miss him so much.

6) Oasis ‘Heathen Chemistry’ (2002). Back when Oasis were a going concern, not just a musical fight between two siblings, ‘Heathen Chemistry’ was the return to form of the decade. Well, sort of – personally I never thought this album’s two predecessors were as bad as everybody said – but suddenly in 2002 the tide had turned and Oasis were, briefly, fashionable again. Having a barnstorming effortless rocker like ‘Hindu Times’ and a spine-tingling production masterpiece like ‘Stop Crying Your Heart Out’ certainly helped, but it was this album’s quieter songs that helped give the band such a needed turn-around in fortunes. Noel’s ‘Little By Little’ is one of his career best songs, chilling in its attempts at forced confidence and sudden bursts of self-provoked anger and hopelessness and Liam’s ‘Born On A Different Cloud’ may well be his best song, a scary study of the outsiders in life and the sacrifices that cost them dearly as a result. Best of all, however, Oasis sounded like a band again and only one song (a rather drippy instrumental) truly disappointed on the whole LP. Good times.

5) Yusuf ‘Roadsinger’ (2009). As discussed above (and in news and views no 31), the former Cat Stevens’ return to form did everything its predecessor ‘An Other Cup’ had promised to deliver and failed. Abandoning the need to get his religious conversion across successfully, this is a welcome journey through the struggles of life in the modern world, full of warmth and quiet strength that makes even depressing credit crunch-inspired songs as ‘The Rain’ sound hopeful. Cat’s casting of himself as the ‘roadsinger’, a modern day minstrel who travels around in a camper van to visit places of tyranny and offer the support that governments don’t allow, is also a good concept, tying several of these songs together. Mainly, though, its the joy of hearing Cat going back to writing acoustic songs again that makes this album a gem. Against all the odds there isn’t a single song I dislike on this album – see above for the highlights – with the only negative point being the frustratingly short half-hour running time.

4) Belle and Sebastian ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ (2003). B and S were on a downward slope this decade after the highs of the mid and late 1990s, but both this album and its predecessor (2001’s ‘Fold Your Hands, Child’) still contain so many little nuggets of greatness that they more than deserve a place in the top reaches of this list. This album caused some controversy at the time by uniting the wilfully amateurish and gorgeously messy B and S sound with Buggles producer and bombastic production specialist Trevor Horn (now back working with ‘regular’ musicians like Robbie Williams). The two actually sound like soulmates at times here, with such eccentric ideas as a ping-ponging ball bouncing between speakers to segue songs and sudden switches in tempo that take B and S out of their familiar territory and back again before they get lost. Highlights include some fabulous Stuart Murdoch wordplay and such moving tales as ‘Lord Anthony’ (school bully victim) and time-delayed lover (‘She Wants Me’, one of a number of songs revealed recently to be ‘about’ Murdoch and fellow band member Isobel Campbell who left the band a couple of years ago). Some of the production gets in the way of a good song and the two semi-hit singles were a bit of a sell-out its true (the simplest songs in the B and S canon), but the rest more than makes up for it.

3) Stephen Stills ‘Just Roll Tape’. This one seems like a bit of a cheat: a half-hour reel of songs recorded by Stills in demo form after a 1968 session working with Judy Collins. But we CSN fans honestly didn’t know of its existence until this CD’s shock release in 2007 – the tape was kept by the engineer who worked on the session and had been forgotten about for years until its discovery. We’ve said it before on this site and we’ll say it again: in the years 1968-72, Stills was on the most majestic form of any musician on this entire list. His productive rate in this period was ridiculous (one CSN album, one CSNY album, one Buffalo Springfield album, one Super Session, two solo albums and two more with Manassas) and they’re practically all masterpieces. Alarmingly, this CD revealed that most of those magical songs were already written by 1968 along with a handful more that had never been heard of since, plus some early versions of songs that won’t be finished for a good few years yet. Even more alarmingly, they already sound almost perfect here – no need for CSN vocals or anything – and the unreleased songs show every bit as much promise as the ones that got left in the can. As a reminder of why CSN mattered, some 30 years after their last ‘definitive’ release, this release was a glorious present and one that remains of the best and most mesmerising of Stills’ canon. The highlight: a messy but nevertheless glorious first attempt at  the classic CSN song Suite: Judy Blue Eyes which to my ears has never sounded better.

2) Ray Davies ‘Other People’s Lives’ (2006). What a decade for the elder Kink. Left without a record contract for more than a decade, with time spent writing an ‘unauthorised autobiography’ (how I love that gag!) that was decidedly weird to say the least, watching his former house get ripped apart by New Orleans floods, suffering the shock of seeing younger brother Dave suffer a stroke and shot in the leg by a mugger, here’s betting that Ray won’t want to remember too much about the noughties. But the music, what little of it we’ve heard, hasd been fabulous: this return to form is the most consistent Kinks-related release since, blooming heck what the hell, the 60s and passes over the all too similar Kinks album sound for a fascinating melee of styles, each one handled with deft skill and dexterity. Things Are Gonna Change and All She Wrote are among the angriest songs of Ray’s back catalogue, After The Fall, Next Door Neighbour and the breath-taking Lonesome Train among the sweetest. The lyrics too are tremendously clever little vignettes of ordinary life (as the title implies, we get lots of insights into ‘the little people’ which is something we haven’t really heard from Ray since ‘Arthur’) but they’re also tremendously revealing: we learn more about Ray from this album than possibly any other since ‘Face To Face’. Highlights include the exquisite ‘Lonesome Train’ with its take on sudden death/runaways (the subject matter is left deliciously vague), the curt response to a goodbye note in ‘All She Wrote’, the progressing desperation of ‘Things Are Gonna Change’ and the hopelessness of ‘Over My Head’, a track similar to Brian Wilson’s epic in more ways than just the title. Only the practical joker ‘Stand Up Comic’ palls after a few playing but even that track took guts to deliver and shows a keen eye for modern life.

1) Brian Wilson ‘Smile’ (2004). The best album of all, however – possibly of all time – remains the album that we never ever ever ever ever thought we’d actually get to hear. You can read the full story in album review 101 but in brief it was abandoned in 1966, caused a nervous breakdown from which Brian’s only been begun to recover from in the past decade and caused the few of us in the know to fall over in hysterics every time we read that ‘Smile’ was abandoned because ‘Sgt Peppers’ came out and beat it so easily (the worst Beatles record up against the Beach Boys best? It’s no contest, even with ‘A Day In The Life’ on the album). Every few seconds brings something new, everything new perfectly fits, everything fits but gives us suprises, the surprises make us cry and they make us smile. Music was born to be written like this – gorgeous little nuggets of emotion doubled up with Van Dyke Park’s clever multi-layered lyrics pegging first American History then childhood then the four elements down into succinct pools of wonder. Even 37 years late the world hadn’t yet caught up with this album and I curse the fact that lack of support and frustrating circumstances drove away Brian’s confidence just when he should have had it the most. Smile is a brave, bold, daring attempt at something new that’s as magical, musical, moving and marvellous as any album ever made. Highlight: all of it. I mean, come on, what’s the weakest track here? ‘Good Vibrations’?! Gee, perhaps this hasn’t been quite such a bad decade after all...   


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