Thursday, January 28, 2010


And so another decade is over. Having entered this world in the last year of the Fifties, I always pay attention to transitions from the tenth year of a decade to the year that adds a new number before the final digit. Do I really believe in ‘decades’ as an assemblage of years that are in some way united? Not really. Time seems more coherent in groupings of four to five years, and what comes either ‘before’ or ‘after’ those years is equally meaningful, if you want it to be.

That said, it’s easy enough to view ‘the aughts’ as dominated by one’s distaste for W. -- from the election of 2000, to the start of the war in 2003, to the re-election in 2004 and the torture photos, to the botch of Katrina in 2005, to the attempt to pass the torch in 2008, with the Bimbo Mom from Hell foisted upon the public. And then, of course, Obama’s victory, and the tanking economy in 2009, and the great hopes showered upon Obama as he took office, and the supposed backlash as the new decade begins -- we'd like to believe the ‘low, dishonest decade’ (to appropriate Auden’s useful phrase for the Thirties) ended with Obama’s Inauguration in 2009, but there’s too much hangover to say that, and 2010 simply continues ‘the situation.’

The years of the past decade are not notable to me as being distinct entities, much less so than decades from earlier in my own history. In fact, during the decade itself, I could be heard to say I’ll start paying attention again when we get to the ‘teens. And there’s more than a little truth in that. I’m ready to start paying attention now, I swear.

So here goes an attempt to stretch my brain by actually trying to ascribe something memorable to the output of the individual ‘00 years, in my listening. It’s quite easy for me to ignore whatever is high on the charts, and simply pick up new stuff from oldsters, or new stuff from whoever among the young(er than me) catches my attention. The decade ends with me listening to more classical music than ever before, so ... who knows, in another decade I might not be rocking at all.

Ok, enough preamble: let the listing begin!

Steve Earle’s Transcendental Blues arrived as a follow-up to the excellent El Corazón of 1997, but with more variety to the production, more muscle. It was, in hindsight, Earle’s peak album and blends a contemporary rock sound with country (which was a genre I was indulging more than ever in the closing years of the ‘90s, what with Johnny Cash’s renaissance, and with me finally listening to Townes Van Zandt, The Flying Burrito Bros., Gram Parsons in the early years of this decade). Speaking of Johnny, his Solitary Man from this year may be his all-around strongest album, or, in any case, it showed that the Rick Rubin-produced sessions were still going strong.

But the album that came to dominate all others from that year, eventually, was Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica, which I didn’t really get to know till 2001. It had the power of a, for me, new discovery (being the first entire album I heard by this oddly abrasive band), and features extended songs, short visceral punches, and a host of memorable lines and deliveries. 'Tiny Cities Made of Ashes' was a song for the time, much as a song like Talking Heads’ 'Life During Wartime' was in its day.

My song of the year: 'I’m the Man Who Murdered Love' by XTC: a catchy, mordant, irresistibly tongue-in-cheek account of how to overcome romantic longings.

Bob Dylan’s Love & Theft was released on 9/11/2001, a day everyone old enough to have memory on that day will always remember. Even though I didn’t buy it on that day, I did wander by a record store to contemplate its existence in the long daze that the day became. And that’s the album that will always be the album for the year, not only because getting to know it happened in the wake of the World Trade Center attack, but because, with two other Dylan albums of new material released this decade, it holds up the best. I’m ready to say it’s one of the top ten albums of his career and might even accept it in the top five. It brought back home a Dylan who could rock and softshoe and croon and caterwaul, and everything else he’d always done, including throwing out memorable lines and others that played with cliché and borrowings -- including a knock-knock joke -- in a refreshingly loose, at times almost zany, way. Not as prettily produced as Time Out of Mind (1997), nor ever as menacing or menaced, the album presents a Dylan for the new decade, a bit of old weird Americana with a vengeance. It actually reminded me of Self-Portrait at times in its ‘take it or leave it’ insouciance.

A big album of this year for me, in hindsight (didn’t get to know it till 2003) was Jay Farrar’s Sebastopol; even more than Earle’s album, this is country-tinged rock able to disassemble both genres in the name of something else, feeling almost at times experimental, and at other times quite ‘classic’ the way an album by The Band feels. Nick Cave’s album No More Shall We Part is a strong, lyrical, melancholy, and at times hilarious, edgy and uneasy follow-up to The Boatman’s Call (1997), which I regarded as a career peak, though others saw it as Nick calming down. No More, in its audacity, is more like classic Nick, but with greater musical maturity than he’d shown up to this point.

My song of the year: 'Mississippi' by Bob Dylan: a survivor’s wistfulness pervades the song, neither too dark nor too light -- rueful but unrepentant.

There was some good stuff this year: two albums by Tom Waits, though neither was as good as his previous album; a bit of a return to form for Elvis Costello, the best David Bowie album in a long time; the last George Harrison album, which is one of his best; a strong, but lesser, follow-up to their 2000 album by The Mekons, and, though I didn’t hear it till 2006, the best album I’ve heard by The Decemberists, Castaways and Cutouts; but the real contenders, for me, at the time were: 3) the debut album by a brash punk band, The Libertines, Up the Bracket, by turns melodic and almost thrashy; 2) Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around (his final album of his lifetime), featuring his version of 'Hurt,' powerfully uncompromising and naked, and some other standouts, like the title track and a somber reading of Sting’s 'I Hung My Head'; but the album I hear as the soundtrack for the year is 1) Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It was the first album I heard by them, which means I started, I’d say, with their career peak, at least so far. It’s a pop album with a bad conscience, so while it can give you that happy-go-lucky air of good vibes that pop is supposed to deliver, it also works its hooks through layered deconstructions at times that make them have to fight to the surface, full of foreboding, and Jeff Tweedy’s voice can put you on edge the way the Neil Young of After the Gold Rush could.

My song of the year: 'The Good Old Days' by The Libertines: it’s a little dissatisfying, only because the huge adrenalin spike between 'things we said we’d do tomorrow' and 'the arcadian dream has fallen through' only occurs once, but the trailing off of the song makes that meaningful. These are the good old days, but they’re only as good as you believe them to be.

Things start to fray this year . . . or maybe it’s just one of those years -- every decade has them -- where not that much comes out to give the year a definite trajectory. Richard Thompson’s The Old Kit Bag sustains his position as a frontrunner of those remaining artists who began careers in the ‘60s and consolidated themselves (rather than burning out) in the ‘70s, and managed to survive the ‘80s without too much loss of taste, and on through a reassertion in the ‘90s as mature rockers; it, like Mock Tudor in 1999, is one of his most adept albums; Neil Young, also in that group, but more restless and uneven, delivered Greendale, a musical drama that is as inimitable as anything in his career, but the breakout album for me was by Chan Marshall, a young woman born in the ‘70s and hitting her stride with a stripped-down, hypnotic, haunting album, Cat Power’s You Are Free, which keeps up what seems to be my ear’s inner tendency in these days: strong hooks that are undermined rather than pushed in the usual pop-song manner; Marshall’s voice can be hard to take in its baleful unprettiness, but it registers a truth that no pop diva paraded on the radio has any inkling of.

My song of the year: 'Meet Me Down the Alley' by Paul Westerberg: speaking of truth, this song is so quaveringly plaintive, you’d probably have to shut it off if you aren’t in the mood to meet its gutsy vulnerability, but . . . it’s the song, by a guy more or less my age, that said what needed to be said, to whoever’s listening.

Another difficult year. It’s almost tempting to say it’s all over: longtime favorites R.E.M. release the worst album of their career, not bad so much as boring; albums by The Cure and Elvis Costello, both of whom had done some good work earlier in the decade, are mostly annoying, though featuring a few good tracks; Leonard Cohen puts out his slightest album ever, and Tom Waits puts out an album only intermittently interesting; but there are some new acts to catch: Franz Ferdinand’s eponymous debut is as hot and cool as rock is supposed to be, updating ‘80s club sounds; The Veils’ debut album, The Runaway Found, surfaced in the U.K. late in ‘03 and finally makes it stateside, giving us Finn Andrews, one of the most gripping, visceral vocalists of his generation; but this is Nick Cave’s year all the way. His double album disc: Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus crushes all that blocks its path; the arrangements, including great back-up singers and horns, kick ass and Nick is at his weirdly verbal best, riffing on basic premises that stem from a poetic approach to life threatening to go horribly wrong or, despite everything, able to affirm the value of personal vision.

My song of the year: 'There She Goes, My Beautiful World' by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: with its litany of artists and writers on the edge, evoked comically but feelingly; with its cri de coeur for some kind of inspiration; with its abasement that is utterly exhilerating; and with its relentless rhythm that seems to bowl over every possible hesitation or resistance, this is a crowning song in the Nick Cave canon of rave-ups. 'Send that stuff on down to me.'

To be continued.

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