I’ve been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen lately, and thinking about his body of work and my relationship with it. As you’d expect with an artist whose career spans more than 40 years there are highs and lows, but unusually for somebody who works in rock and roll and pop, there’s also a surprising degree of consistency, and there are albums he’s recorded in the past couple of decades (I’m thinking of Magic and The Rising in particular) which I listen to as often and enjoy just as much as the albums from the 1970s and 1980s.
But the album I love best and return to most often is Born to Run. I’ve been listening to it for 35 years and I still get chills every time. I love the scale of it, the Spectorish Wall of Sound grandeur of its production and the sense it’s in conversation with so many of his influences in 1960s pop and soul (“Roy Orbison sang ‘For the Lonely’ …”), the extraordinary sax and the way it underlines how essential Clemons was, the beautiful piano on ‘Backstreets’ and ‘Jungleland’, the deliberate yet unself-conscious sweep of the songs and the economy of the storytelling (‘Meeting Across The River’ or ‘Backstreets’, for instance). In his memoir Springsteen says “I wanted to craft a record that sounded like the last record on Earth, like the last record you might hear… the last one you’d ever NEED to hear. One glorious noise … then the apocalypse. From Elvis came the record’s physical thrust; Dylan, of course, threaded through the imagery of not just writing about SOMETHING but writing about EVERYTHING.”, but although that urgency and desire for liberation through movement is what gives the record its extraordinary power, part of what I’ve always loved about it is the fact that even in its dark moments there’s a joyfulness to it that’s largely stripped away on Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska. Interestingly I also often end up listening to it back to back with Patti Smith’s Horses, which I don’t think is coincidental, not just because both albums were released in 1975 (or because Springsteen wrote ‘Because the Night’ for Smith, apparently singing it down the phone in the middle of the night as he went), but because when you listen to them side by side you hear how much both are about the striving for a sort of transcendence and purity of feeling, both qualities that have become unfashionable in recent years. It’s an astonishing record, and one that only seems to get more remarkable with the passage of time.
It’s that time of year, so because what the world needs is yet another best of the year list (surely it’s time we all went meta and started producing lists of the best best of lists?) I thought I’d pull together a quick roundup of some of the books I loved this year (if I get the time I’ll also put together a few music picks).
As I say in The Weekend Australian, my favourite book of the year was Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others, the follow-up to her fabulous Stone Arabia. I’m a huge fan of Spiotta, and like all her books Innocents and Others is just thrilling as a piece of literary art: beautifully written, strikingly intelligent about the questions of friendship and art at its core, wonderfully oblique in its approach to narrative. If you haven’t read it I recommend it very much (in fact I recommend all her books).
I also hugely admired Annie Proulx’s monumental Barkskins, a book that forces the reader to confront the scale of the destruction humans are visiting on the world around us, and which, in its final, wrenching sections, embodies more than a little of the incoherent grief so many of us feel. It’s also a book that makes a useful companion piece to three of the best non-fiction books I read this year, Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable and Horatio Clare’s slim but often profound search for a vanished bird, Orison for a Curlew.
I was also deeply impressed by Colson Whitehead’s speculative reworking of the history of slavery, The Underground Railroad, Frances Spufford’s gloriously poised and entirely delightful riff on the eighteenth century novel, Golden Hill (a book that deserved much more attention than it received), Ann Patchett’s characteristically smart and expansive Commonwealth, Paul Beatty’s Man Booker-winning The Sellout, and the fifth volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Some Rain Must Fall (like many people I’m torn between being unable to wait for the sixth and regret that it will be the final volume).
I’m not sure it would be correct to say I loved Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone, but other than the Proulx I’m not sure any book affected me more this year: I found its portrait of grief and mental illness and their generational legacy deeply distressing and extremely powerful. Something similar is true of Han Kang’s intense and deeply disquieting The Vegetarian, while Elizabeth Strout’s hugely impressive My Name is Lucy Barton is distinguished by the pain that lurks in its silences. And although Steven Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Outapproaches its subject with a real lightness of touch, its exploration of the ways in which assisted suicide affects those who must facilitate it is hugely intelligent and very moving.
Other novels I enjoyed very much include David Dyer’s wonderful Titanic novel, The Midnight Watch, Sarah Perry’s exuberant The Essex Serpent, Mike McCormack’s novel in a single sentence, Solar Bones, Ali Smith’s Autumn, J.M. Coetzee’s delightfully strange and darkly witty The Schooldays of Jesus and Kirsten Tranter’s beautifully pitched study of grief, Hold. And while I came to them late (and I don’t think the stories are necessarily best served by being presented in collected form) I was hugely impressed by Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women.
In terms of non-fiction, my pick of the year is Bruce Pascoe’s brilliant study of pre-contact Aboriginal agriculture and technology, Dark Emu. There aren’t many books I think every Australian should read but Pascoe’s is definitely one of them. I also very much admired Amy Liptrot’s Wainwright Prize winner, The Outrun, Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?, Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds and Kate Summerscale’s brilliant The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer. I also hugely enjoyed Bruce Springsteen’s foray into memoir, Born to Run, and although I read it under sad conditions, Simon Critchley’s wonderful Bowie, a book that along with Hugo Wilcken’s study of Low is, for my money, the best of the small library of Bowie books I’ve read in the past couple of years (if you’re interested you can check out my essay about Bowie, ‘Loving the Alien’, which is also in this year’s Best Australian Essays).
I’m biased, obviously, but of the science fiction and fantasy I read my favourite was the first instalment in my partner Mardi McConnochie’s new series for middle grade readers, Escape to the Moon Islands. Like all her books it’s warm and funny and wonderfully original and I can’t recommend it enough (it also has a talking parrot).
There’s not really any competition for comic of the year as far as I’m concerned: that crown goes to Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s stunning Vision, but I also loved Adrian Tomine’s short graphic stories, Killing and Dying.
And finally, although my experience of it was tinged with great sadness, I loved my friend Georgia Blain’s final novel, Between a Wolf and a Dog. Georgia’s death a fortnight ago from brain cancer leaves a huge hole in so many people’s lives, but it has also robbed us of one of the most important voices in contemporary Australian literature: Georgia’s writing, both fictional and non-fictional, was always distinguished by her preparedness to speak plainly and truthfully about her own experience, the lives of women and the demands and contradictions of family and love, and to my mind at least she was one of the bravest writers I have ever known. Worse yet, it came at a time when Georgia’s work seemed to have found a new freedom and expansiveness, qualities that are very much on display in Between a Wolf and a Dog, and which I am certain will be everywhere in the book she completed in her final months, The Museum of Words, which will be published next year. I wrote a short piece about Georgia and her work for the Fairfax press, but there have also been beautiful tributes to her from Charlotte Wood, Sophie Cunningham and Jane Gleeson-White, and a terrific piece about her and her mother, Anne Deveson (who died only three days after Georgia) by Anne Summers. As Sophie says, she was magnificent.
I’m planing to get a post about my favourite books of the year up in the next week or so, but in the meantime I thought I might pull together a quick post about some of the albums I’ve enjoyed this year. As I said when I did this last year, this makes no pretence that it’s comprehensive or objective, instead it’s a selection of things I’ve loved over the past twelve months. Rather than try and make a definitive selection of my absolute favourites I’ve arranged them in (mostly) mostly alphabetical order. Hopefully I’ve also managed to remember enough to save myself from a supplemental post about all the ones I’ve forgotten.
And so, without further ado, here they are …
Asaf Avidan, Gold Shadow
One of my absolute favourite albums of 2015 was by Israeli singer-songwriter Asaf Avidan. I’d not heard of Avidan until I read a review of his latest album, Gold Shadow, but it’s a stunner, anchored by Avidan’s distinctive vocals and a wonderfully retro yet oddly timeless feel that sounds as if it could have been recorded 50 years ago or last week.
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
Closer to home I loved Courtney Barnett’sSometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit. People in Australia and the US have already written reams about Barnett and this record, suffice it to say I saw her live last year, and the record is as smart, funny and utterly self-possessed as she was on stage.
Blur, The Magic Whip
I also loved Blur’s comeback album, The Magic Whip. It’s not quite Parklike (although what is), but they sound as smart and sharp and tight as they always did, and when I saw them in Sydney earlier in the year they were totally amazing.
Leonard Cohen, Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour Leonard Cohen turned 80 last year, and celebrated by releasing the brilliant Popular Problems. this year he was back with Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, a collection of live versions of lesser-known tracks from his back catalogue plus a couple of new songs, and while it’s not as coherent or focussed as Popular Problems, it’s still a pleasingly rich and occasionally unexpected record that more than holds its own in Cohen’s recent discography, and one I’ve come to like more and more with every new listen.
The Decemberists, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World The Decemberists’What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World is a frontrunner for the title of my favourite album of the year, and certainly one of the ones I’ve listened to the most. I know some long-time fans are a bit dismayed by the more radio-friendly songwriting (as much as that term makes any sense these days) but I love almost every track on it (and who couldn’t love an album that contains the lyric “And me, seventeen and terminally fey”?). The Florasongs EP they released late in the year is great as well.
Diane Coffee, Everybody’s a Good Dog
Blissed out Beach Boys and soul perfection from one half of Oxygen. Insanely enjoyable.
Destroyer, Poison Season
I’ve never quite connected with The New Pornographers’ albums, but I really enjoyed their front man, Dan Bejar’s side project, Destroyer’s new one, Poison Season. I remember reading Bejar saying the album was a tribute to Hunky Dory, but to me it sounds like a brilliant art pop reworking of Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen (most obviously on the second track, ‘Dream Lover’).
Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Volume 12: The Cutting Edge
What’s there to say? Different interpretations and working versions of many of the songs on three of my favourite albums of all time, many of which are as good or better as the originals. You don’t have to be the sort of Dylan obsessive who’s got the energy to listen to an entire album of outtakes of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ to love this collection, and tracks like the version of ‘Love Minus One’ are worth the price of admission all on their own. Weepingly brilliant.
Sharon van Etten, I Don’t Want To Let You Down
I adored van Etten’s last album, Are We There, and although these songs from the same sessions are basically an extension of that album that’s fine by me. Gorgeous, intense, visceral.
Colleen Green, I Want To Grow Up
On a first listen Colleen Green’s album sounds like a piece or perfectly pitched grungy guitar punk pop. But dig a little deeper and something darker and more complex begins to appear.
Julia Holter, Have You In My Wilderness Julia Holter’s previous albums were curious combinations of experimental soundscape and pop melodies, but on her new one she let her pop sensibility come to the fore, and created something really special. I’d be tempted to complain it’s occasionally a bit tasteful (a problem that afflicts a lot of contemporary indie pop IMHO) but on a more careful listen that impression is wiped away by the lyrics, the strength of the songwriting and the complexity of the arrangements. It’s a beautiful record.
Elle King, Love Stuff Elle King’s debut album, Love Stuff, seemed to come out of nowhere when it turned up earlier in the year, but since it was released it’s picked up two Grammy nominations. Imagine a 26 year-old Wanda Jackson and you’ll be pretty much on the money.
Joanna Newsom, Divers
There’s a clear line of influence flowing from Kate Bush to Joanna Newsom, but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that Newsom is a genuine original, with a fascinating and increasingly clear aesthetic that’s all her own.
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
There’s been a lot of retro-soul and soul-inflected music around this year, perhaps most obviously Leon Bridges’ surprise hit debut, Coming Home. Although I’m always a little uneasy about music that so deliberately (and often slavishly) invokes the past, I liked Coming Home, and in particular the big single, ‘Better Man’, and I also liked Anderson East’s similarly pitch-perfect recreation of the sound of the late 1960s, Delilah. But much as I enjoyed both Bridges’ and East’s albums, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats’ excursion into the same territory in their self-titled debut outshone both in terms of energy and urgency.
Alabama Shakes, Sound and Color/Thunderbitch, Thunderbitch
Meanwhile the band that probably did the most to initiate the whole new soul movement, the Alabama Shakes, finally released their much-delayed second album, Sound and Color, and used it to make it clear they had no intention of being pigeonholed by those sorts of labels by delivering a record that pushed outward toward garage rock and funk and even punk. Sound and Color has a lot of great moments, and although Brittany Howard’s voice and charisma mostly overcomes the fact the songs on Sound and Color only occasionally reaches the same heights as those the Shakes’ 2012 album, Boys and Girls, you couldn’t say the same about Howard’s side-project, Thunderbitch, which was released with little fanfare later in the year, and packs more exultant energy and joy into its 33 minutes than the most bands find in a lifetime (for reasons I don’t understand none of Thunderbitch’s videos seem to be available in Australia but you can listen to a few tracks on their website).
Bill Ryder-Jones, West Kirby County Primary
I also loved Bill Ryder-Jones’ gorgeous, damaged West Kirby County Primary, an album that wears its debt to The Velvet Underground on its sleeve, but which also has a vulnerable beauty (and a host of scuzzy pop hooks) all of its own. Another contender for my favourite record of the year.
Bruce Springsteen, The Ties That Bind
I’ve only had a chance to listen to it once and watch the documentary (which is terrific, and a reminder of how interesting Springsteen is about the craft of songwriting and painstaking way he imagines and creates his albums) but like Amanda Rose I’m going to dispense with the fantasy I might not love an album made up of a remastered version of one of my all-time Favourite Springsteen albums and 20-odd new tracks from the same sessions might not be one of the best things I’ll hear this year.
Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp
I quite enjoyed Katie Crutchfield’s first album as Waxahatchee, American Weekend, but her second, Ivy Tripp, is on a whole other level. Grungy, 1990s influenced guitars meet intimate lyrics and delicate melodies. It’s great stuff.
Matthew E. White, Fresh Blood Matthew E. White’s new album is really just a second helping of the retro-soul-influenced rock and roll that made his first album, Big Inner, so much fun, although it’s richer and more accessible than Big Inner. But what it does have is one of my favourite songs of the year, the sneakily catchy ‘Rock and Roll is Cold’. Put memories of Warren Zevon out of your head, give it a whirl and enjoy.
The Beatles, 1+
And finally, I’m not sure whether they really count as an album, but it was difficult not to love the rerelease of the Beatles’ 1, if only for the two discs of beautifully restored videos that accompanied with it. I haven’t had a chance to listen closely to the Giles Martin remasters of the songs themselves (and I’m not sure I wholly approve of that particular exercise) but the videos are an absolute joy.
I’m not quite sure why, but for a month or so before I got sick, I’d been listening almost exclusively to Bruce Springsteen. For the most part it had been mid-period and newer material – The River, Tunnel of Love, and Magic – but then a post by Pavlov’s Cat made me pull out my copies of a pair of albums I loved when I was 19 or 20, Born to Run and The Wild, The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle.
I know that on later albums Springsteen found a depth and a range he probably only dreamed about in those early years, but I’m not sure he ever found his way back to the sheer joy and exaltation of those first three albums, their delight in the world as they found it,. And listening to them again I’m reminded incredibly powerfully of what it was like to feel all that certainty and purity of feeling, and of the person I was when this music was my life.
I was listening to Bruce Springsteen belt out ‘Radio Nowhere’, the opening track to his 2007 album, Magic, the other day, and as I did I was struck by how archaic it felt. Not in terms of its energy – as anyone who heard him perform ‘The Rising’ at the concert to celebrate Obama’s inauguration a few weeks ago knows, Bruce can still crank out the tunes like nobody’s business – but in terms of its invocation of the radio as a vehicle of connection.
When I was a teenager growing up in Adelaide in the 1980s, the radio – and music more generally – was a lifeline, a connection to a larger, more vivid world. Listening to it was a way of believing, however briefly, that there were other people, out there in the dark, just like you. And whether rightly or not, we invested the music we listened to, the music we loved, with all that longing and desire and need to escape.
No doubt that’s why the radio is such a powerful trope in the music of the period. I can think of a half a dozen songs without even trying – Elvis Costello’s ‘Radio, Radio’, Meatloaf’s ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’, The Sports’ ‘Who Listens to the Radio’, to take three examples, which bounce off the idea of the radio as a vehicle for connection (albeit a corrupted one, in the case of Elvis Costello’s ‘Radio, Radio’). All of them depend upon an idea of music as something almost talismanic, something which defines and liberates, and the radio as a medium for communion with that power.
But listening to Bruce Springsteen the other day, I found myself wondering whether that’s still the case. There’s no doubt the importance of radio to teenagers must have diminished. They can access music from anywhere, any time they want, and they’re constantly connected to friends, both real and virtual, by social networking. But more deeply, I found myself wondering, isn’t it possible the sheer ubiquity of contemporary media, the immediate accessibility of any song, anywhere, pretty much at the flick of a switch, is eroding the intensity of people’s connection to the music they love?
I know I’m articulating a very particular sort of cultural anxiety, but that doesn’t mean my question is an entirely frivolous one. Certainly at least part of the reason music mattered to us in the 1980s was because it was scarce. Albums were expensive, tapes were unreliable, the radio played things as and when it felt like it. But that’s no longer the case. And there’s little doubt that the endless feed of information from the net has changed the way people read, driving modes of interaction wth text which are about skimming, and sampling, and only very occasionally about reading carefully, or deeply. So mightn’t the contemporary world’s immediate access to music be doing something similar to our relationship with music, and more particularly the relationship of teenagers to music?