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Favourite Music 2015

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’s Sometimes 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.

 

The Vaccines, English Graffiti
48 minutes of New Wave influenced punk pop perfection. I feel happy every time I hear it. What more is there to say?

 

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.

 

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Can’t Buy Me Love: Jonathan Gould and The Beatles

thebeatlesjump

As I mentioned the other day, I’ve just finished Jonathan Gould’s Can’t Buy Me Love, which is one of the best books about the Beatles I’ve ever read (and I’ve read more of them than I probably should have). Not quite as good on the music as Ian MacDonald’s dazzling Revolution in the Head, and a bit less precise in its focus than it might be from time to time (I’m not convinced some of the detours into contemporary history are really necessary) but smart, suitably sceptical about some of their achievements and very usefully engaged with both the individual narratives and the wider picture against which they played out.

One of the problems for any study of the Beatles is the seemingly impenetrable mystery of how it all happened. How did four young men from Liverpool become the most famous people in the world in the space of a few short months, then, once they were famous, go on to dominate popular culture for a decade and produce a string of records that redefined popular music while also acting as one of the catalysts for the immense social change that swept through the western world in the 1960s? As Ruth and Martin on RAM Album Club put it in their hilarious piece about Help the other day (don’t argue, just read it), “The Beatles? It’s the maddest story I’ve ever heard”.

Confronted with this question a lot of writers fall back on handwaving about their extraordinary talent and singular personalities, or mystification about the unique psychology of Lennon and McCartney. But the problem with these sorts of arguments is that they simply beg the question: after all, as Gould’s book makes clear, in the early days they really were just another band (describing their infamous rejection by Decca in 1962, he notes rather dryly that “faced with an oddly named, oddly dressed and openly quarrelsome four-piece group playing a grab bag of outdated material, none of it too well, Decca did what any other well-run record label would have done: after a polite interval, it turned the Beatles down”). And while with the benefit of hindsight it’s possible to see the intersection of qualities that made their records so particular – the harmonies, George Martin’s production and preparedness to experiment, the interplay of Lennon and McCartney’s different sensibilities, the way Lennon’s tough guy exterior made the vulnerability of songs such as ‘Help’ and ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ so affecting, the humour and wordplay – it’s difficult not to allow the story we know to determine the weight we place upon those characteristics.

Gould by contrast offers a fascinatingly nuanced account not just of the social and political preconditions that made their sudden, unprecedented popularity possible, but of the particular personal elements that allowed them to sidestep the sorts of mistakes other acts made, an account that is complemented by a thoughtful and nuanced account of their creative evolution (and subsequent unravelling).

In respect of the former he has a particularly interesting argument about the way the band both internalised and transcended class distinctions, at least in Britain (Americans, less attuned to the complexities of the class system, responded differently), but he also makes clear the shift away from DJ-driven programming to top 40 formats in the aftermath of the payola scandal in the United States allowed the band to achieve national exposure in a way that had not been possible only a year or so earlier.

But he’s also very aware of the importance of Epstein’s unconventional management style, and his insistence the band should seek status over money (apparently Ed Sullivan’s producers were bemused by his simultaneous focus on the band receiving top billing on the show and lack of interest in their fee), and of the practical ways the band’s fame was manufactured, as his anecdote about the promoter of their 1964 concert in Carnegie Hall guaranteeing mayhem in the city by deliberately booking the show for a school holiday attests.

He’s also pleasingly even-handed in both his approbation and his criticism. In contrast to Phillip Norman’s championing of Lennon in Shout! he’s sympathetic to McCartney, both as a composer and a human being, but that admiration doesn’t preclude criticising some of McCartney’s schmaltzier tendencies, In this regard his discussion of the way ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ demonstrates the way McCartney’s “workmanlike tendency to build on past successes had caused him to translate the genuinely charming novelty and subversive parody of ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ into a personal subgenre of songs that had devolved in the two years since Sgt Pepper into a form of musical schtick” is particularly well-judged (his praise of McCartney’s 1981 album, Tug of War, in the final chapter is a bit over the top though). Nor does he pull his punches when describing the band’s excesses and their occasional musical limitations (in one memorable image he says the two sides of Please Please Me, resemble musical bridges between the strong songs at either end and the progressively weaker material at their middles)

It’s also extremely well-written, at least for the most part, both at a line by line level and, more importantly, at an observational level. Describing the press conference when the four of them arrived at Kennedy Airport in 1964 for example he writes that “through it all, the four of them exuded an almost mysterious sense of solidarity and self-possession. They were their own show and their own audience”. Similarly his discussion of the albums is extremely thorough and perceptive, particularly in the book’s middle section (interestingly the book’s best sections relate to the albums from A Hard Day’s Night to Sgt Pepper) and his analysis of the film of A Hard Day’s Night is simply exhilarating. And he’s genuinely fascinating not just on the complex ways in which Dylan influenced the band after their famous meeting at the Delmonico Hotel in New York in August 1964, but on the rather less often acknowledged impact the Beatles and their success had on Dylan. Likewise he is admirably succinct in his analysis of the band’s various psychologies, and interesting about the way they shape the music and, ultimately, the band’s demise.

And then there are the fascinating nuggets of information scattered through the book: apparently the Stones chose the title of Let It Bleed after hearing the album that was originally called Get Back was now going to be called Let It Be, ‘The Continuing Saga of Bungalow Bill’ was Lennon taking the piss out of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding (which he was obsessed with), ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ was at least partly an attack on Frank Sinatra, who had been very critical of the Beatles and used to call people “birds” all the time, and Brian Wilson used to lead the Beach Boys in prayer meetings in the studio to ask God to help them make a better record than Rubber Soul.

So while I think MacDonald’s book is still the gold standard when it comes to discussion of the music (and one of the best books of popular criticism written in the past few decades), the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s mammoth All These Years, Tune In offers the most exhaustive account of the band’s formation, and Pete Doggett’s wonderfully-titled You Never Give Me Your Money gives a better account of the band’s breakup and its aftermath, if you’re after a wide-ranging biography of the band that’s also attuned to the social context, sympathetic to the human side of the story and interesting in its analysis of the work, it’s absolutely the one I’d recommend.

Questions, questions, questions. Also some music.

I’m going to put together a roundup of reviews and articles about Clade soon, but in the meantime I’ve done a pair of Q&As you might like to check out. The first was for Penguin, and you can read it on their website; the other was for the fabulous Angela Slatter’s blog.

And while it’s not about the book, I’ve also just done a little thing for Zena Shapter about the music I’ve been enjoying recently. You can read the whole thing over on Zena’s blog, but because I wrote it a couple of weeks ago I didn’t include two things I’ve been loving in the past little while. The first is Israeli singer-songwriter Asaf Avidan’s fabulous album, Gold Shadow, which rather like Angel Olsen’s excellent Burn Your Fire For No Witness, looks back to the 1960s and beyond for a series of sounds and production techniques which manage to sound both retro and completely contemporary. And the other is The Beatles’ fourth album, Beatles For Sale, a record I was convinced to go back to by Jonathan Gould’s enthusiastic discussion of it in his biography of the Fab Four, Can’t Buy Me Love (which I’m planning to write something about on the weekend). For various reasons I’d come to accept the line that it’s an album born of exhaustion and creative burnout, a trough between the high points of A Hard Day’s Night and Help, but having listened to it again I’ve realised it’s actually much more interesting than I’d given it credit for, not just because original songs like ‘No Reply’ are so terrific, but because the choice of covers implies a fascinating conversation with their various influences and antecedents (and also, I suspect, prefigure the engagement with music hall and other, older forms on albums like Sgt Pepper).

A Hard Day’s Night

A Hard Day's Night 2I’ve just watched A Hard Day’s Night, which I haven’t seen in more than 30 years. It’s a film I have always had a soft spot for, mostly because I totally adored it when I saw it as a teenager (an experience that’s mirrored in the opening chapter of Dana Spiotta’s wonderful novel, Stone Arabia), so I was really interested to see how it held up.

The answer is surprisingly well: although the section on the train at the beginning is a bit long and slow (and the pacing in general is a bit slow by contemporary standard) it’s still funny and sneakily surreal and full of life. And though they’re all surprisingly good on camera, both John and Ringo are particularly good.

But what’s really interesting is that it’s not quite the film I remember. If nothing else they’re all much rougher and much more northern than I remember (and their accents are really thick) and despite the mugging and hijinks the film doesn’t attempt to disguise that. But it’s also very clearly a film about emancipation and possibility, with a surprisingly subversive satirical undercurrent (presumably because they chose the Liverpudlian playwright and screenwriter, Alun Owen, to write it, and there’s a lot of gleeful mockery of establishment figures, decorum and the pretensions of the middle classes (the sequence in the ad agency is particularly sharp). But at the same time there’s a lot of that slightly surreal mode of British comedy that delights in wordplay and absurdity that was perfected by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and others, in particular in scenes like the long “you look just like him” routine with John in the stairwell. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise: John and Paul were huge fans of the Goons, and that pleasure in punning and absurdity is visible in both The Beatles’ lyrics and their public personas.

Some other stray observations. Part of what makes the film so delightful is the lightness of director Richard Lester’s touch, and the playful way it shifts modes, jumping from slapstick comedy to playful parodies of the French New Wave and sequences that play with the conventions of James Bond films. It’s also startling to see how completely magnetic John is, although it’s a magnetism that’s made distinctly edgy by the sense he’s always on the verge of doing something unpredictable and dangerous (something the script plays up but is quite clearly there anyway). It’s also clear that part of what made John such a successful songwriter is the contrast between his tough guy image and the songs of male vulnerability he specialised in, in particular songs like ‘If I Fell’. Similarly, while I never really understood why George was such a sex symbol it’s surprisingly obvious when you see him on screen. And although the film doesn’t attempt to disguise the poverty and wreckage of post-war Britain everybody in it, and in particular all the girls, are incredibly beautiful, which whether deliberate or not, helps suggest a sense of renewal and possibility. But basically it’s a delight.

When The World Was Young

Sgt Pepper's“With Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band finished, the group left Abbey Road at dawn bearing an acetate and drove to ‘Mama’ Cass Elliott’s flat off the King’s Road where, at six in the morning, they threw open the windows, put speakers on the ledge, and played the album full blast over the rooftops of Chelsea. According to Derek Taylor, ‘all the windows around us opened and people leaned out, wondering. It was obvious who it was on the record. Nobody complained. A lovely spring morning. People were smiling and giving us the thumbs up’.”

Ian MacDonald, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties.