For us as for many others 2020 was an extraordinarily difficult and sad year. I didn’t get around to posting my usual Top 10+ Albums of the Year. For the record, here they are.

album of the year

charles lloyd 8: kindred spirits (live from the lobero)


rest of the top ten

in no particular order

bob dylan rough and rowdy ways

asher gemedze dialectic soul

ambrose akinmusire on the tender spot of every calloused moment

sault untitled (pt 1 black is)

sault untitled (pt 2 rise)

taylor swift folklore

nubya garcia source

jerry joseph the beautiful madness

waxahatchee saint cloud


honorable mention

lucinda williams good souls and better angels

makaya mccraven universal beings E + F sides

blue note re-imagined (compilation)

keith jarrett the budapest concert

drive-by truckers the unraveling

The Number One

 

I had three top albums this year.  I couldn’t make up my mind between them.  It depends a lot on my mood.  They are very different from one another.   But all have superlative songwriting with great lyrics, highly imaginative scoring, and kickass vocal delivery.  It’s great to hear popular singers using the full range and colors of the female voice just like opera singers do.

But if I had to choose just one album, the 2019 award would go to:

FKA Twigs  Magdalene

fka twigs magdalene

It’s all for the lovers tryna fuck away the pain.  The future of music in the UK (unlike everything else) seems to be in very capable hands.

 


The Number Twos

 

Lana Del Rey  Norman Fucking Rockwell

lana del rey nfr

I’ve been tearing around in my fucking nightgown/ 24-7 Sylvia Plath

Taylor Swift  Lover

taylor swift lover

‘Cause if I was a man/ Then I’d be the man.  (No apologies.  I loved Abba too.)

 


 

The rest of the top ten

in alphabetical order

 

The Comet Is Coming  Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery

CometIsComing_TrustInTheLifeforce

Another incarnation of the great Shabaka Hutchings, on Coltrane’s old Impulse label.

Theon Cross  Fyah

theon cross fyah

Yes, that’s a fucking tuba.  With Moses Boyd on drums and Nubya Garcia on tenor sax.  Inimitable 21st-century jazz, courtesy of the London diaspora.

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram  Kingfish

Christone_Ingram_-_Kingfish

Straight outta Clarksdale, Mississippi, channeling the ghost of Robert Johnson.  Wow.

Joshua Redman Quartet  Come What May

come-what-may

Shouldn’t like this (I generally prefer full-on honk-squeak sax) but I do.  Saw this quartet in Calgary this year, masters of their craft.  Cerebral, yes, not a note out of place but there are times it’s just so pleasurable to put this on the turntable and relax.  Great cover too.

Caroline Shaw/Attaca Quartet  Orange

CarolineShawAttacaQuartet_Orange

Sublime.  We have “Mozart in the Jungle” to thank for introducing us to Caroline Shaw.

Kate Tempest  The Book of Traps and Lessons

kate tempest

A voice poor benighted Britain badly needs today.  And not just Britain.  Maybe y’all should listen.

North Mississippi All Stars  Up and Rolling

n miss allstars

Jim Dickinson’s boys Luther and Cody have been great in various iterations of this band for 20 years.  In this version they are joined by Sharisse Norman and Shardé Thomas on vocals for some down and dirty Mississippi country blues.  If there was an award for quality of sleevenotes, the beautiful booklet in here would win hands down too.


Best previously recorded albums first released in 2019

(the OK boomer section)

 

Leonard Cohen  Thanks for the Dance

cohen dance

Spare, sexy, graceful.  What a way to bow out.  Thank you too, Mr Cohen.

John Coltrane  Blue World

John-Coltrane-Blue-World-album-cover-820

The great quartet, a little before they recorded A Love Supreme.

Bob Dylan  The Rolling Thunder Revue: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14 Live 1975

BobDylan_TheRollingThunderRevue

And a very good time was had by all.  Performances for the ages.

Bob Dylan (feat. Johnny Cash)  Travelin’ Thru: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15, 1967-1969

dylan cash

I suspect of greater historical than musical value, but some fun rockabilly and boom-chicka-boom from Bobby and Johnny back in the day.

Townes Van Zandt  Sky Blue

townes sky blue

Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that (Steve Earle).


 

honorable mentions

 a handful of excellent albums

that in other years would likely have made it into my top ten but didn’t because this year’s top ten were so damn good

Ezra Collective  You Can’t Steal My Joy

ezra

Michael Kiwanuka  Kiwanuka

kiwanuka

Kokoroko  Kokoroko (EP)

kokoroko.jpg

Sturgill Simpson  Sound and Fury

sturgill_soundandfury

Sharon Van Etten  Remind Me Tomorrow

sharon van etten

“Seventeen” is my song of the year.


 

And no, I’m afraid I haven’t yet listened to the 2019 albums by Nick Cave, Solange, or Brittany Howard.  I should.  Maybe next year.

 

Is there some law that says the worse it gets in the world out there, the better it gets in the arts?  It was an outstanding year for music.  Highlights for me were discovering the incredible jazz+++ scene in diasporic London, as eloquent a fuck you to the white Anglo mean-mindedness of Brexit as I can imagine, and slowly excavating the assembled talents of the West Coast Get Down—which turns out to be much more than just (the phenomenal) Kamasi Washington.  It has also been a spectacular year for that peculiar category comprising stuff recorded way back when but only released for the first time this year, meaning it is not a reissue.  Most years I combine both in my top 10, but this year was so rich overall that I’ve made separate lists.


 

#1 Record of the Year

Janelle Monáe  Dirty Computer

janelle monae

The range of her imagination on this record is astonishing.  Not a weak track over 4 sides.  My favorite LP side of the year (A 2) has three very different varieties of joy: “Screwed” (featuring Zoë Kravitz), “Django Jane” (just Janelle, laying down the most kickass rap I’ve heard in 2018), “Pink” (featuring Grimes).  Warning: the download that comes with the LP beeps out all the fuck words.


 

The rest of the Top Ten (in alphabetical order)

Ambrose Akinmusire     Origami Harvest

akinmusire.jpg

The record company blurb sums it up nicely: “a surprisingly fluid study in contrasts that pits contemporary classical wilding against deconstructed hip-hop, with bursts of left-field jazz, funk, spoken word, and soul with help from the Mivos Quartet and art-rap expatriate Kool A.D. (Das Racist), along with pianist Sam Harris, drummer Marcus Gilmore, and saxophonist Walter Smith III.”  No, really, it’s a stunner.  Reminds me of the best of Uri Caine (like his Mahler recordings), which is high praise indeed.


 

Moses Boyd Exodus  Displaced Diaspora

boyd exodus

Recorded in 2015, i.e., just before the contemporary London jazz scene exploded internationally, featuring Theon Cross (tuba), Nubya Garcia (bass clarinet), Nathaniel Cross (trombone), and Zara McFarlane (vocals) in addition to Moses Boyd on drums.  The Bandcamp website tags it under experimental hip hop beats jazz space music London, which seems about right.


 

Brandi Carlile  The Joke 

brandi carlile

The songwriting is uniformly strong (try “The Mother”) but it’s that huge, soaring, effortless voice.  You can get lost in it.  Usually only operatic sopranos thrill me like that.


 

Alejandro Escovedo  The Crossing

escovedo crossing

I don’t usually go for concept albums, because usually the concept overwhelms the album.  This one is an exception.  The concept is the immigrant experience.  Escovedo seems hardly known outside Texas, where he is somewhere between a legend and a god.  A pity.  This album has huge musical variety and great emotional depth.


 

Nubya Garcia  When We Are (EP)

nubya when we are

We first heard Nubya on We Out Here (see below) where she plays on five tracks, and were lucky enough to see her with her own band (Nubya on tenor sax, Joe Armon-Jones on keyboards, Daniel Casimir on double bass, Femi Coleoso on drums) at Ronnie Scott’s in London (where we also saw Ambrose Akinmusire).  She can honk squeak with the best of them, but its the unfailing warmth and luminosity of her tone that always gets to me.


 

Pistol Annies   Interstate Gospel

pistol annies

A top ten albums from me without a country offering is unthinkable but it was getting to look that way (see disappointments of the year, below) until this arrived through the mail this week.  Thank you Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angeleena Presley.


 

Ryan Porter  The Optimist

optimist

Recorded in Kamasi Washington’s parents’ basement in 2008-9, this triple album brings together West Coast Get Down veterans Ryan Porter (trombone), Kamasi Washington (tenor saxophone), Miles Mosley (upright bass), Cameron Graves (piano, fender rhodes), Tony Austin (drums), Jumaane Smith (trumpet), and more.  What Kamasi was before he Busby Berkeleyed it with cinematic strings and those god-awful choirs.  Great jazz.


 

Sons of Kemet  Your Queen Is a Reptile

Sons_of_Kemet

Best of British for an era when the geriatric white majority is settling for blue passports to nowhere.  An angry album, and rightly so (read the sleeve notes).  Shabaka Hutchins (tenor sax), Theon Cross (tuba), and Tom Skinner + Seb Rochfort or Eddie Hicks + Moses Boyd on drums depending on the track.  Nubya Garcia on tenor sax and Congo Natty and Joshua Idehen (rap) guest.  Heady, polyrhythmic, driving stuff.  Saw them at Vancouver Jazz Festival, a riveting performance.  Luci hates it.


 

Various artists  We Out Here

weouthere

The Brownswood compilation double-album that introduced me to the London jazz+++ scene.   If it wasn’t for Janelle Monáe this would be my undisputed #1.  These are the tracks:

A1. Maisha – Inside The Acorn
A2. Ezra Collective – Pure Shade
B1. Moses Boyd – The Balance
B2. Theon Cross – Brockley
C1. Nubya Garcia – Once
C2. Shabaka Hutchings – Black Skin, Black Masks
C3. Triforce – Walls
D1. Joe Armon-Jones – Go See
D2. Kokoroko – Abusey Junction

Nuff said.  Here is the Brownswood documentary that went with it.


 

Best five older recordings first issued in 2018 

#1  Miles Davis and John Coltrane  The Final Tour (The Bootleg Series, vol. 6)

Miles Davis & John Coltrane- The Final Tour- The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6

Trane is incandescent, especially on CD 4.  Luci would like everyone to know that this is her favorite album of 2018 and that most of that London jazz+++ stuff is *very difficult* to doze off to.

and the rest—

Bob Dylan  More Blood, More Tracks

Charles Mingus  Jazz in Detroit / Strata Concert Gallery / 46 Selden

Thelonius Monk  Mønk

John Coltrane  Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album


 

2018 Honorable Mentions

boygenius_st

 

In most other years any of these would make it into my top ten list, but it’s 2018 so they didn’t.

Boygenius (Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus)  Boygenius (EP)

Lucy Dacus  Historian

Charles Lloyd and the Marvels + Lucinda Williams  Vanished Gardens

Maisha  There Is a Place

Mitski  Be the Cowboy


 

Most Played Album This Year

nubya's 5ive

Recorded in 2017, second vinyl pressing 2018.  Her first album as leader, backed by Joe Armon-Jones / Piano, Moses Boyd / Drums, Daniel Casimir / Bass, Femi Koloeso / Drums, Sheila Maurice-Grey / Trumpet, Theon Cross / Tuba


Disappointment of the Year

A close-run thing between Kacey Musgraves Golden Hour (very clever but left me cold), Joe Armon-Jones Starting Today (love his work but somehow this offering never gelled as an album), and Kamasi Washington Heaven and Earth (too much concept, way too much choir—though as ever with him some great blowing).


 

For Zeese

My partner Yoke-Sum challenged me to play the 10 X 10 Facebook game.  The idea is to post an album every day for ten successive days that had significance in your life, with or without a gloss explaining why.  Not at all the same thing at all as your top 10 albums, musically speaking.  As often happens with my writing, the posts took on a life of their own, gradually feeling their way into a connected if not always coherent narrative of love and loss.   My 10 X 10 is about music that has mattered to me, but—it turns out—it’s a lament for an America that mattered to me too.  


 

#1 of 10 X 10 Diana Ross and the Supremes: The No. 1s

supremes

My father could do without music. My mother, eleven years younger and married at 18, always had the radio on. The old man would always switch it off. Mum owned a small collection of LP records that included popular classics (I can still hear Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony and Romeo and Juliet) and big band jazz (Duke Ellington) as well as what would nowadays be called “easy listening”—Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Matt Monro’s Blue and Sentimental.

I must have been seven or eight when my Auntie Connie asked me if I liked Elvis and I had no idea who or what she was talking about.  I soon got a musical education.  I sang in Rochester Cathedral choir every day from the age of eight to thirteen.  I was better acquainted with Purcell, Tallis, Byrd, and Palestrina than Lonnie Donegan, Marty Wilde, and Tommy Steele.

The first rock album I can recall listening to in its entirety was With The Beatles.  My parents taped it for my 13th birthday present in the annus mirabilis 1963, the year, according to Philip Larkin, when sexual intercourse began.  A month earlier the Daily Mirror had proclaimed “BEATLEMANIA! It’s happening everywhere… even in sedate Cheltenham.”  I wasn’t overly thrilled with my present. Much as the 1980s would later, Beatlemania had passed me by.

It was the dying days of empire, and Two-Way Family Favourites, the immensely popular BBC Light Programme Sunday lunchtime show for British forces abroad (Cyprus, Kenya, Malaya) seemed to play nothing but All My Loving and PS I Love You.  The musicians’ union was powerful in those days and Family Favourites was one of the few shows that played records, as distinct from broadcasting live performances, at all.  Over the next few months I got hooked on the madness from the Mersey like everyone else but my liking for the Beatles didn’t last. They were always too cute, somehow.

My voice broke and my world broadened.  Back then there was no commercial radio in the UK and the BBC didn’t cater to teenage longings.  I started listening to Radio Luxemburg’s top thirty on my first transistor radio, under the sheets, the crackly signal fading in and out.  In March 1964 pirate Radio Caroline started broadcasting from a ship off the Essex coasts and I became an avid fan. Later there was Radio London and John Peel’s Perfumed Garden.

At thirteen albums were out of my price range.  The first single I bought with saved-up pocket money was The Supremes’ Where Did Our Love Go? which reached #3 on the UK chart in June 1964.  My first EP, a couple months later, was the Rolling Stones’ Five by Five.  Their covers of Wilson Pickett’s “If You Need Me” and Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” were revelatory.  Like those other North Kent boys Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who came from Dartford, three stops down the line, I was falling in love with an America that was only partly imagined.

I bought the Supremes’ Twenty Golden Greats (1977) on a nostalgic whim sometime around 1980.  Thrown in the suitcase as an afterthought, the cassette accompanied me for the second of three annual three-month stints teaching at the University of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, in 1982.  I listened to it incessantly instead of the tapes of favorite operatic arias I’d lovingly made in anticipation of solitary evenings by the Indian Ocean.

The No. 1s (2003) is an even better anthology of the procession of monumental chart-toppers that throbbed, cooed, and moaned their way through my small town English adolescence, because it has a sprinkling of Miss Ross’s later solo recordings like the incomparable Touch Me in the Morning and Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To?).

No I don’t and likely never did, but Motown, R & B, and that sweet soul music are as much a part of where I came from as Pete Docherty’s gin in teacups and leaves on the lawn.


 

#2 of 10 X 10 Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde

blonde on blonde

I loved the 2013 Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, set in New York in 1961, for both the accuracy and the affection with which it skewered the Greenwich Village folk scene.  It hit me in a tender place.

I knew most every word of every song, from Dave Van Ronk’s “traditional” Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song), Brendan Behan’s Auld Triangle, and Tom Paxton’s Last Thing on My Mind to Ewan MacColl’s (bonnie) Shoals of Herring.  T-Bone Burnett, who knows a thing or two about the history of music, American and otherwise, did the soundtrack.

In 1964 or 1965, in search of a room of her own, my mother started hanging out at the Medway Folk Club, which had weekly gigs on Wednesday nights in the upstairs room of a pub by Rochester Bridge.  She started taking me with her, I guess, when I was 14 or 15. The club was hosted by our local Peter Paul and Mary the Medway Folk Trio and the evening always warmed up with a few performances from the floor.  Hughie the docker was a favorite with his Irish rebel songs, though I did witness him once give a rousing rendition of the Ulster Loyalist anthem The Sash My Father Wore.

I got to see Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl, Bert Jansch, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.  I watched Arlo Guthrie perform Alice’s Restaurant before it was released on his debut disk in 1967. Mum brought ramblin’ boy Tom Paxton and the English folkies’ darling Martin Carthy (another one-time chorister, at the Queen’s Chapel of The Savoy) home for drinks.  Dad didn’t approve.  By then they were well on their way to divorce but Mum stood by her man until her last child had left home.  Then she took off with her flying doctor lover to Australia.

I never saw Mr Dylan live until the 1969 Isle of Wight festival, his “comeback” show with the Band after his motorcycle accident.  But I sure knew his songs, every word of every album, back in the day.  Mum had Freewheelin’ and The Times They Are a-Changin’.  Her favorite songs were Corinna, Corinna and Boots of Spanish Leather.  I somehow acquired Another Side and Bringing It All Back Home.  Kids at school thought I was crazy.  Guy couldn’t sing.

Inside Llewyn Davis ends ominously, with Bob arriving in the Village and performing Farewell, a scarcely concealed and never acknowledged rip-off of the old British folk ballad The Leaving of Liverpool.  Love and theft.  Such is the “folk” process.  Within a few years Dylan had killed the thing he loved.  The coup de grâce, as Griel Marcus has written, was likely that opening snare drum shot on Like a Rolling Stone.

The first LP I paid for with money I earned was Blonde on Blonde.  It was the summer of 1966.  I was 15.  I bought the album the week it came out in the UK with half my first pay packet from a dirty summer job in a barge yard in Strood emptying bilges, cleaning off barnacles with pneumatic hammers, and painting hulls with a protective primer of red lead.  Back then the boys were paid half a man’s wage for the exact same work.

Mum didn’t much like Blonde on Blonde.  I couldn’t get enough of it.  It was not just the cascading poetry of Visions of Johanna (lights flicker from the opposite loft/in this room the heat pipes just cough/the country music station plays soft/but there’s nothing really nothing to turn off) or Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands (with your mercury mouth in the missionary times/and your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes/and your silver cross, and your voice like chimes/how do they think could bury you?)

It was that thin wild mercury sound.  The long loping guitar line on I Want You, the hard driving rock of Absolutely Sweet Marie and Memphis Blues Again.

Dylan had gone electric.


 

#3 of 10 X 10 Kronos Quartet: Released 1985-1995

kronos

The first thing wrong was the number of pickup trucks in the parkade, the second the oversized lava lamps lining the stage, the third the fact that there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. This was Edmonton, Alberta, and we were expecting the Kronos Quartet.  Out came Pablo with his guitar slung over his shoulder.  The audience went wild.  We slunk out after the first number, distinctly out of place.

I think this happened in February 2003 because Yoke-Sum photoshopped George W. Bush’s face on a Pablo poster for the Canada-wide protests against the US invasion of Iraq the following weekend.  We were among 8000 who marched in Edmonton.  It was the first demo I had been on since my student days.

When we finally saw Kronos they were incandescent—supremely hip, highly theatrical, and the antithesis of everything conjured up by the words chamber music and string quartet.  But why?  I remember the devastating use of string sections in some of my other favorite albums, like Alejandro Escovedo’s Bourbonitis Blues or Bill Callahan’s Rough Travel for a Rare Thing, recorded live with bass, drums, and three manic fiddles in a small club in Melbourne, Australia in one November day in 2007.

The ages of 15 to 17 were a fluid time when things were not so much taking shape as constantly kaleidoscoping, falling in and out of place. Not unlike 48-52, the age I was when I saw Kronos.  My later teens were less a work in progress than an experiment in trying on selfs, aided and abetted by the Beats, the Penguin Modern European Poets (Seferis, Prévert, Apollinaire) and Albert Camus (The Fall) among many others. An imagined Paris joined my imagined America.  It was all so various, so beautiful, so new.

I couldn’t wait to leave home.  But for the time being I had to content myself with a small band of friends united by our disdain for the provincialism of the Medway Towns and the jockstrap-and-Sandhurst team spirit our minor public school was trying to beat into us.  (Lindsay Anderson’s film If needs to be seen as a masterful documentary.)  Later, there were girlfriends.  Marion, with whom I went steady for a year in the time of the folk club, was the daughter of a teacher at the local art school.  His abstract paintings filled their house.  She had a thing for Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Beethoven.

Music was a big part of the rebellion.  My closest friend Peter Brewis was always bottom of the class but made it to the Royal College of Music and never looked back.  (Check him out on Wikipedia.)  It was Pete who introduced me to surrealism, Bartok string quartets, and Cathy Barberian singing Luciano Berio’s mindblowing Sequenza III for female voice.

What is interesting about this period, in retrospect, is that our musical tastes were so much more catholic than those I encountered at university a couple years later.  All the cool Essex students had all the same albums—Songs of Leonard Cohen, Hendrix, the Band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and if you were *really* cool The Velvet Underground and Nico or Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats.  Not to mention the inevitable Beatles, who had by now transformed themselves from family favorites into New Age gurus.

We now have at least a dozen Kronos albums on our shelves, but the one that introduced me to their astonishingly wide-ranging art was the sampler Released 1985-1995, which includes the haunting first movement of Steve Reich’s Different Trains and the pulsating third movement of Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 5.  Yoke-Sum has told the story of our new red Audi A4 and our mad rush to see Philip live in Calgary in her own 10 X 10.

Every track points somewhere else.  But momentarily, everything comes together in the glorious discords of Kronos’s 1995 rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze.

Footnote.  Yoke-Sum tells me I’ve mixed up two events at the Winspear Centre.  The Pablo fiasco did happen, but it was not the Kronos Quartet we were expecting to see.  We saw Kronos earlier—possibly on February 8, 1999, when (a Google search reveals) they opened the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s rESOund Festival of Contemporary Music.  She adds that the tickets cost us ten bucks each.  The ESO were selling them off cheap at the university because they didn’t want to be embarrassed by an empty house.


 

#4 of 10 X 10  Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

birth of the cool

I first got into modern jazz (as it was then known) around age 15, when I struck up a brief friendship with Tilly Haines, a nerdish boy in the year above me who was a member of the school jazz club Emanon.  (Tilly was a nickname, I have no idea what his real name was.)  Emanon—No Name spelled backwards—was run by the young history master Mr Humphries, who was a very cool cat, at least in our eyes.  He had a pretty young wife and two long rows of jazz LPs in the stereo console underneath the turntable.

The name Emanon was a dig at the very select intellectual discussion group Eranos run by the prickly old English master Mr Newman, which took its moniker from the ancient Greek word for a pot-luck dinner (ἔρανος).  The German sociologist Max Weber belonged to a Heidelberg Eranos at the beginning of the last century.  Weber’s biographer Joakim Radkau tells us that “this private gathering of men often became really boisterous and ‘all too male.'”  The same might be said of my schooldays.

I felt honored when I was invited to join Emanon, a privilege normally reserved for sixth-formers.  Gatherings took place after school in the early evening in the living room of Mr and Mrs Humphries’s lodgings in School House (it was a boarding school, though I was a day-boy).  Mr Humphries instructed us in the distinctions between bop, post-bop and modal jazz.  Free jazz hadn’t yet crossed his radar.  Mrs Humphries served tea.

Mr Humphries never lent out his records but Tilly Haines did.  I guarded them with my life.  I felt so special catching the bus home from school clutching a Monk, or Mingus, or Miles LP under my arm.

Tilly lent me Birth of the Cool.  The album is a 1957 compilation of tracks recorded by the Miles Davis nonet during three sessions in 1949-50, after Miles split from Charlie Parker.   The nonet was a larger group than Miles would use for most of the fifties and sixties—comprising trumpet, two saxophones, trombone, tuba, and French horn in addition to the rhythm section—and the compositions, as many critics noted at the time, were often closer to Ravel and Debussy than to bebop.  This was the first of Miles’s collaborations with Gil Evans.  Later they would produce Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and the sublime Sketches of Spain.

I loved the rich colors of the horns.  I loved the mysterious track titles: Jeru, Venus de Milo, Moon Dreams, Rouge.  But most of all, I suspect, I was in love with the idea of the cool.

The first jazz record I owned was Kind of Blue, picked up secondhand in a Maidstone flea market.  It has never been out of my collection since, though I must have gone through at least four copies in vinyl alone by now.  Miles was an essential part of my soundtrack to university (In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Live at the Fillmore) whatever the other kids were listening to.

Still is.  As our standard poodle Luci slows into a comfortable old age she has developed this evening ritual.  She snoozes, waiting for us to finish eating dinner.  As the cutlery are put down on the plate she wakes, gets up from the floor, stretches.  I take her for her last walk of the day, just around the block.  On her return she sits down by the stereo, looking at me expectantly.  I put on a record.  She settles down on the sofa, puts her head between her paws and drifts off to sleep.

Occasionally I get to play something else, but nine times out of ten Luci’s lullaby is the sweet sounds of Miles.


 

#5 of 10 X 10  Begum Akhtar: Thumrees and Dadras

begum akhtar

I recently received an invitation to a 50th anniversary reunion “for those who were at Essex University during the Academic Years 1967/8 and 1968/9 and who considered it to have been a positive experience worth celebrating.”  The website is full of posters of student protests, mostly against the Vietnam War.  I have a vivid memory of a long-haired American exchange student whose name I’ve forgotten excitedly exclaiming “It’s a call to arms!” as the Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man blared from the juke-box.

It was me who came up with the idea for the “Revolutionary Festival” that features in Jean-Luc Godard’s film British Sounds, aka See You at Mao, which (the website says) started “with car-burning in the square.”  It was a bitterly cold day and we had set up a welcoming desk for the comrades on top of the ice of the frozen fountain in Square 4.

I was 17 when I went to university, one of a handful of students who had our photos posted behind the bar because we were still too young to drink.  My first year was heavy on the drugs and rock and roll but light on the sex.  I’m not surprised the girls kept their distance.  I was arrogant, pugnacious, and hopelessly immature.  I scraped through my end-of-year exams and was persuaded to take a year out for my own good.

I spent the summer of 69 in a sublet slum on Kingsland Road in Dalston.  My favorite album of the time was Ornette Coleman’s New York Is Now!  It went supremely well with dope.  A brief and passionate affair with a visiting Indian girl I met in Westbourne Park led to a flight to Bombay in December and a two-day train ride to Delhi.  The relationship didn’t last, though we parted good friends.  But my four months in India and the long road back (Lahore, Peshawar, Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Mashhad, Tehran, Tabriz, Erzurum, Ankara, Istanbul) left a lasting imprint.

I tried to write about it in my book Going Down for Air, a text from another time when the pieces were kaleidoscoping and being rearranged.

At some time during those first weeks [in India] it hits me that nothing in my head has remotely equipped me to deal with the realities I am encountering.  Least of all anything I have learned in my first year at university.  My concepts are irrelevant, my images awry. Words lose their grip. The quartertones in an old woman’s voice, quavering to a harmonium in a language I don’t understand, move me inexpressibly.  A sitarist picks up the refrain of Colonel Bogey from a car horn in the street outside, weaves it into his raga, and my world—First World, Second World, Third World—unravels.

The old woman whom I was lucky enough to hear perform in Delhi (she died in 1974) was one of India’s most distinguished classical singers, Begum Akhtar.  Back in the UK I chanced upon one of her records.  I bought it but seldom listened to it.  It didn’t feel right.  The record finally perished in the summer of 1997 when the basement flooded on my acreage in Coronado, Alberta.  I haven’t tried to replace it.

Every now and again I hear that voice in my head, coming out of nowhere—a reminder that there are always more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.  You could call it my very own affective turn.


 

#6 of 10 X 10 Maggie Teyte: Mélodies Françaises/French Songs

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The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street came out in May 1972, three months after I got married and a month before my final exams.  After that things could only go downhill.  The last decent Stones album was 1978’s Some Girls.  The next year Bob Dylan found Jesus.

Maybe it was the music.  Maybe it was me, settling into the comfortable ruts of marriage and career.  Either way I’m hard put to find many albums that really mattered to me in these years.  Bowie was clever but left me cold.  I had a guilty liking for Abba, which wasn’t just to do with Agnetha and Anni-Frid pirouetting in their miniskirts on an Australian stage.  Punk and reggae briefly excited me (White Man in Hammersmith Palais).  Born to Run flitted across my horizon, but it would be a long while before I properly appreciated Springsteen—or much else in popular music.  The train got diverted onto another track.

We moved to Glasgow in 1978 for my first academic job.  My wife got us a subscription to the Scottish Opera.  My first performance (Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra) had me hooked.   I saw most every production at the Theatre Royal over the next eight years, including their punk Rigoletto (Norma Burrowes sung a fabulous Gilda) and pathbreaking Janáček cycle with the Welsh National Opera.  Rigoletto was like Dylan’s 1966 English concerts.  Half the audience booed while the rest of us stood and cheered to the rafters.

I began to hunt down historic vocal recordings going back to the turn of the century.  Over the years I amassed a huge collection.  It, too, was destroyed in the great flood of 1997, but most of the dead sopranos—always my favorites—survived.  I kept them in the living room beside the stereo.  They are with me still.

John Steane asks whether we can ever get closer to the essential sound of the human voice than the acoustic inscriptions cut by a bobbing stylus on a revolving wax platter at the turn of the twentieth century.  I don’t know.  But straining to catch every note of Nellie Melba or Amelita Galli-Curci through the surface noise, I learned how to listen to music again with a focus I had not had since my teens.

I spent an awful lot of time with the divine Claudia Muzio, the tragic Meta Seinemeyer (she died of leukemia at 33), the ever-warm and eager Lotte Lehmann.  That was how I missed the eighties.

We (me, wife, baby daughter and the dead sopranos) emigrated to Canada in November 1986.  One Edmonton winter shivering at bus stops in minus 20 temperatures was enough.  When spring came I bought a Toyota Camry and learned to drive.  The next year I started teaching in the University of Alberta’s off-campus programs to earn extra money, mostly on native reserves.   It was a three-hour drive to Hinton, a pulp mill town on the edge of the Rockies with a Greek family restaurant and a motel that sported a stripper on Friday nights.

Mademoiselle Teyte was my preferred companion on the road, her voice soaring over the snow-bound prairies as I stepped on the gas and kept an eye out for the cops.  Born in 1888 in Wolverhampton in the Black Country, Maggie Tate (as she began life) first gained fame at the Opéra-Comique in Paris as Debussy’s hand-picked successor to Mary Garden as Mélisande, a role she reprised in London under Sir Thomas Beecham in 1910.  Her recordings of French song were all made in the 1940s, when she was in her fifties.

Reviens, reviens! Ma bien-aimée!

Comme une fleur loin du soleil

La fleur de ma vie est fermée

Loin de ton sourire vermeil.


 

#7 of 10 X 10 Tethered Moon: Chansons d’Édith Piaf

tethered moon

The year 1998 will always be associated in my mind with one of Bob Dylan’s greatest and darkest albums, Time Out of Mind.  That was when I rediscovered him.  It captured my mood, thirty miles out of town in cold irons bound.

Not dark yet, but it’s getting there.  Oh and yes, To Make You Feel My Love.

The storms are raging on the rolling sea
And on the highway of regret
The winds of change are blowing wild and free
You ain’t seen nothing like me yet

Only problem was, I was married to someone else.

My marriage ended that November.  In the next eighteen months I spent more time on my own than I had since my teens.  Following in Mum’s footsteps in more ways than one, I visited her in New Zealand (where she ended up after breaking up with her flying doctor and eventually remarrying) for ten weeks in the fall of 1999.  It seemed an appropriate time to touch base again.

After Christmas back in Canada with Yoke-Sum I left for Italy to teach the winter semester at the U of A’s school in Cortona.  My own company took some getting used to.  An old Italian hill town in January and February is a bleak place to be alone.

Yoke-Sum and I had recently discovered Winter and Winter CDs.  I played one disk constantly, Tethered Moon’s Chansons d’Édith Piaf. Tethered Moon is one of the many avatars of Paul Motian, who in an earlier incarnation was Bill Evans’s drummer on Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby.  It, too, crystalized my mood.

They return once in a way to the simplest possible statement of the melody. Masabumi Kikuchi plays such passages with infinite tenderness. Everything hangs on his phrasing, his timing, the unbroken line.  Gary Peacock plucks at the strings of the heart, his bass the very soul of Le Petit Monsieur Triste.  The little sparrow, her Paris—we need no more to beam us straight back. 

But the music takes us places Piaf would never have gone too.  Kikuchi turns her tunes inside out, probing, questing, trying on textures and colors and hues.  He stumbles, loses his way, finds unexpected routes home, hums, mumbles, snarls along with his piano.  Discords snag the flow, rhythms slide and shimmer between the instruments.  Holding it all together is the flawless delicacy of Paul Motian’s drumming.  He never seems to lay down a beat, nor does he ever miss one.

I quote myself in Going Down for Air, which I wrote in Edmonton, New Zealand, and Tuscany in 1999-2000 trying to come to terms with what often seemed an irreparably fractured life—even if I was in love.  I subtitled it A Memoir in Search of a Subject.

One other musical memory stands out sharp and clear from that time.  We’re in my little black Ford Ranger pickup truck driving back to Edmonton, on the stretch of Highway 1 between Banff and Calgary.  It’s a bright blue Alberta day, where the skies go on forever.

Lucinda Williams is on the stereo, the self-titled Rough Trade album.

The night’s too long; it just drags on and on
And then there’s never enough that’s when the sun starts coming up
Don’t let go of her hand; you just might be the right man
She loves the night; she loves the night


 

#8 of 10 X 10   Butch Hancock: The Wind’s Dominion

wind's dominion

Lucinda kickstarted a whole new—or better, perhaps, an old-new—infatuation with Americana, and the continent yet again opened itself up to my imagination.  After Yoke-Sum and I moved to the UK in 2004 the music took on additional freight.

At first we were seduced by the English countryside.  But before long we found ourselves missing North American landscapes—the kind of landscapes that are caught in William Eggleston and Stephen Shore’s photographs.  It wasn’t England’s pornographic prettiness I wanted but faded strip malls and back lanes lined with electricity poles, the billboards on the empty highways, the vastness of the prairie skies.

I never fitted back in the UK.  Not enough space.  I was homesick for somewhere else.

It was our Texan friend Wesley who first introduced me to the Flatlanders, back in Edmonton.  More a Legend than a Band, the 1990 reissue of their only album was called, with justice.  The group was founded in 1972 by three high school friends from Buddy Holly’s hometown Lubbock and disbanded a year later.  (They got together again in 1998 and have performed and recorded intermittently ever since.)

Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night? asks Jimmie Dale Gilmore in that inimitable sweet high tenor of his.  No I didn’t.  Dixie hadn’t yet made my bucket list.  But Lucinda, Guy Clark, and Townes van Zandt were on my case.  So were Jimbo Mathus, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and the Drive-By Truckers.  I was getting there.

When an unfortunate series of events involving an Icelandic volcano and a British Airways strike conspired to prevent me from attending a conference in Quito, Ecuador in 2010 I was stuck with a ticket to Houston for which I couldn’t get reimbursed.  We decided it was time to look up Wesley, who was by then working at Texas A & M University.

We took the long route from Houston to College Station via New Orleans, Bon Temps, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Austin.  Next year we returned and drove out west to Marfa.  We liked Texas so much we spent the 2013-14 academic year on sabbatical in Austin.  This time we flew from London Heathrow to Atlanta, Georgia, rented an SUV, and drove across country, following a musical trail through Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Memphis, Tennessee, and the Mississippi Delta, the best part of 1000 miles.  We took in Nashville on the way back.

Wesley visited us in Austin bearing a bottle of Bulleit Bourbon, most of which we downed during a long lazy sunny afternoon listening to the wailing sax of Ornette Coleman, a good ol’ Fort Worth boy.  I played him the late Geri Allen’s sublime piano rendition of Lonely Woman (on her 1997 album with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, Études), which he hadn’t heard before.  Lest we forget, Beyoncé comes from Texas too. My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma.  Roots music.

Butch Hancock sang The Wind’s Dominion at a celebration of Austin music hosted by Alejandro Escovedo at the Moody Theater and Jimmie Dale Gilmore did a set at Lucy’s Fried Chicken during South by South West.  The voice was limpid as ever.  We’d seen Joe Ely (along with Terry Allen and Ryan Bingham, billed as Texas Troubadors) at the City Winery in New York.  But we never did see the Flatlanders play together.

Later I found a secondhand vinyl of The Wind’s Dominion LP, recorded in Austin in 1979, at Reckless Records on Berwick Street in London.

Some call it the West Texas Blonde on Blonde.  The lyrics are surreal enough (try Mario y Maria, subtitled Cryin’ Statues/Spittin’ Images).  Only Born, which clocks in at just under ten minutes, is eerily Dylanesque in voice,  phrasing, and sentiment.  But it’s not that thin wild mercury sound.  Butch is backed by harmonica, a frenetic fiddle, banjo, accordion, autoharp, mandolin, upright bass, drums, piano, trombone and acoustic, electric, bass, pedal steel, and dobro guitars.  Sounds of the heartland.

And a reminder that there have always been other Americas.  You just need to listen.


 

#9 of 10 X 10  Nubya Garcia: When We Are

nubya when we are

After twelve years in the UK Yoke-Sum and I called it quits and returned to North America for good, landing in Calgary on 21 June 2016.  Two days later the Brexit referendum confirmed that Britain was no longer the kind of country we wanted to live in.

We passed through London (which is not in the UK) this April for the first time since we left, visiting family.   We had booked tickets for two shows at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club.  Ambrose Akinmusire, whose 2017 album A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard, had been on repeat on our stereo for weeks, was all we expected and more.

But 26-year-old Nubya Garcia, who composes and plays tenor sax, was something else.  This was jazz via funk, soul, calypso, grime, hip-hop and Afrobeat—though passages from her piano player Joe Armon-Jones could have come straight out of Satie or Ravel.

Though Garcia lists “Coltrane, Sonny definitely … Also Miles, McCoy, Sarah Vaughan, Billie, Alice Coltrane” at the top of her listening pile, she cut her teeth playing in “grime and garage nights in north London, dub nights across the river in south London, and … the infamous Steez performance jams” at the Fox and Firkin in Lewisham.

Nubya is one of the children of the so-called Windrush generation whose mistreatment by British immigration officials forced the recent resignation of Home Secretary Amber Rudd.  The hostile environment policy toward immigrants, legal and otherwise, was the brainchild of her predecessor, home counties vicar’s daughter and now Prime Minister Theresa May.

The African diaspora is at the heart of young London’s current jazz explosion, with women (saxophonist Camilla George, trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, vocalist Zara McFarlane) to the fore.  As well as leading her own quartet Garcia plays in the all-female group Nérija with trombonist Rosie Turtonhe, trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey and saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi (both of whom in turn also play in the Afrobeat band Kokoroko).  Garcia was named Breakthrough Act of the Year at the 2018 Jazz FM awards.  She is rapidly making her mark on the other side of the Atlantic too, having played to rave reviews this year in New York, New Orleans, and South by South West in Austin.

Nubya performs on no less than five tracks of the acclaimed We Out Here, a compilation recorded in three days in August 2017 and released by Brownswood Recordings earlier this year featuring Shabaka Hutchings, Theon Cross, Moses Boyd, Joe Armon-Jones, and Kokoroko among others.

The sleeve notes pull no punches:

Here in Britain, where we are exceptionally adept at cultural amnesia … music reminds us of Britain’s global past, and that London has never not known migration.  With the hideous proposition of the Brexit campaign, the racism and open anti-immigrant sentiment once again garnering national populism, the ongoing migrant crisis and nearly 100 years of racist immigration laws, We Out Here is timely code for we’ve been here, we are here, because you, dearest Blighty, were there. And we’re not bloody leaving.

Nubya Garcia’s latest EP When We Are is a great sample of her work.  The cheapest copy offered on Discogs sells at 70 Euro but it can be streamed and downloaded.  The cover artwork, by the way, is by her sister.  We were lucky enough to get one of the last ten vinyls ever (unless it is re-pressed, which it should be) at her Ronnie Scott’s show, which she signed for us afterward with a promise to come to Canada soon.

I shall treasure it—not only for the exhilarating music, but as a reminder that there are other Britains, too.   And that there is so much to be gained from listening to them.


 

#10 of 10 X 10  The Rolling Stones: Blue and Lonesome

blue and lonesome

Grant me an old man’s frenzy/Myself must I remake, wrote William Butler Yeats in his poem An Acre of Grass.

The Japanese artist Hokusai would have understood.  He once said that “my work until 70 was not worthy of attention.  At 73, I began to understand the shapes and structures of various creatures and plants.  When I become 86 my skill will become even finer, and at 90 I understand all its secrets. By 100 would my skill reach the realm of the divine?

I have long toyed with the idea of writing a book about old-age creativity.  Works made by experienced, practiced artists who have seen it all and are no longer too concerned about what the world thinks about them—and who, in the best cases, throw out the rule book and take risks like there’s no tomorrow.

Think late Cézanne, inventing a whole new language of cylinders, spheres, and cones, think Verdi’s late late shows Otello and Falstaff.   All of Janáček’s major operas except for Jenůfa were written after he turned 65.

Think Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series.  Listen to his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ song Hurt on American IV.  In American V, recorded a few months before his death, the Man in Black used all his artistry and all the frailty in what was left of his voice to wrench every last ounce of regret out of Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind.

Bob Dylan accomplishes something similar in his recent trilogy of Frank Sinatra covers.  Not so much raging (he did that in 2012’s Tempest) as crooning against the dying of the light, his pitch is far from perfect and the misses can be excruciating.  But the stripped-down arrangements of his longtime backing band give him an intimate stage on which to sing and he conjures new meaning out of the old warhorses, remaking them into something inimitably his own.  Like Billie Holiday and Willie Nelson he is a master of phrasing, caressing every line and word.

Neither Bob nor Billie ever had much of a voice to speak of, but there is more to singing than just making mellifluous sounds.  I’d take Maria Callas, in spectacular vocal decline in her 1961 Arias from French Opera, the voice rasping and wobbling and at times nearly breaking in its search for dramatic truth, over the vanilla beauty of a Kiri Te Kanawa anytime.  Like John Coltrane, Callas tested her instrument to the limits of expression.

Lucinda Williams passed 65 this year.  The bright vocal clarity I loved in her Rough Trade album is no more.  Too much bourbon, heartache and tequila.  Too much death.  She slurs her words as she gets older, so you really have to listen to catch the lyrics.

But her recent albums Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone and The Ghosts of Highway 20 are among her best work ever, and her vocal deficiencies—if that’s what they are—are an integral element in the bluesy, swampy, down-and-dirty Louisiana mix.  She sings of the crooked racist justice that is the way we do things in West Memphis, of the angelheaded prostitutes who teach their johns how to pleasure their wives, of the cruel Alzheimer’s that robbed her of the memory of her father as it took away his beautiful mind.

It is instructive to compare Lucinda’s 2017 re-recording of the 1992 album Sweet Old World with the original.  The worn and weary old voice reveals the depths in the songs, which she doesn’t so much sing as inhabit.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Blue and Lonesome, in which the greatest rock and roll band in the world cover twelve ancient Chicago blues numbers, most of them pretty obscure.  The Rolling Stones’ best album in 40 years is a loving, respectful return to their roots, where I first heard them back in 1964 when I was a thirteen-year-old boy and they weren’t too much older.

On the platform at Dartford Station, waiting for the train from Memphis to Chicago.

 

June 3-12, 2018

 

Three days after I posted my reflections on Trump’s Cabinet, Brexit voters, and Rolling Stone’s top twenty albums of all time on my blog, this appeared on Stereogum.  Another petrifying coincidence.

“The Beatles finish 2017 [sic!] with the top two selling vinyl LPs of the year: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (72,000 — powered in large part by the album’s deluxe anniversary reissue in 2017) and Abbey Road (66,000). The soundtrack Guardians Of The Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 is the third biggest with 62,000.”

 

Sgt.Pepper.Faces_

 

trump camp david jan 2018

 

Trump defends his “I am a stable genius” tweet at Camp David, surrounded by loyal toadies.  All white, all but one male, and almost all past retirement age (Paul Ryan was just born old).  And still partying like there’s no tomorrow.

 

A New Year’s feuilleton for 2018

17-trump-meme.w710.h473.2x

 

What do Rolling Stone magazine’s top twenty albums of all time and Donald Trump’s cabinet have in common, and what does it say about the state of the world at the beginning of 2018? 

 

1  The greatest albums of all time

I saw The Who perform My Generation at Rochester Odeon, where they were jointly headlining with the Spencer Davis Group, on April 23, 1966.  Rochester is a small town in Kent in south-east England, the Odeon was our local cinema, and I was 15.  It was my first rock concert.  The Spencer Davis Group topped the British charts that week with Somebody Help Me, their second #1 single of the year.  But it was My Generation—which had peaked at #2 in the UK the previous November but never got any higher than #74 on the US Billboard Hot 100—that became legendary.  The Who never had a UK or US number 1.  Still, Rolling Stone magazine ranks Pete Townshend’s “immortal fuck-off to the elders in his way” as #11 in its “definitive list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.”

“I hope I die before I get old” screamed lead singer Roger Daltrey.  Drummer Keith Moon obliged when he succumbed to an overdose of barbiturates in 1978 at the age of 32.   Bassist John Entwistle partied on to age 57, when the stripper he had taken to bed the night before woke to find him dead of a cocaine-induced heart attack in his Las Vegas hotel room early one morning in 2002. Townshend and Daltrey continue to perform as The Who.  By the time they headlined Superbowl XLIV in 2010 both were on the verge of qualifying for their UK state pensions (Townshend was 64, Daltrey 65).  On that occasion they tactfully omitted My Generation, but it is usually a highlight of every show.

Nowadays Daltrey is a high-profile Brexit supporter. “We went into the Common Market in 1973,” he told the Daily Mirror.  “Do you know what was going on before we went in?”

It was the 1960s.

The most exciting time ever—Britain was Swinging.

Films, Theatre, Fashion, Art and Music.

We were the World leaders.

You had Harold Pinter, The Beatles, John Osborne, Mary Quant, The Stones, Queen … and The Who.

This was all before we joined the EU. We were just Kids but we were filling stadiums all round the World.

Britain was the centre of the World.

You got that because Britain was doing its own thing.

It was independent. Not sure we’ll ever get that again when we’re ruled by bureaucrats in the European Union.

Exactly which EU regulations would have prevented Harold Pinter, John Osborne, Mary Quant, and The Beatles from doing their own thing, Daltrey doesn’t say.  He neglects to mention that The Beatles debuted All You Need Is Love for the European Broadcasting Union program Our World—the first live international satellite television production—in June 1967, and that The Rolling Stones recorded their masterpiece, Exile on Main Street, at Keith Richards’s mansion Nellcôte in the south of France.  The album’s title references the fact that the band fled the UK for the Côte d’Azur in 1971 to escape the long arm of the British taxman.

Daltrey is not the only aging rocker nostalgic for a half-remembered golden past.  Despite having previously dismissed Brexit as a “romantic delusion of Victorian isolation” in which “There’ll be no industry, there’ll be no trade, there’ll be nothing—a slow, dismal, collapse,” John Lydon—better known as Johnny Rotten, the infamous lead singer of the 1970s punk band the Sex Pistols—proclaimed in March 2017 that “The working class have voted and I support them.  Let it be a nice exit.  A truly brilliant British exit.”  He went on to describe Nigel Farage as “fantastic,” adding that Donald Trump (whom he insisted was not racist) was “the political Sex Pistol.”  Everybody’s favorite Beatle Ringo Starr (who lives in Los Angeles) also thought Brexit was “a great move,” while former Smiths’ frontman Morrissey hailed the EU referendum result as “magnificent.”

It’s not quite Eric Clapton’s rant on the stage of the Birmingham Odeon on 5 August 1976, but it’s getting there:

Fucking wogs, man. Fucking Saudis taking over London. Bastard wogs. Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch [Powell] will stop it and send them all back. The black wogs and coons and Arabs and fucking Jamaicans don’t belong here, we don’t want them here. This is England, this is a white country, we don’t want any black wogs and coons living here … Enoch for Prime Minister! Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!

Clapton is ranked #2 on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 greatest guitarists.  It must have galled him to lose the #1 spot to Jimi Hendrix, a black American whose career took off after he moved to the UK in late 1966.

The Who don’t make the top twenty in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” but their 1970 effort Who’s Next checks in at a creditable #28.  The list echoes Daltrey’s assessment of the 1960s as “the most exciting time ever.”  No less than seven of the top ten albums—The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (#1), Revolver (#3), Rubber Soul (#5), and White Album (#10), Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (#4) and Blonde on Blonde (#9), and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (#2)—were released between 1965 and 1968.  This was peak sixties, understood as a cultural phenomenon rather than a chronological decade.  The sixties went together with sexual intercourse, which as Philip Larkin famously observed began “In nineteen sixty-three … Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban/And the Beatles’ first LP.”  They ended in a swirl of violence at Altamont Speedway in San Francisco on December 6, 1969 when Hell’s Angels killed a black teenager, Meredith Hunter, as The Rolling Stones were performing on stage.

The remaining three albums in Rolling Stone’s all-time top ten are Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? (#6, 1971), the Stones’ Exile on Main Street (#7, 1972), and The Clash’s London Calling (#8, 1980).  Entries 11-20 in the list marginally expand the timeframe to include Elvis’s mid-1950s Sun Sessions (#11), Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (#12, 1959), Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (#16, 1975), and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (#18, 1975)—and give us yet more peak sixties with Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? (#15, 1967), The Velvet Underground and Nico (#13, 1967), Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks (#19, 1968), and the Beatles’ Abbey Road (#14, 1969).  Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991) at #17 and Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982) at #20 round out the top twenty, bringing the total number of albums recorded after 1975 to three.

Acoustic recording has been with us since the turn of the twentieth century, electrical recording since the mid-1920s, and the long-playing record since 1948.  Yet 15 of Rolling Stone’s top twenty albums of all time hail from the single decade 1965-75, and 11 of these date from 1965-9.  The Beatles alone produced a quarter of the albums in this list (and three of the top five).  For those of us with long enough memories this cannot but bring back that astonishing week of April 4, 1964 when John, Paul, George, and Ringo held the #1-5 positions in the Billboard Hot 100 with “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Twist and Shout,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Please Please Me.”  Who could doubt that Britain was the center of the world?  I was 13.

The Rolling Stone editors compiled their “definitive list of the 500 greatest albums of all time” in 2011 on the basis of two polls, one carried out by a panel of 271 “artists, producers, industry executives and journalists” in 2003, and the other undertaken “by a similar group of 100 experts” in 2009 to pick the best albums of the 2000s.  I don’t know who these experts were, but that the most recent album to make their top twenty was recorded twenty years earlier, in 1991, speaks volumes.  So does the fact that despite the enormous indebtedness of Anglo-American popular music to Afro-American musical genres only four of the top twenty albums—and only one in the top ten—are by black artists.  The only female singer to make the top twenty is Nico, who fronted the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut but thereafter left the band.  My generation, baby.

 

2  The highest IQ of any cabinet ever

Many Rolling Stone readers would no doubt resent the comparison, but this arrogant equation of the formative musical landmarks of a generation with the best of all time brings to mind the hyperbole of Donald Trump, for whom never in history has there been so huge an inaugural crowd, so massive a tax cut, so persecuted a president.  His cabinet, Trump claimed, had “by far the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever assembled.”  Whatever its intelligence, just like Rolling Stone’s top twenty albums that cabinet was also conspicuously old, white, and male.

Trump’s first cabinet contained 18 white men (as compared with Obama’s 8, George W. Bush’s 11, Clinton’s 10, and George Bush’s 12) and only 6 women and members of ethnic minorities—two of whom, Elaine Chow and Nikki Haley, did double duty as both.  None of the latter occupy major offices of state, as Condoleeza Rice did under George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton did under Obama.   While the racial and gender biases of Trump’s cabinet have been widely noted—along with its members’ unprecedented wealth, which Quartz values at $9.5 billion, more than the bottom third of all American households combined—less attention has been paid to the cabinet’s age composition.

At 70, Trump is the oldest man to begin a first term as US president, beating the record of 69 set by Ronald Reagan—whose dementia symptoms, according to his son, already manifested during his first term.  Trump likes to be surrounded by folks from my generation.  The average age of his first cabinet was 62 years, compared with 58 for Obama’s and 55 for George W. Bush’s.  This is the oldest cabinet in American history.

Of the 24 current US cabinet members and cabinet rank officials, Wilbur Ross (80), Dan Coats (74), Sonny Purdue (71), Jeff Sessions (71), and Robert Lighthizer (70) are older than any Obama or Bush appointee, while Linda McMahon (69), Jim Mathis (67), Rick Perry (67), John Kelly (67), and Ben Carson (66) are all also at or past the normal US retirement age.  If we add Rex Tillerson (65) and Elaine Chao (64), fully half of the US cabinet is over 64—the age at which, on Rolling Stone’s #1 album of all time, Paul McCartney looked forward to a quiet retirement doing the garden, digging the weeds, while his lover dandled their grandchildren on her knee.  Betsy DeVos (59), Mike Pence (58), David Schulkin (58), and Ryan Zinke (56) are in their later fifties.  Only four members of cabinet—Alex Acosta (48), Kirstjen Nielsen (45), Nikki Haley (45), and Scott Pruit (49)—are under 50.  The rest are all old enough to remember where they were when Elvis died.

The same pattern prevails across the legislative and judicial branches of US government.  In 1981, the average age of congressmen was 49 and of senators 53.  The comparable ages today are 59 and 63—on average, Congress has aged by ten years since Ronald Reagan first entered the White House.  In the current Congress 14.4% of congressmen are 65-69, 14.2% are 70-79, and 2.35% are over 80, while 20% of senators are 65-69, 17% are 70-79, and 8% are in their eighties—meaning that over 30% of congressmen and almost 45% of senators are past the normal retirement age of the rest of US society.   The gap between the average age of Americans and that of their congressional representatives is the same as that between the most recent entry in Rolling Stone’s top twenty albums and the date the list was compiled—twenty years, which is to say a full generation.

The average age of US Supreme Court justices is over 69, and the projected age when a justice will leave the Supreme Court is now 83—ten years later than it was in the 1950s.  Assuming good health, Trump’s controversial nominee Neil Gorsuch, who joined the court at age 49, can expect to still be there in 2050.  People over pension age lead both the Republican and Democratic parties: Mitch McConnell may be 75, but Chuck Schumer is 67, Elizabeth Warren 68, Hillary Clinton 70, and Nancy Pelosi 77.  Bernie Sanders, who is currently regarded by many on the left as the only candidate who can beat Trump, is a sprightly 76.  Should Sanders be elected in 2020 and survive his first year in office the US would have its first octogenarian president (Reagan was “only” 77 at the end of his second term).

While Americans seem to regard their gerontocracy as unremarkable, this pattern is strikingly out of line with other western democracies.  The average age of Theresa May’s cabinet in the UK is 56, and only one minister, 69-year-old David Davis, is over 62.  Some might think it appropriate that he is the minister in charge of Brexit.  In France the average age of ministers is 54.6, while Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is 46 and President Emanuel Macron is 39.  The average age of Angela Merkel’s cabinet is 52.  Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is the only member of his government over the age of 60, and 13 of his 22 cabinet members are under 50.  Canada’s Justin Trudeau is now 45, and presides over a gender-balanced and ethnically diverse cabinet whose average age is 50.  New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is just 37.

Most of these folks are way too young to remember the Summer of Love, Woodstock, or Altamont.  Not to mention the assassination of JFK and Martin Luther King, the marches from Selma to Montgomery, the Vietnam War, Watergate, or any of the other formative political experiences of my generation.

It is an ironic coincidence, in this context, that in 2016—the year Trump was elected—the number of millennials (those then aged 18-34) in the US population reached 75.4 million, surpassing the 74.9 million baby boomers for the first time.  Generation X (those aged 35-50) is projected to overtake the boomers by 2028.   The boomers are understood here as those who were aged 51-69 in 2015, i.e. people born between 1946 and 1964, but many scholars have argued that from a cultural standpoint the boomer generation is better understood as having begun with people born in the early 1940s.  Many of those most closely identified with the sixties, including The Beatles (b. 1940-43), Bob Dylan (b. 1941), and Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones (b. 1942-3), were war babies.  So were Roger Daltrey (b. 1944), Pete Townshend (b. 1945), and Eric Clapton (b. 1945).  When The Who immortalized my generation, this was the cohort they were talkin’ ’bout.

However we date the start of my generation, in Donald Trump’s cabinet and other US institutions of government not only is power heavily concentrated in its hands, but this concentration has increased even as the proportion of over 50s in the population has declined.  We are hangin’ in there for dear life, baby, and gatecrashing all tomorrow’s parties.

In the 2016 American presidential election boomers formed the single largest age cohort of Donald Trump’s voters.   Clinton emphatically outperformed Trump among 18-24 year olds (56%-34%), 25-29 year olds (53%-39%) and 30-39 year olds (51%-40%), but Trump took 53% of the vote of those aged 50 and over.  Indeed, 62% of his voters were over 45.

Much like Rolling Stone’s top twenty albums of all time, Trump’s supporters reflect America’s divisions of race and gender as well as age.  Whites voted 58% for Trump and 37% for Clinton, while Hispanics voted 65% for Clinton and 29% for Trump and African-Americans voted 88% for Clinton and 8% for Trump.  Overall, Trump won the votes of 53% of men and only 41% of women.  But 63% of white men voted for Trump—and so did 53% of white women despite his advocacy of “grabbing them by the pussy.”  While white non-Hispanic Americans made up 61.3% of the US population in July 2016, 87% of Trump’s supporters were white.  Only 4% of Afro-American women voted for Trump as against 96% for Clinton.

As I mentioned earlier, the political institutions of the UK are not as gerontocratic as those of the US.  The average age of UK Members of Parliament is 51, only two years higher than it was in 1979, and Britain’s youngest MP Mhairi Black was just 20 when she was first elected in 2015.   But age did play a crucial role in the Brexit referendum.  The slender majority (52%-48%) in favor of leaving the European Union was delivered by a similar Trumpian combination of mostly older, predominantly white voters.

As in the US presidential election race, class, locality, and educational level also played a part in shaping people’s choices (though gender was not as significant an axis of division).   But on average, the older the voters the more likely they were to vote leave.  While 73% of those aged 18-24 and 62% of those aged 25-34 voted to remain in the EU, a majority of my generation—and 65% of over-65s—chose to leave.  Twenty-seven of the 30 areas with the highest proportion of elderly people in the UK voted leave, while London, whose proportion of inhabitants aged 65 and over is well below the national average, voted decisively (60%) to remain.

None of this is to say that age is the only factor in shaping these votes.  Nor is it to deny that large numbers of older people are as appalled by Trump and as devastated by Brexit as I am.   Many of them—including some old-time rockers like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Geldof, and Neil Young—have been prominent in resisting the sharp right turn in Anglo-American politics.  But the fact remains that it was the votes of my generation (or more accurately, the white part of it) that took Britain out of the European Union and put Donald Trump in the White House.

We are the elders now, and it is us that are standing in the way of the young.

 

3  Why don’t you all f-fade away?

As we enter 2018 I am not enthused by the prospect of a future in which classic rock radio stations have Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pet Sounds on endless repeat while the refugee and migrant hordes are kept at bay by Trumpian walls.

Instead, I despair at the breathtaking selfishness of my generation—the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-lived generation the planet has ever known, in part because of the seventy years of peace safeguarded by the framework of international institutions, including the UN and the EU, that the Brexiteers and Trumpers are busy demolishing.  Yes, I know Europe and the US offshored their wars after 1945, but this too was part of my generation’s extraordinary—and entirely unearned—good fortune.

Certainly these privileges have not been shared equally.   But it is fair to say that more baby boomers—especially white baby boomers—have enjoyed security of employment, home ownership, decent pensions, rising living standards, and affordable healthcare and education than in any generation before or since.   They seem determined to keep these privileges for themselves, at whatever cost to their grandchildren.

The young are meantime trying to make their way in a world in which job security and guaranteed pensions have become a thing of the past, home ownership is beyond most pockets, post-secondary education comes at the price of crippling debt, the welfare state is under siege, and politicians react to climate change by withdrawing from international agreements and making a demagogic bonfire out of environmental regulations.  In the UK Roger Daltrey-style nostalgia for a non-existent golden-age past has also robbed them of the opportunity to live, marry, and work freely across the 28 countries of the EU—an opportunity the baby boomers have enjoyed for over 40 years.

Today’s Anglo-American world is ruled by the most privileged members of an entitled and narcissistic generation that will not consider sharing its wealth or its power.  My generation played a disproportionate part in voting them into office.  The new gerontocratic order is epitomized in Donald Trump’s cabinet.  But it is also reflected in Rolling Stone magazine’s exclusionary list of the top twenty greatest albums of all time.

I cannot help thinking it would have been better if a few more of us had died before we got old.  Just enough that the young really could say fuck off to their elders, and not just through their music.

 

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Even more behind the times.

I posted this list on Facebook last December as I always do this time of year, but for some reason neglected to post it here.   

blood orange

 

TOP 5

1 Blood Orange—Freetown Sound
2 Beyonce—Lemonade
3 Rolling Stones—Blue and Lonesome
4 Martha Wainwright—Goodnight City
5 Lucinda Williams—The Ghosts of Highway 20

lucinda ghosts

5-10 (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)

Solange Knowles—A Seat at the Table
Conor Oberst—Ruminations
Gillian Welch—Boots No.1 (The Official Revival Bootleg)
Miranda Lambert—The Weight of these Wings
Miles Davis—Freedom Jazz Dance (Bootleg Series Vol. 5)

 

Solange

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Mitski—Puberty 2
Margo Price—Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Drive-by Truckers—American Band
Mavis Staples—Livin’ on a High Note
Kendrick Lamar—Untitled Unmastered

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MOST LISTENED TO ALBUM THIS YEAR (released as box set in 2003 or thereabouts):

The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings of The Miles Davis Quintet January 1965 to June 1968.

CLOSE BUT …

No Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, or Felice Brothers (whose new albums I liked this year) or Neil Young (who got way too preachy for me this time around).

 

bey lemonade

 


PS

Had I heard Alejandro Escovedo’s Burn Something Beautiful when it was released, late in the year, it would have made my 2016 top ten.  Highly recommended.

burn something beautiful

 

 

Not for the first time, I am behind the times.  Wrapped up in dead operatic sopranos, I managed to miss the entire 1980s.   Probably my most played record this year, bought on a whim at Luke’s Drug Mart in a luxurious triple-gatefold vinyl package, was Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which was released on November 22, 2010.  Kanye may be all kinds of fucked up but I belatedly realize that he’s a musical genius.

The most carefully (and repeatedly) listened to music in our household this year was undoubtedly the 3-CD set Miles Davis Quintet Live in Europe 1967.   This is because of our very discerning standard poodle Luci, who would listen to Miles every night if she could.

luci appreciating miles

 


 

These are my top ten albums that were actually released for the first time in 2017.  In no particular order after #3.

  1.  Celebrate Ornette!

Lovingly put together by Denardo Coleman, who made his debut at the age of ten drumming on Dad’s 1967 Blue Note album The Empty Foxhole (Charlie Haden played bass), this lavish box set of 3 CDs, 2 DVDs and four vinyl LPs contains all the music from the June 2014 “Celebrate Ornette” tribute concert at the Prospect Park in Brooklyn and the memorial service for Coleman on June 20, 2015 in Riverside Church in Manhattan.  In what turned out to be his last public performance, Ornette himself opened the Brooklyn show with “Ramblin'” and “OC Turnaround.”

Others performing at “Celebrate Ornette” included saxophonists Henry Threadgill, Branford Marsalis, David Murray, Joe Lovano, and Ravi Coltrane; trumpeter Wallace Roney Jr; guitarists James Blood Ulmer, Thurston Moore, and Nels Cline; keyboardists Geri Allen and Bruce Hornsby; the Patti Smith Group; bassist Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers;  the “Ornette Reverb Quartet” made up of Laurie Anderson, John Zorn, Bill Laswell, and Stewart Hurwood; and the Master Musicians of Jajouka.  The celebrations ended with a 20-minute rendition of Ornette’s “Lonely Woman” by Geri Allen, Lovano, Marsalis, Coltrane, Murray, Roney, and the Denardo Vibe house band.

Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders, Ravi Coltrane, Henry Threadgill, David Murray, Joe Lovano, Geri Allen, Jack DeJohnette and the Prime Time Band were among those who gave Ornette a rousing harmolodic send-off at the Riverside Church a year later.

Sadly, Geri Allen herself passed away this year at the untimely age of 60.  It is a great loss to music. Her 1988 album Études, with Charlie Haden on bass and Paul Motian on drums, opens with one of the loveliest renditions of Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” ever recorded.

Yoke-Sum and I felt privileged to have helped crowdfund this glorious memorial to the Texan with the white plastic horn who forever changed the shape of jazz to come—while never forsaking its roots in the blues.

ornette

 

2.  Kendrick Lamar Damn.  Insidious and hypnotic.  Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence?

3.  Lucinda Williams This Sweet Old World

You think you know these songs until you don’t.  The queen of alt country—or whatever else you want to call it—has not just re-recorded her 1992 album, she has reinvented it.  Every last note of every song makes you realise (again) that Lucinda Williams is one of the greatest songwriters alive today.  The voice is cracked and worn, but it wears so very well.  Like Mr Dylan, Lu’s a great singer.  One for the ages.  Favorite tracks: all of them.

4.  Ambrose Akinmusire A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard

Two hours of wildly inventive, genre-bending music from a fabulously imaginative trumpeter.  A worthy addition to all those other great “Live at the Village Vanguard” recordings from way back when … John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Joe Lovano.  Not to forget Geri Allen.

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5.  Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile Lotta Sea Lice

Who could resist such laid-back lyrical quirkiness, not to mention the mesmerizing guitar work?  Eagerly awaiting Ms Barnett’s next solo album.  Favorite track: Blue Cheese.

6.  Vic Mensa The Autobiography

The shape of rap to come?  Sure it’s an uneven album, but as a debut it’s a compelling statement of intent.  Try the devastating Heaven on Earth.

7.  Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit The Nashville Sound

Doug Jones is not the only good thing to come out of Alabama this year.  With the ironically-titled The Nashville Sound, Isbell (who performed free on behalf of Jones) maintains the high standards set by his last two albums Southeastern and Something More than Free.  A great singer-songwriter (with a great band too in the 400 Unit—it’s nice to see them credited).  Can’t get out of my head: Anxiety

8.  Neil Young Hitchhiker

More gold dust from Neil’s ever-generous vault, this time an acoustic studio album, just Neil and his guitar, recorded in a single night on August 11, 1976 and not released until now.  There is a haunting, melancholic quality to these old–new songs, in which Neil hangs out with Pocohontas and Marlon Brando, Big John’s been drinking since the river took Emmylou, and even Richard Nixon has got soul.  Favorite track: Powderfinger

9.  Alice Coltrane The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda

I’m not a religious man, but then nor was Leoš Janáček (“No believer, no old man”), and he wrote the Glagolitic Mass.  Sublime.

10.  Colter Wall Colter Wall

Straight outta Saskatchewan.  Canadian country.  Gotta hear Colter, y’all.

 


 

Honorable mentions

Margo Price  All American Made

Chris Stapleton  From a Room 1 + 2

Conor Oberst  Salutations (with the Felice Brothers as his backing band)

Tyler Childers  Purgatory

Blue Note All Stars  Our Point of View   Another in a legendary series of great albums, this time with young guns Robert Glasper on keyboards, Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Marcus Strickland on tenor saxophone, Lionel Loueke on guitar, Derrick Hodge on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums.  Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter add old mastery.

Steve Earle, Ian Felice, Mavis Staples, the Rural Alberta Advantage, and Angaleena Presley all released very good albums this year and the BBC dropped the nostalgia bomb of the Rolling Stones On Air performances from 1963-5.   Great to cook to and played many times over already.  They didn’t make the cut.  We live in tough times.

 

lucinda williams sweet old world

 

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Actually, my real album of the year was Butch Hancock’s The Wind’s Dominion, which was recorded back in 1979. I heard it for the first time only this year, after stumbling across an old vinyl copy in Reckless Records in Soho (London) and I couldn’t stop playing it.

I first came across Butch Hancock as one of the legendary West Texas band the Flatlanders along with Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmour, three high school buddies from Buddy Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, TX who headed to Austin to escape Jesus and Prohibition. Ely later toured with the Clash. We saw Joe touring with Terry Allen and Ryan Bingham at the New York City Winery a few years back, hunted down Jimmie Dale performing at Lucy’s Fried Chicken at SXSW 2014, and saw Butch hosting the annual Townes Van Zandt celebration at the Cactus Café in the Texas Union building at UT the same year.

Butch sang “The wind’s dominion” at Alejandro Escovedo’s “United Sounds of Austin” at the ACL Moody Theater on January 11, 2014. Joe Ely, Lucinda Williams, Rosie Flores, Terry Allen, Kimmie Rhodes, and “the situation we know as Roky Erickson” were among the many other contributors to an evening that showed why Austin bills itself as the world capital of live music.

“The Wind’s Dominion” album has been called “the West Texas Blonde on Blonde.” Enough said.

Unfortunately Hancock’s surreal masterpiece (check “Mario y Maria [cryin’ statues/spittin’ images]” or “Long road to Asia Minor”) can’t be included in my albums of the year because the qualification is that the album has to have been released—though not necessarily recorded—for the first time in 2015.  So here goes.  They’re all very good indeed.

 

 The top ten

1  Courtney Barnett—Sometimes I sit and think and sometimes I just sit

2  Benjamin Clementine—At least for now

3   Jason Isbell—Something more than free

4   Pops Staples—Don’t lose this

5   Bob Dylan—Shadows in the night

6   Titus Andronicus—The most lamentable tragedy

7   Kacey Musgraves—Pageant material

8   Ashley Monroe—The blade

9   Shovels and Rope—Busted jukebox volume 1

10   Sleater-Kinney—No cities to love

 

Honorable mentions

Keith Richards—Crosseyed heart

Iris Dement—The trackless woods

Drive By Truckers—Great to be alive!

 Neil Young and Bluenote Café

Kamasi Washington—The epic

 

Hors de concours

Bob Dylan—The cutting edge 1965-1966

 

  1. Bob Dylan and the Band The Basement Tapes (complete)

The comic book and me, just us, we caught the bus. Recorded in 1967, released for the first time this year without cleanups or overdubs and in full. I bought Great White Wonder—the first bootleg—when it came out in 1969, read Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic/Old Weird America years later, have been waiting for this for far too long. Wins by a country mile.

  1. Paul Bley, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins Live at the Hilcrest Club 1958

Charlie Haden passed this year. I’ve spent hours listening to this album (and a lot more Ornette), a real find, #241 of 500 vinyl copies. The set was recorded live in LA a few months before Something Else! and The Shape of Jazz to Come hit the streets. Fond memories of Wesley Dean, a bottle of Bulleit, and a long Texas afternoon.

  1. Drive-by Truckers English Oceans (with a side of Black Ice Verité)

Likely their best album since Jason Isbell left. Saw them play much of the album live at Stubbs in Austin under the warm Texas night sky. On our way back to the UK we drove to Atlanta via Memphis, Nashville, and Athens, GA, where DBT recorded Black Ice Verité at the 40 Watt Club. That night Athens and the south got hit with its worse ice storm in decades, hence the name.

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  1. Lucinda Williams Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone

Her best since god knows when: Essence, Car Wheels, Rough Trade, depending on your taste. The voice has years in it, the words are slurry, the band is tight and the music tough. This album distills the south like Bulleit does. We saw her at Stubbs too. She rocked.

  1. Gary Clark Jnr Live

Jimi Hendrix reborn. One Austin boy we didn’t get to see, to my enormous regret. There’s still time.

   6.  Neil Young A Letter Home

Neil got a lot of flak for this set cut in a 1940s recording booth in Jack White’s Third Man Records studio in Nashville. When I’m in the mood I find the record unbearably affecting—especially Neil’s cover of Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death.” Maybe its the scratchiness of the recording and that thin quavering high tenor, maybe it was seeing Neil rocking the free world with Crazy Horse in Hyde Park later in the summer, or maybe it’s just that we made it there—to Third Man Records—this year as well.

   7.   Willie Nelson Band of Brothers

Actually I haven’t heard the full album yet. But it’s on order (we’re waiting for the vinyl) and we did hear Willie debut the title track when we helped him celebrate his 81st with about 5000 others at his annual birthday bash at the Backyard at Bee Cave, just outside Austin, Texas. Outlaw country. Nobody tells me what to do.

   8.  Sturgill Simpson Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

The chutzpah is justified. A great lyricist. Woke up today decided to kill my ego.

   9.   Karen O Crush Songs

Quirky, edgy and utterly unexpected.

  10.  Dave Douglas and Uri Caine Present Joys

I love both these artists, together or apart.  Douglas plays on Caine’s sublime reworking of Mahler, Primal Light.  His Charms of the Night Sky brings back another fondly remembered American roadtrip, and the Blum House where we stayed in Polymath Park in rural Pennsylvania.

157_Blum_House_Living_Room_640x499    

And some honorable mentions:

The Felice Brothers Favorite Waitress

Saint Paul and the Broken Bones Half the City

Johnny Winter Live Bootleg Special Edition (Record Store Day vinyl—I suspect his last record)

Micah P. Hinson and the Nothing

The New Basement Tapes (Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Taylor Goldsmith, Jim James, Marcus Mumford) Lost on the River.