I was over the Uncut website and I came across John Mulvey’s list of his favourite albums of the first six months of 2017. I like John Mulvey and his writing. This time, though, I was struck by the fact that the list included 60 albums, now increased to 66. With 26 weeks in the first six months of the year or just over 180 days, he has included on average about 2.5 favourite albums per week or one about every three days. Now, let’s assume that he has left the same number of albums off his list. This means he has devoted quality listening time to about five albums a week, or one for every day and a bit. In fact, this figure is a little generous, because there aren’t very many releases in the first couple of weeks of January. Now, John Mulvey is a professional music journalist. He listens to music for a living. It’s his job to spot good music quickly and he’s good at it. All the same, my guess is that he has devoted at most about a day’s listening to the albums he’s calling his favourites of the first half of 2017. That’s not very much.
Here are my top five albums of the year so far. They are all cherished listens. And quite some time has been spent with them. What’s more, last weekend saw the release of three albums – Fleet Foxes, Jason Isbell, and Kevin Morby – that are all candidates for a top five spot. But I’m still getting to know them. So, I’m not going to include them here. Maybe they’ll feature in December’s end-of-year list? In the meantime, here’s my summer solstice favourites.
Conor Oberst – Salutation
Ryan Adams – The Prisoner
Holy Holy – Paint
Frontier Ruckus – Enter The Kingdom
Jesu & Sun Kil Moon – 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth
Conor Oberst has hit upon a great new idea. In October last year, he released Ruminations, a stripped-down set of new songs. Now, he’s released Salutations, a ramped-up collection of the same songs plus seven others. Whereas previously there was just himself on acoustic guitar or piano plus the occasional harmonica, here there’s a full band. The two albums complement each other really well. They’re not just the equivalent of a tired-old Deluxe edition. There are no outtakes. There are no demo versions, though the songs on Ruminations were always refreshingly immediate and raw. And there’s perhaps just one change of lyric, courtesy perhaps of the lawyers. On ‘Counting Sheep’, “[Someone] got killed walking to school, Hope it was slow, hope it was painful” becomes “Billy got killed walking to school, Hope it was quick, hope it was peaceful”. The result is two separate, but related albums, containing songs that are familiar yet transformed from one iteration to the next. In this manifestation, the band includes the great Jim Keltner on drums, plus sundry visitors, including M. Ward, Gillian Welch, and Jonathan Wilson. The most telling presence throughout, though, is that of Ian and James Felice. They bring their trademark controlled raggediness to the proceedings in a way that allows these versions to remain fundamentally true to the ‘difficult’ originals from last year. And the seven new songs are welcome too. In fact, you can almost hear some of them in full on Ruminations mode. ‘Overdue’ is perhaps the best example, “I’m in bed beside some jailbait, Meghan’s passed out on the staircase, Michael’s searching for a good vein, Tomorrow comes we’ll do the same thing”. Maybe Salutations was the idea all along. In which case, Ruminations is the treat. Or maybe it was only ever intended to be Ruminations. In that event, Salutations is the icing on the cake. Two different, but similar albums won’t work every time with every artist, but here it’s an inspired choice. And maybe there’s more. On the recent tour, there was another variation. Conor Oberst plus a solitary bass player. That sounded really good too. Time for the live album perhaps?
Ruminations is just guitar, piano, harmonica, Conor Oberst, and ten new songs. Written during a period of illness and recorded in only two days earlier this year, this is the work of an artist who after more than 20 years in the business is still chock full of bright ideas, lovely melodies, and impeccable song craft. Name checks include Christopher Hitchens, Oliver Sacks, poor Robin Williams, and Sylvia Plath. And that’s just in one verse on ‘A Little Uncanny’. Classical piano themes tumble down on ‘The Rain Follows The Plow’. And no two songs are ever performed in the same style. Guitar songs follow piano songs, and with varying measures of harmonica, or none, in both. So, with a format that would normally start to feel somewhat samey by about song three, here there’s a sense of still wanting more by the time St Dymphna has finally kicked us out on track ten. With such a stripped-down sound, a lot of emphasis is placed on the words. And there’s no one better than Conor Oberst to rise to that sort of challenge. But if any of the songs have an autobiographical aspect to them, then we should probably be a little concerned. “I don’t want to eat or get out of bed, I try to recall what the therapist said”, on ‘Gossamer Thin’. “Gun in my mouth trying to sleep, Everything ends everything has to”, on ‘Counting Sheep’. “… the modern world it’s a sight to see … It takes all my will not to turn it off”, on ‘Barbary Coast (Later)’. If this is a cry for help, then it can be heard loud and clear. Otherwise, there’s at least one political song. The line that Ronald Reagan “Got me to read those Russian authors through and through” is one of the few moments of light relief. And the paean to Mamah Borthwick and Frank Lloyd Wright is a welcome distraction, though we all know how that ended. Ruminations is a dark album. Hopefully, it was a cathartic album for Conor Oberst. We’re lucky to have it and we’re lucky to have him still around too.
This is the second all-star indie charity album produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National. Both have benefited the Red Hot Organisation, which is an HIV/AIDS not-for-profit. The first, Dark Was The Night, appeared in 2009 and featured some great tracks, including ‘Brackett, WI’ by Bon Iver and a lovely version of ‘Lua’ by Conor Oberst and Gillian Welch. This time the format is different. Clocking in at approximately three-and-a-half weeks long (only a slight exaggeration), Day of the Dead is a 59-track collection of Grateful Dead covers. The performers comprise a who’s who of contemporary indie royalty. There’s Courtney Barnett, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Kurt Vile, Local Natives, and many, many more. With such a stellar cast of characters, it’s difficult to know how to parse the contributions, not least because the running order varies as a function of whether you’re listening to it as a download or CD. There’s some slightly wearying experimental work on the second half of CD 4, but there are also some real revelations, ‘Black Muddy River’ by Bruce Hornsby and DeYarmond Edison being one, and, hard though it is to believe, ‘Friend of the Devil’ by Mumford and Sons. What’s really nice, though, is that the vast majority of the tracks sound just like you’d want them to. Whether it’s The War on Drugs, Phosphorescent, Bill Callahan, or The National themselves, they inhabit their respective covers really well. Some people will bemoan a certain lack of noodling, choogling, and general guitar boogying. And others will be dismissive of the fact that there isn’t more experimental excess, though there’s always The Flaming Lips. But by generally paring back the potential for unbridled extravagance, the Dessner brothers and Josh Kaufman have produced a much more cohesive album than might be expected. So, support Day of the Dead. It not only helps a worthy cause, it’s also, whisper it, a really good listen.
Not to be left behind, here are my favourite albums of 2014. A warning to those with a sensitive disposition. This selection includes some truly miserable albums. Ah, bliss.
Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards – Distance
Dan Michaelson is probably the best purveyor of down-at-luck-yet-still-with-the-strength-to-get-out-of-bed-in-the-morning songs around at the moment. This was yet another wonderful album in that vein. And he topped off the year with a Christmas song. A depressing one, of course.
Adrian Crowley – Some Blue Morning
Adrian Crowley can certainly clear a room at parties. Yet Some Blue Morning found him in a surprisingly upbeat mood. These things are relative, though. Put on the magnificent ‘The Wild Boar’ and watch the queue for the bathroom grow.
Sun Kil Moon – Benji
Not quite as memorable as last year’s collaborative affairs. A little more bitter and the first half of ‘Dogs’ should have had a R rating. But throughout it all the humanity shines through. And ‘I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same’ was an absolute classic.
Margot & The Nuclear So And So’s – Slingshot To Heaven
A resounding ‘return to form’ for Margot and her gang of glow-in-the-dark chums. Beautiful melodies about the human condition delivered in a sad and slightly world-weary way. There is simply no better recipe for a great album.
Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain
The boy genius returned with an album full of wonderful songs. From the rousing ‘Governor’s Ball’ to the contemplative ‘Common Knowledge’. And on this album he was patched up with the help of First Aid Kit. It only made things sound better still.
If you’re a boy genius, it must be pretty difficult growing up. There’s a weight of expectations after all. And if you’re an angst-ridden, spokesperson-for-a-generation, one-great-album-after-another, sort-of-sounds-like-you’re-speeding-but-you’re-probably-not boy genius, it must be really tough. Where do you go from there? Well, after a few missteps, quite a few of them with the Mystic Valley Band, Conor Oberst has proven that it’s possible to be a tortured and unnaturally productive boy genius and yet grow up to be a level-headed thirtysomething musician who can still turn out a fine album that deserves more than just a brief listen and a perfunctory ‘meh’. For one thing, Upside Down Mountain contains its usual share of Oberstisms. “I’ll never know if I’m delusional, I just believe that I am not”, he confesses on ’Time Forgot’. “If someone says they know for certain, They’re selling something certainly”, he insists, and not without a good deal of insight, on ‘Artifact #1′. For another, he’s enlisted the help of the Söderberg sisters and their First Aid Kit. Even if they’re repaying a certain debt, they sound just as fantastic as ever. And then there’s the arrangement. There’s a comforting country twang at times. ‘Lonely At The Top’ and ‘Night At Lake Unknown’ being good examples. But what stands out is the sheer variety of sounds. The washes of piano that come out of absolutely nowhere on ‘Enola Gay’. The twinkling mix of guitars, keyboards, and percussion on ‘Time Forgot’. Plus there’s the can’t-get-them-out-of-your-head melodies on songs like ‘Kick’, ‘Desert Island Questionnaire’, and the sublime closer ‘Common Knowledge’. Sometimes the term ‘genius’ is attributed too liberally. Conor Oberst, though, was a genuine boy genius. Upside Down Mountain suggests that his genius half-life is considerable indeed.