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
Jesu & Sun Kil Moon – 30 Seconds To The Decline Of Planet Earth
Over his last few albums, Mark Kozelek has taken to incorporating fan letters into his songs. On his new album there’s just one. But the fan – Greg – really nails what makes Kozelek’s recent run of albums so great. “In the last few years”, Greg writes, “there’s been increasingly less and less distance between Mark’s experiences and the words that he writes, leaving the emotions uncovered and there for us all to tap into”. It’s well put and presumably Mark thinks so too. Like those other records, 30 Seconds … is yet another set of songs that rarely leave you indifferent. For sure, they can make you feel slightly uncomfortable. “Ask all the questions you want to and I’ll be polite, but I’m thinking fuck you ninety percent of the time”. They can also be plain funny, “After the show I’ll be back in my hotel room wackin’ my bone all alone, ’cause I’m nearly 50 and that’s just the way the wind blows”. But most of all there’s the sense of melancholy. The thought of what the future holds, “I’m feeling a little blue but not nearly as blue as I’ll be”, he says talking of his father, “when I won’t be able to call you”. And the sad stuff that’s in the present, “I couldn’t stop thinking of my sick friend, I was so distracted that I ended up leaving my wallet behind at a bank”. Once again, all of human life is here. There’s a song about visiting Laurie Anderson’s apartment, plenty of talk about Caroline and touring, a couple of references to Trump, a vignette about a show at SXSW, and mentions of cops, waiters, fans, and many more. And the music’s not too bad either.
Jesu / Sun Kil Moon
There’s no artist quite like Mark Kozelek at the moment. He’s not so much producing albums as presenting us with a series of personal journal entries. We get the exact dates and times of when he’s writing the lyrics. ‘Beautiful You’, August 31st 2015, 2.36 pm. We get updates on his various projects. It turns out that most of his scenes from the film he told us about in the last album ended up being cut. We check in with his family. His father’s doing OK, which is good to hear. He reads us a couple of fan letters. We get a hint of his reaction when he learns that Pitchfork only gave him a miserly 6.0 for Universal Themes. “What took them so long?”. It’s all so intimate, it’s like catching up with an old friend. But it’d all be merely a post-modern, internet-age trope if it wasn’t for the quality of the work. This album comes with some of Mark Kozelek’s most gut-wrenching lyrics, even by the standards of his recent material. On ‘Fragile’, we learn of his reaction to the death of Chris Squire. We get to hear a lot about how important Yes were to him, which is sort of interesting. But it’s when he makes the link between Chris Squire and Christopher, his teenage friend who had leukaemia, that things get really chokey. Yet even that pales next to ‘Exodus’. Referencing Nick Cave, Mike Tyson and Danielle Steel, he sends his love to all bereaved parents. It’s utterly respectful when name-checking the celebrities. Again, though, things soon get personal. Carissa, from Benji, his friend Chris, who we’ve just heard about, Katy, his ex-girlfriend, who’s present on almost every song on the album, his uncle Lenny, whose death we were told about on ‘Brothers’ from the Mark Kozelek and Desertshore album, all of them left behind bereaved parents. And Mark Kozelek shares their pain. He’s not part of the club, but he communicates the feeling of what it means to be a member like no-one else around. And as if that wasn’t enough, and whether it’s composed by him, Jesu, or other friends, some of the music is simply beautiful. For sure, the sludge guitar spoils some the tracks. Maybe it was an unconscious way of getting that 6.0 out of his system, but it doesn’t work. The lyrics get swallowed up. Yet on songs like ‘Father’s Day’, ‘Beautiful You’, and ‘Exodus’ again, the music is almost as unbearable as the lyrics. Mark Kozelek is a unique talent. It’ll be great to catch up with him again in a few months to see where he’s at, to find out how things are with his family, and to hear more stories about his life.