Best of the year so far

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.

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Conor Oberst – Salutation

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Ryan Adams – The Prisoner

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Holy Holy – Paint

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Frontier Ruckus – Enter The Kingdom

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Jesu & Sun Kil Moon – 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth

2017 – Here’s hoping

Happy New Year. Surely, 2017 can only be better than 2016. But who knows at the moment? What’s for sure is that music will always be a comfort. In that spirit, highly anticipated 2017 releases include confirmed albums from Elbow, Fleet Foxes, Foxygen, Grandaddy, Grizzly Bear, Horse Thief, Nadia Reid, Nikki Lane, Real Estate, Ryan Adams, The Shins, Son Volt, Strand of Oaks, and Sun Kil Moon. And then there’s always the H-LM wish list. This year, it includes Adrian Crowley, Alela Diane, Anaïs Mitchell, Bill Callahan, David Vandervelde, Feist, Field Report, Fionn Regan, First Aid Kit, Israel Nash, Jason Isbell, Jim White, Laura Veirs, Lewis & Clarke, Noah Gunderson, and Phosphorescent. Mind you, some of these artists were on my wish list this time last year. So, fingers are tightly crossed. Whatever happens, let’s start the new year with some good news. Word is in that Kramies is recording new demos. I can’t wait to hear the end result. In the meantime, here’s Kramies (feat. Jason Lytle) with ‘Clocks Were All Broken’.

Here’s to 2016

This is always a really exciting time. A whole year of new releases to be anticipated. We know there’s material forthcoming from Villagers, Eleanor Friedberger, Andrew Bird, Dylan Leblanc, Shearwater, Tindersticks, Lucinda Williams, Sun Kil Moon, and Damien Jurado. There are also rumours of albums from Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, Robert Ellis, and PJ Harvey. That’s a good start. But there’s much more to hope for. Last year, I was really lucky. Right at the top of my 2015 list was music from Elvis Perkins and Sufjan Stevens and both were kind enough to oblige. So, artists, if you are listening, here’s my wish list for 2016 – Bill Callahan, Phosphorescent, Richmond Fontaine, Anais Mitchell, John Vanderslice, Bon Iver, Kathleen Edwards, Kate Bush, Grizzly Bear and/or Department of Eagles, David Vandervelde, Neko Case, Emmy The Great, Ryan Adams, Feist, Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s, Fionn Regan, Fleet Foxes, and, of course, Kramies. Do please oblige. In the meantime, here is the great one with his classic ‘Sea Otter Cottage’.

Best of 2015 … Big names

‘Tis the season to divulge one’s end-of-year lists. Here’s part 1: Great albums by big names.

Big names often disappoint. Oh, how I once looked forward to the latest release from Sting. Well, in an alternate universe anyway. Sometimes, though, the big artists continue to deliver great work. Here’s a selection from 2015. (Spoiler alert: Adele is not included in the following list.)

Neil Young + Promise of the Real – The Monsanto Years

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Following Neil Young is like being on a rollercoaster ride. After a couple of duds – Storytone, A Letter Home – he came back with a scorcher. A little preachy, to be sure. But with some fine tunes and playing that hits the heights of the great Crazy Horse, The Monsanto Years was so good it almost made me want to eat GMO food. Did I miss something?

Björk – Vulnicura

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I shall lay my heart bare. Indeed, I shall portray it as such on the cover of my album. There wasn’t much subtext on Björk’s album, but it was certainly raw and confessional. This was a Björk sans affectation, sans happening, sans the usual Björk. And all the better for that.

Don Henley – Cass County

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Don Henley isn’t a huge name in his own recording right, but the point is that he delivered a really nice album this year. The version of Tift Merrit’s ‘Bramble Rose’ was worth the price of admission on its own. Overall, there was a sense of an artist who wasn’t afraid to show that he was in the latter stages of his career. That’s refreshing. Especially when the tunes are as good as these.

Ryan Adams – 1989

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In my world, Ryan Adams is the biggest artist. This year he surprised us with a full cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989. Great cover songs transform the originals. And here was a whole album of same. It raised the idea of Taylor Swift covering Heartbreaker in its entirety. Oh be still my beating heart.

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Five reasons why Ryan Adams’ cover of 1989 is an instant classic

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Unable to listen to anything other than Ryan Adams’ cover of 1989 over the last couple of days, I got to thinking why I like it so much. Here’s five reasons I came up with:

  1. Because the trick of all great cover songs is that the new version transforms the well-known one, creating something genuinely original and Ryan Adams manages to pull off this trick no fewer than thirteen times;
  2. Because we’re reminded that even though they’re now all smothered in pop, Taylor Swift is still a great songwriter who pens poignant relationship songs that are up there with the best of them;
  3. Because it sounds like a 100 per cent bona fide Ryan Adams album and one that’s pretty much as good as anything he’s ever done, which is saying something;
  4. Because listening to a man singing songs written about a woman’s experience plays nicely with gender roles, even when the pronouns are sometimes changed around;
  5. Because it puts 1989 back on Spotify!

The five best Ryan Adams releases

What only five? Surely it’s impossible to choose just five from so many great releases? Well, it’s been difficult alright. But here goes. In reverse order.

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals – Cold Roses

Chock full of great songs and with the Cardinals at their peak, what could be better? Well, maybe the next four.

Ryan Adams – Gold

Ah, the big time.

Ryan Adams – 29

The third release in a single calendar year. Predictably ignored by the record company. This is a real treasure.

Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker

Neither the first nor the last argument concerning Morrissey, I’d wager.

Ryan Adams – Love Is Hell Pt. 2

Not being the greedy sort, I’m happy with just Pt. 2. For now.

They shall be reviewed

Here are some albums released in 2014 that slipped through the review net.

Lydia Loveless – Somewhere Else

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Wouldn’t it be great if Tom Petty had a guitar-toting younger sister who was invited to play a set at the CMAs. It ain’t gonna happen. So in the meantime, enjoy the album by Lydia Loveless. She sounds like Tom Petty’s guitar-toting younger sister playing a set at the CMAs. And with plenty of cussing.

Caitlin Harnett – The River Runs North

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Australian Caitlin Harnett recorded her debut album in Canada. There’s a definite Joni Mitchell vibe, but at times she sounds uncannily like Laura Marling. With Kathleen Edwards featuring on her album, it’s an impressive set of influences and a really strong collection of songs.

Sam Amidon – Lily-O

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Another fine outing from Mr Beth Orton. Reaching deep into the folk catalogues of various countries, Sam Amidon refashions them in his own image. Designed to get your fingers tapping and to realise that the past wasn’t always a better place.

Kevin Morby – Still Life

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Memorable tunes and slightly off-kilter lyrics. That’s always a good combination and on his second album Kevin Morby delivered more of the same. Note to KM’s manager. Release his albums earlier in the year and they’ll feature on more year-end, best-of lists.

Ryan Adams

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It’s hard to be disappointed with any Ryan Adams album. And his self-titled 2014 release wasn’t a total disappointment, but it didn’t quite hit the mark either. There were fewer jaw-dropping chord changes. Fewer tunes that were instant classics. But it did feature Johnny Depp on ‘Kim’.

Ryan Adams – A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …

Ryan Adams – Life After Deaf (Live in Glasgow, June 2011)

Somewhere there’s an alternate universe in which there’s only one media outlet that plays nothing but new songs, every one of which is written by Ryan Adams. This universe may not be very far removed from our own. This is, after all, the person who once delivered three albums in a single year, one of them a double, and all of them totally fabulous. This is the person who was asked by Cameron Crowe to write a track for his new film, Elizabethtown, and returned with a whole album of songs, most of which are better than the material that was actually used in the film. This is the person who retired from music in 2009, only to release a new album in 2011. Oh, and he also released a metal album in between times. Now, thankfully, Ryan Adams is officially back. He’s just released a set of recordings from his ‘comeback’ tour last year. It comprises highlights from 15 different shows, each sold separately, plus 74 digital-only previously unreleased bonus tracks, which is just a tiny part of his unreleased work. The Glasgow show is, probably, representative of these live releases. Like Neil Young, Ryan Adams at at his best when he’s loose, spontaneous, busy. Here, it’s just himself, a guitar, and, on one song, a gob iron too. This set favours the earlier years of his work. There’s ’16 Days’ from his Whiskeytown era, a sublime cut of ‘My Winding Wheel’ from Heartbreaker, and a really clean version of ‘Sweet Illusions’ from Cold Roses. There’s also a particularly fine rendition of ‘English Girls Approximately’, the lyrics of which which are only partly appropriate given the venue. Typically, on this set at least, there is nothing from Ashes and Fire, his 2011 album. On the Glasgow album, there’s at least one sign of his genius. An audience member, seemingly randomly, calls out ‘Goodnight Bob’. Adams then proceeds to improvise a song with that title. It’s genuinely funny. Sure, you could only listen to it once, but it’s got some nice chord changes, and it gives a glimpse of just how much talent lies within. What more is there to say about him apart from the fact that there is at least one alternate universe in which I would like to live.