SO, we are almost to the point where there are only TWO MONTHS left in 2010! Which means, most importantly to those of us here at LITC, that Elijah and I have but two months to put the finishing touches on our annual “best of” lists (music, film, what-not).
In anticipation of that great day when we post aforementioned lists, I have put together a little “mix CD” with what I feel is some of the best music of the year–no guarantees that ALL of these bands will be on the list, but there are good “odds” (you might say) that some of them will certainly take their place on that hallowed post. (Note: there is one track not from a release this year, a rare Jeff Buckley/Elizabeth Fraizer collaboration that I only recently came across…so it’s NEW to me!)
I have entitled the mix, “Two Months,” which I only the moment I began writing consciously realised was the amount of time left in the year. I have included my stab at a cover for the mix (artwork from Craig Thompson), as well as the playlist so that you may recreate the song order on your own music management software.
I have posted the songs here in my “Dropbox”–I suppose you will have to download the program to access them (I’ve officially been told you do not), but I’ve found it quite a handy way to shar–um, access my own files from separate computers. I do present these songs with the intention of promoting the artists & always encourage true music fans to obtain the original release if they find themselves in love with the songs.
1. “I Think Ur A Contra”–Vampire Weekend/Contra
2. “Tyrant Destroyed”–Twin Shadow/Forget
3. “See How Man Was Made”–Josh Ritter/So Runs The World Away
4. “We Used to Wait”–Arcade Fire/The Suburbs
5. “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk”–The New Pornographers/Together
6. “Heart to Tell”–The Love Language/Libraries
7. “FootShooter”–Frightened Rabbit/The Winter Of Mixed Drinks
8. “I Walked”–Sufjan Stevens/The Age Of Adz
9. “Solitude Is Bliss”–Tame Impala/InnerSpeaker
10. “Never Before”–The Guggenheim Grotto/The Universe Is Laughing
11. “What Do You Think Will Happen Now?”–Owen Pallett/Heartland
12. “The Owl And The Tanager”–Sufjan Stevens/All Delighted People EP
13. “Acid Love”–Sleepy Sun/Fever
14. “All Flowers in Time Bend Towards the Sun”–Jeff Buckley & Elizabeth Fraizer/Rarities from NYC
15. “Sorrow”–The National/High Violet
16. “The Last One”–Au Revoir Simone/Still Night, Still Light
17. “Before You Go”–Sarah Jaffe/Suburban Nature
18. “Victory”–The Walkmen/Lisbon
1. Bob Dylan
Surprise, surprise – Bob Dylan is my favourite ‘band’. From a critical perspective, Dylan’s monumental place in the history of popular music is indisputable, yet despite his massive popularity and critical enshrinement, he is and has ever been elusive, in a constant state of artistic evolution. In Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Home, Dylan states, ‘I had ambitions to set out to find…this home that I’d left a while back. … I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be so I’m on my way home.’
In Greenwich Village, the epicentre of the post-McCarthy folk revival in the early sixties, Dylan would pick out which performers were ‘doing it for real’ and then pick up how they were doing it. Dylan states regarding performers he admired, ‘[There] was something in their eyes that said “I know something you don’t know” and I wanted to be that kind of performer.’ He describes the folk scene in the early 60s as divided into two camps: pop music for college kids and intellectual folk music – Dylan considered himself neither. In his 2006 autobiography Chronicles, Volume One he writes,’ There were a lot better singers and musicians around [Greenwich Village] but there wasn’t anybody close in nature to what I was doing.’ (London: Pocket Books, 18)
Eventually Dylan’s uniqueness brought him to the attention of Columbia Records’ John Hammond and although Dylan’s voice was not the standard at Columbia—home to the beautiful voices of those like Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis—Hammond’s track record for sales convinced the executives at Columbia that Dylan would be worth their investment. It was with Columbia that Dylan’s massive repertoire (over 600 original compositions) would take off and progress over the course of the last half-century.
Throughout his career Dylan’s music has undergone several significant shifts. In 1965 he ‘went electric’ with Bringing It All Back Home. This transition brought about accusations of ‘going commercial’ for money and fame. Famously, one audience member criticised Dylan, exclaiming ‘Judas!’ during a now-infamous performance at Royal Albert Hall in 1966.
In a 1965 interview with the Chicago Daily News, Dylan stated, ‘I’ve never followed any trend, I just haven’t the time to follow a trend. It’s useless to even try.’ Instead, Dylan saw his ‘going electric’ as a natural progression from his earlier style. In No Direction Home, he states, ‘An artist has got to be careful never really to arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere. … You’re constantly in a state of becoming.’
In 1966, not long after the release of his third electric record, Blonde on Blonde, Dylan was injured badly in a motorcycle accident. ‘Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race,’ Dylan writes. ‘Having children changed my life and segregated me from just about everybody and everything that was going on.’ (Chronicles, 114) He refrained from touring for the next eight years, but still wrote and recorded prolifically. During this time he returned to more traditional roots and explored country music with several excellent pieces such as ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’, ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’, ‘If Not For You’ and ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’, but had not achieved a significant amount of critical or commercial success—at least anything that could be likened to the success of his earlier material—until the release of Blood on the Tracks in 1975.
Dylan describes Blood on the Tracks as a product of his ‘painting period’ in which the songs were more ‘like a painter would paint’ rather than those a musician would compose. In The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, Carrie Brownstein writes, ‘By examining music from a visual perspective, with colours and lines instead of notes and chords, Dylan laid out on the canvas what would be Blood on the Tracks.’ (Kevin J. H. Dettmar, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, Part I [Cambridge: Cambridge, 2009], 157).
As can be observed from many of his early influences such as Hank Williams’ ‘When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels’ and Woody Guthrie’s ‘Jesus Christ’, Dylan was not unfamiliar with the usage of religious motifs. He employed them in his own work on a regular basis, as is the case with ‘Masters of War’, ‘With God on Our Side’, ‘All Along the Watchtower’, etc. At the time, these expressions were not so much a matter of Dylan’s personal faith as they were the custom of the tradition he was drawing from and his employment of the language of a largely ‘Christian’-literate American society. But by the mid-seventies Dylan began to gain greater interest in religion and God. In a 1975 interview for People magazine Dylan expressed, ‘I’m doing God’s work. That’s all I know.’ Dylan’s interest in faith continued to grow in the late 70s and he converted to Christianity in 1978. Not long after this he began work on his first ‘born-again’ record, Slow Train Coming. Regardless of however outspoken and off-putting Dylan’s conversion might have been to many fans at the time, the single ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ earned him his first Grammy Award for ‘Best Vocal Performance’ in 1979.
As Dylan had unwittingly become the spokesperson for the folk elitists in the early sixties, he found himself in a similar predicament with regard to the religious community in the eighties. With his 1983 release, Infidels, Dylan began distancing himself from any explicit avowal of faith and the institutions to which he was inevitably linked. After Infidels, Dylan experienced what may be considered a creative, critical and commercial lull. In 1997 he released his ‘comeback’ album Time Out of Mind, which was followed by a string of successes: “Love and Theft” (2001), Modern Times (2006) and Together Through Life (2009). In No Direction Home, artist, musician and friend of Dylan, Bob Neuwirth comments, ‘I think [Dylan] always made exactly the work he wanted to make at the time he wanted to make it. The audience came to Bob.’
While I can’t deny that his work from the mid-eighties through the early-nineties is not my favourite, the magic of Dylan’s music and his ability to constantly reinvent himself en route to ‘becoming’ have significantly shaped the way I see music and how I both personally and creatively interact with the world. Because of this profound and unparalleled impact in my life he belongs nowhere but in this number one slot.
Three of his records can be found on my Top 50 Albums list (and actually reveal my partiality to his earlier material): The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964) and Blonde on Blonde (1966).
‘Chimes of Freedom’ from Another Side of Bob Dylan, live at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964:
‘Like A Rolling Stone’ from Highway 61 Revisited, live at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965:
In addition to his massive discography, here are some titles of suggested books and films related to Dylan:
- The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia by Michael Gray (London: Continuum, 2006)
- Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews edited by Jonathan Cott (New York: Wenner Books, 2006)
- The Bob Dylan Scrapbook: 1956-1966 by Bob Dylan (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005)
- The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan edited by Kevin J. H. Dettmar (Cambridge: Cambridge, 2009)
- Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan (London: Pocket Books, 2006)
- Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited by Clinton Heylin (New York: William Morrow, 2001)
- Lyrics, 1962-2001 by Bob Dylan (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006)
- Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, Vol. 1: 1957-73 by Clinton Heylin (London: Constable, 2010)
- Still on the Road: The Songs of Bob Dylan, Vol. 2: 1974-2008 by Clinton Heylin (London: Constable, 2010)
- Tarantula, an experimental novel written by Bob Dylan from 1965-6 (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005)
- Dont Look Back, documentary covering Dylan’s 1965 tour of the UK, directed by D.A. Pennebaker (1967)
- Festival!, documentary of the Newport Film Festival from 1963-5, directed by Murray Lenner (1967)
- I’m Not There, semi-biographical film, ‘Inspired by the music and the many lives of Bob Dylan’, directed by Todd Haynes (2007)
- No Direction Home, documentary on Dylan’s early life and his career prior to his touring hiatus in 1966 following his motorcycle accident, directed by Martin Scorsese (2005)
Top 20 Bands (as of May 2012)
2. Elliott Smith
For anyone familiar with this blog, these last few rankings should come as no surprise. Elliott Smith has been the subject of two posts in the past (‘Elliott Smith, Intercessory Psalmist‘ and ‘Happy 41st, Elliott’) and is deserving of many more, including this one. Elliott’s music is extremely well-crafted, revealing a genius of a high order. His musical abilities are only overshadowed by his profoundly intimate songwriting.
In addition to his inclusion here at number two in my Top 20 Bands, I’ve also committed myself to an obsessive Top 50 Elliott Smith Songs list. His 2000 record Figure 8 was ranked as my third favourite record released between 2000 and 2009. Along with Figure 8, two more of his records can be found on my Top 50 Albums list: Elliott Smith (1995) and Either/Or (1997).
‘Between the Bars’ from the album Either/Or, live recording from the 1997 short film Lucky Three:
‘Son of Sam’ from Figure 8:
3. Belle & Sebastian (UPDATE: moved to number 4)
This tender Glaswegian troupe (with the exception of Richard, who still technically lives in Perth) has released some of what I consider to be the best pop music in history throughout their 1.5 decades. They are deserving of far more praise that I am able to adequately express. Although I might have been initially reluctant toward some, I have yet to ultimately be disappointed by a Belle & Sebastian release. While their latest records have generally stepped up a notch in tempo and production (leaving some ‘purist’ fans with a feeling of alienation), their exceptional songwriting remains.
Be a child, be an adult, go to college, get a job, fall in love, fall out of love, lose your faith just to gain it back – Belle & Sebastian suits all of life’s circumstances. Two of their records can be found on my Top 50 Albums list: Tigermilk (1996) and the greatly underrated Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant (2000).
Make sure to keep your eyes and ears open for their upcoming release, Belle and Sebastian Write About Love, which will be available on 11 October in the UK and the following day in North America.
‘The Boy With the Arab Strap’ from the 1998 album of the same name, live on Later…with Jools Holland in 2001:
‘I Want the World to Stop’ from the forthcoming Belle and Sebastian Write About Love:
(I must brag that I was actually present at this video recording.)
Now that we’re into the last four of my Top 20 Bands list I figured I’d share each band individually.
4. Radiohead (UPDATE: moved to number 5)
It feels incredibly cheap to write about most of the bands in my Top 20 list because they’ve been written about so many times before (though to my fault I don’t often feel such trepidation when approaching talk of the Almighty…). My number four pick, Radiohead, is probably one of the more difficult of all to actually write about because I suspect—without having done any formal research—that it is the most widely commented about band on the internet, ever. I will state that while I am not especially thrilled by the solo projects that various members of the band have embarked upon in recent years, Radiohead is an absolutely amazing group, constantly pushing the boundaries and reshaping the landscape of popular music and how that music is experienced, whether that be through innovative packaging, the way that music is exchanged, brilliant music videos, phenomenal live performances, etc. I love every Radiohead song released since their 1997 album OK Computer, which along with Kid A/Amnesiac (2000/1) can be found on my Top 50 Albums list. The grouping of Kid A/Amnesiac was also my favourite album released in the previous decade.
In a recent essay published here, bassist Colin Greenwood reveals that the band has finished recording their newest record and is in the process of deciding how exactly to release it after their groundbreaking self-release of In Rainbows in 2007 (which the band initially sold the record in digital form at a price determined by the customer).
‘House of Cards’ from In Rainbows. (This music video was made without video cameras – see how they did it here):
6. Sufjan Stevens [UPDATE: moved to number 3.]
My deep admiration for Sufjan Stevens is paired with the sad realisation that his rapid rise to fame in 2005 inevitably wore him out. Many feared that Sufjan wouldn’t make another proper record after certain statements he made last year, but lo and behold, this year he unexpectedly released a new EP (All Delighted People) and his newest album, The Age of Adz was released on 12 October [and topped my and Greg’s Top 10 Albums of ’10]. Exciting times, and from the sound of his newest material he is pulling away from the mass appeal generated by Illinois. This recent venture back into semi-electronic, erratic, avant-garde territory is incredibly appealing to me. Three of his records are featured on my Top 50 Albums list: A Sun Came (2000), Greetings From Michigan (2003) and The Age of Adz (2010).
‘For The Widows In Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti’ from Greetings From Michigan, live on a farm:
‘Too Much’ from his forthcoming album Age of Adz, live at Castaways in Ithaca, New York in 2009:
Sorry Sufjan fans (and if he’s reading this, sorry Sufjan), but there’s only room for five in the ‘Top 5’ and he’s not there quite yet. In order to gain membership in my coveted Top 5 [please note the sarcasm] he’ll have to beat the five to follow, beginning with The Smiths.
5. The Smiths/Morrissey [UPDATE: moved to number 6.]
There are major differences between The Smiths and Morrissey, but it didn’t used to be such a stark contrast. For instance, everything The Smiths made was great (if not better!) while the Mozzer has been on a steady decline with few recent high points. Still, taken as a single unit they are phenomenal (and I still believe in you Morrissey!). Through their charisma and uniqueness (largely on account of the Mozzer’s voice and Johnny Marr’s guitar), The Smiths have secured their place as the kings of indie pop. Three of their records can be found on my Top 50 Albums list: The Queen is Dead (The Smiths – 1986), Louder Than Bombs (The Smiths – 1987) and Bona Drag (Morrissey – 1990).
‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ from Hatful of Hollow (The Smiths – 1984), live in Madrid (after two minutes of cheering fans):
‘Suedehead’ from Viva Hate (Morrissey – 1988), live on Later… with Jools Holland:
8. Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd is one of the most successful bands in history, making their inclusion one of the few commercially accepted ‘greatest bands of all time‘ that I vehemently agree with. They have certainly earned their place among my favourites from 1967’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn through 1979’s The Wall. The innovation they nurtured has transformed popular music. Roger Water’s insightful songwriting is enhanced by the ingenious early guitar work by Syd Barrett and the eventual musical perfection that is David Gilmour’s guitar and voice. Nick Mason and Richard Wright provide the backbone with their inventive work on percussion and keys. Two of their records—The Wall and The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)—can be found on my Top 50 Albums list.
‘Astronomy Domine’ from Piper at the Gates of Dawn, live in Belgium in 1968:
‘Comfortably Numb’ from The Wall, at Live 8 in 2005, because David Gilmour is still awesome:
I have a not-so-secret penchant for metal and among my favourite metal acts (such as Botch, Curl Up & Die and The Beach Boys) Converge stands out as the most consistently excellent, energetic and innovative. They’ve been bringing it heavy since 1990(!) and they remain a phenomenal live act. Their seminal 2001 release Jane Doe is featured in my Top 50 Albums list and was one of my Top 21 Albums from the 21st Century (seventh). Their most recent record, Axe to Fall, was my third favourite record released last year.
‘Concubine/Fault & Fracture’ from Jane Doe:
‘Dark Horse’ from Axe to Fall, live at the Hollywood Palladium in 2009. The sound isn’t great, but Ben Koller’s introductory drum solo is ridiculous:
To begin the countdown of my Top 10 of 20 [favourite] Bands:
10. Grandaddy [UPDATE: moved to number 4.]
Grandaddy was/is a remarkable band that has yet to reach stardom…and they probably prefer[ed] it that way. They were/are the ultimate ‘DIY’ band. They often wrote powerpop songs about the struggle between technology and nature in the modern world. Their child-like keyboard lines and Jason Lytle’s high-pitched singing voice make them one of the most unassuming acts you could ever hear, but truly they ought to be regarded as excellent songwriters. And yes, I prefer them ever-so-slightly to The Beatles. Their 2000 release The Sophtware Slump is featured on my Top 50 Albums list.
‘Summer Here Kids’ from 1997’s Under the Western Freeway:
‘The Crystal Lake’ from The Sophtware Slump:
9. The Clash
The Clash is a very interesting case. Essentially they ‘sold out’, as is expressed in the 1979 Crass song ‘Punk is Dead’: CBS promote The Clash, Ain’t for revolution, it’s just for cash… Essentially the eloquent sage Steve Ignorant is right, but that never seemed to keep Clash patches off of the denim jackets of the gutter punks. The anarchopunks could pump their fists to ‘London’s Burning’ while—on the way to pick up her son from football practise—the white suburban mother could shake her hips to ‘Rock the Casbah’. It doesn’t matter – everyone loves The Clash. The Clash (1977) can be found on my Top 50 Albums list.
‘I Fought the Law’ from The Clash:
‘The Magnificent Seven’ from 1980’s Sandinista, live on The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder in 1981:
Before I move into the Top 10 of my Top 20 Bands, I feel the need to mention ten significant bands that might have been part of my ‘cut’ at various points in recent history, but just didn’t make it into my Top 20 this time around. (Perhaps this could be seen as my ’21-30′.)
- Frightened Rabbit – Let’s see how the whole longevity thing plays out – the first two records have been a steady improvement from ‘incredible’ to ‘phenomenal’.
- Pedro the Lion/David Bazan – Excellent songwriting, but albums are often incoherent with themselves.
- Cass McCombs – There’s a quality to Cass McCombs that convinces me he’s one of the greatest living songwriters.
- Starflyer 59 – Something’s absent on most of their recent material…
- Grizzly Bear – Also needing a bit of longevity – It feels strange to consider Grizzly Bear one of my favourite bands, but they most certainly are.
- Deerhunter – Let’s hope they keep up this steam…
- Brian Eno – Mostly hit, but sometimes miss.
- Camera Obscura – There’s something to this group that keeps me listening, but I am hoping for something to make them stand out.
- Cursive – Maybe it’s because they still haven’t grown up?
- Curl Up & Die – I wish they had made more material before disbanding.
Perhaps you are thinking, ‘Who can beat the bands above along with Spiritualized, The Kinks, The Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, The Beach Boys, The Beatles and Neil Young?’ I hope not to disappoint, but prepare to find out just how bad my taste actually is in the coming week…
Rounding out 20-11:
12. The Beatles [UPDATE: moved to number 11.]
Where would the world be without The Beatles? But then again, where would The Beatles have been without Elvis? And where would Elvis have been without Big Boy Crudup? And Crudup without Lead Belly and Blind Lemon Jefferson? And Blind Lemon Jefferson without Hobart Smith? STOP! INFINITE REGRESSION! So basically Hobart Smith founded The Beatles, who would become the single most influential musical group in history. I know what some of you are thinking: ‘Beatles not in the Top 5, let alone the Top 10! Blasphemy!’ They are phenomenal, and if George Harrison had written more of their songs (I’m in love with George) and they didn’t write all of their cute pop music that preceded Rubber Soul (and even Rubber Soul isn’t entirely free of it) they’d probably be higher on my list. While The Beatles will find their way into what seems to be every other Top 10 list, their lack of longevity also plays a factor here. Still, two of their records are found on my Top 50 Albums list: The Beatles [The White Album] (1968) and Abbey Road (1969).
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ from their 1967 album Magical Mystery Tour:
‘Let it Be’ from their 1970 album of the same name:
11. Neil Young [UPDATE: moved to number 14.]
The legendary Neil Young has often been noted for his sincerity – noticing a pattern in my preferences? It’s true that I’m a sucker for artists that I can truly believe, and among them Neil Young is the Godfather. This personal touch plus his unique vocal style (oftentimes accompanied by driving guitars) have made him an incredibly distinct artist in a music world full of clones over the last five decades. His album Harvest (1972) is featured on my Top 50 Albums list and 1970’s After the Gold Rush should probably in there as well.
‘Needle and the Damage Done’ from the album Harvest, performed on The Johnny Cash Show in 1971:
‘After the Gold Rush’, from the album of the same name, live in 1978: