By now this is old news, but we’ll just say I was very busy on St Valentine’s Day (I had a date with Karl Barth). Arcade Fire’s album The Suburbs, which Greg and I placed at numbers three and six in our respective Best Albums of 2010 lists, won Album of the Year at the 53rd Grammy Awards, one of the record industry’s highest honours. Arcade Fire beat out industrial giants Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry (I’m so tempted to just write ‘Lady Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Lady Gaga and Lady Perry’…) to take their seven little gramophone trophies home.
The indie blogosphere (as well as some very interesting backlash from those who had never heard of Arcade Fire before the 53rd Grammy Awards) has been set ablaze by the news, with the A.V. Club’s Steven Hyden writing,
Who cares about the Grammys? It’s probably the least respected of all the major entertainment awards—which means it’s in the running for least respected institution anywhere—and yet a lot of people are going to be attaching a lot of significance to Arcade Fire winning album of the year honors for The Suburbs Sunday night. […] Does this signify the full-scale “arrival” of indie rock at the center of mainstream music? Has Arcade Fire officially taken over the mantle as this generation’s defining rock band? Does this mean that “we” won? Be prepared to read all kinds of ruminations on these questions and many more in the days ahead.
It’s not my goal to have any groundbreaking things to say about this award, but I do think it’s interesting to point out that The Suburb‘s record sales were not what we may consider modest. They reached number 1 on several international charts, including album charts in Belgium (Vlaanderen), their ‘native’ Canada, Ireland, Norway, Portugal, the UK and America (Billboard 200). In recent history, several independent records have been performing well on the charts (namely Radiohead’s In Rainbows, Vampire Weekend’s Contra and The Decemberists The King is Dead), which gives some hope to those wishing to provide an affirmative answer to the question, ‘Does this mean that [the independent music scene] won?’
But the reality is that at the end of the day Arcade Fire and these other independent bands are selling a lot less music than the other nominees for Album of the Year (Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster went platinum in 11 countries, eight of which were multi-platinum, and diamond in Poland), which does seem to indicate that the ‘war’ between independent and the mainstream is far from over. But record sales are not the driving force behind independent music, which exists largely in reaction against the massive record industry. There is no war, and as Arcade Fire bandleader and singer Win Butler said in his acceptance speech before the band performed ‘Ready to Start’, ‘We’re going to play another song because we like music.’ Arcade Fire won Album of the Year at the Grammys – that’s wonderful! I’m sure that this will inspire more people to invest in their music, which is a great thing. But in the end, music is about what we like and dare I say, what we love, which has absolutely nothing to do with Grammy Awards.
Here’s a brief Q & A time with the band after the show (via Tom Breihan at Pitchfork):
The year is rapidly drawing to a close, which means that it is time for our favourite annual post here at LITC: OUR BEST OF ALBUMS LIST. This has been a very satisfying year for music. Not much is needed by way of introduction, so let’s just jump into it. As may be expected, we (Elijah & Greg) have several albums in common among our top ten. We will first share our overlap.
Shared entries from Elijah & Greg’s Top 10 Albums of ’10
- InnerSpeaker Tame Impala (Greg) — This is a band where every ingredient (vocals, instruments, lyrics, production, etc.) makes an essential and vital contribution to the final result–remove any element and the entire sound would collapse. Everything I like about ‘classic rock’ (a hideous term that conjures up images of some white trash hessian screaming out ‘FREE BIRD!’) is to be found on this album, yet, to my ear, it in no way feels dated. It’s often uncomplicated, but as if the band simply understood exactly what needed to go where to make each song perfectly what it eventually was meant to become (goodness there were a great many adverbs in that sentence!).
- High Violet The National (Elijah) — The National caught me by surprise this year. I was not as big a fan of 2007′s Boxer, unlike Greg and many of my other highly revered friends. But from the first note of the first track, ‘Terrible Love’, I was entranced. This album is incredible on the first listen, but is also a ‘grower’, with its share of immediately outstanding tracks and tracks that reveal their ultimate reward after a series of faithful listens. There’s something pure and straightforward about High Violet that seldom makes its way into indie playlists these days. Also, listen for Sufjan Stevens’ contribution on the excellent track ‘Afraid Of Everyone’.
- The Suburbs Arcade Fire (Greg) — I admired their first album immensely; their second was a mixed bag. I assumed that this would be continuing in that downward trajectory. I was wrong. This is a masterpiece. I originally felt like there was something derivative about the genres of various songs (Byrds here, ABBA there), but ultimately, I took this to be part of their apocalyptic vision of a decaying world of garden cities where ‘the music divides us into tribes’. Win Butler is one of the best living songwriters…
- The Winter of Mixed Drinks Frightened Rabbit (Greg) — My expectations were unreasonably high for this album (their last was my favorite album of 2008). FRabbit surpassed them. So much greatness to be found. Aside from ‘Man / Bag of Sand’ (which was reminiscent of another filler-esque reprise, ‘Extrasupervery’ on their previous record), there is nary a miss to be found. This kind of material is paving the way for a career that will end up with FR being among the great bands of all time. (Elijah adds: FR’s principal songwriter Scott Hutchison wrote this record over the course of two weeks in Crail, Fife, near my home in St Andrews, so the tone of the whole record gives me a warm feeling of geographic familiarity.)
- The Age of Adz & All Delighted People EP Sufjan Stevens (Elijah) — Our Sufjan thirst twas quenched this year and our cup runneth over. Not only did the contemporary musical genius release a surprise EP, but also a mind-blowing full length — a grand total of two hours, fourteen minutes, and eighteen seconds of new and very worthwhile Sufjan material (though among other Adz tracks, a version of ‘The Owl And The Tanager’ from ADP was publicly performed in 2007). Several months ago, Greg wrote a great piece analysing The Age of Adz. This album is strikingly personal and apocalyptic, and musically Sufjan is pushing the boundaries of pop, perhaps alienating those who are looking for the ‘older stuff’ (or more correctly, the ‘mid-career stuff’, namely Illinoise – A Sun Came is very much the progenitor of The Age of Adz). Sufjan has written his best record to date (and Adz‘ ‘I Want to Be Well’ might be my favourite Sufjan song of all time), which has brought about several modifications to our preexistent lists: The Age of Adz has been added to my Top 50 Albums list (displacing Black Flag’s hardcore punk gem, Damaged for the time being) and as an artist, Sufjan has surpassed The Smiths, Radiohead and Belle & Sebastian in my Top 20 Bands list. (Greg adds: This album is a museum worthy work of art. [Elijah adds: Here, here!])
Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of ’10
10. Belle and Sebastian Write About Love Belle & Sebastian — If the listener is looking exclusively for a return to form, an album resembling Tigermilk, If You’re Feeling Sinister or The Boy With the Arab Strap, he or she will be let down by Write About Love. It is evident that B&S have grown up a bit over the last 1.5 decades and don’t want to keep writing the same albums, something which we cannot blame them for, can we? But this record doesn’t need to be exhaustively defended – it stands well on its own. Its slightly less poppy than their previous release, 2006’s The Life Pursuit, finding a medium between 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant and The Life Pursuit, as if in the place of 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress (which is also an incredible record). Ultimately, Write About Love is a success if we are willing to see something that isn’t pre-2000 B&S as such. It is an excellent record that certainly improves with every listen.
9. King of the Beach Wavves — For those who have not previously seen this album cover, yes, that is a cat wearing a marijuana leaf-laden hat smoking a joint. But at least he has an all-seeing eye necklace, right? Maybe it will come as no surprise that Nathan Williams, leader and creative force behind Wavves, had a serious drug/alcohol-induced freakout during a concert in Spain last year, causing the other two members of the band to quit. Fortunately for Williams (and for us as listeners), the late Jay Reatard’s backing band (Billy Hayes and Stephen Pope) decided to join Nathan’s group and Wavves was reincarnated to give us the incredibly catchy (I mean, REALLY CATCHY), garage rocky, King of the Beach. Billy has since left the band.
8. Teen Dream Beach House — This record is one of a number of surprises for me this year. Prior to this record I did not find Beach House especially engaging, which delayed my purchase of Teen Dream until Greg included the new version ‘Used to Be’ (the old version was released as a single in 2008 following Devotion) on a mix he made for me. This is an incredibly original record, superior to Beach House’s previous releases, which are rendered mediocre in light of Teen Dream. Singer Victoria Legrand’s vocals power this record into the realm of the serene and sublime. While some tracks are stronger than others (like ‘Zebra’, ‘Norway’, ‘Used to Be’, and ’10 Mile Stereo’), this is an amazing record as a whole.
7. This is Happening LCD Soundsystem — Much like the case of Beach House with Teen Dream, I never found LCD Soundsystem’s music to capture my interest before this record. James Murphy has been at it for ages, and while 2007’s Sound of Silver was a critical and commercial success for his LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening demonstrates a finesse that secures his place as a veteran. This record is both very raw (‘Drunk Girls’) and sophisticated (‘Somebody’s Calling Me’), which combine to give us a incredibly interesting, fun, catchy, and pretensionless album. I also hear a lot of tasteful 1974-77 Eno-esque sound on this record (like ‘All I Want’ and ‘Somebody’s Calling Me’), which pleases me to no end.
6. The Suburbs Arcade Fire
5. InnerSpeaker Tame Impala
4. High Violet The National
3. The Winter of Mixed Drinks Frightened Rabbit
2. Halcyon Digest Deerhunter — Back in September I wrote concerning this record, ‘The album as a whole is excellent and it will surely find a place near the top of my favourite records released this year.’ I’m not merely placing Halcyon Digest at number two to save face so that no one can condemn me with, ‘Elijah gives disingenuous praise.’ No, every single track is an amazing audio experience, and as a whole they function as a battering ram made up of all that is good in independent music, breaking down the doors of pretension by merely doing what they love – and doing it well. Deerhunter makes their last two records (2008’s Microcastle and 2007’s Cryptograms) while brilliant in their own right, sound like mere warm-up sessions for Halcyon Digest. Bradford Cox—whose solo record as Atlas Sound, Logos, was my ninth-favourite record last year—and Lockett Pundt deliver with their unique sense of melody and lyrical strength (even in Bradford’s stream-of-consciousness manner).
Elijah’s Honourable mentions
- Boys Outside Steve Mason (of The Beta Band)
- The Changing of the Guard Starflyer 59 (which improves over time)
- Crazy For You Best Coast (useless fact: Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino is in a relationship with Wavves’ Nathan Williams, and the covers of Crazy For You and King of the Beach both feature cats)
- Crystal Castles (II) Crystal Castles
- Daughters Daughters
- Everything In Between No Age
- I Heart California Admiral Radley (featuring Jason Lytle of Grandaddy)
- Hidden These New Puritans
- Looks Like a Flood, Feels Like a Drought Preacher’s Sons
Greg’s Top 10 Albums of ’10
10. Contra Vampire Weekend — I’ll be honest…I didn’t want for this album to make my list. Vampire Weekend has such a hipster aura that I tend to avert my eyes. In fact, their first single, ‘Horchata’, with its contrived, graceless rhymes (balaclava, Aranciata, Masada) and reek of Paul Simon’s Anglo-appropriation of world music nearly drove me away from the album. But the melodies…ahh, the melodies are sublime, and the singer (Ezra something?) has a delivery of lilts and arcs that makes me love his intention despite the ostentation of his diction, and, really, they pull off the ethno-musical robbery just as ‘Al’ did so many years before (he said I could call him that). Recommended tracks: ‘Run’, ‘Giving Up the Gun’, ‘I Think Ur a Contra’.
9. Fang Island Fang Island — This is a last minute addition (sadly bumping off Josh Ritter’s album, which has some tremendously lovely cuts). But this album is so DELICIOUSLY HOOKY and DELIRIOUSLY FUN that I had to include it. Like a synthesis of early Muse & Weezer playing the old Disneyland Electric Light Parade possessed by the spirit of Brian Wilson. If you don’t enjoy it, I would recommend a good proctologist.
8. Heartland Owen Pallett — This guy was a discovery made driving along a dark road one night listening to KCRW. I used Shazam to figure out who he was, then weeks later remembered to check him out/download the album (at some point, I will need to own a physical copy of this album for the brilliant cover art). I was a bit put off by some of the dissonance on this album at first…but I could immediately sense a lyrical/melodic/arranging genius at work, so I listened to it many more times. It’s one of the most stylistically original and creative albums I’ve come across in years & there’s something about his voice and words that reveals a profoundly singular craftsman, in the manner of Sufjan and Andrew Bird. Recommended tracks: ‘Keep the Dog Quiet’, ‘E Is For Estranged’, ‘What Do You Think Will Happen’.
7. InnerSpeaker Tame Impala
6. Forget Twin Shadow — If you like the Smiths & have any nostalgia for 80’s pop music songcraft, combined with a generally melancholic outlook on life, you will love this album. If not, you will hate it. It’s so distinctive, it is sure to have a polarizing effect–it almost has some sort of mystical power over me. I don’t know what he’s talking about half of the time, but it feels like he is singing my deepest emotions. Recommended tracks: I happen to think that ‘Tyrant Destroyed’ and ‘Castles in the Snow’ are two of the best songs I’ve heard all year.
5. Together The New Pornographers — I’ve followed the NP’s for a while, often finding inspired songwriting/performing genius mixed in with merely human tune smith ‘capability’; however on this album, the genius overshadows the capability by 11 to 1. There are a number of songwriters in the band–one of whose style I have little accord with (see ‘Daughters of Sorrow’), but the rest of the songs have enough buoyant loveliness to keep the Titanic afloat. Recommended tracks: ALL, except the above track and ‘If You Can’t See My Mirrors’.
4. High Violet The National
3. The Suburbs Arcade Fire
2. The Winter of Mixed Drinks Frightened Rabbit
Greg’s Honourable Mentions
- Go Jónsi
- Green Grow the Rushes EP John Vanderslice (it was free online!)
- July Flame Laura Veirs
- Light Chasers Cloud Cult
- Lisbon The Walkmen
- Pharmacy of Love Bettie Serveert
- Suburban Nature Sarah Jaffe (this could have been on the list, but I only own two songs from it, both of which are amazing…PLEASE check her out!)
- So Runs the World Away Josh Ritter (bumped off the list at the last minute, but check out ‘Change of Time’, ‘The Curse’, ‘See How Man Was Made’, and ‘Another New World’)
- The Universe Is Laughing The Guggenheim Grotto
Recently, we realised that we were coming up on our 100th post here at Lost in the Cloud. It’s only been a little less than a year (and we are actually cheating in bringing some of our posts over from our time at Criticism As Inspiration, which account for more than 1/3 of this total), but we felt like it was an occasion we wanted to mark. Being that we are incredibly fond (or freakishly obsessed) of lists here at LITC, we decided to simply post a list of 100 Things We Love (split about evenly, though there are a number of items that would end up on both of our lists, which are marked with an asterisk [*]). We have decided not to list out all of our family & dear friends, as well as our favourite films/bands/theologians/etc. which we have previously made space for elsewhere. This is just a stream-of-consciousness exploration of our affections, listed out alphabetically. We hope you enjoy & thank you for reading!
Among other things, Elijah loves…
- Amoeba Music, Hollywood*
- &s (ampersands)*
- Autumn-winter succession*
- Baseball – Detroit Tigers
- Being a member of God’s Church*
- Building/repairing electric guitars
- Deuchars IPA
- Disneyland (because in spite of the consumeristic lies it sells, it remains magical)*
- Dressing up (especially in a kilt)
- Dundee Contemporary Arts
- Ecclesiastical architecture
- Finding creative ways to higher ground while in the wilderness
- Football – Celtic FC
- ‘Friscalating dusk light’
- The City of Glasgow
- Griffith Park (and all that’s within, such as the Griffith Observatory, Bronson Caves, Los Angeles Zoo, William J Mulholland Memorial Fountain, the Autry, Travel Town, etc.)
- Tim Hawkinson’s artwork
- The history of music in the recording era
- Incredibly arid climates
- Incredibly wet climates
- Innocent Smith’s Musical Circus/Parkside Upper Quads Philharmonic Orchestra
- Joshua Tree National Park
- The City of Los Angeles
- Millionaire shortbread
- Moleskine journals
- Nice ‘N’ Sleazy
- The NRSV translation of the Bible*
- The number ‘44’
- The Parish Church of the Holy Trinity, St Andrews
- People (especially those who are humble, patient and tender)*
- Printed media (books/book covers, street literature, record sleeves, etc.)
- Road trips in California
- St Mary’s College
- Sequoia & King’s Canyon National Park
- Single malt whisky*
- Urban exploration
- Vegan Express, Los Angeles
- The wisdom of my elders
- Wormit Parish Church
- Writing music with Greg & Justin
- Writing utensils (STABILO point 88s; Dixon Ticonderoga Mediums; Staedtler Noris HB 2s; Pilot G-2 0.38s and 05s)
- Handwritten correspondence*
Among other things, Greg loves…
- American Romanticism
- Archives Bookshop (In Christ is a close second!)*
- Backyard time with an 18 yr. old bottle of Glenfiddich & thoughtful conversation with authentic men (whether in La Mirada, Long Beach, or Marina Del Rey)*
- Banksy’s wit*
- BBC adaptations of classic works of literature, particularly of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell & Charles Dickens
- Bic black “round stic Grip pens”, fine point
- Biola Residence Life & Hope North RAs
- The BioLogos Forum
- British spelling and punctuation
- Cambria, CA (especially Supper Club vacations)
- Close reading of the Bible, literature & pop culture*
- Craig Thompson’s artwork, most notably in his graphic novel, Blankets
- Deep bass notes and thick kick drum sounds
- Delicious Library
- Domenico’s Pizza
- Drawings by and notes from my kids
- Elijah Wade & PUQ performing at Punk N’ Pie (which I believe is the same as Elijah’s #24)…twas a most epic performance (x 2)
- Extraordinary moments (car crashes, explosions, injury to the groin shots) caught on video, displayed on YouTube/Failblog.com/Spike TV
- Footnotes (digressive comments or noteworthy book references)
- Fuller Theological Seminary
- God’s covenants (though not necessarily in a Reformed “Covenantalism” sense)*
- Grace Brethren Church facilities crew, mid-90’s (including “crass Fridays” with Mark & Bill)
- Indie music, in most of its hybridisations*
- The iPhone (particularly playing Skee Ball with my kids and Words With Friends with Mark, David & Matt B.; and occasionally, Tim)
- Magazine subscriptions (currently down to four since Paste went belly up – The Week, Entertainment Weekly, The Atlantic, Christianity Today – but once as high as fourteen)
- Making mix CDs*
- Mixing cereals (current favorite = Crispex & Honey Smacks)
- Moby Books Illustrated Classics
- The Muckenthaler Mansion (where I married the most wonderful girl)
- Multiple-view books on theological topics
- The number ‘22‘
- The paintings of Patty Wickman & Mark Tansey
- People who ask good questions in conversation
- The Perry Bible Fellowship*
- Postconservative evangelical theology
- Powell’s Books (and Portland, OR in general)
- Questioning things*
- The Radical Reformation
- Redeemer Church
- Short story, novel, screenplay, lyric, or poem concepts & bits
- Thinking about impossible endeavours (e.g. making a film of the whole Bible)
- Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Caramels
- Weather in the high 60’s-low 70’s & overcast/cloudy
- A wide selection of beverages in the fridge (including Coke, Cherry Coke, Coke Zero, Peach Snapple, Arizona Green Tea & Henry Weinhard’s* root beer)
- Wind rustling through tree branches
- Writing on Lost in the Cloud*
- Zappos.com (Michele hates that I love this…like 2 pair of shoes for $250 hates it)
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.)