The other day my friend Erin Hennessy saw you on the F train in NYC, but she couldn’t get up the nerve to say anything to you. That got me thinking of what I would say to you if I ran into you (even though I never would, as I live on the other side of the country). The first thing that came to mind was to talk to you about your 50 states project, which you began so beautifully with Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State and Illinois/The Avalanche.
Now back in the day (the early two thousands or so), I took your proclamation to make an album (or EP, maybe?) for each one of the 50 states seriously, even though some of my more cynical friends would mock me saying it was impossible for you to do in your lifetime (they would start with some calculations, ask your age, etc. PS We share the same birthday!). The reason I believed you was because I saw this limitless sort of creative genius in you, and even beyond that, it was as if you were the Emersonian “Poet” for this generation of Americans–seeing and showing us the beauty and agony and the divine in the everyday, transforming the mundane into the sublime, telling us stories full of wonder and longing and brilliant details from towns like Ypsilanti and Holland and Romulus.
You made me suddenly attentive to the people and places of America: you imbued them with a magical luster simply by naming them in the midst of your deeply moving, melancholic, and rich melodies and arrangements, or by inserting them amongst such evocative mystical lines of verse:
When the revenant came down
We couldn’t imagine what it was
In the spirit of three stars
The alien thing that took its form
Then to Lebanon, oh God!
The flashing at night, the sirens grow and grow
(Oh, history involved itself)
Mysterious shade that took its form
(Or what it was!), incarnation, three stars
Delivering signs and dusting from their eyes
-“Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”
All that to say that I really, really wish the 50 states project would continue–I think it could become one of the national treasures of our country for centuries to come, a Leaves of Grass for the 21st century that American kids would listen to to understand where they’ve come from and what kind of people we are. I heard at one point that you said the 50 states project was “such a joke,” but I would challenge you in earnest, if only for the sake of those future little kids, to reconsider abandoning this momentous endeavor.
Realizing that it might very well be impossible for you to write and record all of the albums yourself, what if you instead became the director of the project–you have set the standard quite high with your first two albums–and with the profound respect you have from your artistic peers, I honestly believe you could rally together the best artists from each state to collaborate with to make this happen, creating a kind of ark of American culture.
Here are some suggestions to begin with (I admit some may be wishful thinking) & I call on any reader to add to/better the selection of songwriters for any state (I have put brackets around bands with whom I have only a cursory familiarity & some states I have absolutely no idea about):
- Alabama = The Snake the Cross the Crown
- Alaska = Portugal The Man
- Arizona = Calexico
- Arkansas = ???
- California = Elijah Wade Smith, Beck, Stephen Malkmus
- Colorado = DeVotchKa, The Apples in Stereo
- Connecticut = Rivers Cuomo?
- Delaware = The Spinto Band
- Florida = Iron & Wine, Aaron Marsh
- Georgia = Deerhunter, Of Montreal, Bill Mallonee
- Hawaii = Mason Jennings
- Idaho = Built to Spill, Finn Riggins
- Illinois = Sufjan Stevens
- Indiana = Mock Orange
- Iowa = Caleb Engstrom
- Kansas = Drakkar Sauna, Mates of State, The New Amsterdams, The Appleseed Cast
- Kentucky = Bonnie “Prince” Billy, My Morning Jacket
- Louisiana = Jeff Mangum, Mutemath
- Maine = [Phantom Buffalo]
- Maryland = John Vanderslice, Wye Oak
- Massachusetts = Lou Barlow, Winterpills
- Michigan = Sufjan Stevens
- Minnesota = Low, Cloud Cult, Lucky Wilbur
- Mississippi = ???
- Missouri = [Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin]
- Montana = Colin Meloy
- Nebraska = Cursive, Bright Eyes
- Nevada = The Killers?
- New Hampshire = [Wild Light]
- New Jersey = Sufjan Stevens (?), Danielson, Yo La Tango
- New Mexico = The Shins, Beirut
- New York = The Magnetic Fields, Sonic Youth, Interpol, The Walkmen
- North Carolina = The Mountain Goats
- North Dakota = [The White Foliage]
- Ohio = Robert Pollard, Over the Rhine, The National, Mark Kozelek
- Oklahoma = The Flaming Lips, Kings of Leon
- Oregon = Laura Veirs, M. Ward, Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, The Decemberists
- Pennsylvania = The Innocence Mission, Denison Witmer, Matt Pond PA
- Rhode Island = The Low Anthem, Death Vessel
- South Carolina = Band of Horses
- South Dakota = Haley Bonar
- Tennessee = Derek Webb
- Texas = Josh T. Pearson, Ramesh Srivastava (formerly of Voxtrot), The Polyphonic Spree, Okkervil River, Devendra Banhart
- Utah = [Joshua James]
- Vermont = Anais Mitchell
- Virginia = Thao Nguyen, Hush Arbors
- Washington = David Bazan, Damien Jurado, Jeremy Enigk, Fleet Foxes
- West Virginia = ???
- Wisconsin = Bon Iver, Marla Hansen
- Wyoming = ???
With the deepest respect & admiration,
Our own brilliant Elijah Wade Smith posted his favorite new albums of the year a bit early this year (August) [ELIJAH ADDS: and with a stated reason for doing so…], but I’d like to pick up where he left off and share some favorite albums from this year, along with my definitive songs of 2009 and one marvelous musical discovery…
Since Elijah already listed 4 of the albums I would have chosen (We Were Promised Jetpacks, Cass McCombs, Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective), I will use this space to highlight 10 other albums (3 of which earned an honorable mention from my esteemed colleague). Between my regular CD purchases and my beloved eMusic account (which I was not paid in any way to mention), I was able to purchase around 50 albums this year, but I still feel like I have certainly neglected many more releases that should have been heard (e.g. I have not heard one note of the new Muse album).
Sadly, this year some of my favorite artists only turned out middling efforts at best (Andrew Bird, Jeremy Enigk, Imogen Heap, Patrick Watson) and deeply disappointing at worst (Doves, Pete Yorn, Morrissey). The jury is still out on the new Swell Season album (feelings are ambivalent–is it too derivative or a purposeful homage?) and I intentionally neglected to include U2‘s album, as I am unable to evaluate their work in isolation from their status/body of work. A final note: though Sufjan Stevens‘ “The BQE” was released this October, it feels like it belongs to another year (2007, when it was initially performed)…I will say that I LOVED his “You Are the Blood” on the Dark Was the Night compilation, and of course, I admire his work in general more than anything else I’ve ever heard, so I’m sure any appraisal of it would be unfairly elevated as well.
Without further caveat, I give you (alphabetically listed) the best, with my best…
TOP TEN ALBUMS (not on Elijah’s list):
• Lou Barlow—Goodnight Unknown: I would include Barlow amongst the best living American songwriters. His stylistic range is somewhat limited (he’s practically copyrighted a particular kind of staccato down strum), but if it isn’t broke…(I couldn’t force the “ain’t” in there). He’s lyrically sentimental on some songs, but it’s the tender truthful sort, and then in other places he’s brutally insightful. A beautiful, rich album: see “Gravitate,” “Too Much Freedom,” and “Modesty.”
“…Curse your branches is his masterpiece — a beautiful, passionate, profoundly courageous work of art that deserves and will reward your close attention. It is a deeply personal, frankly autobiographical dispatch from the front lines of a crisis of faith. Song after song peers deep into the abyss of insoluble mysteries and comes up with something far more useful than answers.”
Do I agree? Maybe. Still, it’s light years better than any of the shite that makes millions these days.
• Neko Case—Middle Cyclone: One day, I drove my sister-in-law Megan’s truck up to LAX to pick her up and this CD was in the player. Love at first listen. I knew her voice from The New Pornographers (lovely, fierce, voluptuous), but her singing her own melodies and lyrics = twisted longing & lovely loss. The experience was so intensely moving I ended up listening to all 30 minutes of the last song–which is only the sound of crickets in the field outside her studio.
• Hayden—The Place Where We Lived: He was on my top 10 last year…how in the heck did he put another little gem together so quickly. I will say that he may be an acquired taste, so do give this album a test run before you trust my quirk-happy palate.
• Lightning Dust—Infinite Light: I have no recollection of where I came across this album, but it’s a rare flower: timeless (and therefore similar to what has come before) and unique (the quaver of the singer’s vibrato–again, may not be to all tastes–and her wry, experienced, and [creepy to say it] sexy delivery…kind of a Chick Jagger if you get my meaning).
• Passion Pit—Manners: The sound of this album is like eating a substantial meal of sweets. I’m not sure if people can keep from loving this band…it is my kid’s number one choice off my iPod. Unbelievable hooks, propulsive beats & a mystifying falsetto…
• The Low Anthem—Oh My God, Charlie Darwin: I’m just going to admit that before two weeks ago, I knew only the name of this band. I am so seriously excited about looking more into this band, past & future…go to iTunes and listen to the first three songs (then skip the next two) and tell me you can’t hear the talent. I’m anxious to figure out the evolution (if you will) of the lyrical themes, but it’s work I look forward to.
• Matt & Kim—Grand: Another admission–I only discovered this band because of the placement of their insanely catchy song “Daylight” in a Bacardi ad. BUT these two performers give me hope for the next generation of bands…and they DIY’d it without the help of a guitar, fueled only by raw passion and teen spirit.
• The Mountain Goats—The Life of the World to Come: Every song is named after a passage from the Bible, but just listen to the lyrics and you’ll know you’re not in Jesusland: “I became a crystal healer and my ministry was to the sick / Creeping vines would send out runners and seek me in their numbers / I sold self-help tapes.” I would strongly recommend “Hebrews 11:40,” “1 John 4:16,” and “Deuteronomy 2:10.” I haven’t yet looked up any of the scripture references, but I think that the passages will probably function in a way similar to the inspiration of the 10 commandments in Krysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue. Perhaps this could be a topic for some student of theology & culture…in Scotland?
• Regina Spektor—Far: This album almost didn’t make this list due to the dolphin noises she makes at exactly 2 minutes into “Folding Chair”–she needs a naysayer in her entourage. But she can write a pop song or melancholy ballad with her piano and lovely, funny voice like nobody’s business (see “Laughing With,” “Human of the Year,” and “Genius Next Door” along with most of the other cuts…though “Machine” is a bit awkward as well). She’s really amazing…
BEST SONGS OF THE YEAR:
I made an iMix of these which can be found by pasting the words “Sgt Grumbles Best Songs 2009” into the iTunes iMix search box…570 seconds of goodness at least.
- “Charlie Darwin”: The Low Anthem/Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
- “Hard To Be”: David Bazan/Curse Your Branches
- “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)”: Monsters Of Folk/Monsters Of Folk
- “Ten Thousand Words”: The Avett Brothers/I And Love And You
- “Laughing With”: Regina Spektor/Far
- “Too Much Time”: John Vanderslice/Romanian Names
- “Two Weeks”: Grizzly Bear/Veckatimest
- “Little Secrets”: Passion Pit/Manners
- “My Girls”: Animal Collective/Merriweather Post Pavilion
- “Wondering What Everyone Knows”: Lightning Dust/Infinite Light
- “Daylight”: Matt and Kim/Grand
- “Modesty”: Lou Barlow/Goodnight Unknown
- “The Pharoahs”: Neko Case/Middle Cyclone
- “Deuteronomy 2:10”: The Mountain Goats/The Life Of The World To Come
- “The Executioner’s Song”: Cass McCombs/Catacombs
- “An Almighty Thud”: We Were Promised Jetpacks/These Four Walls
- “I Want You Back”: Discovery/LP
- “Let It Last”: Hayden/The Place Where We Lived
- “Lille”: Lisa Hannigan/Sea Sew
• The album The Texas/Jerusalem Crossroads by the band Lift to Experience. I don’t completely know how to describe how important this album has become to me. It is simply one of the most fascinating ALBUMS ever recorded, as in a musical composition where everything is working together towards one purpose/theme on EVERY LEVEL IMAGINABLE. You listen to it, and you must listen to in IN ITS ENTIRETY & you feel like you are in some run down warehouse listening to them play, no CREATE–right there and then–this mad, apocalyptic masterpiece of beauty and fierce passion that is flowing in some profane mixture of Ahab-esque monomania and true divine inspiration. I don’t have the inclination to ruin the bizarre experience of discerning the “tale” of this one-of-a-kind concept album, but here is a formula that may help give a sense of what we’re talking about here:
Jeff Buckley + Explosions in the Sky + My Bloody Valentine (the book of Revelation/ fundamentalist preacher’s kid) + Texan pride/outsider art (messiah complex) – worst album cover art ever (it looks like it was designed on Microsoft Word!) = one of the greatest albums ever
I was going to include some books, but I’ve asked enough of your time. I will be back with more later…