Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Kat's Korner: 2005 in Music

[Kat, Kat's Korner (of The Common Ills), provides a look back at music in 2005.]

"Another year older and a new one just begun," as John Lennon sang.

What was 2005? Dak-Ho called it "the long jerk off for things past" and certainly the hype surrounding Bob Dylan falls into that as he was, yet again, celebrated for . . . breathing one more year? If 2005 is any indication, one of the topics the most ink will be spilled over in 2006 is "Dylan spins tunes!"

He's a brand now. Has been for some time. Around the time Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner felt the need to offer a rebuttal to judgements on Dylan (Wenner thought the reviewers -- Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus -- were too harsh), it was obvious that Dylan had entered the canon. (In this country,at any rate. The same actions that could win him applause here played less well elsewhere -- such as some critical comparisons from England of Dylan to Nancy Sinatra -- not intended as a compliment.)

In religious terms, saints have to die first before they're canonnized.

Watching the polyester-set cry out for "Everyone Must Get Stoned!" ("Rainy Day Women #12 & 35") the last few tours, it's obvious that the blood on the tracks has been Dylan's own creativity. So it's not surprising that the Dylan brand, which now uses his music to hawk really tacky, really trashy women's undergarments, would dominate mid-decade. The health scare at the tail end of the 90s had already added "weight" to his usual Old Testament bellowings. The music scene promoted by corporations had become one long brand so it's fitting that as "brand music" dies, Dylan gets trotted out to be hailed for the work he did . . . years ago.

The brand did die. You might have missed that if you listened to Clear Channel what with their deterimination to spin Britney Spears as though the Disney Kids brand was the hot new thing and not one of many brands that's killed music in the last few years.

Brands get attention because they're "safe." It's safe to play "naughty" songs by aging teens crashing into their mid-twenties. The only furor the Disney Kids were able to cause was by using women who'd built their own careers on exploring the wilder side: Janet Jackson and Madonna. Little Justy got props for ripping off Janet's top. Your mainstream media clucked and clucked over Janet and her bare breast. It was left for some in the African-American community to note that Justy had a part in that. (Which got him canned from an ABC Motown special.) Christina and Britney smooched Madonna. Poor Christina had gone dark haired, not grasping the mainstream media's fondness for blondes so she was the odd woman out in that controversy as Britney offered defiance, then explanations, then apologies.

Madonna? She weathered the storm because it was a mild one. The woman whose "Justify My Love" caused a real scandal knew this was nothing but a storm in one of those tea cups to be found on a Disneyland amusement ride.

And maybe she was thinking about the mid-eighties? When she and Cyndi Lauper and Billy Idol rode the charts and MTV? Remember when all three tried to "grow up"? Only Madonna pulled it off well enough to keep her base. Billy, who was a cartoon version of manhood, tried to keep it up but there was no action -- no matter how hard he humped the stage in the video for "To Be A Lover." He'd gone from a cartoon of manhood to a cartoon of boyhood and the audience just didn't care. Cyndi hit with "True Colors" which remains one of her finer songs but "Iko Iko" turned her into a joke-o -- one that she couldn't laugh along with. Probably not the best idea to attempt to sport maturity by covering a sing-song, clapping tune.

From 1985 to 1986, three big acts were reduced to one (Madonna). Thanks to Clear Channel, a corporation that frets over the impact Lennon's "Imagine" might have on a grieving nation, moving the crap out the door quickly has ceased. Which is why the brands of 1997 hung around as long as they did. It's why they're still treated not as the novelities and freaks they are but pushed as "artists" even though their acne-set has moved on.

Eight years of corporate crap. David Cassidy, the Archies and the Osmonds must be green in the face with envy. Radio chewed up their ilk and spit it out rather quickly back in the day. That's what happens when you have real media competition. Stations tried to stand out. Sure there was copycatting but there was also a desire to break the next big single which required finding it.

As spokespeople for Clear Channel are fond of stating, the corporation isn't in the music business, they're in the business of selling advertising. The best way to do that is to not rock the boat. Which is why they're playlists of 2005 weren't all that different from their playlists of the year before. Which is why they jump on a boy cultivating peach fuzz who acts "naughty" but never scares anyone (white bread only scares when the mold spreads and, in 2005, it started spreading).

In the early 90s, alternative rock was able to really break through. It had existed in some form on college radio (10,000 Maniacs and R.E.M. being two examples). But the Miami Vice soundtracks (official and non-official) had kept it off the playlists. Programmers were taken by surprise with the emergence of, here's her name again, Janet. And with the response of listeners to Jackson, the Beastie Boys and other acts that weren't providing the sort of music that could be heard behind a voice over pronouncing something like "The night belongs to Michelob."

Things have never been perfect and examples (and radio programmers) could be examined at length but the point is there is no competition in consolidation. At any period of time, people, including myself, griped about the barricades but the 1996 Telecommunications Act took it way beyond what we were used to complaining about.

In 2005, we saw the corporations scratch their heads and wonder why an "artist" like Jessica Simpson who mastered exposure via every media outlet short of a

sex tape couldn't become a solid hit on the charts? It wasn't from lack of airplay or exposure. As 2004 drew to a close, the press followed the corporate lead and annointed Justy as a "music star" for album sales that wouldn't have been impressive in 1984 or 1993. In doing so, they missed the real story of 2004, that even with all the promotion, that even with saturation airplay, that even with the "artists" practically bumping into you everytime you headed to the john, the public didn't really care. The system worked enough to almost eek out a profit after all the cross-promotional costs were factored in but there was no Tapestry, no Talking Book, no Nevermind, no Jagged Little Pill.

You'd think your thinking press would have noted the obvious -- with more exposure than Michael Jackson could dream of in the early eighties, the Disney Kids still couldn't produce one album that could even stand in the shadow of Thriller's sales figures.

In 2005, despite the forced feedings, America largely refused to swallow up what our media consolidated radio was serving. Maybe there's hope for 2006 as a result?

Here are my picks for albums that stood out in 2005. On the list, you'll find one that sold very, very well. Some of the others you heard of here and hopefully elsewhere. As you look at the list, and no doubt make your own picks, remember that when the music system goes flat, a Nirvana may emerge to re-energize things. I didn't hear a Nirvana in 2005. If you did, let me know.

Early 21st Century Blues. This Cowboy Junkies CD actually got national exposure . . . via The Laura Flanders Show. If others had followed Flanders' lead, this might have been one of the more talked about albums of 2005. The album features two original songs and nine covers. Among the covers are songs by Bob Dylan, from his pre-brand days. I have to be in the mood for their version of John Lennon's "I Don't Want To Be A Solider." Wally enjoyed this but Cedric and I felt that the combination of the Junkies' understated approach and Rebel's rap were an uneasy mix. The album ends on a high note, a cover of U2's "One." Unlike on Mary J. Blige's latest album, you don't wait for Bono to shut up and get out the way so that Blige can work her magic. That's because he's not featured. Margo Timmins' voice is haunting on this song and the covers of Bruce Springsteen's "You're Missing" and "Brothers Under The Bridge" should have resulted in saturation airplay. If you missed this CD, locate a copy and listen.

Portrait of An American Girl. Judy Collins. In May of 2005, I wrote that this album set the standard and would be hard to top. Few even tried. While Dylan became a mega-brand, Collins helped explain why there was ever a form for Dylan to leap off of to begin with -- a strong dedication to conveying truths via music. On this album, Collins covers Joni Mitchell's "That Song About The Midway" which should be reason enough for older fans to be interested. New listeners will be treated to an amazing voice singing words that the artist actually grasps. Shocking in the days where "professional singers" show about as much awareness of the material as a nine-year-old singing into a brush as they stare into a mirror. Standout tracks include "Pacing the Cage" written by Bruce Cockburn. But the beauty of Portrait of An American Girl is how well the entire album feeds off each song. How good is the album? After waiting months for Maggie to return my copy of it, I marked it off as "stolen" in my mind and purchased another copy. At which point, Maggie said, "Oh, I was just about to return that to you." Giving her the benefit of the doubt (and tossing aside all logic and known history), it was still worth purchasing twice.

The Beekeeper. Tori Amos releases The Beekeeper and, as I noted at the time, the sexists come swarming. Why can't she do this, why does she that . . . For those who missed it, the album has much more than the "love song" one critic swooned over. Her duet with Damien Rice ("The Power of Orange Knickers") will sneak up on you with repeated listens. "Mother Revolution" will grab you instantly. But the song that continues to pop up as I'm stuck in traffic or waiting in a check-out line is "Cars and Guitars." It's one of the many songs from 2005 that you should have heard repeatedly over the airwaves but didn't. Amos blazes her own trail, burning through male egos along the way, to judge by the bulk of the reviews.

A Bigger Bang. That's what the Rolling Stones boasted. Albums of the last two decades could explain the skepticsm. But the Stones pulled it off rewarding their long term base and providing enough "bang" to interest some newcomers. As I noted in my review in September, with all the talk of "Sweet Neocon," "Dangerous Beauty" was being overlooked. Mick's angry, he's saucey. It's another of his "fear women" songs but in this case, the fear's appears to be aimed at a certain guard from Abu Ghraib. Energized by events larger and smaller than themselves, the Stones come back to life.

Monkey Business. Cedric recommended this Black Eyed Peas CD to me. We often enjoy the same music, so I checked it out. As readers of my web site know, it's one that I play constantly. But it's not one I reviewed. I could tell you that I enjoyed it. I could cite this song or that. But as to why it works as an album, I didn't have a clue. Similarly, I can recommend it and advise you to avoid Justy's musty contribution but really don't know what else to tell you. Elaine and Betty swear by "Going Gone" as the best track on the album, how about that? Here's what I can swear by: Put this CD on. Loud. That's really says it all.

Those Were The Days. Dolly Parton looked back and, in doing so, commented on today. On the twelve songs, she's not ticking off time as she makes her way through the covers (they're all covers). She's putting a piece of Dolly into each song. This continues her strong rebirth and makes a case for more artists to leave the major labels. I don't think she's sounded so free since the seventies. Her vocals turn, twist and soar. This isn't kerioke night. "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" gets pulled out of the last century and brought to life in this one -- with strong assistance from Lee Ann Womack and Norah Jones on vocals. Judy Collins provides supporting vocals on the Joni Mitchell penned "Both Sides Now." "Wait!" you insist, "didn't Judy have a hit with that?" Yes, and you'll find many singers known for the songs making an appearance on Dolly's covers. If you thought you knew all Dolly could do, be prepared to be surprised.

Motion Sickness: Live Recordings. As I noted, Bright Eyes makes it for me live but on studio albums is a little too polished for my tastes. That's one reason to purchase this album. Another is that it acts as a great intro if you're unfamiliar. In fact, it's one of the strongest intro recordings since Living In Clip introduced Ani DiFranco to a wider audience. If you purchased I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and think you already know "We Are Nowhere And It's Now," surprise, you really don't. Check that out, "Landlocked Blues" and, of course, "When A President Talks To God."

A Time To Love. This CD makes a strong case for Stevie Wonder again needing to work with a lyricist. Ignore the lyrics. Thinking of them, or focusing on them, detract from the other accomplishments which, fortunately, are great enough to overcome bromides. Groove on the outstanding music and Stevie's vocals. And join me in hoping that next time round, Stevie has something worth singing about. (Or be like Maggie and say, "Who cares what he's singing, just listen to him sing!")

Back To Bedlam. Here's how that worked. Jess turned Ty onto it, Ty turned me onto it and there hasn't been a day since that I've stopped listening. If you don't know the name "James Blunt," pick up this CD and you will join Jess, Ty, me and many others in the word-of-mouth chain attesting to the greatness of this album.

Get Behind Me Satan. The White Stripes released this album and critical thought got lost in a chorus of "What does Meg do anyway?" The boys missed it but Meg packs a wallop on the drums. It's the messiest sound you've heard and completely rock. Which may be why the boys who told you in 2004 that Justy had produced art couldn't appreciate the genius of Meg and Jack? This is their best album and one of the best of 2005. Mike'll back me up on that.

Bowery Songs. Joan Baez demonstrated her artistry all over again with Dark Chords On A Big Guitar. This live CD is from her tour in support of that album. Get the feeling she knew she had a winner? While others elected 2005 as the year to (once again) explore "The Man/The Myth," Baez explored the music with the best band she's had behind her in years.

Best Reissue:

Victim of Romance. Rebecca got excited about this album and if you listen, you'll understand why. To date, it's the only solo album by Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. This is also the album's first appearance on CD in this country. (A Japanes import has previously been available.) "Aching Kind" has appeared on various compilations by the Mamas and the Papas. The foot stomping fun of "Victim of Romance" may make you wonder why that track hasn't? "Baby As You Walk Away" will make you wish Phillips had recorded another album. With a wonderful booklet and a bookmark as bonus.

Best Compilation:

The Complete Cass Elliot Solo Collection 1968-1971. As I noted in my review in August:

There's a wonderful 28 page booklet with an amazing essay by Richard Barton Campbell, a two page note by Owen Elliot-Kugell (Owen is Cass' daughter), four pages of information on the tracks included and thirteen photographs (I think my favorite is the one on page twelve). And, let me repeat, there are thirty-eight tracks of music.

If you're a Cass fan, this is a must have. You have songs making their first appearance on CD, and songs that making their first appearance period, such as a cover of Joni Mitchell's "Sistobell Lane." If you're saying, "Who?" Cass was one fourth of the Mamas and the Papas. If you're still in the dark, six words, "Dream A Little Dream Of Me." Need more? Ava and Jess both recommended it as well.

This double disc set is also from Hip-O Select and, if you haven't heard of them before, you should visit
their website because they're doing wonderful reissues that are remastered with great care and packaged with extras.

Hopefully, something on the list reflected your own choices. There are probably many other fine choices but one thing that appears more certain is that 2005 was the year the corporations tried to milk a dead cow. That and the fact that
Simon & Garfunkel didn't need their own reality-based MTV show to sell millions of copies of Bridge Over Troubled Water was lost as the wags noted million and two and three million sellers as though they were benchmarks.

In every city, town and bedroom community, you couldn't escape the same damn songs. Despite that, the music didn't really sell. Brands don't provide excitement. So in 2005, the artists worth watching were largely on the sidelines. Whether you agreed with my eleven choices, hopefully you found something outside the corporate playlists to speak to you.