Thursday, December 31, 2009

Kat's Korner: The decade in music

Kat: Tomorrow it's 2010, a decade is over. Where did it go? Like the Bill of Rights, apparently out the window. Like the Iraq War, we just burned through the decade. There were some good musical moments, even during the Bully Boy Bush years. As with any review, these are opinions and your own may differ. As I see the decade musically, it started off with small promises which quickly vanished and then rallied in the middle.


2000 -- Who Is Jill Scott? Words And Music Vol. 1

The leader of the pack as the decade kick started was Jill Scott's debut album, announcing a new and major talent. Not only was Jill one of the most dynamic new lead voices to emerge in years, on songs like "He Loves Me (Lyzel In E Flat)," she demonstrated she was also a dynamic backup singer. Jill Scott was one of those one-of-a-kind talents who emerge and suddenly everyone wonders where she's been until now. And Jill was pretty much alone.

Carly Simon's Bedroom Tapes and Sade's Lovers Rock were minor classics of the year and, had there been a slew of those in 2000, it might have been a year worth praising. Instead, Carly and Sade were as much an exception as Jill. 2000 was nothing but the 1990s and 1980s carried over. The sounds, the beats, it was all tired and never more tired than when U2 decided to drop their exploration and make an album that sounded like 1987 to get the musically timid back on board. Elsewhere you had No Doubt's Gwen Stefani decide to become a solo so that she could sound . . . like every other female making the charts. Usually when someone goes solo, they're a strong writer (Stevie Nicks) in a group that can't use all their songs or they're an artist who wants to show another side. Gwen proved that you can go solo just to do the same thing. In the process, she hurt her own career and the band's.

2001 -- NONE

No, there wasn't one album that rated worthy of "best." Alicia Keys Songs In A Minor contained some nice songs with some s**tty production. I still can't stand to listen to that album and consider it to be among the worst mixed of the decade. With a decent mix, Alicia might have claimed top honors. Radiohead's an interesting band and sometimes a talented one but if they want to self-stroke, close the door. I'd pay to see Billie Joe Armstrong do it but not interested in Radiohead. In other words, didn't need Amnesiac. 2001 needed a strong album. It didn't get one. Ben Folds forgot the Five and went off Rockin' The Suburbs -- or something. Whatever he was doing, it wasn't rock. Poses showed how quickly an original Rufus Wainwright could veer to self-parody. Rufus, I love chocolate milk and cigarettes as well but if I decided they needed a song, I think I'd work on writing a real song about them and not your half-formed ditty. As I survey the year, I feel there was more honest emotion and raw passion in Jimmy Eat World than in the dead-on-arrival Love & Theft by Bob Dylan or the overhyped Is This It? by the Strokes -- the latter of which sounded like the music to a Target ad. I could go on and on but I didn't hear a great album in 2001 and I'm not going to single out a 'best' by comparison. Even Stevie Nicks' often brilliant Trouble In Shangri-La too often was marred by Sheryl Crow's efforts which made it more Crow-like and less of a Nicks Fix. Someone should have told Sheryl, "Unlike you, Stevie's rock. Not poppy, not jazzy. Not a blend of weakness."

2002 -- Scarlet's Walk.

This may have been the decade's masterpiece. Tori Amos set a benchmark for herself and others with this set of songs exploring the post 9-11 landscape. It captured what was going down and all that was to come with lines like: "These guys think they must try and just get over on us." It was ambitious and so successful that it far overshadowed Tori's other excellent work in the decade. The sprawling album covered everything imaginable and then some.

2003 -- Elephant.

The thing about the past is it once held so much promise but, looking back, you can see where it unraveled. Take the best album of 2003 put out by the best rock band of that year: Elephant by the White Stripes. In 2003, Jack and Meg White were still claiming to be brother and sister even though their divorce was pretty much a known. Jack would finally begin telling the press that when two ex-partners are in a group, that becomes the focus, but a brother and sister allows people to focus on the music. That may have beginning of Jack's delusions -- delusions that wrongly led him to believe he needed a group without Meg. "Seven Army Nation" is probably the best known song and deserves to be if only for Meg's powerhouse drumming. Jack White never appreciated Meg's contributions and went on to form two other groups that no one gave a damn about (especially laughable was Jack's attempts at playing drums in the latest group) and by 2008 was such a parody of himself that you had to look closely and make sure that was him singing the bad song (which he wrote) as a Bond theme with Alicia Keys. If you even bothered to look, the song bombed and got no higher than number 81 in the US. By that point, Jack White was such a joke, he seemed to be a comic creation of Jack Black.

He can take comfort in the fact that, at least in 2003, people gawked with awe. The big joke of the year was Liz Phair who thought it was 2000 and the answer was to sound like everyone else or at least like Avril. Liz got nasty mean when critics panned Liz Phair and insisted this was art and that she would be proven right. It was sell-out and an embarrassment. So much so that she still can't land another recording contract and now earns her money 'selecting' tunes for bad Aaron Spelling retools on the CW. So, as the decade closes, we learn that, yes, Liz Phair could sink lower than her 2003 self-titled album. Who knew?

2004 -- American Idiot

Green Day's epic album was also their strong comeback. Almost forgotten was 1994's Dookie. The group had faltered repeatedly and 1999 was when Blink 182 grabbed the Green Day formula, made it poppier, got nude in videos (Green Day leader Billie Joe Armstrong only got naked in concert) and showed how to be Green Day-like and successful. That must have really hurt because Billie Joe had a juicer ass than Mark Hoppus, Tom DeLonge or Travis Barker. But there was Blink 182 acting all shiny and new and Green Day looking like yesterday's big deal that could only squeak out a minor hit every now and then. Then came this loud, angry album blasting away the fog that lingered over America for three years. In many ways, American Idiot signaled the start of the decade. Is it a "rock opera" as has always been said?

If you know the answer to that question, maybe you looked at the lyric sheet too many times. Put the damn thing on, blast and enjoy. Rock in all its forgotten power.

2005 -- A Bigger Bang.

I noted at the top that these are opinions. Opinions are not fixed (or shouldn't be). For example, I always liked this album and considered it one of the best back in 2005. I didn't think it was the best. But what's happened in the last four years is I repeatedly play this album, I repeatedly find myself singing the songs to myself. This is a classic album. It's the sort of album that justifies all the wood shedding ones the Rolling Stones put out each decade because at some point they release a Some Girls, a Tattoo You or A Bigger Bang and remind you of just how potent they can be. With U2 doing all those sappy, crappy songs over the last three decades, the Stones never needed to fret for a moment that their crown might be taken. There's an urgency to this album and I like to think it's a response to Green Day's 2004 masterpiece, an attempt to say, "Well done, boys, but we ain't retiring just yet."

2006 -- Both Sides of the Gun and Living With War

Musically, 2006 was the best year of the decade. Two supreme masterpieces were released: Ben Harper's Both Sides of the Gun and Neil Young's Living With War. I picked them both as the best of 2006 for the year-in-review and even now it's impossible to choose one over the other. In each, you find an artist working at the top of their craft and a wealth of musical riches. And if you doubt that, consider that these two albums top a year that also saw Michael Franti & Spearhead's Yell Fire!, Tori Amos' The Beekeeper, Amy Winehouse Back To Black, Mary J. Blige's The Breakthrough, the Dixie Chick's Taking The Long Way, Cat Power's The Greatest, the Artic Monkeys' Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, the Twilight Singers' Power Burns and even Thom Yorke with The Eraser. I could list even more. But 2006 was the high water mark of the decade and, of all the albums released, Neil Young and Ben Harper's were the finest. Ben went with a double album, a disc of hard rockers and a disc of ballads, Neil went with a single disc, and both studied the world around them for meanings -- coming to related but different conclusions set to some of their strongest melodies.

2007 -- Shine.

For the first time since 1998's Taming The Tiger, Joni Mitchell recorded a collection of her new songs and what an amazing album. Shine opens with an instrumental (which won a Grammy) that sets the stage for the journey Shine's going to take you on. The album's a masterpiece that easily stands with Joni's other A-list works as she examines the human condition in this new century which should offer so much promise but somehow fails to. "Don't say I didn't warn you," Joni explains in "This Place" adding "money, money makes the trees come down." "If I Had A Heart" ("I'd cry") addresses over population and destruction and so much more. The album contains some of Joni's funkiest melodies, inspired playing and vocals that were expressive and a big middle finger to some of the critics slagging her in the 90s.

This was the clear winner of the year but it wasn't bad year for music and other notables included Cowboy Junkies at the end of paths taken, Mavis Staples' We'll Never Turn Back, Ben Harper's Lifeline, Tori Amos' American Doll Posse, Holly Near's Show Up and Ann Wilson's first solo album, Hope & Glory. Just enough to make you think there was still life in the machine.

2008 -- Sleep Through The Static.

I'm not a Jack Johnson fan. I can listen to a few of his songs (more if other people are singing and performing them) but I've never been a huge fan. Or all that impressed. Sleep Through The Static made the praise by his legion of fans (which includes our own Elaine) seem valid. For a change, you didn't listen thinking, "He had more fun in the studio than I'm having listening." He also formed a cohesive statement. And found keys and notes that sparkled. A delight to listen to and that's really saying something in a year that was almost as bad as 2001.

Other high notes included Aimee Mann's @#%&*! Smilers, Lenny Kravitz' It Is Time For A Love Revolution, Carly Simon's This Kind Of Love and Augustana's Can't Love, Can't Hurt. But it was obvious that the innovation and excitement was -- yet again -- leaving the music scene as the bulk of the albums hyped as 'great' or even 'good' were poor and insipid.

2009 -- Never Been Gone.

Carly Simon. Maybe the artist of the decade. She started off the decade with her classic Bedroom Tapes demonstrating that a strong woman can write about topics men in the midst of middle-aged panics will never touch. The decade saw her do a Moonlight Serenade, score two Disney Winnie The Pooh films, a Christmas album (re-released the following year with two additional tracks), explore the dreamy Into White and issue a strong collection of original songs This Kind Of Love. Some are going to argue with my terming The Bedroom Tapes "a minor classic." If you disagree, take comfort in the fact that C.I. thinks it's the finest album of Carly's career. You can also consider the fact that Never Been Gone puts everything before it in perspective.

That's what the album intends to do. To revisit some of Carly's best loved songs (such as "You're So Vain," "Anticipation," "It Happens Every Day," "Let The River Run," "You Belong To Me" and "The Right Thing To Do") and find new meanings and contexts in them. It also forces you to re-evaluate the work Carly's issued this decade because she's really accomplished something with Never Been Gone.
Never Been Gone

This isn't Carly wood shedding or breezing through the way these re-recording albums usually are. She's exploring and that's never more obvious than with "Coming Around Again." If there's been a mistake in promoting this album, it's been her performing "You Belong To Me" in all her TV appearances. Yes, as a single, it would be charting (if a major label released it). But it's probably the least representative of the album. It's not got the acoustic quality so much of the album does and it's got a big production aspect to it which makes it harder for those who are hearing it only on TV as Carly performs it to get what she's doing with the album. "Anticipation" or "Coming Around Again" would have worked better as performance pieces to demonstrate the news shadings she's bringing and the new meanings she's exploring.

In the US where the popular song really is the only musical art most of us will ever know, we have this desire to see our beloved artists improve with the years. If they can, it means we weren't just bopping our heads along with something mindless and trivial, we were really attracted to art. So their success means, for many of us, a validation of our own tastes and judgments. With Never Been Gone, Carly should have made millions and millions of Americans very happy. The lanky American Hit Maker is the still lanky American Artist.

And others in 2009 worthy of note? I'll address the 2009 releases in tomorrow's year-in-review.

Click here for my 2004 music piece, here for 2005, 2006 in music, 2007 in music and here for 2008. Illustrations are the cover of Carly's album and a drawing by Betty's kids.

Beth's thoughts on the year went up Sunday
and Martha and Shirley's look at 2009 in books went up this morning.