Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Kat's Korner: The year in music

Kat: 2004 saw a few speak out musically on the illegal war. 2005 saw a few more. 2006 added to the ranks. If you thought 2007 was when it would explode -- already roughly 70% of the American people were against the illegal war -- you under estimated how many cowards are around today.

In some cases, that's still around, in other cases, it's new cowards. To no one's surprise, the Disney Kids had nothing to say on this or anything other than "Me think me sexy, don't you?" The CK kiddie porn they've been selling since the late 90s got even more stale and, sad to say, all this time later they're still "child" stars having apparently spent too much time on studio sets and never lived a real life. It's reflected in what they passed off as music.

But it wasn't just the aging kiddies, still thinking the world was interested that they'd hit puberty, who fell silent; there were also a lot of cowards in the ranks of the long-established. I thought my own disappointment in the shallowness at the heart of the Brill Building created 'peace queen' Carole King would be the biggest disappointment musically of the illegal war, then along came Judy Collins.

Does Judy Collins really believe that she's ever going to have another hit single? Older now than Tina Turner, Grace Slick or Cher when they hit number one (in the eighties and nineties respectively), she must be the music world's biggest optimist if she thinks so. But this year found Judy Collins, a woman who marched, protested and sang against an earlier illegal war, doing her third covers album of male songwriters -- feminism, like peace, apparently only receives lip service from Our Lady of Eternal Disappointments -- and offering non-stop crap. If there was a reason for her bad album of Beatles' covers, it might be to reconfigure "Revolution," but Judy was interested in love and art songs and, apparently, in singing them badly to Vegas-style arrangements. Judy, you didn't surpass Carole, but the two of you are now joined at the hip as poster gals for Frauds and Phonies. It must be really easy to weigh in on peace before you're known outside the folk circles. Must be really risking it to weigh in after you're a name. Collins wasn't risking s**t and, instead, served up s**t which, thankfully, really didn't sell. If there's any justice, future generations of women will honor her as much as she's honored the work of female songwriters in album form -- in other words, may they render her as invisible as she has anyone not named Bob, John, Paul or Leonard.

The latest It Takes a Woman to Sob, It Takes a Penis to Pen failed as a statement, it failed as music, it failed as entertainment. May all her peers embrace it as a cautionary tale and grasp that, to jingle-jangle Dylan, "When you ain't standing for nothing, you got nothing to lose."

In between the two age extremes were a host of artists who disappointed. This included a singer-song writer I'd praised. A few years back, he had a song about the war. It was the only thing that got attention. But somehow he appeared to think the attention was a sign that America needed his badly written love songs which he offered in two discs. Those in the know, will know who I mean. Most won't know because there is still some justice in this world: Translation, his crap didn't sell.

As sure as the sun will rise and set, Billy Corgan will wake with a chip on his shoulder and, year after year, show up to insist he was the real talent of the early 90s alternative music scene. This go round, he insisted he was going 'political.' An album cover he didn't design doesn't count as political nor do a bunch of personal love songs using violent imagery in their provide-your-own-meaning-to-my-random-thoughts lyrics. If anything Smashing Pumpkins Zeitgeist made an argument that Corgan's been underrated for writing music and highly overrated for writing lyrics.

Prince fared better offering up a genuine statement but surrounded it with songs about lives that none of us could relate to outside of a few straight men with a fetish for wearing women's underwear. "Resolution" is the downloadable track and strong enough to make Planet Earth worth having. When Prince decides to visit it for more than one track, look out. Till then, note how strange the alien is.

We could go on and on because the ugly wasn't only intensely ugly, it was the norm. Instead, let's move on to the best of 2007.

At number one?

1) Joni Mitchell's Shine, Holly Near's Show Up and Ann Wilson's Hope & Glory.

That was the thing that made writing this a real headache. What do you do when there are so many choices? I eliminated it to three but couldn't go further. In a moment of booze filled inspiration, I thought I had it. Each of the three were number one for different reasons: art, entertainment and, long before I'd sobered up, I'd forgotten the third reason. Good for me, because they all provide joy and they are all artistic.

Shine is a strong statement and a strong album from Mitchell. It took a world gone mad to get Joni back into the studio and it took one of our most gifted songwriters to capture it. I had predicted that those who didn't like the album would diss the anger. We don't seem to like that in women, as a society, do we? "Oh, Joni, push the hair behind the ears and sing us another song about how your heart got broken that we can say 'Me too!' to if it's not so revealing that we have to pretend 'That's her hang up!'" Reality check, this is an album containing many songs about a broken heart, the love affair ending is the one with the world around her. The key to Joni at her best isn't just that no one else could lay it out like she does, it's also that no one else would even try. In 2007, music lovers got Joni with no fans, no partitions, no curtains. It was Joni going as naked and as deep as she ever has. If you had the good sense to appreciate real art, you grasped that Shine was another classic in her canon. If you didn't, you can catch up ten to twenty years from now when it will be 'safe' to do so. A true artist because art requires bravery.

Holly Near's Show Up brought her a new audience. This wasn't a case of getting the old fans together because she spoke beyond her base. "Who is she?" and "What should I get next?" were the most common questions in e-mails after people listened to Show Up. She is a gifted songwriter and singer who went the Ani DiFranco route before DiFranco was born meaning in the seventies she switched over to her own label. Even a few dedicated folkies wrote in to say they'd forgotten her. That's an indication of the way music was and the way it is today. "The internet is killing music!" That's the cry we hear but there's a converse to that. Not only are Near's recordings now more available to anyone who wants them, word of her work is as well. Though only a few 'big' music magazines still exist today, they had tremendous power and, check the archives, they weren't overly interested in reviewing releases from the non-major labels. I enjoyed all the e-mails on Holly Near but Eli put it best, "It's not a comeback for her, it's us that are coming back." And that's an accomplishment of the internet.

Near's recorded a powerful album -- musically, lyrically and vocally. Her scope is epic, her details telling, and if you're not singing along with the tracks on this album, you must despise melodies. It's rare that someone reminds us, years later, of how great they are. It's even rarer that they demonstrate they are even better. Holly Near pulls off that feat.

Some loving Ann Wilson's Hope & Glory may not be singing along. They may be too intimidated to sing along with one of the most powerful voices in rock. That's fine, Wilson's provided a treat just for the ears. When I heard about this album, I knew I'd love the vocals and hoped there would be a track or two I could listen to repeatedly. Outside of Stevie Nicks, most solo projects have been huge disappointments. But Heart's Wilson didn't aim for 'hip' or 'now,' she aimed for quality. Twelve tracks that rock which is an amazement before you get to the fact that the album works as a whole and actually says something. When you grasp that eleven of the tracks are rock classics and that the twelfth song stands up alongside them, you have to give Wilson her due. She and Ben Mink wrote "Little Problems, Little Lies" and it's telling the story of someone stationed in Iraq:

Little problems, little lies
And all the young dudes fighting
So far away from home
Some are unsung heroes
Some are made of stone
Some of them are broken
The broken places strong
Some of them are crazy
Their innocence is gone.

All three women struggled to convey the world around them and all three succeeded. They are real artists in a land of posers.

3) Tori Amos' American Doll Posse. An amazing album and one of the best of the decade. It doesn't rank higher in part because this was the year that I rediscovered Scarlet's Walk and it had to compete with that. It's also a lengthier album whose many themes will take years to fully digest. Like the women above, Tori still believes music can say something, can speak and should offer up something more than end rhymes. With each release, she again makes the case for being the finest artist to emerge from the alternative rock scene. While her peers scramble to figure out if solo or super group is the answer, Tori knows the answer is not in aping, it's in exploring.

4) Bright Eyes' Cassadaga. When an artist like Tori explores, the boys in the rock critic world play dumb. When the artist, like Conor Oberst, happens to be male, they ignore the art and offer gossip. That's why Cassadaga remains an album still not written about despite a multitude of print reviews. The bulk of what's printed demonstrates how rock killed music criticism and music criticism killed rock, a vicious cycle. Stats passed off as insight and the boys rushed in to say, "This is a song about Winona Ryder and that one is about . . ." Did it serve any purpose? Did it communicate the joy that Oberst is offering or the darkness he's digging into? No. But the boy-critics are afraid of feelings (though they'll get behind a woman playing weakness) so they offer gossip and call it a review. In the process, they failed to note this is the album that takes Bright Eyes' amazing live performances and brings that sound into the studio. This is the band album we've all been waiting for.

5) Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals' Lifeline. A multi-media release that reminds me of the strength of the Rolling Stones, seventies-era, when they'd leave England to record elsewhere (for tax purposes) and emerge with a masterpiece. You can pick your own favorite track. Mine have shifted depending upon mood but the one that I'm always humming to myself when the CD's not playing is "If Your Heart Isn't It." If Billy Corgan could write like that, he'd have the rock-god status he feels wrongly denied of. I noted that listening to this CD provides a problem: You grasp quickly that in today's schlock radio, there's no place for it. In a world where men pass themselves off as teenage boys (and critics look the other way), Harper's a full grown man. There's nothing boyish or coy about him. Feminists and feminism didn't make "masculinty" a dirty word. However, the bulk of the males recording today appear determined to do so.

6) Lizzie West & the White Buffalo's I Pledge Allegiance to Myself. Amy Goodman as this decade's Ed Sullivan? While Democracy Now! regularly provides "a really big show," it's not a comparison I'd make myself. But there's no denying that Goodman's program exposed this 2006 release to a huge audience on their January 05, 2007 broadcast which featured the album's "19 Miles to Baghdad." As strong as that song is, my favorite remains "Take These Demons" and I look forward to a live album that extends that song. If you haven't added the CD to your collection already, you can go to CD Baby and order it there.

7) Rickie Lee Jones' The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard. Rickie Lee at number seven? When I would work on the list and narrow it down, that would always bother me because this isn't just a strong album or a random gathering of songs, it's an overall statement. But the reality is there's very little difference between the ones coming after the first three positions though there is a huge gulf between them and the other releases of 2007. Each month in 2007, I'd think, "This will be in the top three." When Holly Near's CD was released, I knew it would be at the top. It's a depressing fact that I spent far too much money this year on CDs that I don't listen to. One group, in fact, made the argument for my never buying them again but instead checking with Sumner and Maggie to see what track is worth downloading and I'm an album person. Rickie Lee's tackling themes of redemption and spirituality in this release but not in the manner of one of Dylan's endless religious conversions. Does morality have any meaning in the world we are living in? In a fabulist world, do fables have any more meanings? It's a deep album and a guitar driven one.

8) Patti Smith's Tracks and Carly Simon's Into White. Both women record for Sony and Sony made it clear they weren't interested in original composition. The women could have chased down the embarrassing Rod Stewart Schlock Gravy Train, instead they made art. (Stewart's big band albums are schlock due to the way they're performed. I'm not insulting the songs themselves and, point of fact, in 1981 Carly Simon was exploring that terrain quite adeptly with Torch.) Instead, they demonstrated that, pay attention Diana Ross and Judy Collins, when you're forced into a genre (covers from the past) you can still comment on today. Just because you're recording 'golden oldies' doesn't mean you have to sound like one. Both women delivered the goods in 2007 and, give a listen, the sounds of either have nothing in common. One's rocking, one's more soothing. And artists working on cover albums should grasp that there isn't a generic production that has to be used and that if they can't find something new to explore in the songs, they probably shouldn't be recording them.

10) Your pick. That's partly my cop-out because each year e-mails come in on this asking, "How could you forget/overlook ___!" In some cases, such as when I forgot Aimee Mann's The Forgotten Arm, I honestly had forgotten it. Had I remembered it at year's end, it would have made the list. So to cover my own forgetfulness, I'll leave the spot open. It's also true that some albums I absolutely loathe result in e-mails that make me re-listen. I've yet to re-listen and think, "Well this should have been on my top ten." But it goes to the fact that these lists are nothing but personal judgements. So that slot's left open for both reasons.

Best Collection in 2007: Ani DiFranco's Canon. The Righteous Babe offers her first double-disc compilation that's not a live recording. Disc one is classic. Disc two less so. In October, I said I'd weigh in on "Both Hands." Having listened repeatedly, I'd argue that the re-recording is a butchering of the song. The problem with disc two is that Ani's included the wrong songs. She has more than enough memorable and solid tracks from the second half of her career to choose from; however, the bulk don't make it onto the second disc. Again, "Half-Assed" is among the songs that should have been on the second disc. About half the songs on the second disc don't belong on any best of, greatest or any collection.

Best From The Vault release: Stephen Stills' Just Roll Tape which, though recorded in 1967, made it's first appearance this year. It's no frills demos that grab you in ways that the bulk of albums -- in any year or decade -- don't. Great news in 2008 would be that either there's another from the vault release from Stills or, better yet, he's got a new batch of song and intends to release them in a similar format.

Best track: The Ballet's "I Hate The War." This 2006 track is available on the CD Mattachine! and for free download at The Ballet's website. December 10th, WBAI's Out-FM featured the song. Ruth wrote about it then. We've all tried to get the word out on it. If you haven't heard it, you're cheating yourself. If you have heard it, you're probably singing, "Na na na na na na na, I hate the war" right now.

Most Improved: Norah Jones. Somewhere in Not Too Late is the sound of an artist emerging. When you chance upon it, it may stun you if, like me, you'd written her off as Snorah Jones. This isn't a great album but indicates that she does have the capacity and it's moved her from my "Change the station!" list to someone whose next release I'll be eagerly awaiting.

In the past year-in-review pieces, a few e-mails have come in noting that I focused too much on men but when I've looked at the list, it's been more or less equal numerically so I'll assume that I've missed noting someone's favorite releases by women. On this list, women outweigh men and that's because, despite Neil Young's brave art in 2006, most men in 2007 stayed silent or released something which made a strong argument that they should have stayed silent. That hasn't resulted from their being too ambitious and over-reaching, it's resulted from the biggest musical game of the decade: Playing Coward. The decade's almost over and they'd all do well to realize that legacies are made or lost by whether or not you, in the words of Holly Near, show up. Pete Seeger was not the biggest artist on the charts as a solo artist. But his legacy has endured because, when he was needed, he always showed up. Those who've been silent to 'protect' themselves should grasp, before it's too late, that they are killing their own legacies.