Friday, January 01, 2010

Kat's Korner: 2009 in music

Kat: In reviewing the decade, I noted that 2006 was the high-water mark musically and that what came before and what came after were few albums worth listening to. The decade peters out with 2009, a year that more than proves my hypothesis. Who was the new breakthrough recording artist of 2009, someone emerging that we'd never heard of before? No one. In fact, the bulk of this year's best dipped into the past.

1) Never Been Gone.

Never Been Gone

Carly Simon's masterpiece would have been a delight any year of this decade but, in capping it, managed to be a comment not only on her own art, her own life, but also on the decade. For those who do not know, this is a largely acoustic set (I reviewed it here) of some of Simon's most beloved songs such as "You're So Vain," "Anticipation," "Let The River Run" and "Coming Around Again." Largely acoustic -- "You Belong To Me" doesn't really fit with that theme. And Carly also records two new songs. The songs you know have new life and, with the additions she's made, "Coming Around Again" is pretty much the summation of the decade.

The heartbeat went out of our house
The rhythm went out of our romance
But in life that happens and you just

Have to remember to breathe

And it then will return, if you just remember to breathe
After all I've been through,
I'll wait it on through

If I can just remember to breathe

It will be coming around once more, you will see

I've been in love with you and I do believe in you

Love -- it's gonna break you before it makes you

She could just as easily be speaking to the country as to an ex-lover.

It's an amazing album and the year's finest.

2) We Came To Sing.

Holly Near teams up with emma's revolution (Pat Humphries and Sandy O) for this release. In my review, I had very harsh words (I stand by them) for the 'delivery' of the product (download) but I also noted, "For example, if it could get a Grammy nod, there's no way it wouldn't win. This is music at a time when the music industry appears to be interested in everything but music. This is satisfying music at a time when most releases that satisfy people tend to be repackaged hit collections. This is really something and Holly Near and emma's revolution should be really proud of being there on the front line making the case for art, showing the power of music, living the joy." In another year, this might have been the best release but in 2009, it has to compete with Carly and she nailed it.

3) Under The Covers Vol. 2.

This album finds Matthew Sweet (of "Girlfriend" fame) and Susanna Hoffs (Bangles) following up 2006's Under the Covers Vol. 1 with a look at some of the classics of the seventies. This time the band's even tighter and the songs even more fully realized. If you wondered where the good band music of rock was in 2009, you didn't pick up this set. This is rock the way rock is meant to be. Sweet and Hoffs lead a band, and various guest stars, through a variety of rock classics (as I noted in my review, get the two-disc set -- the bonus disc plus the album) and if there was anything better than their playing on this album, it was their playing in concert. I caught them twice and they were the finest concert act of 2009.

4) Armchitka.

Available through Greenpeace, this 2009 release is a live recording of a 1970 concert. The revelations are Joni Mitchell and Phil Ochs with one-time arm candy James Taylor along for the ride. As I noted when reviewing it, this concert took place when it was supposed to be all over for Phil according to official biographers. They've never reviewed this concert. Phil gives a great performance and is very well received.

But the star of the double disc release is Joni. Whether joking with the audience between songs or calling out the press, she's charming and, when she starts singing and strumming (or playing the piano), you're hearing greatness. Joni's landmark Blue is a few months down the line -- and she was a formidable talent long before Blue -- so you're hearing her think through some of the songs that will appear on the album and you'll hear "The Hunter" and be able to decide whether it should have been pulled at the last minute, as it was. There's even a section on there that can be seen as artistically educational. I didn't understand a segment, I enjoyed it, I just didn't understand it. I asked C.I. about it and was told Joni's showing one of the ways she wrote "Carey." See if you pick that up on your own (I didn't pick it up until it was pointed out).

5) The Soundstage Sessions

The one and only Stevie Nicks finally releases another solo set. This is a live recording featuring many of her best known songs (including my favorite "Sara") as well as some covers --David Mathews Band's "Crash Into Me" Bonnie Raitt's "Circle Dance." This is Stevie reminding one and all of how powerful her voice is and that she's a rock singer. Not a pop singer who does a few songs with guitar solos every now and then. Not a jazz singer who might dabble in rock from time to time. The woman who became famous a few years after the death of Janis Joplin was rocking it when the line was "girls can't rock" -- followed by "well, if they do, it will kill them, look at Janis." Strangely, no one ever says, "Look at Grace Slick." Or maybe not so strange since Grace's long life proves a woman can rock as hard as anyone and not be 'punished.'

Janis was a rocker who took the audience to a plane of pure emotion. Those emotional highs, after her death, were suddenly used to create a morality play that has little to do with either Janis' work or her life. And in the immediate backlash following the death of Janis Joplin, very few women were allowed to walk out on that rock stage. Grace was still walking out and rocking out. The Wilson sisters (Ann and Nancy of Heart) emerged and there was Stevie Nicks. And for many, many years, these women were really all.

One of the reasons Stevie is such an original artist may simply be due to the fact that she had no one to copy. That's how trailblazing she was (and how trailblazing she remains). More than any of her solo albums since Rock A Little, The Soundstage Sessions celebrates all that is uniquely and individually Stevie Nicks. Like me, you'll probably be in love with the album at the first listen.

6) Love Is The Answer.

2009 was the end of the decade. Barbra Streisand had held the record for artist having a number one album each decade. She made it to the top of the Billboard album chart in the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s. That only left this decade. Her musical output was less but she did release albums. As of September 2009, with only three months left in the decade, it looked as if Barbra's streak ended in the 90s. Then came Love Is The Answer and Barbra scored another number one album. Five decades.

Love Is The Answer is a good album as a single disc. But if it were a single disc, it would either be lower on the ten or not on it. What gets it into the top ten of 2009 is the deluxe edition's bonus disc of the same songs but Barbra performing them with an intimate combo and not the large orchestration. It was amazing. If it had been the album proper (and not a bonus), Love Is The Answer would be much higher on my top ten. What a wonderful revelation to hear Barbra's voice this way, the way her recording career started out. Simply Streisand indeed. As I observed in October, "The standard version of Love Is The Answer is nothing to sneeze at. It's a solid Barbra Streisand album and that's more than enough for her millions of fans. But the Deluxe Version gives you twelve tracks that actually qualify as classics and art, twelve tracks where one of the world's most gorgeous voices is set off to masterful effect."

7) Testimony Vol. 2: Love & Politics.

india.arie released this breath taking album and if you ever doubt how anti-woman so many music critics (males and, sadly, females both) can be, check out the reviews of it sometime and notice the raw hatred heaped on this album by so many critics. Notice how they're attacking her and threatened by her and it's not hidden, it's right there in the open. It's not just that sexism exists in 2009, it's that it exists so openly. I love this album and stand by every word of praise I gave it when it came out.

8) Lotus Flower.

Prince made an album (at last) that reminded you that, throughout the eighties, he reigned supreme as the album artist -- even when releasing double disc albums. This is a triple disc album, only two of which are Prince recordings. He writes some of his strongest songs in years but the strongest track on the album is his cover of "Crimson & Clover." Which, when you think about it, really goes to the the theme of 2009. I reviewed it here.

9) White Lies For Dark Times.

Ben Harper teamed up with the Innocent Criminals for this studio album and for a new sound. It feels like an experiment so everyone should get ready for the next album from Harper to see where he's going with this but, as is, it's pretty amazing.

10) Alter The Ending.

Dashboard Confessional returns to form with this album and you need the deluxe edition here so that you have the bonus, acoustic disc. Including that disc allows Chris Carrabba to please Dashboard's longterm fans (the acoustic disc) and the new ones picked up this decade as he ventured more and more away from emo rock to just rock.

The main theme of 2009 was revisiting. Some did so successful, others less so and I'll be kind and not name the biggest disgraces of the year.

But an e-mail came in about my decade in review. How could I, wondered the man, pick so many women for my picks of the ten best albums of the decade?

I made up the list over a week of pulling out various discs and listening to them and really hadn't thought much about the composition. Reading the e-mail, I wondered, "Were nine of my ten best by women?" The tone of the e-mail suggested that was the case.

Of the ten albums, four were by female artists: Jill Scott's debut, Tori Amos' 2002 album, Joni Mitchell's 2007 release and Carly Simon's 2009 release. Three were by groups: White Stripes' 2003 release, Green Day's 2004 release and the Rolling Stones' 2005 release. Three were by male artists: Ben Harper's 2006 release, Neil Young's 2006 release, Jack Johnson's 2008 release. Four women on a top ten list is too much? And if we really want to get into it, two of the groups are all male and only the White Stripes has a female member.

But four were apparently too much for the e-mailer who wrote, "You should try to be more fair. Look at Rolling Stone's 2000 25 best picks." That's fair? That list?

That's telling.

I'm looking at a list of 25 and I'm only seeing one woman. Women show up in some groups, but only one woman is picked as worthy as an individual. My list above will probably upset the e-mailer -- too much vagina for him or something. But the reality was 2009 was not a good year for music but when something was done right, it was often done by women.

Click here for my 2004 music piece, here for 2005, 2006 in music, 2007 in music and here for 2008. Yesterday, my look at the decade went up. Ruth's look at 2009 in radio went up today as did Isaiah's The World Today Just Nuts "Brownie Approved." "2009 in books (Martha & Shirley)" posted Thursday and "Reflecting on 2009 (Beth)" went up Sunday.