Gerry’s Top Sixty Albums of the Decade Part Six
December 18th 2008
Into the final furlong. This has been both exhausting and exhilarating; now I know how much work those boys and girls at ‘NME’ and ‘Uncut’ work on their end of year lists. For me personally it has been an even more varied, stimulating and utterly captivating decade in music than ever before.
There are though some interesting (and some ominous signs) in the state of music (and I am not just taking about Cowell and the X Factor). There is the state of pop and plastic pop in particular. Apart from Girls Aloud, whose Greatest Hits appears in this list who else is championing catchy disposable pop and making great singles; Will Young, Gareth Gates, Leona Lewis, I mean, seriously! Trashy pop matters as the great days of Wham! and Culture Club show in the 1980s, who were great early on when they were in their ‘pop’ phases.
Then there is the state of music which engages with and shapes the political mood. Given what has happened in the last decade: Bush, Blair and the march of the neo-liberals, where are the subtle albums and songs about the state of democracy in Britain, America, and the never-ending wars? Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ hardly counts as a learned tome; instead where are the equivalents of the Specials ‘Ghost Town’ and even Pink Floyd’s ‘The Final Cut’, an album subtitled ‘A requiem for the post-war dream’?
A couple of albums which deal with political and social issues are in the top ten, but none of them reached a mass audience. A special mention should be made of the work of Canadian multi-media group Godspeed You! Black Emperor whose ‘Yanqui UXO’ (the initials standing for unexploded ordinance landmines) is a hugely ambitious album about the times we live in and the armaments industry set to a stunning soundscape, and which I found out about too late to put in this chart.
This is an issue of concern because of the bleak times we live in and that having a soundtrack which offers explanation and hope matter. How long can people go on using 1960s tracks as the signposts of radicalism: Dylan, Hendrix, the Stones and Beatles?
A special mention to some of the left-field Scottish music of the last few years, the late Martyn Bennett’s brilliant work combining oral history and dance, and the romantic rambling of Babelfish whose unofficial ‘Live at the Ceilidh Place’ captures a great Hogmanay gig and party atmosphere.
Guilty pleasures over the era. Well, I did get into appreciating the self-titled debut album of ‘Splodgenessabounds’ from the early 1980s, which in places has become a celebrated work of craziness; ‘Anarchy Chaos Stanley Ogden’ is a great post-punk ‘lost’ classic. Even more guiltily, I did buy Wings ‘London Town’ from 1978 and ‘Back to the Egg’ from 79, and liked them, but even I recognised the purchase of Supertramp’s ‘Even in the Quietest Moments’, an album from the ‘other’ 77, was one step too far! I mean ten minutes titled ‘Fool’s Overture’ about Chamberlain and Churchill and the fate of these isles is from another cultural age we don’t want to revisit!
10. To Hell or Barbardos, Damien Dempsey, 2007
Dempsey is an imaginative folk singer-songwriter and storyteller of modern times as well as a major music star in Ireland. This is an album of thoughtful, substantial and intoxicating music tackling history, urban life and love. The track ‘To Hell or Barbardos’ is a rolling travelogue which recalls Randy Newman’s ‘Sail Away’ in the unambiguous way it confronts the legacy of slavery.
9. At 89, Pete Seeger, 2008
We all need heroes and people who offer inspiration, and Seeger has led a life never stopping in the cause of supporting others. This is a 32 track album which draws from his rich past, but is grounded in the present and future. ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’ was originally about Vietnam, but takes on new life about Iraq; ‘If It Can’t Be Reduced’ is inspired by Berkeley council’s zero waste policy.
8. Smile, Brian Wilson, 2004
There are at least two stories here: Brian Wilson’s return to musical creativity and the 37 year late completion of ‘Smile’. This is a gorgeously crafted and executed album as much about olde Americana as the heady hopes of psychedelia. ‘Smile’ turns out to be a much more conceptual and far-reaching album than ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and god knows what would have happened had it been finished in 1967. As a small point there is a tiny sense of this being an ersatz ‘Smile’ versus the fragility, complexity and warm of the original ‘Smile’ which is evident on bootlegs. But then Wilson has faced his demons, lived to tell the story and thrived!
7. A Little More Blue, Caetano Veloso, 1971
Caetano’s exile in London album recorded in English with some of the local alt folk scene. This is still very Brazilian, but very different from all his other albums: very ‘blue’, filled with melancholia and moodiness. He walks around ‘London, London’ in wonder, chastises his sister ‘Maria Bethania’ and over the whole album reflects on life in exile and being cut adrift from so many of his passions.
6. Stoned Part One, Lewis Taylor, 2004
The last English soul hope of the decade. Signed to Island Records in the mid-1990s he released two acclaimed soul albums which totally stiffed in terms of shifting copies, resulting in him being dropped by his record company. This is his first independent release, and another fully realised work showcasing a growing multi-tasking genius, who writes captivating songs, has a sweet, subtle soul voice and is an accomplished instrumentalist. This is deep, moving soul with a great groove, and in a just world this would shift millions. Frustrated and fed up not breaking through Taylor retired from the business in 2007.
5. I Trawl the Megahertz, Paddy McAloon, 2003
Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout produces a completely unconventional album which draws on Ellington, Mingus and film noir soundtracks. The opening title track, 22 minutes long, is narrated by Yvonne Connors about a city in the dark, loneliness and relationships breaking up, recalling the spirit of Ray Milland characters and the days of classic radio broadcasting. It is no accident McAloon conceived of this all-encompassing vision when he had significant eye problems.
4. The World of Arthur Russell, 2004
Russell was a NYC classical trained cellist, serious clubber and disco diva and combines all of these in his haunting, beautiful music which is made with both the dance floor and cerebral enjoyment in mind. In this he draws equally from Chic, Earth, Wind and Fire, and Philip Glass. Most of these tracks were relatively unknown in Russell’s life (he died of AIDS in 1992) and the best known in his lifetime was ‘Is It All Over My Face’, but the whole album shimmers with hypnotic melodies on such tracks as ‘Go Bang’ and ‘In the Light of the Miracle’.
3. Angel in the Dark, Laura Nyro, 2001
Laura Nyro died in 1997 at the tender age of 49 and this album represents her last recording sessions which was released posthumously in 2001. This is a beautiful album covering all Laura’s usual bases of gospel, soul, folk and jazz from the opening title track to a host of originals and cover versions including a striking, slowed down version of ‘Ooh Baby, Baby’ (the Smokey Robinson song). The arrangements are sparse and intimate making for a heartfelt goodbye laden with emotions, sadness and joy.
2. Southern Rock Opera, Drive-By Truckers, 2001
The Drive-By Truckers breakthrough album, released in the States in 2001 and the following year in the UK. Not really a ‘Rock Opera’, instead it is a rambling, giant double album which explores growing up in the South in the 70s, the story of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the power of rock and more. On its journey it confronts honestly a host of difficult issues: how the South is seen (‘the duality of the Southern thing’), race, class, and the myth of Skynyrd, all while satirising the whole ‘rock opera’ concept. This is a raw, intelligent album from a group who from this went on to become one of the most important and original bands in modern America of recent years. Why would anyone listen to Kings of Leon when we have the Drive-By Truckers?
1. Stay Human, Michael Franti/Spearhead, 2001
This is an affirming, breathtaking album which takes the form of a radio broadcast to showcase a story about politics, race, the death penalty, the media and truth. The sound of this album is warm, infectious and totally uplifting, recalling the best of 70s soul, and from the opening ‘Oh My God’ and ‘Stay Human (All the Freaky People)’ it never falters. Franti is a force for good in the world, and was previously the lead singer of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphopcrisy, live is an elemental force and I am forever glad that this album exists in the world. ‘Stay Human’ is an album worthy of comparison with ‘What’s Going On?’, one filled with vision and classic tunes.