Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The Best of Music 2000-2009 (Part 1/2 - The Unknown Genre)

(A word before I begin. Relax. If you have time, stick on your headphones and lie back. If you're doing stuff on the computer, let the following tunes run in the background. You'll enjoy at least half of what I'm about to play....and if you don't, well...maybe this blog isn't for you. That's right. I'm one of those terrible music snobs.)

The title of this blog comes from an old Steven Wright gag. It's apt here because this collection, like most on this blog, does not follow the 'Five Best'-type formats of other sites. No-one's paying me to make it fit into a small box, so I don't bother trying. This is a list of songs, albums and artists who I've enjoyed in the first decade of the new millennium. I know the decade technically doesn't finish for another year, but we seem to have collectively spurned accuracy for round numbers, so what the hell.

If there's one style of music that's connected with me in the last decade, it's that curious little bird that has no real name. It's country, it's folk, it's pop, it's rock, it's punk, it's even jazz sometimes. It has never been adequately defined...but when you hear it, you know it.

I've never been ashamed to say I love country, which flies in the face of the trite and 'attempted cool' bullshit that people spout when they're asked what kind of music they like: "Oh I listen to anything, except country." One can only assume they've never heard Johnny Cash or Hank Williams Sr. The exponents of the 'new-old' form of country have been lumped in little sub-genres of so-called alternative country. Why I have no idea.

The people below are often accused of subverting the country form, but when you compare them to the current crop of Nashville 'hitmakers' it's obvious they pay much more mind and respect to their musical forebears, both in sentiment and sound. There's no self-important, flag-waving bombast and cheesy, puffy-chested production here. Merely sweet and reverent melody, with simple, spiritual ideas and instrumentation/arrangements that pay due fealty to origins.

Iron & Wine.

In late 2003 (the day Saddam was caught down a hole) I saw The Shins live on their first trip to Australia. Supporting them was a beardy Texan named Sam Beam aka Iron & Wine. It wasn't the first time I'd heard this kind of music, but it does mark the beginning of the love affair with the style. The more people I discovered, the better it became.

M. Ward.

In the mid-00s I was writing occasional album reviews for a local magazine. Their brief was primarily as a 'dance' publication, but luckily for me they did cover other music. Sometimes the editor would leave a CD out especially, but mostly I'd just go through a box of new releases and grab what looked interesting. It was during a forage in the box one day that I happened upon the amazement that is M. Ward.

The album was Transistor Radio and it was a revelation. Here was a guy who sounded as if he'd been transported from the 1920s via a Spector-studio. Of all the music I've listened to in the last ten years, it's M Ward's I find the most compelling and rewarding. That's why he gets two.

My Morning Jacket.

An old friend turned me on to these guys back in 2004. He turned up one day, thrust two CDs at me and said 'You have to listen to these'. I was immediately sceptical but he was insistent. I'm glad he was, for My Morning Jacket proved to be a great listening experience, especially live. They were lovely guys too, coming straight down after the show to have a beer and chat with anyone who hung around. Back then I described them as Southern-fried AC/DC with a sprinkle of Beach Boys and jammed through a big reverb machine. Their sound has undergone mutations since, but their core is the same. This is my favourite MMJ song.

The Decemberists.

I wouldn't put these guys in the same category as those above them. While there is the same reliance on folk, the traditon is more transatlantic. They still deserve a place here. They were another CD box 'accident'. The album in question? 'Her Majesty'. The Decemberists are all pirates and shanties and balladeers, with the occasional pop gem thrown in.

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy.

A legend in these circles, Will Oldham has been pumping along for years under various monikers. In the late 90s he assumed the pseudonym Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, which has been with him ever since. My first 'meeting' was in 2005 via 'Superwolf' a collaboration with guitarist Matt Sweeney. Oldham captures the deistic in this style of music, as well as a pervasive feeling that he may be messing with you. Whatever his intent, the results are often beautiful. (There are two songs below, I recommend scrolling to 5:50 to hear 'A Beast for Thee'.)

Fleet Foxes.

More of a pop/light gospel than country/folk feel to this, but beautiful nonetheless and worth of inclusion.

Great Lake Swimmers.

My most recent 'find', GLS are from Canada. They hold pretty close to traditional folk and country, but you can hear that familiar warmth of vocal production among the lo-fi production.

Part Two will be along shortly. It's a rag bag of rock and pop and, basically, everything else that pushed the ol' button these last few years (from what I can remember).