Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Chained Upon The Face Of Time

Howdy! Hope your Holiday went well. Ours went especially swell, as Mrs. Mountain presented us with a present that is not only a gift to us, but to you as well. It's a device that's going to significantly expand the breadth and scope of keen tunes we can share with you. More on that down the line.

But now, welcome to the first part of world renowned Big Rock Candy Mountain Top 10 Albums of The Year. Over the next four days, we've got the 18-19 albums that made our Top 10, our favorite reissues, ummm...favorite television program, plus a bunch of other crap. How fun! Really, could it get any better than this?

Normally at this point I'd give some kind of year-end rant about how everything sucked this year, and rail against the record companies and marketing campaigns and PR-purchased music magazines, or some other nonsense. We're a bit curmudgeonly here at the Mountain. But I'm not going to do that this year. The whole pretending towards the "good old days" of music is more than a little disingenuous. Popular music, and the marketing and homogenizing thereof, has always existed, and for every Britney Spears and American Idol now, folks had to endure a "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window" back in the "golden age". We're not so removed, we just have more cameras. A great tune, or album, has a way of persevering, perhaps hovering in a dark corner of your weird uncle's record collection, or in some vault of some obscure regional recording company, just waiting to be discovered. And shared. Perhaps by, oh, I dunno, some blogger on the world wide internets.

I realize that for the past 5 years or so, someone has proclaimed each year the Year Of The Blogger, or some sort proclamation similar. But this year it seemed, more than ever, that a slew of sites popped up that were more interested in sharing records and tunes from the farthest dusty corners of recorded history, than in posting the latest band or artist of the moment. Cultural preservation vs. cultural hubris? Populist vs. Popular?

Several "cultural critics" sniffed recently that music blogging, particularly the types who posted full, long out of print, and virtually public domain albums, were killing the long-cherished record-bin collecting trend. Several problems with that argument: The Internet has never stopped me from going to the record store; It assumes that everyone has access to the coolest record store, with all that prime obscure vinyl (whatever that is); And it contextualizes a record as a thing to own, not a thing to enjoy, to play for friends, whether they be in your home or part of more disparate worldwide community. And music has always, ultimately, been about the shared experience, barring the occasional late-night drinking song. Everyone benefits from those sites that say, hey, if you like Nirvana, try the Sonics (and this other record of forgotten garage punk), if you like Steve Earle, try Townes Van Zandt (and this other collection of old Hillbilly music), if you like John Legend, how about giving Stevie Wonder a try (and while you're at it, here's a scratchy collection of pre-rock Rhythm and Blues). And on the other side, since great new music is still be made, despite what the naysayers would have you believe, bloggers are bringing new sounds, stripped of marketing, to ears that might never have the chance to hear. Sure, there's a lot of crap to sift through, but there's a lot of crap to sift through at the grocery store and the record shop, but people still manage to find something they're looking for.

All of this merely to say, we're pretty excited about the state of music nowadays. The Music Industry may be in trouble, but fans aren't. Maybe we won't ever have another cultural unifier like "Like A Rolling Stone" or "Let It Be" or "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as I argued a year or two ago. Maybe we will. Who knows? I was wrong in my argument to suggest that that was a bad thing. Whether you like songs about umbrellas, rehab, faeries or pickup trucks, you've got more choice than ever. And we think, in the words of our favorite convicted criminal, that it's a good thing.

So, as promised, here's the first part of our Top Ten List. There are 20 records that made our list (hence the repetitive numbering) because we couldn't make up our minds. They may not be the "best" albums of the year, we're not qualified or psychic enough to make that far-reaching decision. But they're albums we thought were pretty swell, and listened to the most. Maybe you'll like them too.

10. Steve Earle: Washington Square Serenade

Steve sounds...happy. It's strange to hear Earle make a happy record. My initial thought was that I was going to hate this album, Earle's best previous albums being led by some kind of existential dissatisfaction with the world, himself, his addictions, the government, or the state of Nashville. But with this album, Earle comes out swinging, not at the world, but with it. He's obviously digging New York and his new wife, Allison Moorer, a great artist in her own right, who adds angelic vocals behind Earle's rough-hewn coal-into-diamonds voice. It's a city record through the eyes of a (jaded, to be fair) country boy. A love letter, to a woman and a town, that takes Earle on a whole new direction, at a time when he could have spun his wheels. We're intrigued where he's gonna go next.

Steve Earle: Down Here Below (mp3)

10. Josh Ritter: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

Caveat: Josh Ritter's best record was "The Golden Age Of Radio". Go buy or download it now. It's flawless. Caveat: Singer-Songwriter albums make us tired and irritable. Caveat: This is a great E.P., not a great album. But it's one fucking hell of a great E.P. Working through his Dylan and Cohen obsessions, Ritter finds his own voice in the minutiae. His fascination with the animal kingdom is lessened, but in it's place is a more straightforward take on the human. The Americana elements are, likewise, pushed back, removing the album from the road and placing it on the back porch. Ritter's voice is the kind of sleepy voice you hear in the twilight, honeyed with a rye-whiskey edge.

Josh Ritter: To The Dogs Or Whoever (mp3)

9. Son Volt: The Search

S'funny. When Uncle Tupelo broke up, I followed Wilco. Sure, I bought the first couple of Son Volt albums, and "Trace", in retrospect, was a classic. But I was initially drawn to Wilco's "A.M." and, particularly, "Being There". Time and influence have a way of changing things, though, and the more Jeff Tweedy's band moved into Beach Boys territory and fiddly sound experiments, the more I began seeking out Jay Farrar's warmer, sand-blasted voice and tunes. Perhaps I was merely a victim of nostalgia. On his second album back with the "reformed" Son Volt, Farrar makes his best record since "Trace". "The Search" is just that, with Farrar taking his gravel road voice through the heart of America, in all it's ugliness and beauty. Lyrics are still as obtuse as ever, suggesting something you can almost touch, but frustratingly out of reach. Musically, the band speeds through Stones-ish raveups and pedals through canyon-sized atmospherics. And in "Adrenaline and Heresy", Farrar creates his most heartbreaking song yet.

Son Volt: The Picture (mp3)

Son Volt: Highway and Cigarettes (mp3)

8. Jim Mize: Release It To The Sky

And then there's the bar band guy. And, gee whiz, it's a Fat Possum album in our Top 10. Actually, this is less shocking than one might imagine, considering how far afield the label has gone from it's original modus operandi. Mize is a beer-drinking juke and VFW honed singer and musician in the vein of other Mountain favorites like Seasick Steve, Tom House, Cast King, and James Hand. He's been in the trenches too long to be pretty. Ostensibly, Mize is a blues singer, minus the guitar solos and throaty wails. He's taking you to a darker place, a wellspring of down and out beyond the cliches of the genre. His voice has a cracked weariness that matches his neon-lit, southern observations. A dark album that rocks, taking you to closing time with a shot glass and loneliness.

Jim Mize: Acadian Lullaby (mp3)

Stop back tomorrow for more of our Top Ten. Yep.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm going to agree with your comment about the "cultural critics" and "killing the long-cherished record-bin collecting trend".

No one ever went into a record store looking to by a round piece of vinyl with a hole in the middle and a sticker on it. People want to buy the artistic content encoded onto that disk. Music blogs like this are the 21st century analogue (or should I say "digital analog"?).

There are still hundreds of blogs to search through, reading the liner notes and listening to samples before you decide to download a file to your hard drive or MP3 player.

The trend has moved, not died.

p.s. Thanks for all the great music!