Thursday, December 16, 2010

This Year's Listening: Albums That Were Released In Past Years

While getting ready to compile my favorite albums of 2010 list, I noticed I'd been listening to and discovering a lot of albums from past years.  These might be albums I was late discovering, albums I enjoyed but had forgotten about or albums I heard a little bit late that were released in 2009 and didn't make my previous lists.

Here are some albums that were in heavy rotation this year that were released prior to 2010:

Fleet FoxesFleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (2008): I actually got this album in 2009 while I was in London.  For some reason it took a while to really get into it, but now it's one of my favorites.  The harmonies, the beautiful acoustic guitar work and superb songwriting all contribute to making this one of my favorite albums.

One Fast Move Or I'm Gone: Music From Kerouac's Big SurJay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard - One Fast Move Or I'm Gone (2009): This is an album based on a documentary for the book Big Sur by Jack Kerouac. For the documentary, former Uncle Tupelo and current Son Volt frontman Jay Farrar was asked to provide the music.  Armed with one of the most lyrical books of all time, he mostly just set various lines from the book to music, but the results are spectacular.  He invited Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, a huge Kerouac fan himself, along for the ride and the results are spectacular. Much like a Kerouac book, the songs mostly feel like a trip across America.  I recommend the album and the book from which it was drawn.

For Emma, Forever AgoBon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago (2008): This is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I've heard in a long time. Indie-folk songwriter Justin Vernon retreated to a cabin in Wisconsin to regroup after the break-up of his band and his relationship with no intention of writing or recording any music.  While there in isolation and battling mono, he wrote and recorded all the instruments for the songs on For Emma, Forever Ago while singing wordless melodies.  He went back and listened to the songs and wrote lyrics to replace the hummed melodies. Both mellow and catchy, this album is a grower, so be sure to give it several listens to pick up on the intricacies before making a final judgement.

Twin Cinema
The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema (2005): This record was released while I was still in college and for some reason, I largely ignored it.  Featuring Neko Case, A.C. Newman and a whole host of other members, The New Pornographers are a supergoup of sorts.  The first thing you will notice listening to this album is how catchy these songs are.  One listen is enough to have you singing them in your head all day long.  Repeated listens reveal the excellence of the album, and I'm actually glad it took me this long to get into it.  It's sort of like finding an unopened Christmas present in July.
Sufjan Stevens - Illinoise (2005): Like the previously mentioned Twin Cinema, this one came out while I was still an undergrad.  It was a little bit too weird for me back then.  I finally went back this year and gave it another chance, and now I see why it was so praised upon it's release.  Illinoise was the second (and so far the last) of a proposed 50 albums depicting the States.  This one is all over the map, so be prepared for a wild, slightly jarring ride while listening, and if you only hear one song, make it "Chicago."

The Very Best of Otis ReddingOtis Redding - The Very Best of Otis Redding (1992, but recorded in the years leading up to his death in 1967): Don't ask me why I never noticed that Otis Redding was one of the finest artists in history.  Sure, I always liked "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay" and "These Arms of Mine," but it wasn't until I picked this up in a bargain bin this year that I began to truly realize how incredible Otis was.  It doesn't hurt that he recorded right here in Memphis, and worked heavily with Steve Cropper (who, thanks to my father-in-law, I had to opportunity to meet). Regardless of geography though, Otis was a powerhouse vocalist who wrote many of his own songs (which was rare in those days).  I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone convey as much emotion as Otis Redding, and he was still on his way up in the music world and beginning to grow as an artist ("Dock of the Bay" was much different from any of his previous work and was recorded just days before his death) when a plane crash took him way too soon.

Everything All the TimeCease to BeginBand of Horses - Everything All The Time (2006) & Cease to Begin (2007): It took me way too long to enjoy Band of Horses.  I think it's because they are often erroneously compared to My Morning Jacket, and taken in that context, they can sound like a second rate imitator.  However, thinking of Band of Horses as more of The Shins with a Southern drawl puts them in a much better context.  Whatever the reasons for me passing on this band in the past, I'm glad I've discovered them now and I'm sure you will be too.  Their atmospheric songs are perfect for soundtracks, and you've likely heard them and just don't know it. Catchy and well-written, these songs should stand among the biggest hits on the radio

A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey [Explicit]R. L. Burnside - A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey (2005): What do you get when you pluck one of the original Hill Country Bluesmen out of Holly Springs, Mississippi, pair him with modern blues band The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, probably provide liquor, put them in a studio and record?  You get one of the finest, most explicit and raw representations of many of the things that make Hill Country Blues unique. A Wikipedia article describes this album as "lo-fi storytelling garage punk-blues rock with explicit lyrics," and listening to the album reveals this to be pretty accurate.  Oxford, Mississippi-based Fat Possum records was instrumental in getting some of the original blues men into the studio before it was too late, and this is a perfect example of why we are lucky they did. If you can get your hands on You See Me Laughin' you can see a very entertaining, sometimes shocking look at how all this came together.

There are surely other albums I've greatly enjoyed this year that weren't released during 2010, but these are the ones that had the biggest impact.

In a week or so, I'll start posting my favorite albums of 2010. 

Do you have any favorites from past years that you've just discovered?

Why I Like Albums, And Why I'd Like To Keep Them Around

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m prefer full albums over individual songs. There’s something about the feeling I get when I listen to a great album that shuffling songs on the iPod can’t replicate (not that the random smattering of music doesn’t have its place...I generally listen this way at the gym). It’s not just about the music either. The packaging of music used to be an art form. The digital age has made it too easy to buy (or steal) songs on the fly without having to worry about the context they fit into the album.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve read about the “death of the album” as an art form. Music industry prognosticators predict that soon, all of our music will be released in a singles-only format. I guess it makes sense, though I think a lot of those predictions are because much of the music that is gaining attention now doesn’t fit into the “album music” category. As we are starting to see an abundance of year-end best albums lists hitting the internet, I thought it was a good time to write a post to convince anyone who cares to read this, how important it is that artists continue to make albums.

My first reason for fighting to keep the album alive is this: songs may be the soundtrack to people’s lives, but albums can change people’s lives. I remember where I was and what I was doing the first time I heard “Stairway to Heaven,” but when I listened to Led Zeppelin’s IV (ZOSO), it changed my life. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” turned the music world upside down, but Nevermind showed a lot of kids that felt like outcasts in their towns that maybe there was a place for them in the world.

Another reason is some of my favorite songs are album tracks that probably wouldn’t get many listens in a singles-only environment. “Going to California” from the aforementioned Zeppelin album is an example (it isn’t on the most recent “hits” package and it’s only the band’s 25th most popular song on Itunes). The song isn’t exactly rock and roll bombast, but nestled between “Four Sticks” and “When the Levee Breaks,” it becomes an album standout (and one of my 5 favorite Zeppelin songs). Most people probably wouldn’t hear that song for the first time by itself and think ”that’s a hit,” but in the context of the album, it's incredible. Same goes for Radiohead’s album OK Computer. None of those songs would make me think they are one of the greatest bands in the world, but the album does (so does In Rainbows).

Here’s a good reason to keep the album around. Have you noticed that a great band will sandwich a mediocre EP between two fantastic album releases? I think much of this stems from the fact that some bands need an extended time together in a recording environment to make something special. Just getting together to record a song now and then doesn’t allow a band to find the same cohesive sound and vision that spending time creating an entire album does. Bands have been known to do some pretty interesting things to create the perfect artistic environment to make an album (rent a beach house/farmhouse, try different producers, hire a spiritual advisor, grow beards, etc.), and I just don’t see them going to all that trouble to make a song or two (hey, a beard takes a while).

An album is the perfect length for focused listening. Songs are meant to be played, while albums are meant for listening; active listening. Active listening implies putting the album on with the sole intention of listening to that album. Are you going to make yourself a drink, get a comfortable chair and kick back just to listen to a song or a playlist? Probably not, but you might for a great album. Great albums are like movies, with a sequencing and cohesiveness that makes prefect sense.

What about the benefit to songwriters an album provides? In genres that heavily rely on outside songwriters (pop, country, etc.), an album of 10 songs may only have 2 or 3 potential singles. Without the album format, those 2 or 3 songs may be the only ones to be recorded (and certainly the only ones to achieve any commercial success). Many of these songs are really good, and may become fan favorites, but just don’t fit in with radio. Getting a song on a successful album helps songwriters pay the bills while they continue their craft.

For the most part, when I use the term “album,” I’m referring to a group of songs released together, not a vinyl record. An album can be digital, on CD, a cassette, or on vinyl; the medium is irrelevant. Here’s one area of my argument that demands a physical product; packaging. After all, they do give a Grammy for packaging. Whether it contains lyrics, an essay or pictures, the packaging can add to the album listening experience. Some of the best albums have a record sleeve or booklet that you want to sift through as you listen. One trend I've noticed lately that I really like is selling a vinyl version of an album with a code included that allows the purchaser to download an MP3 copy of the album at no extra charge.  This gives you the best of both worlds; the portability of an MP3 with the superior sound and excellent packaging of vinyl.
I predict (hope) that the best artists will continue to make albums well into the future, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Although the music industry is rapidly changing, the fact that an album is still the best way to hear music won't change. An album is the perfect length for focused listening, and for true music fans, and the quality of their albums is the true measure of a band.

What do you think? Do you ever take the time to evaluate an entire album, or do you prefer your music in single serving packets? What are some of your favorite albums?

I'll be following in in the coming weeks with a few posts about my favorite music of the past year.