I keep track of what music I’ve been listening to on my computers through the year, and at the end of each year I like to produce a compilation of ten tracks representing what I’ve heard. (More than ten tracks is wearing for people to listen to. I learned this by ploughing through a friend’s Top 25 one year).
I listen much more to whole albums than to individual tracks, so what I’ve done is to pick the top ten albums that I listened to the most in 2010, as recorded on the computer where I listen to most of my music. (So these counts don’t include listening in the car or on the iPod.) I limited it to no more than one album per artist, and I skipped albums that were on last year’s list — with the exception of this year’s top album which also made the list last time around. Then from each of those ten objectively selected albums, I subjectively picked one song that I felt represented them.
The running order is based on what I felt sounded good rather than on where the albums fell in the number-of-listens order.
I’d love to provide downloadable MP3s of these songs — samples to encourage you all to go and buy the wonderful music of these deserving artists. But of course the RIAA’s crack Department For The Prevention Of Free Advertising won’t allow that, and the ludicrous damages that they claim makes it not worth my while to try to help them sell you music. So instead I’ve included links to YouTube videos of the songs. The track titles in the headings are the links, even though the WordPress theme has brilliantly decided not to highlight them as links. In some cases they’re the studio originals; in others, all I could find was a live recording, which in some cases is not really an adequate substitute, but I take what I can get.
What follows are my notes on the selected albums and songs. Enjoy! (And criticise; and recommend other stuff that I might like.)
01. Transatlantic — Overture, The Whirlwind
From The Whirlwind (2000) — 33 listens in 2010
Without a doubt, The Whirlwind was the album of 2010 in our family. Although the nominal count of 33 is only five more then the second-placed album, that’s misleading because the whole family listened to it incessantly in the car, especially during the summer holidays when we spent more hours than you can possibly imagine on the M5. The Whirlwind is really a single 80-minute song sliced into twelve sections, but since I can’t make an 80-minute selection, I’ve gone for the overture, which contains fragments of nearly all the other parts. It’s rich, complex, ambitious, sprawling yet coherent, and all in all an absolute delight. One of the things that really comes across is how much fun the musicians had in making this album — Transatlantic is not the regular gig for any of them, and they all seem to be relishing the freedom. The result is joyous: the world’s most difficult sing-along album …
02. Mandy Patinkin — Somewhere That’s Green
From Experiment (1994) — 5 listens in 2010
… and an abrupt change into a very different song. Mandy Patinkin is a funny bloke, maybe best known as the actor who played Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride (“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”) and from the hospital soap-opera Chicago Hope. But he’s also a unique singer, often interpreting the songs from Steven Sondheim’s musicals. His album Experiment is full of little gems, but for some reason I find this one particularly moving: a wistful hymn to mundane domesticity, taken from Little Shop Of Horrors of all places. I wouldn’t admit it to you guys, but I often find when listening to this song that I’ve got something in my eye.
[Note that YouTube doesn’t seem to have Mandy Patinkin’s version of this song. All I could find was the version from the Little Shop film, which is very different and not nearly so affecting.]
03. Richard Shindell — Are You Happy Now
From Sparrows Point (1992) — 23 listens in 2010
Richard Shindell returns after having featured last year: Sparrows Point (no apostrophe!) is his brilliant debut album, and I picked this song as its representative — the most cheerful breakup song I’ve ever heard, and one that often makes me laugh out loud even though I know what’s coming after the line “Though I know it’s hard to tell”. But I could so easily have chosen On A Sea Of Fleur De Lis, a gentle, cryptic Leonard Cohen-like song (“I adore thee, Mother Mary, but would you change me back to a witch?”). And part of me feels that I should have chosen The Kenworth Of My Dreams, except that it’s so darned C&W that I would never live it down. That one is a dopey ode to the simple pleasures in life, in this case the really simple pleasure of driving a Big Rig around the States. Shindell writes story songs, nearly all in the first person, and has an extraordinary knack of inhabiting his characters, making you believe in them in the space of just a couple of verses. I’d love to see him live.
[The YouTube link is to a live performance that captures much of the feel of the studio version, but not all of it; towards the end, he explains the rather unexpected genesis of the song.]
04. Elbow — Starlings
From The Seldom Seen Kid (2008) — 12 listens in 2010
I have a friend, Alec Turner, who I know from my first full-time job when I worked at System Simulation for a decade. Although I tend to hate Alec’s taste in music, every now and then he points me to an album I’ve never heard of, which burrows right down into my hindbrain. Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump was one; Elbow’s offering is this year’s. Like The Sophtware Slump (and also like OK Computer, Dark Side of the Moon and a lot of other albums that I love), this really only works taken as a whole album: it contains songs such as The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver that, taken alone, are insubstantial, but which form part of the fabric of the album. That being so, it’s hard to pluck out a single track, but I’ve gone with the atmospheric opener, featuring a strangly Gabrielesque voice against an instrumental backdrop that combines the peaceful with the terrifying.
05. King Crimson — Elephant Talk
From Discipline (1981) — 6 listens in 2010
Before this year, the only King Crimson I knew was In The Court Of The Crimson King, which is ELP/Yes-like proto-prog from the late 1960s. So listening to Discipline was a bit of a shock — as different from the band that made Court as, say, Invisible Touch is from Supper’s Ready. Elephant Talk, the opener, is very representive: difficult, dense, rhythmic instrumental backing with a sort of half-sung vocal strung out across it. It reminds me for all the world of Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime, but with more going on, and with something of the flavour of the Police’s Synchronicity. Very 1980s, in other words, but in a good way (i.e. not New Romantic. Sheesh … the New Romantics. What the heck were they thinking?)
06. Chumbawamba — Torturing James Hetfield
From ABCDEFG (2010) — 14 listens in 2010
Ah, Chumbawamba. You may know them from that dreadful song about how when I get knocked down, I get back up again. Put it from your mind — it was an aberration. Chumbawamba are in fact a sort of political-comedy folk-cabaret band. I discovered them thanks to very positive reviews on Andrew Rilstone’s blog, which by the way everyone ought to read. This song is a cheerfully caustic response to the use of Metallica’s music, with the approval of their singer James Hetfield, in the torture at Guantanamo Bay. A pleasantly laid back piano groove provides the backdrop to the tender imaginary story of how Hetfield was made to yield up information by … well, you’ll see. This is another family favourite, a sing-along that lends itself easily to making up personalised variants of the chorus.
[The YouTube link is to a live version that’s a pretty good facsimile of the studio one, except that the crucial spoken line following “and told us everything” gets lost in the background noise.]
07. Lucy Kaplansky — Don’t Mind Me
From Every Single Day (2001) — 28 listens in 2010
I don’t know what I can tell you. In truth, I am a bit ashamed of the fact that this turned out to be my second most-listened-to album of the year, but those are the facts. I discovered Lucy Kaplansky because of her Dar Williams connection, and her music can sometimes touch the same heights as Dar’s; but I don’t think it ever touches the same depths, which makes it more of an easy listening proposition and less of a life changer. Still, you have to admit that it sounds great; how about that Beatlesque major 6th chord at the end?
[All of the YouTube videos of this song are wholly unsatisfactory guitar-and-vocal-only live versions that completely lack the appealing groove of the studio version, so I hardly want to link to them in case they leave you hating the song. But if you insist, the least bad one is here.]
08. Yes — A Venture
From The Yes Album (1971) — 5 listens in 2010
I decided it was ridiculous that I love Fragile and Close To The Edge so much but hardly know anything else by Yes. The solution to that was The Yes Album, which is growing on me slowly. A Venture feels exactly like what it is, which is Fragile in embryo: all the same ingredients are there, in smaller (and therefore maybe easier to digest) quantities: the energetic wandering bass, the desultory guitar licks, the distinctive semi-falsetto vocals, and the effortless time-changes.
09. Dar Williams — You Rise and Meet the Day
From My Better Self (2005) — 7 listens in 2010
Ah, Dar. This was my album of 2008 by a country mile — 44 listens, with the second placed album scoring 19 — and it’s got so much sticking power that it’s still comfortably in the top ten this year, too. (It would have been in the 2009 selection, too, but her more recent The Promised Land pushed it out.) My Better Self is just packed with goodies and I changed my selection four or five times before settling on this one — a rare song about contentment, about welcoming a peaceful and happy future. Williams doesn’t just describe that future, she shows us glimpses of it: of children yet to be born, she sings “I can hear what they’ll say / Laughing at pictures with the old-fashoned hats and the clothes that we’re wearing today.” It’s a snapshot; it evokes rather than bludgeoning. And this is absolutely typical of her songs. I’ve never known another singer who makes me feel like I know what it is to be so many different people. Add in the frankly gorgeous sonic landscapes of her recent albums and you have a sequence of drop-dead classics.
10. The Beatles — A Day in the Life
From Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) — 5 listens in 2010
And finally … a literal classic. I get through a lot of Beatles, because they are one of the very few bands that truly deserves its reputation. Altogether this year, I listened to Beatles albums 40 times — each of them at least twice — and it continues to amaze me how well they stand up. Sergeant Pepper is another of those albums where you really need to listen to the whole thing at once, but if you can’t then A Day In The Life may be the single track that best captures the feel of the whole: dreamy, inventive, tantalising — hinting at some kind of profundity but without ever spelling it out.
I notice that this selection of ten albums spans the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s and 2010s, which I guess shows that I have pretty eclectic taste. I hope that this list offers something comfortingly familiar and something excitingly new for each of you who’ve read this far. Thanks for joining me!
HONOURABLE MENTIONS go to the following albums, which had more listens then some of those that made the list, but were omitted either because they’re by already-represented artists or because they were on last year’s list:
- Lucy Kaplansky (1999). Ten Year Night — 13 listens
- Richard Shindell (1997). Reunion Hill — 8 listens
- Chroma Key (2000). You Go Now — 8 listens
- Dar Williams (2010). Many Great Companions, main disc — 6 listens
- Cry Cry Cry (1998). Cry Cry Cry — 6 listens
- Chumbawamba (2008). The Boy Bands Have Won — 6 listens
Oh, and you should definitely listen to You Go Now.