Top albums of 2011: the final results

Yesterday’s post completes my run-down of the ten non-compilation albums that I’ve listened to most in 2011.  Here they are again, in order, with links to the articles about each:

1. Spring Hill (2011), Chloe and Silas [18 listens]
2. Days of Open Hand (1990), Suzanne Vega [17 listens]
3. The Incident (2009), Porcupine Tree [16 listens]
4. So Beautiful or So What (2011), Paul Simon [13 listens]
5. Liege and Lief (1969), Fairport Convention [9 listens]
6. The End of History (2006), Fionn Regan [8 listens]
7. Help! (1965), The Beatles [7 listens]
8. Blue Divide (1994), Richard Shindell [7 listens]
9. CSN (1977), Crosby, Stills and Nash [7 listens]
10. Hejira (1976), Joni Mitchell [6 listens]

Looking at the list, I am immediately struck that eight of the ten are folk music of one sort or another, with the only exceptions being the prog rock of The Incident at #3 and the Beatles’ Help! at #7.  Of course it may be that this tells us only what a broad church “folk music” is, encompassing the jazz-folk of Joni Mitchell, the country-folk of Richard Shindell, and so on.

I also notice that a few of these albums are there largely on the strength that I have loved other work by the same artists — Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Crosby Stills and Nash’s eponymous debut, Richard Shindell’s Reunion Hill.  The albums that made it onto this year’s lists haven’t necessarily captured my heart the way those others have.  I am pleased that the overall winner, Spring Hill, is an album that I adore entirely on its own merits.

The big shift in my listening this year has come from the fact that I am looking not only for songs that I like to listen to, but also for songs that I will be able to perform myself at the Folk Club.  That explains the big swing towards folk — and in fact, it occurs to me now that even Help! has the folkish quality that most of its songs would work perfectly well as just guitar+vocal.  In fact I’d say that my musical 2011 has been more about playing and singing than about listening.

But in the early days of 2012 I find I am really missing the complexity of prog, and listening more to bands than soloists.  It’s music that I’ll never be able to play (even if I could find a band), but prog speaks to my soul in a way that folk can’t.  (Not a better way; just a different way.)

10 responses to “Top albums of 2011: the final results

  1. Pingback: Top albums of 2011, #1: Spring Hill (2011), Chloe and Silas | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  2. I am immediately struck that eight of the ten are folk music of one sort or another, … Of course it may be that this tells us only what a broad church “folk music” is, encompassing the jazz-folk of Joni Mitchell, the country-folk of Richard Shindell, and so on.

    I think there was some discussion, in the original “British Folk Music” thread about different definitions of “folk music.” Personally, I will defend your right to use whatever definition you want. But I was struck, reading those sentences, that it wouldn’t have occurred to me to classify, say, Hejira as Folk Music.

    Which is just to say, I’m now curious to know what characteristics you (or anybody) are using to categorize a song or album as “folk music” or not. I have some sense of what the traditionalists definition would be, but I realize I don’t know what the more expansive usage covers.

    I liked your working definition, in your original post of, “reasonably sparse singer-and-a-guitar songs, cleverly written to be about something.” But, for example, I probably wouldn’t have thought of CSN & Y from that definition. They aren’t far removed from that description, but I would think of them as pop music.

  3. It’s a fair question, NickS — what do I mean by describing Coyote or Rewrite as folk music? They certainly wouldn’t fit into the category that Andrew Rilstone’s folk-music blog posts intend when they use the phrase. I suppose the truth is that I called So Beautiful or So What a folk album because it’s by Paul Simon and, Everyone Knows that Paul Simon is a folk singer. But really, he’s not. He was in the 1960s, at least until the last S&G album, but of course he’s been through forty-something years of musical evolution since then, and really there is almost nothing folky at all about, say Graceland or Surprise (fine albums though they both are). I suppose when once you’ve become established as a folk singer, the label sticks. (I wonder what Paul Simon would call his own music now?)

    “Reasonably sparse singer-and-a-guitar songs, cleverly written to be about something” is still largely what I’m looking for — if not necessarily for all my listening, then certainly they’re the songs I want to learn and perform. But then looking back at the 23 songs I’ve now accumulated in my own set, I see that I’ve not stuck at all closely to that definition: for example, I’ve done six Beatles songs, one by Deep Purple, and The Girl from Ipanema.

    So perhaps my definition of “folk music” is just “whatever I play on guitar”? Not a very useful definition, I admit.

  4. Not the most precises definition, no, but if you want support for it this has a lovely story and song which argue in favor of an expansive definition of “folk music.”

  5. That is excellent, NickS, many thanks for the link. I know what I’ll be singing at the next Folk Club session!

  6. Please do.

    Quick story about that video: When I saw it I sent a link to my dad. He liked it, as I knew he would.

    As it turned out, his Birthday was a couple of weeks later. It was the first birthday after his mother had died earlier in the year (under circumstances which were as easy and positive as one could hope for but still, of course, difficult). He invited a number of old friends, many of whom were people that’s he’s played music with, socially, for decades. After dinner people got out instruments, formed a circle, and played and sang for several hours, and that was one of the songs that my dad ended up starting, and it was gorgeous.

    So I feel a particular affection for the song and that particular video after that.

    Incidentally the melody is apparently based on an 18th century French song, so no wonder it is so memorable and fun to sing.

  7. Pingback: Oppose SOPA, PIPA and the RWA | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  8. At what point did “folk music” diverge from other forms of popular music? Was it with commercialization and the rise of different forms of popular song (from the music hall, etc) disseminated through music sheets and, later, recordings, or was it earlier than that? Or am I confusing traditional music with folk? I would tend to think that they were the same thing. It’s interesting, because there are those who perform music in a particular trad fashion and those who will use in particular style while still retaining an uncliched folkish heart. Then again perhaps I’m stretching things too far as I kind of consider a lot of non-folk pop – in its broadest sense, not the “genre” – music essentially “folk” at its heart all commercial considerations aside due to the artistic approach and the variability of the subject matter. I realize that this is all distinct from that music that is thought of as distinctly part of the folk genre (but then, ah!, as I said, there’s a legacy of decades of decidedly adventurous folk) but surely due to great changes in the culture and the ways people hear and receive music over the decades we can consider a lot of Rock-Pop-Whatever to be mechanized Hyper-Folk as much as Folk purists may (once) have disdained or loathed it. And then we come to the traditional musics that are not Anglo-Celt, African folk musics, Russian folk musics and the like, but I’m over-reaching because then we might have to consider distinctions between the words and the music that accompany it. Is everything not Classical and not (certain types of) Jazz or particular forms of Pop (the Cowell strains etc) Folk? Hm, on reflection most people’s reaction would be “Not Bloody Likely!”.

  9. I really don’t know much about the history of folk music, and I’ve come to suspect that I use the term rather differently from what most people mean by it. The folk music that appeals to me is the singer-songwriter end of the scale, using music as a medium to explore ideas and emotions — sometimes, but not necessarily — through storytelling. Paul Simon would be a primary examplar, and of course much of his music is otherwise not particularly like what you might think of as “folk”.

    My crude understanding of the history is that there has always been a distinction between the highrow music of the upper classes — Baroque, Classical, Romantic, etc. — and what the working classes have played, sung and listened to. The latter of course is folk music, but maybe wasn’t much called by that name until the various forms of “popular” music — jazz, blues, rock and roll, pop and the rest — calved off from it, starting in the early to mid 20th century. Once those genres existed and had names (however ill defined) the great rump of popular music that was left behind needed a name, and that’s probably when the term “folk music” started to be widely used.

    But I’ll welcome corrections from anyone who actually knows what they’re talking about.

  10. Pingback: What I’ve been listening to in 2012 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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