[This post is adapted from the original text-only version written in early 2010. I’ve edited only lightly. I’m posting it now because I like having all the “What I’ve been listening to …” posts in one place, in a single format.]
This year, I wanted to choose a Best Of collection of songs, in part as a response to my old colleague Alec Turner, who made a Best Of 2009 that was too horrible to contemplate, and left me needing to wash the bad sounds out of my ears.
Here are the rules:
First, having seen other people’s 25 Best Songs Of 2009 selections, I realised that ten songs is quite enough of someone else’s taste to wade through. So I limited myself to that number.
Second, I wanted to reflect what I’ve actually been listening to this year rather than what I am transiently most enthusiastic about right now, so I picked the eight albums that my database shows I’ve listened through the most times and chose representative songs from each. I topped this off with the two albums that are top of my Right Now list. [Note in 2014: in more recent lists, I’ve not allowed myself that leeway to pick what’s currently hot, I just use the year’s ten most listened-to albums.]
The result is as follows. I’d be interested to hear other people’s selections on similar lines.
Dar Williams — 2008 — The Promised Land (49 listens)
I lead off with this song because it’s the representative from my most-listened-to album of the year: I listened to The Promised Land a whopping 49 times, even though IMHO it is far from Williams’s best album. She is a uniquely insightful and economical singer-songwriter, many of her songs telling stories. The story of this song will be familiar to most people, though here it’s told from an unfamiliar viewpoint, and in a deceptively jaunty style. This year, singer-songwriter folk was one of the two styles that I mostly listened to …
Transatlantic — 2000 — The Whirlwind (currently hot)
… and the other musical style of the year was prog rock, specifically neo-prog. I just love the sheer scope and ambition of this style of music: it’s exhilarating to hear people who are the total masters of their instruments flinging them around with such wild abandon in the service of a coherent unifying musical idea. The Whirlwind is the first new album in nearly a decade from occasional neo-prog supergroup Transatlantic, a side-project in which members of four outstanding bands get together for the sheer fun of it. The album’s 12 tracks constitute a single 88-minute epic that compares more naturally with a symphony than with a traditional album, so it’s hard to pick out a single representative track — hence the abrupt transitions into and out of this track, where it should join with those that precede and follow it. I only got The Whirlwind very late in 2009, so it didn’t make the most-listened-to list; but it gets a wildcard because I’ve been listening to it like crazy in early 2010, which in turn is largely because I’ve got tickets for Danny and me to see the band live in May. [Note in 2014: the concert was awesome. We since bought the DVD they made of that gig, and it’s beyond awesome.]
Chroma Key — 2000 — You Go Now (13 listens)
This is a very strange piece, but very representative of the album that it leads off — a curiously hypnotic, laid-back yet insistent amble, which gets right inside your mind. I got this album because Chroma Key is the solo project of ex-Dream Theater keyboard player Kevin Moore, whose song Space-Dye Vest on their Awake album I loved; but this could not be more different from Dream Theater. I can only describe it as optimistically gloomy.
Cry Cry Cry — 1998 — Cry Cry Cry (14 listens)
Cry Cry Cry is a sort of folk-country supergroup if you can imagine such a thing: Dar Williams (see above), Richard Shindell (see below) and Lucy Kaplinsky came together to record a one-off album of covers of their favourite songs, and the result is an appealing grab-bag of different styles. This song is typically strong on narrative, and tells the true story of the Mann Gulch fire of 1949 and men who lost their lives fighting it, from the perspective of their team-leader as he lies on his death-bed many years later.
Dido — 2008 — Safe Trip Home (30 listens)
I am not proud of the fact that a Dido album was my second-most-listened to of 2009, and it seems amazing to me that I’ve listened to it as many as 30 times, but I am not going to apologise because it so very effective. In its understated way, suggesting rather than saying, it evokes better than any other music I know the feeling of recovering from the death of a loved one. This song, like many on the album, is about her father’s death, and its fragility is what makes it work for me: it is the quiet bravery of someone simply finding a way to carry on, but with the sense that at any moment the slightest loss of control could leave that facade crumbling catastrophically.
Matt Redman — 2006 — Beautiful News (12 listens)
I think most modern worship songs are disgracefully shallow and I find the idea of a “worship scene” pretty distasteful — and don’t even get me started on “the worship business” — but Matt Redman is an exception. I like his sense of being in awe of God rather than pals with him, and I like his self-deprecating honesty: this song, for example, is about how inadequate all our worship songs, including this one, are. It also helps that it’s a fairly muscular sound.
Neal Morse — 2008 — Lifeline (12 listens)
Back on the prog rock: Neal Morse was the front-man of Spock’s Beard before going solo, and is also a member of Transatlantic when they’re together. He’s an absurdly versatile instrumentalist, a fine singer, and as a songwriter he seems to overflow with ideas. This song is a pretty funny take on the biblical monster Leviathan, part of his most recent solo album … although frankly I would highly recommend his 2005 offering entitled “?” over Lifeline — that one literally brings tears to my eyes pretty often.
U2 — 2009 — No Line on the Horizon (18 listens)
I think it’s pretty amazing that 30 years in, U2 are still producing original and even surprising music, with this song being very different from what I’d have expected. (My favourite on the album is Magnificent, but that has such a classic U2 sound that it would just be too obvious.) That said, while I want to love No Line on the Horizon, it’s not quite happening for me: there’s a lot that I like about it, but it doesn’t seem to touch the heights that their previous album spent much of its time on. So anyone who hasn’t bought a U2 album in the last decade or so should get How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb instead.
Richard Shindell — 1997 — Reunion Hill (12 listens)
As you’d guess from his association with Dar Williams, Richard Shindell is another storyteller, though his songs are more often told in the first person. This one is a meditation on the loneliness of the long-distance trucker, and by implication on isolation in general. [Note in 2014: since I started singing in folk clubs, this has since become one of the songs I’ve done most often, second only to Marrakesh Express.]
Dream Theatre — 1992 — Images & Words (currently hot)
Finally, the single song that is most on my mind right now. Over the last month or so, I’ve played through Quake II for the first time in many years, and I used this album as the soundtrack for the game. So I heard it many more times than I actually listened straight through it, and I am here to tell you that this is music that (A) never gets old, and (B) is a great backdrop for blowing up cyborgs with high-tech weaponry. Among the album’s many highlights is Under a Glass Moon, which features a solo at 4:36 that is, literally, jaw-dropping in its inventiveness, clarity, violence and sheer technical awesomeness. One day, I will teach myself to play this solo. Then I’ll just need a band that can play the rest of the song.