Freedom from Blog

Don't call it a comeback . . . .

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Zombie Music Post, 2011 Adios

On a winter's Sunday I go
To clear away the snow

And green the ground below

April is an ocean away
Is this the better way to spend the day?
Keeping the winter at bay

~ "January Hymn," the Decemberists

How many ways can you polish up a turd?

~ "Hell Broke Luce," Tom Waits

Oh FFB, I've missed you! Have time for a "last" post? Sure you do. Our parting was so abrupt and unceremonious, a couple of curt lines from #3 and an overwrought if undercooked rant about Ron Paul (still a racist!) from me. Sorry I haven't been in touch. As an apology gift, how about my new mix tape? Yeah, no one listens to mix tapes anymore, but I'm feeling nostalgic, especially for things no one does anymore. Like casual, long-form blogging. Facebook? Ha! Oh, you mean you want me to update my "status"? Well, as you know, this has been a rough year for the TMcDs. Remember all those fun stories about sinister spiders and septuagenarian survivalists? So 2010. Good times. 2011? Not so much. But 2012 will be the year I pick up the pieces and rebuild. . . something.

So I'm going to clear the decks, toss out the mental clutter of a year undone, if you'll help me FFB. It's time, once again, for the year in music. A surprisingly good year, although for a while I thought I wouldn't have ten new records to talk about. I spent a lot of this year losing myself in old, venerable music I had more or less overlooked: the Band's Music From Big Pink, Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks (yeah, I know that last one is a cliche, but damn it's good), Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, John Mellencamp's No Better Than This, a nearly perfect break-up record that just came out last year but feels fifty years old. Best musical memory of the year? Driving through the mountains of NC, putting in Blonde on Blonde, and hearing Bay (2 1/2), from the backseat, chanting the chorus to "Rainy Day Women": "everybody must get STONED!" Amen, sister. Meanwhile, some of this year's most celebrated music left me cold: Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Radiohead.

That said, I didn't have much trouble coming up with my superlative list, and I'm even leaving off a couple of good CD's, which means it must have been a pretty decent year overall. The first five or six entries on my list all could have been my number 1 and might have been in weaker years. So, without further ado, I humbly submit my favorite music from a shit-ass year:

1) the Decemberists, The King Is Dead. The best REM album in 15 years came out, and it wasn't even REM. OK, so Peter Buck plays guitar on several tracks, making it an arty, Oregonian step-child. I had lost interest in these guys over their last couple of albums, which were too self-indulgent in their prog-rock pretense. But this one is a folky miracle from "Don't Carry It All" to "This Is Why We Fight."

2) Middle Brother, Middle Brother. A bit like the Avett Brothers, but way better. Barroom belters and campfire singalongs from an indie "super-group" made up of the singers from Dawes, Deer Tick, and Delta Spirit. Just try to get "Blue Eyes," "Theater," "Wilderness," "Me, Me, Me," "Thanks for Nothing," "Million Dollar Bill," and "Portland" (a Replacements cover) out of your head. I've woken up with them on mental play every morning since I got this at Christmas.

3) Tom Waits, Bad As Me. Another Christmas acquisition and maybe his best record since Rain Dogs (1985), which is saying something. The most gut-wrenching record of the year. "Satisfied" is a kick-ass Stones tribute and "Last Leaf (On the Tree)" brings in Keith Richards to break hearts, like a drunken reading of Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. He ends with the family tragedy of "New Year's Eve," everyone singing "auld lang syne," cleaning out their belongings, and hitting the road.

4) Steve Earle, I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive. How did the critics overlook this? This holds up against Earle's string of perfect records from the mid-1990s (in particular, Train A-Comin', one of my favorite records by anyone ever), and even charted at #24 on Billboard, his second best showing ever. "Waitin' On the Sky (to Fall)" and "Little Emperor" start it off strong, and "Heaven or Hell" (yup, minus his ambivalence) and "This City" (a hopeful ode to some underwater southerners) send it off in style.

5) Wilco, The Whole Love. Best Wilco since the epic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001), which was my best album of the last decade. I'd love "Dawned On Me" even more if it weren't such a perfect inversion of my current existence.

6) Drive By Truckers, Go-Go Boots. Yet another that didn't get the critical props it deserves, maybe because it came so close on the heels of last year's The Big To-Do, which was a mild disappointment. This one is excellent, with "I Do Believe," "Used To Be A Cop," "Everybody Needs Love," and "Mercy Buckets" as standouts. As always, these guys are a PhD dissertation on southern culture sung at 1 AM in a honky tonk.

7) REM, Collapse Into Now. Not quite in the same league with their classic albums from the 80s and 90s, but a fitting valedictory. So long, guys, and thanks.

8) Lucinda Williams, Blessed. Not a lot of representation here from the fairer sex, and this isn't quite on par with either Car Wheels (1998) or Little Honey (2008). Still, a strong set of tunes that fit my mood pretty well, especially "Buttercup."

9) Ryan Adams, Ashes and Fire. As I often say, Adams can make B+ rock in his sleep. But it's been a while since he made a classic album on par with Stranger's Almanac, Heartbreaker, Demolition, or Gold. This isn't it either. A very mellow B+.

10) My Morning Jacket, Circuital. I love these guys, and this is one of the best-reviewed CDs of the year, but it's not quite as compelling as I had hoped. Lots of good pieces but the whole lacks something. Songwriting? Cohesion? I'm not sure, but there's still plenty to like here, especially the title track and "Outta My System."

So that's my list. What did I leave off? Ron Sexsmith, the Black Keys, the Jayhawks, and (Murfreesboro's beloved) the Features all made good records this year that could have taken my final couple of spots, but for one reason or another didn't. I have also been enjoying a record put out by Peter Cooper, the Tennessean's long-time music critic, called Mission Door, which sounds like a silkier blend of Todd Snider and James McMurtry. Not bad for a shit-ass year. Enough of me. I'll let the real writers close it out.

I'm actually fine with how things are turning out I guess
And all my good friends call me wilderness
~ "Wilderness," Middle Brother

I will bring you buckets of mercy
And hold your hand as you're crossing the street
Pay your bail if you need it
And I will be your saving grace
~ "Mercy Buckets," Drive By Truckers

Blood in the water and hell to pay
Sky tear open and pain rain down
Doesn't matter, 'cause come what may
I ain't ever gonna leave this town
This city won't wash away
This city won't ever drown
~ "This City," Steve Earle


At 11:06 PM, Blogger Number Three said...

I might be game to make a go at this again. Let me sleep on it.

At 11:26 AM, Blogger fronesis said...

Welcome back!

And thanks for the great list. I will buy the Steve Earle RIGHT NOW.

Only one quibble: I agree entirely with you about Ryan Adams. That is, I agree that he sometimes sleepwalks through albums that are still good, and that is best stuff was late whiskeytown and first two solo albums. But I think you could be wrong about Ashes and Fire. I have bought quite a few albums of his over the past 5 years that just didn't grab me, but this one really IS grabbing me.

And I think you all SHOULD reform the band. I miss reading good blogs and belongings. I am on Facebook, but Facebook is awful awful awful. I hate it. I hate myself for using it.

At 9:41 PM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

Fro, glad you found us! I was hoping you'd check back in.

You could be right on Ryan Adams. I have to admit that Ashes and Fire is his best and most consistent batch of SONGS in a long time (especially "Dirty Rain," "Save Me," and "Lucky Now"). And the album as a whole is very cohesive. Too cohesive. I wish he had mixed in a bit more variety, a lost Cardinals tune or something (hell, he had a double album of leftovers that just came out last year). But Adams hates doing that these days. It's either all rocking or all mellow folk pop, a trend I think he started way back on Rock N' Roll if not earlier, as in the four botched records that the industry suits thankfully turned into Demolition. The other thing his songs here are missing is lyrical specificity. There are so few personal and idiosyncratic touches that I often forget I've listened to it 10 minutes later. Adams is one of the most distinctive artists in rock today, so why can't he put that kind of voice into his words anymore? Too harsh, maybe, but his talent gets held to a higher standard.

I think you'll like the new Earle. And Middle Brother too, if you haven't heard it yet. Fucking brilliant! I got in a fight with the "Mrs." a few days ago about her not bringing it back from her car as promised. One of my rare victories!


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