[UPDATE (January 1, 2011): One last addition to the list; scroll to the bottom to see it.]
The cover art for Asleep at the Wheel's 2006 album, Santa Loves to Boogie. Image (and a link to Amazon's free mp3 link to the title track) found here.
The Mrs. and I are back from visiting my mother for Christmas. While my mother and I are very different in many, many ways, one thing we do share is a love of what used to be called "western music." So when she asked me if I like Asleep at the Wheel (which I do, very much) and if I'd like a copy of Santa Loves to Boogie (somehow, she'd ended up with two), I enthusiastically said Yes. Now, granted: like the vast majority of Christmas albums by country performers, this one is chiefly intended to milk a few dollars from already-adoring fans rather than serve to bring new converts into the fold. But lovers of the Wheel's mission to bear the torch of Western Swing on into the 21st century will enjoy this, and there are some surprise appearances by Dale Watson (think of music in the style of Dave Dudley's truck-driving anthem, "Six Days on the Road" and the Buck Owens-to-Dwight Yoakam continuum of country music) and Willie Nelson, singing a pretty version of his own "Pretty Paper" with the Wheel's Ray Benson. At just over 34 minutes, this disc is over before it gets on your nerves; but if you're driving to Grandma's during the holidays across an open landscape, this would serve as a pretty good soundtrack for that drive.
Anyway. The Wheel's Christmas album is a new-to-me album for 2010. It certainly doesn't make my Best Of list, though; it just serves for this post as a handy entree to that list. As for that list, there are fewer albums that I actually bought--times being what they are, I didn't have a whole lot of money around for that particular luxury. But due to the largess of friends and to the wonders of the Internet's abundance of free (and legal!) online music, I've gotten to hear a lot of good recent music in a variety of genres. So, what follows will actually be two lists: first, albums; next, artists I've learned about this past year who are worth seeking out.
As has been the case with me for three and a half years now, the music social-media site Last.fm is an absolutely indispensable resource for learning about music of any sort and meeting other music-lovers who share your tastes and interests. Many bands have a presence on Last.fm, and many of them post links to free music (more about a few of them later). Two other sites I've mentioned before that deserve mention again are The Silent Ballet, which focuses mostly on instrumental rock-oriented music, and Daytrotter, which provides free recordings of short in-studio sessions with a broad cross-section of, mostly, indie and alt-country and alt-folk artists.
Enough prattling. Below the fold, you'll find the lists, in alphabetical order, with some links. Happy listening!
Bettye LaVette, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. The samples at Amazon should be enough to persuade you that you want this; if not, then watch this, her performance of the Who's great song, "Love Reign O'er Me":
LaVette can even find soul in Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here." 'Nuff said.
Loscil, Endless Falls. Loscil (Vancouver native Scott Morgan) makes sonically-luscious ambient music; Endless Falls, its 2010 release, has a depth and sonority that's rare even in a genre known for precisely those attributes. This is slow-moving but always-engaging music. Via Amazon, you can pick up two free tracks from this album, "Dub for Cascadia" and "Lake Orchard." If you'd like to hear more for free, you can download all of Loscil's 2006 album, Stases.
Ana Moura, Para Além Da Saudade. I have had this album for well over a year, but I somehow overlooked it for inclusion in last year's Best-Of list. Moura served as my introduction to fado, a genre of music from Portugal whose traditional subject is longing for or loss of a distant loved one. Accompanied, as is traditional with this music, only by a single acoustic guitar, Moura's voice is perfectly suited for such a genre: it's a husky alto with an achy quality. It's so well-suited, in fact, that even though I know very little Portuguese, it feels as though I understand everything she's singing.
Old Californio, Westering Again. Imagine a cross between the early-'70s band America ("Ventura Highway," "Horse with No Name") and the Midwest's proto-alt-country band The Jayhawks, and that's Old Californio, at least to my ears. Like both those bands, this one isn't going to be the sort of band that Changed the Face of Popular Music; it "just" does what it does very well. The band is trying to raise money to finish producing its upcoming album--click the video to hear some samples.
Gretchen Parlato, In a Dream. Way back in January, I heard the title track from this album on Wichita's NPR station's weeknight jazz program; after it was over, the host said simply, "Gretchen Parlato. Remember the name." Yes indeed. In a Dream ranges far and wide in terms of both material and styles: there are a couple of pop songs here; the Brazilian standard "Doralice," which she sings in Portuguese; songs by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Duke Ellington; and a couple of originals by Parlato herself. As for her singing, well, Diana Krall she's not. Parlato's style is such that, even as she's singing the lyrics, her voice becomes like another instrument. Additional point in her favor: She's also collaborated with Esperanza Spalding (about whom more later) on the latter's Chamber Music Society.
The Picturesque Episodes, Constellations. Darius Gerulis is a Lithuanian who makes music he describes as "cosmic-rock/ambient/neo-classical." In other words, "post-rock." What's striking about this music, though, is that each album has its own sound, but taken as a whole the Episodes' music really does range all over that sonic map. For that reason, it's hard to choose one album to single out over the others, but Constellations, with its Pink Floyd vibe, is the one I keep coming back to. Gerulis also makes all his music available for free.
Max Richter, Infra. Richter is a German neo-classical composer whose music reminds me of Arvo Pärt filtered through a pop sensibility--which is to say, it feels melodically-accessible to a mainstream audience, but it's not Muzak. Infra is the score for a ballet, but its brief pieces hold their own well apart from the dances they accompany.
Esperanza Spalding, Junjo (samples). This is Spalding's first album; recently, Amazon had it on sale for $5 as a download and I jumped on it. Despite her youth (she's still in her 20s), Spalding is already regarded as one of jazz's very best artists. All I know is that when I listen to her sing or play (she plays bass), it feels like I'm hearing jazz for the first time, and like she herself has just discovered it. This is very accessible music, but it's not at all staid or stale. Those who love jazz but think of it as having become glorified lounge music or ossified into that theme/solos/theme pattern need to hear Spalding and the aforementioned Parlato. They will restore your faith in jazz's future vitality.
Sun Kil Moon, April.. I've known of Sun Kil Moon (chiefly, Mark Kozelek, formerly of Red House Painters) for some time now, but it was my long-time online friend Kári of Delights for the Ingenious who sent me a recommendation via Last.fm for "Heron Blue" on this 2008 release. In that as in so many other musical instances, Kári was right. Other favorites are "Moorestown," "Unlit Hallway" and "Tonight in Bilbao." One wishes that Kozelek would be a little more articulate, but if one loves beautiful, melodic mumbling, you'll like April very much.
Steve Tibbetts, Natural Causes(samples here). How to describe Tibbetts' music? In his electric pieces, he sounds like a much jazzier, improvising Hendrix; the acoustic pieces tend to be folkier-sounding, but with strong non-Western influences. Tibbetts follows a muse that I don't believe sings to anyone else--at least, not in the way that it sings to him.
(In addition to the links to their websites, where you can find some freebies, all except The Hush Now have been recorded by Daytrotter.)
Bonnie "Prince" Billy. If there was a trend in my listening preferences this year, it was in the direction of artists that I'd call "alt-folk": performers who have in common voices that aren't conventionally pretty, literate lyrics, and who are more deeply informed by American folk music than most seem to be, but not staid traditionalists. Indeed, of the artists listed here, only Drive-By Truckers and The Hush Now would not fit that category. Bonnie "Prince" Billy (Will Oldham) is a scratchy-voiced singer whose songs I find deeply moving.
Alela Diane. Hailing from California but sounding like a reincarnation of Maybelle Carter, Diane's songs' starkness reminds me of early Neil Young (I have in mind songs like "I Am a Child" and "Old Man").
Drive-By Truckers. I am a white Southern male who came of musical age in the late '60s and early '70s; ergo, I am genetically and culturally predisposed to like bands that either are named Lynyrd Skynyrd or carry on in that band's spirit without pandering to the Stars-and-Bars-waving element who think that that's what that band was about (the flag-waving, that is). Drive-By Truckers is clearly in the latter category. Guitar-based but writing tighter songs than Skynyrd did, the Truckers unblinkingly explore the darker sides of contemporary rural and working-class Southern life. Lead singer Patterson Hood's vocals take some getting used to (he often (and unpleasantly) sounds like he's well out of his vocal range), but they write such smart songs that, well, here I am recommending them to you.
The Hush Now. Boston-area makers of smart, accessible pop that manages to sound distinctive without getting labeled as "quirky." Lead guitarist Adam Quane is a friend of mine via the Mark Z. Danielewski forum. They're a fairly new group; they will be at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin this March, so listen now and when they become the Next Big Thing, you can say you knew them when.
Willem Maker. Daytrotter session here. Maker hails from the mountains of northeastern Alabama. Though definitely in the alt-folk category, his particular vision seems more all-encompassing than do the others listed here--have a look, for example, at the cover art for Maker's most recent CD, New Moon Hand.
J. Tillman. Go and listen. The man can write songs, and he's also the best singer in this list.
Laura Veirs. I was introduced to Veirs' music this summer, when I was looking for versions of "John Henry" and Veirs' "John Henry Lives" popped up. It's not a cover of one of the older, variant versions of "John Henry" but something much more intriguing: a musical and lyrical updating of Mississippi John Hurt's "Spikedriver's Blues," which itself is something of a commentary on what some even in the '30s took to be one of the messages of the "John Henry" songs: that their hero had killed himself by working too hard. But whereas Hurt's speaker leaves the work crew before he suffers John Henry's fate, Veirs' re-writing turns our attention back to those who stayed on, their labor "all painted in red." Needless to say, I was hooked, and I went off in search of more by this remarkable writer. You might be hooked, too.
UPDATE (January 1, 2011): Zoe Keating. I completely overlooked Keating the other day; she is someone very much worth knowing about. Keating is a classically-trained cellist who creates compositions by playing and then, via a looping device, playing them back and playing new lines with/against those looped lines. The effect is, at its best, quite beautiful--and knowing how these pieces are made doesn't make them any less wonderful.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
[UPDATE (January 1, 2011): One last addition to the list; scroll to the bottom to see it.]