Thursday 31 December 2020

My Top Twenty of 2020: #1


Regular readers of this blog will probably find my choice for Album of the Year so, so predictable. Particularly anyone who remembers what 2019's Album of the Year was round these parts.

However, a few notes in my defence...

Prior to 2019, the last time I voted a Springsteen album as the best thing I'd heard all year was in 1987, with Tunnel of Love.

Prior to Western Stars, the last Springsteen studio album, 2014's hodge-podge contract-filler High Hopes, barely deserved a mention in my year end countdown.

And prior to that, there were any number of albums released with the resurrected E Street Band that I liked well enough (some more than others), but as much as they might have been good late-stage Bruce albums, they didn't really feel like good band albums. Ironically, the last great E Street Band album then, the last one that truly feels and sounds like the E Street Band... was Born In The USA

36 years ago. 

I couldn't quite put my finger on why this album sounded like a proper E Street record again after such a long time... until I read an interview with Steve Van Zandt in which he explained that unlike all the other records he's worked on with Bruce this century, this is the only one in which the band have contributed as much as they did in the 70s and 80s. All the other albums Bruce has made with them since their reunion, he's come to the room with finished songs and a producer, looking for a very specific sound, and the band have pretty much acted as session musicians to deliver his vision. This record though was recorded like the classic E Street albums of the 70s and 80s. Bruce just brought the songs - acoustic guitar and lyrics. Then he let the band do their thing. And it shows...

Letter To You sounds like a Greatest Hits set from an alternate reality. Most of the tracks would fit comfortably on the old classic albums, without any concessions for a contemporary sound. The opener, One Minute You're Here, wouldn't have been out of place on Tunnel Of Love, with maybe a touch of The Rising

Then comes the title track, which I was rather underwhelmed with on its own... yet hearing it in the context of the album as a whole (particularly coming off the back of the slow, acoustic opener) really kicks it up a gear. 

Three of the songs featured here were actually written prior to Bruce's debut album back in 1973, but have never been recorded by him. Of these, If I Was The Priest, is the one that really could have fallen of the edge of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. - like much of that disc, it owes a huge debt to Dylan.

Meanwhile, Janey Needs A Shooter is an interesting one for Warren Zevon fans. A track Zevon heard Bruce playing live back in the day, before loosely adapting it as Jeannie Needs A Shooter on the album Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School. They're very different songs when played back to back, yet they do match up.  

The Power of Prayer evokes the chord sequences from Born To Run in a song that's as open to misinterpretation as Born In The USA. On the surface, it seems Bruce is getting in touch with his spiritual side (there's a subtext of growing old and facing up to one's mortality than runs throughout the record). A closer listen, however, reveals a deeper meaning - Bruce's prayer is live music, and this album rewards the listener with the next best thing to seeing the E Street Band playing live. 

Rainmaker takes a sly dig at Trump, but that's the only political song on here (despite his activism in the run up to the US election, Bruce decided it would be boring to write a whole album attacking idiot politicians... besides, he's already done that on Wrecking Ball). 

Rainmaker says white’s black and black’s white
Says night’s day and day’s night
Says close your eyes and go to sleep now
I’m in a burnin’ field unloadin’ buckshot into low clouds

Rainmaker, a little faith for hire
Rainmaker, the house is on fire
Rainmaker, take everything you have
Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad
They’ll hire a rainmaker

Two tunes here really kick this album up into the higher echelons. House Of A Thousand Guitars starts (rather ironically) with a classic Roy Bittan piano solo before launching into the kind of bombastic lyrical mythologising only Bruce could get away with... with maybe a sly reminder of how much Jim Steinman owes his career to The Boss.

Here the bitter and the bored
Wake in search of the lost chord
That'll band us together for as long as there's stars
Yeah in the house of a thousand guitars

And then comes Ghosts, which is basically Thunder Road or Born To Run grown old, no longer burning to get out of this town, but looking back on a lifetime of running, glorying in the joy of still being alive. It's a love song from a 70 year old man to his 20-something self, full of gratitude and respect. And best of all, it tears the roof off like no Springsteen song has in decades...

I hear the sound of your guitar
Coming in from the mystic far
The stone and the gravel in your voice
Come in my dreams and I rejoice

It's your ghost moving through the night
Spirit filled with light
I need, need you by my side
Your love and I'm alive

I can feel the blood shiver in my bones
I'm alive and I'm out here on my own
I'm alive and I'm coming home

This is a very different record to last year's Western Stars, in which Bruce turned down the path not taken and gave Jimmy Webb a run for his money. By contrast, Letter To You sounds like exactly what you'd expect from a Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band album... just not one we've heard for a long, long time.


Wednesday 30 December 2020

My Top Twenty of 2020: #2


When I started this countdown a couple of weeks back, I did point out that the rankings were pretty arbitrary up to the Top 3, and that most of the records prior to this might go up and down in my affections depending on the day, my mood, and the weather. 

But this... this was very nearly my record of the year, because it's an absolute belter. Chuck Prophet has made some great albums in his time, but nothing as consistently WOW as The Land That Time Forgot.

I won't feature the Trump song again, because it's had multiple exposures on this blog in the last 6 months, as have some of the other tracks below. But selecting only one just doesn't do this album justice...

Tuesday 29 December 2020

My Top Twenty of 2020: #3


Six years ago, Canadian singer songwriter Kathleen Edwards turned her back on a successful music career and opened a Ottawa coffee shop called Quitters. A bad break up, disillusionment with the music scene, and depression led her to this decision... but thankfully, the coffee helped her cope, and early this year she released her first album since 2012, a revitalised collection in which she celebrates Total Freedom.

I've been a fan since her 2003 debut Failer (how could I resist a first album with a title like that?), so it was great to have her back. On top form too. 

My Top Twenty of 2020: #4


Local lad and restraining order waiting to happen (such is my obsession) Simon Armitage became the Poet Laureate late last year. In between writing poems for the Queen and the Sunday papers, he somehow found time to record a new record. Not with his former band, The Scaremongers, but with a new collective called LYR. (Apparently it stands for Land Yacht Regatta, so nothing to do with lyrics at all. That'll teach me to try to second-guess the Poet Laureate.)

An addictive set of story poems set to musical backing, full of northern humour and incisive lyrical detail, they've been a firm favourite at Top Ten Towers these past few months.

Monday 28 December 2020

My Top Twenty of 2020: #5


A new Eels record was just what I needed as this sorry year drew to a close. 

E even got a Mad Man to star in his latest video...

Will we be alright again? Maybe through music.

My Top Twenty of 2020: #6


Jason Isbell cements his position as one of the best Americana songwriters currently working - at least when it comes to heartbreak. As usual, this collection reads like short stories, full of lyrical detail that plucks at the heart strings. I almost wish he'd lighten up occasionally, but I guess he's following a fine tradition in country music. George Jones would be proud.

Poison oak to poison ivy
Dirty jokes that blew right by me
Mama curling up beside me
Crying to herself
Why can't Daddy just come home?
Forget whatever he did wrong
He's in a hotel all alone
And we need help

Sunday 27 December 2020

My Top Twenty of 2020: #7


I make no secret of my love of Huey Lewis, but that said... he hasn't made an essential album since the career-topping Fore! back in 1986. Its follow-up, Small World, got a lot of turntable time from me back in the late 80s, but I haven't listened to it since, and his output following that consisted mostly of throwback rock 'n' roll covers sets. His first four albums, culminating in the aFOREmentioned, are all essential discs in my mind... though he gets a lot more respect for them on his own side of the Atlantic than he does here in the UK where serious musos turn their noses up at him.  

The buzz for Weather started a couple of years back - he'd found his mojo again, and this was going to be the most Huey album we'd heard in over 30 years. And then, tragedy struck. Huey contracted Ménière's disease, an inner ear condition that leads to severe tinnitus, hearing loss and vertigo. It's currently untreatable, and as it grew steadily worse, it soon put pay to the rest of the album, and any hopes of Huey touring again. Finally, the band decided to release the completed songs as a 7 track mini album, and fans got to hear what will likely be the final Huey Lewis record.

It's a very retro-sounding collection, despite being made up mostly of new compositions, along with one cover, Eugene Church's 1958 hit Pretty Girls Everywhere (also the debut single for The Walker Brothers), a track so out of step with contemporary mores that I love it all the more. 

There's nothing here that will win him any new fans, but oldies like me... and Brandon Flowers, Jimmy Buffet, Michael Keaton, Andy Garcia, Brad Paisley et al (all featured in the video below)... will take it to our hearts and cherish it forever. 

Thank you, Huey. Wishing you better times...

Saturday Snapshots #169 - The Answers


Here are the answers to the final Saturday Snapshots... in its current format.

10. Loud toilets.

Lulu - Shout

9. Are you covered in cuts?

The Scars - All About You

8. Sincere barrel, cheers.

Ernest Tubb - Thanks A Lot

7. No return once the volcano blows.

Eruption - One Way Ticket

6. Tree-planting missionary riffing on peyote.

The tree planting missionary was Johnny Appleseed.

Peyote is another name for mescal. Riffing is like strumming.

Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros - Johnny Appleseed

5. Auntie Fanny woofs at Mike Hammer's ma.

"Auntie Fanny woofs" was an anagram.

Mike Hammer was played by Stacy Keach.

Fountains of Wayne - Stacy's Mom

4. Stage school brats like Nick Hornby.

The Kids From FAME - High Fidelity

You had to be there.

3. Contemporary poms get too close to the fire.

Modern English - I Melt With You

2. Former Cry partner sets up his own company to cause trouble.

Cry's former partner was Hue.

Hues Corporation - Rock The Boat

1. Metal workers with inextinguishable candles.

New year, new Saturday Snapshots... next week.

Saturday 26 December 2020

Saturday Snapshots #169


That image seemed appropriate for Boxing Day.

The final Saturday Snapshots of 2020 will also be the final Snapshots in its current incarnation. After 169 weeks, I'm starting to run out of artists I haven't featured before, so a rethink was in order. The new Saturday Snapshots begins next week. There will still be Snapshots. There will still be clues. But there will also be another element that ties them all together. More on that next week. 

In the meantime... see what you can make of these...

10. Loud toilets.

9. Are you covered in cuts?

8. Sincere barrel, cheers.

7. No return once the volcano blows.

6. Tree-planting missionary riffing on peyote.

5. Auntie Fanny woofs at Mike Hammer's ma.

4. Stage school brats like Nick Hornby.

3. Contemporary poms get too close to the fire.

2. Former Cry partner sets up his own company to cause trouble.

1. Metal workers with inextinguishable candles.

Answers on the day after Boxing Day...


Friday 25 December 2020

Top Ten Christmas Songs 2020


By the time December 25th rolls around, you're probably sick of hearing the same old Christmas songs played over and over again on the radio... maybe even Fairytale of New York. 

So here are ten alternatives to brighten your Christmas morning. Not that I'd usually expect anybody to be wasting their Christmas Day reading this nonsense, but maybe in Christmas lockdown you'll find the odd five minutes...

10. eagleowl - Let's Save Christmas (The Ballad of Nakatomi Plaza)

Is Die Hard the greatest Christmas movie? No, that's It's A Wonderful Life. Die Hard is just the second greatest Christmas movie. This, however, is indisputably the best Christmas song about Die Hard...

Lets save Christmas day

Just hilarious. I love Billy.

Daddy's down at the pub
Full of Christmas cheer
Probably won't come home till next year

Repent sinners!
This pagan holiday full of tree worship and fairy lights is an affront to Jehova!
The candy cane is Satan's walking stick!
Merry Christmas from the Handsome Family!

Sam's favourite Christmas song. Listen and you'll see why.

Does the snow that falls on Leith
Also fall on Pollockshields?

There's a question for our Scottish friends to ponder on over Christmas...

Another of Sam's favourites. (And mine.)

Christmas wishes to all the kitties in the world - Colin brings you love, and lots of tuna juice.

Well, obviously.

 Great song. Least festive video ever recorded.

From one of the best Christmas albums of the 21st Century. Every track's a classic. 

1. The Black Arts - Christmas Number One

What do you get when you combine Black Box Recorder with Art Brut? A perfect recreation of the golden age of Christmas pop songs. A 70s glam stomper... with a sly postmodern cynicism.

We threw in some sleigh bells and some other festive stuff
A video with artificial snow, like the devil's own dandruff

Happy Christmas, everyone. Let's make the most of it. Remember what Bruce keeps telling me, to get me through the year...

Someday we'll look back on this
And it will all seem funny...

Thursday 24 December 2020

My Top Twenty of 2020: #8


I've banged on about my love of Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields plenty of times over the years, so I figured I'd let someone else persuade you to give his latest record a listen.

Here's Bruce Springsteen, a quote taken directly from his radio show...

"Stephin is one of our best American composers and songwriters, and if you haven’t gotten into his music, you owe it to yourself to check it out."

'Nuff said.

And here's a song we could all sing along to in 2020...

Wednesday 23 December 2020

My Top Twenty of 2020: #9


I still haven't quite worked out how perennial English satirist, raconteur and Auteur Luke Haines ended up in collaboration with the guitarist from REM this year, but part of me doesn't actually want to know the truth. I'm sure it won't be half as interesting as the story in my imagination.

I have to be honest though: if you're an REM fan suffering withdrawal symptoms, this probably isn't the record to quench your need. It doesn't sound much like an REM record at all, despite Buck's involvement. It does, however, sound exactly like a Luke Haines record, full of mad lyrics, crazy theories and Haines's unique parallel universe vision of the world.

Yesterday's selection might have been the first time Bob Dylan has featured in my year end countdown... but this is the umpteenth time Luke Haines has troubled these parts. And he has another new album out in March, so I dare say he'll be here again next year.

Tuesday 22 December 2020

My Top Twenty of 2020 #10


In 30+ years of compiling year end lists of favourite records, this is the first time I've ever included a Bob Dylan record.

Dylan purists will no doubt lament that fact, and also that I've chosen this particular disc to break my exile. It's not been his best-reviewed record in recent years, and a number of fans appear to have turned their nose up at it. 

But maybe I've finally reached the age where Dylan can speak to me. The last Dylan album I listened to as much as this was Blonde On Blonde, in my early 20s, when it was already getting on for thirty years old. And I only really did that in service of checking out Bruce's influences. 

It was Murder Most Foul that did it for me. 17 minutes in length, arguably Bob's own version of We Didn't Start The Fire (purists, irked: check), and yet I've heard this played on the radio at least 5 times now and each time I was enthralled. I mean, the rest of the album is pretty good, but this... this is just mesmerising.

Monday 21 December 2020

My Top Twenty of 2020: #11


Another two I had to put together, as they both ended up in Nashville this year. 

Erin Moran, A Girl Called Eddy, returned from the wilderness with her first solo album in 16 years, and it was like she’d never been away. 

Meanwhile, Rumer recorded an album of songs by veteran country songwriter Hugh Prestwood, and it was as beautiful as you could imagine.

Two sumptuous records to soothe the unquiet mind. I needed that more than ever this year…

Sunday 20 December 2020

Saturday Snapshots #168 - The Answers


Supreme answers to follow...

10. Burn the mad planet: legendary king or loveable loser?

Arthur was a legendary king, Charlie Brown a loveable loser.

The Crazy World of Arthur Brown - Fire

9. Redneck kiddies in a neverending convoy.

"Redneck kiddies" is an anagram.

Eddie Kendricks - Keep On Truckin' (Part 1)

8. Sounds like Tom's hairdresser girl, in very basic attire.

Tom's hairdresser would be Delilah (look what she did to Samson!)

Plain White T's - Hey There, Delilah

7. Shades of talcum, nearly.

"Talcum, nearly" is an anagram.

Shades are sunglasses.

Tracey Ullman - Sunglasses

6. Making suits for the California Highway Patrol leaves him flawlessly misanthropic. 

Someone who made suits for the California Highway Patrol would be a CHiP tailor.

Chip Taylor - Fuck All The Perfect People

5. Depressed ecstasy on silky switchboard.

Depressed Ecstacy? Sad E!

Sade - Smooth Operator

4. Ah, grinned KGB, on US quiz show.

"Ah, grinned KGB" is another anagram.

The Greg Kihn Band - Jeopardy

3. Shaft at the beginning of next Friday leads to nefarious pastime. 

Shaft was Isaac Hayes. The beginning of next Friday is Christmas Day.

Chris Isaak - Wicked Game

2. Millennial hipster does V origami in the cellar. (That clue will probably only work for regular readers of this blog.)

Regular readers will know of my millennial hipster friend Ben (of whom, more next year).

Origami involves folding paper. V is 5.

This was slightly more difficult than it should have been as Ben is the one on the right, not in the middle.

1. Chic, young, call waiting.

Chic Young was the creator of the comic strip Blondie.

Not the most dignified picture, but you try finding a photo of Debbie Harry that doesn't immediately look like Debbie Harry.

Next week may well be the last Saturday Snapshots... in its current format, anyway.

Saturday 19 December 2020

Saturday Snapshots #168


I'm afraid I didn't have time to prepare a Seasonal Snapshots this year... or maybe I've just run out / grown sick of Christmas songs.

This is the best my limited internet would allow this week...

10. Burn the mad planet: legendary king or loveable loser?

9. Redneck kiddies in a neverending convoy.

8. Sounds like Tom's hairdresser girl, in very basic attire.

7. Shades of talcum, nearly.

6. Making suits for the California Highway Patrol leaves him flawlessly misanthropic. 

5. Depressed ecstasy on silky switchboard.

4. Ah, grinned KGB, on US quiz show.

3. Shaft at the beginning of next Friday leads to nefarious pastime. 

2. Millennial hipster does V origami in the cellar. (That clue will probably only work for regular readers of this blog.)

1. Chic, young, call waiting.

Answers tomorrow.
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