Monday, November 30, 2009

The Musical Advent Calendar - Close But No Cigar

Let's call this a teaser.

Without giving too much away about what did make it, here are 10 that didn't, but that warranted a mention anyway.

Pretty much everyone on the panel has ended this process by lobbying for advent to be extended next year so we can get more albums in. I'm going to abuse my position running this blog to make that happen for me at least.

There's effectively two lots of five here. First, there's five albums that would make up Nos. 25-29 given half a chance - these were the last to get ruled out.

Then there's five tracks I absolutely love, and, had they had a stronger supporting cast on the album, would have been a shoo-in.

Just a bit of housekeeping for regular readers - given that every album on this list and in the advent calendar was, by definition, released in 2009, I'll list the record label where the year of release usually goes in the header.


Neko Case - This Tornado Loves You (Middle Cyclone, Anti-)

I've gone back and forth on this album. Ultimately it comes back to the fact I love Neko Case's sound, but I don't think this is her best album, and, for that reason and that reason alone, it disappointed just slightly. Only slightly, mind you.

Richard Hawley - Open Up Your Door (Truelove's Gutter, Mute)

As someone who grew up on the Longpigs before discovering music beyond indie-rock, I've been a huge fan of Hawley's Orbison-esque crooning from the start. So why does this album miss out where it might have been tipped for the top 10? I'm not entirely sure. I guess it's his most 'difficult' album yet, coming after the death of his father. I suspect it's one I'll grow to love more and more, and by the middle of next year, I'll be completely regretting leaving it off.

The Dead Weather - I Cut Like A Buffalo (Horehound, Columbia)

When the first draft of my list was drawn up, this was in the high teens, but eventually got pushed out. Not sure why, maybe my listening habits changed over the year and it was a victim of being released too early (I don't care how hard you try - this has an impact). But there's also a feeling that, good as it is, this just isn't that high up in the great Jack White pantheon. Please Jack, let's have another White Stripes album soon.

The Leisure Society - A Matter of Time (The Sleeper, Wilkommen)

A lot of folks have tried to label the Leisure Society as some kind of British Fleet Foxes. True, there's a bit of that, but it doesn't really give the whole story. Not by a long shot. Sure, there's plenty of beautiful harmonies, but there's a heck of a lot of varieties in styles. I was going to post a very Simon and Garf-esque track, but someone needs that for the advent calendar proper, so here's my favourite one off the album.

The Antlers - Sylvia (Hospice, Frenchkiss Records)

The very last album to get booted, technically after my own deadline had passed (hey, I get to do that). It was very hard to do, because I really did fall for this album on first listen, but, well, until we get advent extended, what can we do? Without giving too much away, you'll hear more of this album before the month is out.

Okay, so those were the unlucky albums. Now five tracks I adored but which needed a little more help from their brothers and sisters on the albums.

Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard - The Upside-Down Cross ('Em Are I, Rough Trade)

Sorry, yes, I know, it's eight minutes long. But it's wonderful.

Andrew Bird - Anonanimal (Noble Beast, Bella Union)

There's a handful of songs of this album I adore, but the overall thing somehow gives the impression of being too long. Not sure why - 54 minutes is not exceptional - but maybe there's a couple of songs we could have done without.

Here We Go Magic - Only Pieces (Here We Go Magic, Western Vinyl)

I got into this band purely because of Grizzly Bear. I heard they were supporting the mighty Bear on their US tour, and instantly scrambled to find out if they were any good, assuming, naturally, they would be. I wasn't disappointed.

Cracker - Friends (Sunshine In The Land of Milk and Honey, Freeworld)

A friend of mine has been on at me to get into Cracker for about the last decade. It took a collaboration with Patterson Hood to get it done - involve the Drive-By Truckers and you can guarantee that I'm there. Still not 100% sold on the rest of the album, but this is ace.

The Obits - Widow of My Dreams (I Blame You, Subpop)

This was a definite case of deciding to buy the album less than 30 seconds into the opening track. Riff-tastic. Fantabulous.

But enough of this, the show starts for real tomorrow. Join us from noon.

The Musical Advent Calendar - An Introduction

And so finally it is here.

It was way back in May I first thought of this, blurting out the idea in the pub before the idea was fully formed.

It went something along the lines of me counting down my top 25 albums of the year through December, and calling it an advent calendar (It was later pointed out to me that a traditional advent calendar has only 24 doors).

That was before this blog had even been created, but once it was, we had a place to actually do this, and what's more, a place to get others involved.

Before I really knew what I was doing, I'd created a panel of 10 people, and here we are.

So, starting tomorrow, and running every day until Christmas Eve, each of us will announce our top 24 of the year, reaching the all important No. 1s on Christmas Eve.

Then, as if that wasn't enough, on Christmas Day, using a complex scoring system not yet fully devised, we'll figure out some kind of cumulative chart.

If all my plans come to fruition, there'll be a special follow-up on Boxing Day too...

I've had everyone's lists in for a few days now. When we first set out, there were worries we'd be overlapping far too much to make this interesting, but I don't think that's been the case, and I've been more than a little surprised by a lot of the picks, including some of the No. 1s. (Yes, this is my way of trying to get you to stick with us throughout December).

Oh yes, and by tomorrow, one way or another, I'm going to try and make this blog look a little bit more Christmassy. Not that I know how to do that...

So, who's on the panel?

Ali Mason - The man behind Ali Mason's The Blog has been obsessing over his Top 24 since the idea was first put to him in June. Don't over-analyse the results, please. He can't take it. You can also follow his work here.

Rory Dollard - A man who makes part of what he calls a living from advising professional footballers what to listen to. Without revealing what it is, it should be noted that Dollard declared his number one to be Album of the Year last year, several months before it was even released. You can also follow his work here.

Dom Farrell - The lead guitarist and songwriter for Manchester's Fox Force Five admitted this project dragged him away from his preferred plundering of back catalogues.

Andy Welch - TV and music journalist who practically insisted on getting involved in this after being consulted by a confused Dollard pondering his own list. He admitted that reviewing up to 10 albums a week leaves him a little overloaded, but we figure anything he can still remember from that massive pile must be worthy of inclusion. You can also follow his work here.

Guy Atkinson - Usually to be found listening to albums in darkened rooms, Guy continues his endless search for the perfect pop album. You can also follow his work here.

Pranam Prabhakar - Songwriter, guitarist, and Chief Noise Engineer for the delightful Crooked Rooks.

John Skilbeck - A man who specialises in listening to bands so obscure they've not heard of themselves. You can also follow his work here.

Matt Collins - A singer/songwriter who, after forming various bands over the years, can now be found under his own name. Also, being a charitable type, he encourages all to check out his day job. You can also follow his work here.

SP - My partner in blogging and former DJing crimes, SP makes a welcome return to Ragged Glories for the festive period. You can also follow his work here and here.

Me - And finally, little old me, who apologises to the rest of the panel for this whole idea. I never knew it would get this, well, involved...

So without further ado, let's get this started. Tomorrow, that is...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

These United States of America (Part Six)

You wait 10 days for the next part of the These United States series, and then two come along at once. Here it is, the final installment, as we clear the decks on Ragged Glories before the Musical Advent Calendar takes over for the next four weeks. Anyhow, here's the final swing through the Western states.

Judy Roderick & The Forbears - Floods of South Dakota (When I'm Gone, 1982)

If there's one artist I only came across through doing this compilation and immediately want to know more about, Judy Roderick would be the one. A contemporary of Dylan, Roderick never achieved the commercial success her records seem to deserve. Her 1982 album When I'm Gone was re-released in 2008, and this is the one I'm going to go after. This track, recorded in the late 1970s, is among those upon it. Roderick died in 1992.

Elvis Presley - Blue Hawaii (Blue Hawaii, 1961)

The title track to Elvis' Hawaiian movie is one of the first two songs you think of with regard to the Aloha State, and it clearly deserve the nod over Hawaii Five-O. That is all.

(Iowa) - Joni Mitchell - The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines (Mingus, 1979)

There is a Slipknot song called Iowa, but everyone vetoed that. Several said they would refuse to own a compilation that had Slipknot on it. And so we bent the rules, and turned to Joni. It is taken from the 1979 album that resulted from her working closely with jazz legend Charles Mingus right before his depth, and you won't need me to tell you those influences are completely apparent.

Emmylou Harris - Montana Girl (At The Ryman, 1992)

Emmylou has two songs about Montana, this here 'Montana Girl' and also 'Wild Montana Skies'. We went we this one mainly because I had a copy of it. It's taken from the live album At The Ryman, which was made up of a diverse series of covers taking in everything from hillbilly music to Bruce Springsteen. It's an interesting listen, to say the least.

Franki Valli & The Four Seasons - Idaho (The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, 1969)

I love this song. It's gorgeously corny, and hopelessly catchy. And yet brilliant.

Kenny Rogers - My Washington Woman (Breakout, 1989)

Okay, okay, I admit it. Coming only two tracks after Emmylou Harris, I can't deny that the West Coast CD is full of country too, not just the Southlands.

Deer Tick - Nevada (War Elephant, 2007)

Late stand-ins for the Willard Grant Conspiracy, who will appear elsewhere with their gorgeous 'Christmas in Nevada'. I'll be honest, I've pretty much fallen in love with Deer Tick in the last six months, having stumbled across a piece on frontman John Joseph McCauley, detailing his musical education as being largely limited to Hank Williams and Nirvana. You know that combination has to work.

Beach Boys - California Girls (Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), 1965)

California had as many candidate songs as anywhere. It was perhaps the hardest decision of all, but several contributors to this compilation lobbied hard on behalf of the native Beach Boys, and who can argue?

Dr Dog - Alaska (We All Belong, 2007)

Dr Dog are one of those bands you end up discovering because their album has a cool looking cover so you decide to buy it on sight. We All Belong never disappointed, with the band's brand of Beatles-esque retro-pop a delightful addition to the collection. I'm not sure why this song ended up being called Alaska, the lyrics make passing reference ('Well, it's night time in Alaska/I hear it's dark until the spring') but it's hardly the focus. Ah well, helps us out...

Bon Iver - Wisconsin (For Emma, Forever Ago, 2008)

I'd owned this album for about a year, and was well into the process of desperately hunting a Wisconsin song for the compilation, before I figured out the bonus track was named after the Badger State.

Friday, November 27, 2009

These United States of America (Part Five)

Okay folks, we're on to the final stretch. And, in keeping with the history of the nation, we've left exploration of the west coast until last. Coming in two batches to finish this off, we have 20 songs paying homage to the frontier lands.

Neil Young - The Emperor of Wyoming (Neil Young, 1969)

Okay, so as an instrumental it's only about Wyoming up to a point, but there was no competition for the Cowboy State and I was happy to get on a song from the master's debut. Much overlooked because of the wealth of genius that came after it, Neil Young's self-titled album is full of little treats. It is very different to the bulk of his career work as he continued to work with Jack Nitzsche, who had helped him on the classic "Expecting To Fly" while with Buffalo Springfield. The pair let loose the string sections in a way Young would never do again. There is also a strong country feel to the album, a sound Young would later go back to but not for a some time.

Josh Rouse - Dressed up Like Nebraksa (Dressed Up Like Nebraska, 1998)

The success Josh Rouse's debut album, named after his home state, earned him the chance to leave his home state and move to Nashville, but there you go. That seems to be how it works. Not that there has been much drop off in the quality of his work since. This is a great example of his expansive sound, which you can imagine echoing across the Great Plains of which he sings.

Low - Missouri (Secret Name, 1999)

The stand-out track from Secret Name, Missouri, this delicate slice of what they call sadcore is a beautiful sounding song. It does little to lift the mood that they pronounce 'Missouri' as 'misery'.

Stephen Stills - Colorado (Manassas, 1972)

Taken from "The Wilderness" section of Stills' sprawling Manassas project, this is at the country end of that multi-faceted album. An ode to the ideal of life in the Colorado mountains, away from "the dirt and the smog" of life on the east coast. "Dark-eyed country girl, tears in her eyes/Needs the music of the wind in the pines," Stills sings, doing his own version of John Denver's work for the Colorado tourist industry.

Bruce Springsteen - My Oklahoma Home (We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, 2006)

I know a lot of big Bruce Springsteen fans who don't like the Seeger Sessions, so far removed are they from his usual work, but I adore this album. You can practically hear the smiles on their faces throughout - few bands can have had more fun making a record than Bruce and Co. had with this. And this is one of my favourite tracks - it would have to be something this good to persuade us to take Bruce away from his native New Jersey.

Woody Guthrie - Oregon Trail (Columbia River Ballads, 1941)

In 1941, following time in New York City and Los Angeles, Woody Guthrie moved to Washington State where he was supposed to narrate documentary on the construction of the Grand Coulee Damn, but he was then dropped over fears that he was too controversial. Instead, he got a gig writing songs about the Columbia River and spent the time reeling off a whole bunch of songs about the area. He travelled through Oregon and Washington writing all the way, and this one tells the story of part of that journey.

(Kansas) - Glenn Campbell - Wichita Lineman (Wichita Lineman, 1968)

This one breaks the rules slightly on songs being about states, not cities, but its a classic, so we'll allow it. The best known example of Campbell's country-pop fusion, the song was written by Jimmy Webb after he saw a telephone lineman working along the Kansas-Oklahoma border. Let's hope for the sake of this compilation he was on the Kansas side of said border at the time...

(Minnesota) Bob Dylan With Johnny Cash - North Country Fair (Nashville Skyline, 1969)

Dylan is capable of heartbreaking beauty when he decides to write a love song. I've seen 'Boots of Spanish Leather' reduce grown men to tears, and 'North Country Fair' belongs in the same category. Based around the same old folk song that became Simon & Garfunkel's 'Scarborough Fair', Dylan first recorded the song for Freewheelin', but then revisited it with Cash when in Nashville working on Skyline. Slowing the song down and mixing up the lyrics, they gave it a raw, pained edge, which only makes the lyrics sound greater. So what has it got to do with Minnesota? The girl in question was thought to be Bonny Jean Beacher, Dylan's girlfriend from his time at the University of Minnesota.

Carl T Sprague - Utah Carroll (Utah Carroll, 1927)

Utah gave us as many problems as any other state, but we eventually came up with this, less about the state than about a cowboy named Utah.

Lyle Lovett - North Dakota (Joshua Judges Ruth, 1992)

This album saw Lovett stray away from his country roots into jazz and blues, creating a spare sound matched only by the loneliness of the lyrics to this song. Backing vocals come from Rickie Lee Jones.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

These United States of America (Part Four)

We continue our wanderings through the United States of America, with part two of the Southlands, which is my favourite bit as its nearly all country...On we go...

Josh Turner - South Carolina Low Country (Everything Is Fine, 2007)

South Carolina was one of the states for which we had absolutely nothing starting out, so we had to look this one up. We couldn't have really stumbled upon anything better for the job - because this is distinctly South Carolinan in flavour. Turner sings about his home state with genuine reverance on the closing track from his latest album, Everything Is Fine. "South Carolina low country is the music that comes out of me…" - yep, that'll do the trick nicely.

Johnny Cash - New Mexico (1955)

Johnny Cash put forward a dozen or more nominees for Tennessee and his home state of Arkansas, but ended up representing New Mexico as the only man to come forward. His story of a young cowboy seeking work is hardly an ode to the largely barren state. "It was there our pleasures ended, and our troubles, they began…" Cash intones, detailing a series of misfortunes to hit the song's narrator in the state known, apparently ironically, as the "Land of Enchantment". "To all you happy people/This much I have to say/Go back to your friends and loved ones/Tell others not to go/To the God forsaken country/They call New Mexico". Noted.

John Denver - Take Me Home Country Roads [West Virginia] (Poems, Prayers and Promises, 1971)

I always think John Denver's music is slightly too corny, and yet I can't help but like the most of it. Darn it, the melodies are too good. So how did a New Mexico native who would forever become associated with Colorado end up singing a song about his home in West Virginia? According to the story, he was, as he put it, "wired, you know" on painkillers after breaking his thumb following a gig in Washington DC when he was given a ride by local musicians Billy Danoff and Taffy Nivert. They ended up persuading Denver to help them finish a song they'd been working on, and this was the result.

Lynyrd Skynyrd - Sweet Home Alabama (Second Helping, 1974)

Yeah, there was no other choice, was there? Few songs are more intrinsically linked with a state than Sweet Home Alabama and the Yellowhammer State. Few songs have a better back story. It's a defiant slice of Southern Pride, written as a direct response to what the band saw as attacks on the region from Canadian Neil Young. According to just about every review you'll find, it was a direct response to Young's 'Southern Man', released in 1970. Indeed, the track is namechecked in the song (I hope Neil Young will remember/A Southern man don't need him around anyhow"), but the year before Skynyrd wrote this, Young had also penned the equally damning track 'Alabama' and put it out on Harvest. Perhaps that song was why Skynyrd, who hailed from Florida, chose Alabama as the setting for their response. Neil being Neil, he loved the song, and became good friends with Skynyrd. His classic song Powderfinger was one he wrote for the band, but they never recorded it. And the inspiration for great music hasn't ended there - allow me to recommend the Drive-By Truckers' account of the whole carry on, 'Ronnie and Neil' from their 2001 opus Southern Rock Opera.

The Rolling Stones - Sweet Virginia (Exile On Main Street, 1972)

The precise manner in which the Stones which to pay homage to ol' Virginny is not clear, but this is most definitely a song about drugs. It was recorded after another lengthy stint of hanging out with Gram Parsons had brought Keith Richards back to his country side. However, it seems that rumours that Parsons was part of the backing chorus are wrong, as he had already been kicked out of the Stones' French base because they wanted rid of the drug users who were attracting the attention of the French police. Irony abounds.

The Gossip - Arkansas Heat (Arkansas Heat, 2002)

There you go, I've written far too much about those last two, so here's a nice slice of punk. There's really no need to analyse punk. Just turn it up.

Kings of Leon - Arizona (Because of the Times, 2007)

The Kings of Leon have won millions of fans with their latest album, Only By The Night, but also lost several thousand who claim they've gone too far in the direction of stadium rock. I'm not one of them, but at least we can all get together and agree that Because of the Times is a stone cold classic. Give the bass an extra notch on this here closing track.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

These United States of America (Part Three)

Otis Taylor - My Soul's In Louisiana (White African, 2001)

As an aging musician who 'retired' for almost 20 years before returning in 1995, Otis Taylor doesn't have any need to beat around the bush, and his 2001 album White African addressed, among other things, the lynching of his great-grandfather and the murder of his uncle. Here, he tackles the wrongful execution of a black man accused of killing a railroad brakeman - that railroad theme expressed in the simple, driving rhythm of the song.

Nina Simone - Mississippi Goddam (Nina Simone In Concert, 1964)

Another song tackling the South's troubled past in race-relations, this was written as a response to the murder of Medgar Evans in Mississippi, as well as the infamous church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. An impassioned plea for equality, the song was later performed during civil rights marches in which Simone took part.

The Felice Brothers - T For Texas (Tonight At The Arizona, 2007)

These esteemed students of American musical history give their own take on the Jimmy Rodgers classic. Perhaps there were more, well, Texan choices for this slot, but few songs would rival the quality of this.

The Silver Jews - Tennessee (Bright Flight, 2001)

Only California could rival Tennessee for the sheer number of songs sung about it, but that is little surprise - not when everyone is recording either in Nashville or Memphis. Given so many choices, so many of them from country music royalty, we gave up trying to pick between them and instead went leftfield with this marvellous little slice of pop from the Silver Jews.

Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys - Blue Moon of Kentucky (Blue Moon of Kentucky, 1947)

If we went leftfield in Tennessee, we've played it absolutely straight just over the border in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. This is pretty much the anthem of the Bluegrass State, and, while this is the original by the man who wrote it, it was later covered by everyone from Patsy Cline to Paul McCartney via Elvis Presley.

Ray Charles - Georgia On My Mind (The Genius Hits The Road, 1960)

Written in 1930 by Hoagy Carmichael, Georgia on My Mind had to wait 30 years to become a hit, taken to those heights by Albany native Ray Charles. Nineteen years later, it was named the state's official song.

Ryan Adams - Oh My Sweet Carolina (Heartbreaker, 2000)

Jacksonville native Adams has long been fond of singing of his home state, first with Whiskeytown and later in his solo work. This is the finest of the bunch, from his first solo album, given just a little extra something special by having the great Emmylou Harris on backing vocals.