Top 10 Albums of 2012 So Far….Part 2

5. Craig Finn – Clear Heart Full Eyes

I started off on the wrong foot with this album. What to expect from a Craig Finn solo album? Would he follow his hero Springsteen and make that deep, searing Nebraska album? Or would he follow his hero Paul Westerberg and make a play at the pop charts? It’s none and it’s both. It’s Finn’s least serious, and most fun, album.

Which I guess I miss. I love the ‘important’ songs by the Hold Steady. Initially, it made this album feel slight. But maybe it’s not all about teenagers wallowing in their own doom. How can you not love the line “It’s hard to suck with Jesus in your band”?

And it’s the songs, man. The aforementioned ‘My New Friend Jesus’, the lonely ‘Rented Room’, the wonderful ‘Jackson’ and more. Finn is at his most tuneful – he’s almost singing! But it’s a fun, relaxed record – a talented writer enjoying not rocking out and making important statements. Rather he’s just singing a tune and telling a yarn.

4. fun. – Some Nights

Well, who would have thought it would all happen for Nate Ruess? Ten years, several label label deals and bands, he finally scored big with fun. It’s mainly off the back of one track, We Are Young, currently playing over your supermarket stereo. It’s a pretty good song, with a huge chorus. In fact, every song has a HUGE chorus. Once you get your head around it, it’s a lot of – well – fun.

There’s something really exciting about this album. It’s like Ruess had something to prove and he brought his A game. The second single ‘Some Nights’ is another killer. My favourite is ‘Why Am I The One?’. There’s shadows of Graceland going on here too. Big sing-alongs with world music rhythms.

Who knows where this will go. Could well be this year’s ‘Pretty. Odd’. A wonderful, one off aberration. Because after this, Ruess has nothing to prove.

We Are Young and Some Nights are probably overplayed, so here’s an acoustic version of Why Am I The One.

3. Jack White – Blunderbuss

Thank god for Jack White. When you look around at the music world, and you wonder what will last, you know you can count on Jack White. And having worn himself thin with all the collaborations, it’s great to hear his voice on it’s own.

He’s actually reined it in a bit. It’s not that far away from later White Stripes. It drifts from piano tinkering to full rock mode, but never once losing his sense of a tune and a great lyric. I mean, it’s Jack White, the guy can do it all.

It’s worth the wait for him to get it right. And he is someone else with nothing to prove. When Icky Thump was maybe trying to hard, Blunderbuss revels in it’s simplicity. It’s a directness that White hasn’t used in years, and it’s great to have it back.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3F-DBo25dzI

2. The Shins – Port Of Morrow

He fired the whole band, and then started again. This album could have been anything. And guess what? It’s a friggin perfect album. Every track is a highlight.

It’s ever slightly more pop than ever before, but in some weird brittle 80s way. Songs like ‘No Way Down’ or ‘Fall Of ‘82’ are so pop. Then there’s the beautiful ballads – ‘It’s Only Life’ or ’40 Mark Strasse’. And some mid tempo rockers. It’s standard operating procedure for the Shins.

They haven’t reinvented the wheel but the wheel is so good, and I’m back on the ride.

1. Joel Plaskett Emergency – Scrappy Happiness

After a crazy, schizo triple album, it’s weird to get just ten songs for a Joel Plaskett album. But it’s so clear what he’s doing – making a fun guitar rock album. It’s been a long time since he’s been so fiery with his guitar. His lyrics and his voice are the best they’ve ever been. And the songs are stunning.

The album hangs off the rockiest rockers – all six-and-a-half minutes of Lightning Bolt, he’s best ever song and his masterpiece. You’re Mine, North Star and Tough Love are about as heavy and powerful as Plaskett’s ever gotten. It’s music that illicits a physical reacton – writing about it here feels odd.

There’s lovely slower songs that break it up. Each of them are lovely. But I can’t get over the rockers. And after all this time, I’m still enthralled by a fucking fun, sparkly, heavy rock record. Some things might never change.

Top 10 Albums of 2012 So Far….Part 1

Here’s 10-6. The rest later.

10. Loudon Wainwright III – Older Than My Old Man Now

I have loved the last two LW3 albums – (“High Wide And Handsome” and “Songs For the New Depression”). In his later years, he has made thematic albums, and this time, to honour him being older than his father when he died, it’s about age. 15 songs all about getting older – either wanting life to last twice as long (‘Double Lifetime’), being nostalgic for sex (‘I Remember Sex’) or time travel (‘Date Line’) – it’s amazing that he picked a theme this time that gives and gives.

It’s his usual mix. A couple of witty and clever numbers, then a couple of jaw dropping songs of stark directness. ‘FCC – in C’ is my favourite of the lot. He even rocks out a little on ‘The Here And Now’. But mainly it’s his love of folk, bluegrass and since ‘High Wide And Handsome’ that banjo.

9. Lightships – Electric Cables

Lightships is Gerald Love of Teenage Fanclub. It’s his first solo record, and on his own, it’s pretty clear what he brings to his day job. It’s VERY pretty. Very twinkly. It’s close to Belle & Sebastian in many moments – or Real Estate. It’s dreamy, jangly pop or the Sarah Records variety. It sounds a little like a throwback to the British jangly 80s, but it’s warm and lovely in a modern way.

It’s a confident debut. Every note, every guitar line, every harmony is perfectly placed. It takes it time. On first listen it sounds a bit samey (it’s broken up nicely on vinyl) – but go for a walk in the sun with it. Especially by the water. It’s quiet and medative, bit it’s deep and interesting too. The vocals are lightly buried in the wall of jangly guitars – it’s an album about sound.

But some moments do threaten to break free of it’s relaxed mood – the stunning ‘Sweetness In Her Spark’ is a sure bet for the end of year playlist.

8. Regina Spektor – What We Saw From The Cheap Seats

This is at 8 because I feel like I’m still getting to know this album. And maybe because it’s not the knock-out Regina Spektor album that I keep waiting for. The single ‘All The Rowboats’ was a bit of a dummy pass. That restless, relentless single is unlike the rest of the album. Stripping away the production excesses of “Far”, there are plenty of Regina and piano moments here. She lets her voice and her songs shine through.

Pretty moments shine through on first listens. ‘How’ is breathtaking – the kind of ballad that would have probably been boring in other hands. There’s some touching intimacy, such as ‘Firewood’. And then just when it all gets a bit serious and well crafted, there’s ‘Rowboats’ and the brilliant, brilliant ‘Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)’. I mean, just calling a song that is a risky move – how could anything beat the Brel song? But it’s a bit of pure pop bliss.

It’s not as good as Begin To Hope – something has been lost. But it’s a solid yet eclectic album. I can’t wait to get to know it better.

7. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball

This album has like 7 or 8 of the best songs I’ve heard all year. None of them sound like they’re from the same album. And then a couple of the worse songs I’ve heard all year as well. And that’s Springsteen for ya. He attempts to reach the heights few others do – and he’s willing to risk failing by doing it. So, we have another late era, wildly inconsistent album by the boss. But still full of lyrical fire and rock ‘n’ roll power.

I find this album rattling around in my head all the time. Those thundering moments – the chorus of ‘Shackled And Drawn’, the cry of ‘Easy Money’ and the title track itself. There’s a folky feel to the rockers – like a strng band giving it all. He’s lost little of his fire over the years

Then there’s a couple of wonderful songs about spooky suburbia. ‘Jack Of All Trades’ is probably his best character study since ‘Devils And Dust’. ‘You’ve Got It’ is a man that is not afraid to look you in the eye and tell it to you straight. Great songs by a man who is still pumping out great songs, 40 years into his career.

Then why the fuck is there crap like the hip hop fusion of ‘Rocky Ground’? This album is all over the place. But hey, great in the iPod era – great when you shuffle through a 2012 playlist. Can you fault the man for trying? Maybe just 6 places you can.

6. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls

OK, so first of all, terrible album title. And cover. It’s enough to put me off trying this band out, despite all the great notices they’ve been getting from folks I respect. But I’m glad I did. This is a soulful rock record. I’ve been obsessed by the Stones of late, and the Alabama Shakes have been occupying the same place in my ears and heart.

Brittany Howard’s voice. What an instrument. You just know this voice will be with us for a couple of decades. But it’s not just Brittany’s show. The band are firing on all cylinders here. Tasteful but all over the place. Simple but rocking hard. It’s one for the riff heads – the guitar playing is extraordinary.

The band have some sort of hazy ‘save me’ sort of thing going on. It’s very gospel – which suits their sound. It’s not the most lyrically compelling moment – but hopefully that will come. But it’s rock ‘n’ soul – and something new as well. Finally some swing is back – and for once, I’m not alone in thinking this is a good thing.

A Quick Site Update

A quick update regarding the site. Plenty of half finished blogs on various records that I will finish soon, but right now the site is taking a small break. I will however post a top 10 albums and movies for the year so far at the end of June.

There’s also a new digital project on the boil…. To be announced soon.

Continuous Hit Music: R.E.M. – Out Of Time

Continuous Hit Music – a weekly exploration of vinyl finds in 2012. Read ‘em all here

Artist: R.E.M.
Title: Out Of Time
Original Release: 1991
Label: Warner Bros
Store: Peter Forsyth Auditorium, Glebe
Price: $15
(Original US pressing)

The early 90s was a bad time for vinyl. It was probably the worse time. Vinyl was forgotten. Cassette hung in there, but it was all about the CD. Many of the biggest albums of the era never saw a vinyl release. Lots have been reissued, but finding an album from the 90s is a pretty good find. And as I said in my last post, my day at Glebe Record Fair descended into a 90s day.

R.E.M.‘s Out Of Time is, of course, one of those biggest albums of the 90s. 18 million copies! That’s a crazy figure. It propelled the most beloved indie band in America to one of the biggest rock bands in the world. For many, R.E.M. would never be the same, or ever as good. Not for me, as I think a lot of their best work is still to come.

So here’s the thing I want to say about Out Of Time. It’s actually a bit of a weird record isn’t it? I think of it as one of the weakest R.E.M. albums. Second album into their Warner deal, it feels like they had no idea what they were doing, and they were trying everything.

It opens with a rap song featuring KRS-One. “Shiny Happy People” has three singers. There’s an instrumental. A total of 22 people play on the record. No two songs sound the same.

Sometimes that can be ok, a bit of diversity. But R.E.M.‘s best work is when the four diverse heads come together. Their best albums are of a single piece (the murky power pop of Murmur, the mortal folk of Automatic For The People, the cold electronics of Up, the fiery straight rock of Document and Accelerate). Their weakest are when they try to do too much in one go (Around the Sun, Reveal).

Some of their best songs are on this record. “Losing My Religion“, a song that will live on after R.E.M. are forgotten (in a few centuries time). “Country Feedback“, a fan favourite that is a live staple. “Near Wild Heaven“, “Low“, and more. There is just something really scattered and unfocused about the record. And even I’ve grown tired of “Shiny Happy People“.

My point is this. Out Of Time is the album that made R.E.M. into stars. And for every record after that, they tried to match it. Out Of Time became the one to beat. And it really shouldn’t have been. It obscured the rest of their career, and it’s a shame.

I’m still happy to own this album. R.E.M.‘s 90s vinyl is still rare. The 80s stuff has been reissued now. Last years celebration of 1991 missed out on this album, but one day these guys will look back and I will probably see this on record everywhere.

Continuous Hit Music: Franz Ferdinand – Tonight: Franz Ferdinand

Continuous Hit Music – a weekly exploration of vinyl finds in 2012. Read ‘em all here

Artist: Franz Ferdinand
Title: Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
Original Release: 2009
Label: Domino
Store: Peter Forsyth Auditorium, Glebe
Price: $22.50
(Original UK pressing)

Glebe Record Fair. It happens twice a year, and it’s the biggest record fair in Sydney. It’s been going for as long as I remember, and I’ve gone every time it’s on (and I’m in town) for over a decade.

I started this journey of trying to not only expand my vinyl collection, but write about. Knowing full well that my feelings about it all will change over the course of the year. And it’s true, standing at Glebe Record Fair, I realised some of things I hate about vinyl.

First of all there’s a LOT of crap. And it’s the same crap over and over. The Beatles. The goddamn Beatles. It’s like every second bit of vinyl ever pressed was a Beatles album. And people still buy them! Who are these people? I would be surprised if at that record fair, there was less than 200 copies of Abbey Road in there.

It’s also a nostalgia fest. I’ve been trying to hunt down a fair bit of 80s indie, 90s alternative, or weird new things. And those boxes usually have no one thumbing through them. But the same old Led Zeppelin, Stones, Beatles and classic rock stuff – people line up to go through those boxes.

I didn’t get much that day. Only two records from that day will be written about. I decided after a bit of a wander that I am going to concentrate on the 90s stuff and later. I found a couple from Pacific Records, a former store that has become an eBay store. However, they are re-opening in Dee Why and I’m sure I’ll get out there and write about the store. They were having a half price sale as well.

The record. Tonight: Franz Ferdinand. This record is just three years old, and I loved it when it first came out. But I’ve fallen more in love with it in those three years. It is a loose, trashy party album. It is a perfect album to go walking to, or to get dressed to. In my mind, it’s better than their debut.

The big songs (at least in the UK) were “Ulysses” and “No You Girls“, both amongst the greatest guitar driven dance songs I’ve ever heard. The record never gets boring, and ends with the tender acoustic “Katherine Kiss Me“, perhaps the most direct thing they’ve ever done.

New release vinyl is going through a golden period. This album is generously split over two records, allowing the sound of each track some real space on the album. The sticker with the album name is over the shrinkwrap, leaving a lovely clean image of the cover. It’s a thick sturdy package – a real treat.

There’s one more Glebe Record Fair this year. Let’s see if I do any better at that one.

Continuous Hit Music: Creedence Clearwater Revival – Cosmo’s Factory

Continuous Hit Music – a weekly exploration of vinyl finds in 2012. Read ‘em all here

Artist: Creedence Clearwater Revival
Title: Cosmo’s Factory
Original Release: 1970
Label: Liberty
Store: Pigeon Ground, 102 Salisbury Road, Camperdown, Sydney
Price: $8
(Original AU pressing)

Pigeon Ground is a hidden treasure. It’s been there as long as I can remember. On this little road with no other shops around. This little shop that was rarely opened, that sold oldwares, second hand clothes and some records. They have a pretty big selection of secondhand stuff – focussing on soundtracks, fuck and soul. But plenty of pop rock too. They also have a new section, all imports, focussing on the beat records – be it Ramones or Gil Scott Heron. In short it’s a very cool store. I feel like a loser just walking in. I feel like I should own more film soundtracks or something.

A visit to Pigeon Ground is always an event. You’re never just ‘in the area’. It’s on the way to Newtown, so a quick stop isn’t hard. But there is no other reason to stop. You park on some odd suburban street and you make your way into the shop.

There’s always something to find at Pigeon Ground. I could walk away with half the shop. This week I decided I needed to stock up on my Creedence vinyl, having recently seen John Fogerty in concert. For $8, and in good condition, I was pretty happy to find Cosmo’s Factory.

Fogerty‘s recent Australian tour had a neat gimmick. Depending on your town, you got either Green River or Cosmo’s Factory in full. The Sydney show was Green River, which was great, because I love Green River. I hung off every note, and in order. Cosmo’s Factory though – that was a suprise for me. I’ve never really spent time with it as an album.

It’s one of the longest CCR albums. And it has lots of hits – 6 that charted here – including ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain‘, ‘Looking Out My Back Door‘, ‘Up Around the Bend‘ and more. Having spent more time with it, it’s pretty great. It’s rounded out by a number of solid rockers, a couple of cool covers and all the good things about a CCR album.

Hidden at the end of the record is one of Fogerty‘s best, and my second favourite Creedence song – ‘Long As I Can See the Light‘ (the first being ‘Wrote A Song For Everyone‘). A slow, soulful ballad that’s pitched at the very top of Fogerty‘s range, it’s a sombre end to a pretty good-time album.

This is an Australian pressing on Liberty Records. It has an excellent old ASSN Gold Record Award sticker on the bottom left. The artwork print is awful, but the record sounds pretty damn good.

Continuous Hit Music: Laura Nyro – Eli And the Thirteenth Confession

Continuous Hit Music – a weekly exploration of vinyl finds in 2012. Read ‘em all here

Artist: Laura Nyro
Title: Eli And the Thirteenth Confession
Original Release: 1968
Label: Columbia/Sony Legacy
Store: Red Eye Records, 143 York Street, Sydney.
Price: $36.98
(US reissue)

Red Eye Records in Sydney is an institution. It is by far the best record shop in Sydney. It used to be one of many, but as physical retail died off in the last few years, Red Eye was the one to survive. It’s my go-to for all my vinyl new releases. I love the staff, and they’re always good for a tip. The years have not been kind and it’s recently moved to a new smaller location. But it is still the best we have and I try to support it when I can.

And where else would you find an album as glorious as this one? Laura Nyro. Just typing those words fill me with music happiness.

Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of the 70s girls again. It happens every so often. Carole King‘s Tapestry, Joni Mitchell‘s Blue, etc. And this, Eli And the Thirteenth Confession, is perhaps the best of the lot. It’s overflowing with melody, of joy, of heart. Her tremendous voice soars, over her own piano led songs. And she’s terribly quirky. The albums flows in and out of hazy madness.

I hear her in the music of others. Most famously, Todd Rundgren‘s whole Something Anything album was a double record tribute to her. Regina Spektor‘s sound and restless muse gained her many Nyro comparisons. Most excellently, a whole episode of Sports Night was devoted to the spookiness of the song ‘Eli’s Comin‘ (later covered by Three Dog Night).

My favourite track is ‘Sweet Blindess‘. It’s the perfect drinking song – capturing the heady stops and starts of a night of getting on it, with trumpets whirling away in the back somewhere. But every song here is a classic.

This album was hard to find for many years. It was only available on expensive import for ages. And there was never a hit on this album, and Nyro still lacks a great one disc best of. She remains obscure – yet in her day she was a minor pop star. I guess in the long run, it’s maybe good to seel out and write that pop hit – just once. To pay the rent. She died in 1996, in obscurity.

The new vinyl reissue of this album is one of the prettiest I’ve seen. It doesn’t come in a fancy box, it’s just a well made standard copy. The record is hefty and sounds perfect – especially for an album where the detail is in the sound. The sleeve is sturdy, and has a neat trick. The liner notes fold outside of the back, bends over the cover and has the title and artist name. Lifting out the insert leaves that album image clean of all text. A really neat trick, and I wonder if it’s on the original. It’s all topped off by a black inner bag – a great small touch. Well done, Sony.

Random bits of writing around the web

I’ve been doing a bit of writing for other blogs in the last couple of months. Now, you can enjoy them here.

A Rational Fear – Searching For My Favourite Bland…
A sort of rant talking about band names.

MAX – Live Review: John Fogerty
Just like it says on the box, on the website for the MAX channel.

The In Sound From Way Out – Cheer up Sleepy Jean and Goodbye Davy Jones
A personal goodbye to one of my faves.

The In Sound From Way Out – Nada Surf exclusive album stream – “The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy”
An introduction to the new Nada Surf album stream for EMI Australia’s blog.

The In Sound From Way Out – Blur at the Brit Awards
A quickly written piece after watching Blur at this year’s Brit Awards.

Continuous Hit Music: Silver Jews – American Water

Continuous Hit Music – a weekly exploration of vinyl finds in 2012. Read ‘em all here

Artist: Silver Jews
Title: American Water
Original Release: 1998
Label: Drag City
Store: Big Star Records, 160 Magil Rd, Norwood, Adelaide
Price: $15.00

Big Star records is an Adelaide institution. Every major city in Australia had their premiere indie record shop. Adelaide’s was Big Star. It is, of course, named after the the great rock band (before that rock band got quite famous), and they would sell t-shirts and have stickers that recreated the logo from Big Star’s #1 Record. I would wear my short overseas and people would think it’s the band.

In the last 10 years, CD and physical retail has taken a blow, and taken many of this country’s great record shops with them. Big Star in Adelaide closed their city store. However, the original store in Norwood, a little corner shop really, still exists. It’s not far from the city, and Norwood is a pretty cool hub these days.

There’s not a huge selection, but there’s plenty of new indie CDs and box sets, etc. Whereas a shop like Canberra’s Landspeed has expanded to t-shirts and merch, Big Star is all about – or just about – the music. There are small new and used vinyl collection – with some collectables. There wasn’t much, but I assume with the record fair and so many tourists in town, maybe the shelves were cleared before I got there.

What was on the shelf was a new copy of American Water by the Silver Jews. Quick check on the Drag City website shows it’s currently in print. I assume this is just evergreen stock for Big Star. This record, I assume, was one of their biggest sellers at a time. This almost totally forgotten record.

This album was pretty big news when it came out. It was the Pavement angle – Stephen Malkmus plays on this record, and with other members of Pavement on previous Silver Jews albums. The last Pavement album, Brighten the Corners, was so good, that people bought whatever Malkmus did next. I certainly did. I just wanted to head back into the world that Brighten the Corners had brought me into. With some added David Berman.

It seemed like, for a whole year, everyone listened to this album. Both Youth Group’s Toby Martin and Soap Star Joe covered songs from it immediately (Random Rules and Honk If You’re Lonely Tonight respectively). Pitchfork gave it 10 out of 10. In a couple of years, the whole idea of what indie music was would change overnight. Until that day, this was one of the most loved and popular American indie records of the 90s.

The vinyl package doesn’t bring much to the party. A lyric sheet insert and a label that recreates the disc art. It was never a album with a great package anyway. But it’s a lovely vinyl record. It’s short and sweet and full of ideas. It’s a very lovable little album.

And I love it too. It’s one of those albums I know by heart. The weird lyrical asides, the catchy and dissonant guitars that slink over the songs. Then there was Berman, part hopeless romantic, part beat poet, with that deep Stephen Merritt voice. You’d think that this album would have propelled them to the next level, but Berman wasn’t really a star. Three more albums followed, but his method of indie rock fell out of style. Silver Jews broke up in 2009.

Continuous Hit Music: The Damnwells – No One Listens To the Band Anymore

Continuous Hit Music – a weekly exploration of vinyl finds in 2012. Read ‘em all here

Artist: The Damnwells
Title: No One Listens to the Band Anymore
Original Release: 2011
Label: Clifton Motel
Store: Clifton Motel Website
Price: $11.99 US
(Original US pressing)

Sometimes the only way to get an album on vinyl is from the band directly. The Damnwells made my favourite album of last year, and it’s not even available on iTunes in Australia. So I coughed up the dough, and bought the last two albums by the Damnwells on vinyl for a bargain $12 Us each, plus postage. Bargain!

Even better, the vinyl is coloured. Sure, it doesn’t really mean anything in terms of sound, but it is occasionally pretty. On the other hand, the cheap cost meant that the package as a whole seems a bit filmsy. The artwork is pretty bare. But hey, the record still sounds pretty good, an the songs are fantastic.

It’s a silly thing, but it’s fun to take an album you’ve known and loved on CD or mp3, and discover where the side 1/side 2 gap. And to own the big artwork. And to get it in the mail or at a shop and just be filled with excitement. Because you love the music on here, but now you have it in your hands, and you’re about to enjoy it all over again.

For the last few years, I’ve always tried my best to at least get my top 10 albums of the year on vinyl. It’s not always easy, but seems to be getting easier with the internet. Just order them. It’s only ever the Australian bands who don’t make vinyl.

I know many won’t care about this band. If you’re eager to have a listen, I suggest Werewolves, the title track, the Great Unknown and … well any of them really.

It’s a few months into 2012 and I still happily spin this record every so often. The songs get better with repeated listens. New snippets of lyrics wash over. New guitar lines stick out. This is such a perfect record, and perfect records live on repeat listens. I’m looking forward to repeat listens for many years to come.