Anyhow, this year I want to make it brief, even though volume wise I probably heard and thought about music much more than in recent memory. (Things have been going well in my attempt to stop my ridiculous under-listening habits of yore.) When reflecting over the year, I can think of three artists that define it for me, and all three seem to have a devoted underground following, but next to no "mainstream" recognition, which I use to include the roughly-agreed-upon canon of alternative rock music. I speak of John Prine, Sparks, and Ween. As coincidences go, it turns out that I have only three albums from each of them, but they are of more than sufficient quality for them to have worked their way into my personal list of greats. I've found their music gripping pretty much the whole way through, which happens rarely.
I think John Prine amazed me the most, because he is a stunning talent in a field I thought I knew quite well (the broad umbrella of singer-songwriter). The genre is known for its occasional excesses and overambition, yet Prine, by seemingly working within its most modest of settings, manages to create some of the most endearing music I've heard to date. (In any genre, might I add; while I dislike high praise in general, I really can't deny that I've felt this for nearly a year now.) What I find interesting about Prine's music is that the lyrics never fall into the trap of equating good songwriting with good poetry. Needless to say, they remain resonant nonetheless; all delivered with simple melodies, very hummable, but never frivolous. Songwriting wasn't meant to live on the page (not exclusively, anyway) - though it sounds trite, it is meant to be sung, to project words and give them meaning with melody and cadence. Several times, lines from songs resonate not just because they are a clever turn of phrase, but because they are accompanied by something memorable in the music - be it the melody, or even just the delivery. Prine's songs are masterful examples of these. I'd like to describe the music as "honest", although I'm not sure I can explain what that really means. I suspect that it's just a way to say that the music has Quality. Not something that you can actively achieve in music, but it seems that for his first three albums, Prine had this completely nailed down. It begins with the debut, of course - what an album! More high praise - to date, it's easily one of the most "mature" debuts I've heard. Wisdom is one part of it, but like I discussed with the lyrics above, it's also a matter of knowing what one's strengths are, and sticking to that. Like a couple of other great albums, it begins in the most gentle and welcoming way possible ("Illegal Smile"), rather than trying to floor you immediately with greatness. The greatness in this case is simply the endless stream of classic songs, with lines that resonate far longer than you might imagine the first time around. My final praise - it is one of those albums I wish I could hear again for the first time. (I've turned into one of those sycophantic reviewers, haven't I?!)
Of the three, maybe Sparks are the ones whose lack of success is the most puzzling. Prine we can sort of excuse because he was so without ostentation in a time that seemed to demand it (glam rock, etc.). And Ween, well they came out in the 90s, and, er, of course, their first song was called "You ****ed Up". But the success of Roxy Music and Queen suggests that the world was more than ready for Sparks. (Incidentally, I found it frustrating reading reviews of Kimono that accused them of being Roxy rip-offs.) Three years is a long time in music, agreed, but I don't quite see what changed from '71 to '73. Regardless, they seem immediately like one of those bands that can't possibly make a bad album (I've read that that's not true, but I hope my meaning is clear). The voice is the first element that grabs interest - while Kimono and Woofer are still fine showcases of it, it's the debut where it most powerful. My initial listens of Sparks were downright baffling; here was this remarkable voice, and it was put to the test in the craziest of songs. And the lyrics, far some being obscure and unsettling, which would fit in fairly naturally with the song structures, are consistently hilarious. Who can compete with Sparks for humour? TMBG, who I believe cite the band as being a big inspiration? Randy Newman, perhaps; but even he probably didn't have it in him to write "Here Comes Bob" (that song, man...seriously!). But the last ingredient is that the songs are simply melodic, which is one thing that prevents Sparks from being another difficult or unrewarding experimental band that is hard to get into. Indeed, while I disliked Kimono initially, I found myself unable to deny the very strong and consistent set of melodies that Ron writes with seeming ease. When all these things are combined consistently, it makes for some rather endearing music. You can't just shelve it as quirky, experimental, or listenable. It is all those things, plus enjoyable - can you ask for more?
I very recently expressed pure admiration for Ween, and I find myself often feeling like I should write more words of praise for Dean & Gene. I think part of the reason is that, of all decades, they started in the '90s - trends and times were not on their side, but talent sure was. It seems to me that there have been a number of "retro" groups since (and possibly before), although few display Ween's command of both breadth and depth. (My limited understanding is that most retro groups focus on '60s psychedelia or pop.) There is the backstory that GodWeenSatan consisted of selections from hundreds (thousands?) of hours' worth of tapes that they had recorded through their teens. It makes me wish I had the opportunity to spend hours on end putting the thoughts in my head on tape - would such rigorous practice create a songwriter out of me yet?! It clearly paid off for Ween, and I feel that they'll probably end up being one of my favourites from the '90s. Like Sparks, the one thing you can't deny is Ween are melodic, ridiculously so - without this crucial fact, their homages (or parodies, if you like - though I think that's extremely unfair) would not be worth very much. Indeed, I'd wager that this is essentially what will convert most people to the group, once the initial shock wears off. Can it really be the case that a duo that seems to embody the worst type of frat humour is capable of writing better 'tunes that hordes of more earnest competition? I think the surprising answer is yes.
(All this praise, but I must still admit - I'm still a bit scared of The Pod and its brothers.)
Aside from the holy trinity of '08, I think that Warren Zevon impressed me the most. When I purchased his debut, I really paid it very little mind, and was prepared for a pleasant distraction. Which is indeed what I first found, and how I shelved the album after a few listens. But something made me go back to it, and I became convinced that people who wrote good things about Zevon weren't just buying into the image - the classic artist troubled with personal demons, in this case alcohol the major one, who creates art from strife - he really does have something meaningful to convey. He seems to have a nice balance of the serious and the sweet -his ballads are really quite wonderful, and unabashedly set in the classic style of the love song. They also seem to be littered with great lines ("Time out of mind", which, knowing Dylan, probably inspired that famous album). (Also, if it helps, did you know he was tutored by Stravinsky?)
And finally - let me write very briefly about them classical tunes, which I surprisingly managed to stay interested in the year through. At the start of the year, Pyotr Ilyich's Piano Concerto No. 1 gave me hope in two things: that the genre clearly had something grand to convey, and that there was a chance that I would end up appreciating at least a bit of it. I spent the year searching for something similar, that I would immediately respond to. In hindsight, that's probably a bit too impulsive; and heck, that doesn't even work with popular song, so there's no reason to assume . But, all that being said, there were two other pieces that I liked more and more with each listen: Schubert's Unfinished, and Holst's The Planets. The former, what can I say, immediately gripping and a piece I cannot imagine even a complete neophyte not liking. And the latter, well - if my foray into the classical world only ends up introducing me to this, I'll have little cause for complaint. I dislike the overuse of words like transcendent, because it ought to be reserved for pieces like this.
And what of the year ahead? Hmm. Funkadelic, Zappa, and Drake? And you know, I might get around to finally hearing some indie classics that I've constantly denigrated without listening to them (I defend this most of the time - I only do this if there are sufficient warning signs). Most of all, I hope I can continue revising my stance on various issues related to music (such as my revelation about the place of lyrics this year), in hopes of becoming a more discerning listener.