Next up in my reviews of the year is the year in music. Spotify, which clearly is keeping a watchful eye on me, has passed on the information that I listened to 4,535 different songs over 2019. I’m not quite sure whether this is too many, average, or less than I would listen to when radio was the means by which I discovered music new and old. Undoubtedly Spotify offers unlimited opportunity for adventure. It is one of our great cultural institutions. Anyway, here is a selection of music from today and yesterday that I enjoyed over 2019.
I wrote back in March of my amazement at discovering American country singer Iris Dement’s 2015 album The Trackless Woods, her conversions into song of poems by the Russian writer Anna Akhmatova. What looked like it would be an earnest misjudgement turned out to be transcendent – an album of stark, beautiful songs quite unlike anything I had come across before. It instantly became one of my all time favourite CDs, the perfect marriage of form and feeling. It’s not on Spotify, by Dement has put the entire album on YouTube. The heartfelt, resigned ‘The Souls of All My Dears’ is the standout song.
It was while watching a documentary on 1970s British pop music for a film restoration award I was judging that I spotted Linda Lewis. Goodness, I remember her. She was always around at the time, sang some catchy light stuff on Top of the Pops. Can’t remember it now. I wonder what the rest of her music sounds like? And so, belatedly, I discovered the marvellous early work of singer-songwriter Linda Lewis, British soul folkie, still going strong today. Her later stuff is too uneven and prone to formula for my taste, but when she started out she sounded like a coming together of the young Joni Mitchell and Minnie Riperton, with an amazing voice and an original touch to everything she did. Her 1972 album Lark is her best – an engaging, adroit mixture of folk, jazz, soul and pop.
What’s my album of 2019? It’s probably this collaboration between experimental guitarist Mary Halvorson – a firm favourite – and multi-instrumentalist John Dieterich. It is played with such zest and love of music, exemplified by this mad dance piece. But the whole album is a model exercise of combining musical freedom with fun.
Another firm favourite is T-Bone Burnett. Best known for his work with Bob Dylan, film music (O Brother Where Art Thou) and production skills, his career as a performer is less heralded. Having started out producing fairly conventional rock, he has become progressively avant garde, moving from Americana laced with some heavy duty lyrics, to near-abstract mystery. His 2019 album, The Invisible Light / Acoustic Space, made with experimentalists Jay Bellerose and Keefus Ciancia is all beats and doom. It is every bit as challenging as late Scott Walker, music at the end of its tether. The hypnotic, almost melodic ‘Anti Cyclone’ offers some relief.
Kenyan singer-songwriter J.S. Ondara is going to be star soon enough. He says that Bob Dylan is his great musical influence. His 2019 debut album Tales of America is closer to David Gray than Bob, but he sounds just a breath away from producing his own ‘Babylon’. ‘Lebanon’ comes close.
I am, as should be clear, somewhat partial to instrumental guitar music, particularly where it lurks on the wilder side of things. C. Joynes combines folk with the experimental in consistently interesting ways. 2019’s The Bormaetz Tree, a collaboration with The Furlong Bray, sounds like world music that refuses to be tied down to any one country.
A CD I have had on repeat play for some while now is Swedish guitarist Mats Bergström‘s 2013 album Dadodado. He is a classical guitarist, expert across the repertoire, but with a rebellious streak that comes out this solo work. ‘Sång för Alice’ is as delightful and calming a piece of guitar music as you could hope to hear, but the rest of Dadodado breaks free in all manner of unexpected directions.
RIP Oliver Mtukudzi, Zimbabwean great, who died in January, aged only sixty-six. He produced music of great humanity and exquisite tunefulness.
Another year, another album from the prodigiously prolific American jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas, to whose music I am devoted. Devotion, made by pianist Uri Caine and drummer Andrew Cyrille, exemplifies all that is good in jazz – the thoughtful working out of ideas that the attentive listener can never tire of exploring along with the musicians.
Back in 1979 – the golden year for music, you will just have to take my word for it – I came across the music of L. Voag (real name Jim Welton), bass guitarist with an inventive new wave band The Homosexuals. His solo album The Way Out was entirely out on its own. As Welton put it, “what if we lived in a world where the music of the avant-gardists (Stockhausen, Oliveros, Henry) provided the best-selling, chart-topping pabulum of the day, while pop music (as we know it) was an obscure, nigh impenetrable, elitist niche product?” I don’t why I forgot about this record for forty years, I don’t know why I got rid of my copy years ago now – all I know is that rediscovering it entirely by accident on Spotify brought such joy of recognition. The mysterious, beautiful ‘Bedroom’ (several songs on the album are named after rooms) indicates what to expect, while of course not sounding like anything else on this gloriously eclectic work.
I continue to discover American country, which is so much more varied and engaging that the Ken Burns documentary series with Peter Coyote’s portentous commentary might suggest. Gene Clark and Doug Dillard’s work together over two albums in the later 60s is exhilarating. Their second album, Through the Morning, Through the Night, is generally described as a disappointing failure after the peerless The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, but I could listen to their take on bluegrass classic ‘You’re No Longer a Sweetheart of Mine’ for hours. And have.
I could never quite fathom what it was about Harry Nilsson that so entranced people in his heyday yet sounds so inconsequential now. He could pen a catchy tune seemingly without effort, and knew a thing or two about arrangements, but for every poignant ballad there was something daft about coconuts or puppies. But he had an uncommon ear for someone else’s overlooked song that he could make into his own (‘Everybody’s Talkin”, ‘Without You’). Country musician Jesse Lee Kincaid’s ‘She Sang Hymns Out of Tune’, in Nilsson’s hands, has an eternal wistfulness about it, living up to its entrancing title.
Blaze Foley was the archetypal doom-laden country singer from the left side of the tracks. Little known in his lifetime, he was shot dead in 1989, since when his legend as a troubled but romantic loser has grown, not least on the strength of this compelling number. A lifetime of failed escape is bundled up into three minutes.
How have I gone on for so long cherishing African music of every genre, land and people, and not listened to Fela Kuti? Well, OK, I did once or twice, early on, yet for some perverse reason choose not to explore further. I have been making up for this over the past month or so, open-mouthed with admiration. This is the real stuff. Here’s the perfect groove, an instrumental from 1977.
A recent guitarist discovery for me is the American Bill MacKay. He blends the melodic with the experimental in a most beguiling way. This track, ‘Wail’, from 2017, starts sweetly but undemonstratively before worming its way into you.
OK, it’s time for Bob. He’s had a quiet year. Just the couple of ‘bootleg’ albums bringing insight into how he developed songs into their indelible forms, plus a peculiar Martin Scorsese documentary with unnecessary fake elements, Rolling Thunder Revue (which I puzzled over back in June). His latest bootleg set, Travelin’ Thru, 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 15, has a few too many throwaway duets with Johnny Cash for my taste, but this surprise rethinking of Nashville Skyline‘s ‘Tell Me It Isn’t True’ is such fun. He must have multiple versions of his songs running through his head at any one time. and it is almost a lottery what actually gets committed to desk. There is a infinite number of Bob Dylans out there, all different, all reaching the same heights.
Some of the best music Dylan made just after teaming with Johnny Cash was in 1971, when he collaborated with folkie Happy Traum, whose guitar manuals would go on to help thousands stretch their fingers to form that first chord. His 1987 version of the American traditional song ‘Delia’s Gone’ is the best single recording I heard all year, maybe among the best I have ever heard. What could surpass this? It has all of the sweetness and sorrow that a ballad can possess.
And finally, for this time of year, set aside that Phil Spector collection, and listen to jazz composer Carla Bley’s Carla’s Christmas Carols, the festive album against which no other can hope to compare. Season’s greetings and peaceful thoughts to all.