Up next in my review of the year is music. As with most years, I listened to a great deal: exploring the new; uncovering former favourites not heard in a long time to see if they stood up well; trying out the new recordings of established favourites, sometimes up to standard, sometimes needing more listens before I accept them; fixating on a few new discoveries whose songs have now become a part of me. Some of whom are below.
My great discovery of the year has been Chris Smither. He’s an American singer-songwriter who has been making music for six decades while never really escaping from the fringes. Partly this was down to personal problems when he ought to have been at his musical peak, partly he writes the kind of songs that don’t always hook you in the first time – thoughtful, wordy, considered in style, requiring some effort. But once you are hooked there so much that is so good to explore. The songs have a wry world-weariness about them that makes the listener smile and sigh at the same time. For me his best record is Live As I’ll Ever Be, a 2000 live collection of some of his finest songs, most of which surpass the original versions. ‘Winsome Smile’ is my favourite among a superlative selection. Just listen to the thumping heartbeat of his guitar playing…
My new album of the year comes from guitar-drum duo Bill Orcutt and Chris Corsano, Made Out of Sound. Orcutt is a former indie band musician turned experimental guitarist with a unique cutting yet hypnotic tone. His delicate album Odds Against Tomorrow was one of my favourites of last year. Made Out of Sound goes back to his noisy roots, lashing out in inspired combination with drummer Corsano to create the kind of wild sounds that I find uplifting and sends others running out of the room.
Running a close second to Orcutt and Corsano in my 2021 choices is Uneasy, by jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, drummer Tyshawn Storey and bassist Linda Oh, the latter a personal favourite for her work with Dave Douglas and some inspired solo outings. It’s the kind of introspective, explorative jazz that doesn’t let the attentive listener rest for a second, such is its subtlety and adventure. Had I been less apprehensive of theatrical events in these Covid times, they were to be seen recently at this year’s London Jazz Festival. Ah me. One of the year’s regrets.
Can I have an equal-second favourite album (if album is what we’re still calling these things)? Of course I can – it’s my list, my blog. So thumbs up to American soul singer Valerie June, whose record The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers gains no prizes for its title, but is magic to the ears. Almost literally so – there’s a haunting quality to her voice that sends you to the Moon, or the stars. Maybe not such a bad title after all.
How about single recording of the year? I can’t say that I listened to Marianne Faithfull’s ‘The Lady of Shallot’ as often as I did other songs (see below), but it’s not that sort of recording. It comes from an album of her recitations of poems to quiet music. Not to everyone’s taste, but her treatment of Tennyson rescues it from musty Victoriana to the darkly romantic impact the poet always wanted it to have.
The song I actually listened to the most (thank you for the stats, Spotify) comes from 1982. Dave Edmunds makes music to make the heart dance. ‘Bail You Out’ I could listen to again and again and again. And did so.
Among the year’s great discoveries for meet was jazz/cabaret singer Barb Jungr. I’m late to the party, as her inspired covers of Bob Dylan (in particular), Jacques Brel, Leonard Cohen and others have a dedicated following. Some of it tends towards the supper-club, but she has an uncanny ability to rethink a standard in a way likely to leave the songwriter speechless in wonder. Consider her take on Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’. It has become a new song.
Another discovery is Daniel Bridgwood-Hill, known to his small buying public as dbh. he’s a Manchester-based guitarist who produces such arresting, winning music. Who would not be entranced by the delightful acoustic miniature that is ‘Defy/Win’?
Spotify tells me that I spent a lot of 2021 listening to experimental music this past year. I won’t deny it. Among those whose musical adventures I found particularly engrossing was Giant Claw, an electronic ‘music project’ headed by Keith Rankin, who/which delights in failing to obey the established rules of composition, while pleasing the ear nonetheless (these ears at any rate). From this year’s Mirror Guide, take your ears on a strange journey with the adventurous but intermittently charming ‘Diswold’.
Then there was Bob, of course. He’s had a relatively quiet time, after the startling adventures of 2020, but he’s just embarked on a three-year world tour, which shows exceptional confidence for one who turned eighty this year. The latest in his ‘Bootleg’ series of releases of the unreleased, Springtime in New York, covers the 1980-85 period, which was not a creative high no matter how much the apologists might try to defend it. But from a time of mixed musical fortunes comes the amazing gem, ‘Too Late’, which would turn into ‘Foot of Pride’ eventually. This is far superior. It’s mid-tempo, unflashy, but it has that insidious extra something the rest can never touch. Having these as its scene-setting words helps for a start:
Well, whether there was a murder I don’t know I wasn’t there
I was busy visiting a friend in jail
There were just two women on the scene at the time
Neither one of ’em saw a thing
Both of ’em were wearing veils
Now listen on.
Some musicians have suffered more for their art than others. South Korean guitarist Shin Jung-hyeon headed the first Korean rock band (in 1962), turned to psychedelia, was imprisoned and tortured by the military dictatorship in 1972, saw his music banned, only to re-emerge as a national hero. His music ranges wildly from throwaway pop to extended guitar instrumentals, to wild thrash as shown by ‘Funky Broadway’. The live recording (from the early 70s?) is not of the greatest quality, but it is exuberant like perhaps nothing else you ever heard.
Let’s end with nostalgia. This was released in 1976; I think I bought it in 1979. I heard it again this year. Henry Cow were a tremendously earnest gathering of radicals, musically and politically, who were far more interested in raising your political consciousness than lulling you with anything so bourgeois as a pleasing tune. How many of the not-already-converted they managed to convert I don’t know, but their musical adventures sound more compelling than ever. And they could actually rock with the best of them, as in this thrilling version of Robert Wyatt’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road’ (with the man himself on vocals).