Friday, December 29, 2006

Albums Of The Year 2006 Part Two

Sorry, delayed by Christmas. Why can't they time it more conveniently, eh?

50. Colin Towns/NDR Big Band – Frank Zappa’s Hot Licks/Lend Me Your Ears (Provocateur)
I’m cheating a bit here by putting these two albums from master composer and arranger Towns together, especially as he actually released three different albums in 2006 (I’ve yet to hear the third, a collaboration with singer Norma Winstone). The music of Frank Zappa translates fluidly to the big band setting, particularly the material from Hot Rats, and the band sounds muscular and punchy. ‘Lend Me Your Ears’, a collection of original material from Towns, is less successful than his Orpheus Suite ballet music, but still comfortably demonstrates his talent for refreshing the traditional big band sound.

49. Ghostface Killah – Fishcscale (Def Jam)
After a period of coasting somewhat, Ghostface bounced back with a resounding success of an album, full of pounding, insistent beats and the kind of wild wordplay we had come to expect. With the likes of Pete Rock and MF Doom on production duties, the sound is varied and refreshing, and not even the numerous skits and guest appearances (so crushingly inevitable on modern hip hop albums) spoil the effortless flow.

48. The Gossip - Standing In The Way Of Control (Backyard)
The surprise crossover success of the year, The Gossip might have been considered outsider cult figures at the start of the year, and few would have predicted the NME’s bizarre decision to put Beth at the top of their ghastly ‘cool list’, yet have the resoundingly atrocious Muse grace the front cover instead. Still, if we focus on the music, there’s just so much to enjoy here – it’s a riotously thrilling merger of primal blues and punk, and actually a far more effective hybrid than that of the far more lauded White Stripes. Just listen to the sublime ‘Coal To Diamonds’ or the brilliantly minimal ‘Listen Up’ (one of the year’s best party tunes), for evidence of the raw energy and feeling this band have in abundance.

47. Max Richter - Songs From Before (Fat Cat)
Highly influenced by the likes of Steve Reich, Richter is both a minimalist composer and producer of considerable talent. With Robert Wyatt contributing narrated passages from the works of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, this could easily have been a jarringly pretentious record. In actuality, its peculiarly moving, with those long, tremulous strings resonant of the best work of Godspeed You Black Emperor.

46. Solomon Burke – Nashville (Snapper)
Since returning to secular music with ‘Don’t Give Up On Me’ in 2002, Solomon Burke has released three very different albums for three different labels. This latest continues a majestic creative renewal, neatly capturing those close links between traditional American country music and the black soul canon. With mostly delicate, acoustic backings, Burke combines gutsy emotion with grand melodrama to sublime effect. As ever, the choice of songwriters and collaborators is thoughtful – with superb contributions from Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton in particular.

45. Benoit Pioulard – Precis (Kranky)
An album well spotted by bloggers but virtually ignored by the press, it would be great to see this one get some further attention in 2007. It has a very peculiar sound, equal parts rustic and modern, and the songs are both elusive and compelling. It’s certainly one of the more distictive singer-songwriter records of the year, and it’s refreshingly hard to pinpoint reference points for Pioulard’s mysterious, eerie concoctions.

44. Dani Siciliano – Slappers (!K7)
Siciliano’s solo albums have been unfairly overlooked whilst her partner and producer Matthew Herbert has gathered ever more critical plaudits. I actually felt this was a more consistent, more playful and more energetic prospect than Herbert’s own ‘Scale’, as Siciliano deployed her sharply ironic glare over modern materialism and exploitation with invigorating results.

43. Skream! – Skream! (Tempa)
Dubstep prodigy Skream!’s debut long player was probably the most immediate, infectious and danceable record emerging from that scene in 2006. It’s not supremely significant and coherent like the Burial record, but it’s nevertheless packed with ideas and invention. I’m hoping this sound has plenty of life in it yet.

42. Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra - Boulevard de L’independence (World Circuit)
This is a splendidly joyful record, full of spirit and energy and noteworthy simply for Diabate’s exquisite mastery of the Kora, an instrument that is rarely heard in the western world. Diabate makes this delicate instrument effortlessly compatible with a big band approach, in a cultural experimentation that sounds much more like synthesis than clash. Superb.

41. Clogs – Lantern (Talitres)
This group featured members of American indie rock combo The National, although it was hard to detect this from the unique chamber sound this peculiar ensemble crafted. These skeletal, almost archaic mostly instrumental compositions sounded pretty much unlike anything else in 2006, and went shamefully neglected here in the UK.

40. Elvis Costello and The Metropole Orkestar - My Flame Burns Blue (Deutsche Grammofon/Universal)
Slipping out early in the year with hardly anyone noticing, this may actually be the best in what many regard as Elvis Costello’s extra-curricular activities. Reimagining his songs with huge orchestral backing has surprisingly brought out some of the nuances in the material (‘Favourite Hour’ becomes even more moving, ‘Episode Of Blonde’ is less forced and more forceful). He is also beginning to sound much more comfortable as a vocalist when he tries on new clothes, and ‘My Flame Burns Blue’ sounds more like a grand achievement than an experiment.

39. Liars – Drum’s Not Dead (Mute)
One of the year’s most uncompromising and thoroughly bonkers records, Liars returned with a gonzoid, rhythm-heavy slice of storytelling viewed from the perspective of two fictional characters. It’s a dense and unforgiving sound, but one that reaps plenty of rewards given careful attention. It’s probably best when at it’s most visceral, inducing a real physical thrill.

38. William Elliott Whitmore - Song Of The Blackbird (Southern)
Whitmore has such a brilliant voice – with something of the gutsy sensuality of Otis Redding that, when delivering his rootsy, rustic country songs, sounds unusually powerful and compelling. It’s even better when he plays the banjo, an instrument these days rarely heard completely unadorned. This is a stark and fascinating record, suggesting that Whitmore is a talent to watch in the coming years.

37. Amy Winehouse - Back To Black (Island)
Whilst I might have dismissed her as ‘whiney’ Winehouse a couple of years ago, ‘Back To Black’ proved me wrong in dramatic style. So many modern R&B records suffer from sounding overly synthetic, or by struggling in vain to recapture a classic sound. Winehouse opted for the latter approach, but actually succeeded in crafting something timeless and soulful. There’s plenty of her own candid observations and experiences on offer (perhaps too much information at times – let’s hope she doesn’t go the way of Millie Jackson and veer into pointless obscenity), and her voice has developed strength and character in the period since her debut.

36. Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador)
If you’re like me, you may want to skip the extended wig-outs that bookend this album, which are basically nothing other than the entirely expected from this band. Elsewhere, however, they continue to stretch themselves in fascinating directions, and parts of ‘I Will Beat Your Ass…’ represent the band’s most accessible and affecting work to date. YLT are at their best when they are soft and otherworldly, and that side is emphasized strongly here. Album title of the year too, without doubt.

35. Cortney Tidwell - Don’t Let Stars Keep Us Tangled Up (Ever)
Tidwell was one of the major discoveries of 2006, with an expressive voice and an intricate approach to sound and production. Sometimes the influences were a little too easily spotted (nods to Bjork or The Cocteau Twins particularly so), but this album sounded so haunting and elegiac that there’s plenty to suggest that Tidwell will soon capture find her own voice.

34. Trentemoller - The Last Resort (Poker Flat)
One of the best electronic albums of the year, ‘The Last Resort’ was evocative and cinematic, without resorting to tried and tested cliches, and proving that some of the most exciting music continues to be made at the margins.

33. Chris Potter – Underground (Universal)
There are few more striking and extraordinary sounds in jazz right now than Chris Potter’s colossal saxophone bellow. He always plays a lot of notes, but he usually manages to make it sound meaningful (and if not emotional, then at least ceaselessly energetic). His own work is now coming into its own too – and ‘Underground’ is a captivating album that, even in the absence of a bass player, sounds swampy and groovy. His take on Radiohead’s ‘Morning Bell’ is, in my view, better than any of Brad Mehldau’s Radiohead interpretations.

32. Califone- Roots and Crowns (Thrill Jockey)
Yet another one that’s gone largely unnoticed here, and I can’t quite fathom why. Magazines such as Uncut and Mojo spend so long praising the virtues of the spurious ‘alt-country’ genre that they fail to notice when an album that genuinely fuses the ‘alternative’ with ‘country’ actually comes along. This is a more consistent, accessible and compelling album than the admittedly excellent ‘Heron King Blues’ (the album which introduced me to the band last year), and is full of intriguing sounds, strange song titles and unusual lyrics, whilst keeping one foot firmly in the American roots tradition.

31. The Hidden Cameras – Awoo (Rough Trade)
The best of these songs will lodge themselves in your memory and refuse to disappear. They are also endearing, joyously optimistic and accessible, whilst retaining the band’s character and stance. The combination of Joel Gibb’s slightly nasal but enthralling voice set against the wonderfully lush string arrangements continues to work wonders, but with ‘Wandering’ and ‘Hump From Bending’ particularly, they are at last expanding their musical reach.

30. The Neil Cowley Trio – Displaced (HideInside)
Listening to this, it’s hard to believe that Neil Cowley was once a member of the Brand New Heavies, possibly one of my least favourite bands of all time. There’s such a variety of styles here, and this album demonstrates that, far from being restricting, the piano trio setup can be extremely liberating. Cowley’s trio have been conveniently labeled as Britain’s answer to EST. Whilst there’s an element of truth there, it’s a bit reductive – as there are echoes of classic Oscar Peterson and some seriously heavy grooves too. The playing throughout is considered and expressive.

29. Candi Staton – His Hands (Honest Jon’s)
Another great record inexplicably omitted from most of the mainstream lists – it’s another example of a gutsy soul singer returning to secular music after years in the gospel wilderness. Sadly she rejected Kurt Wagner’s songwriting contribution, but generally shrewd song selections made for a fascinating collection. She demonstrates the strong links between country and soul by tackling Merle Haggard, and the undoubted highlight is the Will Oldham penned title track, a thoroughly remarkable piece of music. Mark Nevers’ production is stately and unobstrusive.

28. Erin McKeown - Sing You Sinners (Nettwerk)
The continuing indifference to McKeown in this country is a massive injustice. Not content with having released three albums of outstanding original songwriting, she returned to the record collection she grew up with for this album of jazz and theatre standards. It’s magnificent of course, far from just a retread of traditional forms, as McKeown effortlessly breathes distinctive new life into what could be tired material. Her selections are brave too, from the potentially obvious (‘Get Happy’), to the virtually unknown. Technically adept contributions from drummer Alison Miller help keep the proceedings lively and playful.

27. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy - The Letting Go (Domino)
Will Oldham is continuing his regeneration apace. Last year’s ‘Superwolf’ project finally directed him away from his contrarian impulses into something more productive, and there’s definitely an argument to suggest that ‘The Letting Go’ is his finest album since ‘I See A Darkness’. It’s soft, gentle and frequently sounds lovely, although there’s plenty of uncompromising experience and sensation to confront in the lyrics.

26. Tom Waits – Orphans (Anti)
Three CDs is probably a little too much Waits for most people, but ‘Orphans’ dependably contained an embarrassment of riches. As I suggested in my original review, the ‘Bawlers’ disc works best simply by virtue of being a collection of ballads that mostly eschew the junkyard stomp that is perhaps beginning to sound over-familiar. Waits demonstrates the variety and depth of his voice across these tracks, it is always the focus, and usually the most effective of the instruments.

25. Andrew McCormack – Telescope (Dune)
It’s a golden time for British jazz at the moment, and McCormack has not only proved himself a gifted pianist, but also an intelligent composer and bandleader too, and ‘Telescope’ is one of the most dynamic and exciting trio albums of recent years, at a time when the genre is not exactly short of high achievers. It’s most simple and direct, with swinging themes and effervescent soloing, and it certainly benefits from the outstanding contribution of drummer Tom Skinner, who keeps everything moving with understated skill.

24. Beirut - Gulag Orkestar (Ba Da Bing/4AD)
Gathering high praise first on the internet, and then from independent record stores and magazines, Zach Condon'’ extraordinary debut received two UK releases in 2006, and was afforded deserved promotion the second time around. It’s a brilliantly crafted collection of melodious, sometimes melancholy songs, all bolstered by a weird array of horns and wind instruments that place it somewhere akin to the Balkan gypsy music beloved of filmmaker Emir Kusturica. As a result, it veers from the sensitive to the sensational, and from the beauteous to the bawdy. Splendid.

23. Patricia Barber – Mythologies (Blue Note/EMI)
This is an album of languid and lugubriuos beauty, and it’s so wonderfully refreshing to hear a female jazz vocalist produce something genuinely challenging after all the overloading of coffee table conventions from the likes of Diana Krall and Madeleine Peyroux. Barber’s voice is soft (frequently almost whispered), and her focus is on phrasing and language over melody. Her ensemble are also magical, crafting an enthralling variety of settings for her musings on mythological figures.

22. Rock Plaza Central – Are We Not Horses? (Sound Outside)
A concept album about metallic robot horses? They can’t be serious, can they? Indeed, they are – and with their sound neatly capturing a hybrid of Neutral Milk Hotel’s warped indie, Sufjan Stevens’ majestic arrangements, and Will Oldham’s lyrical candour, this Toronto band have hit on something rather urgent and magical. After their 8.4 score on Pitchfork, they’re almost certainly ones to watch for 2007 too.

21. Oriole – Migration (F-IRE Recordings)
This fluid, fluent and peaceful combination of folklore and jazz sounded both serene and captivating. Jonny Philips’ rhythmic accompaniments define the band’s sound, and his compositions are immediately warm and melodically inventive. The combination of Ingrid Laubrock’s richly exquisite sax and Ben Davis’ longing Cello also added to the unique appeal of this charming, considered music.

20. Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (Anti)
One of the year’s more elusive and mysterious albums lyrically, ‘Fox Confessor’ wasn’t just an extension of that warm, reverb-drenched sound Case captured so well on ‘Blacklisted’, it was the superior formulation of her vision. Even at a relatively brief running time, it’s a dense, unusual and thoroughly captivating.

19. Camera Obscura - Let’s Get Out Of This Country (Elefant)
It’s not just what Belle and Sebastian would be like if they were still good, it’s what they’d be like if they had managed to make a whole album of songs as brilliant as ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’. The combination of indie whimsy and northern soul feeling worked tremendously well, helped along by a superb set of highly infectious songs from TraceyAnne Campbell, delivered with customary understatement.

18. Ali Farka Toure – Savane (World Circuit)
The great Mali bluesman’s last album captured his essence with quiet dignity, and the description of him as ‘the king of the desert blues singers’ can hardly be contested on the basis of this evidence. The language barrier is not a problem either – it’s the spirit and feeling of these repetitive, circular songs that carry their meanings. Although Toure was already taken ill during these sessions, he had hardly sounded more alive. ‘Savane’ is a highly fitting tribute.

17. Cat Power - The Greatest (Matador)
A record that divided opinion among Chan Marshall’s longstanding fans, but newcomers were understandably enchanted. Personally, I don’t think there has ever been a better setting for her lugubrious, occasionally hypnotic vocals. With the backing of the Memphis musicians that so ably supported the likes of Al Green and Ann Peebles, Marshall emerged as a modern day Dusty Springfield, captivating and effotlessly soulful.

16. Matmos - The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth Of A Beast (Matador)
Comfortably the duo’s best work to date, this finally saw them combine a conceptual, theoretical approach with music that simply sounded radical and audacious. With each of the tracks paying homage to a different gay icon (from Larry Levan to Wittgenstein), this captured the group’s background and influences whilst also keeping eyes firmly fixed on the future. This group really make the most of their samples and sounds, crafting something both perplexing and visionary.

15. Dave Holland Quintet - Critical Mass (Universal Jazz)
Still one of the best small groups in jazz, this group can draw wonders from the simplest of themes, and even with Nate Smith replacing Billy Kilson on drums, they still sound unfathomably tight. The long solos demonstrate the ability of these musicians to both generate and develop ideas, and they remain comfortable experimenting with both time and form. It’s a genuine thrill to hear this masterful combination of intelligent composition and inspired spontaneity.

14. Gnarls Barkley - St Elsewhere (Warners)
For most people, it was all about the ubiquitous ‘Crazy’, one of the genuinely great number ones of the century. Actually though, there was plenty more to admire on ‘St Elsewhere’, a satisfyingly scattershot collection that never settled for the lowest common denominator. It’s always pleasing to hear a pop record that proves that commercial music needn’t be manufactured by committee or produced to buggery – this just sounded like a duo of creative talents luxuriating in confounding expectations, and getting away with it too!

13. EST - Tuesday Wonderland (ACT:)
The best EST album in a while, adhering fairly predictably to their established sound, but pushing it in more exciting and contemporary directions. The chamber restraint of ‘Viaticum’ was largely abandoned in favour or ostentatious rhythmic devices and intricate composition, and whilst the modern ambience was very much intact, this sounded like a group still striving to push the boundaries of the trio format.

12. Johnny Cash - American V: A Hundred Highways (American Recordings)
With Cash at his most frail, and with his vocals recorded mostly in islolation and then grafted on to backing tracks completed by Rick Rubin after his death, this was very much a posthumous album in all senses. Yet, there’s something more than ghostly resonance here – something that captures the very essence of Johnny Cash at both his most vulnerable and his most towering. This was the sound of a man staring death squarely in the face, with dignity and compassion.

11. Kenny Garrett - Beyond The Wall (Nonesuch)
Even the specialist jazz publications seem to have undersold this a bit – it’s an absolute creative triumph for Garrett. There’s none of the smoothing of rough edges that sometimes hamper his themes, and has, so I’m reliably informed, been a serious problem at recent live shows. This is a deeply passionate, spiritual album, capturing the spirit of the East with instinctive force. It also has some beautifully elegiac passages, and Garrett even tries his hand at piano, with surprisingly effective results. Overall, it’s the superb band who really make this work – Garrett frequently takes a backseat to Pharoah Sanders’ explosive blowing, and Mulgrew Miller plays some full, highly supportive piano. Brian Blade mostly steers clear of his more freeform drumming, instead swinging with intelligence and real joy.

10. Bob Dylan – Modern Times (Columbia)
It usually takes a while to get to grips with a new Bob Dylan collection, and after returning to this numerous times, I’m starting to feel it may actually be the best of the supposed trilogy that began with ‘Time Out Of Mind’. I initially highlighted ‘Workingman’s Blues No. 2’ and ‘Nettie Moore’ as the major songs, and I stand by that statement, although I would now add the superb ‘Spirit On The Water’ and ‘Ain’t Talkin’ too. Like ‘Love and Theft’ before it, this is a collection that revels in old musical forms and zesty lyrical references (sometimes direct steals), and like its predecessor, its brimming with imaginative good humour. It of course benefits from the outstandingly crisp and vigorous playing of the touring band, but the real revelation is the voice. Whilst lyrics have frequently been rendered incomprehensible in live performance, the phrasing here is as majestic as ever, and Dylan seems to have found the perfect context for his throaty intonations.

9. The Decemberists - The Crane Wife (Rough Trade)
I’m not really sure what’s going on with this! I bought it on Rough Trade (a UK label) at a reasonable domestic price, a couple of months ago, but the current consensus is that the UK release of this comes in 2007. Have Rough Trade decided that simply slipping this out with no promotion whatsoever was a huge disservice to this remarkable band, who simply keep getting better with every release? ‘The Crane Wife’ is an ambitious song cycle, based in part on a Japanese fable, a medium that very much suits this band’s whimsical preoccupations. It’s the band’s most consistent and thrilling album, veering from stark murder balladry to powerfully intense rock dynamics. It’s a very invigorating listen and, if prepared to immerse oneself thoroughly in its rustic, mock-historical landscape, something akin to a minor masterpiece.

8. Hot Chip - The Warning (DFA/EMI)
How utterly brilliant it is that Hot Chip have gone so far this year and entirely on their own terms too. ‘The Warning’ made leaps and bounds from ‘Coming On Strong’ in that it retained their caustic irony and kitchen-sink approach but also made real sense when ingested as a whole. For me, their sensitivities are still as vital as the infectious pop, and, having boosted their profile considerably here, it will be interesting to see where they take their sound next (the sublime new track ‘Graceland’ shows massive promise). But for now, ‘The Warning’ is ample evidence of Hot Chip’s talent, from Alexis Taylor’s winning way with a melancholy melody (as showcased on ‘Boy From School’ and ‘Look After Me’ particularly), to their constant ambitions in pushing sonic boundaries. Where so much electronic pop is frosty and austere, this was both inventive and warm. It’s playful for sure, but it’s meaningful and affecting too.

7. Subtle - For Hero: For Fool (Lex/Warners)
Where on earth was this in the mainstream press albums of the year lists? It might be forgiveable that some find Doseone’s stream-of-consciousness rapping simply unpalatable, but other Anticon projects such as Clouddead and the Boom Bip/Doseone double act have received plenty of column inches. I struggle to think of anything released this year that was so wilfully unpredictable and captivating, rapid thinking in real time set to music that sounded thoroughly radical and unhinged.

6. Joe Lovano Ensemble - Streams Of Expression (Blue Note)
For peerless improvisation, intricate and detailed arrangement, and a scholarly understanding of the jazz tradition, this was the essential jazz recording of 2006. Lovano remains an outstanding player – full of ideas but also able to produce that immense sound that can swing between the gutsy and the sensitive at a stroke. The reworkings of Miles Davis’ ‘Birth Of The Cool’ music here are not the work of a slavish standards group, but the intelligent, passionate performances of a group demonstrating that there is always new life and meaning in timeless material.

5. TV On The Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain (4AD)
An album of fascinating sounds and rhythms, with thoroughly distinctive production values. ‘Cookie Mountain’ revealed what the previous long player only hinted at – a band with real invention and depth. Where so many bands define their sound simply through being one-dimensional, TV On The Radio proved themselves multi-faceted and free thinking, able to draw inspiration from a weird and wonderful array of influences and emerging with something unique and exciting.

4. Scritti Politti - White Bread Black Beer (Rough Trade)
Despite its relative lack of commercial success and failure to win the hearts of the Mercury Judges, this is 2006’s most perfect pop album. It is also the album I’ve returned to most this year, completely entranced by Green Gartside’s pinched, slightly androgynous vocals, as strange and beautiful a sound as you could hope to hear. The context here is new though – whilst the last Scritti album (‘Anomie and Bonhomie’) tried to integrate Gartside’s love of hip hop a little too explicitly, ‘White Bread Black Beer’ straddles genre classification in a more organic way, and there can be little doubt that the lo-fi, home-made approach has helped in this regard. Despite all the US influences (from The Beach Boys to Run DMC), it also sounds like a very British album; observant, witty and intelligent to the core.

3. Burial – Burial (Hyperdub/Kode9)
Krissi Murisson of the NME may proclaim publicly that her publication is the only definitive guide to new music, but if she wanted any proof of the power of the web to generate real excitement around a new release, she need only look to this album. I first read about this early in the year on a handful of blogs, and the writing around this album was some of the most ardently enthusiastic and sophisticated music writing I’ve read in some time. It was some time before I actually managed to find a copy, so dire was the original distribution, but when I finally heard it, the excitement made perfect sense.

Although largely instrumental, ‘Burial’ is an album many people can easily relate to. Nevermind Beyonce, Chamillionaire or any other fatuous materialist gushing, this album has a real, gritty urban sound. It is also determinedly dark, almost the soundtrack to an impending crisis or apocalypse. It is dubstep’s first (and I fear possibly last) longform masterpiece and its eerie calm-before-the-storm lingers in my mind with real clarity.

2. Scott Walker - The Drift (4AD)
The most significant and singular artistic statement of the year, ‘The Drift’ may be a record too intense for some people to accept. Whilst it follows naturally from the avant-garde preoccupations of ‘Tilt’ and ‘Climate Of Hunter’, it is so much more confrontational and challenging than even those records. Yet the challenge is, in this case, utterly necessary. ‘The Drift’ makes us all confront the most terrifying elements of this world and is, as such, a far more accurate summary of ‘modernity’ than any of Tony Blair’s recent policy statements, domestic or foreign. It is the most political record of the year, in that it addresses directly, and in the starkest possible terms, how we have created a world that drifts inexorably towards tyranny, abuse of power, violent conflict and suffering.

Every sound on this record is deeply considered and presented for maximum visceral and emotional impact, from the sound of sides of meat being slapped to the masterful string arrangements. The clattering percussion consistently hints at turmoil and terror, and Walker’s voice now seems a completely new instrument, no longer the full baritone of his youth, now a higher, more attacking presence. His strange, semi-improvised intonations of these outlandish words is the centrepiece of this extraordinary, highly theatrical concoction. This is much more like a ‘rock opera’ than anything Pete Townshend could dream up, with its cast list of major figures (Mussolini, Elvis etc) and numerous cultural references (indeed, The Who’s ugly ‘Endless Wire’ pales into significance next to this). This is a record for which the word ‘harrowing’ is not too strong. It is a monument to a world of fear and threat – a world we would all much rather change yet, regardless of intention, we only end up intensifying.

1. Bruce Springsteen - We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia)
It’s peculiar that in a year when so much forward thinking music was made (although sadly so much of it routinely ignored), my favourite record should be the one that most emphatically looked back. Well, if the maxim that sometimes you need to do just that in order to move forward needed proving, Bruce did it in dramatic and (yes, this is important) highly entertaining style. 1987’s ‘Tunnel Of Love’ mostly felt like a sombre reaction to the excesses of the Born In The USA years, and Springsteen’s music since then has, in the main, heightened his reflective side. Even the comparative bombast of ‘The Rising’ was most characterised by post-9/11 melancholy and reflection. So, ‘We Shall Overcome’ felt like a reiteration of Springsteen’s talents as an energiser, a showman and a performer. The live shows accompanying this release were as significant as the record itself, with a cajun party atmosphere and a sheer joy in making music.

Even the hoariest of these old American folk songs sound newly invigorated in the hands of Springsteen and his superb new band, and there’s a palpable spirit of (re)discovery throughout the record. Everything is loose and thrilling, and Springsteen’s voice has rarely sounded so raw and powerful. The audible directions he gives to the band show him as master bandleader, and there is a constant drive to breathe new life into this evocative material.

Even in this context, Springsteen still finds room for reflection, the title track becoming a solemn prayer, and that wonderful standard ‘Shenandoah’ has all the vastness of the American continent, and the awesome flow of the river it describes.

Whilst ‘Devils and Dust’ and ‘The Rising’ both had extraordinary moments, ‘We Shall Overcome’ is a far more consistent and rewarding record, and in its newly expanded ‘American Land’ edition is a towering achievement in an already vital canon. The only thing that could make this fascinating project better still would be another album with this band (either studio or live) featuring some of the wild and enthralling re-interpretations of Springsteen songs performed during the course of the tour. Let’s have it Columbia!

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