Friday, January 15, 2010

My Decade (part 2 - Music)

Now for my last decade in music. I think of myself as a total music geek, and as evidence...

I went to roughly 15 Robyn Hitchcock shows, which I was surprised the number was that low. I think I've been overestimating the number of times I tell people I've seen him total (starting in 1989). This includes the greatest two shows of Robyn's that I've ever experienced, consecutive nights at the tiny Turning Point Cafe in Piermont, NY. I also collected over 100 live bootleg Robyn Hitchcock shows. And something I realized while writing this post that kind of frightened me: When I see Robyn Hitchcock this March it will mark the fourth decade in which I've seen him play.

I saw Billy Bragg about six times the last decade, and collected over 50 of his live bootlegs. The man just doesn't tour enough.

Jeff Tweedy solo or his band Wilco, I was at more than twenty shows, and all but one of them (last year at Coney Island) happened between 2000 and 2005. They got kind of boring for a while, and guitarist Nels Cline can be so damn wonky when he plays, always trying to prove what a genius he is. But Wilco came back with a vengeance last year and their live shows are great again. I collected over 80 Jeff Tweedy/Wilco bootleg show recordings during the decade.

In all for the decade, I collected over 400 live bootleg recordings of various bands.

Other concerts of note include seeing Jill Sobule about eight times, The Dresden Dolls about the same number, including two New Year's Eve shows, two Pogues shows, a couple of Blanche shows, They Might Be Giants, Southern Culture on the Skids, Eels, Ditty Bops, The Swell Season, Smoosh a couple of times, a bunch of Robbie Fulks gigs and an incredible Rilo Kiley Show.

I am really happy that I got well into my thirties but I still like to hear new stuff. The bands that I got into that put out their first albums this last decade include Rilo Kiley, Smoosh, The Dresden Dolls, The White Stripes and The Decemberists. So that's cool.

I decided to go ahead and attempt a "best albums of the decade" list, because I know the entire world really wants to know my opinion of the decade's best music. Started off by trying to do ten, but that was just too hard, too many of my favorite albums wouldn't make the cut that way. So I decided on 25. Of course, this list will only have things I've heard by this point and there is a very good chance there is something out there I haven't been introduced to yet that I will love. Like if I had done this at the end of the 90s there would be no Keb' 'Mo on the list because I really hadn't heard his music at that point. But if I make a 90s album list today, there might be two or three of his records on there. So with a grain of salt, my attempt at a best of the 00s list, in order of year released, because no way do I want to attempt to rank them (and alphabetical by artist would make it too obvious what a Robyn Hitchcock geek I am):

Robyn Hitchcock - A Star For Bram (2000) Robyn started off his decade with a companion piece to his 1999 album, Jewels For Sophia, that is supposed to be outtakes from that session. But this is far better than just a simple outtake album.

Jill Sobule - Pink Pearl (2000) The woman famous for her one hit, I Kissed a Girl, from the mid-90s, has put out so much great work this decade. Songs that seem to be just humorous little ditties become so much more once you scratch the surface. "Mexican Wrestler" seems funny at first, but then you realize how sad it is.

Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (bootleg 2001, official release 2002) Seems to be an absence of other records from 2001-2002, probably because there was very rarely anything else on my radar during this time. YHF almost never left my portable CD player for what seemed like forever.

The Dresden Dolls - Dresden Dolls (2003) The only good thing that came out of me living in the shittiest city on the planet, Boston, was that I got to discover this band early on. The sound is Brechtian Punk Cabaret and their concerts are wonderful, if sometimes overly-pretentious, happenings.

Robyn Hitchcock - Luxor (2003) Robyn's 50th birthday present to himself was this record and it is mostly just him with his guitar and harmonica. It may be his least popular album among his fans, but I think it is absolutely beautiful.

The White Stripes - Elephant (2003) Most would put White Blood Cells on the list instead, but I think this is a fantastic rock record.

Robyn Hitchcock - Spooked (2004) Living up to its title, an incredibly haunting-sounding record done with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings.

Loretta Lynn - Van Lear Rose (2004) Brilliantly arranged and produced by Jack White, Lynn puts out her best ever record at the age of 70. We should all be lucky enough to be doing what we do at our best at that age.

Bright Eyes - I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning (2005) Just about everything else put out by Connor Oberst has bored the shit out of me, but this album hits the mark so beautifully. It helps to have the legendary Emmylou Harris singing on three songs. And "First Day of My Life" is one of the prettiest love songs ever recorded. If you don't like that track you just don't believe in love.

Eels - Blinking Lights and Other Revelations (2005) Words can not describe ho much I love this double album. E's masterpiece, and his most personal work ever.

Robbie Fulks - Georgia Hard (2005) The best country album of the decade, in an era when the "mainstream" country artists don't actually make genuine country music. That Fulks isn't a country superstar is completely unbelievable.

Rilo Kiley - More Adventurous (2005) Love, loss, betrayal, sex, death.... This beautiful record has it all, and more. Jenny Lewis may have the prettiest voice in music today. I would call it angelic - if I believed in angels. If someone forced me to pick just one best album of the decade, this might be it.

Al Baker & The Dole Queue - On the Use of Jackboots (2006) My favorite find of the decade. Al Baker is a Phil Ochs for the current age, and someone who could be the voice of his generation. (I wrote much more about Al here.)

Belle And Sebastian - The Life Pursuit (2006) The best bouncy pop goodness I've heard in a long time.

The Decemberists - The Crane Wife (2006) In the age of downloading individual songs to iPods, Colin Meloy & company have the artistry and the balls to put out concept albums. 'Nuff said.

Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 - Ole! Tarantula (2006) Robyn gets a backing band that includes Peter Buck on guitar. Brilliance ensues. His best band album in years, maybe the best ever. It also spoke to me because of the song "Belltown Ramble," about a neighborhood I knew all-too-well when I was living in Seattle. Really took me back.

Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins - Rabbit Fur Coat (2006) Rilo Kiley lead singer puts out her first solo album with amazing harmonies with the sisters Watson.

The Minus 5 - The Minus 5, aka "The Gun Album" (2006) Scott McCaughey is the hardest working man in music, and the most under-appreciated. REM's best sideman makes supergroup records with just about anybody he asks, and this record has Peter Buck (as usual), John Wesley Harding and all members of The Decemberists and Wilco, joining on such McCaughey gems as "Aw Shit Man" and "Coffee, Cigarettes and Booze."

Tegan And Sarah - The Con (2007) Punk-inspired power pop at its finest.

The Swell Season - Music from the Motion Picture Once (2007) I always likes Glen Hansard's Frames, but this record is so much more than he's ever done before. A gorgeous record to go along with one of the best movies of the decade.

The Raconteurs - Consolers of the Lonely (2008) I do not understand the debate about Jack White. The man is a rock genius, and the only proof you need is The Raconteurs, where he's backed by an incredible band instead of just a mediocre drummer for a change. As good as I think The White Stripes have been, imagine what they could be if he kicked Meg to the curb.

REM - Accelerate (2008) I never imagined that REM, a band I worshipped in the 80s and early 90s, would end up on my "best of" anything again. But after well over ten years of putting out some truly horrible elevator music-type albums, a band that holds such a special place in my heart (as I've written about before) is back on top of their game. I couldn't be happier about it. Now if only the same thing would happen to U2...

She & Him - Volume One (2008) I'm still amazed when I listen to this record by actress Zooey Deschanel and indie rocker M. Ward. It sounds like something that could be straight out of the soundtrack of the 1960 movie Where the Boys Are, yet except for a couple of covers all of the songs were written by Zooey herself. The funnest album I've heard in a long time.

The Watson Twins - Fire Songs (2008) The Watson Twins singing is mesmerizing. This album is worth it even if only for their incredible cover of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven." And making such an iconic song your own is no small feat.

The Baseball Project - Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails (2008) It's amazing how much Scott McCaughy and Peter Buck appear on this list (both are in Venus 3, Minus 5 and REM). This record is the brainchild of Scott and ex-Dream Syndicate front man Steve Wynn, who got together and wrote a bunch of songs about a shared passion - baseball. Hard to believe that anyone could create enough great songs from that topic to fill a whole album, but these guys did that. And volume 2 is already in the works.

Various Artists - Playing For Change: Songs Around the World (2009) What a great way to end the aughts. Producer/engineer Mark Johnson found musicians around the world to record different parts of the same songs and then mix them together in the studio to create these amazing tracks made by people who for the most part never met one another. Mostly street musicians, a youth choir and the like, but with some help from the great Keb' 'Mo and Bono. An amazing record to go along with a beautifully positive and hopeful documentary.

OK, I cheated. That's 26. Just couldn't make the last cut.

My Decade (part 1)

It hadn't really dawned on me, until people mentioned it on Facebook, that we just came to the end of another decade. I guess after we entered the "new millennium" and with all of the "Y2K" hysteria of the end of the last decade I just stopped thinking in terms of decades. I just kind of thought of us as in the 2000s now. And with it seeming that no one knew what to call the most recent decade - I like the "aughts" myself, I can say "my daughter was born in aught eight" - we didn't have the same kind of repetitive referencing of the decade by a title in the media and pop culture that we had in the past. There was always someone calling the eighties "the 80s" and the nineties "the 90s" on TV, radio and print when those decades were happening.

So I was really only thinking about this as another new year approaching until Facebook made me see the error of my ways. A lot of my "friends" started posting things about looking back at the last decade, and I thought, "Oh right, the decade's ending."

What I found odd was how many people were posting how shocking it as how much their life changed over the decade (wasn't married at the beginning of it, my little kid is now a teenager at the end, etc.). Really? Surprised that your life would change in significant ways in the decade? Come on, ten years is a pretty long time, if your life didn't change over that time you should be shocked and depressed. It would also make you my grandparents.

It is strange the way we humans choose these arbitrarily assigned numbers to define, categorize and reflect on our lives and the world. Hell, we use them to define the human experience.

I've never really thought about my life in terms of decades to define each era. I don't think anything can be so neatly packaged into a convenient little branding. I look at my life and it divides up by certain "eras" that are not defined at all by the calendar. My five years of college from 1989 to 1994 would be one, immediately followed by my "Seattle Period" until the end of 2000, then my life with my girlfriend/fiance/wife Lisa. And my current era started in October of 2008 when our daughter was born. So this last decade alone contains three separate phases of my life.

I guess I'm just pointing out the obvious, our lives divide up by our individual experiences and ages. For me the decades do work out pretty well in one aspect - I was born in a zero year, 1970 - so I'm in the same age group for pretty much the whole decade, in my 20s during the 90s, my 30s during the aughts, etc. Just dumb luck, but will probably come in handy when my memory starts to go hazy in my later years.

Besides, when someone refers to a decade, they aren't talking about the whole thing. When someone says "The Sixties" they are almost always talking about the late sixties counter-culture movement. It is very rare to hear someone refer to the sixties and they are thinking about something that happened in 1961. Go to any 80s night at a club and they are playing a ton of music from 1982 to 1985 or so and you are very unlikely to hear them play a track from the Stone Roses, REM's Green or even Joshua Tree.

All of that being said, I did decide to take a quick look back at the decade to see what kind of things I'll take away from it. It did require some reflection but I don't think I'm surprised by any of it (well, maybe a couple of my choices for favorite albums) and I promise not to feign any shock.

Well, I suppose the first thing that should be mentioned about important events to my decade would be that I'm now a family man. When the decade started I was a single guy living in Seattle, doing some theatre but with basically no direction and floating through life with no purpose. At the end of the decade I have been married for almost six years and been a father for over a year. I'm still basically directionless, but I now at least have something that focuses my energy.

If you went back in time to when the last decade was ending and told that version of me, that guy from the 90s, the one in his twenties, that he would be married and have a kid by the time the next decade ended, he would have been horrified. But what does that stupid, long-haired, grungy stoner know? I couldn't be happier.

It as also the decade in which I gave up any idea I still harbored about having a career in theatre. At the beginning I was still plugging away, taking directing gigs where I could. By the end I had not done a show in over three years and had switched over to a career in medical education that was so much more rewarding. After years of theatre I came to the realization that I just wasn't that interested in doing it. I also got sick of it getting in the way of my life (having to be at rehearsals when there was a band I wanted to see, etc.). And it seemed that my talent for it peaked in college anyway.

At the beginning of the aughts I had been smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for eight-and-a-half years. At the end of the decade it has been almost eight years since my last cigarette, kicking an addiction that lasted more than ten years. So great to have that monkey off my back.

In the 00s I lived in six different houses/apartments in four cities in four states. Seattle-Chicago-Chicago-Boston-New York-Chicago. There is not a single section of I-90 I haven't driven in a rental truck in the last decade. While the number of cities I lived in during the last decade is my most ever, the number of actual homes still doesn't beat my 90s number.

I traveled overseas to five different countries (six if you count a layover in Seoul) on two continents. I'm really hoping that number is a lot higher in this decade, because that's just not good enough.

My favorite books of the last ten years were Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, Freethinkers and The Age of American Unreason, both by Susan Jacoby. I'm sure I'm leaving some out but I'm not remembering them tight now. A lot of the books I ended up reading over the 00s were published in earlier decades.

It took a lot of time to go over my decade in music and make my "best of" list, as you'll see in the next post (and it is a completely separate post due to its length). But when it came to movies the answer became pretty obvious fairly quickly. In fact, instead of a list of my favorite movies of the 00s, I'm just going to name my favorite. I'm not saying there weren't other extremely strong contenders, like Once (which I came really close to picking) and Billy Elliot. But in the end it turns out my favorite movie of the 00s has a lot in common with my favorite one from the 90s.

Like, it has the same director and the same two actors playing the same characters. When I first heard that Richard Linklater was making a sequel to 1995's Before Sunrise I was horrified. The best romantic movie in a generation had ended so perfectly, leaving the question for the audience to ponder - do they ever see each other again? But it turns out that Before Sunset was even better than the first movie, and making it was a great idea. I love that Linklater could make two perfect films about two people walking around talking to each other. I never get sick of watching either of them.

Next - I'll look back on my decade in music.