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|I Am Skooter|
So here's us, on the raggedy edge.
With the end of the year approaching, lists are everywhere. It seems rather silly for me to buck this rather benign trend, so some thoughts about a year in music.
Having gotten rid of my television completely early this year, I’ve had a year that’s been fairly saturated in music.
Picking a Best album can be a fool’s game. Is there ever a single best? Is one album so much better than others that it can really be singled out from the crowd? This list is far from a complete list of everything I liked this year, but it’s a good start.
If there was this year, for me, it would probably be Dan Mangan’s Nice, Nice, Very Nice. Coming in a year which had Neko Case releasing Middle Cyclone and Wilco’s Wilco (the Album) this is no faint praise. Dan’s album has a depth that’s just amazing, and it’s been on heavy repeat for me since late August when I discovered it. I first heard Dan being interviewed by Stephen Quinn on CBC on one of those extremely rare summer days when I had driven to work in the last week of August. I was immediately blown away, and bought the album as soon as I got home. Sadly, I missed the album launch that weekend at The Cultch on my birthday.
Fair Verona is quite possibly my favourite song on the album. It’s quirky timings lack the radio friendliness of Road Regrets and the crowd pleasing hand clapping of Robots but it’s a song that lingers in the mind. Basket is another, and after hearing Dan play it live it’s firmly in the category of music that reaches deep into me in a very personal way.
It’s an amazing album, and if Dan doens’t win the Polaris Music Prize next year…well, buy whatever does. It’s hard to imagine an album of this depth.
There’s no doubt that the fact that Dan is new to me is a huge part of the appeal, but an album this good would have blown me away regardless. If I do have to pick a single best of Nice, Nice, Very Nice is probably it.
A new Wilco album is always a treat and this year’s was no exception. Jeff Tweedy claims to be happier than he has been in years and it shows—the album is cheerful and upbeat when compared to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Summerteeth, and A Ghost is Born. If there’s an album this year that defies the notion that great art comes from sadness, this is it.
Standout tracks include One Wing, Bull Black Nova and I’ll Fight.
Wilco also released Ashes of American Flags on DVD and (as they have always done) offered the DVD’s music content for download. If there’s anything better than Wilco in the studio it’s Wilco live and Ashes of American Flags doesn’t disappoint. From the chimes of the opening track to the rediscovered vocal of It’s Just That Simple from A.M. this was the album that I listened to the most through late spring and beginning of the summer.
It seems as if Neko can do no wrong: from the very early Canadian Amp through Blacklisted and all the way to Middle Cyclone her albums are so consistently good it’s hard to imagine her ever putting out a bad one.
Middle Cyclone, largely produced on her farm in Vermont, has been called the only animal rights album that doesn’t suck. Neko’s lyrics are full of the kind of wry humour that comes from the dark places in your heart.
Neko called Don’t Forget Me the saddest song ever the first time I heard her sing it, and it’s hard to disagree with that. On the album the much discussed piano orchestra she rustled up from Craigslist gives the song a big, rich sound.
She’s introduced the incredibly fun People Got a Lot of Nerve this way:
“Picture elephants, and killer whales, in a jeep…on a killing spree. They’re four wheelin’, they got rifles, let’s do it.”
and Middle Cyclone was recorded with a home made music box as the main instrument and it’s rough analog sound is just beautiful.
Topping it all off, the album ends with 31 minutes of frogs and crickets recorded on the farm. In an interview Neko said that it was actually about four minutes that was looped back on itself because that was about as long as she could stand still before her cords started making that “whup whup whup” sound. I wish I could find that interview, but you’ll have to take my word for it.
CBC radio’s Q has been the single best thing to happen to the Canadian arts & culture scene in the last year, and it’s how I found Amy Millan. On the way home from Dan Mangan’s show at the Port Moody Festival of the Arts I was listening, and Jian Ghomeshi was interviewing Amy. Struck by the interview, I thought I’d go see her live at the Biltmore. It turned out to be a great and memorable night out.
After the show I bought the album—with a photo of an elephant on the cover, it was almost mandatory for me—and its gradually worked its way into my frequent listening over the past month or so. Beautiful and introspective, its spare roots aesthetic has endless appeal. Between Amy and seeing Jason Collett I may yet become a Broken Social Scene fan (though I feel disloyal to Vancouver’s local supergroup The New Pornographers when I say that.)