by Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis
Album: High Violet
Song: “Terrible Love”
With titles like “Terrible Love,” “Sorrow,” “Anyone’s Ghost,” “Afraid of Everyone” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” High Violet is clearly no laff fest. The National, a quintet based in Brooklyn, but with roots in the Midwest, specializes in a free-floating atmospheric dread that is well suited to this time of a teetering economy, a precarious environment and profound political mistrust. None of those issues emerges in any overt way in the eleven songs on High Violet; singer and lyricist Matt Berninger is deft at communicating the subtle ways in which those larger anxieties manifest themselves in our emotional lives. No mere fear-slinger, he earns his perspective through the depth of his insights and the originality of his imagery. Joy Division and Depeche Mode are among the sources for the band’s rich, gloomy musical textures, but the National sound as vivid – and unsettling — as this immediate cultural moment.
Album: The Promise
The twenty-one tracks on this two-disc set were recorded while Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were working on the album that would become Darkness on the Edge of Town, which came out in 1978. Legal problems with his former manager had kept Springsteen out of the studio for two years, and by the time he returned he was bursting with ideas – and anxieties about the statement he needed to make as a follow-up to Born to Run (1975). Among Springsteen’s concerns at the time was being perceived as a “revivalist,” and, no doubt, many of the songs on The Promise reveal Springsteen’s obsession with Sixties soul, British Invasion pop and Phil Spector’s girl-group grandeur. Darkness on the Edge of Town turned out to be one of Springsteen’s best and most rigorously focused albums, and, now that his originality has long been established, it’s possible to enjoy the sheer musicality – and the surprising depth – of these additional songs.
Album: Women + Country
Song: “Nothing But the Whole Wide World”
It certainly opened some doors for him, but being Bob Dylan’s son also created problems for Jakob Dylan. He scored big with his band the Wallflowers in 1996 with the album Bringing Down the Horse, but since then, while he’s consistently made good music, he seemed to have had trouble finding his footing again. On Women + Country, he teams up again with T Bone Burnett, who produced Bringing Down the Horse, but this time Dylan doesn’t seem to be trying so hard. – and that’s a good thing. The alt-country sound of these songs is spare and unaffected, and background singers Neko Case and Kelly Hogan provide a sweetness that smoothes out the grain in Dylan’s voice. The result is an album that’s easy to like, and difficult to set aside.
Album: Wake Up!
This album got its conceptual start during the 2008 presidential campaign, when singer John Legend and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the Roots began to feel that young African Americans needed to learn more about their history in order the appreciate the significance of Barack Obama’s rise to political prominence. Eleven of the twelve songs on Wake Up! were recorded in the Sixties and early Seventies, when the civil rights movement and soul music moved hand in hand. Ernie Hines’ “Our Generation” was a call to arms when he released it in 1972, and it remains one today.
Album: Love and Its Opposite
Song: “Singles Bar”
Tracey Thorn, best known as the singer in Everything But the Girl, takes on the difficult subject of divorce on her third solo album, Love and Its Opposite. The arrangements here are beautifully understated, and Thorn sings with a restraint that only makes the underlying emotions of these songs more powerful. “Can you guess my age in these jeans?/Can you tell me what any of this means?” she asks poignantly in “Singles Bar.” Those questions rub against the larger one implied in the album’s title: What is the opposite of love? Hate? Indifference? Isolation? Thorn makes such philosophical inquiry beat on her pulse, along with the sense of loss and the frightening freedom of suddenly finding yourself alone and unaccountable.
Album: The Suburbs
The Suburbs are a metaphor on Arcade Fire’s third album, which, according to singer Win Butler, is “neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs – it’s a letter from the suburbs.” As such, the album is suffused with the feeling of unknowingly being on the edge of something larger, more meaningful and more foreboding. The Suburbs explores the disquieting aspects of modernity — a sense that apocalypse may lie just around the corner, the hope that perhaps something better lies just within or beyond our reach. “Rococo” looks at the postures of the “modern kids…using great big words that they don’t understand.” The band understands that those poses are protective, that it’s the world careening out of control, not the kids.
Album: Leave Your Sleep
Song: “The Blind Men and the Elephant”
Leave Your Sleep, a two-disc set (a single-disc version is also available), is Natalie Merchant’s first studio album since 2003, and it’s a bold statement. Working with a wide variety of players in a broad range of styles, Merchant sets poems and stories by the likes of Ogden Nash, Robert Louis Stevenson and Gerard Manley Hopkins to music. It’s an album for children with a pre-modern agenda: To convey the sly wisdom of folk tales and nursery rhymes rather than the easy right-mindedness of so much contemporary music for kids. Consequently, the album conveys the mystery, wonder and surreal logic of childhood in a way that is childlike in the best possible sense.
Consisting of four high-IQ New Yorkers, Vampire Weekend takes its inspiration from other high-IQ New Yorkers, most notably Paul Simon and David Byrne, whose globe-trotting musical ways are reflected all over Contra, the band’s second album. Skittering Afro-pop rhythms and smart cultural references abound. The combination makes for a glossy, easily accessible surface, but the ten songs on Contra get surprisingly deep. You just need to pull away from the joyful grooves long enough to discover what’s going on underneath them. But Contra’s sounds are so infectious that that’s easier said than done.
Album: You Are Not Alone
Song: “Don’t Knock”
Ever since producer Rick Rubin re-energized Johnny Cash in the Nineties, it’s become commonplace for alternative artists to undertake renovation projects on the careers of older legends. Gospel goddess Mavis Staples hardly required such attention, but Jeff Tweedy of Wilco does an admirable job of showcasing her spellbinding voice on You Are Not Alone. Among other things, he wrote the moving title track, which sits comfortably among more traditional fare like “Don’t Knock,” which was written by Mavis’s late father, the gospel giant Roebuck “Pops” Staples. On this album, Mavis Staples stares down the snares of the modern world, and offers soulful redemption in their place.
Album: No Better Than This
Song: “Clumsy Ol’ World”
No Better Than This is Mellencamp’s second collaboration with (ubiquitous) producer T Bone Burnett, and it continues a run of strong outings from him. Typically, Burnett convinces Mellencamp that less is more, so these songs speak eloquently in a straightforward musical language that suits the singer’s no-nonsense Indiana roots. Some of the tracks here were recorded at Sun Records in Memphis and in the San Antonio hotel room where Robert Johnson laid down his heart-stopping songs. But the album ends with Mellencamp on acoustic guitar, singing a lovely tribute to his wife, Elaine Irwin, that is as much a testament to marriage and the silly ways of this life as it is an autobiographical statement.
PRODUCER’S NOTE by Chad Campbell:
These annual “year in review” segments make me realize how much I miss working with Anthony DeCurtis on a more regular basis. But he is doing quite well without us. Anthony reviews new music weekly for public radio station WFUV, and this past year he wrote the liner notes for TWO John Lennon boxed sets, a John Mellencamp collection and for “the fancy version” of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street re-issue. Anthony even got to interview Keith Richards about his book, Life, at the New York Public Library.