This year I decided I’d give you 5 good songs from the year instead of the usual 10. I thought I’d show you a little mercy. Not that there has been less good music than previous years or anything, though as one gets older it does sometimes seem that way. I could’ve included recent tracks from good-but-not-great albums by 90s legends like Thurston Moore, J Mascis and Stephen Malkmus but I’ve written about those guys on this blog before. You already know I love ‘em.
5. Leonard Cohen – Slow
When using a sexual metaphor – in this case, unhurried copulation – usually one doesn’t ostensibly bring their mother into it, (“I’ve always liked it slow, that’s what my mother said.”) yet here we are.
Released on his 80th birthday, Leonard Cohen’s 13th studio album, Popular Problems, shows that one needs to take their profession slow and steady for a long and enduring career and few songwriters have grown old as gracefully as Leonard. I’ve never been that impressed with the whole ‘poet turned songwriter’ thing – poetry and songwriting are two very different beasts – though, of course, his lyrics are usually great. And I’ve always loved his voice, particularly in the second half of his career as it got deeper, heavier, and slower; like a record player set at the lowest speed.
He’s still got it but, man, what a hideous album cover.
4. Luluc – Passerby
The principal songwriter of Luluc is Zoë Randell who has, for some time, been singing backup for Grand Salvo, who I’m a big fan of. Apparently, Grand Salvo’s Paddy Mann snatched her up after she sang at a Nick Drake tribute show at The Corner, which I attended. This year I discovered Luluc have a solid 2008 debut called Dear Hamlyn and they do a great version of Townes Van Zandt’s None But The Rain, too.
This year, Luluc has been touring with J Mascis to promote Passerby and I attended their album launch at Northcote Social Club, which was great. Like Grand Salvo, the songs of Luluc have a brooding elegance but instead of being sung by a sad man with a beard, they’re sung by a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice. It’s a big call I know, but I’m willing to state that Zoë Randell is the finest singer from Upotipotpon I’ve ever heard.
3. Laura Jean – First Love Song
I’ve given all of Laura Jean’s previous albums a red hot go but her latest (4th) self-titled is the first that I’ve really, really liked. Like Mark Kozelek, her writing has become more personal and specific and like Frankie Cosmos, she has a lot of songs about her dog. The melodies are strong and catchy, the vocals are warm and intimate, the production from PJ Harvey side-kick John Parish is nice and clear and she plays her nylon-string guitar with grace. Laura Jean is my favourite Australian album of the year.
2. Frankie Cosmos – Art School
First little contextual fact to get out of the way: The singer-songwriter of Frankie Cosmos is Greta Kline, daughter of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates. Now, the music: Zentropy is her first ‘proper’ studio album but she has released over 40 lo-fi bedroom albums on bandcamp, which shows that if you want to create something good, like an album, you need to have at least 40 practice attempts at it first. This album of 10 songs can be bought on bandcamp for 8 bucks and most of her other quickly recorded and released albums can be downloaded from her bandcamp page for free. There’s a certain immediacy in that. Reports of the death of the album may have been greatly exaggerated, but the way a musician can compile and release their music in the digital age is certainly a-changin’.
Usually, I’m more likely to complain about an album being too long than too short, but Zentropy goes for just 17 minutes! Really, I shouldn’t complain, though. In fact, partly because of the economical running time, it’s hard to find a single fault with this album. She crams a mighty load of super-strong, infectious pop-hooks in that 17 minutes. Not a second is wasted.
So two of my most favourite albums of 2014 were by a 47-year-old-man and a 19-year-young woman. Greta Kline may not have experienced as much death as Mark Kozelek, but when she sings mournfully on the last track, “He was just a dog. Now his body’s gone. Now what is left but me and my poem?” that kind of sums up the over-5,000-word Benji album.
1. Sun Kil Moon – Carissa
This is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard from one of the most moving and heart-wrenching albums in recent memory: Sun Kil Moon’s Benji. Sounding like something from Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, this opening track kicks off the theme of death and mortality that looms throughout Benji, in particular how death, from victims of school shootings to family members, have affected singer-songwriter, Mark Kozelek. Kozelek was 47 at the time of release, a rare age for someone to have a creative resurgence, with death becoming more of a prominent presence in his life. Reportedly, 176 people die throughout the album. Yeah, I know. It all sounds depressing and self-centred, but there’s a whole lotta love in the songs (it is not only the loss of a life that makes us cry, it is also the moments of beauty, tenderness, kindness and forgiveness that we long for) and studies suggest that an awareness of death can be good for you.
Carissa was Mark Kozelek’s second cousin. The mother of two died at 35 when an aerosol can blew up as she put out the trash. Her death sets Mark off back to his hometown and family to try and find meaning in a freak death (freaky, yes, though he mentions on the track that his uncle died the same way.) The song doesn’t just have a strong sense of place but also a strong and specific sense of time. It’s about just hearing the news of the death of a relative, (“Yesterday morning I woke up to so many 330 area code calls…I’ve got a 10.45 am flight. I’m leaving tomorrow morn’.”) putting the listener in a clearly defined time, place, and emotion. Despite the particularity of the lyrics, the song is also a universal meditation on the random unfairness of death and the fragility of life, and the fact that we know very little about Carissa adds to her appeal as an everyman. Anyone who hears the song can legitimately mourn her death.
The most extraordinary and compelling thing about the Benji album and what makes it so potent is the directness, specificity and unflinching honesty of the lyrics (metaphors be damned!). I’ve never really got into this guy’s stuff before and I’ve foolishly argued with long-time fans online who don’t like his new diary-entry style of songwriting. His recent songs are driven by lyrics more than melody and his sweet, soft croon has turned into a J Mascis croak. But if you’re a new fan like me, I recommend the album he did last year with Jimmy LaValle, Perils from the sea, which is similarly filled with eloquent storytelling. It’s like an electronic version of Benji.
I’m inclined not to even mention the stupid, unprovoked hostility Mark’s been throwing at The War On Drugs. For a guy that shows so much sensitivity, love and empathy in his songs, he sure can be a cranky old self-sabotaging douche. I guess with such an uncomfortably honest songwriter like him you have to take the vulgar meanness with the tenderness and seperate the art from the artist no matter how close those two things appear to be. One may hope that over time Benji will go down as a deserved classic, the dumb beef will fade away, and he’ll start treating his fans with respect.
But then again, since when have good musicians been nice people?