Tag Archives: sufjan stevens

10 Good Songs From 2015

Firstly, here’s my Top 30 Albums of 2015

And now, here are 10 songs that I liked that were released this year, in no particular order.

1. Courtney Barnett – Dead Fox

On this blog in 2013 I wrote about Courtney Barnett: “I hope she takes over the world.” Since then, well, guess what? She has. Without major label backing and before she even released an album, she played on Jimmy Fallon, hung out with Steve Tyler and sung a locally specific song about house hunting in Preston (where I used to live. Yes, it can be depressing.) to millions of Americans on the Ellen DeGeneres show, which I find particularly freaky considering how culturally self-absorbed the U.S. is. (Did the U.S. have to remake The Office? Australia’s The Slap? Why can’t they just watch the original? The Bridge? The Killing? They can’t read subtitles?)

Courtney Barnett has followed through with the potential of her first couple of EPs with a stellar debut album. My two daughters love it, too and I’m ordered to put it on every time I’m in the car with them: “Play the origami song” (Pedestrian At Best), “play the swimming song” (Aqua Profunda!), “play the song that goes quiet and then loud” (Kim’s Caravan). Dead Fox is my favourite track from Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit. I love the opening verse:

Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables
And I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first
A little pesticide can’t hurt
Never having too much money, I get the cheap stuff at the supermarket
But they’re all pumped up with shit
A friend told me that they stick nicotine in the apples

 And then the chorus soars. Speaking of soaring, I must mention  that Courtney’s guitar playing (so much attention is placed upon her lyrics) throughout the album totally rocks out. 

Maybe I shouldn’t care so much about whether Australian acts make it big overseas or not but I am hoping her success will draw overseas eyes on other good local bands which she has done a good job at plugging. Will Melbourne’s dolewave scene become the next early 90s Seattle? Careful what you wish for.

2. Darren Hanlon – My Love Is An Ocean Away

Courtney Barnett’s biggest influence, as far as her cutely detailed narrative lyric style goes, appears to be Darren Hanlon. She took him out on the road as a support slot in the U.S. this year and voted for this song in Triple J’s Hottest 100. I’ve been a big fan of all of Dazza’s albums ever since I discovered his debut, Hello Stranger, at the Coburg Library.

A few of the tracks on his fifth album go back to traditional, passed-along song forms. The great, very funny Chattanooga Shoot Shoot, for instance, is lifted from Bob Dylan’s early jokey narrative tunes, which were no doubt lifted from other folkies like Woody Guthrie.

I find some of the tracks off Where Did You Come From? to be a bit too light and breezy but My Love Is An Ocean Away is first-rate. Behind a lone finger-picked acoustic guitar and a simple but strong melody, his emotions go from sad drudgery (“every moment moves through clay”) to a bitterness and jealousy towards those who don’t understand the perils of a long distant relationship. Love has no divide? “Well, that’s easy for them to say.”  There’s also the oddity of him soaking up the ocean with tissue paper which could only come from the mind of Darren Hanlon.

3. Blur – Go Out

This is another song my four-year-old likes (“Play the O, o, o, oh song.” It’s Ok. I don’t think she realises that the song is about masturbation.)

For a late-period album that appeared to be made quickly, The Magic Whip is not too shabby. It’s a mixture of Damon Albarn’s whimsically melancholy solo album from last year, Everyday Robots, and the 90s Blur of old. My favourite Blur phase was the late nineties ‘America’s alright’ period of Blur and 13. By the mid-90s they needed to move away from the Britpop scene and get weirder and they did, leaving rival bands like Oasis far behind. Graham Coxon’s guitar work on 13 is out of this world.

 

The other song I was thinking of choosing was There Are Too Many Of Us which refers to Daman’s experience of being stuck in a hotel room above Sydney’s 2014 hostage crisis while staring off distantly at the news screens. So close yet so far.

4. Shana Cleveland and the Sandcastles – Holy Rollers

Shana Cleveland is the leader of surf rock band La Luz and they released an album I enjoyed this year called Weirdo Shrine. She also released a kind of solo album I liked even more called Oh Man, Cover the Ground. The very organic sounding folk style on this album is comparable to early Cat Power, though this song chugs along at a perky pace. It’s, as you young people would say, ‘groovy’. 

5. Sufjan Stevens – Fourth Of July

The new Sufjan Stevens album has received pretty much universal acclaim in some measure because it has an authentic narrative behind it, i.e. it’s about the death of Sufjan’s mother who died in 2012. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this personal narrative thread, in fact I think Sun Kil Moon’s Benji from last year, an album also about death, is a masterpiece partly because of its thematic unity. After the overly cluttered electronics of The Age Of Adz, I certainly welcomed the return to the simple folk sound of Seven Swans, but his strongest album of songs for me is still Illinoise. Even though I think Carrie & Lowell is not his highest achievement, I think this song is certainly one of his best and most heart-wrenching.

6. Tica Douglas – I Didn’t

This is a great song about not doing something. I was thinking of writing about it, but I didn’t.

7. Joanna Newsom – Sapokanikan

I recall, back when she was going out with Bill Callahan, Joanna Newsom talking in an interview about how Bill listens to music. He takes his shoes off, sits cross-legged in front of the record player and listens to the album from start-to-finish with his eyes closed. The music of Joanna Newsom is designed to be listened to like this. The orchestration on her new album, Divers, are (like her lyrics), particularly dense and take some time to get your head around, which is not such a bad thing.

Divers is another great album from Joanna Newsom and although it may not be quite her strongest collection of songs, her voice is sounding much more confident and shrill than it was on Have One On Me (she momentarily lost her voice during the recording of that one). It’s the sound the words make as she sings that are just as compelling as the meaning.
What was that? You don’t like her voice? You’re crazy.

8. Palehound – Dry Food

“You made beauty a monster to me. So I’m kissing all the ugly things I see.”

A new discovery of 2015 for me was the band Palehound and their debut album, Dry Food. The off-kilter but strong melodies remind me of The Breeders. The music chops-and-changes a bit like Deerhoof but not in a disruptive way. For $8 on bandcamp, the album is a bargain.  

9. Built To Spill – When I’m Blind

I’ve never got into Built To Spill before but I quite liked their new album Untethered Moon. This song rocks out like it’s 1993 and has an awesome face-melting chaotic guitar jam that sounds like a hell of a lot of fun to play and is, consequently, fun to hear.  

10. Dick Diver – Leftovers

I don’t know how you can listen to this song without feeling good.

 

Dick Diver’s third album, Melbourne, Florida affirms their place as the best Australian band of the 2010s. I like this album more than their last, Calendar Days, which I found too uneven and eclectic, though I still like their first album, New Start Again, best, with its Television-like guitar jams. Melbourne, Florida sees them introducing horns to many of the tracks and the muted guitar playing with light touches of synth give the songs an 80s tinge. As usual, the Steph Hughes tracks are among the highlights (You should check out her work with Boomgates). Her songs just ooze with her own gorgeousness. If you didn’t know she was a national songwriting treasure, well, now you do.

Hear Simon’s (slightly different) 10 Good Songs From 2015 on Spotify.

10 Good Songs From 2010

50% Australian made.

10. “TRIGGER FINGER” – YOU AM I

My favourite Australian band of all time are You Am I. Still, I’m surprised that I have chosen them as a notable in 2010. I haven’t really got into any of their albums from Deliverance to Dilettantes.  And Tim Rogers losing his voice hasn’t helped. But their latest self-titled album is very impressive.
I can’t easily explain the return to form. Perhaps they are finally getting it together as a band since Davey Lane joined (it took McCartney’s Wings quite a few albums before they gelled) or perhaps they’ve learned to adapt their songs to suit Tim Rogers’ rasp (I think it’s been a challenge for Bob Dylan in the last couple of decades to match the right songs for his croak). I mean, Convicts tried to rock hard but Tim no longer had the voice for it. The songs on You Am I are more soft-spoken.

Anyway, this song is like a great Rolling Stones track – funky, sexy and soulful. And these are characteristics I don’t usually associate with You Am I.

9. “Love and war” – neil Young

I like what Daniel Lanois has done with this. As you may know, the Le Noise album (Lanois, Le Noise – get it?) is a solo album consisting of just Neil and guitar. But it’s not one his breezy acoustic albums. Some songs rock quite hard. It’s like a Crazy Horse album without Crazy Horse.  Daniel Lanois adds the effects. While M.I.A. and Sufjan Stevens convoluted their albums with electronic dots and loops, the atmospherics added here are much more subtle and never get in the way of the songs.  “Love and War” is the barest track on the album and puts his frail, love-and-war damaged voice to the front.

Le Noise is not a perfect album – not all the songs are super strong and some of the lyrics are a bit daft – but it’s his best record in a long time. As with Dylan, Neil’s (recent) woefully substandard albums are forgivable when you know he can make numerous comebacks with albums like this.

8. “all these things” – darren hanlon

Four albums in, I wasn’t expecting Dazza’s I Will Love You At All to be as good as it is (I’m a pessimist when it comes to new releases in case you haven’t noticed), but it’s up there with his best (and I would recommend you check out any of his albums. They’re all good and underrated). “All These Things”, with it’s unashamedly daggy video,  provides a list of snapshots that make up our lives.

Whenever I post an online link to a Darren Hanlon song, I usually don’t bother describing or praising his music, I just quote his lyrics. One of my favourite lines from I Will Love You At All is from “Scenes From A Seperation”:

Maybe love takes the form of a mountain
With no choice but forever to linger
Or maybe love lives in a soap bubble
At the mercy of a child’s finger
Each one comes with a  little rainbow
Designed to hypnotize us
But I wouldn’t trade one heartbroken minute
For a years worth of dull happiness

I recall Nick Cave talking about Leonard Cohen in some crap documentary (why was it crap? One word: Bono) and he said, “Well, the thing about Leonard Cohen is that he can actually write” making a barbed point that most musicians can’t write. I don’t think this quote means much in that you don’t have to be a genius with words to be a great musician or songwriter. But Darren Hanlon can write. And it helps.

7. “Too much” – sufjan stevens

Sufjan Stevens strikes me as a somewhat troubled artist. Not troubled as in ‘Oh, woe is me, my inner demons are causing me so much personal pain’ but creatively troubled. It has been five years since Illinois, one of the defining albums of the noughties, and in that time he has kept himself busy with his music but has done everything but make a proper follow-up. He also suggested that making music in album-format was obsolete (albums are my favourite art form. Surely the rumour of their demise is just crazy talk, right? You may also notice that I end up commenting less about the actual songs in this list and more about the albums they come from. My apologies for that, I just tend to think in terms of albums more than artists or songs.)

The Age of Adz sounds like an artist working doggedly to break new ground with something original and innovative and the album both profits and suffers from this. Although I sometimes wish Sufjan would ditch the rich and complex (“Too Much”, Sufjan?) and make an album of just him and a banjo, I still think it’s a great record. I mean, there’s no denying this man’s immense talent.

I first heard this song streaming from some site on headphones and it brought me back to the delight of hearing a song like ‘Come On! Feel the Illinoise!’ for the first time – like there was a party in my ears and everyone was invited. It basically has the same kind of insane instrumentation and arrangements as many of the songs on Illinois but with added Kid A-esque electronica. It’s a sensational track.

6. “second guessing” – eddy current suppression ring

Eddy Current Suppression Ring’s second album Primary Colours would make my top 10 Australian albums of all time (and what a live band!) so I was really looking forward to this local band’s follow up. Rush To Relax is not nearly as consistent as Primary Colours – half the songs are below par and while some of the lyrics are dumb and genius, others are just dumb – but there are enough highlights to make it worthwhile. “Tuning Out”, “Gentleman”, “Walked Into A Corner”, “Isn’t It Nice” and this one, “Second Guessing” are killer tracks.

A large part of the appeal of ECSR comes from the innocent sincerity of lead singer Brendan Suppression, but Second Guessing” shows how great a band they are. This song, essentially an improvised jam session, is a great example of how the whole of ECSR is greater than the sum of its parts.

5. “born free” – m.i.a.

There’s been a bit of a critical backlash towards M.I.A. this year. I can see a number of reasons why (silly tiffs with journalists, Google-government conspiracy theories, the expectation of having to succeed such an exciting album like Kala, f’ugly album cover) and I don’t want to get into details about them, but I stand by Maya as a great album. In fact, I would argue that it’s her most consistent. Maya has a good blend of the accessible and the challenging and it reflects our current manic technologically excessive digital world more articulately than any other I’ve heard this year.

I first heard this song via the disturbing, mind-blowing video clip of the year. But the actual song only gave me a jolt after hearing it in the context of Maya.  It’s one of those energetic songs that comes in towards the end of an album giving it the kick-start needed to conclude the gratifying journey. It may seem weird but when she triumphantly yells, “Oh Lord, whoever you are, yeah come out wherever you are and tell ‘em! Boooorn Free!!” I get a little emotional for (to quote Dylan) “the countless, confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse.“

4. “blondin makes an omelette” – gareth liddiard

Probably the best Australian band of the last 5-10 years would be the Drones, so I was really looking forward to Gareth’s first solo venture. Strange Tourist is a bit of a strange beast: 8 tracks of lyrical storytelling, averaging about 9 minutes a song, entirely solo with just him and an acoustic guitar. I find some moments of Strange Tourist to be quite chilling (even more so when I saw Gaz play the album live from start to finish this year). He has a powerful, very emotional voice (a la Lennon, Cobain) that really cuts through. He maybe takes the “I’m an authentic songwriter” thing a little far; every second song involves someone committing suicide to make it clear that he doesn’t write silly poppy love songs, and the album could have done with a few more melodic hooks and some songs could have been shorter, perhaps, but these are minor quibbles. You’d be hard finding a more moving, on-the-ball (distinctly) Australian songwriter right now.

This song tells the story of wirewalker and acrobat Charles Blondin from the point of view of his eternally suffering jealous understudy, though when Gareth introduced this song live he insisted that it wasn’t a song about a tightrope walker. It was about imperialism. Go figure.

3. “On A GOOD DAY” – joanna newsom

Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I’m obsessed with this chick and they will not be surprised when I say that I give Joanna Newsom’s triple album, Have One On Me my number one album of 2010. It almost goes without saying. Loyalty marketing says that once you convert a customer, you’ve got them for life.

My main argument, though, for the greatness of Have One On Me is that it is and will be an album of lasting quality. It’s a sprawling, rich album that I will no doubt frequently revisit for years to come and with each listen, wherever I choose to enter it, find something new and rewarding.  It will live forever.

I was going to choose either of the two most accessible tracks from Have One On Me, “‘81” or “Good Intentions Paving Company”, but this performance on Letterman of the simplest and shortest song on the album, “On A Good Day”, will suffice.

2. “golden town” – super wild horses

There have been plenty of femme garage pop bands coming out of the woodwork lately and that can only be a good thing. In fact, here are 17 hand-picked by rock critic Everett True. Obviously, the best band from this mix tape are going to be the group from Melbourne, right? It pretty much goes without saying.

One of the charming things about girl groups is that they are not usually driven by technical proficiency or ‘musicianship’ (think about the unconventional, original drumming style of Maureen Tucker, the only female drummer that comes to mind from the 60s. The Velvet Underground’s  Loaded album just wasn’t the same without her.) The Super Wild Horses are driven by feel, character and a songwriting craft that is both simple and adolescent and smart and sophisticated at the same time.

What I love about the album Fifteen is how economical it is: two girls on just drums and guitar, sharing vocal duties, playing 2 minute melodic pop songs recorded brilliantly lean and mistakes-and-all raw by Eddy Current Suppression Ring’s Mikey Young.

As I get older there becomes less new artists that take my fancy but I can say with confidence and pride that Super Wild Horses are my new favourite band.

1. “thieves” – she & him

Ah, this brings me back to the innocent days of the jukebox, Roy Orbison, hula hoops, black leather motorcycle jackets, the thrill of holding hands with my dream prom date…Ok, so maybe those days never existed for me (or anyone for that matter) but this song transports me to another mythical era.

While I love Volume 1, overall I found Zooey Deschanel and M Ward’s follow up to be a little too light, fluffy and cute, but there are a few tracks from Volume 2, such as this one, that are timeless classics.  First, we just need to move beyond the idea that beautiful actresses are not supposed to be this good at writing and singing songs. I know it’s hard, but I think we can do it.

Top 30 songs of the decade (2000-2009): Part 4 of 6

#15 “Come On Feel The Illinoize” Sufjan Stevens (2005)

This song is dazzling – a staggeringly ambitious, lushly orchestrated big-top extravaganza. Sufjan Stevens once claimed that he’d release an album for all 50 states of the U.S. Right now his total is holding steady at two.

A person who aims at nothing is sure to hit it.

#14 “Son Of Sam” Elliott Smith (2000)

The most tragic, sad (and disturbingly violent) rock death of the decade was (no, not Michael Jackson) that of fragile singer-songwriter, Elliott Smith.

This song has the ambitious arrangement, inventive production touches and strong melody of a great late-era Beatles tune.

#13 “You Know I’m No Good” Amy Winehouse (2006)

Can you imagine what it would be like to have the paparazzi standing outside your house, 24-7? Perhaps not, but it would probably make you want to smoke crack. This song, with its touches of jazz, soul, R&B and hip-hop beats is sexy, soulful, honest, self-deprecating and full of sexual longing. She may never record another album, but her place as one of the best singers of the decade is firmly supplanted here. She is the real deal.

#12 “Godless” Dandy Warhols (2000)

The Dandy Warhols suitably rebelled against grunge’s anti-rock star myth. But unlike most bands who concentrate on looking and acting “cool as”, they didn’t forget to make some great music along the way.

#11 “The Revelator” Gillian Welch (2001)

What does it mean to be making this “American primitive” music in the hyper-technologised 21st Century (yes, I’m looking at you, C.W. Stoneking!)? Is it a denial, or a blessed respite from the insanely disembodied touch-screen world we all now inhabit?

Think about it, dude.