Sunday, December 26, 2021

Best Of 2021: The Top 25

As wild a ride as 2020 was, at least it had some kind of trajectory. We were learning to live with a pandemic, taking action to put it in the rearview. We were rallying to the cause of dumping Trump. There were fears and challenges aplenty along the way, but also a narrative to which our storytelling genes could give shape. Then came 2021, with so many neck-snapping reversals for every step forward that any shape the story had would resemble that of the path of a worm chewing its way through wood. 

Fortunately, there was no shortage of new music, including dozens of albums that I leaned on like a crutch. I am filled gratitude once again for all the players, writers, singers, producers, labels, and other elements of this delicate ecosystem who were able to keep going. Still, I worry about some who seem to have dropped away, like Novelty Daughter, Natalie Prass, and Jane Church, and hope they are OK. And while I was glad to see some semblance of a return to concerts and touring, I only attended a handful of shows as I am as yet unable to project myself into an indoor space crowded with my fellow music lovers. It was a privilege to see the shows I attended, all of which were outdoors. 

It's hard to say how the lack of the additional dimension a live performance can provide to a piece of music is affecting my devotion to the artists I follow, but I can only work with what I have. I can be certain that my feelings for the 25 albums below - and the many others I will share in genre-specific lists - are as strong as any other year. I hope you find some measure of comfort, joy, inspiration, validation, energy, and all the things you look for in music in these miraculous releases. 

All of the albums below - except one - were written about in previous posts; click through to read my original review. Listen to selections from all of them in this playlist or below to get the flavor of each release as you explore. While my use of Spotify is certainly fraught with concern about how artists are paid, it has also connected me to music I might never have heard, which I have gone on to support in a myriad of ways. I urge you to do the same should you hear something you love. We need all hands on deck to keep the lifeblood of music flowing!

1. Fruit Bats - The Pet Parade

2. Hiss Golden Messenger - Quietly Blowing It Note: M.C. Taylor also gifted us with a most supremely chill holiday album in O Come All Ye Faithful, featuring gorgeous originals like Hung Fire and Grace alongside covers of everything from Joy To The World and Silent Night to Woody Guthrie's Hanukkah Dance and CCR's As Long As I Can See The Light. The deluxe edition came with a separate disc of dubbed out versions, also available here, that are absorbing, immersive, and some of my favorite music ever from Hiss.  

3. Scott Wollschleger & Karl Larson - Dark Days

4. Jane Weaver - Flock

5. Elsa Hewitt - Lupa

6. Eye Knee Records Note: This is not an album but a series of remarkable singles released by Holly Miranda, Amb. Parsley, and Chris Maxwell's new collective label. Ranging from sweetly hilarious to delicate and from devastating to inspiring, they made for an incredible playlist that became a crucial listen for me. I can't suggest more strongly that you get yourself to their Bandcamp site to buy all these songs and make your own playlist!

7. Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever Note: Having signed on for a month of Disney+ to watch Get Back, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to watch Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter To Los Angeles, which featured stunning orchestral versions of every song from Eilish's sophomore album. Played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the engaged direction of Gustavo Dudamel and with string arrangements by David Campbell, the reworks were exquisitely sensitive to the songs and further convinced me of their elemental strength. I can only hope for an audio-only release of the concert!

8. Raoul Vignal - Years In Marble

9. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises

10. Mallu Magalhães - Esperança

11. Dry Cleaning - New Long Leg

12. Spektral Quartet - Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Enigma

13. Domenico Lancellotti - Raio

14. Madlib - Sound Ancestors

15. Summer Like The Season - Hum

18. Tyler, The Creator - Call Me If You Get Lost

19. The Muckers - Endeavor

20. Amy Helm - What The Flood Leaves Behind

21. Ben Seretan - Cicada Waves

22. Cassandra Jenkins - An Overview On Phenomenal Nature

23. Arooj Aftab - Vulture Prince

24. Courtney Barnett - Things Take Time, Take Time My heart sank the first time I listened to this, her third album. Where was the low-slung bass of Bones Sloane and the locked-in drumming of Dave Mudie? Where was Dan Lunscombe to provide guitar and keyboard interplay? Why did she choose to work with Stella Mozgawa from the perpetually underwhelming Warpaint? Now, I knew some of those choices were due to the multiple lockdowns in Australia during the pandemic, but still, I was disappointed with what I was hearing. But two songs grabbed me initially and kept me coming back until the whole album just snapped into place. The first of these was Here's The Thing, the most vulnerable song she's ever recorded, filled with romantic yearning - a color that has been mostly absent from her wonderfully clever songwriting. The second was Turning Green, which has some creative drum machine deployment, meditative keyboards, and builds slowly to a terrific guitar solo, abstract and angular yet restrained. The lyrics reveal a sort-of love song ("You've been around the world/Lookin' for the perfect girl/Turns out she was just livin' down the street) that in its series of missed connections seems never far from current events. Take It Day By Day is the perfect prescription for these times, with a chorus that reminds us never to take the survival of others (or ourselves) in isolation for granted: "Tuesday night, I'm checking in/Just to see how you're going/Are you good? Are you eating?/I'll call you back next week." There's more variety here than on her last album and a bravery to the way she's just putting herself out there, with no attempt to conceal her fears or enervation in the face of all that's gone on these last two years. Also, the stripped back intimacy of the production foregrounds some of Barnett's most well-developed melodies and seems to welcome a personal connection to the record, making it feel like a dispatch from a friend. It's Barnett's best album since her debut. As the title instructs, give it the time it deserves and you just might feel the same.

25. UV-TV - Always Something

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2020: The Top 25
Best Of 2019: The Top 25
Best Of 2018: The Top 25
Best Of 2017: The Top 25
Best Of 2016: The Top 20
Best Of 15: The Top 20
Best Of 14 (Part 1)
Best Of 14 (Part 2)
Best Of 2013
The Best Of 12: Part One
The Best Of 12: Part Two
The Best Of 11
Best Of Ten
A Blog Is Born: Best Of 2009

Sunday, December 05, 2021

Getting Back To Let It Be

I don't know about you, but between the Get Back documentary and the 50th Anniversary edition of Let It Be, my fall has been dominated by The Beatles. Naturally, I have some thoughts about all of it - read on!

The Beatles: Get Back Documentary Series
The Beatles - Let It Be 50th Anniversary Edition (Super Deluxe)
The more you know, the less you understand. That's the short version of how I felt after reading volume one of Tune In, Mark Lewisohn's minutely detailed biography of The Beatles. That lengthy tome, which takes us through the childhoods of the four lads up to the precipice of Love Me Do's release, is so full of improbable occurrences that it would beggar belief as a work of fiction. 

And so it goes with Peter Jackson's eight-hour-plus documentary series on the making of Let It Be, which is filled with forensic, sometimes phenomenally exciting details, but never fully dispels the mystery of what made The Beatles at their best so good. But it does take a long time to remind you of how spectacularly good they could truly be. 

Part of the hype around this excavation, restoration, reedit, and reevaluation of the 60 hours of footage shot in January 1969, is that it shows a happier period in The Beatles' career than Let It Be, the desultory film created by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg and released in 1970. The truth is, of course, more complicated than that. In Part One, which starts on January 2nd, 1969, they are indeed all smiles, acting as if they have all just come back from holiday when they arrive at Twickenham film studio to begin rehearsals for a return to live performance that will be accompanied by a TV special. 

The good cheer continues as they run through nascent versions of I've Got A Feeling, Don't Let Me Down, Gimme Some Truth, All Things Must Pass, and fragments of other songs old, new, and covers. It's remarkable how carefully they listen to each other and flash enthusiastic smiles from time to time. But there are red flags from the beginning. The studio doesn't sound good to them, they feel exposed in the enormous room, and the live performance is hanging over their heads, necessitating breaks for discussion that circle around and go nowhere. For the viewer, how much this will fascinate is in direct relationship to your passion for The Beatles - and for seeing the sausage get made. 

One misunderstanding I had that was thoroughly cleared up by Part One is the creation of Don't Let Me Down, which I always assumed from listening to bootlegs was presented as this perfect song that Paul tried to muck up with annoying counterpoint vocals. But it was actually that John only had fragments and Paul is trying to goose the song to completion however he can. Before work on it grinds to a halt, there's some interesting discussion about parts of the song being too "corny" or "pretty," with Lennon defending its simplicity. It finally comes down to George to nuke Paul's unnecessary complications, by pointing out that it sounds "awful." But as many versions as we see throughout the series, the leap to an indelible masterpiece is never quite seen. Either it was off camera or it was just unspoken.

The most serious issue, of course, is George's discontentment in his own role, both at playing third wheel to one of the greatest songwriting duos in history, and to feeling technically inadequate to this method of trying to gin up songs in real time. He recognizes his limitations around improvisation, unfavorably comparing himself to Eric Clapton, which leads Paul to say: "But that's jazz." They're clearly not communicating. 

There's also this earlier nugget from George: "It should be where if you write a song I feel as though I wrote it. And vice versa...That was the good thing about the last album. It's the only album, so far, I tried to get involved with." And Paul just says: "Yeah."

Eventually George walks out and Part One ends in disillusion and near dissolution. But there are amazing moments, such as when, on the morning of January 7th 1969, when John is late,  and Paul, clearly frustrated at their slow progress, starts strumming on his Hofner bass, rocking back and forth like he's possessed. The best word for what happens next is a conjuring, as he draws the basic structure of Get Back out of his soul. Ringo and George look on, with the latter saying, "It's good, you know, musically, its great." He starts working out a part, and Ringo starts singing backup vocals, before taking up the drums, and soon all three of them are grooving together. Jaw-dropping stuff. 

Michael Lindsay-Hogg, for all his apparent skill at camera placement and coordination, is full of terrible ideas about the performance ("How about an orphanage?") and seems unable to read the room throughout. He even manages to get in a brief pissing match with Linda Eastman (McCartney) about who is the bigger fan of the Fab Four.  But he manages to get them all set up when, in Part Two, they move to the smaller confines of their new studio in the Apple building. Even with George back in the fold, this and parts of Part Three are a bit of an endurance trial, as you watch them simultaneously create the songs loved by generations - and attempt to murder them in their cribs by performing them in every style of parody you can imagine. Even this lover of their Christmas singles had his patience tested from time to time, but I guess performing Two Of Us as clenched-jaw ventriloquists is what John and Paul needed to do to re-cement their bond!

The ultimate payoff is hinted at when Billy Preston, whom they had known since their Hamburg days - and whom George had rhapsodized about in Part One - drops by for a meet and greet and essentially ends up joining the band for the remainder of the sessions. The sheer musical skill of Preston is astonishing as he just sits down at either a Rhodes electric piano or a Lowry organ and instantly plays parts that are nearly ones we hear on the final versions - and always with great exuberance and enthusiasm.

I also delighted in observing John's love affair with his Fender VI, a six-string bass that he plays on several songs, including The Long And Winding Road, when Paul is occupied by piano. He's often seen cross-legged on the floor, gently caressing notes out of the instrument. Yoko, whom I should have mentioned earlier, shows no signs of jealousy, but is rather content to sit and listen. She does show enthusiasm for some of the songs, especially as they come together more, and at times is seen in animated conversation with Linda - a beautiful sight.

In Parts Two and Three, there are flashes of musical perfection, master takes, even, evincing that unique and beautiful sensation of pure harmony between four people (or five, counting Billy) but it's not until the live performance finally takes place that we get an uncut (well, mostly) dose of Beatles magic. All that talk finally led to them making their way up to the roof of Apple for that famous last concert, although there was last-minute hesitation about even that. Lindsay-Hogg's skills come to the fore as he sets up ten cameras - five on the roof itself - and prepares to capture this historic moment. 

Not having performed live in three years, the four Beatles show some jitters - and also some worries about the roof's stability, but finally take their places, and run through a quick and ragged soundcheck of Get Back, getting the attention of their impromptu audience on the street. Then, with less than 50 minutes left to go in the series, they count off the first full performance of Get Back heard in public and it's...OK. But you can sense their true power coming back - and they feel it, too, exchanging glances, looking cool, smiling at each other. Then they do it one more time and...LIFTOFF. John executes his intricate rhythm and lead parts with panache, Billy's fingers dance on the keys, George strums along, easy breezy, and Paul is finally fully feeling himself, interjecting little whoops and hollers and finding the parts of the song to push his voice. Cut to Maureen Starkey bobbing her head hard, like I would have been. 

Then, they launch into Don't Let Me Down, with John and Paul harmonizing beautifully, and, even with a bit of gibberish from John, it is glorious. But it's when they kick right into I've Got A Feeling that it dawns on you: they could have done this more than once. They could have taken this on the road! It would have been one of the greatest tours in history, of that I have no doubt. Of course, if that had happened, we might not have gotten Abbey Road, which is a tough trade-off for posterity to accept. 

Throughout this magnum opus, Jackson makes almost only good choices. There are a few uncomfortable moments, such as when he overlays footage of The Beatles in their touring pomp as they blow through a version of Chuck Berry's Rock And Roll Music at Twickenham. Nice try. One could also complain about the highly fragmented approach to the rooftop concert, with all of its split screens and many cuts to the people in the street and the Bobbies sent to inquire about the noise. This is part of the story, yes, but it also dilutes the sheer brilliance of what the Fabs are doing. But, damn, nothing can keep us from the ultimate bliss of John delivering the loving and joyous version of I Dig A Pony that appears on the Let It Be album, screwing up his face in pleasure at George's perfect guitar solo, which firmly beats Clapton at his own game. You really can syndicate every boat you row, after all!

Of course, we've seen much of this before, in the original Let It Be film and on YouTube, but it's never looked as good, with Jackson's technical wizardry making both sound and vision pop with crystal clarity. We also owe Jackson a debt of gratitude for organizing the trajectory of what would eventually become their final release. The calendar graphic is highly effective at keeping us rooted in the timeline. The time at Twickenham, painful as some of it is, has never been so well-explicated. Bootlegs tell only part of the story, and Lewisohn himself elides most of it in his classic book, The Beatles: Recording Sessions, only picking up the story in full when they come to Apple. Jackson also does a great job highlighting some of the people around The Beatles, like Mal Evans, their indefatigable "road manager," who is as patient with a pen to take down lyrics as he is sourcing an anvil for early takes of Maxwell's Silver Hammer.

As a three-part series, Get Back lacks the shapeliness of a great documentary film, and, with each part well over two hours, even the gripping structure of a good docu-series. But it puts you in the shoes (and occasionally flamboyant boots) of The Beatles as they struggle through harmony and dissonance and unity and disarray. While not all sunshine and flowers, it is a more nuanced look at this time in The Beatles career than Lindsay-Hogg's dour original, and is a highly valuable project for that reason alone. If you are any kind of a fan of the band, or curious about the creative process and the pitfalls and power of collaboration, it is well worth paying for at least a month of Disney+ to immerse yourself in this shaggy tale. 

The Super Deluxe box set, on the other hand, is a typical Beatles product in that it seeks to organize and sculpt things a bit more than Jackson's lengthy project would allow. But this does make for good listening, as the two discs (in CD terms) of jams, rehearsals, and sessions, bear repeat plays and decently summarize all the ins and outs of making Let It Be. Whether by choice or due to contractual arrangements with Disney, we do not get the complete audio of the rooftop concert or even a hint of some of the intriguing offshoots of the Twickenham work, such as a jam with moments of hushed majesty called The Palace Of The King Of The Birds, a segment of which is heard over the end credits of Part One. The bootlegs are not yet obsolete.

The set also includes Glyn Johns' May 1969 assembly of an album called Get Back, which was his first attempt to make sense of all that happened that January. In a recent issue of Mojo, he relayed that when presented with this mix, The Beatles "...all came back the next day and said, to a man, 'fuck off.' They hated it." And they were right. Hearing it here, and knowing what gold was also on the tapes, one questions Johns' sanity or at least his hearing. Sure, giving us The Beatles "warts and all" is an interesting concept, but he seems to purposely choose takes that are just this side of good, much less great. They had master takes that he simply ignored for the sake of a principle! 

Johns also made an assembly of Get Back in January 1970, which as I understand it, was pressed onto acetate and sent to radio stations as an advance of The Beatles next album. Was that one any better? Not by much, since it used the same takes of the songs the two have in common. At least it eliminated Paul's Teddy Boy, which I find irritating in any version, and included George's I Me Mine, was recorded on January 3rd, 1970, the last time more than two Beatles were in the studio (John was absent) until the "Threetles" sessions for The Beatles Anthology in 1994. We get to hear that version of I Me Mine (all 1:45 of it) on an EP that fills out the box with new mixes of the single versions of Don't Let Me Down and Let It Be, both of which sound fine but don't further illuminate already magnificent songs. I also question the need to have 30 seconds of dialog precede Don't Let Me Down, which is not part of the original single release. If you want one of Lennon's best songs as he intended, you've still got to get the Mono Masters set or Past Masters Vol. 2 - or track down the original 45.

But what of Let It Be, the LP finally released on May 8th, 1970, and which all of this pomp purportedly celebrates? While not included in Get Back, most people are familiar with its final stages, when John and George surprised everyone by reviving the project and handing the tapes over to Phil Spector. John and George were highly enamored of the producer, even if his best days were behind him, both working with him on large swaths of solo material. The results created the only Beatles album with an asterisk, with everyone from fans and critics to Paul himself questioning many of Spector's choices. According to Lewisohn, Paul even accused the other Beatles in High Court of seeking to "ruin his personal reputation" with the orchestrated version of The Long And Winding Road.

In 2003, Paul produced his terribly titled rejoinder, Let It Be...Naked, which sought to right some of the perceived wrongs by stripping away the Spectorization and selecting different takes and edits in some cases. It was a good, if somewhat airless, alternate approach, with Let It Be and I Me Mine being the most satisfying beneficiaries of the treatment. The Long And Winding Road, sorry to say, still felt like it lacked something, and in the Get Back documentary Paul is seen discussing adding strings and other embellishments. 

But how bad is Let It Be, with "bad" being a relative term, as this is still The Beatles, after all? As a five-year old, it was just another album by my family's favorite band. While I recognized a certain different texture due to the orchestrations - the heaviest on a Beatles album since Goodnight - it still brought great joy. Listening now to my 51-year-old copy, which is in decent shape, I can take new delight in Two Of Us, now having the visual of John and Paul, face to face with their acoustics, while George, off to the side, does his country licks in place of a bass line. It's just a tremendously moving song and Spector does nothing to interfere with it or I Dig A Pony's awesome rooftop performance. I actually love the false start, which Paul saw fit to remove. Across The Universe now sounds a little more out of place, so firmly am I aware of its 1968 provenance. I like the "Wildlife" version better - best presented on the Mono Masters collection - and also agree with David Bowie that a more acerbic treatment was required.

I Me Mine is the first song with Spector's new material added, and the brass, strings, and choir sound bolted on and just plain unnecessary. His edit to extend the song works perfectly, however, making for a more satisfying listen in that regard. Let It Be also gets the full treatment and works better as the song itself attracts that kind of grandeur. John's Fender VI feels a little exaggerated but Ringo's drums have a nice clarity. Sonically, the orchestra lacks the depth of the one on Goodnight, perhaps pushing the limits of 1970's technology. Fifty seconds of Dig It and 40 of Maggie Mae are the perfect reminders of the playful atmosphere of parts of the sessions. Unlike Paul, I wouldn't want my Let It Be without them.

Side two kicks off with those ringing guitars of I've Got A Feeling, and once again I can connect to the recording, on the rooftop, with the glances between John and Paul easily recalled as they exchange lines. It's a great performance, too, with a low-end throb and George ripping off those tense leads with authority. One After 909 is a fine romp from the rooftop and sounds as fun as it looked. The Long And Winding Road, seen as too maudlin, attracts controversy as a song apart from Spector's work, but I think there's a fine melody in there, a beautifully restrained vocal from Paul, and now I have the added visual of the band in the studio to light my way through the morass. The strings, etc., are indeed a bridge too far, overwhelming not only Ringo's sensitive drumming but Paul's vocals, two tracks of which Spector erased to make room for more glop. 

In Get Back, we see them open up a box and pull out a cute little lap steel guitar. Picturing John playing it like a kid with a new toy only adds to the charms of For You Blue ("Go, Johnny, go!" George interjects during his overdubbed vocals). Get Back, a studio recording with rooftop dialog added by Spector, sounds fantastic, and knowing how many takes it took to get from Paul's Twickenham fever dream to this only makes it seem more remarkable. As predicted, I'm bobbing my head just like Maureen. A perfect ending to an imperfect album.

Some of the issues described above were helped slightly by the 2009 remaster, which added clarity without doing much more. Now, we have a wholly new mix by George Martin's son, Giles, who has previously worked wonders with Sgt. Peppers and the White Album (not so much with Abbey Road). Martin the younger sought to find the best of both worlds, respecting the original 1970 release while endeavoring to integrate all the disparate elements, whether the old recording of Across The Universe, or Spector's after-work. And guess what? It works a treat! That touch of grandiosity now elevates I Me Mine instead of swamping it. Let It Be takes you to church, George's overdubbed solo slicing through with a new physicality, John's bass anchoring everything, and Ringo's creativity shining bright. Even The Long And Winding Road goes down more smoothly, with Paul's voice having more presence and George's guitar, played through a Leslie amp for that watery sound, actually there at all. Is it a great recording? Maybe not, but it's easier to judge it for what it is than thinking about its constituent parts. Across The Universe still feels a little out of place, but that's more due to its instrumentation than the recording.

Over all, the album sounds terrifically well balanced, with renewed clarity and weight and Martin's work confirms Spector's skill at record-making. All of the dialog and scattershot bits make sense and give Let It Be the feel of a real album, as opposed to Johns' proposed Get Back sound collages. So, what is the poor consumer to do after all of this? If you can afford it, by all means get the Super Deluxe set on vinyl ($130) or CD ($115), although the book, which is supposed to be great, is likely more impressive in the former package. The Glyn Johns Get Back is packaged to look like an official album, making for a cool object, but it's not likely you will play it often. For most people, cutting to the chase and getting the new version of Let It Be on vinyl will be enormously satisfying, especially if you don't already have it in an earlier version. If you stream, you can find all of the material there as well.

Having watched the documentary and listened to everything that's now been officially released, I find myself marveling anew at what these four complex, flawed individuals were able to create and achieve. While the Get Back/Let It Be project was more seat-of-the-pants than anything they had done before - even the debut album was rehearsed for months on stage before they laid it down in one session - I've listened to enough bootlegs (and the Anthology volumes) to know that artistic greatness was never guaranteed when they started recording. It was their attention to detail, their hunger for success and perfection, and that indefinable fifth element that was created by the four of them together that made The Beatles so unique and enduring. And no amount of information overload will change that.

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The Beatles Thing
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