Best Albums of 2011 part 2: 5-3

3. Noah And the Whale – Last Night On Earth
(Mercury)

I didn’t expect much from this album. I picked up N&TW’s first two albums, listened to them a few times, and dumped them. And isn’t it lovely about music, and the world of music, that the only reason I gave this band another chance was I thought the album cover was kick-ass. Just look at it. Looks so cool. (It looks like Jim Jarmusch’s “Night On Earth” actually) It’s metropolitan. It’s modern. It’s exciting. That’s just the album cover.

Then the music. It’s basically Springsteen mixed with LCD Soundsystem. And yes, that sounds like high praise, but it’s true. The Springsteen thing is that rock ‘n’ roll escapism. “Tonight’s the kind of night where everything could change”. The idea that your dream is in reach, it’s just around the corner, and lets sing anthemic rock songs until we get there.

Then there’s the samples, the bubbles of synths and clatter of beats that gives the songs such urgency and excitement. It’s a long way from the folk rock of their first album. At 10 songs, it’s a short sharp adrenaline hit. The kind of album that would make a pop fan leave their home town and start a band.

And then an extra special mention to “Just Before We Met“. Every line is killer. The best song on this fine, fine album. You should hear it.

So these guys might still be second rate. Good records happen to bad bands all the time. But maybe not. I feel like the world needs more records like these. I know I do. If there’s one thing I need music for, it’s to remind me about the the greatness that is life if you’re brave enough to grab it.

 

4. Nick Lowe – The Old Magic
(Yep Roc)

For those not paying attention, Nick Lowe has been making some of the best music in the world for the last twenty years. Feeling his age, and not wanting to be an old man with long punk rock hair and reliving past glories, he decided to use his age to advantage. With silver hair, nice suits and classy, jazzy, dramatic songs – it is about as hip as music ever gets.

It is all about the songs. Gorgeous torch ballads about broken characters, shuffling through the rain, falling out of love, dealing with loneliness and joy in equal measure. Lowe has always been a great wit, and his lyrics continue to amaze. The stunning opener, “Stoplight Roses”, is a masterwork in paired down lyrics. It’s a vivid character study in 3 minute pop – and maybe the best song all year.

Like Gillian Welch, he’s found a sound and does it better than anyone else. It’s at once familiar and new. It’s retro, but hip. It’s old, but new. It’s all part of a reinvention that started with 1994’s “The Impossible Bird”, and Yep Roc saw it and reissued three albums from this period into a box set. I will even say that when the dust is settled, Lowe will be mainly remembered for his work in the last decade, not his 70s stuff. That’s how good this album is.

 

5. Laura Marling A Creature I Don’t Know
(Virgin)

My favourite album of 2010 was Laura Marling’s “I Speak Because I Can”. Another single (the far out cover of Jackson C Frank’s “Blues Run the Game”, produced by Jack White) and a whole new album came in 2011. It’s quite a pace, but maybe that’s right. Laura (or as I call her, Lozza), seems like the kind of artist that should have 20 albums under her belt.

This certainly feels like a “late-era” kind of album. Everyone compares her to Joni Micthell, but it took Mitchell til about album album number 8 (“Hejira”) before she gave up on writing pop hits in favour of following who restless muse. Marling has done it in three.

Sure, it’s weird. But wonderful. That muted organ, trumpet and cello that opens “I Was Just A Card” leads into a beautiful, jazzy place. Its one of many songs that occasionally stops dead. I hate reviews that talk about scales and keys and deep musicology – but if you like that stuff, this album is a banquet.

And she is still singing songs as if she is at the end of her life. She sings of children, old ladies and life’s biggest questions. And I guess that’s what makes her an important artist. But more interesting is how intimate these songs are. If you’ve not jumped on the Marling bandwagon, I suggest you start with “I Speak Because I Can”, and I’ll meet you at album 4 some time next year.

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100 for 2000 – #18. Nick Lowe – The Convincer

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2001 – #8. Nick Lowe – The Convincer
(Proper)

Before this record, I knew Nick Lowe as 1) Producer of early Elvis Costello and others, 2) the writer of Peace, Love and Understanding and 3) the once husband of Carlene Carter. After this record, I became a die-hard Lowe-aphile, grabbing anything I can. The Convincer is probably still my fave Nick Lowe album.

Sometime in 1994, Lowe took stock on his life, and carved himself a new sound. The bratty, witty, new wave he helped make famous was gone. He was getting older, and in came a more relaxed sound. A mix of jazz, soul, doo wop, brill building economy and a dash of country. Above it is his trademark wit, no longer used to show how clever Mr Lowe is, now to make his point even more subtle.

That 1994 record, the Impossible Bird, became the first part of a trilogy of similar sounding records – Dig My Mood and this one, the Convincer. All three are now available in a box set called the Brentford Trilogy. I would put the 2007’s At My Age, his last album, in the same boat.

The self proclaimed Jesus Of Cool definitely remains cool over these records. The Convincer has opens with Homewrecker, a lovely soul ballad accusing a woman of leading him astray and leaving him with nothing. Lately I’ve Let Things Slide is one of his masterpieces – so short and economical, it contains some of his finest lyrics:

Smoking I once quit
But now I’ve got one lit
I just fell back into it

In just three lines, you know exactly where this man is, and how he feels about himself.

Basically, this is the TV show Mad Men as an album. The long hard upbringing of of the man in Indian Queens shares the same theme as that show – how to be a man, when the world is set against you. It’s an album about the losers and the heartbroken. Cupid Must Be Angry, Only A Fool Breaks His Own Heart… all sound like forgotten soul classics.

But there is hope at the bottom of the glass. Has She Got A Friend? is sung from the view of a lonely man, but one who has not given up hope. In Poor Side Of Town, the girl returns to our working class hero, after not making it with some city man. And as much as a 50 something year old man can, he ends the album on s seductive note on Let’s Stay In And Make Love.

For me, I worked out most of these songs immediately on the guitar when I got this record. I often return to them – there’s usually a lyric I hadn’t noticed, some cool guitar line I’ve missed. One day I will be bored of the energy of rock n roll and this will be it for me, this so cool, so smokey sound.

It’s a tribute to the songwriting that many songs from the Brentford Trilogy has been covered already (most famously the Beast In Me by Johnny Cash). I think all 3 are essential. I loved how last year’s Quiet Please, the New Best Of Nick Lowe had one whole disc devoted to this part of his career. They are already classics.

4. Easy As Humming A Song

4. At My Age – Nick Lowe

Nick Lowe’s last three albums have found him exploring a new sound. Gentle, country-soul, match against his fantastic wit, and songs that sound simple because they are.

At My Age is no different. It’s a subtle record, but it’s a red wine, late night record. It’s country, but with that dash of soul, of jazz and of torch songs too. None of the musicians are showing off here. Everything is second to the song.

Some of Lowe’s best songs are on here.; in the classic heartache mode. Just the titles alone…Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day, I Trained Her To Love Me, Hope For Us All.

It’s not a terribly inventive record. It’s not Radiohead. It’s just a very, very good one. It’s sweet. It’s sad. It’s funny. It’s groovy. It’s smooth. And I listened to it a lot this year.

I don’t actually have much more to say about this record. Or most of Nick Lowe’s albums. Like Paul Westerberg, what he does is just candy to me. I will always go back to this kind of stuff.