This is a part of a series on music that has influenced contributors to Music is Good.
I truly believe that music discovery is a life long process and one that should cross all genre barriers. It is absolutely dumbfounding to me whenever I hear someone claim that “there isn’t any good music these days” or that a particular genre (usually hip hop or country) “is all crap”. I certainly realize, mostly because my wife loves to remind me, I’m not a ‘normal’ person when it comes to music, but it seems elementary to me that if anyone explores a genre a bit they will find something that speaks to them. Below are the 10 albums (in my personal chronological order) that have had the biggest impact on my life, and led me down my musical paths.
I confess to being a skeptic regarding best-of-year lists, though I suspect I am far from alone. The general arbitrariness of the exercise (my own list might look different if you asked me in a different week*) combines with inevitable comparison of apples and oranges (is it really possible to say that a given ambient release is slightly “better” than a given rock album?). What’s more, I usually fail to find my own listening reflected in most published lists (this year I trawled several prominent top 50 and top 100 lists and found almost zero overlap with my own personal list). Adding another may well be simply adding to the futility.
I’m going to go ahead though, largely because of the small chance that as a result someone might discover one of the titles listed below and come to love it. After all, I discovered several of them through the gratefully received recommendations of others. Moreover, each of these releases deserves to be noted on a list somewhere. I make no claim to judge cosmic significance, attribute enduring worth, or arbitrate taste. The following albums are simply 2011 releases that I’ve played many times each and that have left me delighted or fascinated and wanting to keep hearing them in 2012.
Don’t believe the opening notes of Lama‘sOneiros… they’re a lie and they’ll steer you the wrong way. The pronounced bounce and charge of trumpet and bass is like a doorway into a confused Ringling Bros. tent. It’s the opening statement to both song and album. It says, hey, this is what it’s all about. But it’s a lie. Because after the first 30 seconds, the carnival packs up and leaves town, and all that remains are long beautiful trumpet calls, low and serene, over a sea of electronics and gentle rhythms. It’s a dramatic moment on a dramatic album.
Christina Pluhar & L’Arpeggiata (Photo by Marco Borggreve)
Such a scenario suggests chaos, the very antithesis to the highly structured form which defines baroque music. Yet the early music group, L’Arpeggiata, manages to turn the baroque world on its head without disintegrating into a chaotic clamor. On the contrary. This Parisian-based group of highly skilled musicians and their director, lutenist and harpist Christina Pluhar, intimately know the music they perform and when they blend their specialty of 17th century early baroque music with characteristic forms of ground bass patterns inherent in ancient folk traditionals (the ciacconia, tarantella, folia, passacaglia, bergamasca, jácaras, fandango, etc.), magic happens. To understand L’Arpeggiata’s repertoire, a little background on some of these forms is in order:
A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 2
Hildegard of Bingen: “A feather on the breath of God”. Gothic Voices/Christopher Page. Hyperion (link)
It’s ironic that the first featured composer in this history should be a woman, given the regrettable absence of women from the ranks of the “great”, or even the “reasonably well known”, composers. Hildegard (1098-1179) was a remarkable woman of her time: an abbess and visionary who corresponded with rulers and popes, toured Germany as a preacher, and produced numerous literary works on religion, medicine, and natural history. She has been an inspiration for feminists and the New Age movement, as well as the subject of four attempts at canonization in the two centuries after her death. In the 1150s, Hildegard collected several dozen of her poems in the work Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the harmony of celestial revelations), which survives today in two manuscripts that also provide monophonic musical notation. The compositions are mostly antiphons and responsories for the office, as well as some sequences for the mass and a few hymns. Hildegard’s music isn’t based on plainchant and makes use of a small number of melodic patterns that show up in many pieces; it also tends to have a high ambitus (the range of notes in a given piece), which gives it a soaring quality that matches well with the visionary nature of the poems. Hildegard’s fame as a composer is only a recent phenomenon: Gothic Voices’ hugely successful 1982 release was one of the first recordings of her music, though there have been many more since then. Her popularity may give the wrong impression that Hildegard was the only significant composer of her day; the reality of course is that she was just one among many others who weren’t so fortunate as to have their names and biographies preserved for future centuries.
After gathering a selection of music that survived Christmas recently, I found myself wondering what a good ambient/drone Christmas album would sound like. That thought immediately requires clarification. Just about every kind of Christmas music takes on the ambient mantle at this time of year in the thin sense that it burbles away in the background and submits to being ignored. Even narrowing the notion down to music likely to get tagged as “ambient” at the online store, unappealing possibilities lurk: it’s not hard to imagine Christmas standards invoked in a syrupy, sentimental wash of insipidly cheerful chimes – Santa goes New Age, as it were. But what would a Christmas album sound like that was also serious ambient/drone music? Could it stay recognizably tethered both to Christmas and to the grainy soundscapes generated by the likes of Tim Hecker or Kyle Bobby Dunn? Well, no sooner had I begun to ponder than an answer arrived in the form of a Christmas release from the Hibernate and Home Normal labels titled Festive Greetings.
This is part of a series on music that has influenced contributors to Music is Good.
I was a bona-fide “grown-up” before I realized there were all kinds of good music hidden away in a vast array of genres I never took the time to investigate. I suppose I am not unique. During our teen years, while some adventurous listeners may follow the beat of their own individual drum, most of us at this stage of life are typically influenced by what the airwaves are playing from the latest top-40 charts. None of the music from that early part of my life was, however, what I would call influential in defining my lasting musical preferences. It was only much later that some albums began to seep into my ears and, in hindsight, I see how they proved to be landmark albums for me – albums which encouraged me to branch out into other genres, and once on that unbeaten path, find all those undiscovered treasures that awaited me. Here’s the ones that did it for me:
I received this CD as a gift from a friend many years ago and, while I had vaguely heard of The Waterboys, I was not at all familiar with their music. From the moment I popped this CD into my player and heard those riotously glorious fiddle notes that open the first song, “Fisherman’s Blues,” I was hooked. This was a sound very different from anything I had been musically exposed to previously. It was my springboard to the discovery of a whole new world of folk-rock with touches of traditional-sounding material by performers outside the U.S., which in turn, led me to more traditional folk tunes recorded by the likes of Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, Steeleye Span, etc. Fisherman’s Blues is still a CD I play often.
My compatriots have done an excellent job highlighting music that restores the seriousness of Christmas. As a Jew (a Reconstructionist, the lit-crit version of Judaism), I don’t feel like I have a stake in this game. Outside of a few songs, there aren’t any great Hanukkah albums. My holiday music tends be Klezmer, which can be played any time of the year.
There are a handful of Christmas songs I do enjoy. Wassails and winter songs aren’t necessarily Christmas songs: they are seasonal, coinciding with the Holidays. Indeed, “Jingle Bells” was written for Thanksgiving. There are carols that are based on excellent folk tunes that can get me moving (I will play “We Three Kings” and “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” as jigs). What tends to bother me about some Christmas songs is the repeated use of the same chord progressions, composed of I-ii-Vs and IV-iii-ii-I turnarounds (see “Jingle Bell Rock”, “Frosty the Snowman”, and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”). Popular Christmas tunes tend to sound alike, which in my opinion reflects the composers’ laziness.
Among my favorite Christmas songs is The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” which could either be seen as deep and dark or over-the-top, the alternative version of It’s a Wonderful Life or the Christmas version of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. From the production standpoint, the song is impeccable: soaring strings, perfectly timed transitions, even a big dropout to give power to “the bells were ringing out on Christmas day.” From a more cynical standpoint, the song is a crass attempt at a big commercial hit: the duet with Kirsty MacColl could be construed to be a gimmick, and the New York theme and the stadium sound are things a band might employ to try to crack the American market. It’s everything to be expected and dreaded from a Christmas song.
Snippets from the latest issue of Fanfare. These are the best-reviewed discs for November/December, in the order in which they appear in the magazine.
Liszt: Piano sonata; Fantasy and fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem”. Garrick Ohlsson (p). Bridge 9337
“As skillful as Busoni’s 1897 transcription is, Ad nos is not an easy piece to pull off on the piano. Ohlsson does it brilliantly, using a dynamic palette with huge fortissimos that never sound forced and a pianissimo spectrum of infinite gradation. … This B-Minor Sonata is so unlike any other I can think of, it comes dangerously close to beggaring description. … an interpretation of profound wisdom and almost excruciating beauty” – Patrick Rucker
2011 has been another good year for music, with a deep list of very good albums released. This depth has allowed me to extend my usual Top Ten list to a Top Twenty that could easily have gone to 25 or 30 without me breaking a sweat. That said, ordering the below albums was a little harder than usual because for me there weren’t any truly mind blowing albums released this year. Ordinarily there is at least one album, if not two or three, that stand head and shoulders above the rest and demand the top spot(s), but that did not happen for me in 2011. In fact, had this year’s #1 album been released in 2010 it would have been at most #5 on that list (behind Titus Andronicus, Kanye West, Owen Pallett, and Dessa).
I think a big part of my not seeing a true #1 album this year is simply a matter of taste. A whole lot of lists are putting Bon Iver, Bon Iver at the top but that album simply does not work for me. While I loved For Emma, its follow-up feels like it is trying too hard (although it would appear successfully) to cross over into the pop realm and sanded off the rough edges that made For Emma so fantastic. I was even more disappointed in Watch the Throne, which comes off as nothing more than self-indulgent ego stroking. Add to these disappointments the fact that I’ve never been a fan of Fleet Foxes or My Morning Jacket and some of the years best reviewed albums are off the table for me.