Albums of the Decade 1
published: 24 /
In the first of a three part feature our writers and photographers select their Album of the Decade.
Leonard Cohen/'You Want It Darker' (2016)
2016’s 'You Want It Darker' is a difficult listen with Leonard Cohen approaching imminent death, but it is also a deep and rewarding one and a revelation. The opening title track is the strongest. “You want it darker/We killed the flame” washes over the listener. It is sad, but at once beautiful and healing. “I’m ready my lord,” Cohen sings, and it disturbs me. I feel never ever give in to death, but it is so hard.
On 'Treaty' Cohen sings, “I wish there was a treaty we could sign between your love and mine.” With 'On the Level', Cohen recites “I turned my back on the devil/Turned my back on the angel too.” On 'Leaving the Table', he sings “I know you can feel it, the sweetness restored” and then “I’ve got these excuses/They’re tired and lame/I’m out of the game.” Cohen sounds broken here, but rebounds on 'If I Didn’t Have Your Love'. Love makes it real, and with it there is hope.
It is a hard and difficult album, but one that forever lives up to the artist’s talent and promise. Many artists lose the muse as their career progresses, but Cohen held on to his.
The great late Pennyblack writer Anthony Strutt called 'You Want It Darker' Cohen’s finest album. For me Dylan’s last true masterpiece was 1997’s 'Time Out Of Mind'.I’m so grateful that somehow Cohen held on to his poetic muse till the very end.
John Grant/'Queen of Denmark' (2010)
I’m choosing John Grant’s solo debut 'Queen of Denmark' over Vess Ruhtenberg’s first solo album as my favourite of the decade, probably because I’ve had more years to love it. The music itself is rather laid back indie rock bordering on prog, and if you were a non-English speaker not understanding the lyrics but listening only to Grant’s rich voice, you wouldn’t get the delicious black humour, self-loathing, and heartbroken sweariness. He earnestly croons the opening lines of the title track: “I wanted to change the world/But I could not even change my underwear/And when shit got really out of hand/I had it all the way up to my hairline/Which keeps receding like my self-confidence/As if I ever had any of that stuff anyway.” The rambling 'Sigourney Weaver' expresses self-doubt and isolation through name-dropping movie plots. It’s almost an anthem for people who feel that they don’t fit in anywhere.
He sweetly sings about the most horrible things the way Gilbert O’Sullivan was known for and clearly knows a thing or two about ostracism, depression, and loneliness: he struggled with drugs and alcohol, attempting to come to terms with his homosexuality as a teenager in the ‘80s in Michigan and Colorado in his less than tolerant religious family ('Jesus Hates Faggots').
'Queen of Denmark' was inspired by a brutal break-up that left him suicidal. Luckily his friends in Midlake were on hand to encourage and help him create this elegant, harsh, beautiful record.
Michelle Lewis/'All That's Left' (2018)
Molly Tuttle, Steve Robinson and Ed Woltil’s ‘Cycle’ and almost any album Chris Wade has released under his Dodson and Fogg banner; I can’t think about an Album of the Decade without those coming to mind.
But it has to be the third album from Michelle Lewis, ‘All That’s Left’. The Berklee College Of Music educated Michelle had proved on her previous albums just what a remarkable talent for music she had. But ‘All That’s Left’ is simply on another level.
The production by Michelle and Anthony J. Resta is superb; the little, unexpected slivers of sounds enhancing Michelle’s heartfelt lyrics and her warm, calming vocal tone. It’s an album about loss, about love, about my life. And it touched me at a time when a new life which unexpectedly turned my world upside down had me confronting my own mortality for the first time. That I wouldn’t be around forever for this little bundle of energy was too much to accept. Knowing that every magical minute I spent with him would one day end was difficult to grasp. Thinking that every time his father collected him might be the last goodbye began robbing me of the happiness he brought to my life.
Professional help made me understand my feelings, and ‘Push On’ from Michelle’s album was the first song that furthered my well being. Michelle’s vocals, her lyrics and her fantastic melodies never fail to move me. One minute smiling, the next happy tears in my eyes. Few are the days when I don’t listen to at least part of ‘All That’s Left’, and appreciate just what a fantastic set of songs the album is and how it got me through some tough times.
The Cathode Ray/'Infinite Variety' (2015)
Cover art is a big part of music for me, and the Cathode Ray's second album 'Infinite Variety' wins my choice for Album of the Decade for its art work alone. The Cathode Ray had released their 2012 eponymous debut album with the aim of "forging late 70's New York with late 70's Manchester," but by the time of 'Infinite Variety' had expanded on this early post-punk sound to incorporate into it elements of psychedelia, glam, Euro disco, krautrock and 90's alternative pop. The gatefold sleeve captures this development of direction - and the title - with both creativity and surreal humour by featuring on it forty photographs of unusual flowers and orchids.
Much of what we do at Pennyblackmusic is done from a distance and usually by phone or email because of geographical distance. The Cathode Ray are, however, like me, from Edinburgh. I first met their frontman and songwriter Jeremy Thoms towards the start of the decade and shortly before the release of 'The Cathode Ray'. He has a great label Stereogram Recordings as well as a great band, and it has been exciting to watch both from their near beginnings flourish. Stereogram's gig nights and album launches are always highlights. I have interviewed Jeremy four times now, three times about the Cathode Ray and once with his business partner Innes Reekie about Stereogram's offshoot publications wing. We have also interviewed many of the bands on Stereogram -The Band of Holy Joy, Roy Moller, the Eastern Swell, St Christopher Medal and the Vintage Calvinos - as well as putting some of them on our bills, including a joint Pennyblackmusic/Stereogram night in London.
I look forward to seeing what Jeremy, the Cathode Ray and Stereogram Recordings do in the next decade.
Joan Baez/'Whistle Down the Wind' (2018)
In a decade that has flown by who to choose? Not only to represent me but also the music of the decade.
After much thought, I’ve chosen Joan Baez and her 2018 album, 'Whistle Down the Wind'.
She has been a presence throughout my life, from the early 1960s to the present day. That’s a lot of decades. She has played a huge role as a politically aware and active woman in the music business, and she has had a massive impact as an interpretor of her own and others' songs.
In this album she looks to the past, the present and the future in her song choices. Josh Ritter’s 'Silver Blade' takes the story of the traditional ballad she recorded in her youth, 'Silver Dagger', to a different place, a place of a woman’s revenge for abuse suffered. Eliza Gilkyson’s 'The Great Correction' grows more powerful and relevant by the day. Zoe Mulford’s 'The President Sang Amazing Grace' is heartbreaking on so many levels. Finally Anonhi’s heartfelt cry for the planet 'Another World' is a song that takes us into the challenge of the new decade, recognising the work the Extinction Rebellion movement is undertaking.
There are other great songs on the album too. As we move into a new decade I’m convinced that Joan Baez is as powerful an artist and as relevant a musician as she has ever been. Long may she reign!