The music of 2008

With a couple high-profile releases (Counting Crows and R.E.M.) on the way over the next two weeks, I thought this would be a good time to catch up with the CDs I’ve purchased so far in 2008. I plan to review all of my music purchases this year.

I don’t feel as qualified to “review” albums as I do films, due to my lack of musical ability, I suppose, and the fact that I’ve never studied it in any formal way. However, it’s a safe bet that I’ve spent more hours of my life listening to music than watching movies, and I definitely know what I like.

Here, then, are my first reviews of 2008. I’ll compile them in one post because this is a catch-up effort. From now on I’ll blog one at a time as I do the movies.

Of the four CDs I’ve purchased so far this year, two are duds and two are excellent. First, the duds.

Kate Nash – Made of Bricks

There was a lot of buzz surrounding this album early in the year, very similar to the praise heaped on Lily Allen in early 2007. The comparison is a valid one, to a point. Nash is brash and British, like Allen, but this album is nowhere near as fun or interesting as Allright, Still. I was ready to turn it off before it was over. I always give an album a few listens before really deciding how I feel about it, but I literally couldn’t get through this thing twice. It’s not offensive in any way — quite the opposite, it’s just boring.

Sheryl Crow – Detours

I have a love-hate relationship with Sheryl Crow. The Globe Sessions is a teriffic album… I love everything on it. And I’m discovering I hate pretty much everything else she’s done. The strong reviews for this album (and the fact that it is her first work since being dumped by Lance Armstrong, usually a good sign) had me optimistic. But it’s a mish-mash of hippie protest songs, jilted lover anthems and unconvincing rockers. Once you have a certain number of CDs (I’m up to 400 or so) you ask yourself “Is there any reason I would ever play this instead of one of the other 399?” and in this case, the answer is no.

So, those are the duds. I’ll make back some of my money selling them on Amazon. Now, on to the winners…

Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

Now we’re talking! Another much-hyped act, but one that lives up to its billing. This delightful album is a cross between Graceland-era Paul Simon and modern punk. African rhythms supplement guitar-bass-drums power pop in a decidedly low-key, minimalist package. Few of the songs cross the 3-minute barrier and they’re all catchy as hell… this album is a reminder that one of the best things music can be is fun.

Tift Merritt – Another Country

Every once in awhile I stumble upon an artist who joins the pantheon — the list of artists I treasure above all others. A list that includes Elvis Costello, Ben Folds, Lucinda Williams, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett, R.E.M., Rufus Wainwright… and more, but not many more. In recent years, Josh Rouse and Stew have found their way on to that list. And with this release, Tift Merritt officially joins them.

I adore her first two albums (one of which she signed for me after playing as Costello’s opening act in Miami) but this release cements her status as one of the finest singer-songwriters working today. Her second album, Tambourine, was a genre-hopping shot of whiskey, full of Memphis horns and big vocals. It’s bold, brilliant and one of the best things in my collection. Another Country is something altogether different — written and recorded after a year of soul-searching in Paris, it’s a much quieter and deeper record. Merritt’s voice is exquisite, somehow combining the gorgeous purity of Alison Krauss with the passionate grit of Lucinda Williams. And her songs are universally wonderful, from the simple country classic-to-be ‘Hopes Too High’ to the slow ache of ‘Keep You Happy,’ there isn’t a weak track here. This is an early favorite for best album of the year.

Sometimes an artist just hits you right where you live. It’s fascinating how different music does that for different people. Somebody out there is blown away by the Kate Nash album I couldn’t get through twice, and no doubt somebody out there is selling Tift Merritt’s Another Country to a used CD shop for $5 as I type this. But as I said at the start, I know what I like. And this I like.

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