Best albums of 2019: #1 Better Oblivion Community Center “Better Oblivion Community Center”

Back in 2017, Phoebe Bridgers’ debut album, “Stranger in the alps”, just eked its way into my top ten albums for the year. Since then, however, the album has grown in my esteem and if I had to redo the list, it might find its way a few spots higher. Bridgers, herself, has also become a bigger name, her indie cred seemingly as impervious as her keen ability to write songs and to turn any project she has a hand in to gold. Last year, for instance, she formed a supergroup of sorts with two other indie ‘it’ ladies, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, and released a six song EP under the name “boygenius”. She also seemed to be popping up quite regularly in my social media feeds and in news items on the music sites I frequent with other one-off collaborations, live performances or otherwise. Then, out of nowhere, this past January saw her announce a project with Conor Oberst (!) and the immediate, digital release of the eponymously named “Better Oblivion Community Center”.

To be honest, Oberst has never been a favourite of mine, though I have tried many times, sampling his solo work under his own name or the Bright Eyes moniker, and even his early punk band Desaparecidos. Yet when I gave this album a go, it sounded like his voice had found a home next to Bridgers’, and I immediately set myself to work trying to find a copy of it on vinyl. It wasn’t an easy task. With the usual pressing woes and delays and the seemingly incredible demand for it, the record wasn’t easily found. But that only made my success in finally obtaining it that much more sweet. Since then, it’s quite likely the new wax that has frequented my platter the most this year.

“Better Oblivion Community Center” is more than two like minded indie folk singer/songwriters working together. Despite their differences in backgrounds, experiences, and age, their work on this album suggests they are bringing the best out in each other, stretching each out of their collective comfort zones. Backed by usual collaborating musicians from both camps, along with contributions by members of Dawes and Yeah Yeahs Yeahs, Bridgers and Oberst have produced a ten song collection that sometimes does but doesn’t always jive with either of their past works. Yet all of it is great.

Have a listen to my three picks for you below and give me your thoughts.


“Service road”: Oberst starts this one off, singing solo over an introverted acoustic strum. “You should really call your brother. Someone put up a picture where he can’t stand.” This leads credence to the theory that it was inspired by his brother, who basically drank himself to death. But Oberst isn’t alone here. Bridgers joins him after the first verse and like you’ll find elsewhere on the album, their voices are stunning together. They sing as one, much like they wrote all the songs, and in this way, they are stronger, giving hope to the universal grief. And man, when Bridgers sings “who are you” at the choruses, it sends shivers.

“Didn’t know what I was in for”: Track one on the album was also the first one written for the project. Bridgers sings the first two verses of the song, it sounding very much like something off her solo album, struggling with herself and everything she sees around her. “My telephone, it doesn’t have a camera. If it did I’d take a picture of myself. If it did I’d take a picture of the water and the man on the offramp, holding up the sign that’s asking me for help.” And again, it all changes when, this time, Oberst joins her, and you realize it’s going to be very different this time around. The acoustic that is so prevalent at the beginning seems to take a backseat to the highly affected guitar effects that had threatened to be mainly decoration, the drums kick in and there’s momentary bliss. Yeah, it all seems so hopeless again at the end but there is something so thrilling in it all.

“Dylan Thomas”: The project’s second single and first to be released off the record also happened to be the final one written for it. By both accounts, it came the easiest. Named for a Welsh poet by whom there was a book in the house the album was recorded, the song is a catchy kick at the state of politics. Indeed, it is much like the showboating politicians they are raking, using shiny confetti to thinly obscure their message. It’s a jangly rocker. It’s a fun song to bop to. It’s Oberst and Bridgers singing together as they do through most of the album, a two-pronged assault, each highlighting the other’s text in bright yellow. In the end, it’s about getting all too comfortable with the uncomfortable. “I’m getting used to these dizzy spells. I’m taking a shower at the Bates Motel. I’m getting greedy with this private hell. I’ll go it alone, but that’s just as well.” …And with that, happy new year folks!


In case you missed them, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Chromatics “Closer to grey”
9. Elva “Winter sun”
8. The Twilight Sun “It won/t be like this all the time”
7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Ghosteen”
6. The Soft Calvary “The Soft Calvary”
5. Orville Peck “Pony”
4. Ride “This is not a safe place”
3. Tallies “Tallies”
2. The National “I am easy to find”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best tunes of 2011: #1 Frank Turner “I still believe”

<< #2

“Hear ye, hear ye, friends and Romans, countrymen.
Hear ye, hear ye, punks and skins and journeymen
Hear ye, hear ye, my sisters and my brethren.
The time is coming near.”

Well, I did it. As I mentioned in my last post in this series, just over a week ago, I had been quietly planning over the last couple months to wrap this list up before the end of this year so that I could start with a 2012 list early in the new year. This one has been an awesome list and it’s great to finish it up with such a great song, with a message so near to my heart, so close to the start of a new year and a new decade.

I fully realize my number one tune, “I still believe” by Frank Turner, was released as a single in 2010 but it appeared on the British singer/songwriter’s fourth album, “England keep my bones”, the following year, the year of our focus. Again, my list, my rules. I also didn’t even hear this song until 2013, around the time that Turner released his next long player, so I definitely wouldn’t have had “I still believe” at the top of the list for either year at the time. For me now though, this tune is timeless. A classic.

It was my younger brother Michael that turned me on to Frank Turner. He throws me names every once in a while of artists he thinks I might appreciate and more often than not, he’s right. It just so happened that I decided to give Turner a listen on my road trip to my old hometown of Bowmanville in June 2013, a quick trip down to attend my grandfather’s funeral. I arrived the day before his burial, just in time to go the viewing, and spent the night at my Aunt Joan’s place, the house I grew up in. I was pretty exhausted so I retired pretty early. I lay down on a single bed in a room I slept in as a teenager, put on my ear phones, and queued up Frank Turner on my iPhone.

“And I still believe (I still believe) in the saints.
Yeah, in Jerry Lee and in Johnny and all the greats.
And I still believe (I still believe) in the sound,
That has the power to raise a temple and tear it down.”

Frank Turner got his start in a post-hardcore band called Million Dead but went solo as folk and punk type bard in the mid-2000s. That night, listening to the first couple tracks of “England keep my bones”, I immediately likened him to Billy Bragg, but perhaps leaning more towards the punk than the folk. Nonetheless, I could hear in every note, the sincerity and optimism and passion. And of course, like Billy, Turner doesn’t hide his rough-hewn working class accent, nor does he shy from letting us know what he really thinks. And when I got to track three, I just fell in love.

Here’s a song that knows that as bad as things get, whether you’re tired, sick, lonely, or just trying to sort out how you feel about losing your grandfather, there’s always music. Rock and roll and rockabilly and punk. A guitar, drums, perhaps some piano, and a rollicking chorus. Music from way back and off into the future. Frank Turner set fire to the tune that I replayed over and over and over that night, and took away the numbness, and I‘ve been singing along with it ever since.

“Now who’d have thought that after all,
Something as simple as rock ‘n’ roll would save us all.
And who’d have thought that after all, it was rock ‘n’ roll.”

Amen.

 

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2011 list, click here.

Best tunes of 1992: #22 James “Ring the bells”

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Now that Christmas is all wrapped up, I thought I’d remind you all what’s happening with my Best tunes of 1992 list before I wrap up the other two lists I’ve been blitzing this month. And this is one is pure joy.

Those of you that are not new to these pages will know that I’m something of a James fanatic. I first heard them with their hit single, “Sit down”, and really got into them with the album, “Laid”. Between those two was their fourth album, “Seven”, an album the Mancunian alternative rock band struggled with from the beginning. Half of it was produced by Youth, and only half because they ran out of time with him and given the band’s unhappiness with the results of early recordings. The band produced the rest of the album themselves with some help from Steve Chase. It was finally released almost a year late and wasn’t given the time of day by the music press. However, the band was pleased with the final product and I’m right there with them. I picked it up on CD as one of my BMG music club picks shortly after immersing myself in “Laid” and quickly found my favourites on it, of which this tune is but one.

“Ring ring the bells
Wake the town
Everyone is sleeping
Shout at the crowd
Wake them up
This anger’s deeper than sleep”

“Ring the bells” appears as track two on “Seven” and it sounds like it should’ve been the lead off single, picking up with the uplifting joyous energy where “Sit down” left off. However, they waited and released two other singles prior to unleashing this one. It is frantic acoustic guitar strumming, accompanied by an explosion of sound that will pick you right up out of your seat and get you dancing in a way that you can’t possibly sustain for its five minutes in length. I don’t even know how the band does it. But somehow we find the energy deep within ourselves and lose ourselves to the pure joy that the sounds evoke. Meanwhile, Booth is singing on about losing faith in religion and the freedom that brings and wanting to share it with us all.

The fact that such a tune that I obviously love so much is placed low at number twenty-two should serve notice that the rest of this list is going to be great. Prepare yourselves. It’s all coming in the new year.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1992 list, click here.