Category Archives: 2010

Today’s Top 5: Natalie Merchant

Life. It’s sweet. Every day is a gift, every moment a treasure, despite the pain and misery we sometimes endure. Those are cliches, I know, but I believe them – especially while listening to The Natalie Merchant Collection, which I’m doing as I write. The set, for the uninitiated, features her seven studio albums alongside one disc of new and old songs performed with a string quartet, and another disc of, as the press release states, “rare and previously unreleased tracks recorded between 1998 and 2017.” It’s due out on July 14th, but those of us who preordered received it early.

Much has and will be written about the collection, I’m sure, and I plan to write about it myself this weekend, after I’ve had time to digest the new material and contemplate what the set, writ large, means in the scheme of things. I will say, however, that if you had told me back in 1986, when I first heard Natalie with the 10,000 Maniacs, that I’d still be listening to her all these years later…well, I’m not sure how I would have responded. But I’m glad she’s still making music, and glad to still be a fan.

Anyway, for now, here’s today’s Top 5: Natalie Merchant. Not necessarily her greatest songs (though some are), but great songs and performances, nonetheless.

1) “Carnival.” (From Tigerlily.)

2) “Life Is Sweet.” (From Ophelia.)

3) “Break Your Heart.” (From Ophelia.)

4) “I’m Not Gonna Beg.” (From Motherland.)

5) “Space Oddity.” (From 1999’s Live in Concert, which isn’t included in the collection.)

And three bonus tracks:

6) “Maggie and Milly and Molly and May.” (From Leave Your Sleep,)

7) “Ladybird.” (From Natalie Merchant.)

8) “Frozen Charlotte.” (From Butterfly, the collection’s disc of new and old material recorded with a string quartet.)

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The Essentials: Rumer’s Seasons of My Soul

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Last night, I listened anew to one of my all-time favorite albums – the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was just released with a “3-D mono” mix orchestrated by the son of the late George Martin, Giles Martin. I first heard it in…late 1978, I imagine, though I can’t say for sure, and have returned to it hundreds, if not thousands, of times through the decades.

But is it, as the marketing campaign for this reissue claims, the greatest album of all time? According to numerous critic polls, the answer is yes – but some say no. Pet Sounds has edged it a time or two, I believe, as has – if my memory is correct – the Beatles’ own Revolver. It’s what happens when you solicit opinions from dozens or hundreds of people, as few of us are totally in sync on any matter, let alone music. And, too, there’s this: I honestly don’t know where it falls in the pantheon of my top picks. Aside from the not-so-arduous process I employ for my annual Album of the Year exercise, I’ve never contemplated all that long on where an album (or single, for that matter) falls in the scheme of things. Is it better than What’s Going On? Pet Sounds? Abbey Road? Dusty in Memphis, Late for the Sky or Born to Run? Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere? Bridge Over Troubled Water? Blue? Seasons of My Soul? How can one judge such things?

And even with the jeweled trophies I dole out to the winner and runners-up at my year-end Album of the Year fete, which is now in its 39th year (!), the reality – as I explain in the intro to my running tally – is that the honorees are as much a reflection of my mindset as anything. Which, really, is what makes a great album great: It speaks to and for us in ways that, often, we aren’t aware we want or need.

Such is the case with Seasons of My Soul, the 2010 debut album from British singer-songwriter and pop chanteuse Rumer, which would easily rank among my Top 10 Albums of All Time – if I had such a list, that is. It’s my most played album of the past seven years, easy; and likely one of my most played albums, ever. As I wrote in my first blog post (which first appeared on the Hatboro-Horsham Patch in February 2012), it’s “an atmospheric song cycle that’s teeming with soulful, knowing lyrics and melodies that wrap themselves around the heart, to say nothing of Rumer’s emotive, pitch-perfect vocals. It echoes the classic pop of Burt Bacharach and the Carpenters, yet moves past those inspirations by tackling themes not always associated with pop music. ‘On My Way Home,’ for example, is about the grieving process, and several other songs echo loss of one sort or another. ‘Come to Me High,’ on the other hand, is a lush, romantic ode, as is ‘Slow.’ The intoxicating ‘Take Me As I Am’ is about pushing people away when you need them the most. Add in … ‘Aretha’ and such songs as ‘Thankful’ and ‘Blackbird’ and, to my mind, the album is a must for everyone’s collection.”

Here she is in 2011 performing “On My Way Home” in Philadelphia:

I’ve written about the album here, as well, and elsewhere on this blog. To my ears, it’s a timeless song cycle that captures the nuances of life and love in a way that’s both personal and universal. It’s my definition of “essential,” in other words.

Here’s a YouTube playlist I created of the album as nature intended, aka in the order of the original British release. It features several of the original videos plus official and unofficial uploads of individual tracks:

The songs:

  1. Am I Forgiven?
  2. Come to Me High
  3. Slow
  4. Take Me As I Am
  5. Aretha
  6. Saving Grace
  7. Thankful
  8. Healer
  9. Blackbird
  10. On My Way Home
  11. Goodbye Girl

(Warner Bros. saw fit to re-arrange the order of the tracks for its download-only version when they released it in the U.S. in 2012. The songs remain brilliant, of course, but the album’s ebb-and-flow is dammed, at times.)

Today’s Top 5: Curated Classics

Life unfurls like a flag on a windy day. Though it may seem that the cloth never ripples the same way twice, over time certain patterns can be discerned. For example, just like last year about this time, one of my first self-appointed chores of 2017 consisted of digging through the dusty virtual bins of Amazon in search of the perfect CDs to send my niece for her birthday. “Perfect” takes on a double meaning in this context – perfect for her and perfect, overall.

As last year, I used Amazon’s free gift tags to include short notes about each album.

dusty_memphis1) Dusty Springfield – “I Can’t Make It Alone” (from Dusty in Memphis, 1969). I wrote: “Although it didn’t sell well in 1969, this album is now considered a classic. It blends pop and soul in a way that no one had before; and Dusty’s vocals are wondrous.” I’d add: Make that a stone-cold classic; and luscious in addition to wondrous. Rolling Stone ranked it No. 89 on its 2012 list of the Top 500 Albums of All Time; I rank it higher – possibly Top 10. It smolders, yearns and burns, and sounds as fresh to my ears now as it did when I first heard it in the early 1980s.

emmylou_pieces2) Emmylou Harris – “For No One” (from Pieces of the Sky, 1975). I wrote: “Although she’s rarely topped the charts, Emmylou is an integral artist within the modern history of country music. This, her second try at a debut, explains why.” I’d add: Emmylou embraced and made her own the expansive “Cosmic American Music” vision of Gram Parsons, her musical mentor, who passed away in September 1973, on this classic from 1975. In essence, she helped forge the foundation that generations of female country and folk performers, including Taylor Swift and First Aid Kit, have built upon since.

harriet3) Harriet – “Broken for You” (from her eponymous debut, 2016). I wrote: “I discovered this gem on Christmas. Although the songs conjure the Carpenters and pop music of the 1970s, Harriet is a relatively new 20-something singer from London. It should make you smile.” I’d add: This set certainly makes me smile, at least. If I’d been aware of it when I created my Albums of the Year list in early December, I would have ranked it No. 3. It’s everything that’s good about pop music.

rumer_soms4) Rumer – “Aretha.” (from Seasons of My Soul, 2010). I wrote: “This is an atmospheric song cycle that’s teeming with soulful, knowing lyrics & melodies that wrap themselves around the heart. Among its themes: love, longing, loss & acceptance. It’s magic.” I’d add: I borrowed part of that from my first blog post on the Hatboro-Horsham Patch, since moved here; I’ve also written about it here and here. I rank it among my Top Albums of All Time, which I plan to share at some point later in the year.

rumer_vinyl5) Rumer – “This Girl’s in Love With You” (from This Girl’s in Love: A Bacharach & David Songbook, 2016). I wrote: “Burt Bacharach is a legendary songwriter who, with collaborators such as Hal David, crafted some of the world’s greatest songs. This set from Rumer was my Album of the Year for 2016.” For more, see my Album(s) of the Year, 2016 and Today’s Top 5: The Promise of Tomorrow posts. (By the way, that’s Bacharach singing at the start.)