There’ll be some 2018 best-of-the-year things coming your way soon: look out in the next week for favourite albums (including links to reviews of them) and the most memorable songs, and then indulge with playlists capturing all of those great moments.
To whet the appetite, or see who promised something at the start of their career and has fulfilled that promise; to put this year in some perspective, or maybe just allow for some thoughts on sexual escapades that haven’t aged all that well (and hello to you R. Kelly), Wind Back Wednesday returns to the end of 2004 and a look back then at what had been a year of music almost everywhere touched by the divine. In more ways than one.
God was in the house this year.
He was there with Hillsong favourite Guy Sebastian who began the year as the biggest thing since someone thought of bread, let alone slicing it.
Sebastian and his fellow, but less godly Australian Idol star Shannon Noll, sold around a million copies combined of their fairly bland debut albums.
By year’s end Sebastian’s slightly less bland second album had debuted at number one but had begun slipping backwards alarmingly quickly, its sales at this stage only a fifth of the debut’s. Maybe prayer will lift it again.
Though God may be too busy listening to the awe-inspiring vocal layering in Bjork’s Medulla to pay attention.
Recommitting to God, in this case the Jehovah’s Witness kind, gave Prince the inspiration to make his best album in a decade, Escapology. Even better, the diminutive funk star toured Australia with one of the most exciting shows of the year, though amusingly, Prince felt it inappropriate with his beliefs to perform the most sexually explicit material in his past.
(Another veteran, David Bowie, also returned for highly enjoyable concerts which had no trouble with the past, though the only divine reference here was the wonder at how miraculously fit and good looking he remains.)
Prince devotee R. Kelly, who has been known to bend if not break a few commandments (not to mention a few laws concerning the appropriate age for young women to have sex) had one half of his fine soul double album Happy People/U Saved Me devoted to songs of faith. An even better soul album, with its requisite songs of faith, came from Jill Scott (Beautifully Human) while the Bloke Upstairs got a thankyou from Nelly amidst the hot and horny anthems of his double album Suit/Sweat.
The seriously disappointing hip hop queen Missy Elliott thanked God but should have been doing a lifetime’s penance for putting on an appalling rip off in a debacle of a live show this year. Either that or she should be taking lessons from the likes of Reverend Solomon Burke who gave us an old fashioned soul show and singalong sermon, Alicia Keys, who entertained with a big groove, the theatrical Flaming Lips and Darkness, or the African pair of Youssou N’Dour and Souad Massi, who had everyone dancing joyously.
While the likes of Creed, who give Christian rock a bad name, were thankfully absent, the best rock band in the world who also happen to be Christians, U2, were among a host of big names who delivered good but not great albums. Joining the Irishmen on this list were REM, Eminem, Elton John and Lyle Lovett.
At the opposite end of the scale were new bands who surprised with debuts which were outrageously good (Franz Ferdinand, who also put on one of the best shows of the year; the even artier TV On The Radio), or deeply satisfying (such as the mood-pieces from Holly Throsby, The Woods Themselves and Saddleback, all produced by one of the year’s unsung heroes Tony Dupe).
And bands who delivered strong follow-ups to talked about debuts, such as the Von Bondies, Datsuns, and Interpol.
Christian rocker, ex Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett, left the fold to join the increasingly godly crowd in Federal Parliament. Maybe it’s the temper of the troubled times, as captured in the words and music of Steve Earle’s return to form, The Revolution Starts Now, and Tom Waits’ typically demanding but gem-filled Real Gone.
Another American singer/songwriter, Patty Griffin, released the album of her career and one of the year’s best in Impossible Dream, an album suffused with regret, love and Catholic imagery. Also making her career-best statement was Kasey Chambers whose Wayward Angel finally saw her stepping out the shadow of her influences.
Nick Cave, for whom the search for God has been a lifelong quest, released a cracker of a double album of fire and brimstone (Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus). His former girlfriend, a woman who has struggled with, at least the imagery, of religion, PJ Harvey, stripped back the sound on record (Uh Huh Her) and in punishing and often exhilarating live shows.
On the bill for some of Harvey’s shows were local pop mavens Machine Translations whose Venus Traps Fly marked a high for Australian music this year, though radio ignored it of course. They also ignored Tim Rogers’ brilliantly conceived country/rock Spit Polish , the marvellously evocative soundtrack to Somersault by Decoder Ringand the debut album by a very exciting talent, Dan Kelly, Sings The Tabloid Blues. All four of these albums will be remembered long after Casey Donovan.
Real folk, or at least interesting acoustic music, fought back this year. Sure Jack Johnson and his dull pals still exist but thank God for the likes of Americans Devendra Banhart, Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom, on record, and M. Ward, in concert.
This quartet was odd of voice and lyric, spare of sound, and in the case of Banhart prolific, with two albums out in the year. But they were also rich with songs that stuck with you and in the case of Stevens offered an open spirituality which did not hide its Christian roots.
Their compatriot Jolie Holland took her cues from the 1920s, rooted in jazz, country and something rusty, but feeling fresh while Canadian Madeleine Peyroux went a decade or two further with some lovely Billie Holiday stylings. Locally Jess McAvoyshared Holland’s restlessness even if her songs were more contemporary folk/pop and both of them, so early in their careers, promised great work to come.
Great work continues to come from Nashville’s Lambchop (Aw C’Mon/No You C’mon), Chicago’s Wilco (A Ghost Is Born),Glasgow’s Blue Nile (High), New York’s Magnetic Fields (I) and Elvis Costello (The Delivery Man and a series of rocking concerts) and Toronto’s Ron Sexsmith (who spoke directly to both God and your heart in Retriever).
Spirituality remained a subtext at the gigs of the year: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ beautiful bluegrass/folk shows; Brian Wilson’s “teenage symphony to God”, Smile, in concert; and Radiohead’s attempts to find a way to marry hope, despair, rock and electronic beats over several nights in Sydney.
Fittingly the year ended with the ever under-rated Buddy Miller taking the white man’s gospel to the people in his album Universal United House Of Prayer.
And you know God is in that house.