My top ten records of the year are not ranked - these are just my favorites from the past year, ordered alphabetically by first letter of the artists’ name.
Black Francis - The Golem
This is by far my favorite Frank Black/Black Francis record is nearly a decade. Artists who are as prolific as he is* tend to develop cult-ish fan bases because the sheer quantity of the music released is off-putting to a casual fan. To those who feel that way, oh well - it is their loss.
Every year, the San Francisco International Film Festival invites a musician to score a silent film - they present the artist with a list, and the artist chooses which he/she would like to score. In 2008, Black Francis chose the 1920s German film Der Golem to score. He assembled a crack band of Eric Drew Feldman, Joe Pope, Ralph Carney, Duane Jarvis and Jason Carter - collectively, these guys have played with Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, PJ Harvey, Jonathan Richman, John Prine, Gene Clark and Pere Ubu, to name a few. And then he started writing.
What came out was a fully formed double album of REAL songs - not just musical cues here and there (although those are present too), and songs that are some of his best: moody, melodic, unusual, surprising music that fits the silent film really, really well. Maybe because of the narrative nature of the film, the songs make you part of the arc of the story, even if that arc is not totally apparent without the visuals. There are songs from the perspective of almost every character - and so that means love songs, angry songs, observational songs that drive the plot along, and songs that offer an abstract view of the action. Some of the lyrics may sound a little silly when disembodied from the film, but no more silly than 90% of the pop music on the radio. Francis’s penchant for wordplay is strong as ever, and it is probably best to listen with a dictionary and/or internet connection handy.
The vocals are powerful and direct - especially at the tail end of “The Conjuring,” which builds to a screamed finale. The band is killer - this turned out to be the final recording for the late Duane Jarvis, and his lead guitar parts are stunning and act as a strong connecting tissue between the more straight ahead rock songs and the atmospheric elements. Feldman is especially useful here as producer and keyboard player, using piano, organ, synthesizers, clavinet, harpsichord and more to tonally blend the songs in all sorts of subtle but significant ways. And Carney, a horn player unrivaled in the rock world, handles everything thrown at him, from Clarence Clemens-esque lead parts to harmonies to background squawks. Sadly, the full score is no longer available on CD - only 500 were made - but the DVD/single disc record are still available and are well worth the purchase.
Songs to seek out: “Bad News,” “Miriam and Florian”
*From 2000-2010: 8 full length albums, 2 double albums, 1 mini-LP, a best of, 3 b-sides compilations, various free tracks via his website, no less than 4 live albums, an album with his wife, touring for a good 2 solid years with the Pixies, contributions to a handful of compilations, and a few production gigs.