I’m writing this during the last week of my twenties.
I’m not a hundred percent sure where they went, to be honest with you. I remember being 21, and buying Jeff Maxwell a beer he couldn’t drink at Applebees. I remember being 22, and graduating from college. I do recall being between 23 and 26, working at Face and living in Maine, but the individual years seem to have no meaning. From there, well, I have moments, but no impressions of individual years.
In fact, since I was a young’un, I’ve marked my years with music, and that seems to be the clearest way I can remember individual 12-month periods. 1990, the year Little Earthquakes came out, for instance. Or 1997, the year of OK Computer. This just seems to be the way I’m wired. I remember big events – weddings, funerals, etc. – and I remember music. Sometimes I’ll even get the big events wrong, like forgetting how many years it’s been since my grandmother died, but I hardly ever forget release dates of albums that changed my life. It’s sad, I know.
So in a very real sense, my impression of a year is colored by – nay, almost based on – the quality of that year’s new music, and how much it touched me and revised me. I will look back on even the most painful and useless of years – 2003, for example – with fondness if the music was good. And last year’s music was very good, with Rufus Wainwright and Bruce Cockburn and Travis and Fountains of Wayne and newly unearthed Jeff Buckley and so many others. To say they got me through it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration.
This year is already looking up for my personal life. New job, new salary, new love life, new living space (soon) – it’s all going well. But even if it weren’t, I would be tempted to look back on 2004 as a highlight of my young adult existence, just because of the music. I get slagged off repeatedly by e-mailers convinced that I’m too positive, whatever that means, and I do understand that sometimes this column reads like the rave-of-the-week club. The point of all this positivity is that there is good music out there, and in fact there is great music out there, and in fact there is spine-tinglingly, life-alteringly wonderful music out there, in seemingly increasing quantities.
I keep track of my Top 10 List throughout the year, revising and changing as I go, and it’s pretty rare that I hear something early on that I feel will definitely make it to the list by year’s end. Usually, though, I can count on one early entry staying the course, and I usually know that one when I hear it. Last year it was Bruce Cockburn’s You’ve Never Seen Everything. This year, though, is a rarity among rarities, because try as I might to convince myself otherwise, I think I have four right now that will appear in the list. Four. That means, if I’m right, that either I only have six more entries to come from releases in June through December, or I will hear music that strikes me, captivates me and energizes me more than the top four I have now.
First, of course, is Marillion’s Marbles, which still sounds like magic to these ears. I don’t believe there has been a day since its arrival on my doorstep that I haven’t spun at least one track from this masterpiece. Guaranteed to be in the top five.
Second is Spymob’s Sitting Around Keeping Score. I haven’t heard a snarky pop album that was this fun and smart since the glory days of Ben Folds Five. (Or at least since Fountains of Wayne’s last album…) Spymob is proof that being funny doesn’t prevent you from writing great, touching songs.
Next up is Muse’s astonishing Absolution. Here is an album that achieves as grand as it dreams, that paints everything in sweeping yet nuanced strokes, that creates massive vistas and places you smack in the middle of them. I would bet money that no one will release a bigger-sounding, more openly dramatic chunk of art this year.
And then there is Keane.
Keane is proof that the world cannot live without a guitar-less pop trio of some sort. They are a British band (yes, another one) with high melodic aspirations and a full, rich, piano-driven sound. And their debut album, Hopes and Fears, is another record about which I would change nothing. It’s as perfect and yearning a pop record as one could dream to hear.
This is what the experience of hearing an album like Hopes and Fears is like for me. The first notes set the tone – “Somewhere Only We Know” is a mid-tempo stunner, all ringing pianos and Tom Chaplin’s dramatic tenor, and within three minutes the band has out-Coldplayed Coldplay. It’s one of those songs where you think you’ve heard the chorus, and then the real chorus comes in, and you can’t help the childlike grin that slides up across your face.
Two more perfect songs and I start to emulate the record’s title. I’m always searching for records like this one, with beautiful melodies and songcraft in each track, and when Keane manages the hat-trick with the soaring “This Is the Last Time” and the delightful “Bend and Break,” I find myself both hoping and fearing for the remaining eight songs. Can they possibly keep this up? I hope they can, I fear they can’t, and it’s off to track four.
“We Might as Well Be Strangers” is heartfelt and gorgeous. “We might as well be living in another time, we might as well be strangers, for all I know of you now,” Chaplin sings, and the ebb and flow of the music is so perfectly matched that the silly grin comes back. The streak continues with “Everybody’s Changing” and the amazing, ‘80s-creepy “Your Eyes Open.” That’s half the record now, and nothing that isn’t worth praising. I haven’t even noticed until now that there are no guitars on here at all – it’s all Tim Rice-Oxley’s piano and keyboards, filling the spaces elegantly.
Track seven is called “She Has No Time,” and it seals the deal – even if the last four tunes are crap, Hopes and Fears will get some serious stereo time in the coming weeks. Chaplin unveils what seems to be a necessity for dramatic British singers these days – a flawless falsetto that rises above even the most ethereal elements of the music. “She Has No Time” is the album’s most heartrending song, its chorus tumbling upwards, cresting and breaking beautifully.
After that, anything would sound second-rate, and “Can’t Stop Now” has all the markings of a b-side. Here, I think, signals the start of the decline. But wait – Chaplin and Rice-Oxley pull it off. The song is a pseudo-Queen pastiche, but it works, especially the pounding coda. It is the weakest song here, but it would be the best thing the Gallagher Brothers ever wrote, just to name one example of inferiority. But the sound is wearing thin, and we have three songs left.
And then Keane performs an astonishing album-ending coup, concluding with three songs that rewrite the formula. Both “Sunshine” and “Untitled 1” revolve around grooves and atmospheres. They’re both fantastic. “Sunshine” takes its central melody, centering on the line “Can anybody find their home,” and repeats it in a glorious crescendo. The analog synth solo in the middle is worth the whole four minutes by itself – its final wobble into the chorus may be my favorite musical moment here.
Finally, there is “Bedshaped,” the most epic-sounding thing on Hopes and Fears. It is here that Keane fully explores just how much melodic noise you can make with just bass, drums and keyboards, and Chaplin pulls off his most inspired singing on the swooping chorus. Rice-Oxley really whips out the Rick Wakeman in the middle, too, and by the song’s enormous climax, he’s probably multi-tracking himself 12 times. There’s no other term for “Bedshaped” – it’s a grand finale.
And I’m left breathless, with that same goofy grin. This is what I want my life to sound like. This is how I want to mark my years. A decade from now, I will likely not be able to tell you with any great detail how I spent the summer of 2004, apart from the times spent with the people and the music I loved. And I love Hopes and Fears. It helps lessen the blow of turning 30 – if I have 30 more years of music like this to look forward to, then bring ‘em on.
Keane is another band I look forward to following – it will be fascinating to grow with them, and to see where they go next. Needless to say, Hopes and Fears is one of the best debut albums I have heard in ages, and one of the best albums in recent years. But hey, I’m 30 now, so feel free to not trust me. You can trust this, though, and it may not be good news for some of you – as long as music like this keeps dancing its way into my life, this column will continue to be relentlessly hopeful and positive. Because as the man said, “music is the best.”
Oh, and if that’s not enough to make your life worth living, I just heard that Creed broke up. That alone fills me with hope for my next 30 years. Happy birthday to me…
See you in line Tuesday morning.