Thursday, December 16, 2010

Top 10 albums of 2010

10 Bruce Springsteen – The Promise

A bunch of discarded songs from a 1978 album: how could this be one of the best albums of the year 32 years later? I did have to wrestle a bit with my principles before including this in the list – normally re-issues, best-ofs, live albums, etc. are discounted immediately. However, technically this is a new release studio album, albeit of material recorded so long ago that colour TV hadn't been invented (in Scotland anyway). But then I decided, it's my list and who's going to argue?

You may know some of the story, but I'm going to recount it again anyway. After Born to Run was released in 1975 Springsteen became embroiled in a dispute with his manager, which meant that he could write and record, but not release any new material. The dispute went on for three years and by the time it was resolved Springsteen had shifted a long way from the 26-year-old 'future of rock and roll' hailed after the release of Born to Run.

Darkness on the Edge of Town, the 10-track album he chose to release as its follow-up reflected this and, although it was critically acclaimed, in commercial terms it was bit of disaster. For many fans (myself included), though it is the high-point of Springsteen's career. The 10 songs have a strength and purity that would never be recaptured and it perfectly embodies his artistic vision. As Springsteen put it himself, it was 'a reckoning with the adult world.' It was 'rebellious adult music' that tussled with the realisation that 'life is no longer wide open. Adult life is a life of compromise. And there are some essential things you don't want to compromise. And it's working those things out. There's a part of life you can never compromise with, or you lose yourself.'

The recording sessions for Darkness were paradoxically once of the most creative periods of Springsteen's career and the songs just seemed to keep coming. Some of these unused tracks were given to other artists – Patti Smith got Because the Night, her biggest hit, and the Pointer Sisters got Fire – others were reused and repurposed by Springsteen himself and many of the melodies, lyrics and phrases here have turned up on The River and later albums.

Some of the songs just didn't fit with the mood on Darkness, some would have fitted perfectly. Many have since become live favourites and some achieved near mythical status, traded on bootlegs between die-hard fans. It is fascinating to get a chance to hear all these songs at last and to get an insight into how Darkness was put together, but what is most surprising is how well this works as an album on its own terms. There is a lot more variation in style and subject matter than you would expect from hearing what was released and this has been carefully considered in constructing a running order that means you forget the roots of these songs and get lost in the story that the album tells.

The one track that appears on both Darkness on the Edge of Town and The Promise is Racing in the Street. Possibly the quintessential Springsteen song of cars and girls and fading dreams it perfectly encapsulates the reckoning with the adult world and the battles between youthful freedoms and adult responsibilities that is such a feature many of Springsteen's songs. The version on The Promise is a slightly more bombastic and epic, the original version more weary and less certain, but no less devastating in its final reckoning:
Tonight my baby and me,
we're going to ride to the sea
and wash these sins off our hands
Tonight, tonight the highways bright,
out of our way mister you best keep,
because summer's here and the time is right
for racing in the street ...

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