For all the end-of-year-lists encouraging music fans to the new, new, new, the music I listened to most in 2010 didn't come from an artist who released anything in that year.
Nor were the songs freely available on iTunes, Spotify or in your local record shop. The music I kept returning to was a privately circulated compilation of tracks from the late 60s and early 70s by one of rock's forgotten men, Bob Seger.
I say "forgotten", though Seger remains a major attraction in the US. His last album, Face the Promise (2006), went platinum, and his tours still take in the kind of venues that have the names of airlines or huge corporations attached to them. But when was the last time you heard anyone in the UK even mention Seger?
In part, that's a function of his being so American – if he tried any harder to reflect heartland United States, he'd turn into a John Deere tractor – but mainly, I think, because he fell the wrong side of the generation gap defined by punk and its aftershocks in the late 70s and early 80s. While the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty were able to align themselves with the new wave, Seger – big hair, big beard, big voice – represented the preceding age. Even though his biggest hit, Against the Wind, came in 1980, it wasn't being bought by the new wave kids, but by their parents.
And so Seger's name has fallen out of circulation, in this country at least. And that's a terrible shame. Because the songs I've been listening to track a fascinating musical journey. Seger began as one of the Detroit white R&B shouters, standing alongside the likes of Mitch Ryder and the Rationals. As the 60s progressed, he moved into psychedelia, managing to contradict himself politically with unseemly haste: having branded anti-war protesters cowards with the country-inflected The Ballad of the Yellow Beret, the psychedelic Seger took their cause for 2+2=?.
But the early 70s is when Seger really hit his stride, developing a funky, bluesy hard rock style that made him a huge star in his hometown but did nothing for him anywhere else – there are tales of him playing to 80,000 at the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit one night, then to fewer than a thousand the following night in Chicago. It was, unsurprisingly, a live album – Live Bullet (1976) – that finally broke him nationally, after more than 10 years of trying.
He used the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section to give his music the distinctive swing and swagger that makes it feel, at its best, like a less contrived Rolling Stones, and it's hard to fault his lyrical reflection of his fanbase's concerns – he came from a blue-collar city, and songs such as UMC (Upper Middle Class) saw him pondering class in a manner that Detroit's auto workers would have recognised.
Songs like Back in 72 won't thrill those who demand experimentation from their music. Bob Seger was always a musical conservative – as with Springsteen, the music of the 60s soul revues and the bar bands of America's great cities are his inspiration – but he made music that deserves to be heard. A left turn somewhere in 1968 and he might be remembered alongside those other highpoints of high-energy Detroit rock the MC5 and the Stooges.
So why can't you buy it? Blame the music industry. Seger was one of the many musicians who made strings of bad deals in his youth, and he's reportedly unwilling to license his early recordings for reissue unless historic wrongs are righted. There's just one legitimate album compiling his early material, Early Seger Vol 1, and it runs to only 10 tracks.
So, as the tips for 2011 roll around, raise a glass to someone whose time has, perhaps, been and gone. And hope that maybe it will return.
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