Friday, December 31, 2010

The List of Lists 2010

For the last day of each year, today and thereafter, I'll be posting a set of lists dealing with past records just for fun. These are based on whim and subject to be revised in future year-end posts. We're just doing albums this year; I'm a little tipsy and I can't do much more complicated than that. Happy new year to all. I'm late on a couple of reviews (a Stephin Merritt double-header), I realize, and I'll try to get those up tomorrow.

These lists aren't thought or meant to be a definitive musical portrait of any given year or decade they document. They're a reflection of my personal tastes as of 2010. The whole point of documenting them is that they will have completely changed by the time I compile them again, because there's so much more to discover. Please do the same if you've got time, as it's great fun, and it will be fun to compare them years from now.

TOP 1990S ALBUMS
1. My Bloody Valentine: Loveless (Sire '91)
2. The Fugees: The Score (Columbia '96)
3. A Tribe Called Quest: The Low End Theory (Jive '91)
4. The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs (Merge '99)
5. Neutral Milk Hotel: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge '98)
6. Leonard Cohen: The Future (Columbia '92)
7. Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted (Matador '92)
8. Yo La Tengo: I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (Matador '97)
9. A Tribe Called Quest: Midnight Marauders (Jive '93)
10. Blur: Parklife (EMI '94)
11. The Notorious B.I.G.: Ready to Die (Bad Boy '94)
12. Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador '94)
13. Yo La Tengo: Fakebook (Bar/None '90)
14. Pet Shop Boys: Behavior (EMI '90)
15. Nas: Illmatic (Columbia '94)
16. Galaxie 500: This Is Our Music (Rough Trade '90)
17. R.E.M.: New Adventures in Hi-Fi (Warner Bros. '96)
18. Yo La Tengo: Electr-O-Pura (Matador '95)
19. The Chemical Brothers: Exit Planet Dust (astralwerks '95)
20. Pet Shop Boys: Bilingual (Atlantic '96)
21. Ben Folds Five: The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (550 Music '99)
22. Radiohead: The Bends (Capitol '95)
23. Depeche Mode: Violator (Reprise '90)
24. Naughty by Nature (Tommy Boy '91)
25. R.E.M.: Out of Time (Warner Bros. '91)
26. De La Soul Is Dead (Tommy Boy '91)
27. Belle & Sebastian: If You're Feeling Sinister (Jeepster '96)
28. L7: Bricks Are Heavy (Slash '92)
29. R.E.M.: Automatic for the People (Warner Bros. '92)
30. Pet Shop Boys: Very (EMI '93)
31. Radiohead: OK Computer (Capitol '97)
32. Blur: Modern Life Is Rubbish (SBK '93)
33. The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros. '99)
34. Jeff Buckley: Grace (Columbia '94)
35. Oasis: Definitely Maybe (Epic '94)
36. The Notorious B.I.G.: Life After Death (Bad Boy '97)
37. XTC: Nonsuch (Virgin '92)
38. Everything But the Girl: Walking Wounded (Atlantic '96)
39. Madonna: Erotica (Maverick '92)
40. Pixies: Bossanova (4AD '90)
41. Yo La Tengo: Painful (Matador '93)
42. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Columbia '98)
43. The Cardigans: First Band on the Moon (Mercury '96)
44. Television (Capitol '92)
45. Outkast: ATLiens (Arista '96)
46. Matthew Sweet: Girlfriend (Zoo '91)
47. Outkast: Aquemini (Arista '98)
48. Elliott Smith: XO (DreamWorks '98)
49. Old 97's: Too Far to Care (Elektra '97)
50. The Chemical Brothers: Dig Your Own Hole (astralwerks '97)

***

2000 ALBUMS
1. Yo La Tengo: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (Matador)
2. Outkast: Stankonia (Arista)
3. The Avalanches: Since I Left You (Sire)
4. The New Pornographers: Mass Romantic (Matador)
5. Belle & Sebastian: Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (Matador)
6. Elliott Smith: Figure 8 (DreamWorks)
7. Radiohead: Kid A (Capitol)
8. The Weakerthans: Left and Leaving (G7 Welcoming Committee)
9. Common: Like Water for Chocolate (MCA)
10. Cat Power: The Covers Record (Matador)
+
Björk: Selmasongs (Elektra)
The Apples in Stereo: The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone (SpinART)
eels: Daisies of the Galaxy (DreamWorks)
Madonna: Music (Warner Bros.)

1990 ALBUMS
1. Yo La Tengo: Fakebook (Bar/None)
2. Pet Shop Boys: Behavior (EMI)
3. Galaxie 500: This Is Our Music (Rough Trade)
4. Depeche Mode: Violator (Reprise)
5. Pixies: Bossanova (4AD)
6. Information Society: Hack (Tommy Boy)
7. Boogie Down Productions: Edutainment (Jive)
8. Suzanne Vega: Days of Open Hand (A&M)
9. Deee-Lite: World Clique (Elektra)
10. Brian Eno & John Cale: Wrong Way Up (Warner Bros.)
+
A Tribe Called Quest: People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (Jive)

1980 ALBUMS
1. Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire)
2. The Clash: Sandinista! (Epic)
3. The English Beat: I Just Can't Stop It (I.R.S.)
4. The Jam: Sound Affects (Polydor)
5. Suicide [2] (Mute)
6. Devo: Freedom of Choice (Warner Bros.)
7. U2: Boy (Island)
8. Prince: Dirty Mind (Warner Bros.)
9. John Lennon & Yoko Ono: Double Fantasy (Geffen)
10. The Records: Crashes (Virgin)
+
Stevie Wonder: Hotter Than July (Tamla)
Kurtis Blow (Mercury)
Alex Chilton: Like Flies on Sherbet (Peabody)
The Ramones: End of the Century (Sire)
Peter Gabriel (Geffen)
The B-52's: Wild Planet (Warner Bros.)
XTC: Black Sea (Virgin)
The Only Ones: Baby's Got a Gun (Epic)
Neil Young: Hawks & Doves (Reprise)
The Police: Zenyatta Mondatta (A&M)
The Cars: Panorama (Elektra)

1970 ALBUMS
1. The Velvet Underground: Loaded (Cotillon)
2. Neil Young: After the Gold Rush (Reprise)
3. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (Apple)
4. The Meters: Look-Ka-Py-Py (Josie)
5. Nick Drake: Bryter Layter (Island)
6. The Stooges: Fun House (Elektra)
7. The Kinks: Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround (Reprise)
8. David Bowie: The Man Who Sold the World (Mercury)
9. Miles Davis: Bitches Brew (Columbia)
10. Van Morrison: Moondance (Warner Bros.)
+
Funkadelic: Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow (Westbound)
The Flying Burrito Brothers: Burrito Deluxe (A&M)
Simon & Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water (Columbia)
Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (Apple)
Miles Davis: Jack Johnson (Columbia)
Van Morrison: His Band and the Street Choir (Warner Bros.)
Loudon Wainwright III: Album I (Atlantic)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Chuck Berry: The Great Twenty-Eight (1956-65)


(Chess)

!!! A+ COMPILATION !!!

A heart-beatin’ rhythm and my soul keeps singin’ the blues.

I hate to start this out with a bunch of shit about ME, but recently it occurred to me that I’ve barely written about Chuck Berry anywhere. I actually know why this is; I find it intimidating to even try to address his music. But there’s no real excuse. I’ve talked plenty about R.E.M., a great group for sure, but not fit to mow Berry’s yard. The truth is that if there’s anyone whose work defines what I love in music it is Berry. His songs are short bursts of rhythm and energy, tough-minded but warm, melodic but raw, and goddamn if the motherfucker can’t play the guitar. At any rate, I’ve wanted to write a whole bunch of stuff about Berry for at least seven years, just like I’ve wanted to write about Ray Charles and Buddy Holly and etc etc etc., but in all of these cases I feel simply inadequate. I can handle the Beatles because I’ve grown up reading everything I could get my hands on about them and attaining a blob of useless knowledge about them, like did you know “I Feel Fine” is preceded by mysterious whispering on the American version of the Red Album but not the British one? Now you do.

Obviously a lot of people who didn’t hear much Berry growing up — and he is mysteriously sidelined on oldies stations — became aware of him through the Beatles and the Beach Boys and I’m no exception. I will go ahead and cop by telling you that I often prefer the Beatles' versions of Berry's songs they covered in the studio (not for the BBC) and there are days when I even prefer Eddie Cochran’s live performance of “Sweet Little Sixteen” to Berry’s original. But this has become less true as I've grown older, and anyway it would mean nothing without his barbed, brilliant songwriting. The Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun” is a masterful rock & roll record, but there is simply no way it would ever have been written if not for Chuck Berry, and I would argue, there is no way that the Beach Boys or the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones or the Who or blah blah etc., would ever have existed without him. Rock & roll might exist without him, those seeds were planted before he was born (Oct. 18 1926) but it would not matter, certainly not today.

And what is rock & roll, anyway? These sorts of questions grab you at the Ground Zero of these 28 songs. If you’re my age or a bit older, you’ve had everyone from Jack Black to Adam Curry to Fred Durst telling you that rock music is about aggression, partying, drugs, hookers, what the hell ever. Berry for sure was aggressive, he partied, he did drugs, and probably hired about a million hookers. And I’m sure he’s got an ego, and he pretty much deserves it. But what intrigues me is that none of this comes through in the music, which has something that most celebrated classic rock does not: human intelligence, minimalism, even, in a sense, privacy. Berry’s vocals and guitar work have no pretension to godlike self-aggrandizement that has been the trademark of the form from Clapton onward. They are complex ideas simply expressed; if you want to add community to the equation, that’s great, but you actually don’t have to.

Maybe lyrics matter in all this, and maybe they don’t. For sure they’re not the point and never were. When Berry’s popularity was renewed (following his prison sentence for “transferring a minor across state lines”) after the credit he received for the sound of the British Invasion, his response was an album called St. Louis to Liverpool and a single called “No Particular Place to Go” very similar to his older “School Day.” For a long time I dismissed the song as a cash-in, then the more I heard it the more remarkable I found the character, charm, humility in the words… really not even the words so much as the way Berry brought them to life, but they are worth repeating nevertheless:

Ridin’ along in my automobile
My baby beside me at the wheel
I stole a kiss at the turn of a mile
My curiosity runnin’ wild
Cruisin’ and playin’ the radio
With no particular place to go.

Ridin’ along in my automobile
I’m anxious to tell her the way I feel,
So I told her softly and sincere,
And she leaned and whispered in my ear
Cuddlin’ more and drivin’ slow,
With no particular place to go.

No particular place to go,
So we parked way out on the Kokomo
The night was young and the moon was bold
So we both decided to take a stroll
Can you imagine the way I felt?
I couldn’t unfasten her safety belt!

Ridin’ along in my calaboose [he lets some anger slip here at the perfect moment]
Still tryin’ to get her belt unloose
All the way home I held a grudge,
But the safety belt, it wouldn’t budge


Arguably, well before Bob Dylan was even heard of, certainly well before he “went electric,” Berry cared more about lyrics than anyone else. Actually I don’t even know if he cared. It just sounds like he did. The stunning storytelling in “Memphis” has never been improved upon by anybody; Berry sings of the estranged father attempting contact with his faraway daughter in an unsentimental, moving manner that makes the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” sound even more melodramatic, forced, and maudlin than it actually is:

Help me, information, get in touch with my Marie
She’s the only one who’d phone me here from Memphis Tennessee
Her home is on the south side, high up on a ridge
Just a half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge

Help me, information, more than that I cannot add
Only that I miss her and all the fun we had
But we were pulled apart because her mom did not agree
And tore apart our happy home in Memphis Tennessee

Last time I saw Marie she’s waving me good-bye
With hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye
Marie is only six years old, information please
Try to put me through to her in Memphis Tennessee


I hate to distill Berry’s career down to a single compilation at the moment, I know he has far more music than I’ve even touched yet, but there is a certain ingenious simplicity to the way this one is put together that is quite apt. Unadorned, simple, flat even, its artwork and tracklist are almost obvious in a sense, almost suggesting you don’t need anything except this music, these recordings, this is all the historical context you really require: a photo of Berry duckwalking and the song titles.

Everyone you hear talking about the matter has a different version of who actually spearheaded rock & roll. Some cynical people will tell you it was Alan Freed. Some sentimental ones say Fats Domino. Some naive ones stand by Elvis Presley. Some geeky ones insist on Robert Johnson. George Harrison I think argued in favor of Carl Perkins. I can’t offer anything like authority on the issue, nor can anyone (Robert Palmer, in his 1976 essay “Rock Begins,” came probably closest), but we all know pop and rock music are mutating forms, and we are at the advantage of knowing everything it has come to entail since the whole game started in 1956 or so.

1956 was the year that “Maybellene,” Berry’s first single and first massive success and the first track on this record, was released. One thing for certain, and I can’t see much of a debate on this. You can listen to Explosion The First, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Halley and His Comets, or to “Heartbreak Hotel,” which everyone alleges as an earth-shattering revelation. But “Maybellene” alone among competiting titles for The First Actual Rock & Roll Song sounds as if it could have been recorded yesterday, sounds as youthful and vibrant and "now" as it ever did. Not that the production isn’t primitive — it’s all the better for it, actually — but the self-contained energy, pointed intensity, raw emotion countered by wit, and streetwise self-deprecation are all modern and universal. There is no Lou Reed and no Kanye West without “Maybellene” and “Thirty Days” and on and on. Which I will concur would mean nothing if Berry didn’t still connect on an impossibly visceral level, but he does. Play “Maybellene” anywhere today and I dare you not to get a reaction as strong as ever, as much insatiable movement as the world has to boot upwards.

It would still matter without the lyrics. But the lyrics are still wonderful, and yet again, you can hear the future in them:

Maybellene, why can’t you be true
Oh Maybellene , why can’t you be true
You’ve started back doin’ the things you used to do

As I was motivatin’ over the hill
I saw Mabellene in a Coup de Ville
A Cadillac arollin’ on the open road
Nothin’ will outrun my V8 Ford
The Cadillac doin’ about ninety-five
She’s bumper to bumper, rollin’ side by side
Maybellene

The Cadillac pulled up ahead of the Ford
The Ford got hot and wouldn’t do no more
It then got cloudy and started to rain
I tooted my horn for a passin’ lane
The rainwater blowin’ all under my hood
I know that I was doin’ my motor good
Maybellene

The motor cooled down the heat went down
And that’s when I heard that highway sound
The Cadillac asittin’ like a ton of lead
A hundred and ten half a mile ahead
The Cadillac lookin’ like it’s sittin’ still
And I caught Maybellene at the top of the hill
Maybellene


It is sometimes common to bemoan the temptation today to make one’s music as accessible as possible to the broadest audience that can be imagined, but there is certainly something to be said for the technique. Nearly all of the great rock & roll records of the ’50s careened across pop, R&B, and country charts, regardless of racial division. Whether the Everly Brothers, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash envisioned this kind of explosion long before “rock radio” could distill them is hard to figure (at the very least, one assumes Charles had such amibitions). But it is known for a fact that Chuck Berry wrote and perhaps initially recorded “Maybellene” as a country & western number. Even in its present form, it carries no typical genre tag. In fact, a freedom of those early rock & roll records — from pure country to doo wop to rockabilly — is that genre is acknowleded practically in the text as irrelevant. Each chart today is a separate industry. Ask yourself which arrangement fosters more creativity, but also keep in mind a lingering question: could Chuck Berry at his peak today inspire and accomplish everything he did then, dying music industry or not? I would say, unquestionably, yes.

Berry was always primed to explode but only allowed himself the luxury very occasionally, and that is one reason why he is so important to the genre and the culture. He exemplified every strange tendency and subgenre clutter we’ve seen since the beginning, sometimes all at once. He’s as much Tom Verlaine’s spiritual precedent as he is Stevie Wonder’s or John Lennon’s or, why the hell not, Joe Strummer’s. He is a model of precision but also of the kind of fire and passion, tempered by his own articulate perception, that is difficult to record without passing over into something overbearing. He is funny but not a comedian, he’s angry but not hateful, he’s the greatest guitar hero in the world but he’s not a Guitar Hero. Basically every great balancing act you can teeter on, he did it. When he is ninety-nine years old, and I hope he gets to be there, he’ll still be the fucking man.

I can see I don’t have time or space right now to say everything I’d like to. We only made it through one song really (not mentioned: the quotable flair for drama amid all the barbs in “School Day” and “Johnny B. Goode,” the erotic charge in “I Wanna Be Your Driver,” the rhyming perfection of “Rock & Roll Music,” the ability in “Carol” to make a propulsive rhythm downright mournful, and on from there). Maybe someday. Bear with me. But Chuck Berry is really, really, really awesome and I should talk about him more and if anything my obsession is pretty mild, but I probably could go on until you’re bored out of your mind. He’s just the greatest. That’s all I’m saying.

[Editorial Note: This is a slight reconfiguration of an essay I posted at my old weblog in 2008. I planned to rewrite it but I dunno, it seems OK to me, so I'm adding it to the blogspot canon.]

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Bob Dylan: Together Through Life (2009)


(Columbia)

RECOMMENDED

Seems like there've been a lot of first-person reviews here lately, but I have a Serious Assignment that requires strict avoidance of such things and this is my coffee break, so here we go. I didn't really comprehend Dylan until I had been dumped a couple of times; something about that voice suddenly grows a weary familiarity with the advent of actual adult heartbreak. Like so many others who've become followers in recent years, I found myself quite unexpectedly seduced by his trilogy of "comeback" albums starting with Time Out of Mind; not only were they discography highlights, they felt like the beginning of an entirely new career. Seemingly out of nowhere, Dylan rode into town and slapped off that record, Love and Theft, and Modern Times with arresting ease over an impressive eight-year span.

This unexpected followup, announced quite suddenly just before its entrance into the shops, coincided neatly with my discovery. Going back through internet archives, I'm wagering you won't read a lot of reviews of Together Through Life by folks for whom it was the first new Bob album since they became fans. (That sentence is a grammatical horror, I'm sorry. See, I'm getting all the shitty non-editing out of my system here.) But I'm such a guy -- after trying for years, I fell hard for Blood on the Tracks, Nashville Skyline, and Freewheelin' in the late weeks of 2008. Life showed up mere months later, after I'd absorbed plenty more. Rather distracted at the time, I gave it a tiny bit of attention, maybe a listen or two, and sort of filed it away. Didn't really think about it again until today, when some light bulb went off and I said "Hey, Bob Dylan had that new album last year and I never really gave it much of a chance. What was the deal with that?" All I could recall was that it was hardly as sensuous as its cover suggested -- if anything, less risky and brash than anything he'd done in a while.

The deal is this: Upon entering the haphazard and muddy netherworld of Life, for almost all of the first half I end up wondering how I overlooked the managed intensity and grumbling atmosphere that now seems like perverse perfection. It's environment, partially: there's the stark Boxing Day mood, there's the million things I really need to be doing rather than listening to this, and there's (for future context) a winter storm raging across much of the U.S. (and Europe) tonight. The dimly lit, caustic mumbling courtesy Dylan and deceptively settled blues-rock noise courtesy his road company backing band falls over like dirty snow, lazy but oddly exhilarating. "Life Is Hard" and "If You Ever Go to Houston" brilliantly reconfigure ancient rock & roll as a graying grunt that both admonishes and comforts. As on much of his recent work, Dylan embraces his age, and it strengthens his work.

Around track five, though, I start to remember why I forgot the whole thing. Apprehension about the bluesy noodlings from there to the end is acceptable but perhaps a bit misplaced; they don't hit hard like the first few but they certainly expand and focus the atmosphere a bit, especially the frisky "Shake Shake Mama." The schmaltz moves, on the other hand, are intolerable. "Jolene" is rough going, "It's All Good" is tired and smug in the worst way, but the crime is "This Dream of You," a deadweight ballad that cries out for the Billy Joel cover version. It's just as murky and distant as everything else, but that somehow underscores its weird dishonesty.

The second half's strongest number is "I Feel a Change Comin' On," on which Dylan addresses what once felt like a universal mood, while building in (if only subtly) a healthy cynicism that lets him have it both ways. And he can do that because he's Bob Dylan. He can also release half-assed records if he wants, because he's Bob Dylan. But if you disregarded Together Through Life the first time, it does warrant a second look; at least six of the ten songs deserve some attention. And if you're in the mood for some accordion-overloaded mood music, by golly, is this your lucky day.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Panda Bear: Person Pitch (2007)


(Paw Tracks)

RECOMMENDED

That Person Pitch is beautiful noise is not easy to dispute. But how is it that music as preoccupied as Panda Bear's with humbling, ornate grandiosity comes off as cerebral? It's built on feeling, but a lot of its twiddling comes off as ineffective gimmicry, at least to a skeptic. One can love the idea of Animal Collective without actually being able to let go and get down with them; their music is absurdly layered and difficult, and the same goes for Panda Bear. It doesn't even seem actually possible not to find this music impressive, or not to be moved by some of it, but seldom has a pop music enterprise existed that can generate this level of mixed feeling.

Noah Lennox gets off on towering, sample-heavy flights of fancy that at times produce sounds as gorgeous as recorded pop music is ever likely to generate. The loopy Gregorian chant spliced with synthpop on "Im Not" is flooring and immediate, and grows more spectacular as it moves. These are almost always immediately followed by insufferable side trips into seemingly deliberate annoyance (the painful repetition on "Comfy in Nautica") or a sort of electronic noodling that brings on uncomfortable thoughts of canned prog, but as college rock has embraced '70s excesses, perhaps it's the unlucky cool kid left in the dust who can't tolerate this direction. I'm a hardly a cool kid, I admit, but I also have to admit that the wonky indulgences of "Bros" make me feel seasick. Perhaps I'm just getting too old to accept another kind of traditionalism? Don't know.

I don't really know much about the modern twist on dreampop that the recent Animal Collective records have helped pioneer. I do know a fair bit about the Beach Boys, and I have to confess that as much as I enjoy seeing Smiley Smile get its critical due at last (it's better than Sgt. Pepper, you know), when I hear something like "Bros" and hear everyone telling stories about how they thought it was an obscure Beach Boys track, I die a little inside. Yeah, it sounds like the Beach Boys, as filtered through the bedroom project of a middle-aged Gentle Giant and Sigur Ros fan who reads some blogs about electronica. I know the comparison (not an insult, I implore you) is flawed because such blogs were less common in 2007 and many elements of the internet music scene as it stands today were likely founded as a result of records like Person Pitch, which is already a classic in many circles. Yet if anything, "Take Pills" betrays a longer Beach Boys shadow by attempting to evoke the sound of Western and Gold Star on tape. But "Bros" is very distinctly based on surface-level sound and feel, and has nothing to do with any element of the Beach Boys that made them interesting, by which I mean their songs. This vague teasing of fragments and otherworldly noise is, however, the direction in which Brian Wilson seemed headed with the Smile project in 1966, and I'm one of the evil bastards who thinks that was a terrible idea and that Wilson was right to shelve it. Which means we should probably move on.

Aside from the twelve-minute dud that is often cited as the centerpiece of the album (and one of the best of the decade, oh shudder) and the obtuse workout "Search for Delicious," the record is solid and artistically impressive, though it demands constant attention and fails as background entertainment. Another lengthy cut, "Good Girl/Carrots," is less irritating; it still has inexplicable moments, but Lennox's beautiful, flexible voice saves much of it automatically, and because the song is a constantly shaking and shifting foundation, it retains its cutting impact for the duration, particularly as it drifts into piano psychedelia and irresistibly rhythmic pop. It's difficult to ignore, though, that Panda Bear is loveliest at his most direct on a simple, melodic production like the closing "Ponytail." Is it terrible of me to want him to just slather it all with electric guitars and let the knobs fall off? I hate it when I feel like songs are hiding from me.

Much of this is a personal fault. Disregarding Ariel Pink, the "Chillwave Problem" is becoming an issue for me in my old age. I am all in favor of new things being done to rock & roll. I was with you on lo-fi and shoegaze and dreampop, fine. But the creaky conjurings of the pop past that have taken over indie consciousness are beginning to bug, and it's not an objection to the music so much as an annoyance with the idea that increasingly young folks with guitars isn't enough of a future, and that when we praise them we have to add a million interjections about how "oh, of course they don't do anything new." Check it: in 2007, Person Pitch wasn't anything new either, and yet somehow it's still pretty good! "Take Pills" is a fucking Motown song, guys, obsessively (and perhaps unnecessarily) slathered with effects to make it sound distant, not so much to disguise its influences as to reframe them, and yet wouldn't it be kind of awesome to hear it without the big "art" stuff on top of it? A song could just be a song and not a song used as a vehicle for a statement about sonics? I suppose I'm just blathering here about aesthetics, but I think it goes a long way to personally justify why I admire Animal Collective and Panda Bear a lot without really needing to hear them very often.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Pet Shop Boys: Yes (2009)


(astralwerks)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The inability of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe to respond to or coalesce with pop as a morphing, trending force has scarcely harmed them in the way one might expect. If anything, their career began with a remarkable coincidence: that their utterly bizarre, unapologetic disco appeared at precisely the moment it felt just right, so right it could produce #1 hits on both sides of the Atlantic... for a while. Pet Shop Boys overcame their legacy of 1980s nostalgia three ways: a consistently brilliant body of work rife with top-caliber songwriting, a conscious effort not to lose the underground reach toward club scenes the world over, and an affinity with pop critics that led them to well-deserved acclaim.

For sure, they remain one of the best things going, and like Yo La Tengo and the Flaming Lips, they are preparing to enter their fourth decade without a significant loss in output quality and adventure. There has been a problem, though, which is that that same in-touch ideal to which these two pop geniuses aspire seems to derail them now and then. You can measure it like clockwork: every PSB album feels like a direct reaction to the criticisms of the one before it. And that wouldn't be an issue -- I worship these guys -- except that the pattern has started to become a bit predictable, and it traces a logical evolution that keeps getting interrupted. One of the reasons this band (as well as YLT and the Lips) has lasted is that they don't attempt an album every year or two. The prolific burst ended along with the '80s, which is great except an off-album can lead to a full three years or so of lost faith.

To explain, I thought Fundamental, PSB's 2006 offering, was their worst album to date. I found its posturing, beats, and songwriting all tired; the sarcasm and satire felt like attention-grabbing put-ons. In perspective, though, one could have called this in advance. The first Pet Shop album, Please, drew criticism for is wry, distant, emotionless runthrough of love song clichés that filtered chilly wit through a synthy Cole Porter songbook. Stunning shocker, then, that followup Actually not only stripped away the nastiness and revealed an eloquent vulnerability (songs about AIDS, being broke, and growing up gay in a religious household) but sold millions of records in doing so. Introspective, album the third, returned to brash goofiness and took it to the far end of the dance floor; Behavior was even more wounded, naked, and cathartic than Actually. Tennant and Lowe showed up in funny outfits with computer animated videos and smashingly glitzy tunes for Very, then came down to brutally honest self-evaluation and joy on Bilingual. Here come funny haircuts on Nightlife along with over-the-top vamping in the disco that's growing sort of stale here, the jokes hammering rather than suggesting. Release had tragic breakup and despair songs that weren't even dance music. And then Fundamental... the thrust being that the stripped-down, low-key Pet Shop Boys have become ever more confident and interesting (and at times unexpectedly moving), while the disco inferno big-show architects are diminishing with age.

That doesn't mean that they're not still coming up with superb dance music on their tenth album, just that much of it is quite sad, and almost none of it seems to come from some actorly, slick perspective. Yes finds PSB in an "on" year, and it's so intoxicating you'll forget why you ever made them leave. Stylistically, there's not much new here except a more seamless integration of the guitar bits by Johnny Marr that also appeared on Release, and better-than-usual string arrangements (courtesy Owen Pallett). The exception is the first single and opening track, "Love Etc.," which bounds in like some miracle with one of the strongest keyboard hooks in the band's history, plus a hammering chorus and sideways melodic menace that bends traditional PSB in just the perfect way to make it sound freshly strange. "All Over the World" carries the momentum forward with its hip hop-like Nutcracker mingling, but quickly settles into Behavior beauty and weariness.

The remainder of Yes is spent displaying PSB doing what they're best at. "Beautiful People" is the archetypal Pet Shop single: the yearning musicality of an outcast, sung with brightly lit passion and tension, unmistakably shaken by its sociopolitical subtext, just far enough underneath to have massive impact. "Did You See Me Coming," acoustic guitar and all, is classic Very-era banging. "King of Rome" is the requisite British slow jam with gorgeous Tennant falsetto, as shaken and lovable as ever. To hear them being themselves again, whether there or on the wonderful '80s throwback "Pandemonium," is to revisit so much beauty that's marked and aided outsider lives for a quarter century now. And Behavior fans in particular are bound to find six-minute closer "Legacy" the most exciting downtrodden moment in recent musical history. The songs' production doesn't innovate, but the writing has the feel of refinement that has sharpened to classicism... and not one cut isn't memorable or worthy of inclusion in this splendid, hallowed canon.

I bet that even if I asked nicely, 2012 wouldn't bring a Pet Shop Boys album without a crazy new look and thinly veiled songs about world news and culture that hold feeling at arm's length or merely provide a tongue-in-cheek impression of it. That's fine. These two are a treasure, one of the longest-running top tier groups going now or ever, and it's worth waiting through a coasting session from one of the best acts in the world to get to the good stuff. Yes is the good stuff, and it was worth the gap.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

1910 Fruitgum Co.: Best Of (1968-70)


(Buddah)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Outwardly, there isn't anything strange or special about 1910 Fruitgum Co. except possibly their following, which extended to the first generation of NYC punk bands. That aside, a glimpse seems to reveal the archetypal Buddah Records bubblegum raunch. It's hard to know what the hierarchy was in the '60s at a label like Buddah, so completely at odds with our modern understanding of how the business works. But much as the studio system led to the creation of many a masterwork in 1930s Hollywood, the assembly line, individuality-crushing drudgery of Buddah accidentally wrought a solid enough discography for one of its indistinct brand names to produce one of the most delightful greatest hits albums I've ever heard.

The Company were a legitimate band, guitar player and everything, at first. But as they got folded into the machine, their origin tale lost its relevance; one of the group's best singles, "Indian Giver," was recorded by a wholly different set of people. This best-of disc has an impact that will make any advocate for musicians' rights shriek in horror -- it defines anonymity as a treasure and a miracle, and it makes not giving a shit about who's really responsible for these top tunes feel really fucking euphoric and grand.

The architects whose names will be on the test are Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz. These guys used to work at Cameo-Parkway, label of such pure pop luminaries as Chubby Checker and ? & the Mysterians; at Buddah, they set themselves up as production and A&R bubblemen, shepherding bands of dubious existence such as the Ohio Express to superstardom with insipid singles. Somehow, coincidentally or not, the best songs they had lying around tended to end up with the Fruitgums. These non-people, these robots, these sub-Archie cartoons had some surprisingly innovative and smartly presented tracks in their heyday.

Another prime difference is that the vocal tracks on the Fruitgum singles are far less insufferable than those of their AM peers; Ohio Express, the Archies, and even the Monkees. All sang with a supercharged nasal whine like Mike Love on uppers; Floyd Marcus or whoever the hell sings the early cuts sounds more invested in his work, and his replacement gets the same feeling across as the "group" competes for a share beyond the disposable pop market with more overtly psychedelic and oddball material, sort of the Box Tops' marketplace. You can hear this on "Mighty Quinn," which matches that blue-eyed soul pastiche with a vague leftfieldness that's sort of a Fruitgum theme, or on the audacious "Quick Joey Small," a sort of Sam the Sham meeting Box Tops experiment (with Up with People backing) that actually connects; in this high-pressure commercial environment, the Buddah folks somehow concoct a perfect imitation of a rusty garage 45. ("Don't Have to Run and Hide" is a shameless Remains rip, in fact.)

Because the band is now next to forgotten, most new recruits will arrive courtesy of the acquisition of a Talking Heads bootleg on which David Byrne and company cover "1, 2, 3 Red Light." Without a doubt, the original version is the 1910 boys' finest moment, and it will not disappoint. It's easy to see why the Heads dug it: it's goofy, strangely convicted, awash in procedural nonsense, and gains wonder and joy from evocation of the mundane, the same way Byrne would be, a decade on, celebrating the absurd normalcy of growing up and living in a building. But better yet, the song is a damned giant musically -- that key change tugs and torments -- and, without cloying, will keep a permanent presence in the listener's skull. Almost equally hardcore is "Indian Giver," recorded by a completely different set of individuals, but managing to push onward with the minimal, pulsating chill-funk of "Red Light." "Giver" is louder and rattles the joints a bit more, but the impression is similar -- how can prefab pop be this strong, this entertaining, this convincingly felt, this artful? Maybe it's an accident and maybe it isn't, but these two songs could make any cock rocker doubt his pedigree.

Premiere hit "Simon Says" is less ahead of its time, marked by its obvious Lovin' Spoonful '60s sound, but it does possess the joyously stupid line "I hope the winner will be you," it is top-tier Buddah shit, and the double-time trickery in the fadeout hints at the "Red Light" mastery to come. The promise of that second-biggest hit shines onward to "Goody Goody Gumdrops," frayed Beach Boys junk that displays a comprehension of not just that legendary band's sound but their weird, off-putting intensity. It doesn't quite get there, but it does try. The influence presses on to "Looky Looky," which is really more of a Jan & Dean lift, although its direct cloning is of "Wooly Bully."

The compilation is filled out with covers of other Buddah bands' chestnuts, like "Yummy Yummy Yummy" (which adds more guitar) and "Chewy Chewy" (which doesn't). And some of the songs are indefensibly half-assed ("Pop Goes the Weasel," possibly Nixon commentary, and "Happy Little Teardrops," inexcusable sap). But the overwhelming majority of it is vibrant fun; "Bubble Gum World," the immensely well-written "May I Take a Giant Step," the unheralded classic "The Year 2001," and the breaking, mounting "Candy Kisses" cry out for inclusion on your next mixtape for that Special Person. If they don't like them, they don't deserve you. If you're really brave, allow them to bask in the glow of the total Brian Wilson in sandbox eccentricity of "Sticky Sticky." Don't say I didn't warn you.

Bubblegum wasn't part of my world growing up. I was busy listening to grunge and "alternative rock" or whatever because that was real art, man. What lame causes adolescene provides. I was doing my best to enjoy Pearl Jam while brilliant singles like "I Want It That Way" swirled around me. It's the same thing here. If I were a teenager in 1966 I'd have probably been into the fucking Doors or Jefferson Airplane or something and chortled at the teenage girls grooving to the Monkees and to 1910 Fruitgum Co. Then (hopefully) in 1973 or so I'd look around and think back and suddenly realize that, as ever, the teenage girls were right all along.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Yo La Tengo: Popular Songs (2009)


(Matador)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The great lesson of Yo La Tengo's career is that a certain point, it is no longer possible to be radical. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the best band in the world, better than anyone else at everything they've attempted, at least since recruiting bassist James McNew and signing to Matador Records in the early '90s -- and probably before that. Opening their Matador career with the moody, angular shoegaze of Painful, the band quickly grew into life as a trio with one of the finest runs of albums in rock history: Electr-o-Pura (edgy, razor-sharp alternative rock), I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (sprawling folk-fuzz), And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (focused, heartfelt love songs with new concepts of pretty), Summer Sun (monstrously well-crafted ambient pop), and I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (uncompromising schizophrenia). Each album was a different game entirely, but each held a common theme: every crazy thing that Yo La Tengo went out on a limb and tried, they excelled at. In the '80s, they were already a fine feedbacky folk-rock outfit, but the limitless feeling of their Matador output has rendered the prior records next to inconsequential. But now, they have an unforseen curse: their eclecticism has become, for them, almost normal. Almost old hat. Almost.

In 2004, Yo La Tengo became the rare indie rock outfit to issue a greatest hits package while still active and successful. Curiously, the two-disc compilation Prisoners of Love has proven itself a roadmap for the improbable synthesis of styles that's marked the two albums since. Beat Your Ass opened with a ten-minute guitar slab and immediately slid into the most commercial, radio-friendly, of-its-time song the band had ever made, "Beanbag Chair," then into schlock balladry ("I Feel Like Going Home"), then wildly unexpected Stax soul ("Mr. Tough"). Three years earlier, Yo La Tengo had resisted this sort of mixtape mania by leaving the loud and fast songs off the somber, reflective Summer Sun, instead collecting them later on an EP. The result was critical derision and fan outcry, seemingly on the basis that not every Yo La Tengo track was the kind of Yo La Tengo track they were in the mood to hear. (The sole YLT album that's almost entirely an exercise in loudness, May I Sing with Me, suffered similarly poor reception back in 1992.) The very idea of cohesion, thusly, went out the window.

As a result, Popular Songs is the second Yo La Tengo record in a row that feels like a greatest hits package, appropriately enough given its title. Of course it bears their usual eccentricties, from its confounding design (that "tape" on the cover is a sculpture by Dario Robleto made of, among other things, bone fragments) to its loony sequencing, but the album nevertheless feels like any other band's best work strung together in a miracle of sonic delight. Or better yet, a whole bunch of different bands' best songs. It's like hearing a stack of incredible obscure 45's you can't believe you've never previously discovered. For rock & roll geeks, this is cotton candy: disorienting psychedelia ("Here to Fall") gives way to godlike power pop ("Avalon or Someone Very Similar") to Nico dread ("By Two's") to bouncing garage rock ("Nothing to Hide") to steaming, witty funk ("Periodically Double or Triple") to Motown balladry ("If It's True") to awesomely sad McNew moping ("I'm on My Way") to galloping cowboy scenery ("When It's Dark") to low-key girl group pop ("All Your Secrets"). That's the first half.

It's inescapable, however, that the three-year progression from Beat Your Ass to Popular Songs is less marked than previous gaps. This isn't really a reaction to the last album, nor is it consistently a step forward; actually, it occasionally feels like an extension. The songs are different, sure, and equally great (with, significantly, no duds or near-misses like the last album had in the form of "I Feel Like Going Home" and "Song for Mahlia"), but the risks seem more calculated and calmer, like our favorite band's starting to mellow a bit. Maybe, maybe not, but consider this: The primary unit of measurement is in the three lengthy songs that comprise the last half of the album in a bit of sequencing tomfoolery on the band's part that is meant either to provoke or to quell criticism of the band's more long-winded, uncommercial side by deliberately separating those songs (you can stop the thing after track nine and still get your money's worth, or if you buy the vinyl you can just concentrate on the first record). Anyway, imagine moving "More Stars Than There are in Heaven" to the beginning of the record just like "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind," "The Fireside" somewhere in the middle like the similarly ambient "Daphnia," and leave "And the Glitter Is Gone" where it is like the last album's raveup "The Story of Yo La Tango." Then, with this strange duplication, you can see the notion that Yo La Tengo are kind of operating with a "format" of sorts.

I'm not saying I fully buy it, though. As a fan of all three longer cuts from Beat Your Ass, I can tell you that I think two of the three new ones trounce them. "More Stars Than There Are in Heaven," which takes its name from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's old slogan when it was a stable of celebrity power, is one of the finest songs the band's ever written; its gritty, deeply affecting romanticism calls back to And Then Nothing or, better yet, the wrenching "My Heart's Reflection" from 1995. Building itself up slowly to an arresting emotional high, with gorgeous harmony vocals, "Heaven" makes brilliant use of its nine-minute run. On first pass, "The Fireside" seems to coast on atmosphere alone; no one minded that on "Daphnia" because it was thrown in amongst the friendlier stuff. But a more careful listen to "Fireside" reveals a lovely acoustic riff, varied cleverly, that doesn't fall too far from the Abbey Road tree and a positively stirring Ira Kaplan vocal melody that shows up unexpectedly toward the end; it's a more sustained, narrative epic notion than they've ever taken a stab at, and it is finally as bound to inspire worship as "Blue Line Swinger" all those years ago. "And the Glitter Is Gone" is easily the most dubious song on the album, fifteen minutes of swagger that can't match the emotional catharsis of "The Story of Yo La Tango"... but it seems like a correcting of the tendency back around Painful to cut these lengthy jams off just when they were starting to swing, and this one certainly does find plenty of beauty in its noise barrage.

So make no mistake, Popular Songs doesn't feel old or worn out. It just makes you wonder how a band this gifted can really find a way to expand much more than it already has. One possible answer lies in the most direct pioneering offered in the album's grooves: the claiming of a blissful AM radio pop penchant never before really grasped for, albeit one hinted at on the last two albums. It would be fascinating to hear Yo La Tengo make a pure pop album, and the potential is suggested on "If It's True," the stunning evocation of Gaye/Terrell duets like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" which finds Ira and Georgia ably filling the duet shoes while an incredibly convincing vintage string arrangement by Richard Evans springs about lovably behind it. You can't hear the song without wanting to hug it. Meanwhile, I seriously doubt that the band would deny the other song to which Evans contributed, "Here to Fall," sounds completely different as of 2009 than it would as tackled ten or even five years ago. The sheen it offers is tantalizing in the same way that the unabashed free jazz textures of "Let's Be Still" were when backed by a newly pretty precision. "All Your Secrets" is inches away from being bubblegum, "When It's Dark" comes on like Gene Autry where the band would once have favored Gram Parsons... and they're right to embrace all of this. They're brilliant at it, and the songs are irresistible.

My other hope would be that the band starts to get past their struggle with the quiet vs. loud whiners who marred the release of Summer Sun, a magnificent record that deserved better. The chiefly irritating dichotomy has always been the folks who claim to love Yo La Tengo but want them to always do one thing. Some simply aren't aware of the group's range. You can find commenters on last.fm and YouTube who classify YLT as a "mellow" group, oblivious to the guitar-hero worship that Ira's crazed hammering inspires elsewhere on the same websites, as well as to the well-contained holocaust that unfolds in something like "Orange Song." I've always felt that if you really love Yo La Tengo you'd want the whole package, "Alyda" and "Sugarcube" all the way to The Sounds of the Sounds of Science. At the same time, however, I think an untapped opportunity gets skirted over by the "mixtape" approach to these albums. I can't imagine I'm alone in thinking that the band's masterpiece is And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, which grabs a lovelorn, nostalgic, sad, grateful mood and frames and explores it perfectly, sustaining it for nearly eighty minutes. Summer Sun nears that achievement. At what point does the uncompromising, wildly eclectic method that the two subsequent albums have shared become, well, a compromise?

I don't mean to carp at all. The songwriting on Popular Songs is better, more focused, more refined than ever. Ira's never written more clever or persuasive lyrics than those of "Periodically Double or Triple," the band's never delivered a trip to the jugular like "Here to Fall," almost no one else in the world could present a song as beautiful as "I'm On My Way" with such restraint and vulnerability, the astonishing and intimidating sheer craft of "Avalon" is a thing to behold, "More Stars Than There Are in Heaven" is the masterful peak that And Then Nothing deliberately sidestepped, and "If It's True" not only recalls various Ashford & Simpson-penned classics but reconfigures them into a twisting, vibrant self-portrait of which everybody else in the universe should be envious. As composers, Yo La Tengo are hitting the pleasure centers -- and impressing relentlessly -- like never before.

If Popular Songs falls short of its five untouchable predessors, that's only because they set the bar so high, and this could be a transitional record. It's still one of the best albums of the last several years. And what's actually new on it is remarkable: "Here to Fall" and "The Fireside" are virtually without precedent in the band's catalog, which is saying a hell of a lot, and time seems to stop when you hear them. Hell, what isn't new on this LP is remarkable. But after seventeen years, maybe some changes are in order. I wouldn't wish Roger Moutenot away when he's done so well by the band, but a certain calm and sameness does take a bit of time to work through on this album, something that's not been there before and doesn't come back to the performances or songs; it's very definitely the sound, which oversells its casual atmosphere at times. I keep coming back to a show I heard bootlegged in which Yo La Tengo plays "Periodically Double or Triple" backed by members of Sun Ra's Arkestra. It's unbelievable, godlike, transcendent, and after you hear it the studio version is never the same. In addition, a few months before Popular Songs, YLT knocked out a covers album under the psuedonyn Condo Fucks that shows them more abrasive and raw than they've dared to be in years, and that energy is missed here. When I say I wouldn't mind more chaos and excitement in the band's music, I don't mean more guitar insanity saved for side four. I mean it's OK to go a little crazy, a little silly. But if all we get is another sly, unpredictable album like this every few years from now on, I'll still be happy as a clam. This is still rock & roll as I see it, unashamed and electric. Pile more of it on, forever.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Talking Heads: Bonus Rarities & Outtakes (1975-92)


(Rhino)

This 2006 digital-only package was designed to supplement the Heads' Brick boxed set, a package containing all eight of the band's studio albums, remastered in DVD Audio format with surround sound and all that. The time constraints of the advanced format led to a pruning of many potential bonus tracks. Unreleased Talking Heads material has always been difficult to come by -- they only had one non-LP b-side -- and the skimpy offerings on the band's two retrospective boxes didn't help matters.

That changed with this atypically minimalistic, clumsily titled package, released with little to no fanfare onto iTunes. It accidentally reveals the reason behind the carrot-dangling of the past: much of the Heads' remaining unreleased material is either inconsequential or deathly dull. The modest, amateurish cover art and no-nonsense bluntness are actually a fair indicator of the slapdash quality of the material herein. The unquestionable highlights ("I Want to Live" and "A Clean Break") have been officially on the market for years, and much of the disc is occupied by material found on the old Sand in the Vaseline two-disc, I guess in some half-hearted attempt to standardize the discography.

As a Heads diehard, I only find myself coming back to three tracks that weren't already in circulation: a slow-burn tackling of "Artists Only," a lengthy alternate mix of "Crosseyed and Painless" that slightly compensates for the absence of an unedited version of the song available on disc, and -- best of all by far -- an arresting, sickly danceable "Moog march" version of "The Lady Don't Mind," wildly brash synthpop unrecognizable from its Little Creatures incarnation, that goes a long way toward filling the stylistic gap between Speaking in Tongues and Creatures. That last cut is essential for all Heads followers; nothing else new here even approaches it.

In the end, I have to applaud the quiet way in which these songs were issued, but they still frankly would work better as bonus tracks on their corresponding albums. Nobody really needs to hear David Byrne doodling on a Nancy Sinatra cover for a few seconds in this sort of context. The Heads reissue campaign was rather botched to begin with, thanks to the unreliable media and mediocre sound quality of the remasters; this isn't the silver lining you might wish for. But don't skip the Moog march, man.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Best Records of 2010

***

TOP TEN ALBUMS

By my count, I listened to 81 new albums in 2010. I loved 23 of them. All are listed below; I listened to every one of them again to make this list, the preliminary draft of which I've worked on throughout the year. The preliminary draft quickly went out the window. Ten albums were separated out as my absolute top choices; at least four more deserved to be on it and would have been in a lesser year. Those are the first four listed under "honorable mentions" below; all those underneath are of nearly equal merit, but the first fourteen went the extra mile. As for these ten, there's not one bad cut among them, and most not only have an overwhelming number of excellent songs that sound fabulous on their own, they demand to be heard together. Meanwhile, #2 and #1, which I loved on release, have increased enough in stature that I'm increasing the grades in their respective reviews to A+. I think it's a good idea to withhold the super-high grade until the end of the year like that, yeah? I'm going with it. At any rate, these were the records that I lived with and that soundtracked my world in 2010. A banner year for rock & roll.


10. Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest (4AD)
It might be unfair to accuse Bradford Cox of being obsessed with the past, so let's say he's preoccupied. That's the reason this record sounds so lovingly distant, designed and executed as a devastatingly vague journey brushing shoulders with all manner of emotions. Even at its most direct, the record's mystery is tantalizing. You can come away with impressions of a psychedelic LP, or a shoegaze revival, or an exploration of 1950s stylistics funneled through god knows what kind of lo-fi technique. The point is that this is just about as densely layered as rock & roll gets without losing its impeccable direct touch. It might take its time to move you, but once it does, you're gone and grateful.
Best cuts: "Basement Scene"; "Desire Lines"; "Don't Cry"
[Full review]


9. Love Is All: Two Thousand and Ten Injuries (Polyvinyl)
Josephine Olausson says she could never be grumpy on stage. "That wouldn't be very nice." Perhaps not, but I don't know of a singer these days willing to lay herself and her demons out with the abandon she shows, while managing to make it some kind of a joyful act. Even at her most reflective ("A Side in a Bed") and depressive ("Again, Again"), a brilliantly bright life zigzags through her voice. The band's tight, eclectic, noisy pop falls behind with the most infectious enthusiasm imaginable. They can do the X-Ray Spex or the Fifth Dimension, all with wisdom and grace. The lyrics are mostly about heartbreak, but sometimes they're about the birds singing with all their might, and they're always about being alive. Honest, intense, likable, minimalistic, bursting -- it is impossible to conceive higher art than this.
Best cuts: "A Side in a Bed"; "Early Warnings"; "False Pretense"


8. Hot Chip: One Life Stand (astralwerks)
Ten years in, Hot Chip's earned the right to do as they please; this is still dance music, it's not a radical redesign, but it's on their terms. From older-brother sentimentality to unabashed romanticism, it's a complete stripping of the old beats & irony routine. The bangers are the best they've ever done -- "Hand Me Down Your Love" and "We Have Love" drive harder and fiercer than Made in the Dark at its wildest -- but so are the harmonies ("Take It In"). Like anybody who's done a bit of growing up and marrying and child-having, they've gotten paranoid ("Keep Quiet," "Thieves in the Night"), but mostly they're stunned and cornered by beauty. "Alley Cats," "Brothers," and "Slush" are mostly beatless, calm adult documents that sound nothing like Hot Chip except check it, you can still bask in them and share it all with the loved one of your choice.
Best cuts: "Hand Me Down Your Love"; "One Life Stand"; "Brothers"
[Full review]


7. The National: High Violet (4AD)
Depression, economic anxiety, pervasive fear, and more depression -- sounds sexy to me! These simple, haunted melodies are performed with such aplomb you'd never trust that there's as little hope as they seem to imply. Raise a glass to soldiering on despite everything sucking, and raise it higher to doing so with guitars. The boys cop to their masculinity without hiding behind it; the words are so elegantly minimal as to feel more universal than such felt specificity would imply. Sometimes hopelessness and dread just feel really fucking right and beautiful, and I don't know that anyone's ever captured that so well on record. The way that "I never thought above love when I thought about home" stings will stick with you, and it feels bloody good.
Best cuts: "Lemonworld"; "Bloodbuzz, Ohio"; "Anyone's Ghost"


6. The Walkmen: Lisbon (Fat Possum)
The Walkmen are farther along in their career than any other band in this top ten. This is their fifth proper album, and to debate whether it's their best seems almost to miss the point of loving an act so consistent. They've yet to put out an unimpressive recording, but every year their wizened, calm way with a melody and a sustained emotion becomes more of a miracle. Lisbon has their typical dynamic rock move and their shimmering traditionalist pastiches of roots-rock and punk, but never before have they copped to so much pure beauty. The two closing tracks, "While I Shovel the Snow" and "Lisbon" revel in the miracle of jangling guitar and vocal abandon like outtakes from Marquee Moon. It's so modest it's difficult to make much more of it than it makes plain, but while this LP's on, every second sounds like heaven.
Best cuts: "Stranded"; "Lisbon"; "Torch Song"
[Full review]


5. Titus Andronicus: The Monitor (XL)
Bleeding and literate, overcome with rage, this eloquent near-masterpiece is the place we always wanted punk rock to end up. This is adult music about fucking grownup, boring-ass problems that cannot conceal its adolescent fury, cannot even contain its frustration and fear. It's couched in some curious if rousing Civil War rhetoric and a pained fraying that takes some getting used to, but by its peak, you're feeling every moment. These Jerseyites consolidate their already wounded influences into something even more tragic, sad, and wild. Much of the most affecting music of our time hinges upon a distrust of modern life and a passionate grasping at solace; The Monitor sees no relief from the terror, but it certainly puts up a beautiful fight.
Best cuts: "The Battle of Hampton Roads"; "Theme from 'Cheers'"; "A More Perfect Union"
[Full review]


4. The Tallest Man on Earth: The Wild Hunt (Dead Oceans)
It takes most singer-songwriters a hell of a lot longer to learn how to be this subtle. Before even coming a tenth of the way toward wearing out his welcome with the streamlined, stark folkster sound of Shallow Grave, with its traditionalist bluegrass themes (all murder ballads and blizzards and desert sands) and melodies that seemed tantalizingly familiar, Swede wonder Kristian Matsson takes a turn for texture and reflection, the sound of a life passed on a series of roads, the sound of songs fading gently into skies. He yells more, for sure, but the treasures take longer to process; it's a bag of tricks as haunting and vivid as the debut, but in the end, seemingly even more personal, and certainly more beautiful.
Best cuts: "Love Is All"; "Thousand Ways"; "Burden of Tomorrow"


3. Janelle Monáe: The ArchAndroid (Bad Boy)
Oh, sure, we all talk about recording cataclysmically eclectic R&B albums based on Fritz Lang's Metropolis, but who goes through with it? This lady, that's who. And get this -- the silly-ass concept is the least interesting thing about it. Monáe may or may not be using her framework here as a method of exorcising demons. It sounds like she's splitting her guts, but then again, no one could do so many things without a little posturing, right? Whatever. This album is as major a work of pop genius as we've had in the last decade; everything she attempts, from Carpenters-esque pastoral pop to rainy-day bebop to shady freak-funk, comes off, and her gleeful weirdness and experimentation coalesce almost cosmically with her obvious excellence as a performer. This is the most artistically bold album of the year, and yet everything on it falls on the ear like sugar. One hell of a fucking performance, this.
Best cuts: "Cold War"; "BaBopByeYa"; "Oh Maker"


2. Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Def Jam)
All the hype is true. It delivers in all the right ways -- the juggernauts like "Monster" and "Power" lay it on you like dynamite. The structure of both album and individual songs is primed for sparkling, fiery release. What sticks with you, though, are the quieter moments. The sheer pain of "Blame Game," as brutal and beautiful as any breakup song in the pop music annals, is enough to make even its goofy Chris Rock skit ache with grief. On the entire album, Kanye passes the ultimate test for the self-involved artist: his self-loathing fascinates, braces, and connects. Oh, and also, hearing it all come together has the primary effect of making you want, need to hear it again. Now.
Best cuts: "Runaway"; "Monster"; "Power"
[Full review]


1. Joanna Newsom: Have One on Me (Drag City)
The best albums, the ones that deserve to have a place in some sort of pantheon, are those that expand the form of the album itself. Because pop albums are inherently a limited form -- there are still those of us who believe the primary form of expression in this field should be the 7" -- and as shuffled years go by, it becomes ever more difficult to justify the very act of setting time aside for forty-five minutes of music on the artist's terms, in the artist's sequence, with the artist's full agenda. Expand that to over two hours and you may have a problem. Or you may be a pop genius. Kanye West's entitlement to such a distinction was cemented in 2004 with his debut album; his new record is his best since that landmark, and it qualifies as a work of actual art that justifies the album fixation of many rock fans. Sufjan Stevens certainly did new things this year too. But only Joanna Newsom matched an intimidating, endless army of near-perfect songs -- earlier in the year, I counted one near miss ("Kingfisher"), which has since found its way to me, so now I say eighteen hits and no duds -- with an album entity that presented itself as an altogether new medium. This three-record set explicitly designed to be heard in fits and starts and acquainted with slowly, is the most innovative album package I'm aware of in the last decade. We can spend years debating its conceptual purposes. I suggested it's a year in the life of a failing relationship before Newsom struck that down by relating it's meant to all take place in twenty-four hours. If there's a story to all this, it really doesn't matter. Each of the three records becomes a side of our story, and that's what makes this feel so new, so much a part of these vastly different times. And then, of course, there's the music: Newsom's voice is softer and more nuanced than ever before, her songs more carefully crafted but also more precise and subtle, without sacrificing her most hard-hitting emotional catharsis to date on "Occident," "Go Long," and the absolutely shattering, shaken-to-the-core "Does Not Suffice." We meet this album in February or March as a lengthy, difficult, and fascinating piece of compositional brilliance and warm, feathery performance and production craft. We leave it as a greatest-hits package, the peaks innumerable. If "Baby Birch" and "Ribbon Bows" alone, with bravura singing and wounded fray, don't qualify her as the biggest deal going in 2010, well, I give up. Best album of the last three years.
Best cuts: "Occident"; "Good Intentions Paving Co."; "Baby Birch"
[Full review]

HONORABLE MENTIONS
(Others I loved in 2010)



Surfer Blood: Astro Coast (Kanine)
It kills me that this isn't in my top ten. This album was as omnipresent for me in 2010 as any of those above, and it continues to reveal itself. This is a far more sophisticated, fascinating album than it initially seems to be, and that's even discounting the provocative, silly, confounding lyrics; credited as a surf rock revival and lumped in with Best Coast and Wavves, this reveals a core of poetic agony and loss -- every harmonized moment stings in some odd way. Late in the year the awe-inspiring "Anchorage" finally hit me emotionally; it builds and builds on its guitar heroics as though their own like-a-rock intensity is a meaning unto itself, as though that joyful noise is as much something to believe in as it ever was, indeed as though there's nothing else. But the repeated plead to "take it easy on me" in one song ("or we will both be sorry," adds another) displays fear in these youngsters' eyes I'm not sure they know won't go away with time. If they're wise, they don't want it to, and they won't let it when they release their debut on Warner Bros. sometime in the next couple of years. Good luck, guys, and even if you don't pull off anything else, I'll treasure this one permanently. It feels like escape into void, the highest compliment a rock album can get from me.
Best cuts: "Take It Easy"; "Swim"; "Twin Peaks"


Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz (Asthmatic Kitty)
Here's an ambitious, courageous return, just the sort of thing you hope an indie hero like this would attempt. Electronics are just a red herring. Stevens' most raw and exciting LP so far is as kindred spirit with Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; both albums are crucially exposed, tinged with honesty and doubt, and both are fascinating as compositional experiments. Adz is a lengthy and challenging piece, and it's undoubtedly cost Sufjan some of his longer-running fans. They'll blame reliance on bleeping and off-kilter textures, but the reason so many are turned off is really the same reason folks avoid Daniel Johnston and the Beach Boys' Love You: it's a confrontation of nihilism and it makes people really fucking uncomfortable. I concede it could be shorter, yeah... but not by much.
Best cuts: "Age of Adz"; "Vesuvius"; "I Walked"
[Full review]


Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti: Before Today (4AD)
Sensory overload and an intense fetishizing of cultural artifacts for their own sake might make this rough going, except for fellow fetishists. That, thankfully, is most of the audience for this. Every "chillwave" distinction with which this brilliant album has been saddled misses the larger story, of its broadminded, affectionate, and expert rendering of The History of 20th Century Pop Music, specifically alternative-leaning rock & roll. Few sounds you loved in the last three and a half decades aren't represented, distorted, and even skewered here. That would mean nothing if Ariel Pink couldn't craft memorable songs all on his own, but one taste of that overwhelmingly sunny, sad Buckingham-Nicks chorus on "Round and Round" and we're all a fucking community again, brothers and sisters.
Best cuts: "Round and Round"; "Fright Night"; "Bright Lit Blue Skies"
[Full review]


Vampire Weekend: Contra (XL)
The holier-than-thou rock press that would like to rip this band in half for being perceived Afro-robbing white college boys who dress conservatively will come around just like they came around to Bow Wow Wow and Talking Heads after vilifying them for the same reasons. As one writer pointed out (and I'm paraphrasing because, to be honest, I can't find the quote right now), only in the U.S. of A. could a band with an Iranian and a Jew be considered by a snobbish establishment as too whitebread. Oh the hell well. This went to #1 and that's because it's insanely fucking delightful. The songs are top-notch, the polyrhythms work, the Paul Simon-copping vocals of Ezra Koenig charm unstoppably, and all ten cuts deliver beauty and charm in spades. Sometimes stuff is popular because it's, I dunno, good?
Best cuts: "Diplomat's Son"; "Run"; "Giving Up the Gun"


Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (Merge)
More varied and looser than either of its predecessors, The Suburbs is a fascinating LP that reveals much of the true character lying behind the initial rush the Arcade Fire worked so hard to provide -- although there's plenty of visceral chutzpah here if you're into that. Exploring the outer limits of their persona, riding on observations of a world they'll never again occupy, the band reveals the strength and virtuosity at the core. They also overwhelm any alternative distinction, making this one of the most commercially viable records in the history of indie rock. All they need is a good editor.
Best cuts: "Sprawl II"; "Suburban War"; "Month of May"
[Full review]


Crystal Castles (Motown)
Channeling the aggression of their earlier work into a beautiful but biting trance sound, this presents some of the most relentless and addictive dance music of recent years; ever so slightly off center, the songs worm their way into consciousness and refuse to leave. Even if it takes some time to win you over, by the second or third listen this will have you moving your feet and diving ever further into its hard-hitting but oddly satisfying noise.
Best cuts: "Year of Silence"; "Empathy"; "Celestica"
[Full review]


Gil Scott-Heron: I'm New Here (XL)
Scott-Heron doesn't make a big deal out of his return to recording after an absence of a decade and a half. For him, it's just a chance to jot down some thoughts, cover a few songs, sing a bit, philosophize a bit more. What we end up with is a half hour of hypnotic lecturing from a fascinating man with a creative writing degree having a public dark night of the soul. The rabble-rousing is absent, but this particular professor is quite a case study. He's willing to be old and resigned now, funny and miserable, cool and terrified, unfailingly honest. That's why he's still so goddamn dangerous.
Best cuts: "New York Is Killing Me"; "I'm New Here"; "I'll Take Care of You"


Male Bonding: Nothing Hurts (Sub Pop)
This triumphant young UK band makes melodic hay out of shoegaze and punk elements, crafting durable songs that bop and drive persuasively with walls of guitars that mask the shimmering vulnerability underneath. This is a sleeper in the classic sense, a record that grows more compelling with each listen. The drums really cook, too, but the band comes off just as strong when they unplug. One to watch, for sure.
Best cuts: "Franklin"; "Worse to Come"; "Year's Not Long"
[Full review]


Curren$y: Pilot Talk (Def Jam)
What makes the jazz hooks on this weird, wonderful LP so immediate and enticing is their confidence. Curren$y's low-key delivery is just casual and drawling enough to keep you from growing overawed at the miracles Ski-Beatz is conjuring up on unbelievably lovely and economical jams like "Breakfast." Owing as much to Sketches of Spain as Illadelph Halflife with plenty of winding, tricky rhymes and gags on top, this is a harbinger of excellently understated adventure to come from Curren$y. Check out the sequel while you're at it.
Best cuts: "Breakfast"; "The Hangover"; "Chilled Coughphee"
[Full review]


MGMT: Congratulations (Columbia)
Somehow this baffling, wondrous nod to Love's Forever Changes, pastoral British folk, and prog rock seems more focused the more you live with it. The audaciousness of a promising young commercial band on a major label making a turn this radical for their sophomore album is the kind of thing we've not seen in a while, but what's more compelling than the NPR Marketplace angle that dominated virtually all press about the LP is how MGMT's adoration of their influences (one song called "Brian Eno" laments how "we're always two steps behind him") becomes a story in itself. They know their way around a charmingly weird epic production, too; if this came out in 1967, it'd be a benchmark, but then we wouldn't have the Lady Gaga references. Incidentally, this one needs to be heard on vinyl; the digital version is horrendously mastered, the vinyl breathes across four luxurious sides.
Best cuts: "Siberian Breaks"; "I Found a Whistle"; "It's Working"


Tame Impala: Innerspeaker (Modular)
One of many top-tier throwbacks out this year, this one a spaced-out, stoned-up psychedelic Beatles tribute with killer songs and not too much sonic rambling. These young Aussies are in love with the sound of their favorite dusty late '60s records and they come on like thrill-seeking young Roky Ericksons or Arthur Lees with all life's dangers and terrors and thrills ahead of 'em. And then you realize it's not even just heavy rock's youth they're visiting, it's everybody's.
Best cuts: "I Don't Really Mind"; "Lucidity"; "Solitude Is Bliss"
[Full review]


The Apples in Stereo: Travellers in Space and Time (Yep Roc)
Following a decade in which he brought us one classic, one mediocrity, and one serviceable distraction, Robert Schneider comes screaming back to life with an unexpectedly emotional disco record, the great secret of which is that in all the sci-fi noise he makes about "the future," it's his own he's talking about. Beneath the surface of these entirely invincible pop songs is a frailty, a resistance to tragedy and aging and loss, that sometimes aches with isolation: "The dance floor is unbearable, but my body's still moving." The few songs that aren't bangers are Monkees and ELO tributes that range from mildly fun to ingenious. Schneider's voice comes across as the squealing, unkempt humanity of it all. He's created a thirty-or-fortysomething party album that dares to look around at the world today and not like what it sees, but commits itself to dancing the night away all the same.
Best cuts: "Hey Elevator"; "Dance Floor"; "No One in the World"


Midnight Juggernauts: The Crystal Axis (Siberia)
It's like a guilt-free version of Muse or the Killers -- schlock in the vein of Depeche Mode or the Shangri-Las delivered with cheekiness and a joyful sense of absurdity. Having already proven themselves major space-synth figures with their 2007 debut Dystopia, the Juggernauts here make their irresistible heavy rock move. It's over the top, deadpan, melodic, and fiendishly fun.
Best cuts: "Lara vs. the Savage Pack"; "Winds of Fortune"; "Vital Signs"
[Full review]

***

OTHERS I LIKED IN 2010
Roky Erickson & Okkervil River: True Love Cast Out All Evil (Anti-)
Local Natives: Gorilla Manor (Frenchkiss)
The-Dream: Love King (Def Jam)
Owen Pallett: Heartland (Domino)
Matthew Dear: Black City (Ghostly)
Big Boi: Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (Def Jam)
Twin Shadow: Forget (4AD)
Robyn: Body Talk (Konichiwa)
Das Racist: Sit Down, Man (Mishka)
Charlotte Gainsbourg: IRM (Elektra)
The Roots: How I Got Over (Def Jam)
Wild Nothing: Gemini (Captured Tracks)
The Magnetic Fields: Realism (Nonesuch)
Belle & Sebastian: Write About Love (Matador)
Delorean: Subiza (Matador)
The New Pornographers: Together (Matador)
Curren$y: Pilot Talk II (Def Jam)
Four Tet: There Is Love in You (Domino)
The Extra Lens: Undercard (Merge)
The Morning Benders: Big Echo (Rough Trade)
ceo: White Magic (Sincerely Yours)
Wavves: King of the Beach (Fat Possum)
Chatham County Line: Wildwood (Yep Roc)
Best Coast: Crazy for You (Mexican Summer)
Broken Social Scene: Forgiveness Rock Record (Arts & Crafts)
Julian Lynch: Mare (Olde English Spelling Bee)
Kaki King: Junior (Rounder)
She & Him: Volume Two (Merge)
Spoon: Transference (Merge)
Matt Pond PA: The Dark Leaves (Megaforce)
The Radio Dept: Clinging to a Scheme (Labrador)
Gorillaz: Plastic Beach (Virgin)

EP'S I LOVED IN 2010
The Tallest Man on Earth: Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird (Dead Oceans)

EP'S I LIKED IN 2010
Sufjan Stevens: All Delighted People (Asthmatic Kitty)
Girls: Broken Dreams Club (Matador)
Hot Chip: We Have Remixes (astralwerks)
Yo La Tengo: Here to Fall Remixes (Matador)

***

BEST SONGS OF 2010
Limiting to one song per album, but not per artist (thus, multiple tracks by Sufjan, Curren$y, and Tallest).

1. Arcade Fire "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" [The Suburbs]
2. Kanye West "Runaway" [My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy]
3. Love Is All "A Side in a Bed" [Two Thousand and Ten Injuries]
4. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti "Round and Round" [Before Today]
5. Belle & Sebastian "The Ghost of Rockschool" [Write About Love]
6. Girls "Thee Oh So Protective One" [Broken Dreams EP]
7. Midnight Juggernauts "Lara vs. the Savage Pack" [The Crystal Axis]
8. Surfer Blood "Take It Easy" [Astro Coast]
9. Beach House "Norway" [Teen Dream]
10. The New Pornographers "Crash Years" [Together]
11. The Apples in Stereo "Hey Elevator" [Travellers in Space and Time]
12. The Tallest Man on Earth "Love Is All" [The Wild Hunt]
13. Joanna Newsom "Occident" [Have One on Me]
14. Pantha du Prince "Stick to My Side" [Black Noise]
15. The Walkmen "Stranded" [Lisbon]
16. Titus Andronicus "The Battle of Hampton Roads" [The Monitor]
17. Tame Impala "I Don't Really Mind" [Innerspeaker]
18. Deerhunter "Basement Scene" [Halcyon Digest]
19. Chatham County Line "Blue Jay Way" [Wildwood]
20. Hot Chip "Hand Me Down Your Love" [One Life Stand]
21. Owen Pallett "The Great Elsewhere" [Heartland]
22. Janelle Monáe "Cold War" [The ArchAndroid]
23. Curren$y "Breakfast" [Pilot Talk]
24. LCD Soundsystem "Can Change" [This Is Happening]
25. Vampire Weekend "Diplomat's Son" [Contra]
26. Robyn "Dancing on My Own [Body Talk]
27. The Tallest Man on Earth "The Dreamer" [Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird EP]
28. Twin Shadow "Shooting Holes in the Moon" [Forget]
29. Old 97's "You Smoke Too Much" [The Grand Theatre, Volume One]
30. The-Dream "February Love" [Love King]
31. Kaki King "Sloan Shore" [Junior]
32. The Magnetic Fields "The Dada Polka" [Realism]
33. Gorillaz "On Melancholy Hill" [Plastic Beach]
34. The Tallest Man on Earth "Graceland" (Paul Simon cover) [King of Spain b-side]
35. Crystal Castles "Year of Silence" [Crystal Castles]
36. MGMT "Siberian Breaks" [Congratulations]
37. The Roots "Right On" [How I Got Over]
38. Gil Scott-Heron "New York Is Killing Me" [I'm New Here]
39. The National "Lemonworld" [High Violet]
40. Male Bonding "Franklin" [Nothing Hurts]
41. Curren$y "Montreux" [Pilot Talk 2]
42. The Extra Lens "How I Left the Ministry" [Undercard]
43. The Radio Dept "David" [Clinging to a Scheme]
44. Sufjan Stevens "Age of Adz" [The Age of Adz]
45. Big Boi "Back Up Plan" [Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty]
46. Goldfrapp "Believer" [Head First]
47. Wavves "Mickey Mouse" [King of the Beach]
48. Eels "Gone Man" [End Times]
49. Matthew Dear "Soil to Seed" [Black City]
50. Blur "Fool's Day" [Record Store Day 7"]
honorable mentions:
Delorean "Warmer Places" [Subiza]
Sufjan Stevens "Heirloom" [All Delighted People EP]
Broken Social Scene "All to All" [Forgiveness Rock Record]
Matt Pond PA "Running Wild" [The Dark Leaves]
She & Him "Over It Over Again" [Volume Two]
Four Tet "Circling" [There Is Love in You]
Best Coast "When I'm with You" [Crazy for You]

Friday, December 10, 2010

Leonard Cohen: Dear Heather (2004)


(Columbia)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Leonard Cohen's legacy would have been sealed for all time if his last interesting album was Death of a Ladies' Man in 1977; instead, unlike virtually every other rock performer of his generation, he lost none of his artistic intensity with the onset of middle and old age. If anything, Cohen has grown more daring in his sixties and seventies; it's difficult to imagine many people left who wouldn't name I'm Your Man (released when he was 54) and The Future (58) as stronger efforts than his late '60s folk-rock records. His eleventh album, Dear Heather, is all the more impressive -- issued just after his seventieth birthday, it showcases a bold, fearless performer still at peak, as crafty and innovative and warm as ever.

There is evidence to suggest that The Future, Cohen's 1992 masterpiece, was always designed as his swansong. Unfortunately for him -- and luckily for us -- a financial fiasco involving one of the rock & roll biz's classic characters (the crooked accountant) forced him out of peaceful retirement, spent studying Buddhism, to offer a stripped-down comeback aptly titled Ten New Songs. Offering strong writing and performances but somewhat rote sonics, the record was rapidly upstaged by its followup. Dear Heather is the stronger return for Cohen for precisely the reasons he and his label brushed it off as a minor work -- it is wildly experimental, odd, intimate, and brave. All the carefully crafted songwriterly veneer of Ten New Songs is stripped away to reveal Cohen's darker impulses, sardonics to sex, in tracks that sometimes barely constitute complete songs so much as passing, halfway-formed melodic (and/or recited) thoughts.

On even the relatively conventional songs that occupy this weird and atmospheric record, Cohen generally takes an engagingly off-center approach to singing, either giving the foreground to his omnipresent backing vocalists, duetting with them, or simply reciting them, always willing to let the moody, textured, bizarro lite-jazz carry the song's mood. Without these touches, the classisist take on Byron's "Go No More a-Roving," the sea chanty "Undertow," and the lush semi-rehash "The Faith" could be outtakes from any prior Cohen album. "There for You" is essentially a more mortally wounded version of Leonard circa The Future. Only the mawkish 9/11 lament "On That Day" shies from adventure and it suffers for it.

At its most brilliant, Heather shoves forward while recalling Cohen's melodic gifts as readily as anything on his previous effort. "Nightingale," a Carl Anderson tribute, is among the most beautiful lullabyes in his catalog, finding him content to settle in quietly amidst the flood of pretty his fellow singers and musicians selflessly offer it. But it's the shattering, unbelievably accomplished "The Letters" that will have the most impact -- its assurance manages to hide its complete lack of precedence in Cohen's body of work; it's a hushed, urgent duet with Sharon Robinson flying back and forth between spoken word and aching melody, sneering and cooing in its confidence that Leonard Cohen was right about everything, all along, and we just wouldn't listen. Not soon enough.

Since its release, the album's reputation has rested on its on most unorthodox selections, which amount to elaborate recitations and minimalistic experiments; "Morning Glory" is little more than "The Murder Mystery" hitting an economical (and somehow even stranger, more intriguing) retirement age. "To a Teacher" and "Villanelle for Our Time" set old poems (by Cohen and F.R. Scott, respectively) to Weather Channel music to disorienting effect; aside from "On That Day," they are easily the album's most dubious moments, but the charm and wisdom in Cohen's readings compensate for the musical shortsightedness. Much stronger, and in fact quite difficult to fault, are the title track -- a winding, creeping carnival mood piece backing a nursery chant that suggests both infancy, mental degradation, and sexual perversion all at once -- and "Because Of," which put to rest any notion that Cohen is unwilling to take risks as he enters his fifth decade of performing. "Because Of" is a startling, deadpan evocation of the fantasy life Cohen has repeatedly denied living, here so coldly, humanely, starkly evoked it's difficult not to believe it. The lovers flock to him for his poetry then engulf him, save him; true or not, it's beautiful, frightening, unshakeable.

Dear Heather clearly isn't for everyone. It's almost willfully disorganized, for one thing, closing almost at random with a 1985 live take on "Tennessee Waltz" that, while charming enough, really adds nothing. But it's a different kind of album, a new kind of album, and that's an impressive feat for someone who's been doing this so long. You can think of it more as a book of sketches than a collection of songs; cry about this if you want, but he's given us plenty of the latter. The reason this hits harder for me than Ten New Songs is that, like The Future, it refuses to apologize for the age of its author. It is unabashedly the music of a man who has grown old. But it's also the music of the man who made the bolder, more challenging music of his discography; it belongs much more to the Ladies Man and Recent Songs universe than to that of Songs from a Room and New Skin for the Old Ceremony. I'd frankly prefer to hear more of the nutty, out-on-a-limb stuff now. Keeps all of us young.

Witnessing brilliantly crafted, eccentric new music from a performer of Cohen's age and caliber makes it much more difficult to make excuses for the late-career mediocrity of the likes of Paul McCartney and Neil Young. Of course, Cohen is hardly breathlessly prolific. The last twenty years have brought from him precisely three albums. But more significantly, each of those three is markedly separate from the others but plainly function as portions of the same recorded narrative that began with Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1967. You can hear Dear Heather and be proud of believing in this man and know for certain that as long as he wants to, he will present something glorious to us.