Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Decemberists: The King Is Dead (2011)



Read my album review for the Metro Times.

Buddy Holly: Greatest Hits (1957-59)



but around probably like 11, other people started to show up and i was amused by how wrong i was to feel abnormal when i was younger at my fascination with all things outdated. pretty much it’s an epidemic. the dance floor ERUPTED when he played buddy holly. it was "oh boy." i have listened to a LOT of buddy holly lately; i fucking love him, he is so angry and his songwriting was fucking sick. and there was nothing quaint about his sound on those enormous speakers for serious. anyway that wasn’t the song i expected would start to tear off the roof but it was.

Pretend you've never heard of Buddy Holly for a moment. Therefore, pretend that you didn't grow up hearing "Everyday" and "Peggy Sue" on oldies stations and never glimpsed the telecine images and promo photos of the gawky chemistry-teacher physique and iconically clunky spectacles. Pretend it's just a thing that happened half a century ago and all that's left of it is maybe some records or mementos in a dusty attic somewhere, a forgotten teenybopper indulgence, and then do me a favor and listen to "Not Fade Away." I want you to do this because I want you to hear the carefully controlled but unvarnished human cry in Holly's voice, the tense, precise, but calm press of his band, the immediate, homey, beautiful upside-down Bo Diddley rhythm. Or take the swagger, the cunning John Wayne reference, the teasingly brutal brokenhearted subtext of "That'll Be the Day." It's not about importance; it's not about laying groundwork; it's about the unobstructed delivery of base emotion, the feat Buddy Holly achieved in his insanely short recording career, the feat no one else will ever have the balls or the blank slate to duplicate.

If we must, let's say this: from 1955 to 1959, Elvis Presley may have been the lightning rod, but Holly was the man who did it all from his gut. Yes, he did turn rockabilly around from its elements into a force of unmatched nature that would quickly become the line of the rock family tree that would see the most fruitful development in the coming decades; only Chuck Berry eclipses in influence, and even Berry might not have as many disparate subsequent notions easily traceable back to his catalog. A better comparison to Holly might be his friend Sam Cooke; it's not that rock & roll wasn't enough for them, it's that they saw how far rock & roll could be taken, then were silenced before they got the complete opportunity. In their wake, new fragmented branches developed, but never the unity of black and white, country and soul, aggression and peace, bullshit and expression that they envisioned. It would be a generation before any pop music could match the ruthless ambition and concise, stabbing directness Holly provided. His roadmap died with him, and the world was left hurtling in his wake.

Holly's twisting of rockabilly and his absorbing of R&B and gospel influences was quite directly the creation of rock's second wave. It was Presley that inspired him to begin -- all roads lead back to Elvis, no doubt -- but the many explosions for which Holly was the catalyst are unimaginable in the rock story without his presence. Most of them continue unabated as cultural forces. We have the dawn of the geek, the obsessive, the awkward as the rock & roll artist -- the true outsider, the true emotional force; on "I'm Looking for Someone to Love," track two here, he's staying at home while she runs around and finally learning to bust the fuck out -- it's joyous, and scarred. There is the invention of the rock band: the Crickets, the model of every group to follow, plus guitar solos that are to the instrument as "Hamlet" is to the theater. Holly offers, in turn, the dawn of the rock & roll artist as adventurous innovator -- the celesta and intimacy on "Everyday," the alarmingly moving compressed exotica of "Not Fade Away," the thrillingly obtuse confrontation of "I'm Gonna Love You Too," the moody, bottom-heavy shake of "Peggy Sue." The dawn of so much, maybe everything, that we as music fans care about.

And of course, the Beatles cribbed all of it. It's blatant. This compilation illustrates so much of the direct lineage it's initially shocking. How can the supposed dictators of the form have received such a jump start from outside? But all of it is here -- the inventively odd and lovely songwriting, the charged and clever but minimal lyrics, the spare, forceful production, and especially the expert application of so many crazed, bent and intricate vocal tics, the caterwauling that would become highest cultural art. The neuroses that the Beatles seemed to bring to light like Elizabethan orators, well, Holly's celebration of vast fuckedupness, the exposure of his emotional fray, his fearless and economical application of his darkness: there is no kitsch to be derived. No innocence, only purity: rock & roll as humankind's sole unmuddied line of communication -- a thing of screaming beauty and importance. After this moment, never again, for the baggage would build, but nothing could spoil these songs. Nothing linguistic or subtle could truly diminish their reach. His command is audible; he seems to understand more than was known by anyone else about his artform by the time he died.

Holly's catalog and the structure of his career now seem strangely modern -- singles plus albums divided neatly almost in half, the blazing shot-off rocker of "Rave On" and the unstoppable "Oh, Boy!" versus the hopeless romantic of "Words of Love" and "True Love Ways" both belying his modest outward appearance and polite reputation, all immaculately crafted -- but it's not hard to gather that this is the result more of racial casting off and disorganization of his black peers' recorded outputs than of his own quality control, solid though it was. There's a sense in which the brevity of his career supplies an elegance (this forty-minute fireball of a compilation covers the commercial peak of Holly's recorded output, a tiny range from 1957 to 1959), but that illusion is shattered when one hears his final recordings, which suggest a spiritually devastating potential with their beauty, charm, and dogged focus. The ambition and what it might have wrought outweighs all else, but we must compress our concern here down to the hits and all they reveal, which is plenty. After such a long life as oldies, these songs' vitality is striking; the Hank Williams-esque regret and resignation of "Maybe Baby" only seem more knowing today, and the brilliant kissoffs "Think It Over" and especially "It's So Easy" (a song that never gets credit for its bitterly adult cynicism) reveal themselves as monsters when the volume is pumped.

But it's the cheerily fractured, explosive revenge song "Early in the Morning," bothersome choral backup notwithstanding, that lays it all out. John Lennon owed the bulk of his entire fortune to this one 45. Holly's voice seems to be channeling some otherworldly force, as Lennon's later would, and it peaks and teases in the same places. His singing is something to witness, still; it alone sells many of the tender ballads from his experimental sugary sessions later on. "Fool's Paradise" and "Heartbeat" are deserved classics, both gorgeous and towering, but the lesser-by-default "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" and "Raining in My Heart" warrant attention if only for Holly's crooning, sophisticated readings of both.

And oh, impact, of course; it would be ignorant to suggest Holly hasn't had the farthest reach of any of the first generation of rock & roll performers. Of course he has. The problem is it's somewhat irrelevant. Perhaps because of that same miraculous reach, that stunning knack for unpretentious, conversational, but still brilliantly nutty expression (love, lust, hatred, dread), these songs don't age. I don't think Chuck Berry's songs have aged either, but Holly's sound as though they were preserved cryogenically and their year of origin became somehow of no consequence. After all, who in five hundred years (when I'm certain he's one of the handful who will have survived all the filters of scholarship and decay) when they listen to Holly will make a distinction between the 1950s and the 1990s? Holly's songs wonder why we do now. He sounds like he's a couple of rooms away, belting and wailing away as ever, and making it all such a workday thing, something to fight for and be passionate about. He's pissed off, he's in love, and he's hungry. In our illustrious career as humans we've yet to come up with any three ideas that cut to the bone more. I doubt we ever will.

Indeed, when rock & roll is studied seriously in however many centuries, there will be a giant thick bold line. Below it will be almost everyone, in small 10 point text. Above it will be James Brown, the Beatles, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly. It's not that no one else matters. It's that they created a form in which no one else would ever really have to matter, because the thesis was written. Every brilliant stretch of the form after (and there are many, no doubt) is somewhere in those four texts. And Holly could lay claim alone to one title: the most innovative pop musician of all time. It remains dismaying that he died so young. The tiny bit of work he got to put down on tape is so lively, universal, and ahead of its time, anticipating almost every subsequent movement in popular rock & roll, I think his full body of work would have been unbelievably dangerous. But what does it matter when kids still connect to him now as it is? And don't tell me they don't because I've witnessed it -- dancing and freaking out and declaring their love for him, fifty years after his death. It's like he's permanently ours, whoever's young enough. The man was the fucking tops, is all I’m saying.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Old 97's: Blame It on Gravity (2008)

(New West)


This CD, the band's seventh, was released at the height of my Old 97's fandom, a few months after I became extremely enamored of them and they rapidly found their way onto my all-time favorites list. Conventional wisdom has it as a disappointment, but I loved it at the time and played it nonstop for several weeks. Then my life sort of got derailed all of a sudden and I put it away for about three years, only to take it out today expecting to hear -- now devoid of enough bias that I saw their subsequent Grand Theatre Volume One as lacking -- the blandness everyone else has reported. Surprisingly enough, I still dig the whole thing -- every track -- and I've been away so long it doesn't even necessarily feel married to its time anymore. It's like getting a new Old 97's album out of nowhere. Rhett Miller's lyrics ("Don't tell me the world is in trouble; do you want to dance with me?") are stronger than ever, the melodies tease and slide with hooky perfection, and the band only seems to be growing tighter. I can't help thinking it's largely because they're making no artificial attempt here to be "alt-country" or to reenact Too Far to Care.

Yeah, okay, this is "soft rock," continuing the ever more commercial (and yet, ever less popular) track the band had been taking since it shifted to a power pop atmosphere in the late '90s -- the songs are friendly, calm, mature, and you could even call them dad-rock without that necessarily being pejorative. The boys have grown up, though they still occasionally lose their shit enough and get fucked up for a borderline-stalker anthem like "I Will Remain," and maybe the comparatively uneventful nature of writing music for minor albums on a tiny label hurts, but this disc at least posits maturity as a less destructive force than, say, the Replacements' last two albums. It's not what the Old 97's are really about, but its eloquent charm makes it an extension of their former selves rather than a shadow. Plus, the gently ambitious impulses that manifested themselves in playful Drag It Up cuts like the surf-rock "Smokers" fall into more fully-realized songs here: the vague Greek textures and insistence of "Dance with Me," the surprising gospel-tinged "Here's to the Halcyon," and the oblique doo wop shuffle on "She Loves the Sunset." There is finally something to be said for a slight loss of machismo, miss it though you will.

His (and Murray Hammond's) continued progression in songwriting notwithstanding, Rhett Miller's singing is less compelling than usual here, as is instantly apparent when he croons "there is looove" on opener "The Fool," and his overly relaxed adult contemporary manner may have contributed to the reception of Blame It on Gravity by fans. The rough edges are mostly gone, perhaps a consequence of the watered-down feel of his solo work, but he still does wounded and quiet like a master ("No Baby I"), and Hammond one-ups him with the magnum opus "The Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue." Some of the more derivative moments are troubling; the band plagiarizes itself on "The One" (a clone of "The House That Used to Be" that redeems itself a bit by referencing the Sandals' "Theme from Endless Summer") and "Early Morning" (dead ringer for "Four Leaf Clover," a song they've already plundered more than once), and cops a Shins riff for "My Two Feet." But little of it matters when they pull themselves together for triumphant pop (with killer bass) like "Ride" or touhctsone country-rock like "The Easy Way," either of which could fit on earlier albums seamlessly.

Inevitably, Gravity is now recontextualized by Grand Theatre, but it's surprising how well its songs hold on when compared to the often desperate grappling for passion on the newer record. No one apparently wanted the complacency this album exhibits, but I'll take that honesty over a vain attempt to bottle up youth anytime. This band always has been and will likely always remain one of the strongest, and they've earned enough goodwill for the rest of their lives, but I would honestly prefer the middle-of-the-AM-road direction Gravity suggests to the cockamamie scheme for rejuvenation derived by Theatre. Perversely, hearing this again makes me a bit more optimistic about Theatre's second installment, due out later in 2011. As I said before, that record will likely determine how much attention I pay to new Old 97's material from now on. But I'll be permanently thankful for the soundtrack they gave my early summer of '08.

The Grand Theatre Volume One (2010)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

R.E.M.: Eponymous (1981-87)


R.E.M.'s never been a singles band. None of their three somewhat official hits compilations really satisfies. I seldom advocate this argument quite so strongly, but if you're shooting for an R.E.M. crash course, don't start with this or In Time. Eponymous gathers the semi-hits and commercialish songs from the band's first five albums, typically (erroneously) referred to as their "indie period" -- in fact, I.R.S. was scarcely more an independent label than Sire in the '80s -- and the band, who'd just signed to Warner Bros. in 1988, wasn't particularly keen on this record's release. A label jump usually renders a best-of inevitable, but I.R.S. was a bit rude in scheduling Eponymous for release mere weeks before the band's WB debut, Green, even forcing out a single (the chestnut "Talk About the Passion" from Murmur) for competition with "Orange Crush."

But the band, presumably to protect their name, went along with the project and contributed, for the effect that unlike subsequent attempts to canonize their I.R.S. years -- including their own sanctioned retrospective, And I Feel Fine -- feels somewhat like an R.E.M. album. It doesn't have the wise sequencing or mood variance of the albums from which it lifts its twelve songs, but it has a confounding R.E.M.-like cover plus an annoyingly clever title, contains typically oddball elements like a yearbook photo of Michael Stipe with the words "THEY AIRBRUSHED MY FACE" slathered over it, and Stipe not only contributed the clipped, bizarre liner notes ("philomath is located between lexington and crawfordville and used to have its own post office") but directed a sobering video for "Talk About the Passion." The result is still a mess of abbreviation and compromise.

In 1988, R.E.M. had roughly the clout that Arcade Fire has now; not huge by 1988 standards, but huge by today's, and worlds bigger than the bands they tend to be lumped with (The Replacements, Husker Du) in revisionist essays about college rock in the '80s. They are remembered as an underground phenomenon, but all of their albums charted, and they were lifted up and celebrated by a massive scene in their hometown that spread across the country, followed swiftly by critical adoration that would stay with them for nearly two decades. Five albums in, they'd reached a commercial breakthrough with Document, buoyed by the ominous hit "The One I Love" and its horrendously ugly, butt-stupid video (directed by the man responsible before for the hideous cover of the Replacements' Tim and later for the cinema classic Johnny Mnemonic). This landed them on the cover of Rolling Stone, which billed them as "America's best rock & roll band" (within the space of a year, they'd say the same thing about a different band).

As alternative rock in general slid toward the mainstream, R.E.M.'s music grew more commercial, a decidedly positive development for them that allowed them to craft their best album, 1986's Lifes Rich Pageant, a massive-sounding southern rock opus with verve and life and personality. It's represented by one song on Eponymous. Conventional wisdom has their masterpiece as 1983's Murmur and there is, you guessed it, one song from Murmur on this disc. We end up with hardly an evolutionary tract -- the songs chosen for this collection are either outliers on their respective albums or the most radio-friendly country-leaning selections thus far. It's not even a complete set of I.R.S. singles. "Wolves, Lower" was pushed to radio as the lead track for the Chronic Town EP but isn't here, nor is the Murmur retake on "Radio Free Europe," the Fables of the Reconstruction oddity "Wendell Gee," or -- most glaringly -- the classic cover of the Clique's "Superman" from Pageant. The prospective buyer would find any of the five I.R.S. releases a richer method of exploration than this.

The fan, however, needs it for a few rarities, two of which are essential. The very first track is the slamming, crazed original version of "Radio Free Europe," R.E.M.'s first-ever release on the Hib-Tone label in 1981. Vastly different from its familiar Murmur revision, the track suggests a wholly different path for R.E.M. as maxed-out garage rock merchants. Next, Chronic Town is represented by the undisputed "Gardening at Night," but this version with a throatier, more masculine lead vocal by Michael Stipe trounces the one that made the EP and deserves to be canonical. Without the context of the strange, atmospheric enigmas of the rest of Chronic Town, "Gardening" sounds like a further pushing of the garage aesthetic.

The other two semi-exclusives come later and won't really generate excitement for the fan, much less the newcomer. "Romance" is a soundtrack stray that got left off Dead Letter Office; it's extremely annoying and to the best of my knowledge, this is still the only place to buy it. Usually R.E.M. b-sides and leftovers are extraordinarily good, so it's a bit of perversity that the one that ends up on their best-of is so awful. Lastly, one of the remixes of "Finest Worksong" makes the cut -- the one with horns that was usually played on the radio -- but one misses the riskier strokes of the "lengthy club mix."

As for what else is here, you've got "So. Central Rain" to "Rockville" to "Can't Get There from Here" to "Driver 8" and all of those are wonderful songs, but they're illustrative of two specific aspects of R.E.M. -- the sentimental jokesters and the banshees of Appalachian-rock dread -- that simply felt like interludes in album context. Yet again, it's not necessarily the fault of the compilers, it's just that we have here a band that's extremely tough to pare down, and this LP vainly attempts to summarize five albums that are pretty much essential anyway, that even the most casual fan should own. That'd be okay if it were a straightforward singles collection, but it's not.

So beyond the two nifty opening rarities, what's the point? Well, there's "Romance" (ugh) but there's also this little detail -- Eponymous has been superseded by a 2006 compilation called And I Feel Fine, which adds a second disc and gathers everything here, including the stray singles I bitched were missing, plus lots more unreleased stuff and a considerably fleshed-out introduction to R.E.M.'s first eight years of existence. Problem: it sounds like shit, maxed out and compressed, and it's about twice as expensive as this thing, and I don't care who you are, you still are going to need the albums it references. Four of the first five R.E.M. albums, plus the debut EP, are as delightfully mysterious and resonant as alternative rock gets; you need them more than you need any condensation of them. But if you gotta, grab this one; at least you can still chuckle at the yearbook photo when you don't really need the record anymore.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Radiohead: In Rainbows (2007)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The press narrative for In Rainbows managed to largely sidestep its music; there are times when it's easy to wonder if this was intentional, as it's so much more unassuming than perhaps any other Radiohead album, and at the very least their prior four. The story goes -- this, the seventh album by one of the biggest bands in the world, was released without a price point, internet-only for three months, etc. Its effect on the music industry was staggering; it shocked everyone by opening at #1 upon its physical release a few months later, proving this or that point about music consumers. But little of that matters now. What does is that it's their finest, loveliest effort, by now mostly eclipsing the bulk of their other work for me. Radiohead's been a pervasive part of my life since I was a preteen, loved, resented, idolized, second-guessed, feared, criticized, revered, obsessed over, neglected. In Rainbows is the album I waited ten years for them to make, the heart-to-heart regrouping to follow the loneliness of OK Computer.

That isn't to say I disliked the further loneliness of Kid A, a fine record and most folks' choice for top of the decade, but its electronic meanderings are less striking than Radiohead is as a performing band, and it doesn't have anything on The Bends or OK Computer. But an interesting, bold effort, yes. I can't say that for Hail to the Thief, which failed to reward my repeated listenings, or the direct Kid A sequel Amnesiac, which failed to reward my first listen. The best songs Radiohead released before In Rainbows were b-sides: the proto-Coldplay drunken singalong "How Can You Be Sure?" and the warm, reassuring hug of "Worrywort." It was a shock when a love song as straightforward as "I Might Be Wrong" made it to Amnesiac -- its unquestionable highlight -- and even found release as a single. Afraid of their feelings? No, just too obsessed with coldhearted quality control to give proper vent to anything so human. At least, that's the way it felt.

So along comes In Rainbows, an album consisting almost entierly of woozy, intensely pretty ballads about relationships, the Radiohead album on which Thom Yorke sings the line "I don't want to be your friend / I just want to be your lover" against a minimal mutation of an Al Green backing. The record's mood is beautifully sustained, its opening dance and rock salvos fitting as more than mere tokens; "Bodysnatches" might be the one thing here that isn't really new for them, but it's a stronger burst of energy than the last three albums offered. On the whole, this is an elegant cycle of songs about falling for somebody, losing somebody, learning to accept that, being too far away from somebody, and finding somebody new, not necessarily in that order. It's decidedly un-Radiohead, and the musical (and lyrical) stretch suits them, coming off as their calmest, broadest evolution to date. A couple of weeks after the record was issued, as I found its mood remarkably coalescing with mine, I struggled out loud about whether it or The Bends now deserved the edge as their best LP. Three years later, as I've found deeper, lasting comfort with it in any number of states, there is no doubt. Radiohead here show their ability as something beyond politically-conscious rock stars; the record is a personal fireside chat that circumvents any need for posturing.

It can be difficult to deconstruct an album that hits you like this one has me -- it already holds considerable nostalgic punch -- but I think what makes In Rainbows such a stunning album is, in simplest terms, the refined band arrangements (a carryover from the more elaborate Thief that was heading in this direction) and the singing. Thom Yorke’s performing is absolutely the best it has ever been on this album; he is enormously wide-ranging, felt, impassioned, loud, powerful, pained, warm. Even most of Radiohead’s detractors admit there’s something about that voice. Now, for the first time in ten years, the voice wraps around real songs. And they are some pretty wonderful songs. "Nude," a leftover from the OK days when it was "Big Ideas (Don't Get Any)," tackles personal defeat with Brian Wilson-like grace, underscoring its pain rather than its absurdity, all with the most starkly beautiful, expressive vocal I can recall from Yorke. The pure professionalism of the band behind it (that bass!) only helps to provide a platform.

After hearing "Black Star," "(Nice Dream)," and "Fake Plastic Trees" from The Bends several hundred times over the years, I can report that they are impossible to shake, but those days of punchy production and explosive singles can't match the aching transcendence of In Rainbows, which is rife with the strongest material in the catalog. The influences are worn more plainly than before -- the skittering beat and Prince vocals on "15 Step," the direct Beatles channeling "Faust Arp," the hazily pretty, fluid Motown of the undeniable "House of Cards" -- but by paring themselves down to a guitar band with expansive atmospherics, they plainly expose the maturity they've attained since the last time they were just that: listen to the tragic isolation of "Videotape," the menacing ease of gathering and scattering captured on "Jigsaw Falling into Place," and especially the swooning marital love letter -- overpoweringly strongarmed, not delicate -- "All I Need."

Two other cuts, though, warrant special attention. Out of the box, "Reckoner" was my choice for the centerpiece; more cathartic and less optimistic than most of the others, it sears with sonic hugeness and Yorke's impassioned exorcism. A true showcase for Nigel Godrich, it employs a remarkable, unique sound that layers a sweetly modest band arrangment over a cacophony of rhythm as Yorke swirls around. Nothing on the record is more instantly striking. But others took over my attention and it was some time before the song's thematic power hit me: their most selflessly kindly lyric since "Worrywort" dissects a communication breakdown, maybe or maybe not between lovers. It comes off as a warning of the frailty of a relationship and an admonishment that "you are not to blame," but most important is the line "Because we separate, it ripples our reflections"; that hushed moment is the climax just before a rebuilding of intensity -- it is the pleading for mutual forgiveness about distances for which no strength can compensate. If that's not the intent, fine, but it allows the room.

Perhaps it's the flipside of the most sincere yet perversely Radiohead love song to date, and coincidentally the best song they have ever recorded. "Weird Fishes / Arpeggi" is a calming, almost hallucinatory force, packing an indescribable wallop. Yorke sings of infinite devotion (not desire), seeing those eyes a world apart from everything, "in the deepest ocean," while the band captures a graceful flood of sensory-filling detail: wailing and twiddling and bounding like a space age Pet Sounds, all perfectly unsentimental and calmly ecstatic. Complex, playful, winding, it sounds like love, and it is the peak of the most emotional Radiohead album, the one so good that whatever they do afterward is really OK with me.

[Editorial Note: The above contains a few sentences from my initial writeup of this album from '07 in my old journal.]

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The "5" Royales: All Righty! The Apollo Recordings (1951-55)



The history and legacy of the "5" Royales was explored some months back in this space, coinciding with my own discovery of the woefully underappreciated R&B legends. The King recordings I reviewed at that time are genuinely unclassifiable; far more idiosyncratic than even the shining lights of rhythm and blues of their time, those singles with their bursts of exploding guitar are unlike anything I've ever heard in any genre.

I've now gotten my hands on a set of their Apollo recordings. The big hits I knew; "Baby Don't Do It" and "Crazy Crazy Crazy" are classic R&B staples I've played in DJ sets, "Help Me Somebody" is peerless, with its appalling rhythmic shifts, and "Laundromat Blues" is a priceless curio. The rest is new to me, and I reckon it's not really proper to call it a disappointment -- this, after all, is what gave way to the stunning music the group recorded for King, but it does seem accurate to label it generally far more conventional.

To be clear: some of it is conventional and quite wonderful; the early "Give Me One More Chance" (1952) is a shot in the ear, suggestive and wild, a direct contrast to the sacred sides by the Royal Sons Quintet, the group's earlier incarnation, also included here. "I Like It Like That" has a filthy saxophone bit worth the price of the set, and "What's That" is layered, unshakeable pop displaying a clear passageway back to gospel and ahead to the Isleys' "Shout."

This is essential for anyone who loves early R&B, at the point when its lineage was so fascinatingly naked, and anyone who loves the Royales' astounding later work, but the prospective listener new to the group is advised to proceed directly to the King records. You'll love these too, but you'll love them because of how they recontextualize and validate the King 45's. Great group, well worth exploring.

Complete King Masters (1954-60)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Madonna: Hard Candy (2008)

(Warner Bros.)

Innovators can't typically keep it up as long as Madonna has, so her slowdown in the last ten years is understandable. She still has yet to issue two bad albums in a row. Whether that remains true will be determined by the quality of her first release on the dubious Live Nation record label. For the moment, we're left with Hard Candy as her most recent statement. To those who feel comfortable being dismissive of Madonna, the record's a big joke -- its garish, ill-advised cover art; its hyperactively gimmicky, ultimately empty R&B; its half-assed vocals and half-baked songwriting. But for an actual fan of Madonna, for someone who holds her in genuinely high regard as an artist, the record feels disappointing but entirely forgivable. The complex relationship the star has established with her audience, the mainstream media-skepticism she once brilliantly spearheaded, perversely allows followers free reign in questioning her bizarre creative detours; when she's on the wrong track, it's instantly apparent.

Those disappointments are not strictly musical. Hard Candy isn't at all a bad album -- it's listenable, decent fun, and often infectious -- but it marks the indisputable point when Madonna copped to trend-following rather than -setting, a perhaps inevitable downturn she sidestepped with a couple of left-field projects in the middle of the decade, the regrettable kitsch American Life and the quite ingenious throwback Confessions on a Dance Floor. As of the dawn of the millennium, Madonna was still a leader, still in the trenches breaking ground; Ray of Light and Music were both unqualified successes setting the stage for the pop decade to follow, integrating their uncommercialisms into neatly digestable form, like most of her best records. Confessions might be a better record, but its effect on Madonna's progeny seems nonexistent. Thanks to its blatant pandering, Hard Candy will join it.

Madonna's meanderings in the commercial urban radio sound are more convincing than you'd expect, if only because she so consistently throws herself in the background in favor of performances by Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, and Timbaland, who are all far better at this sort of thing but none of whom reserved any real inspiration for this project. There are decent moments here, like the snakelike bumper "She's Not Me," but for the most part, the songs are too long, their thrust too obvious, the cameos are too obnoxious, the feeling of an insufferable comback bid littered and weighted with unhelpful "collaborators" deathly. Even the big hit, "Four Minutes," might be Madonna's least interesting single ever; it sounds like a b-side from Timberlake or Timbaland that happens to feature Madonna, whose relevance audibly slips away during the course of the tune.

It isn't all that fair to complain that Madonna is experimenting with something that is essentially "new" for her; the problem is that as she grew, up to and including her prior album, she continued to keep enough of an ear to the ground for her music to continue to feel fresh and trailblazing, rather than simply aping the sound of radio which is -- by the time an LP's released, inevitably -- at least a year old. It's not an exaggeration to say she's the finest solo dance music artist we've ever had, and the finest period if not for Pet Shop Boys, who were tapped to work on this then kicked off the project days later at the label's request. One wishes the Boys' ideas had been heard. Despite settling into an identifiable sound, which Madonna has not, they continue to craft memorable, inventive, commercial disco twenty-five years after their first hit. PSB sensed Madonna's capacity for new sounds early on; in 1987, they attempted to lend her the song "Heart," which they recorded themselves after not hearing back. Relentlessly banging, emotionally intense, wittily ironic, and confoundingly sensual, it would've been a smash and a classic for her. It would be nice if that dream collaboration happened one day. Timbaland and Kanye West are brilliant performers, Timberlake is a very good one, but they don't give vent to anything here that actually sounds like it matters to Madonna.

A few days ago, I heard "Open Your Heart," Madonna's 1986 blockbuster from the True Blue album. Dating from her commercial peak, before her albums became more refined and textured affairs, and long before her voice developed the nuance it's shown since the mid-'90s, the song seems to explode to escape its time, its context, any set of speakers. The track itself is steamy, but Madonna belts her part out as though it's the last thing she'll live to do; through its innumerable layers of electronic haze, she pulls herself up to evoke utter empathy, pure emotion. It's a shameless direct blow to the senses, and it's awesomely powerful. Can we ever get that magnfiicently joyous, populist sophistication back? Perhaps when Madonna's operating from a new home and not simply riding out her recording contract, we'll find out. But frankly, I'd be happy with several more Confessions on a Dance Floors... provided we get more restrained packaging than this.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Stevie Wonder: Music of My Mind (1972)



It's endlessly fascinating to consider this album's context; we so easily forget that not just under the Motown umbrella but in pop music, Stevie Wonder was already a major star in the 1960s. So was Marvin Gaye; where Gaye's singles wallowed and seduced, Stevie's soared. "Classic period" nothing; those '60s singles are still the most infectious, endearing, beautiful songs Wonder has ever recorded, regardless of who wrote most of them. But when Marvin and Stevie broke free of tyrannical operation by Berry Gordy and associates, the true chasm between the two came to light. The primary feature of What's Going On? that lends the record its humanity is its maturity. Meanwhile, there is melodic innovation, there is a floating ambience that encapsulates and enraptures. These features appear in different form on Stevie Wonder's 1972 album, his second (after Where I'm Coming From) since gaining full artistic control, his first acknowledged classic, but the difference is marked. Maturity is hardly what 21 year-old Wonder brings here. Giddy thrill at the possibility of the recording studio is more like it. He's in the world of Orson Welles being given the key to RKO, or Truffaut saying to hell with it and unleashing Shoot the Piano Player. Every second of recorded music here has two features: it is played by Stevie Wonder (save a trombone on one track and an electric guitar on another), and it is tweaked and twisted to maximum teasing, intricate effect.

Unlike the four subsequent albums in Wonder's "classic period," Mind doesn't rely on killer songs, although they're here if you need them -- the entire second half save "Evil" holds its own against his masterstrokes. This record is about the accumulation of a feeling. Wonder shares production credit with Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil; whoever's responsible for the sound of the album deserves a bulk of acclaim here. Overflowing with detail and comforting sonic depth, with buried dialogue and quiet instruments and elements blaring away in the distance, making better use of stereo sound than most ever will in a career, Music of My Mind sounds like world-changing heaven, and timeless at that. To this day, it has that otherworldly gutsiness that once made Wonder seem like an alien, but Our Alien, and because its songs have suffered less overexposure, it is quite alarming now.

The platitudes that cross the mind, like "hugely impressive," seem to have been part of Wonder's intent. For a soul album, this is a rather cerebral affair, and a heavy proportion of its appeal comes from the palpable blast the artist is having. Still, after the complex, immensely tricky seven-minute sunburst of "Love Having You Around," which opens as pop, passes through gospel, and finds time for a crazily modern keyboard solo, with speech and singing popping in and out incessantly left and right (you can see where Kanye West is tipping his hat with that ear for detail), it's inevitably a letdown to find ourselves seeped in the draggy "Superwoman," the semi-hit single here and one of the two tracks that doesn't quite work. It doesn't work because it's arrogant, smug, and adolescent, the leftover unenlightenment from a too-sheltered life that fortunately would not forever stunt Stevie the way it would Michael. The other dud, "Evil," proves that a penchant for too-slick balladry ran in Stevie's blood long before the wrongheaded sellout accusations crossed anyone's mind; there's a lot of shit like that on Talking Book too, which no one ever mentions.

As for the rest, well, pick your future subgenre: new wave Afro-funk ("Keep On Running," the too-innovative-for-the-charts first single), infectious vibe-disco ("Seems So Long"), achingly minimalistic jam ("Girl Blue"), and just Stevie doing that stunningly crazy shit he can do with countermelodies and counterrhythms and unexpected twists and just the canny explosion of an assured individuality ("Happier Than the Morning Sun") in the service of no less or more than a love song. There are even a couple of sexy slowish ones -- the celebratory "I Love Every Little Thing About You" and the scandalous "Sweet Little Girl" -- early on that have him at his absolute most playful, the vocals especially. He didn't have to be this good to keep the world with him, but he did it.

But far more than proto-this or that, this sounds in 2011 like real and now, like world saving artistic shit in a fucked up world. We don't need Stevie to do it again; we've already got it. Please, everyone take some time out and listen to this album for a while. You'll feel better, really.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Depeche Mode: Sounds of the Universe (2009)



Depeche Mode was right about everything. They never got the credit for it but their humanely adolescent, tongue-in-cheek melodramatic goth-synthpop crafted the electro-sound that falls over us like a curtain every place we walk today. Over three full decades, they've remained one of the most consistently adventurous (and critically underappreciated) of all mainstream bands. Maintaining this quality control has had its price; since the departure of musical backbone Alan Wilder fifteen years ago, they've slowed to a crawl and managed four LPs. Luckily, they've saved all their excesses and rough-hewn ideas for solo records and side projects, and have managed to pile up so much good Depeche Mode material that by 2009, there was an excess of roughly a dozen and a half songs that arguably could have made the final release. Those leftovers were saved for various collector releases (which we'll cover in the future), but it's interesting to note how specific and calculating the band still is about what ends up on their full-length releases.

Sounds of the Universe is, unlike the band's prior two albums (Exciter and Playing the Angel), not a revelation. It is the subtlest DM album in some time, but like their boorish 1993 pseudo-rock effort Songs of Faith and Devotion, it seems designed to make a specific impression. It aims to surprise, but all of its bombast comes off as a retread, while the chugging dance songs impress as much as ever and the quieter cuts buried at the back end actually offer something New from a band that seldom displays discomfort with its traditional sound.

The remarkable facet of Depeche Mode has long been just how expert they have become at crafting Depeche Mode music; it has never stopped sounding inspired, and by 2005's jaw-dropping dinosaur New Romantic classic Playing the Angel, it wasn't unreasonable to suggest they were at their peak. Better yet, the times have moved with them. The analogue synthesizers and skittering beats of Sounds of the Universe sound like trend-mongering, but they actually symbolize their status as trailblazers. Everyone wants to sound like early '80s Depeche Mode these days, including Depeche Mode.

There's a change, though, and not just the newly dirty, compressed emphasis on the age of those synths. These are the styles of our techno times, but they're fitted with a curious aggression. The band's toyed with this rather laughable macho expression before, in a sometimes laughable ("I Feel You"), sometimes delightful ("Dead of Night") fashion, but never before have they attempted to match this grunting pomp with the sort of keyboard sounds they were toying with back when they were Vince Clarke's backing band. Though the nuances and joy in these songs grow clear with time, it's not as interesting a match as one hopes. The single "Wrong" unnecessarily buries its candy-shop catchiness in mud and spittle. Despite being twisted enough from that premise to be interesting, "Miles Away" is equally odd. Even the two opening tracks, "In Chains" and "Hole to Feed," squander their lite-gothic funk with pointless bombast. Still, give these fiftysomethings credit for continuing to find new ways to grow and tweak this far into the game; they certainly don't have to.

Since Universe is a more outwardly experimental record than Playing the Angel and maybe even the shiftier Exciter, it's mildly disappointing that it doesn't work as well, and that the most rewarding songs are the ones that were probably easiest for the band to come up with, even as they fit impossibly well with current club music. "Fragile Tension," "In Sympathy," and "Perfect" are propulsive, distant dance music in the vein of any number of late '80s DM classics; they stand up with their predecessors and kick, swing, and all the rest. They're even balanced by the typical Mode sex jam move, "Little Soul."

As long as they're still putting out bangers (yes) and they're still funny (mm-hmm: "You know your right from wrong / At least to some degree"), who gives a fuck? But Universe does offer tantalizing glimpses of a future Depeche Mode I wish we wouldn't probably have to wait another three or four years to meet. "Come Back" continues Dave Gahan's stratospheric growth as both vocalist and writer. His singing is top-caliber for most of the album, wringing new feeling from those consonants he once barked out like a man drearily possessed. And Martin Gore sings "Jezebel," the most original tune in the catalog for a while -- sinister, surreal, new, it's not quite "Death's Door" and not quite "When the Body Speaks," but it's as sideways and unexpected as either. Pretty great that they can still do that.

Playing the Angel came equipped with "Precious," the best single Depeche Mode had issued for fifteen years; on an album full of gems, it was a juggernaut. Now, on this promising record with a few gems and a few intriguing oddities, we have another killer: "Peace" is as anthem, an answer, a protest, a private solace -- more personal and somehow larger than anything they've done before. Without a reversal of any of their blipping teenaged eccentricities, it's universally powerful and packs a wallop.

Subsequent to my initial exploration of this album I heard some of the peripheral releases containing its corresponding outtakes. Curiously, there are a number of songs that match "Peace" in quality if not impression. They seem to belong on the LP more than some of the cuts that made it. Depeche Mode's always had strong b-sides -- their singles are more like very strong EPs, always worth paying for -- but this might be the first time that their commitment to mood has been so devout they sacrificed the best material they recorded. "Esque," "Oh Well," and in particular the magnificently lurid "Ghost" are stronger than a number of the album cuts here, and the entire set of outtakes is surprisingly strong. Knowing this puts a hamper on Universe even as it becomes more ingratiating with time and falls into place in the Mode catalog.

It's exciting, all the same, that the band seems headed in a specific direction, and that this involves them stretching beyond what we know they're capable of. Not many artists have made stronger material from running in place; by refining their sound rather than revolutionizing it, they've long managed an alarming consistency that outmaneuvers the identity crises of their peers. Every Mode record from Violator on has been preceded by a single that deliberately oversold how much of a "departure" the album would be. This is the first time that crazed first single, "Wrong," was an accurate suggestion of new avenues traveled or at least glimpsed on the LP. That's pretty exciting, and a bit scary.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Oasis: Definitely Maybe (1994)



Assuming it's been a while since you gave it much attention, you've no idea how amazing and cathartic this album sounds in 2011. Its unapologetic "more is more" guitar-wash sneer proves there's more than the Arcade Fire way to combat alt-rock irony: Oasis captures something explosive, overheated, and maniacal. Despite their fascinatingly cranky interviews, which always existed in the alternately lowbrow and brilliantly nobrow Beavis and Butt-Head universe, the Gallagher brothers' music seldom suffers from any actual pretension, least of all on their debut album. This record is the sole entry in Oasis' catalog that really bothers to put them up as a band; the string arrangements and the irksome resistance to growing the hell up would all come later. In the moment, it's still about feeling good and fuck off if you don't go for that. But who wouldn't? The rare person who isn't already won over by the time the hook in "Live Forever" hits will melt then; if they don't, their actual affection for rock music deserves to be called into question.

Beatles comparisons are only valid in the sense that a number of Oasis' melodies and chord structrues are clearly derived from any number of stoned Abbey Road listening parties; the majority of the band's Fab borrowings are gigantic clichés which have been appropriated by many before Oasis. Still, the influence is integral, but so are those of glam rock and shoegaze, less celebrated ingredients in the Gallagher pot. As easily as "Live Forever" and "ShakerMaker" invite Beatles chatter, "Columbia" recalls My Bloody Valentine, "Supersonic" New York Dolls, "Married with Children" and "Digsy's Dinner" Bowie, and so on. But this LP is to those luminaries what Raiders of the Lost Ark is to 1930s serials: a summary and magnification. Oasis picks up the loose ends and aural ideas of their influences and pushes them, squeezes them until there's nothing left. So "Rock 'n' Roll Star" and the immortal "Cigarettes & Alcohol" sound like '70s glam the way it exists in your head, the way it looks in pictures; "Live Forever" is a Beatles singalong maxed out into blissed-out oblivion, lacking every bit of the Beatles' mystery and subtlety but upstaging them for sheer chutzpah and button-pushing pleasure, and "Supersonic" is the brashest psychedelia the '60s were never audacious enough to produce. Noel Gallagher's songs and production amp up all of his obsessions until they overflow, gleeful in their intensity. Few '90s rock records are more satisfying.

The band itself takes a backseat to Liam's larger-than-life vocals, but Paul "Bonehead" Arthurs' lead guitar licks are the secret magic trick, and a prime reason for the constant Beatles callbacks. Still, it's Liam we hear the most, and he's just sprightly enough here to remain charming for the full listen. Even by the time of the naked, bitter closing track "Married with Children" -- a pretend-adult ode to man-child behavior that's truly contemptible and brilliant -- he is still uncovering nuance far beyond what he'd be displaying in even his better performances later on. And no cut is at all weak, but the hits ("Cigarettes & Alcohol," "ShakerMaker," "Live Forever," "Supersonic," "Slide Away," "Rock & Roll Star") leap out irresistibly; other classics like "Columbia" and "Digsy's Dinner" tease and expand the sound of the singles in the perfect fashion. What a difference, in comparing this with the band's pre-Creation recordings, a gimmicky production style and some excellent songs end up making.

Luck played far more of a role in Oasis' career than in the Beatles'; a combination of god knows how many label and corporate and radio forces made them, briefly, one of the biggest bands in the world, a title shared by few others in the '90s. Fleeting though that was, Oasis made good on their crucial immaturity by banking on sonic refinement while their peers all concentrated on trying to craft a unique enough voice to become, well, a fraction as popular as Oasis. It wouldn't be unfair to say they deserved the gold medal less than (in particular) Blur, but the calculation of Definitely Maybe is blow-away masterful. Putting all your best ideas on the debut album is an unenviable position to put yourself in, but few bands in history generated more excitement from simply not holding back. Perhaps the flaws of every subsequent release were built into this first one. For now, Oasis is a gut-level guitar band with appalling pop sense; they believe nothing else matters, and it's easy to wish they'd never changed their minds.

Of course, then, Oasis never issued another record this good, and certainly not one from so perfect a moment. Definitely Maybe captures them young, hungry, and obnoxious, at the perfect crossroads between the wall-of-noise Creation Records sound of their demos and the Britpop sneer they magically affected and came to forever define. Oasis never had Blur's wit and creativity or Radiohead's ambition, but they were brilliant at being self-fulfilled rock stars -- rock stars before the fact, even -- and at sounding like an audio miracle. To hear Definitely Maybe now is to feel yet again that innocent teenaged urge to bust out and go swimming in a shamelessly cartoonish portrait of adult reality in which compromise is futile, relationships are for a laugh, and the radio is always on full-blast.

The Early Years (1992-95)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Index of posts 1-100

This marks the 100th post here and in order to keep it all somewhat comprehensive, below you'll find an index of the first 100 posts, which will henceforth be linked in the sidebar over there. I know this is coming straight after another "lists" post and that's a coincidence; as a bonus at the bottom of this post, there's one I neglected to tackle on the 31st, just to balance out all this dry informational stuff. Thanks for reading, everybody.

KEY: [A+] / [hr] = highly recommended / [r] = recommended / [c] = caution / [NO] = avoid

10,000 Maniacs: In My Tribe (1987) [c]
13th Floor Elevators: The Psychedelic Sounds Of (1966) [hr]
2 Many DJ's: As Heard on Radio Soulwax, Pt. 2 (2002)
3 Mustaphas 3: Soup of the Century (1990) [c]
The 6ths: Wasps' Nest (1995) [hr]
A.C. Newman: The Slow Wonder (2004) [r]
Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (2010) [hr]
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti: Before Today (2010) [hr]
The Beatles: Please Please Me (1963) [A+]
Belle & Sebastian: Write About Love (2010) [r]
Best Coast: Crazy for You (2010) [r]
Big Boi: Sir Lucious Left Foot- The Son of Chico Dusty (2010) [r]
Björk: Selmasongs (2000) [hr]
Bob Dylan: Together Through Life (2009) [r]
Broken Bells (2010)
The C.A. Quintet: Trip Thru Hell (1968) [r]
ceo: White Magic (2010) [r]
Chatham County Line: Wildwood (2010) [r]
The Chemical Brothers: Further (2010)
Crystal Castles (2010) [hr]
Curren$y: Pilot Talk (2010) [hr]
Curren$y: Pilot Talk II (2010) [r]
D.L. Byron: This Day and Age (1980)
Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest (2010) [hr]
Delorean: Subiza (2010) [r]
Devo: Something for Everybody (2010) [NO]
Eels: Tomorrow Morning (2010)
Emeralds: Does It Look Like I'm Here? (2010) [c]
The Essex Green: Cannibal Sea (2006)
The Extra Lens: Undercard (2010) [r]
Fang Island (2010)
Flying Lotus: Cosmogramma (2010)
Four Tet: There Is Love in You (2010) [r]
Goldfrapp: Head First (2010)
Gonjasufi: A Sufi and a Killer (2010)
Herbie Hancock: Head Hunters (1973) [hr]
Hot Chip: One Life Stand (2010) [hr]
How to Dress Well: Love Remains (2010) [c]
Information Society (1988) [hr]
The International Submarine Band: Safe at Home (1968) [r]
Interpol (2010) [c]
Joanna Newsom: Have One on Me (2010) [A+]
Julian Lynch: Mare (2010) [r]
Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) [A+]
The Kinks (1964) [r]
Leonard Cohen: Dear Heather (2004) [hr]
M. Ward: Duet for Guitars #2 (1999) [r]
The Magnetic Fields: Distortion (2008) [hr]
Male Bonding: Nothing Hurts (2010) [hr]
Matthew Dear: Black City (2010) [r]
Midnight Juggernauts: The Crystal Axis (2010) [hr]
No Age: Everything in Between (2010) [c]
OFF! First Four EPs (2011) [r]
Old 97's: The Grand Theatre, Volume One (2010)
Panda Bear: Person Pitch (2007)
Pantha du Prince: Black Noise (2010)
The Pernice Brothers: Goodbye, Killer (2010)
Pet Shop Boys: Yes (2009) [hr]
Prince: Dirty Mind (1980) [hr]
Robyn: Body Talk (2010) [r]
She & Him: Volume Two (2010) [r]
Sleigh Bells: Treats (2010) [NO]
Spoon: Transference (2010) [r]
Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz (2010) [hr]
T.I.: King (2006) [r]
Tame Impala: Innerspeaker (2010) [hr]
The-Dream: Love King (2010) [r]
Titus Andronicus: The Monitor (2010) [hr]
Twin Shadow: Forget (2010) [r]
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) [hr]
The Walkmen: Lisbon (2010) [hr]
Wavves: King of the Beach (2010) [r]
We Are Scientists: Barbara (2010) [NO]
Wild Nothing: Gemini (2010) [r]
Yo La Tengo: Popular Songs (2009) [hr]

Das Racist: Sit Down, Man (2010) [r]

Girls: Broken Dreams Club (2010) [r]
Hot Chip: We Have Remixes (2010) [r]
James Blake: CMYK (2010)
Sufjan Stevens: All Delighted People (2010) [r]
The Tallest Man on Earth: Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird (2010) [hr]

10,000 Maniacs: MTV Unplugged (1993)

The "5" Royales: Complete King Masters (1954-60) [A+]
? & the Mysterians: Best Of- Cameo Parkway (1966-67) [hr]
101 Strings Orchestra: 20 Years of Beautiful Music (1969) [hr]
1910 Fruitgum Co.: Best Of (1968-70) [hr]
Archie Bell & the Drells: Tightening It Up (1967-79) [hr]
The Beach Boys: Summer Love Songs (1963-71)
Chuck Berry: The Great Twenty-Eight (1955-65) [A+]
The Everly Brothers: Cadence Classics- 20 Greatest Hits (1957-60) [hr]
Gene Vincent: Best Of (1956-63) [A+]
Hall & Oates: The Essential Collection (1974-2001) [NO]
The Impressions: Definitive (1961-68) [hr]
Talking Heads: Bonus Rarities and Outtakes (1975-92)

Big Star: Keep an Eye on the Sky (1970-74) [r]

Oasis: The Early Years (1992-95)

The List of Lists 2010
The Best Records of 2010
Welcome & Introduction


ALL-TIME TOP ALBUMS [through 2009]
1. The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds (Capitol 1966)
2. Television: Marquee Moon (Elektra 1977)
3. The Beatles (Apple 1968)
4. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (Columbia 1959)
5. John Coltrane: Giant Steps (Atlantic 1960)
6. Big Star: Third/Sister Lovers (PVC 1978)
7. John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (Impulse! 1964)
8. My Bloody Valentine: Loveless (Sire 1991)
9. Wire: Pink Flag (Harvest 1977)
10. The Beatles: Rubber Soul (Parlophone 1965)
11. The Velvet Underground (MGM 1969)
12. The Kinks: The Village Green Preservation Society (Reprise 1968)
13. The Beatles: A Hard Day's Night (Parlophone 1964)
14. The Clash: London Calling (Epic 1979)
15. Stevie Wonder: Innervisions (Tamla 1973)
16. Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire 1978)
17. Love: Forever Changes (Elektra 1967)
18. Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire 1980)
19. Prince: Sign o' the Times (Warner Bros. 1987)
20. The Clash (Epic 1977)
21. The Fugees: The Score (Columbia 1996)
22. Yo La Tengo: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (Matador 2000)
23. Otis Redding: Otis Blue (Volt 1965)
24. De La Soul: 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy 1989)
25. The Velvet Underground: Loaded (Cotillon 1970)
26. Patti Smith: Horses (Arista 1975)
27. The Replacements: Let It Be (Twin/Tone 1984)
28. Big Star: Radio City (Stax 1973)
29. A Tribe Called Quest: The Low End Theory (Jive 1991)
30. Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (Columbia 1967)
31. Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life (Tamla 1976)
32. Prince: Purple Rain (Warner Bros. 1984)
33. Sly & the Family Stone: Stand! (Epic 1969)
34. Richard & Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal 1982)
35. Neil Young: Tonight's the Night (Reprise 1975)
36. The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs (Merge 1999)
37. King Sunny Ade: Juju Music (Mango 1982)
38. Miles Davis: Sketches of Spain (Columbia 1960)
39. With the Beatles (Parlophone 1963)
40. Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros. 1982)
41. Parliament Mothership Connection (Casablanca 1975)
42. Brian Eno: Another Green World (Island 1975)
43. Miles Davis: Seven Steps to Heaven (Columbia 1963)
44. Neutral Milk Hotel: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge 1998)
45. Michael Jackson: Off the Wall (Epic 1979)
46. Beatles for Sale (Parlophone 1964)
47. The Byrds: Sweetheart of the Rodeo (Columbia 1968)
48. The Velvet Underground: White Light/White Heat (Verve 1968)
49. The Zombies: Odessey and Oracle (Columbia 1968)
50. The Soft Boys: Underwater Moonlight (Armageddon 1980)
51. John Coltrane: Ballads (Impulse! 1962)
52. Howlin' Wolf (Chess 1962)
53. Van Morrison: Astral Weeks (Warner Bros. 1968)
54. Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Capitol 1950)
55. Cannonball Adderley: Somethin' Else (Blue Note 1958)
56. Ramones (Sire 1976)
57. Neil Young: Zuma (Reprise 1975)
58. David Bowie: Lodger (RCA 1979)
59. Marvin Gaye: Here, My Dear (Tamla 1978)
60. Neil Young: On the Beach (Reprise 1974)
61. Stevie Wonder: Fulfillingness' First Finale (Tamla 1974)
62. Neil Young: After the Gold Rush (Reprise 1970)
63. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (Apple 1970)
64. The New York Dolls (Mercury 1973)
65. The Go-Betweens: Spring Hill Fair (Sire 1984)
66. John Coltrane: Om (Impulse! 1965)
67. Funkadelic: Let's Take It to the Stage (Westbound 1975)
68. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia 1965)
69. R.E.M.: Lifes Rich Pageant (I.R.S. 1986)
70. The Clash: Sandinista! (Epic 1980)
71. XTC: Skylarking (Geffen 1986)
72. Run-DMC: Raising Hell (Arista 1986)
73. The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers (Atlantic 1971)
74. Wire: Chairs Missing (Harvest 1978)
75. Radiohead: In Rainbows (s/r 2007)
76. Leonard Cohen: The Future (Columbia 1992)
77. Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted (Matador 1992)
78. Yo La Tengo: I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (Matador 1997)
79. Kanye West: The College Dropout (Def Jam 2004)
80. The Jam: All Mod Cons (Polydor 1978)
81. Marvin Gaye: Let's Get It On (Tamla 1973)
82. Blondie: Parallel Lines (Chrysalis 1978)
83. The Beach Boys: Love You (Reprise 1977)
84. Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Polydor 1977)
85. A Tribe Called Quest: Midnight Marauders (Jive 1993)
86. Blur: Parklife (EMI 1994)
87. The Notorious B.I.G.: Ready to Die (Bad Boy 1994)
88. The Beach Boys: Friends (Capitol 1968)
89. The Kinks: Arthur (Reprise 1969)
90. Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador 1994)
91. Yo La Tengo: Fakebook (Bar/None 1990) *
92. Pet Shop Boys: Behavior (EMI 1990)
93. Nas: Illmatic (Columbia 1994)
94. The Beatles: Abbey Road (Apple 1969)
95. David Bowie: Low (RCA 1977)
96. The Kinks: Something Else (Reprise 1967)
97. John Coltrane: Africa/Brass (Impulse! 1961)
98. The Beach Boys: Wild Honey (Capitol 1967)
99. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros. 1977)
100. Neil Young: Time Fades Away (Reprise 1973)
101. Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador 2006)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

OFF!: First Four EPs (2011)



Happy New Year! Welcome to 1981, where we have some thrash for you. It's like Pink Flag is brand new and the Replacements' graduation to swank songwriting never happened. The misleadingly named First Four EPs is the product of what amounts to a supergroup in hardcore punk parlance, so not really much of a supergroup (no Jeff Beck in sight), which is good. OFF! is the project primarily of Keith Morris of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, it races along at a clip, dropping its sixteen songs in barely eighteen furious minutes. Doesn't sound too appealing, and the cover is godawfully ugly, but don't underestimate the timelessness of the brash, obnoxious garage sound. Morris pushes it along perfectly, with a youthfully disaffected snarl. It's nothing original, nothing even particularly special or offbeat -- but it's a liberating noise, still as ever.

Besides Morris, the band consists of members of Red Kross, Burning Brides, and Rocket from the Crypt, none of whom have the name recognition of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, but one doesn't need to be schooled in the first wave of hardcore to enjoy the abrasive, violently brief (all run about a minute) songs here. If your taste for direct plunges into stabbing, minimal, impossibly loud punk haven't diminished with age any more than Morris', you'll fall hard for this record; ignore the stoopid cover.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The 6ths: Wasps' Nests (1995)



"Sixths," "wasps," and "nests" are three of the most difficult words to pronounce in the English language. Did I mention this is a Stephin Merritt project? Essentially, this is a Magnetic Fields album; if you love the Fields, there is not even the slightest chance you won't dig this. Featuring the same adorable keyboard arrangements and tentative beats as the contemporaneous Get Lost, this record finds Merritt exploring the notion of an imaginary Stephin Merritt tribute album featuring many of his friends from the indie rock universe, which -- despite his reputation -- he seems to fully embrace as his own here.

The pedigree for any scholar of '90s college radio is rather astounding; that the CD was released by Polygram says a fair bit about the state of the music industry in 1994-95, the same time that Atlantic had a stake in Matador and just a few years after Geffen paid Sub Pop a pretty penny and a half for Nirvana. The uncomfortable collision of old-world mainstream media companies and scrappy independent music, a bizarre situation Merritt and Claudia Gonson could tell you a few stories about, isn't our concern here. The point is, if you've got Charm of the Highway Strip and 69 Love Songs and Get Lost and the no-synth trilogy but not this, you need it right now! Emergency situation!

And you get to hear exclusive Merritt songs, as lovely as ever, sung by the lovely Chris Knox and the immortal Mitch Easter, plus members of Unrest, Superchunk, Helium, the Clean, and Galaxie 500. There's even a song sung by Merritt himself, "Aging Spinsters," which is completely indistinguishable from the Magnetic Fields, not that the rest of this isn't, since Merritt's hardly been the exclusive vocalist on even the Fields' most popular albums.

But Nathan! you're saying. If this is just like a Magnetic Fields album, well, what the fuck's so special about it? And I say to you: do you realize what you just said!?

I can add this, though, and admit some degree of bias, that one song alone here is worth the whole album's price. One of the only acts in existence today that can stand up with the Magnetic Fields for me is Yo La Tengo, who I still contend are the greatest band in the world at the moment. The Magnetic Fields are the third or fourth best, probably. So when they, in some sense, collaborate, it'd be a big deal anyway. And all of the songs on this album are terrific, but this one really stands out: the monstrously funny and distressing "Movies in My Head," a dead ringer for Yaz-era synthpop, sung by none other than Georgia Hubley. Not only is it staggering and lovely to hear her in Stephin's context, it's a really outstanding song that's actually a cut above the rest of this already excellent material.

What are you waiting for, then? (If you already have this album, I'm sorry for the advert-like tone here, but I think it's warranted.)

The Magnetic Fields: Distortion (2008)



It stands to reason in our perverse musical universe that one of the landmark shoegaze albums of recent years was written and recorded by a man who finds guitar noise intolerable, who typically resents the din of fuzzed-out rock music. In fact, when Stephin Merritt saw Superchunk cover his early track "100,000 Fireflies" in the early '90s, he was mortified; that didn't stop him from signing the Magnetic Fields to Superchunk's label, Merge, and maybe he absorbed some of their rough edges. In the early 2000s, the Fields joined a major label and began a "no-synth" trilogy, opening it with the surprisingly conventional pop record i. The sequel, Distortion, turned out to be a major change of pace for Merritt; it could be that its inventive sound and atypically aggressive demeanor were simply the result of brainstorming for keyboard avoidance tactics, but whatever the reason, Merritt injects the harsher corners of alternative rock with some of his most classicist, audaciously pretty Irving Berlin-derived pseudo-standards to date. It hasn't been done before, and it doesn't sound like anything else, in his catalog or outside of it. The juxtaposition alone is frequently stunning, but on top of that, these are the best songs he's put down since 69.

Speaking of which, two of the sixty-nine love songs offer some degree of precedent for Distortion. The one-off joke cut "Punk Love" is the direct antecedent to the more carefully composed mission statement "Three-Way." But more importantly, Merritt's first flirtation with meaty, vaguely sinister guitar hooks on "Underwear" provides a transitional moment for the band before diving into the deep end of pedals and feedback for Distortion. What's most impressive is that the Magnetic Fields don't tentatively stab at shoegaze and fuzz, or make fun of it, they actually burst into it full-bore and craft an utterly convincing, achingly loud torrent of noise and tremor.

Some were no doubt disappointed that only a couple of times does the songwriting bend to the production style; not much here is any angrier or bawdier than the average Magnetic Fields track, nor does it attain the mystery and buried vocals traditional to its aspired genre, but the album's all the better for it. The exceptions do stand out, though. Opener "Three-Way" shouts and chirps along like space age surround-sound Replacements, "Too Drunk to Dream" features an atypically brash Merritt listing the advantages of being "shitfaced," but best of all is the magically malicious "California Girls," an instant classic sung by Shirley Simms. Flipping clichés back and forward and back again, the song is a vicious and unfair attack on the same location-fortunate young ladies unfairly propped up decades ago by the Beach Boys. Merritt filters hatred, resentment, even murder through his unflappably melodic pen; Simms gives it a loyal gung ho. It's a rock & roll masterstroke.

The innovation, however, lies elsewhere, on material like "Please Stop Dancing," "The Nun's Litany," and especially "Drive On, Driver," all stunning compositions; their marriage to aural inferno seems like an ill fit until you hear the sarcasm, immense emotion, and endless confusion of Merritt and Claudia Gonson's vocals cracking through the cacophony like a glimpse of distant warmth. It amplifies these songs not just in the gimmicky, forced sense but in the beauty and intensity of feeling that's always been buried in Merritt's work. Unlike on the still awkward and distant i, the Magnetic Fields here offer some stirring and poetic, and at times gorgeous, human moments.

Merritt always casts silly limitations and rules over his projects, perhaps some hanging left brain cell that must intrude on his work, and it often provides unlikely inspiration. Because he insisted that the thirteen songs on Distortion were to hover around three minutes, the album flies by; its only out-of-place moment is the misplaced, overly goofy "Zombie Boy." Most of the remaining songs stand proudly with the band's '90s work. And there's even a Christmas song in the My Bloody Valentine meets Frank Sinatra style, "Mr. Mistletoe."

Realism, the followup to Distortion, has equally brilliant songs but doesn't stick in the mind as long; that's because Distortion is a textbook example of how a band in its nineteenth year stays young. It is a new page turned, an experiment, a group of people having a blast despite not really knowing quite what they're doing -- again. The Magnetic Fields really need keyboards; they're a keyboard band that wrings head-spinning noise out of synths, and that element has been missing in the last ten years, but Realism could have come along at any point in the band's career because their sound is already predisposed to work in a folk music environment. (The tour behind Distortion saw them strip the songs to acoustic arrangements.) Distortion is something altogether different. Merritt's too excellent a songwriter to really need to stretch like this, but it's a thrill to hear him do it and achieve something this impressive.