Saturday, December 31, 2011

The List of Lists 2011

My tastes as they stand at the end of this year, for some totally arbitrary decades and years!

1. Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire '80)
2. Prince: Sign o' the Times (Warner Bros. '87)
3. De La Soul: 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy '89)
4. The Replacements: Let It Be (Twin/Tone '84)
5. Prince: Purple Rain (Warner Bros. '84)
6. Richard & Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal '82)
7. King Sunny Ade: Juju Music (Mango '82)
8. Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros. '82)
9. The Soft Boys: Underwater Moonlight (Armageddon '80)
10. The Go-Betweens: Spring Hill Fair (Sire '84)
11. R.E.M.: Lifes Rich Pageant (I.R.S. '86)
12. The Clash: Sandinista! (Epic '80)
13. XTC: Skylarking (Geffen '86)
14. Run-DMC: Raising Hell (Arista '86)
15. New Order: Power, Corruption & Lies (Factory '83)
16. R.E.M.: Murmur (I.R.S. '83)
17. The Replacements: Pleased to Meet Me (Sire '87)
18. Boogie Down Productions: Criminal Minded (B-Boy '87)
19. Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man (Columbia '88)
20. The Go-Betweens: 16 Lovers Lane (Capitol '88)
21. Run-DMC (Arista '84)
22. Yoko Ono: Season of Glass (Geffen '81)
23. The Go-Betweens: Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express (Big Time '86)
24. Yaz: Upstairs at Eric's (Sire '82)
25. Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic '83)
26. The Replacements: Tim (Sire '85)
27. The English Beat: I Just Can't Stop It (Sire '80)
28. Brian Eno & David Byrne: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Sire '81)
29. George Clinton: Computer Games (Capitol '82)
30. Mission of Burma: Vs. (Ace of Hearts '82)
31. The Jam: Sound Affects (Polydor '80)
32. Suicide (Mute '80)
33. Devo: Freedom of Choice (Warner Bros. '80)
34. Depeche Mode: Music for the Masses (Sire '87)
35. The Jesus & Mary Chain: Psychocandy (Reprise '86)
36. R.E.M.: Fables of the Reconstruction (I.R.S. '85)
37. Pixies: Surfer Rosa (4AD '88)
38. Beastie Boys: Paul's Boutique (Capitol '89)
39. Talking Heads: Little Creatures (Sire '85)
40. Pet Shop Boys: Introspective (EMI Manhattan '88)
41. Galaxie 500: Today (Aurora '88)
42. OMD: Architecture and Morality (Virgin '81)
43. Tom Tom Club (Sire '81)
44. Run-DMC: King of Rock (Arista '85)
45. Ultramagnetic MCs: Critical Beatdown (Next Plateau '88)
46. The Go-Betweens: Before Hollywood (Rough Trade '83)
47. Galaxie 500: On Fire (Rough Trade '89)
48. Pixies: Doolittle (4AD '89)
49. U2: Boy (Island '80)
50. Prince: Dirty Mind (Warner Bros. '80)

1. Beulah: The Coast Is Never Clear (Velocette)
2. Jay-Z: The Blueprint (Def Jam)
3. Old 97's: Satellite Rides (Elektra)
4. Björk: Vespertine (Elektra)
5. Missy Elliott: Miss E... So Addictive (Elektra)
6. Bob Dylan: Love and Theft (Columbia)
7. The Shins: Oh, Inverted World (Sub Pop)
8. The White Stripes: White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry)
9. Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire: The Swimming Hour (Rykodisc)
10. The Strokes: Is This It (RCA)
De La Soul: AOI: Bionix (Tommy Boy)
Built to Spill: Ancient Melodies of the Future (Warner Bros.)
Rilo Kiley: Take Offs and Landings (Barsuk)
Depeche Mode: Exciter (Reprise)
Casiotone for the Painfully Alone: Pocket Symphonies for Lonesome Subway Cars (Tomlab)
Timbaland & Magoo: Indecent Proposal (Virgin)
Jon Brion: Meaningless (Straight to Cut Out)

1. My Bloody Valentine: Loveless (Sire)
2. A Tribe Called Quest: The Low End Theory (Jive)
3. Naughty by Nature (Tommy Boy)
4. R.E.M.: Out of Time (Warner Bros.)
5. De La Soul Is Dead (Tommy Boy)
6. Matthew Sweet: Girlfriend (Zoo)
7. The Mahotella Queens: Mbaqanga (Verve)
8. U2: Achtung Baby (Island)
9. Erasure: Chorus (Sire)
10. Van Morrison: Hymns to the Silence (Polydor)
Smashing Pumpkins: Gish (Caroline)
Red Hot Chili Peppers: BloodSugarSexMagik (Warner Bros.)
Living Colour: Time's Up (Epic)
Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet: Dim the Lights, Chill the Ham (Cargo)

1. The Soft Boys: Underwater Moonlight (Attic)
2. Yoko Ono: Season of Glass (Geffen)
3. Brian Eno & David Byrne: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Sire)
4. OMD: Architecture and Morality (Virgin)
5. Tom Tom Club (Sire '81)
6. The Stranglers: La Folie (Liberty)
7. Funkadelic: The Electric Spanking of War Babies (Warner Bros.)
8. Depeche Mode: Speak & Spell (Sire)
9. Prince: Controversy (Warner Bros.)
10. Bow Wow Wow: See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah. City All Over! Go Ape Crazy (RCA)
The English Beat: Wha'ppen? (Sire)
John Cale: Honi Soit (A&M)
Eurythmics: In the Garden (RCA)

1. The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers (Atlantic)
2. Funkadelic: Maggot Brain (Westbound)
3. Marvin Gaye: What's Going On (Tamla)
4. Leonard Cohen: Songs of Love and Hate (Columbia)
5. Sly & the Family Stone: There's a Riot Goin' On (Epic)
6. David Bowie: Hunky Dory (RCA)
7. Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man (Flying Dutchman)
8. Van Morrison: Tupelo Honey (Warner Bros.)
9. Al Green Gets Next to You (Hi)
10. The Kinks: Muswell Hillbillies (RCA)
John Lennon: Imagine (Apple)
John Lee Hooker: Endless Boogie (ABC)
Stevie Wonder: Where I'm Coming From (Tamla)
Yoko Ono: Fly (Apple)
Loudon Wainwright III: Album II (Atlantic)

Happy New Year! Incidentally, if you
- like this blog
- like movies
... you might like this!

The Saints: All Fools Day (1986)



Hard to imagine a more inauspicious setup for an album than this: the band recording All Fools Day were the Saints in name only, constituting just one member -- Chris Bailey -- of the key Australian punk rock band of the late '70s. It's otherwise a new lineup, and on top of that, the record lends itself readily to any sellout accusation you want to hurl at it. Bearing little resemblance to the no-frills rock & roll the Saints initially formed to create in 1974, these songs are hook-filled jangle-pop new wave that fit distressingly well with the MTV brand of alt-pop in the mid-'80s, to the point that the group actually managed to score a mid-sized video hit on the channel with "Just Like Fire Would." It was no "Rock the Casbah," but you'd be forgiven for a certain healthy cynicism about the irony in play here. Oh, and there's a song called "Celtic Ballad" that really kind of is one.

But fortunately, Bailey's work was never all that easy to pin down, and his proven intelligence helps to make this, as mid-'80s power pop goes, near the top of its heap. It betters the ample competition with the same genuine feeling and emotional thrust in the performances, especially within Bailey's vocals, which often uncannily resemble Mick Jagger. "Just Like Fire Would" itself, pun title and all, amply deserves its success, a perfectly engineered piece of romantic aggression. The record is really about Bailey's ever-growing assurance and enthusiasm as a singer-songwriter. In either regard, he excels and frequently soars; "See You in Paradise" is the sort of bracing ballad unimaginable in the typical punk context, even by the Saints' lax standards. Many of these songs cry out for a late-night slowdance or two, many are instantly lovable chestnuts of their time despite choice always-relevant lines like "Sometimes I worry about the third world, and I ain't even seen the first."

Bailey's guitar work throughout the LP is hit and miss, but producer Hugh Jones fills out the band's somewhat thin sound nicely with synthesizers and strings and other expansive-arrangement tricks that would be unthinkable on the Saints' early albums but somehow work well here. The driving sparkle he gives "Hymn to Saint Jude" makes that song even more memorable, and serves to provide contrast to the unprecedented, frayed intensity of Bailey's vocal; he lends just enough echo and spy-movie disorientation to the blatant pub rock throwback "Empty Page" to make it affable instead of utterly ridiculous. But everything goes back to the solid backbone of Bailey's songs and, especially, his vocals, which always remain true to his passion for the work, lending for instance a left-field resignation you don't predict you'll get from something called "How to Avoid Disaster." He doesn't get through any of these songs without breaking a sweat and selling the music's urgency, and the record has enough hooks, tempered gently by desperation and longing, to light up a sullen adolescent night, and we all need a few of those per year.

(I'm) Stranded (1977)
Eternally Yours (1978)

Index of posts 1-300

I can pretty much not believe that I've now posted roughly 300 reviews here. Of course, some of those are utter nonsense and some are better than others, but this whole scheme has finally given me a format of music writing that I've been able to stick to and keep sufficiently motivated and anal about to maintain diligently.

You'll notice that I've changed things around a bit, including but not limited to the title of the blog, and I've switched to a template that hopefully isn't as terribly common and tiresome as the last one I had in play here. Oh, and one further housekeeping note. When I started this blog, I intended for it to include reviews of individual songs and some other general commentary about music, music news, etc. Quickly it became nothing but an album review blog. So if you would like to read any of that other stuff, a lot of is going to end up in my tumblr, a dumping ground for a lot of general rambling about music and movies and other things in a not-at-all formal arrangement. There's a lot of other junk there too, so be warned.

Below is a full index of every review, indeed every post, on this blog from the beginning. Since that's kind of boring for the regular reader, I've also done another special list, this one rather short but hopefully revealing. If you're into lists, you'll enjoy my annual List of Lists post coming up tomorrow as well. As always, thank you so very much for reading this mess.

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

(Keep in mind, we're using iTunes capitalization here. I am well aware that from a cataloging standpoint that's total bullshit, but it keeps me from having to deal with surname ambiguities. I'm a library assistant in real life so I know this is offensive, and all I can tell you is... I like pissing you off.)

10,000 Maniacs: In My Tribe (1987) [c]
10,000 Maniacs: Blind Man's Zoo (1989)
10,000 Maniacs: Our Time in Eden (1992) [c]
13th Floor Elevators: The Psychedelic Sounds Of (1966) [hr]
13th Floor Elevators: Easter Everywhere (1967) [r]
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]
The 6ths: Hyacinths and Thistles (2000) [r]
...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: Source Tags & Codes (2002) [c]
A.C. Newman: The Slow Wonder (2004) [r]
A.C. Newman: Get Guilty (2009) [r]
Adam Green: Jacket Full of Danger (2006) [r]
Aesop Rock: Labor Days (2001) [r]
Air: Moon Safari (1998) [hr]
Al Green Gets Next to You (1971) [hr]
Al Wilson: Show and Tell (1973)
Alanis Morissette: Jagged Little Pill (1995) [r]
Alexander "Skip" Spence: Oar (1969) [hr]
Alexi Murdoch: Time Without Consequence (2006) [hr]
Ali Farka Touré (1988) [r]
Anal Cunt: I Like It When You Die (1997)
Andrew Bird: Noble Beast (2009) [hr]
The Antlers: Burst Apart (2011) [hr]
AraabMUZIK: Electronic Dream (2011)
Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (2010) [hr]
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti: Before Today (2010) [hr]
Atlas Sound: Parallax (2011) [hr]
The Bats: Free All the Monsters (2011) [r]
The Beach Boys: Surfin' Safari (1962) [r]
Beastie Boys: Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (2011) [r]
The Beatles: Please Please Me (1963) [A+]
The Beatles: With the Beatles (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]
Big Star: #1 Record (1972) [A+]
Big Star: Radio City (1973) [A+]
Björk: Selmasongs (2000) [hr]
Björk: Biophilia (2011) [r]
Blur: Think Tank (2003) [hr]
Bob Dylan: Together Through Life (2009) [r]
Bon Iver (2011)
Brian Eno & Rick Holland: Drums Between the Bells (2011) [c]
Broken Bells (2010)
Buddy Holly: The "Chirping" Crickets (1957) [hr]
The C.A. Quintet: Trip Thru Hell (1968) [r]
Cass McCombs: Wit's End (2011)
ceo: White Magic (2010) [r]
Chatham County Line: Wildwood (2010) [r]
The Chemical Brothers: Further (2010)
Crystal Castles (2010) [hr]
Cults (2011) [hr]
Curren$y: Pilot Talk (2010) [hr]
Curren$y: Pilot Talk II (2010) [r]
Curren$y: Weekend at Burnie's (2011) [r]
Cut Copy: Zonoscope (2011) [hr]
D.L. Byron: This Day and Age (1980)
Daft Punk: Homework (1997) [r]
Das Racist: Relax (2011) [hr]
De La Soul: The Grind Date (2004) [r]
The Decemberists: The Hazards of Love (2009)
The Decemberists: The King Is Dead (2011) [hr]
Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest (2010) [hr]
Depeche Mode: Sounds of the Universe (2009) [r]
Delorean: Subiza (2010) [r]
Destroyer: Kaputt (2011) [hr]
Devo: Something for Everybody (2010) [NO]
DJ Quik: The Book of David (2011) [c]
Drake: Take Care (2011) [NO]
Eels: Tomorrow Morning (2010)
EMA: Past Life Martyred Saints (2011) [r]
Emeralds: Does It Look Like I'm Here? (2010) [c]
The Essex Green: Cannibal Sea (2006)
The Everly Brothers (1958) [hr]
The Extra Lens: Undercard (2010) [r]
The Faint: Blank Wave Arcade (1999)
Fang Island (2010)
Feist: Metals (2011)
The Field: Looping State of Mind (2011) [r]
The Flaming Lips: Embryonic (2009) [hr]
Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (2011) [c]
Flying Lotus: Cosmogramma (2010)
Four Tet: There Is Love in You (2010) [r]
Fucked Up: David Comes to Life (2011)
Galaxie 500: Today (1988) [hr]
Gang Gang Dance: Eye Contact (2011) [r]
Gang of Four: Content (2011) [r]
Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost (2011)
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]
Iceage: New Brigade (2011) [r]
Ice-T: O.G. Original Gangster (1991) [r]
Ida Cox & Coleman Hawkins: Blues for Rampart Street (1961) [hr]
Imani Coppola: Chupacabra (2011) [r]
Information Society (1988) [hr]
The International Submarine Band: Safe at Home (1968) [r]
Interpol (2010) [c]
Iron & Wine: The Shepherd's Dog (2007) [hr]
Iron & Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean (2011) [r]
James Blake (2011) [r]
Jay-Z & Kanye West: Watch the Throne (2011) [r]
Joanna Newsom: Have One on Me (2010) [A+]
John Coltrane: Giant Steps (1960) [A+]
John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (1964) [A+]
John Maus: We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves (2011) [r]
Julian Lynch: Mare (2010) [r]
Julianna Barwick: The Magic Place (2011)
Kanye West: 808s & Heartbreak (2008) [hr]
Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) [A+]
Kate Bush: 50 Words for Snow (2011)
The Kinks (1964) [r]
The Kinks: Kinda Kinks (1965) [hr]
The Kinks: The Kink Kontroversy (1965) [hr]
Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring for My Halo (2011) [NO]
L7 (1988)
Leonard Cohen: Dear Heather (2004) [hr]
Lupe Fiasco: Lasers (2011) [NO]
Lykke Li: Wounded Rhymes (2011) [r]
M. Ward: Duet for Guitars #2 (1999) [r]
M. Ward: End of Amnesia (2001) [r]
M. Ward: Transfiguration of Vincent (2003) [hr]
M83: Hurry Up, We're Dreaming (2011) [c]
Madonna: Hard Candy (2008)
The Magnetic Fields: Distortion (2008) [hr]
Male Bonding: Nothing Hurts (2010) [hr]
Male Bonding: Endless Now (2011) [r]
Marvin Gaye: What's Going On (1971) [A+]
Marvin Gaye: Let's Get It On (1973) [A+]
Mates of State: Mountaintops (2011)
Matthew Dear: Black City (2010) [r]
Midnight Juggernauts: The Crystal Axis (2010) [hr]
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (1950) [A+]
Miles Davis: Relaxin' (1958) [hr]
Moby: Destroyed (2011) [r]
The Mountain Goats: The Life of the World to Come (2009) [hr]
The Mountain Goats: All Eternals Deck (2011) [hr]
Nicolas Jaar: Space Is Only Noise (2011) [hr]
No Age: Everything in Between (2010) [c]
Oasis: Definitely Maybe (1994) [hr]
OFF! First Four EPs (2011) [r]
Okkervil River: I Am Very Far (2011) [r]
Old 97's: Blame It on Gravity (2008) [r]
Old 97's: The Grand Theatre, Volume One (2010)
Old 97's: The Grand Theatre Volume Two (2011) [c]
Oneohtrix Point Never: Replica (2011) [r]
Otis Redding: Otis Blue (1965) [A+]
Otis Redding: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul (1966) [hr]
Over the Rhine: The Long Surrender (2011) [r]
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Belong (2011) [r]
Panda Bear: Person Pitch (2007) [r]
Panda Bear: Tomboy (2011) [c]
Pantha du Prince: Black Noise (2010)
Parliament: Osmium (1970) [hr]
Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What (2011)
The Pernice Brothers: Goodbye, Killer (2010)
Pet Shop Boys: Yes (2009) [hr]
Peter Gabriel: Up (2002) [hr]
PJ Harvey: Let England Shake (2011) [hr]
Prince: Dirty Mind (1980) [hr]
Prince: Controversy (1981) [hr]
Prince: 1999 (1982) [A+]
R.E.M.: Murmur (1983) [A+]
R.E.M.: Collapse into Now (2011)
Radiohead: In Rainbows (2007) [A+]
Radiohead: The King of Limbs (2011) [hr]
Ray Charles: Genius + Soul = Jazz (1961)
Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962) [A+]
Real Estate: Days (2011) [r]
Red Hot Chili Peppers: I'm with You (2011) [r]
Robyn: Body Talk (2010) [r]
The Roots: Rising Down (2008) [r]
The Saints: (I'm) Stranded (1977) [hr]
The Saints: Eternally Yours (1978) [r]
Saturday Looks Good to Me: Fill Up the Room (2007) [hr]
Sepalcure (2011) [r]
Shabazz Palaces: Black Up (2011) [hr]
She & Him: Volume Two (2010) [r]
The Shins: Wincing the Night Away (2007) [A+]
Sleigh Bells: Treats (2010) [NO]
Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde (2011) [hr]
Spoon: Transference (2010) [r]
St. Vincent: Strange Mercy (2011) [r]
Stevie Wonder: Music of My Mind (1972) [hr]
Stevie Wonder: Talking Book (1972) [hr]
The Strokes: Angles (2011) [r]
Sufjan Stevens: Illinoise (2005) [hr]
Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz (2010) [hr]
T.I.: King (2006) [r]
Talking Heads: 77 (1977) [hr]
Tame Impala: Innerspeaker (2010) [hr]
Teddy Thompson: Bella (2011) [c]
Tennis: Cape Dory (2011) [r]
The-Dream: Love King (2010) [r]
Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972 (2011) [c]
Times New Viking: Dancer Equired (2011) [r]
Titus Andronicus: The Monitor (2010) [hr]
Toro Y Moi: Underneath the Pine (2011)
tUnE-yArDs: whokill (2011) [A+]
TV on the Radio: Dear Science (2008) [hr]
TV on the Radio: Nine Types of Light (2011) [hr]
Twin Shadow: Forget (2010) [r]
Twin Sister: In Heaven (2011) [hr]
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) [hr]
The Velvet Underground: White Light / White Heat (1968) [A+]
The Walkmen: Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone (2002) [hr]
The Walkmen: Lisbon (2010) [hr]
The War on Drugs: Slave Ambient (2011) [NO]
Washed Out: Within and Without (2011) [r]
Wavves: King of the Beach (2010) [r]
We Are Scientists: Barbara (2010) [NO]
Wilco: The Whole Love (2011) [hr]
Wild Nothing: Gemini (2010) [r]
Wire: Red Barked Tree (2011) [r]
WU LYF: Go Tell Fire to the Mountain (2011) [NO]
Wye Oak: Civilian (2011) [r]
Yo La Tengo: Popular Songs (2009) [hr]
Youth Lagoon: The Year of Hibernation (2011) [r]
Yuck (2011) [r]

A$AP Rocky: LiveLoveA$AP (2011) [hr]
Aimee Mann: Magnolia OST (1999) [c]
Big K.R.I.T.: Return of 4Eva (2011)
The Chemical Brothers: Hanna OST (2011) [r]
Curren$y: Return to the Winner's Circle (2011) [hr]
Curren$y: Verde Terrace (2011)
Curren$y & The Alchemist: Covert Coup (2011)
Das Racist: Sit Down, Man (2010) [r]
Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx: We're New Here (2011) [r]
The Mountain Goats: All Survivors Pack (2011) [r]
Radiohead: TKOL RMX 1234567 (2011)
The Weeknd: House of Balloons (2011) [r]

The Antlers: (together) (2011)
Colleen Green: Cujo (2011) [r]
Crystal Stilts: Radiant Door (2011) [hr]
Darkside (2011) [r]
The Decemberists: iTunes Session (2011) [r]
The Decemberists: Long Live the King (2011) [r]
The Flaming Lips: With Neon Indian (2011) [r]
Girls: Broken Dreams Club (2010) [r]
Hot Chip: We Have Remixes (2010) [r]
James Blake: CMYK (2010)
Nicolas Jaar: Don't Break My Love (2011)
Okkervil River: Golden Opportunities 2 (2011)
PAPA: A Good Woman Is Hard to Find (2011) [hr]
R.E.M.: Chronic Town (1982) [A+]
Radiohead: TKOL RMX 8 (2011)
Sufjan Stevens: All Delighted People (2010) [r]
Surfer Blood: Tarot Classics (2011) [r]
The Tallest Man on Earth: Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird (2010) [hr]
Vampire Weekend: iTunes Session (2011) [r]

10,000 Maniacs: MTV Unplugged (1993)

The "5" Royales: All Righty! The Apollo Recordings (1951-55) [r]
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]
Aaron Neville: A Collection of His Best (1966-2006) [NO]
The Action: The Ultimate! Action (1964-68) [r]
Adam and the Ants: Stand and Deliver- Very Best Of (1977-95)
Adriano Celentano: Best (1975-99) [r]
The Adverts: The Singles (1977-79) [r]
Afrika Bambaataa: Looking for the Perfect Beat (1980-2001) [hr]
Al Green: Definitive Greatest Hits (1967-2007) [hr]
Al Martino: The Ultimate Al Martino (1952-79)
Alabina: L'Essentiel (1996-2000)
Archie Bell & the Drells: Tightening It Up (1967-79) [hr]
B.B. King: His Definitive Greatest Hits (1951-93)
B.T. Express: Best Of (1974-80) [r]
The Beach Boys: Summer Love Songs (1963-71)
Buddy Holly: Greatest Hits (1957-59) [A+]
Chuck Berry: The Great Twenty-Eight (1955-65) [A+]
The Everly Brothers: Cadence Classics- 20 Greatest Hits (1957-60) [hr]
The Everly Brothers: Walk Right Back (Warner Years) (1960-69) [r]
Faces: The Definitive Rock Collection (1970-75) [NO]
Gene Vincent: Best Of (1956-63) [A+]
Hall & Oates: The Essential Collection (1974-2001) [NO]
The Impressions: Definitive (1961-68) [hr]
K.C. & the Sunshine Band: Best Of (1974-89) [hr]
Oasis: The Masterplan (1994-97) [r]
R.E.M.: Eponymous (1981-85)
Sam & Dave: Sweat 'n' Soul- Anthology (1965-71) [A+]
Smokey Robinson & the Miracles: Ooo Baby Baby- The Anthology (1961-72) [hr]
Taj Mahal: Best of (1967-74) [r]
Talking Heads: Sand in the Vaseline- Popular Favorites (1975-92) [r]
Talking Heads: Bonus Rarities and Outtakes (1975-92)
Van Morrison: Best Of (1965-89) [r]
The Yardbirds: Ultimate! (1964-69) [hr]

Big Star: Keep an Eye on the Sky (1970-74) [r]
Chuck Berry: The Chess Box (1955-75) [r]
Sam Cooke: The Man Who Invented Soul (1957-61) [hr]

Oasis: The Early Years (1992-95)

non-LP cuts: #

The Best Records of 2011
Top 100 Music Videos + Index
All-Time Top Albums + Index
The List of Lists 2010
The Best Records of 2010
Welcome & Introduction


In the very first post at this blog I included a list of what my ten favorite artists of all time were. In the two years since then, my opinions have continued inevitably to evolve, particularly in regard to my increasing reverence for John Coltrane and the currently "off" status of my lifelong Beach Boys obsession. I've always intended all of the lists and opinions posted here to be elastic, constantly changing, so what we have now is an expanded list of the fifteen (really sixteen) artists in recorded music, emphasis on rock & roll, most special to me.

15. Big Star

14. The Kinks

13. The Everly Brothers

12. Otis Redding

11. Talking Heads

10. Marvin Gaye

9. Miles Davis

8. Prince

7. Ray Charles

6. The Velvet Underground

5. Buddy Holly

4. Stevie Wonder

3. The Beach Boys

2. John Coltrane

1. TIE:
The Beatles

Chuck Berry

Saturday Looks Good to Me: Fill Up the Room (2007)



Oh, the nerve of some bands, to disappear into the netherworld of a possibly permanent "hiatus" after making a fascinating and completely unexpected sonic turnaround on their most recent record. SLGTM had been for so many years a grab bag of impulses and influences on the part of their chief architect, the ferociously gifted Fred Thomas, and the muddy production and girl group affect on superb records like Every Night and the delightful compilation Sound on Sound made them a scrappier, grittier alternative to the likes of Camera Obscura. But the band's sixth LP is another matter, an instance of an artist of considerable stature and restlessness choosing for once in his life to focus diligently on craft and precision, "precision" being a loaded word that nonetheless captures the power that roared forth on a lot of those 45s that altered Thomas' life long ago. The result, the winning and heartening Fill Up the Room, is like, I dunno, Stuart Murdoch teaming up with Built to Spill for the guitar pop bliss of your dreams?

To boot, Thomas songwriting and lyrical chops someplace in the ballpark of Stephin Merritt, and one great benchmark of Fill Up the Room's success by contrast to its predecessors is how strictly it devotes itself to melody as an end to itself. These songs have a clipped, lovable specificity about them -- the beautiful little piano flourishes are still there, though, and a bit of the Chiffons shows up on the profoundly blissful "Hands in the Snow" -- all dedicated to the presentation of a straight-ahead rock band's almost obsessively convicted way with the smart, admirably sincere pop ditty.

There are ragged elements here; Thomas still has that oddball squeak of his, and the surprisingly strong guitar tangents add an individualistic sense of joyful noise. Opener "Apple" conjures up a rougher vision of the prototypical garage band, a rather stirring performance that handily offsets the potential cuteness of the Belle & Sebastianisms to follow ("Make a Plan" and "Peg" especially). The long ones "When I Lose My Eyes" and "Money in the Afterlife" never wear out their welcome, brimming with nostalgic yearning, but you come and stay to hear Thomas chirping and yelping with charged and enviable abandon through sweet, brief perfections like "The Americans" and "(Even If You Die in the) Ocean." You can't help loving him even when he sounds like Tony fuckin' Orlando ("Edison Girls").

The revelation happens when SLGTM, having proved themselves capable of concentrating enough to rein in their Yo La Tengo-ish eclecticism to produce an accessible but muscular pop LP, marry all of the newfound restraint and polish you never knew they had in them to a pair of songs that would've otherwise fit perfectly in some form on Every Night. The glorious return of erstwhile former member Betty Barnes to the lead vocal helm, "Hands in the Snow," is a dead ringer for the Magnetic Fields; that's all, there's no bent catharsis or serious element to separate it, but being a dead ringer for the Magnetic Fields is something any band that knows its way around a pop song should strive for -- and it wouldn't have been possible ever before in the context of Thomas' usual preoccupations. And then: the completely unexpected flipped-around "Cecelia," intense and intimate, of closing treasure "Whitey Hands," a stark dance song full of ambition and trickery unimaginable on the group's earlier records, good as they were. That's just magic. Fred Thomas and the other members have recorded music sporadically since Fill Up the Room, but I can't help hoping there's still a sequel lurking somewhere, even if Barnes says she'll be gone by the time we hear this...

Friday, December 30, 2011

Anal Cunt: I Like It When You Die (1997)


Probably their masterpiece. Fave cuts: "Recycling Is Gay"; "You Own a Store"; "You Are an Interior Decorator"; "Your Best Friend Is You"; "You Live in a Houseboat"; "You Sell Cologne"; "Windchimes Are Gay"; "You Have Goals"; and of course, "We Just Disagree."

What else do you say about this, really? This is the only band this heavy I ever "listen" to, and it's exclusively because of their song titles and lyrics. It Just Gets Worse is more offensive, Picnic of Love is a gimmick, this is A.C.'s peak, I say.

Andrew Bird: Noble Beast (2009)

(Fat Possum)


What is it about Andrew Bird that makes him so damned adorable even as he sprawls out on nutty musical tropes and weird instrumental preoccupations that can ramble on into twenty-second or six-minute tangents? What makes his preciousness and fierce literacy endearing and never (at least, almost never) annoying? I think we like him -- we love him, in this house anyway -- because of his craftsmanship: the way he can turn a dirge like "Masterswarm" into some galvanizing foray into oblique semi-swing jazz, the way he constructs this fifth solo record as more or less entirely a document of his own mastery of the violin, yet manages to present simultaneously his most immediately appealing collection of songs so far. That in itself is an act of invention, even if Bird's music itself never sounds exactly new.

It's easy to get lost in his technical expertise, especially on this album that opens with him in not-so-rare form, crooning and whistling his way through "Oh No" -- the word "sociopath" never sounded so warm and fuzzy, never before was repeated so incessantly it lost all meaning in twenty seconds. But that's the thing, it's the melody, the oddball words, the strange and delicious bounce, that you end up concentrating on after just a minute. Because against everything else, Andrew Bird's gift is songwriting. From Weather Systems on, his music's been built not on gimmick but on the delicate and infinitely charming tangential style that winds through so many back-and-forth structural lurches but always comes across perfect, unfailingly seamless.

As calculatedly calm as they can sound, these songs frequently hide unusual and subversive elements under the surface. On "Nomenclature," a classic Bird title if there ever was one, a calm but slightly upside down melody bounces out in front of a wildly unorthodox backdrop along the lines of "I Get Around." He injects a bit of West Africa, even, on "Anonanimal" -- there's a richness to the music here that hasn't been glanced at by Bird before, and for the first time he seems totally subservient to it. While we're on the subject, he's a knack for this because of his skill as a vocalist, an enormous talent for making his often barbed words sound deeply felt; perhaps he who "speaks with perfect diction as he orders my eviction" is an ideal mirror image of our hero.

The singing helps elevate his more conventional singer-songwriter material, make it intoxicating even. "Fake Conversations on a Nonexistent Telephone" eventually comes round to that, with a more nude structure than usual, after a vaguely Slavic opening tidbit. When he plays around, it's a thrill -- dig the rhythmic fits and trickery on "Effigy" -- but in complete command, he's something of a master. The vocal and musical control he exhibits on "Natural Disaster" shows him as a subtle braggart, taking the reins of all of its bracing beauty. And there's so much going on behind that smug exterior, the William Castle playfulness lurking underneath the cautious calm of "Not a Robot, But a Ghost" -- to call it "quirky" or "twee" is too dismissive, it's all too wry and warm for that.

Make no mistake, there's a cult of personality in place here; I can't think of any other performer I'd actually be praising if I called one of his or her songs "polite rock music," but that's an apt descriptor of the ace "Fitz & Dizzyspells," and it's a compliment. Bird may suffer from a bit of the traditional Paul McCartney problem -- he just does his thing and he's the highest-class of experts at it, but because he's so constantly at it and doesn't really push himself constantly for new directions, it's easy to ignore him. To do so would deprive you of the achingly desolate "Souverian," pop bliss despite seven minutes eighteen seconds, the song of the album and one of his finest to date; and if that's all too drawn out for you, there's the pure beauty of something like "Masterswarm," the ecstatically sunny reveal on "Tenuousness," and all of the nooks and crannies his infinitely expressive singing and playing get us into. Just listen and forget everything except how lovely it all is.

Smokey Robinson & the Miracles: Ooo Baby Baby- The Anthology (1961-72)



This two-disc set plays more as a history of Motown than an anthology of a single group. In a sense, the Miracles were Motown; Smokey Robinson was the driving creative personality of the label in its early years, in his supervisory position of both his group and the other talents there at the time. And like Berry Gordy, he knew how to spot talent; just as Gordy pulled incredible performers seemingly from thin air, Robinson dredged up an army of able songwriters who came to completely define R&B and (later) rock & roll radio in the early to mid-’60s. To my knowledge, the Miracles are the only group that brought music of virtually every major Motown composer to the charts. They’re all here — Holland/Dozier/Holland, Ashford & Simpson, Gordy himself, even Stevie Wonder. You can buy a Supremes compilation and get a rundown on H/D/H, a Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell set for the full story on Ashford & Simpson, the Marvelettes to hear Smokey interpreted by others, etc. But the Miracles album serves as a primer on everything that made Motown great in its brief peak period.

But of course, what matters — and what sticks — is the work of Smokey himself. Smokey Robinson didn’t get called “the greatest living American poet” by someone who ought to know (Bob Dylan) for nothing. His songs are passionate, frail, sophisticated rock & roll; you do frequently get a sense hearing these songs now that you’re witnessing the peak of a form. Every Motown artist had great writers; the words may have been banal, but the music was always superbly distinctive despite its factory-line origins, and a great singer like Diana Ross could easily interpret the worst clichés in a manner that made them earth-shattering. But Smokey’s work never needs even that much qualification. Most of his melodies, at least those written for his own group, are clearly built around his voice; there’s no one else on the planet who can sing “Tracks of My Tears” correctly, and there never will be. Lyrically, too, he is dazzling; “Whatever Makes You Happy” includes some of the most intricate commentary toward relationship politics I’ve ever heard in a pop song, with Lennonesque wordplay to boot. It is not simply a love song, it is an almost surreal blend of self-sacrifice and half-insanity, and it is incredibly sophisticated, and one imagines, difficult to sing:

If my sadness brought you gladness,
I’d be glad to be sad
If my feeling bad made you feel good,
I would always feel bad
And I wouldn’t think twice about the sacrifice
Anything that I’d have to do
‘Cause whatever makes you happy
Makes me happy too

If my tears could make you smile,
I could smile through my tears
Your sweet and laughing voice is
Music to my ears
And I wouldn’t think twice about the sacrifice…

Even if you wanted someone else to take my place
Although I love you so much
I’d still give you up
Just to keep a smile on your face

If my woe seemed to please you, I’d be pleased with my woe
And if my sorrow brought you joy, I’d enjoy my sorrow

But he pulls it off as if it’s another day at work, which it essentially was.

As performers, the Miracles are far more in the shadow of their leader than, for instance, the Supremes, which is why I generally insist on referring to the latter without the “Diana Ross And” addition from the late ’60s but have no beef with Smokey’s name in front of the Miracles. They are backing vocalists for the most part of less importance than the Funk Brothers, as great as ever on some of their definitive recordings. (“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” is one of the few songs later covered by the Beatles that is just as hard and convicted as the version with John Lennon at the helm.) With that said, the vocal blend is aided immensely by the presence of a female, Claudette Rogers, whose addition is very beneficial to most of the Miracles’ major hits. For instance, on “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” the sensuality becomes the full image rather than the song being simply an ode to it. “Going to a Go-Go” is more colorful and sprightly with her leading the chorus than it would be otherwise. And on and on.

This anthology set takes a chronological approach, which I suppose is best. Some Motown buffs, especially those who swear by the Funk Bros., have been upset by the new stereo mixes included here; I liked them. You'll want a different package to get the punchier mono single versions anyway. The backing tracks are great, but the point of Motown was always in the vocals and the writing amply more than the performing, or else we’d be happy buying a grab-bag of random songs from the label rather than having them separated by group. (This is not reflective of the music fan, either; no one complains about the lack of a Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans compilation because we have a Phil Spector box. Everything is different with Motown.) The Miracles set builds up as it goes along, bravely opening with the truly lame answer song (to the Silhouettes) “Got a Job.” It doesn’t really pick up until the classic “Shop Around,” then continues to take its time before really diving into the good stuff. That said, some fans prefer the earlier, rawer Motown to the mid-’60s material; I am not one of them, but if you are, you may actually find the first half of the first disc to be the best part.

And even I prefer the first disc to the second; although it has lots of great music, the scope is lessened and the group, still conforming with the Motown image in general, becomes less and less distinctive until it just seems to be tackling each trend of the era, like a wealthier Archie Bell & the Drells with blander songs and better vocals. In fact, the first half of the disc is full of stunning tracks, and they never descend into dreck the way the Supremes did, nor did they constantly improve and refine their work like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the Temptations. Of the last ten tracks, only three really stand with their best and formerly routine work, and only one — the still-stunning “Tears of a Clown,” cowritten by Wonder — is a true classic, and it was recorded several years before the rest as an album track no one noticed!

But the group at their peak, like Motown itself as its peak, is a spectacle; as with fellow vocal giants the Beach Boys, their songs are more often about alienation than about the joy of love, and therein lies their curious power. “Tracks of My Tears” is the greatest, most beautiful of all Motown singles and one of the finrst songs ever recorded, perfect, sincere, and playful in every respect. “My Girl Has Gone,” a song I had never even heard before purchasing this, might just be the second-greatest of all Motown tracks; it’s impossible to even discern what makes it so special, so invasive and so valid, but it’s a chestnut one will not soon forget. “Going to a Go-Go” is cataclysmic, bouncing, propulsive, unshakeable, a lost British Invasion song from a factory in Detroit. I never understood “I Second That Emotion” until I heard it in this context; now it makes sense. (You see, Motown performers could have been album artists, so long as they waited forty years to release their debut LPs and then just stacked all the singles on top of one another, where they work together to create this haze of joy that’s impossible to duplicate on the radio or anywhere.) And the pair of songs about the secret sobs of funnymen are as effortlessly profound as pop music gets. I’m hesitant generally to label anything I appreciate as “art” because I can’t claim to fully understand the word, I find its application to something I am expected to appreciate more a debit than anything, and I just don’t particularly like it; it’s divisive, it’s lazy, and it’s meaningless. But if any branch of rock & roll is true high art, it’s Motown, and if any one of those pop geniuses who churned out this material for those unbelievable ten years was an artist, it is Smokey Robinson. Hats off to him.

[Originally posted elsewhere in 2007.]

Thursday, December 29, 2011

TV on the Radio: Dear Science (2008)



The four LPs by TV on the Radio so far, of which this is the third, constitute a sort of gradually unfolding conversation that begins as disaffected and awkward and gradually uncovers layers of tragedy and romance and all sorts of grown-up things. Compared to the ragged Return to Cookie Mountain, still their most striking effort, Dear Science is pure pop, a streamlined and calmed down songcraft-centric approach that lifts the curtain of Cookie sludge to reveal neon soul and sprightly funk with a surprisingly gentle, if impassioned, spirit. This is the deepest exploration of the band's inner world, a surprisingly delightful place, the Fulfilligness' First Finale to the previous album's Innervisions.

As always seems to be the case on TVOTR's albums, the first fifteen seconds put everything on the table: a stark, brightly lit propulsion completely offset by Tunde incongruous ba ba ba bas. The gleeful unveiling of hope and humor over menace, a crucial angle to the band's always expert funk, remains the identifying conceit of this album for the duration -- listen for the way the floor opens up underneath "Dancing Choose" to show the pumping heart behind its beats and shouts. This helps the fast-paced record breeze past in no time, leaving you coming back repeatedly for further doses, and there's so much here to explore in well under an hour: "Crying," "Stork and Owl," and "Love Dog" alone sound like three different bands. The first is a tease of full-on R&B, the second a trad synthpop piece undercut by Kyp Malone's wailing, the last a nod to melodic minimalism from Tunde Adebimpe, who offers in it one of his most arresting vocal performances.

In such a deliberately structured recording, there are inevitably a few centerpieces, which is far more the case here than on the messier Cookie Mountain or the lopsided Nine Types of Light. Five tracks in we're treated to Malone's "Golden Age," a small masterpiece worthy of some lost Prince persona. And then there's "Red Dress," to date the band's best and most unguarded song, a beautifully feverish injection of hip hop, ecstasy and fury: "I'm fat and in love," Malone announces, "and no bombs are falling," against the most blistering rhythm track in the group's catalog.

A more representative idea, though, of how dedicated TV on the Radio are to setting their contradictory weariness and anxiousness for the future and the world at large comes with the two closing tracks: the gradually building menace of "DLZ" is a claustrophobic concession that only makes the lilting "Lover's Day" with its unexpectedly lush but never overwrought backdrop that much sweeter, that much more of a relief. The great legacy of this superb album is that it is finally an act of restraint, a carefully controlled longform statement, even as each of its eleven tracks go off the rails in their respective senses. And at the end when the horns and strings show up in "Lover's Day" it's like, I dunno, "Love's in Need of Love Today" maybe? At any rate, it feels splendid.

Nine Types of Light (2011)

K.C. and the Sunshine Band: Best Of (1974-89)



Whether he's a '70s revivalist dinosaur now or not, Harry Wayne Casey was a funk giant in his prime, a man who brought a warmth, enthusiasm, and (especially) unexpected eroticism to disco music that was completely magic and unrestrained. It's not that he was a more immaculate performer than other giants of the period, it's that in his humble and nonchalant consistency, bruising the world senselessly on hits and non-hits alike, his very career was an implicit rejection of the same "authenticity" arguments that persist in the pop world to this day, and which are still nonsense. Oh, but does it help that his band was one of the tightest and most assured brand names of sheer joy in all pop music? You bet.

One of the significant features of this compilation is that a little less than half of it consists of material recorded and released well after K.C. and the Sunshine Band were well past their commercial peak; it goes as late as 1989, at which point we peer into the window to find the now desperately uncool Casey and his cohorts just giving it all their strength and partying down like always, making absolutely no concessions to reach out to any new marketplace and still sounding they're having the time of their fucking lives. That incredibly revealing tack is "Do You Wanna Go Party," and it's just as well-crafted and lovable as any of the band's classic hits. The same goes for the rest of the latter-day material included -- "All I Want," "Give It Up," and "Let's Go Rock and Roll" lump up the second half but never once give temptation to the skip button.

Of course, anyone who buys this does so to hear the big songs, but they may be stunned at how glorious they continue to sound. It's enough to marvel at the monster beats and performance art of the juggernauts in residence here, which owe their success equally to some of the most impressive band performances of the period and to Casey's deceptively affable frontmanning that masks a raw sexuality he takes his time to bring out, his secret weapon. You know "Sound Your Funky Horn" probably, and definitely "I'm Your Boogie Man," the indelible "Shake Your Booty," the sly "Queen of Clubs," the inescapable "That's the Way (I Like It)," the clever and adorable "Keep It Comin' Love." All triumphs, presented here in white-hot 7" mixes that probably didn't get much play on dance floors but certainly set a lot of living rooms on fire, which is just as important.

There is not a single weak cut on this 16-track collection, which is top-drawer all the way. Still, Casey and the band are most deserving of legend because of their spiritual manifestos. Those are "Get Down Tonight" -- the sort of casually grandiose, spirited, good-hearted demand that can restore your faith in humanity after a long day, and don't tell me such sentiments weren't a constant fact in disco's initial audience -- and, of course, "Boogie Shoes," 2:12 of horns and repetitive, overbaked guitar and Casey swaggering erotically across a brightly lit floor of sound that define as well as any recorded product exactly what rock & roll means, what its purpose is, what it can do for you and me. It's the most direct spit in the face of every wrongheaded, homophobic "disco sucks" sentiment ever; it's heroic, vital, heartfelt and relentless in its passionate joy (listen for the completely unguarded "woo!" at 1:12). How wonderful that as late as 1978, a sentiment like "Girl, to be with you is my favorite thing" was still all right to air on a record without a bunch of overwrought protests about meaning and seriousness and all that. This was a real statement just like the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron," a piece of life! Teenage and overwhelming.

Bill O'Reilly goes on a rant in one of his books about K.C. and the Sunshine Band, reprinting several lines of the lyrics to "That's the Way" and remarking on their repetition and supposed brainlessness because this is a sign of the collective brain rotting and the kids goddamn the kids and whatever else Bill O'Reilly generally goes on about. The battle lines are drawn, then; in one corner is O'Reilly, in the other is this band and its songs -- everything right, good, pure, and wonderful about popular music. It's not political, not in the least, which makes it all the more so because if you can't enjoy this, you're fucked and there's nothing in the world for you and why bother. I'm on probably my ninth listen to "Boogie Shoes" tonight. "I want to do it till the sun comes up / oh, yeah." We haven't improved on that, man. We can't! Why would we even want to!?

Kanye West: 808s & Heartbreak (2008)

(Def Jam)


After briefly threatening to descend into the foreboding world of great-but-not-throttling on the pure pop effort Graduation in 2007, Kanye West bounced back a year later with a bold, odd, instantly classic album of Autotune rambling and overextended Human League dark nights of the soul. 808s & Heartbreak is a stark contradiction to everything a more traditional artist might have done on his fourth album, and as much as it finally fails to stand up to his earliest work -- owing largely to the way it flies completely off the rails in its final fifteen minutes -- it may be his most purely brilliant record, and certainly his most emotional and I suspect in the end his most far-reaching and influential. For certain, it's difficult to imagine the pastoral whimsy and lush wickedness of followup My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy without the floodgates this opened to West expressing his demons, West demanding his audience meet him on his own terms.

What gets lost in all that, I suppose, is just how ingenious 808s is, and how completely -- lyrically, musically, production-wise, everything -- he knocks the first nine tracks out of the park. From the hauntingly stark breakup ballad "Say You Will" through the ceaseless punching of the popcraft and hellish confession that follows and the twin benchmarks of the undeniable "Heartless" and synthpop monster "Paranoid," West is on to something with his marriage of naked regret and bitterness about the end of a relationship to arid, sterile-sounding electronic soundscapes. Digitizing his voice until it's only periodically identifiable, West uses the distance to comfort himself in taking us on a tour of his darkest impulses, which to be frank sounds an awful lot like every other Kanye West album, but there's something profound and universal in these grooves, in the way they so effectively capture the misery, the abandon, the scariness of a new and unwanted single life. It's some of the loneliest mainstream music ever recorded, and West knows it. He milks it for everything until we feel as sad (yet oddly satisfied) as he does.

I was traveling in Ohio shortly after 808s came out; "Love Lockdown" and "Heartless" were playing everywhere. All the friends I met up with during my vacation talked about the record, which sounded so perfect against the icy December chill so completely unfamiliar to this southern kid. Dealing with my own relationship-fallout issues at the time, I became rapidly obsessed with "Heartless" and subsequently with the record as a whole. The moments that meant the most to me then, and that still have devastating resonance now, were "Say You Will," the joyfully ruthless "Paranoid," and "Bad News," a "See Line Woman"-derived forerunner of sorts to the subsequent album's "Blame Game." The discomforting honesty with which West approaches the sinking feeling and lingering ache of a bad or even amicable breakup peaks here as he approaches a pain so dire it takes on an almost physical presence. West's attempts at singing may usually be dubious, ingratiating as they are, but the pain he lives in and gives his full body to here is enough to make something outside this album like "Stronger" or the Jay-Z collaboration "Otis" seem even more like pure posturing, like an actor's game that's finally beside the point. It may be full of synthetics and carefully processed and treated, but 808s is finally as raw and revealing and crushingly real as Plastic Ono Band.

Its indulgences, however, give it an unwelcome touch of Some Time in New York City. The out-of-nowhere Lil Wayne collaboration "See You in My Nightmares" is an overly busy disaster, despite its radio success, and Weezy's bit seems shoehorned in as an obligatory bone thrown to hip hop normalcy. "Coldest Winter" is just meandering, failing to temper the ragged melodramatics so faithfully toned down elsewhere. Worst of all is the freestyle "Pinocchio Story," listed as a "bonus track" but present on every version of the record, which seems to stretch on for hours and really sends the pure emotionalism of the rest of Heartbreak into pretentious and trite territory, all of the performer's worst self-absorbed tendencies summarized in six minutes.

Without all that, the pace and quality here would never flag, all capturing a particular kind of urban depression and a palette of personal loss that seems individualistic on contact but of course is familiar to anyone who's been alone for any length of time. The echoes are constant and unexpected -- Tears for Fears, Everything But the Girl, even Suicide -- but never function as kitsch, rather as a document of desperation amid sprawl. All the folks I spoke to about 808s at the time kept saying they thought this was an album West "had to make," or he would've lost his mind. I agree, but maybe we feel that way because we needed it as much as he did.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
with Jay-Z: Watch the Throne (2011)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Alabina: L'Essentiel (1996-2000)



Okay, look, sometimes things just end up on your desk at the library and you're like "What the fuck is this" and you look it up online and it says "French-Israeli band performing Middle Eastern dance music" and you're like heyy and then you take it home and it's not at all what you expected but its ridiculous silliness kind of briefly wins your heart. Just... you didn't see this here, okay? I'm totally not going to tell you about how much I fucking love the Arabic version of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." Totally not one of my favorite things in the world. Totally totally not.

The Flaming Lips: Embryonic (2009)

(Warner Bros.)


The great misconception about the Flaming Lips' eleventh proper album and miraculous rebirth from a mediocre midlife crisis is that it's an injection of youth, the sound of a band preparing to enter its fourth decade and still doing crazy, far out, original stuff. That's nonsense. Know what Embryonic really is? An entrance of a band of old professionals, as far along in their career as the Rolling Stones were when they recorded Steel fucking Wheels, into the rock & roll pantheon. It's an album of music about its own legend, about the tropes and heaviness of our most durable modern-day mythology.

And to throw a bone to those who felt differently, it really is a masterpiece of psychedelia, complete and actually unnerving like nothing since the genuine article of the 13th Floor Elevators, the Electric Prunes and "Eight Miles High." More than kitschy and willfully weird, it's weighty, genuinely surreal, kind of scary. There's a sense of trippiness here that is no throwback; it can envelop you, and probably will unless you're immune to some of the wildest, bone-shakingest beats and noises heard in recent rock music. It's a solemnly single-minded effort in a way, as disorienting as its provocative cover art, and what makes it tick is how cleanly it escapes from the Lips' carefully cultivated (since 1983) cult of quirky personality. Wayne Coyne is unrecognizable on many of the tracks, and to put it simply the explosive drums and brain-frying guitar and keyboard parts are as far away from The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi as, why not, Exile on Main Street was from Between the Buttons. The Stones comparison looms large because it gives the Lips a crucial victory, an artistic triumph: the ability to sound this fucking uncompromised and risky almost thirty years in while nevertheless subscribing wholeheartedly to the aural, almost quaintly traditional persuasion so vital to all music that strives for menace, attitude, chaos.

Coyne has cited the White Album and Sandinista! as key influences, we'll throw in Exile because why not, and it's apt; while Embryonic is considerably shorter and more focused than either, they share a simple enough conceit -- the sprawl, the gushing forth of all manner of material, the deliberate eschewing of quality control, and in all of this resides a beauty that the respective bands may otherwise never have touched. There's nothing quite like the feeling you get when the creepy-crawl deliberate pacing of "Powerless" plods along until you feel quite insane, the pounding massiveness of "Worm Mountain" that seems to shake the earth, the crunch and dread, the primal and the fantastic in "Watching the Planets," and most of all the way that "Silver Trembling Hands" functions as one of many ear-teasing interludes until it unexpectedly takes flight into the kind of rapturous frenzy that dream pop groups the world over are bound to envy always.

There's pop here, sure; the first three cuts are centered in something resembling conventional Flaming Lips territory, and then the tension sets in. The first half is all expertly sustained drama and pregnancy, metallic clanging and the same red light brain-friend meandering that made those Beatles and Clash records so weirdly addictive, and then the second half just sort of bursts into a series of organic freakouts tempered by distorted, slithery reflection. The experience would be otherworldly if it didn't seem so devoted to an evocation of our teenage nights getting lost in our old records. In either respect, it is an utter phantasmagoric success.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul (1966)



The great Redding's finest LP, Otis Blue, is a meditation -- a summary of and valentine to the idea of soul music as it existed in 1965. The less famous but arguably far more ambitious Dictionary of Soul (subtitled Complete & Unbelievable) is a different beast entirely, a forward-looking slab of what today sounds like disarming, sweat-fueled funk. It's prophetic because it dismisses with nuance, with every pretense to the total loss of control, the relentless thrashing and pounding and shouting along to the music. Primal yet theatrical, it sounds like some sort of rock & roll ground zero, and released in 1966 it was primed to come across as an earth-shaker.

It wasn't, for two reasons. The most obvious is Redding's death shortly after its release; though Dock of the Bay was near completion, this was the last studio album he finished. The other is a simple matter of quality control. Otis Blue remains one of the most consistent long-playing records ever issued; although there aren't really any weak cuts here, the peak moments of Dictionary are so relentless and staggering, true showpieces, that they render the material around them somewhat ordinary and trite. It's most apparent on Side Two. When you put the second half of the record on, you get "My Lover's Prayer," "She Put the Hurt on Me," and "Ton of Joy," none of which would have seemed out of place on an earlier Redding LP, full of well-wrought agony and expression.

But then the thing starts happening. "You're Still My Baby," a cover of a 1954 Chuck Willis hit, comes on and it's like waking up, and you immediately forget whatever you were listening to for the prior ten minutes. The stark, stilted but perversely romantic musical backdrop -- such a beautifully far cry from Motown, from any general conception of how '60s soul "worked" -- sticks out enough with its crying guitar lines, but then there's the vocal. If you can call it that. It's more like he cries out, like he loses his mind. "I believe it's bye byye baby," he announces, and you can hear the hurt, and over the next arduously structured and built up four minutes he grows increasingly desperate, his frayed voice more and more achingly lovely. Even against this precisely paced ballad, he sounds like he's commanding some army when he isn't merely devastated. Approximately two and a half minutes in, just after he demands to know why, the bottom falls out and he breaks in two, and you can hear it, and it's just about as amazing as a recorded vocal can get.

This is followed with the celebratde "Hawg for You" which is a close match despite its more conventional blues-derived persuasions, and then he hauls off into the night with "Love Have Mercy," but it all seems like so much small-talk pleasantry after the uncompromising reality, dread, catharsis of "You're Still My Baby." And it isn't songwriting, not at all. "My Lover's Prayer" is at least as strong a composition as Redding ever put down. But it's all in how much everything just stops spinning, time itself seems to stop, and you're just left with this man begging for mercy and finding one of the truest, most cutting voices ever put on tape.

The first half, by contrast, is full of such moments. Some are deservedly famous: "Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)" barely makes sense as a piece of music, it's just a series of Redding howls that grow ever more infectious; and "I'm Sick Y'all" bursts out with deep-South heat seldom performed with such genuine, selfless gusto; no one needs to be reminded of the way Redding nails "Try a Little Tenderness," makes it his own and no one else's. Some are less widely beloved, for whatever reason -- the reading of "Tennessee Waltz" may not quite be up to Sam Cooke's, but it's still one of the best examples of the way Redding can begin with a lovely and conventional read of a classic but quickly get fantastically lost and generate something new, nuts, far out. The Beatles cover "Day Tripper" doesn't even make pretenses to tackling the original track, turning it upside down into alien, far-afield funk so overheated it even knocks Redding himself off course. You can scarcely recognize the song as he plows over it, picking up a few general concepts and going batshit on them, and hence actually improving a classic and even slightly eccentric song.

The trick is that Redding's mastery over a new artform within his craft was just in progress with this album was made, and what we're hearing is the beginning. He left a good deal of material behind to be issued posthumously, but we still must wonder where he might have gone next, because the "Day Tripper" and "You're Still My Baby" covers are so beyond just covers, so beyond what we conceive of as soul or rock & roll or even funk, something exciting and crafty and completely abstract -- they're just mysterious and personal and explosive enough to sound brand new and untouched, even nearly half a century later.

Otis Blue (1965)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

De La Soul: The Grind Date (2004)



Here's a frustrating situation. Backstory: De La Soul is one of the best bands in the world, an enormously vital unit whose discography is the only collection of albums in the last twenty years that invite the back-to-front familiarity and obsession the Beatles once generated. From those LPs you can track their evolution as each record reacts to the prior one: the ingenuity and delight of 3 Feet High and Rising on to the suspicion and regret of De La Soul Is Dead into consciousness into surreal, wonderfully alive maturity. Having mastered all of the above, they began to try and conquer, adapt to, and/or integrate the modern hip hop underground on this, their most recent album.

And then... they stopped. Seven years of silence, save a Nike-sponsored mixtape and a rarities collection, have followed. Oh, they won a Grammy -- for a wildly overplayed Gorillaz single in which they participated. But after setting up some crazy new direction with Grind Date, they went largely dormant, still commanding as hell on stage but absent from the recording studio. The troubling thing is that on this record, they seem onto something new and special for them. Dig the fucking relentless flow backgrounded by a killer obscure soul sample on "He Comes," the audacious bed of Madlib insanity on the glorious "Shopping Bags," their most striking single in years. This isn't just a new De La Soul album, it's a ground-up renovation with not just an eye toward the underground but a thorough seeping in it, scoring production jobs from 9th Wonder, 'Lib, Jake One, not to mention collabs with MF DOOM and Ghostface, like a who's who of the torch-carriers of artistically adventurous rock & roll.

And then there's J Dilla. My gosh, what a coup to hear him working a De La Soul track or two. His pair of cuts, "Verbal Clap" and "Much More," stick out like mad and majorly frontload the record. It's an unprecedented kick to listen to his alien beats and deep-end notions toying with Posdnuos and Trugoy -- it's like some relic from a future we never got to fully experience. Except for the Madlib track, nothing here quite compares. De La is clearly shooting for a renaissance with the out-of-character absence of jokes and skits, which has the double-edged effect of making them more anonymous (less playful) than usual and giving them an unexpected contemporary edge. With a little more refinement -- which ideally would have come with the next LP -- they could have scored another classic.

It's years later now. Dilla is gone, the scene has changed again... and yet Grind Date manages to feel oddly out of step with the way most 2004 hip hop already sounds now. Madlib and DOOM and 9th Wonder (whose weak cut "Church" is sadly the biggest sore point here) and arguably even Dilla himself are still on the cutting edge lips of the genre, but De La is curiously absent from the slate of currently active luminaries. I doubt they're through with us; for all its faults, Grind Date has some material as good and inventive as anything they've ever put down, especially remarkable Jake One-produced closer "Rock Co. Kane Flow," a tempo mindfuck that forecasts sounds that urban radio's just now catching up with. That's impressive as hell. So is how well, in 2004, De La Soul predicted the major thematic thrust of the next seven years of hip hop: sadness, loss, economic strife, utter displacement in the so-called space age.

I mean, my dad's got five kids, man, and I mean
Yo - he hates drivin' a bus but he loves five kids
You feel me?

The main thing I feel though when I hear Grind Date in 2011 is a strong desire to have them back. I think we need them, don't you? And not just on tour with Gorillaz or putting together Nike shoes. Really out there with a new project or three. Feel me?

R.E.M.: Murmur (1983)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

I was always more fascinated by photographs of the Band than I was by their music. Locked into a ghostly dissonance, a relationship with time obscured beyond recognition, they looked like they sounded, only more so. In The Last Waltz they captured what felt like an integrated-plus-Ringo Starr Civil War-era plantation banquet. The juxtaposition went beyond appearances; something wasn't right about them, deep down, in an industry of pop music bred on image.

R.E.M. set this terminal and distinctly southern-gothic surrealism to music -- more genuine than the Band not least becuase they're actually southern, maybe more because of the layers of terrifying comfort and beautiful chaos in their music. Perhaps the most cerebral band of their generation, R.E.M. is really an issue separate from Murmur except in the sense that Chronic Town led up to it and Reckoning attempted to make sense of it. The handful of rock LPs that redefine the form -- not rock, but the album itself -- always escape the clutches of the artist and lead lives of their own. This band would never record anything remotely similar to Murmur again, but to their credit, no one else would either. Chronic Town could at least be rationalized as rough Byrds or soft Television with enigmatic production from the Let's Active guy. Murmur was earthly but backward, an alien artifact of delicate, seductive mystery that wrapped itself around its witnesses for good, every second demanding almost scholarly attention.

In 1983, the origins of R.E.M. were no less murky than the brooding layers of mush in their music. Out of left field comes this widely embraced recording that attaches itself to the intangible, in a Pet Sounds / Sister Lovers / Marquee Moon tradition of introspective, nonverbal therapy. But the motivations behind all three earlier records were so much clearer, the Beach Boys desperately hanging on to delirious amounts of success, Big Star descending into bitter rage over their lack of it, Television's Tom Verlaine succumbing to the lifelong need to define and respond to the world around him. Nothing is so simple for R.E.M., whose drummer talked of hanging around cemeteries "looking for ghosts" as a favorite pasttime, whose roster on their debut album includes not a single track with a true linear subject; everything is suggestion in what Peter Buck called "spooky gospel." "You pick the words you need to hear," he said, setting up the post-rock empire of My Bloody Valentine's revolutionary Loveless.

The words you need to hear bring you strands of the riveting, distressing, timeless -- the EP Chronic Town was a trip around the world with the artful juxtaposition of the ordinary to create, appropriate to their name, a dreamscape. The spirit has not changed but the mood has. R.E.M. rose to favor, at least for critics like Robert Palmer, with their debut single at the dawn of the indie age, "Radio Free Europe," but the first track on Murmur -- the same song, slowed down and mystified with the organic grace of the music to follow -- rejects the loud/fast aesthetic even of Chronic Town in favor of an elegiac subconsciousness. "Laughing" and "Perfect Circle" pick up tiny vignettes of relationships in transition with a sense of deterioration, the stark, sophisticated music saying as much as the free-association, inexplicably powerful and mostly indistinguishable words. "Circle" surrounds with its delicate, swirling piano for quiet but sobering effect in an astonishing ballad, as beautiful as any of its era. "Laughing" toys with slightly off-kilter vocal harmonies and Mike Mills' bouncing, low-end bass playing for pop music locked simultaneously in the past and future.

The dusty ambience does not stop with the maddening album package, a photograph of kudzu and a practically illegible tracklisting. All of the songs are about decay, all are gleefully evocative with their imaginative wordplay but much more with the endlessly multilayered tracks and the restraint of their boundless energy. As much care was taken with this record as is devoted to most feature films. On "Pilgrimage," for example, the jarring Appalachain opening -- Michael Stipe, the man whose postcards read like the middle of a play without the beginning or end, wailing over random notes on a piano -- builds to another awe-inspiring nightmare of acoustic mush, the Byrds hiding in a Tennessee church somewhere with Brian Eno. But you can't really get anywhere by comparing these things. The music is what it is and there's no hope of explaining it or how it affects you. It does, though, to a sometimes startling extent.

If you're strugging to understand these songs, you're missing the point, which is only to discover the sense it makes to you. The joyous, tower-of-sound chrouses on the tweaked pop perfection of "Catapult" and the fragmented, bizarre garage rock of "Sitting Still" attest to R.E.M. as the band in love with the world and everything in it, the rejection of rejection, of Johnny Rotten's classic "Food is such rubbish." What's stunning about this is how both the simultaneous bliss ("Shaking Through," their most astounding pop construction ever) and omnipresent threat (the rolling gibberish, Yellow Fever assault "9-9," the ominous closer "West of the Fields," and particularly the trad folktale "We Walk") turn this entirely unusual collection into accessible rock & roll music.

Is it rock & roll? It could be argued easily that, say, Eno escapes all prior convention of the genre. Is it even music? Well, few things are more rock & roll than an experience like this, and nothing is more musical. This band's black & white distortion of the south is as artful and lively as it gets, and it remains a uniquely perfect example of the striking mystery and mood possible in the form. Automatic for the People may revise it into something linear, but how necessary is that when perhaps the lack of order is what makes Murmur so moving (and at times so disturbing)?

When "Talk About the Passion," the most conventional song on the album, explodes into cello, that's something you feel, and so is the immersion deep into the woods of Stipe's scarred monologue on "9-9," the corruption of simplicity on "We Walk." Of all these intricately detailed songs, none is darker or more pregnant than this penultimate cut, after which "West of the Fields" feels almost like an afterthought. The track features the lite-folk repetition of a children's song, marred by depth-charge booming that approaches subtly but explodes continually, unexpectedly, with no rhyme or reason. All the while Stipe continues with his simple song -- "Up the stairs, to the landing" -- and the suggestions are too much to consider, like that train roaring by forebodingly at the end of Pet Sounds.

We all know there is a dark side to the south because we've driven down the interstate and we've seen Deliverance. We probably even know there is a beauty, a splendid curiosity, to that darkness. Memories come out of the woodwork and there often are emotions, reactions you can't understand or control. Murmur captures every trace of that far from exclusively intellectual (or southern) phenomenon, and we revisit ourselves as children on "Catapult," "Sitting Still" -- about the frustrations of communication -- "We Walk," "Shaking Through," and "9-9": "Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the lord my soul to keep / If I should die before I wake / I pray the lord... hesitate."

My ideal soulmate for Murmur is not so much children's folklorist Alvin Schwartz (see Fables of the Reconstruction), who certainly comes to mind, as Clarence John Laughlin, a surreal photographer who sensed the horror in the ideal of the Old South as its romance increased, and responded with beautiful pictures of abandoned plantations slowly turning to dust, of lives left in shambles by the old world, the revolution, and/or its aftermath. There is an elegance to any regard toward the past, whether it's nostalgia or regret or simply discovery. Murmur is about the dark corners of the past, and its untouchably delicate music reaches in our darkest recesses to find it.

[Originally posted elsewhere in 2005.]

Eponymous (1981-87)
Chronic Town EP (1982)
Collapse into Now (2011)