Friday, December 30, 2005
Here it is, my first annual best of list. Every one of these collections of ditties gets at least an A-, and, naturally of course, every one should be considered essential for your CD collection. As befits a critic, though, I reserve the right to change my mind and add or delete to said list as I wish. For now, we'll leave it at this.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
1. Gogol Bordello: Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike (Side One Dummy).
2. The Rough Guide to the Sahara (World Music Network).
3. Sufjan Stevens: Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty).
4. The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema (Matador).
5. The Go-Betweens: Oceans Apart (Yep Roc).
6. M.I.A.: Arular (Interscope).
7. Kanye West: Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella).
8. Ani DiFranco: Knuckle Down (Righteous Babe).
9. The Hold Steady: Separation Sunday (Frenchkiss)
10. The White Stripes: Get Behind Me, Satan (V2)
11. Amadou & Miriam: Dimanche a Bamako (Nonesuch).
12. Sleater-Kinney: The Woods (Sub Pop).
13. The Chemical Brothers: Push the Button (Astralwerks).
14. 50 Cent: The Massacre (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope).
15. Clem Snide: End of Love (Spin Art).
16. Lizz Wright: Dreaming Wide Awake (Verve).
17. Bright Eyes: I'm Wide Awake (Saddle Creek).
18. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah).
19. Spoon: Gimmie Fiction (Merge).
20. Amy Rigby: Little Fugitive (Signature Sounds).
21. Cheb I Sabbah: La Kahena (Six Degrees).
22. The Ponys: Celebration Castle (In the Red).
23. Missy Elliott: The Cookbook (Atlantic/Goldmind).
24. Stevie Wonder: A Time To Love (Motown).
25. Bruce Springsteen: Devils and Dust (Columbia).
26. Loudon Wainwright III: Here Come the Choppers (Sovereign Arts).
27. Franz Ferdinand: You Could Have It So Much Better (Domino).
28. Daby Balde: Introducing Daby Balde (World Music Network).
29. Danger Doom: The Mouse and the Mask (Epitaph).
30. Neil Young: Prairie Wind (Reprise).
Monday, December 26, 2005
Four entries: one from a born again Christian, one from a Jew for Jesus, a third from a gangsta who's probably going to meet the big guy in the sky any day now, and the last from a group ready to "push the button." And surprise, all four will make 2005's list for best albums of the year.
Saints Preserve Us!
The Hold Steady: Separation Sunday (Frenchkiss, 2005). Speaking strictly as an ex-Catholic, Craig Finn is a born again after my own heart. He knows the depths of sin better than any Sunday school teacher, and he knows more about compassion and mercy than all the TV evangelists put together. Far from being holier than thou, Finn’s characters – the self-mutilators, abused lovers, and deluded youth - are just like you and me; they’ve been through the mud enough times to know it ain’t easy in this world. Temptation tugs on us all, and falling is as easy as getting out of bed in the morning. But redemption awaits all who seek it, and damned if Finn isn’t going to shout it out to the world. My favorite song is Cattle and the Creeping Things, where Finn offers up his own explanation of original sin: “the dude blamed the chick, the chick blamed the snake” and of course they were both naked when they got busted. A
Clem Slide: End of Love (Spin Art, 2005). “No one will survive the end of love,” Eaf Barzalay announces on the opening track. And things only get better from there. On Jews for Jesus Blues he laments, “Now that I’m found, I miss being lost.” An Israeli in Nashville is about as fish out of water as you’re likely to get. But Barzalay overcomes his deficiency, as it were. Like most people, he’s worried about the world we live in; unlike most people he’s preoccupied with how God feels about how we’ve treated this world we live in. The old testament in him torments his soul as the track God Answers Back shows, a song in which the Almighty quips, "If you get everything you hope for/Then I will have to punish you." Here’s hoping he finds comfort in the new testament. A-
50 Cent: The Massacre (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope, 2005). The no good, the ugly and the bad, that’s what this is. Following on the heals of fellow gangstas Biggie Smalls and Tupac, this is about as low as low gets. The usual formula gets played out, too: the degradation of woman and, oh yes, guns, guns, guns. But, try as he does to drive all but hardcore devotees away, his style is irresistible. On this, his latest and best effort, he finds his funny bone. The result is an album that gets more to the point than Get Rich or Die Tryin’; in other words it’s more about sex and killing, and less about conditions in the ‘hood. All you need to know about his mind-set is to listen to the line from In My Hood. “You can be a victim or you can lock and load.” Guess which one 50 is? A-
The Chemical Brothers: Push the Button (Astralwerks, 2005). Like the Pet Shop Boys before them Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons get a lot of mileage out of a genre that was supposedly dead years ago. From start to finish this latest entry (their sixth) is a tour de force. Forget the detractors who still don't get it. Innovation isn't limited to merely those who forge new paths in the wilderness of music; sometimes the real test is how fresh you can sound driving down the same road (see Sleater-Kinney). Q-Tip sets the tone early with Galvanize; from there the party never seems to end. Overall, their best effort. A
Thursday, December 22, 2005
I recently saw the Johnny Cash movie Walk The Line and started thinking not only about Cash, but Ray Charles and Warren Zevon. The parallels between the three are quite striking. All three had serious dependence issues with at least one drug; all three damn near killed themselves as a result before they finally sobered up; and all three came up with career defining albums just before they died.
They are reviewed here in order of when they were released only, but really all three are quite indespensable.
Johnny Cash: American IV: The Man Comes Around (American, 2002). If ever there was a major artist so poorly served by his record company - and who equally served it poorly back - it was Cash. Only The Sun Years on Rhino and the Folsom Prison/San Quentin live albums do him proper justice. Call this redemption, if you will. The man knows his time his short and credit Rick Rubin for realizing what he had to work with and making the most of it. And while the title track sums up, if you will, his faith, a faith that was road tested long ago, the track that seals it for me is Hurt, a song so painful and gut wrenching it might just as well have been extracted from his liver. Note the lyrics: "What Have I become, my sweetest friend / Everyone I know goes away in the end." His anguish is as genuine as his redemption. For a man who couldn't kill his demons fast enough with pills, and who in the end had only his memories to taunt him, this is about as fitting an album as he could've expected. A
Warren Zevon: The Wind (Artimis, 2003). That our hero knew he was dying is not really germane to our story. In fact, Zevon seemed to relish the idea of exiting stage left. How else to describe his decision to forgo chemo? In the end he challenged death the same way he challenged life, by running right at it at full speed. Songs like Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and Keep Me In Your Heart seem more satirical than autobiographical now that he’s gone. While the cynic in me is suspicious of this effort, the fan in me treasures it and can’t help but reflect on a career that ended a bit too short; but knowing how hard he lived probably lasted a bit longer than it should have. Original grade A-. A
Ray Charles: Genius Loves Company (Concord/Hear Music, 2004). Forget the fact that most of these "guests" couldn't play their way out of a paper bag, this is about as genuine a love statement as a major artist has had in quite some time. Co-producers John Burk and Phil Ramone manage to bring out Charles' indelible spirit and love for the material, while at the same time not allowing said material to overwhelm his sometimes frail voice. No small feat. And, as for the material, like his career, it spans the gamut of pop music. No other artist could've pulled this off so masterfully. Not even Michael McDonald can ruin things here. A
Friday, December 02, 2005
2005 albums, continued
The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema (Matador, 2005). Here’s where all the supergroup comparisons come home to roost. Like Led Zeppelin before them they lay claim to their rightful place as the preeminent rock band of this century. But where the former used blues as their main drive engine, A.C. Newman and company rely on ‘60s power pop formula. Call them the Shins, but with extra octane, the album is relentless in its energy from start to finish. And everyone gets to play this time, which is nice. Neko Case is joined by newcomer Nora O’Connor on vocals. Even Newman’s niece gets to play the keybs. Staying power will be their biggest test; after all we all know what happened to Zeppelin after IV, and this is their third album. A
Ani DiFranco: Knuckle Down (Righteous Babe, 2005). Maturity has not dulled her gifting. With 15 years and 17 albums behind her, the not pretty enough little girl who lashed out brilliantly at the world for all her troubles has grown into a fairly even-tempered young woman. She still has a chip on her shoulder, and good for her. But, unlike her earlier efforts, here she focuses her anger and her pen too. The result is as well rounded an album as she as ever recorded. Lyrics like “But a lesson must be lived / in order to be learned / and the clarity to see and stop this now / that is what I’ve earned,” reveal an artist wise beyond her 34 years of life, and far more accomplished than most women ten years her senior. A
The White Stripes: Get Behind Me Satan (V2, 2005). Sure My Doorbell signals a desire on the part of Jack White to go pop as it were. So what? Since when has commercial success been a crime? Not even Meg's rather average drum playing can hide the fact that despite all the hoopla over their supposed ground-breaking, indie cult following, what they really are is a pretty damn good rock and roll band. And Jack, for all his rather predictable emoting (do I hear a trace of Robert Plant?) is following in a grand tradition of rock stars that went before him. Did I also forget to mention he writes good lyrics? A
Loudon Wainwright III: Here Come the Choppers (Sovereign Arts, 2005). Never one to mince words or cover up the fact that he’s been a pretty deplorable father (Hello Martha, Hello Rufus), Loudon this time goes macro. His angst over Bush is genuine as is his mourning over 9/11 (No Sure Way). If he sounds less, well, funnier than usual, maybe it’s because at this stage of his life the jokes don’t come as frequently as they used to. Or maybe it’s because he’s stopped running long enough to know that humor was always his number one narcotic. A-
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
JUST A FEW OF THE CLASSICS FOR YOUR THANKSGIVING ENJOYMENT! EAT UP!
Dar Williams: End of the Summer (Razor and Tie, 1997). The worst case of oversignificance to hit an artist since Suzanne Vega, Williams could turn a sunny day into midnight just by opening her mouth. The darling of the FUV jetset crowd, calling her pretentious would do a disservice to pretentiousness. And this is her best effort! C.
John Fogerty: Centerfield (Warner Brothers, 1985). With each passing year my contempt for this half-hearted, half-assed effort grows. Sure, it's competently played, and therein lies the problem. Fogerty could always out play his contemporaries. The trick is to bring something unique to the table. If we are to believe that Rock-n-roll Girls is the next Lookin' Out My Backdoor then we'd be believing in a lie. Truth is this was lame then and it's lamer now. B-.
Norah Jones: Feels Like Home (Blue Note, 2004). "What's not to like?" Robert Christgau once queried rhetorically. Plenty. Oh, I'm sure she's genuine when she emotes, and she comes from good stock, don't you know. If her Grammy sweeping Come Away With Me didn't convince you then perhaps nothing will. Sophisticated, easy to digest, harmless, but with just enough - shall we say - pizzazz to keep the multitudes in step. And you know she isn't some tramp or hip-hop chick, don't you know. No Eminem or Missy Elliott, here. Just the sweet girl next door who happens to play her own instrument; even writes a few of her own songs. Yes, talented she is, but with every note she exemplifies what's wrong with the biz. Jones is that perfect product ideally suited for that adult-contemporary crowd you thought didn't matter. Remember Roberta Flack in the '70s? Even if you like her personally, and by all accounts she is very likable, this is the ultimate sell job, by an industry adept at creating gods. Beware strange men bearing gifts too good to be true. B-.
Ben Folds Five: Whatever and Ever Amen (550 Music, 1997). Boy does this guy need a life. I've haven't heard such a pity pot since Billy Joel. Never trust a piano man who can't get laid. C+
Beth Orton: Trailer Park (Heavenly, 1997). I confess I find myself enjoying She Cries Your Name in my more morbid moments, but aside from that this is just one more example of a folkie way too in love with her misery. B-
Steve Winwood: Chronicles (Island, 1987). Like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, Steve "coulda been a contenda." Instead this overwrought and overbearing hack gets the award for doing less with more talent than any other artist in the last twenty years. Even Clapton had Layla. Banal, when it isn't nauseating. C
Sarah McLachlan: Afterglow (Arista, 2003). McLachlan is one of the guilty pleasures I allow myself. Her voice, seductive even when it's soulless, draws you into her world. With 1993's Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (still her finest effort) and the Lilith Fair concerts in the late '90s in her resume, she's hard to resist. But for all the seduction and pseudo mature themes her lyrics portend, this is one woman who still can't escape her insipid melancholy. She's as predictable as a broken country record without the twang. Actually, this is New-Age music without the mysticism. C-
The Mavericks: Trampoline (MCA Nashville, 1998). Country music with horns? Who cares. No matter how authentic their ethnicity might seem these guys are pure El Lay. Another Nashville express out to the masses. If you're looking for some good country music with a latin flavor, try Rank and File for starters. These guys couldn't tune their guitars. C+
Indigo Girls: Indigo Girls (Epic, 1989). Closer To Fine headlines this tripe and nonsensical effort. Tracy Chapman is Dylan next to these two wonderkinds. This is the worst kind of folk: deep but with no meaning. How else to explain lyrics like "In the ink of an eye I saw you bleed." They are intense, they are in need, they are in pain, and, of course, they're in love. Oh, come on, get over yourselves, girls. Your demons are in your music. C-
Thursday, November 03, 2005
RAP IT UP!
I've been remiss in my picks for top rap/hip-hop albums. So as not to suggest unwarranted bias, here are some of the better efforts out there.
Kanye West: The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella, 2004). Like Ice-T before him he has no fear of breaking taboos and telling the world where to stick it. But whereas the former turned to unenlightened sociologist/philosopher, and saw a duty to rat out even his own kind, West really does see himself as the savior of hip-hop. His arrogance is not in a critique of what ails the world, but in how he can exploit it for his own good. But, like Mick Jaggar, his ego doesn't detract from his talent; it only enhances it. This is the best damn album in a genre that has seen more violence and insanity than any since rock music got started five decades ago. Yes, I know it's dangerous; quite frankly what he advocates will somehow come back to haunt him in his later years, assuming he lives that long. But deny him, you can't. A+
The Fugees: The Score (Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1996). Alternative rap is a sub-genre you don't hear much about, and for good reason. These guys just invented it. They balance gangsta rap with a world-vision humanitarianism. This is poetry with an attitude. Killing Me Softly and No Woman, No Cry aren't just covers, they're reinventions the likes of which the original artists would have been proud of, and in the case of the former, impossible for Flack to even create. In a genre that sings praises to the dopest of the flyist and more often than not ignores underlying root causes of the plight that besets its own artists, their triumph is considerable. That they managed to pull it off is a credit to their vision and courage. A
P.M. Dawn: The Bliss Album . . . ? (Gee Street, 1993). Is this rap light or light rap? Following up on the heals of their very fine Of the Heart, Of the Soul, and of the Cross, this album takes their caramel flavored rhythms and soul-searching lyrics to the next level. Its simplicity and, yes, sincerity, hook you in like no other music of its kind. Prince Be is one part Lionel Richie, one part Otis Redding, one part Brian Wilson. In other words he croons, but with soul and pop smarts. I'd Die Without You is a classic that lesser men would fall flat on their pretensions trying to copy. Dismiss them and you'll regret it. They're good for you. A
Ice-T: O.G. Original Gangster (Sire/Warner Bros., 1991). Gangster my ass. This guy's about as dangerous as the weather man telling you there's a hurricane coming. His humor - and by humor I mean sick humor - is matched only by his ability to play it hard and mean. He knows where he comes from, and his dislike for the hypocrites who preach the golden rule is genuine. When he scoffs "Imagine that, me working at Mickey Dee's," he's reading the riot act to any and all who still don't get it that down by his neck of the woods a "nigga" can make more in an hour selling than working all week at a straight job. And for those who would just like him to go away, his self prophetic line from the song New Jack Hustler is haunting: "They'll be another one after me." A
Notorious B.I.G.: Life After Death (Bad Boy, 1997). In the end he got what was coming to him. Songs like Somebody's Gotta Die and You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Kills You) proved to be more than just portending doom becoming reality; for him it was a way of life that he could never escape. But there was so much more to Biggie Smalls than mere death. For in his brief life the hope this ex-dope dealer had, first for his kids, then perhaps for us all, survived him. He was, if nothing else, warm and funny. He could laugh at himself, too, something most of his contemporaries could learn a thing or two about. He could've been a legend, instead of a footnote. The shame is we'll never know. A
Digable Planets: Rachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (Pendulum, 1993). Eschewing the hardness of hip-hop for the lighter side, this reads like P.M. Dawn with a social conscious. They like their sex, but are respectful of their partner's needs. These rappers turned bohemians dig the spiritual realm like nobody else. And the music, it borrows as much from jazz as it does from R&B. Sort of Charles Mingus meets Curtis Mayfield. They are to hip-hop what The Buffalo Springfield was to rock. A
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Some of the latest crop of albums I've had the pleasure of playing.
Gogol Bordello: Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strikes (Side One Dummy, 2005). Eugene Hutz is a punk in the mold of Bob Mould. Unlike Mould, though, Hutz at least has a sense of humor. Backed by Yuri Lemeshev on accordian and Sergey Ryabtzev on violin, these former Eastern European refugees (Hutz is actually a DJ at a Bulgarian bar in New York) have been the best thing to hit my CD player in months. This wild and eclectic mix is one part gypsy dance music and one part punk - hence the title! But while its style may owe itself to those categories, such as they are, there's so much more to these guys. Ultimately they defy categorization. If you've never heard anything like them before, it's because you haven't. Sort of a Lawrence Welk meets Sid Vicious variety show. Now categorize that! A+
The Go-Betweens: Oceans Apart (Yep Roc, 2005). Calling Robert Forster and Grant McLennan mature singer-songwriters is redundant. They've been maturing for over twenty years. Let's just call this they're most complete and assured album ever. The tandem has grown so much since Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane it's almost unfair to call them the same band. Every song here has its own unique story to tell. And the songs grow on you with each listen. "To know yourself is to be yourself / keeps you walking through these tears," is about as "mature" a lyric as you'll likely find. Charming, yet elusive, they're just troubadours on the road to musical nirvana. What else can they do but follow they're calling? A
John Prine: Fair and Square (Oh Boy, 2005). Some Humans Ain't Human isn't just about the President (yes, John, we know he's an idiot!), it's about a lot of people out there just like you and me. But while many of these songs endear themselves to your heart, including My Darlin' Hometown, and She Is My Everything, the latter proof that there are still guys out there that can write good love songs, the simple fact is he's done better than this. Where is the Lake Marie or Sam Stone? Truth is, a lot of this material seems borrowed from past efforts, which doesn't make this album bad, just not as rewarding as it could've been. B+
Bruce Springsteen: Devils and Dust (Columbia, 2005). If ever there was a case of a major artist in need of a major breakthrough it was our underclass hero. The guy you always rooted for and wondered what happened to finally releases an album worthy of his rep. Not since Tunnel of Love has he enjoyed such heights. Where The Rising saw him mired in his subject, here the songs come to him and the result is a man who's finally comfortable is his own skin again. He's got something to say and a voice to say it. A-
Amy Rigby: Little Fugitive (Signature Sounds, 2005). Nine years, a failed marriage and a new husband haven't dampened her spirits one bit. In fact, she's just as cynical as ever, even when there's nothing to be cynical about - The Trouble With Jeanie. She's still that mod housewife, desperately trying to hold onto a youth that long ago would've alluded lesser and, yes, younger women. Like Rasputin might as well be her theme song. Just when you think she's done, she gets back up off the mat. She's not so much worried about looking old as acting old. Here's hoping she never grows up. A-
Monday, October 17, 2005
Alt-country, that is country that has some blues and or rock-n-roll in it, has always captured my fancy. In light of what passes for country music these days, I thought I'd come up with a list of some of my favorite albums, again in no particular order.
Lucinda Williams: Sweet Old World (Chameleon, 1992). In spite of her pleas to the contrary this is in deed a dark album, full of regrets, violent death and fear of insecurity. But locked within all of those troublesome moments she finds the hope to go on. On Memphis Pearl mom promises her little baby it won't always be like this, even when deep down she knows it will; on He Never Got Enough Love Williams knows what the absence of a loving mother and the presence of an abusive father will do to any child; and on the title track, even in the face of a suicide we can only surmise is someone close to her, she still has the composure to know what was truly lost: "the breath from your own lips, a sweet and tender kiss, the sound of a midnight train, wearing someone's ring, dancing with no shoes, the beat, the rhythm, the blues." Williams gift is that she take us to the edge of despair and bring us back safely. She knows that despite its imperfections this truly is a sweet old world. The fact that we can't always see that is our regret; the fact that she can is her virtue. A
Joe Ely: Honky Tonk Masquerade (MCA, 1978). Like most Texas artists, Ely is pigeonholed. He's too country for rock and too rock for country. With fellow ex-Flatlander Butch Hancock doing the co-writing this is the finest country-rock album since Gilded Palace of Sin. Really, any one interested in what gets played deep in the heart of Texas, would do well to check out not only this entry but his self-titled debut. Ely's music is more Memphis than Nashville, and the result is an album that's more hard-edged and direct than the usual melodic twang that passes for country. With the exception of Willie Nelson no one even comes close. A.
Gram Parsons: Grievous Angel (Reprise, 1974). In which the inventor of alternative country brings it all home, as they say. On GP Parsons' love for country music dulled the delivery. Here, all the walls come down. With Emmylou Harris backing up on vocal, he allows himself the freedom to develop his soulful rock. On Return of the Grievous Angel and Hearts on Fire Parsons and Harris outdo the Parsons/Hillman duo of Christine's Tune and Sin City - no small feat. And if In My Hour of Darkness isn't self prophetic than Love Hurts underscores his worst fears and insecurities. A pity he never lived long enough to appreciate the gift he gave the world; a shame the world still doesn't get it! A
Rosie Flores: After the Farm (Hightone, 1992). Of all the alt-country singers out there, Flores is the closest to pure country there is. Pure country like Loretta Lynne and Merle Haggard, though, which is a comfort here. But Flores borrows as much from Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle, as any of the aforementioned greats. And like her 1987 self-titled debut her husky voice is just what the country doctor ordered. Blue Highway is the best damn non-hit song to come out in decades, while West Texas Plains is pure Nashville, replete with drinking and relationship breakups, everything but the dog dying. Perhaps album three? A-
The Jayhawks: Blue Earth (Twin/Tone, 1989). Calling Mark Olsen and Gary Louris a poor man's Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman is moot at best. Truth is this is best Flying Burritos album since Burrito Deluxe; in fact I'll take this over the former any day for sheer delivery. Since Olsen isn't quite the writer Parsons was, his aim is lower, which is OK by me. This album flows and rocks in a way Hillman used to fight Parsons over way back when. And I prefer Olsen's Baltimore Sun to Parsons' Streets of Baltimore anyway. Not a great album, just a damn good one. A-
John Prine: Sweet Revenge (Atlantic, 1973). Three of the first four songs on this wonderful album are some sort of joke Prine appears to be playing on himself, with Dear Abby the punch line. The odd man out is Christmas in Prison, this year's Sam Stone, about the tortured soul of a prisoner who has all eternity to morn the loss of the woman he loves. "We're rolling, my sweetheart, we're flowing, by God," is about as bleak and gut wrenching as rock-n-roll has ever gotten. And that's Prine's gift, or curse if you will. He is able to empathize with those the rest of us would rather not associate with. In so doing he becomes both the convict and the poor schmuck who gets caught with his girl friend's pants down to her knees all at the same time. Life doesn't get much more surreal than that. A
Friday, October 14, 2005
Throughout the last forty years or so a number of fine albums have been released that are excellent best ofs. While some of these artists/bands have been prolific album producers in their own right, others have been merely content to be singles artists. We won't distinguish here; in fact our hats go off to all of these albums and the artists/bands that produced them.
From earliest to most recent:
Sly & The Family Stone: Greatest Hits (Epic, 1970). From the sublime Dance to the Music to the politically-charged Stand this band had the greatest run of hits over a 24-month period than any band since the Beatles. The rhythms are contagious, as are the lyrics. But what made all of this possible was Sly Stone's vision and commitment to the music. The first truly integrated rock band to front a number one hit in the country, that alone would be history enough. But more than thirty years later they still sound fresh and relevant, well, now, that's just awesome. A+
Al Green: Greatest Hits (Hi, 1975). With the exception of Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, no other African American artist has been able to successfully produce both hit singles and worthwhile albums. Call Me in '73 was one of the decade's best LPs. And while any one serious about getting into him would do well to start there, there is no resisting this collection. It shows Green on top of his game. The man didn't simply rule the R&B airwaves, he destroyed them. And he didn't do too shoddy on top-40 either. He had the soul of Otis Redding, but the savvy of, say, James Brown. That is to say he knew how to take his music out to the masses. And the masses drank up ever last drop. A+
Dolly Parton: The Best of Dolly Parton (RCA Victor,1975). The second Best of in her RCA catalogue, this one captures her at her finest. Porter Wagoner's production is second to none, but the triumph here is both Parton's writing (she writes all but two of the titles) and her singing, which is nothing sort of angelic. Jolene is about the insecurities of a woman who knows she is losing her man and there is nothing she can do to stop it; Coat of many Colors her story of personal poverty transcended into riches; and When I Sing for Him her testimony of a faith that has carried her throughout the years. Country music has never been this good. A+
Creedence Clearwater Revival: Chronicle (Fantasy, 1976). 15 of the 20 songs here went top ten, with five reaching number one. Like the Beatles before them, they not only ruled the top-40 format, but consistently turned out quality albums: Willy and the Poor Boys and Cosmos Factory to name their two finest. John Fogerty's genius is that he managed all of this over a three and half year period. It took the Fab Four six years to do the same. Pound for pound, the greatest American rock and roll band ever. A
Neil Young: Decade (Reprise, 1978). This triple LP (2 CDs) captures a career that remarkably was still developing. At 32 his catalogue was considerable. And while nothing here would make one want to skip over the original albums - start with After the Gold Rush and Tonight's the Night - it's enough evidence of his greatness to give it its due. And as Robert Christgau correctly points out "I'd rather here Ohio, Soldier, Helpless and Long May You Run in this context than in any other." A
Lynyrd Skynyrd: Gold and Platinum (MCA, 1979). The shame here is that in death they became bigger than life. With all but two of their albums essentials, particularly their last, the temptation here is to call this a sampler. But it's much more than that. Like John Fogerty before him, Ronnie Van Zant knew a thing or two about how to make a tuneful record. And while hits weren't their purpose in life, they were, nonetheless, an important part of their success. And unlike the Allmans, they went somewhere with their southern boogie. A
Donna Summer: On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II (Casablanca, 1979). In her own way she was as significant to black music as Aretha Franklin. In-deed, her style borrows more from '60s Motown than, say, Atlantic. Nor can she be merely stereotyped as another disco diva. Maybe that's why out of a genre that included the likes of Gloria Gaynor, Vicki Sue Robinson, and Thelma Houston, Summer's hits have endured the test of time. Check out Bad Girls and compare it to a contemporary song from, say, Toni Braxton or Alicia Keys. A
Bob Marley and the Wailers: Legend (Island, 1984). Anyone who doubted Marley's abilities as a songwriter should know this. With the exception of Stevie Wonder, nobody wrote better, catchier songs in the '70s. From politics to sex to just plain old down home melodies, Marley's range was undeniable. Natty Dread and Burnin' are absolute most owns, but after that this tribute covers all the bases. A
Madonna: The Immaculate Collection (Sire, 1990). Sure, go on, deny that she made a difference. Pretend that she didn't own a decade that was about as diverse, if not more so, than the '60s. Pretend, too, that you weren't listening to that disco mix of Into The Groove or that you weren't watching her videos - especially Papa Don't Preach - and then try and deny that you weren't mesmerized by the woman's sex appeal. Phony, you say? All style and no substance? Give me a break. Sure, she's about as genuine as a two dollar bill. Equally true, take her out of the decade and it collapses in on itself. But that's OK. You can still lie to yourself and say she didn't matter. After all what harm would it do? A+
John Prine: Great Days: The John Prine Anthology (Rhino, 1993). The agony here is that 41 songs and they still haven't nailed it. John Prine, Diamond in the Rough, Sweet Revenge, Common Sense and Storm Windows catalogue a prolific career most songwriters would give their eye teeth to approach. Yet Prine makes it seem so easy. Wise beyond his years and yet never smug about it, his humanity and his humility go hand in hand. Like Dylan, a genius; unlike Dylan, a whole lot friendlier. AGarth Brooks: The Hits (Liberty, 1994). OK, so he's the Billy Joel of country, so what? Only a cynic would deny him his props. And for sheer enjoyment, I'll take Friends in Low Places over Only the Good Die Young any day. At least Brooks seems like he's enjoying his own show; Joel comes off as way too serious for someone with such limited talent. Though I'd much prefer George Strait or John Anderson on sheer principle alone, there isn't anyone out there with as much charisma as this guy. Yes, he's full of himself. So was Little Richard! A
Marshall Crenshaw: This Is Easy: The Best of Marshall Crenshaw (Rhino, 2000). Between 1982 and 1991 Crenshaw was easily the most honest, talented and underappreciated rock-n-roller of his time. Not since Buddy Holly has the world heard such basic, simple and unrelenting music. That he never got a hit single once - especially out of the first two albums - is one of the great injustices of the business that defies all logic. This act of love by a record company known for it's risk-taking is an attempt to set the record straight and maybe right some wrongs in the process. A
De La Soul: Timeless: The Singles Collection (Tommy Boy/Rhino, 2003). If three incredible and two pretty damn good albums haven't provided enough proof that their rap was, well, timeless, nothing will. So what if the choice "single" cuts sound more fulfilling in their original album versions. That's why it's called a singles collection, right? Solution, buy the albums anyway, especially 3 Feet High and Rising. But, if you're like me, this "collection" will serve to illustrate that they are the best hip hop band this side of the Beasties. A+
Sunday, October 09, 2005
It was early 1967. Don Kirshner, producer of the Monkees, was on his way to a meeting with his band to address concerns they had over the release of the single A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You. The band, led by Michael Nesmith, had long desired artistic control over the content of their songs - in deed Kirshner had allowed Nesmith to co-produce some of his own songs and even allowed Peter Tork to play guitar on a couple more.
Kirshner had been in the business for years and was accustomed to dealing with strife. Besides, he was extremely excited over a new song that he had recently gotten a hold of that he believed would be the best Monkee song ever. And that was saying something given the success of Daydream Believer and I'm a Believer. But when Kirshner arrived for his meeting he soon discovered it was an ambush. The meeting lasted less than an hour, and when it was over, Kirshner was canned.
Undaunted, Kirshner put the song on a shelf until such time as he felt he could release it. That time occured in 1969. Kirshner had been asked to produce an annimated TV series for CBS consisting of the fictional Archie Comics. The cast of characters included Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge, Reggie Mantle and Jughead Jones. Kirshner needed a song that would be the theme for the group, but he also needed a band to perform it. Remembering what happened with the Monkees, Kirshner decided he would create the band out of session players and keep their identities secret. That way they could not rebel and demand creative control. He hired Ron Dante and Toni Wine to do all the vocals. Dante was lead singer for the Cufflinks who had a single of their own that year called Tracy. Wine, no stranger to the business herself, co-wrote the smash hit A Groovy Kind of Love for the Mindbenders in 1965.
In the spring of 1969 the session musicians and Dante and Wine entered a studio to record the song written by Jeff Barry and Andy Kim and shelved for almost two years by Kirshner. The song took less than a day to record and was released later that year. It went on to become the best selling hit single of the year, spending four weeks at number one.
The song was Sugar, Sugar.
What Kirshner was able to accomplish was nothing short of ground-breaking. He had single-handedly created a fictional band based on a comic strip, hired non-entities to perform a song that was written by somebody else, and with a minimal amount of effort went on to create a blockbuster hit single that took the country by storm. The record industry, never one to deny a success, or pass up an opportunity to make a buck, took notes. Within a year of it's release, Sugar, Sugar was garnering copycats. Other groups like White Plains and Vanity Fare began emerging and scoring top forty hits of their own. Soon an entire genre had been born. Bubble gum, once thought to be the purview of lesser talent, was now in full vogue, and everyone wanted a piece of the action.
Here is a list of some of my favorite bubble gum songs of the '70s along with some relevent comments.
1. Norman Greenbaum: Spirit in the Sky (1970). The only song in the list written by the artist himself, Greenbaum was the only artist to make both God and dying cool at the same time. Try that sometime. Even Billy Graham would give it it's do.
2. Edison Lighthouse: Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes) (1970). The lead singer, Tony Burrows, who also sang lead on My Baby Loves Lovin' (see #3) and United We Stand (#10), was the ultimate bubblegum session singer. While Ron Dante holds the mantle as the voice of history, Burrows' contribution is insurmountable. Three top 20 hit singles in three months. Only the Beatles had managed to accomplish that feat.
3. White Plains: My Baby Loves Lovin' (1970). This song used to get me in trouble with mom every time I sang it. Oh, and by the way, I sang it quite often!
4. Alive & Kicking: Tighter, Tighter (1970). Co-produced by Tommy James, this was my favorite summer hit of that year. Whenever it came on the radio I immediately stopped what ever I was doing and turned up the volume, much to my parents chagrin.
5. Mark Lindsay: Arizona (1970). While most prefer 1971's Indian Reservation, this is my pick for his best song of the decade.
6. Steam: Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye (1969). Released late in '69 this rather obscure song wound up going all the way to number one. To this day it gets sung in more arenas and ball parks than even Queen's Another One Bites The Dust.
7. Vanity Fare: Hitchin' a Ride (1970). Unlike most of these artists, this group actually had a hit earlier in the year with Early in the Morning. But this would be their moniker.
8. Daddy Dewdrop: Chick-a-Boom (Don't Ya Jes' Love It) (1971). A song about a guy going after a naked girl. Now that's rock-n-roll.
9. Gallery: Nice To Be With You (1972). There are few songs that hold so much personal joy for me as a kid as this song. I couldn't stop playing it.
10. The Brotherhood of Man: United We Stand (1970). Even as a 9-year old I dug the meaning of this song. Though written as a love song, it could just as well have been about mankind.
Well that's my top 10. Perhaps later I'll put up another ten songs.
Bye, for now.
Thursday, October 06, 2005
I know it's a little early for Thanksgiving, but here are some turkeys fit for the oven.
U2: How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope, 2004). Having proven he's the Bob Geldof of the '90s, Bono now sets his sights on another over the top icon - Sting: another entity who hasn't had anything relevant to say in over a decade. I know rock bands can get carried away with themselves, but these guys haven't made any waves since Rattle and Hum and that was a live performance! C+
Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Greendale (Reprise, 2003). I saw Young perform this claptrap at Jones Beach. Dull, long, and insipid are words you usually don't associate with him, until, that is, you have to endure this. C-
Ryan Adams: Gold (Lost Highway, 2001). I was betting that New York, New York was his 9/11 tribute until I learned it was recorded before the event. No matter how many Gram Parsons and Bob Dylan comparisons I keep hearing about this guy, all I keep coming back to is Jackson Browne in the early '70s: boring and full of himself. Play Highway '61 Revisited or Grievous Angel and you tell me. Significance that's mass produced for consumption always spells the same: pretentious. C-
Bruce Springsteen: The Rising (Columbia, 2002). It's hard not to like this guy; his heart is in the right place. And unlike so many of his modern-day contemporaries in their 40s or 50s (Sting, for example) you actually want the guy to succeed. But like so many do-gooders, Springsteen gets lost in his subject. Into the Fire is predictable. The heroes of 9/11 (the cops, the firemen) are suppose to give us faith and hope for a better tomorrow. Truthful? Maybe. Good art? Not really. C
The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree (4AD, 2005). After two fairly impressive albums, John Darnielle was due for a let down, but I never suspected a melt down. It's not like he's the first artist to use music as therapy - indeed most great art delves into pain - but Darnielle doesn't go anywhere with it. He's trapped in his pain and no matter how defiant words like "I will make it through this year if it kills me" may sound, you're just not sold. This is one patient who should've sued his therapist. B-
Shelby Lynne: Love, Shelby (Island, 2001). Great looks, great tits and great legs can take you so far, the rest is up to talent. C-
Brian Wilson: Smile (Nonesuch, 2004). This isn't nearly bad enough to merit mention in a turkey shoot, but with all the hoopla surrounding it - not to mention the 37-year wait we've had to endure while Wilson fiddled with it just getting it right - it deserves mention as the single most overdone and under-delivered album of the last few years. None of these songs - most of which have sounded better in earlier renditions - improve with age in spite of Wilson's dickering. His voice, long ago lost into the void, seems overmatched for the material any way. And no matter how many '60s gurus insist that this is the great lost Beach Boys album, I'll pass. B
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
Amy Rigby: Diary of a Mod Housewife (Koch, 1996). Rigby isn't merely some 37 year old retread with an ax to grind over a husband who doesn't appreciate her. She's a brilliantly honest 37 year old retread with an ax to grind over a husband who doesn't appreciate her. She's got balls, too, and the wisdom to use them. When she asks old hubby those 20 Questions, she's already got the answers. But lest you think her ax is tilted only toward her partner, I've got news for you, it's not. Time For Me To Come Down and Sad Tale show at least a capacity for introspection lesser artists would frown upon. And when she's not too busy trying to save her marriage, Knapsack becomes her ticket to a fantasy world where the guy in the bookstore notices her and she notices back. A
Rosanne Cash: Interiors (Columbia, 1990). I've been a fan of Cash ever since 1985's Rhythm and Romance. Here she fires producer-husband Rodney Crowell and flies solo. Even writes all her own material. The result is an album that exceeds the sum of its parts. She's her daddy's girl and like dear old dad she enunciates the pain in her soul like few artists can. On the Surface documents a troubled marriage that within a year would be over, while Dance With The Tiger deals with her own demons. Bittersweet, but still hopeful. A
Friday, September 23, 2005
Here are some incredible, yet politically left-leaning, albums of note worthiness.
Husker Du: Flip Your Wig (SST, 1985). Calling Bob Mould angry is like calling the ocean damp. In fact, he's mad as hell. Divide and Conquer might just be the best rock anthem since Won't Get Fooled Again. Together with partner Grant Hart, they write songs that are terse -though not nearly as much as Zen Arcade - and at the same time sonically challenging to the senses. But they've got a softer side. Green Eyes might be the weirdest, sincerest love song of the age. A
Mekons: OOOH! (Quarterstick, 2002). If this isn't the anti 9/11 tribute record then Karl Marx was a Republican. It's also their darkest album since Fear and Whiskey. They also haven't lost any of their country influences, though here that's hardly relevant. They are as obsessed with the treachery of the government and society's old ills as ever. Thee Olde Trip To Jerusalem is another reminder that they ain't buying the SOP that seems to serve the common folk so well. This Way Through the Fire is their warning. They're not hungry, thirsty, weary or alone. They're just aging missionaries looking for a safe shore to land on. Going on 25 years and they still have more to say than any one else still standing. A+
The Housemartins: London 0, Hull 4 (Elektra, 1986). When Paul Heaton says, "Don't shoot someone tomorrow that you can shoot today," he's not just whistlin' Dixie, or Piccadilly Square for that matter. These guys take their Marxist Christianity (or whatever else you care to call it) seriously. From the Queen to fence sitters, they pull no punches and hide no contempt. Call them the Left's version of the Beatles. Power pop for the masses. Original grade A- A.
The Minutemen: 3-Way Tie (for Last) (SST, 1985). Like Lynyrd Skynyrd before them, their best was, well, their last. D. Boon never sounded so good, or so well defined. Yes, they were a little too utopian at times as The Price of Paradise and The Big Stick attest, but theirs was a just world, where might was right, er, left and people everywhere lived together in harmony. You wanted to believe Boon when he said that if war isn't what we were all about then someone would eventually "get the peace train back on its track." Naive, yes, but still words to live by. A
Thursday, September 22, 2005
Van Morrision: Moondance (Warner Bros., 1970). Where Astral Weeks was, well, aloof, this becomes his coming out record of sorts. Face it, he's a long way from Brown Eyed Girl. For an Irish R&B singer, he's got more soul than most of the black artists he portends to worship. And there's more spirituality here than in most of the gospel albums you're likely to find. Catchy, rhythmic, and with an eye toward the pop audience, many of whom will probably not be able to appreciate its subtler nuances, and will likely throw it in along with the rest of the "soft rock" pretenders. Their loss. A+
The Who: Who's Next (MCA, 1971). If Exile on Main Street is the best rock-n-roll album and London Calling the best punk, then this is, flat out, the best straight ahead rock album of all time. Historically, they were the first true punks - nothing like Led Zeppelin. And they were politically savvy, to boot. "Meet the new boss ... same as the old boss," is as enlightened as it gets in rock. In their prime, there was nothing like them. A+
Neil Young: Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise, 1979). What's amazing here isn't so much that Young released this gem after more than a dozen years, or that he's made three other significant albums during the decade. That would be amazing enough for most rockers. No, what's truly amazing is how little impact the last dozen years have had on his spirit. And by that I mean negative impact. Not only does this album find him indelibly defiant - "it's better to burn out, than to fade away" - but he's developed a sense of humor that was missing from Tonight's the Night and After the Gold Rush! How else to describe a verse like "welfare mothers make better lovers?" Even manages to make it sound like he has first-hand knowledge! A+
Liz Phair (Capitol, 2003). Accusing Phair of selling out and going pop would be like accusing the Mona Lisa of going vogue. While this may be the antithesis of Exile in Guyville in style, in essence it's remarkably similar, if not more refined. The secret to Phair is her sexuality. Adept at knowing just how far to push the envelope, she's no mere flirt. She's still the same indulgent incorrigible at 36 that she was at 26. And her ego hasn't gotten any smaller, if anything it's grown with her celebrity. Mature and cocky. She's smart enough to know she's a woman in a male-dominated industry, but smug enough to believe it shouldn't matter. And when she boldly announces on Extraordinary that she is an "average everyday sane psycho supergoddess," she isn't mincing words. It's the reason for her success. A+
Monday, September 19, 2005
21. Various Artists: The Roots of Rock 'n' Roll 1946-1954 (Hip-O, 2004). Before there was such a thing as rock-n-roll, there was this. Artists like Lionel Hampton, Ivory Joe Hunter, Louis Jordon, Hank Williams and Tennessee Ernie Ford played boogie beat jump blues and honky tonk. Early versions of That's All Right, Mama, Hound Dog, Kansas City, and The Hucklebuck bring one back to what it must have been like before the days of Alan Freed. If you're interested in a history lesson or if you just want to hear some great and, sadly, unappreciated music, this 3-disc set is a must. A+
22. Robert Cray Band: Strong Persuader (Mercury, 1986). Cray isn't the first professional bluesman to make an impressive album. Check out Live in Cook County Jail, for starters. Other blues greats like Ivory Joe Hunter and Howlin' Wolf likewise held the mantle. What separates Cray is his ability to bridge the gap between blues and rock and not just make something out of it; but in fact to blow away his peers. On his best day, B.B. King couldn't touch him. And he's a damn fine singer to boot, something only King could come close to in his prime. At 33, he's the best there is, and this is his finest moment. A+
23. PJ Harvey: Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Island, 2000). After almost a decade of making arguably the most challenging and thought-provoking music of any artist since the Velvet Underground, she releases her own Sgt. Pepper's as it were. The lyrics, once murky are now fully lucid; the tunes are straight up rock-n-roll. The result, a PJ Harvey album you can love as well as appreciate. A+
24. Joe Cocker: Joe Cocker! (A&M, 1969). He sings like Ray Charles and looks like an escaped mental patient. At 23, he's the best rock interpreter ever. Credit Leon Russell's production. Also the songs are great. Hitchcock Railway is my personal favorite. A+
25. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (Def Jam, 1988). The forefathers, if you will, of hip-hop, Chuck D and Flavor-Flav set out to dis everything within earshot of them: blacks, the record industry, daytime radio, everybody but themselves. And therein lies the catch. Don't Believe the Hype isn't merely a call to arms, it's self-prophetic. Like every other rocker before him Chuck is both misunderstood, but also revels in the misunderstanding. By that I mean he gets off on it. And like most great rock-n-roll it shoots right through you and over you. Relentless and great! A+
11. The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol, 1967). It's impossible to imagine what the '60s would've been like without this album. Where Rubber Soul and Revolver leave off, this takes the gauntlet and runs all the way to the finish line. And while I sometimes prefer the hard-edged rock of Abbey Road, there's no denying the ebb and flow of this: their signature album. A+
12. Sly and the Family Stone: There's a Riot Goin' On (Epic, 1971). In the late '60s Sly made his bones as front man for the best rock-n-roll band this side of Creedence (See Greatest Hits 1970). Here he descends into the despair of the ghetto and turns that despair in on itself. Bleak and desperate with no hope. The light at the end of the tunnel is in fact a train, and he knows it. But rather than run away from its pessimism, Riot runs straight toward it with defiance. Bitter, but courageous. A+
13. Derek and the Dominos: Layla (Atco, 1970). The genius here is not in Clapton's guitar playing, which historically has always been a little over the top. No, what cinches this extraordinary album is the ego-deflating of our resident hero, who's ego could always use deflating anyway. With Duane Allman on slide, the duo complement each other like no other tandem in rock history and for one shining moment art subsumes commerce. The crescendo is the title track about an affair Clapton had with the wife of best friend George Harrison. A+
14. Marshall Crenshaw: Field Day (Warner Bros., 1983). Crenshaw is a hopeless romantic caught in a musical time warp somewhere between Buddy Holly and Phil Spector. His voice is genuine, his lyrics never pretentious, and the melodies tight. Then why doesn't this guy get airtime? Simple, he's genuine and unpretentious. He refuses to compromise his integrity as an artist. As a result Whenever You're on My Mind is the finest rock-n-roll song you'll likely not here on your F.M. dial. A damn shame. A+
15. Joni Mitchell: For the Roses (Asylum, 1972). Somewhere between the jazziness of Blue and the pop-smartness of Court and Spark, this gem almost goes unnoticed. Mitchell is that rarest of sights: a strong woman in a man's world who won't reduce herself to industry expectations just to get a hit. Instead Mitchell ventures beyond those boundaries. Politically left-leaning of course, but introspective. Her failed loves are heart-warming as are her cynical, yet ultimately practical, views of the world she lives in. Her eloquent and husky, but still all too feminine, voice is matched brilliantly to these tunes. Overall, her finest effort. A+
16. The Replacements: Let It Be (Twin/Tone, 1984). The best of the indie groups to emerge out of obscurity and set the tempo for the decade, this Minneapolis-based garage band hit their stride here. Spare on principles but long on attitude these guys waste no time stating what they like and don't like, such as androgyny (the former) and answering machines (the latter). The well-crafted I Will Dare is as close as they come to realizing a hit, which for these guys would be heresy. A+
17. James Blood Ulmer: Odyssey (Columbia, 1983). What to make of this music? It's equal parts funk, blues and jazz, and yet it is none of the above. Calling it fusion would do insult to the term. Simply, what Ulmer has done here is unique. He has taken the minimalist approach and recrafted it for his own intentions. Using the violin as lead allows him to showcase his guitar more effectively. It also hides brilliantly the fact there's no bass. Love Dance and Are You Glad To Be in America? (the former an instrumental free-for-all, the latter the most rhetorical question in popdum) are the best moments on this truly remarkable album. A+
18. Tricky: Maxinquaye (Island, 1995). This slow-mo British hip-hopper's obsession with lust is as accomplished as it is seductive. Hypnotic, its throbbing backbeats and sexual overtones roll over and over you until you cry uncle. Brand New You're Retro is pure hip-hop, angry and relentless, while the lead track Overcome comes off as some LSD trip where the listener lands safely on another planet. A+
19. The Grateful Dead: Live/Dead (Warner Bros., 1969). Eschewing my general contempt for live albums, I not only give this one a nod, I bow to its greatness. Unlike most bands, they not only thrived on the road, for them it was home. Hence this is not only easily their best, but it is among the finest albums ever recorded. And check out the 23 minute anthem opener Dark Star followed by the equally impressive St. Stephen. Live don't get no better than this. A+
20. Freedy Johnston: Can You Fly (Bar/None, 1992). Turning tragedy into peace and confusion into control, Johnston pulls the proverbial artistic rabbit out of the hat. His brilliance is as profound as the repressed rage on the lyrics of the tortured song Responsible about the death of his little girl. "The streets are slick with dew and motor oil/A girl walks in and out of the morning sun/A barred window reflects the cloudless sky/No blue reaches those eyes." But Johnston isn't lost in his grief. In fact, he transcends it. Also has a sense of humor too. On the opening track he admits he had to sell the farm just to "feed the band." You wait for the punch line until you realize you just heard it. Haunting but uplifting at the same time, the way good art should be. A+
To Be Continued . . .
Bye for now!
Sunday, September 18, 2005
Music has always held a special place in my heart. As a kid growing up in the '60s and '70s, I was exposed to a vast array of genres, from R&B and soul, to rock, to country, to folk, all the way to bubble gum. It mattered not who or what I was listening to. If it was good, I listened to it. My radio was my friend and it went everywhere with me. Artists like Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, the Stones, the Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson, Al Green, the Doors, the Beatles, the Stylistics all made their way to my eardrums on a daily basis. And later, as I grew up, I developed a fondness for singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Van Morrision, John Prine, Stevie Wonder and Neil Young. Like many teenagers I went through my rock faze. Groups like Jethro Tull, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Kansas and Boston were among the favs. Today only the Dead and the Who remain on that list; the others dropping mercifully into oblivion.
Since I was born in 1961 I had the rather unique position of being too young to get into the rock scene that was happening in the late '60s. Instead I went the top 40 route, so I was completely comfortable listening to either Tommy James or the Archies, being all of eight when the latter hit the charts with Sugar, Sugar. Today, it's still a guilty pleasure of mine.
Because of my age I was spared much of the stigmatizing thought processes that afflicted kids only a few years my senior. I was too young to know what was cool and what wasn't. As such, I had but one rule when it came to music: if it had a hole in it, it made its way to my turntable.
The late '70s brought a mix of disco, punk, funk and, yes, album-oriented rock. Again the same rules applied. Every body had an equal chance. Artists like Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, the Trammps, Parliament, the Ramones, Elvis Costello, Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac were wearing out my speakers. And still I craved more. I was a music junkie by the time I was 18.
The '80s saw the wheels come off the car so to speak. It was for me what some have said about the '60s. Ska, independents (Indies for short), Rap, New Wave, alt-country. I could hardly contain myself. What Nixon had done for and to the '60s, Reagan was doing for and to the '80s. In many ways it would be the last bastion of democracy (if there ever was such a thing) in popular music.
Critics like Robert Christgau shaped my opinions of most of the contemporary music I was listening to and devouring. By the mid-'80s I was buying about a hundred plus albums a year. By decade's end I would amass over a thousand LPs.
Clearly a grading system of some sort was needed to catalogue and separate the truly great albums in my collection from the merely good ones. Reading Christgau gave me a reference point that was consistent and reliable. I found myself, for the most part, agreeing with his evaluations, and on those rare occasions when I did disagree I could at least know why and be at peace with it.
Throughout the '90s I continued to add to my collection. The compact disc made storing albums far easier, and I found that while the sound quality of vinyl still had virtues over its digital counterpart, playing a CD was far more convenient then having to flip over a record.
So now what? Four decades going on five. Almost 2,000 records and CDs later here I am with a blog on rock-n-roll. Whatever shall I do?
Well for starters I thought I'd give you a look see into my collection; a sort of short best of, if you will. Keep in mind these are my personal favorites, feel free to disagree and comment. After all it's a free country, isn't it.
1. The Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones 1972). This is simply the finest rock and roll album of all time, a pop masterpiece. Stones fans may prefer Stick Fingers or Beggar's Banquet, but the secret to this album is how it catches you off guard. You don't get the usual rock anthems they've been noted for, though Tumblin' Dice is certainly close. It's also one of the few albums in my collection that I can enjoy straight through without once thinking of cueing or pausing. A+
2. Miles Davis: A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1971). This isn't so much a jazz record as it is a rock record and you can thank John McLaughlin who for most of this gem outduels Miles. Right Off might be the best side of music ever recorded. Yesternow is mood music for those hip enough to appreciate it. A+
3. Various Artists: The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (Shanachie, 1986). Released the same year as Paul Simon's Graceland, this becomes the roots classic that the genre needed to not only define a decade, but a culture, as well. The rhythms are priceless and timeless. Every one of these songs brings with it a special message that transcends the language barrier that for most of our history kept gems like this from our shores. If you buy just one foreign album, let this be the one. A+
4. Bob Dylan/The Band: The Basement Tapes (Columbia, 1975). Recorded in 1967 at Big Pink in Saugerties, New York, while Dylan was recovering from a broken leg, this former bootleg-only desert island disc ends up defining both careers. It's sharp, politically cutting, and neither have sounded this good, which in light of what both managed to accomplish is quite a statement. "Billion Dollar Bash" is my favorite song here, though any of them could head of mutual best of. A+
5. The Clash: London Calling (Epic, 1980). More than any other album, this reluctant masterpiece ends up defining the whole punk movement. By this point their success had far exceeded their grasp, and soon after their flame burnt out. Compare it to Never Mind the Bollocks and weep. The best double album since Exile on Main Street and just as vital in its own way. A+
6. Al Green: Call Me (Hi, 1973). Almost lost in the whirlwind of bubble gum pop that had come to define top-40 radio in the early '70s, Green was a legend among his peers. While not in the same class as Wonder, he nevertheless took the pop formula to a new height, and ends up in the process out doing his contemporaries like Marvin Gaye and Wilson Pickett. Listen to Here I Am (Come and Take Me) and compare it to Let's Get It On. Top-40 never had it so good! A+
7. Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia, 1984). In which the prodigal son finally stops running and comes home to stay. At 35 he is comfortable in his skin, reassured in his vision of America and not afraid to tell the world about it. Compare this to Born To Run and you can see the evolution. He's tackled every conceivable issue here: friendships - "No Surrender"; relationships - "Bobby Jean"; aging - "Glory Days"; and family - "My Hometown." Even the misunderstood title cut (you should really listen to it, Ronnie) cries out to be taken seriously. He is a popster in the mold of Michael Jackson, but with the spirit of every poet from Dylan on out who came before him. Easily his best effort and among the best of all time! A+
8. Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury, 1998). The product of her youth in Louisiana, Williams defies all attempts at cataloguing her style. A little bit country, a little bit soul, a little bit blues, she transcends all three to come up with not just her most mature album to date, but easily the finest of the singer-songwriter variety. Vulnerable and yet intimate, she lets us into a world that lesser artists could never begin to articulate much less master. Secure in her own fame, but never a prisoner of it, she is living proof that there is still good in the world if you take the time to find it. A+
9. Randy Newman: 12 Songs (Reprise, 1970). Newman has always been that weird comedian whose audience never got the punch line. But then satirists have always had that curse. A smart-ass who loved the lime light and whose caustic style would define him throughout his career, he reaches his apex on Old Kentucky Home, in which the young folks roll on the floor, the little woman brother Gene married gets "whupped" each day, and mama gets kicked down the stairs. But he's all right so he don't care. Just keep them hard times away from his door won't you? A+
10. Iris Dement: My Life (Warner Bros., 1994). She loves her parents, has an abiding respect for those who came before her, and believes in God without feeling compelled to preach about it. In a world of product on demand and genre-specific themes, her's is a refreshing step backward into a time when singer-songwriters dared let us into their worlds. She is troubled, but hopeful; confident, but not arrogant; spirited, without being pretentious. You could almost say she suffers from a bit of the old naiveté, but that only says more about us than her. A gem. Inspirational verse from the title track, "My life, it don't count for nothin'". Not damn likely! A+
Not bad for a top ten.
I'll follow with more as time permits.
For now, though, I'm signing off.