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

In No Particular Order:

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

5 more worth an A+

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+
Continuation from last entry,

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

Let's Get Started

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.