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.


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

It's The End of The World As We Know It, and I Feel Fine!

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-