Sunday, December 31, 2006

As promised the album reviews of 2006, in no particular order.


The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant, 2006). “Stuck Between Stations” has the look and feel of a hit single, and knowing Craig Finn, he could care less. Hits are not what he’s about. Unlike so many other auteurs, whom emote about topics they’ve never even observed, much less experienced, Finn invites us into a world he knows first hand: a world where broken bottles and broken dreams are one in the same. His heroes – the kids, always the kids – struggle, fall and pick themselves up. Like the girl in “You Can Make Him Like You” who dumps her boyfriend when she finally gets tired of his drug use. Strangely depressing and uplifting at the same time, but what else could you expect from someone who stole the title of his album from a Jack Kerouac line? A-

The Gothic Archies: The Tragic Treasury: Songs From a Series of Unfortunate Events (Nonesuch, 2006). From the sublime to the ridiculous, Stephin Merritt has finally found someone more morbid than he. And the results speak for themselves. Merritt’s monotonous baritone complements the creepy writing of Lemony Snicket, who also plays accordion, brilliantly. 11 year olds may not be hip to the dreariness that lies within these songs, but my guess is most everybody else of consenting age will. Just check out some of the titles: “Scream and Runaway,” “The World is a Very Scary Place,” “Smile! No One Cares How You Feel,” and my personal favorite “Walking My Gargoyle.” Clearly, these “children’s” songs are not for the faint of heart, nor for anyone else who takes Merritt’s deadpan voice too seriously. Sweet dreams! A-

Maria Muldaur: Heart of Mine: Love Songs of Bob Dylan (Telarc, 2006). He’s been covered by The Byrds and gulp Olivia Newton John – quite a dichotomy! So, what’s so different and special about this effort? Well for one thing Muldaur isn’t trying to reinvent the songs; like the good interpreter she is, she allows the songs to come to her. What she does add to them is a mix of soul and blues to the world folk that Dylan invented. And because Dylan wasn’t merely a folkie his material is wide open for just about anyone with the heart and ear to grab it. In deed his greatest accomplishment was his ability to transcend the popular music scene altogether, and in so doing redefine for a whole generation what being an artist was truly about. Muldaur clearly gets it, too. Her love for the songs is surpassed only by her brilliant delivery of them. And you can tell she also loves the artist, too, a critical element to the success of any interpreter. A

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Top Albums of 2006 (1st go around)

Like I really need to say this. This list will be updated at some point during the next few weeks, as is my prerogative as a critic.
One change in format from last year: the A albums are in bold to separate them from the pack. As was the case last year I will follow with the long, overdue reviews of these albums over the next few weeks.

1. Bob Dylan: Modern Times (Columbia)
2. Ghostface Killah: Fishscale (Def Jam)
3. The Klezmatics: Wonder Wheel (JMG)
4. Tom Waits: Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards (Anti)
5. Rosanne Cash: Black Cadillac (Capitol)
6. The Streets: The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living (Vice/Atlantic)
7. Joanna Newsom: Ys (Drag City)
8. Outkast: Idlewild (LeFace)
9. Todd Snider: The Devil You Know (New Door)
10. Maria Muldaur: Heart of Mine: Love Songs of Bob Dylan (Telarc)
11. The Coup: Pick a Bigger Weapon (Epitaph)
12. Dr. John: Right Place, Right Time (Hyenna)
13. Wussy: Funeral Dress (Shake It)
14. Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars: Carnival Conspiracy (Piranha)
15. The Gothic Archies: The Tragic Treasury: Songs From a Series of Unfortunate Events (Nonesuch)
16. Crunk Hits, Vol 2 (TVT)
17. Jesus H. Christ and the Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse (
18. Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I am, That’s What I’m Not (Domino)
19. Toumani Diabates Symmetric Orchestra: Boulevard de I’Independence (Nonesuch)
20. The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant)
21. Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins: Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love)
22. Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador)
23. Belle & Sebastian: The Life Pursuit (Matador)
24. Kimya Dawson: Remember That I Love You (K)
25. Rhett Miller: The Believer (Verve Forecast)
26. Gnarls Barkley: St. Elsewhere (Downtown)
27. Beck: The Information (Interscope)
28. The Rapture: Pieces of the People We Love (Motown/Vertigo)
29. Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti)
30. Rominca Puceanu & the Gore Brothers: Sounds From a Bygone Age, Vol 2 (Asphalt Tango)
31. Sonic Youth: Rather Ripped (Geffen)
32. The Handsome Family: Last Days of Wonder (Carrot Top)
33. The Go-Betweens: That Striped Sunlight Sound (Yep Roc)
34. Grandaddy: Just Like the Fambly Cat (V2)
35. Sir Douglas Quintet: Live From Austin, Tx (New West)
36. Public Enemy: Rebirth of a Nation (Guerrilla Funk)
37. Tom Ze: Estudando O Pagode (Luka Bop)
38. The Strokes: First Impressions of Earth (RCA)
39. Pink: I'm Not Dead (LeFace/Zomba)
40. Thunderbirds Are Now!: Make History (Frenchkiss)

Sunday, September 10, 2006



The following reviews are dedicated to Robert Christgau, who last week was “fired” by The Village Voice as part of a “restructuring.” For 37 years he inspired countless rock lovers and would-be critics with his wit and a painfully honest style of writing. Now he’s a free agent, a casualty of an industry that long ago stopped giving a shit about rock-n-roll.

Good luck, Robert. We will never forget your contributions, commitment or your passion.

Todd Snider: The Devil You Know (New Door, 2006). That Snider has become a troubadour of the underclass is a given; that he’s managed to develop into a substantial artist capable of transcending his art into a competent product and a vehicle that continues to draw new fans to him is the best damn news musically to hit the industry in years. What made East Nashville Skyline unique and great was Snider’s ability to be both funny and evoke rage at the same time. While it would be difficult for anyone to duplicate such an accomplishment, this comes damn close. My favorite song is “Looking For A Job,” about a worker who doesn’t take any shit. In the ‘70s John Prine tried his hand at this; but while Prine’s vision of Americana was definitely blue collar he never had the stomach or inclination to tackle politics. Snider could care less. He seems to revel in letting the world know where they can stick it. That the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer irks him big time. He hates Bush, the religious right and any asshole who can’t see his logic. My kind of guy! A.

The Streets: The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living (Vice/Atlantic, 2006). An English hip-hop artist? Yeah, right. And then I listened carefully. Yeah, you’re damn right! Don’t let the accent fool you. Mike Skinner’s about as vacant and incorrigible as Kanye West. It’s about his women (how many he can get) and his drugs (how much he can buy). Check out “When You Wasn’t Famous,” in which he rhetorically asks, "How the hell am I supposed to be able to do a line in front of complete strangers when I know they've all got camera phones?" The lone exception to his debauchery is “Never Went To Church,” a tearful goodbye to his dad that evokes a rare glimpse into his softer side. Laugh at him if you must; deny him you can’t. A

Bob Dylan: Modern Times (Columbia, 2006). Even if you don’t buy the latter-day trilogy explanation – you know Time Out of Mind is Bringing It All Back Home; Love and Theft is Highway ’61 Revisited; and of course this is Blonde on Blonde – and I certainly don’t, there’s no escaping the fact that no other pop artist in the “modern” era has enjoyed such a reincarnation. To deny this, his latest masterpiece would be criminally stupid. Not only hasn’t he lost his ability to paint lyrical landscapes like no other poet of his time, if anything his pen has gotten sharper. There’s even a scant trace of his spiritual past in songs like “Spirit on the Water.” I always knew he would one day reconcile that period of his career. Since utopian optimism was never part of his meter, it is refreshing to hear him finally come to peace with his genius. Don’t make the mistake of comparing it to his earlier work; instead enjoy its country blues and rockabilly the way it was meant – on its own merits. A great album. A+

The Klezmatics: Wonder Wheel: Lyrics by Woody Guthrie (JMG, 2006). Like the Billy Bragg and Wilco compilations of a decade ago, these ageless poems, uncovered by Nora Guthrie, and put to music marvelously by Frank London reveal yet another chapter in the life of an iconic figure. Guthrie’s politics were legendary, but little was known of his spiritual roots until this act of love came along. Lorin Sklamberg’s vocals – among the finest ever, be they Yiddish or English – are the key here. Aided ably by Susan McKeown, the two feed off each other brilliantly. Though sung in English, the style is all klezmer; that is it lends itself to an Eastern European flavor steeped in the Yiddish folk tradition. A remarkable accomplishment that was seven years in the making. Clearly it was well worth the wait. A.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


The Go-Betweens: That Striped Sunlight Sound (Yep Roc, 2006). It portends Street Survivors if for no other reason than the timing (released four months prior to Grant’s passing). And like Lynyrd Skynyrd before them there is a cruel irony that gets played out here in that anyone who missed the boat the first time around now gets a chance to catch up and appreciate them for what they were: the wittiest and most prolific pair of popsters this side of Liverpool. The bonus DVD adds a special touch – check out the last interview with McLennan in which he comments on their future as a band. Their like will not soon be duplicated. A-

Jenny Lewis With the Watson Twins: Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love, 2006). Fronting Rilo Kiley was easy for Lewis. She was the ultimate indie wet dream: hot, sexy, fearless, and with a tight band behind her. Flying solo is another thing. Her voice, not exactly her strongest asset, blossoms nicely here. It’s a cross between country-folk and R&B, and with Chandra and Leigh Watson helping out on harmonies, the result is an album that’s enjoyable and enchanting all at the same time. Yes, she still can’t resist telling us how bad she’s been “fucked up,” but I suspect her mourning days will soon be coming to an end. A-

Saturday, July 08, 2006

A Quiet Heart

“It doesn't matter how far you've come
You've always got further to go.”

- Grant McLennan

Some deaths are tragic: Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Ronnie Van Zant, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Some are inevitable: Frankie Lymon, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and, later, Kurt Cobain. Then there are those deaths that seem strangely poetic in there happenstance, as though orchestrated by the gods, neither inevitable nor tragic, just matter of fact.

At the age of 48 Grant McLennan was seemingly at the apex of a career that had already once been reinvented. The six albums he and his partner Robert Forster had put out in the 1980s as the leaders of The Go-Betweens had done more than just deliver some of the wittiest and most mature songwriting of the decade; they single-handedly were responsible for creating a whole new genre of music that is now referred to as adult alternative. Groups like Belle and Sebastian, Luna, and even Yo La Tengo were quick to adopt elements of their style; a style that to this day still defies categorization. The band broke up in 1989 and both McLennan and Forster released notable, if somewhat inconsistent, albums throughout the 1990s.

In 2000 the band reformed, and it was during this period that McLennan’s song-craft soared to new heights. The two partners complemented each other as never before: Forster the more methodical and analytical paragon of reason, McLennan the hope-less but more often than not hope-filled romantic. It was a singer / songwriter partnership seldom seen in music – a latter day Lennon / McCartney, if you will. Somehow without Amanda Brown, whose backing vocals on Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane – easily the Go-Betweens most commercially successful albums of the ‘80s - left an indelible if charming impact, the nakedness and vulnerability of the songs took on even greater prominence. 2005’s Oceans Apart was their crowning achievement as a tandem. In less than a year it had outsold all of their previous albums and had earned the band an Australian Grammy as best Adult Contemporary group.

Life could not have been more fulfilling for McLennan who was set to marry his girlfriend, Emma, and settle down in his native Brisbane, when on May 6th of this year he was struck down by a massive heart attack and pronounced dead.

Almost immediately the outcries began: “cruel, untimely, tragic.” But at the risk of sounding, well, sacrilegious, I’m not at all sure I concur with such outpourings, no matter how genuine the sentiment. Not that I’m not saddened by the loss of one of pop music’s most accomplished lyricists, I just choose to celebrate his genius. For it was Grant McLennan’s optimism, his profound sense of modesty, and his passion for life, all of which exuded throughout his music that made him the artist he was. And if that artist left us a bit earlier than he should have, in deed a good deal earlier than we would have preferred, well then at least he left us a whole lot richer for having been down the road.

In the end, I’m left not mourning his loss, but treasuring his accomplishments and contributions. If anything, the man I mourn for is his partner Robert Forster, who after 25 years will somehow have to reinvent a wheel none of us thought would need fixing for quite some time. Partners are hard to come by, especially partners as gifted as Grant McLennan.

Thursday, June 29, 2006


Frank London's Klezmer Brass Allstars: Carnival Conspiracy (Piranha, 2006). The difference between your basic bar mitzvah band and the truly unique world-vision eastern-European Yiddish band the Klezmatics became famous for may be a fine line, but damn if London doesn't skirt it brilliantly. While I confess to being no expert on the history of the music, its Ukrainian folk roots aided by a mix of Brazilian rhythm put this album over the top for me. In deed, I'm thinking it's this years Gogol Bordello. A little less anarchic, but still steeped in the Gypsy tradition. A

Rhett Miller: The Believer (Verve Forecast, 2006). Like Paul Westerberg before him, he finds life in the solo lane to be both liberating and challenging at the same time. Unlike Westerberg, he's up for the challenge. While I still miss the Old 97's, if for no other reason that I still feel a good, tight band is both essential and rare these days, Miller's vocals can front better than most singers in the biz. And lyrically, he's matured quite nicely. In "Help Me, Suzanne" he laments, "I've been living on the memory of a dream I once had." And then he goes on to thank her for helping him find his way out of his despair. He's humble, if nothing else, another rare quality among otherwise talented singer/songwriters. A-

Arctic Monkees: Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (Domino, 2006). Musically, as well as lyrically, Alex Taylor reminds you of Kurt Cobain. There is a definite "Nevermind" connection here I can't quite get out of my head. And, like Nirvana before them, they have a penchant for the sardonic. Check out the lyrics in the "hit" track, "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor." "Your name isn't Rio, but I don't care for sand." But my personal fave is "When the Sun Goes Down," if for no other reason than they poke fun of Sting: "And I've seen him with the girls of the night / and he told Roxanne to put on her red light." Anybody who can jump from Duran Duran to the Police, and who technically wasn't even born when those two groups were around is on to something I want to be a part of. A-

Saturday, June 17, 2006


Taking 4 months off from a hobby that at times seemed more work than delight, I thought it was time to come back and share some insight into some new releases this year. Even hobbyists have to show up for work sometimes!

Kimya Dawson: Remember That I Love You (K, 2006). Calling Dawson an acquired taste seems pointless at this stage. She is now one of the preeminent singer/songwriters of the decade. She's witty, sincere, and a champion of the minimalist school. She also has a way with words. Anyone who can put rhymes like adios, ghost, coast, host and toast in the same song and make them work has my heart. In deed she bares a strange resemblance to another square peg: Stephin Merritt. The cross she bares is the reason she's so beloved, and, while the human in me hopes she finally finds the peace that's been missing from her life, the critic is pulling for more of the same misery. Selfish perhaps, but then I also thought Amy Rigby was better when she was baring her soul from a bathroom stall. A-

Van Morrison: Pay the Devil (Lost Highway, 2006). It isn't that I don't think Van has it in him to go country; it's that he's taken the wrong cue from what country should be. Talk about missed opportunities. He'd have been better off if he had teamed up with Garth Brooks for a benefit album - "Hands Across Nashville" or something. Sure he covers Hank and George - who the hell doesn't these days. But for all his country boy / honky tonk mannerisms, Morrison never convinces you he's the genuine article. You can't talk about the glass unless you've drunk from it. Actually the problem here lies not in the material, but in the handling of it. So far as I know, only one artist in the modern era has successfully crossed over from pop to country and that was Ray Charles. Van, you ain't no Ray Charles! B-.

Dr. John: Right Place, Right Time (Hyena, 2006). Seldom does an album come along that just begs to be played non-stop, especially a live album. This 1989 gig recorded at New Orleans' Tipitina's during Mardi Gras is so unabashedly good, it makes me wish I'd been there to hear it live. My only complaint: it's too damn short. Pick a song, any song. It doesn't matter. The man is in his element - he should never be allowed back in a studio again! If and when New Orleans ever gets back up on its feet, we should all make it a point to here him live down in the Big Easy! A

Wussy: Funeral Dress (Shake It, 2006). If you think that just because Chuck Cleaver is imparting his remarkable falsetto voice that this is supposed to be another Ass Ponys' album, get real. Actually, about the only familiar thing here is Cleaver's voice, but that's where the comparison ends. Joined by Lisa Walker, who complements Cleaver brilliantly, this band is smart and clever the way good groups are supposed to be. Lyrically it's dark, but without getting too morbid, something the Ass Ponys dabbled a bit too much in for my taste. And musically, there's equal parts cowboy twang and bohemian hippy- sort of like the Flying Burrito Brothers meets the Velvet Underground. A near perfect album. A

Monday, May 29, 2006

2005 AT LAST!

OK, so all it took was 5 months to finally come up with a top 40 for 2005.
You think this is easy? You try it!

1. Gogol Bordello: Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike (Side One Dummy).
2. The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara (World Music Network).
3. Thelonious Monk Quartet: Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Blue Note).
4. Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album for the Gulf Coast (Nonesuch).
5. The Go-Betweens: Oceans Apart (Yep Roc).
6. M.I.A.: Arular (Interscope).
7. Kanye West: Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella).
8. Sufjan Stevens: Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty).
9. The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema (Matador).
10. Ani DiFranco: Knuckle Down (Righteous Babe).
11. The Hold Steady: Separation Sunday (Frenchkiss)
12. The White Stripes: Get Behind Me, Satan (V2).
13. Amadou & Miriam: Dimanche a Bamako (Nonesuch).
14. Sleater-Kinney: The Woods (Sub Pop).
15. The Chemical Brothers: Push the Button (Astralwerks).
16. The Perceptionists: Black Dialogue (Def Jux).
17. Clem Snide: End of Love (Spin Art).
18. Lizz Wright: Dreaming Wide Awake (Verve).
19. Bright Eyes: I'm Wide Awake (Saddle Creek).
20. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah).
21. Spoon: Gimmie Fiction (Merge).
22. Amy Rigby: Little Fugitive (Signature Sounds).
23. Cheb I Sabbah: La Kahena (Six Degrees).
24. The Ponys: Celebration Castle (In the Red).
25. Missy Elliott: The Cookbook (Atlantic/Goldmind).
26. Stevie Wonder: A Time To Love (Motown).
27. Bruce Springsteen: Devils and Dust (Columbia).
28. Loudon Wainwright III: Here Come the Choppers (Sovereign Arts).
29. Daby Balde: Introducing Daby Balde (World Music Network).
30. Neil Young: Prairie Wind (Reprise).
31. Fiona Apple: Extraordinary Machine (Epic/Cleanslate).
32. Danger Doom: The Mouse and the Mask (Epitaph).
33. Franz Ferdinand: You Could Have It So Much Better (Domino).
34. James McMurtry: Childish Things (Compadre).
35. Art Brut: Bang Bang Rock & Roll (Banana Recordings).
36. 50 Cent: The Massacre (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope).
37. Wide Right: Sleeping on the Couch (Poptop).
38. Bell Orchestre: Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light (Rough Trade).
39. Four Tet: Everything Ecstatic (Domino).
40. My Morning Jacket: Z (ATO/RCA).

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

In With the New.

Some new music for the new year.

Rosanne Cash: Black Cadillac (Capitol, 2006). With the loss of her step mother and both parents all within the space of two years, this is her loving memorial, if you will. In the title track she laments, "one of us gets to go to heaven, one has to stay here in hell." While in "I Was Watching You," she looks down from heaven at her parents wedding day and then watches their marriage fall apart knowing there's nothing she can do to stop it. As the sole matriarch of a family of tragedies and triumphs she finally comes to grips with her past, and accepts the truth that long after life there's still love; the love of her husband and kids; the love of her daddy who is still watching over her. Her grief is transcended finally by her father's faith. A faith that is now hers to bare. This is her finest album since Interiors, and its courage is as undeniable as it is redemptive. A

Belle & Sebastian: The Life Pursuit (Matador, 2006). The evolution of Stuart Murdoch continues. If their fans thought Dear Catastrophe Waitress was a betrayal of their '60s signature sound, then this year's edition will only rile them further. The departure of Isobel Campbell means it's truly Murdoch's band again, not that that was ever in doubt. While "Another Sunny Day" and "Dress Up In You" are the sentimental favorites here, what sets this album apart from the rest and, maybe, brings them the notoriety they've been looking for, are the risky tunes like "The Blues Are Still Blue" and "White Collar Boy," the former exhibiting traces of '70s glam rock, the latter reminiscent of the Pet Shop Boys. Equal parts diverse and divisive, they prove that those who live in the past die in the past. A-

The Strokes: First Impressions of Earth (RCA, 2006). "I've got nothing to say/I've got nothing to say/I've got nothing to say," Julian Casablancas moans over and over on "Ask Me Anything." But lyrics have never been this band's strong suit anyway; it's always been the hard-edged guitar playing that put them over. After three years they go for a slightly tighter, more rock, less grunge, sound. Contrary to the pundits who keep trying to link them with Franz Ferdinand - absurd if only because Alex Kapranos isn't the singer Casablancas is and the Strokes play harder and more consistent - this sounds strangely reminiscent of U2 circa 1984, only better. In deed on "On the Other Side," Casablancas seems determined to become a Bono clone, with the exception that unlike the former, Casablancas isn't nearly as optimistic about us humans, which means he isn't a utopian. Being the realist I am, I'll take the latter's word for it. A-

Monday, February 13, 2006


Steve Earle: Jerusalem (Artemis, 2002). Even in his earlier days, back when he courted the same audience that Dwight Yoakam and John Anderson used to own, Earle was sort of a rebel rouser. His class-consciousness earned him high praises from rock critics, but down in Nashville he was thought of as a light-weight Joe Ely. His addiction to heroine, combined with a propensity for shooting off his mouth, earned him a reputation as a radical. Jerusalem will certainly do nothing to quell his critics. If anything, with songs like "John Walker's Blues" and the title track, he's more likely to incite them. With a plethora of post 9/11 albums, all seeking to somehow make sense out of senseless violence, Earle's courage comes off as genuine. And even if it does cost him at the cash register - Wal-Mart has threatened not to carry the album - in the end history will be on his side. A.

Todd Snider: East Nashville Skyline (Oh Boy, 2004). America's favorite smart ass is back for more abuse. At 34 he dares call himself an old-timer, and you know what, with the personal battles he's had to endure, he probably is. Anyone who can flip off the moral majority "Conservative Christians" and cover a Guy Lombardo song "Enjoy Yourself" all in the same album is a dude on a serious mission. But what separates Snider from the rest of the pack is how he combines his humor with his anger. Like the troubadour he is, Snider brings his characters to life, and then reduces them to satirical rubble. If Loudon Wainwright came from the South, he might sound like Snider. Then again if Wainwright had hailed from the South, he might not have taken himself so seriously. Imagine, a hippie for the 21st century you can trust. A

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Best of the 1970s: The dawning of the age of the Singer/Songwriter, as well as the rise and fall of Album-Oriented Rock and Disco.

This was the decade that ushered in and out three profound genres. Name me another decade that saw the likes of Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, and the Bee Gees fight over who's stamp would define it better and I'll show you, well, you know what, forget it. There was no other decade like this.

And yet, in many respects, this was a terrible decade for creativity. Save for the Joni Mitchells, the John Prines and the Stevie Wonders, this was a very narrow-minded decade. Unlike, its predecessor (the '60s) and its benefactor (the '80s) the 1970s were as predictable as dirt. No sooner had AOR exploded on the scene in late '69 than it began to fizzle out within a few years; by 1975 it was in its death throws, replaced by the early new wave/punk movement. Disco, too, became of a victim of its own fame. By 1979, it had become the nation's number one trivia joke. And yet there were some marvelous moments in this decade that are as timeless as Richard Nixon sweating on the camera. Behold, I give you a top 40 look at the "Me" decade.

1. The Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones, 1972).
2. Miles Davis: A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1971).
3. Derek and the Dominos: Layla (Atco, 1970).
4. Bob Dylan/The Band: The Basement Tapes(Columbia, 1975).
5. Al Green: Call Me (Hi, 1973).
6. Sly and the Family Stone: There's a Riot Goin' On (Epic, 1971).
7. Randy Newman: 12 Songs (Reprise, 1970).
8. Neil Young: Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise, 1979).
9. Paul Simon: Paul Simon (Columbia, 1972).
10. Television: Marque Moon (Elektra, 1977).
11. Eno: Another Green World (Island, 1976).
12. Joni Mitchell: For the Roses (Asylum, 1972).
13. Van Morrison: Moondance (Warner Bros., 1970)
14. Steely Dan: Pretzel Logic (MCA, 1974).
15. Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia, 1978).
16. The Wild Tchoupitoulas: The Wild Tchoupitoulas (Island, 1976).
17. New York Dolls: In Too Much Too Soon (Mercury, 1974).
18. Rod Stewart: Every Picture Tells a Story (Mercury, 1971).
19. Graham Parker and the Rumour Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista, 1979).
20. The Who: Who's Next (MCA, 1971).
21. Jimmy Cliff, et al: The Harder They Come (Mango, 1973).
22. Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band: Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band (RCA Victor, 1976).
23. Bonnie Raitt: Give It Up (Warner Bros., 1972).
24. John Prine: Sweet Revenge (Atlantic, 1973).
25. Stevie Wonder Innervisions (Tamla, 1973).
26. Bob Marley and the Wailers: Burnin' (Island, 1974).
27. Patti Smith: Horses (Arista, 1975).
28. Gram Parsons: Grievous Angel (Reprise, 1974).
29. Aretha Franklin: Young, Gifted and Black (Atlantic, 1972).
30. The Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros., 1977).
31. James Brown: Sex Machine (King, 1970).
32. The Clash: The Clash (Epic, 1979).
33. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Reprise, 1977).
34. Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire, 1978).
35. Big Star: Radio City (Ardent, 1974).
36. Creedence Clearwater Revival: Cosmos Factory (Fantasy, 1970).
37. Michael Jackson: Off the Wall (Epic, 1979).
38. Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run (Columbia, 1975).
39. Blondie: Parallel Lines (Chrysalis, 1978).
40. John Lennon: Imagine (Apple, 1971).

The Best of the 1980s: Indie Meets Major!

I don't know about you, but I found this to be, overall, the best decade in pop music. It was diverse, transitional, unconventional, and, at the same time, popular. Not since the 1960s has there been such an influx of divergent musical genres and styles. It was tough choosing only 40, but here goes.

1. The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (Shanachie, 1986).
2. The Clash: London Calling (Epic, 1980).
3. Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia, 1984).
4. DeBarge: In a Special Way (Gordy, 1983).
5. Ornette Coleman: Of Human Feelings (Antilles, 1982).
6. Mekons: Fear and Whiskey (Sin import, 1985).
7. Lucinda Williams: Lucinda Williams (Rough Trade, 1988).
8. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (Def Jam, 1988).
9. Prince: Sign O' the Times (Paisley Park, 1987).
10. X: Wild Gift (Slash, 1981).
11. Marshall Crenshaw: Field Day (Warner Bros., 1983).
12. James Blood Ulmer: Odyssey (Columbia, 1983).
13. Franco & Rochereau: Omona Wapi (Shanachie, 1985).
14. Laurie Anderson: Strange Angels (Warner Bros., 1989).
15. The Replacements: Let It Be (Twin/Tone, 1984).
16. Robert Cray Band: Strong Persuader (Mercury, 1986).
17. Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire, 1980).
18. King Sunny Ade & His African Beats: Juju Music (Mango, 1982).
19. Sonny Rollins: G-Man (Milestone, 1987).
20. Elvis Costello: Trust (Columbia, 1981).
21. Beastie Boys: Licensed To Ill (Def Jam, 1986).
22. Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation (Enigma/Blast First, 1988).
23. Aretha Franklin: Who's Zoomin' Who? (Arista, 1985).
24. The Blasters: Non Fiction (Slash, 1983).
25. The English Beat: Wha'ppen (Sire, 1981).
26. Neil Young: Freedom (Reprise, 1989).
27. George Clinton: Computer Games (Capitol, 1982).
28. Husker Du: Flip Your Wig (SST, 1985).
29. Paul Simon: Graceland (Warner Bros., 1986).
30. Remmy Ongala & Orchestre Super Matimila: Songs for the Poor Man (RealWorld, 1989).
31. De La Soul: Three Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy, 1989).
32. Pere Ubu: The Tenament Year (Antone's, 1988).
33. Go-Betweens: Tallulah (Big Time, 1987).
34. Lou Reed: New Sensations (RCA Victor, 1984).
35. Richard and Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal, 1982).
36. Gang of Four: Solid Gold (Warner Bros., 1981).
37. Professor Longhair: Crawfish Fiesta (Alligator, 1980).
38. Ambitious Lovers: Greed (Virgin, 1988).
39. Los Lobos: How Will the Wolf Survive? (Slash, 1984).
40. Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic, 1982). *

* P.S. There could easily have been another 5 or 10 albums I could've put here, but in the end to have denied him his accomplishment would've been flat out wrong.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

2005's Honorable Mention

Picking only 30 albums was difficult. In light of that I thought it only fair to list the albums that would've made it had the list been a top 40.

Fiona Apple: Extraordinary Machine (Epic/Cleanslate).
Danger Doom: The Mouse and the Mask (Epitaph).
Franz Ferdinand: You Could Have It So Much Better (Domino).
James McMurtry: Childish Things (Compadre).
Art Brut: Bang Bang Rock & Roll (Banana Recordings).
The Perceptionists: Black Dialogue (Def Jux).
My Morning Jacket: Z
Bell Orchestre: Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light (Rough Trade).
Wide Right: Sleeping on the Couch (Poptop).
Four Tet: Everything Ecstatic (Domino).

Life is cruel sometimes

Thursday, February 02, 2006


Two albums each from various artists over the last three decades.

R.E.M.: Lifes Rich Pageant (I.R.S., 1986). Not content to leave his lyrics in the dominion of obscurity, Michael Stipe finally enunciates and the result is not only an album that’s covertly political (Murmur), but one that’s overtly political as well. At the same time it’s also their most popular effort. But for all the accolades “Fall on Me” earn them – and they certainly deserve it – it’s the more blunt songs like “These Days” and “The Flowers of Guatemala” that boil my juices. Their socialism is real, as is their ambition, and while this is not quite as potent as their debut, for staying power, it's right up there. A-

R.E.M.: Document (I.R.S., 1987). For the record “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” is the finest song they’ve done, but for most of this “major breakthrough” I find myself wondering what all the fuss is about. Sure “The One I Love” finally puts them on the charts like I’ve always suspected they’ve yearned to be, but too much of this album gets in its own way. I’m forced to admit, I liked them better when I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to say! B+

The Ponys: Laced With Romance (In the Red, 2004). I’ll admit “Let’s Kill Ourselves” is not the best way to start off an album, but if that’s your mantra then I say go for it. Jared Gummere is the most unassuming and, sadly, anemic lead singer in rock these days. But don’t let that distract you. As I recall Tom Verlaine didn’t have the best chops in his day and he did OK. The sound is reminiscent of The Jesus and Mary Chain, only somewhat less focused. As a pet owner, I’m taken by “Little Friends,” a song about their cats who can’t seem to find the litter box. And then there’s the lead in to “Fall In,” that’s lifted directly off the classic Crystal’s song “And Then He Kissed Me” that I hope doesn’t land them in copyright jail. A-

The Ponys: Celebration Castle (In the Red, 2005). Up and comers like Jared Gummere are always overcompensating for what they think others want; it’s the nature of the biz, even for indies. So if this follow-up doesn’t sound as firm / raw as their debut don’t fret. It wasn’t supposed to. They’re pioneers forging their own road. Don’t confuse their softness with a lack of spine. At heart they’re still the same garage band you fell in love with in album one. If anything I find this aims higher, which is fine by me. A-

Ani DiFranco: Not a Pretty Girl (Righteous Babe, 1995). Skirting the line between self-indulgent brat and ideological champion - whatever the hell that means these days – DiFranco has made a career out of deprecating on every part of her body from her face to her toes. But before you pronounce her the next Janis Ian, note that at least DiFranco goes somewhere with her pity. She spews, but she channels as well. Sure it may piss you off to no end that a 24 year old should be that concerned with appearance, but DiFranco is a product of her generation, as well as its spokesperson. Show me a 20 something woman who isn’t overly preoccupied with her looks and I’ll show you Tracy Chapman. A-

Ani DiFranco: Dilate (Righteous Babe, 1996). This is what Alanis Morissette could’ve been if she had stopped whining long enough. Sure, DiFranco is no stranger to pity either, but she transcends such indulgences better than her contemporaries. Here, she is finally comfortable in her own skin. At 25 she has eight albums to her credit and damned if this isn’t the signature breakthrough her fans have been swearing every album would be since she arrived on the scene. The highlights are a seemingly never-ending “Amazing Grace” and “Untouchable Face,” which sports the most cutting “fuck you” in all of popdum. She’s vulnerable and clever, and she has integrity, something a lot of singer/songwriters like her could use. A

Belle & Sebastian: The Boy With the Arab Strap (Matador, 1998). Like Dean Wareham before him, Stuart Murdoch's obsession with the Velvet Underground has earned him high praise from critics the world round. If nothing else, Murdoch sings better than Lou Reed ever did. And Isobel Campbell certainly holds her own against Nico. But its Murdoch's guile and cynicism that set him apart from his predecessors, not to mention his contemporaries. Few artists paint such intriguing, yet caustic, lyrical landscapes. "He had a stroke at the age of 24 / It could've been a brilliant career," is how the opening track starts. And his love affair with strings - "Dirty Dream Number Two" - proves it is possible to successfully merge the guitar with the cello, something the Moody Blues failed miserably at. Beautiful and mystical both at the same time. A

Belle & Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Sanctuary, 2003). The first pass over this album brought skepticism from my already skeptical heart. I smelled sellout, and for a group like this, that could mean the end of everything. After all these guys don't really have a plan B. But when I played it a couple more times, it started to creep up on me. The "lo-fi" sound that served them so well over their first three releases has been replaced with a more uptempo, livelier sound. The lone exception "Asleep on a Sunbeam" a pleasant retreat for old times sake. For those looking to categorize this entry call it The Velvet Underground meets The Left Banke. Original grade A. A-

Tom Waits: Alice (Anti, 2002). Ever since Closing Time, Waits has been trying to recapture the sentimentality he's always desired, while mixing in a bit of his naturally sardonic wit. He's nailed it once - 1983's Swordfishtrombones - and almost had it with 1999's Mule Variations. Trouble is, Waits doesn't pull off sentiment very well; he's about as genuine with a love song as Robert Plant is with a doo-wop tune. True, his wife and co-producer, Kathleen Brennan, whom Waits calls the love of his life, is as much responsible as anyone for his artistic success. Most, if not all, of these songs date back to 1992, the year he released Bone Machine, another aborted attempt to recapture a nostalgic past he can't seem to rid himself of. But that has always been Waits' problem and, when it works, his vehicle. He still loves that "Ol' '55" as much, if not more so, than that girl in "Johnsburg, Illinois." He just can't help himself. His fans may forgive him and allow him that retreat into nostalgia. Me, I like my love songs a little more current. B.

Tom Waits: Blood Money (Anti, 2002). When he isn't penning some of the corniest love songs known to human kind, Waits dabbles in another of his time-honored traditions: despair. The man knows how to crash a party better than anybody I know. Where Alice paints a hopeless romantic lost in a world he doesn't seem to have the courage to blow up, here his sights appear to be less grandiose. He seems so much more comfortable in his own skin with the knowledge that life sucks. And why shouldn't he? He's made a career out of it. No matter how many dedicated devotees swear that Alice is his great, long-awaited, masterpiece, pound for pound, this is a far more consistent album. I'll take his "Misery is the River of the World" any day over his "Poor Edward." A-.

Monday, January 30, 2006

The Best of 2002

The year after 9/11. Yes, the world went on after all!

1. The Mekons: OOOH!
2. DJ Shadow: The Private Press
3. Kimya Dawson: I'm Sorry That Sometimes I'm Mean
4. Northern State: Dying in Stereo
5. Cornershop: Handcream for a Generation
6. Sleater-Kinney: One Beat
7. Orchestra Baobab: Specialist in All Styles
8. Kasey Chambers: Barricades & Brickwalls
9. Spoon: Kill the Moonlight
10. Youssou N'Dour: Nothing's in Vain (Coono du reer)
11. Rhett Miller: The Instigator
12. Johnny Cash: American IV: The Man Comes Around
13. Steve Earle: Jerusalem
14. The Mountain Goats: Tallahassee
15. Tom Waits: Blood Money
16. Mr. Lif: I Phantom
17. Will Rigby: Paradoxaholic
18. Pretty Girls Make Graves: Good Health
19. Luna: Close Cover Before Striking
20. The Bottle Rockets: Songs of Sahm
21. Pretenders: Loose Screw
22. The Reputation: The Reputation
23. The Go-Betweens: Spring Hill Fair
24. Ryan Adams: Demolition
25. The Handsome Family: Live at Schuba's Tavern

Friday, January 27, 2006

An admirer - OK it's me - writes: "Your style is reminiscent of Robert Christgau of the Village Voice. You mentioned his influence early on in your blog. Were there any other critics who impacted your style? More to the point, why was it so necessary to "borrow" from them in the first place?"

Actually the first critic that I remember reading was Wayne Robbins in Newsday during the late '70s. For the first time I was introduced to music I had never heard before from artists such as Television, the Talking Heads, and Elvis Costello. I was fascinated that any one was actually writing about contemporary rock music in such an insightful way. I learned so much from reading these reviews that it made me hungry for more.

I stumbled on to Robert Christgau quite by accident. I picked up an issue of The Village Voice one day in February 1982, and read the annual "Pazz and Jop" critics poll. All of a sudden there were all these different types of music that I had never considered. I couldn't put it down; I easily devoured the whole issue. Later on that year I bought Christgau's book on '70s rock albums and the race was on. Between reading his reviews on '70s music and reading his monthly consumer guide, I dare say I ran through half my weekly paycheck just keeping up with buying records. I averaged about 90 plus LPs a year for the next 8 years.

Christgau was like no other critic in that he skirted the line between fan and objective observer better than any body out there. He was passionate about music but careful not to let it cloud his judgment, something that, sadly, most critics fail miserably at. In the 20 plus years that I have been reading him I have never found any one else who is as consistent, unbiased, and reliable as he is. If I approach 50% of what he has attained during the last 38 years, I will consider myself fortunate.

As for borrowing from him or others, I believe we all borrow from others to some extent. There has always been a love/hate relationship between Americans and critics. People love to read about their favorite movie or piece of music, until that is they find said movie or music has been panned. At that point they get all bent out of shape. But at heart we are all critics; each of us has an opinion and a mouth to share it. I think what pisses people off is that critics get paid to share their opinions and most of us don't.

Well, I thank me for sharing my question and sincerely hope that some one - any one - sends me another.

Until then, keep on listening!

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Best of 2003.

Now that I'm on a roll here, why stop?

1. Liz Phair: Liz Phair (Capitol).
2. OutKast: Speakerboxx/The Love Below (Arista).
3. Buck 65: Talkin' Honky Blues (WEA).
4. Fountains of Wayne: Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve).
5. James Carter: Gardenias for Lady Day (Sony).
6. Lucinda Williams: World Without Tears (Lost Highway).
7. The Libertines: Up the Bracket (Rough Trade).
8. The Wrens: The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher).
9. Missy Elliott: This Is Not a Test (Elektra).
10. Amy Rigby: Til the Wheels Fall Off (Signature Sounds).
11. Amy Allison: No Frills Friend (Diesel Only).
12. Warren Zevon: The Wind (Artemis).
13. Pretty Girls Make Graves: The New Romance (Matador).
14. Yo La Tengo: Summer Sun (Matador).
15. The Shins: Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop).
16. Belle & Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Sanctuary).
17. Drive-By Truckers: Decoration Day (New West).
18. James Blood Ulmer: No Escape From the Blues (Hyena).
19. Lifesavas: Spirit in Stone (Quannum Projects).
20. The Strokes: Room on Fire (RCA).
21. Kimya Dawson: My Cute Friend Sweet Princess (Important).
22. Rancid: Indestructible (Hellcat).
23. The Bottle Rockets: Blue Sky (Sanctuary).
24. The Go-Betweens: Bright Yellow, Bright Orange (Jetset).
25. Jon Langford and His Sadies: Mayors of the Moon (Bloodshot).
26. Al Green: I Can't Stop (Blue Note).
27. Todd Snider: Todd Snider Live: Near Truths and Hotel Rooms (Oh Boy).
28. The Rapture: Echoes (Strummer/Universal).
29. Super Mama Djombo: Super Mama Djombo (Cobiana).
30. The Klezmatics: Rise Up/Shteyt Oyf (Rounder).
The 1990s.

Lately I've been feeling like this is the most misunderstood decade in rock music. New wave, grunge, hip-hop, alternative, all these genres and more pervaded the decade. Unlike the '80s, it was not a very popular decade, and yet I found myself listening to more challenging and enriching music than at any time since I spun my first 45.

Here is a list of some of the best albums. Those that do not have reviews will receive them in due time.

1. David Murray: Shakill's Warrior (DIW/Columbia, 1991).
2. Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury, 1998). See review, Sept. 2005.
3. Tricky: Maxinquaye (Island, 1995). See review, Sept. 2005.
4. Guitar Paradise of East Africa (Earthworks, 1991).
5. Iris DeMent: My Life (Warner Bros., 1994). See review, Sept. 2005.
6. DJ Shadow: Endtroducing . . . DJ Shadow (Mo Wax, 1996).
7. Freedy Johnston: Can You Fly (Bar/None, 1992). See review, Sept. 2005
8. Sonic Youth: A Thousand Leaves (Geffen, 1998).
9. Latin Playboys: Latin Playboys (Slash/Warner Bros., 1994).
10. Mzwakhe Mbuli: Resistance Is Defence (Earthworks, 1992).
11. Moby: Play (V2, 1999).
12. Arto Lindsay: Mundo Civilizado (Bar/None, 1997).
13. Fugees: The Score (Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1996). See review, Nov.2005
14. Luna: Penthouse (Elektra, 1995).
15. Sleater-Kinney: Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars, 1997).
16. Liz Phair: Exile in Guyville (Matador, 1993).
17. The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs (Merge, 1999).
18. Billy Bragg & Wilco: Mermaid Avenue (Elektra, 1998).
19. Yo La Tengo: I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (Matador, 1997).
20. Amy Rigby: Diary of a Mod Housewife (Koch, 1996). See review, Oct. 2005
21. L.L. Cool J: Mama Said Knock You Out (Def Jam, 1990).
22. Nirvana: In Utero (DGC, 1993).
23. Beck: Mellow Gold (Bong Load/DGC, 1994).
24. Pixies: Bossanova (4AD/Elektra, 1990).
25. PJ Harvey: Rid of Me (Indigo, 1993).
26. James Carter: The Real Quietstorm (Atlantic, 1995).
27. John Prine: In Spite of Ourselves (Oh Boy, 1999).
28. P.M. Dawn: The Bliss Album . . . ? (Gee Street, 1993). See review, Nov. 2005
29. Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted (Matador, 1992).
30. Rosanne Cash: Interiors (Columbia, 1990). See review, Oct. 2005
31. Linton Kwesi Johnson: Tings and Times (Shanachie, 1991).
32. L7: Bricks are Heavy (Slash, 1992).
33. Archers of Loaf: Vee Vee (Alias, 1995).
34. Cornershop: When I Was Born for the Seventh Time (Luka Bop, 1997).
35. Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse, 1998).
36. Public Enemy: Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam, 1990).
37. R.E.M.: Out of Time (Warner Bros., 1991).
38. Madonna: I'm Breathless (Sire/Warner Bros., 1990).
39. Old 97's: Fight Songs (Elektra, 1999).
40. Fluffy: Black Eye (Capitol, 1996).

Monday, January 23, 2006


Stevie Wonder: A Time To Love (Motown, 2005). By the time he was 27, yes 29 years ago, he had managed to grip the music industry by the short hairs. Few of his contemporaries could even dream of such accomplishments, yet alone live them out. Among the singer/ songwriter crowd only Dylan surpasses him. But as quickly as his star rose, his decline came just as quickly. 1979's Hotter Than July and 87's Characters were the highlights of a dwindling career that had even his most ardent of admirers wondering if the boy Wonder had packed it in. Like Springsteen before him, this album was his catharsis; a journey out of the past and into a relevant present. The melodies, always his strength, don't disappoint. And his politics, never fearful, are biting. On "If Your Love Cannot Be Moved" his words are a haunting warning: "You can't free the slaves to enslave them differently / You can't see the right only from your sight / You can't see the wrong and just go along." From lesser men the words would come off as disingenuous; with Stevie you "wonder" what took him so long. A-

Lizz Wright: Dreaming Wide Awake (Verve, 2005). At first this had the look and feel of a Cassandra Wilson album - all jazz and no soul. Then I played it again, and that was where I found the beauty of the record. Wright's voice, rough yet gentle, is the stuff singers sell their eye teeth for. Relieved from needing to sound cute, she emotes freely and sincerely. And she's also pretty damn good at covering / interpreting tunes, too. She even manages to do something with a Youngblood's song. This is what Norah Jones could be if she took the risk of not sounding "pretty." I never had the chance to hear Wright's debut, Salt, an oversight on my part that I hope to correct soon. For now buy this album. A-

Missy Elliott: The Cookbook (Atlantic/Goldmind, 2005). Like Liz Phair, Elliott not only doesn't know her "rightful" place in the scheme of things, but seems to relish the attention her defiance causes. This is one hip-hop diva who could out "fuck" any of her contemporaries and still crave more. And while she's busy satisfying her cravings she warns all the "Mr. Rights" that so long as they don't cheat or sleep around they can work that "magic stick" for her any time. This is one woman with a sweet tooth. Just don't ask her to go into the kitchen and cook for you; it might just be you in that pot. A-

Friday, January 20, 2006


Now that the site has been up and running for four months now, I thought I'd give those of you at home a chance to chime in with your questions about rock-n-roll, assuming, that is, that there's any body out there reading my stuff!

Just place your question in the comments section, or if you prefer you can email me at I'll do my best to answer every question that comes my way. And while I don't profess to be an expert on any particular genre, as you can plainly see, I am opinionated. My opinions come from listening to loads of music since my childhood.

Anxiously awaiting contact!

Monday, January 16, 2006


Nothing like burning the candle at both ends, I say.
While I'm not bailing on the completion of 2005's reviews, I thought I'd take a ride through the "Wayback Machine" and see what albums did it for me the year Bush did it to the country!

1. Kanye West: The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella).
2. The Roots of Rock 'n' Roll 1946 - 1954 (Hip-O).
3. Jon Langford: All the Fame of Lofty Deeds (Bloodshot).
4. Todd Snider: East Nashville Skyline (Oh Boy).
5. Madvillian Madvilliany (Stones Throw).
6. The Mountain Goats: We Shall All Be Healed (4AD).
7. Ray Charles: Genius Loves Company (Concord/Hear Music).
8. Nellie McKay: Get Away From Me (Columbia).
9. The Reputation: To Force a Fate (Lookout).
10. The Arcade Fire: Funeral (Merge).
11. Rilo Kiley: More Adventurous (Brute/Beaute).
12. Thelonoius Monster: California Clam Chowder (Lakeshore).
13. Automato: Automato (Coup de Grace).
14. Northern State: All City (Columbia).
15. The Libertines: The Libertines (Rough Trade).
16. Arto Lindsay: Salt (Righteous Babe).
17. The Mekons: Punk Rock (Quarterstick).
18. Sonic Youth: Sonic Nurse (DGC).
19. Caetano Velosa: A Foreign Sound (Nonesuch).
20. Courtney Love: America's Sweetheart (Virgin).
21. The Beastie Boys: To the Five Boroughs (Capitol).
22. Joanna Newsom: The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City).
23. Eddie Palmieri: Ritmo Caliente (Concord).
24. Hound Dog Taylor: Release the Hound (Alligator).
25. Freedy Johnston: The Way I Were (Bar/None).
26. Drive-By Truckers: The Dirty South (New West).
27. The Ponys: Laced With Romance (In the Red).
28. Kimya Dawson: Hidden Vagenda (K).
29. Jill Scott: Beautifully Human (Hidden Beach).
30. The Rough Guide to the Music of Kenya (World Music Network).

Sunday, January 15, 2006


Three indie albums by three independent bands; who did it all by their lonesome, without the help of big brother to guide them. Let the bloodletting begin.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
(Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, 2005). Now let me see if I get this straight. I clap my hands and say, what? Wise ass comments aside, to call this Brooklyn’s answer to the Feelies would be too simple, though the first 20 seconds of “Is This Love” is a dead ringer for the lead in on The Good Earth’s “The High Road.” Actually the number one indie-alternative, MP3 blogger’s choice for statement of the year actually owes its sound to any number of influences from early Talking Heads to Yo La Tengo to Television. In fact singer Alec Ounsworth could pass for Tom Verlaine in my book any day. On “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” the “trebly” guitar is pure Marquee Moon. But while I don’t want to rain on their parade of accolades, these guys have a way to go before they equal, if not surpass, any of the aforementioned bands. Still, this is an impressive debut, made all the more impressive by the fact that they did it all on their own without the help of a major distributor. Pitchfork reviewer Brian Howe, whose review helped jumpstart the album’s success, commented, “Damn, maybe this is how it’s supposed to work.” Memo to Brian, it hasn’t worked that way since Buddy Holly left west Texas. A-

Franz Ferdinand: You Could Have It So Much Better (Domino, 2005). “I’m evil and a heathen,” Alex Kapranos defiantly declares in track 5, and you can believe him. Like the Smiths before them, these guys don’t hide their contempt for the straight and narrow. Like Morrissey before him, Kapranos has the voice to articulate that disdain. Check out “This Boy” and compare it to “This Charming Man,” and decide for yourself. So what if it took them two tries to get it off their chest, not to mention right. They’re gay; deal with it. Now if only someone could come up with an explanation for why “Eleanor, Put Your Boots On,” is supposed to be a love song to Eleanor Freidberger of the Fiery Furnaces. Sure it is. A-

Bright Eyes: I’m Wide Awake (Saddle Creek, 2005). Even if you don’t buy into Conor Oberst as the second coming of Dylan, and I don’t, you have to admit he does more with his talent than most prodigies these days. Just ask Ryan Adams. And while he does tend to get a little too morbid for comfort, as “We Are Nowhere, and It’s Now” will attest, give him points for at least being concerned that he’s so morbid. After all, most 20 somethings haven’t lived long enough to get that depressed, not without becoming Jackson Browne, which he definitely isn’t. A-

Friday, January 13, 2006


Thelonious Monk Quartet: Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Blue Note, 2005). Discovered accidentally in an unmarked box by a Library of Congress engineer and beautifully restored, this 1957 performance of these two legends is what the term classic was intended for. Both men were at their peak that night and it is nothing short of astonishing to note that prior to this recording being unearthed, there were only THREE studio tracks of these two genius’s playing together. Though it’s primarily Monk’s album, Coltrane’s playing portends bigger things to come for him. Like his recordings with Miles Davis, most notably Kind of Blue, he was the perfect accompanist. This is music that demands and rewards repeated listening. A+

Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album for the Gulf Coast (Nonesuch, 2005). Loath though I am to buy into the whole benefit album concept – the last such album of this kind to be worthy of merit was the Sun City tribute, Artists United Against Apartheid – these post Katrina songs converted me in a hurry. From Dr. John’s “World I Never Made” to Irma Thomas’ “Back Water Blues” to Randy Newman’s old classic “Louisiana 1927,” these songs take on new and, in the case of Newman, frighteningly prophetic meaning. Conspicuous by her absence, Lucinda Williams, who grew up in Lake Charles. Otherwise, this is one tribute I dare say all of us wish never had to be made. A


A play on words, perhaps, but 2005 was the finest year for world music in over a decade.

Enjoy. I know I did!

The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara (World Music Network, 2005). Did you know that the Sahara by itself is bigger than all of Europe? Neither did I. Encompassing countries like Mauritania, Algeria, Libya and Mali, this compilation pays tribute to the diversity of the region's musical culture. Far from being the typical "sampler" so many lesser albums would've settled for, Andy Morgan insisted on getting it right. While I certainly can't claim any profound understanding of the area's musical heritage, there's no denying the brilliance of the music - a cross between blues and funk, the likes of which haven't hit these shores in quite some time. And then there are the haunting chants, mostly by women, which in this culture is still thought of as risqué. A wonderful album! A+

M.I.A.: Arular (Interscope, 2005). Maya Arul is not just any hip-hop diva. Combining elements of world music with R&B she comes off as sounding like Neneh Cherry gone Soweto, or was that Kingston? My favorite song is “Bucky Done Gun,” where she states her peace: “Can I get control / Do you like me vulnerable / I’m armed and I’m equal / More fun for the people.” Raw, violent, but, strangely, non-malevolent, Arul is acutely aware of her surrounds, but refuses to lower herself to its level. In so doing she overcomes the sadistic nature of the genre’s main appeal to most of its fans and becomes a siren, if you will, for a generation that’s about as disillusioned as any in history. This is about as anti-Kanye as you’ll likely to find. Here’s hoping she doesn’t turn bitter. A

Amadou & Mariam: Dimanche a Bamako (Nonesuch, 2005). Married for 30 years, these blind and remarkably talented artists have been the best-kept secret of West Africa. With a handful of Afro-rock albums, issued on small, independent labels to their credit, call this their coming out party. Their music is one part African, one part Latin, one part reggae, with a touch of American R&B and English blues-rock thrown in for good measure, the latter no doubt a by-product of listening to BBC broadcasts in their homeland. Strangely seductive, the texture of the rhythms pulls you in like few albums can. Produced by Manu Chao, himself a well-known member of the Parisian alternative music scene, this is about as global a record as you’ll likely find these days. A

Cheb I Sabbah: La Kahena (Six Degrees, 2005). Algerian by birth, and now San Francisco-based DJ, Sabbah and Bill Laswell, content here to merely play bass, undertake a project of love. In this post-9/11 world, albums that celebrate Islamic traditions are rare in deed. Even more rare, all the singers are female, including Michal Cohen, a Jewish singer of Yemenite descent, who’s song “Im Ninalou” is based on a poem by Shalom Shabazi, a 16th century Yemenite Jewish mystic. But the real triumph here lies in how Sabbah mixes Sufi, Jewish, Berber and Muslim values into one remarkable record that is as ancient as it is contemporary. A-

Daby Balde: Introducing Daby Balde (World Music Network, 2005). Hailing from Senegal, Balde has a long and celebrated history at home, and thanks to World Music Network will hopefully establish himself abroad. Classically trained and combining West African grooves with a European/Spannish pop flavor, his rich and beautiful melodies will seduce you like few singers can. A genuine find. A-

Thursday, January 05, 2006

2005 list Revised.

As stated previously, changes with any critic are inevitable. However, I believe this is finally it.
P.S.: the deletions of Danger Doom and Franz Ferdinand do not represent a change in status; both remain A- albums. It's just that I wanted to keep the number at a respectable 30 to make things simple.

1. Gogol Bordello: Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike (Side One Dummy).
2. The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara (World Music Network).
3. Thelonious Monk Quartet: Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Blue Note).
4. Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album for the Gulf Coast (Nonesuch).
5. The Go-Betweens: Oceans Apart (Yep Roc).
6. M.I.A.: Arular (Interscope).
7. Kanye West: Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella).
8. Sufjan Stevens: Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty).
9. The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema (Matador).
10. Ani DiFranco: Knuckle Down (Righteous Babe).
11. The Hold Steady: Separation Sunday (Frenchkiss)
12. The White Stripes: Get Behind Me, Satan (V2)
13. Amadou & Miriam: Dimanche a Bamako (Nonesuch).
14. Sleater-Kinney: The Woods (Sub Pop).
15. The Chemical Brothers: Push the Button (Astralwerks).
16. 50 Cent: The Massacre (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope).
17. Clem Snide: End of Love (Spin Art).
18. Lizz Wright: Dreaming Wide Awake (Verve).
19. Bright Eyes: I'm Wide Awake (Saddle Creek).
20. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah).
21. Spoon: Gimmie Fiction (Merge).
22. Amy Rigby: Little Fugitive (Signature Sounds).
23. Cheb I Sabbah: La Kahena (Six Degrees).
24. The Ponys: Celebration Castle (In the Red).
25. Missy Elliott: The Cookbook (Atlantic/Goldmind).
26. Stevie Wonder: A Time To Love (Motown).
27. Bruce Springsteen: Devils and Dust (Columbia).
28. Loudon Wainwright III: Here Come the Choppers (Sovereign Arts).
29. Daby Balde: Introducing Daby Balde (World Music Network).
30. Neil Young: Prairie Wind (Reprise).

Monday, January 02, 2006

I know what you're saying. Peter, how can you have a top albums list when you haven't reviewed all of them in print? Hold your horses. All good reviews come to those who wait. I promise all 30 will be out by EOM.

Kanye West: Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella, 2005). While no one reasonably expected a repeat of last year's brilliance, with even some predicting a sophomore jinx, there's no denying his greatness on effort two. Call this his Sticky Fingers to last year's Exile on Main Street. Where with the former one had to play through several times to immerse one's self in the underlying rage and his conceptualizing lyrics, here, simplicity rules the day. He's going straight for the hook and the mob. I particularly like the song where he pays tribute to his mom; nice to know he has some of his priorities straight. And then there's "Gold Digger," one of the top songs of the year. Unlike College Dropout, this is a record everyone will want to buy and play. It might even get airplay, too. After all, complexity may be good for the soul, but it don't pay the rent, or for the bitches out on the street. A

Sleater-Kinney: The Woods (Sub Pop, 2005). A Sleater-Kinney rock album? What is the world coming to? Actually, after a three-year absence they come up with an album so unexpectedly straight forward, Kurt Cobain would've been proud to rock with them. The credit goes to producer David Fridmann for convincing them to tinker with success. Tight, yet still retaining their signature raucousness, the results speak for themselves. Imagine what Zeppelin IV and Never Mind the Bollocks would sound like if they were to merge. Now just sit back and watch your ears bleed. A

Neil Young: Prairie Wind (Reprise, 2005). Coming on the heals of Greendale, just about anything would've sounded good. But give the man some credit. He not only manages to come up with his third incarnation of Harvest (Comes A Time and Harvest Moon make up the other two), he manages not to allow his politics - always left-leaning, but never more so than lately - to decimate the music; something that kept getting in his way on Greendale. While I prefer the beauty of Comes A Time, still among my favorites, there's no denying this is his best album in over a decade. In fact, not since '94s Sleeps With Angels has he recorded with such passion. Check out "When God Made Me," a blast at the religious right that's as good as it gets. Maybe Bush should look into possibly running for a third term? A-

Spoon: Gimmie Fiction (Merge, 2005). While I admit this is not the breakthrough masterpiece Kill the Moonlight was, it's hardly chopped liver, either. Truth is, it would've been a mistake for them to think they could've duplicated it. Here they trade the punk rock aesthetic for more conventional rock and roll grooves. They also do a pretty damn good job at borrowing (stealing?) from their contemporaries. From the opening track The Beast and Dragon, Adored, pure John Lennon from his Beatle days; to I Turn My Camera On, a Prince-like song if ever there was one; to Sister Jack, a flashback to the Who's Happy Jack, this is an album that's hard to resist. To those who might be disappointed it's not as pioneering as it's predecessor, get over yourselves. A-

Sufjan Stevens: Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty, 2005). Christians! All of a sudden the world is full of Christians. May be it's a sign of the times, or the inevitability of it all; after all T-Bone Burnette recorded his best music during the Reagan years! But before you paint Stevens as another profit bent on twisting your ear, know this: this is one believer who doesn't require his audience to follow him in order to consider himself successful. In deed, this album's inspiration lies in what it leaves out. It's inviting, never preachy. In "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.", Stevens' real talent - namely his empathy and compassion - emerges. Any one who can muster up sympathy for a serial killer and convince his listeners to join him, gets high marks from me. Then there's "Casimir Pulaski Day," a song about the death of his girlfriend from bone cancer that ends up becoming a test of his faith. Beautiful and poignant. And check out the title of track two: "The Black Hawk War, or, How To Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You're Going To Have To Leave Now, or, I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue To Fight. . ." Any man this anal is a man after my own heart. A