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-.