Category Archives: music

What Were the Best Albums of the Twenty-Teens? (Part 8 of 10)

We have now barreled our way onward to part eight of our ten-part review of the critic’s choices for the best 52 albums of 2010-2019! (Surely I mean 50 instead of 52. No? No. See below.)

If you missed parts one through seven, you can read them here:

( Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 )

This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. If you like this, go check out the final installment of my overview of the critic’s choices for the 20 best albums of 2020, and my latest monthly review of 2021 new releases as I search for the 21 best albums of 2021.

So, 50 makes more sense as a “top xx” list number than 52, doesn’t it? It does! However, I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. Albums getting 4 votes and up totaled 52, which was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff rather than trying to figure out how to jettison two of them.

This series will have 10 posts of 5 albums each (or 6 each on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. That established, on with Part 8!

Melodrama (Lorde, 2017, 4 votes)– Lorde’s second album starts with an emotional punch and dynamic multi-layered music. And it doesn’t let up from there, along with generous servings of her lyrical intelligence and strong and honest vocal presence. Her combination of power, seriousness, and ability to produce something interesting and pleasing to listen to is truly impressive.

   

Modern Vampires of the City (Vampire Weekend, 2013, 7 votes)– Long have I heard of this Weekend of Vampires, but little did I know of what they actually sounded like. On top of that, lots of people I know have recommended this album to me, and 7 out of 10 critic’s top of the decade lists seem to agree. It gets off to a Beatlesque and unusual start, which is a nice way to catch one’s attention. From there it’s high energy, catchy, and if a little formulaic, a good execution of a great formula- hooky indie rock, 60s pop, sweetly smooth vocals, lyrical cleverness, just enough noise to catch one’s attention without stopping the pop. If not quite a transcendent album for the ages (like, I’m not sure what it’s doing in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of…ever…, for example), I can at least see why so many folks liked it.

   

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Kanye West, 2010, 7 votes)– Kanye West’s debut album was one of my favorites of the 00s (if not the whole damn century so far), and his next two albums also acquitted themselves admirably. Beyond that, I hadn’t really kept up with his further musical output, beyond knowing it was somewhat more uneven, so I’ve been looking forward to checking this out. It is well worth the checking out! His vocal flow, lyrical prowess, sampling intelligence, and production skill are all in top form here. And it is, as the name would imply, a darkly textured take on himself, his ego, and the fallout of fame. Along the way it goes through so many moods and musical modes, but retains the subject focus, tying the whole thing together. All in all, a powerful album!

Night Time, My Time (Sky Ferreira, 2013, 4 votes)– The debut album from one of the original MySpace musical sensations. It’s a very solid pop album, with a darker rock edge to its vocal and musical texture. And darn catchy too! The whole thing is a little inconsistent, but the inconsistency is between merely solidly good and freaking great. All in all, a good reminder that pop often may not be profound, but it doesn’t have to be dreck.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! (Lana Del Ray, 2019, 4 votes)Godamn, man child/ You fucked me so good that I almost said, “I love you” is quite a lyrical start! And so sweetly vocally and musically delivered. And that really, it seems to me, is the secret of what she does here. Smoky sultry music, rich warm vocals. She could be delivering the sweetest most torchy album ever. And she is, but with lyrics that dazzle with their intelligence and emotional complexity and bite with their edge. It’s a potent combination, and I am totally signed off on this being one of the best things that came out last decade.

This is where we leave off for now, 80% through. Two more installments to come, and then the wrap-up!

 

What Were the Best Albums of the Twenty-Teens? (Part 7 of 10)

Here begins part seven of our ten-part review of the critic’s choices for the best 52 albums of 2010-2019! (One for each card in the deck! That wasn’t the reason for choosing the number, though. See further below.)

If you missed the earlier installments, you can read them here:

( Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 )

This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. So go check out the final installment of my overview of the critic’s choices for the 20 best albums of 2020, and my latest monthly review of 2021 new releases as I search for the 21 best albums of 2021.

Okay, now that you’ve read all that, why 52? I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. Albums getting 4 votes and up totaled 52, which was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff.

This series will have 10 posts of 5 albums each (or 6 each on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. And with that, let’s get on with Part 7!

Invasion of Privacy (Cardi B, 2018, 6 votes)– Strong bold vocal flow? Check. Self-empowered swagger? Check. Spare, clean, sampling and production full of interesting choices? Check. Tracks that get your head bobbing, and strike a variety of moods? Check. Songs that are about something and show moments of reflection and vulnerability among the swagger? Check. Sometimes the guest stars get a little distracting, but otherwise this is pure gold.

 

Lemonade (Beyonce, 2016, 7 votes)– Her voice, of course, is never less than amazing. But that’s almost the least of the things going on here. Multilayered production, clever and varied musical choices, deeply personal lyrics that tackle the political and the private (sometimes the very private matter of marital infidelity), with equal parts biting humor, anger, and raw vulnerability. It kind of puts every other pop record of the decade on notice for their lack of ambition.

Lonerism (Tame Impala, 2012, 5 votes)– Some years ago, I was driving through the wilds of western New York with my wife when we heard something on the radio so weird and wonderful that we immediately had to know what it was. It turned out to be Tame Impala’s song “Elephant” from this album. I’ve listed to two later Tame Impala albums in this blog series and my 2020 review, and expected them to be amazing based on that song, but was decidedly underwhelmed. It turns out this is the album I was looking for the whole time after all. It’s a (distorted) pitch-perfect neo-psychedelic masterpiece from start to finish.

Lost In The Dream (The War on Drugs, 2014, 4 votes)– It starts off vocally and musically billowy and  golden, but with maybe too smooth a production. And yep, track two is in the same vein, it reminds me of the 80s, and not in a good way, but in a victory of airtight musical package over authenticity/vitality kind of way. I mean, it’s technically very good, there are some flourishes I enjoy, but I don’t really feel anything the whole way through.

LP1 (FKA Twigs, 2014, 4 votes)– I must confess, I’d heard the name, but I had no idea what kind of twig an FKA twig was. So this was all pleasant surprise- the theatrical vocals, air of vulnerability, music based in dance/pop but full of experimental edge and offbeat surprises. Tahliah Debrett Barnett (FKA Twigs is her musical stage name) is an English singer-songwriter, record producer, dancer, and actress, aka she’s overflowing with talent, and all of it is on display here. It never let go of my attention the whole way through.  

And here we close for now, 35 in and 17 to go…

What Were the Best Albums of the Twenty-Teens? (Part 6 of 10)

We now commence part six of my ten-part review of the critic’s choices for the 52 best albums of 2010-2019- Past the halfway point! (Did I not know Top 50 would be a more typical choice than 52? I did. There is a reason…)

If you need to catch up on the first five installments, you can find them here:

(Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5)

This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. You can, should you so choose, read the final installment of my overview of the critical consensus for the 20 best albums of 2020, and the latest monthly review of 2021 new releases as I search for the best 21 albums of 2021.

So, to return to the open question, can I count to 50? I can! But this is what happened: I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. Albums getting 4 votes and up totaled 52, which was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff.

I’m doing 10 posts of 5 albums each (but 6 each on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. Now that you know, let’s get on with Part 6!

Emotion (Carly Rae Jepsen, 2015, 5 votes)– The opening track is very poppy and very fun. And so, it appears, is the rest of it. It reminds me of Taylor Swift, though perhaps a little slicker and less substantive than her work from a comparable time. Really pretty good as dance-oriented pop music goes, and it does sound emblematic of the decade. So in that sense, maybe a signal album, but I’m not quite sure about “best”.

Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (Kendrick Lamar, 2012, 5 votes)– This is the album that put Kendrick Lamar on the critical map, and deservedly so. Musically and vocally, it’s full of choices that put it above the crowd of hip-hop albums. If it stopped there, that would be notable enough, but on top of it there’s actually a structured storyline running throughout, and lyrics that feel searingly honest. It’s an album that observes the toughness of what he grew up in, and shines with a desire to rise above it even as it describes the fear of it dragging him back down.

Golden Hour (Kacey Musgraves, 2018, 6 votes)– A textured country album, definitely often leaning on the obvious/pop side lyrically, but the vocals are earnest enough to sell it. Musically, it’s lush, grounded in pop country, but drawing on dance music, electronic, and indie rock. It’s all very good, and the best moments are great, but I don’t know about it adding up to a “decade’s best”- I have a feeling the best country albums are better than this as a whole, and the best pop albums are too. What she’s done here in bringing together both sides of that equation is still worthy of notice though!

Have One On Me (Joanna Newsom, 2010)– The instrumentation and production is so clever, bringing in layers like the late Beatles. Her voice weaves in and out, soars and dips, sometimes sing-song, sometimes wispy, sometimes powerful. Between all these factors, there’s enough variability in a single song to be almost exhausting, but it holds the attention. And lyrically it’s often kind of trippy, creating a surreal idiosyncratic world of its own in the manner, say, of Kate Bush or Tori Amos. That’s the upside, and it’s very significant. On the downside, it’s hard to keep up over the length of a triple album (runtime comes in at about two hours), and it gets more conventional, and often lower energy, as it goes on. It’s hard to ignore the merits, but I’m not sure it totally succeeds as an album.

    

In Colour (Jamie xx, 2015, 6 votes)– British Dj Jamie xx delivers the kind of electronic dance music album that was maybe more common in the 90s and early 00s- strong beats, cleverly deployed samples, vocal snippets, but somehow structured in a way that makes it still work as a song along somewhat recognizable pop/rock lines. As you know if you’ve been following my three series this year, electronica is not generally my bag, but this variety of it, and how skillfully it’s done, absolutely is!

And there we are, 60% in on our review of the 2010s. What will the remaining 40% reveal? Stay tuned!

In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: August

We’ve now reached our August review, aka 2/3 of the way through our search for the best 21 albums of 2021!

To recap for newcomers, I’m listening to new releases each month, sorting them into yes/maybe/no, and then I’ll do a final shakedown to get the best 21 after the year ends. If you missed our previous installments, you can find them here:

( January February March April May June July )

This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year. We’re at the halfway point of my ongoing review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and the final installment of my review of the critic’s consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020 is here.

Before we proceed, a quick note about the three categories:

Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. As of the end of August, this list was up to 169 albums, so ever survivor for the final 21 will leave 7 dead companions in it’s wake. En garde!

Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I have some reservation. I’ve noticed over the years that sometimes “maybes” linger, so I’m giving them a category just in case.

No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.

And with that, let’s get on to the 98 new releases I listened to for August!

Billy Childish/Wild Billy Childish & CTMF/CTMF, Where The Wild Purple Iris Grows– English painter, author, poet, photographer, film maker, singer and guitarist delivers blistering punk/garage with hints of rocakbilly, and 80s-style folk-punk. And there’s a stinging blues-drenched Dylan cover to boot! I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of him earlier (he’s been kicking around since the late 70s), because what he’s doing is right up my alley!

Brian Setzer, Gotta Have the Rumble– This album sees Brian Setzer getting back to his rockabilly roots, and damn is he good at it. While totally honoring the source sound, it also isn’t a slavish copy, so somehow sounds contemporary and varied.

Bruiser Wolf, Dope Game Stupid– Vocally and lyrically unusual, surrealistic, smart, and sometimes downright hilarious hip-hop. It deals, as many albums do, with the street life and the drug trade, but sounds nothing like every other album while doing it.  (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

Divine Horsemen, Hot Rise of an Ice Cream Phoenix– That’s a hum-dinger of an album name! Apparently the band is a veteran of the punk/alt country LA scene of the 80s. It’s definitely got that cowpunk sound, but also with interesting touches of metal and psychedelia here and there, poetic lyrics, and an interesting interplay between the male and lead vocalists, a little reminiscent of X. It sounds a little of an era, but it also sounds damn good, and not a single track goes awry.

 

For Those I Love, For Those I Love– This is kind of fascinating, a varied and interesting electronica background, thickly accented spoken word vocals, and sometimes searingly personal lyrics. Irish producer and songwriter David Balfe produced this response to losses throughout his life, including the 2018 suicide of his long-time friend and musical partner Paul Curran, and Dublin’s struggles as well. It’s powerful.  (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

GA-20, Try It… You Might Like It! GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor– GA-20 are a band of blues revivalists from Boston, and are here covering songs by 70s Chicago bluesman Hound Dog Taylor. The sound leans toward the electric, rocking, chaotic side of blues, and I love just about every second of it. This is one of those things that reminds me you how vital the blues can still be.

Geoffrey O’Connor, For as Long as I Can Remember– Like a lost era of Bowie. Like the blue-eyed soul end of synth pop. Vocally and musically cool, smooth, and alluring. A bunch of duets with other Australian musicians, including my new obsession Sarah Mary Chadwick. This is really very fine.

Halsey, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power– Trent Reznor produced, but I’m not sure I would have noticed had I not known. There’s definitely a musical and lyrical edge to what is otherwise pretty solidly a dance music album. But, a really good dance album, and then with that edge to it, better still.

Jake Bugg, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning– I went in to this skeptical, as he seemed way too pretty, so I was fearing some British boy band action. Shame on me, because he brings it! Yes, it’s pop oriented (and hooky as all get out), but in a way that shows traces of the Beatles, flourishes from electronica, some genuine emotional wrestling with darker topics, and other marks of sophistication on top of solid pop chops. Pop will always be with us, so we can certainly hope it will sometimes be this good.

James McMurty, The Horses and the Hounds– This Folk/rock/alt country veteran from the 80s, brings stripped down music, ragged vocals, and lyrics that are so sincere and on-point that they’re almost klunky (but in a charming way). He tells visual stories here in a way that country excels at, and the music is rock-country heartland solid.

Jennifer Hudson, Respect (Originial Motion Picture Soundtrack)– The source material is great (representative of periods throughout Aretha Franklin’s career) and the performances by Jennifer Hudson are strong. The natural objection might be: Why not just listen to an Aretha Franklin career retrospective instead? Well, yes. But the performances are great, and aren’t the kind of overly faithful musical drag that can derail this kind of effort. So if it were an album of Jennifer Hudson covers of a few generations of soul classics, wouldn’t I consider it? Yes I would! 

Justus Proffit, Speedstar– Sunny guitar rhythms and 60s/70s production swirls belie lyrics with darkness and bite. There’s a lot to appreciate here. Also, the cover may give you nightmares, so there’s that.

Liam Kazar, Due North– This debut solo effort by a  midwestern veteran of hip-hop and indie rock bands puts one in mind of the funkier and swingier side of 70s rock/singer-songwriters. It’s pure AM radio gold the whole way through.

Lorde, Solar Power– Wishing the album after one you really like was just like the one before and being dismayed that it’s not is an old, old, album appreciation trap. I’d encourage you to not fall into it in this case. If the Lorde on display here musically and vocally is, at first blush, less incisive and in your face than on Pure Heroine, she is in many ways more subtly disruptive and more surprising here. There are discoveries awaiting on every track, and if they’re not the ones we’re expecting, well, isn’t that how discovery is supposed to go? 

Mae Powell, Both Ways Brighter– Bright melodic music, stripped down almost naïve vocals, charming and intelligent lyrics painting vivid pictures. There is nothing here not to like. The San Francisco references are a nice plus too!

Martha Wainwright, Love Will Be Reborn– Many an artist has done a moving, even heart-rending, post-divorce album, but few find the subject matter so suitable to their native talents. I’ve loved Martha Wainwright since her 2005 debut album, and the reason why is amply on display here. Rich music, yearning vocals, and lyrics that are genuine, bitter, and hopefully vulnerable all at the same time.

Media Jeweler, The Sublime Sculpture of Being Alive– This Los Angeles band has put out an album that feels like the more abrasive and twitchier side of 80s new wave and post-punk. The music is a great fit to the lyrical focus on media and manipulation. You’ll hear some Devo here, some early Oingo Boingo, some late Minutemen. I love ever weird, and weirdly profound, second of it.

Rodeola, Arlene– Between the name of this folk-rock band from Bloomington, Indiana, and the album name, I was hoping for something country-oriented. And it is, but in an unusual, beautifully instrumented lush golden slow pop kind of way. Listening to this is like eating wild honey.  (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

Rosie Tucker, Sucker Supreme– Bubbly pop with a rock guitar edge and sweetly delivered lyrics with bite. Shades of Liz Phair, shades of Juliana Hatfield. These are shades I’m a sucker for!  (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

Sepultura, SepulQuarta– Sepultura is a Brazilian metal band that’s been chugging along since the 80s. This album is mostly in a thrash metal kind of vein, but apropos of someone that’s been around for that while, you will hear traces of all kinds of eras/styles of metal along the way. And it stays dynamic, interesting, and heavy, even at the hour run length. It especially warms my heart to find a solid metal album, so huzzah!

Shannon & The Clams, Year of the Spiders– This is definitely one of those times when I’m almost ready to sign off just based on band name alone. I’m so happy, that on top of that, there’s a swinging retro-mix of 60s girl groups, the minor chords side of 60s pop, and  psychedelia that I really love. And lead-singer Shannon Shaw is a power-house!

Sturgill Simpson, The Ballad of Dood and Juanita– This is the kind of “extended story” country album that you might have found coming out of Outlaw Country in the 70s (as if to prove the point, Willie Nelson appears on a track). It is ridiculously well done, vocally and musically straight up, country music story-telling in top form. It’s hard to believe he’s contemporary since the sound is so classic, but this is his seventh album, and sounding classic is apparently kind of his forte.

 

Thalia Zedek, Perfect Vision– A veteran of several 90s alternative rock groups that never really made it above the underground, Zedek is a power here. You’ll find minor chords, haunted lyrics, stripped down yearning vocals, and music with rock and country overtones. She has a poetic sensibility that reminds me of Patti Smith at times, and musically it reminds one of a certain elegiac vein of grunge as well. And on the tracks that really great rocking it’s thrilling! All-in-all, it really is kind of a perfect vision. 

The Bug, Fire– I mean, you start off with a narration about robots and prisoners, I’m intrigued. This is like, heavy electronica, with a strong dub influence- stomping metallic beats, synthesizer as its own form of percussion, rapid-fire lyrics full of looming apocalypse. Excellent from start to finish.

The Killers, Pressure Machine– I really liked the burned-out but glitzy sleaze rock of the Killers when they first came out, but haven’t followed them closely since. So I was surprised by this-something much more haunted and introspective. It reminds me, of anything, of Springsteen and the “America-obsessed” era of U2. These are tales of small-town desperation, and feel like where the sleazy glitzy lives of their early work end up washed up. Or were trying to escape from in the first place. It’s pretty powerful.

The Umbrellas, The Umbrellas– Great shimmery twee-pop. A hint of 60s, the sunnier side of 80s alt guitar rock, and the trade-off between male and female lead vocals works well for them. I’m not just saying this because they’re a Bay Area band, although I am always pleased to find something great by a Bay Area band!

Ty Segall, Harmonizer– Full of surging guitars, hints of garage, psychedelia, and glam, and idiosyncratic electronic music tricks, these deconstructed songs have melody and just enough grating to keep you on your toes. With all this, and sharp, urgent vocals, and lyrics, this is smart, challenging indie rock! As with Billy Childish earlier above, I feel like somebody should have told me about Ty Segall long before now! 

Wanda Jackson, Encore– What do you do when you’re an 83 year-old rockabilly legend? You write some whole new songs, go into the studio to record them, and get Joan Jett to produce, that’s what! And it is rocking, spirited, and freaking excellent. May we all still be so on top of our craft at that age!

Water From Your Eyes, Structure– The first track is sweet twee fun, it gets more electronic and darkly textured from there. And then, eventually, arrives at a kind of synthesis of them. It gets a tad grating, in the post-rock experimental kind of way, but often melodic and quirkily interesting. I kind of loved it more as time went on. Well done rock duo from Brooklyn! 

Maybe

  • Akai Solo, True Sky– This hip-hop album by a Brooklyn musician has a kind of metallic drive to it, and syncopated musical rhythm. It reminds me, favorably, of the sound of Madvillain. Though lacking a little in vocal dynamism, it’s full of positive affirmation of being, and unusual, interesting mix choices. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
  • Big Jade, Pressure– I was a little flummoxed by this. It was the kind of bragging through cursing out others brand of hip-hop that I usually pass on. On the other hand, the gender inversion of how she does it is interesting, and the vocal stylings are strong and dynamic. There’s also a certain self-awareness in the unpleasantness of the character she puts forward. I can’t dismiss it! (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
  • Bnny, Everything– This was a literal maybe for me, as it kept veering between a “yes” and “probably no”. On the “yes” side, her low-key vocals, minor chords, intensely emotional material and forays into different genres really caught my attention. On the “probably no” side, there were stretches where the whole thing got too muted for too long. But the affecting parts were so affecting, I never gave up on it!
  • Boldy James/The Alchemist, Bo Jackson– Detroit hip-hop artist Boldy Jackson partnering with DJ/Producer The Alchemist, who seems to have partnered with everyone the last year or two. It’s lyrically rich, vocally lively, and musically full. But it is about the drug trade/street life and does fall too easily into misogyny, both in cliched ways, which is bumping it out of “yes”.
  • Chorusing, Half Mirror– A synth base overlaid with a kind of spare, haunted, even melancholy, folk and country soundscape. My reservation is its tendency toward being muted, but this brainchild of North Carolina-based artist Matthew O’Connell is affecting in a way that stays with you.
  • Connie Smith, The Cry of the Heart– Connie Smith is a real-life old time country singer. And that’s what this album sounds like, in the best kind of way. My only hesitation is that it sounds a little dated, but that’s also kind of the point! Heartfelt, and nary a song misfires on the way.
  • Evan Wright, Sound From Out the Window– From the dark and discordant side of psychedelia, mixed with hints of syrupy 70s pop and some modern electronic music production. It’s very low key, which is my reservation, but has rich depths.
  • Indigo de Souza, Any Shape You Take– This sometimes sounds lyrically and vocally young, which makes sense since this North Carolina-based singer-songwriter is 24. But most often, it’s really striking. It comes from a dance/pop direction, but livened by an indie rock approach, with a powerful edge musically and vocally. She’s definitely someone to keep an eye on, and the only reason it’s not an automatic “yes” is the unfortunately autotuned and conventional opening track.
  • Jana Rush, Painful Enlightenment– Chicago based DJ Dana Rush is also, apparently, a chemical engineer and a CAT-scan technician. What she’s made here is somewhere between moaning blues, hot jazz, dub beats, and experimental electronica. At times it was a little too experimental, but it never quite let me go. It’s not like anything else you’ll hear this year, and it demands attention.
  • Laura Stevenson, Laura Stevenson– Emotional yearning vocals and lyrics, loud and then quiet guitar and vocal surges. This sounds for all the world like a 90s songstress. I’m a sucker for 90s songstresses! It does seem a little uneven in pacing, which is perhaps my only reservation.
  • Leslie Winer, When I Hit You, You’ll Feel It– Metallic beats, vaguely sinister spoken and whispered vocals, spare but driving musical backing, interesting sampling, and a poetic lyrical bent focused on issues personal and societal. Winer is a former model and close friend of William S. Burroughs, and has been involved with music off and on since the 80s. I’m not sure how I never heard of her before this, but this is something! Perhaps a tad deliberately discordant for regular listening? But worthy of attention.
  • Nathan Salsburg, Psalms– These are Pslams as in the actual Psalms, as in the Hebrew scriptures. In Hebrew, set to some fine acoustic guitar settings by this Kentucky-based folk musician. All right, you’re going to think I’m crazy, but it kind of works! They were always meant to be set to music after all, and the language barrier here helps weave the sacred spell. It’s from left field, but I have to call it a maybe!
  • Rosali, No Medium– There’s a horse on the cover, so you might think this has a country sound. It does in a way, but in an indie folk/rock vein with a guitar that keeps veering heavier, and sharp clear lyrics and vocals that remind me of Aimee Mann. I like being reminded of Aimee Mann. It tends toward being a little too same track to track toward the end, but is a strong entry regardless.   (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
  • Steve Gunn, Other You– Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter with a rich golden 70s sound- everything here sounds familiar, like that song you almost remember from childhood. The only reason it got docked from “yes” is that the next to last track is an extended slow instrumental, and then it ends on a good, but very low-key vocal number. Deflation right at the end!
  • Toyomansi, No More Sorry– Naming your band after a fish sauce from the Philippines is a good start. Turns out he’s a “musician and culinary artist” based out of Baltimore, and this is a pretty well-produced DJ/hip-hop album. Sometimes the production tips toward too 2000s conventional, but much more often the soundscapes are unique and arresting. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
  • Turnstile, Glow On– Multiracial hardcore band from Baltimore. I like them more when they’re in a metal vein than punk, but they’re solid either way, and the songs have a lot of variability. There are also some surprising pop and classic rock moments mixed in. It leans a little formulaic, which is what’s keeping it from “yes”, but it kept almost winning me over.
  • Wednesday, Twin Plagues– The squeal, the fuzz, the distortion of electric guitar, how I love you. And female vocals make it even better! The sound here is mostly in a My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain vein, with more than a hint of early Sleater-Kinney thrown in, but sometimes it goes in surprising directions- there’s even a  country-tinged ballad. It seems a little unfocused to be an automatic “yes”, but I do like what it’s doing.

No

  • After 7, Unfinished Business– If you like 90s-style light and shiny R&B, this could be for you. Not enough substance for me to think it might be year’s best.
  • Alejandro Escovedo, La Cruzada– He’s been playing since the 70s, and he’s very good. At the end of the day, the production was a little too slick, and the language barrier was too formidable for this to make it to year’s best for me. Which is definitely more my failing than his!
  • Anderson East, Maybe We Never Die– No question, this is well-made, and his combination of country and R&B sounds passionate and smooth. It ended up a little too smooth, a little too “big produced album”-sounding to really stand out.
  • Badge Epoch, Scroll– Veteran of multiple solo personas and member of indie rock groups Max Turnbull self-describes this as “a cosmic hodge-podge of funk, jazz, ambient techno, aggressive guitarmonized rawk, musique concrète, and hip-hop.” He’s right, and it is often very interesting, but I’m just not sure it is 90 minutes worth of non-stop interesting. As a primer of sound possibilities, though, there’s a lot here.
  • Big Red Machine, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?- This is a kind of indie supergroup, or at least a collaboration between memebrs of Bon Iver and The National. They’ve also chock-filled with it guest stars as far flung as Fleet Foxes and Taylor Swift. Maybe this is the inevitable fate of supergroups, but a lot of it ends up sounding kind of blandly 80s. The mix of elements is promising, but it just doesn’t add up to something that can really hold one’s attention.
  • BIG/BRAVE, Vital- I appreciate the shambling feedback-laden rock, and the desperate and intelligent shout of the lead vocalist. Unfortunately, it turns muted to the point of being almost ambient in the middle. Like much of the most interesting and challenging rock of the day, it’s Canadian. I think it could have been a yes without such a long deadzone in the middle. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
  • Bob’s Burgers, The Bob’s Burgers Music Album, Vol. 2- If you’re a Bob’s Burgers fan (and why on Earth would you not be?!?!?!) this is pure delight. But it’s a little off category for “best album of the year”. Listen to it anyway, though!
  • Brian Jackson/Ali Shaheed Muhammad/Adrian Younge, Jazz is Dead 008– I keep hearing things are jazz fusion that then turn out to be less fused than I’m looking for. For jazz fans this might be dandy though.
  • Cerebral Rot, Excretion of Mortality– You want your music to be brutal and heavy? Good! Your songs are all about rot and decay? Even better! But the growling doom vocal style where nothing can actually be understood, well, it detracts from the effect. To properly horrify, one must be heard!  (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
  • Chris Young, Famous Friends– Contemporary pop country doesn’t really go somewhere. But as far as contemporary pop country goes, this is pretty good.
  • Chvrches, Screen Violence– This outing by a Scottish synth-pop revival band started out very promising, but it soon became a little too Katy Perry/Taylor Swift for my taste. I mean, they’re both great in their proper setting, but they are already them, so we don’t really need more.
  • Creeper, American Noir– It’s a nice horror-themed, emo pop goth kind of thing, but it never really gets beyond that.
  • Damon & Naomi/Michio Kurihara, A Sky Record– Well sung, well-instrumented moody synth songs. There’s nothing wrong with them, but it’s a little too all in one low energy range and same song to song.
  • Dan Nicholls, Mattering and Meaning– Atmospheric keyboards with notes of dissonance. It’s too disembodied and abstract to really lay “great album” status on.
  • Deafhaven, Infinite Granite– I mean, I heard “metal band originally from San Francisco”, and I was very intrigued. But they’ve gotten so into symphonic and melodic metal that they seem to have ended up in a kind of 80s synth alt/emo territory. It’s pretty and well done, but never rises above a certain level of energy or interest.
  • Devendra Banhart, Refuge– Devendra Banhart is an indie rock powerhosue with many different modes. But this album’s one- almost ambient instrumental background music- is just not something I can get on board with.
  • Field Works, Maple, Ash, and Oaks: Cedars Instrumentals– I mean, it was an instrumental album by an experimental musician inspired by trees. I knew it was probably going to be a no, but I had to listen. I do like trees!
  • Harold Land, Westward Bound!– This is a kind of jazz I like, more in the hot torrid flow school. But I don’t see it rising up into “best of year” category.
  • Jade Bird, Different Kinds of Light- This English folk/Americana aficionado delivers solid rock/pop energetic, vocally sparking, lyrically rich music here, but, especially toward the end, it dips into too-long stretches of low key tracks that sound the same.
  • Joan Armatrading, Consequences– Her voice is powerful and unique as always, the music is driving, and the lyrics are a glorious celebration of love. But eventually it gets undermined by lyrics that are a little too spot-on, and an 80s production sound that ends up making everything a little too slick. It was a close call, though- she’s a force!
  • Kenny Garrett, Sounds From The Ancestors– I knew this might be too “pure jazz” for my purposes, but I also knew it was in the fusion realm, with nods to African musical forms. It is sometimes really captivating when it does that, but not often enough.
  • Khruangbin, Mordechai Remixes- Remix and re-sequencing of their 2020 album. I listened to the original as part of my 2020 search, and it was a little too mellow world beat jazz fusion for me. I did like these remixes a lot better, but it still didn’t add up to an album that held my attention.
  • Kool & the Gang, Perfect Union- I don’t think it’s possible to have a bad time with Kool & the Gang, and this is a good time, even if there wasn’t a lot that was especially new, different, or above and beyond. Also, this album was completed just before the death of one long-time member, and released shortly after the death of another, so in a way it can be thought of as a memorial. It might not be one of the best things this year, but it’s a very fitting memorial.
  • Kunzite, Visuals– You may have noticed that electronica is a hard sell for me. This was actually on a  really good track though- dynamic, soulful, interesting. But it’s still hard to keep something almost entirely instrumental going for 50+ minutes, and it turned a little too conventional autouned 2000s soul in the middle.
  • Liars, The Apple Drop– My initial vibe from this was kind of post-grunge. It reminded me of how much I love grunge, and what icy contempt I have for post-grunge.
  • Lil Bean, Still Campaignin’– It does have lyrical complexity and positivity going for it, which is great. But ultimately the vocal styling is all too much in one vein, and it’s way too autotuned.
  • Lingua Ignota, Sinner Get Ready– You know the weirder and darker moments of operatic rock? This is that at length. It’s a little too heavy and challenging to get the listenability required for “top album”, but it also doesn’t permit you to turn away, which is something.  If nothing else, you should read-up on multi-media artist and classically trained musician Kristin Hayter, who is Lingua Ignota, and who has a whole lot of interesting stuff going on.
  • Lucinda Chua, Antidotes (1 & 2)- London based singer, composer and producer, combines a 2021 EP with a 2019 EP for a full-length release. Beautiful vocals and subtle, muted instrumental music, but ultimately a little too subdued to really register.
  • Madi Diaz, History of a Feeling- This Connecticut singer-songwriter delivers searingly personal acoustic/folk songs centered on the difficult feelings that come up in relationships. It’s sometimes quite affecting, but the first four tracks are curiously vocally and musically muted given the subject matter. It speeds up after that, and then it’s devastating and arresting. But five tracks in is too late to have that start to click in. 
  • Marisa Anderson/William Tyler, Lost Futures– This instrumental album by two American folk powerhouses is very good, but, well, entirely instrumental. I just don’t see it slaying hundreds of other albums to win a spot in the top 21 for the whole year.
  • Mouse Rat, Awesome Album– Yes, Mouse Rat is Andy’s band from Parks and Rec. Yes, this is a collection of songs from the show, plus a few new tracks added. Yes, it somehow sounds better than most of what you hear on the radio now, even though it’s totally absurd. No, I don’t think it will be a best album of the year. Yes, it is delightful.
  • Nite Jewel, No Sun– It’s pretty, it’s smart and well produced, but it’s way too same track to track.
  • One Republic, Human – Uggghhh. Autontuned, overproduced 2000s pop par excellence. I grant you, it’s very radio friendly, but nothing like an actual human sentiment emerges from it at all.
  • Only Up, Breeze– This is often very interesting, especially when it gets funky, but generally it’s too 80s alt/90s electronic throwback without anything really distinct to it. I see-sawed, but ultimately ended up on “no”.
  • Quickly, Quickly, The Long and Short of It– This Portland based artist/musician is doing some really interesting things on the borderline of hip-hop/electronica/experimental. Ultimately, it gets a little auto-tuned and too similar track to track for me, but there are things here to take note of.
  • Robben Ford, Pure– Instrumental, electric, bluesy outing from American blues, jazz, and rock guitarist Robben Lee Ford. It’s very good, but also as an entirely instrumental piece, and it’s hard to hang a lot on it ultimately as an “album”
  • Scotch Rolex, TEWARI- A Japanese DJ living in Germany puts out an album with a UK label in which he works with avant garde African musicians. The modern world is really pretty amazing sometimes! It’s always interesting, but sometimes too grating/experimental for a consistent album experience.  (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
  • Southern Avenue, Be The Love You Want– Memphis soul and blues band? I mean, generically, yes! In specific, they start off really strong, high-energy and distinctive. By and by, too many songs that sound like each-other and production that’s a little too slick starts to drag it down, but no question this is a fun and talented band.
  • System Olympia, Always on Time– A solid enough electronica/dance outing from London-based artist Francesca Macri, but nothing grabs me to the extent that I think it might be “year’s best” material. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
  • Terence Blanchard, Absence– It’s a pretty fine jazz album, I think. But it doesn’t get enough into the realm of musical forms I’m interested in.
  • The Joy Formidable, Into the Blue– A Welsh alternative rock group, which is a promising enough description. And what they do is very solidly done, but it feels a little too smooth and not vital and real enough along the way.
  • The Steoples, Wide Through the Eyes of No One- An avant-soul collaboration between two Los Angeles musicians, and that’s how it comes off- something obviously based in soul and R&B, but approaching it from a different direction, still smooth while also bristling with experimentation and unusual musical and production choices. It started off with a lot of promise, but ultimately too much of it was in one groove/tone, and the individual tracks started getting lost.
  • Tinashe, 333- The opening track was off-kilter and promising, but from there it settled into the autotuned music/vocals school of R&B. There was more than a sign of sparkle here, but overall it doesn’t get out of that vein enough.
  • Tropical Fuck Storm, Deep States– These are like solid pop-rock songs that have gone out of focus in a fun way- vocals and music tracks slightly out of synch, discordant edges to everything, a certain stuttering quality. Ultimately it proved a little too grating a little too often to be sustainable at album length, but it was interesting!
  • Villagers, Fever Dreams- An Irish alternative rock group, which is a promising enough description. And what they do is very solidly done, but it feels a little too low-key/one-tempo to really stand out and get attention.
  • Walt McClements, A Hole in the Fence– Has a kind of Eno- Lanois U2 sound. Entirely instrumental, pretty and atmospheric, but not enough content to make it to “great” in my opinion. It is pretty impressive for being entirely accordion-based though!
  • William Parker, Mayan Space Station- This was almost the Fusion album that I actually like! Maybe because it was full of guitar distortion early on and sometimes reminded me of Hendrix. Later on it became a little more bubbling Jazz, speaking of which…
  • William Parker, Painter’s Winter– This was too often the kind of bubbling jazz that just fades into the background for me.
  • Wolves in the Throne Room, Primordial Arcana– Black metal band from Olympia, Washington? Count me in! And I mean, that name, come on. And let me tell you, the symphonic layered swell of their wall of sound is really something, but ultimately the totally opaque scream lyrics detracted too much from the process
  • Yann Tiersen, Kerber– French musician and composer. It has a kind of Eno/Lanois feeling to it. Yes I said the same thing about another entry a few items ago. Ultimately it’s too ethereal for me to find anything to grab on to.
  • Young Nudy, Rich Shooter– This is his second album out this year. Like the earlier one, DR. EV4L, there are the makings of a great, or at least a very interesting, album here,  but too much of the rest of it is full of bitch and pussy talk. Alas!
  • Yung Baby Tate, After the Rain– This is fun, and she has a lot of presence and personality, but I’m not sure in total that it rises above other dance/R&B outings this year to “year’s best”. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

And so, with a little under 10 hours remaining, we have finished the August review before the end of September. Onward!

In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: July

Okay, look, this is the July review. And yes, it’s September. Perhaps the August review will make it out before the end of the following month? We’ll see. Meanwhile, whatever month it is, our search for the 21 best albums of 2021 continues!

If this is your first time here, I’m listening to new releases each month, sorting them into categories, and then I’ll do a final shakedown to get the best 21 after the year ends. If you missed previous months, you can find them here:

( January February March April May June )

This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year. We’re at the halfway point of my ongoing review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and my final installment on my reviews of the 20 best albums of 2020 is here.

Before we go on, a quick note about the three categories:

Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. As of the end of July, this list is up to 140 albums, so, you know, it’s going to be a brutal reckoning at the end.

Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I have some reservation. I’ve noticed over the years that sometimes “maybes” linger, so I’m giving them a category just in case.

No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.

And with that, we better get going, because I listened to 95 new releases in July. So there’s a lot to get through!

Billie Eilish, Happier Than Ever– Her smoky vocals and sharp emotionally complicated lyrics are in top form here, and the music works well with it, be it low-tempo piano cords, waves of electronic shimmer, or smooth beats. A worthy entry, all the way around.

Chet Faker, Hotel Surrender– This alter ego of Australian musician Nicholas Murphy brings a piece informed by electronica, R&B, and 70s flourishes, with a nice spare power, clean production, and some interesting musical, vocal, and lyrical twists. It’s really good, doesn’t sound like everything else I’ve heard this year, and also threw in a Star Trek reference. So, you know, that’s it for me.

Cookie Kawaii, Vanice– Oh my gosh, I love this! Apparently, she’s a Jersey club DJ who broke out on Tik-tok. There’s a2021 story for you. And here she’s delivering electronic dance/hip-hop that’s pure catchy fun, and is smart and coming from a unique point of view.

Dave, We’re All Alone in This Together– Dave is a British hip-hop artist, who turns out to have fierce and intelligent vocals and lyrics, delivered on a nuanced and subtle musical background. His songs deal with the personal and with social issues, and sound authentic and powerful in each vein.

Jodi, Blue Heron– Stripped-down, plaintive, vaguely melancholy. Offbeat and vulnerable lyrics and vocals, with a lurch that is reflected in the music sometimes too. In all, it’s really affecting despite its low-key tone.

John Glacier, SHILOH: Lost for Words– She (this London-based artist, despite the name, is a woman) delivers a disorienting tapestry of beats, music and vocals, informed by a left field hip hop sound and a strong, personal lyrical narrative. A great, low-key gem.

kolezanka, Place Is– Musically and vocally a swirling incantation, with the sweetness of melody, but the surprise and sometimes bite of musical experimentation. Kolezanka is the debut solo project of Kristina Moore, an Arizona native and current New York City resident who is a veteran of several indie bands. You can tell she’s learned her craft well along the way.

Ledisi, Ledisi Sings Nina– Ledisi is amazing, and the Nina Simone source material is great as well. So we have a solid basis, and from there the vocal performance is top-rate, the lyrics are smartly updated, and the musical delivery is in a swinging jazz style that’s a delight.

Los Lobos, Native Sons– Los Lobos is here paying tribute to their roots with a dozen covers of artists from Los Angeles that have influenced them. Multiple genres and eras from the 40s to the 80s get a  turn, in fitting with the band’s own eclecticism. As both a love letter to LA, and a tribute to their influences, it’s pretty effective. And as a showcase for the band’s 40+ years of craftsmanship it’s smooth and powerful.

Lucinda Williams, Lu’s Jukebox, Vol. 2: Southern Soul – From Memphis to Muscle ShoalsPart of the “jukebox” series of Lucinda Williams covering favorites. The source material for her covers here is great stuff. And she covers it well- her strength in terms of musical approach and sensibility fits it so well.

Mega Bog, Life, and Another– The music is acoustic with hints of jazz, flamenco, brill building pop, brittle noise, unusual vocals (sometimes quirky, sometimes whispery, sometimes discordant) and smart, off-center lyrics. It puts me a bit in mind of Laurie Anderson, Lydia Lunch, and the musically sharper side of Ani DiFranco. overall, the whole thing sits on the fine edge of charming and challenging, and that’s a great fence to straddle.

Molly Burch, Romantic Images– Musically and vocally, this sounds like its title-bright and lush with romance. A lot of the songs here felt familiar, in that “this is that song I used to like!” kind of way. One of the songs specifically pitches the joys of nostalgia too, so I think she knows what she’s doing.

Patrick Paige II, If I Fail Are We Still Cool?– The title of this is so charming I was pulling for it on that basis alone. As it turns out, his flow is smooth, the lyrics are sharp, clear and positive, and the production and sampling is spare and off-center (jazz, video game sounds, synth sound effects all make an appearance) in a way that drives everything along. There’s even a framing motif of an airplane flight that actually works with the theme of striving for personal uplift!

  

Rose City Band, Earth Trip– Country inflected indie with a warm hazy feeling. It reminds me of a certain vein of Neil Young and CSN&Y, but with a contemporary flourish. This turns out not to be an accident as guitarist Ripley Johnson apparently aims for this space in his projects. Just a delightful listen the whole way through.

Sault, Nine– I listened to Sault’s two 2020 releases as part of my review of the critic’s top twenty albums for that year. Darned if they weren’t both excellent, and this is too. Sault is an anonymous British hip-hop collective that mixes influences from electronica, hip-hop, and classic soul in a dizzying and skillful way. The musical side alone would be a treat, but then they have sharp, lucid, and uplifting lyrics and vocals on top of it.

Sonny & The Sunsets, New Day With New Possibilities– It started off sounding like moody and atmospheric acoustic folk with country flourishes, then got weirder and funnier from there. It reminds me of the attention to solid musicianship married with intelligent lyrics and a big sense of humor that Camper Van Beethoven had. Also more than a hint of Jonathan Richman. And it turns out they’re a San Francisco band, so no wonder I like them!

The Go! Team, Get Up Sequences Part I– So fun and energetic- it mixes full on indie rock in a synth/bedroom pop vein, 80s-flavored hip-hop, and what sometimes sounds like high school band practice. This the 441st new album I’ve listened to this year, and nothing else sounded like. And not many were as delightful either!

The Wallflowers, Exit Wounds– So, I’m from the 90s musically, thus I’m going to be interested in the Wallflowers based on lingering love for their 1996 album Bringing Down the Horse. Also, I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, so I’ll always be curious about what Jakob’s up to musically on that basis. The good news for me on both fronts is that, without ever sounding derivative, he does remind of his father, and he continues to have his 90s gift for incisive lyrics, and a way with melody within solid rock structure. This album works, start to finish.

Tones and I, Welcome to the Madhouse– This Australian singer-songwriter delivers dance music as madness. The opening is cheerful and truly unsettling. Subsequent tracks are more conventional but still have a lot of intelligence emotional bite and surprise twists, unusual flourishes to both the music and the lyrics.

TORRES, Thirstier– Hello, is this a guitar wall of sound? With pleasing outbreaks of dynamism? And smart heartfelt lyrics delivered via lackadaisical yet powerful vocals from a frontwoman? I am practically required by law to like this combination. The album even has an ending that feels like an honest-to-goodness ending! TORRES is Mackenzie Ruth Scott, and I approve her message.

 

Wavves, Hideaway– Great lo-fi ringing indie rock from this San Diego band. Callbacks to 50s/60s rock, garage rock, the rockier side of 80s alt. Male and female vocalists trading off too, which you don’t hear nearly often enough. If you’re like me, this may restore your faith in the anarchic appeal of real rock.

Willow, Lately I Feel EVERYTHING– This was much rockier than I was expecting. Mostly rocking from a young Taylor Swiftian kind of direction, but full of attitude and musical verve. And sometimes coming in from metal and even Bikini Kill territory, with R&B and hip-hop dashes along the way. Well done young Willow!

Yola, Stand For Myself– Rich, sparkling, full, R&B. This British soul artist’s voice is a force, and musically this has a modern classic sound from all kinds of Soul/R&B directions. You’re in good hands from start to finish.

Maybe

  • Andy Bell, Another View  -This is not Andy Bell of Erasure, but Andy Bell of shoegaze pioneer Ride. Let me tell you, this makes it difficult to search for. An electronica album by a shoegaze pioneer, well, I thought I was in trouble. But it turns out this is one of the livelier and more interesting electronica rides of the year!
  • Attacca Quartet, Real Life– One source described this as “classical crossover”, and I can see what they mean. A classical quartet goes for a spin that, while instrumentally still classical, has the flavor of rock and electronic dance music. It’s lively, powerful, and feels like it understands the spirit of rock, which I often wish rock still did. Call me crazy, but despite/because of the unusual genre approach, I think it could be a contender!
  • Barenaked Ladies, Detour de Force– They’ve never been less than really fun, and it’s still true here. Some of it feels a little by rote, but other tracks really stand out, and it’s impossible to find anything bad in this album. So I’m not sure it reaches “out of the park, best of the year” status, but maybe?
  • Bleachers, Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night– Headed by very in-demand songwriter Jack Antonoff, Bleachers at times sounds like new wave, at times sounds like Springsteen (no accident, they’re both from New Jersey and Bruce even appears on one of the tracks), and their album is full of songs about yearning for rising above. The only thing that bumped it off of “yes” was the decision to end on two very muted low-key tracks in a row.
  • Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, 662– You know who’s got it going on as a genre? Contemporary blues. This album is muscular, electric, skillfully played. It falls prey a little too much sometimes, maybe, to production slickness, but really it’s pretty excellent. I wish rock would learn this lesson and be unafraid to produce unapologetic genre music.
  • Dusted, III– I kept thinking this was too much in a muted acoustic vein musically and vocally, but the emotional complexity, intelligence, and bite of the lyrics kept winning me back. Well done, Canadian indie rock band! I’m telling you, Canada is where it’s at!
  • Dave McMurray, Grateful Deadification– A jazz fusion great makes an album of Grateful Dead covers. How’s that for an album concept! My 80s alt teen self would have been aghast at two of the great enemies- Jazz and the Dead- being combined, but my more nuanced adult self thinks this take on it often works surprisingly well.
  • G Herbo, 25– There’s some great song structure work here and powerful clear flow, but it does tip into the autotune school of hip-hop on some tracks. Also, the subject matter and personality behind it is often quite interesting and revealing, but it dips into gangster cliches. On the other hand, he also questions these same tropes, and expresses a yearning for rising above it. And as it goes on, this actually increases.
  • Laura Mvula, Pink Noise– Starts off with those nice sharp metallic beats from the 80s, and strong vocals. It has a late-80s soul/R&B feel, also informed by jazz, and the dub/Caribbean influence often found in British soul/R&B(which makes sense since she’s British). I wonder about the dated feel, and it’s a little more produced than I often like things, but it’s such a fun mix, and her strong presence carries it through.
  • Marisa Monte, Portas– I’m not really up on my Afro-Brazilian pop/jazz artists, but she seems like a really good one! On the one hand, it’s not Portugese’s fault, but I don’t understand a word of Portugese. On the other hand, this is so engaging and charming. So maybe we average out at “Maybe”?
  • Prince, Welcome 2 America– This posthumous album is from unreleased 2010 sessions, but darned if they don’t fit 2020/21 weirdly well, which is one sign of his power. It’s lyrically, vocally and musically for the most part subtle but tight, and full of the utopian themes were one of Prince’s classic preoccupations. This isn’t the most innovative thing he’s ever put out, but it is eerily resonant of our moment.
  • Rodney Crowell, Triage– A country music veteran who helped kick start the neo-traditional movement in the 80s. This outing is often very personal and introspective (fueled both by the influence of the pandemic, and a nerve disease he has developed). The only reservation is that the music and lyrics sometimes go for an almost cliche standard, but he always sound sincere, and affecting. Some good covers, and his originals bring to mind Neil Young and Bob Dylan, which is a pretty impressive thing to have one’s originals do.
  • Son Volt, Electro Melodier– When the principals of Uncle Tupelo went their separate ways, the way Jay Farrar went was to Son Volt, where he continued a sound rather like Uncle Tupelo’s. Which is great! The lyrics do tend a little toward the klunky side of topical here and there, in a way that was charming for an 80s underground band and isn’t as much now, but that’s about my only reservation.
  • Taphari, Blind Obedience– A fun dynamic hip-hop outing, full of unusual musical, vocal, and lyrical choices that evoke a kaleidoscope of ideas and images. A little light/not always coherent, perhaps, for annual best. But maybe not!
  • The Flatlanders, Treasure of Love– Founded in 1972, The Flatlanders were a short-lived country rock/outlaw country band, but the individual members went on to long careers harking to traditionalism, which has fueled interest in their reunions over the years. There are a few originals here, mostly covers. This sounds just like you’d expect based on that, which is a sort of a minus- is it too familiar?, but also a strong plus- it sounds timelessly classic.
  • Tom Petty / Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Angel Dream– It’s a bit of a peculiar story. This album features songs from his soundtrack for “She’s The One” in 1993, but it’s not simply that soundtrack- it features some, but not all of the songs from it, and adds four previously unreleased songs from the same period. And it was released by his estate, so it’s official, and in, a way, a new album in its own right. The peculiarity is keeping it from “yes” for me, but it is such an excellent window into one of his most interesting and often overlooked periods.
  • Towa Tei, LP– I do have a generational soft spot in my heart for Deee-Lite, so maybe I’m biased, but this album reminds me of how fun electronic music can be. How it can be clever, knowledgeable of and conversant with musical idioms and what makes a song work, weirdly electronic and futuristic sounding, high energy, and just joyful. It got just bumped out of “yes” by having an out-of-tone with the rest of it dreamy slow number at the end, but otherwise excellent. Thanks Towa!
  • U-Roy, Solid Gold– A fitting send-off for a reggae veteran who is also often credited as one of the inspirations for the development of hip-hop. This album, completed in 2020 and then followed shortly after by the 78 year-old U-Roy’s passing in February of this year, is chock full of well-used guests, and  excellent songs with the particular spiritual-political charge and simultaneous joy of Rastafarian-inspired reggae. If not for two 15-minute versions of the same song in a row at the end, it would have been an automatic “yes”, but even that couldn’t fully defeat it.

No

  • Alasdair Roberts/Volvur, The Old Fabled River– If you say “Scottish folk musician” to me, I’m well-disposed in advance. That being said, it was a little too all in one groove on the mellow side of folky to stand out. 
  • Always You, Bloom Off The Rose– Lost 80s alt album of the intersection of synth and moody pop rock variety? It was very pleasant, but it got a little too into the sameness of its own grove after a while.
  • Amaro Freitas, Sankofa– A Brazilian jazz album is bound to be a little borderline in terms of what I’m looking for, but, no stone left unturned. It was very nice, but in a too low-key, mellow way to really leave much impression.
  • Anika, Change– This British/German musician, journalist and poet delivers electronic/dance music, but with a spare post-punk edge, high intelligence, and a somewhat unsettling lyrical and vocal presence. The best tracks are great, but it’s a little too inconsistent between the ones that really hit and and muted fade-to-background numbers.
  • At The Gates, Nightmare of Being– Swedish death metal band, from the technical/orchestral side of metal, with a fair twist of thrash thrown in. The vocals are in the shouted school of metal vocals, but are clear enough to make out, which isn’t always the case with that school. Ultimately, I don’t know that it’s committing enough to one or the other of its sounds, or doing anything new or especially excellent enough to reach “best”.
  • Blues Traveler, Traveler’s Blues– I like the inversion of the name. This album sees the band doing a variety of blues covers, which plays to their strengths. For a band fan, for a genre fan, it’s a very worthy endeavor but, though it catches fire on some tracks, for the most part it doesn’t rise decisively to the level of year’s best.
  • Born of Osiris, Angel or Alien– Metalcore band from the Chicago area. Technically very proficient, it’s, well, a little shouty vocally, which largely prevents me from approaching it lyrically. The album picks up some of the worst habits of 2000s metal and hardcore, and even works in a little autotune.
  • Cautious Clay, Deadpan Love– A hip-hop album, but one that leans very heavily in an R&B direction. Or vice versa? Makes some unusual choices, which is interesting, and the tone is very positive, but ultimately too all one tone.
  • Charlotte Day Wilson, Alpha– A solid serving of smoky soul from a Canadian R&B singer. It’s well done musically and vocally, but sounds too much the same track to track. As a debut, though, it carries a lot of promise.
  • Clairo, Sling– A kind of hazy 70s feel to it, her cool vocals and warm syrup of the swinging, even sometimes orchestral, music nicely offset each other. The tracks also have a strong individual identity. It was a real contender until it lulled out for a few too many tracks 3/4 of the way through. She’s worth keeping an eye on, though!
  • Darkside, Spiral– A kind of discordant and spare album. Too often trending toward abstract/background.
  • David Crosby, For Free–  David Crosby, of course, never sounds bad. And he doesn’t here either. It does have that “rock veteran makes album in 80s with slick production” feel though. I certainly wouldn’t tell fans of his to stay away from it, but it doesn’t get into “year’s best” territory.
  • Declaime, In the Beginning, Vol. 1– Ah, the Oxnard school of hip-hop! Okay, maybe there’s not such a thing. It’s a solid album, but doesn’t really do anything special to stand out or rise above.
  • Descendents, 9th & Walnut–  This album sounds like it could have been produced at any point in the group’s history from 1977 to now, which is both a strength and weakness. I don’t hear “best of year” here, but it does do what it does very well. And you have to admire punk’s ability to pack 18 songs into 25 minutes.
  • Dot Allison, Heart-Shaped Scars– She got her start in electronic music in the 90s, and this is electronic, but in a strings kind of way, which, with her flowing wisp of a voice, brings to mind Celtic and new age music. Pleasant, but fades into the background.
  • Durand Jones & the Indications, Private Space– I couldn’t decide if this was an early 80’s R&B sound I really liked, or a too-produced muzak/light-jazz 80s soul that I didn’t. Ultimately there was too much of the later for it to make it to yes for me, but enough of the former that it deserves mention.
  • Emma-Jen Thackray, Yellow– Discordant electronica, surging jazz opening, spoken word poetry, then shifts into a jazz-inflected dance music with clever lyrics, but it gets a little too into the jazz easy listening vein after that.
  • Foodman, Yasuragi Land– This electronica album is from Japanese DJ, Producer, and Painter Takahide Higuch. It’s interesting, but a little abstract and a little too all in one tone track to track to really stand out for me.
  • Guardian Singles, Guardian Singles– Rock! Hi-energy, sunny rock! Every time I hear it again, I remember how much I’ve missed it. You know when a song ends and the feedback fuzz is still there? That’s good stuff. Unfortunately, it mushed up into undifferentiated low-key tracks at the end. Alas!
  • Half Waif, Mythopoetics– The spare but powerful production-leans toward electronic/keyboard, plaintive slightly ghostly vocals, darkly textured lyrics. These are the strengths, and they are considerable, but ultimately too much of it just fades into the background of track to track similarity.
  • Horsey, Debonair– For the majority of these tracks, this South London band sounds like a muscular out of control lounge singer, kind of like if “Helter Skleter” Paul McCartney played the sweet diddies of sweet diddy Paul McCartney. And then methed it out a step further. I loved it, until they decided to end with a long low-energy song followed by a meandering “Revolution #9” type style track. Album greatness squashed.
  • Jackson Browne, Downhill From Everywhere– Like the David Crosby album, there really isn’t a version of Jackson Browne that sounds bad. And this doesn’t sound as “80s production” as Crosby’s album, though it does have traces of that. On the whole, it’s energetic and well done, and won’t do any Jackson Browne fan wrong, but doesn’t rise to his/the year’s best.
  • Jam & Lewis, Volume One– This is the debut album of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, but of course their production work loomed so large in soul/R&B in the 80s and 90s that it’s hardly an unknown quantity. And that is maybe part of the problem here- it is, as one might expect, extremely finely produced. It’s also very familiar, and a little plastic feeling. There’s not enough of the dynamic or surprising here.
  • Jeff Lorbe/The Jeff Lorber Fusion , Space-Time– There is, maybe?, a version of jazz fusion that I like. Maybe. This isn’t it, it’s practically muzaky.
  • Jehnny Beth/Bobby Gillespie , Utopian Ashes– Sort of the post-punk version of a country duets album, featuring the front-man of 80s alt stalwarts Primal Scream and the vocalist of 2000s post-punk band Savages. The songs are well done, very fine in fact, but beyond some scattered moments here and there, the whole never really catches fire or raises above.
  • John Mayer, Sob Rock– I like John Mayer, but only in a certain small dosage, so between that and the title, I was a little leery going in. Boy do I stand by that! Vapid lyrics, smooth soulless music, coupled with 80s-style production. Saints preserve us!
  • John McLaughlin, Liberation Time– Based on its clanging electric opening, at first I thought that this might be the fusion album that I turned out to like. Then it started to go down the dark path of bubbly light and easy.
  • King Woman, Celestial Blues– A thick, somewhat doomy, somewhat orchestral sound, with vocals that started out more in the yearning than the screaming category. But then, alas, got more screamy. If you’ve ever been a goth kid, there is good stuff here, but ultimately it’s kind of the same track to track.
  • Koreless, Agor– Extremely minimal, even as minimal electronic albums go.
  • Leon Bridges, Gold-Diggers Sound– Definitely a solid soul/R&B album, but a little too in the autotuned direction, and I never felt like it consistently rose above.
  • Lucrecia Dalt/Aaron Dilloway, Lucy & Aaron– Well, they’re both experimental musicians, and this was very…experimental. Interesting, but a little too deliberately grating to be consistently listenable.
  • Luminol, Midwife– An ethereal swirl of vocals and muted keyboard chords. The lyrical voice is quite interesting and strong, which makes the best tracks very affecting, but it doesn’t happen consistently.
  • Maxine Funke, Séance– A folk-flavored outing from a New Zealand singer-songwriter. The songs are quiet, spare, and arresting. Ultimately too quiet to hold attention in a “year’s best” kind of way, but still very fine.
  • Moin, Moot!– Some moody and menacing electronica, some wailing in the background, some muttered lyrics. At its best, it’s actually pretty compelling, but the best is unfortunately only every other track or so.
  • Nancy Wilson, You And Me– This was a May release that I somehow missed! Over the years, I’ve slowly come to terms with not marrying her, and silently admired her too-often undersung guitar playing from afar. There are some great covers here, and the best items crackle. Then there are a few too many ballads/80s production numbers. Drop 4 tracks, and this might have been a “yes”.
  • Ora The Molecule, Human Safari– This is more accessible than you might think upon hearing that it’s the vehicle of a Norwegian avant-garde artist. It sometimes feels a bit too abstract, and isn’t consistent/coherent enough for album “best”, but there’s some worthy material here!
  • Paul McCartney, McCartney III Imagined– Not quite covers, but rather, a variety of artists doing remixes of Paul McCartney’s well-received album from last year McCartney III. Kind of like the Gray Album in reverse, and with a wider variety of artists working it (Beck, Phoebe Bridgers, and St. Vincent, among others, get in on the action here). It’s really quite fun, and was well on its way to being a “yes” until it ended with a low-energy 11 minute electronica track. There’s just no call for that. Alas!
  • Peyton, PSA– A pretty, pleasant soul/dance album, with some pleasing cursing thrown in, but it never really sparks up.
  • Piroshka, Love Drips and Gathers– The music by this supergroup composed of members of Elastica, Lush, and Modern English is surging and shimmering, and the  vocals have some verve to them. You can certainly hear the roots, and they’re good roots. It was really winning me over until it delfated at the end by having multiple slow/abstracts tracks in a row.
  • Rey Sapienz & The Congo Techno Ensemble, Na Zala Zala– This was very interesting, with unusual beats, and at times almost grating. I do like African music, but this was too opaque between the grating quality and foreign language. It is certainly unusual though, and doesn’t sound like everything else.
  • Rodrigo Amarante, Drama– Brazilian Singer-Songwriter, ultimately a little too world/jazz and in Portugese for me.
  • Royal Canoe, Sidelining– I definitely feel like Royal Canoe is an appropriate name for a Canadian band. They don’t sound as canoey as you might expect, more like an electronic-informed indie rock, with lurches into and out of guitar rock and dance/disco mode. It didn’t quite come together consistently enough for me in terms of track by track quality and coherence to reach “best”, but it is fun and often interesting.
  • Sennen, Widows (Expanded Version)– This re-masters the band’s original 7-song album from 2005 and adds 7 unreleased songs from that same era. It’s all a little too slow and fuzzy for me, without enough musical or lyrical hook to keep it moving from track to track.
  • Snapped Ankles, Forest of Your Problems– A real solid post-punk outing, it would feel very at home on College Radio in the 80s. It was a borderline call, and it really is well done, but it feels so much like an archive item.
  • Stimulator Jones, Low Budget Environments Striving for Perfection– The artist name and album name are both pretty great, though one shouldn’t judge by that. What it turns out to be is hip-hop flavored electronic music. It’s nice background music, and interesting, but too low-key/low-content to really stand out.
  • Surf Gang, Surf Gang Vol. 1– The opening is less surf music than you might think, and much more psychedelisized hip-hop. After that it’s uneven- some very fun and unusual mixes, some autotuned dreck.
  • Tangents, Timeslips & Chimeras– An expansion (like, really, more than doubling) of a 2020 release by an Australian band. This particular mix of all-instrumental deconstrcuted jazz and electronic is certainly interesting, but never really gets over the top in terms of being compelling.
  • The Orange Peels, Celebrate the Moments of Your Life– This band originated in the Bay Area during the indie rock outburst of the 90s, and they’re still very good at what they do! They’re here with a double album, thick with melody, pop sensibility, and rock that recalls the 80s underground, the 90s, and a sunny dreamy side of the 70s all at once. The best material here is really great, but the double album sometime meanders and bogs down, which keeps it from coming together. More streamlined and they could have been a contender!
  • Trees Speak, PostHuman– This instrumental album from an Arizona duo would have sounded very at home in a new wave or industrial dance club in the 80s. It does what it does well, but I don’t know that it does it “best of year” well.
  • Twin Shadow, Twin Shadow–  Poppy-rocky, and fun, outing from this  Dominican-American singer-songwriter. Some 90s soul/80s alt feeling, a little dash of ska. It’s all very fine, but doesn’t feel to me like it consistently rises above and beyond to “year best” territory.
  • Various Artists, Bills & Aches & Blues– A variety of artists cover songs from throughout 4AD’s catalogue in honor of their 40th anniversary. It seems like a promising setup, I mean I was practically raised by 4AD. And some of the covers are truly grand. Then some of them kind of fizzle out, or are of material that is itself very low-key. So it ends up being a little uneven.
  • Various Artists, Changui: The Sound of Guantanamo– A box set documenting contemporary rural Cuban practitioners of the changui style of Cuban music (influenced by Spanish and African musical traditions and instruments, and an ancestor of salsa) compiled in support of a documentary. There are 51 songs, with a four hour run time. Given this sprawling range, it’s difficult for it to work as a coherent album, though this definitely can happen for something similar in more compact form (cf. Buena Vista Social Club). A fun window into a fascinating style, though.
  • Vince Staples, Vince Staples– This hip-hop album is a little autontuned, a little one-tone musically and vocally. It’s a shame because the content is actually pretty good!
  • YN Jay, Coochie Chronicles– The name might give you certain expectations. While it sometimes rises above, the content largely bears out these expectations. It could possibly get away with it with very clever or unusual flow or off-beat musical choices, but it doesn’t do either often enough.

And there we are, finished with July! Before the first half of September. So I guess that’s something? Now, I better hop on over to working on August now so we can catch up!

What Were the Best Albums of the Twenty-Teens? (Part 5 of 10)

Here we are with part five of my ten-part review of critic’s choices for the 52 best albums of 2010-2019! Halfway there! (52’s a weird number isn’t it? See below for the reason why…)

If by chance you missed the earlier editions, you can find them here:

(Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4)

This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. So go check out the final installment of my overview of the critical consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020, and my latest monthly review of 2021 new releases en route to finding the best 21 albums of 2021.

So. 52. It’s like this: I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. Albums getting 4 votes and up totaled 52, which was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff.

I’m doing 10 posts of 5 albums each (or 6 each on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. With that explained, let’s get on with Part 5!

DAMN. (Kendrick Lamar, 2017, 5 votes)– From the first this made musical and lyrical choices that show something special is going on here. The dense weaving of storytelling, the unusual vocal mixing choices, the strategic deployment of music samples to set a mood, it all works. His 2012 album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was a heck of a thing to have to live up to. Darned if this doesn’t do it!

Days Are Gone (Haim, 2013, 5 votes)– For my 2020 list I’d listened to their album Women in Music, and quite liked it. This feels like it leans even more poppy than that, but retains what I really liked about that album- a nearly perfect pop sensibility but some power and substance behind it. This does register as lighter than their later album, though. Is this the earlier album’s fault? No, and yet they must reverse-chronologically suffer for my knowledge!

Daytona (Pusha T, 2018, 4 votes)– It’s got energy and swagger, all right, and the wordplay is top notch. The music mix and sampling is crisp and sharp. The lyrics have some weight and meaning too. A little derivative (you’ll hear lots of influence of Jay-Z and Kanye West here- who produced it) but all in all, this is a very worthy effort.

Dirty Computer (Janelle Monae, 2018, 5 votes)– If you make a sexy, smooth R&B/dance album, I’m on your side. If you make an album with political/social import that doesn’t get polemical, I’m on your side. If you make an album full of smart, unusual lyrical, vocal, and musical choices, I’m on your side. If you make an album with sci-fi/tech themes, I’m on your side. If you do all of these together, you are Janelle Monae, and I’m over the moon.

DS2 (Future, 2015, 4 votes)– Early on I’m thinking this is a little more autotuned than I like, but the lyrical content is interesting at times, and there’s a pleasing air of menace in the music. However, there seems to be a lot more “bitch” and “pussy” here than I like. On balance, it’s a “no” for me.

And there we are with Part Five. 25 down, 27 to go. Five more posts. We can do it!

In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: May

Well, it looks like we just barely got the May review done before the end of June. Better that then even later!

As part of my continuing search for the 21 best albums of 2021, I’m listening to new releases every month, sorting them into categories, and then I’ll do a final shake-down after the year ends. If you missed the previous editions, you can find them here:

( January February March April )

This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year, you should also check out my ongoing review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s here, and my wrap-up on reviews of the 20 best albums of 2020 here.

But, for the moment, we’re concerned with 2021. And the 92 new releases I listened to in May! Before we go on, a quick note about the three categories:

Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. As of the end of May, this list is up to 95 albums, so the reckoning is going to be bloody.

Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I have some reservation. I’ve noticed over the years that some “maybes” have a habit of lingering, so I’m giving them a category just in case.

No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.

And now, boldly forward with May!

Alan Jackson, Where Have You Gone– This feels like it’s just on this side of cliché, but almost classic, and musically and vocally straight up. Much of it is a conscious paean to the best of 70s and 80s pop country, and he delivers the feel. Despite the album running over an hour long, when it ended, I honest to gosh had the immediate impulse to play it again.

Allison Russell, Outside Child– Between the soulful jazzy first track, and the country third track, I had a feeling I would like what was going on here. Vocally powerful, musically complex, she tours genres like nobody’s business. All with looming feeling. A Montreal native and fixture of the Chicago and Nashville music scenes working with other bands, this is her debut solo album. She’s apparently self-taught and a multi-instrumentalist, which speaks to her range and power. Personal, meaningful, magnificent.

Aquarian Blood, Bending the Golden Hour– Neo-psychedelia, but also with some 90s rock and indie folk feeling to it. It’s a great mix, well-rendered, the male and female vocals add to it, and there’s an element of darkness and even menace to it that I appreciate.

Buffet Lunch, The Power of Rocks– I like buffets and I like rocks, so I walked into this album well-disposed. It turns out it delivers an offbeat, psychedelic-flavored sometimes discordant rock that repays my initial good will. The opening reminds one of the sillier side of the Beatles, in a good way. It stays in that vein but also gets discordant in a post-rock kind of way. It’s an interesting combination!

Chrissie Hynde, Standing in the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan– All right, the basics- Bob Dylan is in my all-time top five, I love Chrissie Hynde, and I really like cover albums. So Hynde covering Dylan starts off conceptually ahead for me. Hynde capitalizes on this head start, though, by choosing some more unusual songs from the catalogue, and giving them her own sound while honoring the spirit of the original. She is superb, and this is a definite contender.

Current Joys, Voyager– There’s a spareness and sometimes even delicacy to the music that is a nice offset to the emotional seriousness of the lyrics and yearning vocals. This album by Multi-band alumni Nick Rattigan feels like an evocation of Alex Chilton, with a good layer of 80s alt via a 2000 indie rock treatment.

Czarface/MF Doom, Super What?– One of two posthumous hip-hop legend releases we have this month. RIP MF Doom. I don’t think it’s just that sentiment that’s got me liking this- the delightful swirl of music and samples, pounding vocal flow, themes of superhero/sci-fi, pandemic, and pop culture, all add up to a great outing! And all the more reason for sadness that there isn’t more to come.

DMX, Exodus 1:7– The other of the two posthumous hip-hop legend releases we have this month. RIP DMX. This starts off muscular and menacing. Then is, by turns, a flashback to late 90s/early 2000s hip-hop, spiritual, and a considered meditation on age and parenthood. A tour de force, and fitting final testament.

Fiver, Fiver With the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition– Sometimes it seems like a country album, sometimes it seems like a jazz album, at times it gets almost psychedelic, and the vocals of lead singer Simone Schmidt have a subtle power that often breaks out into downright soaring. An unusual and arresting album.

Gruff Rhys, Seeking New Gods– Well this is lovely! Melody, clear instruments, and the thick voice of this Welsh singer-songwriter (and Super Furry Animals alum) all work together to create a feeling reminiscent of some of the highlights of pub rock, art rock, and prog rock.

J. Cole, The Off-Season– Musically muscular, great mixing, strong and clear vocals, great energy and variation on tracks. When it comes to contemporary hip-hop, I do appreciate that ROC production…

Jack Ingram/Miranda Lambert/Jon Randall, The Marfa Tapes– Several pop country stars hang out together on a porch in West Texas and record what they get up to, and it’s better than anything on pop country radio.There’s a lesson here! The songs are stripped down (including talk between takes, mistakes, and background noise, almost like demos really), honest, and shine like gold.

Jerry Douglas/John Hiatt/The Jerry Douglas Band, Leftover Feelings– By turns rollicking, relaxed, and tender, this music lives at the intersection of rock, blues, and country. Hiatt’s voice is just the right kind of ragged to fit with this and make it feel utterly authentic. You may hear echoes of Dylan, Springsteen, the more wistful edges of Outlaw Country, and even, I swear, Carl Perkins here. None of it is derivative though, that’s just the mythic space this album is inhabiting.

Johnny Flynn & Robert Macfarlane, Lost in the Cedar Wood– Kind of a hardcore folk album, it also reminds me of the folk side of Led Zeppelin. Strong music, clear vocals, and lyrics that create a world. And I thought Johnny Flynn was just a pretty lovelorn BBC shows-TV face!

Jorge Elbrecht, Presentable Corpse 002– Strains of dark folk, psychedelia, indie rock, put together in a way that is menacing and mind-bending. It feels like a time-lost classic. Reading up on it after listening, there is a through story, which is hard to get at first listen. Even without that, though, it’s thoroughly well done.

Lydia Ainsworth, Sparkles & Debris– Toronto composer and singer, this is musically simple, electronic and just on the edge of dance, and in a sense vocally straightforward, but with interesting touches to both, and her literate lyrics are arresting. Pop but deeper-think of, perhaps, Dido? It even gets philosophical and metaphysical! And the “Good Times” cover is amazing!

PACKS, Take The Cake– Surging guitar rhythms, darkly inflected vocals with a lackadaisical undertow. Am I in the 90s? Musically, I love being in the 90s! As per many an excellent rock band from the last decade plus, they’re from Canada (Toronto, to be exact). Oh Canada!

Pardoner, Came Down Different– You know that promising young band of indie rock guys with great crunching guitars? This is them! I always like them, whoever they are. This particular iteration are from San Francisco, which is maybe an additional reason as well, but I swear the promise is there.

Riley Downing, Start It Over– A croony soulful swell of music, informed by some country flavor, some soul and blues, and some glowering alt presence. The vocals are like spoken word soul, except with a country inflection, and remind a little of Tom Waits. It all adds up to something pretty compelling.

Robert Finley, Sharecropper’s Son– This Blues and Soul veteran returned to recording in 2016 after a break of many years, and is here coming out with an album produced by the Black Keys. You might figure these would be the elements of excellence, and they gosh darn are. Muscular electric blues and soul.

St. Vincent, Daddy’s Home– Attitude, vocal verve, sometimes dancey sometimes smokingly croony music informed by multiple genres, with clever lyrics. What here is not to love? Honestly, she reminds me of Prince in her playfulness, range, and power.

Texas, Hi– Brooding, swinging, rocking, smooth and sophisticated, familiar with 80s alt, indie rock and classic idioms, full of feeling. I do love my Scottish bands, so I don’t know why I didn’t know about Texas a lot earlier than this, but they have got it going on!

The Black Keys, Delta Kream– This Black Keys homage to Delta Blues is clearly a sound that’s in their wheelhouse. A bunch of 2000s white guys covering early/mid 20th century black blues musicians certainly has representation problem potential. However, their whole lifetime approach holds this music in such reverence that I think it avoids that trap and shines as a labor of love.

The Chills, Scatterbrain– A very lost in time feel, one might legitimately think one was stumbling across a lost classic of the psychedelic era, though as it goes on it picks up more than a little twist of synth pop. Not a track misfires.

Weezer, Van Weezer– Not an album of Van Halen covers, but rather an invocation of the spirit of that era/style of music. This is near and dear to my heart, and obviously to theirs as well. So well done!

Maybe

  • Aly & AJ, A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then into the Sun– A very pretty and well done pop record. It’s not profound, but it also never lets you down, and I kept wavering between “not substantive enough”, and “yeah, but it’s pretty good”. So I guess by definition this is a maybe!
  • Bachelor, Doomin’ Sun– Friends from two indie bands rent a house together during the pandemic and get as deep and weird as they want to home recording. That’s a good start, and the results are shimmery, raw, and real. Their visions are complementary, but not identical, and the results are beautiful and always interesting, albeit maybe it doesn’t feel totally coherent.
  • CHAI, Wink– The “quirky becomes downright weird” side of J-pop is one of my favorite locations. They play around with dance music and disco to excellent, and consistently subversively fun, effect. It feels a little light and slight, perhaps, which is the only thing keeping it from a “yes” for me.
  • Damien Jurado, The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania– The title is great, and the cover is pretty good too. Don’t judge a book by it’s…? Well, the lyrics and vocals are lucid, even poetically luminous. It’s all on the acoustic and mellow side musically, maybe a little too same that way, but the lyrical/vocal side of it keeps it in strong contention!
  • Dispatch, Break Our Fall– Wastes no time, started out rocking. With 60s classic/80s jangle feel-rocking numbers, ballads, lighter almost novelty songs. A little klunky in its topicality and maybe too long, but song structure and music is 100%. A lot of it sounds instant classic.
  • Giant Claw, Mirror Guide– I kind of liked the discordant random plucked notes start to this. I made it to halfway through and realized, unlike many electronic albums I listen to, I wasn’t questioning its or my continued existence. There’s something weird, off-beat, even sci-fi about it that keeps it compelling. Despite the oddness, because of the oddness? This is a definite maybe for me!
  • Juliana Hatfield, Blood– I really like Juliana Hatfield, and I’m also required by law to like smart, angsty, fuzz-guitared 90s songstresses in general, and this is firmly in that vein. She’s never not had an edge, but this is nasty in a sharp-tongued kind of way, and hilarious. The lyrics feel a little too topically on the nose sometimes, which is the only thing keeping it from a “yes”.
  • Kasai Allstars, Black Ants Always Fly Together, One Bangle Makes No Sound– African folk from a Congolese group, delivered with exuberance. There is obvious application of the roots of their sound to American music as well. There is the foreign language issue, but the music is so dynamic and fun it pretty much overcomes that for me.
  • L’Orange/Namir Blade, Imaginary Everything– It didn’t quite feel like it came together, but there’s a lot of excellent hip-hop experimentation going on here. The eclectic musical sampling work is superb, the mix and wordplay is surreal.
  • Lord Huron, Long Last– I’ve been curious about this Lord, and his great lakey realm, for a while. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this is a very welcome surprise- country inflections with that spooky minor chords sound, sometimes in a downright cowboy ballad vein, but with a heartfelt air. There’s even a framing device for the album that works. It was all superb, and was headed toward being an automatic yes until a 14-minute ambient track at the end. Alas!
  • Lou Barlow, Reason To Live– Nice acoustic energy, evocative vocals, I kept teetering toward everything sounding too same early on, but the songs sound looming, like something important is going on. This 80s/90s lo-fi rock pioneer (alumni of Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh) knows what he’s doing, I think.
  • Mach-Hommy, Pray for Haiti– The musical/mix side of this is great, with many offbeat choices, and the vocal flow is smooth but dynamic, and the subject matter-a kaleidoscope of personal and cultural references focused by an overarching meditation on the political and economic straights of Haiti-is compelling. It was very promising on the first half, but got unfocused and over-run with guest MCs who watered down the coherence on the second half.
  • Micky Dolenz, Dolenz Sings Nesmith– The more poppy former-Monkee covering solo work from the more experimental former-Monkee is an interesting idea. Like, imagine what a McCartney covers solo Lennon album might be like? It turns out really well, and the only thing going against it as an album is also it’s strength- a wide diversity of source songs. So it doesn’t really come off as coherent, but it is fun!
  • Moby, Reprise– This is literally a reprise- Moby not just re-recording, but re-imagining, a baker’s dozen plus one of songs from throughout his career. Between the strength of the original source material and the interesting nature of the re-works, it’s pretty compelling.
  • Mustafa, When Smoke Rises– Spoken word, hip-hop, and there’s something quiet and compelling about it. It’s very low-key, musically and vocally, which is about my only reservation, but it gets under your skin and is talking about things that have some weight to them. It doesn’t sound like everything else, and all-in-all is a pretty hefty accomplishment for someone who’s only 24.
  • Natalie Bergman, Mercy– Is this an electronic indie neo-disco gospel album? I kind of think yes! I actually liked that idea pretty well, and it’s weirdly compelling. I was with it for quite a while, until it got a little wobbly halfway through, but then ended powerfully.
  • Paul Weller, Fat Pop, Vol. 1– Paul Weller walks into this with a problem that’s really sort of his fault, which is I’m expecting a lot from him. And you know what, I hear the Jam here and the Style Council in parts, also a fairly strong Bowie influence, and a lot of variety and verve. The only thing keeping it from a “yes” is some of it sounds cliched/by rote. But, come on, his rote is better than most people’s best effort.
  • Sophia Kennedy, Monsters– This is fascinating. Largely keyboards and electronic percussion, but with unsettling brooding and flashes of musical discord, sharp vocals, and dark lyrics. And unlike many another album, it actually gets more interesting and varied as it goes on, with tin pan alley pop and even dance beats rearing their heads. In fact, it got so variable that lack of coherence popped it out of automatic yes!
  • TEKE::TEKE, Shirushi– Now this is suitably strange! A Japanese band, and their music is a mix of surf music, traditional forms, and psychedelia-flavored electronic. There’s the language issue, and the fact that it sometimes get a little too experimental, but on the other hand it’s a fun and interesting listen, and the experimentation goes somewhere.
  • The Reigning Sound, A Little More Time with Reigning Sound– Swaggering but melodic indie rock with hints of country, 50s rock, the Beatles, and Dylan. When I heard this band was from Nashville, I kind of hoped they’d sound like this. The vocals are klunky in a wonderful way that actually highlights the directness of the musical approach. It slowed down a little in the middle, though never got bad or fully deflated. These pacing issues just keep it from “yes”.
  • Van Morrison, Latest Record Project Volume 1– I do admire the school of album naming this hails from, but also must note that there are very few circumstances, even for a living legend, under which a more than two hour album is justified. The opening track is kind of brilliantly solipsistic, though. So there’s the length, a general crankiness, and a certain level of right wing ranty in the lyrics. On the other hand, it’s so musically and vocally excellent I don’t feel let down by a single track for more than hours. Does this all equal out to a maybe?

No

  • black midi, Cavalcade– The opening is really something. Disco, rock, lurching music, trippy spoken word. The next track is even more disorienting with it’s trip into a classic croon. The third track lurches back and forth between these two modes. And so on. Ultimately a little too much on the “not consistently listenable” side of experimental. But interesting!
  • Blackberry Smoke, You Hear Georgia– This band is deeply steeped in southern rock, very skillfully rendered, but I can’t escape the feeling that it’s too often a little “prefab” in terms of lyrics and production.
  • Blake Shelton, Body Language– This is a little too on the “pop” side of pop country for me, and falls into the cliché/rote route too often. That being said, he has tons of charm, and as pop country goes, this is very well done.
  • Carlos Nino & Friends, More Energy Fields, Current– A little too jazzy and instrumentally mellow for me.
  • Cheval Sombre, Days Go By– The first track sounds like a grunge ballad. Now, I like an occasional grunge ballad, but it turns out pretty much every track either sounds like that or a slow slide into My Bloody Valentine. That’s too much in that vein for me!
  • Cloves, Nightmare on Elmfield Road– Mellow dance beats and shimmery vocals, I gather that there is a kind of horror story going on in it, but it’s too mellow and shimmery for me to pick it up.
  • Colleen, The Tunnel and the Clearing– The down-tempo here almost fades into non-existence. The third track sounded like it had sea lions in it, so I liked that.
  • Dark Tea, Dark Tea [2021]– Brooklyn based musical collective. A little country and classic rock twist, excellent song structure, vocals, and melody. At its best, it’s very good, but it too often falls prey to a feeling of sameness, and long pacing lulls.
  • Dave Holland, Another Land– As funk-flavored all instrumental jazz outings go, this is a fine one, but this cup of tea, it is not mine.
  • David Gray, Skellig– This may have suffered from being the second mellow acoustic album I listened to in a row. It’s solid, but I never really caught a spark from it.
  • Dodie, Build a Problem– English singer-songwriter, kind of a mellow electronic folk. It’s nice enough, literate emotionally sophisticated lyrics, but eh.
  • Dorothea Paas, Anything Can’t Happen– She has a really great voice, and things are well played on this folk album, but it doesn’t feel like there are enough moments that are surprising or get beyond a certain narrow musical/emotional range.
  • Erika de Casier, Sensational– The music is more on the subtle side than I often prefer, but the changeable flow of the vocals and the emotionally vulnerable lyrics are compelling! It ends up being a little too musically thin though, and the tracks fade into a kind of sameness.
  • Facs, Present Tense– I mean, it’s kind of punky, kind of electronic, kind of glowery, there’s feedback and distortion and anguished shrieking in the background. It all got kind of tiresome pretty quickly.
  • Fatima Al Qadiri, Medieval Femme– This is interesting, but it’s a little too “fade into the background” world music for me.
  • Fly Pan Am, Frontera– Well, there’s beats, moody background music, and some occasional screaming. No.
  • Georgia Anne Mudrow, Vweto III-Sadly, no. This is mostly instrumental, but there is a lot of verve in its mix of influences- hip-hop, 80s club, disco, and funk all make an appearance. Not bad by any means, in fact really good, but it doesn’t feel like there’s enough connecting it together to add up to a great album.
  • GoGo Penguin, GGP/RMX– Some tracks totally caught my attention. Others seemed to be animated by a sound not unlike eating lettuce.
  • Greenhouse, Music For Living Spaces– This, let it be known, is literally an album about plants. That being said, I was pulling for it, and it is very pleasant. But a little too low-key and instrumental in the end.
  • Iceage, Seek Shelter– The opening descent into vaguely sinister guitar warms my heart, as do the weary burned-out vocals. It’s pretty good down-tempo slightly sleazy rock, and has some fine anthemic moments, but keeps slowing down without warning, and doesn’t sound differentiated enough- the tracks blend into each other.
  • John Andrews & the Yawns, Cookbook– Jazz vibe, hints of Santana, a mellow California feel, musically and vocally like a hazy summer day. It’s very nice. For a track or two. I’ll avoid obvious jokes about the band name.
  • Jorja Smith, Be Right Back– Beautiful British soul, it’s never bad, but ultimately it never sparked up for me.
  • Lampchop, Showtunes– Slow piano chords, sonorous vocals, and philosophical lyrics create a melancholy feel. It all adds up to one downbeat tone, without enough variety or texture to rise above that.
  • Last Days of April, Even The Good Days Are Bad– Strong indie pop-rock with a classical feel. The tracks have a propulsive, independent sound, and vocal variability. And then it had the dreaded second half deflation, including literally ending on a downtempo song called “Downer”. Almost well done Swedes! I swear the people who seem to still be doing rock well these days are almost all Canadian or Scandinavian…
  • Lionel Boy, Lionel Boy– As auto-tuned slow-tempo well-produced contemporary R&B goes, this is fine.
  • Lisa Gerrard/Jules Maxwell, Burn– A collaboration by the vocalist and keyboard player from Dead Can Dance. This is the kind of orchestral ambient swirl of music you might expect from that. If it’s your thing, you might like it, but I don’t hear enough going on here, powerfully enough, to be a “best” album of the year.
  • Loscil, Clara– It is very ambient. The cover is a picture of melting ice. That seems appropriate.
  • Magic Castles, Sun Reign– A little 80s/90s alt a la Jesus and Mary Chain, a little paisley underground, but it kind of ended up all blurring together.
  • Marinero, Hella Love– Lush Latin music-themed romanticism. It’s largely a paen to San Francisco, which certainly tugs on my heartstrings, but, with exceptions, it’s mostly too low-key and all in one tone to really engage me.
  • Matt Berry, The Blue Elephant– I knew him as a British actor from the IT Crowd, but he’s a pretty fine musician too! Jazzy instrumental first track had me thrown off, but the psychedelic swirl and powerful instruments on the next track was great. Then another jazzy instrumental. And so on. This was half of an excellent album and half of a blah one.
  • Matt Kearney, January Flower– Upbeat indie rock leaning toward electric folk, but it was a little too poppy and prefab for me.
  • Mdou Moctar, Afrique Victime– A Tuareg singer-songwriter from Niger in the eclectic “Desert Blues” genre. It is musically muscular! I really like it, but in the end, the language barrier keeps me from connecting with it enough to rank it as a “year’s best” album.
  • Morcheeba, Blackest Blue– This is undoubtedly well-produced and high quality. Its particular brand of lush and easy just fades into the background for me, though, and I need a “best” album to stand out more than that!
  • Murcof, The Alias Sessions– This is a double album. It is also spare and minimalist, sometimes to the point of barely registering. I did not care for it.
  • New Order, Education Entertainment Recreation– When I was a lovelorn depressed teen, I was a big fan of New Order. I still like them, they certainly have their place. A live album by them is relatively unlikely to result in surprises, though. That being said, these are fine live versions , but two hours of live album practically identical to studio, well…
  • Olivia Rodrigo, Sour– The opening sounds like she really likes grunge, and has a pop sensibility too, and her lyrics have some real wit and personality. The subsequent tracks were much more Taylor Swiftian, but still with an almost operatic quality to the emotional drama. Often affecting, but also very young, and it has a few too many tear-stained ballads in a row. But so well rendered, and she’s only 18, there is big promise here.
  • Paula Cole, American Quilt– “Paula Cole covers American standards” doesn’t sound like a bad premise. The variety of styles is laudable, and all are really well-done. But I only like about half of them- more the blues, soul, and gospel side, less the extended jazzy and ethereal celtic ones. Which I guess means this would work for me as a selected EP?
  • Sarah Bareilles, Amidst the Chaos: Live From the Hollywood Bowl– Just because streaming technology makes it possible for one to have an almost two-hour long concert album does not mean one should. That being said, this is a really good live album- excellent sound quality, good versions, charming interaction with the crowd. It would need to be a little more streamlined to be in contention for year’s best, but I would certainly recommend it for fans.
  • Sons of Kemet, Black to the Future– Poetic ragged vocals, jazz backing, timely Afrocentric lyrics. There’s a lot to admire here, but it too often faded to background sound for me.
  • Squid, Bright Green Field– The sound collage opening was a minus, which is a shame because the off kilter vocals and music of the next track were interesting. Unfortunately it’s the kind of off-kilter that wears thin after several songs. And what is it with the recent shouted vocals trend with British bands?
  • Sunroof, Electronic Music Improvisations, Vol. 1– The album name made me think this might not be for me. The Beats, atmospheric sounds, and electronic boops and bops confirmed it.
  • The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, When God Was Great– Like the Offspring album we reviewed in April, this was mostly a case of a fine example of their sound, but kind of a victim of that very thing. What would raise it above that to the realm of great? There are some songs that I think are actually on track, doing a retrospective look at the history of the band and its scene, showing where it actually is in time and space. More of this, and maybe…in the meantime, there’s plenty here for a ska fan to like.
  • Trevor Powers, Capricorn– First impression: This sounds like discordant muzak. Those were actually the better parts, in other places it got very ethereal and sound samply.
  • Twenty One Pilots, Scaled and Icy– Starts off 70s sunny, then becomes kind of autotune, then kind of Weezery, then electronic influenced rock, a little discoy, a little hip hop, all clever, but rarely feels very genuine.
  • Will Stratton, The Changing Wilderness– There’s a richness to the lyrics and the vocals, and understated power to the low-key indie rock. It’s pretty, it’s well-done, but it’s kind of the same track to track.
  • Young Nudy, DR. EV4L– I was in just based on the cover alone, and it definitely has some material that dives deep into the horrorcore theme the cover indicates. Unfortunately, too much of the rest of it is full of bitch and pussy talk. It’s a shame- there could have been a great, or at least very interesting album here.

And there we have it. Next, on to June! Which, who knows, I may get done before the last day of the following month…

A Brief History of the “Freak” Song

My earliest memories of budding romantic-sexual awareness at grade school dances are punctuated again and again by one thing: the “Freak” song. Having been raised in its Golden Age, I’ve always been interested in its development. So here, from our occasional department of musical obsessions and listomania, is a brief history.

Le Freak (CHIC, 1978) This is sort of the prelude to freak songs, and also marks a vital pivot point in the musical use of the word. There’s still a sense here of the counterculture psychedelic trip sense of “I’m freaking out, man!”, but there’s also feeling the rhythm and checking the ride with a foxy lady at Studio 54.

Super Freak (Rick James, 1981) And now we come to the granddaddy of the whole movement. Here it’s still the scene that’s a little freaky (with the whole incense, wine and candles and what-not) but it’s mainly that she’s a freak through her sexual adventurousness. Also, this song makes me mourn the Rick James we might have had if crack hadn’t taken over.

Freak-A-Zoid (Midnight Star, 1983) We might have stopped with Rick James, and for two years we did. But then Midnight Star came along to tell us that they’d be our Freak-A-Zoid if we’d just wind them up. Thanks guys! And along the way they sparked a freak song revitalization. Thanks again!

Freakshow on the Dance Floor (The Bar Kays, 1984) Whereas the freakiness in the Midnight Star song was overtly sexual, we’re here back to getting freaky on the dance floor, kind of like in the CHIC days. However, there’s also a sense now that we’re the freaks, who are being called to get down as one big Freak Nation.

Freaks come out at Night (Whodini, 1984) Again, the freaks here are mostly dance freaks. When they come out at night, it’s to the dance floor. Although the song does allow that they’re breaking hearts, are real good lovers, and also always have at least one glove, which I don’t think means mittens in this case. This song is also significant in that it brings the freak song into the realm of hip-hop, which sets us up for…

Freaky Tales (Too $hort, 1987) And here we are, at the apotheosis of the freak song. No 60s freak-outs here, no dance floors, just pure NC-17. You shouldn’t listen to this if you’re at work. Or around small children. Or, probably, if you’re a woman. Maybe not even if you’re a man. When you do listen to it (c’mon, you know you will) you’ll see right away why the freak song couldn’t go any further.

These are the highlights, but I may have missed one or two. Let me know if you have anything to add to the list. And Freak Out! In whatever sense of the word suits your fancy…

25 Most-played Songs in 2011

Full disclosure: This is not a top 25 of songs released in 2011, or played on the radio in 2011.

Those of you who know me know that I love statistics and numerical patterns. iTunes seems to share my obsession, and one of my favorite things every time I synch the iPod up to load a new playlist is seeing how my top 25 most-played songs has changed. Since the year is now over, I’ll reset statistics tomorrow, but first I wanted to review the past year. Consider it my Holiday present to you, dear readers…

Here, without fear and favor (and in alphabetical order to further reduce the favoritism) are my top 25 most-played songs in 2011 (links mostly to live versions, but feel free to play the originals if you’ve got ’em!):

All Along The Watchtower (Bob Dylan, Before the Flood)– This is a live version with the Band from a tour album Dylan released in the 70s. It’s one of 6? 7? versions I have in my library. Not my favorite version (that would be the original), but there’s a soft spot in my heart for this album, as listening to it on my parent’s record player after school was the start of my induction into the glories of classic rock.

Batman (Jan & Dean, Surf City: The Best of Jan & Dean)– I can testify, I did end up listening to this a lot this year. Every time has been as delightfully silly as the first. I’ve got to hand it to Jan & Dean, though, this song evidences a better understanding of the uncanny darkness of the character than the campy 60s TV series did.

Could You Be The One? (Husker Du, Warehouse Songs & Stories)– The thing about all these 80s nostalgia kiddies around now is that they had no idea just how bad it was. Overproduced top 40 was everywhere, TV, the movies, the Mall. There was no escaping it. The only way you could find anything different unless you were in a big city was in a small record store that you had to learn about from friends that had a locked case in the back with a few alternative rock cassettes. Then, maybe, if you were lucky, you could find something like this bubbling up from the underground, keeping rock just barely alive in an era that had prefab slickened it to within an inch of its life.

Darkside (Tanya Donelly, beautysleep)– I’m a big fan of the Pixies and Throwing Muses, and all solo careers that have flowed from there, hence their strong presence in my playlist. The album that this is from, by Throwing Muses co-founder Tanya Donelly, came across my path immediately following my separation in 2002. It was like a beacon of light, giving me faith that a life of shimmering beauty and deep meaning was waiting out there somewhere past the darkness…

Down By The River (Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Decade)– Ah, Neil Young, one of my all-time top 5 musical artists (along with Dylan, the Who, the Pixies and Nirvana, in case you’re wondering). There’s also something hauntingly beautiful, yearning and melancholy about this. Easily my favorite shooting down your lover song. Which is a distressingly crowded genre!

Full Moon, Empty Heart (Belly, Star)– Belly was the group Tanya Donelly formed in the mid-90s after being with the Breeders for their first album, which came after her exit from the Throwing Muses. Like all the best of her work, this is evocative, full of gauzy beauty, and underlined by serrated guitar that underlines its delicacy with steel.    

Ginger Park (50 Foot Wave, Golden Ocean)– One good Muse deserves another, in this case in the form of 50 Foot Wave, the current vehicle of Tanya’s half-sister and fellow founding Throwing Muse Kristin Hersh. The combination of the harsh shred of her voice and the guitar, backed up with the lyrics (I don’t belong there/ I guess I never will/ I don’t belong anywhere) simultaneously makes me feel chilled and crawlingly itchily warm.

Green (Throwing Muses, In A Doghouse)– And now here they are together! Albeit this is one of the rare songs written and sung by Tanya Donelly that the Muses did. Hence, I imagine, her eventual decision to split and go solo. There’s a driving urgency behind this song, a sound that’s like someone just on the edge of really losing it.

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan)– This album, Dylan’s big original breakthrough, was another of the ones raided from my parent’s that started me on my musical journey. While it was written in an attempt to cram in everything he thought and felt as the world seemed on the edge of holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s no less affecting today. The poet as prophet, after all, inherently taps into a timeless space.    

Her Majesty (the Beatles, Abbey Road)– One of many cute little snippets from Abbey Road that kind of makes you wish they’d been developed to full length. Although I’m not sure how long you could sustain this ditty of a love-song to the Queen.

I’ll Cry Instead (the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night)– Most of my favorite early Beatles songs tend to be John’s. There’s just more anguish and edge to them, as here, where he’s simultaneously crying over the loss of his girl and boasting about his ability to break and load every girl in the world. Oh Johnny…

I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) (Bob Dylan, Another Side of Bob Dylan)– Early Dylan has a lot of bitter telling-off a theoretical gal songs. I don’t think of this as being one of my favorites, but apparently it snuck into my playlists pretty often. Also a fine example of the “Dylan nearly cracks up in the middle of a song” genre, which could generate a playlist of its own.

I Should Have Known Better (the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night)– Remember what I said above about John Lennon’s early Beatles songs? Ditto here. It’s a sweet straightforward love song, but just underneath the surface you can tell something’s a little wrong. And isn’t that what the urgency of early love is so often like?

I Walk The Line (Johnny Cash, The Legendary Sun Records Story)– I would have been mighty upset if some Johnny Cash hadn’t made it in to this list. I love his early Sun stuff, there’s something very simple about the songs musically and they’re lyrically totally straightforward. But despite that, or maybe because of it, they’re full of depth.    

Lay Lady Lay (Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline)– Sometimes this song doesn’t quite do it for me, since it tends to get overplayed. But there’s something about Dylan’s country croon, bright ringing guitar and tender entreaty here that wins out. Besides which, my parents played it at their wedding, so this song practically conceived me. Doubly so since they were married December 26th and I was born September 28th of the following year.

Lovely Rita (the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)– Not one of my favorite Beatles albums, it suffers for me from the overplay and overhang of “this is the most important, popular music-changing album of all time”. That all being said, this is one of my favorite songs. There’s something very swinging 60s about seducing the meter maid, and a winning contrast between McCartney’s poppy presence and the slightly sinister distorted Lennon backing.

Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds (the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)–  The very heart of Beatles overplay. For me too, apparently, since it’s on this list! So, not one of my favorites, but there is something undeniably arresting about the musical layering and surrealistic imagery.

Night Flight (Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti)– I maintain that Physical Graffiti is one of the most sonically perfect albums ever recorded. I also have a theory that it represents a kind of capstone of Classic rock, a point at which nostalgia for the passage of flower power past officially replaces the living actual feeling that something great and wonderful was about to happen. This song is that to a T.

Paint It Black (the Rolling Stones, Aftermath)– Through some glitch of iTunes, this song ended up on every playlist I downloaded, even though it wasn’t included in the playlists themselves in my iTunes library. The result, of course, was that I ended up listening to it a lot. Not a bad thing, really. Take away the 60s nostalgia and you can see it for what it is, one of the most creepily nihilistic expressions ever committed to record by a popular group.          

Ready Steady Go (Generation X, No Thanks! The 70s Punk Rebellion)– Speaking of 60s nostalgia, here’s a song that’s a conscious repudiation of it, and yet, in it’s poppy bounciness recalls the best of the British Invasion. It’s also a reminder that Billy Idol once had something going for him.

Sexy Results (Death From Above 1979, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine)– The 2000s have been a rough period, musically. Kind of as dismal at the mass market level as the 80s, maybe even more so. But even in the worst eras there’s always something going on somewhere, as DFA’s re-imagining of heavy metal as dance music is here to remind us. 

Speedy Marie (Frank Black, Frank Black 93-03)– Speaking of the dearth of something going on in the 2000s, one of the best albums I bought last decade was this collection, which chiefly features songs from the 90s. What can I say, I’m a fool for the Pixies, and the solo work of their former front man as well. This is not one of my favorite songs by him, but it does go down super-smooth, with a strange aftertaste from the phrasing of the highly literate lyrics.

Subliminal (Suicidal Tendencies, Suicidal Tendencies)– Yes, I was an 80s alternative kid, but I think everyone should love the album this is from. I mean, really, listen to it. it was released in 1983, and everything that would actually become popular in the 90s amalgamation of punk and metal into grunge is already here, with a little shout out to rap metal as well from an era when hip-hop itself was in its infancy.

To Be Alone With You (Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline)– Nashville Skyline is one of my favorite albums and this is a bright and shiny little gem from it. It just rolls along, so uncharacteristically cheerful. Plus, I perennially love that, “Is it rolling Bob?” that kicks it off.     

Won’t Fall In Love Today (Suicidal Tendencies, Suicidal Tendencies)– Opportunity to repeat everyting I said above about Suicidal Tendencies. Only faster, since this song clocks in at 1:00 exactly!

So there you have it. This may tell us as much about the algorithms of the iPod as it does about me, or popular music. But I am pretty proud of the nearly half-century span of music (from I Walk The Line in 1956 to Sexy Results in 2004) on display here. Happy New Year all, and happy listening to come in 2012!

       

 

 

Weekend with Beats and Beats

This has been quite a fine weekend exploring our new home.

First, Beats. As in, yesterday we got out to Jamaica Plain for a free music festival:

To be precise, it was the first Jamaica Plains Music Festival, a free all-day gathering in the park featuring exclusively local bands. Some of the bands were quite good, but what I really liked was the ethos- a festival in the community featuring the creative talent of the community. I hope to find a lot more of this kind of thing as I become part of the local creative community.

I also thought it was very interesting to see the differences between the crowd at the festival and San Francisco, where Abbey and I got to several outdoor music gatherings in our time across the street from Golden Gate Park. Some pertinent observations:

  • The crowd in JP was very much whiter. Not quite exclusively, but definitely into the 90+ percentile.
  • It was also much more enchilded. As I think back, most of my close friends in San Francisco were childless, and meaning to stay that way. I guess it’s that kind of city!
  • Compared to any large outdoor gathering in SF, there was much less whiff of ganja in the air. As in zero.
  • Ditto with the whiff of homeless.

That’s it for now. Further cultural anthropology of Greater Boston to follow at a later time…

Now, on to Beats. Abbey and I headed to Lowell, Massachusetts today. This is somewhere I’ve wanted to visit since teenage nights staying up to the early AM hours in my parent’s living room reading biographies of Jack Kerouac while drinking kool-aid infused with vodka I’d snuck into the house. Today’s pilgrimage to Kerouac’s boyhood home featured no vodka (or kool-aid, for that matter), but I did get to see a display including a typewriter he used:

And a beautiful riverside memorial garden with excerpts from his work engraved in stone:

The city itself was poignant. The downtown area was chiefly historical sites from Lowell’s history as a mill town and old mill buildings that have been converted to condos. It felt a little sketchy, not because their were ruffians around but more because everything was felt abandoned, almost like a huge open air museum with only a smattering of visitors. Ghostly or not, though, I’ll be back- I still have Jack’s grave to visit.

For now, I had a great weekend, and am really enjoying exploring my new home with my lovely bride. More to follow!