Category Archives: music

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!

Top Ten Albums of 2007

You might reasonably ask why I’m coming out with this list in mid-February. The truth is, I think you have to build in at least a good month of overhang, because you still may not have found and digested some of the year’s best albums properly by midnight on December 31st. This past year took some digesting too, unfortunately more from dearth than from girth. Here, in alphabetical order, are my picks for the best albums of 2007:

1. Chrome Dreams II (Neil Young)- Neil Young is a pleasure even when he’s piddling around. It’s an especial pleasure to find him here, well past the age of 50, still able to narrate interesting stories with his plaintive wail on a coherent set of songs that alternate between relaxed folkiness and Crazy Horse style assaults of heavy guitar feedback.

2. Icky Thump (White Stripes)- A so-so White Stripes album is kind of like so-so sex. It’s still pretty compelling, and you certainly never think of leaving before it’s over. As with Get Behind Me Satan, there’s a little too much self-conscious experimentation here to really achieve the straight ahead, undiluted quality of their best work. Nevertheless, I’ll still take a near miss from Jack and Meg over the best effort of many another outfit any day of the week.

3. I’m Not There (soundtrack, various)- Soundtracks usually have trouble succeeding as truly acceptable stand-alone albums since a significant layer of their meaning relies so heavily on the movies they spring from. Without that they run the risk of just being a weird assemblage of songs. This soundtrack, however, benefits from coming out of a movie that was itself about music and the life (through the work) of a single musician. Between unusual songs, unusual approaches to familiar songs and a surprising variety of artists participating, this ends up being a fresh and invigorating showcase of Dylan’s song craft. I particularly recommend disc two.

4. Juno (soundtrack, various)- See caveat above about sound tracks as albums. How delightful, then, that this soundtrack pulls it off. The heart and soul of the effort, of course, is Kimya Dawson’s delightful folk-punk songs, with their innocent and exuberant insistence on simple, fun lyrics. More remarkable is that the songs here by other artists, despite their diversity of styles and eras, feel like they belong with Dawson’s songs and create a quirky, yearning and ultimately sweet organic whole.

5. Losin’ It! (Vancougar)- Many have their eye on the music scenes in Canada’s big cities as the source of the next big thing. This quartet from Vancouver certainly encourages you to think that hope may not be in vain. Part punk, part girl-group harmony and all energy, every time I listen to this album I wish there were more people out there making rock with this sense of loving attention to it’s basic idioms and joyous adventure. And still producing songs that are actually about something, with distinctive voices from each of the individual members. Keep your eye out on what these gals are up to next.

6. Twelve (Patti Smith)- Well here’s someone who knows a thing or two about loving attention to rock’s idioms. A good cover should honor the essence of the original, but approach it sonically in a new and different way. If covers are going to sound just like the original, after all, that’s what we have originals for. Patti Smith breathes new life into all twelve songs she covers here, not tripping at all in the transition from Tears for Fears to Neil Young to Jefferson Airplane to Dylan to Nirvana to Stevie Wonder (et al) and holding the whole thing together with the hypnotic power of her own singular voice and vision. Outstanding fun for any music lover.

7. Under the Blacklight (Rilo Kiley)- Try it and see if these songs aren’t so damn hooky that they get stuck in your head the next day. And yet leave behind shards of lyrics that unsettle as they slowly dissolve. There’s more than a trace of the now thankfully peaking and passing dance-rock indie sub-genre here, but with a lean more toward the rock side of the equation such that they end up with a genuine power and urgency that the efforts of many others in this vein ultimately lack. More than that, Jenny Lewis’ incisive and insightful lyrical vision and lush and world-weary vocal delivery carries the whole thing to another level entirely.

8. 93-03 (Frank Black)- I’d agree in principle that it’s questionable to include a greatest hits collection in a list of the top albums of the year. Nonetheless, the first 11 tracks of this compilation of the first ten years of the solo career of the former Pixies front man is one of the most consistently excellent listens of the year.

9. Almost Made Its- No, this isn’t a band or an album name. Although it’s a good name, isn’t it? Pay me a nickel if you use it. What I mean is all the albums that made a vigorous stab at being superb but just missed it. Art Brut’s It’s a Little Bit Complicated, the Foo Fighters Echoes, Silence , Patience & Grace, Kings of Leon’s Because of the Times, Bruce Springsteen’s Magic, and Tegan and Sara’s the Con are all worthy of attention.

10. There is no number 10. Lest it escape anyone’s attention, it’s a bad sign when the best albums of the year include two soundtracks, a greatest hits collection and a covers album. It’s no accident that Frank Black got on the list with a set of songs from the mid-90s, the most recent of rock’s periodic outbursts of renaissance. That last musical fluorescence has run it’s course, and once again the old Gods are nearly dead. It’s time for a revolution!

Happy Holidays…of doom

Am I the only one who thinks Christmas carols are creepy?

I first became aware of this phenomenon when I was living in San Diego in the mid-90s. There’s a neighborhood there that gets so totally decked out in Christmas lights that it’s become a tourist destination. My future ex-wife had a friend visiting one Christmas, so one night we all went for a drive around the prescribed course of this (70 degree) winter wonderland. Signs up along the route advised us to tune to an AM station for Christmas carols while driving.

It may have just been problems with the ionosphere that evening, but the station sounded low volume even when turned up high. Through the echoey staticy haze you could barely make out sonorous music and an occasional line like “merry Christmas”, as “merry Christmas” would sound if delivered from beyond the grave. While the fact that I was unsettled by Christmas music that evening was clearly a matter of delivery, from that night forward I began to realize that even under the best conditions an air of the uncanny pervades holiday jingles.

Let’s look at a few examples:

The Carol of the Bells. This song has always struck me as being like the soundtrack of a nervous breakdown. Not only are the bells relentless and growing more frantic as the song progresses, but the lyrics themselves seem to celebrate this. One seems to hear words from everywhere, filling the air… Oh how they pound, raising the sound… On on they send, on without end… Upon research I learned that this song is based on a prehistoric Ukrainian chant. That actually makes sense, as it sounds like it could be used to summon the Elder Gods from their centuries-long slumber.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. This song produces a feeling that might be called “heartwarming dread”. The fact that it twice tells us that from now on our troubles will be “out of sight” and “miles away” conveys, more than anything else, the feeling that we must be pretty darn heavy-laden with troubles. And then there’s the line Through the years we all will be together if the Fates allow. It’s hard to know what’s worse- is it the crushing inevitability of our forced togetherness for all time, or the icy powerlessness of this togetherness being the plaything of fate?

Frosty the Snowman. The tale of this snow-golem is inherently fraught with peril. The song tells us he was “alive as he could be”. Well, who worked this magic- God or some demiurge? What does it mean to be alive? Though animated, does Frosty have a soul? If not, do we? Then there’s this: Frosty the Snowman/ Knew the sun was hot that day/ So he said let’s run/ And we’ll have some fun/ Now before I melt away…followed slightly later by Frosty the Snowman/ Had to hurry on his way/ But he waved goodbye/ Saying don’t you cry/ I’ll be back again some day. If you want your eight year old to grapple with questions of being and nothingness, action and responsibility in the face of extinction, and death and resurrection, then by all means continue to expose them to the existential maelstrom that is Frosty the Snowman.

Little Town of Bethlehem. Now we arrive at the dark heart of Christmas carols. This one is worth quoting in its entirety:

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Deep and dreamless sleep. Silent stars going by. Everlasting light shining in darkened streets. Meeting the sum of all hopes and fears on a winter’s night. This is practically a goth song!

I could go on with more examples, but I don’t want to spoil the joy of discovery for you. I encourage you to go forth and listen, and try not to shudder. And, of course, happy holidays to all, and I’ll see you in 2008!

The Song of My Soul

This is ported over my MySpace blog from mid-October. But I figure, if we all still have souls, it remains relevant. If some of us have become soulless since then, perhaps even more so!

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I was talking to one of my new roommates the other night and he mentioned finding the song of your soul. You know, that moment where, in the midst of the shambles of ill-made choices and fears and doubts and life in general, you stumble across that thing that you really groove to. The light breaks through the darkness, however briefly, bringing you back to who you really are and what you really want.

The song of his soul was awakened in this case by an episode of a prison drama narrated with show tunes, but that’s beside the point. I knew instantly knew what he meant. This weekend I was lucky enough to have a moment where I stumbled across the song of my soul.

On Saturday I went to Lit Crawl, the closing event of the annual Litquake festival. The basic idea is that over the course of three hours, readings occur in thirty-five venues across an eight-block strip of the Mission District. You drift from one to another, like a pub-crawl except that you imbibe words along the way. I found myself having an attack of the heebie-jeebies while drifting. Not reading anywhere myself brought up fears of being a literary failure. A friend who was supposed to go with me had flaked at the last minute, and going around by myself brought up feelings of being a lonesome loser (it really may be time to start dating again soon). Being jostled in sweaty, crowded bars made me feel like I was being jostled in sweaty, crowded bars.

In the midst of this charming bouquet of emotions, I squeezed myself into a corner near the stage in Amnesia for “The Beat on the Page”, a reading by local music writers. As Katy St. Clair read her tale on being propositioned by 81 year-old country/bluegrass legend Charlie Louvin (it’s on her MySpace blog, I recommend checking it out), my cares began to fall away. By the time Wendy Farina (excellent musician and writer and also an eminently MySpacable personage) took the stage to perform her piece about a fifty-year-old woman who has just joined a punk band as a drummer and acquired Jimi Hendrix as a dream music spirit guide, my soul was positively humming.

These were my people. This is what makes my muse beat her little wings and wake me up at inconvenient hours to start writing. This is the song of my soul. And when I hear it I don’t want to be anyone else, anywhere else than me, right here, right now.

I know you know what I mean, because you have a song too. And so, my tens of readers, I invite you to write in and tell me about the song of your soul…