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:
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!
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:
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!
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.
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!
After the recent loss of Prince, I noticed a friend’s post about expressing appreciation for music we love while the musicians are still around. It was somewhat jarring to realize how many of my all-time favorites are already gone, so I felt even more inspired to say something while I still could. Thus last month’s post about 1-5 of my all-time favorite top ten musical artists.
We had a few weeks of technical delays, but I’m back now with Part II, covering 6-9, and a sneaky tie for 10th place.
Johnny Cash Johnny Cash is a fascinating bundle of contrasts- social activist in a genre that was often less progressive, personification of Country who was also a Sun Records first generation Rocker, rebellious sinner who unashamedly preached the Gospel. One could go on, but the real thing that gets me about him every time I listen is the stripped down basic power of his music and the unmistakable sound of his voice. Is it Country? Rock? Heaven? Hell? All of those at once, in one unforgettable Man in Black.
Prince I could easily re-purpose a lot of the above to describe Prince as well. Today’s music scene is so segregated by genre that it’s even more amazing now than it was in the 80s how he straddled the divide between Soul and Rock like it was nothing. Not to mention that he was a genuine goddamn virtuoso- he liked to perform with big bands, but on his first two albums he not only wrote and produced the whole thing, he played every instrument himself. Buried at the heart of his music is a fusion of the sacred and the sexual that’s always uneasy and dynamic. How many people before, since, or ever, could make something with a funky beat, a guitar solo that Eric Clapton envied, a complex religious philosophy and hilarious sexual entendre all in the same album? Sometimes even in the same song… I was hooked when I first listened to 1999 at age 12, and I still am today.
Kristin Hersh You might think by the next two entries that I started off as a big Throwing Muses fan in the 80s. I was an 80s alt kid, so it would be reasonable to think that, but it’s not actually true. I ran in to Kristin Hersh’s solo work in the early 2000s, when her searing voice, surging chords, and willingness to not hold anything back got me through a lot of desolate-feeling post-divorce evenings. Then I back-filled to her 80s and 90s work with Throwing Muses (realizing along the way that I had favorite songs by them without knowing it was them), and forward filled to her mid-2000s band 50FOOTWAVE. Over three decades, in everything she’s done, she remains a powerhouse who can go acoustic or hard, throws out fiercely intelligent lyrics, and can sing the hell out of a song.
Tanya Donelly Pretty much everything I said above goes Ditto for Hersh’s step-sister and Throwing Muses co-founder Tanya Donelly. Her early 2000s solo albums were more like shimmering lullabies, but were similarly key to midwifing my emergence from a wrecked marriage and hollow way of life, toward reclaiming my true self. And damned if I didn’t then discover her Throwing Muses pedigree, and that she had been the driving force behind Belly, who I adored in the 90s. She tends to be both lusher and more subtle than Hersh, but is no less capable of rocking it out and producing haunting musical creations.
Bruce Springsteen When I was first putting together my top ten list, I hit a bit of a stumbling block. My 1-5 were clear as a bell to me. Without too much more thought, I came up with 6-9. But then I kept going back and forth on #10 between the Boss and the Clash. After a while, I realized they actually were flip sides of the same thing that was befuddling me, and decided to put them both in as tie for 10th. The issue was that I’m not always in a Clash mood, but when I am, I like almost everything they’ve done. On the other hand, I only like some of Springsteen, but I’m always in the mood for the version of Bruce that I like. For me, it’s his dark albums and songs that really get me. So, you can have your Born to Run, Born in the USA, and the Rising. Heck, you should have them. I like them too. Sometimes. But I’ll take Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, Ghost of Tom Joad, and Magic anytime. There’s something about the spooky underbelly of America that nobody gets like Springsteen does.
The Clash Which leaves us with the other side of my tie for 10th. I like some of Joe Strummer’s solo stuff, and Mick Jones has made a lot of interesting music post-Clash- Big Audio Dynamite’s first album was one of my favorite things in the 80s. But there was something about the synergy of them together that was on a whole other level. Political without being polemical, rocking as hard as anything that the first generation of Punk came out with, and yet bringing in ska and dub, they continue to do what art should do at its best- inspire, entertain, and disquiet at the same time.
I can hardly even tell you what Prince means to me. Despite that, I will give it a try in part two of this post next week. For now, suffice it to say that 1999 was one of the first albums I owned that didn’t feature a Muppet or music from Star Wars. It was a revelation to a rural twelve year-old living in the days before the Internet let you know that there were other weirdos out there. I’ve followed the twists and turns of his musical evolution ever since, and his passing has hit me noticeably harder than most celebrity deaths.
Maybe that’s why it caught my attention when a friend posted an observation last week about how we express our appreciation when someone’s gone, but we ought to do it while they’re still around, and then proceeded to list some of the still-living musicians who’ve had an impact on his life. Reading his post, I reflected that four of my all-time top-ten are already gone. It’s high time to do some appreciating! Forthwith, here are my top five musicians. Presented in chronological order of their debut, because I don’t even know how to approach putting them in an actual 1-5 order. Next week we’ll cover 6-10.
Bob Dylan There have, of course, been many Dylans- earnest folk singer, surrealist 60s troubadour, heartland country poet, born again evangelist, wry and grizzled veteran- I could go on, but the point is I love them all. In every incarnation, his lyrical vision is as idiosyncratic as his voice, and uncompromisingly intelligent. Musically, he draws from the deep well springs of American music, blues, country, folk, with the same fusion of playfulness and mastery he brings to his songwriting. It’s not easy to be simultaneously utterly earnest and also obviously slyly on the con, but Dylan does it. His creations often already seem timeless at the moment they come out, and the legacy only grows as time passes.
The Who/Pete Townshend You’ll notice there’s no Beatles or Stones in this list. Obviously, I’m not arguing that those bands are crap. I love them. We are all required by law to love them. But for me, every time I clear a classic Pete Townshend guitar riff on a Who song, or the plaintive keen of his voice on his solo work, I am instantly transported in a way I am not with those other bands. To a place where the music is it’s own justification. Where there is no history, no fear, no me, just Rock. Long live Rock!
Neil Young Again, a voice that instantly transports me, and a fiercely individual viewpoint and lyrical depth to back it up. Those would be mighty weapons were they all that he had in his arsenal, but then there’s the guitar. He can play a country song so straight up that there’s not a hint of irony in it and then (on the same album even) switch to a scorching shredded feedback so damn hard that Grunge immediately recognized him as a spiritual fore-bearer when it arrived on the scene.
The Pixies/Frank Black The legend is that Frank Black recruited Kim Deal to the Pixies with an add saying that he was looking for a bass player who liked Peter, Paul & Mary & Husker Du. Now, I like Kim Deal. A lot. So much so that I don’t even think they should call the current band the Pixies without her. But it’s Frank Black’s musical vision, crystallized in the story above, that most catches my attention in their albums and his solo work since. His music is a place in which surf harmonies and noise pop live together in unquiet peace. Lyrically he’s frequently dark, sometimes hilarious, often both at once, but creates obsidian worlds that are wondrous and unmistakably unique.
Nirvana I am always aspiring to reach a place in my writing so authentic, so direct, that the effect is searing and impossible to turn away from. Nirvana, for me, has come to symbolize that place. There’s never a hint of falseness in what they do, and a fresh listen to Nevermind now still reminds you what an amazing thing it was when they burned down the pop charts in 1991. Kurt Cobain remains haunting because he also symbolizes the flip side of having a vision that unrelenting- it can consume itself on the way. For both the promise and the caution, and because they still sound incendiarily fresh twenty years later, I keep listening.
I’ve always been a bit betwixt, spiritually. If you read part 1 and part 2 of the 10-book bibliography of my spiritual evolution, you know a bit about this. On the one hand, I’ve long been interested in various/alternative spirituality and comparative religion. On the other, I’ve also been strongly drawn to the western monotheistic tradition, and had connections with it throughout my life. These days, I don’t sweat the contradiction between these two pulls much, but it took a lot of spiritual searching to get there. And of course, being a bookish type, a big part of that searching involved reading.
In our current cultural milieu, the two loudest voices on this subject are the “New Atheists”, who reject every religious belief that has ever existed as dangerous superstition that destroys everything, and the Christian Fundamentalists, who insist there is only one spiritual truth, and only one exactly literal permissible interpretation of it. If, like me, you aren’t quite ready to jettison the Western religious tradition entirely, but you also can’t subscribe to a traditional interpretation of it, I would recommend the following 10-book reading list as a starting point for exploring a third way of appreciating Monotheism.
A History of God (Karen Armstrong)– Because Christian Fundamentalism is such a strong voice in our current culture wars (as well as the boogeyman of Islamic Fundamentalism), it can be easy to equate Fundamentalism with religious belief itself, and to think that it has always been so. One of the very useful things I got from Karen Armstrong’s survey of 4,000 years of Jewish, Christian & Muslim thought about God is just how rich a variety of viewpoints there have been in all three religions, and what an outlier 20th/21st century Fundamentalism is. Traditional religion turns out to have never been all one thing, and God is an idea that continues to evolve as all three faiths grapple with it.
Answer to Job (Carl Jung)– Jung starts by looking at the Book of Job, and the thundering non-answer God gives Job when questioned about suffering. He then presents the Gospels as God “reconsidering” his answer, with an outpouring of love and self-sacrifice to relive our suffering. However, this is too abrupt a shift from the sometimes judgmental God of the Old Testament, leaving an unintegrated remainder of the capacity for wrath. And thus we get the Book of Revelation… This fascinating examination of the Bible in the context of psychology and mythology opens up whole new ways to understand scripture.
God : A Biography, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (Jack Miles)– In many ways, Miles two books follow up on this approach. But Miles instead approaches scripture from the vantage point of literary criticism, examining what kind of character God, as presented in the Bible, is. The first volume covers the troubled evolution of God’s character in the Old Testament, and the second presents the New Testament as a response to the crisis that God’s character comes to, which is radically resolved through incarnation and sacrifice. Again, coming at things from a fresh direction can break open how the story can reach us today, and what it can mean.
Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture (John Shelby Spong)– A (now retired) Episcopalian Bishop, Spong made it his life’s work to consider what scripture can mean in the age of science. He points out that a literal understanding as modern Fundamentalism thinks of it is actually a very modern phenomenon, and would have made no sense, for example, to medieval Jewish Rabbis, or classic theologians like St. Augustine. The Bible, he contends, can and should be understood in its original cultural and historical setting, and considered in light of what its essential meaning is in our current setting.
Stalking Elijah (Rodger Kamenetz)– In his earlier book, The Jew in the Lotus, Kamenetz described the journey from his Jewish upbringing to Buddhism. After it came out, the Dalai Lama challenged his to search for practices of mindfullness in his own spiritual tradition. His resulting talks with several contemporary Jewish mystics uncovers a lively and longstanding tradition of mystical contemplation in Judaism. It turns out that being a Jew and a Buddhist aren’t necessarily as different as one might think…
The Coming of the Cosmic Christ (Matthew Fox)– Fox, like Spong, sought to bring new understanding to the church from within, but met with a little more resistance, ultimately resulting in him being expelled as a priest from the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church. One of the key points of the schism was his rejection of the idea of “original sin”, instead focusing on the original blessing of creation, and how a church focused on this can atone for its own sins against women, the unempowered, other faiths, etc. and develop an ecologically-centric, globally-minded and gender-balanced idea of what Christ represents. As Fox says, “The power of native religions to regenerate Christianity and to reconnect the old religion with the prophetic Good News of the Gospels has yet to be tapped.”
The Gospel According to Jesus (Stephen Mitchell)– Starting in the 19th Century and accelerating into the 20th, there has been a lot of scholarship based on archaeology, literary study and the latest discoveries of ancient texts on who the historical Jesus was, and what his original teachings may have been vs. what is later accretion by the Church as it grew. Mitchell wrote this book in an attempt to make that scholarship more available to a lay-audience. He also puts Jesus’ teachings in the context of spiritual traditions from around the world. This book had a profound impact on me when I first read it, unlocking a vitality and compassion in the Gospel message that is all too easily obscured by dogma and history at this point.
The Jesus I Never Knew (Philip Yancey)– Yancey’s book actually does something very similar, but from a diametrically opposite direction. Yancey is a mainstream Evangelical author, but he takes the gospel message down to its fundamentals, and lets every challenging thing that Jesus asked of his followers stand in sharp relief. Again, as with Mitchell, this has a way of cutting through history and dogma, and re-revealing how radical the message of Jesus really was, and remains today.
The Left Hand of God: a Biography of the Holy Spirit (Adolf Holl)– In the fine tradition of Fox, Holl is a Catholic writer and theologian who served as a priest and professor of Theology for almost 20 years until he was dismissed due to conflicts with church authorities. They may dismiss him, but I found his biography of the Holy Spirit to be very arresting. He looks at the third “person” of the traditional Christian Trinity through its affect on a variety of inspired figures throughout history, including Catholic saints, founders of alternate religions, U.S. Pentecostals and Malcom X. This approach leaves the Spirit as it should be, very much alive and active in the world.
Those are some of the best books on fresh approaches to western Monotheism that I’ve read. If you have any you’d like to recommend, let me know!
Now that the Presidential Campaign is on a brief but merciful lull, I can get back to my more usual blog fare: reading, writing, and writing about writing and reading. At any given time, I have several different volumes of several kinds going. Here’s what I’m currently up to:
Signal to Noise (Silvia Moreno-Garcia) Book clubs are good. Geeks are good. Speculative Fiction is good. For all these reasons, and including the lovely people involved, the Geek Mountain State Book Club is one of my ongoing delights. If you know Geek books, you know that some of them can get quite lengthy, so I try and read ahead. So I’ve just started this, which we have up for discussion in May. It’s actually not a long book, but I try and front-load! Too new to say much about it yet, but it involves mix tapes and urban fantasy, set in Mexico City in the 80s. On subject matter alone, there is approximately a 0% chance that I won’t love it. Speaking of zeroes…
Nonzero (Robert Wright) At any given time, I try to rotate between something from fiction, nonfiction and spiritual (that tricky category that straddles both realms). I’m currently at the non-fiction stage in the rotation, and so am reading this, Robert Wright’s exploration of the “meta-story” of social evolution. It’s been on my list for a long time, ever since I saw it on a list of books former President Clinton was reading some time in the early 2000s. After I finished weeping thinking of “reading” in connection with the then-current occupant of the White House, I made a note to check it out. It’s been well worth it. So far, I’m in the section that reviews the “arrow” of social/technological/economic development running through history. The very hopeful thesis is that, despite the vagaries of history and temporary ups and downs, there’s an underlying trend toward larger scale, increasingly complex societies based on the “nonzero” game of cooperation. I’m really interested in getting to the part where Wright speculates about, based on where we’ve been, where we’re going next.
Lucky Fish (Aimee Nezhukumatathil) I also have some poetry in the hopper at any given time. On the “new school” side, I’m currently reading the latest volume by one of my favorite contemporary poets, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Her work is a wonderment of connections between personal and global history, the natural world, the interior world, and popular culture. Illuminated throughout by wit and compassion. And she is, incidentally, the featured poet in the forthcoming annual print edition of Mud Season Review, a literary journal where I’m the co-editor of Poetry. We’re thrilled to have her!
Poems and Songs (Robert Burns) And kicking it “old school” on the poetry side, I have this collection by Robert Burns going. If 18th hunner years romantic bards writing in scots sassenach wi’ wit ‘n’ verve ur yer thing, ye micht wantae check this oot. Quite seriously, besides the delight of looking up new words in the glossary in back, the lyrical nature of his verse is second to none. And you don’t just have to take my word for it- Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger and Bob Dylan are all pretty fond of him as well.
The UFO Enigma (Peter Sturrock) Ever since I was a wee lad, I’ve liked my unexplained phenomenon, and none more so than UFOs. It’s a subject that’s been so thoroughly ridiculed at this point that it’s difficult to discuss seriously. Speaking of signal-to-noise, around 95% of UFO reports are clearly noise- low-quality reports, misidentifications, hoaxes, etc. But there remains a residue of around 5% “signal” that is genuinely baffling and highly unknown to contemporary science. This book is a presentation of the proceedings of a scientific panel brought together by Laurance Rockefeller in 1997 to examine some of the “best evidence” that investigators had to present. I’m looking forward to reading their conclusions, because the truth is still out there…
Holy Qur’an Were we just talking about truth? About 1.6 billion people world-wide consider this to be the most perfect version of a religion that has been continually revealed to humankind throughout history, starting with the Jews, and then the Christians, and culminating here. As a syncretic panentheist I don’t really do exclusive claims to truth. But I do respect spiritual traditions from around the world and throughout history, so I’m almost always reading somebody’s scripture.
If You meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! (Sheldon Kopp) Take that, scriptures! Sheldon Kopp uses the language of psychotherapy, mythology and numerous religious traditions to highlight what he sees as a universal human journey from looking for the answer from someone else to realizing that it is only found within. This is my “car book”, I read a page or two to provide myself with a moment of zen before heading in to the office.
JLA Vol. 6 (Joe Kelly, Doug Mahnke, Tom Nguyen, David Baron) On the topic of religion and myths, comics writer Grant Morrison thinks superheroes are our contemporary legends. I usually have a comics collection on my Nook for night-time reading before bed, and I couldn’t be happier than with this one. Though I’ll always be a Marvel boy at heart, things don’t get any bigger or more legendary than the heaviest hitters from DC Comics, the Justice League.
So that’s what I’m currently reading! How about you?
You may have tuned in recently for part one of my overview of ten books that were key to the development of my spirituality throughout my life. If not, go catch up!
Okay, ready? Last week’s installment covered five books that took me from childhood through my late 20s. We’ll pick up below with five more that take us from there to (roughly) now.
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous– I first encountered this book at the age of 29, by which point addictive behaviors of various stripes had made my life completely unmanageable. Up until then, I had perused spirituality in an intellectual way. What I lacked was what this book provided, and I could no longer do without: a practical, step-by-step (all puns intended) guide to how to put spiritual principles in to practice in everyday living. Yes the language is a little outdated now (it first came out in 1935). But the common-sense and extremely low-dogma approach to spirituality is as relevant as ever. Over the years, I have heard Christian fundamentalists dismiss its concept of choosing a Higher Power of your own understanding as being too wishy-washy, and Atheist fundamentalists dismiss it as being Christian propaganda. Anything that can stay in a sensible middle of both extremes must be on to something!
The Televisionary Oracle– Some of you may be familiar with Rob Brezsny from his irreverent, fiercely intelligent, and radically freedom-insistent Free Will Astrology column. You may not realize that he’s also written a novel. Or is it a New Age self-help book? Bizarrely presented memoir? Whichever, when I came across this book in the wake of separating from my first wife in my early 30s, it was deeply welcome. It was like having a dear friend to help talk a newly-single, emotionally-raw me through the process of re-discovering who I was. A dear friend who was also crazy, and sexy, and able to pull together multiple threads of the metaphysical concepts I’d spent years reading about. This book also really helped me connect to the idea of the Divine Feminine. I’d heard it before, of course, but reading this book really got me feeling God as a She, which totally changed my connection to Her.
The Artist’s Way– If the Big Book helped show me how to practically apply spiritual principles to my life, The Artists’ Way did something similar to the most important part of my life, my creativity. This was also after my divorce, as I was finally getting back to writing, after years away from it. Julia Cameron’s credo in this book is that, “God is an artist. So are we. And we can cooperate with each other. Our creative dreams and longings do come from a divine source, not from the human ego.” But this idea is then put into action through a twelve-week course of daily exercises that allow the reader to re-connect to their creativity, and connect their creativity to their spirituality, in a thoroughly non-denominational way that draws from multiple sources. I’ve been through it twice, and each time it’s turbo-charged my creative process, and led me in new directions. I haven’t worked through it in ten years at this point, so it may be time to do it again…
Cosmic Trigger 1: The Final Secret of the Illuminati– Running in parallel to my lifelong interest in spirituality has been an equally lifelong interest in the paranormal and conspiracy theories. As a kid, I literally kept files of clippings and photocopies of articles on unexplained phenomenon- I recall UFOs, ghosts, ESP, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and several other topics each having their own file. I’m pretty sure Chris Carter owes me some kind of copyright infringement settlement. But what I’m actually here to talk about is how writer/philosopher/maverick Robert Anton Wilson spent his life tuned in to the intersection of conspiracy theories, the paranormal, mysticism, science and religion. And from that, he produced (among many other things) this delightful volume that asserts nothing, implies everything, and encourages the reader to keep an open mind. I’m basically the perfect target audience for this book, and upon reading it in my mid-30s, the paranoia that is the birthright of Gen-Xers like myself somehow turned to profound amusement, and I’ve never looked at things in quite the same way again.
Hooked: Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume– This book is actually a collection of essays that addresses the unrest without (consumer culture, capitalist excess, environmental degradation) and links it to the unrest within (addictions, greed, spiritual dissatisfaction). It turns out that Buddhism has been keyed in to this essential human difficulty in experiencing “enough” the whole time, and the voices collected in this volume have a lot to say about possible ways forward through our modern dilemma. Reading this as I approached 40 really helped me see where my decades-long interest in Buddhism could directly speak to both my internal unrest and the unrest of the world whose future I increasingly fear for. In a dark age, it’s important to remember that there are deeper forces in the world, and there’s a chance that our karma may be in the process of working itself out.
And that’s the ten books that have most influenced my spiritual development (so far). I would love to hear some of yours!
I’m going to be breaking from my usual themes occasionally over the next year to talk about the presidential election. I really can’t help it, I’ve been a political junkie for actually longer than I can remember- my mom tells me as a three year old, I was fascinated with watching “the Watergate” on TV. My promise in my coverage: I have my leanings (solidly Democratic). But my analysis will be fact-based, to the chagrin of both leftie friends and rightie friends. You can look back at my postings from 2012 to get an idea of what that will look like.
However, to keep it in synch with my more usual blog themes, this first entry will be in the form of a list. The thing about Presidential politics is, there’s a lot of noise in media coverage that tends to drown out the signal. Before Nov. 1 of the year before the election, it isn’t even worth paying attention to, really, because the early speculation is based on so little, empirically, and early numbers aren’t indicative of much of anything. Here’s a few things I’ve been able to avoid talking about by not writing about it until now:
1. 4 whole candidates! First, and in an originally 22-candidate field, the value of this is not to be overlooked, by waiting I’ve avoided having to talk about Chaffe, Perry, Walker and Webb at all! Especially relieving, because I would have thought Walker had a decent chance at the Republican nomination, so it’s nice not to have to endure the daymare that would have been.
2. Joe Biden. I love Uncle Joe! Always have. He was actually one of my two preferred candidates at the start of 2008 (the other was Bill Richardson, which goes to show you what I know). But it would have been a long shot for him, and explaining that to people imbibing the latest media narrative would have grown tiresome. Now I don’t have to!
3. Arguing about Bernie Sanders. I actually can’t win with Bernie. My small cadre of rightie friends starts in on the whole tired socialist trip whenever I talk about Bernie. And my Progressive friends call me a cynic when I try to talk realistically about his chances (which have been, and remain, low according to every reliable indicator). Then I have my mainline Democratic friends who try to convince me that Bernie is worthless or even dangerous and Hillary is golden. By not writing about the election until now, I’ve at least had some break from this argument.
4. Dismissing Trump. My early take was that he would be gone before voting started, and certainly would not be in the top three by Super Tuesday. I’m glad I didn’t have a chance to write more about this, because I’m starting to question my premise. Nate Silver at 538.com, who I put a lot of stock in, still thinks Trump is ultimately doomed, because he’s so unpalatable to the party power brokers, and they have numerous opportunities in the process to derail him one way or another. It’s a solid argument. But, now that he’s been in the lead for three and a half months straight, is polling first or second in the three first primaries, and actual voting starts in 90 days, I’m a little less sure. I still don’t expect him to be the nominee (my current best guess is Rubio), but he’s actually in this thing for real.
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…
I’m a music geek. I’m a total geek for lists. I also love documentaries. And history. If only there was some way to combine all of these. Wait– THERE IS!
Without further ado, I present you here a brief history of punk rock through documentaries, suitable for the audiophile, cinephile, and home-schoolers doing a unit on popular music. Note that these are presented in order of where they fall in the history of punk’s development, rather than when the films came out.
End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (2003, Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia) Often lost in the mix of its subsequent history is the fact that Punk actually started in the U.S.. Here’s the story of one of the first punk bands, highlighting the long shadow they cast on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980, Julien Temple) It may have started here, but it was in the U.K.that punk burst into the public consciousness, and there wasn’t a louder source of the P.R. burst than the Sex Pistols. This documentary of their rise and fall is set apart by coming from the era, and being itself a punk pastiche of sound and vision.
The Filth and the Fury (2000, Julien Temple) Twenty years later, Julien Temple came back to do a more conventional (and thorough) documentary on the Sex Pistols. It lacks the verve of his earlier film, but makes up for it in accuracy, and really puts the band and the Punk movement in a wider context.
The Clash: Westway to the World (2000, Don Letts) This documentary does a similar kind of treatment for the Clash. If the Pistols were the brains of U.K. Punk, the Clash were the brawn. Or maybe exactly vice versa… Either way, Letts makes great use of performance footage, interviews and news clips to remind you why it wasn’t purely hubris to call the Clash “the only band that matters”.
The Decline of Western Civilization (1981, Penelope Spheris) The funny thing about influence is, it runs both ways. If the Ramones helped jump-start U.K. Punk, U.K. Punk equally fed back into the scene in the U.S.. Heavy on live performance and interviews with the bands themselves, Penelope Spheris’ powerhouse showcase vividly brings the LA Punk scene of the early 80s to life.
We Jam Econo (2005, Tim Irwin & Keith Scheiron) From the general to the specific, this film hones in on The Minutemen, one of the more unique bands to come out of that Southern California scene before their highly literate, political and musically eclectic mix was brought to an end by their front man’s premature death just as they were on the verge of wider success.
American Hardcore (2006, Paul Rachman) Who the hell needs wider success? In the course of the 80s, LA Punk became LA Hardcore, and similar scenes popped up around the nation. This film chronicles the development of the nationwide scene, and makes a persuasive argument that Hardcore Punk was the only functioning political opposition in Reagan’s America.
1991: The Year Punk Broke (1992, Dave Markey) One thing about American Hardcore is that it ends the 80s on a distinctively downbeat note- a la the scene is gone now, and the kids all suck. This 1992 documentary puts the lie to that kind of defeatism. It chronicles a tour by Sonic Youth and the bands they brought with them, including priceless footage of a fledgling Nirvana, and is a reminder that, even as Punk flamed out throughout the 80s, it was giving birth to an alternative music scene that still had a splash or two left to make.
This list will get you going, but there’s more to discover. And I’d love to hear some that you recommend!