50 Albums You May Not Know…But Need To Own: Part One (Revisited)

robert_johnson2-1-290x300

NO SELF-RESPECTING writer should ever undertake the process of making a list lightly. As we all know, lists are ultimately trivial, subjective and practically a provocation inviting rebuttals, questions and caustic dismissal. They are, therefore, matters of life and death. Making this list made me (more) insane, so I know my mission is accomplished, in spirit if not actuality. Even picking the title caused consternation: some people will know and love all of these albums; all people will love and know some of them. The point, simply, is to celebrate fifty that I don’t think get enough love, and that I recommend without reservation. That said, this is not an exercise in obscurity: we already have hipsters happy to select the most abstruse or impossible-to-procure albums. In the cases where I allow for works I know a lot of people recognize, I’ve included them because in my experience, not nearly enough people seem to own them (spoiler alert: the top two selections are critically regarded masterpieces, but in my humble opinion they should be a great deal more beloved and recognized).

I enforced a few guidelines to make the project manageable: there is exactly one blues album, one classical, one “world music”, one country/bluegrass, one soundtrack and one jazz (but I broke that rule, inevitably): entire lists could—and should—be made of each genre, and I tried to limit the reggae, because an entire list is begging to be made at some point. There are more than a few albums on this list that I heard or read about and all music fanatics understand the karmic implications of turning friends and strangers on to albums that improve their lives. Getting off the familiar path always is always a word-of-mouth enterprise, so I thank everyone in advance for mentioning lesser known albums that warrant celebration in the comments section.

Let’s get it on.

50. Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings

Yes, everyone has heard of him. But have you heard this music? Do you own his collected works? They fit on one disc, so there’s no acceptable excuse not to.

Does any single figure loom as large over an art form as Robert Johnson? Bach and Shakespeare come to mind, but classical music, like literature, took centuries and multiple cultures in order to unfold and evolve. The history of American popular music came to be dominated by rock and roll, which initially flowered as a (mostly white) appropriation of the blues. The blues was the common language and unifying force of all rock’s earliest practitioners, many of whom were obsessed with the music made in the first part of the 20th century. It’s well documented that most of the artists from what came to be called the British Invasion were inspired and driven by the example of blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Put simply, the one individual who even those masters must be measured against, in terms of influence and innovation, is Robert Johnson.

Perhaps the most effective way of getting a handle on Johnson’s unshakable impact is to consider the number of his songs covered by other musicians. Even a listener more than casually acquainted with rock (and blues) history is likely to underestimate how many compositions—popularized by other rock (and blues) musicians spanning several decades—were originally written and recorded by Johnson over the course of a mere seven months in 1936 and 1937. And as anyone who knows can attest, this is not remotely music for a museum, relics to acknowledge before moving on. It is exciting, joyful noise, brimming with purpose and ingenuity, fun and frightening, enigmatic and awe-inspiring.

In sum, if you consider yourself a fan of history, or culture, or America, or Art (etc.), you need this in your collection, and not as something to put on display, but something you will return to, often, to remember how deep, dark and mind-boggling humanity can be, at its best.

Robert J

49. Olivier Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time

Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), is a chamber quartet by French composer Olivier Messiaen. This music was not merely inspired by the concentration camps, it was written, and then performed there. True story, and worth looking up. When considering the circumstances that accompanied its creation, the hyperbolic title not only seems appropriate but even inadequate. The music itself? Exactly what you might expect: stirring, solemn, celebratory. It is a living document of endurance and memory, and it is the soundtrack of a hope that can never be silenced.

messiaen

48. Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um

One of the most special aspects of Mingus Ah Um is the way it functions as a sort of encyclopedia of the best jazz music recorded to that point. Mingus was as generous in celebrating the musicians who inspired him as he was ardent in discovering them. Plain and simple, Mingus Ah Um sounds like the 20th Century: it is a self-portrait of a man who helped define the direction of post-bop jazz, commenting on the country that created him. Charles Mingus was, above all things, a fighter. Since nothing came easily to him, his struggles—as a musician, as a man—acted as the kiln in which his character was forged. This is how Mingus, mercurial and larger than life, manages to encapsulate so many aspects of the American story: he battled to find his artistic voice, then he strived—often stymied by rejection or indifference—to have that voice heard. Eventually, inevitably, he managed to create material that was too brilliant to be ignored.

mingus

47. Bela Fleck: Natural Bridge

It’s possible there is not a more maligned or misunderstood type of music than bluegrass. Banjo wizard Bela Fleck is probably the best-known practitioner of what is commonly referred to as “Newgrass” (progressive bluegrass). His credentials are unimpeachable, and his entire discography is consistently remarkable, but Natural Bridge stands out as a document that can entice a newbie and satisfy an aficionado. Pushing boundaries and styles, the results are buoyant and expressive, a tour de force of collective musicianship: every song is hummable and manages to sound familiar yet fresh on first listen. It’s difficult to imagine anyone with a remotely open mind being immune to the considerable charms on display, and it’s likely this could be a gateway to a love affair that never ends.

Bela F

46. Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate: Ali & Toumani

Although Mali legend Ali Farka Touré was taken entirely too soon (despite having lived a long and productive life, artistically and spiritually) in 2006 after battling cancer, this posthumous release, his second collaboration with kora master Toumani Diabete, is an ideal summation of his work and perfect point of entry for newcomers. The interplay between these two men is exceedingly rare in any type of music. Ali and Toumani is profound and powerful, with a soft accumulating force, like the individual drips of ice that form a river. This desert music is very much like the desert itself: it is expansive and immutable, and it will endure.

ali toumani

45. Mikey Dread: Beyond World War III

If Mikey Dread (Michael Campbell) had never decided to pick up the microphone and sing, his status would be secure in reggae history. His groundbreaking weekly show on Jamaican radio, the ingeniously entitled Dread at the Controls not only made him a celebrity, but it brought Jamaican music to the masses, making hometown heroes out of otherwise obscure acts (And then there is his fruitful, crucial association with The Clash: keyword Sandinista!).

This is one of the true lost classics. No, that’s not accurate. It’s more accurate to remember that it was never considered a classic in the first place, so it’s not a matter of it being lost so much as never having been found. And that is unacceptable. The style here is heavy dub, with Dread (who, again, already had plenty of experience perfecting mash-ups of reggae hits) applying his considerable production acumen to his own songs. The mood is mostly upbeat, at times festive, at times jovial and, when appropriate, somber. This is party music for the apocalypse.

mikey D

44. Elysian Fields: Bleed Your Cedar

This album should have made the beautiful Jennifer Charles a superstar. That it didn’t says more about our country, and its tastemakers, than it does about Elysian Fields. The songwriting and guitar playing of Oren Bloedow is effulgent throughout, and the album manages to be spooky and luminous at the same time. Centerpiece “Fountains on Fire” is sexy yet forbidding: Charles is a siren who will lull you to sleep and then steal your soul. Other tracks like “Jack In The Box” and “Anything You Like” have unmistakable noir elements while delivering the adrenaline. This is lounge music from hell, sung by an angel.

Elysian F

43. Robert Fripp and Brian Eno: No Pussyfooting

The origin of ambient? If not, definitely one of the early, and more enduring experiments that led to thousands of lifeless imitations. Considering the pedigrees of both men (long since anointed as legends) it’s almost impossible to imagine this not being brilliant, but recalling the relatively primitive conditions in which it was recorded, No Pussyfooting remains a revelation. Considering Fripp was in the midst of recording masterpieces with King Crimson’s most riotous ensemble and Eno was fresh out of Roxy Music, the subdued, glacial pull of this album is the type of anomaly we now know we could—and should—have expected from these two geniuses. In addition to being a remarkable recording in its own right, this can also be seen as a template for the types of sounds Eno and Fripp are still experimenting with, four decades later.

Fripp Eno

42. Wax Poetic: Nublu Sessions

Yes, this is the one that has Norah Jones on it. And I’m grateful for two reasons. First, even though Jones sings on only two tracks, they are both top-notch. Second, her involvement in this project clearly elevated its commercial appeal and helped more people stumble upon it. Nublu Sessions features a variety of guest vocalists, all to incredible effect. In addition to Jones, we get N’Dea Davenport, U-Roy and especially Marla Turner, whose vocals are some of the sexiest and most memorable of the last decade. Turner’s work on “Della” is an instant classic that invokes Motown filtered through a psychedelic jukebox: it is an ethereal Burt Bacharach song, equal parts Dionne Warwick, Isaac Hayes and Portishead. Nublu Sessions effortlessly meshes jazz, rock and pop, and is everything that great music is capable of being. Do yourself a favor and grab hold of this.

nublu sessions

41. Cornershop: Handcream for a Generation

It seemed too good to be true that this band became one of the big stories in 1997 with their breakthrough When I Was Born For The 7th Time. In a way, it was. Whether because of pressure (self-imposed and critical) or lack of sufficient inspiration, it took them over five years to make their next album. With America’s typical attention span, that meant they were not only mostly forgotten, but effectively yesterday’s news. It’s a shame, then, that this atmosphere (partly of their own making) led to the apathetic embrace of 2002?s brilliant Handcream For A Generation. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this album was (and continues to be) met with such indifference. Certainly, it doesn’t have the sure-fire hit single that “Brimful of Asha” was, but in many ways, the best songs on this album are better than the best songs on the one that preceded it.

In any event, it is one that remains ripe for reeavaluation, and the delights it contains are considerable. Put as simply as possible, anyone who dug When I Was Born For The 7th Time is strongly encouraged to snatch Handcream For A Generation. Cornershop’s inimitable Indian/British rock permutations are consistently clever, inventive and always, always cool as shit. This is one of the coolest albums of the new century and, in fact, it may be too cool for its own good. For skeptics or naysayers, how can you possibly go wrong with a record that has a song entitled “Lessons Learned from Rocky I to Rocky III”? This is intelligent music that makes you want to dance, laugh, and marvel at how such creativity is conceived in the first place.

Cornershop

List originally published at The Weeklings, 5/1/14 (check it out and make sure to explore the Spotify playlist that follows the article).

Share

50 Albums You May Not Know…But Need To Own: Part One

robert_johnson2-1

NO SELF-RESPECTING writer should ever undertake the process of making a list lightly. As we all know, lists are ultimately trivial, subjective and practically a provocation inviting rebuttals, questions and caustic dismissal. They are, therefore, matters of life and death. Making this list made me (more) insane, so I know my mission is accomplished, in spirit if not actuality. Even picking the title caused consternation: some people will know and love all of these albums; all people will love and know some of them. The point, simply, is to celebrate fifty that I don’t think get enough love, and that I recommend without reservation. That said, this is not an exercise in obscurity: we already have hipsters happy to select the most abstruse or impossible-to-procure albums. In the cases where I allow for works I know a lot of people recognize, I’ve included them because in my experience, not nearly enough people seem to own them (spoiler alert: the top two selections are critically regarded masterpieces, but in my humble opinion they should be a great deal more beloved and recognized).

I enforced a few guidelines to make the project manageable: there is exactly one blues album, one classical, one “world music”, one country/bluegrass, one soundtrack and one jazz (but I broke that rule, inevitably): entire lists could—and should—be made of each genre, and I tried to limit the reggae, because an entire list is begging to be made at some point. There are more than a few albums on this list that I heard or read about and all music fanatics understand the karmic implications of turning friends and strangers on to albums that improve their lives. Getting off the familiar path always is always a word-of-mouth enterprise, so I thank everyone in advance for mentioning lesser known albums that warrant celebration in the comments section.

Let’s get it on.

50. Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings

Yes, everyone has heard of him. But have you heard this music? Do you own his collected works? They fit on one disc, so there’s no acceptable excuse not to.

Does any single figure loom as large over an art form as Robert Johnson? Bach and Shakespeare come to mind, but classical music, like literature, took centuries and multiple cultures in order to unfold and evolve. The history of American popular music came to be dominated by rock and roll, which initially flowered as a (mostly white) appropriation of the blues. The blues was the common language and unifying force of all rock’s earliest practitioners, many of whom were obsessed with the music made in the first part of the 20th century. It’s well documented that most of the artists from what came to be called the British Invasion were inspired and driven by the example of blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Put simply, the one individual who even those masters must be measured against, in terms of influence and innovation, is Robert Johnson.

Perhaps the most effective way of getting a handle on Johnson’s unshakable impact is to consider the number of his songs covered by other musicians. Even a listener more than casually acquainted with rock (and blues) history is likely to underestimate how many compositions—popularized by other rock (and blues) musicians spanning several decades—were originally written and recorded by Johnson over the course of a mere seven months in 1936 and 1937. And as anyone who knows can attest, this is not remotely music for a museum, relics to acknowledge before moving on. It is exciting, joyful noise, brimming with purpose and ingenuity, fun and frightening, enigmatic and awe-inspiring.

In sum, if you consider yourself a fan of history, or culture, or America, or Art (etc.), you need this in your collection, and not as something to put on display, but something you will return to, often, to remember how deep, dark and mind-boggling humanity can be, at its best.

Robert J

49. Olivier Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time

Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), is a chamber quartet by French composer Olivier Messiaen. This music was not merely inspired by the concentration camps, it was written, and then performed there. True story, and worth looking up. When considering the circumstances that accompanied its creation, the hyperbolic title not only seems appropriate but even inadequate. The music itself? Exactly what you might expect: stirring, solemn, celebratory. It is a living document of endurance and memory, and it is the soundtrack of a hope that can never be silenced.

messiaen

48. Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um

One of the most special aspects of Mingus Ah Um is the way it functions as a sort of encyclopedia of the best jazz music recorded to that point. Mingus was as generous in celebrating the musicians who inspired him as he was ardent in discovering them. Plain and simple, Mingus Ah Um sounds like the 20th Century: it is a self-portrait of a man who helped define the direction of post-bop jazz, commenting on the country that created him. Charles Mingus was, above all things, a fighter.  Since nothing came easily to him, his struggles—as a musician, as a man—acted as the kiln in which his character was forged. This is how Mingus, mercurial and larger than life, manages to encapsulate so many aspects of the American story: he battled to find his artistic voice, then he strived—often stymied by rejection or indifference—to have that voice heard. Eventually, inevitably, he managed to create material that was too brilliant to be ignored.

mingus

47. Bela Fleck: Natural Bridge

It’s possible there is not a more maligned or misunderstood type of music than bluegrass. Banjo wizard Bela Fleck is probably the best-known practitioner of what is commonly referred to as “Newgrass” (progressive bluegrass). His credentials are unimpeachable, and his entire discography is consistently remarkable, but Natural Bridge stands out as a document that can entice a newbie and satisfy an aficionado. Pushing boundaries and styles, the results are buoyant and expressive, a tour de force of collective musicianship: every song is hummable and manages to sound familiar yet fresh on first listen. It’s difficult to imagine anyone with a remotely open mind being immune to the considerable charms on display, and it’s likely this could be a gateway to a love affair that never ends.

Bela F

46. Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate: Ali & Toumani

Although Mali legend Ali Farka Touré was taken entirely too soon (despite having lived a long and productive life, artistically and spiritually) in 2006 after battling cancer, this posthumous release, his second collaboration with kora master Toumani Diabete, is an ideal summation of his work and perfect point of entry for newcomers. The interplay between these two men is exceedingly rare in any type of music. Ali and Toumani is profound and powerful, with a soft accumulating force, like the individual drips of ice that form a river. This desert music is very much like the desert itself: it is expansive and immutable, and it will endure.

ali toumani

45. Mikey Dread: Beyond World War III

If Mikey Dread (Michael Campbell) had never decided to pick up the microphone and sing, his status would be secure in reggae history. His groundbreaking weekly show on Jamaican radio, the ingeniously entitled Dread at the Controls not only made him a celebrity, but it brought Jamaican music to the masses, making hometown heroes out of otherwise obscure acts (And then there is his fruitful, crucial association with The Clash: keyword Sandinista!).

This is one of the true lost classics. No, that’s not accurate. It’s more accurate to remember that it was never considered a classic in the first place, so it’s not a matter of it being lost so much as never having been found. And that is unacceptable. The style here is heavy dub, with Dread (who, again, already had plenty of experience perfecting mash-ups of reggae hits) applying his considerable production acumen to his own songs. The mood is mostly upbeat, at times festive, at times jovial and, when appropriate, somber. This is party music for the apocalypse.

mikey D

44. Elysian Fields: Bleed Your Cedar

This album should have made the beautiful Jennifer Charles a superstar. That it didn’t says more about our country, and its tastemakers, than it does about Elysian Fields. The songwriting and guitar playing of Oren Bloedow is effulgent throughout, and the album manages to be spooky and luminous at the same time. Centerpiece “Fountains on Fire” is sexy yet forbidding: Charles is a siren who will lull you to sleep and then steal your soul. Other tracks like “Jack In The Box” and “Anything You Like” have unmistakable noir elements while delivering the adrenaline. This is lounge music from hell, sung by an angel.

Elysian F

43. Robert Fripp and Brian Eno: No Pussyfooting

The origin of ambient? If not, definitely one of the early, and more enduring experiments that led to thousands of lifeless imitations. Considering the pedigrees of both men (long since anointed as legends) it’s almost impossible to imagine this not being brilliant, but recalling the relatively primitive conditions in which it was recorded, No Pussyfooting remains a revelation. Considering Fripp was in the midst of recording masterpieces with King Crimson’s most riotous ensemble and Eno was fresh out of Roxy Music, the subdued, glacial pull of this album is the type of anomaly we now know we could—and should—have expected from these two geniuses. In addition to being a remarkable recording in its own right, this can also be seen as a template for the types of sounds Eno and Fripp are still experimenting with, four decades later.

Fripp Eno

42. Wax Poetic: Nublu Sessions

Yes, this is the one that has Norah Jones on it. And I’m grateful for two reasons. First, even though Jones sings on only two tracks, they are both top-notch. Second, her involvement in this project clearly elevated its commercial appeal and helped more people stumble upon it. Nublu Sessions features a variety of guest vocalists, all to incredible effect. In addition to Jones, we get N’Dea Davenport, U-Roy and especially Marla Turner, whose vocals are some of the sexiest and most memorable of the last decade. Turner’s work on “Della” is an instant classic that invokes Motown filtered through a psychedelic jukebox: it is an ethereal Burt Bacharach song, equal parts Dionne Warwick, Isaac Hayes and Portishead. Nublu Sessions effortlessly meshes jazz, rock and pop, and is everything that great music is capable of being. Do yourself a favor and grab hold of this.

nublu sessions

41. Cornershop: Handcream for a Generation

It seemed too good to be true that this band became one of the big stories in 1997 with their breakthrough When I Was Born For The 7th Time. In a way, it was. Whether because of pressure (self-imposed and critical) or lack of sufficient inspiration, it took them over five years to make their next album. With America’s typical attention span, that meant they were not only mostly forgotten, but effectively yesterday’s news. It’s a shame, then, that this atmosphere (partly of their own making) led to the apathetic embrace of 2002?s brilliant Handcream For A Generation. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this album was (and continues to be) met with such indifference. Certainly, it doesn’t have the sure-fire hit single that “Brimful of Asha” was, but in many ways, the best songs on this album are better than the best songs on the one that preceded it.

In any event, it is one that remains ripe for reeavaluation, and the delights it contains are considerable. Put as simply as possible, anyone who dug When I Was Born For The 7th Time is strongly encouraged to snatch Handcream For A Generation. Cornershop’s inimitable Indian/British rock permutations are consistently clever, inventive and always, always cool as shit. This is one of the coolest albums of the new century and, in fact, it may be too cool for its own good. For skeptics or naysayers, how can you possibly go wrong with a record that has a song entitled “Lessons Learned from Rocky I to Rocky III”? This is intelligent music that makes you want to dance, laugh, and marvel at how such creativity is conceived in the first place.

Cornershop

List originally published at The Weeklings, 5/1/14 (check it out and make sure to explore the Spotify playlist that follows the article).

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Top 50 Albums of the Decade, Part Two (Revisited)

40. Cornershop, Handcream For A Generation (2002)

It seemed too good to be true that this band became one of the big stories in 1997 with their breakthrough When I Was Born For The 7th Time. In a way, it was. Whether because of pressure (self-imposed and critical) or lack of sufficient inspiration, it took them over five years to make their next album. With America’s typical attention span, that meant they were not only mostly forgotten, but effectively yesterday’s news. It’s a shame, then, that this atmosphere (partly of their own making) led to the apathetic atmosphere greeting 2002’s brilliant Handcream For A Generation. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this album was (and continues to be) met with such indifference. Certainly, it doesn’t have the sure-fire hit single that “Brimful of Asha” was, but in many ways, the best songs on this album are better than the best songs on the one that preceded it.

In any event, it is one that remains ripe for reeavaluation, and the delights it contains are considerable. Put as simply as possible, anyone who dug When I Was Born For The 7th Time is strongly encouraged to snatch Handcream For A Generation. Cornershop’s inimitable Indian/British rock mash-ups are consistently clever, inventive and always, always cool as shit. This is one of the coolest albums of the new century and, in fact, it may be too cool for its own good. For skeptics or naysayers, how can you possibly go wrong with a record that has a song entitled “Lessons Learned from Rocky I to Rocky III”? This album is intelligent party music that makes you want to dance, laugh, and marvel at how such music is conceived in the first place.

 

39. Tomahawk, Tomahawk (2001)

Tomahawk is a thinking man’s supergroup. Or a sick man’s. A sick thinking man’s? Whatever. I was wise enough to pounce on the opportunity to see this band (before their eponymous debut was released) at the tiny Black Cat in D.C. in October 2001. Not only was I not disappointed, it was one of the most incendiary live shows I’ve ever witnessed: the sheer musicianship and intensity on the stage was almost devastating. To say Patton had the small crowd eating out of his paws from the first song is no exaggeration. Blown away as I was (keep in mind this concert occurred less than two years after the Fantomas/Mr. Bungle epic ’99 one-two punch, and only a few months after Fantomas dropped The Director’s Cut) I doubted the band could match the urgency in the studio. I’ve seldom been so pleased to be dead wrong.

Tomahawk is a dark, uncompromising statement, and a masterpiece of sorts. When you have memebers of Jesus Lizard, Melvins and Helmet backing who is almost certainly the most dynamic and influential singer of his generation (Patton is like Johnny Depp before he became kid-friendly), it’s difficult to imagine how superior work would not result.

 

38. Amadou & Miriam, Dimanche a Bamako (2005)

It’s worthwhile enough when a genuine “feel good” story finds commercial acceptance. A blind, married couple from Mali who have been making music for decades, their breakthrough came a bit out of nowhere in 2005, and it couldn’t have happened to better or more deserving people. And it’s only slightly cynical to suggest that the story greatly added to the album’s initial momentum. But sometimes the right things happen for the right reasons.

Bottom line: Dimanche a Bamako is an ebullient and infectious jewel of an album. Certainly, the contributions (player and producer) of Manu Chao, whose presence is blatant –and beautiful– on the excellent “Taxi Bamako” which is more a chant than a proper song. On other songs, like the truly affecting “Politic Amagni” and the absolutely gorgeous closer “M’Bife Blues”, one need not understand the (French) lyrics to feel everything that is important about this music. The empathy and spiritual richness of these singers infuse every second of this album, making it a celebration on an artistic and human level.

37. Miss Murgatroid & Petra Haden: Hearts and Daggers (2008)

A violin/accordion duo? Really?

Yes, really. This is likely the out and out weirdest selection on this list, but it’s also one of the most wonderful. Petra Haden (daughter of jazz bassist Charlie Haden) already gets props for making the most adventurous and audacious album of the decade, a totally a capella remake of The Who’s The Who Sell Out. Seriously. Obviously, calling this type of music an acquired taste is more than a slight understatement. But if you’re willing to give it a shot, you might be blissfully surprised.

So, Hearts and Daggers, Haden’s second collaboration with Miss Murgatroid (accordionist Alicia Rose) is at once totally out there, but also, refreshingly accessible. Think Beach Boys harmonizing (with female voices) set to slightly surreal classical chamber music. Naturally, there are a whole lot of people who won’t have the ears (or stomach) for this from the get-go, but for more adventurous (and, frankly, experienced) listeners, this is a treasure waiting to be dug up. The music conjures up a dreamlike state that is neither contemporary nor particularly western, yet it could only be made today: the result is highly stylized, utterly uncompromised magic.

36. Vieux Farka Toure, Vieux Farka Toure (2007)

I raved about this young man on a couple of occasions this year, and Fondo, the follow-up to his debut is one of my personal favorite albums of 2009. The fact that I consider his first album even better should speak volumes. When the son of Mali legend Ali Farka Toure introduced himself to the world in 2007, it was very easy to for fans of his father to be skeptical: how good could he possibly be? It only took one listen to understand that the apple had not fallen far from the tree; indeed, the son had very obviously spent a great deal of time honing his craft and learning from the man who named him. And talk about paying dues: because of the decades of dues his father (who is now justly recognized as one of the most important musicians of the second half of the 20th Century) paid, he was reluctant to see his son become a musician. In fact, he forbade it. So not only was there no nepotism in Vieux’s ascension, he had to learn and perfect his craft in secret, and only once his father realized there was no stopping his son (and realized how good he was) did he offer his encouragement.

Listening to this album it’s difficult to suppress expectations: in all seriousness, there is no limit to what Vieux might achieve, considering his age and how advanced his game already is. (He already proved this was not a one-and-done fluke with the brilliance evinced on Fondo.) But enough backstory: Toure’s debut is an almost indescribably buoyant, expansive affair. It is so full of life and so brimming with confidence and enthusiasm it is a small miracle of sorts. Where his father perfected the “desert blues” that was ancient and deep, the son incorporates elements of reggae, folk and rock into his arsenal. Check out “Ana”, below, which should answer any questions and dispel any doubts. And keep in mind: the rest of the album delivers the goods at the same level.

35. Bohren & Der Club of Gore, Black Earth (2004)

Lounge jazz from Hell? Maybe, but in a good way. And darker. The band actually calls what they do “horror jazz” which is just about right. It could almost be a Saturday Night Live skit (think Sprockets) skit: the band is German, there are no vocals, and the titles of the songs include “Midnight Black Earth”, “Constant Fear”, “Destroying Angels” and “The Art of Coffins”. It seems like the biggest joke except for two things: it is so obviously non-commercial (ever heard of this band? I didn’t think so) there is no money in it, and it’s a totally original triumph.

It is dark (real dark), it is slow (real slow) and it’s definitely not daytime music. In other words, it’s perfect! Seriously, this is an album to accompany late night ruminations, or the enjoyment of a solo scotch on the rocks, or an ideal soundtrack for drifting off to sleep. This is not an album that would necessarily be in heavy rotation (unless you are a guy who wears black eyeliner) but it is the ultimate go-to album for certain occasions that only you will know about.

34. Sigur Ros: ( ) (2002)

Popul Vuh meets Bjork, only more so.

Seriously, it is difficult to describe music like this because it too easily invokes cliches and flowery attempts to articulate the impossible. This band has gotten very popular yet they somehow maintain a low profile (perhaps because they are from Iceland, or because they don’t have proper singles, or because most of their songs don’t feature lyrics, or so few people know what they look like). It all works to their advantage. The music is ambitious but manages to steer clear of pretense; it is (mostly) tranquil yet forceful in its own quiet way. At its best it is a genuine expression of pure sound, and the feelings it invokes in the listener are deeply personal, but probably similar. Ask anyone.

33. Wax Poetic, Nublu Sessions (2003)

Yes, this is the one that has Norah Jones on it. And I’m grateful for two reasons. First, even though Jones sings on only two tracks, they are both top-notch. Second, her involvement in this project clearly elevated its commercial appeal and helped more people stumble upon it. Nublu Sessions is a collective that (wisely) features a variety of guest vocalists, all to incredible effect. In addition to Jones, we get N’Dea Davenport, U-Roy and especially Marla Turner, whose vocals are some of the sexiest and most memorable of the decade. Turner’s work on “Della” is an instant classic that invokes Motown filtered through a psychedelic jukebox: it is an ethereal Burt Bacharach song, equal parts Dionne Warwick, Isaac Hayes and Portishead. Nublu Sessions effortlessly meshes jazz, rock and pop, and is everything that great music is capable of being. Do yourself a favor and grab hold of this.

32. Easy Star All-Stars, Radiodread (2006)

Let’s get it out of the way right up front. There will be no Radiohead albums on this list. That’s going to (somewhat understandably) cause problems with some people. But to have a Radiohead album (from the ’90s) recorded by another band in the list? Yes. More, I think Easy Star All-Stars’ uncanny take on OK Computer is better than the original, and better than any other album Radiohead has made. And no, I don’t hate Radiohead; quite the contrary, but I will put myself out there as someone (the only person?) who thinks the hype that has greeted every move they’ve made since OK Computer (which, for my money, was not close to the best album of that decade) is not only over-the-top, but arguably the most egregious instance of contemporary critical group-think: these guys were anointed and can do no wrong, etc. And maybe they can’t and I just don’t get it. That’s quite possible and I’m certainly comfortable with that possibility.

Anyway, full props to Radiohead: if they had not made OK Computer we could never have gotten Radiodread. The Easy Star All-Stars, of course, gained attention and perennial cult status for their magesterial reimagining of Dark Side of the Moon. After successfully interpreting one of the all-time classic albums, it made perfect sense for them to try their hands at what is widely considered the best album in recent times. They didn’t just do it justice, they transcended it. Having guest vocalists tackling each tune with a very authentic reggae backing band that is versatile enough to incorporate the appropriate rock and postmodern elements. For me, there is an emotion, soul and lack of overly mannered anguish that mars the original. But that’s just me. I don’t want to knock Radiohead to elevate Radiodread, I’ll just reserve my right to opine that while the most celebrated band of modern times has made some amazing albums, their best work was recorded by another band.

31. Porcupine Tree, Fear of a Blank Planet (2007)

Speaking of Radiohead, another common encomium laid at their feet is the way in which they carry on the better aspects of the prog-rock tradition, epitomized by Pink Floyd. Fair enough, as far as it goes (though I think it does both bands a bit of a disservice), but for anyone who suspects prog rock is (for better or worse) dead and buried, I offer only two words: Porcupine Tree. Led by the indefatigable Steven Wilson, the band made strides –and accumulated a larger audience– with each successive album, culminating in what is (thus far) their masterpiece, Fear of a Blank Planet.

It’s more than a little ironic that a band who (appropriately) gets props for putting the Prog back in Rock made an album so completely of its time and relevant to contemporary concerns. It is a concept album of sorts, but without the pretense or the shoehorned thematic grasping that makes many people less than sentimental for the bad old days. As the title makes fairly clear, the primary theme linking each song is a willed (and occasionally unintentional) withdrawal: from society, from friends and family, from oneself. This disconnection is alternately abetted by TV, video games and medication, which applies –but is not limited– to a younger demographic. This is very much an adult’s album, especially an adult who can actually recall when albums featuerd ten minute-plus centerpieces. On Fear of a Blank Planet that centerpiece is “Anesthetize”, an absolute tour-de-force of intelligence, emotion and insight. Plus, it features prog-rock god Alex Lifeson (Rush) on guitar. That a band would want to pull of a 17 minute song in the 21st Century is impressive; that a band could do it so convincingly is almost beyond belief. “Anesthetize” is, simply put, one of the towering artistic achievements of the last ten years, and the rest of the songs are effective and memorable in their own fashion. Porcupine Tree has already delivered the goods again (2009’s The Incident) and Steven Wilson dropped his first solo album, Insurgentes earlier this year. There is every likelihood that Wilson and company will contribute more magic in the years ahead, but it’s not unfair to imagine that anything could possibly top Fear of a Blank Planet.

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Top 50 Albums of the Decade, Part Two

40. Cornershop, Handcream For A Generation (2002)

It seemed too good to be true that this band became one of the big stories in 1997 with their breakthrough When I Was Born For The 7th Time. In a way, it was. Whether because of pressure (self-imposed and critical) or lack of sufficient inspiration, it took them over five years to make their next album. With America’s typical attention span, that meant they were not only mostly forgotten, but effectively yesterday’s news. It’s a shame, then, that this atmosphere (partly of their own making) led to the apathetic atmosphere greeting 2002’s brilliant Handcream For A Generation. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this album was (and continues to be) met with such indifference. Certainly, it doesn’t have the sure-fire hit single that “Brimful of Asha” was, but in many ways, the best songs on this album are better than the best songs on the one that preceded it.

In any event, it is one that remains ripe for reeavaluation, and the delights it contains are considerable. Put as simply as possible, anyone who dug When I Was Born For The 7th Time is strongly encouraged to snatch Handcream For A Generation. Cornershop’s inimitable Indian/British rock mash-ups are consistently clever, inventive and always, always cool as shit. This is one of the coolest albums of the new century and, in fact, it may be too cool for its own good. For skeptics or naysayers, how can you possibly go wrong with a record that has a song entitled “Lessons Learned from Rocky I to Rocky III”? This album is intelligent party music that makes you want to dance, laugh, and marvel at how such music is conceived in the first place.

 

39. Tomahawk, Tomahawk (2001)

Tomahawk is a thinking man’s supergroup. Or a sick man’s. A sick thinking man’s? Whatever. I was wise enough to pounce on the opportunity to see this band (before their eponymous debut was released) at the tiny Black Cat in D.C. in October 2001. Not only was I not disappointed, it was one of the most incendiary live shows I’ve ever witnessed: the sheer musicianship and intensity on the stage was almost devastating. To say Patton had the small crowd eating out of his paws from the first song is no exaggeration. Blown away as I was (keep in mind this concert occurred less than two years after the Fantomas/Mr. Bungle epic ’99 one-two punch, and only a few months after Fantomas dropped The Director’s Cut) I doubted the band could match the urgency in the studio. I’ve seldom been so pleased to be dead wrong.

Tomahawk is a dark, uncompromising statement, and a masterpiece of sorts. When you have memebers of Jesus Lizard, Melvins and Helmet backing who is almost certainly the most dynamic and influential singer of his generation (Patton is like Johnny Depp before he became kid-friendly), it’s difficult to imagine how superior work would not result.

 

38. Amadou & Miriam, Dimanche a Bamako (2005)

It’s worthwhile enough when a genuine “feel good” story finds commercial acceptance. A blind, married couple from Mali who have been making music for decades, their breakthrough came a bit out of nowhere in 2005, and it couldn’t have happened to better or more deserving people. And it’s only slightly cynical to suggest that the story greatly added to the album’s initial momentum. But sometimes the right things happen for the right reasons.

Bottom line: Dimanche a Bamako is an ebullient and infectious jewel of an album. Certainly, the contributions (player and producer) of Manu Chao, whose presence is blatant –and beautiful– on the excellent “Taxi Bamako” which is more a chant than a proper song. On other songs, like the truly affecting “Politic Amagni” and the absolutely gorgeous closer “M’Bife Blues”, one need not understand the (French) lyrics to feel everything that is important about this music. The empathy and spiritual richness of these singers infuse every second of this album, making it a celebration on an artistic and human level.

37. Miss Murgatroid & Petra Haden: Hearts and Daggers (2008)

A violin/accordion duo? Really?

Yes, really. This is likely the out and out weirdest selection on this list, but it’s also one of the most wonderful. Petra Haden (daughter of jazz bassist Charlie Haden) already gets props for making the most adventurous and audacious album of the decade, a totally a capella remake of The Who’s The Who Sell Out. Seriously. Obviously, calling this type of music an acquired taste is more than a slight understatement. But if you’re willing to give it a shot, you might be blissfully surprised.

So, Hearts and Daggers, Haden’s second collaboration with Miss Murgatroid (accordionist Alicia Rose) is at once totally out there, but also, refreshingly accessible. Think Beach Boys harmonizing (with female voices) set to slightly surreal classical chamber music. Naturally, there are a whole lot of people who won’t have the ears (or stomach) for this from the get-go, but for more adventurous (and, frankly, experienced) listeners, this is a treasure waiting to be dug up. The music conjures up a dreamlike state that is neither contemporary nor particularly western, yet it could only be made today: the result is highly stylized, utterly uncompromised magic.

36. Vieux Farka Toure, Vieux Farka Toure (2007)

I raved about this young man on a couple of occasions this year, and Fondo, the follow-up to his debut is one of my personal favorite albums of 2009. The fact that I consider his first album even better should speak volumes. When the son of Mali legend Ali Farka Toure introduced himself to the world in 2007, it was very easy to for fans of his father to be skeptical: how good could he possibly be? It only took one listen to understand that the apple had not fallen far from the tree; indeed, the son had very obviously spent a great deal of time honing his craft and learning from the man who named him. And talk about paying dues: because of the decades of dues his father (who is now justly recognized as one of the most important musicians of the second half of the 20th Century) paid, he was reluctant to see his son become a musician. In fact, he forbade it. So not only was there no nepotism in Vieux’s ascension, he had to learn and perfect his craft in secret, and only once his father realized there was no stopping his son (and realized how good he was) did he offer his encouragement.

Listening to this album it’s difficult to suppress expectations: in all seriousness, there is no limit to what Vieux might achieve, considering his age and how advanced his game already is. (He already proved this was not a one-and-done fluke with the brilliance evinced on Fondo.) But enough backstory: Toure’s debut is an almost indescribably buoyant, expansive affair. It is so full of life and so brimming with confidence and enthusiasm it is a small miracle of sorts. Where his father perfected the “desert blues” that was ancient and deep, the son incorporates elements of reggae, folk and rock into his arsenal. Check out “Ana”, below, which should answer any questions and dispel any doubts. And keep in mind: the rest of the album delivers the goods at the same level.

35. Bohren & Der Club of Gore, Black Earth (2004)

Lounge jazz from Hell? Maybe, but in a good way. And darker. The band actually calls what they do “horror jazz” which is just about right. It could almost be a Saturday Night Live skit (think Sprockets) skit: the band is German, there are no vocals, and the titles of the songs include “Midnight Black Earth”, “Constant Fear”, “Destroying Angels” and “The Art of Coffins”. It seems like the biggest joke except for two things: it is so obviously non-commercial (ever heard of this band? I didn’t think so) there is no money in it, and it’s a totally original triumph.

It is dark (real dark), it is slow (real slow) and it’s definitely not daytime music. In other words, it’s perfect! Seriously, this is an album to accompany late night ruminations, or the enjoyment of a solo scotch on the rocks, or an ideal soundtrack for drifting off to sleep. This is not an album that would necessarily be in heavy rotation (unless you are a guy who wears black eyeliner) but it is the ultimate go-to album for certain occasions that only you will know about.

34. Sigur Ros: ( ) (2002)

Popul Vuh meets Bjork, only more so.

Seriously, it is difficult to describe music like this because it too easily invokes cliches and flowery attempts to articulate the impossible. This band has gotten very popular yet they somehow maintain a low profile (perhaps because they are from Iceland, or because they don’t have proper singles, or because most of their songs don’t feature lyrics, or so few people know what they look like). It all works to their advantage. The music is ambitious but manages to steer clear of pretense; it is (mostly) tranquil yet forceful in its own quiet way. At its best it is a genuine expression of pure sound, and the feelings it invokes in the listener are deeply personal, but probably similar. Ask anyone.

33. Wax Poetic, Nublu Sessions (2003)

Yes, this is the one that has Norah Jones on it. And I’m grateful for two reasons. First, even though Jones sings on only two tracks, they are both top-notch. Second, her involvement in this project clearly elevated its commercial appeal and helped more people stumble upon it. Nublu Sessions is a collective that (wisely) features a variety of guest vocalists, all to incredible effect. In addition to Jones, we get N’Dea Davenport, U-Roy and especially Marla Turner, whose vocals are some of the sexiest and most memorable of the decade. Turner’s work on “Della” is an instant classic that invokes Motown filtered through a psychedelic jukebox: it is an ethereal Burt Bacharach song, equal parts Dionne Warwick, Isaac Hayes and Portishead. Nublu Sessions effortlessly meshes jazz, rock and pop, and is everything that great music is capable of being. Do yourself a favor and grab hold of this.

32. Easy Star All-Stars, Radiodread (2006)

Let’s get it out of the way right up front. There will be no Radiohead albums on this list. That’s going to (somewhat understandably) cause problems with some people. But to have a Radiohead album (from the ’90s) recorded by another band in the list? Yes. More, I think Easy Star All-Stars’ uncanny take on OK Computer is better than the original, and better than any other album Radiohead has made. And no, I don’t hate Radiohead; quite the contrary, but I will put myself out there as someone (the only person?) who thinks the hype that has greeted every move they’ve made since OK Computer (which, for my money, was not close to the best album of that decade) is not only over-the-top, but arguably the most egregious instance of contemporary critical group-think: these guys were anointed and can do no wrong, etc. And maybe they can’t and I just don’t get it. That’s quite possible and I’m certainly comfortable with that possibility.

Anyway, full props to Radiohead: if they had not made OK Computer we could never have gotten Radiodread. The Easy Star All-Stars, of course, gained attention and perennial cult status for their magesterial reimagining of Dark Side of the Moon. After successfully interpreting one of the all-time classic albums, it made perfect sense for them to try their hands at what is widely considered the best album in recent times. They didn’t just do it justice, they transcended it. Having guest vocalists tackling each tune with a very authentic reggae backing band that is versatile enough to incorporate the appropriate rock and postmodern elements. For me, there is an emotion, soul and lack of overly mannered anguish that mars the original. But that’s just me. I don’t want to knock Radiohead to elevate Radiodread, I’ll just reserve my right to opine that while the most celebrated band of modern times has made some amazing albums, their best work was recorded by another band.

31. Porcupine Tree, Fear of a Blank Planet (2007)

Speaking of Radiohead, another common encomium laid at their feet is the way in which they carry on the better aspects of the prog-rock tradition, epitomized by Pink Floyd. Fair enough, as far as it goes (though I think it does both bands a bit of a disservice), but for anyone who suspects prog rock is (for better or worse) dead and buried, I offer only two words: Porcupine Tree. Led by the indefatigable Steven Wilson, the band made strides –and accumulated a larger audience– with each successive album, culminating in what is (thus far) their masterpiece, Fear of a Blank Planet.

It’s more than a little ironic that a band who (appropriately) gets props for putting the Prog back in Rock made an album so completely of its time and relevant to contemporary concerns. It is a concept album of sorts, but without the pretense or the shoehorned thematic grasping that makes many people less than sentimental for the bad old days. As the title makes fairly clear, the primary theme linking each song is a willed (and occasionally unintentional) withdrawal: from society, from friends and family, from oneself. This disconnection is alternately abetted by TV, video games and medication, which applies –but is not limited– to a younger demographic. This is very much an adult’s album, especially an adult who can actually recall when albums featuerd ten minute-plus centerpieces. On Fear of a Blank Planet that centerpiece is “Anesthetize”, an absolute tour-de-force of intelligence, emotion and insight. Plus, it features prog-rock god Alex Lifeson (Rush) on guitar. That a band would want to pull of a 17 minute song in the 21st Century is impressive; that a band could do it so convincingly is almost beyond belief. “Anesthetize” is, simply put, one of the towering artistic achievements of the last ten years, and the rest of the songs are effective and memorable in their own fashion. Porcupine Tree has already delivered the goods again (2009’s The Incident) and Steven Wilson dropped his first solo album, Insurgentes earlier this year. There is every likelihood that Wilson and company will contribute more magic in the years ahead, but it’s not unfair to imagine that anything could possibly top Fear of a Blank Planet.

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