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

SKIP-M-300x198

30. Santana: Caravanserai

Abraxas gets most of the recognition, even though Santana III is better. (The less said about Supernatural, the better.) Yet not enough people name-check Caravanserai, which is a shame since it’s not only Santana’s best album, it’s one of the great documents of a great decade. If you’ve heard their big hits on the radio (and who hasn’t?) it’s familiar yet also elusive. There is an unforced far-off vibe the band taps into, and from the first cricket chirps to the last frantic arpeggios, the listener is definitely in another place altogether. The playing throughout is so obviously in the service of a singular and uncompromised vision, it still sounds primitive and futuristic all at the same time.

santana caravanserai

29. Eyvind Kang: Theater of Mineral Nades

Eyvind Kang inhabits other worlds so that the rest of us don’t have to.

There are many ways to explain Eyvind Kang, but for the uninitiated, it may be helpful to describe him an artist who is inspired by and incorporates other times and foreign places, always interpreting history and humanity with the curiosity of an explorer and the delight of a devoted scholar. He manages to make strange and exquisite music, at once embracing improvisation yet always guided by central themes and feelings.

Theater of Mineral Nades manages to be all things at once: a history-of-the-universe as sonic experiment. In an ideal world Kang would be, if not a household name, an artist properly appreciated by a curious and discerning majority that did not depend upon network television to tell them whom they should idolize. No matter. By continuing to depict forgotten as well as imagined worlds, Eyvind Kang manages to tell us new things about the one in which we dwell.

eyvind kang

28. New Zion Trio: Fight Against Babylon

As a player equally comfortable behind a piano or an organ (as well as keyboards of any kind), Jamie Saft has delivered convincing performances as an acoustic player as well as one who happily plugs in. At times sounding like Klezmer meets King Tubby, this joint is heavy without being dark, and ever-so-slightly unsettling. Saft achieves the improbable: a radical deconstruction and re-imagining of the classic Dub it up blacker than Dread aesthetic perfected by Lee “Scratch” Perry in the mid-to-late ‘70s.

Capable of seemingly anything, Saft shrewdly utilizes a less-is-more approach to create a music that no one else could have conceived. He boasts the full range of his influences and ability, summoning sounds and feelings from multiple genres. The results are strikingly original and may inspire you to dig up some dub classics from your closet, or listen to contemporary jazz with reawakened ears. They should also remind you that while Saft has never before done anything quite like this, Fight Against Babylon is an obvious and welcome continuation of the distinctive and unclassifiable work he has been doing for many years now.

new zion trio

27. Danny Gatton: 88 Elmira Street

The best guitarist too many people are unaware of, Danny Gatton blended unparalleled musical chops with a seemingly all-encompassing range (You think I’m kidding you? I’m not kidding you. Check this and this and especially this.) From blues to folk to jazz (his own trademarked “redneck jazz” is brilliantly self-deprecating nod to his considerable proficiency) to spirited and original takes on rock/pop standards, Gatton is an American icon. This album is an obvious and easy way to get hooked on a player who is never less than interesting and consistently capable of making your heart stop with one lick. Speaking of heart, Gatton’s heart was like his ability: possibly too big for his own good. Impossible to pigeonhole (and therefore successfully market), Gatton knew he was great, but our world is often unkind or at best indifferent to real genius. He took his own life in 1993, one of the more intolerable tragedies in a profession full of them.

danny gatton

26. Kronos Quartet: Performs Philip Glass

How to get one’s ears around this contemporary master, equal parts prolific and peripatetic? This is an ideal point of entry, courtesy of some of his finest compositions, performed to perfection by the ever-reliable Kronos Quartet. Many of Glass’s stylistic quirks and affects are on display, including his looping use of repeated themes: at his best Glass disorients, circles back and ultimately comforts. Celebrated and/or derided for his so-called minimalist style (a lazy critical crutch if there ever was one), there are moments of intensity here—particularly on “String Quartet No. 3 (Mishima)” that unnerve before finally allowing release. A cathartic, emotional listen every time.

kronos quartet

25. Little Axe: Hard Grind

Folks hearing Hard Grind might understandably say, “Hey, Moby already did this!” Check yourself before you wreck yourself: Little Axe did it first, and much more convincingly, on The Wolf That House Built (1995!!). Not to hate on old blues songs sampled over electronica dance beats but…Moby is old blues songs sampled over electronica dance beats. (Also: Google Skip McDonald. He’s kind of a big deal.)

Hard Grind is from the underground, where so many of the strange and interesting things occur. This is a surreal, always satisfying trip through a sonic funhouse where blues strains back to its African roots and rock stretches past the Internet, into the beyond. It is like a novel in many regards: a surface-level experience is enjoyable, but repeated exposure affords a more in-depth (and soulful) understanding of what the artist is after. It accrues value and import with time and, as anyone knows, these types of artifacts come along seldom enough that they should be celebrated.

little axe

24. Cowboy Junkies: Whites Off Earth Now!!

Whites Off Earth Now! is a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that a group of young Caucasians (from Canada no less!) made an album largely comprised of covers of old African-American blues legends such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker and Bukka White. The arrangements are stripped down and unpolished, but sound like what they in fact are: live recordings. The true ear-opener of this band is Margo Timmins, who supplies a gracefully dangerous female voice to songs originally sung by gravelly-voiced hombres. Her sparse, but affecting delivery on veritable American treasures such as “Baby Please Don’t Go” (which, unlike Van Morrison’s well-known, up-tempo rockabilly treatment is slowed down to a brooding, almost lugubrious pace), “I’ll Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive”, and “Me and the Devil” are remarkable.

Two particular highlights: an astounding take on Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”—a stark, somber, uncoverable song. Where Springsteen’s version is sparse with just a haunting, distant vocal and acoustic guitar, the CJ’s create musical tension that veritably sweats danger and foreboding. The album closes with a treatment of “Crossroads” that is so restrained and reticent it makes much of the rest of the album seem festive, if that’s possible.

cowboy junkies

23. Critters Buggin’: Host

Skerik (née Eric Walton) is like a Zelig of the musical antiestablishment, having associated and performed with an impressive roster of some of the more beloved avant-garde cult figures of our time, including Les Claypool, Charlie Hunter, Stanton Moore, and Bobby Previte. He is leader and mastermind of the ensembles Critters Buggin, Garage a Trois, and Skerik’s Syncopated Taint Septet.

Skerik is an architect of sounds: he constructs sonic scenes, and you are never quite sure how or what is making all of those strange yet exultant noises, but the results are always stylized and immediately recognizable. He operates mostly on tenor and baritone saxophone, but between the gadgets and effects it can sound like a small orchestra, albeit one emerging like steam from a sewage drain during a thunderstorm (in a good way).

critters buggin

22. Lee Perry: Lee Perry Presents…African Roots from the Black Ark Featuring Seke Molenga and Kalo Kawongolo

Be wary of anyone who tells you an album you’ve never heard is a masterpiece. This album is a masterpiece.

African Roots will grow on you, if you let it. It’s definitely filed under reggae, but the fact that Molenga and Kawongolo are African gives it a delightfully, if at first vaguely disorienting non-Western vibe. The vocals, with few exceptions, are not in English and this will oblige the listener to step outside preconceived notions and comfort zones. As a result, the focus inevitably is on the feeling being conjured, and this is most definitely a joyful noise. The album is a throwback in the sense that it demands to be absorbed as a whole, in a single setting, the way music works best when approached with the reverence it deserves. The songs employ double-tracked vocals and plenty of Lee Perry-produced echo and reverb, but the chants and repeated phrases are absolutely mesmerizing. Once you fall under its spell—and you will—it serves as a reminder that human beings are capable of extraordinary things: it’s righteous being humbled by art that makes you feel so good.

african roots

21. Fantomas: Fantomas

Mike Patton has made so much music that it really is incredible—and more than a little amusing—to remember that he was a straightforward rock deity, relatively speaking, circa 1998. And so, regardless of what anyone expected, or hoped for, it was less than likely that anyone could have anticipated what the eccentric frontman was cooking up in his laboratory. As soon became evident, Patton was headed in a very different direction indeed, inspiring him to recruit a supergroup of sorts to help him realize his vision. Calling on Trevor Dunn (good friend and bassist from Mr. Bungle), Buzz Osborne (guitarist and mastermind of the Melvins), and Dave Lombardi (the widely worshipped drummer from Slayer), Patton assembled what appeared, on paper, to be a metal lover’s wet dream. Amazingly, the collective turned out to surpass even the wildest hype, gelling to constitute a unified whole greater than the sum of its impressive parts.

A great deal of time and effort could be dedicated to debating what it all means, or how he did it (as ostensibly free-wheeling as the material may seem, Patton actually choreographed every second of it before the band ever got involved), and where this recording properly fits in an assessment of Patton’s evolution. In hindsight, Fantômas is very obviously a direction—wayward or ingenious, depending upon the listener—Patton wanted to head in, and he’s never backtracked, for better or for worse. To this listener, it represents the first day of the rest of Patton’s artistic life. Fantômas let him break with what he must have felt were the straightjacket-like conventions and expectations of the traditional rock route, and it’s almost like he had to invent his own language to give free expression to what was boiling around inside his mind.

fantomas

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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Fantômas: Fifteen Years Later

fantomas

A writer should always set challenges: it keeps things interesting and guards against formulaic and predictable assessments. Still, as Harry Callahan sagely observed, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” I can’t say I would have felt the compulsion to attempt an appraisal of Fantômas, Mike Patton’s side project supergroup. How do you get a handle on vocals without lyrics? How do you describe what is essentially a sonic Molotov cocktail of Melvins, Mr. Bungle and Slayer? Perhaps by suggesting that Fantômas are a Molotov cocktail of Melvins, Mr. Bungle and Slayer.

So when PopMatters decided to continue commemorating its ten year anniversary with a feature dedicated to the most essential albums released in 1999 (they already looked at the seminal movies from that year, and I took that opportunity to write about The Insider),it was like fate (with a lowercase F) was daring me to do work. No serious discussion of 1999 could fail to incorporate the debut from Fantômas, so I gave it the old post-graduate try.

Link here; (the site also has sound samples from the album) text below:

27 April 1999
Fantômas
Fantômas

Mike Patton has straddled so many genres and appeared with so many different artists (John Zorn, Dan the Automator, and Kaada, just to name three), it’s almost impossible to think back to that time, a little over a decade ago, when Faith No More fans agonized over whether that band would reunite (they would not). At the same time, the smaller, but equally—if not more—fanatical contingent of Mr. Bungle fans wondered if, and how, that band could possibly follow up their uncategorizable shot heard round the underground, Disco Volante. Their prayers would be answered with California, which then sent fans into another prolonged wait-and-see as to whether Mr. Bungle would record again (they would not).

Patton has made so much music that it really is incredible—and more than a little amusing—to remember that he was a straightforward rock deity, relatively speaking, circa 1998. That is to say, he was famous (relatively speaking) for fronting Faith No More, even though that band got (and still gets) more attention for its decidedly mediocre breakthrough The Real Thing (1989) than Angel Dust (1993), which is easily one of the best and most influential albums of that decade. No matter what Patton proclaimed, most folks assumed that Mr. Bungle was a lark, a side project to scratch the creative itches his more mainstream material could not approach.

And so, regardless of what anyone expected, or hoped for, it was less than likely that anyone could have anticipated what the eccentric frontman was cooking up in his laboratory. As soon became evident, Patton was headed in a very different direction indeed, inspiring him to recruit a supergroup of sorts to help him realize his vision. Calling on Trevor Dunn (good friend and bassist from Mr. Bungle), Buzz Osborne (guitarist and mastermind of the Melvins), and Dave Lombardi (the widely worshipped drummer from Slayer), Patton assembled what appeared, on paper, to be a metal lover’s wet dream. Amazingly, the collective turned out to surpass even the wildest hype, gelling to constitute a unified whole greater than the sum of its impressive parts. Of course, musicians of this magnitude can’t help but be brilliant, but the lion’s share of the credit must go to Patton, as this was his baby for every step of the way. The band played and perfected the material Patton provided, and the resulting album hit the streets in April 1999, becoming the inaugural release for Ipecac, Patton’s new label.

Fantômas, named after the very popular, if controversial, early 20th century French crime novel character, is effectively the band that ensured Patton was finished with Faith No More (soon, he would also be finished with Mr. Bungle). It’s challenging to describe what their eponymous debut sounds like, in part because it incorporates so many different styles of music. It is decidedly avant-garde work, with the hardcore flourishes one would expect from Osborne and Lombardo. It is also refreshingly out there, which one would expect from Patton. But this does not begin to address how truly original the album is, or the ways it achieves oddness of a whole other magnitude.

Patton does not sing so much as employ his seemingly limitless vocal range as a fourth instrument—there is not a single intelligible word uttered through the duration of the recording. Indeed, the work itself does not feature songs, but “pages”, the idea being a musical interpretation (or recreation) of a comic book: 30 sonic snippets that accompany the “plot” illustrated in the CD booklet. Frankly, the pictures (though very effective) are not necessary, as the emphasis here is on sounds and feelings, not linear narrative. This is not to imply that the proceedings are unintelligible; rather, the music unfolds with its own internal logic. Impenetrable and abrasive at first listen (Patton sounds like a trapped animal, a human chainsaw, and a motorboat engine out of water, sometimes all in a span of ten seconds), this is challenging material that obliges the audience to surrender expectations and meet Patton on his own terms.

A great deal of time and effort could be dedicated to debating what it all means, or how he did it (as ostensibly free-wheeling as the material may seem, Patton actually choreographed every second of it before the band ever got involved), and where this recording properly fits in an assessment of Patton’s evolution. In hindsight, Fantômas is very obviously a direction—wayward or ingenious, depending upon the listener—Patton wanted to head in, and he’s never backtracked, for better or for worse. To this listener, it represents the first day of the rest of Patton’s artistic life. Fantômas let him break with what he must have felt were the straightjacket-like conventions and expectations of the traditional rock route, and it’s almost like he had to invent his own language to give free expression to what was boiling around inside his mind.

Fantômas is not an album most people would put into the regular rotation. It’s intense, it’s involving, and it requires a full sitting to absorb—although having heard it so many times, I actually can queue up individual “pages” and enjoy them on their own terms: Pages 1, 2, 3, 4, 10, 11, 12, 15, 17, 19, 21, 26 and 29 are endlessly interesting and satisfying, especially if they randomly pop up in the iPod shuffle—and it’s most likely not the music you want on when company is present. Fifteen years has not remotely diminished its quirky, edgy ambition, and it remains a very unique document, even in Patton’s ever-growing catalog.

It’s difficult to determine how influential this work was, because nobody else in the world could ever have conceived this, much less pulled it off. It was an inspiration for the assembled players, as they would collaborate many times in the ensuing years, with predictably engaging results. Whether or not Fantômas is the best work Patton has done is totally irrelevant, but it is perhaps the most important work he has ever done. For himself.

Sean Murphy


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Mr. Bungle’s California: Fifteen Years Later

bungle

*8/5/14:

This dropped a little over five years ago, which is difficult to fathom.

This album dropped a little over fifteen years ago, which is exceedingly difficult to fathom.

***

PopMatters keeps the party going, plowing through the calendar year of 1999, reminiscing about important albums that dropped that year. For my part, I’m tackling the yang to Fantomas’ yin: Mr. Bungle’s California. These two albums bookend Mike Patton’s frenetic, fin-de-siecle inspiration, and also signify two of the most significant and satisfying projects he has been involved with. Not quite as difficult to describe as Fantomas, California is nevertheless quite challenging to properly assess or summarize because, by nature of the band’s material, Mr. Bungle is uncategorizable. In a good way.

Link (with sound samples) here.

13 July 1999
Mr. Bungle
California

From the sounds of the seagulls and surf that open the album to the century-ending clang that closes it, Mr. Bungle’s California covers more ideas and images than most bands could cram into a career. Anyone who has fallen under Bungle’s uncanny spell can attest to the fact that when you hear one of their albums, it stays heard. This is music that takes you somewhere, including places you did not know existed. Mr. Bungle gets inside your mind and remains there.

Mr. Bungle only released three albums in the ‘90s (in part because the various members kept busy with other projects, like Faith No More, Fantômas, and Secret Chiefs 3, all of whom made incredible and important recordings during that decade), and each successive album represented a considerable leap forward. The band’s self-titled 1991 debut was an ambitious, genre-splicing experiment that combined carnivalesque whimsy with occasionally disturbing subject matter: it was about what happened after the circus left town, metaphorically speaking. Mr. Bungle endures as a psychedelic hall of mirrors that remains delightful and disorienting, no matter how many times you hear it. Their next release, 1995’s Disco Volante, upped the ante and managed somehow to be both weirder and (at times) more accessible than its predecessor. A song like “Desert Search for Techno Allah” (and before you even listen to it, think of the awesomely odd images that title conjures) defies description—it’s a techno mash-up with eye-popping musical proficiency. The band’s brand of weird science offers no quarter: this material affronts non-believers and turns adventurous listeners into fanatics.

Incredibly, after another four-year interval, California synthesized the band’s numerous compulsions (surf music, proto-funk, eastern rhythms, jazzy noodling, and ingenious yet oddball lyrics) into a cohesive whole. The confidence and focus displayed throughout their third album is on an entirely other level. On each of the ten tracks you might hear traces of Frank Zappa (both the comic and the composer), Captain Beefheart, Ennio Morricone, and the Ventures. The band cruises from one influence to the next with arresting ease, perfecting a sort of laid-back lunacy, a controlled hurricane of intensely opposite styles that inexplicably make complete sense.

Aside from being the Mr. Bungle masterpiece (Disco Volante boasts some of the band’s finest moments, but taken in its entirety it’s a tad too disjointed and self-indulgent; it’s a schizophrenic near-miss), California is the culmination of their cut-and-paste surrealism, marrying the stop-on-a-dime intensity with a kitchen sink sensibility that incorporates the entire universe into its vision. More so than any previous album, Mike Patton’s prodigious (and possibly unparalleled) vocal range is fully utilized, allowing him to explore everything from retro-crooning (“Vanity Fair”) to campy faux-lounge (“Pink Cigarette”) to relatively straightforward rock (“The Air-Conditioned Nightmare”) to the utterly unclassifiable (“Golem II: The Bionic Vapour Boy”). The band continuously weaves a west-coast vibe into the mix, winking and nodding with playful but heartfelt invocations of the Beach Boys, Hollywood, and (as always) surf music filtered through a distinctively postmodern heavy metal M.O.

California is not even a collection of songs so much as miniature sonic movies. Take “Ars Moriendi”, for instance. The opening seconds somehow blend a thrash guitar/drum riff with an accordion waltz (imagine hardcore gypsy music), then Patton enters with his operatic flourishes, singing lyrics like “All my bones are laughing / As you’re dancing on my grave”. The song navigates the incongruous edge between head-bang abandon and Turkish wedding music that makes you want to slamdance while doing a polka. Or consider “Goodbye Sober Day”, which is like “I Am the Walrus” on Peyote—think the outro of Syd Barrett’s “Bike” thrown into a blender with multi-tracked falsetto wails cut by one of Sun Ra’s stranger big band workouts. And that’s just the first 30 seconds. The song goes on to incorporate Gregorian chants (convincingly) and a Balinese monkey chant (seriously). All while the band slowly disintegrates into oblivion like the bad guys’ faces melting at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

There are also gems of calm and clarity, like “The Holy Filament”, which showcases Patton as choir boy, and “Sweet Charity”, which sounds like Phil Spector working with Brian Wilson. Then there is the track that epitomizes what worked best on the previous albums, “None of Them Knew They Were Robots”. Here is the Bungle aesthetic at full effect: Hawaiian music crashing into Carl Stalling cartoon territory—keyboards and horns and Trey Spruance’s quicksilver chord changes—with a brief but convincing Elvis impersonation serving as a sick cherry on top. Oh, and it somehow manages to swing. It’s a madcap laugh, to be certain, but it’s also absolute genius.

And so, it’s a shame that the boys couldn’t keep the party going after Y2K, but considering the subsequent gifts we have received from Secret Chiefs 3, Tomahawk, and Fantômas, it seems churlish to complain. Besides, if Bungle was going to go out on top, the third time was a charm—the project where all the disparate elements and obsessions came together. California is an album that sums up the 20th century while burning the bridge to the 21st, an eternal fin-de-siècle celebration.

Sean Murphy

Air. Conditioned. Nightmare. Live.

Ars Moriendi. Live.

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

SKIP M

30. Santana: Caravanserai

Abraxas gets most of the recognition, even though Santana III is better. (The less said about Supernatural, the better.) Yet not enough people name-check Caravanserai, which is a shame since it’s not only Santana’s best album, it’s one of the great documents of a great decade. If you’ve heard their big hits on the radio (and who hasn’t?) it’s familiar yet also elusive. There is an unforced far-off vibe the band taps into, and from the first cricket chirps to the last frantic arpeggios, the listener is definitely in another place altogether. The playing throughout is so obviously in the service of a singular and uncompromised vision, it still sounds primitive and futuristic all at the same time.

santana caravanserai

29. Eyvind Kang: Theater of Mineral Nades

Eyvind Kang inhabits other worlds so that the rest of us don’t have to.

There are many ways to explain Eyvind Kang, but for the uninitiated, it may be helpful to describe him an artist who is inspired by and incorporates other times and foreign places, always interpreting history and humanity with the curiosity of an explorer and the delight of a devoted scholar. He manages to make strange and exquisite music, at once embracing improvisation yet always guided by central themes and feelings.

Theater of Mineral Nades manages to be all things at once: a history-of-the-universe as sonic experiment. In an ideal world Kang would be, if not a household name, an artist properly appreciated by a curious and discerning majority that did not depend upon network television to tell them whom they should idolize. No matter. By continuing to depict forgotten as well as imagined worlds, Eyvind Kang manages to tell us new things about the one in which we dwell.

eyvind kang

28. New Zion Trio: Fight Against Babylon

As a player equally comfortable behind a piano or an organ (as well as keyboards of any kind), Jamie Saft has delivered convincing performances as an acoustic player as well as one who happily plugs in. At times sounding like Klezmer meets King Tubby, this joint is heavy without being dark, and ever-so-slightly unsettling. Saft achieves the improbable: a radical deconstruction and re-imagining of the classic Dub it up blacker than Dread aesthetic perfected by Lee “Scratch” Perry in the mid-to-late ‘70s.

Capable of seemingly anything, Saft shrewdly utilizes a less-is-more approach to create a music that no one else could have conceived. He boasts the full range of his influences and ability, summoning sounds and feelings from multiple genres. The results are strikingly original and may inspire you to dig up some dub classics from your closet, or listen to contemporary jazz with reawakened ears. They should also remind you that while Saft has never before done anything quite like this, Fight Against Babylon is an obvious and welcome continuation of the distinctive and unclassifiable work he has been doing for many years now.

new zion trio

27. Danny Gatton: 88 Elmira Street

The best guitarist too many people are unaware of, Danny Gatton blended unparalleled musical chops with a seemingly all-encompassing range (You think I’m kidding you? I’m not kidding you. Check this and this and especially this.) From blues to folk to jazz (his own trademarked “redneck jazz” is brilliantly self-deprecating nod to his considerable proficiency) to spirited and original takes on rock/pop standards, Gatton is an American icon. This album is an obvious and easy way to get hooked on a player who is never less than interesting and consistently capable of making your heart stop with one lick. Speaking of heart, Gatton’s heart was like his ability: possibly too big for his own good. Impossible to pigeonhole (and therefore successfully market), Gatton knew he was great, but our world is often unkind or at best indifferent to real genius. He took his own life in 1993, one of the more intolerable tragedies in a profession full of them.

danny gatton

26. Kronos Quartet: Performs Philip Glass

How to get one’s ears around this contemporary master, equal parts prolific and peripatetic? This is an ideal point of entry, courtesy of some of his finest compositions, performed to perfection by the ever-reliable Kronos Quartet. Many of Glass’s stylistic quirks and affects are on display, including his looping use of repeated themes: at his best Glass disorients, circles back and ultimately comforts. Celebrated and/or derided for his so-called minimalist style (a lazy critical crutch if there ever was one), there are moments of intensity here—particularly on “String Quartet No. 3 (Mishima)” that unnerve before finally allowing release. A cathartic, emotional listen every time.

kronos quartet

25. Little Axe: Hard Grind

Folks hearing Hard Grind might understandably say, “Hey, Moby already did this!” Check yourself before you wreck yourself: Little Axe did it first, and much more convincingly, on The Wolf That House Built (1995!!). Not to hate on old blues songs sampled over electronica dance beats but…Moby is old blues songs sampled over electronica dance beats. (Also: Google Skip McDonald. He’s kind of a big deal.)

Hard Grind is from the underground, where so many of the strange and interesting things occur. This is a surreal, always satisfying trip through a sonic funhouse where blues strains back to its African roots and rock stretches past the Internet, into the beyond. It is like a novel in many regards: a surface-level experience is enjoyable, but repeated exposure affords a more in-depth (and soulful) understanding of what the artist is after. It accrues value and import with time and, as anyone knows, these types of artifacts come along seldom enough that they should be celebrated.

little axe

24. Cowboy Junkies: Whites Off Earth Now!!

Whites Off Earth Now! is a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that a group of young Caucasians (from Canada no less!) made an album largely comprised of covers of old African-American blues legends such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker and Bukka White.  The arrangements are stripped down and unpolished, but sound like what they in fact are:  live recordings. The true ear-opener of this band is Margo Timmins, who supplies a gracefully dangerous female voice to songs originally sung by gravelly-voiced hombres.  Her sparse, but affecting delivery on veritable American treasures such as “Baby Please Don’t Go” (which, unlike Van Morrison’s well-known, up-tempo rockabilly treatment is slowed down to a brooding, almost lugubrious pace), “I’ll Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive”, and “Me and the Devil” are remarkable.

Two particular highlights: an astounding take on Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”—a stark, somber, uncoverable song.  Where Springsteen’s version is sparse with just a haunting, distant vocal and acoustic guitar, the CJ’s create musical tension that veritably sweats danger and foreboding. The album closes with a treatment of “Crossroads” that is so restrained and reticent it makes much of the rest of the album seem festive, if that’s possible.

cowboy junkies

23. Critters Buggin’: Host

Skerik (née Eric Walton) is like a Zelig of the musical antiestablishment, having associated and performed with an impressive roster of some of the more beloved avant-garde cult figures of our time, including Les Claypool, Charlie Hunter, Stanton Moore, and Bobby Previte. He is leader and mastermind of the ensembles Critters Buggin, Garage a Trois, and Skerik’s Syncopated Taint Septet.

Skerik is an architect of sounds: he constructs sonic scenes, and you are never quite sure how or what is making all of those strange yet exultant noises, but the results are always stylized and immediately recognizable. He operates mostly on tenor and baritone saxophone, but between the gadgets and effects it can sound like a small orchestra, albeit one emerging like steam from a sewage drain during a thunderstorm (in a good way).

critters buggin

22. Lee Perry: Lee Perry Presents…African Roots from the Black Ark Featuring Seke Molenga and Kalo Kawongolo

Be wary of anyone who tells you an album you’ve never heard is a masterpiece. This album is a masterpiece.

African Roots will grow on you, if you let it. It’s definitely filed under reggae, but the fact that Molenga and Kawongolo are African gives it a delightfully, if at first vaguely disorienting non-Western vibe. The vocals, with few exceptions, are not in English and this will oblige the listener to step outside preconceived notions and comfort zones. As a result, the focus inevitably is on the feeling being conjured, and this is most definitely a joyful noise. The album is a throwback in the sense that it demands to be absorbed as a whole, in a single setting, the way music works best when approached with the reverence it deserves. The songs employ double-tracked vocals and plenty of Lee Perry-produced echo and reverb, but the chants and repeated phrases are absolutely mesmerizing. Once you fall under its spell—and you will—it serves as a reminder that human beings are capable of extraordinary things: it’s righteous being humbled by art that makes you feel so good.

african roots

21. Fantomas: Fantomas

Mike Patton has made so much music that it really is incredible—and more than a little amusing—to remember that he was a straightforward rock deity, relatively speaking, circa 1998. And so, regardless of what anyone expected, or hoped for, it was less than likely that anyone could have anticipated what the eccentric frontman was cooking up in his laboratory. As soon became evident, Patton was headed in a very different direction indeed, inspiring him to recruit a supergroup of sorts to help him realize his vision. Calling on Trevor Dunn (good friend and bassist from Mr. Bungle), Buzz Osborne (guitarist and mastermind of the Melvins), and Dave Lombardi (the widely worshipped drummer from Slayer), Patton assembled what appeared, on paper, to be a metal lover’s wet dream. Amazingly, the collective turned out to surpass even the wildest hype, gelling to constitute a unified whole greater than the sum of its impressive parts.

A great deal of time and effort could be dedicated to debating what it all means, or how he did it (as ostensibly free-wheeling as the material may seem, Patton actually choreographed every second of it before the band ever got involved), and where this recording properly fits in an assessment of Patton’s evolution. In hindsight, Fantômas is very obviously a direction—wayward or ingenious, depending upon the listener—Patton wanted to head in, and he’s never backtracked, for better or for worse. To this listener, it represents the first day of the rest of Patton’s artistic life. Fantômas let him break with what he must have felt were the straightjacket-like conventions and expectations of the traditional rock route, and it’s almost like he had to invent his own language to give free expression to what was boiling around inside his mind.

fantomas

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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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #8 & #7 (Revisited)

8. Fantômas, Fantômas (1999)

This one is a bit of a stretch; it may even be cheating a little bit to include it since it’s not (necessarily) dismissed. On the other hand, it’s primarily recognized by Mike Patton aficionados. That’s fine, but it should have broader appeal for anyone looking for staggeringly original music and may be just what the doctor should have ordered for anyone bored with convention and cynicism. This is challenging music to listen to, and it’s definitely challenging to write about—but that only seems fair since it was quite obviously challenging to conceive and execute.

People who seem disinclined to check this out may be understandably intimidated by the notion of an album without lyrics, particularly when it features one of the eminent vocalists of his generation. More, when that singer is (ostensibly) utilizing an entire album without an intelligible sound other than shrieks, screams and imitations of violent acts, it’s…well, a tough sell. On the other hand, what part of a Melvins, Mr. Bungle and Slayer mash-up could you possibly be unexcited about? (Fantomas, for anyone not in the know, features former Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn, Melvins guitarist and mad genius Buzz Osborne and Slayer drum god Dave Lombardo.)

Once again, it’s challenging to relate what this uber-supergroup’s debut sounds like, in part because it incorporates so many different styles of music. It is decidedly avant-garde work, with the hardcore flourishes one would expect from Osborne and Lombardo. It is also refreshingly, unabashedly out there, which one would expect from Patton—who does not sing so much as employ his seemingly limitless vocal range as a fourth instrument. Impenetrable and abrasive at first listen (Patton sounds like a trapped animal, a human chainsaw and a motorboat engine out of water, sometimes all in a span of ten seconds), this material obliges its audience to surrender expectations and meet Patton on his own anomalous terms.

A great deal of time and effort could be dedicated to debating what it all means, or how he did it (as ostensibly free-wheeling as the material may seem, Patton actually choreographed every second of it before the band ever got involved), and where this recording properly fits in an assessment of Patton’s evolution. In hindsight, Fantômas is very obviously a direction—wayward or ingenious, depending upon the listener—Patton wanted to head in, and he’s never backtracked, for better or for worse. To this listener, it represents the first day of the rest of Patton’s artistic life. Fantômas let him break with what he must have felt were the straightjacket-like conventions and expectations of the traditional rock route, and it’s almost like he had to invent his own language to give free expression to what was boiling around inside his mind.

7. Living Colour, Stain (1993)

Even though Living Colour is still making excellent music today, they are mostly remembered as the band who did “Cult of Personality” two decades and change ago. Some people remember that their second album, Time’s Up was an improvement on the (outstanding) debut, and for a minute Living Colour was one of the biggest bands in the world. Then they made a third album and…that was that—at least for another ten long years. That third album was many degrees harder, darker and more difficult than their first two albums, which might explain why it did not go over. But how to reconcile the lack of love with the fact that in some regards Stain was their best album yet?

Losing the brilliant bassist Muzz Skillings, who bolted after the second album, could have been a crippling blow (he was that good) but when ancient school session wizard Doug Wimbish stepped into the mix the band did not miss a beat—literally. WImbish brought a funky, in your face dynamic and he and drummer Will Calhoun formed an unbreakable rhythm section: deep, elastic and loud. The star of the show, as always, is Vernon Reid, who is a human encyclopedia of sound. From the hat-tip to grunge stylings in “Go Away” to the typically ear-burning pyrotechnics of “Leave It Alone” to the Robert Fripp-esque atmospherics in “Nothingness”, Reid covers all the bases while refining his own idiosyncratic style.

So what’s not to love? Well, for one thing, this is definitely not a flawless record. A handful of songs, like “Ignorance is Bliss” and “This Little Pig” are rather paint-by-number—not to mention lyrically clichéd. Some of the songs, like “Postman” and “Never Satisfied” may have just been too severe for the delicate ears of alternative rock fans, circa ’93. Some of the songs may have been a bit too much, like the disorienting “Hemp” or the mirthfully provocative “Bi”. And none of the remaining songs were destined to be radio hits, and little on this album is as user-friendly as most of the material on the first two albums. Take it or leave it: no other band on the planet could ever make a song like “Wall”, which is capable of shaking you, making you smile and seeing the world with new ears.

All of which may explain why this one did not help Living Colour become the most popular and influential band of the ‘90s, which they would/could/should have been. Even for fans who got it, then, and endorse it now, Stain is a grueling, confrontational album, and one that leaves the listener more than a little exhausted. These are the types of albums that are considered uncompromising, courageous, even ahead of their time. They are also the types of albums that don’t sell a ton of copies or necessarily convert new fans. “WTFF”, indeed.

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #8 & #7

8. Fantômas, Fantômas (1999)

This one is a bit of a stretch; it may even be cheating a little bit to include it since it’s not (necessarily) dismissed. On the other hand, it’s primarily recognized by Mike Patton aficionados. That’s fine, but it should have broader appeal for anyone looking for staggeringly original music and may be just what the doctor should have ordered for anyone bored with convention and cynicism. This is challenging music to listen to, and it’s definitely challenging to write about—but that only seems fair since it was quite obviously challenging to conceive and execute.

People who seem disinclined to check this out may be understandably intimidated by the notion of an album without lyrics, particularly when it features one of the eminent vocalists of his generation. More, when that singer is (ostensibly) utilizing an entire album without an intelligible sound other than shrieks, screams and imitations of violent acts, it’s…well, a tough sell. On the other hand, what part of a Melvins, Mr. Bungle and Slayer mash-up could you possibly be unexcited about? (Fantomas, for anyone not in the know, features former Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn, Melvins guitarist and mad genius Buzz Osborne and Slayer drum god Dave Lombardo.)

Once again, it’s challenging to relate what this uber-supergroup’s debut sounds like, in part because it incorporates so many different styles of music. It is decidedly avant-garde work, with the hardcore flourishes one would expect from Osborne and Lombardo. It is also refreshingly, unabashedly out there, which one would expect from Patton—who does not sing so much as employ his seemingly limitless vocal range as a fourth instrument. Impenetrable and abrasive at first listen (Patton sounds like a trapped animal, a human chainsaw and a motorboat engine out of water, sometimes all in a span of ten seconds), this material obliges its audience to surrender expectations and meet Patton on his own anomalous terms.

A great deal of time and effort could be dedicated to debating what it all means, or how he did it (as ostensibly free-wheeling as the material may seem, Patton actually choreographed every second of it before the band ever got involved), and where this recording properly fits in an assessment of Patton’s evolution. In hindsight, Fantômas is very obviously a direction—wayward or ingenious, depending upon the listener—Patton wanted to head in, and he’s never backtracked, for better or for worse. To this listener, it represents the first day of the rest of Patton’s artistic life. Fantômas let him break with what he must have felt were the straightjacket-like conventions and expectations of the traditional rock route, and it’s almost like he had to invent his own language to give free expression to what was boiling around inside his mind.

7. Living Colour, Stain (1993)

Even though Living Colour is still making excellent music today, they are mostly remembered as the band who did “Cult of Personality” two decades and change ago. Some people remember that their second album, Time’s Up was an improvement on the (outstanding) debut, and for a minute Living Colour was one of the biggest bands in the world. Then they made a third album and…that was that—at least for another ten long years. That third album was many degrees harder, darker and more difficult than their first two albums, which might explain why it did not go over. But how to reconcile the lack of love with the fact that in some regards Stain was their best album yet?

Losing the brilliant bassist Muzz Skillings, who bolted after the second album, could have been a crippling blow (he was that good) but when ancient school session wizard Doug Wimbish stepped into the mix the band did not miss a beat—literally. WImbish brought a funky, in your face dynamic and he and drummer Will Calhoun formed an unbreakable rhythm section: deep, elastic and loud. The star of the show, as always, is Vernon Reid, who is a human encyclopedia of sound. From the hat-tip to grunge stylings in “Go Away” to the typically ear-burning pyrotechnics of “Leave It Alone” to the Robert Fripp-esque atmospherics in “Nothingness”, Reid covers all the bases while refining his own idiosyncratic style.

So what’s not to love? Well, for one thing, this is definitely not a flawless record. A handful of songs, like “Ignorance is Bliss” and “This Little Pig” are rather paint-by-number—not to mention lyrically clichéd. Some of the songs, like “Postman” and “Never Satisfied” may have just been too severe for the delicate ears of alternative rock fans, circa ’93. Some of the songs may have been a bit too much, like the disorienting “Hemp” or the mirthfully provocative “Bi”. And none of the remaining songs were destined to be radio hits, and little on this album is as user-friendly as most of the material on the first two albums. Take it or leave it: no other band on the planet could ever make a song like “Wall”, which is capable of shaking you, making you smile and seeing the world with new ears.

All of which may explain why this one did not help Living Colour become the most popular and influential band of the ‘90s, which they would/could/should have been. Even for fans who got it, then, and endorse it now, Stain is a grueling, confrontational album, and one that leaves the listener more than a little exhausted. These are the types of albums that are considered uncompromising, courageous, even ahead of their time. They are also the types of albums that don’t sell a ton of copies or necessarily convert new fans. “WTFF”, indeed.

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #8

8. Fantômas, Fantômas (1999)

This one is a bit of a stretch; it may even be cheating a little bit to include it since it’s not (necessarily) dismissed. On the other hand, it’s primarily recognized by Mike Patton aficionados. That’s fine, but it should have broader appeal for anyone looking for staggeringly original music and may be just what the doctor should have ordered for anyone bored with convention and cynicism. This is challenging music to listen to, and it’s definitely challenging to write about—but that only seems fair since it was quite obviously challenging to conceive and execute.

People who seem disinclined to check this out may be understandably intimidated by the notion of an album without lyrics, particularly when it features one of the eminent vocalists of his generation. More, when that singer is (ostensibly) utilizing an entire album without an intelligible sound other than shrieks, screams and imitations of violent acts, it’s…well, a tough sell. On the other hand, what part of a Melvins, Mr. Bungle and Slayer mash-up could you possibly be unexcited about? (Fantomas, for anyone not in the know, features former Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn, Melvins guitarist and mad genius Buzz Osborne and Slayer drum god Dave Lombardo.)

Once again, it’s challenging to relate what this uber-supergroup’s debut sounds like, in part because it incorporates so many different styles of music. It is decidedly avant-garde work, with the hardcore flourishes one would expect from Osborne and Lombardo. It is also refreshingly, unabashedly out there, which one would expect from Patton—who does not sing so much as employ his seemingly limitless vocal range as a fourth instrument. Impenetrable and abrasive at first listen (Patton sounds like a trapped animal, a human chainsaw and a motorboat engine out of water, sometimes all in a span of ten seconds), this material obliges its audience to surrender expectations and meet Patton on his own anomalous terms.

A great deal of time and effort could be dedicated to debating what it all means, or how he did it (as ostensibly free-wheeling as the material may seem, Patton actually choreographed every second of it before the band ever got involved), and where this recording properly fits in an assessment of Patton’s evolution. In hindsight, Fantômas is very obviously a direction—wayward or ingenious, depending upon the listener—Patton wanted to head in, and he’s never backtracked, for better or for worse. To this listener, it represents the first day of the rest of Patton’s artistic life. Fantômas let him break with what he must have felt were the straightjacket-like conventions and expectations of the traditional rock route, and it’s almost like he had to invent his own language to give free expression to what was boiling around inside his mind.

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

Facebook friends, Bloggers, Strangers, lend me your ears; I come to bury the last decade, not to praise it.

Actually, I do want to praise it, but I first must contend with almost every other critic, pundit and poser who decrees this past decade –the Aughts, or better yet, the Aught-Nots– dead on departure. That is entirely too pessimistic, and evinces a hysteria all-too-typical of our age of instant insight. Nevertheless, I would not argue that the Aughts ought to have been a bit kinder on our hearts, wallets and souls. In other words, the last ten years were a lot like the decade that preceded them, and so on and so on.

But before we set this Viking ship ablaze and steer it toward Valhalla, let’s consider how much astonishing (and occasionally miraculous) art got made these last 120 months. In fact, without this generous bit of genius, contemplate how truly unsettling it all could have been. And before I put my cards on the table, I’d admonish anyone who is interested that this is intended as an interactive endeavor. I’m counting on feedback, debate, and even disbelief at how blind I was to omit (insert name of album or movie). And some of you (you know who you are) I hope will set me straight wherever I strayed. But be forewarned, I feel OK about the way the lists turned out. Of course, there’s no point in putting it out there if you can’t discuss and defend the choices that ultimately made the final cut, right?

Enough. It’s been over a month since I threatened to bring it, so consider it brung. (The celebration already began –and will conclude– with a selection of songs; in between are the albums.)

50. Beach House, Devotion (2008)

When a band sounds this confident, so fully-formed and natural right out of the gate, it is easy to assume it’s easy, or the result of an extraordinary gift. Who knows, it may well be, but however they’ve done it, Beach House has crafted a distinctive style that perfectly blends melancholy and exultation. Victoria Legrand has such an enchanting, intoxicating voice, that alone would make her music worthwhile. (Sound lazy or perhaps over the top? See if I’m overstating the case: here, here and here!) But along with Alex Scally, she has created a sonic dreamscape that the listener can –and should– just succumb to, and disappear for a while.

Someone stumbling upon this release might understandably mistake it as a lost treasure from the ’70s; it has that vinyl classic vibe that conjures up rainy days and half-remembered evenings. That it came out during the tail-end of a decade so many people have had so few nice things to say about proves that great art finds us when we need it most.

 

49. Les Claypool, Live Frogs, Set One (2001)

Official title: Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade: Live Frogs, Set One. To be certain, set two (a ballsy –and brilliant– cover of Pink Floyd’s uncoverable masterpiece Animals) is also enthusiastically recommended. As impressive as Claypool and crew’s deconstruction of Floyd is, the most satisfying cover on either set is their spirited take on King Crimson’s (uncoverable!) “Thela Hun Ginjeet” (Critters Buggin saxophonist and guest genius Skerik is typically en fuego throughout these proceedings). You have to bring more than a little to the table to keep up with Claypool, but if you’ve got game, and are ready to follow him down the rabbit hole, the subsequent delights are considerable.

Claypool has been nothing if not productive and boundary-pushing in his admirable career, but the turn of the century found him as inspired and engaged as he’s ever been: between the Flying Frog gigs and his short-lived stint with semi-supergroup Oysterhead, Les was living large. This music does not appeal to any superficial demographic, but it’s also not weird for weird’s sake; it’s intense, ebullient and a window into the restless mind of one our true contemporary trailblazers.

 

48. Hope Sandoval, Bavarian Fruit Bread (2001)

Mazzy Star released their third album Among My Swan in 1996 (which, at the time, seemed a bit too long of a wait after their breakthrough sophomore effort, 1993’s So Tonight That I Might See), and it looked, for a while, as though the enigmatic, supremely reticent (and unbelievably gorgeous) Hope Sandoval may have been done. The millennium came and went, the world did not end, and still there was no word from the spotlight-shirking siren.

Finally, in 2001, she came up for air and released her first “solo” album (along with new band The Warm Inventions): it signalled a return to form and, ostensibly, the demise of Mazzy Star. Bavarian Fruit Bread is not a great album, but it sounds like it wasn’t intended to be. It is, to be certain, a very good album, and some of the songs (like the irrepressible “On The Low” which is hands-down one of the sexiest songs of the new century) are indelible. On the album’s penultimate track “Around My Smile” she coos “I’ve got it going on.” Yeah she does.

47. Fantomas, The Director’s Cut (2001)

Earlier last summer I had the opportunity to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of Mike Patton’s miraculous end-of-century double play, in which he helped produce Mr. Bungle’s masterpiece as well as the first flowering of his (ongoing) evolution. In ’99 he formed Fantomas and recruited likeminded iconoclasts (bassist Trevor Dunn, guitarist Buzz “King Buzzo” Osbourne and thrash drummer god Dave Lombardo) who were willing –and capable– of helping realize the sounds and images inside his head. The band’s debut (click on embedded link above for a more sustained analysis) was an uncategorizable sonic boom: no words or lyrics but plenty of human noises, supported by the best backing band Patton could ever hope to assemble. It remains an uneasy, ambitious tour de force.

So, two years later, of course it made all the sense in the world for the boys to tackle…movie soundtracks. Some of the selections are well-known (Theme from “The Godfather”, “Charade”), others wonderfully obscure (“Spider Baby”, “Der Golem”–see below). The proceedings are inspired and almost unbelievably effective. This is deeply intelligent, complicated music that manages to be ear candy and ideal background music for any activity other than relaxing. Like the aforementioned Les Claypool, the turn of the century found Patton as proficient and productive as he’s ever been (and he’d been plenty of both the previous decade), and looking back almost ten years later, it is difficult to debate that he wasn’t doing some of his most important and impressive work.

46. Kid Koala, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (2000)

The scratching and sampling come a mile a minute. Kid Koala kicked off the decade by staking his claim as supreme mixologist on the scene. In early 2000, the sample/scratch mania was close to sailing over the shark (you know any artistic advancement has gone past the point of no return when pop acts are incorporating it into their weak and watered-down work), but the tank wasn’t running on fumes just yet. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (the title alone amply illustrates how quirky and clever Kid Koala is) had more than enough gas to keep the genre charging forward for a little while longer. An examination of any individual track announces, immediately, a master at work (old movie dialogue along with a Winnie The Pooh sample? Sold!)

This joint is teeming with energy and enthusiasm, but never approaches sensory overload: Koala packs in more material in twenty seconds than any DJ has done but his samples are so astutely chosen and his incorporation of each nugget into a larger, logical whole is consistently awe-inspiring. Listening to it (then) was an experience and an education; listening to it (now) is somewhat nostalgic, in all the right ways. For instance, when we hear hair metal we shake our heads; we listen to the more clever and accomplished DJs from yesteryear and recall how the world sounded before, and after, they deconstructed any available sound and turned it into a very sweet science.


45. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes (2008)

On paper, it shouldn’t work. A bunch of young dudes milking the best elements of old-school rock and folk, full of ambition and self-consciously reverential toward the icons they are emulating (Neil Young, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, etc.). Sounds like a recipe for a strained, pretentious abomination. And the fact is, many other acts who don’t have the heart, talent or integrity to pull it off fail spectacularly. But few acts (aside from My Morning Jacket) are as obvious with what they are after, and who they have been inspired by, so the stakes are not inconsiderable.

In the case of Fleet Foxes, everyone knows how this one turned out. Their debut was one of the critical darlings of 2008 and they were one of the more discussed acts on the scene. And, kind of like Grizzly Bear in 2009, the hype was warranted and appropriate. More to the point, an album like this one epitomizes the inexorable conundrum of writing about sounds: ultimately, one just has to use their ears to understand. This fully successful debut promises bountiful riches we can expect from Fleet Foxes, but even if they never play another note, they’ve already made a magnificent, lasting document.

44. Tom Waits, Real Gone (2004)

Remember 2004? Seriously. No matter what side of the political fence you were on, that was a year when America (inevitably, belatedly) realized it could not impose its will with impunity, that oil was not going to cost less (indeed it was going to cost a hell of a lot more in a hurry–go figure), and that lots of lives were being lost because of our idiotic overseas adventure. Flashback to the year before: we had surrender monkeys, Liberal Traitors, With-Us-Or-Against-Us and Mission Accomplished. Things changed in a hurry, as they tend to do. The fact that it was predictable (and predicted) only exacerbated the pain.

What does any of this claptrap have to do with Tom Waits, the fine wine of modern music, who becomes deeper and more indispensable as he (and we) gets older? Well, for my money, no album inhabited the tenor of that time as indelibly as Real Gone (the title was both a barometer and a judgment). Of course, the critic associates the sounds of a particular time with the time he heard those sounds, because he was hearing those sounds during that particular time. That is natural, but in the instance of Real Gone, it’s much more than that. Yes, I am transported to how I felt and what I was thinking when this album came out, but one listen brings it all back. Of course, I would do this great artist a serious disservice to imply that this album is merely an anti-war screed or a sociopolitical statement (although it is, at times, both of those and quite convincingly so): it is, like most Tom Waits albums (and all great pieces of music) bigger and deeper than the here-and-now, or even what the artist intended. The transmission of feeling into sound elevates the artifice and the audience: then something significant happens. The true magic is that, with every listen, it continues to happen.

43. Bjork, Medulla (2004)

By the time 2000 rolled around, Bjork didn’t have to prove anything to anyone (and anyone who was not convinced by her first two albums was never going to get it anyway). As always, you have to love and admire an artist who continues to push herself and creates work that is challenging (for herself, for her listeners) as it is, inevitably, rewarding.

Considering the myriad joys Bjork serves up (her cherubic face, her refreshingly eccentric aesthetic, her astonishing songwriting), it is, ultimately, all about her voice. That voice! And on Medulla the voice is the thing. There are other sounds, voices and instruments, but Bjork’s vox are front and center (and on the side and in the corner and above you and beneath you), and it’s a beautiful thing. Bjork singing in Icelandic? You had me at Halló.

42. Vernon Reid, Other True Self (2006)

A recollection: when word broke that Living Colour, the band poised to be the best and most important collective of the ’90s, had called it quits, the only thing that softened the pain was the promise of some solo work.

A confession: Vernon Reid’s Mistaken Identity (’96) was so mind-bogglingly brilliant it made me grateful that Living Colour –one of my favorite bands– had broken up. If they had not, I thought, we may never have gotten this album.

A promise: if I ever get around to assessing the best albums of that decade, there is absolutely no question that Mistaken Identity would be in the top five. It’s that good.

An assumption: You’ve never even heard of that album.

An admonishment: Get it.

A declaration: Vernon Reid is one of the most crucial and consistently rewarding musicians of the last 20 years.

When he dropped Known Unknown in 2004, it was cause for celebration (coming on the heels of an uneven, but welcome Living Colour album in 2003 –their first in a decade), and his ongoing work collaboration with DJ Logic in Yohimbe Brothers made it abundantly clear that Reid was keeping busy. So even as he’d delivered more than anyone could have asked for by 2006, it turns out his best work of the decade was still ahead of him. 2009’s Living Colour album has been discussed elsewhere and will be mentioned again before this exercise is complete. Other True Self certainly represents a new benchmark by which his past and future work can be measured: there are several moments on this album that easily rank with the best work he’s ever done, and that is saying a great deal. From the scalding (and timely–then, now) opening track “Game Is Rigged” to the tasty cover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence” to the shred-tacular “White Face”, Reid is an engine of creation and inspiration. Special kudos are warranted for “Oxossi”, a thorough reimagining of a traditional, if obscure, Brazilian composition. This song illustrates everything that makes Reid such an incomparable technician: he truly paints colors with sound, and is capable of creating a mood that you can’t quite describe, but remain –after countless listens– utterly enraptured by. If you are even the least bit adventurous and anxious to hear sounds you’ve never imagined, don’t sleep on Other True Self.

*note: this is the first (and hopefully last) album being discussed that does not have a single song available on YouTube. No worries, it just provides a welcome opportunity to share the incendiary title track from VR’s masterpiece.

41. Dan Auerbach, Keep It Hid (2009)

Fortunately, it’s impossible for me to get tired of talking about Dan Auerbach (or The Black Keys), because I’ve talked about him (and them) a lot this past year and a half. Keep It Hid was runner-up for my personal best album of 2009 and I think it will hold up quite nicely over time. Auerbach is the real deal and his first solo album is the genuine article. If he can only (somehow) remain as focused, productive and inspired he will dominate next decade’s list as well. Here’s to hoping we see and hear plenty from him going forward.

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Top 50 Albums of the Decade, Part One

Facebook friends, Bloggers, Strangers, lend me your ears; I come to bury the last decade, not to praise it.

Actually, I do want to praise it, but I first must contend with almost every other critic, pundit and poser who decrees this past decade –the Aughts, or better yet, the Aught-Nots– dead on departure. That is entirely too pessimistic, and evinces a hysteria all-too-typical of our age of instant insight. Nevertheless, I would not argue that the Aughts ought to have been a bit kinder on our hearts, wallets and souls. In other words, the last ten years were a lot like the decade that preceded them, and so on and so on.

But before we set this Viking ship ablaze and steer it toward Valhalla, let’s consider how much astonishing (and occasionally miraculous) art got made these last 120 months. In fact, without this generous bit of genius, contemplate how truly unsettling it all could have been. And before I put my cards on the table, I’d admonish anyone who is interested that this is intended as an interactive endeavor. I’m counting on feedback, debate, and even disbelief at how blind I was to omit (insert name of album or movie). And some of you (you know who you are) I hope will set me straight wherever I strayed. But be forewarned, I feel OK about the way the lists turned out. Of course, there’s no point in putting it out there if you can’t discuss and defend the choices that ultimately made the final cut, right?

Enough. It’s been over a month since I threatened to bring it, so consider it brung. (The celebration already began –and will conclude– with a selection of songs; in between are the albums.)

50. Beach House, Devotion (2008)

When a band sounds this confident, so fully-formed and natural right out of the gate, it is easy to assume it’s easy, or the result of an extraordinary gift. Who knows, it may well be, but however they’ve done it, Beach House has crafted a distinctive style that perfectly blends melancholy and exultation. Victoria Legrand has such an enchanting, intoxicating voice, that alone would make her music worthwhile. (Sound lazy or perhaps over the top? See if I’m overstating the case: here, here and here!) But along with Alex Scally, she has created a sonic dreamscape that the listener can –and should– just succumb to, and disappear for a while.

Someone stumbling upon this release might understandably mistake it as a lost treasure from the ’70s; it has that vinyl classic vibe that conjures up rainy days and half-remembered evenings. That it came out during the tail-end of a decade so many people have had so few nice things to say about proves that great art finds us when we need it most.

 

49. Les Claypool, Live Frogs, Set One (2001)

Official title: Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade: Live Frogs, Set One. To be certain, set two (a ballsy –and brilliant– cover of Pink Floyd’s uncoverable masterpiece Animals) is also enthusiastically recommended. As impressive as Claypool and crew’s deconstruction of Floyd is, the most satisfying cover on either set is their spirited take on King Crimson’s (uncoverable!) “Thela Hun Ginjeet” (Critters Buggin saxophonist and guest genius Skerik is typically en fuego throughout these proceedings). You have to bring more than a little to the table to keep up with Claypool, but if you’ve got game, and are ready to follow him down the rabbit hole, the subsequent delights are considerable.

Claypool has been nothing if not productive and boundary-pushing in his admirable career, but the turn of the century found him as inspired and engaged as he’s ever been: between the Flying Frog gigs and his short-lived stint with semi-supergroup Oysterhead, Les was living large. This music does not appeal to any superficial demographic, but it’s also not weird for weird’s sake; it’s intense, ebullient and a window into the restless mind of one our true contemporary trailblazers.

 

48. Hope Sandoval, Bavarian Fruit Bread (2001)

Mazzy Star released their third album Among My Swan in 1996 (which, at the time, seemed a bit too long of a wait after their breakthrough sophomore effort, 1993’s So Tonight That I Might See), and it looked, for a while, as though the enigmatic, supremely reticent (and unbelievably gorgeous) Hope Sandoval may have been done. The millennium came and went, the world did not end, and still there was no word from the spotlight-shirking siren.

Finally, in 2001, she came up for air and released her first “solo” album (along with new band The Warm Inventions): it signalled a return to form and, ostensibly, the demise of Mazzy Star. Bavarian Fruit Bread is not a great album, but it sounds like it wasn’t intended to be. It is, to be certain, a very good album, and some of the songs (like the irrepressible “On The Low” which is hands-down one of the sexiest songs of the new century) are indelible. On the album’s penultimate track “Around My Smile” she coos “I’ve got it going on.” Yeah she does.

47. Fantomas, The Director’s Cut (2001)

Earlier last summer I had the opportunity to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of Mike Patton’s miraculous end-of-century double play, in which he helped produce Mr. Bungle’s masterpiece as well as the first flowering of his (ongoing) evolution. In ’99 he formed Fantomas and recruited likeminded iconoclasts (bassist Trevor Dunn, guitarist Buzz “King Buzzo” Osbourne and thrash drummer god Dave Lombardo) who were willing –and capable– of helping realize the sounds and images inside his head. The band’s debut (click on embedded link above for a more sustained analysis) was an uncategorizable sonic boom: no words or lyrics but plenty of human noises, supported by the best backing band Patton could ever hope to assemble. It remains an uneasy, ambitious tour de force.

So, two years later, of course it made all the sense in the world for the boys to tackle…movie soundtracks. Some of the selections are well-known (Theme from “The Godfather”, “Charade”), others wonderfully obscure (“Spider Baby”, “Der Golem”–see below). The proceedings are inspired and almost unbelievably effective. This is deeply intelligent, complicated music that manages to be ear candy and ideal background music for any activity other than relaxing. Like the aforementioned Les Claypool, the turn of the century found Patton as proficient and productive as he’s ever been (and he’d been plenty of both the previous decade), and looking back almost ten years later, it is difficult to debate that he wasn’t doing some of his most important and impressive work.

46. Kid Koala, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (2000)

The scratching and sampling come a mile a minute. Kid Koala kicked off the decade by staking his claim as supreme mixologist on the scene. In early 2000, the sample/scratch mania was close to sailing over the shark (you know any artistic advancement has gone past the point of no return when pop acts are incorporating it into their weak and watered-down work), but the tank wasn’t running on fumes just yet. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (the title alone amply illustrates how quirky and clever Kid Koala is) had more than enough gas to keep the genre charging forward for a little while longer. An examination of any individual track announces, immediately, a master at work (old movie dialogue along with a Winnie The Pooh sample? Sold!)

This joint is teeming with energy and enthusiasm, but never approaches sensory overload: Koala packs in more material in twenty seconds than any DJ has done but his samples are so astutely chosen and his incorporation of each nugget into a larger, logical whole is consistently awe-inspiring. Listening to it (then) was an experience and an education; listening to it (now) is somewhat nostalgic, in all the right ways. For instance, when we hear hair metal we shake our heads; we listen to the more clever and accomplished DJs from yesteryear and recall how the world sounded before, and after, they deconstructed any available sound and turned it into a very sweet science.

45. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes (2008)

On paper, it shouldn’t work. A bunch of young dudes milking the best elements of old-school rock and folk, full of ambition and self-consciously reverential toward the icons they are emulating (Neil Young, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, etc.). Sounds like a recipe for a strained, pretentious abomination. And the fact is, many other acts who don’t have the heart, talent or integrity to pull it off fail spectacularly. But few acts (aside from My Morning Jacket) are as obvious with what they are after, and who they have been inspired by, so the stakes are not inconsiderable.

In the case of Fleet Foxes, everyone knows how this one turned out. Their debut was one of the critical darlings of 2008 and they were one of the more discussed acts on the scene. And, kind of like Grizzly Bear in 2009, the hype was warranted and appropriate. More to the point, an album like this one epitomizes the inexorable conundrum of writing about sounds: ultimately, one just has to use their ears to understand. This fully successful debut promises bountiful riches we can expect from Fleet Foxes, but even if they never play another note, they’ve already made a magnificent, lasting document.

44. Tom Waits, Real Gone (2004)

Remember 2004? Seriously. No matter what side of the political fence you were on, that was a year when America (inevitably, belatedly) realized it could not impose its will with impunity, that oil was not going to cost less (indeed it was going to cost a hell of a lot more in a hurry–go figure), and that lots of lives were being lost because of our idiotic overseas adventure. Flashback to the  year before: we had surrender monkeys, Liberal Traitors, With-Us-Or-Against-Us and Mission Accomplished. Things changed in a hurry, as they tend to do. The fact that it was predictable (and predicted) only exacerbated the pain.

What does any of this claptrap have to do with Tom Waits, the fine wine of modern music, who becomes deeper and more indispensable as he (and we) gets older? Well, for my money, no album inhabited the tenor of that time as indelibly as Real Gone (the title was both a barometer and a judgment). Of course, the critic associates the sounds of a particular time with the time he heard those sounds, because he was hearing those sounds during that particular time. That is natural, but in the instance of Real Gone, it’s much more than that. Yes, I am transported to how I felt and what I was thinking when this album came out, but one listen brings it all back. Of course, I would do this great artist a serious disservice to imply that this album is merely an anti-war screed or a sociopolitical statement (although it is, at times, both of those and quite convincingly so): it is, like most Tom Waits albums (and all great pieces of music) bigger and deeper than the here-and-now, or even what the artist intended. The transmission of feeling into sound elevates the artifice and the audience: then something significant happens. The true magic is that, with every listen, it continues to happen.

43. Bjork, Medulla (2004)

By the time 2000 rolled around, Bjork didn’t have to prove anything to anyone (and anyone who was not convinced by her first two albums was never going to get it anyway). As always, you have to love and admire an artist who continues to push herself and creates work that is challenging (for herself, for her listeners) as it is, inevitably, rewarding.

Considering the myriad joys Bjork serves up (her cherubic face, her refreshingly eccentric aesthetic, her astonishing songwriting), it is, ultimately, all about her voice. That voice! And on Medulla the voice is the thing. There are other sounds, voices and instruments, but Bjork’s vox are front and center (and on the side and in the corner and above you and beneath you), and it’s a beautiful thing. Bjork singing in Icelandic? You had me at Halló.

42. Vernon Reid, Other True Self (2006)

A recollection: when word broke that Living Colour, the band poised to be the best and most important collective of the ’90s, had called it quits, the only thing that softened the pain was the promise of some solo work.

A confession: Vernon Reid’s Mistaken Identity (’96) was so mind-bogglingly brilliant it made me grateful that Living Colour –one of my favorite bands– had broken up. If they had not, I thought, we may never have gotten this album.

A promise: if I ever get around to assessing the best albums of that decade, there is absolutely no question that Mistaken Identity would be in the top five. It’s that good.

An assumption: You’ve never even heard of that album.

An admonishment: Get it.

A declaration: Vernon Reid is one of the most crucial and consistently rewarding musicians of the last 20 years.

When he dropped Known Unknown in 2004, it was cause for celebration (coming on the heels of an uneven, but welcome Living Colour album in 2003 –their first in a decade), and his ongoing work collaboration with DJ Logic in Yohimbe Brothers made it abundantly clear that Reid was keeping busy. So even as he’d delivered more than anyone could have asked for by 2006, it turns out his best work of the decade was still ahead of him. 2009’s Living Colour album has been discussed elsewhere and will be mentioned again before this exercise is complete. Other True Self certainly represents a new benchmark by which his past and future work can be measured: there are several moments on this album that easily rank with the best work he’s ever done, and that is saying a great deal. From the scalding (and timely–then, now) opening track “Game Is Rigged” to the tasty cover of  Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence” to the shred-tacular “White Face”, Reid is an engine of creation and inspiration. Special kudos are warranted for “Oxossi”, a thorough reimagining of a traditional, if obscure, Brazilian composition. This song illustrates everything that makes Reid such an incomparable technician: he truly paints colors with sound, and is capable of creating a mood that you can’t quite describe, but remain –after countless listens– utterly enraptured by. If you are even the least bit adventurous and anxious to hear sounds you’ve never imagined, don’t sleep on Other True Self.

*note: this is the first (and hopefully last) album being discussed that does not have a single song available on YouTube. No worries, it just provides a welcome opportunity to share the incendiary title track from VR’s masterpiece.

41. Dan Auerbach, Keep It Hid (2009)

Fortunately, it’s impossible for me to get tired of talking about Dan Auerbach (or The Black Keys), because I’ve talked about him (and them) a lot this past year and a half. Keep It Hid was runner-up for my personal best album of 2009 and I think it will hold up quite nicely over time. Auerbach is the real deal and his first solo album is the genuine article. If he can only (somehow) remain as focused, productive and inspired he will dominate next decade’s list as well. Here’s to hoping we see and hear plenty from him going forward.

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2000-2009: Let’s Break It Down


Facebook friends, Bloggers, Strangers, lend me your ears; I come to bury the last decade, not to praise it.

Actually, I do want to praise it, but I first must contend with almost every other critic, pundit and poser who decrees this past decade –the Aughts, or better yet, the Aught-Nots– dead on departure. That is entirely too pessimistic, and evinces a hysteria all-too-typical of our age of instant insight. Nevertheless, I would not argue that the Aughts ought to have been a bit kinder on our hearts, wallets and souls. In other words, the last ten years were a lot like the decade that preceded them, and so on and so on.

But before we set this Viking ship ablaze and steer it toward Valhalla, let’s consider how much astonishing (and occasionally miraculous) art got made these last 120 months. In fact, without this generous bit of genius, contemplate how truly unsettling it all could have been. And before I put my cards on the table, I’d admonish anyone who is interested that this is intended as an interactive endeavor. I’m counting on feedback, debate, and even disbelief at how blind I was to omit (insert name of album or movie). And some of you (you know who you are) I hope will set me straight wherever I strayed. But be forewarned, I feel OK about the way the lists turned out. Of course, there’s no point in putting it out there if you can’t discuss and defend the choices that ultimately made the final cut, right?

Enough. It’s been over a month since I threatened to bring it, so consider it brung. The list will begin (and end) with a bunch of songs –in no particular order, other than somewhat chronological– that rose above the fray and made life a whole lot more worth living.

Spooks, “Things I’ve Seen” (2000):

 

PJ Harvey, “Big Exit” (2000):

 

Erykah Badu, “Didn’t Cha Know” (2000):

Fantomas, “Theme from ‘The Godfather'” (2001):

Oysterhead, “Shadow Of A Man” (2001):

The Roots, “The Seed 2.0” (2002):

Neko Case, “Deep Red Bells” (2002):

DJ Shadow, “Fixed Income” (2002):

TV On The Radio, “Staring At The Sun” (2003):

The White Stripes “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” (2003):

OutKast, “Hey Ya!” (2003):

Tom Waits, “Hoist That Rag” (2004):

The Fiery Furnaces, “Straight Street” (2004):

The Black Keys, “The Lengths” (2004):

To Be Cont’d…

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