Hurricane Music, Sandy Style (Three Years Later)

frankenstorm-2012_0

Let’s just get right into it.

Some of Young’s finest blistering guitar fury. Led Zep may have had the hammer of the gods, but there were four of them; Neil is like the lone Viking, hacking and snarling his way to Valhalla.

If you’ve never seen this live footage before, don’t thank me. Thank whatever forces there are for letting us share Stevie for even a short while. Hearing, as always, is believing, but SEEING is beyond belief.

Calming it down considerably, and shifting from one of the most physical, overpowering guitarists (SRV) to perhaps our most cerebral axe masters, Robert Fripp. The subtlety and refined nuances displayed throughout this song continue to astonish me, three decades after I first heard it. (The double vocals and the sax/flute interplay also are deeply, indelibly affecting.)

Speaking of Fripp…add the master, and true genius ensues. When Gabriel is at his best (and he manages this often), nobody else can come close to him.

(That link above will take you to some love for each of those men, and the bands that they made famous –and vice versa– in the early days of the prog rock apotheosis.)

Coltrane again? Of course. As ever, anyone wondering: What is all the hype about? THIS is what all the hype is about. It’s okay if you can’t handle this truth.

Eddie Hazel made history with Funkadelic (Maggot Brain, anyone?), but he also kept it more than slightly real before, during and after. He remains the best guitarist entirely too many people have never heard of. RECOGNIZE!

If it’s gonna’ rain, well, by God, make it RAIN.

(A bit more on the album this comes from, which you should get into your world as soon as possible:

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.)

Neko. Perfection.

(More on this song, this album and the notion of perfection in art, HERE. Scroll down to number one, because that is where I ranked this one, above everything else made last decade.

A taste:

Leave it to Neko Case to find inspiration in Russian folk tales to craft a series of songs that are thoroughly American and of the moment. But, like so much great art (including, of course, books and movies as well as albums), intentional or not, if the artist is sufficiently astute and historically cognizant, the resulting work cannot help but recall themes and images of the past, and transcend the time and place in which the words are set or conceived. In this regard, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is as much a Russian novel as it is a Y2K progressive country-rock folk album. Get the picture? Check it out: if any song on any album discussed thus far contains Whitmanesque multitudes, it’s the title track.

It ain’t a hurricane until the big, bad WOLF says it is. R.I.P. to the Human Hurricane.

(Click on that link for more. Here is a taste: Six foot, six inches. Approximately 300 pounds. Named after President Chester A. Arthur. In a class entirely by himself as a singer, performer and presence. If Muddy Waters, his friendly (and at times not-so-friendly) adversary was like an industrious bee that produces so much sweet honey, Howlin’ Wolf was a bear that crashes into the nest, snarling as he swats away the thousand wasps circling his head.)

Full cirlcle, back to Neil. Here is what I had to say about this song (and the man who provided those drums, R.I.P. Levon!):

There are certain albums you come upon at the ideal age, and I reckon, as a freshman in college, it was the ideal time to fall under the spell of Neil Young’s On the Beach. Much more on that album another time (short summary: it’s impeccable), but one of the songs that has never ceased to leave me at once unsettled and exhilarated is “See the Sky About to Rain”. It was interesting enough in its earlier incarnation as an acoustic number that Young performed on his ’71 tour. In fact, hearing that version helps you appreciate how much Young and his band did to elevate it (here I go again) to that other place.

Beyond boasting one of Young’s most desolate (and beautiful, yes beautiful) vocal performances, it has the whiskey-soaked Wurlitzer, the harmonica, the steel guitar (!) and that dark-night-of-the-soul vibe that more than a few folks—coincidentally or not—tapped into during the early-to-mid ‘70s. But mostly it has those drums: Helm’s work here is a clinic. Like all his playing and like the man himself, it is muscular, sensitive, soulful and masculine. It prods and occasionally cajoles, but it mostly keeps the time and supplies the requisite pace to the proceedings. (In a wonderfully full-circle sort of touch, Young—who had recently felt some rebel blowback for his acerbic, if accurate, cultural critiques in “Southern Man” and “Alabama”—alludes to his own recent and the region’s older history by name-checking “Dixie Land”. It’s one of those improbable moments that you shake your head at and remain in thrall of for the rest of your life.)

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Hurricane Music, Sandy Style (Two Years Later)

frankenstorm-2012_0

Let’s just get right into it.

Some of Young’s finest blistering guitar fury. Led Zep may have had the hammer of the gods, but there were four of them; Neil is like the lone Viking, hacking and snarling his way to Valhalla.

If you’ve never seen this live footage before, don’t thank me. Thank whatever forces there are for letting us share Stevie for even a short while. Hearing, as always, is believing, but SEEING is beyond belief.

Calming it down considerably, and shifting from one of the most physical, overpowering guitarists (SRV) to perhaps our most cerebral axe masters, Robert Fripp. The subtlety and refined nuances displayed throughout this song continue to astonish me, three decades after I first heard it. (The double vocals and the sax/flute interplay also are deeply, indelibly affecting.)

Speaking of Fripp…add the master, and true genius ensues. When Gabriel is at his best (and he manages this often), nobody else can come close to him.

(That link above will take you to some love for each of those men, and the bands that they made famous –and vice versa– in the early days of the prog rock apotheosis.)

Coltrane again? Of course. As ever, anyone wondering: What is all the hype about? THIS is what all the hype is about. It’s okay if you can’t handle this truth.

Eddie Hazel made history with Funkadelic (Maggot Brain, anyone?), but he also kept it more than slightly real before, during and after. He remains the best guitarist entirely too many people have never heard of. RECOGNIZE!

If it’s gonna’ rain, well, by God, make it RAIN.

(A bit more on the album this comes from, which you should get into your world as soon as possible:

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.)

Neko. Perfection.

(More on this song, this album and the notion of perfection in art, HERE. Scroll down to number one, because that is where I ranked this one, above everything else made last decade.

A taste:

Leave it to Neko Case to find inspiration in Russian folk tales to craft a series of songs that are thoroughly American and of the moment. But, like so much great art (including, of course, books and movies as well as albums), intentional or not, if the artist is sufficiently astute and historically cognizant, the resulting work cannot help but recall themes and images of the past, and transcend the time and place in which the words are set or conceived. In this regard, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is as much a Russian novel as it is a Y2K progressive country-rock folk album. Get the picture? Check it out: if any song on any album discussed thus far contains Whitmanesque multitudes, it’s the title track.

It ain’t a hurricane until the big, bad WOLF says it is. R.I.P. to the Human Hurricane.

(Click on that link for more. Here is a taste: Six foot, six inches. Approximately 300 pounds. Named after President Chester A. Arthur. In a class entirely by himself as a singer, performer and presence. If Muddy Waters, his friendly (and at times not-so-friendly) adversary was like an industrious bee that produces so much sweet honey, Howlin’ Wolf was a bear that crashes into the nest, snarling as he swats away the thousand wasps circling his head.)

Full cirlcle, back to Neil. Here is what I had to say about this song (and the man who provided those drums, R.I.P. Levon!):

There are certain albums you come upon at the ideal age, and I reckon, as a freshman in college, it was the ideal time to fall under the spell of Neil Young’s On the Beach. Much more on that album another time (short summary: it’s impeccable), but one of the songs that has never ceased to leave me at once unsettled and exhilarated is “See the Sky About to Rain”. It was interesting enough in its earlier incarnation as an acoustic number that Young performed on his ’71 tour. In fact, hearing that version helps you appreciate how much Young and his band did to elevate it (here I go again) to that other place.

Beyond boasting one of Young’s most desolate (and beautiful, yes beautiful) vocal performances, it has the whiskey-soaked Wurlitzer, the harmonica, the steel guitar (!) and that dark-night-of-the-soul vibe that more than a few folks—coincidentally or not—tapped into during the early-to-mid ‘70s. But mostly it has those drums: Helm’s work here is a clinic. Like all his playing and like the man himself, it is muscular, sensitive, soulful and masculine. It prods and occasionally cajoles, but it mostly keeps the time and supplies the requisite pace to the proceedings. (In a wonderfully full-circle sort of touch, Young—who had recently felt some rebel blowback for his acerbic, if accurate, cultural critiques in “Southern Man” and “Alabama”—alludes to his own recent and the region’s older history by name-checking “Dixie Land”. It’s one of those improbable moments that you shake your head at and remain in thrall of for the rest of your life.)

Share

Hurricane Music, Sandy Style (One Year Later)

Let’s just get right into it.

Some of Young’s finest blistering guitar fury. Led Zep may have had the hammer of the gods, but there were four of them; Neil is like the lone Viking, hacking and snarling his way to Valhalla.

If you’ve never seen this live footage before, don’t thank me. Thank whatever forces there are for letting us share Stevie for even a short while. Hearing, as always, is believing, but SEEING is beyond belief.

Calming it down considerably, and shifting from one of the most physical, overpowering guitarists (SRV) to perhaps our most cerebral axe masters, Robert Fripp. The subtlety and refined nuances displayed throughout this song continue to astonish me, three decades after I first heard it. (The double vocals and the sax/flute interplay also are deeply, indelibly affecting.)

Speaking of Fripp…add the master, and true genius ensues. When Gabriel is at his best (and he manages this often), nobody else can come close to him.

(That link above will take you to some love for each of those men, and the bands that they made famous –and vice versa– in the early days of the prog rock apotheosis.)

Coltrane again? Of course. As ever, anyone wondering: What is all the hype about? THIS is what all the hype is about. It’s okay if you can’t handle this truth.

Eddie Hazel made history with Funkadelic (Maggot Brain, anyone?), but he also kept it more than slightly real before, during and after. He remains the best guitarist entirely too many people have never heard of. RECOGNIZE!

If it’s gonna’ rain, well, by God, make it RAIN.

(A bit more on the album this comes from, which you should get into your world as soon as possible:

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.)

Neko. Perfection.

(More on this song, this album and the notion of perfection in art, HERE. Scroll down to number one, because that is where I ranked this one, above everything else made last decade.

A taste:

Leave it to Neko Case to find inspiration in Russian folk tales to craft a series of songs that are thoroughly American and of the moment. But, like so much great art (including, of course, books and movies as well as albums), intentional or not, if the artist is sufficiently astute and historically cognizant, the resulting work cannot help but recall themes and images of the past, and transcend the time and place in which the words are set or conceived. In this regard, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is as much a Russian novel as it is a Y2K progressive country-rock folk album. Get the picture? Check it out: if any song on any album discussed thus far contains Whitmanesque multitudes, it’s the title track.

It ain’t a hurricane until the big, bad WOLF says it is. R.I.P. to the Human Hurricane.

(Click on that link for more. Here is a taste: Six foot, six inches. Approximately 300 pounds. Named after President Chester A. Arthur. In a class entirely by himself as a singer, performer and presence. If Muddy Waters, his friendly (and at times not-so-friendly) adversary was like an industrious bee that produces so much sweet honey, Howlin’ Wolf was a bear that crashes into the nest, snarling as he swats away the thousand wasps circling his head.)

 

Full cirlcle, back to Neil. Here is what I had to say about this song (and the man who provided those drums, R.I.P. Levon!):

There are certain albums you come upon at the ideal age, and I reckon, as a freshman in college, it was the ideal time to fall under the spell of Neil Young’s On the Beach. Much more on that album another time (short summary: it’s impeccable), but one of the songs that has never ceased to leave me at once unsettled and exhilarated is “See the Sky About to Rain”. It was interesting enough in its earlier incarnation as an acoustic number that Young performed on his ’71 tour. In fact, hearing that version helps you appreciate how much Young and his band did to elevate it (here I go again) to that other place.

Beyond boasting one of Young’s most desolate (and beautiful, yes beautiful) vocal performances, it has the whiskey-soaked Wurlitzer, the harmonica, the steel guitar (!) and that dark-night-of-the-soul vibe that more than a few folks—coincidentally or not—tapped into during the early-to-mid ‘70s. But mostly it has those drums: Helm’s work here is a clinic. Like all his playing and like the man himself, it is muscular, sensitive, soulful and masculine. It prods and occasionally cajoles, but it mostly keeps the time and supplies the requisite pace to the proceedings. (In a wonderfully full-circle sort of touch, Young—who had recently felt some rebel blowback for his acerbic, if accurate, cultural critiques in “Southern Man” and “Alabama”—alludes to his own recent and the region’s older history by name-checking “Dixie Land”. It’s one of those improbable moments that you shake your head at and remain in thrall of for the rest of your life.)

Share

Hurricane Music, Sandy Style

Let’s just get right into it.

Some of Young’s finest blistering guitar fury. Led Zep may have had the hammer of the gods, but there were four of them; Neil is like the lone Viking, hacking and snarling his way to Valhalla.

If you’ve never seen this live footage before, don’t thank me. Thank whatever forces there are for letting us share Stevie for even a short while. Hearing, as always, is believing, but SEEING is beyond belief.

Calming it down considerably, and shifting from one of the most physical, overpowering guitarists (SRV) to perhaps our most cerebral axe masters, Robert Fripp. The subtlety and refined nuances displayed throughout this song continue to astonish me, three decades after I first heard it. (The double vocals and the sax/flute interplay also are deeply, indelibly affecting.)

Speaking of Fripp…add the master, and true genius ensues. When Gabriel is at his best (and he manages this often), nobody else can come close to him.

(That link above will take you to some love for each of those men, and the bands that they made famous –and vice versa– in the early days of the prog rock apotheosis.)

Coltrane again? Of course. As ever, anyone wondering: What is all the hype about? THIS is what all the hype is about. It’s okay if you can’t handle this truth.

Eddie Hazel made history with Funkadelic (Maggot Brain, anyone?), but he also kept it more than slightly real before, during and after. He remains the best guitarist entirely too many people have never heard of. RECOGNIZE!

If it’s gonna’ rain, well, by God, make it RAIN.

(A bit more on the album this comes from, which you should get into your world as soon as possible:

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.)

Neko. Perfection.

(More on this song, this album and the notion of perfection in art, HERE. Scroll down to number one, because that is where I ranked this one, above everything else made last decade.

A taste:

Leave it to Neko Case to find inspiration in Russian folk tales to craft a series of songs that are thoroughly American and of the moment. But, like so much great art (including, of course, books and movies as well as albums), intentional or not, if the artist is sufficiently astute and historically cognizant, the resulting work cannot help but recall themes and images of the past, and transcend the time and place in which the words are set or conceived. In this regard, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is as much a Russian novel as it is a Y2K progressive country-rock folk album. Get the picture? Check it out: if any song on any album discussed thus far contains Whitmanesque multitudes, it’s the title track.

It ain’t a hurricane until the big, bad WOLF says it is. R.I.P. to the Human Hurricane.

(Click on that link for more. Here is a taste: Six foot, six inches. Approximately 300 pounds. Named after President Chester A. Arthur. In a class entirely by himself as a singer, performer and presence. If Muddy Waters, his friendly (and at times not-so-friendly) adversary was like an industrious bee that produces so much sweet honey, Howlin’ Wolf was a bear that crashes into the nest, snarling as he swats away the thousand wasps circling his head.)

 

Full cirlcle, back to Neil. Here is what I had to say about this song (and the man who provided those drums, R.I.P. Levon!):

There are certain albums you come upon at the ideal age, and I reckon, as a freshman in college, it was the ideal time to fall under the spell of Neil Young’s On the Beach. Much more on that album another time (short summary: it’s impeccable), but one of the songs that has never ceased to leave me at once unsettled and exhilarated is “See the Sky About to Rain”. It was interesting enough in its earlier incarnation as an acoustic number that Young performed on his ’71 tour. In fact, hearing that version helps you appreciate how much Young and his band did to elevate it (here I go again) to that other place.

Beyond boasting one of Young’s most desolate (and beautiful, yes beautiful) vocal performances, it has the whiskey-soaked Wurlitzer, the harmonica, the steel guitar (!) and that dark-night-of-the-soul vibe that more than a few folks—coincidentally or not—tapped into during the early-to-mid ‘70s. But mostly it has those drums: Helm’s work here is a clinic. Like all his playing and like the man himself, it is muscular, sensitive, soulful and masculine. It prods and occasionally cajoles, but it mostly keeps the time and supplies the requisite pace to the proceedings. (In a wonderfully full-circle sort of touch, Young—who had recently felt some rebel blowback for his acerbic, if accurate, cultural critiques in “Southern Man” and “Alabama”—alludes to his own recent and the region’s older history by name-checking “Dixie Land”. It’s one of those improbable moments that you shake your head at and remain in thrall of for the rest of your life.)

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J’adore Dorothy

The last time I felt obliged to link to the awesome Letters of Note (go here for last link and go here for the site), it was to quote from one of Ray Bradbury’s letters.

Today features a letter from the delicious Dorothy Parker and I have little to say; I just want to share and celebrate her genius.

To me, as a reader –and a writer– I am full of emotions: delight, envy, humor, and even a sadness for the insight (and ability to express it) that occasionally comes to our most sensitive and fragile souls.

But my God was she eloquent, hilarious and witty. She was cool as could be, and she was, of course, exquisite. Give me a woman, any woman, who writes like this, and consider me smitten.

So, enjoy:

The Presbyterian Hospital
In the City of New York
41 East 70th St.

May 5, I think

Dear Seward, honest, what with music lessons and four attacks of measles and all that expense of having my teeth straightened, I was brought up more carefully than to write letters in pencil. But I asked the nurse for some ink—just asked her in a nice way—and she left the room and hasn’t been heard of from that day to this. So that, my dears, is how I met Major (later General) Grant.

Maybe only the trusties are allowed to play with ink.

I am practically bursting with health, and the medical world, hitherto white with suspense, is entertaining high hopes—I love that locution—you can just see the high hopes, all dressed up, being taken to the Hippodrome and then to Maillard’s for tea. Or maybe you can’t—the hell with it.

This is my favorite kind of hospital and everybody is very brisk and sterilized and kind and nice. But they are always sticking thermometers into you or turning lights on you or instructing you in occupational therapy (rug-making—there’s a fascinating pursuit!) and you don’t get a chance to gather any news for letter-writing.

Of course, if I thought you would listen, I could tell you about the cunning little tot of four who ran up and down the corridor all day long; and I think, from the way he sounded, he had his little horse-shoes on—some well-wisher had given him a bunch of keys to play with, and he jingled them as he ran, and just as he came to my door, the manly little fellow would drop them and when I got so I knew just when to expect the crash, he’d fool me and run by two or even three times without letting them go. Well, they took him up and operated on his shoulder, and they don’t think he will ever be able to use his right arm again. So that will stop that god damn nonsense.

And then there is the nurse who tells me she is afraid she is an incorrigible flirt, but somehow she just can’t help it. She also pronounces “picturesque” picture-skew, and “unique” un-i-kew, and it is amazing how often she manages to introduce these words into her conversation, leading the laughter herself. Also, when she leaves the room, she says “see you anon.” I have not shot her yet. Maybe Monday.

And, above all, there is the kindhearted if ineffectual gentleman across the hall, where he lies among his gallstones, who sent me in a turtle to play with. Honest. Sent me in a turtle to play with. I am teaching it two-handed bridge. And as soon as I get really big and strong, I am going to race it to the end of the room and back.

I should love to see Daisy, but it seems that there is some narrow-minded prejudice against bringing dogs into hospitals. And anyway, I wouldn’t trust these bastards of doctors. She would probably leave here with a guinea-pig’s thyroid in her. Helen says she is magnificent—she has been plucked and her girlish waist-line has returned. I thought the dear devoted little beast might eat her heart out in my absence, and you know she shouldn’t have meat. But she is playful as a puppy, and has nine new toys—three balls and six assorted plush animals. She insists on taking the entire collection to bed with her, and, as she sleeps on Helen’s bed, Helen is looking a little haggard these days.

At my tearful request, Helen said to her “Dorothy sends her love.”

“Who?” she said.

I am enclosing a little thing sent by some unknown friend. Oh, well.

And here is a poem of a literary nature. It is called Despair in Chelsea.

Osbert Sitwell
Is unable to have a satisfactory evacuation.
His brother, Sacheverel,
Doubts if he ever’ll.

This is beyond doubt the dullest letter since George Moore wrote “Esther Water.” But I will write you decent ones as soon as any news breaks. And after my death, Mr. Conkwright-Shreiner can put them in a book—the big stiff.

But in the meantime, I should love to hear how you are and whatever. And if in your travels, you meet any deserving family that wants to read “Mr. Fortune’s Maggot,” I have six copies.

Love
Dorothy

I promised my mother on her deathbed I would never write a postscript, but I had to save the wow for the finish. I have lost twenty-two pounds.

There are too many nuggets, even in this relatively brief sample, to quote; that is precisely why I felt compelled to reproduce the entire thing (and once again thank the good people at Letters of Note for helping us see these not-to-be-forgotten mementos from whole other times and places).

J’adore. That’s all I got. What else needs to be said?

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Keeping Hope Alive (Updated!)

10/17/11: Return of Mazzy?

Apparently, it’s true. (h/t to the man who surfs the ‘net like a super hero, my beloved Meatbull.)

This news excites me. (As does the news that Kim Gordon is now single. Of which more later. But for now, let me go on record as saying I’d be more than happy to console and comfort Ms. Gordon during this difficult time.)

Any questions?

With the welcome news of Hope Sandoval’s imminent return (although compared to most of the last decade, she has been comparatively ubiquitous in recent years –see below), I’m happily obliged to revisit a piece from 2009 wherein I did my best to summon Hope out of hiding and tempt her to return to the scene. Obviously it worked (you’re welcome) but for some reason, all of my proposals of marriage to her and Neko Case have, thus far, gone unacknowledged. It’s okay; I’ve got my sights set on Kim Gordon now (just kidding…mostly).

Hope Springs Eternal!

Not a ton of people remember Opal (actually, to remember a band, you need to have heard of them in the first place, right?). It’s a shame, although admittedly, this is an acquired taste: think Syd Barrett’s Floyd (circa Piper At The Gates of Dawn) and The Doors, heavy organ action and a certain lysergic vibe (but black-and-white blotter paper, not a technicolor trip), and insert a female vocalist with a subdued style that borders on lugubrious…sounds terrible, right? Well, that is what most folks would probably think. Kendra Smith (vocals) and David Roback (guitar), formerly of Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade, respectively, comprised a sort of Paisley Underground all-star team. Think Velvet Underground cut with a British garage band’s blues affectations (in other words, Piper At The Gates of Dawn). Listen to 1987’s twenty-year time warp “Magick Power” here. (If you like what you hear, beg, borrow or steal their lost semi-masterpiece, Happy Nightmare Baby and then, once you’re hooked, call out a favor or find a friend to track down the almost impossible to procure Early Recordings.)

So, aside from the reason that they were making (convincing) ’60s era psychedelic shoe-gazer downer rock in the Gorden Gecko ’80s (see: not commercially viable), the other reason no one has heard of Opal is that they were essentially one-and-done. This begs a fundamental, if ultimately unanswerable question: do bands (and albums) like this spring forth from a specific scene, a particular time that could only exist once? What would the next work have sounded like, in the later ’80s or, improbably, the early ’90s? In this instance, history settled itself before we could hear the results. After Happy Nightmare Baby, Smith opted out of the band during a tour, and twenty-two year old Hope Sandoval stepped in to assume vocal duties. They renamed the band Mazzy Star and released an album, She Hangs Brightly (1990), that did not exactly set the world on fire. Nevertheless, it laid the tranquil foundation for what was to come; the subsequent work would be more languid and a tad darker, but slightly more confident (see: not commercially viable).

Halah

The pretty-good, the very-good and the great.

 

Although the almost impossibly beautiful song “Fade Into You” was the breakthrough single of Mazzy Star’s next album (1993’s So Tonight That I Might See), there are (at least) two other transcendent moments: “Blue Light” (tasty live version here) and the remarkable cover of Arthur Lee’s gorgeous “Five String Serenade”:

Another three years passed, just long enough for fickle fans and trend-followers to forget about the band with a chick’s name. This next album, not unlike Happy Nightmare Baby, arrived (and exists) somewhat out of time, neither forward-looking nor nostalgic; in other words, it’s a strikingly original, stylistic triumph. From the way-overlooked, almost-classic Among My Swan, a yin-yang message of…hope and love?

Disappear

Happy

Although Mazzy Star had significantly more commercial appeal than Opal (this is meant as neither a critique of Opal nor necessarily an assertion of Mazzy Star’s crossover potential), it was unlikely they ever would have found a large audience. To their credit, it’s equally unlikely that they gave a rat’s ass. But whatever the reason, they never made another album. This hurt, then, and remains painful, now. So what happened? It’s a fair question fans are entitled to ask, however improbable it is that they will receive an answer. Despite her rock star status and movie star looks, Sandoval maintains the lowest of profiles. Considering how simple it is to find out more than you’d ever want to know about any semi-celebrity nowadays, courtesy of the Internet, the relative scarcity of biographical information available for Sandoval is telling. Her reticence makes Greta Garbo look like Paris Hilton.

In 2001 Hope finally came out of hiding with the release of her solo album Bavarian Fruit Bread. Mixed, but mostly solid and, as usual, containing some genuinely stunning songs, it was a very welcome addition to her catalog. Maybe this was a second wind of sorts, and we’d see more of her in Y2K? Yeah right.

Around My Smile

Eight years and counting, there had been no new material. Intriguingly, word is that Hope will appear on the upcoming Massive Attack album. That should be interesting, if the rumors are true. In the meantime, Hope contributed a song for an Air France compilation entitled In The Air. Better than nothing, certainly, but let’s hope Sandoval has more than a few albums left in her. For now, we’ll settle for one more.

Wild Roses

And then this:

I’d love to take credit for prompting the return of Hope Sandoval after an eight year absence — a circumstance I lamented earlier this year. Little did heartsick homeboys like me know she was already wrapping up work on her second album, the recently-released (and highly recommended) Through The Devil Softly. She is touring now, so catch her if you can. I was delighted to discover that she was appearing in D.C. at the historic 6th and I Synagogue: I finally had the opportunity to see Hope Sandoval sing (!) in an intimate venue (!!) performing new music (!!!). She did not disappoint. And, as has been well documented over the years, her shyness is not an act. Or, it’s a very successful act: the only words she uttered for the entirety of her performance were “Thank you” once the concert ended. No encore, no fanfare, no problem. We weren’t there to hear her speak; we were there to hear her sing. And just see her, in person. And, for the record, she is as beautiful as ever.

And Kim…call me?

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

10. The Fiery Furnaces, Bitter Tea (2006)

It’s a funny thing: as decidedly out there as this effort obviously is, compared to the album that preceded it, Bitter Tea is practically conventional. Well, compared to an album like Rehearsing My Choir, the ambitious or insufferable song cycle that features the bandmates (and siblings) Matthew and Eleanor Friedbergers’ grandmother. On vocals. Really. So…at this point in the game The Fiery Furnaces had firmly established themselves as the ultimate “love them or hate them” proposition. Elements of vaudeville, Peter Gabriel era Genesis (think Foxtrot: the story-within-story narratives that seem impenetrable at first and quickly become irresistible) and a unique amalgamation of all-things progressive and uncompromising.

Bitter Tea is neither a departure from nor a doubling-down on the eccentricity that marks all of their work. It has some of their most bizarre songs (which, as anyone who knows this band, is saying a lot) but it also has, by far, some of their most immediately accessible and enduring compositions. For evidence of the former, consider “Nevers!” or “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry“; for proof of the latter look no further than “Waiting To Know You” (which sounds like a Motown nursery rhyme) or “Benton Harbor Blues” (a song that manages to make the state of melancholy sound intoxicating). The rest of the album splits the difference, tiptoeing the line between playful and preposterous. That they are able to do this consistently and in the service of songs that warrant repeated listens is not an inconsiderable achievement. These songs are like a first date who intentionally acts odd to throw you off guard in order to ascertain if you are for real; if you are worth a second date you have to hang in there and see what’s beneath the surface. And that is the clever, if quirky calculus The Fiery Furnaces are making a career out of: music that sounds so bizarre at first it seems designed to turn off non-believers, but reveals layers and myriad rewards for those with patience and perseverance.

Is this helping? Obviously the only way to determine if this is your cup of (bitter) tea is to cue it up and have a listen. Take “I’m In No Mood”, for instance. To me, this is pure magic and I relish the whacky stop-on-a-dime dynamics, because it is quite apparent (to me) what they are up to, and the disorienting effects are all very deliberate. And effective. The (playful) player piano and breathless vocals chase the melody like Wile E. Coyote pursuing The Roadrunner until SMACK they slam into the side of the cliff. And then slowly drop over (cue the backwards vocals and synthesizer white noise). Then on a tune like “In My Little Thatched Hut” it sounds like the Friedbergers are deconstructing (sonically and vocally, including more backwards vocals: be warned, there are tons of backward vocals on this album) the concept of a love song, using discordance to dive deeper into a certain feeling we all have shared at one time or another.

And all of this backward vocalizing and abrupt sound-shifting is, for my money, very much a calculated strategy with specific aims. This entire album is an examination of love, loss and the way we remember (and deal with) those memories, disappointments and joys. The most astonishing track comes toward the end, a longer version of “Benton Harbor Blues” (the song that closes the album, meaning that the deconstructed version comes first, in typical Fiery Furnaces fashion). The song opens with a programmed beat and then spreads out to incorporate a gorgeous organ line and…just as you expect the vocals to kick in, it starts to slow down and fade out, like a car you think will slow down then drives by, leaving you in the dust. A carnivalesque series of sound effects follow, and then the melody almost backs itself into the forefront before sort of switching on and establishing itself. And then the vocals kick in: “As I try to fill all of my empty days, I stumble around on through my memory’s maze…” Only a few lines get sung before the song derails itself, again, after the multi-tracked stutter of the lyrics “when I think back…” and the swirling cascade of synthesized sound washes over, kind of like a memory. The band is actually attempting a sonic exploration of the subconscious. It is an audacious moment and it is unlike anything any other band has attempted to do. This music is not for everyone, but it might be for you.

The Fiery Furnaces have made memorable albums before and after, but Bitter Tea is their best work, a non-concept album that is full of sound and fury, signifying everything.

 

9. Iron and Wine, The Shepherd’s Dog (2007)

Sam Beam spent the better part of the decade crafting his incarnation of the sensitive singer/songwriter. That type of musician is a dime a dozen and always has been, so it is often that much more difficult for such an artist to separate himself from the pack. Beam (the alias Iron and Wine serves to describe his solo work and the subsequent albums, like The Shepherd’s Dog, recorded with a full backing band) grew his fan base by making direct, unpretentious and totally honest records. Intimate but not unsophisticated, Beam’s whispered vocals and acoustic guitar sounded like short stories from the south: this was Flannery O’Connor’s favorite music, if it had existed while she lived (and his first few albums could have existed in the mid-20th Century). Some folks prefer the stripped down solo efforts; others came on board when he collaborated quite fruitfully with Calexico. Both camps (and especially the fans who loved it all) still could not have imagined the masterpiece Beam was about to drop toward the end of 2007.

It was not any sort of radical departure so much as a Technicolor enhancement of everything that was so great before: The Shepherd’s Dog has virtually all of the same elements of Iron and Wine’s best work, but it is more expansive and layered. There is a texture and richness that suffuses every second of this album, every sound signals evidence of a master songwriter soaring at an unprecedented level of confidence. And the songs are still short stories, but the poetry in them seems more refined and purposeful. From the opening notes of “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car” his augmented approach is evident: the spaces are completely filled with sounds but not overcrowded: it’s just right. Strings, slide guitars, reverb and echo, percussion and Beam’s voice: almost impossibly clear and natural, listening to him sing is like watching ice melt into a stream — it is natural, beautiful and inevitable. He has never sounded better, and considering how great he had always sounded before, this is rarefied air to be certain.

There is not a sub-par track to be found, and if it seemed obvious then it is a certainty now: this is Beam’s ultimate statement (so far).

There are a couple of songs that could almost be accused of rocking: “The Devil Never Sleeps” and “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)”. Of course there are a few crystalline Iron and Wine ballads as well: “Carousel”, Resurrection Fern” (perhaps his best vocal performance?) and the devastatingly gorgeous album-closer “Flightless Bird, American Mouth.” There are also a handful of songs that go places precious few artists can enter, and do their part to make you believe in the real magic that exists in music. “White Tooth Man”, with its multi-layered vocals, police siren guitars and muted urgency is like a 911 call made in your mind; “House by the Sea” sounds like a Civil War march played by a psychedelic bluegrass band; “Boy with a Coin” is just a tour de force, plain and simple: everything about it is perfect and unimprovable. But last and far from least, there is the moment of the album (and one of the contenders for decade’s best), “Peace Beneath The City”. This is not even a song so much as an uncanny dreamscape, it conjures up every back alley of our country: all the myriad faces and names, the deeds and secrets, the hopes and fears; it is like a surreal hymn sung in an empty cathedral, but instead of stained glass there are creaking gas lamps in every corner. It’s a lot of other things, too, but they are for you to figure out and enjoy.

Hopefully once you’ve sampled some of these songs you won’t be able to imagine your world without The Shepherd’s Dog being part of it.

 

8. Erykah Badu, Mama’s Gun (2000)


How great is this album? Can you say Songs in the Key of Life for Y2K? I can. And will: this is the best Stevie Wonder album of the last decade. An instant classic that (being almost 10 years old, already) also qualifies for feel-good nostalgia status as well. As in: remember how uncomplicated things seemed early in the new century? We survived the fin de siecle and our computers did not shut down and our brains did not get fried. We made it! And this was a pre 9/11 America, so there was still a yearning innocence that we’ll never recapture, even if we can begin bringing mouthwash onto airplanes again.

It’s impossible to listen to this and not think of the best of the old-school: the early ’70s vibe throughout is compelling and effusive, calling to mind Sly & The Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone and, of course, Stevie Wonder. It is ambitious and occasionally all-encompassing: there are the propulsive attention getters (awesome opening track “Penitentiary Philosophy”), laid-back stunners (“Didn’t Cha Know”) and ultra-mellow slices of heaven (“Orange Moon”, “Time’s A Wastin”) and a dope duet (“In Love With You”, with Stephen Marley). Just about every track is superlative –this is as much a masterpiece as any album being discussed– but if compelled to pick out the shining star, I’d probably go with “A.D. 2000”. An obviously topical tune, it takes on new and devastating layers of meaning when you listen to the lyrics and understand she is talking about Amadou Diallo, the innocent man who was massacred by NYPD. Can you say pre 9/11 on literal and figurative levels? As always with the very best art, Badu is taking on a particular incident and putting it in the context of the here-and-now, the who we are and where we are, without preaching or posing. Its repeated refrain says everything that needs to be said in a single line: No you won’t be naming no buildings after me…

On “Orange Moon” (as sexy flute lines weave around her) she coos “How good it is.” It hardly gets any better than this. It’s interesting: Badu’s first album sounds connected to the late ‘9os and her recent work is decidedly 21st Century; only Mama’s Gun seems to exist slightly out of time, a mirror held up to the great old days and an arrow set to sail into a future that still hasn’t happened.

7. The White Stripes, Elephant (2003)

Jack White’s was the barbaric yawp of the decade, both symbolically and, on stage and on record, literally. The ascendancy of The White Stripes culminated on Elephant: everything they’d been doing led to this, everything they’ve done since has been a (thus far) futile attempt to match the intensity and furious focus they brought to this session. To be clear, the three albums before this were wonderful in their own ways, and the subsequent work is not without its merits, but with a half-decade and change of hindsight, it seems fair to say that this was the album Jack White was meant to make, and all glory goes to the fates and faeries that allowed this to happen.

This is not a flawless album, but it’s still very much a masterpiece of sorts, and more importantly, it’s a total triumph of style and substance, channeled by an ambitious and insanely gifted musician. This may be the quintessential “greater than the sum of its parts” album; it might even be without fault if some of the weaker songs were left off, but as is always the case, the ones that don’t do it for me might be the same ones you consider crucial, and vice versa. (If so we can agree to disagree that “Well It’s True That We Love One Another” is an amusing lark that is too precious and self-referencing for comfort, or that the bombastic but brainless “Ball And Biscuit” would fare better as a concert-only staple; on the other hand, the cutesy slice of eccentricity that is “Little Acorns” comes in just on the side of righteous).

Bottom line: what works on this album just doesn’t do the trick; it obliterates any doubt and demands nothing less than surrender. The first seven tracks are as relentless and ecstatic an assault as anything anyone did this decade, period. Everyone knows “Seven Nation Army” at this point, and they should. Unlike (the excellent) “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”, which is still a tad too deferential and formulaic of the old “new blues” thing White sought to perfect on the first few albums, “Seven Nation Army” is a pure slice of visionary sonic carnage. No longer nodding and winking at the old school and perched on the shoulders of those giants, White finally leaps into the air and never comes down. Instead of reworking the blues he reinvents them with the post-punk aggression and lo-fi urgency that only The Black Keys can equal. And then there is the guitar. The work White does (on this song and throughout the album) is anthemic: you knew, after the first few listens in the spring of 2003, that this would be played in bars and kids basements for the rest of time. Amazingly, after the best opening salvo from any album (at least this decade, maybe longer), White actually ups the ante on the second track, “Black Math”. This, for me, is as good as it gets, and no matter what White does from here on out, including playing at halftime of some future Super Bowl, nothing can possibly obliterate his legacy because we can always turn to this album (in general) and this track (in particular). The snarled vocals, no longer bratty or precocious, are just feral and almost frightening (roller coaster frightening, not scary movie frightening) and that guitar solo? Holy fucking shit. Folks, that is the hammer of the gods being brought down with extreme prejudice: what happens between 1.52 and 2.28 is, hands down, the most exhilarating and insanely brilliant half-minute of rock in ages. Get the record books out, because there is a new entry.

This is (duh) a guitar album, and White has finally figured it all out: the composition, the solos, the adroit use of slide guitar; all elements are now employed in the service of the songs, and they are songs now, not just sketches (however sketchily brilliant). Take the mind-searing cover of Burt Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”: aside from featuring White’s most convincing vocal performance, the song actually sounds the way the lyrics demand that it sound –the remorse followed by fury, the self-loathing spiked by nostalgia, the paralysis of not knowing how to act, all of it is in there, an immutable expression of our least favorite rite of passage delivered in under three minutes. Even when Meg gets in on the act, she not only provides a startlingly disarming vocal on “In The Cold, Cold Night”, but the sparse instrumentation is the exact right backdrop for this harrowing, heartbreaking number.

The second half for the album doesn’t slow down or falter so much as it simply can’t match the incandescent flow of the first half. If nothing else, it is a relentless blast of rocks-off abandon, culminating in the almost unhinged histrionics of “Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine”, which would have been the ideal way to end the album. No matter: White outdid himself here, and going forward it would be insane to ask or expect anything else as compelling and essential as Elephant.

6. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Since the hastened demise of the record industry is now a foregone conclusion, it will be increasingly difficult to recall what a tough time musicians had for the better part of a century. But let there be no confusion, record companies were Satan with a capital S. And the now famous (and infamous) story of the boatload of shit Wilco (already an established brand who had made beaucoup bucks for everyone involved with them) put up with from Reprise Records. The hubris and myopia is particularly historic on this one, combining King Lear’s cluelessness with Lady Macbeth’s depravity (yeah, I’m getting all Shakespeare and shit). Look, this type of business as usual most definitely had tragic overtones for everyone except the bad guys for the better part of ONE HUNDRED YEARS. The artists got scammed and burned, audiences got bent over, and tons of worthwhile music (particularly jazz music, even on supportive labels) went unheard. Who knows how many inspired sessions are still languishing in the dusty vaults?

Everyone remembers the story, right? The label, convinced they knew best, and certain there were no “hits” on the record, effectively withdrew their support and Wilco (wisely) took the record and ran. The rest is wonderful, borderline divine history. And that is all good and well, but the same question begs to be answered in 2010: what the fuck were those idiots at Reprise thinking? Clearly this is not only a worthwhile album, it’s an exceptional album. A classic. And, to add insult to injury, there are two sure-fire “hits” in “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m The Man Who Loves You” (you could make a case for “Jesus, etc.” as well). Not to say these songs would, or should have been “hits” in the commercial sense of the word, but eminently feasible for radio play — particularly compared to the shite that permeates our polluted airwaves.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot remains the ultimate case study of why we should never lament the overdue, most welcome implosion of the anti-artist old world order.

All that aside (and I’m not even getting into the subsequent documentary of these proceedings, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart), and as impossible it is to separate the actual album from the melodrama and ultimate exultation, the fact remains that this is simply a seminal recording. Along the already mentioned songs, there are two in particular that represent what truly visionary work Tweedy and company were doing as the new century began: album opener “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” and “Poor Places”. The former is possibly the definitive Wilco song and can represent, as well as any other composition, everything about this complicated decade. It manages to be a soundtrack of sorts to both the pre and post 9/11 American sensibility, and that is something more than merely remarkable. The languid fever dream that clicks into focus to begin the song and the slow motion meltdown that closes it recall certain moments from The White Album (particularly “Long, Long, Long), as well as the sound experimentations of Stockhausen and, of course, the more spacey sonic meditations of early Pink Floyd. But it is certainly grounded in the here and now, and is very much a vehicle for Jeff Tweedy’s inspired and troubled mind. It is an absolute masterpiece of a song. “Poor Places”, of course, features the eerily robotic female voice repeating the words “yankee…hotel…foxtrot” (taken from The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations): this is arguably the most inspired, and infamous, non-musical sample of the decade and it gives the tune a spectral essence that transcends the album and the band and gets into something at once profound and inexpressible.

There have already been volumes written about the recording, reception and import of this album, and it’s not a stretch to imagine many more volumes will be written. This is a good thing: if any album, and band, deserves the scrutiny and approbation such criticism engenders, it is Wilco. Aside from all the peripheral issues, at the end of the day Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a one-of-a-kind memento of our times.

5. The Black Keys, Attack & Release (2008)

So, how exactly did The Black Keys become the best (and possibly most important) band of the decade, hands down, no one else particularly close to second place? Well, it was pretty easy: they did it the old fashioned way, dropping incredible albums, one after the other. Let’s break it down, just for those keeping score at home: 2002, their debut The Big Come Up; 2003, Thickfreakness; 2004, Rubber Factory; 2006 double-feature Magic Potion and the Junior Kimbrough tribute Chulahoma; and finally, in 2008, the masterpiece, Attack & Release. Pound for pound, song for song, nobody else can touch that track record, which stands alongside any other band in terms of quality and quantity over a similarly short period of time. And best of all, these guys are just getting started. Considering that they sound like old burned out blues veterans now, it’s almost frightening to imagine what they will actually evolve into in the years ahead.

Rubber Factory seemed like a high water mark of sorts (it still does), and while Magic Potion is no slouch, it was neither an improvement nor necessarily a step forward (it was merely another excellent album); Chulahoma was both a stop-gap EP and a detour in the darkest depths of the Delta blues, pulled off with such aplomb it should make everyone from Eric Clapton to Bob Dylan blush (as for the younger generation of pretenders, one word: please). Still, the band had surpassed all reasonable expectations and delivered far beyond what seemed possible (even for hardcore fans) circa 2004. What else could they possibly do at this point without repeating themselves or driving headlong (however defiantly) into the creative ditch?

Answer: enlist Danger Mouse, the producer with the best ears (and smarts) in the industry. But…wouldn’t that add a polish, or finesse that might run counter to everything The Black Keys stand for? Isn’t the entire concept of studio wizardry (and overdubs!) antithetical to the low-fi DIY ethos Auerbach and Carney worship at the altar of? Not necessarily. In addition to employing Danger Mouse, the Keys welcomed guitar guru Marc Ribot to lend his muscle (and magic) to several songs. That, along with the production skillz (subtle employment of flute, other live instruments and effects), make this a more ambitious, expansive effort.

Not that the modus operandi is radically altered here. In fact, virtually all of the elements that make all the previous albums superlative in their own way are employed throughout these proceedings. From the slow, building release of “All You Ever Wanted” to the straightforward ass-kick of “I Got Mine” (illustrating the ever-escalating dynamic elements of Auerbach’s guitar playing), the band is out for blood. The stakes are elevated on “Strange Times” which recycles a classic Black Sabbath riff (from Sabotage): this distills the energy of Thickfreakness with the refined blues experimentation from Magic Potion. On “Psychotic Girl” the presence of Danger Mouse is fully realized, from the banjo embellishment to the very subtle but astute ambient noises, all resulting in a sinister, murky detour to darker territory. Then, genius: “Lies” is, in many regards, the best thing the band has done to this point. It’s a fairly uncomplicated Led Zeppelin-style blues ballad, but Auerbach delivers one of his ultimate vocal performances, proving that this type of talent can’t be taught or bought. “Remember When” (Side A and Side B) are augmented by Danger Mouse’s retro urges: you practically expect to hear scratches in the song the way it would sound on a vinyl…from 1972. Then there is the tri-fecta that finishes the album, setting this one above and beyond. Let’s not mince words or leave any room for misinterpretation: “So He Won’t Break” and “Oceans and Streams” are as good as rock and roll gets; rock and roll does not get any better than this (then, now, or ever). Both of these songs, while deeply wed to the best elements of past classics, are unique, unmistakable statements from a band that has diligently carved out its own niche and style. The emotion and conviction Auerbach is able to convey, vocally, on these two tracks is miraculous in its way, and well worth celebrating: he is doing things no one else on the scene is capable of imitating. The last track, “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” is a wise-beyond-its-years lamentation of the obvious, a particularly appropriate commentary on our world in 2008.

All in all, a recording with no weaknesses and tons of strength, a powder keg with purpose, an atomic bomb with a heart. The Black Keys are making music nobody else can approximate and they keep getting better because their only competition is what they just did.

4. Cat Power, You Are Free (2003)

You Are Free is not a perfect album. With neither snark nor sarcasm, this writer’s opinion is that it is too good to be perfect. Not that it’s better than perfect (whatever that could, or would mean) but that Cat Power (henceforth Chan Marshall) is not writing songs so much as bleeding her thoughts and feelings and their attendant pains and exultations into existence. They are there (in her, in all of us) and she makes them real, and makes us feel them, and through feeling them, feel something more of her and ourselves. This is what art does. All of which is to say, this is certainly one of the best and most powerful albums of the decade. But it is (and will continue to be) one of the most enduring. Because it is messy, with a few mistakes and some unfortunate moments, which, if we are honest, is better than most of us can say when we look back on our own lives.

The first indelible track is “Good Woman”: listen to the ache of the violin and the tone of that guitar: just right. Then there is the almost indescribably effective deployment of Eddie Vedder’s whispered, but still gruff backing vocals: one of the more triumphant instances of astute subtlety you will encounter in a rock and roll song. It is hardly possible to accomplish more than Marshall does here: this recalls the vibrant poetics of Joni Mitchell and the truculence of Chrissie Hynde, but also has the tender ache of Joan Baez at her most pellucid. It is, quite simply, a devastating and effulgent achievement.

The next stroke of genius is just Chan and her guitar on “Fool”. This one recalls the best moments of Moon Pix and captures that desolate yearning, the musical equivalent of a wilting flower stretching toward an absent sun in the middle of the night. Nobody else does this like Chan Marshall, and no one even comes close on a consistent basis.

The more somber and introspective moments are wonderfully cut with some lively jolts of power pop: “Speak For Me” and “He War” are so infectious and assured at first you wonder if this is the same singer on the same album, and then realize that this is precisely what makes Cat Power so special. A trio of songs find Marshall accompanied only by her piano, and they are each monuments of emotion and catharsis: “You Are Free” (which is about both Kurt Cobain and Cat Power), “Maybe Not” and “Names” (which is a brutally stark stroll down a memory lane of abuse and dysfunction that Marshall saw, experienced and imagined). Then a song that could (and should) have closed any other album, a barren (yet beautiful!) cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ Black Spider”, reworked as “Keep On Runnin'”. It spills more feeling and quiet intensity in less than four minutes than most of Marshall’s peers could convey in four albums.

But in the end, “Evolution” is the ideal song to close out the set. More, it’s one of the best closing songs on any album, ever. More, it may just be the song of the decade: thematically it is elegiac but in its yearning, deeply human resolve, it is inevitably inspiring. Another duet with Eddie Vedder, I am unable to express the heights this tone poem attains. Just piano and two voices, one sounding like the other’s shadow, Vedder echoes, encourages and reinforces Marshall’s fragile invocation of witness and perseverance. The pair go through the lyrics one time, pause and recite them a second time, ending with a subdued but urgent call to arms, repeating the words “Better make your mind up quick”. They are talking to themselves and, one slowly realizes, addressing anyone else who might be listening.

3. Sleater-Kinney, The Woods (2005)

The good news: The Woods is, one can claim with reasonable confidence, Sleater-Kinney’s finest hour.

The bad news: It is the last album they made (and, going on six years, their intent to remain broken up seems unlikely to change).

The bottom line: Sleater-Kinney was quite correctly considered by many folks to be the best band around during the late ’90s and early 00’s. I am certainly not going to argue. They had the typical trajectory that builds a loyal and unwavering fan base: each album, starting with Dig Me Out (1997) got a little bit better, and the ladies were increasingly able to harness the raw punch of their live shows with studio experimentation. The Woods is one of those wonderful anomalies that balances painstaking performance and blissful abandon. Five seconds into the first track, “The Fox”, there is little question that it’s on. And it stays on. “The Fox” displays the cacophonous ecstasy patented by The Pixies and brings it into Y2K: this is one of the most blistering, beautifully ugly songs of the decade, featuring Corin Tucker’s most impassioned vocals ever. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you open an album.

Everyone knows that women can do anything men can do, and often do it better. The Woods rocks harder and drops jaws lower than anything anyone else did this decade. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

It’s difficult to try and pick and choose highlights here; the entire album is one extended highlight. Tracks like “Wilderness” and “Jumpers” would have been stand-outs on earlier SK albums (or albums by almost any other band) but there is an extra edge and purpose on certain songs. The wonders of “What’s Mine Is Yours” are bountiful, from the soaring choruses to the unreal shredding of guitar goddess Carrie Brownstein. (The feedback frenzy that bridges the song is one of those ecstatic passages of music that ceaselessly surprises and delights; it’s a sonic orgasm of the highest order.) And then, ho hum, they bust out a perfect little ditty in “Modern Girl” that you can (try to) sing along to. The album trudges along, angry and eloquent, leading up to the ultimate one-two punch which, if it has to represent the end of this epic band’s career, is an inimitable way to go out. The 11 minute “Let’s Call It Love” (maybe their crowning achievement?) doesn’t segue into “Night Light” so much as it explodes into it. Along with the feedback bliss from “What’s Mine Is Yours” and the once-in-a-lifetime vocals of “The Fox”, the transition into the album’s coda is one of those moments. Too good for words. And it is an achievement, evidence of a band that has taken things to that other place where they have figured it out and made a defining statement. Not just for their own career, but a mark left on the history of music.

Thinking we may never hear/see Sleater-Kinney together again, one part of me pleads: Say it ain’t so, ladies! The other part of me readily concedes that it’s ridiculous to ask them to give us anything else. They have already given more than we could ever have hoped for.

2. TV On The Radio, Return To Cookie Mountain (2006)

Sui Generis.

Chop Suey.

Chop sui generis.

How do you actually define style or account for the concept of originality? What about terms like uncompromising or integrity? Well, it’s kind of like the classic definition of pornography: you know it when you hear it. TV On The Radio is not for everyone, but there is nothing inherently prohibitive about their work. They are most definitely progressive with a capital P and they could not unfairly be described as more than a little out there, but those depictions are only epithets coming from the uninformed and incurious (in other words, the people who watch American Idol and think Coldplay is cutting edge). Whatever else they may be, TV On The Radio is an American band in the best sense of the word: they bring a cultural and intellectual heft to their fairly wide-ranging sonic palette, and they are more focused on tomorrow than yesterday. They showed signs of significant promise on Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (2004) and the best song on that album, “Staring At The Sun”, is a blueprint of sorts for the strategy they would employ on Return To Cookie Mountain: a series of songs that work toward a certain feeling, with the (breathtaking) vocals front and center, and a series of sounds made by instruments and machines; a sort of industrial mini opera.

Return To Cookie Mountain recalls some of the in-your-face polemics of Living Colour, but has the charismatic statement of purpose that fuels Peter Gabriel’s best work, and courts the avant garde like David Bowie and early-’80s King Crimson. Add some ferocious funk and the aforementioned vocals (Tunde Adepimbe might be an acquired taste but if it registers, his voice is musical crack), and you begin to arrive somewhere very unique and more than a little unsettling. The material, while not explicitly dark, is kind of like a NYC subway: busy, bustling with noises and images and unmistakably real. On Return To Cookie Mountain all of these various tools and tokens are elevated with Beach Boys harmonizing and falsettos; at times it sounds like Marvin Gaye playing with Nine Inch Nails.

A song by song analysis would be unrewarding as it would be unproductive: this, like it or not, is one of those albums that has to be experienced, and while there are many fantastic tracks, it demands to be listened to from start to finish, unless you are already a lost hipster, picking and choosing your playlists like music was meant to be turned into a fuck-all buffet station.

This album does require a few listens to let you orient yourself, and a few more listens to let the marinade of ideas and emotions (and always, the sounds) sink in. If that seems like too much of a chore, this music is not for you. (And don’t worry, I’m here to tell you it’s okay.)

A few songs do warrant further comment. “A Method” features whistling, multi-tracked vocals, A-plus production and a structure that is more lullaby than rock song. These dudes have locked into something else entirely, and it is humbling to behold (and behear). The shimmering perfection of “Dirtywhirl” defies any attempt to approach it with words: this is a song that can make you shake and cry and think provocative thoughts, all while you nod your head in time and grin like the Cheshire Cat. This one carved its way deep into my heart and will safely remain one of my all-time favorite songs, for all-time. Finally, the album closes out (pre bonus tracks, that is) with “Tonight” and “Wash The Day” which are like love letters from another dimension. There is a pervasive vibe permeating these songs that is at once disconcerting and tranquilizing: you are slowly being carried away, which naturally causes confusion until you understand that as soon as you stop resisting you’ll end up where you want to be. Back on Cookie Mountain, wherever that actually is.

1. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (2006)

Let’s talk a little bit about perfection.

What is it, and who gets to define it? And more importantly, who cares? What, for that matter, elevates something to the status of “best”? All of this discussion is subjective, and enough similarly inclined personal perspectives shape consensus over time. These are the types of semantic shenanigans writers and critics engage in and lose sleep over, which would be almost pathetic if for the simple matter that it’s all about genuine love of art and the aspiration to elevate it. To share that passion and, whenever possible, help edge that consensus toward a worthwhile candidate.

Fortunately, I am very far from alone in wanting to celebrate the almost inhuman brilliance of Neko Case. Everyone loves Neko and seemingly everybody appreciated Fox Confessor Brings The Flood. And yet, I’m not satisfied. Fox Confessor Brings The Flood was not merely one of the better albums of 2006; it was the best album of the decade. More than that, it’s an absolute and utter masterpiece, practically perfect in every way, and will be studied and savored as long as people are still listening to music.

If you are surprised by, or not really feeling, this appraisal, I am uncertain I’m capable of convincing you, and frankly that is not my motivation here. I am, however, quite content to offer some of the reasons I find this to be the most profound and enduring work of the decade. (I entertained the idea of being a smart ass and writing: here are the 12 reasons this album is perfect, and simply listing the song titles, one by one.) On this release, every possible element is aligned: the cover art perfectly reflects the subject matter of the songs, the lyrics of those songs are uncommonly (bordering on unbelievably) intelligent; this is real literature and these are as good as poems but they are all devastatingly effective short stories that stick with you long after first listen. And the songs themselves: each song, all sequenced in ideal order for maximum import.

Leave it to Neko Case to find inspiration in Russian folk tales to craft a series of songs that are thoroughly American and of the moment. But, like so much great art (including, of course, books and movies as well as albums), intentional or not, if the artist is sufficiently astute and historically cognizant, the resulting work cannot help but recall themes and images of the past, and transcend the time and place in which the words are set or conceived. In this regard, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is as much a Russian novel as it is a Y2K progressive country-rock folk album. Get the picture? Check it out: if any song on any album discussed thus far contains Whitmanesque multitudes, it’s the title track.

Speaking of that “p-word” again, I don’t expect I’ll find two better examples of perfection in music than “That Teenage Feeling” (talk about a novel in two minutes; and when Neko acknowledges –about love, about life– “Because it’s hard” that is the type of spell a siren can cast over a smitten bachelor and ensnare him for life) and “Hold On, Hold On” (when Neko proclaims “I leave the party at 3AM, alone thank God/With a valium from the bride, it’s the devil I love”, she is at once penning some of those most mordant lyrics of the decade and expressing a delightful recalcitrance that makes her the radiant object of so much unrequited lust).

The album winds down with some truly beautiful meditations on life, love and mortality (and the ever-present concept of lost faith): “Maybe Sparrow” and “At Last” which are arresting in their unadorned, plaintive expression: they are cris de coeur but they are without self-pity and totally effulgent in their naked vulnerability. And, as always and as ever, Neko’s voice is a glorious force of nature.

I had (and have?) no interest in attempting to divine the central, unifying track on this album (honestly, any one of them could fit the bill, but some more than others, obviously). And yet, Case really outdoes herself on the short and not-so-sweet homage to self, “Lion’s Jaws”: equal parts reminiscence and invocation of adult reality, this taps into something truly resonant. If you have lived and loved then you have learned, and if you understand how many times you have been inside the lion’s jaws (knowingly and especially the times you were not even aware of it), then you can appreciate Case’s (and hopefully your own) courage to resist “momentum for the sake of momentum.”

In closing, I’ll simply state it outright: Fox Confessor Brings The Flood was not merely one of the better albums of 2006; it was the best album of the decade. More than that, it’s an absolute and utter masterpiece, practically perfect in every way, and will be studied and savored as long as people are still listening to music.

(Do I Repeat Myself? Very Well, Then, I Repeat Myself!)

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

30. Sonic Youth, Murray Street (2002)

Some might say Sonic Youth did their best work in the ’80s; some may claim it was the ’90s; others may insist they reached new heights this past decade. To me, that there is a band we could have this type of discussion about is itself remarkable. Think about it for a moment: Sonic Youth has been dropping great album after great album for a real long time, and there is no one who could claim, with an ounce of credibility, that they’ve compromised or done anything but follow their own iconoclastic path. Some bands hope and wait for the world to change to enable their fifteen minutes in the sun; other bands change the world and bring everyone along with them.

To be honest, both Rather Ripped and Sonic Nurse could easily be on this list, and perhaps they should. But if obliged to pick just one, I would have to go with Murray Street, not necessarily because it is the best of the lot (though it may well be) but because it is just so utterly at ease with itself. Put another way, maybe this is the one where they locked in and fired on all cylinders in a way they hadn’t quite done (at least since Dirty). Perhaps it’s just because I saw Sonic Youth, at an intimate venue (playing on a twin bill with Wilco!) in 2003 and heard them play “Disconnection Notice”, which is my personal favorite SY song since “Bull in the Heather” (a song I’ve always wanted to have sex with, which should tell you something about the song, or about me). For people who are, understandably, a bit intimidated by the band’s ever-growing catalog, Murray Street is definitely one of the more accessible releases, with more straightforward “songs” and less of the beautiful abrasiveness Sonic Youth has patented (especially live). And when I say accessible, I mean music that any half-adventurous listener can –and should– enjoy, but don’t mistake this for anything you’d ever hear on the radio. And that is only one of the great things about it.

 

29. Amy Winehouse, Back To Black (2007)

Between the pre-release hype and the post-release meltdown, it’s almost difficult to remember how many naysayers this album humbled. Trust me, I was one of them. I recall reading a rapturous review a month or two before the CD dropped (and seeing her for the first time in the accompanying photos and thinking, Hey she’s kind of hot in a coke binge, bar-crawling, tat- sporting, wig-wearing, hot bowl of mess kind of way) and acknowledging that serious marketing money had her pegged as the story of the year.

And then I heard the thing. Yeah, the rehab song was okay, I guess. And this album definitely isn’t a masterpiece, because there are some serious clunkers on there. But my God there are some flat out stunners as well. It got overplayed (through no fault of its own) but there is no denying “You Know I’m No Good” (holy shit what a songwriter! Are you kidding me with those lyrics? That is some sardonic self-loathing that gives even Morrissey a run for his money) and the title track and especially the most hilarious song of the decade “Me & Mr. Jones”:

What kind of fuckery are you? Aside from Sammy you’re my best black Jew!

Quite frankly, nobody in the world could ever in a million words write a line like this and actually pull it off. And then there is straight-up one of the best songs of this decade, or any decade, “Love Is A Losing Game”. I remember reading that Prince had begun covering this in his live shows. Repeat: Prince. Yes, that Prince. Just to be clear, people cover Prince’s songs, Prince does not cover other people’s songs. Get the picture? It’s one thing to emulate and imitate the old Phil Spector girl group vibe, but to craft a tune that can easily stand alongside any of them? Wow. And, astonishingly, Winehouse saves the best for last, literally. “He Can Only Hold Her” is an out-and-out masterpiece, a perfect song. Every second, every syllable, every sound: utter perfection. Check out those lyrics: can you say “less is more”? That is not just a short story, that is a fucking novel in three minutes. If you know anything about anything, you simply shut up and marvel at genius (yes, genius) like that.

Look, Winehouse was already at Defcon-4 by the time this album broke big; to a certain extent she earned her excess and the sadly predictable tabloid soap opera her life became. Let’s hope, for her sake and ours, that she gets her act together and makes an attempt to do the unthinkable: making another album half as great as Back To Black.

 

28. Secret Chiefs 3, Book M (2001)

A lot of people worried way too much about whether or not Mr. Bungle would ever make another album after California (I know, I was one of them). Little did we know that if they had, we may never have gotten Tomahawk, or the resurgence of Secret Chiefs 3. Who? Exactly.

To put it simply, Secret Chiefs 3 are the “other” guys from Mr. Bungle. But to say that Secret Chiefs 3 are Mr. Bungle without the vocals does not even come close to describing them, or doing their remarkable music the slightest justice. On the other hand, trying to get a handle on their sound is hopeless, and I mean that in a good way. They blend a sort of surf-thrash guitar (courtesy of mastermind Trey Spruance) but remain grounded in a narcotic jazz groove (thanks to bassist and composer Trevor Dunn), with a distinctly Eastern (think Indian meets Bollywood in a cloud of opium) influence, with a healthy dose of Morricone. And then throw in the sax and violin (the great Eyvind Kang) and quickly you realize that…we’re not in Kansas anymore. Of course, we never were. Obviously anyone who is familiar with Mr. Bungle or Fantomas should lap this up, but not to worry, if you’ve never heard of any of these acts, an album like Book M is capable of satisfying anyone with open ears. It’s not deliberately abstruse or eccentric for the sake of being eccentric; there is most definitely a very calculated (and complicated) method to this madness. And madness never felt so fresh and funky.

27. Ali Farka Toure, Savane (2006)

When Mali legend Ali Farka Toure passed on in 2006, the world was robbed of one of its most important musicians. Granted, Toure was well into his seventh decade, but considering how late he was “discovered” (by the western world, in large part thanks to national treasure Ry Cooder), it still feels like we got cheated. On the other hand, that we found him at all, and have the work he left behind is a miracle with a capital M. If you are reading this and want to indulge me only one time, don’t hesitate to pick up everything you can find by this genius (and if you want a place to start, you simply can’t go wrong with either The Source or his aforementioned collaboration with Cooder, Talking Timbuktu).

Savane, the album Ali was working on when he began to succumb to the cancer that eventually claimed him, was released posthumously in 2006. It features the same deep, dark, profound expression (the CD cover acknowledges Ali as “king of the desert blues”) that Toure spent a lifetime perfecting, and it’s a very bittersweet swan song.

26. Josh Homme (and friends), The Desert Sessions, Vols 9 & 10 (2003)

Everyone knows Josh Homme is a bad motherfucker.

He has made some of the more delightfully raucous music of this decade as the ringleader of Queens of the Stone Age, that collective that brings in a rotating cast of talented misfits. But for those who are looking for something even more anarchic and, well, raucous, Homme’s ongoing Desert Sessions series is like a nice side of bacon to go with those sun-fried eggs. For my money, the best of the bunch is the fifth installment, (Volumes 9 & 10), in part because it features some of Homme’s tightest playing and most memorable tunes. But what puts it way over the top, and nudges out even the very excellent QOTSA sets from the last ten years, is the inclusion of P.J. Harvey. That is one of those matches made in heaven (or hell, but in a good way) that you could not come up with in a million years. Thank everything that is righteous they found each other because they certainly make very sweet music together. Homme provides the platform (and ideal backing vocals) and lets P.J. get her freak on. Actually, Harvey is relatively restrained, but her voice is its own force of nature: this is not for the timid, but anyone else can –and should– inquire within. A couple of these songs represent the best work either artist has made, and needless to say, that is saying a lot.

25. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells (2001)

Huge regret: I slept on the groundswell that this band generated in the early years of the century, and by the time White Blood Cells started converting people by the truckload, it was too late to see them in a small venue. I say that not for a lost opportunity for hipster cred (shudder the thought), but rather, having seen their game in a large and sold-out arena, I am positive I missed out on something truly special.

Unlike the other (overly) hyped band from the early days of this century, The Strokes, this band actually delivered the goods, so it was easy to celebrate their ascension. How often does a duo (male and female no less) with a distinctive DIY ethos go from obscure to hip to superstardom? About once in a lifetime, and if it was going to happen to anyone, why not Jack and Meg White?

Their influence is indescribable and it’s difficult to imagine other excellent “boy-girl” bands like Beach House and The Fiery Furnaces finding the audience they deserve without the trails blazed by the duo from Detroit.

But what about White Blood Cells, now that we’ve had almost a decade to live with it? Well, it’s not a masterpiece, but it tends to be greater than the sum of its parts. And those parts are never unimpressive, but there are too many rough edges, half-ass rhymes and unpolished performances to put it over the top. It’s still a classic though; in some ways it may be the most important album of the decade; certainly the most important on multiple levels. Of course, none of this would matter much if the music wasn’t memorable. Jack White indicated that he had talent and ambition to burn, and this was his invitation to the rest of the world to come along for the ride.

24. Sunn O))), Black One (2005)

“None more black.”

23. My Morning Jacket, It Still Moves (2003)

For the handful of folks who have not yet heard My Morning Jacket, here’s the scoop: once you get past the Neil Young thing, it’s all good. They were a bit rough around the edges on the first two albums, and a bit too polished (and mannered) on their last two. On this one, their third, they sound like they are fully comfortable with who they are and what they are doing. And mostly, they are having a good time. Not in a whimsical or superficial sense, but more like they’ve figured out how to unlock that door and can’t wait to burst through. You can feel the smile on so many of Jim James’ songs, and it’s infectious. The band is tight, always balancing the ’70s prog vibe and the more southern rock meets off-the-wall indie. It’s a generous stew that you can contentedly snack on or belly up to for a full meal. The more you listen to Jim James sing, the more it –and he– makes sense. Clearly this man was born to lead a band, but it’s on this album more than any of the others that he sounds as surprised and delighted as anyone else that he is doing exactly what he is meant to be doing. And no one else can do it quite like he can.

22. Neko Case, Blacklisted (2002)

It all begins and ends with that voice. Natural ability that unmitigated is like a weapon, and Case uses it in the service of her incomparable art. Blacklisted may not have done quite enough to elevate Case from beloved cult status to mainstream, but it was nevertheless a major step forward. This is (arguably) her first album that is purely solid from start to finish: it is like a sunset that never ends. Repeated listens still reveal new depths and nuances, whether they are lulling you to slumber or snapping you out of a self-induced haze. Case has been (still is?) pegged as country with progressive overtones, or country-rock or some type of lazily described hybrid. Needless to say she is all of these things, but no label or facile depiction can capture who she is or what she’s about. There are definitely “country” elements here, and this is seldom straight-ahead rock, but it is bigger than any and all categories: it is what it is. And that is, short character sketches with poetry and intensity, a slightly dark, nocturnal sound that embraces life and the less pretty truths we often try to avoid. Case not only confronts the ugliness, she articulates how it works (and hurts) and somehow manages to make it both beautiful and irresistible.

21. Cat Power, The Greatest (2006)

Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) was inching forward to this album all along. That’s not to say that The Greatest is her best work, but here she comes full circle from stripped down singer/songwriter to confident leader of a full backing band. And what a backing band she assembled: crackerjack session veterans from Memphis, who gave a gritty, old school authenticity to the proceedings. It doesn’t hurt that she also is writing some of her better songs, fusing her exposed-nerve emotion and her savvy chanteuse side. The result is arguably her most accessible and immediate release, an album that can convert newbies and satisfy aficionados.

As ever, there is a subdued, sultry vibe throughout, but the rough edges are now velvet-smooth (again thanks in large part to the Memphis session players). Marshall stretches out, writing songs that she (or her fans) could sing in the shower. Yet the yin/yang of introspection and abandon is still in full effect, as the last two songs, “Hate” and “Love and Communication” make blissfully clear. With the possible exception of Neko Case, there is no singer this past decade who uses her vocal range so effectively, forcefully and purposefully. Undoubtedly some of this is instinct, but it’s also the signal of a maturing artist coming fully and vibrantly into her own. The Greatest is a total triumph of survival, faith in self and an unwavering resolve to live and learn. Like all her other albums, only more so.

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Top 50 Albums of the Decade, Part Five

10. The Fiery Furnaces, Bitter Tea (2006)

It’s a funny thing: as decidedly out there as this effort obviously is, compared to the album that preceded it, Bitter Tea is practically conventional. Well, compared to an album like Rehearsing My Choir, the ambitious or insufferable song cycle that features the bandmates (and siblings) Matthew and Eleanor Friedbergers’  grandmother. On vocals. Really. So…at this point in the game The Fiery Furnaces had firmly established themselves as the ultimate “love them or hate them” proposition. Elements of vaudeville, Peter Gabriel era Genesis (think Foxtrot: the story-within-story narratives that seem impenetrable at first and quickly become irresistible) and a unique amalgamation of all-things progressive and uncompromising.

Bitter Tea is neither a departure from nor a doubling-down on the eccentricity that marks all of their work. It has some of their most bizarre songs (which, as anyone who knows this band, is saying a lot) but it also has, by far, some of their most immediately accessible and enduring compositions. For evidence of the former, consider “Nevers!” or “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry“; for proof of the latter look no further than “Waiting To Know You” (which sounds like a Motown nursery rhyme) or “Benton Harbor Blues” (a song that manages to make the state of melancholy sound intoxicating). The rest of the album splits the difference, tiptoeing the line between playful and preposterous. That they are able to do this consistently and in the service of songs that warrant repeated listens is not an inconsiderable achievement. These songs are like a first date who intentionally acts odd to throw you off guard in order to ascertain if you are for real; if you are worth a second date you have to hang in there and see what’s beneath the surface. And that is the clever, if quirky calculus The Fiery Furnaces are making a career out of: music that sounds so bizarre at first it seems designed to turn off non-believers, but reveals layers and myriad rewards for those with patience and perseverance.

Is this helping? Obviously the only way to determine if this is your cup of (bitter) tea is to cue it up and have a listen. Take “I’m In No Mood”, for instance. To me, this is pure magic and I relish the whacky stop-on-a-dime dynamics, because it is quite apparent (to me) what they are up to, and the disorienting effects are all very deliberate. And effective. The (playful) player piano and breathless vocals chase the melody like Wile E. Coyote pursuing The Roadrunner until SMACK they slam into the side of the cliff. And then slowly drop over (cue the backwards vocals and synthesizer white noise). Then on a tune like “In My Little Thatched Hut” it sounds like the Friedbergers are deconstructing (sonically and vocally, including more backwards vocals: be warned, there are tons of backward vocals on this album) the concept of a love song, using discordance to dive deeper into a certain feeling we all have shared at one time or another.

And all of this backward vocalizing and abrupt sound-shifting is, for my money, very much a calculated strategy with specific aims. This entire album is an examination of love, loss and the way we remember (and deal with) those memories, disappointments and joys. The most astonishing track comes toward the end, a longer version of “Benton Harbor Blues” (the song that closes the album, meaning that the deconstructed version comes first, in typical Fiery Furnaces fashion). The song opens with a programmed beat and then spreads out to incorporate a gorgeous organ line and…just as you expect the vocals to kick in, it starts to slow down and fade out, like a car you think will slow down then drives by, leaving you in the dust. A carnivalesque series of sound effects follow, and then the melody almost backs itself into the forefront before sort of switching on and establishing itself. And then the vocals kick in: “As I try to fill all of my empty days, I stumble around on through my memory’s maze…” Only a few lines get sung before the song derails itself, again, after the multi-tracked stutter of the lyrics “when I think back…” and the swirling cascade of synthesized sound washes over, kind of like a memory. The band is actually attempting a sonic exploration of the subconscious. It is an audacious moment and it is unlike anything any other band has attempted to do. This music is not for everyone, but it might be for you.

The Fiery Furnaces have made memorable albums before and after, but Bitter Tea is their best work, a non-concept album that is full of sound and fury, signifying everything.

 

9. Iron and Wine, The Shepherd’s Dog (2007)

Sam Beam spent the better part of the decade crafting his incarnation of the sensitive singer/songwriter. That type of musician is a dime a dozen and always has been, so it is often that much more difficult for such an artist to separate himself from the pack. Beam (the alias Iron and Wine serves to describe his solo work and the subsequent albums, like The Shepherd’s Dog, recorded with a full backing band) grew his fan base by making direct, unpretentious and totally honest records. Intimate but not unsophisticated, Beam’s whispered vocals and acoustic guitar sounded like short stories from the south: this was Flannery O’Connor’s favorite music, if it had existed while she lived (and his first few albums could have existed in the mid-20th Century). Some folks prefer the stripped down solo efforts; others came on board when he collaborated quite fruitfully with Calexico. Both camps (and especially the fans who loved it all) still could not have imagined the masterpiece Beam was about to drop toward the end of 2007.

It was not any sort of radical departure so much as a Technicolor enhancement of everything that was so great before: The Shepherd’s Dog has virtually all of the same elements of Iron and Wine’s best work, but it is more expansive and layered. There is a texture and richness that suffuses every second of this album, every sound signals evidence of a master songwriter soaring at an unprecedented level of confidence. And the songs are still short stories, but the poetry in them seems more refined and purposeful. From the opening notes of “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car” his augmented approach is evident: the spaces are completely filled with sounds but not overcrowded: it’s just right. Strings, slide guitars, reverb and echo, percussion and Beam’s voice: almost impossibly clear and natural, listening to him sing is like watching ice melt into a stream — it is natural, beautiful and inevitable. He has never sounded better, and considering how great he had always sounded before, this is rarefied air to be certain.

There is not a sub-par track to be found, and if it seemed obvious then it is a certainty now: this is Beam’s ultimate statement (so far).

There are a couple of songs that could almost be accused of rocking: “The Devil Never Sleeps” and “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)”. Of course there are a few crystalline Iron and Wine ballads as well: “Carousel”, Resurrection Fern” (perhaps his best vocal performance?) and the devastatingly gorgeous album-closer “Flightless Bird, American Mouth.” There are also a handful of songs that go places precious few artists can enter, and do their part to make you believe in the real magic that exists in music. “White Tooth Man”, with its multi-layered vocals, police siren guitars and muted urgency is like a 911 call made in your mind; “House by the Sea” sounds like a Civil War march played by a psychedelic bluegrass band; “Boy with a Coin” is just a tour de force, plain and simple: everything about it is perfect and unimprovable. But last and far from least, there is the moment of the album (and one of the contenders for decade’s best), “Peace Beneath The City”. This is not even a song so much as an uncanny dreamscape, it conjures up every back alley of our country: all the myriad faces and names, the deeds and secrets, the hopes and fears; it is like a surreal hymn sung in an empty cathedral, but instead of stained glass there are creaking gas lamps in every corner. It’s a lot of other things, too, but they are for you to figure out and enjoy.

Hopefully once you’ve sampled some of these songs you won’t be able to imagine your world without The Shepherd’s Dog being part of it.

 

8. Erykah Badu, Mama’s Gun (2000)


How great is this album? Can you say Songs in the Key of Life for Y2K? I can. And will: this is the best Stevie Wonder album of the last decade. An instant classic that (being almost 10 years old, already) also qualifies for feel-good nostalgia status as well. As in: remember how uncomplicated things seemed early in the new century? We survived the fin de siecle and our computers did not shut down and our brains did not get fried. We made it! And this was a pre 9/11 America, so there was still a yearning innocence that we’ll never recapture, even if we can begin bringing mouthwash onto airplanes again.

It’s impossible to listen to this and not think of the best of the old-school: the early ’70s vibe throughout is compelling and effusive, calling to mind Sly & The Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone and, of course, Stevie Wonder. It is ambitious and occasionally all-encompassing: there are the propulsive attention getters (awesome opening track “Penitentiary Philosophy”), laid-back stunners (“Didn’t Cha Know”) and ultra-mellow slices of heaven (“Orange Moon”, “Time’s A Wastin”) and a dope duet (“In Love With You”, with Stephen Marley). Just about every track is superlative –this is as much a masterpiece as any album being discussed– but if compelled to pick out the shining star, I’d probably go with “A.D. 2000”. An obviously topical tune, it takes on new and devastating layers of meaning when you listen to the lyrics and understand she is talking about Amadou Diallo, the innocent man who was massacred by NYPD. Can you say pre 9/11 on literal and figurative levels? As always with the very best art, Badu is taking on a particular incident and putting it in the context of the here-and-now, the who we are and where we are, without preaching or posing. Its repeated refrain says everything that needs to be said in a single line: No you won’t be naming no buildings after me…

On “Orange Moon” (as sexy flute lines weave around her) she coos “How good it is.” It hardly gets any better than this. It’s interesting: Badu’s first album sounds connected to the late ‘9os and her recent work is decidedly 21st Century; only Mama’s Gun seems to exist slightly out of time, a mirror held up to the great old days and an arrow set to sail into a future that still hasn’t happened.

7. The White Stripes, Elephant (2003)

Jack White’s was the barbaric yawp of the decade, both symbolically and, on stage and on record, literally. The ascendancy of The White Stripes culminated on Elephant: everything they’d been doing led to this, everything they’ve done since has been a (thus far) futile attempt to match the intensity and furious focus they brought to this session. To be clear, the three albums before this were wonderful in their own ways, and the subsequent work is not without its merits, but with a half-decade and change of hindsight, it seems fair to say that this was the album Jack White was meant to make, and all glory goes to the fates and faeries that allowed this to happen.

This is not a flawless album, but it’s still very much a masterpiece of sorts, and more importantly, it’s a total triumph of style and substance, channeled by an ambitious and insanely gifted musician. This may be the quintessential “greater than the sum of its parts” album; it might even be without fault if some of the weaker songs were left off, but as is always the case, the ones that don’t do it for me might be the same ones you consider crucial, and vice versa. (If so we can agree to disagree that “Well It’s True That We Love One Another” is an amusing lark that is too precious and self-referencing for comfort, or that the bombastic but brainless “Ball And Biscuit” would fare better as a concert-only staple; on the other hand, the cutesy slice of eccentricity that is “Little Acorns” comes in just on the side of righteous).

Bottom line: what works on this album just doesn’t do the trick; it obliterates any doubt and demands nothing less than surrender. The first seven tracks are as relentless and ecstatic an assault as anything anyone did this decade, period. Everyone knows “Seven Nation Army” at this point, and they should. Unlike (the excellent) “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”, which is still a tad too deferential and formulaic of the old “new blues” thing White sought to perfect on the first few albums, “Seven Nation Army” is a pure slice of visionary sonic carnage. No longer nodding and winking at the old school and perched on the shoulders of those giants, White finally leaps into the air and never comes down. Instead of reworking the blues he reinvents them with the post-punk aggression and lo-fi urgency that only The Black Keys can equal. And then there is the guitar. The work White does (on this song and throughout the album) is anthemic: you knew, after the first few listens in the spring of 2003, that this would be played in bars and kids basements for the rest of time. Amazingly, after the best opening salvo from any album (at least this decade, maybe longer), White actually ups the ante on the second track, “Black Math”. This, for me, is as good as it gets, and no matter what White does from here on out, including playing at halftime of some future Super Bowl, nothing can possibly obliterate his legacy because we can always turn to this album (in general) and this track (in particular). The snarled vocals, no longer bratty or precocious, are just feral and almost frightening (roller coaster frightening, not scary movie frightening) and that guitar solo? Holy fucking shit. Folks, that is the hammer of the gods being brought down with extreme prejudice: what happens between 1.52 and 2.28 is, hands down, the most exhilarating and insanely brilliant half-minute of rock in ages. Get the record books out, because there is a new entry.

This is (duh) a guitar album, and White has finally figured it all out: the composition, the solos, the adroit use of slide guitar; all elements are now employed in the service of the songs, and they are songs now, not just sketches (however sketchily brilliant). Take the mind-searing cover of Burt Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”: aside from featuring White’s most convincing vocal performance, the song actually sounds the way the lyrics demand that it sound –the remorse followed by fury, the self-loathing spiked by nostalgia, the paralysis of not knowing how to act, all of it is in there, an immutable expression of our least favorite rite of passage delivered in under three minutes. Even when Meg gets in on the act, she not only provides a startlingly disarming vocal on “In The Cold, Cold Night”, but the sparse instrumentation is the exact right backdrop for this harrowing, heartbreaking number.

The second half for the album doesn’t slow down or falter so much as it simply can’t match the incandescent flow of the first half. If nothing else, it is a relentless blast of rocks-off abandon, culminating in the almost unhinged histrionics of “Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine”, which would have been the ideal way to end the album. No matter: White outdid himself here, and going forward it would be insane to ask or expect anything else as compelling and essential as Elephant.

6. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Since the hastened demise of the record industry is now a foregone conclusion, it will be increasingly difficult to recall what a tough time musicians had for the better part of a century. But let there be no confusion, record companies were Satan with a capital S. And the now famous (and infamous) story of the boatload of shit Wilco (already an established brand who had made beaucoup bucks for everyone involved with them) put up with from Reprise Records. The hubris and myopia is particularly historic on this one, combining King Lear’s cluelessness with Lady Macbeth’s depravity (yeah, I’m getting all Shakespeare and shit). Look, this type of business as usual most definitely had tragic overtones for everyone except the bad guys for the better part of ONE HUNDRED YEARS. The artists got scammed and burned, audiences got bent over, and tons of worthwhile music (particularly jazz music, even on supportive labels) went unheard. Who knows how many inspired sessions are still languishing in the dusty vaults?

Everyone remembers the story, right? The label, convinced they knew best, and certain there were no “hits” on the record, effectively withdrew their support and Wilco (wisely) took the record and ran. The rest is wonderful, borderline divine history. And that is all good and well, but the same question begs to be answered in 2010: what the fuck were those idiots at Reprise thinking? Clearly this is not only a worthwhile album, it’s an exceptional album. A classic. And, to add insult to injury, there are two sure-fire “hits” in “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m The Man Who Loves You” (you could make a case for “Jesus, etc.” as well). Not to say these songs would, or should have been “hits” in the commercial sense of the word, but eminently feasible for radio play — particularly compared to the shite that permeates our polluted airwaves.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot remains the ultimate case study of why we should never lament the overdue, most welcome implosion of the anti-artist old world order.

All that aside (and I’m not even getting into the subsequent documentary of these proceedings, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart), and as impossible it is to separate the actual album from the melodrama and ultimate exultation, the fact remains that this is simply a seminal recording. Along the already mentioned songs, there are two in particular that represent what truly visionary work Tweedy and company were doing as the new century began: album opener “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” and “Poor Places”. The former is possibly the definitive Wilco song and can represent, as well as any other composition, everything about this complicated decade. It manages to be a soundtrack of sorts to both the pre and post 9/11 American sensibility, and that is something more than merely remarkable. The languid fever dream that clicks into focus to begin the song and the slow motion meltdown that closes it recall certain moments from The White Album (particularly “Long, Long, Long), as well as the sound experimentations of Stockhausen and, of course, the more spacey sonic meditations of early Pink Floyd. But it is certainly grounded in the here and now, and is very much a vehicle for Jeff Tweedy’s inspired and troubled mind. It is an absolute masterpiece of a song. “Poor Places”, of course, features the eerily robotic female voice repeating the words “yankee…hotel…foxtrot” (taken from The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations): this is arguably the most inspired, and infamous, non-musical sample of the decade and it gives the tune a spectral essence that transcends the album and the band and gets into something at once profound and inexpressible.

There have already been volumes written about the recording, reception and import of this album, and it’s not a stretch to imagine many more volumes will be written. This is a good thing: if any album, and band, deserves the scrutiny and approbation such criticism engenders, it is Wilco. Aside from all the peripheral issues, at the end of the day Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a one-of-a-kind memento of our times.

5. The Black Keys, Attack & Release (2008)

So, how exactly did The Black Keys become the best (and possibly most important) band of the decade, hands down, no one else particularly close to second place? Well, it was pretty easy: they did it the old fashioned way, dropping incredible albums, one after the other. Let’s break it down, just for those keeping score at home: 2002, their debut The Big Come Up; 2003, Thickfreakness; 2004, Rubber Factory; 2006 double-feature Magic Potion and the Junior Kimbrough tribute Chulahoma; and finally, in 2008, the masterpiece, Attack & Release. Pound for pound, song for song, nobody else can touch that track record, which stands alongside any other band in terms of quality and quantity over a similarly short period of time. And best of all, these guys are just getting started. Considering that they sound like old burned out blues veterans now, it’s almost frightening to imagine what they will actually evolve into in the years ahead.

Rubber Factory seemed like a high water mark of sorts (it still does), and while Magic Potion is no slouch, it was neither an improvement nor necessarily a step forward (it was merely another excellent album); Chulahoma was both a stop-gap EP and a detour in the darkest depths of the Delta blues, pulled off with such aplomb it should make everyone from Eric Clapton to Bob Dylan blush (as for the younger generation of pretenders, one word: please). Still, the band had surpassed all reasonable expectations and delivered far beyond what seemed possible (even for hardcore fans) circa 2004. What else could they possibly do at this point without repeating themselves or driving headlong (however defiantly) into the creative ditch?

Answer: enlist Danger Mouse, the producer with the best ears (and smarts) in the industry. But…wouldn’t that add a polish, or finesse that might run counter to everything The Black Keys stand for? Isn’t the entire concept of studio wizardry (and overdubs!) antithetical to the low-fi DIY ethos Auerbach and Carney worship at the altar of? Not necessarily. In addition to employing Danger Mouse, the Keys welcomed guitar guru Marc Ribot to lend his muscle (and magic) to several songs. That, along with the production skillz (subtle employment of flute, other live instruments and effects), make this a more ambitious, expansive effort.

Not that the modus operandi is radically altered here. In fact, virtually all of the elements that make all the previous albums superlative in their own way are employed throughout these proceedings. From the slow, building release of “All You Ever Wanted” to the straightforward ass-kick of “I Got Mine” (illustrating the ever-escalating dynamic elements of Auerbach’s guitar playing), the band is out for blood. The stakes are elevated on “Strange Times” which recycles a classic Black Sabbath riff (from Sabotage): this distills the energy of Thickfreakness with the refined blues experimentation from Magic Potion. On “Psychotic Girl” the presence of Danger Mouse is fully realized, from the banjo embellishment to the very subtle but astute ambient noises, all resulting in a sinister, murky detour to darker territory. Then, genius: “Lies” is, in many regards, the best thing the band has done to this point. It’s a fairly uncomplicated Led Zeppelin-style blues ballad, but Auerbach delivers one of his ultimate vocal performances, proving that this type of talent can’t be taught or bought. “Remember When” (Side A and Side B) are augmented by Danger Mouse’s retro urges: you practically expect to hear scratches in the song the way it would sound on a vinyl…from 1972. Then there is the tri-fecta that finishes the album, setting this one above and beyond. Let’s not mince words or leave any room for misinterpretation: “So He Won’t Break” and “Oceans and Streams” are as good as rock and roll gets; rock and roll does not get any better than this (then, now, or ever). Both of these songs, while deeply wed to the best elements of past classics, are unique, unmistakable statements from a band that has diligently carved out its own niche and style. The emotion and conviction Auerbach is able to convey, vocally, on these two tracks is miraculous in its way, and well worth celebrating: he is doing things no one else on the scene is capable of imitating. The last track, “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” is a wise-beyond-its-years lamentation of the obvious, a particularly appropriate commentary on our world in 2008.

All in all, a recording with no weaknesses and tons of strength, a powder keg with purpose, an atomic bomb with a heart. The Black Keys are making music nobody else can approximate and they keep getting better because their only competition is what they just did.

4. Cat Power, You Are Free (2003)

You Are Free is not a perfect album. With neither snark nor sarcasm, this writer’s opinion is that it is too good to be perfect. Not that it’s better than perfect (whatever that could, or would mean) but that Cat Power (henceforth Chan Marshall) is not writing songs so much as bleeding her thoughts and feelings and their attendant pains and exultations into existence. They are there (in her, in all of us) and she makes them real, and makes us feel them, and through feeling them, feel something more of her and ourselves. This is what art does. All of which is to say, this is certainly one of the best and most powerful albums of the decade. But it is (and will continue to be) one of the most enduring. Because it is messy, with a few mistakes and some unfortunate moments, which, if we are honest, is better than most of us can say when we look back on our own lives.

The first indelible track is “Good Woman”: listen to the ache of the violin and the tone of that guitar: just right. Then there is the almost indescribably effective deployment of Eddie Vedder’s whispered, but still gruff backing vocals: one of the more triumphant instances of astute subtlety you will encounter in a rock and roll song. It is hardly possible to accomplish more than Marshall does here: this recalls the vibrant poetics of Joni Mitchell and the truculence of Chrissie Hynde, but also has the tender ache of Joan Baez at her most pellucid. It is, quite simply, a devastating and effulgent achievement.

The next stroke of genius is just Chan and her guitar on “Fool”. This one recalls the best moments of Moon Pix and captures that desolate yearning, the musical equivalent of a wilting flower stretching toward an absent sun in the middle of the night. Nobody else does this like Chan Marshall, and no one even comes close on a consistent basis.

The more somber and introspective moments are wonderfully cut with some lively jolts of power pop: “Speak For Me” and “He War” are so infectious and assured at first you wonder if this is the same singer on the same album, and then realize that this is precisely what makes Cat Power so special. A trio of songs find Marshall accompanied only by her piano, and they are each monuments of emotion and catharsis: “You Are Free” (which is about both Kurt Cobain and Cat Power), “Maybe Not” and “Names” (which is a brutally stark stroll down a memory lane of abuse and dysfunction that Marshall saw, experienced and imagined). Then a song that could (and should) have closed any other album, a barren (yet beautiful!) cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ Black Spider”, reworked as “Keep On Runnin'”. It spills more feeling and quiet intensity in less than four minutes than most of Marshall’s peers could convey in four albums.

But in the end, “Evolution” is the ideal song to close out the set. More, it’s one of the best closing songs on any album, ever. More, it may just be the song of the decade: thematically it is elegiac but in its yearning, deeply human resolve, it is inevitably inspiring. Another duet with Eddie Vedder, I am unable to express the heights this tone poem attains. Just piano and two voices, one sounding like the other’s shadow, Vedder echoes, encourages and reinforces Marshall’s fragile invocation of witness and perseverance. The pair go through the lyrics one time, pause and recite them a second time, ending with a subdued but urgent call to arms, repeating the words “Better make your mind up quick”. They are talking to themselves and, one slowly realizes, addressing anyone else who might be listening.

3. Sleater-Kinney, The Woods (2005)

The good news: The Woods is, one can claim with reasonable confidence, Sleater-Kinney’s finest hour.

The bad news: It is the last album they made (and, going on six years, their intent to remain broken up seems unlikely to change).

The bottom line: Sleater-Kinney was quite correctly considered by many folks to be the best band around during the late ’90s and early 00’s. I am certainly not going to argue. They had the typical trajectory that builds a loyal and unwavering fan base: each album, starting with Dig Me Out (1997) got a little bit better, and the ladies were increasingly able to harness the raw punch of their live shows with studio experimentation. The Woods is one of those wonderful anomalies that balances painstaking performance and blissful abandon. Five seconds into the first track, “The Fox”, there is little question that it’s on. And it stays on. “The Fox” displays the cacophonous ecstasy patented by The Pixies and brings it into Y2K: this is one of the most blistering, beautifully ugly songs of the decade, featuring Corin Tucker’s most impassioned vocals ever. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you open an album.

Everyone knows that women can do anything men can do, and often do it better. The Woods rocks harder and drops jaws lower than anything anyone else did this decade. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

It’s difficult to try and pick and choose highlights here; the entire album is one extended highlight. Tracks like “Wilderness” and “Jumpers” would have been stand-outs on earlier SK albums (or albums by almost any other band) but there is an extra edge and purpose on certain songs. The wonders of “What’s Mine Is Yours” are bountiful, from the soaring choruses to the unreal shredding of guitar goddess Carrie Brownstein. (The feedback frenzy that bridges the song is one of those ecstatic passages of music that ceaselessly surprises and delights; it’s a sonic orgasm of the highest order.) And then, ho hum, they bust out a perfect little ditty in “Modern Girl” that you can (try to) sing along to. The album trudges along, angry and eloquent, leading up to the ultimate one-two punch which, if it has to represent the end of this epic band’s career, is an inimitable way to go out. The 11 minute “Let’s Call It Love” (maybe their crowning achievement?) doesn’t segue into “Night Light” so much as it explodes into it. Along with the feedback bliss from “What’s Mine Is Yours” and the once-in-a-lifetime vocals of “The Fox”, the transition into the album’s coda is one of those moments. Too good for words. And it is an achievement, evidence of a band that has taken things to that other place where they have figured it out and made a defining statement. Not just for their own career, but a mark left on the history of music.

Thinking we may never hear/see Sleater-Kinney together again, one part of me pleads: Say it ain’t so, ladies! The other part of me readily concedes that it’s ridiculous to ask them to give us anything else. They have already given more than we could ever have hoped for.

2. TV On The Radio, Return To Cookie Mountain (2006)

Sui Generis.

Chop Suey.

Chop sui generis.

How do you actually define style or account for the concept of originality? What about terms like uncompromising or integrity? Well, it’s kind of like the classic definition of pornography: you know it when you hear it. TV On The Radio is not for everyone, but there is nothing inherently prohibitive about their work. They are most definitely progressive with a capital P and they could not unfairly be described as more than a little out there, but those depictions are only epithets coming from the uninformed and incurious (in other words, the people who watch American Idol and think Coldplay is cutting edge). Whatever else they may be, TV On The Radio is an American band in the best sense of the word: they bring a cultural and intellectual heft to their fairly wide-ranging sonic palette, and they are more focused on tomorrow than yesterday. They showed signs of significant promise on Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (2004) and the best song on that album, “Staring At The Sun”, is a blueprint of sorts for the strategy they would employ on Return To Cookie Mountain: a series of songs that work toward a certain feeling, with the (breathtaking) vocals front and center, and a series of sounds made by instruments and machines; a sort of industrial mini opera.

Return To Cookie Mountain recalls some of the in-your-face polemics of Living Colour, but has the charismatic statement of purpose that fuels Peter Gabriel’s best work, and courts the avant garde like David Bowie and early-’80s King Crimson. Add some ferocious funk and the aforementioned vocals (Tunde Adepimbe might be an acquired taste but if it registers, his voice is musical crack), and you begin to arrive somewhere very unique and more than a little unsettling. The material, while not explicitly dark, is kind of like a NYC subway: busy, bustling with noises and images and unmistakably real. On Return To Cookie Mountain all of these various tools and tokens are elevated with Beach Boys harmonizing and falsettos; at times it sounds like Marvin Gaye playing with Nine Inch Nails.

A song by song analysis would be unrewarding as it would be unproductive: this, like it or not, is one of those albums that has to be experienced, and while there are many fantastic tracks, it demands to be listened to from start to finish, unless you are already a lost hipster, picking and choosing your playlists like music was meant to be turned into a fuck-all buffet station.

This album does require a few listens to let you orient yourself, and a few more listens to let the marinade of ideas and emotions (and always, the sounds) sink in. If that seems like too much of a chore, this music is not for you. (And don’t worry, I’m here to tell you it’s okay.)

A few songs do warrant further comment. “A Method” features whistling, multi-tracked vocals, A-plus production and a structure that is more lullaby than rock song. These dudes have locked into something else entirely, and it is humbling to behold (and behear). The shimmering perfection of “Dirtywhirl” defies any attempt to approach it with words: this is a song that can make you shake and cry and think provocative thoughts, all while you nod your head in time and grin like the Cheshire Cat. This one carved its way deep into my heart and will safely remain one of my all-time favorite songs, for all-time. Finally, the album closes out (pre bonus tracks, that is) with “Tonight” and “Wash The Day” which are like love letters from another dimension. There is a pervasive vibe permeating these songs that is at once disconcerting and tranquilizing: you are slowly being carried away, which naturally causes confusion until you understand that as soon as you stop resisting you’ll end up where you want to be. Back on Cookie Mountain, wherever that actually is.

1. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (2006)

Let’s talk a little bit about perfection.

What is it, and who gets to define it? And more importantly, who cares? What, for that matter, elevates something to the status of “best”? All of this discussion is subjective, and enough similarly inclined personal perspectives shape consensus over time. These are the types of semantic shenanigans writers and critics engage in and lose sleep over, which would be almost pathetic if for the simple matter that it’s all about genuine love of art and the aspiration to elevate it. To share that passion and, whenever possible, help edge that consensus toward a worthwhile candidate.

Fortunately, I am very far from alone in wanting to celebrate the almost inhuman brilliance of Neko Case. Everyone loves Neko and seemingly everybody appreciated Fox Confessor Brings The Flood. And yet, I’m not satisfied. Fox Confessor Brings The Flood was not merely one of the better albums of 2006; it was the best album of the decade. More than that, it’s an absolute and utter masterpiece, practically perfect in every way, and will be studied and savored as long as people are still listening to music.

If you are surprised by, or not really feeling, this appraisal, I am uncertain I’m capable of convincing you, and frankly that is not my motivation here. I am, however, quite content to offer some of the reasons I find this to be the most profound and enduring work of the decade. (I entertained the idea of being a smart ass and writing: here are the 12 reasons this album is perfect, and simply listing the song titles, one by one.) On this release, every possible element is aligned: the cover art perfectly reflects the subject matter of the songs, the lyrics of those songs are uncommonly (bordering on unbelievably) intelligent; this is real literature and these are as good as poems but they are all devastatingly effective short stories that stick with you long after first listen. And the songs themselves: each song, all sequenced in ideal order for maximum import.

Leave it to Neko Case to find inspiration in Russian folk tales to craft a series of songs that are thoroughly American and of the moment. But, like so much great art (including, of course, books and movies as well as albums), intentional or not, if the artist is sufficiently astute and historically cognizant, the resulting work cannot help but recall themes and images of the past, and transcend the time and place in which the words are set or conceived. In this regard, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is as much a Russian novel as it is a Y2K progressive country-rock folk album. Get the picture? Check it out: if any song on any album discussed thus far contains Whitmanesque multitudes, it’s the title track.

Speaking of that “p-word” again, I don’t expect I’ll find two better examples of perfection in music than “That Teenage Feeling” (talk about a novel in two minutes; and when Neko acknowledges –about love, about life– “Because it’s hard” that is the type of spell a siren can cast over a smitten bachelor and ensnare him for life) and “Hold On, Hold On” (when Neko proclaims “I leave the party at 3AM, alone thank God/With a valium from the bride, it’s the devil I love”, she is at once penning some of those most mordant lyrics of the decade and expressing a delightful recalcitrance that makes her the radiant object of so much unrequited lust).

The album winds down with some truly beautiful meditations on life, love and mortality (and the ever-present concept of lost faith): “Maybe Sparrow” and “At Last” which are arresting in their unadorned, plaintive expression: they are cris de coeur but they are without self-pity and totally effulgent in their naked vulnerability. And, as always and as ever, Neko’s voice is a glorious force of nature.

I had (and have?) no interest in attempting to divine the central, unifying track on this album (honestly, any one of them could fit the bill, but some more than others, obviously). And yet, Case really outdoes herself on the short and not-so-sweet homage to self, “Lion’s Jaws”: equal parts reminiscence and invocation of adult reality, this taps into something truly resonant. If you have lived and loved then you have learned, and if you understand how many times you have been inside the lion’s jaws (knowingly and especially the times you were not even aware of it), then you can appreciate Case’s (and hopefully your own) courage to resist “momentum for the sake of momentum.”

In closing, I’ll simply state it outright: Fox Confessor Brings The Flood was not merely one of the better albums of 2006; it was the best album of the decade. More than that, it’s an absolute and utter masterpiece, practically perfect in every way, and will be studied and savored as long as people are still listening to music.

(Do I Repeat Myself? Very Well, Then, I Repeat Myself!)

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Top 50 Albums of the Decade, Part Three

30. Sonic Youth, Murray Street (2002)

Some might say Sonic Youth did their best work in the ’80s; some may claim it was the ’90s; others may insist they reached new heights this past decade. To me, that there is a band we could have this type of discussion about is itself remarkable. Think about it for a moment: Sonic Youth has been dropping great album after great album for a real long time, and there is no one who could claim, with an ounce of credibility, that they’ve compromised or done anything but follow their own iconoclastic path. Some bands hope and wait for the world to change to enable their fifteen minutes in the sun; other bands change the world and bring everyone along with them.

To be honest, both Rather Ripped and Sonic Nurse could easily be on this list, and perhaps they should. But if obliged to pick just one, I would have to go with Murray Street, not necessarily because it is the best of the lot (though it may well be) but because it is just so utterly at ease with itself. Put another way, maybe this is the one where they locked in and fired on all cylinders in a way they hadn’t quite done (at least since Dirty). Perhaps it’s just because I saw Sonic Youth, at an intimate venue (playing on a twin bill with Wilco!) in 2003 and heard them play “Disconnection Notice”, which is my personal favorite SY song since “Bull in the Heather” (a song I’ve always wanted to have sex with, which should tell you something about the song, or about me). For people who are, understandably, a bit intimidated by the band’s ever-growing catalog, Murray Street is definitely one of the more accessible releases, with more straightforward “songs” and less of the beautiful abrasiveness Sonic Youth has patented (especially live). And when I say accessible, I mean music that any half-adventurous listener can –and should– enjoy, but don’t mistake this for anything you’d ever hear on the radio. And that is only one of the great things about it.

 

29. Amy Winehouse, Back To Black (2007)

Between the pre-release hype and the post-release meltdown, it’s almost difficult to remember how many naysayers this album humbled. Trust me, I was one of them. I recall reading a rapturous review a month or two before the CD dropped (and seeing her for the first time in the accompanying photos and thinking, Hey she’s kind of hot in a coke binge, bar-crawling, tat- sporting, wig-wearing, hot bowl of mess kind of way) and acknowledging that serious marketing money had her pegged as the story of the year. 

And then I heard the thing. Yeah, the rehab song was okay, I guess. And this album definitely isn’t a masterpiece, because there are some serious clunkers on there. But my God there are some flat out stunners as well. It got overplayed (through no fault of its own) but there is no denying “You Know I’m No Good” (holy shit what a songwriter! Are you kidding me with those lyrics? That is some sardonic self-loathing that gives even Morrissey a run for his money) and the title track and especially the most hilarious song of the decade “Me & Mr. Jones”:

What kind of fuckery are you? Aside from Sammy you’re my best black Jew!

Quite frankly, nobody in the world could ever in a million words write a line like this and actually pull it off. And then there is straight-up one of the best songs of this decade, or any decade, “Love Is A Losing Game”. I remember reading that Prince had begun covering this in his live shows. Repeat: Prince. Yes, that Prince. Just to be clear, people cover Prince’s songs, Prince does not cover other people’s songs. Get the picture? It’s one thing to emulate and imitate the old Phil Spector girl group vibe, but to craft a tune that can easily stand alongside any of them? Wow. And, astonishingly, Winehouse saves the best for last, literally. “He Can Only Hold Her” is an out-and-out masterpiece, a perfect song. Every second, every syllable, every sound: utter perfection. Check out those lyrics: can you say “less is more”? That is not just a short story, that is a fucking novel in three minutes. If you know anything about anything, you simply shut up and marvel at genius (yes, genius) like that.

Look, Winehouse was already at Defcon-4 by the time this album broke big; to a certain extent she earned her excess and the sadly predictable tabloid soap opera her life became. Let’s hope, for her sake and ours, that she gets her act together and makes an attempt to do the unthinkable: making another album half as great as Back To Black.

 

28. Secret Chiefs 3, Book M (2001)

A lot of people worried way too much about whether or not Mr. Bungle would ever make another album after California (I know, I was one of them). Little did we know that if they had, we may never have gotten Tomahawk, or the resurgence of Secret Chiefs 3. Who? Exactly.

To put it simply, Secret Chiefs 3 are the “other” guys from Mr. Bungle. But to say that Secret Chiefs 3 are Mr. Bungle without the vocals does not even come close to describing them, or doing their remarkable music the slightest justice. On the other hand, trying to get a handle on their sound is hopeless, and I mean that in a good way. They blend a sort of surf-thrash guitar (courtesy of mastermind Trey Spruance) but remain grounded in a narcotic jazz groove (thanks to bassist and composer Trevor Dunn), with a distinctly Eastern (think Indian meets Bollywood in a cloud of opium) influence, with a healthy dose of Morricone. And then throw in the sax and violin (the great Eyvind Kang) and quickly you realize that…we’re not in Kansas anymore. Of course, we never were. Obviously anyone who is familiar with Mr. Bungle or Fantomas should lap this up, but not to worry, if you’ve never heard of any of these acts, an album like Book M is capable of satisfying anyone with open ears. It’s not deliberately abstruse or eccentric for the sake of being eccentric; there is most definitely a very calculated (and complicated) method to this madness. And madness never felt so fresh and funky.

27. Ali Farka Toure, Savane (2006)

When Mali legend Ali Farka Toure passed on in 2006, the world was robbed of one of its most important musicians. Granted, Toure was well into his seventh decade, but considering how late he was “discovered” (by the western world, in large part thanks to national treasure Ry Cooder), it still feels like we got cheated. On the other hand, that we found him at all, and have the work he left behind is a miracle with a capital M. If you are reading this and want to indulge me only one time, don’t hesitate to pick up everything you can find by this genius (and if you want a place to start, you simply can’t go wrong with either The Source or his aforementioned collaboration with Cooder, Talking Timbuktu).

Savane, the album Ali was working on when he began to succumb to the cancer that eventually claimed him, was released posthumously in 2006. It features the same deep, dark, profound expression (the CD cover acknowledges Ali as “king of the desert blues”) that Toure spent a lifetime perfecting, and it’s a very bittersweet swan song.

26. Josh Homme (and friends), The Desert Sessions, Vols 9 & 10 (2003)

Everyone knows Josh Homme is a bad motherfucker.

He has made some of the more delightfully raucous music of this decade as the ringleader of Queens of the Stone Age, that collective that brings in a rotating cast of talented misfits. But for those who are looking for something even more anarchic and, well, raucous, Homme’s ongoing Desert Sessions series is like a nice side of bacon to go with those sun-fried eggs. For my money, the best of the bunch is the fifth installment, (Volumes 9 & 10), in part because it features some of Homme’s tightest playing and most memorable tunes. But what puts it way over the top, and nudges out even the very excellent QOTSA sets from the last ten years, is the inclusion of P.J. Harvey. That is one of those matches made in heaven (or hell, but in a good way) that you could not come up with in a million years. Thank everything that is righteous they found each other because they certainly make very sweet music together. Homme provides the platform (and ideal backing vocals) and lets P.J. get her freak on. Actually, Harvey is relatively restrained, but her voice is its own force of nature: this is not for the timid, but anyone else can –and should– inquire within.  A couple of these songs represent the best work either artist has made, and needless to say, that is saying a lot.

25. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells (2001)

Huge regret: I slept on the groundswell that this band generated in the early years of the century, and by the time White Blood Cells started converting people by the truckload, it was too late to see them in a small venue. I say that not for a lost opportunity for hipster cred (shudder the thought), but rather, having seen their game in a large and sold-out arena, I am positive I missed out on something truly special.

Unlike the other (overly) hyped band from the early days of this century, The Strokes, this band actually delivered the goods, so it was easy to celebrate their ascension. How often does a duo (male and female no less) with a distinctive DIY ethos go from obscure to hip to superstardom? About once in a lifetime, and if it was going to happen to anyone, why not Jack and Meg White?

Their influence is indescribable and it’s difficult to imagine other excellent “boy-girl” bands like Beach House and The Fiery Furnaces finding the audience they deserve without the trails blazed by the duo from Detroit.

But what about White Blood Cells, now that we’ve had almost a decade to live with it? Well, it’s not a masterpiece, but it tends to be greater than the sum of its parts. And those parts are never unimpressive, but there are too many rough edges, half-ass rhymes and unpolished performances to put it over the top. It’s still a classic though; in some ways it may be the most important album of the decade; certainly the most important on multiple levels. Of course, none of this would matter much if the music wasn’t memorable. Jack White indicated that he had talent and ambition to burn, and this was his invitation to the rest of the world to come along for the ride.

24. Sunn O))), Black One (2005)

“None more black.”

23. My Morning Jacket, It Still Moves (2003)

For the handful of folks who have not yet heard My Morning Jacket, here’s the scoop: once you get past the Neil Young thing, it’s all good. They were a bit rough around the edges on the first two albums, and a bit too polished (and mannered) on their last two. On this one, their third, they sound like they are fully comfortable with who they are and what they are doing. And mostly, they are having a good time. Not in a whimsical or superficial sense, but more like they’ve figured out how to unlock that door and can’t wait to burst through. You can feel the smile on so many of Jim James’ songs, and it’s infectious. The band is tight, always balancing the ’70s prog vibe and the more southern rock meets off-the-wall indie. It’s a generous stew that you can contentedly snack on or belly up to for a full meal. The more you listen to Jim James sing, the more it –and he– makes sense. Clearly this man was born to lead a band, but it’s on this album more than any of the others that he sounds as surprised and delighted as anyone else that he is doing exactly what he is meant to be doing. And no one else can do it quite like he can.

22. Neko Case, Blacklisted (2002)

It all begins and ends with that voice. Natural ability that unmitigated is like a weapon, and Case uses it in the service of her incomparable art. Blacklisted may not have done quite enough to elevate Case from beloved cult status to mainstream, but it was nevertheless a major step forward. This is (arguably) her first album that is purely solid from start to finish: it is like a sunset that never ends. Repeated listens still reveal new depths and nuances, whether they are lulling you to slumber or snapping you out of a self-induced haze. Case has been (still is?) pegged as country with progressive overtones, or country-rock or some type of lazily described hybrid. Needless to say she is all of these things, but no label or facile depiction can capture who she is or what she’s about. There are definitely “country” elements here, and this is seldom straight-ahead rock, but it is bigger than any and all categories: it is what it is. And that is, short character sketches with poetry and intensity, a slightly dark, nocturnal sound that embraces life and the less pretty truths we often try to avoid. Case not only confronts the ugliness, she articulates how it works (and hurts) and somehow manages to make it both beautiful and irresistible.

21. Cat Power, The Greatest (2006)

Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) was inching forward to this album all along. That’s not to say that The Greatest is her best work, but here she comes full circle from stripped down singer/songwriter to confident leader of a full backing band. And what a backing band she assembled: crackerjack session veterans from Memphis, who gave a gritty, old school authenticity to the proceedings. It doesn’t hurt that she also is writing some of her better songs, fusing her exposed-nerve emotion and her savvy chanteuse side. The result is arguably her most accessible and immediate release, an album that can convert newbies and satisfy aficionados.

As ever, there is a subdued, sultry vibe throughout, but the rough edges are now velvet-smooth (again thanks in large part to the Memphis session players). Marshall stretches out, writing songs that she (or her fans) could sing in the shower. Yet the yin/yang  of introspection and abandon is still in full effect, as the last two songs, “Hate” and “Love and Communication” make blissfully clear. With the possible exception of Neko Case, there is no singer this past decade who uses her vocal range so effectively, forcefully and purposefully. Undoubtedly some of this is instinct, but it’s also the signal of a maturing artist coming fully and vibrantly into her own. The Greatest is a total triumph of survival, faith in self and an unwavering resolve to live and learn. Like all her other albums, only more so.

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