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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The Top 10 Albums of 2011, According To Me (Part One)

A couple of quick things. In fairness, both Tom Waits and Paul Simon could easily be on this list. They show few signs of slowing down and it is appropriate to acknowledge –and celebrate– their longevity and the case they continue to make for their own relevance. So I salute them and in some ways bow down to what they have achieved. On the other hand, enough other outlets are showering them with sycophancy (for mostly the right reasons), so it gives me extra incentive to discuss a handful of albums that some people may not have heard or otherwise found. But there is no agenda here: each of these albums merits a legitimate place in my annual list.

Here’s the deal: every year we have the hipsters and reactionaries, not to mention the unimaginative and lazy, lamenting that no good music gets made anymore. Of course this is nonsense. There is great music being made all the time. In fact, for me 2011 has had more sheer musical quality than anything I can recall in recent memory. So there. For those people who are unconvinced I’d offer two pieces of advice. One, read my blog (haha). Two, get out more. And I don’t mean outside, although leaving the confines of your too-comfortable existence might land you in a tiny club where you catch a band you’ll one day be unable to imagine not having in your life. I mean outside that self-imposed system that is obviously not working for you. If you are not discovering amazing new music on your own, you should be hearing it or reading about it. Note: this advice is intended for people who truly love music and have lost their way, and people who are genuinely interested in seeing what all the fuss is about: there are few things more validating than hearing something everyone else raves about and determining it sucks. Knowing you still have the capacity –and investment– in sorting out what moves you versus what gets put in the rotation by commercial-minded consensus. Better: being humbled by an album or artist you would never have listened to had you not picked up the recommendation. Each year I am astonished, and humbled, by how much music falls into my pile by luck or happenstance; each year I have the actual proof of what should be obvious: great art is being made all the time. This year I was fortunate to have a handful of artists contact me and, through the correspondence that ensued, I got hip to music I was previously not hip enough to get on my own.

2011 was not the easiest year for many of us, and there is no certainty that it will get better soon. One thing that never disappoints is music and it’s especially during the difficult times that we should cling closely to the art that restores us. 2011 was, in this regard, an amazing time to be alive.

Let’s do this.

10. Wanda Jackson, The Party Ain’t Over.

We have rightly mentioned the two not-so-dignified elder statesman who dropped fine albums this year (Messrs. Simon and Waits). How about the very dignified Wanda Jackson who, at 73 (let me repeat that: seventy-three) is still willing and able to get down and dirty. With the considerable help of the reliable –and indefatigable– Jack White, she put out an album that would have warranted some love just for the sake of its creation but…it’s a damn fine album by any criteria.

If you don’t know who Wanda Jackson is, get thee to the Internets. She has been around a long time and has been a legend since before many of us were born.

On The Party Ain’t Over, her trademark voice is correctly front and center, but White should get ample credit for his savvy arrangements and production acumen: the sound is at once lush and filthy, and it’s obvious everyone is having a blast. A spirited take of The Man in Black’s “Busted“, an interesting interpretation of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know That I’m No Good”, an addictive rundown of “Rum and Coca-Cola“: there’s a lot here to love.

Check out the Queen or Rockabilly making it work, live on Letterman:

9. Michael Giles, In The Moment.

Imagine my delight when, hot on the heels of fighting for my right to party like a prog-rock fan (see the list that aroused more concern than solidarity here), and diving deep into the Devil’s Triangle with my review of King Crimson’s remarkable In The Wake of Poseidon, I received a message from original KC drummer Michael Giles. It’s always gratifying to have one’s writing affirmed by artists one admires, but there was more important news to receive. Did I know Giles was still making music? I did not. Was I aware that he had a new album? I was not. Flash forward a few weeks later. It’s one thing to want to like an album by an artist you admire; it’s quite another to genuinely be impressed by it. My full review is here. Here is the good news, succinctly:

Still, it’s cause for rejoicing to see a gentleman past retirement age who not only refuses to retire, but provides an example any of us, regardless of our age, would do well to emulate. Personal appearance, for better or worse, is often less than half the story (and the least important half) when it comes to art and the people who make it, but the fact that Giles looks about half his age speaks volumes. Checking out recent pictures or catching some videos of his band in action make it abundantly clear that this is one geezer whose body and mind are very much intact. If that sounds vaguely patronizing, once again consider the physical and mental states of most of the people who made music in the early ‘70s.

How to describe the sounds? It’s minimalist without being subdued (a signal of extreme confidence) and deliberate without being forced. Giles and Pennie provide rhythmic framework and Chivers and Tippett splash and spray the canvass with color and light. Sometimes the roles reverse and frequently all four are increasing the energy or unwinding the agitation in unison. The result is a series of industrial, percussion-based landscapes. There is an assortment of purposeful clinging and clanging with carefully orchestrated guitar-fueled tension. It occasionally resembles a ruckus but it’s a syncopated ruckus. This, at times, is a musical equivalent of getting in the car and driving, not figuring out where you are until you get there. In the hands of indulgent or untalented hacks, this is a recipe for sonic atrocity; with experts behind the wheel the journey is enjoyable as it is unpredictable.

At times it could almost be called free jazz (the horror?) or even free rock (the horror!) but it works. Suffice it to say, this is not for people who need a beat created by computers, or vocals extolling the virtues of expensive products. In other words this is art. Possibly even art for art’s sake. Imagine that. And enter at your own peril.

8. Garage a Trois: Always Be Happy, But Stay Evil

2011 gave me two chances to meditate on the awesomeness of Skerik. First, I was obliged to rave about his new release with The Dead Kenny G’s (I know!) and this is how I sum up my feelings about the man and his music:

I have a dream: If I could get some of what I envision, we would live in a world where peace, love, and understanding wasn’t funny. The Wall Street miscreants and the super-sized weasels enabling their machinations would be having a house party in the Big House. Reality TV would not be real, and Oprah Winfrey would be unable to infantilize millions of women looking for enlightenment in all the wrong places. A modicum of the bilious exhaust Rupert Murdoch spews would back-up and cause him to explode like a Spinal Tap drummer. Electric cars, solar panels, and science would be accepted (and venerated) the way billionaires, right-wing prophets, and camera-ready politicians are in our scared new world. A lot of other things, obviously, but not least of these that jazz musicians would get the attention American Idol contestants receive. In this right-side up society, Skerik would be a household name.

The rest of that review is here.

Next, I had the opportunity to quickly fall in love with the latest Garage a Trois project. That review is here. Here are the key takeaways:

Between Benevento’s swarm of sounds and Skerik’s patented saxophonic stylings, it is not always possible to determine which instruments are doing what, but, of course, it doesn’t matter. These guys are tinkerers, but they are also masterful technicians; as always, to expand on convention generally presumes a certain level of mastery. To make music that sounds like this (and nothing else sounds like this), you have to not only know how it will sound, but how to make those sounds.

That last point might get to the heart of what makes this particular incarnation of Garage A Trois so powerful. Skerik has spent more than a decade whittling away at jazz (and musical) cliché, cultivating a unique and rewarding approach. There is not really anyone else out there who can encroach on the territory he’s created for himself and his various ensembles. Add the prodigiously, almost frighteningly talented Benevento—another musician who has worked hard and had a lot of fun obliterating the typical rules of engagement—and we have two of the more audacious iconoclasts on the scene.

It’s always difficult, to varying degrees, to try and describe music in a way that is both honest and accurate. How, ultimately, can you choose words to reflect a form of expression that purposefully eschews spoken language? You are entitled, if not obliged, to report what types of feelings and images the sounds evoke, and if you are familiar with the artists’ aesthetic, you can reasonably offer some suggestions of what they may be after. It is still, in the end, a hopelessly inadequate way of articulating what Garage A Trois pulls off yet again. Perhaps the most efficient strategy would be to say, simply and urgently: you need this shit.

7. Mogwai, Harcore Will Never Die But You Will

Special props to a band that manages to retain the sound that they made distinctive, but remain uninterested in recycling the same old sludge, even though certain fans would clearly lap it up. Indeed, there are a lot of people out there who damn Mogwai with faint praise, claiming that they’ll never match their debut album. Two things for these idiots. One, it will never be 1997 again and some of us are happy about that for musical and aesthetic reasons. Two, with more than a half-dozen proper albums under their belts, Mogwai has been playing long ball, steadily and confidently amassing a catalog that any band with integrity would be pleased to imitate.

Did any album in 2011 have a better title? I think not. (And for anyone new to Mogwai: how can you not get behind a band that made an album about French football genius Zidane, or sold t-shirts that declared “Blur Are Shite”?)

All the wonderful things about these Scottish noise architects still abound: the Sonic Youth meets My Bloody Valentine wall of guitar bliss, the slow burn of compositions that stretch out but never meander, and the sense of release that a complete listen imparts. These are not musicians who string a handful of songs together; there is a destination they are working toward and once again they slither, crawl and occasionally blaze a path that ends up exactly where they meant to go. If you get on board, once the last notes of the (wonderfully titled) closer “You’re Lionel Richie” play out, you understand you are exactly where you were meant to go as well.

6. Opeth, Heritage

What are two things everyone can agree on? Prog rock and Swedish death metal, obviously.

But seriously folks. Opeth has steadily been building a career, and bringing everyone along with them. Each of their previous albums in the last decade has seemed to edge them closer to what they finally pull off with Heritage. That is to say, a fully convincing, arresting and occasionally awe-inspiring work. They’ve retained their elemental darkness without smoothing out the edges, but the sound seems more expansive and, for lack of a better word, engaging. None of which is to suggest this is easily approachable or in any way a watered-down reduction of their previous work (although there are always haters for whom the past tense reigns supreme). It is evident that a significant amount of attention and obsession went into the making of this album, and it should be remembered as one of the more ambitious, yet enchanting releases of the year.

This is an album that should make an immediate impression but as is often the case with worthwhile art, the more time you spend with it the more return you’ll get on your investment. For anyone who hears the word “metal” and runs in the other direction, always remember that labels are (often) ludicrous and an open mind is the pathway to redemption. Put another way, check this out:

And in case you were concerned that this one doesn’t rock out, don’t be silly (and in case you’ve forgotten, God is dead!) :

To be cont’d…

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Five Songs From 2011

Here are five songs from albums that did not make my personal Top 10 for 2011 (stay tuned for that list…):

5. Gary Clark, Jr: “Bright Lights Big City”.

This is a live version of the title track from his EP.

Having read and heard about him throughout the year, and seeing the goods in living colour on YouTube (check out the evidence here), I was dutifully impressed when I picked up the Bright Lights EP. But I am here to tell you, having seen him just this past weekend at a tiny venue: this dude is the realest of deals. I will be extremely surprised if 2012 is not a breakout year for him, and it can’t come soon enough. Word to the wise: if you have a chance to see him live, do it. You will regret it if you don’t, because he won’t be playing small venues too much longer.

4. Florence & The Machine: “Strangeness and Charm”.

Lots of hype here, and this new album does a half-decent job living up to it. If it’s a tad over-produced and all over the place at times, it is also audacious and totally unique. And the young and very sexy Florence Welch has an epic set of pipes. On this song I find her/their approach fully satisfying, as it evokes the best of ’80s pop and cuts it with a bleeding-edge sensibility. I hear Kate Bush; I hear Siouxsie Sioux; I am getting some Bjork and even some P.J. Harvey, all funneled through a Fiery Furnaces meets early MTV vibe. But mostly I am hearing –and feeling– the siren song of a wonderfully strange and charming new talent.

3. Mastodon, “Black Tongue”.

I wrote, happily, about this band in 2009 when they had their coming-out party into the semi-mainstream with Crack The Skye. Here is some of what I had to say: Some men let their freak flags fly. Some men get tatted up and sport full arm sleeves. Other men get tattoos on their fucking foreheads. (Whatever else you can say about Brent Hinds, he does not have commitment issues: inking your forehead is commitment; he’s like a head-banging Queequeg.) You only do shit like that if you are in this for the duration, which means that half-stepping is simply not an option. Either that or you’ve done a lot of drugs. Looking at the dudes in this band, you know it is all of the above. And then you listen to them. These guys somehow balance a full-on testosterone assault with brilliant writing and playing (and singing, as most of the members share the vocals at times), and deliver a product that is both thoughtful and bruising.

For me, their latest, The Hunter, is a bit all over the place (not in a good way) and seems more haphazard then inspired, but you can’t accuse these guys of faking it. They come out en fuego on the opening track, “Black Tongue”. On one hand, too bad the entire album isn’t this great; on the other hand, the band may have combusted if they attempted to maintain this intensity for a full session. These cats are music as cage match: every man for himself with all instruments and vocals brawling to come out alive. This is art as confrontation; love it or loathe it, you cannot be indifferent to Mastodon.

2. Tom Waits, “Talking at the Same Time”.

His last one, Real Gone, cracked my Top 50 of the previous decade. Seven years is a long time to wait between albums, so anticipation –and expectations– ran high for the follow-up, Bad As Me. I find some of it consistent with everything I love about Waits (the eccentricity, the honesty, and the guitar of Marc Ribot), I find some of it random or worse, and I find too much of it a horse that’s been beaten well-past submission. The Captain Beefheart affectations are tolerable in small-to-moderate doses, but anytime you spend too much time thinking of another artist that’s seldom a good sign. But what do I know: many of the faithful (for whom, admittedly, Waits can do no wrong) thought this album was yet another masterpiece. I’m not feeling it, but I am certainly grateful that this American icon is refusing to age gracefully.

1. Paul Simon, “Love and Blesssings”.

Another one that had some people saying Simon hasn’t lost his fastball and other people saying “Who is Paul Simon?”

Okay, no one would ever say that. Although you can’t fault the younger generation for looking at Simon, who is aging with neither the charm nor the hairline of Tom Waits, and wonder why he is wearing so much make-up these days. (And has he had work done? Is he trying to avoid looking like Grandpa from The Munsters or is that what he’s going for? Either way he should just accept that he was never much of a looker in the first place and age like a man. Ease off on the powder, pal; you wrote “I Am A Rock” for Christ’s sake…)

Anyway, the new album is, to quote Larry David: Pretty…pretty…pretty…pretty…pretty good.

I am pleased that Simon is still inspired and on a song like “Love and Blessings” he proves that he still has it going on (and major props for sampling “Golden Gate Gospel Train” by the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet).

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

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

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

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

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

50. Beach House, Devotion (2008)

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

48. Hope Sandoval, Bavarian Fruit Bread (2001)

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

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

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

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

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

46. Kid Koala, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (2000)

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

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


45. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes (2008)

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

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

44. Tom Waits, Real Gone (2004)

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

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

43. Bjork, Medulla (2004)

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

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

42. Vernon Reid, Other True Self (2006)

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

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

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

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

An admonishment: Get it.

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

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

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

41. Dan Auerbach, Keep It Hid (2009)

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

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Top 50 Albums of the Decade, Part One

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

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

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

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

50. Beach House, Devotion (2008)

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

48. Hope Sandoval, Bavarian Fruit Bread (2001)

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

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

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

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

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

46. Kid Koala, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (2000)

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

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

45. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes (2008)

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

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

44. Tom Waits, Real Gone (2004)

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

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

43. Bjork, Medulla (2004)

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

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

42. Vernon Reid, Other True Self (2006)

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

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

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

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

An admonishment: Get it.

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

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

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

41. Dan Auerbach, Keep It Hid (2009)

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

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2000-2009: Let’s Break It Down


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

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

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

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

Spooks, “Things I’ve Seen” (2000):

 

PJ Harvey, “Big Exit” (2000):

 

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

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

Oysterhead, “Shadow Of A Man” (2001):

The Roots, “The Seed 2.0” (2002):

Neko Case, “Deep Red Bells” (2002):

DJ Shadow, “Fixed Income” (2002):

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

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

OutKast, “Hey Ya!” (2003):

Tom Waits, “Hoist That Rag” (2004):

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

The Black Keys, “The Lengths” (2004):

To Be Cont’d…

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