Living Colour’s ‘Stain’: 19 Years Ago Today

Confession: I would not have known this album was released 19 years ago today if not for Vernon Reid’s Facebook post. But I’m glad I saw it, because it gives me an opportunity to talk about it. In fact, I took the opportunity to talk about Stain last summer for my PopMatters feature 10 Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Don’t) (link here).

19 years ago: I remember exactly where I was. Grad school. In my snug Resident Advisor room hunkered down trying to read 100 books in one calendar year (I exaggerate, but not by much). Suffice it to say, money was tight. But then, as now, I’d give up food for music, and when Living Colour’s third album dropped, there was no question that it had to be acquired. (Obligatory reminder for today’s whipper-snappers: this was not only way before the digital era of samplers and/or online stealing, this was when compact discs cost a disgusting amount of money.)

I loved Vivid and I really loved Time’s Up (which I’d put on the short list of the decade’s best). After what seemed an interminable wait for my hungry ears, I could not have been more excited to slap this baby in the machine. And…I hated it. At least the first few times. I wasn’t ready for it; I simply was not prepared for this sonic assault. It was abrasive, unapologetic and angry. Just the inside photo of the band was frightening: these were some bad-ass motherfuckers. This, I asked myself, is how you follow up the sophomore masterpiece that landed you on the cover of Rolling Stone? Within a week or so my mind adjusted and I understood: the answer was affirmative. Of course this is how you do it. They were making the music they wanted to make. Like any band with integrity, they were making the music they had to make. Pretty simple, really. And, like so many albums I’ve come to cherish, it was impossible to get an accurate read during the first several spins. Certainly, some music reveals itself, immediately, as masterful and it’s love at first listen. But so many challenging, worthwhile albums require you to embrace them on their terms, no compromise or equivocation.

Stain is not only a brilliant album, it’s –especially with the benefit of hindsight– very much an album of its time: there are the inexorable nods to grunge (this was 1993, after all), and a musical/lyrical reaction to the social issues of the day (this era, lest we forget, was an uneasy cauldron of racial tensions, coming in between the 1992 Republican Convention, Rodney King and the cultural clusterfuck of the O.J. Simpson trial). Stain is a prescient album in several regards: on one hand, Clinton had been inaugurated less than two months before, ending a 12 year Republican stranglehold: life was good again, right? Right. Except for the fact that so much was wrong. As impossible as it may be to recall, this was a time where racial matters (see: Rodney King, etc.) and sexual preference (see: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the political debacle that turned into) where still toxic, third-rail type distractions. Of course, Clinton’s unsuccessful attempt to reform Health Care proved that America was simply not ready to act in its collective best interest (some things never change, right?). Put in more stark terms, 1993 was a year when Chevy Chase had his own talk show. Needless to say, America was a very confused place in many regards.

Here’s the thing: so much music made in the early ’90s sounds astonishingly dated, and the copycat impulse was in full effect –everyone wanted to sound like they came out of Seattle. A little bit of that went a long way. And while, as already acknowledged, Living Colour certainly tipped their creative caps to what was going on around them, they were also carving out a deep, dark sound that still sounds, well, vivid, almost two full decades on. Even though they did not go on to own the decade, like they may have, they sort of did anyway.

My assessment of the album, from this summer, is below.

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

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


So what’s not to love? Well, for one thing, this is definitely not a flawless record. A handful of songs, like “Ignorance is Bliss” and “This Little Pig” are rather paint-by-number—not to mention lyrically clichéd. Some of the songs, like “Postman” and “Never Satisfied” may have just been too severe for the delicate ears of alternative rock fans, circa 1993. Some of the songs may have been a bit too much, like the disorienting “Hemp” or the mirthfully provocative “Bi”. And none of the remaining songs were destined to be radio hits, and little on this album is as user-friendly as most of the material on the first two albums. Take it or leave it: no other band on the planet could ever make a song like “Wall”, which is capable of shaking you, making you smile and seeing the world with new ears.
All of which may explain why this one did not help Living Colour become the most popular and influential band of the ‘90s, which they would/could/should have been. Even for fans who got it, then, and endorse it now,Stain is a grueling, confrontational album, and one that leaves the listener more than a little exhausted. These are the types of albums that are considered uncompromising, courageous, even ahead of their time. They are also the types of albums that don’t sell a ton of copies or necessarily convert new fans. “WTFF”, indeed.

By the way, I should also have mentioned that the tour for this album, in summer of ’93, produced one of THE best live performances I’ve ever seen.

It was an appropriately hot (I mean steaming hot) evening, and the venue was the old WUST Arena (now the relocated 9:30 Club), which was located in a sketchy part of town. The venue was small, tight and absolutely crammed with fans. Keep in mind: this was 1993 so the mosh-pit craze was in full (and annoying) effect, which meant that what would/should have been the first 10-15 rows were necessarily allocated to shirtless d-bags doing the man dance. Nevertheless, the band was in killer form and the set, which drew heavily –and appropriately– from Stain was scorching. It was a revelation to actually watch each of these artists do their thing: the lanky Wimbish manhandling his bass, Calhoun beating the drums within an inch of their lives, and Reid locked and loaded, effusing cool and gritty elan. But Corey Glover, who had by this time shorn his dreads and (wisely) retired his body-suits, was the main attraction. Dude was en fuego: snarling and prowling the stage and (this was 1993) doing copious stage dives. At one point he shimmied up one of the speaker towers and, I am not exaggerating because I was in the upper deck, at least twenty feet above the floor and was essentially eye-to-eye with him for a few seconds, just dropped into the crowd. They caught him, of course. But that was just balls. It wasn’t like he said “Catch me” or made some big dramatic overture before diving; he just got up and then got the fuck down. But the crowd was there for him.

I was soaked through by the time the gig was over, and aside from the sweat, beer and blood (figuratively speaking, from 20 feet up) those 9o minutes were more like a prizefight than a concert. I’ve seldom seen a band more focused and intense and, as I drove home that night, I really did think they were about to take over the world. Like I said, they sort of did anyway.

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We Shall Overcome

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

–Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963)

*This should be required reading not merely for al Americans, but for anyone who claims to call themselves human. Check it here.

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

7. Living Colour, Stain (1993)

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

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

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

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

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14 Songs For Turning 41

To know the man, get to know his music. (Or, to paraphrase Al Pacino in Serpico, “If you love the man’s music, you have to love the man!”)

There are thousands of songs that I could choose; songs that elevate above the others and, in some ways, speak to me, or speak for me, or speak to things that I am unable to speak convincingly about. These are some of those songs, and they are all deeply connected with what I hope are the better angels of what I’m capable of being or even imagining.

Abdullah Ibrahim: “Mandela”:

Booker Little: “Opening Statement”:

Mozart, Symphony No 36 “Linz”, 2nd Movement (conducted by Karl Bohm):

Herbie Hancock: “Tell Me A Bedtime Story”:

Charles Mingus: “Orange Was The Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk”:

Roky Erickson: “Unforced Peace”:

The Who: “I’m One”:

The Congos: “Open Up The Gates”:

Jimi Hendrix: “Pali Gap”:

Vernon Reid (et al): “Up From The Skies”:

Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins: “Supreme Love Dance”:

Khan Jamal: “The Known Unknown”:

Freddie Hubbard: “Here’s That Rainy Day”:

Gabriel Faure: “Requiem, Op 48, IV (Pie Jesu), (performed by Oxford Camerata)

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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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Heart Full of Soul: The Return of Living Colour

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The rumors of Living Colour’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. They are back, but perhaps more to the point, they were never really gone. The Chair in the Doorway, their fifth official album in 21 years, should not lead anyone to conclude that this band is rock music’s Rip Van Winkle. None of them have been sleeping: they seem to disappear for extended siestas, only to return enervated and voracious. Of course, as more committed fans are well aware, these interminable hiatuses (this release represents only the second album of original material since 1993’s Stain) are a mixed blessing. If the guys had gotten their acts together, so to speak, would we have been treated to more classic efforts in this past decade or so? Certainly. But then, would we have gotten the bounty of solo projects—all interesting, some essential—that the individual musicians have dropped? Probably not. On balance, the collected works represent the best of both worlds.

The good news is that The Chair in the Doorway is exquisite enough to make casual fans lament the ostensibly lost time. Those fans are encouraged to make an effort getting acquainted with the considerable blessings contained in works like Trippy Notes for Bass (Doug Wimbish), Native Lands (Will Calhoun), Hymns (Corey Glover), and the gamut of Vernon Reid releases (especially Mistaken Identity and Other True Self).

While 2003’s Collideoscope was a welcome if uneven release (“Song Without Sin”, “A ? of When” and “Operation: Mind Control” are excellent additions to the Living Colour canon; the unfortunate cover of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” not so much), The Chair in the Doorway represents more than a return to form. Something about contemporary cataclysms seem to serve as a call to action for this band: Collideoscope was very much a post-9/11 statement, and many of the songs on The Chair in the Doorway sound like a wrathful response to last year’s Wall Street fiasco.

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To assert that the band has still got it going on is a given (check out this album), and to confirm that they remain one of the more powerful live acts on the planet is simple (catch them in concert). The arithmetic is actually rather straightforward: take three ridiculously accomplished and ambitious musicians, add one of the most expressive and naturally gifted singers of his generation, and genius follows like a happy shadow. Put another way, it would require serious effort for Living Colour to underwhelm, they are that good.

As if to squash any potential misgivings (are these cats too old? can these guys still rock?), the band comes out blazing on “Burned Bridges”: after a slow-boiling techno-esque introduction, the song explodes. Calhoun and Wimbish lock into a boot-stomping groove, and Glover sings with a healthy chip on his shoulder, snarls echoing into the soaring chorus. Like any effective album opener, this one sets a tone, and that tone is menacing but ultimately cathartic.

And then there is Vernon Reid. At this point, every note he plays adds to a body of work that justifies his name being mentioned in any discussion of all-time great axemen. Reid was already a man amongst boys when Living Colour broke through in the late ‘80s, and he has never stopped absorbing and innovating, crafting a technique that is virtually all-encompassing. For anyone who might assume that wisdom and experience have mellowed him out, have no fear: Vernon still shreds like a cheese grater. Practically every second of every song bears Reid’s imprint: ear-popping virtuosity (the solos are short, sharp shocks of grin-inducing bliss) and layer upon layer of nuanced, ceaselessly articulate cries and whispers. Reid has always employed a more-is-more M.O., in part because his guitar is such an obvious extension of his ever busy brain, yet he can say more in a few perfectly chiseled seconds than most players can manage in an entire tune. Those moments unfold in a continuous stream over the course of these 11 songs.

It is immediately apparent (and reinforced after subsequent listens) that the band put considerable thought into this album. Everything from the order of the songs to the production sounds like the result of a shared vision and a near-perfect plan. A few words about the production: having heard much of this material live a couple of weeks before receiving the disc, it seems apparent that the band sought to harness their ferocious sound without taming it. The songs were scorching in person, and while the sparks certainly fly throughout the recorded versions, there is a certain feeling unifying the proceedings. The finished product is fresh and clean, but retains an abrasiveness that gives it a most welcome edge. As ever, Living Colour’s cauldron bubbles over with rock, soul, hip-hop, metal, blues and their own idiosyncratic expression, a heart full of soul.

For an album that resonates with testimonies of lessons learned (“That’s What You Taught Me”) and self-explanatory smackdowns (“DecaDance”, “Hard Times”, “Out of My Mind”), there is a typical—and expected—air of adventure and variety throughout. Highlights include the fresh but filthy blues romp “Bless Those”, the almost slo-mo funk freak-out “Method” (one of Glover’s finest moments), and the final track “Not Tomorrow”, which, improbably, manages to sound urgent and subdued, like time’s really up. The shining light burns brightest on the album’s succinct statement of purpose, “The Chair”. It’s all over in two minutes and change, but it stays with you: the muted and compressed guitar intro recalls “Information Overload” (from Time’s Up), while the uneasy vibe recalls the nervous malaise of Stain. The final result, quite simply, is a composition that only Living Colour could create, circa 2009. There is so much going on here, so many sounds cresting toward a disorienting momentum, it feels like being pulled out to sea in a current of quicksand.

It is right, then, to celebrate the return of a beloved band. It is also appropriate to acknowledge that, five albums in, Living Colour has solidified their standing as one of the most consistent, original and important bands America has produced. There’s little left to say: kick the chair out of the doorway and get this essential album into your life, immediately.

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Information Overload: A User’s Guide

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Today is Information Overload Awareness Day

Information Overload Awareness Day (www.informationoverloadday.com) is a new workplace observance to be held on Aug. 12 that calls attention to the problem of information overload and how it impacts both individuals and organizations. The cost of the half-day online inaugural event is $50; attendees who promise not to multitask (i.e., instant message, email, or text) during the event will receive a 50% discount.  The problem that costs the U.S. economy $900 billion per year in lower productivity and throttled innovation, according to research from Basex (www.basex.com). (For more information, see story here.)

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Two things:

One, who knew there was actually a day dedicated to information overload? Particularly when, these days, every day is information overload. I actually contemplated this concept in some detail a few months ago (a post well worth revisiting if for no other reason than to enjoy the Kids in the Hall skit).

Two, when I hear the words “information overload” I invariably think of the song by the great Living Colour: Vernon Reid, one of the overlooked guitar gods of the last 20 years, absolutely shreds on this song.

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Enjoy The Silence

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What he said.

(But he didn’t say anything…)

Exactly.

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Song of the Day: Up from the Skies

Really no commentary necessary.

Jimi Hendrix. Vernon Reid. Enough said.

I’m smart enough to just get out of the way and enjoy.

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