File Under: Man’s Inhumanity to Man (Revisited)

This hurts my heart and devastates my soul.

It makes me furious and leaves me deeply distressed. And with a helplessness that at once causes me to question my belief in humanity and at the same time feel radically energized knowing all we have done, and are still capable of doing.

Story HERE, but the long and short of it is thus: legend and one-time mayor of Niafunke, Ali Farka Touré’s music is now banned in Mali. Worse, all music is currently banned because of the backward, self-hating, world-affronting imbecility of the religious sociopaths who are further defaming their centuries old Muslim religion. (More on the practical imbalance –in human terms– of all religions, another time.)

Here’s the long and short of this disgrace:

Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda have banned everything they deem to be against Sharia, or Islamic law. “They are destroying our culture,” says another of Mali’s most famous singers, Salif Keita. He is currently back home in Mali, preparing for a world tour to accompany the release of his latest album.”If there’s no music, no Timbuktu, it means that there is no more culture in Mali,” he adds, sitting in the grounds of his home on the small island he owns on the river Niger outside the capital, Bamako. Keita is referring to the destruction in June of the ancient shrines in Timbuktu’s mosques. The buildings were Unesco World Heritage Sites but considered by the Islamists to be idolatrous.

Father of the astonishingly gifted Vieux Farke Touré (whom I’ve gushed about HERE), Ali was not just Mali’s greatest artistic ambassador, he was (is) Mali. The unique sound he developed, over decades, brought this culture and artistry to the rest of the world, and it remains instructive to hear the deep connection between African “desert” blues and the earliest field hollers that birthed an American idiom. (As ever, art showing us how alike we are, and when stripped bare of possessions, petty grievances and misplaced emotions, we crave similar things and find resonating ways to express our joys and sorrows.)

I am genuinely humbled that I had the opportunity to see him perform, in an intimate venue, during the scorching hot summer of 2000. It remains one of the most moving and spiritual evenings of music I’ve witnessed. (“If I don’t see you again, I’ll see you all in heaven,” he said before he left the stage.) When I consider he’s gone, it always saddens me, but I can –and often do– listen to his music and it inspires me. The thought of him being silenced, by craven fanatics, in his homeland, is insufferable. It is an insult to life, a thumb in the eye of evolution and a brazen act of disobedience against the very God these bullies and brutes ostensibly worship. It is an intolerable act that we must not abide.

I’ve written about him HERE, and I considered his (solo) swan song, Savane one of the 50 best albums of the last decade (more on that list HERE). Here is what I had to say, in 2010:

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

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

Priceless footage from those last sessions, HERE.

Writing about the posthumous release of his second –and final– collaboration with the brilliant Toumani Diabaté, I concluded my review thusly:

This is a deep, darkly beautiful work. The interplay between these two men is exceedingly rare in any type of music. Ali and Toumani is profound and powerful, with a soft accumulating force, like the individual drips of ice that form a river. This desert music is very much like the desert itself: it is expansive and immutable, and it will endure.

That sentiment is stronger than ever, and the truth of this statement is unassailable. No puny, pathetic human beings with hate choking their hearts will be able to silence this music for long. One thing is certain, this music will be living long after these forgettable cowards are long gone, blown back into the earth that they defiled.

*The image at the top of this post, incidentally, is the statue that purpotedly inspired Ozymandias, taken from the immortal poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

I will continue to cherish and celebrate the man and his music as long as I’m alive. I encourage you to do the same: acquire it, enjoy it, spread it around, and do your part to help LOVE defeat HATE.

Share

File Under: Man’s Inhumanity to Man

This hurts my heart and devastates my soul.

It makes me furious and leaves me deeply distressed. And with a helplessness that at once causes me to question my belief in humanity and at the same time feel radically energized knowing all we have done, and are still capable of doing.

Story HERE, but the long and short of it is thus: legend and one-time mayor of Niafunke, Ali Farka Touré’s music is now banned in Mali. Worse, all music is currently banned because of the backward, self-hating, world-affronting imbecility of the religious sociopaths who are further defaming their centuries old Muslim religion. (More on the practical imbalance –in human terms– of all religions, another time.)

Here’s the long and short of this disgrace:

Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda have banned everything they deem to be against Sharia, or Islamic law. “They are destroying our culture,” says another of Mali’s most famous singers, Salif Keita. He is currently back home in Mali, preparing for a world tour to accompany the release of his latest album.”If there’s no music, no Timbuktu, it means that there is no more culture in Mali,” he adds, sitting in the grounds of his home on the small island he owns on the river Niger outside the capital, Bamako. Keita is referring to the destruction in June of the ancient shrines in Timbuktu’s mosques. The buildings were Unesco World Heritage Sites but considered by the Islamists to be idolatrous.

Father of the astonishingly gifted Vieux Farke Touré (whom I’ve gushed about HERE), Ali was not just Mali’s greatest artistic ambassador, he was (is) Mali. The unique sound he developed, over decades, brought this culture and artistry to the rest of the world, and it remains instructive to hear the deep connection between African “desert” blues and the earliest field hollers that birthed an American idiom. (As ever, art showing us how alike we are, and when stripped bare of possessions, petty grievances and misplaced emotions, we crave similar things and find resonating ways to express our joys and sorrows.)

I am genuinely humbled that I had the opportunity to see him perform, in an intimate venue, during the scorching hot summer of 2000. It remains one of the most moving and spiritual evenings of music I’ve witnessed. (“If I don’t see you again, I’ll see you all in heaven,” he said before he left the stage.) When I consider he’s gone, it always saddens me, but I can –and often do– listen to his music and it inspires me. The thought of him being silenced, by craven fanatics, in his homeland, is insufferable. It is an insult to life, a thumb in the eye of evolution and a brazen act of disobedience against the very God these bullies and brutes ostensibly worship. It is an intolerable act that we must not abide.

I’ve written about him HERE, and I considered his (solo) swan song, Savane one of the 50 best albums of the last decade (more on that list HERE). Here is what I had to say, in 2010:

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

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

Priceless footage from those last sessions, HERE.

Writing about the posthumous release of his second –and final– collaboration with the brilliant Toumani Diabaté, I concluded my review thusly:

This is a deep, darkly beautiful work. The interplay between these two men is exceedingly rare in any type of music. Ali and Toumani is profound and powerful, with a soft accumulating force, like the individual drips of ice that form a river. This desert music is very much like the desert itself: it is expansive and immutable, and it will endure.

That sentiment is stronger than ever, and the truth of this statement is unassailable. No puny, pathetic human beings with hate choking their hearts will be able to silence this music for long. One thing is certain, this music will be living long after these forgettable cowards are long gone, blown back into the earth that they defiled.

*The image at the top of this post, incidentally, is the statue that purpotedly inspired Ozymandias, taken from the immortal poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

I will continue to cherish and celebrate the man and his music as long as I’m alive. I encourage you to do the same: acquire it, enjoy it, spread it around, and do your part to help LOVE defeat HATE.

Share

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

40. Cornershop, Handcream For A Generation (2002)

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

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

 

39. Tomahawk, Tomahawk (2001)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

A violin/accordion duo? Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34. Sigur Ros: ( ) (2002)

Popul Vuh meets Bjork, only more so.

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

33. Wax Poetic, Nublu Sessions (2003)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 50 Albums of the Decade, Part Two

40. Cornershop, Handcream For A Generation (2002)

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

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

 

39. Tomahawk, Tomahawk (2001)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

A violin/accordion duo? Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34. Sigur Ros: ( ) (2002)

Popul Vuh meets Bjork, only more so.

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

33. Wax Poetic, Nublu Sessions (2003)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Verdict Is In: Top 10 of 2009

elvo

Let’s do this.

1o. Mastodon: Crack The Skye

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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. 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 cats 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. Like many bands that eventually become excellent, Mastodon has spent some time working on their sound and style and 2009 is the mainstream coming-out party. It’s been fantastic to see these guys on several best-of lists this year. Unlike too many of their compatriots, they actually deserve it.

 

9. Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions: Through The Devil Softly

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To quote myself from a few months back: I’d love to take credit for prompting the return of Hope Sandoval after an eight year absence — a circumstance I lamented earlier this year. Little did heartsick homeboys like me know she was already wrapping up work on her second album, the recently-released (and highly recommended) Through The Devil Softly. She is touring now, so catch her if you can. I was delighted to discover that she was appearing in D.C. at the historic 6th and I Synagogue: I finally had the opportunity to see Hope Sandoval sing (!) in an intimate venue (!!) performing new music (!!!). She did not disappoint. And, as has been well documented over the years, her shyness is not an act. Or, it’s a very successful act: the only words she uttered for the entirety of her performance were “Thank you” once the concert ended. No encore, no fanfare, no problem. We weren’t there to hear her speak; we were there to hear her sing. And just see her, in person. And, for the record, she is as beautiful as ever. So…this album would get sentimental points toward Top 10 inclusion just by virtue of being made, but as it turns out, it’s a pretty fantastic record. So there.

 

8. James Blackshaw: The Glass Bead Game

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It is lamentable (if typical) that a young musician this good is still flying under the radar. With the release of The Glass Bead Game, it seems somewhat safer to predict that more people will begin to hear what they’ve been missing. Blackshaw is making music that is necessarily “out of time” (unless solo acoustic workouts suddenly become all the rage) but the upside here –and it’s crucial to stress that this is quite clearly not a commercially-driven calculation– is that this type of music is intrinsically timeless, in its way. Blackshaw’s compositions certainly articulate a contemporary vision, but (like John Fahey, with whom his work inevitably draws favorable comparison) one imagines something deeper and more distant; not the past per se but the way we think when we are prompted to think about the past.

Although he is quite capable, when playing solo, of arresting and beautiful work, his recent inclusion of other instruments (on this effort the violin and cello accompaniment is augmented by Blackshaw’s own, not unimpressive, piano playing) is a shrewd move: the sound is, obviously, bigger, but it’s also deeper and reaches closer to the clear profundity his earlier work attained in more stark (but never austere) terms. While his initial releases (again, inexorably) drew comparisons to everyone from the aforementioned John Fahey to Robbie Basho and Leo Kottke, Blackshaw has already developed a discernible style and he brings a rustic, British sensibility to his compositions. This guy should be around for a very long time.

 

7. Sunn O))): Monoliths & Dimensions

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Scary. Serious. Sludge. Sadistic. Slow. Silly. Sonic boom. Soul. Sick. Sunn O))).

6. Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest

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There’s not much I can say here that several dozen critics won’t be saying (albeit more breathlessly and unanimously) in the days ahead. The bottom line is –and there is no getting around it– this is one of the best albums of the year, and these young men are almost offensively talented. You don’t just write songs like this and sing like that. Unless…you write songs like this and sing like that. There are more than a handful of flavors-of-the-year topping all the cool lists this year that everyone knows will be stale next year and forgotten the year after. This one, it seems quite easy to predict, will be around for the long haul, for all the right reasons.

5. Neko Case: Middle Cyclone

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There was no way she could top Fox Confessor Brings The Flood and no one was asking her to. I wasn’t anyway. She is getting to Ella Fitzgerald territory (to invoke the cliche that I believe was first used in Ella’s honor: she could sing names out of the phonebook with a broken jaw and it would still sound sweeter than anyone else), and there is little she can do at this point to disappoint. Long may she sound her siren song(s). I remain smitten and unashamed to celebrate it.

4. Vieux Farka Touré: Fondo

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About half-way through the year I wrote about Fondo, Vieux Farka Touré’s follow-up to his remarkable self-titled debut. Half a year later, it has not lost even a little of its luster; indeed, it has accrued additional value, and this is one to cherish –now and for the future. Here is a quick summation of what I said in June:

Word to the wise: get on board the Vieux Farka Touré bandwagon now. Not so you can be hip or prepared to drop his name at a cocktail party (for one thing, no one would listen to this music at a cocktail party, and more importantly, who goes to cocktail parties?) or for any reason that would behoove Starbucks to put this disc in their stores. No, the best reason to acquaint yourself with Vieux Farka Touré is because he is a surpassingly brilliant young musician who, if we are fortunate, has a long and productive career ahead of him. Nobody seems to agree on what “world music” actually means, which is probably not such a bad thing. It might suffice to suggest that “world music” is the sort made outside the States, likely sung in a different language and unlikely to yield traditional hit singles. In other words, music that involves actual instruments played with some degree of proficiency by sentient beings. Anyone with a moderately open mind might find Fondo, the followup to Touré’s eponymous (and astounding) debut, a very welcome antidote for the myriad of overproduced and underwhelming product being pumped out for mass consumption.

3. Living Colour: The Chair In The Doorway

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I’m going to take the liberty of quoting my recent PopMatters review, because I can (and should):

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 good news is that The Chair in the Doorway is exquisite enough to make casual fans lament the ostensibly lost time. Something about contemporary cataclysms seem to serve as a call to action for this band: Collideoscope (2003) 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. 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. 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. 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.

2. Dan Auerbach: Keep It Hid

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2009 had barely begun when I signed up to review this release, and expectations were, shall we say, somewhat stratospheric, considering that the album Dan dropped (along with the tag-team partner in his “day job” as The Black Keys), Attack & Release, was arguably the best of 2008. This was followed by a top-notch DVD documenting the subsequent A&R tour (which killed). So when word spread that the indefatigable Auerbach had already recorded a solo album, well, it was difficult to expect too much. Incredibly, it turns out that Keep It Hid was pretty close to an out-and-out masterpiece. Go figure. Here is what I had to say about the matter about ten months ago. If you’re not trying to read the whole rapturous review, here are some highlights:

What’s the story behind all this superhuman productivity? Auerbach has stated that, quite simply, he never stops working. Equal parts driven and inspired, it made all the sense in the world for him to build his own studio. Akron Analog, named after his hometown and preferred method of recording, is where he began assembling the rough cuts, mostly written during recent tours, into the songs that came together as Keep It Hid. This is not a retreat from the sonic explorations Auerbach undertook on Attack and Release, it is an expansion of them. The songs stretch out with that familiar multi-tracked guitar base, augmented throughout with the often subtle employment of organ, banjo and bass. This work unquestionably signals a step forward in Auerbach’s rapidly evolving style. Auerbach never seems to be straining himself or merely appropriating other, signature sounds just for the sake of doing so. The music he has so obviously, and voraciously, absorbed makes him who he is, pure and simple. In sum, Dan Auerbach was responsible for helping make one of the better albums of 2008, and Keep It Hid is already a contender in 2009. Should we go ahead and call him the current King of the Hill? Based on all available evidence, he’s that guy, and the competition for his crown is not particularly close at this time.

Anyone in need of further convincing needs to check out the album (or check their head) and is definitely advised to peruse this revealing interview wherein Auerbach talks about his process, his influences and his ambitions.

1. Rashanim: The Gathering

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Picking a jazz album for best of the year might seem like a stretch. Picking a jazz album that few people have heard of may seem pretentious bordering on recalcitrant. Except for one thing: Rashanim’s The Gathering remains the most convincing and exceptional album I’ve heard—in any genre—all year long. And to be perfectly frank, it’s not even really that close: this is not only the best album of 2009, it is without a doubt (at least in my mind) going to rank as one of the great albums of the decade, and for the ages. So, to paraphrase Don Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken) in True Romance before he whacks Dennis Hopper: “Hopefully that will clear up the how-full-of-shit-am-I question you’ve been asking yourself.”

I wrote at length about the band, and their latest release, back in August and even then I had a fairly solid idea that this one would be at or near the top of my list once the dust settled. The title of the post (and featured blog for PopMatters) was Rashanim: Healing Music For Unrighteous Times. That seemed accurate, then, and it seems even more appropriate, now.

So…who are Rashanim? They are a jazz trio operating out of New York City who record for John Zorn’s label Tzadik and are categorized in its “Radical Jewish Culture” series. (Being neither Jewish nor radical, I still find this concept rather rad, and to be certain, some of the very best music in the world is being created on Zorn’s middle-finger-to-the-industry label.) So…what does Rashanim sound like? The music is impossible to isolate or explain simply, in part because it incorporates so many disparate influences, using them all as a point of departure. Rashanim invokes other places and times yet remain very rooted in a modern sensibility. Klezmer? Ancient Jewish music? Jam-band? Surf guitar? All of the above: it’s definitely jazz and it is certainly imbued with a distinctively Jewish sensibility. Above all, it rocks. Like Zorn’s Masada albums, many of the songs have biblical or Hebrew titles (sometimes both), and for the most devout or scholarly (particularly the scholarly devout) these songs may accrue added levels of significance; but like much of Zorn’s catalog, the individual tunes can–and should–be appreciated simply for their superior craftsmanship and the almost inexpressible joy they provide. Like Zorn, and like many of the best composers, the melodies are effusive: instantly identifiable after only a few listens yet strikingly distinctive. This music challenges but rewards abundantly.

Let’s cut to the chase: call me Santa Claus and consider this recommendation the best holiday gift I could give you.

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