Hints for newbies: The Spotify Playlists (accessed above) are the reason this blog exists; 2) The About tab might help explain what could otherwise seem confusing about the format.
There was really only one big surprise in reviewing albums from 1976. I’d never heard of The Numbers Band, and the more I looked into them, the more intrigued I became. They formed in 1969 in Akron, OH (a place of some sentimental connection for me) and are said to be part of the “Akron Sound” (a la the “Bakersfield Sound,” immortalized by the likes of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam). I’m not sure how to describe the Akron Sound, although The Numbers Band, at least on this album, deliver some molar-jarring blues rock that’s infectious and clearly meant to be heard live. The lineup has had some noteworthy characters over the years, like a future member of Devo and Chrissie Hynde’s brother (both Akron natives). This band is alternately known by the moniker 15-60-75 which took a semi-exhaustive search on the ol’ ‘net to figure out, so I must share. In music there is a thing called the 1-4-5 chord progression and the sequence 15-60-75 comes from the following math: 15 divided by 15 = 1; 60 divided 15 = 4, and 75 divided by 15 = 5. Yes, so ridiculous that people just started calling them The Numbers Band. If you’re feeling at sixes and sevens about all this, put the calculator away and just check out the tunes. They’re a real treat!
As for record of the year, Stevie Wonder’s legendary double LP is a work of art, so big, bold and beautiful in it’s production value that it stands up every bit today as it did in 1976, when it broke all kinds of musical norms. On a personal note, much of Songs in the Key of Life was recorded and mixed at the Record Plant and Chrystal Sound studios in Los Angeles, both about a 10-minute walk from my humble abode. Everytime I think of it when I pass either location I hum a few bars of “Isn’t She Lovely” and think about one of the great musical masterminds of our time.
1. Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life 2. Billy Joel, Turnstiles 3. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers 4. Boz Scaggs, Silk Degrees 5. Steely Dan, The Royal Scam 6. Steve Miller Band, Fly Like An Eagle 7. Bob Dylan, Desire 8. Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band, Night Moves 9. The Numbers Band(15-60-75),Jimmy Bell’s Still in Town 10. Ramones, Ramones
HONORABLE MENTION: Joni Mitchell, Hejira; Eagles, Hotel California; Patti Smith, Radio Ethiopia; Tom Waits, Small Change; Ry Cooder, Chicken Skin Music; Bad Company, Running With The Pack; Al Stewart, Year of the Cat; Led Zeppelin, Presence
One thing I’ve discovered, going back in time reviewing albums by year, is that some years in music are better than others. I’ve now compiled lists for nineteen different years and for the first time, while reviewing records from 2006, I struggled to find ten that rose to the level of exceptional. Without question the first five are phenomenal. It’s then next five that have issues. They contain plenty of nice tunes, but also plenty of duds, which is the antithesis of a superior album. In a good year, these five would have probably ended up in the honorable mention category. In the case of the Cold War Kids’ record, maybe not even that. Makes me wonder how much of this can be blamed on the producers. Both Kasabian and TV on the Radio are capable of greatness (they’ve both made these lists in the past). In the case of the normally sensational TOTR, the last eight songs are interesting and cool, but the first six leave me completely unmoved. As for record of the year, it’s a toss up between Thom Yorke and Goldfrapp. We Are Glitter is actually a remix of Goldfrapp’s 2005 studio album and thus not technically a new release in 2006. But it’s so damn good, with some of the best mixes of any Goldfrapp material ever, that I’m bending the rules slightly to include it here.
Ten Best 2006
1. Goldfrapp, We Are Glitter 2. Thom Yorke, The Eraser 3. Phoenix, It’s Never Been Like That 4. Beck, The Information 5. LCD Soundsystem, 45:33 6. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife 7. Kasabian, Empire 8. Silversun Pickups, Carnavas 9. TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain 10. Cold War Kids, Robbers & Cowards
HONORABLE MENTION: John Mayer, Continuum; The Strokes, First Impressions of Earth; Hot Chip, The Warning; Snow Patrol, Eyes Open;Bob Dylan, Modern Times; Brightblack Morning Light, Brightblack Morning Light; Dennis Ferrer,The World As I See It; Johnny Cash, American V: A Hundred Highways; The Chicks, Taking The Long Way; Sonic Youth, Rather Ripped; Band of Horses, Everything All the Time; M. Ward, Post-War; Yo La Tengo, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass; Sean Ono Lennon, Friendly Fire; Amy Winehouse, Back to Black; Morrissey, Ringleader of the Tormentors; Booka Shade, Movements; Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat
We’re almost three months into 2021 and the most interesting album I’ve heard so far is from Justin Bieber, which, I’m sorry, is a sad commentary on new music, or me, or something! I’ve given several 2021 albums a spin and have found absolutely nothing that inspires me as of yet. By this point last year there were several exceptional albums out (Mac Miller’s comes to mind). Of course Covid messed up everything, including recording and working with other musicians, the repercussions of which are now evident on the barren music scene. Which may be why this Bieber album stands out. I won’t knock what the guy’s done in the past other than to say it never really clicked with me. But this one has some solid tunes, particularly late in the game (it’s back-heavy with the good stuff). It’s solid from “Peaches” on (the last five songs). Couldn’t help but make the comparison with Lauv’s great album from a year ago. Both young, white, spindly, blonde dudes with silky vocals, but the Lauv album is far, far superior to this one. But Bieber’s got the name recognition, which is often worth more than good songwriting.
I had a last-minute change to the final 1975 list. Tom Waits’ brilliant Nighthawks at the Diner was included from the get-go. Then I mixed it with the other nine albums and found the vibe completely off, so I bumped it. Then I listened to it again, start-to-finish, and concluded it’s too special to be ignored (the issue of incongruity was resolved by NOT mixing Nighthawks with the other nine albums, but finishing the mix with the entire record, in order, as it really needs to be heard). Part of my original concern was that it sounds like a live album, and live albums don’t qualifying for these lists. But Nighthawks was not intended to be performed in front of an audience. Having a group of people in the recording studio was an afterthought. Since none of the cuts had previously been released, and it was recorded in a legit studio, it is undeniably a studio album, despite all the clapping and laughing. Which brings up another point. At times, Nighthawks comes off as a comedy album (this from the opening minute: “I’m so horny the crack of dawn better be careful”). Someone unfamiliar with Waits might confuse this for a standup routine accompanied by piano. But Waits is unquestionably a musician, and a brilliant one at that, who just so happens to be gifted with a twisted and delightful sense of humor. In other 1975 news, the biggest surprise on this list is the Wings album. I have a healthy appreciation for Paul McCartney, but never would have predicted a top ten finish on any of these lists. But this is a collection of mostly infection pop tunes. The hit “Listen to What the Man Said” remains lovable after all these years, although the title never would get the green light today. As for top record of the year, there’s really no contest. Physical Graffiti never fails to blow my mind. Considering it’s pushing fifty-years old, it probably always will.
Ten Best 1975
1. Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti 2. Fleetwood Mac, Fleetwood Mac 3. Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here 4. Patti Smith, Horses 5. Bob Dylan, Blood On The Tracks 6. Wings, Venus And Mars 7. Electric Light Orchestra, Face the Music 8. Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger 9. Roxy Music, Siren 10. Tom Waits, Nighthawks at the Diner
HONORABLE MENTION: Linda Ronstadt, Prisoner in Disguise; Little Feat, The Last Record Album; Neil Young, Tonight’s The Night; Elton John, Rock of the Westies; Bob Seger, Beautiful Loser; Earth, Wind & Fire, That’s the Way of the World; Lou Reed, Coney Island Baby; Steely Dan, Katy Lied; David Bowie, Young Americans; Paul Simon, Still Crazy After All These Years; Bob Dylan & The Band, The Basement Tapes; Parliament, Mothership Connection; The Who, The Who By Numbers; Brian Eno, Another Green World; Queen, A Night at the Opera
The biggest surprise in reviewing 2007 was discovering The Apples in Stereo, an indie pop/rock collective out of Denver that’s been around since the early Nineties but brand new to my ears. Comparisons to the Electric Light Orchestra and The Beach Boys seem spot on. The chord progression on one of my favorite cuts, “Play Tough,” is reminiscent of the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” Think catchy and jangly and you’ll get the picture. The Lucinda Williams record slipped through the cracks for me when it first came out. I’ve been a big fan for years but never got around to West until now. The depth of emotion in her songwriting and vocals always draws me in, and this album feels particularly impassioned. “What If” is particularly special. A simple idea about pondering a world where everything is the opposite of how we know it. What if the prostitute was queen? she wonders. What if the sun rose too soon, and then just disappeared? It ends with the heady thought: what if people loved one another in equal amounts? But my album of the year for 2007 goes to Rufus Wainwright for this record which I’ve loved since its release. His nasally and monotone delivery is an acquired taste, I get it. But my musical palate is entirely satisfied here, as over-the-top dramatic and orchestral as it can be at times. I love every cut, although some rise to the ranks of inimitable, like “Leaving For Paris No. 2,” “Sanssouci” and “Slideshow.”
Ten Best 2007
1. Rufus Wainwright, Release the Stars 2. Lucinda Williams, West 3. The Apples in Stereo, New Magnetic Wonder 4. Tinariwen, Aman Iman: Water Is Life 5. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver 6. Foo Fighters, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace 7. The Avett Brothers, Emotionalism 8. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky 9. Radiohead, In Rainbows 10. Mavis Staples, We’ll Never Turn Back
HONORABLE MENTION: Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago; Iron & Wine, The Shepherd’s Dog; Glenn Mercer, Wheels in Motion; Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Raising Sand; The Shins, Wincing the Night Away; The National, Boxer; Tori Amos, American Doll Posse; Kings of Leon, Because Of The Times; Gogol Bordello, Super Taranta!; Grinderman, Grinderman; Against Me!, New Wave; Band of Horses, Cease to Begin
The world is moving infinitesimally closer to normalcy with each vaccine jabbed into an arm. In the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, I’ve made some new world resolutions, since this ungodly virus will leave everything a little (or a lot) different than we remember. For M4S, that means a shift in focus, a little more music curating, a little less writing. This blog has always been about music first, but I have spent more time writing than curating. Moving forward, the plan is to flip that. If you haven’t checked out the playlists (linked above, or on Spotify under DJay3), maybe give them a listen. I’m a harsh self-critic. When I look at anything (er, pretty much everything) I’ve ever written, I’m always unsatisfied. Invariably I feel like it could be better. Not so with the playlists. I’ve spent years building them and when I take a breather and go back to listen, I’m really quite impressed, not by anything I’ve done, necessarily, but at how fantastical the music is. The plan is to continue building these lists for every year I’ve been alive (18 years completed so far, many more to come, cause I’m oldish). Postings will mostly be commentary on complete years, once the lists are finalized. Just like before the pandemic, you can reach me on Twitter @Music4Sativa. In the meantime, Turn it Up and Carry On.
Well, now this has happened. Turns out, Vampire Weekend is one of my favorite bands of all time. With their appearance on this 2008 list, all four of their studio albums have made my top ten lists (’08, ’10, ’13, ’19). I knew I liked VW, but I never would have guessed when I started this project that their entire catalogue would ascend to the elite group. Really everything about them is wonderful. Ezra Koenig’s voice is perfect in every way, technically they push the limits of creativity, and pretty much every one of their songs hits the right spot. They are also one of the few bands I associate with my relocation to Los Angeles in 2009. At the time the buzz was still palpable from their self-titled debut album of the previous year, which to my ears felt like the embodiment of a new era in popular music. “A-Punk” and “I Stand Corrected” were getting a lot of airplay on the station I listened to in LA, and when I hear this album today, it takes me back to the excitement of those early days of rebuilding my life in a new town. In all, an incredible list of albums here, the most surprising for me is the Nick Cave album. Everything I’d heard from him prior to this rubbed me the wrong way. I’m glad we’ve finally connected.
Ten Best 2008
1. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend 2. The Black Keys, Attack & Release 3. Juana Molina, Un Dia 4. Death Cab For Cutie, Narrow Stairs 5. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! 6. Jenny Lewis, Acid Tongue 7. Q-Tip, The Renaissance 8. David Byrne and Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today 9. TV on the Radio, Dear Science 10. Friendly Fires, Friendly Fires
Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti (1975)
One of my favorite parts of starting a new year of album reviews is re-listening to ones I’m already familiar with but, in most cases, haven’t heard in years. They are often albums I loved back in the day and listen to now with “modern” ears to make sure I still love them. Led Zeppelin’s masterpiece Physical Graffiti is one of those. There’s nothing I can say about this legendary work of rock ‘n’ roll art that will break any new ground, so I won’t even try, other than to say if you haven’t heard it, you should give a listen.
Hearing a digital version of it today, on high-quality, noise-cancelling headphones, I couldn’t help but think what it must have been like to have been a big fan of Zeppelin’s back in the day, anxiously waiting the release of this, their fifth studio album and their first DOUBLE album! I can just imagine some guy in his mid twenties, a Zep fan since high school, racing home from the record store, looking around his apartment for something to cut the cellophane off the album, something other than his thumbnail because that always ends up drawing a little bit of blood. A ballpoint pen does the trick, and after removing the plastic wrap he carefully extracts the album from the sleeve, consciously avoiding touching the shimmering silky black surface of the newly pressed vinyl. He gingerly places the record on the turntable spindle, engages the overarm to hold the record in place, presses play, retreats to his couch, then rolls a joint as the show begins through his stacked Pioneer speakers.
During the climax of the eleven-minute “In My Time of Dying,” he’s on the edge of the couch, lashing out with imaginary drumstick against invisible cymbals and snares, not exactly in time with John Bonham, but enough to get his heart pounding. When the song ends he collapses back in the couch, the room completely silent now, and he notices that the tone arm has lifted off the record and has automatically returned to its rest, which means he has to stand up, walk across the room, carefully lift the record off the spindle, flip it over, place it back on the spindle, return the overarm to its holding position, and press play again. On the way back to the couch he grabs a Michelob Light from the fridge. By the end of side two he’s he reeling with delight, “Kashmir” being the most other-worldly song he’s heard in his young life. As he scratches his head in disbelief, he again notices the record player has stopped spinning, which means he has to get up off the couch, walk across the room, remove the disc from the turntable, insert it back into its protective sleeve, remove disc two, place it on the spindle, return the overarm to hold the disc in “ready” position, press play, and again return the couch.
And you thought your life was complicated.
I wish I could say that, as an 11-year-old in 1974, I was sophisticated enough to be listening to Professor Longhair’s Rock n Roll Gumbo. Had I been, I would have grown up to be a much cooler teenager. Actually, this album didn’t cross my radar until nearly a decade after it’s release and five years after Henry “Roy” Byrd’s death. I’ll never forget hearing it the first time. It was New Year’s Eve 1985-86. The memory is vivid because it really did change the trajectory of my musical tastes overnight. A few friends had gathered to celebrate the turning of the calendar in Flagstaff, AZ. As we pre-gamed before hitting the bars, our host played this album at his apartment. From the opening piano run and the Profs’ crackling baritone voice, I was mesmerized. Upon returning home after our road trip, I immediately acquired a copy and to this day, it’s as infectious and exhilarating as it was that night, a mind-boggling thirty-four years ago. It’s sadly not available on Spotify and, since I no longer have compact disc technology at my disposal, I’m left with no other alternative than YouTube where, the space between each song is defiled by earsplitting commercials, something I wouldn’t tolerate even once if I knew the payoff wasn’t so damned wonderful. This album isn’t just my album of the year for 1974, it’s one of my favorites of all time. Runner-up to the Prof is Robert Palmer’s Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley, an absolutely delightful record that I’d never heard until recently, and would’ve easily been record of the year had it not been for the Prof.
Ten Best 1974
1. Professor Longhair, Rock n Roll Gumbo 2. Robert Palmer, Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley 3. Van Morrison, Veedon Fleece 4. Eric Clapton, 461 Ocean Boulevard 5. Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark 6. Willie Nelson, Phases and Stages 7. Tom Waits, The Heart of Saturday Night 8. John Hiatt, Hangin’ Around the Observatory 9. Jimmy Buffett, Living and Dying in ¾ Time 10. Eagles, On the Border
Note: I’m acutely aware of how caucasian this list (and many others) appears. It’s embarrassing really, and forced me to wonder why, because diversity is so important to me. All I can say is I’m a product of my upbringing. I was raised in the Seventies in an all-white neighborhood. There were no kids of color in my elementary school and only a couple at my high school. My parents listened to white musicians, dad idolized Glen Campbell and Willie Nelson while mom’s musical catalogue wasn’t much deeper than Neil Diamond. I wish they had been paying Charlie Parker or Billie Holiday or Al Green while I was in their care and impressionable, but they weren’t. I didn’t know anything beyond FM pop-rock radio until I went off to college. For what it’s worth my eleventh and twelfth pick for this list are albums by James Brown and Aretha Franklin. So, I couldn’t bump even one of the other nine records to make room for James or Aretha, so the list didn’t appear so vanilla? Not even Jimmy Buffett, for godsake? Well, I guess, that’s what it comes down to, if I’m being true to my musical instinct. All I know is the whiteness of this list does not reflect the commitment to equality that I know to be in my heart today. I try hard to keep politics out of this blog, but my final thought on the subject is simply to say #BlackLivesMatter.
Man, this is some heavy emotional lifting. By the end of it I was drained, despite having no idea what was being said, since nearly all of it is sung in Icelandic. The first four songs start off bouncy and sweet enough (I won’t even attempt to type the names of these songs because the words won’t mean anything to — I’ll go out on a limb and say — everybody who’s reading this). The fifth cut, “Festival” (one of two titles in English yet sung in Icelandic) is an epic journey, incredibly moving and intense at the beginning, maybe sad, perhaps happy, it’s hard to say. The nine-minute song featuring crystal clear vocals is split in two, with the second half lifting the listener out of the emotional well and into something more cheerful. The last minute is so explosive and over the top, in sharp contrast to what came before, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the dichotomy. Curiosity got the best of me, so I translated the lyrics, which packed a much better punch when I didn’t understand what was being said: “Let’s take a look/The sea cuts off/We sail the mast of faith/Let’s breathe/We steer to the bridge/We’re sailing ashore/In boulders and sand/We land.” Then I listened to Sigur Rós’s next album from 2012 and the first two songs feel like the pit of depression, too. I can’t help but wonder if the bleakness comes from living in Iceland, which I’m sure is lovely, but must feel dreary and isolating at times.
I have a morbid habit of hearing a song and thinking, now that’s a song I want played at my funeral. I mean, I can’t write a better farewell statement than some of the music I’ve heard over the years. To that list I’m now adding “Shiver Me Timbers” (and yes I’m feeling fine, thanks for asking). I particularly like the verse: “My body’s at home/But my heart’s in the wind/The clouds are like headlines/On a new front page sky.” It also occurred to me how appropriate this song is as 2020 ends, a year when so many people have died, so many of them alone, followed by funerals sparsely attended, if at all, for fear of the virus. I am so thankful that my family and I all survived this year, although not all of us avoided infection. So to those people who lost loved ones in 2020, I offer this song, which is just one of many great cuts here. Waits delivers lyrics that make sense and chord progressions that are fairly predictable, the complete opposite of his typically brilliant, if often deranged and twisted, songwriting. Also worthy of mention is the title track, which I originally heard on a Shawn Colvin album years ago. I am thrilled to finally hear the original, which will now forever be my go-to version of this song.
John Lennon, Mind Games (1973) and Walls And Bridges (1974)
I launched this blog exactly a year ago with a post about George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass,which I heard for the first time on New Years Day 2020, and found to be incredibly mediocre, and I’m being polite because I respect his place in music history. It’s only fitting, I guess, to end the year with a thought about two John Lennon albums new to me. I was shocked, utterly SHOCKED I tell you, by how terrible they are. I’m not a huge Beatles fan, although I enjoy a number of their hits and credit them for changing the world of pop music. As for their individual solo careers, I’m most fond of Paul McCartney who, now that I’ve heard these two Lennon albums, I’m convinced was the better musician/singer, while Lennon was the better writer and (being generous) poet. John Lennon was a pretty interesting figure in the early Seventies. I still find his persona to be a fascinating. But on his own, musically, there’s not much there for me.I’m not sure why anyone would enjoy most of these tracks, other than for nostalgia sake. I know I never care to hear either of them again. After the Beatles, Lennon could have released any collection of gibberish and people would have deemed it genius. There are two exceptions. I love the title track to Mind Games, and “You Are Here” is also rather enjoyable.
Disclosure, ENERGY (2020)
Say what you will about 2020, but it’s been a crazy good year for music. In addition to the ten amazing albums that make up my top ten, I could easily build another list from the honorable mention category. The roster of amazing albums was that deep. But time and again I returned to Disclosure’s ENERGY, mostly because it made me feel good during a very dark time. English electronic duo of brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence have been nominated a couple times in the past for Grammys in the dance genre and, while this album isn’t strictly dance (it includes elements of Afro beat, house and R&B), it absolutely deserves a Grammy nod in some category. It’s intentionally uplifting and positive, according to the brothers, and includes collaborations with some tremendously talented, albeit, unfamiliar vocalists from places like Cameroon and Mali. The Lawrence brothers claim to have written two hundred songs before choosing the strongest ones for the final cut. The eleven tracks feel like they were bunched together in segments separated by two interludes. The first three songs deliver a powerful urban dance punch before the temperature gets turned down a bit. It’s hard to pick favorites, but particular highlights are “Ce n’est pas” and “Douha (Mali Mali).” The title track offers a high-octane message about taking your life back and focusing energy in a positive way. The sexy mood of “Birthday” addresses the question of when is it okay to contact an ex who you still care about but who has moved on. Finally, Common joins up for vocals on the closer, “Reverie,” which is precisely the emotion I feel by the end of this album as it trails off to the sound of a gentle but steady rainfall. As for the bonus tracks, don’t miss the aptly named “Ecstasy” and the great Afro beat “Tondo.” As someone of a certain age, I particularly appreciate the Boz Scaggs sample on “Expressing What Matters.”
Ten Best 2020
1. Disclosure, ENERGY 2. Lauv, Lauv 3. Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia 4. Mac Miller, Circles 5. The Strokes, The New Abnormal 6. Cubicolor, Hardly A Day, Hardly A Night 7. HAIM, Women In Music Pt. III 8. DMA’s, The Glow 9. Four Tet, Sixteen Oceans 10. Taylor Swift, folklore
HONORABLE MENTION: Elephant Stone, Hollow; The Mavericks, En Espanol; Childish Gambino, 3.15.20; Grouplove, Healer; BENEE, Hey u x; Ed O’Brien, Earth; SAULT, Untitled (Black Is); Phoebe Bridges, Punisher; Soccer Mommy, Color Theory; M. Ward, Migration Stories; Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters; Tame Impala, The Slow Rush; The Chicks, Gaslighter; Glass Animals, Dreamland; Alec Benjamin, These Two Windows; Steve Earle, Ghosts of West Virginia; Moses Sumney, grae Part 1; Washed Out, Purple Noon; Lucinda Williams, Good Souls Better Angeles
Leslie Odom Jr., The Christmas Album (2020)
A couple hours of Christmas music is usually all I need in a given year. But it feels more welcomed than usual in 2020, a nice distraction from the repetitive hum of bad news and gloom. The beauty of this record (which has the audacity of calling itself the Christmas album) is that a few of the original cuts could be enjoyed year round. Odom, of course, was the original Aaron Burr in the Broadway hit Hamilton (for which he won the Tony). His version of “Little Drummer Boy” is a unique interpretation, featuring the Mzansi Youth Choir out of South Africa. “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas’ is pretty straight forward while the originals have only a subtle holiday vibe, like “Heaven & Earth,” a lovely ballad that mentions Christmas but could be suitable for all twelve months. Same, too, with the wonderful “Winter Song,” written by Sara Bareilles and sung as a duet with Cynthia Erivo. For those in a more Chanukah mood, Odom covers “Ma’oz Tzur” with his wife, actress and singer Nicolette Robinson. It’s beautiful and sung in Hebrew so, unless you speak the language, it has no seasonal limitations, either.
Pigeonhole: Holiday, jazz
Willie Nelson, Phases and Stages (1974)
It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that this 1974 release was Willie Nelson’s seventeenth album at the time! For a guy who’s still kicking around the music scene today, his longevity is really a thing of amazement. It’s as if Elvis Presley were still alive in 2020, performing and making public appearances as Willie does (Elvis was actually two years younger than Willie). The only Willie album I was previously familiar with is Stardust (1978), which is considered perhaps his biggest studio album. But they’re all covers and not authentic country music. For that, Phases and Stages is a much better option. The use of peddle steal and fiddle behind Nelson’s recognizable guitar picking is pure Americana. He introduces four songs with the same line: “Phases and stages/Circles and cycles/And scenes that we’ve all seen before/Let me tell you some more”. From there he segues into four wonderful cuts, “Washing the Dishes”, “Walkin,” “No Love Around” and “Pick Up the Tempo.” This album is also where Willie introduces us to one of his trademark drinking songs, “Bloody Mary Morning.” If you enjoy country music, you’ll love this album. If you don’t, you won’t. It’s that simple.
REM, Accelerate (2008) and Collapse Into Now (2011)
I avoided these two REM albums mostly out of fear. REM is hands down one of my favorite bands. They remind me of being in college, which is where I was when I saw them in support of their debut record, the masterpiece Murmur. They would go on to release many, many incredible albums but, alas, things changed. Like every great band, REM’s quality waned over time. When founding drummer Bill Berry left following the release of After New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996), I lost interest. In fact, I have very little knowledge of REM post Berry. Truth be told, I was afraid I might feel embarrassed for them. So many rock bands continue touring and recording LONG past their prime. But REM gets major props for disbanding when they did, in 2011. With enough time now having passed, I went back to hear how the REM story ended. As for Accelerate, the first four songs are solid, any one of which could have worked on albums from years earlier. In fact, there are only a couple tracks that are awful, like the title track, “Houston” and “Sing For The Submarine.” All and all though, better than I expected. Collapse Into Now came out in March 2011, several months before REM announced their disbandment. Like Accelerate, it’s a mix of solid tunes (particularly the first three, specifically “Uberin”) and banal filler (“Oh My Heart,” “Mine Smell Like Honey,” “Every Day Is Yours To Win”). If the best songs from these two albums were condensed on one album, eliminating the chaff, it would have been a damn good album, maybe even reason enough to go on.
Pigeonhole: Alt rock, college rock
SAULT, Untiled (Black Is) and Untiled (Rise) (2020)
These are poised to be the defining albums of 2020, particularly the part of this eventful year that involved police brutality, Back Lives Matter and the killing of George Floyd. (Black Is) was released on June 19, twenty-five days after Floyd’s killing, so the ensuing nationwide protests and outrage may not have been much of a factor in its creation. Which is a reminder that racial injustice didn’t start with George Floyd, it’s been going on for years. What happened in Minnesota in late May just pushed everything to the breaking point. There are many powerful moments on this album. Some of the cuts are spoken word, like “X,” a reference to a Malcolm X quote, “Don’t be surprised that the chickens have come home to roost.” The cut “Hold Me” offers some incredible vocal effects and is one of many standouts, others being “Wildfires,” “Monsters”, “Why We Cry Why We Die” and “Hard Life”. Both these SAULT albums are considered double albums, which means they released close to two hours of music this year. There is considerable mystery surrounding the identify of the members of SAULT. They have chosen to remain incognito. No live concerts, no interviews, not even a Wikipedia page. The few clues available include production credits to Inflo and a collaboration with the incomparable Michael Kiwanuka.
Pigeonhole: Soul, funk
Eric Clapton, 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974)
I had an Eric Clapton moment years ago, which ended when I became a blues purist in the mid-Eighties, after which few white folks could interpret the blues to my liking, certainly not Eric Clapton. But as tired as I was (and am) of much of his famous material, I admit to having never before heard this legendary album start to finish. Several of the great Clapton tunes are here, like “I Shot The Sherriff and “Let It Grow.” But there are other lesser hits, like “Motherless Children” and “Steady Rollin’ Man,” which are both great and better than most of his radio hits. Start to finish this is an incredible album, and a damn good blues collection. Clapton slowly drifted away from this sound. I’m not saying he sold out. I’ll just say his popularity grew the more he appealed to rock radio.
Pigeonhole: Blues rock,
Atlas Sound, Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel (2008)
The term “experimental” gets tossed around a lot. You could make an argument that every song is experimental at first, as the writer tries different words and chord progressions to see what works best. But Bradford Cox’s side project (away from his other band, Deerhunter) lets us see the songwriting process in real time. For starters, Cox says every song was written in a stream-of-consciousness approach, in real time, with the lyrics developed on the spot in the studio. The songs are even organized in the order they were recorded, all by using Ableton Live software. My personal fave is “Scraping Past,” which sustains an infectious beat on top of distant vocals. “Quarantined” also jumped out, being a word loaded with connotations these days, although it was written more than a dozen years before the current pandemic. Cox has a genetic disorder called Marfan Syndrome which affects the connective tissue and is characterized by long arms, fingers and toes. “Quarantined” addresses the isolation he felt as a child because of his condition (“Quarantined and kept/So far away from my friends”). Cox also identifies as asexual and queer and claimed, at the age of 34, to be a virgin.
Pigeonhole: Avant-pop, electronic
James Brown, Hell (1974)
I get the sense that James Brown concerts were worlds better than his studio work. He played off the crowd’s energy so much that it was hard to generate the same intensity in the studio. I read that this record is an exception to that opinion. I’d sacrifice almost anything to see a James Brown concert, but since that’s not going to happen, there are several live records that transport the listener as close as possible to that experience. His Live at the Apollo (1963) recording is considered one of the great live albums of all time. But as studio records go, this one feels about as live as possible. Brown was infamous for introducing many of his songs with the banging of a gong, which is perhaps one of the most annoying ideas ever concocted. Otherwise, this album is incredible. The title track is one of the hottest funk beats ever recorded. The last track, “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” clocks in at nearly fourteen minutes and I swear when it’s over, you’ll want to hear it again. Same with the eight-minute “I Can’t Stand It.” If you do what I nearly did and skip “When The Saints Go Marching In,” because you suspect a cover of this worn-out standard can’t possibly be interesting, you’d be making a big mistake. Ditto “Stormy Monday.” And I just love the line: “Don’t tell a lie about me/And I won’t tell the truth about you.”
Pigeonhole: Funk, soul
Fuck Buttons, Street Horrsing (2008)
I’ll get to the positive stuff in a minute. First, the name. I’m no prude and I use profanity all the time, probably too much. But, if you feel the need to be vulgar in your band’s name, you’re trying too hard. Plus it makes things way more difficult for the promotion department. And while we’re on the subject of words, if someone can tell me the definition of “horrsing,” I’m all ears. With that off my chest, I can tell you this is one of the more fascinating records I’ve heard in some time. A word of warning, however. You need to be in the right state of mind. It’s an absolute avalanche of distorted vocals and screaming, pounding tribal rhythms and brazen synthesizers. Three songs into it you might find yourself wondering if this is the soundtrack to someone’s slide into insanity. “Okay, Let’s Talk About Magic” feels like what a neurological breakdown might sound like. Calling these “songs” almost feels like a stretch. After nearly a half hour, when you realize you’re only three songs into this, you may question how much more you can handle, as if it were some kind of endurance test. But if you’re like me, you’ll push on, perhaps a sign you’re as deranged as the music. The fifth cut, “Bright Tomorrow,” offers the fist semblance of an actual melody. But the abatement lasts only four minutes, before the tidal wave of distortion returns. It would be easy to dismiss this album as nothing more than noise. But I prefer to see it as the work of a mad genius (or in this case two geniuses, Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power). Their 2009 album, Tarot Sport, made my top ten list for that year and is a much more approachable collection than this record. But in its very unique way, Street Horrsing is equally profound, and a solid candidate for my top ten of 2008, despite my being in no hurry to hear it again.
Wow! What an incredible album! Even better than her 2017 record, which made my top ten that year. These songs are built with loops so hypnotic they might lull you into a trance. Argentina born, Molina was originally an actress and comedian with her own television show. When she decided to make the switch to music in the mid Nineties, she was one of the country’s most popular comedians. So nobody took her music seriously, initially. Avant-guarde and experimental, these aren’t radio-friendly tunes. They demand an open mind, a little concentration and a quiet room. The title track might best describe what Molina is up to here. She clearly wants to leave space for interpretation, even if her work is entirely misconstrued: (translated from Spanish) “One day I will sing the songs with no lyrics/And everyone can imagine for themselves if it’s about love, disappointment, banalities or … Plato.”
Lord Buckley, Buckley’s Best Live (2011)
M4S is all about music. Obviously. After all, it’s right there in the name. But sometimes in the pursuit of the next great tune, comedy gets in the way. I’m currently considering music from 1974, a year in which one of my favorite Jimmy Buffett albums was released, Living and Dying in ¾ Time. The final cut is a spoken-word tale set to Buffett’s guitar playing called “God’s Own Drunk,” which I committed to memory and would, when the mood was right, regale my drinking buddies with during my barfly days of yore. It never occurred to me until today to look up the writing credits. I was surprised to find the yarn was penned, not by Buffett, but by Fifties comedian Lord Buckley. Now, I’d heard of Lord Buckley over the years, but until today was never familiar with his work. I started, of course, with the cut “God’s Own Drunk” and found it to be, at times, the ranting of a crazed lunatic. Had I not already known the lyrics, it would have required repeated listenings just to get the gist. It turns out Buffett took a few liberties with the actual wording and, in my opinion, delivers the lengthy fable in a more user friendly way than Buckley. As I worked my way through the remainder of this greatest hits collection, I was struck by how truly unusual and brilliant Buckley’s work was. These aren’t jokes with punch lines. It’s not comedy like you’ve ever heard it before. He’s clearly cut from the same cloth as Beat poets of his day like William S. Burroughs or Allen Ginsberg. But his vocal inflections coupled with his persona (waxed mustache, pith helmet, tux and tails, the self-proclaimed title of Lord) demands compete attention. Being a huge fan of the late comedian George Carlin, I was delighted to hear frequent similarities in delivery and rhythm. Not surprisingly, Carlin credits Buckley as one of his early influences.
Picking album of the year for 2009 is a no brainer, being a slave to my own bias. The Dave Matthews Band has been “my band” since 1995, when I first saw them with a few thousand other folks at an outdoor amphitheater in Arizona. Since then, I’ve attended exactly fifty shows all over the country (including my most recent one, on February 29, in this, the Year of the Pandemic). I’ve lived the band’s ups and downs with them, this record being perhaps the most pivotal time for DMB. During the creation of Big Whiskey, founding member and saxophonist LeRoi Moore died unexpectedly at 46-years old. It was a devastating blow to the band and its fans, one that could have easily spelled the end of the road. But his death seemed to inspire the surviving members. The mournful 72-second posthumous solo by Moore that opens the album was nothing more than a warm-up riff tossed off in the studio (and thankfully recorded). But it took on added significance after his death and seemed the most appropriate way to kick off the album (GrooGrux King was Moore’s nickname). What follows is some of the band’s most powerful material ever, particularly “Shake Me Like a Monkey,” “Why I Am” and “Seven.”
Ten Best 2009
Dave Matthew Band, Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King
White Lies, To Lose My Life
Avett Brothers, I And Love And You
Miike Snow, Miike Snow
Zero 7, Yeah Ghost
Monsters of Folk, Monsters of Folk
Fuck Buttons, Tarot Sport
Levon Helm, Electric Dirt
The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love
Kasabian, West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum
HONORABLE MENTION: Quadron, Quadron; Moby, Wait for Me; Mariachi El Bronx, Mariachi El Bronx; Wilco, Wilco (The Album); Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More; Bob Schneider, Lovely Creatures; The Mountain Goats, The Life of the World to Come; Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz!; Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown; Passion Pit, Manners
The Decemberists, The Hazards Of Love (2009)
I’m not a huge fan of rock operas. I suspect they’re more fun to conceive of and create than they are to hear. By their very nature operas are dramatic (sometimes overly so) with a story arch that’s typically predictable. It’s simply in the telling that makes an opera unique and I guess, for some, compelling. I listened to this entire album before I realized it was a continuous story. In case you’d rather just enjoy the music and not have to surmise the plot, it is as such: While on horseback riding through a boreal forest, Margaret happens upon an inured fawn who, while she assists it back to its feet, suddenly changes into a dashing young man named William. They make love (as one does in the forest after such an episode), William professes his love for her and suggests they run off together. But William’s evil guardian, the Forest Queen, has other ideas. It was she who rescued William when he was a baby and bestowed upon him, with her powers as they were, immortality. In the third act we meet Rake, a widower who murdered his three children to escape the burden of raising them (don’t get any ideas!). Rake kidnaps Margaret with the blessing of the Forest Queen, who parts a raging river so they can escape the love-struck William. Later, Margaret somehow makes contact with William, begs him to come save her, and with the help of the ghosts of Rake’s children, frees them. As the two approach the same river to make their get away, they vow to spend eternity together by drowning themselves, proclaiming that once they’re safely in the next life, the hazards of love can no longer threaten them. Which leaves the unanswered question of how William’s immortality fits into all this, something, I guess, only a sequel can address. As for the music itself, there are some marvelous moments punctuated by the always-delightful vocals of Colin Meloy, particularly the chorus of “The Wanting Comes in Waves” and the four versions of the title track. But truth be told, I probably liked the album more before I knew of its charming plot.
I listened to this album three times, back-to-back-to-back, and can say without question it’s the best album I’ve heard this year, and it’s been an incredible year for music. On my first pass through, the intensity seemed to build as it went, each song setting the bar a little higher, and the next song always clearing it. Songs are normally arranged on an album in a certain way for a reason. They’re supposed to be heard in that order. I think it’s particularly true here, so make sure that pesky shuffle option is disengaged. By the point you reach “Douha” (the fifth track) you’re probably thinking, like I did, that it can’t get any better. Then the title track turns into almost a religious experience, something akin to a self-help healing seminar. The crescendo comes with the shouted line: “Where your focus goes, your energy flows,” and then a massive dance beat takes over. The title “Energy” is almost an understatement. This album is rich and intense and beautifully conceived, written, performed and engineered.
White Lies, To Lose My Life (2009)
Super dark lyrics backed by really nice uplifting beats. I’m pretty sure every song has something to do with death. But the dreariness is counterbalanced with mostly upbeat arrangements and the affable vocals of Harry McVeigh. Sometimes the music is as bleak as the lyrics (“Nothing To Give”). Otherwise, the mood rarely matches the story being told. Thankfully! “The Price of Love” begins with what sounds like the background music to an old fashion western gun draw, then halfway through explodes with a massive percussion and guitar jam. The song and album end with McVeigh’s soaring vocals over string instruments, leaving the listener nothing short of satisfied, fulfilled, and a tad exuberant, provided you haven’t internalized the lyrics too much.
I realize I’m not breaking any new ground by proclaiming Dark Side of the Moon album of the year for 1973. It’s one of the best-selling albums of all time, having spent a ridiculous 950 weeks on the Billboard charts. The themes are said to be conflict, greed, time, death and mental illness. But maybe more than anything, DSOTM is known as the ultimate stoner record, the perfect audio companion to a good smoke. I never understood the appeal of this record until later in life, during my second (and current) relationship with cannabis. It’s an album that really needs to be consumed all at once, with the listener fully engaged, comfortably numb in an altered state of his or her choice. The helicopter blades, alarm clock ringing and distant howlings of creatures only add to the visuals this music conjures.
A couple other notes regarding 1973: If there is an album that could unseat Pink Floyd and the top of the list, it’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. In addition to all the huge hits (most of which still hold up, imo), there is the lesser-known “Grey Seal,” which to me is one of his most overlooked gems. The two Al Green albums are equally incredible and impossible to rank one above the other, so I’ve combined them here as if a double album (which maybe they should have been). The Jimmy Buffett record won’t be found on many other best of list, but I’m a pretty big fan of his early work, which is largely country-esque. I dare anyone to not find something likeable on it.
Ten Best 1973
1. Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon 2. Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road 3. Jimmy Buffett, A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean 4. Billy Joel, Piano Man 5. The Allman Brothers Band, Brothers and Sisters 6. Queen, Queen 7. Sly & The Family Stone, Fresh 8. Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure 9. Dr. John, In The Right Place 10. Al Green, Call Me (and/or)Al Green, Livin’ for You
HONORABLE MENTION: Paul Simon, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon; New York Dolls, New York Dolls; Paul McCartney & Wings, Band On The Run; Toots & the Maytals, In the Dark; Montrose, Montrose; Stevie Wonder, Innervisions; Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy; Elton John, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player; Little Feat, Dixie Chicken; ZZ Top, Tres Hombres; David Bowie, Aladdin Sane; Eagles, Desperado; Gram Parsons, GP; Aretha Franklin, Hey Now Hey; Kool and The Gang, Wild and Peaceful
Kasabian, West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum (2009)
A clever album title doesn’t necessarily guarantee equally marvelous music, but in this case, one does truly lead to the other. A cross between The Stone Roses and Oasis, this English group unleashes some incredible power on this, their third of six albums. Outside of the UK it didn’t make much of a splash, although there’s plenty here to please even the most discerning ears. The strength of this record is up front, with both “Underdog” and “Where Did All the Love Go?” setting a fuzzy, full-bodied punch that is mostly sustained throughout. With a few exceptions. “West Ryder Silver Bullet” feels like filler. “Ladies and Gentlemen” comes off dull and unfinished. But the tamped-down tempo works on “Happiness.” But all and all, a pretty wonderful find!
Pigeonhole: Electronic rock
Gram Parsons, GP (1973)
He’s one of those artists I’d heard of but never knew much about. I’m now familiar with this album, which is mostly meh. Thankfully Emmylou Harris appears on several tracks to make the entire effort semi-worthwhile. But it’s Parsons’ personal story, or more specifically the story of his demise, that’s most fascinating. The one-time member of The Byrds was apparently a big fan of Joshua Tree National Park where he’d frequently partake in psychedelics. On one such occasion, September 18, 1973 to be exact, he was in the desert with his girlfriend and a small group of friends when he secretly purchased some morphine and consumed it after an already long night of barbiturates and alcohol. When he became unresponsive his friends tried to revive him, administering an ice-cube suppository (which apparently can sometimes bring a person out of a drug-induced coma – who knew). When that and a cold shower failed to bring him around, paramedics were summoned and he was pronounced dead a few hours later. Parsons had made it clear that, in the event of his death, he wanted his ashes spread over Cap Rock, a prominent natural feature at Joshua Tree. But Parsons’ stepfather wanted nothing to do with the scheme and instead, made arrangements to have Parsons’ body flown to Louisiana. Getting wind of this plan, his friends intervened in an attempt to fulfill Parsons’ resting place wishes. The story goes that the friends intercepted the casket containing his body at LAX, drove it to Joshua Tree and doused it with gasoline in a rudimentary cremation ceremony. The police were alerted and several days later the friends were arrested, NOT for stealing a dead body and burning it (apparently not illegal), but for stealing the coffin the body was in. The ashes (which amounted to 35 pounds of fragment and charred ash) were recovered and eventually buried in Louisiana. The site of this DIY cremation is near The Cap Rock Parking Lot, which is now on my list of must-visit historical sites.
M4S has now gone back ten years to build these Best Of lists and for the first time, listening to music from 2010, I felt like I was hearing slightly dated music. Electronica and technology has no doubt evolved in ten years, although I can’t articulate the specifics (I’m only an aspiring sound engineer). All I know for sure is the albums I was listening to at the time, from Broken Bells, Yeasayer and Vampire Weekend, for example, still sound good, but it’s obvious they weren’t recorded with modern-day technology. There’s something slightly rudimentary about the sound. I was particularly aware of this when listening 2010 records from electronic giants of today, like Tame Impala, Caribou and Hot Chip, all records that landed flat for me. It makes me wonder how electronica will sound in another ten years. If there’s an exception to this idea, it’s LCD Soundsytem’s incredible third album, This Is Happening, my album of the year for 2010.
Ten Best 2010
1. LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening 2. Vampire Weekend, Contra 3. Spoon, Transference 4. Four Tet, There Is Love in You 5. Groove Armada, Black Light 6. Ozomatli, Fire Away 7. Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song 8. Two Door Cinema Club, Tourist History 9. Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two 10. Yeasayer, Odd Blood
The DMA’s, The Glow (2020)
I’ve been eagerly awaiting this record since hearing and loving the two singles (“Life is a Game of Changing” and “Silver”) earlier this year (M4S: 2/1/20). Happy to report the balance of this record doesn’t disappoint. It’s a little poppier than the two singles foreshadowed, but they’re executed nicely, my particular favorite being the lead off “Never Before.” This Australian band has been compared to Oasis and there’s plenty of justification (see: “Never Before”). Thomas O’Dell’s soaring vocals are on full display here. The previously released single “Life is a Game” is not only the best song on the album, but one of my favorites of 2020. A beautiful blast of energy.
Pigeonhole: Britpop revival, indie rock, alternative dance
Grouplove, Healer (2020)
Apparently long-time fans are a little disappointed in this record. But as it’s the first one I’ve heard from this Los Angeles group, I don’t know any different, and I think it’s pretty swell. The single “Deleter” kicks off the record and sets a very high bar, which is then equaled by “Expectations” and “Youth.” Vocalist Hannah Hooper was diagnosed with a brain mass during the creation of this album, which halted the project and influenced the songwriting that happened in the aftermath. Also not to be missed on this their fourth album are “Ahead of Myself,” “Burial” and “This is Everything.”
Pigeonhole: Indie pop
Four Tet, Sixteen Oceans (2020)
My latest obsession in the laptop musician category is Four Tet, aka Kieran Hebden. This is the tenth album from this English electronic master and it’s a wonderful array of super chill, soft electronic sound. One of my favorite moments is when “This is For You,” a two-minute, ambient-laced track accompanied by distant piano runs, bleeds into “Mama Teaches Sanskrit.” If by this point you haven’t slipped into musically induced euphoria, may I suggest pressing rewind. “Baby” delivers cut-up vocal tracks amid chirping birds and a babbling brook. In fact, five of the sixteen cuts are basically transitional cuts of found sound, like watery synth pads and tape hiss. Apparently Hebden honed his craft years ago. There Is Love In You from ten years earlier is every bit as engrossing as this.
Pigeonhole: Electronic, house, downtempo
Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song (2010)
Good traditional country music is hard to find. The glory days of Patsy Cline, George Jones, Willie and Waylon are long gone, replaced by cleaned up, well-dressed pretty boys and girls whose material is so polished it sparkles. So it was with great pleasure I discovered this Jamey Johnson double album, largely reminiscent of a bygone era of country (this may be a ten-year old album, but its still not the good-ol’-days). Four or five songs in I had a gnawing feeling. It sure sounded like music that might be played at a certain president’s rallies; the ones where no one wears face masks and the confederate flag flies high. So it was off to the internet. After several minutes of googling, I came away with, well, I dunno. He’s said some non-racist things about racism that I found interesting, specifically that racist folks have nothing left to hang on to but their racism. I kept reading and, fankly, I’m not sure what his political views are. I know his lyrics don’t offend my progressive palate. I never got jingoistic, religious or gun vibes. His song “California Riots” appears to be from the perspective of someone who’s not a white supremacist. So I assured myself that I wasn’t listening to the devil’s music, and just enjoyed it. My only real complaint about the album is the length. Great musicians have a hard time delivering quality music for an hour and forty-five minutes. That’s essentially a concert, which is typically years worth of material. If it’s all so great, cut the album in half, maybe add a little filler, and release two albums (like the Foals did last year with Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Parts 1 and 2). Despite all that, it was nice to hear a country artist who even Hank Williams Sr. would probably appreciate.
Rex Orange County, Pony (2019)
A big thanks to Stephen Colbert for introducing me to Rex Orange County, a musician who I’d heard of yesterday, but whom I’m all-aflutter over today! This is the third studio album from this 22-year-old Englishman and his gift lies equally in his songwriting and vocal cadence. My fave so far is “Always,” which answers the question, can people really change? “Until somebody sits me down/And tells me why I’m different now/I’ll always be the way I always am.” Other highlights are the jazzy “Laser Lights” with flute, and the utterly infectious chorus of “Face to Face.” Perhaps you’re wondering as I did what’s up with the name. It’s a nickname he picked up as a child, he’s actual name being Alexander O’Connor.
I could make a case for several albums being crowned album of the year for 1972. Lou Reed and David Bowie released groundbreaking records that would go on to be lauded, even studied, by generations of musicians. Randy Newman’s album still feels fresh nearly fifty years later. I was also thrilled to discover records by Dr. John and Al Green, both solid start-to-finish. But Elton John’s Honkey Chateau is a notch above the rest. It’s rare for a song that has been played ad nauseam for nearly half a century to still make me turn up the volume, but there are three here: “Honky Cat,” “Rocket Man” and “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.” All still in heavy rotation on classic radio stations everywhere, every day, and I doubt I’ll ever tire of them. The balance of the album — the lesser-known cuts – areallwondrous in their own way. Behold M4S’s Top 10 albums of 1972:
1. Elton John, Honky Chateau 2. Randy Newman, Sail Away 3. Neil Young, Harvest 4. Al Green, Let’s Stay Together 5. The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street 6. Lou Reed, Transformer 7. Jethro Tull, Transformer 8. David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars 9. Dr. John, Dr. John’s Gumbo 10. ZZ Top, Rio Grande Mud
Matt Berringer, One More Second (2020)
Matt Berringer shares the same deadpan baritone vocal delivery as Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave but the difference for me is, I actually like Berringer. There are examples of his work with The National that rub me the wrong way, but still much of it is brilliant. Three tracks are out ahead of his debut solo album due later this month, Serpentine Prison. “One More Second” and “”Distant Axis” are lovely ballads and set the bar rather high for what’s still to come. Usually when an artist splits with their original group to record as a solo artist, it’s usually to persue a slightly different sound. Not so much here. All three of these cuts could just as easily been National tunes.
Pigeonhole: Alt rock, folk rock
Soccer Mommy, Color Theory (2020)
Not too long ago Sophia Regina Allison (aka Soccer Mommy) was posting DIY tunes on Bandcamp, and now her second LP has just dropped. It’s worlds better than the debut and brimming with memorable tunes. “Night Swimming” is not a cover of the great REM song by the same name, but a beautiful acoustic guitar ballad that begins with the lovely stanza: “I want someone who’s following a dream/Someone like me/Feels the air inside their body running free/I want the breeze.” Her vocals and tonality bear a slight resemblance to another up-and-coming female songwriter making waves these days, Phoebe Bridges. My fave here is “Lucy,” a moniker she’s labeled her inner demon. “I look in the mirror/And the darkness looks back at me.” Allison says the album is represented by three colors: blue for depression, yellow for mental and physical illness and gray for mortality. Apparently whatever colors she might apply to happiness, joy and optimism aren’t represented, which probably makes for a much more honest collection of lyrics.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock
ZZ Top, Rio Grande Mud (1972)
I was in high school in the Eighties, so when I think of ZZ Top I think of overplayed, overproduced songs like “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Gimme All Your Lovin’,”Legs” and “Got Me Under Pressure,” all songs that, for me, wore out their welcome years ago. So it was with great pleasure I discovered this record, their sophomore effort, from 1972. I nearly dismissed it, too, but then something clicked during “Ko Ko Blue,” an incredible blues song with soaring guitar lines and amazing vocals, as if early Rolling Stones collided with Yes. Then I went back and listened to “Just Got Paid” again and, damn, it’s really incredible, too. Some spectacular musicianship on this record, and Billy Gibbons’ vocals are perfect for the job (see also the phenomenal blues jam “Bar-B-Q”).
Pigeonhole: Southern rock, blues rock
Band of Horses, Why Are You Ok (2016)
Not sure why this album didn’t click more with me back when I heard it originally. Gave it another spin after really liking Infinite Arms (2010). Particularly enjoy “Found it in a Drawer.” although the mystery remains, after four minutes, to exactly what was found in the drawer. There’s mention of going to the laundromat, so perhaps the writer is searching for a lost rewards card at the bottom of the drawer. “Casual Party” is another highlight, although the subject matter is, again, a little murky, jumping from vacation homes, awful television, kids, a dog and a freshly-mowed lawn. BOH is gradually moving up my “like” meter, so I’m amending the 2016 best of list, moving Bob Mould’s Patch the Sky to the honorable mention category to make room for Why Are You Ok. Bob is a prolific songwriter, one of my all-time favorites. He’s also an album-releaser of monumental proportions, although there hasn’t been much variation in style over the years.
Pigeonhole: Indie pop, folk rock
Edgar Winter Group,They Only Come Out at Night (1972)
Between the notorious albino brothers, Edgar and Johnny Winter, my preference was always Johnny. His 1976 live album Captured Live! was the first true blues album I connected with, even though it would be another decade before I blossomed into a devote blues purist and quasi aficionado (Johnny produced three Muddy Waters albums in the late Seventies which, for me, are amongst the greatest blues records ever recorded.) So needless to say, Edgar was always the lesser Winter brother in my eyes, but this recording is surprisingly good. It contains what is arguably one of the most recognizable rock instrumentals of the Seventies, “Frankenstein,” which was only slightly more ubiquitous than the other over-played instrumental of the day, the Moog synth heavy “Popcorn,” by one-hit wonder Hot Butter (can you get any more contrived?). Edgar’s classic “Free Ride” is here, too (not to be confused with “Free Bird”). Sadly, “Autumn” slams the breaks on the momentum; a terrible ballad, made worse by how good the rest of the album is.
Pigeonhole: Rock, blues rock
The Japanese House, Chewing Cotton Wool (2020)
Another DIY artist on the move is Amber Bain, the talented English musician who performs under the name The Japanese House. Other than last year’s Good at Falling, she has released only LPs since 2015, six in all. If that weren’t formulaic enough, each EP is exactly four songs apiece, smart, perhaps, in this age of scattered attention spans. She does it all here: vocals, keyboards, guitar and synth. The heavily-handed production plays as much a roll here as any instrument or vocal. Her songwriting and androgynous vocals have drawn comparisons to The 1975, so it’s not surprising that they have toured and worked together. Justin Vernon from Bon Iver joins her on “Dionne,” a heavily distorted arrangement that refers the great singer two generations younger than either Vernon or Bain. Particularly like the line “We played Dionne Warwick, “Walk On By”/And Freddy put his head between his legs and cried.” My personal fave is the final cut and title track. Minimal orchestration allows Bain’s voice to beautifully engulf the space.
I got motivated to check out this new album after reading an excerpt from lead singer Mikel Jollett’s book, detailing his ordeal as a child being held captive in the Synanon cult in Venice in the mid Seventies, and then later in an orphanage. The unsettling memoir serves as a companion piece to the album, a song per chapter. Musically, it’s way better than I expected. I’m particularly fond of the title track, which laments the demolition of the famous racetrack/casino in Inglewood where his father used to take him when he was a child. Referring to the track’s recent demolition to make room for the new NFL football stadium, Jollett sings: “And when they tore it down, there was a wrecking sound/And it rattled through my bones/And then a cry went out through the streets that night/’Cause we knew we’d lost our home.” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a song about modern gentrification until now. Also particularly wonderful is “All These Engagements.”
Elvis Presley, He Touched Me (1972)
I’d never listened to an entire Elvis Presley album until now and, to be fair, this was probably not the best place to start. The peak of his career had come and gone by this point and he was approaching “Fat Elvis” status. Before we go any further, I have to mention the title track. Oh, how times have changed. Yeah, Elvis was talking about Jesus, but even Jesus couldn’t get away with touching someone today, at least not without expressed consent. This was his third gospel album and clearly he hadn’t mastered the art even after a trifecta. It’s more evidence that most white folk should leave gospel to the folks that invented it, the black folks (compare this Elvis album to the one reviewed last week on M4S, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, and then decide who has the better gospel chops). Elvis still remains the best-selling solo artist ever, some estimates put his total number of units sold approaching a billion (yes, with a “B”). If there was anything on this album worth recommending I would, but I can’t. Although for sheer humor and irony, maybe give “There Is No God” a thirty-second spin.
Randy Newman, Sail Away (1972)
Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who famously battled mental illness and drug addiction, credits this album with keeping him from sliding further into depression in the early Seventies (he said he physically wrote down all the lyrics to the album longhand while he listened). Newman, the satirical Los Angeles-born singer/songwriter/composer, might be best remembered for his hit “I Love LA” (1983) or the tongue-in-cheek “Short People” (“got no reason to live”) from 1977. This album is considered Newman’s best and would launch a career that would flourish for five decades. It was great to hear “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” which Newman wrote but was popularized by Joe Cocker. “Old Man,” about coming home to bid farewell to a dying father, is a real tearjerker. Also love the circus imagery of “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear.” He’s had ninety-two Academy Award nominations in various musical categories as well twenty-two for original score, including nine Disney-Pixar animated film scores.
Pigeonhole: Pop rock, Americana
Avett Brothers, The Third Gleam (2020)
Their 2009 album I And Love And You is one of my faves of all time, but I’ve been a little disappointed in the bros since then. This new release is the third installment in the Gleam Series (the others released in 2006 and 2008) featuring a stripped down version of the band, with only brothers Scott and Seth Avett and bass player Bob Crawford. This one, like the other two, falls way short for me. The songs are missing depth and emotion; simple lyrics, simple chord progressions. In short, these tunes don’t make me feel anything. They’re simple songs about standard topics (parenting, surviving as a modern-day American), exploring no new ground along the way.
Pigeonhole: Country folk
Ryan Adams, Ashes & Fire (2011)
It’s easy to confuse the Adams musicians Ryan and Bryan. Rhyming first names only compounds the problem. I know one is better than the other, but I really have to stop and think which one. Ryan Adams once famously stopped a concert after a heckler kept shouting Bryan Adams’ best-known, albeit god-awful, song, “Summer of ’69, presumably as a joke. Ryan went into the audience, found the culprit, gave him thirty dollars as reimbursement for his ticket, and wouldn’t continue playing until the jokester left the building. So there’s your answer as to who’s the better Adams. Ashes & Fire is his thirteenth album, from which the single “Lucky Now” is perhaps the most recognizable song. But I was blown away by the rest of it, a collection of acoustic songwriting so beautiful and (occasionally) heartbreaking you just want to hug the guy when he’s done. Two songs in particular struck me. “Kindness” is about a guy in need of help from a broken heart, looking for someone to offer a little kindness. “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say” is an anthem for clumsy guys in love who want to express themselves but somehow never can. I’m a sucker for melancholy songwriting, and Ryan Adams does it better than anyone. Worlds better than Bryan Adams.
Pigeonhole: Folk rock, indie rock
Aretha Franklin, Amazing Grace (1972)
Live albums don’t qualify for consideration here at M4S, since our mission is to highlight the best new material from a particular year, and live albums (like greatest hits collections and a soundtracks) tend to be made up of songs spanning many different years. But I felt I had to at least listen to this album, since it’s the biggest seller in Aretha’s fifty-plus year career, and the highest-selling gospel record of all time (over two million copies in the US). Now I know why. Holy cow, what an experience! I’m not a religious man but by the end of this record I would have bought anything Aretha Franklin was selling, from encyclopedias to Jesus. Recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles with the Southern California Community Choir, this double album makes you feel like you you’re right there, almost fifty years ago, jumping up from the pews and shouting “Hallelujah!” Absolutely not to be missed is the eleven-minute version of “Amazing Grace.” It’s nothing like what you expect.
Destroyer, Kaputt (2011)
This (2011) wasn’t an easy year to choose a best album. Back then, the only albums I was listening to from 2011 were by The Decemberists, Bob Schneider and Adel. Going back, I find numerous gems I missed. Among the eighty-two albums I considered, I settled on Kaputt by Destroyer as my top album of the year. I initially balked at listening to this record, based solely on the band’s name. I made the inaccurate assumption they were metal or goth, that they’d be ear splitting and bombastic. Nothing could be further from the truth. I found it helpful to approach this band with an open mind and willingness to bend the definition of pop/rock. Frontman Dan Bejar (late of the New Pornographers) is admittedly an acquired taste. He doesn’t have so much a singer’s voice but an actor’s delivery. His poetic lines often feel off key. He’s been compared to David Bowie, I suspect more because he redefines stereotypes and not because there’s any like-for-like comparison between Bowie and Bejar. This is Destroyer’s ninth album (Kaputt my personal introduction to the band) and Bejar credits both Miles Davis and Roxy Music as inspiration for the laid back, lounge-ish feel. Kaputt’s true place in history might lie somewhere in the early Eighties; a combination of soft rock, smooth jazz and romantic pop. My personal favorite is “Poor in Love,” about a guy who’s either been deprived of love or knows he’s woefully inadequate at it. Either way, the use of the word “poor” to describe his predicament really underscores the emotion.
1. Destroyer, Kaputt 2. Ryan Adams, Ashes & Fire 3. Wilco, The Whole Love 4. Tom Waits, Bad As Me 5. Bob Schneider, A Perfect Day 6. Adel, 21 7. M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming 8. SBRKT, SBRKT 9. Cage The Elephant, Thank You Happy Birthday 10. The Decembrists, The King Is Dead
Tinariwen, Tassili St. Vincent, Strange Mercy Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’ Little Dragon, Ritual Union TV On The Radio, Nine Types of Light Elbow, Build A Rocket Boys My Morning Jacket, Circuital Girls, Father Son Holy Ghost
Washed Out, Purple Noon (2020)
One of my favorite musical genres, if for no other reason than the implication, is “bedroom pop.” I guess such music is supposed to promote certain activities in the bedroom. Personally, I think the genre should be broken down further, to take into consideration what kind of (let’s face it) sex we’re talking about. I’m mean there’s the romantic kind, where you gaze into each other’s eyes in a loving embrace, and then there’s the animalistic kind, where it’s mostly about self gratification. The former, I would argue, is the version perfected by Ernest Weatherly Green (aka Washed Out). There is something sultry, sexy and methodical about pretty much everything he does, particularly on this new album. Green, who incidentally has a degree in “librarian and information science,” seems to grow a little more with every album. This one in particular seems richer in production value and harmonies than his past work, particularly stronger than 2011’s Within and Without, his best performing album previously (Within and Without just so happens to have a cover shot of a topless man and woman in a passionate embrace, where else but in bed).
Pigeonhole: Bedroom pop, dream pop, chill wave
M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (2011)
It’s not always easy to sit through an entire album. It has to be really special to keep my twenty-first century attention span engaged. Mustering the patience for a double album borders on a major life commitment. So it says something that I sat through this, not once but twice. Eagerly! At times it comes off a trifle overdramatic. The opening cut could be a mash up of the Tabernacle Choir and the NY Philharmonics. M83 (a reference to the M83 galaxy, a mere fifteen million light-years away, btw) is the brainchild of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Gonzalez, who creates a spectacle of sound here that stops just short of being over-the-top. The almost cinematic feel isn’t disingenuous. Gonzalez has leant his talents to both movie and stage scores (he was musical director for Cirque du Solieil’s VOLTA in 2017). It’s less than two minutes long, but “Another Wave From You” feels like that moment in a movie when everything comes together, where a plot twist is revealed in a crescendo of sound. “Echoes of Mine” could be used in scene where a victorious underdog finally getting her due. Other gems: “Wait” and “New Map.”
Pigeonhole: Synth-pop, dream pop
Glass Animals,Dreamland (2020)
These guys are quickly becoming a M4S favorite! ZABA (M4S: 4/23/20) and How To Be A Human Being (M4S: 1/19/20) are so good they made my best of lists in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Now this new record is a strong contender for the 2020 list. There’s something immensely appealing about Dave Bayley’s vocals (incidentally, he studied neuroscience in college; the fella’s multitalented). Much of the inspiration behind these lyrics came from Bayley’s flashbacks of growing up in Texas, where he was keenly aware of the expectation to fit into masculine sterotypes, which were unnatural to him (he’s straight, btw). In the album’s opening cut he sings: “You go ask your questions like what makes a man/Oh, it’s 2020 so it’s time to change that/So you go make an album and call it Dreamland.” GA trods on some new ground here, specifically “Tokyo Drifting,” featuring American rapper Denzel Curry. In the song, Wavey Davey (Bayley’s ultra ego) is snorting something: “Drug lust and two packets in your pocket/Clear score, dust hits your nose like a rocket.” There are numerous highlights, my two favorites being “Your Love (Déjà vu),” and “Tangerine.” The last two minutes of the album (“Helium”) are beautifully fluid and gentle, colored with an electronic keyboard and a bit of suspense (spoiler: the song isn’t over when you think it is. Nor when you think it is a second time).
I can only assume everyone is as sick of “Pumped Up Kicks” as me. It was the huge (and unexpected) hit off of this album and was nearly impossible to avoid for the better part of a year. It was the only song I skipped when listening to this disc, which made the remainder feel entirely fresh and new, and quite good, surprisingly. My favs: “I Would Do Anything for You,” “Houdini” and “Warrant.”
Pigeonhole: Indie pop
The Who, Who’s Next (1971)
As it turns out, 1971 was the perfect year to jump back and start retracing my musical steps. (Reminder, M4S is now considering albums from two years at once, forty years apart, 2011 and 1971.) Perfect because 1971 was the first year in nearly a decade that The Beatles weren’t taking up all the oxygen. Which begged the question: Who’s next? There were plenty of contenders, and all relatively new to the scene, like Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, Yes, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Van Morrison (all English acts, btw) and, on the American front, The Beach Boys and The Doors. But for me it was this album that stands out in 1971, slightly edging Zeppelin’s IV, as my album of the year. I don’t believe the album title has anything to do with the question of who would take over the throne from The Beatles. It’s just ironic. Some of the lyrics here clearly wouldn’t fly today (on “My Wife,” Roger Daltrey threatens to get a gun, or a black belt in judo, or a tank to protect himself against his wife, who suspects he’s been with another woman). The power of this collection is astonishing, even fifty years later. There is no better album lead-off than “Baba O’Riley,” with its insatiable opening, the tinkling of Lowrey organ keys, the pounding of piano chords, then a drum combo which leads to Daltrey’s booming vocal introduction. The energy on this album just builds from there, with legendary songs as “Bargain,” “Going Mobile” and “Behind Blue Eyes.” Then, just as it started, the album ends with one of the great rock songs ever, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” punctuated by Daltrey’s scream heard around the world.
If you take the English bands out of the equation, it’s interesting to consider what was happening with American rock in 1971. The most interesting acts were mostly bands of color, consider Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Funkadelic, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Santana, James Brown. Not sure what the takeaway is from that, but it’s an observation worth note.
On a more personal note, 1971 was a pivotal year in my musical awareness. Barely in kindergarten, I acquired my very first full-length album, The Partridge Family’s Up to Date, an absolutely unlistenable disc now, but at the time, it was my entire world, probably because there were two little kids in the band (Danny Bonaduce and Suzanne Crough). To be more precise, they appear to be in the band on the television show, but aren’t even mentioned on the album; a detail too fine for my awareness at the time). Had I been eighteen instead of eight, perhaps my musical taste would have been refined enough to appreciate these amazing records:
M4S Best LPs of 1971
1. The Who, Who’s Next 2. Led Zeppelin, IV 3. The Doors, LA Woman 4. John Prine, John Prine 5. The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers 6. Funkadelic, Maggot Brain 7. Sly & The Family Stone, There’s A Riot Goin’ On 8. Santana, Santana III 9. Pink Floyd, Meddle 10. Yes, Fragile
Carole King, Tapestry; Joni Mitchell, Blue; Jethro Tull, Aqualung;Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On; Black Sabbath, Master of Reality;Elton John, Madman Across the Water;David Bowie, Hunky Dory; Al Green, Gets Next To You
St. Vincent, Strange Mercy (2011)
“Chloe in the Afternoon,” in addition to being the first cut on St. Vincent’s third album, was also the North American title of a 1972 French film about a love triangle that presented a multitude of moral dilemmas. What Anne Erin Clark (aka St. Vincent) is trying to tell us by using this obscure reference is anybody’s guess. In the movie, a married man fantasizes about having the power to seduce any woman he wants, but when an ex very nearly gets him in bed, he’s stricken with guilt and flees before anything can happen, in tears, to return home to his wife and newborn. In St. Vincent’s version, it’s hard to know what’s going on. “Find my heels/Heal my pain” is about all we have to work with in this lyrically sparse opener. Other highlights include “Champagne Year,” “Year of the Tiger” (about her experience with depression) and the magnificent single “Cruel,” about, among other things, the cruelty of having to “look good.” Clark began her musical career with the Polyphonic Spree and later as a member of Sufjan Stevens’ touring band. To create the eleven cuts on this her third solo album, Clark self-isolated the recording studio of Death Cab for Cutie drummer Jason McGerr.
Pigeonhole: Art rock, indie rock
The Doors, LA Woman (1971)
Like anyone with ears, I’m quite familiar with The Doors’ hits. Songs like “Light My Fire,” “Riders on the Storm,” and “LA Woman” are embedded in the memories of those of us from a certain era. But my Doors’ knowledge was pretty shallow otherwise, so over the last two days I’ve listened to every Doors album featuring Jim Morrison and have come to the less-than-novel conclusion: Jim Morrison was a tragic, fascinating and troubled soul, more poet than musician, and singularly responsible for the entirety of the Doors’ success. That final point was reached after also listening to Other Voices, released in late 1971, after Morrison’s death earlier that year. For me it’s proof that, without Morrison, The Doors really aren’t much more than a great blues band. Ray Manzarek is a phenomenal keyboardist and a curious character himself. But the mythology of The Doors is greatly diminished without the troubled Morrison. The Doors’ self-titled debut (1967) is in sharp contrast to what the Beatles were doing at the time, which was essentially monopolizing the airwaves with polished, almost bubble gum pop. The Doors were the anti-Beatles; Morrison the bad boy who incited chaos, drank himself into oblivion, and stuck his finger in the eye of authority. For me, Morrison’s final album with The Doors, LA Woman, is a masterpiece. Some of the most memorable moments aren’t even musical, the punch of a car accelerator that begins the title track, or the thunder clap and pounding rain of “Riders.” There’s nothing I can say about this album or this band that hasn’t been said before other than, if you haven’t listened to it, you should.
Pigeonhole: Rock, psychedelic rock
Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia (2020)
It’s still 2020 (damnit!) which means I’m looking for things, any things, to take my mind off, you know, 2020. Enter my latest distraction: Future Nostalgia by the English pop star Dua Lipa. This is her sophomore effort, which is always a scary prospect for musicians, but Future Nostalgia is anything but a let down, in fact, it’s leaps and bounds better than her debut. For me, it’s the most rewarding album of year, so far. It’s fun and catchy and danceable and quite possibly an addictive substance. It didn’t take long to get pulled in. She had my undivided attention on the second line of the opening verse, when she mentions a famed twentieth century Los Angeles architect by name! “You want a timeless song, I wanna change the game/Like modern architecture, John Lautner coming your way.” Not exactly the kind of reference you’d expect from an English pop star. From there, the record keeps building and delivering without a bad song in the bunch. It’s hard to even pick a couple favorites, but those in a hurry should go immediately to “Hallucinate,” “Cool” or “Levitating.” After that, you’ll probably be pulled in like me and listen to the entire thing. Over and over and over.
Pigeonhole: Synth pop, dance-pop
Black Sabbath, Master of Reality (1971)
I was never a fan. For one thing, when Sabbath was at it’s peak, in the early ‘70s, I was still a little tike, being raised in a suburban white neighborhood by conservative Presbyterian parents. Not that certain music was forbidden. But I wasn’t drawn to “metal” rock, and this album is considered one of the bedrocks of the genre. So today was my first sitting through an entire Sabbath album, and was rather indifferent, until the seventh song. Just knowing they were capable of “Solitude” made me suddenly question everything. I listened to the next song, “Into The Void,” with a more open mind than I’ve ever summoned for Black Sabbath and suddenly had an ah-ha moment, which inspired another pass through the album. What I appreciate most is how the guitar is not in my face all the time, as it easily could have been. Instead, it’s almost muted in the mix. Which makes the whole thing bearable. For me, if it’s not Jimi or Stevie, I’m not that interested in blazing guitar work anymore. Even with my favorite band, the guitarist is the only expendable member. There’s some nice drumming by Bill Ward, and Ozzie Osbourne’s voice is just wicked crazy. I’m not ready to kneel at the alter of Black Sabbath, I’ll only say the days of dismissing them based on not much more than a hunch are over.
Pigeonhole: Heavy metal
Fontaines D.C., A Hero’s Death (2020)
Truth be told, I was a little disappointed at first. Their debut Dogrel (2019) is an incredible example of Celtic post-punk and one of my favorites from last year (see M4S: 1/5/20). So I was expecting the same raw, controlled aggression here and, while there’s some, a mournful pall is cast over most of it. It opens with a creeping ballad orated by the monotone Grian Chatten. It’s not how I expected a Fontaines album to burst out of the gate, nor is the second cut any more brazen. A flurry of bass drum and high hat hints at something explosive, only for Chatten to chime in with vocals so deadpan and somber you want to reach for the Zoloft. It doesn’t all drag. There are cuts more in line with my expectations, like “A Hero’s Death” that repeats the line “life ain’t always empty” until the point is thoroughly driven home. “I Was Not Born” is a real standout that would’ve fit nicely into the Dogrel mix. “No” wraps up the album, again at a more plodding pace than expected, and with lyrics uncharacteristically bordering on uplifting: “Don’t you play around with blame/It does nothing for the pain/And please don’t lock yourself away/Just appreciate the grey.” The problem with this record, though, is probably me. I committed the ultimate sin: listening to a new record with preconceived notions. If, instead, I’d told myself this was just some random band from Dublin, I would’ve been struck by the diversity of tone and texture. Moreover, had A Hero’s Death been a blast furnace like their debut, I probably would have called it predictable and repetitive.
SBTRKT, SBTRKT (2011)
English musician and producer Aaron Jerome goes by the stylized name SBTRKT (the word “subtract” with several letters, um, subtracted) which seems appropriate since there are times it feels like these mixes might actually be missing something, too. Maybe it’s the skeletal structure of dubstep that makes most of these tunes work. This debut album offers several gems, like “Hold On,” “Look At Stars” and my personal fav, “Pharaohs” featuring vocalist Roses Gabor, who’s collaborated with the likes of Gorillaz.
Pigeonhole: Post-dubstep electronica, house
Pink Floyd, Atom Heart Mother (1970)
I haven’t smoked from a bong in decades, but lockdown tedium got the best of me and, while browsing one particular website, I hit the “Add to Cart” button and a few days later (today) my very own water pipe showed up on my doorstep in perfect condition. So I abandoned my regularly scheduled pandemic isolation plans to give the new apparatus a try, choosing Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother as accompaniment. About five minutes into the twenty-three minute opening title track, with it’s over the top orchestration and vocal choir, I had to stop what I was doing and lie down. The combination of everything was overwhelming. I’m not sure how much of it was the new smoking vessel and how much was Pink Floyd, but the combination demanded my undivided attention. At some point during the song I looked at my phone screen, saw there was another ten minutes to go, and I was like, okay, I’m good with that. This is Floyd’s fifth studio album and while the title track consumes the entirety of side A, the flip side focuses more on individual members. Keyboardist Richard Wright’s “Summer of ‘68” was the only one of these songs Pink Floyd ever performed in concert. The album is most interesting at the beginning and the end, finishing with drummer Nick Mason’s twelve-minute, three-part instrumental “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” which has so much going on, from ambient noise (including the disgusting sound of an open mouth chewing) to perhaps some subliminal messaging, it’s difficult to comprehend. But like a puzzle that makes no sense but keeps your interest anyway.
Pigeonhole: Experimental rock
Cubicolor, Brainsugar (2016)
There’s something dreamy and soothing going on here. Lead singer/songwriter Tim Digby-Bell, has been compared to Thom Yorke, but I hear more Tyrone Lindqvist of Rufus de Sol. His vocals make Cubicolor the wonderful listening experience it is. Take him out of the mix and you’d be left with not much more than a skeleton. “Dead End Thrills.” and “Mirror Play” are the standouts. Footnote: This post amends the Top 10 list for 2016, published a few months back. I’d missed this record back then, and circled back only after hearing their new album, Hardly A Day, Hardly A Night (a serious consider for the best of 2020). To make room on the 2016 list, I bumped Blackstar by David Bowie, which is an interesting album, but will be remembered mostly because it was released two days before his death).
Pigeonhole: Electonica, dream synth
Taylor Swift, folklore (2020)
Here’s something I couldn’t say a year ago: I’m a huge Taylor Swift fan. I’m now intimately familiar with four of her albums (see M4S: 5/26/20; 7/10/20) and unlike the other three (Lover, 1989, Red), this one took some getting used to. I like Taylor Swift in all her moods, but I especially like when she’s backed by big instrumentation. There are instruments being played here, but they’re muted, almost an afterthought. Some of the best cuts offer little more than her incredible voice, like the wonderfully stark “Hoax,” or “Peace,” a song most notable for the maturity in her voice. Or on “Seven,” which includes the magnificent bridge: “Please picture me in the weeds/Before I learned civility/I used to scream ferociously/Any time I wanted.” As only she can, many of these songs deal with love, sometimes shattered, sometimes euphoric, but always delivered in deeply emotional terms. It’s hard to hear “Illicit Affairs” and not think it’s about being involved with someone famous, say, Taylor Swift. I’m not yet enamored with every cut. The duet with Bon Iver doesn’t work for me yet, and I’m only slowly warming to both “Mirrorball” and “Mad Woman.” But overall, I’m shocked by this collection, if for no other reason than there seems to be no end to Taylor Swift’s ability to create incredible music.
Tom Waits, Bad As Me (2011)
At some point you have to wonder if Tom Waits will ever lose his edge. Far from getting tiresome, his shtick feels fresh as ever on this, his sixteenth album. It’s also his last studio album to date (could a nearly ten-year absence portend an overdue song dump to come?). Tom Waits is to music what Wes Anderson is to movie making, which is to say, head-scathingly eccentric and borderline unstable. How many musicians can claim to be relevant and fresh on album sixteen? There’s so much to like here, nothing skip worthy. The gospel tinged “Satisfied,” the blues burner “Raised Right Men” and the title track are my particular favorites. But there’s a golden nugget in every cut. Cameo appearances by such heavyweights as Keith Richards, Flea and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo.
This is one of the key players in krautrock history, although I admit my ignorance of them until now. (Sidenote: the term krautrock has been widely used in referencing a period in early German rock history. It has obvious derogatory connotations; the root word is certainly a slur against German people. I wonder when it, too, will fall in this age of language sensitivity). I appreciate this album’s cult following, but I have to wonder if the entire experience requires a certain amount of mind-altering chemicals. The influence of psychedelic drugs can only be assumed here; the reference, for example, to mushrooms on the second cut isn’t the kind you put on a pizza. Clearly songs like “Aumgn” — sixteen minutes of pure madness — were not meant to hear sober. Bassist Holgar Czukay described Can’s improvisational songwriting as “instant composition.” Bands from the Sex Pistols to Radiohead have credited Can with inspiring them.
Pigeonhole: Krautrock, experimental rock, avant-funk
Tinariwen, Tassili (2011)
Such a wonderful discovery! This Tuareg ethnic group from the Sahara Dessert region of northern Mali has been around since 1979 but didn’t start getting attention beyond the region until much later. This 2011 record won the Grammy for Best World Music Album, the title of which, I believe, translates into “plateau of rivers.” Many of these songs are about African landscape and the African condition, like “Imidiwan Win Sahara” which alerts: “My friends from Sahara our freedom is gone/Let’s unite or else we shall all vanish.” There is the occasional love song, like “Tamiditin Tan Ufrawan,” written to a “secretive girl friend” who goes from camp to camp “talking to all and sundry/When love is rooted in the heart/Only spells can rip it out.” The musicianship here is unique and complex, like the incredible acoustic guitar finger work on “Tameyawt.” Guest appearances by Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe from TV On The Radio and Nels Cline of Wilco
Pigeonhole: World, African blues
The Shins, Port Of Morrow (2012)
This is the band’s fourth album, but actually the first with this particular lineup. Frontman James Mercer parted ways with the original members after their 2007 album in what he called an “aesthetic decision.” The move appears to have paid off because this is a marvelous collection. Mercer has one of those great, recognizable voices in rock (also with Broken Bells and Modest Mouse). Perhaps most charming is the complexity of the lyrics. These aren’t simple narratives. Take for example the opening verse from one of my favorite cuts, “It’s Only Life”:
“Died in the world, you’ve been cornered by a natural desire/ You want to hop along with the giddy throng through life/ But how will you learn to steer when you’re grinding all your gears?”
There’s a lot to unpack there, and plenty left to interpretation. “Bait And Switch,” about a relationship with someone who turns out to be more difficult than anticipated, is a terrific jam with deep hooks and soaring vocals. “No Way Down” also covers a lot of territory, part environmental issues, part the disparity between the working class and the wealthy. Also, really fond of the quirky and amazing “Fall of ’82.”
This Shins’ album rounds out my Top 10 for 2012 (see full list below). I’m going to take a slight detour now and jump back forty years from the next logical Top 10 list (2011) and consider albums from both 2011 and 1971 (refresher: M4S is a project to compile best of lists from each year I’ve been alive). Also, this marks the first time I review a year in which I’m already familiar with several candidates. This will continue to happen, as these lists go back in time, to an era when I actually bought and listened to records. But there are still many, many LPs from the vinyl era still unheard. So as H.G Wells might say, let’s jump in the time machine and take a little trip. But first, the latest:
M4S Best LPs of 2012
1. Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
2. Poolside, Pacific Standard Time
3. Michael Kiwanuka, Home Again
4. Dave Matthews Band, Away From The World
5. Benjamin Gibbard, Former Lives
6. Xxyyxx, XXYYXX
7. First Aid Kit, The Lion’s Roar
8. Heartless Bastards, Arrow
9. Hot Chip, In Our Heads
10. The Shins, Port Of Morrow
HONORABLE MENTION: The Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio; Yuna, Yuna; fun., Some Nights; The Coup, Sorry for the Interruption; Deadmau5,album title goes here
The Chicks, Gaslighter (2020)
The heightened awareness of racial insensitivity has garnered another victory now that the word “Dixie” has been stricken from this storied country-rock group’s name. For years they’d gotten flak for the “Chicks” part of their name, but apparently “Dixie” is now the more offensive word, and so it’s gone the way of “Antebellum” for the band name now simply called Lady A. I was a huge fan of The Chicks’ albums Fly (1999) and Home (2002) but can’t say this current LP rises to that level. There are plenty of sweet spots, including the fist three cuts, particularly “Texas Man.” Later on, “Julianna Calm Down” is one of the more layered and interesting songs The Chicks have ever released. As has become their trademark, this album frequently delves into the behavior of awful men. The song “Gaslighter” could be directed at the current POTUS, but more likely at lead singer Natalie Maines’ ex-husband. While they were married he bought a boat and named it “Nautalee,” which is most likely the boat referenced in the kiss-off tune “Tights on My Boat” which begins with the line: “I hope you die in your sleep/Just kidding, I hope it hurts like you hurt me.” These aren’t all great songs. “I Hope It’s Something Good” is nothing short of dull. Boring lyrics and a drab arrangement with no new twist to the old theme of guy leaves girl for another girl. The next cut, “Set Me Free,” also just hangs there like a wet sock on a clothesline.
Pigeonhole: Country pop
My Morning Jacket, The Waterfall II (2020)
Earlier this year I discovered two solo albums by the lead singer of My Morning Jacket, Jim James, Uniform Clarity and Eternally Even (M4S: 1/8/20; 1/13/20). Loving both, I dug into the MMJ catalogue and found more gems. I’ve given MMJ’s latest release, The Waterfall II, several listens and, while I enjoy parts, most of it doesn’t grab me. The country-ish “Climbing The Ladder” is a bright spot, and “Feel You” is a great example of James’ vocal capabilities. But I’m not rushing back to this disc like I was with James’ solo stuff. His vocals on the opening track, “Spinning My Wheels,” feel almost sour.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock
The Coup, Sorry To Bother You (2012)
This album may have been a few years before its time. The current environment is perfect for a rebellious, political hip-hop collection, in the vain as Rage Against the Machine. This is the sixth album by The Coup, and its title was inspired by frontman Boots Riley’s days as a telemarketer. Kazoos take center stage on “Your Parents’ Cocaine,” about partying in a privileged kids’ house: “Your daddy gonna make you VP of sales/Don’t mix good shit with the ginger ale/Pacific Heights ain’t Sunnydale/You could murder somebody and be out on bail.”
Pigeonhole: Party rap
Troye Sivan, Bloom (2018)
Earlier this year I was enamored with the debut from Lauv, and now, in the same young, white, electropop singer category, I’m learning of Troye Sivan. The two have so much in common (like the same target audience) they’ve actually become friends. Sivan might be best known for co-starring in the gay conversion therapy movie Boy Erased. But this former YouTube vlogger is an incredibly talented vocalist. The big hit here is his duet with Ariana Grande “Dance To This,” although for me the first three songs are the best. Also exceptional is the ballad “Postcard,” a duet with Gordi.
Pigeonhole: Synth-pop, electropop
Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE (2012)
In the last couple weeks I’ve found half a dozen albums that will be among my favorites, probably forever. And it’s not exactly that long a list. The latest is channel ORANGE by Frank Ocean. My intro to him was blond in 2016, considered one of the top LPs of the decade. I loved it, but I may love this even more. It’s incredible, start to finish. And I mean literally start to finish. The album begins and ends with captivating ambient sound, the final cut had me completely mesmerized, after an emotionally draining hour of brilliant music. I struggled to figure out what was happening in the last two minutes of the album. It opens with sound from inside a car, the radio’s on, a man’s voice is heard, then some chatter, then the radio is turned up, a Frank Ocean song called “Voodoo” is playing, then the radio is turned down, there’s unintelligible chatter between people in the car, then maybe dubbed in sound of fire, then maybe a monster growling, then the woman in the car says she wishes (he?) could see what she sees in him. Then maybe the sound of kissing, more “Voodoo,” then the car door opens, then closes, then footsteps, through what sounds like puddles, then maybe grass, then more puddles. The rustling of keys leads to the sound of a door opening, then closing, then, inside the house, the sound of the deadbolt locking, then footsteps, and more footsteps, and that’s how channel ORANGE ends, and everything that came before it is absolutely incredible. At first I thought “Pyramids” might be overdone, at nine minutes plus, but now that I know it, there’s nothing to trim. It’s all scrumptious. And the album just expands from there. Not that it gets better, because the whole thing is brilliant. But I could lose myself in the last six songs on this album. From “Lost” through “Forrest Gump” it’s a magnificent ride.
Pigeonhole: R&B, avant-garde
Lady A: Doin’ Fine (2018); Need You Now (2010);
I’m amused by the current controversy involving the band formerly known as Lady Antebellum changing its name to Lady A, which also happens to be the performance name of a Seattle blues and soul singer who’s used the moniker for years. Worried that their name gave off too much slavery vibe, Lady Antebellum officially changed the name a few months back, which got Seattle Lady A in a tizzy. Now, the issue is headed to federal court! Which is all rather ridiculous, but also an excuse to listen to both Lady As. I chose Need You Now from the more famous Lady A and, aside from the familiar title track, it’s nothing I want to hear again. Way too cleaned up for my taste in country music. Seattle Lady A, meanwhile, has an amazing blues voice. Her guttural bursts on “That Man” and “Change the World” are just beautiful. But much like Need You Now is cleaned up country, Doin’ Fine feels like forced blues. It doesn’t strike me as authentic in either case. As for Lady v. Lady; all I know is, if Antebellum hadn’t changed their name, thousands of people never would have known Lady A of the great Northwest. So maybe everybody has already won.
Pigeonhole: Country, blues
Taylor Swift, Red (2012)
I used to scoff at Taylor Swift, back in the days before I’d even listened to an entire album of hers. I based this on an assumption, that she was a shallow teenage phenom and I, a sophisticated middle-aged musicologist (the middle-aged part being the only truth therein). I never felt part of her target audience. That was before I became acquainted with 2019’s Lover, an absolutely brilliant album. Then I had the same reaction to 1989. And now, this. I was familiar with the hits “Trouble” and “Begin Again,” which are both wonderful. But it was the cuts I’d never heard before that blew me away. Like the album opener, “State of Grace,” an explosive song with a gripping final stanza, or the powerful “Holy Ground.” Both are nothing short of epic. With three Tay Tay albums now under my belt, I’ve decided there are three categories of Taylor Swift songs: Ones about relationships that are flourishing and wonderful (“Stay Stay Stay”), ones about relationships that are rocky (“All Too Well”), and ones that are over but not forgotten (“I Almost Do”). I’ve also come to the conclusions that Taylor Swift isn’t finished writing a song until she’s absolutely sure it’s got a hook that lands, because she gets me every time.
Ed O’Brien, Earth (2020)
If this were my final Top 10 list for 2020, I’d call it a great year in music. But we’re only halfway through! Some of these will no doubt get bumped in the next six months as new stuff gets released. But for now, these are my favorites. I’m not big on naming the album of the year (or in this case, half year). But I need album art for this post, and I absolutely adore EOB’s solo effort, so it tops this list, at least for now.
1. Ed O’Brien, Earth
2. Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters
3. Lauv, Lauv
4. Poolside, Around the Sun
5. Jason Mraz, Look For The Good
6. Elephant Stone, Hollow
7. Moses Sumney, grae Part 1
8. Mac Miller, Circles
9. The Strokes, The New Abnormal
10. M. Ward, Migration Stories
Deadmau5, >album title goes here< (2012)
Joel Zimmerman, aka Deadmau5, is one of the famous masked DJs working today (along with Daft Punk and Marshmello). Perhaps that will be the first phase of reopening dance clubs: everyone in full headgear, just like Deadmau5 and his contemporaries. This is the sixth album by this six-time Grammy nominated Canadian DJ. Amusing footnote: In 2014 the Walt Disney Company considered taking legal action against Dadmau5’s logo, saying it infringed on the company’s trademark rights of the iconic Mickey Mouse image (the case was eventually dropped without action).
Pigeonhole: Electronic, progressive house
Benjamin Gibbard, Former Lives (2012)
He’s got one of those instantly recognizable voices, best known for his work with Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service. This is Gibbard’s first solo effort, and was eight years in the making, during the span of three relationships and long bouts of drinking and sobriety (he says). He’s credited with playing most of the instruments here. It’s a seemingly bottomless well of melodies and hooks without a dud in the bunch, my favorites being “Dream Song,” the quasi-country “Broken Yoke in Western Sky” and the ELO-ish “Duncan, Where Have You Gone?” Another unmistakable voice in modern music, Aimee Mann, appears for the terrific duet “Bigger Than Love.”
Pigeonhole: Pop, rock
Matt Pond PA, The Dark Leaves (2010)
I found this band under the “Fans Also Like” section of Spotify (not even sure which band I was originally hearing), and boy was the algorithm right! I had to listen to this record four times to make sure I was head over heals. I can’t put my figure on what’s so appealing. These are simple songs, nothing particularly remarkable about the playing or the vocals. But the songs are infectious and comforting in their simplicity. “Starting,” “Specks” and “Brooklyn Fawn” are standouts, but also I love the retro feel of songs like “The Dark Leaves Theme.” This is their eighth album, entirely produced with guitarist Chris Hansen in a cabin in Bearsville, NY. In 2017 Matt Pond PA disbanded, and whatever came next for them individually is something I will look into, someday.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock
Dave Matthews Band, Live Trax Vol. 29 (2014)
Recorded eighteen years later (June 1, 2013, in Cuyahoga Falls, OH), you can almost hear the rigors of touring, bourbon and cigarettes in Dave’s voice. If there’s a generalization that can be made between the two volumes, it’s that DMB became more of a band as the years went on. Dave was kind of the focal point in the band’s infancy. He was charismatic and attractive and his name was right there in the band’s name. But individually, DMB has always been a collection of some of the finest players in modern rock. The concert opener here, “Warehouse,” doesn’t get interesting until Dave stops singing and the others jump in, specifically Rashawn Ross on trumpet. This tour followed the release of Away From The World, and there are plenty of great obscure and modern era DMB tunes here, including the incredible “Captain” (which I’ve never heard at the fifty-one shows I’ve attended to date). Later, everyone gets the spotlight on “Crush,” which incudes a seven-minute instrumental jam highlighting the genius of drummer Carter Beauford and violinist Boyd Tinsley. This Live Trax volume was recorded after the death of saxophonist LeRoi Moore but before the exit of Tinsley. Jeff Coffin had been with DMB five years as of this show, and offers an incredible flute solo on “Bartender.” As for the original members, Beauford and Tinsley are nothing short of brilliant on “Ants Marching,” which builds a massive wall of sound in a legendary concert finale. This is a great mix of old and new material and a perfect example of a superior DMB show you might see today.
Pigeonhole: rock, jam band, jazz fusion
Dave Matthews Band, Live Trax Vol. 21 (2012)
About now we’d be headed into the bulk of the summer concert schedule which, for me, used to mean attending a couple Dave Matthews Band shows somewhere on the map. For years I used concert dates as an excuse to visit cities where I’d never been. Of course, Covid has ruined all that. As a workable substitute, I’m consuming DMB concert recordings known as the Live Trax (Trax being the venue where DMB got its start in Charlottesville in the early Nineties). Fifty-two volumes are available as of this date (I’ve heard twenty-five of them). Today I picked Vol. 21, recorded on Aug. 4, 1995, only three months after my very first DMB concert. This was the infancy of DMB. Only fourteen hundred folks were in attendance this night at San Diego’s SOMA. It’s impossible to ignore the band’s youthfulness here. As a rock vocalist, Dave is aging well, but the Dave here on “Don’t Burn The Pig” isn’t with us anymore. On the vocally challenging “Satellite” he sounds almost teenage-like, while his sharp falsetto hits every mark on “Pay For What You Get.” These were the years before Dave became a husband and a dad, things that always change a person. But his maturation hasn’t harmed the band. There is obvious youthfulness in LeRoi Moore’s sax playing, too. As brilliant as he is on “Jimi Thing,” he only got better with age (he was considered a virtuoso by his untimely death in 2008). Departed violinist Boyd Tinsley is also in rare form here, delivering a fevered performance on “Ants Marching.” DMB has evolved stoically, even with the loss of two founding members. Still, there is nothing quite like reliving the early days, and this is the perfect collection for just that.
Pigeonhole: rock, jam band, jazz fusion
Ghost Town Blues Band, Backstage Pass (2018)
Stumbled on this Memphis band’s new single “Poor Man’s Blues” and was struck with nostalgia. They’re an old-fashioned blues band like the ones that played the small clubs I used to frequent in the Nineties. They toss in an unusual array of musical instruments, including organ, cigar box guitar, harmonica, trombone and something called an electric push broom.This live album includes several covers, including the challenging Allman Brothers tune “Whipping Post.” But their originals are the most interesting. “Tip of My Hat,” “Shine” and “Big Shirley” are all great while “Give It All Away” includes a ridiculously killer trumpet solo that’s not to be missed. Maybe my favorite original is the wonderful drinking song, “One More Whiskey.” The album wraps with a cover of Robert Randolph’s “I Need More Love,” which feels like a Blues Brothers parody, and my least favorite cut.
Pigeonhole: Blues, country blues
Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate (2016)
When I acquaint myself with a new LP, I listen in order and, if I’m not sold after three or four songs, I’m finished. That’s apparently what happened when I heard this, Kiwanuka’s sophomore album (produced by Danger Mouse). I don’t really start enjoying it until the title track, the fifth song in. From that point on it’s phenomenal (with the possible exception of “I’ll Never Love”). So that’s why this album missed my top ten for 2016, although I’ve retroactively updated the honorable mention section to include it. Half of it is really incredible.
My introduction to him was last year’s incredible album Kiwanuka, which easily made my best list for the year. The texture and complexity of it blow my mind. Now, hearing this 2012 record for the first time, I find it every bit as good; a disc I’ll return to frequently, I predict. Like Kiwanuka, I hear subtleties on my second pass through I didn’t hear the first time. His voice is impeccable, always delivering perfect phrasing for every moment. “Rest” put me at peace like few songs can. It makes me wonder why I didn’t like Kiwanuka’s 2016 album, Love & Hate. My records show I listened to it, or part of it. Not sure what I didn’t hear then, but I’m going to revisit (probably tomorrow) and find out, because I may be obsessed with Michael Kiwanuka.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock, indie folk
Jason Mraz, Look For The Good (2020)
After seven albums, Mraz remains a happy guy with a great voice. Apparently this is Mraz’s white-boy reggae moment, as every song has some degree of reggae influence. There are lots of simple lyrics, like “make love not war” and “I was raised to love my neighbor.” Yet there’s still something refreshing about it all. I even like “Hearing Double,” a song that could easily turn annoying, as he repeats every line twice (thus the title). But like everything Mraz offers here, it works. The album is bookended by two extremely uplifting songs, the title track and “Gratitude,” in which Mraz repeats the album’s opening lyric “look for the good.” Mraz is part owner of a restaurant a few blocks from my apartment, Café Gratitude, so perhaps you see a pattern. He is also an activist and the founder of the Jason Mraz Foundation, which supports charities in the areas of human equality, environment preservation and education.
Pigeonhole: Folk pop, reggae
Ray LaMontagne, Monovision (2020)
This is a simple, stripped down collection that gently washes over the ears and leaves a nice, soothing residue. It’s entirely a one-man show; LaMontagne does it all, the instrumentation, the vocals and the engineering. Perhaps this solitary approach was the inspiration behind the album title. There are moments reminiscent of Neil Young, and even the Everly Brothers (on “Weeping Willow”). When he sings a line that’s been sung a million times, like “Lately, it’s the mornings that I miss her most of all,” there’s something refreshing in his emotional interpretation. There’s always something deeply human about LaMontagne’s music, and this album feels like a gift to a troubled people. Particularly delightful: “I Was Born To Love You,” “Summer Clouds,” “We’ll Make It Through” and “Highway to the Sun.”
Pigeonhole: Folk rock,
Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City (2013)
They developed the cuts for this album at sound checks during the Contra tour. It’s considered an experimental record with extensive use of pitch shifting, which involves manipulating an original pitch higher or lower, a technique used extensively in cartoons, particularly Alvin and the Chipmunks, Tweety and Daffy Duck. Such experimentation is expected from the audiophile members that make up Vampire Weekend. The complexity and depth of this album landed it on several best of lists of the decade.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock, baroque pop
Goldfrapp, Tales of Us (2013)
These are mostly trance-inducing, slow-burn ballads that deviate from Goldfrapp’s typical electronic leanings. Every song title is a given first name (other than “Stranger”), including “Annabel” inspired by a novel about an intersex child raised as a boy, and “Clay,” based on a letter written by a World War II veteran to his male lover. The album was promoted with five different short films, including a 30-minute anthology of the entire collection. Alison Gsldfrapp’s crystal clear, breathy vocals are nothing short of mesmerizing. The arrangements are fairly sparse, which gives space for Alison’s vocal range and versatility.
Pigeonhole: Synth pop, folktonica
Bessie Jones, Get In Union (2020)
Clapping. Lots of hand clapping. I guess because, when you’re a slave, you use whatever instruments you can come up with. Alan Lomax took on the project of compiling these working songs sung by Bessie Jones. The result was this sixty-song, two-and-a-half hour collection. Jones’ grandfather was brought to the New World in 1843 as a slave and fathered Jones in 1902. She was raised in the Gullah-Geechee traditions of the American south and had her first child at the age of twelve. Beginning in 1963, she was part of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, which toured colleges and festivals for the better part of two decades, including performing at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. Some of these songs include background chatter, of particular note is the ending of “Going to Chattanooga” where she talks about singing and “twisting” (dancing) while her parents weren’t watching.
Phoebe Bridges, Punisher (2020)
She’s only 25-years old but already Phoebe Bridges is quickly becoming a musical powerhouse. This is her second solo album in addition to her acclaimed work with BetterOblivion Community Center and Boygenius. Mostly a mix of melancholy tunes, her tender voice is accessible and appealing. The only cut that doesn’t work for me is the opener, “DVD Menu,” which feels superfluous. The next two cuts (the album’s singles) are simply incredible.
Pigeonhole: Indi rock, folk rock, emo
The National, Trouble Will Find Me (2013)
This isn’t my favorite album by these guys, but they always set a high bar for themselves. This, their sixth album, was nominated for Best Alternative album of the year behind the singles “Demons” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap.” Lead singer Matt Berninger’s morose and monotone vocals always work for me, whereas similar bleakness from the likes of Nick Cage or Leonard Cohen just make me want to open a vain and bleed out.
DJ Boring, Like Water (2020)
This album was released yesterday and after a couple passes I’m sold. There are some nice big electronic moments here, although there’s also some fat that could be trimmed from almost every cut. He sometimes spends a little too much time getting to the point. But overall it delivers bass-heavy, lo-fi house beats. DJ Boring is Austrian-born Londoner Tristan Hallis who, apparently, has a hot A/V set he produced with New York visual artist Amir Jahabin. It’s obvious these tunes would pair nicely with visual affects. Can’t wait for that kind of live experience in a club again, someday.
Pigeonhole: Dance, electronic
Jagwar Ma, Howlin (2013)
This debut from Australian trio Jagwar Ma delivers a steady neo-psychedelic beat likened to Primal Scream or the Stone Roses. “Come Save Me” stands out with soring vocals that could have been a Beach Boys hit in the day. The heaviest trance is courtesy of “Four,” a six-and-a-half minute, swirling mix of sound behind a deep pulse. Tasty mix of percussion and tribal beats on “Exercise.” They’ve toured in support of two other favorites: Tame Impala and The xx.
Pigeonhole: Psychedelic rock, alternative dance
Rhye is the Canadian duo of Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal. Milosh’s contralto androgynous voice could easily be confused for a woman’s, which makes the title track a bit ironic. If anything he could be compared to sultry legend Sade. The first two songs are sensual soul pop songs that set the tone for what comes next. Multiple instruments are used here, including trombone, violin, harp, flugelhorn, trumpet, clarinet, flute and saxophone. But subtle seems to be the underlying mood.
Pigeonhole: Alternative R&B, downtempo
The Brothers Johnson, Right On Time (1977)
“Strawberry Letter 23” was a quasi hit in 1977 for The Brothers Johnson. Written by Shuggie Otis, the 66-year old just released his own version of it and, I’ll be kind, it’s an admirable attempt. To truly appreciate this song, you must hear the Brothers Johnson version. Which I did, then checked out the rest of it. The opening cut “Runnin For Your Lovin” is a fun horn-backed jam. “Free Yourself, Be Yourself” is beautiful, for no other reason than its cheesiness (think theme from The Love Boat). The instrumental “Q” has some fun moments — a tinkling of a triangle, a couple killer Hammond lines. “Right On Time” couldn’t be more fun, or more dated. It doesn’t really stand up in the twenty-first century. But the Seventies were a fun time in music, and this album is proof. Otis deserves thanks for this record. As silly as it can sometimes be, it at least got me to hear “Strawberry Letter 23” for the first time in decades. There’s some similarities to Sly and the Family Stone, like “Brothers Man,” which is an incredible funky jam. “Never Leave You Lonely” sounds like a campy song from a discount wedding, but eventually evolves into a groovy jam. The record wraps with “Love Is,” a pretty dreadful ballad with an awkwardly uplifting message. As for the Brothers, Louis died in 2015; couldn’t find much info on line about George.
Pigeonhole: Funk, R&B
José James, Heaven On The Ground (2013)
He’s been called a jazz vocalist for a hip-hop generation. This is a totally laid back album, to the point of nearly inducing hypnotics. The title track is a tasty slow groove, as is the amazing “Do You Feel,” meanwhile “Tomorrow” is a bit tedious. There are two versions of “Come To My Door” (written by Emily King). James does a super groovy take, then is joined by King for an acoustic version. Both are so good I can’t pick a favorite.
Pigeonhole: Neo soul, modern jazz
Bobbie Humphrey, Dig This! (1972)
Dizzy Gillespie saw her perform in a talent show in the late Sixties and encouraged her to pursue a music career. This jazz flautist later became the first female instrumentalist ever signed to the prestigious jazz label Blue Note, and went on to perform with Duke Ellington and George Benson. I chose to feature this album, although I also heard Blacks And Blues (1999), considered her best. I actually found Dig This! more to my liking. The first two cuts have excruciatingly long intros but eventually get into a groove. It’s the third cut, an instrumental cover of “Smiling Faces Sometimes” (a hit by The Undisputed Truth in 1971) that boosts the record’s credibility. “Virtue” is vintage groovy vibrations, while “I Love Every Little Thing” is a delicious flute instrumental. “Nubian Lady” is another keeper. There are no vocals here, which begs the question: how much flute music can you take in one sitting (my answer is: about an album and a half). She’s now 70 and lives in Marlin, Texas; her last studio album was released in 1994.
Pigeonhole: Jazz fusion
Phoenix, Bankrupt! (2013)
Ti Amo (2017) made my top ten list that year, and it’s better than this one, but not by much. Bankrupt! grows on me the more I hit repeat. This is their fifth album and it follows the hugely successful Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Right out of the gate it’s a big electronic explosion (“Entertainment” and “The Real Thing”) behind the familiar and wonderful vocals of Thomas Mars (husband of movie director Sofia Coppola I just learned). The title track is a marvelous electronic instrumental for the first four and a half minutes before Mars chimes in to wrap it up. I really can’t get enough of these guys.
Pigeonhole: Synth-pop, electronica
LA Priest, GENE (2020)
I have varying degrees of excitement for the new music I write about each day. Even the best stuff is sometimes just okay. Other days it’s like finding a secret treasure I get to keep! Not that this album is a perfect 10 rating. In fact, most of it I’m not even that thrilled about. But the opening three cuts (and the three edited versions at the end) are absolutely awesome. Not sure I can even pick a favorite, but I’ll go with “What Moves.” “Beginning”sounds like a modern-day incarnation of the Talking Heads or Bryan Ferry. But I can’t stop listening to all three! Sadly, the album kind of falls apart after that. It’s almost like those three songs were produced by a different person than the rest of the album. The internet says: “LA Priest is the name Sam Dust, late of Late of the Pier, adopted to release his beguiling space-pop-psyche solo work following the demise of the band he founded when still in his teens.” Whatever any of that means.
Trey Songz, “How Many Times” (2020)
This single by three-time Grammy nominated artist is in response to the civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Songz sings the line “How many bro thers gotta die/How many more times?” backed by a full gospel choir. No doubt a trove of music will come out of these times. This just happened to be the first one that caught my attention, and I like it quite a bit. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Black Lives Matter and the National Bail Fund Network.
Pigeonhole: RnB, soul
Mayer Hawthorne, Where Does This Door Go (2013)
He’s heavily influenced by classic soul and Motown, but there are cues from across the musical spectrum here, which makes this a truly unique collection. Andrew Mayer Cohen (aka Mayer Hawthorne) draws influence from the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes and Smokey Robinson. But there are also Steely Dan moments, like “Wine Glass Woman,” and a hip-hop element (Kendrick Lamar co-wrote “Crime” and makes a cameo). All of which results in something entirely new and refreshing.
Pigeonhole: Retro soul, pop and R&B
Alec Benjamin, These Two Windows (2020)
Several of these cuts were released as singles over the last several months, all meeting with my full-throated approval. Now the balance of this record is out, and it doesn’t disappoint. This is Benjamin’s second full album and I have to say, there’s something very appealing about his vocal chops and his writing ability. I’m indifferent about only two cuts (“Must Have Been The Wind,” and “Alamo”); the rest I really, really like. This 26-year-old hails from my hometown (Phoenix, AZ) which isn’t necessarily a hotbed of musical talent, although I have high hopes for a long career in this case. (Also see M4S post 3/12/20)
Karl Bartos, Off the Record (2013)
Bartos is old school electronica. As one of the original members of the legendary German electronic band Kraftwerk, Bartos could easily be considered one of the pioneers of the genre. This is the third solo album from the now 68-year old and it definitely recalls a sound from the past. There are hints of Pet Shop Boys in songs like “Without A Trace” and “Rhythms.” “The Binary Code” sounds like a video game malfunctioning for a minute and a half, while “Musica Ex Machina” keeps a beat to what sounds like my building’s fire alarm accidentally going off. There is no new ground broken on this record. But there’s something nostalgic and charming about it, which is payoff enough.
Lydia Loveless, Somewhere Else (2014)
I rounded out my Best of 2014 list (just uploaded, see tab above) with this record from an artist new to my ears. She was only 23 when she recorded this and it was her third album! She’s a youngin’ with a healthy respect for history. “Hurt So Bad” was inspired by the tempestuous relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, whose ten-year marriage ended in 1974. It’s possible even Loveless’ parents weren’t born then.