Can, Tago Mago (1971)
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.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock, indie folk