Tom Waits, The Heart of Saturday Night (1974)
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 scarcely 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 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 (again if I’m being generous) poet. John Lennon must have been 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 never care to hear either of these records again. I’m not sure why anyone would enjoy most of these tracks, other than for nostalgia sake. 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.
Pigeonhole: Experimental, electronic, drone, noise
Juana Molina, Un Dia (2008)
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.
Pigeonhole: Indie folk, baroque pop