Perfume Genius, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately (2020)
The stark and sometimes bleak tone of this record is established from the opening line where Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) reveals in dark overtones that “half of my whole life is done/Let it drift in wash away/It was just a dream I had/It was just a dream.” Clearly Hadreas’ lyrics have been informed by his complicated life, beginning as the only openly gay person in his high school. His fluttering falcetto at times recalls the late great Peter Buckley (“Some Dream”). There are some up moments on the album, like “On the Floor,” which are a nice mood shifts. This fifth album by Hadreas was partially inspired by his participation in a series of modern dance performances which heightened his connection between body and music.
Pigeonhole: Indi pop, baroque pop
The New Basement Tapes, Lost On The River (2014)
This supergroup of Jim James, Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith and Rhiannon Middens came together to transform a collection of uncovered Bob Dylan lyrics into modern-day tunes. The lineup and the concept were enticing for sure. But not much of it works for me. I can’t blame Dylan. He only wrote the words, among millions of others. Maybe there was a reason he never developed them into songs. There are a few highlights (“When I Get My Hands On You”) but even production from the great T. Bone Burnett didn’t produce a winner.
Pigeonhole: Folk rock, rock
B.B. King, Live At The Regal (1965)
There are two recordings by this blues legend considered among the greatest live performances ever released on LP. I listened to both (the other being Live at Cook County Jail), and found the sound quality far superior than what I expected from a fifty-five year old record. There’s nothing I can say about B.B. King that hasn’t been said before. My opinion is he’s a genius. He could make a guitar sing like no other and had one of the great blues voices ever. From what I’ve heard he never put on a bad show. I was lucky to see him perform a couple times. If you didn’t, this album will give you some insight into what you missed.
Benjamin Booker, Benjamin Booker (2014)
His sound has been compared to a match being thrown into a box of fireworks. Booker delivers sizzling guitar lines and raspy vocals on this, his debut, which has the intensity of Black Flag, the soulful vocals of Ray LaMontagne, and the blues spirit of Howlin’ Wolf. Andrija Tokic, who’s worked with the likes of the Alabama Shakes, produced this Booker album, and I hear similarities in their sounds.
Pigeonhole: Blues rock
Stereo MC’s, Connected (1992)
It’s a fair question. How did it take me this long to hear this album? I knew the hits (“Don’t Let Up” and the title track). But I had no idea the rest of it was so damn good. This could easily become an all-time favorite. These English whiz kids combine elements of early hip hop, funk and electronics to create a groove that’s deep and contagious. There isn’t a weak cut on the album, and there’s no easing of the throttle until the last cut, appropriately called “The End.” The song, and the album, end with female voices repeating in harmony “hear what I say hear what I say” and all I could think was, FUCK YES I hear. And I want to hear more.
Pigeonhole: Alt hip-hop, hip house, funk, electronica
Taylor Swift, 1989 (2014)
Many people these days are worried about opening the corona-virus economy too early. Which made my introduction to the Taylor Swift song “Out of the Woods” particularly apropos. The infectious chorus is simple and repeated in a tasty rhythm: “Are we out of the woods/Are we in the clear yet.” It’s a question on many people’s minds, for reasons different than what Tay was talking about. I like this entire album, with the exception of “Bad Blood.” As someone who has battled his share of addictions, I particularly appreciate “Clean,” about addiction to another person. I still think I prefer last year’s Lover, but only by a little bit.
Pigeonhole: Pop, synth-pop
Flying Lotus, Flamagra (2019)
Culling albums from 2014 for Best Of list. Listened to You’re Dead! by Flying Lotus. Expected great things in light of last year’s Flamagra (more on that later). You’re Dead! has its moments. “Turkey Dog Coma” really drew me in to its musical tapestry. But if there was ever an album that could be helped by a healthy dose of sativa, it’s probably this one. It’s a nice trip for sure. But I was glad when it was over. Like a buzz that’s just a little too good.
Flamagra, on the other hand, made my Top 10 List for 2019 (pre Music4Sativa) so I’ll give it some ink now because it’s nothing short of epic. Twenty-seven cuts in all, this musical odyssey from the brain of Steven Ellison (aka Flying Lotus) is not to be missed by anyone who appreciates heady music. There are some blow-your-mind cuts here (“Spontaneous,” “Takashi,” “All Spies,” “Inside Your House”). But “Fire Is Coming” may be my favorite. Half spoken word, the David Lynch-written story has you hanging on every word, particularly when the phone rings, and Tommy, the son, answers it, and says, mom it’s for you, and she says, Who is it? and Tommy says, I don’t know, some man, he said you’d know what it’s about, and then the look of concern on mom’s face and, by this time you’re so dialed into this stupid story you can’t wait to find out how it ends! I won’t tell you, although the title might give it away. This mystery segues into an incredible grove that could go on twice as long, if you ask me. “Andromeda” feels like the halfway point of the musical journey as things chill out after that. “Hot Oct.” ends the album the same way it began, with nature sounds, maybe gently burning wood? Or a steady rain? It’s hard to say for sure. But it’s mesmerizing, as is this entire album.
Pigeonhole: Electronic, jazz rap, lo-fi
The Strokes, The New Abnormal (2020)
This is my first Strokes album. I loved their hit “Reptilia” from 2003, but never did much Strokes exploring until now. This brand-new album is a force of sound and catchy hooks. Julian Casablancas demonstrates incredible talent as a singer and songwriter. There are nods to Billy Idol and the Psychedelic Furs, treats for folks of a certain age. A seven-year gap between Strokes records may have been helpful in developing this astonishingly solid collection. I’m not in love with “Eternal Summer,” but there’s something enticing about every other song.
Pigeonhole: Indie rock, garage rock, post-punk revival
Broken Bells, After the Disco (2014)
I liked their debut album but, having now listened to its full-length studio follow-up, I hear the weaknesses. It’s not full developed like After the Disco, which utilizes a 17-piece string orchestra and a four-voice choir. The Bells is a side project of James Mercer (The Shins) and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse). I have to agree with one reviewer who said After the Discois good, not great, and feels like it could have been better than it is.
The Weekend, After Hours (2020)
There was a time when being compared to Michael Jackson would have been a complement and, in a musical sense, I think it still is. The Gloved One came to mind when I first heard Abel Tesfaye (aka The Weekend). His fourth album (my introduction) demonstrates an incredible vocal range that spans over three octaves. There are times it feels a bit over produced, but that seems to be part of his theatrics. Like the bloody gauze strip across the bridge of his nose (a prop), I guess because the music isn’t enough to grab your attention. Michael had the glove, Abel has the gauze. Let’s move on. There are numerous highlights, particularly “Blinding Lights” and “In Your Eyes.” He already has three Grammy wins under his belt. After Hours will likely earn him others.
Pigeonhole: R&B, synth-pop
James Brown, Live at the Apollo (1963)
Something unexpected jumped out at me while listening to Robert Earl Keen’s live version of “The Road Goes On Forever”: The sound of a rambunctious audience enjoying live music in pre-social distancing times. It got me thinking about some of the best live performances ever released as LPs. I have plenty of favorites, but this is a blog about unheard music. So I researched the best live albums and came up with a list that I will revisit as Quarantine 2020 continues. I started with what Rolling Stone magazine says is the best live recording ever, James Brown’s Live at the Apollo. When his record label refused to finance the project, Brown bankrolled it himself, and the result is a record, considered one of the most important in American history. Like the “concert” itself, the original album is only 30-minutes long, but as you might expect from James Brown, there’s not a wasted minute, all backed by a chorus of adoring fans, most of them hollering females. His call and response with the crowd, like on “Lost Someone,” was particularly nostalgic during these days of shuttered concert halls.
Pigeonhole: Soul, R&B
Cornershop, England Is A Garden (2020)
There’s something wonderfully carefree and playful about Cornershop. Sometimes they come off as a Sixties-era pop band. The Monkees could have just as easily recorded “St. Marie Under Canon,” while “I’m A Wooden Soldier” is early Rolling-Stones ready. Jangly riffs and fluttering flute lines are sprinkled about, like on the title track, with a backdrop of chirping birds and subtle percussion. Cornershop has been around since 1991 and is best known for “Brimful of Asha,” remixed by the likes of Fatboy Slim. The band’s name comes from an English stereotype for convenience store owners who are often British Asians.
Pigeonhole: Alternative dance, Britpop
Lucinda Williams, Good Souls Better Angeles (2020)
Lucinda Williams sings about pain and heartache and mistrust like they’re daily, maybe hourly, conditions. She’s a master at writing songs about things not going well. Her latest, Good Souls Better Angels, is maybe her heaviest collection yet. The 67-year-old’s legendary whisky-tarnished voice tells a story beyond the lyrics. Sometimes she confronts her demons head-on, like on “You Can’t Rule Me.” The current POTUS is the target of her daggers in “Man Without A Soul” where she sings: “You bring nothing good to this world/Beyond a web a cheating and stealing.” Williams makes sure you feel her pain on “Big Black Train,” a train she desperately doesn’t want to board, but apparently has no choice. Williams has always blurred the lines of musical genres. There’s the grungy “Wakin’ Up” and the slo-blues fizz of “Bad News Blues.” On “Shadows and Doubts” she sings about depression (of course) as the “dark, blue days” that can “crush you.” But there are always rays of hope on her records, like on “When the Way Gets Dark” when she offers her hand and pleads for us not to give up.
Pigeonhole: Country rock, alternative country
I keep seeing new songs written about the pandemic and the resulting lockdown, many of them simply titled “Quarantine.” So I decided to search the word on Spotify and found numerous choices. Benjamin Gilbbard’s “Life In Quarantine” includes the phrase: “Inside the Safeway/It’s like the Eastern Block/People have a way of getting crazy/When they think they’ll be dead in a month.” Not the best rhyme but truth nonetheless. There’s Matthew West’s country song with the line: “Quarantine life/Quarantine life/Killing that Corona with a Clorox wipe.” There’s “Quarantine” by Levitation Room with the line: “The world isn’t safe anymore, anymore/Keep your hands clean/While you’re stuck in quarantine.” And then there are some actually good songs about the dire situation, like Umphry’s McGee’s “Easter in Quarantine” with the simple yet relatable verse: “I’ll see you when I see you/On the other side/Looking for a way to wait it out/Looking for a way to make it out.” Lovely song, beautiful sax work.
Pigeonhole: Progressive rock
The last time I saw X lead singer Exene Cervenka was in concert, 1987, when she was pregnant with her now 32-year old son. A lot has happened since then, although not a lot musically, until yesterday, when the legendary punk band released Alpabetland, their first studio album in 27 years. These are quintensential X jams, most at a blistering pace, except for the spoken-word cut that ends the brief collection (27 minutes).
It’s been 14 years since the last Dixie Chicks album and the wait will continue a little longer now that Gaslighter has been delayed until summer (presumably because of you know what). As a teaser, they released “Juliana Calm Down” today, and it’s exceptional. The reference is to Emily Strayer’s daughter and is a message to all women in toxic relationships. “Put on your best shoes and strut the fuck around like you’ve got nothing to lose.” The title track to Gaslighter was released last month and it’s equally awesome, everything you’d expect from Chicks. Natalie Maines’ vocals haven’t weakened in the intervening decade plus.