Consumer Guide Drafts for Rhapsody, 2007
A number of questions remain on how to handle these reviews. They tend to fall into various groups.
Capsule reviews that have no known text source. Those from 2006-07 most likely come from Rolling Stone. Earlier ones are more likely to have come from Blender, although Rolling Stone is also possible, or some other infrequent (and poorly monitored) source. In some cases I have marginal notes, like a number suggesting a star rating; also included CG grades where known (S=choice cut, X=dud). These are:
CG-style one-liners. These look like honorable mentions, but weren't published in any known Consumer Guide. I'm guessing these were unpublished, written for possible future book use. Best thing here would be to give them star-grades and drop the [unknown] source tag.
Recombination Questions. In some (but not all cases) I combined the Rhapsody review with an existing CG entry. The only cases I did this for were graded Choice Cuts or Duds. The other existing CG entries were held to be preferable, although one could argue over HMs -- the Rhapsody reviews provide more information, but the CG format is the established norm for such records (at least since 1990) and they usually try to say the same things. On the other hand, Duds have no reviews, so anything in the Rhapsody review is a plus for information, making them more analogus to reviewed Duds. For Choice Cuts the two entries do quite different things -- I thought it especially useful to combine the two for large compilations, such as Michael Jackson's The Ultimate Collection, which in CG was reduced to a choice cut list.
One may argue that I should back out the recombinations and only go with official CG versions: those entries are listed under Recombined below.
Or, more likely, one can argue that I should go ahead and recombine the rest of the Choice Cuts/Duds rated entries, which are:
Note: some of these are also on the unknown sources list above, which was one reason I held out doing them.
Cross-Referenced Records Without CG Reviews. In the past I've created dummy CG entries for records that are featured in essays but never had a CG review published. Many of those were eliminated by the Rhapsody reviews, which basically hoist cross-referenced text. That leaves the following dummy CG entries, which would be candidates for the same treatment:
Records that could be cross-referenced not in CG database.
There are also a few records graded S or X in the CG database, that could be expanded by picking up reviews:
In these cases, we kept the previous CG entry instead of the Rhapsody entry. Most cases were rewritten to appear in a CG, many reduced to one-line HMs. Below find first the Rhapsody review with its cross-reference, then the actual (retained) CG entry.
John Anderson: Easy Money (2007, Warner Bros.)
New traditionalist stalwart Anderson finally returns to the label of his '80s heyday, aided by producer John Rich of Big & Rich. Rich also co-composed five songs, most notably the pre-breakup "A Woman Knows" and the rambunctious "Brown Liquor." This is a committed set, but Rich is overextended, and the fifty-two-year-old Anderson needs zippier material than he used to. On its finale, Willie and Merle themselves come to the rescue--a little too late.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
Animal Collective: Strawberry Jam (2007, Domino)
The sixth album by this neo-communalist, neo-psychedelic Gotham quartet improves on the model of 2005's Feels, flashing more shards of tune to lure the coeds with the Coleman PerfectFlow InstaStart Lanterns over to their unkempt campfire. The welcoming "Peacebone," the energetic "Chores," and the elated "Cuckoo Cuckoo" might get a young leisure consumer to risk conversion at one of the grotty neo-primitivist orgies their shows are bruited to be. Then again, the ninety seconds of weirded-up organ ostinato that then underlies or swallows three minutes of incomprehensible singing on "Winter Wonder Land" might inspire the same normal to stay home and watch Seinfeld reruns. It depends on how he or she felt about the six-minute centerpiece "For Reverend Green," where the listener strains to hear frontman Avey Tare rave, "I think it's all right to feel human now." Great, really. But didn't we know that already?
Rolling Stone: 3]
Anubian Lights: Phantascope (2004, Rhythmbank)
Twenty-five years ago, Adele Bertei was the androgynous gamine whose uncanny timing on a cheap organ made her the secret weapon of James Chance's punk-funk Contortions. Unfortunately, her eagerly awaited next moves turned out to be a few forgettable club hits. But here she emerges from involuntary retirement to fulfill her promise with L.A.-via-London beatmasters Tommy Grenas and Len Del Rio. "Wild Winter" and "Way Gone Man" are as mean and angular as her old fans might dream. And though things chill out once they're done, she's become a crafty vocalist, and her bandmates have gifts in the electro mode she favored in the '80s: try the Africanized "New Wildlife," or the Enofied "Ultraviolet."
[Rolling Stone: 3]
Buju Banton: Too Bad (2006, Gargamel)
Blessed with the biggest voice and most active conscience in dancehall and only 27 as the millennium turned, Buju Banton lost his way. His political message softened, and crucially, both his 2000 Unchained Spirit, on punk-linked Anti-, and 2003 Friends for Life, on reggae powerhouse VP/Atlantic, were more crooned than toasted. So this return to basics is a welcome improvement--stateside, Banton's never released such a headlong album. Also welcome is how skillfully he skirts the crude sexism and gangsta-influenced posturing that are today's ragga norm. But that's not to say he's got a bunch of crossover smashes here--fact is, he doesn't even have one. The beats hammer along, often relying on pleasingly weird and surprisingly effective low-pitched sounds in the organ family. But only when his musicians start playing (the Ventures'!) "Walk Don't Run" under "Me and Oonu" do they take off--for three minutes.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
Bright Eyes: Cassadaga (2007, Saddle Creek)
Musically, Cassadaga is a fully formed synthesis of the catch-as-catch-can expansiveness of Coner Oberst's Lifted-era bands with the country tendencies that have always undergirded his Middle American vocals. Longtime enabler Mike Mogis is everywhere, playing 10 instruments all told, and Nate Walcott mans multiple keyboards and arranges strings and woodwinds. In short, Oberst's prog and jam-band tendencies are both subsumed by a sensibility that's Americana in a winning, all-embracing sense--Americanapolitan, let's call it. And for the most part the material measures up. The first song establishes a crisis, the second suggests a quest, and "Soul Singer in a Session Band" explores mid-career artistic confusion like thousands of songs before it, only more memorably. Topping them all are "Classic Cars," as fine a reflection on June-September love as Rod Stewart's "Maggie May," and "Make a Plan to Love Me," for a career woman who whatever her real-life identity is not unlike millions of young women embroiled in similar romantic contradictions. With the help of four professional backup girls cooing the title hook, maybe Oberst will inspire a few resolutions.
[Rolling Stone: 4]
Buck 65: Situation (2007, Strange Famous)
The rapper raised in Nova Scotia as Richard Terfry almost tripped over his own ecumenicism on 2005's U.S.-unreleased Secret House Against the World--lots of keyboard, with singing to match. On this "hooked on drums" return, his worst offense against the basics is a concept--1957, among many other things the year the Situationist International began. Fortunately, the title is the last we hear of that. The concept is really just a rubric, a device to help him control his insatiable appetite for colloquial poetry. It permits him to write songs about Betty Page and shutterbug porn, right, but also beatniks, hobos, gray-flannel conformists, and cops in shades--while tossing off rhymes like "apocalypse"-"rocket ships" and "Drown in doubt. Down and out." Buck 65's percussive funk and gruff flow serve language that deserves no less. Anybody who can write a song that shows the Beatles the door is worth a check-out, right? "Nowhere Man," meet "Mr. Nobody."
[Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Johnny Cash: The Legend (2005, Columbia/Legacy)
Before he died of complications from diabetes in 2003, Cash recorded upwards of 60 LPs for Columbia's Nashville division between 1958 and 1982 as well as many tracks for Sun, three Mercury albums, and eight CDs worth of material for Rubin. As his mystique has grown, so has the listenability of his catalogue, much of it now reissued or repackaged. Yet though it has no Rubin stuff. this supplants 1990's Essential Johnny Cash as a definitive introduction. Its risky strategy of devoting an entire disc to folk songs, half hootenanny and half campfire sing, and another to collaborations with the likes of Dylan, Ray Charles, U2, Elvis Costello, Waylon Jennings, Rosanne Cash, and especially the Carter Family, finds good songs and fits them together. Even the eight previously unreleaseds blend in; "Doin' My Time" and "You Can't Beat Jesus Christ" shine.
Manu Chao: La Radiolina (2007, Nacional/Because)
In 2001, Euro-rocker Manu Chao celebrated his fortieth birthday with the most miraculously accessible album in the history of "world music." Proxima Estacion: Esperanza, a buoyant, melodically linked rhythm suite in three languages, now seems such a natural fact that you may listen awhile to its very long-awaited follow-up before you remember that it too had to sink in. But eventually the more guitar-based sonics here will feel inevitable too, especially once you follow the same dynamic riff through three consecutive songs up front. The attention getter, especially in Anglophone America, will be "Rainin' in Paradize," which curtly explains why country after country in Africa and the Middle East is "no good place to be." But anyone with some high school French can parse "Besoin de la Lune"'s two-minute catalogue of simple human needs just after that--and then wonder what the hell language "El Kitapena" is in (Catalan? Galician Portuguese?). Most of the second half is in Spanish, including an anti-fame song and one that seems to reference heavy rains in Ecuador. Its true subject, however, is the return of that riff--which definitely makes you want to learn more about Ecuador.
[Rolling Stone 3.5]
Ray Charles: Ray Charles and Betty Carter/Dedicated to You (1998, Rhino)
With all respect to Raelett Margie Hendricks, Carter, who later emerged as a major avant-garde jazz vocalists, proves the most gifted woman singer Charles ever worked with, matching him as they honor such tunes as "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," "For All We Know," and "Baby It's Cold Outside." But you can safely skip most of Dedicated to You, a concept album about girls' names that smarms out past "Stella by Starlight" and "Sweet Georgia Brown.
Ray Charles: Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection (1997, Rhino)
Selected in part by Brother Ray himself, reportedly upon the occasion of a seven-figure advance. Genius & Soul stands astride all of Charles's work, testifying noisily to his continuing vitality. Of course preferences vary. Of course there are classics passed by ("Mess Around") and rarities that deserve nothing better ("The Cincinnati Kid"). But embrace Charles's all-embracing aesthetic and you'll agree that, as seldom happens with these megaboxes, the final CD is a worthy companion to the first--that in fact Leon Russell's "A Song for You" and Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years," which end it, are more typical and just plain better than Ray's own "Confession Blues" and "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand," which begin it.
Patsy Cline: The Definitive Collection (2004, MCA)
Patsy Cline's soulful, precision-phrased twang was the perfect articulation of what became modern country. Unfortunately, her material was inconsistent and her production the all-too-perfect articulation of what provincial Nashville considered cosmopolitan. Believers go straight to the four-CD Patsy Cline Collection; skeptics are converted by the unadorned Live at the Cimarron Ballroom. But this intelligently remastered collection from her brief early-'60s heyday buries the echo-laden Patsy Cline Story as the single-disc Cline of choice on audio alone. Not only that, the selection rocks--better "Half as Much" and "Lovesick Blues" than "South of the Border" and "Tra Le La Le La Triangle." And as a bonus the "Walkin' After Midnight" is the 1957 one, from before Owen Bradley saddled her with all those backup choruses.
James Luther Dickinson: Killer From Space (2007, Memphis International)
Acolyte of Furry Lewis and Sleepy John Estes, sideman of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, producer of Big Star, the Replacements, and Screamin' Jay Hawkins, world-class songbag, downhome bon vivant, and fond father of several North Mississippi Allstars, Jim Dickinson is a legend. And since no mere record album could measure up against such a resume, it's a credit to the only label ever to finance two of them that this one reaches its shoulders. Dickinson is a roots-rocker with attitude who made his name as a piano man; always gruff-voiced and now sixty-five, he can't put across a sweet tune like "I Was a Champion" on sly smarts alone. But he's jovially horny on "Roly Poly" and "You Better Rock Me Baby." He's more broken-up than the titles of "Lonely Nights" and "I Need You" deserve. And when he caps "Dirty on Yo Mama" with a sermon about mendacity, damned if you don't believe.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
Bob Dylan: Modern Times (2006, Columbia)
Neither as existentially bleak as the fabricated folklore of Time Out of Mind nor as waggish and vivacious as "Love and Theft"'s coin of the minstrel-boy realm, he radiates the observant calm of old masters who have seen enough life to be ready for anything--Yeats, Matisse, Sonny Rollins. On a music-first record that leavens blues shuffles with the moderate tempos and politely jazzy beat favored by Dylan hero Bing Crosby in the early '30s, the finest moment is the descending 16-note hook that runs through "Spirit on the Water." Though it belongs on a piano, it's usually stated on an acoustic guitar and then taken up by shifting combinations of standup-sounding bass and Dylan's touring band. Sometimes it fades out early, but it always comes back, and you want it to--for all eight minutes of the song. Nice though it would be for the title to indicate "current events," the likely reference is Charlie Chaplin's 1936 movie masterpiece. In both, a legendary entertainer does what he wants because nobody can stop him, and the world is better for it.
Steve Earle: Washington Square Serenade (2007, New West)
Supposedly this Steve Earle record is unlike all other Steve Earle records because it was recorded with beats. But production by Dust Brother John King notwithstanding, it impacts just like any other Steve Earle record--lyrics first. So fans will follow the title's hint-hint and take this for the New York record of a Texan turned Nashvillian turned Greenwich Villager. After all, two of its strongest songs are "Down Here Below," a talky pan-NYC meditation from the twin vantages of Central Park hawk Pale Male and old-school New Yorker journalist Joseph Mitchell, and "City of Immigrants," which is as warmly appreciative as the subject deserves. Both pop up early on what is definitely a front-loaded collection. Two fine love songs to Earle's wife, harmony-singing Allison Moorer, come with one that drags. The endless, bandless, grooveless "Red Is the Color" drags more. And the Tom Waits cover--oy.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
Fountains of Wayne: Traffic and Weather (2007, Virgin)
The big problem with anointing Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger the great standard bearers of modern popsong is that there's no one else like them. Really, who? Max Martin? John Mayer? The Blur guys when they got along? If Fountains of Wayne resemble anyone, it's Randy Newman, who also escapes contract work with tunefully insouciant albums now and then. Difference is, Newman sounds as sour as he is, while Fountains of Wayne don't let on. Here they fail to provide the elusive novelty follow-up to "Stacy's Mom," but nonetheless invent many dandy new ways not to be in love. Two lonely young professionals don't-meet cute (she beats him to a cab in the rain); anchorpeople reveal their undying mutual attraction to fans awaiting the ballscores; a single proves so jaded she'd rather move back to Canada than pursue true romance with a Lichtensteinian in Bowling Green. Wasted potheads, doomed gamblers, and, oh yes, touring musicians also make their appointed rounds. On the rare occasions when love does rule, it's nine hours away on I-95 or has just lost its luggage. But with that DMV clerk they might just have a chance. You'll hope so.
[Rolling Stone: 4]
Ghostface Killah: More Fish (2006, Def Jam)
No reason to expect much of this hastily assembled holiday product, which began with outtakes from the midlevel Wu-man's other 2006 album, Fishscale--except that the current century has proven Ghostface the most irrepressible rapper of his generation with the obvious exception of his label president. This lacks Fishscale's intensity and focus, and Ghost's Theodore Unit helpers will never be Clansmen, although the possessed everyman grit of "Grew Up Hard"'s beleaguered soldier G suggests that Trife Da God has learned something from Forest Whitaker. Out of 15 tracks, however, only the crassly sexist "Greedy Bitches" is devoid of charm.
[Rolling Stone: 3.5]
The Gothic Archies: The Tragic Treasury (2006, Nonesuch)
Stephin Merritt is so facile he gets a lot of contract work, which whether or not it works in context comes off precious and miscellaneous on his other 2006 album, Showtunes. But these songs, aimed at the precocious youngsters who jones for the gleeful gothic gloom of the Lemony Snicket novels that have made sometime Magnetic Fields sideman Daniel Handler very rich, are of a thematic piece. Perfect for Merritt's melancholy baritone, they also satisfy his appetite for rhyme. "The world is a very scary place, my dear," Merritt intones. "It's hurled and it's twirled through outer space, I fear." Comedy record of the year.
Gogol Bordello: Super Taranta! (2007, Side One Dummy)
"There were never any good old days/They are today, they are tomorrow/It's a stupid thing we say/Cursing tomorrow with sorrow." So swears "Ultimate," the smartest song Gogol Bordello has ever recorded and the smartest song anyone will release this year. The beat won't be to everyone's taste: a defiantly oversimplified Gypsy stomp played loud and then double-timed by a Russian violinist, a Russian accordionist, an Israeli guitarist, an Ethiopian bassist, and an American drummer. But it rocks. And its optimism of the will makes the futures imagined by competing alt prophets seem weak-minded. This is an explosive album by a band on a mission. Nominally based in Brooklyn, Chernobyl survivor Hutz and his cohort fuse Gypsy statelessness and rock-bohemian "Wanderlust"--the title of a song about "challenging definitions of sin"--for a restive world citizenry uprooted by war and capital. If you're not an immigrant, they hint, you're lucky, but you also don't know what it is to be alive. Which makes you doubly lucky that Gogol Bordello has figured out how to tell you.
[Rolling Stone: 4]
The Go! Team: Proof of Youth (2007, Sub Pop)
This second piece of exuberant Brighton Brit-hop begins by resurrecting the great lost shorties Lisa Lee and Sharrock, of the early hip-hop crews Cosmic Force and Funky Four Plus One respectively, as resident genius Ian Parton folds their 1984 BBC cameos into a typically jammed-up track that's rife with trebly guitars and spiked by a four-man horn section. "Grab Like a Vice" is such a stroke that this auspicious follow-up album never tops it, hotter and louder than the auspicious debut though it may be. Still, it's the rare band that can switch from sampled music to live with no loss in riffage as they do here, and the almost-famous names who hitch themselves to Ninja's vocals do themselves a solid. Favela funkster Marina Vello commits "Titanic Vandalism." Elizabeth Esselink makes like her one-woman electro act Solex is a girl group. And Chuck D definitely knows what he's rapping about.
[Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Macy Gray: Big (2007, Geffen)
When Billie Holiday moved from Vocalion to Decca in 1944, she insisted that her first session for the hit-oriented label include a string section. It worked, too--"Lover Man" sold. In the direct corporate descendant of that shift, Macy Gray, her miraculous burred croon far more Holiday-like than most voices subjected to the comparison, gets the same treatment from new producer Ron Fair, whose credits include Lisa Loeb, Christina Aguilera, the Black Eyed Peas, and the presidency of A&M Records. As will.i.am's programming on "Ghetto Love" and Larry Gold's violins on "Okay" remind us, there's string writing and then there's string writing. Fair's is concentrated sugar water, and Gray, whose words have never bitten like her voice and who adds kink with a murder song as pointless as "I Committed Murder" was pointed, too often pens lyrics and sings tunes just as cloying. The strategy may work and may not. But no way will it yield a "Lover Man."
[Rolling Stone: 2.5]
Debbie Harry: Necessary Evil (2007, Five Seven Music)
Believe Debbie Harry's claim that love moved her to create her first solo album in fourteen years with the obscure NYC production team Super Buddha. Professionally, she must like these people; artistically, she's old enough at sixty-two to feel that life is too short for irony--for the role-playing she's specialized in since Blondie. Unfortunately, Super Buddha's pop-rock tends toward the ordinary just like these excellent values. Yes, their songs can be playful. You'll notice when the guitars escalate on "You're Too Hot," when Harry sotto-voces her sexpot act on "Dirty and Deep." But you'll really notice when a long diminuendo fourteen tracks in proves a bridge to the last three songs. The first is punky Afro-pop played entirely by Harry's Blondie-mate Chris Stein, the last a first-person meditation on suicide bombing by another old pal, Jazz Passenger Roy Nathanson. Both dwarf the rest of the record.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America (2006, Vagrant)
Keyed to the Jack Kerouac line "Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together," Craig Finn and company's third release in three years doesn't approach the faith-based weight of 2005's Separation Sunday, and somebody should stomp down hard on Franz Nicolay's cornball Boss keyboards. Nevertheless, the album makes its point with an abundance of narrative flair. The saddest entry is "You Can Make Him Like You," for a pretty girl who always finds another guy when she gets tired of her boyfriend's buddies or music or drugs. The happiest is "Chillout Tent," where the sadness is comic and the mook has his moment with the Bowdoin girl.
Imperial Teen: The Hair the TV the Baby & the Band (2007, Merge)
So about that title. Hair: Jone Stebbins tours with her styling scissors. TV: Roddy Bottum scored the defunct ABC series Help Me Help You. Baby: Lynn Truell nee Perko is pregnant in her booklet photo. Which leaves Will Schwartz as the band, still harboring dreams that these veteran art-pop up-and-comers will someday be remunerative as well as catchy. Catchy they remain on their belated fourth album--also bright, dynamic, tender, brainy, unpretentious, and civilly pansexual. But after barely playing out in five years, are they a band on the strength of a written-from-memory title tune about touring's frantic rush? Or of "Room With a View," about a rehearsal space where you can pretend you're "twenty for life"? Or of "Fallen Idol," in which Schwartz complains or admits: "Since I've gone solo/"We've hit a new low"? That low is pretty high. But nobody can pretend to be twenty forever.
[Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Jason Isbell: Sirens of the Ditch (2007, New West)
The Drive-By Truckers were a full-formed entity in 2001, when young Jason Isbell's yearning tenor gave the eloquent Skynyrd fans an actual singer and show-stoppers like "Outfit" and "Decoration Day" gave them a third songwriter who could lead most bands. Only now we get to find out: in April, Isbell quit the Truckers while his bassist wife stayed put. On Isbell's solo debut, musicians from the Truckers' orbit trade garage barrage for pop-soul structure, and often the songs are right there: "Grown," to the older girl who taught him how to take it slow; "Shotgun Wedding," to a guy who digs pregnant chicks; "Dress Blues," for a neighbor blown up in Iraq the last week of his tour; "Try," about someone else's marriage gone to hell on the road. Problem's the usual--like so many solo debuts, this one cries out for dramatic context and musical changes of pace. Good luck to all concerned.
[Rolling Stone: 3.5]
George Jones & Merle Haggard: Kickin' Out the Footlights . . . Again (2006, Bandit)
Because George Jones and Merle Haggard are our premier living country artists--male, anyway (hello Dolly)--their album of four duets and five solos apiece can't be ignored. Sometimes some synergy is just what an old dog needs, and having them sing each other's hits is a neat idea. But though the 75-year-old Jones will stand as one of the greatest singers in any genre, his vocal edge has blurred so noticeably in recent years that the wistful "All My Friends Are Strangers" isn't just his finest performance on this likable enough album, but in this millennium. So Haggard, who at 69 has been picking up his game of late, carries the team. On such solo shots as "Things Have Gone to Pieces" and "I Always Get Lucky With You," the words have clearly passed through his brain before reaching his larynx--a larynx that if we're lucky will continue to resonate for another decade.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
J-Zone: A Job Ain't Nuthin but Work (2004, Fat Beats/Old Maid Entertainment)
"Zone gotta do what Zone know best/Tell a story talk trash make you laugh be crass" ("Disco Ho," "Kill Pretty")
Keren Ann: Keren Ann (2007, Metro Blue)
Keren Ann is a languorous Parisian chanteuse with a throaty soprano that promises untold pleasures for as long as she likes you. "Lay Your Head Down" even hints that she'll still like you tomorrow, with a nice tune to back it up. One thing, though, mon chou--over here, we say "miss you like hell." "As hell" just doesn't sound right.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
Alicia Keys: As I Am (2007, J)
You have to admire Alicia Keys's commitment to her street-nice vision. In the year Ciara grew up, Rihanna left the islands, and Jill Scott explored the joy of sex, the twenty-six-year-old's third studio album envisions a hip-hop generation ready for its own Roberta Flack. Despite substantial input from Kerry "Krucial" Brothers, the rapper boyfriend Keys says she made wait a year to get down, the prevailing mood is reflectively soulful and the prevailing tempo mid. The pair's collaborations peak with two power ballads anchored by heavy keyboard hooks: the watch-your-step "Go Ahead" and the unconditional "No One." And while proven hitmakers Linda Perry and John Mayer add little, PlantLife's relatively obscure Jack Splash chips in on the album's two liveliest, loveliest tracks: "Teenage Love Affair," in which a street-nice girl stops at "third base," and "Wreckless Love," which goes "crazy" without specifying a single body part.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
Chaka Khan: Funk This (2007, Burgundy)
Chaka Khan has never bothered with great albums because she has such a great voice--juicy, airy, spunky, transported. Though she's fifty-four, it's also unfrayed, one reason this committed if never classic comeback makes its mark. Another is hot-no-more producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who add bite while discreetly leaving the songwriting to the likes of Hendrix, Prince, Sly Stone ("Time endures), and, hmm, Ed Townsend ("Foolish Fool" does too). Respect as well to Mary J. Blige's patented New Yorkese.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
David Kilgour: Frozen Orange (2004, Merge)
On 1990's bright little Vehicle, or 2003's rising and falling Anthology, New Zealand's Clean are the Velvet Underground with no darkness in them, fashioning calm, smartly paced drones that intimate an infinity they sanely decline to deliver. But the Clean were/are a band, and a slight and marginal one to boot. On his sixth (sixth!) solo album, nominal leader David Kilgour assumes that you'll care about the biggest cog in the machine (and his sidemen). The still-simple music is nonetheless fussier and woozier; the words lean away from trancy chant toward sketchy fantasy and reminiscence. Those with a yen for quiet lyricism may well find it lovely in a suitably mild way. The rest of us will wonder why he bothered.
Miranda Lambert: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2007, Sony/BMG Nashville)
Garth Brooks fan turned Nashville Star discovery Miranda Lambert stormed the country charts with the incendiary promises of "Gasoline" in 2005. Now she tops herself on what will likely remain the country album of the year. Just twenty-three, Lambert plays the rebel girl, revving up the mood of the Dixie Chicks' "Goodbye Earl" and Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman." On the lead track, she waits on an abusive boyfriend with her shotgun; on the title track, she leaves her pistol in the car and wades into the bar bare-handed. Lambert does have a thoughtful side. But the violent moments define a little lady who also cites the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb" and rocks a Patty Griffin cover. Smoking.
[Rolling Stone: 4]
Mac Lethal: 11:11 (2007, Rhymesayers Entertainment)
Sounds as American as canned peaches and has about as much wigger in him as Peter Bjorn and John ("Lithium Lips," "Jihad!")
[Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Biz Markie: Weekend Warrior (2003, Tommy Boy)
Veteran rapper Biz Markie commands a delivery so distinctive--"flow" nothing, its good-humored charm is all spittle and grunt--that he can cameo on other people's records for as long he breathes. Biz's own albums, however, were never unexceptionable. His first since the best and most obscure of them, 1993's All Samples Cleared, begins with the unlikely claim that he's "the funkiest brother on the earth" and damn near proves it with the help of a Curtis Mayfield beat. And though nothing equally down ensues, it's refreshing to hear a professional who's as proven as LL Cool J tend to bizness: "Not number one but here to have fun/Guaranteed to proceed and get the job done."
[unknown (Blender): 3]
Maroon 5: It Won't Be Soon Before Long (2007, A&M/Octone)
Justin Timberlake is subtler, and will remain the hipster's popster--there's nothing as rhythmically profound as "My Love" here. But there's more meaty-beaty dynamite. The debut was a breakup album, brightly surfaced but sour underneath. This one's the diary of a top dog--a multiplatinum idol with a soulful falsetto who's dated Jessica, Lindsay, Kirsten, you name her. Now Adam Levine says he wants to have kids, but he also says the "Give me something to believe in" bit in the rather nasty Jam & Lewis-styled kissoff "Makes Me Wonder" has a political subtext. Figure that voicing such feelings helps his dogging, and hope he doesn't mean it. Levine is too good at catchy come-ons, catchy pleas, and catchy farewells to waste his sacred essence on social homilies others can do better. Instead of deep, he should work on nice, as in the good-guy kissoffs "Nothing Lasts Forever" and "Better That We Break" or the memorable "Won't Go Home Without You," which combines confidence with affection rather than macho.
[Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions: The Anthology 1961-1977 (1992, MCA)
The stellar harmony group where Mayfield took his long vocal run-up to his maturity as a groove artist provides 30 of the 40 tracks here. A few you've never heard are generic postdoowop r&b, Chicago-style. Others you've never heard vividly demonstrate why Mayfield is mentioned in the same breath as Smokey Robinson.
[Rolling Stone: 4.5]
Paul McCartney: Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard (2005, Capitol)
Paul McCartney's collaboration with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich aroused hopes and fears better expended on the fate of social security, or maybe Pamela Anderson's love life. McCartney's first studio album since 2001--not so long in an artist of his accrued wealth and advanced years--most resembles his eponymous 1970 debut. Like that breakaway, it's slight and spare and fundamentally honest, with McCartney playing most of the instruments. But between his improved chops, the latest synthesizer technology, and Godrich whispering in his ear, it's rather straight where the debut was eccentric and charming. As the proudly "twee" "English Tea" makes brutally clear, charm doesn't come so easily to McCartney anymore. And though it's good of him to put in a word for kindness and creativity, wisdom doesn't seem to have taken charm's place.
[unknown (Blender): 2]
Paul McCartney: Memory Almost Full (2007, Hear Music)
"Dance Tonight" is so simplistic it could make you shudder, but repeated plays soon implant its strummed hook, and the rest of the album establishes that the party it sets up is a set-up--a bit of Eden before a fall that comes immediately with the peppy but regretful "Ever Present Past," about all the time a sixty-four-year old has already wasted on work instead of love. "Gratitude" is an astonishingly unrecriminating romantic fare-thee-well from a guy going through a bitter divorce. "Vintage Clothes" and "Feet in the Clouds" incarnate his nostalgia and whimsy with some wit and considerable musical invention. And the final tracks make clear that boyish Paulie conceived this record as the old man he is. "The End of the End" lays out funeral instructions that include jokes, songs, "stories of old," and assurances of an afterlife not all his contemporaries believe will transpire. And "Nod Your Head" appears to advise aging lovers on their beds of pain. Not simplistic at all.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
Nellie McKay: Ordinary Villagers (2007, Hungry Mouse)
Not long ago she vacated her Columbia deal so she could release Pretty Little Head at sixty-five minutes instead of forty-eight. But on this follow-up, she zigs where she once zagged--the nine songs last barely half an hour, and they're better for it. Track for track, it's no stronger. But things are over so fast that it's carried by its two or three standouts, innumerable charming moments, and kooky mood. Announced with an insouciantly sarcastic "Feminists don't have a sense of humor," the piano-bar "Mother of Pearl" serves as an overture to the Broadway orchestrations six horns provide thereafter. The clever lyrics seldom fully parse, not even on the paranoia panorama "Identity Theft" or the enticing fantasia that begins "Saturday night in the men's ensemble dressing room." They just flesh out a surreal musical you'll never see because McKay has already moved on to who knows what other projects--but would catch if she ever buckled down and finished it.
[Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Christine McVie: In the Meantime (2003, Koch)
Born in 1943, Christine McVie cut her third solo album as a 60th birthday present to herself--at that age, you can't get enough of them. And right, she's not dead yet. The singing is as solid as ever, the tunes are solid for the first half, and beats from Average White Band drummer Steve Ferrone generate enough of that streamlined Fleetwood Mac drive. Nevertheless, there are severe limitations to the romantic insights of a self-absorbed senior who's still working on her feelings. Her heart beats like a drum, her first cut is the deepest, and not only that: "If we can't be lovers then we really can't be friends." That "really" is a deft touch, don't you think? She may not know much, but at least she's learned scansion.
[unknown (Blender): 2]
Meat Puppets: Rise to Your Knees (2007, Anodyne)
Once upon a time in the eighties, the Meat Puppets made more tuneful post-hardcore albums than three stoned Arizonans had any right to. But though this comeback celebrates the parole of (ex-) junkie bassist Cris Kirkwood, tuneful it ain't. Best track by far: trancey death-cowpunk finale. Whoopee.
[Rolling Stone: 1.5]
Stephin Merritt: Pieces of April (2003, Nonesuch)
In 1999, Stephin Merritt masterminded the last great monument of 20th-century pop, the Magnetic Fields' three-CD 69 Love Songs. This brief, budget-priced, 10-song soundtrack cum artist sampler is never better than on two of those 69, "I Think I Need a New Heart" and "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side," though the 6ths' "You You You You You" comes close. The five new songs here all feature Merritt's meaningfully inexpressive monotone, shrewdly minimal arrangements, and flatly clever lyrics. But only "Dreams Anymore," about a disillusioned beloved living in a nowhere town, achieves the epiphany-in-spite-of-itself that propels a good 50 of the aforementioned 69 beyond the devotion to craft often seems his only reason for creating.
M.I.A.: Kala (2007, Interscope)
The debut Arular was about M.I.A.--her ambition, her education, her contradictions, her history of violence. Kala is about Euro-America's brown-skinned Other--described from the outside, although often in the first person, by a brown-skinned sympathizer who despite her star power is an insider only as long as her visa holds up. It opens with the spare "Bamboo Banga," which samples Indian Tamil filmi composer Ilayaraja and sets Richman's roadrunner knocking on your Hummer's door in India, Ghana, Burma, Angola, Somalia, Sri Lanka. "Birdflu" disses dogging males everywhere--"selfish little roamers"--over another filmi sample and a barely synchronized four-four on some thirty deep-toned urmi drums. High kiddie/girlie interjections add a cuteness that's sustained pitch-wise on "Boyz." Only with "Jimmy," a Bollywood disco number a kiddie Maya used to dance to for money at Sri Lankan parties, does a conventional song surface. Throughout, Kala is less pop-friendly than its predecessor--it's heavier, noisier, more jagged. But the music does soften and, occasionally, give up a tune. There's melancholy melodica, Sri Lankan temple horn, seventeen-year-old Afrikan Boy describing his hustles, and several child choruses, notably on "Mango Pickle Down River," where subteens rhyme about bridges and fridges to rhyme with the didge--didgeridoo--that provides their groaning bass. A riot of human, musical, and mechanical sounds bubbles underneath these tracks. Not a white riot, that's for sure, and not a dangerous one either--unless you believe every Other wants what you got and has nothing to offer in return. Kala proves what bullshit that is. The danger is all the evil fools who aren't convinced.
[Rolling Stone: 4.5]
Joni Mitchell: Shine (2007, Hear Music)
Joni Mitchell is the kind of aging egoist who gives ecology a bad name. On her first album in five years and first for Starbucks--a connection some anti-corporatists will foolishly disparage--she rails against environmental ills with the privileged pique of someone who considers the world's failure to resemble the one she grew up in a cosmic affront. Skillfully marshalling the jazzy growl and desultory melodies she's cultivated for decades, she observes that "there's just too many people now," compares our orld unfavorably to the Garden of Eden, and heaps cellphones with her gorgeous wrath. Given Mitchell's talent and prestige, it's a waste of precious resources that she couldn't have emulated the kind-hearted heroine of "Hana" when reminding the caffeinated consumer that nature is gravely out of whack. Instead, her most nuanced new lyric details an apostate tour-bus driver's descent into a luscious sin she probably knows better than she lets on. The runner-up is the title tune, where she grants the sun leave to bless all sinners--even cellphone users! Text her your thanks.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
Nils Petter Molvaer: ER (2006, Thirsty Ear)
With his mellow tone, flair for funk, and wide-open sonic pallette, Norwegian trumpeter Molvaer is made for his new American label's dubby, jazz-meets-electronica, remix-a-lot aesthetic. The quietest and most effects-laden of his three 2006 albums may still seem too weird to those who equate calm with brain death, but it's ideal for listeners who prefer their background music to give up some content when they focus in.
[Rolling Stone: 4]
Nils Petter Molvaer: An American Compilation (2006, Thirsty Ear)
Jazz standard-bearers hate 1970s Miles. It's shapeless, noisy, electric. It's Rock. It Doesn't Swing. Yet for trumpeters like Tim Hagans and Graham Haynes, 1970s Miles was a starting point. And no one has taken that music further than the Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer. Leading with the spooky 2001 title tune of ECM's gauntlet-flaunting Solid Ether, this is his new and highly suitable American label's attempted upgrade on 2002's beatwise NP3. With visions of profitability dancing in its head, it oversells both his funk and his melodicism. But that's not to say you can't chill to it--even have a little fun doing it.
Nils Petter Molvaer: Streamer (2006, Thirsty Ear)
With the best flow and the second-best funk of the three CDs Molvaer released in 2006, this live album suggests that Molvaer's shows must be exceptionally meditative--it's the quietest of the three. Yet at the same time it's the weirdest, fueled by extra vocal samples--lyrical yet eerie, noisy yet grooveful, calming yet surprising. Sometimes it's even straight-ahead, almost. But it always changes again.
Me'shell Ndegéocello: The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams (2007, EmArcy)
Though her deep voice is mixed down a little, most of Meshell Ndegeocello's seventh album--five of its tracks reprised from 2006's Article 3 EP--recalls 2002's Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape. Call it Sade unlite: jazzy atmospherics meant to evoke spiritual fundamantals rather than zoned-out surfaces. But toward the end, this changes. The last five tracks include abrasive funk, animist gospel, child-rearing reggae, and the prayerful near-metal closer "Relief: A Stripper's Classic."
[Rolling Stone: 3]
Youssou N'Dour: Rokku Mi Rakka (Give and Take) (2007, Nonesuch)
At 48, the Senegalese singer-bandleader Youssou N'Dour has been the world's the most consistent record maker all decade. His fourth album for Nonesuch isn't stone genius like 2002's chanson-inflected Nothing's in Vain or 2004's Sufi-themed Egypt. But N'Dour is no longer ever swamped by his own internationalism, and here his strategy of moving a few favorite musicians north to Mali changes up the Senegalese mbalax he invented without surrendering its Sahel gestalt. Translations from the Wolof reveal lyrics about Senegalese independence, Sufi saints, the value of traveling, remembering, thinking. They're worth following, as are the phonetic transliterations. But with N'Dour, the prime attraction is always musical, radiating out from a voice whose sky-like clarity and beseeching high end would catch you short in a singer half his age, but always including striking multi-part melodies and skilled guitar-bass-drums-drums-drums. Ali Farka Toure sideman Bassekou Kouyate banjo-fies five tracks on four-stringed ngoni. And if you're good, Neneh Cherry will treat you to a duet on an English-language closer that's worth the wait.
[Rolling Stone: 4]
Willie Nelson: Songbird (2006, Lost Highway)
With the still supple Willie Nelson down to a modest album-a-year pace at 73, for the Ryan Adams-produced Songbird to follow so close upon February's Cindy Walker-linked You Don't Know Me suggests that the old man just wanted to put this record behind him. Adams loves his band very much, and Nelson is an affable fellow. But the Cardinals' indistinct country-rock hybrid muffles the material. Compare the opener, "Rainy Day Blues," to 2000's sharp, showy Jonny Lang-aided remake; check how much clearer the indomitable "We Don't Run" came through on Spirit in 1996. Nelson is almost always worth hearing. Be grateful he put his stamp on Gram Parsons's "$1000 Wedding" and Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." But Christine McVie's title tune doesn't fly, Nelson's new "Back to Earth" didn't start all that far up, and Adams's previously unrecorded contribution is one of way too many.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard/Ray Price: Last of the Breed Vol 1 & 2 (2007, Lost Highway)
All now in their seventies, these geezers could have croaked their way amiably through their two discs of country chestnuts, or, worse, faked a puissance that was no longer theirs. Instead they sing like old men singing old men's songs. It helps that Nelson and Haggard show so little wear that they'll never inspire their deathwatch cults if they don't get with the program, and that Ray has been forced by time to replace his countrypolitan echo box with something more intimate and savvy. But somebody thought hard about the picks here, and even on the forlorn love songs we pray are strictly fictional by now, all three are feeling every word. Two pairings take on special resonance: "Why Me Lord" and "Sweet Jesus" as they prepare to meet their maker, and "Mom and Dad's Waltz" and "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine," written for parents who were younger than they are now. It sounds like they're singing to themselves, yeah. But it also sounds as if decades later they still miss their mamas and daddies.
[unknown (Rolling Stone): 3.5]
Brad Paisley: 5th Gear (2007, Arista Nashville)
Smart, low-profile Nashvillean Brad Paisley's fifth album features not one but two songs about how adulthood beats adolescnce--four if the two car songs count. Think he's worried something might be gaining on him? The broad, small-minded attack on a MySpace nerd proves it. Most of the adulthood songs are aces anyway, however. And then there's the priceless title chorus where he offers to check his new ladyfriend for "Ticks."
[Rolling Stone: 3]
Robert Plant/Alison Krauss: Raising Sand (2007, Rounder)
Robert Plant's Fender baritone has symbolized rock excess for almost four decades; Alison Krauss's virtuoso fiddle and mountain soprano have symbolized country purity for two. Post-Zep, however, the leonine Plant has put his star power behind roots musics from the Delta to the Sahara, while the demure Krauss has proven a fearsome workaholic, her vaunted modesty vying with her professional drive. So though Krauss brings folk cred to these new weird duets, ascribe considerable smarts and soul to Plant--and to producer T-Bone Burnett, who assembled the atmospheric band and plucked most of the half-remembered material from the ether. Lend your ears to Li'l Millet's "Rich Woman," to Roly Salley's "Killing the Blues," to the two Everly Brothers obscurities that cancel out the two Gene Clark obscurities. Skilled and inspired though it is, Raising Sand's relaxed, smokey harmonies and reverbed midtempo rockabilly don't always achieve the back-porch revelation they're going for. But they do both icons a world of good.
[Rolling Stone: 3.5]
The Ponys: Turn the Lights Out (2007, Matador)
The Ponys' excellent garagey-punky releases of 2004 and 2005 were proof of a form, not evidence of a mission. Delights in themselves, they promised nothing, not even that the next album would be any good. Perhaps due to the replacement of touring-averse keyboardist-guitarist Ian Adams by Chicago stalwart Brian Case, perhaps due to ye olde maturity, their move from lesser indie In the Red to greater indie Matador takes an echoed-up tack that's more Sonic Youth than Voidoids. But as the Ponys crash and boom and reverberate, never think they resemble either of these bands who promise plenty. Instead, their forebears are more along the lines of faux-arena formalists like Dinosaur Jr. and Spiritualized. This is the Ponys' next album, and let no one say it isn't any good--or much of anything else. As for the lyrics, there are some.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
Public Enemy: How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??? (2007, Slamjamz)
"I've been a spokesperson for a generation," Chuck D notes on "Long and Whining Road," a proud fact whose modest past tense suggests why these commercial has-beens still make terrific albums. Chuck has nothing to prove and plenty to say. Flavor Flav is the funniest rapper ever to bamboozle VH-1. And their young "baNNed" slams their conscious points down.
[Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Rilo Kiley: Under the Blacklight (2007, Warner Bros.)
Because Rilo Kiley's More Adventurous was a triumph of the well-made narrative song, its markedly terser and beatier follow-up, which is also the band's true major-label debut, will be accused of sellout. Instead, it's yet more adventurous, a prosperous band's challenge to its comfortable cult. Always too cute for serious indie cred, Jenny Lewis slips four songs about dangerous sex in which she herself might be indulging--right now, in her pretty prosperity--into music that's defined rather than just decorated by its stylistic flirtations. Repetitive if not wordless refrains pop up everywhere, one in Spanish with a Latin beat; here there's a soul horn section, there a Fleetwood Mac homage, there a synth outro, and almost nowhere much guitar-band alt-rock. The emotions aren't as detailed as in the past. But they're no less intense.
[Rolling Stone: 4]
Jill Scott: The Real Thing (2007, Hidden Beach)
Jill Scott took two-and-a-half years to follow 2004's Beautifully Human with January's Collaborations. Eight months later, the true sequel suggests that all those duets weren't just to help her writing. Scott's new album traces the arc of a relationship whose dissolution slows her down midway through--until track thirteen. There a new fella shows up to cure her "Celibacy Blues," touching off the whispered, honeyed "All I," a lesson for any horndog naive enough to believe that toned babes make better sex kittens. As with so many new r&b heroes, Scott's music is more about groove and mood than song. But more than Maxwell or D'Angelo, she cares about words, and no matter how poetically she muses, tracks like the turf-claiming "The Real Thing," the erotic "Crown Royal," the distressed "Insomnia," and the inspired "Breathe" always situate her in space and time.
[Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Blake Shelton: Pure BS (2007, Warner Bros.)
Close personal friend of Miranda Lambert and trouble-making new traditionalist Shelton cut this album mid-divorce, which is how he explains the thoughtful tone of songs that play on received language like "She Don't Love Me" (worse, she doesn't hate me either), "What I Wouldn't Give" (to make up for what I wouldn't give), and "I Don't Care" (actually, I do). The finale ponders suburban developers displacing farmland and honky tonks. "The Last Country Song," it's called. You can bet it isn't.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
Tartit: Abacabok (2006, Crammed Discs)
The best African record of 2006 came from even further north than the late Ali Farka Toure's gratefully reviewed Savane. A male-led, woman-dominated group of Saharan Tuaregs, Tartit were conceived by Belgian record men and sound more Arab than African, though they really just sound Tuareg. In the wake of the more masculine Sarahan band Tinariwen, their second album hops up the 2000 debut's drones and chants with faster tempos and the occasional Western rhythm instrument. Eerie proof if you need it that Islamic music, like Islam itself, comes in many forms.
Tegan and Sara: The Con (2007, Vapor)
As lesbians who never reference their oppression or even their sexuality, Tegan and Sara don't have men to lash out at, put up with, or gripe about. This may be why their uncommonly detailed love songs are so short on drama--a riddle worth pondering because their keyboard-heavy, new wavish music is also uncommonly catchy. When Sara changes up a chorus with a melodically climactic "But I promise this, I won't go my whole life, telling you I don't need," or Tegan caps a verse with a hook that goes "All I need to hear is that you're not mine," your musical impulse is to empathize if not identify. But the objects of their romantic ambivalence remain distant--the focus is the singer's feelings, examined rather than indulged. Tune-seekers will admire many of these songs--"The Con," "Nineteen," "Back in Your Head," "Like O, Like H." But that doesn't mean they'll fully connect with them.
[Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Linda Thompson: Versatile Heart (2007, Rounder)
Richard and Linda Thompson's bitter 1982 breakup had dire musical consequences. Solo, the bravura guitarist never matched the grace or depth of his duo work, and even worse, "hysterical dysphonia" prevented Linda from singing for years on end. The few records she did manage, even 2002's purported comeback Fashionably Late, settled for bland folk-rock lyricism. Here she's finally acrid again--helped by Steven Bernstein's horn arrangement on the memorable title tune, Rufus Wainwright's jaundiced eye on the specially composed "Beauty," proto-feminist wisdom on the traditional "Katy Cruel." Thompson puts more oomph into the sardonic resignation of "Give Me a Sad Song," co-written by her old pal Betsy Cook, than the sarcastic resilience of "Do Your Best for Rock 'n Roll," co-written like most of this material by Linda and Richard's talented son Teddy. But she was always a slow-one specialist, and it's a relief to hear she's no longer quite so calm about it.
[Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Richard Thompson: Sweet Warrior (2007, Shout! Factory)
Richard Thompson never shuts up for long, but his first electric album in four years is his toughest since a lot further back than that. The simple explanation is that he's good and riled about the war on what is after all his religion, as in the graphic and contemptuous Baghdad song "Dad's Gonna Kill Me." It's good to hear his scythe-like ax and forthright baritone attacking political evil for once. As ever, though, it's regular evil, the colorful sins of a few bad men and many bad women, that generally gets him going. The wham-bam leadoff "Needle and Thread" has him mending his soul after assorted hussies tear it apart; the mournful "Guns Are the Tongues" puts a young loser to work for a vengeful female gang leader whose real-life precedent goes unfootnoted. This stuff would seem even shtickier if Thompson wasn't so good at moral dudgeon--and at playing guitar. But whether due to fed-up outrage or a new label, its engagement level is a genuine up.
[unknown (Rolling Stone): 3]
3 Tenors of Soul: All the Way From Philadelphia (2007, Shanachie)
Comprising the Philadelphia-spawned lead singers of the three foremost falsetto groups of late soul--the Stylistics' Russell Thompkins Jr., Blue Magic's Ted Mills, and the Delfonics' William Hart--the 3 Tenors of Soul are more than a cheeky gimmick. Conceived and produced by Bobby Eli, a guitarist in the definitive Philly-sound studio band MFSB, they're an oldies act with a brain, like Mavis Staples doing freedom songs. Rather than dipping back into their unduplicatable catalogues, Eli picked them chestnuts by such coequals as the Spinners, the Bee Gees, Earth, Wind & Fire, and the Average White Band. Although the voices have diminished slightly with age, nothing seems forced or flat. Standouts include Isley-Jasper-Isley's scene-setting "Caravan of Love," Hall & Oates's specially composed title saga, and, in a finale that wouldn't be so perfect if it wasn't so corny, the Dionne Warwick-Elton John-Gladys Knight-Stevie Wonder AIDS-benefit smash "That's What Friends Are For."
[Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Thunderbirds Are Now!: Make History (2006, Frenchkiss)
In sweet home Detroit Thunderbirds Are Now! aren't garage enough, in outer Alternia not arty enough. Les Savy Fav fans think they're a ripoff. But there's a reason it's dollars to bottlecaps you've never heard Les Savy Fav, and that reason is--sigh, moan, cliché--tunes. Figure keyboard man Scott Allen provides those, with his guitarist brother Ryan pitching in when he's not riffing angularly or yelping anxiously, generally about something social if not political. Perfect for anyone who believes complex song structures are best served by pop amenities and punk attitude.
Tom Waits: Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards (2006, Anti-)
When Tom Waits claims he doesn't know why he called this three-CD set Orphans, he's being cagey. It obviously began as an outtakes collection--unreleased worktapes plus old soundtrack, tribute, and benefit tracks. Only then Waits, painfully aware that odds-and-sods projects were lame, decided to fill in some blanks with new songs, couldn't resist re-recording others, and ended up with a definitive album. Each disc has its own subtitle: "Brawlers" for rock, "Bawlers" for ballads, and "Bastards" for weirdness. Although the promo advertises "56 Songs. 30 New Recordings," only 14 can be readily found on other albums. Not every one is perfect, but more than usual are potential classics, including the mandolin-tinged "Bottom of the World," the unrhymed, unblinking, seven-minute portrayal of a Palestinian terrorist "Road to Peace," the thumping "Low Down," the bent mambo "Fish in the Jailhouse," bumptious claims on "Young at Heart" and "Goodnight Irene," and several of the shaggy-dog monologues Waits rolls out at shows: a grisly entomology lecture, a dad reminiscing about his cars, and "First Kiss," which were it true would tell us a great deal about how Tom became Tom.
[Rolling Stone: 4]
Junior Wells: Live at Theresa's 1975 (2006, Delmark)
In 1966, Chicago club regular Junior Wells, renowned for his soul-tinged spit-singing and his Little-Walter-meets-Sonny-Boy harp, released one of blues's great albums-as-albums: Hoodoo Man Blues. Unfortunately for his place in history, he cut it with a guitarist-vocalist named Buddy Guy whose star soon outshone his own, and who later took top billing on two excellent live Wells albums. Nine years after Wells's death, then, here's the man in charge at his favorite South Side haunt, with Buddy's brother Phil on guitar. Meshing into a loose yet intricate groove on the opening "Little by Little," confidently slurring Slim Harpo's "Scratch My Back," singing "Happy Birthday" to a photographer, topping things off with Hoodoo Man's signature "Messin' With the Kid," Wells is the king of a tiny realm that held forty customers. That time is gone. Here's a hint of how it felt.
[Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Lucinda Williams: West (2007, Lost Highway)
Williams has cited Bob Dylan's bone-simple Time Out of Mind as the inspiration for 2001's Essence, and West is in that mode. Riding a deep, lazy groove and keyed to a title refrain Williams repeats twenty times, the opener, "Are You Alright," employs the commonest words in the language to pound home how totally (and tenderly) you can miss your ex-lover. Or conceivably your mother after she's passed, as in the more imagistic "Mama You're Sweet" reminds us. Many of West's tracks are very nearly in this class, including the pained "Unsuffer Me," the vituperative (and, remarkably for Williams, funny) "Come On," the obsessive avant-barnburner "Wrap My Head Around That," and the formal exception "Fancy Funeral," a detailed, practical advice song Williams wrote after family pressure compelled her to plan and pay for her mom's. But then there are the washouts. "I'm learning how to live/Without you in my life"? "The mystery and splendor don't thrill me like before/And I can't feel my love anymore"? These aren't intrinsically disastrous lines, though "mystery and splendor" is pushing it; it's possible to imagine Trisha Yearwood or Nanci Griffiths covering them. But in neither case does the music put the songs across. And then there are the mock metaphysics of "What If," which with its silly conditionals is even more regrettable than her former low point, the biblical "Broken Butterflies."
[Rolling Stone: 4]
Kelly Willis: Translated From Love (2007, Rykodisc)
Once Kelly Willis's big, intent voice and impeccable simplicity made her a textbook country shouldabeen. But with four kids and a decade of marriage to fellow shouldabeen Bruce Robison in the bank, her good taste tethers her to the old homestead on her first album since 2002, taking off only once: on an unlikely cover of Iggy Pop's "Success" brought to her by producer Chuck Prophet and arranged for a ghost version of the Sir Douglas Quintet.
[Rolling Stone: 2.5]
Brian Wilson: Gettin' in Over My Head (2004, Rhino)
Only diehards--and there are a lot of them--believe Brian Wilson can still sing. In the vocal fact, he's labored, bombastic, and pitch-challenged, far from a boy and not much of a man. It's not the cameos by Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, and Elton John that make this an improvement on 1998's atrocious Imagination, but the absence of schlock-rock collaborator Joe Thomas. Whether bigging up New Orleans r&b or bowing toward Nelson Riddle, Wilson's orchestrations have some juice. But from the bald I-have-survived of "How Can We Still Be Dancin'" to the lost fun-fun-fun of "Saturday Morning in the City," the lyrics are embarrassing. And the only time the old Beach Boys harmonies take off is the only time he doesn't overdub them himself.
Wussy: Left for Dead (2007, Shake It)
On 2005's Funeral Dress, Chuck Cleaver had a hand in seven of eleven songs; now, his partner in art and life Lisa Walker takes eight of twelve. More soulful, sinewy, and sexy than first appears, Walker's solicitous voice suits lyrics that mix goodly dollops of Midwestern Christianity--angels, communion, a Christmas play, "Killer Trees" that probably include the one where a man named Jesus was left for dead--with the occasional "love is running down my chin" or "We could get to know each other in the back seat of your van." But she's most seductive balanced up against Cleaver's pissed-off tenor and anxious falsetto, as in the irresistible infidelity duet "What's-His-Name." Instrumentally, imagine a Yo La Tengo too tight to get cute or far out dispensing a Velvet Underground derivative fluent enough to warm the erectile tissue of anyone with a thing for guitar drones.
[Rolling Stone: 4]
Neil Young: Chrome Dreams II (2007, Reprise)
The Great Lost Chrome Dreams was the original home of "Powderfinger" and "Like a Hurricane." Nothing nearly that major uplifts this slyly entitled collection, including its selling point, the Wacky Lost "Ordinary People," an eighteen-minute ramble through various meanings of the word "people" steeped in Young's lifelong confusion about popularity and democracy. But "Ordinary People" sure would have perked up 1988's horn-fed This Note's for You back when it was cut, and compared to the Icky Lost "Beautiful Bluebird," revamped to open these proceedings, it's "I Hear America Singing." Young was right to close with "The Way," a gloriously simplistic salvation song backed by a children's chorus that deserves to become his "Give Peace a Chance." But beyond that it's miss-or-hit. Even "Dirty Old Man" never quite captures the wicked glee that made "Welfare Mothers" worth a rehash. And the fourteen-minute "No Hidden Path" slogs even during its rather contained guitar solos.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
Borat (2006, Downtown/Atlantic)
The 2005 Rough Guide to the Music of Balkan Gypsies remains the definitive sampler, but for white guys who want to get their toes wet, most of the nine Gypsy tunes on this CD are pretty wild. For those who find the harshly soulful Esma Redzepova opener too esoteric, Fanfare Ciocarlia follow with a Steppenwolf cover, and Sacha Baron Cohen's two unforgiving satirical numbers--"You Be My Wife" and the legendary "In My Country There Is Problem (Throw the Jew Down the Well)"--are something completely different.
[Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Hyphy Hitz (2007, TVT)
Where crunk is a hit-hot style that under various subtitles spans the entire South, hyphy has been confined to the Bay Area. So give it up to TVT for showcasing 20 hyphy tracks that stand as proud if not quite as tall as the bangers on its two Crunk Hits comps. With the joy it takes in what Da Mucicianz call "going dumb," hyphy is the funniest hip-hop ever--stoopid rather than sexay. From A'z's nonsensical "Yadadamean" to Keak Da Sneak and the Farm Boyz' hickoid "AllnDoe" and the D.B.z' Family Guy-meets-Droopy "Stewy," the best of these songs get around by joking around. Because the beats are very electro--no power chords or soul samples--the dealer hype can get tedious fast when everything else isn't just right. But most of these rhymes celebrate the release of using inebriants rather than the rewards of selling them. And that--puritans be damned--is an improvement and a relief.
[Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Look Directly Into the Sun: China Pop 2007 (2007, Bloodshot)
Venture into a city to record unsigned bands and what you get is a whole lot of nothing in no particular order. Don't assume this one is different because the talent scout is PiL's Martin Atkins--who is also, after all, Pigbag's Martin Atkins. The reason's the city: Beijing, fifteen million strong, a hub of the kind of thrilling, contradictory upward mobility that gets kids rocking. Most of the songs are by English-singing guys with guitars who we'll call garage punk because that can mean almost anything cheap and catchy. Lament the three-song dip toward Gothy sludge toward the end. But get off on Hang on the Box's kiddie-femme "Shanghai," TooKoo's pushy "Take Me Home," Demerit's bish-bashing "Fight Your Apathy," even Snapline's pop-Goth opener "Close Your Cold Eyes." These eighteen bands are too excited to explore their contradictions yet. But that too will come, guaranteed.
[Rolling Stone: 3.5]
These are cases where the Rhapsody review was combined with an existing CG entry.
Bloc Party: A Weekend in the City (2007, Vice)
Many second-level pop stars have looked dumber agonizing over their own success than Kele Okereke. But however obsessed he may be with the celebrity fleshpots he frequents so unhappily on the lead cut, they remain a cliche to which he adds nothing, including a decent tune. Elsewhere he bemoans his inability to love, and so it goes. Okereke is singing with size and emotion, and producer Jacknife Lee noises things up nicely. But Bloc Party's beaty songcraft was never as intrinsically attractive as their multiracial image, and though the new bunch are sharply executed, they cry out for killer choruses now that they're not just outcries of generational frustration. The terrorist paranoia meditation "Hunting for Witches" is brought home by such a chorus, as is the strung-out "Sunday." But too often Okereke relies on his celebrity and production budget to make us listen. He should ask Brandon Flowers--this doesn't work.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
JC Chasez: Schizophrenic (2003, Jive)
None of Justin Timberlake's slyly seductive charm for this diva with balls--he's on the hunt for some serious pus-say. Eight of the first 10 tracks are sex-obsessed, with three promising to "love you all night strong." Only guys who entertain too many females in hotel rooms or spend too much time at worldsex.com believe this is what ladies long to hear. Just when you think Chasez will never get his head out of his ass, however, you find out why it's called Schizophrenic. For the final five tracks, the 'N Sync grad is convincingly sweet, pretty, and needy, notably in the most famous words he'll ever write: "'Cause when I'm all alone/I lie awake and masturbate/I love to hear the sounds you make/Baby here I come." This ain't Timbaland or the Neptunes--the musical highlight is a Basement Jaxx track hooked by what sounds like an electric tympani. But the electronic dance-rock gets the pop job done. If it won't lure the average hottie into bed, it also won't make her reach for the remote or drive her off the dancefloor.
Adam Green: Garfield (2002, Rough Trade)
As co-auteur of the Moldy Peaches, Adam Green specialized in childish id. On his solo debut he indulges his adolescence somewhat more provokingly than thousands of acen-fighting guitar guys before him. At its best, in titles like "Dance With Me" and "Computer Show," this is a conventional if adenoidal new (a/k/a "anti") folk album. At its worst, it's bratty for its own sake. Lines like "The lump behind the sheet is where the tumor took a shit" are just begging for us to say yuck, so let's.
[Rolling Stone: 2]
Al Green: Anthology (1997, The Right Stuff)
This plush but basically redundant triple-CD has two major selling points: "Love and Happiness" and "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" are the best live recordings he ever released.
Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection (2004, Epic/Legacy)
This well-selected, rarity-studded phantasmagoria of great hits, alternate takes, soundtrack oddities, previously unreleaseds, demos, and remixes traces an arc not merely of promise fulfilled and outlived, but of something approaching tragedy: a phenomenally ebullient child star tops himself like none before, only to transmute audibly into a lost weirdo. Until his fourth solo album as an adult, Dangerous, Jackson's immense originality, adaptability, and ambition generate genius beats, hooks, arrangements, and vocals (though not lyrics). This is no less true of 1970's "ABC" than of 1979's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" or 1991's "Black and White." While inventing sounds never heard before, Jackson changes with the times, from top 40 to disco to studio funk to new jack swing. This wondrous stuff will stand forever as a reproach to the puritanical notion that pop music is slick or shallow and that's the end of it. But as his troubling life gets away from him in the '90s, so does his music. The fourth disc wisely downplays his intermittent belief that the next step in his progress was Celine Dion, and two tracks from 2001's underrated Invincible prove that he hasn't lost his unnatural sense of rhythm. But theme statements like R. Kelly's endless "You Are Not Alone" and Free Willy 2's regrettable "Childhood" are quietly yucky, and the four new songs are bland, forced, or both. The big finale opposes war.
R. Kelly: Double Up (2007, Jive)
This album marks the moments when pop's longest running alleged felon came to release more music after being hit with child pornography charges in 2002 than he did in a decade-plus of untroubled r&b thuggery. Pre-indictment, Kelly's m.o. was to undercut much "Bump 'n' Grind" with a little "I Believe I Can Fly," but now he's added a new trick--not confessions, though the term is tempting, but dramatic pieces like the ridiculously mesmerizing "Trapped in the Closet." This album piles on the bump 'n' grind, from a title track in which Kelly and Snoop share two freaks apiece to the "sexasauras," kangaroos, and jungle noises of the ridiculously sublime "The Zoo." But the standout tracks are a dialogue in a prison visiting room, a duet where he and Usher figure out they're both in love with the same Georgia Tech grad, and the escalating rage of a break-up phone call. "Real Talk," that one's called--which sure beats sexual exploitation as an artistic specialty.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
Little Richard: Get Down With It: The Okeh Sessions (2004, Epic/Legacy)
The legend of Little Richard, which in a just universe would prove eternal, is based entirely on the sides he cut with Bumps Blackwell for Specialty between September, 1955 and January, 1957. This was pure rock and roll: lewd, feral, prophetically fast, prophetically funky, and beset by the identity confusion of a man who never did figure out whether he was gay. All that's accomplished by his other recordings is to demonstrate that his power howl and crazed piano triplets are equal to but not ideal for gospel, kiddie novelties, whatever's asked--on these mid-'60s sessions, the soul-r&b cusp. Their sole revelation: four previously unreleased tracks produced in London by Norman Hurricane Smith, at least three of which could sneak onto the Specialty box pure rock and rollers treasure. It's a worthy addition to Richard Penniman's oeuvre--but not to the legend.
Los Lobos: The Town and the City (2006, Hollywood/Mammoth)
Billed as a song cycle about a Chicano's epic journey from Mexican valley to neon metropolis--something like that--the East L.A. Grammy winners' 10th studio album may suit old fans but won't convert any new ones. Slightly stolid even at their best, these veteran roots-rockers have never been slower--they sound tired, depressed. There's subtlety aplenty in the singing and especially the guitar, for which credit both player David Hidalgo and mixer Tchad Blake. But unless you count the cumbia, not one song rocks out. And apart from the laid-back "Free Up," where the subtlety renders an apparent throwaway seductive with time, not one stands out either.
Sufjan Stevens: Songs for Christmas (2006, Asthmatic Kitty)
Mixing humorously observed originals with carols roasted on an open fire and obscurities dug out of the piano bench, these five EPs, four originally intended as gifts for fans and friends, achieve a shade of pretty just right for a secular holiday with special meaning for adults who grew up associating "The First Noel" with presents. From an early "Amazing Grace" to a new "Holy, Holy, Holy," Stevens's fragile banjo-and-tenor caroling is lovely, and several of his own songs belong in the Xmas canon, notably one called "Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance": "Your sister's bangs, she cut them herself" is a December surprise many will recognize. It's just too bad alt-rock's favorite Christian couldn't resist the sin of completism. Piled atop one another, the less inspired tracks remind us how very much nicer it is to get the one perfect gift you never dreamed of than a lot of crap you don't need.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros: Streetcore (2003, Hellcat)
Joe Strummer mellowed brilliantly in life. He raised three kids, avoiding pimping himself, kept his ideals while modulating his anger. But he never focused that brilliance artistically, probably because focus wasn't his thing--the two-minute intensity of The Clash was an aberration. The Mescaleros' world-music wanderings proceed directly from 1981's Sandinista! and are best joined on 2001's Global a Go Go. This follow-up was largely complete when Strummer died in 2002, only without vocals on two reportedly rousing songs that are therefore omitted--and also, oddly, without much international color or guest flourish. Strummer is probably telling Bob Marley about its folk-rock skank right now. But there's small chance Marley will return the favor of his "Redemption Song" cover even for "Coma Girl," a lament for a lost youth culture Bob's grateful he never had to describe.
Badlands (2000, Sub/Pop)
It's fine in principle for alt-etc. heroes to cover Bruce Springsteen's 1982 living-room bummer Nebraska it in exact sequence at a higher level of production. But tribute albums always come with artistic happenstance attached. The woeful Son Volt's generically mournful "Open All Night" generates more punch than the party song Los Lobos try to make out of "Johnny 99." Second-rater Deana Carter's eerily electronic "State Trooper" signifies more sharply than the great Ani DiFranco's bitterly electronic "Used Cars." And only Johnny Cash truly nails anything--"I'm on Fire," one of three bonus tracks. Dar Williams's perfectly well-sung "Highway Patrolman," which Cash once did better than Springsteen himself, typifies what's wrongest about the idea. Williams may think it's nifty for a woman to sing a lyric explicitly designed for a man without adjusting it for gender. But it also reduces a song that was a holy mission for its creator into a mere work of art--a museum piece that deserve better.
[Rolling Stone: 3]
In these cases, the Rhapsody entry was accepted as a new CG entry, or replaced the previous CG entry (usually a cross-reference stub).
Air: Pocket Symphony (2007, Astralwerks) Even when they're settling for atmosphere, meaning not bothering with moon tunes, Air are too corny for chillout. All they're good for is fromage, which we in Dollarland call cheese--amusing dinner music. And though on 2004's Talkie Walkie they lifted themselves out of the lukewarm miasma that had enveloped them since Moon Safari, Pocket Symphony reverts to the textured beat-and-bassline rifflets of Air ordinaire. Does some mild theme-and-variation justify the title? With these themes, who can remember? What you remember is that both male synth whizzes sing--though note that on the foggiest verbiage, e.g. "burnt-out husk of the morning," the likes of Jarvis Cocker do the dirty work. [unknown: 2.5]
Animals: Retrospective (2004, Abkco) I've never been entranced enough by Eric Burdon to decide whether he was clueless clod or sneaky smart, but for sure he's one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's nostalgia entries. Whatever happened in the '60s, he was there to soak it up and emote it back in his pitch-challenged, Negro-worshipping bray--Denmark Street pop, Brill Building pop, copyright hustlers' blues. His undiscriminating enthusiasm plus a ruthlessly professional band helps the stuff go down, most remarkably the hippie trilogy he (co)wrote himself: "San Franciscan Nights," "Monterey," and the dumbfounding "Sky Pilot," a depiction of an American serviceman so dense or opaque it's visionary. "A Girl Named Sandoz," on the other hand, is a bad trip. [Recyclables]
Joan Armatrading: Love and Affection: Classics (1975-1983) (2003, A&M) This St. Kitts woman from Birmingham, U.K., was never much more than a cult artist in America and is now almost forgotten here except among gay women, although she keeps her private life very private and has never come out. The two CDs are distilled from 10 spotty, sui generis big-rock albums, and they just don't wear down. This music still sounds fresh and muscular two decades later, and conveys so much felt intelligence about human relations it's hard to believe Armatrading's a loner. Forthright voice meets shy heart and no one knows who wins, probably including her. Pray somebody loves her, and vice versa. [Recyclables]
Count Basie and His Orchestra: America's #1 Band: The Columbia Years (2003, Columbia/Legacy) Four CDs worth, and especially but not exclusively as it reaches the '50s, it can be sleek and unforgiving. But most of the time it's breathtaking in both ensemble complexity and individual virtuosity--Lester Young! Jo Jones! Billie Holiday!--and the four 1936 small-group recordings that start things swinging are legendary for a reason. Also, it's encyclopedic--two decades of evolution from combo to big band to combo and big band again, with a disc of radio transcriptions. With his minimalist commitment to big beat and constructed song, Basie was a rock and roll guy in his way. After Decca's Best of Early Basie, this. [Recyclables]
The Beach Boys: Smiley Smile (1967, Capitol) In the year of Pepper-mania, the Beach Boys' Smile was expected to gallop out of the west and reclaim the honor of rock for its nation of origin. But Smile didn't materialize until 2004, stitched together from old bits and pieces and revived as repertory by a solo Brian Wilson and his enablers. Instead, Wilson retreated into his lonely room and oversaw this hastily recorded half-measure--"a bunt instead of a grand slam," groused Carl. Towering it's not; some kind of hit it is. Without this product-on-demand, we'd lack such impossible trifles as the wiggy "She's Goin' Bald," the potted "Little Pad," and "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter," a transitional bagatelle featuring squeezebox and imitation woodpecker. [Rolling Stone: The 40 Essential Albums of 1967]
The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour (1967, Capitol) Because it begins with the lame theme to their worst movie and the sappy "Fool on the Hill," few realize that this serves up three worthy obscurities forthwith--bet Beck knows the sour-and-sweet instrumental "Flying" by heart. Then it collects the A and B sides of three fabulous singles. "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever" may be the finest two-sided record in history. Goo goo ga joob, so may "Hello Goodbye"/"I Am the Walrus." "Baby You're a Rich Man"? OK, not in that league. Which is why it bows humbly before "All You Need Is Love." [Rolling Stone: The 40 Essential Albums of 1967]
The Beatles: The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1 (2004, Capitol) In any self-respecting Beatles discography, these four 1964 albums--two absolutely superb, one classic by definition, one damn close--do not exist. The canon is defined by their U.K. catalogue: many singles, a few EPs, and LPs systematically shortened and reshuffled by U.S. Capitol. Only benighted Yanks remember Meet the Beatles! rather than With the Beatles, Beatles '65 rather than Beatles for Sale. And OK--in those two cases the Brit versions rule. They're longer, and With is a fairer introduction than Meet, which hid Paul's goody-goody Music Man cover "Till There Was You" amid 11 Lennon-McCartney originals. But soon Yanks got The Beatles' Second Album, which proves in 28 minutes how indelible the Fab Four were from the start. Five magnificent rock and roll/r&b covers--George replicates Chuck Berry, John does justice to Smokey Robinson, and, on a track that was EP-only in Merrie Olde, music man Paulie smokes Little Richard--beef up the wildest and most joyful early-Beatles single, "She Loves You." Like the EP-only "I Call Your Name" and every other Lennon-McCartney selection, this landmark was never included on any canonical album in a '60s U.K. where it was considered bad form for LPs to reprise singles. For American non-teenyboppers, Second Album established the Beatles as a seismic musical force. The other prize here, Something New, showed us they could do no wrong. It's a glorious hodgepodge of singles (including Ringo's "Matchbox" b/w John's "Slow Down) and songs from A Hard Day's Night, but the crowning touch is its finale, a German-language dub of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." Ten months after the Beatles invaded, it made that instant chestnut something new again. Kinda like this box. [Blender: 5]
The Beatles: Love (2006, Apple/Capitol) George Martin was a great producer precisely insofar as he was the Beatles' producer. His other great discovery was America, and nobody compares him to Christopher Columbus, so why mention him alongside Jerry Wexler or Timbaland? Praise Lennon-McCartney, then, that this Martin-produced soundscape for a Cirque du Soleil extravaganza is so LOVEly--the suite side of Abbey Road extended to 78 minutes. Only six titles, including a fan-enhanced live snatch of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," are pre-1966, with Rubber Soul reduced to 30 seconds of "The Word," and even in the late catalogue, Martin highlights the sweet, cute, and orchestral--no "Yer Blues," "You Never Gave Me Your Money," or "Why Don't We Do It in the Road." Trivialities like "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" and "Octopus's Garden" are on full display, while "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" briefly signifies a chaos that inspires cries of "Help" and is quickly righted by "Blackbird/Yesterday." Nevertheless, the trickery is great fun from the choral, tweet-tweaked "Because" to a "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" more forthright than the original. And always another great melody waits in the wings, ready to take you higher. These melodies weren't all or even most of what the Beatles gave the world. But only rockist sentimentalists dismiss the Apollonian detachment of the world's greatest rock and roll band's late period. Played too often, this version of the world's greatest rock and roll band could give a person a tummyache. But as desserts go, it's got some spice. [Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Beirut: Lon Gisland (2006, Ba Da Bing, EP) Zach Condon is that truly rare thing, an American--in fact, a very young American--who turns a foreign style to his own inauthentic uses without doing it dirt. Gypsy brass as he hears it is gorgeously lyrical because lyricism is his thing, and so he softens the three horns on this EP not just with idiomatic accordion but with ukulele and glockepnspiel. The trumpets are also cushy, establishing a comfort level his melodies earn. The worrisome part is that his lyrics are kind of soft too. [Rolling Stone 3.5]
Beirut: The Flying Club Cup (2007, Ba Da Bing) In retrospect, it's obvious. Attracted though Santa Fe prodigy Zach Condon may have been to the hyper-emotional voices of the Balkan Roma, he's not intense enough to share a style with Macedonian diva Esma Redzepova or Serbian outlaw Saban Bajramovic, whom he knows even if his alt-rock admirers don't. So here he moves his Beirut project west, to the tamer turf of Parisian chanson. The brass is muted or gone, with accordion, strings, and various keyboards up front--only not as far front as Condon, who leaves little doubt that the singer he most admires in the world is fellow Europhile Rufus Wainwright. Committed to romantic lyricism above all, Condon isn't quite the tunesmith to fully justify this passion, compensating with melismatic slurs and a Gallic disdain for consonants. These tics don't do much for lyrics he's clearly been working on. "Nantes" is suffused with regret. "Forks and Knives" wanders hither and yon. "Cliquot" summons healing melody. Like that. [Rolling Stone 2.5]
Harry Belafonte: The Essential Harry Belafonte (2005, RCA/Legacy) "There was never a performer who crossed so many lines as Harry," says Dylan of this Harlem lefty turned matinee idol. "He appealed to everybody, whether they were steelworkers or symphony patrons or bobby-soxers." Though this artist-selected double CD bypasses the hit 1957 studio versions of both "Day-O" and "Mama Look at Bubu" for show-band arrangements, it's pretty impressive once you learn to listen through his compromises with conspicuous respectability. He deploys Caribbean percussion as subtly as folk melody, jokes around about sex roles without getting sexist about it, ends a ban-the-bomb verse "Back to back and belly to belly," and keeps the musical-comedy exoticism to a tolerable modicum. Though "Jamaica Farewell" isn't quite "Chances Are," he was one of the decade's prettier balladeers. Born poor, he made himself a folk hero. [Recyclables]
Big Brother & the Holding Company: Big Brother & the Holding Company (1967, Columbia) Janis Joplin's first band is still dissed for its crude musicianship, and its pre-Columbia album is still patronized for failing to showcase Joplin the blues singer. Only she wasn't a blues singer, she was a rock singer--a rock singer who learned to conceal her country twang after she cut these ten crazee songs. Most are by her bandmates, whose folk-schooled garage-blues licks provide goofy hooks. One that isn't is the definitive Joplin original "Women Is Losers." She sensed what was coming--you know she did. [Rolling Stone: The 40 Essential Albums of 1967]
James Brown: Cold Sweat (1967, King) The modal title milestone one-upped Wilson Pickett's "Funky Broadway" and introduced JB's funky drummer number two, Clyde Stubblefield. The uptempo oldies Brown added to the hit to make an album--Lloyd Prince's "Stagger Lee," Wilbert Harrison's "Kansas City," Little Willie John's "Fever," and Roy Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight"--smelled a little fishy at the time. Now, however, they're caviar--JB's full voice and flawless time yoking proven classics to some of the tightest big-band blues ever recorded. The slow side pits Brown's ballad falsetto and ballad scream against some of the most elaborate r&b strings ever recorded. Especially on the two Nat King Cole numbers and an over-the-top "Come Rain or Come Shine," the falsetto wins by a mile. [Rolling Stone: The 40 Essential Albums of 1967]
T Bone Burnett: Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett (2006, Columbia/Legacy) This Texan prodigy has long enjoyed an impeccable reputation among his colleagues: Bob Dylan tourmate, productions for everyone from Elvis Costello to Counting Crows, close personal husband of singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Grammy mastermind. So why hasn't he developed any kind of audience, not even a true cult? Because for both a roots guy and a Christian guy (converted Dylan, some say), he seems like a cold son of a bitch. Burnett's disdain for commercial culture may emulate Jesus and the money changers, but it also flatters the folkie puritans who dig him. The intelligence of these 40 songs is manifest, and they do stick in the mind. But they're so short on signs of soul that their spiritual quest is unlikely to engage anyone new. [Blender: 3]
The Byrds: The Byrds Sing Dylan (2002, Columbia/Legacy) Back in the mythic '60s, the Byrds got rich off Bob Dylan and made him richer in the bargain: "Mr Tambourine Man" was their first hit and his second, after Peter, Paul & Mary's "Blowin' in the Wind." The Byrds's world-turning folk-rock chime added trippy texture to "All I Really Want to Do" and "My Back Pages," and on 1968's Sweetheart of the Rodeo they deadpanned a definitive "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere." But no one has any need for Roger McGuinn's dull interpretations of "Just Like a Woman" and "Lay Lady Lay." Not for nothing is this man now plying the folk circuit. You want great Dylan covers, remember this title: Lo and Behold!, by forgotten folk-rockers Coulson, Dean, McGuinness, Flint, from the less mythic '70s. [unknown: 3]
Canned Heat: The Very Best of Canned Heat (2005, Capitol) Canned Heat was the most authentic of the '60s white blues bands because it was formed by two genuine blues collectors: big friendly baritone Bob Hite, nicknamed Bear, and weird scrawny tenor Alan Wilson, nicknamed Blind Owl. Appropriating likely tunes from Chicago bluesman Floyd Jones and songster Henry Thomas, Wilson scored two unlikely 1968 hits before OD'ing in 1970, and lead vocalist Hite charted with Wilbert Harrison's r&b strut "Let's Work Together." There have been many more distinguished white blues singers than Hite, who died of a heart attack after a gig in 1981, the same killer that took guitarist Henry Vestine in 1997. Doomed though it was, however, Canned Heat's cheerful hippie vibe reflected their pleasure in going public with the music they'd helped rediscover, and that pleasure is still audible. [Blender: 3]
June Carter Cash: Keep on the Sunny Side: June Carter--Her Life in Music (2005, Columbia/Legacy) In a union that, typically for Cash, began in sin and lasted nearly half a century, June Carter Cash was her husband's rock. As you might expect of the co-composer of "Ring of Fire," she was that rare thing, an interesting saint: fiery, feisty, creative, proactive. She was not, however, a major country singer. Her voice often wavers, and there's too much Jesus in her--the scarily antiurban "Appalachian Pride" is the kind of tract her husband regularly made comprehensible, and although Cash eclipsed all but one of his Sun labelmates, Jerry Lee and his bad sister Linda Gail's version of John & June's signature "Jackson" is rowdier and more convincing. That said, this two-CD selection is a triumph of the compiler's craft, listenable throughout and delightful early on--June was the kind of cute kid you just know will turn out well. [Blender: 3]
Ray Charles: The Birth of a Legend 1949-1952 (1994, Ebony) If you crave Ray Charles's early sides, the blues scholar in you will only achieve full satisfaction with this neat, complete double-CD. The piano pleases, the singing develops, and the songwriting tops out with the jocose "Kissa Me Baby." Soon he'll flower. But Nat King Cole and Charles Brown worked the same lounge-trio vein with far more flair. [Rolling Stone]
Ray Charles: The Early Years (1978/2004, King) Probably the best one-disc selection of Ray Charles's infinitely recycled pre-Atlantic output--no one knows for sure because no one has heard them all, most certainly including Charles and his handlers, who most certainly resented and resent the marketing bonanza offered by these casual and quite often forgettable blues-lite tunes, some cut in Seattle before he as 20--which their proprietors apparently rent out to anybody who comes up with a few grand at the right moment. [Rolling Stone]
Ray Charles: The Genius of Ray Charles (1960, Atlantic) An eclectic standards collection ranging from "Alexander's Ragtime Band" to "Come Rain or Come Shine" to the Percy Mayfield blues "Two Years of Torture" was the brainchild and love child of producers Jerry Wexler and Nesuhi Ertegun, who noodged five different arrangers into the subtlest charts of Charles's career. Charles tried many times, but except for Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music he never again assembled such a consistent album in this mode. [Rolling Stone]
Ray Charles: The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Rhythm & Blues Recordings, 1952-1959 (1991, Atlantic) Although Charles's fabled blues-gospel synthesis is on display from "I Got a Woman" to "I Believe to My Soul," "birth of soul" gets the emphasis wrong. Seldom conventionally catchy, never teen-oriented, this collection epitomizes a world-historic catchall of a genre that Charles could only describe as "genuine down-to-earth Negro music"--namely, rhythm and blues. Crack bands, first Atlantic's and then his own, underpin his rich, gravelly vocals with hard-hitting grooves of deceptive rhythmic and harmonic complexity. Halfway in, a female backup group soon to be known as the Raeletts starts shoring his male voice up and egging it on, an innovation that became a cliche so fast people think it was always there. [Rolling Stone]
Ray Charles: Blues + Jazz (1994, Rhino) Jazz chops helped define Charles's singular pop identity, and he both articulated and stimulated an appetite for "soul jazz." He was a tastier soloist than such vamp merchants as Les McCann. But a pantheon jazzman he was not, and only vibraphone connoisseurs will savor all of his renowned Milt Jackson collaborations (available in toto on Soul Brothers/Soul Meeting). Highlighting combo interactions far from the big-band bombast of its dreadful opposite number, Genius + Soul = Jazz/My Kind of Jazz, the artfully configured jazz disc here includes sessions led by Charles's longtime saxophonist Fathead Newman, who did more with his jazz concept than its inventor. Charles even plays alto sax on a few cuts--damn well, for a few cuts. Redundant or not, the blues disc goes down just as smooth, epitomizing a perfect mix of downhome and citified the way the jazz one does a perfect mix of unintellectual and uncorny. Throw up your hands and buy a bunch of songs twice (or thrice). [Rolling Stone]
Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music (1962, Rhino) So much more than proof we no longer need that an African-American can sing country music, this CD did nothing less than redefine American pop. Sonically bolder (and schlockier) than, for instance, Owen Bradley's proto-countrypolitan Patsy Cline productions, its massed strings, horns, and choruses broke down the walls between classic Tin Pan Alley and declasse Nashville. In the world it created, not only could a black person sing the American songbook Ella Fitzgerald owned by then, but a country black person could take it over. Soon Charles's downhome diction, cotton-field grit, cornpone humor, and overstated shows of emotion were standard operating procedure in American music black and white. [Rolling Stone]
Ray Charles: Sweet & Sour Tears (1964, Rhino) Tops among Rhino's ABC reissues is this concept album about crying overseen by Charles's longtime string arrange Sid Feller, who also gave the world the Jackie Gleason makeout albums of the '50s. Clearly, Feller was made for the theme, augmented on this CD by otherwise unavailable bonus cuts that fit right in: "Teardrops in My Heart," "Drown in My Own Tears," even "Tired of My Tears." No need to worry about that last one, folks--he's only kidding. [Rolling Stone]
Ray Charles: Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986 (1998, Rhino) The two Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music albums--volume one magnificent, volume two patchier--occupy disc one of this four-CD set. The remainder comprises desirables from the Atlantic Hank Snow cover "I'm Movin' On" to the Columbia George Jones collab "We Didn't See a Thing"; dubious follow-up country LPs; left-field covers and songwriter paybacks that better suit their original albums when they connect at all; and uneven (not to mention, for shame given the title boast, incomplete) product from Charles's Nashville foray on Columbia in the '80s. But inevitably, the box also features magnificent obscurities: bluesified "Ring of Fire," George Jones-worthy "A Girl I Used to Know," hee-hawing "3/4 Time," now available for your own cherry-picking pleasure. [Rolling Stone]
Ray Charles: Friendship (2005, Columbia/Legacy) This duet album is where Ricky Skaggs and Hank Williams Jr. attain glories beyond the reach of Janie Fricke and the Oak Ridge Boys but almost everybody at least believes there's an occasion to rise to. [Blender: 3]
Ray Charles & Friends: Super Hits (1998, Columbia/Legacy) In a former life the not-bad-at-all 1985 duet album Friendship, where Ricky Skaggs and Hank Williams Jr. attain glories beyond the reach of Janie Fricke and the Oak Ridge Boys but almost everybody at least believes there's an occasion to rise to. [Rolling Stone]
Bruce Cockburn: Anything Anytime Anywhere: Singles 1979-2002 (2002, Rounder) Both modernist and high church, Cockburn's disdainful Christian dudgeon is a vast improvement on fundamentalist blinderdom even if you're a convinced populist. Singing about love or imperialism (though he's better on imperialism), he assumes a moral vantage whose cleansing clarity is a comfort on nights when the future's so dark you gotta wear a miner's hat. And sufficient unto the day is the musicality thereof. [Recyclables]
Sam Cooke: One Night Stand--Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 (2005, RCA/Legacy) Recorded at a Miami venue that catered to a black audience, Cooke takes his hits fast and rough. Mythmakers claim this is the real inventor of soul, which the crossover-conscious icon would have denied. But it's an impressive document whose rousing climax suggests what might have ensued if he hadn't died two years later. [Blender: 4]
Sam Cooke: Night Beat (2005, RCA/Legacy) Musically, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame charter member Sam Cooke is a stumper. His voice wasn't just smooth and gritty at the same time, it was infinitely relaxed--for the many who adore it, a sing-the-phone-book voice. But he was so intent on the pop market that some curmudgeons might prefer the phone book to his orchestral accompaniments. But this album gets points for conceiving pop as lounge r&b rather than violin schlock even if Cooke isn't always up to the blues-tinged standards he covers and tries to write. [Blender: 3]
Culture: Two Sevens Clash: The 30th Anniversary Edition (2007, Shanachie) Two Sevens Clash may have been the best reggae LP ever released--Bob Marley himself never constructed one so perfect beginning to end. Though much is made of its political content, it's really a Rastafarian gospel album. "The wicked must fall," Hill declares right off, and "Pirate Days" attributes Babylon's power to its lawlessness. But that song's most striking line, "The Arawak the Arawak the Arawak were here first," is an argument that black men don't belong in Jamaica--an argument for the promised return to Africa. In "Natty Dread Taking Over," "Fire 'pon dem" invokes not gunplay but the Book of Revelation, and celebrating the Black Starliner Garvey predicted would bring the faithful back to Africa, Hill avers: "I meekly wait and murmur not." Proof of deliverance is in the music. This was Jamaican drum titan Sly Dunbar's first major session, with Lloyd Parks on bass and Robbie Shakespeare on guitar, and the tunes are memorable and uplifting without exception. Yet even on the childish "Jah Pretty Face," the flinty, soursop edge of Hill's incantation sands off what's left of the sing-song after the harsh close trio harmonies have done their work. Its bonus cuts worthy archival remixes, this reissue is reordered to conform to the original Jamaican release, timed to coincide with Armagideon time--July 7 of 1977, the year the two sevens clashed. [Rolling Stone: 5]
Dead Moon: Echoes of the Past (2006, Sub Pop) Oregonian Fred Cole has been in bands for forty-two years--cover, psychedelic, bubbglegum, show, country, a punk band called the Rats. He's also been with his wife Toody for thirty-nine. Fred, bassist Toody, and drummer Andrew Loomis formed the garage-rock Dead Moon in 1987. Postpunks who come to '60s garage grunge naturally because they were there, they sound like the 13th Floor Elevators without the clinical dementia. Caterwauling Fred is the chief singer, the defiance of convention his signature theme: "Pissed off, pissed off, pissed off/It's just the way I am." Toody provides changes of color--there's more variety in her dozen or so songs than in Fred's lion's share. Dead Moon make a good living touring Europe and have self-released six vinyl and seven forty-fives, which this double-CD cherry-picks. Though these 49 songs could be winnowed into an intense single CD, that would sacrifice their impressive sprawl factor. Not many guitar-bass-drums units generate so much remarkable material. Not many great stories come with such a good band attached. [Rolling Stone: 3.5]
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band: This Is the Dirty Dozen Brass Band Collection (2005, Shout! Factory) Strange to think it, but this amorphous outfit--go ahead, name a soloist--may be New Orleans's most original modern band, and also its most tipico, which is why. What could be more eclectically tourist-friendly than bebop-flecked polyphony over "funk" bass played on a sousaphone doing tuba duty? Yet it can be fun, no quotation marks necessary, at least on this comp, which is both looser and less schlocky than the leavings strung together on Columbia/Legacy's Jazz Mooods--Hot cheapo--and includes a solo you'd want to ID, by one John Birks Gillespie, who provides a vocal you'd want to ID as well. [Recyclables]
Bill Doggett: The Very Best of Bill Doggett: Honky Tonk (2004, Collectables) Don't blame me if "Honky Tonk" didn't place in Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs" thing--I wrote it in at No. 1, parts one and two please, because though Clifford Scott's tenor made two the biggest r&b instrumental ever, it was one that I absorbed for an hour on the living-room floor one gray, life-changing day in 1956. Over simple drums, fat discrepant handclaps, and eventually some bass, guitarist Billy Butler states and then embellishes--in a spare, perfect three-chorus solo competing axmen soon learned verbatim--the blues elemental best designated the "Honky Tonk" riff. Then comes one long climax, Scott spilling and shouting and spluttering and rejoicing till his sax finally recaps the theme so everybody can get loud and go home--even leader Doggett, an organist by trade. As near as can be determined, "Honky Tonk" is the only song ever covered by both James Brown, a loyal fan of his King labelmate, and the Beach Boys. There are many Doggett repackages, but this one sequences the two parts consecutively, albeit at tracks six and seven. Follow-ups "Slow Walk" and "Ram-Bunk-Shush" are included. Also 21 other titles. [Recyclables]
Fats Domino: Fats Domino Jukebox: 20 Greatest Hits the Way You Originally Heard Them (2002, Capitol) If rock is a music of voices and guitars, its New Orleans variant is a music of pianos and drums. It rocks, sure, but people love it for the way it rolls. Its friendliest exponent is charter Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Antoine Domino, who scored more pop hits in the '50s than anyone except Elvis, Pat Boone, and Perry Como. Every one shows up on the solidly enjoyable "They Call Me the Fat Man . . . ." box. But the best are concentrated on this cheap little party record--a surprisingly intense one, given the sweet lassitude of Fats's drawl. Break your own heart--put on "Walking to New Orleans." [Rolling Stone]
Roky Erickson: I Have Always Been Here Before: The Roky Erickson Anthology (2005, Shout! Factory) This 43-song retrospective on the legendary Austin head case proves once and for all that he didn't write 43 songs for the memory book, and that almost every good one he did write was about something spooky--attack alligators, the Bermuda triangle, Lucifer in all his lurid guises. Garage-rock wellspring, check; psychedelic wellspring, double-check; 13th Floor Elevators top Quicksilver Messenger Service, check and double-check. Lost genius, not exactly. [Recyclables]
The Faces: Five Guys Walk Into a Bar . . . (2003, Warner Bros./Rhino) Not that there's much competition, but the greatest box-set name ever is perfect for a band that was never as great as it should have been. Their music was so loose and that was such an up; their music was so loose and their songs fell so apart. Come to think of it, bar bands are generally tighter. But if five straight hours of shambolic garage rock is what you seek, you couldn't do better--the four CDs maintain a raucous level that crests rather than peaks and never gets boring. Ron Wood you know, Ronnie Lane you should. But above all, here for the hearing--why old-timers think Rod Stewart had something to sell out. [Recyclables]
A Flock of Seagulls: Platinum and Gold Collection (2003, Jive/BMG Heritage) (1) Doesn't pretend they "advanced" from their debut. (2) Includes bonus photos of their haircuts. (3) So much better than Duran Duran. [Recyclables]
Robert Forster: Intermission: The Best of the Solo Recordings 1990-1997 (2007, Beggars Banquet) Go-Betweens records set the late Grant McLennan's placidly melodic romantic discontents against Forster's talkier, knottier excursions, improving both by contrast. The solo collections from their decade-long '90s hiatus work differently. Ignoring chronology, the more eccentric disc by the less melodically apt Forster doesn't even lead with "Baby Stones," a no thanks to open relationships that soars on his most McLennanesque tune. But hooks have a way of surfacing--the keyboard riff of "I Can Do," his herky-jerk repetitions of the title "Danger in the Past." Clearly the surviving Go-Between should keep making music--alone. [Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Aretha Franklin: Rare & Unreleased Recordings From the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul (2007, Rhino/Atlantic) Scattered across these two discs of detritus from the first seven of Aretha Franklin's thirteen Atlantic years is a fine grab bag of a 45-minute album. It's dominated by songs you know, several by the Queen herself. Relaxed demo of "Never Loved a Man"? Organ-soaked original of "Rock Steady"? Why not? Aretha doing "Suzanne," "You Keep Me Hanging On," and "My Way" her way? Absolutely. There are a few less familiar winners--a televised Ray Charles duet, the gospel-style B side of "Spanish Harlem," two Young Gifted and Black rejects, and some marginalia that's worth hearing even if it doesn't make our cut. But most of these tracks were outtakes because the Atlantic sachems counted them wanting as songs, and though surviving sachem Jerry Wexler makes a typically persuasive case for them--the man could sell records--he was right the first time. Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) underwhelmed in 1973. There are eight more tracks from it here. [Rolling Stone: 3]
Aretha Franklin: Jewels in the Crown . . . All-Star Duets With the Queen (2007, Arista) The third Aretha catalogue exploitation of the fall is the first from Sony/BMG, which has long since deleted the '80s and '90s Aretha albums where half of its sixteen tracks first appeared, and also the best, which isn't to accuse it of coherence or anything. Some of it has been previously recycled--the Annie Lennox so endlessly we need not name it here, the Keith Richards "Jumpin Jack Flash" as a bonus cut for a reissued greatest hits collection initially baited with the merely adequate Bonnie Raitt-Gloria Estefan "Natural Woman." And so it goes. Some of it is lively if expedient (George Michael, Elton John). Some of it is bland (George Benson) or dismal (Frank Sinatra, though only his part). And there are three recently recordeds, the prize featuring not Mary J. Blige or John Legend but Fantasia, whom the Queen indulges as the naive young thing she is--and who will never make one of these in her life. [Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Ghostface Killah and Trife Da God: Put It on the Line (2005, Starks Enterprises) Trife has Ghost's sharpness without his cry or eye, which leaves more than you might fear ("Cocaine Trafficking," "The Watch") [unknown]
Grateful Dead: The Grateful Dead (1967, Warner Bros.) One of the year's few supposedly psychedelic LPs that wasn't actually a pop LP (cf. Sgt. Pepper, Forever Changes, Mellow Yellow), the already legendary San Francisco band-collective's debut stood out and stands tall because its boogieing folk-rock epitomizes the San Francisco ballroom ethos/aesthetic--blues-based tunes played by musicians who came to rhythm late, expanded so they were equally suitable for dancing and for tripping out. It's also the only studio album that respects and documents the impact of Rod "Pigpen" McKernan, who died in 1973 of cirrhosis of the liver. McKernan's organ is almost as pervasive as Jerry Garcia's guitar. And although Garcia and Bob Weir both take vocal leads, their singing styles are still in Pigpen's white-blues thrall. [Rolling Stone: The 40 Essential Albums of 1967]
Macy Gray: The Very Best of Macy Gray (2004, Epic) Prematurely ejaculated to exploit a skyrocket's diminishing name recognition, this 16-tracker--five from the debut, three each from two and three, three non-album things, and three remixes--demonstrates the endurance of On How Life Is, the fragility of The Id, and the unjust obscurity of 2003's The Trouble With Being Myself. "Caligula," "She Don't Write Songs About You," and the matter-of-fact "Gimme All Your Loving or I Will Kill You"--all missing--would further reinforce her cultivated aura of sexual rapacity. Nevertheless, her best. [Recyclables]
Al Green: Back Up Train (1969, Arista/Legacy) "There was just no logical reason for that particular tune to take off like it did," Green has said of the title song, a 1967 one-shot that did the world the favor of letting a gifted young singer taste success. The album built up around it after he became famous establishes that the regional hit in question was catchier than the rest of the generic r&b he and his Grand Rapids boys were laying down. Maybe people just liked his voice. [Blender: 1]
Al Green: Green Is Blues (1969, The Right Stuff/Hi) Not always such a genius, Mitchell began remaking young Al Green in 1969 by having him cover the Beatles, the Box Tops, and, less bizarrely, gritty r&b crooner Little Willie John. These attempts to conform to pop fashion are fairly fascinating in retrospect. But Green was better off making pop fashion conform to him. [Blender: 3]
Al Green: The Absolute Best (2004, Hi/The Right Stuff) Less schlock-prone than any of his peers among the great 20th-century singers except Billie Holiday, Al Green has never had his name on a bad album. This two-disc exploitation (with a second four-disc box due later in 2004) is superb throughout, two previously unreleaseds included. It would be a spendthrift purchase for any owner of Al Green's Greatest Hits, all 15 of whose selections it duplicates (two in alternate versions), or the previous box, Anthology. But the 19 non-Greatest Hits tracks--all of classic '70s vintage, topped by "Simply Beautiful," "Love Ritual," "Rhymes," and "Strong as Death (Sweet as Love)"--are markedly sweeter and sharper than those on the remarkably schlocky More Greatest Hits. Caveat emptor or dig it as the case may be. [Blender: 4]
Buddy Guy & Junior Wells: Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play the Blues (2005, Rhino Handmade) The classic Guy-Wells album remains Delmark's 1966 Hoodoo Man Blues, which is credited to Wells. Runner-up is this relaxed, whiteboy-garnished 1972 set, now augmented with nine previously unissued new songs that fit the bill and four previously unissued alternate mixes that don't. Guy gets major vocal space, top-billed because in 1972 his expansive guitar chops had some racial optimist at Atlantic seeing stardom. He'll never be as distinctive a singer--Wells had a sound. But the older man gave Guy valuable laying back lessons, which he forgets to excellent effect whamming home Little Brother Montgomery's "First Time I Met the Blues." [Recyclables]
Merle Haggard: The Essential Merle Haggard: The Epic Years (2004, Epic/Legacy) In which hackdom ages like a fine muscatel. Back when Hag was still flexing his muscles commercially and culturally, the sentimentality of his Billy Sherrill period was rank. Now it's just gorgeously phrased. Sit back and enjoy it. No harm done. [Recyclables]
Jimi Hendrix: Are You Experienced? (1967, Experience Hendrix) Try to hear this bombshell debut as an English pop record--only two of the 11 skillfully paced paced tracks, three titanic bonus singles, and three fascinating B sides run over four minutes, and hooks abound. You could hum these tunes. Yet humming definitely didn't capture their essence, a roiling sea of guitar that would change how a generation of fans heard music and conceived their own blown minds. [Blender: 5]
Jimi Hendrix: Axis: Bold as Love (1968, Experience Hendrix) True believers praise the spaced-out lightness of his second album, released just half a year after Are You Experienced? But since Hendrix immediately heavied up again, figure they're kidding themselves--half the songs are forgettable as songs if fine as recordings, and there's even some pro forma guitar. Not much, though, and to hear Mitchell going wild on tracks even briefer than the debut's is to nudge Keith Moon over on his free-style drumming pedestal. [Blender: 3]
Jimi Hendrix: Electric Ladyland (1969, Experience Hendrix) "It wasn't just slopped together; every little thing you hear there means something," said Hendrix of his two-LP masterwork. And though it isn't perfect, perfection wasn't the idea. No previous rock album flowed like this, and while jazz albums often support as many contrasting sonic moods, Louis Armstrong himself didn't match Hendrix's appetite for sound effects and general silliness. His spaced-out spirituality is the fullest musicalization of "psychedelic" ever accomplished. [Blender: 5]
Jimi Hendrix: First Rays of the New Rising Sun (1997, Experience Hendrix) "If you give deeper thoughts in your music then the masses will buy them," Hendrix said, and maybe if he'd finished this double LP his dreams would have come true. But as reimagined by longtime engineer Eddie Kramer, it's less startling musically than Electric Ladyland and not too profound lyrically. It's also a powerful collection by a stone genius whose songwriting kept growing and whose solos rarely disappoint. [Blender: 4]
Jimi Hendrix: South Saturn Delta (1997, Experience Hendrix/MCA) Discographically presumptuous though this melange of odd tracks, alternate takes, and previously unreleaseds is, it establishes the listenability of Hendrix's dribs and drabs. Crazies with time on their hands can have a not dissimilar experience with the four-CD The Jimi Hendrix Experience box. [Blender: 3]
Jimi Hendrix: Live at the Oakland Coliseum (1999, Dagger/Experience Hendrix) This competent unauthorized mono recording of an April 1969 concert has now been certified by Experience Hendrix's major domo, Jimi's stepsister Janie Hendrix, whom he barely knew. It's a bootleg, it sounds like one, and it's expressly "not intended for the casual fan." Big deals: 18-minute workout on "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and, heart be still, guest shot by Jefferson Airplane's Jack Casady. [Blender: 2]
Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child: The Jimi Hendrix Collection (2001, Experience Hendrix) This budget double--18 studio tracks balanced by 12 live recordings--whups the 20-track bestseller Experience Hendrix: The Best of Jimi Hendrix. Beyond "Manic Depression," it omits no essential songs. If several arrive in uncanonical live versions, well, you can't comprehend Hendrix without some of those. Despite climaxing with "Wild Thing" at Monterey rather than leading with it, disc two stands as his greatest live album. [Blender: 5]
Billie Holiday: The Ultimate Collection (2005, Hip-O/Verve/Decca) Billie Holiday stands at or near the top of any knowledgeable short list of American singers. Not even Aretha, Elvis, or Al Green is in her class--her only competition is Louis Armstrong, whose improvisational smarts she emulated, and Frank Sinatra, who adored her. Yet Holiday had a much smaller voice than any of these titans, and by 1958, when she died of alcohol abuse at 43, it was a wreck. Her magic is all in her languid timing, subtle melodic variations, unmatched conversational intimacy, and above all physical timbre--young and buttery or brandy on the rocks, it goes down so easy. For licensing reasons, this overview offers just a taste of the buoyant '30s Billie, already worldly yet set on fun, while doing better by the careworn '50s Billie. What makes it invaluable is the way it bridges the two periods. Though interrupted by wartime recording bans and a federal prison stint for heroin, the 1940s found Holiday no longer feigning innocence but still clear-voiced, captured by producer Milt Gabler first on his Commodore indie and then in hit-seeking mode on Decca. The strings Holiday invited and the big-band conventions Gabler applied can be hard to take in large doses. These tracks are so astutely selected, however, that their star-time phase seems natural--a strength, even. Because Holiday destroyed her body and couldn't resist mean mistreaters, she's come to symbolize female victimization. But even in suffering she was vibrant, and this collection gets the proportions right. Not all these songs are sad, and she owns every one--a fathomless artist guaranteed to reward as many hours as you can invest in her. [Blender: 5]
John Lee Hooker: Hooker (2006, Shout! Factory) Dead at 83 in 2001, John Lee Hooker transformed the unflappability of his drawl and the unstoppability of his beat into good records for half a century. Mississippi primitive turned man of the world, he boogied solo and combo, with white blues bands and superstars. Though there were classic songs in his kit--"Boom Boom," "I'm in the Mood," "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer"--Hooker was not a greatest-hits kind of guy, which is one reason this 84-track four-CD overview is a more enticing introduction than the 31-track Rhino twofer it blows away. Box set excess does his magnitude justice, allowing you to luxuriate in the idiosyncrasies of his monolithic groove. Play it for five hours and you won't get bored. You'll just live in it. [Blender: 4]
Mississippi John Hurt: The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt (1967, Vanguard) Of all the rediscovered bluesman of the folk revival, Hurt was the least diminished by age because he was so unassuming to begin with. Having first recorded at thirty-five in 1928, he was seventy-three when he cut this posthumously released collection, which showcases his intricately unflashy finger-picking, begins and ends with hymns, and reprises both his moral take on "Stagolee" and his own fashion-conscious "Richland Woman Blues": "With rosy red garters/Pink hose on my feet/Turkey red bloomers/With a rumble seat." [Rolling Stone: The 40 Essential Albums of 1967]
Alan Jackson: Greatest Hits Volume II (2004, Arista) Too many country artists who start strong fall off artistically as they work their market niche. So Alan Jackson's improvement is a triumph--his writing only peaked after he was sure his niche would listen. "Little Man" is populism without ressentiment, "Drive (For Daddy Gene)" makes me wish my dad had risked his Chevy on me, and "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" could end up one of the few 9/11 remembrances emotionally evenhanded enough for Americans of differing convictions to share. Then there's the forgettable bonus disc, which demonstrates by contrast why some hits deserve to be. [Recyclables]
Wanda Jackson: Heart Trouble (2003, CMH) The first studio album in decades by the 65-year-old rockabilly pioneer comes astutely produced by roots specialist John Wooler and shored up by a small host of well-wishers: Elvis Costello, Dave Alvin, Rosie Flores, and the Cramps, who lend welcome oomph to her oldie "Funnel of Love." DCN's recent The Wanda Jackson Show: Live and Still Kickin' offers proof aplenty that she remains likable, lively, and spunky. Oomph, however, is in short supply here. The material is choice, the voice full and healthy. But where unsung rocker Jackson was nearly feral and country chanteuse Jackson was soulful enough, here the only song that sounds felt rather than performed is "Walk With Me," about her personal savior the Lord Jesus Christ. [Blender: 2]
Jefferson Airplane: The Essential Jefferson Airplane (2005, Columbia/Legacy) Jefferson Airplane was a San Francisco folk-rock band that in its hit-making phase comprised two clandestinely showbiz vocalists (Grace Slick and Marty Balin), a snazzy enough lead guitarist who never did anything else with his life (Paul Kantner), a clunky drummer on a scene rife with them, and Hot Tuna. Rock and Roll Hall of Famers still busy symbolizing the Summer of Love almost four decades later, they released this two-CD compilation in honor of the BMG-Sony merger, and it's not bad. The Airplane wrote some good tunes even if they oversang and overarranged them. And while they could get pretty ridiculous--anyone for "Have You Seen the Saucers?"--they adapted better than many competing ex-folkies to the psychedelic space jam that was the Haight-Ashbury ballrooms' enduring footnote to musical history. [Blender: 3]
Shooter Jennings: The Wolf (2007, Universal South) So who is Shooter Jennings if he isn't Waylon's son? He hopes you don't ask--mentions "my dad" in the first verse of his third album, and before long also namechecks Johnny, Merle, Hank, and Audrey in case you missed the point. Shooter has himself a rockin' band, and he can write a little--"Old Friends" male-bonds with some warmth and "She Lives in Color" female-bonds with some warmth. But he's the type who loves his darlin' for those "ladylike things," and at bottom, he's selling an "authentic" revival of a marketing tool--one his dad invented, known as outlaw country. The most likable song here is by Shooter's 4F-ing drummer, who's in it for the pussy straight up. Sure there are ladies who love outlaws, and guys who wish said ladies loved them instead. But why anyone else should care about this stuff only Willie Nelson could tell you, and his fee is fifty grand. [Rolling Stone: 2.5]
Waylon Jennings: Ultimate Waylon Jennings (2004, RCA Nashville/BMG Heritage) Beyond "outlaw," nobody ever specifies what Jennings does and doesn't do with his strained, resonant, masculine baritone--his "Me and Bobby McGee" is uglier than Kristofferson's. But on sure shots you can forgive him his pain. Highlights include the belated "Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out of Hand" and the wounded "The Taker," a Kris Kristofferson gem about a lady some other slimeball done wrong. For those who think BMG's title-by-title reissue program makes less sense than the Black Sabbath box (although I've Always Been Crazy sounds sane enough). [Recyclables]
The Jesus and Mary Chain: 21 Singles 1984-1998 (2002, Warner Bros./Rhino) Grinding down the same track to the bitter end, not to mention the bottom line, the Reid brothers proved how alienated they were when the money ran out by persisting intermittently for more than 15 years. By including later titles the naive might mistake for Jan and Dean and Joan Jett covers, this best-of does their tuneful, calculatedly depressive murk as much justice as their formerly definitive debut. Not more, however. [Recyclables]
George Jones: The Definitive Collection (2004, Universal) As music, this collection of 22 remastered early recordings is magnificent even if you believe, like most nonpurists, that the greatest country singer ever was just getting started in his straight honky-tonk period. It's terse, unsentimental, and soul deep, Jones's voice a marvel and mystery long before its fathomless maturity. Moreover, Jones sounds maybe a quarter quantum clearer and younger in this mix. Note, however, that 1994's two-disc Cup of Loneliness: The Classic Mercury Years covers the same ground, and its 29 additional cuts are as worthy as all but a few highlights here. With artists of Jones's calibre, sometimes more is more. [Blender: 3]
Norah Jones: Not Too Late (2007, Blue Note) Greatness thrust upon her by Come Away With Me's Grammy sweep, Norah Jones maintained her modesty at all costs on 2004's Feels Like Home, with results less jazzy but duller--even duller, some would say. On the mildly adventurous Not Too Late, she writes or co-writes every song--13 in all, five more than on the first two combined. Although she may never hit upon a hook to equal Jesse Harris's on "Don't Know Why," she's quirkier lyrically than any of her helpmates, an effect magnified by the thoughtful, sweetly rounded melancholy of the voice people love. So you have to concentrate to follow the twists of Not Too Late's opening "Wish I Could." And though "My Dear Country"'s stark "On election day" will catchy you short every time, you probably won't notice Jones calling an unnamed but unmistakable George W. Bush "the one we hate" just before. These political moments contextualize Jones's calm. But lest her peace-at-all-costs legions fret, they're hardly the norm--"Thinking About You," prereleased on MP3, returns to the soldier in "Wish I Could" only if you read a whole lot into "sail across the ocean waters." [Rolling Stone: 3]
Kocani Orkestar: L'Orient Est Rouge (1997, Cramworld) There is no Gypsy music, only musics Gypsies play. The genre that captivated Beirut's Zach Condon is Gypsy brass, and this skillfully produced recording makes an ideal starter CD. Featuring trumpeter and hereditary leader Naat Veliov, expelled in an unsavory contract wrangle shortly after taking his tuba-bumping Macedonian band international, it beautifies the hot blare of Romania's Fanfare Ciocarlia and the raggedy-ass craziness of Serbia's Boban Markovic with Veliov's firm yet woozy lyricism. A stone classic caps the high-test performance: the Roma "national anthem," "Djelem, Djelem." [Rolling Stone: 4]
Talib Kweli: Ear Drum (2007, Warner Bros.) Talib Kweli earns the respect he gets. He's got plenty of brains and enough flow, and though his attempts to make conscious rap commercial inspire purist sniping, he's balanced the two with integrity and grace. But four solo albums in, it can't be an accident that he's done his signature work with collaborators--Mos Def (Black Star), Hi-Tek (Reflection Eternal), and many, many cameos (try the Coup's "My Favorite Mutiny"). The man simply lacks spark. Kweli's Warner debut features yet more cameos--Kanye! Norah Jones! UGK!--and many, many producers. Though it's admirably consistent and pretty darn OK, it lacks a knockout track to counterbalance the complaints about the King James Bible and swine toothpaste. Closest is one to his kids, with Musiq Soulchild adding music and soul, child. Right after, "Listen!!!" establishes its right to bang on your title orifice. But then there's Justin Timberlake's bonus cut. JT--eschew philosophy! You sing, therefore you are. [Rolling Stone: 3]
Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Raise Your Spirits Higher--Wenyukela (2004, Heads Up International) If you've never heard a Ladysmith Black Mambazo album, that doesn't mean you've never heard Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The long-running Zulu chorale, introduced to America in 1986 on Paul Simon's Graceland though they had an indie label deal by then, are an exotic staple--educating Sesame Street, serenading Olympians, regaling Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee. What's more, they deserve it--their a cappella clicks and whoops and hollers and harmonies constitute some of the most skillful, witty, and beautiful pop music on the planet. Incredibly, founder-leader-inventor Joseph Shabalala's wife of 30 years was murdered while this album was being cut. More incredibly, it's one of their most spirited and accessible ever. There are more than 40, but why quibble? Start here. [Village Voice: Tribulations of St. Joseph]
Jon Langford and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts: The Executioner's Last Songs Volume 2 & 3 (2003, Bloodshot) More songs about transgression and death--two CDs' worth, actually (Jon Langford With Sally Timms, "Delilah"; Skid Marks With Sally Timms, "Homicide"; Otis Clay, "Banks of the Ohio") [unknown]
Los Lobos: Wolf Tracks: The Best of Los Lobos (2006, Warner Bros./Rhino) Although they surfaced on the punkoid Slash label and got all trip-hoppy in their Latin Playboys side project, at bottom these East L.A. winners of a 2001 Billboard lifetime achievement award are one of the strongest straight-ahead rock bands of the past quarter century. In a sense their most important member is their most obscure: bassist Conrad Lozano, implacably anchoring blues, boogie, polka, two-step, corrida, and what-have-you variants on a solid four-four rhythm. With a brief detour into Mexican folkloricism, which doesn't mean "La Bamba," this 20-year, 20-song overview has a groove that's Latin mostly by way of spicing, accent, and aura. It's an assimilationist showpiece that proves Mexican-Americans are as American as any other kind--except that some of them write much better songs. [Blender: 4]
Loretta Lynn: The Definitive Collection (2005, MCA Nashville) The shrewd minority who suspect 69-year-old Loretta Lynn's Jack White-produced 2004 comeback Van Lear Rose didn't do her justice are ill-served by her confusing catalogue. This 25-tracker is her definitivest CD so far, adding three stone classics, including "The Pill," to 2002's All Time Greatest Hits, but withholding three others, including the unreconstructed "Your Squaw Is on the Warpath." Although the 16-track 1991 Country Music Hall of Fame Series is more surefire, the extras here fill out the picture. Her voice too pert, spunky, and honest for melodrama, Lynn is best playing her real-life role of long-suffering wife with druthers, with duet partner Conway Twitty occasionally broadening her romantic range. But beyond that, she's the most forthrightly downhome artist, male or female, ever to conquer Nashville. [Blender: 4]
Taj Mahal: Taj Mahal (1968, Columbia) The former Henry Saint Claire Fredericks wasn't just the most prominent young African-American of the blues revival. He was its most credible voice, and more--forty years later, he's clearly an original stylist already in bloom. Avidly and affably fronting a superb Ry Cooder-Jesse Ed Davis band, Mahal does every standard here proud. Sleepy John Estes's "Leaving Trunk" he now owns. Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" he showed the world. The original "E Z Rider" he could have found on an old 78. [unknown]
Marah: Float Away With the Friday Night Gods (2002, Artemis/E-Squared) Anyone put off their feed by Dave Bielanko's running Springsteen impression on Marah's 2000 roots-garage critics' album Kids in Philly will be relieved to learn that, although Bruce himself cameos on the follow-up, Bielanko's voice has changed. Now, with help from former Oasis producer Owen Morris, he's emulating Liam Gallagher, and having lowered his sights comes within a tonsil's breadth of hitting the target. If this doesn't seem like much to boast about, Marah has also developed a knack for the dynamite chorus. From "Float Away" with its boss guitar break to "Out in Style" with its intimations of existential failure, track after track starts with or launches into a zooming tunelet recognizable at 50 paces. And how the music does zoom--as with Oasis, Morris broadens Serge Bielanko's guitar till it fuzzes over like a Hammond B-3, and when the band emigrated to England last year, Dave left his banjo behind. But missing from this candid and even intelligent attempt to take a local band pop is--what else?--any vestige of the local. Avowedly "personal" lyrics are shamefully short on wit, detail, psychological insight--or sex, which might be enough. Maybe next time Bielanko should try Maxwell impressions. [Rolling Stone: 3]
Curtis Mayfield: People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Story (1996, Rhino) Curtis Mayfield wasn't just a genius, he was a hero. He even managed to record 1996's creditable New World Order as a quadriplegic. But as geniuses go he was pretty spacy, his solo work radically inconsistent, and accessing his higher-than-gospel croon, stealth guitar riffs, utopian-millenarian political vision, and erotic-domestic romanticism is can be pretty messy. This box set is the only effective way to find out how good Mayfield could be beyond his acknowledged canon. The final disc of the three consists entirely of post-'76 dribs and drabs. Some are merely obscure. But others--"Homeless," "She Don't Let Nobody (But Me)"--are vintage. [Rolling Stone: 4]
Percy Mayfield: His Tangerine and Atlantic Sides (2004, Rhino Handmade) Excepting Muddy Waters wordman Willie Dixon, the eloquent depressive Percy Mayfield was the blues's greatest post-World War II songwriter, and unlike Dixon he could sing. The classic tracks on two Specialty compilations were cut before a disfiguring accident ended his live career. But this collection captures his professional peak, when Ray Charles had him under contract. In 1961, Mayfield's "Hit the Road Jack" went No. 1 for Charles, who reciprocated by putting its creator in the studio with crack musicians who loved him. His baritone blurred by booze and tribulation, Mayfield doesn't completely nail such self-explanatory titles as "River's Invitation" and "Life Is Suicide." But even on this completist package's lesser songs, you can hear him brooding--and trying to put a wry face on it. [Blender: 3]
Grant McLennan: Intermission: The Best of the Solo Recordings 1990-1997 (2007, Beggars Banquet) McLennan's fatal heart attack in May, 2006, ended Australia's Go-Betweens, a group nearly three decades old that after ten years off had reconvened convincingly in 2000, releasing three albums that promised many more. Twin compilations from their down period can't replace the follow-ups we'll never hear. McLennan, who wrote more easily than Forster--his best album was a double, Horsebreaker Star, while one of Forster's was all covers--gets a surefire album-by-album selection marred only by somewhat static production--the Go-Betweens were always interactive. There's ample proof of his pop gift in the wry, tender, gorgeous opener, "Haven't I Been a Fool," and unending evidence of his miraculously solid tunecraft thereafter. [Rolling Stone: 4.5]
Blind Willie McTell: Statesboro Blues (2003, Bluebird/BMG Heritage) "His Victor recordings, made between 1927 and 1932, are complete here for the first time." Including "Stole Rider Blues," "Dark Night Blues," and "Loving Talking Blues," presumably omitted from Yazoo's superior 1927-1933: The Early Years because they're not very good, though that never stopped Yazoo before. So why did Yazoo's blues worshippers omit the lubricious Ruby Glaze duets ("Rollin' Mama Blues," yum)? Didn't they know anyone who'd lend them the 78s? Bluebird, meanwhile, must have omitted "Broke Down Engine Blues," "Georgia Rag," "Talkin' to Myself," and other glorious 12-string showcases because they weren't on Victor. Punctiliousness, just when we don't need it. [Recyclables]
Moby: Go: The Very Best of Moby (2006, V2) Seven years later, Moby has constructed an album as seductively sequenced and in-your-face melodic as Play, and give him credit--he recycled only five Play tracks doing it. Give him less credit for weighting a 16-song best-of so heavily toward his present label. Moby, a man who know the permissions game, clearly decided that pulling Nineties keepers off his Elektra and Instinct albums wasn't worth the tariff, at least not to him--Everything Is Wrong's "God Moving on the Face of the Waters" is his only concession. He compensates with an intense, toasted-up live "Feeling So Real" and a fleshed-out remake of his 1991 classic "Go." Both these tracks typify an album that doesn't depend exclusively on borrowed black people as human signifiers, at once more rock and more techno than Play. And you needn't be a dance geek to play the bonus disc of fave remixes in your living room. [Rolling Stone: 4]
Modest Mouse: We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (2007, Epic) Not much chance there's another "Float On" here to goose sales, but just because novelties are always unlikely, but because "Float On" found Isaac Brock in an atypically live-and-let-live mood. Usually he's more fuck-me, let's-get-lost, or oh-shit-not-again. So one candidate, the instantly hooky "We Know Everything," tops its "we know we know" backup with a "Left you dying on the floor" finale; another, "Steam Engenius," tosses in some woo-hoos on its way to "Stasis is what you got." In short, his latest lyrics are like his earliest, yoking images of failure and frustration to the loud and the catchy, thus rendering failure and frustration more fun. After six albums, this victory is getting too theoretical. Brock is a dour guy with a lot of talent and a good hustle who's been mining the same vein of meaning for over a decade. That's a long time--maybe too long. [Rolling Stone: 3.5]
The Move: Message From the Country (2005, Capitol) The entire Electric Light Orchestra catalog is now in reissue, with Randy Newman doing the notes. But you know better. You know Jeff Lynne's greatest band was the Move because it included Roy Wood, who soon proved incompatible with ELO's grander ambitions. What you probably don't know is that this (admittedly, as it is said, "remastered") version of the Move's 1971 peak adds naught but four alternate-version "bonus cuts" to 1994's Great Move!: The Best of the Move. Both include the whomping "Message From the Country," the all shook up "Don't Mess Me Up," the Man-in-Black-on-ludes "Ben Crawley Steel Company," and that ultimate bonus cut, the radio-unready greatest-single-of-all-time nominee "Do Ya." Post-psychedelia, the Move were a loud bastion against singer-songwriter miasma. No other band better evokes a giant mechanical lizard. [Recyclables]
Mystikal: Prince of the South . . . The Hits (2004, Jive/Zomba) Convicted sexual batterer and sole actually talented No Limit rapper Mystikal remains at his fiercest on 1997's Unpredictable, issued by No Limit/Jive. Hence the corporate provenance of his best-of, easily the most desirable CD to feature the timelessly timely Pharrell Williams collab "Bouncin' Back (Bumpin' Me Against the Wall)," which captured how it might feel to shake your a** at the terrorist threat. [Recyclables]
Youssou N'Dour: 7 Seconds: The Best of Youssou N'Dour (2004, Columbia/Legacy) An awkwardly conceived recap of N'Dour's '90, '92, and '94 crossover albums, with 2000's Joko also well represented but the '84, '86, or '89 attempts mysteriously passed over. Scanning its titles, you might wonder how many songs he recorded in English, as Columbia hopes. But though English lyrics are commoner than usual--notably the Neneh Cherry title collab--for the most part this is Wolof moralizing as hooky and guitaristic as N'Dour can stand. The low points are "Undecided (Japoulo)," recorded with Euro-American musicians in Dakar, and a mercifully suppressed rendition of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." The previously unreleased-in-America "Please Wait" and "Don't Look Back" are much better, as is the live "Set." But if you're interested in his crossover tendency, which certainly repays the attention, better to swallow it in album form on Set or Eyes Open. [Recyclables]
New York Dolls: Some Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This (2006, RoadRunner) David Johansen is no longer 24, so this reunion album surprises by revealing the dirty little secret beneath the '70s Dolls' playful pansexuality: religious emotion. Sure they're still into slapstick and noise. But even the orgiastic "We're All in Love" and the comic "Dance Like a Monkey" have metaphysical dimensions. "Dancing on the Lip of a Volcano" is explicitly pagan; "Take a Good Look at My Good Looks" begins "Spirit slumbers in nature and awakens in mind" before asking "So what if this old world is just artifice?" Everywhere Johansen mourns mortality and celebrates contingency in the most searching lyrics of the year--lyrics deepened by how much fun the band is having. [Blender: 4] A+
'N Sync: Greatest Hits (2005, Jive) Long ago and far away, serious young men regarded boy groups as the direst threat to their musical way of life. But that was before September 11 taught us what a threat is and American Idol taught us what crap is. This modest 12-song summation tops anything Boyz II Men could muster, and though it lacks a masterpiece to equal the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way," everyone this side of Nick Carter's mama knows that Justin Timberlake was a lead singer of vastly superior chops, wit, and emotional delicacy. "I Want You Back" "It's Gonna Be Me," and "Bye Bye Bye" are prefab rhythm at its most efficient. And ballads that once were icky as inescapable objects of obsession are now kinda touching as artifacts. [Blender: 4]
Lee Scratch Perry: Panic in Babylon (2006, Narnack) You say you didn't know Lee Perry won a Grammy for Jamaican E.T. in 2002? You say the nutty old dubmaster is hard to keep track of, living in Zurich and all? True, he's released some 20 albums in the four years since--twice that including compilations--and probably hasn't heard them all himself. So start here. It's song-oriented (OK, chant-oriented), with a 16-minute disc of remixes for the seriously spaced. Over typically well-deployed guitar-bass-drums-keybs, it starts strong, with an early peak at "Pussy Man": "Eminent, I'm the firmament/Emmy meant I'm permanent." Later, after doing Jah's work on the title cut, Perry turns to what's really on his mind, which is his mind. "I Am a Psychiatrist" is the masterpiece in question, and it sounds drawn from life: "Heal your pain/Bless your brain/Curse your name/From whence you came." Many songs express insanity. Not many encompass it. [Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Esther Phillips: Jazz Moods/Hot (2005, Epic/Legacy) Niggles about great singers who trend-hop are often swallowed up by their voices as history passes. A sardonic acolyte of jazz-r&b hitmaker Dinah Washington, Esther Phillips is respected for her r&b output, especially with the Atlantic Records posse. But her commercial peak, a decade later, was her dance records with Creed Taylor and various jazz fusioneers, and this ill-packaged cheapo, her only extant U.S. compilation in the style, proves disco was good for her. Sure the Grammy-nominated Washington cover "What a Difference a Day Makes" is taken too fast. But her astringent, vibrato-laden soprano is never derailed. And it owns the socially conscious Gil Scott-Heron and Joe Cocker songs, the Duke Ellington classic, and--remarkably--Bill Withers's "Use Me." [Blender: 4]
Wilson Pickett: The Definitive Wilson Pickett (2006, Atlantic/Rhino) For once, the 30 songs on these two CDs actually are definitive. True, they cover only the Wicked Pickett's Atlantic decade. But his late peaks aren't as consistently intense, powerful, assured, macho, or, truth to tell, tender--once taken for a shameless novelty, his "Hey Jude" now stands high among inspired Beatles covers. And though the 14 extras on 1992's A Man and a Half are almost as terrific, stylistically they can be distracting. Possessor of one of history's great shouting baritones, which he regularly revved to a scream when he found his sound, Pickett was also the master of Southern soul's rolling funk, most of which he recorded in Muscle Shoals like the Alabaman he was, not the sentimentally canonized Memphis. Slick, sharp, and felt, he defined the genre as well as this compilation defines him. [Blender: 5]
Ramones: Weird Tales of the Ramones (2005, Sire/Rhino) Between 1976 and 1978, the Ramones were a skyrocket who released four more or less flawless albums. Then they turned into a Ford Econoline, touring the world and releasing 11 more studio albums. Many were worthy, but only 1984's Too Tough to Die is worthy of the 25 '70s tracks omitted from this, their fourth or sixth anthology depending on how you count. It's their first box, selected by their late guitarist-leader Johnny Ramone, who was prouder than necessary of both their longevity and his ability to retire at 45 off his catalogue and investments. The '70s albums end on disc one, and the fourth disc is devoted to a recycled video comp that further emphasizes their careerist period. All 25 omitted songs would have fit onto that disc. In descending order of preference, try Ramones, Rocket to Russia, Road to Ruin, and Ramones Leave Home, all available separately. Program out the bonus cuts. [unknown: 3]
Damien Rice: 9 (2006, Warner Bros.) The tortured melancholy bit takes a back seat on the tardy follow-up to this Irish bard's well-loved 2003 debut--on part of it, anyway. Not that Rice is cracking any jokes, except for the mean one about sitting on a chimney. But after unveiling three more of the love laments whose loveliness lifted him from the singer-songwriter morass last time--the opener, "Crimes," is unforgettable--he gets actively angry and sweetly lyrical on four tracks that culminate in a galvanizing imitation of Polly Jean Harvey's galvanizing imitation of testosterone-fueled desperation. Then comes the accurately entitled "Grey Room" and the weepies get him. You're an eloquent fellow, Damien. There's sinew and backbone in your voice. So just tuck your heart back under your lapel and the acutely entitled "Accidental Babies" might actually win her back--properly framed, that "Do you brush your teeth before you kiss?" could be a pretty affecting line. In fact, it almost is anyway. [Rolling Stone: 3]
Smokey Robinson: My World: The Definitive Collection (2005, Motown/UME) Artistically--he's also been a record executive, not to mention a husband and father--there have been two Smokey Robinsons. What we learn from this misbegotten single-disc overview is that the leader of the Miracles and the solo lothario who named "quiet storm" r&b are very different. The bright, achy, forthright Motown pop of the former is pure greatness at its numerous peaks and almost justifies both discs of Oooo Baby Baby: The Anthology. But toward the end the Miracles wander into slow grooves better encapsulated on the solo Smokey's edition of 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection. Beginning with a couple of overwrought new songs, this DVD-baited product muddles the two--even straight chronology would be a sequencing improvement. Definitively not the introduction Robinson deserves. [Blender: 2]
The Rolling Stones: Between the Buttons (1967, Abkco) Accused of psychedelia, Beatlephobia, and murky mix syndrome, this underrated keeper is distinguished by complex rhymes, complex sexual stereotyping, and the non-blues, oh-so-rock-and-roll pianos of Ian Stewart, Jack Nitzsche, Nicky Hopkins, and Brian Jones. Like all Beatles and Stones albums till that time, it was released in different American and British versions. The surefire U.S.-only "Let's Spend the Night Together"/"Ruby Tuesday" single parlay is almost too much because its greatness is understood--"Back Street Girl," bumped to the Flowers compilation released later that year, more closely resembles such gemlike songs of experience as "Connection," "My Obsession," and "She Smiled Sweetly." Capper: Mick and Keith's zonked music-hall "Something Happened to Me Yesterday," the Stones' drollest odd-track-out ever. [Rolling Stone: The 40 Essential Albums of 1967]
The Rolling Stones: Flowers (1967, Abkco) The Stones were cresting so high around 1967 that even this pieced-together hodgepodge has a distinctness of style and invention about it. Right, it re-recycles "Let's Spend the Night Together"/"Ruby Tuesday," which shouldn't have been on Between the Buttons to begin with. It disrespects the rightful owners of "My Girl," the Temptations, and the target of "Mother's Little Helper," yo mama. As for "Lady Jane," what's that about? Nevertheless, every track connects. That's more than can be said of Their Satanic Majesties Request, which is better than its rep even so. [Rolling Stone: The 40 Essential Albums of 1967]
Santana: The Essential Santana (2002, Columbia/Legacy) Columbia's Essential series dishonors a great packaging concept: two-CD best-of in single-size jewel box. Every title that isn't a priori redundant is either too long or, yes, too short; the second discs almost unfailingly home in on late schlock, especially misbegotten collaborations (hint: Willie Nelson's Hank Snow and Webb Pierce one-offs now occupy one budget disc). But the first disc here is long-winded enough to evoke a real Santana album but not so long-winded you won't give the next soundalike solo a shot, and so's its second disc--except for the dreadful patch in the middle featuring Scots belter Alex Ligertwood, a textbook example of how horribly wrong "rock" went in the AOR '80s. This clueless corporate greed, that clueless corporate greed--so different, yet so the same. [Recyclables]
Pete Seeger: The Essential Pete Seeger (2005, Columbia/Legacy) Not to cry sellout, but John Hammond's deal with Seeger at Columbia seems kind of crass, re-recording classics after his voice had lost a portion of kind and tender intensity, often in cheap live versions. Folkways could compile pretty much the same repertoire more effectively. But that would mean recognizing how preachy he could get on songs with too high a sermon quotient. Beyond the cookie-cutter anti-conformism of "Little Boxes," this selection demonstrates why he was adored--the voice is too relaxed, but the songs are still strong. They include the Columbia-only "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," eminently revivable up against a war where the quicksand is dry until mixed with blood. [Recyclables]
The Serpent Power: The Serpent Power (1967, Vanguard) Think of the Serpent Power as the Bay Area's version of the Velvet Underground. Led by poet David Meltzer, with Meltzer on untutored post-folk guitar, Meltzer and his wife Tina singing his songs, poet Clark Coolidge clattering behind on drums, and the soon-vanished John Payne fixing a hole on organ, their music was minimalist folk-rock with noise--the climactic, electric-banjo augmented "Endless Tunnel" goes on for thirteen minutes. Some songs began as poems, other didn't, but all feature notable lyrics--some romantic, some gruff, some both. And all but a few are graced by excellent tunes, none more winsome than that of the lost classic "Up and Down." [Rolling Stone: The 40 Essential Albums of 1967]
Paul Simon: The Paul Simon Songbook (2004, Columbia/Legacy) There's Paul Simon, and then there's Simon & Garfunkel. You don't have to love either. But you have to admit that the constraints of angelic harmony undercut the quirks of Simon's songwriting. Unfortunately, so does the folkie voice-and-strum of this UK-only 1965 collector's item, cut for the fan base Simon developed in London before S&G broke. The duo recorded most of these songs in the '60s, and recorded them better. Significantly, the three they skipped are all protest material: the outspoken "A Church Is Burning," a testy early version of "A Simple Desultory Philippic," and the genuinely rare antiwar sermon "The Side of a Hill." But Simon also suppressed the album for another reason: his true solo debut, 1972's Paul Simon, is about 10 times better. [Blender: 2]
Slade: Get Yer Boots On: The Best of Slade (2004, Shout! Factory) Cruder than T. Rex and harder than the Sweet, the proto-oi Slade performed the same function--more loudly, it is my sad duty to report, on the original Slayed? than on this collection of U.K. hits, the first nine of which replicate the first nine on 1973's Sladest. After that there are, I swear, several ballads, and also their only U.S. hit, "Run Runaway," released to capitalize on Quiet Riot's breakthrough cover of Slade's signature "Cum On Feel the Noize." Oy. [Recyclable]
Sly & the Family Stone: A Whole New Thing (1967/2006, Epic/Legacy) Prophetic in their rhythms, racial philosophy, and ostensible gender relations, Sly & the Family Stone scored a string of '60s hits that crystallized a vision of freedom--as Greil Marcus summarized, its complexity, coherence, wild anarchy, and endless affirmation. Unfortunatey, that vision is present only in embryo on this much-sampled debut, which doesn't generate a single song any ordinary fan need remember. [Rolling Stone: 2.5]
Sly & the Family Stone: Dance to the Music (1968/2007, Epic/Legacy) One great song here--guess what. But highlighted by the 12-minute "Dance to the Medley," the thing moves, a groove album that pits Larry Graham's athletic bass against Gregg Errico's leadfoot drums, with articulate horns and multivalent vocals swirling and punching and meshing up top. [Rolling Stone: 3]
Sly & the Family Stone: Life (1968/2007, Epic/Legacy) This is where Stone figures out his shit--although the hits were minor on this album, its individual tracks stick, from the dyn-o-mite guitar of "Dynamite!" and the clucking horns of "Chicken" to the no-holds-barred clinches of "M'lady" and the erotic ennui of "Jane Is a Groupee." [Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Sly & the Family Stone: Stand! (1969/2007, Epic/Legacy) Highlighted but not exhausted by five songs Greatest Hits would recycle just a year later, Stand! revealed the magnificence of which Sly's band would all too briefly be capable. "Sex Machine," which precipitated James Brown's, wah-wahs on a bit, but everything else is etched in Stone, from the equally precipitous "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" to the Chaka Khan fave "Somebody's Watching You" to, yes you can, "You Can Make It if You Try." [Rolling Stone: 4.5]
Huey "Piano" Smith: Having a Good Time With Huey "Piano" Smith & His Clowns: The Very Best of, Volume 1 (1997, West Side) Once upon a time there was a budget label called Music Club that compiled 18 songs by this unlikely New Orleans hitmaker, three of which referenced diseases no less catchy than his piano style. As happens with novelty artists, his material soon ran thinner than hay fever mucus, so Music Club did well to find that many songs worth hearing. And as happens with budget labels, Music Club succumbed to impeded cash flow. This 24-track collection features all the Music Club songs in almost the same order and a reframed version of the same cover photo. And though the six extras dilute Smith's appeal, it is your best shot at catching, or catching up with, the rockin' pneumonia that showed Dr. John his vocation. [Recyclables]
Phoebe Snow: The Very Best of Phoebe Snow (2001, Columbia/Legacy) Great round rough funky voice. Better writer than editor. Air of mild chronic dysfunction. Coulda been a diva, wasn't tough enough. True New York liberal type. Why pay cover charges for white lounge blues when you can play this here and never leave your studio apartment? Oh, I get it--unlike Snow, you want to leave your studio apartment. Like maybe to vote. [Recyclables]
Sonic Youth: Rather Ripped (2006, Interscope) Their mean age up to 48 with thirtysomething troublemaker Jim O'Rourke gone, indie's gray eminences make a light, simple, terse, almost pop album. Granted, the guitar hook on, for instance, "Do You Believe in Rapture?" wouldn't sound so lovely if they and all their progeny hadn't long since adjusted our harmonic expectations. But who better to play to our expanded capacity for tuneful beauty? The vocal star is Kim Gordon, breathlessly girlish at 53 as she and her husband evoke visions of dalliance, displacement, recrimination, and salvation that never become unequivocally literal. A
Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation: Deluxe Edition (2007, Geffen) Loosed on the world in 1988, Daydream Nation made alt-rock a life-force. Over two vinyl discs containing just fourteen titles, it fused Sonic Youth's displaced guitar tunings with tunes as hummable as the Beatles' or the Ramones'--a standard they've matched ever since, but never again with quite so much anthemic consistency. Today, Daydream Nation's evocation of sonic youths with talent to burn and nowhere to build a fire is clearly rooted in the specifics of a Manhattan bohemia since transformed by Internet money and real estate sharks. Post-irony, its confusion-as-sex seems almost innocent. But its tunings keep it honest and its anthems keep it thrilling. A terrific bonus disc compiles covers that do justice to the band's ambition--Mudhoney's "Touch Me I'm Sick," Neil Young's "Computer World," the Beatles' "Within You Without You"--and unearths live versions of every Daydream Nation song. These are rough, intense, welcome. But the studio versions are definitive, as dense as cluster bombs. "Your life is such a mess/Forget the past, and just say yes"? "You can buy some more and more and more and more"? As words, admissions of futility. Atop marshalled guitars, artistic war cries. [Rolling Stone: 5]
Soul Coughing: New York, NY 16-08-99 (2004, Kufala) It's just as well NYC's Soul Coughing went over-and-out after three albums in 2000. Though Mike Doughty was sharper and funnier than Morphine's Mark Sandman or the Eels' Mark Oliver Everett, in the end all three were hipsters putting the beat in beat poetry, an m.o. that generally wears out no matter how ingenious the principals. But Soul Coughing were so loose and loud live that this board-tape double-CD does more than remind fans of better days. Keyboardist Mark de Gli Antoni sampled like a madman. Sebastian Steinberg got monster sound from a standup bass. Drummer Yuval Gabay's jazz chops felt the noise. And Doughty, well--wotta ham. "Power to the people--right on," he hopes sarcastically at the start. "Perhaps you would like to sing along like big jerks with me," he ventures fondly at the end. And in between he orates his songs so decisively it's like he loved them as much as the day they were born. [unknown: 3.5]
Mavis Staples: We'll Never Turn Back (2007, Anti-) One of the rare entertainers to actively support the civil rights movement, gospel-pop-soul matron Mavis Staples honors the music of that movement with these re-created freedom songs. Of documentary value throughout, they're most moving when Staples embellishes them with personal memories, such as her one-young-woman integration of a washateria in Forrest, Mississippi. On her own new "With My Own Eyes," the updated "99 1/2," and producer Ry Cooder's "I'll Be Rested," she doesn't merely revive rousing old songs--she brings their moral passion into the present. As usual, Cooder's refab authenticity can get annoying--he distresses the arrangements with anachronistic guitar stabs like he's antiquing a bureau. But because African-American rhythms come easier to him than Cuban clave, his timing is spot on. More proof that God loves this project: He or She even grants Ry's klutzy son Joachim some tasty loops. A-
Joss Stone: Mind, Body & Soul (2005, S-Curve) Eighteen-year-old Joss Stone is cursed with a great voice--a plummy yet gritty thing of tremendous range and power. Hearing her try to make like Gladys Knight on 2003's Miami-funk-styled The Soul Sessions was like watching a 12-year-old with 36D's imitate Marilyn Monroe--sure some guys find it sexy, but they're perverts. For the rest of us, perhaps paradoxically, this album's compromise with the teenpop divahood she was groomed for will feel like an authenticity move. Stone's infatuation with band grooves provides relief from radio-ready synthesizers and compressors. And processed through an instrument more solid than Christina's or Pink's, song-doctored fabrications like Jet Lag and Don't Cha Wanna Ride split the difference between guaranteed hook appeal and a decent simulation of emotional truth. [Blender: 3]
George Strait: 50 Number Ones (2004, MCA Nashville) Few long-running pros have front-loaded their books like George Strait, whose no-frills approach started fresh and turned ticket to hackdom in under five years. The keepers presumably scattered across the second disc are hard to locate as you shake off the cobwebs induced by the first; conceivably the 51st track, the non-No. 1 "I Hate Everything," only stands out because it's placed first. [Recyclables]
Teddybears: Soft Machine (2006, Big Beat/Atlantic) By now we've met so many arty rockboys turned poppy tune phreaks that there's nothing special conceptually about this danceable Stockholm trio, debuting Stateside after starting as a hardcore band 15 years ago. What distinguishes them is execution. This isn't the "different sound" they advertise, especially in its electropop moments, but it isn't just more of the same. It's a hell of a lot more of the same--super-catchy, crammed with guest vocals. Expertly of course, they tone up or smooth down the catchiest songs from 2000's E.U-only Rock 'n' Roll Highschool for their crack at America, where the TV revenues they love are even more lovable. Mixes are brightened, grooves tightened, vocals changed: fresh recruit Neneh Cherry turns "Yours to Keep" sunny and sublime, and Iggy Pop rocks the postpunk "Punkrocker." There's ace new material too. But their best trick is doing dancehall right. Who knew Elephant Man was such a friendly guy? Who knew Swedes could toast at all? [Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Gabriel Teodros: Lovework (2007, MassLine) "We rock shows, mostly white folks come out," acknowledges twenty-six-year-old Gabriel Teodros toward the end of his solo debut. It's a typical ploy for the Seattle rapper, at once situating him in the underground and, by its candor, raising him a little above it. Teodros pumps a quiet flow over producer Amos Miller's keyboard-based beats--think Toronto's K-Os, only deeper and more swinging. He's conscious, diligently pro-woman, even slipping into the lamentably uncolloquial word-cluster "greed, homophobia, and sexism" (he's against 'em). But because he's an Ethiopian immigrant, his Afrocentric politics take on a compelling extra measure of knowledge and entitlement--especially, no surprise, on the geopolitically detailed "East Afrika" and the respecfully un-Rastafarian "In This Together." Teodros has brains, musicality, and a refreshing attitude. It's such a relief to encounter an alt-rapper who never once whines about his anxiety or wallows in his disempowerment. [Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Ike Turner: Here and Now (2001, Ikon) Ike Turner is the kind of innovator best appreciated by connoisseurs--for his solos, his arrangements, the singers he exploited. One of these, headlong shouter Jackie Brenston, had his name on the 1951 r&b smash and first-rock-and-roll-record nominee "Rocket 88." On this comeback, 69-year-old Ike, who hasn't made a solo album since 1972, slows the classic just a hair, and though his typically expert band hits the groove on all cylinders, his raspy vocal could use an oil change. And so it goes. Of the seven songs, only the newly minted sexist novelty "I Need A-Nuddin'" properly shows off his comic baritone, and only a remake of Turner's old Billy Gayles showcase "I'm Tore Up" conveys the urgency palpable in late Muddy Waters or Alberta Hunter. Of the four instrumentals, only the fast-moving "Baby's Got It"--highlighted by Ike's (or maybe Ernest Lane's) piano--strops up the kind of edge that sharpens 1994 Rhino compilation I Like Ike! throughout. Ike can still get it up, definitely. But how much he enjoys it isn't as clear as it should be. [Rolling Stone: 3]
The Velvet Underground: Live at Max's Kansas City (Deluxe Edition) (2004, Atlantic/Rhino) Recorded in notorious lo-fi from the table of Warhol hanger-on Brigid Polk in 1970, Lou Reed's last Velvets show until 1993 is one of the few collector's items to gain patina with the remastered, bonus-cutted, double-disc overkill of the CD era. Although the basic effect is still that of hearing a band from the back of a noisy bar, the audio is crisper and more forceful. Although John Cale and Mo Tucker are gone, Reed does sing songs performed in their official studio versions by Nico and Doug Yule. And although Live 1969 remains the essential document, it is kinda cool to hear Brigid's buddies chatting obliviously about Nixon and Tuinols as punk's forefathers go gamely into that good night. [Blender: 3]
T-Bone Walker: The Best of the Black & White and Imperial Years (2005, Metro Blue) Basically, Walker invented electric blues guitar. Everybody from B.B. King on down gives him props. But because he came first, he was also transitional--his single-note solos have less brute color and sustain than those of jazz-hip King or rocking Elmore James, and he croons rather than shouts, perhaps a little too subtly. Or perhaps not. The seminal-by-acclamation Black & White sides are seriously outnumbered here by the Imperials, which feature sax sections. But his warm sound is so consistent that only the specialist audience will care. [Recyclables]
Fats Waller: If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It! (2005, Bluebird/Legacy) Harlem preacher's son turned pianist-organist-bar singer Fats Waller defied the racial odds to become a pop star in the '30s--when he died at 39 in 1943, he'd scored more hits than fellow crossover virtuoso Louis Armstrong himself. But he's been poorly served by CD reissues until this three-disc collection. Legendary producer Orrin Keepnews avoids chronological mishmash by dividing Waller's immense output into originals, instrumentals, and covers. A prolific tunesmith who wrote "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Ain't Misbehavin'" with the great black lyricist Andy Razaf, Waller got big by yocking up such supposed trivia as "Your Feet's Too Big" and "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie." And though his stride and swing were always muscular, he could tickle the ivories like the classical artist he yearned to be. [Blender: 5]
Dionne Warwick: Greatest Hits/Part One (1967, Scepter) By 1967, "Alfie" and the like had Warwick on the road to divahood, but that didn't mean this best-of, marked "Circa 1962-1964" in gold on the cover, was perceived as an oldies record. Girl groups weren't considered quaint yet, and Warwick has never been more tuneful or charming than when she and Bacharach-David had them to contend with. The selling points here are Warwick standards like "Walk On By" and "Don't Make Me Over." But obscurities long vanished from her canon are only a shade less compelling: the delicate "Any Old Time of Day," or her proud, quiet cover of the Shirelles' "It's Love That Really Counts." [Rolling Stone: The 40 Essential Albums of 1967]
Bert Williams: The Early Years, 1901-1909 (2004, Archeophone) The final installment of Archeophone's complete digitalization of Bert Williams's recordings covers his earliest, dimmest recordings, and as history alone it's a triumph. Given the limited dynamics of these expertly restored acoustic discs and cylinders, that's not to claim he still sounds as vivid as he must have then. But his perfectly delivered loser's lament, "Nobody," retains extraordinary irony and pathos, and throughout his tone and timing are a wonder. It's impressive that he ever got the subtly barbed "She's Getting More Like the White Folks" past his bosses. "I'm Tired of Eating in the Restaurants," however, proves surprisingly universal. "Never Mo'" rhymes with Edgar Allen Poe. And the big butt of "The Phrenologist Coon" may be "the Williams character," or may be phrenology itself. [Recyclables]
Bert Williams: The Middle Years, 1910-1919 (2002, Archeophone) Not only was comedian-singer Williams the first African American stage and recording star, with 33 hits between 1902 and 1922, he's lasted better than most of his bigger white peers, and beat them easily at their own games. The Ring Lardner-penned family burlesque "No Place Like Home" is conspicuously raceless. So is "Play That Barber Shop Chord." "The Darktown Poker Club" not so much, but kind of. The re-recorded "Nobody," who knows--or cares? [Recyclables]
Bert Williams: His Final Releases, 1919-1922 (2001, Archeophone) Williams wasn't just a success--he was a major star, the cultural equivalent of Hendrix in the '60s, the black man epitomizing a supposedly white entertainment culture. As he got older he grew impatient with the limitatins of the role he'd carved out for himself. Like many comedians before him he wanted to do drama, go legit, only in this case there's clearly a racial dynamic as well. But though some believe that his records weakened, as so often happens, I don't hear it. Improved recording certainly compensates. In any case, it's estimated that between 1918 and 1922 he moved nearly two million pieces, including two of the Elder Eatmore sermons Louis Armstrong imitated and adored, and the enduring opera parody "I Want to Know Where Tosti Went." [Recyclables]
Lucinda Williams: Live at the Fillmore (2005, Lost Highway) There's no point questioning Lucinda Williams's talent, or her perfectionism. Of course her first live album sounds dandy. There isn't a bad song or performance on it. Unfortunately, there isn't a new song or performance on it either. Every one of its 22 tracks appears in pretty much the same form on one of her painstaking studio albums--including, in an apparent world record, all 13 of the titles on 2003's mildly underrated World Without End. We don't appreciate her new songs, huh? Well, she'll show us--she'll release them again two years later. Sure they have a little more oomph this time. But why the devotees who adore everything she does need more proof that she's an effective bandleader is something her label would surely like to know. [Blender: 3]
Dwight Yoakam: The Very Best of Dwight Yoakam (2004, Reprise/Rhino) Although there was no such thing as purist honky tonk before Yoakam came along, now there is, and in controlled doses it's as sharp as the crease in his crotch. The 20 selections never tail off, and neither does Yoakam's voice as it transports Buck Owens from the flats of Bakersfield to the Blue Ridge mountains of your mind. [Recyclables]
Yo La Tengo: Prisoners of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs 1985-2003 (2005, Matador) Since Yo La Tengo's discographical accomplishments begin with their mastery of their own song titles, I assumed and fervently hoped that this best-of would boast a neat table indicating recording date and provenance of original release, but instead the booklet comprises readable, fact-impaired essays by two bosom buddies. Those scamps. Research indicates that of the 26 songs on the first two discs, no more than three come from any of their four best albums; that either disc plays as smoothly as any of said four and as deeply as any but I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One; and that the "outtakes and rarities" add-on consistently recalls those moments on said four that you forgive and even enjoy because they're on their best albums. These aren't. [Recyclables]
Neil Young: Greatest Hits (2004, Reprise) This flunks any reasonable redundancy test big-time--almost everything on it is from an album worth owning. Note, however. that 11 of the 16 tracks are 1971 or earlier, and also that there isn't a second that doesn't fit beautifully, "Heart of Gold" and "Harvest Moon" included. At the very least, an excellent conversion tool. [Recyclables]
Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens: The Big Ol' Box of New Orleans (2004, Shout! Factory) This box wasn't assembled by the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, but the way it trades on the city's status as a musical wellspring to showcase professional revivalists running rampant, it might have been. Ignoring chronology, it mixes classic polyphonic jazz, irresistible piano r&b, and seminal proto-funk with Cajun and zydeco and overrated contemporary locals of every provenance and stylistic orientation. Sure there are great tracks few nonexperts have heard--Dave Bartholomew's "Shrimp and Gumbo," Balfa Toujours's "Marshall's Club." But they're overwhelmed by pleasantly ordinary ones that make it a labor to find the gems. And for some reason, the Crescent City's most original contemporary musician is totally absent. Mannie Fresh, back your azz in here. [Blender: 3]
Eminem Presents: The Re-Up (2006, Interscope) It's a crew album--of course it sucks. The depressing thing is how much. Obie Trice, the merry men of D-12, Shady Records never-was Stat Quo and newbies Ca$his and Bobby Creekwater, 50 Cent proving payback is a bitch--didn't one of them have a lyric to show off? On a record where all they do is brag about being big-timers who are down with Shady, even a few insights into cocaine packaging would tone things up considerably. The boss's beats tend toward ominoso rock-keyb marches like "Mosh" and "White America," with gunshots scattered here and there like pepper spray. But not only is this mode less fresh now, Eminem doesn't develop it, and the rhymes don't nearly justify its declamatory pomp. So the Em-50 duet "Jimmy Crack Corn," an egocentric return to the rhythms of the visionary anti-Bush "Square Dance," comes as a relief, as do the Akon and 50 remixes. But though Eminem's own rhymes meet his traditional polysyllabic standards, with a nice pass into the third person on the title song ("as sick as his music is, or was, still is, whatever"), only the final two minutes of the final track access the brilliance we once took for granted: "They don't see that I'm wounded/All they did was ballooned it/I'm sick of talking about these tattoos/Cartooned it/That's why I tuned it out." [Rolling Stone: 2]
For Jumpers Only! (2003, Delmark) It's hard not to love Delmark Records, the blues ur-indie founded by retailer Bob Koester in 1953, which never stops expanding a sizable catalog dominated by blues and jazz musicians from sweet home Chicago. Koester encouraged the Art Ensemble nexus and underwrote Junior Wells and Buddy Guy's definitive young Hoodoo Man Blues. He makes a practice of rescuing masters abandoned by less astute or stubborn small businessmen, as on this jump blues collection. Rather than long workouts, these jump blues are three-minute songs designed for jukebox play by names famous, obscure, and inappropriate. Just about every one and will gratify instantly or come too quick depending on your prejudices. [Recyclables]
The Hip Hop Box (2004, Hip-O) As it stands, disc four proves how many memorable tracks are embedded in recent radio-rap detritus: Bone Thugs-n-Harmony's prophetic singsong, Gang Starr's classic flow, DMX's brutal bark, Noreaga's Neptunes electrojive, more. But imagine if it featured the Notorious B.I.G., the Fugees, Jay-Z, Eminem, Missy Elliott, Nelly, and OutKast, all absent except Biggie, snuck on via a well-selected Junior M.A.F.I.A. cameo. Thus, The Hip Hop Box may well play as a downhill slide to anyone familiar with such old-school classics as Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," Run D.M.C.'s "Sucker M.C.'s," and Roxanne Shanté's "Roxanne's Revenge"--which in turn may well shock young rap fans who haven't heard them, positively with their optimistic audacity or negatively with their crude hooks. Eric B. & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, and Ice-T lead disc two by deftly elaborating minimalist parameters. Then comes MC Hammer with the minor "Turn This Mutha Out" rather than a smash: full-band sonics, femme chorus, hype man, scratches, drum breaks, the works. And then comes the dense Bomb Squad multitracks that undergird the outspoken Public Enemy, as loud and aggressive as any arena-rock, and a hell of a lot funkier. It's not even 1990 and we're off to the races. Hip-hop can be anything it wants to be. It can be Biz Markie out of tune over a piano sample or De La Soul layering as thick as PE so they can remain goofs for life. It can be Naughty by Nature copping J5 followed by the once and future Will Smith doing spoken-word over girlie cheese. The indie entertainment of Chubb Rock, the proto-underground provocation of Black Sheep; the jazz lite of Digable Planets, the cockeyed nutball of Craig Mack; the sisterly womanism of Queen Latifah, the diva pride of Roots protegee Jill Scott; the textured flow of Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, the dramatic atmospherics of Wu-Tang Clan; the oily G-funk of Dr. Dre, the bumpy swampbeats of Timbaland. Maybe somebody up there has good ears. Or maybe with a genre so pervasive and extraordinary, picking just 51 tracks is a gimme. [Blender: 4]
Masters of the Boogie Piano (2003, Delmark) It's hard not to love Delmark Records, the blues ur-indie founded by retailer Bob Koester in 1953, which never stops expanding a sizable catalog dominated by blues and jazz musicians from sweet home Chicago. Koester encouraged the Art Ensemble nexus and underwrote Junior Wells and Buddy Guy's definitive young Hoodoo Man Blues. And although his open-door policy favors journeymen suitable only for fans, boosters, and genre specialists, he also makes a practice of rescuing masters abandoned by less astute or stubborn small businessmen, as he demonstrated on this boogie-woogie collection: fist-fingered old pros, lightning revivalists, and a surprise vocal highlight by Roosevelt Sykes as well as one track each by the three boogie titans--Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Pete Johnson--and a finale by the entire triumvirate. [Recyclables]
New York Rocks: Original Punk Classics of the 70's (2005, Koch) Some might carp that this efficient little celebration of New York punk is both too obvious and too obscure. Ramones-Velvets-Patti Smith-Television-Richard Hell? Go for the albums, five unchallenged classics. The Mumps' "Crocodile Tears?" Why not the Contortions' "Contort Yourself"? Or anything by the New York Dolls? Nevertheless, the famous songs gather force back to back, and despite the Mumps, compiler Bill Crowley has mixed in some canny arcana. Mink DeVille-Dead Boys-Suicide? Skip the albums. All told, the disc evokes a scene worthy of that stupid term almost as well as closer Wayne (now Jayne) Country: "The kids are jumpin' around everybody's doin' loop-de-loop/Just makin' the rounds like a speed freak in a telephone booth." [Blender: 4]
Now That's Chicago! (2003, Legacy) This profit-taking '20s comp is so committed to its Academy Award-winning tie-in that it doesn't bother listing musicians on the back. Good thing--totemic designations like Cab Calloway, Sophie Tucker, and Jack Teagarden might distract you. Name artists aren't why it works, except insofar as they too generated the hoop-de-doo novelties that gave the Jazz Age its name when Armstrong and Ellington were still rumors in the prevailing culture. Armstrong and Ellington were better, by miles. But the fun here is hard to fin these days, and worth getting to know. [Recyclables]
Plague Songs (2006, 4AD) The ten plagues of Egypt were good for the Jews--brought down by Moses, Aaron, and their boss Jehovah to help those long-ago Middle East good guys get out from under. But when a British documentarian got grant money to commission songs about said plagues as part of her muddled re-enactment of the Exodus, what were her arty artistes to do? Make locusts and boils sound like liberation? Instead, Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson escape into depressive murmurs, Scott Walker and the Tiger Lillies offer competing Antony and the Johnsons imitations, wan London rapper Klashnekoff and typographically challenged soulster Cody ChestnuTT fulfill their quota, and King Creosote associates frogs with loneliness because they didn't ask him to write one about roses. At least Rufus Wainwright moves the firstborn-son action to Westchester. And thank G-d Stephin Merritt risks "necessary heresy." "Fleas fleas, STDs/All of Egypt on her knees"--that's the spirit. [Rolling Stone: 2]
Power of Soul: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix (2003, Experience Hendrix) In which aging stars and young souls try to prove that Hendrix's compositions, as opposed to performances, will earn royalties forever. Songwriting wasn't Hendrix's strength, but don't blame him for this--he was too busy re-inventing the guitar to anticipate the tribute album. The two best tracks are by John Lee Hooker amd Stevie Ray Vaughan, both as dead as he was when it came out, and the main thing it proves is that Hendrix's guitar isn't inimitable, just unduplicatable. [Blender: 1]
The Sound of the City: Memphis (2002, EMI) Compiler Charlie Gillett is one of the rare guys who can make a virtue of getting dragged by obviosity. Although NYC, L.A., and Chicago proved too various to fold into accompanying musical cityscapes, he goes to town on a radio-ready two-CD mixtape that includes six songs with Memphis in their titles and three artists with Memphis in their names. It's got thematic segues, novelty instrumentals, stuff the historian-DJ plays wayfaring strangers in his living room, and known great songs now passed from the collective memory: "Tongue Tied Jill," "Trapped by a Thing Called Love," "I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home," the amazing "Third Rate Romance," more. Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King check in with early crudities; "Dixie Fried" packs thematic punch. And though some selections are only curiosities--Dan Penn must be one hell of a nice guy--the whole thing moves, slight dips being part of the ride. [Recyclables]
Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection (2007, Shout! Factory/Vee-Jay) Before Motown, Chicago-based Vee-Jay was the biggest black-owned label of the rock and roll era, with a run of r&b and then pop hits stretching from Jimmy Reed's "High and Lonesome" in 1953 to the Dells' "Stay in My Corner" in 1965--and also included the Four Seasons' 1962 "Sherry" and, thanks to Capitol Records' initial stupidity, four of the first nine Beatles' songs to go top 40. But the label failed to survive these unlikely successes--by 1964 or so, it was said to be involved in sixty-four separate legal actions. Vee-Jay had no house style--just a&r man Calvin Carter, who favored the rougher strains of blues and gospel but appreciated every r&b and gospel style, and promo man Ewart Abner, who could schmooze anybody about anything and ended up president of Motown. Reed was its most prolific artist. Label-hopping blues primitivist John Lee Hooker had his biggest singles with Vee-Jay, and apostle of soul cool Jerry Butler his first. Carter also brought the world the supernal doowop of Pookie Hudson's Spaniels and the durable post-doowop of Marvin Junior's Dells. But all these artists are more efficiently accessed on their own collections. What's striking on this four-CD set is the one-shots: young Gladys Knight and aging "5" Royales, cult heroes Rosco Gordon and Pee Wee Crayton outdoing themselves, hot songwriter Hoyt Axton's hokum blues and future record exec Donnie Elbert's falsetto workout. Like most boxes, this one needs its familiar hits and is too long on high-generic collectors' items. But with the worst of eighty-five tracks a lounge-jazz "Exodus," a lot of people were clearly doing something right. [Rolling Stone: 3.5]
Some more possible entries, not included in the Rhapsody dump, but picked up from various sources used for Rhapsody, with minimal editing.
Lucille Bogan: The Best of Lucille Bogan: Shave 'Em Dry (2004, Columbia/Legacy) After Lucille beat me at nine-ball in the back of a keno parlor, we went out for ribs and ended up bringing some Bacardi back to her place. The sex was hot and candid, lots of tongue, teeth, and growl, and though I'd expected raunch, only toward the end did she get all "I'll do it to you honey till I make you shit." This wasn't literally true, but it might as well have been. Later, though, I heard she'd bad-mouthed me for not delivering on that rim job. Bessie, I swear, it just slipped my mind. It was real, and a repeat would do me fine. But Billie's got more common decency, not to mention sexual magnetism. [Recyclables]
Burning Spear: The Best of Burning Spear: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection (2002, Island) Embroiled in one of those gruesome family melodramas that turn old age into a fate worse than death, I cast about for music to suit my mood. Monk? Miles? Holiday? All too jaunty. But the moment I heard the Rasta groans and wails that establish Burning Spear's Social Living, I had company. If the misery Winston Rodney and brethren articulate were any less primal, it would be depressing. Instead, it's proof positive that life always goes on. On Social Living, the afore-referenced "Marcus Children Suffer" points mysteriously toward the downpressed-progressive title song. Better still, the latter kicks off the more concentrated Millennium Collection, followed by the title track of Burning Spear's other compelling album-as-album, Marcus Garvey. Like Social Living, Marcus Garvey is worth a search--it's the sole resting place of the reparations anthem "Give Me," and, except for the old two-disc Chant Down Babylon best-of, the embarrassingly explicit "Slavery Days." But Millennium Collection is nothing but knockouts. Where Chant Down Babylon gives it up to the uplift and didacticism that long ago turned Rodney into a totem, this cheapo recalls 1979's Harder Than the Best in its eerie intensity. If you want a slightly classier-looking selection, Ultimate Collection avoids letdowns. But I know what I'm playing next time I get a call from a geriatric professional. [Recyclables]
Sam Cooke: The Best of Sam Cooke (2005, RCA/Legacy) Musically, Rock and Roll hall of Fame charter member Sam Cooke is a stumper. His voice wasn't just smooth and gritty at the same time, it was also infinitely relaxed--for the many who adore it, a sing-the-phonebook voice. But he was so intent on the pop market that some curmudgeons might prefer the phone book to his orchestral accompaniments. Fortunately, these albums avoid his clumsier commercial endeavors. Even so, bypass Best of for Abkco's 30-track Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964, which includes all of its 15 songs. [Blender: 1]
Digital Underground: Playwutchyalike: The Best of Digital Underground (2003, Tommy Boy/Rhino) This is the only way to hear "Doowutchyalike" and "The Humpty Dance" on any single disc except their frat-sexist debut and the miss-or-hit new Tommy Boy's Greatest Hits. It unceremoniously dispatches 2001's No Nose Job: The Legend of Digital Underground, from which it omits their third-best song, "Return of the Crazy One," still available on the excellent Body-Hat Syndrome. Is this why Black Stalin wrote "Burn Dem"? Kinda. [Recyclables]
Slim Harpo: The Best of Slim Harpo (1997, Hip-O) Supplanting AVI's deleted Hip Shakin' twofer, Hip-O's new Slim Harpo twofer, The Excello Singles Anthology, offers mellower and more "natural" sound, which I'm too boorish to appreciate. Ditto for the selection, which on AVI's dozen-out-of-40-odd nonduplicates tended toward the oddball (though Hip-O's "Folsom Prison Blues" is pretty funny). Blues, schmooze--lowdown novelty with a mudcat beat was Mr. Hipshake Kingbee's métier. So here's an idea: this old one-volume Hip-O. It'll cost you half as much--while it's in print. [Recyclables]
Jimi Hendrix: Blue Wild Angel: Jimi Hendrix Live at the Isle of Wight (2004, Experience Hendrix/Universal) Three weeks before his accidental death, Hendrix headlined at a notoriously ill-starred festival, where his set was weary and dispirited. It wasn't terrible, as the two CDs and DVD-with-interview-exposition make clearer than necessary. But there are many better ways to spend 40 bucks. [Blender: 2]
George Jones: The Hits . . . Then 'Til Now (2008, Time Life) Still touring at 76, the man widely considered country music's greatest singer has been recorded and repackaged so endlessly you couldn't blame a newcomer for never beginning. Three 20-song discs can't do full justice to his immeasurable depths, unshakable commitment or dumb sense of humor. But this overview has the advantage of being just that. Not only does it document the young hit machine whose voice was too big to fit in a honky-tonk, it proves how well he aged after his two great decades with Epic Records ended in 1991. Those who've invested in Epic's Essential George Jones box will find too much of it repeated here. But for anybody else, it's manna. Though people like to call Jones's voice the essence of country music, it's way too remarkable for that. But for sure it's country music's pride. [Blender: 4]
Youssou N'Dour & Le Super Etoile: Le Grand Bal Bercy 2001 Vol. 2 (2004, no label) Or you could take a cue from "Set" and a walk on West 116th Street, where I picked up the manifestly illicit Le Grand Bal Bercy 2001 Vol. 2 for five bucks after dinner one night. A Web search indicates that rather than the board tape of a Paris concert I'd assumed, this six-track, 37-minute CD bootlegs a live album initially released Senegal-mostly on N'Dour's Jololi label; something of the same title can be purchased (for more money) from Stern's. Raw, raspy, and frantic with tama drums, it's a long way from the manicured 7 Seconds, and also from Egypt. I humbly suggest that N'Dour and Nonesuch turn the tables again and fashion music of comparable provenance into their next U.S. release. [Recyclables]
Willie Nelson: One Hell of a Ride (2008, Columbia/Legacy) As Willie Nelson turns 75, Columbia has finally put some corporate muscle behind a career overview of a label-hopping one-take-and-out compulsive who's claimed he has 2,000 more tracks in the can. Spanning his long tours at RCA, Columbia and Universal, this sanely ambitious, provisionally definitive 100-track box does country music's reigning survivor justice. Big as overrecorded coequal Johnny Cash's stylistic embrace was, Nelson's is wider--he's always had jazz leanings; his 1978 standards album, Stardust, was more audacious than his 1976 Waylon Jennings coup, Wanted! The Outlaws; and just three years ago he put out the reggae record that provides the box's subpar version of "The Harder They Come." Nelson is so prolific that subpar moments come with the territory--hello, again, Julio Iglesias. But by going 50/50 on his taciturn, precise, sometimes metaphysical songwriting and his deceptively conversational interpretive singing, this covers that territory. Once you're oriented, by all means explore. [Blender: 4]
Ol' Dirty Bastard: The Definitive Ol' Dirty Bastard Story (2005, Elektra/Rhino) The master of the hip-pop guttural, however, is obviously still Mr. Big Baby Jesus, whose posthumous best-of supplants the 2001 stopgap The Dirty Story: The Best of ODB and will stand until the next best-of as the most convenient way to access his charming collabs with Mariah, Kelis, and Lil' Mo. On the other hand, Return to the 36 Chambers and N***a Please are a lot crazier, and with Ol' Dirty, crazy is of the essence. [Recyclables]
Richard Thompson: Front Parlour Ballads (2005, Cooking Vinyl)
Now 56, Richard Thompson will never surprise us again. He'll be a world-class guitarist in his own Celtic style until arthritis kicks in. He'll wield words more pungently than most world-class guitarists. He'll strain listeners' patience and his own hernia with a melancholy voice only a publicist would deem "sonorous." And he'll be a sardonic sourpuss. The mostly acoustic Front Parlour Ballads' cover illustration claims kinship with genteel forebears who would be startled by his notion of beauty if not his trademark beret. Are the philanderer-dissing "Should I Betray?" or "Miss Patsy," in which he explains his new nose job to his old muse, suitable for today's sitting rooms? Hie thee to the garage, varlet. And lubricate your larynx while you're there.
Sarah Vaughan: Love Songs (2004, Columbia/Legacy) Sarah caught my eye at a Romare Bearden opening. Two nights later I bought her dinner at Alison on Dominick. The sex was lush, cushiony, companionable, matter-of-fact--no tricks to speak of, but she knew her own body and had ideas about mine. The subtlety of her variations was delicious. Later, though, I heard she'd wrinkled her nose at my personal hygiene. Sassy, my sweet, what are a few skid marks between friends? It was real, and a repeat would do me fine. But Billie's got more common decency, not to mention sexual magnetism. [Recyclables]
Fats Waller: The Centennial Collection (2004, Bluebird) Well, thinks I to meself, finally a Fats Waller CD. Good--I never play my Book-of-the-Month Club vinyl, or those unsorted Vintages. But soon I notice many apparent obscurities fleshing out "The Joint Is Jumping" and "Your Feets Too Big"--some superb, like Fats striding through James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout," most merely good. So I go buy RCA's 2000 The Very Best of Fats Waller, figuring the gold is buried there. Only it's not. Neither of these CDs features the original "Ain't Misbehavin'" or "Honeysuckle Rose" (Very Best has two others), and though I remain a seeker, not an expert, this is clearly suspicious. So here's what I propose: one expertly annotated CD of piano solos, with a few band instrumentals and organ numbers thrown in, and one of the novelty songs that made him a crossover pioneer--selected, please, by somebody with a cheap sense of humor. I'd be grateful if it included his "One Meat Ball," which I haven't seen nor heard since my parents threw out their 78s--and which I am thus no longer sure ever existed. [Recyclables]
Memphis Celebrates 50 Years of Rock 'n' Roll (2004, BMG Strategic Marketing Group) BMG's one-disc civic promotion never drags as it strides from obviosity to obviosity: "Blue Suede Shoes" to "I Walk the Line," "Soul Man" to "Dock of the Bay," early Elvis song to late Elvis song. [Recyclables]
Piano Blues (2003, Columbia/Legacy) Proof that Clint Eastwood has better ears than Martin Scorsese: his Piano Blues soundtrack, where Monk yields to Big Joe Turner and Art Tatum jumps off (hmm, why isn't this on Fats Domino's Blues Kingpins?) "The Fat Man." [Recyclables]