Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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2015: Dean's List

Albums

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  1. Laurie Anderson: Heart of a Dog (Nonesuch) 25: The soundtrack to a film I missed is also Anderson's simplest and finest album, accruing power and complexity as you relisten and relisten again: 75 minutes of sparsely but gorgeously and aptly orchestrated tales about a) her beloved rat terrier Lolabelle and b) the experience of death. There are few detours--even her old fascination with the surveillance state packs conceptual weight. Often she's wry, but never is she satiric; occasionally she varies spoken word with singsong, but never is her voice distorted. She's just telling us stories about life and death and what comes in the middle when you do them right, which is love. There's a lot of Buddhism, a lot of mom, a whole lot of Lolabelle, and no Lou Reed at all beyond a few casual "we"s. Only he's there in all this love and death talk--you can feel him. And then suddenly the finale is all Lou, singing a rough, wise, abstruse song about the meaning of love that first appeared on his last great album, Ecstasy--a song that was dubious there yet is perfect here. One side of the CD insert is portraits of Lolabelle. But on the other side there's a note: "dedicated to the magnificent spirit/of my husband, Lou Reed/1942-2013." I know I should see the movie. But I bet it'd be an anticlimax. A+
  2. Yo La Tengo: Stuff Like That There (Matador) 15: Right, it's been a quarter of a century, but how they've changed since Fakebook. There's the bassist around whom Georgia and Ira cohered. There's Georgia's increasingly confident calm meshing with Ira's increasingly thoughtful quiet. There's the fragile, enduring lyricism that's been their musical heart since "Autumn Sweater," and the uneasy, enduring domesticity that goes with it. Ira took the lead on Fakebook's covers, which tended toward a perky cheek now gone. But amazing as ever on this second covers album is his ear for the obscure ditty. The heartbreakingly cute Darlene McCrea opener "My Heart's Not in It." The existentially anxious Great Plains midpoint"Before We Stopped to Think." The Lovin' Spoonful filler "Butchie's Tune." Sun Ra's chart-ready "Somebody's in Love." Hell, the Cure hit "Friday I'm in Love." They also cover themselves and birth a few new ones. But what makes this their loveliest album ever is Ira's ditties combined with Georgia's confident calm. Her "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" isn't Hank's, or Al's either. But in its own way it's just as good, bereft with only the barest show of emotion--she doesn't ever really raise or even intensify her voice. You're forced to wonder, and worry--what's she got to be bereft about, anyway? A
  3. Heems: Eat Pray Thug (Megaforce) 11: Heems has always been explicit about the unimaginable extra burden of racism borne by African-Americans in this country. But on the 9/11 rhyme "Flag Shopping" ("We're going flag shopping/For American flags/They're staring at our turbans/They're calling them rags") and the 9/11 recitation "Patriot Act" ("They would come at night and they would make a mess and the mess upset his wife"), he documents the racism Americans who look like him suffered after the towers fell--a disaster he watched horrified from Stuyvesant High School a few blocks away. Nothing else here can match those tracks. But I'm almost as down with "Sometimes," a "Personality Crisis" for outer boroughs kids of the immigrant generation, and assume it sums up who Heems is: not bipolar because his psyche is too multi, but moody and chronically confused. Note that two out of three love songs would be a feat for the most unconfused rapper, with the placeholding "Pop Song (Games)" obviously a sop to the label--the other two project emotions too smart for radio's confused-breakup norm. And beneath all this burble beats that suit a musicality worthy of the artist one song here spells "Jawn Cage." This is rapping that foregrounds the variegations of the ordinary speaking voice--its cracks, its rumbles, its anxious highs, its distracted lows, its deep-seated imperfections and insecurities. It's very American. A
  4. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope) 10: What I admire most and enjoy most about this album is that it addresses African-Americans straight up and leaves the rest of the hip-hop audience to listen in if it wants. It's a strong, brave, effective bid to reinstate hip-hop as black America's CNN--more as op-ed than front page, but in the Age of Twitter that's the hole that needs filling. Fortunately, the concept starts with the music, which eschews party bangers without foregoing groove, sampling rhythm godfathers P-Funk, Michael Jackson, and the Isley Brothers and building a house band around jazz pianist Robert Glasper and what-you-got bassist Thundercat. But it's even more racially explicit in lyrics that don't protest racism because what good does that ever do--just assumes it as a condition of life for his people, root cause of the cultural breakdowns he laments and preaches against throughout. Acknowledged only in passing is a mega-success too obvious to go on about, not to mention enjoy--a privilege that's also a temptation, to which he responds not with hater paranoia but with a depressive anxiety that resurfaces as a narrative hook without ever starting a pity party. Lamar knows he's got it good. For his people he wants better. Few musicians of any stylistic persuasion are so thoughtful or so ardent. Few musicians have so little need of a hooky review. A-
  5. Grimes: Art Angels (4AD) 10: Generally the soprano signifies purity, which has never been my idea of virtue, not to mention fun. And given how hard it is to achieve, there can be a vanity to it as well--or in earlier Claire Boucher, a self-regarding freakishness. But on this pop-yet-not breakthrough, that pretension is blown away by generous tunes, changeable grooves, and dedicated intensity of purpose. This singer-composer-producer is neither cute nor ethereal, and although the consistency of her register is an affectation by definition, she'll convince anyone who isn't a grouch that she's just being herself, not merely female but, fuck you, feminine--the fairie she likes to claim crossed with a charming three-year-old getting what she wants. Which includes adrenaline highs and mitigated perversity and California love and pornography in phonetic Chinese. She embodies hyperfeminist individualism for a post-rock mindset that likes a good beat fine. A
  6. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment: Surf (free mixtape) 8: At a moment when conscious rap has never had more reason to be militant, Chance the Rapper, his man with a horn, and friends near and far count their blessings, to borrow an idiom one Saba invokes immediately before his uncle on house arrest dies in his sleep. Not by chance does Chance lead with one called "Miracle," because the title ain't no joke--the mood does in fact recall the Beach Boys of, say, six months before Pet Sounds and 60 years before Cali turned firetrap. Like Broken Social Scene with more swing and deeper soul, most of these young adults are making decent livings making good music, quite a few are better off than that, and all of them are so glad about it they infuse even their warnings about open windows and Migos videos with an airy lyricism that evokes Digable Planets, PM Dawn, and Jon Hassell himself. This is an album where Big Sean and B.o.B. reflect separately and ruefully on their high school careers, where Erykah Badu plays den mother and sage, where Bustah Rhymes figures "This whole planet belongs to me/We all feel the same so it belongs to we," where I haven't even mentioned the should-be hit. It's called "Sunday Candy" and it comes at the end. A
  7. Beauty Pill: Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are (Butterscotch): Not a groove record, and not a hook record either. An instrumentally fluent texture record serving an articulately sung melody record, led to its sweetly clamorous fate by Dischord art-pop hand Chad Clark, whose last album came out in 2004. Since then he's taken up the laptop sampling that dominates so gorgeously here, in part to occupy months if not years spent laid out by a cardiac virus and its open-heart surgeries. All his gentle tunes and surprising sounds contextualize lyrics that both parse and come at you from trick angles. The song about his heart, for instance, begins with a woman fixing her makeup in the rear-view two miles before she crashes to her death; in other news, a frozen mastodon swears never again, Malawi gays flee police, and an Afrikaner barista is assured "origin's not destination." (Haven't mentioned--Clark is black.) Foremost among the many who pitch in is the lovely Jean Cook on violin, samisen, and voice. It's she who delivers this Inspirational Verse: "You'll find that money is noise / This--us, together!--is wealth / The body is just cosines and vectors / Love is the real health." A
  8. Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. (Mom + Pop) 6: I insist that the most striking advance here is musical, as her Melbourne g-b-d rock out where formerly they strummed her weaker material into oblivion. Not like Nirvana or something--they're nowhere near that galvanic. But they pack the kind of drive and focus that convince the listener every song matters to the people who are playing it, with the singer-songwriter's committed vocals the clincher. I'll concede, however, that song quality per se could have inspired this effect, because these don't quit. Take this casual opener from "Dead Fox," which you'd best believe scans: "Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables and I must admit I was a little sceptical at first a little pesticide can't hurt." Triangulates her culturally--soon we learn that she's always found organic kind of pricey. But what I love most is the half-rhymes that half-link the "vegetables"-"sceptical"-"pesticide" polysyllables before she continues an autobiographical reminiscence based on a road trip through cattle country. That's Barnett's m.o. Formally, her songs are confessional, only they describe her material life and conflicted feelings acutely rather than dreamily, so that the songs occur in and are inflected by a deftly rendered physical and social world. "Dead Fox" isn't even a standout. You want one of those, try "Depreston," in which a house-shopping expedition is stopped dead by a Vietnam snapshot the deceased owner has left behind. Say Barnett is Jens Lekman only folk-grunge not pop. Say she's John Prine as a lesbian boho 40 years his junior from the other side of the globe and maybe tracks. Say she's herself. Hope she remains so. A
  9. James McMurtry: Complicated Game (Complicated Game) 5: McMurtry has the musical limitations you'd expect of a singer-songwriter whose loud declaratives pound away over a beat designed for a guy who "can't dance a lick." But this time you should definitely live with them--of the dozen songs on his first album since 2008, the two that are less than compelling come close, and half are superb. The struggling-class portraiture this Texan makes his specialty relocates to South Dakota, Virginia, Florida, and comfier Long Island, whence an Oklahoman salaryman reports: "When the 5:30 rush hits the Cross Island Parkway/It's not for the squeamish or the gentle of heart." One of the four love songs painfully rekindles an old flame, while the rest address a single fine piece of work: a handy bartender who writes better prose than the writer she loves and who, as per an agreement the writer never thought would go into effect, makes do with a Harley-riding parking lot attendant while he's away on tour. Two others reflect on the singer's existential inadequacies, including is a finale called "Cutter" I find less than compelling only when I can't feel the knife focusing the pain in one spot so I can get to sleep. A
  10. Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording (Atlantic): To get value from these 142 minutes of audible libretto you must first--this is essential--buy the physical, a double-wide double-CD redolent of the early jewelbox era. Next, play both discs casually a few times, resisting the temptation to snort "This is 'rap'?" Then reserve a few hours and replay it in its entirety while following every word in booklets so cunningly designed you always know who's saying what. If after that you're not taken with how skillfully Lin-Manuel Miranda compresses 30 years of history, sell the thing--it does hog shelf space. Me, I was so gobsmacked I can now hear past its musical peculiarities. Not only isn't this hip-hop, it isn't pop, and not just because the tunes are vestigial. It's theater music in which almost everything is sung and even the spoken parts come with music, like recitative in opera. So naturally the singers are theater singers. They enunciate, hit the notes, act a little. But starting with Manuel in the title role, they don't command the sonic singularities with which pop stars beat off the competition, nor stand out like Gypsy's brassy Ethel Merman or South Pacific tomboy Mary Martin. I can't vouch for the civics-class democracy of Miranda's historical vision and, despite the digs at Jefferson and the nice plays on immigration, find him too subtle as regards slavery. (Nontrivial factoid: both Hamilton and his deadly rival Burr belonged to the New York Manumission Society.) But I can attest that the intrinsic intellectual interest he powers up here is so impressive it's exciting. And I can also report a surprising emotional bonus: two songs about love and death--"Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story" and, even better, the agonized, atypically melodic "It's Quiet Uptown"--that make me tear up a little. Which only happened, to repeat, because I'd read along for two and a half hours. A
  11. Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love (Sub Pop) 5: This return to the wars isn't necessarily their best album, but that it might be is an up in itself. Their pride is their joy, their standards are high, and they show no sign of getting back together because they could use the payday, although except for Carrie I expect they could--between its noisy desperation and its narrative detail, the clashing Corin opener "Price Tag" nails the overbooked constraints of the strapped middle class like she knows them by heart. Honed back down to punky three-minute songs because the leisure to stretch out is a luxury they can't presently afford, the music carries the seed of tumult to come, the sense that something or everything could explode without notice just the way this album did. My only cavil is that I wish the singing would relax more, even at the cost of softening the album's tension, and note that Carrie lets herself go that way on a kind of love song that links fame with mediocrity in the rare woe-I'm-a-star number fueled by emotions anyone can feel the point of. A
  12. Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts: Manhattan (Rough Trade) 5: The title tune of Lewis's catchiest and finest album lasts eight subtly varied, steadfastly strophic minutes, its only bridge the Williamsburg, which Lewis and his girlfriend cross on foot as he tells her it's over before putting her on the subway back to Brooklyn. Pushing 40 now, this second-generation bohemian knows his turf from "Scowling Crackhead Ian," where the kid who held a knife to his throat in junior high is still befouling St. Marks Place, to "The Pigeon," which stuffs some 30 choice Yiddishisms--"schnorrer," "verkakte," "furshlugginer," oy gevalt--into a Poe-parodying Delancey Street anti-gentrification kvetch. As promised only a hell of a lot slower, he spends nearly five minutes collecting his thoughts in "It Only Takes a Moment." But he gets where he's going just about every time. A
  13. Tom Zé: Vira Lata na Via Láctea (self-released '14): So in 2014, the 78-year-old Zé--he turns 80 October 11--dropped this 50-minute collection even further beneath the radar than Tropicália Lixo Lógico, which at least got a few reviews in English. Coverage has been paltry in substance, spirit, and length as well as entirely in Portuguese; as with the Meridian Brothers only more so, translated lyrics would be such a boon. I did ask my Lusophone nephew to provide an English track listing for an album he renders as A Dog in the Milky Way, an image that adds salt and substance to the assonant V's, L's, and T's of the sounded-out Portuguese. Enticing titles include "Newsstand," "Left, Money and Right," "The Little Woman From theSuburbs," and my favorite, "Pope Pardons Tom Zé." This is the artist's first album in many years to collect songs rather than explore a concept, a good idea on nonverbal evidence that includes the warmth of the vocals, the stickiness of the tunes, and poignant, unpredictable arrangements featuring Sao Paolo rock and circus riffs and Nascimento Veloso and the Philip Glassy background break that starts at 1:43 of "Salva a Humanidade." Zé seems to have rehabbed his vocal chops, and if the pope has his way, there'll be more self-releases. But I can't help suspecting that were I ever to glom the lyrics of this particular sonic construction, it would rise close to the top of one of the most remarkable bodies of work in all of semipop. A-
  14. The Paranoid Style: Rock and Roll Just Can't Recall (Worldwide Battle): Faster and louder, slower and more reflective, better recorded with a better drummer, this five-song EP is where Elizabeth Nelson fully vents her contempt for the 60s, structural injustice, the 60s, escapist liberalism, a charismatic mentor who brainwashed her with reason, the 60s, and the musical style she and her husband mean to be better at than anybody else in the world except maybe Sleater-Kinney. Her motto: "Don't think twice, it's all over now." Her self-promo: "Glam-rock for the end times." A
  15. Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman: Lice (free Rhymesayers/Stones Throw download): This five-track freebie reveals itself back-to-front. While the lead "Vertigo" never quite straightens up and flies right, you'll be grabbed by the closing "Get a Dog"'s hypnotic Charles Hamilton electrovamp even before Homeboy's irresistible "Yo, if you're scared get a dog, yo. Get a strong--like a, like a Rottweiler or a, a boxer dog, not a, a Pomeranian dog." And while both the anti-wack jokes of the peppy "Katz" and the freak sociology of the echoing "Environmental Studies" run deep, the prize is the penultimate "So Strange Here," as soulful a reflection on the disorientations of B-list tour-or-get-a-day-job as you can think of offhand. Each rapper has his own memories and gripes. But each goes out the same: "I know it sounds strange but strange beats normal." A-
  16. Hop Along: Painted Shut (Saddle Creek): Musically, several if not many notches above the new generation of look-sis-no-lessons grrrls. Frances Quinlan sings, writes, plays, and makes it be, her brother Mark Quinlan bangs the drums steadily, there's a dedicated bassist, and Philly guitarist-producer Joe Reinhart is a force. Not virtuosos but not newbies either, they recall Pavement both ways, with the crucial distinction that Quinlan's lyrics hint at the concrete situations and emotions shrewd 90s ironists eschewed and arty millennial obscurantists look down on. Quite a singer, Quinlan--tiptoeing along the edge of her range, she often leaps or tumbles into the unknown. And every time she does, there's a chance your heart will jump with her. A-
  17. Have Moicy 2: The Hoodoo Bash (Red Newt): Neither the elusive Michael Hurley (b. 1941) nor the departed Jeffrey Frederick (b. 1950) found it possible to join the irrepressible Peter Stampfel (b. 1938) on his 40-years-after bid to reprise if not match the accidental masterpiece Have Moicy! Gamely if haltingly, reprise it he and his new gang do, but match it they of course can't--that's how masterpieces are. Instead they put its grace and luck into relief as they make hay of their own gravelly melodicism and unsynchronized stick-to-it-iveness. How young the originals were! (Jeffrey Lewis, kingpin of Have Moicy 2's kid contingent, is three years older than Stampfel was in 1975.) How casually apolitical, too! (Hippie was over and the oil crisis permanent, but no one foresaw the ruin yet to be wreaked by Ayn Rand, Ronald Reagan, Al Qaeda, and the Black-Scholes formula.) By comparison, the vocals here tend creaky--Stampfel can no longer break wine glasses with his yodel, Baby Gramps's Aged-P wheeze comes all too naturally, Robin Remaily is the grumpy old man he was born to be, and even Lewis could stand to gargle. And where the originals griped about dirty dishes, cunnilingus interruptus, and the occasional ear on the floor, these guys find themselves historically compelled to explicitly protest a vile lung disease, the theory of intelligent design, butts left cold, and again and again the class system that keeps old freaks down--so down that their idea of a joke is feasting on roadkill and rhyming "Victrola" with "Ebola." Which are good jokes, actually. Because believe it, folks--with the slacker utopia of the original gone but not forgotten, there are millions of worse things to settle for than this. In fact, there are millions on Spotify alone. A-
  18. Sophie: Product (Numbers): It's hard to hear this 26-minute, eight-song, album-shaped deliverable as sex music even though its deluxe edition offers a pricey dildo-plus-buttplug item difficult for guys to share so it must be for ppl with two nearby holes--that is, despite the male auteur's trans gestures, an anatomically conventional woman or two. Not only are the detextured girly voices too cartoony to be sexual, the many clever electronic noises--"Bipp"'s bips, "Lemonade"'s fizz, "Hard"'s panoply, the descending hook of the transitional "Just Like We Never Said Goodbye"--just aren't tactile enough. Except on the merely electronic "MSMSMSM," however, they are funny, beaty, imaginative, and so consumer-friendly they could pass for kind. This is not the future of music. But as a diversionary substitute, it's aces. A-
  19. Childbirth: Women's Rights (Suicide Squeeze): Feminist jokes over punk-rock thrash--fun though it undeniably is, it sounds suspiciously easy and unmusical until you compare the debut, which is both. This thrash is committed as well as pragmaticlly tuneful in the punk-rock manner. And these jokes are something else--insulting, embarrassing, pansexual, post-generational, and pointedly un-P.C. Subjects include bad hygiene, rich tech guys, Tinder, Best Coast, permissive parenting, exploitative parenting, teen angst, bi-curious etiquette, cocaine at a baby shower, and getting pregnant all the time. When Universal Republic assembles the deluxe edition, I fervently suggest the bonus tracks include the debut's "How Do Girls Even Do It" and "I Only Fucked You as a Joke." That'll take care of that. A-
  20. Cracker: Berkeley to Bakersfield (429 '14): Camper van Beethoven joker-in-chief turned Cracker singer-songspokesperson David Lowery was always too ironic by approximately 72 percent. But he's older than that now. The Californian turned Georgian pursues what musical career remains to him, lectures in business at UGA, and devotes much of his energy to his unofficial post as scourge-in-chief of a supposedly futuristic streaming economy that he claims, accurately, is "unsticking it to the man and sticking it the weirdo freak musicians!" And this crusade has awakened in him an explicit class consciousness often discernible in his songs from the start and just as often undercut by his snark. The Berkeley disc of this double-CD celebrates what might be called protest culture, lobbing stink bombs at the rich as it celebrates the lifestyles of the quasi-bohemian lower middle class. The Bakersfield disc aims for an Inland Empire country-rock that goes soft the way country-rock does but still sneaks a migrant laborer and a dead junkie in with the San Bernardino boy and the red-state union man, neither of whom lack charm themselves. Politics! On an American rock album! So much rarer a thing than the snark-damaged claim! A-
  21. Jinx Lennon: 30 Beacons of Light for a Land Full of Spite, Thugs, Drug Slugs, and Energy Vampires (Septic Tiger): Goody, a new Jinx album, said I to myself when the Dylan-chord rap-raver from Dundalk, County Louth, handed me one of these at a house party that was the only Gotham stop on a very brief US tour. And it is--copyright 2015. Problem is, the booklet says "Songs written Jinx Lennon copyright 2002." In other words, more Celtic Tiger jeremiads in which Lennon mocks a prosperity that's leaving everyone he knows behind. Maybe he wasn't yet economist enough to understand how its banking and real estate scams would soon blow up in the nation's face. But he was scold enough to see how fucked up things were anyway. Highlights among these 30 stabs at enlightenment in 60 minutes include: the health-conscious "Don't Lose a Stone for Xmas," the jerry-built "Houses Everywhere," the disquieting "Balaclava Boys," the lulling "You Shouldn't Try to Fuck Someones Head Up," "Next Slow Song You Hear May Leave You Pregnant" with its flavored condom, "550 Euros" with its princess pram. But that's just a sampling--most of them have a point. I await the house party number about the fireman versus the samurai sword. A-
  22. Khat Thaleth: Third Line: Initiative for the Elevation of Public Awareness (Stronghold Sound '13): I was gripped by the music on this daunting Arabic rap compilation even when I had no idea exactly what they were protesting about, and 37 downloaded pages of political imagery and invective sealed the deal. The beats simply loop Middle Eastern tunelets over trap figures and scratches that aren't quite funky. But having long ago acclimated to Arabic scales and grooves, I find the hooks unusual and varied, the percussion muscular and beatwise, and the rapping novel and musical--Arabic gutturals are perfect for protest hip-hop. And translated though the lyrics are, they establish that we're not just imagining all that unleashed intensity and righteous rage. From Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, a few of the rappers are also journalists or literary men, but more seem street and/or activist and not a one is remotely Islamist. In fact, many don't even bother to mention the Israeli interlopers stuck in their craw or the Yankee dollars fattening the old autocrats and new opportunists they despise--those issues are assumed. Starter tracks: Touffar's unforgiving "Min Al Awal (From the Beginning)," El Far31's unruly "Harra (The Street)," El Rass's strategic "Foosh (Float)," and--harrowing--LaTlateh's nightmarish "Boov." A-
  23. The Bottle Rockets: South Broadway Athletic Club (Bloodshot): Alt-country vet Brian Henneman is one of those guys who likes writing songs too much to quit. Weary evocations of the persistence of Monday and airbag duty at the Chrysler plant convince you music isn't his day job whether it is or not. Similarly, the long-haul passion of "Big Lotsa Love" makes you hope the perfect breakup lamentation "Something Good" is just poetry he couldn't resist whether it is or not: "World turns/Rome burns/Can't you hear that fiddle sound/Time flies/Elvis dies/It's all over but the shoutin' now." If you notice the material weakening toward the end, give him a break. He's beat. A-
  24. Boz Scaggs: A Fool to Care (429): In which the vital signs of 2013's Memphis are juiced by both his shift of symbolic locale to New Orleans and his dawning suspicion that the world is going to hell in a bank statement. For more on the latter, proceed directly to the Bonnie Raitt duet "Hell to Pay." He's so mad he wrote it himself. But mostly he resets forgotten gems like Al Green's "Full of Fire," Huey Smith's "High Blood Pressure," and Bobby Charles's long-neglected "Small Town Talk." The opener is "Rich Woman," the same Dorothy LaBostrie curio that led Robert Plant and Alison Krause's Raising Sand. Sashaying so weathered and jaunty, not to mention so New Orleans, Boz's is better. His best album since Silk Degrees in goddamn 1976, and by a wide margin. A-
  25. John Kruth: The Drunken Wind of Life: The Poem/Songs of Tin Ujevic (Smiling Fez): On Kruth's second Croatia album, mostly American musicians render the tunes Kruth wrote for English translations of the poems of a wandering modernist bard who died blacklisted by Tito 60 years ago. It's more haunting than Splitsville, with Kruth's deliberate, nuanced, murmured, pitch-challenged, and once merely spoken vocals deepening its affect. The brief plucked folk-dance intro and Ujevic-inspired Kruth original "Girl From Korcula" brighten things up. But a six-minute "Daily Lament" that earns its title seems the peak--until it's topped by the five-minute closer "Blood Brotherhood of Persons of the Universe," which also earns its title. A-
  26. Sam Smith: In the Lonely Hour (Capitol '14): Only when I finally bought the CD did I realize how well this pleasant pop I'd been MP3ing through my skull cohered as a self-portrait. This Sam Smith fella is a needy man, insecure about love as all of us are and more candid about it than most. And though manly types may scoff at his pleasing to infernally hooky tunes, not one song approaches self-pity. Both vocally and verbally, they offer the kind of emotional complexity about sexual romance's ins and outs that good pop captures better than good literature, where cynicism is such a folkway. But having established that baseline, let me single out my favorite, the lead "Money on My Mind," an emotionally complex reflection on his record deal. And let me add that the four OK-to-excellent extras on the deluxe edition dilute the original album's effect. A-
  27. Paris: Pistol Politics (Guerrilla Funk): The Bush killa switched from rapper to stockbroker circa Y2K, made a modest fortune, then returned to music self-financed and angrier than ever. America? "We lead the world in only three categories-number of characters locked up, number of grown folks who believe angels are real, and defense spending." Obama? "They hate 'cause he black. We hate 'cause he wrong." And those are mere cappers. Like Boots Riley, Paris rhymes over the kind of old-fashioned funk favored in the East Bay from Too Short to Lyrics Born, inveighing knowledgeably for an hour and a half against the capitalism he knows so well as he drops his own brand of street science-try "Side Effect," about thugging without health insurance, "Murder Suit," about funeral wear, "Truce Music," about ending hostilities best redirected, "Bring That Slap Back," about armed self-defense. Of course I don't "agree" with everything he says. Do I "agree" with Lil Wayne? Anyway, usually I do. A-
  28. Asylum Street Spankers: The Last Laugh (Yellow Dog '14): This farewell album from an alt-folk aggregation that never got out of Austin begins so casually and changes up so abruptly it risks disorienting old fans while putting off new ones. Eventually, however, it jazzed me and touched me throughout. It's not just that they dazzle on multiple acoustic instruments while joking around as usual. It's the way Christina Marrs oversings a song worthy of her many passions on the questing "Ludicrous Heart." The way third wheel Nevada Newman just figures "Fuck Work." And especially the way Charlie King tops an acidly secular "Don't You Hear Jerusalem Moan" ("The Catholic preacher makes a lot of noise / He's down in the rectory altering the boys") with the unabashed sentiment of "Savor Every Day": "I had this real good friend of mine / He told me, Charlie, I may not be here for a long time / But I am here for a good time / I sure miss that friend of mine." A-
  29. Taraf de Haďdouks: Of Lovers, Gamblers and Parachute Skirts (Crammed Discs): A great band, I'm beginning to think, regroups for the 25th anniversary of its formalization by gadje record men in the blessed Romanian mountain village of Clejani. Where the "second generation" of their Andalusian opposite numbers the Gipsy Kings proved even more anodyne than the first, this aggregation hasn't lost a wink or a flourish even though its eldest generation has died off. I wish I could tell you who takes the first violin break on their old "Clejani Love Song," a 20-second countermelody that sums up their collective pizzazz so irresistibly that all three violinists join in when it comes around again, and again, only to change it up around the seven-minute mark, and that ain't all--the track clocks in at 11:11. Most of the 13 songs are briefer, but their immersion in tradition never reins them in. The male voices are somewhat less grizzled, but you know they'll roughen too. And then there's soprano Viorica Rudareasa, who adds a welcome female principle to this highly masculine posse. Sweet she's not--too much sob and swagger there. Anodyne she's definitely not. A-
  30. Lana Del Rey: Honeymoon (Polydor/Interscope): Presumably anybody who thinks her shtick has stagnated is too embarrassed to pay attention, because without doubt it's evolved. Subtly, OK, but the slowing tempos at least are hard to miss, and they go with the subtle part: the changing ways she's portrayed both herself and the objects of her affection over the past four years. Initially she enacted rockish boy-toy masochism--a pretty girl who got wet for an entire casting call of rough trade sugar daddies. But the third album of her tuneful, bonus-studded catalogue stars the torchy femme fatale who always lurked underneath, and by now half the objects of her exploitation are pretty clearly jerks. Born-to-lie Mr. Born to Lose is a game to her--she never bought into his bullshit. "Salvatore," who could be based on her real-life Italian boyfriend for all I know, is auto-crooned so close to the edge of parody I wish she'd figured out how to sneak in the moon hitting her eye like a big pizza pie. But the biggest breakthrough is Lana herself on "God Knows I Tried," where the artist born Lizzy Grant cops to her real-life fame and interrupts the come-ons to swear, "I feel free when I see no one." You never know--this dame might write a love song we can believe in someday. "Freak" and "Blackest Day" come fairly close. A-
  31. Lupe Fiasco: Tetsuo & Youth (Atlantic): Angry at the record company, angry at a racist society, not sure they're different, Too Smart throws up his hands and down his gantlet and generates a music-driven album in which violin interludes named after the seasons separate long stretches of associative protest poetry, detailing prison and hood sociology that's scarier than you expect because you thought you already knew that shit. The two strongest tracks begin the winter section: "Choppers," about buying filet mignon with your food stamps and healthcare from Obama, and "Delivery," about how hard it is to order crap pizza in a place where people get shot. But "Prisoner 1 & 2" could mess up your mind as well. The final interlude is called "Spring," only it's not an interlude. It's the end. Nothing follows. A-
  32. Vince Staples: Hell Can Wait (Def Jam '14): Thematically, there's not much new on this LA mixtape fixture's major-label debut. Nor is he much of an image-slinger. But he's so hard-hitting, so direct, so concise, and before too long so hooky too. Yeah, he does bleed Crip blue (or is that clue, it's so bonfusing). But the compact lucidity with which this EP details the ups and downs of the drug trade and warns women off his money feels less like advocacy, celebration, or autobiography than street reporting. And his best lines rise up when Ferguson moves him to something resembling political speech: "They expect respect and nonviolence/I refuse the right to be silent." A-
  33. Speedy Ortiz: Foil Deer (Carpark): I've always liked the nice Bettie Serveert catch in Sadie Dupuis's voice and the strange tunes that go with it. But as someone who prefers lyrics to poetry and is positive there's a difference, I don't find her MFA in the latter an attraction. In fact, I liked her first album enough as music that I only put it away when I got annoyed by its obscurantism. The follow-up's more legible--"We were the French club dropouts," tell it sister, though that one's a bit of an outlier. Even if it wasn't, however, I would have compromised my principles, because on the follow-up I love the even nicer Bettie Serveert catch in Sadie Dupuis's voice and the stranger tunes that go with that. And since I also love the guitars, I was intrigued to learn that tourmate guitarist Devin McKnight has replaced original guitarist Matt Robidoux. Dupuis does all the writing and most of the lead parts. But watch a little YouTube and you'll see--McKnight's a major improvement. A-
  34. The Velvet Underground: The Complete Matrix Tapes (UMe): Four hour-plus CDs, 42 tracks, 20 discrete songs, zero new material, $29.95 list, and when "Venus in Furs" followed "The Black Angel's Death Song" mid-Set One I decided I could happily live out my allotted years without ever hearing either again. But I was wrong. Sonically these four discs comprise the classic Velvets' strongest live recordings. The performances are lively, varied, and engaged, and there's a perverse pleasure in hearing Lou Reed keep the poetry prosaic and crack wise about his bummers before tiny crowds in a San Francisco more post-utopian than it was ready to admit. Although the Velvets had been playing Marty Balin's club off and on for a month, they seem more assured the second night, Thanksgiving 1969. Set Three ends with a "Sister Ray" played as a 37-minute urban slow jam no less hypnotic than a Grateful Dead blues-and-bluegrass trip. Set Four ends with "Sweet Jane." A-
  35. Parkay Quarts: Content Nausea (What's Your Rupture? '14): The deal seems to be that the latest garage-punk heroes spell their name like the fancy flooring when they put in time on the long-player and the lower-priced spread when they don't. And though I've liked them all so far, I've preferred the quickies. This one includes songs about insomnia, catastrophe, and a shrink I'm glad they can afford, Roky Erikson and Nancy Sinatra covers, and no bitching about romantic dysfunction. The best lyric forswears social media, the worst waxes Dylanesque. Strong from the start, it takes off midway through with the ear-catching "Pretty Machines." All in all: the world looks kind of like hell, and punk won't save you from it, but meanwhile . . . A-
  36. Future: DS2 (Deluxe Edition) (Epic): A hypnotic, slow-motion trap-life tone poem that turns on two tells: "I just fucked your bitch in some Gucci flip-flops" to set the mood and "Best thing I ever did was fall out of love" to rationalize it. Not that the departed Ciara is first cause of Future's beat-steeped lassitude. First cause is he's a junkie, addicted to the liquid scag crack magnates and FruityLoops prodigies mix with carbonated beverages so as to forget their demons--and believe that Future mentions "hell" and "the devil" more than your average syrup sipper. Does his life ever not sound like fun. I'm sure he fucks a lot, as in the echoing Metro Boomin' showpiece "Groupies" or the semiconscious "The Stripper and Percocet Joint." But does he come? Opiates, after all, are notoriously anorgasmic, and while he does once resort to the term "make love," the porn tracks are long on domination and athletic ability and the exception is "Rich Sex," about the special frisson of coitus with your chains on. In another inconsistency--he is large, he fucks up commas--one song does insist, "I'm just enjoying my life." And no doubt many of his poor fans believe him. But I don't. If only our deluded nation took hip-hop seriously, this miserable minor masterpiece would be all the proof we needed that money can't buy happiness. A-
  37. Nellie McKay: My Weekly Reader (429): Once the cabaret upstart was a golden faucet of song, but since she messed up her karma in 2007 by cracking a feminism joke that men didn't find cute, not to mention understand, the originals have dried up. So as cabaret stalwarts will, she's turned to Other People's Material. Having reimagined Doris Day in 2009, she ups the ante and reimagines the '60s in 2015. And from the sublime "Sunny Afternoon" and "If I Fell" to the ridiculous "Red Rubber Ball" and "Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter," from the secret class politics of Alan Price and Moby Grape to the out-there freak politics of Frank Zappa and Jefferson Airplane, she manifests more historical grasp than any psych band yet to show its hand. Songs are so much easier to hold onto than acid visions you can only dream about. A-
  38. Mbongwana Star: From Kinshasa (World Circuit): The most original and syncretic new band yet to reach us from 21st-century Africa--unless I just mean album, as French-Irish drummer-bassist-producer Liam Farrell layers on a kitchen sink of distortions every bit as organic as the Congotronics that add novelty/authenticity to the focus track "Malukayi." There's none of soukous's hard-won elegance here--the flowing grooves, the masterful voices, the horns. Instead the choppy rhythms recall Staff Benda Bilili, whose Theo Nzonza and Coco Ngambala provide tenor and baritone, with Ngamabla the odds-on creator of two killer change-of-pace ballads whatever the conspicuously absent copyright notices say. This is African music as an object of Euro-American commerce with no false aura of postcolonial purity. I hope I get the chance to see it take human form. A-
  39. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Ba Power (Glitterbeat): The Sahara boom in hard-rocking bands more supersonic than the non-African competition is due primarily to the spread of desert guitar--Dan Auerbach, meet Bombino Moctar. But none has rocked harder or livelier than Bassekou Kouyate's family business, where the part of the guitar is played by one, two, many modified lutes called ngonis. Even harder and livelier than 2013's breakout Jama Ko, this lacks the righteous fervor that fueled that explicitly anti-Islamist defense of a Mali "where Islam and tolerance exist," as the new "Abe Sumaya" puts it. Its fervor is formal. Four tracks add trap drums to the hand-held percussion, Jon Hassell haunts another with trumpet and keyboards, and auxiliary white musicians pitch in without butting in. There are also full translated lyrics, which as happens with Afropop isn't always a plus. I'm glad Kouyate's lead singer and wife Amy Sacko gets one called "Musow Fanga (Power of Woman)." But especially given how powerfully she makes herself felt whenever she opens her mouth, I'm not so glad it equates that power with motherhood. A-
  40. The Go! Team: The Scene Between (Memphis Industries): Having parted ways with Anglo-Nigerian Ninja, immodestly self-effacing mastermind Ian Parton recruited an international bevy of anonymous warblers for his group's/concept's fourth album, apparently on the theory that his original find had become too damn personable. None of these multicultural yet mostly white singers gets the lead on more than two songs or puts her stamp on lyrics that specialize in studied generalizations. This facelessness can be annoying, as Parton may well intend. But as he definitely intends, there's a special kind of ebullience here as well--an idealized pop ebullience I couldn't get out of my mind after getting high on the ambient estrogen of a Taylor Swift concert. A-
  41. Diplo: Random White Dude Be Everywhere (Mad Decent '14): Seven proven bangers gussied up with five remixes--in short, the obvious shit his base long ago had enough of d/b/a music for normal people seeking a pick-me-up. I suppose we could do without the remixes, but hell, excess is why he's richer than he is famous, and they're certainly not painful. In fact, I'm glad I don't have to choose between the two versions of the objectively counter-revolutionary "Revolution" or the N.O. bouncy "Express Yourself." I'm also glad a prev unrel featuring the prev useless Waka Flocka Flame bears the fetching title "Techno." A-
  42. Peaceful Solutions: Barter 7 (self-released): Stoner alt-rap from Wesleyan and Das Racist graduate Kool A.D., who in late November also posted O.K., a 100-track pay-what-you-want Bandcamp mixtape I wish he'd fucking "curate" and haven't found time for, although for research's sake I enjoyed the seven-minute "Alice Coltrane" OK. With affable sidekick Kassa Overall making it a duo, this August release is somewhat more . . . can I say finished? Nah. Passage taken half at random over an undeveloped loop from the by no means focus track (whatever that would mean with these jokers) "Hot Negro Pause": "Shit that/Huh/It's that shit that/It's that shit that/Make you slip all of the clips out the guns though/Sippin on a Cris but not the racist champagne the Cuban beer/So y'all can know it's a real Cuban here/Happy Nubian New Year." And it goes on, affably and much more than passably. I've never been much of a pothead. But Victor Vazquez's goofily utopian, politically hip benevolence makes more of weed than Jerry Rubin or Dr. Chronic ever did. He's an escape and a comfort, and I wish him enough money to live on. Curated Verse: "Plus green energy/Clean green energy/No frackin' or dependence on foreign oil/Uh tamales in corn husks no foil/Uh cut the billions allotted to military spending and put that shit into education/But save me one spaceship just in case man." A-
  43. Arca: Mutant (Mute): Initially, I spun this album to get rid of it--to insure that, as with most unmarked CDs in jewelcases lacking title and slug line, it was safe to stick it where the laser don't shine. Only after I realized how impressed I was by these grooveless, tuneless electronic instrumentals did I make out on the back cover the birthname of my old NYU student Alejandro Ghersi--who as Arca has since become a Yeezus collaborator and Fader cover boy as well as co-producing a Björk album I'll leave to her fanbase. In other words, I really liked this music before I knew I knew its creator. Those who claim it has a structure as opposed to a sequence are probably imagining things. But the tunelessness of the music doesn't always mean it's amelodic and the groovelessness rarely means it stands still. My faves often tie in alien elements--"Umbilical" with its Mbuti chant, "Sinner" with its virtual bellows breathing in and out, "Faggot" with its bells-and-choirboy undergirding and stuttering aggro finale. But tune in anytime during this 20-track hour and chances are you'll hear something you've never heard before--and want to hear it again, to make sure you were right the first time. A-
  44. Oneohtrix Point Never: Garden of Delete (Warp): With R Plus Seven's Hammond B-3 vibe out of his system, Daniel Lopatin assembles something resembling an emotionally complex reflection on suffering humanity. Purportedly a concept album about a hypergrunge band called Kaoss Edge--no, there is no such thing as "hypergrunge" (so far), but that doesn't stop Kaoss Edge from having a website--it's as coherent as Lopatin wants it to be. Read along with the hyperautotune lyrics of "Sticky Drama" and hear an alt-teen pencil-dick love song transmute into an alt-contrarian death-metal horrorshow; read along with the cute-sounding electro-munchkin lyrics of "Animals" and learn they're about cages and worse. But the music is more playful and frankly interesting than these dark themes suggest--and also more multifacted, virtuosic, and urban than Lopatin's excellent stealth-pastoral Replica. I credit this healthy paradox to the guy's irrepressible sonic imagination. His mind may believe the earth is one big disaster area. But even so he remains a clever, funny dude who enjoys his musique concrete collages too much to set his sights on distant galaxies. A-
  45. Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free (Southeastern): Although his alt-Americana base may find him less "authentic" now, it's a musical positive that getting sober has finally cheered Isbell up. The resigned confidence of his singing signifies mental health. His contained Alabama drawl and guitar-bass-drums aesthetic mark his people as Southern whites of modest prospects subject to the "powder keg ready to blow" that is God's will. Talk of The Bell Jar and "character sets" mark him as a participant-observer while reminding bicoastalists how many Southern whites of modest prospects live in a larger world than bicoastalists imagine. A-
  46. Jon Savage's 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded (Ace): There's not much flow to this chronologically arranged 48-song soundtrack of the year the '60s became the '60s, which was also the year Sex Pistols' biographer and Teenage theorist Savage turned 13 while glued to pirate radio in London. But there wasn't much flow to turning on the radio anywhere that year--just wonderment, exhilaration, the "Kicks" Paul Revere and the Raiders claimed were "getting harder to find." That may be why they didn't make Savage's cut, but the main reason was the competition--there are only two number ones here, but beyond a few instrumentals most of the 20 or so singles Yank me didn't recall are pretty kicky, including a spooky Seeds B-side, a Kim Fowley freak-out, and an R&B hit joking about the draft. My sole cavil is why in hell opt for the B-side of Joe Tex's magnificent "I Believe I'm Gonna Make It," in which an R&B draftee ain't no joke: "I raised up and got me two more enemies"? Note, however, that my sentimental fave here isn't on the condensed version Ace provided Spotify: Norma Tanega's loopy hippie fable "Walkin' My Cat Named Dog." Find it on YouTube, like, now. Or better still, buy this thing. A-
  47. Leonard Cohen: Can't Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour (Columbia/Legacy): Trust your Zen uncle to rehash a rehash the classy way. Although half these ten live songs are so old they precede the scam that cost him the royalties on his 20th-century catalogue, he not only performs them anyway but resuscitates relative obscurities, which in the case of the "Field Commander Cohen"-"I Can't Forget" opener have more relevance now than when he was a mere 50. On two new ones he's feeling too feeble to make love and too pissed to make nice. On the George Jones cover, his bass is just as deep if not as puissant as that superhuman's. And capping it all off is a monologue about the stages of aging, which he's copyrighted just in case some scamster gets any funny ideas. A-
  48. Amy LaVere and Will Sexton: Hallelujah I'm a Dreamer (Archer): She's a cryptically homespun singer-songwriter with a 10-year-old's voice and a good witch's soul; he's a guitarist to vie with his brother Charlie with grown kids and a stroke behind him. She spent years playing acoustic bass for rockabilly pilgrims at Sun Studios; he was shoehorned into her tiny road band until they figured out how good they were together. Now married and on perpetual tour, they recorded these many remakes and few new ones to analog tape in a Memphis studio that could be their living room, and there's terrific synergy to it. You poor souls have probably never heard Delaney & Bonnie's Motel Shot. In fact, maybe they haven't either. Y'all seek it out now. A-
  49. Le Grand Kallé: Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Music (Sterns Africa '13): Ken Braun's exhaustively selected, expertly annotated document of the Congolese borrowings, innovations, and masterstrokes that dominated Afropop into the 80s is as solid as yet smaller than a slab of virgin vinyl: two CDs flanking a 104-page bound booklet dominated by Braun's typically well-schooled critical-historical opus. Joseph Kabasele was born into a prominent Roman Catholic family--an uncle became Africa's first cardinal--but broke away as a music-mad teen to become the most influential early master of the rumba that evolved into soukous. Kinshasa's Luambo Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau got their start with Le Grand Kallé; Cameroon's Manu Dibango was his European buddy long before and long after "Soul Makossa." The high-born Kabasele never matched the bite or lift or blat of these titans. His music tailed off by the mid 60s, although he always remained a force, and he was smoother than neoprimitivists might prefer. But he was a singer of exceptional sweetness and flow, and he had true pop savvy--it wasn't just his hustle that turned "Independence Cha Cha" into a continent-wide anticolonalist theme song or induced John Storm Roberts to begin the groundbreaking Africa Dances comp with "African Jazz Mokili Mobimbo." You can play these discs for days without getting bored. I know because I've done it. A-
  50. Rae Sremmurrd: Sremm Life (Eardrum/Interscope): Innocence is relative in Atlanta party-rap. Not only are there too many bitches in this brother duo's customized fun machine, they admit "I've been living life like I lived twice" even though they sound too young for that brand of suicide. But be glad they're admitting not bragging. And respect them for trying to sound younger than they are no matter how much Auto-Tune they use to get there, because it adds materially to the fun--fun by way of a formula no one had heard until last summer, when it was put in play by the dizzyingly off-kilter "No Flex Zone" and "No Type." Inevitably, those two tracks stand tall here. But not much taller than the silly "Up Like Trump," the reverberating "Unlock the Swag," or the words to live by "Safe Sex Pay Checks." A-
  51. Halsey: Badlands (Astralwerks): In the old days, the classified would have read something like: "Lyrics-first tri-bi adventuress seeks musical partners for almost famous sex success." In the new world, she's a 21-year-old Tumblr sensation with 1M followers on Twitter, where she announced her attainment of that Instagram goal months ago. Logocentric cuss that I am, I'm not "on" Instagram, but recommend Googling her Buzzfeed-curated Instagram top 25. I bought her physical album after vetting the MP3s on my Sansa player; at Best Buy, where most of the exploitees in attendance barely know what a compact disc is, my young African-American hostess led me right to it. I congratulate the former Ashley Frangipane on musical sex partners much livelier than Lorde's. In the track I'm feeling, she kisses one as they ride to Queens. A-
  52. New York Gypsy All Stars: Dromomania (self-released): Maintaining a nice intensity for most of its first half and settling into a lyricism that flirts likably with cheese after that, this is the showcase Ismael Lumanovski deserves--or would be if it made room for one of the Eric Dolphy homages I heard him unfurl as a fledgling ten years ago. Tamar Pinarbasi has guitar moments on a cymbalon-looking zither called the qanum. Engin Kaan Gunaydin impresses more subtly because he has fewer holes to fill. "Catch" isn't the only catchy one. "Melandia" isn't either. Like most indigenous styles, Gypsy music risks identity when it aims to please. This is too self-assured for that. A-
  53. The Mountain Goats: Beat the Champ (Merge): As interested parties didn't need me to tell them, John Darnielle's latest is a concept album about the professional wrestlers of his '70s youth. The romanticization of the grotesque not being my thing, I have no inkling which stories are legendary and which extrapolations. But I like them all. I thank Darnielle for naming like-father-like-son Chavo Guerrero as he wages his battle against evil and Bull Ramos as he holds onto his whip for dear life. But the anonynous ferocity of "Werewolf Gimmick" and camaraderie of "Animal Mask" are just as inspirational. And although the opener establishes a tender lyricism consonant with Darnielle's own, there's no mistaking the album's most indelible line: "I will stab you in the eye with a foreign object." That's the name of the song--"Foreign Object." A-
  54. Aram Bajakian: There Were Flowers Also in Hell (Sanasar '14): Marc Ribot/John Zorn type who's toured with both Lou Reed and Diana Krall rocks and cries more than he experiments on 11 distinct guitar-bass-drums instrumentals. "Texas Cannonball" is for Freddie King, "Orbisonian" headlong not balladic, "Lou Tone" mostly drone. "The Kids Don't Want to Sleep" shreds where "Japanese Love Ballad" has a koto feel. "Requiem for 5 Pointz" and "Medicaid Lullaby" are both kinda pretty, while "Labor on 57th" reminds me of "A Fistful of Dollars." Every track singular, every track strong. A-
  55. The Meridian Brothers: Devoción (Works 2005-2011) (Staubgold '12): My only context for this obscure best-of, the "band"'s first non-Colombian release, is Tom Zé, like mastermind Eblis Álvarez an adept of the deconstructed Latin groove and arguably its inventor. The "Brothers" were a concept 2005-2011--Danish-trained electronics whiz Álvarez plays and sings every sound on every strange, sprightly track here. His treated voice is more boyish than Zé's ever was, and I wish I understood the lyrics, because I get the feeling every one is waggish or at least smart. Post-2011, however, he assembled a real band so he could play out and hence turn to salsa and tropicalia, where he's less of a find. That's why only this collection grabs me when I dip into his catalogue on nothinglefttolose.com. The best-of--so cool when done right. A-
  56. Miguel: Wildheart (RCA): It's sloppy to slot this as the latest in r&b's endless succession of sin-versus-salvation struggles. This Angeleno is more secular than that, and also less desperate. So ". . . goingtohell" is about romantic love and human mortality, not eternal damnation, and "gonna die young" addresses not the brutalities of the thug life but the perils of the fast lane like Frank Ocean and the Eagles before it. Nor is the chiseled Afro-Hispanic the pure sex symbol some assume--that's why the porn-inspired "the valley" is followed by the domestic morning-after of "coffee" before it's trumped by some dickish fuckery he hands off to Kurupt. You could even say this recalls one of rock's endless succession of coming-of-age struggles. The straightforwardly confused "what's normal anyway" sums it up nicely. He is normal--because he ain't. A-
  57. Jazmine Sullivan: Reality Show (RCA): No one in r&b tells stories like Sullivan, and not just because no one in r&b tells stories at all anymore. Shouting, crooning, or oversharing, she's not some fake-or-not gangsta moll, though once she carries a .45 in her Louis Vuitton because that's how "#Hoodlove" rolls. Other personas include a club moll paying the rent with her prosthetic ass, a jobseeker turned stickup kid, a Mona Lisa, a junkie, and a gal smart enough to polish up a Babyface hook for the love of her life (she wishes). In one song Meek Mill is "dumb." In another Jazmine is "stupid." In a third she'll settle for a man who'll take a bitch to dinner. A-
  58. Youssou N'Dour: Mballax Dafay Wax (FM '14): Apparently released in 2012 on the "label" indicated, a welcome sign that the Senegalese activist-entrepreneur counts among his many projects reminders that he'd still be the greatest popular musician in the world if he had the time. There are only three new songs here, apparently concerning children's education, embezzlement in high places, and political commitment in general. The other three tracks, all well over ten minutes, are medleys designated "Pot Pourri 1," "2," and "3." Amid clattering tamas and familiar snatches I can't name because my Wolof isn't up to snuff come instantly recognizable goodies such as "Birima" and "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da." And what's this, culminating "1"? Why it's Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom." Hasn't sounded so right in years. A-
  59. Tacocat: NVM (Hardly Art '14): The way I figure it, a feminist band who write a surfing song about menstruation called "Crimson Wave" and then swap in the alternate joke circumlocution" communists in the summer house" can do no wrong. But that doesn't mean they get everything right. I'd make the hit-to-meh ratio on this 2014 album two-to-one or a little less, and inconveniently, the mehs include the lead "You Never Came Back." Sure shots: "Hey Girl" ("You're just a sweaty jerk"), "F.U. #8" (her ride is late again), and "Psychedelic Quinceańera" (half-Mexican Consuela does 15 her way). A-
  60. Tom Zé: Tropicália Lixo Lógico (self-released '12): I've never heard a bad Tom Zé album, which doesn't mean I just ordered the two repackages from his youth (I think) now perched atop his markofthebeast.com page (although maybe I should--consumer guidance welcome). This 2012 item, a free or cheap download an advisor sent my way in late 2014, has its peculiarities, such as tracks cutting off a few seconds before they should. But given that it's free or cheap, it might serve as an introduction almost as efficient as Luaka Bop's you betcha classic Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zé, not least because it lightens up on the female choruses Zé isn't the only aging songpoet to lean on. Try the lyrical "Capitais E Tais" or the grunted "Năo Tenha Ódio no Verăo" or the string quartet and soprano mercies and "motocar" phoneme of "O Motobói e Maria Clara." Or "NYC Subway Poetry Department," a joke in English--set up, I'm guessing, by "Aviso Aos Passageiros." A-
  61. James Booker: Gonzo (RockBeat '14): Live in Germany, 1976--everything the virtuoso fonk-classical-cocktail piano man played for two shows, it looks like. I personally didn't want to hear even one "Please Send Me Someone to Love," and often the songs of hope and brotherly love deliquesce into mush, but there are loads of on-the-other-hands. The florid fanfare that evolves into "Sixty Minute Man" before your unsuspecting ears will possibly fool and definitely delight you twice, when it switches over to "You Talk Too Much" if not before. Booker likes him some medley effects--the one billed as "All by Myself/Let the Four Winds Blow" also includes a verse of "I'm in Love Again." "Tipitina" and "Junco Partner" and "Rockin' Pneumonia" are his by eminent domain, the Dr. John songs somehow not. "Tico Rico" and "Besame Mucho" make a fine pair. And let me mention the one about his mother called "Ora," because it convinces me that she's always worth mentioning. A-
  62. Tal National: Zoy Zoy (Fat Cat): More happens here than on the debut: Tuareg moves and Malian ululations and Congotronic clatter and highlife memories, forgiving tempo shifts and a drum solo struggling to be free. The many-faceted title "tune" shows off moving parts you'll never keep up with as it stampedes past, and the grooves vary noticeably track to track--which isn't to suggest that the energy ever slackens. In short, a band capable of striking fear in the hearts of anti-immigrationists all over their cryogenic cradles of Western civilization. A-
  63. Slutever: Almost Famous (self-released): Two bratty Philadelphia ex-girls take their DIY voice-guitar-drums to LA, where they dream of becoming the best-known rock group never to release a full-length. So the sound is bigger and the songs are too on this cassette-and-download-only EP--"Open Wide"'s laziness, "Smother"'s infantilism, "Miss America"'s alcoholism, "Maggot"'s dirtbag sex, "Teen Mom"'s broken heart. To call their self-imposed limits principled would misread their purpose. These women don't want to be momentous because what they've achieved already was fucking hard. They don't want to be momentous because enough is enough. A-
  64. Foxymorons: Fake Yoga (Foxyphonic): On their fifth album in 21 years, two Dallas pop-punk hobbyists and/or perfectionists attain the pop-punk grail: 10 tough, catchy, ebullient, stealth-strange songs in 32 minutes, dudless unless you count the dirgey change-of-pace novelty "The People" and fast unless you refuse to accept the closer for the summum it is. Summumming what exactly I cannot say, although such topics as the rewards of sentience, cherry lips in a permanent frown, drugs and hugs, and pop-punk nerds bullied on the schoolbus definitely arise. What signifies is that tunes abound, as do musical jokes. Let's just figure out what it all means when they do it again. A-
  65. Robert Forster: Songs to Play (Tapete): Subtlety isn't exactly an aesthetic choice for the other Go-Between. It's his destiny, imposed by his limitations as both singer and tunesmith. But in his first album in seven years he's clearly tailoring lyrics to that destiny, and that is an aesthetic choice, apt and sometimes droll but also limiting. It works best on "A Poet Walks," where the artist's ordinary stroll through the city doing ordinary things that make him better than you is accessorized with mariachi el-toro trumpet at the close, and "And I Knew," about the love he was certain destiny would impart if he undertook to travel 10,000 miles and wait till it happened--the last quarter of which repeats the phrase "and I knew" over and over (and over). A part of me wishes that coup was catchier, although I've definitely adjusted. The same part insists that I reveal the title of the catchiest track by far: "I Love Myself (And I Always Have)." A-
  66. Mark Rubin Jew of Oklahoma: Southern Discomfort (Rubinchik): A full-time folkie and part-time violin salesman who plays half a dozen instruments and gigs with more bands than that, Rubin sings and sometimes jokes about the kind of marginality he knows too well. "No More for You" and "Key Chain Blues" sum up the new poverty in new ways. Klezmer sex tips join a jolly Gil Scott-Heron singalong and a "Murder of Leo Frank" that specifies Fiddlin' John Carson's role in that anti-Semitic lynching. "Why Am I Trying to Kill Myself?" and "Seriously aka Too Much Weed" take Mark Rubin himself to task. Opener and closer go out and have a good time anyway. A-
  67. Jamie xx: In Colour (Young Turks): With zero stake in the rave-techno-whatever purists claim he rips off, not to mention sub-zero belief that there's anything wrong with appropriating classic materials, I took my usual approach with, er, electro--find out how it works as background music. Poorly, I determined--burbles along anonymously. But figuring I also owed this quiet young turk's solo debut a try as foreground music, I found myself taken by its glimmers of beat, snatches of melody, trick sounds, and fluctuating dynamics as well as the hooks with which most tracks are equipped and around which few are structured. Old raver yelling "Oh my gosh." Most useful Young Thug performance since Black Portland. Romy assuring us she's OK. Nice. A-
  68. Ought: Sun Coming Down (Constellation): Three Americans and an Australian escaped to Canada for its moderate tuition and patina of rationalism, they're regularly compared to the Fall and early Sonic Youth but are wound tighter than either. Philosophically they recall the less frenetic hardcore bands--personal anxiety due to or is it just expressed as anti-conformist alienation. Tim Darcy fuses the detachment of a lecturer with the morality of a prophet, and the constriction and unresolved tension of the music justifies his white-boy mindset better than straight punk would. Think early Talking Heads without a hint of David Byrne's leaping weirdness. Hope they're wrong about the future while admitting they could be right. A-
  69. Young Fathers: White Men Are Black Men Too (Big Dada): I don't know what the title means either, and I doubt they do. "Poor lives matter"? "After all, our beatmaker is white"? "We never ever want to think about racism again"? But note that when they utter the title during "Old Rock n Roll," there's a "some" in front. Note too that said beatmaker has progressed in his quest to invent some new rock n roll. Note that the vocalists are in on the project. Note that in "John Doe" they repeat and repeat "Laissez les bon temps roulez" with a disquiet that splits the difference between street fair and wailing wall. A-
  70. Colleen Green: I Want to Grow Up (Hardly Art): Sad girls have never been my thing--better post-sad, all angry and sarcastic and breaking on through. But in the wake of 2013's slow, hung-up Sock It to Me, I like the way this clinical depressive assumes agency by asking the musical question, "Why do I feel so sorry for myself?" Recovering or regressing, she's so direct, so candid, so saturated with therapeutic truisms whose truth value only a guy she's better off without would deny. And as a consequence her self-examination is captivating. The music plods steadily forward, her quiet, thoughtful, girlish soprano beefed up by her loud, straightforward, unvirtuosic guitar and solid two-piece backup. The tunes are singsong things suitable to confessions like "Because I'm sick of being immature / I wanna be responsible / And I'm sick of being insecure / I wanna be more comfortable." The one stunner is the six-minute "Deeper Than Love," which begins: "Someday I hope for a lover to kill me / It's the closest I can hope to get to anybody." But from "TV is my friend" to "I can't stop grinding my teeth," there's plenty nondepressives should know here, and the music delivers it. A-
  71. Jason Derulo: Everything Is 4 (Beluga Heights/Warner Bros.): Though it's no surprise that it's less silly and romantic than the ebullient Talk Dirty, Derulo is proof that the pop machine comes in many models. Like the Chevy Malibu, Derulo has his blind spots. But his gimmicky pop r&b reminds me more of the peppy Ford Focus. At least three different ways to say ooh-ooh-ooh. Effective cameos from the iconic Stevie Wonder, the generic Julia Michaels, the useless Meghan Trainor, and the fat, deep, obscure Big Marv. Plenty of sex. Less love. Enough love nonetheless. A-
  72. The Ragpicker String Band: The Ragpicker String Band (Yellow Dog): With a touching faith in physical recordings and respect for my advanced years, folk labels send me more string band CDs than you know exist, most cheerful-to-doleful at best. This Memphis trio is quite a bit more. Equable vocalist-guitarist Mary Flower, fingerpicking multi-threat Martin Grosswendt, and mandolin-wielding star of the show Rich DelGrosso announce themselves with DelGrosso's incorrigible cover of another old folkie you never heard of's "Google Blues," about the dangers of picking up women at bars where they can vet you on wi-fi. DelGrosso's fickle-vixen "Motel Towel" and scag-bagging "Street Doctor Blues" also have a modern feel, but his mandolin transports even this material to a realm not much less lyrical than Flower's unflappable rendition of Lil Johnson's 90-year-old "Minor Blues" or Grosswendt's deft revivals of two quite distinct Sleepy John Estes numbers. Also deft: the cover of Thelonious's "Blue Monk" and the theft of Dylan's "Bucket of Rain." A-
  73. Shopping: Consumer Complaints (Milk '13): Because I really like this ridiculously sharp U.K. three-piece, I wish I could tell you that one of their little albums is markedly more desirable than the other. But although they aren't indistinguishable, they are pretty much interchangeable. Both ride full-bodied vocalist-guitarist Rachel Aggs, and both are driven by no-nonsense drummer Andrew Milk and supple bassist Billy Easter. The sound is early-postpunk, Gang of Four times Delta 5--nicely retro-purist if you carry those bands in your memory, fresh and spare if you don't. But the minimalist dexterity of Aggs's guitar flows more irresistibly than either. On both sub-40-minute albums I find my attention flagging as I approach the 30-minute mark even though both sound fine when I begin there and both end with nifty songs--on this 2013 debut, "Theme," the only time they actually address the consumerism you're half afraid a band called Shopping will go on about. Ever alert for a joke, I'm also a fan of the 1:26 opener "Any Answers." Consumer alert: vinyl and DL only. A-
  74. Shopping: Why Choose? (Fat Cat): I guess you could say their only CD is even suppler--you can tell they've been woodshedding. Their distinction between time wasted, which is yours, and time lost, which the bad guys have stolen from you, qualifies "Time Wasted" as a welcome apercu from a band who have to keep explaining they're not really political because their fan base misses the Gang of Four even more after hearing 2015's What Happens Next. Their fan base's Delta 5 contingent should ask whether the slightly more femme-sounding Billy Easter ever takes the lead on the de facto breakup sequence that begins at the flagging point with "Sinking Feeling," because she should and I'm pretty sure doesn't. Everyone should stick around for the abstract closer "12345," which Spotify reports is their least played track and I report is their most fetching. A-
  75. The Mekons and Robbie Fulks: Jura (Bloodshot): Recorded on the Scottish title island for Record Store Black Friday with jaunty pessimist Fulks sitting in for heroic depressive Tom Greenhalgh, this sold out pronto and is now download-only. Although Fulks fits in, Greenhalgh is missed, and from Rico Bell's resigned "Reason walks with rabid dogs gnawing at its hands" to Sally Timms's dolorous "But he can't have a harboring here," the performances lack the full-bore joy-in-bitterness their cult fetishizes vinyl for. Yet in the end, it is a Mekons record. It's been quite a long time since that wasn't enough. A-
  76. Shamir: Ratchet (XL): Shamir Bailey sings his sweet tunes in a mellow high tenor devoid of falsetto striving or pretensions to femininity. Yet he's not exactly boyish--just a gentle-sounding man flaunting and/or enjoying the irony of his intelligent club-kid anomie, with Nick Sylvester's electro matching him soft edge for soft edge. What sharpens the album is club-kid beats that are always understated and sometimes forsworn altogether but also sometimes irresistible--contextualized by intelligent lyrics that critique club-kid escapism more than they celebrate it. Overarching theme: "Girls are sad all of the time cuz/Good guys are so hard to find/So why not go out and make a scene?" A-
  77. Young Fathers: Dead (Anticon '14): As a U.S. admirer of this interracial Scottish hip-hop trio's brave, dour Tape Two EP, I was bummed by the diminished lyricism of their proper debut until its 2014 Mercury Prize got my attention. The album is indeed different--chanted unison and solo more than rapped, tribal in feeling at times, with beatmaker G Hastings making like a fucked-up in vitro synth-rock band. But insofar as I can decipher their intent, now I'm bummed the way they want me to be, as the songs that surface one by one make me worry about the state of their world, and of mine. A-
  78. Eszter Balint: Airless Midnight (Red Herring): A Hungarian-born Squat Theatre alumna who once upon a time landed a money gig playing Louis C.K.'s love interest emanates the flintiest songs of 2015. A son is killed after his mother curses out his guards. The fun of tonighting it is over by 2 a.m. but tonight isn't. A mother calls her daughter at 3 AM and can't think of anything to say. A mad old geezer finally dies at 63. The plane lifts off and finally our antiheroine feels alive. Marc Ribot, JD Foster, etc. keep it terse. Balint barely emotes at all. A-
  79. Terry Allen: Bottom of the World (self-released '13): I bought this on the strength of one astonishing song: "Emergency Human Blood Courier," which isn't just what the title makes you hope because the title can't make you hope enough--five minutes that hit harder than any hour of, just as a for instance, The Bridge. Elsewhere the singer-songwriter cum painter-installment artist holds forth with his usual droll soul about a dead dog, a dead banker, a boat, movies, and angels, the last-named twice if you count "Do They Dream of Hell in Heaven," which you should. A-
  80. Lil Dicky: Professional Rapper (Lil Dicky): Two major negatives: David Burd has zero-to-crap politics despite the liberal parents who wish he'd stuck with the ad agency, as documented by "Oh Well," and he can't sing, as documented by many assiduously Auto-Tuned singsongs. But that's the way most rappers sing, and he has learned to rap, as documented by how deftly this born comedian holds his own against Snoop Dogg in the opener, pitching hip-hop's underexploited little-bitch market with rhymes of true wit, speed, articulation, and rhythmic panache. As a born comedian, he of course risks offending, but there's plenty of cultural resonance on this double-disc official debut, especially as regards sex, about which it is detailed and proudly self-deprecating. As Lil Dicky's rap career progresses along with the album's narrative, the word "girl" fades as "bitch" asserts itself, and I believe he knows it, though not that he regards "woman" as an alternative. But he never gets to "hoe," and throughout there are individual females in the relationships he details so loquaciously. "White Crime" is borderline offensive, "$ave Dat Money" no-holds-barred cheap. His parents' cameos are no-holds-barred droll. His reflections on the contradictions of his career path are smarter than he'll ever get credit for. A-
  81. Tal National: Kaani (Fat Cat '13): Seeking an adjective for this remarkable yet narrow international debut from the biggest band in Niger, I arrived at "terrific." Terrific in the honorific sense--real good album. But also terrific in the lost sense of deeply scary. Eight tracks lasting a mere 50 minutes (live, the story goes, they play five hours a night every night) and featuring a mere six musicians (live, apparently, substitutes switch off): two guitars, trap and tama drums, accommodating bass, and a singer whose day job is judge (but how long are his days?). And for 50 minutes the barrage never stops--"Sarkin Fada" mellows slightly, but in general two guitars are louder than one, the drummers bash and clash, the tempos speed on, and the judge declaims with the voice of authority. Because there's so little give in it, this isn't really groove music except in the sense that EDM is groove music--Syrian dabke, for instance, is sensuous and jolly by comparison. It's just rhythm music, on its own unrelenting terms. A-
  82. Ata Kak: Obaa Sima (Awesome Tapes From Africa): Collectorama in extremis: seven-track, 35-minute album recorded circa 1993 in Toronto by Ghanaian emigre Yaw Atta-Owuso and then mastered back home where costs were cheaper. Some 50 cassettes were manufactured. of which an estimated three were sold. The only playable one known to survive was purchased from a Ghanaian roadside vendor in 2002 by Brian Shimkovitz, who began Awesome Tapes From Africa so he could release it. And Shimkovitz obviously has better ears than most collectors, because his pet rarity is infectious, charming, and idiosyncratically stripped-down. Credit not its preset beats but the bright tune sense and chipper singing and rapping of Atta-Owuso and the female chorus he had the sense to enlist. Atta-Owuso had no inkling that hiplife tyros in Accra were doing something similar--his Westernized Afropop is pure self-expression. Because no one heard it but his posse, it says nothing about the cultures that produced it but a lot about the musician who felt compelled to put it on tape--a lively, focused, friendly guy unlike any other you can bring to mind. A-
  83. The Close Readers: The Lines Are Open (Austin '14): Led by New Zealand novelist Damien Wilkins, who's old enough to consider Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade a monument, this band sounds more like a cross between--sorry, I know this sounds geographically determinist--the Chills and the Go-Betweens. Wilkins is a mild singer, but his tune sense will sneak up on you, and two of his catchiest songs are about novelists. Really, why not? Especially when two of the others are about teenage wolves and Hüsker Dü? A-
  84. Craig Finn: Faith in the Future (Partisan): The band life has long since seemed all too consuming for the Hold Steady frontman. So for me, the clearest keepers on his best bunch of songs this decade feature non-scenesters like the rootless salvation-seeker of "Maggie I've Been Searching for Our Son" and the 9/11 beer-drinkers on "Newmyers's Roof," or engage an ex-lover like "Sarah, Calling From a Hotel" or a lost one like "Christine." I mean, "Some nights it just seems like the same old thing" is all too perfect a way to begin one called "Going to the Show." And "Trapper Avenue" tells me he should probably lay off the low life too. A-

Apr. 10, 2016

Postscript Notes:

P&J points come from Christgau's ballot, from late December 2015. The current list was subsequently revised, most recently in early April 2016.


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