Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as free content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

2019: Dean's List

Find hereabouts my 45th Dean's List, a tradition that goes back to the first (yes, first) Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll in 1971, when I published the full top 10s of 40 working critics (fans' lists were also tallied that year, but not reproduced) after appending my own top 30, not yet dubbed the Dean's List, to an earlier Consumer Guide. In 1974, when I returned to the Voice from Newsday and resumed Pazz & Jop, I continued to publish a longer list of my own, which I expanded from 30 to 40 in 1979 and to an indeterminate length in 1981; the shortest subsequent one checked in at 49 in 1985 (by an odd coincidence, the year my daughter was born) and the longest in 2011, when I located 107 A records.

Clearly these varying lengths reflect my own diligence and workload: in 2019 the Consumer Guide was out of business all summer as I transitioned from Noisey to And It Don't Stop, and I also sunk below 80 in 2014, when I was transitioning from MSN to Medium. But the earlier expansion from 30 to 40 and beyond was fundamentally a function of how much music was out there. In the '90s I began pointing out that there were more hours of recorded music released every year than there were hours in a year, and in the Soundcloud/YouTube age the disparity has become incalculable. In 2019, the 46th or 47th Dean's List ended up honoring 76 A albums that include three EPs, and also 13 long-players released in 2018 and even before.

Leading the list you'll find two albums I pegged as certain top 10s from the time I reviewed them in March and April, although their one-two finish seemed unlikely with most of the year to come: Billie Eilish's flighty, electro, best-selling When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and Todd Snider's earthy, primitivist, fans-only Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3. But down below things got messier. It took diligent summer listening for me to decide that Chance the Rapper's The Big Day was a backlash victim and enjoyable winter listening to conclude that it belonged at number three. I was a late convert to my number-four Purple Mountains. And although I was on Carsie Blanton's fifth-place Buck Up before it was officially self-released in March, I didn't even hear Kalie Shorr's ninth-place September self-release Open Book until 2020.

And then there was everything else. Of the 76 albums that made the cut, I've played or replayed all but a dozen since I began getting serious in December. When I did, some records bounced up (Ex, Tagaq, Mark) or down (Nassif, Saadiq, Capaldi); B plus Jamila Woods rocketed to 50 while A minus 6lack fell off the list altogether. And though these judgments have more muscle on them now than when I wrote my reviews, they're unlikely to remain final. I'm diligent about not jumping the gun on the grades I parcel out, but albums do continue to grow or diminish for those they touch. They're living things.

It should surprise no one that few of the albums in my top 10--Billie Eilish, Purple Mountains, and Kim Gordon, to be precise--made much of a dent among the deciders at Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, which with Pazz & Jop kaput now host the year-end album lists of record. Nor is it any surprise that only three of my finishers are under 30 and four are past 50. I'm 77, and while I identify with the young more than most of my cohort, my life issues are radically different from theirs. Without excavating the details, I'll note that though there are plenty of women on my list, most of them aren't on other people's--Angel Olsen's overbearing banality, to choose a prominent example, completely escapes me (although I reserve the right to end up upping Lana Del Rey's September ***). It would appear that I'm not quite the big hip-hop fan I once was either, though I expect that blip to right itself once I bear down a little.

Then again, while time and again I've decried the paucity of political music in the most politically fraught year since Hitler took cyanide and then shot himself (you go, Adolf), there was more than I sometimes feared and I latched onto what I found. Snider, Blanton, Tagaq, Delines, Ex, McCalla, Sleater-Kinney, Furman, Rapsody, Woods, Slowthai, Priests, Saadiq, and Quelle Chris all focused their wit, rage, fellow feeling, and hooks on racism and sexism, the wages of wealth and the rape of the planet. It should also surprise no one that I hope there's more in 2020, and that it makes a difference. Everyone reading this could use a happier newer year, and music alone can never guarantee that.

Collapse to plain list

  1. Billie Eilish: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (Darkroom/Interscope): Slotting this self-created 17-year-old as pop computes musically and commercially while reminding us how amorphous that once snappy term has become. Her soprano too diminutive for vocal calisthenics, her sensibility too impressionistic to bother mapping out track-and-hook bliss points, Eilish is a home-schooled Highland Park weirdo whose darkly playful version of teen-goth angst had already captivated millions of young weirdos-in-potentia before this electro-saturated debut album put in its bid for the rest of us. Seldom catchy in any conventional sense, every one of these 14 tracks entices the ear anyway, from "Bad Guy"'s "duh"s to "Xanny"'s blown speaker cone to the shuddering sound-pit that swallows "You Should See Me in a Crown" to the plinked piano of "All the Good Girls Go to Hell" to the tunefully cooed "Wish You Were Gay," and it keeps going. Only then it closes shut when one of the least self-glorifying suicide songs ever sets up a finale comprising songs titled simply "I Love You" and "Goodbye"--each quiet, each pretty, each what it says, each sad without ever turning gruesome or crossing its fingers. A
  2. Todd Snider: Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 (Aimless): Ten songs, one dedication, and one explanation recorded totally acoustic and almost totally solo, which as the excellent booklet explains doesn't mean tossed off--you'd never know from its offhand feel how practiced this material is. That's one reason it's so replayable without benefit of notable groove or tune. The other, of course, is that the words are good. Having opened with "a song about a song you're working on" ("I mean, it's gone, man. Come on, let it go."), he jam-packs a whole lot of material into "Talking Reality Television Blues," following Milton Berle ("we all had a new escape from the world") with Michael Jackson ("reality killed that video star") with He Who Shall Not Be Namechecked ("Reality killed by a reality star"). "Serving my country under General Malaise," Snider also becomes the first singer-songwriter ever to rhyme "national anthem" with "national tantrum." All in a goofy drawl he didn't learn growing up in Oregon, because he's a Southerner by choice and no goof at all--just another "working fucking schmuck out here standing around waiting to get shot in yet ay-nother tragic addition to an already sorry state of affairs." A
  3. Chance the Rapper: The Big Day (self-released)
  4. Purple Mountains: Purple Mountains (Drag City)
  5. Carsie Blanton: Buck Up (Carsie Blanton): The unfashionably chirpy, unabashedly horny Blanton has been making albums since 2005. This one, which credits some 400 "executive producers," is easily the best--she's never been so catchy or sexy, and along with unabashed politics catchy and sexy are her flash points. The sure shot "Jacket" strikes a balance--"I like your shirt, I like your jacket/I like to think about you when I whack it" meets "We tried to have a chat, but it was too scary/You're just a Democrat, I'm a revolutionary"; the both-sides-now "Harbor" turns "Love was made for making" into "Hearts were made for breaking." "That Boy" is all lust, "American Kid" all history lesson. And then there's depression: "Bed" can't be a sex song until she stands on her own two feet nor "Battle" a politics song until she makes it through the night. So on the finale her hound dog puts first things first: "Buck up baby, cmon sic 'em/Make 'em laugh if you can't lick 'em." Which sums up her philosophy if anything does. A
  6. Kim Gordon: No Home Record (Matador)
  7. Danny Brown: uknowwhatimsayin? (Warp)
  8. Sonic Youth: Battery Park, NYC: July 4th 2008 (Matador)
  9. Kalie Shorr: Open Book (Kalie Shorr)
  10. The Paranoid Style: A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life (Bar/None)
  11. Bruce Springsteen: Springsteen on Broadway (Columbia '18): Always averse to shelling out major bucks for a Broadway show, me and my gal were happy to catch this one on Netflix--in two sittings, true, but when I streamed the audio version a month or two later I found myself listening with minimal zone-out for two-and-a-half hours straight. So I bought the budget-priced double CD, and though it was a while before I felt like sticking disc one in the changer, just a few minutes passed before I added disc two and listened through yet again. Never big on extended spoken-word material or solo-acoustic remakes of exalted songbooks, I'm impressed. The Springsteen this most recalls isn't like any earlier album but the 2016 autobiography he called Born to Run for better reasons than you might imagine. Like that fast-reading 508-pager, its aim is to simultaneously depict and demythologize the Jersey shore and poke major holes in an authenticity it reconceives at a truer level of complexity--on his first cross-country car trip, the guy who would soon write "Racing in the Street" had to learn to drive from scratch when the guy who was supposed to ride shotgun disappeared in Tennessee. Like the book, this ends where it begins--at the huge old copper beech tree that anchored his childhood, except that since he last visited the county has cut it to the street. Springsteen being Springsteen, he swears "some essential piece of it was still there"--and being Springsteen, convinces you that that's his truth even if it isn't your kind of thing. A
  12. Salif Keita: Un Autre Blanc (Believe/Naive): Keita, who turns 70 in August, hasn't released an album since 2010 and may never make another. But his voice remains a startling thing, and this grabbed me the moment he launched a wordless shout through a female chorus half a minute in. Then he kept it up for an hour--warm here, intense there, surprisingly mellow for his age whether gruff or sweet. Beyond the ongoing miracle that is Youssou N'Dour, I haven't heard a West African vocal showcase to compare since Keita's own 1999 album Papa, and this is better. "Were Were" is designed to grab you as it did me, and two other standouts feature guests--Angelique Kidjo adding sugar to "Itarafo," where Parisian rapper MHD also takes a verse, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo doing what comes with practice practice practice on the blatantly AutoTuned "Ngamale." But that ain't all--not a track falters. So what got him going? Although a title that translates "another white" indicates that he's speaking out for his fellow albinos, still oppressed as freaks or worse in many African cultures, the lyrics his label sent me are standard sincere African humanism. I'm not even sure how many songs are in Bambara and how many in French. But I am sure that relistening in pursuit of this riddle has been no burden. A-
  13. Stella Donnelly: Beware of the Dogs (Secretly Canadian): In plain English and unassuming soprano, a musical encyclopedia of assholes, all male not just because she's female but because assholes generally are. Yes there are full-on predators--the rich prick with his dick out and the boy-will-be-boy who knows why she wears her shirt so low oh yes he does. But most are more ordinary--the intimidator, the reckless driver, the coke-snorter, the one-percenter, the big shot wishing she'd drop the attitude, the lunch date gabbing about himself, the feckless no-show, the guy who was never home enough, the guy she did her best to love, the guy whose baby she doesn't want, the guy she misses even now. Some ladies do actually love outlaws, and too often they get what they put in for. But most women are just looking for aninteresting man who'll respect her and stick around. These do exist in some quantity, I believe. But as it is written, they can be hard to find. A-
  14. Big Thief: Two Hands (4AD)
  15. 75 Dollar Bill: I Was Real (Glitterbeat/Tak:til)
  16. Harriet Tubman: The Terror End of Beauty (Sunnyside '18): Inexhaustible bassist Melvin Gibbs, the fulcrum of this long active, not much recorded trio, has been a jazz-rock rock since Sonny Sharrock schooled him and vice versa in the '80s. But this album is defined by guitarist Brandon Ross, who's not quite Sharrock but has every right to cite Jack Johnson/John McLaughlin-period Miles Davis as its model--more than he would, in fact, with the group's 2017 Araminta, which featured trumpet legend Wadada Leo Smith. The many highlights are all different--diddleybeat opener "Farther Unknown," rhythm-shifting "The Green Book Blues," dubwise-plus "Five Points," painfully distorted reading of "Redemption Song." Less galvanic than McLaughlin, Ross is richer and fuller to compensate, as on "3000 Worlds," which builds from the barely audible clatter of not actually random percussion to a stately and even leisurely guitar homily that's not so much driven as adorned by bass and drums laying down contrapuntal patterns of their own. A-
  17. black midi: Schlagenheim (Rough Trade)
  18. Tanya Tagaq: Toothsayer (Six Shooter): On a widely streamable not-(yet?)-for-sale EP commissioned to add aural buzz to the British National Maritime Museum's "Polar Worlds" exhibit, the throat-singing Inuk avant-gardist assumes all vocal and compositional responsibilities. No hip-hop, no Nirvana covers, not even any male-sounding shamanistic croaks--the closest analogy is Fluxus-period Yoko Ono with the disruptive techniques referencing content more concrete, organic, and political than shock for education's sake or existential despair. We can hear this because we know how urgently Tagaq cares about both global warming and indigenous peoples. For half an hour she emits dozens of nonverbal sounds well beyond croons and screams--squeaks, belches, agonized gutturals, many more. This is music that mourns the end of the world. She wants it to disturb us, and it should. A-
  19. The Delines: The Imperial (Decor/El Cortez): As is clearer in the novels he's said are more "easygoing" than his music--particularly Lean On Pete, the movie version of which earned raves last year--Willy Vlautin's songs aren't dark because he thinks dark is cool or mistakes his own depressive tendencies for existential truth. Instead, the forlorn, mumbly affect of his signature band, Richmond Fontaine, is attributable more to his vocal limitations than to his philosophy of life. That's why he recruited Amy Boone to front the Delines. In both bands Vlautin finds pathos and dignity in sub-working class stragglers who drink too much and fall out of love when the money's gone. But Boone sings so thoughtful and caring that you feel the strength as well as the pain of the wronged women whose stories Vlautin has her tell--the escapee from Felony Flats and the lover fixing to buy her guy a new coat from Arlene's as well as Holly the Hustle stuck with a handicapper twice her age and Polly giving it one more try a day after Eddie busted her in the face. Deepest of all is the lead "Cheer Up Charley," which doesn't mean Charley should go get stoned. It means that if he uses up all his vacation days he'll lose that "job on the docks" he'll never beat, and then what? "There ain't no end to going down / There ain't no end / So cheer up Charley." A-
  20. Chai: Punk (Burger): Proudly "new-cute" and post-if-not-quasi J-pop, Mana, Kana, Yuki, and Yuna play k, g, b, and d respectively. On their second album, they beef up the high-soprano chants of their 2017 Pink with hard beats that turn march-like occasionally. They also decorate their lyrics with stray bits of English. "Choose go!" "Don't kidding me." "What a cute girl I am! What a cute girl you are!" "Do you do housework? It's a great job! [Chortle chortle chortle chortle]." Replete with bite and body yet so light it might blow away like a puffball in a summer breeze, it's super simple yet unprecedented in its tiny way. Grab it now. It'll still be there when you open your hand--I promise. A-
  21. Lee "Scratch" Perry: Rainford (On-U Sound): Riddled with reissues, collaborations, bootlegs, remixes, and of course dubs, the Upsetter's catalogue is beyond comprehension. Post 2011, when he turned 75, Wikipedia lists 13 albums while omitting more titles than I'm mad enough to compare-and-contrast from Spotify's offerings; credits 30 undated albums to "Lee Perry" and 12 more to "Lee Perry &"; etc. But if you care about the greatest of the dubmasters, this project, overseen for the 84-year-old by great white dubmaster Adrian Sherwood, is an album that holds together. Is there a single track as head-turning as, to name a few personal faves, "I Am a Psychiatrist," "Messy Appartment," or "Poop Song"? Definitely the "Autobiography of the Upsetter" finale, possibly the "Cricket on the Moon" opener, but in the end it doesn't matter, because all nine tracks achieve both solidity and differentiation--sound good without sounding too much like any of the others. Take a wild guess and thank Sherwood, whose 1983 African Head Charge release Drastic Season has won my ears and heart as I've done my due diligence. I'll never know where this album stands or sprawls in Perry's oeuvre, But I do know that it will now replace 2004's Panic in Babylon as my go-to Upsetter. A-
  22. The Ex: 27 Passports (Ex '18): Compared at various junctures to both the Crass and Einstürzende Neubauten, these vintage-1979 quasi-anarchist Dutch Anglophones have released dozens of albums I've never heard, so to compensate I power-streamed their 2009 30 compilation and concluded that while industrial and "world" sonics do both emerge, the band's enduring fondness for the strummed drone evokes nothing as much as the Fall without Mark E. Smith--that is, a Fall who aren't the Fall at all. I also concluded that Arnold de Boer's leads on his first true album rail and nag more irksomely than the raggedier ones of 30-year-man G.W. Sok used to, and that I prefer this unrelenting hour of protest music to any I could assemble from their best-of. Launched by flag-wavers where cities that modernize together drown together and the rod demolishes every human body part except the heart, they proceed through a car crash that isn't the car's fault, a hard drive sunk in the sea, words without referents, time out of mind, change pursuing its own logic, the feces of the rich, and four billion tulip bulbs. Am I claiming these songs make more sense taken together? To the extent that anything does, yes. A-
  23. that dog.: Old LP (UME)
  24. Tyler Childers: Country Squire (RCA/Hickman Holler)
  25. Leyla McCalla: Capitalist Blues (PIAS America): As with fellow Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens, McCalla has tended mannered--like the trained cellist she is, so committed to her skill set she has little feel for more naturalistic conventions. But here, shoring up the overt politics I came in cheering for, she's not only more relaxed vocally but gets true band feel out of shifting personnel anchored by drummer Chris Davis and bassist-guitarist Jimmy Horn. Sure she ranges around--"Lavi Vye Neg" miniaturizes Coupé Cloué's compas groove, "Oh My Love" is a zydeco. But there's a wholeness to this music that suits an ideological purpose saturated with but not overpowered by economic oppression. Crucially, these songs make a point not just of privation proper but of worry and insecurity--including "Aleppo," which begins "Bombs are falling/In the name of peace" and then describes the everyday wretchedness of the lives still braving the ruins. A-
  26. Sleater-Kinney: The Center Won't Hold (Mom + Pop)
  27. Jeffrey Lewis & the Voltage: Bad Wiring (Don Giovanni)
  28. Alex Chilton: From Memphis to New Orleans (Bar/None): A cranky and eclectic guy of limited stick-to-itiveness, the teen Box Top and ironic Big Star's signature format as a solo artist was the EP. His great album post-Big Star, mostly recorded after he left his native Memphis for New Orleans in 1982, is the 19-track 1991 Rhino compilation 19 Years, dominated by but hardly limited to obsessive, off-kilter, achingly fragile sex/love songs with titles like "Kanga Roo," "Bangkok," and "Holocaust." Yet 28 years later Bar/None's alt-pop major domo Glenn Morrow has assembled a terrific 15-track comp that duplicates only five of Rhino's, none of which you'll mind hearing twice--in particular the supernally sardonic 1986 AIDS song "No Sex" and the supernally tender 1987 love/sex song "A Thing for You." Morrow highlights the pop polymath who loved Carla Thomas's "B-A-B-Y," Skeeter Davis's "Let Me Get Close to You," and Ronny & the Daytonas' "GTO." But he's also proud to preserve for CD posterity the lifelong radical's "Guantanamerika" ("Breathing in the mist of the crop duster/Gazing at the stars that have lost their luster") and "Underclass" ("I oughta go to work but I'm not gonna do it"). A-
  29. Ezra Furman: Twelve Nudes (Bella Union)
  30. Lizzo: Cuz I Love You (Atlantic/Nice Life): Bigging up via an exuberantly overstated intensity that doesn't quit when the tempo eases and only slows to a creep for some erotica that gets loud at a climax worthy of the name, this long-running hopeful makes good on an iconicity worthy of her casual pride and skilled transition from rapper to singer. She's so talented it's hard to believe it took her till 31 to get the job done until you consider how many doubts and fears she must have faced down first. Part of the way she enacts her pride is to pretend it comes effortlessly, as is her right. But you can be sure she has some confessionals in store. A-
  31. Diabel Cissokho: Rhythm of the Griot (Kafou Music)
  32. Miranda Lambert: Wildcard (RCA)
  33. Craig Finn: I Need a New War (Partisan)
  34. Charly Bliss: Young Enough (Barsuk): It's been a while since a new power-pop machine has operated at this pitch of tuneful intensity. Eva Hendricks never lets her breathy childishness undercut her determined professionalism, and she doesn't live in a catchy bubble--the lead "Blown to Bits" catalogs satisfactions, distractions, and incidentals ripe for extinction in a world where an unnamed "he," as "Bleach" puts it, "could destroy everything that I like." Still, something about these songs feels pat, even unempathetic sometimes. Beneath their punk-informed momentum and textured-chrome surface are self-realization precepts about believing in who you are and accepting your own insecurities that mean more to well-fixed postcollegiates still figuring shit out than to those all too preoccupied with earning a living. These are legitimate power-pop themes. But spiritually they only take you so far. A-
  35. Little Simz: Grey Area (Age 101): After two valiant, well-crafted, less than compelling albums, what struck me instantly about this London-born-and-based Nigerian rapper's third try was its musicality: soft-edged without slurring a word, her flow is ductile and refreshing, brooklike whether or not she's ever tromped in the woods. Yet it's also confident and even defiant without benefit of dancehall boom-bap. Peeved that she's got a career but not much more, the hard-touring 25-year old insists that she's a rapper, not merely a female rapper. And that's fine. But whether reporting that she's "a sensitive soul" or protesting that her jailed friend Ken has "a heart full of gold/Good intent with a smile so big," her virtues are female virtues even if they should be everyone's. How many males would begin a song claiming "L-O-V-E" is "something that I don't believe in" and end it "Was bound to end eventually/Still it hurts tremendously/Can't bear the intensity"? Not many--other males might mock them! Simz is clearly tough--has to be. But she's also clearly kind, and that's even tougher. A-
  36. Ariana Grande: Sweetener (Republic '18): Since my secondhand teenpop fandom dried up well before my daughter's enthusiasms dwindled down to One Direction, I ignored Grande until a mixed phalanx of market analysts and poptimist diehards declared this 2018 album pure pop for track-and-hook people. This consensus motivated me to replicate saturation airplay my way--shelling out for the CD and sticking it in the changer until I was ready to cry uncle. A similar ploy got me nowhere with One Direction, their albums so bland I quickly forgot they existed. But Grande is pleasant in such a physically uncommon and technically astute way. Her pure, precise soprano is warm without burr or melisma, its mellow sweetness never saccharine or showy as it strolls through a front-loaded garden of sonic delights where Nicki Minaj outgrowls Missy Elliott and Pharrell Williams's inventions are more subtle yet also more thrilling than Max Martin's. And as she shares self-healing advisories like "No Tears Left to Cry," "Get Well Soon," and especially "Breathin" with all the fans who lived through her terrorized 2017 Manchester concert, you never doubt that the details of the healing are sharpened by own earned traumas. A-
  37. Rapsody: Eve (Jamla/Roc Nation)
  38. The National: I Am Easy to Find (4AD)
  39. Guy Clark: The Best of the Dualtone Years (Dualtone '17)
  40. Youssou Ndour: History (Naïve/Believe): Between 1999 and 2010, Nonesuch backed four superb N'Dour studio albums and a worthy live recap, but then his discography got hard to track: seven albums/EPs by my count, the three Senegal-mainlys markedly superior to the Euro-American crossover bids. As sheer output, this speaks well of a mbalax tycoon and sometime pol who'll turn 60 in October. But the international product isn't up to Nonesuch standards--too eager to please for such a titan. This one, on the French indie that just backed Salif Keita's first album in nine years, is shrewder. It's a ballad album--there are tama drums, sure, but none of the hectic clatter that's riled up long-legged male Senegalese dancers everywhere I've seen N'Dour except Carnegie Hall. N'Dour's voice is barely diminished, a slight burr detectable here and there. But he has the grace to share leads on four of 10 tracks: two sampled from long-gone, rough-voiced Afro-crossover pioneer Babatunde Olatungi, another by Swedish-Nigerian youngblood Mohombi, and best in show Swedish-Gambian Seinabo Sey's transformation of N'Dour's historical "Birima" into a contemporary pride song of her own. Nor is that the only N'Dour standard reimagined here. The man has world tour to crush. He's got his head up and he's not screwing around. A-
  41. Rachid Taha: Je Suis Africain (Naïve/Believe)
  42. Taylor Swift: Lover (Republic)
  43. Hama Sankare: Ballébé (Clermont Music '18): Sankare is a calabash specialist in his fifties who's added crucial percussion to many Malian records without ever taking the lead. Given his deep, precise baritone and conceptual reach, this was probably a loss, although you could also say he waited until he was ready, because his debut collection never falters. The steel guitars of folk-scene veteran Cindy Cashdollar add alien colors that fit right in, but the sure shot is the lead "Middo Wara," remixed to highlight loops and such by electronic wizard David Harrow and then reremixed in a slightly longer, even more striking all-instrumental mix toward the album's end. Despite the package's brief English-language summaries, I do find myself wondering what this manifestly thoughtful, resonantly tender singer is telling Bambara speakers--he sings with such distinction that I'd like a chance to feel the full force of his message. But this is the kind of African record so musically deft that such niceties end up not mattering much. A-
  44. Pedro the Lion: Phoenix (Polyvinyl): Whether praising Christ or excavating angst, David Bazan has always been a natural-born depressive--his Christmas album does "Jingle Bells" as a dirge. But on his first Pedro the Lion record since 2004, recollections of his Arizona boyhood are marked by a forgiveness that testifies to his spiritual development: the air-conditioned model home the family toured on special Sunday afternoons, his parents sharing the piano bench for evening service, skateboard savings squandered on candy and soda pop, the shy fifth-grade classmate he slighted so he'd fit in himself. And if the sexual taboos built into his church training are worth resenting to this day, "Black Canyon," where some poor sufferer kills himself by jumping in front of an 18-wheeler on the freeway, is for the saved and the unsaved alike, its hero a female firefighter brave enough to face her own worst memories as she shares the suicide's last moments. A-
  45. Malibu Ken: Malibu Ken (Rhymesayers): With experimental rocker Tobacco generating electronic accompaniment-not-beats because it's the rapping that grooves, 42-year-old Aesop Rock generates an album as literal and likable as his Kimya Dawson and Homeboy Sandman collabs. Where usually his gargantuan vocabulary congeals into imagery so dark it's impossible to see through, here he's often literal, even funny if you catch his drift. Start with "Tuesday," which details his disgusting homemaking protocols; "Acid King," which recalls a satanic murder from his Suffolk County childhood; the unsparing depression revery "1 + 1 = 13"; and "Churro," the tale of two bald eagles who nested so magically in Pittsburgh they got their own video feed--until they swooped down and devoured somebody's cat. A-
  46. The Coathangers: The Devil You Know (Suicide Squeeze): Improbably matured into punk careerism, this initially amateur, always all-female quartet-turned-trio has slowed down by an estimated half a tad. But not counting the anthemic "F the NRA" (right, they don't actually say "F"), the lyrics--to the disinherited "5 Farms," the disconnected "Bimbo,"' the homophilic "Hey Buddy," the junkiephobic "Stranger Danger," the lithium-enabled "Lithium"--don't clear up until you consult a cheat sheet. This doesn't matter much for three reasons: because they have the gift of catchy, because we always feel they're on our side, and because splitting the vocal leads between stentorian baritone drummer Stephanie Luke and squeaky soprano guitarist Julia Kugel-Montoya imparts a dynamic range and novelty value matched by no other punk band, grrrl or otherwise. A-
  47. Chuck Cleaver: Send Aid (Shake It)
  48. Oumar Konaté: I Love You Inna (Clermont Music)
  49. Epic Beard Men: This Was Supposed to Be Fun (Strange Famous): On their second why-the-fuck-not, hirsutely sub-elderly Rhode Island alt-rap careerists-without-a-cause Sage Francis, 42, and B. Dolan, 38, do their bit for class consciousness by rhyming about their work life. All their stories are grotty. But "Circle the Wagons," with its stashed body, jailhouse locale, and litany of "What did you do?"s, is its only gangsta moment. And transgressively raw though these beardos are, they're also comedians: try "Shin Splints," about racing to make a flight, or "Pistol Dave," about a dirtbag who couldn't even hack the low-level job they had the heart to give him? And then there's "Hedges," where an ex-GI moves in next to a schlubby liberal and they're both paranoid because why shouldn't they be? A-
  50. Jamila Woods: Legacy! Legacy! (Jagjaguwar)
  51. Derek Senn: How Could a Man (self-released)
  52. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Miri (Out Here): On Jama Ko and Ba Power, the master picker and tinkerer of Mali's ngoni lute proved that he could rock out with any desert Hendrix. But with that established he feels free to leave the amplifiers in Bamako, return to his home village, and record his most purely listenable album. Miri's lyrics seek love and honor tradition as usual. But "miri" means dream, a dream that on a title track fraught with political anxiety is lovely and arresting--pensive, nostalgic, designed to allay disquiet as thoughtful music can. The warmth of his wife Amy Sacko's vocals makes such weathered guests as Habib Koite and Afel Bocoum sound like they're trying too hard. Only on the final track does she power up. It's about Bassekou's mother. A-
  53. Amber Mark: Conexão EP (Virgin EMI '18): Uber-bohemian r&b crooner gets down to structure on four legible songs-not-tracks that outline a love affair whose tether has been fraying for far too long: eros in bloom, then sex isn't everything, then I love you anyway, then prove you're worth the work. Only "Love Is Stronger Than Pride" feels less than fully heartfelt--which makes me suspect that "All the Work" is likely to set one more clueless romeo back on his heels. A-
  54. Nicki Minaj: Queen (Young Money/Cash Money/Republic '18): I missed this August 2018 item while homing in on Eminem's September album because hip-hop's bureau of standards brushed hers aside as inconsequential while actively attacking his as an offense against the polity. In fact, both are quick-lipped, sharp-tongued arguments for the hip-hop they and I came up on and the endangered kind of flow both excel at. And both are funny, outrageous, self-confident announcements that neither artist has any intention of going away. Minaj articulates the stakes with the opening "As the world turns, the blunt burns/Watch them cunts learn" before reeling off three pointedly female, pointedly unfeminine sex songs so spectacular that the album never tops them. She also drops brand names like a good rap star should and shows off her connections with seven high-profile cameos, including godmother Foxy Brown, little sister Ariana Grande, postflow Swae Lee, and world speedster Eminem himself. And then there's the best touch--her hip-hop turf all too obviously contested, she doesn't sing a note. A-
  55. Big Thief: U.F.O.F. (4AD): The deepest satisfaction of Big Thief is hearing something manifestly fragile hold together. Notions and emotions so fleeting they're gone before you can pin them down embody and then vanquish uncertainty before it can settle into the depression that may well lurk below. Each quiet, tiny-voiced tune emerges like a crocus pushing through the snow, and how much you enjoy as opposed to admire it will depend on how moving you find minor miracles. Not terribly fragile myself, I identify most readily with the subtle blatancies that sometimes surface--the quiet boom of the lead-in to "Jenni," or "Cattails" with its noticeable beat and subtle guitar hook sounding almost martial in this sonic context. But I'm definitely touched by the whole. A-
  56. Slowthai: Nothing Great About Britain (Method)
  57. Tyler Childers: Live on Red Barn Radio I & II (Thirty Tigers/Hickman Holler '18)
  58. 100 gecs, Dylan Brady & Laura Les: 1000 gecs (Dog Show)
  59. Sudan Archives: Athena (Stones Throw)
  60. Thiago Nassif: Três (Foom '18): Guitarist-vocalist Nassif having acted as Arto Lindsay's Rio-based co-producer on 2017's Cuidado Madame, Lindsay returns the favor, producing throughout and skronking here and there. Nassif seems less a knotty type than Lindsay, yet it's his record that packs the kind of acerbic, off-kilter Tom Zé-Elza Soares buzz that delivers samba and its children from suave. The quietly disquieting opener "Desordem" spends four minutes breaking open without ever coming apart. "Bulgado"'s minute of staticky blips bursts into declarative funk. A piano arrives to sweeten and sour the 2:43 "Algodoes." And several times I swear I could hear somebody interjecting a well-miked manual typewriter. A-
  61. Priests: The Seduction of Kansas (Sister Polygon): Proving that history does evolve no matter how stuck it feels, this always professional, always female-identified quartet-turned-trio has evolved or perhaps just morphed from punk into what we can still only call postpunk. This development suits a band who've always sounded like they took music lessons in high school and read too much theory in college a band who've never aimed for rousing or catchy much less simple. Bracing, usually; enjoyable, they're trying; angry, that's bedrock. What enrages them isn't just the unprecedented political morass now depressing if not immobilizing their target audience. It's bigger than that--objectification in all its guises, the futility of good intentions, the half measures passed off as progress, men who think they know what's best for them, men who think they know what's best for the world. Their music truly rocks, which is one thing they're going for and good for them. It's more absorbing than on their minimalist debut, too--thicker. But it does tend to fold in on itself--to lead nowhere. A-
  62. Saba: Care for Me (Saba Pivot '18): Noname, Donnie Trumpet, and pathfinder Chance the Rapper, Saba makes humanist hip-hop like few outside Chance's Chicago orbit--Homeboy Sandman, Atmosphere, and fellow Chicagoans Serengeti and Open Mike Eagle come to mind, not many others. I don't mean color-blind or race-neutral--no humanist with a brain would make that race-negative mistake. I just mean what these days is called, well, relatable. Every song on this official debut is rooted in Saba's hood and brushed if not haunted by his murdered cousin and partner John Walt--"Jesus died for our sins, Walter got killed for a coat." But it's also haunted by the sexual stress most male rappers are too fake to admit, by the career anxieties of someone who gave up an Ivy League scholarship to pursue music like his absent father. And it's warmed by an unassuming, conversational flow fitted to beats that favor naturalistic keyboards and percussion. A gorgeous and affecting record. A-
  63. Madonna: Madame X (Interscope)
  64. The Seeds: Pushin' Too Hard: Original Soundtrack (GNP Cresendo/Big Beat)
  65. Raphael Saadiq: Jimmy Lee (Columbia)
  66. Khalid: Free Spirit (RCA): Stuck with the impossible task of maintaining the matter-of-fact candor that made his debut a teenpop milestone, the double-platinum 21-year-old is too smart to try--and also too decent to sink to the male entitlement and wages-of-fame angst Biebs and so forth fobbed off on their legions. Right, he's not only getting laid and enjoying his new house in Encino, he's also having trouble adjusting to success. Some might even call him anxious. But he retains the gift of expressing his feelings in songs that cut star-time inevitabilities down to human scale. So however beyond us his privileges and woes may be, we at least feel we share a species with the guy--truisms like "Couldn't have known it would ever be this hard," "I didn't text you because I was workin'," and "If the love feels good it'll work out" are hardly exclusive to the rich and famous. Note, however, that because Khalid now enjoys access to pricier musical materials than when he was in high school, the hooks pack more texture than tune, making this the rare album that comes fully into its own when you up the volume. A-
  67. Quelle Chris: Guns (Mello Music): The Detroit indie-rapper has always stuck in comradely cameos and comic bits in a Mafia accent. So of course there are diversions on this album. Yet it feels like it's all about G-U-N-S guns even when it isn't, as in "Mind Ya Bidness," which packs nothing but blunts, and the lead "Spray and Pray," which undercuts its "We load up, lift, and shoot" refrain with a "turn in they AKs for 401Ks" dissent. Ostensibly it's multiracial, too--where the action in both those tracks is located in black America, "Sunday Mass" names Nikolas C., Devin K., Stephen P., Omar M., Syed F., and Aaron A. before getting to Dylann R., and isn't it a mitzvah that most of us have already deprived these monsters of the infamy they craved by forgetting the surnames Quelle doggedly pronounces? But his toughest rhyme offers a concise racial analysis: "Monkeys who gang bang chained to the streets/Honkies with gang brain armed to the teeth." And to assure us that good things are possible even in a crisis, he joins wife Jean Grae for one of hip-hop's realest love songs before saying sayonora. A-
  68. Daniele Luppi & Parquet Courts: Milano (30th '17)
  69. Lewis Capaldi: Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent (Capitol): Although he shares the writing with an array of minor U.K. song doctors, this very male, unassumingly unsexist 22-year-old Scot deploys his big open white-soul voice with an originality so built-in few outside his growing female fanbase will notice. His secret weapon is that he's no dreamboat, a step or two less sexy than melodic everyman Ed Sheeran--shlubby, blokeish, with white socks, black shoes, and just-woke-up hair, he looks and acts like a goofy guy who does truly need a fangirl's love. And although more of his songs excavate romance's pain than celebrate its bliss, they come with plenty of self-examination and minimal blaming the other: even the opening "I'm not ready to be just another of your mistakes" is pretty mild, and then there's "I was getting kind of used to being someone you loved," "How come I'm the only one who seems to get in my way," and "I'm sayin' thank you to the one who let her get away." While it's likely every one of these lines has been uttered verbatim somewhere somehow, they're each one perfect, and putting them all on one album is a feat of uncommon emotional intelligence. My fond belief is that every word is Capaldi's. The song doctors just made sure they're catchy enough. A-
  70. Jealous of the Birds: Wisdom Teeth (Atlantic)
  71. Dua Saleh: Nur (EP) (Against Giants): In which Saleh, a Twin Cities-based nonbinary Sudanese refugee with a sociology degree, hooks up with Psymun, a Twin Cities-based noise-ambient beatmaker with Future and Young Thug credits. Over five spooky, sexy, abstract, rapped-sung tracks, they prove either that they were made for each other or that the EP format was made for them, matching weirdness for weirdness for 21 minutes without ever getting too cute or abandoning what groove they have at their disposal. As arty types go, they're not only smart but gritty. Fess up--wouldn't you be impressed if Future made something fetching of a stanza that went "You still taste like Beverly Hills/Oh, how cavalier/I just learned the weather could kill/Allegedly"? A-
  72. Sneaks: Highway Hypnosis (Merge): Former Shitstain Eva Moolchan's 2016 album was one-woman minimalist rock of real but limited charm. Here she goes electro-experimental and expands the music exponentially, so that it coheres sonically even though every track is different--here charming and there disruptive, here droney and there catchy (or maybe both, like the dubwise 1:39 "Addis"). The atmospheric "Beliefs" repeats the mantra "Remove your beliefs and start again" seven times in 2:42 as if shaken to the core by whoever inspired the 56-second mantra "Holy Cow I Never Saw a Girl Like Her." Half an hour of musical whimsy that never waits long enough to get old. A-
  73. Sharon Van Etten: Remind Me Tomorrow (Jagjaguwar): Van Etten's big voice, controlled tempos, and dramatic aura have never tempted me to enter her world. But from the attention-getting opener--delivered with a modicum of emotion and forethought, "Sitting at the bar, I told you everything/You said, 'Holy shit, you almost died'" should get any listener with a heart to the end of the quatrain--I found myself hooked on her first album since 2014, which fans agree is her best without coming together on why. I chalk up my own interest to its diminished drama. If the tales here still tend toward screwed-up relationships and past misadventures rather than expanding on the cover photo of her two-year-old perched on a hilariously messy living room rug, so be it. She'll get there eventually. A-
  74. Alex Chilton: Ocean Club '77 (Norton '15): Chilton's 1977 NYC residency fell apart before the year was over, but it began on a high--the young punk/alt godfather gigging amongst us, nowhere more mythically than at his February 21-22 engagement at Mickey Ruskin's short-lived, way-downtown successor to Max's Kansas City. I attended the first of these shows, and it was incandescent--jammed, noisy, charged with ambient adrenaline. Even a quality recording like this one can't capture such an up, but you can definitely hear a more raucous, confident, and engaged Chilton than was his quirky norm. The 16-song set leads with the brand new "All of the Time," includes five loud Big Star covers plus a rough-hewn reading of the Box Tops smash "The Letter," introduces Chilton's great nonhit "My Rival," and covers the Ventures, the Beach Boys, the Seeds, and Chuck Berry's "Memphis." Cult history is being made. Of course we were psyched. A-
  75. Serengeti: Dennis 6e (People '18): The biracial Chicago rapper born David Cohn is so prolific I can't claim to have kept up--multiple plays of 2016's Doctor My Own Patience and 2018's To the Max didn't nail down his shifting persona hard enough to keep me plugging. But though Kenny Dennis, the rapping telephone repairman who is Cohn's best-known creation, has gone through many phases of a biography I wouldn't dare summarize, he's such a mensch he always feels earthbound. On this supposed farewell to Kenny--"You can't do Jason Part 23. They stopped Jason at, like, nine," Geti has claimed--continuity is simulated and reinforced by the textured electronics of Minneapolis rap-rocker Andrew Broder, a/k/a Fog. Disconsolate and alone in Orlando as memories of his lost Jueles "come back like winter clothes," aging white guy Kenny contends with bad knees and a dislocated shoulder, name-checks Steely Dan and Judge Mathis, disses drug dependency and 40-minute smoke breaks, rips a letter to shreds, and consigns unnamed rappers to landfill. After warning that he will jam you up if you bite his style, he closes by rhyming "sorry," "Atari," "calamari," and "Maori." A-
  76. Bob Mould: Sunshine Rock (Merge)

And It Don't Stop, Jan. 26, 2020

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