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.

Dean's List: 2021

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  1. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Barn (Reprise): In case you haven't been keeping track, I have. It's a full dozen years since the once inexhaustible Young released an album of new songs worth hearing: Fork in the Road, his eco-car statement back when his passion was a revamped Continental that got 100 miles per gallon on "domestic green fuel" and Crazy Horse could thud along like it was old times. Here Crazy Horse is quieter and gentler as the green consciousness their boss embraced as of 2003's Greendale turns ever more militant and also, unfortunately but fittingly, much darker: "Canerican" is defiantly bipatriotic, "Change Ain't Never Gonna" takes direct aim at the yahoo yokels whose side he's always tried to see, and "Today's People" blames those people for killing the planet and "the children of the fires and floods" who'll go out with it. There's relief in the credible romantic passion of "Tumblin' Through the Years" and "Don't Forget Love." But the full-bore astonishment is the penultimate 8:28 "Welcome Back": "Gonna sing an old song to you right now/One that you heard before/Might be a window to your soul I can open slowly/I've been singing this way for so long," it goes, and that's just the vocal. What convinces you he means it is the guitar, so quiet and caring it feels like love. A
  2. The Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel Band: Both Ways (Bandcamp): Recorded in 2017 with Stampfel's voice undiminished, this 22-track double album is available only via Lewis's Bandcamp page. It reprises many Stampfel & Antonia chestnuts while introducing many new Lewis songs, some of which cop melodies from such sources as Jimmy Driftwood, the Searchers, Cyndi Lauper, Anthology of American Folk Music, and a Stampfel banjo fantasia. Then there are covers of such arcana as Hawkwind's "Orgone Accumulator," Autosalvage's "Same White Light," (Lou Reed and) the Beachnuts' "Cycle Annie," and retrofitted ditties from the life list in Stampfel's memory book. The Lauper steal "True Tax Forms" addresses a now deposed president. "Heroin" is repurposed with lyrics that merit the stark title "Internet" before "Marquee Moon" is covered straight next track. And the opener is an every-which-way musical manifesto the rest of this curated, offhand hodgepodge embodies like there's no tomorrow on the off chance that there may be one. A
  3. Spillage Village: Spilligion (Dreamville/SinceThe80s/Interscope '20): The only previous album by this Atlanta collective was 2016's beguilingly titled and indeed conceived Bears Like This Too Much, but as Covid came down they reconvened in a house owned by rapper C.I.D. I knew only rapper 6lack, whose 2019 album had the good taste to carry his daughter in a snugli on the cover, and warm-hearted Mereba, who closed it out by blaming his adolescent sins on his male upbringing. After an opening skit where Georgia comic Kountry Wayne explains that Jesus "was crazy as a razor-blade necktie, but he was a master manipulator, so people got behind him," a gospel feel infuses this music. Mereba's "PsalmSing" is uplifting without acting all grand about it and followed directly by the quick-lipped J.I.D. feature "Ea'alah," which somehow moves from "smokin' big gas inside this muthafucker dawg" to prayers for his family to Jonny Venus's understandably cynical projections of who'll get plague treatment first. Then themes get ecumenical: "Judas," "Oshun," "Cupid," "Shiva," and, uh-oh, "End of Daze." But that's not the end. This congregation piles resources on top of resources. Share them. A
  4. Olivia Rodrigo: Sour (Geffen): This manifestly competent 18-year-old actress has a two-boyfriend romantic history dating back to 2018 that pop aesthetes who avoid the Disney channel can just Google--both, unsurprisingly, with actors a year or two older than she is. Also unsurprisingly, she's gorgeous. But that's never stopped women from worrying that their bodies aren't "perfect," which along with other inevitable insecurities was enough to fuel an exquisite teen-breakup concept album produced by 38-year-old helper bunny Daniel Nigro. Again and again dainty melodies meet big drums and are only stronger for it as every simple word comes clear. She doesn't drink yet but knows how he likes his coffee and let's bet her own; she says "fuck" and "bullshit," the latter to modify "eternal love." Though he did the driving let's also bet he gave her some of the lessons that flowered into her first megahit even if she still can't really, in everybody's favorite trope, parallel park. But when he transfers his attentions to "someone more exciting," it's Olivia's jokes he's telling, Olivia's Billy Joel he's playing. And for a transcendent finale she leaves her own pain behind and sends her very best to an abused boy she knew when they were small and a middle school friend with parents who "hated who she loved." A
  5. Burnt Sugar/The Arkestra Chamber: Angels Over Oakanda (CDBaby): It was only when I witnessed Greg Tate deploying more brains and heart than any of the other star commentators who render the Miles Davis documentary Birth of the Cool such food for thought that I realized I'd been flummoxed by his 20-year-old band's latest release because it honored '70s Miles, on sheer electricity always a key influence but never before adduced with such revisionist reverence. Here be two tracks of free and two of vamp, neither loud much less abrasive, in a 39-minute gambol we might as well call an Agartha offshoot that aspires to the listenability of In a Silent Way. Tate may have had nothing of the sort in mind, but he won't mind if you do. The only trumpet is Lewis "Flip" Barnes's in the opener. Miles didn't play that much trumpet back then himself. A
  6. Peter Stampfel: Peter Stampfel's 20th Century in 100 Songs (Louisiana Red Hot): See A Century in Four Hours and Forty Minutes. A
  7. tUnE-yArDs: Sketchy (4AD): More forceful yet more lyrical than ever, Merrill Garbus's fifth album since she broke in at 30 is her and fully vetted bassist Nate Brenner's most aesthetically willful yet listener-friendly so far--to put it plainly, their very best. Never shy, never overbearing, its soundscape is less irregular without smoothing the jaggedy rhythms over and its lyrics skirt specificity nicely as they honor a dying planet. While it's true that "Homewrecker" could well be an actual real estate guy, "My Neighbor" is simply an "enemy" and both old and female at that--one who ultimately inspires the cooed refrain "Let me love, let me love, let me love, let me love." The keystone is "Hold Myself," where the parents who "betrayed us even when they tried" are all the reason a 42-year-old needs to remain childless. Or are they? A
  8. Illuminati Hotties: Let Me Do One More (Snack Shack Tracks/Hopeless): For the first half the Sarah Tudzin we were waiting for proves kind of amazing--one song after another lays out a desperately giddy life of pool hopping in pursuit of a clean rebound, consulting a shaman in Ojai, and abjuring the bottled spit at the corner store. Though she calms down second half, because you're rooting for her that proves more a relief than a letup. Throughout she's a brave, manic, supersmart indie-girl auteur who not only wants love but has a fair idea of what it is: "You're leaning in/I'm leaning out/You think that you could love me through the sway?" Or wait a second while she makes that: "I'm leaning in/You're leaning away/You think that you could love me through the sway?" A
  9. Low Cut Connie: Tough Cookies: Best of the Quarantine Broadcasts (Contender): Even during lockdown I remained a record man, with little interest in DIY livestreams. But Adam Weiner, whose band I talked up for years before they somehow evolved into the hardest-working draw on the theater circuit, survived the live-music drought bigger and better than ever with his indefatigable Tough Cookies series, which he often augmented with sub-celebrity interviewees from Richard Hell to Hunter Biden. This musical cherry-pick of those 101 shows encapsulates their enthusiasm and charm. Sometimes performing in his underwear and always accompanied by Low Cut Connie's Will Donnelly, whose command of an encyclopedic panoply of hard-strumming guitar intros makes the music move, Weiner never fails to project smarts and heart, and these 23 tracks document his range and chutzpah. Beginning with a "West End Blues" where Weiner sings the trumpet part and ending with a deeply felt cover of Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again," his selections showcase his open range and big-hearted intelligence. An exceptionally fluent and percussive piano player if only a committed singer, he gives every selection including a "Kaddish" in Hebrew his all. Not counting the Armstrong-JB-Wings-Prince kickoff, my favorite sequence follows a pained version of Springsteen's "American Skin"--"This song was written over 20 years ago," he reminds George Floyd's mourners--with material that originated with Cardi B, Chic, Donna Summer, Grandmaster Flash, and the Weather Girls. Hava nagila. A
  10. Nathan Bell: Red, White and American Blues (It Couldn't Happen Here) (Need to Know): This Chattanooga-based 61-year-old former AT&T middle exec and son of Iowa's first poet laureate was as unknown to me as his dad until this instant keeper came in the mail. A bunch of albums boiled down to a 46-song Spotify playlist that includes such convincers as the Rust Belt "Stamping Metal," the Fenway "Ballad of Bill 'Spaceman' Lee," and the gay marriage hymn "Really Truly" will hold your attention. But from an "Angola Prison" sung by a sufferer who'll leave that hell on his back to "Folding Money"'s "Jesus don't like your folding money or the way you use his name," this album is better still. Between a talky drawl less than pretty and more than articulate, an acoustic guitar worthy of an ace rhythm section, and the likes of Patty Griffin and Regina McCrary sweetening here and there, the music has so much bite that calling it Americana would be a flat-out lie. One of Griffin's features is narrated by a .44 Magnum. Lightnin' Hopkins never plays a note "without the money in his hand." A whole gruesome bunch of "poor," "sorry," "crazy," "dumb," "busy," "lazy," "angry," and "useless" "motherfuckers" are "high on meth and Jesus" and "running on the razor like it didn't have an edge." Inspirational Verse: "We are taking our lives one day at a time/With bullets and useless poetry/Soon we will be burning together in red, white, and blue/Burn, baby, burn." A
  11. Carly Pearce: 29 (Big Machine): See review of 29: Written in Stone. A
  12. The Front Bottoms: In Sickness and in Flames (Fueled by Ramen '20): After a decade-plus of predicating his art on a changeable love life, now thirtysomething Brian Sella endures more romantic angst, thinks about it, and grows up, germinating a complex, changeable, catchy succession of songs that create the probably not altogether factual impression that his entire adult life has been one up-and-down hookup. "Everyone blooms in their own time," the opener begins. But in "Montgomery Forever," the permanence of this union is challenged by the demolition of the Jersey City housing project where they once resided--and also, well, that other guy she met. Yet soon enough "The Truth" ignites the invaluable axiom "You are the truth I choose to bend myself around." In other words: "I do it like that because that's the way my baby likes it," singing lessons included. So as the finale swears: "We're both going to the same place/Just at very different speeds." A
  13. Sleater-Kinney: Path of Wellness (Mom + Pop): As a Janet Weiss lifer, I'm surprised to conclude that Corrie and Corin are better off without her. A quarter century on, both needed room to stretch out moodwise as well as musicwise, although there's definitely that--would you believe that occasionally this album is, well, bouncy? (How about listenable?) In this moment in their and our parallel histories they need as much room as their skill sets can accommodate whether addressing love's vagaries--which are doubly various when one of you has stuck with a single domestic partner for decades and the other hasn't. Then there's the problem of understanding how a home city whose laid-back hipness the right multi-talent could spend eight TV seasons satirizing turned into a culture-war war zone. The love songs concocted by the changeable Brownstein outnumber those of the stabler Tucker, sharp from the infatuated "High in the Grass" to the try-a-little-tenderness "Method" to the sardonic "Complex Female Characters" no matter how loudly Tucker's "Worry With You" resonates with more settled fans. As for Portlandia, the fragmentary "No Knives" evokes the p.c. quirks that from "Favorite Neighbor" to "Bring Mercy" are forgiven and all but forgotten as evildoers assault its tolerant streets. A
  14. Chuck Berry: Live From Blueberry Hill (Dualtone): This surprising album was culled from around when the man who invented teenagers was 80: the 2005-2006 run of the 209 monthly shows Berry played between 1996 and 2014 in St. Louis's sold-out 340-capacity Blueberry Hill. True, there are scads of live Chuck Berry albums. But most of them are bootlegs or close to it, and the legit likes of the 1967 Fillmore one, the 1969 Toronto one, and the 1972 London one are haphazard and raggedy-ass except for the soundtrack to the valiant 1987 Keith Richards-Taylor Hackford concert documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, with Etta James and Robert Cray right at home and Linda Ronstadt and Julian Lennon sincerely overwhelmed. But where back then he was still playing the sly bad boy, and making it work for him too, two decades later he's become something new and arresting: a puissant old man whose voice has roughened without a hint of frailty singing teen songs he devised when he was a much more puissant young man. Having never stopped loving his art whatever his personal failings, I rate this a crucial addition to what I damn well call his oeuvre. His son Charles Jr. plays creditable second guitar, his daughter Ingrid adds harmonica, and while the locals on piano and drums obviously aren't Johnny Johnson or Fred Belew, they've clearly lived this music. Sure the album reprises some obvious classics, but it also revives the campaign-shouting "Nadine" and elevates the minor "Little Queenie" and juices the payday anthem "Let It Rock" and, how about that, justifies 1973's premature "Bio": "Can't help it but I love it/Stand here, sing to you/Brings back so many memories/Many things we used to do." A
  15. Chai: Wink (Sub Pop): Initially the Ramones fan in me wished this was more like Punk. But prodded by the women in my life, I softened, first because there's more punk here than meets the ears and then because in music more textural than tuneful the textures themselves can turn catchy before you know it. And then there are lyrics split between Japanese so cute and onomatopoiec they're ear candy and English so cute and smart they're mind food. "I'm in the mood for love/I'm in the mood for love you." "We need five minutes of love/Please eat before I cool down." "I know you said pink is too young/But I know you like this beat so much." "No one knows that we are smart!" But someday they will! Am I right, ladies? A-
  16. Body Meta: The Work Is Slow (Hausu Mountain): With nary a trumpet or keyboard to be heard, this mood music for a time of perpetual disquiet might be inadequately yet usefully described as evoking both hectic '70s Miles and the weird tranquility of Hassell & Eno. Bassist Melvin Gibbs anchors and calms, drummer Greg Fox drives and disrupts, and providing the atmosphere, continuity, identity, and theme statements that will keep you listening are guitarists Grey McMurry and Sasha Frere-Jones. From Big Lazy to 75 Dollar Bill, other distant analogies also present themselves. But this is more complex than any of 'em--and save Hassell & Eno mellower too. A
  17. Billie Eilish: Happier Than Ever (Darkroom/Interscope): Because she enjoyed the incomparable distinction and suffered the incomprehensible burden of sweeping the Grammys at 17, ordinary life will be out of her reach for a long time. So unless and until she elects to go public with romantic encounters I hope she enjoys and applaud her for concealing via "NDA," quote unquote because "NDA" is an actual song title here, that leaves her with one subject: stardom and its discontents, a privilege and dilemma it would seem impossible to say anything new much less interesting about. Only then out of sheer candor she does. "Things I once enjoyed/Just keep me employed now/Things I'm longing for/Someday I'll be bored of/It's so weird/That we care so much until we don't." Nor is this the only new truism she pulls out of her thoughtstream. How about "I sure have a knack for seeing life more like a child"? Or the meditation on the objectified female body that is "Not My Responsibility"? No wonder the music Finneas comes up with for her is calmer and less sprightly than the stuff that converted the world. But because I'm old enough to feel both concern for a youngster's well-being and awe at her unguarded resourcefulness, that's fine with me. Let's hope her fellow teens feel the same. A
  18. R.A.P. Ferreira: Purple Moonlight Pages (Ruby Yacht '20): Bad on me for missing Roy Allen Philip when he was rapping as Milo pre-Trump and promise I'll address that omission sometime, as only befits a sui generis Omar Khayyam fan whose return to the lists begins "Fence-building nihilists, good evening/This is the late-sleeping utopian speaking" and whose young son stares with "them wide ol' eyes" as "I scoop socks calmly from under chairs" in a rap with the striking title "Laundry." Son of Chicago South Siders who spent his childhood in Maine and his adolescence with his dad in none other than Kenosha, Wisconsin, then returned to the precincts where his social worker mom maintains a blog called Black Girl in Maine, Roy's not a great rhymer-as-rhymer. Nor is he especially hooky or at all danceable as he free-forms over a striking, changeable jazz-inflected rhythm section curated by Serengeti pal Kenny Segal. As a "king poetical dingbat" and "prince of the corduroy coons," he observes: "Professional rappers often only heard post-mortem/Perhaps try trade school, electrician training seems prescient" (which I should mention will soon assonate with "hesitant"). His motto "No starvin' artists/Just artists starvin' to know," a member in good standing of "The United Defenders of International Good Will," he does his best to enjoy the occasional "vegan white cheddar please panini croissant" as he follows advice he once came across on a bathroom wall: "to be the eyes, the ears, and the consciousness of the creator of the universe." A
  19. Lori McKenna: Christmas Is Right Here (CN/Thirty Tigers): Braver, sadder, and of course more positive than the Pistol Annies' half-sassed seasonal placemat, this would be the best album of new Christmas songs in years if it wasn't an EP, so let's just say it is anyway. Since few songwriters have extracted more detail from family life, why shouldn't McKenna generate her personal holiday catalogue? And since few are more modest, why shouldn't she dwarf the PaulMcCartney opener with five of her own? "There isn't one un'Grateful' bone in my body," she's lucky and caring enough to swear at the close. But because we've all seen death, "Even if you wouldn't change one single thing about your life/It's a matter of time, you can't make it through Christmas Without Crying." When you're stuck in Nashville in December, the family you have in Texas and Georgia might as well live at the "North Pole." And "Hail Mary" means to remind us just how hard is is for any mother to watch her son go off on his own. A
  20. Sacred Soul of North Carolina (Bible & Tire/Music Maker Foundation): Recorded just pre-pandemic, featuring mostly artists from Greenville, the 90,000-strong urban center of the east North Carolina KKK stronghold of Pitt County, this 18-track collection is almost as striking as the same label's 2020 Hanging Tree Guitars. Their forebears go back to the Mitchell Christian Singers, who represented for gospel at John Hammond's 1938 Carnegie Hall Spirituals to Swing do. And indeed, most of these groups--only three solo artists including the woman who closes things out with an unsurprising, unaccompanied "Amazing Grace"--have been at it professionally if not therefore fulltime for 30, 40, 50 years, and their songs tend traditional. But the joyful life of these titles, many of which feel familiar to me even though they don't show up in my iTunes, is convincing, irresistible, a guaranteed up. Credit at least some of their energy to the well-miked drums that back almost every track, particularly Phillip Johnson on "Trying to Make It" and the stalwart Jahiem Daniels on Johnny Ray Daniels's "Somewhere to Lay My Head." A
  21. Joseph Spence: Encore: Unheard Recordings of Bahamian Guitar and Singing (Smithsonian/Folkways): Although it opens with two signature tunes, "Out on the Rolling Sea" and "Won't That Be a Happy Time," most of these titles are not yet in the canon of the miraculous Spence, a sui generis West Indies stylist whose congenial accent, grunted hums, gargled embellishments, and now-treble now-bass picking render him as irresistible for me as any blues icon this side of John Hurt. Some of them are classics: the good-enough-for-me hymn-cum-jubilee-song "Give Me That Old Time Religion," the study-war-no-more hymn-cum-protest-song "Down by the Riverside," the infinitely coverable Benny Goodman hit "The Glory of Love," the Belafonte as opposed to Beyoncé "Brown Skin Girl." Others--the loosely anchored "In Times Like These," the God-seeking "Death and the Woman"--probably should be. Miraculously only maybe Spence was the miracle, all but two were recorded during a single May 1965 New York City weekend. A
  22. Morgan Wade: Reckless (Ladylike): Unlikely as it seems just because the claim is so extreme (but hey, where's the competition?), this is the most sexually explicit country record I've ever heard. She wants to love and she wants to fuck, on the kitchen floor if that's the way things go. The partners are multiple to an indeterminate degree, the pleasure quotient convincing and subsidiary to a passion quotient that is often subsidiary to a solace quotient. All of which seems suitable to a 27-year-old now ready to try again with someone who may be Mr. Right and may not: "You knew my skin back before I had all these tattoos/You remember me on late nights strung out on pills and booze." "Won't you bring yourself on home?" "Northern Air" implores. But if he'd prefer she'll just "drive all night to be there." A
  23. Kalie Shorr: I Got Here by Accident (Kalie Shorr): Do not get into a catfight with this woman, a dogfight either. With a mouth like that she'd tear you to shreds. "He wasn't over me when you were under him." "I heard you got a girl . . . pregnant." "I hate the way I love the way this feels." "Seven half brothers and sisters/With our glasses all half filled." "I don't have a fast car/But I'll fuckin' find one/If you need to get away." That's a snippet apiece from the five songs here, not one of which I've given away. She's a state-of-Mainer who not only namechecks Woodstock and references Nirvana but took both to the Nashville where she's seeking a fortune I hope she can handle. A
  24. Sarah Mary Chadwick: Me and Ennui Are Friends, Baby (Ba Da Bing!): Although there are two longterm relationships on the biographical record of this 37-year-old Kiwi-turned-Aussie, it's not just tempting but fair to hear these new songs recorded solo in one day on the Yamaha in her living room autobiographically--even to assume that each one addresses a new lover, factual or imaginary. Nor is love sweet even when it's fond, which isn't often--although she's catchier and funnier than on her two earlier albums, the mood is stark, sharp, arresting. Her harsh contralto talky, her pragmatic tunes getting the job done, Chadwick insists that you attend to the lyrics of an intelligent soul who's made her rough peace with cynicism, depression, and worse. "I'll turn you on you turn me out/She'll pick you up I'll lay you down." "I choose torture over dreaming/I choose torture over dreaming/I crawl into your mind when you're sleeping/You're so facile you're a demon." "That feeling when everything's falling apart/That feeling when no one knows their lines by heart." And believe me, she can go on. A-
  25. James McMurtry: The Horses and the Hounds (New West): McMurtry turns 60 next March, and on his first album since 2015's superb Complicated Game, he's feeling it, but as usual not from the usual angles. In the opener he makes out on a Brooklyn bus with that San Jose chick he never got to hook up: "Cashing in on a 30-year crush/You can't be young and do that." But in the honeymoon gone awry later on his worst problem comes up three times at least: "I keep losing my glasses." That's also where he wonders "How're they gonna build a wall with no Mexicans anyway," which goes with the one where wars are now called "operations" and nobody notices because they're not on TV and also because "The country boys will do the fighting/Now that fighting's all a country boy can do." Meet as well Jackie, who feeds the horses she loves by driving a truck until she hits a patch of black ice, or the broke farmer who gets so drunk he guns down a luckier friend. As usual if less often than we might hope, double guitars over an unmistakable four-four carry a declarative baritone that could belong to a 40-year-old--one you should be glad is disciplined enough to record only when he's sure he has a whole album in his kit. A-
  26. Khaira Arby: New York Live (Clermont Music): New York doesn't mean Central Park, the Beacon, even Webster Hall. It's Annandale-on-Hudson, home of Bard College and just south of her American benefactors at Germantown's high-principled Clermont Music label. Arby is the the Timbuktu-based Tuareg-Songhai powerhouse who courageously headlined the 2012 Festival au Desert as jihadists bore down on her hometown, was exiled in Bamako before returning home in 2015, then died at only 58 in 2018. As the Festival records suggest, she put out live with an intensity she wasn't moved to match in the studio, so this is a treasure. What a foghorn. What a believer. What a band to push her all the way, with special props to guitarist Dramane Toure, who wrecks one called "Salou." A-
  27. The Plastic People of the Universe: Apokalyptickej Pták (Galén '18): PPU chronicler Joe Yanosik alerted me to this 2018 outlier, still findable with a second pressing expected, by the brave Czech Velvets and Mothers fans whose counterculturalism was far too perilous and thought through to belittle with the term "hippie." It's the most shambolic of the four long-players I've heard, but that only enhances its likability, and the disorder has documentary bite: recorded in 1976 at the last concert they played before being locked up for "organized disturbance of the peace," it embodies the antic, inebriated spirit with which they resisted a government whose iron fist was sheathed in a strait-laced priggishness that was so un-Czech. Saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec's title tune is but one musical highlight of a performance only enhanced by two silences up front and audible crowd chatter throughout. So boisterous. So anti-totalitarian. A-
  28. Dry Cleaning: Sweet Princess EP (It's OK '19): Call them the Gang of Four of everyday life, not as thrilling or virtuosic but still arrestingly angular up against spoken Florence Shaw lyrics that sound like found prose poems, sometimes because that's precisely what they are--store signs and headlines catalogued for a rainy day, street harangues, Meghan Markle stories you can't shake, missing your grandmother, missing your dead cat even more. A
  29. Anansy Cissé: Anoura (Riverboat): In 2014, this Timbuktu-based Songhai guitarist-vocalist debuted with Mali Overdrive, a more than respectable, not quite riveting traversal of the harsh, soulful byways of rock-inflected, Tuareg-dominated desert blues. He'd already begun this follow-up when en route to a 2018 peace conference he was accosted and detained by thugs who destroyed his instruments, which you can see might set him back a little. But shored up by time and fatherhood he recovered, and the result is this spiritual-sounding album--still desert blues, but softened with an airy sweetness that recalls no close parallels. If you're not entranced by the opening sequence, sweetly keened "Tiawo" to smoothly grooveful "Foussa Foussa" to quietly raucous "Tiara," keep going. You'll get there. A-
  30. Onetwothree: Onetwothree (Kill Rock Stars): The most musically prominent of this newly constituted trio of female Swiss bassists is Klaudia Schifferle, who as Klaudia Schiff anchored the legendary Rough Trade proto-grrrlpunk Kleenex until Kimberly-Clark forced them to rename themselves Liliput. Somewhat surprisingly, they evoke without imitating the abrupt, sexy, cockeyed, herky-jerk whimsy of that legendary band, and not only that: direct comparison with disc two of Liliput's complete works establishes that while late Liliput were certainly more original--that was four decades ago, before we sussed how many bands would strip down, gussy up, speed up, slow down, poppify, funkify, aggrandize, politicize, depoliticize, feminize, phallicize, and otherwise fuck with musical tactics that felt so pure and absolute coming from the Ramones and the Sniffin' Glue subscription list--Onetwothree are on average more fetching, more varied, and more literary. Schifferle is the most prominent voice. "Buy Buy" best evokes the Liliput sound. The subject of the six-minute closer "Things" is more or less everything. A-
  31. Dave: Psychodrama (Neighbourhood '19): London-based Nigerian rapper David Orobosa Omoregie has quite a history. When he was an infant his clergyman father was marooned in Africa in a snarl of immigration snafu, religio-political sectarianism, and marital dysfunction. One brother was sentenced to life in a gang murder and another has done time for bank fraud. Dave himself, however, is a piano-playing paragon who took law and philosophy classes while studying sound design in college and won a Mercury Prize for this debut studio album. Its beats orchestrally and/or electronically embellished piano riffs, its lyrics intelligible, thoughtful, calm, sometimes even gentle, it's framed as a course of psychotherapy spanning 2018, when Dave turned 20. He has plenty of perspective: "You see our gold chains and our flashy cars/I see a lack of self-worth and I see battle scars" is an observation both wise and cocky for a debut album, and though he's a rapper first, cameos from knife-wielding London rapper J Hus, Afro-fusion luminary Burna Boy, and Nashville up-and-comer Ruelle suggest the breadth of his self-conception. Exactly how compelling he can be musically remains an open question. But the climactic tragedy "Lesley" definitely points him in the right direction. A-
  32. Lucy Dacus: Home Video (Matador): Having slotted Dacus as a don't-get-her rather than can't-stand-her, I liked this one so much I checked back to No Burden and Historian, both of which I'd found too static, and decided there'd been more there than I'd thought, although Historian opener "Night Shift," for instance, is a great song only if ones that don't move much count. Without once rocking out, album three definitely moves. From "Hot and Heavy"'s basement dalliance with a gem who only got brighter to "Please Stay"'s "Quit your job, cut your hair, get a dog" suicide watch, these verbally and musically detailed reminiscences of an alienated ex-Christian get me going. As a committed backslider who knows "VBS" stands for Vacation Bible School, I find her religious apostasy especially useful and poignant. But "Thumbs," in which she clutches the hand of the friend/lover who's face-to-face with her dad for the first time since fifth grade, is also pretty intense. And there's more. A-
  33. Paris: Safe Space Invader (Guerrilla Funk '20): UC Davis economics B.A. turned gruffly revolutionary Bay Area rapper turned successful stockbroker Oscar Davis Jr. remains so outraged by racism that he continues to advocate violence; "Say fuck that demonstratin'/Let's mob and run up on 'em/No time for contemplatin'/Payback with chrome and dome 'em" is just one of many examples. Especially given who owns the guns in these Second Amendment-perverting days, I have plenty of doubts about this strategy, which he lays out fiercely enough to convince me he might mean it literally. But as rhetoric and expression it's won me over. This man is very smart and incorporates many relevant texts: Farrakhan and Yellowman I can ID, but where'd he find that '20s-sounding "Coonin', coonin'" or the Jamaican "World in trouble" intro to "Walk Like a Panther," which tosses a trenchant trap rap putdown into the bargain? So while initially what I treasured here was the brutal Trump dis "Baby Man Hands," now I prefer the stage-muttered one that includes "It ain't no black people left in Oakland/It ain't no black people left in San Francisco/And we all know that none of this is accidental" and goes on from there. Very, very smart. Always was. A-
  34. Juice Wrld: Legends Never Die (Grade A/Interscope '20): "I can't breathe I'm waiting for the exhale": well before George Floyd turned Eric Garner's last words into a metonym for racism, this 21-year-old Chicago rapper who apparently OD'd swallowing evidence as cops breached his private jet was uttering them with a difference. Beset by chokeholds, Floyd and Garner were deprived of oxygen; beset by anxiety, Jarad Higgins was deprived of ease. However effortless his tuneful rivulets of pitch-corrected singsong, however proud his talent and earned his success, he was frightened and insecure underneath. This kind of torment always has a biochemical component and afflicts humans of every background. But how can it not be exacerbated by systemic racism? Many rappers admit that it afflicts them to one extent or other. But Juice Wrld put it front and center, and for me that renders his melodies more likable and his art uncommonly affecting--I feel for this drug abuser and enjoy his music more as a result. Materially, he did quite well for himself during his brief lifetime. But he was honest and decent enough to deserve better. A-
  35. Dave: We're All Alone in This Together (Dave/Neighbourhood): Since music per se isn't what this prize-winning artist is selling or his wide-ranging admirers are buying, let me insist that Dave's quietly grand, steadily melodic keyboard parts and calm, assured percussion figures are crucial in holding his long strings of off-rhymes together: torcher-corner-baller-aura-pauper-daughter-slaughter-borer-flora-stalk us-order-insurer-water-orca, whew. He collaborates all over the map, ranging from big-talking South London rappers who stoke his unfortunate appetite for luxury timepieces to, for instance, James Blake, Jorja Smith, and Dutch singer-songwriter Anouk, and I could go on. But he's also candid about the crippling anxieties that can ensue when your brothers are criminals and your mother nearly died giving you life. And surprised though he is to be shagging Tories and falling in love with an Albanian, cultural breadth is just part of his mission. Of course he's down with his African and West Indian brethren. But he's almost as appalled by how fucked post-Brexit Britannia's Middle Eastern and Eastern European immigrants are. A-
  36. Courtney Barnett: Things Take Time, Take Time (Mom + Pop): Not to get too esoteric on you, but Barnett reminds me of Perry Como, who crooned exactly 100 hits in pre-rock 'n' roll 1943-1954 and kept going till 1960 and beyond, including a number-two 1955 cover of Gene and Eunice's "Ko Ko Mo" and the number-one 1956 teen-targeted "Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)." Como hosted his long-running TV show in a cardigan, was married to the same woman for 65 years, and died of Alzheimer's complications in 2001, and though as a kid I thought he was boring, I now admire how likable and decent he was. I enjoy the same traits in Barnett even more because unlike Como she never pretends the world is easy, which is certainly one reason that for all her cameos and collabs, this is only her second solo album since 2015's breakthrough Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Barnett's tenuous love life seems unkind only by mishap; her talky, slightly sour pitch suits melodies that don't come easy. Watching the world burn doesn't stop her from noticing trees turn green which doesn't distract her from the ones that are nothing but char. She congratulates one friend on her or his new place and asks another "Are you good? Are you eating?/I'll call you back next week." Is she actually such a mensch? It's impossible to be sure. But she definitely makes it sound that way. A-
  37. Hayes Carll: You Get It All (Dualtone): The opener is the jauntiest climate-change song you ever heard, only then two tracks later comes one so depressive you think about shutting the whole album down, only upon reflection you realize that in between there's a marriage song that melds both modes and also that the depressive one nails that mindstate without lionizing or minimizing it. In toto, a perfect triptych, though thereafter the album is merely mortal even if the bitter Brandy Clark duet "In the Mean Time," the sweet-and-sour "The Way I Love You," and a sanely fatalistic double finale I was relieved to see bore an Allison Moorer credit are quite all right. A-
  38. Gift of Gab: Finding Inspiration Somehow (Nature Sounds): The brainy Blackalicious frontman died at 50 in June, but he went out flying and grounded at the same time--glad to be alive and knowing death might be in the offing, which you can tell because "kidney failure" is such a rare turn of phrase in the popular music canon. Riding beats designed to flow not signify, "Gentrification" revisits a ruined-because-rehabbed hood where "money took the place of love" and "You Gon' Make It in the End" fuses firm moralism with irrepressible affection as he maps the foibles of friends he swears have better in store. "The Idea of America" is one he knows will remain only an idea until its citizens remember that Texas used to be Mexico and our new president is an "American-born Iraqi." "A Weekend in Venice" relives a dream romance. "Back to the Light" makes a pass at the universe itself. A-
  39. Mereba: Azeb (Interscope): Having gotten the drift of this 31-year-old half-Ethiopian Stevie Wonder find as the placid oversoul of Atlanta's wacky Spillage Village collective, I initially thought her EP was overdoing the calm bit, but I got over it. Singing love or lust, sporting Chucks or blunts, preaching agape or rank injustice, she softens the edges of her first longish player since 2016 until you find yourself first appreciating and then almost craving their balm. A-
  40. Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg (4AD): Gang of Four remains more a precedent here than Wire or the Fall (or Mannequin Pussy). But while the clean lines and d'void of funk propulsion are conscious aesthetic choices, those choices are rooted not just in the musicians' tastes but their abilities. And at a higher level the same goes for Florence Shaw's simultaneously plainspoken and poetic lyrics, so that sometimes they merge the quotidian and the surreal and sometimes they just smoosh them up to no notable aesthetic effect. Me, I'm not always a fan of her cool, preferring "Would you choose a dentist with a messy back garden like that?" to "An exhausting walk in the horrible countryside" as I do. But I'm fine with her rhyming vaguely related buzzwords in "Scratchcard Lanyard" or documenting the tiny one-sided cellphone convo "Call Ronny/What've you been up to?/Cool./Yeah." The closer is the relatively epic and also climactic "Every Day Carry," which A-lists not such useful items as flashlights, notebooks, and lethal weapons but such objects, behaviors, and raw abstractions as onions, orchids, diodes, existential crises, chocolate chip cookies, and best friends forever. It goes on for seven finalizing minutes. A-
  41. Joe Fahey: February on Ice (Rough Fish): Twin Cities lifer Fahey hits the bullseye twice with the same song, the explicitly ecological "Dante's Inferno," which serves as both Crazy Horse-style opener and solo-acoustic closer: "What are you gonna do when the glaciers flood your basement?/What are you gonna do when you have to answer to Al Gore?" That plus its life's companion we wish would grow old, the long overdue cheap shot "Fuck the Republicans," would certainly inspire a guy to get his album on, especially with good ones that aren't filler themselves close at hand. "Day Drinking With Dracula," for instance, is a joke that comes easy. "I Feel So Alone Now" is so bereft you'll feel a touch bereft yourself if you can just keep listening. A-
  42. Thomas Anderson: Ladies and Germs (Out There): Not for nothing does this perpetually undefeated Austin singer-songwriter's BMI handle remain Angry Young Grad Student Music. On this 13-track item with a pandemic title no one will ever top, his mild voice and deft multitracking delivers his best set of songs since his 1990 debut "Alright It Was Frank--And He's Risen From the Dead and Gone Off With His Truck" and certainly his most varied subject-wise. Cinderella's stardom gets boring pretty quick. Hitler's sister takes his will to court. An oil worker stares down the tornado that's tearing him apart. A hapless meth dealer's head-case honey ODs on acid and disappears down an old zinc mine. A girl of the apocalypse sips some water and dies. And the news from Pompeii continues dire. A-
  43. Lana Del Rey: Chemtrails Over the Country Club (Polydor/Interscope): As an LDR agnostic who's felt uneasy about failing to find the so-called NFR! a masterpiece or LDR sexually alluring as ice queen, hot number, intellectual, or any combination of same, I was delighted to be humming in my head before I'd gotten through this Jack Antonoff production twice. Hooks are far more plentiful here than on most LDR albums, the Antonoff-fueled NFR! included, and unusual ones at that. My favorite is "Down in the Men in Music Business Conference" (FYI there is no such thing--with that literal a name, anyway). Runner-up: "We did it for fun/We did it for free/I did it for you/You did if for me"--and then, right on time, "We did it for the right reasons." But also "I left Calabasas, escaped all the ashes" and "I'm coverin' Joni and I'm dancin' with Joan/Stevie is callin' on the telephone" and "Breakin' up slowly is a hard thing to do" and "I don't wanna live with a life of regret/I don't want to end up like Tammy Wynette." Now that she's connected A-list name-dropping to a love life normal humans can recognize, I can see where guys and gals might get off imagining a dreamy soprano "wearin' the same damn clothes forthree damn days" because "Lincoln, Nebraska got me in a haze." But the humming in my head thing is what matters to me. A-
  44. Mickey Guyton: Remember Her Name (Capitol): Although Guyton co-wrote all 16 of these well-turned songs--among them three rollovers from her 2020 Bridges EP, the Grammy-certified "Black Like Me" of course included--only the unequivocally race-proud "Love My Hair" comes with fewer than two song doctors, most notably former Taylor Swift aide-de-camp Nathan Chapman. So credit Capitol with sharing Guyton's decade-long dream of converting her small-town Texas roots into the big-time Nashville sales that so far aren't materializing. But that doesn't mean I can hear just exactly what's supposed to be country about these tracks, which if anything go heavy on the schlocky as opposed to jazz-lite side of the "adult contemporary" pseudogenre where she had some success pre-"Black Like Me." What I can hear, however, is a nice surprise: material that is genuinely adult and genuinely contemporary, including a cover of Beyonce's "If I Were a Boy" you could almost think she wrote herself. This grown woman makes music out of therapy jargon she knows too well. She trusts herself to keep singing the sparkly "Rosé" after her therapist gets her to quit drinking. She smells smoke on her husband and makes sure it doesn't turn fire. She wants his good, his bad, and his ugly. And soon enough they're spending the evening dancing in the living room. A-
  45. Mach-Hommy: Pray for Haiti (Griselda): Like label head and off-and-on collaborator Westside Gunn, whose input here cultists believe render this the best of more Mach-Hommy albums than I can miscount, the Haitian-American rapper seems to regard what was once called gangsta rap as a fully aestheticized musical tradition ripe for formal exploitation. And on this album that tradition is in flower--every time it announces itself, the synth riff that undergirds the lead "The 26th Letter" cheers me up a little. But it's the verbal content that seals the deal. From the journalistic expose of Haiti's victimization by drug cartels to an academic discussion of regional Creole variants to Westside Pootie's shoe deal, some touches are literally prosaic. But I see no point in resisting "put this .38 in your mouth spit your magnum opus" or the way he rhymes "cornballs with no aesthetic vortex" with "Gore-Tex." Not to mention "every time I heard the voice of God it was a female." A-
  46. Liz Phair: Soberish (Chrysalis): In her first new music since 2010, Phair fashions 13 sturdy and economical if slightly sub-tuneful pop songs from the precisely enunciated affections and anxieties of a serious serial monogamist. In the boldest she assumes the voice of fellow greater Chicagoan Laurie Anderson sick of Lou's Warhol stories: "Oh Superman, I've done as much as I can/You're not the life of the party." In the catchiest, a welcome snatch of "I Want It That Way" softens hard truths about how much he'll miss what they had. In the drunkest, she admits that love at first sight is scary but wishes they could stop "dicking around" even so. A-
  47. Idles: Ultra Mono: Momentary Acceptance of the Self (Partisan '20): Brits-to-the-core faced with a been-there-done-that backlash that's even more tedious from the critical solons of that existentially threatened isle than from our own, the rare band that's made a go of bellowing punk protest at this godforsaken juncture could plausibly be accused of defensive overstatement here and there. But as a creaky old lefty I say bring it on, and am happy to attest that their new songs gain allure till they flower into the superb "Kill Them With Kindness"-"Model Village"-"Ne Touche Pas Moi"-"Carcinogenic" midsection. Inspirational Verse: "You only die once/You'll never come back/You're gone when you're gone/So love what you can." Which is because: "Getting minimum wage while your boss takes a raise/As he lies through his brand new teeth is/Carcinogenic." A-
  48. Carly Pearce: 29: Written in Stone (Big Machine): Since the perfect DL-only 29 EP this inflates into an album is here in three- and four-track chunks and the eight additional songs are OK-plus, my recommended strategy is to buy the album but then mostly play the EP you burn from it. OK-plusses include "Diamondback," about the stone of the album title, "What He Didn't Do," which includes "Treat me right, put me first, be a man of his word," and two drinking songs, both anti. But from the title "29"--"the year that I got married and divorced"--to the post-breakup closer "Day One," which progresses through days 17, 45, and 92, the EP is all about trying again, as for any 29-year-old it should be. A-
  49. Asleep at the Wheel: Half a Hundred Years (Bismeaux): After a 1971 debut I admiringly dubbed subversive, Ray Benson's unprecedented nuevo Western swing band succumbed to twin deficits in songwriting and vocal pizzazz and became merely rather than ironically generic--until, that is, Benson inveigled the highly inveiglable Willie Nelson to join in on a bunch of Western swing classics selected by none other than Jerry Wexler that surfaced in 2009 as Willie and the Wheel, AATW's best album ever including their 2014 live best-of. Then they once again sunk from the view of all but their loyal fanbase and the Austin Better Business Bureau. But no more. Starting with a relaxed Benson title tune that neatly encapsulates their five decades on the road, this new one immediately switches gears into an obscure Jimmy Rushing number called "The Same Old South," written by an NYC songwriter later blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee: "It's a regular children's heaven/Where they don't start to work till they're seven," and also "Let the Northerners keep Niagara/We'll stick to our Southern pellagra." There's also a "Paycheck to Paycheck" as self-explanatory as any union organizer could hope. Both add decisive tone to an album that also features George Strait, Lee Ann Womack, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Gimble, and none other than Willie Nelson. A-
  50. Parquet Courts: Sympathy for Life (Rough Trade): Although both their tunecraft and their stylistic range expand some, this album means to be the musical embodiment as opposed to apotheosis of pandemic anomie. From "Marathon of Anger"'s BLM surge to "Trullo"'s "living inside a house without a brain," they address this anomie as neither tragedy, probably because their personal contact with the afflicted doesn't include anyone who died, nor outrage--just nagging dismay at the cheap denials of the venal and asinine. Clearly their musical ambit continued to widen a little within their self-imposed guitar-band limits (a fan I know hears some Gang of Four here). After all, what else did they have to do in lockdown? Their most inspired new song details the inner life of a rideshare driver because that's who they're getting to meet these days. And to sum up: "It feels like my brain is the binary code's problem now/And I'm not in the mood to be lonely no more." A-
  51. Doja Cat: Planet Her (RCA): "She doesn't write love songs, she writes sex songs," I told my wife, who was liking what she heard. "Good for her," she replied, and given the sprezzatura of this definitely biracial, avowedly ADHD 26-year-old dropout from both Alice Coltrane's ashram and the L.A. Unified School District's performing arts academy, I say yeah. But that as with the Carly Pearce EP-LP split at a more postmodern level of filler manufacture and songwriting savoir-faire, not one of the five add-ons that bulk up the "deluxe" version, now the only one Amazon has on sale, has been released as a single, a fact I determined after I found myself zoning out as my deluxe CD spritzed pornographically on. So as with the Carly Pearce EP, I've burned myself a 14-track original version that has the great virtue of never reminding me of the Weeknd even when he's on it. A-
  52. Emily Duff: Razor Blade Smile (Mr. Mudshow Music): When I played this album up against producer Eric Ambel's Del-Lords so as to comparison-shop the grooves he'd laid on this Flushing-born, punk-sparked, country-steeped roots-rocker, I made a surprising discovery: due to volume drummer Phil Cimino and Duff's own power-twanging vocals, her music moved better. In songs mapping a serial monogamy perpetually doomed to close down and move on, she treasures tenderness, tries not to go to bed mad, and figures "nicotine and waiting" could kill her eventually even so. Not once is she content to settle for an ending that leaves her "flat broke and busted." But that doesn't mean she's figured out a sure-shot way to avoid them. A-
  53. Anthony Joseph: The Rich Are Only Defeated When Running for Their Lives (Heavenly Sweetness): His title long ago devised and explained by Trinidadian C.L.R. James, his poetry right now powered and enriched by Anglo-Barbadian saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and friends, nowhere on these six tracks is Anglo-Trinidadian poet Joseph more affecting or inspiring than delivering the Black-immigrant saga "Calling England Home." Other shards of autobiography enrich that strain. But given James's title Joseph is obliged to politicize as well, and he does so with a will as Guyanese soldiers reap "good U.S. currency" from Jonestown's killing fields and "Swing Praxis" delivers a clincher "in which considering the lack of a truly beautiful violent revolution we establish ourselves as mediums for change, change which must accumulate to maximum impact and speed like rhythm and rhythm is a unit of meaning of feeling of being." A-
  54. Kasai Allstars: Black Ants Always Fly Together, One Bangle Makes No Sound (Crammed Discs): Not so much a group as a conceptual collective in which musicians from Congo's Kasai province, well east of the former Zaire's soukous central in Kinshasa and its gorgeous, flowing, guitaristic groove, have grouped and changed around in five Belgium-fabricated albums since 2007, all more jagged and jumpy than anything dreamt of in Rochereau's philosophy. But the masterminds who conceive these releases do like to mix things up. Where in 2017, Around Felicité included a bonus disc and some Ärvo Part parts, its successor gestures back toward jumpy Congotronics thumb-piano electrobuzz without altogether abandoning Around Felicité's soundtrack aspirations. Try for instance the rather lovely track two, "Olooh, a War Dance for Peace," which the notes inform us is just that: the dancers carry rather than brandish their weapons. Followed by the groovier and more guitaristic "Musungu Elongo Paints His Face White to Scare Small Children." After which comes "Like a Dry Leaf on a Tree," where a street child is the dry leaf and deserves our succor. Repays attention, this album. A-
  55. R.A.P. Ferreira: Bob's Son: R.A.P. Ferreira in the Garden Level Cafe of the Scallops Hotel (Ruby Yacht): Once he has it out with Alexa in a 1:46 opener w/ piano and rhythm section that always tickles me, Ferreira is free to launch a musical poetry jam anchored by shout-outs to African-American Beat forefathers Leroi Jones d/b/a Amiri Baraka ("We are the old men of the rap age"), Ted Joans ("Always take the glasses off for the photographers so I won't look like the rest of 'em"), and cough bombing Bob Kaufman (whose "Abomunist Manifesto" Ferreira converts into a finale). Gregory Corso drops by to say "If you wanna be a poet you can't be/You gotta know you're a poet/And then you've got no fucking choice." And looming over it all there's "Diogenes on the Auction Block": "I stepped up to that auction block, cleared my throat, I was like 'Dig [cough/chuckle], I'm the type of slave you buy if, uh, you, uh, need a new master.'" A-
  56. Sho Madjozi: Limpopo Champions League (Flourish and Multiply '18): Although she signed with U.S. Epic in 2020, this 29-year-old biracial and multilingual Tsonga speaker from northern South Africa released her prize-winning debut album almost three years ago. Culturally, she's a worldly sophisticate--both parents worked for NGOs and she nabbed a Holyoke scholarship after growing up in Tanzania. But as a musician she's made the syncretic most of her nation of origin. As an Afropop fan I fret about being less than knocked out by so many current Euro-African fusions, but well before I was aware of her bio I knew this was a sureshot exception. While invoking the shoulder-rolling upper-body twists of a Durban dance called gqom, Madjozi's music generates the exhilarating release that highlife and rumba and mbalax and mbaqanga and so many other musics I couldn't begin to dance to myself stick in oppression's face. Pray Epic understands what a miracle it's got in its clutches. Pray Madjozi does too. A-
  57. Lithics: Tower of Age (Trouble in Mind '20): Jumpy and catchy, playful whether they like it or not, this Portland foursome's third and best album is as far from 2018's Mating Surfaces as Mating Surfaces is from 2016's Borrowed Floors. The template holds: staccato guitar patterns or outbursts as opposed to lines over drum and bass considerably less "danceable" than that of their U.K. counterparts Shopping, who double their trouble by trying to say something about . . . consumerism??? No passes at meaningful verbiage here: from "Hello hello are you there" kicking things off to whatever if anything Aubrey Horner grunts over the last third of "Half Dormancy," the scant lyrics are not funny ha ha but funny tongue-in-cheek, which may very well be how they're enunciated. A-
  58. Girl in Red: If I Could Make It Go Quiet (World in Red/AWAL): A well-honed miniature: aided by producer Matias Telléz and uncredited g-b-k-d, 22-year-old singer and songwriter Marie Ulven outlines the perfectly normal, infinitely applicable downs and ups of the love out of reach that befalls almost anyone committed to the itinerant life modest rock renown imposes. In one song she sucks up sexual solace on the phone; in the next she provides sexual solace of her own in person; on every track she's mindful and decent no matter how miserable. Only the one that goes "You stupid bitch can't you see/The perfect one for you is me" is a true grabber. But others come close enough that I believe she's gonna make it, and so I hope will you. A-
  59. Loretta Lynn: Still Woman Enough (Legacy): The coal miner's daughter turned Fist City better half redoes some of her classics on an all-new album released to honor her 89th birthday: "Honky Tonk Girl," "I Wanna Be Free," Shel Silverstein's protofeminist stroke "One's on the Way." But near as I can tell she'd never before recorded, for instance, Hank Williams's "I Saw the Light" or the 95-year-old "I'll Be All Smiles Tonight." Tanya Tucker, Carrie Underwood, and Margo Price do help, and in a deft bob-and-weave she transforms "Coal Miner's Daughter" itself into a recitation. So all in all the genius who pronounces "wash" with an R in the middle delivers a far smarter and more efficient tribute to her own eternal flair than Jack White's much-bruited Van Lear Rose did when she was a mere 72, long before first a stroke and then a broken hip failed to stop her. A-
  60. No-No Boy: 1975 (Smithsonian/Folkways): Assembling a dozen self-written songs with Asian themes for "a Smithsonian series representing 'Asian American' music," Nashville-raised Vietnamese-American Brown University American Studies Ph.D hopeful Julian Saporiti sings them in the style that comes naturally: bland white-guy singer-songwriter folk-rock. He gets away with it for three reasons: his melodies get your attention, his voice projects a tenderness that's neither wimpy nor faux-folksy, and, most of all, the things he sings about are altogether unprecedented. Listen and hear tell of a young Rolling Stones cover band airlifted from Saigon into the jungle to divert American GIs, an all-Japanese-American swing band that played out from their Wyoming internment camp, an expat who named his Chrysler after Ho Chi Minh, a Chinatown Ramones fan, and, oh yes, Central American migrants "wasting in line" for 40 hours. Wonder what his love songs are like. Bet we find out. A-
  61. Gyedu-Blay Ambolley: 11th Street, Sekondi (Agogo '19): Singer-saxophonist Ambolley is a 1947-born Ghanaian whose 2019 album, said to be his 31st, I streamed on a tip and dug on the spot. What I noticed right away was not simply one more infectious African rhythm variant but the extra pleasure of hearing someone singing or rapping or commenting or interjecting atop/amid that variant in a language I could actually understand--to be specific, English rather than French. What my wife noticed was the variant itself, which she swore she recalled from an old Sunny Adé record she'd inscribed in her memory book. What you'll notice, I believe, is both. Special kudos to a guitarist billed simply as Dominic and Ambolley's trademark "Hey-up-pah!" A-
  62. Garbage: No Gods No Masters (Stunvolume/Infectious Music): Of all the many strong women to take on the burden of rock innovation in the '90s--O'Connor, Harvey, Stefani, Phair, Love, Tucker, Brownstein, a whole lot none too soon--Shirley Manson was the ice queen. So for me she proved an acquired taste hard to hear through to the end. I mean, if cold is your default affect, at least freeze out someone more worthy of scorn than whatever schmo has his third eye on your pants. Which I'm happy to say is what happens on an album that begins with songs called "The Men Who Rule the World" (and made "a fucking mess") and "The Creeps" (who sell her out). "Uncomfortably Me" ("I was a jerk") leads to the pained catalogue of human suffering "Waiting for God." "Anonymous Sex" she's above, "Would you deceive me if I had a dick" is fair enough, and "Our love was supreme" in the booklet becomes "Our love is supreme" on the record before the dumb guy swaps his "queen out for a pawn" anyway. It's enough to make me say too late to stop now, but not to charm me into signing off on the deluxe edition. A-
  63. Illuminati Hotties: FREE I.H: This Is Not the One You've Been Waiting For (Snack Shack Tracks '20): Led in every respect by L.A. sound engineer Sarah Tudzin, this band debuted with 2018's engaging little Kiss Yr Frenemies but then felt compelled, due to indie-biz malfeasances too pathetic to delve into, to keep skin in the game with this bratty, off-the-cuff 2020 mixtape, which in 12 tracks lasting 23 minutes does definitely polish up its own pissed-off punk 'tude. Although the noise it purveys throughout turns doomy on one called "Content/Bedtime," there's also a finale called "reason 2 live" where she sends warm regards to friends who are nice in succinctly described, sweetly differentiated ways. Inspirational Prose: "Hang on to your masters, folks." A-
  64. I'll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to The Velvet Underground & Nico (Verve): To be clear, the tributee here is the album dubbed The Velvet Underground & Nico, not the band-artiste combo of that name. So I spun said album for the first time since Lou Reed died--The Velvet Underground, Loaded, and the Matrix sessions all get more play around here--and was almost startled by how sere and crude that classic now sounded, and also by what a shitty producer Andy Warhol was even with Tom Wilson cleaning up after him. Still great, absolutely--dulled or not by the production, the band's "throbbing cadences" (Variety) and "atonal thrusts" (Richard Goldstein) rendered it one of the most momentous rock albums ever. So for younger admirers to render the same song sequence with meticulous clarity, toned chops, and unfettered interpretive elan can be disorienting, even annoying--if you never warmed to the sadie-maisie "Venus in Furs," you won't thank Andrew Bird for his avant violin, and though St. Vincent is too corn-averse to admit it, "All Tomorrow's Parties" was once a song. But there are also dynamite covers from Michael Stipe, Thurston Moore, Iggy Pop, and others. Sentimental favorite: Courtney Barnett's title tune. A-
  65. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Georgia Blue (Southeastern): First let's specify that this guest-chocked collection of Georgia covers isn't what's being called a "charity album." As a title that takes the "S" out of "blues" indicates, it's a voting rights album--one Isbell conceived while Biden was saving democracy as best he could by winning Georgia, with proceeds divided among Black Voters Matter, Stacey Abrams's Fair Fight outfit, and Georgia STAND-UP (Strategic Alliance for New Directions and Unified Policies). So just by way of saying thanks you have every reason to buy it unheard, as I did. This doesn't means I have to like Cat Power as per the gifted Amanda Shires any more than I used to as per the annoying Chan Marshall. Nor need I feign conversion to the Indigo Girls. Nonetheless, there are musical strokes aplenty here. My favorite is Brittney Spencer's feminist "makes all that money to steal from another man" revision of "It's a Man's Man's Man's World." But I also dig the way 400 Unit stalwart Sadler Vaden spruces up his old mates Drivin' and Cryin' and Adia Victoria embellishes Precious Bryant's Piedmont blues "The Truth" and Isbell himself cherishes the earnest conjugal heartsong Otis Redding and Jerry Butler cooked up for him under the title "I've Been Loving You Too Long." And then there's "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," which hasn't lost a step in what is now half a century. A-
  66. Carsie Blanton: Love and Rage (So Ferocious): Her cute voice still sharpens the point on her acerbic politics. Her hyperactive libido still striates her reasonable hope that telling the truth and being kind is good for one ticket to a heaven her parents still believe in and they just might be right. And 35 ain't that old, now is it? Still, nonstop sure shots like last time would be expecting too much and she doesn't want to seem greedy. So she's happy enough to settle for "Party at the End of the World" and "Be Good," both of which say what you'd expect them to in ways you couldn't, the anti-white-supremacist "Shit List," and an unexpectedly warm closer where an occasional lay she's known and I mean carnally since she was 22 qualifies as "a love that sticks around." A-
  67. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Way Down in the Rust Bucket (Reprise): To the best of my digitally enhanced recollection, this is the first electric live Young we've had since the dull 2016 Promise of the Real placeholder, and hey hey, it's "with" his signature band Crazy Horse (though 1974's Time Fades Away with the Stray Gators remains the live Neil to top: "Don't Be Denied," undeniable). The hook-concept-gimmick-rationale is that it's but an unfettered bar gig cut shortly after a revved-up Young celebrated his escape from the well-tailored embrace of David Geffen by returning to Reprise with the Pazz & Jop-topping 1990 Ragged Glory. As a result, however, it reprises more than half of Ragged Glory, and while Young's solo on the "Country Home" opener does actually improve on the studio version, it's still too bad the guys weren't feeling loose enough to pull more classics out of the boss's ratty old canvas songbag. Turns out, for instance, that "Bite the Bullet," the pick hit on 1977's American Stars 'n Bars, is more convincing sans Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson as the backup Bullets. And by the way, did you know that a clitoral vibrator is called a bullet? I sure didn't until Neil's lip-smacking live "I love to make her scream/When I bite the bullet" inspired some research. Be careful with your teeth there, fella. A-
  68. Vic Mensa: I Tape (Roc Nation): This episodic tale of how a conscious rapper rose above post-hot oblivion mounts a surprisingly persuasive argument for the utility of religious belief, not least because the religion is Islam. Useful context is provided by the reminiscences of his Ghanaian father and extra texture by the Securus prepaid collect-call utility of the Illinois Department of Corrections. Doubters are advised to begin midway through: "Fr33dom"-"Moosa"-"Shelter." A-
  69. Eminem: Music to Be Murdered By: Side B (Deluxe Edition) (Aftermath/Shady/Interscope/Goliath): Docked a notch because Marshall has decreed that mad fans who want the 16 so-called B-sides here--purportedly tracks left off January, 2020's Music to Be Murdered By, although since the Covid ones were obviously recorded later we assume some of the others were too--must buy the A-sides all over again. But have some respect, people. Here is more proof that Eminem loves rhyme as compulsively as MF Doom himself: "Yeah I'm a card like Hallmark/At Walmart with a small cart buying wall art," "Kris Kristofferson-Piss Pissedofferson," dumbbell-thumbnail-her spell-gun barrel-my girl. If he's not as playful or surreal about it as Doom, he sure does enunciate better, with a timbral dexterity never quashed by the rock-inflected production style that Dr. Dre laid on him decades ago and oversees here. There's more braggadocio and less delight in these words for their own sake than in the Side A's, and nothing as powerful as the Busta Rhymes-powered "Yah Yah." But there's also this plague wisdom: "This pandemic got us in a recession/We need to reopen America/Black people dying they want equal rights/White people wanna get haircuts." America-haircuts--there's a rhyme for you. B+
  70. Naeem: Startisha (37d03d '20): In which the former Spank Rock, the beatmastering Baltimore rap eccentric who followed 2006's subculturally renowned YoYoYoYoYoYo with 2011's obscurely self-released Everything Is Boring and Everyone Is a Fucking Liar, enlists such mismatched fans as Bon Iver and Swamp Dogg on an engaging and unpredictable album that either reveals him as he truly is or unpacks his selves as they truly are. Slipping readily from the omnivorous orgiastics of "Woo Woo Woo" to the stricken romanticism of "Us," he's nowhere more relatable than on a title song that recalls and worries about a girlchild whose sexuality was so innate it put her in who knows what danger. Is this girlchild Naeem, somebody like him, or someone he knew? No idea. A-
  71. Mike: The Weight of the World (10K '20): Like his cross-continental ally Earl Sweatshirt, who adds a near-jaunty specificity to this album's very last verse, 22-year-old Anglo-New Yorker Michael Bonema is a depressive who sounds like one. Muttering thoughtful rhymes in a clotted, immersive, yet quite comprehensible flow, he favors beats that win you over, when they do, without so much as winking at catchy--the one that got my attention was the groan he folds in every six seconds until and after he finally starts rapping "Plans": "I'm a lover with regret, I never picked the hate/Askin' God to still protect you from my shitty ways." The death of his mother in London sparked his most recent and engaging album. But from this distance it sounds like the finality of that event inspired him to climb out of whatever hole he's been living in rather than digging it deeper. A-

And It Don't Stop, Jan. 26, 2022

2020 Essay | -- 2022