What I Listened To
Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, Steal Away, Verve 1995
It's that horrible time of year, time to grade final examinations. Grading student essays requires just the right sort of music, and this album fits the bill. It's merely bass and piano. It's melodic without being dull, and the music is familiar (mostly spirituals and folk songs) but played inventively. "We Shall Overcome" takes on new meaning when you're only halfway through a stack of essays.
Iggy Pop, The Idiot, RCA 1977
The stereotype is that rock and roll is fast, fun and stupid. All of which was more or less true of the first Stooges LP. So I guess this is where Iggy starts to make art music, because it's mostly midtempo, depressing, and smart. (And the cover is arty black-and-white, just like Elvis Costello for his first Deutsche Grammophon album). Of Iggy's two styles, it's tough to say which is more decadent. As Tolstoy said of Baudelaire, "the feelings which the poet transmits are evil and very low ones." As if that's a bad thing.
Elvis Costello, North, Deutsche Grammophon 2003
It's new, so I bought it. I used to buy all his albums the week they were issued. I saw him on David Letterman, singing a song from this album. It sounded good. What I didn't know was that all eleven songs sound pretty much alike. I would not have imagined that he could make an album this dull, but here it is. I couldn't get the "free bonus track" to download from the internet, either. Music reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine calls it "subtle." It's now in my pile of stuff to sell to a pawn shop.
Television, Adventure, Elektra 1978/Rhino Expanded 2003
Their debut got raves, and deservedly so. Adventure is their sophomore album and it is generally dismissed as a disappointing hodge-podge. Yet it's one of the best records released in 1978. The debut was generally tense; this one's generally hopeful. "Glory," "Days" (not the Kinks song), and "Carried Away" are three of my favorite rock songs.
Robin Holcomb, Rockabye, Nonesuch 1992
I was playing this and was asked, "Is this Nanci Griffith?" Then a few dissonant piano chords clouded the landscape, and it was evident that it wasn't Nanci Griffith. Holcomb's music is sterner stuff, parlor music that's never too sentimental, reminding me of the songs of Charles Ives. Holcolm makes art music, but not so you'd notice.
Bob Dylan, John Wesley Harding, Columbia 1968, SACD 2003
My favorite Dylan album. I'm not saying it's his best. I'm just saying that I play it more than any other. 12 songs, 11 of them great. If it didn't have "The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest," I might like it even better. (I prefer "Clothes Line Saga," its model.) Neil Young liked this album so much, he made his own version of it and called it Harvest. Neil even hired Kenny Buttrey on drums. Too bad Neil didn't write this many great songs.
The Flatlanders, More a Legend Than a Band, Plantation 1973, various reissues
Look at that cover photo. Lubbock really is that flat. Like Buddy Holly before them, these west Texas existentialists escaped in their musical imaginations long before they got a chance to hit the road and escape for real. Some people don't like musical saw and won't give this twisted C&W a fair chance. Last week I saw three of the Flatlanders on stage together at an outdoor festival. Immediately after Jimmie Dale Gilmore started to sing "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown," four twenty-somethings sitting nearby left in disgust, offering me a better view of the stage. I'm sometimes thankful for small minds.
Jennifer Warnes, Famous Blue Raincoat, Private Music 1987
You might be able to convince me that Judy Collins and Tori Amos give equally fine interpretations of the title song, and you might persuade me that R.E.M. has a more convincing take on "First We Take Manhattan." Nonetheless, when Warnes dies, I predict that the Vatican will immediately announce her beatification on the basis of two tracks on this album: "Song of Bernadette" and "Joan of Arc." Leonard Cohen's fascination with blending Roman Catholicism and eroticism has seldom been so convincing.
Bob Marley and the Wailers, Live at the Roxy, Island 2003
Marley sells much better now than in his lifetime. I don't know that I prefer this to the great 1975 live album (Live!), but it's good to have a complete show from 1976. It gives me a new excuse to listen to most of the same Marley songs as always. At this point Marley and the Wailers had been playing this same set of songs over and over and over, yet once again they make it sound both inspirational and spontaneous. The gem here is the 24 minute encore of "Get Up Stand Up" into "No More Trouble" into "War."
The Best of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Epic/Legacy 1992
I don't think I have ever heard any of these tracks on the radio. The Jukes were ignored even when they were popular. Part of the tradition of honkies trying to sound just like their African-American models but in reality doing something else, these forgotten tracks were deeply nostalgic when they new (1976-1981). Now that their sources are a fading memory, the nostalgia factor is reduced and they're simply great tunes from a great band. A whole lot of this was written by Bruce Springsteen. Too bad the track with Ronnie Spector is the live version, not the studio single.
Uncle Tupelo, 89/93: Anthology, Columbia/Legacy 2002
The problem with "country-rock" isn't the music, but rather with the critical response. Folks who rave about Uncle Tupelo's merger of country and punk sensibilities must not listen to much honky tonk, nor to Johnny Cash. Uncle Tupelo's "I Got Drunk" could have been lifted from Lefty Frizzell. Their compelling reading of "Moonshiner" owes everything to Bob Dylan's arrangement. Questions of originality aside, this is damn fine roots music, provided your roots include Iggy and the Stooges.
Charles Lloyd in Europe, Atlantic 1968
My older brother listened frequently to John Coltrane records. I never really paid attention, but now I find that this mode of mid-60s jazz feels like going home. The Lloyd quartet featured Keith Jarrett on piano, and the album opens with a strange, sitar-like sound that's really Jarrett playing the interior of the piano. Jack DeJohnette provides spectacular percussion. I'm surprised to find that my favorite track is the shortest, the closing "Hej Da!", a sprightly dance of piano and flute in which joy wins out over jamming.
The Clash, Combat Rock, Epic 1982 (Remastered CD on Columbia/Legacy 2000)
Most "new wave" now sounds very, very dated, including at least half of this, the last genuine Clash album. But I have mentioned to my family that they might play "Straight to Hell" at my funeral.
Jesse Winchester, Jesse Winchester, Ampex 1970
With 11 perfect songs in about 30 minutes, this debut album is probably the most perfect embodiment of the genre of singer-songwriter. Too much is made of Winchester's personal history (a Tennessee draft-dodger who'd fled to Canada). It is no surprise that the album features Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson of the Band, for their musical and geographical roots precisely reflect Winchester's merger of country and rock. But it's not country-rock.
Think James Taylor, only deeper.
The White Stripes, Elephant, V2 2003
This album was recommended to me by all sorts of people whose opinions I trust. They were right. It's fun, fun, fun, without being the least bit nice. Meg White's pioneer dress and Jack White's fringed cowboy shirt to the contrary, this duo is a blues band on overdrive. They kept reminding me of someone, but it took some time to register: they're the new Kinks! Like the Kinks, they merit bonus kudos for fashion sense and graphic design.
Various Artists, I'm Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, Atlantic 1991
Leonard Cohen writes the best Bob Dylan songs (circa 1967) this side of Bob Dylan. But Cohen's own arrangements often drag, so that I find more than twenty minutes of his singing to be about five minutes too many. This album solves that problem, with 18 performers covering their favorite Cohen tunes. Three of these tracks are simply superb: R.E.M.'s gleeful assault on "First We Take Manhattan," the Pixies paranoid take on "I Can't Forget," and, best of all, John Cale's simple piano arrangement of "Hallelujah."
Lou Reed, Live: Take No Prisoners, Arista 1978
Does this album intentionally have the aesthetically most displeasing cover art of the rock era? Except for some stray tracks on Street Hassle (1978) and Lou's obligatory box set, this is the only official documentation of a superb band in live action: the sound is dense and frequently brutal but tinged with jazz and melodicism. It's a mess but it rewards rehearing if you edit it, as I did, removing all of "Walk on the Wild Side" (a mean, mean tease in which the band vamps for sixteen minutes while Reed avoids singing the song), chop the long monologue out of the middle of "Sweet Jane," and eliminate most of the in-between-song rambling. What's left is 65 minutes of strong performance. This is where editing software earns its keep.
Linda Ronstadt, Simple Dreams, Asylum 1977
In 1977, I was listening to a lot more Patti Smith than Linda Ronstadt. Twenty-five years later, I still listen to Smith, but find that all of her albums are seriously flawed. Ronstadt dominated the radio in her prime years, and this album doesn't have a weak cut on it. Covered by a singer at the height of her career, Warren Zevon's "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" is really rather witty. A year later she was singing support on Zevon's Excitable Boy.
Love, Love Revisited, Elektra 1970
Bringing together key tracks from 1966 to 1969, this is the original "Best of" collection for this largely forgotten group. Eleven originals, two brilliant cover versions; think of the Byrds without any country influences. Over the course of three albums, they were simply wonderful. Then the drugs took hold (just listen to the downer classic, "Signed D.C.") and their moment was gone.
Steely Dan, Citizen Steely Dan, MCA 1993
With 66 tracks of sonic bliss, these four discs assemble the first seven Steely Dan albums into one package. The concept: two cynical college boys who loved jazz front a rock band. College textbooks on rock will tell you that punk was more important. Those college textbooks won't tell you that Becker and Fagen had exactly the same world-view as the Sex Pistols. But Becker and Fagen didn't regard noise as necessary to the expression of their cynicism.
Lotte Lenya, Lenya Sings Weill: The American Theatre Songs, Sony Classical 1999
Both the title and the release date are apt to misinform, since this collection includes songs written before Kurt Weill came to America, and it was all recorded (and originally released) over forty years ago. But done right, decadence and sentimentality both age well. And these were done right. The bitter songs make the sweet ones all the sweeter, while the sweet make the bitter all the more pungent. "Lost in the Stars" is the emotional (and philosophical) high point.
The Kinks, Face to Face, Reprise 1966
Although a shade less sophisticated than the Beatles at the same time (and never as well-recorded), the Kinks quickly moved beyond bashing out simple R&B riffs to these carefully arranged pop songs. "You Really Got Me" may be more fun than anything here, but as portraits of the challenges of modern life these songs have barely dated: strong melodies, strong singing, and subtle humor. And just like the Jam's Setting Sons some thirteen years later, it opens with sound of a ringing telephone.
The Jam, Setting Sons, Polydor 1979
As troops advance on Baghdad, how could I resist a concept album about an imperial power suffering a sharp economic downturn, resorting to military exploits to counter its creeping malaise? Which just demonstrates that when it succeeds, music has the power to speak in unforeseen circumstances. A big deal in Britain in their day but never popular in the U.S.A., the Jam rival the Clash for great tunes and a social conscience. And their guitar riffs stick in my head for days every time I play them.
Talking Heads, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads, Sire 1982
One of the most intelligently assembled live albums ever, these two vinyl discs document the progressive expansion of the Talking Heads from a quirky quartet to a polyrhythmic juggernaut. For both its scope and its performances, I prefer it to the live album they've kept in print, "Stop Making Sense." If this had that other album's recording of the song "Heaven," it might be all the Talking Heads you'd ever need.
Shudder to Think, First Love, Last Rites, Sony 1998
Technically, this a movie soundtrack. Sonically, it is a sampler of rock music styles drawn from the last 40 years. Conceptually, it's something more: all the songs are written by the band Shudder to Think, who perform the music behind an array of very different vocalists (e.g., Jeff Buckley, John Doe, Liz Phair, Billy Corgan). There's Stax-style soul music, a Velvet Underground ballad, 1960s pop music. It's like a wonderful radio station from back in the days when radio was good.
The Eels, Electro-Shock Blues, Dream Works 1998
I' m often asked what "new" material I'm listening to. For me, something released five years ago is new. I just got a copy of this and was surprised by how accessible it is, given that it's an album about mortality and mental illness. The fourth track on this album is "My Descent into Madness," and that title just about sums up the dominant subject matter. What you can't guess from the depressing song titles is how contemplative and exuberant the music is.
Washington Phillips, I Am Born to Preach the Gospel, Yazoo 2003
Recorded from 1927 to 1929, these performances are an otherwordly combination of country blues, Christian preaching, brief snatches of scat falsetto, and the sound of the dolceola (which sounds like a toy piano but is really a sort of zither). "I am born to preach the gospel and I sure do love my job" it begins, and he sure does. Fire and brimstone never sounded so sweet.
Bob Dylan and the Hawks, Tales of a Mexican Painter (bootleg)
A complete concert from 1966. For several years it was available free for downloading from the official website of The Band (who were, in '66, still the Hawks). Not such a revelation in the wake of Dylan's release of the Manchester tapes from the same year, but of interest for the direct evidence that not every audience hissed and shouted rude remarks. This Australian crowd is pretty damn respectful. And then there's the amazing little story of the Mexican Painter that introduces "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues."
Neil Young, Hawks & Doves, Warner Bros. 1980
Is this even available on compact disc? I burned it to CD from vinyl a few days ago and it demonstrates that the most significant thing about the vinyl long player was the pause created by the act of flipping it over, a silence that decisively divided the record into two distinct parts. Neil takes full advantage of that fact here. Side one has the feel of Young's Comes a Time, and side two is jaunty fake-country. I had to add a minute of silence so that "Stayin' Power" doesn't destroy the mood left by "Captain Kennedy." But the true highlight is the opening track, the solo performance of the delicate "Little Wing" (no, it's not the Jimi Hendrix song).
Warren Zevon, Excitable Boy, Asylum 1978
An uneven album, with a highly produced sheen, this is the music that announced Zevon's cracked sensibility to the larger world, via the radio hit ""Werewolves of London." The centerpiece is "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" (which Zevon recently performed with real gusto on David Letterman). Three superb ballads give the album some depth, balancing out the jokes. But the real highlight remains "Lawyers, Guns, and Money," a plea for escape where the dilemma is never specified.
To download a Warren Zevon concert, click here.
Funkadelic, One Nation Under a Groove, Warner Brothers 1978
By some unplanned serendipity, I see that Warren Zevon's Excitable Boy also dates from 1978. Where that album has the polished sound of Los Angeles prior to the punk explosion, Funkadelic is the sound of a major funk machine that wasn't yet swamped by the emerging backlash against disco. As with James Brown, sampling means that you'll know these grooves even if you don't know the songs. As songs, toilet humor remains a weakness, reminding me that the words are there only because the audience needs something to chant along with. With the long, slow burn of a live recording of "Maggot Brain," the band demonstrates how superfluous those lyrics really are.
What I Listened to in 2005
What I Listened to in 2004
What I Listened to in 2002
What I Listened to in 2001
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