What I Listened To In 2004
Leonard Cohen, Death of a Ladies' Man, Warner Bros. 1977
One Phil Spector production leads to another. Spector co-wrote these nine songs with Cohen, assembled the band, and produced the album. Cohen evidently hates it so much that none of it appears on The Essential Leonard Cohen. Yet it remains a crucial album in Cohen's development, moving him from the sparse, "folk" settings of the early albums to the more adventuresome musical arrangements of all his subsequent work. What's more, Cohen's singing is better on this album than on anything else he's released. Wrongly dismissed as a Cohen album best left to Cohen fanatics, musically it is the richest of any of his albums.
Phil Spector, A Christmas Gift For You, Philies 1963/Rhino 1987
(Also re-released as Phil Spector's Christmas Album)
Girl-group heaven. I know of no Christmas music that captures the kitsch of the season half so well as this album. Spector's "wall of sound" and inventive arrangements harness classic rock and roll to a batch of familiar songs like "White Christmas." I can't think of better versions of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," "Frosty the Snowman," and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." But program your CD player to skip the last track, in which Spector talks over "Silent Night."
The Nashville Acoustic Sessions, CMH 2004
Although he gives himself equal billing with three Nashville studio pros, this is really Raul Malo's second solo album. Malo is vocalist for one of the best groups in contemporary country music, The Mavericks, and this disc features eleven covers of songs by eleven composers who've influenced him. There's Roy Orbison (to whom Malo is often compared), Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, and Van Morrison. Parsons' "Hot Burrito #1" has never been more passionate ("I'm your toy.." indeed). I was surprised at how it fits so nicely beside a song I'd never cared for, Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's "Moon River." Great singing is often the art of great juxtapositions.
Paul Simon, One Trick Pony, Warner Bros. 1980 (Remastered and Expanded 2004)
It kicks off with the infectious rhythms of "Late in the Evening." With the addition of "Stranded in a Limousine," this soundtrack of a vanity film project is dominated by the blues, not something one thinks of as Paul Simon's strength. So when Randy Newman wanted to make fun of white guys singing the blues, Newman got Simon to sing "The Blues." Yet most of this album features low-key, jazz-tinged arrangements of Simon's blues-iest set of songs. They work because he makes no claim to authenticity. "That's Why God Made the Movies" and "How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns" are great songs among a half dozen other good ones.
Marshall Crenshaw, Marshall Crenshaw, Warner Bros. 1982
As retro as the table and coffee cup in the cover photograph, Crenshaw's first LP offers twelve deceptively simple rock and roll songs. He's made any number of fine albums since, but he's never written another verse to match this one:
Well I hate TV
There's gotta be somebody other than me
Who's ready to write it off immediately
I'm lookin' for a cynical girl.
And who else has offered, as a convincing reason to love New York City, that it's a reliable cure for ennui? And does it in an "aw-shucks" manner that blocks any hint of pretension?
Pere Ubu, Terminal Tower, Twin Tone 1985
It's Armistice Day, or is that Veteran's Day? Time to listen to "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," one of Pere Ubu's most majestic and horrific songs. This collection of singles dating from 1975 to 1980 is the most accessible album of their "early" years (before they disbanded, then regrouped with a more conventional sound). In other words, these tracks are generally less experimental and willfully weird than the Pere Ubu albums that followed. Nonetheless, the guitar and synthesizer parts are refreshing diversions from standard rock music. The vinyl album sold fewer than 11,000 copies before going out of print. But it's available on CD.
Brian Wilson, Smile, Nonesuch 2004
I cannot recall the last time that I went out of my way NOT to hear something, as I did this album. The Beach Boys aborted the album Smile in the 1960s and let their cultural moment pass. My original response to the news that Brian Wilson had returned to the project was something between horror and sadness. Having heard it, my response is gratitude. Lush, flowing, silly, and pretentious, it may mean nothing to the pop audiences of today. Unless, perhaps, they're already hip to what made the Beach Boys so wonderful.
20/20, 20/20, CBS 1979
I'm a sucker for this kind of thing: solid 4/4 drumming, snotty vocals, sharp hooks, lyrics full of mundane details about adolescent life, girlfriends addressed as "baby," the little cries of "HEY!" as they move from verse to chorus. I bought this several years ago for a buck, set it aside, and forgot that I had it. Then I came across it again and finally played it. I cannot remember the last time that I got such pleasure from one dollar. Should-have-been-a-hit: "Yellow Pills." Runner-up: almost everything here.
Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers, S-Curve 2003
Somebody else on the Internet posted this about this band: "To say the FoW is that best band in the world would be untrue; to say that FoW plays for themselves would be trite; however, to say that Fountains of Wayne is talented is an understatement." Absolutely right! "Stacy's Mom" is their second hit, so they're no longer one-hit wonders. The rest of the album reminds me of early Steely Dan, minus the jazz pretensions (including the percussion on "Hey Julie," which reminds me of the Dan's "Do It Again").
The Replacements, Pleased to Meet Me, Warner Bros. 1987
In the 2004 film Saved!, a parent complains to Pastor Skip that Christian bands sound too much like regular rock bands. This comment sets up one of the film's most subtle jokes. When we later see a "Christian" rock band perform, their set consists of nothing but Replacements songs, including the stellar ballad from this album, "Skyway." In fact, the rock band in the film is doing nothing but lip-synching to the Replacements' original recordings.
Canned Heat, Living the Blues, 1968
What many attribute to karmic forces, I attribute to the sheer luck of serendipity. While writing an academic paper on authenticity in music, I threw this album on the boom box. There I had it: white boys claiming that they were "living the blues," playing a Charlie Patton song that was already five decades old. What could be less authentic? Does that make the Jimmie Rodgers song more
authentic? But then again, didn't one of these guys teach Son House how to play his own songs? And what could be more authentically 1960s than the graphics of this album cover? Dr. John contributes piano to one track and John Fahey contributes guitar to another. For my money, it's as authentically expressive as anything the Sex Pistols ever did.
Buffalo Springfield, Last Time Around, Atco 1968
The cover captures it: in a group of five, Neil Young looks the other way. Decades later, Young apparently held up the Buffalo Springfield box set until it was sequenced in a way that denies the existence of this album. Why? Because Neil didn't approve of some of the songs, because bassist Bruce Palmer had been deported and was replaced by Jim Messina, or because they used Richie Furay as lead vocalist on one of Neil's song? Most of the music is beautiful country-rock, with occasional Latin rhythms. It's the most charming of their three albums.
Fairport Convention, What We Did On Our Holidays, Hannibal, 1969
Once, for a short time, there was a style of music called folk-rock. It's two most distinctive features were vocal harmonies (think of Simon and Garfunkel) and cover versions of Bob Dylan songs (think of the Byrds). This album offers flawless executions of both. There's a Joni Mitchell song, too. But it's also the first fully realized work by both Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson. Gentle and soothing, its depths are trauma, sin, and despair. There's also the soaring sing-a-long of "Meet On the Ledge." It's their signature song, and one of my favorites, yet I have no idea what the phrase means. Why would we meet on a ledge?
That's The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk, A&M, 1984
The first time that I heard a recording of Thelonious Monk was so memorable that I can tell you where I was sitting and who I was with. Hal Willner's tribute album offers fresh arrangements of 23 Monk compositions. The obvious choices are all here, with especially evocative renditions of "Misterioso" (by Carla Bley) and "'Round Midnight" (by Joe Jackson). The two tracks with Dr. John emphasize the stride piano underpinnings of the music, while Chris Spedding and Peter Frampton ingeniously arrange "Work" for two guitars. Unfortunately, several performers assume that Monk's strangeness is best conveyed through ugliness, so I don't have much use for the contributions of John Zorn or Shockabilly. Monk's music is about humor and unconventional beauty, not shock and ugliness.
Scott Joplin (Composer), The Easy Winners, Angel, 1975
Ten ragtime classics written a century ago, perfect for the Fourth of July or for any other American holiday you care to celebrate. Or the perfect background for a mint julep. These versions are a little different, since violinist Itzhak Perlman has arranged them for piano and violin. But that treatment is perfectly in keeping with the conventions of ragtime -- Joplin himself helped his publisher create scores for different combinations of instruments. André Previn plays the piano parts, but it's the violin that provides the sweet voice of the melody.
Emmylou Harris, Blue Kentucky Girl, Warner Bros., 1979 (Rhino expanded cd, 2004)
I had a low opinion of "country" music until I was seduced by the voice of Emmylou Harris. (The Byrds led me to Gram Parsons, who led me to Emmylou.) And where did she find all these great songs? Then I noticed the musicianship of the players she worked with. Then I realized that I liked country music just fine. This album was the beginning of Harris' solid streak of "traditional" country albums. In retrospect, I realize that the harmonies on most of these songs are central to their power. Now it's been reissued with two bonus tracks, and they fit perfectly.
Steely Dan, Everything Must Go, Reprise, 2003
"We're going out of business," they sing on the title track. I sure hope not. Their come-back disc in 2000 was such a treat that this one was initially a disappointment. None of the songs are particularly catchy and most of the them employ the same mid-tempo snare-on-the-backbeat. Now I appreciate it for what is: a solid groove as a platform for relaxed soloing. It sounds like the music of a summer afternoon.
Ray Charles, The Definitive Ray Charles, WEA, 2001
For a few minutes, the cable news networks stopped talking about the death of Ronald Reagan. Sadly, they told us of the passing of Brother Ray. By some strange quirk, I was listening to one of his "best of" collections the previous evening. It doesn't matter which collection you choose. They're all great. But I'm particularly fond of his cover versions of country-and-western classics. And I'm willing to bet Ray Charles never voted for the so-called "great communicator."
Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose, Interscope, 2004
I saw her in live performance once, the only show I've ever snuck into without a ticket. She's 70 now, but sounds almost exactly the same as she did on her big hits. White Stripe fans already know that Jack White produced this disc. While the fast ones tend to equate "authentic feeling" with sloppiness, there's considerable power in the combination of White's rock leanings and Lynn's voice and predictable melodies. On first listen, the obvious highlight is the vocal duet on "Portland Oregon." The other gems are all at the end, particularly "Miss Being Mrs," the one track whose musical arrangement is pictured in the cover photo.
Steve Forbert, Streets of This Town, Geffen, 1988
Forbert is a singer-songwriter with a nasal voice, which cursed him with a "new Dylan" label when his first album was released in 1978. Like Dylan, he knows how to cram unexpected syllables into a line of verse. Although Forbert never became a household name, after a decade of recording he teamed up with Garry Tallent (Bruce Springsteen's bass player). The result is his most consistent album. I found it in the "remainders" bin at a major retailer for two bucks. "I Blinked Once" is a moving ballad, and the choruses of "Perfect Stranger" and "Wait a Little Longer" are as refreshing as the first cup of coffee in the morning.
Elvis Costello, Trust, Columbia, 1981 (2 disc edition, Rhino, 2003)
Extremely intelligent yet nasty lyrics are yoked to perky sing-alongs, some barked out in a hoarse shout, some delivered in a jazzy croon. The original album had 14 songs but no discernable center of gravity. Rhino's disc of 17 bonus tracks is what I keep coming back to. There's considerable redundancy in the song selection, but the unreleased tracks are generally harsher and more forceful. The cover version of "Slow Down" is one of his best rock-and-roll performances.
Sparks, Kimono My House, Island, 1974
Extremely intelligent yet nasty lyrics are yoked to perky, chirpy sing-alongs, delivered in a mock-operatic voice. Sparks had two big British hits with this LP, exposure to which results in their repeating themselves endlessly in your brain. They are, naturally, the opening songs: "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us" and "Amateur Hour." But "Talent is an Asset" has the same effect. Two or three years later and minus the bed of keyboards, Cheap Trick would score their first hits with a similar sound. But their imitation was never as musically clever as the final track, "Equator," and its when-will-this-ever-end a cappella coda.
Chris Cacavas, Chris Cacavas and Junk Yard Love, Heyday, 1988
As war atrocities fill the headlines, I find myself drawn to side one of this record, which sat in among my LPs untouched since the 1980s. I wanted to hear one song, but it took me a long time to find it, because I couldn't even remember who sang it. Here it is, the second song; "Truth," with backing vocals by Johnette Napolitano (of Concrete Blonde). If you don't know who's singing, you'd swear it's Neil Young and Crazy Horse. "After the bombs fall/After the Berlin Wall," begins one verse, and the song is twice punctuated by a soaring, unexpected bridge: "Some take the long way around," he sings, and then a solo guitar enters, courtesy of the Byrds.
The Jim Carroll Band, Catholic Boy, Atco, 1980
A student asked me why I don't have any rap in my list of what I'm listening to. The obvious answer would be that I'm not listening to it. Or does this album count as rap? It is, in the same way that Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is rap. Except that most of Carroll's work has even less melody. The songs "Catholic Boy" and "People Who Died" are awesomely raw. Then you notice how carefully worked the language is, and you see how it's raw like David Lynch and Goya, not raw like Jack Kerouac and Willem de Kooning. In other words, it takes a professional poet to sound this honest, with every word calculated for effect. The music is forceful, too.
Carlene Carter, Musical Shapes, Warner Brothers, 1980
That's Carter as in The Carter Family. Carlene made this album (her third and best) during her marriage to Nick Lowe, who brought in the rest of the group Rockpile. The sound is tight but never slick. It was a complete and total commercial bomb. But if you could copyright style and attitude, she'd be rich, because today, every other woman singing on "country" radio sounds like Carlene Carter on this album. But nothing on the radio is as much fun as her duet with Dave Edmunds, "Baby Ride Easy." Oh, and she does "Ring of Fire" because it was written by her mother, June Carter Cash. Some of her own songs are not unlike it..
Various Artists, Rainy Day, Rough Trade, 1984
So whatever happened to Karl Precoda? His guitar goes berserk on the title song, the Jimi Hendrix number from Electric Ladyland. Unlike that track, the rest of these cover versions of 1960s songs are "folk" rather than "rock," which is another way of saying that this is a "roots" collection. But what's really at work here is that a bunch of California kids, facing adult life, look back to their record collections and pretend that they're the rock stars they most admire. For a moment, they succeed. When I think of the song "I'll Be Your Mirror," this version is the one that plays in my head.
Joan Armatrading, Lovers Speak, Denon, 2003
This album was released a year ago, but I didn't know that it existed until quite recently. Born on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts and a pop star in Britain, she doesn't fit any of the stereotypes that are used to market non-white singers in the U.S.A., so her career is all but invisible. Overdubbing herself on everything except percussion, Armatrading delivers 14 new songs, half of them the equal of her strongest work. Given that her best songs rank with best of the last twenty years, one could do worse. The millions plunking down their dollars for Norah Jones might want to make this their next purchase.
The Folk Years, Time-Life Collection, 2003
Eight discs loaded with 120 songs, and after a few listens, that's 80 tracks I never want to hear again. But there are many that I haven't hear since I was a child. Among them, the Sandpipers' "Come Saturday Morning" and Tom Paxton's "The Last Thing on my Mind" are forgotten gems. Some of the best material is by artists who aren't "folk," no matter how far you stretch the category (e.g., The Band, The Mamas and the Papas, the Lovin' Spoonful, Otis Redding). As for the rest, six artists more or less exhaust what's really special here. You can almost guess which ones in advance of listening: Dylan, The Byrds, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, and Johnny Cash.
The Pogues, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, MCA, 1985
Wednesday was St. Patrick's Day, offering an excuse to have a few friends over, load the CD changer with Irish music, and crack open a bottle. As if we need an excuse! We just call this album "that drunken Irish music." The actual title is a phrase attributed to Winston Churchill, describing the traditions of the British Royal Navy. But the subject of the album as a whole is post-colonialism and the end of the empire. If Rudyard Kipling had written songs, one of them would be on here, with expletives added. The traditional American "Jesse James" is included, just in case you think songs about Ireland and Australia are quaint regionalisms.
Brinsley Schwartz, Despite It All, Capitol, 1970
"Well, the sun shone down," begins one song, and this album is a sunny day in the country, just like the cover image. More than the sum of its influences (Crosby Stills & Nash, the Band, Van Morrison, the Byrds), they mix saxophone and pedal steel guitar and refuse to acknowledge that there's any stylistic contradiction. If you've never heard of them, don't blame yourself, but note that lead vocalist Nick Lowe contributed "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" to their final LP, four years later. (Bill Murray sings it in the film Lost in Translation.) Some of these songs are nearly as wonderful. "Love Song," for starters.
Phil Ochs, Chords of Fame, A&M 1976
My kids loved the films This is Spinal Tap and Best in Show, but were less impressed by A Mighty Wind. Who doesn't get jokes about heavy metal bands and dog shows? But unless your hair is graying, it's unlikely you've ever heard any of the music spoofed in A Mighty Wind. Next to Dylan, Ochs was the sixties' greatest topical singer-songwriter. Unfortunately, most topical songs have an expiration date somewhere between milk and cold cuts. Most of these are no exception. But there are gems here, among them "There But for Fortune." And one topical number, "Here's to the State of Richard Nixon," is now a commentary on how little things have changed
Dave Edmunds, Get It, Swan Song 1977
I remember when rock music was fun. So does Dave Edmunds, and his nostalgia for it would be mere nostalgia if he didn't have the voice and guitar chops to make something of it. Signed to Led Zeppelin's custom label, Edmunds delivered the definitive performance of "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)," a track I still hear at wedding receptions. It usually gets everyone out on the dance floor. So would the two tracks that follow it here, one by Graham Parker and one that Edmunds co-wrote with Nick Lowe. I might even prefer this version of "Hey, Good Lookin" to the original.
Soundtrack Album, Twin Peaks, Warner Bros. 1990
Music's uncanny ability to summon up the past is one of the reasons we listen. If you've never seen the TV series for which Angelo Badalamente composed this music, you might classify it with the lounge music revival. But for those who saw the show when it was something fresh, well, I can only report that as I was playing it, my partner came in and asked what the creepy music was. Fourteen years later, the creepiness depends on having formed the right associations, adding depth to these otherwise tranquil surfaces.
Harry Nilsson, Nilsson Sings Newman, RCA 1969
The opening track of Parks' Song Cycle is Randy Newman's "Vine Street," a reminiscence of being "third guitar" in a rock band. It's also the opening track here, which led me from one to the other. Where Parks is grandiose, Nilsson's song cycle is minimalist. Much of the time it's just Nilsson's voice and Randy Newman's piano. Newman wrote all the songs, and these perfect renditions are frequently stronger than Newman's own versions. Nilsson's sweet vocals on songs like "Love Story" and "So Long Dad" initially disguise their brutal messages, generating a delicious irony over and above the irony Newman builds into the lyrics.
Van Dyke Parks, Song Cycle, Warner Bros. 1968
I grant you that this stuff is a tad precious, and Parks' nasal tenor is his weakest asset. When this was new, I suspect that listeners thought of it as psychedelic, like certain Beach Boys tracks that Parks co-wrote with Brian Wilson. Now we might call it postmodern: jarring juxtapositions of styles and moods (some tracks are under a minute) collide with nostalgia, word-play, and social commentary. He's tried to incorporate the history of American popular music into one LP, and he's nearly succeeded. Think Charles Ives. Think whimsy. Think too smart for his own good. And did I mention how tuneful it all is?
What I Listened to in 2005
What I Listened to in 2003
What I Listened to in 2002
What I Listened to in 2001
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