Monday, December 27, 2010

The Best Albums of 2010

This is the second year that I’ve done a “Best of” round up, and while there were some outstanding releases in 2010, the pickings aren’t quite as deep as last year’s. In fact, the tail end of this year’s Top 20 would not have made the list in competition with 2009’s releases. That said, the albums in the upper echelon of this year’s list are just as good as the best of 2009.

As with all such lists, this Top 20 roundup is totally subjective, based on my personal interests and happenstance. And though I’d like to think my choices are informed by a wide-ranging, eclectic taste in music, I make no pretense that there’s adequate representation of any particular genre – especially hip-hop, electronica, jazz, heavy metal, or … well, lots of other things. (Much to my dismay, there isn’t even any Malian music making the cut this year; though I did consider Afrocubism, which would’ve garnered partial credit for the West African musical wellspring.) This 2010 list does feature new releases from a few old faves, new incarnations by several artists, and a new discovery or two.

So, here they are – roughly ranked, but not numbered – my picks for the 20 Best Albums of 2010:

Broken Bells Broken Bells – I received an advance copy of this in late 2009, so I got a bit of a head start (official release was in January 2010). That was a good thing since it took me quite a few listens to get into it. Once I did, however, it became one of my absolute favorites for the year. This is surprising, because it’s missing key elements that are usually critical to my embracing an album: First and foremost, interesting and prominent guitar – i.e., front and center, often vying with the vocals for primacy. There is guitar on this CD, but it never drives the tunes, it provides the hues, not the primary colors. One constant is prominent Hammond organ, though not always in its usual context. Synths, horns and strings fill out the sonic palette.

This is clearly a producer’s record (no surprise given the principle players: Gnarls Barkley’s Danger Mouse and The Shins’ James Mercer). And, in this case at least, that’s part of the appeal. It’s well constructed on all levels. The songs are multi-textured, yet built on simple, catchy hooks. So, paradoxically, it’s a collection of dense songs that you can hum a long with.

These two guys really know how to write and arrange potent pop songs, with some meaningful, captivating lyrics to boot. (“The High Road,” “The Ghost Inside” and “Your Head Is on Fire” are just a few formidable examples.) There may be one or two filler tracks, but the vast majority of the tunes on this record would be lead singles on other artists’ releases. In fact, “The Ghost Inside” is one of the best pure pop songs I’ve heard in years.

At times, Broken Bells evokes The Beatles, Pink Floyd and naught-decade pop. It can even sound like Tears for Fears (“Trap Doors”) or Squeeze (“Mongrel Heart,” even with it’s 007-ish intro riff); ironic since neither of those bands ever did much for me. On “The Mall & Misery” guitar tones right out of 1978 (think Talking Heads or The Buzzcocks) finally eek their way to the fore, concluding things with yet another strong melodic hook. But, overall, if you like lush instrumentation interwoven with catchy pop melodies, strong choruses and lyrics that are worth listening to, this is a record for you.

You Are Not Alone Mavis Staples – While I’ve long appreciated Mavis Staples and The Staple Singers, what made me buy this CD was the fact that it was produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and that he believed enough in the project to talk it up quite a lot. However, I was not expecting the power of music, voice and message that gushes from the grooves – OK, not vinyl, no grooves, but plenty of soul! – on this album. Tweedy’s influence, while evident, is clearly secondary to Staples’ potent voice and devout gospel message. The music is just as divinely inspired. I’m a bit surprised, but in no doubt, that this is one of my absolute favorite records of 2010. Hallelujah! (See my previous full review of this CD here.)

Red Mark Cutler – Given that I’ve been profoundly impressed with nearly everything Mark Cutler has done for the past 25 years or so, there was little doubt that his new CD would be on this list. The telling fact, however, is that – long-time fandom aside – Red could easily be the very top of this list. Yes, it’s that good!

If you appreciate sophisticated, heartfelt and alluring songcraft; production that lets the songs breathe; and musicianship that is as good as anything you’ll hear on any big-bucks-backed recording session, this is IT … and I mean IT!

Cutler delivers songs that draw you in, make you think, reminisce, dream, appreciate, wonder and worry. Cinematic writers like Sam Shepard, Raymond Carver and others have little on this Rhode Island singer/songwriter when it comes to creating characters, setting and circumstance that intrigue, engage and evoke empathy. Musically, Cutler’s characteristic melodic sense is ever-present, but this time around there’s more emphasis on crystal clear acoustic sounds (guitars, mandolins, accordions) rather than the riff rock and barroom ballads of the Cutler’s past solo efforts and his work with The Schemers, The Raindogs and The Dino Club. Alternately melancholy, soulful and rootsy, Red’s nuanced narratives of worldwise hopefulness invite repeated listening and offer enduring appeal. (See my full review of this one here.)

The Grand Theatre Volume OneOld 97’s – I’m admittedly late to the party on the Old 97’s. Though I was familiar with some of their previous releases, as well as leader Rhett Miller’s solo work, I wasn’t truly hooked until I heard this album. Yes, it treads some of the same terrain as Toronto’s The Sadies, but this Texas quartet has plenty of company in the “Americana” bin filled with country/folk-influenced roots rock that always seems to trace back to Bob Dylan in some way, shape or form. The outstanding title track leading off this affair is a jaunty, folky-pop-rocker that declares: “We know where we are, we’re not very far away.” Indeed, it sounds to me like they’ve arrived.

The Old 97’s definitely have “a sound,” and while it’s more modern than you might guess, they are steeped in the trademark rock and country characteristics that readily suggest points of reference, familiarity and comparison. There are shades of Tom Petty (“Every Night is Friday Night Without You”), a touch of The Feelies (“Let the Whiskey Take the Reins”), and couple of quick excursions into the amphetamine-fueled country rock associated with the Georgia Satellites and others (“The Magician” and “The Dance Class”). Then there’s some leisurely meandering into the melodic baritone country/folk territory of Johnny Cash and Gordon Lightfoot (“You Were Born to Battle”). This is juxtaposed with some “helter-skelterish” touchstones of rock history on (“Please Hold On While the Train Is Moving”). There’s even an interesting re-write of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” in the form of “Champaign, Illinois” – not something you undertake unless you’re crazy, clueless or very confident. This band comes through with its credibility comfortably intact.

CrookedKristen Hersh – I’ve long been a fan of Hersh’s solo work. This latest CD is harder edged than I would have expected at this point in her career, but it’s still rife with familiar Hersh traits. Following on her early indie success with the Throwing Muses (which I was never all that taken with), she has put together an impressive, if underrated, string of solo albums (nine to be exact) over the past 15 years or so. This may be the best music she has ever done – right on par with her acclaimed 1994 release Hips and Makers. It’s artistically honest; at times literary, hallucinatory or confessional; and always moody and emotive. Strong arrangements and electric guitar embellishments mesh with propulsive acoustic guitars to move the listener along on the musical and lyrical journey, much of which revolves around the artist’s adopted home of New Orleans. Hersh’s girlish vocals contrast the edgy themes and unadorned raw guitar rhythms.

Though totally different in style, Kristin Hersh is to folky/indie-pop/rock what Lucinda Williams is to country/folk/blues. And like Lucinda, Kristin continues to improve with age. This is the under-the-radar standout album of the year by a female artist. It deserves to be this high on the list.

Initiate – The Nels Cline Singers – This one is a bit from left field, ­for me at least. Not being a big fan of improvisational jazz, I probably wouldn’t even know who Nels Cline was if not for his involvement in Wilco. That said, this album – actually two albums in one: a studio disc and a live concert disc – is musically captivating and artistically impressive. Despite the band’s name, there’s no singing going on here; it’s atmospheric instrumental music. But that doesn’t mean it’s sedate background music; far from it. While undeniably jazzy overall, the music gets quite cacophonous at times and, on occasion, recalls the experimental art rock of early Pink Floyd. There’s definitely a hint of the old Fillmore days in the air here. When not channeling a bit of Jorma (not to mention numerous jazz masters unbeknownst to me), Cline’s guitar gets Hendrixian in the artistic noise department. If you’re open to a little musical adventure, give this one a few listens.

Le NoiseNeil Young – Neil has made great “solo” albums before, but never one like this: raw, electric, stark, a little nostalgic, often pained and always heartfelt. Familiar themes abound, too: history, environmentalism, enduring love, hope and regret. Producer Daniel Lanois’ soundscape effects and sonic treatments provide a unique color to this affair – taking things out of the blue and into the black most of the time, I think. His efforts match Neil’s passion for the songs, be they the minimalistic grunge side of the equation or the melancholy ballad side.

Overall, the loose rawness of the proceedings leaves the final product sounding unfinished or almost demo-like. That’s fine by me, there’s something to be said for the power of the unfussed with, that capture of a creative instant – especially when you have Young’s proven abilities to channel the Muse. (I suspect that Neil understands the old adage about it being the artist’s job to be as open as possible and then stay out of the way.) Neil’s never been shy about experimenting, what’s amazing at this point is that he can still find new sonic terrain to explore and that he stakes his claim to it so authoritatively. (See my full review of Le Noise here.)

Band of Joy – Robert Plant – As far as the mainstream media goes, this one seems to have been a slow burner. It got respectfully warm, but hardly red-hot, reviews when it first came out. But now that the year is coming to a close, it seems to be popping up near the top of a lot of critics’ end-of-year lists. I give old Percy credit for continuing to avoid the easy and obvious in his musical pursuits. He seems to have hit upon some comfortably stimulating bonhomie with the predominantly Nashville folks he’s been hanging with since his blockbuster 2007 Raising Sand release with Alison Krauss. Krauss is not around this time (ably replaced by a more ready-to-rock Patty Griffin), but renowned session guitarist Buddy Miller is still on board, this time leading the band.

Performances on Band of Joy, so named after one of the singer’s pre-Zep bands in England’s Black Country, feature a variety of crossover-appeal friendly (though certainly not vanilla) covers of songs by artists ranging from Los Lobos (the single “Angel Dance”), Townes Van Zandt (“Harm’s Swift Way”) and Richard Thompson (“House of Cards”) to Low(“Silver Rider” and, my favorite track, “Monkey”). The music is atmospheric and perfectly matched to the different moods the singer conjures up on various tracks. Some of it (“Silver Rider” and “The Only Sound That Matters”) is nothing short of sublime. The vocals, while mostly understated, are distinctive and undiminished. This is not the Golden God Robert Plant, it’s the committed musical appreciator and collaborator Robert Plant who knows the gig is his, but is happy just to be part of a stellar band that’s having fun playing great songs. (See my full review of this one here.)

Wilderness HeartBlack Mountain – It’s really too bad this album did not receive more promotion. After two excellent previous efforts, this is the Vancouver band’s consistently best one yet. The consistency, however, is in the quality of the songs and performance; the music itself is all over the place – a good thing in my book (if done as well as it is here). Much more varied than their 2005 eponymous debut or 2008’s In the Future, Wilderness Heart has an undercurrent of ’60s’ psychedelia throughout, with additional smatterings of early ’70s heavy metal, grunge and even near-folk. The result is dynamic and arty with an edge.

While it’s easy to find comparative references to the band’s sound on this record, what’s especially intriguing is the multiple associations one can find even within just a few songs. Indeed, there are some interesting matchups: The Raconteurs, Page/Plant and The Black Crowes (“The Hair Song”); The Breeders, Steppenwolf, Queens of the Stone Age and the early Church (“Old Fangs”); and the Moody Blues, early Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Jon Langford (“Buried By the Blues”). Make no mistake, however, this does not come across as a derivative work. With engaging lyrics, strong arrangements and a good balance of atmosphere and aggression, Black Mountain has etched its own artistic monument on Wilderness Heart.

The Place We Ran FromTired Pony – This is the supergroup (of sorts) that few have heard of. A side project featuring Gary Lightbody (Snow Patrol), Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Scott McCaughey (R.E.M., Robyn Hitchcock and others), Jacknife Lee (producer of U2, Editors and others), Tired Pony’s debut release has received little mention in the music press. This is especially astonishing given how good the record is.

There’s something very thoughtful and weighty about these folky pop tunes. The lyrics (mostly by Lightbody) depict variations on emotional turmoil. Musically, it’s a collaborative affair, with the main players switching instruments frequently throughout. It doesn’t hurt that the principals are joined for cameos by notable friends and collaborators such as Zooey Daschanel, M. Ward and the uncredited Tom Smith (Editors).

Standout tracks include “Northwestern Skies,” with its rich vocals, chiming acoustic guitar and elegiac pump organ; the elegant vocal dance Daschanel and Smith undertake as pump organ weaves around the accompanying piano, guitars, bass and drums on “Get On the Road”; the Traveling Wilbury’s-ish “Dead American Writers”; the increasingly layered instrumentation on “I’m a Landslide”; and the Snow Patrol-meets-R.E.M. feel to Tom Smith’s other vocal appearance, “The Good Book.” [A quick aside: This latter song, one of the album’s best, is suggestive of what Smith’s band the Editors should’ve done on their 2009 release, rather than the ambitious, but ill-advised, synth-heavy affair that was In This Light and On This Evening.]

Yes, if you want to get picky, there are a few dicey moments when Tired Pony comes dangerously close to sounding like Coldplay, but overall the collective presents sophisticated songs with interesting, dynamic instrumentation, thoughtful lyrics and good production. There’s a very organic feel to the proceedings, like what happens when a talented group of musicians put ego aside and set the goal of spending some time writing and recording really good songs. … Mission accomplished.

Propellor TimeRobyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 – Despite appearances to the contrary, I didn’t purposely place another Peter Buck side project in direct succession to the first one, it just worked out that way. And with good reason, they are both stunning albums. They’re considerably different, but with some unmistakable shared tonalities here and there. Robyn Hitchcock is something of an acquired taste, but within that context he’s produced a remarkably consistent catalog of quality work over the last 25 years or so. I’ve always thought Hitchcock has done what Syd Barrett might have done had he been born about 20 years later and not gone nuts. (For just one example here, listen to “John in the Air.”)

Propellor Time once again teams the eccentric English artist with half of R.E.M., going by the name of The Venus 3. There’s also the added talents of John Paul Jones (mandolin), Johnny Marr (guitar) and Nick Lowe (harmony vocals) on certain tracks. Not bad company! Together they produce folky psychedelic pop – par for the course for Hitchcock. Songs cleverly and entertainingly tackle themes of love, god, art and man’s foibles and neuroses – often in a Dali-esque manner. Understated but noteworthy string plucking – be it on guitar, mandolin or banjo – bolsters the whole affair from start to finish.

This is an album full of standout tracks: “The Afterlight,” with its William Burroughs meets Lou Reed spoken rhymes over an R.E.M.-style backing; “Luckiness,” a twisted country banjo- and mandolin-driven tune bent sideways with undercurrents of ’50s sci-fi sounds (musical saw); “Ordinary Millionaire,” a romantic ballad that channels Al Stewart; and the upbeat folky pop-rock of “Sickie Boy,” which recalls early R.E.M., The Church and George Harrison; and The Beatles cum Byrds country psychedelia of “Born on the Wind” … I could go on.

The Suburbs – Arcade Fire – This was some people’s pick for “Album of the Year” (Q magazine, for one). It is a well-conceived, well-executed song cycle. It definitely deserves a place among the year’s best; nowhere near number one, but that’s just my opinion – and this is my list! I do enjoy this release and readily see its merits, but I have a hard time declaring supremacy for this thematic, theatrical, music hall-ish, modern art rock genre as practiced by the likes of Arcade Fire, The Decemberists and others (is it something to do with northern climes?). While I give Arcade Fire credit for musical ambition and artistry, the bottom line is that, in general, the less thematically and theatrically contrived, but highly emotive music and songcraft of rootsy artists resonates more deeply with me. That said, The Suburbs is a well-developed affair. The music is varied, interesting and well arranged. The lyrics explore the concept with an insightful, contemplative multi-dimensionality that looks both backward and forward without simple nostalgia or predictable pessimism.

PalominoTrampled By Turtles – First there was speed metal, now there’s speed bluegrass. Yep, this string quintet from Dylan’s early stomping grounds (Duluth, Minn.) delivers thoughtful, well-executed original folk songs – often rendered at breakneck speed (you needn’t go beyond the first song for an example). That’s not to say they don’t deliver some more typical, old-timey takes on folk, country and bluegrass, too. Half of Palomino’s 12 tracks are fairly standard renditions of the genre. Nevertheless, the other half are raging barn-burners, and in one instance (“New Son/Burnt Iron”) a little bit of both.

It would be a misrepresentation to paint these Turtles as bluegrass punks or simply entertaining parodists like Hayseed Dixie. They are traditionalists, but with modern sensibilities. The players (mandolin, fiddle, banjo, guitar and bass) are accomplished, adventurous, complementary and congruous. The harmony vocals add depth and heft to the multi-stringed workouts. The songs, often left-leaning lyrically, are comfortably contemporary and remarkably varied – especially considering the same five instruments comprise all tracks. Besides the Dylan references, you might hear hints of The Beatles, The Band, Chet Atkins, Hank Williams, Del McCoury and other bluegrass legends in these otherwise very original tunes.

So, if you like you’re fiddle and mandolin music sometimes plaintive, sometimes frenzied, with guitars and banjos enthusiastically heeding the call whichever direction things are headed, then check out Trampled By Turtles and their latest release.

Who Killed Sgt. Pepper?The Brian Jonestown Massacre – It’s not easy being a fan of BJM. Albums are way off the popular radar, yet astoundingly good … when they’re not shoe-gazers. Concerts are brilliant and inspired (reportedly) … when they’re not self-obsessed, artistic train wrecks (witnessed). Nevertheless, I continue to be drawn to the band’s best recordings – I am a glass half-full kind of guy, after all! This latest release, their 10th since 1995, isn’t the band’s – OK, Anton Newcombe’s and his ever-changing carousel of cohorts’ – best, but it is certainly among their better ones.

The music is a creative, dense, drug-influenced amalgamation of ’60s psychedelia, mid-’90s British trance, bits of late ’80s-era New Order and Depeche Mode, and timeless Floydian experimentalism. In other words, it’s an elusive pagan concoction brewed in San Francisco, perfected in England and fermented in Iceland. Give it a listen, you’ll see.

Standout tracks include: “Let’s Go Fucking Mental,” a funky Celtic groove-fest crossbred with an English football chant; the pulsing dance/trance swirl of “This Is the First of Your Last Warnings” (complete with Icelandic vocals); the percussive tribal drug chant of “Someplace Else Unknown”; and “Super Fucked” (as opposed to what, just “basically fucked”?). Suffice to say, this is not an album for the faint of heart or easily offended.

The final track, “Felt-Tipped Pictures of UF0s” (a title that has no discernable connection to the 10-plus minutes of music it represents), begins as an elegiac exploration of John Lennon’s post “We’re bigger than Jesus Christ” controversy comments (authentic voice samples included) before mutating into a wholesale condemnation of rich rock star hypocrisy (“How the fuck could he sing, to me, about having no possessions?!”) – the latter delivered as only a pissed working-class Liverpudlian could. (So much for the “working class hero” mythology!) “Now it’s all this,” indeed.

Ultimately, Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? is lyrically entertaining at times and musically interesting throughout. And how can you not like a band that in live performance puts the tambourine/maracas-playing background singer on stage front and center?

Together The New Pornographers – Although this release is a little poppy for my taste, the songs are quite good and there’s some interesting instrumentation (especially the strings and horns). The arrangements are tight, the production is crisp and restrained. All told, Together hovers way above the masses of this year’s pop releases.

Given her solo success, Neko Case now brings star power to the band, and though some complain that there isn’t enough of her on this record, I didn’t find that to be the case. She exhibits her ability to carry the show on “Crash Years” and “Up in the Dark.” Yet, the band is not completely dependent on her contributions and here she is as effective when doubling or backing the lead vocal as she is when carrying it herself.

The record does get a bit theatrical sounding at times, but songs travel divergent paths and rather than sounding too alike or thematically conjoined, the best tracks sound like they could be successful singles by themselves. Catchy hooks abound (take “A Bite Out of My Bed,” for example), while soaring electric guitars (recorded backwards in a few instances) dart over bouncy rhythm guitars, the prominent foundation of keyboards and, in a few cases, the quasi chamber orchestra accompaniment. Not surprisingly, the vocals are strong throughout.

Outstanding tracks include “Your Hands Together,” which reminds me of Trevor Horn-era Yes; “Silver Jenny Dollar,” which channels Robyn Hitchcock; “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk,” with its sprightly piano; and the impressive, nearly baroque pop of “We End Up Together.” All attest to the fact that this is a band that did, in fact, have it together when making this record.

Street Songs of Love Alejandro Escovedo – I had heard the critical raves for this album before I bought it. The praise was impressive, but then again, all of Escovedo’s music gets abundant critical support and while it has, indeed, been very well-crafted and listenable, it hasn’t always necessarily been that extraordinary – to me at least. Yet, upon listening to Street Songs of Love, I didn’t make it more than halfway through the first song before I began sensing something different about this new CD. It had a little more edge to it and a subtle extra oomph in the tracks. The rest of the album more than substantiated that moment of intuition. Sporting a swagger and robustness that at times recalls The Rolling Stones, Springsteen, Nick Lowe, Television, X, Dave Alvin and Los Lobos, this album is top-notch American roots rock. If you like catchy songs with rich production and rocking instrumentation, give this CD a listen.

MojoTom Petty and The Heartbreakers – This isn’t quite the blues album that early reports led me to believe it was. Based on the hype, you’d think TP and Co. were making a run for EC’s blues interpreter crown. That’s hardly the case. Not because this isn’t a good album, it’s just that a lot of it sounds fairly similar to what Petty and The Heartbreakers have been doing for years. Yes, there are a few outright blues tracks (about five of the 15 songs), and some of them are quite good (“Jefferson Jericho Blues,” “Lover’s Touch” and “Good Enough”). But this band has always played bluesy, bar-band style pop rock, and just because it has a pentatonic lead scale doesn’t make it “the blues.” Most of the tracks are simply blues-tinged rock, some with soul flavors and a couple with subtle reggae spices (“The Trip to Pirate’s Cove” and “Don’t Pull Me Over”).

Blues or not, the tunes are quite varied, with most tending toward slow to mid-tempo organ- and guitar-driven compositions. Some of my favorites include “First Flash of Freedom,” a slow-developing, atmospheric blues rock song; the upbeat, funky blues of “Running Man’s Bible”; and the tongue-in cheek 12-bar pop of “Candy.”

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers have long been one of those bands I respected, but rarely listened to – tending instead to listen more to the older artists who influenced them or even the younger artist who were influenced by them. Mojo, however, is something I do listen to, and it has been a good reminder not only of how good Tom and his band can be, but how adept they are at taking well-established musical styles and putting their own stamp on them. This time out they clearly have it working.

Midnight Souvenirs – Peter Wolf – The Woofa Goofa can still sing, and with good song selection and masterful musicians there’s no way you can go wrong. Throw in a few “celebrity” duets (Shelby Lynne, Neko Case and Merle Haggard) and you’re bound to get some attention, even if you’ve been laying low for awhile. For this release, the former J. Geils frontman again draws upon Duke Levine’s alchemical Telecaster touch, and adds former Dylan sideman Larry Campbell and Kevin Barry, Duke’s frequent six-string sparring partner in Boston singer/songwriting legend Dennis Brennan’s band. So, suffice to say, the string department is in good hands. The rest of the crew isn’t too shabby either.

At times soulful, at times rootsy and Dylanesque, at times both (“Lying Low”), the dominant genre of this album is country, or at least Wolf’s take on country. That shouldn’t be a surprise given his backing band, but it also places more emphasis on the singer’s vocal chops than was the case with the funky r & b tunes he has focused on for much of his career.

It makes for some good listening, especially the bluesy rock of “Watch Her Move”; the atmospheric country soul of “There’s Still Time”; the jaunty shuffle of “Lying Low”; the slow ballad with Neko Case, “The Green Fields of Summer”; the familiar funk fold of “Everything I Do (Gonna Be Funky)”; and the melancholy country duet with Merle, “It’s Too Late for Me.” Mick Jagger wishes his solo albums were half this good.

Tin Can Trust – Los Lobos – The 18th release from the East L.A. quintet sounds about like you’d expect – i.e., solid – with a few surprises added to the roots-rock mix. The opening track sounds a bit like R.E.M. with its prominent country mandolin melodies, while “On Main Street” has subtle, slightly noir horns lurking in the background and a “Dancing in the Street” vibe. Then there’s the expected Espanol excursions: the jazzy samba sound of “Yo Canto” and Mexican party theme of “Mujer Ingrata.” The remainder of the tracks are variations on the blues, all executed with precision and passion: The spacey percussive blues of “Jupiter or the Moon,” the fierce Texas blues shuffle of “Do the Murray” (SRV is smiling somewhere), the smoldering blues of “All My Bridges Burning” and the acoustic folk blues of “The Lady and the Rose.” This is a party record in East L.A. … and everywhere else, too!

Destroyer of the Void ­– Blitzen Trapper – There are two ways to look at this album: As a standalone CD release compared to all the other releases of 2010, or as the Portland, Ore.-sextet’s follow up to their breakthrough 2008 album, Furr. Viewed in the former light, it merits designation as one the best albums of 2010. When compared, to Furr however, it pales in comparison. In fact, at points, it comes off like a semi-successful attempt to replicate Furr – usually not a formula for long-term artistic success. With three previous indie releases before “making it big,” however, the band does have the road cred and the chops to deliver in live performance as well as on record.

All the band’s trademarks are on display: the sophisticated sense of dynamics and song construction, the seamless fusion of acoustic and electric guitars with piano and synth, the impressive but never over-done rhythm parts, and vocal harmonies seldom heard since the days of CSN and Simon and Garfunkel. At times, though, the group relies too heavily on the proven paths of the past: For example, one of Destroyer’s stronger tracks, the hauntingly engaging “The Man Who Would Speak True” sounds an awful lot like a re-write of Furr’s “Black River Killer,” the band’s biggest hit to date. Likewise, “Evening Star” has a certain familiarity (“Gold for Bread” maybe?) in the verse phrasing and lead guitar part.

Nevertheless those are good songs, and it’s not all that way: The piano- and string-oriented “Heaven and Earth” explores all new spaces. “Dragon Song” introduces a funky rock rhythm and an atypically distorted lead guitar solo into the mix, fitting them to the characteristic BT vocal phrasing and melodic treatments. Meanwhile, “Love and Hate” flashes a bit more edge than the band usually wields. So make no mistake, overall, Destroyer of the Void is a fine album – indeed, one of 2010’s best. The main knock is that, as much as it seems to be trying to be, it’s no Furr. (See my review of Blitzen Trapper’s November 2010 headlining performance in Boston here.)

The Also-Ran Department

The only real near-miss this year: Massive Attack’s Heligoland.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Photoshop Master-Mixing Eye Thriller

Here’s a graphic rap for you:


The 32 Best Opening Tracks of All Time

OK, I admit it. I’m beginning to get tapped out. I know, hard to believe with a music obsessive like me, but it’s the truth. I’ve done as many “Father Knows Best” Box Sets of CD collections for my teenage daughter as I can think of without completely forcing the concept simply for the concept’s sake, rather than the music’s sake. (Best Foreign Language Rock Songs, anyone?)

So this year, rather than the usual collection of 10 personally selected CDs nestled under the umbrella of some arbitrary theme – Best Debut Albums, Best Live Albums, Most Underrated Albums – I’m delivering my now 15-year-old music-loving daughter one CD (OK, it’s a double CD) highlighting the 32 “Best Opening Tracks of All Time.”

What makes a great opening track? Well, obviously, it must grab you right away. There has to be a dramatic sense of lift off. And it sets the tone for the rest of the album. Some first tracks might be great songs – “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Achilles Last Stand” and “Where the Streets Have No Name” come to mind – but that doesn’t quite make them the best opening tracks. Those are a tune of a different color.

Some bands are particularly adept when it comes to opening tracks, consistently delivering in ways that few others can match. In my catalog of favorites, that would be The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. (Bob Dylan doesn’t do too badly either.)

Think about it. Every Led Zeppelin album except Presence began with a monster opening track – featuring some of the heaviest guitar riffs, drum fills and wailing vocals in rock history. (Ironically, Zep’s one opening misfire was “Achilles Last Stand,” quite possibly the band’s best song ever in my book, but not necessarily a great opening track.) Then there’s The Rolling Stones: “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Brown Sugar,” “Rocks Off,” “It’s Only Rock and Roll,” “Miss You” and “Start Me Up” … What more proof do you need?

Of course, the whole concept of a great opening track is predicated on the idea of an album as a specifically sequenced series of songs: something that is quickly fading from public perception – except, perhaps, among us older folks – if not artistic consciousness. Nevertheless, once upon a time that meant something; and how albums began and ended was an important consideration (as was even how side two started in the pre-CD vinyl era).

So here is my “Best Opening Tracks of All Time” playlist:

• “Whole Lotta Love” II, Led Zeppelin The greatest rock riff of all time – OK, in close competition with “Satisfaction” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” – paired with the greatest lead guitar break, drum fill and vocal orgasm ever. Res ipsa loquitur.

• “Gimme Shelter” Let It Bleed, The Rolling Stones – The definition of “classic.” Totally anchored in the late ’60s, yet somehow still contemporary. Pulsing rhythm, menacingly intercedent lead guitar, wailing blues harp and killer background vocals … All that and one of the best maracas parts this side of Santana!

• “London Calling”London Calling, The Clash – Talk about kicking off an album with jaunty swagger! One of the great classics from the second generation of English rock musicians. Sounds as good today as it did in 1979.

• “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” De Stilj, The White Stripes – Raw force blasts out of the speakers like a slowed down Stooges giving way to an edgy, but understated, melody before bursting back into the ripping chords of the chorus. Proof you don’t need more than simple drums, simple guitar, sincere singing, a good arrangement and crisp recording. Great use of dynamics. Sounds loud at any volume.

• “Lively Up Yourself”Natty Dread, Bob Marley and The Wailers – The song that first bridged the rock-reggae genre and turned all the Brits on to reggae (Jagger/Richards, Clapton, Page, Parker, et al really took this to heart). The Live version is better, but it doesn’t kick off that album.

• “Subterranean Homesick Blues”Bringing It All Back Home, Bob Dylan – Right from the start, this song announced a “new Dylan.” The young troubadour was turning on, turning it up and channeling the spirit of Kerouac and Ginsburg, rather than Woody Guthrie. This song embraces the 1960s’ counter-culture while conjuring twisted images of the old-timey Midwest. “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

• “Planet Telex” The Bends, Radiohead – One of the first great “post-modern” album tracks. Supremely original, yet still referential. The sound of the future arriving. This album, and the next one (OK Computer), would make Radiohead the biggest band in the word for awhile – until they decided, “Enough of that!”

• “Baba O’Riley”Who’s Next, The Who – The most famous synthesizer riff of all time sets up that classic, crashing entrance of three chords (you know, the ones that tell the truth). So much more than “teenage wasteland” … though that still resonates in many ways, too. A great start to one of the best sounding Who albums (thank you, Glyn Johns).

• “Rocks Off” Exile on Main Street, The Rolling Stones – This song doesn’t quite fit the criteria for great opening track the way most of the others on this list do. On the surface, it’s a straightforward mid-tempo rocker, but buoyant subtleties in vocals and instrumentation make it more than just another sprightly Stones song. The result is a perfect start to one of the band’s best albums. Great horns by Bobby Keys, and Nicky Hopkins’s piano jousts with Keith’s chords as the song gallops along. Some tasty Mick Taylor guitar licks buried in the mix, too.

• “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” Crosby, Stills, Nash, Crosby, Stills, Nash – It’s not easy for a predominantly acoustic song to make this list, but this is what had people seriously calling CSN “the American Beatles” for a short while in 1969-1970. Despite the acoustic feel, there is some perfectly understated electric guitar, too. Then, of course, there’s the ever-present, incomparable vocal harmonies. This song is the apex of Stephen Stills’ artistic accomplishments, and a fully developed template for what CSN would be as a band.

• “Break On Through (To the Other Side)” The Doors, The Doors – Another great riff that kick starts an album and sets the tone for all that follows. Urgent, with a hint of reckless abandon. It’s easy to focus on the guitar riffs and the organ rhythms, but it’s Densmore’s drumming that makes the track what it is. Interestingly, Morrison’s vocals are rather unremarkable on this one.

• “Immigrant Song” III, Led Zeppelin – Viking plunder meets hippie consciousness. That opening vocal wail, the funky shuffling drums and the leaden bass/guitar riff yield the sound of the “Hammer of the Gods.” Quite a start to the band’s … ahem … “acoustic” album. Ironically, this is the only Zep song with no guitar solo!

• “World Shut Your Mouth” Saint Julian, Julian Cope – Edgy 1980s’ pop at its best since The Clash’s pop dabblings. Radio friendly, but retaining some spunk. Great production, too. Sonically, kind of an English forerunner to Cracker in some ways, now that I think about it. The peak of Cope’s career, really – representing a small window of lucidity between acid casualty and eco-earth-mother-archdrude nutcase.

• “Smells Like Teen Spirit”Nevermind, Nirvana – I have to admit, I was never as smitten with Nirvana as many of my peers and those slightly younger seemed to be. Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that the slackers from Seattle did popularize a noteworthy new coalescence of influences in the form of “grunge.” And “Here we are, entertain us,” does pretty much speak to the attitude of a generation. Yet, ultimately, “Well, whatever, nevermind,” really says it all.

• “Come Together” Abbey Road, The Beatles – Lennon cops some Chuck Berry lyrics and pairs them with some funky organ riffs and alternately shimmering and piercing guitar fills. One of the best return-to-basics tunes of the mature Beatles’ career. Nice double-tracking on the lead vocals, too. The rest of Abbey Road followed the tone established on this one.

• “Fisherman’s Blues” Fisherman’s Blues, The Waterboys – Another of the rare acoustic numbers to make this list. Carried by exuberant Celtic fiddle and dream-filled vocals, this song is simplicity perfected (musically and lyrically), punctuated by a spirited delivery. Not just the namesake for the album, but a grand announcement that The Waterboys were serious about their stay in Ireland. The beginning of a lush and fruitful idea, indeed.

• “Trenchtown Rock” Live!, Bob Marley and the Wailers – One the greatest starts to a live album ever. Though rather than kicking out the jams right from the get go, this stays true to reggae form and eases into the spirit of things, gently setting the mood with a understated rhythm and laid-back melody. “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain. So hit me with music. Hit me with music now.” … Words to live by.

• “Don’t Bang the Drum” – This Is the Sea, The Waterboys – The last album airing “the big music” that The Waterboys built their early career on – before heading to the craggy terrain of Western Ireland and embracing the Celtic twilight. Roddy Lorimer’s opening trumpet solo provides a unique anticipatory lull before the band kicks into an epic sounding, mid-tempo rocker about “deliverance, or history, under these skies so blue.” Anto Thistlethwaite’s sax joins the trumpet, distorted guitars, keyboards, drums and Mike Scott’s hoots and Dylanesque chants for the clamorous climax: “Just let it come, don’t bang the drum!”

And kicking off Disc 2:

“In a Big Country”The Crossing, Big Country – Unfairly pigeon-holed as a band of plaid-wearing Scotsmen with bagpipe-sounding guitars at the dawn of the MTV-era, Big Country was nothing short of a great band for a few albums. This first song on their debut album set the stage. Yes, there were guitars with bagpipe-like effects, but plenty of others, too. And paired with Mark Brezecki’s huge drum sound and Tony Butler’s funky bass, there was something more sophisticated and emotive in this song than the stereotype suggests. Big Country were masters at interweaving ancestral melodies with modern pop-rock sounds, subtle-yet-spirited instrumentation and Stuart Adamson’s atavistic romanticism.

• “Rough Boys” Empty Glass, Pete Townshend – To this day, Empty Glass remains, to me, Townshend’s best solo album. In fact, this far surpassed what The Who were doing by this point (1980). I think Pete knew that, too. Sophisticated songwriting and arrangements – just as you’d expect from Townshend: nuanced and ripping at the same time. Sounds like he’s worked up some ire not heard since he’d venomously written: “Who the fuck are you?”

“I Will Follow” Boy, U2 ­– Like many lead tracks on great debut albums, this was an announcement of arrival, an auspicious start, yet one that now sounds quaint. As dated as it is, that ringing E string and the tinkling triangle remain uniquely engaging. There is a reason that this induced early ’80s’ pop audiences to frenetic pogoing.

“Shot of Love” Shot of Love, Bob Dylan – Apocalyptic and pleading, this was the fading echo of Dylan’s gospel period. But it’s also a great, funky, pseudo-gospelesque rocker that has the old bard spitting lyrics like he did at the height of the ’60s. He’s propelled along by Clydie King’s impassioned vocals and Fred Tackett’s rocking guitar.

“Young Man Blues” Live at Leeds, The Who – Not the start of the live concert from which it was taken, but the perfect start for the live E.P. that really helped The Who establish sound footing for their career in the U.S. Great as he was, Mose Allison (the song’s composer) never envisioned this!

“Search and Destroy”Raw Power, Iggy and the Stooges – Raw power, indeed! Wholly defined by the line, “I’m a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of nepalm.” It’s the quintessential counterpoint to the peace-and-love side of the equation in 1969. The bridge between Eddie Cochran, The Ramones and The Sex Pistols if there ever was one.

“Finest Worksong”Document, R.E.M. ­– A somewhat forgotten dose of R.E.M.’s early forays into harder rock, but this song and the album it leads off remain among my favorites by the boho’s from Athens. I played the grooves off this L.P. back in 1987 (and later the zeroes and ones out of the CD version). “What we want and what we need, has been confused” … and it often still is.

“Wait for the Black Out”The Black Album, The Damned – A powerful song, despite the now muffled sounding recording (or maybe it’s my hearing that is now muffled). This was the midpoint between the thrashing guitar and pounding drums of the seminal punk band’s early days and their later ultra pop ventures (before they concluded as a heavy metal band, of course). As such, it’s the perfect balance between musicality, unabated energy and something to say — with the boots on to make sure the point comes through loud and clear! The same goes for this entire album, which (recording issues aside) remains very listenable even today. And it leaves no doubt as to why Jimmy Page sought out Rat Scabies to play drums with him shortly after this was released.

“Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” Cracker Brand, Cracker ­– A catchy, classically rocking track, for sure, but it’s David Lowery’s clever lyrics that make this the keeper it is. No mere sardonic novelty though, the attitude and humor of this song are whipped along perfectly by guitarist Johnny Hickman’s raunchy melodies and clanging chords.

“Brown Sugar”Sticky Fingers, The Rolling Stones – What Keef can do with a five-string guitar is more poignant and groovy than most guitarists can do with 12 strings, much less six! This is one of Jagger’s best vocal performances ever (a lot of multi-tracking going on here). And, as is so often the case during this period, Bobby Keys’ sax is fast on the heels of the Human Riff.

“Debaser”Doolittle, The Pixies – A perfect example of the Boston band’s twisted take on punky pop rock. Propelled by Kim Deal’s heavy bottom end (bass, that is), Joey Santiago’s fluid lead guitar melodies glide in, out and around Black Francis’ choppy chords and manic vocals.

“Black Dog”IV, Led Zeppelin – Those first few seconds of understated guitar scratching are like an engine revving up before the full onslaught of Robert Plant’s a cappella verse vocal and the quintessential hard rock guitar/bass riff. A great performance and production that makes for a powerful start to an incredibly varied album that is also quite possibly the best rock album of all time.

“Zoo Station” Achtung Baby, U2 – The stark, steady snare, clanging toms and swirling synthesizer bracing against The Edge’s chiming guitar and Bono’s heavily effected vocals declared that the Irish quartet would be wielding a new sonic palette in the new decade of the 1990s. And indeed they did.

“Low”Kerosene Hat, Cracker – Simply a great rock song. One of the true highlights of this band’s long career. Strongly strummed acoustic guitar provides the ground floor, upon which are layered classic rock guitars and cinematic vocals. This is a model of how to do the whole verse/chorus dynamic, not to mention instrumental bridge.

That’s my list … at least for now. There’s another dozen or so songs that nearly made it. What would be on yours?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Look Up!

I always suspected all the answers were a direct ascent from the useless hobby ...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Stereo Stampede Flim-Flam

Beware the false syllogism ...

Good old American mono? ... Must’ve been those dastardly Germans who came up with that sinister stereo sound!