Movies I more or less have to be at home, in the living room, to watch. Music, on the other hand, is gloriously portable, which means I’m always listening to something. Here are a few somethings I’ve been listening to the past week or so. No links, though, ‘cause I’m lazy.
Lee “Scratch” Perry/Arkology: His nickname’s “Scratch,” and sometimes “The Upsetter,” but Perry’s true nickname should “The Uncompileable.” He’s released so much, under so many different names, as composer, producer, guest, etc., that’s it’s impossible to create a comprehensive career overview. But the triple-disc “Arkology” is close enough. The first disc alone has Max Romeo’s “War Ina Babylon” and “Chase the Devil” (both sort of atypical for the potty mouthed Romeo), plus gems like the Meditations “Life is Not Easy.”
The Rolling Stones/Let It Bleed/Some Girls: When people call each Stones album “the best Stones album since ‘Some Girls,’” do they really know what they’re saying? “Some Girls” is loud, raw and contains some of the greatest Stones songs. It’s also the last time the band sounded relevant and alive. While some could argue for “Tattoo You,” even the band admits it’s an album of reheated leftovers. As for “Let It Bleed,” well, the album begins with “Gimme Shelter.” If the rest of the disc was nothing but animal noises it’d still be a masterpiece. This is also the last time the Stones sounded not just relevant but dangerous, too. And speaking of animals, “Monkey Man” sounds dangerous and funny. Try pulling that off, lesser bands!
Radiohead/Kid A/Amnesiac: “Kid A” may have been the most hyped album in recent memory, and while most reviews and the reception met expectations – it debuted at #1, after all – I haven’t read much attesting to the disc’s staying power. It still sounds ahead of its time and very much alive with ideas and cool risks. “Amnesiac,” for that matter, is great, too. Remember what a big stink was made when “Kid A” leaked to the internet? The album was the first big internet sensation on the waning days of the original Napster, when the whole world was at your fingertips but most of the world hadn’t quite figured that out yet. “Amnesiac” is often erroneously misconstrued as an album of outtakes and leftovers, but it’s just as amazing as anything on “Kid A,” with a couple of moments that eclipse it, like when Thom York’s backwards vocals flip forward on “Like Spinning Plates.”
The Smiths/The Queen is Dead: Part of my Smiths-a-thon, and generally regarded as their best start-to-finish album. Any album that includes “Bigmouth Strikes Again” and a song as unbearably romantic as “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” is OK in my book. This is the album to take out for people convinced the Smiths do not and have never rocked.
The Clash/London Calling: In case you’re wondering, it’s still really good (though “Sandinista!” has more surprises).
Bruce Springsteen/The River: Reportedly two discs long in response to “London Calling,” this clearing house of an album left behind even more albums worth of unreleased gems. As for what’s on the record proper, it’s got some of Springsteen’s darkest songs and some of his most frivolous, plus stuff like “Hungry Heart,” which can be either type depending on how close you listen.
Bruce Springsteen/Born in the USA: Where Bruce goes massive. Interesting piece of trivia: Springsteen has never had a #1. “Dancing in the Dark” hit #2. The song that kept it from the top? “When Doves Cry,” which is my token response when asked to name the greatest song of all time, and which makes “DitD” seem all the thinner in comparison. Lyrically, however, it’s pretty ripping stuff, one of Springsteen’s most direct and self-doubting, even as he aims for the stars.
Afghan Whigs/Black Love: My candidate for band that should definitely reunite and kick everyone’s asses. Anyone who caught the Whigs in the late ‘90s knows that they were a live act par excellence. This album, well, it was the disc that followed “Gentleman,” but probably didn’t properly follow-up. “1965” would have done the trick, and by the time the band released that one it had lost its chance to hit it big. But “Black Love” is pretty damn good, too, loud and angry.
Brian Eno/Here Come the Warm Jets/Another Green World/Before and After Science: Eno’s first four albums are each quite remarkable, but listening to his first (“Warm Jets”) is all the more striking after listening to where he went with his third and fourth, “Another Green World” and “Before and After Science.” The latter two are quieter and more nuanced, full of ambient experiments and hushed pop songs. The debut, on the other hand, is like a recording of a train wreck played on a warped piece of scratchy vinyl. With hooks.
Peter Gabriel/So: Big sell-out move? I don’t think so. People forget what a weird cult guy Gabriel was until this album, and while it had some hits, the rest is strange as usual. “Excellent Birds?” Weird. But “Mercy Street” and “Don’t Give Up” are two of the prettiest songs ever written, and “In Your Eyes” deserves its status as one of the great anthemic love songs. My only complaint is that the CD reissues conclude with “In Your Eyes” rather than the spookier “Birds.” Supposedly that’s how it was always intended, but I like the old, darker order better.
The Coral/Invisible Invasion: Imagine the Doors but a) British b)produced by the Portishead folks c) good but d) not Echo & the Bunnymen.
The Byrds/Younger Than Yesterday:: Another nice intersection of their psych, folk, pop, country tendencies. The title, of course, comes from “My Back Pages,” yet another Bob Dylan song made superior by those who covered it. Want to play a fun game? Listen to “My Back Pages” and then Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light.”
Built to Spill/Keep It Like a Secret: Remember the good old days, in the late ‘90s, when a solid indie rock band could be counted on to release a record that’s great from start to finish? This is one of the last guitar albums I’ve truly loved, though leader Doug Martsch seems to have soured on it, calling it too poppy. Whatever. There are a lot of elements it could be “too,” but poppy is not one to complain about. It’s got hooks galore, often dozens in just a single song, yet it’s simpler and straight-forwarder than its brilliantly meandering predecessor “Perfect from Now On.”
Jay-Z/The Black Album: As I may have posted earlier, 2005 was a terrible year for hip-hop, with the sole consensus album the Kanye West disc, which happened to be as boring as it was ambitious. I needed a reminder of hip-hop done right so I pulled out Jay-Z’s “final” album, which is neat and tidy, and remarkably strong. With ace productions from Timbaland, Rick Rubin, Eminem and, yes, Kanye, it’s full of keepers, and anyone that thinks it was eclipsed by the silly and lazy “Grey Album” is retarded.
The National/Alligator: Months ago I saw the much hyped Clap Your Hands Say Yeah open from the much less hyped the National, but it’s the latter I came away impressed by. “Alligator” is just a great record.
The Special AKA/In the Studio/More Specials: After their punky ska debut, the Specials went weird. I played “In the Studio” for Alma and she guessed it was from the mid-90s. Not a bad guess, since it does what Beck has been attempting (and failing) to do for years.
Basement Jaxx/Rooty: One of the few acts that understands where music must go and how to get there, this is unclassifiable dance music as beholden to classic Prince as it is spilling over with new ideas.
REM/Life’s Rich Pageant: An REM album I rarely listen to, this is the disc I bet the band was thinking of when they recorded the supposedly back to basics “Monster.” Of course, it’s much better than “Monster,” and with “Fall On Me” includes a quiet monster of its own.
Tom Waits/Heartattack and Vine: Where Tom Waits gets strange, more gruff and suddenly great. The best tracks are the ballads, especially “Ruby’s Arms” and “Jersey Girl,” covered memorably and logically by the Boss.
Seefeel/Polyfusia: I know I own Seefeel’s album “Quique.” I’ve had it for ten years. But it’s not on the shelf where it belongs, which has been driving me batty. I looked for it online, plus couldn’t find it used, so the only way I can get a copy is by giving in to extortionists and shelling out $20. Whatever. I downloaded it just to have it, then listened to the comp “Polyfusia,” which includes the beautiful 13-minute “Minky Starshine.”
East River Pipe/What are You On?: The new disc from F.M.Cornog, Home Depot worker by day, East River Pipe by … night, I assume. Or on break. Ever since his home recording rig got fancy I think his music has lost something, but there were a few nice songs that seeped in on first listen.
Neneh Cherry/Raw Like Sushi: “Buffalo Stance!” But the rest is good, too. I almost forgot that it featured most of Massive Attack before anyone knew who they were.
Drive-By Truckers/A Blessing and a Curse: The downside of listening to any new Drive-By Truckers disc is that I know it’s unlikely I’ll hear a better album for months. So it was with some trepidation that I put on this album, due in April. My first listen didn’t blow me away, but it’s really grown on me since. Two songs by Jason Isbell, two songs by Mike Cooley, the rest by Patterson Hood, all the right mix of rocking, spooky and detail-rich. It sort of reminds me of the Stones at their most shambling, but a lot more polished. Still, the band leaves so much space in the music it hardly sounds like a big bid for radio play (which they’ll never get, anyway).
Townes Van Zandt/High and Low and In Between/The Late Great Townes Van Zandt: Anyone who names an album “The Late Great Townes Van Zandt” while he’s still alive and kicking is cool as hell, though Van Zandt did have something of a death wish. It just took him a few more hard-living decades following these early albums to finally kick off early. But when that guy was on, he was really on, even if, like the similarly wealthy but rebellious Gram Parsons, he didn’t give a poop.
Amadou & Mariam/Dimanche A Bamako: Mali by way of Paris. I’ve loved this album since it was released overseas, where it was a big hit, and it’s been rightfully embraced in America after its domestic issue. I didn’t include it on my top ten only for a couple of niggling reasons. One, I’m not sure how representative it is of their true sound, but two, more importantly, it’s so rare that I hear a shitty African record that I felt it lame to tap it as a sort of token “world music” nod. Great, though.
X/Under the Big Black Sun: Some people refuse to get past the first two masterpieces “Wild Gift” and “Los Angeles.” Others (crazy people) think “The New World” is their best album. But really it’s this one, not only the first X album I heard and bought, but the one that perfectly encapsulates the sleaze of LA, punk, rockabilly and poetry.
James/Laid: I can’t believe this was a hit based on the less than two minutes novelty title track. The rest of the album is spare and weird, at least partially a product of producer Brian Eno, who ignored the band’s invitations until he heard these demos, acoustic and stripped down. He rightfully called “Sometimes” one of the most beautiful songs he’d ever heard. “There’s four new colors in the rainbow,” sings Tim Booth. “An old man’s taking polaroids. But all he captures is endless rain, endless rain.”
Albion Country Band/Battle of the Field: British folk-rock at both its most traditional and its most proggy, you can hear here where this stuff intersects with distant cousin Jethro Tull (though not always in a bad way).
Youssou N’Dour/Egypt: A protest album, of sorts, by the Senegalese singer, finding him embracing Islam and infusing his music with different strains of Northern African religious stuff. It’s pretty, it’s powerful and to spite U.S. policy he cancelled his American tour to support it.
The Doo Wop Box: An early Rhino CD-era triumph, four (well, three and some crappier stuff) discs of street corner genius that reminds me of when I was little, scratching up my dad’s collection of 45s.