Yo La Tengo – Fade (Matador)
Musically speaking, it’s so still and tranquil it takes rotations aplenty before any of its minuscule beauty begins to stick. But once your bearings are found, it’s easy to key in on their charming patchwork of delicate melodies, shimmering sonics and lushly detailed instrumentation. With carefully crafted horns, nimble organ, brittle chords, and a few well placed string arrangements, the band continue to master their subtle flair for hooks – which lightly dance amid husband and wife duo Ira Kaplan’s and Georgia Hubley’s whispered vocals. Slowly creeping up on their fourth decade as a band, and this being their thirteenth album, it’s easy to call these songs routine (as some of them are) but with increasing age has come a tightened resolve to stick together, and remain assured in each other’s company. They’re prone to let the worries of being middle-age creep in, and they certainly have the right to be anxious or hesitant of growing older, but they continually reaffirm their faith in each other with lines like “We always wake before we fall / I always know that when we wake up / You’re mine.” You know what they say. The kids are alright.
Christopher Owens – Lysandre (Fat Possum)
Out of work after quitting his day job as leader of the overrated Girls, Chris Owens relishes in his new gig flying solo. A vague concept album centered around his broken heart, he layers saxes, flutes, harmonica, piano and backup singers onto this brisk batch of whimsical self therapy. How quaint. No doubt these songs must have been moderately liberating to record, but they’re dull and colorless to the ear. Blame it on his gutless whimper of a voice that’s more annoying than sympathetic, but also on his poor sense of direction. In a scant 29 minutes, he traverses through weak-kneed chamber pop, toothless pop rock, a rudderless instrumental, and half-assed country folk. It’s lesser than the sum of its parts and made more forgettable by a host of cliches. “Don’t try and harsh my mellow”? If he’s being droll his humor is far too arid, and if he’s being sincere, I think I figured out why his sweetheart ditched him in the first place. GRADE: C+
Key Track: ”Love Is In The Ear Of The Listener”
At least he’s better than Wiz Khalifa.
A$AP Rocky – Live.Love.A$AP. (Self-Released, 2011)
An internet phenom (yes, another one of those) who hustled his way through the online game, he’s prone to rep his Harlem home, remain ever hungry for pussy, out drink Lil Wayne in the Purp department, give love to coke, weed, and bitches, and take it to any muthafucka who crosses him or his Gs. Lyrically, that’s about it. Sonically, it’s just as superficial. The beats range from typical to half assed, while the cliché synth bits are as forgettable and dull as his topics of discussion. Some in the blogosphere are want to comment on A$AP and his contemporaries as a new breed of Post-regional rap – an amalgam of hip-hop’s many subgenre’s meshed into everything Grand Master Flash, Big Boi, 2Pac, HOVA and Eminem were striving for. But every one of those Titans possessed two important traits; a brain, and a personality (two areas Mr. Rocky is short in). Sorry, but if this mixtape is supposed to be any kind of hint towards a greater culmination, he’ll have to do better than “Life is like a bitch / a bitch is like a hoe / hoes want the money / money come and go.” In short, the revolution will not be televised, mostly because it’s not a revolution at all. Just smoke and more smoke. GRADE: B-
Key Track: “Peso”
A$AP Rocky – Long.Live.A$AP. (RCA)
His shiny new contract with RCA means a bigger budget for the basics – which explains his vastly improved beats and hooks. A bigger pay roll also means a notable cast of special guests – including Santigold, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown and Florence Welch. The ingredients are there for a successful debut, but the biggest hindrance is A$AP’s ever-stunted rhymes which are perpetually preoccupied with dick grabbing, gun toting and hater hating. I realize he’s a 24-year-old trailblazing through the get-rick-quick era, but even when he tries to soften up, he spits out such keepers as “She just has a smokin’ ‘gina where the wet willies? / I come apart on her heart on her left titty.” A real charmer. For all the time he pretends to be a hard ass, he’s just a blow hard. GRADE: B-
Key Tracks: “Hell”
In the year 2000.
Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP (Interscope, 2000)
Oblivious politicians, self-righteous moralists, an apprehensive gay community, and out-of-touch parents who couldn’t spell “.mp3,” clamored and denounced this “homophobic,” “depraved,” “demonic,” and “repugnant,” album. But even the most casual of listeners (all 10 million of them) were able to hear beyond the controversy and, if nothing else, enjoy it for the most basic reasons; the beats, the hooks, the jokes, the rhymes, the cathartic joy of listening to someone not give a single fuck. As history has trudged along, with Em’s anger dulled into cliché emo rap, this abrasively brilliant record has remained nearly as potent as it ever was. Yes the stabs at Fred Durst, Christina and Britney are dated, but his untamed rage, which drove his creativity, was largely targeted towards more worthwhile opponents – most notably his perpetually stoned mother and his uneasy relationship with fame. Using macabre humor, pulverizing depictions of violence, no-holds-barred honesty, a quick-footed flow and a perceptive wit, he burns through verse after verse, spitting a most enjoyable bile at those who double cross, or simply annoy him. But the most devastating song pins all of the failures of the world squarely on his shoulders, with Dido singing the eulogy. It’s almost poetic. Hell, even majestic. GRADE: A
Radiohead – Kid A (Capitol, 2000)
Once deemed “The Only Band That Matters” by those dumb enough to discount The White Stripes at their peak, they’ve spent the last 12 years morphing into the very thing they’ve always despised – a logo, a brand, a guarantee, a corporate entity. Their career arch is all too cyclical; release an over-hyped batch of digitized nothingness, let a scene full of indie snobs jerk off to the supposed brilliance of Thom York, wait for said batch of digitized nothingness to collect dust on a sparsely used shelf. I never understood Yorke’s disdain for the mainstream success of “Creep.” God forbid people relate to his music. Oh yeah. Yorke hates people, hence his attraction to synths, loops, effects, ambience and an entire garbage bin full of computerized trickery adored by the Pitchfork crowd. However, despite his attempts to avant-garde his way into the Bjork Hall of Fame, he accidentally created a real batch of songs with Kid A. Where he’s always been a paranoid android too robotic to function, here Yorke and the gang inject almost every one of these songs with a fluid sense of humanity. The rhythms lean primal, muscular and forceful, while the instrumentation is mostly colorful, expansive, and lively. All Yorke has to do is let his eerily soft voice seep in through the cracks, adding texture to the recipe. As with most of their discography, I can’t recall a single song title when all is said and done, but at least I know I felt something. Ah yes, feeling. How mainstream. GRADE: A-
Main courses from a career of appetizers.
Blur – Modern Life is Rubbish (SBK, 1993)
Where they struggled with identity and structure on their debut , here they find themselves reflected in the characters they concoct, and the mundane situations they place them in. There is Colin Zeal a well-dressed “modern retard” who takes pleasure in the corporate world and being punctual, or that sad bloke Julian who can’t take the pressures of professional adulthood. Sure the lyrics aren’t quite as caught up as the hooks, but sometimes hooks alone will suffice – especially when they are this focused and caffeinated. Still, the first great Blur record suffers from the same deadly sin as every other great Blur record – it’s too top heavy. While the first eight tracks remain some of the strongest, brattiest, punchiest tunes the band ever cooked up, with “Advert” being the punchiest of all, the back half becomes comatose after consuming too many TV dinners. A holiday would have suited them well. GRADE: A-
Of course Damon Albarn had “nuthin’ to be scared of,” as he declared in the opening struts of “Ambulance.” With guitarist Graham Coxon calling it quits during the album’s recording sessions, Albarn was liberated from the obligation of making a prototypical Blur record. So he traded his house in the country for a shack in Morocco and got funky with loops and synths on an album I’ve always considered Gorillaz 2.0 sans the hypnotic weirdness. These are dub songs meant for those who feed on apathy and ecstasy. The drug anthems may be the immediate quick fixes thanks to some of the more intricate musicianship found on a Blur record, but it’s Albarn’s ballads which have held up over the previous decade. The anti-war song “Out of Time” features a Moroccan symphony and adds a flavorful perspective to his Cockney point of view, while “Battery in Your Leg,” the only track which features Coxon’s guitar, finds Albarn sadly, yet peacefully, toasting the difficult friendship that helped define him. But the tenderest tribute comes on “Sweet Song,” the album’s centerpiece, where Albarn whispers “Come back again, I just believed in you.” GRADE: A-
Key Tracks: ”Sweet Song” “Battery In Your Leg” “Out of Time”
Green Day – Dookie (Reprise, 1994)
With Kurt Cobain and his dreary loneliness cast as the sacred cow of ’90s rock, Billie Joe Armstrong stood in contrast as a caffeinated, less troubled alternative – singing about masturbation and laziness out of sheer boredom rather than any kind of misanthropic angst. Without aiming for a grand statement, concept, or theme, they define themselves by their nimble arrangements and Tre Cool’s fluid drumming which adds gravity to, what are otherwise, rudderless verses. But for what Armstrong lacked in lyricism, he made up with melody and hooks. Even the weaker of these 14 songs feature at least one worthy nugget; a chorus, a riff, a savvy bass line. The stronger ones possess all three and more; a sense of urgency, of dissociation, of misspent youth comfortable in its own apathy. It’s no coincidence the latter three are feelings. After all, feelings are what drives this record, and, sometimes, feelings are all you need. GRADE: A-
Green Day – Warning (Reprise, 2000)
Aging was never going to be easy for them – as Billie Joe’s rather public meltdown during last year’s iHeartRadio Music Festival reaffirmed all too awkwardly. But before they lost their way in the mire of bloated rock operas and tacky Broadway tricks, they churned out an underrated album which scaled back their love for bombast and instead relied on slightly-matured lyrics from a slightly-matured Armstrong. Creeping up on 30 at the time, he injected his fears of decreasing relevancy and growing complacency into characters trapped by similar circumstances; schlubs who hate the monotonous grind of dead end jobs, weirdo sex fiends who get their kicks at the hands of masochistic mistresses, and bored nobodies caught in midlife crisis mode. Down and out for sure, but Armstrong was always at his best when he sang about his fellow losers, which makes a song like “Minority” a notable personal anthem more than a political chant. If you listen carefully you can hear a band calmly, and smartly, transitioning into cruise control. Too bad Billie Joe’s ego had to go and ruin it all. They could have been their generation’s Might Be Giants, instead they became their generation’s Meatloaf. GRADE: A-
Further research after reading their respective biographies.
The Beach Boys – Endless Summer (Capitol, 1987)
After nearly a decade of declining sales and slowly losing band architect Brian Wilson to ever-worsening mental health issues, this greatest hits album was released at a time when nostalgia for early rock was in high demand. Credit the success of this mega-selling behemoth for turning a bunch of disgruntled has-beens into the successful tribute act they would always remain. Here is every important single they ever released not found on Pet Sounds, all recorded within a brief five year span. They range from deceptively simple surf anthems (“Surfin’ Safari”), to vulnerable ballads (“In My Room”), to harmonically potent packs of sugar coated pop (“California Girls”). Together they demonstrate how connected the band was to the ballooning youth culture of the ‘60s, and how perceptive Wilson was to the hopelessly romantic struggles of adolescence. Played linearly, the album tells the story of beachcombers turned soliloquists, and of a fracturing mind made functional by its own brilliance. By the time the falsetto wailing and Theremin chirping finale of “Good Vibrations” reaches its peak, it’s the sound of the music’s mightiest victory lap. What? Can’t find the song on your copy? You must have the vinyl edition. Sorry. This is a review for the CD version. Damn right I’m a stickler about having the greatest pop song ever written on my (or any) Beach Boys hits package. GRADE: A
James Brown – Live At the Apollo (King / Polydor, 1963)
Recorded in the fall of 1962, this is a definitive performance from one of America’s definitive performers. It transformed James Brown from the King of the Chitlin’ Circuit into music’s most exciting personality, and introduced new listeners (many of them white) to the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. Despite having attained modest success with a string of notable R&B singles, Brown made his money, and his legend, on the stage, and knew the quickest way to sell more tickets was to sell a piece of his act on wax. With his record label skeptical of a live album absent any new material’s profitability, Brown paid out of pocket to record it himself, betting cash saved for of an upcoming tour on one night at the greatest venue in Black America. This is quintessential soul music that’s a product of the rigid professionalism and expert showmanship Brown polished through years of playing in southern feed barns and chicken shacks. From the opening query “Are you ready for Star Time?” posed by M.C. Fats Gonder, to the shuffling finale of “Night Train,” Brown and the Famous Flames travel through a set of dance numbers and ballads in as straight a line as possible, pulverizing everyone in attendance along the way. The group’s reliance on The One, a musical philosophy touted by Brown which put emphasis on the first beat of each measure, is the mystical driving force which propels these songs, with Brown’s chest-piercing scream sounding the bells of a king assuming the throne. “I said I feel alright, children,” he says. And with good reason. His bet paid off, and Live at the Apollo spent 66 weeks on the charts, morphing a onetime Augusta shoeshine into a millionaire. GRADE: A+
Postscript: The particular biographies mentioned in the subhead are “Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson” by Peter Ames Carlin, and “The One: The Life and Music of James Brown” by RJ Smith.