If it’s Saturday night, it’s time to talk tunes.
Now that The Paranoid Style’s Elizabeth Nelson is writing for LGM, it is even more ridiculous that I provide my pointless scribbling about music. As an admittedly bad music writer, Elizabeth reminds me how good music writing reads. But since embarrassment has never been as a weakness of mine, I guess I will keep on plodding ahead with my questionable takes and poor wordsmanship. Probably better to read Elizabeth instead.
Christgau introducing this year’s Pazz & Jop List led to a pretty good discussion about both the dominance of women making much of the best music in the modern era (which I completely agree with) and the fact that the album is still a relevant form of music. An excerpt:
Nonetheless, fans like me and you are lucky to have another Pazz & Jop for the same reason as always. Whatever its lacunae and limitations, however fucked and suborned its respondents, Pazz & Jop’s multivenue, cross-demographic consensus reveals stuff about pop music’s ever-evolving aesthetic profile that neither streaming-doctored sales charts nor self-branding Top 50s can. Only post-poll, for instance, do we really know exactly what kind of Year of the Woman it was. Although the record-shattering 25 women in the P&J Top 40 are joined by only 22 (and two halves) in the next 60, their dominance is undeniable, as their music addresses more angles on female empowerment, male privilege, male assholery, and female anxiety than anyone would otherwise know were there. But it also turns out that this year’s politics aren’t exclusively identity politics. Young ninth-place alt-rock guitar-bass-drums Parquet Courts embrace the déclassé term collective; old eleventh-place alt-rock guitar-bass-drums Superchunk contextualize their anti-Trump jabs with the Eighties mea culpa “Reagan Youth”; loudly male, loudly anti-sexist 35th-place Idles embrace immigrant punks and dis Eton thugs; 25th-place U.S. Girl Meg Remy saves her catchiest lefter-than-thou for, uh-oh, warmonger Barack Obama. Note as well that although runaway chart-toppers Kacey Musgraves and Janelle Monáe hail from country and funk, and only two of the thirteen women in my own Top 25 are alt-rockers, it was definitely an alt-rock in nothing like decline after all that engendered this Year of the Woman.
And now, before anybody accuses me of theme essay encroachment, I’ll stop the poll-watching and proceed to what I really want to write about: the Dean’s List, which old-timers may recall arranges all the albums I’ve rated A or A minus in a given year in order of preference. Posted on my website mid-January, the 2018 edition nabbed 83 of them. Until 2012 I went to the trouble of adding some singles, but by then I’d long been forcing it. As far back as Run-D.M.C. and Licensed to Ill, in fact, I’ve devoted almost all my professional ear time and pleasure listening to albums, a claim few if any working critics under 35 can make and not many would want to — although album reviews remain a staple of the trade, the song-as-meme and YouTube hit provide crucial fodder in a nonstop news cycle where content providers juice thrill-of-the-week aesthetics by posting and hence positing several thrills a day. In fact, it’s long been theorized that the album format is doomed. Way back in 2003, Wired had me write 100 words (unpaid, naturally) about whether the album was “a dying art form.” In 2018, as sales of both CDs and downloads dove, chatter about the format’s imminent demise rattled on as usual.
Major labels being major labels, which among other bad things can mean Spotify stakeholders, some version of the death of the physical album could happen. But as someone whose professional specialty is finding A albums, I stand by what I told Wired a full fifth of the album’s life span ago: “For as long as artists tour, they’ll peddle song collections with the rest of the merch, and those collections will be conceived as artfully as the artists possibly can.” This is even truer now because the computer giveth as the computer taketh away — quality home recording is now so cheap that making an album is hobby-level stuff not just for duffers but for the statistically inevitable complement of amateur artists whose music ain’t no hobby, or shouldn’t be. And compelled to tour though all now are, few professional bands are in it solely for the roar of the crowd. Writing songs is in their DNA, and if said songs are any good at all, recording them for posterity soon becomes irresistible.
I almost exclusively listen to albums. I am not as old as Christgau obviously, but I am getting old and set in my ways. But I never much cared for singles as a form.
R.E.M. is about as happy as you’d imagine to have “Everybody Hurts” used by Trump. In related news, I recently listened to Automatic for the People for the first time in about a decade, and, yep, it is still a super boring album.
The AV Club responds to Ryan Adams’ disgusting behavior with a 2 hour playlist of great women singer-songwriters. Good playlist, but a shout out to Adams’ former bandmate Caitlin Cary would also be in order, as her solo work was really good. Unfortunately, I don’t think she’s recorded anything in the last decade or so, probably because there’s absolutely no way to survive financially while doing so.
Album Reviews, in which I realize that it is the middle of February and I still haven’t listened to an album made in 2019 because I have so much to catch up on from 2017 and 2018:
Marc Ribot, Songs of Resistance, 1942-2018
Ribot is such a fascinating figure. By and large, he’s known for his amazing experimental guitar work, ranging from using balloons to to pick his guitar on some of John Zorn’s compositions to his own explorations of the instrument’s sound. Once, and this is a long time ago so I don’t remember who it was, someone described him as being the guitarist least influenced by R&B as anyone she knew. On the other hand, he was also Tom Waits’ guitarist for many years and put together this great Cuban music band with Roberto Rodriguez and others than got some good attention in the late 90s. He’s a polymath who can do so many things. When I saw him live about 4 years ago, it was one of the most remarkable shows I’ve ever seen.
On this album, Ribot responded to Trump by bringing together many of his favorite singer-songwriters and using his guitar primarily in the background to issue an album of resistance. The dates respond to the range of songs, from anti-fascist Italian songs to new compositions by people such as Steve Earle. The overall result is pretty positive but, not surprisingly, inconsistent. Earle’s work is great here, as is the Waits contribution. The renditions of the earlier resistance songs are well-done. Some of the newer songs are so on the nose as to be a little eye-rolling. If you really need your music to inspire you to resist fascism, this might well be a great album for you. For me, there’s a lot of other Ribot work I prefer.
Roscoe Mitchell, Bells for the South Side
Mitchell is a legend of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) movement. Now 78, this 2017 album is a significant work in his long career. It’s really a highly mixed set of tunes, from those that remind of you of the slow, minimalist compositional work of Morton Feldman to those that are more classically free jazz. Mostly, they work. The album is however very long, clocking in at over 2 hours, and some of the lesser pieces might have been left for a future work, creating something just a little bit more accessible. This ends with a great 25 minute live performance from Mitchell and company, including the great Craig Taborn, that is pretty awesome.
Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita, Soar
Finch is a well-known Welsh harpist and Keita is a great kora player from Senegal. The problem with this kind of “world music” collaboration is that it often tends to end up as something nice and tasteful and bland. Unfortunately, that’s how I feel about this project. It’s fine. Finch and Keita are outstanding musicians. But it’s also basically background music for faculty dinner parties. There’s nothing interesting happening except for some above average playing in a very nice way. But “nice” is about the worst thing I can say about music. Mileage may vary and you may feel differently.
Jupiter & Okwess, Kin Sonic
Jupiter, born Jean-Pierre Bokondji, is a Congolese musician whose parents migrated to West Germany, providing the young boy a fusion of his culture’s traditional sounds with rock and roll. He and his band combine those sounds in a pretty great way on this 2017 album that really propels forward with some great Afro-rock. Made with plenty of western rock musicians pitching in, this is a fine album, one of the best African albums I’ve heard over the past few years.
Miss Ludella Black, Til You Lie in Your Grave
Black is one of these music lifers working in various bands at the edge of popularity, more influential with critics and obsessive listeners than regular consumers. She’s probably most known today for being in the early 90s band Thee Headcoatees, which is itself most known for being where Holly Golighty got her start. Black hasn’t seen that kind of success. But this 2018 album is a very worthy piece of rockabilly post-punk that gets the blood pumping. Snappy lyrics and garage rock hooks help move this forward in a pleasing way. Not likely to change your life, but worth your time at a minimum.
Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory
I am ludicrously behind on hip hop. But I really liked Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06 album and so finally–finally!–I got around to his 2017 follow up Big Fish Theory. Pretty slick production but the vocals are so great and while the lyrics aren’t exactly always covering fresh ground, Staples is a very good writer. He’s kind of fascinated with Amy Winehouse and how poorly the media treated her and her unfortunate demise. He samples her talking about how poorly she treats herself in “Alyssa Interlude” and uses this as an entrypoint for exploring the relationship between the media and the pressure of being a big music star in the 21st century. This is the kind of sharp observation that runs throughout the album. Maybe I shouldn’t wait so long to hear albums like this.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music and none things politics.