Monday, December 29, 2003

18. Donnie Iris - 20th Century Masters The Millennium Collection

I was going to review the new Eagles compilation, The Very Best Of, but realized that I didn't have much to say beyond praising the prowess of their early singles, griping about the placement of Hotel California, commenting on Don Henley's sometimes retreaded lyrical territory, and giving the album an A-.

Instead, I thought I'd give some space to a guy who hasn't had a millionth of the success of The Eagles. I came across Donnie Iris recently, two times. The first was when I was researching my eighties compilations and the charts listed a minor 1980 hit called Ah Leah! The second mention was a recent Fountains Of Wayne interview in which one of the members joked that they were planning a tour with Donnie. The interviewer went on to explain that Iris was an early '80s nerd-rocker.

Well, this got my attention. All you have to do is put the words nerd and rock together and you've got me. If that seems odd, think about the nerd success rate in pop music: Buddy Holly, Elvis Costello, Weezer, They Might Be Giants, and so on. So I bought this compilation.

Before I go on, just let me explain that these 20th Century Masters The Millennium Collection things are a blessing and a curse. They are put out by MCA Records and usually contain no more than 12 songs, far from the full capacity of the disc. Now there are certain groups, like Head East and ABC, that you don't really need more than 12 songs from, so these collections are good to have. But when you have Marvin Gaye or The Temptations it's just ridiculous to limit yourself to 12 tracks, and definitely not a good deal for the consumer.

Anyway, back to Donnie. I was very surprised to find that I love every one of these 12 songs. But of course I can't just enjoy them without any context.

So it's time for Rock History. I did some research on Donnie, starting with my dad and step-mom, both of whom are really into music and who would have been in their prime in the early '80s. They only had vague recognition. So here's what I found from a combination of the CD liner notes, the Ultimate Band List, and Donnie is from Pittsburgh, and he had a hit song in 1970 called The Rapper. How Nostradamus is that?! Actually the song is not about an MC, but instead concerns a mack daddy. So, it's still ahead of its time.

In the late '70s he joined a band called Wild Cherry, who'd just had a huge hit called Play That Funky Music. Yes, the white boy song. The band soon broke up and Donnie teamed up with its keyboardist Mark Avsec to write songs. It worked well, so along with the band The Cruisers, they recorded several albums in the early '80s including Back On The Street, King Cool, The High And The Mighty, and Fortune 410.

The music itself is in line with similar new wave sounds of its time, such as Devo and The Police, but also has overtones of mainstream bands like Journey. The most distinctive aspect is the vocals. Donnie's singing voice is somewhat gruff, but the backgrounds and choruses are layered into large choirs of harmonies. The combination of sweet and tough is very appealing, and the production on most of the songs is very detailed. I'm struck that this formula was subsequently taken all the way to the bank by groups like Def Leppard and Chicago. Maybe Donnie Iris is really producer "Mutt" Lange's former identity. Lange, who is Mr.Shania Twain, doesn't like to be photographed, and was played by former nerd Anthony Michael Hall in a VH1 movie about Def Leppard. Food for thought...

Seriously, I don't know much about where Donnie has been lately, but apparently he continued recording into the '90s and plays shows in Pittsburgh, where he's still a draw. How many musicians do you suppose are out there like him, going ignored by rock 'n' roll history, slipping through the cracks? I'd say thousands. I guess that's part of the thrill of being a music fan; discovering quality artists who few have heard of. It's also part of the frustration of being a music fan; that such great pop music could be so easily ignored.

Rating: A
Fave Song: That's The Way Love Ought To Be

Sunday, December 28, 2003

17. Ruben Studdard - Soulful (2003)

Here's why I believe Ruben's American Idol win was justified, even though Clay Aiken has proved more popular since the show ended: From the first auditions to the final episode, Ruben was was consistently great, seemingly without effort. All of the other contestents had at least one (but usually several) cringe-inducing performances. But Ruben stayed true, and by the end seemed to be competing against nothing but the sense of inevitabilty surrounding him.

So, I hate to say that I'm quite disappointed with his debut album, Soulful. The voice that Ruben showcased on AI was a throwback to traditional soul men like Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and Luther Vandross, and perhaps it was too much to expect a similarly old-school album. That sort of thing just doesn't exist in today's R & B; guys like R.Kelly, Musiq and D'Angelo are the closest we've got.

Soulful tries to please both sides, the old school and the new jack, and in the process loses any sense of, well, consistency. In the former style there are mostly covers, by the likes of The Bee Gees, Westlife, and The Carpenters (he covers Superstar, and just to add confusion names one of the originals on the album For All We Know, also the name of a Carpenters hit). These are just okay, but they're the best the album has to offer.

The more modern tracks are useless. Songs like Take The Shot, Play Our Song, and the embarassing What Is Sexy (featuring Fat Joe) are not only forgettable lyrically and musically, but they do nothing to showcase Ruben's voice. Only the opening track, Sorry 2004, demonstrates what might have been. It's got a nice melody and a funny concept (apologizing in advance for an entire year's worth of wrongdoings).

What this album makes me realize (much later than I should) is that American Idol is a flawed concept. Sure, the show is finding talented singers, but so far they've all lacked any sense of artistic vision. To this point, the best AI album is Kelly Clarkson's Thankful (does anyone else think that all of the winners should have to name their album with a -ful adjective?). It's short, catchy, sassy and listenable. Not to say that Kelly had artistic vision, but whoever put her album together did a good job. Whoever did Ruben's was asleep at the wheel, because there's no unified sound and (to quote one of the song titles) no Ruben, aka personality.

So, yes, Ruben's voice deserved to win the competition. There's no doubt about that. Unfortunately, he still needs to find an album full of deserving songs.

Rating: C
Fave Song: Sorry 2004

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Honorable Mention #4: Zwan - Mary, Star Of The Sea (2003)

This was the hardest one to omit from my final list. Zwan came to us in January, riding on a white cloud. This was Billy Corgan's chance to start over, without the weighty commercial expectations of The Smashing Pumpkins. The cover was bright, with bubble letters and a rainbow-colored seventies style graphic. There were free stickers included in the CD case. A couple of songs even had exclamation points in the titles!

Despite the mod-goth image they had, the Pumpkins always had a wide-eyed innocent side, witness Today, 1979, or Stand Inside Your Love. It was this kind of music that Zwan focused on and the optimism was evident in the sound of the guitars and the female harmonies on songs like Honestly and Heartsong.

Unfortunately, the record sold poorly, interest in an acoustic side project was minimal, and Zwan broke up this fall. All we have left is one great album to remember them by. It might be the answer to a trick trivia question someday: Name the band Billy Corgan was in before his solo career took off.

Rating: A
Fave Song: Come With Me

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Honorable Mention #3: Nada Surf - Let Go (2003)

A thoughtful, poppy return from a group that still holds minor-one-hit-wonder-from-the-nineties status. If you remember said hit, Popular (which featured droning guitars underneath a recital of a '50s etiquette manual), you'll barely recognize the band on this record.

The songs are still on the clever nerd rock side of things. There are tunes about Bob Dylan albums, fruit flies, and playing soul records at the wrong speed. But there is also a song completely in French, Cheap Trick paraphrasing, and introspective numbers like Inside Of Love, wherein the singer wonders what it'd be like to "be a me with a you."

This is a great record, released in the cold of January 2003. Similar to the Oscar race, albums released later in the year have a better chance of getting recognition, but not in this case. It just barely missed the top 10.

Rating: A
Fave Song: The Way You Wear Your Head

Honorable Mention #2: Gavin DeGraw - Chariot (2003)

The sticker on the cover of this 20-something's debut record compares him to Billy Joel and Van Morrison. Others have likened him to Stevie Wonder and Jeff Buckley. Sure there are similarities, but he's not exactly like any of them. He doesn't have Joel's flair for storytelling, or Van Morrison's esoteric nature, or Stevie's funkiness, or Buckley's sense of drama.

What he does have is a great voice and a gift for melody. Over music that's piano-driven and muscular, he emotes without going over the top. Lyrically, it's a lot of the same old girl-boy romance dynamics stuff, but if he really does idolize Elton John and Billy Joel, that will change as his songwriting matures. For now, as he sings on the opener Follow Through, "this is the start of something good."

Rating: A-
Fave Song: Meaning

Monday, December 08, 2003

Honorable Mention #1: Liz Phair - self-titled (2003)

Okay, so she tried to sell out, and it didn't really work. Snobby fans wanted Exile In Guyville all over again, and the buying public really couldn't handle a mainstream radio artist who had a song as explicit as HWC. Always striving for that middle road, I happen to like the album quite a bit.

I believe that it's an artist's perogative to do what they will with their career, and Liz decided that she wanted to try to sell some more records. So she wrote some songs with Avril Lavigne's producers, and came up with a semi-hit that sounds like Complicated (Why Can't I). Critics ignore that the other Matrix collabos are sharp, especially Rock Me and the opener, Extraodinary.

If you don't like the results, fine, but I think an artist wanting to become more commercial is less silly than a fan expecting their favorites to stay the same and not take chances. Besides, there have been much worse "sell-outs" in rock & roll history. The Flame, by Cheap Trick anyone? Liz's personality is all over this record.

Rating: A-
Fave Song: Red Light Fever

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

16. The White Stripes - Elephant (2003)

Though they come off as rock 'n' roll minimalists, I believe The White Stripes are actually very shrewd businesspeople. They came to prominence a couple of years ago with an awesome Lego-animated video, a white and red wardrobe, a cockamamie are-they-husband-and-wife-or-brother-and-sister controversy, and no bass player. All were gimmicks designed to get attention, and it worked.

Critics have fallen all over themselves about the band. I think they were on 9 of this year's 12 Spin covers, and the other three months they were on Blender's. And you know it got out of hand when Rolling Stone named Jack White the 17th greatest guitarist of all time (ahead of George Harrison, The Edge, and Eddie Van Halen…please). So let's cut the crap. The most important question is: Does the music live up to the spectacle?

Well, usually, but I don't believe that Elephant is all that and a side of fries. Yes, there are lots of things to love about The White Stripes and this record. For a two instrument band they sure make a righteous noise. Songs like Seven Nation Army and There's No Home For You Here almost match the power and intensity of Led Zeppelin…no small feat. They also don't take themselves too seriously. Well It's True That We Love One Another is a cute goof with guest singer Holly Golightly, and Girl You Have No Faith In Medicine and Ball And Biscuit are rockin' and funny.

But what I like most about them is their soft side. I got into the Stripes last year when radio started playing We're Going To Be Friends, a sweet, gentle, unaffected song from their last album, White Blood Cells. There are a couple of songs like that here, and this is where the band really shines. I Want To Be The Boy Who Warms Your Mother's Heart, besides having an unnecessarily long title, is a simple love song that feels completely genuine and gimmick-free.

There need to be more moments like it. For a record to transcend good for great I need to be able to buy completely into band and what they are putting across. The White Stripes' gimmicks are at times just too distracting for me, their songs too self-aware. As a result, the music is overshadowed. And though it doesn't seem to bother critics who'll call this the best album of the year, that's the deal-breaker for me.

However, if they can come up with an equal number of good songs for their next record, finally drop the brother-sister ruse, and stop wearing red pants, I'll reserve a place for them in the next top 10.

Rating: B-
Fave Song: I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother's Heart

Monday, December 01, 2003

15. Outkast - Speakerboxxx / The Love Below (2003)

The standard critic line for a double album is as follows: It would have made a brilliant single album. Everybody with the audacity to put out two discs, from the Beatles and Clash to Smashing Pumpkins and Jay-Z has had this criticism leveled at them. (Jay-Z even tried to take the advice last year, putting out the revisionist The Blueprint 2.1, which critics promptly dismissed). But when Outkast released this double album, the line was nowhere in sight. Why?

Well, for one this isn't a double album strictly speaking…it's two solo discs packaged together. But Outkast is also that rare group that can stimulate both the minds of the critics and the bodies of the people. Critics love them because they are so adventurous and different. They have a vision and a style and they are bringing it to us as they see fit. Now fans might love them because of that, but mostly I think it's just because they make awesome singles. One need look no further than 2001's Dre and Big Boi Present... for proof of that.

But should Outkast be exempted from scrutiny just because they are so far ahead of everyone else in hip-hop? It's always good to reward those who take chances, but when you're throwing so many ideas out, there are bound to be some bad ones. So what I'm saying is, these albums are far from flawless.

Speakerboxxx, suprisingly, fares better to my ear. Disregarding skits (which both records are unfortunately overfull on) there are 13 songs here, and 10 of them are pretty killer. Ghettomusik is full of crazyfast rapping, Reset is just plain soulful, and War is a furious protest. The album is a bit top-heavy though, and the end is saved from being a complete drag only by the catchy Flip Flop Rock, featuring Jay-Z.

The Love Below is a bit trickier. Hey Ya! is brilliant, without a doubt, and its uncategorizable nature is pretty typical of the whole album. The sound is a mix of hip-hop, R & B, big band, jazz, and dozens of other genres. Unlike Speakerboxxx, the skits are a bit more obtrusive and the songs a bit more meandering. Almost every song is funny, intentionally or not, especially Roses and Dracula's Wedding (which features the lyric: I wait my whole life to bite the right one / Then you come along and that freaks me out). Most intersting is the spoken piece A Day In The Life of Benjamin Andre (Incomplete) which is an enlightening autobiography that comes long after the album's energy has waned.

So, would I like to say that the best songs from both discs would make a masterpiece of a single disc? Yes, but I won't. We know where that leads. I love Outkast because they do things with music that no one else has even thought of yet, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't edit their output. Nor does it mean that they get a free pass into the top ten. However, number 11 is open.

Rating: B
Fave Song: Hey Ya!

Saturday, November 29, 2003

14. Counting Crows - Films About Ghosts, The Best Of… (2003)

It's weird seeing all of these '90s artists anthologized. In recent weeks we've seen best ofs from Sheryl Crow, Red Hot Chili Peppers, No Doubt, and Tori Amos. Of course, groups like Toad The Wet Sprocket, Nirvana, and Smashing Pumpkins already have compilations, and we're still waiting on best ofs from Oasis, Dave Matthews Band, and Pearl Jam, so it shouldn't really bother me. And yet…

I guess it's part of getting older, but seeing career retrospectives from artists whose first songs I clearly remember encountering creates a wonky feeling. It's like, how did so much time pass so quickly, and what have I been doing with it? Was that really eight years ago that a guy in my dorm declared his everlasting love for Gwen Stefani, and we all said: "Who?"

But it's also a proud feeling, because now there's proof that my generation has produced some genuinely lasting, respectable musical artists. Maybe it's the fatalist in me, but I always have a sense of impermanence when a new artist hits the mainstream. Our pop culture is so disposable that it's nearly impossible to tell who is Sarah McLachlan and who is Jann Arden. For example, I absolutely loved the Counting Crows when I first heard them. This was when I wasn't very much into music, but I bought August And Everything After, and was obsessed with it! Did I expect anything of them beyond that one great record? No.

Even so, I dutifully bought their second album, Recovering The Satellites, and found it entertaining but not engaging, and I pretty much forgot about the band. If I made a list of artists whose next album I would definitely buy, they wouldn't have been on it. They'd have to impress me again to get my interest back. In 2000, I saw the video for Hangingaround, and liked it. I held out a bit, but eventually caved and bought This Desert Life. My reaction to it was identical to the previous one. A pattern was forming.

So, Hard Candy came out last year and I was determined to break the pattern. I willfully ignored the album, though whenever American Girls came on the radio I turned it up a little. Then radio played Miami to death and once again, I was won over. But this time, the album clawed its way into my top 10 for the year.

So here comes Films About Ghosts (great title), with two new songs, a rarity, and non-chronological sequencing. These are all no-nos according to my best of rules, and yet I'll be damned if this isn't one of the most enjoyable compilations I've heard in awhile. Witness: I have no quibbles about the tracklisting, (okay, I miss Daylight Fading and Miami, but am happy to have the version of Big Yellow Taxi with Vanessa Carlton on background vocals); the flow is seamless; the new songs are good; and the overall effect is that I realize just how much I like this band.

And really, that's the noblest of deeds for a best of. Even if it makes me feel old, it's great to see a band I like painted in such a flattering light. Maybe a lot of people (including me) haven't been paying as much attention as they should, but one thing you can say about Counting Crows and this best of: They keep reminding you that they're here. In this modern disposable age, it seems that's the only way to become great.

Rating: A
Fave Song: Anna Begins

Note on the song Einstein On The Beach (For An Eggman): This song has been causing me minor irritation for four years. Local radio stations have been playing it since I moved here and I always loved it but was too lazy or forgetful to research what it was…I assumed it was from a soundtrack. Turns out it's a very early demo that some stations picked up after the group hit big. It's nice to have that mystery solved.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

13. Justin Timberlake: Justified (2002)

Justified, on the other hand, has been winning over new fans for a year now. Taking a step away from his successful 5-member boy band, JT hired Timbaland and The Neptunes to help him become the new Michael Jackson. And damn if it doesn't almost work! Songs like Last Night and Rock Your Body effectively capture that King Of Pop spirit and Like Nothing Else even sounds like a MJ ballad.

Before I go on, I must admit that the version I have of Justified is different. I ripped the songs before giving the CD away, and arranged and edited them when I burned it. Here's my tracklisting:
1. Seniorita
2. Like I Love You
3. Let's Take A Ride
4. Cry Me A River
5. Still On My Brain
6. Last Night
7. Like Nothing Else
8. (Oh No) What You Got
9. Never Again
10. Rock Your Body
11. Take It From Here

Anyway, on the getting personal tip, there are a few songs here that seem aimed at Britney...Never Again and Still On My Brain are both addressed toward a lover who has betrayed our poor hero. But the showstopper is Cry Me A River, an amazing song which gets better with every listen. Supposedly, it encapsulates what happened between Justin and Britney...she cheated and he couldn't forgive her. Listening to it with that in mind makes it even more enjoyable!

So the question remains, which is preferable: the pop artist who keeps it superficial, or the one who bares her soul? Is pop music more about impulse or thought? If it's the former, than Britney is the ultimate pop star, but if it's the latter, Justin shines brighter.

Justified Rating : B+
Justified Fave Song: Take It From Here

12. Britney Spears - In The Zone (2003)

"I'd rather see you bare your soul," special guest Madonna tells Britney Spears on Me Against The Music, the first song on In The Zone. What follows on the next 11 songs is nothing of the sort, and I wonder if that isn't for the best.

It takes a special artist to inject the personal into pop. Madonna has done it, but not with complete success. Michael Jackson's attempts (perhaps understandably) have consistently failed. Recently, Christina Aguilara made the jump.

But Britney has wisely realized that now is not the time. So instead of lyrics about her break-up with Justin, or the trappings of celebrity, we get the club jams, love songs, and come-ons that are the bread and butter of dance pop.

The album starts off shaky; even though Me Against The Music hits some melodic and rhythmic highs, both it and (I've Got That) Boom Boom feature more self-reference than your average Jay-Z song. Maybe it's just me, but I don't like anything that makes my pop music less universal. But, from there on, the album is nothing but pure pop, with Britney changing styles like shoes.

Breathe On Me is Britney doing her best Kylie Minogue...the similarities are so uncanny that it must have been intentional. Shadow shows that, like Avril Lavigne, Britney can also "write her own songs" as long as The Matrix are there to help. The Touch Of My Hand is where Britney goes all DiVinyls on us. The song will join an ever growing canon of self-gratification songs (She Bop, by Cyndi Lauper, You're My Best Friend by Queen, Pictures of Lily by The Who, Oops (Oh My) by Tweet, etc.).

The only song I could really do without is the dancehall-flavaed The Hook Up, but everything else is the guilty pleasure we've come to expect. I especially like Early Mornin' a collaboration with Moby that is more subtle than anything Britney's done thus far. Brave New Girl could signal Britney's future. It's got an experimental structure, a great chorus, and manages to sound both old and new at the same time.

Despite the relative artistic success of this album, the biggest mystery remains: Why can't such a photogenic girl have one good album cover? This is the fourth stinker in as many tries. Anyway, the final verdict is that if you like Britney there's nothing here that will change your mind. The same applies if you don't like her.

In The Zone Rating: B-
In The Zone Fave Song: Brave New Girl

Sunday, November 23, 2003

11. Fleetwood Mac - Say You Will (2003)

There are two things I'll continue to mourn about the passing of vinyl as the dominant format for music releases. One is the packaging (I think because the space to fill was so big, artists used to put a lot more thought and effort into it). The second thing is length. While, due to capacity issues, LPs couldn't be too long without spilling into double sets, CDs have 78 or so minutes. So in this CD age, some artists feel it is necessary to use every one of those minutes, like Fleetwood Mac.

Their return album has 18 songs (the shortest ones just under 4 minutes), seemingly under the supposition that more is better. Of course that's not the case, but before I quibble let's just take a moment to celebrate the fact that this record even exists, given the band's turbulent history. It's amazing that they are even alive and speaking to one another, let alone producing vital music.

The band has gone through several permutations, and this latest version is sadly without Christine McVie, who was my favorite songwriter in the band (Say You Love Me, Little Lies, and Everywhere are all hers). For that reason alone, I almost avoided this album, but I'm glad I didn't. While the album would definitely have benefited from her presence (though with another songwriter it would have had to have been a two CD set), it doesn't sink without her.

That's because there's A LOT of great stuff here. What's The World Coming To, Thrown Down, Say You Will, and Peacekeeper all deserve to be on a future Fleetwood Mac compilation, and at least four other songs can stand alongside anything else they've done.

Even so, there's too much here. Of course, one advantage CDs have over vinyl is that it's so simple to skip songs you don't like. But, I suppose I'm old fashioned in that I like to listen to an album as an experience. I don't want to have to skip songs. In that spirit, there's my shot at a 13 track version of the album:
1. What's The World Coming To
2. Illume 9-11
3. Thrown Down
4. Miranda
5. Say You Will
6. Peacekeeper
7. Smile At You
8. Running Through The Garden
9. Steal Your Heart Away
10. Bleed To Love Her
11. Everybody Finds Out
12. Destiny Rules
13. Say Goodbye

This is not to say that the 5 songs I dumped have no merit. They all have something interesting or cool going on, but they could have easily been saved for B-Sides. A leaner, meaner version of the album might have swiftly been declared a masterpiece. As it stands, we have to settle for a better-than-it-should-be return from a great band.

Rating: B
Fave Song: Thrown Down

P.S. Do any of my fellow English majors also think that Running Through The Garden is based on Rappaccini's Daughter by Nathanial Hawthone?

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

10. The Thrills - So Much For The City (2003)

Despite their name, The Thrills are not part of the "the garage band" trend started by The Strokes and The White Stripes (and followed by The Vines, The Libertines, The Hives, etc.). They are from Dublin Ireland, and the only way they might be defined as garage is if you’re referring to the carport on the Wilson brothers boyhood home in Hawthorne California.

Like The Beach Boys, The Thrills take a lot of elements and then make sure that everything is in place and nothing grates the ear. Banjo, harmonica, pedal steel, and organ are all incorporated seamlessly, and harmonies are added everywhere they’ll fit. The lead singer doesn’t have an amazing voice (he sounds somewhat like Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips), but it doesn’t matter.

What every review of this album is bound to mention is how the band does not sound Irish at all and how the songs are California-obsessed (L.A., Santa Cruz, San Diego, Big Sur, and Hollywood are all mentioned in various songs). Not since Dre and Pac got together has Cali gotten so much love, but hey, isn’t California the perfect place to romanticize?

What remains to be seen is if on future albums The Thrills can forge an identity completely their own, but for now I’ll love them for being so fun and unassuming, and for creating singalong stompers like One Horse Town and Your Love Is Like Las Vegas. I must also mention that they have added another great song to the ever-expanding Say It Ain’t So pantheon (joining such heavyweights as Weezer, The Outfield, and Hall & Oates).

Rating: A-
Fave Song: Big Sur

Monday, November 17, 2003

9. Jay-Z – The Black Album (2003)

I’ll admit that though I love rap and hip-hop, I rarely get obsessed with complete records in that genre. I like to think that the reason for this is that rap records just aren’t built for uninterrupted, repeated listens, but that’s really just a polite way of saying that I find most of them to be bloated. If it isn’t too many filler songs (not just a problem in rap), it’s grating between song skits, or so many guest cameos that the artist barely appears on some songs.

Jay-Z has been plenty guilty of all of these things in his career. In fact, only three of his seven proper albums don’t grossly commit the crimes listed above. I guess it’s natural that a person this prolific (he’s released one proper album per year since 1996) will have some duds amidst the explosive stuff. But the fact remains that he’s hit some dizzy heights and had some great hits. His 2001 Unplugged album showcases that brilliantly, and when we take some time to consider his memorable guest raps on other artist’s songs (Mariah, Beyonce, Outkast, etc.) and it becomes clear that he’s one of the premier rappers of our time.

Now comes the announcement that Jay’s new record, The Black Album, will be his swan song and that he is retiring. The first reaction is shock. Afterall, Jay is only in his early-thirties, and arguably at the top of his game. The second reaction is bemusement. Which “final tour” is Kiss on, the fourth or fifth? But it is fun to play along with the charade. For instance, a voice in the intro informs us that “all things must conclude,” and the last song on the album (and thus of his career?) is called My 1st Song and it ends with a list of shout outs akin to the thank you list on movie credits.

Last one or not, this album seems set to join Reasonable Doubt, In My Lifetime Vol.1, and The Blueprint as a Jay-Z classic, precisely because it avoids the overindulgence listed above. It features 12 songs, with two short interludes and zero guests raps. There are also plenty of great producers at hand, including Eminem (on the cinematic Moment of Clarity), The Neptunes (Change Clothes, Allure), Rick Rubin (an old school rock/rap track called 99 Problems), and Timbaland (Dirt Off Your Shoulder). Even with the array of different producers, the sound manages to stay uniform, mainly because the songs stick to a basic sample–beat–rhyme format that works so well.

At times, Jay’s flow rivals Eminem for sheer bravura and capacity to stupify, like when Jay keeps going past the beat on What More Can I Say. The best song is December 4th (Jay’s birthday), and features his mom as a narrator, a great old school sample from the Chi-Lites, and illuminating verses about his formative years. The song is a rarity in that it is so open and unguarded.

Being picky, I wish that instead of something like Threat (which is full of typical rap bravado), Jay would have devoted a song to current national problems. I know he opposed the war in Iraq, and it would have been nice to see his devastating trash-talk applied there.

As Jay rhymes on What More Can I Say, “we’ll see what happens when I no longer exist.” He’s put together a great final remembrance of his skills, a powerful final statement that one could get obsessed with. And we’ll see how he does with the next one.

Rating: B
Fave Song: December 4th

Saturday, November 15, 2003

8. The Exploding Hearts - Guitar Romantic (2003)

There are three things about CD reviews that I dislike. The first is an overabundant use of the second person. Second is when the reviewer goes overboard comparing an artist’s sound to another artist. The third is when an attempt is made to connect the record to some sort of unrelated larger social context.

I just needed to get that out there.

Okay, so let’s say you go into the record store and you come across this record, The Exploding Hearts, Guitar Romantic. You know nothing about the band, and there’s no date on the packaging. The cover features a skewed photo of the group standing in front of a spray painted title. It has a yellow border and the name of the band around it. From the way the band looks, and the aesthetic of the packaging, it’s concievable that you might believe you’d found a reissue of an obscure late ‘70s new wave punk album.

And though it was actually recorded in 2002 and released this year, were you to buy and listen to the album, nothing would spoil that notion. It’s all uptempo guitars, bratty vocals, popping drums and short songs straight out of the british punk movement. The obvious reference point is The Jam, especially in the vocals, but also in the pop sensibility that pervades. Or, if you’re feeling more modern, they’re a lot like Green Day, but perhaps with a little more heart and a little less angst. They also by turns recall The Ramones with an added dash of the J.Geils Band and Elvis Costello and the Attractions circa This Year’s Model.

No matter the influences, these are songs that are tough enough to make you feel rebellious and accessible enough to sing in the shower. The band has managed to effectively tap into the zeitgeist, i.e. the neverending trend of being nostalgic for recent times past, without coming off as a sad retro tribute. If you have any sort of fondness for the late '70s and early '80s, then buy this and let it be the soundtrack to the movie they should have made about your crazy high school days.

Rating: B+
Fave Song: Black And Blue

A Sad Note: I didn’t want to make this a focus of the review, but in July of this year, three of the four members of this band died in a van rollover. R.I.P.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

7. Guster - Keep It Together (2003)

I discovered this record thanks to a friend who asked for it for his birthday and then was kind enough to play it for me. Every year I have at least one album and artist that was nowhere on my radar but landed in my path even so. I love that.

If you take a quick look at my top 20 favorite artists list (go ahead, I’ll wait), it is probably pretty easy to figure out what kind of music I like best. I’m a sucker for songs with hooks galore, harmonies abounding, la la, ooh, bah bah background vocals everywhere, and ringing guitars dominating. The Beach Boys, XTC, The Beatles, and The Monkees are all staunch purveyors of this sound. So are Guster.

As someone who loves words and writing I hate to say it, with pop music lyrics don’t matter. They’re really just there to rhyme and sing along with and not be distracting. When pop music really excels, it’s when the lyrics are deep and interesting and clever without taking attention away from the song itself. Guster is a band that knows how to do that.

The best songs on the album are so musically sound that you feel like you can sing along on the first listen. As for the lyrics, they are mostly about moving on, getting over heartache and the past but not necessarily wanting to. The first single, Amsterdam, is textbook power pop, a kiss-off song that makes the line “I’m gonna write you a book” sound like an insult. Come Downstairs And Say Hello comes on languid but blossoms with conviction: “tomorrow I start in a new direction.” Careful addresses a self-destructive friend (or lover) who needs a wake up call. I Hope Tomorrow Is Like Today has the most optimistic title you could ever ask for, yet we find that the narrator doesn’t want tomorrow to be like today because today was so great, but because he’s scared to lose what he has.

In conclusion, if you’ve always been looking for that album that begins with an ode to making out and ends with a children’s choir singing about Noah’s Ark, then look no further!

Rating: A
Fave Song: Careful

Monday, November 10, 2003

6. Black Eyed Peas - Elephunk (2003)

People who don't like rap usually cite a lack of musicality and an overabundance of brutality. They ignore that rap is really an overarching term for three broad categories: party rap, socially conscious rap, and gangsta rap. Usually none of it gets played on VH1, yet in the last couple of months the Black Eyed Peas' Where Is The Love has jockeyed for the top spot on that channel's top 20 countdown. Of course having Justin Timberlake singing the hook doesn't hurt, but the song also subverts that aforementioned stereotype: it's a very singable ode to tolerance and peace.

What a welcome bit of turnabout! Not since the early '90s (when P.M.Dawn and Arrested Development managed to have hits) has any socially conscious rapper not named Outkast met with commercial success. They have watched their counterparts thug and party it up and meet with big dividends, and found little for themselves. Sure they got props from critics and the assurance that they were elevating the artform, but money was more elusive. So let's take a moment to pity the Tribe Called Quests and the De La Souls of the world.

With their first couple of records, Black Eyed Peas were certainly in the pitiable category too. On Elephunk they are seemingly tired of the noble fight. No, they haven't gone gansta, but rather, they made the ingenious conclusion that a marriage between party rap and socially conscious rap might be a fruitful one. So 9 of the 13 songs here are fun, and by turns encourage the listener to "celebrate," put their "hands high to the sky," and "get retarded." In The Boogie That Be they even sample the sound of Uncle Scrooge's pogo cane in the old Ducktales game for Nintendo (I don't know this for sure, but that's what it sounds like to me).

The marriage was a risky move, but it works, mostly because the group is dedicated to it, and because the socially conscious songs that are here are great. Anxiety addresses the usual youthful angst and The Apl Song is about holding on to your cultural roots, but the showstopper is Shut Up, a kickin' call and response about a relationship falling apart. The album also gets points because it is atypically succinct; 13 songs and no skits. I wish more rap artists would exercise this ability to self edit.

So kudos to the Black Eyed Peas. You may have given up a bit on the good fight, but hey, you gotta get yours.

Rating: B
Fave Song: Shut Up

Saturday, November 08, 2003

(Quite) A Few Words On "Best Of" Compilations

Why do "best of" compilations exist? There are several reasons, all of which can be sorted into two categories. Category number one involves benefits for the artist and the record company. Historically, artists released singles that weren't on albums, and thus they had to be collected. Now, it's more cynical, with a best of being a chance for the record company to cheaply cash in and/or for the artist to easily fulfill a part of their contract.

The second category concerns benefits for the consumer. There are many:
1) For new fans, they're a good way to get to know an artist who may have a catalog too big to just blindly dive into (the problem is, if you get obsessed, you'll probably end up buying all of the songs twice when you get the actual albums);
2) Some artists have songs you like, but albums you just don't want to buy. For example, I'm still waiting out those TLC and Matchbox Twenty best ofs;
3) Even an artist you really like can release a stinker now and then. This way, those couple of good songs can be rescued off of a bad album;
4) For established fans who buy every album by an artist, there are two possible lures. One is re-mastering. Especially for older artists, this can be a big draw. The other is the inclusion of new songs. I firmly believe that new songs should only be included on a best of if they're up to par. I think this actually happens only about half of the time. Tom Petty did it best with Mary Jane's Last Dance, on the 1994 Greatest Hits album.

I've been on a search for the perfect compilation for awhile. I've even developed some preferences: 1) put the songs in chronological order, or at least put good thought into the sequencing; and 2) per above, only include new songs if they're knockouts, and 3) avoid remixes and live versions wherever possible. I think my search has kept me so interested because the formula for success is so simple: Take an artist's best songs, put them on one record, and let the quality shine. And yet, so often this doesn't happen, even with artists who have lots of great songs.

For example, Whitney Houston and Neil Diamond have yet to release definitive best ofs. How is that possible?! Other artists who should have hit grand slams just end up with base hits. U2 comes to mind here…so many classic songs, and yet I never listen to either of their best ofs.

So who has done it right? Here's my top ten (not including Madonna or Ronnie Milsap, as discussed in the 10 Favorite Albums section). Not all of them follow the rules, but all are solid from beginning to end
1) James Taylor - Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits, Vol.2
2) Crowded House - Recurring Dream
3) Def Leppard - Vault
4) Marshall Crenshaw - This Is Easy
5) The Smiths - Singles
6) Elton John - Greatest Hits
7) Hall & Oates - The Very Best Of...
8) Backstreet Boys - Chapter One
9) Journey - Greatest Hits
10) Outkast - Big Boy & Dre Present...

Honorable Mentions: John Lennon - The John Lennon Collection; Blur - The Best Of; Talking Heads - Popular Favorites; and The Ultimate Collections released by Motown (The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes)

I know I'm not the only one on a search for the perfect compilation. Witness how often record companies and artists try to repackage their material. I don't have official statistics, but The Beach Boys have probably released more compliations than actual albums. How is that possible?! Even sadder, there has never been one that is completely definitive. Actually, I have a vinyl album from Ronco entitled Beach Boys Super Hits that is as close as they've ever come.

Maybe I'm just being too long as there are obsessed fans, there will always be quibbles with best ofs. Just take a short tour around the reviews of any compilation and you'll see what I mean. How on earth could they leave this or that song off? Why did they put the album version on instead of the single version?! I'll admit, often the beefs are legit. For example I love Rhino's recent The Cars Complete Greatest Hits, but where are Panorama and Heartbeat City? How could you call it "complete" without these two songs?!

The search continues...

5. R.E.M. - In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988 - 2003

It's fitting that there's a moon on the cover of this compilation. Of course it references the hit Man In The Moon, which guitarist Peter Buck calls the "quintessential" R.E.M. song. But it also stands as a symbol of how circular their career has been. When the band started, they were critically beloved, and had a small-but-devoted fanbase. Then suddenly a string of four albums (Document No.5, Green, Out Of Time, and Automatic For The People) produced huge hits, and everybody learned their name.

But really, since 1991 the band has had only minor hits and their fanbase is probably now only slightly bigger than when they started. The follow-up to their masterpiece Automatic For The People was called Monster and tried for a hard-rock sound. It was the first album I bought by them, so it's really amazing that I like them as much as I do. My favorite album by them is 1997's New Adventures In Hi-Fi. The last two albums, Up and Reveal have disappointed me somewhat, but R.E.M. have continued to make challenging, singable music.

In Time covers half of the circular journey. We start at the near-peak (1988 - 1991), and then slowly cycle down to the present. There are four major hits, five minor hits, a few assorted album tracks or small singles, two soundtrack songs, and two new songs. Despite the title, the songs are not presented chronologically. Even considering my rules, I am really not too bothered by this, because I can tell there was thought put into the sequencing (for example Daysleeper and Imitation Of Life sound awesome put next to one another, and even cause one to rethink the traditional view that the band has lost a few steps).

Being a pretty big fan, you'd think I'd have at least one or two major quibbles about tracklisting, but there's no song here that doesn't deserve to be. Sure, it would have been nice to see Get Up, Drive, or Bittersweet Me (and Shiny Happy People needs more props), but it's not a huge deal.

The two new songs fit in well. Bad Day was written quite awhile ago and sounds like it. Animal indicates that they might be heading back in their Monster direction. But the real treat here is the inclusion of The Great Beyond. It means I can get rid of the boring Man In The Moon soundtrack and enjoy this treasure of a song in a proper context. I think it's one of the best things they've done.

So, the real question is why did I buy this? I had 16 of the 18 songs, and I could have downloaded the new ones fairly easily. I can't really answer, but only can say that decisions made in the search for the perfect best of compilation don't always make logical sense. This isn't it exactly what I'm looking for, but it ranks up there with the best.

Rating: A
Fave Song: The Great Beyond

Thursday, November 06, 2003

4. Madonna - American Life (2003)

It was kind of sad seeing Madonna in her Gap commercial earlier this fall. Not because she sold out (some artists are just sold out from the beginning), but because she was singing the lyrics to a new song, Hollywood, set to the music from an old one, Into The Groove. It was sad because it seemed to say that her new work just couldn't stand on its own.

I hate to be disappointed by artists I really like, but it's usually inevitable. Very few have a flawless catalog. Still, with your favorites, even if the album doesn't meet expectations, there's usually at least one transcendent moment that reminds you of why you love them so much. Yes Madonna has a few subpar albums, including Erotica, Bedtime Story, and Music, but each one of these had at least one classic song: Rain, Take A Bow, and What It Feels Like For A Girl.

When American Life came out this past spring, I listened to it a couple of times and put it on the shelf because, surprisingly, nothing hooked me in. But most records deserve a second chance...sometimes, depending on what's going on in your life, or the time of year, you just aren't ready. This has happened to me several times, most notably with Weezer's Pinkerton and more recently with Counting Crows' Hard Candy. So I decided to give Madonna a second chance.

I'm still not feelin' it.

My favorite Madonna album is Ray Of Light . The great thing about that album is that it still has Madonna's gift for pop intact, but adds lyrical depth. On American Life, the lyrics are introspective, but she seems to have forgotten the importance of melodies. At so many places, she subverts her pop sound just when she seems to have something going, "rapping" on the title track and repeating "fuck it," distorting her voice to sound like a man's on Hollywood, and letting her voice be ripped apart in I'm So Stupid.

It gets a little calmer from there, but probably too calm. X-Static Process could be a lullaby. Easy Ride wouldn't have been out of place on Ray Of Light, but it probably wouldn't have made the final cut. The only truly interesting song is Mother & Father, which sounds like Blondie and addresses Madonna's well known parental issues. Still, despite some really cool parts, the song just doesn't hold itself together.

In conclusion, the second worst criticism I can level at an album is that it's boring. The worst criticism is to say that I can't even find one song that I'd put on a mix CD. Such is the sad case here.

Rating: D
Fave Song: Mother & Father

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

3. Clay Aiken - Measure Of A Man (2003)

Just when you thought that teen pop was a phase we'd grown out of, with Britney smooching Madonna, JT lovin' McDonalds urban style, and Nick Carter reduced to being a celebrity judge on The Wade Robson Project, along comes Clay Aiken.

Now Clay isn't a teen, and he doesn't have the facelessness we first associated with the teen pop sound in the halcyon days of the late '90s, so it's strange that his sound would go in that direction. And yet, the first song on his new album is co-written by Andreas Carlsson, the man who (as part of Max Martin's Swedish songwriting factory) co-wrote songs for Britney, N*Sync, and Backstreet Boys (including I Want It That Way, perhaps the definitive pop song).

That first song, Invisible, is also the first single, and check out these lyrics: "If I was invisible / then I could just watch you in your room/If I was invisible/I'd make you mine tonight." Sure, it's a little date-rapey, but not since Every Breath You Take has a stalker song been put to such an irresistable sound. It's got the same sensitive acoustic guitar, big drums, and soaring verses and choruses that we came to expect from the Backstreet Boys, especially on their later work (it seems funny to write that). In fact, most of the songs on the album follow this formula closely.

But I'm not hating on it. I have every Backstreet Boys album, and really see them as a continuation of a mainstream pop sound that's existed since rock 'n' roll was born. You know, lyrically lightweight, but impossibly catchy, and impeccably produced. In the '70s ABBA and The Carpenters were considered completely square, but now they get all sorts of props. The same thing should happen for Def Leppard and Chicago. So I don't hate the sound, I just question why Clay didn't decide to move forward.

There are only three songs that really try to do that. When You Say You Love Me is bouncy and a little bit country and slightly adult-sounding. Clay's best American Idol moment, many will agree, was the audition where he sang Elton John's Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me. We get a small glimpse here of what might have happened had he decided to use Elton as his prototype instead of Brian Littrell…No More Sad Songs and Perfect Day both start with pianos, and burst into Elton-style BIG choruses, and just aren't as robotic as everything else. It would have been cool to hear a whole album of these.

Still, though it's unadventurous and somewhat antiquated, this is a straight up pop album. And though you will love to sing along, you won't feel cool listening to it. But, I suppose if you're that worried about appearing cool, you wouldn't even think about buying this. If that's the problem, maybe you could ask your mom to get it for you for Christmas.

Rating: B
Fave Song: Invisible

P.S. Even something cheesy like Second Best would have been a better title than Measure Of A Man, which seems like a rejected Van Halen album title.

Monday, November 03, 2003

2. Barenaked Ladies - Everything To Everyone (2003)

"Would anybody hear me/if I shed the irony?" Ed Robertson asks halfway through BNL's sixth album and it's a good question. To the casual observer it may seem that BNL have just started to struggle against their goofy image, which they first acquired back in the early '90s with If I Had a Million Dollars, and was galvanized by the smash One Week.

But it's been going on much longer than that. Their second album, Maybe I Should Drive, was not exactly what fans of Be My Yoko Ono were expecting. There were funny/clever songs like Alternative Girlfriend and A, but there was also seriousness creeping in on a song like You Will Be Waiting. Their next big hit, The Old Apartment, seemed funny but was really about desperate nostalgia. If I Fall and Break Your Heart were also straight out affecting. And so it has continued through their massive success (Stunt) and follow-up (Maroon) with the serious songs beginning to outnumber the funny ones.

When I saw them in concert in 2001, it was the only time I've ever really wished to be a rock and roll star, and felt it could have actually been possible. They had a combination of nerdiness and coolness, seriousness and humor that I feel is present in almost all of us, and that too many bands ignore.

This record continues their balancing act. On one hand we've got their stupidest song yet, Another Postcard, which is all about receiving postcards with pictures of monkeys on them. Maybe it was inspired by true events, but given the literal minds of some of their fans (who throw Mac and Cheese and boxer shorts on stage because of certain lyrics), it just seems to be asking for trouble. It also seems like a song that never needed to be written. On the other end of the spectrum there's War On Drugs, a completely bracing look at unhappiness and self-destruction.

The rest of the songs fall somewhere in between. Shopping is an '80s new wave homage that could be ironic or not. For You is countryish and thoughtful. At first, Unfinished seems like the most disposable song on the album and then it breaks into a full out Beach Boys tribute. In fact, there's no song here I would get rid of, even Another Postcard, because we know that to BNL, the coexistence of the stupid and the sublime is the most important thing.

Rating: B+
Fave Song: Take It Outside

Note: The edition I bought has three acoustic versions of different album tracks tacked on. I could live without them.

Saturday, November 01, 2003

1. Mandy Moore - Coverage (2003)

It seems an odd choice for my first review, an all-covers album by a minor player in the blonde teen pop invasion of 1999. But take a look at some of the artists Miss Moore covers: Elton John, Todd Rundgren, Joe Jackson, Joni Mitchell, and XTC! There was no way I could pass up a list like that, even if the CD only ended up as a dusty curiosity in my collection.

Besides, isn't this every rock nerd's dream…a hot girl with cool taste in music?

Mandy didn't just choose her songs well, she also surrounds herself with good company. Scanning the liner notes we see that the songs feature contributions from Evan Dando, both Rembrandts, Dan Wilson (of Semisonic) and Andy Sturmer (of Jellyfish). The background vocals by the latter two on Can We Still Be Friends are awesome.

The arrangements are good, the players excellent, and the sequencing perfect, but I do have one quibble. While I like her artist selection, I think some of the song choices were too obvious, especially One Way Or Another, I Feel The Earth Move and Senses Working Overtime. While I'm thrilled to hear any XTC covered, this is not anywhere close to their best song, and so many others would have suited her voice better (maybe The Disappointed, or This World Over).

That said, there are two songs on here that I didn't know, but now love. The Whole Of The Moon, originally by The Waterboys, and Drop The Pilot, originally by Joan Armatrading. So if this album is exposing even me to new stuff, imagine the potential to open the minds of thousands of teeny-bopper fans…

Though many critics have dismissed this record as little more than karaoke, they forget that karaoke can be so much fun!

Rating: A-
Fave Song: Can We Still Be Friends