Thursday, October 30, 2008

Born to Run


Music has crept into the 2008 election in interesting ways, with some curious song choices at John McCain rallies (I heard one report of Danger Zone being played; I think maybe it was chosen because it's from Top Gun, which features a character called Maverick, but if you're suggesting to your supporters that you'll take them "right into the danger zone" I don't think that's a message you want to convey). I don't know about Kenny Loggins, but many artists have taken exception to their songs at being used at McCain/Palin rallies, feeling that it indicates some level of endorsement.

Barack Obama has unabashed love from many artists, including the Beastie Boys, Jay-Z, and Bruce Springsteen, all of whom are doing concerts in his honor. On one hand the notion is laughable, as evidenced by this Onion article. But I can't blame the artists for doing these benefits. Everyone wants to feel like they're contributing.

That's why I feel I need to say something in this forum. I recognize that we all have a tendency to get caught up in the drama of the moment, which right now happens to be the presidential election. So I won't say that it's the most important election of our generation or any other sort of hyperbole, but it does matter to me. A lot.

In 2004 when George W. Bush was reelected, I limited my agony to a post titled Wrong Choice, America, wherein I simply printed the lyrics to XTC's 1989 song Here Comes President Kill Again. One thing about bad presidents; they're good for music. But I will gladly sacrifice that for a president like Barack Obama. I've read his biography and followed him closely throughout this never-ending campaign, and I'm convinced that he's the most fundamentally decent presidential candidate we've seen in a long time. He is sharp and open and he truly believes his message of hope. It's not calculated, it's who he is.

For 8 years the Bush/Cheney/Rove combo has played and preyed on Americans' fears, and now there's daily evidence that McCain and Palin will do the same. If you are voting for McCain, I hope it's because you agree with him on abortion or the war in Iraq. I don't share your views, but I understand that. But if you are considering him for any other reason, please evaluate your own reasons. If one of them is fear, take pause.

Fear is very necessary (I wrote all about it here), but it's not a way to pick a president. If Obama loses this election, look for me to post another set of lyrics on November 5.

Now that I've made that promise, I'm off to find the saddest song ever written.


Postscript: I know you don't need me to tell you this, but I'd be remiss if I didn't: PLEASE VOTE!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Rock Bottom: Elton John

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative.
Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question. As a result the ratings skew high. Similarly, we can conclude that albums with lowish ratings or few reviews are especially disliked.

Sir Reginald Dwight is so prolific, he doesn't have just one worst album, he has two! In every statistical category (basically AllMusic and Amazon.com ratings) 1979's disco experiment Victim of Love and 1986's Leather Jackets are tied. I thought listening to them would clarify things, but it really didn't. So my only option is to break it down, borrowing a page from Bill Simmons (who in turn is borrowing a page from Dr.Jack Ramsey). The idea is to create "bad album" component categories, grant an edge (which is actually bad in this case) to one of the albums in each category, and see who comes out on top (or bottom, as it were).

So, let's break this baby down Dr.Jack style:

THE CRITICS

AllMusic Guide's Lindsay Planer labels Victim of Love a "dismissable platter," while Rolling Stone's Stephen Holden adds "the album is empty of ideas." He also calls it "anonymous" and "derivative."

Planer breaks out the hyphens for her Leather Jackets review, calling it out "less-than-inspired" and "half-hearted."

Edge: Victim of Love


THE FANS


Amazon.com fans were full of bon mots about Victim of Love. David Insignia says, with the kind curious grammar that only Amazon reviewers can muster, "if Elton John wanted to piss off any of his beloved fans this album could do it." The single-monikered Hapworth states: "The only reason to own this terrible disc is if you wish to experience, first-hand, what it must feel like to be trapped in Hell." Nevin tells us that "what makes Elton John's Victim of Love so, well, horrible, isn't just that the music is atrocious (which it is) but that it was so desperate." But maybe the worst that can be said of a disco album by a gay artist is as follows: "This album does not even work as kitsch or camp." However, Gary Gardner informs us that Victim of Love is "not Elton's worst album (Leather Jackets still takes the prize), but comes close."

So what about Leather Jackets? Hapworth gives this advice, "Stay Away!" He also calls it a "stinker." D.R.Hayes points out that "there is no traditional piano on this as it sounds like all keyboards and machines. It really zapped out the beauty of what these songs could've been." S.J. Buck backs that up: "There are some good songs buried behind the monstrous production."

Well, despite Gardner's assertion, at least Leather Jackets gets some qualified praise.

Edge: Victim of Love


CULPABILITY


Vicitim of Love,
as I mentioned, is Elton's disco album. What I didn't mention is that Pete Bellotte, a producer/writer most famous for his work with Donna Summer created and wrote the album. Elton is little more than a voice (though I can't believe he didn't contribute slightly to the melodies). So if the album is bad, is it really Elton's fault? It does have his vocals, and his name is on the cover, but I have to absolve him somewhat.

Leather Jackets, on the other hand, has little excuse. Granted, the album was comprised mostly of outtakes from 1985's Ice On Fire, and was released to fulfill a contract with Geffen Records. However, Elton has his classic '70s band almost fully in tow, along with producer Gus Dudgeon. Elton and faithful lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote all the songs. So if the album is bad, it is definitely Elton's fault.

Edge: Leather Jackets


"DATED" PRODUCTION

What I mean by this category is basically this: Does the production distract from otherwise good songs?

In the case of Victim of Love, no. If I were making a film noir, I'd have to have a central mystery, murder, a femme fatale, and a strong light/dark contrast in the cinematography, right? Those are the rules of the genre. This is a disco album, so the songs use the production techniques that these types of songs call for. Yes it's dated, but it's also appropriate, thus this album is exempt from this criticism.

Leather Jackets is also a product of its time, namely the '80s. This means that many of the songs feature "synth programming" on the credits and lack bass and real drums. As hinted at by some of the Amazon.com reviewers, this causes one to expect that the songs would sound much better when stripped of the of-the-moment production choices.

Edge: Leather Jackets


SUCKINESS

Did you ever wonder what it would sound like if Elton covered Johnny B. Goode, disco style? You don't have to; it's the opening song on Victim of Love. Elton's version is actually fairly faithful to the original, if the original had the sax from the Cosby Show theme, a slap bass solo, and was about three times longer. It's definitely crappy. I don't think the other 6 songs can quite be defined that way. They have pretty good verses, but unimaginative choruses (usually the title phrase shouted by Elton and a trio of backup singers).

Leather Jackets has twice the number of sucky songs: Go It Alone opens like incidental music from Miami Vice before it begins to "rock" and Memory of Love features a weird voice emulator (kind of like Steve Winwood) and is slightly countrish and unintentionally depressing.

Edge: Leather Jackets


CATCHINESS (OR LACK THEREOF)

Pop music needs to be catchy. Victim of Love suffers on that point, with none of the songs sticking in my craw.

On the other hand, Leather Jackets has at least three songs that I found myself singing after the record was over: Hoop of Fire (a more classic-sounding, Beach Boyish tune) and Don't Trust That Woman (Elton emulates Billy Ocean, with writing help from Cher). Gypsy Heart also rattled around a little bit.

Edge: Victim of Love


CHARTS AND SALES

Neither song has a hit to speak of, though Victim of Love at least landed the title track in the top 40 in the U.K. Leather Jackets wasn't able to do that in the U.S. or U.K., and was in fact the first Elton album since 1970 not to. In terms of album sales, Victim of Love reached #35 in the U.S., but Leather Jackets only made it to #91.

Edge: Leather Jackets


THE "BEARD" FACTOR

Elton John is gay. I don't want to hear him pretend not to be, even if a straight man does write his lyrics.

Victim of Love
only has one incident, Warm Love in a Cold World. It's a love song featuring the repeated line: "girl we gotta make it."

Angeline, with two members of Queen playing along, is Leather Jackets' most egregious offender. "Talk real dirty and I'll make you scream Angeline," Elton offers. Heartache All Over the World has a chorus that goes "girls! girls! girls!", bringing to mind the far superior Island Girl. Elton got married to a woman in 1984, so this is definitely a product of its time.

Edge: Leather Jackets


COVER ART

Greg Brady, Amazon.com reviewer, had this to say about the Victim of Love cover: "The album cover says it all...Elton closing his eyes to what he's created, hoping if he looks away it will cease to exist."

That considered, it's still a much better cover than the one Leather Jackets sports. And if you add the fact that the back cover has a truly laughable portrait of Elton and the band dressed up in, you guessed it, leather, then you have a truly terrible package. Remember, he was pretending to be straight here.

Edge: Leather Jackets


FINAL VERDICT

Admission: If you told me I could only own one Elton John album and these two were my only choices, I'd pick Leather Jackets. That means it can't be the worst right? Well, in this case I am done in by my own system. The categories don't lie. By a score of 6 to 3 Leather Jackets is Elton John's rock bottom.


Author's Note 1: UPDATE: In the January 2011 issue of Rolling Stone, Elton calls 1997's The Big Picture his worst. "That was just making a record to make a record," he says. In my opinion, that album is not great, but neither is it terrible. Elton is probably not the best judge of his own work.

Author's Note 2: These are album reviews 195 and 196.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Rock Bottom: XTC

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative.
Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question. As a result the ratings skew high. Similarly, we can conclude that albums with lowish ratings or few reviews are especially disliked.

* * *

On this there can be little argument. Even the most die-hard XTC fan will not bend too far backwards defending their second album, 1978's Go 2. Nor will critics. AllMusic Guide's Chris Woodstra says: "Recorded in a rush... Go 2 predictably suffered...the material is considerably weaker this time out." At the time of the album's release, British magazine Trouser Press pointed out that the sound of the record seemed more important than the songs themselves.

While there are some supportive fans, the Amazon.com reviews of Go 2 can be summed up by an anynomous poster who said, "it falls short from the usual excellence with which XTC has rewarded its admirers."

And once again, as has happened on a surprising number of these entries, we have the artist weighing in. Lead XTC man Andy Partridge summarized Go 2 like this: “Four weeks worth of songs, hastily scribbled on hotel notepaper and beermats. We were living out of carrier bags and in rental vans, making nasty noises at each other and with each other. Something had to give and here it is.” Amazon.com reviewer J.Garratt paraphrases a Partridge interview: "he likens seeing a copy of Go 2 in a Virgin Megastore to seeing a blown up photo of your teenage self being projected over Times Square. The whole world can see your messy hair, your acne, your yellow teeth, etc."

The album definitely represents growing pains. There's a line of thought that says an artist's true mettle is revealed on their second album. A songwriter has his or her whole life to write a first album, and 6 months to write a second. The logic goes that if there's true songwriting talent in the artist, the second record will be better, not worse.

XTC is an exception to that all around. Their first album, White Music, had its moments but was nothing spectacular. Go 2 was more of the same. The band's true evolution came once manic keyboardist Barry Andrews left the band and was replaced by gifted guitarist Dave Gregory. They subsequently blossomed into one of the most lyrically intriguing and melodically rewarding bands to come out of the New Wave movement.

That leaves Go 2 as little more than a prologue, a preview, a warm-up act. By all accounts (most of them in Neville Farmer's XTC: Song Stories) the recording of the album was difficult. The rest of the band had no love lost on Barry Andrews, leading to lots of arguments. Additionally, songwriters Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding were still learning their craft. Go 2 is the sound of a band in an early chrysalis stage, still mostly what they were but with hints of what they would become.

Opener Meccanik Dancing (Oh We Go!) is one of the best songs on the album. It's all about the going out to a club and dancing. Over a strong rhythm and melodic baseline Partridge barks: "Alcohol is an easy key / It helps you unwind / And dance with me!" The melody on the pre-chorus ("Can't wait until the weekend comes / I wanna be with all my chums") presages the band's tuneful future. Moulding's The Rhythm is in a similar lyrical vein. It's catchy but unsubstantial, only made interesting by Andrews' very un-punk piano flourishes.

At the least, one can say that Moulding, the band's soft-spoken bassist, was making progress in his songwriting. While his White Music contributions were forgettable and/or annoying, his songs on Go 2 are at least servicable, but his themes are extremely limited. Basically all of his songs are about being in a band, be it life on tour (Buzzcity Talking) or playing to an unpredictable crowd (Crowded Room and I Am the Audience). I Am the Audience provides some intriguing snatches of melody and inventive production from John Leckie, again showing the path to the band's future.

Go 2 also sports some unexpected ska-influenced tracks. First is the chaotic Red, which shows that even when going off the rails, the band can't help but be a little bit pretty. The other is the irrevrant Jumping in Gomorrah, in which Partridge exclaims, "I'm religion-free!" Dear God would come along 7 years later.

Barry Andrews' two songwriting contributions, while maybe not the worst songs on the album, are definitely the most out-of-place. My Weapon sports purposefully misogynistic and crude lyrics, but is musically varied, sounding like corporate rock on the verses, with a little bit of disco thrown in for good measure. Supertuff is a slow, contemplative ode to thuggery. Out of the context of the album, no one would identify it as an XTC song.

The album's remaining songs are surprisingly experimental for a band just starting out. Beatown, Life is Good in the Greenhouse, and Battery Brides (Andy Paints Brian) are all interesting in theory more than practice, but they do show that Partridge's imagination stretched far and wide, both musically and thematically. The best song of the album was not really on it until CDs came along. Are You Receiving Me is an energetic blast of New Wave attitude. It's a paranoid plea from a man who suspects his girl is cheating, and one of XTC's greatest early singles.

Partridge's teenage photo comparison is very apt. Everyone goes through their awkward years. These years are often full of strange excitement and experimentation, with sporadic flashes of the future. It's easy to be embarrassed about these times, but hard to disown them, because they were so necessary. Go 2 is a lot like that.

Author's Note: This is album review #194.

Friday, October 10, 2008

193. Ben Folds: Way to Normal (2008)

All hail the King of the Break-Up Song.

Many have vied for the throne, but all are pretenders when compared to Ben Folds. On his 1995 debut, Alice Childress and The Last Polka worked their regretful way into our hearts. 1996's Whatever and Ever Amen stepped it up a notch, with Fair, Selfless, Cold, and Composed, Smoke, Evaporated, and Song for the Dumped each addressing broken relationships in their own unique ways. 1999's The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner gave us the grandeur of Mess and Don't Change Your Plans. Folds only gave us Gone on his first solo effort, Rockin' the Suburbs, instead focusing on character pieces and love songs. He came back with a vengeance on 2005's Songs for Silverman: Landed, Give Judy My Notice, Trusted, You To Thank, and Time all explored the fineries of romantic failure.

Anyone can write a lot of songs on the same subject, but Folds' genius is a gift for devastating detail that makes you feel like he has lived every moment. (And maybe he has; he's currently on his fourth marriage.)

Way to Normal continues the trend, with no less than 4 new additions to the Ben Folds Break-Up Canon. But something is slightly different here. With the exception of the hilariously bitter Song for the Dumped, the tone of the above-mentioned tunes is resigned and/or sad. On the new album the dominant emotion is anger.

The musically buoyant You Don't Know Me sounds cheery enough, especially with the irrepressible Regnia Spektor on co-vocal duties. But the lyrics are cutting: "If I'm the person that you think I am / Clueless chump that you think I am / So easily led astray / An errant dog who occasionally strays and needs a shorter leash, then / Why the fuck would you want me back?" He picks up on that particular lyrical strand on Errant Dog, expanding it into an entire song. It's a confusing tune until you realize he's writing from the perspective of a woman who is comparing her cheating man to a runaway dog. Lest you think this is a sensitive move by Folds, it's really just another way to portray his ex as heartless: "I know I said dead or alive / But really dead is fine."

Bitch Went Nuts is the harshest of the lot. Folds described the title in a recent interview, saying that when a break-up occurs, women will give you a variety of complex reasons for it. Men, on the other hand, usually boil it down to those three words. The song itself is boppy, but the lyrics are dark. He admits fault ("I made my bed / I lie in it") but is dismayed by how his ex has spread her newfound animosity among so many other women in his life ("They're at my door with torches").

Interestingly, there's a completely different song of the same name, Bitch Went Nutz, which serves as a bonus track on the iTunes version, and can currently be heard on his MySpace page (www.myspace.com/benfolds). It's one of 6 "fake" analogue versions of songs from the album that were leaked early, and it's even better. While not strictly a break-up song, the couple in it don't seem long for the world. The conservative narrator is livid that his liberal girlfriend did a line of cocaine at his office Christmas party and then proceeded to, among many other things, yell "Fuck Dick Cheney!" The song is hilarous, whether you bleed red or blue.

Cologne is more of a "typical" Folds break-up song, with a balladic pace, strings, and a "what just happened?" air. The title refers not to the fragrance but the German city, apparently the place where things became final. The narrator's wonders about his ex's thoughts on Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who drove from Texas to Florida in diapers to confront a colleague's girlfriend. Bizarre as it is, his musing perfectly illustrates his sense of loss.

Two other songs address relationship drama more peripherally. Kylie From Connecticut is a tearjerker about an older woman who suspects her husband of cheating, leading her to guilty/longing remembrances of her own affair years ago. Brainwascht is not about the break-up itself, but an intriguing side plot. It's a scathing diatribe against a former friend who apparently wrote a "bad country" song about Folds after his latest divorce, taking the ex-wife's side. Remind me not to piss Folds off, but it does provide some of the record's best lyrics: "Isn't there something in the Bible about forgiveness and love / And more importantly about throwing stones and what your house is made of / You might reflect upon your own arrangement / In '94 getting blown in your basement (While your wife slept!)"

As a whole these songs provide a gripping narrative of a relationship gone very sour.

The rest of the album is not so cohesive. In reviewing 2005's excellent Songs For Silverman, I pointed out that Ben Folds' music always straddles the line between the silly and the sublime. Some of the tunes on Way to Normal cross the line. Songs like Dr.Yang, The Frown Song, and Free Coffee, while all melodically solid, are aimed at easy targets (mainly the rich and uppity) and ultimately feel empty.

Others fare better. Opener Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hit His Head) cleverly recalls the old Elton John hit, with a percussive piano and fake live audience and tells a true story about Ben's tumble off the stage while performing in the titular city. In Effington Folds namechecks my hometown of Normal, Illinois while pining for a simple life in a small city and providing the title for the album. I can assure him, people aren't normal in Normal either, but he probably already knows that. Musically, the song is very reminiscent of the The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner era, which is a very good thing.

And while Way to Normal can't approach the the entire album listenability of that 1999 masterpiece, it's still another fine entry in the catalog of pop music royalty.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: You Don't Know Me, Bitch Went Nutz

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Rock Bottom: James Taylor

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted three sources, the AllMusic Guide and Rolling Stone (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative.
Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question. As a result the ratings skew high. Similarly, we can conclude that albums with lowish ratings or few reviews are especially disliked.

* * *

Maybe this is where my methodology fails me. I love James Taylor a little more than the next guy, but even I was shocked at what my research turned up. Basically, there is no bad James Taylor album. And if you are in disbelief, consider this: In 40 years of recording, the man has only released 16 albums. Elton John has been recording a comparable amount of time, and he put out album number 16 in 1981. He's at 30 now. Besides proving that Taylor is definitely not prolific, it's also evidence of strict quality control.

As it is, only two of his albums can reasonably contend for the title of "worst." The AllMusic Guide gives 1972's One Man Dog and 1974's Walking Man each 2 1/2 stars. Amazon.com reviewers were hesitant to disparage either, feeling mostly adoration for the former, and directing some gentle letdowns toward Walking Man ("mixed bag" and "good not great" are as bad as it gets). That, added to the fact that it remains his poorest selling album, lead it to get the nod as "worst."

I can see why. Don't get me wrong; Walking Man is far from a bad album. In fact, it received a rapturously wordy review from Rolling Stone. AllMusic Guide's William Ruhlmann was not so kind, writing that the record "sounded like the statement of a songwriter who either had nothing to say or didn't know how to say it." While I don't agree with the first part of that assessment, the second part is right on. Walking Man's problem is not one of substance, but of style.

Some artists are eclectic and experimental by nature. James Taylor is not one of those artists. Over half of Walking Man features the warm, mannered types of songs you expect. Some of them are pretty great. The title track, of course is a classic. It's an earthy, enveloping song about the titular character, a man with no true place. Rather than painting the walking man as spiritually beyond the rest of us, Taylor makes it clear that he has no true direction or destination. It's a song about being lost.

Other traditional Taylor tunes include the folk-pop Let It All Fall Down (featuring background vocalists Carly Simon and Paul and Linda McCartney), the hoedown Me and My Guitar, and the catchy Ain't No Song.

I'm not a person who blames production for the problems of an album or song. I'm too much of a pragmatist. But as I wrote in the Bowie entry, production is only a problem when it mars a good song. That's what happens here, on two songs. Hello Old Friend, about returning home from tour, sports a great melody and above-average lyrics. Unfortunately, the presentation makes it sound like a Bette Midler or Barbara Streisand showstopper. That's simply not Taylor's strength.

Similarly, Migration has a good melody, a great vocal, and mysterious lyrics. But once again, the arrangement is misguided, sounding a little bit Pink Floyd, a little bit Spinal Tap's Stonehenge. The song makes needless use of a Vox Humana, a ghostly pipe organ sound.

Those two added to a lifeless take on Chuck Berry's The Promised Land help to sink side two of the album. Thankfully, things come around at the end with the closer, Fading Away. Serving as an informal bookend to Walking Man, the two songs could conceivably be about the same character: "You can strike up the band without me / You can have your doubts about me / But I'm just fading away" Taylor sings. They aren't the words of someone who's got it all figured out.

Taylor himself wasn't quite as lost as the characters he wrote about, but Walking Man was obviously a searching sort of album. And ultimately, James found what he was looking for. He learned his lesson, and never again strayed too far from his signature sound.

Sometimes you have to leave home to truly appreciate it.

Author's note: This is album review #192.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Boys' Rock

The fall is already treating us really well, with these three releases making especially strong showings on my various music conveyance devices. All are surprising in their own unique ways.

189. Elbow: The Seldom-Seen Kid (2008)

It only took 18 years, but Elbow finally got my attention with this amazing album. The sound is big and majestic; the lyrics are up-close and personal. Singer Guy Garvey has a rough, accented voice that contrasts well with his band's polished sound, and the album is expertly sequenced.

Personal favorites include a lovely, swooning ballad called Mirrorball, the oblique and swampy Grounds For Divorce, and the joyous love song One Day Like This.

No offense to Coldplay, but this is what the meandering Viva La Vida should have sounded like. It's bound to be on a lot of best-of-the-year lists, if that kind of thing matters to you. Grade: A Fave Song: Mirrorball


190. The Broken West: Now or Heaven (2008)

ARTISTIC LEAPS are always tricky. Go too far and you risk alienating the fans you've garnered thus far (see the next review). But California's The Broken West did it right (and fast), not so much abandoning the buzzy power pop of last year's debut I Can't Go On, I'll Go On, as isolating what worked and expanding upon it.

As happens, it seems heartache led to inspiration, as several excellent songs wallow in pain (the bitter, piano-driven House of Lies, the desperate Auctioneer, and the lighter-waving Embassy Row, among many others) amid one ray of hope (the shimmery, propulsive Perfect Games). The melodies are catchy but unpredictable and the album flies by, only to beg to be played again. Grade: A Fave Song: The Smartest Man Alive

191. Kings of Leon: Only By The Night (2008)

Speaking of ARTISTIC LEAPS...

The southern boogie of Kings of Leon never really connected with me. Their first album came and went from my collection. I must admit, I never thought to wonder how I would feel if they started sounding less like The Black Crowes and more like U2, but now I don't have to.

Some fans are not so happy, crying the familiar, "They've sold out." I'm not completely unsympathetic; had I been a big fan of their earlier sound, I might have felt the loss of it. But with no such bias, the anthemic, atmospheric mood of this album suits me just fine.

The high point comes early with the staggering one-two punch of Sex On Fire and Use Somebody, but the family band land some other heavy hits with the groovy opener Closer, the dreamy Manhattan, and the sensuous I Want You. Throughout, the songs and performances are lived-in and passionate. If Kings of Leon stay on this evolutionary path, I'll be right behind them. Grade: A- Fave Song: Sex On Fire