Monday, December 12, 2011

2011: 10 Albums I'm Glad I Bought

Though it surely wasn't reflected in my blogging frequency, 2011 found my relationship with music rebounding from the slump of the last few years.Though most new artists and I remain strictly platonic, several old flames rekindled the passion.

As has been tradition the last couple of years, here're the albums that stuck with me the most. Along with my thoughts, I've listed my personal highlights.

Adele: 21
One of those rare records that find simultaneous commercial, critical, and personal success. Though the album flirted with overexposure in the months after its release, I believe it will endure a long time.
Faves: Rollin' in the Deep, Rumour Has It, Set Fire to the Rain, One and OnlySomeone Like You


The Cars: Move Like This
Reunion albums tend to have an air of desperation and the sweat of trying too hard to recapture past glories. Move Like This manages to avoid that completely. Ric, David, Greg, and Eliot pick back up and zip through these 10 songs as if it'd been 24 hours, not 24 years, since they last recorded.
Faves: Blue Tip, Too Late, SoonSad Song, Take a LookHits Me


Death Cab for Cutie: Codes and Keys
For me, their previous album, Narrow Stairs, was a slow-grower, revealing its considerable charms after many many listens. This one got to me quicker, but I have a feeling it will make less lasting impression. Even so, it's got a lot to recommend it.
Faves: Codes and Keys, You Are a Tourist, Unobstructed Views, Underneath the Sycamore, St. Peter's Cathedral, Stay Young,Go Dancing


The Decemberists: The King is Dead
The Decemebrists past work has felt too affected to me, but this one is straight ahead and irresistable. Straddling the middle ground between Americana and indie rock, the album is a gem from front to back.
Faves: The whole thing, but especially June Hymn. I don't typically have emotional reactions to songs, but that one gets me.


Fountains of Wayne: Sky Full of Holes
Less bombastic than F.O.W.s last couple of albums, Sky Full of Holes has quieter charms. The songwriting, however, is as sharp as ever.
Faves: The Summer Place, Acela, Action Hero, A Dip in the Ocean, A Road Song


Kaiser Chiefs: The Future is Medieval
Kaiser Chiefs have quickly and quietly (at least in the U.S.) been building up a pretty amazing oeuvre. The Future is Medieval (released in 2012 as Start the Revolution Without Me) is a great addition. The band initally offered a "make your own album" via their website, with 20 tracks to choose from. Then they released their own 12 song version. The 8 songs they left off are equally (and in some cases more) worthy.
Faves: Things Change, Long Way from Celebrating, Out of Focus, Man on Mars, Heard it Break, Howlaround, Problem Solved, I Dare You, Can't Mind My Own Business, My Place Is Here


Rogue Valley: False Floors
This is pretty amazing. In a one year timespan, Minneapolis songwriter Chris Koza and his bandmates released four proper albums, one for each season. Winter's entry, False Floors, was the only one to come out in 2011, but it's also my favorite.
Faves: False Floors, Blueprints, Orion, The Scattering Moon


Sloan: The Double Cross
Sloan's 10th album (which came out in their 20th year, thus the punny XX title) is typically great.
Faves: The Answer was You, Unkind, Shadow of Love, Your Daddy Will Do, Beverly Terrace, Laying So Low


They Might Be Giants: Join Us
I'll admit, I'd all but written TMBG off. But Join Us is a strong return to form, with John Linnell especially bringing his "A" game. It's a diverse album, bringing to mind their Flood glory days most, but with the more musically mature touches of John Henry and Factory Showroom. When Will You Die immediately belongs in their top ten singles of all time.
Faves: Can't Keep Johnny Down, You Probably Get That a Lot, Canajoharie, Let Your Hair Hang Down, When Will You Die, Judy is Your Vietnam, Never Knew Love, You Don't Like Me


Wilco: The Whole Love
Wilco continue to surprise. The third album with this iteration of the band manages to happily marry their pop sensibilities to their need to experiment.
Faves: Art of Almost, Sunloathe, Dawned on Me, Open Mind, Capitol City

Thursday, December 08, 2011

More Songs of 2011

Here's the tracklisting and cover art for my end-of-the-year favorites mix. Click here to see the details on the first volume.

1. R.E.M.: All the Best
2. Raphael Saadiq: Radio
3. Wugazi: Killa Hill
4. Foo Fighters: Arlandria
5. The Rosebuds: The Woods
6. The Decemberists: Foregone
7. Wilco: Dawned on Me
8. They Might Be Giants: Can't Keep Johnny Down
9. "Weird Al" Yankovic: Skipper Dan
10. Fountains of Wayne: A Road Song
11. Death Cab for Cutie: You are a Tourist
12. Kaiser Cheifs: My Place is Here
13. Ben Folds Five: Stumblin' Home Winter Blues

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Rock Solid: Paul Simon

"If you only own one album by Paul Simon it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Paul Simon is a big baseball fan, so I'll start with a baseball analogy: Paul Simon is to songwriting what Joe DiMaggio was to the national pastime. Both men are undisputed hall-of-famers in their respective fields: amazingly consistent, fantastically talented, and wildly successful. (They had ill-fated marriages to movie stars, too, but we won't dwell on that.)

The numbers are gaudy. Just as many of Joltin' Joe's records still stand today, few musicians have put together a career quite as charmed as Paul Simon has. The Simon and Garfunkel years are nearly untouchable, and of the 10 proper albums he's released as a solo act, none can be considered truly bad. And there are masterpieces sprinkled throughout.

In fact, the AllMusic Guide identifies 3 perfect albums in the Paul Simon oeuvre: His 1973 self-titled debut, the 1974 follow-up There Goes Rhymin' Simon, and 1986's commercial giant Graceland. (Four others fall just short of masterpiece status, with 4.5 stars: Still Crazy After All These Years (1975), Hearts and Bones (1983), Surprise (2006), and So Beautiful or So What (2011)). The reviews are similar but stingier. Only Paul Simon and Graceland get perfect scores, with the latter garnering 91% perfect ratings (I told you the numbers were gaudy).

AMG's William Ruhlmann called Graceland "the standard against which subsequent musical experiments by major artists were measured." Which is nice, but in my eyes actually short-changes the album a bit (more on that soon).

Most of the review are, as usual, rhapsodic. Consider Fetish 2000, who says Graceland's "shift through various moods of being Exuberant, Poignant, Reflective, organic, and spiritual and Consistent remain[s] unquestionably impressive."

However, a strange undercurrent of anger runs through many of the reviews. Witness:
  • "When Graceland came out after the music's death by disco in the 80's, I was thrilled. At last, something great to listen to. What a sound!" (Joanna Daneman) 
  • "Graceland is easily one of the best albums to come out of the otherwise dismal 80's, and a must-have for most music fans." (Dave Yoerke)
  • "Not much good came out of the 80s besides the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (and even THEY weren't good then). And actually, Paul Simon didn't come out of the 80s, either. He and Garfunkel had been recording some time before then. But Graceland came out of the 80s, and God, am I glad." (Patrick Varine)
Why all the blanket hatred for the '80s? I'm not sure. I don't understand it the way I don't understand why people like music from the '90s. (See what I did there?)

Moving on, Karissa Clark claims, "If you are looking for a way to breathe life and Cajun spice into your life, here's the way to do it! " Or this. And finally, we have the high praise of Raymond Engstrand: "The product is what I expected. It arrived on time and in the condition advertised."

Of course, many reviewers chose to focus on the "world music" aspect of Graceland, and it's probably fair to say that there's no way Graceland would have been the massive commercial hit (14 million in sales) it was without the international dressings. For one, it gave the album a story, and everyone loves that. For another, Simon had been commercially floundering with his old formula. His two previous albums, One Trick Pony (1980) and Hearts and Bones (1983), were both generally considered failures. They didn't sell up to Simon's usual standards, and the critics were not over the moon about them, either. There's nothing especially wrong with either album. Quite the contrary, actually (see below), but the the public is fickle with its musicians, and Simon had held their attention for longer than most. They'd drifted away until Graceland's crazy energy (due mostly to Simon's newfound South African musical inspiration) called them back.

Even so, the album would have been nothing without the typically-strong batch of songs Simon wrote. They're the heart of it all. They were and are amazing compositions, full of the precise lyrical flourishes and keen pop sensibilities that define Simon's career. At its core, Graceland is a singer-songwriter album. A listen to the demos (available on the 2004 remaster) for Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and Homeless prove as much. The music of other lands inspired Simon, obviously, but the songs themselves are just as well-crafted as Still Crazy After All These Years, or 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.

No song personifies the songwriting strength of Graceland better than the shimmering title track. In it, Simon and his son make a pilgrimage to Elvis Presley's homestead, envisioning it as a secular heaven, a place to repair broken hearts. The line that always gets me is: “Losing love is like a window in your heart / Everybody sees you’re blown apart." Simon himself has named it the best song he's ever written, which, considering his catalog, is a bold statement.

That Was Your Mother is a another songwriting highlight. It's perhaps the least sentimental, but most truthful, song ever addressed to a child. Check out this chorus: "Well that was your mother / And that was your father / Before you were born, dude / When life was great / You are the burden of my generation / I sure do love you / But let's get that straight." Before I became a parent, that "burden" line seemed harsh, but I kinda get it now.

Really, the lyrics are surprising and amazing throughout, clearly earning Simon "pop poet" status.
  • The Boy in the Bubble: "It's a turn-around jump shot / It's everyone jump start / It's every generation throws a hero up the pop charts."
  • You Can Call Me Al: "He looks around, around / He sees angels in the architecture / Spinning in infinity / He says 'amen' and 'hallelujah'"
  • Under African Skies: "After the dream of falling and calling your name out / These are the roots of rhythm / And the roots of rhythm remain."
So, yes, Graceland is a great achievement. And it's it's a very fitting Rock Solid. But it's not my favorite Paul Simon album. For that, we have to go back a few paragraphs. The underloved Hearts and Bones is my go-to. I'm ever the sucker for a piece of art that is nakedly personal, and Hearts and Bones is exactly that. I'd say more, but you can read my detailed thoughts here.

As I reflect, there's one significant flaw in my comparison of Joe DiMaggio and Paul Simon. DiMaggio retired from baseball in 1951, at the age of 37. All of his greatest accomplishments (marrying Marilyn Monroe aside) were behind him. Paul Simon made Graceland in his mid-40s. And even if we take that as his peak, he's continued to make high-quality music for 25 more years. No need for the nation to turn its lonely eyes to him; he's been in front of us the whole time. And we're all the richer for it.