This is Fifty Second Week.
In what’s become an annual tradition, I’m about to burn through quick reviews of 52 albums that slipped under the radar this year. I hear a lot of music each week, and there often isn’t time to a) form coherent thoughts on all of it, and b) write those thoughts down in this column. Usually I’m obligated to just pick one or two discs and ramble on about them, and some weeks, that’s a tough call.
What you’re about to read was created in real time. I have a counter on my desktop set to 50 seconds. That’s how long I’ve given myself to talk about each of these albums. If I’m in the middle of a sentence, or even a word, I stop when the buzzer rings and move on. If I do this right, the whole column should take me just about an hour to finish up.
Of course, I’ve been thinking about some of these records for months, which helps. But this year, there are some I simply don’t remember, and some I just heard this week, so we’ll see how I do. I’m going to be reviewing these discs alphabetically, and this year we’re literally going from A to Z. Hang on, dear reader. This is Fifty Second Week.
Bought this on a recommendation, and it’s pretty sweet. Adem is a member of Four Tet, and here he turns in acoustic versions of some interesting songs, like PJ Harvey’s “Oh My Lover.” Best of all is his acoustic rendering of two Aphex Twin (!) songs.
Beach House, Devotion.
A critical darling, this album is hazy and lazy and lovely. The music is dreamy and, yes, a little like watching the waves come in on a beach, despite the cheesy electronic percussion. The vocals make this thing, though.
Big Blue Ball.
I can’t believe I never reviewed this. Something like 17 years in the making (Chinese Democracy!), this is Peter Gabriel’s multi-artist, multi-cultural project. And the songs are very good, thanks to Gabriel and Karl Wallinger of World Party. Recommended, highly.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Lie Down in the Light.
I remember pretty much nothing about this album, except that it’s very pretty, and pretty dull. Will Oldham writes some traditional-sounding folk songs, and gets some friends to help him record them. That’s it. There isn’t much to it, but I remember liking it, at least briefly.
Blind Melon, For My Friends.
Now this one I remember. The first non-Shannon Hoon Blind Melon album is just as good as the two they did with their now-deceased singer, and new guy Travis Warren makes a good showing for himself. These are typically hippie-dippy tunes, but just as complex as ever.
Bon Voyage, Lies.
Album three for Jason Martin (Starflyer 59) and his wife, Julie. This is more electronic and dark than the previous records, but Martin’s gift for a strong pop hook is all over the place. Plus, they do “Girlfriend in a Coma”!
Billy Bragg, Mr. Love and Justice.
Been a long wait for Billy’s new one, but it was worth it. Here are 12 more righteously pissed-off folk songs, performed with a band on disc one and with just Billy and his electric on disc two, just like the old days. He hasn’t lost a single ounce of his pent-up anger, and you can hear it most effectiv…
Jonatha Brooke, The Works.
Brooke pulls a Mermaid Avenue, writing music for lost Woody Guthrie lyrics. To her credit, she doesn’t try to write Woody Guthrie songs – tunes like the opener “My Sweet and Bitter Bowl” are pure Jonatha pop, complex and literate.
David Byrne and Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.
Two words: Bo. Ring. I don’t get the acclaim at all. Is it just because of who these two guys are? They’ve made a gauzy, simplistic pile of mush here with none of the hooks I’ve been told are here. I doubt I’ll ever play this again.
Alice Cooper, Along Came a Spider.
Am I really going to give a good review to Alice Cooper after trashing Byrne and Eno? Yeah, I think so. This is another rock opera from Cooper, and it’s full of glammy little treats. It’s a disturbing/fun look at a serial killer, and another chapter in the Steven epic. What more do you want from Alice?
Rivers Cuomo, Alone II: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo.
It’s funny just how much more I enjoy these home recording compilations than I do Weezer’s actual albums. Here Cuomo gives extensive, probing liner notes, putting these strange, romantic songs in context. We get three more bits from Songs From the Black Hole, and a cover of “Don’t Worry Baby” to boot.
Cut/Copy, In Ghost Colours.
This is actually really good, a seamless hour-long blend of club beats and ‘80s melodies that works from note one. I ended up buying it because of Pitchfork’s review, but I enjoyed it a lot more than you’d expect, given that.
Department of Eagles, In Ear Park.
This is one of the ones I’ve just heard, so bear with me. This is a side project for one of the guys in Grizzly Bear, but it sounds a lot like that band to me, mixed with some clanging pop. If Michael Penn were more relaxed and ambient (and indie), he might sound something lik
Filter, Anthems for the Damned.
Because nobody demanded it, Richard Patrick comes back for a fourth round with Filter. And you know what? He made a pretty good record. This one is based around the horrors of war and the perspectives of soldiers, but it has what Filter has always had – beefy guitars and some good hooks.
Jon Foreman, Fall and Winter.
The first half of a season cycle by the frontman for Switchfoot, Fall and Winter finds Foreman stripping down to acoustic guitars but keeping his finely honed sense of melody. I was a little unprepared for just how Christian the lyrics would be, but the songs are very good.
Jon Foreman, Spring and Summer.
And here’s the other half, the brighter and poppier half. This set is worth buying for “Instead of a Show” all by itself, a scathing indictment of Christian opportunism. Plus, the four CDs total come packaged in a very neat digipak diorama.
The Gaslight Anthem, The ’59 Sound.
Imagine Bruce Springsteen fronting the Alarm from 1985, and you have some idea what this sounds like. It’s all fist-pumping stuff, quite like the Hold Steady, but after a while, it all starts to sound the same to me. But the first few tracks are great.
Hoss, Love Takes a Holiday.
This is a local band, and I’ve owed them a review for months now. This is their second album, I think, and it’s a big step up. If you like Ryan Adams-style country-flavored rock, this is right up your alley, particularly the dynamic “You Said.” Go here.
Freedy Johnston, My Favorite Waste of Time.
Freedy does covers, and his influences are exactly who you think they are. Marshall Crenshaw, the Beatles, the Eagles, Tom Petty, etc. He even covers Matthew Sweet’s “I’ve Been Waiting,” a song that dips into the same well he’s always visiting. Good stuff, but predictable.
Joy Electric, My Grandfather the Cubist.
Never got around to this one either, but it’s just as well. After a string of excellent releases, Ronnie Martin strikes out with this overlong, over-simple effort. Some of the songs are good, but all of them are too long, and Martin’s vocals are the weakest they’ve been in some time here. Try The Otherly Opus instead.
Judas Priest, Nostradamus.
A two-disc concept album from Judas Priest? That sounds impossibly, epically bad, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. Oh, it’s not good, but these plodding, just-barely-over-the-top songs are more boring than anything else. Priest should not take themselves seriously.
A remix album from last year’s Tohuvabohu, this sounds exactly like you’d expect. KMFDM has been doing the exact same thing for more than 20 years now, and when it works – as most of this record does – they still pack a punch unlike virtually anyone else out there. No pity for the majority, indeed.
Mark Kozelek, The Finally LP.
The former Red House Painter and current Sun Kil Mooner runs through a bunch of fascinating covers, mainly with just voice and guitar. He makes AC/DC sound beautiful and puts the saddest spin ever on “Send In the Clowns.” Kozelek is awesome.
The Lassie Foundation EP.
Three songs from a band I thought dead. Wayne Everett’s Lassie Foundation puts on a more ambient edge this time, but they still can turn out a killer melody, as they do on “Three Wheels.”
The Last Shadow Puppets, The Age of the Understatement.
This was a surprise. A side project for Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys, this band combines the snotty attitude of that one with some wondrous textures. It helps that these are also pretty good songs. I like this more than Turner’s main band.
The Listening, Transmission 1.
A very welcome four-song return from this band. This time they’ve opened up and warmed up their sound, taking a bit from Mute Math (and their producer, Tedd T.). The first song, “The End,” is simply unstoppable. Can’t wait for the full-length.
Gary Louris, Vagabonds.
The former Jayhawk makes an appealing country-tinged solo album – again, if you like Ryan Adams, you should really like this. The songs are tight, particularly my favorite, “To Die a Happy Man,” and the pedal steel guitars complement Louris’ voice nicely.
Gary Louris, Acoustic Vagabonds.
And here he is doing six Vagabonds songs with nothing but acoustic guitar and voice. It’s nice, but I hate feeling like I’ve shelled out cash for something that should have been a bonus disc.
Mates of State, Re-Arrange Us.
Man, this is happy stuff. Mates of State is a husband-wife duo, and they make clap-along, hummable pop music, mostly with pianos. I like it quite a bit, especially the repetitive shout “Now,” but about half an hour of this is just enough.
Eric Matthews, The Imagination Stage.
Poor Matthews gets ignored everywhere, even this column. Here’s another hour of complex, well-produced pop music from a guy who should be much better known. He’s even dabbled with electronic sounds on this one, in addition to his usual plethora of instruments. Very good record.
Motley Crue, Saints of Los Angeles.
Well, they did try. This album reunites the original fearsome foursome, but the results are a bit tepid, and too concerned with sounding “modern.” The song titles are often better than the songs: “Chicks = Trouble,” “Motherfucker of the Year,” “White Trash Circus,” etc.
Tom Petty puts his old band back together after, like, 30 years. And what do you know? It’s the best thing he’s done in many, many moons. There’s a looseness to this album that’s been missing from Petty’s work since Jeff Lynne got ahold of him, and the interplay is great. It’s an old-time rock record.
Mudcrutch, Extended Play Live.
And here they are doing four songs live. Only four songs? I don’t get it either. But I do like the 15-minute take on “Crystal River.” Mudcrutch, far from being a gimmick from an aging rocker desperate for ideas, is actually quite a good rock band.
I bought two rap records this year – Kanye West’s, and this scathing thesis on race relations in America. Nas is on point throughout – you can tell that this album was originally given a much more provocative title. The word in question is the focal point of the whole thing, and Nas’ conclusions, delivered with his trademark skill, are thought-provoking.
Old 97s, Blame it on Gravity.
Another appealing slab of country-rock from Rhett Miller and his compatriots. I remember liking this just as much as I always like the 97s, but I don’t recall much more about it. Deserves another listen, which it will get.
One Day as a Lion.
Zach de la Rocha makes his long-awaited reappearance on this five-song EP from his new project. And it’s basically Rage Against the Machine with no guitars, just an indomitable drum machine and some low, low, LOUD bass tones. It’s pretty much what you’d expect, given that description.
The Orb, The Dream.
Alex Patterson returns to making trippy ambient electronic wonderfulness, after too many years of trying to write pop songs. There’s some classic Orb stuff on this one, but it’s still nowhere near the high points of Orbus Terrarum and Orblivion.
The Presets, Apocalypso.
Really, there’s only one way to describe this, and that’s electronic cock-rock. The synths make like sleazy guitars, the vocals dare you to come out and challenge them, and the whole thing has a masculine swagger that you just don’t find in this style of music that often. I ended up liking this more than I expec
Ra Ra Riot, The Rhumb Line.
Energetic, Arcade Fire-style rock with cellos aplenty. Apparently this album is a eulogy for one of the band’s members, who died before recording sessions started. Given that, it’s amazingly upbeat, and very enjoyable stuff.
Retribution Gospel Choir.
After putting together Low’s nightmarish dreamscape, Drums and Guns, Alan Sparhawk got himself a ROCK band. This pulses with life – the tempos are slow by anyone else’s measure, but by Low’s, this is positively quicksilver. And it rocks!
She and Him, Volume One.
This is the cutest thing ever. Actress Zooey Deschanel and musician M. Ward got together to cut an old-time session, full of romantic longing. It’s mostly Deschanel originals, and they’re sweet and sunny, but the covers are well-chosen too. It’s just… so cute!
South, You Are Here.
A sparkling return to form for this British band, after stumbling last time out. This is well-written acoustic pop music, with a few nice twists and turns. I’m especially fond of “Better Things,” but this is the best South album yet, in my opinion.
Ty Tabor, Balance.
The guitarist for King’s X goes it alone for the fifth time, and makes his best showing yet. This album is surprisingly slow and emotional, but it showcases Tabor’s gift for a melody, and his high, appealing voice. Best one here: “Maybe Crazy.” Only available here.
Teddy Thompson, A Piece of What You Need.
I thought it was too soon for Thompson, son of Richard and Linda, to have a new album, and I was right. This sounds rushed together, and the songs aren’t a patch on the ones he wrote for Separate Ways. It’s not bad, but it’s nothing special either – just another country album with a big voice.
Thrice, The Alchemy Index, Vols. I and II: Fire and Water.
The four-disc Alchemy Index outed Thrice as possibly the most ambitious modern rock band around right now. Fire is all screams and incendiary guitar, of course, but Water submerges things under a deep electronic
Thrice, The Alchemy Index Vols. III and IV: Air and Earth.
bed. Air is ambient and, well, airy, while Earth brings things to a close with a dirty acoustic sound. Taken as a whole, this shows off so many different sides to this band that it’s hard to believe they started off with such a limited screamo sound. This is mostly great stuff.
The Verve, Forth.
Holy reverb, Batman! The fourth album from these reunited anthem-poppers is a widescreen epic windblown masterwork of repetition. The songs are no great shakes, but man, this sounds big and important.
Martha Wainwright, I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too.
Why the hell didn’t I review this? In addition to coming up with the year’s best album title, Rufus’ sister crafted a superb orchestrated pop album. Her voice reminds me of Joanna Newsom’s in places, but her melodies are pure Broadway pop. This album is very good, and deserved better from me.
The Walkmen, You & Me.
A surprisingly gentle outing from these New Yorkers, You & Me glides by on dark atmospheres and a hushed atmosphere overall. It’s impressive stuff, even if it never quite lifts off, and Hamilton Leithauser has learned how to make the best use of his unconventional voice. Recommended.
Whitesnake, Good to be Bad.
Yes, a new Whitesnake. No, it’s not terrible. This is a return to Zeppelin-esque epic rock for David Coverdale, easily the best of the Robert Plant imitators. Nothing here is going to shake your world, but for what this is, I liked it. It’s a lot more impressive than I expected, particularly the slower songs.
Frank Zappa, One Shot Deal.
One of two posthumous Zappa releases this year, One Shot Deal is a mish-mash of things that somehow captures the anarchic spirit of a lot of Frank’s work. The first few tracks are utterly bizarre, but stick around for “Occam’s Razor,” a great guitar solo, and some new renditions of old favorites.
Frank Zappa, Joe’s Menage.
And finally, the latest in the Joe’s Corsaga, a full raw live album from 1975. The sound is rough, but it works for this material, and the rock versions of ’60s songs are worth the cover price. But you’ll most want to hear the 14-minute “Chunga’s Revenge,” including what Frank calls a “rhythm guitar solo.” Choice stuff.
And that’s that for another year. Thanks very much to everyone who’s stuck with me since 2000, and to everyone who’s joined the ride since then. I’ll be taking next week off, to recuperate a little bit, but on January 14, year nine begins. I am sincerely grateful for all the support, and for the good friends I’ve made through this column. You’ve all enriched my life, and I’m thankful.
Happy new year!
See you in line Tuesday morning.