So I’m not going to do a Best of the Decade list.
I know, I know. I’m no fun. I’ve had a lot of people ask me about it, and it’s really tempting, but it’s also an awful lot of work. You’d figure it would be something as simple as ranking my 10 number one albums of the year, but not really. A top album in a bad year (say, The Marshall Mathers LP) might not even rate an honorable mention in a good year, so it’s more a matter of ranking my top 100 albums of the decade, and even then, I’d be adding in things I missed, and agonizing over the order for weeks, and… yeah. It’s a lot of pressure.
So I won’t be doing one. Probably. Maybe.
Although next year is also the 10th anniversary of Tuesday Morning 3 A.M., in its current form. (I wrote it for about two years at Face Magazine before launching this site.) So that makes it even more tempting, honestly. But do I really think I’ve heard enough of the music of the Aughts to definitively say which is the best? It’s a different proposition than a year-end top 10 list. I only have 12 months to hear as much as I can each year, and the deadline is the last column in December. But for a Best of the Decade list, I’ve had 10 years to explore the forgotten nooks and crannies, to try to hear everything I can.
Still, it would be nice to counterpoint some of the bizarre choices I’ve seen on these lists lately. Pitchfork led the way by naming Radiohead’s Kid A the best of the 2000s. Longtime readers will already know what I think about that. It’s an album I’ve grown to appreciate over the years, but I will never love its mechanical, tuneless, icy landscapes. An important record? Yeah, probably. A good one? Not really. Then the Onion A.V. Club, ordinarily a bastion of good taste, picked the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells. I mean, holy crap. That’s not even the best White Stripes album, to my mind. That felt like the resurgence of the same people who called Nevermind the best album of the ‘90s. I simply don’t understand that.
So yeah, it would be nice to send a different message out there, I suppose. But no, I’m not doing such a list. Really, I’m not. And you won’t be able to talk me into it. So there.
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As I said before, 2010 is the 10th anniversary of Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. I’m grateful I’ve been able to do this for as long as I have, and doubly grateful that people are still reading it. Thank you, one and all.
Next year’s release schedule is actually starting off pretty well. There’s the requisite four Tuesdays without anything interesting, of course, starting on December 15. (This week at least had an Animal Collective EP, which I’ll review in the next column.) But on January 12, things start getting interesting. We’ve got the second album from Vampire Weekend, called Contra, and I don’t think I’ve been as interested in the sound and direction of a follow-up since Keane’s Under the Iron Sea.
We’ve also got the third album from OK Go, this one a collaboration with Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann. It comes with the decidedly un-OK Go title Of the Blue Colour of the Sky. We will also see new ones from Freedy Johnston and Final Fantasy, who is Owen Pallett, violinist for the Arcade Fire. The week after that will bring us new ones from Spoon (Transference) and Eels (End Times). Chances are they will both sound exactly like you think they will, but hell. New Spoon! New Eels!
January 26 is the most fascinating new release Tuesday of the month, however. First, we get the new Magnetic Fields album, called Realism. It’s reportedly the sparse, chamber-folk twin of 2008’s great Distortion. Stephin Merritt’s never let me down, and I don’t expect he will here.
But the other release is really interesting: it’s called Scratch My Back, and it’s a covers album from Peter Gabriel. As if providing me with a segue, he covers the Magnetic Fields, but he also delivers versions of songs by Radiohead, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Elbow, Arcade Fire, the Kinks, David Bowie and Bon Iver, to name a few. I like that the list includes legends and contemporaries, as well as young punks. If I were Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, I’d be over the moon that someone like Gabriel had covered one of my songs.
February and March will bring us new things from Massive Attack, Frightened Rabbit, Liars, Jonsi of Sigur Ros, Hammock, Shearwater, and probably a bunch of things I don’t know about yet. Also, on February 16, we finally get the stateside release of Jason Falkner’s I’m OK, You’re OK. That probably won’t mean much to most of you, but I can name four people off the top of my head who just punched the air and shouted, “Yes!”
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I like live albums.
I haven’t counted, but I would bet a full 25 percent of my collection is made up of live records. As committed as I am to the idea of the studio album as a complete and lasting statement, I think there is no greater test of your band’s mettle than a live performance. If you can work your magic without a net, in front of a live and discerning audience, well, that’s a special class of skill all by itself, and one worth praising.
And there are some bands, like Phish and Dream Theater, who take their music someplace entirely different on stage. The Dave Matthews Band has rarely thrilled me in the studio, but live, they’re a remarkably adventurous and dazzling outfit, and it’s no wonder they release so many concert documents. They’ve yet to capture that energy in the studio – Before These Crowded Streets came closest, I think. If you really want to hear DMB in all their glory, you’ve got to hear them live.
I know people who can’t stand live albums, and I get where they’re coming from. Most of them are pretty inconsequential. I own probably 50 Marillion live discs, and while I like them all, I wouldn’t call most of them essential. You likely only need one or two of them to get the point: Marillion is amazing live. And even those would sound, to the casual listener, like the studio versions with crowd noise.
When do you absolutely need a live album? That’s a difficult question to answer. To me, every gig is different, and while I didn’t go out and buy every one of those Pearl Jam live discs from 10 years or so ago, I did buy every entry in the LivePhish series so far, and I’ve liked them all. It doesn’t take much to get me to shell out for a live record. But for the less avid listener? Tough one.
You could always go with historical relevance. Many live documents are released to commemorate special occasions, concerts that either have or will go down in history. There’s a certain you-were-there element to these packages that I usually can’t resist.
Take, for example, the recently-released Good Evening New York City, by Sir Paul McCartney. These two CDs and one DVD capture the Cute Beatle’s three-night stand inaugurating Citi Field in New York this summer. It’s a historical two-fer, in fact: it was the first concert in the new field, which sits next to the site of the former Shea Stadium, where the Beatles set attendance records in 1965. (This time, McCartney has quipped, the musicians could hear themselves over the roar of the crowd.) So this is kind of a Big Deal.
But how is it? Well, it’s okay. First, I wouldn’t call this a sterling example of live recording technology. The mix is distant and indistinct – not quite bootleg quality, but close. The set list is practically unimpeachable – more than half of it is made up of Beatles songs, and the solo and Wings selections are also very good. The performances, however, are just average.
Top that off with the fact that McCartney has neglected to bring any horn and string players along with him, leaving that to his trusty keyboardist, Paul “Wix” Wickens. So we get godawful synth horns on “Got to Get You Into My Life,” and an atrocious plastic saxophone solo on “Lady Madonna,” and an absolutely terrible fall-on-the-keyboard approximation of the orchestra in “A Day in the Life.” These are, without a doubt, the worst moments of the entire thing.
Blessedly, the songs carry the day. How could they not, really? When it comes to the Beatles material, Paul largely stays on the McCartney side of the Lennon/McCartney axis: “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Hey Jude,” “Get Back,” “Let It Be,” “Yesterday,” everything you’d expect. He offers a fine version of “Something” in tribute to George Harrison, and segues from “A Day in the Life” into a tender take on Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” but otherwise, it’s all Paul. And that’s just fine – in the ‘60s, he was one of the best pop songwriters who ever lived.
Sadly, that didn’t carry onward into the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s or ‘00s, but he’s still done some good stuff, as he demonstrates on the album’s first disc. “Only Mama Knows,” from 2007’s Memory Almost Full, is as fine a rock song as he’s given us in 30 years, and solo gems like “Calico Skies” and “Flaming Pie” come off well. He even whips out a Fireman song, “Highway,” from last year’s Electric Arguments. In many ways, the band sounds better and more confident on these tracks than on the Fab Four tunes.
And maybe that’s how it should be. Good Evening New York City is a decent document of an important show, but it’s one you won’t pull out very often. The accompanying DVD is also quite nice, if only to highlight Billy Joel’s guest spot on “I Saw Her Standing There,” but again, you won’t watch this more than once or twice. For collectors like me, it’s the kind of thing that’s worthwhile to have, but isn’t revelatory.
On the other hand, Tom Waits’ new live record Glitter and Doom isn’t at all important. It showcases the gravel-voiced singer/songwriter’s 2008 tour, backed by a crackerjack band, playing mid-sized venues in 10 different cities. It was a tour seen by few, and this live record will probably sell to even fewer. But you know what? It stomps all over McCartney’s live album for sheer energy and repeat-play value.
If you’ve never heard Waits, I don’t think anything I can say will properly warn you. Waits writes earthy blues and ballads, but he sings them in a voice that sounds kind of like a hoarse gorilla. It’s a low, sick rumble, which often switches to more of a feral growl, and it’s definitely an acquired taste. I’ve acquired it, mainly because Waits’ songs are so damn good. And you get a bunch of very good ones on Glitter and Doom.
And the band! Man, these guys are good. “Get Behind the Mule” is suitably abrasive, all thumps and gut-shots, but one song later, “Fannin Street” will break your heart. Waits remembered to bring his top people – saxophonists, clarinet players, pianists, mandolin pluckers, and drums to die for. Atop all this perfectly played beauty and clamor, Waits feels free to go even deeper into his grizzled hobo image, snarling and grunting his way through the stompers, and singing his little heart out on the weepers.
The track listing sticks to his more recent material, as it should – he’s made remarkable strides as an idiosyncratic songwriter recently. One of the absolute highlights is “Trampled Rose,” from his most recent studio album, 2004’s Real Gone. It’s a percussion-fueled Mellotron excursion, quite unlike anything else you’re bound to hear, and performed with real grit and fire. Another bright spot is “Dirt in the Ground,” from 1992’s amazing Bone Machine. The smoky atmosphere is heightened live, and Waits makes the song’s world-weary fatalism something of a joy.
So the album proper is awesome, but there’s a value-added as well: a second disc called Tom Tales. This is, believe it or not, 36 minutes of Waits’ between-song patter, and it’s amazing. He spins stories, tells shaggy-dog jokes, and mumbles non-sequiturs, and it’s all delightfully entertaining. I don’t want to ruin any of this by excerpting it, so I won’t. Suffice it to say that Tom Tales is worth the price of admission all by itself. That you get an exceptional live album to boot is just gravy.
But if you want value for your money, and a truly revelatory live album experience, you can’t do any better than The Live Anthology, by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. For 20 bucks, you get nearly four hours of music on four CDs, all designed to drive home one message: the Heartbreakers are, and always have been, a great live band.
The Anthology takes liberally from every era of Petty’s career, and the sound is remarkably consistent throughout. Even when he was flirting with synthesizers in the ‘80s, or giving his sound over to Jeff Lynne in the ‘90s, the Heartbreakers still played every song on stage like a raucous American rock band. Hits like “Breakdown” and “Refugee” and “Here Comes My Girl” are all here, given new life. And if that’s all this was, a Greatest Hits Played Faster kind of thing, it wouldn’t be anything special.
But Petty and the band do a couple of things very right here. For one, they take on some surprises from deep in the catalog, like the lovely and underrated “Straight Into Darkness.” And for another, nearly half of this anthology is made up of cover tunes, and they’re all awesome. Just the first disc contains Bobby Womack’s “I’m In Love,” Koko Taylor’s “I’m a Man,” Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air,” and Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” These are all very different songs, with very different vibes, but the Heartbreakers make them all their own. (They do an even better job with the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” on the second disc. And you really should hear their rip-snorting take on Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well” on disc four. But I digress.)
Petty has a thin, high voice, but this sampling of his work over three decades shows he can turn the Bob Dylan on and off like a switch. He’s in full Zimmerman mode on opener “Nightwatchman,” but by “Breakdown,” recorded two days later, he’s hitting all the notes strong and clear. But it’s the band that really makes this thing. They’re never flashy, those Heartbreakers, but all of them, especially mainstays Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, are tight and fiery players.
Like most good live albums, there isn’t a lot more to say about The Live Anthology. It’s a strong and sterling overview of a band that has rarely taken center stage in the musical world, but deserves this lavish spotlight. The final disc ends perfectly: after a superb version of deep cut “Century City,” it gently washes away with “Alright for Now,” a song from Full Moon Fever that still stands as one of Petty’s prettiest melodies. It’s not often you’ll get to the end of four hours of music and want to start again, but you will here.
And like the best live albums, this one does its job admirably – it shows that in front of an audience, with no escape hatch in sight, these musicians can pull magic out of the air. I like this more than I like most of Petty’s often-stilted studio discs. It makes the live album argument for me by showing a different side of a long-running band, one you wouldn’t get under any other circumstances. This is why I love live albums, right here.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.