Fittingly enough, I was in a music store when I heard Michael Jackson had died.
It was Hix Brothers in Aurora, and I was there to interview some kids who’d had the chance to jam with Los Lobos. The clerk behind the desk was watching television, and he suddenly froze and said, “Holy shit. Michael Jackson died.”
I was stunned, and grateful that I’d finished my interview before I heard the news. I really couldn’t speak for about 10 minutes. It’s no secret that I think Michael Jackson was one of the most important figures in pop history, beginning with his time in the Jackson 5, a group which harmonized over some of the finest singles ever made. Michael’s first few solo albums were tepid affairs, but Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad are simply tremendous. Not only are they some of the most popular and iconic pop records ever released, but they’re amazingly good ones too.
And then it all started to go wrong. Everyone’s familiar with the downward spiral Jackson’s personal and public life took, starting in the ‘90s, and everyone has their own opinion on it. The music suffered as well, though. I quite like History, still – it’s a raw and angry little record, perhaps the most honest and unguarded the self-styled King of Pop ever made. But it still pales in comparison to the Holy Trilogy, and overcooked efforts like Invincible just turned Jackson into a run of the mill pop singer. Just another money-maker for the big labels, a product of the radio-ready blah machine.
Whether you think Jackson ever meant more than that to the world will probably determine what you think of Michael, the first posthumous release under his name. Jackson was reportedly working on these songs when he died, and had recorded vocal tracks for them, but none of them were in any shape to release. So his estate handed those vocal tracks over to a handful of producers with instructions to finish them.
The result, as you might imagine, is a Frankenstein’s monster of a record, one that I suppose was intended as a tribute to the man, but ended up just another sort of lame pop album with Jackson’s name on it. There’s nothing on here that sounds like it came from one of the most influential pop musicians of all time. And there’s very little I will revisit once I’m done typing this review.
You know you’re in trouble when the first song, “Hold My Hand,” opens with a shout-out from its guest artist, Akon. Here’s a guy who could only hope to have one-tenth the career Jackson has had, a guy who will be less than a footnote in pop history, a guy who should feel honored beyond all reason that Michael Fucking Jackson is working with him, and he starts the song off by announcing, through Auto-Tune, that it features “Akon and M.J., oh yeah.” All kinds of nauseating. And the song isn’t very good either.
Speaking of, here’s a tip for the producers of Michael: I know you guys like Auto-Tune, but Michael Jackson never needed it. Hearing his vocals processed and mutilated like this isn’t a tribute, it’s an insult. The only thing I can think of is that the vocal tracks used on Michael are even rougher than we’ve been led to believe. And it makes me wonder just how digitally-assembled this whole thing is.
Are there songs I like? Sure. Some of them are not bad. I enjoy “(I Like) The Way You Love Me” for its breezy, Beach Boys feel. “Best of Joy” is pure Jackson, child-like and innocent, and it’s followed up by “Breaking News,” another in a long line of backhanded swipes at the media. It’s an interesting contrast. But neither song is terrific. The Lenny Kravitz-penned “(I Can’t Make It) Another Day” is a highlight, which is sad. And the last two songs, the frenetic “Behind the Mask” and the brief, pretty “Much Too Soon,” are the best things here.
And they’re pretty mediocre, but they don’t sink to the depths of “Monster,” featuring a useless rap by 50 Cent, or “Hollywood Tonight.” The stink of money is on this whole affair. It’s nice to hear Jackson’s voice again (and would have been nicer to hear it without the Auto-Tune), but this is by no means a new Michael Jackson album. It’s a stitched-together cash grab released just in time for Christmas, a payday posing as a tribute, a piper leading you into the mountains. Mostly, though, it’s just a shame.
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In a moment, I’ll start listing my favorite albums of 2010. But first, I’ve already got an early fave for 2011.
Every time I hear a new Over the Rhine album, I think to myself, “This is the one. This is the one that will bring them the acclaim and attention they deserve. This is the one that will get Karin Bergquist rightfully lauded as one of the best singers of our time.” And it never happens.
But it should, each time. Over the Rhine has been releasing great records for 20 years, detailing an ongoing conversation between Bergquist and her husband, pianist Linford Detwiler. The new one, The Long Surrender, is the band’s 11th, and will be officially released on 1/1/11. (See how that works?) But you can get it right now at www.overtherhine.com. It’s their first one funded through pre-orders, and the band got so much financial support for the project that they hired Joe Henry, a guitarist and producer with a golden ear. The result is one of their oddest, but one of their best.
Let’s get this out of the way up front: Karin Bergquist can sing. It’s no exaggeration to call her one of the best singers I’m aware of. She can belt it out when she needs to, she can rein it in and kill you with subtlety, and she’s not afraid to take interesting risks with her tone and phrasing. The Long Surrender is perhaps her finest showcase yet – Henry leaves a lot of Bergquist’s rough edges in, giving her smoky vocals on “Rave On” an appealing grime, and allowing her to really take a torch song like “There’s a Bluebird In My Heart” and run with it.
Musically, The Long Surrender touches on several of OtR’s bases, but with Henry behind the boards, it sounds like a reinvention. The tone is somehow earthier, somehow spookier and older. They bravely sequence the weirder tracks first – once you get past “The Laugh of Recognition,” which sounds like a cousin to older tune “Born,” you get five interesting experiments in a row. “Soon” is probably my favorite of these, its Tom Waits-style rhythm proving a perfect foil for Bergquist’s voice. Lucinda Williams adds her rough-hewn voice to “Undamned,” and “Infamous Love Song” is like a piano-soul tribute to Bob Dylan.
The Long Surrender is endearingly off-kilter until you get to track seven, the transcendent “Only God Can Save Us Now.” It consists of scenes from a mental hospital (“Maggie struck Geneva with her baby doll, Barb knocked off the medcart coming down the hall…”) set to an absolutely glorious melody. From there, the album is just beautiful. “Oh Yeah By the Way” finds Bergquist and Detwiler singing a low-moan love song together, while “The King Knows How” taps into Bergquist’s sultry side. (When the gospel singers join in on “slide on over,” it may be my favorite moment on the record.)
When I heard Over the Rhine play the closing track, “All My Favorite People,” at Cornerstone this year, I was underwhelmed. It’s a long and repetitive number, one that, on stage, never seemed to become something interesting. But on The Long Surrender, it caps the album perfectly. It’s a triumphant ode to flawed perfection, a rousing final summation of the record’s themes. “Some prayers are better left unspoken, I just wanna hold you and let the rest go,” Bergquist sings, and the joy bursting through pain in her voice is remarkable.
Every time I hear a new Over the Rhine, I think this will be the one. I know I’m wrong, though. Bergquist and Detwiler are destined to keep making wonderful records like this one for a small yet devoted fanbase to enjoy. I feel lucky that I’m part of that fanbase, and I get to hear this music, because it’s enriched my life beyond measure. The Long Surrender is another step in a journey I have treasured. May it continue for 20 years more.
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So it’s time for the honorable mentions, the records that didn’t quite make the 2010 Top 10 List.
First off, I don’t want to hear anyone say this was a lousy year for music. I have 17 honorables this year, and all of them are strong, solid, worthy records. They all might have made the list in years past. They didn’t this time because 2010 was just a banner year, with marvelous music from old favorites and new discoveries. (And some genuine surprises, too.)
Some of my fellow critics felt compelled to make a top 25 list this year, and I can’t disagree with that course of action. If you combine my top 10 list and my honorable mentions, you get a good sense of just how terrific this year was.
There is one I want to mention before we dive in: my favorite ineligible record of the year. As you know (from last week’s column, if nothing else), only new studio recordings of original songs can make the top 10 list, which leaves out some gems each year. This time, there’s no album I wish I could include more than Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back. It’s all covers, you see, but breathtaking covers, Peter singing his heart out over orchestral takes on Elbow and Radiohead and Arcade Fire and other stunning choices. This record is captivating from start to finish, one of my favorite things from 2010.
Okay, let’s kick off the honorable mentions with one that, it seems to me, has been roundly forgotten. Corinne Bailey Rae’s The Sea is a minor soul masterpiece, an emotionally wrenching and beautiful work. It just had the misfortune of coming out in February. I hope it isn’t four years before we hear from Rae again. Also delivering a kickass soul record was Cee Lo Green, whose The Lady Killer never quite eclipsed its advance single, the delirious and perfect “Fuck You,” but was solid and entertaining all the way through.
Eminem made a Recovery, and it was riveting. Sia’s electrifying We Are Born showed that there is much more to this Aussie songstress than the ballads she’s become known for. Jack White’s new band The Dead Weather vaulted over the sophomore slump with the grimy, kick-your-teeth-in Sea of Cowards. Devo roared back with the compact, angry Something for Everybody, as if the two decades since we’ve heard from them hadn’t happened at all. And Jonathan Meiburg’s Shearwater finished an unofficial trilogy with the marvelous The Golden Archipelago.
Everything Everything was the brit-pop discovery of the year (thanks to reader Nick Martin), and their Man Alive took liberally from early XTC to great effect. Jonsi, singer of Sigur Ros, struck out on his own with the expansive pop wonder Go. Brian Transeau, better known as BT, delivered a double album of genre-hopping, jaw-dropping electro-pop called These Hopeful Machines, and even got Rob Dickinson of Catherine Wheel to join in. And Boston rocker Bleu overcame a lousy third album with Four, a consistent power pop wonder.
You’ll hear more from Sufjan Stevens next week, but his All Delighted People EP took the first tentative steps away from his trademark sound, like a funeral party for his banjo-driven folk. (It’s also, despite the title, an hour long, so it counts.) Beach House didn’t so much expand their sound as refine it on Teen Dream, their finest record so far. And Rufus Wainwright seemed to draw the ire of fans by sitting down at a piano and letting All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu come pouring out. I think it’s terrific stuff.
For the third time in a row, Aqualung’s Matt Hales wrote the year’s prettiest song: “Thin Air” is one for the ages. The album it’s on, Magnetic North, isn’t quite to the standard he’s set before, but it’s still wonderful piano pop from a guy more people should be paying attention to. And Hanson (yes, Hanson) made one of my favorite delirious pop records this year with Shout it Out, their tribute to old-school Stax and Motown records. These songs are the ones I found myself singing along with most often in 2010.
But Shout it Out doesn’t get the coveted #11 spot. This year, that honor goes to Yeasayer, who took all that indie-cred hype they’d built up and came back with a wondrous, off-kilter album called Odd Blood. They pulled from Toto and the Thompson Twins, wrote songs with titles like “Love Me Girl,” and just had tons of fun making this thing. In so doing, they carved out a unique space in the landscape, and as a bonus, they made the folks at Pitchfork, who had championed their more straight-faced debut, feel embarrassed. Hopefully they’ve come around by now, since Odd Blood is one of the best funhouse rides of 2010.
All right, next week, the top 10 list. I’m looking forward to seeing all of your lists too. Send them along to firstname.lastname@example.org. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.