Merry Christmas, everyone! This is Fifty Second Week.
I’ve been writing this year-end wrapup column for nine years now, and this is the first one to post on Christmas Day. It’s a little weird, I agree. But just think of this as a present that I wrapped up and put under your tree. Fifty-two tiny reviews? It’s exactly what you wanted, isn’t it? I know, I know. You’re welcome.
For those of you who don’t know how Fifty Second Week works, here’s the lowdown. I hear more music every year than I can feasibly write about in a weekly column. Much, much more. So this is my way of getting through a chunk of the music I didn’t document here before the year winds down. I have in front of me 52 CDs I didn’t review. I will give myself 50 seconds to review each one. When the timer goes off, I stop writing, even if I’m in the middle of a sentence. Pencils down means pencils down.
I hope these are as fun for you to read as they are for me to write. Here we go. This is Fifty Second Week.
Alice in Chains, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here.
A clever title, but more of the same sludgy sameness from the post-Layne Staley Alice in Chains. I like Jerry Cantrell, but a little goes a long way, and this is a lot of it. The new singer guy does a capable Staley and harmonizes well. Too bad the songs aren’t as good as anything on Dirt.
Amplifier, Echo Street.
Fourth album from this rock-prog trio is quieter and more soothing, but still menacing. It’s nice stuff, and in just the right dose after the monolithic Octopus album. Still, the songs don’t change quite enough for me. Insider is still best.
Philip H. Anselmo and the Illegals, Walk Through Exits Only.
Short, loud record from the former singer of Pantera. It’s hard to hate an album that starts with a song called “Music Media Is My Whore.” If you liked Anselmo before, this won’t change your mind.
Covers EP from the reunited Anthrax. Songs from Rush, Thin Lizzy, AC/DC, Boston… wait, Boston? This is fine, but it doesn’t do much to expand the Anthrax legacy. The best part is the artwork, with its classic album cover mock-ups. New son
Bad Religion, Christmas Songs.
Yes, this exists. Yes, they take it seriously. Versions of eight Christmas carols played exactly the way you would expect this band to play them. Loud and fast and full of harmonies. Best Christmas record I bought this year, in fact.
Dark, thick electronic music from this band. The first song is called “Worsening,” and it’s tremendous, unlike anything else I’ve heard. The rest is not as good, but still interesting. I’ll keep buying new records from them.
Best Coast, Fade Away.
More sad, sweet pop music from this duo on this seven-song EP. Best Coast doesn’t make waves, and they aren’t trying to revolutionize anything. Given that, I think this stuff is fine. There’s more keyboards on this one, but otherwise, the template is unchanged.
Big Country, The Journey.
I wanted to like this so much. Mike Peters of the Alarm is the new singer for Big Country, and this is their first album together. It’s kind of bland, and kind of cheaply made. There are some swell songs on here, but overall, it’s a letdown.
James Blake, Overgrown.
It’s my fault that this magnificent album is relegated to Fifty Second Week. It earned an honorable mention, and deserves one. Blake’s voice is amazing, and his minimalist electronic soundscapes accent it perfectly. It’s a particular style, but one he does amazingly well. Buy this.
The Blind Boys of Alabama, I’ll Find a Way.
Justin Vernon had a busy year, and he capped it by producing the new Blind Boys album. The whole thing bears Vernon’s fingerprint, particularly the array of guest singers. But the soul of the thing is still the Blind Boys themselves, who sing these old gospel songs like no one else.
Glen Campbell, See You There.
Campbell’s this-time-we-mean-it final album is a retrospective, with re-recordings of some of his most famous songs. There’s a new version of “Wichita Lineman” on here, my favorite song of all time, and it may be better than the original. The rest is very good indeed, and Campbell’s voice is still in fine form.
Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe.
Chilly, delicious synth pop from this Scottish group with a great singer. I like these songs a lot, but the sound gets wearying after an entire album. I’m interested to keep listening, because the first few songs are so damn good.
Harry Connick Jr., Every Man Should Know.
Oh Harry. This is your blandest adult contemporary pop album ever. I know you wanted to stretch out here and try styles you’ve never sung, but man, try some good styles next time. This is warmed-over nothing, and not a patch on the big band stuff you do so well.
Cut Copy, Free Your Mind.
Meh. Decent synth pop from this Australian group, but this is their worst, most thrown-together album. The cover art is pretty indicative of the lack of focus and drive exhibited here. It’s not awful, but it’s not as good as this band usually is.
Dead Can Dance, In Concert.
Holy crap, Dead Can Dance toured last year, and here’s the proof. This live document shows just how good they are, even as it focuses heavily on their comeback album Anastasis. This is really great stuff, and I wish I’d seen them play it live.
I’ve never heard anything quite like this. Extreme metal screaming over some dreamy, and yet still fucking heavy music. It’s an interesting mix, but I’m not sure yet whether I like it. The pink cover is pretty awesome, though.
Do you like to dance? Then you’ll like Disclosure, an old-school dance music throwback band. This album is pretty great if you like this style. It’s repetitive beats and samples, worked together into a danceable mix. It’s good.
I swear I don’t even remember listening to this more than once. Dream Theater’s second album with new drummer Mike Mangini just follows their formula once again. Lots of soloing, long songs with instrumental passages that go on forever, some nice melodies oversung by James Labrie. I may be over Dream Theater. Sad.
Not sure why I didn’t review this. Fourth album from this family dream pop band is very good. The songs are sharp, the melodies tight, the playing right on. I really need to start prioritizing my reviews next year.
Eluvium, Nightmare Ending.
Two CDs of beautiful ambience and delicate piano work from Matthew Cooper. This is just gorgeous, and it made me want to go back and buy all the Eluvium records. If you like floaty ambient goodness, this is definitely for you.
Ben Folds Five, Live.
Another tour I wish I’d seen. The reunited Ben Folds Five just kills it on this record, slamming through songs old and new. And stacked up next to the old stuff, the new material holds its own just fine, thank you very much. I hope this reunion continues.
Future Bible Heroes, Partygoing.
More sardonic, synthy goodness from this Stephin Merritt side project. This third album is the equal of the other two, easily. How could you not love songs with titles like “Keep Your Children in a Coma,” “Let’s Go to Sleep (And Never Come Back)” and “Love is a Luxury I Can No Longer Afford”?
John Grant, Pale Green Ghosts.
Another simultaneously hilarious and very raw work from the former lead singer of the Czars. This album contains “G.M.F.,” which all by itself should have guaranteed it a review. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s honest, it’s catchy. It’s John Grant.
The Head and the Heart, Let’s Be Still.
Disappointing second album from a band that I really liked in 2011. Most of these songs are too simple, too basic to hold my attention. There’s some sweet stuff here, but most of it is just too bland. Too bad, I was really looking forward to this one.
Henry Fool, Men Singing.
It took this jazz-prog band 12 years to deliver these 40 minutes. They’re not bad – long, proggy instrumentals with some fine improvisation. But I have no idea what took them so long.
Jandek, The Song of Morgan.
This is a nine-CD set of piano improvisations by a guy who can’t really play the piano. Texas recluse Jandek made headlines with this release, but while it’s fascinating in theory, it’s pretty boring to listen to.
Jellyfish, Radio Jellyfish.
I’ve been waiting for this one, and it’s wonderful. Ten tracks of live acoustic Jellyfish, recorded in the studio at radio stations. Some of these songs rank among my favorites ever, and Jellyfish could really pull off those harmonies live. This is scrumptious. Jellyfish forever!
Kid Cudi, Indicud.
I like Kid Cudi for his smoky, minimalist style. So I don’t much like this third effort, loaded down with guest stars and big production. It’s just not his thing, really. Cudi is still an interesting rapper and singer, but his attempts to be normal he
Linkin Park, Recharged.
Remix record from the sorta-disappointing Living Things. This is pretty good, though, and the new song “A Light That Never Comes” made me smile. Linkin Park still has a way to go to match the great A Thousand Suns, but I hope they can.
Living Sacrifice, Ghost Thief.
Awesome new record from this long-standing metal band. The riffs are tight, the songs epic, the album is just great. Not sure what else needs to be said. If you like loud and fast, this is both of those things.
The Lonely Island, The Wack Album.
Third album from this comedy troupe is still pretty funny, despite some clangers. I love it when Justin Timberlake sits in with them, and as a grammar nerd, “Semicolon” had me fuming until the surprise ending. Not bad, not bad.
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Love Has Come For You.
Wow, this is lovely. Martin on his banjo and Brickell with her golden voice tackle a bunch of original folk songs that sound centuries old. They’re wonderful concoctions with a darker side, and these two bring them off marvelously.
Megadeth, Countdown to Extinction Live.
Megadeth runs through their most successful album live in concert. The record still holds up today, I think, as an example of how to streamline a metal band for the masses. It’s way better than the Black Album by that other M-band.
Metallica, Through the Never Soundtrack.
Oh yeah, them. I give Metallica a lot of shit (which they mostly deserve), but this movie was awesome, and the concert it documents is a stormer. The band slams its way through songs both old and new, and they sound reborn. Tight, monstrous. And nothing from Lulu, thank fuck.
Oh my god. What is this? I can’t believe this scattered mess of a record was made by the same people who crafted Oracular Spectacular. It boggles the mind that they were happy with this, and that Columbia Records thought this was worthy of worldwide release. Boggles. The. Mind.
The Milk Carton Kids, The Ash and Clay.
So they’re the Everly Brothers, basically. I saw this two-guys-and-two-acoustic-guitars band open for Over the Rhine, and their songs are sweet and simple confections with deliriously good harmonies. Basically, the Everly Brothers. Nothing here will dispel that comparison.
Mount Moriah, Miracle Temple.
Nice heartland-y folk-rock from this Merge band. Heather McEntire has a strong voice. This isn’t original enough to stick with you, but it’s nice.
The Deftones’ Chino Moreno meets the guys from Isis in this thunderous side project. This sounds about like you’d expect it to, but I’m willing to bet that the sound you’re hearing in your head as you imagine this is awesome, and accurate. This is a very good little record.
Queens of the Stone Age, Like Clockwork.
Gah! Why didn’t I review this one? I have no idea. Josh Homme’s outfit pushed themselves on this release and went some places they’ve never been. This is quite good, particularly “My God is the Sun.” I’m sure you all have this already, but if not, buy it.
Joshua Redman, Walking Shadows.
Intriguingly sedate work from saxophonist Redman, along with pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Brian Blade. That’s a winning combination, so why is Redman making them play a light-jazz take on John Mayer’s “Stop This Train”?
Rush, Clockwork Angels Tour.
Woo, another three-CD live album from Rush. I mean, they’re great and all, and Clockwork Angels was their best in a long time, but how many versions of “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight” do they think I need? This is fine, but unnecessary.
Savages, Silence Yourself.
This band is very Siouxie and the Banshees, no? Jehnny Beth’s wailing vocals, the guitars, the keyboards, it all fits. I like this album, reservedly, but I’m interested to see where else they can go.
Smith Westerns, Soft Will.
I swear I listened to this a couple times, but I don’t remember it at all. I’m sure it’s another slab of confident pop-rock with melodies that sound sweet when you’re hearing them, but don’t really stick. I could listen again, I guess.
Son Volt, Honky Tonk.
This sounds exactly like you’d think a Son Volt album called Honky Tonk would sound. Old-school classic country twang, Jay Farrar’s distinctive voice, nothing really special about it. There’s even a song called “Bakersfield,” for pity’s sake.
Colin Stetson, New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light.
This guy’s just fascinating. He uses a circular breathing technique to create dense, kinetic, terrifying soundscapes on the tenor and bass saxophone. It’s unlike anything else I have heard. Justin Vernon (him again?) pops up on a couple songs.
The Strokes, Comedown Machine.
The Strokes turn to ‘80s synthesizers, remain pretty shitty. Film at eleven.
I’m not sure why I keep buying Telekinesis albums. They’re fun pop, but I don’t remember them 10 minutes after they’ve stopped playing. This one isn’t ringing any bells, no matter how hard I stare at the track listing.
Chris Thile, Bach Sonatas and Partitas Vol. 1.
The biggest Thile and Bach fan I know was disappointed by this. I liked it quite a bit. Thile turns his mandolin genius to these solo violin pieces by Johann Sebastian, and pulls them off nicely. The ultra-fast ones are particularly impressive.
Laura Viers, Warp and Weft.
Another album that deserved a review. Laura Viers has a long track record of writing terrific acoustic folk-pop songs, and this is yet another in a long line of really good records. “Sun Song” is wonderful, the rest of the album follows suit.
Washed Out, Paracosm.
More delightfully icy synth work from this guy. I liked this record a lot too, although I’m struggling to remember much about it now. If you liked the last Washed Out album, this one is better. Or so I remember thinking.
Steven Wilson, Drive Home.
A DVD and CD mini-album from the Porcupine Tree frontman, following up his fantastic solo album The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories. The highlight of this EP is a version of that album’s title track with an orchestra. Wilson can do no wrong.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mosquito.
The cover and first single led me to expect something trashy and fun. This is neither. It’s another attempt at maturity, but the whole thing comes off as a bit of a mess. Which is a shame after the swell It’s Blitz.
And that, as they say, is that. Thanks for reading my silly music column this year (and every year). I’m taking next week off to relax, but I’ll be back on January 8 with more ramblings. Year 14. I can hardly believe it. Merry Christmas, happy New Year. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.