Brightening the End-of-the-Year Doldrums

It’s a short one this week, as I’m still working on that Zappa buyer’s guide. It looks like it’s going to be eight interconnected pages, full of thousands and thousands of words. I don’t know what made me think I could pull this off when I can barely get the regular-sized columns out on time. Check with me next week to see if I did it.

As I mentioned last week, we’re in the January lull. New tunes don’t start coming out in earnest until the 23rd of this month, and when we hit February, there’s another dry patch. The one new record I’ve picked up so far is Workmanship, the CD release of Joy Electric’s 2006 7-inch, and it’s 15 minutes long. That’s not enough new music for a junkie like me, no matter how good it is. (And Workmanship is very good, if a little extraneous. It’s a decent primer for the new full-length and EP, both out on March 20.)

Thankfully, there were some last-minute releases in December of ’06 that have helped me get through these long, cold weeks. December is an odd month for anything musical, really, except Christmas carols. The best movies of the year are often held until the twelfth month, and sometimes given only limited release near the end of December to qualify for an Oscar. Not so with music – the Grammy cutoff is October, and no one has time to pay attention to new records in December. Hence, nothing comes out. Nothing at all.

In fact, when a new album gets a December release, you kind of have to wonder why. The last month of the year is usually home to best-ofs, box sets and rarities collections, the kind of thing that either fulfills a contract or tries to squeeze a couple of Christmas bucks out of last-minute shoppers. Take, for example, Sonic Youth’s new set, The Destroyed Room. It does two things – it collects unreleased tracks from their 16 years with Geffen Records, and it brings those years to a close by finishing out their contract. Unless you’re a hardcore SY fan, you would need some good reasons to pick this up.

So let me give you some.

First off, if you’re one of the millions who thought that the past few Sonic Youth albums were just a little too concise and poppy, you’ll be glad to know that The Destroyed Room is almost entirely filled with the band’s weird instrumental side. It kicks off with “Fire Engine Dream,” a 10-plus-minute jam session that sets the tone – this is the explosive, dissonant guitar-army Sonic Youth, the one that’s been taking a back seat to their slightly more radio-friendly alter ego in recent years. It’s challenging, trippy stuff, but like the best Sonic Youth, it makes most other rock music just sound dull and flat.

There are highlights here, but mostly, The Destroyed Room has an appealingly unfinished feel that works well if heard in sequence. “Kim’s Chords” doesn’t even have a real title, but it’s superb, an instrumental sketch that blossoms and blooms before your ears. I’ve liked the last batch of SY albums, as flowchart-perfect as they’ve been, but listening to this, it’s clear that the Sonic Youth magic is at its best when it’s four people chasing an intricate, unknowable secret with abandon.

Which brings us to the best reason to buy The Destroyed Room – the complete, unedited, 26-minute version of “The Diamond Sea,” which I consider the best song they wrote for Geffen. The 19-minute cut of this feedback-drenched extravaganza closed Washing Machine, one of their finest albums, but here the song is given its full digital due, and it’s amazing. In a very real sense, the song ends after four minutes, and the band just shoots for the stars over the remaining 22, making some of the most crushingly beautiful noise you’ll ever hear.

Still, this is definitely a December release, cobbled together from scraps and old recordings, and it’s a contractual obligation to boot. For a long time, these patchwork records were the only things dotting the landscape in December. But a few years ago, for some reason, the final months became the oasis for hip-hop. Now almost every major rap record comes out at the end of the year, which doesn’t help me much – I’m too much of a melody addict to like much hip-hop – but does give fans of the genre something to spend their Christmas money on.

This year we had Jay-Z, Clipse, Ghostface Killah, and the definitely not dead 2Pac releasing records in November and December, but topping them all is Nas, who cheekily titled his eighth album Hip-Hop is Dead. It’s not, and his clever, enjoyable record is all the proof you’d need. Any new Nas album will always be unfavorably compared to Illmatic, his 1994 debut, which is still considered a classic. But as someone who has followed his career pretty closely, I feel confident in saying that Hip-Hop is Dead is the closest he’s come yet to equaling his opening salvo.

The problem, as always, is length – Hip-Hop runs out of gas about two-thirds of the way through. But before it does, Nas treats you to some killers. Most notably, the title track is set to the riff from “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida,” and makes the most of its propulsive, guitar-driven backdrop. Nas’ duet with Jay-Z, “Black Republican,” is a winner, as is “Carry On Tradition,” another in a long line of street remembrances with a thumping beat.

But you know what works best here? It’s the closer, “Hope,” recorded a cappella, just Nas rapping with no beats. Here he delivers a passionate plea for rap music – “This about us, this our thing, this came from the gut, from the blood, from the soul,” he says, moments after taking a machete to the notion of old school vs. new school, or east coast vs. west coast. Here and elsewhere on Hip-Hop is Dead, Nas proves he’s one of the best there is, and he remains one of the few rappers I admire.

A December release is kind of expected for a hip-hop artist like Nas – his fans will know to look for it at the end of the year, with all the other high-profile rap releases. But for a pop-rock band like Switchfoot, a December release is a tragedy, and it makes me wonder just what their record label is thinking. The band’s sixth album, Oh! Gravity, hit stores the day after Christmas, with exactly no pre-release hype – a strange strategy for a group with a number of hits under its belt. It’s naturally been all but forgotten about, not so much released as dumped out on the street and left to fend for itself.

The worst part? Oh! Gravity is unquestionably the best album Switchfoot has yet made.

I’ve always considered them underrated, and several cuts above the average modern rock band, but this album takes them to new places. Start with the unbridled aggression of the title song, scrappy and propulsive, then move to “Awakening,” a raise-your-hands-to-the-sky anthem that will have you screaming along. The band still sounds glossy and professional, of course, but this album puts a new fire on display – this sounds like the first album in years that the band simply had to make.

The diversity here only adds to that impression. “Dirty Second Hands” is a bluesy, odd-time jaunt slightly reminiscent of Alice in Chains, and “Circles” is a quiet-loud epic with a bridge that will knock you out. “Faust, Midas and Myself” rises above its terrible title to become a whirlwind mini-suite centering on the line “you’ve one life left to lead,” and even late-album rockers like “Burn Out Bright” and “4:12” (which is, naturally, four minutes and 12 seconds long) don’t skimp on the melodies. I can’t remember anything about the second half of Nothing is Sound, despite the fact that it came out only a year ago, but every song on Oh! Gravity does it for me in one way or another.

Okay, not every song – I could live without “Amateur Lovers,” the point at which the band took their newfound diversity too far. It’s a 1970s-style bar band rocker, and its stupid refrain (“We don’t know what we’re doing, let’s do it again!”) makes me want to find something heavy and blunt to smack singer Jon Foreman with. The fact that it’s sandwiched between two of the album’s best cuts doesn’t help matters.

But without “Amateur Lovers,” Oh! Gravity would have been a nearly flawless modern rock record. You can hate Switchfoot because they’re beautiful, but you’ll be missing out on some punchy, well-crafted rock. The band obviously had a number of breakthroughs on this superb little album, and they should feel betrayed by Columbia Records. Just about everything that was up to the band (songwriting, performance) is excellent, and just about everything that was up to the label (cover art, promotion, release date) was botched.

Don’t let that stop you, though, because Switchfoot has delivered what is undoubtedly the best reason to go to the record store during these after-Christmas doldrums. There’s some great stuff coming out, starting with the Shins on the 23rd, but until then, Oh! Gravity will likely remain in permanent residence in my CD player.

Next week, Zappa out the yin yang, I hope.

See you in line Tuesday morning.