Or, "Ineligible" Doesn't Mean "Bad"

So as you can plainly see, there is no Frank Zappa Buying Guide this week. I’m hoping for mid-January now, but who can tell – I’m at the mercy of the Zappa Family Trust on this one, as I’m waiting for my copy of their latest archival project to arrive. I could do the Guide without it, I suppose, and I have been working on it, but the new project is the perfect capper, since it will bring the whole catalog full circle.

And let me rant for just a little bit here. I don’t want to trash Gail Zappa and the Family Trust too much, because the slow trickle of new stuff since Frank’s death in 1993 is still better than having all those unreleased tapes sitting in the vault and collecting dust, but I wish Gail would do some research, and take a look at some other web-based music businesses. None of them would do what she’s done with the most recent project, and it’s pretty upsetting.

A side note – I went to a comedy show last night starring my co-worker Steve Lord and his troupe, Gag Reflex. One of their sketches involves a guy who’s just learned that his cat has cancer, and he goes to a party and tries to elicit sympathy. Meanwhile, the other party guests all have much worse things happen to them – one is going through a bitter divorce, for example. News then arrives of two of the partygoers’ mutual friends who have been in a car accident, and are in critical condition. But our first character, showing a phenomenal lack of perspective, throws a tantrum. “Oh, boo hoo! They’re in the emergency room! My CAT has fucking CANCER!!”

All of that is to point out that when I say I’m upset at Gail Zappa and the ZFT, I’m still able to put it in perspective. I’m annoyed, like I would be if I got a paper cut, but it’s not the end of the world, and if I met Gail, I would first and foremost thank her for keeping Frank’s music available, and probably not mention this little tantrum I’m about to throw. This is a real “my CAT has fucking CANCER” kind of a rant – I know there are bigger problems.

But this one’s irritating.

Here’s the situation. The new Zappa release is a “project/object” called MOFO, or the Making Of Freak Out. It’s an audio documentary, whatever that is, of the recording of Frank’s 1966 debut, Freak Out, the first double album debut in rock history. MOFO was originally made available for pre-order on the Zappa website waaaaay back in August as a deluxe four-CD set, and those who chose to pony up early were offered a chance to get their names listed in the packaging. Thing is, MOFO costs a stunning $75, plus shipping, and the only info given was cryptic and vague – it’s an audio documentary, it’s four CDs, and that’s about all.

I did hesitate, given the price, but I bit the bullet and purchased the thing. It was originally supposed to ship “in the vicinity” of September 21. It didn’t. It was then supposed to ship “when the frost is on the pumpkin,” in Gail’s words. It didn’t. Meanwhile, word trickled out of a two-CD version of MOFO, which I assumed would be just a mass-released edit of the four-CD set. Gail Zappa wouldn’t put a bunch of material on the two-CD version that isn’t set to appear on the four-CD version, would she?

She would. Out this week in record stores is the mini-MOFO, a two-CD set that includes the original vinyl mix of Freak Out (actually a big deal), and a selection of outtakes and rehearsals. It looks like it’s a great listen, but it costs anywhere between $25 and $30 – a tad pricey for two CDs in a standard case. But here’s the rub – there is, apparently, material on the mini-MOFO that will not be on the big MOFO. Gail has said as much. Which means, to have the complete “audio documentary,” you have to get both.

Now, completists are screwed, of course, but as for those of us who like to get value for our dollar, well, it should be an easy choice. We just compare the track list of the two-CD MOFO with that of the four-CD version, see how much is exclusive to the two-CD, and purchase (or don’t) based on the value of those tracks. Here’s the problem – despite having paid $75 for the four-CD MOFO, and despite having waited almost three months beyond the original release date, I still have no idea what’s on it. No track list has been released.

Is disc one of the mini-MOFO the same as disc one of the deluxe version, as many suspect? No idea. The fear, of course, is that if I buy the mini-MOFO now, when the four-CD version shows up, I will have spent about $30 for only two or three exclusive tracks. But of course, I want to hear the vinyl mix of Freak Out and the demos and rehearsal tracks RIGHT NOW. Releasing the two-CD set first, when I still don’t know what’s on the four-CD set I’ve already paid for, is like twisting the knife in my little collector’s heart.

Naturally, this mismanagement has upset fans far and wide, and the Zappas only answer complaints with the most cryptic and tossed-off replies you could imagine. The four-CD MOFO is now expected to arrive after Christmas, maybe. Gail Zappa has to know how the delays and the lack of information will affect sales of future projects – she’s likely banking on the fact that she holds the keys to the vault, and Frank’s most ardent fans (myself included) will keep coming back. I just think the Zappa legacy deserves better. At the very least, it deserves a well-run, customer-oriented web presence, one that does not consider standard information like track listings to be a privilege.

The ideal solution would be to include everything MOFO-related on the four-CD set, but since that’s not going to happen, the ZFT should release the track listing for the deluxe version, so that obsessive collectors like me can make an informed choice on the two-CD version. If I have to buy both, I will, but if in the end I’ve spent more than $100 on material that could have fit on three CDs and an EP, I’ll be upset. More upset than I am now, I mean.

Wow, that’s a long rant. By the way, my CAT! Has fucking CANCER! My life is HARD! Listen to ME!!

* * * * *

The top 10 list is done, set in stone, and ready to debut in two weeks. Pretty much every year, I am asked questions about my criteria, and why certain albums are ineligible, so I thought I’d go through a few new releases that are, by their natures, disqualified from the list, just to illustrate why these rules are what they are. Often I wish they weren’t in place – every year, I am forced to disqualify excellent records that I love, and every year I consider abolishing some of these regulations. And every year, I have to remind myself why they’re important.

So here are some things I do not accept for the list: soundtracks, best-ofs, live albums, covers records, various artists collections, rarities compilations, and box sets. Some of them are no-brainers – I can’t take best-of albums, for instance, because in some cases they’re culled from 30 years of recordings, which isn’t fair to the other candidates pulling from only one year, or one session. Also, the Beatles would win every other year if I allowed that.

I long ago decided that composition was just as important as performance in selecting the top 10 records, which is why covers albums are excluded. The ratio of originals to covers has to be at least 80-20 on any given CD for me to consider it. The problem I run into sometimes is that some artists’ covers are more original than many artists’ self-penned tunes. But rules are rules – if the artist in question didn’t write it, or at least the vast majority of it, then it doesn’t count.

In the case of previously released material, I’m back and forth on the specifics of the rules. Take, for instance, the new record by Ben Folds, a regular presence on these lists. Supersunnyspeedgraphic, the LP is an album-length collection of Folds’ favorites from the series of EPs he released in 2004 and 2005. As I said when Super D, the final mini-release, came out last year, if Folds had just released those 15 EP songs on one disc, he’d have had the album of the year on his hands.

Supersunnyspeedgraphic doesn’t quite measure up to that prediction, since Folds only chose 10 of the EP songs for this disc. He neglected some of my favorites, including “Wandering,” the piano-vocal take of “Give Judy My Notice,” and the great “Kalamazoo.” He did, however, include just about every cover version in the series, including the Cure’s “In Between Days” and the Divine Comedy’s sweet “Songs of Love.” Why he picked those over his own swell songs, I don’t know.

The disc is rounded off with the hard-copy debut of his hilarious take on Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” and “Bruised,” the best song from his EP with the Bens (Folds, Kweller and Lee). So it’s uneven at best, and he made a disastrous choice by including an alternate take of his cover of the Darkness’ “Get Your Hands Off My Woman,” this one a duet featuring the over-the-top awfulness of Corn Mo. The version on Super D, with just Folds, is a million times better.

This record wouldn’t have made the list to begin with, but because it consists mainly of material that is available elsewhere, it’s ineligible anyway. Plus, it’s one-third covers, which seals the deal. Supersunnyspeedgraphic is a fun collection of tunes, but not a great album in its own right, and you may be better off just picking up the EPs it samples from.

Much more deserving of inclusion is Tom Waits, whose three-CD set Orphans was released a couple of weeks ago. Its 56 tracks take from a mish-mash of previously available and unreleased recordings, but they also include 30 new songs, more than two albums’ worth of new material. That’s why I’m so undecided on what to do with this thing. Does it count as a 2006 album if more than half of it is new, and more than half of the other stuff is unreleased?

Complicating matters is the fact that Orphans is excellent. Everything Waits does is worth hearing, but Orphans is an embarrassment of riches, a treasure trove of forgotten gems. It’s separated into three discs, each with its own title and musical style – Brawlers collects the bluesy ass-kickers, Bawlers is all weepy ballads, and Bastards is a mixture of experimental tunes and monologues. At more than three hours, it’s almost too much Tom Waits, especially if you’re among the many who can’t get past his voice, which sounds like he’s been gargling with battery acid. But if you’re a fan of his idiosyncratic yet traditional style, this will send you over the moon.

Brawlers is mostly blues, like the thunderous opener “Lie to Me,” but there are diversions into gospel (“Lord, I’ve Been Changed”) and balladry (“Rains on Me”). The centerpiece of this first disc is the fantastic seven-minute “Road to Peace,” a brutal excoriation of the Bush administration and the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s almost as direct as anything on Neil Young’s Living With War, but it’s much more artful and captivating.

Bawlers sets its tone with “Bend Down the Branches,” a classic Waits ballad. This is the most textured of the three discs, with bright horn sections and sad pianos abounding. There are too many highlights on this disc to mention, but suffice it to say that Waits makes his cigarettes-and-alcohol voice work for him on these jazz-inflected weepers better than you’d expect – unless you’re already a fan, in which case, this is exactly as good as you’d expect. Typically classic line: “There’s no eye for an eye, there’s no tooth for a tooth, I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth down there by the train…”

But it’s Bastards that pulls off the prize, with its odd selection of covers, poems, rambles and rock songs. It opens with a wild take on Kurt Weill’s “What Keeps Mankind Alive,” a song that’s been done by a wide range of performers, from William S. Burroughs to the Pet Shop Boys. It continues on with Waits’ readings of Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac and the World Book Encyclopedia, all delivered in that gravely, gin-soaked voice. He does an a capella cover of Robert Johnson’s “King Kong,” surrounding his screeches with explosive mouth percussion. The best thing here, however, may be hidden track “Missing My Son,” a shaggy dog story of the highest order.

But after all that, I have decided that Orphans is inadmissible for this year’s list. One of the things I try to find and reward, after all, is album-length statements, and Orphans is 56 different statements from 56 different places. It is a collection, not an album, even though it is an amazing collection for all that. Without the rule against compilations, though, this would be a shoo-in for the 2006 list, and it’s highly recommended. The packaging, as well, is superb – it comes in a hardbound book with lyrics and tons of photos. Like most everything Waits has done, it’s a beautiful, sick, ugly thing, and it deserves your praise.

Live albums present some interesting challenges as well. In recent years, live documents by Jeff Buckley and Ben Folds have become ineligible favorites. Some bands are more comfortable on the stage than in the studio, and many live records I hear during the course of a year turn out to be pretty definitive when it comes to a certain band’s sound.

But I can’t include them – they’re not collections of new songs, for the most part, and if I let one live album in, I have to let them all in, and archival live releases from 1960s and 1970s bands would then become eligible. Someone reissues At Fillmore East with bonus tracks in any given year and the ballgame’s over. And I’m oddly glad that Frank Zappa died before I started keeping these lists – his predilection for releasing live albums of new material, or basing his studio projects around live backing tracks, would have sent me into a confused tizzy.

This year, the rule isn’t going to keep anything off the list, but it will disqualify Mark Kozelek from an honorable mention, so I’ll give it to him now. Kozelek is the main man in Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon, and he plays lazy, gorgeous, lengthy dream-pop songs with otherworldly electric guitar tones falling from them like moonbeams. I am ashamed to admit this, but I first heard his work in a Gap ad, which featured beautiful people in stylish clothes falling backwards into snow-covered landscapes, set to the Red House Painters’ beautiful take on the Cars’ “All Mixed Up.”

That song, along with 19 others from Kozelek’s strange, subdued career, wound up on Little Drummer Boy Live, a limited-edition collection recorded between 2003 and 2006. But unlike much of his studio work, these recordings feature just Kozelek and his acoustic guitar, for the most part. (He’s assisted here and there by Phil Carney on a second acoustic.) The results are beautiful and striking. While Kozelek’s songs have never been masterpieces, here they set a pin-drop-quiet mood and envelop you in it.

Standouts include the RHP classic “Down Colorful Hill” and the Sun Kil Moon epic “Duk Koo Kim,” and Kozelek also added a few of his extraordinary reinventions of Modest Mouse and AC/DC songs. (He’s released a full album of each.) In all, Little Drummer Boy is the best live album I’ve heard this year, a collection for an overcast and chilly day, to be listened to while wrapped up in a blanket and sipping hot chocolate. It’s utterly gorgeous stuff.

And yet, completely ineligible for the top 10 list. You see my dilemma?

Anyway, the one record that’s giving me the most trouble this year comes from my favorite band of all time (yes, of ALL TIME), and it’s one that I had to be talked into buying. It’s Love, from the Beatles, which from the track listing and semi-cheesy packaging looks to be yet another best-of taken from the Fab Four’s 13 official albums. But it’s not. It’s much, much more, and it can be argued that it’s a whole new thing, a Beatles album in its own right.

Love was commissioned by Cirque du Soleil, a mark against it in my book right there, and seemed at first to be another in a long line of attempts to squeeze Beatles fans for their cash. I felt bad enough buying Let It Be… Naked, so I wasn’t about to pick up this thing, but Dr. Tony Shore once again cajoled me into throwing down my $15. Shore’s having a party in his pants over this, calling it the best record of the year and declaring it on par with Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. Needless to say, my expectations were not that high.

Anyway, Cirque du Soleil enlisted famed Beatles producer George Martin to remix the original studio tracks into something theatrical. He and his son Giles certainly did more than that – they refashioned this trip through the Beatles catalog into a cohesive 77-minute suite that employs mash-up techniques, utilizes alternate and unfamiliar takes, and even includes a new string arrangement by George Martin himself. In many cases, it’s like hearing these songs for the first time.

Love starts with an a capella mix of “Because,” off of Abbey Road, and then the fun begins – we hear the unmistakable opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night,” which leads into Ringo’s drum break from “The End.” The Martins keep that drum beat and lay the rest of “Get Back” on top of it, mixing in (I kid you not) the orchestral crescendo from “A Day in the Life.” It’s extraordinary, and it goes on like that – they make a superb medley out of “Drive My Car,” “What You’re Doing” and “The Word,” and later on lay the vocal and string lines from “Within You Without You” over the powerhouse rhythm section of “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Purists are right now clawing their eyes out, and honestly, I thought I was one of them until I heard Love. These remixes are amazing, and they lend new appreciation to the originals. They’re obviously no replacement for the original records, but they shine a light on parts of them you’ve never paid attention to. The version here of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” for example, starts with just Lennon and his acoustic guitar, and the Martins slowly bring in each element of the insane production, putting the spotlight on each as it enters. By the end, it’s the familiar “Strawberry Fields,” and they’ve shown you step by step how the band and George Martin got there.

One moment that really did it for me – the intro to “Octopus’s Garden,” one of my least favorite Beatles songs, pits Ringo’s vocal over the orchestral score for “Good Night,” the closing track on the White Album. And it works. It’s almost crushingly sad. Of course, another favorite moment is Geroge Martin’s new string arrangement for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” laid over George Harrison’s acoustic guitar and vocal.

Even if you’re not interested in the mash-ups, the sound of Love is a revelation. The Beatles have never sounded this good – every element is crystal clear, from Paul’s stand-up bass to Ringo’s hi-hat, even on the earliest recordings. I desperately want the Martins to get cracking on the whole catalog, remixing and remastering – I want that Complete Recordings box set in pristine digital clarity. It’s a shame that the Beatles CDs you can buy now sound just as muddy and hissy as the Beatles CDs you could buy 15 years ago.

By Love’s conclusion, the Martins have all but abandoned the mash-up idea, choosing to play the final few tracks straight. They include “A Day in the Life,” but don’t close with it, choosing “All You Need is Love” as the finale. In the end, it’s an inspired decision, as it finishes on just the right note. Love is an inessential release, no doubt, but if you’re familiar with the Beatles catalog, it’s a treat. (In fact, the more familiar you are with the catalog, the better Love is, as you’ll spot more of the Martins’ tricks.) I’m glad I bought it.

But it’s not eligible for the top 10 list, as it’s self-evidently old recordings of old songs. I wrestled with it for a bit – Dr. Shore’s going to call it the record of the year anyway, but I can’t include it. It differs from SMiLE in some very important ways, most notably that Wilson’s album was comprised of new recordings. But just as important to note is that SMiLE, the 2004 version, is the first appearance of the finished composition. It was always intended to sound the way it does now, whereas Love is a producer’s holiday, apart from the original plans of the artist. If I include this, I have to include remix albums and DJ records and all kinds of other things that have no place on the list.

That shouldn’t stop you from buying Love, though. Nor should my rules keep you from purchasing Tom Waits and Mark Kozelek. (You can pick up Ben Folds’ album too, but I’d recommend getting the original EPs, if you can find them.) In fact, my silly little regulations should never be seen as a judgment on anyone’s musical taste, or a criticism of the kinds of albums I don’t include. A case could definitely be made that Love is the best album of 2006, and I’d bet virtually everyone who regularly reads this site will enjoy the Beatles disc more than the one I’ve actually chosen for the top spot this year.

But I do think the rules are important, as gatekeepers if nothing else. They keep my list focused, as I think it should be, on new studio album statements from active artists. Every time I think about doing away with them, I think of a hundred reasons to keep them. Unfortunately, albums like Love and Orphans and Little Drummer Boy Live end up with the short end of that stick. But expect more of these “ineligible doesn’t mean bad” columns in the coming years, because I think the rules are sticking around.

Next week, Christmas music from some surprising artists.

See you in line Tuesday morning.