Sunday, December 10, 2006

Best Records of the Year, Part II

I really have nothing to say here ...

6. Ghostface Killah, Fishscale

Can't say to what extent my appreciation for this record is due to Tom Breihan, who trumpeted it highly. I wrote an absolutely ridiculous review for recess, but alas, it was not posted online. My central conceit was completely silly, but I think my judgement was correct. What first got me were the grittier, faster-paced beats, some reminscent of Wu-Tang, other MF Doom-produced, and I can't imagine who couldn't dig Ghost namechecking David Koresh and "Laffy Taffy" in the same song. Originally, I was pretty cold toward "Back Like That," the single featuring Ne-Yo, seeing it as little more than a commerical ploy. That's probably true, but with repeat listens I've come to appreciate it more--it's the kind of song that pops into your head unexpectedly (and often at inopportune times) and stays as long as it wants, whether you like it or not.

Ghost probably could have just made Fishscale and More Fish (released this month) a single album and cut some fat, but so it goes. He's gritty, witty and wise without all the damn indie baggage of, say, Doom.

7. Neil Young, Living With War

Probably not quite worth the ranking I'm giving it. Still, for a record produced with Ryan Adams-like speed, this record's songs are impressively good. Neil was taking a courageous stand, speaking out where cats like John Mayer sit "waiting for the world to change," if not quite matching Steve Earle. He's full of genuine righteous anger; as with all protest music, it comes across as silly sometimes. I'm also not sure where he got this love affair with the trumpet, but recorded at low-fidelity--as this record certainly is--it's striking how similar the horn sounds to Neil's own guitar sound. And with the release of a Crazy Horse set recorded with Miles opening (previously released) maybe we can find the roots of Neil's entirely distinctive, bastard guitar style.

Alright, maybe not. But this is far better than Are You Passionate? and incomparably better than the embarrassing Greendale. Some of the songs are confusing (what is the garden?), some try a little too hard (the main part of "The Restless Consumer," although the rap at the end is excellent, delivered in what my dad calls "Neil's best 'Hey kids, get off my damn lawn' voice). I hoped "Lookin' for a Leader" would be a remake of "Lookin' for a Lover," but it wasn't; it's pretty good anyway, and sure sounds like a call for Obama in '08. "Flags of Freedom" is an excellent Dylanesque short-story/vignette. Maybe it's just me, but I find it incredibly moving. But then, I get choked up hearing the Byrds sing "He Was A Friend of Mine."

And yes, let's impeach the president for lying and misleading our country into war, abusing all the power we gave him and shipping all our money out the door.

8. Medeski Scofield Martin and Wood, Out Louder

This may be a better record than it seems based on my ranking, but Scofield's material tends to take a while to settle before it can really be accurately judged, so I'm being cautious. Scofield hired MMW to back him on 1997's A Go Go and they produced one of the best records of the 1990s and created the jazz-jam scene. I'd be surprised to see this record have that kind of staying power, and it's very different--more varied textures, from the bass and the melodica especially, a denser sound, and a slightly less acerbic sound from Sco. Crucially, it's more adventurous than A Go Go too, with freer, farther out sounds than the very accessible guitar-and-organ and guitar-and-clavinet jams on the earlier record.

9. Bill Frisell/Ron Carter/Paul Motian, Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian

Every now and then, it seems, the Friz puts together one of these bands, a one-album supergroup, like 2001's Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones. It seems like when this happens, he can't think of a good title for a record (or more likely, the label wants something to sell); he also apparently can't come up with any good compositions, which would explain why this record has only two Frisell originals, one previously recorded, 1 Motian tune, previously recorded, and one Carter co-write, a Miles Davis classic. There are 6 others, 4 of which are in his regular (and fairly small) live rotation, and 1 of which ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry").

Bill also has a weird timidity when he plays on "real" jazz records, from Kenny Wheeler's Angel Song to John Scofield's Grace Under Pressure. On that latter, he pretty nearly steals the show from the leader, but keeps this measured, softer-edged tone, and he does the same here. It's as if his shyness, buried when performing with his own band, is reawakened by the big names around him, which is silly, because he can clearly stand toe-to-toe with any of them. All that said, the whole band sounds great if a little bit chilly. Definitely his best since Blues Dream, Grammy win for Unspeakable notwithstanding.

10. I'm indecisive, so I have four more:
Lupe Fiasco, Lupe Fiasco's Food and Liquor. He namechecks Cornel West, which is enough for inclusion here so far as I'm concerned. Again, I'm not really qualified to comment on rap, but this is a great record all around.
Black Keys, Magic Potion. Rubber Factory was probably the best record of 2004; coming off that, even a near miss like this is excellent. Less Zeppelin next time, though, please.
Willie Nelson, Songbird. The only thing that could have made this Ryan Adams-produced record, with a Ryan tune and with Ryan's backing band, the Cardinals, any better would have been to cut Willie out entirely and make it a Ryan record. Unfortunately, that would have made it a lot better, top-5 material; instead, it's buried down here. I still don't get Willie, but whatevs.
Elvis Costello and Allan Toussaint, The River in Reverse. A soulful, well-played and well-written Katrina record. Like Neil's protest music, a dangerous proposition, executed with elan.

Appendix: What I haven't heard that I maybe should have
Cat Power, The Greatest
The Game, Doctor's Advocate
Jay-Z, Kingdom Come
Ghostface Killah, More Fish
Beck, The Information
Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere

Saturday, December 9, 2006

DG's Top Records (I've Heard) of the Year, Part I

I have no idea when this photo was taken, because the site I stole it from was in some indecipherable eastern European language. I dig the guitar, though.

1. Bob Dylan, Modern Times

How outrageous is it that this only got nominated for a Grammy in, like, Modern Folk/Americana? (For the record, those who were nominated were the Dixie Chicks [dull], Justin Timberlake [see below], Gnarls Barkley [meh, whatever], John Mayer [who makes Natalie Maines' political views seem fascinating], and RHCP [whose record was about 1.5 discs longer than it ought to have been].)

This band is tight and the songs are excellent. Dylan keeps reeling them off, and with humor and elegance. Without indulging in too much critical BS-speak, he songs here are often touching and profound; he also is frequently hilarious:

“I’m gonna raise an army, some tough sonsa bitches
I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages.”

Confused? Luckily, he wraps this verse up with the clarifying

“I’ve sucked the milk out of a thousand cows.”

Whatever you say, bud.

As I wrote in recess, Dylan is one of the two greatest artists America has ever produced. This record, with its appropriation/theft, its subject matter, and its attitude captures the American essence. And unlike the other great American artist, Miles Davis, Dylan refuses to become an artifact as he enters old age. At this point in Miles’ career, he was recording Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper tunes; Bob, however, has put out the best record of the year and one of the best of his career.

2. Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds

Middle-school Davey—who wasn’t even that discriminating a listener—is furious with me for this one. Hell, so is my dad. It’s true, though—this record is absolutely stunning. It’s not about Justin; he’s got a fine voice and all, but the props go to Timabland (although JT’s lyrics are insipidly trite; I suppose when you’re him you don’t have to worry too much about effective pick-up lines, but I swear he starts half the verses on this disc with, “I’ve been around the world …”).

I didn’t really get into “Promiscuous” like everyone else did, but this I can dig. The songs are long—often clocking in at five, six, seven minutes—lushly arranged (a synthesizer rainforest, if you will) and marvelously structured. “LoveStoned,” the best track on the record, avoids the static trap of most pop music, moving forward throughout based solely on the merit of the beat with lyrics playing no role whatsoever. The beat drops out and leaves a rhythm guitar part; then things slowly rebuild back up to the finish. This is how all pop songs should be. I’m also infatuated with the synth response to everything JT sings on “My Love”; sounds like fingers on a balloon, if that makes any sense at all. I have a bad feeling this is going to sound absolutely ridiculous and dated in five, ten years, but right now we all ought to just revel in it. Also, bonus points for his thoughts on the K-Fed-Britney break-up.

3. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife

A late rally brings the Decemberists into my top 3. I discovered them last weekend when I downloaded The Crane Wife, which was an excellent decision. It was love from the first chord of “The Crane Wife, Pt. 3.” I’m generally inclined to agree with the assessment Chris Ott laid down in the Voice about Colin Meloy’s general pretension and silliness, but that does nothing to demean the music. “O Valencia!” is a cheerful little ballad about his lover being shot by her brother over some dispute; it’s an absolutely addictive little tune. The preceding tune, “Yankee Bayonet” … well, you can probably guess where that one goes. I could do without the proggier moments and anything even remotely resembling Zeppelin (it’s here), but “Crane Wife” 1 and 3, “Valencia,” and “Yankee Bayonet” make this disc worthwhile. I well understand my own tastes, but I guess I don’t see why other people like this; makes me think maybe there’s still hope for my father’s band.

4. Jack DeJohnette with Bill Frisell, The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers

A live record, so I'm kind of cheating here. but I reckon the extensive post-production work from Ben Surman makes this a valid pick. Despite Surman's fingerprints, the amount of sound that the duo puts out is pretty stunning for a live setting. I've heard lukewarm things about the tour that DeJohnette, Frisell, and bassist Jerome Harris were on this fall, but this record works beatifully. Frisell, the best and most innovative guitarist working in jazz, and one of greatest musicians in the world overall, can sometimes get mellow and even soporific, but the veteran drummer keeps him from complacency. Jagged banjo tracks, for example, may not sound so hot alone, but in the setting of the record it works. This disc, to me, sounds like industry, all grit and dust and clanging and metal striking metal and smoke and grime and oil. I'm not a fan of post-production, but this is tasteful. On several tracks, Surman modulates one of Frisell's riffs down an octave or two to create a bassline; this fits in remarkably well and places the jams in a deep and funky pocket. Can we expect a studio effort from these two anytime soon? Here's hoping.

5. Beirut, Gulag Orkestar

Zach Condon, I'm pretty confident, thinks I'm a moron. But he was nice to me anyway. Which wins points with me. It would have sucked to have gotten a lot of condescension off a high-school drop out. Then again, he's not the typical pretentious indie star (see Meloy, Colin, above), a humble, white t-shirt-wearing, trumpet-playing 19-year-old. I'll be damned if I can comment on his lyrics, which seem quite simple but are generally unintelligble. Musically, however, he does successfully conjure up a sepia-toned melancholic nostalgia--a nostalgia for something none of his listeners, I'd imagine, ever experienced. Maybe that's easier than recreating the real thing; I don't know, but it's magical, all gypsy drums, burnished brass and street-corner violin. I'm admittedly skeptical about Condon's ability to sustain this project; his press materials make much of his previous, teenage projects (a doo-wop record?), but for me they suggest a short musical attention span. I don't know if I'll like whatever his next project is, but the buzz around this one was justified.