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