Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Boss?!?!?!? Why have you Forsaken us?!?

I know more and more artists are releasing CDs exclusively through corporate giant Wal-Mart, effectively hurting what little business is left for music retail and independent music stores, but I never though that Bruce Springsteen would do such a thing. Springsteen has made his career on being a blue-collar everyman. That's why it was surprising when I found that he was releasing a Greatest Hits CD exclusively through Wal-Mart.


The good news, though, is that it shouldn't sell very well. Almost all of the previous Springsteen collections are superior. The only thing this collection adds is "Radio Nowhere" which even most casual fans should have since it was available as a free download on iTunes prior to the release of Magic. The disc only includes a meager 12 songs, when many more could have easily fit. Furthermore, those 12 songs come off of only 7 albums, completely leaving out Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, Devils and Dust and other popular Springsteen albums. Hopefully it won't make enough to even return the investment.

Monday, December 22, 2008

2008 Supplement -- Best Male Songs Ever, Vol. 1

Along with the mix tape for the year in review, every year I compile supplementary bonus discs for my collection. This year I made two: my favorite songs by male artists and by femal artists. No artist can have a song repeated. Gender depends upon vocalist rather than songwriter or people playing, just for simplicity's sake. This is the playlist for the male version.

1. Bob Dylan - "Angelina" (Shot of Love outtake, 1981)

Mysterious and deep, this song is filled with magical images. Given context, I think it is about Christian Bob falling in love with a heathen of a woman and ready to do spiritual battle to keep her away from the hellfire. Whatever it is about, it is gorgeous and mind-blowing.

2. Barry Louis Polisar - "All I Want Is You" (1976, reissued on Juno)

This folksy love song is a series of light-hearted metaphors that seem inconsequential. The song's strength though comes across in its seeming honesty. It has that Walden effect, where simplicity comes through as authenticity.

3. Paul Simon - "Graceland" (from Graceland, 1986)

This travelogue about Paul Simon and his son takes a personal journey into America's heart of darkness -- the race-divided South -- in search of the racial unification that occured at Sun records, transforming the personal into a powerful metaphor of national significance.

4. Elvis Costello - "Sleep of the Just" (from King of America, 1986)

Costello has long been interested in writing songs dealing with issues of domestic violence. In this song, Costello, with shifting points of view, depicts a soldier leading a young girl on and engaging in a photographed one night stand with her. He shows the emotional impact this can have by implicitly comparing it to a gang rape in the final verse where her picture is "pinned up upon the barracks wall in her hometown while the soldiers take their turns with her attention."

5. The Band - "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" (from The Band, 1969)

This may not be my favorite Band song, but my interest in it has grown exponentially over the last year. It's no "Up On Cripple Creek" yet, but the working man ethos and litany of crops makes this rural unionizing song a winner.

6. Brian Wilson - "Vega-Tables" (from Smile, 2004)

The brilliance of this song is the child-like wonder it exudes, the same wonder that led Brian Wilson to develop an arrangement that featured people chomping on carrot and celery sticks in lieu of traditional percussion.

7. ? and the Mysterians - "96 Tears" (1966)

I love garage rock, and this organ-pumped pop song is one of the most sadly forgotten hits. Once a chart-topper, it is still little-known and difficult to come by despite Cameo-Parkway reissues.

8. Van Morrison - "Caravan" (from Moondance, 1970)

This epic of blue-eyed soul just surges and ebbs with the wonderful nuances of Van's aformal voice.

9. The Beatles - "Here, There, and Everywhere" (from Revolver, 1966)

One of McCartney's best ballads, this love song is awash in lush melody.

10. Ben Folds Five - "Brick" (1997)

What hooked me on this was the piano figure. Having been familiar with the song for a decade, it wasn't until recently that I payed attention to the words, aching and wrenching, as I drove home for the holidays.

11. Prince - "Sometimes It Snows In April" (from Parade, 1986)

Proof of Prince's egotism, this song is an elegy for Christopher Tracy, the character Prince played in Under the Cherry Moon, the 1986 film he wrote and directed. In the film, Tracy is murdered by Craig T. Nelson (of TV's Coach), the racist father of the girl Prince falls in love with, who is played by Kristen Scott Thomas. Still, despite its egotism, this song boils over with pathos and passion.

12. Arrested Development - "Mr. Wendal" (from 3 Years, 5 Months and 7 Days In the Life of..., 1991)

This was one of the first rap songs I fell in love with, and that was before I realized the powerful social commentary contained within it. The song celebrates hoboes as people too, and explains the virtues of helping those less fortunate. You go ahead Mr. Wendal.

13. James Brown - "Mother Popcorn" (1969)

"Mother Popcorn" has the most post-modern bass line known to man. A funky tune about curvaceous ladies punctuated by ecstatic screams about a salty snack. Classic James.

14. Billy Riley and his Little Green Men - "Red Hot" (1957)

Billy Riley's gal is red hot, and, comparatively, other rockabilly ain't doodely squat.

15. Johnny Cash - "The Mercy Seat" (from American III: Solitary Man, 2000)

Cash's cover of this Nick Cave track is one of the mot powerful gems to be mined from his American Recordings series, and that is saying a lot. The song is a cryptic jigsaw puzzle, a Rorschack test of serial murder and apocalyptic salvation.

16. Thin Lizzy - "Don't Believe A Word" (from Johnny the Fox 1976)

Thin Lizzy may be the most underrated metal band of all time. Their melodies and hooks are fantastic. This song couples those ever-present qualities with a self-deprecation that strengthen's Lizzy's legacy.

17. Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band - "Jungleland" (from Born To Run, 1975)

This song is a true epic. When it reaches the midpoint, the song simmers down to a murmur. When it rises from its ashes, the slowly paced piano that restarts it provides a pulse, upon which every instrument imaginable builds, not least of which is Springsteen's tortured and chiseled voice, pushing the song beyond its imaginable limits.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

2008 -- The Most Underrated Albums

1. Scarlett Johansson - Anywhere I Lay My Head

I don't know how people dislike this albums so much. Johansson's not the best singer in the world, but her voice has a thickness which does make her a distinct vocalist. The song selection was also excellent, and the musical backing perfectly couched her voice. This is an album that I think will be reevaluated as a classic in the years to come.

2. Jakob Dylan - Seeing Things

Most critics tried to say that this album is completely different from his dad's music, and then they didn't know what to say after that so they just gave up. This actually has a lot in common with good old Bob, but it isn't anything that glares out as being extremely obvious, and its more like late-period Bob than his sixties heyday. There are stolen melodies, apocalyptic lyrics -- all trademarks of his dad's recent work. Jakob handles this material just as well, though, which is what no critic realized. This is a very accompolished album.

3. Flowers Forever - Flowers Forever

This is like garage rock nirvana revisited. The guitars drive and the organs plow. The rhythms rush like a freight train. The yowling is manic. The lyrics in your face and often political. It is a shame no one besides Daniel Johnston took notice of these talented folks in 2008. Check out "Golden Shackles" or "Black Rosary." Now if they could only quit dancing around the stage like indie kids on crack....

4. Hayes Carll - Trouble In Mind

I knew I had to get this when I saw a track listing. The song titles called out to me: "She Left Me For Jesus," "Drunken Poet's Dream," "Wild As A Turkey," "Faulkner Street," "Bad Liver And A Broken Heart." The titles had a certain humor to them, and so did the songs. They were great. "Drunken's Poet's Dream" is the "Up On Cripple Creek" of the 00s. As I listened more, though, it was the more serious songs that continually bowled me over with maturity and grace. This might be essential.

Honorable Mention: Guns'n'Roses - Chinese Democracy

It doesn't live up to 17 years worth of built up expectations, but Chinese Democracy is a really solid album and deserves more credit than critics trying to make a name for themselves are giving it.

2008 -- The Most Disappointing Albums

1. Hank Williams III- Damn Right Rebel Proud

I've never had a problem with Hank III's vulgarity, and it absolutely enhanced Straight To Hell, but I think with this album it really isn't working. I wanted so badly to be a fan of this collection of songs, but for the most part the ones that stood out only did so in a negative way, and all because he is taking himself to seriously. Just from the song titles alone, like "Candidate For Suicide," "H8 Line," and "Stoned & Alone," you can tell Hank has left the party behind and, rather than being social with good people, he is just stuck on seeing how anti-social he can be.

2. Van Morrison - Keep It Simple Van Morrison has been making the same album over and over, with some changes, since 1968's seminal Astral Weeks. On Keep It Simple, Van Morrison has made all of the possible variations of that album twice over, and is thus recording an album that shows how utterly bored he is. Many reviewers have commented on how Morrison spends a verse of one song repeating the non-syllable "blah" over and over again. Actually, it's two verses. What's sad is that, in his prime, Morrison could have made "blah" sound interesting for as long as he wanted to, working it over like those gutteral 70s howls that punctuated his epics, but now it simply sounds like stagnation.

Honorable Mention: Guns'n'Roses - Chinese Democracy

Nothing could live up to what Axl promised.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Best of 2008 Mix Tape

It is that time of year again; the time when I summarize the best new music that I listened to this year, compiling it onto a disc. These are twenty of the best.

1. Mudcrutch - "Shady Grove" (from Mudcrutch)

Mudcrutch, Tom Petty's original band, shares at least half of its genetic material with the Heartbreakers. In the Heartbreakers, though, it is clear that, while Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench often shine, Petty is always in control. Mudcrutch is a bit more democratic. The group is prone to instrumental bluegrassy jamming, the kind of stuff that wouldn't be out of place on an album like Workingman's Dead. This brings the players to the forefront. Also, Petty often shares the vocal mic or relinquishes it completely, giving even more prominence to the other members of the band. While their original songs are also great, their covers might be their best. Their take on Roger McGuinn's "Lover of the Bayou" sears it, but the real cake is their jovial jaunt on the traditional "Shady Grove."

2. Jakob Dylan - "Evil Is Alive and Well" (from Seeing Things)

Almost every review I read of this album pointed out that, while people expected an acoustic album from Jakob Dylan to be just like his dad's work, there couldn't be two artists more different. Hogwash. The problem is, critics are comparing Jakob to Bob's earlier work; what he really sounds like is Bob's later work. If Dylan ditched the cowboy band and stripped back his sound, this is exactly the kind of record he would make. The album is where Bob's Modern Times meets Springsteen's Nebraska. Several melodies borrow heavily from traditional songs and the lyrics are opaquely apocalyptic. No where are they more apocalyptic than on "Evil Is Alive and Well," a song personifying Satan in various contemporary guises. Haunting.

3. Hayes Carll - "Beaumont" (from Trouble In Mind)

Rather than one of the endlessly witty comic songs he has received a small bit of recognition for, "Beaumont" is perhaps Carll's saddest song; a song about a potential relationship that fails because of a series of missed coincidences. It begins with an implosion of pathos: "I saw you leaning on a dream." The line meets that perfect balance of the concrete and the metaphysical, and with descriptions of the bar he saw her in and the white rose he tried to woo her with between them, the line takes even on more emotional weight when it comes back at the song's end.

4. The Moldy Peaches - "Moldy Peaches" (from Juno)

Maybe I ust love this so much because its the closest thing my giral and I have to a song. Its filled with great little contradictions though, like "we sure are cute for two ugly people." It also includes the Konami Code (up, down, up, down, left, right, left, right, B A start), which is an accomplishment for any pop song. It references John Henry and Don Quixote in the brilliant amalgam of "Don Quixote was a steel-drivin' man." Despite having a late 2007 jump start, this song wasn't ubiquitous for me until 2008.

5. Flight of the Conchords - "Robots" (from Flight of the Conchords)

Futuristic meta-electronica about doing the robot. Not bad. This humorous number also features the only binary solo ever, chanting 1 and 0 in various combinations. The real winner though is the catchy melody that couches the phrase "we used poisonous gasses and we poisoned their asses." Also, it sounds like Kermit the Frog has a cameo when the dude sings "global robo depression." The last few seconds, though, may be the most annoying part of the mix tape.

6. Randy Newman - "Piece of the Pie" (from Harps and Angels)

Any song capable of getting John Mellencamp's panties in a bunch is okay in my book, especially when it calls him Johnny Cougar. I like Mellencamp alright, but I'm pissed off he'd take offense at a song so brilliantly witty. This song takes on socialized healthcare, celebrity ad spots, and Bono's humanitarian posturing while exposing the inherent problems with wealth distribution. This song is one of Newman's finest moments ever, and is easily the best satire of 2008.

7. Flowers Forever - "Strange Fruit" (from Flowers Forever)

This song starts off with horns, showing it, as all versions are, is indebted to the indelible voice of Billie Holiday. Once the drums start, though, it is off in a totally different direction. Almost mariachi in the rhythms and howled in an anguished yelp. After Abel Meeropol, the song's composer, got done being blown away I think he'd appreciate it.

8. Dr. John & the Lower 911 - "Dream Warrior" (from The City That Care Forgot)

This swampy funk haunts my dreams like a samurai warrior ready to take on the whole of FEMA, which is more or less what Dr. John is in spirit. He references "Strange Fruit" again, but recontextualizes it to the Ninth Ward rather than Southern lynching. This is among the best protest songs of the year.

9. Scarlett Johansson - "I Wish I Was In New Orleans" (from Anywhere I Lay My Head)

The piano softly plunks out a music box tinkle of a lullaby as Scarlett half-talks this breathy and deeply textured love letter. I don't know whether to take a shot of whisky, slow dance under a dixie moon, or do both.

10. Elvis Costello & the Attractions - "Turpentine" (from Momofuku)

This song is like Paul McCartney on amphetamines. The melody is great, the harmonies are better. The wicked organ and the driven drumming push it along, and the whole thing ends up feeling like a Victorian bender.

11. Guns'N'Roses - "Madagascar" (from Chinese Democracy)

The logical sequel to "Civil War," "Madagascar" explodes with excellent vocals form Axl before disintegrating into a post-modern mish-mash of sampled sources from films, speeches, etc. Part ballad, part rocker, it is so far my favorite of a host of great songs on Chinese Democracy.

12. Katy Perry - "I Kissed A Girl" (from One of the Boys)

I realize that she is just trying to, quite sluttily, capitalize on lesbian chic. I also realize that she may actually be an animatronic manikin. Still, even I don't really respect her, I respect the brilliance between the power pop of "I Kissed A Girl." It is an anthem, even if it stands for nothing but a desire on Perry's part to pocket a fat wad of cash.

13. Ry Cooder - "Spayed Cooley" (from I, Flathead)

Okay, so maybe Randy Newman has some competition in the satire category. "Well, you hear a lot of talk about Homeland Security. It sounds to me like someone's gonna make some seeeerious money out of the deal" starts out Kash Buk, the fictional narrator of I, Flathead. He goes on to explain how he has all the security he needs. It's called his dog.

14. Hayes Carll - "It's A Shame" (from Trouble In Mind)

Born from the same thematic ground as "Beaumont," but a bit jauntier, this song comes off bittersweet. There's little sweeter than "kissin' for hours beneath that sweet magnolia," but it just makes a line like "standin' at the window with a broken window view" all the harder to take when you realize circumstances just won't let the love be.

15. Hank Williams III - "The Grand Ole Opry (Ain't So Grand Anymore)" (from Damn Right Rebel Proud)

This song encapsulates the movement to reinstate Hank Sr. into the Grand Ole Opry. With righteous indignation, Hank III composes a one-man manifesto.

16. Scarlett Johansson - "Falling Down" (from Anywhere I Lay My Head)

The piano falls like rain onto a bed organ chords with plucked strings behind it. Scarlett sounds masculine and strong, and imagining that voice couched in her feminine figure makes her even more alluring. As gorgeous as anything Tom Waits has made.

17. Randy Newman - "Korean Parents" (from Harps and Angels)

Always one to accept responsibility, Randy Newman tells today's young parents that their "parents aren't the greatest generation." This song looks at the anxiety of influence in a realm out side of literary criticism, and how anyone under 70 uses their parents success as a reason for their failure. This is a useless strategy. To contravent it, Newman suggests hiring Korean parents to take care of the kids. As he points out, Koreans are good student not because they are smarter than other ethnicities, but because their parents force them to work hard on their schooling.

18. Jakob Dylan - "All Day and All Night" (from Seeing Things)

Jakob owes his dad for this one. This song is filled with those declaratives that come out of nowhere that filled Bob's "Love and Theft" in 2001 and The Basement Tapes 40 years ago. "Bees make honey. I'll make it mine." "Don't crowd me lady, or I'll fill up your shoe." "I do it big or don't do it at all." "I'm no pig without a wig." "Ain't got no baggage that I can't use." "My captain's decorated." "Got more good luck than I'll ever u se." Can you tell the difference? The peak of copying his dad comes with the line "Me and Delia -- we're more than friends" in which Jakob places himself in the context of the folk tradition. If you take Bob's version of "Delia" on World Gone Wrong seriously, Delia is more than a friend; she's the woman who drove his dad to suicide.

19. Bob Dylan - "Red River Shore" (from Tell Tale Signs)

This epic tale is full of mystery. A man who can bring people back from the dead? I've got some ideas on the language he used.... Most people interpret the ending as revealing that the girl from the red river shore is in fact dead. I'm not so certain. I think the speaker himself is dead. That reading would certainly be in keeping with the folk tradition and seems entirely plausible given Dylan. People who read it the other way point out that when he asks about the girl, "no one knew who [he] was talkin' about." Later, though, he says that he doesn't think "anyone ever saw [him] there at all, 'cept the girl from the red river shore." No one said they didn't see her; they said that they only didn't know who she was. The speaker could have already been dead when he saw her, and maybe that's why no one responded; they can't see him because he is but a ghost. The girl may be a ghost now too. At least one of them needs "that guy who lived a long time ago."

20. Flowers Forever - "Happy New Year" (from Flowers Forever)

This song would have fit great in a late 60s art film. Garage rock, the holiday season and in-song spelling all come together here. The guitars and organ grow to a fever pitch of new year enthusiasm.