Sunday, February 28, 2010

Debate Topic: Old-School Hip-Hop

You always hear people talking about old school hip-hop, or sometimes the golden age of hip-hop. Do these periods overlap or are they different? What are the time periods for them?

For me, I'd say that Old School is stuff like Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, Sugarhill Gang, Run DMC, early Beastie Boys, etc. Even Tone Loc would count. It started at the dawn of hip-hop. That style can still be done, but most old school hip hop ended with the release of The Chronic.

The Golden Age of Hip-Hop I'd argue started with NWA's Straight Outta Compton and ended in the late nineties when Jay-Z came to prominence.

Any other thoughts?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How Nick Jonas moved up and down the cool meter in just one day.




About a week ago, one of the Jonas Brothers actually did something that grabbed enough of my attention to elicit more than the usual eye roll: he went solo. Nick Jonas will be the first Jonas brother to make a solo album, which could be good as it might mean that the brothers will go on hiatus. Of course, it could mean three times as much Jonas product on the street....

The reason I don't treat a solo Jonas project with complete fear is that the article I read about it mentioned that Jonas is backed on it by the New Power Generation, Prince's back up band. I'm not sure exactly which members he has playing, but this might include such luminaries as Maceo Parker, the saxophonist from James Brown's golden days, and Larry Graham, who invented slap bass while playing with Sly & the Family Stone. Renato Neto is an amazing keyboardist, the kind who can make a 17-minute instrumental solo out of an inconsequential b-side like "God." This had the promise to be something truly great.

The next morning, I woke up to read about Nick's comments on Lil' Wayne and the rerecording of "We Are the World" for Haiti. Lil Wayne was chosen to sign the part of the song originally sung by Bob Dylan, and he was humbled by this and despaired to the producer that he couldn't sing. Nick joked on some talk show -- Leno? -- that Dylan couldn't sing either, so it was perfect to have Lil Wayne sing his part. Maybe Prince should be a little more careful about who he loans his band to, but then, at the original "We Are the World" recording, Prince walked out despite being the guy to walk away with all the Grammys that year.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Abby's Aminals

My daughter loves songs about animals, and I love making mix tapes, so to combine these two interests, I recently wrote my daughter instruction on how to make mix tapes based on my experience making her a mix tape about animals. I also wrote her a set of liner notes. I wanted to use the instructions and liner notes for a non-fiction workshop I am in, but it came out to nearly 25 pages and I decided to cut them and, instead, publish them here.

1. The Beatles – Octopus’s Garden (from Abbey Road, 1969)

I’ve always felt this Ringo Starr composition sounded wonderfully similar to the Muppet Babies theme song. It has a peaceful vibe that is carefully punctuated by George Harrison’s guitar at key points. Starr may be the best songwriter in the Beatles, song for song. He only contributed two songs, this and “Don’t Pass Me By” (a number one hit in Sweden!), but they were both stellar. The other Beatles all had at least one song that wasn’t as good as either of these cuts.

2. Prince – Starfish & Coffee (from Sign O’ the Times, 1987)

It wouldn’t be surprising to find a starfish in an octopus’s garden, but it probably would be a bit of a surprise to find one in an elementary school lunchroom. This song celebrates the individuality of Cynthia Rose, a unique girl with a big imagination. The sound is clearly influenced by Sgt. Pepper’s-era Beatles songs and comes from Prince’s most musically diverse album, the double-disc Sign O’ the Times.

3. Don & Dewey – Koko Joe (single, 1958)

“Monkey suit” is a term sometimes used to refer to man’s formal attire, but I don’t think they had this sharply-dressed monkey in mind when they coined the term. Koko Joe is crazy, but in the best way possible. This song was written by U. S. Representative and sometimes-Cher-spouse Sonny Bono.

4. The B-52’s – Quiche Lorraine (from Wild Planet, 1980)

Quiche Lorraine is the name of a dog who is endearingly strange. This song reminds your daddy of his friend Sam, who is strangely reminiscent of B-52’s singer Fred Schneider in more than one way.

5. Heart – Barracuda (from Little Queen, 1977)

Ann and Nancy Wilson were hard-rockin’ sisters when they formed the band Heart in the mid-70s. Though they later went to soft ballads, they started out with searing metal guitars as heard on this song, their signature hit, which explains their attitude towards pseudo-journalists going for a gossip scoop.

6. The Cake Sale – Black Winged Bird (from The Cake Sale, 2006)

I don’t know too much about The Cake Sale. I discovered this on an indie record label sampler I picked up for free at the Sisters of Sound music store in Manhattan, KS. The mellow country sadness of the backing just brims with pathos though and the singer’s voice is beautiful. The song seems to be about the desire to escape – indeed, to fly away – due to shame, but the speaker reveals her courage to stay in the line “but I’m still singin’ to you.” Sometimes, its better to confront a situation even if it is tough because then you’ll be able to soar over it rather than dragging it behind you as it lingers in the back of your mind.

7. They Might Be Giants – Birdhouse In Your Soul (from Flood, 1990)

This song is from the point of view of a blue-canary-shaped night light that needs a friend. The birdie is starved for attention and has no agency through which to gain it, being just a little piece of plastic plugged into a light switch. The song is interesting because of the way the little bird imagines itself, imaging itself as a distant relative of lighthouses and referencing Jason and the Argonauts in the process. Ultimately, though, the bird’s downfall may be that it wants all of the attention rather than being willing to share it.

8. Johnny Cash – Mean-Eyed Cat (from Unchained, 1996)

Johnny Cash could make the phone-book sound compelling, but rather than go with one of his serious cuts I went with a fun one. I chose this song because it reminds me of your mom and I. Her cat isnt’ just mean-eyed – its plain out mean. We fight over the cat a lot, but each time I complain too much and tick your mom off, I refuse to give up on us. I love her so much that I’m willing to tolerate the cat.

9. Nellie McKay – Pounce (from Pretty Little Head, 2006)

Not quite Nellie’s deepest song, but definitely a fun one. After the reconciliation of the couple and the cat, I thought this would make a nice celebration and you love to bounce up and down to it too.

10. The Byrds – Chestnut Mare (from The Byrds, 1970)

This is from the Byrds second album titled The Byrds, names so because of a new line-up featuring only one original member – Roger McGuinn. Originally, the song was going to be the centerpiece of a country-rock version of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt that McGuinn was writing with playwright Jacques Levy. McGuinn had just finished recording “Ballad of Easy Rider,” which was ghost-written by Bob Dylan and I have often wondered if he didn’t introduce Dylan and Levy, who co-wrote seven-ninths of Dylan’s Desire album. Rather than remind me of Peer Gynt, though, this song has always made me think of William Faulkner. In Uncollected Stories there is a story titled “The Spotted Horses,” later incorporated into his novel The Hamlet, about a man who has a love affair with a horse. While there certainly are undertones of romance here (I don’t want to know what “give her my brand” means), the song can also be read as just a song about loving animals.

11. Danny Dell – Froggie Went A-Courtin’ (single, 1959)

I don’t know anything about Danny Dell except that he recorded this excellent single which was collected into Rhino records Rockin’ Bones, their fabulous collection of obscure 50s rock. Perhaps what is most interesting about this break-neck-speed thrasher is how it changes the narrative. Among other things, the song educates the listener about matrimony. In the most traditional version of “Froggie Went A-Courtin’” that I know, after Froggie proposes to Miss Mousie, she defers to Uncle Rat, a symbol of patriarchy. Uncle Rat presumably accepts the dowry and then the song has about 80 verses in which the animals plan every single aspect of the wedding reception. This version of the song only has three verses. In the first verse, Froggie calls on Miss Mousie; in the second, he proposes; in the third, they plan the wedding supper. The song anticipates changing social mores. Rather than asking the father’s permission to date the girl, this rock’n’roll Froggie goes straight to the marriage proposal and the girl accepts. These days it is rarer and rarer for a child to need approval before dating, and this has led to a whole sea change in the cultural milieu. When this song was recorded, it wouldn’t have been unheard of for your mother to have been publically castigated for giving birth to you out of wedlock. Today, your opportunities shouldn’t be limited at all by this, and it is part of what Michael Denning calls the Cultural Front, popular culture production that drives social change by engaging the populace. The other way this song has anticipated changes in mores is a sly comment on drug culture during the wedding supper. The Froggie is going to have a “can of tea,” popular slang for marijuana at the time; fifty years later, the movement for its decriminalization continues to grow.

12. Big Al Downing – Down On the Farm (single, 1958)

Big Al Downing would later become a country artist whose biggest hit was on the disco charts, but back in his youth he was a real rock’n’roller. When I first heard this song, I expected something else to rhyme with “cluck,” but I guess “huck-a-buck” does the job just as well. When you get old enough to figure out what else it rhymes with, the song will cut both ways. Downing sings “rock’n’roll’s taking over my farm.” Before it became a musical term, rock’n’roll was slang for cluck’s other rhyming term and so the song actually sounds like it could be being sung by an old, rural farmer who is angry about the intransigent youth and ready to burn some Elvis Presley records. The opening guitar lick comes from “Old McDonald Had A Farm,” one of your granddad’s greatest hits.

13. Brian Wilson – Barnyard (from Smile, 2004)

Brian Wilson spent his young adult life composing what he called “teenage symphonies” for his band, The Beach Boys, to record. Smile was to be his masterpiece. Due to a troubled childhood fraught with emotional trauma, however, his self esteem was shockingly low and when admirer Paul McCartney sent him an advance copy of his band’s new album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Wilson couldn’t bear the pressure and destroyed Smile. Though parts of what were salvaged were released on Beach Boys albums down the years, it would taken until 2004 for a manic-depressive Brian Wilson to finally be stable enough again to finish the album. The abrupt ending is due to the songs all flowing into each other, as though they were one long song. The use of animals as backing music is reminiscent of two other songs on the album – “Workshop,” which uses tools, and “Vege-Tables,” which uses people munching on carrots and celery.

14. James Brown – I Got Ants In My Pants (single, 1972)

James Brown is the funkiest man who ever lived. He conducts energy to himself and it flows out of him in passionate dance moves and yelps. Bassist Bootsy Collins jams out on bass on this track, all about James’ dance moves. If your daddy’s knees aren’t too creaky by the time you are old enough to karaoke, ask to see my James Brown sometime. I would sing this song if I could, but unfortunately it is too rare for them to play it.

15. The Who – Boris the Spider (from A Quick One, 1966)

Pete Townsend is primarily seen as The Who’s only writer, but, while he was certainly their foremost visionary, bassist John Entwistle was a talented songwriter in his own right. For the groups second album – and certainly their worst with the original line-up – their then-manager told them that they all had to contribute an equal number of songs to the album. Singer Roger Daltrey and drummer Keith Moon never had it in them to be writers, but Entwistle thrived, and “Boris the Spider” was his first taste of success and became a fan favorite. Its genesis rests in Entwistle getting “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” stuck in his head and wanting to take it for a bit of a darker turn.

16. Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint – Freedom for the Stallion (from The River In Reverse, 2006)

In late 2005, hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the city you were born in. British singer Elvis Costello wanted to help out, and so he teamed up with legendary New Orleans arranger, songwriter and pianist Allen Toussaint and recorded The River In Reverse, Costello’s first album-length flirtation with soul since 1980’s Get Happy. It was the first album recorded in New Orleans post-Katrina and was made up of half new versions of songs from Toussaint’s vast catalog and half new songs co-written with Costello about the plight of New Orleans. “Freedom for the Stallion” is one of Toussaint’s old songs. In truth, the song has little to do with horses and more to do with campaign-finance and why it needs restructuring.

17. George Harrison – Pisces Fish (from Brainwashed, 2002)

George Harrison is my favorite Beatles. John was too self-righteous, Paul was too controlling and Ringo was to Ringoey. He organized the first benefit rock concert and was described as a friend by all those who knew him. John and Ringo got second wives by cheating on their first wives, but Harrison got his after his best friend, Eric Clapton, convinced Harrison’s wife to cheat on him. That would end most friendships, but a couple years later when Clap ton was in the throes of a heroin addiction, Harrison staged an intervention and organized his comeback. George was also the most spiritual Beatle. He was constantly questing for some sense of God that worked for him, mostly dabbling in a series of Eastern religions. This song describes a world fraught with contradiction, but through it all Harrison embodies the contradiction and by doing so finds a sense of peace, as embodied in the chorus: “I’m a pisces fish and the river runs through my soul.”

18. Arrested Development – Fishin’ 4 Religion (from 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days In the Life of…, 1992)

In this song, Speech, Arrested Development’s most talented emcee, provides an analysis of how churches may actually hurt their congregation’s station in life by preventing them from bettering their station. Rather than give up and become an atheist though, Speech suggests taking the Harrison route and continually searching for a higher power.

19. Bascom Lamar Lunsford – I Wish I Was A Hole In the Ground (from American Folk Music, 1952)

Recorded in 1928, this is the oldest song here. It presages the Great Depression, but captures the mood perfectly as man wishes himself a mole so he can burrow inside the mountain he mines and destroy the owners’ gold (or coal they’ll sell for gold) mine from inside. This song is also notable for being where Dylan filched the line “the railroad men drink up your blood like wine” from when he recorded “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.”

20. Jill Sobule – Talkin’ Platy (from Prozak and the Platypus, 2008)

This song is the most technical in how it describes the animal. The platypus speaker is obviously very well educated. It is part of a rock opera called Prozak and the Platypus about scientists trying to look at the effects of drugs on sleep patterns by running tests on Platypodes.

21. Gayla Peevey – I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas (single, 1953)

This holiday favorite is a good lesson in rhetoric. You should pay close attention to see what you can learn for when you are trying to get something out of me. For instance, look at the way Peevey is willing to meet Santa half way. She is willing to sacrifice the magic of Santa surviving a fall down the chimney by allowing him to bring the hippopotamus through the front door. She is also willing to do her part and help clean and feed the hippo once it arrives. The best part, of course, is that she is able to answer her audience’s rebuttal; if mom says the hippo will eat her, she has done enough of her homework to know that a hippo is a vegetarian. That being said, your daddy ended up with his head in a hippo’s mouth while at the circus in Russia and nearly had his neck snapped clean off, so maybe Peevey is a little na├»ve.

22. Bob Dylan – Man Gave Names To All the Animals (from Slow Train Coming, 1979)

Dylan recorded this reggae nursery rhyme for his first born-again album, Slow Train Coming, in 1979. It seems like the least evangelical song on the album, and it probably is, but it has deeper religious connotations than it seems to at first. Genesis 2:19 reads “and out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” In this way, Adam was in control of his environment – and he controlled it through language. In many ways, this Biblical story prefigures the Tower of Babel. Naming something gives one power over it. When Adam comes upon the snake, he loses the power over naming it. He loses control over language. The song ends with the snake, who remains unnamed, but through choosing this narrative to focus on the song exemplifies the power and importance of language.

23. Simon & Garfunkel – At the Zoo (from Bookends, 1968)

It may be possible that your first concert experience will be JazzFest in April, and if so I hope that Simon & Garfunkel perform this song for you. I’m not sure what they mean by all of their animal descriptions, but I think I have a few down. The elephants symbolize Republicans. The zebras are reactionaries because they see all issues as black or white, right or wrong, with no exceptions and nothing in between. The pigeons are the Illuminati.

24. Kimya Dawson – Tree Hugger (from the soundtrack to Juno, 2008)

This song explains the relationships between different life forms quite nicely, in both English and French, while explaining the animals hopes and dreams. It is mostly just a lot of fun with a nice, hoppy sound to it. One of the song’s greatest lessons comes from the cactus – don’t try to help others at a detriment to yourself or it will become a detriment to both.

25. Carl Perkins – Quarter Horse (from Go, Cat, Go!, 1996)

Carl Perkins was supposed to be bigger than Elvis, but when a car accident sidelined him and that didn’t happen, his career never took off enough to give him the recognition he deserved. When his all-star duets album, Go, Cat, Go!, was released in 1996 it was completely ignored. Despite participation by Tom Petty, George Harrison, Johnny Cash, John Fogerty, Paul Simon and more, it failed to sell and went out of print almost immediately. A few of the songs on it were so special to Perkins that he didn’t want to duet with anyone on them, and those songs include “Quarter Horse,” a nostalgic tribute to the mechanical horses you can ride for a quarter at the front of any supermarket. Really, though, the song is a paean to the wondrous qualities of the imagination.

26. Woody Guthrie – Oregon Trail (from Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs, 1962)

Woody Guthrie recorded this song for folklorist Moe Asch sometime during the 1940s. It seems like it should come out of the 19th century, when people were flocking to the West Coast and its new settlements like mad. Whether he was thinking of then or of family’s too poor to afford cars during the depression, the song is hopeful that there is “a future” in the Pacific Northwest. Guthrie, as in “Do Re Mi,” states right out, though, that that future is only there “if we work hard.” I have great hopes for your future, but we won’t have any future without working for it. Guthrie was a wise man and I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to establish a strong work ethic while you are still young. And if they try to make you play that silly Oregon Trail video game in school, threaten to bring this song into class and show your fellow students how it really was.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Best of 2008 and 2009

Due to being back in school and the economy being down in general, I didn't have enough money to buy a ton of new albums in 2009. In fact, there are several I would like to own that I missed. So, instead of making a best of 2009 I compiled a best of 2008 and 2009, figuring that my best of 2008 was poorly circulated anyway. If you were on the mailing list, this is the disc listed as 0809. Also, by spreading it out over two years I was able to limit it to one song per album. The whole collection ended up leaning fairly alt-country and has a nice warm feel for much of it. Enjoy.

1. Mudcrutch – Shady Grove (from Mudcrutch (2008))

Tom Petty and his high school buddies, most of whom ended up in the Heartbreakers, make a great bluegrass band. What makes this album better than just about any Tom Petty album, though, is that it is more collaborative with shared vocals and shared songwriting. This song, an inspired take on a traditional number, showcases the band’s instrumental prowess.

2. Hayes Carll – Beaumont (from Trouble In Mind (2008))

I’ll admit it, I bought Hayes Carll major-label debut for the same reason most people did: the funny song titles. “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” “Wild As A Turkey,” “She Left Me For Jesus” and “Faulkner St.” were all promising titles, but the album’s best songs turned out to be the more straight-forward, and often more serious, ones, such as “It’s A Shame” and “Beaumont.”

3. Jill Sobule – Palm Springs (from The California Years (2009))

At first I thought I was drawn to this song simply because the syntax of lines like “I took the Prius. / It gets good mileage” is so prototypically Sobulian. I realized there was more to this song, though, than Sobule’s signature objective detachment revealing an underlying sense of solitude. Though this song seems hopeful at its beginning, the refrain, “something’s gonna happen to change my world,” sounds like a portent. The song reaches its climax with the statue of Sonny Bono, the town’s hero. The song’s speaker is like Enoch Emery in Flannery O’Connor’s Wiseblood, chasing down Sonny Bono like he does the mummified midget.

4. Kimya Dawson – Loose Lips (from the soundtrack to Juno (2008))

Leave it to a crazy chick like Kimya to make an anti-Bush song out of a WWI propaganda slogan. “They think we’re disposable? Well, both my thumbs’re opposable. Spell that on your double word and triple letter score,” ranks with the best signifying ever.

5. Elvis Costello – Turpentine (from Momofuku (2008))

This song sounds like a leftover from a Warner Bros.-era Attractions album, most likely Brutal Youth. As a general rule, these are my least favorite of Costello’s albums, but they all had at least a few good songs, and they all had songs that could have been even better had Costello taken more time to develop them. This sounds like an outtake, but it sounds like it could have been the album’s big single, a “Sulky Girl” in the making, and like he decided to take the time to develop it right. Also, the Imposters – the Attractions with a new bassist – provide more than ample backing, giving a layered production that sounds reminiscent of Imperial Bedroom, Costello’s 1983 attempt at sonically recreating the Sgt. Pepper’s sound, and frantic playing that is like a more rocked up Delivery Man than what comes off as rather stilted on Warner albums like Spike and All This Useless Beauty.

6. Bob Dylan – Shake, Shake Mama (from Together Through Life (2009))

Dylan has recorded so many blues shuffles that they rarely intrigue me anymore, especially when they have a title as silly as “Shake, Shake Mama.” Before I heard Together Through Life, I decided from the song titles that this would be my least favorite song on the album. It was easily in the album’s top half and slowly crawled over other favorites like “If You Ever Go To Houston,” which seems an update of 1970’s “Wanted Man,” and “Forgetful Heart.” What makes this song isn’t only the groove but the strangeness of many of the lines, and the later revelations concerning where many of them came from. The verse about Judge Simpson, for instance, is lifted more or less wholesale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

7. Flowers Forever – Strange Fruit (from Flowers Forever (2008))

I was somewhat impressed by Flowers Forever when I saw them open for Daniel Johnston. I was blown away by their energy in the studio. This civil rights anthem was most famously recorded by Billie Holiday and was written by Abel Meeropol, under the pseudonym of Lewis Allen, who later gained fame for adopting the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. I do not know if he ever appeared before HUAC himself.

8. Prince – Dreamer (from LOtUSFLOW3R (2009))

This song features Prince the political preacher, a face he has worn time and time again, starting with 1981’s “Sexuality” through to 1991’s “Money Don’t Matter 2Night” (the Spike Lee directed version of the music video for this is astounding) and 2004’s “Dear Mr. Man.” These songs have, in many ways, become less nuanced, and have certainly become less implicit (though “Sexuality” was simultaneously explicit). “Dreamer” is perhaps the least implicit of all, paying direct tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., whose spirit Prince is trying to embody in all of these works. Prince’s guitar work here begins by seeming to channel Lenny Kravitz channeling Jimi Hendrix – rocked up, but not too much. Then it becomes a bit funker – Prince channeling Lenny channeling Prince channeling Jimi, which is looser than it sounds on the page. By the end, the final solo channels Jimi directly.

9. Amos Lee – Won’t Let Me Go (from Last Days At the Lodge (2008))

I purchased Last Days at the Lodge as a birthday present for my girlfriend, Sarah. The first or second time through the disc, she commented that she didn’t like this song because it sounded like Michael Jackson. I know what she meant, but I disagree. The song features Lee trying out his falsetto for the first time, but he doesn’t consistently use it throughout the song. Having heard a number of Michael Jackson records, I don’t think he can sing any lower than he does. At first thought, I thought this seemed to channel Al Green. It has a little of an early-70s R&B vibe to it, and there’s no doubt it’s a song of seduction. After listening a little more, I realized that the way Lee glides between his lower range and his falsetto comes closer to mirroring Prince. The similarity goes beyond the vocal styling. The lyrics of the second verse open with “Stood around while you dated that old fool Parker.” Using “old fool” as an insult sounds like it comes straight out of a Prince song, and Parker sounds like a name he would use. The next like, “Whole time I knew he wasn’t no damn good for you” features Lee wrapping his vocal chords around “you” like it’s a double note, which is another Prince move. The verse ends with “all I wanna do is make sweet love to you,” peeling up into the falsetto. The song fades out with Lee’s voice double-tracked, singing his own background vocals. The whole thing comes off sounding like what many of Prince’s mid-to-late nineties genre experiments would have founded like had they been successful. A week or so after I gave her the CD, I caught Sarah singing along with this in the car.

10. Flight of the Conchords – Robots (from Flight of the Conchords (2008))

Dance techno that sounds inspired by Ween and 70s sci-fi kitsch. The music is catchy and the sci-fi is fun. Part of the sci-fi is simply funny, such as the binary solo which is just a voice repeating 0 and 1. The rest of the sci-fi kitsch shows up in the hilarious and nearly touching pseudo-social commentary that fills the track, much like it did films like Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, films made at a time when 2000 did seem like the distant future where anything was possible. There is the line about how there is “no more unethical treatment of the elephants… of course, there are no more elephants, but still it’s a good thing,” and then the whole story line of man enslaving robots and forcing them to work “for unreasonable hours,” pushing us humans to near empathy. Also, is it just me or does it sound like Kermit the Frog saying “Their systems of oppression – what did it lead to? Global robo-depression”?

11. Scarlett Johansson – I Wish I Was In New Orleans (from Anywhere I Lay My Head (2008))

Critics lambasted Anywhere I Lay My Head, the album where ScarJo and David Sitek rummage through Tom Waits catalog, but I thought it was surprisingly well done, and this is only one of many standout tracks, chosen perhaps because it nicely segues into Randy Newman, a real New Orleans pianist.

12. Randy Newman – Piece of the Pie (from Harps & Angels (2008))

I read an interview with Newman where he said him and his manager were having dinner somewhere and all of a sudden this guy came and banged on this huge plate-glass window, flipped off Newman and then walked off. When Newman asked his manager who it was, he said it was John Mellencamp. Newman sent him flowers hoping he’d take the whole thing in good fun, but apparently the feelings weren’t returned. If this story isn’t wholly apocryphal, Johnny Cougar should quit his whining. The only person who comes out good in this song is Jackson Browne, who still comes out ignored. Newman throws the first stone at himself – “the rich are getting richer; I should know” he sings.

13. Nellie McKay – Crazy Rhythm (from Normal as Blueberry Pie (2009))

McKay’s best Doris Day covers are those from Day’s time with Les Brown’s orchestra singing the big band hits. “Crazy Rhythm,” a jazz standard, has often been recorded as an instrumental but the lyrics perfectly describe syncopation’s intoxicating powers. Also interesting is how the lyrics describe jazz as “low brow,” though it is not often seen so today. Bob Dorough guests on piano.

14. Levon Helm – Growin’ Trade (from Electric Dirt (2009))

“Growin’ Trade” is probably the most lyrically intricate piece of music released in 2009. It is a dramatic monologue set to music. The audience in unclear, but over the course of the song it becomes more and more clear that the speaker is growing marijuana, “a crop you grow to burn,” and that he feels shame for it. This captures the cultural zeitgeist evident in shows like Weeds, where hard times and unforeseen circumstances have forced otherwise honest people into the drug trade. Whereas Weeds uses that premise for laughs, however, “Growin’ Trade” is all tragedy, a recession-fueled tirade against the ills of corporate farming.

As the song opens the speaker is characterizes as a man whom “hard labor” has “never bothered.” Right away, this draws a sympathetic, if not empathetic, ear from the listener. The more mature I become, the more appreciation I have for work and the more disdain for sloth, so from my perspective, I admire the speaker immediately. We soon learn that the speaker is going through hard times though, enduring “seasons of calamity.” The speaker complains that he’s “half the size that he used to be / and half of that is gone.” “Gone” suggests finality, meaning that there is not enough labor for him to do to rebuild himself. Furthermore, this metonymically extends to the land. Not only is the farmer’s muscle gone, but so is his land as it is getting bought up by corporate farmers. We finally get the specific reason for falling on hard times: the increasing difficulty to make a profit as an independent farmer. The speaker reports that “seedin’ ten” crops will “only get you five” and that his livestock have nearly starved to death. The first verse ends with the like “I gotta do what I can to survive,” which suggests the speaker will do something that compromises his values, maybe even something illegal as suggested by the first line of the chorus, “The law won’t be forgivin’.” That something turns out to be growing marijuana, hinted at by the phrase “I used to farm for a livin’. Now I’m in’ the growin’ trade” that recurs in the chorus, and confirmed by connecting various references throughout the song, such as “a crop you raise to burn.”

We learn more about the speaker’s moral struggles in the second verse. He sees himself as part of a tradition of hard-working men dating back to his grandfather. He describes the farm as his “legacy,” as something that must be carried on to the next generation. He also is concerned however with the loss of dignity that occurs when he is forced to turn from the work of farming to the drug trade. This further develops the notion of the speaker as a hard worker trapped by economic hardship. The second half of the second verse moves in a different direction, showing how hard work has been replaced by paranoia. Helm croons that there’s a “shotgun on [his] shoulder / where a toe sack oughta be.” Each of these has a metonymic relationship to a specific type of work. The toe sack, a name for a sack which potatoes were bought in and which was later reused to harvest cotton by hand, is symbolic of the hard work the speaker has endured, but it has been replaced by the shotgun. The shotgun is there for protection, of both the speaker and his crops. The speaker is worried that “the thieves are getting bolder / and the feds may be wise to” him, and he needs the shotgun to fight them off.

The sense of paranoia which begins in the second verse is much more emphatic in the third verse, which opens with an image of “helicopters in the distance.” The helicopters may be real or imagined; may be used to spy or drop fertilizer. The speaker reacts by saying that whoever is in the helicopter “is going to meet some resistance,” although the irony is that the helicopter may not be a police helicopter at all. The helicopters are supposedly “getting closer every day,” but the description of them never gets more specific, hurting the speaker’s credibility. The speaker sounds like a man crazed. He says “there’s no price too big to pay” to save his farm, and implicit in that is a threat of violence. He says that “they [have] take[n] it all away,” and the listener quickly realizes that “it” is more than just the land or the marijuana or even the ability to grow crops and control production – “it” is the speaker’s identity. The speaker is being driven by a loss of self so deeply affecting that he feels no reason to live. He says there no difference “between a cot in the jail house / and a bed beneath the clay,” but the lyrics sounds patterns here betray him. “Bed beneath” creates a soft alliteration that makes the grave sound more inviting than jail. Furthermore, the rhyme scheme in the third verse is abababcbb. “Jailhouse” is the only end word without a rhyme in the verse. This disrupts the rhyme scheme and makes the jailhouse sound uninviting, as opposed to “clay,” which restores the rhyme scheme. In the end, the speaker is defeated, having lost himself and having resigned himself to an early grave, fighting no one to save his imagined dignity.

Another layer the song has is the speaker’s spiritual struggles. This theme is first suggested in the first chorus, and illustrates one important feature of the performative aspects of music as opposed to looking at lyrics purely as poetry. When Helm sings the line “the law won’t be forgivin’” the first time, he slurs “law” so that it sounds like “Lord,” and one can imagine by extension that “law” suggests not only law and order but the Law as handed down to Moses. Verse two begins “the summer beauty of the cotton fields / was like a view from Heaven’s door.” He also notes that his granddad “said that harvest time was what the good Lord made us for.” These lines suggest that the speaker sees farming as being God’s work, and so by becoming a marijuana grower as opposed to a farmer he sees himself betraying God. After this, God leaves the song until the end of the third verse, signaling perhaps that the speaker is having trouble coming to terms with his relationship with God. At the end of the third verse we have the line where death, the “bed beneath the clay,” is declared to be no different than jail. This suggests that the speaker may feel that death will entrap him and punish him. He may believe that he has doomed himself to hell. The final line of this verse – “I guess there’s nothing to do now but pray” – finds the speaker once again seeking solace in God, suggesting that he has found his way back and no longer feels shamed out of his spirituality by being a marijuana farmer.

Another aspects of this song which is striking are the multiple levels of diction appearing side-by-side on the page, creating what Yusef Komunyakaa would call the “neon vernacular.” There is a blend of low diction, – “big,” “work,” “good,” – middle diction, -- “labor,” “seasons” – and high diction – “calamity,” “dignity.” There is also a good blend of the rural farmer’s voice, suggested by dropped endings and jargon such as “toe sack,” “live stock,” and “seedin’,” and the more street-wise voice of the urban drug runner, embodied in phrases like “the feds may be getting wise” and “they’re gonna meet some resistance.”

The sound in “Growin’ Trade” also makes good use of various effects. For instance, even when police aren’t being mentioned, they are always lurking in the song’s sounds. In the first verse “hard labor” connotes prison even though the speaker has labored as a free man. “Crops” and “crop” both appear, and both sound very similar to “cop.” As the paranoia grows in the song, so does this sound pattern. At the beginning of the third verse, “cop” is contained in “helicopters,” and as Helm performs it “heli-” is mumbled to the extent that “copters” may as well be “coppers.” Later, “cot” again echoes “cop,” further suggesting the threat of police intervention. Sounds call to sounds throughout and Helm excellently manipulates the rhyme scheme throughout, using a series of slant rhymes to create tension just where it is needed.

15. The Jayhawks – Rotterdam (from Music From the North Country (2009))

The Jayhawks always stun me with their beauty. Every note is beautifully played and sung on albums such as Tomorrow the Green Grass and Rainy Day Music. When the Jayhawks announced the release of Music From the North Country, a greatest hits collection, I was excited to get an overview of the albums I didn’t have, but was thrilled when I heard a deluxe edition would be released with an album’s worth of outtakes, b-sides and alternate versions. “Rotterdam” comes from the deluxe edition. It does not disappoint. This is the most American song every about Manchester, so much so that when one hears Gary Louris singing about the train, one can’t help but imagine the American railroad rather than one going through England. The mountains and the prairies and the babies that open the song sound more West Virginian than Liverpudlian. The overall effect of the song, like so much of the Jayhawks work, is to leave the listener in a state of joyous peace.

16. Jakob Dylan – Valley of the Low Sun (from Seeing Things (2008))

This song evokes John Wayne, but then dismisses him. Lines like “I know soldiers are not payed to think, but something is making us sick” unmistakeably evoke a political message, but don’t quit us quite as hard over the head as some of Jakob’s father’s early, acoustic songs. Jakob has been making music for nearly twenty years, but this is his first opportunity to shine as a solo artist, and it is interesting that he does so with a stark acoustic album. The comparisons could be obvious, but if you listen closely they really aren’t. Yes, Jakob and his dad have both recorded acoustic solo albums and both have described a war-torn world contemporary with our own. There is something unique about the way the younger Dylan constructs his narratives though. In some ways they are looser, less bound to form. Rather than make grand statements, Jakob lets his images float, lets them bump into each other while he sits on the sidelines just imagining what we can make of them.

17. Bob Dylan – Red River Shore (from Tell Tale Signs (2008))

Tell Tale Signs is a compilation of Dylan’s unreleased leftovers spanning the period between 1989 and 2006. Time Out of Mind is perhaps Dylan’s most heralded album from this period, and yet when it came out many of the people who played on it expressed shock that “Red River Shore,” the best song recorded at the sessions, was left off the album. Tell Tale Signs reveals other errors in judgment with regard to that album, but certainly leaving off this gem was one of the most egregious. This song is a ghost story, but the mystery is who the ghost is. Most commentators have felt that the speaker is pining for a girl who is long dead, wishing her back to life. Lazarus and the attendant possibility of being brought back certainly loom large here, but I’m not convinced that the girl is dead. It is the speaker who is certainly dead, whether he realizes it or not. The girl may or may not be dead, but since the song is really about the speaker’s state, whether she is alive or dead matters little. There are several parts of the song that suggest it is the speaker who is dead, such as “the frozen smile that’s on my face fits me like a glove.” The speaker has “been out where the black winds roar,” which doesn’t sound like a place mortals have visited. He even admits that “some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark to be where the angels fly;” if he gained that knowledge through experience, then the speaker is surely dead. Coming back now, in a different time, searching for the girl who he feels a soul mate too, the speaker talks to people, but they don’t seem to be listening. When he says “I wonder if anybody saw me here at all, except the girl from the red river shore,” the listener knows that none of the people he talked to were aware of his presence. Sadly, although the speaker continues to search in vain, even if he finds the girl from the red river shore she may not be interested. The speaker says she is “true to life,” and the irony is she can’t be faithful to both life and a dead man.

18. Elvis Costello – Red Cotton (from Secret, Profane and Sugarcane (2009))

Elvis Costello culled the songs for Secret, Profane and Sugarcane from a number of projects he had been working on that had just never gotten finished. He reworked several of them into a more or less Americana theme that would work with a nice acoustic-country feel. While I am not convinced that the effort as a whole hangs together as successfully as King of America does, many songs stand out as being quite brilliant. “Red Cotton” is one of the Secret Songs, a project Costello was recruited to work on. As I understand it, The Secret Songs is to be a new musical/opera based on the life of Hans Christian Andersen, though the songs from it that appear on Secret, Profane and Sugarcane seem to have more to do with P.T. Barnum. As I understand it, the people behind The Secret Songs have since passed over Costello in favor of Nellie McKay, and Costello remade the songs to fit into Sugarcane’s Americana shtick. The song is now from Barnum’s point of view and in it, according to Costello, “Barnum reads an abolitionist pamphlet while manufacturing souvenirs of the ‘All-American Tour’.” This seems a bit simplistic to me, especially for a song nearly intricate enough to challenge “Growin’ Trade.” The song begins with Barnum “cutting up her pure white dress / that [he] dyed red.” Right away, the listener must situate themselves. The white dress suggests Barnum is referring to a female, which brings in all sorts of gender issues. Her dress is white, suggesting purity, but Barnum has dyed it red, suggesting violence. The white dress in particular suggests sexual violence, and in addition to rape perhaps murder with the sound of “dyed/died.” In the context of abolition and the Civil War, it is likely that this refers not only to misogyny, but also couples that with racism. The red cotton of the title may be the dress of a slave raped by her master, a practice common throughout the South. Furthermore, the dress is being cut up and the scraps are being put “in cheap tin lockets” to be sold as souvenirs, showing that this practice further commodifies sexual violence. Still, when those in Europe buy these American items, the violence is what “time erases and memory mocks,” showing how commodity fetishism causes the consumer to ignore the commodity’s history. Costello accomplishes all of this within the song’s first four lines. As the song goes on, though, Barnum realizes that the slaves are transported in “coffin ships” and to them the new world is only one of “auction blocks and whips.” Later still, he describes the “sheet on your fine linen bed, / the blood stained red on each cotton thread,” confirming the sexual violence suggested in the opening lines. By the end of the song, Barnum is ready to quit capitalizing on icons of the slave trade. The last two verses are perhaps the most powerful – strong statements of what is wrong with Barnum’s trade and how it undercuts society. Barnum says “the Lord will judge us with fire and thunder / as man continues in all his blunders. / It’s only money. It’s only numbers. / Maybe its time to put aside these fictitious wonders. // But man is feeble. Man is puny. / And if it should divide the Union / there is no man that should own another / when he can’t even recognize his sister and his brother.” In that final couplet we are reminded of the violent miscegenation which led slave owners to have two families – white and mulatto – who lived in resentment of each other.

19. Ry Cooder – Spayed Kooley (from I, Flathead (2008))

This song cuts two ways. It opens with Cooder wryly declaring that certain people are going to make a lot of money off of homeland security. Cooder’s speaker, though, has all the homeland security he needs, and it is a dog. This sounds like a cruelly delightful satire of how much the Bush administration has spent in Iraq in the name of “homeland security.” As the song continues, though, it becomes clear the speaker wants to secure the homeland, and the border, against immigrants, and that his dog has been trained to be racist. This level of the song opens with the lines “empty out your pockets, let him see your hands. / Be sure to talk good English so he can understand.” The second line of the couplet makes it obvious that the speaker has a problem with Hispanics, especially those who haven’t learned English. The line before it is perhaps more revealing, though. “Empty out your pockets,” in the song’s immediate context, means to show that you are not armed. It also means to hand over your money, though, and has insinuations of loss of privacy and robbery by coercion. As soon as the song moves into its more racist direction, it also serves to simultaneously undercut that position by making the speaker out to be a villain. I, Flathead is the last of three concept albums in a row that deal with Hispanics in Southern California, and his work with Buena Vista Social Club and long history of appreciating Latino musical styles suggests that this undercutting of the racism is what Cooder intended all along.