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Best of 2012 – Music January 25, 2013

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I thought I would find the time to write synopses of all the albums I loved last year, but alas, the busyness of everyday life and the sheer amount of required words has made that dream impossible at this time. Instead of my rambling thoughts, I’ll just give you the list and you can look them up and listen as you see fit.

50. Green Day – Uno!, Dos! Tres!
49. JEFF the Brotherhood – Exotic Nights
48. Ray Wylie Hubbard – The Grifter’s Hymnal
47. Cory Branan – MUTT
46. Paul Thorn – What the Hell is Going On?
45. Lost in the Trees – A Church That Fits Our Needs
44. Soundgarden – King Animal
43. Titus Andronicus – Local Business
42. Fun. – Some Nights
41. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse
40. Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man in the Universe
39. Calexico – Algiers
38. Todd Snider – Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables
37. Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet on Sky
36. Aesop Rock – Skelethon
35. The Flaming Lips – The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends
34. Father John Misty – Fear Fun
33. Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania
32. Big Boi – Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors
31. Jimmy Cliff – Rebirth
30. Nas – Life is Good
29. Glen Hansard – Rhythm & Repose
28. Cat Power – Sun
27. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
26. Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man
25. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city
24. Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
23. The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten
22. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
21. Gary Clark Jr. – Blak and Blu
20. Dr. John – Locked Down
19. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
18. Baroness – Yellow & Green
17. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel
16. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
15. Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
14. The Avett Brothers – The Carpenter
13. Heartless Bastards – Arrow
12. Grizzly Bear – Shields
11. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
10. Rodriguez – Searching for Sugar Man
9. Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill
8. Jack White – Blunderbuss
7. Patterson Hood – Heat Light Rumbles in the Distance
6. Dwight Yoakam – 3 Pears
5. Mumford & Sons – Babel
4. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
3. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
2. Lucero – Women & Work
1. Bob Dylan – Tempest

Best of 2012 – Part 2 January 9, 2013

Posted by Matt in Uncategorized.
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In case you missed part one, you can see it here.

jimmy cliff

40.  Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man in the Universe

2012 was a fruitful year for many of music’s elder statesmen, with excellent albums challenging their tuneful descendants in critical acclaim, a task which 68 year old soul singer Bobby Womack performed quite well on this, his first work of original material in 18 years. The Bravest Man in the Universe finds Womack teaming with Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame, to create a work that deftly combines his wailing voice with a bumping bass and samples, making something wholly modern and timeless.  Songs like “Please Forgive My Heart” are cathartic and beautiful (“The dawn is a silent witness / To the blindness of the night / And we see our reflection so clear / In the blush of the morning light”), and the will haunt you long after the album ends. Given Womack’s recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, the confessional nature of this work takes on a whole new level of meaning, as if he is looking for some bit of redemption before his mind is lost to the ravages of the disease.

 

39.  Calexico – Algiers

Tucson duo Calexico have been producing some interesting and excellent alt-country with a southwestern edge, a combination of styles much like the enmeshing cultures of their Arizona home, for more than fifteen years now.  Their musicianship has always been and continues to be excellent, a trait particularly seen on the instrumental title track, with Spanish guitar and horns and a beat just quick enough for dancing.  The song “Maybe on Monday” evokes images of a windswept desert as the end of love, as vocalist Joey Burns sings, “Woke up on Monday and wrote you a love song, wrote you a love song / Well the pen stopped and the paper flew out the window / And the notes rang down the road.”

 

38.  Todd Snider – Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables

Todd Snider has been spinning tales, from absurd to angry, for nearly 20 years, but it was 2004’s East Nashville Skyline that opened up a new chapter in his career, one that took on the mantle of John Prine and others as humorist-in-chief among songwriters.  Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables is one of his stronger albums from beginning-to-end.  It’s a work that takes aim at corporations and greed, while acting as a veritable anthem for the Occupy movement.  With its repeated refrain of “Good things happen to bad people,” and story of an Arkansas public school teacher who loses his retirement at the hands of Wall Street, “New York Banker” is a standout track that deserves to be heard.  In the opening track “In the Beginning,” Snider gives his take on religion, particularly the prosperity gospel, ending with the conclusion, “With that we rolled into the future / And ain’t it a son of a bitch / To think that we still need religion / To keep the poor from killing the rich.” This is great stuff from one of the best bards of our generation.

 

37.  Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet on Sky

It’s no secret that I love the music of the early 90’s, those halcyon days of my adolescence when flannel and loud guitars ruled the world, so it was with great joy that I saw so many of those bands from that era release excellent albums in 2012, including this one by J Mascis’ long-running band.  On their tenth full-length release, Dinosaur Jr. retain their patented fuzzed-out guitars and Mascis’ well-worn, groaning vocals, employing both to their full effect, displaying a band not content to wallow in nostalgia but intent on moving forward into this brave new world of music.  The band’s ability to pull beauty from the most deafening of chaos is almost unparalleled.  Like the best of their catalog, the lyrical simplicity of tunes like “Watch the Corners” (Can I run, but you’ll be there / Disappear it’s never fair / It’s like a stare) are given extra emotional lift by Mascis’ weary vocals woven into the cathartic release that only music straining the speakers with a swell of volume can.

 

36.  Aesop Rock – Skelethon

In the world of rap and hip-hop, Aesop Rock is something of an anomaly.  While there is certainly nothing wrong with the mindless, hedonistic fun or the violent nihilism found in much of the genre (and every genre of music for that matter), it is refreshing when something unique appears, something that can excite the senses and tickle the brain in a way that others fail to do.  Aesop Rock is a poet, one full of abstractions and metaphors, one that may have you reaching for both the lyric sheet and a thesaurus.  He establishes his geek cred in the opener “Leisureforce” with lyrics like “Abaddon threshold, flash forged in the galley / With undead orcs pulling oars through the algae” and “Raise up the bridge, lower the portcullis / Rain forks into mutton, no abort button.”  This isn’t top 40 hip-hop.  Also, how can you not like the fact that he has a song called “Dokken Rules”?  That should be enough to make you check this album out in itself.

 

35.  The Flaming Lips – The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends

A new release from The Flaming Lips is always a weird and wonderful occasion full of surprises and eardrum-bursting noise.  It is a time not to be missed by those who have an ear for such things.  This release is a collection of collaborations with a wide variety of artists from trashy pop queen Ke$ha to indie darling Bon Iver to R&B songstress Erykah Badu to the venerable Yoko Ono.  It is a bit uneven at times, but still a definite must-hear for fans.  Album opener “2012 (You Must Be Upgraded), featuring Ke$ha and Biz Markie, blasts off in normal Lips fashion with a noisy guitar and a cacophony of sounds.  This leads into “Ashes in the Air,” their team-up with Bon Iver , who has now gone from singing simple songs about heartache in a remote cabin to a slowed-down psychedelic number about being chased by robot dogs.  The highlight of the collection has to be their creeping, sensual version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” with Badu, who was later ably replaced by Amanda Palmer following a disagreement over the very NSFW video for the cover.  Overall, it is a good collection and certainly worth a listen for those disposed to being fans of the Lips.

 

34.  Father John Misty – Fear Fun

It’s not often that the drummer of a successful band releases a solo album.  It’s even less probable that this solo album is very good, much less one of the better albums of the past year.  Yet, Father John Misty, former drummer for indie folk outfit Fleet Foxes, has done just that, producing a wonderful piece of literate Americana that stands nearly to level of his former band.  It kicks off with the melancholic, acoustic track “Funtimes in Babylon,” in which he almost resignedly, perhaps regretfully, says, “Look out Hollywood, here I come.”  My favorite track is probably “I’m Writing a Novel,” with memorable lyrics like “Heidegger and Sartre, drinking poppy tea / I could’ve sworn last night I passed out in my van and these guys are pouring one for me.”  It’s upbeat at times, interesting and introspective at others, and excellent throughout, from beginning to end.

 

33.  Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania

The 1990’s nostalgia ran rampant this year, and nowhere was it done better than at the hands of the megalomaniacal genius of that era, Billy Corgan.  After a trio of stellar albums (Gish, Siamese Dream, and Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness), the Pumpkins’ star faded as their creativity waned, leaving fans like myself disappointed and in want of those sonic anthems of times past.  I remembered fondly the two times I saw them, on the Siamese and Mellon Collie tours, and occasionally longed for a return of the band I loved as a teenager.  When they reformed a few years ago, I was apprehensive and wondering what Corgan had in store for us and after hearing 2007’s mediocre Zeitgeist, I sighed and put them away again.  Oceania, though, is a different story.  I first listened to it on Spotify, a faint glimmer of hope still present, and immediately the classic, sonically-driven sound of Corgan’s guitar cut to the core of my being in a way that it hadn’t since “Cherub Rock” almost 20 years before.  The Smashing Pumpkins are back, rocking and brooding like it is 1993 all over again, and I couldn’t be happier.

 

32.  Big Boi – Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors

On his second solo helping following the hiatus of his normal gig with Outkast, 37 year old Big Boi throws down rhymes and beats with the best in the hip-hop world, affirming his (and, by extension, Outkast’s) place on top of the Southern rap world.  It’s a funky and fun ride, employing synth-pop lines from indie group Phantogram on “Lines,” with states his modus operandi, saying, “Cause man gave us laws and God gave us time / It’s the art of storytelling and I’m only telling mine.”  The memorable “Shoes for Running” uses a chorus from indie band Wavves as Big Boi spits out lyrics like few others can.  It’s a very good album, perhaps not as stellar as his first solo effort, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, but certainly one that will hold over fans like me until he and Andre 3000 team up again.

 

31.  Jimmy Cliff – Rebirth

Before Bob Marley became the face of reggae music, there was the man who first helped to popularize the genre, Jimmy Cliff.  It was Cliff’s starring turn in the 1972 reggae film The Harder They Come that first opened the door to the world outside of Jamaica and though he was soon eclipsed by the stardom of Marley, he has continued to make music for the past 40 years.  This latest outing was helmed by unlikely producer Tim Armstrong, the frontman of punk band Rancid, and under his direction, Cliff has found, as the title suggests, a rebirth.  Two of the standout tracks are covers, The Clash’s apocalyptic “Guns of Brixton” and Rancid’s “Ruby Soho,” both of which take on new life as Cliff squeezes out new perspectives and sounds that the original artists probably never imagined.  The highlight of the album, in my opinion, is “Reggae Music,” which serves as an abbreviated history of the musical form across Cliff’s life, ending with “Now it’s 2012 and reggae music is still here / And the voice of the people everywhere / Whenever there is injustice or tyranny reggae music is there / Standing up for the rights and the true life.”  There isn’t much more that one can hope.

Best of 2012 – Part 1 January 9, 2013

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soundgarden_king_animal_1_1

Life is a crazy thing.  At times things can seem to be going smooth and easy like a sports car on cruise control, at times the sun is high and the wind is in your hair and all seems right with the world.  But all peace is temporary.  All places of solace are eventually bulldozed to install a parking lot. 

2012 was tumultous year for me personally, one filled with heartache and the occasional triumph, all of which were tied together by the beloved music I fill my senses with each and every day.  By my last count, I listened to about 100 new albums over the course of 12 months.  Some were better than others, some were good, some are destined to be classics, but overall it was another very good year for music.  These are 50 my favorites.

50.  Green Day – Uno! / Dos! / Tres!

I’ve been a fan of Green Day since they first burst onto the scene with 1994’s Dookie, a breakthrough work of catchy, punkish pop about teenage angst and self-gratification.  In the 2000’s, they took the music world by storm with two huge concept albums, American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown, both of which rank among the best of the decade and set the band up as the unlikely rock opera heirs of The Who.  Though I’ve enjoyed the band for years, and had the chance to see them in an insane concert back in 1999 or so, I approached these latest releases, a trilogy of albums within just a few months of each other, with great trepidation. It turns out my unease was a fair assessment of the direction the band had taken.  Each of the three works has some great songs, but these are far outnumbered by unmemorable filler.  “Nuclear Family,” the song that kicks off Uno! is a classic burst of Green Day, but when Billie Joe Armstrong sings “Like a nuclear bomb and it won’t be long ‘til I detonate,” it takes on a shade of reality with his recent outburst and subsequent entry into a program for addiction.  I find the band at their most interesting on songs that swerve away from their normal formula, like “Nightlife,” with guest vocals by rapper Lady Cobra.  Overall, the collection is decent, but if the best tracks had been culled into one album, it would have been outstanding.

49.  JEFF the Brotherhood – Exotic Nights

Nashville guitar-drums duo JEFF the Brotherhood, comprised of brothers Jake and Jamin Orrall, may have created the ideal summer album of 2012 in the Dan Auerbach-produced Exotic Nights.  With a sound reeking of Weezer’s Blue Album era-guitar, weed, and cheap beer all being blasted through the thick haze and heat of summer in the south, their music evokes the frivolity of youth and blowout house parties and times to be talked about for years to come.  When Jake opens the album with “I want a place where I can smoke meats.  Where I can drink and swim in the creek,” over an eardrum-bursting fuzzy guitar, you know you are in for a fun ride.  It’s songs like “Six Pack” (“Let’s load the car up / I got a bag of ice / I got a six pack / And I don’t wanna go back”) that bring back fond memories of those endless, sweat-drenched summer nights.

48.  Ray Wylie Hubbard – The Grifter’s Hymnal

The 65 year old Ray Wylie Hubbard, perhaps best known for penning “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” has been in the business a long time, lurking just below the radar for more than four decades while influencing untold numbers of Texas singer-songwriters.  This latest release shows that the aging outlaw still has quite a bit left in the tank and a seemingly infinite number of pearls of wisdom for following generations.  Notable lines abound in songs like “Lazarus” (“At least we ain’t Lazarus / And have to think twice about dyin’) and in “Coricidin Bottle” (“If you ever get to heaven say ‘Woo, thank you!” / If you ever get scared say the 23rd Psalm”).  But the highlight of the album comes in the autobiographical “Mother Blues” where Hubbard tells of being a young man who only wanted a “gold plated Les Paul and a stripper girlfriend.”  Good stuff.

47.  Cory Branan – MUTT

I had heard of Cory Branan before he was name-dropped in a song by one of my favorite bands, Lucero, but it was after that quick reference that I started to pay attention to the work of this great Memphis singer-songwriter.  Branan shows a diverse set of influences as he deftly transitions between styles, from the Tom Waits-esque “The Snowman,” to “Bad Man,” with its E Street Band piano riff and vocal styling of Tom Petty, the Mellencamp-like summer jam “Circa Summer 80 Somethin,” (with one of the best lines of year “You were dancing barefoot on the picnic table and dammit girl, truly goddamn it girl, truly goddamn it girl, truly goddamn”).  The centerpiece of the album, though, is the great “Survivor Blues,” a tune that takes a darker look at the “Born to Run,” escapist mythology, with the refrain of “What didn’t kill you / Will make you wish you died,” ringing out as the stark voice of realism.  It’s a very good album from an artist who stands as a musical treasure of this city.

46.  Paul Thorn – What the Hell is Going On?

The state of Mississippi has a long and rich musical history steeped in the blues, from Delta bluesmen mourning their plight in life to the more groove-oriented sound of the hill country. Tupelo-raised Paul Thorn carries on this tradition, mixing elements of blues guitar with riff rock, to create an instantly listenable and danceable concoction.  As a live act he regularly tells stories and jokes in his slow, deeply-accented voice in between songs, proving himself to be both a formidable guitarist and entertainer.  This collection of relatively obscure covers is dingy and dirty and exudes his outsized personality in such a way that he makes every song seem as though they are his own.  “Snake Farm” employs a dirty, Southern rock riff while Thorn tells about a snake farm that, “Sure sounds nasty,” affirms the suspicion by saying it “pretty much is.” Other highlights include “Blue Mountain Bridge” which tells the story of Stone Fox Dan, a marijuana dealer who Blue Mountain Hawk finds with his woman and gives this gospel-inflected set of instructions, “Take him on down below the Blue Mountain Bridge / Tie his hands and throw him in the river / You might as well give him his farewell party tonight. / He said, knock him in the head, he’s better off dead / Break his arms and throw him in the river / If anybody asks, just tell ‘em he committed suicide.”

45.  Lost in the Trees – A Church That Fits Our Needs

Written after the suicide of vocalist Ari Picker’s mother, this work blends gorgeous orchestration with haunting morbidity.  It is beautiful and haunting and ultimately life-affirming, an album that will stick with you long after the final chords. It is not an easy listen by any means, Picker fills each song with so much gut-wrenching honesty, his own form of catharsis, that you can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable, but in the end that’s what true art is supposed to do.  In the opener “Neither Here Nor There,” when he delicately sings, “Oh look in a golden light / After the sun burns out / Loneliness you’re haunting me,” you physically feel his pain burrowing its way into your heart and soul, tearing away the places where they hide.  In standout track “The Dead Bird is Beautiful,” he almost seems to sigh the words, “I’ll carry her, but I’ll always have her eyes,” and you can almost picture him looking in a mirror and seeing those, his mother’s eyes, staring back at him.  Perhaps most fitting, the album closer, “Vines,” ends with questions, “Am I hopeless?  I trust you. But where are we walking to?” It’s not an easy listen by any means, but Lost in the Trees have crafted a brilliant, beautiful work about human mortality and grief.

44.  Soundgarden – King Animal

“You can’t go home / I swear you never can,” Chris Cornell belts out in an unmistakable voice that provides so much comfort to those of us who came of age in those halcyon days of the 90’s.  Crunching guitars, plodding bass lines, high volumes: this is the music of my generation and here it is, returning in all its flannel-clad glory.  It has been sixteen years since their last release of original material, but the band picks right back up again with this collection of dirty, grungy rock tunes that will almost make us thirty-something fans from 20 years ago want to jump back in the mosh pit.  Kim Thayil’s guitar pumps out heavily distorted, chugging riffs like few others, with Cornell’s soaring, eardrum-piercing vocals leading the way.  It’s a strong return to form for the band, particularly on the nostalgic opener “Been Away Too Long,” and the heavy “Blood on the Valley Floor.”

43.  Titus Andronicus – Local Business

New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus is not your average punk band.  I first came into contact with their music on their 2010 album, The Monitor, with its utterly pessimistic view of modern American life as told through the lens of a Civil War travel story.  It was loud, bleak, and absolutely brilliant.  Their new album eschews the narrative structure of their previous release and instead turns its focus to the disaffected youth of America, the angst-driven Millennials discovering that the adult world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  The opener, “Ecce Homo,” kicks off with a nihilistic line of self-discovery, “Ok, I think by now we’ve established that everything is inherently worthless / And there is nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose,” but instead of being delivered in a depressing, suicidal sort of way, vocalist Patrick Stickles is crying out with the conviction of one struggling to find their place in the emptiness of the American dream.  Stickles lays his problems bare for the world to see, particularly on songs like the 8 minute “My Eating Disorder,” about, you guessed it, his suffering from an eating disorder.  In that confessional work, his refrain, “I know the world’s a scary place / That’s why I hid behind a hairy face,” resonates.  It speaks to those plodding through life, lonely and frightened, looking for somewhere to belong.  Yes, Titus Andronicus have set a new standard for the medium of punk rock.

42.  Fun. – Some Nights

Come on, you know you like it. With catchy, unavoidable choruses, and vocalist Nate Ruess’s channeling of Freddy Mercury, the band has created a power pop phenomena this year.  One of the more interesting aspects of the band, however, is that, despite the band’s name and the singalong nature of the songs, their lyrics are often anything but fun.  The title track has a sense of resignation, as if they must make the music because that is all they know to do, and that they must do it, even though they “try twice as hard I’m half as liked.” They’re pleading for something, for a sense of meaning amidst the chaos when he sings, “Oh Lord, I’m still not sure what I stand for / What do I stand for? / What do I stand for? / Most nights, I don’t know anymore.” Between that and the song, “We are Young,” fun. has created an album of generational anthems for the Millennials and whoever comes next, and luckily some of us stodgy Generation-Xers can still enjoy it as well.

41.  Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse

Ty Segall is, without a doubt, the most prolific artist on this year’s list, having released three full length albums in 2012 to go along with the numerous others he has recorded since his debut in 2008, but I regret to say that Slaughterhouse was my introduction to him.  Segall resurrects the spirit of garage rock, with Stooges-like punk, prevalent guitar noise, and an underlying pop spirit that holds it all together.  The album kicks off with “Death,” a feedback-laden blast that evolves into chanted lyrics (“Eye of the eye / Eye of the queen / Eye of the king”) like a bunch of demented monks, before turning into a chaotic scream accompanied by loud, distorted guitars.  As the album progresses, melodies and crunching riffs intertwine into a thoroughly enjoyable whole, one that will no doubt placate any fan of loud, melodic garage punk.  The aptly titled final track, “Fuzz War,” is a 10 minute barrage of chaos and noise, one that both closes this collection and leaves the listener hungry for more. I know I’m already anticipating the next one.

To be continued…

Best of 2012 … So Far June 13, 2012

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As the earth nears the halfway point in its annual journey around the sun, it is time we take a look back at the first half of this year, the highlights and triumphs and perhaps disappointments to date in 2012.  In my strange little world, music provides the soundtrack and direction for each day, and I am always seeking to bolster my collection and to delve into the minds of artists, whether they are ones I’ve followed for years or upstarts of whom I may have only recently become aware.  At my latest count, I’ve listened and paid attention to 35 new albums so far in this calendar year.  These are my favorites.

 

Honorable Mentions

Jay Farrar, Jim James, Will Johnson and Anders Parker – New Multitudes

Super groups are always kind of a crap shoot.  I mean, not everybody can be the Avengers.  So I approached this collection of unreleased Woody Guthrie material, as interpreted by Jay Farrar (of Son Volt / Uncle Tupelo), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), and Will Johnson and Anders Parker (both of Centro-Matic), with some trepidation.  Fortunately, the group came through with a work that both evokes images of Guthrie’s Dust Bowl-era world and gives a timely statement on today.  Jay Farrar has one of my all-time favorite voices and it’s a pure joy to hear him sing lines like “Music is the language of the mind that travels / It carries the key to the laws of time and space.”  My favorite tune in the collection, though, is “My Revolutionary Mind,” as sung by Jim James.  How can you not like lyrics like: “I need a progressive woman / I need an awfully liberal woman / I need a socially conscious woman / To ease my revolutionary mind.”

Download:  “My Revolutionary Mind”, “Hoping Machine”

 

Carolina Chocolate Drops – Leaving Eden

I first became acquainted with the music of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an African-American old time string band that seamlessly combines elements of folk and bluegrass with hip-hop and other music styles, after their 2010 release Genuine Negro Jig and songs like their spirited cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” so I eagerly awaited their latest release.  Once again, the three piece struck gold with their modern take on an old style, successfully transporting the listener to the rural hill country where people young and old gather to make some of the original American music.  Banjos, mandolins, fiddles, and an assortment of other instruments combine with an expert skill seemingly at odds with the youthful members of the band.

Download:  “Ruby, are You Mad at Your Man?”, “Country Girl”

 

Dr. Dog – Be the Void

Dr. Dog has been writing and releasing some of the catchiest indie pop in the music world for years, and Be the Void continues in that fun, danceable vein.  Having had the opportunity to see them live earlier this year, I can say this latest album captures the sing-a-long energy of their concerts – it’s unavoidable and impossible to dislike.  This is music to make you smile, to enjoy life, to revel in the experiences that each day brings.  “Lonesome” could make even the coldest, most indifferent listener clap and chant along in unison, while the spacey psychedelia of “These Days” will grab you up and carry you along on a strange and colorful voyage through interstellar regions often left untouched.  It’s a fun ride and definitely worth the trip.

Download: “Lonesome,” “These Days”

 

Ray Wylie Hubbard – The Grifter’s Hymnal

The 65 year old Ray Wylie Hubbard, perhaps best known for penning “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” has been in the business a long time, lurking just below the radar for more than four decades while influencing untold numbers of Texas singer-songwriters.  This latest release shows that the aging outlaw still has quite a bit left in the tank and a seemingly infinite number of pearls of wisdom for following generations.  Notable lines abound in songs like “Lazarus” (“At least we ain’t Lazarus / And have to think twice about dyin’) and in “Coricidin Bottle” (“If you ever get to heaven say ‘Woo, thank you!” / If you ever get scared say the 23rd Psalm”).  But the highlight of the album comes in the autobiographical “Mother Blues” where Hubbard tells of being a young man who only wanted a “gold plated Les Paul and a stripper girlfriend.”  Good stuff.

Download:  “Lazarus,” “Mother Blues”

 

Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Americana

Did you ever wonder what it would sound like to hear Neil Young, with his grungy, loud guitar, and unmistakable, nasal voice, singing American standards like “Oh Susannah” and “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain?”  Well, if you did, here is your answer and it’s awesome.  This is one of those collections where you can imagine Young sitting around, jamming and saying, “What the hell, let’s record.” He turns American roots music on its head and totally rocks it out, blasting through versions of “Clementine” and “Tom Dula” in ways that you never imagined.  Sure, it’s not an album of original music and it doesn’t have the poignancy of his greatest works of long ago or his more recent masterpiece “Le Noise,” but it is a lot of fun.  Turn it up loud and enjoy.

Download:  Oh Susannah, Jesus’ Chariot (aka “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain”)

 

10. Cory Branan – Mutt

I had heard of Cory Branan before he was name-dropped in a song by one of my favorite bands, Lucero, but it was after that quick reference that I started to pay attention to the work of this great Memphis singer-songwriter.  Branan shows a diverse set of influences as he deftly transitions between styles, from the Tom Waits-esque “The Snowman,” to “Bad Man,” with its E Street Band piano riff and vocal styling of Tom Petty, the Mellencamp-like summer jam “Circa Summer 80 Somethin,” (with one of the best lines of year “You were dancing barefoot on the picnic table and dammit girl, truly goddamn it girl, truly goddamn it girl, truly goddamn”).  The centerpiece of the album, though, is the great “Survivor Blues,” a tune that takes a darker look at the “Born to Run,” escapist mythology, with the refrain of “What didn’t kill you / Will make you wish you died,” ringing out as the stark voice of realism.  It’s a very good album from an artist who stands as a musical treasure of this city.

Download:  Survivor Blues, Yesterday (Circa Summer 80 Somethin’), Bad Man

 

9. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas

One of the most interesting phenomena that has come to light in the past ten-to-fifteen years is the number of late-career releases from the elder statesmen of the music world, whether it be Johnny Cash’s incredible American Music run, the continued relevance of Bob Dylan, or even the great recent works of Bruce Springsteen (who, at 62, is a mere pup compared to the others), and the 77 year old Leonard Cohen continues in the interesting and poignant trend.  Dark and beautiful, Cohen’s unmistakable voice continues to complement his superb songwriting in a way that few artists have ever and will ever match.  Contemplating mortality with a wry sense of humor, he kicks off the album speaking in third person, “I love to speak with Leonard / He’s a sportsman and a shepherd / He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit,” then considering a life nearing its end in the context of a failed romance, he says, “I got no future / I know my days are few / The present’s not that pleasant / Just a lot of things to do / I thought the past would last me / But the darkness got that too.”  It’s truly a late-career masterpiece not to be missed.

Download: Going Home, Anyhow, Amen

 

8. Dr. John – Locked Down

Truth be told, I’d never paid a lot of attention to Dr. John.  Sure, I knew Gris-Gris and I knew how important he was to New Orleans music, but for some reason I had never spent much time with his work.  But, when I heard that he was releasing an album with Dan Auerbach (singer/guitarist for the Black Keys), I was immediately intrigued by the idea.  Turns out, I now see what I’ve been missing.  Auerbach injects his sound into Dr. John’s funky voodoo R&B to perfection, turning out one of the best and most fun albums of the year.  On this work, the 71 year old music legend displays the dual reality surrounding and affecting humanity since the beginning, the desire for personal pleasure against the hope for something more, the drive to be good.  Perhaps this is no truer than in the album closer “God’s Sure Good,” when he says “God been good to me / Better than me to myself.”

Download: Locked Down, Revolution, Big Shot

 

7. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp

Poignant and beautiful, tender and angry, New Jersey’s Sharon Van Etten has released a true standout album of the first half of 2012.  Her voice is one of melancholic beauty, one that at times reminds me of Cat Power, but that is decidedly her own.  It will capture you, pull you into her world, a place where wants and desires battle with reality when she sings, “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city / You’re why I’ll need to leave.” Songs like “Leonard” are heartbreaking beautiful with its opening lines of confusion and questioning, “There he goes / He finally closed the door / I turn the lock feeling more confused than before / What gives?”  With releases as urgent and wonderful as this, Van Etten will not be flying under the radar for long.

Download:  Warsaw, Serpents, Leonard

 

6. Heartless Bastards – Arrow

I first became acquainted with Heartless Bastards following their 2009 release, The Mountain, and was quickly taken by their classic rock sound and Erika Wennerstrom’s powerful vocals.  Arrow takes that formula and adds excellent songwriting to the mix, crafting one of the best albums so far in 2012, one that may stand as a career-defining moment for the band.  From the colossal build of the opener “Marathon” (And we all want to belong / To something more than, more than ourselves), to what may be the best song in their repertoire, “Parted Ways” (And the sun went down on this little ghost town / near the valley of the Rio Grande / I need a little bit of whiskey and a little bit of time / to ease my troubled mind), this is truly a great work and one that deserves to be heard.  I missed the band when they played Memphis earlier this year, so here’s hoping they have a return trip planned in the near future.

Download: Marathon, Parted Ways, Low Low Low

 

5. Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now

In the music business, I can only imagine how difficult it would be to follow in the steps of your father, especially when your father is someone as important to the alt-country world as Steve Earle.  And Justin Townes Earle does no doubt struggle with it at times, both the fame and the evils that seem to follow behind it, and you can hear the references to his famous dad in much of his music, including the opening lines of this album, “Hear my father on the radio / Singing take me home again / 300 miles from the Carolina coast / And I’m skin and bones again. / Sometimes I wish that I could get away / Sometimes I wish that he’d just call / Am I that lonely tonight? / I don’t know.”  Despite his struggles with substance abuse, JTE has quickly become one of the most important and most prolific acts in the Americana world, releasing five albums, all of them good to excellent, over the course of six years.  Earle employs a Stax-style horn section on this album, a curious and welcome trend also seen with a band still to come in this countdown, Lucero.  For me, the highlight of the album is “Memphis in the Rain,” a rollicking number that makes you feel as though you really are rolling down the streets of the Bluff City.  Now, if only we could get him to play another show here.

Download:  Memphis in the Rain, Maria, Down on the Lower East Side

 

4. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls

Songs and performances of the Alabama Shakes have been bouncing around on the web for some time, building a huge buzz for this, their debut album.  Soon the Athens, Alabama band was opening for personal favorites like Drive-By Truckers, Jack White, and a whole host of other greats, even scoring a gig at Bonnaroo.  In a time when Southern music is making a huge grass-roots push, Alabama Shakes have vaulted nearly to the top, becoming relatively well known in a very short amount of time.  When soulful singer Brittany Howard sings of herself in the album opener, “Bless my heart / Bless my soul / Didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old / There must be someone up above / Saying ‘Come on Brittany / You got to come on up,” she does it with such conviction you can’t help but root for her.  This is decidedly old school soul, similar to contemporaries like Sharon Jones & the Dapp-Kings, but with a southern flair that oozes authenticity.

Download: Hold On, Hang Loose, You Ain’t Alone

 

3. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball

The Boss is one of those artists who, though past the age of 60, seem to have caught a second wind in their career, putting out some of the best, most relevant and interesting music they have in some time.  Following on the heels of the excellent Magic in 2007 and Working on a Dream in 2009, Wrecking Ball had a lot to live up to and fans no doubt wondered where the artist would go from that point.  Never one to rest on his laurels, Springsteen took an unforeseen curve and released what many have called his “angriest album yet.”   The Boss takes aim at economic justice, landing punches on the financial meltdown and corporations who are seen as making a mockery of the American Dream.  In songs like “We Take Care of Our Own,” his words drip with irony as he talks of those left behind and struggling.  It’s been called his “Occupy album” and perhaps that is an applicable descriptor as he slams the advantage-taking institutions in songs like “Jack of All Trades” (“The banker man grows fat, the working man grows thin / It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again”).  “Death to My Hometown” is an Irish-inspired anthem (They destroyed our families’ factories and they took our homes / They left our bodies on the planks, the vultures picked our bones) that serves as a grave indictment against the powers that be.  This album is epic and deserves its rightful spot in the Springsteen canon.

Download:  We Take Care of Our Own, Easy Money, Jack of All Trades

 

2. Jack White – Blunderbuss

Over the past several years there has been no shortage of Jack White music, but ever since the demise of the White Stripes following 2007’s stellar release Icky Thump, he just hasn’t sounded the same.  Though much of it was quite good, the spontaneity and urgency seemed to be missing from his music al output with The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather.  Well, I’m happy to say that his first solo album, Blunderbuss, is a hugely welcome return to form.  It does what White does best:  rock.  “Sixteen Saltines” and “Love Interruption” sound like they could easily have been included on Elephant, while “Freedom at 21” displays all of the crazy, riff-magic that made White a guitar god.  This existence of this album makes me supremely happy and I can only hope that White continues along this same road for some time.  I had the chance to see The White Stripes live several years ago and it ranks as one of my all-time favorite shows and the wildly unpredictable Jack White is among the greatest guitarists I’ve ever seen.

Download:  Sixteen Saltines, Love Interruption, I’m Shakin’

 

1. Lucero – Women & Work

I had liked Lucero for years, maybe even dating back to before I moved to the Memphis area in 2004, and had seen them a handful of times during that period, but it wasn’t until 2009’s incredible 1372 Overton Park, that I truly came to love the band.  Last year alone I had the opportunity to see the band three times, including an epic 3+ hour show at Minglewood Hall just before Christmas when they debuted much of this, their latest studio work.  Since that show in December, I’ve had the chance to meet a few of the guys in the band and have conversed with some of them online, further cementing my allegiance to the greatest current band from Memphis.  From the first time I listened to it, streaming it online prior to its release, I was completely blown away by Women & Work.  Though I love the older Lucero stuff, the “empty bottle and an old country song” greatness, their more recent work has taken a giant step forward, keeping the elements that made them favorites among country-punk fans while incorporating new, and decidedly Memphis, elements.  Memphis-style horns were added and the vocals changed to something more full and soulful, as Ben Nichols turned a major corner as a singer.  The album begins with two rollicking, upbeat numbers, “On My Way Downtown” and “Women Work,” both of which pull the listener in, setting their feet to tapping and head to bobbing.  I think my favorite song on the album is the strange and different crooner, “It May Be Too Late,” which to my ears represents a very interesting and welcome twist to the new Lucero sound.  When Ben sings those lines “It may be too late to save me little girl / Called the phone till the numbers wouldn’t dial,” it really hits the listener deep, just like great music should.  In “Juniper,” my inner nerd loves the opening line, “She looks like a superhero down on her luck.”  The imagery is perfect.  My second favorite song is “Sometimes,” with its lonesome (Check out Steve Earle’s distinction between the words lonesome and lonely in his incredible novel I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive when you get the chance), mournful sound and it’s chorus of “The road from Tennessee, it shakes and rattles to the bone / The hills of Arkansas are filled with haunted lakes and ghosts / Oh, and sometimes I hear them on those lonesome nights / Sometimes they come out of the woods and up to the house.”  This has been, by far, my most listened to album of 2012 and I hope you will give it a spin, too.  Believe me, you won’t be disappointed.

Download the whole album.

 

Thoughts?  What should I have included/not included?

Illiterati Lumen Fidei May 14, 2012

Posted by Matt in music, spirituality.
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Or, how Jeff Tweedy helped write my personal theology

This weekend I will be afforded to opportunity to again see one of my favorite bands, Wilco, live and in concert.  So, to ready myself for the upcoming show, I’ve been inundating myself with music from across their career, from old and new favorites to rediscovering those songs that have slipped through the cracks in my mind over the years.  As I did this, I began to realize the profound beauty of the words and music, and just how much of an influence a well-written song can have on an obsessive music fan like me.  In many ways, the poetry of Jeff Tweedy and Wilco mirror my own belief system and the spiritual progression I have undergone for the past several years.

 

“No love’s as random as God’s love / I can’t stand it / I can’t stand it.” (“I Can’t Stand It,” Summerteeth)

One of the first casualties in my move away from a belief system centered in classic theism was the idea of Divine Providence.  I simply could no longer believe in a God who arbitrarily inserted itself into the world at seemingly random points in history to do things as innocuous as winning football games and as violent and awful as winning wars.  Accordingly, God is always on the side of the victors.  After hearing the name of God invoked in so many circumstances, you either become numb to it or you reject it as being logically incoherent.  The realization that life is more a series of random variables than a carefully cultivated divine plan is quite liberating.

 

“You know you’ve got a God-shaped hole / You’re bleeding out your heart full of soul / You’re so misunderstood.” (“Misunderstood,” Being There)

The move away from a belief in theism is a difficult one, one that is fraught with anger and rejection, and that is something I discovered a few years ago as I began to speak these ideas aloud (or online), facing the inevitable backlash from many who have been important in my life. It’s a disheartening experience to face exclusion and dismissal from others, to realize that entire relationships are contingent upon the acceptance of a few axioms of faith.

 

“Our love is all of God’s money. / Everyone is a burning sun.” (“Jesus, Etc.” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

So, what do we do with God if the Divine can no longer be looked upon to provide divine intervention?  It seems as though we must look within, to search for those characteristics marking our own inherent divinity. There is perhaps nothing more God-like than the concept of love, that cosmic force that envelopes our being, that drives us beyond the realm of critical thinking and logic and into a radical concern for others that could ultimately cost us our own lives.

 

“Illiterati Lumen Fidei / God is with us every day / That illiterate light / Is with us every night” (“Theologians,” A Ghost is Born)

With God no longer being the classic, thunderbolt-hurling deity in the clouds, what is left? 

Perhaps God is something bigger than that, something that we can’t know intellectually, something meant to be felt, to explored through different paths.  Maybe God is ultimately indescribable and unknowable, but something to which we all have thoughts and inclinations.  I like to think of God as the indwelling spirit of the universe, swirling about in the cosmos, bestowing life and love upon all its denizens.  Is that the correct way to describe the Divine?  Probably not, but it’s the explanation that works best for me at this time of my life, and that’s really the best we can do.

 

“Oh, I can only dream of the dreams we’d share / If you weren’t so defined. / I would love to be the one to open up your mind.” (“Open Mind,” The Whole Love)

 Thanks for the great music, Jeff Tweedy and Wilco, and thanks for helping to open my mind.  I’ll see you on Saturday.

Lenten Listen #42: Alabama Shakes – Boys and Girls April 4, 2012

Posted by Matt in Lent.
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There has been a huge swell of enthusiasm for the Alabama Shakes over the past several months leading up to the release of their debut album, and the buzz is well worth it. I’ve watched and listened to a few of their live performances during that time and was absolutely floored by their blues-driven, soul-drenched sound. The album is not set for release until next week, but right now you can stream it for free at NPR. I hope you check it out. It will be worth your time.

Lenten Listen #41: Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way I Feel About You Now April 3, 2012

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It’s no secret that I love the neighboring city of Memphis, particularly when it comes to the profound effect it has had on the world of music, so I always pay special attention when artists I enjoy employ styles that are synonymous with the city. One area I’ve seen this in recent years is in the use of soulful, Stax-style horns. Memphis’s Lucero (one of my favorite bands) has used them to great effect on each of their last two albums and now Justin Townes Earle has stepped into the fray with his latest release, further altering his ever-evolving sound in an interesting, albeit different, way.

Also, if using the Memphis sound wasn’t enough, he also name drops the city on more than one occasion on the album, most notably with the upbeat “Memphis in the Rain.” I’m a sucker for name-dropping places I know, so you can definitely count me as a fan.

Instead of lyrics, here is a clip of the song from his recent Little Rock show, which I sadly missed. Enjoy.

Lenten Listen #40: Eddie Vedder – Into the Wild April 2, 2012

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I’ve continued my Lenten discipline of listening to at least one full album per day for the past 12 days, even though I’ve gotten a little lazy when it comes to recording them on the blog. Oh well. Since this is Holy Week, I figured I should jump back on the wagon again.

There are few vocalists that move me to the extent that Eddie Vedder, the voice of our generation, does. This work, composed for the excellent movie version of Jon Krakauer’s incredible book chronicling the Thoreauan journey of young idealist, Christopher McCandless, is one that strikes a particularly deep chord with me, as I toil away in the cubicle wasteland, yearning for the sun and the open sky, the green grass and the Edenic paradise of even a small garden plot. Someday I hope to escape the stifling confines of corporate America, but until then I’ll live vicariously through the music of Eddie Vedder.

“Guaranteed” is my favorite song from the album and probably one of my favorite songs of all time.

On bended knee is no way to be free
Lifting up an empty cup I ask silently
That all my destinations will accept the one that’s me
So I can breathe

Circles they grow and they swallow people whole
Half their lives they say goodnight to wives they’ll never know
Got a mind full of questions and a teacher in my soul
So it goes.

Don’t come closer or I’ll have to go
Holding me like gravity are places that pull
If ever there was someone to keep me at home
It would be you.

Everyone I come across in cages they bought
They think of me and my wandering
But I’m never what they thought
Got my indignation but I’m pure in all my thoughts
I’m alive

Wind in my hair, I feel part of everywhere
Underneath my being is a road that disappeared
Late at night I hear the trees
They’re singing with the dead
Overhead.

Leave it to me as I find a way to be
Consider me a satellite forever orbiting
I knew all the rules but the rules did not know me
Guaranteed.

Is Free Will an Illusion? Part 2 March 28, 2012

Posted by Matt in Free Will.
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Yesterday I introduced the ideas put forth in Sam Harris’s book Free Will, and today I’d like to take a slightly deeper dive into this interesting work. First we answer the question: From where does the Will originate?

Our brains take in untold amounts of information each moment of our lives, yet we are only aware of a very small fraction of it. Everything we come in contact with is recorded, organized, and analyzed in the depths of our minds, and although we notice that our experiences change (thoughts, moods, perceptions, behaviors, etc), we are unaware of the background workings of our brains that produce them.

For instance, I’ve had two cups of coffee this morning. Why did I not choose to forego coffee and instead choose tea or water? Did I consciously choose to have two cups of coffee this morning? Harris says no.

The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence. Could I have “changed my mind?” … Yes, but this impulse would also have been the product of unconscious causes. … The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in the consciousness – rather, it appears in the consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.

Harris then goes on to cite scientific studies to support this idea. Physiologist Benjamin Libet used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be seen 300 milliseconds before a person feels that they have decided to move. A second study employed fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to further this idea. Experimenters found that associated brain regions contained information a full 7-10 seconds before a conscious decision was made. In other experiments, direct recordings of the cortex showed that the activity of 256 neurons was all that was needed to predict (with 80% accuracy) a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before they became aware of it.

Harris carries this hypothesis to its logical conclusion, saying:

These findings are difficult to reconcile with our sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next – a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please – your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision” and believe you are in the process of making it.
I cannot decide what I will next think or intend until a thought or intention arises. What will my next mental state be? I do not know – it just happens. Where is the freedom in that?

So, if we do not know what we will intend until the intention arises from our brain, we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions, at least not in the way that we seem to think we are. Thus, in Harris’s view, we are beholden to these neural impulses, based on a combination of collected data and genetics.

To close out this section, he asks and then answers the question, “What would it take to actually have free will?”

You would need to be aware of all factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need complete control over those factors. But there is a paradox here that vitiates the very notion of freedom – for what would influence the influences? More influences? None of these adventitious mental states are the real you. You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.

Thoughts?

Is Free Will an Illusion? March 27, 2012

Posted by Matt in books, Free Will.
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I know I haven’t posted anything substantive in quite some time, so I hope you will bear with me for a bit.

I’m a fan of neuroscientist/philosopher Sam Harris and have been for some time. Over the years I’ve read several of his books: The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The Moral Landscape, and I have always come away challenged and maybe even a bit enlightened. He’s a brilliant man and a very good writer, one who makes good use of humor and rarely comes across as condescending, unlike the feeling I’ve had from some of his contemporaries in religious criticism like Richard Dawkins.

I downloaded Harris’s short book, Free Will, a few weeks ago and read through it slowly, taking time to digest his ideas and come to an understanding of his viewpoint, one which was somewhat foreign to me. Having been raised in a Conservative area of the country and having been part of a fundamentalist sort of church for many years, the notion of free will seemed as concrete and real as anything. I had the complete freedom to make conscious choices, whether good or bad.

As Harris says at the beginning of his book:

Most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice.

He then methodically disassembles this notion.

Without going into the details, he tells a true story of two men, career criminals, who murdered an entire family. He then tells of their troubled past, of abuse and psychological disorders and remorse, before making the statement:

Whatever their conscious motives, these men cannot know why they are as they are. Nor can we account for why we are not like them. As sickening as I find their behavior as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people. Even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the problem of responsibility remains: I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath.

What does this do to the idea of free will then? According to Harris:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.

Harris says that the idea of free will is based on two assumptions:

1) That each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past
2) That we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.

And this is just chapter one. Stay tuned for more.

Thoughts?

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