Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

December 2007: M.I.A., Gogol bordello Rate Perfect
Imperial Teen and Britney Spears (!) get nods

With year-end lists due before the year ends (hate that), some catching up below, including what right now sound like my two favorite albums of the year. Note, however, that the year's best hip-hop often comes out just before Christmas.

Gogol Bordello: Super Taranta! (Side One Dummy) Because I so adored 2005's Gypsy Punks Underdog World Strike (making it hard to accept a follow-up), feared overselling an act seen as exotic (accordions and violins are wilder than keybs) and loved the opener so much it dwarfed the rest ("There were never any good old days"--exactly), I hedged my emotions here. But six months after I got the advance, I love it all. Dubbing in a nonreggae reggae tribute, laughing about immigration's generation gap, turning "frustration into inspiration" and disillusion into resolve, the four somewhat less tuneful songs in the middle sum up Eugene Hutz's politics of joy. He leads the world's most visionary band. And once you learn to hear its multicontinental get-down, rooted in the Balkans' Islamo-Christian stomp, it's also one of the hardest rocking. A PLUS

Imperial Teen: The Hair the TV the Baby & the Band (Merge) Where Sonic Youth are at least sonic, these men and women are far from imperial. Just masterful. They sharpen their hooks and spin their lyrics not for art's sake, but for the artists' pleasure, and for the ears and minds of their discerning fans. The result are songs that illuminate a subcultural dilemma other bands ignore or wallow in: how it feels to stick with your music even when you are going on middle age is plenty full without it. "Room With a View," with the "20 for life" line everybody quotes, lays out the terms. But the opener's "Pump my heart until/Bleeding heart be still" is just as apt. Can't last forever. But the proof it's lasted this long is in the hearing, and they're happy about it. A MINUS

Toni Iordache: Tales From a Bygone Era: Vol 4 (Asphalt Tango) Probably the greatest Gypsy musician of post-World War II Romania, Iordache died of diabetes in 1988. He played cymbalum, called here tambal, a hammered dulcimer that avoids twee vibraphonics in his strong and supple hands but is still a sideman's ax. Nobody recorded much under Nicolae Ceausescu's regime. But though these 14 mostly instrumental tracks don't even include the fleet "Hora de la Bolintin," they satisfy beginning to end. Where Hungary's Kálmán Balogh is florid, Iordache is always crisp--even the five-minute ballad contains its romanticism. As a star of the weddings where all Gypsy musicians make their nut, he spends most of his precious recording time getting the blood flowing. Of course there are trumpet, accordion and violin--how could there not be? And two guest vocalists--the hot-and-cool Romica Puceanu on four tracks, the friendlier and lighter Gabi Lunca on two--provide all the change-up you'll need. A MINUS

Amy LaVere: Anchors & Anvils (Archer) A Detroit-born, Memphis-based ex-punk with a soft voice and a boyfriend who gave her the business, LaVere leaves her wan alt-country debut behind with help from producer Jim Dickinson and a song about killing the boyfriend. Dickinson provides the hint of a groove that his young admirer Paul Taylor failed to deliver last time--and maybe also, songcatcher that he is, a few of the seven tracks his charge didn't write, like the tipsy "Pointless Drinking" or the insatiable "Washing Machine." The song about killing her boyfriend provides the shock that will convince you there's a solid substratum underneath. "Killing him didn't make her love go away," she coos sadly, looking at herself from a distance she's not sure she ever wants to breach. A MINUS

Les Savy Fav: Let's Stay Friends (Frenchkiss) Six years after their last "true" album, these much-bruited postpunk brutalists kick off with "Pots & Pans," a song about a much-disparaged band of that name that echoes the Archers of Loaf's Greatest of All Time--the subject of which was "the world's worst rock 'n' roll band." "Pots & Pans" concerns "bands that make you sick." It promises that, in contrast, "this band's a beating heart and it's nowhere near its end." And the album that follows puts its melody where its lyric is with the most recognizable set of songs they've ever begrudged their angular guitar bruit. Material's still angular, arranged in the finest postpunk fashion. But now you can hum it--and parse it. Sex riding bareback. Double-barreled homage to "1999" (the song) and 2001 (not the movie). Plague song. Death song--well, maybe death-of-love song. Death-of-love song sans ifs or buts. And finally, band-survival song. Dull climax, I agree. But by then, they've come again and again. A

M.I.A.: Kala (Interscope) Less catchy and novel than 2005's Arular, this just gets stronger and more intelligent over time--compared to Arular, and also to Arcade Fire's Neon Bible or Radiohead's In Rainbows or, I don't know, Jay-Z's American Gangster. Where so many bands who consider tunes beneath them compensate with piddling portions of texture or structure, this record is full of things to listen to: zooms and scrapes and grunts and whistles and kiddie voices and animal cries, weird Asian drums and horns, down-home melodica and didgeridoo. Also, of course, bass bass bass--guitar, drum, whatever. The songs imagine and recreate an unbowed international underclass that proves how smart it is just by stating its business, which includes taking your money. The lyrics far cannier politically than those on Arular. But their proof is in the music. A PLUS

Britney Spears: Blackout (Jive) I swear I'm not being perverse--she's such a sad case it took me a week to get up the guts to play this. But she's sure put some benwa balls into a slut act only wankers took literally, and now the balls have beats. From "Gimme More"'s "It's Britney bitch" hiya to "Piece of Me"'s single-of-the-year sonics, from "Ooh Ooh Baby"'s "feel you deep inside" to "Perfect Lover"'s "touch me there," this album is pure, juicy, plastic get-naked. When she closes by dissing Kevvy Kev, it's like she's spoiling the concept with a protest song. B PLUS

Honorable Mention

  • Mary Gauthier: Mercy Now (Lost Highway) She doesn't drink anymore, she sings--remembering all too well what alcoholism was like ("I Drink," "Mercy Now").
  • Nublu Orchestra Conducted by Butch Morris (Nublu) Improvised big-band tone poems grow tunes and timbres from funk to serialism ("Downstairs," "Sciubba Diving").
  • The Harlem Experiment (Ropeadope) Jazz and salsa guys "Walking Through Harlem," as Olu Dara puts it, by way of its musical history, with hop-hop slams and James Brown funk for a climax ("Lil' Bit," "Think").
  • The Rough Guide to Bellydance Café (World Music Network) Café or no café, that's bellydance in the higher sense, aka the musical ambience of the mysterious East (Ensemble Huseyin Turkmenler, "Soleyin Yildizlar Nerde"; Giasemi Iyasmini & Nikos Saragoudas, "Tsahpinoula Moy").
  • Downtown 81 (Recall) Jean Michel Basquiat's musical New York, which could be exciting even when it was too damn arty and could also be too damn arty (Kid Creole & the Coconuts and Coati Mundi, "K Pasa-Pop I"; Rammellzee vs. K-Rob, "Beat Bop"; Liquid Liquid, "Cavern"; DNA "Blonde Redhead").
  • Meneguar: Strangers in Our House (Troubleman Unlimited) High anxiety in the fine old strained, dissonant, guitar-slashing manner ("Death on Display," "Paint You").
  • Shantel: Disko Partizani (Essay) Reborn Berlin techno drone litens up his ancestors' horny dance music without cheapening its charm--more than is appropriate, anyway ("Sota," "Disko Partizani").
  • Brother Reade: Rap Music (Record Collection) Common-sense rhymes plus solid beats equals good guys who party ("Like Duh," "Life Ain't Easy for Ya'll").
  • Kŕlmŕn Balogh & The Gypsy Cimbalon Band: Live in Germany (Traditional Crossroads) Gypsy jazz sans Django (a welcome change) verging on Gypsy jazz mit samba and Johnny Rivers cover (an unwelcome one) ("It's Party Time Mahala!" "Love Song and Dance").
  • Saul Williams: The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust ( Slam poet Saul marches into battle with damned beatmaster Trent ("Tr(n)igger," "Convict Colony").
  • Alicia Keys: As I Am (J) Nice girl holds out ("Teenage Love Affair," "Wreckless Love").
  • Taraf de Haďdouks: Maskarada (Crammed Discs) Thirteen-eighths of Bartók--Gypsies kiss the rings of their high-class friends before going back to where they once belonged ("De Cind Ma Aflat Multimea," "Romanian Folk Dances").
  • Mary Gauthier: Between Daylight and Dark (Lost Highway) Intimate secrets of the down-and-out and hard of loving ("Thanksgiving," "Last of the Hobo Kings").
  • Think Global: Bellydance (World Music Network) Long on Cairo strings and other tokens of a surprising, representative formalism (Hossam Ramzy, "Aziza"; Richard A. Hagopian & Omar Faruk Tekbilek, "Kadife").
  • Seriously Good Music: Gypsy Beats (Petrol) Lite is all you're going to get from this label, but for once it's neither schlocky nor anonymous (Esma Redzepova, "Abre Ramce"; Dunkelbunt featuring Amsterdam Klezmer Band, "La Revedere [Single Edit]").
  • Dionne Warwick: My Favorite Time of the Year (DMI/Rhino) If new Christmas product you must have, these oldies definitely outshine newies from Darlene Love (eh) and Taylor Swift (ugh) ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Joy to the World").

Choice Cuts

  • Aretha Franklin, "Lean on Me," "Ain't But the One," "Rock Steady," "I Need a Strong Man (The To-To Song)," "Suzanne" (Rare & Unreleased Recordings From the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul, Rhino/Atlantic)
  • Aretha Franklin, "Put You Up on Game," "Never Gonna Break My Faith" (Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets With the Queen, Arista)
  • Flugente, "Reflections in Spain on the Subject of My 38th Birthday," "I'm Thinking About Going Home" (Flugente, Mootron)

Dud of the Month

Sunset Rubdown: Random Spirit Lover (Jagjaguwar) Spencer Krug's excesses exploit the tendency of alt-rock cognoscenti to give it up to any smart eccentric with a compulsion to run on at the mouth. A key component of Swan Lake and Frog Eyes, he also fronts Wolf Parade, who I guess constitute his Rolling Stones move. These keyby guys constitute, what, his Pink Floyd move? If only. Fact is, histrionic expressionism in this mode was unknown in the '60s unless you count Robert Plant, who--big difference--had a voice. Krug just yelps and weeps and ululates lyrics he provides so you can know how clueless you are. There are plays on words here, yes there are. In fact, the lyrics are less pregnantly opaque than his poetic admirers believe--clearly he longs to go where the wild things are. They'll eat him up, they love him so. If only. C PLUS

More Duds

  • Eric Bachmann: To the Races (Saddle Creek)
  • Beirut: The Flying Club Cup (Ba Da Bing)
  • Kelly Clarkson: My December (RCA)
  • Kat DeLuna: 9 Lives (Epic)
  • Aretha Franklin: Oh Me Oh My: Aretha Live in Philly, 1972 (Rhino Handmade/Atlantic)
  • Frog Eyes: Tears of the Valedictorian (Absolutely Kosher)
  • Gypsy Groove (Putumayo)
  • Swan Lake: Beast Moans (Jajaguwar)
  • Toilet Boys: Sex Music (Dead City)

MSN Music, Dec. 2007

Nov. 2007 Jan. 2008