Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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2016: Dean's List

Albums

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  1. A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic) 19: As it was envisioned, this through-conceived meld of rhythm and voice, harmony and hook, ideas and feelings, life and death would have dawned upon us 11/9 as a collegial reminder in the spirit of its title: OK ma'am, the wolf has skulked away from the door, now let the people shape their destiny. Track one moans "The heat the heat the heat the heat" to signify climate change not law enforcement before it states its cross-racial political purposes with a forthright "It's time to go left and not right." And fundamentally, that was the idea. Of course the hour that ensues isn't uniformly ideological--this is music, their first in decades and their last ever, and music's impulses and necessities are their heart. But not their brain. With everybody home and Busta Rhymes moved into the guest room, the drama is all in reuniting seeker Q-Tip, whose long apprenticeship as a fusion musician finally yields some beats, and family man Phife Dog, who left this mortal plane in March but rhymes all the way to the final track. The album represents both their bond and the conscious black humanism they felt sure the nation was ready for: struggle yoked with work ethic, "forward movement" with "instinctual soul," "answer for cancer" with "learning is free," and damn right race-blind law enforcement. Hillary is a "woman with the wisdom who is leading the way," "The Donald"--Phife rhyming here, no later than March--all "Bloodclot you doing/Bullshit you spewing/As if the country ain't already ruined." The election didn't turn out like they figured. We know. But the music remains, urging us to love each other as much as we can as we achieve a happiness it's our duty to reaccess if we're to battle as all we can be. Its statement of principle didn't get the victory it foresaw. But it remains a triumph. A+
  2. Rihanna: Anti (Deluxe Edition) (Westbury Road/Roc Nation) 15: The reason I like this record beginning to end has zip to do with whether it documents her sexual mood swings more proudly or soulfully. The presentational Rihanna is so unlike anyone I know that she can say anything she wants about her musical punany as long as she leaves Chris Brown out of it--with this artist, sex is figurative, symbolic, the mark of a pleasure taker turned pleasure provider. So Anti is her best album for a reason so simple it's tautological--despite its supposed rejection of track-and-hook mechanics, it features catchier songs. True, the main time they really make me go woo is when she breaks into gibberish at the end of "Work." But then some German hands her "Love on the Brain," the best new doowop song in decades, which segues perfectly to a power entreaty avec drunk violins, after which the album proper goes out on a piano-enhanced coda that adds a nice sweetness. Only instead of savoring this narrative arc, why don't you just proceed to the three bonus tracks, which top an M.I.A. move with none other than "Sex With Me"? A
  3. American Honey (UME download) 13: I elected to purchase this DL-only soundtrack in tribute to a rambling, music-drenched rollercoaster of a two-and-a-half-hour film that transfixed me and made my stomach flip simultaneously. But if you prefer, Spotify's stream lacks only Bonnie "Prince" Billy, who adds nothing to a musical gestalt that conjures magic from the cross-genre sequencing that gums up so many soundtracks. Here the Southern hip-hop of half the tracks, which gets the semiprofessional young cast moving countless times with Oaklandite E-40's "Choices" the theme song, absorbs the country and mostly female indie-rock stuff. Sam Hunt's smash "Take Your Time" and Steve Earle's ancient "Copperhead Road" are highlights, and just as Mazzy Star are gauzy and the Raveonettes are buzzy, Hunt is comfy rapping and Earle has never allowed consonants to impede his flow. So call flyover drawl the sonic concept. Many of the artists were unknown to me--Quigley? MadeinTYO? Låpsly? Og Maco? Carnage? Raury? Razzy Bailey? Carnage again? But their personal bests share a lazy, hedonistic ease designed to make the most of limited options. One charm of a film that traverses Middle American landscapes bicoastalists never lay eyes on is that the misfit kids it follows around peddle not drugs but magazines, doing only incidental damage as they lie and steal. Another is that they dance goofily whenever they get the chance. Not to Mazzy Star, of course. Although hell, why not? A
  4. M.I.A.: AIM (Interscope) 11: Nothing has made me happier in this horrendous moment than Maya Arulpragasam's loopy, simplistic fifth album. Fuck you if you think it's "lightweight" or "confusing" or "aimless" or "ho-hum"--it's the hard-earned proof of the happiness she's achieved after years of fretting about the asinine shaming of 2010's excellent Maya for the crime of following Kala, which was only the greatest album of the century. As no one notices, her sonorities, scales, and tune banks have never been more Asian--mostly East Asian, especially up top, although I'm partial to the uncredited oud-I-think on "Ali r u ok." That's one more signal of the self-acceptance enjoyed by this refugee on an album she says is about refugees, as is her damn right as someone who migrated/fled from London to Sri Lanka to India back to Sri Lanka back to London to--after absurd bureaucratic hoohah--the USA. Never a convincing intellectual, she makes a point of keeping these lyrics beyond basic--declaring "we" a trope, jumping on the byword "jump," riffing on every stupid bird rhyme she can think of. The recommended non-"deluxe" 12-track version ends with one called "Survivor," which like it or not she is. "Men are good, men are bad/And the war is never over," she notes. "Survivor, survivor/Who said it was easy?/Survivor, survivor/They can never stop we." Takeaway: bad shit being her heritage, she intends to enjoy herself however bad the shit gets, and so should we. A
  5. Lori McKenna: The Bird & the Rifle (CN/Thirty Tigers) 10: McKenna fell off my radar after Warners's excellent, Tim McGraw-produced Unglamorous in 2007, and I promise it won't happen again. She's a 47-year-old mother of five from Stoughton Mass who's currently paying the bills with Little Big Town's 2015 CMA honoree "Girl Crush" and McGraw's 2016 country smash "Humble & Kind"--parental advice that sounds humbler and kinder (and wiser) (even catchier) the way McKenna understates it on her tenth album and second with serious distribution, where it's one of seven straight winners that precede three not-bad-at-alls. Even the winners could use more beat or beef--sonically I prefer the rockish Unglamorous to Dave Cobb's Chris Stapleton-certified good taste here. But production is secondary with this gal. She's a winning singer, forthright and accomplished and idiomatic, implying a slight drawl instead of faking a big one. And her writing is major verging on great. Although she's been married to the same man since she was 19, the unions she evokes so concretely and succinctly are too different to all be her own. Anyway, my very favorite chorus is advice for a single girl: "Deep down you know that you're worth more than this/Or the cost of that dinner last night/He'd be driving you home if he was worth half a shit/And his daddy had raised him up right." Whew. Only then: "But let me remind you there's real love out there down the road." A-
  6. Drive-By Truckers: American Band (ATO) 9: In part because the Hood-to-Cooley ratio is back up and in part because they're less relaxed as the Obama Age ends, this superb song collection is raggedier than the last superb song collection. But in recompense it's more explicit and bereaved. Having resettled in Oregon just in time to detail an Umpqua massacre preceded by a victim's nice morning and idyllic weekend, Hood also spends 6:27 in Ferguson and its branches nationwide. Cooley opens with "Ramon Casiano," which minimal Googling makes clear is an assault on the NRA, and soon follows with "Surrender Under Protest," about the actual outcome of that war the starry-eyed say ended at Appomattox. Then there's the finale that begins "I was listening to the radio when they said that you were gone." Gotta be Merle, right? Uh-uh--Robin Williams. It's about mood swings and depression out of control, a somatic heritage Hood tells us he knows firsthand. A
  7. Robbie Fulks: Upland Stories (Bloodshot) 8: On his second straight "folk" or even, oh Lordy, "Americana" album, you can tell the producer is once again, oh Lordy, Steve Albini, not just because five tracks have drums on them but because those drums signify tougher arrangements in general. The approach remains quiet, thoughtful--"Needed," the pocket autobiography of a horny youth turned corny man that's the best song Fulks ever wrote, travels on a single voice and two guitars. But note that the only time the album hauls out one of those reassuring finger-picking jams is also the only time it turns comic--the no-sex-please-we're-country "Aunt Peg's New Old Man," an old man who wields his long bow to show his nephew-in-law's Scruggs banjo how music's s'posed to sound. Elsewhere the m.o. is subtler. Hear how Brazilian viola textures the unresolved James Agee tribute "Alabama at Night," how "Baby Rocked Her Dolly" deploys six pieces to evoke a lonely widower reminiscing in his "old folks home," how Jenny Scheinman's fiddle underlines the adjective in "America Is a Hard Religion." The nearest thing to a throwaway is "Sweet as Sweet Comes." Bass and organ provide all the weight it needs. A
  8. Youssou N'Dour: Senegaal Rekk (Prince Arts) 6: Alerted to this May EP in August when a friend in Prague sent me a YouTube link, I playlisted it on Spotify briefly before it vanished, learned that it can be purchased from Apple in Europe but not here, declined free downloads from websites poised to pass my passwords to Carter Page, and finally snagged something I could burn when a magician I know Dropboxed me. The label is a mystery, the title sometimes spelled "Senegal" and/or "Rek," and though I've read that an "international" iteration called Africa Rekk is expected late November, who knows what exactly it'll be. So try YouTube and be vigilant. As someone who's adored him for all of this century, what I hear in these songs I don't understand a word of is more specifically Senegalese than his Nonesuch catalogue and more tightly conceived than 2012's live Mballax Dafay Wax--a tensile spirituality sorely missed from American music in a year whose horrific downside is regularly sidestepped or ignored. The arrangements enact a tempered, unrelenting responsiveness in which lives lived under lifelong pressure aspire to a transcendence that's actively treasured. A voice that has begun to weather rises to moments of startling sweetness and lyricism. The Senegal-raised Akon has a strong cameo that's the dullest thing on the record. A
  9. Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book (self-released) 5: An atheist till death takes me home to nowhere, I nonetheless welcome the gospel emphasis here--larger than Kanye's, larger than goddamn Lecrae's--for how it warms Chance's tone of voice and sense of family. The irrepressible cheer of his vocals has always lit up his music. But reaccess Acid Rap and notice how whiny his timbre gets sometimes--charming, always, but immature. Here the death of hisgrandma (who told him he was "kosher" why, exactly?) and the birth of his daughter (joint custody not wedlock; too bad) make a man out of him vocally--that adolescent thing is a memory. And the many church singers who pile on mellow melodicism and cultural affirmation broaden his vocal muscle and instill pitch control. His cheer remains irrepressible, and essential. But it's gained weight, even beauty. A
  10. Parquet Courts: Human Performance (Rough Trade) 5: Figure the all-jam, all-slack Monastic Living for a metal-machine stumble that sets up this crazy-feeling leap forward--not just driven drones, spare tunes, and catchy sprechgesang, but an album where their art dreams for their straight talk come true. "One Man, No City" really does say something about urban alienation, "Captive of the Sun" about megapolitan avantism, "Steady on My Mind" about long love, "Berlin Got Blurry" about missing someone, "Two Dead Cops" about police brutality, "Paraphrased," I mean it, about signification and its disconnects. Uncle Lou would be so proud. Our little garage punks are growing up. A
  11. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial (Matador): The tell on Teens of Style, wherein wundertwentysomething Will Toledo rerecorded 11 of his hundredsomething Bandcamp songs for physical purchase, revises his 2012 "Times to Die" to include the line "Got to believe that Lombardi loves me"--Lombardi being not Vince but Matador prexy Chris, who financed and marketed Teens of Style, unleashing the rock dreams that freed Toledo up to buckle down and make a great album like the major artist he always wanted to be. True, existential depression is Toledo's sole subject, without much in the way of romantic travail to universalize it. But on Teens of Denial, Toledo renders that indie-rock ur-theme, um, relatable--grand, rousing, philosophical, ecological, funny, riffy, confused, out front, and of course tuneful. Where once his leads blurred into generalized multitracking, here you can make out his congested, drolly personable, Jonathan Richman-channeling voice. And while to shape his associative structures would betray unseemly firmness of purpose, he milks incantatory repetition like he minored in soukous, extending seven songs past five minutes and three past 7:48: "Drugs are better with friends are better with drugs are better . . . .," say, or the three 12-second "I give up"s that climax the 11:46 "Ballad of the Costa Concordia." As Lombardi surely knows, these are feints. It's too late to give up now. Kid doesn't even like drugs. A
  12. African Rumba (Putumayo)
  13. Dawn Oberg: Rye (Blossom Theory '12): There are breakup albums and then there's this: forties-ish woman, heavy of voice and keyboard with wit and juices lightly flowing, introduces herself as "The Girl Who Sleeps With Books" and regrets plenty while continuing to enjoy the title elixir, although it brings him to mind and that hurts. In a song that lasts 1:35 she hints at why, twice: "He likes to read Thucydides / But doesn't mock stupidities / He's probably read Euripides as well / But he's really not the type to read and tell." Midpart's more meditative, including straight advice directed straight to a stranger straight from the heart. Then the actual breakup tale--"No one was was vindictive, no one lied / Shagged the nanny or the pool boy on the side"--gets us to a celebration of her true love, which is San Francisco. "The bars are sexier than sex," she claims, and if it makes her feel better she should definitely think that. A
  14. Wussy: Forever Sounds (Shake It): This is the big-guitar record I've been expecting from my favorite band since Strawberry led with the space-rock "Asteroids" and assigned big-drum recruit Joe Klug to thump his tubs all over "Pulverized." When Attica! led with a "Baba O'Riley" tribute and added steel-driving man John Erhardt to the din, I half thought their arena phase had arrived. But this 40-minute barrage is the immersive boom-vroom itself--to use the technical term Chuck Cleaver laid on the release party, it's "noisy." This being Wussy, that means noisy as a means to arranged, collective support for songs that do slowly manifest themselves just like on every other album by this devout album band. But here it's the sound you come back for, and partly as a consequence, the songs don't signify as sharply as usual. Which doesn't stop me from devoutly hoping that Chuck's catchiest-in-show "Hello, I'm a Ghost" is nothing like autobiographical. A-
  15. Beyoncé: Lemonade (Columbia): So we know this would-be soundtrack functions musically as an art-soul concept album, right? Groove, flow, funk, that stuff? Present, sure, but only as part of ye olde aesthetic whole, and not the fundamental part. Nor, for that matter, are songs the fundamental part, because they're all also dramas, performances, LP-á-clef puzzle pieces. In fact, with the artist injecting a thought-through quantum of pained, proud, gritty, airy, furious, nostalgic, or conciliatory "feeling" into each line, the songwriting per se can seem like a stitched-together afterthought. So it's to Beyoncé's credit that only in the pivotal big ballad, which really is called "Sandcastles," plus maybe the loving midtempo de facto finale "All Night," does all this overstatement become too much for a Billie Holiday fan like me. Less to her credit is that said fan spent a solid week reaching this conclusion. He doesn't deny it was worth it. But Beyoncé itself he got quicker and will always prefer. A-
  16. God Don't Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson (Alligator): We hear Johnson less as a singer of songs than as a primal force: gruff roar softened slightly by female backup overwhelming resonant bottleneck to honor a merciful God who had damn well better be strong enough to get us out of a damn hard world. So one advantage of this tribute album is that the vocalists foreground the lyrics. Tom Waits and Lucinda Williams get two songs apiece, and although they will no doubt be accused of oversinging as if this isn't Johnson the exaggerator already, Waits's opening "The Soul of a Man" and Williams's "God Don't Never Change" are milestone performances and the other two rock. Almost as impressive is how confidently and conceptually lesser honorees Sinead O'Connor, Susan Tedeschi, Margo Timmins, and Maria McKee put their songs across. All women, notice--Luther Dickinson fares less well, although not as ruinously as Rickie Lee Jones, whose affected croak wrecks "Dark Was the Night--Cold Was the Ground," which Johnson recorded guitar-only. Crucially, each performs with her or his own band. And then there are the only black performers here, the eternal Blind Boys of Alabama, who amid all the bellowing and emoting deliver "Motherless Children" as if thanking God for getting that hellhound off their trail a long long time ago. A-
  17. Paul Simon: Stranger to Stranger (Concord): Backwards street gospel, flamenco handclaps and heelstomps, and Harry Partch microtones move and color an obsessive craftsman's insomniac lullabies. But the unease of Simon's new songs runs deeper than the existential anxiety these technical strokes alleviate, and not just because they provoke musical anxiety to do so. Early in the opener, a Milwaukeean with "a fairly decent life" is murdered by his "fairly decent wife," and soon the rich are gobbling all the extra fries as the rest of us hoard canned goods; in the one after that, a bemused tale about a stage door clicking shut transmutes into a meditation on the rage of everyone who'll never get a wristband. Five years ago it was like Simon had been soaking up the Dixie Hummingbirds for so long he'd made his covenant with God. On this record the good news is that heaven has finally been found--located a mere "six trillion light years away." A-
  18. Run the Jewels: RTJ3 (self-released)
  19. The Paranoid Style: Rolling Disclosure (Bar/None): On the scene-setting "The Ambassador's Morning Lift," a term Google tells me denotes a punch comprising egg nog, rum, cognac, and creme de cacao, massed guitars--three gang up live--are juiced a dozen seconds later by a busy bass line that quickly buries all hope of indie decorum. So say for purposes of argument that Elizabeth Nelson always needs to get a little blotto, because otherwise she sees more than she can bear. And say too that she needs to rev that blotto up. Her aversion to nonsense isn't merely acerbic--calm and well-spoken though she remains, she can still run you over with her full-on bitterness. This is so self-evidently an intelligent and experienced woman that when she finds 10 concise ways to tell you the world is a setup she convinces you she's been close enough to power to know she's not getting any. "We'll still be fighting the next war tomorrow." "Everything you did exists somewhere, you're on certain lists." "I've been on TV and I've been in the bag." "You know that I'll fuck anything that doesn't fuck me first." All zingers guaranteed tune-equipped, the better to assure you lend them your ears. Now somebody pay her what they ought to be worth. Right. A-
  20. The Coathangers: Nosebleed Weekend (Suicide Squeeze): Although they have the balls to open their breakthrough album with the midtempo songpoem "Perfume," this all-woman Atlanta trio are ready to rule American punk, as they proved when they set a roomful of Bushwick coolsters moshing on April Fool's Eve. Live or on record, hoo-hooing guitarist Julia Kugel and gravel-voiced drummer Stephanie Luke are happy to cheerlead a happy mob through three-chord dithyrambs of fury, frustration, and love hard love: "Hiya," "Dumb Baby," "Make It Right," you bet. Of course there are slower ones--even the Ramones did slower ones. "Perfume" could turn into a singalong quick. A-
  21. Brandy Clark: Big Day in a Small Town (Warner Bros.): As with fellow Class of '13 likely-to-succeeds Ashley Monroe and Kacey Musgraves, Clark's follow-up makes nicer with Nashville than would seem advisable. But where the younger women toned down their themes, Clark bigged up her production, abandoning the folkie decorum of showcase circuit. The opening "Soap Opera" sets the tone: a slightly overstated, unfailingly precise dramatization of Everyperson's appetite for self-dramatization. Soon I was loving the way "Girl Next Door" (she ain't) juxtaposed with "Homecoming Queen" (she was). The way "Broke" rhymed "joke," "folks," "Coke," "croak," "yolks," and "smokes" (although not "toke"). And at the very end, the way "Since You've Gone to Heaven" sentimentalizes her father the better to bemoan the decay of the small town she's never too pious to make fun of. A-
  22. Kevin Gates: Islah (Atlantic): There's so much criminal detail here I believe he has a dope income stream as well as a musical income stream, but unlike the usual trap street soldier, he's not hard. There's so much sexual detail here I believe his dick is long and he can go all night, but unlike the usual R&B smarm merchant, he's not smooth. He's just ready. There's barely a wasted track on a major-label bid that has more hooks than a Temptations best-of and more moods than a four-year-old at Disneyland. Do I like everything he says, much less puts on Instagram? Not close. But his saga is an encouraging, fascinating, educational up. This is a guy who always brings his daughter on tour and thinks affluence is a big day at Bloomingdale's. He's emotional, tender, violent, sensual, fickle, determined, fatalistic, unpredictable, unreliable, hedonistic, and from Louisiana. In a land of 10,000 wannabes, he's an original. And his only cameo is a Trey Songz throwaway on the "deluxe." C'mon, people. Who needs Trey Songz with Kevin Gates ready to cry his heart out, rub your aching feet, and put his finger up your booty? A-
  23. Elza Soares: The Woman at the End of the World (A Mulher Do Fim Do Mundo) (Mais Um Discos): With the 79-year-old "samba icon" who fronts this remarkable album absent from my recall memory and my reference library, I found her Rough Guide hip-hop track and then a trove of older songs on Spotify. Capacious and curvaceous by samba standards, her voice did roughen with age, and that half-sung rap bespeaks a willingness to try anything. But nothing I've heard portends the dips, flights, and abrasions of this exciting album--it's like Tom Zé gone full avant. Conceived and written by alt-samba insurgents into catchy dissonances, classical instruments, and industrial sonics, it's a chance for them to reinvent their roots and for her to feel more alive--even more alive, that is. Carrying the tune when it's worth the weight, growling and gargling at will, scatting here and ratta-tat-tatting there, she's all gusto shouting a faster-faster "Pra fuder! Pra fuder! Pra fuder!" ("To fuck! To fuck! To fuck!") and all scorn calling the abuse hotline and then threatening to tell his mommy too. But that's only when you're reading the booklet I strongly advise, because as with Tom Zé, only his verbal content is even sharper and slyer, the music is where you'll come in and why you'll stick around. Soares's weathered raw power gains dimension from her young sponsors' irrepressible experiments and unapologetic beats. The collaboration makes complete sense. And there's nothing like it. A
  24. Jinx Lennon: Past Pupil Stay Sane (Septic Tiger): Born in 1964 sez Google though he seems younger, rocker-rapper Lennon has been musically active since around 2000, with a Wikipedia stub, a sketchy website, and six plus two albums to show for it. Though live he sometimes favors acoustic guitar, on this hour-long collection he yells, recites, talks, chants, murmurs, and/or sings 23 songs over not just guitar but drum-sounding "beats," bass, electronics, female softening, and quite often trumpet. Lennon's Dundalk hometown is up near the troubled border in his nation's northeast corner, but that's in the past--today's Ireland is embattled enough to keep him busy. Subjects include "Cough Medicine," "70,000 New Jobs," "Don't Let the Phone Calls Annoy You," a "Chinaman in Dundalk Town," and a "Heart Attack in Spain" ("Waiter / Get the defibulator / What do you mean youdon't know where it is sir?"). In "Learn How to Talk to Women," he advises, "Listen to them, be interested." And in "Fireman Meets Samurai Sword" firemen advise, "Let's get out of here alive at the end of each day"--because, like the rapper-rocker sez to the recovering crack addict, "Every Day Above Ground Is a Good Day." A-
  25. Mestre Cupijó e Seu Ritmo: Siriá (Analog Africa '14): Siriá is a couple-dancing hybrid in which the escaped maroons of equatorial Brazil adapted Amazonian rhythms to their own carnivalesque purposes. Punchy rather than flowing, it often generates the polka hop hinted at in chicha, ska, and occasionally cumbia. Now 80, alto sax specialist Cupijó is a second-generation multi-instrumentalist from the river town of Cametá who as a young man traveled further inland to learn and modernize the music of more remote settlements. Long a local fixture, he eventually had some hits with it, all of them collected here. If you know the above-mentioned styles you'll hear their echoes and also something new, playful, and unprecedented in Cupijó's rough, enthusiastic amalgam. What you won't hear is the samba, bossa nova, or tropicalia of the coast. Well, maybe some primal Tom Zé. Zé has never forgotten his inland roots. A-
  26. Gary Lucas' Fleischerei Featuring Sarah Stiles: Music From Max Fleischer Cartoons (Cuneiform): The master guitarist's avant-garde playmates have included Stampfel, Pulnoc, Beefheart, the Beefheart repertory band Fast 'N' Bulbous, and bigger weirdos than that. So for him, this re-creation of pre-Code animator Max Fleischer's leggy sexpot-ingenue Betty Boop is a pop move. Lucas ups the musical ante, of course--while respecting the cinematic idiom, his Gibson acoustic and Sesame Street music director Joe Fiedler's trombone prod an active rhythm section as everyone adds more spritz and oomph than would have made sense in a moviehouse. Lucas also plays both a Queens-accented Popeye and a rough-and-gruff Barnacle Bill in the six-minute "Beware of Barnacle Bill" transcription that closes. But the star of the show is Broadway find Sarah Stiles, who adds weight, sass, and flesh-and-blood nuance to the cartoonish squeals of the great Mae Questel, who brought Betty to musical life nearly a century ago. A-
  27. The Rough Guide to the Blues Songsters (World Music Network '15): Take the notes' terminological drift as a sign. I'd say the greatest "songster" we know of is Lead Belly, who had 500 tunes of every sort on instant recall yet is referred to here as a "legendarybluesman." "Songsters" are distinguished from "bluesmen" mainly because (12-bar except when they're not) "blues" are supposed to be the "art" spawned by the "entertainment" of itinerants like the paradigmatic Henry Thomas, born in Texas in 1874 and famed for "Fishing Blues" although here doing the less lively "Don't Leave Me Here." But however we categorize it, Thomas's track is worth hearing, as is almost everything else, because what sets these 24 selections apart isn't so much stories worth telling as tunes good to hear. From Charley Patton and John Hurt, canonical Mississippi bluesmen even if Patton was too old and Hurt too agreeable to always follow form, to Louie Laskey and Simmie Dooley, who survive as names on the labels of rare 78s, they are all entertainers. There are jug bands here, and two white coal miners from West Virginia, one of them Dick Justice, whose straight cover of Luke Jordan's "Cocaine" tops Jordan's CD-opening "Pick Poor Robin Clean." And best of all is a canonical classic: Rabbit Brown's 12-bar wonder "James Alley Blues." I'd cap this by quoting its final aab. But better you just go hear it. A-
  28. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: This Unruly Mess I've Made (self-released): Since the only bad thing I know about this diligent, talented, sincere Evergreen College alum is his post-"Thrift Shop" stage gear, I consider his critical disrepute a disgrace to my vocation. Although clearly no cash-in or rush job, his second album gathered 17 Metacritic reviews averaging a pitiful 59, the most bewildering a sympathetic Pitchfork piece that could have been a 79 as easily as the 51 some asshole stuck on it. The three by black writers went 76, 75, and 50, which I mention because Macklemore's whiteness has been a cause celebre ever since he apologized for the rap Grammy The Heist snatched from good kidd m.A.A.d city. Yes, he's white, and his suburban drawl and choppy flow sound that way, although not Lewis's pop hooks, grand flourishes, and schooled piano. But just because he candidly embodies the awkwardness and contradictions in which white privilege embroils every Caucasian who isn't a flat-out racist, he makes white people uncomfortable, and they should stop blaming him for it. Beyond two preachy substance-abuse numbers, this is consistently fun, interesting, or both. The Anderson Paak. romp "Dance Off," the Melle Mel/Kool Moe Dee joke-boast "Downtown," the tonsorial joke-boast "Brad Pitt's Cousin," and the corny one for his little girl are unpretentious enough to justify the much-dissed 8:46 finale "White Privilege," which has more content than the twice-and-done Tupac feature you never play on To Pimp a Butterfly. A-
  29. Tanya Tagaq: Retribution (Six Shooter): I don't normally have much use for apocalyptic shamanism, but with the normal denied anyone with a working understanding of the democratic promise, the most "accessible" release by this throat-singing Inuk performance artist is hitting the spot. Weird, disturbing, relentless, it arrays a Nirvana cover and a Shad rap and big drums and synthesizers squawking like gulls and men grunting like bears and more gutturals than a death metal album around the 41-year-old Tagaq breathing, murmuring, gasping, squealing, yelping, shrieking, chanting, incanting, reciting, lecturing, and, oh yeah, singing. It seemed historically suitable even before November 9, and since then I've been playing it loud. Inspirational Terrifying Ecology Lesson: "Once all the ice is melted, the once-covered ice area will heat up 81 times faster. There will be no stopping it. A new steady-state high-heat-tolerant life may, hopefully, rapidly evolve, but human civilization as we know it will no longer exist. Gaia likes it cold." A-
  30. The Rough Guide to Ethiopian Jazz (World Music Network): Addis Ababa jazz godfather Mulatu Astatke has long cited the diminished scales jazz shares with the Derashe people of southern Ethiopian, who he suggests came up with them before not just Charlie Parker but those jazzbos Bach and Debussy. But where Astatke's classic period definitely qualifies as jazz, it's a little misleading to label the most irresistible of Rough Guide's three Ethiopian comps that way, because for for all its horn sections and understated swing, its diminished scales rarely lean on extended improvisation or small-group interaction. Instead, with seven of the nine tracks postdating the fall of the puritanical Marxist-Leninist Derg regime as well as the Selassie-era recordings documented on Buda Musique's Éthiopiques, these selections suggest a confident modernity--arrangements and sonics fuller, melodicism and harmonies defined and developed. Just to double back on this tentative theory, however, I'll note that my favorite track is the finale, a thoughtful Selassie-era piano solo by a nun born in 1923 that I believe would sound just fine in a cocktail lounge. A-
  31. Margaret Glaspy: Emotions and Math (ATO): The title song is about what it says it's about--"Counting the days till you're back," to be precise. But it also announces Glaspy's aesthetic strategy. Nominally she's a singer-songwriter, applying a voice labeled both lilting and gravelly but that I'd just peg as adult to songs that always make room for feelings we needn't assume are always hers. But she's even more striking as a guitarist, running a thick, rockish sound through a harmonic palette that suits both a Berklee dropout who audited master classes after she couldn't afford tuition and a Texan who got hip to passing chords playing backup fiddle with her musical family. Although her music is cleaner and clearer, she sounds like Speedy Ortiz's Sadie Dupuis if she sounds like anybody. But with Glaspy you have a clearer bead on whatever love the song is about--just not whether it's hers. A-
  32. Regina Spektor: Remember Us to Life (Deluxe Edition) (Sire): Let's speculate that marriage, motherhood, and turning 35--a big one that can sandbag you--are all on her melodically fertile mind. Let's assume it's been pretty sobering. Without being a sad sack, she was always serious. But her softer fans may be daunted by the steely class fable "The Trapper and the Furrier" and the fatalistic faux trifle "Sellers of Flowers," by quietly unrelenting five-minute bonus cuts in which an aged solitary celebrates New Year's and old friends compare their polar yet equally confining life paths--maybe even by her fond report that both her baby boy and his dad are better at dreaming than she is. So to help her dream more darkly, she enlists classically inclined producer Leo Abrahams, whose second piano is meant to ensure that "Obsolete" sticks around a while. A-
  33. Sheer Mag: III 7" (Wilsuns RC/Katorga Works): This not-actually-punky Philly rock quintet keeps upping the ante in four-song increments, here divided two political and two love. Tina Halladay's shriek doesn't clarify every consonant, I know. But if they didn't want you to know why she's hanging around so intense they wouldn't put the lyrics on their Bandcamp page. Above all they understand that the two poles actually aren't--"So hold fast to the ones you love/Before they're ripped away," on the political "Night Isn't Bright," signifies more acutely in this ripped-apart time than it did when it surfaced in March. Their punkiest move is to seize the intro to Television's "Venus." Not actually a punk band, remember. Also not a band that ever understood love as well as this one already does. A-
  34. Britney Spears: Glory (Deluxe Edition) (RCA): Not much music that aspires to pornography achieves the purity of its pleasure principle, and not much pornography does either--not if the ideal isphysical sensation undiluted by either the distractions of romance or the power trips of big-dick netsmut. So Glory's fast-tracked eroticism is an unprecedented achievement even for this longtime professional sex toy. If she has "personal" issues, and why shouldn't she, they go unaddressed. But that doesn't mean there are no signs of growth here. Never has she slammed less or cooed more, and never has she seemed so in command of her desires, or so comfortable with them. She always likes her partners and sometimes loves them, but only three of the 17 songs go off message unless you count the voyeuristic one where she catches her doppelganger atop the cad she's driven 250 miles to dump. My favorite sequence tops the single "Clumsy," where they're banging all over the bedroom, with the single "Do You Wanna Come Over?," where she promises not to start kissing and touching without his go-ahead. But since tastes in sex differ radically, you may have your own. A-
  35. Vince Staples: Prima Donna (Def Jam): The Crip whose life was saved by DatPiff mixtapes proves how real his gangsta is by stressing on how bad it makes him feel. Wrecking his clipped, high-pitched flow with obsessive moans that don't stop and don't stop, he feels guilty about abandoning the street and guilty about the lives laid waste there. Two of the EP's six songs end by repeating the dejected refrains "Sometimes I feel like givin' up" and "Is it real is it real" well past their saturation points, while three others hammer away at "Born ready, war ready," "Pimp hand strong," and "We all waste away" like they're "Fuck tha police" or "Easy as one-two-three." The overall effect is admirably grim, with one essential exception: his very old friend Kilo Kish recalling their pre-K years. In this context, McDonald's birthday parties are so cute they're surreal. A-
  36. Macy Gray: Stripped (Chesky): Gray was past 30 before she generated songs and persona suitable to a burred purr so striking she wasn't always so sure she liked it herself, evoking without equalling both Billie Holiday's timbre and Sarah Vaughan's size. The reason she got to take that voice pop is that plenty of us loved it. But some of us also thought she was forcing her portentous writing and wicked ways, and soon the pop market she was too mature for had had enough. Only then a funny thing happened--having given up on glory, she started making better records, none finer than this efficiently recorded jazz quartet showcase. Guitarist Russell Malone and trumpeter Wallace Roney earn their minutes, but mostly they make room for Macy as she eases into a few of her own standards and tops them with the new "First Time." And although she wasn't the only one born to sing "Redemption Song"--sometimes I think we all were--she does it humble and she does it proud. A-
  37. The Julie Ruin: Hit Reset (Hardly Art): After years of illness, 47-year-old Kathleen Hanna still has the same girlish voice she did with Bikini Kill at 21, small and cute. But unlike Astrud Gilberto, say, she's tended to weaponize it. Le Tigre had a sisterly ebullience sometimes, and on her 2013 Julie Ruin comeback she sounded so glad to be alive everything else was secondary. But here she's grrrlish once again, proudly indulging her inner brat as she and her crack electropunk band launch putdown after empowering putdown at a fearsome dad, a pickup creep, a bullshitting promoter, a pushy fan, a pushier friend, a troll, and assorted conversationalists. Since the most painful and effective of these seems to implore a lifemate "Let Me Go," it's a relief when the enigmatic finale wonders quietly what made her think she could fly and then thanks the unspecified person who gave her the courage to try. A-
  38. Homeboy Sandman: Kindness for Weakness (Stones Throw): Strictly on the down-low (is that the phrase?), Angel del Villar has recorded more quality long-players than anyone over the past decade. He's not a great--his sibilantly articulated flow just isn't as beautiful as Jay Z's, Lil Wayne's, or Nicki Minaj's. But when I wanted to demur mildly from his 2013 All That I Hold Dear, all I could do was quote his perturbed "How can an artist make too much art?" The answer is for the artist to fall in with a disrespected genre, as alt-rap seems doomed to remain, kinda like polka. His staccato three- and four-beat lines suit the rhyme-mad verbiage and moral directness you should love him for, and it's nice that he adds a common touch and a sense of humor. Highlights here are the lyrical "Heart Sings," the rousing "Real New York," the unrequited "Sly Fox," the religious "God," and the more religious "Speak Truth." Give him a fucking break, willya? A-
  39. Konono No. 1: Konono No. 1 Meets Batida (Crammed Discs): I always knew Batida's hard-ass beats were why I plucked his eponymous 2012 CD out of the welter of DJ albums--and knew they meant to be hard-ass, because that's how you translate the Angolan kuduro style he went electro with. But it took Crammed Discs schemer Vincent Kenis to alert me to the obvious: just as soukous's rippling polyrhythms once migrated south from Congo, there's a congruence between the modern Lusaka sound and the unforgiving attack of Kinshasa's 21st-century street bands--the much-missed Staff Benda Bilili and the self-renewing Konono No. 1. Now led by Agustin Makuntima Mawangu, whose late father originally rigged up their battery-powered likembes, Konono have always seemed a touch spare and samey at album length, and Batida is just the hard-ass to fill out their sonics without softening them. Here be guitars and handclaps, thick electronics and stuttering glitches, guest singers who can actually sing. Konono's steady improvement over four albums may have cost them primitivist cachet and novelty appeal. But don't be the kind of fool who thinks they're just repeating themselves. A-
  40. Ab-Soul: Do What Thou Wilt (Top Dawg Entertainment)
  41. Saul Williams: Martyr Loser King (Fader): After undermining a decade of honorable leftwing slam-rap with one of the most joyless pop sellouts in the annals of musical poesy (what? you missed Volcanic Sunlight?), Williams grabs some beats from rapper-turned-rocker Justin Warfield and justifies a lifetime of well-intentioned hype. Where political rage has a way of turning musical headache even when it's as informed and focused as Williams's is, here it's a show of power. Income inequality as death dance; Black Lives Matter as African chant; coltan as cotton as the new slavery. The guy's very nearly in a class with Linton Kwesi Johnson, the most politically astute beatwise songpoet ever. Mantras like "down for some ignorance," "fuck you understand me," and "hacker in your hardrive" have teeth. And "Think Like They Book Say" is warmer than anything on the sellout because it's hot not for love or even sex but for logic--the logic, and hence the politics, of the transsexual option. A-
  42. Tegan and Sara: Love You to Death (Warner Bros.): It's kind of a hoot for twin sisters to begin Indigo Girls, wind up Maroon 5, and just get gayer as they do. In the synth-cushioned highlight "Boyfriend," Sara wheedles/implores her bi-or-not gf to make up her mind with a hook that goes "I don't want to be your secret anymore." Other winners include the contrite "That Girl," the erotic "Stop Desire," and the anti-marriage "BWU." But thematically, these women are adaptable. Every track is a three-minute formalist construct that captures a mood rather than a three-minute romanticist statement that expresses an emotion. Some of these moods are more complex than others. But every one is catchy. A-
  43. Deap Vally: Femejism (Nevado): Two-grrrl guitar-and drums, except that it's rock not punk--the guitars thick, the tunes sticky, the tempos merely up, the politics "I'm gonna do what I wanna/Do it 'cause I wanna." Feel don't think, they advise; value your bitterness, value your rage. Only they're also grrrl-smart, and sensible to boot. They know teens turn 25, then 35, eventually 85; they know sometimes that guy you want to go down on may think he can video you while you're at it. The guy of theirs I identify with is "Julian," to whom they extend their sincere regrets: "You've caught me at the wrong time." Check back in six months, pal. She might be worth the wait. A-
  44. Vic Mensa: There's Alot Going On (self-released): The Spotify hit on this seven-track placeholder for Mensa's Roc Nation debut is, what a surprise, its sole sex track: I'll tie you up, you bring Kiki along, etc. But give him credit for ignoring the crack trade--his drug songs are cautionary tales about Adderall addiction and dropping acid in the studio. Credit too for the shape and spark he found rejoining producer and homeboy Papi Beatz. And all respect to "16 Shots," a Black Lives Matter anthem from a Chicagoan still outraged at the murder of Laquan McDonald so many police murders ago. The biracial son of a Ghanaian economics professor, Mensa isn't as smart as he thinks he is--"Everybody tryna be American idols/My X factor is I'm the only one with the voice" is supposed to be clever? But he's made something of his advantages, confessing and accusing in street language that doesn't downplay his literacy, articulating so conversationally you'd think he was just talking to ya. And he's definitely smart enough to know that the most riveting words here are spoken without rhyme or rhythm by McDonald's lawyer, Jeffrey Nuslund--69 seconds impassively, objectively describing every brutal detail of a videotaped attack that took so much less time than that. A-
  45. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down: A Man Alive (Ribbon): I suppose it's simplistic to credit friendly neighborhood producer Merrill Garbus with Thao Nguyen's great leap forward from Nguyen's intelligently cheerful indie-rock. But her fifth or seventh album sure does sound like Tune-Yards. Same disquieting harmonies, same hyperactive percussion, same general roil, with Thao's lighter, more unburdened voice delivering darkened lyrics that dwell on her up-and-gone father and "an endless love" with an unhappy ending. "Carve it on out of me," she implores again and again. But due to the music, this compulsion sounds like a strength--even a triumph. A-
  46. Pat Thomas: Coming Home (Strut)
  47. Aesop Rock: The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers Entertainment): Indubitably brilliant, indubitably self-referential, Aes has exorcised his depressive demons with admirable tenacity since 2001. But for me the charm of his vast vocabulary, Google-ready references, and indecipherable significations wore off before he was 30, so it was mainly his ace collaborations with Kimya Dawson and Homeboy Sandman that inspired me to cue this up. Just two plays in I was loving a bunch of tracks: about his brothers, his shrink, his kitten, the passed-forward tattoos and dreadlocks of young servers at Baskin-Robbins and the local juice place, and his tour of duty with the neighborhood varmint patrol. Since all these songs were uncommonly literal for Aes, I wasn't surprised when the rest proved harder to parse. But this being an artist for whom catchy is about meanings rather than hooks, I was happy enough to try. A-
  48. Blood Orange: Freetown Sound (Domino): Don't let the spoken-word samples that signify Dev Hynes's intellectual ambitions distract you from the smartest stuff here--namely, the choruses that beckon you through them. Then home in on the extraordinary run of women singers who enliven and intensify his songs as past collaborators have not: Empress Of, Carly Rae Jepsen, Zuri Marley, Debbie Harry, Nelly Furtado, Kelsey Lu, BEA1991, Ava Raiin. And dig how casually he varies his falsetto with bass-baritone chant-raps and juices his keyboards with percussion. The ambitions themselves could be clearer--why should "Hands Up" be so much more explicit about police violence than "Squash Squash" is about lives lost to addiction? But credit Hynes with connecting his romantic instability to a personal insecurity that in turn connects to what the larger society makes of his blackness and queerness--and for having the consciousness to insist that his blackness is rooted in Africa, and not just because his father was born there. A-
  49. Kyle: Smyle (Indie-Pop '15): What's a fella need to do to catch a break around here? Fluent rapper, textured crooner, sings easier than most fluent rappers, hooks easier than most textured crooners. Frankly funny. Frankly horny. Of good cheer of good cheer of good cheer--vocal array highlights mildly mocking chuckle. Too middle-class, probably. But this kid was was raised with two sibs by a single mom and somebody should get him on the charts. Inspirational Shoutout: "Shout out to Jesus/I wanna thank Jesus one time/Shout out to my nigga Jesus on the couch knuwhatImsayin/Thanks to motherfuckin Jesus/Uh, shout out to my homey Jesus over there chillin yeah/Shout out to Jesus rollin that blunt/And shout out to [garbled] Jesus." A-
  50. Young Thug: Jeffery (300 Entertainment/Atlantic): The one wan joke I noticed must have been so beside the point it slipped between the cracks, because now I can't find it. But here as never before, Black Portland included, the former Jeffery Lamar Williams makes black comedy out of irrepressible sound, cutting the fool with such delight that I found myself not just engaged but agape. Nude or digital, speaking or chanting, narrating or bragging, exclaiming or explaining, sobbing or gasping or chuckling or cackling, his hoohoos and melismas and blahs and mwas and frogcroaks and put-puts are the message. The nearest he comes to thematic embellishment is when he barks the keywords "work" and "earn" in the Rihanna song "RiRi," which in other respects is no more about the superstar than "Harambe" is about the gorilla. The main ostensible subjects are sex and luxury goods, and admit it--they both beat opioid addiction and killing people. A-
  51. Jinx Lennon: Magic Bullets of Madness to Uplift the Grief Magnets (Septic Tiger): There's a musical consistency to this band record, cut with two Liverpudlians from Clinic just across the Irish Sea, that's missing from its companion release. Sung, talked, or sung-talked, Lennon's enunciated vocals turn his brogue, if that's what it even is, into lingua franca, and electronic though the band is, its music is rock, not techno or electropop. Lennon is the rare ranter in whom rage coexists with empathy and alienation with a well-observed life. Examples include "Piranhas of Xmas," in which layaway gifts turn into nightmares, and an equally sad one in the voice of a "10 O'Clock T Break Bollix": "Making smart remarks about people passing by cos I haven't got self-esteem." A-
  52. The Nots: Cosmetic (Goner): This Memphis "punk" quartet is the rare young rock band that can pull you in on music alone. The secret is in those quotation marks, because what defines their sound is the synthesizer vocalist-guitarist-honcho Natalie Hoffman convinced her visual artist pal Alexandra Eastburn to take up. Where on their debut the result was generic grrrlpunk plus sound effect, here Eastburn bears down on the keyboard's natural sustain to imbue the accomplished enough guitarbassdrums herky-jerk with a continuity that intensifies its momentum. Part of me wishes I could understand word one of what Hoffman is going on about behind such generic titles as "Blank Reflection," "No Novelty," and "Entertain Me." But if she was smart enough to lasso Eastburn and give her her head, maybe she's also smart enough not to make herself clear until she has something new to say about her angst and ours. A-
  53. Carrie Underwood: Storyteller (Arista '15): Really actress, not storyteller, although she does have a writing credit on the most impressive thing here--the cross-regional, cross-gender, class-conscious "Smoke Break," in which neither the mother of four working three jobs nor the farm family's first college man can do without the occasional drag or drink, sincere Christians though they be. And whoever wrote them, there are more good tales here than on her double-disc best-of. She still oversings sometimes, as idols will. But finally she's relaxed enough to let the songs narrate for themselves--be they torch-carrying and fuck-you songs, bad girl and justifiable homicide songs, or tonight's-the-night and happily-ever-after songs. A-
  54. Noura Mint Seymali: Arbina (Glitterbeat)
  55. Leland Sundries: Music for Outcasts (L'Echiquier): No matter where they practice, they're like a garage-band version of the Band--not as deep in the pocket plus there seems to be lint in there, with presiding genius Nick Loss-Eaton never quite squeezing the requisite range or force out of his anxious moan, tune-impaired croon, and cracker-barrel croak. But Loss-Eaton doesn't get to preside just because he writes the songs. He gets to preside because he knows how to deliver them regardless. Here be off-kilter local-color Americana by a Brooklynite who's toured the USA quite a bit, and not just so he can play Slim's in Raleigh or the South Wedge Mission in Rochester. I'm not convinced it was actually Wallace, Idaho where that gal punched a psychic. But I am convinced it's a big country. I do believe the Queens wedding guest who cuts in during the "Clothes Line Saga" rip "Freckle Blues" to complain: "All you ever want to do is go to decrepit towns in the South." And I feel the "Stripper From Bensonhurst" after she takes the subway home: "She sips a beer and watches The Today Show / This is not how New York was supposed to go." A-
  56. The Internet: Ego Death (Columbia '15): It's quite an effect, Syd the Kyd murmuring a love man's "girl" to the object of her sexual desire. It might even be easier for a guy to identify with her, although since women tend both more empathetic and more polymorphous than men, maybe not. But either way there's a healthy temptation to believe Syd's desire is also affection. Her small, confident, capable voice is tough because, as a lesbian competing in a man's world both musically and erotically, she has to be tough. But it's also tender. And although that mainly means she's singer-writer-bandleader enough to make it seem so, please allow me to believe there's more to it. Inspirational Verse: "We don't fight, we just fuck / I'm in like, she's in love / She gave in, I gave up / And we just live in the moment." A-
  57. Heartsrevolution: Ride or Die (Owsla '14): The band is riot grrrl Lo Safai and her muso boyfriend Ben Pollock, who make or made their living renting out her crystal-covered ice cream truck to rich kids' birthday parties. The album is the debut they began promising in 2008, which materialized two years ago to the tune of a few distracted reviews as well as full lyrics on Genius. I downloaded a press copy I forgot until I tripped over it in iTunes, whereupon it went into heavy rotation: beaty synth-guitar-drums, hummable tunes, Safai's girlish-not-grrrlish soprano delivering lyrics about following your heart down the byways of love to the end of the world. Breathy with a sweetness even when she's putting the plosives on "ping pong pussy," Safai sells the record like it's an organic lollipop. "They give us hope then they take it away" is about love and the world at the same time. "KISS" predicts "Sooner or later I'm gonna get you/Sooner or later I'm gonna let you down" so it can "hope we get forever." The birthday-ready "Final Warning" counsels: "Hey little kids you better take a warning/There's this little thing called global warming." Thirtysomethings may find the whole schmear too icky, 2008, or both. I'm charmed straight up. A-
  58. Kanye West: The Life of Pablo (Def Jam/G.O.O.D. Music): In this ever-changing world in which we live in, I can't swear my 18-track DL is the same as yours, and should there materialize a CD with a pretty cover and a credits booklet, I will buy one with my own money. But for all the chatter about this hypefest's mutability, I doubt any "final" will be different enough to merit a second review. I just don't have time to untangle West's "creative process" with so many lesser artists' creative products ready to go, and neither do you. C'mon--his genius isn't about his famous fame or his stalled fashion sideline. His genius is musical--production chops above all, plus the flow fools once mocked. And musically, The Life of Pablo is a backslid Christian's anti-Yeezus. Dark Twisted Fantasy's synesthetic layering subsumed 808s's electropop miniaturism enabled Watch the Throne's coronation boomeranged to the sacriligeous provocation my man Big Ghost summed up as "I KNOW YALL LOVE TURKEY BUT YALL EVER TRIED MONGOOSE?" The Life of Pablo is turkey--West's latest course correction, wittingly casual and easy on the ears. Unlike Yeezus, it won't top many 2016 lists--it's too blatantly imperfect, too flagrantly unfocused. But that's also its charm, and I prefer it. The opening parlay of "I'm tryna keep my faith" and "Same problem my father had" hints at contrition. Hedged hedges distance-or-don't the porn boasts he can't kick. His kids breach the narrative like that uppity Blue. His sweetest hook tops Bajan superstar with Jamaican sister. Kendrick gets his chance to bookend Chance and all but falls down. The pseudo-freestyle meta-wink "I Love Kanye" is a narcissist's "We Don't Care" and almost as funny. The sour-grapes self-examination morphs into a pseudo-outlet track. So right, there's a lot here. But right, it's no masterpiece. Get over it. It'll do you good. A-
  59. The Waco Brothers: Going Down in History (Bloodshot): Ten songs in half an hour with little to distinguish them formally or harmonically but plenty emotionally. Jonny Langford and Deano Schlabowske are so fervently acerbic that it doesn't matter much that the full lyrics of "Lucky Fool" and "Going Down in History" don't deliver on their titles the way "Building Our Own Prison" and "DIYBYOB" do. And the playing packs the kind of conviction you expect of college kids who've just figured out that straight rock and roll can take you out of yourself when you really truly feel the need--and really truly bang away at it. "This is the first track of the last album," Deano begins, sounding like he wants never to stop. But half an hour later, he does. For the time being. A-
  60. Buddy Miller: Cayamo Sessions at Sea (New West): Seems too easy: A-list guitarist who's also a discreetly OK singer duets selected country classics on some music cruise thing. But not one song is diminished or dull, and most of the honored guests put out. Richard Thompson kills Hank Williams's forlorn "Wedding Bells," which is his kind of song, and Elizabeth Cook sells Carl Smith's subclassic "If Teardrops Were Pennies," which is how she was raised. The always gutsy Lee Ann Womack putting her all into "After the Fire Is Gone"? Sure thing. The often dull Shawn Colvin crooning "Wild Horses"? Lucinda, work on your understatement. A-
  61. 75 Dollar Bill: Wood / Metal / Plastic / Pattern / Rhythm / Rock (Thin Wrist): This four-track, 39-minute cassette-gone-to-heaven by young NYC experimental guitarist-multithreat Che Chen and veteran NYC weird-band drummer-percussionist Rick Brown is a strange one, and it means to be, but to someone of my peculiar interests it connected quick. The main axes are Chen's two guitars, tuned so that they generate 24 tones per octave instead of the usual 12, and a wooden box Brown found on the street and bangs for all it's worth. Although Chen denies that his brief intensive with Mauritanian master guitarist Jeiche Ould Chighaly is decisive, the thing definitely sounds somehow African even if the echoes seemed less distinct when I cued up the untethered vocals and suppler grooves of Group Inerane and Group Doueh. This purely instrumental avant-rock is more solemn, deliberate, set on its strangeness. But the way the tempo picks up two minutes into the 12.27 "Beni Said" is friendly enough for me, especially followed by the diddleybeat Brown lays under the de facto raveup "Cummins Falls" and the saxes and side percussion that thicken the 15-minute closer. Quite an up in its severe way--which is an interesting up. A-
  62. Populous: Night Safari (Bad Panda/Folk Wisdom '15)
  63. Tacocat: Lost Time (Hardly Art): There's a clueless bohemian chauvinism about the thematically irregular, melodically irresistible lead single "I Hate the Weekend." I mean, aren't the drunken loudmouths who overrun Emily Nokes's hood--"Got a hall pass from your job / Just to act like a fuckin' slob"--damn near as, well, oppressed as the retail-trade "working stiffs" who bring them their comestibles and consumables? Nor is the X-Files-themed opener exactly cutting-edge. So on what could be the breakout album I'm pretty sure they deserve anyway, the winners are the back-loaded "Talk," with its brooding "stay true to your phone," and "Men Explain Things to Me," which I hope requires no further elucidation. And all the way at the end comes the capper: "Take your time because / It's your time to take / And the values that you want / Are the ones that you create." OK then. A-
  64. DeJ Loaf: Sell Sole (self-released '14): DeJ rhymes with "beige" and is short for Deja; Loaf signals style and is short for her shoes. Although the girlish Detroit rapper's second mixtape was sparked by her fuck-you earworm "Try Me," which used to cap it off but isn't on the one I bought two years late, I found her hammer-to-your-head manifesto for her "unborn creations" so irresistible that I never much missed it. It's the voice only that's girlish, clear and fluting although also calm and composed. The persona is more "I'm gonna shit on all these bitches and their daughters," in that particular case echoed by a crew I bet she enlisted at a middle-school playground. What's irresistible is the form-content disparity--a rapper who brags so un-macho, a rapper whose greed is so explicitly for her family, a rapper who's "Grindin'" at music. Plus her flow is a brook, her producer respects her space, and her two sex rhymes are into it and into it more. A-
  65. Dawn Oberg: Bring (Blossom Theory '15): Oberg sings in an alto that doesn't actually go flat when it modulates way down as is its wont. Delivering nine expertly wrought songs in 27 minutes, she plays acoustic piano over G-B-D with jazz gestalt, zero-plus solos, and a beat more martial than swinging. The song to the God she doesn't believe in kind of rocks even so; the song about the seductive geometry of the martini glass devotes 30 seconds to chamber music. Male love objects are MIA, although she digs her bartender; three outspoken tracks praise female friends, only one of whom deserves to be as famous as she does. Figure Oberg really isn't "so good at loving anybody up close." But you and me are at just the right distance: "Want to help your dead ass fly away when you've had your last breath / Want to rip a new one in the mean angel of death / Want to crush all your despair I want to make you laugh / Want to make St. Peter testify on your behalf." A-
  66. Senegambia Rebel (Voodoo Rebel): So a founder of Voodoo Rebel, an Italian label whose Afro-diasporic romance is summed up by its handle, spent a month in West Africa field-recording what he indicates were mostly rural and I infer were mostly human sounds, many not what is usually called musical. Then he sent the files to a bunch of non-African beatmaker-DJ-whatchamacallems unknown to me, although on handle alone I'm loving DJ Reaganomics, the only American identified as such, and Populous, whose eventful and not what I'd call danceable opener orchestrates crowd talk, sanza or balafon, hand drumming, and bass thrums of undetermined origin into a seductive environmental dub that sets a mood that welcomes all beats, including more conventional ones. Try Capibara's "15," where bass thrums give way to treated chanting. Or Ckrono and Slesh's "Serere," electrobeats to birdy sounds to xyly sounds and yes that is a melodic hook. Fact is, I enjoy every one of the nine, which taken together don't last 40 minutes including Umeme Afrorave's danceable 7:27 closer. Schlock and good taste have a way of creeping into Afro-Euro fusion. That never happens here. A-
  67. Margo Price: Midwest Farmer's Daughter (Third Man): In the manner of Kacey Musgraves, Price's soprano is more a coffeehouse voice than a barroom voice. Her Illinois-to-Nashville drawl is as precise as her word choices even if her "You wouldn't know class if it bit you in the ass" can't match the gusto of Loretta Lynn, whose "Fist City" midwifed its melody. But from "Four Years of Chances," which lays out the slog of a neglectful marriage mainly so she can crow about the attentive one that came next, to "Weekender," in which her old man is too broke to bail her out of jail, her clarity has a gusto of its own. Meet and greet yet another country sister who's smarter than the bros. A-
  68. T.I.: Us or Else: Letter to the System (Grand Hustle/Roc Nation)
  69. Plus Sized Dan: Plus Sized Dan With Marshall Ruffin (Plus Sized Dan '15): "My people are poor people/Poor people got problems/Problems with no solution/Problems with no solution," bearded white Atlanta Berklee grad and Sunday-morning guitarist Ruffin soul-croons dejectedly. And lest we doubt their problems are really as bad as all that, he proves it by evoking four dead-end relationships with details so homely, unsensational, and depressing--"customer service on the phone" meets "a pet store smell, an old dog dish," like that--I wish I could just keep quoting them until you're convinced. Ruffin's chief enabler is Atlanta ex-Coolie and pizza baron Clay Harper, last encountered showcasing an Arabic-singing massage therapist. I hereby nominate him for any Americana award you got. A-
  70. Vieux Kanté: The Young Man's Harp (Sterns): By the time he died unexpectedly in 2005, this blind 31-year-old from rural Mali had gained more physical facility and technical smarts on his modified 12-string kamele ngoni, a hunter's harp, than Bassekou Kouyate on his enlarged djele ngoni, a griot's lute. His music was less crowd-pleasing and propulsive, and he didn't have a wife to sing lead or young male relatives he could hand showpieces. But he did get to cut this one never-released album, and with the gritty baritone of Kabadjan Diakite augmenting his clear, nasal tenor on three of seven tracks, it's quite the showcase. Definitely dig the spare opening instrumental "Sans Commentaire." And if you're afraid his virtuosity is over your head, pay attention to the minute that begins around 1:25 of the climactic "Kono," where Diakite's vocal is decorative throughout. A-
  71. Anderson .Paak: Malibu (OBE/Steel Wool/ArtClub/Empire): Between his Afro-Korean roots and his Kendrick-topping Compton cameos, it's tempting to read too much into this long-breaking, genre-busting, musically adept rapper-singer-drummer. Right, he's made an album about enjoying success without overdoing the cars and chains. But the most cultural song here is the staying-alive crowd-pleaser "Celebrate," where the operative metaphor is "fixin' up the tree"--the endangered family tree he husbands belatedly throughout. Culturally, however, the trouble he puts up with from the woman he loves is a bigger deal. Assume she's one woman and assume he loves her as much as ever--the biographical .Paak is married with a son no longer a toddler. Assume too that he was cruising for all the trouble she could give him. A-
  72. Arca: Entranas (self-released): Translates Entrails. Streamable at Soundcloud, downloadable at Mediafire. Divides 25 minutes into 14 untimed titles I estimate as breaking 0:00, 0:48, 2:40, 3:58; 4:29, 5:06, 5:28, 6:15-6:48, 10:38, 13:10, 13:50, 15:24, ???, 20:49, 24:10, and damn right I could be wrong, although not about 5:28. Since Alejandro Ghersi once took a class from me, discretion suggested that I respectfully note the existence of this unballyhooed abstract work from a sonic universe I seldom sample and leave it at that. But as has happened before with Arca, who's too big a deal to need my belated attention, I enjoyed its sounds too much not to say so--the lowing of "Torero," the booming of "Cement Garden Interlude," the preindustrial clatter of "Pargo." I also enjoyed Micachu's reflections on gender identity in 5:28's "Baby Doll." To simulate closure, however, it relies on the kind of choirboy soprano that's signified transcendence, spirituality, and other such rot since there were castrati who were known as such, and as ever I'm unconvinced. A-
  73. Pussy Riot: xxx (Nice Life): Three radically different songs by the band/concept's de facto spokeswoman, former and probably future Russian political prisoner Nadya Tolokno. "Make America Great Again" opts for positive messaging in re Vladimir Putin's Greatest Shithead: "Let other people in/Listen to your women/Stop killing black children" over a Yank pal's catchy strum. Producer Dave Sitek goes full earworm on the pro-sex feminism of "Straight Outta Vagina," whose "Don't play stupid don't play dumb/Vagina's where you're really from" has been tagged for cis-sexism by a Pitchfork reviewer who failed to address the related grievances of the Caesarian section community. And then there's the avant-hypnotic Russian-language "Organs," which translates, for example: "Female orgasm faces obstacles/My strap-ons are being replaced with uniforms and icons." All three come with YouTube videos, two gruesome and at least one not altogether implausible if you grant that female political prisoners are in for accelerating levels of sexual abuse. Maybe not brandings, OK. But you know normal's over when I start recommending YouTube videos. A-
  74. Injury Reserve: Floss (Las Fuegas)
  75. White Lung: Paradise (Domino): Feminist punk Mish Barber-Way is not innarested in the horrible old proprieties of her appointed identity markers. Enlarging her enunciated yowl and Kenneth William's articulated speed riffs with goth echo and brushing them with synthesizer, she reaches out to the hardcore unwashed with two accounts of doomed female serial killers and a fantasy about giving birth in a trailer you can bet lacks AC. Is she representing an underclass or identifying with it? It's hard to imagine she makes the distinction. A-
  76. Peter Stampfel and the Brooklyn & Lower Manhattan Fiddle/Mandolin Swarm: Holiday for Strings (Don Giovanni): Not to be confused with the former Holy Modal Rounder's 2014 album--same label, same cover artist, but by the Brooklyn & Lower Manhattan Banjo Squadron and in my reluctant judgment most of the way to an aimless mess. This one, itself accounted "pretty messy" by its irrepressible auteur, has new songs, with the timely "New Johnny Got His Gun" written 40 years ago. After 78 years in the general vicinity of earth, Stampfel's intense cartoon keen is finally getting raggedy around the edges. But having waited all this time to record "I Can't Stop Loving You," he brings it on home, and where the Squadron's new banjo tunes wandered, the Swarm's woozy rendition of the 1962 lodestar "Tel-Star" is on point--and no less pretty or pointed than the freshly minted "Lily," named after the daughter who's not in his band. Not until she picks up a fiddle, mandolin, or banjo, anyway. How about kazoo? A-
  77. Joey Purp: iiiDrops (self-released): From Chicago and topped on this overdue mixtape only by the inevitable cameo from the unbeatable Chance the Rapper, Purp achieves the tricky street-versus-conscious balancing act bobbled by J. Cole and Vince Staples alike. Raw sequence indicates what we'd figure--that this is an ex-dealer if that. Basically he just rhymes as a striver from a place where avenues of advancement are few, dropping a mean verse about a nine-to-five he had once along the way. He craves brands and chases pussy; he worries about his daughter and his grandma and his brother dying in prison; he disses hood fatalism and black-on-black crime; he keeps growing without making a big deal of it. So why shouldn't my favorite jam-as-jam here have "her on the camera going down in the photobooth"? He almost makes it seem like fun. A-
  78. Alicia Keys: Here (RCA): One reason this is her best album since she was a kid is that it extends her nice upbringing into a sphere that's simultaneously raw and political. But a bigger reason is that Swizz Beats defines the funk her adventures in gospel grit demand, evoking Memphis thump while remaining so hip-hop that the samples stay in Nas-Wu-Tribe territory. Lyrically, it sometimes stumbles--cosmetics mess with a girl's identity, we get it. But the beats lend bite and gravity to homilies about mother earth and mother love that bear all the repeating they can stand. A-
  79. Lost in Mali (Riverboat '15): This showcase of 13 previously uncollected Malian artists risks recording them fresh rather than compiling unknown gems. Yet the duds are rare, and in my count include an opener whose sweetness you may well take to. Although several tracks from Ali Farka Toure's desert hometown of Niafunke make the cut, Tuaregs and Saharan guitar are missed--the winner I imagined was a camel-drivers' shout turned out to be a hunters' call-and-response from the Wassoulou woods in Mali's deep south. Just goes to show that Mali is a big place. There's even a reggae with some jam--from cosmopolitan Bamako, naturally. Reggae signifies because, like the Jamaica of the 70s, this impoverished nation has learned to exploit its musical riches as export and tourist attraction. The puritan murderers who invaded Bamako's Radisson November 20 thought that was disgusting. A-
  80. David Bromberg: The Blues, the Whole Blues, and Nothing but the Blues (Red House): In the year the Rolling Stones capitalized their franchise on the cheap by mining the blues of their youth, who'd have guessed they'd get smoked by this equally ancient folk muso? Yet it's no contest. Where the one remake Mick and the boys shine up a little is Little Johnny Taylor's near-soul 1971 "Everybody Knows About My Good Thing," Bromberg leads a livelier band through a set that kills the same the-postman-told-me shtick. Prone as a young hippie to the fallacy that blues was a music of old men on porches, now he digs into these lyrics as the sexually insecure cuckold he can evoke as Sonny Boy Williamson and Bobby Bland could not, adding a nerdy comedy routine to Bessie Smith's "You've Been a Good Ole Wagon" and showcasing the belated debut of the pathetic "How Come My Bulldog Don't Bark When You Come 'Round," which he learned long ago from a lead sheet whose composer was too embarrassed to put his name on it. In real life, meanwhile, Bromberg has long been married to musician Nancy Josephson. They own a violin store in Wilmington, Delaware, where she's made a name for herself creating vodou-influenced beaded objects in a nearby studio. Ain't love grand? And let's hear it for art, too. A-
  81. Tom Zé: Cancoes Eroticas Para Ninar (Irara)
  82. The Rough Guide to South African Jazz (World Music Network): Indigenous African jazz any American jazz fan would enjoy once and never miss when it was over--but check its sample jive classics and revivals (Lemmy Special, "See You Later"; African Jazz Pioneers, "Nonto Sangoma") *
  83. The Hamilton Mixtape (Atlantic)
  84. Fanfare Ciocarlia: 20 (Asphalt Tango)
  85. Pusha T: My Name Is My Name (Def Jam '13): The enduring artistic value of Pusha's clipped flow is how masterfully it evokes what Caucasians call a prick. There's no romance in his dope tales, no pleasure either. Where long ago Kelefa Sanneh observed that Jay-Z never told us how the champagne tasted, King All-I-Can-Be never drives the cars he treats better than his hoes. This is what ruthless acquisitiveness sounds like. To reduce it to music is a true achievement. But ask yourself whether it's what you want. Don't lie now. A-
  86. Tinariwen: Live in Paris (Anti- '15): Less than a year ago at the Bouffes du Nord, an elegantly refurbished old venue barely two miles from the bohemian Bataclan, the world's most renowned Malian musicians put on a show for a mixed audience of Christians, Muslims, and rank unbelievers. All were there to immerse in what an ISIS mission statement brands the "perversion" of live music, in this case by Tuaregs whose woman-friendly variant of Islam was embodied by special guest Lalla Badi, the 75-year-old queen of tindé, a drum played exclusively by women who are also entrusted with a trove of ceremonial lyics. Although some Tuaregs have banded with the Saharan Islamists of northern Mali in pursuit of Tuareg statehood and their next meal, many more love music, and as we know better now than we could have then, on this particular night these particular Tuareg musicians were a freedom force without borders. Having always found Tinariwen's groundbreaking popularization of Saharan guitar a touch solemn, I'm glad the live remakes are rougher--so spirited alongside Badi's raw, regal cameos. All these human beings had a shared life to celebrate that night. Now, so do we--the devout and the impious alike. A-
  87. The Del McCoury Band: Del and Woody (McCoury Music): Musically, Woody Guthrie can wear out his welcome right quick, but it would be perverse to deny the inherent musicality of his lyrics. By my count, this is the seventh consecutive album in which friendly meddlers such as Wilco, Billy Bragg, the Klezmatics, and Rob Wasserman turn a few of his unnotated songpoems into something worth hearing again and again. Bluegrass lefty McCoury is an easy fit as he applies his lively trad to the New York subway system, budget car repair, a good-paying federal road project, a kind woman, a cute baby, and being poor. Only when Guthrie's sexism surfaces does the mood curdle. Born in 1939, McCoury is old enough to know that jokes about wimmin's hats were old hat by 1950 and probably weren't funny to begin with. A-
  88. Brandi Carlile: The Firewatcher's Daughter (ATO '15): In case you didn't know this gay Patsy-Jewel hybrid was corny, she begins by pretending "Wherever is your heart I call home" has some kick because she gives it her all and you can hum it on the Exercycle, and soon, jonesing for a hook, she's mocking a rocking "Mainstream Kid" like Peter Gabriel getting his rocks off vaunting "Sledgehammer." But having submitted these Americana bona fides, she demonstrates that the right corn can provide needed roughage--an "If you're good at telling lies, you could be my alibi," say, or a "Last night I had the exact same dream as you/I killed a bird to save your life and you gave me your shoes." In this her strong voice proves essential as you begin to notice how rarely it's overbearing. She's emotive--has to be. But she's more detailed than your usual belter, because she knows strong voices aren't just for knocking folks over. And was she ever born to cover the Avett Brothers: "Make sure my wife knows that I loved her/Make sure my daughter knows the same/And always remember there is nothing worth sharing/Like the love that let us share our name." A-
  89. Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered. (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope): I can't stand Bilal's endless Barry White impression, "untitled 07" proves the young artiste is right to question his own self-regard, and to beware of the crappy jazz lesser rappers will soon foist on a gullible marketplace. Right, even these negatives have positives--with Bilal sated "untitled 01" sets an aptly apocalyptic tone, Lamar doesn't wander out of control until the last third of that overblown eight-minute track, and Thundercat's exceptional bass finds drums to match all over the record. Moreover, the darkness of tone suits the connoisseurship and marginality this side project's format and release strategy insist on. So right, said project is worthwhile, occasionally exciting. But in addition to untitled and unmastered, it's unfinished, and a bit of a cheat. A-

Jan. 27, 2017


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