Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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2017: Dean's List


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  1. Randy Newman: Dark Matter (Nonesuch) 25: It begins with an eight-minute playlet enacting a Godsplaining rally in the Research Triangle. It follows with five minutes of "Brothers" JFK and RFK launching the Bay of Pigs to save Celia Cruz. Then comes the four-minute "Putin" Newman put on YouTube last October. All informed and funny and painful and complex, all intricately and wittily orchestrated. But well past a dozen engaging passes I still can't guarantee how replayable they'll eventually prove, which I wouldn't say of five of the remaining six tracks, in particular two heart songs: the multivocal, jam-packed, basic-sounding 3:55-minute tour de force "Lost Without You," in which a frightened old man eavesdrops on a conversation between his kids and his dying wife, and the made-for-TV "She Chose Me," which my wife and I certified as a great pop song by feeling it personally and individually even though it's autobiographical for neither of us. Too bad "It's a Jungle Out There," the expanded theme song of Tony Shalhoub's OCD TV sleuth Monk, seems merely sarcastic. But the only way there'll be a better album in 2017 is if some genius comes up with one that unifies the Democratic Party in song from the left, only not . . . never mind, this is a record review. A
  2. American Epic: The Best of Blues (Lo-Max/Third Man/Columbia/Legacy): Anyone interested owns somewhat fainter and scratchier versions of tracks on this definitive country blues compilation. But conceptually and song for song, these 17 clear, rich, cannily sequenced Duke Erikson remasters--Delta guys mostly, with hokum bands and two Texans mixed in for extra flavor--leaves them in the dust. Bernard MacMahon defies convention by beginning with an anachronistic culmination--Robert Johnson's mythic "Cross Road Blues" was cut in 1937, well after country blues's 78-rpm flowering. He blends in the warhorses-in-waiting "'Tain't Nobody's Business," "Walk Right In," and "Sitting on Top of the World." He welcomes Mattie Delaney's polished, still obscure "Tallahatchie River Blues" and Geeshie Wiley's eerie, now canonical "Last Kind Word Blues" into an assertively male canon. And he justifies the ongoing mystification of Blind Willie Johnson's hummed, moaned, postverbal "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" by closing with it, as if to prove that, in the end, the message of this music is beyond words. But it isn't. "Every day seem like murder here." "Ain't no heaven, there ain't no burnin' hell / Where I'm goin' when I die can't nobody tell." "Come on mama on the road again." A
  3. Mount Eerie: A Crow Looked at Me (P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.) 15: It's essential and not all that difficult to distinguish the persona who sings the song from the person who created both the song and the persona. And then there's this, which begins with a very biographical version of gently depressive Puget Sounder Phil Elverum shakily observing: "Death is real / Someone's there and then they're not / and it's not for singing about / It's not for making into art." The someone is Elverum's wife of 13 years, ghosted away from her sickroom by cancer exactly a week before the song was recorded. It's so spare and bleak that it took me a lot longer than a week to notice that Elverum had laid a forthrightly bassy thrum underneath his finger-brushed acoustic guitar, arting death up after all. But what choice did he have if he hoped to expiate the grief that consumed him? And given that, what can it mean when he ends the same song: "I don't want to learn anything from this. I love you." Such autobiographical conundrums are one of this album's achievements whether Elverum is in control of them or not. But they're obliterated by the immediacy and detail of his loss, of his living yet inexorably transmuting love for his dead wife, of their living baby daughter, of the modest domestic arrangements he can hardly bear to recall. Brutal to listen to for all its quiet. Like nothing I've ever heard. A
  4. The New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions (Collected Works/Concord) 12: Carl Newman's ad hoc outfit could be the greatest band in the world if he didn't write so obsessively about purveying their tune-porn, but he'll settle for the status he's got. Claiming Krautrock and shrugging off the departed Dan Bejar, he generates 11 soaring new pop songs, which in some abstrusely Krautrock way are sparer than the 13 on Brill Bruisers. And from those songs let me corral a few snatches of meaning. "I only play for the money honey." "You can imagine all the factions/That form around high ticket attractions." "A scalper's price built into the design." "Colosseums of the mind / An ancient con, the shadows of a song." "This is the world of the theater / Come up with some highbrow move / Think of all the lives we're saving / Think of all the ways we'll cave in." "With the ignorance of a poet." "Second-rate Socrates" (second, eh?). "Cottage industry." "I wasn't hoping for a win / I was hoping for freedom / You couldn't beat 'em / Forget the mission just get out alive." "Didn't choose what we mean / Just went along with what's played / There were rules once before / There should be rules again." But until that by no means impending day . . . A
  5. American Epic: The Soundtrack (Lo-Max/Third Man/Columbia/Legacy): There will be more of these--many more. In fact, there's already a five-CD set I may spend months with and may not, and on June 9 comes a 32-track Music From the American Epic Sessions double featuring such worthies as Nas, Beck, Raphael Saadiq, Christine Pizzuti, and co-producer Jack White that I hope I want to hear a third time. Artist and genre overviews also impend. And then there's the conflict that I've known Lo-Max Records' Bernard MacMahon, whose obsession clearly drove this project, ever since he started calling me from England circa 1990. But we've talked so little over the past decade that I was astonished to get this CD in the mail, and he had zero input into my theory that American Epic is a Sony plot to poach/rescue the American folk music franchise from the Smithsonian and the great Harry Smith. Still, isn't it obvious? All copyrights are public domain, and nowadays physical compilations are for the collector types who are Legacy's specialty. So these 15 tracks from MacMahon's three-part PBS documentary, overseen by his partner Alison McGourty, constitute a starter disc. Four repeat songs from Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and six more select other material by Smith artists, all arduously remastered to augment depth and grain. But add Smith omission Sister Rosetta Tharpe as well as Lydia Mendoza, the Aloha Serenaders, and Big Chief Henry's Indian String Band, and note that two of the Smith artists are Cajun, and suddenly Smith's democratic gestalt has turned a third non-English, over a quarter female, and rather more rocking. The liveliest track besides Tharpe's "Up Above My Head" is the Aloha Serenaders' "Tomi Tomi," where the chorus races to keep up with Sol K. Bright's fleet steel guitar and tongue-twisting vocal, and right behind him comes Big Chief Henry, who never walks when he can run either. If this be political correctness, bring it on. A
  6. Princess Nokia: 1992 Deluxe (Rough Trade) 9: Her album title her birth year, this Afrocentric "Jewish Puerto Rican" is already an established alt-rap fashionista who tours profitably under her own advisement. Putting her music across on a girlish flow free of tough-bitch macho-once-removed, she keeps her beats amateurish and minimal even when they flirt with trap grandeur. Not that she isn't tough--there's viral video of her dousing a racist drunk with hot soup on the L train. Claiming bruja and goth, tomboy and ho, foster kid and class clown, Harlem and Tompkins Square, she's the most complete New Yorker to hit hip-hop since Heems if not Nas. A
  7. Brad Paisley: Love and War (Arista) 8: If you believe the only country superstar ever to record a pro-Obama song owes us an anti-Trump song, you're not getting it--not exactly. What you are getting is the antiwar title track, a John Fogerty collab that unites Iraq and Vietnam--and also, by extension, Syria and whatever else they got. And toward the back where the Christian gesture is usually tucked away you're also getting an anti-hate song that decries the evil done in God's name in both "the darkest prison" and "the largest church," because after all, "God is love." That'll do, doncha think? This is easily Paisley's strongest album since American Saturday Night--not a bum track, loaded with good jokes (including, after several failed attempts, one about the internet), hymns to marriage haters will hate because they don't have what conjugal love takes, and, word of honor, a fun Mick Jagger cameo. It begins with something called "Heaven South," which one kind of hater will dismiss as escapist piffle but I say is Paisley's way of telling another kind of hater to quit feeling sorry for themselves and be grateful for what they got. It ends by reprising the same song. A
  8. Hamell on Trial: Tackle Box (New West) 7: From track one, which follows a snatch of you-know-who's "I'd like to punch him in the face" by promising Hamell's gang of misfits "You're safe here," to track 16, where the 62-year-old gets teary about a marriage eight years gone, this is an album I've been waiting for. Counting the lust song that quotes a mouthy Australian's anti-American analysis at length, only four tracks are explicitly "political," including a misfire aimed at bulletproof blankets. But "The More You Know," about raising a teenage son in the age of you-know-who, and the homely, specific, devastating "Not Aretha's Respect (Cops)," about "I'm trying to teach him to Not Get Shot," are the best protest songs yet by an antifolk ranter who's never soft-pedaled his militantly nonviolent anarchism. And I should also mention the four kiddie ditties about the life cycle of a cartoon frog--as you'll learn from the laff-riot live Big Mouth Strikes Again CD you can own if you buy the vinyl and stream if you don't, this mouthy touring machine has a G-rated set he'll serve up on request at folk festivals and other family affairs. Either way he'll say it loud, flail his 1937 Gibson, and rock as hard as The Clash. Randy Newman too subtle for ya? This ain't. A
  9. Waxahatchee: Out in the Storm (Merge) 7: Here be the tunefully bish-bash nonstop document of a breakup recollected in tranquility--only she's not tranquil, she's pissed and makes something of it, so instead stay at a distance, because finally she's kicked the asshole out of her band as well as her bed. Psychologically, the tell is: "You were so condescending / You wrote me in, gave me a part / See, I always gravitate toward / Those who are unimpressed." Not anymore--with no romantic entanglements to sing of, she's more than content with family, friends, and an all-female band so impressed they love her to pieces. And since she's chosen this moment of emotional clarity to deploy not only verbal clarity but the syntax it deserves, I'm all in. Any guy who'd condescend to this forthright young woman has got serious problems. Too many guys do. A
  10. Dawn Oberg: Nothing Rhymes With Orange (Blossom Theory) 6: It's not good that the most satisfying anti-Trump "long player" yet to surface comprises three compact download-only songs by a Berklee-trained Nashville-to-Frisco lounge DIY-er. But the not good part is the paucity of alternatives--Oberg is a serious talent who gets some nasty licks in. The title track marches smartly from "A walking slab of brain damage beneath a bad toupee" to "He can't grab my snatch but he can bite my bloody rag" without deigning to utter the name of the "orange-tweeting twat" who rhymes with "dump/And stump and chump and bump and lump and hump and slump and rump." That dirty business done, Oberg declines to address him again. Instead she delivers a rhymed disquisition on "double-blind and peer-reviewed" empirical method that's over faster than Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame" while repeating "We all enjoy results of scientific inquiry" three times just in case some dumbass missed the point. And then she bids us and history adieu: "I can see the sunset burning at the end of the world from the end of the continent/The final frame of this ill-fated experiment." "I'd Rather Be Wrong," that one is called. It doubts she is. A
  11. Sunny Sweeney: Trophy (Thirty Tigers) 6: Last time bad girl was her play, and she was funny, feisty, and sexy about it. This time it's more bad girl's progress, bad girl gets older, in there. She begins by getting smashed at a bar and daring the guy she goes home with to come up with a better bad idea. But soon she's off those pills, and then it transpires that the "Bottle by My Bed" she craves comes with milk and a rubber nipple. Proceed to "Grow Old With Me"--next line: "I'll keep you young forever"--and a title tune in which a proud trophy wife skewers his ex with the perfect putdown: "I'm his trophy for putting up with you." Why am I not surprised that these last three, the finest songs on an album filled with good ones, are Lori McKenna cowrites? "Grow Old With Me" to "Trophy" bears the mark of someone who's looked at marriage from many sides now. And "Bottle by My Bed" is an infertility song--a rare thing, as I happen to know--brought to fruition by a mother of five. A-
  12. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound (Southeastern/Thirty Tigers) 5: The Americana pigeonhole sets up rootsy expectations Isbell has too keen a mind for. And though he obviously isn't the only Nashville guy ever to placate his demons with Jack and coke or the only folkie ever beset by night thoughts, neither "country" or "singer-songwriter" suits him either--he's too intellectual for one, too downhome for the other. So 15 years after the Drive-Bys brought in a tenor who could write, 10 years after he quit them while his first wife stayed on, five years after he got sober, and two years after there was a baby on the way, here are some of the words his tenor lets fly. Over the tolling guitars of "White Man's World": "There's no such thing as someone else's war / Your creature comforts aren't the only things worth fighting for." Over the female counterpoint of "If We Were Vampires": "Maybe we'll get 40 years together / But one day I'll be gone, one day you'll be gone." Over the "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" boom of "Anxiety": "Anxiety / How do you always get the best of me? / I'm out here living in a fantasy / I can't enjoy a goddamn thing." A
  13. The Rough Guide to the Music of West Africa (World Music Network): Musicologically, this is a potpourri dressed up as a hodgepodge--hook-deprived modern Saharans, specialty artists with their own Riverboat albums, Afropop sure shots from the barely West African Nigeria and Cameroun of decades ago, a 2006 novelty hit by schoolgirl sisters from Sally Nyolo's village, palm wine preservationist Koo Nimo showing off his unobtrusive guitar on a little something called "You Will Be Overtaken by Events." At first it seems nice but marginal--Victor Uwaifo's "Ekassa 28" sticks out like the instant classic it was in 1973. But as sequenced by Rough Guide major domo Phil Stanton, it keeps evolving, seldom high-energy but always in infectious motion as one likable tune segues into another. The other instant hit is the novelty, the Bidjoď Sisters' impossibly light and amateurish "Chantal." But as you keep listening, you notice how the aged Koo Nimo's homemade aura sets it up. Everywhere flavors blend. A
  14. Chuck Berry: Chuck (Dualtone): In the first 89 years of his life, Chuck Berry recorded two full-length albums worthy of the name, neither currently available for under a C-note although one is set for reissue: 1964's St. Louis to Liverpool, three comeback classics plus seven keepers that include the atypically companionable "You Two" and the atypically familial "Little Marie" as well as two atypically engaging instrumentals. The other is the 1979 groove album Rockit, sharpened by two back-end songs skewering the racist society he'd striven so audaciously to integrate and enlighten. That was his last record for 38 years, when he generated this de facto farewell, which stands as both a summation he put his all into and a little something he might have followed up if he hadn't up and died at 90. Mischievous and horny and locked in, he plays undiminished guitar as a few subtle guest shots add texture. His timbre has deepened--on the recitative "Dutchman," he's a relaxed near-bass. But he's hale vocally and acute verbally on eight well-crafted new ones and two savvy covers that indicate he's learned a few things--the warm songs to the long-suffering wife he married in 1948 and the progeny who chime in like they've earned it have the kind of detail he always reserved for his fictions, musical and otherwise. I've never stopped loving Chuck Berry as an artist, but it's been a while since I thought the old reprobate was anything but a fucked up human being. This miracle gives me second thoughts. A-
  15. Jens Lekman: Life Will See You Now (Secretly Canadian): Beginning with a Mormon missionary mourning Lady Di and a guy showing his friend a plastic model of his tumor over lunch, Lekman is no longer mooning toward the bland anonymity of his 2012 breakup album. But as with so many great songwriters, his chief concern continues to be love. Usually but not always this means romantic love, although "How I Tell Him" cuts that distinction close and those first two songs make you wonder exactly how secular this humanistic Swede might be--the Mormon is envied, the cancer survivor learns his friend was praying for him. From back when he came on like a nicer relation of Stuart Murdoch, Lekman's romanticism and indeed sexuality have always had a lot of agape in it, hinting at social consciousness only insofar as agape is social consciousness's engine and embodiment. I believe that's because he's Swedish. Be grateful there's still a nation where a fellow can preach an ostensibly apolitical humanism with a clear conscience. A
  16. American Epic: The Collection (Lo-Max/Third Man/Columbia/Legacy): The Anthology of American Folk Music isn't just a hard act to follow, it's an impossible act to follow, because its 84 songs do literally constitute a canon. But the 100 selections on these five discs make for quite the sequel. Replicating only 11 Harry Smith picks, including several--"James Alley Blues," "Peg and Awl," "Down on Penny's Farm"--that I never ever mind hearing again, they also nab essentials Smith let slide: "Old Dan Tucker," "Sallie Gooden," "Blues in a Bottle," "Sittin' on Top of the World," "Walk Right In," "'Taint Nobody's Business if I Do." Robert Johnson and Jimmie Rodgers are here, Geeshie Wiley's "Last Kind Word Blues" and Emmett Miller's "Lovesick Blues" and Washington Phillips's "Denomination Blues." Irresistibles that were news to me include the Dixieland Jug Blowers' "Banjoreno," Whistler's Jug Band's "Foldin' Bed," Burnett and Rutherford's "Ladies on the Steamboat," the Massey Family's "Brown Skin Gal (Down the Lane)," Lydia Mendoza's "Mal Hombre," Lane Hardin's "Hard Times," and Truett and George's "Ghost Dance." Though disc three falls short however righteous the multilingualism that is one reason why, the other four overreach with attitude. The audio improves markedly on Anthology's. The liner notes are solid where Smith's were fanciful. Lyrics are included. So what are you waiting for? A
  17. Rolling Blackouts C.F.: Talk Tight (Sub Pop): Released mid-2017 U.S. but early-2016 Australia, this sounds more New Zealand--Chills-Clean-Bats, bright young white guys whose trebly guitars purl and mesh, although Go-Betweens recitative enters as well. If you like the effect--and why not, it's beautiful--you'll gravitate to it on sound alone. But what I'm loving at least as much is lyrics that suit the bright white male culture the sound implies. Seven tracks lasting half an hour include four courtship songs that dig so deep and sweet into that adventure that the titles alone evoke their smarts and heart: "Tender Is the Neck," "Heard You're Moving," "Write Back." The fourth title, "Wide Eyes," is less evocative, so here's the whole couplet: "Been drivin' cross the country [a big deal in Australia] / Just to see those wide eyes." Then there's "Career," which is not a love song and may even be a tragedy--or a dark comedy. A
  18. The Rough Guide to Jug Band Blues (World Music Network): Beats me why nobody's done this before, but it's great top to bottom. The sole Memphis Jug Band entry among these 25 finds, Will Shade's take on the ineffable work of genius "Stealin'," isn't even best in show. That would be Tampa Red's Hokum Jug Band's take on the equally ineffable work of genius "It's Tight Like That," which in the course of topping the leader's canonical Georgia Tom collab on the same song encodes into history the elan vital of a woman who laughs a verse in tune. Tampa Red also musters up daredevil jug and kazoo solos, but they're a baseline--the chances taken on both primitive instruments are hilarious and heroic throughout. It's as if all these forgotten African-Americans seizing their moment in the studio are inventing not rock and roll but punk, where for a few months a simple formal idea combined with an irrepressible social possibility to light up one 45 after another. Difference is, the formal idea isn't about energy, much less anger--it's about what a precious thing pleasure is when its lucky moment arises. And it lasted the better part of a decade. A
  19. Khalid: American Teen (RCA): Deft line by deft line, each self-evident, each unprecedented, the first half of this R&B album justifies its title with a clarity and candor so astonishing it overshadows the music's racial identity: "I'm 18 and I still live with my parents," "Young dumb broke high school kids," "Let's do all the stupid shit that young kids do," "There's so much trouble to get into," "I don't want to fall in love off of subtweets," "I'll keep your number saved," "I let the words come together/Then maybe I'll feel better," and most tellingly of all, "We don't always say what we mean." Second half is skillful but conventional--seven succinct, catchy unrequited love songs all in a row. Khalid Robinson sings in a winning conversational murmur with room for growth, and because the vocals are as unassuming as the words, the song structures he concocts with various pals and pros seems more straightforward than they are. Figure this is a nice young man with a big future, and hope with all your heart that the latter doesn't swallow up the former before we know it. A
  20. Starlito & Don Trip: Step Brothers Three (Grind Hard): Starlito, the lower-voiced half of the DIY duo who've broken through to make my favorite hip-hop album of the year, isn't the first to observe that "ballers wanna be rappers, rappers wanna be ballers." The difference is that these guys make both ways of life sound like the hard grind their label name isn't the first to claim. "My future's in that paper bag," exclaims Don Trip as he negotiates a cash exchange; "I ain't been home in the last 30 days / I've been on the road gettin' paid," moans Starlito to introduce the high-anxiety "If My Girl Find Out." Later come the carefully plotted legal murder of "Good Cop Bad Cop" and the modern-day whips and chains that enslave rappers and ballers alike on "The 13th Amendment Song." I also like the way they rhyme, say, fortune-Porsche-mortgage-abortion-divorce ya-Nordstrom-extorted-quarters-important-portion-Ford Explorer-torture-hoarder-lawyer-Jordan-Porter (with law enforcement, touring, and President Orange crammed in there too). I also like the way their kids better use their car seats. "I used to prey on my enemies now I pray for serenity"? I'll buy it. In fact, I just did. A-
  21. Marcel Khalife/Mahmoud Darwish: Andalusia of Love (Nagam '16): I can't swear how often I'll pull it out now that I've finally concluded that, mere exotica though it may be, this suite of settings for love poems by the late Palestinian poet Darwish is eminently worth reviewing. Playing it only when I felt the need for something quiet that would still qualify as work, I've never failed to find its placidity intelligent and beautiful. The auteur is Lebanese oud maestro Marcel Khalife, the ensemble his son Rami on piano, his son Bachar on percussion, and Jilbert Yamine on the harplike qanun. Conceptually, this quiet, emotional, sometimes lively, always intense, nonetheless calming music is said to fuse two things: first, the same longing for physical love--not mere sex, eros--you get in Omar Souleyman's macho dance workouts, and second, an intellectual nostalgia for the pre-Columbian Andalusian accord, where Jews, Christians, and of course Muslims lived together in harmony in the south of Spain, supposedly. In short, an honorable and even inspirational prayer for peace. A-
  22. Mariem Hassan: La Voz Indómita (Nubenegra): "(Del Sáhara Occidental)," a subtitle explains, but the Western Sahara wasn't big enough to contain Mariem Hassan. Dead of bone cancer in 2015 in a Sahrawi refugee camp, she was postcolonial Africa's most striking female singer. Before, during, and after a European career of over a decade, her powersaw voice was intense at any volume, with none of the sensual comfort of the equally stirring Oumou Sangare, whose forested Wassoulou was so much more forgiving than Hassan's desert. Yet because this onetime nurse had the spiritual wherewithal to resettle in Barcelona, she got to make music with fellow Sahrawis and many others. Her sixth and final album is a DVD soundtrack, recorded solely in her last five years but digging back stylistically. Guests range from the Sahara ululators who haunt "Najter Alaila Anadal Lihuela" to New York avant-bassist Shanir Blumenkranz contrapuntalizing the desert blues "Latlal," from Yemeni-Israeli Ravid Kahalani to Sierra Leonean-Nigerian Seydu. I haven't figured out who's in the jazz combo that backs "Illah Engulek Di Elkalma," but I love the way her easy mesh with the idiom segues abruptly into one where the sub-Saharan Seydu softens her dry wail only to be overtaken in turn by a searing Sahrawi haul. The "Al Widaa" finale was recorded five months before she passed on in her haim, a word than means both family and tent. If 82-year-old Leonard Cohen made his death album, then 58-year-old Mariem Hassan made hers--and it's less sere. A-
  23. Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman: Triple Fat Lice (Stones Throw): On their third free EP in three years, Ace and Sand's permanent floating alliance for gravity defiance finds itself somewhere between "I hate you all" and "hungry for affection." While leading efforts to get the giant panda off the red list, they make sure you "find your keys before you cannot find your keys" and hustle up that kidney transplant you're waiting on. Yet they're always in the mood to play--to say anything they feel like as long as it feels good. How about rhyming "MMA," "lemonade," "emanate," and "Hemingway"? Can you get with "Don Mattingly mustache" and "naked lady mudflaps"? Would you go as far as "candelabra" and "blah-blah-blah-blah-blah blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah"? A-
  24. L'Orange & Jeremiah Jae: The Night Took Us in Like Family (Mello Music '15): Reminding us that gangsters are an old story in the entertainment business, impressionistic beatmaster samples multiple subnoir flicks with occasional Bogart for a touch of class. The verbal content is murmured by an L.A.-based Flying Lotus subaltern constantly off kilter and on point: "Kept the spirit like K-Fed/Now I'm aiming with the crossbow off with his head/Running jewels with the Pro-Keds/We wanna run from the man for the street cred." So yes, there's a message, laugh lines too. Homeboy Sandman gets a 16. But the pull is musical, particularly the way L'Orange's rhythms shift texturally as well as temporally--every minute, new effects daub and stipple the groove. Although lighter in tone and bottom, it had me going back to Ghost Dog. Hip-hop soundtracking doesn't get more evocative than that. A-
  25. Les Amazones d'Afrique: République Amazone (RealWorld): Conceived by the great singers Oumou Sangaré, Mariam Doumbia, and Mamani Keita, then joined by the dynamite organizer Angelique Kidjo after Sangaré withdrew, this loose feminist alliance out of Francophone West Africa feels more like a movement than any other stab at musical do-gooding you can name. I don't understand the lyrics, including the scattered English ones said to be in here somewhere. But the thorough notes articulate the ideology they share, which calls out sexist violence while asking men to back them up where it could just tell them to go fuck themselves. The particulars of the vocal attack differ, as voices will. But empowered by a rock-informed groove overseen by French-Irish Mbongwana Star producer Liam Farrell, the music is unbowed and declarative as it subordinates squarely rousing Euro-America to polyrhthmically engaged Africa--an Africa represented by Panzi Hospital in southern Congo, where 200 of the 350 beds go to rape survivors. A-
  26. The Magnetic Fields: 50 Song Memoir (Nonesuch): You know the drill. Five 10-song CDs that'd fit onto two, and thereby cost less than 40 bucks, with each year of Merritt's life allotted one song and each decade one CD as neatly as 69 Love Songs's three 23-song discs add up to that magic number. But this edition of the Magnetic Fields is barely a band--with occasional aid from Thomas Bartlett, Daniel Handler, and scattered others, Merritt plays over 100 instruments all told and assigns every lead vocal to his own depressive bass. Aptly autobiographical though 'tis, this is a negative, especially on disc two, which also honors John Foxx of Ultravox, who Merritt loved as a teenager and admires today--musically, there are numerous dead spots. Over the medium haul, however, every song is a grower, not merely because Merritt is quite a lyricist but because he's documenting an exceptional life that includes a childhood in a panoply of hippie communes and a young adulthood in a hodgepodge of bohemian penury. And some songs you'll connect with right away. Among my candidates: three-year-old loving a cat who hates him, five-year-old internalizing a Grace Slick rant, 13-year-old upgrading a duo called 1 1/2 into a trio who make the Shaggs sound like Yes, college man failing ethics, college grad loving Ethan Frome, twentysomething enjoying a live-in four-way, thirtysomething XXX-ing his ex, and fortysomething reaccessing a permanently impermanent NYC. But especially, 50-year-old kissing off the most horrendous of his stepfathers and 50-year-old emoting what kinda sounds like a love song. A-
  27. Kendrick Lamar: Damn. (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope): Thematically, these thoughts of a pushing-30 superstar are almost conventional compared to the rest of his official output--good kid, m.A.A.d city's top-this narrative, To Pimp a Butterfly's political ambition and jazz-hip sweep, even untitled, unmastered's barrel-scraping scatter. Old head Greg Tate is reminded of De La Soul Is Dead--it's the kind of album you make after you've experienced fame's drawbacks from the inside. But this one's much harder to resist. Lamar's pensive self-doubt and modest buying habits are reassuring if you wish him well as a person, as why shouldn't you, and the simple keys-percussion-chorus beats flatter his cushiony timbre. Musically, Damn. is as calm as To Pimp a Butterfly is ebullient; lyrically, its only misstep is a pseudo-scriptural "don't call me black no more" that inspired Tate to quote Franz Fanon. Remaining skeptics should proceed directly to what vinyl fetishists know as side two, with its hit single, its "Lust"-to-"Love," its remembrance of ass-whuppings past, and its autobiographical miracle. He got what he wanted without squandering what he had. A-
  28. Trio da Kali & Kronos Quartet: Ladilikan (World Circuit): Brought together by Malian music promoter turned ethnomusicologist Lucy Duran, the Trio da Kali is a fabricated supergroup designed to preserve a format that dates to the 13th century. The Kronos Quartet is a standard violin-violin-viola-cello unit that has specialized in cross-genre collaboration since the '70s. So this is neither authenticité or a new fad. But as a skeptic regarding such well-meaning endeavors, I guarantee that it's gorgeous, by which I do not mean merely pretty. For me its deepest attraction is timbral--the way the full quartet's evolved harmonies and pizzicato comping flex against Lassana Diabaté's deep-tinkling balafon and flesh out the funky thrum of Mamadou Kouyaté's bass ngoni. But all this texture needs the melodic anchor provided by lithe power contralto Hawa Diabate, daughter of the renowned Kassé Diabate in a culture where music is a vocation passed generation to generation. The mood isn't ceremonial, but it doesn't party either. Grave and secular down to its two Mahalia Jackson covers, it honors, celebrates, and enjoys music as a calling. A-
  29. Emperor X: Oversleepers International (Tiny Engines): Pushing 40 now, Berlin-based Jacksonville native Chad Matheny makes his living as a musician on tours that I assume include residencies--among his many Bandcamp wares is a commissioned work entitled 10,000-Year Earworm to Discourage Habitation Near Nuclear Waste Depositories. But although all his music comes with clean, computer-crafted abstract art, he comes naturally to a frugal, tech-savvy ecology-firster's skepticism of physical product. No surprise then that this is his first actual CD since Bar/None's 2011 Western Teleport--one so obscure or perversely coded it didn't show up on Gracenote when I imported it into my iTunes. Yet it would seem that he does regard physicals as special, because nowhere else does the music feature songs end-to-end instead of sucking you in with a handful and then dematerializing into strummed or noodled jams with vocal accoutrements. True, this one achieves a third of its 50-minute length by means of a quarter-hour of subliminal electropulse at the end of a closer called "5-Hour Energy, Poland, 2017" as well as bridging its halves with what is essentially a four-minute vamp. Nevertheless, the 10 songs are songs. All evoke a hard-scrabbling world traveler often caught in but never daunted by border hassles, medical bureaucracy, and crap technology. Bergson and Schopenhauer also come up. Yet amid riots and dodgy bank accounts, Matheny sounds about as chipper as a working musician on a deteriorating planet can. In fact, the whole thing is quite an up if you give it half a chance. A-
  30. Lee Ranaldo: Electric Trim (Mute): In the Sonic Youth days, Ranaldo's solo forays were even further out than Kim's or Thurston's, but that was then. Now he's that lost band's only committed bandleader. Sometimes dubbed the Dust, it's a good one, assured and realistic and dissonant: Alan Licht guitar, Tim Luntzel bass, Steve Shelley drums. Insofar as it doesn't energize the base, that's probably because its emotional center is equanimity, an emotional state less sexy than the similar calm--it's too cerebral, too achieved. Impressed myself, I attribute it to some combination of limited vocal compass and getting the divorce out of the way when he was young--his first Dust album bears the credit "Lyric consultant, muse, etc.: Leah Singer," his wife-collaborator since 1991. The selling point of album three is that Jonathan Lethem cowrote five of the nine lyrics, including those that turn on "But it's always the same thing--you had a view of your own / Everyday feelings--like seeds that get sown," "Are you scared of a woman's love? (No-no-no I'm not) / Are you scared of a man's love? (No-no-no I'm not)," and "You've got everything, that diamond ring / Some fine time left to die / So listen closely to your own sweet talk of nuthin'." But they're no better than Ranaldo's solely-writtens, the most striking "Let's Start Again," which has a happy ending--even a happy middle. A-
  31. Joey Bada$$: All Amerikkkan Bada$$ (Pro Era/Cinematic Music): Interrupting a catalogue that's essentially an ongoing autobiography to preach to the disenfranchised in the year of the coup, it makes sense for Flatbush's finest to reverse the normal hip-hop sequencing strategy of starting raw and sneaking in anything soft or conscious at the end. The first half here starts almost sweet, cushioning such messages as "In the land of the free it's full of freeloaders / Leave us dead in the street to be their organ donors" but also "Tryna stay alive and just stay peaceful" with crooning, chorales, r&b grooves. Still, I get happier myself when six street-flavored tracks toughen the second half up and cameos change it up: guttural Meechy Darko, Chronixx representing for Ethiopia, Schoolboy Q leaving his penis out of this. And real-versus-fake brags are beyond tired, a rhymer this literate has a right to go after the "ad lib rapping" of Soundcloud freestylers, especially while scoring points like "I need dead presidents to represent me / Cause I never knew a live one that represent me" and "Nowadays they hangin' us by a different tree / Branches of the government / I can name all three." Inspirational Verse: "Fuck Donald Trump." A-
  32. The Bob's Burgers Music Album (20th Century Fox/Sub Pop/Bento Box): For two hours or so, cartoon characters led unofficially by a mother played by a man sing or act out 107 tracks that clatter by so fast barely a pop-rock tunelet will stick with you. On my initial foray I had to stop midway through the first disc even though I was enjoying myself--it was that hectic, that fundamentally unmusical. Nor am I a special fan of the show, although I find it cool enough. But before long I discovered that when choosing music to do chores to, say, I couldn't resist expending more time on an album I'd slotted as unreviewable and deduced that it wasn't unreviewable after all. Now past five plays on both discs, I'm still chuckling at jokes I know and catching new ones, and in some vaguely avant-garde way no longer finding the thing unmusical. Instead all this song-plus-dialogue stop-and-go functions as an aural simulacrum of a two-parents-three-kids family that recalls neither my childhood in that precise situation nor my own parenting history. It's cartoonish, hence zanier. Yet this "sincerely silly character-driven music," as the notes put it, transfigures the chaos that inflects so many of our daily doings. Recommended starter tracks: "I've Got a Yum Yum," "Kill the Turkey," "The Nice-Capades," "Buckle It Up," "Equestranauts Theme," "Mononucleosis." Less thematic: the Quiet Storm parody "Whisper in Your Eyes" and the pickup artist bringdown "The Prince of Persuasia." A-
  33. JJ Doom: Key to the Kuffs (Lex '12): After 2009's Born Like This I lost track of this London-born, Long Island-raised Trinidadian-Zimbabwean MC, whose sibilantly mush-mouthed flow has long rippled and pooled comically and imperturbably over signifying beats and spoken-word samples often his own. It didn't help that the former Daniel Dumile changed his handle from MF Doom, or that where MF stood for various things, the obvious never explicitly one of them, JJ merely honors his new beatmaking partner Jneiro Jarel. Nor did it help that he was compelled by the INS to resettle in London, apparently because he never became a U.S. citizen. So on his 2012 album this hyperaware jokester plays the Brit. One track goes on about "Cockney rhymin' slang," and then there's "Guv'nor," hardly the only song where the political mindfulness that's always been there becomes a focus rather than a substratum. Here be GMOs and dead Indians and food and water as a "secure investment" and an earthquake in Iceland and a discourse on melanin. Here also be the priceless couplet: "Not to interrupt / But anybody else notice time speeding up?" A-
  34. Homeboy Sandman: Veins (Stones Throw): Given how it signs off by wrapping "God" and "Speak Truth" around "Nonbelievers"' and its "light brown privilege" verse, 2016's 16-track, 40-minute Kindness for Weakness feels so much like a signature classic that this 10-track, 25-minute follow-up seems trifling despite its identical minutes-per-song ratio. But on both albums, Sand remains the most consistent song-crafter in whatever we're supposed to call the game he's playing. Accept his rat-a-tat delivery and his looplike beats and recognize how rarely he lets four lines pass without proving that "Every single morning I handle boredom by being born again." Never one "to waste time tryna be cute," he rocks his "Fila and Le Tigre on the Tigris and Euphrates," reads Moby Dick between sets, and delivers delight. If his flow and beats were a smidge more iconic, he'd epitomize the kind of major minor artistry Le Tigre--hell, Spoon or somebody--parlayed into legend. A-
  35. Amber Coffman: City of No Reply (Columbia): According to the official timeline, Coffman and Dirty Projectors major domo David Longstreth split as a couple in 2012, reconnected somehow in 2014, and recorded her solo debut together in 2016. Only then, album nearly done, their friendship/relationship ended and Longstreth kicked her out of the band, apparently for the first time. Having found said band's disquieting harmonies and shifting arrangements arch and self-involved even when I liked them anyway, I say no big deal. Coffman does not. But it's Coffman who gets the better of this meeting of the minds, fight to the death, or whatever it was. Compared to the labored rhetoric of "Two Doves" and "Stillness Is the Move," the pomo lieder Longstreth ceded her in the Dirty Projectors, the one-dimensionality of "All to Myself"'s "I want to be swallowed up in an ocean of love" or "Miss You"'s "Gonna take you on a night ride" are formal coups in reverse. Longstreth takes a co-write on every song and acidulates the arrangements to excellent effect, but these moves are pop compromises by the standards of the guy who beat Coffman to the release date with a band album anchored by the immemorial avant-brag "What I want from art is truth/What you want is fame." By my standards, they're what aesthetes like him are for--the way his dissonances set off the weathered-porcelain grain of Coffman's lovely voice verges on the exquisite. Thus he's essential to the album's truth, which is that hipster love can be as ardent as anybody else's. A-
  36. Beth Ditto: Fake Sugar (Virgin): The unsinging hero of this solo debut is a song doctor I'd never heard of named Jennifer Dicelvio, whose big credit is too big--the bombastic Andra Day Grammy nominee "Rise Up." Always drawn to Ditto's punky fat-lesbian image, I never thought her band was much or her songwriting either. So I make it a good thing that at 36 she's gone both solo and pop, and with Dicelvio's help delivered what pop albums are supposed to deliver, only with guitars rather than keyboards--well-defined tunes with relatable lyrics that get where they're going without distracting shows of the pipes I'm grateful she doesn't have. People think her voice is huge, but that's really her energy, or maybe just how bold she is about her body. Here her most salient vocal quality is a clarity that never thins out her commitment or understates her joy and pain. The pain, I read, reflects a bad patch in her marriage. May she outlast it to enjoy the perfect confluence of "We Could Run" and "Love in Real Life." A-
  37. Pere Ubu: 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo (Cherryred): As the nuclear Doomsday Clock moves closer to midnight than it's been since 1953, David Thomas and a sizable contingent of old allies hunker down in a launch pad turned fallout shelter and bash out the most songful and physically powerful Pere Ubu album of our fraught century. Of course untoward noises abound along with the urgent tempos. But after the searing two-minute "Red Eye Blues," it ends with three more ruminative tracks, each a love song one way or another. First papa invites her out for a walk. Then a guest vocalist designated Roshi turns out to be female. And then begins the finale, crooned high and grainy: "Hold me close / I feel the time running out / I know you must feel it too." A-
  38. The National: Sleep Well Beast (4AD): Matt Berninger's depressive tendencies have always been shticky--probably sincere enough, whatever that means or matters, but a stance for sale regardless. Yet as he murmurs through the quietest and most lyrical of the band's albums, I often find myself touched, moved, even sorry for him. From the stairwell tryst at the outset to the matched pledges of devotion and destruction that bring proceedings to a close, the amassed detail of the settings and feelings doesn't so much eliminate shtick as transcend it. One thing, though. Not to be a prig or a scold, but insofar as the details are autobiographical, maybe somebody should quit drinking. A-
  39. Algiers: The Underside of Power (Matador): Initially I thought they had the right idea and the wrong execution--in-your-face politics stretched past their stress threshold by a fusion of soul-rock histrionics and noise-metal aggression. But with fascists in my face too, I gave it another try, and gradually came to understand that electronics mean more to Algiers's guitar-bass-drums than Lee Tesche's ax--they're more Death Grips than Living Colour. "Cleveland"'s gunshots-as-whipcracks, "Plague Years"'s funereal techno, and "Bury Me Standing"'s Gregorian synths are less galvanizing than Death Grips' abrasives. But overwrought though he may be, Franklin James Fisher is more approachable than Stefan Burnett, and not just because he declines to weaponize his dick. Gospel warmth textures his every yowl as he calls out the powermongers, honors the martyrs, grieves for the dying world, and tries to stay on good terms with his mom. A-
  40. Celebrate Ornette (Song X): "The Deluxe 5 Disc Gatefold" version at comprises three CDs, two DVDs, a poster, an informative 26-page booklet, and a 10-page program from Ornette Coleman's memorial service. It will set you back $100. The $275 version adds 180-gram vinyl and a program signed by Denardo Coleman. Either way that's real moolah for most of us. The memorial performances--by Pharoah Sanders, Henry Threadgill-Jason Moran, Geri Allen-Ravi Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and Jack DeJohnette-Savion Glover, among others--were presumably more compelling in their contextualized moment than on their CD, although I couldn't get through enough of the DVD to make sure. And I admit that my rave for the two-CD farewell concert, performed free at Prospect Park a year before Ornette died in 2015, reflects my memory of being transported by it in person. Nevertheless, I say it's an amazement. Ornette himself, frail and failing mentally--he would never play in public again--performs as free as it gets for 20 minutes at the outset, hesitantly at first but with heartbreaking lyricism nonetheless as Antoine Roney gently steers him into the beloved "Ramblin'." Throughout the jazz is stunning--Henry Threadgill at his omnivorous, unflappable, legible best, Ravi Coltrane channeling his dad right, Geri Allen flexing her muscles, Blood Ulmer returning to his harmolodic roots. With kudos to Flea and the Master Musicians of Joujouka, the non-jazz is less so, but nonetheless enriches Coleman's pervasive commitment to felt innovation. And throughout the glue and guiding genius is his son Denardo, miraculously evolved into one of the greatest drummers in jazz history. And even if you're not convinced by the CDs, don't skip the Prospect Park DVD, a different version of the same event that's one of the few music films I've ever been moved to share with people I don't live with. Overpriced? Maybe. But a document I treasure. So if you can afford it . . . A-
  41. Body Count: Bloodlust (Century Media): There've been other Body Count albums in the quarter century since "Cop Killer" put a police bull's-eye on the pre-Law and Order Ice-T's back. But it took Donald Trump to revive Tracy Marrow's active interest in the metal band he assembled with his Crenshaw High buddy Ernie C. back when he was a hot rapper. In this year of the rock protest song, there hasn't yet been a lyric as bitter, complex, and powerful as "No Lives Matter." From the lead "Civil War," set in the present and let's hope it remains a fiction, to "Black Hoodie," less hard-hitting but wider-ranging than Vic Mensa's "16 Shots," you feel both a mind at work and an entertainer putting himself across. In the title track, Ice includes himself in the humanity whose propensity for murder he's been going on about. In "Here I Go Again" he concocts a horrorcore fantasy so gruesome he figures most people won't want to hear it twice and bets some sickos will put on repeat. A-
  42. Swet Shop Boys: Cashmere (Customs '16): Rat-a-tat-tatting his rhymes grime style, Riz MC--better known as Oxford-educated, Anglo-Pakistani big deal actor Rizwan Ahmed--might better captivate American ears with his bookish smarts and common touch if his gritty high baritone was more resonant and his flow more fluent. Instead equal partner Heems is the de facto lead. But a timely partnership it is. The focused Indian-born Pakistani Ahmed is the foil the disoriented Pakistan-born Hindu Suri has needed since Das Racist split--so unlike stoner-for-life Kool A.D., yet providing not just an aptly skewed racial focus but the ideological ballast Heems needs as he delivers such serious jokes as "Oh no, we're in trouble / TSA always wanna burst my bubble/Always get a random check when I rock the stubble" and "My shoes off at the mandir/My shoes off at the airport, airport, airport, airport / My shoes off at the masjid/My shoes off at the airport, airport, airport, airport." A mandir is a Hindu temple. A masjir is a Muslim mosque. Airports you know about. A-
  43. Robt Sarazin Blake: Recitative (SameRoom): In a vibrato-shaded baritone that recalls a French chansonnier more than an Americana guitar guy, the first singer-songwriter in history to linger on the word "gerrymander" enlists a limber band colored decisively by horn man Thomas Deakin to array sixteen talky songs lasting a mere hour and a half over two CDs. Chants that riff on the titles "Work," "Couples," and "Single Women" ("Haven't been laid in years," "Are always late," "Get to work on time," "Got lucky last night") are as instantly indelible as the Springsteen, Weill, Reed, and Van Morrison lifts woven in, and the disc-openers do equal justice to "The Other Side of Fck It" and "Rock & Roll Dream." But after you've had your fill of the easy stuff, focus on the sequence that begins with the three apparently unrelated verses entitled "Sgt. Manning" and sandwiches "Own House, Own Guns" and "19 Shots" around the essential relief of "On the Corner of Saturday Night." A-
  44. Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas: The World of Captain Beefheart (KFR): Although avant-guitarist Lucas accompanied and eventually managed Don Van Vliet during his mercurial 1978-1982 second coming, to reimagine him with post-soul artiste Hendryx he leans on Beefheart's blues-besotted youth. Ten of these dozen selections are from 1972 or before, and the two from 1967's Safe as Milk you may not believe are Beefheart at all--the Delta-as-desert "Sure 'Nuff Yes I Do" and "I'm Glad," a doowop torch song the captain wasn't tender enough to nail himself. Gentle ain't exactly Hendryx's default mode either, but she knows how to fake it, then switches smoothly into the jagged "Smithsonian Institute Blues." On the whole, the album cants sensuous, Latinizing Beefheart's jagged groove--before climaxing with the nutso "Tropical Hot Dog Night," which remains as much fun as two flamingos in a fruit fight. A-
  45. Gogol Bordello: Seekers and Finders (Cooking Vinyl): "That love crusade it never started / Only friends fought and lovers parted," Eugene Hutz snarls or sobs amid the sardonic war-cry opener "Did It All." Since before 9/11, this insatiable seeker has been accessing his "higher self" via a rock he translated into grand, Slavic, violin-sawing immigrant punk. But at 45 he never forgets what he found out early--that all transcendence is temporary because only mortal humans can transcend. He gets weary and admits it; he's messed up big time and admits that too; the songs come slower now. But he still feels the "immigrant stamina" of his chosen "familia the undividable." And he still won't truck with nostalgia. "Remember times when the colors were brighter / And streets were filled with easy rhyme / It is still that way / If you ask about it / Kid who's flying five stairs at one time." A-
  46. Jay-Z: 4:44 (Roc Nation/UMG): At its frequent peaks, this unusual album nails the understated mastery it's going for--the calm candor of a titan with plenty to own up to hence plenty to teach. He's so discreet you may not notice that he can still outrhyme the small fry--"fuck with me"-"cutlery"-"butlers be"-"hustlers be," say, all parsing as "The Story of OJ." But clever's not his program. From the subtle beats No I.D. builds from Sean Carter's all-time playlist, he means to pretend he's just talking to us, nowhere more than in the painfully detailed "4:44" a.k.a. "I Apologize" a.k.a. "I suck at love." But just as "4:44" resorts for no discernible reason to an "I cut off my nose to spite my face," "The Story of OJ" is marred by a pun on "Dumbo" that's funny twice max and very nearly wrecked by the deplorable "You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America?" The answer, in case you were wondering: "credit." Which is an OK principle--Jay-Z isn't the only rap elder advising youngbloods to buy property instead of Lambos. But there are plenty of similar lapses on an album where "Legacy" celebrates his money, some of it secured by other people's artworks, rather than his art. He's teaching black capitalism, not weighing every word much less manning up and learning to love. Compared to white capitalism, I'll take it. But unlike learning to love, it has plenty of downside. A-
  47. Oddisee: The Iceberg (Mello Music): This 32-year-old Somali-Afro-American from the D.C. suburbs articulates his wordly-wise raps over quicksilver jazz-funk beats that might as well be live and often are. Of course he's political, as in "I'm from black America, this is just another year" or "You around here acting like we equal but we greater." But what I love is his philosophical and psychological interests: conditioning as destiny, biology as destiny, how human beings acquire and apply knowledge, mental illness as a by-product of oppression, the special perils of the African-American middle class, the special burdens of the artist whose immigrant parents dreamed he would have a recognizable career. There's a love song so twisty I hope he came out on the other side. And there's also a song where he figures out "I just want to be happy/free/left alone/me." So I hope and half believe he did. "No trophy on the mantle but I got a mantle," he brags. Attaboy. A-
  48. The Perceptionists: Resolution (Mello Music): On their 2005 debut, quick, clear, literate, Boston-based, Bajan-American rappers Mr. Lif and Akrobatik sounded more musical trading timbres as a duo than holding forth on their worthy solo albums--little guy Lif clipped and cool and pitched deeper, Akrobatik the good-natured jock. A dozen years later, as 42-year-olds who've each survived a brush with non-gangsta death--Akrobatik from an aortic aneurysm, Mr. Lif in a tour bus gone over a cliff--they lead their belated follow-up with three tracks that drop more political science than any TrumpTime hip-hop to date: Big Pharma and body armor, tax laws and proportional representation, racial solidarity and cross-racial solidarity, "treason" in a "world out of control." Given that Lif was criticizing Obama's monetary policies in 2009, this is no surprise. But it's certainly satisfying. Not everything that follows is so right on. But in a kind of compensation, "When Push Comes to Shove" radiates more love than "4:44." A-
  49. A. Savage: Thawing Dawn (Dull Tools): Ten stray titles written in the course of 10 multitasking years and shaped into a solo debut with a selection of the Texan expat's Brooklyn pals. In other words: For Parquet Courts Fans Only. But it turns out that band's de facto frontman has every right, because these tracks all share an intimate, vulnerable mood--a mood that's outgrown breakup songs and opts for faith as opposed to religion. From steel guitar some call country to the horn-drone-plus-guitar-screech that binds the eight-minute "What Do I Do," its atmospheric sonics showcase subtle vocals at tempos that seldom exceed mid. Catchy, too, especially on the oompah "Eyeballs" and the singsong "Thawing Dawn." A-
  50. Motörhead: Under Cöver (Silver Lining Music): In a cheap, foolproof simulation of life after death, Lemmy's pals assemble a selection of cover versions so obvious Donald Trump Jr. could have thought of half of them. Ramones? "Rockaway Beach"! Sex Pistols? "God Save the Queen"! Stones is harder, so how about "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Jumping Jack Flash"?! T.A. Nugent? Duh (as he himself might put it)--the one where a pussy dentata bloodies his dicky-bird 'cause what else is there? Motörhead kill every one of these classics, and though after that my expertise fades some, I can attest that Judas Priest's "Breaking the Law" is a perfect opener and Metallica's "Whiplash" an acceptable finale. Moreover, I swear-to-God the true killer is the only previously unreleased: "Heroes." A major Bowie song that's grown with time, right? So who owns it from the grave? Lemmy does. A-
  51. Matt North: Above Ground Fools (self-released): North is a Nashville session drummer whose solo music is neither bro-country nor folk-rock. This is a rock album purely--loud, obvious, devoid of punk or funk. Big drums, efficient tunes, equal helpings of keyboard and guitar, and a muscular rather than burly voice all serve what is clearly the point for a 47-year-old who's also gotten paid as an actor and standup comic: the lyrics. A solid musician, this great-nephew of Kentucky local colorist Jesse Stuart is an absolutely first-rate better songwriter. If he's any kind of feminist you'd never know it, so be glad the one where the "damsel in shining armor" fails to rescue the "white knight in distress" compensates for the "Badgering the Witness" charges and "No Hard Feelings" g'bye. And be gladder that from the acid-etched local color of "A Good Day in Nashville" to the DIY bile of "Come Here Go Away," he serves up so much lyrical idiosyncrasy--topped for me by the nonstop "I Sold It All," where I understand the meaning of every line without being sure I know what the damn thing's about. A-
  52. Orchestra Baobab: Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng (Nonesuch): Specialist in All Styles and Made in Dakar, the 2001 and 2008 albums that reunited this world-class band, climaxed a career that began with a 15-year run in 1970, went into abeyance rather than "modernize," and then surged back. But because guitarist-arranger Barthelemy Attisso would rather be a lawyer in Togo than a star in Senegal, this long-delayed sequel was a challenge. Attisso's young Beninois replacement is deft enough without approaching his calm mastery or getting as much room, overshadowed as he is by a well-integrated kora add-on who, while hardly the usual mystagogue, sometimes renders the ambience perilously world-musicky even so. But though singer Ndiouga Dieng is indeed gone, Balla Sidibe and Rudy Gomis remain frontmen to reckon with as their voices roughen, and where Baobab's other 21st-century albums reconstituted their greatest hits, here they generate new titles worthy of their legend. For orientation, start in the middle with "Woulinewa" and the only remake, the Dieng-identified "Sey," which a cameo from Baobab alum Thione Seck takes home. Then start again from the beginning. A-
  53. Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker (Columbia '16): A few weeks before this was released, Cohen deflected rumors of his imminent passing by telling reporters that he intended to live forever; a few weeks after, he cemented his well-earned reputation as an incorrigibly courteous liar by dying. Thus he transformed how these eight songs would be heard and remembered, and accentuated how shrewdly his living will's gravity, austerity, and sparse wit dovetail with its thematic and emotional preoccupations. Feeling impossibly frail and weary, the 82-year-old Cohen parried with a thoroughgoing renunciation--of Jahweh, Jesus, Vishnu, sex, and the acrid jokes he'd been cracking for half a century. A company of musical pallbearers added touches that hint at a consoling spirituality if you give them time and don't insist on actually being cheered up. But note that the most soothing softens a final statement credited solely to the dying man, which you could call a parting gift if it wasn't topped off by an instrumental track that reprises his most enigmatic farewell song: "I wish there was a treaty we could sign/It's over now, the water and the wine/We were broken then, but now we're borderline/I wish there was a treaty/I wish there was a treaty/Between your love and mine." To those literal last words one can only add: hmmm. A-
  54. Becky Warren: War Surplus (self-released '16): Warren is a singer-songwriter who put her music on hold in 2006, when her new husband came back from Iraq with PTSD. The marriage didn't survive, but they gave it a hard try, and years later Warren's solo debut, a muscular, bro-country sounding concept album where she sings five "June" songs and seven "Scott" songs, is born of that effort. June's a dive bar sweetheart whose love for her man is ironwood strong, Scott a casual patriot looking to escape the day-to-day who comes home with a mouth that explodes whenever he pulls the pin. Scott's memories of the girl who loved him best are painful. But they have nothing on the Iraq memories of "Stay Calm, Get Low," borrowed from memoirist Colby Buzzell, who liked Warren's adaptation so much he wrote liner notes. A-
  55. Migos: Culture (QC/YRN/300): It would be silly to deny how good this music sounds. These three rather different young men are much more than amigos--they're blood relatives raised by the same heroic mama, and while they don't harmonize like Isleys or Everlys, their pitch-corrected interactions are a consanguineous delight. Rather than bitches, cars, etc., they're about homologous voices twisting internal rhymes through associative verses, with the "ad libs" that punctuate line after line the payoff that's made them such a thing. Although sometimes these merely repeat the line's final word, that can be fun in itself, and it sets up the repeated jack-in-the-box joke of springing an improved alternative keyword instead. And as anybody who's heard "Bad and Boujee" three times knows, best of all are the sound effects: bwah, skrrrt, brrrup. Some believe these echo gunfire. I prefer to table that theory till next time. A-
  56. Saint Etienne: Home Counties (Heavenly/PIAS): On an album situated in London's feeder communities, the stealth-arty putative-disco trio split the difference between a celebration of suburbia, which would be a lie, and a send-up of suburbia, which would be a rank cliché. Instead they fashion a sometimes sad, never tragic reflection well-suited to keyboard maestros Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs's steady-state tunecraft and Sarah Cracknell's calm, affectionate, all-conquering competence. Not much seems to happen in these songs beyond the distinct if similar female characters' pursuit of ordinary pleasure, occasional escape, and satisfactory love. But there's an inescapable sense that while the lives lived on these airy hillsides and mock-Tudor streets are limited, they're decent and admirable. Only the catchiest and drollest number rises above, eavesdropping at a transport hearing to borrow a righteous hook: "We need train drivers in eyeliner / We need train drivers all over this land / That's our plan." A-
  57. Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams (Slate Creek): Williams wasn't forceful enough to make himself a legend, but he had such a way about him that I was surprised by the credits on this MusiCares benefit, released a few months before he died September 8. I'd thought of him as pure auteur, a pop-folk singer-songwriter gone country. But he wasn't. These 11 tracks were written by 11 Nashville pros, collaborating occasionally but none listed more than twice, with Williams's sole credit a cowrite. Yet he is in control, so gentle even the Pistol Annies and Garth Brooks dial it down and even Keb Mo is tolerable. The exception is Chris and Morgana Stapleton, who take autobiographical possession of "Amanda" by revving it up, never mind that it was Jason Isbell who married an Amanda--Amanda Shires. Isbell-Shires, meanwhile, do "If I Needed You" so quiet there's no if about it. All in all, a lovely respite from the sturm and snark the times demand. A-
  58. Dylan Hicks: Ad Out (Soft Launch): Singer-songwriters don't get more logocentric than the mild-mannered novelist-critic who dubbed his 1990 debut New Dylan. And though Dylanesque is not Hicks's way, I bet the guy he was named after is broad-minded enough to envy the observed likes of "Hear the the snaps of your jeans banging in the drier" and "Time it flies like Superman / Or gets stuck like celery strands." Vocally he's too smart to be wimpy, and a shifting band anchored by his cocktail piano accommodates horn section and pedal steel as needed. Hicks isn't above cleverness like "I just wanna be the Monkees to your Beatles / Wanna be the heat lamp to your sun" or "Persephone and Dante were down there / Bon Scott I guess was en route," and why should he be? But his deepest couplet is "You were interesting to me / Interesting to me," and his deepest song hard to penetrate: "Ambulance," where a feeble parent or disabled child or someone else altogether may be scared of the siren, in deep need of the help it promises, both, or neither. A-
  59. Open Mike Eagle: Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (Mello Music): The meek shall inherit the rubble of the Robert Taylor Homes, demolished because drugs even though most of the 27,000 who resided in a development designed for 11,000 were ordinary Chicagoans surviving as best they could. So this rap nerd who rhymes this band he likes called the Kinks with a refrigerator that don't stink makes up songs for these Chicagoans. In one he's a superhero he thought up himself who protects his neck with magic jewels; in another he celebrates a holiday he thought up himself by extinguishing garbage fires; in yet another he's so brave he had an asthma attack last bar and you didn't even notice. Hey, he's even got a They Might Be Giants beat. Why would any bedroom music fan deny him? A-
  60. Fat Tony: MacGregor Park (self-released): For a half hour that feels effortless, a respected alt-rapper who chooses his spots rolls out eight songs whose affability evokes Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day." Since realism is Fat Tony's religion, there are hassles galore, but the cops let him off with a warning, his phone woes resolve, and hey, there's "Legal Weed" in only "a few states," but with "a few more on the way," plus you can carry an ounce in your pants. The title finale spends six minutes celebrating his favorite hang, which is at its sweetest on a Sunday that rhymes with "fun day" even if there was that knucklehead who stepped to him and it came to blows--but not, notice, gunplay. MacGregor Park anchors Tony's Third Ward hang in Houston, and from NYC I get the impression it could pass for a safe space. On Monday, August 28, as Harvey battered Fat Tony's hometown, the University of Houston cross-country team took practice there. Afterward, many of them switched gears to go rip up carpet and lift furniture out of water's way. A-
  61. Sheer Mag: Need to Feel Your Love (Wilsuns RC): The radical rabble-rousers' first full album is a good one for sure, but a misconception must be addressed. On record, at least, Tina Halladay does not have a "big voice"--a "gruff" "yowl" or "wailing typhoon." She's narrow and high-pitched, her intensity harder to take at 43 or indeed 26 minutes than at the 14 of her band's three EPs. I mention 26 because that marks the spot where the most fetching song here swallows the problem whole. It's a "disco" number called "Pure Desire" that departs from her fellas' '70s-band aesthetic only if you don't remember what a hell of a '70s band Chic was--a minor masterpiece that conveys how horny and consuming it can be just to lie next to someone you want to fuck. Elsewhere she craves love and defies authority in the equal measure that makes people want to overrate this band. Risk disco, guys. Maybe non-Berniacs will start getting the message. A-
  62. Umphrey's McGee: Zonkey (Nothing Too Fancy '16): Prog-leaning jam band as opposed to blues-leaning jam band rolls out an arena-rock mashup album on which the worst track is a closer dominated by one of its own songs and nothing tops an opener where Beck's "Loser" sweeps Radiohead and Phil Collins before it. But it wouldn't be such a hoot without their prog chops. Whether they're performing Michael Jackson-Fleetwood Mac-the Weeknd after the manner of Earth, Wind & Fire, cramming Byrne, Marley, Zappa, and Chicago into a composite, yoking full-Lemmy Motörhead to Ween, or ramming the Beastie Boys up Ted Nugent's musclehead ass, they show a range as both lovers and players of music that you gotta respect and would be a tight-ass yourself not to enjoy. A-
  63. Syd: Fin (Epic): These days almost all r&b goes for voice-plus-sound rather than voice-plus-song, with the sound ranging from precision track-and-hook to idiosyncratic atmospherics. What distinguishes Odd Future fixture, Internet instigator, and matter-of-fact lesbian Sydney Bennett is that she powers her solo venture with one of the smallest voices in popular music--not tiny, just soft and slender. No fan of power tonsils, I've always been drawn to her brave sighs and whispers, and love how easily her voice carries this music unaugmented by her former guitar and drum kit. I also like how she celebrates an economic success I hope is as permanent as she thinks--"middle to upper class," you don't hear that much. But since love is more important than money, I warm most to these tracks when they turn to eros, and admit that the most winning, "Dollar Bills," is also the only one to avail itself of some male timbre. Very deep. Very resonant. A-
  64. Blondie: Pollinator (BMG): Not much clever pan-referentiality in the most consistent material this 43-year-old band has assembled since No Exit, half a career ago in 1998. But for a 72-year-old glamourpuss to excavate multiple affairs in one post-ironic, pro-erotic song after another--only two Stein-Harry, although there's also a Hynes-Harry and their newish 4?-year-old keyb guy chips in a couple--is a lyrical coup in itself. Any youngish person who doesn't buy her "Take me back home again/I wanna make love again," not to mention 53-year-old Johnny Marr's "Human beings are stupid things when we're young," has much to learn about the aging process in this ever-changing world we hope we all age in. Yes, she's had "work done," and one way or another, so to speak, this may extend to her vocals. But neither her voice nor the rest of her body is any less hers than it ever was. A-
  65. Kano: Made in the Manor (Parlophone '16): What hooked me on this grime pioneer's major-label debut was a variation on Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day" called "T-Shirt Weather in the Manor," a near-idyllic celebration of how nice the projects he came up in can be on one of the rare London days when the sun shines hot. Neither his beats nor his flow are as musical as Cube's, and there's no line as killer as "Plus nobody I know got killed in South Central LA." But that suits a conscious rapper who defends those who fall into the "trap trap" on grounds of option drought. In the end, he's such a chronicler that his beats and flow will do you fine. Pay some mind to "Little Sis" and "Strangers," both of which think hard about estrangement. Soulful is what I'd call them. A-
  66. Alvvays: Antisocialites (Polyvinyl): From what I gather--she's not forward about it and has no obligation to be--when I refer to the Molly Rankin of this album I mean the Molly Rankin character. The biographical Molly Rankin seems committed to an ongoing romantic relationship with guitarist Alec O'Hanley. The character is more rootless or footloose, hence easier for young indie-rockers to relate to--easier to write songs for, too. Where her debut topped a bunch of cannot-love songs with the upbeat "Archie, Marry Me," here Archie is gone, and despite a few independent-female-on-the-town moments, the lyrical evidence doesn't bespeak an emotional life fit to support an album. But the musical evidence does. It's an optimistic alt-pop she calls "plimsoll," a retro flourish no one else with comparable brains and backbone risked in 2017 (though I alvvays thought it was "plimsoul"). For 10 tracks running, Rankin and O'Hanley's little band ring the bell every time, and while the hooks and harmonic tricks are nothing new, they have more brio than most. So Molly the bandleader and Molly the character have a key virtue in common: they know what they want and know how to get it. A-
  67. Daddy Issues: Can We Still Hang (Infinity Cat '15): On their 2015 debut, this Nashville grrrl-grunge trio hit the bratty thing square on its pink-haired noggin. From stupid boyfriend to thrilling girlcrush, from toughing out the bruise to impressing the coolster, from creepy to ugly to out to lunch in this shitty world, they're tough and trash-mouthed and so needy it hurts. Of course these eight songs are good for a laugh--it's in the contract they believe they'll one day sign. But right at the outset their emotional complexity puts them beyond that and in it at the same time. A-
  68. Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory (Def Jam): On an album that's two-thirds as amazing as is reported, nine-tenths of the amazement is musical. Not just the stripped-down electro powerbeats whose supple muscularity is less 2-step than is reported, but Staples's exacting articulation--he's on every beat smooth and toned, never e-nun-ci-a-ting but without a word lost. Which brings us to, you know, the rhymes. Sure he says what he wants to say with clarity and economy; sure he takes on police racism rampant. But what he wants to say is pretty much the usual except insofar as he doesn't murder anyone while preferring money to women. True, on the last two tracks he contemplates suicide in his first-class seat and muses about the mother of his very unborn children. But you know how it is--they always sneak some soft stuff in at the end. So maybe next time. And maybe not. A-
  69. Deer Tick: Vol. 2 (Partisan): Unlike 2013's simultaneously out-of-its-skull and pop-curious Negativity (try: "Hey Doll," "In Our Time") or 2017's simultaneously depressive and folk-leaning Vol. 1 (try: "Sea of Clouds," "Rejection"), this is the kind of garage Americana that's John McCauley's modest gift to the world: half an hour's worth of noisy, catchy, rootsy songs about fucking up, self-doubt, provisional camaraderie, rowdy abandon, and, most important, good times that haven't ended yet (but still might). The classic is "S.M.F.," which stands for Shitty Music Festival. May they end their Bonnaroo set with it. A-
  70. Cloud Nothings: Life Without Sound (Carpark): As his fellow 25-and-thereabouts debate Dylan Baldi's musicianship and originality, I don't doubt the first, don't sweat the second, and continue to find him an admirable young guy who's less a kid every time out. But because his voice and guitar distinguish themselves within such a narrow range, you have to give each album time to sink in, and his growth isn't instantly apparent here. Where previously he wrote and recorded off the cuff, this one didn't come so easy, and it couldn't have helped that he'd taken on a second guitarist. But that may just be why his ongoing project of becoming more human opens up as never before if you give the record a chance. Skeptics should start with "Darkened Rings," where he propels the frustration he's lamenting into Hüsker Dü territory. A-
  71. Rock and Roll Music!: The Songs of Chuck Berry (Ace): Compiled to cash in on the Originator's forthcoming Chuck rather than his unexpected death, this could be better even if you forgive such budget measures as no Beatles/Stones/Hendrix, no Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll (check out Etta James and also--believe it--Julian Lennon), late Elvis, later Beach Boys. Rather than Jay and the Americans' execrable "Johnny B. Goode," how about Peter Tosh's or the Dead's; rather than the Hollies' "Sweet Little Sixteen" album filler, Ten Years After's balls-out festival rocker or even Cliff Richard's Beatles move; rather than Marty Robbins's wan "Maybellene," George Jones and Johnny Paycheck's rowdy one. And amusing though you may find the obscure Brit "Nadine," I urge you urge you urge you to excavate Kevin Dunn's fey, howling early-computer-age reimagining, my third favorite Berry cover ever. Nonetheless, the Originator inspired John Prine's rockingest vocal, tickled the shit out of one-hit wonders the Syndicate of Sound, and brought out the very best from such unexpected-to-whodat artists as John Hammond, Ian Gomm, the Remains, the Count Bishops, Dwight Yoakam, and Helene Dixon. The big-name tribute albums will come, and though their hit-or-miss ratio may beat this one's, believe it when you hear it. Meanwhile, Dunn's "Nadine" is readily available via YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, etc. Lasts 4:25 exactly. A-
  72. Zeal & Ardor: Devil Is Fine (MVKA Music): Challenged to join black metal and black music in holy sacrilege, biracial Swiss New Yorker Manuel Gagneux said either fuck you or fuck yeah and began hollering faux field hollers of "devil is kind" and "devil is fine" over chain-gang percussion. Various metal usages follow--guitar din, guitar arpeggiation, toy-piano scene-shift, drum flourishes untouched by human hand. But soon it's another field holler--"A good God is a dead one," this one goes. Whole thing's over in 25 minutes--too long for a joke, too short for an artistic statement, just right for a helluva parlor trick. A-
  73. Steve Earle: So You Wannabe an Outlaw (Warner Bros.): He's tried the outlaw thing, and on his best album in 15 years sets out to tell the world why it ain't all that. Your buddies on those roughneck temp gigs always head elsewhere. When the news from home is bad, and it will be, there's not a damn thing you can do about it. Hitchhiking is so over a fella could write a keeper about it. And to sum up: "Everybody reckons that they want to be free / Nobody wants to be alone." A guy who's been married seven times is more likely to know nothing about women than everything. But from "Comes to love fallin' is the easy part" to "You can't pretend / The line between a secret and a lie ain't razor thin," he gets a keeper out of that too. While I surely do agree that in love a secret and a lie are the same thing, I hope it will interest him to be told that the secret of not being alone is to let yourself keep falling--for the same one. A-
  74. Now That's What I Call 90s Pop (Sony Music Entertainment): This unusually useful pre-Now lookback--Stateside, the series only began in 1998--means to reinstall 18 four-minute pop songs in your short-term memory. From Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy With It" to the New Kids' "Step by Step," with the likes of Boyz II Men, Wreckx-N-Effect, born-againer-in-waiting Montell Jordan, Mad TV fave Bobby Brown, and "Livin' La Vida Loca" on board, the default mode is male-dominated funk-lite broadly defined, with the ambiguous-lite Max Martin classics "...Baby One More Time" and "I Want It That Way" flanking the concept. Cheap nostalgia for thirty-somethings, a refresher course in pop history for the rest of us. Among the missing: "U Can't Touch This," "Jump," "C'Mon 'N Ride It," "The Macarena," and the cheekily non-male "I Kissed a Girl." But so much easier than burning your own. A-
  75. Angaleena Presley: Wrangled (Mining Light): The onetime Pistol Annie, who last time gave us American Middle Class, the New Nashville Feminism's finest album, leads once again with her corniest stuff. Her "Dreams Don't Come True" and "High School" are sharper than most--"Flip the bird to the whores in high school" and "It's late September and she's startin' to show," respectively. But there's meaner to come as she sweetly guns down the preacher husband she knows like the back of his hand and cattily cuts down the "beauty mark on the human race" who ain't blonde enough to play so dumb. And if you wish she was feistier still, figure the reason she isn't in "Outlaw," where she identifies her career goal as "straight-shootin' hifalutin writer on the hit parade." Only instead she's on the road hoping the merch sells as she grinds out a "Groundswell," as sly a take on the economic marginalization of the job of music as Jeffrey Lewis's "Indie Bands on Tour" only much less amused about it. A-
  76. The Paranoid Style: Underworld U.S.A. (Bar/None): "We tried to figure out exactly the point of show business during this most lurid of all impasses," Elizabeth Nelson noted recently, and whether avocational indie counts as show business or not, it's clearly been a trial. The title tune is properly scary: "It's like the founders said the jaws of power are always open to devour," soon followed by "You dined on us so long you lost the taste for delicacy." But "I Believe U Believe U Can Fly" is the one great song on this EP because it torpedoes a catchphrase we figured out long ago. Other zingers of varying quality are dropped here and there--the throwaway "Langford's still an atheist" is one I like. But the lyrics tend opaque--pretty sure "Hawk Vs. Prez" is about Lester Young, for instance, but that took a lot of delving that only got me so far. What makes this lacuna doubly frustrating is that Nelson probably knows more about the ins and outs of Washington politics than any songwriter working, and it would be nice to think she could make something of what may not actually be an impasse. It would also be nice if she roped in a more limber rhythm section. A-
  77. Playboi Carti: Playboi Carti (AWGE/Interscope): If Migos are the Beatles, this diamond-collecting pretty boy crosses the Raspberries and the Archies. A pimp-identified Blood or vice versa whose idea of social consciousness is not to drink lean and drive and whose idea of a thrill is meeting Raf Simons (look it up, I had to), he is definitely, like they type, FUN. His playful flow careless of consonants, Carti makes exactly as much as he should of spare beats that ease from the faux flute of "dothatshit!" to the faux rhinoceros-huff of "Lame Niggaz." Nahmean? A-
  78. Swet Shop Boys: Sufi La (Customs): Starting with the consciously rowdy joking around on his 16 of the album- and we hope show-opening "Anthem," this EP's slapstick vibe loosens up meaning and matures Riz's rapping. The clincher is how ebulliently he not just celebrates "Thas My Girl"'s title sex object but pronounces her--"gul," "gyal," etc. Heems's showoff number is "Birding," which names and rhymes 42 species from brown pelican to dowitcher, topping the most recent bird song by that other East Asian rapper. M.I.A., your move. C'mon, girl. A-
  79. Kevin Abstract: American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story (Brockhampton '16): The parents of its intended audience might recognize a P.M. Dawn vibe in this 20-year-old's teen-targeted pop/rap concept album about a confused young middle-class black male's requited love for a white football player. His mom's homophobia includes kids who sometimes think they're bisexual like her boy; his inamorato's parents are down with the gays but "hate niggers"; his boyfriend has a girlfriend too. So of course sometimes he hates himself, as in: "I hate my yearbook photo/I hate my passport/I hate my last name/I hate everything it stands for/[wait, he's not done] I should probably transfer." But other times he's transported instead, saved from himself by the love he shares. Here he raps, there he croons. Frank Ocean pal Michael Uzowuru is with him both ways. A-
  80. Fred Thomas: Changer (Polyvinyl): 'Tis a story oft told that this part-time indie-rocker switched gears into confessional stream-of-consciousness with 2015's All Are Saved and indie-rockers liked it so much that he quit his job, got married, moved to Canada, took up music full-time, and generated a follow-up. What few bards detail is that these two pieces of confessional stream-of-consciousness are radically different, not structurally or philosophically but in general come-hither. All Are Saved is pure sad sack, so bummed only convinced depressives will have the gumption to take in its stealth tunes and smart details--his father's flannel shirts smelling of cigarattes and rain, the "overworked doctor smoking in the doorway of the clinic." Changer was cut by a guy on the upswing his bio suggests. The melodies are right there; there's a bite in his strum and a lilt in his snark as he calls out assholes for what they are: "Olympia street punks--the worst!" I recommend that he henceforth resist the temptation to excavate the past, his college days especially, and instead mine his present. Montreal--what's it like? How did kicking nicotine work out for you? A-
  81. Now That's What I Call Tailgate Anthems (Sony Music Entertainment): This decades-spanning blunt instrument dispenses with the vaguely heart-warming ecumenical mix-and-match the Now cartel usually makes a pass at. It's segregated by what we'll call culture: first six pop-metal warhorses whose Queen-Bon Jovi-Journey-Kiss-Survivor-Europe titles you can fill in yourself, then seven somewhat less reliable dance-rap bangers, after which sole woman Pink's best-in-show "Get the Party Started" transports us into a three-track country finale that left me wondering how I'd missed Sam Hunt's off-concept "House Party" and concluding once and for all that Jason Aldean is a blander, less macho Luke Bryan. Every single track is broad in the beam, "rock" at its most obvious even if the details are hip-hop or country--rock for jocks. But there are times when the Kiss-Lil Jon continuum is just right for clearing the sinuses or getting you to the next rest stop, and this will definitely do that job. A-
  82. 24 Classic Blues Songs From the 1920's: Vol 15 (Blues Images): As always, the deal here is 25 bucks plus the usual for a handsome vintage blues ad art calendar and a blues CD compiled by collector-designer John Tefteller. Seldom have these CDs reached out to nonspecialists by achieving a balance of accessible collectors' items and classics not yet worn thin. But this one is different, primarily but not exclusively because the American Epic people lent Teftweller their remastering apparatus, adding clarity, brightness, and presence to occasionals like Bo Weavil Jackson and Rev. Steamboat Bill's Revival Singers as well as titans like Charley Patton and Memphis Minnie. Direct comparison, for instance, revealed striking noise reduction on two songs that had never reached me--Tommy Johnson's "I Wonder to Myself" and Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Hot Dogs." Not that I was knocked out by sonics alone--as a shallow person, I prefer the Jefferson novelty. But all this music is now easier to hear for whatever it may be. My special favorites are two Memphis Minnies I hadn't previously registered, "Frisco Town" and "Goin' Back to Texas." My special discovery is Mississippi-to-Chicago pioneer Johnnie "Geechie" Temple. Without improved audio, his plaintive "The Evil Devil Blues," about a love triangle rather than a meeting at the crossroads, might have captivated me anyway. But chances are not. A-
  83. Hard Working Americans: We're All in This Together (Melvin/Thirty Tigers): Especially after I read the enlightening if microscopic 3000-word essay concealed in the CD case, this live album finally convinced me that Todd Snider was worthy of his own rock dream--a dream the essay claims or reports took this form after the fearless leader was roused from one of his many scary stupors to discover that he was no longer Blind Lemon Pledge. Launched by Bo Diddley and finished off by Chuck Berry with Elvis shining "Burn Out Shoes" in between, he leads a jam band worthy of a song called "Ascending Into Madness" and then ascends from madness himself. The middle third drags, especially when his drawl deteriorates into an incomprehensibility no guitar ace can right. But even there he gets points for remaining the only rocker of any stripe to call out the LIBOR rate by name. Addressing "my fellow hippies," he observes: "This night might be the night of our entire lives. Why not? Why not? Why not tonight?" And though it's obviously possible he says that every show, it's to his credit that he seems too unhinged to be so calculating. Far more than any jam band record I've gotten through, this is the rock dream the hippies invented before they burned out. Snider has come way too close to burning out himself. But so far he hasn't. A-
  84. Conor Oberst: Salutations (Nonesuch): Musical cult heroes come in all gradations of quality. So Randy Newman is a genius, Chris Carrabba ain't, and Oberst falls in between in more ways than one. As is clear from 2016's Ruminations, where 10 of these 17 songs surfaced as acoustic demos, material per se isn't enough. You need support to put songs across, here organized by 74-year-old master drummer Jim Keltner (John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, you bet Randy Newman, also Russ Giguere, Henry Gross, Firefall). Attitude also matters, so good thing that by the time he cut this--after ruminating not just on Ruminations but on 2013's stillborn Upside Down Mountain--Oberst had become more upbeat, not to mention concerned about his professional future. This time "A Little Uncanny," which compares Ronald Reagan unfavorably to Jane Fonda without falling for either, is nothing like a dirge, and neither is "Rain Follows the Plow," which meditates on sin. Make him a gifted guy with a good heart, a handy tune sense, and a signature throb in his voice. Believe that he's not callow anymore and never will be again. A-
  85. Kasai Allstars: Around Félicité (Crammed Discs): The fourth album from this biz-fabricated, many-armed Congotronics aggregation is a discographical muckup from a label always happy to exploit "world music" fans' craving for the next different thing. It comes with two add-ons. The first is a bonus disc of remixes, which makes three of the things total since the group was conjured up in 2008--their second album was a by no means terrible all-remix double-CD enlisting rock-oriented meddlers whose point of entry was sonic. This time, as one might hope, it's dance guys, who set themselves to foregrounding and embellishing the groove's through-line. And that's only the extra added attraction. The occasion is a film soundtrack in which some songs repeat from earlier albums and, hang on to your ears, three tracks are symphonic snippets by Ärvo Part. Despite a soupçon of authenticité from the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste, these do spoil the mood. Solution: burn a CD-ROM consisting entirely of the Kasai Allstars material the film celebrates, cherrypicks, exploits, whatevs. The result is the best Kasai best-of anyone will likely ever own--eight tracks spread over 52 buzzy, groovy, echoey, multivocal minutes. A-
  86. Battle Hymns ( Pay what you want, but with every penny forwarded to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and, I clicked the suggested 20 bucks for this Portland-scene "protest record." Though it does fade at the end, a perceived historical imperative focuses these aesthetes on the proudly political. Not only is there no alt-poetic obscurantism, there's nothing preachy-programmatic-etc. about the sure shots, which outnumber the OKs two-to-one unless you're "bored" by phraseology like "We Won't Go Back," "Fight the Hate," "Save Our Soul," and "Love in the Time of Resistance," in which case Love Always, Mary Timony, Boss Hog, and Corin Tucker will get in your face about it. Most historic are Quasi's allegorical "Ballad of Donald Duck & Elmer Fudd" and Mac McCaughan's post-slack motherfucker "Happy New Year (Prince Can't Die Again)." "This year it seemed like nothing really mattered / You could be any horrible thing and rise to the top of the shitheap," he recalls. "Next year might be better / But I don't see any proof," he admits. Yet he brims with love and energy anyway: "Play the long game, muster up some cheer," he advises, then predicts "The South won't rise again." He's from North Carolina, so let's hope he knows something. A-
  87. Daddy Issues: Deep Dream (Infinity Cat): They grow up, as punk types always do, and as punk types almost always do, find adulthood as short on fun and thrills as they'd feared. So their guitars overextend into the Jesus and Mary darklands as their vocals blur over with distortion and dismay. But the songs tend musically distinct, sometimes sharp and sometimes heartbreaking. "I've been losing since I lost my virginity." "But it's unimportant now / Because I'm unimportant now." "She's a model / I'm a motel / She ditched college / I don't play guitar too well / We're both boring girls." Only then, just when they seem stuck in the dumps forever, they stick a "Boys of Summer" cover in Don Henley's smug mug. A-
  88. Nnamdi Ogbonnaya: DROOL (Father/Daughter/Sooper): Normally I snort at new rappers claiming "you could never write shit like this." But for starters, Ogbonnaya's not really a rapper. He's a Chicago multi-instrumental quadruple-threat functioning as an alt-r&ber replaces tune with mood as he croon-talks around his wavery beats in a voice that evokes an antique space-organ synth. And I do admire, as he puts it, his writing. Challenging to follow even though they're seldom slurred or speeded up, his lyrics evoke without defining a humorous humanism that takes the immaturity off his subcultural jousting and erotic ups and downs--and thus firms up the stuff that preoccupies most newbies who think you could never write shit like this. Try the adoring "Cindy OsO," the erotic "let gO Of my egO," the overarching "drOOl/drink that." (All strange capitalizations in original. Pray he gets over it.) A-
  89. The Goon Sax: Up for Anything (Chapter Music '16): My brilliant wife heard Go-Betweens in this high school band well before I learned that Robert Forster's son Louis was a cofounder or that they were "driven" by a female drummer or even that they were Australian. Nah, I told her, though I liked them fine--too crude. And indeed, they're cruder than even the earliest Go-Betweens, who were a university band after all, and somewhat static at their worst. Usually, however, they're charming at least. When Louis fantasizes about a "Boyfriend" or James Harrison hates the "Telephone," it just accentuates the specifically adolescent angst they pin down so much more candidly and affectingly than any other high school band that comes to mind. "If you don't want to hold my sweaty hands / I completely understand"? Pretty mature, in its way. A-
  90. Whitney Rose: South Texas Suite (Six Shooter/Thirty Tigers): Rose isn't the first country singer from the Canadian Maritimes, although neither Hank Snow nor Anne Murray was blessed with or limited by such a crystalline soprano. But a debut that favored the folk-angelic also showed a fondness for verities like the "Hearts Made of Stone" piano triplets that open it, and now come five simple songs where verities prevail. "Three Minute Love Affair" turns a single roadhouse dance into the lovely fleeting thing it can be, and soon "Analog" is exemplifying the corny notion that tunes this fetching shouldn't have to coexist with newfangled annoyances like robocalls, GMOs, and the pitch correction Rose plainly doesn't need. And that the other three are plainer doesn't mean they're dull--although somebody must have beaten her to "Looking Back on Luckenbach"'s built-in pun, I doubt anybody's done it nicer. A-

Jan. 22, 2018

Postscript Notes:

Christgau noted: "Decided not to include [on P&J ballot] the American Epic stuff--important and indeed brilliant as it is, very few of those songs are as "unearthed" as on, for instance, the Blues Image album."

2016 Essay | -- 2018