Thursday, July 27, 2017

NPR's Turning The Tables: Five Omissions

Kudos to NPR Music for taking on the monumental task of "turning the tables" and creating an alternative canon of the 150 "greatest" albums "made by women." I use the quotes not to be snarky but to point out the mutability and arbitrary nature of the terms "greatest" and "made by women." The first is obviously a term freighted with some subjectivity, and the second has, for NPR's purposes, now expanded to include albums like Rumors, which was made by a band including three men, or a Britney Spears album which some would argue was a form of exploitation. These criteria are discussed in a thoughtful essay by Ann Powers, which lays bare the need for this list and explains the process by which it was accomplished. The other limiter which could be questioned was the idea of cutting off the list at 1964, the beginning of what Powers calls, in quotes, "the classic album era," which leaves out many artists who may have done their greatest work before that time (can I get a witness for Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Pearl Bailey, Peggy Lee, Julie London, Eartha Kitt, Nellie Lutcher, Ruth Brown, etc.). Even Rolling Stone, which was a product of that same age, manages to incorporate artists from a previous time in their canonical lists.

But even accepting all of their criteria, and recognizing that a list of 150 greatest anything is going to contain some results that pander to one constituency or another, there are five omissions to NPR's list that I consider egregious. It would be very easy for me to argue about the more recent entries - is Alabama Shakes "greater" than Holly Miranda, Courtney Barnett, Angel Olsen, Perfect Pussy, Natalie Prass, Nicole Atkins, Jenny O., Kate Tempest, etc.? - but I recognize that the closer we get to now, the more the choices depend on at least one strong advocate. Brittany Howard & co., dull as I may find them, have a number of those at NPR. So, for that reason I'm focusing here on albums solidly rooted in the 20th Century by artists whom I would argue cast an even longer shadow now than they did in their prime. It would also be fair game to question some of the choices whereby an artist had only one album on the list (is any Spice Girls record really greater than Kaleidoscope by Siouxsie & The Banshees or Odyshape by The Raincoats?), but in the interest of expanding the coverage of the list, I'm not suggesting any duplicates.

Here are are the five albums that are deal-breakers for me, presented in chronological order. I did have to bend the rules slightly to include the first - so sue me. 

Patsy Cline - Showcase (with The Jordanaires) (1961) This was a make or break effort for Cline, and maybe even for her producer, Owen Bradley. She was still finding her way, with some success, on her debut in 1957. Trouble creating a follow-up soon became a non-issue as Cline struggled to recover from a car accident. When she finally returned to the studio, she and Bradley were laser-focused on the Countrypolitan sound they had begun developing in the 50's and assembled a solid collection of songs to be their manifesto. With the Jordanaires as a perfect foil (and a better choice than the Anita Kerr Singers as used on the first album), and I Fall To Pieces, Crazy, and a re-recorded version of Walking After Midnight as their tent-pole tracks they delivered big-time. When you consider that she was only able to make one more album before her tragic death 1963, the depth of her influence becomes only more astonishing. K.D. Lang, who is on the list, essentially made her name with a carbon copy of Cline's sound, even down to bringing Owen Bradley in to make it happen. While I love Shadowlands dearly (and more than NPR's choice, Ingenue), attention must be paid to the originator. 

Fotheringay - Fotheringay (1970) Many would agree that Sandy Denny possessed one of the most exquisite instruments in recorded history. And she wielded it just as exquisitely, with a remarkable combination of restraint and deep feeling. While she came to prominence as a member of Fairport Convention, it was in her second act, as putative co-leader (with Trevor Lucas) of Fotheringay, that she made her greatest recordings. Denny wrote or co-wrote six of the nine songs, all among her finest compositions (start with The Sea - it will haunt you) and sang lead on seven, including a stunning arrangement of the traditional song, Banks Of The Nile. Though Fotheringay was a short-lived group, foundering during sessions for a second album, its achievement - and Denny's - stands as a high-water mark for British Folk.

Betty Davis - They Say I'm Different (1974) As Miss Mabry, she was Miles Davis's muse. As Ms. Davis, she helped him update his wardrobe and convinced him of the value of artists like Sly & The Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix, which changed the course of his music - and music in general. But Davis had her own musical visions to realize, the seeds of which were revealed on the fascinating "lost album" released in 2016 as The Columbia Years. But it was when she hit the west coast and recruited members of Santana and Sly & The Family Stone to record her debut that she struck gold, kicking off a run of three albums that are almost interchangeable as far as quality goes. I picked the middle album because it's slightly more assured and features a hand-picked band of young guns, ensuring that Davis was the only diva in the studio. She perfected her combo of stuttering, shiv-sharp funk and vocals that growled, moaned, and insinuated, rarely settling for the ordinary turn of phrase. Nobody had ever heard songs like He Was A Big Freak ("I used to whip him with a purple chain,") or Don't Call Her No Tramp before, but as the missing link between Eartha Kitt and Grace Jones, Betty Davis made the world safe for all kinds of difference. 

Young Marble Giants - Colossal Youth (1980) Punk's Year Zero did a great job of clearing the air, perhaps bearing its greatest fruit in the post-punk era when a wondrous variety of unlikely sonics found not only release but an audience. Young Marble Giants was certainly one of the more unlikely to appear, a pair of brothers, Philip and Stuart Moxham, on bass, guitar, organ, and drum machine accompanying the waifish but curiously sturdy vocals of Alison Statton. Her singing style was seemingly unstudied, one step past saying "Is this thing on?" when approaching the mic, but also full of nuance and detail, as were her lyrics. Such songs as Searching For Mister Right, Wurlitzer Jukebox, and Constantly Changing became instantly iconic - if you were on their wavelength. Statton simultaneously occupied the role of a dispassionate observer, while still making you believe she could be your friend. Through her intimacy and sheer cool, she created a new kind of feminine avatar, and one who seemed to be in a genre of one, as did the band itself. But as with the Velvet Underground's first album, many who bought Colossal Youth put its lessons to use in later years. Courtney Love, for one, who covered Credit In The Straight World on Live Through This, Beth Gibbons of Portishead, for another, as well as recent sensations like Novelty Daughter, Grimes and Purity Ring, who ditched the marvelous Moxham brothers for a laptop, an MPC, and a loop pedal. My classic rock minded friends turned their noses up at YMG, saying it was too simple, that anyone could do it. But no one had - and in that simplicity later generations found agency. It should also be noted that Statton went on to form Weekend, which created a brand of jazzy cafe folk-rock that presaged acts like Everything But The Girl and Sade.

Laurie Spiegel - The Expanding Universe (1980) When the extraterrestrials find the golden LP that was shot into space in 1977 and manage to backward construct a turntable to play it on, I doubt they will concern themselves with the gender of the creatures that produced the sounds they are listening to, if they even have a concept of gender. However, in addition to asking for more Chuck Berry they might also request more Laurie Spiegel, the pioneering electronic musician whose work is included alongside that of the rock & roll legend, along with Bach, Beethoven, and others. The four tracks on the original Expanding Universe were recorded from 1974-1976, each piece assembled after Spiegel had painstakingly written algorithms to activate computer musical instruments developed at Bell Labs. But by the time this collection was released, some of the excitement around the golden record had died down and Spiegel was on her way to obscurity. But thanks to a knowledgeable music supervisor for the first movie in the Hunger Games series, interest was renewed in her atmospheric, richly textured work and an expanded Expanding Universe was issued revealing a far more prolific artist than we had realized. Yet even if we take just the original four tracks, especially the side-long title piece, we would have been introduced to a brave and distinctive sound-world that was far ahead of its time.

Although there are hints above, I'll leave it up to you to decide which five albums should be dropped to make room for these landmark records. The next step I would like to see is to take the 50-75 albums I love on NPR's list and use them as a cudgel to dislodge some of the shibboleth mediocrities from the Rolling Stone list. Then we might really be getting somewhere. Which albums do you think they should make room for?