Sunday, January 10, 2010

2009 Wrap Up: Highs, Lows, Reissues & Buried Treasures

Highlights: Leonard Cohen at Radio City (at last!); Grace Jones at Hammerstein (give Hurricane, her latest, a try - it's magnificent); dancing to Michael Jackson at every party (why did we ever stop? Did we get enough?); watching Stephen Stills rip it at the Hall Of Fame concerts on HBO (go to 2:09 in the clip); Lou Reed/Metallica was cool, too; discovering DJ/Rupture's Mudd Up podcast; taking my daughter and nephew to Girl Crazy at City Center (can't have too much Gershwin); DJ'ing New Year's Eve again; and my 120 gig iPod.

Lowlights: Death of Michael Jackson (more on him another time) and so many other valuable musicians; playing requests at my New Year's Eve DJ gig (if you ain't going to dance to it, don't ask for it!); getting a targeted marketing email from Amazon trying to sell me the new album from self-justifying woman-hitter Chris Brown (this was related to my buying history how?); and yet another year with no new music from Portuguese genius Gecko Turner.

Reissues: This year was dominated by that four-headed elephant in the room: The Beatles remasters. And rightly so - whether you swing stereo or mono, this was a necessary upgrade, if even only for the packaging. The biggest surprise for me was Magical Mystery Tour. Finally, all the takes George Martin mashed-up to create the final masters blend beautifully on Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane and the rest sounds terrific, too. Chuck out those clunky jewel-cases with those indifferent CD's and get this behemoth now.

However, there were other reissues of note: The Who Sell Out and Tito Puente's Dance Mania got well-deserved deluxe editions. The Who's fake radio station shows the contrast between British rock and the culture it was blowing up. It's outrageous, polished, profound, hilarious, and it rocks. Tito was simply el rey of mambo and this album (and it's successor, included here) sealed his rep. The production gleams and displays all the interlocking parts of his amazing band like an exposed V12 engine. A pinnacle of Latin music and music in general.

Buried Treasures: While the resurgence of Rodriguez continued to amaze (check out his Daytrotter session), it was undiscovered wonders from Death and Tim Buckley that forced 2009 listeners to reassess some piece of the past. 

For The Whole World To See, Death's lone recording, is a six song blast of proto-punk, with an almost proggy expansiveness to songs like "Politicians In Their Eyes." Aside from a misguided drum interlude (I hesitate to call it a solo), this record is fresher than many sounds recorded today. But in 1974, these three African-American brothers from Detroit had their fingers on a pulse only they could feel. Keep an eye out for the film of their startling story. 

Live at the Folklore Center, March 6th, 1967 finds Tim Buckley pouring his heart out to a crowd of 35 enthusiastic fans. Sometimes compared to Nick Drake, Buckley typically burns at a much higher intensity and this stunning performance is no exception. His high tenor is lush and impassioned and his guitar playing is deft - in short, he's at the top of his game. Did I mention there are six (six!) Buckley songs that appeared nowhere else? Whether you're an old fan or a curious newcomer, this is essential listening. Thanks to Izzy Young and the Buckley estate for giving this collection a long overdue airing. 

In two weeks: Enough of 2009. A review of Spoon's latest serving, Transference.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Rest Of 2009

The Other Ten: Rather than an ordered list, this is more of an overview of 10 other records that I really enjoyed from 2009.

Justin Vernon Deals With Success
After listening to the masterful debut for the better part of a year, Bon Iver's Blood Bank EP felt somewhat like an epilogue but the songs it contained were certainly more than b-side material. Woods,the final song, is a lush exploration of what a true artist can pursue with Autotune. 

Vernon also collaborated with some old friends on Unmap, released under the name Volcano Choir. A sort of campfire minimalism propels some of the pieces and the wide dynamic range recalls Peter Broderick's brilliant Home. If not for a few self-indulgent tangents, this might have been in the Top Ten - it's a richly rewarding listen. 

For anyone not convinced of Vernon's sheer greatness as a singer, find his spine-tingling performance in NPR's podcast of the Dark Was The Night concert here.

Competing With Themselves
It was wonderful to have new albums from both The Clientele and Tinariwen, however neither one surpassed their amazing previous releases with their 2009 entries. Bonfires On The Heath finds The Clientele in an autumnal mood, with the more delicate songs flickering like cupped flames. Tinariwen's Imidiwan:Companions creates a dust storm of their distinctive guitar-driven hypnotism. Desert Wind, the meditative finale, could have gone on forever without complaint from me.

Brand New You're Retro
Both Mayer Hawthorne and Major Lazer are masters of styles created by others in the recent and not so recent past. Part of the fun of both of these is the conceptual framework - the Warhol touch, if you will - that seems to underpin them. Now, that could all be in my head but that is exactly where I listen to music so it works for me. To a point. 

A Strange Arrangement, the all-singing, almost-all-playing debut from dynamite DJ Hawthorne, takes us through a variety of soul styles the way only a true crate-digger can. Folks like Raphael Saadiq and Eli Reed may have more sheer talent but they bring no perspective to bear on their perusals of the past. However, Hawthorne's voice can sometimes seem as slight as the running-length of the album. 

Guns Don't Kill People...Lazers Do is a project of genius producers Diplo and Switch and listening to the whole album is a little like spending time with the nutty friend-of-a-friend who just doesn't know when to stop. In small doses, however, their twisted simulacra of reggae and dancehall tropes is delightful. There was no way the blissful Cash Flow was not going to be heard during my New Year's Eve DJ set. And it rocked the house.

Lazy Dylan Is Better Than No Dylan 
After the run of three masterpieces followed by the jaw-dropping Tell Tale Signs, naturally I had very high hopes for Together Through Life. They weren't entirely dashed - the record got a lot of play. Yet while the tossed off music (along with Dylan's sepulchral cackles) was often a blast, the lazy lyrics often dragged me back to earth. I choose to blame it on Robert Hunter, his co-writer on many of the songs. If you're a fan, don't hesitate to pick it up - and get the deluxe version with an entertaining episode of his Theme Time Radio hour.

Underdogs, It's Gonna Be Alright 
The great Virginia hip hop duo Clipse and Congolese collective Staff Benda Bilili would seem to have little in common but they are both underdogs in their way. Staff was formed by polio survivors who developed a joyful sound that can be deeply funky. The signature sound of the band on Tres Tres Fort is the homemade satonge, a one-string guitar played by Roger Landu. On occasion he seems to be trying so hard to play wildly unexpected runs that his solos (and there are a lot of them) gradually become predictable. He's only 17 so I expect much more from him and the group. 

With two all-time classics under their belt (not to mention the amazing We Got It For Cheap mixtapes), Clipse might still feel like underdogs what with the record industry kicking them around and, to my mind, less appreciation than they deserve. However in a decade where if you're name wasn't Jay-Z, Little Wayne or Kanye you were practically persona non rappa Pusha T and Malice definitely made their mark. A full celebration was planned for the release of Til The Casket Drops, but the cork got a little stuck in the Champagne bottle. The first seven tracks are nearly up to snuff, all booming bass and braggadocio, with odd beats and gleaming touches. Then things fall off to grab bag level. For the first time, I started skipping tracks on a Clipse album. There Was A Murder is one great track - best hip hop of the year.

Missed It By That Much
I tried to listen to every list candidate before publishing the last entry. However, it wasn't until 12/31 that I got to hear Efterklang's Performing Parades. This is a live recording with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra of their 2007 masterpiece. The live setting and additional musicians adds depth to their modernist music and, surprisingly, more rock heft. They are true artists - I can't wait to watch the DVD.

And you? What floated your boat in 2009?

In two weeks: Highlights, lowlights, reissues and buried treasures.