What’s in my Discman, August 2010

Stevie Wonder – Music of My Mind
A bridge between Stevie’s hit-making wunderkind days and the epochal envelope-pushing of his mid-’70s masterpieces, Music of My Mind languished on my CD rack for a decade, always passed over for the darker, more ambitious Innervisions, the conceptual grandeur of Songs in the Key of Life (my knee-jerk pick for The Greatest Album of All Time) or a killer single like “Signed, Sealed & Delivered I’m Yours” (tied with “God Only Knows” for my knee-jerk pick for The Greatest Song of All Time). But for whatever reason, it’s found its way into heavy rotation for the first time, and thank god for it. In a way, it’s the ultimate Wonder album, an organic fusion of the carefree bliss of the early years and the heady funk and spiritual R&B of albums to come. The seven-minute-and-change sunshine funk masterpiece “Love Having You Around” opens things, setting the tone for a record dominated by themes of the joy and tenderness that true love brings. The songwriting and production is jarringly advanced from the poppier stylings of Signed, Sealed & Delivered, released just a year previous. And when the mournful notes of the closing track “Evil” fade from your speakers, leaving you to contemplate what shadowy force empowers the enemies of love, it becomes obvious that on Music of My Mind, Stevie Wonder was “Little” no more.

Metallica – Master of Puppets
Master of Puppets was my favorite album when I was 14. A few years later, I fancied myself a music connoisseur, a period during which I sold back a pile of dangerously awesome metal albums, including my entire Metallica collection. Having recently re-purchased this timeless piece of relentless, blistering thrash, I’ve gotta give my 14-year-old self some props. The title track is gloriously self-indulgent, shifting tempos, rhythms and time signatures with hairpin accuracy, with James Hetfield’s anti-war sentiments bludgeoning listeners with as much force as Kirk Hammett’s legendary riff. Damn, there isn’t a weak cut here. “Battery” and “Damage Inc.” are bloody-fingered, double bass drum-punishing assaults that put headbangers on cloud 9; “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” is a high-drama metal opus that makes insane asylums seem almost cool; the prog-rock instrumental “Orion” needs no growling or screaming to glue metal fans to their seats. When I first fell in love with Master of Puppets, its fusion of wild sonic hellfire and advanced rock craftsmanship had a mainline to my soul. But I also loved Jackyl in those days, which means my soul was also kind of stupid.

Randy Newman – Live
This album was my first exposure to the man who would become my favorite singer/songwriter (sorry for all the hyperbole in this post, it’s just turning out that way. Plus, I’m wicked drunk on Zima right now). And while one of Randy Newman’s inimitable qualities is his imaginative orchestral arrangements, I’ve always preferred the way he sounds on this release, a selection of tracks recorded at a pair of 1970 Newman solo performances at the NYC club The Bitter End. He performs cuts off his first two albums (like the twisted sexual satire “Mama Told Me Not To Come” and the I’m-lonely-in-a-crappy-apartment ballad “Living Without You”), material off of the forthcoming wonderment Sail Away, and a pair of sweet, ingenious songs about awkwardness in the bedroom that never appeared anywhere else – “Tickle Me” and “Maybe I’m Doing it Wrong.” And as pretty as the strings are on the original recording of “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” it doesn’t hold a candle to Newman’s performance of it here, which embodies a sky streaked with grey with tear-welling poignancy. Capturing the sweet and sardonic sides of this artist with fly-on-the-wall starkness, Randy Newman Live is the kind of record that makes you thank god the tape was rolling.

What’s in my Discman, May 2010

I’m really into albums from 1971 these days, for some reason. I guess I’m just swept up in the memories they inspire – you know, me at -7, eating Tootsie Pops and playing four square while living in the twinkle of my pappy’s eye.

Paul & Linda McCartney – Ram

Like any aspect of Beatles history, the band’s attempt to get back to its roots on its muddled-with-patches-of-brilliance swan song, Let It Be, has been analyzed to death. But you don’t need an insider biography to tell you that Paul McCartney was leading this charge towards stripped down rock and blues constructions. All you need as evidence are his first two solo records, 1970’s jarringly spare McCartney and 1971’s Ram. The latter is the much stronger album, presenting the ideal mixture of the farmhouse rusticity Macca was obsessed with and the gloriously produced melodies that have always been his strong suit. You’ve got the unadorned Delta blues of “3 Legs” and the light, scatman folk of “Heart of the Country,” as well as the beautiful Beach Boys harmonies of “Dear Boy” and the looking-ahead-to-Wings power ballad “Back Seat of My Car.” Unlike any other McCartney album, Ram never goes to extremes; even Linda’s hopelessly flat back-up vocals fit the homestyle milieu. The Cute One went on to do some great things, but he never again made an album as balanced as this.

Bill Withers – Just As I Am

Bill Withers is the quintessential R&B folksinger, and this, his debut album, is prime evidence to back up that claim. Over the course of a dozen tracks, the music world was introduced to the steady, hypnotic bluesiness of Withers’ voice, his soul-infused acoustic guitar playing, and the gut-wrenching drama of his songwriting. Withers tells gripping stories as easily as he delivers those buttery vocal runs – “Grandma’s Hands” mourns the loss of a matriarch; “I’m Her Daddy” is the stirring plea of a man who realizes he has a six-year-old daughter; “Better Off Dead” is a suicide note from an abusive alcoholic. Producer Booker T.’s arrangements are subtle and tasteful throughout, letting Withers’ glue-you-to-your-seat tunes carry the day – just thinking about “Ain’t No Sunshine” gives me goosebumps.

David Bowie – The Man Who Sold The World

Few artists have dabbled with as many different styles as David Bowie. But until I heard The Man Who Sold The World, I didn’t realize that prog-rock and early metal were on the list. Before the pop perfection of Hunky Dory or the conceptual, glammed-out brilliance of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, there was this album – a loud, roughshod recording dominated by huge guitars and huger concepts. “Running Gun Blues” is an unflinching Vietnam critique, “All the Madmen” a harrowing depiction of a man about to be released from a sanitarium, “Saviour Machine” a plea from a governmental leader to help him kick his power addiction. It’s all bathed in chugging Sabbath riffage and epic early-Zeppelin arrangements – while the towering melodies and glamorous sensibilities of classic Bowie are ever-present, the guy never rocked harder than he does here.

What’s in my Discman, April 2010

Erykah Badu – New Amerykah, Part Two: Return Of The Ankh

On her fifth album, and second installment of the awkwardly named “New Amerykah” series, Erykah Badu gives us her most commercially viable music of the last decade or so. That’s not to say it’s the kind of glossy, over-emoted sludge that passes for R&B these days – Return of the Ankh goes down easy, but it’s because Badu and her band make these breezy soul grooves look easy. A significant shift from the challenging sprawl of New Amerykah, Part One: 4th World War, Ankh is waiting to be pulled out during the summer months. With the airy funk of “Turn Me Away (Get Munny)” and the slow-burning ode to solo travel “Window Seat” drifting from your speakers, you’ll almost be able to smell the barbecue.

She & Him – Volume Two

She & Him is such a shamelessly cute premise – gal writes sweet love songs, guy produces ’em to sound like mid-’60s pop singles, and they release them in packaging full of fanciful illustrations – I can’t believe I don’t hate it. The duo’s second album follows pretty much the same formula as its first, with Zooey Deschanel’s songs dripping in hooks that would’ve surely been snatched up by The Turtles and Herman’s Hermits back in the day, and M. Ward’s production fleshing them out without weighing down their inherent preciousness. Their back-to-pop-basics philosophy seems trendy on paper, but on Volume Two, She & Him makes Me happy.

Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak

It took me a while to really give 808s & Heartbreak a chance. I figured Kanye’s “I’m working out my personal issues with Auto-Tune and a TR-808 drum machine as a support system” album would be an interesting, but ultimately forgettable, listen. Lord, was I wrong. West embraces the chilly, impersonal nature of that technology, using it to enhance the feelings of loss, abandonment and unrequited love that dominate these tracks. And he pairs his roboticized voice with beautiful post-punk soundscapes throughout, from the heart-monitor-beep-fueled sexuality of “Say You Will” to the sweeping strings and gnashing drum machines of “RoboCop.” By fusing one of R&B’s lamest trends with the gothic, synthesized pop of bands like The Cure, Kanye West took a wild artistic gamble and created something staggeringly great. I’m just trusting him from now on.