What’s in my Discman, March 2011

James Blake – James Blake (2011)

The cover of James Blake’s debut album is a nice bit of synesthesia – a portrait of the artist soaked in icy blue undertones, his face blurred to the point where he’s looking at you from two different places at once. It’s the perfect visual interpretation of Blake’s voice on this record, a silky, soul-inflected alien in a purely electronic world. On “The Wilhelm Scream,” it’s rich and full, dancing lightly over atmospheric synths; on “Lindesfarne I,” it’s distorted and chilling, comparing hope to kestrels through washes of pitch correction. Blake pines for happiness throughout, over distant, subterranean electronics that belie his optimism. It’s a Sade album for a Terminator future, where a singer clearly has soul, and the machines try to strip it from him every step of the way.

ZZ Top – Eliminator (1983)

The trio of Gibbons, Hill and Beard were always thinly veiled rip-off artists, but they tended to be damn good at it, fusing John Lee Hooker’s riffs and attitudes with the kind of classic rock hooks that fit snugly on the Dazed and Confused soundtrack. On Eliminator, those mainstream tendencies completely took over, and it was a blessing. By polishing up their guitar sounds and throwing some love songs into the mix, ZZ Top found the balance they needed to make a great record. Instead of sounding like a guy who’s bullshitting his buddies, a la “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” Billy Gibbons sounds sincere in his appreciation of legs, suits and TV dinners, letting his guitar do the bragging with one indelible riff after another – “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Got Me Under Pressure” and “Sharp Dressed Man” is one of the strongest opening sequences in ’80s rock.

Das Racist – Shut Up, Dude (2010)

The second mixtape Das Racist released last year, Sit Down, Man, was a Discman constant for me, along with the Wallpaper remix of their corporate homogenization novelty song “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” Now that I’ve circled back and picked up their debut mix Shut Up, Dude, it’s crystallized in my brain – few things are more fun these days than listening to these guys. The lyrics might be delivered with a stoner’s irreverence, but they’re meticulously packaged blasts of verbal candy, delightfully off-kilter (“We can eat gruyere as if we care/We can eat Roquefort, or we can kick it like Rockport”) and rich in pop culture (references include Saved By the Bell, Tim Meadows, The Land Before Time, Look Who’s Talking Now and Jake Gyllenhaal). And given that it’s a mixtape, Das Racist can rap over anything, whether it’s a choice Madlib beat or a hyped-up slice of Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out.” The result is mischievous, way smart and party ready, and a reminder of how much fun rap is when it doesn’t have to worry about intellectual property law.

What’s in my Discman, November 2010

Bob Dylan – The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (2010)

To my generation, so much has been made of Bob Dylan “going electric.” How brave and invigorating it was, how it resulted in Dylan’s best work, how we should wish we were 20 years older, just so we could’ve been around when it was happening. I’m not disagreeing with any of that necessarily, but an unintended counter-effect of this type of praise is an underestimation of Dylan the baby-faced folksinger. It took me a long time to seriously pay attention to any material that pre-dated Bringing It All Back Home. But now, with the release of The Witmark Demos, my silly prejudice has been washed away for good. Both an interesting insight into the workings of Tin Pan Alley and a testament to the prolific genius of the young Robert Zimmerman, this collection of demos gives us an unprecedented look at the burgeoning star spilling his ideas on tape, for the purpose of impressing other artists, not the public. All the elements are here – the shameless Guthrie-aping, the snidely funny political commentary, the jaunty blues numbers, the timeless statements. And the sound quality is better than you’d think; “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” rings out with such honesty and clarity, it breaks your heart all over again. This is 47 peeks into the formative years of America’s most influential singer/songwriter, complete with coughs and murmured explanations, flubbed notes and in-the-moment inspirations. Treasure it.

Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song (2010)

A double album from the guy who co-wrote “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”? Sounds like something whipped up by the Satan of my own personal hell. But there ain’t nothing trendy or empty-headed about The Guitar Song, a robust collection of songs with roots in traditional country and production values that gleam like an oil soap-polished bar. Don’t be fooled by the record’s “Black” and “White” subtitles, because Johnson’s interested in grey areas. Whether he’s singing about heartbreak, the plight of the modern farmer or breezy afternoons on porch swings, there’s either a resiliency behind the sadness, or the sense that real happiness is earned. Through it all, the pedal steel licks soar and mourn, the pianos dance in dark corners, and every word is soaked in Johnson’s elegant, commanding baritone.

Pink Floyd – Meddle (1971)

This is Pink Floyd’s bridge album – after the departure of the band’s original creative force, Roger Waters & company stayed in acid freakout mode for a bit. And while Meddle has its share of spacey, groove-based psychedelia, it also provides the first glimpses of the more accessible rock juggernaut to come. This transitional nature is perhaps best illustrated by Meddle’s final two cuts. First is the quirky Delta blues of “Seamus,” a two-minute song about a dog. It’s followed by the 23-minute “Echoes,” a gorgeous, undulating epic that does justice to its title, introducing melodies, riffs and freaky bird sound effects that continue to resonate across the decades. For folks who dig early Floyd as much as the mainstream stuff, this is the best of both worlds.

What’s in my Discman, October 2010

The Roots  – How I Got Over
We’ve always been able to count on The Roots to deliver top-notch, head-bobbing grooves and smart, fiery verses – they’re probably the most consistent outfit in hip-hop. But with How I Got Over, these guys haven’t just kept things fresh; they’ve upped the ante. A powerful, nuanced concept album about overcoming all that life can hurl your way, it thrills on first listen, and only becomes more rewarding the more you hit repeat. By masterfully blending their two main stylistic approaches – warm, Native Tongues beats and chilling, confrontational synth-funk – the band is able to paint a thoroughly convincing picture of self-doubt evolving into self-confidence. Black Thought rattles off a laundry list of natural disasters over the gloomy piano chords of “Walk Alone,” but by “The Day,” guest vocalist Blu is looking in the mirror and realizing, “I should start living today.” Moving stuff, in both senses of the word.

Helmet – Meantime
For teens in the early ’90s looking to project their deeply falsified angst on something harder and snarlier than Nirvana, Helmet fit the bill quite nicely. Mixing the mammoth riffage and clipped shouts of guitarist/singer Page Hamilton with drummer John Stanier’s deep-in-the-pocket breaks, Meantime was loud, nasty, groove-based hardcore, a sound that hurts just as good almost 20 years later. Sure, there’s plenty of pain-obsessed Trapper Keeper poetry – Hamilton’s jealous cheerleader screams of “You’re better … die!” being the lowest point. But the guitars are so punishing, and the rhythms so gut-punching, they would smother any attempt at refined lyricism like the runt of a litter.

Of Montreal – False Priest
Of Montreal’s evolution from romantic freak-folkies to dance-pop aphrodisiac junkies has been one of the most remarkable musical transformations of the last decade. But its last record, 2008’s Skeletal Lamping, started to show the downside of such a carefree approach to musicmaking – overlong and relentlessly in-your-face, it was proof that there can indeed be too much of a good thing. Thankfully, the band’s 10th album, False Priest, has the distinct aura of a steadying hand – uber-producer Jon Brion. Bandleader Kevin Barnes continues to explore rubbery synth funk soundscapes and hyper-sexualized lyrics, but this time around, a heavy R&B influence keeps everything in check. The opening “I Feel Ya Strutter” is as much Motown as Studio 54, setting some wonderful piano chord changes against Barnes’ wild vocal jaunts. “Like A Tourist” is a delirious bit of 21st century disco, an addictive, clipped guitar pattern anchoring it to solid ground. And the guitars of “Coquet Coquette” attack with brute force, a dash of White Stripes simplicity that spices things up more effectively than any chaotic ProTools pastiche.

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.