Three months in and there’s already been plenty of good stuff– including three records that very well might, in fact, stand as my three 2012 favorites when December rolls around. Two of those three are only now releasing, in the month of April, and my full reviews are forthcoming. Naturally, their presence here can be taken as a very strong endorsement indeed.
01. Black Radio
Robert Glasper Experiment
03. Locked Down
Vijay Iyer Trio
05. Release Me
06. Leaving Eden
Carolina Chocolate Drops
07. Radio Music Society
08. Young Man in America
09. I Will Set You Free
10. Carnivale Electricos
Barry Adamson’s Back to the Cat may be the best album you’ve never heard before– unless, of course, you’re a long-time reader of this blog, in which case you know that I regard it as one of the five or six most bracing and original records of the last several years. The album pillages from the past but is ultimately without precedent or peer– plus, everything about it is just so perfect in its conjuring of late-night, big-city sleaze. One thing I marvel at is how Adamson takes the dramatic cues and cinematic tropes we associate with film music, and makes Back to the Cat into a true soundtrack in search of a movie.
It’s been four years since that album came out, and in the meantime, Adamson has taken his love of film music to the next logical level. He’s made an actual film, a creepy, noir-ish short called The Therapist. You might be inclined to think that he’s gotten the movie bug out of his system, then, and one listen to his new record, I Will Set You Free, might give you a feeling of confirmation.
And true enough: My first time through the record, I took it to be Adamson’s roots-rock album. Where Back to the Cat opens with a dark descent into the city’s shady underbelly, the new record more or less dances into the same netherworld. Opener “Get Your Mind Right” opens with a growl and the shake of a tambourine, and takes off into a cutthroat R&B number. There are horns present, an an organ that conjures the same sweat and stink of the last album, but Adamson is more about the swagger than the cinema here.
Other songs follow suit, rocking and swinging and kicking hard, but repeated listens muddy things considerably. Take the very next song, “Black Holes in My Brain.” Adamson picks up his lounge lizard persona once again, as though sliding into the same costume he wore for Back to the Cat, but the song is a pure ass-shaking, finger-snapping groove. And yet, between the nightclub piano and the moaning trumpet, it’s clear that Adamson hasn’t altogether left soundtrack music behind.
And so it goes. The lead single, “Destination,” is pure primal rock, fueled by shards of noise and post-punk guitar. It reminds me simply of the fact that, before he was a hep cat, Adamson was a Bad Seed, and before that, a member of Magazine. The song suggests a full-speed drive through empty nighttime streets– but what’s surprising is the chorus, a pure pop hook! But then comes “Trigger City Blues,” with its shattered-glass and ringing phone sound effects, as much a movie set piece as anything Adamson has done.
So what’s the story here? Nothing less than Barry Adamson’s liberation, I think. Here it’s like his musical knowledge and imagination are finally running amok, more freely than ever before. He’s not crafting something as focused as Back to the Cat, so the album loses a little something, I think, in the fact that it just doesn’t hand together and pack the same big whallop as the last one. But it gains a loose-limbed vibe that makes it every bit as impressive a showcase for Adamson’s talents. It pulls together his entire history– plus some exciting new directions– into a freewheeling revue of the man’s myriad gifts as songwriter and producer.
For me, then it’s a most welcome companion piece to Back to the Cat. One of my favorite cuts from that album, “Civilization,” offered evidence that Adamson could write rousing, rocking songs capable of bringing an entire room to its feet. This album expands on that gift with some straight-up nasty R&B numbers, drenched in organ grease and ultimately opening up to reveal the kinds of hidden, sophisticated production flourishes (ranging from horns to ambient noise) that Adamson is known for.
But I might like the ballads here best of all. “Looking to Love Somebody” is an organ-led, mid-tempo soul song, I guess, with a lovely muted trumpet break. Even better is an emotionally naked, piano-based tune called “If You Love Her.” It could almost be the bastard offspring of Bacharach and Scott Walker, with its aching sadness and sexual longing; it’s decked out with strings but what stands out is how powerfully and soulfully Adamson can sell it as a singer.
Closing song “Stand In” opens with washes of synths, and for a moment sounds like it’s plumbing the same seediness and dread that marked the last record’s final moments; when the song properly kicks in, though, it’s a surprisingly direct, upbeat, and emotionally available song, albeit with plenty of off loops and flashes of production weirdness. I reckon that’s as good a way as any to summarize the place of I Will Set You Free in this very special singer/songwriter’s canon; it may be a stretch to call this the sunny side of Barry Adamson’s world, but he’s never sounded freer in what he does.
In Rainbows (2007)
When I get the Radiohead itch, this is, more often than not, the first album I reach for. Describing the music has me reaching for all the words you’d never think to use with regard to these chilly, mopey experimentalists: In Rainbows is warm, sexy, inviting– dare I say romantic? If it’s a stretch, it’s not much of one, because this album is swoon-worthy, a richly seductive palette that finds Radiohead comfortable in their own skin and sounding like they’re truly in love with making music, perhaps for the first time ever. It’s the closest thing there is to a fun Radiohead record, but, as ever, there’s something ominous just below the surface. It would be a mistake to say that this is Thom Yorke turning inward– wasn’t Amnesiac in large part an album about divorce?– but it is his most introspective set of songs since The Bends, an album of twisted love songs, littered with lust and sin and consequences. The lyrics are, as ever, intricate, and deserving of time and effort– but given how enveloping and addictive the album is, it hardly feels like work.
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007)
An album that defies logic, Spoon’s sixth is a masterpiece of minimalism and of maximalism. (It’s miximal! It’s… manimal?) After making a name for themselves by adopting a seriously less-is-more approach to R&B-fueled indie rock, Spoon threw a whole mess of ideas against the wall for Gimme Fiction. Here, they streamline things again: The album is over and done in half an hour, and there’s not a single note of excess. Yet, they’re still playing with all the toys they got out of the classic rock and soul toybox; there are horns, samples, clipped studio chatter, even Jon Brion. But their greatest tools remain economy and precision. They’re grand studio charlatans who can take an embarrassment of ideas and somehow make it sound like a small, modest affair. I’m still not sure exactly how they pulled it off; all I know is that this seemingly little album seems to offer new riches every time I play it, and at times it feels like the world’s smallest– but most complete– playbook on how to make a thrilling, vibrant pop record.
22. Joe Henry
A higher profile– an an increased sure-footedness– for Joe Henry have somewhat obscured this central fact about Scar: That it’s a bewilderingly strange record, a twisted vision of Americana in which a funeral dirge bleeds into a cantankerous mambo, in which Richard Pryor is our disembodied narrator and ventriloquist Edgar Bergen the most unlikely of icons, in which the love songs are really about addiction, the torch songs secretly pining for redemption. Henry’s first major statement is an inverted take on our cultural history– a secret history that unfolds in love songs, the Holy Ghost haunting every frame. The first song encapsulates everything that’s transcendent in Henry’s fractured iconography: In a harrowing tale of self-destruction, he doesn’t so much make a saint out of Pryor as he does make him human. In many ways this is his wildest and most ambitious record, and its best moments point forward to everything he would do in the subsequent decade.
21. Original soundtrack
I’m Not There (2007)
Contained herein there is an entire thesis on the fluid nature of identity in the 21st century, both in art and more broadly; a master’s class on the nuances inherent to song interpretation; and a towering homage to a man who, more than anyone else, lays claim to the title of the greatest, most innovative songwriter in all of rock. And yet, these only hint at what makes I’m Not There a tremendous achievement, and the gold standard for various artist compilations, for more than any of these more formal, philosophical trajectories, the album is defined by its seemingly endless, unbroken string of immense pleasures. There are thirty-nine tracks here, and they are (more or less) all gems. Separately, they are united by nothing more than the byline; they are acoustic and electric, reverent and loose, paying homage to Bob Dylan and refashioning his work in the performer’s own image. Together, they tell an alternate history of an immeasurably fascinating man, and create a vibrant, living mosaic that’s far more than just a tribute album: It’s art in motion, and it’s a joy.
20. Barry Adamson
Back to the Cat (2008)
I would almost call Barry Adamson’s cast of characters– a rogue’s gallery of drunkards and deadbeats, junkies and jilted lovers– larger than life. But then again, I know these people– from cinema, from literature, from the dankest corners of jazz and rock and funk music. If I’m honest with myself, I’ve even been some of these characters, and I’m grateful to Adamson for the compassion he has for them. But if a command of our shared histories and cultural mythologies is his enduring obsession, then bringing these stories to life with all the right musical cues is his true gift. This is remarkably sophisticated music that employs everything from seedy lounge singing to gutter funk, not just for the sake of empty variety, but for all its suggestive power and implicatin: The music means as much as the words, making this a soundtrack that needs no film to accompany it.
Is contradiction the same thing as complexity? It is on Stankonia, a defining hip-hop album for me because it’s the product of real human beings, two grown men who can make sweeping but sophisticated political statements one minute and shift to macho posturing the next, men who laud the merits of virtue and good manners and also proclaim their love of hot prostitutes, without any of it sounding contrived or conflicted. It’s ace hip-hop too, of course– Big Boi and Andre trade rhymes with a kind of telepathic interplay that recalls prime Tribe– but really, it’s as much a rock and funk and soul album as it is rap, not just musically but spiritually: Outkast finds a stripe of humor and on-the-button cultural criticism that places them in the tradition not just of Sly Stone, but also, say, Richard Pryor. This is the seminal hip-hop album of the 00s, and the record largely responsible for getting my hooked on the stuff– which is both fitting and odd, given that it embodies everything that makes the genre vibrant even as it stands as virtually a genre unto itself.
I’m not going to give 2008 the full play-by-play treatment I’ve been giving the other years of the aughties, simply because, well, it’s still pretty recent– and besides that, my list of fifteen favorites is still available here. I do want to make just a few comments, though, and shine the light on a few terrific recordings that are still very much deserving of praise.
But first, a confession. I have “officially” had two favorite albums of 2008: First, TV on the Radio‘s Dear Science, and then, when I heard it in early 2009, Erykah Badu‘s New Amerykah part 1: Fourth World War. And both are, to be sure, tremendous recordings, fully deserving of landmark status; indeed, both albums are quintessential snapshots of 2008, albums that perfectly summarize the spirit of the age in which they were made, either with uncommon hope (TVotR) or unfettered indignation (Badu). But I will admit now that, when it comes to the album I actually listened to the most and derived the most joy from in 2008– and on into 2009– the honor for my personal most cherished recording is Barry Adamson‘s wonderfully soulful and deliciously seedy soundtrack-in-search-of-a-film, Back to the Cat.
That out of the way, I offer a few more reasons why 2008 was a year to remember:
- Two of the decade’s most accomplished and sophisticated singer/songwriters albums, by a pair of women who only seem to get better and better: Jenny Lewis‘ laid-back, classicist but idiosyncratic country-rock album Acid Tongue and Jolie Holland‘s knotty jazz-and-rock knockout, The Living and the Dead.
- The decade’s most convincing claim to the “New Dylan” tag, The Tallest Man on Earth‘s Shallow Grave.
- A dynamite continuation of Nick Cave‘s latter-day winning streak, the frantically funny Dig, Lazarus! Dig!
- One of my favorite instrumental jazz albums of the decade, and perhaps my very favorite that’s made up of all-original songs– Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band‘s Season of Changes.
- An album that didn’t make my original Top 15 list but probably should’ve: Sam Phillips‘s electric and eclectic set Don’t Do Anything.
- An absolutely essential collection from Steinski, and a historic collection of Bob Dylan outtakes.
- And, the decade’s most pleasant surprise: A Coldplay album that was actually deserving of the hype.
That was 2008 for me; what were your landmark recordings?
The standard disclaimer applies: I make no pretense of listing the objective best albums of the year, but, rather, the ones that have moved me, entertained me, rewarded me, and challenged me the most. Here are the fifteen classics that made 2008 a great year to be a music fan:
01. TV on the Radio
It’s not for nothing that TV on the Radio earns the occasional comparison to Prince– and it’s not just because of their sleek and sexy brand of funk ‘n’ falsetto, either. Brooklyn’s best and brightest art-rock troupe taps into the signs o’ the times better than anyone else in the 2000s, following their grim but determined masterpiece of paranoia– 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain— with the flagship album of the age of Obama, Dear Science. But to call it a political album is to significantly undervalue it; this music isn’t about left or right, it’s simply about being human, a poetic and profound album of joy and renewal that marries David Sitek’s artier inclinations with his band’s most giddily hooky, accessible tunes yet. Here they survey the darkness around them and give it a stern rebuke, bringing a message of hope in love, sex, God, and an age of miracles, and providing the dancefloor beats to back it up.
02. Barry Adamson
Back to the Cat
Adamson has made a career out of composing “soundtracks in search of a film,” and indeed, it’s hard to imagine any movie that could live up the the imagination and stylistic diversity on display on his latest. Adamson plays the role of our narrator and tourguide, an easygoing hep cat and misanthropic wiseman leading us straight through the gates of night and into a sleazy underworld crawling with addicts and junkies, lovelorn losers and cynical deadbeats. It’s enough to make Tom Waits proud, but Adamson’s broad, cinematic flourishes are entirely his own, and he plays on all the tropes and archetypes of film and pop music to create a beautiful, fractured mythology all his own, an album that drips with humor and venom, compassion and heartache.
03. The Tallest Man on Earth
It’s the ultimate kiss of death for aspiring singer/songwriters: The “new Dylan” tag. But this Swedish troubadour– who, incidentally, has crafted the best brew of Americana heard in 2008– takes a giant-sized step over the inevitable Dylan comparisons by harnessing the same effortlessness and organic ease that made those early Dylan records so great to begin with, creating a rare album that draws from an obvious influence but stands completely on its own thanks to its skill and imagination.
04. Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band
Season of Changes
Charles Mingus once said that making the simple sound complicated is easy; making the complicated sound simple is true creativity. It’s a shame he’s not around to hear what Brian Blade is cooking up– playing rich, complex compositions with such a great degree of harmony and unity that you almost miss the subtle texturing and the astonishing chemistry of the musicians, this is jazz that sounds earthy and spiritual at the same time, jazz that’s rich and varied and robust– and makes it all sound very, very simple.
05. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!
Revitalized by his bluesy, boozy working holiday on last year’s Grinderman LP, Cave moves beyond his midlife crisis and gets down to the business of what he does best: Playing the professional shit-stirrer, rabble-rouser, snake-oil salesman, street preacher, doomsayer, and Lothario, spinning complex fables and absurdist mythologies with more wit and vigor than he’s ever shown before. His Bad Seeds keep up with his rollicking pace, turning in their sleekest, most primal and groove-centered record yet. Who else could make the decline of civilization and the end of the world sound like so much fun?
06. Jenny Lewis
While her band, Rilo Kiley, turns to crass commerical pop and seems to stray further off course with each new album, indie rock’s poster girl sounds more inspired than ever before on her second solo album, dipping into the creative well of the Laurel Canyon scene of the 1970s and topping it off with girl-group harmonies, prog-rock ambitions, gospel choruses, and a few glorious bursts of ragged rock and roll. BFF Elvis Costello shows up for a ripping duet on one track, and his presence here only confirms that Lewis is emerging as one of the most musically sophisticated and creatively restless songwriters of her generation.
07. Jolie Holland
The Living and the Dead
She may have plugged in for this record, but that doesn’t mean she rocks– at least not in a conventional sense. This is Holland’s most ragged and raucous album yet, but it’s also her most textured and her most eclectic. That it’s her most expansive and diverse collection yet, despite also being her shortest, speaks to just how much she continues to grow as a songwriter, and if her tales of addiction and broken lives give the album its big heart, her sultry drawl gives it its sexy edge.
08. Elvis Costello
Named after the inventor of just-add-water noodle dishes, Costello’s latest appeared seemingly overnight, very befitting of an album that was recorded quickly and rocks with a gleefully abandon and a zeal for the simple, communal act of music-making. It’s the first Costello album in ages that doesn’t have a conceptual thrust or genre conceit behind it, which of course means that it’s his loosest, funniest, most laid-back and compulsively listenable record since All This Useless Beauty— the sound of a big band in a tiny room stirring up an enormous ruckus.
09. David Byrne and Brian Eno
Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
The album was assembled piece by piece, with the two principal artists mailing their home recordings back and forth to one another and stitching it all together using almost exclusively electronic instruments, but you wouldn’t know it to listen to the music, which is warm, spontaneous, communal, and lived-in– in other words, it more than lives up to its intent of capturing the spirit of gospel music using 21st century technology. It’s a funny and touching and completely joyful, optimistic recording, the most immediate and visceral recording yet from two of pop music’s most notorious eggheads.
10. Joan as Police Woman
Joan Wasser describes her aesthetic as “beauty as the new punk rock,” but you almost have to hear the music for itself to really find out what that means. Her second album is indeed blindingly, hypnotically beautiful– even more so than her excellent debut– and its emphasis on straightforward songcraft and genre-bending compositions make it feel as edgy and revolutionary as it is mesmerizing and addictive.
11. Loudon Wainwright III
When Wainwright and producer Joe Henry set out to make an album updating and re-interpreting many of Wainwright’s classic tracks from his first few albums, they vowed that they wouldn’t re-record anything just for the sake of doing it– all the songs here take on an entirely different light now, forty years after being written, that makes what could have been a glorified greatest-hits album a genuinely creative, coherent album about growing up, growing old, and living the life of an artist. Loudon’s never sounded better, and, as first evidenced by last year’s Strange Weirdos, he’s found the perfect creative foil in Henry.
Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends
Coldplay always did sound like they wanted to be U2, so it’s not too surprising to find them collaborating with longtime U2 ally Brian Eno; what is surprising is that, rather than make them sound even more like U2 knockoffs, Eno brings focus and a sense of adventure to the band, resulting in their first album to truly reflect the individuality and creative vision of its auteurs. Eno doesn’t change the familiar, well-mannered Coldplay sound very much, but he pushes it in exciting new directions; the music is colorful and bold, the lyrics concise and rife with provocative imagery, the record itself their shortest yet, but also their most creatively rich and vibrant. Coldplay has delivered– finally.
13. Drive-by Truckers
Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
Even given their penchant for big statements and long albums, the Truckers’ latest is a stunning work of creative endurance– nineteen tracks, and not a dud in the bunch. It’s their Exile on Main Street, an expansive statements that hops from one genre to another and showcases the individual gifts of every band member, pulling together the disparate stylistic and poetic conceits of three very different songwriters into a unified album about the competing pulls of decadence and responsibility.
14. The Fireman
The least McCartney-like album in ages happens to be one of his only solo albums that actually earns comparison to The Beatles, a strange and often exhilarating album that follows its own idiosyncratic logic from one style to another, McCartney and collaborator/producer Youth following their more adventurous tendencies and leaving all their rabbit holes and loose ends in tact. Would that Sir Paul could make albums this unpredictable more often.
15. Marco Benevento
Is it jazz? Pop? Avant-garde? Classical? The answer is yes to all of the above. Pianist Benevento’s skill is dizzying, his imagination irrepressible, and his songs so melodious and tuneful, all you have to do is make up your own lyrics and sing along.
More year-end wrap-up:
– Five honorable mentions
– On listmaking
– The best compilations and re-issues
– The year’s most pleasant surprises
– The year’s biggest disappointments
– Best new artist
– Best rap album
– Best jazz album
Barry Adamson begins his new album, Back to the Cat, with a dream– a feverish, apocalyptic fantasy about “The Beaten Side of Town.” It’s either nightmarish or utterly euphoric– or perhaps a little of both– depending on your perspective. In it, our shady narrator emerges from the shadows and recalls a vision he had of a giant temple, with a steeple spire and a sign that bids welcome, in no uncertain terms, to anyone and everyone: Junkies and liquorheads, lowlifes and deadbeats, addicts and hustlers. We’ve even told that agnostics are on the list.
As Adamson lays down his litany of the broken and the downtrodden, the freaks and the thugs and the addicts, he sets the tone for what the album is all about. It’s about people, in all their brokenness and ugliness and need. So for the next several songs, Adamson catalogs a strange and bewildering assortment of nocturnal citydwellers, inhabitants of the beaten side of town, all of them messed up and all of them ultimately beautiful. Adamson, whose modus operandi has always been to craft soundtracks in search of films, is a remarkably sophisticated guy, painting in broad strokes with mythological and cultural archetypes– the kinds of characters we’ve all seen and heard a million times before, they’re so ingrained in our humanity– and then fills them in with his devilish humor, his poet’s eye for detail, and his odd mix of cynicism and compassion. He gives us jilted lovers, men on the lam, characters desperate to escape from their past, and perhaps their present as well.
But he really clinches it on the next-to-last-song, a song that’s titled– appropriately enough– “People.” Amid the flurry of images and ideas that Adamson packs together, this tune is so simple that it feels almost confessional in nature. And it’s here that he unlocks the door of what the album is all about: “People, they are dumb/ And it’s come to my attention/ That I am one.” And there, with that line, Adamson places himself on the same plain previously inhabited only by Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Joe Henry, and maybe Leonard Cohen, a place where humanity is seen in all of its messiness and depravity, its addiction and its need– and then afforded a measure of dignity and compassion, as the singer and listener both identify themselves among the beautiful and damned.
That’s a big part of Adamson’s gift– his ability to peer into the shadows and back alleys of our civilization and find things that truly alarm and dismay, but also things that remind us of our shared humanity and of the strange beauty therein. The fact that his lyrical sophistication is matched– even exceeded– by his musical sophistication, as he brings together elements of jazz noir, James Bond soundtracks, Elvis-loving rock and roll, acid funk, gospel, and lounge crooning, is all the more reason why Back to the Cat isn’t just one of the year’s finest records– it’s downright essential.