Great Fucking Albums #28: Lifes Rich Pageant

Let’s get one thing straight right now: I know you expect an apostrophe in the “Lifes” on Lifes Rich Pageant but R.E.M. didn’t put one there so I’m not going to either. Let’s just move on the best we can, okay?

The year was 1986. Ronald Reagan was halfway through his second term tripling our national debt in two expensive, pointless, and morally ambiguous wars (the Drug War and the Cold War, for those of you keeping score at home) while simultaneously ignoring AIDS (no wonder the current crop of Republicans idolizes this guy). R.E.M. was coming off the road to record the follow-up to Fables of the Reconstruction, an album that the band seems to view as a dark effort (I regard it as a good album, though not as clearly awesome as Lifes Rich Pageant). For their fourth full-length, R.E.M. turned to producer Don Gehman who had earned his reputation producing… um… John Mellancamp albums. Stay with me here.

Gehman, in what would be his only time working with R.E.M., produced their finest album, Lifes Rich Pageant, a pop/rock masterwork infused with anger (“silence is security/ silence means approval,” Michael Stipe sings on “Begin the Begin”), melancholy (“Fall On Me”), and not a little bit of humor (album closer “Superman,” which is a cover of a song by the Clique). Vocally, it was an early step toward intelligibility for Michael Stipe (but it’s not like you can’t figure out what he’s saying on Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction; on Murmur, yeah, your guess is as good as mine) and instrumentally, it saw R.E.M. move toward a bigger rock sound while still holding fast to their roots as a group that began in Athens, Georgia, as basically a Velvet Underground cover band.

Although R.E.M.’s first big hit, “The One I Love,” was still a year away (on Document.  How is that possible? Their first four albums are littered with songs that are far, far better than “The One I Love.” Murmur had “Catapult” and “Perfect Circle.” Reckoning had “Pretty Persuasion” and “Second Guessing.” Fables of the Reconstruction had “Driver 8,” “Can’t Get There from Here” and “Wendell Gee.” And Lifes Rich Pageant bested them all), Lifes Rich Pageant is – to me – their first true pop record, “Underneath the Bunker” notwithstanding.

First of all, there’s not a wasted moment here. From “Begin the Begin” to “Superman,” R.E.M. are on task in a way that they probably ought to revisit. In my mind – and you already know how I think about singles – any one of the twelve tracks on this Great Fucking Album could be a hit (okay, except maybe the aforementioned “Underneath the Bunker,” which I’d totally play if I had a radio station). If time travel wasn’t impossible, I’d go back to 1986 and make all the radios play “Fall On Me” and “The Flowers of Guatemala,” the latter of which has to be among the most underrated R.E.M. songs ever recorded. It is so underrated, in fact, that even I was too retarded to include it as part of R.E.M.’s Finest Hour.

Lyrically, Lifes Rich Pageant, like a lot of R.E.M.s ’80s output, is preoccupied with very worthy task of disliking the Reagan Administration. As Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck, and Bill Berry (the most underrated drummer in rock history) saw their country take a hard right turn that brought with it an almost seething contempt for the environment (not to mention poor people and the sovereign rights of various Central and South American nations), their music couldn’t help but address that shift. What makes Lifes Rich Pageant timeless, though, is Stipe’s opacity. “Cuyahoga” is a bitter song about a river that was so polluted that it actually caught on fire once, but its specificity ends with the geography. The line “take a picture here/ take a souvenir” could be about any place that we’re currently fucking to death by valuing money over the land we live on. Songs like “Begin the Begin” and “I Believe” are calls to arms for the 1980s that just happen to resonate right to the present day, perhaps because so little has changed (to address the elephant and/or donkey in the room here: yes, I’m probably what you’d call a “liberal” and yes, I voted for Barack Obama. But I don’t worship him – or anyone, except maybe Joe Strummer* – and sadly, I don’t believe that any president will ever dismantle our horrifying military-industrial complex, nor will any of them actually undertake any policy that might subvert our national religion – money –  even if it means that we get to live on a habitable planet). Even if you aren’t trying to suss out the political undertones of Lifes Rich Pageant (Parke Puterbaugh, who wrote the liner notes for the 25th Anniversary Edition of the album, asserts that “Fall On Me” is about “lamenting acid rain or resisting political oppression” but I’ve always understood it as a love song. The genius of this album is that Puterbaugh and I can both be correct), you can still wallow in the melodies, which are some of the strongest R.E.M. has ever created. Enjoy the tour de force performance of Mike Mills, the world’s greatest background vocalist, as he adds his reedy tenor to songs like “Hyena” and “Fall On Me.” Mills even takes the lead on “Superman” and proves himself quite adept at sixties pop.

As I parenthetically mentioned a second ago (you can skip everything in parentheses in any given Bollocks! review and you’ll get the gist, but I’d like to think you’ll also miss out on a lot of what makes this blog what it is [whatever that is]), Lifes Rich Pageant has lovingly received a 25th birthday re-release that you can scoop up for between twenty and twenty-five bucks. Is it for hardcore fans only? Sure; every release like this is. But if you love Lifes Rich Pageant as much as I do, the anniversary reissue is well worth your time. It comes with a dazzling 19-track bonus disc of so-called “Athens Demos” recorded during the album sessions, including an early version of the proto-“It’s the End of the World As We Know It” song “Bad Day” (written during Reagan, revised, re-recorded, and released under George W. Bush. In the liner notes to The Best of R.E.M., Peter Buck notes that nothing had changed between the original writing of the song and its eventual release) and a few other unreleased treasures. It also includes four postcards and a giant poster (soon to be framed and hung in the office of my new Portland area apartment!) of R.E.M. in all their 1980s glory. The Athens Demos are a great insight into how these songs developed on their way to becoming my favorite R.E.M. record, but I don’t see casual R.E.M. listeners sitting still for the whole disc.

You can obviously still find the regular edition of Lifes Rich Pageant on disc (my old copy is free to the first taker, but I should warn you that it was purchased at a CD Trader when I was in high school and it’s pretty warn out) and you would do well to check it out (the whole thing is also available on Spotify) if you like pop, rock, pop/rock, or unsurpassed awesomeness.

* “Worship” is the wrong word to apply to Mr. Strummer. It’s more like I follow his teachings, the way Buddhists are supposed to follow the teachings of Buddha. My spiritual/moral code derives from following the teachings of Joe Strummer, the Dalai Lama, and Kurt Vonnegut. It’s served me well so far, which is exactly why I’m not gonna build a church around it.

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31 Songs (Part 2)

Okay, so it’s not my birthday anymore, but I like to finish what I start, so allow me to resume telling you about 31 songs that have, in some way or another, shaped my life. Because I’m 31. Get it? If you missed the first sixteen, they are here. But moving right along…

17. Counting Crows, “Sullivan Street.” It’s the first song I learned to play all the way through on the guitar (it’s really easy). If you were in junior high or high school when August and Everything After came out, chances are you owned that album. Not all of it holds up (their second album, Recovering the Satellites, totally does) for me these days, but this song still puts a smile on my face.

18. The Clash, “London Calling.” Not because it’s the opening track of my favorite album by one of my favorite bands (although that’s part of it). I have a particular fondness for this song because when my friend Tim and I were getting our band together out here, we used to audition people with this song. We auditioned the dude who eventually became our bass player and we had so much fun playing this song that we were all three shouting the lyrics at the top of our lungs by the end. It was a blissful little rock ‘n’ roll moment, made possible by one of the best bands ever.

19. Pearl Jam, “Alive.” Pearl Jam sucks now, but when Ten came out, I was a kid who was more than ready to move on from the cock-rock I loved in the 1980s. I dove into all that Seattle stuff head first and the guitar playing on “Alive” still makes me want to plug my Epiphone in and rock out.

20. LCD Soundsystem, “All My Friends.” I’ve moved across the country twice in the last seven years. When you move around a lot, you meet lots of awesome people and you end up missing a bunch of them. In 2007, James Murphy created a song that helps me fondly remember everyone all at once. If someone asks you what the big deal is about LCD Soundsystem, play them this song. If they don’t get it, send some money to whatever research institution will help cure their malady.

21. Band of Horses, “The Funeral.” My sister got a heart transplant in 1997. In the years between then and when she died in 2008, there were at least six separate occasions when I was told that she wasn’t going to make it. So I knew exactly what Band of Horses was talking about from the first time I heard this song.

22. Res, “The Hustler.” I heard Res’s How I Do for the first time in a friend’s car in college (the same awesome friend who made me the Jeff Buckley-heavy mix tape) and I remember thinking that it was the first modern R&B/pop-ish album that I actually enjoyed. Res has a fantastic voice and this song has a great confidence to it. For me, though, it’s another song that was the soundtrack to some totally awesome times.

23. The Highwaymen, “Live Forever.” The Highwaymen were an old-school country supergroup consisting of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings. If that sounds totally badass, that’s becuase it was. “Live Forever” is a phenomenal song, which I first heard in high school at my friend Marlayna’s house. Marlayna had pretty weird musical taste for a high school kid in the 1990s – she was into the Highwaymen and Leonard Cohen. She’s still one of my best friends in the world and this song is attached in some way to every positive memory I have of high school.

24.  The Ramones, “Blitzkrieg Bop.” It’s impossible for me to be unhappy while listening to this song. I hope it’s impossible for you to be unhappy while listening to this song.

25. Curtis Mayfield, “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go.” Curtis Mayfield was the most underrated soul artist ever. This song is still proof that you can be funky, sexy, and substantive all that the same time.

26. Tom Waits, “Come On Up to the House.” I’m gonna die someday and when I do, I hope someone who loves me has the presence of mind to put this song on and pass out some pints of Guinness. Tom Waits’ music gets me right down to the marrow and this is the kind of song that churches should be built around (but sadly, they never are).

27. R.E.M., “Nightswimming.” I like it when songs make me wistful about shit I never did. This song is just beautiful and, like “All My Friends,” it makes me remember a thousand things and people all at once. It also makes me wish I’d paid more attention to those piano lessons when I was little.

28. My Friend Steve, “The Schooling.” I know what you’re thinking: “Who the fuck is My Friend Steve?” Do you remember their greatest hit? I was 18 when their album, Hope and Wait, came out and at the time, I thought it was a pretty smart record (hey, I was 18). I still think that and I don’t care how much it shatters my street cred. Hope and Wait was the first CD I bought when I finally had the disposable income to quit cassettes for good. I don’t get why these guys never became the thinking man’s Gin Blossoms, but you can find this album in just about any good clearance bin at your local record store if you wanna check it out for yourself.

29. My Chemical Romance, “Welcome to the Black Parade.” Not every song that shapes your life has to be good. I fucking hate this piece of shit song but I’ll tell you the impact it has had on my life: it has given me a clear enemy against whom to react. Whenever I play music, write about music, or even fucking think about music, I try to do it in a way that will utterly destroy songs like this and all the other shitty songs that My Chemical Blowmance makes. Fuck this song and fuck this band. Jesus.

30. David Bowie, “Life on Mars?”. I know this is almost everyone’s favorite Bowie tune, but there’s a reason for that: it’s fucking awesome (warning: that video can be a little creepy if you’re watching it alone at night). This is another song that I strongly associate with my nearly two years in Boston. I got paid to listen to, talk about, and occasionally put away music for most of my time in Boston and that nine-dollar-an-hour job was worth every oppressively cold winter and every fuck-humid summer day I spent there.

31. The Beatles, “Love Me Do.” This song was the first dance at my wedding reception, because you can swing to it. I don’t give out a lot of relationship advice here at Bollocks! (though I do dabble in the odd bit of parenting advice), but I’ll tell you this: it’s perfectly reasonable to fall in love with someone who makes you want to learn to dance. Or, if you already know how to dance, it’s perfectly reasonable to fall in love with someone who is willing to learn so they can dance with you.

31 Songs (Part 1)

As I mentioned yesterday, today is my birthday. I am 31 years old and totally okay with that. I didn’t freak out about turning 30 – quite the contrary, in fact. So far, my thirties work like this: I have the same youthful energy I did when I was 20, but I’m smarter about how I use it. I think.

Because January is a shit month for new releases (always is) – no disrespect to the Decemberists, who have kindly decided to grace us with The King is Dead next week – I’ve been forced to come up with quality content that does not have to do with new releases. Because there aren’t any. Yet.

So anyway, since it’s my birthday and I can do what I want to (as long as “what I want to” means “go to work”), I’ve decided to regale you with a list of 31 songs that have had some kind of profoundish effect on my life. They are presented here in the order that I think of them, which should not be taken as some kind of ranking of best to worst.

1. Tom Waits, “Tom Traubert’s Blues.” If you just hear the chorus to this song, you’re going to think, because of its use of “Waltzing Mathilda”, that Waits is covering the (unofficial. I think) Australian national anthem. The song is actually about a drunken night in Denmark with a chick named Mathilda (hence the subtitle “Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen”). Not only is this easily the best track from Waits’s early beatnik era, it’s an almost epic work of heartbreak. Everything about this song is sad (“No one speaks English and everything’s broken”) and yet nothing about it is emo. I spent a lot of time single in my life, and some of that time more than a little depressed; but Tom Waits howled so I didn’t have to.

2. Wilco, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” I loved the title of this song even before I heard it, but it’s another one from my single/slightly depressed college days. The great phrase of the whole song is when Jeff Tweedy sings, “Still I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t easy/ I am trying/ to break your heart” (it narrowly beats out “You were so right/ when you said I’ve been drinking”). Now, I’ve never deliberately broken anybody’s heart (in fact, I’ve never broken anyone’s heart at all, to my knowledge), but there were times when I certainly liked the idea. I’m in a much better place emotionally these days, but this song is still tremendous.

3. Seatbelts, “Tank!”. Yeah, the Cowboy Bebop theme. Composed by Yoko Kanno, but owing a serious debt to Charles Mingus (especially Mingus Ah Um), this track is a fucking awesome blast of jazz that also happens to be associated with one of the finest animated series of all time. I’ve watched a lot of Cowboy Bebop in my life, with many of my awesome, nerdy friends and “Tank!” reminds me of all the cool people I know. Also, it’s the song that played when my wife and I ran out of the hall after our wedding ceremony.

4. Pixies, “Debaser.” Might be among the top ten opening tracks ever recorded. I listen to this song whenever I want to get completely psyched out of my mind about… well, anything. Except sex. Screaming about slicing up eyeballs is kind of a mood killer. But for everything else, I still wanna grow up to be a debaser.

5. The Flaming Lips, “Do You Realize?” There are precious few songs that are equally effective when you are deliriously happy and when you are achingly sad. But the Flaming Lips have cornered the market on that sort of thing. When my sister was dying in 2008, I listened to this song about one million times in a row. I’m listening to it right now and I don’t really think I’ll ever get tired of it. It’s fucking gorgeous and if you disagree, perhaps you don’t know what the word “gorgeous” means.

6. The Hold Steady, “Your Little Hoodrat Friend.” No, it’s not that appropriate to my life in any personal way, but this was the song that made me a Hold Steady fan for good.  I was living in Boston when Separation Sunday came out and I saw (and worked with) a lot of girls who kinda fit this description.

7. Joe Strummer, “Redemption Song.” I’ve talked about this song a lot on Bollocks!. It’s the best cover song of all time. Enough said.

8. R.E.M., “Be Mine.” R.E.M.’s best love song. I learned to play this song on guitar to impress girls. It worked, which was surprising. Tom Waits’ “I Hope I Don’t Fall in Love with You” is the only other song I’ve learned that impressed a girl, as far as I know. If you’re a girl and you’ve been impressed with other songs I’ve played, you don’t really have to come forward at this point. But thanks.

9. Wilco, “She’s a Jar.” I used to learn Wilco songs because I liked how comfortable Jeff Tweedy sounded being heartbroken (even though he’s happily married and has a kid or two). I had this tendency in college to find guitars in people’s houses and play them. At one party, I played this song and my friend Max, a little drunk, pointed out, “Matt only sings when he’s depressed.” That’s not true now, but it probably was then.

10. The National, “Fake Empire.” I wasn’t blown away by Boxer the first time I heard it, but this song blew my fucking mind. The simple truth of the statement, “We’re half awake/ in a fake empire” still grabs me by the throat. The song is beautiful, depressing, and yet somehow also uplifting. I think maybe all really great songs should be that way.

11. Public Enemy, “Rebel Without a Pause.” I think I’m old enough to say this now: “Hey, sideways-visor head kid with the 50 Cent T-shirt. Do you know where hip-hop came from? Do you know that the guys who made it back in the day had principles and didn’t just think about making money and smacking around bitches? No, you don’t know that. Listen to ‘Rebel Without a Pause’ and you will know it as surely as you know your own name.”

12. Pulp, “Common People.” You’ll know human culture has righted itself when you turn on the  TV special for the Kennedy Center Honors and you see Jarvis Cocker sitting next to the President with one of those funky medals around his neck. Okay, he’d probably tear the medal off and tell the President to go fuck himself. My point is that Jarvis Cocker is deserving of very high, very public praise. Even if you don’t agree with his politics (I pretty much do), you have to love Cocker’s ability to translate snark into pure pop genius. Living in Los Angeles has given me a particularly keen appreciation for this song, especially the line “if you called your dad/ he could stop it all.”

13. Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah.” Everybody and their dog has covered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” but every other version of that song – including Cohen’s – should run and hide in shame when compared to Jeff Buckley’s. I mean holy shit. I bought Grace when I was in college because my friend Traci had made me a mix tape with “Grace” and “Last Goodbye” on it. And then I heard this song and I sat very still for six minutes and fifty-three seconds. This is a literally awesome tune.

14. My Morning Jacket, “Off the Record.” I drove my coworkers at Tower Records nuts with My Morning Jacket’s Z, but this song always reminds me of how fucking awesome that job was.

15. John Hammond and Tom Waits, “I Know I’ve Been Changed.” This old timey spiritual, which appeared on Hammond’s Wicked Grin album, is, to me, a definitive piece of religious music. I don’t believe half the stuff they talk about in this song, but the way they sing conveys a spirit that is undeniable, especially on Waits’ verse. Dude rips into that thing like Courtney Love rips into a bag of heroin.

16. Radiohead, “True Love Waits.” I have a kinda shitty, live bootleg mp3 of this song and I have no idea where I got it. But I love it. This song captures perfectly the sort of fragile vulnerability that you experience when you realize you really love another person. Thom Yorke, for all his disjointed, Flea-assisted “experimenting”, will never be this good again. I realize that’s a great way to start a flame war on the internet, but it’s my birthday and I’ll say what I want.

This is getting a little long already. I’m gonna call it a (birth)day and I’ll fill you in on the other fifteen songs tomorrow. Until then, remember the words of St. Joe Strummer: “Without people, you’re nothing.”

My Ten(ish) Favorite Albums of 2010

Well, I can’t fight the tide of year-end best-of lists forever, but I can try to have fun with it. What follows is a rambling, shambling list of my ten-ish favorite albums (I say “ten-ish” because there’s a tie at number ten and a three-way tie for my second favorite album of the year) and, in the interest of defying tradition while still being stuck with it, I’m doing it “count-up” style, starting with my first favorite and ending with my 10th(ish) favorite. It’s Monday, and I figure we can handle it without the suspense.

1. The National, High VioletIf you’ve read Bollocks! over the last two weeks, you already know this is my favorite album of 2010. There’s not much more to say about it – the National have set the bar incredibly high for whatever they do next and this album still gives me chills.

2. Tie: LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening; The Screaming Females, Castle Talk; The Hold Steady, Heaven is Whenever. I know the so-called pros will frown on my refusal to make a distinction between these three albums. “Surely,” they will scoff, “you can’t love all three of these albums exactly the same amount.” “Yes I can,” I will reply, “and don’t call me Shirley.” (Rest in peace, Leslie Nielsen. You are forgiven for Dracula: Dead and Loving It). LCD Soundsystem made a dance/pop/rock/electronic masterpiece with This is Happening. It’s a smart, catchy album, and it’s got some of the finest songs James Murphy’s ever written. The Screaming Females, over their last two records really, have injected some much needed vitality into modern rock music. Castle Talk is probably the best straight-up rock album released this year and, in case you haven’t noticed, everyone here at Bollocks! likes Castle Talk almost as much as we like food. As for the Hold Steady, well, Heaven is Whenever is another in a long line of profoundly awesome albums from my favorite band. More than their previous releases, Heaven is Whenever sends me running for their references – different songs make me want to listen to Jim Carroll or Hüsker Dü and then come back to the Hold Steady. I know some people saw Heaven is Whenever as a step down for the Hold Steady, and they’re entitled to that opinion as long as they don’t try to peddle that bullshit ’round here.

3. The Arcade Fire, The Suburbs. What you have to realize about this list is that the separation of affection I have for these albums is minuscule. 2010 was like Christmas all year long for me, with new albums dropping almost monthly that had me wishing that I could just stay home for a week straight and listen to music. The Suburbs is goddamn gorgeous, substantive, and exactly what I’ve come to expect from the Arcade Fire.

4. Menomena, Mines. This album is candy for your ears. Much is made of Menomena’s songwriting and recording techniques, but none of that is as important as the fact that Mines is stuffed to the gills with soaring melodies and lush harmonies. It’s Menomena’s best album so far and I hope you run out and get it as soon as you finish reading this.

5. The New Pornographers, Together. Some of my friends look at me funny when they ask what pop artists I like and I say, “The New Pornographers.” This is usually because they’ve never heard of the New Pornos and labor under the  popular delusion that “pop” is short for “popular.” I know a lot of people think that, but I’m referring to pop as the kind of rock music made popular by the Beatles. You know, big choruses, catchy melodies. Listen to Together and tell me you don’t hear some of the best pop music of 2010. And then I’ll tell you that I would very much like to donate to whatever telethon helps people like you.

6. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, The Brutalist Bricks. Ted Leo is a bit of an unsung hero of rock music. He plays the guitar like a motherfucker, creates stylistically diverse music with a punk spirit, and even puts in the work to keep ticket prices down (as much as possible) for his fans. The Brutalist Bricks is a pretty relentless record – that is, it’s pretty and relentless, sometimes in the same track (album closer “Last Days” comes to mind). And the band brings just as much thunder on the stage as they do in the studio. The show Leo & the Pharmacists played in Los Angeles last spring was one of the most satisfying concerts I’ve ever attended.

7. The Mynabirds, What We Lose in the Fire, We Gain in the Flood. Laura Burhenn is an incredibly powerful singer, and she doesn’t need any goddamn auto-tune to deliver a melody that’ll put some fire in your blood. What We Lose in the Fire is nothing new musically, but it’s played with the deep faith of someone who as been baptized in the river of the music they’re mimicking. The album starts with a stunner (the somewhat paradoxically titled “What We Gained in the Fire”) and is littered with musical treasures throughout. Listen to the this record.

8. The Corin Tucker Band, 1,000 Years. I had read somewhere, long before it came out, that Corin Tucker’s first post-Sleater-Kinney album was inspired by her marriage and two kids. Given my feelings about such music, my Trepidation Meter was pegged over in the red until I heard 1,000 Years, which is actually just a very lovely rock album with some nice melodies and some really kickass moments. Tucker’s voice is still in the same great shape it was in on The Woods and her return to making music was one of the best things about a very rewarding year in music.

9. Wolf Parade, Expo 86. Wolf Parade channeled 80s David Bowie (the Dan Boeckner-led “Yulia” is “Space Oddity” with a Russian historical flavor) and their own personal weirdness to craft the best 1980s album of 2010. I hate to use the word “accessible” when discussing music, but Expo 86 probably was a breath of fresh air to people who were a bit put off by At Mount Zoomer (I don’t count myself in that group). Either way you slice it, songs like “Caveosapien” and “Ghost Pressure” help make Expo 86 an album that I couldn’t leave alone for long this year.

10. Tie: The Manic Street Preacher, Postcards from a Young Man; Roky Erickson and Okkervil River, True Love Cast Out All Evil. Both of these albums ended up tied for my tenth favorite in the last two weeks. In preparing for all this year-end nonsense, I tried to go back through all of the albums I really enjoyed throughout the year, and these two have done nothing but grow on me. Sure, Postcards from a Young Man is a bit overstuffed in places, but “All We Make is Entertainment” might be the best song the Manic Street Preachers have ever written (it’s definitely one of my favorite songs of 2010) and the rest of the album is pretty great too. James Dean Bradfield is an underrated rock vocalist and he proves it on every Manic Street Preachers album. As for legendary loony Roky Erickson, I spent the better part of this past holiday weekend rediscovering True Love Cast Out All Evil, and that album is really fucking beautiful. Like Postcards, it’s got some dodgy moments but those are far outweighed by moments of transcendent musical awesomeness. “True Love Cast Out All Evil” might be the best title track of the year.

There are lots of great albums that didn’t make this list. I still love them, but 2010 was an amazingly satisfying year for music (at least for me it was) and the albums discussed above are the ones from this year that I return to time and time again. We’re almost done with the year-in-review stuff, but I have found what is definitely the worst album of 2010 and I might need two days to tell you about it. Until then, some unsolicited advice: listen to music more than you talk, write, or read about it. Namaste!

The 2010 Bollocks! Awards, Part 2

Did you miss Part One? Check it out here.

Now let’s keep the ball rolling by presenting the “In the Beginning” Award for Best Opening Track. I had a hard time picking a winner for this award, but I went with a track that not only is an excellent way to open the album on which it appears, but is also a pretty excellent snapshot of everything that makes this particular band great. So the award goes to The New Pornographers for “Moves”, the track which opens their stellar album Together. Honorable mention goes to Ted Leo for “The Mighty Sparrow”, Menomena for “Queen  Black Acid”, and The National for “Terrible Love”.

If I’m going to have an award for an album opener, it only makes sense to have an award for an album closer. Hence, the Coffee is for Closers Award for Best Closing Track. This award was won in a landslide by Wolf Parade, because “Caveosapien” is a badass way to end Expo 86, which is a badass album. Honorable Mention: Ted Leo for “Last Days” (Mr. Leo has garnered a lot of honorable mentions at the Bollocks! Awards because he is indeed an honorable man) and The Hold Steady for “A Slight Discomfort.”

Some critics shy away from paying a backhanded compliment, but I certainly don’t. That’s one of the reasons I made up the Semisonic Award for a Brilliant Song on a Boring Album (Semisonic, astute readers will recall, is responsible for the catchy late ’90s anthem “Closing Time” which opened an album that was so boring it’s not legal to listen to it while operating heavy machinery). This year’s winner is The Besnard Lakes in yet another landslide. “Albatross” is one of the best songs of the year, but it sits smack in the middle of one of the most boring albums I’ve ever heard. The song should be the absolute blueprint for the Besnard Lakes’ continued existence, but something tells me their future sounds a lot more like the boring bits of The Besnard Lakes are the Roaring Night.

Sometimes, when you’re trying to pay homage to a hero, you can end up parodying that hero and – occasionally – yourself, so I like to make mention of artists who honor their heroes with dignity. So I’m presenting LCD Soundsystem with the Marilyn Manson Award for the Best David Bowie Impersonation. LCD Soundsystem mostly gets this award for “All I Want,” but the more I listen to This is Happening, the more I hear post-Young Americans Bowie, which is not a bad thing at all.

This year, I heard a really shitty cover of Don Henley’s “Boy’s of Summer.” Turns out that really shitty cover was by the Ataris. Now, I don’t like Henley’s original, but the Ataris’ version is pure suck. By way of contrast, none of the songs I considered for the Smothered and Covered Award for Best Cover Song suck even a little bit. After much debate, I’ve chosen to give this award to Mavis Staples for her cover of CCR’s “Wrote A Song for Everyone.” Staples goes one better than a faithful rendition of the tune – she takes ownership of it and truly makes it a song for everyone. Honorable Mention goes to Esperanza Spalding for a beautiful rendition of “Wild is the Wind” on her Chamber Music Society album and also to Bettye LaVette for basically all of Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook.

But now that I think about it, one of my favorite covers I heard all year is not available on any album. Good thing I just made up the Ted Leo Finally Wins One Award for the Best Live Cover Song. As you might have guessed, Ted Leo wins this award for his stirring rendition of “Fisherman’s Blues” by the Waterboys. Leo performed this as part of his encore at the Troubadour last spring and it made me want to run home and play guitar really loud. Well done, Mr. Leo. Well done.

So few awards left to hand out! By the way, the winner’s don’t get statuettes or anything – they just get the honor and prestige that doesn’t come from winning a Bollocks! Award. You’re welcome, winners!

Some albums don’t get the recognition they deserve when they come out, so I thought it might be nice to create the Delgados Award for Most Totally Underrated Album of the Year. It’s pretty clear from where I sit that MGMT should win this award for Congratulations. A lot of people wanted more sugary pop from the weird duo and what they got instead was an album of psychedelic freakitude that actually has a lot more going for it than their debut did. Honorable Mention: The Hold Steady for Heaven is Whenever, Jesca Hoop for Hunting My Dress, and The Black Keys for Brothers.

And what’s this over here? Why, we have Another Tom Waits Award, This Time for Best Lyricist of the Year. The winner won’t surprise anyone who’s read more than two posts on this blog: Craig Finn, the singer and chief songwriter for The Hold Steady, is probably the best writer in all of rock music today. Heaven is Whenever, like all four of its predecessors, is littered with gems like, “In the end, I bet no one learns a lesson” from “Weekenders” and “you can’t tell people what they wanna hear/ if you also wanna tell the truth” from “Soft in the Center.” And the ostensible title track, “We Can Get Together”, is one of the sweetest things Finn’s ever written. Honorable Mention: Nick Cave (Grinderman) and Matt Berninger (The National).

I don’t make a lot of genre distinctions here at Bollocks! but I made up the Thriller Award for Best Pop Album because I am often accused of hating pop music. Cee Lo Green is the clear winner in this category because The Ladykiller is pure pop candy and I end up listening to it about three times in a row every time I start listening to it. Yes, “Fuck You” is the best song, but the other songs are not far behind it. Green still doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a pop mastermind and winning this award will definitely not change that. Honorable Mention: New Pornographers Together and She & Him Volume Two.

And so we come to the last Bollocks! Award for 2010, which means I can stop abusing the bold text for another year. The final award is every bit as unprestigious as the ones that came before it – it’s the Bollocks! Album of the Year Award. Though competition was stiff, there’s really only one album I can give this award to and that’s High Violet by The National. That album is still stunning to me every time I put it on and it’s still the album from this year that I listen to the most, which is saying something indeed. I could give several Honorable Mentions but I will point out two that I think also qualify as essential listening to people who like joy and they are This is Happening by LCD Soundsystem and Castle Talk by the Screaming Females. More on those albums later when I publish my arbitrary, old-fashioned top ten albums list.

That does it for the 2010 Bollocks! Awards, but the year-end madness will continue with favorite-album write-ups from a couple of my guest contributors, my top ten albums list, and a look ahead to 2011. If you’ve enjoyed Bollocks! this year, why not give your friends the gift of our web address (https://chorpenning.wordpress.com) so they can enjoy the hyperbole and vitriol for themselves? It’s totally free and it’s the kind of gift that says, “I want you to read the word ‘fuck’  ninety times in the next five minutes.” Hey, it’s the thought that counts, right?



Year-End Madness and Albums I Didn’t Review This Year

It’s Christmas week and that means all your favorite music websites are going to spend two weeks totally punting and counting down their favorite songs and albums of 2010. I do not exclude myself from this sort of thing and, in the days ahead, you’ll be treated to a very Bollocks!-y summation of 2010’s best (and worst) music. This year, instead of just counting down the billion best songs and million best albums (seriously, what’s the point of counting down 50 albums? It’s like saying that no albums are really special but these 50 albums are somewhat less un-special than the other albums), I present to you, for the first time, The Bollocks! Awards. Later this week, I’ll present unique awards to the best and worst songs and albums of the year (example: one of the categories is The Morrissey Award for Being the Biggest Asshole in Music). Also, my sometime contributors, Jesus Christ and musical pathologist Rebecca Mellor will write about their favorite albums of the year. And, finally, for you old-fashioned, list-craving people, I’ll tell you my ten favorite records of the year with the caveat that, other than my favorite album of the year (which will be #1), the other nine will be in no real order whatsoever.

But first, we need to talk about the elephant in the room: there are some albums, some of which will end up on other, far-inferior (in my expert opinion) year-end lists, that I deliberately did not review this year. Here’s why: when I review an album, I want to listen to a legitimate copy with the best possible sound quality. That generally means I have to pay for albums and then trade them in if I don’t like them (I used to get albums from e-Music, but they started sucking. On the bright side, the twenty bucks I used to spend on an e-Music subscription is now going to be spent on a monthly donation to the Red Cross. So thanks for sucking, e-Music). I’m neither big enough, important enough nor nice enough to get free promos from record labels. So I try to review albums that I think I will enjoy or at least find interesting. Every once in a while, I’ll pick an irresistibly soft target like Metallica’s Death Magnetic, but for the most part, I try to track down albums that I’ll actually want to keep. So I didn’t review Speak Now by Taylor Swift this year, I skipped the new Kanye West record, and I even eschewed The Age of Adz by indie media darling Sufjan Stevens. Because I was pretty sure I would hate those records.

A couple of years ago, I said that if I obtained a legitimate hard-copy of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy, I would give it a fair hearing on Bollocks!. I was given that album as a gift and gave it what I think is a very fair chance to impress me (although certain GNR fans might disagree with threats and swear words). So this year, I’m publishing what you might call a Bollocks! Christmas list. Here are some albums that I will review if copies of them fall into my lap (if you really want me to review one of these albums, it helps to bribe me with alcohol):

Taylor Swift, Speak Now. Taylor Swift is fucking everywhere today. I see her face on billboards, at the checkout stand at Starbucks, and on TV every time I turn around. I caught part of her performance on some TV show and it sounded horrible. But I’ve never sat through one of her albums and, for all I know, they could be great. Probably not though. If, at any time (not just between now and the New Year), someone hands me a legitimate copy of Speak Now, I will give it the same fair, objective critique that all albums enjoy on this blog.

Bret Michaels, Custom Built. I’m not going to like this record. There’s a duet with Miley Cyrus. And I’ve never been a big Poison fan. If I listen to it, it will only be to enjoy the Schadenfreude of one man’s slow descent into utter, post-reality show failure. That may not sound very charitable on my part, but that’s why I haven’t bothered to review this album.

Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Everyone loves this fucking record and I’m gonna go out on a limb here and admit that I actually enjoy a few Kanye tracks. I didn’t purchase My Beautiful Pretentious Album Title because I have never enjoyed an entire Kanye West album and I’m hesitant to spend the money rewarding the man’s titanic ego. Of all the albums on this list, however, this is the one I think I’m most likely to be surprised by.

Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz. So-called “indie” people adore Sufjan Stevens and I’ve never been able to figure out why. That Illinoise record was one of the most pretentious, boring albums I’ve ever heard. Was it wrong of me to write off Mr. Stevens based on that one bad experience? I don’t think so, but maybe his new album will change my mind.

Katy Perry, Teenage Dream. This is a soft-target for me, I admit. I have never heard a single redeeming thing in Katy Perry’s music and I’m baffled that anyone over the age of fourteen would listen to this shit. The prospect of sitting through one of her albums is kind of daunting, but I’m willing to do it if a copy should fall into my hands.

I’m pretty much finished with standard reviews for this year, unless I take the leap and pick up the new Kanye record myself, but I’ll be back to the grind in 2011 with reviews of new albums, a new feature called The Worst Songs I’ve Ever Heard, and maybe one or two new contributors.

Stay tuned for The Bollocks! Awards and feel free to litter the comments section with your favorite songs and albums of the year.

LCD Soundsystem’s Finest Hour

If, well, pretty much every internet music news source (reliable or not) is to be believed, James Murphy is pulling the plug on his band, LCD Soundsystem, at the end of this year. Which is basically four weeks from right now. While I’ve read that Murphy may still continue doing music, it’s still a bittersweet moment. On the one hand, LCD Soundsystem released three pretty excellent albums, one of which contains one of the best songs of the 21st century so far – in other words, the world needs LCD Soundsystem’s music, or music very much like it. On the other hand, Murphy is disbanding LCD Soundsystem at the height of their powers. If he makes good on his promise, there will be no disappointing falloff in the quality of LCD albums and they will always be rightly remembered as an amazing early 21st century band that was better than all of their peers at making rock music dance-able and/or dance music rock-able, depending on where you’re coming from.

So I thought it might be nice to send James Murphy and friends off with a proper salute: I’ve compiled a list of some great LCD Soundsystem songs totaling sixty minutes of listening bliss. It’s LCD Soundsystem’s Finest Hour, in no particular order. Read on:

“Daft Punk is Playing At My House.” Any discussion of this band is apt to include this song, which opens LCD’s eponymous debut album. This might still be LCD Soundsystem’s biggest hit and, though it’s not their best song, it’s still fucking awesome. James Murphy might be the only white guy who can pull off the “ow-ow” that he so jubilantly yelps at the outset of this tune.

“No Love Lost.” This Joy Division cover appears on a split tour single LCD Soundsystem did with the Arcade Fire. I saw them for the first time on this tour. At the Hollywood Bowl. While you’re busy envying me (I also have a hot wife, if that stokes the fires of your jealousy), I just want to point out that this version of “No Love Lost” is why James Murphy is one of only two people who should be legally allowed to cover Joy Division (the other is Trent Reznor, which may seem kind of obvious. But Nine Inch Nails’ version of “Dead Souls” is badass).

“North American Scum.” The first single from Sound of Silver, “North American Scum” was the 2007 party anthem for people who felt like they had to apologize for the lameness of their nation when traveling abroad (so, “Americans”). In further testament to LCD’s awesomeness, the video for this song features an awesome magic laser fight on the fucking moon. What else do you need to know?

“All My Friends.” This is the song I was talking about earlier when I said LCD Soundsystem wrote one of the best songs of the 21st century so far. This song, also from Sound of Silver, is perfect pop and it makes a superb soundtrack to all your best memories, assuming, of course, that you have friends (sorry, Dick Cheney).

“Disco Infiltrator.” Murphy has always been able to get away with being a bit ridiculous in his songs, mostly because the music still sounds good.  Case in point: “Disco Infiltrator,” from LCD Soundsystem.

“You Wanted a Hit.” Murphy thumbs his nose at the record industry, his fans, and himself, taking us past the nine minute mark before we even know what’s hit us. LCD Soundsystem had a special gift for creating long songs that didn’t piss me off. This song, from this year’s This Is Happening, is easily the best nine minute track of the year. In fact, This Is Happening probably contains the only good nine minute songs of the year.

“Movement.” LCD Soundsystem does punk. “It’s a like a culture without the effort of all of the culture,” Murphy sneers before working himself up to a shout on “You’re pillaging and I’m tapped.” One of my favorite LCD tunes, from their first record.

“Someone Great.” James Murphy does his best 80s Bowie on this track from Sound of Silver, a great tune about loss and the passage of time. What we’re losing with the end of LCD Soundsystem is a band that seamlessly blurred the lines between pop, dance, and rock.

“All I Want.” Another This Is Happening cut, the one that apes the e-bowed guitar part from David Bowie’s “Heroes.” I read a snarky review of This Is Happening that mislabeled this as “slide guitar.” But it’s an e-bow, the same as was used on Bowie’s tune. To quote DOOM, “If you’re gonna hate/ might at least get your facts straight.” Anyway, the Bowie homage isn’t really the meat of the song; “All I Want” perfectly captures the contradictory behavior people can get up to in relationships. Murphy sings  about coming home to “the girl who has put up with all of your shit” and then sings, “All I want is your pity/ all I want/ is your bitter tears.” The song’s a bit of a cry for help, but it’s an awesome one.

“The Great Release” officially closes LCD Soundsystem (there’s a bonus disc with some other great tracks, including “Losing My Edge,” which some people would argue should be included in my little list here. It’s a good song and, if I were going over sixty minutes with this list, I would include it) and it’s a very slow building song that ambles toward a climax on the line, “Something dying/ will be a great release.” This song also happens to be, in my estimation, the most unabashedly beautiful song in the LCD Soundsystem canon. I’ve heard that, if you live a good life, as  you die and go toward the light or whatever, you hear “The Great Release.” That may not be true, but that’s what I heard.

So that’s an hour’s worth of my favorite LCD Soundsystem tunes, although you’d be hard pressed to find bad tracks on any of their three albums. As I said before, LCD Soundsystem is stopping in their prime. If you have a minute on New Year’s Eve this year, maybe use it to raise your glass to James Murphy and his excellent band – I hope more than anything that, whatever he does next, Murphy tackles it with the humor and intelligence he brought to LCD Soundsystem. So long, Mr. Murphy, and thanks for all the fish the great music!