Obsessions, Passions, Perversions
For most people, music is a very personal matter. Songs, albums and artists carry a significant and significantly different meaning for each of us. That's especially true with music critics. While we do get to reveal a little bit about our passions and taste through our writing, polls like annual Top 10 lists are often impersonal barometers that don't give an accurate portrait of the men and women whose work you see in the pages of this section. That's why we've decided to reveal a little more of ourselves and sate your ravenous appetite for year-end lists (or beginning, as it were) with this, our Top 10 Personal Obsessions list. You'll find that some of us are online record-buying junkies, others use CDs as a means of fear management, while some specialize in collecting stuff that most rational thinking humans would probably pass on. In any case, the next few pages should allow you frightening glimpses deep into our souls and record collections.
Top 10 Things I Bought on eBay
My name is Bob, and I'm addicted to eBay. But I'm not alone. In fact, several of my co-workers have also been stricken with eBay-itis, a seemingly incurable disease that compels the victim to spend hundreds of dollars on items that are worthless to almost everyone else. For example, the guy in the office right next to me, we'll call him "Dwight," has been known to drop hundreds for posters of late-period Joan Crawford films. While another of my New Times brethren, "Annie," constantly regales me with stories of how she gets antique cookie jars for really cheap, "like $200." Normally, I scoff when I hear of people making such ridiculous purchases. Don't they know that for the same $200 they can get a mint-condition Replacements Let It Be poster or a multi-disc Dylan '66 live boxed set? Since most of my disposable income has been going into the coffers of those hawking hard-to-find, out-of-print and import CDs (the term euphemistically used to describe illegal bootlegs), I decided to offer my Top 10 eBay purchases as evidence of my own particular mania.
1. Tommy Keene, Based on Happy Times (Geffen). For power-pop aficionados, this is the holy grail of out-of-print CDs. Basically abandoned by Geffen after its release in 1989, the commercial failure of this unheralded masterpiece ushered in Keene's almost five-year absence from recording. Shortly after hitting stores, compact disc copies of the album vanished. Only a few thousand CD copies were reportedly ever made, and most of those headed to the cut-out bin. Hunters at used-record stores have been known to scour the aisles for this elusive treasure. Though the disc sells regularly on eBay for upward of $30 (or as much as $75 in one instance), I was able to get mine for the unbelievably low price of $25.50, due mostly to a mid-September glut of the disc on the auction site.
2. Beatles, The Complete BBC Sessions (Great Dane). An exhaustive nine-disc bootleg chronicling the Fabs' radio appearances from 1962 to 1964. Although the quality is sometimes murky, most of the 257 tracks are indispensable listening for Beatles fans who came away unsatisfied with Capitol's official Beatles Live at the BBC release in 1994. Manufactured in Italy by Great Dane Records in 1993, it includes cuts from the lads' performances on The Beat Show, Saturday Club, Pop Go the Beatles, The Ken Dodd Show and Top Gear. The most amusing aspect of the collection for me was hearing the songs preceded by sometimes indecipherable Liverpudlian banter, and various shout-outs to "Susie in Chemsfordshire" and "Brian in Hexbury on Glen" and almost everyone else who wrote the moptops a fan letter. The set also includes a handsome 36 page booklet with rare photos and extensive, if sometimes inaccurate, liner notes. Another steal, as I was able to get this for $123.50, considerably less than the $280-plus that the previous set went for.
3. Beach Boys, Smile Box (unreleased). The definitive and most sonically impressive collection documenting the greatest album never released. Three discs of studio alternates and a fourth featuring the album as it was purportedly to have been sequenced. (For a full run-down of the history of this particular bootleg set, check out Robert Wilonsky's article in the December 23 edition of New Times.) This was a must-have for me, and I got it for a relative bargain at $135. Smile bootlegs have been around for ages, but the sound quality, packaging and format of this makes it the ultimate, that is until Capitol releases the official version, something that may happen as soon as this year.
4. Professionals, I Didn't See It Coming (Virgin). This sophomore album from the post-Pistols group fronted by Steve Jones and featuring Paul Cook is one of the true lost treasures of the postpunk/New Wave era. This is a legit rerelease of the group's 1981 album. It was reissued last year as a Japanese import, and I was able to pick it up for just under 20 bucks. I don't know if it really qualifies as a guilty pleasure, but I've always enjoyed Jones' singing immensely. Cuts like the disc opener, "The Magnificent," and the anthemic "Payola" feature some of Jonesy's best vocal work ever.
5. Tom Waits, Storytellers (Ring Finger). Being duty-bound during last year's SXSW festival in Austin, I had to forgo the opportunity to catch Tom Waits' much-heralded "comeback" show at the Paramount Theater. I also felt similarly gypped when I missed his appearance a few months back on VH1's Storytellers program. But not to fret; with the advancements in Internet commerce, I was able to get an, er, "import" CD version of the show not long after its initial broadcast. The 47-minute disc features performances of some of Waits' biggest hits ("Ol '55," "Jersey Girl"), material from his latest album, Mule Variations, as well as his inimitable tales and jokes.
6. (tie) Clash, Yellow Riot (Genuine Pig) and Into the '80s (Kiss the Stone). I got caught up in a late-year buying frenzy of live Clash product after getting a copy Sony's amazing official concert comp, Live: From Here to Eternity. The first disc is culled from the group's 1982 Japanese tour (and features blistering renditions of "Police on My Back" and "Safe European Home") while the second is an equally exceptional set recorded at the Lochen Festival in Holland earlier the same year.
8. Matthew Sweet, 100% Pure Sweet (Ride the Tiger). A rare bootleg from one of the '90s' most devout practitioners of old-school power pop, featuring 19 tracks from the 1994-1995 100% Fun period. The songs range from B-sides and concert cuts to several live-in-the-studio efforts. Another relative bargain at only $22.50.
9. The Jam, All Conned Mods (Tendolar). A nice companion piece to 1997's five-disc, 117-song Polydor box, Direction, Reaction, Creation. Taking Jam completism to ridiculous levels, the reason I bought this disc was for the five studio alternates not found on the boxed set. As a bonus, you get 18 live cuts, two of which were recorded on Tom Snyder's Tomorrow show in 1980 -- and which also include the frosty haired one's hilarious intro of the group.
10. Sloan, Recorded Live at a Sloan Party (Enclave). At $4, this buy was proof that not all eBay purchases have to pound the pocketbook. Originally released on the first American pressing of Sloan's 1996 release, One Chord to Another, the record is modeled after the Beach Boys' famed live-in-the-studio Party album. The Canadian alterna-rockers run through a set that includes some of their better-known tracks as well as cover of the Modern Lovers "Dignified and Old" and the Mann/Weil chestnut "Glitter and Gold." The real highlight of the disc is a mind-altering Canned Heat/Stereolab medley.
Top 10 Scores of '99 at the Trade Counter
Time was the year-end accolades would get compiled in early January and comprised only those items that surfaced in the 12 calendar months prior. No more. Nowadays it seems like record companies "work" their product in order to stretch it across as many awards bashes as possible regardless of the fact that the trophy-giving ceremony takes place two years after the awardee actually released his or her celebrated brain-throb. (Raise your hand if you're sick of Lauryn Hill.)
So at the risk of appearing flip -- I actually take rock 'n' roll quite seriously, it's just that the fascinating clash between low and high art gets mooted when commerce enters into the equation -- I'd like to nominate a few artifacts that may or may not have anything to do with 1999 in a kind of "scavenger's top 10" of the year. I am gainfully employed, you see, by a local music retailer, and for upward of 32 hours a week I can be found manning our store's trade-in counter, patiently explaining to all the Bill Blakes of the world exactly why their battered CD copies of Ratt's Out of the Cellar will only net them $2.50 cash/$4 trade credit no matter how much the band rocks, dude!, while anything by John Zorn, rockingness factor notwithstanding, is worth twice that or more. The reward for my patience? First dibs on what comes across the trade counter. And I scored pretty nicely this year, thank you very much.
1. Captain Beefheart, Grow Fins (Revenent). This got traded in the week it was issued. Some college student had bought it after reading Magnet and The Wire wanting to find out what all this noise about the guy critics were calling the "missing link between the blues, hip-hop and indie rock" was about. Hey, pal, I told him, don't believe everything you read, especially not those hipper-than-thou rags; critics get their swag for free, and publicists do call in favors. But it's just disjointed noise, complained the kid, and in the live CD-ROM footage on disc 4 Beefheart's Magic Band looks like a freak show. This coming from someone in a Slipknot tee, I thought to myself, as I handed him his trade slip. At home later that night I logged on to eBay to see if my copy of the promo-only, one-disc Beef sampler from the box was worth anything. Don't need it now anyway.
2. Grateful Dead, So Many Roads boxed set sampler (Arista). Speaking of eBay . . . ever wonder why you don't see as much cool stuff at record swap meets or in the pages of Goldmine anymore? It's because, thanks to the goddamn auction mentality that eBay is fostering in our culture, every dork with a Beatles picture sleeve now thinks he's a budding Sotheby's barker. Record store personnel with Internet access have quietly and quickly turned opportunist as a result. What this translates into for you, Joe Consumer, is that the likelihood of your coming across the Grateful Dead promo-only, 10-song sampler from the band's recent five-CD box is pretty nil. Y'see, it contains a live song, "Passenger," originally slated for the box but yanked at the last minute. As such, the sampler, which was sent out to stores for in-house play, became an instant collectible and wound up on eBay. Me, I'm a collector, not an entrepreneur, and I additionally like the Grateful Dead (see next entry); the box is on my Christmas list if anyone needs gift ideas. So not only was I thrilled to hear the tunes, I kept it out of the hands of a fellow employee -- and an eBay veteran -- who is definitely not a Dead fan and who trolls our bins with the studiousness of a seasoned Barbie doll broker. Whatever happened to working in a record store simply because you like being around music?
3. Grateful Dead, Dick's Picks Vol. 14 (Grateful Dead Records). Sure, I could have ordered this choice set (Boston Music Hall, 11/30 and 12/2/73) directly from www.dead.net. The Dead have the right idea. The artists should issue their own live archives and beat the bootleggers at their own game while keeping rabid fans happy. At the same time, I'm addicted to the music store shopping experience: the racket on the stereo, the colorful displays, the lure of uncovering hidden treasures in the bins, the erotic thrill of rubbing asses with a roomful of anal-retentive obsessives. That's something a mail-order or online retailer can't replicate, and it's also why, as suggested above, I love my work.
4. Bob Marley, Songs of Freedom box (Island). In early November, Island Records reissued this four-CD anthology; it initially came out in '92, sold a million copies, then went out of print. The new version comes in a 6" x 6" box, scaled down from the original 6" x 12" package, and contains the same liner notes. It's not remastered, however, nor does it have any bonus material, so why all of a sudden people would be trading in their old copies is beyond me. (Those were numbered editions, by the way, ensuring their collectibility forever.) But in the space of a month, no less than five copies came in; I finally own one.
5. Pink Floyd, The Early Singles (Columbia). Ha! While we normally don't take in fragments of boxed sets, this bonus disc from Floyd's Shine On eight-CD box was an exception. I don't need that bloated, ultra-pricey box anyway -- I've got pristine vinyl copies of all the albums! And now I've got some of the oddball stuff I'd never picked up. The only thing I can't figure out is why someone would break up their box in the first place . . . wait, I get it: too much "quirky" shit written by that Syd Barrett wing nut (half of the disc's 10 songs) and not enough from Roger "Mr. The Wall" Waters.
6. Larry Norman, Something New Under the Son, Only Visiting This Planet, So Long Ago the Garden, Stranded in Babylon, In Another Land, Live at Flevo, The Best of Larry Norman (various labels). My co-worker at the trade counter was gonna pass on these seven CDs; luckily, I heard him laughing to another employee about the goofy "Jesus music" that a customer was trying to trade in. Curious, I poked my head out of the office -- holy cow, a stack of Larry Norman reissues, some with bonus tracks! Norman was in the great '60s pop/psych group The People ("I Love You" was a big hit) and later went on to earn a reputation as the Ted Nugent of the Christian music scene. More recently, Frank Black covered a Norman tune (badly, I'm sad to report), so perhaps Norman's star will rise among the rock community's intelligentsia. Meanwhile, with this much Norman to spin, I'm in heaven. So to speak.
7. Bruce Springsteen, Up Close radio special (Media America/Jones Radio Network). A poorly kept secret of the record industry is that radio stations' music directors make a tidy little living (untaxed, by the way) on the side by selling station promos. Unfortunately, we're usually talking multiple copies of the latest Stone Temple Pilots rec, not anything of substance or inherent collectibility. Which very nearly had me reeling my peepers back into their sockets the other day when a certain local FM jock toted in a tub o' tunes containing this absolute gem. Not only does it represent one of the very, very few radio discs Springsteen has ever consented to do -- a three-CD set, it features interviews regarding the '99 E Street Band reunion plus music from the Tracks box -- it's one of those things you just don't see in many record stores, period. That's because it comes with no artwork (just a timing/cue sheet for deejays' reference) and in no jewel boxes -- the kind of nondescript presentation that your average minimum-wage record store bonehead tends to ignore. I do my best to educate my fellow trade counter workers on what is and what is not collectible (Bob Dylan is; the Wallflowers are not), and how to fairly price promos, imports, out-of-print rarities, etc., so that customers don't get lowballed and we, as retailers, don't wind up posting our product at inflated prices. But with turnover so high these days, it's a never-ending struggle on my end.
8. Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" 45 (MCA). This seven-inch, orange wax platter was a limited promotional edition accompanying certain copies of the '98 Hendrix collection BBC Sessions, but I never saw it until recently. Vinyl is so devalued these days it's amazing anyone would even lug it into stores for trade. But once in a while, people do (I scored a copy of the Giant Sandworms debut, a white-wax EP, a couple of years ago, much to my delight), and as with my comments on promos above, a knowledgeable person working the trade counter can be a godsend both to the customers and to the store. Me, cocky? You bet.
9.The Great Heavy Metal Discographyby Martin C. Strong (Canongate Books). We rarely take in books, routinely suggesting Bookman's to folks who do bring in print material. This was an exception to that rule. Strong is the tireless compiler and author of a series of encyclopedialike volumes called The Great Rock Discography. They're exactly that -- comprehensive discographies (along with nuggets of bio info) of artists and bands, and they're invaluable reference tools if you're a writer or a collector. Strong has begun spinning off some genre-specific books, including one on psychedelic groups and this one. Whether you're into Slade, Sabbath, Giuffria or, ahem, Queensrÿche, all the record info you need, and more, is here.
10. Queensrÿche, "Scarborough Fair" single (EMI). Speaking of Queensrÿche . . . as this is the season for giving, what could be more appropriate than scoring a disc to give as a Christmas gift to a close friend? He's a huge Queensrÿche fan, and I'm not. I just can't stand these pretentious twats, their pseudo-prog conceptual dross about as inspired and enlightening as a drive to Picacho Peak. "Thinking man's metal?" Hah. More like hard rock for mullet heads who never "got" the far more sophisticated Hawkwind. At any rate, among Q-r collectors, this cover of the Simon & Garfunkel chestnut seems to be some sort of holy grail, at least judging by the whiny requests we get at the trade counter on a near-daily basis from the mouth-breathers who come in, their meth-head girlfriends a respectful three feet in tow, and paw through the stacks and stacks of used copies of Operation: Mindcryme before realizing for the fifth time this week that there ain't no copies of "Scarborough Fair" to be found. Drats! What's a hard-boiled rocker dude to do? So a copy did indeed get traded in -- it's a B-side of a promotional CD single whose A-side title I forget already (it got gift-wrapped and mailed off to the East Coast within 24 hours), and I believe the tune also appeared on a UK CD single at one point, too -- only the second one I've seen in seven years working the trade counter. It will make my friend ecstatic. Me, I already am flying high. After all, collecting music can and should be a communal experience. Share the wealth, I say. The karma'll be good for ya. Feel free to boost your karmic level at my store anytime.
Top 10 Records to Keep You Sane at 10,000 Feet
Much as I hate to admit it, I'm afraid to fly on planes. I'm a product of heredity -- my mother hasn't been on a plane since her honeymoon in 1967, except for one trip she took to Bermuda with my father when I was in high school. (He later told me even shots of whiskey couldn't keep her from crying the entire way, and when Jack Daniel's can't knock out a woman who only drinks virgin piña coladas, if at all, you know there's something not quite right about that kind of fear.)
I never set foot on an airplane until I was 21, about the same time I realized that if I really wanted to go anywhere, I was going to have to fly sooner or later. Sheer will, however, can't obliterate genetic predisposition -- even though I've flown now more times than I can count, I still bite off every nail in the waiting room at the gate every time I'm about to board a plane, and once I'm on board, my palms sweat, my stomach drops to the floor and I stick my fingers in my ears and close my eyes from takeoff until the pilot signals that we've reached 10,000 feet.
Anyone obsessed with imminent death on a commercial airliner like I am knows that, statistically, most crashes occur during initial ascent and final descent. I figure once the plane I'm on clears 10,000 feet, I'm home free until at least initial descent. It's an irrational deduction, I know, but it keeps me from bursting into tears, grabbing a flight attendant by the genitals and screaming, "I don't want to die, get me off of this thing!" when he cruises by with the drink cart.
Ten thousand feet also is the magic altitude when it's safe to use "approved portable electronic devices," a list that includes portable CD players. If you hate flying, music can be an even better panacea than liquor. Not only does it keep you relatively sedated, but you also can't hear the plane's engines suddenly convulse in a death rattle with headphones on.
Since my day job had me traveling more than usual in 1999, I had to learn how to deal with frequent flying without freaking out. I've found salvation in a Discman. Here's a Top 10 list of CDs that kept me sane on planes this year, in no particular order.
1. Superchunk, Come Pick Me Up (Merge). Proof positive that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Though it might seem the definitive pioneers of indie rock have been writing the same batch of songs over and over -- enduring and catchy as they are -- on Come Pick Me Up, they prove that sometimes all you need is a little change in production to make everything new again. Behind the board, Jim O'Rourke (Gastr del Sol, Stereolab) uses space and room ambiance to give the record a wistful, airy and downright soulful aura -- complete with Mac experimenting with his Marvin Gaye impersonation -- that lends itself nicely to headphone listening.
2. Robert Pollard with Doug Gillard, Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department (Rockathon). He parodies himself ("Pop Zeus"), waxes poetic ("Larger Massachusetts") and rips off the Who yet again ("Frequent Weaver Who Burns"), but on his second solo release this year, Robert Pollard rises from the ashes of weirdness (see Kid Marine and Waved Out) to do what he does best: write great pop songs. With guitar virtuoso and fellow Guided by Voices member Gillard playing all the instruments, Speak Kindly is the most listenable and cohesive of Pollard's solo records to date, and the refrain "Life is beautiful" of the track of the same name is a great mantra in case you encounter any "unexpected turbulence."
3. Elliott Smith, Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars). Elliott Smith's already been to hell and wants to tell you about it. What could be a better proposition when you think you're about to die a fiery death? Smith's 1997 release Either/Or is a study in alienation, obsession and godforsaken loneliness set to some of the prettiest acoustic guitar music this side of Jim Croce. It's not depressing, it's uplifting, especially since Smith does nearly a 360 turnaround and ends the album with "Say Yes," a heartfelt love song that epitomizes the '90s.
4. Tobin Sprout, Moonflower Plastic (Welcome to My Wigwam) (Matador Records). Sprout, Robert Pollard's faithful sidekick in GBV through some of the band's finest moments, found his true voice on his second solo release -- and realized it was really John Lennon's. Moonflower Plastic is a sleeper hit if there ever was one and, if you skip the abominable first track, you'll get a short-hop flight full of pure, Beatlesque-pop listening enjoyment.
5. Guided by Voices, Alien Lanes (Matador). This is GBV at its feel-good finest. Alien Lanes is arguably the most complete record of the four-track years of Dayton, Ohio's Budweiser-fueled band of merry men, with Robert Pollard leading the troops through pop anthems -- among them GBV favorites "Game of Pricks" and "Motor Away" -- like a drunk Robin Hood. Alien Lanes sinks into near-psychedelia toward the end of the record, but instead of pressing Stop, just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
6. John Hofmann, Ghost in the Polaroid/Calculate the Distance (Red Shift Records). So it sounds like shit, produced muddily on a four-track in Hofmann's Phoenix apartment. So his vocals, while compelling, are often off-key and he wears his indie-rock influences on his sleeve. Listen to the songs. There's not a dud in the bunch, which makes this two-sided cassette an easy repeat listen -- handy for cross-country flights. While Hofmann can match Elliott Smith shot for shot when it comes to evoking quiet desperation ("Spiked With Sea Salt" and "Numbers to Call"), his real strength is in the surprisingly complex craftsmanship of very listenable rock songs.
7. Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador). Dreamy and droning, this 1994 release showcases Pavement at its most irreverent ("Range Life") and witty ("Cut Your Hair") before the band members started hating each other. Steve Malkmus' dirgelike, improvised "I need to sleep" refrain on the last track is especially conducive for meandering reverie.
8. Frank Black and the Catholics, Pistolero (spinART). Frank Black has finally learned to sing, and his second album recorded live to two-track with the Catholics and released this year rocks steady from beginning to end -- perfect when you want to zone out without having to hit forward to pass a song you don't like. There's only a few guttural Black screams to jolt you out of your seat, and if kept on a reasonably low volume, you can even take a nap to it.
9. Aquanaut Drinks Coffee, Live in the Living Room (self-released). This long (40-plus songs), convoluted CD from the now-defunct Phoenix trio is like a roller-coaster ride -- you're terrified at times, but there's no way you would want to get off. Led by singer/guitarist Larry Hicks and his alarmingly high voice, the band's Live in the Living Room is a journey of teen angst and postadolescent self-discovery on hyperdrive. The tracks were recorded in sessions over a period of about six years (from when band members were about 15 until they hit legal drinking age), so the songs careen between pylons of acoustic-flavored pop, frenetic punk and guitar-driven rock, hitting every one more than once.
10. Old 97's, Too Far to Care (Elektra). The quartet from Dallas plays some down and dirty alt-country tunes on its major-label debut. Spiked with songs about drinking, wooing women, fucking and the ups and downs of life on the road, the Old 97's instilled a fire in a tired genre with this 1997 release. There are some damn catchy songs on Too Far to Care, so keep yourself in check and don't annoy the shit out of your seatmate by singing aloud.
Top 10 Records I Bought This Year Without Hearing Any of Beforehand
The best perk from writing about music is getting lots of records in advance for free. Still, I love to record shop, because the other upside to writing about music is that I spend lots of time talking to people about what they're listening to. Based on recommendations from friends, editors and other writers, as well as reading, reading, reading about music, I buy a lot of stuff note unheard.
1. Radar Bros., The Singing Hatchet (SeeThru Broadcasting). Sad and majestic, like early Pink Floyd or Mojave 3, but with a West Coast vibe. Songs seem to rise up out of the ground like fog, making Hatchet the kind of small, delicate record that seems to be of no specific time period.
2. Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow, Brainfreeze (Sixty 7). Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow recorded this album during a practice session for a live set where they only used seven-inch records. This is a semi-bootleg, self-released by the artists in a limited quantity. These two big names working together is the DJ equivalent of Al Green and Marvin Gaye doing a full concert of duets. Any fan of late '60s funk will find some familiar hooks at work as the record ebbs and flows in intensity, just like a DJ's set. (Sold new for $15.98, they go for three times that on eBay now.)
3. Macha, See It Another Way (Jetset). This is what Cornershop would sound like if it came out of the Elephant 6-influenced psychedelic indie rock community of Athens, Georgia, instead of the dance music and punk rock scenes of London. Southeast Asian instrumentation adds a trippy, hippie dimension, but the group doesn't skimp on Western melodies or power hooks. It grows in stature with each listening.
4. Tram, Heavy Black Frame (Jetset). Let it go, let yourself go, slow and low, that is the tempo. Somewhere between Neil Young's country and Neil Armstrong's moon walk, Tram's first was surprisingly mellow gold.
5. Lilys, Zero Population Growth (Darla). Head Lily Kurt Heasley changes who he plays with and what the group sounds like with each release. Here he makes like Neu circa 1974 on an EP for Darla's always-beautiful Bliss Out series.
6. Quickspace, Precious Falling (Hidden Agenda). There once was a band called Th' Faith Healers who merged Velvet Undergroundy jams with repetitive, circular riffs. They broke up five years ago, reportedly because after the suicide of Kurt Cobain, being in a rock band was "redundant." Healers guitarist Tom Cullinan changed his mind and started this droney, drifty angular rock band.
7. Various artists, Bombay the Hard Way: Guns, Cars & Sitars (Motel). Sort of Shaft flavored with lots of curry. This is a collection of brownsploitation themes and incidental music from India's Bollywood soundtracks with beats from DJ Shadow and Dan "The Automator" Nakamura. More than a novelty record because the funky Western rhythms and Eastern melodies collide in just the right way. Bonus points for song titles that get into the spirit: "Fists of Curry" and "Punjabis, Pimps, and Players."
8. Muse, Showbiz (Maverick). The same guy who sat behind the board for Radiohead's The Bends and tons of British psychedelic rock produced two-thirds of this group's debut. No wonder Muse is often more Radiohead than Radiohead. The British band channels Queen and Jeff Buckley for the good stuff, but also wanders into Placebo territory at its pretentious worst.
9. Various artists, Gravikords, Whirlies, & Pyrophones (Ellipsis Arts). Okay, truth be told, I had heard one song; Gomez played the first track for me while I was interviewing them. But this is a compilation of 19 tracks from musicians who built and played their own instruments, so each song sounds completely different. Leon Theremin, Robert Moog, Don Buchla -- they're all here. Weird, wild and wonderful, since no two tracks or instrumentation are even close to the same. Deluxe packaging with a foreword by Tom Waits and bios of all the builders/musicians.
10. Caetano Veloso, Livro (Nonesuch). South America meets North American pop from the highly recommended guy who is supposed to be the Brazilian Bob Dylan. The melodies are just foreign enough to sound exotic and close enough to familiar to go down smooth. I don't love it, but it's certainly worth listening to now and again.
Top 10 Records That Warrant More Than a Quizzical Look
Having freelanced for many years, I've become the darling of a number of record-company mailing lists. Before you cry corporate sellout, I should add that most of the corrugated mailers that end up in my hands aren't stamped by Sony or Capitol but probably come from companies with names like Earwig and Flying Fish, and for good reason. The kind of records I really treasure tend to fall into the overlooked, off-the wall and obscure categories. Forget the high-profile reissues, the buzzed-about boxed sets, I love to get my hands on the things that most people would probably toss aside without more than a raised eyebrow or a shrug. Here, then, are my Top 10 Records That Warrant More Than a Quizzical Look.
1. Buckethead, Monsters and Robots (Cyberoctave). This anonymous post-metal guitar wizard claims to have learned guitar in a graveyard while being raised in a chicken cage, which accounts for the KFC bucket topping his Michael Myers' Halloween mask. His 90 mph fret-whacking avoids Joe Satriani comparisons thanks to the guttural input of the nasty trio of Bill Laswell, Bootsy Collins and Les Claypool. Turn up the bass and it'll get you pregnant.
2. Johnny Dowd, Pictures From Life's Other Side (Koch). While this countrified folkster's sophomore effort occasionally sounds a bit too much like a diluted mix of Captain Beefheart, John Prine and Tom Waits, he's cranked out an album meaner than any of the three of them would venture to create. Country music has made a cliché out of love being a chain, but only Dowd sings of love making him sick, of being sexually committed to a comatose wife, of obsessing about a schoolgirl to the point of getting a tattoo of her name. His next album ought to be seriously frightening stuff, assuming that before then he's not caught on a building with a gun.
3. Various artists, The Big Monster Bash (Sci Fi Western Records). If monsters personify vague fears (Freud told me so in a séance), it makes sense that bogeymen of all variety would fall not far behind cars and surfboards as theme material in early rockabilly. Who's got more to worry about than teenagers, then or now? Ergo, this collection of contemporary ducktailers who have written an impressive collection of warnings regarding Frankensurfer, Gabrielle The Giant Mosquito and other threats to humanity.
4. Various artists, Porn to Rock (Callner Music). Evidently, it gets boring just screwing pretty people all day, which accounts for this roster of name porn stars (Ginger Lynn, Johnny Toxic, Suzi Suzuki and others) trying their hand at recording rock and dance music. Like porn, most of it falls short of what seems to be a good idea. "Asshole Man," "Screw My Head" and "Drink Beer and Fuck" could have been written by the bar band at yer local chicken-wing hangout. Nonetheless, it's comforting to know that having a perfect ass and a fan club doesn't mean they've got it together any more than we do.
5. The Bobs, I Brow Club (Rounder Records). This San Francisco-based a cappella quartet is so cynical that its 1996 Christmas album features a song about spending the holiday in jail. While their latest offers similarly sentimental fare like "There's a Nose Ring in My Soup" and "Hey Coach Don't Call Me a Queer," the killer tune, so to speak, is a truly touching insider's view on the Heaven's Gate cult.
6. Mutantes, Mutantes (Omplatten). Brazil's Los Mutantes (The Mutants) were the country's first respectable rock band back in 1966, forever flipping midsong from one style to another, and implementing nearly as much studio technology as was found on Sgt. Pepper. Most Brazilians hated them, though, for landing American rock on their bossa nova beaches. This reissue of their second album from 1968 translates the Portuguese hippie lyrics that would soon get them into big trouble with the dictatorship soon to take over the country. Nirvana was a big fan of this strange group.
7. John Fahey, Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes (Takoma Records). A really scratchy copy of this CD reissue by guitarist Fahey would leave the listener believing that the music came from a beat-up 78 from the '20s. The eccentric folkster (his first guitar was made from a baby coffin) has for decades cranked out plodding solo guitar instrumentals grieving the loss of riverboats, plantations and, here, "The Downfall of the Adelphi Rolling Grist Mill." Four years later, he rerecorded all but two of the Delta-heavy songs on this album and sold it again under the same title.
8. Arto Lindsay, Noon Chill (Bar None Records). There's something unsettling about NYC composer Lindsay's understated music, those obtuse love lyrics sung in a thin voice and nearly drowned out by banks of Brazilian drums. Could be he'll be a public menace someday, given his questionable profile: pale, nerdy look, a schizo history of bouncing between albums of pretty bossa nova and chain-saw guitar savagery, wire-rimmed glasses, the son of Baptist missionaries.
9. Kip Hanrahan, A Thousand Nights and a Night (Shadow Nights - 2) (Justin Time/American Clave). Not hard to imagine the ancient Arabian Nights legend being relived right now in a corner of Manhattan, some sultry woo-woo type stringing along a rich, vulnerable mensch. Hanrahan conjures up a few pretty twisted scenes in his most recent installment in this 10-album tale of jazz-fueled erotica, supported by some serious names in Cuban percussion.
10. Various artists, Pool Party! and Jungle Jive! (Del-Fi Records). We'll never be given a collection titled Library Beat! because rock 'n' roll's all-important oblongata has nothing to do with the medulla. Unfortunately, the teenaged hormone huns and hootchies in the early '60s couldn't blatantly praise doing the nasty-nasty, instead having to couch their lusts on 45s where rather bleached R&B honkers praised these two Environments That Encouraged Nakedness. Thumping to this music today would be a bit too much like screwing in a roller rink, but, hey, they worked with what they had back then.
Top 10 Albums That I Should Have Bought a Long Time Ago
Basically, this list reflects how slow I tend to be about purchasing music that I like. To this day, I own only five Rolling Stones albums, although I know every song in their catalogue and admire many of them. But in 1999, thanks to the evil coaxing of Amazon.com, I finally put my hands on some records that I'd previously known only as background music at friends' houses or as distant AM-radio memories. With the exception of two bootlegs that I ordered from black-market catalogues, all of the following selections are items that I'd often thought of buying, but never got around to -- until last year.
1. Marvin Gaye, Here, My Dear (Motown). Maybe it was this double-record's rep as the "alimony album" that kept me away from it all these years. Or maybe it was the way Marvin occasionally got a little creepy when he started exposing his neuroses (e.g., the posthumously released "Sanctified Pussy"). In any event, this year -- 21 years after its release -- I got over my hang-ups and discovered that what friends had long told me was true: This is Gaye's masterpiece. A record that began life as a bitter diatribe against ex-wife Anna Gordy (who got a piece of the record's royalties in the divorce settlement) evolved into a yearning, doo-wop-inflected meditation on the way love changes shape over time. And breakup laments don't come any rawer than this: "I can't understand/Since you loved me/How could you turn me in to the police?"
2. Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, The McCartney-MacManus Collaboration (unreleased). As a long-suffering Macca apologist, I always welcome any evidence that The Cute One didn't burn his last gallon of inspiration with the side-two medley on Abbey Road (or with the drunken chorus of "Picasso's Last Words," if you prefer). To that end, this series of unreleased late-'80s demos made by McCartney and Elvis Costello is a revelation, even if you've heard the sanctioned versions of these songs. On these acoustic demos, the two Macs sound like Scouse Everly Brothers with a thesaurus, harmonizing beautifully on tunes like "So Like Candy," "My Brave Face" and two unreleased gems: "25 Fingers" and "Tommy's Coming Home." Only in the context of this collection is it obvious how macabre their collaborations tended to be, and how deftly they brought out the best in each other.
3. Emitt Rhodes, Listen, Listen: The Best of Emitt Rhodes (Varese Sarabande). The patron saint of obscure pop wimps, Rhodes created a mild sensation in 1971 with a tuneful debut album that featured him on every instrument, and produced a modest hit with the song "Fresh As a Daisy." It was an achievement that Rhodes would never match again. This compilation smartly ties together Rhodes' erratic solo work with his late-'60s teen-wonder phase as leader of the Merry Go Round. A relic from the time when there were no societal ills that a good three-part harmony couldn't solve.
4. The Who, The Who Sell Out (MCA). This has long been my favorite Who album, and last year I set aside my scratchy vinyl copy (packaged as part of a double set with its predecessor, A Quick One) and plunked down some plastic for the remastered CD with bonus tracks. No other album so expertly captures all that was appealing about this band: the devotion to pop culture, the adolescent sense of humor, the rich melodicism, the garage-band scruffiness, and the spiritual obsessiveness. Also, it includes "I Can't Reach You," a peak of gorgeousness that the Who never reached again.
5. Sam Phillips, The Turning (DCC). This 1987 disc was originally released under the singer's real name Leslie Phillips, and it came as quite a jolt to those who had come to associate that name with pious Christian ditties. This record doesn't have the sense of assurance that defined Phillips' subsequent albums, but its wobbly, transitional feel carries its own charms. Producer/future husband T-Bone Burnett damaged a couple of good tunes with ill-considered drum machines, but "Love Is Not Lost," "Libera Me," and especially the elegiac "Carry You" rank with the highlights of Phillips' sterling songbook.
6. The Left Banke, There's Gonna Be a Storm: Complete Recordings (PolyGram). Like Rhodes, this baroque pop ensemble had a brief heyday, and even their best work straddles the acceptable edge of fruitiness. But this collection shows that they were more than the two-hit wonders ("Walk Away Renee," "Pretty Ballerina") most rock history books would have you believe. If nothing else, the Left Banke -- even more than Ray Davies -- proved that the harpsichord made as much sense in a three-minute rock song as in an 18th-century Viennese symphony.
7. John Lennon/Bob Dylan, Video Outtakes From Eat the Document (unreleased). There's no music on this 20-minute video, but for rock archivists it holds more fascination than several releases in either man's catalogue (Some Time in New York City and Knocked Out Loaded spring to mind). Basically, Lennon and Dylan sit in the back of a car and banter, with swinging London (circa May 1966) as a backdrop. Only about a minute of this footage made it into Eat the Document, which itself has never been released. Lennon is uncharacteristically cautious here, while Dylan gradually downshifts from animated to near-catatonic. Two highlights: Dylan chiding Lennon for liking "the big chick" from the Mamas and the Papas, and Lennon barely suppressing his horror as a strung-out Bob prepares to hurl. One can only imagine what was blowin' in the wind that afternoon.
8. Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks). I didn't connect with this 1998 release until early last year, but it's already one of my all-time favorites. A sophisticated pop composer with a healthy dose of rock-star brattiness, Wainwright far outstrips anything you would expect from a pedigree that includes Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle for parents. If Randy Newman had been Canadian, brazenly queer and blessed with an angel's voice, this is what his debut album would have sounded like.
9. Leon Russell, Retrospective (Shelter). Veteran producer Snuff Garrett worked with Phil Spector, yet he insists that Leon Russell was the most talented musician he ever saw. That assertion might be a hard sell to those who regard Russell as a nasal Oklahoma boogie hack with the most unkempt white beard this side of the North Pole -- when they bother to regard him at all. In fact, Russell was a multi-instrumental virtuoso who cast a pretty big shadow over early '70s rock (Bob Dylan's "Watching the River Flow," Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour). I don't have much use for his boogie side, but I've always been a sucker for his sappy ballads: "This Masquerade," "Lady Blue," "A Song for You," etc. This would be a guilty pleasure if anyone cared enough about Russell to make me feel guilty about it.
10. Mike McGear, McGear (Warner Bros.). This 1974 flop has long been a head-scratcher for Beatlemaniacs. Why would Paulie take the time to produce this album -- playing and singing on every track, co-writing most of it, and even bringing in his Wings lackeys -- and not lift a finger to promote it? Obviously, the complexities of sibling rivalry defy rock-crit logic. This disc is not the classic some have claimed, but it reveals an intriguing Roxy Music influence that never appeared in McCartney's other work. For his part, brother Michael sings like a cross between Tim Finn and Eric Idle, if that's your thing. The album's highlight is a rollicking McCartney original called "Leave It," which surely would have brightened up any number of dud Wings releases. Go figure.
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