[click links for track listings and soundclips]
Sam Phillips: Don't Do Anything (Nonesuch, 2008) Rating: 13/20
Don't Do Anything was Sam Phillips' first album after divorcing musician/producer T-Bone Burnett, and this short disc of raw, dark song sketches sounds like something she had to get off her chest. Either that, or she was newly infatuated with Tom Waits. Phillips produced this one herself and it has a remarkably intimate, immediate feel, as if you're sitting in a rehearsal studio between the band members. Guitarist Eric Gorfain actually works more as a violinist, and his unconventional, grumbling chunks of chords are a prime feature of the album's distinctive texture. Unfortunately, fans of Phillips' sweet pop side are bound to be disappointed, and her fragmented lyrics are full of personal symbolism that may not connect with those who haven't shared a coffee with her. Still, the title track, "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us" (also recorded with great success by Robert Plant and Allison Krauss) and "Little Plastic Life" have some pleasing melodic hooks.
|Nick Drake: Five Leaves Left (Island, 1969) Rating: 15/20
This British singer-songwriter's debut is a remarkably mature collection (he was just 20 at the time), instantly announcing a major talent whose smoky vocals, introspective lyrics and unusual chord combinations should have been far more recognized in his day. Danny Thompson's upright bass gives these folk ballads a fresh, jazzy spin, while stunning tracks like "Day Is Done," "Cello Song," "Fruit Tree" (in which Drake practically writes his own epitaph) and especially "The Thoughts of Mary Jane" are timelessly beautiful.
Adrian Belew: Side One (Sanctuary, 2005) Rating: 13/20
The first of a three-part series, this 33-minute morsel is a homemade set of multi-tracked jams and loose songs featuring the King Crimson frontman's drowsy vocals and leaf-blower guitar. Crimson's polyrhythmic churnings inevitably surface (albeit in a less clinical form), while the most satisfying tracks include "Ampersand" (one of three songs with Primus bassist Les Claypool), "Madness" (surprisingly, more reminiscent of Larks' Tongues in Aspic than Belew-era Crimson) and "Walk Around the World."
The Moody Blues: Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (Threshold, 1971) Rating: 10/20
From the very first track -- a five-minute boondoggle of free-form nonsense that only someone with a head full of marijuana will want to hear twice -- Every Good Boy Deserves Favour presents itself as the most disposable release of the Moodies' classic period. "The Story in Your Eyes" is among the group's best rockers, but the forgettable other tracks are sunk by soft-headed songwriting and the usual outdated, fluffy-clouds production style.
|Split Enz: True Colours (A&M, 1980) Rating: 14/20
New Zealand's Split Enz hit its zenith with this marvelous collection of neurotic pop classics ("I Got You," "Shark Attack," "What's the Matter with You," "Nobody Takes Me Seriously"), balanced with two complex instrumentals and a quivering-lipped ballad that could have been sold to Barbra Streisand. The vocals and songwriting of Tim and Neil Finn are impeccable, but the group's secret weapon is keyboardist Eddie Rayner, who adds all sorts of chewy tensions and seems to consistently work twice as hard as everyone else.
Komeda: Kokomemedada (Minty Fresh, 2003) Rating: 12/20
This Swedish keyboard/guitar combo was never much more than the sum of its influences (Stereolab, Kraftwerk, the Velvet Underground), but the group's final album is a likable blend of peppy, motorik grooves. A few facile tunes land uncomfortably close to those kitschy, '70s-era family organs with the pre-programmed rhythm tracks, but tight musicianship, skillful arranging and Lena Karlsson's honey-sweet vocals lift better cuts such as "Blossom" (Got to Get It Out)" and "Victory Lane."
Alanis Morissette: Under Rug Swept (Maverick, 2002) Rating: 12/20
Less ambitious than 1998's Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie but much more listenable, this self-produced disc (Glen Ballard is out) finds the controversial superstar still gnawing on her rampant ambivalence about men, men and, well, men. Her musical template remains the same -- wiggly, harmonically simple grooves that allow her plenty of room to pour out syllable-crammed rambles -- but top tracks like "21 Things I Want in a Lover," "Flinch," "Hands Clean" and the surprisingly pretty "Utopia" show her settling into a matured singer-songwriter role.
|Joni Mitchell: For the Roses (Asylum, 1972) Rating: 14/20
Sandwiched between Mitchell's two best-selling records (Blue, Court and Spark), For the Roses suffers in comparison but is another visionary showcase of her serene intelligence and gorgeous voice. Evenly split between guitar- and piano-based material, this wandering, jazzier collection has few tight melodies beyond the title track and the droll "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio," but her unique phrasing, personal confessions (plenty of ambivalence about stardom here) and metaphorical sketches have a refreshing spirituality.
Split Enz: Time and Tide (A & M, 1982) Rating: 13/20
Led by the wonderful singles "Dirty Creature" and "Six Months in a Leaky Boat," Time and Tide glows with the confidence of an established franchise who has all the resources to engineer whatever studio magic a song requires. The vocal mix is inhumanly slick (well, minus "Haul Away") and many of these daintily intricate tunes aren't as catchy as they should be, but Tim Finn's neurotically wordy lyrics and the band's brilliant arrangements (who else had such seamless interplay between synthesizers, piano and guitar?) are enough when the pop hooks fail to take hold.
Stories: About Us (Kama Sutra, 1973) Rating: 13/20
Stories was keyboardist/songwriter Michael Brown's best-known project after the Left Banke's premature demise, and the quartet's second album is an exciting mix of Ian Lloyd's rock-edged vocals and Brown's unique gift for intricate, melodic pop. Badfinger/Raspberries lovers should look for the baroque genius of "Darling," "Love Is in Motion," "Believe Me" and the mindblowing "Words" and just ignore the tacked-on hit "Brother Louie" -- this generic, '70s-radio nugget is actually the worst track, minus one throwaway blues jam.
Snow Patrol: A Hundred Million Suns (Geffen, 2008) Rating: 11/20
Initially showing plenty of promise, Glasgow's Snow Patrol has slid into predictable formula. While more experimental than 2006's disappointing Eyes Open, A Hundred Million Suns still finds the group aiming for florid, arena-rock melodrama via David Cook-friendly tracks like "Crack the Shutters," "If There's a Rocket Tie Me to It" and "Please Just Take These Photos from My Hands." The contrived little-verse, big-chorus template works fine on the single "Take Back the City," thanks to a good melody and some extra guitar edge, but then the group has the nerve to practically clone that tune's "I love this city tonight" hook for the later "Disaster Button."
Kristin Hersh: Learn to Sing Like a Star (Yep Roc, 2007) Rating: 13/20
The title reeks of self-conscious irony. Not only does it reflect Hersh's career frustrations (she remains one of our most overlooked female rockers), but it may even acknowledge her recent work's crucial flaw: her sadly deteriorated voice. Once a mighty squall, it's now just raspy and ravaged. Even so, Learn to Sing Like a Star is -- surprisingly -- among her top releases outside of Throwing Muses. The tracks steer attention away from her vocals with zesty string charts and even a dash of psychedelic organ (see "Wild Vanilla"), and Hersh still writes songs like no one else. Indifferent to traditional verse/chorus structures, fond of 6/8-time guitar pickings and armed with assembled scraps of personal imagery which may or may not make narrative sense (favorite line here: "Froot Loops cast a shadow when viewed from the rug"), Hersh captures an intriguing, dream-state anxiety which defies rational analysis. Her acoustic pieces tend to meander, but the more forceful "In Shock," "Winter" and "Day Glo" are all stellar. She may never be a star, but she shines all the same.
|Headlights: Kill Them with Kindness (Polyvinyl, 2006) Rating: 14/20
This Illinois pop band's first album is remarkable in its density and detail, considering the tracks were recorded by a mere trio on an indie-label budget. The sculpted layers of keyboards and strings are almost too much at times, threatening to overwhelm the shy interplay of singers Tristan Wraight and Erin Fein, but the tension between exuberant arrangements and gentle vocals becomes crucial to this surprisingly delightful disc (try the six-minute opening song as a test drive -- the group goes for broke from the start).
The Jayhawks: Blue Earth (Twin/Tone, 1989) Rating: 13/20
Flush with the earthy harmonies and thoughtful tunes of Mark Olson and Gary Louris, the Jayhawks auditioned for the big leagues with this indie set of roughly drawn country-rock. At this point, the group's sound is more alluring than its songs -- dominant writer Olson's melodic phrasing is often clumsy -- but the sweet chorus of "Red Firecracker" hints at the pop glories to come.
Bryan Ferry: Taxi (Reprise, 1993) Rating: 11/20
The Roxy Music crooner's third disc based on cover tunes predictably sustains the sleek, tropical-midnight grooves of his preceding Bête Noire and Boys & Girls, as he drifts through punchless versions of standards such as "I Put a Spell on You," "Rescue Me," "All Tomorrow's Parties" and even "Amazing Grace." He manages to put an atmospheric stamp on the title song, "Girl of My Best Friend" and the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," but other tracks betray the album's origin as a potboiler to offset 1994's much-delayed Mamouna.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Greendale (Reprise, 2003) Rating: 11/20
The most exhausting album of Young's career has 10 tracks averaging almost eight minutes apiece, and horribly perfunctory music which sounds like it was written in eight minutes. Coming off in his liner notes like someone who wrote the whole album in a thick haze of pot smoke, Young spends all his creative energy on a weak narrative about a small-town family (prime elements: a cousin kills a cop, a father paints, a grandfather dies, Satan makes mischief, a restless daughter works on a banal art project), and with Crazy Horse guitars set to "default fuzz," puts minimal effort into singing, instrumental solos, chords, melodies or anything else beyond his rumpled lyric sheets.
Tarkio: Omnibus (Kill Rock Stars, 2005) Rating: 13/20
Not just a historical curiosity, Colin Meloy's initial, late-'90s combo shares many of the Decemberists' virtues -- earnest vocals, graceful melodies and sharp, airy arrangements -- but rocks a bit harder and sounds more "American" (blame it on the banjo, perhaps). Over two hours of collected tracks show a young songwriter still grounded in a middling, dork-in-a-college-town perspective, but the second disc (especially "My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist," "Mountains of Mourne" and "Never Will Marry") has a few precocious glimpses of his later group's fanciful, 19th-century syntax.
|The Merry-Go-Round: Listen, Listen: The Definitive Collection (Rev-Ola, 2005) Rating: 16/20
Stunningly overlooked even by most '60s-music fans, the Merry-Go-Round was a superlative guitar-pop band who may not have experimented as much as the Beatles, but was nearly as clever and surehanded with melody (albeit within a much smaller catalog). This indispensible, 78-minute CD collects essentially everything the group recorded (including a rare, hidden cover of "California Girls" with Herb Alpert on trumpet), and wunderkind Emitt Rhodes' serenely mature vocals and consistently top-rate writing ("Live," "You're a Very Lovely Woman," "Had to Run Around," "Pardon Me," "Mother Earth," "'Til the Day After," "Someone Died," "Saturday Night," the ingeniously arranged "Time Will Show the Wiser"...whew!) make his industry-suffered indignities and rapid fall from glory all the more tragic.
Of Montreal: The Sunlandic Twins (Polyvinyl, 2005) Rating: 13/20
Kevin Barnes continues to spin Of Montreal in unexpected directions on The Sunlandic Twins, dropping his child-like fantasies into psychedelic pop, dance music, quasi-orchestral pomp and even a touch of African mbaqanga ("I Was Never Young"). His willfully tacky choices in keyboards and synthetic drums can be irksome (more and more, one wonders what the band would do with a major-label budget), but the best tracks -- "Requiem for O.M.M.2," "Forecast Fascist Future," the Krautrock-like propulsion of "So Begins Our Alabee," "I Was a Landscape in Your Dream" (Barnes channels Sufjan Stevens?), the funky "The Party's Crashing Us" -- are uniquely charming.
Imitation Electric Piano: Blow It Up, Burn It Down, Kick It 'Til It Bleeds (Drag City, 2006) Rating: 12/20
Following a 2001 EP and 2003's Trinity Neon, Stereolab bassist Simon Johns is back with a second album under the Imitation Electric Piano banner, compiling another low-key set of eclectic, sci-fi pop. New singer Mary Hampton adds a welcome human touch with her frail, Brit-folk vocals, while "Tension," "I Mean Wow," the surprisingly rootsy "For the Best" and the cinematic "Come Into Force" balance some aimless tracks found elsewhere.
Maxïmo Park: A Certain Trigger (Warp, 2005) Rating: 13/20
Much like their pals the Futureheads, this wiry U.K. quintet plays an energetic brand of lurching, hyperrhythmic pop which looks back to vintage New Wavers like the Jam, XTC, the Stranglers and Magazine. Dependably anxious singer Paul Smith can't match the harmonic intrigue of the Futureheads' contrapuntal vocal lines, but the group integrates keyboards into its sound unusually well and top songs such as "Signal and Sign," "Apply Some Pressure" and "I Want You to Stay" have a delightful knack for keeping the listener off-balance and engaged.
Komeda: Pop På Svenska (Minty Fresh, 1993) Rating: 12/20
Sort of a Swedish cousin to Stereolab, Komeda debuted with this non-English collection of sleek, harmonically skewed pop. Lena Karlsson has a smooth, pleasing voice (imagine a calmer, less affected Siouxsie) and the group is brilliantly tight but, beyond two excellent opening tracks, the music's complexity far exceeds its catchiness.
The Folk Implosion: The New Folk Implosion (ARTISTdirect, 2003) Rating: 12/20
The new three-man lineup of Lou Barlow's "other band" failed to revive its fleeting commercial success with this drab, sluggish set of ponderous musings. The prime appeal here is Barlow's pure, soothing voice and the intelligence of his disillusioned lyrics, because the grinding music (showing a greater math-rock influence than usual, especially on "Creature of Salt") is quite monotonous.
The Replacements: Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (Twin/Tone, 1981) Rating: 13/20
The Replacements' raw, punky, premature debut -- 18 tracks frantically crammed into 36 minutes -- sounds like it was recorded at 3am by drunken teenagers who had been screaming all night, and that's probably not far from the truth. Westerberg's voice is so hoarse that his lyrics are uncharacteristically tough to decipher (in any case, his topics are much more in line with standard suburban-punk complaints), but signature glimpses of his future songwriting flair peek out in "Careless," "Kick Your Door Down," "I'm in Trouble" and the unexpectedly somber "Johnny's Gonna Die."
|Gram Parsons: GP (Reprise, 1972) Rating: 15/20
The definitive document of Parsons' baby-blue melancholy, GP alternates his aching, country-hybrid originals with similar heartbreaking covers (alas, "That's All It Took" and "Kiss the Children" seem somewhat pedestrian in this context). The blend of his yearning, boyish purr with Emmylou Harris' reedy counterpoint transcends its genre, and the forlorn sweetness and underrated melodic invention of classics like "A Song for You," "She," "The New Soft Shoe" and "Still Feeling Blue" seems just as powerful today.
The Dresden Dolls: The Dresden Dolls (8Ft., 2003) Rating: 12/20
This proudly neurotic girl/boy, piano/drums duo from Boston packages itself as an updated cabaret act, adding an alt-rock edge to the smoky, Germanic angst of Kurt Weill and Marlene Dietrich. Flamboyant to the core (perhaps to a fault), the androgynous pair explores decadent, sexually tortured themes best heard in "Girl Anachronism" and the perversely whimsical "Coin-Operated Boy," but other tracks can be repetitive and unmemorable, more worried about sustaining the proper stormy lurch than crafting a solid melody.
The Feeling: Twelve Stops and Home (Cherrytree/Interscope, 2006) Rating: 13/20
A mysterious flop in the States (a poor choice of single could be the culprit), the year's biggest guilty pleasure compensates for lightweight lyrics and dainty, cloying vocals with attractively spacious production and an undeniably sharp set of clever, addictive melodies. These London boys are all about pure-pop craftsmanship, with almost every part scripted down to the note, and the expert hooks of tracks like "Never Be Lonely," "Kettle's On," "Fill My Little World" and especially the euphoric "I Want You Now" are bound to thrill the ever-devout Jellyfish cult.
Robyn Hitchcock: Luxor (Editions PAF!, 2003) Rating: 12/20
Recording on his own and doing what he pleases, the veteran British singer/guitarist spins through these bare, casual tunes, keeping them generally acoustic, undubbed and less cluttered with his peculiar, divergent imagery. More concerned with odes to women than usual (one highlight, "One L," is a straightforward tribute to his girlfriend Michele, though the frisky "Ant Corridor" returns to creepy-crawly arcana), Luxor is undone by its loosely written music, where plodding tracks too often seem like circular picking patterns with stanzas of lyrics growled off the cuff.
The Go-Betweens: Oceans Apart (Yep Roc, 2005) Rating: 13/20
Grant McLennan's sad, unexpected death means this is the final Go-Betweens album, and it's a lovely farewell for these Aussie pioneers of shimmering guitar pop. Two of the 10 songs seem slight and underwritten, but "Finding You," the railroad-rattling "Here Comes a City," the growling "This Night's for You" and the elegant ripples of "The Statue" have all the reflective eloquence and flowing hooks of the group's finest tunes.
The Pastels: The Last Great Wilderness (Geographic, 2003) Rating: 11/20
This snack of a disc (just 24 minutes) collects the twee-pop stalwarts' wistful contributions to a film centered around a mysterious Scottish village. Dominated by soft female vocals, murmuring trumpet, lullaby bells and simple strums of acoustic chords, the instrumentals recall the soundtrack work of old progsters like Popul Vuh and Pink Floyd, while the best reasons to grab the disc are a hushed transformation of Sly Stone's "Everybody Is a Star" and the climactic "I Picked a Flower" (a one-time collaboration with Jarvis Cocker which, ironically, is a lot funkier than the Sly cover).
|Tom Waits: Real Gone (Anti-, 2004) Rating: 15/20
Waits' derelict imagery and unique, rusty-hacksaw arrangements retain their incredible atmosphere on this lengthy disc, but his total abandonment of piano unfortunately removes much of his music's warmth and beauty. Real Gone presents a decayed, nightmarish world with few relief moments of redemption, and powerful tracks such as "Hoist That Rag," "Make It Rain" (the album's best vocal), the demonic heave-ho of "Don't Go Into That Barn" and the 10-minute "Sins of My Father" don't fully cover for the lurching tunelessness elsewhere.
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comments by Eric Broome
A few parenthetical words about my ratings system
I've been privately using this 20-point scale for quite some time. Even for a few years before I moved online. A 10-point scale is hopelessly undifferentiated, and a scale larger than 20 points just feels too math-nerdy. And I wouldn't want to be responsible for making sure that, say, every "33/50" is worse than every "34/50." Too anal-retentive for me. So, instead, I stick with a modest 20-point scale, and then just do my approximate best to internally rank the same-graded albums in my "Archive" pages.
I also have been intermittently criticized for being too tough a grader. I mostly attribute this to contrasting perspectives. Objectors may see "13/20" as being like getting 65% on a test, which is obviously a lousy score. But I view the grades more in terms of percentiles and curves. For me, a 13/20 means the album is within the top 35% of albums ever released, and this doesn't seem like such a faint compliment to me. I often groan when I read overenthusiastic magazine/website reviews elsewhere, and see albums routinely receive "five stars" and "A+'s" as if they're among the very best music ever. I feel like pulling out a few classic albums and asking the writer, "Are you really saying that's as good as Pet Sounds?" And I wouldn't expect him/her to have a satisfactory answer. I don't think my own grades have this consistency problem. Across the years, the hierarchy holds up. Thanks for reading. EB