Starting All Over Again (After Another Paternity Leave)

Another whirlwind February, plus Forgetting to Vote for the Grammys, On the Stereo.

It’s been a while, so I’m going to clean house, catch up and hit the reset button on this newsletter.

Personal News

This February disappeared the same way last February disappeared for me: I spent most of the month caring for a newborn daughter during her time in the NICU and through her first weeks back home. Compared to last year's NICU experience, this February was a breeze, lasting a third of the time and following a steady trajectory of improvement. Still, a week-long NICU stay is no fun, especially when juggling a toddler at home and just when we settled into a routine, the great Texan winter storm of 2021 hit. We were more fortunate than most but the twenty hours without heat or power were fairly harrowing thanks to a pair of infants. We got through it safely but it struck a blow to my listening and productivity. I don’t have guilt about that, I just have pangs of longing for a reliable work schedule. 

Grammys

I didn’t watch the Grammys this year. Worse than that, I'm a NARAS member who forgot to send in his ballot this year. Why did the Grammys fly under my radar in 2021? I'd blame most of it on having two infants during the pandemic but it's also true that my interest in the Grammys waxes and wanes over the years. Much of this is due to the vagaries of an industry awards show a production that is inherently more interesting when you’ve got some skin in the game. That might mean you’re in the running for a trophy, it might mean you’re invested in the music that came out in a given year. If you don't have that sort of attachment, it's easy to take or leave the Grammys, so I left it this year.

By all accounts, this year's production was a good television show, plus the winners do largely reflect a voting body who is attempting to reckon with where pop music’s center is at. The new establishment is already in place: Beyoncé will eclipse Quincy Jones as the most honored artist in NARAS history and Taylor Swift certainly has the time, momentum, and motivation to win a fourth Album of the Year Grammy. There are still silly things happening in the margins but apart from maybe Body Count taking home a Metal trophy there were no major embarrassments among the wins, which also invalidates the whining from The Weeknd about being snubbed. Grammys aren’t intended as rubber stamps of sales, they’re for presenting the stare of the industry and how it sees itself. That’s why Jacob Collier and Black Pumas get big nods when The Weeknd doesn’t: they’re part of the industry firmament, they play nice, they realize they’re part of a team that includes engineers, producers, managers—all the people that make the music biz hum along. And because those ranks include a bunch of people who will never have their faces in a prime time broadcast, I’m not sure if the Grammys can ever get hipper than they are now, nor am I sure if that’s wise. The Grammys should be just a bit square, they’re the establishment, after all.

Oh, the one thing that didn’t win that I wish did? Nat King Cole’s Hittin’ The Ramp: The Early Years 1936-1943, which should’ve taken home the prize for Best Historical Album. I’m sure my vote would’ve made all the difference.

On the Stereo: 

Stereolab

Electrically Possessed: Switched On, Vol. 4

The fourth volume of Switched On arrives over two decades after Aluminum Tunes, a reflection of both Stereolab's extended hiatus and how the group's output streamlined in the 2000s. Electrically Possessed opens with The First of the Microbe Hunters, an EP released on a major label in 2000, then hopscotches through stray songs released and recorded between 1998 and 2008. Chronology is set aside in favor of flow, a move that also happens to emphasize how consistent the band was during this decade. Dialing back the volume and ratcheting up the groove, Stereolab wasn't as ambitious as they were during their mid-1990s heyday, yet they could hit the mark reliably, which is why Electrically Possessed satisfies even if it doesn't quite thrill. 

For the Good Times: The Songs of Kris Kristofferson

Kris Kristofferson has his charms as a singer but a way with a melody isn't necessarily one of them. He wrote melodies other singers could inhabit, with vocalists from every genre imprinting their own personality on songs that became instant standards: "For the Good Times," "Help Me Make It Through the Night," "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and "Me and Bobby McGee." All of these are here on For The Good Times: The Songs of Kris Kristofferson, another volume in Ace's ongoing songwriters series, usually in versions that are slightly off the beaten track. Sammi Smith's "Help Me Make It Through The Night" opens the collection and save perhaps Kristofferson's own version of "The Taker" and Hank Williams Jr's "If You Don't Like Hank Williams," it's the only time a classic is presented in its big hit incarnation. The comp isn't obscure for obscurity's sake. Roger Miller's original take on "Me and Bobby McGee" sits next to Isaac Hayes' version of "For the Good Times," the hazily-focused country nicely complimenting the slow jam. A few cuts are of recent vintage but the comp is at its best when it sticks to Kristofferson's 1970s peak, as pop stars, rockers and country charted new progressive territory within his stories. My big discovery here is Donnie Fritts, Kristofferson's keyboardist who is present with a swampy version of "Prone to Lean," a song I learned last year via Bobby Bare. His 1974 album, which is also called Prone to Lean, is on streaming services and it's quite good, especially for anybody who likes Tony Joe White, Doug Sahm, Jim Ford and Dale Hawkins. 

Black Crowes

Shake Your Money Maker [Deluxe]

The proper album can be a bit stiffer in actuality than it is in memory, particularly on the deeper album cuts, but when it clicks it catches fire: "Twice as Hard" and "Jealous Again" are played with such offhand sleaze that it can be easy to overlook how well structured they are. The rarities and outtakes on the second disc are also hit and miss: a version of Humble Pie's "30 Days in the Hole" finds the Black Crowes lacking but the slow groove through "Jealous Guy" is inspired. The live disc is even better, capturing a band who just figured out what their strengths are and are happy to strut in front of a hometown crowd. 

The Band

Stage Fright [Fiftieth Anniversary Super Deluxe]

I don't really buy that the rejiggered album sequence was the intended order back in 1970, not when the sides are swapped and shuffled. I also don't care for "The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show"—Robbie Robertson's corniest Americana fantasia this side of "The Last of the Blacksmith"—opening up the album, not when "Strawberry Wine" kicked things off in high spirits on the original. That said, the new sequencing may not add much to Stage Fright, nor does it hurt it: the album is a collection of mainly good songs given slick treatments by the Band and producer Todd Rundgren. It's a record that's lighter than either Music From Big Pink or The Band, a vibe that can be appealing on its own modest merits. The June 1971 live show added as an extra here is mighty fine, too, maybe the best representation of the Band as rock & roll road warriors. 

2020: The Albums I Didn't Enjoy

A couple of years ago I began offering a brief roundup of the new releases of a given week on social media, framing the recommendations as albums I enjoyed. It's not a perfect system. "Enjoyed" is a phrase that's slightly fuzzy, one that doesn't convey the depth of passion for a given album. Weekly updates are also tied to the vagaries of the week, the length of the list fluctuating according to release schedules, assignments and life itself. A recap also is a snapshot of a moment; my opinions may change or fade over time. Invariably, my list will not include worthwhile or noteworthy albums from a given week but the absence of a mention doesn't necessarily mean I haven't heard a record: it's also possible that I heard it and didn't like it much, or maybe I heard it and, for a variety of reasons, didn't find it particularly enjoyable. 

Enjoyment may not be the best metric for rating artwork. It's possible to enjoy bad albums and not enjoy good ones, for one, plus it could be reasonably argued that edification and enlightenment are loftier, richer emotions to seek from art. Transcendence is rare, so I settled for enjoyment—a term malleable enough to cover both deep and shallow pleasures.

Inevitably, this framing raises the question of "what albums do you not enjoy," a question I have a difficult time answering for the same reason that I can't always respond to "what's the best thing you heard lately": there are too many variables at play to provide an easy answer. Wretched albums by country rapper Upchurch tend to leave my consciousness quite quickly but I'll remember that I couldn't get through Maria McKee's La Vita Nuova, either because it unsettled me or I didn't care for it at all. Given time and inclination, I'd return to McKee to see if I missed something there, but I have no need to spend more time with any Upchurch album because what's there lies entirely on the surface. He makes bad albums but they don't bother me.

Good albums can bother me too. The one that leaps to mind is I Am Not A Dog On A Chain, last year's Morrissey record. He's become personally and politically odious, to the extent that the quality of I Am Not A Dog almost feels like a middle finger to longtime fans; now that they've parted ways, he's starting to make interesting music again. That's a dynamic I find interesting, particularly when compared to the psychodrama surrounding the return of Ryan Adams; the singer/songwriter doesn't deserve any oxygen for his attempted comeback, plus Wednesdays is a snooze. 

Neither I Am Not A Dog or Wednesdays are on this list of 2020 albums that stuck in my craw, nor are any albums from Upchurch, for that matter, or Nathaniel Rateliff’s And It’s Still Alright, which I really disliked but said my piece in a Pitchfork review upon its February release. What follows are records that disappointed, baffled or irritated me, records that are connected by the fact that they're memorable in the ways they were weird or came up short. Odds are you'll disagree with one or more of the titles that follow but that's all a matter of taste. 

Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex

Hal Willner started work on Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex years ago—it was mentioned in a 2017 New York Times profile of the record producer—and completed it in 2019 but agreed to postpone its release so its appearance could coincide with T. Rex's long overdue induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Come the summer of 2020, Angelheaded Hipster finally hit the stores but Willner was no longer alive, one the nearly 400,000 Americans dead of the COVID-19 coronavirus (T. Rex's official RRHOF induction didn't happen until later in 2020). Willner's death naturally turns Angelheaded Hipster into something of an epitaph for the producer, a heavy task for any album but one this double-disc is ill-equipped to handle. Blame it partially on boppin' Bolan himself. A mercurial musician who traveled the slipstream separating heavens and earth, Bolan's pleasures are inherently tied to his performance. The way his voice quivers, it often seemed as if he was unsure whether he wanted to ascend to the stars or wallow in the gutter. That ambivalence is essential to his appeal, glossing over the gaps and repetition in his songwriting. Willner chose to focus on Bolan the composer, then assembled a cast of characters who interpreted the T. Rex song without much humor and certainly not a hint of sex. The pedigree of the musicians involved means Angelheaded Hipster is listenable and occasionally interesting—I am partial to the gonzo cabaret of Todd Rundgren's version of "Planet Queen," maybe because he's about the only person who seizes upon Bolan's ridiculousness—but as a collective work it's a slog, delivering no easy action or solid gold. 

Emma SwiftBlonde On The Tracks

Emma Swift is blessed with the gift of good taste, a gift showcased on her Bob Dylan covers album Blonde On The Tracks. Look at the album title for proof. It's a gentle nod toward the names of two of Dylan's classic LPs, a knowing pun that lets listeners know what lies within the grooves: respectful, loving versions of songs she and the audience know by heart. Swift sings sweet and clean, supported by a sympathetic group that's essentially Robyn Hitchcock's modern-day backing band. Hitchcock's crew steers the arrangements toward unadorned folk-rock that's just this side of traditional, a combination that suits Swift's crisp singing, so Blonde On Tracks flows smooth and easy. So why does the album annoy me so much that I can't get past a single track at a time? Best that I can tell is that it's either because it's too close to some ill-defined fan service—a stylishly retro record designed to show how soulless the modern world is—or because Swift sings "I Contain Multitudes" as if it contains profundities not one-liners. There's no humor, no jagged edges here, there's nothing but straight lines and respect, a blend that will certainly hit somebody's sweet spot but, alas, not mine.

Jeremy RennerLive for Now

If anything is low-hanging fruit in terms of pop music criticism, it's albums by celebrities. They're punchlines in waiting, but the thing about Live For Now—the second of two EPs Jeremy Renner released in 2020—is that it's not so much funny as it is weird, blending an earnest attempt to mine emotion from Imagine Dragons ballads with dance-rock bangers. It's the party tunes that distinguish Live For Now from its moody predecessor The Medicine but they're also the strangest numbers here: "Just My Type," an anthem for divorced dads ready to disco, and the reggae sunsplash "Sippy Cup," which strains at hedonism but is restrained by the fact that Renner is swilling booze through a cup made for babies. 

Old DominionOld Dominion Meow Mix

Old Dominion decided to pass the time in 2020 by re-recording the vocal tracks for their (pretty good!) eponymous 2019 album, swapping out the original lyrics for a chorus of "meows" sung by the band, not felines. The idea is so perverse, I wish I actually enjoyed listening to the record. By the time the opening "Make It Sweet" arrives at its first chorus, the joke has lost its potency and there are another eleven cuts to go. I pride myself at being able to sit through nearly any album but I never managed to finish this one.  

Jason MrazLook For The Good

Just when I thought I came to terms with Jason Mraz's cornball crooning, he goes and delivers this sugarbomb: a dose of candy-coated sunshine, a record where he's riffing on inspirational slogans as he grooves to a reggae beat. Good intentions count for something in dark times, I suppose, but Look For The Good's mellow bliss sounded exceptionally grating in the midst of 2020. 

Johnny Cash & the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Middle of the road audiences in the U.K. adore these Royal Philharmonic Orchestra albums where the estates of rock & roll legends consent to have original recordings sweetened with strings. Elvis Presley opened up the market by topping the charts with If I Can Dream in 2015, proving there were buyers for these garish, clueless records and a deluge followed: another Presley, Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly and now Johnny Cash. This is one of the worst of the lot because Cash didn't really sing pop, he sang folk and country tunes, usually supported by a band with an idiosyncratic sense of rhythm. This inherent quirky sense of time is flattened as part of a production that smooths over any sense of grain, winding up with a dumbed-down easy listening record—not an appealingly kitsch artifact from the 1960s, rather a relic from the 1970s that refused to acknowledge the onset of soft-rock. Cash's voice strains against the stifling, stuffy strings, the echoes of his humanity underscoring how boring and tasteless this Royal Philharmonic Orchestra formula is.

Seth MacFarlaneGreat Songs From The Stage & Screen

I used to be disgusted by Seth MacFarlane's Sinatra cosplay but now I try to be amused. Six albums deep into his career and he's not bothering to change his formula, nor is he taking much effort to develop any idiosyncrasies in his delivery. To his credit, he knows this material so well, he can create an album that relies not on shopworn standards but a unifying concept worthy of the Chairman himself, so Great Songs From The Stage & Screen has a wit and purpose lacking in MacFarlane's earliest records. That's all well and good but a few tracks in, it's hard to resist the urge to swap this out for some Sinatra instead.

HARDYA ROCK

With a notable exception or two, such as the late MF DOOM, I have difficulty taking anybody who stylizes their name to all caps seriously. (I blame it on one too many press releases that stressed DAUGHTRY was a band, not a singer.) HARDY doubles down on this absurdity by not only titling his debut A ROCK, but having every one of its songs scream in all caps, all under the assumption that "UNAPOLOGETICALLY COUNTRY AS HELL" will seem tough, or something. Underneath all those loud—but clean—guitars and thumping rhythms, he seems like an insecure kid who's afraid that his cool friends in Florida Georgia Line will discover he's a ninny underneath his longhair and tattoos. 

Granger SmithCountry Things

Most of Country Things—released initially as two EPs, then combined as a single full-length at the end of the year—is fairly pedestrian, fairly unobjectionable modern country, delivered with a smile that's ingratiating, not incandescent. The album only becomes memorable when Granger Smith duets with his cornpone alter ego Earl Dibbles Jr., a comic persona that frees him to indulge in his goofy side—an affectation that would be appealing it wasn't so damn stupid. Case in point, "Country & Ya Know It," whose chorus is a beery interpolation of the childhood classic "If You're Happy and You Know It," a send-up that plays like a prank, not a joke, and it seems that the target is any listener who takes Country Things for a spin. 

Colter WallWestern Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs

Colter Wall mostly delivers upon his titular promise--he sure could've used a few more punchy songs—so give him some points for truth in advertising. Too bad Western Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs rolls forward with a momentum that mirrors its overly-literal title, a pace that suits Wall's stoic mid-century country & western but winds up accentuating his monochromatic sense of imagination. I'd be more forgiving of the muffled greyscale if his plaintive warble didn't hit my ear at precisely the wrong angle, causing a dissonance that makes me yearn for cowboys who sing without a trace of affect. 

Bon JoviBon Jovi 2020

Bon Jovi planned to call their 2020 album Bon Jovi 2020 long before 2020 became something of a curse. They had the good sense to postpone its release from the spring to the fall of 2020, a delay that gave Jon Bon Jovi time to rework the record so it could explicitly address such societal hardships as the pandemic and the rise of Black Lives Matter. As always, JBJ isn't exactly subtle: "American Reckoning" begins with "America's on fire/There's protests in the streets," then proceeds to hammer home its point. Sober subjects apparently require sober music, so Bon Jovi strips away anything resembling hooks, riffs and melody, which leaves Bon Jovi 2020 as a grey mass of fist pumps and laments, an album that says more about the band than it does the year. 

Best Reissues of 2020

Dig The Old Breed

A few stray thoughts on the reissues and archival releases of 2020 before the list of my best/favorite reissues of the year

  • On the whole, it's felt a little bit like the reissue market softened a bit this year. Some of this certainly is pandemic related. Titles were delayed—to cite two prominent examples, the Beatles' Let It Be anniversary set didn't come out this year, there was no entry in Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series—but some of this apparent softening could be due to a scattered attention span on my part. 

  • Despite this softening, there have been some labels and artists who have been very active in 2020. Neil Young, for one, is spinning out records from his Archives at a rapid clip, then there were reissue series from PJ Harvey and LIttle Richard, not to mention two relatively rare archival dives from both Elton John and Bobby Bare. Because of this, I decided to group artists with multiple entries under one entry instead of scattering their selections throughout the list. The lists within the subentry are arranged in order of preference. 

  • I remain a complete mark for the collections Bob Stanley produces and compiles for Ace Records (he has collaborators on many of these; I've attempted to share credit by presenting the complete titles but there may be an oversight). What I like best about Stanley's comps is their specificity: they capture a particular time and space, digging into the byways that have been left forgotten by conventional pop histories. The six here are essentially tied for number one—today, I would choose to put on 76 in the Shade first. 

  • I'm very happy to see 1980s American underground get a pair of extraordinary reissues in the form of Pylon Box and, especially, Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987, which is effectively a college rock Nuggets

  • I'm growing a little tired of super deluxe editions of classic albums. There are certainly exceptions to the rule—neither the heavily-anticipated Sign o the Times or Wildflowers disappointed—but they're often feeling a little too padded, more about the packaging than the content. That said, I found the packaging of The Complete Armed Forces amazing and wound up getting sucked into the live material on the set, so maybe I'm a hypocrite.

  • It's been a quarter century since Blur Vs Oasis, so it's time for super deluxe Britpop sets. The all-inclusive Supergrass and Menswe@r sets spoke to me, but the mammoth Divine Comedy set is also noteworthy and I assume the similar Gene and Mansun boxes are the same. I especially liked Super Sonics: 40 Junkshop Britpop Greats, a double-disc collection of also-rans and obscurities, as I always favor comps that excavate music that I've missed.

  • It was a close call with Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987 but I chose the Super Deluxe Edition of Prince's Sign o the Times as my top reissue of the year because it's the rare expanded edition that delivers a wealth of strong unreleased material that never feels like a retread of the original record. If anything, all of the outtakes and alternate takes prove Prince knew precisely what he wanted to achieve with Sign o the Times, since the double-LP contained all the very best songs from these sessions.

  • As always, if an album isn't here, I either didn't hear it, forgot it or disliked it, or some combination of the three. 

BEST REISSUES OF 2020

  1. Prince—Sign o the Times [Super Deluxe Edition]

  2. Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987

  3. Bob Stanley Compilations for Ace Records

    1. Bob Stanley Presents 76 in the Shade

    2. Saint Etienne Presents Songs For The Fountain Coffee Room

    3. Bob Stanley & Pete Wiggs Present Occasional Rain [Ace]

    4. Cafe Exil: New Adventures in European Music 1972-1980

    5. Tea & Symphony: The English Baroque Sound 1968-1974 [Ace]

    6. Bob Stanley & Pete Wiggs Present The Tears Of Technology

  4. Pylon—Pylon Box

  5. Ready Or Not: Thom Bell's Philly Soul Arrangements & Productions 1965-1978 [Ace]

  6. Richard & Linda Thompson—Hard Luck Stories 1972-1982

  7. Supergrass—The Strange Ones 1994-2008

  8. Bobby Bare

    1. Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein

    2. Great American Saturday Night

  9. Neil Young

    1. Neil Young Archives, Vol. II (1972-1976)

    2. Homegrown

    3. Return to Greendale

    4. After the Gold Rush [50th Anniversary Edition]

  10. Super Sonics: 40 Junkshop Britpop Greats

  11. The Land of Sensations & Delights: The Psych Pop Sounds of White Whale Records 1965-1970 [Craft]

  12. Elvis Presley—From Elvis in Nashville

  13. White Stripes

    1. De Stijl XX

    2. White Stripes XX

    3. Greatest Hits

  14. Tom Petty—Wildflowers…And All The Rest

  15. The Stooges—Live At Goose Lake, August 8th 1970

  16. Iron City Houserockers—Have A Good Time…But Get Out Alive (40th Anniversary)

  17. Doug Sahm—Crazy, Crazy Feelin’: The Definitive Early Doug Sahm [Jasmine]

  18. Elvis Costello—The Complete Armed Forces

  19. Kursaal Flyers—Little Does She Know: The Complete Recordings [RPM]

  20. Cream—Goodbye Tour Live 1968

  21. Menswe@r—Menswe@r Collection

  22. Surrender To The Rhythm: London Pub Rock Scene Of The Seventies

  23. Elton John

    1. Jewel Box

    2. Live from Moscow 1979

  24. The Replacements—Pleased to Meet Me [Deluxe Edition]

  25. Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers—Just Coolin’

  26. Lou Reed—New York [Deluxe Edition]

  27. Paul McCartney—Flaming Pie [Archive Edition]

  28. PJ Harvey—Vinyl Reissues

    1. To Bring You My Love Demos

    2. Dry Demos

    3. 4-Track Demos

  29. Joni Mitchell—Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967)

  30. Girls Go Power Pop!

  31. Grateful Dead

    1. June 1976

    2. Workingman's Dead [50th Anniversary]

    3. American Beauty [50th Anniversary]

    4. Angel's Share: Workingman's Dead & American Beauty

  32. The Rolling Stones—Goats Head Soup [Super Deluxe Edition]

  33. Bobbie Gentry—Delta Sweete [Expanded]

  34. The Everly Brothers—Down In The Bottom: The Country Rock Sessions 1966-1968 [Cherry Red]

  35. Style Council—Long Hot Summers: The Story of the Style Council

  36. Looking Through A Glass Onion: The Beatles' Psychedelic Songbook 1966-72

  37. Fleetwood Mac—Fleetwood Mac (1969-1974)

  38. Southeast of Saturn

  39. Mojo Nixon—The Mojo Manifesto: The Original Album Collection

  40. Sam Cooke—The Complete Keen Years 1957-1960 

  41. Kraut! Teil 1 Der Norden [Bear Family]

  42. The Shoes—Elektrafied: The Elektra Albums 1979-1982 [Cherry Red]

  43. Johnny Cash

    1. A Night To Remember: May 5th, 1973

    2. The Complete Mercury Recordings

  44. The Kills—Little Bastards

  45. The Kinks—Lola Versus The Powerman and the Moneygoround, Pt. 1 (50th Anniversary)

  46. Stone Crush: Memphis Modern Soul 1977-1987 [Light in the Attic]

  47. Bobby Hatfield—Stay With Me: The Richard Perry Sessions

  48. Sonic Youth—Live at Cat's Cradle 2000

  49. Peephole In My Brain: The British Progressive Pop Sounds of 1971

  50. Def Leppard—The Early Years 79-81 

  51. Jimi Hendrix—Live in Maui

  52. John Lee Hooker—Documenting the Sensation Recordings 1948-1952 [Ace]

  53. Scott Walker Meets Jacques Brel  [Ace]

  54. The Honeycombs—Have I The Right: The Complete 60s Albums & Singles [RPM]

  55. Bubblerock Is Here To Stay! The British Pop Explosion 1970-73

  56. Andrew Gold

    1. Something New: Unreleased Gold

    2. Lonely Boy: The Anthology

  57. Iggy Pop—The Bowie Years

  58. Roy Clark—Greatest Hits [Craft]

  59. Thin Lizzy—Rock Legends

  60. Groovie Goolies—Groovie Goolies

  61. Jobcentre Rejects, Vols. 3 & 4

  62. David Bowie

    1. Ouvrez Le Chien (Live in Dallas 95)

    2. ChangesNowBowie

  63. Little Richard

    1. Southern Child

    2. The Rill Thing

    3. Second Coming

    4. Lifetime Friend

  64. The Harry Smith B-Sides

  65. The Staple Singers—Come Go With Me: The Stax Collection

  66. Rush—Permanent Waves [40th Anniversary]

  67. Van Duren

    1. Are You Serious?

    2. Idiot Optimism

  68. Soul of the Memphis Boys

  69. Little Steven—Rock N Roll Rebel: The Early Work

  70. Duke Ellington—Money Jungle [Blue Note Tone Poet]

  71. Herbie Hancock—The Prisoner [Blue Note Tone Poet]

  72. Big Joe Turner—The Complete Boss Of The Blues [Bear Family]

  73. Grant Green—Nigeria [Blue Note Tone Poet]

  74. Robert Plant—Digging Deep: Subterranea

  75. Kenny Carter—Showdown: The Complete 1966 RCA Recordings

  76. This is Fame: 1964-1968

  77. Steve Wynn—Decade

  78. Game Theory—Across The Barrier Of Sound: PostScript

  79. Bob Frank—Within A Few Degrees

  80. John Prine—Crooked Piece of Time: The Atlantic & Asylum Albums

  81. Right Back Where We Started From: Female Pop & Soul in 70s Britain

  82. Divine Comedy—Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time

  83. Bob Mould—Distortion: 1989-2019

  84. Dire Straits—The Studio Albums 1978-1991

  85. The Doors—Morrison Hotel [50th Anniversary Deluxe]

  86. Tears for Fears—Seeds of Love [Super Deluxe]

  87. Destination Lust—The World Of Love, Sex And Violence: 32 Erotic Fantasies From The Vault [Bear Family]

  88. The Coasters—Rocks [Bear Family]

  89. Destination Health: Doc Feelgood’s Rock Therapy, 30 Bop Pills for Your Recovery [Bear Family]

  90. U2—All That You Can’t Leave Behind [20th Anniversary Super Deluxe]

  91. Billy Walker--Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight

  92. Hank Williams—Pictures from Life’s Other Side

  93. John Lennon—Gimme Some Truth [2020]

  94. Bill Kirchen—The Proper Years

  95. Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks—Orange Crate Art: 25th Anniversary Edition

Best Albums of 2020

Like so many other people this year, I have no energy to write an essay attempting to grapple with what 2020 meant, either at a personal or cultural level. In lieu of a cohesive piece, here are a few thoughts about what I heard (or did not hear) in this year's listening.

  • I'm a little tired of seeing my top two at the top of so many lists but they're also the records I spent the most time with this year, so it would feel disingenuous to put any other records above them.

  • My listening behavior changed dramatically this year, which forced me to concentrate on albums where I had assignments. I certainly managed to hear records that weren't work-related, but I may not have spent as much time with them as I might've liked. If I had, maybe they'd rank higher on the list.

  • This list is arranged in order of preference but the intensity of the preference lightens around 40 or so. Give me another week or month and the placements would certainly change. (Lists are a snapshot of the time of their creation, after all)

  • If an album isn't listed here, it could mean that I forgot it or I didn't hear it or I didn't like it. I will follow up with a list of albums I outright disliked, it'll arrive next week with any luck. 

  • If an artist released two albums this year I liked, I decided to put them on the same entry instead of separating them. Sometimes, the distinction isn't cost-effective (Sturgill Simpson), sometimes I'm still sorting out a preference (Taylor Swift).

  • Judged just on the albums alone, 2020 was a pretty good year! A lot of strong records, a couple of seeming masterpieces, and a bunch of surprises. 

  • A reissue list is set for later this week.

  1. Fiona Apple—Fetch The Bolt Cutters

  2. Bob Dylan—Rough And Rowdy Ways

  3. Stephen Malkmus—Traditional Techniques

  4. Soccer Mommy—Color Theory

  5. Low Cut Connie—Private Lives

  6. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit—Reunions

  7. The Strokes—The New Abnormal

  8. Brandy Clark—Your Life Is A Record

  9. Zephaniah Ohora—Listening to the Music

  10. Taylor Swift—Folklore/Evermore

  11. Lilly Hiatt—Walking Proof

  12. HAIM—Women In Music, Pt. III

  13. H.C. McEntire—Eno Axis

  14. AC/DC—Power Up

  15. Waylon Payne—Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me

  16. Sam Morrow—Gettin’ By On Gettin’ Down

  17. Bruce Springsteen—Letter To You

  18. Waxahatchee—Saint Cloud

  19. Rina Sawayama—Sawayama

  20. JARV IS…—Beyond the Pale

  21. Charley Crockett—Welcome to Hard Times

  22. Public Enemy—What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?

  23. Paul McCartney—McCartney III

  24. Dua Lipa—Future Nostalgia

  25. Charli XCX—How I’m Feeling Now

  26. Bob Mould—Blue Hearts

  27. Aoife Nessa Frances—Land of No Junction

  28. Mike & The Moonpies—Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart

  29. X—Alphabetland

  30. Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers—Hold My Beer, Part 2

  31. Margo Price—That’s How Rumors Get Started

  32. Sturgill Simpson—Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1/Cuttin' Grass, Vol. 2

  33. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead—X: The Godless Void And Other Stories

  34. Hot Country Knights—The “K” Is Silent

  35. Brothers Osborne—Skeletons

  36. Cornershop—England is a Garden

  37. Jessie Ware—What’s Your Pleasure?

  38. John Anderson—Years

  39. Torres—Silver Tongue

  40. Pearl Jam—Gigaton

  41. Mandy Moore—Silver Landings

  42. Kip Moore—Wild World

  43. Luke Haines & Peter Buck—Beat Poetry for Survivalists

  44. Rufus Wainwright—Unfollow the Rules

  45. Whitney Rose—We Still Go To Rodeos

  46. Bobby Rush—Rawer Than Raw

  47. Miley Cyrus—Plastic Hearts

  48. Beabadoobee—Fake It Flowers

  49. The Mountain Goats--Getting Into Knives

  50. Ashley McBryde—Never Will

  51. Bill Callahan—Gold Record

  52. Elvis Costello—Hey Clockface

  53. Brent Cobb—Keep Em on They Toes

  54. Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite—100 Years of Blues

  55. Johnny Iguana’s Chicago Spectacular

  56. Sam Hunt—Southside

  57. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever—Sideways To New Italy

  58. Roisin Murphy—Roisin Machine

  59. Kelsea Ballerini—Kelsea/Ballerini

  60. Garth Brooks—Fun

  61. Lady Gaga—Chromatica

  62. The Killers—Imploding the Mirage

  63. Phoebe Bridgers—Punisher

  64. Carly Rae Jepsen—Dedicated Side B

  65. Puss N Boots—Sister

  66. Norah Jones—Pick Me Up Off The Floor

  67. Hayley Williams—Petals for Armor

  68. Brendan Benson—Dear Life

  69. Thundercat—It Is What It Is

  70. Lydia Loveless—Daughter

  71. Cam—The Otherside

  72. Caroline Rose—Superstar

  73. Paul Weller—On Sunset

  74. Pam Tillis—Looking for a Feeling

  75. Dan Penn—Living on Mercy

  76. Gum Country—Somewhere

  77. Phish—Sigma Oasis

  78. Chris Stapleton--Starting Over

  79. Aubrie Sellers—Far From Home

  80. Run the Jewels—RTJ4

  81. Lera Lynn—On My Own

  82. Drive-By Truckers—The Unraveling/The New OK

  83. Jeff Tweedy—Love Is The King

  84. The Cadillac Three—Country Fuzz

  85. Huey Lewis & The News—Weather

  86. Tyler Childers—Long Violent History

  87. Tenille Townes—The Lemonade Stand

  88. Swamp Dogg—Sorry You Couldn’t Make It

  89. Butch Walker—American Love Story

  90. Marcus King—El Dorado

  91. Courtney Marie Andrews—Old Flowers

  92. Willie Nelson—First Rose Of Spring

  93. M Ward—Migration Stories/Think of Spring

  94. Early James—Singing For My Supper

  95. Niall Horan—Heartbreak Weather

  96. Selena Gomez—Rare

  97. Kenny Chesney—Here And Now

  98. The Jayhawks—XOXO

  99. The Chicks—Gaslighter

  100. Arlo McKinley—Die Midwestern

  101. Ben Watt—Storm Damage

  102. The Claudettes—High Times in the Dark

  103. Watkins Family Hour—Brother Sister

  104. Ganser—Just Look At That Sky

  105. Lemon Twigs—Songs for the General Public

  106. Ingrid Andress—Lady Like

  107. Old 97s—Twelfth

  108. James Dean Bradfield—Even in Exile

  109. Pretenders—Hate For Sale

  110. Cordovas—Destiny Hotel

  111. Annie—Dark Hearts

  112. Jules Shear—slower

  113. Frances Quinlan—Likewise

  114. Jonny Polonsky—Power and Greed and Money and Sex and Death

  115. Psychedelic Furs—Made of Rain

  116. Joey Molland—Be True To Yourself

  117. The Texas Gentlemen—Floor It!!

  118. Oceanator—Things I Never Said

  119. Sault—Untitled (Black Is)/Untitled (Rise)

  120. RVG—Feral

  121. Stephanie Lambring—Autonomy

  122. Chris Cornell—No One Sings Like You Anymore

  123. Billie Joe Armstrong—No Fun Mondays

  124. Lou Turner—Songs for John Venn

  125. Hinds—The Prettiest Curse

  126. Shelby Lynne—Shelby Lynne

  127. Walter Martin—The World At Night

  128. Bright Eyes—Down in the Weeds, Where The World Once Was

  129. Kesha—High Road

  130. Chris Stamey & the Fellow Travelers—A Brand-New Shade of Blue

  131. Andy Shauf—The Neon Skyline

  132. Ruston Kelly—Shape & Destroy

  133. Bruce Hornsby—Non-Secure Connection

  134. Gorillaz—Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez

  135. Fantastic Negrito—Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?

Neil Young Archives, Vol. II (1972-1976)

An absorbing journey through the past that reinvigorates the Ditch Years

Forward motion is the constant in Neil Young's career, a tendency he romanticized in "Thrasher," a 1979 kiss-of to Crosby, Stills & Nash: "I got bored and left them there/They were just dead weight to me." Neil's restlessness used to camouflage his contradictory desire to wander through his back pages, a trait that first surfaced on 1977's self-mythologizing Decade but blossomed with the appearance of Neil Young Archives, a multi-media project first unveiled on the weighty 2009 box Neil Young Archives, Vol. 1 (1963-1972) but mutated into a series of satellite releases anchored by Young's own website, which is predictably and slightly confusingly called Neil Young Archives. 

Young spent years obsessing over Archives, originally conceiving it in the late 1980s as something of a Decade II, then gradually coming to the belief it should contain nothing less than his entire story. As always, audio quality was a bit of a bugaboo. Dismayed by the sound of 1990s digital audio, Neil held out for something better, eventually embracing Blu-ray for its high video and audio resolution. This was state of the art in 2009 but eleven years later, the format feels antiquated thanks to the rise of streaming technology. Looking back, the original 2009 box Neil Young Archives, Vol. 1 feels tailored around the format of Blu-ray—one of its discs was devoted to the film of Journey Through The Past—but the long-awaited Neil Young Archives, Vol. II (1972-1976), which is now available to neilyoungarchives.com subscribers, isn't available as a Blu-Ray, or even a DVD, as Vol. I was. It's only available on CD, which will be accompanied by hi-res digital downloads. (I will always be amused that my advance download of the set arrived as a lowly 256-bit MP3, a number that's decidedly not Pono-friendly.)

The embrace of CD as the chosen physical format for Neil Young Archives, Vol. II is an acknowledgment that neilyoungarchives.com fulfills Neil's grandest archival visions, but that also has the ripple effect of making the Vol. II tighter and far more listenable than its predecessor. It also helps that Vol. II covers a period of time everybody knows is Young's creative peak: the mid-'70s, when he released four albums, scrapped another at the last minute, then wrote enough songs to propel him into the 1980s. Real heads came to call this period the "Ditch Years" in a nod to his claim in the Decade liner notes that "'Heart of Gold' put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch." 

The image of a ditch also suggests a vehicle going off the rails, a notion that's not inaccurate as far as Neil Young in the mid-'70s goes. Navigating a host of personal problems by indulging in intoxicants and creative whims in nearly equal measure, he sailed through moments of darkness and stoned reveries, winding up with a trilogy of messy masterpieces—Time Fades Away (1973), On the Beach (1974), Tonight's the Night (1975)—along with a stellar coda where the fog begins to lift (1975's Zuma). All four of these albums form the backbone of Neil Young Archives, Vol. II, which is structured like Vol. I in that it has individual discs devoted to an alternate telling of the album culled heavily from the original LP. Maybe it's familiarity with the technique, maybe it's the richness of the source material, maybe it's the condensed time frame but this approach works better than it did back in 2009, when the familiar album tracks wound up feeling repetitive. Here, the alternations in sequencing and selection wind up casting the period in a slightly different light, removing a creeping sense of doom without erasing the melancholy undertow.

Take the disc devoted to Tonight's The Night, for example. "Come on Baby Let's Go Downtown" isn't here since it was recorded in 1970, "Borrowed Tune" is moved to the On The Beach companion (Walk On (1973-1974)) since it was cut after the Tonight's The Night sessions, and the disc contains two lighter additions: a nearly effervescent reading of the After The Gold Rush outtake "Everybody's Alone" and a riotous version of "Raised on Robbery" featuring Joni Mitchell herself on lead vocals. Most of the album is here but as a collection of songs, this disc—which, unlike the rest of the discs on Vol. II, doesn't bear a different title than its parent album—doesn't feel nearly as heavy as the proper LP, a scenario that repeats elsewhere on the box. Everybody's Alone (1972-1973) doesn't feel as chaotic as Time Fades Away, Walk On doesn't drift toward doom, Crazy Horse runs free throughout Dume (1975), the companion to Zuma

All the emotions (and many of the elements) of the original albums are present, it's just that the context has changed. They're now part of a shambling autobiographical narrative, one where songs are repeated—there are no less than three versions of "Love/Art Blues" on The Old Homestead (1974), which is a collection of odds and ends, unlike the completed and shelved Homegrown—and Young changes bands as he changes his mood. Some of the songs remain the same, but the performances are quite different: early electric versions of "Ride My Llama" and "Pocahontas" on Dume are romps, lacking the stoned mysticism of their acoustic counterparts on Rust Never Sleeps. A wealth of unreleased songs (different than unreleased versions, of which there are many, including several that made their official debut on the 2014 box CSNY 1974) interweave with tunes that were scattered throughout American Stars N Bars and Hawks & Doves and remnants of the abandoned CSNY album Human Highway. All these orphans sound at home on this rambling, absorbing box because this is when they were written and recorded, during the period that was undeniably the richest of Young's career.

A box this exhaustive is challenging to consume in one sitting, which means it's often easiest to process as a series of highlights. There are plenty of treasures here, to be sure. Of late, I keep returning to the raucous Stray Gators material on the first disc, particularly a careening version of "Last Trip To Tulsa," the "Raised On Robbery" where Young's band happily play support to Joni Mitchell." I've been surprised by the sprightliness of the Zuma-era "Pocahontas" and "Hawaii," energized by the live-wire Crazy Horse on the closing live set Odeon Budokan (1976) and spending time sorting through The Old Homestead, which is so overloaded with unreleased material, I sometimes long for the guideposts the previously-released tracks provide elsewhere. What lingers in my mind, though, is how this deep, detailed portrait of the Ditch Years doesn't feel especially gloomy or sad to my ears. This could be how there's something deeply invigorating about hearing an artist at full flight, so enraptured with his abilities he keeps turning his songs inside out in hopes of something new. That process is fascinating and it's laid out plainly here through songs that are reworked both on stage and in the studio. Hearing it play out again and again through these ten discs restores a sense of wonder to a period that has perhaps grown a tad stale due to decades of myth and praise for the original records. Listening to this music as a whole, presented as a shaggy aural memoir, the twists and detours can provide a bit of a jolt but they also feel logical, since there is enough space to trace Neil's evolution.

As a listening experience, Neil Young Archives, Vol II (1972-1976) could be enough to convert a fairweather into a true believer, but let's be clear: at this point, only the hardcore will able to track down this set. It's streaming only at Neil's site, its first run sold out prior to its November 20, 2020 shipping date, and even with its spring re-pressing around the corner, it bears a hefty price tag of $159.98 for its standard edition. Nevertheless, those who choose to devote the cash and time to immerse themselves in this edition of Young's Archives will find it to be the set they've dreamed about since Decade II was first whispered about during the Ragged Glory years.

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