THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Fall 2018, Countdown)

10) Kool & the Gang: Gold (2005)

Especially before J.T. Taylor joined, they flirted with a kind of anonymity: each member interchangeable within the collective and the collective interchangeable within the form (which in the beginning was funk, funk, and nothing but the funk–meaning the white boy intelligentsia was all too happy to define them out of existence).

They were too good for that to last and, over the long haul–which this strictly chronological delight traces step-by-step–they helped define funk, disco, even the new R&B ballad style. And, for all that, there’s no way to get to the bottom of “Celebration,” which seems lighter than air the first hundred times you hear it on the radio or some comp and, here, late at night on the headphones you wear so you won’t wake up the neighbors, reveals itself as one of the greatest and deepest arrangements in the history of rock and roll. Meaning, around these parts, the history of great and deep arranging, period. Try it some time.

9) Desmond Dekker Rockin’ Steady: The Best of (1992)

A recent re-acquisition (among several on this list that were lost in the Great CD Sell-Off of 2002)–and I can’t even believe how much I was missing. My vague memory was that, after all the early Leslie Kong-produced stuff everybody knows are great (“007” “The Israelites” “It Mek”) there was a bit of a tail-off. If anything, he got better. This is the most readily available comp and, while I suspect it only scratches the surface–nobody this consistent on the singles, across decades, ever fails to have hidden depths–it’s still a lot to take in. For at least these twenty cuts, Dekker belongs in the company of the reggae giants, with Marley and Jimmy Cliff and Toots Hibbert.

And, lest we forget, it was he, not they, who broke the music off the island.

8) Patty Loveless Up Against My Heart (1991)

Between 1988’s Honky Tonk Angel and 1997’s Long Stretch of Lonesome, which preceded her first unofficial retirement, Loveless released seven albums. This is the only one that didn’t go gold or platinum so naturally it’s my favorite…not to mention one of the greatest vocal albums of the twentieth century. The significance to her career–and the direction of country music ever since–was not slight. This was her fifth album and fifth albums are about where sawdust-on-the-floor acts are supposed to give a little.

It must have occurred to somebody that she was digging in instead of selling out. A label change, throat surgery and her first “comeback” were in the offing–and she would take digging in further than anyone has in these modern times, (when it really has become gauche), eventually winning every major award, without bluster, without giving an inch, and without playing any way other than nice.

But I still wonder what would have happened–to her and the country–if, with Bill Clinton’s unctuous combination of Sanctimony and Sleaze lurking just around the corner, somebody had the nerve to release “God Will” to the radio….and it had taken off.

7) War All Day Music (1971)

One of the great albums of the seventies. I’m starting to think it might be even greater than its mind-blowing followup The World is a Ghetto, which was the best-selling album of 1973. It’s conceptual, and the concept stretches from “All Day Music” to “Slippin’ Into Darkness” to an early, live version of “Me and Baby Brother,” (called here just “Baby Brother”)–from the afterglow of the just-then-receding Civil Rights movement, to the ominous warning of a present already being robbed of the light, to a future that must, of necessity, betoken a reckoning.

And it flows, brothers and sisters. It flows.

Never more so than when snatches of cross-talk at the beginning of “Slippin’ Into Darkness” recreate a camaraderie every living human can envy as prelude to a lyric that drops us into a situation far too many of us would sell our souls to avoid having to deal with personally.

6) The Mamas & the Papas Deliver (1967) and The Papas & the Mamas (1968)

Speaking of slipping into darkness, it’s funny how one album puts you in a mood for another. I listen to these albums as the second disc of a box set, where they make a seamless transition that amounts to a blessing on the sixties’ present (represented by several stunning re-imaginings of R&B classics on Deliver) turning into a curse on any possible future that might result as The Papas & the Mamas wanders along.

Over the course of these, their last two albums (not counting a listless reunion effort in the seventies), Cass eventually takes over on her way out the door–with a “Dream a Little Dream of Me” that wastes every pre-rock Pop singer to a husk, with a “Midnight Voyage” that closes down the album and the group as swiftly, surely and seductively as “Safe in My Garden” and “Twelve Thirty” (which novelist Steve Erickson once  accurately described as an ode to the Manson girls) close down the sixties. And that’s not even taking into account the single line where she sing’s Get on your pony and ride which might be her finest moment.

These days, I listen to this disc a lot.

I mean, with the End so near, why wouldn’t you?

5) Earth, Wind & Fire Greatest Hits (1998)

Funk’s most formidable hit machine and this is all of them, rolling one right after the other. (Mix-disc advice: Stick “Serpentine Fire” next to the Beach Boy’s “How She Boogalooed It.” Strap down your mind first. Thank me later.)

People who think EWF lack street cred (mostly white people who mistook George Clinton’s slave humor for Old Testament commandments–as with the Stax/Motown debate, the opinions of actual black people, including George Clinton, are rarely taken into account unless they conform to certain necessary preconditions) function as useful idiots. There’s more evidence on their albums and box sets. I invite you to explore…but this is proof enough.

4) The Tokens Wimoweh! The Best of  (1994)

Another recent re-acquistion–disappointed that it didn’t have “He’s in Town” (though that at least proved I hadn’t somehow missed or, worse, forgotten it, and gave me an excuse to add it to the Diamonds in the Shade category). What’s left after “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is still pretty spectacular. One can hear how, with a break or two, they might have been much bigger. Maybe not as big as the 4 Seasons, for whom they cleared the ground…but bigger.

Instead, the sixties happened. This is a nice trip to the land of what might have been.

3) The Skyliners Since I Don’t Have You (with Bonus Tracks) (1991)

(Another recent re-acquisition–it’s been that kind of year.)

A vehicle for Jimmy Beaumont, a doo wop genius who was really a blue-eyed soul genius arrived half a decade early. This is nearly all riveting. The killer soprano who augments the sound, occasionally taking it over, is Janet Vogel. She would hang over the proceedings like a ghost even if you didn’t know she committed suicide in 1980.

On these records, she is not alone in sounding like she already knows something you don’t. Killer stuff.

2) Barry White All-Time Greatest Hits (1994)

They could have called it “quittin’ just ain’t my stick.” It’s too bad Barry became known as the Maestro of Sex because he was really the Maestro of Devotion, who understood how important Sex was. I’m with Marvin Gaye in regarding him as one of the deepest spiritual artists. Some people understood–this never, ever quits and, released nearly two decades after the Maestro’s hey-day, it went double-platinum. You want to go really deep, catch “You See the Trouble With Me’ and “Oh What a Night for Dancing,” but even the most heavy rotation hits have never worn out and never will….and you talk about arrangements? Jesus, these don’t even call attention to themselves when you’re concentrating on them and nothing else.

Or at least trying to!

1) Various Artists Ultimate Seventies: 1973 (1990)

One thought that struck me listening to nearly everything on this list, but especially to Barry White, was how everybody used to sound big.

Music only rides three basic trains: Melody, Rhythm, Trance. Pitchfork‘s recent list of the 200 Greatest Albums of the Eighties had a link to a key song from each album. That sort of thing is one of the great blessings of the modern age. Once upon a time, when a critic waxed lyrical about some obscure recording, you had to sweat blood, time and money to ever hear it. Now, it’s just a click away. Except for the few dozen on that list I knew (Madonna, Bruce, Michael, Prince, Cyndi, the Go-Go’s) I clicked every single entry (something north of a hundred and fifty) and finished exactly one (a song by the Replacements I’m not the least bit haunted by already having forgotten the name of even though I swore I’d try to remember).

For all the rest, be it hip-hop, rap, grunge, punk, post-punk, indie, hardcore, speed metal, dance pop, electronica, post-modern classical or even singer-songwriter (Leonard Cohen was on there somewhere), I developed a pattern.

Click on a link.

Listen.

Mutter Trance music.

Click off.

Next, please.

I was aware of the new form of evil moving through the land in the eighties as it happened. I hope that awareness has touched almost everything I’ve written on this blog. But the level of calculation, especially as it related to what had, only a moment before, been Rock and Roll America, the most liberating force in American life, if not American history, never before struck me so forcefully.

Not coincidentally I found myself, a day or two later, wondering what I needed to listen to in order to finish off this list and my hand strayed to, of all places, the Time Life area of the CD shelves.

I picked 1973 because it was supposed to be a nothing year, the nadir--the kind of vacuum that made the Punk and Rap Trances (and the Grunge and Hip Hop trances that followed in their wake)–and the smug pretense their trances represented something besides capitulation–inevitable before the decade was out.

And this collection from the corporate behemoth started with “Loves Me Like a Rock” “Superfly” “We’re an American Band’ “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” And, except for maybe Todd Rundgren and “Hello It’s Me” it rolled all the way to the end with no trace of a trance anywhere–and even Todd Rundgren and “Hello It’s Me” didn’t sound small. It didn’t matter if me or you liked all of this music or none of it–it was the sound that mattered. The sound of somebody–literally anybody–trying to get a grasp on a moment that was huge, not because of your private taste or mine, but because we were still desperate to be caught up in some larger story and to have music represent that desperation.

And now, like everything from 1980 onward that wasn’t a throwback, we have….smallness.

Jesus. You artists of the present (the ones that reach the radio anyway).

You shameless fronts for suits and machines.

“Midnight Train to Georgia” is one thing. Nobody expects you to live up to that.

But you’ve made Stealers Wheel and Seals and Croft sound epic.

How am I supposed to forgive you!

Take it Marvin…Save me Brother! Sing Track 18 for Barry and all the ladies and shut down the trance lords forever. Make them ashamed:

Til next time.

9 thoughts on “THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Fall 2018, Countdown)

  1. “Shameless fronts for suits and machines” is the perfect way of putting it, I’m afraid. Some artists loved music so much that they walked away from both, when the choice presented itself. The best of them came back, usually briefly, to remind us why they love rock’n’roll, and why the exploitation of beauty is a Dangerous Game.

    Speaking of perfection, you’ve named two antidotes to the modern smallness, imitativeness and vocal dryness: The Tokens and the Skyliners. The best doo-wop, the best R&B, the best R&R simply used to be a wonderful listening experience that we often took for granted. Now it’s a wonderful listening experience, plus downright self-medicating. Let those astonishingly expressive singers heal your nervous system and relish the oddly comforting feeling that those records still know something we don’t!

    • Well, I catch your reference there my friend and it is a reminder that the underlying problem is not new!

      I remember about 15 years ago a girl from work invited me and a friend to a CD launch party for her husband’s band. That’s the only time I’ve attended anything local. Three bands played and I remember telling my friend when I was driving her home that all three of them were better than anything on the radio. Of course, none of them ever “made” it and, to tell the truth, the two CDs I bought that night didn’t capture what I had heard on stage in a local pool hall.

      I’m sure you’ve witnessed this a thousand times in your career…I never doubt that the talent is around. The world doesn’t run out of talent. But the whole chain from artist to radio to fan has been broken down into atom-sized bits. I used to think we had just gone back to the pre-rock business model, but it’s worse than that. The whole culture’s been atomized. We were doomed the minute the suits figured out you don’t have to pay machines–and some good-looking kid will always be willing to BE the machine.

      The one good thing is we can still call up the records that got made before the bastards took real control!–which means we don’t have to be small inside at least.

      • And that good-looking kid who’s willing to be the machine doesn’t even have to be the one playing or singing. Record companies hire models now, and the music, which isn’t nearly as important to the suits as good marketing, is “easily taken care of” by session musicians (or those who outnumber them now: engineers who are good with computers) and session vocalists.

        The self-promotional side of the atomization has left many of us (willingly) on the shore — in fact, not only did the digital boat leave without me, but I helped to push it off. “Take care! Enjoy your clicks!” Those of us who refuse to join “social media” had damn well better truly love writing and playing music, as opposed to ultimately shooting for financial or social perks (so at least it’s a weeding-out), as there’s not a career in original music without that “social media.”

        Any record company willing to do such promotion on your behalf is going to sign you to the standard 21st Century contract. It’s called the 360 deal. Read that as “360 degrees.” The company gets a big slice of your recordings’ profits (nothing new), your touring revenues (relatively new) and even your merchandise sales (very new). You don’t make a dime without a nickel-plus going to the company, even if you’ve paid for the creation of, say, your own T-shirts and posters.

        That’s how the labels have responded to the destruction of the Music Business As It Was Before Digital Downloads Could Be Stolen: to screw artists even more than before. We’re practically seeing a resurgence of the doo-wop age, screw-wise.

        You’re right, in other words: The best new rock’n’roll / rock is found independently, in pool halls and such. Whether or not the artists know enough about recording and production to reasonably reproduce their music on disc is another matter, as you’ve discovered! Most of them obviously can’t afford to hire anyone, so they do it themselves on their PCs. I’ve fixed more local dry, atmosphere-free, ambiance-free recordings as favors than I can count. It’s always worth it: At least more music that sounds like it was recorded in a phone booth doesn’t get out there!

        • I had a feeling you’d be wearing some scars Chris, though I’m sorry to hear it.

          This probably won’t make you feel any better (or, who knows, maybe it will!), but it’s the same with writing (especially fiction). I had an editor at a good-size house tell me a few years ago that publishers MUCH prefer mediocre writers with a strong social media platform to good writers with little or no social media presence. I could have guessed that from scanning a page in almost any book I pick up in Barnes and Noble that has a copyright within the last twenty years.

          And they wonder where their audience went.

          Or they blame technology.

          It’s like watching a guy who just cut his own throat keep yelling ‘But why am I BLEEDING.”

          Geniuses, I tell you. Geniuses!

          • Thankfully, I don’t so much bear scars as unwittingly collect disillusioned observations. I’ll be songwriting and recording music until I’m dead, because it’s my joy (much like writing for you, I’d imagine — if you find your joy during this fleeting lifespan, run toward it uncompromisingly!). The “professional” side of things I’ve always been able to take or leave. Consider that the term “amateur” comes from the root “amor” — an amateur merely loves what he does. I hope I never grow out of being an amateur!

            I’m speaking more as a fellow fan. Greedy as it’s always been, the same industry that once gave me Elvis Presley, John Coltrane, Arthur Alexander, the Shangri-Las, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Cat Stevens, the Ramones, Frank Zappa, etc., etc., now wants me to listen to Cookie Monster Metal (Arrr! Arglebarr! Buggawaah! Aren’t we DARK?) and that BeyonGaga crapola that’s essentially been designed for thirteen-year-old girls. No, thank you!

  2. And I’m pretty sure the very artists you mention are among those the Overlords never want to give a chance to again–even at the expense of profit. I spent my twenties writing free lance ad copy for a small market. I’ve spent all the years since trying to convince people it’s NEVER about the money–it’s always about control.

    And that’s just what I learned writing ad copy for local toggeries and tire stores (and especially, state lobby groups). God knows how cynical the Big Boys really are!

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