Monday, July 11, 2005

Best, Most Disappointing, and Worst 2005 Albums -- The Tally Thus Far

We're only halfway through the year, but here are my early nominees:

Best

Sufjan Stevens -- Come on, Feel the Illinoise -- It's a dumb title. And it's a dubious idea -- writing a concept album about the state of Illinois. To his credit, though, Stevens pulls it off brilliantly, scoring complex orchestral arrangements, offering disarmingly gentle, lovely folk songs that hide a barbed sting, mixing almost every style of music imaginable, and plumbing the depths of the mysteries of God. Round of applause for the most musically creative, thoughtful album I've heard this year.

Van Morrison -- Magic Time -- Van will be 60 in another month, and by all rights he has no business creating masterpieces at this advanced stage of his career. But he's quietly released three great albums in a row. Magic Time surveys all of the many styles he's incorporated into his music, and more than half these original songs sound like old standards you'd swear you've heard before, but have not. Van's voice no longer has the uncontained wildness of his early work. "The Lion This Time" intentionally hearkens back to his early '70s classic "Listen to the Lion," and this time Van claims that the lion is in a circus in a cage. Don't believe it. Van may have mellowed, but he's far from tamed, and this album is an almost impossibly great rejection of those who would have him go gently into that good night.

The Mars Volta -- Frances the Mute -- Overblown. Disjointed. Incomprehensible. All of those charges have been leveled against this album, and they're all correct. So what? It's also relentlessly eclectic, mixing heavy metal, blues, salsa, free jazz, and progressive rock, features the most furious guitar riffing you'll hear this year, and unleashes a vocalist who sounds like the second coming of Robert Plant. All of that, and the ridiculously fun over-the-top story line, are more than enough to warrant its inclusion on the Good to Great side of the ledger.

Mary Gauthier -- Mercy Now -- Mary Gauthier sounds like a female version of Bob Dylan. Mary Gauthier writes like a female version of Bob Dylan. "Prayer Without Words" is the best Bob Dylan song not written by Bob Dylan. What more recommendation do you need?

Amos Lee -- Amos Lee -- It's just slightly too slick and subdued, but Amos Lee is the real deal -- a fine songwriter, a supple, soulful singer who has mastered the pleading ballad style of Otis Redding and the masterful phrasing of Dylan, and who has tapped into the jazz/folk/soul/blues hybrid that made Norah Jones such a revelation a couple years back. I can't wait to hear more.

Most Disappointing

These albums are by no means terrible, but they still resulted in a severe letdown when I heard them.

Coldplay -- X&Y -- Zzzzzzzzzz. With its unrelenting eighth notes, this album verges on the insufferably dull. It never reaches that point because the album always sounds professionallly pleasant, and Chris Martin occasionally sounds engaged. But too much of the music on X&Y strikes me as perfunctory and safe. A big letdown after A Rush of Blood to the Head.

Bruce Springsteen -- Devils and Dust -- Eh. The latest in Springsteen's batch of predominantly folkie albums, this one has more musical variety than the mediocre The Ghost of Tom Joad, but less lyrical nuance than that album. Too much of this album sounds like Springsteen the Evangelist. He can still convince me to hop in the car and go for a ride, but he can't convince me that John Kerry was the solution to all our problems.

Worst

Willie Nelson -- Countryman -- The image of the marijuana leaf on the cover pretty much says it all. Only someone with a strong attraction to the locoweed could think that mixing Willie's nasal whine, dobros and pedal steel guitars, and dub beats might work. This is Willie attempting reggae music, mon, and the results sound about as bad as you would imagine. Red eyes cryin' in the rain.

The Dissociatives -- The Dissociatives -- The Dissociatives "feature" Daniel Johns, the lead singer/songwriter from Silverchair, a band that never deserved a second incarnation. Shedding the grunge-lite reputation of his former band, Johns returns as a tuneless Radiohead-lite, and warbles such stirring sentiments as "All of this time on my hands/So far has gone/To feeding my animals/Na Na Na" on "Horror With Eyeballs," an apt description of the singer and his songwriting abilities. One listen was enough for me to dissociate myself from further barnyard mayhem.

Skye Moore -- I'm Flyin'-- We'll ignore the soap opera name for a moment. But Skye looks like Fabio, and that can't be ignored, or excused. And he sings power ballads like a preening Jon Bon Jovi imitator on karaoke night at the local bar. The end result is a sort of Sensitive Soft Metal/Chippendale's Hard Body dynamic that is sure to please middle-aged housewives from Peoria who are visiting Las Vegas. And not many other people. It's not for the faint of heart, although it's quite funny in its unintentional way.

18 comments:

megan said...

Really want to hear Mary Gauthier now. You know how to sell ME!
Haven't heard the Coldplay one, but bought it for my 18 year old sister. I loved Rush of Blood, so I figured I'd love this one... thanks for the heads up, maybe it's a libarary listen. Love Amos.
I have always loved Van the Man. I saw this at Starbucks the other day and wondered if it was good. So I should buy it? Sufjan I like, I haven't hear this one yet. I would like to get my hands on it.
That is all for now.

Karen said...

i wasn't sure about x&y at first, i would agree that it is veeeery safe. but as i listen to it more, i'm liking it a lot. that being said, it really could have been better.

i need to give sufjan more effort. he hasn't hooked me the way he has hooked so many of you. although his michigan album makes me happy (being from michigan).

willie nelson...we only have Teatro (sp?) and love that one. it's dissapointing that his newest isn't so great.

Andy Whitman said...

Megan, I bet you'd love Mary Gauthier. She really does sound like a female Dylan (a drawback, probably, to many folks, but an asset to me). And her writing is phenomenal. She's clearly taken her cues from Dylan, circa Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde, but if you're going to borrow, you might as well borrow from the best:

Packing vagabond visions and a dream drenched hunger for a home
Swaddled in road dirt, blood stained blankets and poems
On a stormy suitcase Sunday I awakened to the scream of the birds
They held their high notes and offered prayer without words

Sinking in asphalt, speechlessness and what coulda been
Surrounded by strangers, scarred stars, stoned broken men
Riding the narcotic night 'til she swerved and smashed into the curb
Morning spilled from the wreckage and offered prayer without words

Chains on the mast pull the past, nothing lasts but nothing ever ends
I leave town, break new ground, break down, leave town again
Trapped in the circle, anchored to the weight of the world
Under shooting stars that sink the skies and offer prayer without words

Justice rides with jaundiced eyes, jaded judges bleed the broken bench
Liberty's a homicide, she been flogged to death with money's monkey wrench
Desperado apostates set fire to every holy word we've heard
Silence billows from the burning book and offers prayer without words

Surrender, that sweet cleaning girl, folds white flags in Hallelujah Square
She can't remember where she's been, one day I'm gonna join her there
Unpack my battered traveling case, hang out a sign that says "Do Not Disturb"
Dissolve into a dreamless sleep that offers prayer without words
-- Mary Gauthier, "Prayer Without Words"

Van's new one is wonderful. He had a bit of a dry spell in the late nineties, but wow, he's come back strong. I'm currently writing an article about him for an upcoming issue of Paste Magazine. I really, really appreciate that I can go to the editor and say, "I want to ramble on about my favorite music, and I want you to publish what I write, and then I want you to pay me for it." And he says, "Sure."

Karen, thanks for your comments. I think X&Y is okay, but far from great. I probably need to give it more time, but then again, it hasn't exactly been calling out to me to spend more time in the CD player, either. I'm just disappointed. It's pleasant. But it would help if Chris Martin could write a decent musical hook, or had something substantive to say. I also realize that so much of this is subjective, and two different people can and will have totally different views on the same album. And nowhere is that more true than with Coldplay. Paste Magazine, the magazine I write for, slobbered all over the album, gave it 5 stars out of 5, and said: "Exhibiting a level of ambition rarely encountered these days, Coldplay’s third opus takes on the reigning champ U2, and doesn’t so much dismantle Atomic Bomb as blast right through it, like a mile-wide meteor, hurtling across the heavens toward The Beatles themselves." Huh? To which I can only shake my head in amazement and wonder about the ingestion of strong drugs. The New York Times said: "When he moans his verses, Mr. Martin can sound so sorry for himself that there's hardly room to sympathize for him, and when he's not mixing metaphors, he fearlessly slings clich├ęs." I'm somewhere in between the two, but probably a little closer to the NYT.

Willie's new one is, unfortunately, a dog. I love a lot of what Willie's done, and I have a number of his albums. But Willie doing reggae is just a BAD IDEA.

Sufjan Stevens is a great example of the kind of subjectivity that knows no bounds. One of my *least* favorite styles of music involves the mopey, sensitive folkie singer/songwriter who writes of pretty flowers and sunsets, and I usually want to sic, oh, I don't know, Arnold Schwartzenegger on these people. And Sufjan could easily fall into that category.

But he doesn't. Part of it is that I had the pleasure of chatting with him over dinner at the Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College a few months back, and I found him to be thoughtful, articulate, opinionated, and a surprisingly regular guy, not at all hung up on himself. He busted my stereotypes, and that's always a good thing.

The other thing is that I think he really understands, deep down, the dilemmas of trying to live as a person of faith in the midst of a broken world. Better yet, he can communicate that in such a way that the secular world takes notice. He's doing what every Christian songwriter dreams of doing. He's writing songs informed by his faith, and he's got the whole world listening. What a great thing.

I don't know if you're familiar with a website called metacritic.com. But metacritic trawls the web, looks for album reviews from all kind of sourcew, converts each review into a numerical rating (e.g., a 3-stars-out-of-5 review is converted to a 60), and then averages the results of all the reviews. It's a good way of getting a quick snapshot of what the music world, in general, thinks of a particular album. And do you know the highest-rated album released so far in 2005? Take a look:

http://www.metacritic.com/music/bests/2005.shtml

These are not "Christian" reviews by the way. But how cool is it that an evangelical Christian would be creating music of such excellence that the world cannot help but be impressed?

Sufjan is also a seriously twisted puppy. And I mean that in the best theological sense, because we're all twisted puppies. Take a look at the lyrics to his song "John Wayne Gacy Jr.," his account of the serial killer who dressed up in a clown suit and murdered young boys.

His father was a drinker
And his mother cried in bed
Folding John Wayne's T-shirts
When the swingset hit his head
The neighbors they adored him
For his humor and his conversation
Look underneath the house there
Find the few living things
Rotting fast in their sleep of the dead
Twenty-seven people, even more
They were boys with their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God

Are you one of them?

He dressed up like a clown for them
With his face paint white and red
And on his best behavior
In a dark room on the bed he kissed them all
He'd kill ten thousand people
With a sleight of his hand
Running far, running fast to the dead
He took of all their clothes for them
He put a cloth on their lips
Quiet hands, quiet kiss
On the mouth

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid
-- Sufjan Stevens, "John Wayne Gacy Jr."

It gives me the willies every time I hear it. If you're interested, you can hear this song at:

http://www.npr.org/programs/asc/archives/asc85/index.html#stevens

Scott Sloan said...

Andy, thanks for this post. You inspire me to look beyond my metal comfort zone. I think I will purchase after I listne to the Suftjan Stephans album and the Mary Gautier album. I like people who have deep, heart felt lyrics.

Karen said...

i cannot believe they said that x&y blasts the new u2 album out of the water!! WTF?! How To Dismantle.. is incredible. absolutely incredible! x&y comes no where NEAR the u2 album, in my opinion.

like i said, as i've listened to it, i've liked it more and more. i think it was in the cd player in randy's car and i found myself just letting it play and play. but the other day i was trying to figure out what it was about it that seemed ho-hum and would i be correct to say it's overproduced? i'm not sure if that's what i mean...but it's just kind of bland. i think coldplay is really a great band, but i don't think they will match U2 for stardom. i just don't.

those lyrics from sufjan are disturbing. and thought provoking. the fact that he is receiving that much acclaim and yet is a christian makes me so happy. he deserves the respect. i think it will really take me listening to the words of his music to like him more. half the time i can barely hear what he's saying. of course, that may mean i need to get my hearing checked... anyways, you, josh neds-fox, and many others sing his praises, so i'm totally willing to give him a fair shot.

so what do you think of the white stripes?

Andy Whitman said...

Karen, I love The White Stripes. I haven't heard the latest album (I will; just haven't gotten to it yet), but "De Stijl," "White Blood Cells," and "Elephant" are fabulous.

I'm a big fan of garage rock. I'm a big fan of the blues. And I'll take "raw" over "slick" 99 times out of 100. The White Stripes make me happy on all counts.

mg said...

i still maintain that 'x&y' is a good album and Joshua Neds-Fox will back me up on that claim. true, it isn't as catchy or sing-songy as 'rush of blood' but you can't accuse coldplay of resting on their laurels. this is a step forward in experimentation. tracks like 'square one' and 'white shadows' sound like disco/techno/europop and unlike anything on their other albums.

i do hope they bring back some of the melody in the future though...

mg said...

i heard some of 'illinois' this past weekend and dug what i heard. teddy burned me a copy of 'seven swans' which i wasn't too crazy about. but it seems if all of my friends are into mr. sufjan then i should be too....

Karen said...

yay!!! a fellow white stripes fan! WOOO! i knew you were a good guy, andy. :D

i love that even with the just guitar and drum the sound is so full. they were great in concert.

i'm not loving this album as much as the others, there are a couple songs i'm not digging so much. but, there are a lot of good ones on it too. i could always burn you a copy and bring it sunday if you want. just let me know.

creepy megan said...

ok, i read the lyrics of the sufjan song, and i kinda like it. i'm gonna listen to it now.
i listened to an interview and several songs of mary. i like her. Some stuff sounded almost EXACTLY like Dylan. I couldn't believe it.

creepy megan said...

Ok.
It's official. I am very VERY creepy.
I just heard the song. I am listening to it a second time right now. I really liked it a LOT.
I feel weird.

Andy Whitman said...

Weirdo.

But then again, I'm a creep. I'm a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here? I don't belong here.

I particularly love the juxtaposition between the music and the lyrics to this song. Sufjan sings in this tremulous tenor that makes him sound like he's going to wax poetic and precious on the beauties of roses blooming and the cooing of turtle doves. And then he sings *that*. Brilliant.

Karen said...

i wish i was special.
you're so f**king special.
but i'm a creep.

Karen said...

you've convinced me to make an effort to get to know sufjan better. thankyou andy.

teddy dellesky said...

everyone, just go out and get sufjan's album for crying out loud. if nothing else, you will be supporting a faith-based artist who could use the money to spend in court against marvel comics.

mg said...

it's dc comics teddy.

marvel owns spiderman, hulk, fantastic 4, x-men, etc.

dc owns superman, batman, wonder woman, etc.

dc will probably drop the suit since he took superman off the cover.

teddy dellesky said...

i stand corrected...show how much i know about comics.

SPB said...

Glad to see someone else shouting out the praises of Amos Lee...i did a mention on my new blog...there are some artists you just WANT to have an audience and Amos Lee is one...cool site, man...peace
Scott (SPB)