Music Discoveries: Tom Waits

Tom Waits is a veteran singer-songwriter whose voice is a combination of sidewalk preacher, carnival barker, beat poet, and barstool philosopher. I first heard of Waits in the 80s when he was known as the guy with the crazy, gravely voice.  But then I heard the track “Innocent When You Dream” on a compilation album and fell in love with the heartfelt beauty underneath what sounded like a drunk guy crooning at a bar.  I got the album Franks Wild Years and it remains one of my all time favorites, and I’ve checked in and out on Waits’ career over the years.  This is the first time I’ve listened to all of Waits’ catalog from beginning to most current, and let me tell you it’s not easy to listen to all that Waits’ music back-to-back-to-back, although it is a worthwhile exercise.

Tom Waits’ career can be summed up into three basic eras:

  • 1970s – Waits was a little more eccentric than his contemporaries, but listening to his early recordings and he seems to fit in with the singer-songwriters of the era. You might even imagine an alternate universe where his career followed the paths of the likes of James Taylor, Elton John, or Randy Newman.  His trademark gravely voice didn’t even make its debut until the third album, and in the seventies it was more of an homage to Louis Armstrong or Doctor John as Waits recorded jazz and blues tinged tunes.
  • 1980s – This decade marked the emergence of the iconic Waits’ style, verging between lost recordings of American and avant guarde music with unusual instrumentation and tunings.  The decade is marked by the trilogy of albums he’s most remembered for: Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Franks Wild Years (1987).
  • 1992 to present – While Waits’ music in this period remains experimental by the standards of contemporary popular music, and inspiration for “alternative music,”  it doesn’t vary much from the template he established in the 1980s.  Similarly, while 1990s and 2000s recordings include numerous gems and good albums overall, Waits is own worst enemy as a producer in that he allows the albums to be bloated with excess tracks that should be judiciously trimmed.  In short, don’t do what I did and listen to everything, but definitely seek out the good stuff.

Tom Waits hasn’t released anything new since 2011 or toured since 2008, but hopefully he has some songs left in him and there will be another Tom Waits era to look back on in the future.

Five Favorite Albums

  • Closing Time (1973) – definitely one of the great all-time debut albums, and the first three tracks are a strong start to any album.
  • Rain Dogs (1985) – Waits’ masterpiece and one of the great albums of the 1980s.
  • Franks Wild Years (1987) – the soundtrack to a play I’ve never seen, it remains a sentimental favorite
  • Bone Machine (1992) – Waits charges into the 1990s showing the alt-rockers how things are done with haunting lyrics and aural soundscape
  • Blood Money (2002) – these are songs from another play, but also reflect the misanthropy and pessimism of the post-Sept. 11th world under George W. Bush

Twenty-Five Favorite Songs


1. “Ol’ 55”

2. “I Hope I Don’t Fall in Love With You”

3. “Virginia Avenue”

4. “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (An Evening with Pete King)”

5. “Jersey Girl”

6. “16 Shells from A Thirty-Ought-Six”

7. “In the Neighbourhood”

8. “Jockey Full of Bourbon”

9. “Hang Down Your Head”

10. “Downtown Train”

11. “Hang on St. Christopher”

12. “Innocent When You Dream (Barroom)”

13. “Yesterday is Here”

14. “Way Down in the Hole”

15. “Cold Cold Ground”

16. “Jesus Gonna Be Here”

17. “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”

18. “T’ Ain’t No Sin”

19. “Hold On”

20. “House Where Nobody Lives”

21. “Misery is the River of the World”

22. “God’s Away on Business”

23. “Flowers Grave”

24. “Hoist That Rag”

25. “Chicago”


Music Discoveries: Guðbjörg Tómasdóttir’s Top 8 Albums

I’m switching things up this month. Instead of focusing on the musical output of one band or artist, I decided to listen to all the albums on a list of favorite albums from one artist.  That artist is Guðbjörg Tómasdóttir of the duo My Bubba, she being the Icelandic Bubba with her Swedish partner My Larsdotter.  My Bubba have appeared in my Song of the Week posts on two occasions for their tracks “Poem Found in the Pocket of an Amazon” and “Big Bad Good” and the latter song also made my favorite songs of 2016 list.

I found 7 of the 8 albums on streaming services. So here is my venture into Icelandic sometimes folkish, sometimes jazzy, often minimalist, and always vocal oriented popular music


ArtistBjörk Guðmundsdóttir & Tríó Guðmundar Ingólfssonar
AlbumGlíng-Gló (1990)
Favorite Tracks: “Kata rokkar,”  “Tondeleyo,”  and “Börnin við tjörnina”
Thoughts: I suspect this isn’t for everyone, but if you find the idea of Björk crooning jazz standards in her native tongue appealing, then this album is for you.
Rating: ***1/2

ArtistEmilíana Torrini
AlbumFisherman’s Woman (2005)
Favorite Tracks: “Nothing Brings Me Down,”  “Today Has Been OK”
Thoughts: If Björk’s voice doesn’t do it for you, Emilíana Torrini’s is more accessible, both ethereal and emotive.  Her style reminds me of the English folk  rock movement of the 1970s but these tracks are accompanied by minimalist guitar.
Rating: ***1/2

ArtistÓlöf Arnalds
AlbumVið Og Við (2007)
Favorite Tracks: “Í Nýju Húsi”
Thoughts: Troubadour-style performances of traditional Icelandic music.  Again, I’m reminded of the folk revival styles of the 60s & 70s, but in Icelandic.
Rating: ***

Artist: Sigurður Guðmundsson og Memfismafían
AlbumOft spurði ég mömmu (2008)
Favorite Tracks: “Lady Fish And Chips” and “Veðrið er herfilegt”
Thoughts: Another retro album described as “old Icelandic popular tunes,” but here “old” sounds like pop songs of the 30s to 50s.  And it’s pretty clear that one of them is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” which sounds more sexy than creepy in Icelandic.  I can’t find anything on the web about this album in English, but the vocalist has a Frank Sinatra vibe, and the whole album swings.
Rating: ***1/2

AlbumHaglél (2011)
Thoughts: This album apparently resonated strongly with the people of Iceland, but I’m not as impressed.  Of course, I know nothing of the lyrics, but musically it sounds like 70s pop songs with maybe a little 90s angst.
Rating: **

AlbumUndraland (2010)
Favorite Tracks:
Thoughts: Cheerful indie pop. The brass section moves this from mundane to a bit interesting.

AlbumFantômas (2016)
Favorite Tracks: “Simplon Express” and “Entrepots de Bercy”
Thoughts: This was composed as a score for a 100-year-old silent film, and it’s a beautiful work of minimalist post-rock.  Definitely worth listening to if that’s your bag.
Rating:  ****


That’s my music discovery for the month, let me know if there’s something I should be listening to in May by leaving a comment!

Music Discovery: “Weird Al” Yankovic

I need a good laugh these days, who doesn’t, so “Weird Al” Yankovic is my Music Discovery this month, just in time for April Fool’s Day. As a song parodist, Weird Al has had an unexpectedly long career. Listening back to all of his albums has the element of opening a time capsule. There were times when I thought “Oh yeah, I remember this song he’s parodying when it was a hit” or found myself chuckling at a reference to a pop culture entity of time gone by. But Weird Al is more than novelty music and a lot of his work has a surprisingly long shelf life. Here are three reasons I think why:

1. He’s a talented musician. Weird Al and his accompanying band are accomplished artists who put as much work into their music as any other popular artist. He’s also been able to keep up with the time, taking styles that didn’t exist when he first started, such as grunge, gangsta rap, and boy bands.
2. He really has a creative way with words that make the lyrics worth listening to again and again.
3. As a parodist, rather than a satirist, he is rarely making reference to current events. Of course, this could also be a criticism of how apolitical Weird Al’s work is, but I just acknowledge that Weird Al is a great parodist while others are great satirists. Besides, we really need funny songs about food, movies, and direct marketing infomercials.

Having listened to all of Weird Al, I’ll say that his own songs and style parodies stand up better than direct song parodies, but a number of them thrive as well.  Here is Weird Al at his best:

Weird Al’s” Five Best Albums

  1. “Weird Al” Yankovic in 3-D (1984) – this was my first Weird Al album so there was a lot of nostalgia listening to this one
  2. Off the Deep End (1992) – this came out when I was in college.  Weird Al had been out of the picture for a while, but coming back with an album where he had a big hit parodying Nirvana made him cool again.
  3. Bad Hair Day (1996) – the mid-90s was a time when big time musicians were taking themselves way too seriously so this album is particularly rich.
  4. Straight Outta Lynwood (2006) – may be one of the strongest albums track-by-track of Weird Al’s career.
  5. Mandatory Fun (2014) – Weird Al once again makes a big splash releasing 8 videos in 8 days and what may be his last album (but not last work altogether!)

“Weird Al’s” Top 20 Songs of All Time

This list doesn’t include any of Weird Al’s polka parodies which are their own category of brilliance.

“Another One Rides the Bus” – the lyrics are true to any regular bus rider’s experience

“Eat It” – Weird Al’s first monster hit is also something I can relate to as a parent with fussy eaters.

“Buy Me a Condo” – I always loved this reggae song of an upwardly-mobile rastaman.


“Like a Surgeon” – the lyrics are great but you also have to admire how the song keeps rhythm to the EKG monitor the entire time.

“Yoda” – not for the last time Weird Al sets the plot of a blockbuster film to music and creates a masterpiece.

“Fat” – Michael Jackson was very good to Weird Al in the early days.  The wordplay in this fat anthem is particularly strong.

“Smells Like Nirvana” – This may be the first time Weird Al parodied a song to make fun of the band that played it, and it’s hilarious.

“You Don’t Love Me Anymore” – The best of Weird Al’s original love ballads.

“Bohemian Polka” – polkas are always a highlight of any Weird Al album and this is the one time a polka is dedicated to parodying a single song.

“Amish Paradise” – It takes Weird Al to think that gangsta rap and the Amish people needed to be joined together.

“Pancreas” – it is an important organ.

“Everything You Know is Wrong” – things get weird because parodying They Might Be Giants is nigh on impossible since you just end up with a They Might Be Giants’ song. So I guess this is an excellent homage?

“The Saga Begins” – take a mediocre, overplayed song and an awful, overhyped movie and you get something that transcends both towards absolute brilliance.

“Bob” – +1 for parodying Bob Dylan so well.  +2 for doing it entirely in palindromes.

“White and Nerdy” – pretty much the official theme song of Weird Al and his most devoted fans.

“Don’t Download This Song” – perhaps Al at his most political, satirizing the moral panic of the music business and the dreck of charity songs.

“Perform This Way” – kind of the essence of Lady Gaga, only funnier.

“Foil” – Weird Al switches topics mid-song and it works so perfectly.

“Mission Statement” – the hippies of the 60s became the vapid corporate execs of today.

“Tacky” – brilliant parody, amazing video.

Music Discoveries: The Replacements

The Replacements are a band I started listening to in high school in the 1980s (highly apropos) coming off a time when I’d spent a couple of years listening almost exclusively to Classic Rock. The Replacements were a special band for me because not only was I listening to something current but the cool alternative kids weren’t listening to The Replacements either. Until I got to college where everyone knew The Replacements. And then the band broke up.

Anyhow, I’ve been reading the biography of the band, Trouble Boys by Bob Mehr (review forthcoming), and while I had four of the band’s last five albums, I wasn’t familiar with their early stuff.  I figured this was a good opportunity to do a Music Discovery.  So crack open a beer, crank up my best of The Replacements playlist on Tidal, and read on.
Album: Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash
Release Date: 25 August 1981
Favorite Tracks: “Careless,” “I Bought a Headache,” “Don’t Ask Why,” and “I’m in Trouble”
Thoughts: This raw debut captures the energy of early 80s punk rock, with The Replacements already showing some of their pop sensibility.  18 songs seems like overkill for a band just starting out, but really there are no stinkers here.
Rating: ****

Album: Stink
Release Date: 24 June 1982
Favorite Tracks: “Kids Don’t Follow” and “Stuck in the Middle”
Thoughts: This EP or mini-LP (or really “Kids Don’t Follow” with 7 B-sides) is straight-up hardcore punk.  With tracks named “Fuck School,”  “White and Lazy,”  “Dope Smokin’ Moron,” and “God Damn Job,” it seems that The Replacements are a stereotype of white teen boys rebelling against suburban, middle class values.  But The Replacements are in on the joke, so that makes it work.  And songs like “Go” presage the musical and lyrical complexity of future works.
Rating: **1/2

Album: Hootenanny
Release Date: 29  April 1983
Favorite Tracks: “Color Me Impressed” and “Within Your Reach”
Thoughts: I want to say that this is the album where The Replacements found there sound as they moved away from hard punk to something that sounded more like a clearly identifiable Replacements sound, particularly on “Color Me Impressed.”  But then again, this album has a little bit of everything – rockabilly, blues rock, and folk particularly – while the drum loop on “Within Your Reach” gives it a contemporary New Wave sound and “Mr. Whirly” is a Beatles’ parody.  For an album with a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach, it is surprisingly cohesive.
Rating: ***1/2

Album: Let It Be
Release Date: 2 October 1984
Favorite Tracks: “I Will Dare,” “Favorite Thing,” “Androgynous,” “Unsatisfied,” “Gary’s Got a Boner,” and “Answering Machine”
Thoughts: Finally up to an album I remember from my youth rather than hearing for the first time.  And is this not the perfect encapsulation of disaffected youth in the 1980s, from the pain and angst to the puerile humor?  It’s hard to come at an album that’s received such accolades from a fresh perspective, other than to say it deserves all of them.
Rating: *****

Album: Tim
Release Date: October 1985
Favorite Tracks: “Kiss Me on the Bus,” “Bastards of Young,” and “Here Comes  a Regular”
Thoughts: This is another album I didn’t have when younger, although several of the tracks were familiar.  There’s definitely a shift in tone on this album as Westerberg’s singer/songwriter talents and pop sensibilities continue to develop, leading to more down-tempo songs and a mix of rockabilly and folk rock instead of the harder punk of previous albums.  It’s a good album but it’s still a big step down from Let It Be. This is also the last album for founding member and guitarist Bob Stinson who either had artistic differences with Westerberg, want to stick to only playing rockers, or was fired by the rest of the band because his substance abuse made him too unreliable for even The Replacements (probably aspects of both are true).
Rating: ***

Album: Pleased to Meet Me
Release Date: 1985 June 17
Favorite Tracks: “Alex Chilton,” “I Don’t Know,” and “Can’t Hardly Wait”
Thoughts: The band’s only album as a trio is also their major label debut and continues to show Westerberg’s skill as a crafter of pop/rock tunes, in some case even bringing in horn and string arrangements.  Despite the departure of Bob Stinson, this album seems to have a harder edge than Tim.  This album could’ve been an indication of how The Replacements could’ve matched their earlier punk ethic with a more accessible sound, but with the power of hindsight, we know it’s The Replacements’ last great album.
Rating: ***1/2

Album: Don’t Tell a Soul
Release Date: 7 February 1989
Favorite Tracks: “I’ll Be You”
Thoughts: This was the first Replacements’ album I ever listened to, so it breaks my heart to admit that it doesn’t hold up as well as the rest of their work.  The production values are very high, but the band’s anarchic brilliance is lost in the process.  It’s clear that they were trying to distill The Replacements through the prism of the recent indie rock success of REM’s Document (which is probably why I liked it at the time) but erased The Replacements in the process.  “I’ll Be You” is still a brilliant song though.
Rating: **

Album: All Shook Down
Release Date: 25 September 1990
Favorite Tracks: “Sadly Beautiful” and “When It Began”
Thoughts: This album started as a Westerberg solo project and even though the record label insisted it be a Replacements’ recording, the rest of the band merely appears among many session musicians and guest artists.  Despite that, it is a brighter and more listenable album than it’s predecessor.  It’s a long way in less than a decade from Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash to be at a point where the majority of this album is acoustic, singer/songwriter pieces and the highlight is a track with a cello solo (“Sadly Beautiful”)
Rating: **1/2

While working on this post I found this interesting article by Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! listing her favorite songs by the Replacements.

Music Discoveries: Stevie Wonder, 1970-1982

When I was a kid, on an occasion when my mother took me shopping at Bradlee’s, I wandered into the electronics department and heard a stereo system blasting “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder. A young, slender African American man (I remember thinking he resembled Raj from “What’s Happening”) was dancing in front of the stereo, clapping his hands and shouting out “yeah” at intervals. And really what greater testament to the music of Stevie Wonder than to say it is the type of music that will make you dance, clap, and shout in Bradlee’s.

For this Music Discovery, I did not listen to every recording Stevie Wonder ever made, but focused on a dozen years or so during which he had his greatest artistic output and critical success. To warm up for this, I first listened to Wonder’s hit songs from the 1960s.

1 Fingertips Pts. 1 & 2
2 Hey Harmonica Man
3 Uptight (Everything’s Alright)
4 A Place In The Sun
5 I Was Made To Love Her
6 I’m Wondering
7 Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day
8 Alfie
9 For Once In My Life
10 I Don’t Know Why
11 Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday
12 My Cherie Amour

Of these songs, “Fingertips” never fails to wow me with its combination of raw talent and exuberance in performance. “My Cherie Amour” is kind of cheezy ballad but its always been a sentimental favorite of mine.

And now on to the 1970s.

AlbumSigned, Sealed & Delivered
Release Date: August 1970
Favorite Tracks: “Signed, Sealed & Delivered,” “Heaven Help Us All”,  & “Never Had a Dream Come True”
Thoughts: 20-year-old Stevie Wonder is beginning to make his own artistic choices and statements musically and lyrically while still in the standard Motown mold.  A consistent album with “Heaven Help Us All” offering gospel styles and socially conscious lyrics as the stand out track.
Rating: ***

AlbumWhere I’m Coming From
Release Date: April 1971
Favorite Tracks:”Do Yourself A Favor,” “If You Really Love Me,”  & “I Wanna Talk To You”
Thoughts: Wonder’s first fully-independent recording is compared to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On due to the focus on war and social issues but I’m also hearing similarities in musical experimentation to what Funkadelic was doing in the same period.  “Do Yourself A Favor” and “If You Really Love Me” are the standout tracks with “I Wanna Talk To You” and entertainingly weird dialogue between Wonder and a racist white person (also voiced by Wonder).  There’s a lot of inconsistency over the course of the album with ballads getting the “soft rock” treatment, and the finale “Sunshine in Their Eyes” gets an A-for-effort for experimentation but comes out sounding a bit of a mess.
Rating: ***

AlbumMusic of My Mind
Release Date: March 1972
Favorite Tracks: “Love Having You Around,” “Happier than the Morning Sun,” and “Keep On Running”
Thoughts: Alternately funky and silky-smooth soulful, the first of the classic period albums displays Wonder’s versatile vocal abilities and experiments with keyboards.  For such a  notable album I was surprised that I wasn’t familiar with any of these tracks but there’s a remarkable consistency through the album.
Rating: ***1/2

AlbumTalking Book
Release Date:  October 1972
Favorite Tracks: “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Superstition,” “Big Brother,” and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)”
Thoughts: This album has a timeless quality, it sounds like it could’ve been released this year.  It must’ve been revelatory when people first heard it in 1972.  Wonder experiments with numerous keyboards, synthesizers, and drums, continuing as a one-man band on many tracks, but also has numerous guest artists including Jim Gilstrap, Lani Groves, David Sandborn, Deniece Williams, Ray Parker, Jr., and Jeff Beck.  Also, “Superstition” is one of the all-time great songs.  It never fails to amaze me.
Rating: ****

Release Date: August 1973
Favorite Tracks: “Living for the City,” “Higher Ground,” and “He’s Misstra Know-It-All”
Thoughts: Overall a more jazzy disc with some funk overtones.  Not at as consistent as previous albums with some valleys and peaks, but when the peaks are “Living for the City” and “Higher Ground” they are some mighty fine peaks!  Also, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” is all too relevant for our times.
Rating: ***1/2

AlbumFulfillingness’ First Finale
Release Date:  July 1974
Favorite Tracks:  “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away,” “Boogie On Reggae Woman,”  “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” and “They Won’t Go When I Go”
Thoughts: A somber and less-optimistic album, both musically and lyrically, compared with its predecessors.  A strong gospel influence runs through the album alongside funk, soul, and jazz improvisation.
Rating: ****


AlbumSongs in the Key of Life
Release Date:  September 1976
Favorite Tracks: “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” “Sir Duke,” “I Wish” and “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)”
Thoughts: A sprawling album of 21 tracks, many of them over 5 minutes long, that originally was released as a two LPs with a bonus  EP.  It’s reminiscent of the Beatles’ “white album” both in the exploration of musical styles and the thought that maybe this could be trimmed down to a solid single album, but which tracks would you cut?  Nevermind, splendor in the surplus of sound.
Rating: ***1/2

AlbumHotter than July
Release Date: September 1980
Favorite Tracks: “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for it” and “Master Blaster (Jammin’)”
Thoughts:  After averaging more than 1 studio album per year from 1962 to 1976, Stevie Wonder took a long break after Songs in the Key of Life (itself a double album).  He recorded a soundtrack Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants” in 1979, and finally returned to a traditional studio album with this recording in 1980.  He shows of his musical versatility with the contemporary country sound of “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It” and the reggae homage to Bob Marley of “Master Blaster (Jammin’).”  All in all, a solid album with a mix of funk, disco, and jazz-inspired improvisation.
Rating: ***

To finish things up, I listened to  the compilation album Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I, which includes 16 of the great songs from the 1970s and four new tracks:    “Front Line”, “Ribbon in the Sky”, “That Girl”, and “Do I Do.” Of these “Front Line” is a great funk number telling a still relevant story about a man sent to war, disabled, and returns to the poverty and desperation of his family and neighborhood.  The middle two songs are forgetable ballads, but I do remember “Do I Do” getting a ton of airplay as a kid, albeit lacking the Dizzy Gillespie trumpet solo, and Stevie Wonder’s rap that turns into scatting on the fadeout.  They must’ve played a radio edit, which is a shame.

If you wish to enjoy all the favorite tracks cited above, I’ve put them together in a Tidal playlist. You can’t go to Bradlee’s anymore, but wherever you are you can crank up the music, dance, clap, and shout “yeah!”



Music Discoveries: David Bowie, 1975-1987

This second post in the Music Discovery series covers a dozen years and nine David Bowie albums.  It follows Bowie as he says goodbye to Glam Rock and Ziggy Stardust and takes on American soul, German electronic music, atmospheric art music, and finally pop superstardom.  The first six albums come out with regularity about a year apart, but by the 1980s, Bowie’s musical output drops considerably with only three albums in 8 years.  Sadly, the quality of that music also falls off a cliff, and it’s hard to believe it’s the same artists.  Bowie himself would refer to it as his “Phil Collins period.”

Despite only three albums, Bowie remained busy in the 1980s with major world tours and collaborations with other artists.  Some, like with Queen, were transcendent while other’s, like with Mick Jagger, were embarrassing.  Bowie also kept busy acting in films like The Man Who Fell to Earth, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and Labyrinth (I need to have a David Bowie movie marathon and watch all of these).  I didn’t include his movie soundtrack work so there is more musical output there.  Bowie’s film experience also translated to music video and he helped make an art of the medium.  I remember the 20-minute movie/video for “Blue Jean” being a huge deal on MTV at the time, although his “Ashes to Ashes” video stands up more over time.

So here is it all, the weird and wonderful and sometimes cringe-worthy middle career of David Bowie.

AlbumYoung Americans
Release Date: 7 March 1975
Favorite Tracks: “Young Americans,” “Fame,”  “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again),” and “Who Can I Be Now?”
Thoughts: Bowie transitions into a 70s soul & funk style for this album.  To help out he collaborates with Luther Vandross, but also works with John Lennon on a couple of tracks.  I found the sound of this album a refreshing change at first, although it all starts to blend together after a while.  The cover of “Across the Universe” seemed particularly uninspired since a Philly soul take on that song seems so promising.  The two hit singles from this album, and surprisingly the bonus tracks added in later editions stand out for me.
Rating: ***

AlbumStation to Station
Release Date: 23 January 1976
Favorite Tracks:  “Golden Years” and “TVC 15”
Thoughts: The album continues the r&b sound of it’s predecessor, with a darker mood, and the addition of electronic instrumentation that prefigures the post-punk/New Wave sound by about five years.  Apparently Bowie was completely coked-out in recording this album and channeling the numb-to-emotion persona of the Thin White Duke.  I know this album is well-regarded so I hope Bowie fans won’t judge me too much for it not resonating well with me.  Still, a definite musical achievement.
Rating:  ***

Release Date: 14 January 1977
Favorite Tracks: “Be My Wife,” “”A New Career in a New Town,” “Warszawa,” and “Subterraneans”
Thoughts: Bowie escaped a cocaine-riddled life in Los Angeles and moved to Berlin, working with Brian Eno on the first of what would become known as the Berlin Trilogy albums. Stylistically, Bowie moves on from American funk & soul to German electronic and avant guarde music.  The entire second half of the album is mostly instrumental and atmospheric music, something I really like although I imagine it was a shock to rock & roll fans in 1977.  I’d never heard any of this album before so it was a pleasant surprise to hear Bowie innovating in yet another musical style.
Rating: ***1/2 (I’d give the B-side a full ****)

Release Date: 14 October 1977
Favorite Tracks: “Beauty and the Beast,” “‘Heroes’,”  “Sense of Doubt,”  and “Neukoln”
Thoughts: Bowie and Eno’s experiments with electronic and atmospheric music continue with this album trying and succeeding to incorporate those sounds into pop songs with lyrics.  There’s still a segment of three consecutive instrumental, atmospheric tracks near the end of the album.  As a result, the album feels all over the place musically, but delightfully so.  This very much feels like the groundwork for 1980s New Wave music.
Rating: ***1/2

Release Date: 18 May 1979
Favorite Tracks: “DJ” and “Boys Keep Swinging”
Thoughts: Bowie builds on the experimental sounds of the previous two albums in a collection of songs with much more pop sensibility.  To this is added an element of world music on several tracks.  The effect is kind of a Bowie take on Talking Heads.
Rating: **1/2

AlbumScary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
Release Date: 12 September 1980
Favorite Tracks:  “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps),” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Fashion,” and “Because Your Young”
Thoughts:  The album is a culmination (and perhaps a purging) of all the musical sounds of the seventies, as well as a preview of what’s to come in the eighties.  There’s very little of the experimentation of recent albums, just straight forward rock in a New Wave vein.
Rating: ***

AlbumLet’s Dance
Release Date: 14 April 1983
Favorite Tracks: “Modern Love” and  “Let’s Dance”
Thoughts: Bowie dives into 1980s mainstream success with this collection of danceable soul/funk tracks.  He plays no instruments, but his voice is joined by Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Nile Rogers produces ready made hits.  While “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance” are a couple of the great songs of the 1980s overall, the rest of the album is kind of a bland morass.
Rating: *1/2

Release Date: 1 September 1984
Favorite Tracks: “Blue Jean”
Thoughts: An attempt to follow up on the commercial success of Let’s Dance, this album is basically a collection of covers packaged around the one good song “Blue Jean.”  The rest of the album is almost unlistenable and it’s hard to believe it was created by the same person who made the previous 15 albums.
Rating: 1/2 *

Album: Never Let Me Down
Release Date: 27 April 1987
Favorite Tracks: none
Thoughts: I want to be more generous with this album, because it sounds like there may be some good songs under the awful 80s production, and Bowie made the effort to write a new set of songs with a rock band.  But it still isn’t much fun to listen to this.
Rating: *

Next week: Bowie returns to innovating music setting an example for other rock and roll elder statesmen right up until his death in 2016.

Music Discoveries: David Bowie, 1967-1974

Although I only began posting “Music Discoveries” a few months ago, I came up with the idea a few years back inspired by the fact that I needed to listen to more David Bowie. True confession: I have not always appreciated David Bowie’s music. I first became aware of Bowie as a child perhaps during his most commercially accessible period when he had hits like “Modern Love,” “Jazzing for Bluejean,” and a strange duet with Mick Jagger covering “Dancing in the Streets.” I remember my sister and I seeing a tv spot about Ziggy Stardust and marveling about how Bowie was really strange long ago (it was only about 10 years, but it seemed like lifetimes). Of course, it’s a credit to Bowie’s influence in that he made many of the New Wave/postpunk musicians of the early 1980s seem not so “weird” to begin with. Over the years I knew people who were devotees of Bowie but while I enjoyed a handful of songs I never paid much attention. The tipping point oddly enough came from watching the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012 where at one point they played Bowie’s song “Starman.” It was a song I was not familiar with and for some reason it resonated me and lead to me reevaluating my indifference to Bowie. And so, after all this time, I’m going to listen to David Bowie’s recordings from beginning to end.

Album: David Bowie
Date: 1 June 1967
Thoughts: This early recording is more of a curiosity of what Bowie sounded like in his earliest recordings than something  I’d want to put on to listen to for fun.  It’s baroque pop with that music hall style that was briefly popular in English rock music circa 1966-1968, with Bowie crooning out a few tunes.  The lyrics are slice of life with just a bit of weird (which means they were probably a lot weird in ’67).
Rating: **

Album: David Bowie (a.k.a. Man of Words/Man of Music, a.k.a. Space Oddity)
Date:14 November 1969
Favorite Tracks: “Space Oddity” and “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”
Thoughts: Bowie reinvents himself for the first time with his second debut album.  “Space Oddity” is a classic opening track, but not representative of the album as a whole.  Music roams around genres from the gentle folk and cabaret of his earlier album to electric folk rock and blues and orchestrated, theatrical pieces.  The latter include “Cygnet Committee” and “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud” which seem to point to where Bowie is going in his later work, but also feel bloated and directionless.
Rating: **1/2

Album: The Man Who Sold the World
Date: 4 November 1970
Favorite Tracks: “The Man Who Sold the World”
Thoughts:  Bowie builds on the folk and cabaret styles of previous recordings and adds the edge of a psychedelic blues rock sound.  While I didn’t single out many tracks, I have to note that the quality is consistent from top to bottom, and I expect this is the first of many great Bowie albums.
Rating: ****

Album: Hunky Dory
Date: 17 December 1971
Favorite Tracks: “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” and “Life on Mars?”
Thoughts: Everything that came before culminates in Hunky Dory.  I want to say this is the first album with the real David Bowie sound, but that’s nonsensical since his sound is forever changing.  Nevertheless, a classic.
Rating: ****1/2

Album: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Date: 16 June 1972
Favorite Tracks: “Five Years,” “Starman,” “Lady Stardust,” “Ziggy Stardust”
Thoughts: The concept album offers a lot to chew on regarding  aliens, fictional rock stars, and impeding doom.  Musically it’s a compilation of rock and roll styles bridging rockabilly to punk rock.  Another classic.
Rating: ****

Album: Aladdin Sane
Date: 13 April 1973
Favorite Tracks:  “Panic in Detroit,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” and “The Jean Genie.”
Thoughts: First, I love the pun in the title.  Second, I was surprised that I was not familiar with really any of the songs from this “classic period” album except for “The Jean Genie,” and it was nice to come to it “fresh.”  It reminds me of The Man Who Sold the World for having a hard rock edge (a Rolling Stones’ influence that includes a Stones’ cover) with Ziggy Stardust’s free movement among rock and roll genres, and theatricality one comes to expect of a David Bowie album.
Rating: ***1/2

Album: Pin Ups
Date: 19 October 1973
Favorite Tracks: “Friday on My Mind” and  “Where Have All the Good Times Gone”
Thoughts: Another revelation to me is David Bowie as an interpreter of other people’s music, but here is an album entirely of cover songs.  The collection of rock and roll tracks from the mid-60s betrays a nostalgic side of Bowie previously seen in his songs about Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan,  as well as his cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together.”  The presentation is interesting as the songs run together sounding a bit like a garage band concert recording.
Rating: **1/2

Album: Diamond Dogs
Date: 24 May 1974
Favorite Tracks: “Diamond Dogs,” “Rebel, Rebel,”
Thoughts: Dystopian visions and gritty guitars mark this album that draws on George Orwell and the Rolling Stones and presages the transition from glam to punk. Brilliant, but also difficult to listen to.

Next week:  the rest of ’70s and all of the ’80s with David Bowie.

Music Discoveries: Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings

I’m a fan of soul, funk, and R&B of the 1960s and 1970s, so naturally I’m drawn to Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. The band keeps alive the sounds of an earlier music with new songs that sometimes sound eerily as if they’ve been hidden in a vault for decades. Nevertheless, there’s a strong musical talent in Jones and the band that makes this more than just a nostalgia trap. Jones’ off-told story of resilience against a reluctant music industry as well as her battle with cancer also lends the music a poignancy.

A documentary released recently called Miss Sharon Jones! documents her life and struggles. I hope to see it soon and to prepare for it, I listened to the full catalog of brilliant music.

AlbumDap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
Date: 2002
Favorite Tracks: “What Have You Done For Me Lately?,” “The Dap Dip,” “Ain’t It Hard,” and “Pick It Up, Lay It In The Cut”

The debut album sounds more like it could have been from 1972 than 2002.  Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are built on a retro soul and funk sound, but it sounds ever more retro here, if that makes sense.  Effects like a James Brown-style introduction and inter-song banter add to the effect.  And then you wonder if Janet Jackson covered Sharon Jones rather than vice versa.
Rating:  ***1/2

Album: Naturally
Date: 25 January 2005
Favorite Tracks: “How Do I Let a Good Man Down?,” “My Man Is a Mean Man,” “How Long Do I Have to Wait for You?,”  “This Land Is Your Land,”  and “Fish in the Dish”
Thoughts: If the debut album is a time capsule holding a lost album from the early 1970s, Naturally is more of a compilation of an lost soul band’s hits over the course of the 1960s and 70s, echoing stylistic changes of Motown, Stax, Atlantic, et al.  It includes an Aretha Franklin-style ballad (“You’re Gonna Get It”), an Otis Redding/Carla Thomas-style duet (“Stranded in Your Love” ) and even a Civil Rights Era folk crossover (“This Land is Your Land”).
Rating: ***1/2

Album100 Days, 100 Nights
Date: 2 October 2007
Favorite Tracks: “100 Days, 100 Nights,” “Nobody’s Baby,” “Let Them Knock,” and “Answer Me.”
Thoughts: This album oozes with confidence with Jones’ voice stronger than ever, and the Dap-Tones tighter than they’e been before. The inspiration is still retro, but this album feels more contemporary than its predecessors, evolving a sound that’s been lost over the decades.
Rating: ****

AlbumI Learned the Hard Way
Date: 6 April 2010
Favorite Tracks: “I Learned the Hard Way,” “Mama Don’t Like My Man,” and “The Game Get Old”
Thoughts: If we lived in a just world, or maybe if this was released 40 years earlier, this would be the album remembered for containing the big hits that dominated the airwaves all summer long.  The album is less cohesive than its predecessors, but at its best moments it knocks you out.
Rating: ***1/2

AlbumGive the People What They Want
Date: 14 January 2014
Favorite Tracks: “Retreat!,”  “Stranger to My Happiness,” “People Don’t Get What They Deserve,” and “We Get Along”
Thoughts: This album has a more melancholy air to it than its predecessors although there’s a strong resilience to it as well.  Seems appropriate that it comes from a time when Jones was stricken with pancreatic cancer yet perseveres and not only keeps a musical style alive, but also vital.
Rating: ***

AlbumIt’s a Holiday Soul Party
Date: 2015 October 30
Favorite Tracks: “8 Days of Hanukkah,” “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects,” and “Silent Night”
Thoughts: Holiday albums can be a cynical cash grab where an artist records new renditions of old standards with maybe a treacly original tune and the guarantee that the songs will played one month a year for eternity.  Fortunately, you can tell that Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings put their heart into this.  I don’t know if anyone in the band is Jewish, but the opening track is an authentically celebratory – and funky – celebration of the Festival of Lights.  That’s followed by the touching story of a mother’s love at the heart of Christmas.  The rest of the album is a mix of standards and originals that are worth putting on at a holiday party.
Rating: ***

AlbumMiss Sharon Jones!
Date: 16 August 2016
Favorite Tracks: “Longer and Stronger,” “Genuine Pt. 1,” and “I’m Still Here”
Thoughts: This is a soundtrack rather a compilation so I assume it follows the needs of the film rather than being a comprehensive overview of the band’s career.  Surprisingly, it contains no live performance tracks which is disappointing.  Nevertheless, it’s a good introduction to the newbie of the power and beauty of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.  And it includes some songs previously unreleased on albums including the new, autobiographical song “I’m Still Here.”
Rating: ***1/2

One final song I love – and one that made me first aware of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – is only available on the compilation album Dark Was the Night, a cover of Shuggie Otis’ “Inspiration Information.”

Music Discoveries P-Funk, part 3 (1978-1982)

Here is my third and final post for my “discovery” series on the P-Funk collective of musicians in the 1970s and early 1980s.  In the first post I found myself impressed by the freshness and innovation of the music even though it was more than 40 years old.  The second post featured the familiar hit songs of P-Funk’s prolific peak.  This final post sadly marks the decline of P-Funk, and while there are some standout tracks and albums, I’m disappointed at how dated and tired much of the music from this period sounds.

Band: Funkadelic
Album: One Nation Under a Groove
Date: 4 September 1978
Favorite Tracks: “One Nation Under a Groove,” “Who Says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock?,” and “Cholly”
Lyrics of Note:

Who says a jazz band can’t play dance music?
Who says a rock band can’t play funk?
Who says a funk band can’t play rock?
Ok. We’re gonna play some funk so loud
We’re gonna rock and roll the crowd
Just watch them dance, watch them dance – from “Who says a funk band can’t play rock?”

Thoughts: The title track has more of dance/disco sound than one is accustomed to hearing from Funkadelic.  That’s followed by the relaxed, smooth calypso sound of “Groovallegiance.” And if the genre shifts are not enough on the first two songs, on track three they gleefully declare “Who says a funk band can’t play rock?” All right I won’t go track by track, but the album’s theme of the power of funk is emphasized by making every genre funky.  It’s a great album, that loses a half-point for the the tedious track about poop.
Rating: ***1/2

Band: Parliament
AlbumMotor Booty Affair
Date: 28 November 1978
Favorite Tracks: “Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop),”
Lyrics of Note:

You can dance underwater and not get wet – from “Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop)”

Thoughts: Another themed album, this one goes under the sea for the aquaboogie. Parliament can never be accused of not dedicating themselves to a theme and there are references to fish, water, swimming and Atlantis throughout as well as new characters like “Mr. Wiggles.” And Sir Nose finally gets dunked in  the funk.  It’s a fun and cohesive album but nothing about it really excites me much.
Rating: ***

Band: Funkadelic
AlbumUncle Jam Wants You
Date: 21 September 1979
Favorite Tracks: “(Not Just) Knee Deep,”  “Field Maneuvers,” and “Holly Wants to Go to California ”
Lyrics of Note:
Thoughts: Following on “One Nation Under a Groove,” Funkadelic plays with patriotic/militaristic phrases to promote the funk and “save dance music from the blahs.”  The epic jam “(Not Just) Knee Deep” defines the album and since it’s been sampled so many times that it sounds like a compilation of r&b and hip hop all by itself. The instrumental guitar jam “Field Maneuvers” and the melancholy ballad “Holly Wants to Go to California” are also standouts.  Despite drill instructors barking out dance moves, this album feels less gimmicky than its predecessors.
Rating: ****

Band: Bootsy’s Rubber Band
Album: This Boot Is Made for Fonk-N
Date: 1 June 1979
Favorite Tracks: “Bootsy (Get Live)”
Thoughts: Eschewing the slow jams of earlier Rubber Band albums, this is a non-stop party funk album. It coasts a lot on Bootsy Collins’ charma and charisma but it can coast a long way on that.
Rating: ***

Band: Parliament
Album: Gloryhallastoopid (or Pin the Tail on the Funky)
Date: 20 November 1979
Favorite Tracks: “Theme from the Black Hole”
Thoughts: Another concept album that attempts to explain the science behind the creation of the universe by way of funk.  It recycles a lot of ideas, lyrics, and grooves from previous albums and is awfully redundant in doing so.  And for all the criticism of disco this is is a disco-heavy album at the time of peak disco.  But it’s bland overall and doesn’t offer much.
Rating: *1/2

Album: Trombipulation
Date: 5 December 1980
Thoughts: OK, I’m officially sick of the Vocoder voice of D’Nose.  It’s a tired act and shows just how out of ideas Clinton & Co. were by 1980.  Kind of disappointing that Parliament goes out on such a bland album
Rating: **

Artist: Bootsy Collins
Album: Ultra Wave
Date: October 1980
Thoughts: Bootsy’s first album with a solo credit is fun and dance-able, but nothing that leaves an impression. From the r&b styles on display, one can tell that the 80s are here!
Rating: **1/2

Band: Funkadelic
Album: Connections & Disconnections
Date: 1980
Thoughts: Original P-Funk members Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon and Grady Thomas split off to form their own band under the Funkadelic name as the demise of George Clinton’s P-Funk stable of musicians descended into acrimonious lawsuits and in-fighting. Many of the lyrics are critical of Clinton, and musically it makes an attempt to recapture the early Funkadelic sound, but only achieves greatness in fits and starts.
Rating: **

Band: Funkadelic
Album: The Electric Spanking of War Babies
Date: 14 April 1981
Favorite Tracks: “Funk Gets Stronger” and “Shockwaves”
Lyrics of Note:

You can walk a mile in my shoes
But you can’t dance a step in my feet – from “Electric Spanking of War Babies”

Thoughts:  The official Funkadelic offers a better farewell album with a sound that played off the soul, funk, and R&B of the early 80s with P-Funk innovation. The lyrics are strongly political on many tracks, something that had been missing in latter day P-Funk. As an added bonus,Sly Stone is featured on this album and there’s a great funky reggae track “Shockwave.”
Rating: ***1/2

Band: George Clinton
Album: Computer Games
Date: 5 November 1982
Favorite Tracks: “Man’s Best Friend/Loopzilla” and “Atomic Dog”
Thoughts: Although credited to Clinton, many P-Funk musicians appear on this album much like on Parliament, Funkadelic, and side projects in previous years.  I arbitrarily chose to end this series on this album as it seems to mark the end of the P-Funk era although there more Clinton solo albums, P-Funk All-Stars recordings, and other projects in the ensuing years.  It’s a good album to go out on as it is reliant more on synths and has an electro sound that ties in well with the rise of hip hop in this era.
Rating: ***

Okay, so that’s it for P-Funk.  Whew!

Music Discoveries P-Funk, part 2 (1975-1978)

This second post in the series covers a period where Parliament-Funkadelic is exploding, releasing some of the bands’ most popular albums and singles, touring with an increasingly elaborate stage show, and branching off to form new bands and solo projects (although those bands and artists were frequently backed up by the same stable of P-Funk musicians).  Unlike part 1 where I was in awe of the music produced by Parliament and Funkadelic, I’m finding myself with mixed feelings about the music from this period.  The highs are higher but the lows are lower, and I think they may have spread themselves thin with the sheer prolificness of their output.  Nevertheless, there is a lot of fantastic music to feast your ears upon here.

Band: Parliament
AlbumMothership Connection
Date: 15 December 1975
Favorite Tracks: “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up),” “Mothership Connection (Star Child),” and “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)”
Lyrics of Note:

You’ve got all that is really needed
To save a dying world from its funkless hell – from “Unfunky UFO”

Gaga googa ga ga googa
Ga ga goo ga ga
(x33) – from “Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples”

Thoughts: This brilliant concept album establishes the Mothership and the Afro-Futurist themes of black people in space.  The songs are party anthems and protest songs against radio’s refusal to play funk and discrimination against the black community in general.  Pretty much a must-have of the P-Funk catalog with three of the collective’s most important tracks, although you’ll probably want to skip over the misogynist “Handcuffs.”
Rating: ****

Band: Bootsy’s Rubber Band
AlbumStretchin’ Out in Bootsy’s Rubber Band
Date: 30 January 1976
Favorite Tracks: “Stretchin’ Out (In a Rubber Band),” “Psychoticbumpschool,” and  “Another Point of View”
Thoughts: Bootsy Collins, the break out start of Parliament-Funkadelic, gets his own band and album although Clinton and a lot of the P-Funk lineup are involved so it really sounds like a continuation of Mothership Connection musically.  Lyrically, the album is more focused on romance and sexy times, and with the troubled sexual politics it can be hit or miss.

Rating: **1/2

Band: Parliament
AlbumThe Clones of Dr. Funkenstein
Date: September 1976
Favorite Tracks: “Do That Stuff,” “Getten’ to Know You,” and “Funkin’ for Fun”
Lyrics of Note:

When you see my mother
Tell her I’m all right
I’m just funkin’ around
For fun – from “Funkin’ for Fun”

Thoughts: May I frighten you? The utterly weird Parliament album expands deeper into the P-Funk mythology and it’s fun if it doesn’t make much sense.  I kind of get the sense that the prolific nature of Parliament-Funkadelic caught up with them as there seems nothing new here.  It’s entertaining, but it’s also disposable.  By the way, am I the only one who hears “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in “Do That Stuff”?

Band: Funkadelic
AlbumTales of Kidd Funkadelic
Date: 21 September 1976
Favorite Tracks:  “Undisco Kidd”
Thoughts: Learning that this was a “contractual obligation” album of outakes from recording a different album lowered my expectation, but this album is good enough if a bit generic.  Actually it sounds very familiar due to it being frequently sampled by other artists.  “Butt-to-Butt Resuscitation” may stand as the best song title in the P-Funk catalog.
Rating: **1/2

Band: Funkadelic
Album: Hardcore Jollies
Date: 29 October 1976
Favorite Tracks: “Comin’ Round the Mountain,” “Smokey,”  “Hardcore Jollies,” and “Cosmic Slop {Live],”
Lyrics of Note:

I thought I knew all there is to do
I stuck out my chest and dove into a love
With ego in charge, I charged into what seemed
To be the quickest way into manhood
You scared me, baby
You scared the love right outta me – from “You Scared the Lovin’ Outta Me”

Thoughts:  Holy crow, did they really funk up “She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain”?!?!?  YES!!!  And it was better than most everything on Tales of Kidd Funkadelic.  And that’s just the start of a hard-rocking, emotionally raw yet joyously funky album with flashes of soul, gospel, and doo wop.  It feels like a return to form for Funkadelic, not that they’d been all that much out of shape.

Artist: Fuzzy Haskins
Album: A Whole Nother Thang
Date: 1976
Favorite Tracks:”Mr. Junk Man”
Thoughts: Haskins, one of the original five members of The Parliaments, and Funkadelic and Parliament, goes solo on this album with lots of support from the P-Funk stable of artists (but not George Clinton).  It’s entertaining and toe-tapping but ultimately bog standard funk and soul.

Band: Bootsy’s Rubber Band
Album: Ahh… The Name Is Bootsy, Baby!
Date: 14 January 1977
Favorite Tracks: “The Pinnochio Theory,” “Munchies for Your Love
Thoughts: Bootsy Collin’s second album is an interesting contrast to Fuzzy Haskins, loose with jazz-like improvisation compared to Haskins’ Motown-style tight pieces.  Just a theory, but Collins is a decade younger so maybe the age gap plays a part in the stylistic differences, and why I like the “full-band” sound of Parliament-Funkadelic albums better where the different styles can play off and complement one another.  This is a solid album though, with funk party anthems on side A and slow jams on the flip side.
Rating: ***1/2

Artist: Eddie Hazel
Album: Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs
Date: 1977
Favorite Tracks: “California Dreamin'” and “What About It?”
Thoughts: This is P-Funk’s guitar-virtuoso’s first and only album released during his lifetime, and what a treat it is to have it. Hazel interprets The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” The Beatles’ “She’s So Heavy” (an interestingly restrained performance), and Bootsy Collins’ “Phsyical Love” as well as an instrumental remake of Funkadelic’s “Wars of Armageddon” called “What About It?”. A great album for guitar buffs.
Rating: ***1/2

Band: Fred Wesley And The Horny Horns
Album: A Blow for Me, A Toot for You
Date: 1977
Favorite Tracks: “A Blow for Me, A Toot for You” and “Four Play”
Thoughts: Another section of the P-Funk orchestra is split off for their own bit of prominence, this time the horn players: Fred Wesley (trombone), Maceo Parker (saxophone), Rick Gardner (trumpet), and Richard Griffith (trumpet). There’s heavy participation from the P-Funk stable of musicians so in many ways this sounds like a Parliament album with an emphasis on the horns, but the instrumental horn jams stand out as the best tracks. The string arrangements on some tracks remind me that this was recorded in the height of the disco era.
Rating: ***1/2

Band: Parliament
Album: Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome
Date: 28 November 1977
Favorite Tracks: “Bop Gun (Endangered Species),” “Wizard of Finance,” and “Flash Light”
Lyrics of Note:

To dance is a protection
Funk is your connection
All you got to do is
Funk and dance

Thoughts:And George Clinton had thoughts on Disco and commercialized music in general which he called “the Placebo Syndrome” and personified in the character of the obstinately unfunky Sir Nose d’Voidoffunk who goes head-to-head with Starchild on this album. Perhaps listening to too many P-Funk albums in a row makes me feel like the mythology and humor are laid on too thick, but there are some classic tracks on this album. There are also synth sounds and arrangements that seem to be laying the ground for New Wave and early hip hop to come in just a few years.

Band: Bootsy’s Rubber Band
Album: Bootsy? Player of the Year
Date: 27 January 1978
Favorite Tracks: “Bootzilla”
Thoughts: The third album from Bootsy & Co. doesn’t break new ground. Love songs are in demand here ranging from the romantic to the raunchy.
Rating: ***

Band: The Brides of Funkenstein
Album: Funk Or Walk
Date:  September 1978
Favorite Tracks: “Disco to Go”
Thoughts: P-Funk is rather dominated by male musicians, so it was interesting to see what  P-Funk band lead by two women – Dawn Silva and Lynn Mabry – would sound like.  It should not be a surprise or even a bad thing that they basically sound a lot like Parliament with female vocalists.  There are disco and even Broadway showtune influences well.  But it doesn’t sound like they brought out the best material for this project, which is a shame.
Rating: **

Band: Parlet
Album: Pleasure Principle
Date: 1978
Favorite Tracks:  “Pleasure Principle” and “Love Amnesia”
Thoughts:Never to do things in small measures, there were two female P-Funk groups releasing their debut albums in 1978, this one featuring the vocal talents of Mallia Franklin, Jeanette Washington and Debbie Wright. Parlet sounds “harder” than The Brides of Funkenstein, the female Funkadelic to their female Parliament.  This album is pretty strong but most of the tracks are overlong.
Rating: ***

Band: Bernie Worrell
AlbumAll the Woo in the World
Date: 1978
Favorite Tracks: “I’ll Be With You” and “Much Thrust”
Thoughts: The legendary P-Funk keyboardist gets his star turn on this solo debut, with lots of P-Funk friends on board for the recording.  Worrell’s keyboard wizadry is on display and the vibe of the album harkens back to the psychedelia of the early Funkadelic.
Rating: ***

Whew! That is a lot of funk.  But I’ll be back in a couple of weeks to finish this series on P-Funk.


Music Discoveries: P-Funk, part 1 (1970-1975)

This series of posts where I write about music I never listened to before is basically a public confession of ignorance.  After all, I’m making music “discoveries” in much the same way Columbus “discovered” the Americas.  Millions people have heard and enjoyed this music before.  So far I’ve enjoyed most of my “discoveries” but with Parliament-Funkadelic I’m absolutely amazed by the music I never heard before and never expected!   I’m also a little disappointed I didn’t listen to these albums when I was younger.  In my high school and college days I listened to many bands with a similar vibe – Otis Redding, Motown soul, Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin, James Brown, Fishbone, Living Colour – and would’ve enjoyed Funkadelic and Parliament as well.  Of course, what makes them great is despite the influences and similarities with other bands is that P-Funk sounds like nothing else ever created.

Parliament and Funkadelic are two bands at the heart of a funk, soul, and rock collective organized by George Clinton.  I first remember learning of Clinton in a Rolling Stone “Best of the 70s” issue I read in high school.  I got a Parliament greatest hits album and even saw George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars perform at the University of Richmond (perhaps the most “vanilla” location for that concert).  Earlier this year I read George Clinton’s autobiography, and I listened to some of the tracks he discussed while reading the book, but I wanted to hear more.

Read below for some very pleasant suprises.

Band: Funkadelic
Album: Funkadelic
Date: 1970
Favorite Tracks: “Mommy, What is a Funkadelic,” “Music for My Mother,” and “Qualify and Satisfy.”
Lyrics of Note:

It got so good to me, man, that I stopped runnin’
My feets was tired anyhow
So I reached in my inside pocket
And got my harp out
Sit down by old beat-up railroad train
And get me get myself
A little of that old funky thang – from “Music for My Mother”

I got a thing
You got a thing
Everybody’s got a thing
When we get together, doin’ our thing
In order to help each other
In order to help your brother – from “I Got A Thing, You Got A Thing, Everybody’s Got A Thing”

Thoughts: This album is like an origin story.  The opening jam sets down the P-Funk mythos.  Musically, the inspirations are strong here as tracks display Motown soul and psychedelic rock, but the seeds of the  P-Funk sound are there.  I’d say this is an amazing debut, but George Clinton and The Parliaments had been working towards this for a decade, and the other musicians brought a lot of experience, so this is as much a culmination as a beginning.
Rating: ****

Band: Parliament
Album: Osmium
Date: 1970
Favorite Tracks: “Little Ole Country Boy,” “Moonshine Heather,”  “Nothing Before Me But Thang,” “Livin’ the Life,” and “Come in Out of the Rain.”
Lyrics of Note:

It’s not that she enjoys this life
Living outside the law
It’s just that there are fourteen kids
Their father died in the war
And each and every Sabbath day
She prays for all her sins
But reality says to her, my child
Take care of your fourteen kids
So she’s taking care of business – from “Moonshine Heather”

Jesus, born a man
Jesus, crucified by man
I’m thinking that Jesus
Wanted man to be free
Jesus, he got out of hand

Jesus was living the life
Loving the life he lived, and had a right to
Jesus, just living the life
Loving the life he lived and had a right to

A tree planted by the river water
Homo sapien pollutes the air
No more trees, the highways are coming
Homo sapien, hey-hey, progressin’ – from “Livin’ the Life

Thoughts: This is a musical mish-mash reminiscent of The Beatles “White Album,” jumping among genres – including gospel, Southern Rock, and folk – and featuring five different vocalists and differing lineups so it sounds less like a band’s album and more like a compilation.  I’m pretty certain there is no other Parliament-Funkadelic album that sounds like this.  I mean “The Silent Boatman” has bagpipes fer chrisake!

Band: Funkadelic
AlbumFree Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow
Date: 1970
Favorite Tracks: “Funky Dollar Bill,”
Lyrics of Note:

You don’t buy a life, you live a life
A father learns much too late – from “Funky Dollar Bill”

Thoughts:  George Clinton says this album was the result of an attempt to “see if we can cut a whole album while we’re all tripping on acid” and it certainly sounds like it.  This album rocks hard and I can hear the influence of Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and other acid rockers.  Despite the title seeming to be a call to party, lyrically this album deals with serious stuff like consumerism, poverty, exploitation, and environmental degradation all subversively rolled into religious themes.
Rating: ***

Band: Funkadelic
Album: Maggot Brain
Date: 1971
Favorite Tracks: “Maggot Brain,” “Can You Get to That,” “Hit It and Quit It,”  and “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks”
Lyrics of Note:

When you base your love on credit
And your loving days are done
Checks you signed with a-love and kisses
Later come back signed “insufficient funds” – from “Can You Get to That”

The rich got a big piece of this and that
The poor got a big piece of roaches and rats – from “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks”

Thoughts: The album begins with Eddie Hazel’s intense extended guitar solo on the title track and doesn’t let up from there.  The lyrical themes are socially conscious and musically Funkadelic continues to draw on psychedelic blues rock and gospel influences so it comes out sounding partly like a blend of Led Zeppelin and Sly and the Family Stone, although the greater part sounds like nothing else heard before.
Rating: ****1/2

Band: Funkadelic
Album: America Eats Its Young
Date: 1972
Favorite Tracks: “If You Don’t Like the Effects, Don’t Produce the Cause,” “Everybody Is Going to Make It This Time,” “Biological Speculation,” “Balance,” and “Wake Up.”
Lyrics of Note:

You say you don’t like what your country’s about (yeah)
Ain’t you deep, in your semi-first class seat
You picket this and protest that, and eat yourself fat
Ain’t you deep, in your semi-first class seat – from “If You Don’t Like the Effects, Don’t Produce the Cause”

Thoughts: A wide-ranging double disc.  Musically the definitive funk sound is growing, especially with the addition of Bootsy Collins and the House Guests to the collective.  But there are also ballads, instrumental jams,  blues, and country-tinged rock.  Lyrically, the theme of the imbalance of Mother Nature with selfish humans (especially Americans) is strong, but there are love songs and raunchy sex songs mixed it.  It’s reminiscent of Parliament’s Osmium in the way it collects a whole bunch of sounds together in one place.
Rating: ***1/2
Band: Funkadelic
Album: Cosmic Slop
Date: 1973
Favorite Tracks: “You Can’t Miss What You Can’t Measure” and “Cosmic Slop,”
Lyrics of Note:

I’m trudging water all through the house
I thought it was from my kitchen sink
I phoned the plumber to rush right over
And see if he could fix this leak

He rushed right over and he took a look
And much to my surprise
He said, “My son it’s not your sink
It’s teardrops from your eyes” – from “You Can’t Miss What You Can’t Measure”

Thoughts: From the opening track “Nappy Dugout” I begin to hear the funk sound I was previously accustomed to with P-Funk (and isn’t that a perfectly raunchy euphemism).  But Funkadelic can be overtly political (and musically unsettling) as witnessed by the anti-Vietnam track “March to the Witch’s Castle.”   There’s also the heartbreaking title track about a mother who turns to prostitution to support her children.  I feel like there are some steps forward and steps back on this album, retreading some ground but working on perfecting it (several tracks are reworked versions of older songs).
Rating: **1/2

Band:  Parliament
Album: Up for the Down Stroke
Date: 1974
Favorite Tracks: “Up for the Down Stroke,” “Testify,”  “Whatever Makes Baby Feel Good”
Thoughts: Parliament returns after a four-year absence and this is the first album that displays the soulful funk with arrangements of horns that would distinguish Parliament from Funkadelic’s guitar-based psychedelic blues.  The band is still reworking old songs, successfully on the powerful “Testify,” less so on the creepy and overlong “The Goose.”  There continues to be a variety of musical styles with some surprises like “I Just Got Back (From the Fantasy, Ahead of Our Time in the Four Lands of Ellet)” which is basically a hippy folk song. Overall there’s a relaxed, romantic feel to this album, like they could hang out with Yacht Rock artists for the day (and teach them a thing or two).
Rating: ***
Band: Funkadelic
Album: Standing on the Verge of Getting it On
Date: 1974
Favorite Tracks: “Standing on the Verge of Getting it On”
Lyrics of Note:

You really shouldn’t ought to fight it
The music is designed to do no harm
We’re just for you – from “Standing on the Verge of Getting it On”

Thoughts: On this album the band largely gives over to extended psychedelic blues rock jams with some proto-Metal mixed in, excepting the last track which is more of a spiritual meditation.  While no track stands out as the greatest, the album as a whole really rocks.  The title track also builds up a lot of the P-Funk mythology.
Rating: ****

Band: Funkadelic
Album: Let’s Take it to the Stage
Date: 1975
Favorite Tracks: “Get Off Your Ass and Jam”
Thoughts: I’m disappointed with this one.  Musically it’s solid, but a bit more relaxed and smooth with a disco vibe.  Still there’s a lot of great grooves as attested by the thousands of familiar samples from rap tunes. Raunch and sophomoric humor are always a part of P-Funk, but on this album it’s laid on thick, and “No Head, No Backstage Pass” is positively misogynistic. I like socially conscious Funkadelic better than sexist Funkadelic.
Rating: **
Band: Parliament
Album: Chocolate City
Date: 1975
Favorite Tracks: “Chocolate City,”  “Ride On,”  “What Comes Funky,” and “Big Footin'”
Lyrics of Note:

Put a hump in your back
Shake your sacroiliac – from “Ride On” (seriously, using “sacroiliac” in a song is genius)

Joys don’t need no alibi
Embarassment will never live you down
Save your foolishness for another day
But for tonight, come out and play – from “What Comes Funky”

Thoughts: Released the same month as Let’s Take it to the Stage, this album is a joyful celebration with love songs, party songs, and the title track a tribute to Washington, D.C. and other majority black cities, all filtered through Clinton’s philosophy of ego.  The album is musically diverse ranging from funk to Motown soul to doo-wop to baroque pop among its tracks.  A great addition to  the P-Funk catalog.
Rating: ***1/2


In two weeks Music Discoveries returns with a full immersion into the P-Funk explosion of the mid-to-late 70s, featuring Funkadelic, Parliament, and various spinoff acts.


Music Discoveries: Sigur Rós

Icelandic band Sigur Rós is known for their soundscapes, mimimalists arrangements, overlay of instruments, reverb, and ethereal vocals of band leaderJón Þór Birgisson, known as Jonsi.  I became aware of the band about a decade ago and Ágætis byrjun is one of my all-time favorite albums, but I was less familiar with their other work.  So now I’ve listened to two decades of Sigur Rós’ recordings and I have to say I like this band all the more.  Their genre of post-rock, whatever that means, is something that appeals to me. And as someone who has trouble paying attention to lyrics, how lovely is it to have a band that sometimes sings in made up words where the emotion is more important than their meaning.

On this day that Iceland’s football team advances in the Euro 2016 tournament, how better to celebrate than by going through an album-by-album review of Sigur Rós’ catalogue.

Release date: June 1997
Favorite tracks:  “Sigur Rós,”  “Hún Jörð …,”  “Von,” and “Syndir Guðs (Opinberun frelsarans)”
Thoughts:  This debut album features the expected dreamy soundscapes overlaid with ethereal vocals, but that is not all it has to offer.  From the spooky opening track, more sound collage than music to the propulsive drums and fuzz guitar of  “Hún Jörð …” there’s a lot to chew on.
Rating: ***1/2

AlbumÁgætis byrjun
Release date: 12 June 1999
Favorite tracks: “Svefn-g-englar,” “Starálfur,” “Ný batterí,” “Olsen Olsen,” and “Ágætis byrjun”
Thoughts:  A masterpiece.  Just a gift of music and beauty to the world. I have a particular fondness for the title track since it was playing in the delivery room when my daughter was born.  A Good Beginning, indeed!
Rating: *****

Album( )
Release date: 28 October 2002
Favorite tracks: “Untitled 1” and “Untitled 7”
Thoughts: This is a minimally titled album with minimally titled songs, but not made with minimal effort.  The first four tracks are more cheerful, while the last four are more sorrowful.  All of the songs are performed by Jonsi in the made-up language of Vonlenska (called “Hopelandic” in English).  It’s a concept album that holds together well even if the concept is more of a feeling than something concrete
Rating: ***1/2

Album: Takk…
Release date: 12 December 2005
Favorite tracks: “Glósóli,” “Hoppípolla,” “Sæglópur, ” and  “Svo hljótt”
Thoughts: Sigur Rós songs are known for their orchestral arrangements and slow builds, but that seems even more true on this album.  So it’s know surprise that several of these songs were used as promotional music.  This sounds like the soundtrack to a movie in your head.  Lovely and immersive.
Rating: ***1/2

Release date: 5 November 2007
Favorite tracks:  “Hljómalind”
Thoughts: This compilation is half recordings of previously unreleased songs and half a live set of acoustic performances from the documentary Heima. The first half is nice but you can tell that they’re outtakes.  The second half is lovely although the tracks sound surprisingly “perfect” for a live performance.
Rating: ***

AlbumMeð suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
Release date: 20 June 2008
Favorite tracks:  “Gobbledigook,” “Festival,” “Ára bátur,” and “All Alright.”
Thoughts: A departure of sorts as this album is more guitar-driven and folk-inflected indie rock than the spare and orchestral sounds of their previous works.  There’s also a song in English, a slow, sad song in English.
Rating: ***

Release date: 7 November 2011
Thoughts: Another live recording accompanying a concert film, this two-disc set captures songs from all of Sigur Rós career up to this point.
Rating: ***1/2

Release date: 23 May 2012
Favorite tracks:”Varúð” and “Fjögur píanó”
Thoughts: Sigur Rós steps back from the pop sensibilities of the previous album, reverting to soundscapes that are even quieter and more restrained than their earlier recordings, if that can be believed.  It’s beautiful stuff, but can also be too much of a good thing.

Release date: 12 June 2013
Favorite tracks:  “Brennisteinn”
Thoughts: More aggressive than earlier work, the soundscapes that so often are accompanied by visuals of Iceland’s scenic beauty, this is the harsh side of nature – icy winds, crashing waves, and jagged rocks.  And there’s quite a bit of change among tracks so it’s clear where one ends and the next begins.
Rating: ***

There’s my thoughts on Sigur Rós and I hope to hear more from them in the future.

Music Discoveries continues in two weeks when I will get down and give it up for Parliament/Funkadelic.

Music Discoveries: The New Pornographers

The New Pornographers are described as a Canadian superband because all the members were assembled by A.C. Newman from various other bands and solo projects.  To be honest, I know nothing of the works of Newman and the other band members outside of The New Pornographers, with the exception of Neko Case who I’ve been a fan of for some time (I even saw her in concert!). Perhaps I should do a future Music Discovery to listen to their music in other bands. When they come together they create a somewhat folky power pop music with jangly sounds and powerful wall of instrumentation.  Reading reviews to prepare for this Music Discovery, I saw them compared with Roxy Music and Electric Light Orchestra (I don’t know these bands well, but what I do know doesn’t seem too similar to The New Pornographers).  The sound of the music reminds me of something I can’t quite place while also being very original.  Lyrically, the songs are very dense in wordcraft and can be open to many interpretations.

AlbumMass Romantic
Release date: November 21, 2000
Favorite tracks: “Mass Romantic,” “Letter from an Occupant,” and “To Wild Homes,”
Lyrics of Note:

Hope grows greener than grass stains – from “Centre for Holy Wars”

Thoughts: I had not previously listened to this album and it wast faster and more chaotic than I’m accustomed to from The New Pornographers. An exciting start to their career.
Rating: ***1/2

AlbumElectric Version
Release date:  May 6, 2003
Favorite tracks: “Chump Change,” “July Jones,” and “Miss Teen Wordpower”
Lyrics of Note:

Our words move aimlessly through
Empty city squares
Collecting into mobs and
Angry like their prayers
They breathe the air we
Fought to leave behind
This kind of blank adventure
Happens all the time
Because nobody knows the wreck of the soul
The way you do – from “Miss Teen Wordpower”

Thoughts: The band’s vocal harmonies and instrumentation are tightening.  Lyrically, many of the songs seem to be criticism of the music business and of the United States’ post-September 11th war policies.  Or maybe both at the same time?
Rating: ***1/2

AlbumTwin Cinema
Release date: August 23, 2005
Favorite tracks: “The Bleeding Heart Show.,” “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras,” and “Sing Me Spanish Techno,”
Lyrics of Note:
Thoughts:  These are very tuneful songs with tight harmonies. I love the ‘hey-la’ fadeout on “The Bleeding Heart Show” and the vocal effects/edits on “Falling Through Your Clothes” sound very cool. The band is  branching out into more musically adventurous territory than the previous two albums.
Rating: ****

Album: Challengers
Release date: August 21, 2007
Favorite tracks: “My Rights Versus Yours,” “Challengers,” “Myriad Harbor,” “Unguided,” “Go Places,”  and “Mutiny, I Promise You”
Lyrics of Note:

The new empire in rags
The truth in one free afternoon – from “My Rights Versus Yours”

In every story, every secret told
You are not the first to wake up
To learn your lines before you have the part
You woke up early and you woke up torn
You’re the temporary border
The heat wave humming in the house of cards

You spun chapter into rapture there
Yeah, you were as brave as traffic
You chased the spotlight into her arms
And you forgot that you could fight
But not that you were still the person sleeping
The heat wave humming in the house of cards

A play for the girl, a cross for a hook, sinking into the greasy wonder
Under the sea, walking the floor, over the waves that we lived under

Something’s unguided in the sky tonight
There is something unguided in the sky – from “Unguided”

Thoughts: This is the album I’m most familiar with. It features big bold sounds and provocative lyrics. “Challengers” is the most amazingly constructed song.
Rating: ****

Release date:  May 4, 2010
Favorite tracks: “The Crash Years, “My Shepherd,” and “Daughters of Sorrow”
Lyrics of Note:

The ruins were wild
The ruins were wild
Tonight will be an open mic – from “The Crash Years”

Glasswork shards decorate this house
We’re tossing lost arts out windows
The splash and jangle of a secret science defined
You claim some golden age is upon us – from “My Shepherd”

Thoughts: After a decade together, The New Pornographers sound more like a unified band than a collection of individual talents (apropos of the title Together). Ironically, there are a lot of guest musicians on this album, including the horn section from The Dap Kings who had a new sound.  Overall this album feels less energetic than its predecessors.
Rating: ***1/2

Album Brill Bruisers
Release date: August 26, 2014
Favorite tracks: “Brill Bruisers,” “Born With a Sound,” “Dancehall Domine,” and “Spidyr”
Lyrics of Note:

They say we can’t make this stuff up,
But what else could we make? – from “Marching Orders”

I had a sound in my head
But I couldn’t find the words
To get it out
Now I know love is the way
Get it out – from “Born With a Sound’

Thoughts:  I didn’t like that title track at first, but it grew on me and now I love it.  Hearing the song broken down on The Song Exploder helped change my mind. The album feels celebratory.  Singles like “Brill Bruisers” and “Dancehall Domine” feel like they could’ve been on a previous album, but much of the rest of this album sounds like it was recorded in the 1980s with swirling New Wave sounds and electronic tones.  I like that sound a lot.
Rating: ****

So there is my quick journey into the discography of The New Pornographers.  What do you think of this band?

If I keep things together, next Wednesday I will publish my thoughts on the work of Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós.



Music Discoveries: Stereolab

I had two chances to become a Stereolab superfan.  The first was 20-something years ago when my college radio station hosted a concert with two bands.  I didn’t usually like the bands the radio station got to play but I think it was close to mandatory for DJs to attend this concert.  I ended up getting into the Stereolab sat and dancing manically as they finished off their set with an extended, repetitive jam (I’m pretty sure now that it was “Jenny Ondioline”).  Yet, I was somehow incurious about getting any of this band’s music to listen to.

A dozen years ago, a hip young co-worker recommend Stereolab to me and told me their two best albums are Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night. I got these two albums, and loved them, and have listened to them over and over, and yet I still failed to seek out other music by Sterolab.  Until now!

Stereolab is a band based in London, England lead by the songwriting team of Laetitia Sadier (vocals/keyboard/guitar) and Tim Gane (guitar/keyboards).  Sadier is French, Gane is English, and their rotating line of band mates have included Australian and Irish members, lending an international feel.  Musically, Stereolab is defined by ethereal vocals sung over synthesizers, repetitive rhythms, and droning sounds.  Their sound incorporates 60s lounge music and Krautrock with a 90s indie music sensibility.

One thing I have a challenge with is listening to lyrics.  This is especially true for a band like Stereolab where half of their songs are in French, but even in English the lyrics get lost in the mix.  So I made an effort to read the lyrics online for all the songs on the albums below.  Even in print, the lyrics can be inscrutable in a poetic way, and the song titles hardly ever seem to relate to the subject of the song.

What I learned is that despite the upbeat, jangly pop sound, Stereolab is a fervently political band.  Their song lyrics focus on left-wing themes of class oppression, anti-war, and social revolution.  The ideas of isolation and cultural disconnect also resonate strongly.  There is a positive aspect to the song lyrics as Sadier often seems to be cheering on the listener to achieve a better and more honest version of themselves, contrary to what they may have been told by societal norms.

Stereolab is a prolific band, churning out albums, EPs, and singles at a frenetic pace, especially in their first decade.  I tried to listen to every studio album and compilation I could find.  Individual album reviews are below, but the general feeling I have is that in the 1990s, Stereolab was an absolutely brilliant band.  The music of the 2000s is still good, but it seems redundant and just less exciting.

Album: Switched On
Release date: 1992
Favorite tracks: “Superelectric” and “Au Grand Jour'”
Thoughts:  Collection of early singles and EPs.  Fascinating that the Stereolab sound is there in its infant form and this collection actually holds together well as an album.
Rating: ***

Album: Peng!
Release date: 1992
Favorite tracks: “Super Falling Star,” “Perversion,” and “Mellotron’
Lyrics of Note:

“Curiosity was far greater than our fear
It felt so simple and so prodigious at the same time
Incredible things are happening in the world
Magical things are happening in this world
Across the river there are all kinds of magical instruments
While really we keep on living like monkeys
Incredible things are happening in the world
Magical things are happening in this world” – Peng! 33

Thoughts: More guitar, reminded that this was recorded at the peak of grunge era on some tracks. Good start.
Rating: ***

Album: Space Age Bachelor Pad Music
Release date: 22 March 1993
Favorite tracks: “We’re Not Adult Oriented”
Thoughts: Spare and dreamy, picking up steam on final tracks
Rating: ***

AlbumTransient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements
Release Date: August 1993
Favorite tracks: “Pack Yr Romantic Mind,” “Jenny Ondioline,”
Thoughts: Guitar-heavy on many tracks, reminiscent of contemporary bands like Breeders, Belly, and My Bloody Valentine.
Rating: ***1/2

AlbumMars Audiac Quintet
Release Date: 9 August 1994
Favorite tracks: “Three Longers Later,” “Transports Sans Bouger,” and “Fiery Yellow.”
Thoughts: Really embraces the lounge and bouncy pop of the 60s but with a 90s aesthetic. More accessible without making sacrifices.
Rating: ***1/2

Album: Refried Ectoplasm
Release Date: July 1995
Favorite tracks: ” Lo Boob Oscillator,” “French Disko,” “Animal or Vegetable [A Wonderful Wooden Reason],” “Farfisa,” and “Tempter”
Lyrics of Note:

Though this world’s essentially an absurd place to be living in
It doesn’t call for total withdrawal

I’ve been told it’s a fact of life
Men have to kill one another
Well I say there are still things worth fighting for

La Resistance!

Though this world’s essentially an absurd place to be living in
It doesn’t call for total withdrawal

It said human existence is pointless
As acts of rebellious solidarity
Can bring sense in this world

La Resistance! – French Disko

Thoughts: Continually impressed by the quality and quantity of music churned out by Stereolab during this period.  Hard to believe this is a compilation of singles and EPs rather than an album.  They’re like the Beatles ca. 1962-66 where some of their best stuff doesn’t even make it on an album.
Rating: ****

Album: Emperor Tomato Ketchup
Release Date: April 1996
Favorite tracks: “Metronomic Underground,” “Cybele’s Reverie,” “Les Yper-Sound,” “The Noise of Carpet,” “Emperor Tomato Ketchup,” and “Anonymous Collective.”
Lyrics of Note:

“I hate to see your broken face
This world would give you anything
As long as you will want to
As long as you will want to
I hate your state of hopelessness
And that vain articulateness
Your loser type wreck want to be
Not a pretty sight really
In another world it’d be funny

I hate to see your broken face
A lazy life of fatal waste
Of fashionable cynicism
The poison they want you to drink
Oh no man that’s too easy
Oh no man that’s too easy
We weren’t talking bout happiness
Apply your leading potential
To be useful to this planet
The world would give you anything
As long as you will want to
As long as you will want to” – The Noise of Carpet

Thoughts: This is an album I’ve listened to hundreds of times, but listening to it after all of the albums Stereolab released prior to this album it’s hard not to just say “wow!”  Not to be deterministic, but Stereolab was building toward this over the previous four years.  A masterpiece!
Rating: *****

Album: Dots and Loops
Release Date: 23 September 1997
Favorite tracks: “The Flower Called Nowhere,” “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse,” and “Parsec,”
Thoughts: Return to a sunny 60s lounge-pop sound, slower tunes lacking the propulsive drumbeat. The track “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse” appears to be a 15 minute history of electronic music.  Drum & bass

Lyrics of Note:

“Searching news ways of laughing
ones whereby one could
express and transform
all the shattering
all the gratuitious
the burdens of guilt
growing these new ways
will dawn on us if
we look hard enough
searching and finding” from Prisoner on Mars

Rating: ***1/2

AlbumCobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night
Release Date: 21 September 1999
Favorite tracks: “Fuses,” “People Do It All the Time,” “Italian Shoes Continuum,” “Puncture in the Radax Permutation,” and “Blue Milk.”
Thoughts: Stereolab takes another step forward by adding jazz and hints of Latin music to their sound. Another masterpiece.
Lyrics of note:

“We who’re young and beautiful
We who can stand up and walk
Our lives we will learn to control
We who’re young and beautiful
Respond revolution when
We hear the word suffering” – from Op Hop Detonation

Rating: ****1/2

Album: The First of the Microbe Hunters
Release Date: 16 May 2000
Favorite tracks: “Outer Bongolia,” and “I Feel the Air [Of Another Planet]

Lyrics of Note:

The appeal of a consequence
Perfect as it couldn’t say no
Met by a cold body of air
A presence under humid air
He will take it to the water
He will swim and swim on further
The ocean is deep and salted
There reign a world of the mermaid
The imagined profuse
Leaving a man confused
The story was short-lived
Not before long after” – from “I Feel the Air [Of Another Planet]

Thoughts: Kind of sounds like bog-standard Stereolab which is never a bad thing, but disappointing following the brilliance of their previous albums.
Rating: ***

Album: Sound-Dust
Release Date: 28 August 2001
Favorite tracks: “Space Moth,” “Captain Easychord,” and “Nothing to Do With Me

Lyrics of Note:

“Dive in, the heart of extremes,
All assembled in a style,
Extremes reconciled

Rational and poetical,
Summing up contradictions
Lyrical departure
Formal unity
All in one

Intimate sensuality
Big and cold non places of concrete
Art and social action
Freedom and control
All in one

Utopia and reality,
Hand in hand all this way
Dedicate to change that it can’t bring about

It failed but succeeded
It failed but succeeded” – Baby Lulu

Thoughts: Holy crap, is that disco?  Stereolab-style with marimbas? Is that a country twang on the guitar? Are those soulful horns? Is that a smooth love song or just a cry of the universal disconnect of humanity?  This album starts out strong and there are a lot of new sounds for Stereolab although it eventually melts into a melodic drone of sameness.
Rating: ***1/2

Album: Margerine Eclipse
Release Date:  27 January 2004
Favorite tracks: “Cosmic Country Noir,” “Margerine Rock,” and  “Feel and Triple”

Lyrics of Note:

“After such distance
Come to me, precious being, come to me
After such ennui
Come to me, delicious, enfold me
After such a long drought
Here a place for flowers to flourish” – Sudden Stars

“The beauty of this creature
Could only be equaled by
The extent of its paradox
Only be equaled by

Because it wanted two things
Opposite and conflicting

It wanted the light
It wanted everything in sight
Wanted to dominate
Or at least to participate

But only in their comforts
Of its chair and its slippers” – Margerine Rock

Thoughts:Mary Hansen, Stereolab’s guitarist whose vocals interwove in such a lovely way with those of lead singer Laetitia Sadier, was killed in London in 2002 when a truck driver crashed into her bicycle. This album is partly a memorial to her, and as someone who cycles regularly I find it particularly profound. Technologically this album is mixed in dual mono which means that there are different vocal and instrumental tracks in each channel (just like old Beatles’ LPs). One can have fun listening to a song in just one ear bud and then switching ears.  The pace of the album is slow, and sadly it seems like Stereolab is just treading water musically.

Rating: **1/2

Album: Fab Four Suture
Release Date: 6 March 2006
Favorite tracks: “Excursions into ‘Oh, A-Oh'”
Lyrics of Note:

“To make it fun, to reason
Instant purpose
Had a thought, the linear cost
Of self-interest
Reveries are bandages
All-embracing” – Visionary Roadmaps

“We should never write ourselves off
See ourselves as the victims of
Various forces
It is always our decision
Tell me I am responsible

Satisfying feeling
Of connection maybe
Transatlantic tidings
Up on a mountain scene

It is what we live for
The calling to be
It is what we live for

It is always our decision
It’s the feeling of connection

Depends on our actions
Can’t see ourselves as the victims

It’s been a long time
Since anyone come to me to call on my deeper senses
Thank you so much
You spoke to me in a way that revived my life essences
It feels so good
Feels alive and relative

I can connect with the world” – Whisper Pitch

Thoughts: A number of previously released EPs and singles are “sutured together in a single album by design.  The lyrics are political and angry but still lost in sunny melodies.  While I like the lyrics, the music still seems like a bland pastiche of earlier Stereolab.
Rating: **1/2

Album: Chemical Chords
Release Date: 24 June 2008
Favorite tracks: “Pop Molecule [Molecular Pop 1]” and “Fractal Dream of a Thing,”
Thoughts: This album sees a return to shorter pop tunes with the 60s lounge vibe at the forefront.  Still not as good as their 90s recordings but more lively than they’ve sounded in some time.
Rating: ***

Stereolab went on hiatus in 2009 and released their last recording was released in 2010 (an album of outakes from Chemical Chords called Not Music).  I expect that the band is not going to get together again, but if they do I would love to see them in concert again.

So that’s my thoughts on Stereolab?  Are you a fan of Stereolab or is this the first you’ve heard of them?  What do you think of their music?  Let me know in the comments.

So my goal is to release a new Music Discovery every Wednesday but I’ve found it challenging to find the time to give all the recordings a fair and deep listening.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to get the next Music Discovery ready in time for next week, but if I do it will be about The New Pornographers.

Music Discoveries: Kate Bush

Kate Bush is an artist I’ve always thought was really talented and important, but never got around to listening to anything beyond a select few popular songs.  So this week’s Music Discoveries addresses that.

I first heard of Kate Bush 30 years ago through her duet with Peter Gabriel on “Don’t Give Up,” a song that always makes me feel very depressed (despite the fact that Bush’s lyrics are very uplifting, you just can’t fight those minor chords).

Watching this video now, I’m really impressed by the vocal performance by both Bush and Gabriel.  I’m also wondering how many takes it took to make this video, because they’re embracing for six minutes uninterrupted here but could’ve spent the better part of the day hugging.

Kate Bush’s recording career begins in 1978 when at the age of 19 she released her first album of songs composed during her teenage years.  Having a big hit album in the UK, Europe, and Australia at a young age is impressive enough, but she also insisted on a high level of artistic control, showing an amazing level of confidence.

Album:  The Kick Inside
Release Date:  17 February 1978
Favorite Tracks: “The Saxophone Song” “Oh To Be In Love”  “Them Heavy People”
Thoughts:  Listening to this album I can can hear how Bush influenced a couple of generations of artists including in Tori Amos, Bjork, Joanna Newsom, and Grimes.  Lush and lyrical with enough dissonance to keep one on their toes. Finishes on an unresolved note
Rating: ***1/2

This is probably sacrilege because it’s her most famous song, but I’m not all too fond of “Wuthering Heights.”  That being said, I love the choreography in this video, and the bold audacity of it all.  It’s clear that Bush came on the scene at the right time to be a pioneer in the artistry of music videos.

“Them Heavy People” is a mix of spiritual yearning with several heapings of humor. And there’s entertaining choreography in the music video.

Album: Lionheart
Release Date: 10 November 1978
Favorite Tracks: “Wow” “Full House” “Coffee Homeground”
Thoughts: The record company rushed out a second Kate Bush album in 1978 to capitalize on the success of her debut.  Most of the songs were those Bush had written before recording The Kick Inside, so the album does have the feeling of being outtakes hurriedly put together, but nonetheless manages to still be pretty good.  Bush would go on to produce every album she made herself following this one, as well as taking all the time she needs between releases.
Rating: ***

Bush gets a lot of mileage out of one little word in the chorus of “Wow,” her musical take down of show business.  Her dance skills are on display again in the video.

Album: Never for Ever
Release Date: 7 September 1980
Favorite Tracks: “Breathing” and “Army Dreamers.”
Thoughts:  I’m a fan of 1980s music, but when I say that this album sounds very 80s, it is not a compliment.  Bush adds a synthesizer & drum machine to her repertoire and the album has a very artificial feel  as a result.  Mind you, mechanical-sounding music can be awesome, but for Kate Bush who exudes humanity in her lyrics and voice, it doesn’t work
Rating: **

Songs about nuclear annihilation were common in the early 80s.  “Breathing” tells the story from the point of view of a fetus. Bush sings from a cellophane womb in the video.

“Army Dreamers” is similar to Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army,” questioning the inordinate loss of the poor to the military and the family left behind.  The video grimly depicts the folly of war.

Album: The Dreaming
Release Date: 13 September 1982
Favorite Tracks: “There Goes a Tenner,” and “Suspended in Gaffa.”
Thoughts:  This album introduces a new style for Bush, her voice sounds lower, her singing style changed.  The music is even more experimental with clever dubs and effects. The change is from 70s prog rock to 80s alternative music (for lack of better terms) and sets the template for her next three albums.
Rating: ***1/2

“There Goes a Tenner” tells a comic story of a bank robbery gone wrong, musically mixing a music hall sound with New Wave.

Another song about spiritual yearning and loss with gaffer’s tape as an interesting metaphor.  The video features another interpretive dance and …  OMG look at that 80’s hairdo!

AlbumHounds of Love
Release Date: 16 September 1985
Favorite Tracks: “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”, “The Big Sky,” “Cloudbusting,” and  “Jig of Life”
Thoughts:  I kind of feel like that guy at a concert who cheers when the song he’s familiar with is introduced.  Suddenly I’m listening to the Kate Bush songs I actually know and love.  And hey, two thematic suites.  Is Janelle Monáe a fan? The dramatic effects on “Waking the Witch” remind me of what Tears for Fears & Erasure were doing at that time. The Celtic fiddles on “Jig of Life” also seemed to presage the Celtic music trend of the following decade.
Rating: ****1/2

“Running Up That Hill” is not only the best Kate Bush song, in my opinion, but also one of the great songs of the 1980s.  The video features her most impressive dance performance yet, but the cowards at MTV were too chicken to show it because she wasn’t lipsynching. 

“Cloudbusting” is another song I’ve loved for quite some time – partially due to the sample of the chorus in “Something Good” by Utah Saints.  Despite the optimism of those lyrics this is a sad song based on the true story of  Austrian-American psychologist William Reich and his son Peter who attempted to use a device to seed clouds to make rain.  Donald Sutherland plays Reich in the video, while Bush uses her acting skill to bring out the childlike facial reactions of Peter.

Like “Cloudbusting”, “The Big Sky” captures memory and emotion of being a child in a beautiful way.

Album: The Sensual World
Release Date: 16 October 1989
Favorite Tracks: “The Sensual World,” “Love and Anger,” “Deeper Understanding” “Rocket’s Tail,” and “This Woman’s Work”
Thoughts: Molly Bloom and computer sex.  Bush is on to something.
Rating: ****

“The Sensual World” is Bush’s interpretation of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses. She recorded it as “The Flower of the Mountain” using the actual text from Joyce’s opus.

“Love and Anger” is probably my second favorite Bush song.  It says so much about relationships.  The video features another great dance performance.

“This Woman’s Work” is a touching ballad about a woman struggling through a difficult and her husband’s anxiety.  Like many of Bush’s videos, the story is depicted in a literal fashion.

Album: The Red Shoes
Release Date: 2 November 1993
Favorite Tracks: “Rubberband Girl,” ‘The Red Shoes,” and “Why Should I Love You?”
Thoughts: In 1993 when alternative music had hit the mainstream, this 70s/80s innovator shows that she’s still relevant, although it’s not her strongest effort. The sound is more stripped down. There’s a lot of collaboration with other artists including Prince, Eric Clapton, Gary Booker, and Jeff Beck.
Rating: **1/2

“Rubberband Girl” is a catchy tune about the desire for resilience.  

Bush’s musical career is intertwined with dance so it’s not so surprising that she adapts the fairy tale of “The Red Shoes” to song, telling the story of a woman who dons magical shoes that make her dance nonstop. 

Album: Aerial
Release Date: 7 November 2005
Favorite Tracks:”π”
Thoughts: Bush returns after a 12-year absence with a double album.  The first disc is standard album while the second one is a thematic suite. Lots of whimsy – reciting pi to music, an ode to a washing machine, and bird song.  It’s more art, but not enough music. It was nice to hear one time but it’s not something I want to revisit.
Rating: **

The number pi set to music, but only part of it.

Album: Director’s Cut
Release Date: 16 May 2011
Favorite Tracks: “Flower of the Mountain,” “Deeper Understanding,” and “Rubberband Girl”
Thoughts: Remixed and rerecorded versions of songs from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes, which is probably unnecessary except for Kate Bush completionists.   A bluesy, Rolling Stones-style remake of “Rubberband Girl” is the standout. It also includes “Flower of the Mountain” a versions of “The Sensual World”  with the original Joycean lyrics.
Rating: **

Before Spike Jonze’s Her, there was Kate Bush’s “Deeper Understanding,” a song about a lonely man and his relationship with a computer.  The 2011 version of this song features a video starring Robbie Coltrane.

Album: 50 Words for Snow
Release Date:  21 November 2011
Favorite Tracks: “Snowflake,” “Misty”, and “Wild Man”
Thoughts:  Bush once again puts together a thematic album, doing what George Winston’s already done for winter, only with lyrics. It’s  avant guarde/ art music with spare arrangements. Guest appearances include Elton John, an odd choice since I think of Bush & John being at opposite extremes of UK popular music in the 70s & 80s, and this song doesn’t play to his strengths. Stephen Fry also appears in a humorous number where he literally recites 50 different words for snow.
Rating: ***

“Wild Man” is a sympathetic song about the yeti of the Himalayas.  I like the vocal harmonies on the chorus.

That’s all for Kate Bush for now, although I’m sure she has more to offer in the future.  I’m kind of disappointed with myself because I thought I’d like Kate Bush more.   Her 80s albums The Dreaming, Hounds of Love, and The Sensual World are all spectacular, but I’m kind of “eh!” on everything before and after that.

What do you think?  Are you a Kate Bush fan or is this all new to you?

Music Discoveries will return on June 1st when I will tell you what I learned listening to every album by Stereolab.

Music Discoveries: Janelle Monáe

Today I finally begin a new feature on this blog I’ve been planning for a long time called Music Discoveries.  The idea is to find musical artists and bands I’m familiar with and do a deep listen of their full catalog of recordings.  I was inspired by a fellow blogger on Desert Island Mix Tape when he listened to the entire back catalog of the Bee Gees and then wrote it up.  I’ve procrastinated a long time and hesitated posting at all because I’m not particularly skilled as a music critic.  But then again I’m not a book or beer critic and that hasn’t stopped me, and I can only get better with practice.  So please be patient with me as you read this and offer constructive criticism in the comments.

Let us begin with Janelle Monáe, a musician I first learned of a few years back from my wife (who is often more up to date on contemporary music). The 30-year-old artist from Kansas City, KS is a singer, song writer, producer, collaborator, and all around performer. Her musical style is eclectic bringing together soul, art music, R&B, hip-hop, funk, and even opera and cinematic scores.  In many ways she is a musical heir to the recently deceased David Bowie and Prince, a comparison heightened by her androgynous public image and signature tuxedo. Other clear influences on her work and style include Grace Jones, Annie Lennox, and the Afrofuturism of George Clinton and PFunk.

One thing for sure about Monáe is that she is committed to a high concept.  Her recordings are a series of suites called Metropolis inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 film of the same name.  The suites center on Monáe’s alter ego Cindi Mayweather, an android from the year 2719, who breaks the law by falling in love with a human and while a fugitive becomes a messianic figure to other androids.  While there’s a lot to be gained from listening to the suites in order, the songs have universal themes that allow them to succeed out of context.  They work as a science fiction story but also as love songs as well as commentaries on social issues such as inequality, social stratification, racism, and discrimination against LGBT communities.

Monáe’s first recording is an extremely limited 2003 album called The Audition, which I wasn’t able to find so I’m going to skip ahead to her 2007 EP where the suites begin

AlbumMetropolis: Suite I (The Chase)
Release Date: August 24, 2007
Favorite Tracks: “Sincerely, Jane” and “Mr. President”
Thoughts:  This EP introduces the first of the Metropolis suites and introduces Cindi Mayweather and the science fiction plot line.  Pop and funk are mixed with opera and old standards (the special edition includes a rendition of the Charlie Chaplin song “Smile”). The album is short but epic and cinematic.  A good start
Rating: ***1/2

AlbumThe ArchAndroid
Release Date: May 18, 2010
Favorite Tracks: “Locked Inside” “Cold War”
Thoughts:  Suite’s II and III of Metropolis make up Monáe’s  first full-length major release.  The music here is upbeat belying the seriousness of the lyrics. Musically the album jumps among genres from song to song and even within songs.  Funk, soul, new wave, afrobeat, psychedelia, and even punk rock (“Come Alive” is reminiscent of the B52s).  The music gets a little slow and less interesting in Suite III, but this is definitely a masterpiece.
Rating: ****

AlbumThe Electric Lady
Release Date: September 6, 2013
Favorite Tracks:  “Givin’ Em What They Love” “Dance Apocalyptic” “Can’t Live Without Your Love”
Thoughts:  Monáe’s second full album and the fourth and fifth suites of the Metropolis opus is full of notable guest artists inluding  Miguel, Erykah Badu, Solange, Prince and Esperanza Spalding.  Musically this is smoother than The ArchAndroid with some slow jams, and jazz, hip-hop, and gospel influences. I could live without the radio breaks with the android DJ because the verisimilitude to a radio jock patter with callers is all to close.  Still this is a worth follow-up to The ArchAndroid  and shows Monáe’s s growth and range.
Rating: ***1/2

AlbumiTunes Festival: London 2013
Release Date: September 9, 2013
Favorite Tracks: “Dance Apocalyptic,” “Tightrope”
Thoughts: This live recording mixes together 5 previously released tracks, showing how well they work independent of the suites and more importantly the incredible energy Monáe brings to performance.  The horn section playing behind her is particularly fantastic. Definitely need to take the opportunity to see Monáe  in concert.
Rating: ***1/2

AlbumWondaland Presents: The Eephus
Release Date: August 14, 2015
Favorite Tracks: “Yoga”
Thoughts: Technically this is not a Monáe album but a compilation of songs by her collective at Wondaland Records (Jidenna, St. Beauty, Roman GianArthur and Deep Cotton).  There’s only once song by Monae, featuring Jidenna, called “Yoga” (which is, er, not really about yoga).  Monáe’s fingerprints are all over the recording though showing her capabilities as a collaborator and a producer.
Rating: ***

Speaking of collaboration, Janelle Monae appears as a guest on many other artists’ recordings.  Probably the most famous is “We Are Young” by fun.  Monae’s part on the bridge makes a great song – and music video – all the more epic.

Janelle Monae also brought together the Wondaland Records lineup last year on the powerful protest song “Hell You Talmbout” where they chant the names of African-Americans murdered by the police.

I will definitely continue to listen to Janelle Monáe’s music as her career continues.  I expect she will continue to grow as an artist and create some of the more innovative music of our time.  I’m sad to say that I somehow missed Janelle Monáe Day in my hometown of Boston a few years back, but I hope to see her in concert one day when she returns.

Stay tuned next week as I will tell you what I heard listening to every album by Kate Bush.