and I promise if you ever hear me contradict myself
it's not a sign of the apocalypse
in my view hip hop had two great phases: early-to-mid '90s and early-to-mid 2000s. the genre reached its maximum commercial potency - at least in one sense - in the former period, and also its mature production styles. so, you know, dre, snoop, tupac on the west coast, the wu and rza and biggie on the east. (the reason i say 'in one sense' is that though you hear less pure hip hop now, you hear it as an element in virtually all pop music all over the world, from nashville to the cote d'ivoire.)
but when i talk about 2000-2010 as a golden age as well, you may be puzzled. i don't mean commercial hip hop, though there were also some relatively interesting artists there, like eminem or lil wayne: i mean 'underground' hip hop. that people understood hip hop to have 'sold out' and (for one thing) become totally apolitical in that period, actually helped create a whole world of non- or anti-commercial artists. they were often extremely radical politically, but also many of them had amazing flow and good-to-great production (production got a lot cheaper in that period).
so, i might mention dead prez, jedi mind tricks, 7l and esoteric, brother ali, j-live, aceyalone, anti-pop consortium, bahamadia, aesop rock, demigodz. but there were many others, and there still are. i do rate immortal technique as the best mc, ever. (eminem is his only rival to my way of thinking.) one of the great artists of the period was atmosphere (minneapolis; mc = slug; dj = ant). "scapegoat" and "god loves ugly" are two of the best songs in hip hop history, i believe.
no wonder you're in love with your therapist. go to sleep my little time bomb.
and look that was not that long ago, and a lot of these people were quite young, and many are still recording, along with a couple of cohorts that they influenced. i want to point out that atmosphere sounds as good or better than ever on fishing blues. slug was never a verbal gymnast like wayne or tech; he was always a killer writer with a cool and accessible voice. he's writing great right now.
i think a number of these artists should have the status of american masters at this point, and atmosphere is just as good and relevant now as they were a decade ago. i also think the beats have steadily improved, and the underlying tracks are actually pretty various; i'm crediting ant with a lot of the excellence of fishing blues. "won't look back" actually sounds like a pop hit, but there are many cool elements and styles throughout.
one good thing you have to live with: hip hop was a completely inter or multi-racial genre by 00s, like jazz in the 30s and 40s, or blues in the 60s and 70s. call it cultural appropriation if you like; i call it music.
after the inxs piece, i was rummaging around in my old clips. i can't seem to find the review of the inxs show, but i found a buttload of other stuff, including the interview with cyndi lauper. the album by her great baby-band blue angel (1980) - which i obsessively praised when i was talking to her, thus getting on her good side - is finally up on itunes etc. i say this album represents one of the greatest vocal performances in pop music history. no one ever sang like that.
actually as far as i can tell, cyndi only has a good side.
this is my review from the old washington evening star:
the star gave me my first shot as a music critic; i was working there as a copy boy. my daddy was a reporter there back in the '50s and early '60s. also i delivered the thing for what seemed like many years; i still remember my stack of papers floating away down nevada ave in hurricane agnes. the star died just a few months after this piece appeared.
there are definitely some excellent young female country singers emerging. last year i praised people like maren morris, cam, hailey witters, and caroline spence. caitlyn smith's ep 'starfire' is more or less in the same vein. of them all, she might be the singiest: pretty stunning range and power. she reminds me of someone who i think of as one of the all-time female pop vocalists: cyndi lauper. it's kind of in a contemporary soul vein, not that far from morris. both, as also the very fine witters, have this love-gospel thing going, which is more or less the origin of soul music in the first place.
i definitely like the bluesiness of these artists. my only criticism of 'starfire' would be that the instrumental tracks are a bit inert; i would have given her a somewhat more stripped-down frame. but she sounds great. here she is from a few years back:
another excellent recent ep is crystal yates's 'the other side.' it's darker in tone: very dark indeed. but the smoky, swampy vibe is compelling.
every few months for ten years or more, i've been checking itunes for the van morrison live album it's too late to stop now, which is my candidate for best live rock album (but really, if i were assigning it to a genre, it'd be soul, though soul and rock aren't perfectly distinct by any means). i have it on lp, but i wore it out in the 70s so bad that's it's mostly unplayable. anyway, it is up, the original two-record set along with multiple further volumes. i'm not sure just what those are, but will explore.
the thing is just great: it's a big band with horn section and strings, recorded with no overdubs. van is wildly improvisational and eccentric, but also working perfectly with the band and the arrangements, and there are so many great songs, some of them in quite their best versions, like this:
it was released in '73, and i have always speculated that the early springsteen albums would be impossible without it; the instrumental configuration is similar, as also the street-corner symphony of the lyric themes and even the vocal style. only, van is so so much better: there's always a lilt, a subtlety, an idiosyncrasy, a change of tempo or emphasis, a sense of play. in contrast, i hear springsteen as pretentious, big for the sake of big, with a bludgeoning and unsubtle rhythm and bellowing vocals that i associate with my chronic headaches from the era. bs might get whytheysucked pretty soon by the way.
the new brandy clark album, big day in a small town, is certainly the best country album so far this year, and brandy is the best songwriter working anywhere near mainstream country music, and one of the very best singers. it might be better than twelve stories, which is saying something. there are no weak songs. the specificity, realism, narrative structure,and phrasemaking are incomparable. what would she charge to write the whole next kacey musgraves album?
the biggest shift from 12 stories is the production. that one used a very stripped-down acoustic frame; she sounds great like that. believe it or not, i think she's been listening to taylor swift and stuff. well, she wants some hit singles, and if anyone should have them, she should. and i think that all the different production styles work beautifully with the songs, and it is all country no matter the frame.
i've been on the other side of that, which is a long hard road, so to speak. perhaps i should write a reply, or maybe joe maphis already did. but don't think that it's all that poppy; she uses a variety of approaches, including more trad things (but it is all more 'produced' than the last album). how about this lyric?:
anyway, just great song after great song; i'd like to post them all.
i really don't have any twitter skills. i'd like to launch #whytheysuck, though. and in any forum, i'd like to hear your candidates: people who are more or less universally adored and horribly overrated, or who face untreated sucking issues. it's like an intervention; we're doing it because we care, for the suckers' own good. they will never stop sucking and start blowing until they admit they have a sucking problem
the debut of sister sadie is the best bluegrass album i've heard in some time. beautiful singing and virtuoso picking.
just like the original runaways, one of them's a banker and one is the director of academic advising at belmont university. and just like the original runaways, they love jesus and feature the great dale ann bradley.
the mandolin is killer; watch her chop the rhythm on the one below. these vids don't give you the quartet vocals, which are so lovely.
"Depart from me this moment" I told her with my voice Said she, "But I don't wish to" Said I, "But you have no choice" "I beg you, sir", she pleaded From the corners of her mouth "I will secretly accept you And together we'll fly south".
Just then Tom Paine, himself Came running from across the field Shouting at this lovely girl And commanding her to yield And as she was letting go her grip Up Tom Paine did run "I'm sorry, sir", he said to me "I'm sorry for what she'd done".
if you need me to start explaining why that sucks there's no hope anyway.
Winterlude, Winterlude, my little apple Winterlude by the corn in the field Winterlude, let's go down to the chapel Then come back and cook up a meal Well, come out when the skating rink glistens By the sun near the old crossroad sign The snow is so cold but our love can be bold Winterlude, don't be rude please be mine.
Winterlude, Winterlude, my little daisy Winterlude by the telephone wire Winterlude, it's making me lazy Come one, sit by the logs in the fire The moonlight reflects from the window Where the snowflakes they cover the sand Come out tonight everything will be tight Winterlude, this dude thinks you're grand.
Something there is about you that moves with style and grace I was in a whirlwind, now I am in some better place My hand's on the sabre and you've picked up on the baton Something there is about you that I can't quite put my finger on.
Idiot wind blowing every time you move your mouth Blowing down the backroads heading south Idiot wind blowing every time you move your teeth You're an idiot babe It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe
Old man sailin' in a dinghy boat Down there Old man sailin' in a dinghy boat On there Gonna pull man down on a suckling hook Gonna pull man into the suckling brook Oh yeah !
these five examples are drawn from the first seven songs i looked at. the other two weren't good either. 'overrated' doesn't even begin to cut it. there has never been a less competent lyricist.
watcha listenin to, exprofcrispy? my candidate for the most underrated recording artist of all time: ann peebles, everything i can get ahold of. she is at once in the mainline of great soul singers - aretha, for one - but also with something completely distinctive. man she sounds both letter-perfect and perfectly spontaneous, every time out. without checking, i'm going to say that 'i can't stand the rain' (one of the great songs in pop music history) might have been her only top ten hit. but there is a truckload of great material. for one thing, it's the hi record shop (responsible also for all those great al green songs): comparable to the stax/volt or muscle shoals soul shops, but with a groove at once mellower and more evil.
man the horn charts just kill me. gonna also direct you to 'i'm gonna tear your playhouse down' and 'feel like breakin up somebody's home,' which i've blogged before. the albums straight from the heart and tellin' it. also i'm strongly recommending hi records: the soul years, with the great o.v wright, among others.
He admitted that he lived in Nashville because that was where the work was for him, but he as Texan as you can be, and all in a good way. Work hard, drink some whiskey, sit around with friends and talk shit while passing the IW Dance and a guitar. Be tolerant, kind, and take no shit. He was a frequent visitor to the "Guitar Pulls" at Johnny Cash's home. People would show up, play their stuff, and pick and grin and bullshit. Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Rodney Crowell, John Anderson, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris,Bobby Bare and whomever else was around would show up. Showcase their new stuff casually -- somewhere between "I've been working on this one" and "networking." Get ideas, add and steal licks, sing some harmony and learn from each other how their music could sound.
my fred eaglesmith playlist at this point consists of 202 songs, albums stretching from 1983 to 2013. I'm shocked i wasn't aware, actually, before i was martyred to miranda lambert's version of his 'time to get a gun.' it might be the greatest body of songwriting in a country vein in that period, and one of the greatest of recording artistry. over and over and etc he is just an astonishing lyricist: these songs are so beautifully and poetically crafted, and yet so connected to country and blues traditions, with a rare combination of skill and simplicity.
though the songs have some things in common across the whole body - especially a melancholy-to-devastated mood - the work is remarkably varied. it's hard to believe listening to his recent stuff, but in the '80s he could do a classic bluegrass tenor, with excellence and also rough authenticity, and plus he could write bluegrass/acoustic country songs that sound like classics from the late 1940s and '50s, that could have been recorded by the stanleys, for example.
the combination of simplicity and subtlety makes him sound classic to me. stuff like this is framed in a more electric country vein:
what a beautiful piece of writing. fucking perfect.
several of the albums, such as 'cha cha cha' have really very distinctive sonic approaches, and whatever he gets into, eaglesmith handles beautifully; the instrumental and production frame comes out intrinsic to the lyrics and singing.
for example, i'm always a sucker for that farfisa/texmex thing, which he pulls out on tambourine.
the oeuvre is too vast to really do justice to without really going long, but i'd urge you to explore. rarely has someone so great been so underappreciated.
that's audrey auld on the duet, i believe. he does often return to guns, one way or another. of course, that's very traditional in country music (as hip hop, for example), and i would urge the police and academic administrators even in oklahoma not to construe the songs as death threats.
i'll say again that this one is just an astonishing composition:
sometimes he sounds like ralph stanley, sometimes like prine or dylan, sometimes like steve earle or vice versa, often only like himself.
geez, what happened? i must say, i think prince compares extremely favorably to michael jackson, for example. also davidbowie. i reviewed his albums early and through the eighties, including at his apex moment, with 'when doves cry' and 'purple rain.' i finally saw him around 2000 at the meadowlands; we were up in the rafters. it was one of the best shows i ever saw: so clean, so propulsive: he was really throwing down the funk with maceo parker and stuff on that tour. he had many great songs; maybe i don't need to do the playlist, even. every few months 'raspberry beret' starts playing on repeat in my mind, e.g. i particularly liked the whole aesthetic of 'kiss': so stripped down to the essence; one of the great pop singles of its era.
now, there were problems too, very often. you don't really want to watch the movie purple rain now, except for kitsch-value and to watch morris day and the time get down. the movie after that (i've repressed the title) was far worse. he wrote some great riffs, but many songs were built on boring, repetitive or unattractive little figures; i think he had a bit too much faith that everything was genius. even listen to '1999': now whistle or hum the riff; it's just boring. and as he went on, his music got less interesting i feel, though i stopped listening at a certain point. but i don't think i would recommend a marathon of all his albums; there's a lot of non-good or just puzzling stuff.
still, as his appearance in baltimore last year and many other things showed, he stayed so much sharper, saner, and more relevant than michael or a lot of other people who reach that level. i don't actually think it's good for anyone to get that level of adulation, and no one quite deserves it anyway. but lord that boy could get it.
michael and prince (and madonna and me) were all born in 1958; the attrition rate is rather disconcerting.
After reading an article in the New Yorker that seemed to confuse Merle Haggard with Jean Paul Belmondo and maybe Johnny Holiday, I gave up. Lucinda Williams recommended a piece and that made me think it might be really possible to still communicate authentically in English. So, while this is kind of a review of the writer's piece, it's really my tribute. Haggard was a lot of things but one thing no one ever accused him of to his face, anyway, was being some kind of auteur. So, in a probably misguided attempt at authenticity...Melancholy Honkytonk.
Being authentic and honest has it's dangers and downsides -- ask Crispin -- but if you work at it, you might be surprised a bit. Maybe even in a good way. --Mike
i hope people take this chance to listen beyond the first couple of cuts to merle haggard, especially the early stuff. packages i'd recommend: i'm a lonesome fugitive and swinging doors and the bottle let me down.
also, i think 'the strangers' is the best name for a country band.
speaking of chinese philosophy, william michael morgan is the best new male country singer i've heard in awhile. plus i believe his name is straight from general hospital. anyway, he's working in that mode i love: george strait/alan jackson/randy travis early-90s neo-trad (now that's a good name for a genre). he's both letter-perfect and heartfelt along those lines, i believe.
when i was writing my country music column, i used to get dozens or a hundred cd's every week or two. so you really have to comb quickly, plus it was the very height of 'alt.country', which came to be called 'americana'. you'd get thirty cd's that were competent renderings of similar styles. it got hard to hear. anyway, i think i did get fred eaglesmith enthusiastically once. but going back to the albums '6 volts' and 'lipstick, lies and gasoline': he is just one of the greatest country writers and singers who has worked in this era. an obvious comparison would be steve earle; they do sound similar vocally and so on. and i love steve earle. but the weakest songs on those albums are comparable to earle at his best, and the best are just trascendently excellent compositions, the kind of thing that only a handful of people in a generation can possibly do. so, i want you to concentrate on this song and really hear the lyric. it is deep; it is amazing; it is profoundly moving (to me, anyway!) i do love the melodies - simple and beautiful country constructions - and the performance/recording style too.