Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as free content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

Dean's List: 2020

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  1. Hanging Tree Guitars (Music Maker Relief Foundation): A dozen solo or near-solo blues, gospel, and blues/gospel recordings dating back as far as 1991 not counting the Glorifying Vine Sisters' 1977 "Get Ready," most featuring guitars crafted by North Carolina luthier Freeman Vines that include some from black walnut that had its literal roots in a lynching tree. Not only do all of these distinct Southern Black performers sound like they've long since internalized the sounds they make with their stalwart voices and dexterous hands, but from "Slavery Time Blues" to "Amazing Grace" almost all sing of injustice as if it's been on their minds their entire lives. Harsh or crooning, solo or unison, the music is occasionally embellished with modest piano or driven by drums, but voices and guitars prevail. Try the explicit opener "Slavery Time Blues" or the gospel-sweet lost-love "Clock on the Wall," a slow and keening "John Henry" or a fare-thee-well "Amazing Grace" so rough-hewn you'll play it again to make sure that was the song you just heard. And if you're like me you'll also want to read the eloquent as well as beautiful book that complements this perfectly timed project. All these citizens are set on telling the world how much their lives matter. A+
  2. Run the Jewels: RTJ4 (BMG Rights Management): Who knows whether this would feel so right absent a historical moment when trying to distinguish rage slavery from righteous anger is a waste of emotional wisdom? With trap on its opiated treadmill, the gangsta sonics that power El-P and Killer Mike's inchoate aggressiveness will feel tonic to anyone with both an appetite for music and a political pulse. One way or another every one of "us"--a term the moment demands--feels anger whether that anger is complicated by elation or anxiety, hope or fear, concern or frustration or curiosity or new ideas or any combination thereof. So RTJ's political intent alone makes their vigor invigorating. And their lyrics have never been sharper: not just the orange clockworks, Godzillaed Tokyo, and copper with lead in his eye, but two of the wisest political raps in the literature. One is "JU$T," where Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha help them expand on capitalism's commitment to slavery: "You believe corporations runnin' marijuana?/And your country gettin' ran by a casino owner?" The other is the protracted "A Few Words for the Firing Squad" finale, which has its doubts about rage. Take for instance this El-P quatrain: "I used to wanna get the chance to show the world I'm smart/Isn't that dumb? I should have focused mostly on the heart/Cause I seen smarter people trample life like it's an art/So bein' smart ain't what it used to be, that's fuckin' dark." A+
  3. Group Doueh & Cheveu: Dakhla Sahara Session (Born Bad '17): Recorded over nine headlong, unharmonious January 2016 days in a Western Sahara ocean town, this conflict-ridden one-off collab between a non-Tuareg desert band and a Parisian rock trio rangier and less punky than you'd expect, this is one of those wildly impolite guitar records you're lucky to trip over twice a year. It begins with handclaps that soon combust past the French singer's male groans into exultant woman-to-woman byplay, and by explosive track five "Azawan," which it's worth remembering is how Tuaregs say homeland, everybody sounds desperate to get on with it or out of there. Only then follows "Charâa," a long waltz-time centerpiece split into three distinct case studies in peaceful coexistence. All over this record, hoarse roar meets soaring contralto while flute tweets, keyb tinkles, and squishy noises fit right in. A
  4. Fiona Apple: Fetch the Bolt Cutters (Epic): Since The Idler Wheel was also the most acclaimed album of its spring only to be surpassed later in 2012 by Frank Ocean and Lamar Kendrick, I was skeptical about all the 10.0 hoohah until immersion changed my mind. Overwhelming Apple's usual pianistics with riptides of the avant percussion drummer-producer Charley Drayton brought to The Idler Wheel but is now all Fiona and the software she's crushing on, the music grows on you before you realize it because it's not hooky in a hummy kind of way. Instead it's beaty, clattering like nothing I can recall and hence hard to recall itself--you have to refer back to the record. There the bite and elan of her latest love-don't-last songs will win over anyone down with both "Kick me under the table all you want/I won't shut up, I won't shut up" and the sisterly warmth that softens bite and clatter both: "Shemekia"'s fist bump to a junior high ally, "Ladies" making common cause with fellow exes, "For Her" deploying the abuse stories of a Hollywood intern she feels for. "You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in"? Some "metaphor," wouldn't you say? A
  5. Lucinda Williams: Good Souls Better Angels (Highway 20): Leave it to an unabashed egoist to voice the anti-Trump wrath timider songslingers don't have the gall for, and to save the direct hit "Man Without a Soul" for track three so as to ramp it up with the defiant "You Can't Rule Me" and the bitter "Bad News Blues": "Liars and lunatics/Fools and thieves/And clowns and hypocrites" whose "Gluttony and greed/And that ain't the worst of it" are everywhere--in her car and in the bar and at the damn laundromat. Then it's on to our unnamed president, about whom she's not the first to observe that "All the money in the world/Will never fill that hole," just the first to attach a tune to it, and with other points to add at that. Some of the bleakness that ensues is personal: memory-stoked nightmares if not nightmare memories, songs in a second person I hope isn't camouflage. But then there's an updated "John the Revelator" where God is "spinning the world like a top": "Liars are venerated/Losers congratulated/Cheaters celebrated/Thieves compensated/Vultures satiated/Murderers exonerated/Guilty vindicated/Innocent incarcerated." Her voice and her guitar attack have thickened. But that just adds to the outraged gravity of an album that I wish had more competition. A
  6. Backxwash: Deviancy (Grimalkin '19): Raised in Zambia and sent off to British Columbia for a computer science degree, the trans woman Ashanti Mutinta then relocated to Montreal and in 2018 released two Bandcamp-streamable suck-an-MC hip-hop EPs that knew their way around: F.R.E.A.K.S (try "Pink Bandana") and the more assured Black Sailor Moon ("Voodoo" or "Aesthetic"). With its eight tracks clocking in at a shade over 20 minutes, this 2019 EP is a leap forward so chocked with content that it feels like an album. Undermining horrorcore's nihilist-cum-neanderthal devil worship by identifying with the leftwing humanists of the Satanic Temple, her "Bad Juju" aims a middle finger at a patriarchy she blames by name and her "Devil in a Moshpit" calls out the sexual predators who lurk in scrums she knows too well. Nor is she afraid to admit that sometimes she's afraid. "You Like My Body the Way It Is" is a love song that ventures into unfamiliar territory: "Maybe it's my boobs they could be a little bigger/Maybe it's my cooch they could seam it a little different." And the closing "Burn Me at the Stake" reminds us of what she already knows full well--that the suppression of her kind of gender defiance has an especially hideous history. A
  7. Billy Nomates: Billy Nomates (Invada): "In a world of yes men I'll be a no woman," brags this Leicester thirtysomething, who defeated depression by deciding that if Sleaford Mods could bitch about the class system for a living so could she. In fact, I say she's better at it. Her voice high and clear without a hint of gentility, she's wittier, hookier, meaner, kinder, sassier--unbowed in spite of it all. Delivered over spare production from her label owner, Portishead genie Geoff Barrow, her tales of the shit life sound so lived I'm bettng they are: "Supermarket Sweep" and its "cleanup in aisle seven," "FTP" and its floor she can't afford to sleep on, the "Fat White Man" propositioning the hottie at the filling station, the Covid-or-not excuse-a-thon "Call in Sick." Inspirational Verse: "If I could only quit my job and join the hippy elite." A
  8. Dramarama: Color TV (Pasadena): Pop savant John Easdale long ago relocated from New Jersey to California with the same two guitarists he'd known since he was a kid, and there picked up a new rhythm section that's been with him ever since. So after 35 years, Dramarama remain a true band no matter how often they play out. But synergy isn't the main reason their first album in 15 years is the finest of an impressively consistent career. Because he kept writing songs, Easdale had a lot of new material to choose from as the band gradually recorded the pieces of an album he conceived as the kind of short story collection that coheres into a whole. In an apolitical opener, the "our" in "no cure for our disease" means everybody, and that all too politically relevant mood gathers gradated tone and bitter detail as the collection proceeds. Easdale's casually unslurred vocals have gotten breathier as he hits his sixties, and his lyrics also soften slightly on their way to three devotional love songs: from "I'll never tell you how to talk" and "I'll still be there when you get old" to "We ate bugs and stayed off drugs and played canasta in the dark" and "You're the only one and we're still having fun" to "There's everybody else and then there's you, you, you." Sadly, however, the album ends with Elliott Smith's bereft "Half Right." As was Smith's depressive way, it allows us to interpret at will. But it bodes poorly for "you, you, you." A
  9. Lori McKenna: The Balladeer (CN/Thirty Tigers): Without benefit of a single song as complex as "Humble and Kind" or "The Bird and the Rifle," Stoughton Mass.'s poet of Nashville's veriest verities--namely, family and the steady passage of time--assembles the most consistently top-notch album of her late-blooming career. Only the unassumingly twisty "This Town Is a Woman" and the bigamously two-timing "Two Birds" mine the modest metaphorical complexity of past stunners like "Girl Crush" and "The Bird and the Rifle." But just by returning to familiar themes like her mother's death and marriage's set-tos, she convinces you that the corny title of "When You're My Age" deserves the utopian wish it sets up: "I hope the world is kinder than it seems to be right now." A
  10. Wussy: Ghosts (self-released): Although it skips their grungy revamp of New Order's "Ceremony," this free 40-minute odds-and-sods should hold off a ravenously discerning fanbase still bummed that they'll be stuck in Cincinnati till humans brainier and nicer than our crowd-craving, crowd-punishing führer-in-his-own-mind have quelled a disease that transforms live singing into an infection vector. Not counting one you may have missed on the 2019 Chuck Cleaver solo album you also may have missed, it's all alternate mixes if not new material, and not one feels redundant--the quieter and more lyrical original of Left for Dead's "Mayflies" by Lisa Walker's Magic Words and an electro take on Strawberries's "Fly Fly Fly" are just two standouts. The flat-out stunner is the opener, where Walker makes you feel that the kind and willing woman who sings Dusty Springfield's indelible "Breakfast in Bed" is being exploited nevertheless. Only then there's the fondly recalled Chuck & Lisa closer "Mountain in My Backyard," where the sort of ordinary Midwesterners whose foibles Wussy have long excavated are remembered as everyday heroes. A
  11. Black Thought & Salaam Remi: Streams of Thought Vol. 2 (Human Re Sources/Passyunk Productions '18): I always thought Questlove was the brains of the outfit, and conceptually he was. But no longer hemmed in by album concepts or fusion-band masquerade, here's where Tariq Trotter is freed to turn out kick-ass rap mixtapes and show off how much reading he does. From the "Try stoppin' this, I'm on top of the metropolis" of the Prince/Petty-mourning "Fentanyl" to alter ego Reek Ruffin crooning atop a love rap that swears "A lifetime, finally I'm understanding you," he shows John Legend how conscious a romantic lead's conscience can be. New solo contract with Republic or not, he may be too old to play the heartthrob at 48. But it's never the wrong time for a love man to ask the world what's going on. A
  12. Peter Stampfel and the Bottle Caps: Demo '84 (Don Giovanni): Released vinyl-only in 1986 by the folkie standard bearers at Rounder and a quarter century later on a briefly available Rounder CD, Peter Stampfel and the Bottle Caps features four songs not on this abortive demo including the lost working-class speed threnody "Screaming Industrial Breakdown" and three Stampfel didn't write that are stuck on the back end for a reason. Although the personnel doesn't change much from record to record, you can understand why Rounder wanted torerecord--the production here booms and echoes in a most unfolklike manner, particularly on a nonconformist anthem called "Impossible Groove" that could have begun its life with a Chic tribute band. But before too long I realized I preferred it, mostly because Stampfel's voice, which in his forties remained a more puissant thing than the scrawny cartoon hillbilly of the '60s Holy Modal Rounders and as his seventies turned eighties finally began weakening scratchily, has welcome muscle in this iteration. If he recorded this session in hopes of "going commercial," as we used to say, his ambition had benefits, and the many ace songs are now otherwise available only at vintage vinyl prices. "Surfer Angel" may just be a joke whose time was overdue, but "Random Violence" is all too timely. And although Stampfel thought it fitting to rerecord "Lonely Junkie" after Steve Weber came back into his life, "When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)" has become a period piece all too soon. A
  13. The Human Hearts: Day of the Tiles (self-released): It's somehow been eight years since philosopher-musicologist, pianist-guitarist, and sometime Mountain Goat Franklin Bruno released his band debut Another, and too many as well since I saw them debut new songs about money--songs I doubt are on a six-song EP that begins "Dialectics/Doesn't break bricks" because I couldn't possibly have forgotten "Is it wrong to write rhymes when my rhymes right no wrongs?" or "The system isn't broken/It works the way it's made/They know that you can't change it/As long as they can keep you/Feeling sad and afraid." Delivered in an articulate baritone that hits the notes without disrespecting its conversational lifestyle, both songs match anything new I've heard all year that isn't by Run the Jewels or Lil Baby, with the other four merely strong, catchy, and smart. As a public service I've Googled "Granges-sur-Salvan" (site of a 1994 mass murder/suicide) and "Day of the Tiles" soi-même (the June 7, 1788, riot some consider the true beginning of the French Revolution). So don't say I didn't warn you. A
  14. Martin Creed: Thoughts Lined Up (Telephone '16): Although the New York Times praised Creed's 2016 Park Avenue Armory show, I'd never heard of this Turner Prize-winning neo-dadaist until, miraculously, I pulled his super-skinny promo on a random five-CD grab: 24 frail, weedy ditties also revealed to the public in 2016, although few Brits and no American known to the internet gods reviewed it. The opening "I'm Going to Do Something Soon" having attracted my attention, I knew I'd tripped over a winner as Creed veered into "Princess Taxi Girl"--the outpourings of what sounded like an insecure, overexcited 14-year-old boy even though he was already 47 back then. Always a visual artist with a musical side, Creed led a punk band long ago and kept his hand in right up to this catchy folk-punk w/ femme-cum-kiddie choir. Again and again down-to-basics wordplay subverts simplistic lyrics. "Let's Come to an Arrangement" repeats "I want to make an announcement" four times before proceeding to "I don't want to make an appointment/I don't want to make a commitment/I want to come to an arrangement/I want to come to an arrangement"; the words "agreement," "adjustment," "amendment," "accountant," "argument," "accident," and "assailant" all arise later in the minute-and-a-half song. Two tracks later, the title "Border Control" shrinks down to "border con," "border," and "bore." Like that. A-
  15. Sam Hunt: Southside (MCA Nashville): "Body like a back road/Could drive it with my eyes closed/I know every curve like the back of my hand/Doin' 15 in a 30/I ain't in no hurry/Ima take it slow just as fast as I can"? Even if you think this chorus is too overt, somehow, don't be so dense as to deny how casually it cherishes the American vernacular that imbues great pop songwriting from Irving Berlin to Jay-Z in a Nashville dialect that recalls John Prine--"15 in a 30" my favorite touch, "drive it with my eyes closed" the runner-up, and both were number one on country radio for seven months. This way with words should have stood out more as of Hunt's superb 2014 "Take Your Time," but back then he was so set on bigging up his material with studio-enhanced drums that they often got lost. Dialed back, thankfully, those drums are still with him, but the words prevail from the bereft contrition of "2016" to a heartbroken "Drinkin' Too Much" sent to heaven by a "How Great Thou Art" chorus pecked note-by-note on piano by his beloved regained. My personal favorite is "Sinning With You" even though or because I was pushing 30 before I got to sin with another ex-Christian myself. A-
  16. Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia): The decisive musical achievement on Dylan's first album of originals since 2012 is establishing the aged voice that flubbed his Sinatra albums as the sonic signature of an elegiac retrospective. All three of the prereleased teaser singles work better as album tracks than as stand-alones: "I Contain Multitudes" provides exactly the right thematic sendoff, "False Prophet" opens his heart so the world can come in, and "Murder Most Foul" proves an apt summum despite its excessive length and portentous isolation on the CD package. This is no "Love and Theft" or Modern Times, neither of which is muffled by anything as indistinct as "I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You" (though I do wonder who "you" is) or "Black Rider" (though "The size of your cock will get you nowhere" gets me every time). But I love how "Goodbye Jimmy Reed" rides the hush-mouthed groove of the most simplistic of the blues giants like it's leading a parade, and how the comic Frankenstein fantasy "My Own Version of You" sums up the musical grave-robbing Dylan has been transmuting into original art for 60 years now. As does "Murder Most Foul" itself, in this context both an elegy for and a celebration of all the dark betrayals, stunted gains, enduring pleasures, and ecstatic releases of an American era Dylan has inflected as undeniably as any artist even if he doesn't understand it any better than you, me, or whoever killed imperfect vessel JFK. A-
  17. Young M.A: Herstory in the Making (M.A Music/3D '19): It's a woman's voice with a brawny, low-pitched masculinity to it, articulated with no show of care and every well-chosen word distinct. The hook-free beats are as utilitarian and accomplished as vocals that always take the rhymes where they want to go: "I learned to stack up every dollar that I earned," "I put food on the table/And I did that without a cookbook," "I had one bitch, few side hoes/Takin' niggas' women with my eyes closed/I was runnin' like a snot nose," "It's a kold world/Brr, brr, buy fur." She's proud of how much she's accomplished without pretending it's made her happy or complaining it hasn't. I have a weakness for "Stubborn Ass," where the proprietor of said ass is mad Young M.A didn't take out the trash only how come Stubborn Ass always turns on the vacuum when Young M.A wants to sleep only, well, "Come here rub my head/While I rub your ass." Soon, however, she's recognizing a "depressional phase" when one comes along. For a self-made hip hop millionaire, real. A-
  18. Bktherula: Nirvana (Warner): I know comparing this to Hassell and Eno's Fourth World Vol. 1 is too personal and obscure, an environmental album I find both irresistible and inexplicable deserves nothing less. On the major-label follow-up to this Atlanta teen's viral trap sensation "Tweakin' Together," one of those fly-by-night hip-hop hits so vague you could sometimes forget they exist before they're over, she and her man Digital Nas string 11 tracks into a seductive half hour of what I guess counts as tweakin' together, its occasional sexy parts obscured in a haze of shrooms, lean, and percoset that's as foreign to me as the Sturgis Rally. But just as I've never tired of Hassell and Eno's "anthropological minimalism" and "ambient esoteric kitsch," to quote my review of four decades ago, the artist born Brooklyn Rodriguez's druggy dreams of "Left my soul when I died but my energy came right back" and "This shirt cost two bucks but I'm too fly for this shit" have atmospheric staying power. And she's clear as a bell about one thing, mentions it more than once just to make sure: "It's 50 for a show, 50 for a show yeah." Fifty grand, she means. A-
  19. Public Enemy: What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? (Def Jam): Loud though they've kept it, many don't realize that they've never stopped making good albums, so between this, their first Def Jam title of the century, and 2012's self-released Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear on No Stamp is a closer call than you might think. The historical moment trashed in "State of the Union (STFU)" plus a host of committed cameos--George Clinton, Beastie Boys, Rapsody, Ice-T, Black Thought, Cypress Hill, it don't stop--is what seals the deal for the new one. But "State of the Union" isn't the album title because Chuck has bigger things on his mind as he always does: the dependence of everybody's world economy on an information system susceptible to attack from actors who could prove as dangerous as Donald Trump himself. Probably won't happen, you say? I agree while wondering how much wishful thinking slants my analysis. And second Chuck's one concrete piece of advice: read a book. My brutha! A-
  20. Taylor Swift: Evermore (Republic): The theory that this second album of manifestly unautobiographical Aaron Dessner-etc. collabs in six months is by definition less inspired than the one they put out in July isn't what I hear here, which is that they kept going because they were just getting their groove on. Oddly, the song I noticed first is the one I now like least--the super-hooky but pat police procedural "No Body, No Crime." I mean, who needs hooks when melody is a given? So instead try "Champagne Problems," in which he's all set to ask her to marry him the same night she's all set to ditch him. Or the future Christmas classic "'Tis the Damn Season," a cheating song about the Taylor who got away. Or "Cowboy Like Me," in which she turns out to be the cowgirl after all. Or "Marjorie" with Swift's "Never be so kind you forget to be clever/Never be so clever you forget to be kind." Or "Coney Island" with Dessner's "Will you forgive my soul/When you're too wise to trust me/And too old to care?" Or "It's Time to Go," in which for 15 years "I gave it my all, he gave me nothing at all/Then wondered why I left." Or "Closure," which puts the title in quotes you can hear. A-
  21. Sad13: Haunted Painting (Carpark): Confused as to what exactly distinguishes Sad13 from Speedy Ortiz, I propose that Sadie Dupuis stick with the Ortiz moniker because it's catchier while touring with whoever and whatever makes sense to her when that's finally possible again. I also propose that the band be sure to serve the musical needs of this hookfest, where almost every song is set on "chasing the ghost of a good time" no matter what it's "about." The mood is whoops-I-turned-30 anxiety from climate change to "first time someone I slept with passed." But as with Pavement, a forebear guitars or no guitars, what it's about is ultimately itself. A-
  22. Guiss Guiss Bou Bess: Set Sela (Helico): No, you silly Amazon autofill, I didn't mean "guess guess boy boss." I meant what I typed, and am rather shocked that you didn't even guiss the climactic "bass," because both musically and verbally bass is the very foundation of this coherent sabar-Eurodance trio. The conceptualizer and connection is French "bass culture" specialist Stéphane Constantini, but dominating both the flavor and the power of the trio's sound are two Senegalese movers and shakers, hereditary griot Mara Seck and sabar rhythmatist Aba Diop. Whatever the fusion's connections to "trance step," "deep dubstep," "afrobeats/house," "bass house," "trap-ditional" (ughh!), and to be sure "afrobass," it's conscious lyricist Seck and conscious rhythmatist Diop who put this unapologetically amelodic piece of West African propulsion across, although it's true enough that the whole thing was mixed and mastered by Chico Correa, who's from Brazil. A-
  23. Ashley McBryde: Never Will (Warner Music Nashville): Wish she'd pared down the production here: Nashville rock at its bigged-up schlockiest, with McBryde belting to match. But the songwriting is so sharp it gives her the right to belt: lyrically not one of the 11 tracks is merely passable, and McBryde has writer's credit on all but two. Of those I naturally prefer "Shut Up Sheila" and its "Why don't you and Jesus take a walk down the hallway?" to the ecologically regrettable if musically unforgettable "Styrofoam." But every compact tale engages: mayor's daughter knocked up on bootleg wine, Biblical rationale for offing your daddy's girlfriend, the neatly dubbed "One Night Standards," missing your daughter while "living the dream" on Jack-and-Coke and a sleeping pill, and there are more. A-
  24. McCarthy Trenching: Perfect Game (self-released): Alerted by Phoebe Bridgers's cover of this "band"'s "Christmas Song," I spent a fine little Spotify morning checking out all 57 of Dan McCarthy's entries. These date back to 2007 with the band part mostly theoretical--guitar strummer McCarthy doubles on the piano that dominates here and has hooked up with a bassist who I presume inflected the horn arrangements that add welcome color to his latest and most impressive tunes--most of which, to be clear, truly are tunes. McCarthy sings clear, mild, droll, calculated, casual and writes clever and inventive without ever overwhelming his offhand affect--the many laugh lines are more chuckle lines. "Why Don't I See You Anymore" devotes single lines and whole stanzas to 16 reasons before "Phaethon" modernizes Greek mythology. "Red Maple" and "Russian Olive" chronicle dead trees. "I Didn't Come to Town to Get a Haircut" is something his uncle used to say only by the time Dan finally gets around to it the town doesn't even have a barber. And that's only the half of it. A-
  25. 75 Dollar Bill Little Big Band: Live at Tubby's (self-released): Recorded in Kingston, New York, on March 1, 2020, at the end of a northeastern tour and the beginning of Covid's NYC rampage, this is the most widely heralded of 75 Dollar Bill's 10 Bandcamp-available recordings, which have multiplied now that guitarist Che Chen, rhythm master Rick Brown, and associates still don't know when they'll be able to occupy the same room again, leaving them to ponder their body of work instead. This oeuvre includes 2015's previously Consumer-Guided Wooden Bag (promising), 2016's previously Consumer-Guided Wood / Metal / Plastic / Pattern / Rhythm / Rock (fulfilling), and 2019's previously Consumer-Guided I Was Real (intermittently exalting). Three of Wood / Metal's six tracks are on this one, somewhat less kempt as you'd expect but no less self-aware or welcome melodically, although not like the 21-minute onetime I Was Real highlight "Like Like Laundry," where Cheryl Kingan echoes Chen's tune on broad, bracing, sour baritone sax, not unlike drummer Jim Pugliese adding articulated fills to the beats Brown extracts from his plywood box. There's even a stealth cover designated "F. & N.," the impromptu theme song to Ornette Coleman's 1970 Prince Street jam album Friends and Neighbors. That's the spirit, everyone agrees. A-
  26. Kirby Heard: Mama's Biscuits (CDBaby '19): Plain. Really plain. Plain even by the standards of her folk-Americana niche. So plain that if the "Butter churnin' and a wood fire up the flue" of "Montgomery County" doesn't convince you, "Slingshot" with its squirrel for dinner will. Did me, anyway--I felt sure this was the musical autobiography of the back cover's aggressively plain middle-aged Carolina woman with thick brown hair and a toothy smile. Only then I delved around for some bio and found a LinkedIn pitch for a Greensboro "customer service agent," a photo where a sleeveless top reveals many tattoos, and a spare webpage averring that Heard migrated "from a big city in the Midwest to a sleepy southern town, and the love of her life." Hmm. No wonder "Caroline" begins "My home was in the Midwest flatlands." And that cliched "Who do I see in my mirror/Is she the same as me"? A real question that undermines the simplicity the sure melodies evoke and exploit. As do "Get (The Hell) Off My Farm," where she spies on the intruder via "infrared," and "You Don't Have to Know Jesus," where an unbeliever claims the right to write gospel songs. A-
  27. Black Thought: Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane and Able (Republic): Cameo power is the main thing the major label imposes on Tariq Trotter's third excellent mixtape inside of two years, and from Stokely Carmichael on the beaten down "State Prisoner" to matched Pusha T and Killer Mike on the exultant "Good Morning" to Dave Chappelle on the historical "Steak Um," they deliver. But not only are the most winning tracks here personal, subject-wise you could call them predictable: the success story "Nature of the Beast" and the marriage-counseled "We Could Be Good (United)." Subject-wise you'd be right, too. Compassion- and complexity-wise, no. A-
  28. Eminem: Music to Be Murdered By (Aftermath/Shady/Interscope/Goliath): Boring is in the mind of the beholder, and the old-timer's third meaty full-length in two years is nothing like de trop no matter how many jaded journos claim otherwise. It's animated by his compulsion to show off a skill-set-not-genius unmatched in hip-hop, a distinction he specifies on the closing "I Will," which follows a sorry run of battle rhymes with the undeserving Joe Budden and the like by calling the enemy "doubters who question my skill." So I'm touched by his felt need to cram 179 crystalline words, 22 of three syllables or more, into precisely 30 seconds of the Juice-WRLD-aided "Godzilla." Other cameos go to Black Thought, White Gold, Young M.A, Alfred Hitchcock, and a wasted Anderson .Paak, and for old time's sake a newly woke Royce Da 5'9" is all over the record. I recommend the one where young Marshall tries to kill his stepfather. And while some may dismiss "Darkness" as merely morbid, I say the morphological ambiguity of an alcohol-addled Em slowly transmuting into the Las Vegas shooter is as deep as any other gun-control analysis this side of an assault-weapons ban I hope and pray I'll see in my lifetime. A-
  29. Hinds: The Prettiest Curse (Mom + Pop): The charming maturation of these club kids who've mastered pop songcraft in plain sight is a sharply poignant reminder of what alt-rock may have lost forever in a health crisis where few simple pleasures seem more endangered than musical socialization in cramped indoor spaces. As they emote ever more catchily about their ever twistier love lives, the chance that they'll figure love out in the end seems considerably better than the chance that they'll keep that love alive in the world that spawned it. Listen to them ponder possibilities that have gotten so much chancier since they wrote these songs and wish them the best. A-
  30. Les Amazones d'Afrique: Amazones Power (RealWorld): Unimpressed at first by music lacking both the exuberant Afrogroove woman power of Les Amazones de Guinée and the ideological feminism of this project's debut, I came around when I learned to hear it as Liam Farrell's boldest Afro-Euro fusion yet. Absolutely it's feminist rather than simply woman-powered, as the incisive and abundant notes make manifest--the daring and together Mamani Keita is all over it without dominating her many female coworkers. But from the squeaky-door sound that sneaks under the together-we-must-stand opener to the squelchy keyb intro to a title closer that passes lead vocals from queen to queen, Mbongwana Star mastermind Farrell marks this music with 21st-century sounds, some but by no means all borrowed from or inspired by the bassy Congotronics effects he puts to such daring and various use. By no means ignore the CD's generous documentation. But by all means try to hear it as music merely. A-
  31. Yonic South: Twix and Dive (La Tempesta): Weathered international psych trio cum dyslexic tribute band launch their four-track attack vehicle with a demented cover of Oasis's "Rock 'n' Roll Star" designed to prove they have something less pop and more antisocial in mind. Then follow the droning "On," the raving "Tell Me Why," and the ready-steady stadium yell-along "Stevie G King of Anfield." Never repeats itself, never lets up. A-
  32. The Chicks: Gaslighter (Columbia): As with the awkward name change itself (how about Ditsy Chicks? Triscuit Chips?), there's a pro forma feel to these group-credited, Natalie Maines-dominated songs--the Antonoff effect, call it. And though this has to be the first country album ever to mention the capitol of Finland--Helsinki, which hosted that Trump-Putin summit in 2017--it's nonetheless awkward that a country trio who made their name and ruined their reputation by dissing the Iraq war should hook their first album in eight years to the tribulations of divorce smack in the middle of the most fraught political moment of their lifetimes. But old oppressions don't leave you alone just because new ones are breathing down your collective neck. So any listener who chooses to pay attention is free to conclude that Maines has never written with more righteous anger and sisterly concern--more humanity. There are many highlights after the grabber of a title song. "My Best Friend's Weddings" for justifying its title even better than "Tights on My Boat" does, "Sleep at Night" for expanding on "My husband's girlfriend's husband just called me up/How messed up is that?" "Julianna Calm Down" for arguing that compassion is stronger than rage, as in this fraught political moment we so hope it is. A-
  33. Black Thought: Streams of Thought Vol. 1 (Human Re Sources '18): Even though the Roots frontman's first 2018 EP was clearly a signal that the hiatus following his band's 2014 . . . And Then You Shoot Your Cousin was turning permanent, I somehow still believed that was Questlove on drums when it was actually 9th Wonder soul samples impossible to identify without a scorecard. And there's plenty more stuffed into these five tracks, 17 minutes that make room for guest slots by sturdy point guard Rapsody on the widely informed "Dostoyevsky" and loquacious jeremiah Styles P on the far-reaching "Making a Murderer." It's never more exciting than on a retrospective lead track situated "Back when Burning Man was blacks in Birmingham." But it never bogs down. A-
  34. Elizabeth Cook: Aftermath (Agent Love/Thirty Tigers): Having exhausted celebrity rehab last album out, Cook homes in on her home subject: women in the less pious precincts of the sub-middle class South, many of whom frequent the country music buckets of blood her daddy played as well as working that farm. Their belle ideal inspires the classic-in-waiting "Thick Georgia Woman," with her "hair that reaches for the sky" in the humid air without distracting from that "basket of peaches under her clothes." And closing it all out is the John Prine tribute "Mary, the Submissing Years," in which a 12-year-old Jesus disappears one Sunday after church, leaving his mom to relocate to Chattanooga, watch Steel Magnolias, drink rosé, take a few classes, and go on Instagram until she chops off her hair so as to pose as a man and save him from the fraternity hazing--"the worst kind"--she knows he has in store. A-
  35. Waxahatchee: Saint Cloud (Merge): Her guitar parts echoing readymades so approximately and unaffectedly they sound fresh all over again, her soft voice so casual and personable and smart, she's more winning than ever on the love/relationship/self-knowledge songs up front. I enjoy the way "Witches" name-drops her three best friends later on, too. But I can't help but feel or maybe hope that the recovery songs that gather toward the end, while by no means bathetic or self-regarding, are specialty items prized by some but over the heads of most of us, like manga or single malt scotch. Just not life experiences we know much about, even second-hand. A-
  36. X: Alphabetland (Fat Possum): With Exene a conspiracy theorist, John Doe anonymous, Billy Zoom a "conservative," and D.J. Bonebrake a drummer, who would have guessed that a band that made its last good album in 1983 would add a mature classic to those doomed remnants of a tumultuous marriage on an L.A. punk scene more minimalist and extreme than they were. Yet here it is, one rueful to agonized lookback at their own mortality after another. My favorite of many excellent lyrics begins: "The divine that defines us/The evil that divides us/There's a heaven and a hell/And then there's oh well." But the verbiage wouldn't mean as much if John and Exene weren't caterwauling as wild and gifted as ever--and if Zoom and Bonebrake weren't so committed and undiminished. A-
  37. Serengeti: With Greg From Deerhoof (Joyful Noise): Greg Saunier's free-form drums with scattered string-quartet effects are what Geti calls beats, occasioning an album over which he freestyles for 37 minutes, 17 devoted to the all-the-way-live "I Got Your Password"--which he shares, naturally, with his old pal Kenny Dennis, who brags or admits that he "Grew a mustache the size of Mike Ditka's forehead" while Geti reprises To the Max's "My wife's bull is a hibachi chef," meaning a fella whose vegetable-chopping skills he cannot deny. So right, there's also "Was America set up against the black man?/Will America ever care about the black man?" and "You like to hear N-bombs/You love N-bomb USA." But on his third or fourth album/EP of year zero of the rest of our lives, he comes as close as hip-hop can to pure abstraction--Bktherula is Taylor Swift by comparison. In fact, I dare either of these excellent ladies to rhyme "therapy," "parakeet," and "Cherokee" and mean it. Inspirational Verse: "When he made those peppers sizzle/I told my lady I understand." A-
  38. Haim: Women in Music Pt. III (Columbia): As the title specifies, these three thirtyish sisters are musos by heritage and choice. Unlike most sibling acts, they focus less on their collective image than on how their individual instruments assert themselves and meld together. So their songwriting comes lyrics-second, with even hooks not such a big deal. On their third album, Rostam Batmanglij helps them beat this limitation: each of the 16 terse tracks has its own way of standing out. From booty calls to dreams so much sweeter than what anyone wakes up to in this cruel time, the lyrics evoke the pains and complexities of the single life each of these seamless siblings is obliged to face alone after all. A-
  39. Brandy Clark: Your Life Is a Record (Warner Bros.): Assuming you prefer your popular music with bite or at least cred, you've probably figured out that unhappy love songs come more naturally than happy ones. But few work so many changes on the warmth and regret that infuse saner breakups as this connoisseur of the Nashville hook: "I'll be your sad song/Your what we almost had song," "I'm sorry I'm not who I was when I met you," "All I know is I loved you/So fuck the rest." That doesn't mean she's never mean, as she proves from "Long Walk" to "Bad Car" (though even that one is bittersweet). But when she wants to expand on "the rich get richer, the rest get a little more broke," what instrument better than the irreducibly sardonic drawl of Randy Newman to underline the difference between the Titanic and Noah's ark. A-
  40. Princess Nokia: Everything Is Beautiful (Platoon): Not beautiful, exactly--more cute like the piano parts, which while not exactly pop because she doesn't exactly have the pipes color if not define every one of these 12 chirpy, chin-up tracks. Simultaneously "a little artsy" and "kinda smart," "confident" and "insecure," she's rapped her way to riches under her own advisement, so you can "kiss her derriere because it's shaped like a pear." She inhabits a reality of her own devising where tax returns make you miss being a kid, "Sugar Honey Ice Tea" is how you used to say "shit," and if you want to co-release two albums that don't total an hour between them you just do it. A-
  41. On the Road: A Tribute to John Hartford (LoHi): A quadruple-Grammy-winning songwriter for 1968's "Gentle on My Mind" who corraled three less august Grammys thereafter, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? one after he died of cancer in 2001, Hartford is fondly remembered and deserves to be--the income generated by his greatest hit guaranteed a newgrass fiddle and banjo maestro the financial security to excel at a bunch of things he loved, mentoring included. So in the same plague-ridden year that finished off the 10th Annual John Hartford Memorial Festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana, two tribute albums surfaced as scheduled anyway, and while The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project is too specialized for me, this songwriting showcase proves quite the grab bag. Unfamiliar titles by artists I'd never cottoned to--"The Category Stomp" and "Back in the Goodle Days" and "Granny Woncha Smoke Some Marijuana" and "Waugh Paugh" and the irresistible "Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie," Yonder Mountain String Band and Band of Heathens and Leftover Salmon--rang my chimes so loud it was a while before I noticed the Todd Snider track. Best in show: a John Carter Cash-Jamie Hartford collab that torpedoes the seductive fantasy of finding happiness in the city. A-
  42. Kehlani: It Was Good Until It Wasn't (Atlantic): Unlike Megan Thee Stallion, L.A.'s around-the-scene girl is a crooner not a rapper who conceives sex almost exclusively as pleasure rather than power, and as eros too--that is, love, which can hurt plenty emotionally but in physical form generally feels good. I love how often clothes provide ready access or fall to the floor or leave the song wetter than when it began. But in addition I can't think of another album that more vividly respects and evokes not just the physical sensations of sexual love, which is rare enough, but the emotions those sensations entail and intensify in a woman who'd "rather argue than me sleep alone." A-
  43. Phoebe Bridgers: If We Make It Through December (Dead Oceans): Fragile though her affect may be, Bridgers has no trouble darkening four Christmas songs. She can't be the first to cover the Merle Haggard tune for the holidays, but she is the first to name her Christmas collection for it. She's also the first to bedizen "Silent Night" with a news broadcast that cites killer cop Amber Guyger, Trump adjutant Mick Mulvaney, the opioid-scamming Purdue family, a Louisiana anti-abortion law, and, OK, the first all-female space walk, or to sing "Faithful friends who are dear to us will be near to us" and "Next year all our troubles will be out of sight" during a pandemic (though Judy Garland did during World War II, so make that a tie). Yet because songs about depression are so hard not to wallow in, I admire her cover of McCarthy Trenching's "Christmas Song" most of all: "You don't have to be alone to be lonesome/It's so easy to forget/The sadness comes crashin' like a brick through the window/And it's Christmas so no one can fix it." Cool. A-
  44. Will Butler: Generations (Merge): If you think the committed, dismayed songs of a white male liberal who's earned bona fides in both music and public policy are banal by definition, fine--I feel the same about, for instance, Norwegian protofascists imbuing the dark arts with musical form. But the fact is that sans Arcade Fire, Butler enlivens his post-liberal alt-rock with an array of soaring melodies and hooky falsetto choruses both impressive and compelling: "You can hide it away, hide it away, for so long" and "Tired of waiting for a better day" and "I'm getting outta here" but also "These are hard times, hard times/These are hard times, hard times/But I don't care I don't care I don't care/If I can spend them with you." The next-to-last song predicts that rather than die in a conflagration, he'll check out in a hospital surrounded by strangers who claim they're his children. The finale contemplates a George Washington remembered as both a slaveholder and a father of his country who nearly froze to death "dyin' to be free." Shit's complicated. A-
  45. Sunny Sweeney: Live at the Machine Shop (Aunt Daddy): "Hooked on the power of a song," as her new "Poet's Prayer" puts it on the way to "Things we missed back home/Are never lost on me/Kids growing up, funerals/Anniversaries," the baddest woman in country music noticed herself pushing 44, and with her second marriage behind her decided the pandemic was just the right time for a live album in a disused Austin studio. It opens with her bad new "Tie Me Up," about how bondage is one thing and staying for breakfast quite another, and before she's done specifies funeral arrangements in lieu of the inevitable "early grave": "Put my body in a boxcar and send me to the other side." Many musicians see the drawbacks of the troubadour life. Sweeney inhabits its tragic dimension while joking around about it. A-
  46. New Orleans Mambo: Cuba to Nola (Putumayo): As my wife has noticed at breakfast, New Orleans rock and rollers Dr. John and the Neville Brothers elevate the mood without picking up the tempo every time "Mos' Scocious" and "Yellow Moon" surface at tracks two and eight. But Putumayo's virtual-tourist-coddling trick of alternating Crescent City trad with locals who cultivate the kind of Latin grooves that helped germinate the second-line bounce to begin with is both educational and entertaining. Not only does it generate a danceable flow, it finds a use for long-running also-rans like Zazou City and the Iguanas. Handsomely documented and packaged, too. A-
  47. Dream Wife: So When You Gonna . . . (Lucky Number): Fronted by Iceland-born, California-raised, art school-finished Rakel Mjöli, this London-based all-female pop-punk trio picked their name before they'd ever played together and have a ways to go before matrimony per se is likely to be within their ken. Sex and romance, however, Mjöli has a bead on from the male-bonding pissoff "Sports!"--"Time is money/Never apologize/These are the rules"--to a finale called "After the Rain" where she both craves and rejects a tenderness that can only be provisional in a line of work that keeps her on the move. She knows sex and romance are easier to come by for a minor rock star, and is up for one or both from "Validation" to "U Do U" to "So When You Gonna . . ." But the crux here is called "Validation" because she knows that's the tough one without having figured out how to get it or why exactly she needs it so. A-
  48. Hamell on Trial: The Pandemic Songs (Saustex): This selection of nine of the voice-and-guitar pieces Hamell composed one a day over the two weeks preceding a home Facebook concert strikes quickest at its most comic: the opening "Gonna," which is short for "I'm gonna die," or the improvised "This Is a Hamell Show," which lists all the reasons a father in Finland shouldn't be imposing Hamell on eight-year-old Ruth ("Did I mention drugs yet?/I'm sure I will"). But they wouldn't mean much if "All the Things I Miss" and "My Little Camus" weren't so in love with life that they decline to joke around. Much. A-
  49. Low Cut Connie: Private Lives (Contender): With Ian Stewart and Nicky Hopkins long passed, Roy Bittan and Benmont Tench outclassed, his hero Jerry Lee in seclusion, and his fan Elton in limbo, Low Cut Connie frontman Adam Weiner stands as the most fluent as well as the most rocking piano man in the music. Plus he's a commanding singer and a wisecracking showman known to tickle the ivories with his feet. So people brought their friends to see his practiced, unpredictable, welcoming act, the friends brought their friends, and Low Cut Connie became a club-circuit powerhouse, with records a mere merch stream economically. But Weiner has always been too brainy, empathetic, and artistically ambitious to leave it there, and now he not only wants to make good records, he wants to make good records that add political context to the party vibe his shows will return to yet again. So it's no surprise that this meaty, purposeful, 17-song hour is so far from the waggish 2011 debut job epitomized by the dating advisory "Shit, Shower and Shave": evolved, virtuosic garage-rock with an evangelical edge--if you'll pardon an esoteric historical analogy, more Iron City Houserockers than Rubber City Rebels. Too often Weiner overdoes the vocals, and a bare half of the songs are sure shots. But from the nanny who moonlights weed sales on the side to an Atlantic City song that begins "Tough shit for the little guy living like a chump with his back to the wall" to a loving closer called "Stay as Long as You Like," enough of them most definitely are. A-
  50. Mukdad Rothenberg Lankow: In the Wake of Memories (Clermont Music): When the second sentence of the one-sheet reads "After the fourth time he was tortured Wassim Mukdad realized he had to leave Syria," one does read on. But I'd only dug out the bio because I'd already been surprised to find myself replaying this quiet hour of oud-clarinet-percussion and then replaying it again. Combat-zone doctor Wassim Mukdad and combat-zone nurse Volker Lankow met American scholar David Rothenberg in Berlin, where he was studying musicians who'd set themselves to accompanying the birds in a municipal park. It was Rothenberg who got the three of them into the studio where these 11 tracks were improvised. Mukdad usually takes the nominal lead; Rothenberg gets equal time, often on bass clarinet; Lankow articulates a calm, changeable groove on frame drum, tabla, etc. No, they don't sound anything like birds. They sound like human beings with more reasons to value peace than most of us. A-
  51. City Girls: City on Lock (Quality Control/Motown): What a relief to hear credible hoes rather than dubious cracklords brag about their cash on hand, to hear designer brands coveted as adornments rather than status symbols, to hear "bitch" claimed by women rather than wielded by men. Yung Miami and JT aren't as musical as Cardi B or maybe even Doja Cat, whose verse on the undeniable "Pussy Talk" begins "Pussy talented, it do cartwheels" to go with Yung and JT's "Boy, this pussy talk English, Spanish, and French" and "Ugh boy this pussy bilingual/Antisocial, this pussy don't mingle/Don't go broke or this pussy's going single/Ho ho ho pussy turn inna Kris Kringle." The light, articulated rhymes of these Miamians "from the trenches not the palm trees" will convince any cash-flush male chauvinist pig that "Birkin Gucci Chanel" will get the right juices flowing. And because they're obviously good at doing math in their heads they'll convince you that "half these niggas ain't shit in bed." A-
  52. Clem Snide: Forever Just Beyond (Ramseur/Thirty Tigers): His folk-rock strictly utilitarian and his unaccented vocals plain verging on bland, Eef Barzalay knows his own strength: a serious gift for transforming philosophical apercus into legible rhymes. "Oh God is simply that which lies/Forever just beyond the limits/Of what we already seem to know." "There is a vastness that can't be contained/Or described as a flash in the flesh of our brains/It's everything, everywhere, future and past/Dissolving forever in an eternal flash." "Oh Emily I believe there ain't much of nothing/That we can change in this world/Except for our own mind and heart/To be more kind and brave in the face of it all." "We've never left the place we're searching for/Don't bring no ladder when you die." And it don't stop. A-
  53. Chicago Farmer: Flyover Country ( With Band of Heathens' committed backup compensating for the two songs repeated from his 2018 live double, Cody Dieckhoff divides this album into sections of three and seven tracks that signal a turn with "$13 Beers," now the best song on two darn good albums in a row. The first part comprises the lively driving song "Indiana Line," the darker grounded song "Flyover Country," and the mysterious songpoem "Mother Nature's Daughter" before "13 Beers" steers the songs more literal, political, and comic while putting in a good word for Robbie Fulks. Don't miss "All in One Place," where a working-class road musician jokes around about how much money he doesn't make. Also don't miss "Collars," proof if you need it that he gets how much heart it takes to treat money as a joke in flyover country. A-
  54. Justin Farren: Pretty Free (Bad Service Badger): The fourth album by a solo-acoustic Sacramento road dog whose first three are almost as precise and articulate but less compelling and detailed begins with a startled compare-and-contrast glance at his old Costco membership card and dims only occasionally thereafter. Most of his songs register as autobiographical, reflecting on elders gone, misadventures relived, and the married-with-children life; all are performed with palpable care and quiet pizzazz. Now 38, Farren will never be famous. But he's clearly earned the regional fanbase he continues to service in the ancient yellow truck we meet in "Two Wheel Drive and Japanese," which takes place when he was 16 and stupid. A-
  55. Munson-Hicks Party Supplies: Munson-Hicks Party Supplies (Soft Launch): This sufficiently tuneful, extremely literary Twin Cities alt-rock combo not only got lost "on the road from Judy Blume to Michel Foucault" but lost their very asses "on the road to Damascus," which may be why they need a new intake manifold and may not. Hicks chokes up when he spots that intern he fell for in the spring of '02. Munson will forgive George Sanger for ridiculing his walker when the pennies are on the s.o.b.'s eyes. They still have their landline and the number ain't changed. But they don't have it in them to tell us exactly what befell them at the demo--something about the glare off the riot shields. A-
  56. Fontaines D.C.: A Hero's Death (Partisan): As no one seems to notice because that can't be true can it, surprise success has agreed with this formerly scuffling young band. They've turned philosophical and accommodating, gentler and more melodic. In the album's title tune, where its title isn't uttered even once, the "Life ain't always empty" refrain and its attendant homilies aren't in the least sarcastic. And the opening "I Don't Belong" repeats "I don't belong to anyone" in four choruses a dozen times, adding a slight rhythmic fillip by ending each chorus "I don't wanna belong to anyone." What do they mean by "anyone"? Their punky fanbase is my guess. They're saying get with the program, fellas. Bring your girlfriend to our shows if you've got one. And if not, why not? "Love is the main thing," after all. A-
  57. Ka: Descendants of Cain (Iron Works): Street criminal turned 20-year FDNY veteran and now captain Kaseem Ryan is also a rapper who doesn't declaim or quick-lip and doesn't mumble either. He just talks, in cadenced rhymes for sure but that's not the point--the point is what he has to say on a catalog comprising five albums plus extras going back to 2008. Always a matter-of-fact realist--"I live this vivid shit, I ain't that creative"--he's never been averse to recollection or commentary, and this album assumes a didactic stance he puts across. "I still feel hate every now and then," he begins by reporting; "My heroes sold heroin," he soon recalls. But his basic aim here is to report on not preach about the devastation the street life leaves in its economically understandable, politically defensible, humanly unjustifiable wake--reporting that leaves room to articulate emotional alternatives, so that "Had to use your fists to change your fiscal" evolves into "Times the inner me cry from the imagery." Yes he can translate his two-sided experience into a political goal as utopian as it is limited: "Some equality, none in poverty, I'll be joyous then." But by closing with "I Love (Mimi, Moms, Kevs)" (wife, mother, departed homeboy) he makes clear that human connections are a precondition of whatever joy comes his way. A-
  58. Toots and the Maytals: Got to Be Tough (Trojan America): Label owner and former Who/Oasis drummer Zak Starkey--who with Sly Dunbar on hand plays guitar here--financed what he didn't know would be a farewell salute from the eternal second banana of first-wave reggae. But when an artist has a bunch of good new songs ready as he pushes 80, now is always the time. What I like about these and Starkey must have too is how conscious they are. Having long favored danceable love songs, he spends most these 36 minutes looking time tough in its ugly face. "Just Brutal," "Warning Warning," and "Got to Be Tough"; bus fares, low wages, invisible pensions, and picking yourself up off the ground. But he's also proud to stand accused for feeding his enemies. A-
  59. Open Mike Eagle: Anime Trauma and Divorce (Auto Reverse): For a decade now, Eagle--the surname he was born with 40 years ago on Chicago's South Side--has been an exceptionally logocentric rapper in an alt-rap he's always seemed too alt-rock for and an exceptionally analytic one in a hip-hop that commodifies the personal. As he reports on a traumatic 2019 when his 14-year marriage went the way of his Comedy Central series and also his waistline, he finally turns confessional. But what puts the album across is music: the atmospheric beats of Nedarb, an emo-rap pro unknown to me. Beyond the occasional "What the hell is self-care?" and "I really don't want to log into my bank account," anime fans will understand the lyrical details better than I can. Netflix sci-fi fans, too--"The Black Mirror episode ruined my marriage" is such a striking refrain I'd check out whichever episode it was with my arm around my honey and my fingers crossed. Good thing he can still afford a therapist. Good thing too that he hands the final track over to his son Asa, Lil A$e to you. A-
  60. Drive-By Truckers: The Unraveling (ATO): "Don't give up the fight and never stop chasing the dream. Vote and Resist," advises "raised liberal in Alabama" Patterson Hood, who doesn't always find it easy to keep his own head up. So after two nonstop winners in the Obama years of 2014 and 2016 comes this somewhat more halting album, which follows three elusive personal tracks by Hood and his old pal Mike Cooley with six of the kind of protest songs elite aesthetes are too tasteful and chickenshit to try for. "Thoughts and Prayers," "Babies in Cages," and "21st Century USA" announce their topics up front, so bitter and detailed they make you mad there aren't more out there. In "Heroin Again" that "again" references not an old buddy's relapse but a young OD's regression into the corniest and deadliest of the killer opiates. Cooley's "Grievance Merchants" roots white supremacism in the insecurities of incel crybabies and unloved old men. And the stately nine-minute Hood closer "Awaiting Resurrection" is part dirge, part hymn, part confession, part manifesto. A-
  61. No Age: Goons Be Gone (Drag City): Recorded "summer 2019," the minimalist-minus CD package notes. So time passed before whatever goons the title targets decided how they felt about masks, during which this spare, steadfast duo put the finishing touches on the latest edition of their grateful grate--long textural leads to brassy static to tolling guitar noise to looped feedback over organ tweets and more, all deployed cleverly enough to suit me. Avant-punk dissatisfieds may wonder how long the pair expect to stay on this bus. I admire the way they always come down on the right side of the divide between commitment and repeating yourself. A-
  62. Lil Wayne: Funeral (Young Money '19): Out a mere 15 months after the long-awaited, redolently branded, widely reviewed, 88-minute, two-disc Tha Carter V, this 76-minute collection has been downplayed by most of the few outlets that bothered to review it at all--five mostly kindish notices are nonetheless stuck down in Metacritic's dread 50-60 zone, with only Rolling Stone's a takedown pan. Cherishing no vested interest in hip-hop's musical progress, if any, I enjoy the shit out of it while admitting it's more a collection than an album, its parts more impressive than what they add up to. But it had me from the superb lead/title track: "Welcome to the funeral/Closed casket as usual/Soul snatching, that's usual/Amen, hallelujah though/Whole family delusional/Niggas cryin' like two-year-olds." With Adam Levine's and 2 Chainz's cameos better fits than XXXTentatcion's and The Dream's, I say this is his best since 2010's No Ceilings. You say you don't remember that one? Go to school. A-
  63. Etran de l'Aïr: No. 1 (Sahel Sounds '18): From Agadez, the embattled Tuareg stronghold in Niger that generated Group Doueh, Group Inerane, and most exportably Group Bombino, comes another guitar band in that mold. This 2018 album is younger-sounding and a shade or two less raucous; its high-pitched ululations lack the distinctly female gravitas of Inerane's ecstatic, authoritative verses and Doueh's committed, supportive backup choruses. Then again, check out the finale here--pretty wild. A-
  64. Westside Gunn: Pray for Paris (Griselda): Beginning with a recording of the obscene $400 million auction of da Vinci's Salvator Mundi, which the auteur finds more enviable than disgusting but also grotesquely comic, and ending with a tap solo by enviable fashionista fave Cartier Williams, this album enjoys old-fashioned hip-hop materialism with dauntless esprit. Still exploiting a Frankie Lymon tenor as he pushes 40, Gunn drafts his very young son Westside Pootie for timbral relief and enlists Ghostface Killah, Freddie Gibbs, and Roc Marciano to spell resident rough customer Benny the Butcher--plus, for that woke touch, Joey Bada$$ and Tyler the Creator. Skrrrts and booh-booh-booh-booh-boohs add further sonic variety, as do the civilized poetics of Keisha Plum before she drives an icepick through a whoremonger's eye and reports his demise as a heart attack. A-
  65. Hayes Carll: Alone Together Sessions (Dualtone): There's a redundancy problem with the acoustic but far from solo best-of that the plague's home concert boom elicited from this consistently smart and likable Arkansas bard--an "Oh yeah, that one" effect. He's good, and though it may not add much to the more fully produced versions that had already imprinted half these songs on my recall, it nails almost every one. Highlights include the anti-Donald title song of his 2019 Times Like These, the sole keeper from his down 2016 Lovers and Leavers, and duets with an irascible Ray Wylie Hubbard on the erotic "Drunken Poet's Dream" and his wife Allison Moorer on a sexy rendition of Lefty Frizzell's "That's the Way Love Goes." A-
  66. Dawn Oberg: 2020 Revision (self-released): Three songs lasting not quite nine minutes, the first two powered up slightly from the evolving cabaret-rock of 2017's three-song Nothing Rhymes With Orange and also a touch more passionately sung, which given the stakes can be moving. The extraordinary "Care" explains empathy with uncommon metaphysical bravado to professed Christians who throw refugees "in an icebox/And his children in a cage." "It's 12:01" catalogues police killings in liberal San Francisco, where Oberg has a day job with the EPA. "Mitch McConnell" is slighter, though that "Hitler on crack" crack is a keeper. Prolific she's not, a keeper she is. Vote for her with by downloading now. A-
  67. Serengeti & Kenny Segal: Ajai (Cohn Corporation): Riding well-textured beats from L.A. alt-rap wizard Segal, Geti's most musical album in quite a few prolific years is also his most accessible in quite a few daunting ones. Or maybe not so accessible--I can't really tell because commodity fetishism as aesthetic pursuit as neurotic obsession has been over my head since Run-D.M.C. began shouting about their Adidas. The first fashion victim here is the title character, an Indian sneaker collector who cooks with quinoa, appreciates tarragon, and siphons his wife's medical-research earnings into--to cite just three lines--Balenciaga, Rick Owens, Supreme, Prada, Abloh, and Diadora, and soon there'll be more. Midway through he's replaced in the subject position by telephone repairman turned over-the-hill rapper Kenny Dennis, who at the start is eating tuna straight out the can but betters himself before the album is over. I think. A-
  68. Grrrl Gang: Here to Stay! (Damnably): Although they sing solely in English, these three college kids are from Yogyakarta, a city of half a million that's the capital of a monarchist subdivision of Indonesia. Breaking down two female and one male, they're more Vaselines than Bikini Kill musically, and though they date back to 2016, this compilation EP collects only eight songs, with the opening "Dreamgrrrl (Single Version)" transformed into the closing "Dreamgrrrl (Album Version)" solely by punchier production. None of which renders them an iota less charming or militant, a synthesis achieved most confoundingly on a seven-line ditty that begins "My baby is taking a shit/In the bathroom." On "Thrills," lead singer Angeeta Setana calls her one-night fuck "Daddy" as he wraps his hands around her neck, and in "Guys Don't Read Sylvia Plath" she declares and then repeats that she "wasn't born to be a mother" or "a wife." I believe her both times. On his "Night Terrors" feature, bassist-manager Akbar Rumandung wishes his shrink would do more for his night fears than feed him pills. I believe him too. A-
  69. Chad Matheny: United Earth League of Quarantine Aerobics (self-released): The individual who usually masquerades as a band called Emperor X reverts to the name he was born with because this is no time to pretend you're a group of people. "Stay Where You Are," "Quedate Quieto," and "Bleib Wo Du Bist" explain why in three different languages on an EP filled out with presumably self-overdubbed songs that earn the titles "1.5 Meter Blockade," "Hey, Where Did You Put My Stimulus Check," and "The Ballad of HPAE Local 5058." In the latter solidarity if not literal togetherness gets its due--HPAE stands for New Jersey-Pennsylvania's Heath Professionals and Allied Employees. A-
  70. Al Bilali Soudan: Tombouctou (Clermont Music): From Timbuktu, as we spell it, four or five male blood relatives shout and expostulate their songs in Tamashek, Songhai, and it says here French and English as they thrash and manipulate their ngoni-like tehardents. Whether conjoining barely coexisting peoples or boosting kind women who are better than they are, both of which they make sound worthy and neither of which they make sound easy, they will get your attention, guaranteed. If you like desert music enough to suspect you've heard it before, you haven't--Tinariwen are showbiz by comparison, Tamikrest urbane, Tartit cute. And should you instead suspect that this noisy, indelicate stuff is the roughest African music ever recorded, that's because you haven't heard their 2012 debut. A-
  71. Mannequin Pussy: Patience (Epitaph '19): Rookie indie-rock bands untouched by roots mannerisms are automatically tagged punk just because they're fast, concise, and palpably unvirtuosic, a slot that well suited this Philly g-g-b-d's frantic 2016 Romantic. Several notches slower and graced or bedizened by hooky lead-guitar riffs, this is something else: to wit, "rock." The romantic preoccupations of resident genius Marisa Dabice jibe with this formal commitment, and while I can't be sure that the relevant guitar noises come from Athanasios Paul ("guitar & keys"), that's usually how such byplay goes. Don't get the wrong idea: on "Drunk 1," "High Horse," "Clams," and the hoarse, embattled "F.U.C.A.W." she's plenty pissed. But she closes with the near-anthemic "In Love Again" because that's where she wants to end up, and why shouldn't she? A-

And It Don't Stop, Jan. 27, 2021

2019 Essay | -- 2021