Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Seattle Weekly's year in music: Bonazelli! Borchert! Cassidy! Dayal! Harris! Harvell! Hicks! Matos! Patrin! Silver! Smith! Wolk! all doing 2004 on one mix-CD each. Several of the above contribute to the Seattle 2004 2CD mix as well. And my 2004 3CDR MP3 mix and my single MP3 disc of reissues are up as well.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

2004 Rewind
(if they can do it I can do it/if it looks like it was written in a hurry that's because it was edition)

This was without a doubt the most rollercoaster-ish year of my life, including 2003, a year I moved cross-country, took a job, pissed a few people off (oh well), and, oh yeah, wrote a (short) book. 2004 made that seem like a rehearsal, mostly because I didn’t go to a hospital in 2003. In ’04, I visited the nice doctors and nurses many many times: Between a kidney stone in April (the day after seeing Kraftwerk) followed literally three days later by an abscessed tooth and a root canal (it had been infected for a few months; when they cleaned it out it was like taking the bullet out of a wound), and then, in October, a pilonidal cyst that made the last two nights of a week in NYC impossible to enjoy, since I couldn’t fucking sit or lay down comfortably (in the swank Tribeca Grand Hotel, no less!), after which I underwent my first surgery ever, during which I found out that, like my mother and her father before her, I’m diabetic. Hooray! At the rate I’m going, I’ll be dead before I’m 35. I turn 30 in a month and a half. Oy. There was also some family-related stuff that I won’t go into here (if I want you to know, you know already), and the usual last-vestiges-of-being-in-my-20s malaise (i.e. still single, not like I’m doing a thing about it, so I guess it doesn’t suck too much). My office is (still) a goddamned pigsty, and so is my room. All of which, aside from health and family stuff, is my own fault. Still, I got a not-quite-book deal, to author a page-a-day calendar for 2006, in which I write about a song (or playlist, sometimes) a day. And oh yeah--I also listened to a lot of music in 2004, much of it horrifying, plenty of it meh, and a surprising (gratifying) amount of it rather good, even great. That’s what I’ll deal with first, sort of in order but not entirely.

United State of Electronica (Mannheim)
The Catch EP (

I played this record so much it started to scare me after awhile. What can it mean that the greatest (musical) pleasure I received this year came from walking through downtown Seattle late at night and hearing that disco downbeat kick off “Emerald City,” or that first cymbal crash of “IT IS ON!” or anticipating every melodic turn of “Taking It All the Way” like it was a mouthful of éclair? Maybe that 2004 was the year I couldn’t eat éclairs anymore and I have to get my sugar fix somehow. Or that there wasn’t a new Daft Punk record. Or that [whisper it] U.S.E. was (slightly) better than Discovery--much more kitchen-sink sonically, not as funny or as heartrending, but so joyful and consistent (I even like the rap song now, God help me) and party-ful (note how each of the disc’s song-clumps--the all-segued first half, the three groupings on “side two”--begin with people-having-fun noises) that I repeatedly figured to play one or two songs and wound up listening to the whole fucking thing all over again. “The Ramones for Daft Punk fans,” sez Nate P., and he’s exactly right--except he’s never seen them live, whereupon they become Daft Punk for P-Funk fans. My single best hour of 2004: Seeing ’em live at the Capitol Hill Block party on the hottest day of the year w/my friends Brian and Daphne; the band, aided by several friends, including U.S.E. vocalist Carly Nicklaus’s other band, the Catch, threw water balloons and water bottles out, and ripped shit apart so good it spoiled me for the rest of the festival. As for the Catch themselves, they have room to grow, certainly--they’re here by association more than anything, though their early-’05 album might put them over--but their self-released three-song EP works a nice variation on the catchy new wave redux thing.

Gretchen Wilson: Here for the Party (Epic)
Big & Rich: Horse of a Different Color (Warner Bros. Nashville)
Terri Clark: “Girls Lie Too” (Mercury Nashville)
Toby Keith: “Stays in Mexico” (Dreamworks Nashville)
Gary Allan: “Nothing on But the Radio” (MCA Nashville)
Carolyn Mark and the New Best Friends: The Pros and Cons of Collaboration (Mint)
The Meat Purveyors: Pain by Numbers (Bloodshot)
Jon Langford: All the Fame of Lofty Deeds (Bloodshot)
Neko Case: The Tigers Have Spoken (Bloodshot)
Old 97’s: “Friends Forever” (New West)
Drive-By Truckers: “Puttin’ People on the Moon” (New West)
The Flatlanders: “Back to My Old Molehill” (New West)

My sudden interest in country this year was kicked off in the dentist’s chair, during the aforementioned root canal. With my face numb and two pair of hands in my mouth, I got to watch whatever TV I wanted, with headphones. I’d already watched BET the day before (the procedure took two weeks of repeat morning visits) so I went for CMT instead. In addition to clips from SheDaisy and Toby and Willie’s “Beer for My Horses” (way to undermine the lyric’s racist subtext by making the only black people in the video cops, guys), I saw the “Redneck Woman” and “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” vids, and promptly had my head blown off, especially by the latter. Sure, I’d once caught Toby’s “Who’s Your Daddy,” in which our singer drives the biggest, blingest, YELLOWest truck anyone’s eyes have ever seen, not to mention lives in a mansion (you wanna say somethin’ about that, plebe?), but B&R took the cake, leading a “freak parade” (their phrase, from the song) across a bridge on horseback. I literally thought I was hallucinating.

That, more than anything, is why this was the year hipster assholes like me decided they liked country music: Because it might as well have been, like, Daft Punk or OutKast or Basement Jaxx or U.S.E. or something. Well, we were right---B&R is probably the first country act I know of (which just demonstrates the extent of my ignorance, probably) that fit Matthew Perpetua’s inadvertently-coined “fluxpop” (which Scott Plagenhoef siezed in Pitchfork’s singles roundup). But once the novelty wore off, I kept playing Horse of a Different Color for a whole ’nother reason: Those tunes don’t fucking quit. Just listen to “Big Time”: Funny, self-deprecating words about being a strugging musician who latches onto manager-friends so they can use the pool (and also, more sneakingly, because they genuinely like the guy they’re singing about), and a friggin’ ALL-TIME melody; it’s what the Eagles might have been if they weren’t total assholes.

Gretchen grabbed me, too, less for the video (though for some reason it occupies the same mental space for me as Bubba Sparxxx’s “Ugly”) than the tune itself, and the voice. Like most extremely great singles, “Redneck Woman,” became a sociological phenomenon by default--any song that inspires that many instantaneous sing-alongs has a way of doing that. After all, Wilson may know all the words to every Tanya Tucker song, but this one impels you to memorize the chorus as soon as humanly possible so that you, too, can scream, “Hell, yeah!” at the end of it. Still, what makes Party into a party isn’t just the hooks. It’s that Wilson was the best vocalist to come along all year, in any category. Anyone can holler, “I wear my jeans a little tight just to watch the boys come undone” (“Here for the Party”) and get a response, but the second verse of the honky-tonk tearjerker “When I Think About Cheatin’” is every bit as rousing. Its subject: breaking up a slow dance out of loyalty to the guy at home. She’s equally vivid recalling giving Jesus her life at age 8 on “Chariot” or declaring, “I’m the biggest thing that came from my hometown,” on “Pocahontas Proud.”

I can’t wait to sing along with them on the radio, too, and it shouldn’t be long. Not because I listen to country (or any) radio, but because I frequent this new chain barbecue joint in Pioneer Square, a few blocks from work, now that my diet has been curtailed. It’s there that B&R and Gretchen were joined by their Nashville fellows: Terri Clark’s “Girls Lie Too” and Toby Keith’s “Stays in Mexico,” both of which wormed their way into my consciousness (and hum matrix) via constant rotation during weekday lunches. (You might think Fox News, broadcast on the upstairs TVs where I eat, would do the same, but nah.) Oddly, I don’t recall hearing Gary Allan’s “Nothing on But the Radio” until I downloaded it after seeing it on SFJ’s singles list, though once I fell for it I started noticing it at the steakhouse, too.

Just as surprising, I dug country of the alt-brand this year more than usual, too. Not the Loretta Lynn record, which Dave Marsh nailed as “a hot fudge omelet,” but the friends of Neko contingent. I probably played Carolyn Mark and the New Best Friends’ The Pros and Cons of Collaboration as much as anything else this summer (and liked her swipe--“Toby was singing a medley of his greatest hits/I said, ‘Oh my god, John, can you believe this shit?’”--more than Toby’s best-of-bait hit). Austin bluegrass smartasses the Meat Purveyors play lightning fast, but also just sloppily enough to sound as human as the foibles their lyrics enact. “How can I be so thirsty today/When I had so much to drink last night?” worries lead hollerer Jo Walston. “My keys are missing, my heel broke off/And my hair is an incredible sight.” Walston’s goofiness makes lines like “I hope you end up in prison with a broken hand” smack like a paddlewheel the tenth time around. Killer cover: Fleetwood Mac’s “Monday Morning,” which Lindsey Buckingham sang like he was irritated at heartbreak. So does Walston, who steals the song from Buckingham--not effortlessly, either, which is the best part.

“Can’t you picture me/Sailing on the golden sea?” asks Jon Langford in “Constanz.” Sure we can, Jon--you sound like Poopdeck Pappy’s Welsh cousin. All the Fame of Lofty Deeds is, what do you know, a concept album, sort of, about an ill-fated country singer, though the album invokes his rise and fall more than it programs it out: The brisk “Hard Times” (“I’m a hard act to follow/ I’m hard as a rock/I’m a little hard to handle, some might say/It’s hard to get by/ So wish me hard luck/’Cause things are getting harder every day”) seems to be the character’s theme song, but it’s placed almost halfway into the album, followed by “The Fame of Lofty Deeds,” a nifty (and, at two and a quarter minutes, brief) summation. There’s also a pair of covers (Procol Harum’s “Homberg” and Bob Wills’ “Trouble in Mind”). Confused? Don’t be--like the “concept” albums by Langford’s parent band, the Mekons (I [Heart] Mekons, Rock ’n’ Roll, et. al.), the very loose story skeleton is another device for Langford to spit wise on his usual topics: death (it’s inevitable and, going by “Over the Cliff,” jaunty, too); America (its promise, its role as the spoiled infant of the world, the inevitable letdown); country music (it’s dead, Langford wrongly thinks); the music industry as a whole (it’s bad); global politics (guess). Light on its feet, over in a half-hour, and my favorite Langford since the Mekons’ 2002 OOOH!, maybe earlier.

As for Neko herself, the live Tigers Have Spoken is brief, too, and stronger song-for-song than 2002’s Blacklisted; anyone who can make me like a Buffy Sainte-Marie song clearly knows what they’re doing, though I do wish she’d make the new wave covers album (produced by Carl Newman, please--anything to prevent him from doing anymore drowse-inducing solo albums) she has in her.

Speaking of drowse-inducing, was I really the only person who found the Drive-By Truckers’ The Dirty South the most boring record they’ve ever made? I love a few songs, most notably “Puttin’ People on the Moon,” a harrowing Reaganomics memoir that, watching my family struggle with money and job circumstances, hit closer to the bone than just about any political music I heard this year. But most of the album just doesn’t kick the way great DBT does, and while I’m not a “slow = lazy” kind of person (see Sonic Youth entry below), there’s something vitiated about it, like they need to take a vacation from the road or something. (That said, they looked and sounded wonderful at Bumbershoot, but hey, guys--maybe your lineup would stabilize some if you stayed home more often, eh?) Then again, I got busted trying to sell the advance on eBay back in June, so I should probably just shut up about it completely. But not before noting that a pair of other New West signees whose previous work I’ve liked had one killer song apiece: Old 97’s, whose “Friends Forever” is so scrappy it should have been titled “Rhett is Really, Really, Really Sorry About the Solo Album,” and the Flatlanders’ “Back to My Old Molehill” (Zen wisdom an’ ting, yunno).

DFA Compilation #2 (DFA)
Most of the time, hearing an electronica-identified artist claim they “want to start using real instruments” is a red flag that their music is about to start getting deeply uninteresting. But James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy, the New York production duo better known as the DFA, seem to like live instruments for the same reason they like synthesizers: Their tonal quality and the multiplicity of possibilities they represent. The more you listen to this astounding three-disc compilation (two CDs of unedited tracks, one of a dozen of those cuts DJ-mixed by Goldsworthy), the lines between multi-instrumentalist rock-band vet Murphy and Mo’ Wax co-founder and ex-U.N.K.L.E. member Goldsworthy--between analog and digital--seem less and less clear.

Good. If there’s anything DFA Compilation #2 does, it’s to make niggling about subgenre and/or musical roles--musician vs. programmer, track vs. song, rock vs. disco--seem even less relevant than usual. The amazing, elastic “Sunplus,” by Japan’s J.O.Y. (featuring K.U.D.O., another former U.N.K.L.E., and Yoshimi P-We of Boredoms), sounds like Swiss postpunks LiLiPUT practicing their trade during England’s second Summer of Love; the DFA remix of Delia Gonzalez & Gavin Russom’s “Rise” resembles prime New Order with dirt under its fingernails; Pixeltan’s “Get Up/Say What” moves like Bush Tetras’ “Too Many Creeps” with a case of the squiggles; the remix of Black Dice’s “Endless Happiness” by Eye (also of Boredoms) is about the prettiest noise jam imaginable.

And the “Crass Version” of “Yeah,” by Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem--there’s also a “Pretentious Mix”--moves from a shambling dance-in (the vocals’ don’t-give-a-fuck sloppiness make !!!’s Nic Offer sound like he’s auditioning for middle management) to a 303-led acid freakout. It’d be the dance track of the year had Compilation #2 not saved the best for first. After playing “Casual Friday,” by Black Leotard Front (a.k.a. Murphy, Gonzalez, Russom, and Christian Holstad) three times in a row and stopping myself from making it four, I’ve decided it’s the greatest 15-minute disco record of all time. (Runners up: Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” Paperclip People’s “Throw.”) It hearkens back to the DFA’s first great production, the Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers,” only instead of giving an indie rock band the club-mix treatment, Murphy and Goldsworthy sound like they got hold of the West End Records house band circa 1981 and decided to art ’em up some. There’s an incomprehensible lyric about confronting somebody at their office, a pealing, glassine synth wriggle that announces each sonic shift, and the funkiest, sexiest, blessedly loosest pronunciation of the word bonjour on public record, not to mention an ending that pays explicit homage to Sleezy D.’s apocalyptic early acid-house hit, “I’ve Lost Control.” Neptunes, Basement Jaxx, Timbaland--your turn.

The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me (Frenchkiss)

Craig Finn is full of shit. Last June, after the late, great hometown post-punks Lifter Puller reunited at the Triple Rock, I wandered around the venue and passed Finn, the band’s singer, guitarist, and songwriter. He and bandmate Tad Kubler had moved to New York a couple of years before, and Finn was telling someone about his and Kubler’s new band, the Hold Steady. “Oh, it’s just a bar band,” Finn said modestly. It was all I could do not to intercede. “No,” I wanted to tell Finn’s friend. “They are not a bar band. You’re only really a bar band if the bar is the only place you’re going.”

Or maybe it’s just that bar bands are rarely this self-aware: “Positive Jam,” the opening track of The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, climaxes with Finn triumphantly announcing, “I got bored when I didn’t have a band/So I started a band, man/We’re gonna start it off with a positive jam/The Hold Steady.” That’s cute, but the road to Foghat is paved with misguided intentions, not least among them the self-referential anthem. And if Finn, who’s never been shy about throwing his band’s name into his lyrics, ends up releasing live double albums with titles like Rockin’ the Triple Rock!!, well, we can’t say we weren’t warned.

You can’t blame the guy for reveling, though. The Hold Steady supply an up-front guitar crunch that plods more than Lifter Puller but comes across more fully and powerfully on record--it’s metal to LP’s punk, and punk to its new wave. (Kubler plays guitar here, as he did with Song of Zarathustra, rather than bass, his LP instrument. He and Finn are joined by bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Judd Counsell, both of the late band Punchdrunk.) When “Barfruit Blues” finds Finn singing, “She said, ‘It’s good to see you back in a bar band, baby’/I said, ‘It’s great to see you’re still in the bars’,” his tone is as gruff as the music’s lumbering stomp, but he also sounds tickled. Still, if a bar band is background entertainment for a night of sloshing PBR, the Hold Steady doesn’t qualify--they’re there to hold your attention.

The Hold Steady’s heavy sound comes from a brief gig covering classic-rock songs between comedy skits by the Brooklyn troupe Mr. Ass. Counsell bashes harder and straighter than LP skinsman Dan Monick, while Kubler solos all over the place to scattershot effect. Finn has said that the band’s back-to-basics approach was partly inspired by seeing the musicians in Martin Scorsese’s 1978 concert film The Last Waltz interact with minimum frills (if you don’t count Van Morrison’s ill-advised purple jumpsuit or the now-airbrushed-out mound of cocaine under Neil Young’s nose). The Hold Steady, he stresses, is concept-free. But Finn is a conceptualist by nature, obsessed with words and ideas and creating characters (such as Lifter Puller standbys the Eye-Patch Guy and Katrina) in specific settings (fictional nightclub the Nice-Nice, 15th and Franklin, the Nassau Coliseum). If anything, the Hold Steady are only a bar band in the sense that most of their songs take place in bars. Which means Lifter Puller was a bar band, too.

In a sense, The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me (album title of the year, without a doubt) picks up right where Lifter Puller’s 2000 swan song, Fiestas + Fiascos, left off. Not right where it left off, of course--if Finn knows whether the Eyepatch Guy’s call for Nightclub Dwight’s head on a platter was ever executed, he’s not telling. But the terrain of Almost Killed Me is more than familiar to longtime LP fans: lotsa drugs, lotsa parties, lotsa bad behavior, lotsa characters, lotsa one-liners. “My name is Corey,” one hapless fellow says in “Hostile, Mass.” “I’m really into hardcore/People call me Hard Corey.” Then he twists the caricature into something more empathetic: “Don’t you hate these clever people and all these clever-people parties?”

Finn certainly seems to. In several interviews, including one I conducted last summer, he’s expressed a vocal distaste for both the electroclash scene that was overrunning Brooklyn when the band formed, and for what the singer has termed “dress-up garage rock”--the White Stripes, the Hives, and their seemingly gimmicky fashionableness. Though Finn hasn’t exactly turned into Dennis Miller, there’s more than a hint of the cultural reactionary in such statements. I’d worry about this if it pervaded Almost Killed Me more than it does; Finn usually limits his gripes to some swipes at ‘80s revivalism, most notably in “The Swish”: “I’ve survived the ‘80s one time already/And I don’t recall them all that fondly.” Then again, that statement is probably apt for a former hardcore kid. For Finn, the ‘80s were a paradoxical era, both the time of that music’s peak and the era that became everything hardcore was against: garish impracticality, phony gloss, government corruption candied into national lullaby, and the worst record production in the history of the human eardrum.

Production was always a sticking point for a lot of Lifter Puller fans--and non-fans. The albums didn’t do the band’s live show justice, the charge went, and although I’ve always thought those LP records sounded fine, I can’t deny that the Hold Steady’s album comes far closer to capturing the band’s live roar. Still, one thing that made Lifter Puller great was the way its dynamics--the tinny keyboard hooks dancing atop guttural guitar glower, Monick’s just-behind-the-beat cymbal smashes--stretched past the music’s seeming straightforwardness. You could see it best onstage: Finn’s hands going apeshit, Kubler nearly breaking his hands on his instrument, guitarist/keyboardist Steve Barone as the one-man sideshow that would later flourish in the Hawaii Show.

Live, the Hold Steady are less of a whirlwind, but Finn’s songwriting hasn’t gone anywhere. If anything, it’s more focused, a hair less prone to word repetition for its own sake--though with Finn, the repetition always serves a rhythmic end if not a narrative one. And the tension between the band’s traditional approach and Finn’s widescreen vision makes Almost Killed Me the year’s best rock album. Not bad for a (cough cough) bar band.

Following the breakup of the brilliant Minneapolis rockers Lifter Puller, guitarist/singer/songwriter Craig Finn moved to Brooklyn with no intention of getting another full-time band together. Not even when Lifter Puller bassist Tad Kubler followed Finn to the borough, nor when the two of them (Kubler switching to guitar) teamed up with bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Judd Counsell—whom Finn knew from their time in Minneapolis, as the rhythm section for the band Punchdrunk—to bash out some songs by other people.

“When we first got together, it was to play covers for this comedy troupe,” says Finn. “But I had songs. The first practice, I didn’t think we’d record, but after four, it was like, ‘We all play really well together. I think we could do something cool.’”

Indeed they did: The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, the band’s debut, is the smartest hard-rock album of the year, non-metal division. Where Lifter Puller were new-wavey (thanks to frequent use of keyboards), the Hold Steady are a straight-up guitar band, coming across like AC/DC gone to grad school. But if Bon Scott or Brian Johnson sang about bars with unself-conscious lustiness, Finn is the kind of guy who will title a song “Barfruit Blues” and include in it lyrics like, “She said, ‘It’s good to see you back in a bar band, baby’/I said, ‘It’s great to see you’re still in the bars.’”

Part of the motivation behind Finn’s bar-band paeans was in reaction to the dance-punk bands that were prevalent in Brooklyn around the time the Hold Steady formed. “We definitely wrote our [press] bio aggressively, because I knew it would be a good angle for stories,” Finn says of the early reviews and interviews that painted his band as the anti-Rapture.

“To look at it in a more positive light, though, I just didn’t think there were a lot of bands just playing two guitars, bass, and drums, and playing fun, sloppy rock and roll. The Drive-By Truckers come to mind; to my mind, that’s the best band there is right now. In Brooklyn, you’re already starting to see the second wave of bands that aren’t very good but still doing boom-ch-boom-ch. Unfortunately for some of my friends who are in those bands, it doesn’t seem like people care nearly as much. In some way, I think that coming up with a band that doesn’t fit in, that’s more classic rock—not using the radio term, but just a standard rock thing—could be more timeless in the long run.”

Nevertheless, Almost Killed Me’s greatest moment is its most obviously dated: “Positive Jam,” a sort of theme song for the band (the refrain is “Hold Steady!”) that opens with a timeline that takes us from the 1920s (“There were flappers and fruits in white suits”) to the end of the ’90s (“We were wired and well connected/Put it all down on technology and lost everything we invested”).

“It was supposed to be a post-millennium kind of thing,” says Finn. “Musically, it worked out to eight decades, so that worked out well. Even with Lifter Puller, on Fiestas + Fiascos, there’s a lot [about] 1999, which was the year then. I’ve always liked dating the song to the time it was made.”

Just don’t expect him to kick against fashion as much from now on. “Travis Morrison said to me a while back, ‘Don’t make fun of hipsters. You’re 33. You have nothing to do with them.’ I think that was pretty smart.”

Devin the Dude: To Tha X-Treme (Rap-a-Lot)
At first this sounds completely generic, which turns out to be its secret weapon. Houstonite Devin the Dude is hip-hop’s paradigmatic everyman, his luck as tough as most of his peers’ personae, and because he’s not ostentatious, he can make even the fantastical sound like it fits right in. The ethereal “Briarpatch” draws on the deepest Southern mythology--“You can season and cook me/But not the briarpatch,” he whispers on the chorus, over a liquid live bass groove and step-rhythm drum program, unofficially in character as Brer Rabbit. “Go Fight Some Other Crime” features the best pulled-over-by-the-cops scenario this side of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” only instead of comic confrontation this one’s marked by its just-folks nonchalance, which makes it even more insidious. “I’m just sippin’ coffee,” Devin insists, though everywhere else he’s more up-front: “Man, I’m so high,” he notes in the title cut. “Who am I? Oh yeah, Devin.” “Cooter Brown” looks at the down side of getting high: “You’re looking at me strange/I’ve got my weed, I’ve got my drink and other things/I’ve been trying to just focus/ I want to quit drinking this shit, but no luck . . . I used to be private/But now I think I’m being spied on.” Because Devin is subtle, he’s easy to overlook. But this was my favorite hip-hop record this year.

Grime04CD (Woebot)
Dizzee Rascal: Showtime (XL)
Wiley: Treddin on Thin Ice (XL)
Grime (Rephlex)
The Streets: A Grand Don’t Come for Free (Vice)
M.I.A.: “Galang” (XL)
Freq Nasty ft. Rodney P: “Come Let Me Know” (Skint)
Estelle: “1980” (V2)

2002-3 may have been when U.K. hip-hop stopped being a joke thanks to Original Pirate Material and Boy in Da Corner, but ’04 is when it became a contender. And while I agree with Andy Kellman that D Double E and MC Narstie and Ruff Sqwad will never mean as much to me as Rakim or Chuck D. or N.W.A, I’m not gonna begrudge anyone for whom that ends up being the case. (I’m not implying that Kellman would, either.) My year-end mixes swipe an unconscionable amount of tracks from the Matthew Ingram-compiled Grime04CD . . . but they’re just so freakin’ good! Top props to Lady Sovereign’s “Ch Ching (Cheque 1, 2),” DJ Gama ft. Jookie Mundo’s “Wonky (Vocal Mix),” Jon E. Cash/Black Ops’ “Bang Bang Bang,” and MC Narstie’s “Top Boy.” The horribly sexist Target ft. Dogzee & Syer: “S.T.D.’s” is so cartoonish it’s hard for me to take seriously-- besides, I like to console myself that the asshole declaring that it’s all the woman’s fault for, you know, fucking him without a condom on deserves his fate--but if you want to, and whop me upside the head for it in addition, well, I’m not going to argue.

Finally put on the Dizzee during Christmas vacation. Duh--what was taking me so long, anyway? The truth is it had been on the iPod for about a month; I just hadn’t gotten around to playing it. It’s great, of course, for all the reasons everyone else has mentioned, especially Jess. Still, he was nearly upstaged by his mentor: “Watch this place, I’m setting the pace like Dizzee,” Wiley bragged on his debut, while almost matching him sing-song hook for wobbling keyboard line. Wiley’s also a touch goofier--“Pies” is both an ultramodern nursery-rhyme rewrite and the best sex-as-bakery-item metaphor since Warrant’s heyday--and on “Special Girl” and “Next Level,” he rewires ’80s R&B as lustily as Kanye or MF Doom.

Rephlex’s three-producer, no-vocals compilation Grime, on the other hand, is, as Simon pointed out, closer to straight techno. The title is a little like if Def Jam had put out an album of instrumental B-sides and called it Rap. These are tracks meant for rhyming over, but they sound just fine on their own. It’s a bit difficult telling the three participants apart at first, but MarkOne’s got the coolest PlayStation f/x, Plasticman (not the Richie Hawtin pseudonym) is fondest of warp-and-weft sub-bass, and Slaughter Mob messes around with his beats more frequently--like the album itself, a variation on an old theme that keeps turning up new tricks.

The Streets, meanwhile, is grime by association if he’s lucky. Mike Skinner isn’t competing with his American idols or even the grime contingent at this point; the closest this album comes to that is the tempered bass swarms of “Get Out of My House,” a duet with Simone--her character name, at least--that’s a domesticated (har har) version of Dizzee’s gender spat “I Luv U.” It’s more squirrelly, though--Skinner’s dips and stammers in the background are rhythmically savvy but not necessarily “funky,” at least in the traditional African American sense. And where OPM was stuffed with the kind of instant catchphrases that turn word-heads into alphabet soup, A Grand Don’t Come for Free’s choruses sink in gradually not instantly, largely because Skinner’s not action-painting a world with every other line. He can’t afford to--he’s got a story to tell. Original Pirate Material worked like a concept album thanks to its accreted details; this one piles those onto, yep, a plot.

You know the score: Boy loses cash, meets girl, loses girl, gets pissed (both senses). Often, his cell phone shorts out; he also has problems with his television set. Skinner spent the debut making the ordinary sound oddly glamorous; here, he makes it sound . . . ordinary. What could be more quotidian than a single, “Fit But You Know It,” that depicts the dynamics of checking someone out in a fast-food line in roughly the time it takes the situation to play out? Or a chorus that goes, “I saw this thing on ITV the other week/Said, that if she played with her hair, she’s probably keen/She’s playing with her hair well regularly/So I reckon I could well be in.” Stress every syllable equally, like they’re hopping in place--there you go.

What hasn’t gone away is Skinner’s ability to put you right there, in the middle of the action, and that goes for his production as well as his lyrics. Which brings us to difference number two: If you thought Pirate a tad deficient musically, you will not be amused with Grand’s bareness. Your non-amusement will be your loss, and also your misunderstanding, because Skinner’s songs use music as atmosphere, suggestion, backdrop--a scrim to paint a world on. “Could Well Be In,” is little more than plaintive Casio-on-“piano” chords, ticking drum machine, and invisible string sample, but its silences heighten the delicacy of the situation. He uses few props and makes the most out of all of them.

Which brings us to difference number three: Skinner’s got less traditional-sense “flow” this time around, but Grand sounds, feels more hip-hop somehow. Note that background-scrim business: Skinner’s loops rarely vary, but they suggest the chip shops and darkened apartments of his London terrain just as cannily as Premier or RZA or Dre tracks suggest theirs. Gone are “Sharp Darts”-style attempts at full-on rap rollers, however brief; everything here centers around his cadences, alternately pliable and stick-straight. Nothing seems forced, even when Skinner enunciates “That blue Top Shop top you’ve got on eeez nice” in “Fit” like he’s pogoing harder than the song’s jumping-in-place guitar, like a rivet gun with mild Tourette’s.

He’s also turning into quite the loverman. Grand’s best moments involve a relationship the narrator treasures for--you guessed correctly--its routine: “Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way” makes sharing a spliff on his girlfriend’s couch sound revelatory, the song’s cheap piano vamp and r&b scats intensifying the smallness and goodness of Skinner’s small, good thing. “Dry Your Eyes” is less title than instruction, especially when he croaks an utterly bereft “I’ve got nuffing.”

The first time I heard M.I.A.’s “Galang,” I took it for a girl-group (literally! Figured M.I.A. was a group name, not a single artist) grime record, though it’s a lot closer to straight-up ragga, rhythmically. Either way, it’s a prime pop moment, as irresistible as Althea & Donna’s 1977 reggae classic “Uptown Top Ranking,” which it’s reminiscent of in more than one way--that song was a girly sassing of Dillinger’s “Three Piece Suit and Ting,” while M.I.A. infiltrate ragga’s boys’ club as nonchalantly as the Dixie Cups singing “Iko Iko.” “London calling, speak the slang now/Boys say wha’, girls say wha’,” she tempt us at the top, the beat swallowing her and us whole, a jump-rope skip abetted with a flat-four stomp at the end of the second bar, great groaning wowing synth-bass, post-Diwali hand claps, and what sound like tuned bottles clinking along every so often. The lift-up-and-over moment comes at 2:30, when the beat subsides and a multitracked M.I.A. sings an a cappella “Ya-ya-hey! Whoa-yay-oh-yay-ohhh!” so simultaneously plainspoken and transported you can feel the concrete beneath their sneakers and see the clear skies beyond the council flats. (Props to Jess for spotting the South African connection, vocal-wise.) Best girl-group record since “Say My Name”--if not “Uptown Top Ranking,” if not “Iko Iko.”

Similarly, Estelle’s “1980” is more or less a straight, U.S.-style R&B rap record, but for Yanks like myself it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that something this good came along at the same time as the grime explosion. And “Come Let Me Know” would probably get a DJ lynched in underground London right now, but it’s pretty difficult to resist English voices declaring themselves “represent[ing] for the raving crew . . . here to flex/This one you’ve got to get on CD or tape cassette” in 2004, with both raves and cassettes equally outdated. In that sense, New Zealand ex-pat Darin McFadyen is joining Fatboy Slim and the Prodigy in clubland’s “Remember the ’90s?” sweepstakes. The difference is that his embracing of a hedonism so pre-dot-com crash it can seem bewildering actually works every so often. Taken in that spirit, Rodney P’s butt-simple rhymes on “Come Let Me Know” sound like the beginning of a story that Skinner, Wiley, Dizzee, Lady Sovereign, and dozens of others, including the folks on the forthcoming Run the Road comp (which I excerpted four cuts from on my 2004 mixes, thinking it was already out in the U.K.; it’s been pushed back to January there and will be out in America in March on Vice), are bringing into the future.

Rio Baile Funk: Favela Booty Beats (Essay, Austria)
Diplo: Favela on Blast: Rio Baile Funk 04 (Hollertronix)

It’s probably wrong to refer to the hard chants, simple, party-starting beats, and heedlessly hedonistic air of Rio baile funk as the Brazilian equivalent of Miami bass. Though bass is a style from which these artists crib heavily and frequently, they’re also more than happy to swipe anything else they can get their hands on. On this blindsiding 19-track collection, it’s stuff that’s just as (musically) raw as 2 Live Crew’s progeny: Run-D.M.C. circa “King of Rock” (check the just-this-side- of-Billy-Squier guitar riff and solo on De Falla’s “Propozuda R n’ Roll”), early electro (SD Boys’ “Planta Dominado” cuts up Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force’s Miami bass ur-text, “Planet Rock”), even formative industrial (Dennis DJ’s “Cerol Na Mao” is underpinned by a loop of the opening back-swiping rhythm tattoo of Front 242’s “Headhunter”). Everything fits because anything can fit; the only time the comp lags comes at the end, when Waguinho reprises an earlier electro-jam by arranging it for live samba horns and drummers. There are no such lapses on Diplo’s frantic 31-minute mix, but there’s also less breathing room, which was decisive for me in deciding which of the two I liked better. (Though I will acknowledge that the fact that I heard Essay comp first may be the deciding factor.) Each has at least a few amazing moments, though: on Booty Beats, my favorite stretch comes when the synth-horn blats of Ricardo e Esquisito’s “Mulher Coca Cola” make way for the rugged shouts of MC Mascote’s “Bate la Plame de Mao” and the dirty double-dutch vocal stutters of Paty’s “Cavalo de Pau.” For Diplo, it’s when “Bitter Sweet Symphony” peeps in (the second time this year! Check out Sugar Daddy’s “Sweet Soca Music,” from Dancehall Nice Again 2004: Reggae y Reggaeton, on Sequence).

Sonic Youth: Sonic Nurse (Geffen)
Sonic Youth never saved rock, and that’s the best thing that never happened to them. In the early ‘80s, no one outside New York’s Lower East Side cared much about the band. When the rest of bohemia eventually took notice, it was still only bohemia Sonic Youth had to contend with, whatever their stated affinity for Bruce and Madonna. In the early ‘90s, even their Big Rock Sellout, 1992’s Dirty, couched poppier-than-ever songs inside amp skree. They were as eager to fit into the ascendant alt-rock firmament as Stone Temple Pilots, and as fated to permanent outsiderdom as the Velvets.

Sonic Youth still excel at balancing pop’s mainstream/underground dualism because they’ve always been enthusiastic about both sides of the equation. Listen to the commentary track on Corporate Ghost, Geffen’s recent DVD of the band’s videos from 1990’s Goo through 2002’s Murray Street, and you’ll hear a band who is equally comfortable with their past (which they spent gunning for the big time) as with their comfortably marginal present. That goes for even the most dated clips: Dirty’s “Youth Against Fascism” looks like a snowboarding video made by the art director of Ray Gun magazine while Goo’s “Dirty Boots” is a mosh-pit love story whose teenage protagonists’ clothes are even cornier than the “plot.” (The clip was filmed about ten seconds before the entire cast’s indie-wear fashions invaded Milan.) Most of the band’s comments seem to say the same thing: Seemed like a good idea at the time. That’s what we’re used hearing to from public figures who helped define an era they’ve outlived. But Sonic Youth’s jovial, unashamed tone makes it easy to append another thought to that statement: Hell, it still is.

The same goes for their basic sound, which goes essentially untouched on the Sonic Nurse. The music isn’t the least bit surprising; it’s also their best in a decade, if not since they kissed full-time indiedom goodbye with 1988’s Daydream Nation, if not since . . . well, let’s hold off on that last thought for now, because Sonic Youth keep making records that don’t so much knock the others out of the annals as keep building an edifice you can climb into without losing touch with the real world. There’s none of the Fall’s cult of personality here, nor is there any of the Grateful Dead’s mythology. What Sonic Youth sell is the idea of the everlasting now, even if every album is slightly different from its predecessor: Sonic Nurse feels more casual and poppier than Murray Street, which was a classic-rock yang to the experimental yin of NYC Ghosts & Flowers. You’ll never mistake Sonic Nurse for Daydream Nation, but you can hear the same band on both albums--and that band is older, maybe wiser.

Not that Sonic Youth were ever selling insight. Even Kim Gordon’s celebrity odes are less how-to advice than how-come queries (see Goo’s “Tunic,” about Karen Carpenter, or Nurse’s “Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream,” about Mariah Carey). And Thurston Moore is a born goofball even when he’s getting political (see “Youth Against Fascism” or the new disc’s “Peace Attack”). The band’s sagacity has always been in their sound, and that’s true even if they’ve slowed down since Dirty failed to go alternative platinum. You can joke that Sonic Youth are old, but that’s exactly the point: Their music since 1994’s skeletal Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star has openly contended with the fact that they’re not kids anymore. (Would that Mick Jagger copped to such wisdom.) When that album was released, they’d spent a decade inventing the influential sound-as-sound philosophy of the indie ’80s--resonant then and especially now, when sound-as-meaning is a lot more commonplace. Unlike many of their peers, that sound still carries through cheap or indifferent production.

Since Experimental Jet Set, Sonic Youth have been content to live in and explore that sound rather than pushing it to its limits. Plenty of people have yet to forgive their transition from barrier-shifting, sex-crazed, violent-feedback warriors to everyday sound-molders who, like the free jazz players Moore idolizes, attempt to make their art inextricable from their lives. 1998’s radically uneventful A Thousand Leaves showed the band at its most languid, but Murray Street and especially Sonic Nurse find them employing speed the way they do feedback--it’s just something they bring out whenever they feel like it.

Sonic Nurse initially sounds so offhanded that you figure they’re coasting. And they are, except there’s nothing autopilot about it. They listen responsively, responding to one another’s instrumental calls and coaxes, sounding more fluid than ever--partly due to 24 years of experience, partly due to an unwavering commitment to the Now. They’ve become a groove band, starting with Shelley’s drumming, which rolls more than it rocks. He’s constantly propelling, and he’s sneaky: On “Stones,” his re-entrance after a swelling guitar break has the kind of perfectly proportioned keel it takes ages to master. Sonic Youth have always had an ear for dynamics, but it’s hard to imagine a time before Sonic Nursewhen they could inject more tension into a song by slowing down and dropping certain instruments out (as they do with the Gordon-sung “I Love You Golden Blue”) than by doing the opposite.

While Jim O’Rourke, who joined the band around the time of 2000’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers, has undoubtedly helped Sonic Youth tighten their songs (he and Gordon switch between guitar and bass), it’s Gordon who owns Sonic Nurse. She’s never sounded better, even when she’s hiccupping through “Arthur Doyle Hand Cream.” Gordon is as unflappable as the “cool hunter” she name-checks on the William Gibson-inspired opener “Pattern Recognition,” where guitars riff in Morse code and thrum into air turbulence while the drums get tribal and then a doomsday coda takes up nearly half the song. She’s parched and harrowing on “Golden Blue,” which sounds like a lament for lost innocence (“I can’t read your mind/I can’t find the time”). She strides through “Dude Ranch Nurse” (in which she slyly references, of all people, the Band: “Nobody knows the shape I’m in”) while the rest of her own band slowly, and appropriately, gallops. Sure, they’ve done something like this before. They just do it slightly differently this time. And I hope they keep doing it slightly different every year for the rest of their goddamned lives.

Kanye West: The College Dropout (Roc-a-Fella) + Kon the Louis Vuitton Don (mixtape)
Jay-Z Construction Set (
Jay-Z vs. Radiohead: “99 Anthems” (MP3)
Nas: Street’s Disciple (Columbia)
Ghostface: The Pretty Toney Album (Def Jam)
Theodore Unit: 718 (Sure Shot/Navarre)

Pop marketing of the year, without question, goes to Roc-a-Fella for pawning off their producer du jour, the architect of many many megaselling mainstream rap singles, as a backpacker simply because he didn’t rap about guns. And getting away with it, despite the fact that he was plainly every bit as big a jerk as, oh, everyone else on his label (and not a few underground guys, so-called, either). But as his paymaster (and now all of Def Jam’s, with Universal to follow, maybe?) has demonstrated, ruthlessness can have its own kind of appeal, especially when it comes to hook construction. The College Dropout was rare in that it actually grew on me throughout the year, or more accurately, sounded good-not-great at first, then reignited itself in my ears when I went back to it in September, after a lengthy absence. The Kon the Louis Vuitton Don mixtape is terrif, too, though if it doesn’t have the skits that mar the album proper, it doesn’t reach as high as often.

Anyway, even if everyone’s overrating Dropout (including me), they’re not doing it as much as they are with The Grey Album. Can we just admit that as surprisingly resonant as the gimmick is, and as much as we all love the First Amendment, that the thing is also reeeeal limited in its actually-listening-to-music appeal? Mostly, it, along with the dozens (and I mean dozens) of other Black Album remixes floating around, acts primarily as a set of ready-made examples of how one canny capitalist (who issued the album in a cappella form not long after its initial November release, specifically to stimulate “the streets [to] remix the hell out of it”) has gotten as much or more promotion for (virtually) free than he did by blanketing the magazine racks for a year following his retirement announcement.

That said, I did enjoy Grey; I’m especially partial to Danger Mouse’s treatment of “December 4th,” which layers Shawn’s mom, Gloria Carter, over (what else?) “Mother Nature’s Son.” I like DM’s “99 Problems,” too, though not as much as the anonymous version that pitted it against Radiohead’s “National Anthem,” and absolutely not as much as the original; anyone who thinks the Rick Rubin-produced version was somehow improved upon with “Helter Skelter” samples has rocks in their head.

Grey and six other remixes are collected on the sort-of handy Jay-Z Construction Set, a kind of web-only box set that beat U2 to the idea by a good eight months. It’s excessive, but it’s also more stimulating--and surprising--than you might figure. At one point while playing the Construction Kit, I muttered something vaguely mean about overproduction inevitably equaling bland-out, starting with whichever example was currently reaching my ear. Then “99 Problems” started--the original, which meant the four previous songs I’d been grumbling about were, in fact, from The Black Album and not one of its remixes. Whoops. Faves: DJ Lt. Dan’s Back to Basic Remixes, which pits them from ’90s hip-hop classics (choice cut: “Dirt Off Your Shoulder/Come Clean”), and MC Scott D’s Hot Buttered Soul Remixes, which matches them with pre-hip-hop R&B (choice cut: “December 4th (Pushaman Mix)”). As for Linkin Park, the less said the better, as usual.

Jay’s old rival was pretty ambitious, too, though not quite as much as you might have expected: Street’s Disciple is gratifyingly loose--sure it would’ve been a lot better at half its current length, but it would have also lost a lot of what makes it tick, which is a try-anything feel that no one has ever associated with Nas until now. Ghostface, on the other hand, is gregarious by nature, so it’s easier to buy into his might-as-well-be-a-double-CD, released in two parts under two names. Reception of The Pretty Toney Album was largely split into two camps: The ones bowled over by its greatness (and willing to overlook the skits), and the ones lamenting the fact that several songs that had been slated for inclusion on the album had been axed from the final lineup, several of which turned up on 718, an “official mixtape” that serves as the debut of Ghost’s posse, Theodore Unit. That’s a boon even if you love Toney just the way it is (and are willing to overlook the skits): “Guerilla Hood,” “The Drummer” (which features Method Man, Streetlife, and Trife), and “Paychecks” (with Trife) would have buoyed it even more. The grade-curve on 718 is a simple one: The more Ghostface appears, the better the song is. He sounds stream-of-consciousness, but even his loopiest moments (like his bits on “The Drummer”) hold together. Play the six non-Ghost tracks in isolation and you’ll get a middling EP with better production than rapping; play the rest and you’ll notice voices that passed you by on the rest of the disc, most notably Trife’s. The reason? The MC formerly known as a Killah is killin’ it.

The Futureheads (Startime International/Sire)
Franz Ferdinand (Domino)
Modest Mouse: Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic)

These acts are somewhat arbitrarily grouped together under the “neo-new wave” banner, and there are plenty of others that would’ve fit the bill that will be dealt with later (or not at all). The Futureheads is one of a handful of records that nearly but didn’t quite make my top ten; it’s the best XTC record that band never made. Which makes its placement so high in my heart and on my list surprising, since I’ve never really given a toss about XTC in the first place. Maybe these guys will turn me onto them for good. Or maybe (whispers) they’re better. I’ll have to dig deeper into the XTC catalogue for that to have any credence (with myself, never mind actual XTC fans), though.

The first time I heard “Take Me Out” (I believe via Fluxblog, but I’m probably wrong about that--it was an MP3 from a blog, though, I remember that much) the first thing I thought was, “This drummer sucks!” For some reason, the beat during the disco section sounded wobbly and waaaay off. I think now I think it was just my innate anti-hype mechanism kicking in, because I haven’t had that problem since. Which isn’t to say I have any great undying love for Franz Ferdinand; if anything, I probably underrate it. It’s an undoubtedly skillful album, and I like the tunes and the guitars. It’s relative flawlessness--and relatively passionless, too, which mitigated it for me and makes me frankly suspicious its high placing on a lot of year-end lists so far. Do people really love these guys? I have a really hard time imagining why, exactly--there’s a blandness at the center of this album, a self-satisfaction that’s not totally off-putting but that makes them seem really, almost determinedly minor. Since I’m an American, I don’t generally think about pop in that overheated Brit-identified if-it-doesn’t-change-your-life-drop-it-like-it’s-frozen way (a way I admire a lot but can’t quite give into all the way most of the time), but really, if you’re gonna talk about an album maybe being the best of the year, shouldn’t it have some life-altering capacity? I just don’t hear that on Franz Ferdinand; I can’t even imagine that anyone learns much from it, besides that Alex K has a really lickable neck. (Though now that I’ve written that maybe I’ve overlooked that “Michael” might help some kid in Bumfuck, Iowa, come out to his parents, which certainly counts for something.)

Isaac Brock doesn’t have a particularly lickable neck, as far as I can tell, but I can see why people root so hard for Modest Mouse (besides that said people are corny indie fuxxx): They’ve been doing it so long (and often well), and Brock wrote the clearest hooks of his career this time around. But if Brock plays guitar like an angel, he tends to bellow like a giant baby who’s missed his breakfast: “Float On” would have made my top 30 or so had it not been for his uncomfortable bark. The guitar on that song was one of the year’s most insidious musical memes, almost Congolese in its gorgeous, dappled intricacy. Give me “The View” instead: punk-funk as oompah-ing, as one-heaving-breath-at-a-time, as an oversized bellows, Brock using the plug-ugliness of his voice as a starting point rather than having it be a stumbling block, guitars nearly as pretty as those of “Float On.” Still, it’s not hard to understand why Good News got successful. No one will ever confuse Brock for an optimist, but MM’s earlier albums would have never featured a song like “One Chance”: “We have one chance, one chance/To get everything right/We have one chance, one chance/And if we’re lucky we might.” He even renounces former vices on “The Good Times Are Killing Me”: “Fed up with all that LSD/Need more sleep than coke or methamphetamines.” Even his insults are tinged with a 12-stepper’s morality: “You wasted life/Why wouldn’t you waste the afterlife?” he sneers at the end of “Ocean Breathes Salty.” Cautious optimism in the face of horror--where have we heard that one before?

Dungen: Ta Det Lungt (Subliminal)
Big ups to Mike Wolf from Time Out New York, who listened to me bitch about spending a ridiculous amount of money on records on my last visit to NYC and then handed me this album and said, “Seriously, it’s worth your money.” It is, too: Some dude from Norway who made the whole thing himself and sounded like a jamming-assed band circa ’71 who’d mastered all manner of the period’s psychedelic punk rock (up to and including the Stooges, Funkadelic, Hawkwind, and the Rolling Stones) and then spit out 13 instant classics of their own. I understand dude has been signed to a U.S. label now; can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

The Thermals: Fuckin A (Sub Pop)
Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Soft Pink Truth? (Tigerbeat6)
Ted Leo + the Pharmacists: Shake the Sheets (Lookout!)
The Hives: Tyrannosaurus Hives (Interscope)

Never heard the Rock Against Bush comps (thanks, Keith, for talking me into saving my $$), but politicized punk was surprisingly resonant this year, mostly when the folks who made it were determined subculturalists (never heard the Green Day album, either). Fuckin A was one of the most thrilling half-hours of the year, one choon after another, and Hutch Harris says what he means: “Pray for a new state/Pray for assassination.” It seems so simple to make stuff this good; why aren’t more bands doing it? Maybe because the Soft Pink Truth probably have the right idea, running old punk, new wave, and hardcore songs through the sampler and/or synth, reconfiguring it while amplifying its essence, albeit in electro drag.

I loved about half of Ted Leo’s 2003 Hearts of Oak but found it exhausting overall; the good intentions were so right-on it became kind of a chore to listen to after a while. None of that with Shake the Sheets, which you could just mistake for 40 minutes of hook-hook-hook-hook-hook. Tune in and he’s still as righteous, but he (and the songs, and the band) sounds so much more relaxed that it nearly muscled its way into my top ten on repeat-listen power, much like the Futureheads. As for the Hives, they’re only political if you figure “Walk Idiot Walk” for a command to Dubya, but they’re so adept at their one trick it seems churlish to leave them out of this company.

Ada: Blondie (Areal)
Ellen Allien: My Parade (Bpitch Control)
Ricardo Villalobos: Thé Au Harem D’Archimède (Perlon)

So you’re in your little room, and you’re working on something good. But if it’s really good, you’re gonna need a bigger room. And what phrase suggests “little room” more literally than “microhouse,” a substyle that suggests infinite variety on the head of a pin? But over the past half-decade, the term has become as much a description of what the music isn’t--obvious, cheesy, anthemic--as what it is (subtle, slow-building, cocked-eyebrow sly). Thing is, most of the music’s heavy hitters want to escape the little room of insider snobbery for the bigger room of pop (or at least semi-popular) appeal--and they want to do it without sacrificing too much of what makes the best of it churn.

Frequently, this has meant the usual kinds of crossover tactics, like remaking well-known material in its own image, most infamously Superpitcher mauling Peggy Lee’s “Fever” on his seasickeningly uneven Here Comes Love, released earlier this year. But when Cologne’s Ada, one of the sharpest DJ/producers in the field, includes a tingling house version of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” on her debut album, it sounds like the most natural thing in the world. That’s partly because Ada’s surprisingly nuanced singing is one of the album’s strongest features--and partly because “Maps” shares the same opalescent production of cuts like “Each and Everyone (Blindhouse-Mix)” and “Livedriver” (sweep-and-crack percussion on the former, 3D bells on the latter).

Ellen Allien doesn’t sing on her new album, but she doesn’t have to. Continuing her winning pattern of alternating an album of originals with a DJ mix, the Berliner’s new My Parade works as a goof on her native city’s biggest dance-music event (the annual Love Parade, a trance-dominated outdoor DJ festival) and a statement of personal purpose--as Nick Sylvester of Pitchfork points out, 10 of the 13 cuts here are B-sides of the 12-inches from which they stem. Unlike 2002’s great Weiss.Mix, which leaned toward detailed minimalism, My Parade is bigger and bashier; it’s no surprise that two of the best cuts are titled “Rave Anthem” and “Cheap Thrills” (by Modeselektor and Apparat, respectively).

If Ada and Allien are committed to making microhouse macro, Spaniard Ricardo Villalobos doesn’t have to think about how he got started in his little room. If Thé Au Harem D’Archimède is any indication, he’s downsized to a closet. But he finds acres of nuance in his self-imposed confines. Opener “Hireklon” puts the lessons of avant-folk guitar master John Fahey to better use than a police van full of spare-changers-cum-Wire magazine cover subjects, with a Twilight Zone-worthy acoustic line that curlicues in on itself over a pitter-clapping beat and cozy single bass notes. On “Hello Halo,” the clip-clop rhythm rises (just barely) above what appears to be the jibber-jabbering of a dozen contact-miked beetles and occasional drop-ins from some pitch-bended bells. And on “True to Myself,” Villalobos even sings--not as prettily as Ada or as officiously as Allien, but in a woozy scat that feels appropriate to his project. He sounds like he’s singing to himself, in his little room, wondering not how to get out, but where to stack the laundry.

Junior Boys: Last Exit (Kin/Domino)
Go Canada. Thrashing the fudging-around likes of Four Tet, Manitoba, and the Notwist, chillier and every bit as tuneful as the Postal Service (and way less annoying to kids afraid to get a little goofy every once in a while, i.e. not me), Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus may have been iffy live (I found them appealingly gawky, a couple higher-on-the-food-chainers opted for “sucks” and “worst live band I’ve ever seen,” whatevs), but the album was worth the wait. Greenspan swaddles the homebrewed tracks--two-step garage twitter-steps covered in winter flannel--with cottony synths, curious little melodies, and a vocal style that’s unabashedly emotional, if self-effacingly low in the mix.

“Birthday” is a devastated-slash-devastating breakup song set to a rhythm that’s as stop-start as the relationship it describes: “Is it true that it’s me?/You can say all the things you want to/But you don’t easily/If you take all this weight behind me/And let it go...You’re not here in the end/So there’s nothing left to say.” Greenspan’s voice arcs dangerously high on the words “let it go,” as if he’s about to do just that with his emotional hold, but he stops short, riding the tension throughout the song. (His voice sounds like an uncanny cross between Daryl Hall and David Sylvian, minus the former’s overplayed grit and the latter’s pompousness.) “High Come Down” is less heartbroken but just as swoon-worthy, with Greenspan’s wispy sing-song vocals hinging on the beat like the proverbial ghost in the machine. Musically, it evokes a cross between Luomo’s glitch-house soul and an Aaliyah ballad with an especially fragmented rhythm--current R&B minus the sonic glitz.

My faves, though, were the tense, funked up opener “More Than Real” and the ice-scapey “Under the Sun,” which has, like, three words, one and a third chords, and repeats repeats repeats itself. Why doesn’t this bore me? Who knows? Maybe because, like the rest of Last Exit, it evokes the music bleeding through the walls as you hear a man cry in the bathroom stall of the hottest club in town.

Akufen: Fabric 17 (Fabric, UK)
Michael Mayer: Touch + Kompakt 100 + Justus Kohncke: “Timecode” + Pop Ambient 2004 + Triola: Triola Im Fünftonraum (all Kompakt)
Robag Wruhme: Wuzzlebud “KK” (Musik Krause)
Lusine: Serial Hodgepodge + James T. Cotton: The Dancing Box + Lawrence: “Spark” (all Ghostly International)
Matthew Dear: Backstroke (Spectral Sound)
DJ Spooky: Rhythm Science (Sub Rosa)

Not the greatest year for clicky-buzzy crickle-crackle w/beats, was it? Or maybe I’d have thunk differently if I’d been jetting around the globe like Sherburne and Dayal; as it is, I made it to NYC for the Kompakt vs. Rephlex night (guess who won? Oh come on, it’s not difficult to figure out!) and enjoyed the living bejesus out of myself, not least because I got to hang w/so many great people (Geeta! Jess! Simon! Peter Shapiro! Paul Kennedy! Tricia! Adrienne! Battaglia! Daddino! Others I’m forgetting! Big up ya chests!) and ended the night w/Jess and Mike D. at a White Castle in Brooklyn, the official greatest end-of-long-night-of-dancing place ever, even if Jess’s stomach didn’t take to it too good afterward. (I spent more than one mid-’90s post-rave early morning at the Lake Street White Castle in Mpls, yessir, esp. when I was living mere blocks from it . . . ah, memories!)

But beyond that, microclick definitely felt like it was in a holding pattern, good records like the above notwithstanding. Which isn’t surprising--Simon was prophesying its twittering-into-nothing a while back, and while I don’t think it’s irrelevant, I do see how the basic limits of the style were just begging to play themselves out in short order. So even if I can still hear Akufen’s Fabric 17 mix as near-definitive, a fabulous intro to the style, I’m also a little past celebrating it the way I might’ve had it come out two years ago; things have moved on, if only slightly, and it doesn’t feel as momentous, though it really is a wonderful mix.

Also, I’m of the school that prefers Triple R’s Friends to Michael Mayer’s Immer; I like this stuff as un-dry and as warm as possible, with a hefty side of not-goth too if you could, please. Humor, even slightly stiff German tongue-in-cheekitude, is welcome, too. The Mayer album was disappointing even if you weren’t waiting for him to rewrite the genre’s book, but the more ear time I’ve given it the warmer and more settled-in it sounded; it hangs together better with a few listens. Still, the best tracks on it were 2003 singles, which does not bode well. As Kompaktia goes, I’ll take not only 100, which also broadened and deepened with repeated exposure, and which has a couple of my very favorite cuts of the year: Kaito’s relick of Superpitcher’s “Tomorrow” (which I’ll take over the entirety of Let Love In or whatever the fuck it’s called) (he wasn’t all that live in NYC, either, for that matter, even if I can’t help but revere the guy till the end of time for his remix of Dntel’s “Evan and Chan,” probably my favorite “dance” single of the decade thus far), and the Modernist’s redo of Justus Kohncke’s “Weiche Zaune” (WAY hookier and more playful and sexier and whatever else you care to call it than “Frei/Hot Love,” which is of course terrific too, but come on, this is SO cuddly, loved it the second I heard it and dozens/hundreds of plays haven’t diminished it any); Justus’s “Timecode” is also splendiferous, and might have made the mixes had I heard it earlier, though probably not. Surprisingly, as someone who found the previous editions simply snoozy, I dug Pop Ambient 2004 a lot, too--uneven, but gratifyingly rich and really good for deadline projects. Even better was Triola’s Triola Im Fünftonraum, which reminded me of nothing so much as Dimensions in Ambience 4, one of the pokiest, least eventful (unless sitting in the egg room from 2001 and/or a barely decorated white-walled/floored museum waiting for the world to end counts as an event), and loveliest compilations I know of. Pure program music, clockwork clockwork clockwork, and it opens any room it’s in till the sky peeks in, or out. Robag Wruhme, meantime, was merely distributed by Kompakt, but in a similar way, his Wuzzlebud “KK” was uneven--alternately boring and bracing, usually more of the latter, happily enough.

But mostly, 2004 proved that Kompakt’s usual relative infallibility is as much a lovely mirage as anything else they’ve provided us with. Ghostly, on the other hand, never promised us a rose-tinted garden, so they’re free to follow their wayward muse wherever, usually straight to the dancefloor. Lusine’s album and Lawrence’s 12-inch hovered and darted and nipped and tucked something lovely, James T. Cotton plainly loves his Trax acid and his acid tracks, and for my money Matthew Dear topped himself: Backstroke is, to my ear, the most immediate music he’s made, excepting maybe “Dog Days.” It’s a bit more subdued than Leave Luck to Heaven but just as engrossing; in some ways, it sounds like a combo platter of all his 2003 output: the pitter-pat beat of “Another” could have been a Jabberjaw B-side, “Takes on You” has a slant-cut minimalism reminiscent of False, and the exuberant Latin-house of “And in the Night” nearly makes “Dog Days” sound like the work of a wallflower. (Props also for sending turntable-less press dorks like myself CD promos of their latest 12s so we know what we’re missing out on instead of waiting a year for the songs to appear on albums or comps.)

And what on earth is DJ Spooky doing here, you may ask? Fair enough: I’ve called him a charlatan in print many times, and I’d still do it if I could be bothered paying attention to his liner notes and/or book. But Rhythm Science is a keeper because instead of utilizing his oh-so-clever trick of matching beats by ignoring them completely, he gives us a disc, taken entirely from Sub Rosa’s catalogue, that barely has any. Texture-goo galore with some spoken-word stuff, it’s lovely stuff, and makes me feel less bad for having ignored everything else with the guy’s name on it this year.

Kid606: Who Still Kill Sound? (Tigerbeat6)
Forget the jungle revival: Kid606 spent this disc going after the breakbeat-hardcore that preceded it. Where 2003’s Kill Sound Before Sound Kill You played around with old rave motifs before abandoning them halfway through, this dives into them headfirst and stays there: chipmunk-diva exhortations (attention Kanye West fans! English kids on lots of drugs made an industry out of speeding up old R&B records a full decade ago!), dancehall-ragga shouts, synths blipping out bass lines and buzzing out midrange riffs, and a euphoria on the brink of collapse, both in the physical-body and subcultural-breakdown senses. Except the giddiness isn’t ecstasy-fueled the-future-is-now so much as coked-up nostalgia, which gives the music a brittleness that undercuts its juiciness some. That’s partly because 606 layers laptop-generated white noise—thin, curling, hovering—over or beneath nearly everything, and partly because he’s still a smartass: See “Pregnant Cheerleader Theme Song” (“I’m on it, I’m hot/I’m everything you’re not/I’m pretty, I’m cool/I dominate the school”), not to mention titles like “Slammin’ Ragga Bootleg Track” and “All I Wanted for Christmas Was My Braces Off.” And since a lot of breakbeat hardcore’s appeal was in its absurdity, 606’s retrofit becomes both the source and what he’s made of it.

Jason Forrest: Unrelenting Songs of the 1979 Post Disco Crash (Sonig)
You’d expect a DJ-producer who adopted the name “Donna Summer” for his early recordings to gleefully glean as many pop-culture castoffs as he could get away with. But what’s surprising--and gratifying—about Jason Forrest’s first pseudonym-less release(his first on a label not his own) is how little he condescends to his sources, and how sharp he makes even the clichéd stuff sound. There are plenty of easily recognizable, if fleeting, snippets of classic-rock and ’70s funk staples here, but if Forrest trades in on their associative power, he also turns them into something new and frequently ingenious—the ricocheting mini-symphony of horn blurts and string splashes on “INKhUK” or the rock-funk-metal-disco pileup of “Stepping Off” are accessible for anyone alive during the ’70s, or who’s spent much time with oldies radio, but they’re also just out of reach. Forrest used to host a show on the New Jersey freeform station WFMU, home to all manner of weirdness, and like many of his former colleagues, he’s got a prankster’s heart: “Ceci N’est Pas Du Disco” continually disrupts a beat that jitters around to begin with, while the self-explanatory “Why I Love ELO” sounds like it was made in a blender. But like the Kid606 album above, or the mash-up bootlegs that predated both, Forrest creates something out of his mess.

Luna: Rendezvous (Jetset)
You can ignore Luna if you want, especially now that they're finished. Ever since Dean Wareham kissed his Galaxie 500 bandmates bye in 1992 to go solo-with-backup, he’s been on the exact same path, sharpening G500’s languidness just enough to leave an imprint but not enough to tear the walls down, buoying the rhythm, snarking up the lyrics, and playing guitar . . . about the same way as in his previous band, actually, except sharper and more relaxed. Only diehards can tell the albums apart, aside from one of them having a Guns N’ Roses cover (1999’s The Days of Our Nights, featuring an ace “Sweet Child o’ Mine”), another having some audience noise (2001’s Live), and none of them being quite as good as 1995’s Penthouse. Just don’t be surprised when Luna sneak up on you, which if you like things like laconic singers, gorgeous guitars, tunes, songs, and hooks, you probably will. And I do mean “sneaks,” because once that happens, you’ll notice that Rendezvous is drowsier than 2002’s Romantica or Close Cover Before Striking, even though the snappiest thing on either, Cover’s “Astronaut,” reappears here. Maybe Wareham is still clearing his eyes after 2003’s very sleepy duo album with Luna bassist (and paramour) Britta Phillips. But if the mildly randy Romantica gave off a contented glow, the franker Rendezvous (see “Motel Bambi,” “Malibu Love Nest,” and--Dean, you naughty boy--“Cindy Tastes of Barbecue”) evokes an post-coital exhaustion that’s both satisfied (“Ahhh--that was great”) and mildly confused (“What city are we in, anyway?”).

Mylab (Terminus)
Burnt Sugar: Black Sex Yall Liberation & Bloody Random Violets (Trugroid)
The Trio Plays Ware (Splasc[h], Italy)
Matthew Shipp: Harmony & Abyss (Thirsty Ear)

In some ways, Wayne Horvitz’s collaboration with producer Tucker Martine and a slew of Seattle all-stars (including guitarist Bill Frisell, violinist Eyvind Kang, and vocalist/keyboardist Reggie Watts of soul-rockers Maktub) is both a culmination of his previous work and a step away from it. On Mylab’s self-titled debut, Horvitz and Martine incorporate a stew of sources--everything from the bluesy guitar that anchors “Land Trust Picnic” to crinkly, glitchy laptop noise of “Fancy Party Cakes” to the African instruments of “Phil and Jerry”--into a series of somewhat murky but immediately appealing grooves. Like the homebrewed hybrids of artists like the Latin Playboys or Marc Ribot’s Los Cubanos Postizos (the Prosthetic Cubans), or even DJ Shadow and Radiohead circa Kid A, Mylab are interested in texture as much as tune, and their trick is that they do both well: “Pop Client” has a baritone sax hook you can take home with you, while the buzzing-bee horns and guitar of “Ask Mickey” take us into the mystic before a jazzy hi-hat pulse brings us back to earth.

Greg Tate has less need for remaining on terra firma. Yes, you read that title right: Black Sex Yall Liberation & Bloody Random Violets, no comma, no apostrophe, no colon, no em-dash, yes ampersand, with blood and liberation and sex and violets all carrying equal weight--an indulgently engorged entity dropped on your plate in take-it-or-leave-it fashion. All of which makes it the perfect title for a double CD by this New York collective-not-band (the lineup fluctuates a lot), led by guitarist/conductor and Village Voice critic Greg Tate. Still, the title’s operative word isn’t one of the nouns, but an adjective: random.

That word applies partly because of the band’s methods: Burnt Sugar makes music via “conduction,” which is, as its founder Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris puts it on his website, “a vocabulary of ideographic signs and gestures activated to modify or construct a real-time musical arrangement or improvisation.” (In layman’s terms, that means the band makes stuff up, usually in what sounds like a loosely predetermined framework, while Tate directs them, conducting their improvisations.) In Burnt Sugar’s hands, the results are not unlike the carefully plotted chaos of another confusing-to-outsiders musical system, Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics: Each musician seems to be playing simultaneously in sync with the others and apart from them, strengthening the whole by pulling away from it.

Since Tate is a theorist by trade (he said in a 2001 interview that Burnt Sugar was an attempt to work within the framework of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew without imitating it), you’d be forgiven for expecting Black Sex Yall to feel bookish. Sometimes it does: “Driva Man/Freedom Day” perilously balances Tamar Kali’s stentorian vocals against a drum ‘n’ bass breakdown and the heavy blowing of trumpeter Lewis Flip Barnes and alto saxophonist Micah Gaugh. And the method-played-and-sung “Fear” is a mess. But most of the time, even the far-flung stuff is easeful, like “Funky Rich Medina”: There’s some laptop fizz, and then, poof, Mazz Swift and Satch Hoyt tug their violin and flute toward the Middle East. DJ Mutamassik’s turntable squiggles beam in from Planet Noise, vocalists Justice Dilla-X and Lisala Beatty scat from under the Village Vanguard’s floorboards, and everything is held together by a loping, hypnotic groove. Then “No Direction Home” moves through seven individually indexed parts that range from soothing laptop glitch to regal chamber jazz to post-bop. It may be random, but it doesn’t happen by accident.

As for actual jazz, well, I didn’t hear nearly enough (oh dilletantism), but the record I came back to most often was The Trio Plays Ware, in which David S.’s hardy rhythm team--Matthew Shipp, Guillermo E. Brown, and William Parker--rewrote the boss’s songbook so effectively you wouldn’t have missed the leader if you’d never heard his versions. (I haven’t heard most of his versions, so I just liked it, period.) Shipp’s Harmony & Abyss continues his Blue Series run really nicely, too. Don’t know if this is on purpose or not, but Shipp’s Blue discs tend to be in the 40-45 minute/10-song range--perfect for novices like myself to chew on in one sitting, since it works like a pop album. The sonix are fairly pop as well, but file this one between Trio’s straightahead live-in-the-studio and Mylab/Burnt Sugar’s jazz-not-jazz.

The Mountain Goats: We Shall All Be Healed (4AD/Beggars)
It’s misleading to refer to this as a “groove record,” though it’s certainly the first Mountain Goats album to come within spitting distance of qualifying for that title. That’s partly because lead-and-only-permanent Goat John Darnielle is better known for his lyrics than his music, and for good reason-except for Stephin Merritt and the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, no guitar-wielder right now writes better words. He’s also recorded the bulk of his catalogue alone and plays shows with one accompanist, bass player Peter Hughes. But Darnielle has always been a fearsomely rhythmic strummer, and on his second album for 4AD, he and producer John Vanderslice find a driving, roomy small-band sound that sells the songs as much as Darnielle’s usual fierce clarity. The fuller arrangements work especially well considering that the verses are shorter than usual. They’re also more allusive-where the bulk of 2002’s Tallahassee concerned specific situations, often in the form of a couple’s disintegration, Healed’s lyrics touch on more general territory. From “Smiling faces flawlessly rehearsed/We are sleek and beautiful/We are cursed,” from opener “Slow West Vultures,” to the caustically good-timey “Letter From Belgium” (“In the cold clear light of day down here/Everyone’s a monster/That’s cool with us/We’ve been past the point of help since early April”), Darnielle is in survey rather than microscope mode here.

Van Hunt (Capitol)
A terrific black rock record--not R&B (though that too), rock, a fact brought home by seeing him at Bumbershoot. Which reminds me--where did his guitarist get that pink axe? I want one, and I don’t even play.

Madvillain: Madvillainy (Stones Throw)
Viktor Vaughn: VV2: Venomous Villain (Nature Sounds)
MF Doom: MM . . Food (Rhymesayers)

Still trying to figure out what the hell he’s talking about 60% of the time, still enjoying doing it. By and large, I find I like his stuff just as much when he’s producing it as when he teams up, but Madvillainy has the slight edge thanks to the smaller number of sampled dialogue dead spots and the fact that it just hurtles you from one tunelet to another so nonchalantly. The hip-hop Pink Flag, anyone?

De La Soul: The Grind Date (Sanctuary)
The Roots: The Tipping Point (Interscope)
Masta Killa: No Said Date (Nature Sounds)
DJ Green Lantern/Beastie Boys: New York State of Mind (

Not Doom but East Coast semi-underground nevertheless. The De La is their most fat-free since Buhloone Mindstate, or maybe Stakes Is High, which it’s closer to sonically--moodwise, too, given how sour Posdnuos especially has become over the years. (Well, he was the grumpy one from jump; there’s even a joke about his “mad face” in the 3 Feet High comic.) The Roots stripped down, too, a lot more effectively than they were given credit for: “Web” and “Boom” is one of ’04s best one-two punches.

Given ODB’s passing, you’d be forgiven for figuring Wu Tang for finished, Ghostface excepted,. Oh wait--“finished” is just newfangled next-thing-now talk for “not as central/vital/overpowering as it used to be,” isn’t it? Which is a little like calling a purse-snatcher a bank robber. Still, given the malarkey about how “hip-hop moves too fast” for older performers to keep up (yeah, maybe five years ago that was still true, but that really hasn’t been the case in a while), it’s still understandable to some degree with Masta Killa--let’s face it, 11 years from contributing a verse to “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” from 36 Chambers, to a debut album is a loooong time. (Even if Killa was serving time for much of it.)

Nevertheless, No Said Date works by acting as if no time at all has passed between then and now. Which isn’t to say it sounds like 1993 all over again--more like a solid, slightly anonymous amalgam of the usual kung-fu flick soundbites (“Born Chamber”), surprisingly warm electro (“Digi Warfare”), off-center piano loops (“Secret Rivals”), soul-diva hooks (“Queen”), and guest appearances from damn near everyone in Wu-Tang. The agile Killa dominates, though, and his mood is as variable as the music. He’s at his most gripping when crime comes up, though: “Just looking out of the window/Watching the gunshots blow/Thinking how we was all turning out,” he says at the top of “Silverbacks.” Hey--maybe it is just like 1993 after all.

The Beastie Boys sure wish it was. 1993 was the apex of their popularity; now, they sounded tired, tired, tired, with only tenured Rolling Stoners and, inexplicably, Douglas Wolk (who at least got a great Slate piece out of it) gave a damn about To the 5 Boroughs. What made the Beasties “semi-underground” this time around was DJ Green Lantern’s mixtape, which paired the Boys with backing tracks from their rap fellows and betters: “Cavern”/“White Lines” + “Triple Trouble”! “Hey Ladies” + “Hypnotize”! “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun” + “U Don’t Know”! Makes you wish GL had done the whole of Boroughs himself.

Brian Wilson Presents Smile (Nonesuch)
The Fiery Furnaces: Blueberry Boat (XL)
The Necks: Drive By (Recommended)

DJ albums of the year, all by non-DJs.

Stereolab: Margerine Eclipse (Elektra)
Komeda: Kokomemedada (Minty Fresh)

Having spent a few years puzzling Stereolab out, usually to their detriment--I can’t help but find much of their music stuffy to the point of exhaustion, grooveful without feeling, that kinda thing--I got this and swooned. ’Labheads were mixed as usual, but to me it sounded like they opened up and went pop in a real world kind of way rather than a Petri dish one, or at least as much so as they’re ever going to be capable of, which was enough for me. Komeda always were S-lab gone pop (What Makes It Go? is the sellout record they should’ve made after Emperor Tomato Ketchup), and the trip-hoppy stuff on Koko worried me at first--see also the Cardigans’ terrible Long Gone Before Daylight. But the grooves/hooks sunk in soon thereafter, like a balmier Broadcast.

The Helio Sequence: Love and Distance (Sub Pop)
Ah, PNW indie rock--sing-songy, deep-grooving if not necessarily funky (though nearly so on occasion; see Modest Mouse’s “Heart Cooks Brain”), emo-earnest but lyrically smart and wary. And the drummers seem as plentiful and as high quality as the weed. Portland’s Benjamin Weikel is one; in addition to steering Modest Mouse between Jeremiah Green’s stints, Weikel engineers and drums and plays keyboards with this powerhouse duo. On their third album, you can hear plenty of Built to Spill, Death Cab for Cutie, and, especially on “Don’t Look Away,” Modest Mouse themselves--literally, since part of this was recorded in main Mouse Isaac Brock’s garage--though Brandon Summers’ vocals are more doleful than whiny and his guitar brighter and pluckier (both meanings) than all three. Like U.S.E., it’s kitchen sink (recorded in basements and bedrooms as well as garages), but it’s also produced in the Flaming Lips/Radiohead (Dave Fridmann/Nigel Godrich) sense. “Repeater,” “Don’t Look Away,” and the gorgeous electro-lullaby “Blood Bleeds” would sound fine on their own, but they sound even better drenched in echo, guitar effects, fun-house synth squelch, and headphone-fetishist stereo-field depth.

Nellie McKay: Get Away From Me (Columbia)
Here’s how old-fashioned Nellie McKay is: Her hour-long debut is broken up into two CDs, representative of the two sides of what used to be called “albums.” The self-conscious unusualness doesn’t end there, either. McKay usually writes the kind of music that was termed “pop” in the ’40s and ’50s--piano-led, cocktail-jazzy, lightly melancholy when not brassily wink-and-nudging, with swooping vocal lines--and has the vocal chops to match. The closest she gets to turn-on-the-radio-no-not-NPR modern is the chamber-pop of “Baby Watch Your Back” and the, um, “rapping” on “Sari.” And she writes really screwy lyrics--think Randy Newman, or Steely Dan if they’d shunned electric guitars. Except--the big except--McKay isn’t a grouchy thirty-to-sixtysomething. She’s all of 19*--an odd age for someone to name-check Ethel Merman (on “Change the World”). Even Harry Connick, Jr. and Norah Jones didn’t take their retro-fitted style public till they were well into their 20s. Her tunes stick, too, even when they’re showy or cute (the “That’s what it’s all a-bow-wow-wowt” that caps “The Dog Song”), and so do her arrangements, which have an appealingly woody finish. Like most young, ambitious artists, McKay is a bit catty--the title of Get Away From Me swats at Jones’s first album--and like many a bright, college-age bohemian she’s a bit too condescending for her own good. “I only listen to top 40,” she coos archly on “Won’t U Please B Nice,” and on “I Wanna Get Married,” we get, “I wanna pack cute little lunches/For my Brady Bunches/And read Danielle Steele.” In short, she makes fun of middle-aged housewives in exactly the way you’d expect from someone with more intelligence than experience. Good thing that isn’t true of the way she writes music.

*That was the word at the time, at least; turns out she’s actually 22. Whatevs.

Trax Records: 20th Anniversary Collection Mixed by Maurice Joshua & Paul Johnson + Acid Classics + Trax Records: The Next Generation(all Casablanca Trax)

In the beginning, there was disco. And disco was dead. So a bunch of gay, black freaks in Chicago got hold of some very basic equipment, and house music—-it’s a spiritual thing, it’s a mind thing, it’s a soooul thing—-was born. And a bunch of English people danced all night to it on drugs, and a youth cult was born that took over Europe but not America, since Americans had hip-hop, which Europeans thought was the same as house since both were black American music. And separately and together, hip-hop and house became a bunch of other things-—except in Chicago, where it became more like itself with every passing year.

That’s the story of Trax, the first record label devoted to house music, in a nutshell. The early cuts on the three-disc 20th Anniversary Collection, two of whose three discs are DJ-mixed (the third reprises material from the first two), is flush with excitement, be it the lip-smacking libidinousness of Adonis’ “No Way Back,” Frankie Knuckles and Jamie Principle’s “Baby Wants to Ride,” and Hercules’ ridiculous “7 Ways to Jack” (“Number one: Visually touch the body in front of you”), or Maurice’s poppy, for-beginners-friendly “This Is Acid.” The latter track actually had little to do with the acid-house subgenre, in which the Roland TB-303, which generated eensy little basslines that could be manipulated into squelching, twisting aural shapes, took center stage. Acid Classics has some of the style’s early hits (Phuture’s “Slam,” Pierre’s Pfantasy Club’s “Dream Girl”), and it’s enjoyable, though Moonshine’s 1998 Classic Acid is a better introduction to the sound.

Dance music is notoriously fickle, so it might be surprising that Trax is still around, putting out new records-—and that they’re actually pretty good, if a little formulaic. Then again, Trax blueprinted the formula, and on The Next Generation, enjoyable cuts like the Platinum Orchestra’s nutso “Fix My Sink” and Paul Johnson’s “Follow This Beat” honor them nicely.

TAKE TWO: CHICAGO READER (this is the director's cut version; I actually like the edited version that ran in the paper a bit more but am including this for the record)
On August 25, DJ’ed a set in Chicago’s Grant Park; afterward, he was bestowed a chunk of city property, in name at least, when a strip of Jefferson Avenue is renamed Frankie Knuckles Way. As honors go, it’s both heady and somewhat confusing. This is, after all, the same city that four years ago passed an ordnance essentially outlawing unlicensed dance parties--the kind that helped spread both Chicago house and its many offshoots (techno, jungle, trance, et. al.) not just in the city but around the world--by making those in charge of them eligible for $10,000 fines, and that three years ago made property owners and managers responsible for drug use at parties held on their property.

In a larger sense, though, the city’s honor is also a little redundant, since Frankie Knuckles’ way has essentially been rule for the last 27 years for nightlife denizens around the world. Knuckles moved to Chicago in 1977, setting up the most important dance club in Chicago history, the Warehouse. Knuckles’ residency, along with DJ Ron Hardy’s at the Music Box and the Hot Mix 5 radio shows on WCGI, shaped the mid-’80s post-disco dance style named for Knuckles’ palace alone: house. Once house spread through to other cities, and then to Europe, who cottoned onto it big-time (thanks in large part to the drug Ecstasy, which was viewed as part and parcel with the new music), rave was born. House’s impact on current pop music is as unshakeable, if nowhere near as sizeable, as hip-hop’s, and it’s the building blocks for modern club music as a whole.

Considering the city’s attitude toward house music--indifferent, when not openly hostile--it seems strange for the city to take a sudden interest in it. The collapse of rave culture thanks to laws like Chicago’s gone national (the R.A.V.E. Act, which shares many of the same tenets as the city’s 2000 and 2001 laws, was passed by Congress in April 2003) and the subsequent blanding out of club culture as it enters its “superclub” phase hasn’t helped, either. But two decades on, Chicago house has carved a solid niche among global clubbers. Even when the best stuff is being made elsewhere, Chicago still holds a permanent place in clubland’s imagination as house’s Ground Zero. It’s not a tourist attraction on the order of the Space Needle, but for a whole lot of people, particularly in Europe and Japan, Chicago equals house. Rappers from the New York boroughs have an immediate leg up in credibility due to being born and raised in the same place the music they make was; ditto Chicago’s native DJs and producers, and the records they make.

And early on, most of those DJs and producers--Knuckles, Marshall Jefferson, Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, Larry Heard--made those records on Trax, which also turns 20 this year. Set up by Larry Sherman in 1984, Trax released a number of crucial early house singles before the decade was up: Phuture’s “Acid Trax,” which kicked off the entire “acid” subgenre; Jefferson’s “Move Your Body (The House Music Anthem)”; Maurice Joshua’s “This Is Acid”; Jamie Principle and Frankie Knuckles’ “Baby Wants to Ride”; Mr. Fingers’ (a.k.a. Heard’s) “Can U Feel It”; Adonis’s “No Way Back.” Now, Trax, in partnership with new owner Casablanca, has issued a number of new collections--the meat of which are the three-CD 20th Anniversary Collection (the first two discs are mixed by Maurice Joshua and Paul Johnson; the third features several of the same cuts unmixed) and the single-disc Acid Classics--meant to affirm Trax’s place as the only early house label that matters.

This is all true--up to a point. Trax may have come first, but it was hardly the only Chicago house label, and it certainly wasn’t the biggest. That was DJ International, which Rocky Jones began in 1985. DJ International had bigger hits; furthermore, those hits--records like Joe Smooth’s gospel-tinged “Promised Land,” routinely named to the kind of greatest-records-ever lists that club-music magazines are as prone to putting together as the likes of Rolling Stone or Blender, as well as the English number-ones “Music Is the Key,” by J.M. Silk, and Farley “Jackmaster” Funk and Jesse Saunders’ “Love Can’t Turn Around”--sound today a lot more like what we think of as “house music” in the generic sense. Sure, both labels released similar product--DJ International came out with the It’s ultra-minimal, super-weird 1986 single, “Donnie,” and Trax put out Ralph Rosario ft. Xavier Gold’s “You Used to Hold Me,” a straight-up diva record that seems aimed at pop radio. But by and large, DJ International smoother and more song-oriented, while Trax’s output was stripped-down, strange, and, well, tracky.

Nevertheless, both labels shared a reputation for cheapness. After all, it was Jones, not Sherman, who bragged to Barry Walters in a 1987 Spin article that his 12-inch singles cost an average of $3,000 to make, even pointing out that one was made for $50. (The $50 wonder was Tyree’s “I Fear the Night,” which sounds it.) It was this very cheapness that made Trax groundbreaking. The songs, riffs, vamps, squiggles, barely-decorated beats, ultra-amateurish vocals, and thunking basslines all over 20th Anniversary Collection and Acid Classics bore the same resemblance to lush, decorous classic disco as a cheap-and-easy as a Roger Corman B-movie does to the classic Universal horror films of the ’30s. Trax set disco on its way to being the most popular D.I.Y. music on the planet; by stripping the music to its essentials, the label completely redefined disco’s aesthetic values.

And if the records were cheap, the packaging was even more so. Trax’s new reissues sound excellent, which is somewhat shocking, given Trax founder Larry Sherman’s widely-noted fondness for recycled vinyl. And the label has been equally cavalier with the way they’ve handled their back catalogue--see 1997’s three-disc Chicago Trax collection, put together with all the loving attention of an off-label truck-stop cassette. Love that second-rate sound quality, if-it-were-any-thinner-it’d-be-paper slipcase for the three discs, and nonexistent liner notes, guys. Thankfully, Trax’s newfound attention to detail makes appreciating its music easier than ever.

Certainly, listening to 20th Anniversary Collection and Acid Classics now is like glimpsing into a time capsule. For one thing, the drum machines and analogue synthesizers immediately date the records--yep, these came from the mid-to-late-’80s, no earlier and no later. But the one-take production and frequently off-key, over-emoted vocals, give these records a feverish feel that’s harder to pin down--probably because almost no house music afterward sounds anything like this. As house grew, it became more polished, more urbane, classier. That couldn’t be further from the case with Trax releases like Adonis’s “No Way Back,” which reiterates the same handful of lines (“Release my soul/I’ve lost control/I’m too far gone/Ain’t no way back”) over a keyboard bass line repetitive enough to seem like mania incarnate, and Hercules’ ridiculously campy “7 Ways to Jack.” “Number five: rhythmatically move your body to the beat/Number six: physically touch the body in front of you--in every way imaginable/Number seven: lose complete mental control and begin to jack,” utters Hercules, in the most reptilian growl I’ve encountered outside of the porn industry.

Even Trax’s more straightforward stuff has a charismatically lurid feel. (It’s not for nothing that one of the label’s signature records, “I’ve Lost Control,” was credited to Sleezy D.) Mr. Fingers’ “Can You Feel It” is best known as a limpid instrumental, but the alternate version on Anniversary, featuring Robert Owens’ vocal, is so overheatedly delivered (Owens seems to use the part of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” where he shrieks and then lies shivering as a starting point) that when the singer drops in some A.A. jargon toward the end (“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change/And the courage to change the ones I can, and the wisdom to know the difference between these two”), it takes a second to figure out that you’ve heard the rhetoric before. Likewise, the filtered voiceover on Master C & J’s “Dub Love” (“Ooooh--you drive me cra-zay!”--it’s on Anniversary) is like something that got cut from the Playboy Channel for being too campy. Even Maurice Joshua’s relatively subdued, nearly-pop “This Is Acid,” on both Anniversary and Acid, a classic clubland explain-it-to-the-adults record (see also D-Mob’s “We Call It Acieed” and Artful Dodger’s “Re-Rewind”) that’s has a leering feel to it--when Joshua explains, “Acid has a certain groove/That makes your body want to move/When you hear it,” the moves he’s describing don’t seem like dance steps. As for Frankie Knuckles and Jamie Principle’s expert Prince rip, “Baby Wants to Ride,” it’s not about cars.

After 20 years of house, techno, jungle, trance, et. al., you’d figure that these records would sound quaint. They don’t--they sound stranger, fiercer, and, despite their obvious datedness, more out of time than ever. Sometimes that’s due to the way the scene-specific aspects of the songs lose their original meaning over time. “Just like New York rap is about rap and Washington go go is about go go, Chicago house is about house,” Walters said in that Spin article. Sure, even now house music references itself plenty--most famously in the oft-sampled a cappella that begins, “In the beginning, there was Jack--and Jack had a groove,” and climaxes with the phrase, “House music is a universal language spoke and understood by all--you see, house is a feeling.” But nowhere does it do so with the kind of palsied obsessiveness that you can find on a record like Mr. Lee’s “House This House” (Anniversary), which exhorts, “Let’s house this house/Until we can’t house no more,” over a mnemonic riff consisting of a sample of the word “house” played back until each iteration sounds like Pac Man eating a pellet. House is a feeling; apparently, it’s also a transitive verb, an adjective, and a noun.

The one area in which Trax’s example is still most directly followed is, appropriately, its most alien. The sound that the 1987-94 cuts on Acid Classics venerate comes from a manipulated Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer, an instrument originally manufactured as a musicians’ aid, the idea being to program a bass line into it and stick it on repeat as accompaniment for drumming or guitar practice. Since the machine had only a single-octave keyboard, there were also several knobs for adjusting the bassline’s pitch--and once manhandled, the 303 produces some of the most unearthly, non-human squelch imaginable.

“Acid Tracks,” the 1987 12-inch by Phuture (DJ Pierre, Spanky, and Herbert J), that kicked off the brief craze for acid records (a craze Trax was more than happy to fulfill), is still one of the oddest “hit” singles ever made: 12 minutes of a machine eating its own wires like a moth in a suitcase, the 303 jibbering away distractedly while a drum machine, handclaps, and referee’s whistle march imperturbably onward. Laurent X’s “Machines” (originally released on Mark Imperial’s House Nation label in 1988) is even noisier, thanks to a staticky two-note motif that acts as counterpart to the whipping, willful 303.

By the ’90s, the 303 became an anchor for several dance substrains: the subtle shadings of Plastikman’s minimal techno, funky breakbeat cuts like Josh Wink’s “Higher State of Consciousness,” in which a single nattering b-line is stretched like taffy over six minutes, the stark motorization of early German trance cuts like the Age of Love’s “The Age of Love” and Hardfloor’s “Acperience,” with its writhing undertow of massed 303s jabbering away like a colony of singing bats. Those records gave the impression that their makers had some mastery over the 303s they were manhandling. What comes through on much of Acid Classics, like a lot of the “regular” house on 20th Anniversary Collection, is far looser--the sense that the artists weren’t quite certain what they were doing, and that they prefer it that way. Listening again, they may have had a point.

Louis Jordan and His Tympany Band: Films and Soundies (Idem)
Nearly everything on the DVD looks and sounds terrible, but its contents are absolutely vital. Louis Jordan was the greatest pre-rock rock star, topping the R&B charts 17 times for 106 weeks total; he was also the only black bandleader whose records regularly charted in the pop Top 40. And the best of those records retain their luster: hits like “Jack, You’re Dead!” and “Saturday Night Fish Fry” are as spry, smart, and irresistible now as then. Soundies were short, low-budget filmed performances of bands miming performances of their hits, played on large machines for a dime apiece--a format later taken nova by MTV. Jordan made many, and the footage has aged terribly: the black-and-white balance is frequently terribly off, with one or the other bleeding profusely, as when Louis and his Tympany Band put on starched cowboy outfits for several cuts. But he’s such a sly showman that even with the occasional jumps in sound and vision (due to missing frames), there’s plenty to enjoy--if you squint really hard.

The Roots of Rock ’n’ Roll 1946-1954 (Hip-O)
If the history of rock and roll hasn’t been ingrained in your skull by now, well, enroll at a nearby college, which is probably teaching a course, or locate a mass-market music monthly’s special issue and run through the basics. But even if we acknowledge that rock’s early masters are still pretty great, it’s a little disappointing that their forerunners have tended to receive relatively short shrift. Which is where this dynamite three-disc box comes in. Used to be that picking up individual compilations of proto-doo-wop, hillbilly boogie, and the jump-blues and early R&B that served as the motherlode for the style was how you learned to connect the dots pre-Presley and Berry. As someone who’s gotten countless hours of pleasure by doing just that, I could probably nitpick the track selection—except that (a) I’ve already gotten too many hours of pleasure from this one to bother and (b) it really does touch every base you need to know.

Repeats are rare but justified: Greek-American bandleader Johnny Otis, who passed as black, backs up a pair of fine novelties from Mel Walker and Little Esther (“Cupid’s Boogie,” on which Esther requests “a chicken shack and a Cadillac”) and a pre-“Tutti Fruitt” Little Richard (backed by a vibraphone!), while Louis Jordan’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” (1946) and “Saturday Night Fish Fry” (1949) spent ten weeks apiece on the R&B chart. And as the selections edge toward the end, the backbeat grows fiercer: “Riot in Cell Block #9,” by the Robins (later the Coasters), still plays like gangbusters (appropriately, since it stole its intro from the radio show, yep, Gangbusters), and the “5” Royales’ “Baby Don’t Do It” erupts into its chorus with a scream as wild as the era it helped usher in. Absolutely, unequivocally, no-question-about-it essential. Also: ridiculously fun.

The Fall: 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong: 39 Golden Greats (Beggars)
The Fall is a cult band for a good reason: Only the truly obsessed could bother wading through their voluminous, often sound-alike catalogue to ferret out the gems. Emerging after the first wave of punk was left for dead in England, Mark E. Smith has led some two-dozen lineups through what amounts to rewrites of the same one and a half riffs, while Smith natters on above them about whatever’s on his mind at the moment-ah. He’s one of rock’s most atavistic performers, which means craft isn’t exactly of the essence to him. That equals scads of albums, some good, some terrible, and few anything like completely essential. All of which makes 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong something like a miracle for novice and veteran fan alike. At two discs of nothing but highlights, it’s the ideal way in; it also sheds revelatory light on hallowed favorites, in a manner reminiscent of single-artist collections like ChangesOneBowie and Star Time, where trimming the fat leaves an already impressive catalogue sounding mightier than ever. If you already loved classics like “Mr. Pharmacist,” “Totally Wired,” and “Cruisers Creek,” you’ll love them even more in this setting, and the second disc prunes a more unsure era beautifully. If you’re unfamiliar with any of it, or like me most of it, you’re in for a hell of a ride.

Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle’s Finest in Funk & Soul 1965-1975 (Light in the Attic)
The Pacific Northwest’s contributions to pop music tend not to be thought of in terms of funk or soul, and for good reason: From Portland’s Kingsmen to Vancouver’s Hot Hot Heat and Seattle’s Blood Brothers, the region’s defining legacy has been loud, hairy, and pretty four-square rhythmically, not to mention (pssst) heavily white. But in the same way their Nuggets-bound neighbors like the Sonics were inspired by the Kinks and Yardbirds, Seattle bands like the Black on White Affair, Cookin’ Bag, and Soul Swingers sprouted up in James Brown’s and the Meters’ wake. They, too, were garage bands--they just didn’t play rock and roll.

This lovingly compiled document, put together by Seattle DJ Mr. Supreme from his extensive collection of 45s (plus three ringers, including Supreme’s own Sharpshooters), argues for Seattle’s place in the funk pantheon, and while few of these cuts are up to J.B. or Sly, there’s still plenty of meat here. The Overton Berry Trio’s organ-led cover of “Hey Jude” skips straight to the coda and turns it into a bluesy, churchy groove that breathes life into the overplayed song. The Topics’ 1971 version of “Louie Louie”—-the PNW’s ultimate rock staple of the period—-is highlighted by a loose bass-and-handclaps breakdown. And you can surprise your friends with Cold, Bold & Together’s two 1975 singles, “Stop Losing Your Chances” and the disco-ish “Somebody’s Gonna Burn Ya”--both featuring a teenaged Kenny G. Turns out that not only was he once palatable--he actually had the funk.

(See also: this Seattle Weekly feature on the album)

Crazy ’Bout an Automobile (Ace)
Oldies stations shove “fun” down your throat as a matter of course, but here’s an early-rock that actually is fun, not least because you haven’t heard what's on it a million billion times already. It's a collection of car-songs you’ve never heard of that surrounds its garage-sale discoveries with the far more commonplace likes of Nelson Riddle’s “Route 66 Theme” and Vince Taylor’s Clash-covered “Brand New Cadillac” and Chuck Berry’s Beatles-ripped-off “You Can’t Catch Me.” These anchor Ronny & the Daytonas’ manic doo-wop “Bucket T” and the Rally Packs’ “Move Out, Little Mustang,” and Bruce & Terry’s “Custom Machine,” which are not just Beach Boys ripoffs--they’re Jan & Dean ripoffs, which is even better.

The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads (Sire/Rhino)
In 1982, Sire released this stupendous live double primarily as a preemptive sayonara to a band that hadn’t done anything new in two years, and whose members had spent 1981 working solo (David Byrne, Jerry Harrison) or in other bands (Tom Tom Club, led by Heads rhythm section Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth). Talking Heads were extremely careful in all aspects of their presentation, and so it was with the way these discs were curated: Side one jittery 1977 angst-rock with that swings surprisingly hard, side two grander but still tense performances from 1979, sides three and four loose Afro-funk-inflected jams borne out of the sudden bloom of 1980’s Remain in Light.

It was a timeline and a mixtape, a growth chart and a party record, and when Jonathan Demme made Stop Making Sense in 1984, its single-disc soundtrack displaced the two-LP Name. It shouldn’t have. Sometimes more is more: Name not only trashed the SMS soundtrack, it was one of those extremely rare live albums that stands up alongside an artist’s studio work.

That’s equally the case with the greatly expanded Name of This Band, which on CD is now almost double its initial 81-minute length. Not only are the extras as uniformly mouth-watering as the original package, on the second disc they outdo what was already there. The slow-burn hypnosis of “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” makes Remain’s jittery studio version sound like a rehearsal; “Cities” lets out enough of the tautness that marked the original (from 1979’s Fear of Music) to retain its shape while still billowing like a kite.

Adding an Afro-diasporic fillip to straight white rock was a post-punk cliché long before the current crop of “dance-rockers” emerged; Talking Heads were among the first to do it. Thing is, they didn’t even need to. To play disc one of Name is to rediscover the swift punk 4/4 as the elementary rhythmic life force it should be. Drummer Chris Frantz played as straight and steady as a speeding train, his fills triumphant punctuation, his hi-hats able to slice your eardrums in half. “Pulled Up” or “New Feeling” (“Name of this song is ‘New Feeling,’ Byrne announces in his parody-lobotomy voice, “and that’s what it’s about”) and the towering “A Clean Break,” with Byrne’s harrowing/exhilarating “Take that love awaaaaaay!”s, may not swivel and bop the way “Born Under Punches” or the finale, “The Great Curve,” do. But only an invalid couldn’t dance to them.

Where Will You Be Christmas Day? (Dust-to-Digital)
Most Christmas albums don’t feel much like gifts. But it figures that the exception comes from the same label, Atlanta’s Dust-to-Digital, that paid such extravagant tribute to Jesus around this time last year, in the form of the mammoth (and definitive) six-CD gospel box set, Goodbye, Babylon. With thoughtfully placed “To” and “From” spaces at the top and bottom of its cover, Where Will You Be Christmas Day? follows the same basic formula: If it originated on a 78-RPM record and deals with the topic at hand, it’s fair game--that, and it has to get past the amazing ears of producer/Dust-to-Digital head Lance Ledbetter. Spanning 1917-59, Christmas Day covers familiar ground--there’s soaring choir work from the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers and a handful of sermons (Rev. J.M. Gates’ stirring “He Was Born in a Manger” is a companion piece to Babylon’s “Getting’ Ready for Christmas Day”). But we also get a hoedown from Fiddlin’ John Carson, calypsonians Lord Executor and Lord Beginner (conceptually appropriate pair, that), and lots of blues (Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, Rev. Edward W. Clayborn--“the Guitar Evangelist”). Best of all is the bawdy “Papa Ain’t No Santa Claus (And Mama Ain’t No Christmas Tree),” by ’30s black vaudeville team Butterbeans & Susie, a comedy routine set to music. He: “Something for nothing seem to be your plan/You need to get you a monkey/Because you don’t need no man.” She: “Well, nowadays, Butter, when you want something that’s nice/Why, you can’t get it/If you haven’t got the price.” Haggling over money at Christmastime? Sounds as familiar as “Jingle Bells.”

The World of Arthur Russell (Soul Jazz)
Arthur Russell’s turn-of-the-’80s aesthetic, which took the most compulsively hedonistic disco and tilted it till it stood as crooked but right as a Thelonious Monk piano solo, has undergone a rightful revival in the ‘00s, and this compilation is a key explanation why. Even a seemingly straightforward dance cut like “Is It All Over My Face” (credited to Loose Joints and presented here in Larry Levan’s brilliant remix) teems with weirdness, from the sketchy, scratchy guitar figure that pops through the glutinous, glossy keyboards to the nagging vocals (bedroom-diva female, just-passing-through mumbling male) to a groove so down and dirty you feel like you need a shower after the song is over. Russell’s roots in post-minimalist composition and his obsession with echo push through nearly everything here: “In the Light of the Miracle,” a hypnotically oceanic shuffle, decorates its perimeters with inventive cowbell and conga, and Walter Gibbons’ mix of “Let’s Go Swimming” abstracts a Latin freestyle-ish drum-machine beat till it seems to shimmer from the speakers. So does nearly everything else here.

Solar Disco Box Set (Sanctuary)
Trojan Records’ Box Set series have always been curious things—oddly configured vault cleanings, repository for some of reggae’s more curious corners, great gift ideas that the recipient probably won’t be listening to a whole lot. But the same formula—three CDs, 50 songs, not-all-that-informative liner notes, $20–$25 retail tag—works excellently with record companies whose goods haven’t been exploited as blatantly and for as long as Trojan’s. Take L.A.’s Solar, a label that straddled the soul-disco divide for a decade starting during the latter’s mid-’70s peak. Does Solar have 50 songs and three CDs’ worth of great-great-greatness? Of course not—Motown they weren’t, though their earliest releases did put a (now dated) disco gloss on classic Holland-Dozier-Holland. But with disco, the weirdo stuff is often as or more interesting than the hits, and there’s plenty of both here—the music of Dynasty’s “I Don’t Want to Be a Freak (But I Can’t Help Myself)” is even more self-explanatory than the lyrics, a nutty percussion break invades Carrie Lucas’ otherwise smooth “Gotta Keep Dancin’ (Keep Smiling),” and the megamixes that end the first two discs are amazingly potent distillations of the label’s disco-era highlights. The hits were pretty great, too: Shalamar’s “Take That to the Bank” is a money-as-love riff on a par with Michael Jackson’s “Working Day and Night,” with which it also shares the most unstoppable hi-hats ever recorded. And Solar weathered the fall of disco proper just fine: Collage’s “Romeo Where’s Juliet” is a Prince rip as shameless as Ready for the World’s “Oh Sheila,” while the Whispers’ “Rock Steady” is a stone synth-funk classic that sounds like a happy, male version of Janet Jackson’s “Nasty.” Not perfect, of course. But a bargain anyway.

Unfaves coming soon . . . .