Highway 2006 Revisited

malajube.jpgAs our website returns from a winter hiatus, poll results are everywhere, and not just in Presidential politics. When I still voted in the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop critics’ poll, I remember thinking how absurdly fast it seemed to rank the previous year’s best music in January. But this time, when Pazz and Jop followed the Idolator poll and dozens of other young rivals, it already seemed like old news. With a few variations, the top poll results roughly resembled the “year-end” list the now-defunct Stylus Magazine posted in late October.

I can’t complain about multiple poll winner LCD Soundsystem, the brainy dance band that tossed off the best rip I’ve heard on New York’s Michael Bloomberg (“your mild billionaire mayor’s now convinced he’s a king”). I’m also thrilled at the top-ten consensus for M.I.A.’s Kala, which gave a trans-global boom-boom-boom to those of us who have, like the National, spent too long feeling half-awake in a fake empire. Still, there’s a problem in treating lists like these as canons of coolness. They call to mind my favorite 2007 music review, which was so fake it’s real. The Onion reported that Pitchfork gave a rating of 6.8 to “music”—not any one recording or genre, but its entire history. It seems music, while brilliant at times, is weighed down with too many “mid-tempo ballads,” and worse, “the whole medium comes off as derivative of Pavement.”

Maybe I’m just getting as cranky as the music geek in LCD’s earlier song “Losing My Edge”—the guy who was “there at the first Can show in Cologne,” only to get upstaged by “the Internet seekers who can tell me every member of every good group from 1962 to 1978.” But I decided to avoid premature evaluations and go where nobody else seemed to be heading: 2006. With a year’s reflection, I wondered, how had my presumed favorites of a year ago held up, and what had I missed that meant more to me now? The results weren’t quite what I expected.

caetano.jpegI wanted to retrace my steps because music never follows a prescribed calendar. Every year, I make late discoveries that, for various reasons, fall through the cracks in the usual critics’ circles. In 2007, it took me until December to realize that Brazil’s Caetano Veloso had taken a break from breathy tropicalia to make something Mick Jagger hasn’t pulled off in a quarter-century—a new album of vital, relevant rock. For these efforts, his Cé finished 241st in the Village Voice album poll, 179 rankings below Britney Spears. I spent months listening to Miranda Lambert’s highly touted cover of Patty Griffin’s “Getting Ready” before concluding that Griffin’s original, from the blandly titled Children Running Through, rocked even harder. And it took me at least twelve traffic jams to discover that I loved Wilco’s sublime and sometimes derided Sky Blue Sky as much as its more experimental predecessors.

By going backward, I’m not finding fault with 2007, a good year for new releases. It’s just that I’m not sure what any of these will mean to me a year from now, when these albums will be thoroughly merged with the rest of my collection. Will I listen to Panda Bear’s updating of Brian Wilson for the new millennium when Pet Sounds and Smile are just as easily within reach? Will Battles, which features Anthony Braxton’s son on guitar, still sound gleefully funky or merely ponderous? Will Radiohead’s In Rainbows give me my self-chosen $6.50 worth once the novelty of its marketing experiment has worn off? Will Brooklyn-based R&B volcano Sharon Jones hold up in a mix with Aretha Franklin, Bettye LaVette, and what’s left of Amy Winehouse? Ask me again sometime next January.

Way back in 2006, most critics other than Ghostface Killah and his mom seemed torn over which of three ambitious 2006 releases was the year’s standout: Bob Dylan’s thirtieth act of creative reinvention in Modern Times, TV on the Radio’s gutsy art-rock in Return to Cookie Mountain, and the Hold Steady’s pugilistic lit-rock in Boys and Girls in America. I like all these records a lot, and in certain moods consider them near great. Yet to my surprise, I didn’t listen to any of the three all that much in 2007, for different reasons. Fine as Modern Times is, there are ten or fifteen other Dylan albums that simply crowded it out of the rotation in 2007. Cookie Mountain, other than the propulsive single “Wolf Like Me,” just became too chilly a climb. The Hold Steady’s lack of hold is perhaps the hardest for me to explain, considering that I’m still passionate about the John Berryman-inspired leadoff song that gave this site its name (which in turn, seems to have inspired Okkervil River to take on the Berryman legend). I think it’s because the characters in Craig Finn’s songs just didn’t quite match my mood. And when I craved the dense rush that his songs deliver, I could just as easily hop on YouTube and channel his Minneapolis forebears, Hüsker Dü and the Replacements.

So what from 2006 kept on giving a year later? Three names were predictable enough, since they all made my short list decades ago: Ornette Coleman’s soulful Sound Grammar, Tom Waits’ sprawling retrospective Orphans, and Mission of Burma’s latest slice of overachieving art punk, The Obliterati. But none of these seemed indelibly 2006; the Burma guys, great as they are, were still ranting about the size of Nancy Reagan’s head, for chrissakes. Two more contemporary keepers, M. Ward’s Post-War and Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, also came from long-familiar faces.

oconnor.jpegBut two new discoveries unexpectedly reframed 2006 a year later. Both were favorably received when they came out, but so far off the year’s critical consensus that they placed, respectively, 185th and 192nd in the Idolator poll. I first ignored Jennifer O’Connor‘s Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars because of its dippy-sounding title, and because I thought I’d heard this sort of confessional singer-songwriter a thousand times before. And I have. But in some of my darker moments in 2007, when I just needed music to pull me to some other place, I discovered she was world-weary and word-wise enough to do the heavy lifting. Some of the record sounds like Exile-era Liz Phair with a better vocal range and a fixation on death rather than sex, while other parts deliver taut roots-rock in a Lucinda Williams/ Kathleen Edwards vein. The classic driving song “I’ll Take You Home” is one for the ages—she picks you off of the pavement, laughs your way out of your pathetic stupor, and delivers you to the Buddy Holly wonderland of your dreams, all in less than three and a half minutes.

If Jennifer O’Connor was my refuge of choice in moments of desperation, Montreal-based Francophone band Malajube’s Trompe-L’Oeil was where I turned for sheer exhilaration and joy, a rare example of power-pop that actually packs some power. There are enough twists and turns here to fill a David Lynch movie, with dreamy melodies that lure you in before they start to scream and howl and pounce. It’s nice to know that if you look hard enough, there are still kids out there finding new ways to make a delirious racket, and you don’t have to read a top-ten list to find them.

Malajube, “Le Métronome”

M.I.A., “Paper Planes”

LCD Soundsystem, “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down”

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings “100 Days, 100 Nights”

Jennifer O’Connor, “I’ll Take You Home”

Malajube, “Montréal -40° C”

About Roger Moore

rocklobster3.JPGRoger Moore is a writer and musical obsessive who plays percussion instruments from around the world with an equal lack of dexterity. An environmental lawyer in his unplugged moments, he has written on subjects ranging from sustainable development practices to human rights and voting rights, as well as many music reviews. A native Chicagoan, Roger lives in Oakland, California with his wife Paula, who shares his Paul Weller fixation, and two young children, Amelia and Matthew, who enjoy dancing in circles to his Serge Gainsbourg records and falling asleep to his John Coltrane records.

Roger Moore’s Musical Timeline

1966. Dropped upside down on patio after oldest sister listened to “She Loves You” on the Beatles’ Saturday cartoon show. Ears have rung with the words “yeah, yeah, yeah” ever since.

1973. Memorized all 932 verses to Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

1975. Unsuccessfully lobbied to have “Louie Louie” named the official song of his grade school class. The teacher altered the lyrics of the winner, the Carpenters’ “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” so that they referred to Jesus.

1977. After a trip to New Orleans, frequently broke drumheads attempting to mimic the style of the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste.

1979. In order to see Muddy Waters perform in Chicago, borrowed the birth certificate of a 27 year-old truck driver named Rocco.

1982. Published first music review, a glowing account of the Jam’s three-encore performance for the Chicago Reader. Reading the original, unedited piece would have taken longer than the concert itself.

1982. Spat on just before seeing the Who on the first of their 23 farewell tours, after giving applause to the previous band, the Clash.

1984. Mom: “This sounds perky. What’s it called?” Roger: “ It’s ‘That’s When I Reach for My Revolver’ by Mission of Burma.”

1985. Wrote first review of an African recording, King Sunny Ade’s Synchro System. A reader induced to buy the album by this review wrote a letter to the editor, noting that “anyone wishing a copy of this record, played only once” should contact him.

1985. At a Replacements show in Boston, helped redirect a bewildered Bob Stinson to the stage, which Bob had temporarily confused with the ladies’ bathroom.

1986. Walked forty blocks through a near-hurricane wearing a garbage bag because the Feelies were playing a show at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club.

1987. Foolishly asked Alex Chilton why he had just performed “Volare.” Answer: “Because I can.”

1988. Moved to Northern California and, at a large outdoor reggae festival, discovered what Bob Marley songs sound like when sung by naked hippies.

1991. Attempted to explain to Flavor-Flav of Public Enemy that the clock hanging from his neck was at least two hours fast.

1992. Under the pseudonym Dr. Smudge, produced and performed for the Underwear of the Gods anthology, recorded live at the North Oakland Rest Home for the Bewildered. Local earplug sales skyrocketed.

1993. Attended first-ever fashion show in Chicago because Liz Phair was the opening act. Declined the complimentary bottles of cologne and moisturizer.

1997. Almost missed appointment with eventual wedding band because Sleater-Kinney performed earlier at Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street. Recovered hearing days later.

1997. After sharing a romantic evening with Paula listening to Caetano Veloso at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium, purchased a Portuguese phrasebook that remains unread.

1998. Learned why you do not yell “Free Bird” at Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams in a crowded theater.

1999. During an intense bout of flu, made guttural noises bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Throat Singers of Tuva.

2000. Compiled a retrospective of music in the nineties as a fellow at the Coolwater Center for Strategic Studies and Barbecue Hut.

2001. Listened as Kahil El’Zabar, in the middle of a harrowing and funny duet show with Billy Bang, lowered his voice and spoke of the need to think of the children, whom he was concerned might grow up “unhip.”

2002. During a performance of Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags,” barely dodged ashes of Jeff Tweedy’s cigarette.

2002. Arrived at the Alta Bates maternity ward in Berkeley with a world trance anthology specially designed to soothe Paula during Amelia’s birth, filled with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, and assorted other Khans. The project proved to be irrelevant to the actual process of labor.

2003. Emceed a memorable memorial concert for our friend Matthew Sperry at San Francisco’s Victoria Theater featuring a lineup of his former collaborators, including improvised music all-stars Orchesperry, Pauline Oliveros, Red Hot Tchotchkes, the cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Tom Waits.

2003. Failed to persuade Ted Leo to seek the Democratic nomination for President.

2005. Prevented two-year old daughter Amelia from diving off the balcony during a performance of Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

2006. On a family camping trip in the Sierra Nevadas, experienced the advanced stage of psychosis that comes from listening to the thirtieth rendition of Raffi’s “Bananaphone” on the same road trip.

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